Thursday, October 25, 2012

Demons & Fragments

"He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent.”-Philip Roth, The Humbling

"We can still support each other, just as long as we avoid each other. Nothing wrong when a song ends in the minor key."-Fiona Apple, "Werewolf"

When a writer doesn’t complete something, is that splay of dripped wax and roadblocks worth any consideration?

My name is Judy and I’ve read your blog because of my boyfriend Eric. Ever since he found it through Google images, he’s been obsessed. He spends hours, sometimes days, pouring over your every word, and he’s even printed out those “eroticons” things and papered them all over our bedroom. If I can be frank, I think you’re an indulgent and rather tiresome writer who should probably spend more time in the sun, preferably with a book not written by Greil Marcus, but that’s just me.

(She goes on to ask me about something for her boyfriend, about a movie he saw on an illegal black porn box. I haven’t responded to her yet. I’m blocked. I haven’t been able to write any of the planned essays for the month of October. I’ve given myself a quota of one essay a month till the end of the year, and I’ve been burdened with the production of nothing. I’ve been voraciously reading and listening and getting back in the cinephile substratum. But every day that passes to the breach of November finds me unable to hack something out. Every time I see a keyboard, I don’t know what to do.)


A.M. A Short Story fragment.

I heard the door shake and crash and I knew it was her, despite realizing that that was also impossible. But it was her. Blond hair, red streaks, gnawed cuticles, eyes that refused to be augmented with emotional description, the body pervious to every vicissitude of gravity, the blinks of her eyes as rapid and frequent as the wings of a butterfly skating pursuit; the grey, grey skirt. I was engaged, however fitfully, in writing an essay about the new horror anthology film V/H/S. I had the television going as ambience but its ambience was quickly becoming the central gravitational suck of the room’s contents. She wore a black hoodie and both hands were deep in the pouches. I heard keys clinking, the set from the apartment of whichever friend she was staying with on this particular visit.

“Stop writing about me,” she said. “You’re doing it now, at this very second, aren’t you?”

Of course I was, when I could bring myself to actually bleed out words. To clarify: I was using routines on some of the film’s thematic definites as a smokescreen to really write about what had happened between the two of us months ago. I had employed that same tactic in 90 (really 95) % of all the articles I had produced for this feed, which was originally going to be a collaboration between us until I lost my mind about her.

She was hip to being frequently coded. But I maintained ignorance. “I’ve never written about you, Taylor.” No matter, she had brought a list, scribbled in longhand, of all my secret offenses. She produced and unfurled it. As she read them I thought of the land outside the house not as moist and vegetated but entirely flat, yellow tinting yellow, and suffering the kind of drought we associate with deserts:

(Reads from my review of the obscure porn film and founding “Sleazer” Holly In The Forest (1977). I locate her in the splotchy film stock and the endless dirge of rape and incest. I shouldn’t be doing this.)

“I’ve tried for years to think of myself in the third person. ‘She should get something to eat.’ ‘She thought about taking a shower, but first she would check her phone.’ Now that I’ve seen you so fragrantly write about me in the third person past, present, and future tense, on a site that isn’t, but could theoretically, be seen by anybody in the world, I don’t want to be trapped in the literary at all.”

“I didn’t think you would read it.”

“I wasn’t going to, but after a few months I gave in. How could I not? It was such a great idea and I was looking forward so much to contributing. You had posted so much, I enjoyed it until I was terrified by it. There’s so much I was looking forward to getting out there, so many thoughts I wanted to unplug.”

“I asked you if you still wanted to do it, remember? It was only a short time ago. I told you about the small but idiosyncratic readership I had obtained, a list of names both known and not known but still minds as vital as those known, and as I waited for you to write back I heard a ding of mobile muzak outside my house. It was an ice cream truck. A little early, I thought, because it was still March, yet it slowed down in front of my house even before the driver knew I was outside. I walked up to it and ordered, and even paid, but instead of a Screwball I was given a summons, I got served. It was a restraining order against me, even though you weren’t even in the state anymore!” I only then saw the backpack peeking out from behind her face.

“That was Monty’s idea. We had just moved in together and I threw my hands up when I saw your message and the words ‘You and I.’ Before I could read the rest of it he started rubbing my shoulders and said, ‘just block and unfriend that lunatic.’ So I did. But it wasn’t enough for him. Look, Monty is good for me. He keeps regular hours, he shakes his head when I show him Sleazers, mystified by them but tolerant of my odder peccadilloes. He doesn’t mush, he isn’t like me like you are, except you’re all the portions of me I successfully killed years ago. He’s studying to pass the bar in a year, he doesn’t let things consume him, yet he couldn’t get over the idea that you had upset me so much. So he decided to take legal action.”

“Action you’re violating now.”

“He doesn’t know I’m here, now, obviously. And I don’t want to be here. I just came to warn you that if I see anything else referring to me, or the person you imagine is me (who is so fucking far from who actually am it’s comical) I’ll have your website, your website, erased completely from the internet.”

“You can do that?”

“God yes. Monty’s brother Marty is a hacker to beat the band. I’ve never used that expression before, yet it fits here. He’ll torpedo your blog till its dust.”

Somewhere I thought I heard an upstairs door slam, but it could have just been a mental ricochet.

In my extended prostration I couldn’t even finish film capsules which I could do hand tied/blindfolded in my cummy university days. From the lab:

The Turin Horse: Two overwrought moments, both dialogue heavy (late voice over and a peasant’s lament) are the only fumbles in the great, intimidating Bela Tarr’s alleged final feature, giving unnecessary verbiage to the physically parched landscape already brought to deathly life by Tarr’s imagery. Other than Steven Spielberg, no living director has a greater sense for camera placement and movement.

Keyhole: This Noir-As-Id jumble is the first Guy Maddin film I’ve seriously disliked. It’s an especially dispiriting misfire after the amazing Brand Upon The Brain! and My Winnipeg…the incoherent fails to cohere.

“You’ve never met Monty,” Taylor continued, sitting on my couch with the majority of her self leaning off so that I would know she wasn’t relaxed or inching towards future relaxation in this bubble of space. “So you have no right to bring him into your rambling, apolitical, unfocused, purple, irrelevant output. I see when he’s crept in there. Nobody from any Sleazer bears traces of my boyfriend, you untalented fucker! [Taking out another slice of paper from the deep canyons of her hoodie’s pockets:] Larry the rapist sickens because he recalls so many smug, slick white dudes of collegiate privilege, girlfriends automatically theirs, Facebook profile pictures oh so the opposite of brooding in some already-filled interior apartment cave. Look at their eyes. Beyond the camera flash on their glasses, under detached eyeball and bend of brow, there is contentment, which will never produce immortality. You should know I took that picture of him, and it was just the two of us, and you don’t know that he hasn’t suffered, just because he has income and doesn’t think of faux-profound things to say about dirty movies like you, such a pure, tormented artist, just because he has a life and doesn’t drench himself over desired mates like a shower of sewage…he said you’re ‘unreadable.’ I agree.”

“Jesus Christ, then don’t read me.”

More shuffling in her deep pockets. I pictured keys. I pictured Mr. Bill hidden in there. I pictured shards of glass edged with her blood. (Nobody will care about this but me. I should cut it out.)

“We’re going on our first trip together. To London. We’ll be arriving at Heathrow two days from now at 14:00 or however it goes. It’s going to be a break of total serenity for my body and mind. A break from what seemed like eons of anxiety and depression, which shouldn’t have stayed there after Monty and I hooked up but which did because of what you wrote. You can’t call what you do ‘essays.’ Only things. Objects of little worth. Things. What’s your next thing about, Hal?”

“The movie V/H/S. I think we talked about it once, before you hated me.”

“I actually saw it with Monty. His HD television is so beautiful I frequently get a form of Stendhal Syndrome watching movies on it. Not that I caught too much of V/H/S with what we were doing, what he was doing to me…”

“No part of you wanted him to spot mauling you so you could absorb something you knew you’d love?”

“So you don’t deny that you were writing about him, or some warped vision you had of him?”

“Can you please leave me alone?”

“Not until I have some kind of written or verbal crimson proof that I won’t lose sleep in the UK knowing that you’re out beyond the telephone wires exorcising me, us.”

“Part of the initial agreement was that writing this project together would be an experiment of sorts, to see what was stuck inside both of our psyches, and dislodge that material. Only the minimal amount of necessary correction, enough to tweak semi-automatic writing into something slightly more presentable. You remember that, from our Declaration Of Intent?”

“That was rendered nothing when you lost your shit. But I don’t want to plow that ground again. It’s just what you want.”

The whole time she was sitting, Taylor had been nervously rapping the tips of her unpainted nails against the hard, dustcoverless front of William T. Vollmann’s The Valley Dogs, a recently published work, in progress from the time its author was ten years old. I didn’t think I would get much father into it than the two hundred and fifty pages I had already crossed. Vollmann might be preferable in excerpts or small doses, I sometimes thought, though I would have to read more to be sure. Maybe sometimes it’s best for the uncontainable to be contained, the vastness beyond bottled excellence a monster to be imagined and feared, like a Val Lewton creature, the shadow more frightening than the sight. At any rate, it went over 3000 pages and weighed roughly the same as a cement block holding up the patriarchal cabin young Daria explodes with her mind at the close of Zabriskie Point.

(The story ends with that boyfriend trying to kill me-remember that noise I heard, that was some taciturn embroidering!-and then me braining him with that nonexistent Vollmann book and then Taylor cuts my throat but instead of just killing me her own throat opens like a heart pulled kitelike into his arms. I should read less Marcus yes but also less underground horror. What happens to fictional characters or even thinly disguised characters snatched subjectively from life when they are abandoned by their author? Taylor doesn’t have to hate this hateful blogger anymore. They can have a smoke together in the undercountry in my mind and go back into the ether to audition for other typing tortured’s.)


This Is Not A Film: If you could tell a film, why make it? This is the question Iranian director Jafar Panahi is forced to contemplate while facing 6 years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Smuggled into Cannes through a pastry, this documentary is clandestine, nervous, and, ironically, the best movie of Panahi’s I’ve seen.

The Dark Knight Rises: Finally, Christopher Nolan has successfully merged his wellsprings of darkness to his masked persona of the mainstream popcorner he had to become in order to give us his vision of Batman. Attempts at humor and crowd work, previously cumbersome in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, are genuinely fleet footed here, as banter between a hunched, reclusive Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (who socially climbs as far as she can steal) melts with agitated sexuality.  The Dark Knight Rises is a horror film, and while I’ve overheard some movie children refer to Nolan’s politics as “inconsistent,” it must be stressed this isn’t a political film, and the equally noxious behavior of the rulers and the ruled is, more than anything, fiendishly complex. While the ’08 movie positioned Batman as grey and fallible, Nolan’s concluding film resurrects him to a state of pure good despite the masochism inherent in his character and return to Batman. In Wayne’s self-exile and forced banishment to the most hopeless prison in many a film, Bruce/Batman reclaims his stripes as unvarnished bright knight, giving his struggle against the unfairly matched opponent Bane (grimly excellent Tom Hardy) an elegiac finality. Nolan has improved his technique-he can finally shoot action-and though he does integrate flashbacks awkwardly, the resources amassed by success afford bottoming out of a previously unrecalled scope.

(I tried to write about music and failed.)

There’s an object. An album. Its title is “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.” The illustrations both within and without run the gamut from self-portrait quirk to an intricately disturbing hybrid of warped self-perception and under-the-mud sketch digging. The packaging (cover/liner notes/penmanship) is all the work of one woman. The music comes from her too. There’s only the most Didion-spare arrangements thrumming around her voice, a voice that can be as small and fragile as a pebble and as harmfully destructive as a meteorite, often in the same verse.

Fiona Apple gives when she feels like giving.  Everything about Whipping Cords is nothing less than a personal offering of selective anguish, joy-through-creation, femaleness, Fionaness.

(I began an essay about an indie filmmaker I admired that refused to maintain its initial traction:) 

Watch Joe Swanberg’s 2009 release Alexander The Last, with its unexpected darkness and sense of queasy possibility, and try not to think how one day he could make a great horror film. Not genre, but horror, the same way Jacques Rivette’s L’Amor Fu, Jean Eustasche’s The Mother And The Whore and Robert Altman’s Images are horror movies without relegation to a filing system.  Alexander, like those masterpieces, is about people who don’t know who they are. Swanberg’s signiture, personal filmmaking style-brief pockets of scenes, sneakily austere compositions, an unconventional coherency in the balance of intimate relations and ellipses-melded with a newfound complexity in sound design and music, resembling Altman’s collaboration with John Williams for Images. His follow-up, the excellent Uncle Kent, downplayed this burgeoning dread with its study of an affable, 40-year-old animator (Kent Osbourne) who is just that, an uncle, platonic safety, to a female friend he meets on Chat Roulette. Yet there was a genuine discomfort and sadness in his attempts to make physical contact with her during an ostensible threesome with a woman they pick up on Craigslist. Wherever Swanberg was going, it was clear that you might not want to follow him to his dark destination if you weren't prepared and likeminded. 

(Maybe Judy’s harsh assessment got under my skin after all. Taylor's too.)

(So I tried plowing old ground. I don’t know where I was going with this and it dies on the vine:)

The only video store left in town might be the only business in the state to continue selling VHS tapes in 2012 beyond the roadside thrifts. When I was a teenager I thought with a tunnel’s exclusion that seeing every movie there was paramount to some undefined accomplishment. Before that I knew about more movies than I had actually seen, and I would have these self-contained globules of the movies I thought the tapes contained. They were in a faster motion than a typical VCR could handle. Imagine zipping through an .avi file in a VCL player, the movie collapsing in on itself, scenes taffyfied and over before they ever began. I wish I could have closed my eyes and just imagined a feature-length Nightmare On Elm Street or Nashville before the movies themselves were in my frame of reference but no, it was these flashes of movies, a bravely imagined essence, like when you first meet someone you find physically attractive and try encapsulating all they could be, what every private moment and cruelly embedded demon could have produced in the frame standing before you there, in possession of a slight smile.

Being with other people in any capacity (social, sexual, the healthily rationed familial) is obviously better for you than watching a conveyer belt of movies, but that doesn’t mean the entry into any kind of community or relationship is as overwhelmingly tempting. I could, and I have, done nothing but watch movies for days. I’m built for it, and most of my friends are too. At this point in my life I listen to more music because the physical lushness it gives me is an enormously satisfying sensation, hard won after years of ignoring the medium, and right now at least the act of contextualizing musicians and discographies is a lot more thrilling than I ever expected it to be. But when the cinephile bug hits, I’m feverish. Nothing non other-human-being related can quite match the lift you get when a great movie has taken you up into its allegorical mothership. Now, when I’m reading a book I love I think that nothing beats books; when I have an album going I think nothing trumps music; when I’m writing, it may be a royal pain in the ass but I feel like I’m doing what I was always meant to do. None of these enthusiasms come near to that moment when I’m deep in a film.

In her essay “The Aesthetics Of Silence,” Susan Sontag writes of the aura certain bodies of work attain when their creators (Rimbaud, etc) abandon the craft and live other ways. In the ravenous siege of total seeing, it might be valuable to hold off on certain movies and try to imagine what they could be. The actual Nashvilles and Chinatowns were infinitely superior to whatever I conceived, but in a town of two family operated video stores I saw hundreds of movies, Motorpsycho devil horrors from the UK and American horror indies like Truth Or Dare: A Critical Madness (now a sandcastle in high tide when it comes to availability) that couldn’t match the ornate dungeons I had built in anticipation to what their respective squares offered to the possibilities of their content. I would have been better off just closing my eyes and setting a stopwatch for ninety minutes and playing my versions in projected brainspools.

(Then I thought, how about Philip Roth? I don't write about books nearly enough:)

Annually they came, little books he called “Short Novels.” They were condensed narratives that could span an entire lifetime or one miserable year. Many critics didn’t know what to make of them. Lifelong fans like the late Christopher Hitchens were accusing Roth of losing his touch and succumbing to authorial senility. 2006 was Everyman, 2007 Exit Ghost, 2008 Indignation, 2009 The Humbling. By 2010’s Nemesis he revealed the strategy. The books from ’06, ’08, ’09 and 10 were linked in his front-page bibliography as “Nemeses: Short Novels” (Ghost, featuring longtime character/avatar Nathan Zuckerman, was placed in the “Zuckerman Books” category). Roth’s momentous canonization was proof to those following his output that these books, similar in their tonal despair, were part of a series, short novels combining to form a single novel with disparate chapters and one humbled soul.

The Nemeses are sickness, disease, the changed minds of other people, fate doused with irrevocable cruelty. Each male protagonist is left, to quote a final line from Everyman, “freed from being.” Roth didn’t offer much levity while being interviewed, reflecting on his mortality (he wants to reread all the great books “before I die”), the death of literacy (“with all these screens, the book couldn’t measure up”) and his strenuous writing life (“you’re always an amateur”). One could visualize The Master holed up in his Connecticut writing studio, making these mournful books. For young writers in similarly remote locations, it was a great temptation to emulate his work ethic. 2008-when the final two novels in the Nemeses canon were announced-was quite a heady time for young artists interested in writing and Roth. It might be possible to write and imagine oneself in sync with him also writing miles away. Was what you two produced in tandem anything identical, if not in form than in similarly autumnal content?

(Mind changed enough by that one sentence, as if it were a lillypad pulled underwater inch by inch by evil fingers, I desperately started another short story, another riff on the real-life shit that inspired the far above fragment. Alas, this too proved another interrupted exorcism. Reagan would have to vandalize her chest some more:)

He caught her post on the bottom of Page 5 as he scrolled through the messageboard. He was about to click off to another tab when he saw it. DOES ANYBODY KNOW IF BRAD HARVEST IS DEAD OR NOT!?!!? He had just watched a movie with Harvest a few days earlier. He was pretty much obsessed with him at the time he became aware of her.

So I’ve seen like 7 brad harvest movies by now. God, I love him. I can’t find out anywhere if he’s alive or dead. On IMDB his last movie was 1994. WTF? He rules, does anyone know? Tnx (or Thanks), rebeca.

A few responses, all conjecture. Harvest could be living in Toronto. He might have contracted AIDS and died. Guy didn’t know either. The Harvest film he’d just seen was from the late eighties, shot on videotape, with a gaunt, wirey Harvest only appearing in one memorable scene, verbally humiliating Cassandra Bowden, making her cry. The mascara rained blackly down her face.

Rebeca left her Email address and Guy sent her an outreach of friendship. He didn’t know either, but he shared the passion for Brad Harvest, a footnote inside a footnote.


(The urge to keep writing about fake people based on real people, something that had malignantly sustained him throughout his life, was again trumped by the healthier distraction of interacting again with real people. He wrote a frenzied gash of thoughts to a friend of his during an E-mail back-and-forth concerning dark matters.)

I’ve been thinking about the things that actually disturb me in art and it seems to be a melancholy that grows into outright horror. That’s why Cutting Moments [an independent horror film about an unhappy housewife who randomly mutilates herself] is so severely affecting, because it’s already pocked with sadness before the horrific events begin. This sadness makes the horror doubly visceral. Think about it: there aren’t very many horror novels/stories/films that are sad, almost because of human courteously (most people couldn’t handle it).

On LaBute/DFW/Cheever/Updike/Roth: there’s a notion, a category I made up a few years ago called a “human thriller.” Basically a work of suspense that has nothing to do with typical suspense elements and everything to do with the fragility of a human heart. It’s all over LaBute, especially in Company but also in his plays (which get better and better the worse his films become). The seeds for my “human thriller” idea were probably planted when I was nearing the end of Infinite Jest and there’s that searing passage when a bedridden Gately realizes that he has feelings for PGOAT and yet can never act on them. I was haunted by the women in that book because they were heroines fighting like fairy tale characters against their own abyss. Updike wrote most powerfully for me when he delineated couples whose love was also infected with finality. And I don’t know if you’ve read Roth’s “Nemeses” novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis) but his compression enhances the “irrational human cruelty,” especially in The Humbling, which was little loved but another example of the “Human thriller.”

 Addressing other points (my brain was caterwauling)

1: I’ve done a heavy amount of driving at night, creating a nocturnal community that I think only existed in my head. But the location is pregnant with potential. August Underground’s driving scenes were so carefully modulated by Vogel, and there are more of them than basement scenes because (I think) he’s commenting on the aimlessness, the BOREDOM, surrounding strands of true horror. When I think of the road I think of truck stops, chip bags, rubbing one out on a vast empty highway, the John Tesh radio show, raindrops on windshields, loneliness. (there’s a fair collection of LaBute plays set in cars called Autobahn)

2: Self destruction and irrevocable decisions are two things I’ve thought about a lot lately (primarily because I’ve spent X amount of years doing plenty of both). As a kid I would think about throwing a beloved toy out the car window on the freeway and I specifically remember clutching the toy tightly because that impulse was there. Human beings are fucking mysterious. That isn’t an easy thing to come to terms with. (NOTE: I love slasher movies with cut-up coeds, but I’ve never actually been scared by one. Words can barely describe how I felt during the opening of August Underground. I truly felt violated because the woman’s violation had been so bottomlessly communicated.)

3: So much of life pools into these episodes we experience of mouth-agape dismay and an ultimate overlord caving in. I like art that tries to replicate this. I’m not talking about cheap/easy nihilism but the evocation of an unavoidable horror (within the mind or without) that inevitably rules the narrative. We’re trying to advance and we’re humbled, could be from our own heads or from an interpersonal web where we realize we’ve entrusted the worst person with the burden of our happiness.

Gore for its own sake is a cartoon, of course. Gore that flows from dismay and genuine human horror is another matter. I agree that throwing taboo after taboo on a story like kindling wouldn’t equal out to much. But something intimate and absolutely inevitable and unflinching could be thrilling to explore. There’s also a no-net sensation I get from two or three people alone in a room (like in Leonard Cohen and so much Roth).

(I moved on, leaving these half-sculpted pieces to their incomplete beauty. I love them as much as the things I’ve actually pulled off. I don’t know what I’m going to write about now. While compiling this I received another E-mail from her:)

Your work is a car accident I see from my computer. Can’t/look/away. You will go deeper inside yourself, and by the time you’ve realized how far gone you’ve gone it will be too late.


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