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The two male leads in Fat City (1972) by John Huston

The Sloven Dream Set in John Huston’s “Fat City” (1972)

There is something universal that is felt when one witnesses a failure. Maybe human nature causes us to fear that failure ourselves, as perhaps our insight is more so revealed through the near misses, rather than the home runs. As in Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, or the desperation and loneliness felt within Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, these characters long for more, and in doing so, they suffer. They seem aware enough of the outside to know that there is more, and that there could be more if only they had that missing something. Of course, very often they don’t know what that something is. Not to mention that the outside happens to be too brutal and harsh for their fantasy.

John Huston’s 1972 film Fat City is a great film that is not about a great man. Rather, he is a has been, and since his glory days, he has resigned his life to loser status. Stacy Keach plays 30-year-old Tully, a washed-up boxer who, since his glory days, has devolved into alcoholic stasis. Jeff Bridges plays Ernie, a young man ten years his junior, who seems up and coming but lacks backbone. The two men often mirror each other—on one hand, Tully has lost what he once had and while Ernie has some verve, he has yet to prove it. Perhaps Tully sees himself in Ernie and so he longs to get back into the ring to reprove himself to the world.

Neither man has a life worth envying. In one scene, Ernie is coerced by his young girlfriend into marriage. She is moody and distant and admits she is nervous that she might be pregnant. The scene is short, but one can see they have nothing in common—she merely wants to cook for him and see him everyday. That John Huston places the scene within a motionless car is important—they are going nowhere, and his marriage to her will likely also go nowhere. He might have a few boxing wins but then will resign to a life of mediocrity. […]

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An illustration of Carol Doda on a wall

Vaccine Mandates vs. Carol Doda

I clearly remember the first, and only, time I saw Carol Doda perform. It was the 60s and I was just strolling the boulevard in the North Beach section of San Francisco when I saw it: a neon outline of a blonde woman in a black bikini, complete with pink flashing lights for nipples. I had never heard of Carol Doda until then, but I saw the sign and the huge crowd waiting in an unruly, eager mob to get in—the bouncers at the club would let three people out and four people in, guaranteeing the place would stay packed. There were topless dancers in the country before Doda, but her act was breathtaking—from the size of her bounteous chest to her humor, singing, dancing, and wisecracking. It would be safe to say that she formally ushered in the topless craze (movement). As I left the Condor club, I was pretty sure this type of entertainment was maxed out, that no more could be done along these lines. To echo the sentiments of the cowboys in “Oklahoma!”: they’d gone about as far as they can go. How wrong I was.

Not too long after (I’m not talking geologic time here), I was invited to a new club in the San Fernando Valley by a co-worker. The ladies performing there were not only topless, but bottomless. The sign on the front of the place proclaimed that “If you are offended by nude entertainment, please do not enter.” I entered (purely for research purposes, of course) and found that adult live entertainment, public entertainment, had indeed advanced to another stage—far removed from the Condor and Carol Doda. Again, I foolishly decided that there was nothing further which could be shown.  Once a lady is wearing only stilettos and a smile on stage, that seemed pretty much the end of the Possible. But this was before the internet, adult channels in family motels, TV ads just short of soft-core porn, and the general sexualizing of society. Are we now, finally in the end stage of skin and sin? No. There is holographic sex in the pipeline and it will be so real, one will not miss a flesh-and-blood partner very much, if at all. There are androids which can be built to a customer’s specific requirements and perform sexually, also to his or her requirements. Yes, those will cost plenty, but as this advances—and it seems to be doing just that—imagine a whole section in Walmart for the buyer of more limited means. And sexuality is oozing out into corners not inspected by the vast majority, as evidenced graphically by Playboy’s October 2021 digital cover, which features a man (Bretman Rock) in full Bunny regalia. In fact, it seems that we are way, way, past Carol Doda and the Condor club, headed…somewhere.

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A shot from Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, with compositions by Philip Glass

On Stimulation: “Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance” by Godfrey Reggio (1982)

Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance is a film with no characters, dialogue, or traditional narrative. Like most works of ‘pure cinema’ it is a film of montages and camera-work – specifically, of time-lapse photography and ponderous tracking shots across enormous objects and places. Throughout the film Philip Glass’s fantastic compositions refract from the imagery like slivers of light from an oil slick, and it is only fair to give him equal credit in the final product, as it would be just a novelty without his elevations. When reduced to its basest form my view has always been that cinema’s core equation consists of screenplay, visuals and sound performing a precise and delicate exchange, with the result being media that tricks your brain into extreme states of being. It’s a precise illusion; if any aspect falls a little flat it can completely pop the balloon. Koyaanisqatsi despite dispensing with the screenplay still manages to sustain the façade, as in other works of the ‘pure cinema’ movement. We slowly transition from nature and humanity’s ancient past into the metropolitan and the industrial, culminating in absolute modernity, and the explosion of a rocket ship (in real terms the launch of the Saturn V rocket cleverly spliced with footage of an Atlas missile). The movie works despite its lack of clear narrative due to the themes we might assign upon viewing.

But I’m digressing, so let’s digress a little differently. Godfrey Reggio spent fourteen years of his life training to be a friar, a period in which he conducted prolonged fasting, vows of silence and intense prayer. He is a noted progressive and has done a lot of charity work with disadvantaged groups, which is clear in the moments humanity appears on screen. It’s admirable however that barring these shots, he doesn’t choose to spend too long on sanctimony. Philip Glass has worked with Reggio for the lion’s share of his career, and that is to Reggio’s benefit. His soundtracks never quite live up to the enormity of Koyaanisqatsi, but he nevertheless has a talent for synchronous tracks and montages. […]

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A shot of Robert Frost from Shirley Clark's "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World"

Choose Your Quarrel: Why Creativity Can’t Be Taught

With so many grave events in concurrent quarrel, it seems futile to complain about the state of the arts. Where has the quality gone? The critical thinking? The investment in craft? There is this myth that a university education will somehow offer not just critical thinking but a segue into creativity. Those who believe it confuse didacticism with vision. They place too much trust in institution. I, too, was guilty of this, until I witnessed so much incompetence emerging from writing professors. (I once saw a poem by a PhD in English Literature that began with the line, ‘The heart is a treasure box.’) Deep, huh? Does that sound like someone with good, creative advice? Someone from whom you could learn?

My best educational experience was my high school English teachers. My senior year teacher, especially, had a very smart and fluid mind and I find it interesting that her college major was not literature but fine arts. Mrs. Vaughan. She was a painter, yet she could make connections in literature that I never witnessed from my university professors. Following graduation, I entered university as an English major in the hopes I’d become a great writer. I dropped it after one semester, partly because I did not want to work in a bank. ‘Every English major ends up working in a bank,’ I was told.

But this wasn’t the reason I dropped it, mind you, as I realize the hyperbole in that statement. (Yet admittedly, working in a coffee shop with a mound of debt due to a liberal arts degree did not sound appealing.) Whilst my university time was before ‘the art is only as good as one’s politics,’ I just didn’t feel like I was learning anything that I couldn’t teach myself. I had one professor who was so stolid in his thinking that he would give us quizzes over literary assignments that were detailed to the point of ridiculousness. Basically, one would have to memorize a play in order to pass it. What is the point? Talk about stripping the love from literature—no wonder no one wants to read. Eventually, we students suggested he speak about themes rather than facts. So, he proceeded to write on the board: THEMES 1), 2), 3). Amid such rigidity, how did he miss his calling as an accountant, exactly? (No wonder the banking analogy.) […]

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Ursula K. Le Guin portrait alongside his book, The Compass Rose

Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

Fantasy is an easy genre to write in, but a tricky one to get right.

I’d wager that most children first catch the bug of obsessive reading with a book that can, however loosely, be shelved under “Fantasy”. After all, it’s perfectly primed for such budding minds: vast, imaginary landscapes, wacky characters with wacky names, surreal events, sweeping adventures, and so on. For a reader like myself, whose love for literature first developed out of a need for whimsical escapism, it’s difficult to shake the genre’s influence on the mind even when one’s taste diversifies outside of the market, and especially when one gets to writing books instead of just reading them. Its allure is undeniable: the author is not straightjacketed by realism, nor is she indebted to any kind of historical accuracy – why, when she can create her reality’s rules, and its past, ex nihilo? This is writing, when in its infancy, borrowed mostly from myths and legends, where fantastical thinking was required to describe and explain away strange phenomena, or to simply make shit up, sans the sort of demarcations our contemporary understanding of literature requires writers to adhere to.

Of course, the moment when one starts waxing poetic about fantasy, cliches start snapping shut around one’s feet. Before I feel the urge to pinpoint what, exactly, “Fantasy” is, or to differentiate its sub-genres and practitioners, I’ll do my best to keep any talk of the genre strictly in terms of craft and leave the rest to scholars. Suffice it to say that writing fantasy is no more or less imaginative than science fiction, horror, mystery, crime, thrillers, and “literary fiction” (a rather bland label for books we’re expected to take seriously, as distinct from the previously mentioned categories), the only real differences being that of flavor, style, and aesthetics – imagining oneself into 19th century Indonesia, or writing about blue-collar workers in Alberta, or writing a free-verse sonnet from the perspective of a government bureaucrat are about as extraordinary a set of acts as creating a dragon, in my view. To write anything in a fictional mode is to fantasize, to morph the world into one’s desired image, and even the most outlandish tales require some mooring to reality. Isn’t anything set in Narnia or Prydain or Discworld or the caverns of Mars essentially set on the most familiar ground of all: the human mind? Even if the characters portrayed resemble none of the organic life on Earth? […]

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A shot from King Hu's "Raining in the Mountain"

Without Rain: King Hu’s “Raining in the Mountain” (1979)

Allow me to preface by stating that not only is this my first time seeing a King Hu film, but also that I am not terribly familiar with martial arts films. While I spent a number of years watching Japanese samurai classics, they are not martial arts films. Martial arts cinema is primarily combat-driven, while King Hu manages to transcend many of the limits of the genre, ensuring Raining in the Mountain remains one of the better films within this niche.

The film takes place during the Ming Dynasty, within a remote mountain village where there is a monastery. Nestled within the deeply embedded forest, already something is amiss—the Buddhist principles of peace, the remote beauty, the places to where one can retreat and yet—perception is not reality. It is not long before we notice that those who inhabit this holy place are actually in competition—bargaining, bribing, betraying—all with their own individual agenda and form of marshaled violence.

The coveted item is a sacred handwritten scroll that is supposed to be worth a lot of money. How much exactly we don’t know, and nor does it matter. Individuals who were brought to protect the scroll are soon attempting to steal it for themselves, and so begins an affected display of the film’s well-choreographed combat, coupled with sensationalized sound and nature background. It’s not that the scroll itself is evil, per se; it’s just that it seems to cause everyone around it to become evil. However intended or not, the scroll merely is, despite how everyone goes on about it. […]

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A screenshot from John Sayles's "Men with Guns" (1997)

Realism vs. Magic: On John Sayles’s “Men with Guns” (1997)

John Sayles, while primarily known for his committed sense of realism (Matewan, Lone Star, Men with Guns), is no stranger to the realm of the mythic. His most direct engagement (if one doesn’t count his credit on The Spiderwick Chronicles script, or other movies he only wrote for) with the fantastical is his 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish, in which a girl in a seaside Irish town encounters a legendary selkie. There, he merges the fantasy elements with the experience of childhood to marvelous affect, resulting in not only a wonderful children’s film, but a wonderful film, period – mostly due to the gravity with which Sayles approaches the material, and the total lack of condescension to the viewer.

Stories like this are usually termed “magical realism.” Its most popular manifestation occurred in the books of Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, and in cinema, filmmakers as diverse as Hayao Miyazaki and Woody Allen have incorporated magical realism into their works – all to varying degrees of success. The genre’s main weakness is that, more often than not, the “magical” tends to override the “realism,” thus spoiling any genuine relatability to the content. Or (and this is particularly prevalent in Miyazaki) the fantastical elements are overly elaborated to paper over its too-simplistic narrative, which gets you an aesthetically pleasing work, but not a deep one.

Such genre-fusion demands an artist adept enough in both to bring out its potential, but even artists as talented as John Sayles – for my money, America’s greatest living independent filmmaker – can err every now and again. His 1997 Spanish-language drama Men with Guns falls victim, however slightly, to the pitfalls of magical realism. This is not to say that Men with Guns is a bad film. It’s actually very good, perhaps near-great, and one of Sayles’s best. It is also a testament to his curiosity and willingness to diversify (in spite of a rather workaday visual palette) and steep himself in/explore/engage with cultures alien to his own – thus mining universal concerns out of its particulars.

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A stylized fresco of Confucius

A Nation in Need: Confucius & the Rectification of Names

It is the signature idea of Confucianism, something which the Chinese sage said in response to a question: If he had the authority, what action would he take? “Rectify the names,” Confucius responded. He meant not only the practical and communication aspects of naming things, but creating meaning and aligning structures and relations within society. His was a fragmented and confused society then, and the Sage felt that a new realignment, a new beginning was necessary, a way of  re-conforming a wayward and unfocused society, a way of making things right.

Confucius saw society as a community of trust, not competing factions, an interwoven cooperative and communicative whole, an organic unity. As a contributing, participating member, one is expected to recognize the existence of others and to serve the public good. The idea is that it is the king’s duty to act kingly and the father’s duty to act fatherly. If kings and fathers fail in their responsibilities, the whole system comes unraveled. In such a society, a father must ACT as a father; a son must act as one; each member of the family has a place, a designated title, and must fill that place conscientiously, so that the society as a whole hums like a well-tuned Maserati. There is one thing missing in all this: how do you get a consensus about those pesky definitions? If a society runs smoothly and cooperatively based on all doing their part, on everyone knowing his or her place and performing the appropriate behaviors, but if there is absolutely NO agreement on ANY definitions, what happens?

The Stoics—specifically, Sextus Empiricus—brought up this Problem of the Criterion (“the wheel”). It is an epistemological problem which has not been resolved to this day. This problem of knowledge, simply put, is that for one to assert some Proposition A to be true, one must have some standard, some criterion, to measure it by—but THAT standard is an unproven assumption, so what standard is used to measure THAT assumption? […]