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.

 

Driller Killer

drillerkillerposterAbel Ferrara’s 1979 movie Driller Killer is a notorious cult horror film, included on the “video nasties” list of banned films in the UK, and long available in the US on VHS and DVD only in an edited, incomplete version. Now, with the wonders of on- demand TV, Driller Killer (like so much hard-to-find entertainment) can be directly piped, uncut, right into your own home. Is this a sign of social progress, or yet another symptom of the decline of Western Civilization? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Having waited to see this movie for so long, I was concerned that it would turn out to be as tritely obnoxious and aesthetically worthless as some outraged critics have claimed. Instead, Driller Killer turns out to be an unusually complicated horror film that is both gruesome and psychologically interesting.

Set in 1970’s New York City, the aesthetic of Driller Killer is pure punk. The titles and credits have a homemade look, and the film opens with a typically punk rock message: “This film should be played loud.” Max’s Kansas City, the legendary New York punk club, is prominently featured as a location where a band called the Roosters (with Tony Coca-cola as the frontman) is central to the unfolding, gory events. Throughout the film, the main characters all exhibit that blank, vaguely confused, and periodically hostile way of acting typical of early east coast punk and new wave. The locations are all run-down, and the characters unglamorous.

The New York depicted in Driller Killer is not the affluent, touristy New York City of today. It is the New York of Taxi Driver and Maniac. It is the “old” New York sung about by Agnostic Front. It is the New York City that I recall from the early 1980’s when I visited my friend who was attending art school in Brooklyn. During that visit, I fondly remember seeing Killdozer perform at CBGB’s, and listening to local punk bands at some nameless warehouse before wandering back to my friend’s cockroach infested apartment, cutting through the terrifyingly dangerous streets of Bedford Stuyvesant. At night, there were garbage cans on fire, illuminating the dark streets. There was graffiti all over the subway trains. Hucksters and scam artists were on all the street corners. It felt as if everyone was out to exploit someone, somehow. It was a place much different from the New York City that I’ve visited in recent times, which feels more like a safely monitored amusement park than the gritty, dangerous metropolis that appears in Driller Killer.

the-driller-killer-1979Driller Killer tells the story of an artist named Reno Miller (played by Abel Ferrara, but credited as Jimmy Laine) who lives in a small New York apartment with two women, Carol Slaughter (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day). While it appears that Reno and Carol have some sort of romantic connection, it is instead Carol and Pamela who are sexually intimate with one another. Reno, on the other hand, is depicted as virtually asexual, more interested in working on his paintings than he is in romance, music or socializing with others. In particular, he is obsessed with the completion of a painting of a buffalo, which he is convinced will make him rich and famous. However, his work on this painting is constantly interrupted by the Roosters, who practice in one of the adjoining apartments. Because of the constant punk rock music disturbing his concentration and sleep, Reno becomes progressively more and more unhinged, until he snaps and embarks on a killing spree with a power drill.

All of this makes Driller Killer sound like a piece of conventional exploitation. What lifts it above other, less interesting films of the genre, however, are the themes that Abel Ferrara weaves together as he explores the psychological disintegration of the main character.

The first of these themes has to do with homelessness. The opening scene has Reno being summoned to a church, where nuns have discovered a homeless man mutely sitting in the pews. In this man’s pocket is Reno’s contact information. But upon arrival, Reno has no knowledge of who this person is. When he tries to talk with the man, the homeless person grabs his hand, sending Reno into an unreasonable panic. The mystery of this scene is never fully resolved, but later in the movie we find that Reno is in the habit of hanging out with homeless people on the streets, sketching them and drinking with them. It seems that Abel Ferrara wants to suggest that this main character both identifies with the rootless isolation of the homeless at the same time that he is also repelled by this very same quality. In the homeless, he sees something of himself; something that he fears and wants to destroy. In fact, when he goes on his killing spree, his violence is largely directed toward familiar homeless people in his neighborhood rather than against the members of the noisy punk band who disturb his work or the apartment manager who threatens him with eviction.

The theme of passivity is connected to the images of homelessness. As mentioned above, Reno is depicted as virtually asexual. He is more concerned with his artwork than he is with his girlfriend, and this seems to be indicative of his own passive, impotent nature. As the only male member of his household, he is unable to pay the rent. In order to avoid eviction, Carol has to rely on alimony and other money that she borrows from her ex-husband, thus also relegating Reno to dependent status.  Additionally, even though he is being driven crazy by the constant music that disturbs his work, Reno never has the courage to confront the band members, but instead befriends them and even agrees to paint a portrait of the lead singer, Tony Coca-cola. So although it is clear that Reno is an angry man, he is passively reliant on the people around him and unable to assert himself. At one point, Pamela naively says to Reno that he should let the gallery owner who is interested in his paintings “stick it up your ass,” further suggesting that Reno is by nature passive and submissive. This passivity is symbolized at one point by a skinned rabbit that his landlord gives to him, apparently aware that Reno is unable to provide food for the household. Like a rabbit, Reno is skittish and vulnerable – gutless – and he seems to become consciously aware of this vulnerability when he is alone with the wet, bloody, skinny body of the rodent. Instead of eating it, Reno begins to stab the rabbit in the head until it is broken and destroyed. This seems to be a foreshadowing of his attacks upon humans with his power drill.

driller-killer-buffalo-paintingWoven into all of this is the buffalo painting that consumes Reno’s attention. He is convinced that this painting will be his masterpiece, but he is unable to let it go, feeling as if it always needs more work, despite the fact that the gallery owner and Carol keep pestering him to finish it. There are points when Reno seems hostile toward the painting, as though he is intimidated by it. He threatens  to stab it in the eye, but then apologizes to the painting, saying that he would never harm it. The buffalo appears as an image that is contrary to that of the rabbit. Whereas the rabbit represents Reno’s timidity and weakness, the buffalo represents his urge toward strength and aggression. He finds it difficult to let go of the painting precisely because he is unsure of his own powers, and as it turns out, he is correct to be hesitant. For when he does deliver the finished piece, the gallery owner is unimpressed, insulting the artist’s talents and telling him that his work has been in vain. He has lost his creative powers. The buffalo is a failure, and now Reno has nothing to hide behind. He is unable to conceal his impotence.

The use of a drill as a murder weapon clearly evokes phallic symbolism. As Reno stalks the gritty streets of New York, he attacks mostly homeless men, stabbing their torsos with his drill and occasionally also drilling them in their heads; just as he had stabbed the skinned rabbit in its head and as he had threatened to stab his buffalo painting in the eye. With this murder spree, Reno attempts to kill that rootless, vulnerable part of himself that he sees reflected in street people. The use of the drill is an exaggerated way to emphasize his own desperate desire to be a masculine, dominant, and potent male. Once his confidence in his own power is solidified by killing the vulnerable, he turns his murderous rage toward those who actually do possess the power to threaten his masculinity: the gallery owner and Carol’s ex-husband.

driller9The gallery owner is the person Pamela had suggested Reno let screw him in the ass, and so by murdering him, Reno reasserts his own dominance. This murder results in a sort of crucifixion, as the body is pierced and held in place up against a door in a pose reminiscent of the dead Christ. This draws the audience’s minds back to the opening scene of the film, which takes place in a Catholic church; the place where Reno first panicked when grabbed by the homeless man. It also recalls an early scene – a foreshadowing this gruesome climax –in which Reno helps Pamela drill holes in this very same door frame.

The film ends when Carol leaves Reno, returning to her ex-husband. Reno follows her to the couple’s house and murders her ex-husband with his drill. He then waits for Carol beneath the sheets in the couple’s darkened bedroom. In the closing scene, unaware of Reno’s presence, Carol slips into bed, thinking that she is next to her ex-husband. Thus, Reno finally triumphs. He has taken back his girlfriend and presumably will now finally reassert his sexual virility.

a1t2obzllgl-_sl1500_I’m glad that when I finally did get to see Driller Killer, it was in its original, unedited version as intended by the director. I find it ironic that while in years past this movie was either banned or heavily censored, today I can watch the fully intact scenes of sex, violence and abjection at home, on demand, in the coziness of my own living room. The wonders of modern technology have preserved and made widely accessible this (and other) masterpiece(s) of low-budget, low-tech horror so that simply by turning on the television set, you or your children can freely view material previously considered obscene, vile and damaging to the moral health of film goers.

Cinematic Nihilism

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedInformation on Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now appearing on the Edinburgh University Press website. The publication date of the hardback edition is listed as September 2017.

In the US, Cinematic Nihilism will be distributed by Oxford University Press.

Exposing and illustrating how an ongoing engagement with nihilistic alienation may contribute to, rather than detract from, the value of life, Cinematic Nihilism both challenges and builds upon past scholarship that has scrutinised nihilism in the media, but which has generally over-emphasised its negative and destructive aspects. Through case studies of popular films, including Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, Dawn of the Deadand The Human Centipede, and with chapters on Scotland’s cinematic portrayal as both a site of ‘nihilistic sacrifice’ and as ‘nowhere in particular’, this book presents a necessary corrective, re-emphasising the constructive potential of cinematic nihilism and casting it as a phenomenon that need not be overcome.

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3

directoryThe third volume of The Directory of Wold Cinema: American Independent 3 is now available from Intellect Publishing. Edited by John Berra, this installment of the directory consists of a series of essays addressing the work of figures such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Larry Cohen, Zalman King, and Ti West.

My contribution, “Sublime Nihilism,” focuses on the films of Darren Aronofsky, who directed Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah.

Cover for Cinematic Nihilism

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedI’m currently polishing and organizing the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The process is coming along smoothly, and I anticipate having the final draft completed within the next month.

In the meantime, the folks at Edinburgh University Press have put together a cover, which I think looks really good. It would be great to hear what people think of it.

Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings.

videodrome-3I’ve signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press for the publication of a collection of essays to be titled Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The completed manuscript is due to the publisher by the end of January 2017.

The peer review process has so far been quite rigorous (and sometimes stressful!), but I think this has helped to shape and clarify the aims and purposes of the book. I’m excited about the result.

The collection consists of essays addressing nihilistic themes in an international variety of popular films. Some of the essays have previously appeared in journals such as Film and Philosophy, Film International, Screen Bodies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and ScreenOther pieces new to this collection include an introductory essay addressing the philosophical history of nihilism and its relation to film; an updated and revised treatment of nihilistic themes in George Romero’s Dead films; an essay on Fight Club; and an essay exploring the nihilism of Yukio Mishima.

Part of the fun of working on this project includes selecting screen grabs from the various movies discussed in the book as illustrations. I also get some say in the cover design. Currently, I’m thinking that the image above, from David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, would make a great cover!

The Philosophy of the Joker

The Philosophy of The Joker – Wisecrack Edition

Written by Tom Head and directed by Jared Bauer, this well researched and very nicely made short video addresses existential and nihilistic issues related to the Joker, a character from the Batman comics and movies. Alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer and Jean Baudrillard, there are also references to John Marmysz!