Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Tree of Life Meditation

by Odienator

Unlike the twentysomethings who jumped on the Terrence Malick bandwagon with The Thin Red Line, I don’t worship his post 70’s output in a manner best reserved for the Second Coming. I was underwhelmed by The New World and downright hostile toward The Thin Red Line’s contrapuntal narration. It only infuriates said bandwagoners further when I cite that The Thin Red Line, with its footage of catapulting soldiers flung heavenward by explosions while the soundtrack rambled on with Hallmark card bullshit about butterflies and love, is Malick’s worst movie. “Who thinks about butterflies when hot shrapnel is flying into one's ass?” I asked in my C+ review of Line.

I am sure this will get me lots of the standard “you don’t understand Malick’s genius yada yada yada” in the comments section, to which I say spare me because I DO get it. Badlands and Days of Heaven are two of the best films of the 70’s, the latter of which is my favorite and gets richer every time I’ve seen it; the former never ceases to disturb me to my core. While Malick’s latter two are visually imagined in sometimes achingly beautiful compositions, they just don’t involve me the way his prior two films do. Even my mentor and friend Matt Zoller Seitz, whose defense of Malick is worthy of Clarence Darrow, couldn’t get me to change my mind.

Leave it to Malick himself to pull me back into the fold. The Tree of Life is a thesis statement that also serves as cheat notes for this auteur’s body of work. It says “in case you’ve missed it, THIS is what I’ve been trying to say.” Granted, one still needs to dig deeply to understand all that is happening, but The Tree of Life is as blatant a period as I’ve ever seen on the sentence that describes a director’s work. It melds the director’s latter, more visual meditations on the universe with his former films’ narrative exploration of how miniscule our place is in it.  It also does something for me that the few rational people with whom I’ve debated The Thin Red Line and The New World said those films did for them: it lulled me into a state of meditative recollection. My brain went off on tangents of my own memories during The Tree of Life, which was terrifying but not at all surprising. Movies about brothers tend to make me reflect on being the oldest out of four sons.

So I shall not discuss how great the lead three actors are, how visually stunning it is, and how bad the ending is; I’m going to save that for another time. Instead, I will send you down some of the tangents I explored while watching Malick’s best film since my favorite of his, Days of Heaven. You can figure out what may have triggered these on your own.

Why I Hate The Village People's YMCA

I drowned when I was 5 years old. My Kindergarten teacher took us on a field trip to the YMCA, and since I couldn’t swim, she sat me on the edge of the pool so I could put my feet in the water. Some punk ass kid came and pushed me into the pool. I do not remember how long I thrashed around, or even if I came up  to the surface once I was submerged. I do remember it took forever for me to die. Water filled my lungs, giving me both a lifelong fear of the water and of suffocation.

They said I was dead for several minutes before being revived. Between losing and regaining consciousness (I can still taste the water I threw up), I went somewhere. It was the crappiest, most unimaginative out of body experience a writer could have: I stood in a freezing room that was covered in white bathroom tiles. That’s it. It was cold, so I obviously wasn’t in Hell. At 5, what could I have done to earn Hell? Whether my “out of body experience” was a lot warmer when I died at 34 is a story for another time. But when I told this story to a devoutly religious friend of mine, she said “you didn’t see anything because Jesus was behind you doing this.”  Then she put her thumbs into her ears, wiggled her fingers and stuck out her tongue. “Then He kicked you in your butt and sent you back here.”

Now that is a visual I wish I had seen.

My Mother’s Words: The Clean Version

“I have no favorites,” my mother often stated. “I love you all the same.” “LIES!!!” my brain would always utter. Not about the “I love you all the same” part. I believe that. About the favorites part, well, she deserved some lightning in her ass because she did have a favorite kid and it was not me.

My Mother’s Favorite Kid

My brother, and I won’t say which one (sorry brothers, and an even bigger “sorry” to my sister) and I were playing outside on one of the numerous, cracked up sidewalks of Jersey City. I was pushing him on some Fisher Price contraption, a truck that had a horn and a lever you could pull to make it go “VERROOOOOMMM!” I cop to pushing the toy a little too hard, but the faster I went, the happier my 18-month old brother got. We hit a particularly jagged piece of the sidewalk, and my brother flew up into the air so high that he blocked out the Sun. He landed with a thud on the ground. “BAM!!!” said the ground.

I can’t spell the noise my brother made, but it was loud enough to wake the dead.

Something Like This, but Not Quite
 My bodily inspection of the yowling kid yielded a scrape and a bruise on his shoulder, but nothing else. It is de Lawd’s penchant for irony that positioned this accident in front of a row of switch bushes, the same bushes used to beat ghetto asses for generations. My mother was going to send me to the scene of the crime to get a piece of one of those bushes if my brother didn’t quiet down. Panicked, I knelt down and looked at my brother. His eyes were fire hydrants of tears, his mouth a siren not yet completely filled with teeth. I looked into those watery eyes.

“Please,” I begged. “Mommy is going to kill me.”

My brother looked back into my eyes and I swear there was something there, some sense of recognition, the genesis of the brotherly connection we would later use to occasionally team up for mischief when he was older.  He shut up immediately.

It remains the only time my brother saved my ass.

Firecrackers and Fingers

Kids are mean little bastards. My cousins and I sometimes hung out with other neighborhood boys, roaming the streets in search of games of tops, three flights up or stickball. Occasionally, someone would have firecrackers, cherry bombs or cap guns. I liked the cap guns (I especially liked smelling the exploded caps papers, which is just sick) but I was always afraid of firecrackers. I liked hearing them explode, but I could never light one for fear it would blow up and I’d look like a reject from a Tex Avery cartoon.

Some of the neighborhood kids would light these things and throw them at animals. Dogs behind gates, pigeons, cats, all of whom would thankfully get out of the way before they blew up. One of the biggest perpetrators of this lit a cherry bomb (or something to that effect) with plans on throwing it at perhaps the only dog in my ‘hood that didn’t chase us. It was such a sweet tempered animal, with sad eyes and a perpetually cocked head. It looked as if it really gave a shit about you from behind that gate. If it could talk, it would ask how your day was and offer you better advice than Dear Abby.

The kid lit this explosive device when the dog wasn’t paying attention to us. But right before he threw it, the dog suddenly turned our direction. It cocked its head. “Do you really want to hurt me?” its face seemed to say. I saw it. That kid must have seen it, too, because  the split second he reconsidered his action was the moment his hand exploded.

Baptist Funerals are in my DNA

I gave up on organized religion for good in 1999, for reasons that are (you guessed it) a story for another time. I did, however, visit Baptist church after that for a couple of funerals. If you were raised Baptist, Baptist funerals are in your DNA. It almost feels like you know what’s coming before it happens. The thing I hate most about them isn’t when somebody throws themselves on the coffin (reason #1 why I’m being cremated) or when “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” gets sung (reason #2 why I’m being cremated). I hate these funerals because the pastor takes this opportunity to try to recruit for his church by scaring the shit out of you with the specter of Death. When my aunt died, it was almost as if I’d lost my mother. At the funeral, the pastor pointed at her coffin and told the congregation we needed to get right with God. We could start by coming to his church on Sunday. I wanted to punch him in his face. I damn near choked the woman who told me this was God’s plan and I should be happy I have 7 more aunts.

My Mother’s Words, Not So Clean

Thank God my mother didn't wear these.

My mother used to say she had eyes in the back of her head. She also said if she saw something with those eyes of which she did not approve, she’d  either beat me ‘til I shit blue ink or stomp a mudhole in my ass. Mom made the latter threat for the 9 bazillionth time on the Christmas Day of my 16th year.  It ended an argument we had been having, or so I thought. Mom turned around to walk away, and I rolled my eyes at her. My Mom hit me upside the head with her hand. I never saw her face, which indicated she had not turned around.  It was the last time my mother ever laid a hand on me, and the first time that hand was above my waist. She’d later slug her favorite child in the chest hard enough to send him flying when he was 16, so thank heaven for the small favor of not being Mom’s Choice Kid. Yeah, he deserved it.

Things We Lost In the Fire

During turbulent times in the house I grew up in, I envisioned the day we’d all move out and the house would be demolished. Years after we’d grown up, my parents sold the house and moved someplace far more friendly. The church to whom they’d sold the house wanted the land for some expansion project. I was finally going to get my wish. Like in my childhood fantasies, I would get a lawn chair and some popcorn and watch them knock the house down.

Before any of this could transpire, the house burned down in spectacular fashion. It was on the news, and in the papers. (I just found footage of it on fucking YouTube, for God's sake!) Suddenly it hit me: All I’d been thinking about were the bad times in my life that occurred while I lived there. I had somehow forgotten that the best of times had occurred there too, and by virtue of spending all my teenage years and some of the years prior in that house, most of life’s discoveries had a tie to it.  I was bound to that physical place by the majority of my childhood memories and all my adolescent ones. Up in smoke they went.

Well, Only Figuratively. Memories Do Remain.

The year after my Mom slapped the taste out of my mouth for Christmas, she, my Pops and my entire family went to Atlanta to see my uncle. My Mom was adamant about me going, but my Pops talked her out of it. Maybe he thought, at 17, I was man enough to be “home alone.” Maybe it was because a few weeks prior, the crackhead next door had broken into our house and stolen the VCR, and my Pops didn’t want to come home to just a foundation and a doorknob. Regardless, for the first time in my entire life, I had full run of an empty house. I ran up and down the stairs, yelling for joy before marveling at the quiet. No noisy siblings, no bickering parents, no yelling at me from Mom. Just quiet. And joy. So much so that, when the Great Love of my Life asked if she could come over, I told her HELL NO. Not even sex was better than this. You try living in a house with four little kids, all day, every day, for almost a decade, and you’ll see my point of view. I could screw next week.

I wound up cleaning the house from top to bottom, and spending the week watching movies.

It’s only fitting I end here, as this memory was inspired by my favorite scene in The Tree of Life.

Here’s to finding your own meditations courtesy of Terrence Malick!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Released Today: Altman's Last Movie

by Odienator

According to the imDB, Robert Altman's last movie, A Prairie Home Companion, opened five years ago today in some podunk town in Georgia. (The wide release date was some time in June.) Almost five years ago, I wrote a piece on the film for The House Next Door. It begins:

In Bob Fosse's All That Jazz (1979) and Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the filmmakers respectively invoke death to gently chastise viewers for the imaginary crime of not affording them the appreciation they feel they deserve. Both works cry out, "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone." Yet for all their surface similarities, they are oceans apart in tone.

All That Jazz, one of my favorite movies, is meandering, infuriating and surreal, packed with dance numbers and music. Scripted by Robert Alan Aurthur, and owing Federico Fellini's 8 ½ a debt too large to repay, Fosse reimagines the musical drama of his own life, sometimes employing original cast members (Ann Reinking plays a character based on herself), while crafting a self-congratulatory piece that screams "I am Bob Fosse! I am breathing down the Grim Reaper's neck because I'm a drug-addicted workaholic! Partake in my world of cynical Broadway smut, and celebrate me before it's too late!" Prairie is also meandering, infuriating, surreal and full of music. Owing All That Jazz a similarly huge debt, Altman builds a dramatic frame around a facsimile of Keillor's long-running radio program and some of its recurring castmembers and characters, while crafting a self-congratulatory piece that declares, "I am Robert Altman! The Grim Reaper is breathing down my neck! Partake in my world of cynical Midwestern sing-a-longs and celebrate me before it's too late!"

Turns out Altman was right. The rest of the piece can be found here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Doing the Dougie With De Lawd

by Odienator, A Sinner.

Happy Rapture Day!

In case you’ve been under a rock, or haven’t walked through a subway station in NYC, today is the day Harold Camping says the world will end. This is the day De Lawd has chosen to return, bringing about the Armageddon that doesn’t feature Bruce Willis. But before you start dancing around like Chris Penn, singing “Let’s Hear it for The Lord,” you should be aware that this date does not exist in the Bible. In fact, if I remember my Baptist Sunday School training correctly, the Gospels say no one will know the hour of return. Camping, like far too many Christians, ignores the parts of the Bible that are inconvenient, opting instead to tell SfGate that he “has scrutinized the Bible for almost 70 years and…has developed a mathematical system to interpret prophecies hidden within the Good Book.” As a math major, and the world’s worst Christian, I take double offense at this claim. Camping pulled this date out of his ass, much like he pulled the prior date he said the world would end. He was wrong then, and he’ll be wrong today.

Besides, I don’t know why all these televangelists and ministers are hastening Jesus’ return. The first thing He’s going to do when He gets here is to ask them “where’s all that money you raised for me?” You know damn well they don’t have it, and that can only lead to lightning bolt enemas.

The world is gonna end today for somebody, but it’ll have nothing to do with Camping Calculus and everything to do with that person’s number being pulled in the Great Beyond. Now Serving!! For the rest of us, folks who will be here tomorrow, here’s a Rapture Playlist for you to load into your iPod.  If I’m wrong, and the world does end today, at least you’ll have some good music to play should you decide to do the Dougie with De Lawd.

Rapture, by Blondie

Of course, we have to start here. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Blondie’s hit rarely gets mentioned as the first rap-infused hit by both a White artist and a woman. Deborah Harry’s excellent vocal and the song’s bouncy and strange music far overshadow the fact that the rap part is hokey as hell. Harry pulls it off, but making sense of it is likely to cause nosebleeds. (Editor note: The author knows every single word to this song, so he’s fulla shit.) Sampled later by my favorite rapper, KRS-ONE, Rapture still holds up as both a mile marker on the highway of rap history and fodder for an occasional remake. As a bonus, watch this video to see where Flavor Flav got his style.

Caught up in the Rapture, by Anita Baker

If I believed the world were ending today, I wouldn’t be here with you. I’d be fucking everything that was breathing, human and above the age of consent. (With that said, I might be with you…) I’m going to Hell anyway, may as well secure my place there. Anita Baker, like other R&B/Soul artists too numerous to mention, can help set the mood for my final acts of sin. Baker’s an appropriate artist here; her entire album is called Rapture. There are worse musical accompaniments while sliding into Hell with your eyes wide open (to quote my mother). Speaking of my eternal resting place:

Hell, by Squirrel Nut Zippers

May be the happiest-sounding song about eternal damnation I have ever heard.

Highway to Hell, by AC/DC

Far more of you will be on this than on the Stairway to Heaven. Satan himself provided me with the video clip for this; it’s one of those awful movie tie in videos. I’m so evil.  Speaking of God’s Stairmaster:

Stairway to Heaven, by the O’Jays

When Rat from Fast Times at Ridgemont High mentions Stairway to Heaven as great makeout music, us Black kids thought he meant THIS version. Our bad!

Spirit in the Sky, by Norman Greenbaum

“I never been a sinner, I never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus,” sang Greenbaum. We’ll see! The opening riff in this song gets my vote for what should be playing when Jesus descends from the sky.

Gotta Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan

“It may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you hafta serve somebody,” sings Mr. Dylan. It’s too late to take Bob’s advice, but you might find out today if you made the right choice. Dylan’s writing ability is a gift from Heaven. His vocal ability is from the other place for sure.

Heaven, by Bebe and CeCe Winans

I could have chosen Bryan Adams’ Heaven, but even I’m not that sadistic. Bebe and CeCe threw a few extra banana peels on my descent into Hell because they had a different slow jam record I used to screw to before I realized it was about God. Thanks, guys.

Heaven is a Place on Earth, Belinda Carlisle

You know my love of the 80’s wasn’t going to go unnoticed here. But wouldn’t it just SUCK if this song’s title were actually true? Where would Heaven be? Iowa, like in Field of Dreams? Disney World? Newark, NJ?  Y’all better hope Jesus says “WRONG, Miss Go Go Thing!” to Belinda Carlisle.

Why Me, Lord? by Kris Kristofferson

If De Lawd is anything like my mother, the answer will be “Because I said so.”

Happy Apocalypse Now!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Muva's Day!

Mother's Day, 1977.

My mother and I were at the local drug store picking up a prescription for my little brother. Since it was Mother's Day, I asked Mom for some money to buy her a card. She gave me 2 dollars and sent me to the card section. "Turn the card over," she told me, "so you can see how much it costs before you buy it." I ran to the cards and, after some roaming, found the Mother's Day cards. The section looked as if a bomb hit it, decimated by a mad rush from husbands and sons prone to last-minute decisions. What remained was a small series of kid-friendly tributes to Mother, which was appropriate for 7 year old me.

The old woman who worked the counter for her pharmacist husband appeared. "You need help, honey?" she asked me. By then I'd picked out a card. It was the Las Vegas of Mother's Day cards, big and gaudy, shouting out sentiment in bold, neon-like statements. "To The Best Mom Ever, From Your Son" it trumpeted on the front, covered in that horrid glitter powder that lodged in the fingerprints, lungs and floors of the card's recipient. When you opened the card, the little boy on the front of the card popped out of it, arms outstretched. "Hope you have a very special day!" read the sentiment underneath him. It too was covered in enough glitter powder to cause black lung disease. The card cost one dollar.

I handed the card to the pharmacist's wife. "Can you please ring this up for me?" I asked her. "Sure," she said. "And aren't you a sweetheart, buying a card for your mother?" My face beamed--like a sweetheart. "May I read it?" she asked.

"Uh-huh," I said.

She read the front of the card. When she opened it, she threw her head back in surprise, then laughed heartily, the bluish-grey hair on her head shaking with her joy. God bless her; she'd given me the reaction I'd hoped my mother would have, and I think Mrs. Pharmacist knew what she was doing. Regardless, her joy and surprise felt genuine. "Oh, honey," she began, "your mother will love this. Let's ring it up."

We walked toward the counter, which was 2 aisles away from the cards. "My son," she said, subconsciously touching her heart in time with the words, "is a real pain in the butt." I giggled. "But when he was your age, he would give me such wonderful cards for Mother's Day, just like this one. And I cherished them all. They always made me forget for a moment...that he was and is a PAIN IN THE BUTT!!"

As we rounded the corner, she saw my mother waiting at the counter. The pharmacist's wife gasped. "Oh dear!" she told me, "we can't have her see this before you give it to her. Wait here." She walked to my mother and I watched them have a conversation. I couldn't hear what they said, but my mother nodded and left the counter. I was then summoned to the register.

"How much is this, sweetie," she asked me. I turned the card over and read out "One dollar." She rang it up. "With tax, that'll be One-oh-six." I had two dollars. As I handed her the cash, I noticed the candy section in front of us. I picked up a Hershey's with Almonds, my mother's candy bar of choice back when she ate candy. The little sticker from the price gun said ".35." I put the bar on the counter. "Oh, this would be such a nice extra!" said Mrs. Pharmacist enthusiastically. "Would you like me to wrap it, so she can REALLY be surprised?" Of course I did!

She disappeared for a moment, returning with some Mother's Day based tissue paper and tape. It must have taken her 20 seconds to wrap the candy bar. "OK, young man, if we add the candy bar, that makes it a dolluh fawty two with tax." I nodded. "The wrapping paper's on me," she said with a wink. She handed me back 58 cents and then went to get my mother.

By this time, the pharmacist had finished filing my brother's prescription. He brought it to the counter in time for my mother to pay for it. As they handled that business, the pharmacist's wife came around the counter to address me. She knelt down, something I am sure took great caution, so she could be on the same level as I was. "Now make sure you wait til you get home to give your Mom her present," she whispered as she handed me the bag. "I will!" I told her excitedly. "And remember," she added, "be nice to your mother." She then shook her finger in time with the words: "Don't be like my son--a real PAIN IN THE BUTT!"

To be honest with you, I don't remember my mother's reaction to the card. I am sure she ate the Hershey's bar, and I know she kept the card. When my folks sold the house I grew up in, my mother's closet yielded several small shoe boxes worth of mementos given her by her brood of five. In the Odie box was this card, still gaudy, still big, still Las Vegas and still covered in that infernal glitter. I still have its remnants in my fingerprints.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom, from your eldest ass pain.