M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016)

We are something we don’t understand. And one strange thing I’ve been interested in recently is the popular taste for sensationalizing mental illness and then, seemingly almost in direct correlation with that, becoming utterly fascinated with the subject. I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve been reading books and watching movies that have the common tie of some sort of mental disturbance in connection with an almost voyeuristic need to know more and more about the subjects.

A month ago or so I read about Ted Bundy and became fascinated with it for many reasons. First and foremost, I guess, is the interesting nature of human psychology and a curiosity about what it is that makes someone go down the path of destruction. I was fascinated myself, certainly, but I don’t think I would have been one of the girls to grow my hair long, part it down the middle and attend his trial just to try and attract his attention at some point (like women actually did)! So, what is it that is so attractive?

It’s not so morbid as many people imagine, and certainly not a condoning of a murdering psychopath’s actions. In my case, I want to try and see through the different doorways that these kinds of disorders produce; doorways that may open into that which we are simultaneously so close and so far from—our own consciousness and engagement with reality. And also, how fascinating would it be if there was something to this thought presented in Split regarding an augmented state that can manifest itself through one’s own thoughts? But I’ll return to the “beast” in a bit…

I spend a lot of time thinking about life, death, society, meaning, emptiness, etc. like most people do, I think. And there is always a point at which the mire of contradiction and the misrepresentation that feeds into self-deception in society kind of throws me against a brick wall. Then there seems to simply be three choices: disconnect and recede into your own world and your own values and your own desires, become engaged with the world but only to remain irrepressibly cynical and deterministic; passively analyzing the decline as an observer, or, most challenging, begin an epic MMORPG-like journey filled with endless tasks, decisions, and people to either accept or dismiss, latching on to bits of truth and bits of honesty and constructing an ever-taller complex of hope, safety measures, weapons, and principles.

[Having chosen this latter path, you most likely, due to the nature of the human brain and the necessity to categorize in order to make sense of life, become receptive only to those events and actions that support your chosen principles and instantly dismissive of anything that does not. I know that there is nothing scarier or more uncomfortable then shedding a paradigm you’ve been comfortably cocooned within for much of your life. And if there is no breaking from that paradigm, it only becomes more and more impossible to see outside as years go by. It’s as if the cocoon starts out fragile and made of thin, pristine glass like a giant window. You take things in which you are taught, but you are not so selective of what or who you take in information from; you believe it when your teacher tells you that 1+1=2, but you also believe your brother when he tells you that if you shine a flashlight down your throat it will catch fire.

As time goes on, teachings and beliefs become habit and routine. If these routines and habits are never questioned, they become like frost on the glass that never melts, becoming thicker and thicker until there is not much else coming in to your cocoon except that which reinforces the ice. At first it is just cloudy, but eventually the ice becomes so thick that nothing, it seems, can break it.]

I did some research on Dissociative Identity Disorder and found an interesting mix of articles written by skeptics and doctors presenting founded, documented case studies. The disorder is characterized in the DSM-5 with the following criteria:

  1. Disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states, which may be described in some cultures as an experience of possession. The disruption in identity involves marked discontinuity in sense of self and sense of agency, accompanied by related alterations in affect, behavior, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, and/or sensory-motor functioning. These signs and symptoms may be observed by others or reported by the individual.
  2. Recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/ or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.
  3. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  4. The disturbance is not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice. Note: In children, the symptoms are not better explained by imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
  5. The symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during alcohol intoxication) or another medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).

Under risk and prognostic factors, the DSM-5 states that “Interpersonal physical and sexual abuse is associated with an increased risk of dissociative identity disorder. Prevalence of childhood abuse and neglect in the United States, Canada, and Europe among those with the disorder is about 90%. Other forms of traumatizing experiences, including childhood medical and surgical procedures, war, childhood prostitution, and terrorism, have been reported.” Further, “Ongoing abuse, later-life retraumatization, comorbidity with mental disorders, severe medical illness, and delay in appropriate treatment are associated with poorer prognosis.” (Dissociative Identity Disorder, section 300.14, pg. 292)

Most of the skepticism I read was directed toward case studies that were believed to be fabricated or “enhanced” after the subjects became objects of popular fascination. In other words, there is money to be made, so let’s make it as sexy as possible.

A couple of the reviews under the film on Amazon mentioned the case study of “Sybil,” or Shirley Mason. I was interested in reading about a case study, but it became apparent very quickly that many suspected the case, which was popularized in the early 70s, to be a complete scam. A dramatization and wildly popular book giving an account of the details of Sybil’s experiences had come out and it had made Sybil, and her doctors, famous.

Then I found an interesting article from NPR which claimed to illuminate what was really going on with Sybil and her psychologist, Connie Wilbur:

Dr. Wilbur became very excited when she thought she’d found a great case to explore and teamed up with writer Flora Rheta Schreiber to write a book. According to Debbie Nathan in her book, Sybil Exposed, by the time Sybil began cracking under the pressure and admitting that her personalities were not authentic, even writing Dr. Wilbur a letter at one point, Schreiber had been too deep into the project to turn back. Wilbur even attributed Sybil’s letter to being a ruse to avoid going on with therapy.

The book about Sybil’s “disorder” and subsequent television movie, which came out in 1976, were gigantic hits. “As for the real Sybil, people began to recognize Mason as the patient portrayed in the book and the film. She fled her life and moved into a home near Wilbur. Mason lived in the shadows until her death in 1998.”

One of the most interesting results of this story is the fact that following this account in the early 70s, the “occurrence” of DID skyrocketed: “When Sybil first came out in 1973, not only did it shoot to the top of the best-seller lists—it manufactured a psychiatric phenomenon…Within a few years of its publication, reported cases of multiple personality disorder—now known as dissociative identity disorder—leapt from fewer than 100 to thousands.”

So, is this a case where people read a list of symptoms and immediately become hypochondriacs, fitting the profile of the disease they become paranoid about and subsequently obsessed with? Is there even some kind of desire to be labeled with a psychiatric disorder because people may find you interesting and your ordinary, dull life may become something of interest to people? I don’t know, but it would seem like the desire for attention and fame has at least a little to do with it.

After more research, I found a paper which was presented at the International Institute of Islamic Medicine (IIIM) and Islamic Medical Association of North America (IMANA) Meeting in January of 2005 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It was written and presented by Abdel-Aziz A. Salama, M.D. The paper briefly introduced a case report involving DID in a woman named “Kathy.” The paper directly associates the development of dissociative identity disorder with early sexual abuse experiences, in which a child cannot handle emotionally what is happening to him/her and subsequently creates distance between him/herself and the experience by creating an intermediary in the form of a completely separate person: “MPD develops when an overwhelmed child cannot flee or fight adverse circumstances, takes flight inwardly, and creates an alternative self-structure and psychologic reality within which and/or by virtue of which emotional survival is facilitated.” (Multiple Personality Disorder: A Review and a Case study, JIMA: Volume 37, 2005)

Kevin, M. Night Shyamalan’s own case subject in Split (2016), follows along these lines. His disorder is a result of early abuse, and he develops over 20 separate personalities. Only one personality at a time comes into the “light” and is in control. Kevin’s “hoard” includes a few bad apples, associated with a lewd desire to watch young women dancing naked. But with the help of psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher, played wonderfully by Betty Buckley, Kevin has managed to keep these two under wraps. What she doesn’t know is that Dennis, one of these bad apple personalities, has captured three young girls and is holding them prisoner in his apartment. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott writes in his review that “’Split’ is lurid and ludicrous, and sometimes more than a little icky in its prurient, maudlin interest in the abuse of children. It’s also absorbing and sometimes slyly funny.” (New York Times, January 19, 2017)

Certainly, the film deals formulaically with a situation that seems to have become routine in the psychological thriller go-to chest of plotlines: the mentally disturbed villain whose traumatic childhood is revealed slowly, culminating in a moment of “ah, ok, that makes sense. That’s the type of thing that causes that stuff.” The mechanism works as a way to develop sympathy for an otherwise monstrous being. Which is interesting, as someone who feels infuriated when people are dismissed as “monsters” because of their actions without an iota of interest, it seems, in the possibility that there is a complex sequence of events, thoughts, feelings, possible genetic predispositions, etc. that led him/her to that place, (I don’t believe Ted Bundy came out of the womb with the intention of killing young women), but it also seems to have become oversimplified. People see the hints of sexual abuse coming and the intrigue seems to stop there; they know all they need to know, case closed, when in fact, it should only be the very beginning of an effort to understand.

But now, I want to talk about what really struck me in Shyamalan’s film. So let’s talk about the “beast.”

I was totally enthralled with the idea of the beast and the assertions from Dr. Fletcher regarding the mind’s ability to transform the body into “more than, not less than.” Several months back I wrote up some thoughts on the movie Touched with Fire (2015) and the concept of people with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder being labeled as people that are afflicted with something extra, a spot, a stain, a something-not-right, while normal people are without this spot. This came back to me when I heard the lines from Dr. Fletcher, describing her patient as someone who is “more than, not less than.” But instead of this something extra being something malformed, it is something which can unlock “greatness,” something with great power and ability.

I watched a wonderful interview with the director along with Betty, James and Anya on youtube for BUILD series (watch full here) in which Shyamalan explains the crux of the film, which is to discuss how we think about and marginalize people with mental disorders or people that have been through traumatic experiences that have marked them in some way, whether physically or mentally. He also involved a lot of turning stereotypical genre roles on their heads regarding a woman in captivity being held by a male villain by playing with how those characters deal with the situation. Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey, very much stands in contrast to the other two female victims, who are more stereotypical in their roles. Casey engages the situation and engages with her captor on a much more personal level in a situation where you might expect the captor to behave as the domineering, controlling entity and the captive to react as a helpless victim whose fate is dictated by the captor and not by her own faculties as a rational human being. (This is explained in large part later in the film in a revelation about her past that solidified Shyamalan’s observation and statement regarding the “marginalized”). But the theme is taken to a whole new imaginative level with the concept of the beast being a possibility of human potential for greatness that is brought about not by a genius, battle hero, or altruist, but by a human being that has been fundamentally “broken.”

The beast is interested in the consumption of those useless souls who have maintained their innocence; who have not been broken. (This in context can be seen as referring explicitly to sexual purity, but the impression I got was a referral to the experience of great suffering in general). They are extraneous and of absolutely no use, in his mind. People only unlock the potential of greatness through suffering. The idea brings to mind the philosophical idea that true, great art can only come from people who have experienced darkness (and also the scene in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) where Steve Carell illuminates Proust’s observation of people being made who they are by living through their darkest years; those marked by suffering). Though it isn’t art we’re talking about creating here; the manifestation in Split is much bigger, greater, and much darker.

The idea of unlocking the potential of the human mind has always been a subject of fascination for me, and I think the concept of the beast hits a beautiful balance that handles the manifestation of dark transformation without descending into the realm of a monster movie. Unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kevin’s alters seem to successfully merge and rally behind the single entity of greatness; and after realizing this terrifying Platonic ideal, ready themselves to show the world, “just how great we can be.”


Eastern State Penitentiary/Newport RI – Road Trip 2017

The drive through Pennsylvania is beautiful and relaxing. I love the vast open areas and being surrounded by hills. (I also kind of feel like a child when I get excited to drive through the tunnels!) Aside from the toll charges (wow) Pennsylvania was probably my favorite part of the drive.

My brother and I set out early Friday morning, April 7, around 6 am. We grabbed some coffee and hit the road. I had my brother go through a list of podcasts I’d compiled in the past few days before leaving. I did a basic google search on best podcasts of 2017 and sifted through tons of lists.

We decided to listen to a podcast I’d listened to a few months back and really enjoyed called “Lifeafter.” I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good, relatively brief story podcast. The sound design is wonderful and really immerses you in the world. It is about a poor guy who loses his wife and is struggling with living without her. Like someone listening to a loved one’s voicemails over and over, Ross listens to the recordings his wife had made on a social media platform called Voicetree. It’s kind of like a voice blog. But one day, while listening to one of thousands of recordings he’d now completely memorized, he hears something a little strange…

The third podcast we listened to a bit of is called “Alice Isn’t Dead,” by the same guy that writes “Welcome to Night Vale.” Super creepy and a good background kind of podcast, it’s good for ambiance and road trips, as the narrator spends a lot of time driving around the country in a delivery truck…

My plan was to stop on the way to Newport in Philadelphia to tour Eastern State Penitentiary. We got there relatively early as there were very few people in the parking lot. The outside of this place is menacing, and a little jarring as it is set against cramped, bustling streets I’ve never seen before. It seems very out of place, throwing off your sense of time and place.

Inside, you walk down a long corridor by a gift shop and restrooms to the entrance. You put on a headset and walk out to the first area that opens out into a court-yard outside the cells. (The audio tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi, which is awesome.) It was a little cold and gray out, which was picture perfect for the backdrop of the penitentiary walls.

Inside the long corridors of cells, you can look into each one filled with random pieces of old wooden furniture encased in streaks of light coming from narrow slit windows in the ceilings. The walls are falling apart, layer by layer, with one layer green and brown, the next an old crusty beige-ish paint.

One of the cells was open for people to walk in to. I took a brief video of the tiny space, fascinated with the crumbling walls. I felt the fact that the ceilings were high instead of forming a closed box was something of a mercy compared to the isolation cells from modern prisons.

Back on the road, we get caught up in Philadelphia rush hour traffic right around 4 pm. Eventually we get back on the highway and make our way to Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen. The Newport Preservation Society has done an incredible job of maintaining the old mansion houses and buildings that create an awesome effect; while driving down Bellevue between these crazy giant houses you feel like you are in a Secret Garden-like neighborhood, hidden away somewhere that seems apart from the rest of the world. But then you walk to the back of the Breakers and suddenly you have the giant expanse of water opening out onto the world. You feel a pristine antique-ness, like being encased behind glass, and the view of the water stresses the reality that this view has remained unchanged for many, many years.

I took about 250 pictures that weekend, which is a lot for me. I’m putting a few of my favorites here, the rest I will put on the photos page.

The houses were altogether over the top, I’d say, haha! The Breakers especially was almost sickening with how much was going on in there. The Chateau was different; very tasteful and elegant and beautiful with a little more authenticity as a living space. Altogether an amazing experience, and I’ve never seen anything like these houses.

We finished off the trip with a stroll down the Cliff Walk. Daffodils were blooming alongside the trail in a wave-like pattern across the lawn of an ancient-looking red brick building. I’ve never been on a cliff side like this before, with the waves crashing against the rocks straight below me. The small platform at the base of the “Forty Steps” offered an incredible close-up of the sounds of crashing waves.

Blog Changes

This weekend I will be traveling up to Newport, Rhode Island. But on the way, I will be stopping in Philadelphia to tour Eastern State Penitentiary. In Newport, my brother and I will tour the incredible mansion houses mostly built during New England’s “Golden Age,” when wealthy new business owners were keen to build the most lavish living quarters money could possibly buy in the late 1800’s. The architecture and decoration are borrowed from extravagant European design, including French Beaux-Arts and Italian Renaissance.

My interest in both Eastern State Penitentiary and Newport’s mansions are connected to writing. Recently I decided that I wanted to adjust this blog to include music, photography and writing on other subjects, in addition to an occasional movie essay. I decided I would like to have all of my “stuff” in one tidy place from which I can share what I want.

Anyway, quite a while ago I published my first short story in an Australian press called “The Penance of Mr. Shepherd.” I wrote it after reading about Eastern State Penitentiary, though the story has little to do with it. What I was interested in was the idea that absolute isolation and deprivation could “cleanse” a person’s soul and lead him out of sin into salvation through prayer and quiet reflection. The reality is that many men went insane in the harsh conditions of the penitentiary with no light, and deprived even of sound. For those who managed to break the jail’s rules or offend the guards in some way there was an even smaller cell, dug into the floor, where a person could sit for hours, days, or weeks at a time with barely enough room to turn around. This may seem like a distant bad memory, but the realty is that prisoners still spend a large amount of time in “solitary,” even today, despite evidence that the form of punishment can and does cause mental illness. In recent years, attention has been brought to this problem, though we still see skyrocketing rates of incarceration in the U.S. and continue to see men and women thrown into solitary confinement, I believe, because we simply don’t know what else to do. An article published by NPR in 2013 states that “As prisoners testify about suicidal depression, self-mutilation, lethargy, hallucinations and other ills, more attention is being paid to inmates who have lived through the extreme, often uncertain isolation.” (Read full article here.)

I’m interested in what happens to the mind when it has to endure under these conditions. Where does your mind go without outward stimulation? It seems there are only two choices: either make it up or shut down…perhaps a combination of both. If I try to put myself there, I begin to move around, directionless, touching the space I have around me, touching the walls, the floor, reaching high and low. You move just to feel the empty space around you. The subtle movement of air around your limbs becomes a soothing, self-regulating gesture that you repeat over and over again. Maybe it would be similar to how an autistic brain, overwhelmed with stimuli, repeats a movement over and over to brace him/herself against the chaos, only opposite; in the absence of stimuli, you start to move chaotically, without intent or mindfulness, just to feel the space that assures that you are still occupying it in real time. Keep this going and suddenly you are in the chaotic realm of dreams, where things happen and appear in your mind and manifest into the blackness surrounding you where everything can be. Now it has to be, because the alternative is unbearable. Those lucky enough to make this as a decision may be able to switch between realities, but I’m sure many minds go there because they are forced, like the mind comes to a fork in the road and must choose or shut completely off, which does not become possible until death.

Concerning Newport mansions, I want to see the area because of the story I am currently writing, which is set in Newport some years in the future. I intend to take a lot of pictures and these will be posted in the photos section as well as another feature post highlighting the trip. It’s a grueling 12-hour drive…the hunt for awesome podcasts to listen to is on. I’ve found a couple, but if you have some to suggest please let me know in the comments section!

Swiss Army Man (2016)

After a while it feels like, in film, all the big themes and questions have already been wrestled with in the collection of movies I’ve seen since the time I started paying attention to them; and at a certain point the motivation to watch more and continue hunting is to find that new and interesting approach to those questions, rather than an attempt to raise more. It makes it all the more striking when you watch a story with the oldest plot line in existence that somehow makes you feel something strongly, or connects you with characters that should be cliché but somehow aren’t. The story makes you feel as if you are asking those old questions for the first time again and experiencing a new answer. This is how I felt watching Swiss Army Man (2016).

For me, the hunt and zeroing in on targets usually gets started by something very strange. I am a strange enthusiast. I remember stumbling upon movies like Upstream Color (2013), Ink (2009), and The Frame (2014) and being so happy that I had been drawn in. The story descriptions were so odd, but at the same time were about something very old and familiar to human thought and emotion. They were just told in a way that made you think about those themes a little differently.

The first scene in Swiss Army Man is enough to make you think WTF… but after a few minutes you realize you’re watching something worth your time. The morbid humor of Hank trying again and again to execute himself by hanging while trying to ignore the impressive magnitude of gas emitted from the body of a corpse named Manny hanging out on the beach is…intriguing. At that point I’m thinking either this is going to be really stupid, or incredibly interesting. And because it’s Paul Dano, I had a pretty good feeling and leaned toward the latter.

The first time I saw Paul Dano in anything was when Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006. He played a brooding young teenager who idolized F. Nietzsche and dreamed of being a fighter pilot, undergoing a vow of silence to demonstrate his commitment. His odd face struck me, I remember. What a strange-looking dude, I thought. But his performance was fantastic, culminating in that gut-wrenching breakdown when he realizes in the bus that he is color blind and can never qualify as a pilot. He did not hold back anything in that scene; he was broken and ugly, and it gave me goose bumps to hear those sounds and see that face. I believed every second of that performance. He holds his own strongly alongside actors like Steve Carell and Toni Collette. He was incredible, and that was easily my favorite movie of that year.

Paul Dano appears in the beginning of Swiss Army Man as a withered man covered in facial hair. It kind of reminded me of Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000), only this time instead of the old, decrepit aspect that Hanks carried along, the main character carries more of a sense of new adult crossroads. The cadaver that floats into shore and begins passing gas like nothing in existence serves to take you further out of a mindset that you are watching a survival story. Instead, it views more like a message. This young man has something to discover, something to say. He’s not going to die, you feel; he has many miles to go yet. It is odd after having that thought how strong the conviction is that you can’t have a believable lone survivor story unless you start out with the character looking ancient, having tried everything possible and failed. Nothing about Hank here makes you feel like he is in danger.

Eventually Hank gives up on his suicide attempt and goes to check out the floating cadaver, later called Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe. The story takes an even stranger turn as Hank hops onto Manny’s back and rides him through the waves like a jet ski, pulling down the cadaver’s pants to get the most propulsion possible out of him…ok

Manny carries him to the shore of land where Hank is sure he will find his long-awaited rescue. He is desperate to find people, anyone at all. We get the feeling he has been alone for a very long time, though we are never told how long, or even how old Hank is; though he is obviously a young man.

After finding an old bag of cheese puffs on the ground, he regains some of his lost hope.

The real story begins when Hank starts to animate his cadaver friend out of desperation and loneliness. Manny can talk! But he must have Hank move him around into position. Soon Hank finds all kinds of ways to use Manny. Move an arm there, his head here, and load his mouth with ammo and he becomes a human BB gun. One miraculous property of his “swiss army man” is that with the correct positioning of applied pressure to the abdomen, he spurts fresh water out of his mouth! Hank can take showers with a little rigging, and is no longer in danger of dehydration. But what does the cadaver have to say?

Manny is introduced in this new form as a human being, but without any knowledge whatsoever about the world. Hank must explain how everything works, answering basic questions about life itself, love, friendship, meaning etc. And as we know that Manny is only actually animated through Hank’s imagination, Manny becomes an amplifier for what is going on inside Hank’s mind.

We all, at different points in our lives, experience things which give us conviction about possible answers to the questions that have no answer. Why are things the way that they are? Manny’s character asks the viewer to basically revisit that state of being right before you really think you know what you are doing, or what everything is about. “Why do we have to hide so much from people?” is a specific example brought up after Hank tells Manny he should stop passing gas all the time. People don’t like it. But that’s sad, Manny says, “why do people feel they have to hide it?”

Later, Hank decides to relinquish an embarrassing secret to his friend Manny that he’s never told anyone else. He demonstrates how embarrassment and fear of being found out can isolate and trap people. The constant fear and thought of “what if” compounds on itself until your world is nothing but worrying about what if and never seeing what is or what could be. Perhaps the worst fears are those which involve giving power to the opinions and thoughts of other people. Why does this fear have so much power? Why do we care so much about what people think of us? Manny doesn’t know, but he’s pretty good at showing us just how absurd the idea is.

We go further into Hank’s life as Manny discovers a picture of a beautiful woman on a cell phone. Hank tells him it is Manny’s phone, and that he must remember her in order to remember how to get home. But how will he remember? He tries very hard, but cannot remember who the woman is. Perhaps if Hank dresses up like her and pretends to be her in a role-playing game where Manny first meets the woman as she gets onto the bus that he rides every day…

Manny quickly falls madly in love with this woman he knows nothing about. Perhaps the most telling scene comes as Manny sits on the bus just a few inches away from the girl of his dreams, and does nothing, unsure of what to do. “She’s right there!” Hank insists, (playing the role of the girl, but jumping out of character out of stress), “and you’re not going to do anything?” Just as deep into the game as Manny, he betrays the reality that perhaps he is a lot more familiar with this scenario than he has admitted to Manny.

In actuality, indeed this woman is someone with whom Hank has fallen deeply in love, but has never had the guts to do anything about. He took the picture on the bus with his phone while she was not paying attention, but has never spoken to her. In his fantasy role-playing with his cadaver friend Manny, he has a chance to live through the scenario again, but this time he will say something and tell her finally how he feels.

Perhaps the most impressive feat in this film to me is the fact that I actually developed empathy and feelings for the cadaver character lol. His innocence in how he processes and learns things about the world makes you connect with him just as you would with a child, but it is in a more personal way because he is learning adult things as an adult, and not as a child. His character works to shine a light on the child in all of us who have grown up, but are still feeling like a child in many ways, simply pretending to play the part of an adult. No, you do not suddenly have all the answers once you turn a certain age. You continue to form your own answers, make conclusions, have experiences, change your mind about the world, over and over again. We all become lost at times, and we all find ourselves again at different points in our lives, if we’re lucky.

This demonstration of life, and the absurdity of life, is what I love about this film. It is portrayed in such a fresh, original way and it gets through. In the end, sometimes our reward for so much searching is something as simple as being able to fart in public, and not freaking out about what someone else is going to think or say about it.

Fittest on Earth (2015) and the Challenge of Crossfit

“Crossfit does not operate within the formalized world of sport or the corporate gym establishment. It features contests involving sandbags, tractor tires, ropes, weights and surprise challenges. It promotes itself on social media, and is rarely written about in newspapers, except in the business pages. Ten years ago there were 13 Crossfit gyms in the United States, where it started. Now it has conquered most of the world – it has a presence in Mongolia, Fiji and Kazakhstan – and there are 11,000 Crossfit affiliates. Forbes magazine valued the brand at $4bn.”  -The Guardian, December, 2015

A documentary appeared on Netflix recently and showed up at the top of my recommended lists. The name of it is Fittest on Earth (2015).

As a total documentary junkie, I tend to simply add any and all documentaries that pop up in the recently released lists on Netflix and Amazon straight into my watch lists. Subjects range from parking lots to serial killers, and I love them. While not all of them are the most high-end on the production front, the majority are executed well enough to entertain me, if not spawn an entirely new obsession cycle—like this one did.

Fittest on Earth is all about Crossfit, the fitness craze that has apparently been taking over the world for about two decades. In 2007, Crossfit put on the first Crossfit Games competition (the 2nd annual Crossfit Games is documented in another documentary available on Netflix called Every Second Counts [2009]).

For years I’ve kept up a fairly regular but always changing workout routine at home with my light and medium weight dumbbells and lots of different workout videos. My mother still has ridiculous VHS footage of me in a leotard doing her 1980s Firm workouts (Vol. 2 was the best! lol). I continued to love workout videos and rotated them, returning to them again and again even if there were some hiatuses ranging from a few weeks to a few months.

After college, moving in to my own apartments and eventually a new house with my husband, I continued to look for hour long-ish workouts that I could do at home with my little dumbbells and a yoga mat for abs stuff. In 2009 I picked up running after discovering a lovely park with a four mile trail that I still visit regularly today, even though it is a little bit out of the way now. The key with keeping some kind of regularity with my workouts has always been that I could change it up and not get bored doing the same thing all the time. I love running, but I can’t just run every day, it would drive me crazy. Some days I want to just do a workout video and just sweat it out at home, working different muscles and exhausting them in ways that they aren’t accustomed to (always resulting in lovely and intense amounts of soreness the following day).

Anyway, when I began watching this Crossfit documentary, I was just mildly interested. It was something about a subject I did not know anything about. My husband goes to a gym and has coworkers that have mentioned how much they love it now and then, but I didn’t know what it was all about.

Within the first half hour, I was watching it for the athletes being followed during the 2015 Crossfit games. The Icelandic women Sara Sigmunsdottir and Katrin Davidsdottir, a beautiful and funny Brook Ence, ridiculously strong Samantha Briggs, down-to-earth and hilarious Mat Fraser as the underdog chasing first place with all he’s got, superhuman Ben Smith, Dan Bailey, etc. All of these people were unique to me and showed a lot more going on in their personalities than I usually think of when I think of the muscle-clad, self-obsessed stereotypes surrounding the men and women who spend endless hours weight lifting and training in a gym. (Mostly this idea comes from ignorance on my part of course.) Most of the guys I have known who spent hours at a gym every day didn’t even compete in a sport, just took pictures of themselves to put online lol.

But here I’m being introduced to a group of incredibly dedicated athletes who actually heavily support each other in a sport that has gotten so popular so fast that they have become celebrities in their own right. Individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to becoming the most all-around fittest people in the world, but still able to exude awesome personalities and incredibly supportive and encouraging sportsmanship…because they know that everyone else there is going through hell just like them. And maybe that’s a big part of it.

Crossfit is not about doing so many reps, lifting so much weight, and getting so good at a single objective that you can display your ability effortlessly at a competition and win by a landslide. Not anything like that. While all of the Crossfit Games athletes have strengths and weaknesses, not one of them flies effortlessly past these challenges to get to the podium at the end of the weekend. It is a grueling and unpredictable test that tears these people apart and throws them into so much pain that they have to be hyper-aware of how they are parading their complete vulnerability, giving everything they have, strain visible on their faces, to a gigantic audience in the stands and watching from all over the world—that has to be humbling, and it must be what gives these athletes a level head when it comes to how they train, how they compete and how they view the other athletes around them.

Throughout the film, many of the top contenders at the 2015 Crossfit Games are commenting on how this person is way stronger than they are in this particular field, how they weren’t ready for this, how they didn’t train properly for that and they will need to change it up to improve. Mat Fraser knows (at least back in 2015) that he isn’t the strongest sprinter in the world. And when, in one of the workouts called the “Soccer Chipper,” a 500lb+ “pig” tore apart his biceps to the point where he couldn’t even execute a single legless rope climb, he bought one of them after the competition (in which he placed 2nd) to bring home with him to train with for the next year; it must have constantly reminded him of his failure, but more importantly given him a way to improve and prepare if it were to come up again.

And therein lies one of the most interesting facets of the Crossfit Games. You train all year round, but when the Games finally approach, you have no idea what you will actually have to do once you get there, and there is no more time to prepare. Some of the workouts are revealed beforehand, but some of them no one is aware of until the day it is time to perform them. Crossfit is about a whole new level of serious all-around fitness. Not only do you lift, run, sprint, push-up, hand-stand, swim, climb, etc., etc., but there are so many different kinds of challenges that there is no way to perfect all of them. And that is why it is a really good test of the “fittest on earth.” When you can face something you’ve never faced before, but you’ve trained your body well enough that you can adapt to that level of intensity and challenge from any and all direction…”that’s how you get batman” as director Dave Castro puts it.

I started thinking about all the times in my life when I was happiest. There is nothing like getting on track with eating right and challenging your body through workouts. There is a natural high to running that instantly dissolves anything else that may have been the center of your world a few minutes before. When you are in that place, nothing else matters and that is what life is about. Your senses are heightened and you can feel every inch of yourself working. And then you wonder why you ever let yourself slack off or get lazy. This month especially has been incredible, taking late afternoon runs through the leaves on the trail at my favorite park. It’s like I don’t need anything else and it makes me so happy, especially when I exhaust myself but am able to push through to complete a goal and get a little further or a little faster than before.

One element of Crossfit that interests me is the objective of taking your body to its absolute limit. I think of other types of competition, let’s say a dance competition, something I’m familiar with. Everything you can expect at a competition, you already have with you. You have steps. You practice them, you get them down as perfectly as possible. Eventually it’s not so much about the energy you expend, but how well you can train your body to have the proper turn-out on this step, get to this height on this step, perfect the rhythm here and there. You compete with yourself, but you know what is in front of you, you know what is expected of you, and you know exactly what you are capable of. The only thing left up to chance is the mood of the judges that day and whether they care if your hair is out of place.

With Crossfit they take their body to limits that they haven’t seen before because they keep pushing themselves further than before. One day it is a ten minute routine, then you add some backflips, then you have to do eight of them, then you have to turn around and run a million miles afterwards, etc. It’s like an ever-evolving routine that never ever feels like a routine, it just feels more challenging than you did it last time, because you’re trying to push to get more, go longer. That is really interesting, and something that I always thought was dangerous. And it is of course, if you don’t know how to listen to your body and understand your limits. But at the same time, I watch these athletes after completing the infamous Murph workout. They’re blacking out, passing out on the field, can’t move their arms the next day, getting carried out on stretchers…but then they recover and say they can’t wait to do it again next year…WHAT?! lol

And that’s where a lot of my admiration for them comes in. It is obvious that these peoples’ minds can be even stronger than their bodies. When they get to the wall that most people don’t care to push through because it hurts so much, they do it. They keep going, they keep pushing even though they are in pain.

Lastly, I wanted to comment on how awesome it is that the incredible Crossfit women are being adored for their strength and discipline, their beauty in a world culture that has been so quickly seduced by the concept that thin and soft is beautiful and feminine. “Strong is Beautiful,” as the Guardian article quoted at the top of this article states (read here.)

I know I’ve always had a hard time dealing with the fact that I was not built to be stereotypically feminine. I have big arms and broad shoulders and monstrous calves from years of stomping around on a dance floor competing in Irish dance. I’ve done all kinds of diets thinking that I could somehow alter my body in a way that is not actually possible. But when I work out, lift weights, do 200 squats and feel how much work I was able to put my body through and still feel good, I wonder how important being soft and pretty is, and why I think that would make me a better person in the first place. I look at Brook Ence and I think she is incredible looking, I hope that my generation and the generation after me can begin to look at strong women like her as their role models and start to move away from the silly dreamland for which we’ve been drowning ourselves in guilt for so many years. Nope, we can’t all be the size of Taylor Swift, but with hard work, focus, and dedication, anyone can turn themselves into a strong, healthy woman ready for new challenges, both mentally and physically.

I Do Not Have a Spot, You Have Many Spots. Touched With Fire (2015)

When I watch a movie or listen to part of a song or performance or anything that hits me as incredibly beautiful, oftentimes I run over to the piano, skipping along hopping a foot into the air as I go. Or, like now, maybe 20 minutes into a movie I have to stop the film. That’s always step one. It’s like my brain is sending my nerves a brief flash of notification that something is coming. Then I get up, I have to do something, even if it’s just to move/dance to the background noise of the fans in my computer or the projector. It feels so big, bigger than myself and everything except the last time it happened, which was just as powerful. If it’s music I’m listening to that struck me I usually have to go play a song on guitar or sing or play piano. If it is something really meaningful, I end up writing feverishly. Like now.

I’m not bipolar. I’ve met and made friends with individuals who were, mostly in college. They were fascinating to be around. But I know I’m not on the same page as them. I’ve never been to a low that was so destructive I could not progress through it; at a trudging pace maybe, but I still keep moving. I have never been at a dead stop, where the ground completely falls beneath you and there is nothing but nothing, everywhere. I’ve looked over the edge, but have never ever come close to falling in.

I do, however, have Asperger’s, and through many hours of research I understand how this fits my situation and the experiences I have of nearly unbearable joy as well as sadness, which much of the time can be more closely labeled as confusion, or a feeling of powerlessness.

Both autism and bipolar disorder are neural situations, one is termed a disease (bipolar) hitting anywhere from early adolescence into adulthood, the other a neurological difference, (at least to many), present from an early age with a wide range of manifestations and points of diagnosis within the person’s lifetime. The entertaining things to me in the film which led to me having to pause involve the neurotypical’s reaction and rationalization of the mental illness they’re dealing with. Their looks and reactions suggest that they have a sense of something being present in the mind across from them that should not be there. There is a presence that should be sedated, ripped out, in order to return to normalcy. They themselves feel a confidence so strong it is imperceptible that they are at peace in the river of normalcy, flowing along with everything around them who is also mentally healthy. There are no ugly presences in their minds.

Before I go off and get away from the point, succinctly I am trying to write in this post that people feel that individuals like Luna and Carla’s characters are ill because of the presence of something that should not be there, while they themselves are free from this presence and all other bad things characterizing mental illness.

This is interesting to me because of the truth that I feel wholeheartedly that things are just the opposite in this respect, if we’re going to compare. And I will explain.

The mother and father’s characters’ responses in the film follow logical, conditioned processes. Something is wrong. Why is it wrong. What can I do to make it not wrong anymore. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What can I do to make it go away?

In Luna’s case, stop working and paying bills, not on medication, let’s go to the hospital. In Carla’s case, at mother’s house at 4 in the morning, must not be able to sleep, let’s go to the doctor and get some answers. Similar processes occur when one runs out of toilet paper. Where is the toilet paper, my husband must have had beans last night, I must go to the store.

In these examples, there is a presence of method to handle the situation that is continuously conditioned over and over again until it becomes so much of a habit you can’t even tell you’re in the midst of it again and again. These processes are pretty easy to understand. They make logical sense and most people are comfortable with the standard line of reasoning demonstrated. It applies to many situations.

What is invisible because it is so habitual is that this very process common to most people is a presence of knowledge, which is substantive, learned, ingrained, and part of our neural net even long before adulthood, in most neurotypicals. The simplest form of the process is learned early on, people add on additional sets of hangers-on to the stream of logic. When we think of going to the store for toilet paper, we have the knowledge of where we’ve gone to get it before, how much it costs, if that annoying cashier would be working, what our friend said about the store the other day, etc. Some of these bits of knowledge are subjective based on personal experience, others are based on what we are told by other people and how we choose to feel about them. Obviously buying toilet paper does not carry much social weight, but in the case of dealing with mental illness, as demonstrated in the film, there are social neuronets so complex and yet so ingrained that most people believe them to be as grounded as logic or common sense. Something is wrong, you go to the doctor to get it fixed: of course, no brainer, done deal. And most people seem to stop there. Their neuronet stops and they have never been challenged in any way to deal with any alternative or other possibility. They don’t have to. “Other people said this about it, and I believe them because it’s the easiest option.” And why do they choose the easiest and most acceptable path? Fear of their social appearance in a lot of cases probably. Also, it’s just, well, easier. And we humans like easier.

But here’s my biggest rub with the logic expressed through the parent characters in the film: it’s this whole illness is a presence I am free of mentality. On the contrary, these ill people are absent of, and what’s more, broken free of, the fear of venturing outside of the norm that is so potent in the neurotypical parents that their cozy boxed lives do not even have windows. They have posters of Costa Rica where the windows used to be, now covered.

Luna is living free of the fear of what may happen if he doesn’t follow the rules. His father is consumed by it.

Carla is free of the assumption that doing something like going out in the middle of the night is “not normal” while her mother is so shocked by this simple oddity that she makes it into a sign of something being seriously wrong.

I’m not trying to prove what’s right, who’s sick, who’s not etc. I’m just really fixated on the idea of presence and absence and which applies to mental illness versus normalcy. If lunacy is freedom from fear of the things they should be afraid of, like someone walking along a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air, then he is free of a presence which resides in most other human beings. What’s more, those mentally ill people cannot even fathom having this presence that alludes them and makes everyone else “normal,” and this drives them further into depression, confusion, etc. Carla’s character goes into manic mode because she so wants to figure out exactly what she was doing exactly when “it” happened. At some point this “thing” infested her body and now she must be rid of it.

Luna is a little more confident in his state of mental being, at least thus far in the film.

At the point where I paused the film he is talking to another guy in therapy at the hospital. The old guy is terrified of the apocalypse, of humankind ending. Luna looks at him and tries to explain to him that there is no reason to be afraid. He basically tells him it is going to happen whether you are afraid or not, therefore there is no reason to be afraid. I don’t know about you but that’s about the smartest and most logical thing I’ve heard from anyone in the movie so far. Lol But again, he is absent of the fear. There is no malicious presence, simply the absence of an aspect of his being that would make him acceptable and normal to everyone else.

But I think all of this resonated personally with me because of how strongly I feel  that the way people treat me or talk to me or look at me once I tell them I have autism suggests that they see that presence, that neon sign that says “I’m abnormal.” It’s like suddenly they see into my brain and see the spot that says “autism” on it. (Or worse, they look at me like I’m crazy because I don’t fit the paradigm of what autism is that they’ve come to accept). A presence. Something there that should not be there. Something they do not have. Something that makes me abnormal.

But I feel the complete opposite to this. My whole life I’ve experienced the absence in me of something which others around me have. Things that others learned early in life which have become natural and worn like a badge that says, “yep I’m human just like you.” These things are so simple that most people I try to explain it to don’t even seem to hear me. Things like what angle to hold your head while someone is greeting you so that you look polite, interested, not flirting though, not bored, not dumb, present, ready to respond… Greetings and goodbyes are inexplicably and ridiculously difficult for me. Whether or not I come off successful, I feel so incomprehensibly silly doing stuff like that. Hi nice to meet you, oh my gosh I know the traffic was just awful, how was your ride? I love your hair today, aren’t you glad it’s nice outside…Inside I’m just thinking, what the fuck...

Absence. Not a presence. An Absence. Something You Have That I Do Not. I do not have a spot, you have many spots. Some of them I wish I had. Some I’m glad I do not. Some I will never understand.

Ok, I’m going to finish the movie now then maybe start this blog post. lol




Ahhhhhh…, artistic genius in connection with bipolar disorder. I guess I saw this coming, lol. Luna declares to the others around him drawing pictures that Van Gogh’s Starry Night was created as what he saw from the window of his room in a sanitarium while he was manic. I don’t know if it’s true. (Luna challenges you to go “look it up.”)

The film is focused on the book Touched with Fire by Kay Jamison. Luna believes that the depth of emotion he feels is not an illness, but something he would like to hold on to. Carla feels the same until everything changes.

She becomes pregnant. Suddenly there is more to her life than feeling and being present. She must make changes to accommodate the responsibilities of being a parent, and she believes Luna when he commits to the same.

Luna and Carla make a connection with each other in their mania while in a hospital. Each night at 3 am they meet in the art room of the hospital and come up with a grand plan to return to their home, the moon. When they start disobeying the rules, their parents and doctors begin to intrude on their lives in a strong way, terrified that they indeed feed each others’ illnesses. This is an interesting tension and discussion of that question: Are they absolutely wrong for each other, or are they absolutely right for each other? Both points of view are argued and it is left for the viewer to decide for themselves.

The path of the film’s story does not change that. Ultimately it is up in the air as to whether you side with those who believe the illness to be a terrible tragedy or a gift. Obviously when a state of mind brings one to destructive behavior threatening other peoples’ lives, there is a problem and more to be observed than artistic acumen. But even this scenario, in which Luna drives his car carrying his love Carla into the river, we are left with nothing but grey area and perspectives flying in different directions. Would the existence of Starry Night be worth it if Van Gogh had had an episode where he’d almost killed someone? (Or maybe he did, I don’t know. How can anyone know for sure.)

Then the film gets incredibly medication-centered. At first I was disappointed by this, but then I understood how important of a part medication plays in not only the patients’ own lives, but in forming opinions of society based on correlative data.

I’m not a doctor, but I do have strong opinions about the use of medication in various types of “mental illnesses.”

Having experienced this firsthand, I felt an unbelievable wave of empathy when Luna made statements about feeling nothing inside and hating it, wanting the mania back, preferring the highs and lows. He also complains that he does not feel the emotion he should feel for the person he loves more than anything in the world. Doctors explain that he must get used to a “normal range of emotion.” What a depressing, grey statement. I remember detesting the way anti-depressants made me feel. I wasn’t on them long. And while people kept telling me I had to keep at it to find the balance that would make me feel good, I refused to deal with not wanting to make music, write, or getting excited about anything.

(Tangent) My life has always presented a steady influx of obsessions that are all-consuming, work their way through me as I work my way and absorb everything it has to offer, then it tapers off before something else strikes me. None of these obsessions are ever discarded, and I think this is a gross misunderstanding in a lot of people, at least when I discuss it. On the surface it seems like I am just getting engrossed and investing everything into something then suddenly discarding it. This isn’t true at all. I’ve internalized very deeply the things I take in out of passion and inspiration. They are always with me, and they build upon each other, making connections. I remember very clearly being on one of these drugs and knowing for a fact that I would take depression over feeling nothing any day. I think anyone who has ever been touched by fire would understand this sentiment from Luna. (End Tangent)

Carla ends up following a different route, taking her medication long term, and in the end the two do not stay together. They have one final meeting for a reading of a book composed of their verses together, and it is evident that Luna has remained the same as he’s always been, while Carla has “moved on” with another man and on her medication. She has chosen to steady herself. Luna’s eyes speak to the heartbreak he feels when he realizes this, while Carla’s remain sober, even cold.

I liked this film because it struck a chord with me in that it tries to demonstrate what it’s like to feel deeply, the good side and the bad side. There are similarities between bipolar as conveyed in this movie and the things I’ve studied and experienced through autism. So many times I’ve heard it said that people on the spectrum experience life like a child for their whole lives, they retain a sense of wonder about the world and an appreciation for the most minute details in life that others may miss. I think that this sense of child-like wonder is essential for creativity. I can’t imagine cranking out a piece of work that has not blossomed from any kind of inspiration on the part of the artist. (Or I should say, a piece of work that has anything meaningful to offer on a human level. Obviously there is a lot of “art” getting cranked out according to the algorithm of commercial demand.) So is there any mystery in the fact that so many artists and inventors are considered posthumously to have probably been autistic or bipolar, or whatever we choose to call all of the maladjusted forms of nonconformity? And the fascinating question is, is this part and function of our brain, this capacity for greatness and genius in creativity, available and waiting to be unlocked within all human beings? It seems perfectly reasonable to me, given what little I know about the discoveries of neuroscience connected with neuroplasticity as well as the possibilities laid out by the implications of quantum mechanics, if we dare to venture into it without safety nets. But this post is long enough I suppose, lol. Another day.


The Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

“If you wait until you understand enough to do something, you’re never going to get it done.”

-Penn Jillette, The Theory of Obscurity


Until about a week ago, I had no idea who The Residents were, but I know I’ve seen reincarnations of the big eyeball head with a top hat. As far as their sound and art though, I’d never been exposed. So watching 2015’s documentary The Theory of Obscurity, written and directed by Don Hardy Jr., was a brief introduction that got me devouring everything I could find of their work, mostly from youtube, where a wealth of their videos and live performances can be found.

As the introduction to the film states, there is certainly no “definitive” history for the art group, and no personal histories for the members. Their identities have still, after over 40 years, never been revealed.

One of the interviewees in the film makes a comment that the group can really be looked as “failed filmmakers” primarily, even before their sound. Their music, as far as I know, from the earliest time they were making it was always accompanied by film in some form. Whether it was a matter of designing and making a set, objects and costumes for a specific song, or messing around with newspaper one day then much later deciding to use it for a music video for another tune.

I was drawn in by how atmospheric and over-the-top their art is, going as far as possible into the weird and approaching a space that is subconscious and nightmarish, but pleasantly so, like the feeling you get after waking up from a nightmare; knowing you are safe, you bask in the coolness of having had such a horrible nightmare, and you dwell on it while taking joy from it. (Perhaps not with really, really bad nightmares I should say, this is just my experience.)

The film shows snippets of their videos and a great deal of commentary by those who surrounded The Residents during their group’s lifetime, including founding members of the Cryptic Corporation, but of course there is nothing so revealing in the film as to feel like we can hone in on the personality, or indeed even person-hood, of the group. They are the one-for-all, all-for-one mentality described in the “Theory of Obscurity,” which basically states that artists can more fully realize their artistic visions when they are outside and apart from the public scrutiny that comes along with celebrity. In this reality, they have the best of both worlds; they have achieved the highest of cult status with fans all around the world and a working career spanning several decades, but at the end of the day they can always go to the grocery store and the local diner without ever dealing with fans in a personal way. This isn’t to say that there is no personal connection between the group and their fans. Somehow I think it is even greater because there is a malleability in the group and their art that make it relevant to individuals in individual ways. The Residents’ work is not muddied by personal histories or personalities that tend to distort whatever the body of work the group has created. You think of big name artists and many of them now have strings and controversy attached to their work because of this thing they said in an interview, or that thing they did off stage, etc. The Residents’ body of work is untouchable and infallible in that sense.

The visual effect that comes across when I see the music video to, say, “It’s a Man’s World,” or the photographs of the members wearing giant eyeballs on their heads is hard to describe, and I think I came closest to explaining it for myself personally above, when I said they are visually akin to the feeling of waking up safely from a nightmare. The images stay with me and I am intrigued because they trigger so many individual emotions into an amalgamation that is completely different from any other artistic experience, save for certain film directors’ movies. The Residents’ visual work manages to capture emotions without story, but with abstract and shocking images. The weirdness touches on a strange human capacity to latch on to and obsess over something grotesque and distorted, but that somehow satisfies a deep voyeuristic impulse. Like something disgusting in a video your friends show you, but somehow you can’t keep your eyes from watching. Les Claypool describes it succinctly when he talks about the first Residents’ song he ever heard, Constantinople. He says he hated it, he thought it must be the music they play in hell to torment people. But as time progressed, the sound he’d heard stayed with him, somehow going from something he couldn’t stand to something he couldn’t shy away from. He describes it like a fungus. It just kept sticking to him, growing. “The Residents were my fungus,” he states, hilariously straight-faced. The next clip shows him singing with Primus a cover of that very song.

The film also touches on how it is easy to dismiss The Residents if you refuse to look beneath the surface. Like I mentioned, I latched on to the atmosphere of the music, then watched some of the visual work, finally I looked into lyrics. There is something so tragic and personal in some of their work that perhaps would not be possible without masks to cover the bareness of their souls they are showing to the audience.

Last night I watched Freak Show, as performed in Prague. The show swings you from fun and hilarious, to beautiful, tragic, morose, and then dumbfounding. The Freak Show is something that is something of an analogy for the Residents themselves, they prove the universal fascination in human deformity, but at the expense of empathy and acceptance that these creatures are still human with human hearts.

The show is divided into two parts. In the first we play the part of the audience at a Freak Show, the boisterous and funny MC takes you on a journey through the history of the freak show and then we get to see the show’s stars one by one. The second part plummets you into your own soul, showing the behind-the-scenes of a possible reality after the lights are dimmed and the curtain falls. Each freak is engaged in their own reality in extreme deficit of something anyone on the street would call a basic human need for love, something everyone deserves. But beyond this, and more painfully I think, we then get a demonstration of these pitiful creatures’ attempts to fill the void within them, to keep up the façade of life and meaning where they’ve been stripped completely of their humanity. Such uncomfortable moments make the viewer grimace in disgust at the same time that she finds the twisted image of the reflection of these vain efforts in her own heart. My personal take-away is that we are all caught in the absurdity of life and in equally vain and pitiful attempts to frame our lives with meaning. We are all caught in the freak show.


Like I said, I am just at the beginning of my journey through The Residents’ work, something I am excited and perhaps a little nervous about! =)


A Few Thoughts on a Few 2016 Oscar Nominees

Room (2015)

I’ve seen a lot of movies where the bulk of the story is set inside the cage and the happy ending culminates in the escape from the cage. This film addresses the experience and escape from a whole new, intimate level. One of the most unforgettable scenes and corresponding concepts in the film is the scene in which “Ma” (Brie Larson) breaks down because she cannot understood why she isn’t happy after having been rescued. She has survived, she has a comfortable bed to sleep in, she is safe, she has good food. But she is damaged, and this is something she doesn’t understand fully for a long time.

From another angle, we have Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never known anything but life inside “room”. Once he is outside, his mother, and the audience, is a little shocked when Jack expresses his desire to go back to room; to what is familiar, simple and comfortable. He does not want toys and comfy beds, he wants the broken sink and tiny, claustrophobia-inducing wardrobe bed. He too does not feel what everyone would expect a newly escaped survivor to feel and through this process the film asks us to contemplate what sits at the bottom of our everyday lives once the chaos settles and we have nothing and no one but ourselves and our minds to cope with. We get used to dealing with things that do not make sense all the time because it is required. In a way, Jack was free of these obligations and was, in a very real sense, more free inside room than outside.

Lastly, the film addresses the moment when we decide to move on from the pain and self-torture of a traumatic experience. The path is not smooth and it takes longer than we want, but in the end we must give in and let life take its natural course, even when everything imposed on it is anything but natural. 2/22/2016

Spotlight (2015)

This movie was fascinating for a couple of reasons, aside from the subject matter. I love that the movie played in a streamlined, documentary kind of way while maintaining momentum through incredible dialogue and the emotional reactions of the main characters to each cornerstone of their discovery. Mark Ruffalo is intense, and I’ve never seen him quite this invested. The film plays like a documentary because it is nearly completely driven and sustained by the delivery of information. All of the emotional peaks and valleys that make a good movie are carefully paced and embedded within this unraveling. We are interested in the characters based on their positions and how we get to see them react to the information. 2/22/2016

The Big Short (2015)

When Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010) came out, I was incredibly enraged and fascinated at the same time. The documentary was able to clearly and fully explain the events and the causes of the 2008 financial crisis that included many clips and interviews catching the guilty in their own betraying words and actions, as well as illustrations and graphs to help wrap the viewer’s brain around it visually; which is helpful for me as I learn better visually than trying to process a bunch of words alone.

I saw The Big Short in a theater with a couple of friends and I thought the devices the director and writers used to explain important aspects of the story’s subject matter were wonderful. I also felt that the point of conveying this information to the public as a very important story we should know about was driven home because the movie itself went to such creative lengths to explain everything to us. Like Spotlight, I felt in some parts of the film similarly to the experience of a great documentary, but here I was able to process the information through a very entertaining and unconventional way that incorporated not just words, as in Spotlight, but in visual spectacle and gags.  In several spots the film cuts away to some celebrity in a unique situation, there solely to explain a concept to us. It was jarring only in so much as to realize, wow, I should pay attention to this.  2/20/2016

Steve Jobs (2015)

I don’t know how accurate the depiction of Steve Jobs is in this film, but I did find the performances outstanding and having not known much about the man before viewing it, I feel I have a better grasp on the story of Apple itself as well as what drove the creators. Kate Winslet is brilliant as usual, and Michael Fassbender (Jobs) created an excellent profile of a man obsessed but also progressively aware of his downfalls as a human and father. I’m always fascinated by a good obsession story. I’m interested in how the object of obsession changes the brain to act and feel only in accordance with the fulfillment of that obsession. The key tends to lie in what element of human satisfaction the object of obsession projects, and what justifications it hides beneath. 2/24/2016

The Look of Silence (2015)

Last year, Joshua Oppenheimer was nominated for the documentary feature, The Act of Killing (2014) which I think I’ve written about before. This time he’s done it again with The Look of Silence, though there isn’t the absurd spectacle of the perpetrators trying to produce a piece of theater from their legacy. Instead, this film I feel was much more face-to-face confrontational, especially in integrating one of many murdered’s brother in the interviews. There are a few moments when the interviewees suddenly realize that they are being brought into the light in an effort to make them acknowledge the atrocities they or their family member has committed, and accept responsibility for it. Some are receptive, others lost forever in self-deception and denial. 2/20/2016

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)

Reminiscent of Jehane Naojaim’s documentary The Square (2013) dealing with Egypt’s uprising, which was also nominated for best documentary feature, Winter on Fire deals with the horrendous social injustices going on in the Ukraine. I can’t say anything more clearly about the situation than the film does itself. 2/25/2016

Amy (2015)

There are a lot of things I didn’t know about the artist until I saw this very well-executed doc. Including how much of a tool her father was. It is tragic how much support she clearly did not receive in the time when she needed it most. 2/15/2016

Cartel Land (2015)

What’s interesting about this documentary and the issues it tackles is that the film features people on all sides of the issue, explains their situation, and then manages to make you feel for each one of them, even on opposing sides. On the one hand you have the victims of cartel violence in Mexico, then you have those on the US border desperate to protect their families and lands from the invading violence, then you have the members themselves who are quite often manipulated and are in turn trying to protect their own families. 2/20/2015

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

A really good documentary following Nina Simone throughout her life as a performer and black rights activist. What is fascinating is how extreme her conviction and mission progresses, driven by the passion and urgency of the peoples’ suffering all around her, and by her belief in her duty to be a spokesperson for them. Her lyrics directly address the things that most other artists were trying to side-step and ignore, trying not to stir up anything dangerous or controversial. Her life was filled with emotional turmoil and insecurity, triggered in part by an abusive father and husband. What is impressive is that she came out on the other end successful, happy, and changed. Awesome documentary. 2/20/2016

The Martian (2015)

This film could be used across the country in film school as a near perfect example of effective Hollywood film. The editing, music, acting, story, characters, ups and downs in all the right places, well thought-through amount of humor interjection, scary scenes, nervous scenes, and a smooth transition to resolution. Damon is wonderful. I laughed, I cried, I lost 15 lbs…ok not true, but Damon certainly did. Quite shocking. There is nothing like a good space movie to take you completely out of your own head space. Excellent. 1/17/2016

I haven’t seen The Revenant yet, though I’m pretty sure I will love it.

I’m one of maybe two people in the country that did not like Mad Max, Fury Road.


Criterion Blogathon: Lars von Trier

When I was in college I studied creative writing. In a short story writing class I took during my senior year, we were taught about the story arc and about the necessity for the main characters(s) to go through some kind of change somewhere in the story, they couldn’t remain stagnant. This was necessary for the reader to be engaged with the character and care about what happens to them, and to be willing to follow them throughout the whole journey.

At that time I was sure that I was going to be one of the best writers in the class and everyone would finish reading my stories and not be able to speak for a few seconds. I was going to write novels with strange and wonderful characters that everyone would latch on to, but I had another idea about what makes a “good story,” and my experiments did not go over well.

I had been studying British modernist writers like Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and T.S. Elliot and was very interested in their kind of revolt against what had been done before. The stories went in a completely different direction, where the events of the stories are secondary to what’s going on in the characters’ minds. In fact, it wasn’t necessary for hardly anything to be happening, like in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Instead, we are thrown into a troubled mind and asked to bear through all the pain and thought without much movement in any direction. The stories are a snapshot that tries to give you a look at the present state from many, many angles, turning one way and giving you beauty, the other and giving you despair. This is what I love most about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well. I could drown happily in his language. I don’t need to know whether the character turned left or right.

Later on I decided to write longer form narrative and quickly discovered the trap that would garner me discouraging feedback from anyone I shared my writing with, (and I promise all of this comes back to an observation on Lars, =).

As I wrote a story, I created a character and a set of events in an outline, giving me an idea of what I was going to work on at each session, but very quickly I realized that planning and guidelines only go so far when your writing starts to take control. I get into a state which I’ve read is called the “flow,” which is hyper-focused and determined in nature. Time falls away and nothing is relevant except the creation flowing out of your mind second by second. But I found that I wanted to throw in each and every idea and thought that I’d incubated in my mind my entire life. This connects to that and this, and oh this is related to this and…gee the character is talking a lot like myself

The creativity would give way to a kind of self-involved sermon fleshing out my own life and convictions on things that either directly or indirectly reminded me of them as I wrote out details in the story. Before long my 100 or so pages were very little action and a whole lot of pondering. But the pondering wasn’t necessarily organized in a way that the reader could follow. When I was younger I justified this as a snapshot literary style, like the writers I’d admired so much in college. But as I matured and read and wrote much more, I realized that this justification was invalid, and set to work re-writing and editing, and re-writing again and again… Whether or not I made improvements, it did take me a while to accept that perhaps people would not be universally moved to tears by my meandering, endless thoughts on life.

In an article published in Film Comment in the fall of 2009 titled “The Six Commandments of the Church of Lars con Trier’s Antichrist [2009],” Larry Gross calls the film a “transitional work made by an artist in crisis,” then observes later, “crisis has been a regular if not predictable feature of von Trier’s career from the start.”

My interpretation of this statement links back to the idea of creating a work that becomes more and more convoluted with the self in a way that snowballs until out of control. In Antichrist, like most of von Trier’s films, there is a massive visual talent for combining gorgeous shots with absolutely grotesque supporting concepts. And mired in these two and three hour marathons of stunning visuals are profound observations, rages, and moral lessons on life, love, society, and pain. They pile one on top of the other, connecting and jumping from one thought to the next triggered by actions and observations by his characters. When I watch a von Trier film, I get the feeling like I did in college when I found it unavoidable to engage in the act of creation without divulging every single passionate impulse that rose to the surface. It feels like a desperate attempt, indeed, like an artist in crisis.

Antichrist, in my opinion, is one of the most cohesive and contained of von Trier’s films. It is also one of my favorites.

When I first began watching von Trier films, (I think it was actually Antichrist that started me digging for everything he’s made,) it was certainly the visual stuff going on that caught my interest. Like my reading, writing, and music tastes, I am always drawn first to context, to background, to component, more so than any other aspect. I don’t really hear the lyrics of a song until I fall in love with the music. If I don’t like what I hear those first few bars, than I don’t really care what the song lyrics have to say, (many friends frown on this outlook). With Joseph Conrad or Yukio Mishima I can read paragraph after paragraph of beautiful language and writing, character action or plot become secondary at that level of mastery. Lars von Trier’s films are art films and not soap operas. They are incredibly executed visual experiences busting at the gut with ideas, sometimes downright sermonizing, but I love his work all the more for it.

In the article in Film Comment, Gross discusses his early work that I have not seen yet, including the Europa trilogy and The Kingdom TV series. The earliest work I saw was Breaking the Waves (1996), with a heartbreaking performance by Emily Watson as Bess and a performance by Stellan Skarsgard that solidified him as one of my all-time favorite actors. What is most striking to me about Breaking the Waves is that it is pretty grounded, with its feet planted firmly on the earth, and captures tragedy in a painfully real way, both with the shaky “realness” of the camera that makes you feel as nervous as the characters, and the pervasive gloomy color and atmosphere of the location itself. It is dramatic, but recognizable. It doesn’t catapult the viewer into a crazy depiction of a metaphor with a tree filled with people having sex or anything. But then at the very end, the movie completely breaks from reality with the bells in the sky, and it was jolting for me. It was the first experience of this very von Trier tendency to suddenly go to the absolute extreme of storytelling and which asks a lot from viewers, in that it departs directly and toward the need for intellectual interpretation. Von Trier is asking us, “this is not possible, or even fathomable, in real life, and has the possibility of completely throwing you out of the story, so what am I trying to tell you by throwing this at you?” He got much better at doing this effectively in his later films in my opinion, and this one at the end of Breaking the Waves is probably my least favorite moment.

I won’t go through each and every one of his films right now, though I would love to and probably will at some point. Instead I want to fast forward to his state of affairs in the last few years, including his latest work, Nymphomaniac I and II (2013). This work again ties in to the observations made earlier about throwing all of your ideas into your work as if they take over. Nymphomaniac more than any other of his films, demonstrates this, and it is up to the viewer to love it or hate it.

As von Trier fans may remember, several years ago Lars vowed to not give any more interviews or speak to the media at all after one of his comments about relating to Hitler was taken very, very badly at the Cannes film festival. Last year he “broke his silence,” as many of the headlines read by speaking out about how he was trying to get off drugs and alcohol. In late 2014, he told Nils Thorsen from newspaper Politiken that almost all of his films had been written under the influence of drugs and alcohol. For the previous few months, he’d been working very hard to stay completely sober. But now another painful transition is coming to light, he says. He admits in the article that he doesn’t know if he can work anymore if he’s sober. He states that Nymphomaniac was the first project he’d done sober and it took him an exorbitantly long time to get finished.

Nymphomaniac certainly departs from his other films in a few obvious ways, and it makes sense with this new knowledge that he managed to finish it sober. The throwing up of ideas onto the page, getting everything you ever thought about, believe in, and observed about life into the work is something that I had always been told was a very bad way to create. It is convoluted, I personally could not do it well, or in a way that anyone could care about. But in Nymphomaniac, in my opinion, the son of a bitch actually pulls it off. It is not even hidden underneath crazy visual dances squirming through metaphor and far-reaching connections. It is literally a man and a woman, conveying their wandering thoughts to each other, connecting them randomly to everything from fly-fishing, Bach, Fibonacci, Edgar Allen Poe and soul trees. It is a dry, sober discussion, and one that I was completely engaged with. Charlotte and Stellan work together again as they’ve done so many times before on von Trier films, and the relationship and familiarity and comfort they have with each other gives anything they do, no matter how outrageous, viability.

In the latest articles I’ve read, von Trier has taken to drinking a “little bit” just so he can “get to working again.” It breaks my heart to think of von Trier falling into a spiral of alcoholism again, and it would also be sad if he were to never write or create things like he has before. I would certainly hope he finds the balance to live in a way that isn’t destructive, but also taps in to that creative genius that I believe is there within him and that doesn’t need alcohol or drugs to engage again.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015)

Damn…I don’t understand what Guillermo del Toro expects me to do with the emotion and passion transferred from this film. Overwhelming in its cinematic effect, the film captures the essence of, and surpasses, any other in the field of gothic romance. It is achingly romantic, fluid. The camera is always moving and it makes the movie so lyrical, like a waltz, where the flame certainly never blows out.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a movie experience where the feeling of walking out of the theater brings a downpour of disappointment. The world is so gray and static in comparison, though the chill air and the season’s color did complement the film’s atmosphere as I attended the matinee this weekend.

I plan on seeing this again very soon in theater. There is so much to see, the production is as much a work of art itself as the completed film. I’m sure I will notice new things. The house is the epitome of gothic structure, filled with life through winds, the creaking of doors, and the moaning of ghosts. Debris falls through the ceiling and shafts of light which glow on the pale white skin of Edith, played beautifully by Mia Wasikowska, in stark comparison to the darkness of the home’s owners, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe, played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain.

The casting could not have been better for each character, each molded closely to the chill of their roles. I’ve never seen Chastain like this before. She is statuesque, very cold throughout the film, her expressions change slowly, if at all. This leaves you unprepared for the torrent of emotion that explodes from her in the film’s finale, as if everything she has felt in her life has been pent up for those moments. Tom Hiddleston, well, I’ve yet to see him in a role he couldn’t own. Several of the intimate dialogue scenes with Mia reminds me of his Shakespeare delivery, passing the romantic words past his lips as naturally as anyone can, giving you permission to buy it. It was strange to see Mia and Tom together again in this type of relationship after seeing them as sibling vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), and their performance speaks to their mastery of the dark, dramatic roles.

I feel Mia gets stronger as an actress every time I see her. In the past, there have been films where she seemed to be playing her part to closely and not projecting enough for me to become involved with her, like Stoker (2013), for example, where she played opposite Mathew Goode. In Crimson Peak, her delivery is much more pronounced and her physicality is stronger. Though she plays the most innocent role, she also conveys stubbornness and will in her convictions, her eyes engage much closer with her fellow actors and it was lovely to see.

As I said earlier, the most effective aspect of the film was the movement of the camera. Everything was presented in its absolute most perfect form possible, no worry for realism here. When Mia turns a corner and walks down the hall, she does so in a manner that utilizes every available tool to transform the simple act into a vision; the light through the roof, falling leaves or snow, the candle flame illuminating the rustic crevices of a worn wall, the black iron bars of the elevator shown just enough to convince you they may be hundreds of years old. Her skin, like I said, is most pale when she is afraid. Jessica’s eyes are stone cold, always in a different place, though she is able to hide this oddity in public, perhaps, behind the fine deep hues of the fabric of her elaborate dresses. The shots of her sitting and playing at the piano, her intensely complex dress sleeves draped over her thin hands is so elegant.

The story itself, which I won’t give away, is full of satisfying twists and an ending that does not leave anything else to be desired, in my opinion. It avoids trite cliché as well as melodrama. I felt it ended sensibly and square within the genre and does not disappoint. I also found the key aspects of Hiddleston’s character cleverly unraveled without ever giving anything away until the surety of final scenes, which was fantastic, reminding me a bit of his incredible ability to toy with the viewers’ sympathies in his role as Loki in the Thor movies.

Tom and Mia exemplify the force of electricity and magnetism in their acting. When Tom’s character is conflicted, we feel the emotion boiling up from the inside and we are drawn toward him, as if the closer we look into his eyes the more we become empathic and sensitive to that emotion. It is fascinating to me personally, to watch such emotion going on. People in real life seem diligently to hide all emotion from view aside from happiness and such conflict is not something people allow themselves to betray for fear of losing face. In the cinematic experience I am hungry for this to be conveyed to me as if in return I am assured of my own humanity, even if others around me will not confirm it. As the converse, I find it very hard to hide such emotional conflict, feeling one way, and being forced to act in a contrary way. Mia receives this emotion and responds honestly, the emotion also seeming to boil up inside, only her emotional sequences seem to be more of a slow burn. Her eyes remain static on Tom’s while Tom’s dart from one point to another, before resting squarely on a specific gaze in proportion to the camera that crystalizes a single statement. The truth pours forth.

There is also a fantastic moment where Jessica’s character, Lucille, reacts to a piece of information so hostilely and unexpectedly that I cannot believe Mia was anything but profoundly startled right there on the set, even though she knew it was coming. Like I mentioned earlier, Lucille is someone who has been bottling up nearly all emotion and in this key scene, some of that explodes, directly toward Mia. It was so powerful and direct, quite an impressive moment.

The last thing I wanted to comment on is the element of the supernatural in this film, and in all of Guillermo del Toro’s films. It is a clever trick for some directors to achieve the chilling, unnerving effect of a ghost or lurking monster by playing with the camera and the editing, and never showing the actual creature. This allows the viewer to form arguably much more horrible things in their minds than even the director imagined. Such strategies were employed early on in cinema’s history either for budget’s sake or otherwise, but del Toro is singular in that he believes in the possibility of showing you this creature, up close no less, and not losing you of your suspension of disbelief. Partially due to the actor’s ability to react convincingly to such creatures, but also because the director has put just as much thought and effort towards filming them as he would his actors. He does not dance around the object, lying with a close up of the sinister eye, then running away from the object. He treats the situation as a reality not separate from the rest of the film. The camera does not jump around and cut frantically to try and convince you the punch is powerful. The camera retains its fluidity. He is the only director I can think of that can pull this off so seamlessly.


After a while, the gloom of the October evening falls into place and slowly the intensity of the passion I felt leaving the theater starts to simmer down. In its place is a sense of ownership, appreciation, and inspiration that reminds me why I keep searching for such experiences, and fighting through the disappointment in contrast of light usurping the darkness. Because life is a cycle, and the darkness will come again, to fill me with other-worldly senses.