That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

I destroy those I cannot control.

Posted by kozemp on March 2, 2015

And so, we have reached the point in our narrative – or my narrative, at least, as though there were any other narrative I really cared about – where I make a direct artistic connection between James Ellroy and Bruce Springsteen, and stop at HP Lovecraft along the way, and the connections work, and I will heretofore be proclaimed as either genius, or madman, or both.

But we’re not quite there, not just yet.

So:

Me and James Ellroy is a funny sort of story. I came to Ellroy through the movie version of LA Confidential. I distinctly remember, after seeing the movie, sitting in the food court at LaSalle with Tony Romero and talking about picking up the book it was based on and him saying – almost 20 years later I still remember his exact words – “I hear it’s a fucking tome.”

I had discovered crime fiction as a teenager with Andrew Vachss – which is a bit like discovering recreational drugs by drinking a shot glass of LSD – and became one of those people who gleefully dove into the black pit every chance I got because… you know, I don’t actually know why. It’s true that I did have a severe conservative/authoritarian streak when I was a teenager and early adult, but that got fixed a long time ago and I can still pick up Hammett or Chandler or Thompson or whoever and thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s weird, I suppose, but I can’t tell you why I like soccer either. So here we are with me as a… as a kid? A young adult? Is there a word for that 18-21ish age? Whatever you call that time when you’re 18-21ish, by then I was long since that kid who had a pathological need to read novels that movies I liked were based on. How many other kids my freshman year at Chestnut Hill do you think read Silence of the Lambs? I would hazard “not many.”

Fun fact: some internet sleuthing has revealed that LA Confidential was the second book I ever bought off Amazon – after Neuromancer, which surprises, I imagine, precisely no one.

Anyway, I bought and devoured LA Confidential, and again almost 20 years later it is still one of only two books where the last lines are seared into my brain forever. The others are the last lines of Gatsby, also surprising, I imagine, no one.

I was pretty blown away by the book, and who wouldn’t be? I was already head over heels in love with the movie, after all; moreso, possibly, than whatever demure, emotionally distant brunette I was also head over heels for at the time. (I legitimately cannot remember which one it was, but, yes, I am aware that I have a type.) The book is at once both this brutal distillation of the movie and a grandiose, exploded version of it. The core of the film and the book are still the same – Los Angeles as seductress, sunny exteriors and rotten insides at every turn, and good men doing bad things. There are some key differences, sure: the Ed Exley of the novel is a little more carefully drawn and deeply motivated (and much more a conniving schemer, if you can believe that). The story is a lot more expansive. The end is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – different. And then there is the subplot in the book in which – I am not making this up – a thinly-veiled pastiche of Walt Disney is revealed as a serial child rapist and murderer.

Yeah. It’s James Ellroy. /shrug

Even with that – and in typical fashion for me I was so engrossed in the story I tended to blow through it to get the broad strokes as quickly as possible and I missed a lot of those details on the first read (aka A Song of Ice and Fire Syndrome) – once you get used to Ellroy’s… let’s charitably call it “unique” style, which doesn’t take long, the book has the same core strength that the movie does. The characters are so strong they practically leap off the page, and for all the weirdness of the language it is still incredibly evocative in an odd way. More than almost any writer I’ve ever come across Ellroy’s books have a FEEL to them that is practically indescribable and impossible to replicate. Ellroy’s books… they SEETHE in an almost Lovecraftian way, like dark, misshapen things you know are hideous but you can’t take your eyes off of.

So I read LA Confidential, and went gaga for it, and immediately said “OH SHIT MAN WHAT’S NEXT?!” and grabbed myself a copy of White Jazz and I was toast. Completely hooked. This despite the fact that in pure writing terms White Jazz is less a book and more a collection of frenzied ravings that make the complete works of Philip K. Dick look like a carefully-considered sermon. On a sentence for sentence level it is more or less unreadable, but somehow as it accumulates it still works as a whole, and it introduces Pete Bondurant, and it has what in deference to spoilers I will call “the thing Exley does at the end,” which fulfills the promise he makes at the end of LA Confidential (the book) in the most satisfying and reprehensible way possible.

I don’t mention Pete Bondurant in passing; he is one of the main characters in American Tabloid, which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever*, so clearly the whole James Ellroy thing worked out pretty well for me.

The thing about Ellroy is that as he got older his books started to… is “change” the right word? Maybe “drift?” They are still recognizably James Ellroy, they couldn’t not be, but there was something more to them that became more pronounced as the Underworld trilogy rolled on. If you start with The Black Dahlia, a book that seems to be powered by nothing more than madness and sheer style, and then go through the Underworld books, you can see that there is this weirdly emotional core to them that gets stronger and stronger.

I’m not someone who will read books purely for style. If I were I would like… well, among other things, Philip K. Dick. But the books slowly undergo this metamorphosis until you get to the last twenty pages or so of Blood’s A Rover and find that you are reading this shockingly sentimental, almost maudlin ending. After years of books that run on a combination of anger and glee comes this thing that is about… regret? Deeply personal, private regret?

From James Ellroy?

The fuck?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. But one gets to the end of a James Ellroy novel, or one did up until that point, and expects shocking, bloody denoument, not the book quietly reminding you that the real point of all of this is to not end up a sad old man who wasted his life. To get that instead of what Exley does, or instead of Pete Bondurant waiting for the screaming to start, is one of those literary moments that is jarring and wonderful.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Perfidia.

I had actually missed Perfidia when it first came out – I recall one of my last Facebook updates, in fact, to be a lament that Ellroy had a book out and that I had missed its release. These things come few and far between anymore; with the Underworld books coming out in 1995, 2001 and 2009, Ellroy is getting positively GRRM-esque in his old age. My outrageous to-read-pile, both digital and deadtree, wasn’t helping, but eventually I came to the conclusion that leaving James Ellroy unread for so long had become a crime of, one could say, Ellroyian proportions.

So I started Perfidia. And it started as one would expect. Bad cops. Loose women. Wall-to-wall decadence and villainy. One of the book’s main characters is Dudley Smith, which as one reviewer noted is basically like making one of your main characters the Devil. One-third of the book is a view from the inside of pure evil.

But then…

I don’t want to say something in the book turns, because there isn’t a page number you can point at (or a percentage count in my case, YMMV) and say, “aha! This is the paragraph where everything changes!” It isn’t a single paragraph or a chapter. I’m frankly not sure that it isn’t there from the start. But there came a point, maybe halfway through the book, where I read one chapter about Dudley and realized, “holy shit, this is so SAD.”

And once I twigged to that it was all I could see.

In classic James Ellroy fashion no one in this book is what they appear to be, but they’re not what they appear to be to the other characters. Ellroy here lets us into his characters’ heads more than I think he ever has, and we see exactly what they are from the start, and just JESUS I cannot get over the overwhelming sadness that permeates the whole thing. I mean, the book is called “Perfidia,” which ought to at least give some sort of clue what he’s after. And there is still plenty of the litany of horrors that forms the ground level of any Ellroy book. Alongside that, though, there is this deeply felt despair at the novel’s core that reaches out and touches so much of it, and is so artfully and powerfully rendered that you kind of wonder why Ellroy hasn’t always done it like this. Even Dudley Smith – fiendish, profoundly evil Dudley Smith – gets a backstory and an inner life that is almost sympathetic. Even the Devil, apparently, can have his heart broken.

And that’s what this book runs on. Instead of anger and glee, it’s melancholy and heartbreak. It’s still James Ellroy – there are murders and beatings and sleazy dealings enough to numb the most jaded crime reader – but now with the added bonus of making you kind of want to give the characters a hug and tell them everything will be okay. And the whole thing is part of this very odd sort of temporally-transcendent literary experience that is dependent on having consumed an entire oeuvre over a lot of years.

My old buddy Frans and I were once having a conversation about music, and I forget the exact beginning of the line of discussion but we somehow got onto Springsteen and he said, and I still also remember this one exactly, “I mostly like the more uplifting Bruce songs. You know, like The River.”

I said, I thought not unreasonably, “uh… what?”

Before he could begin another typically Frans-ish line of hilariously awful reasoning I interrupted him and said, “dude, do you seriously not know what that song’s about?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s about – ”

“The guy in that song kills himself at the end,” I interrupted him again. “He goes to the dry riverbed to jump off the bridge and commit suicide in the last place he was ever happy. It’s, like, Springsteen’s least uplifting song ever.”

He gave me his preferred look of cautious disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” I said. “I’m sure.”

A few years later he listened to Live in New York City and told me, “well NOW I get what you were saying about The River, yeah.”

Reading Perfidia is a bit like hearing the version of The River that’s on Live in New York City. How it’s the same song, but it’s not. And how you kinda need the old song to appreciate the changes to the new one, but the new song is still amazing on its own.

See?

Ellroy, Lovecraft, and Springsteen.

Told you I’d get there.

JLK

* The Great Gatsby and then in no particular order American Tabloid, Dune, Neuromancer, and Cryptonomicon.

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A Story for Christmas, 2014

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2014

Okay, so, yes: I did not write a Christmas letter last year. At least three of you have expressed some consternation at this fact, and in the event that more than three of you were in any way put out by that, consider this tale my official apology. Inasmuch as I am official in any way, which I have come to learn over the years is in fact not very much.

There were two primary reasons I did not write a letter last year.

The story of the first reason:

Last summer – summer 2013, I mean – I got word that a friend of mine had taken his own life.

There are jokes coming, I promise, just bear with me a second.

So I get this news, and as you can guess if you don’t know already, I was thrown for loop pretty hard by this. I did what I did, you know, processed the whole thing in my own stupid, ineffectual, mostly useless way, and more or less carried on with my life.

Around about October of last year, though, I found myself having a tough time with a whole bunch of other things that were very pointedly not related in any way to my friend’s recent suicide, and for the first time in many years I went to see a psychologist.

If you’ve never been, seeing a psychologist isn’t too different from seeing any other doctor for the first time. There’s a lot of paperwork. A LOT. The big difference is that the paperwork at the psychologist, instead of asking things like “have you had any major surgeries in the last 5 years” or “how many medications do you currently take,” says “have you thought about harming yourself recently?” (Though, now that I think about it, it also asks about medication.) So I dutifully filled out the paperwork. I’m awesome at doctor’s office paperwork; I do a lot of it and once you get some practice you can get a decent groove going.

After I finished it I sat down with the doctor and we went over it together. We talked about the times I’d previously seen shrinks, my general life situation, stuff like that.

At one point he looked at the paper, frowned, and then looked at me.

He said, “on the question about ‘recent major events,’ you wrote that a friend of yours committed suicide?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Over the summer. But that’s fine, it’s not why I’m here.”

My psychologist raised his eyebrows.

I literally made a dismissive wave with my hand.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Spoiler: it was a big deal.

The thing of it, though, is that my late friend was one of those folks who make a point every year, for some reason, of telling me how much they enjoy my silly little Christmas letter. And when the time came last year… I wish I had a better answer than “I just didn’t have it in me,” but that’s what I’m going with. I thought a couple times over the 24th and 25th about sitting down and banging out a little something, but I never got past the thought of doing it. I’d try to think of something to write about and no worthy idea would ever come up; there was not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, any there there.

However, I did say there were TWO reasons, and it is distinctly possible that some part of why I was unable to string five words together in an acceptable order was because I was bone tired, just absolutely wiped out last Christmas.

The story of the second reason:

In the midst of everything else that was going on at the time, my mother managed to catch the world’s worst case of food poisoning last year on about December 22nd. She is and was fine, of course, but at the time it was very serious. She was in the hospital for a couple days and we didn’t know if she’d be home in time for Christmas until they discharged her around noon on Christmas Eve.

I am vaguely ashamed to admit that at the time I was… not AS worried about maintaining the appropriate Christmas traditions as I was worried about my mother, you know, dying in the hospital, but I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t spend at least a few minutes contemplating the inequality.

In an effort to maintain as much of our traditional Christmas as I could, though, certain sacrifices had to be made, and the biggest of those was that I wasn’t able to get out of the house. Someone had to stay home, man the phones, keep the place decent, etc etc, while my father was at the hospital.

So I stayed home, which meant that I could not get to the charity wrapping station at Willow Grove.

I would have to wrap all my presents for folks myself. And wrap my parents’ presents for each other.

I was, to say the least, not good at wrapping presents.

I was, in point of fact, astoundingly bad at wrapping presents, and frankly that kinda pissed me off.

You may have heard – not from me, mind, but around – that I am not a stupid person. I know essential survival phrases in something like 6 languages.* I can perform multivariate calculus in my head. I read the Aeneid in Latin and there are, at this very moment, satellites orbiting this planet that literally have my name on them.

Taping paper to boxes? Sorry, Johnny, no can do.

So in addition to being wrung out from the ordeal with my mother and her inability to keep nutrients in her body, I spent hours – hours, people, hours – the two days before Christmas sitting at my dining room table with piles of presents and scraps of garish red and green paper shouting “WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!” at volumes loud enough to get you kicked out of the Bellagio. (A decibel level I can now pinpoint with precision.) By the time the notion of writing the Christmas letter came around, in addition to my psychological issues with the whole endeavor, my brain was pretty much fried by tape and scissors and recurring daymares of Darth Vader wielding a cardboard wrapping paper tube instead of a lightsaber.

Which leads us to this year, and the fact that in addition to hearing around the water cooler that I am pretty smart, you have probably also heard that I may have a problem with what we will charitably call “hubris.”

On Monday I was at Willow Grove – Monday, not Sunday, that shit don’t fly no more – getting a gift for my mother. After my purchase was complete the very nice sales lady said, “would you like us to wrap that for you?” and my brain lit up and I said “YES! YES I WOULD!” far too intently.

The store would have people who are TRAINED in gift wrapping. Who were, most likely, experts at it.

I would watch them. I would study them. I would commit their every motion to memory. And then, when I got home, I would use my stolen knowledge to wrap my gifts myself this year. Not because I had to. No. Because I WANTED to. Because I COULD. I would steal their knowledge and use it to my own ends and become the gift-wrapping god that was my birthright – nay, my destiny.

And so I watched. I watched that woman practically without blinking. It’s a good thing she was concentrating very hard on wrapping my mother’s gift because I am fairly certain the way in which I was staring at her would not have been deemed polite, my excuses of “I was just watching your hands!” to the contrary. (Actually, as I read it now, “I was just watching your hands” is not really any less creepy.)

I watched. I studied.

When she handed me the box I said “thank you,” and meant it more than I’d meant a “thank you” in a long time.

I had studied her more intently than I’d studied anything since I had an Iranian chemistry professor who barely spoke English and I had to teach myself acid-base equilibria. I studied her carefully, and successfully. I had her secrets. I had her power. I was like Sauron with the One Ring in his grasp. I now had the ability to destroy all the gift-wrapping in my path.

I got home and took out one of my presents for my mother. I repeated what I had learned from the store wrapping person. I matched her movements exactly. I was her mirror image – she might as well have been there herself at my dining room table.

I smoothed out the last piece of tape, looked at my handiwork, and said, “oh what the FUCK?!”

My wrapping job looked like the thing from the transporter malfunction scene in the first Star Trek movie.

Now this is the part where what a normal person would do is look at the pile of presents on the table, then look at the epically atrocious job they’d done on the first, then look at their watch and say, “well, I’ve still got time, I can get this lot to Willow Grove and have the nice ladies wrap them for charity.”

This is the part where what I did was look at the pile of presents, then look at my epically atrocious wrapping job, then grit my teeth – literally grit my teeth – and say, “I can do this,” and pick up the scissors.

By this afternoon, the entire pile of my presents and those of my parents was wrapped and ready to go under the tree. I use the word “wrapped” in its loosest possible sense here, but still. The presents are ready to go under the tree, and yes, they are a mess of gaps and wrinkles and miles of tape that look like something the United Nations would issue sanctions for if a government dropped them on a civilian population.

Two years ago I wrote about how the important part of Christmas isn’t the present, but the time – the time you spend figuring out and getting that gift, whether it’s the “perfect gift” or just some little thing, that the gift is a physical distillation of time you spend thinking about someone else.

Staring at a pile of wrapping jobs that would make HP Lovecraft run screaming in terror I realized that I actually kind of liked having that extra bit of time thinking about other people. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

They don’t ever say what “the thought” actually IS, but I’m hoping “I AM WRAPPING THESE GODDAMN PRESENTS MYSELF NO MATTER WHAT” qualifies.

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* “I am an American,” “where is the train station,” and “I need water.”

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Everybody wonders. And sooner or later everybody gets to find out.

Posted by kozemp on July 29, 2014

I remember where I was when I got the call: I was in my car, pulling into the parking lot of Montgomery County Community College.

I was there to record the podcast, the episode about Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four. I was excited about the show, super-excited. I had pages and pages of notes. I’d been looking forward to that episode for months. I loved that book. I still do, though probably not in the same way, now.

I was happy. I was in a great mood. I was looking forward to a good night and a good show. I’d been having a good month. A good summer. Hell, a pretty good year all around.

My phone rang.

The phone rang, and I saw Scott’s name come up, and I was pretty happy about that too. I figured Scott was calling for one of the usual reasons. He’d gotten a part in a play, or his kids were heading to his parents’ for the weekend and he wanted to see if I was up for cards, or he wanted to ask for advice on buying a Blu-Ray player or something like that. There are some people where you’re just always happy to see their name pop up on your phone.

“Hey, what’s up?” I said.

There was a long silence, and as I pulled into a parking space I wondered if the cellular wilds of Blue Bell had dropped my call.

I remember, very specifically, yanking up the parking brake lever in that silence, waiting.

Scott finally said, “listen, I don’t know how else to say this.” There was another short pause, then, “Larry killed himself.”

I sat there in shock for a few seconds. I thought, this is a wind-up. This is a joke. But I knew it wasn’t. I could hear it in Scott’s voice.

A joke wouldn’t have had that awful silence ahead of it.

I sat there in my car in the MC3 parking lot, I realized that our friend was dead, and I started to quietly laugh.

Scott said, “what… why are you…”

I stopped laughing long enough to say, “no, no, Scotty, I’m sorry, it’s not funny, it’s just…” I laughed again, a little louder. “I’ve got a show in five minutes.”

That’s the last thing I remember until later that night, when I was at Scott’s with everyone else, wondering what the hell we were supposed to do now.

 

 

It is useful at this point to stop and talk a little bit about me and my family and our relationship with, well, death.

My mother is great at death. My mother is also a purebred Irish Catholic, and if you weren’t already aware of it those statements are, more or less, necessary corollaries of each other, if not equivalent outright. It is a cultural thing that, while I can understand the genesis of it in an analytical sense, at a purely historical or sociological level, the rest of me just doesn’t get it at all. It’s like they had second to last pick at the cultural super powers draft and after England had taken “stiff upper lip” and America had chosen “dangerously oblivious optimism” the Irish looked at the board, sighed, and said “well, I guess ‘good at death’ is better than ‘makes really good chocolate.’ You’re up, Belgium.”

Either way, my mother is great at this stuff. When somebody dies she is ON IT. Notify the appropriate parties, call a priest for the mass card, take the nice clothes to the dry cleaners, clear the schedule, make time to visit the family, all the way down the line. From phone call to weeks after the funeral her reaction hits with clockwork precision every time. When it comes to this sort of thing my mother Does Not Fuck Around. She manages to get everything done AND process her feelings at the same time. As cultural inheritances go it’s admittedly not, you know, the Renaissance, but the practical and emotional efficency of it is just astonishing.

My father is… let’s say, he’s not that. My father is the guy who doesn’t go to a funeral not because he is insensitive, or doesn’t want to, or doesn’t care, but because he can’t handle it. I am honestly not sure why this is – over the years I have eventually managed to figure out a lot of thing about my father, but not this one. A lifetime of observation has made it pretty clear, though: my mother is great at death. My father is terrible at it.

But this, also, has resulted in its own odd little efficiency.

My father is a firm believer in knowing when to “call the guy.” Raising a middle class family you learn to fix as much around the house as you can yourself – replacing a leaky faucet or a broken light fixture – but you have to know when you can’t fix something, and when you can’t you “call the guy.” The plumber, or electrician, or whatever. The expert. The person with the knowhow to take care of the problem.

So, when someone dies, my father knows he can’t deal with it, and he calls the guy: my mother. She does all the funeral stuff on both sides of the family. When my father’s relatives die – not something we deal with that often given our sporadic-at-best relations with my father’s family, but still – they actually call my mother. It’d be funny if it weren’t, you know, not.

As (I am often realizing) with a lot of things, when it comes to dealing with death I’ve landed smack in the middle of my parents.

 

 

I’ve talked a lot here over the years about my weird – nicely and positively so, but nonetheless weird – upbringing. My parents had an odd sort of division of labor. My mother was mostly responsible for things like right and wrong, morality, responsibility, the importance of family, etc etc, i.e. not coincidentally the prototypical Irish Catholic virtues. My father was mostly responsible for things like the importance of reading books, knowing lots of things about musical theatre, seeing every James Bond movie twelve times, etc etc, i.e. not coincidentally the protypical kid from Lawncrest hiding that he is smarter than everyone he knows virtues.

(Though “only sports and Star Trek allowed on TV” was DEFINITELY my mother’s rule.)

The upshot of this is that when you spend your childhood – indeed, your whole life, but most importantly your childhood – deeply entrenched in JRR Tolkein, Kurt Vonnegut, and the casual death-stoicism of the Irish, you end up pretty sanguine about the whole affair. Death is a thing. It happens, it happens to all of us, it is perfectly natural and though it is sad – oftentimes very, very sad – you recognize that the end of someone’s life is also a time to celebrate it, to mark not just their passing but their living.

This time, though, none of that was working. I could hear it in my mother’s voice when I called her the next day to tell her what had happened. I’ve heard my mother get The Phone Call enough times to know when she’s not responding the way she normally does. I heard in my mother’s voice that same awful pause I heard in Scott’s when the call first came, that silence that says, “I don’t know what to do.”

My mother didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do, because this time it was different. Death is natural. Suicide is not. A lifetime of Valinor and “so it goes” and “one less drunk” left me completely unprepared for it, and there was no guy to call.

 

 

After the Fantastic Four show – which I know I did even though I have no memory of doing so because I edited it later that week, a pretty bizarre experience in and of itself – I was at Scott’s place with a bunch of our friends and the mood was oddly upbeat. I mean it wasn’t exactly super-happy-dance-party, but you think about what gatherings like this are SUPPOSED to be like, and you picture wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and there just wasn’t any of that. It was just a bunch of us sitting around, talking, occasionally having a laugh.

I am not a psychiatrist – thank the old gods and the new for THAT – but if I had to guess I’d say that the mood that night was mostly because me and everyone else were working very hard to specifically be in that sort of mood. I wouldn’t call it classic “denial” necessarily. I went through that, and I mean literal denial. Like, I didn’t believe that what we were told happened actually happened, and I imagine I wasn’t the only one who briefly entertained notions like that. Larry was some sort of James Bond-type with the Army, after all. He did all that cloak and dagger shit. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that it was a fake-out, or a ploy, or some sort of setup for Larry to go off and do whatever the hell it was he did when he wasn’t here.

But that’s silly, of course, isn’t it? And thankfully I soon recognized it was silly, and the feeling passed. I got home from Scott’s that night, gave my old teddy bear a hug before bed, and laid in bed staring at the ceiling in the dark for a long time before I finally went to sleep.

I spent the next few days with my brain sort of spinning out of control. I kept getting weird ideas, things like deciding that I could upgrade a bunch of parts in my car, or grade my lawn, or refinish the floors in my house. The part of my brain that was still working properly recognized this as a bizarre defense mechanism, an attempt to protect myself from what I was feeling by trying to shift CPU cycles into things that I can control. Luckily for my house and my car I didn’t actually attempt to DO any of these things, I just spent that week moping about and feeling sad.

Then, a few days later, we had our wake, and I learned things, and I got angry.

Here’s something I’ve learned in the interim: being angry at a dead person is pretty fucking stupid. Being angry at a live person is, honestly, only marginally less stupid. But the notion of taking your mental energy – which is limited, even for me – and bending it to something so destructive and negative, at someone who isn’t even around anymore, is a criminal waste of human endeavor. Yoda teaches us “anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they,” and I’ll tell you what: I believe in that ideal as much as I believe in anything.

But anyway.

A few days later we had our wake, and I learned things. I learned things about our friend, and what had transpired over the last few months of his life, and I got angry. I got angry at him, I got angry at myself, I got angry the world in general. I got angrier than I’ve ever been in my life, and I couldn’t stop being angry. I couldn’t stop getting angry. For weeks afterward I couldn’t feel anything else, and it seemed like every day it got worse and worse, and I got angrier and angrier.

For weeks after that night, I had to pretend. I had to pretend I felt things I didn’t because even with the anger I couldn’t shake I knew I couldn’t let people know how I was really feeling. They’d run away if I was lucky; they might have tossed me in a padded room if I wasn’t. So for weeks I pretended to be sad when people asked how I was, and pretended to be funny when we got together to commiserate, and pretended to be calm and professional at work, when through all of it the only coherent thoughts in my head were how much I hated the world and every person and every thing in it, and how I wanted to rip all of it apart with my bare hands, and how I wanted to spew vitriol and filth at everyone I met, but most of all how much I hated Larry for doing this to me.

Here’s an odd thing about the suicide of a friend that you might not know: it’s really hard not to take it personally.

That’s irrational, I know. While I suppose there are instances of a person taking their own life to make a point to someone else, outside of V.iii of Romeo and Juliet I have to think that the Fuck You Suicide is extraordinarily rare. But when it’s someone you care about, and it happens, that’s the thought: “how could you do this to me?” Or, rather, that insane thought is the result of any number of perfectly sane thoughts. You wonder why they didn’t call. You wonder what could have possibly been so bad that they thought they couldn’t ask you for help. You wonder how they could have possibly come to a decision like that. And that’s just thoughts about THEM. Once you run through all of those – and there is a great host more – you turn inward: why didn’t I notice something was wrong? HOW did I not notice? How could I not realize this was going to happen? How could I have been so careless with their feelings?

You take all those thoughts, and you spin them around faster and faster and faster, and you would scarcely believe how quickly it becomes personal, how quickly you get to “how could you do this to me?”

And you get angry. You get angry at a person who isn’t around anymore to apologize, or tell you how misplaced your anger is, or at how you’ve got them all wrong, it was actually this OTHER bit over here that set them off and made them do this terrible thing. You get angry, and there’s no target for your anger, so it builds and builds and builds.

I spent the better part of three weeks like that: angry, at everything, all the time, and doing all I could to hide it not just from anyone who cared about me, but from the only people who might understand.

 

 

The phrase Scott’s wife Ruth used to describe one part of the process we were going through as a group was “managing the breakdown.”

The reasoning – and this is so brilliant I was and am legitimately jealous – was that there was a large group of us who were all going through the same thing, who all felt the same way, and that eventually we were all going to hit the wall, and lose it, and not be able to deal with it anymore. But we couldn’t just let it all happen at once. People had kids, people had jobs that mattered a lot more than mine, people had responsibilites that needed to be taken care of. If everyone just lost their shit haphazardly – or, worse, at the same time – all of our lives might get totally fucked at a time when we needed each other.

So the breakdowns got managed. Scott picked one night. Ruth picked another. People picked a time, and gave in, and got reduced to a puddle of goo for a little while, and other people were there to help them through it.

The whole thing is so goddamn genius I really wish I could take credit for it.

I decided to wait a while, partially because the tiny part of my brain that was still rational recognized that other people probably needed it more than I did, and partially because I wasn’t sure I could control myself when it did happen, and I was hoping that some of the anger I was consumed by might subside.

But then the night did come, and I went over to Scott’s place, and we sat down in his basement and…

Nothing happened.

I don’t mean that literally nothing happened. Things happened. But I was worried that I would lose control, that my anger would finally blow up after all those weeks. It didn’t, though. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I wish I did; the ability to keep my temper in check would have been pretty goddamn useful any number of times since. But it didn’t.

We just sat there. Scott and I sat there and talked, for a long time. We talked about what had happened, and how we felt – mostly Scott, about that – and about what we were going to do going forward, how our lives would be different and how we’d deal with that.

Understand something – I am a pathological fixer. The need to take everything I see and hear and “make it better” is overwhelming. I can’t help it. (I have theories about where that comes from as well, but that’s another show.) I recognize it’s not my most endearing quality, but I’m pretty sure that night it saved me from losing my mind.

Scott and I talked for a long time, pretty deep into the night, and probably we could have talked a lot more, but once we got to the part of the conversation about how we were going to deal with things going forward, it was like somone shot off a flare in all the darkness my head.

I was broken.

I needed to be fixed.

That, I could do. Or at least I could try.

After Scott and I finished talking, I went home. I sat down in the chair at my desk in my room, and realized that while “I am going to fix myself” is a great idea in theory, I didn’t really have any idea how to actually accomplish that. I’d ridden out the rest of my talk with Scott and the ride home on the pure adrenaline of a good idea, but once I was there I realized that I was perilously close to the opposite of that, the despair that comes from realizing that the good idea was actually unworkable, and in this case I knew what was on the other side of that: what was usually a mild depression was, this time, that same black morass of anger I’d spent the last few weeks in.

As I sat there, my eyes glanced up and I saw my Absolute Sandman sitting up on a shelf, and I thought about Brief Lives.

The Sandman is my favorite comic ever – it is, in fact, my favorite anything ever – and Brief Lives is my favorite part of it. It’s about just what the title says: how all lives, ultimately, are too short, and what that means.

I thought, that’s as much of an omen as I’m going to get.

I walked over and pulled down Volume 3. I headed back to my desk, opened up to the first page of Brief Lives, and started reading.

As I read the story I’d read so many times before I felt the anger I’d been drowning in finally start to slip away and turn into something deeper and sadder, but hopeful all the same. When I read the last words of the story, I thought of my friend who was gone, and started to quietly cry.

“It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

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Why don’t you kill me with your love?

Posted by kozemp on June 30, 2014

Years ago I had this girlfriend.

Okay, yes, I realize that technically that covers a veritable multitude of sins, so let me clarify a little bit:

FOUR years ago I had this girlfriend. The relationship was, I suppose you could say, fraught. Someone else – a person more inclined towards factual accuracy than prosaic descriptors, perhaps – might say it was “doomed.”

Over the intervening years I have often joked that there were “signs.” Things that, had I been in my right mind instead of hopelessly in love and/or under the influence of some sort of hex or curse I would have noticed. (As a longtime lover of Supernatural I am ruling nothing out.) Things that should have made me say, “I don’t think this girl’s right for me.”

There were a lot of signs. I wish I could say I missed them all. I did miss some; there were absolutely things that I didn’t see until years later and go, “whoa, that was pretty obvious.”

Most of the signs, though… let’s just say I didn’t MISS them, Bob.

But I wasn’t the only one who missed, or chose to miss, signs.

This is the story of the US game against Ghana in the first knockout round of the 2010 World Cup.

 

“I got lucky with the order.” – Will Munny

 

There really is no better time or way to introduce someone to soccer than the World Cup. It’s piss easy. Everybody already has a built-in rooting interest. You can support your country (USA ain’t nothin’ to fuck with) or, if your country hasn’t qualified, you can hate Italy. You don’t have to worry about who owns what club or where they finished last year or whether their fans are ahistorical plastic glory hunters or the quality of the domestic league or any of the usual soccer bullshit. You wrap yourself in the national colors – or not, for some reason, thank you Italy – you do your best to learn the offside rule, and you yell your heart out for your national side. It’s cathartic. It builds bridges. It’s awesome.

Four years ago, I came to the surely witchcraft-driven decision that the US game against Ghana was the perfect way to not only introduce my girlfriend to soccer but to watching soccer games in an insanely crowded pub with shitloads of other people. Because, I mean, -I- loved those things, and those things were awesome, so she’d love them too, right?

So here’s a fun fact: for USMNT games in the World Cup – that’s US Men’s National Team to you, kid – if you’re going to watch them at a pub, you need to get there early. I mean EARL-LEE. Like hours early. We unfortunately only got to the Dark Horse (god rest her) about 90 minutes early, which meant that instead of getting seats in the crowded bar, we ended up standing just behind all the people who got seats.

Imagining that the old main bar at the Dark Horse was a clock with 12 facing north (that would be Pine Street), here’s how the seating and standing arrangements worked out:

My girlfriend and I were standing at 6 o’clock.

Sitting right in front of us were Ed and Jim. Ed and Jim were… not friends of mine, I would say, not exactly, but they were guys I saw at the pub every weekend for Premier League games and we were definitely friendly with each other. They were Manchester United fans, and Jim’s actually Irish, but today everyone was there for the US.

Well, not everyone: there were a small bunch of Ghanaian guys in one of the front corners of the bar, say around 10-11 o’clock. I made a point to head over there and say hi to them. I love talking to opposing soccer fans, do it every chance I get. It’s one of the things I love most about soccer in this country. You can walk up to a guy wearing the other shirt – any other shirt, really – say “hey, good luck,” shake hands, maybe take some pictures, and both walk away smiling. It’s a community like no other sport I know.

(Most of the time…)

My friend Mark and his wife Eileen were sitting in the dark corner near the jukebox at 2 o’clock. Mark’s from Ireland, a super-nice guy and now a newly minted US citizen, and his wife is this fantastic woman who I assume he somehow blackmailed into marrying him. 90 minutes before the game, Mark is already quietly drunk.

Paul, who ran the show behind the bar during Quizo for many years, was tending bar along with about five bar backs.

My girlfriend was standing to my right.

Sitting at roughly my 11 o’clock, next to Ed, was a small thin white woman with very frizzy hair. She did not appear outwardly drunk.

That was how things stood 90 minutes before kickoff. By the time the game actually started, the place was packed solid. You couldn’t move.

(Sign my ex-girlfriend missed #14.)

By the time kickoff rolled around, there was nowhere to go.

 

“Memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation. They’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” – Leonard Shelby

 

It’s funny – in retrospect I recall very little of the actual game itself. I remember Landycakes converting the penalty, and Gyan’s early goal in extra time, but precious little else.

Part of that is because I don’t have great “game memory” in general – I can remember a couple specific plays from games of years past but usually not much more than that. My memory of Landycakes’ goal in the Algeria game a few days prior to these events is fresh as though it were yesterday. I remember Jozy Altidore’s ridiculous goals against Brazil in the 2007 U-20 World Cup. I still remember David James stopping a screamer from Frank Lampard with nothing more than his thumb on the day the Eagles lost the Super Bowl in what is still the greatest 0-0 draw I have ever seen.

Another part of that is because of the insane shit that was going on around me during the game.

It was a World Cup game for starters, and the knockout stage to boot, so people were fired up more than usual. This wasn’t Chelsea v. Newcastle on a dreary Sunday morning in February. It’s the World Cup. It’s summer. It’s hot, even with the air conditioning – god, the Dark Horse used to get so hot when it got crowded in the summertime. All that, and pretty much everyone but me had been drinking for hours when the game started, never mind in the second half. So everyone was pumped. They were… not violent, no, but rowdy. There was shouting. There was jumping. There were obscene gestures. There was cursing. Oh my, the cursing. Cursing at the ref, at the opposing players, at Ricardo Clark, you name it. Dear gods above, the cursing.

Even still, for most of the game it was all good-natured. There were the Ghanaian guys at the one end of the bar, sure, but they were just cheering their side, and they were being positive about it – no, “USA sucks!” or whatever, and so long as you’re not being a total jackass about it no one is going to give you crap for cheering for your team.

Unfortunately – and four years later I can still scarcely believe this – they weren’t the only ones cheering for Ghana.

The woman sitting in front of me was ALSO cheering for Ghana.

Actually, no, let me rephrase that:

The clearly American woman sitting in front of me was cheering against the United States.

She wasn’t cheering for Ghana, not really. She was booing the US. Screaming at players to get up when they were fouled. Screaming at the ref to card US players after rough challenges. Telling defenders they sucked when they missed clearances.

Jesus, writing that down four years later it STILL doesn’t make any goddamn sense. But there it was.

This American woman was rooting against the United States.

For most of the match it was pretty silly – recall that Ghana scored early and we were fighting back for most of the next hour so, hey, whatever. She’s a front-runner. Fine. Stupid drunk-ass woman, let her do what she wants. We’re mounting our comeback.

When Landycakes equalized with the penalty, though, it got worse. She actually turned it up.

At one point, she literally booed a US player. Stood up on the footrail of her chair and shouted “BOOOOOOOOOOO!” at the television.

People who had been making snide comments under their breath and muttering to their friends started shouting at her. “Shut the fuck up!” was the most common. A lot of people shouted something like “what the fuck is your problem?” Her answer to that was to shout “I’m cheering for the best soccer!” which was, to say the least, not the smartest thing to say.

As the second half wore on and the clock got shorter and extra time became more and more likely, she got louder and meaner and stupider. At one point I looked at my girlfriend and saw a look on her face that would have melted butter. A look I would, over the next few months, become very well-acquainted with. Me and that look, we became REAL good pals.

She was, to say the least, not having a good time, largely because of this idiot woman.

I decided I had to say something.

After one play in which she lustily screeched at a US player for a tackle, I waited just the right number of seconds after she finished shouting until the bar was almost silent and said, loudly, “what part of Ghana are you from?”

She stared at me and didn’t say anything.

I swear to god the entire bar was looking at us, not saying a word.

I let her stare at me for about 8 seconds, then said, “God keeps a special place in hell for traitors.”

The bar went wild, everyone doing a strange combination of a scream and a laugh.

It was at once the most religious and the most patriotic thing I’d ever said.

 

“Because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.” – Ugarte

 

In the time between the end of regulation and the first extra time period Jim went to go to the bathroom and I talked to Ed, and tried to talk to my girlfriend.

“We got this,” I said. “Thirty more minutes? We’re fine.”

“We’re not all fucking fine,” Ed said, tilting his head at the crazy woman sitting next to him. He wasn’t far off. Already, with regulation over, there were things being muttered about this woman that were very, very unpleasant.

“It’s all right,” I said. “She’s gonna look pretty stupid by the time this is over.”

Ed just gave me a look that said “yeah, sure, right.”

I turned to look at my girlfriend. “This is fun, right?”

She stared at me and said nothing.

(Sign missed by me #47.)

Not too long after, extra time started, Gyan scored very quickly, and now the game degenerated into us desperately searching for an equalizer. Jim came back right after all this, but because of the way the crowd had shifted he couldn’t get back to his seat at the bar, so he ended up standing just behind me to my left.

Right around the middle of the second extra time period, Jim leaned into me and said, “this is great. You’re gonna love winning a World Cup game on penalties.”

I gave him a look that said, are you nuts? We were chasing the game and losing ground. Penalties certainly didn’t look like a sure thing.

About two minutes later, Jim shouted “oh fuck me, it’s 2-1?!”

Now, if you haven’t been there you won’t know this, but if you have you may remember that the TVs at the Dark Horse didn’t have great sight lines. The TV we were watching specifically – the one at 12 o’clock high, recall – especially had this problem, where if you weren’t sitting at the bar you lost the top quarter or so of the television. Where the banner with the clock and the score were.

Jim had been in the bathroom when Gyan scored.

“Oh, fuck, sorry mate,” he said. “I thought it was still 1-1. But don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Donovan will come through.”

At one point with a few minutes left in the game, a US player fouled a Ghana player again and the woman in front of me started her shit again, hurling anti-US invective at the television.

The dam broke.

Ed, who was already pretty lubed up and pretty depressed over the impending outcome, snapped and lunged at the woman, screaming, “SHUT THE FUCK UP! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU! YOU BETTER SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

I jumped between them as quickly as I could and started to push Ed away from her, shouting, “ED! ED! Fuck her, man, forget her!”

Ed leaned over my shoulder, pushing against me, and was still shouting “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” at the woman.

Finally I pushed him a foot or so in front of me and shouted “ED! STOP!”

He looked at me for a split second, and I said, loud enough for others to hear, “we’re better than this.”

Ed looked at me and deflated a little bit. Then he clapped me on the shoulder and said, “you’re right.”

He sat back on his stool and looked at the woman and said, “and you’re lucky.”

I thought that she wasn’t going to be lucky for much longer.

When the second extra time period got into added time and she started loudly jeering the US again, and the other people in the bar started yelling “shut the fuck up!” or worse, I motioned Paul over, leaned over the bar, and shouted, “you’ve gotta get her out of here, man!”

Paul nodded and shouted something like “I’ll try!”

When the final whistle blew, the woman started cheering, and the bar went berserk.

No one actually DID anything, mind, but what they were screaming ranged from crude name-calling to things that were perilously close to specific threats of phyiscal violence.

There were only three people in the bar not actively engaged in pillorying this woman. One was Paul, behind the bar, who was trying to calm down the people he knew.

Another was my girlfriend, who even though I couldn’t see her I knew was staring daggers into my back.

The other was Mark, in the dark corner, who was asleep with his head on the bar. He’d had a long day drinking and cheering and had been peacefully passed out since the first period of extra time

The noise in the bar started to get louder and uglier.

I said to the woman, “you really need to get the hell outta here!”

She looked up at me and, in quite possibly the stupid single sentence I have ever heard a person utter, shouted, “I have a right to be here!”

I yelled, not out of temper but exasperation, “there’s five hundred of them and one of you, you’re about to get fucking killed!”

And over the din I heard Mark’s wife Eileen’s voice, as clear as church bells on a Sunday morning, scream, “I’M GONNA RIP OUT YOUR HEART!”

It is worth noting here that “heart” is not actually the word she used, though the word she did use was also biological and also ended with the letter “t.”

I looked over and while Mark was still sound asleep, she was drunkenly swaying off her bar stool and looking every bit like she was about to come over to where we were standing and perform the proposed surgery with her bare hands.

I looked back at the stupid woman and said, “your tab is paid! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.”

This, apparently, finally got through to her and she ducked out – literally, she ducked as she scrambled for the back door as people in the bar either laughed at her as she left or screamed for her blood.

Once she was out the door, the bar let out a cheer. Jim, who was back in his seat at the bar, turned to us and said, smiling, “football, eh? Good times!”

I turned to look at my girlfriend.

I wasn’t sure she appreciated how good a time we had.

JLK

 

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The future changes as we stand here, else we are the game pieces of the gods.

Posted by kozemp on February 28, 2014

A little while ago something flashed across my Twitter feed:

“Polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11.”

I read that and my immediate thought was, “you have got to be fucking kidding me.”

My second thought was, “I bet that came from Tumblr.”

Now, understand something, if you are not the sort of person who is all that terribly plugged in to the internet culture: Tumblr is basically the worst thing in human history. You thought the internet itself was bad? Tumblr is the internet’s evil transporter twin from The Enemy Within, only in addition to being made of carbon atoms and pure malice it’s also incredibly, unbelievably ignorant. Tumblr is where thought and reason and knowledge and meaning go to die. It is the gaping maw of the giant vagina monster Ozymandias drops on Manhattan: a mindless, insensate primordial annihilator.

Of course this idiotic horseshit came from Tumblr.

I eventually backtracked through the reblogs to find the original piece. I’m not going to link to it here, because the author is an intellectually dishonest asswipe to an extent I hadn’t previously thought possible and I’m not giving the site any more traffic. I found the “polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11” claim and – lo and behold! alas and alack! – there was neither source nor attribution of any kind.

That’s not the good part. Hell, that’s just Tumblr: the Mos Eisley of the internet.

No, the good part came in a follow-up piece I found where our brave author with no name says, and I quote:

“I do a lot of research on the information I post, but at the same time I avoid citations. My reason for this is that I find the common internet phrase ‘citation needed’ to be somewhat dismissive.”

That right there is your “intellectually dishonest asswipe” money shot.

You don’t want to put your name on your bullshit ravings? Fine. It’s cowardly, and hilariously melodramatic, and is just one more sign that you are not someone to be taken seriously, but fine. Write anonymously. But to willfully, purposefully refuse to cite your own sources because… why? Because you live in some sort of self-aggrandizing fantasy world where you think citing your sources is beneath you?

Do you know what that means?

That means you are a charlatan. That means you are a fraud. That is the final, overriding proof that you are not someone to be taken seriously.

Let me explain something here.

You say “polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11” and anyone with an ounce of fucking sense in their head is going to realize that statement as presented is almost certainly untrue. It’s not DEFINITELY untrue, but it is, to say the least, extraordinarily unlikely. To accept a statement like that on face value requires one of two scenarios:

1) You are profoundly ignorant of how polling is conducted, how polling data is generated, of statistics, logistics, simple geography and the last 35 years of world history, in which case you shouldn’t be throwing around statistics at all, much less statistics that purport to provide valuable insight into a complex and important issue.

2) You are willfully ignorant of all those things, and thus possess at best a casual relationship with the truth, in which case you are, as mentioned previous, a charlatan and a fraud.

You say “polls show that 92% of Afghans have never heard of 9/11.”

I say:

I want to see the sample size of the poll. I want to see how respondents were selected. I want to see the error. I want to see the response rate. I want to see the exact questions that were asked. I want to see the order they were asked in. I want to see how the integrity of the polling questions was verified. I want to see the exact methodology of how the poll was taken. Sweet zombie Jesus do I want to see the exact methodology, because the notion that a country where 92% of the population doesn’t know why the United States has been blowing them into smithereens for 12 years can somehow be polled accurately is so ludicrous it defies rational belief.

And if you can’t show me or point me at every single one of those things, YOU DON’T GET TO TOSS THAT NUMBER AROUND, because you are a charlatan, and a fraud. You are lying. What’s more, you know you’re lying, because you have already stated that from the start you weren’t interested in presenting the truth.

Extraordinary claims, jackass. Extraordinary claims.

You want to sit there and wax rhapsodic about the Oscars or LeBron or Game of Thrones or whatever, go for it. You want to write long, prosaic treatises about how awful our colonial misadventures make you feel, knock yourself out. They make me feel pretty awful too. Express your feelings however you like.

But you want to make claims of fact? You want to make an argument? You want to use numbers? You make sure they’re right. You make sure they’re solid all the way down to the bedrock. You make sure they’re unimpeachable and unassailable. You make sure they’re incontrovertible. You make sure, or you keep your mouth shut. Facts are for the big boys. Arguments are for grownups. Numbers are for the folks responsible enough to know how to use them right. We’re not screwing around here. This is the NFL, goddammit.

Why am I so angry about this? A couple reasons.

Partially because, broadly speaking, I agree with the politics behind it. Though I don’t have firsthand experience of it I am willing to believe the journalists and soldiers and diplomats and analysts who tell me that Afghanistan is in terrible shape, and that our continued presence there isn’t helping. I’m a pacifist, for Chrissakes. Of course I want us to not blow people up if we can possibly avoid it.

I’m angry because it makes the rest of us who share that viewpoint look bad. We’re not talking about the Phillies’ starting rotation. This is life and death. This is empire and history. This is the difference between wrong and right, and recognizing that, and working to make sure the right choices get made. This is the good fight, and it’s that much harder to fight it when Steve the Drunk is shouting obscenities from the back row.

The other reason, though, the big, major, roiling mad reason is that the person who wrote that is not stupid. They are, as I said previous, intellectually dishonest, incredibly so, made all the worse by the fact that they are so willingly and purposefully – but they’re not stupid. They are a charlatan: an intelligent person who uses their intelligence to prey on the fear and ignorance and hopes and desires of others. A person who uses their gifts solely to enrich and to advance themselves at the expense of people they should be elevating and ennobling. A person who takes the single greatest gift you can be given when you enter this world and corrupts it for nothing more than their own gain.

Like I said: a charlatan. I learned that word from Raistlin Majere when I was ten years old, it’s been burned into my brain ever since and it makes me angrier than anything on earth, because for unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required, motherfucker.

This is the NFL, and we hit.

JLK

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You don’t need a crystal ball to predict the obvious.

Posted by kozemp on July 12, 2013

Studio brass at 20th Century Fox are taking meetings with possible directors for their upcoming X-Force movie.

What follows is a transcript of every one of those meetings.

Director: So, I had some questions.

Fox: Sure, go ahead.

Director: This “Cable” person, who is he?

Fox: Ah, sure. See, Cable is Cyclops’ son.

Director: But he’s an old man.

Fox: Yes.

Director: And Cyclops isn’t in this movie.

Fox: No.

Director: So…

Fox: What happens is, Jean Grey dies. Kinda like she did in X-Men 2. Like that only, you know, again.

Director: Wait, she’s not in this either. Are we going to reuse the footage, or…

Fox: So Jean Grey dies. And then Mister Sinister –

Director: Who is THAT?

Fox: Mister Sinister creates a clone of Jean Grey called Maddie Pryor. And Scott falls in love with her. Maddie, I mean. For some reason.

Director: Again, none of this happens in this script –

Fox: Scott abandons Maddie and their baby to go off and form X-Factor –

Director: What the hell is X-Factor?!

Fox: And in her depressive state Maddie becomes possessed by a demon.

Director: <silence>

Fox: So when Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force finally manage to kill Maddie –

Director: But Jean Grey is dead. She died TWICE in the other movies! Never mind whatever the hell a Phoenix Force is.

Fox: Jean absorbs Maddie’s memories, or something.

Director: I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

Fox: And once Apocalypse learns that Cyclops and a clone of Jean Grey had a son –

Director: How does the apocalypse learn something? It’s a biblical event.

Fox: No, Apocalypse. With a capital “A.” The first mutant.

Director: With a captial “A.”

Fox: After Apocalypse lears about Scott and Maddie’s half-clone son, he infects it with the techno-organic virus –

Director: WHAT IS A TECHNO-ORGANIC VIRUS? WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

Fox: And then Askani shows up.

Director: I don’t even care who that is.

Fox: Askani is Cyclops and Jean Grey’s daughter from an alternate dimension who lives 2,000 years in the future of THIS dimension.

Director: <begins loading handgun>

Fox: Askani shows up and says she can cure the baby by taking him into the future, only Scott and Jean will never see the baby again.

Director: Why would Jean, who is somehow alive, care about never seeing her clone’s baby?

Fox: So Askani takes the baby into the future, and then even though she said they’d never see it again, she takes Scott and Jean’s minds into the future and they raise the baby for twelve years under assumed names.

Director: I – I don’t –

Fox: And the baby grows up to be Cable. Who then travels BACK in time to kill Apocalypse, who rules the world 2,000 years in the future.

Director: Please stop.

Fox: Which, the whole traveling back to the present from the future to kill Apocalypse, who is 3,000 years old now and rules the world 2,000 years in the future, was why Mister Sinister –

Director: Still don’t know who that is.

Fox: Which is why Mister Sinister created Maddie Pryor in the first place. So she’d give birth to Cable. Who is an old man who leads a group of teenage mutant terrorists. Oh, and half of his body is made of metal and one of his eyes is a flashlight.

Director: Don’t ever fucking call me again.

 

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We know that come tomorrow, none of this will be here.

Posted by kozemp on February 13, 2013

The first DC Comic I ever bought was Batman 500, back in the fall of 1993.

Yes, that issue with the hideous gatefold, die-cut, foil cover. That cover was like a summation of everything that was wrong with 90s comics. I bought it at a shop called 4Cs, which was really more of a baseball card joint, but back in the day when I could walk to four different comic shops it was the closest. I bought it on a lark – I mean, at the time, as far as I thought, DC sucked. However, possibly because I was 15 years old, I fell totally in love with it, and essentially doubled my comic reading workload.

The last DC Comic I ever bought was a hardcover collection of The Black Mirror, a Batman story by Scott Snyder, a few weeks ago.

I read, I suppose it was last week, the announcement that DC was hiring Orson Scott Card to write Superman and my initial reaction was, “are they out of their fucking minds?”

The funny thing about it is that that was a showbiz reaction. It came from the same sort of place as when I said “are they out of their fucking minds?” 6 or 7 years ago when it was announced that Robert Downey was going to play Tony Stark. It’s ludicrous! He’s damaged goods! What a stupid decision! This will doom the project before it begins!

Don’t get me wrong, I still found (and find) Orson Scott Card to be a repulsive, evil excuse for a human being, but I didn’t think about it in moral terms until this morning.

This morning I saw two things.

One was an announcement that a comic shop in Dallas said that they would not sell a Superman book written by Orson Scott Card because of his repulsive, evil depictions of gay people.

The other was DC’s response to the (heretofore unknown to me) outcry about hiring Card. A response in which they actually defend their decision to hire this repulsive, evil excuse for a human being. A response in which they not only have the appalling nerve to claim that the people they choose to hire do not represent them, a logical fallacy that will make your eyes bleed if you think too long about it, but which they had the astronomically more appalling nerve to release to precisely two outlets: The Advocate, and Fox Business Radio.

I read those two things, and something in my head snapped.

Something in my head snapped, and for a little while I had trouble accurately pinning down precisely what I was feeling. I was hurt by it, deeply and profoundly hurt, and I was incredibly, powerfully angry that not only had DC done such a thing, but when presented with the loud cry of outrage that followed it, they chose to double down on it and act as though they were somehow doing something admirable. I was hurt at the fact that DC doesn’t care about people’s feelings or how what they do looks. I was angry that DC could be so reckless and cavalier with their duty of care towards such an important icon of American culture.

But there was a third feeling in there, one I couldn’t pin down for a while until I talked to a friend of mine about it. It was in the course of that conversation I recognized what I was feeling:

Shame.

I have said before, many times: in whatever that special place is, be it over their bed, or at their desk, or in the kitchen, or over the front door, lots of people keep a picture of Jesus as a reminder of what they aspire to, and the kind of person they want to be. Or a picture of Albert Einstein. Or Martin Luther King. Or the Dalai Lama. Or whoever.

Over my desk, there is a picture of Superman.

There is a picture of Superman over my desk because Superman is my barometer, my yardstick for measuring right and wrong. Superman is that for me because, setting aside silly temporal considerations of story or plot or whatever, Superman is a god walking the earth, an omnipotent being who can do and have anything he wants, and he chooses to devote his life to helping other people. He chooses to always do the right thing. And when he’s done he puts on a pair of glasses and goes home and doesn’t ask for credit, or recognition, or thanks. He is the perfect representation of human altruism, the very best of us given form.

Superman is my barometer because he can do and have anything he wants, and he chooses to be Superman.

And I felt shame about it.

I felt shame because having grown up with all of that as such an important part of my life, having this now be part of it made me feel as though I was somehow complicit in it. As though, because he was now one of the people guiding it, the hateful, evil things Card represents are also part of me as well. I recognize that is irrational, yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that I felt it all the same.

I’ll tell you something: I can deal with hurt feelings. I can deal with anger. By this point in my life, having come out on the other side of all the crazy that’s happened over the years, I can deal with anger and hurt feelings like a fucking champ. But shame doesn’t go away so easily, and that anger – not the initial anger at the act itself, but the deep, soul anger caused by someone you trusted making you ashamed – that dies even harder. I’m not an angry guy, not anymore, even though it takes a lot of work for me to be that, but when Bruce teaches us “hold tight to your anger,” I think maybe this is what he was talking about, that breaking the covenant we have to take care of one another is the only thing worth getting angry about.

So, yeah, I’m there.

And before we unilaterally reject anger and conflict in all its forms – which I wholly endorse 99.99% of the time – let’s not forget, this isn’t the first time we’ve gone round and round with DC on this. Recall last year, when DC made the announcement that one of their “major” characters was going to come out as gay, and when the time came it turned out to be Alan Scott. You almost have to give them credit, since for however reprehensible the move was they managed to pull it off while giving themselves perfect political cover from both sides: the fans and media who rightfully ask why there aren’t any major gay characters at DC get their “Green Lantern is gay” headline, but DC can still turn to the repulsive, evil excuses for human beings who would be outraged by that and whisper, “don’t worry, the REAL Green Lantern isn’t gay.”

If you think for even one second that isn’t what DC was doing, just remember they released their response to two places: The Advocate, and Fox.

Their CYA used to be subtle, at least.

It was when I was wrestling with all this hurt and anger and shame that I realized I just couldn’t be a part of it anymore.

My friend put it best: they gave a purveyor of hate speech the keys to Superman. And, yes, I could just as easily not buy the book. Hell, there was no way I could buy the book. The problem is that the book isn’t the disease; the book is a symptom. The disease is that there are people running DC Comics who thought this was okay. Who thought this was a good idea. Who thought they should give a purveyor of hate speech the keys to Superman. That is so fundamentally and intrinsically WRONG that if I think too much about it I physically shudder and twitch, as though by body is trying to wrench the idea out of itself.

I’m not going to pretend that having a conscience – or at least one that I listen to – isn’t still a bit of a new thing for me, relatively speaking, but as the saying goes: I cannot, in good conscience, give money to people who think that. And no matter how hard I try I can’t shake this anger. I’m not sure I should.

So after almost 20 years, me and DC Comics are done. And, yeah, for me, that kinda sucks. Admittedly I don’t think I’ve ever read less DC in the last 20 years than I do now, but still. No Night of Owls. No Death of the Family. No Snyder/Lee Superman. No Rotworld. No Aquaman, no Flash, no Green Lantern, none of it. Not until this gets fixed. Not until something is done about this.

DC and I are done until this is fixed, and until someone apologizes for the shame, and the anger. Because for however much I want to do both, the leadership at DC Comics is so venal, so corrupt, so degenerate, they thought that given the choice between reading their books and looking in the mirror, I would choose the books.

You don’t have to be Superman to choose the mirror.

JLK

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #6: You call this archaeology?

Posted by kozemp on February 4, 2013

indy poster

Here’s the thing about this one:

This is the only time Indiana Jones appears on this list.

Yeah, I did that.

When I was making up this list, I thought about this one longer than any other choice, and eventually it came down to this: I considered, “between Raiders and Last Crusade, if I could only watch one of these movies for the rest of my life, which would it be?”

On that score it was a pretty easy choice to make.

Yeah, Raiders is probably the better movie. Like 96% probably. Raiders is the more important movie. Raiders is, and we’re getting into some shaky territory here, probably the more “adult” movie.

I like Last Crusade more.

I have seen Last Crusade, and this is not an exaggeration here, hundreds of times. Literally hundreds. When I was a kid, my sister and I watched it a couple times a week for a year or two straight. Watching it a few days ago for this – more than 20 years and hundreds of viewings since the first time – I still caught something in it I’d never noticed before. Three things, actually. I have spent, by a crude approximation, three weeks of my life watching this movie. And I still found something new in it.

I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, and thankfully I do not have to make actual decisions on which one of these two films I will watch exclusively until the end of time (inasmuch as I still plan to live forever), but Last Crusade evokes a childlike glee in me that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

What did I find, you ask? Three things, before I stopped writing them down, at least.

One, and this is surprisingly boneheaded of me to have missed all these years, is the cup/grail imagery during the introductory scene with Indy and Donovan. There’s one bit where Indy is talking about the legend and the camera just randomly cuts to Donovan pouring champagne into tall, fluted glasses. It is, to say the least, not particularly subtle. I don’t know how I’ve missed it.

Two, while I was watching that entire conversation I thought that it was, all things considered, about as enjoyable an exposition dump as you can possibly get in a movie. But then it ends when Donovan says, “your father is the man who’s disappeared.” And I’m like, wait a fucking minute, why didn’t you LEAD with that? Instead of five minutes of grail lore wankery, maybe you should have entered the room with, “Dr. Jones, I’m sorry to inform you that your father has disappeared. Let me explain how.”

Yes, I realize that isn’t necessarily as interesting a movie scene, but still. As a dramatic turning point it’s kind of a dick move.
indy 2

Third, in the first Red Line Scene – aka The Best Parts of Any Indy Movie – we are given an overlaid montage of Indy reading and studying his father’s diary. If you look closely at the background images, which I understand is difficult when you are captivated by the Red Line, you can see that basically the entire movie is foreshadowed there. The library, the canyon, the temple, the whole bit. The whole movie. None of which Indy ever recognizes when he comes across them. When his father tells him that they have to go to Berlin to get the diary, Indy has no idea why, even though he spent an entire transatlantic flight at 1938 speeds studying the damn thing.

I thought, why not just have him read Sports Illustrated?

I talked at length on the Indy episode of the podcast about why this movie is so great, so I don’t think I need to go into too much detail here. It ticks all the boxes, to say the least. Motivated characters? Duh. Loving attention paid to supporting cast? “That car belonged to my brother in law.” Great script? “That car belonged to my brother in law.”

Admittedly it’s a “do more with more” sort of movie than do less with more, but look what that gets you! While some might argue that there are movies that have better individual action scenes than Last Crusade – those people would be wrong, but the argument exists – there is not a movie that has a COLLECTION of action sequences as exceptional as this one. The circus train. Venice. The motorcycle chase. The airplane. A lesser movie would use one of these scenes as a grand finale. This one leaves them laying around like flip flops on the back porch. THIS movie’s signature set piece is the tank chase that for my money is still the greatest single action scene ever filmed. Seriously. If you haven’t watched it in a while, go check it out. It will blow your mind. (I highly recommend the new Blu-Ray set, which has picture quality that will make you weep.)

Really, though, a big reason I love this movie is because Indiana Jones is a foundational figure in what we’ll call for the sake of discussion my somewhat unique psychopathology. I grew up with movies, and books, and stories. I’ve mentioned it here before – I read a lot and have since I was able to read at an age I will not reveal since most people wouldn’t believe it anyway. I was a weird, socially-anxious, introverted kid who preferred reading to going outside, and I stayed that way until basically… <checks calendar> eight seconds ago.

So I read books. And though my father, as we have repeatedly said, had no idea what constituted age-appropriate movies he and my mother were, for reasons that have never been successfully explained to me, extraordinarily strict about what I was allowed to watch on television. The Terminator when it first came out on VHS? Just fine. (I was seven.) Alf? Not so much. Literally, until I was about 12 years old, the only things I was allowed to watch on TV were sports and Star Trek.

Sports.

And Star Trek.

I’ll pause for a moment to let THAT sink in.

indy 3

I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies. A LOT of books and a LOT of movies. I was the youngest person ever to get an adult library card at Northeast Regional (I was, again, seven.) My dad had memberships at every video store within 5 miles of here – which 25 years ago was about a hundred – and blew through tapes like nobody’s business.

Then at 11 I got started in the theatre and any hope of me being a normal person went up in smoke.

I am, at a very basic level, not really equipped to deal with… you know… life. So literature, books, movies, plays, however you want to slice it, became the way I processed a world I didn’t (and for the most part still don’t) understand. And being a brainy, introverted kid (and adult) I gravitated toward brainy, introverted characters who would come out of their shell now and then and do amazing things: Jean-Luc Picard. John Crichton. The Doctor.*

And Indiana Jones; above all of them, Indiana Jones: a shy, withdrawn college professor who turns into a superhero and saves the world when he puts on a hat.

God, I wish I could pull off that hat.

JLK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*And, for different reasons, Superman, but that’s another show.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #7: Is it just a mist, or does it have arms and legs?

Posted by kozemp on January 29, 2013

GhostBusters_Poster_Large

I’ve talked in the past in a number of places about my father’s, let’s call it, checkered history with age-appropriate entertainment.

Does it surprise anyone that he took my sister and I to see Ghostbusters in a movie theatre? I was 6. My sister was 5.

My abiding memory of that first viewing at the old Cinema Alley in TR – my only memory of it, really – is the library ghost scaring the living shit out of me. After that, maybe something with a dog, but that’s about it. But seriously, that fucking ghost at the beginning was all I knew of Ghostbusters for a long time.

I can’t remember when I started to realize that it was a supremely great movie – I don’t recall having it on VHS as a kid, or anything like that – but it must have happened because Ghostbusters is one of three movies where I can recite every word of the screenplay from memory.* (Three that I know of, at least.) Somewhere, I’m guessing in college at some point, I watched Ghostbusters so excessively that I memorized it.

Let’s start talking about the movie itself there, the screenplay, because it might be the most amazing thing about this movie.

It’s made up.

The commentary track on the Ghostbusters DVD (the only one I know of in the amusing MST3K silhouette style) reveals something that knocked my socks off when I heard it: most of Ghostbusters is improvised. To this day I can scarcely believe it. It’s not just that the movie is funny, really. For all the talk that comedy is hard, well, comedy is at the very least slightly less hard when you have a lot of very funny people together. But a lot of that comes from work and repetition and refinement and editing and getting your material JUST RIGHT over iteration after iteration after iteration.

Ghostbusters – the highest ranked comedy on this list, at the least, and for my money one of the three or four funniest movies ever made – was done on the spot. Off the top of their heads.

It is ASTONISHING.

And it’s not astonishing because they’re funny. Murray and Ackroyd and Ramis on their own could be funny without breaking a sweat. And if you’re as funny as these guys are – hell, if you’re 1/100th as funny as these guys are – doing pure improv that came out funny would be pretty easy too.

No, it’s astonishing because it’s NOT improv. It’s not a collection of scenes with broad, wacky people and escalating situations. The Ghostbusters are real characters, solid and round and very, very tight. There isn’t a cheap joke in the whole movie. Not one instance where one of the actors moves so much as an inch out of character to get the laugh. As someone who has, in the past, had to be funny on cue I can tell you that ignoring the urge to do that is almost impossible WHEN YOU HAVE TO FOLLOW A FUCKING SCRIPT! And these guys flew by instruments for an entire movie!

Ghostbusters-Screencaps-ghostbusters-29593772-1920-1080

The sheer force of will it took to do that would make a Green Lantern look at his ring and wonder if he’s in the right line of work.

Much like I mentioned earlier that as we get near the top of this bizarre little countdown it will get harder to turn my pure enthusiasm for the movies into anything coherent, we’re also getting to the point where the movies themselves are so good it’s becoming harder to accurately explain why. The closest I can come is to point to the scene at the end, when they arrive at the apartment building. There’s a bit when they’re working the crowd and Peter calls Ray, “the heart of the Ghostbusters.” And the brilliant thing is that HE IS! Ray Stantz (and Dan Ackroyd) are absolutely the heart of this movie, and not only is that one of those things that is just so, so right even if you can’t pin down exactly how, but it’s so hard to do in a movie; to make a character be something like that and not shove it down the audience’s throat.

There are a couple things I can pin down, though.

Sitting down to watch it with a critical eye, or as critical as I could get, for really the first time ever, I was struck by a few observations that don’t deal with how amazing it is that the movie is improvised, primary among which is this:

Ghostbusters, for everything else, is an almost unbelievably weird little movie.

For starters, when the title card came up, I paused the Blu Ray player and thought, “you know, that’s actually a really dumb title.” 30 years ago the word “ghostbusters” wasn’t cultural shorthand for “brilliant, paradigm defining piece of comedic cinema.” It was just a weird word, smooshed together from two other words, and taken on a purely objective level is strange, and doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

One of the main characters hardly ever talks, and when he does it’s mostly incomprehensible technobabble. Egon Spengler is almost like what you’d get if you made a comedy and one of the main characters was a sullen Geordi LaForge.

It has bizarre little supporting characters who float in and out of the movie for frankly no reason whatsoever – like the hotel concierge, and Walter Peck, and the Mayor, and Janine – which normally is a sign of lazy writing. They’re buoyed by really funny performances, but still, shit like that shouldn’t work.

And – we are so inured to this now, after almost 30 years of watching it, as a brilliant comedic stroke – the final comedy/action setpiece involves a GIANT MARSHMALLOW MAN. I must have succeeded a bit in my attempt to watch the movie with a critical eye, because when Sta-Puft first showed up on the screen I actually let out an involuntary “what the FUCK?!” The movie works so hard during its whole running time to keep everything grounded in a reality – one with ghosts, sure, but it’s still realistic – and then in the last scene, and I must again emphasize just how off the wall this is, is a GIANT FUCKING MARSHMALLOW MAN. It’s off-the-charts strange-o.

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All of this going against it and the movie is still brilliant! Not to mention something that this past week, on what must have literally been at least my 30th viewing of the movie, I just realized:

Gozer is an Elder God.

Not only is Ghostbusters a comedy landmark, not only is it one of the most quotable movies of all time, not only is it essentially a once in a lifetime paragon of perfect craft – I once called Bioshock “the Ghostbusters of video games” because despite attempts to do so its perfect alchemy could not be recreated – not only is it all of those things and more…

Ghostbusters is a successful HP Lovecraft movie.

That, truly, is its most daunting accomplishment of all.

JLK

 

 

* The Big Lebowski and the next movie on this list.

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #8: Hold up your badge so they’ll know you’re a policeman.

Posted by kozemp on December 18, 2012

la confidential

My memory is a little bit hazy on the subject, but I am fairly certain that LA Confidential was the first movie that I went absolutely crazy for. It is very probable that also makes it the very first movie I was completely insufferable about, for which, you know, I’m happy to issue a retroactive apology to anyone who was around me at the time.

It’s not easy being a 20 year old cineaste, largely because while the term can be applied in its broadest technical sense it is, for all intents and purposes, realistically impossible to be a very GOOD 20 year old cineaste. You can have all the knowledge in the world, and to be honest, even back then I’m pretty sure I had most of it. You know those big thick books of movie reviews that used to be a thing before the IMDb and Wikipedia made them obsolete, movie guides by Ebert and Maltin and whoever? Yeah. I used to read those. For fun. Cover to cover. Then when the IMDb, and later Wikipedia, came around, I would read those. Seriously. For fun. I used to spend hours surfing through IMDb and other sites. Just sucking up knowledge. Facts. Trivia. Data.

I actually remember – I am not making this up – sometime in my senior year at LaSalle a girl I knew came up to me one day and said, “I want to know all about movies like you do. How do I do that?” I replied that I thought that was great, and she could and should absolutely do that. I went to my house and brought her back my copies of Ebert and Maltin, put them down on the table in Backstage, and said, “okay, first, read these.”

You could frost a cake with the look of disappointment on her face.

The problem with having all the data in the world – or, in my case, most of it – is that even with all that data the average 20 year old has the emotional intelligence of a dining room table. Suffice it to say I was several standard deviations from the mean on that one, and not in a good way. You combine vast untold petabytes of raw data with emotional instability that could be measured on the Richter scale and massive quantities of alcohol and you get the cinephile version of The Frans Lawaetz (the drink, not the person) – something that, while technically effective, is bizarre and mostly unpleasant.

Trying to understand or appreciate art without any emotional context is… I dunno, at this point, 15 years later, the concept is so alien to me I can’t even accurately describe it. And it’s not that I didn’t HAVE emotional reactions to movies back then, because I did. But I was, to say the least, slightly crocked in the head to begin with, and thus couldn’t comprehend my emotional reactions (to movies or anything else, but that’s another show). And that was just when I wasn’t crushing all my emotional reactions into paste with Absolut, which in sheer percentage terms was not very much of the time.

la confidential 2

I saw LA Confidential on a freebie pass from the Collegian, and for the life of me cannot remember what I wrote about it. I remember falling instantly and totally in love with the movie, walking out of the theatre – with Tony? possibly – being unable to put into words my feelings about what I’d just seen.

I was dumbstruck because LA Confidential was the first time I ever realized that there was more going on in a movie than just what was on the screen, that there was more to filmmaking than just a polished script and effective performances and good editing and technically proficient direction.

I have said before that seeing Chasing Amy (only about 6 months beforehand) was what made me want to be, really BE a writer, but LA Confidential was the first time I realized that sometimes a magical alchemy would transform a movie into something transcendent. Yeah, I know, I wish I could say it was Star Wars or 2001 or some other mind-expanding shit that gave me that particular epiphany and not a film as prosaic as LA Confidential, but there it is. The movie blew my mind because it was better than the sum of its parts and even with my supposedly-complete understanding of the entirety of filmmaking I DIDN’T KNOW WHY.

While I’m sure I saw a bunch beforehand and just can’t remember what they were, LA Confidential was the first movie I saw where I recognized that it transcended genre – that Hanson and Helgeland et al were using the trappings and style of an old police noir to tell a story about something else. And part of the genius of it is that it is telling stories about a whole bunch of things at once, with multiple themes running throughout.

LA Confidential is one of those movies where if you are asked to describe it to someone who has never seen it you say something like, “well, it’s about cops in the 50s who solve this murder, but oh man it is SO MUCH MORE than that.”

INTERLUDE:

Now this here, kids, if you are single and having this conversation with someone whom you might have some sort of romantic interest in at that time or in the future, is a valuable test to see if your time and effort is warranted.

If, when you say, “it is SO MUCH MORE than that,” whatever you desire says something like “really, how” or “like what,” you are cleared to proceed. This is a person of intellectual and emotional curiosity and, thus, is sexually desirable.

If, when you say, “it is SO MUCH MORE than that,” whatever you desire says “oh, that sounds like work,” or, “ugh” or some other onomatopoetic noise of distaste, ah, negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.

END INTERLUDE

For starters, one of the things it is so much more about is the city of Los Angeles itself, and it is pretty much the best example of that in movie history. (The movie was, in fact, voted the best movie about Los Angeles by LA film critics.) LA Confidential shows Los Angeles and Hollywood for what they really are, a venal, rotten core surrounded by false layer of sunshine that persists simply because people want to believe in it. Most movies dramatize this by telling stories about showbiz itself – some pretty great movies, in fact – but this is, to use a tortured metaphor, describing the bacterium and not the disease. The Player, for instance, is a fantastic movie about all the nasty shit buried just under the surface of showbusiness, but in the end it’s only concerned with showbusiness. LA Confidential is a movie about what all that nasty shit does to everyone who lives near it, and around it, and in it, but who don’t get to actually taste any of the benefits that come with it.

It is not a coincidence that the central driver of the plot – of, indeed, the whole movie – is the notion that nothing is what it appears to be; i.e. it all might as well be on a set. Bud White is a mindless, brutal thug, but he’s actually a crusader. Ed Exley is a slimy political comer, but his prudish zeal is a cover for righteous anger at a world he wants to fix. Jack Vincennes is a slick Hollywood scenester who hates himself for what he’s become. Los Angeles itself is a land of sunshine and beaches and good fortune for all that is really a giant lie built on exploiting and destroying the dreams of everyone it touches. And Dudley Smith; oh, the difference between what Dudley Smith would like everyone to think he is and what he truly is.

la confidential 3

In a movie full of revelatory performances, James Cromwell as Dudley may outshine them all. You get so fixated on how good Crowe and Pearce and Spacey and Basinger are that you don’t notice that Cromwell is quietly pulling the whole movie with him, and when everything comes down like a ton of bricks in the third act, in that moment in Dudley’s kitchen, you realize that this is a Movie That Is Not Fucking Around.

Broadly speaking, I intensely dislike the artificial distinction between “good” films and “genre” films, mainly because even after the way this movie began the expansion of my artistic consciousness there is still a very powerful analytical part of my brain that doesn’t trust a distinction that can’t be explicitly delineated. If pressed, the closest thing I can think of as an accurate way to describe the difference is to go back to King again: “plot is stupid.” “Genre” films (or, more probably, just bad films) are concerned primarily if not solely with plot, the explication and resolution thereof. “Good” movies pursue the higher mysteries, as it were: character, theme, ideas.

Don’t get me wrong – that same analytical part of my brain also intensely hates this theory because it is overbroad, and has tons of exceptions and – to use a technical term – basically sucks, but it’s useful now because it can point out that important difference in this specific case. LA Confidential is a “good” genre movie because the plot isn’t the important thing about it; it is about the characters, and the world, and how they interact with each other rather than a strict progression of and-then-this-happened. (Though I will admit, having just watched it, that in an empirical sense the movie actually has a staggering AMOUNT of plot in it; I always forget just how much happens.) Compare this with, say, the dreadful Mullholland Falls (which follows a very similar story), a movie that is concerned primarily with moving you from point A to B to C with as little effort as possible.

The funny thing about LA Confidential, though, is that while for me it is the original emotional reaction movie, I’m sitting here fighting the urge to dissect it for thousands and thousands of words. (I’m also fighting the urge to eat that entire bag of Doritos, but I’m not sure that’s relevant.) And that’s just all the ways the film is TECHNICALLY amazing. Forget the emotional stuff. Watching it earlier tonight, fifteen years on from the first time I saw it, it still floors me, in more ways than fifteen years ago I would have even thought possible.

JLK

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