Monthly Archives: September 2010

Joaquin is still in the building

So there it is. It was all a hoax, and an elaborate one at that. Arguably, it trumps whatever Andy Kaufman pulled, and anything Sasha Baron Cohen could ever accomplish.

For those who don’t know, Joaquin Phoenix appeared on David Letterman February 11, 2009. His visage was puzzling, to say the least. With a full, unkempt beard, dirty hair, and recent weight gain covered by a careworn, black suit, he gave the impression of one who was not in touch with reality. This was after he announced that he gave up acting and was pursuing a hip-hop career. Subsequent performances of his “music” were ignominious, to say the least.

The audience and fans alike were left scratching their heads as they witnessed this brilliant actor go completely off the rails. His soul shuffled off its mortal coil to leave the shell of the man he once was. It was tragic. In our effort to cope, we held onto the slim hope that maybe, just maybe, there was more to the story.

His brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, released a film a year-and-a-half later documenting Joaquin’s downward spiral, and within a week, the world was let in on the joke—one with many players, it turns out. The collective’s conscience breathed a sigh of relief as the ego was left perturbed. We were duped.

While there is comfort in the reality that there was not another talent needlessly destroyed in his prime, it does leave many unanswered questions. The first and foremost is: Why? What was the motivation?

Was it a social experiment? If so, I am at a loss to explain what it was. How important is it to risk one’s career to make a socio-political statement? Perhaps he was turning the mirror on society and its fixation on celebrity. That is a bit of a stretch, but one must admit, we certainly invested a lot of energy and bandwidth into focusing on this spectacle.

Did he get a sadistic pleasure out of raking his fans across the coals? His brother was snuffed out so early in life, and we got to see in Joaquin the actor that River could have become. He was taking that away from us. What a meanie.   

He could have been resentful for not winning the Oscar for his stellar work in Walk the Line. That makes a strong assumption that he cares about the accolades. If anything, he reiterated what a tremendous actor he is.  His performance on Letterman was realistic, but left enough speculation to keep us guessing. Was he on drugs? Was he succumbing to mental illness? I was going with the latter, as he showed the hallmarks of a schizoaffective disorder. I noticed his delayed response to jokes, his nervous tics and fidgeting, as well as the subtly paranoid look he’d shoot the audience as if to say “what are you laughing at?” And how did he keep in character while faced with Letterman’s rapier humor?  Bravo.

That said, Sir Occam’s Razor is feeling pretty sharp with this one. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could do it. And, he did.

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My Room 101

You want to torture me by putting my head in a cage full of hungry rats? Pfft, bring it. But spiders? Then, we’ll talk. 

I am terrified of spiders and scorpions. Arachnophobia, it is called. Ironically, I really dig the movie. They are hideous, yet fascinating to look at from a safe distance. A viewing from Ft. Knox would be preferable.  

I have always been afraid of them. Nothing specific ever happened to justify that fear, but regardless, it is there. My husband, on the other hand, loves them, as well as scorpions. He wants them for pets. Actually, there are a lot of decidedly uncuddly creatures he would like for his very own. He is like Hagrid—the creepier the better. When I was in the museum La Specula in Italy, I was doing a sketch of a tarantula—a dead one, no less—that was encased in glass. I was even getting creeped out by that. What’s wrong with me? Don’t answer that.  

Really, if I chose to, I could put these critters into perspective. I am hundreds of times larger than them, they are more scared of me blah blah blah. Yet, I just can’t shake the idea that in some intangible way, they are compromising my safety. If they are in my vicinity standing there unimpeded, “breathing” my air, threatening to invade my personal space, and, perish the thought, make contact with my precious skin, I feel . . . really, I don’t know what I feel. It is a fear of the unknown, perhaps, or of the violated skin turning gangrenous. Whatever my issue is, I know in my right mind the likelihood of being harmed is slim to none. Scorpions are another matter, but those fuckers are not the focus of my despair, as they are not indigenous to my section of the country.

I was at the local aquarium one time with my husband. As we were rounding off the day browsing in the gift shop, I passed by a display of boxes containing RC Tarantulas—remote control powered synthetic spiders. For $24.95, you too could have innocuous exposure to those frightening abominations. This was basically what they looked like:

This is the reason I don’t believe in God.

If I were ever to rue one action, it would be this: I picked up the package and showed it to my husband. Much to my chagrin, he had to have it. He just had to blow the money on it. I knew when his eyes lit up I would regret it greatly on many levels. I could hear the wheels turning as he imagined our dog and cat’s response to it. Great. Lovely, and as much as I don’t like to be wasteful, I was hoping the dog would break it upon first pounce. 

When we got home, the first thing he set to do was to assemble it. We were out of AA batteries, so he pulled them out of the television’s remote control. He was bound and determined. Yes indeed, the animals responded favorably to it. The dog leaped upon it, took it in her mouth, and shook it. That damn thing was appearing to be indestructible. Shit. One bright spot was that he acknowledged we couldn’t have one for a pet, as it wouldn’t stand a chance against the dog. After what seemed like hours of amusement, my husband told me to lay on my back. Not asked, demanded. Nya-uh. Knowing how he is, I knew what he had in mind and he wouldn’t let up until he got it. Get your minds out of the gutter, people. He wanted to let the thing crawl on me like some Peter Brady-esque nightmare. I felt the first stirrings of anxiety. He thrust the monster in my face; I grabbed his wrist so that I could have some semblance of control. I touched it. The fur was coarse, and its underbelly was plastic. Yes, the thing was fake. I was assured of that. Then, why was my finger hovering over the red panic button? 

I finally mustered up the strength to go horizontal on the cold, heartless, tile floor. I wished it could yield to my weight and suck me in to some alternate-reality sans eight-legged creatures. Upon first contact with my clothed leg . . . “OH GOD NOOOOOOOOOOO!” At that moment, I felt my response was justified. I tried again. “GAAAAAAAAAAA!” Okay, maybe the third time’s a charm. It was, kind of, as I let it crawl on me for a few seconds before whacking the beast off me. I thought I appeased my darling husband. No. He wanted to put it on my face. The unspeakable horror at the thought caused the contents of my bowels to settle to the bottom. Not really, but I was frightened. Eventually, I let the thing hover over my face, perhaps touching me briefly. Actually, a quantum clock would be needed to register the amount of time it contacted my skin. I gave one last blood-curdling scream before I scrambled to my feet and ran to the safe confines of my delightful walk-in closet. My hubby was left kneeling on the floor, cackling maniacally.  

 We all have our Achilles’ heel.

Incidentally, I have this odd theory. Tarantulas look like they smell like cracked pepper. I don’t know why; perhaps it is due to the coarseness and color of their hair—peppery. However, I am not about to conduct the research to prove or debunk my hypothesis. I’ll just believe it to be true unless I am told—told, not shown—otherwise.

The Galvanized Gut Battles the Meek Mind

I was heading outside to take my dog for her evening duty call. I smelled something burning as I passed by my neighbor’s door in our apartment building. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I peeked in the window and saw their dog staring back at me. I stood there stymied momentarily by indecision, and felt I should get a second opinion—my husband’s. I called upstairs, “Could you come down here and tell me if you smell something burning?” He most definitely did. I went upstairs to look for the landlady’s number. He called me downstairs and asked if I saw smoke when I looked through the mail slot. I believed I did, but that may have been power of suggestion. That same suggestion saw the dog look a little panicky. I held the phone in my hand and said that maybe I should call 911. I didn’t act until he gave me the okay.   

I had a bad experience with a firefighter one time. It was a false alarm. A massively burnt batch of brownies was the culprit. As the fireman spoke calmly with my husband, I came up and asked him if I made the right call, he answered rather condescendingly as if to say, “No, you wasted our time.”

Because of that and being a bit timid by nature, I am very tentative about sounding the alarm about, well, pretty much anything. This time was no exception, so I bailed on my husband and told him I should take our dog away from the scene in case something happened. “What about our other pets?” he inquired. I did not answer, because I lacked a valid reason. Really, my motivation was to avoid an embarrassing encounter with another misogynistic (or so I perceived) fireman. So, off I went for a slow trip around the block.

I heard the sirens in the distance and immediately started to second-guess myself. What if I was mistaken? These hard-working people came out for this false alarm when there was a real emergency elsewhere. I just wasted the citizens’ tax dollars. As the trucks passed by me, I cringed and looked away, as if I could further avoid the folderol that I created with that one phone call. Of course, this was all about me at this point; it didn’t matter that my husband was there to back me up. I essentially left him to face the music alone.

As I completed my circuitous route, there were throngs of people discussing the scene while craning their necks to see what catastrophe awaited our quiet block. I worked my way through the crowd to my husband. “Our neighbors left their self-cleaning oven running,” he said immediately, “They said it would have caught fire at any time, and it is a common occurrence that is responsible for hundreds of fires every year.” Trying not to look too relieved, I asked, “So, did I make the right call?” He agreed wholeheartedly that I did. Whew! A few of the neighbors thanked me for being on top of the situation and for saving the day. Arms flew in the air. “Woohoo! You’re our hero(ine)! Hip hip, hooray!”

As I pulled the confetti out of my hair, the realization hit me that my fear of rocking the boat had potential terrible consequences. Why was I willing to risk the safety of myself and those around me (being a gas/electric oven, it probably would have exploded) to avoid embarrassment? While misery loves company, it is sadly part of human nature.

We are social beings, and with parental and societal influences, we grow to be very aware of our surroundings and how we come across to those around us. This is not to say that our perceptions are accurate. They do tend to be skewed by our own insecurities. This is a daily battle, and for some it is more challenging. Freud’s model of the psyche states that, basically, the id is awareness of the self, super-ego is awareness of society, and the ego is awareness of reality. For these purposes, the id is our instinct towards self-gratification; the super-ego is our desire for perfection; the ego acts as the mediator to apply common sense to the situation and please both attributes to the best of its abilities. 

Apparently, my id and super-ego were duking it out, and the ego intervened to save the day. The ego happened to be my husband. If you knew him, you would appreciate the glaring lack of irony in that statement.

However, I am not alone in experiencing cognitive dissonance when it comes to action or inaction in social situations. We look to each other for cues on how to act, as I did. A mother could be violently disciplining her child out in public. While we stare in horror, we are also looking at each other for affirmation that our response is valid, as well as waiting for someone to intervene. If it doesn’t happen, then nothing will be done. This of course is not always the case; there are plenty of healthy egos that tell their id and super-ego to suck it. Still, how many of you have been in a situation and were afraid to be the first to act?

That gang mentality goes both ways. Most famously, it was studied in The Stanford Prison Experiment. If operating alone, most healthy individuals would not bully and terrorize innocent people. Yet, when put in a group and one acts aggressively, it becomes much easier, if not compelling, to follow suit. Socially unacceptable behavior is more palatable if part of “the gang”, allowing us to fade anonymously into the crowd.  We also feed off each other, and it is intoxicating. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop there.

We hate to be wrong, and we shudder at the idea of there being witnesses to our lack of perfection. The super-ego wants to be right all the time, and punishes us with shame and guilt if we don’t live up to that unrealistic goal. Hence, the reason I fled the scene. I couldn’t undial 911, but I could make myself scarce just in case I acted imprudently. That was my id attempting to save face. Social acceptance is a very tempting and persuasive mistress, and we are very motivated to achieve it at the expense of other needs and wants. Studies have shown that men would rather experience close to their maximum level of physical pain than be publicly rejected by an attractive woman who they are sexually interested in. If you had a choice to be punched in the stomach or to be openly lambasted for a dissenting view, which would you choose? A surprising number of people would choose the former.

I may have painted myself into a corner with the title, or perhaps created a circular argument. The gut could be instinct, which is the id. What about the cliché that we should listen to our gut if the id is so self-serving? As the title suggests, the head would be the super-ego. Is that where emotions originate? It is difficult to think rationally when emotional. Then what is the ego? Is it an outside influence, or is it a culmination of our experiences? Call it what you will, the majority of the time the same one is declared the victor.   

And the meek shall inherit the earth.

The Dexter Defense

Showtime’s Dexter is one of my favorite programs of all time. It is superbly written and acted, entertaining, intelligent, horrifying, comical, and most significantly, plausible. My toes curl in anticipation for the start of every season.

I figured it was only a matter of time before life imitated art. An Indiana teen was accused of strangling his 10-year-old brother to death. Andrew Conley, who was 17 at the time, felt that he “had to do it”. What was the impetus for this gruesome crime? You guessed it: Dexter made him do it. He so identified with the character that he finally acted on his compulsion that he felt since he hit his teens. Perhaps faced with life in prison, he grasped at straws there. Yet, I found out after reading the article about the case that this wasn’t a first. A 29-year-old Canadian filmmaker murdered a man in 2008 based on one of the storylines in the show. A filmmaker. He of all people should appreciate that despite the aforementioned plausibility of the idea, it is still indeed, fiction. What gives?

This is not an isolated incident. Since the concept of cinema was actualized, people have found their inspiration to act on their already existing pathologies. Yes, the desire to do the dastardly deed was latent, awaiting something or someone to stir the beast from its slumber. Even before that, troubled souls found ways to rouse their demons into action. How many Jack the Ripper copycats were there? Who knows, maybe Emperor Nero’s insane act of locking helpless citizens in Rome’s colosseum (or so the story goes) to force them to view his godawful performances led even the gentlest of characters to violent responses.

Call this human behavior what you will, for this writing I will coin it somewhat topically: The Dexter Defense, and it is a flimsy one, at best. While not historically apt, as evidence of this spans centuries, it is a good representation—an almagamation, if you will—of how far some people would go to make excuses for their actions.  Plus, I really dig the alliteration.

As an artist with little exposure, my only concern about creating something that could stir a violent response is offending my potential audience. Imagine successful entertainers with far-reaching influence doing the same. They not only have to deal with possible rejection, they also may consider the likelihood that there will be impressionable people who take their art just a wee bit too seriously. Does that mean they should keep it to themselves, or should they expect a modicum of objectivity from their viewership? Should the sins of a few ruin it for everyone else? While the collective intelligence can decrease as the group expands, can the actions of a few leaven the whole loaf?

Musical influence

While Doris Day’s beautiful rendition of Secret Love was somewhat marred by the rumor that Calamity Jane had syphilis (I don’t believe it!), my history need not go back that far. Where the tendency to attribute malevolent influences from music became prevalent is with the recording technique of embedding subliminal messages in music, called backmasking. The Beatles popularized it (really, was it “cranberry sauce” or “I buried Paul”?) and other bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC followed suit. A law was passed forcing record labels to add a warning message that this technique was used. It is akin to adding the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes. We all know they are horrible, but does that stop the addicts?

Who can forget the inspiration Charles Manson got from The Beatles’ Helter Skelter? As far as their songs go, it isn’t one of their best, albeit an interesting cacophonous experiment. I personally wouldn’t even put it in their top 20. Never mind that the song was not violent, per se, nor could any rational person infer evil intent from it. Yet, the song is now inextricably bound to the Manson murders, so much so that the infamous book about this nugget in history shares the title. Lest we pin the blame on Paul McCartney, we must realize that Manson was born with violent inclinations. While it can be argued whether he was a psychopath or a sociopath, the seeds of nature and nurture were planted long before that. What nurturing mother punishes her son by forcing him to go to school wearing a dress? While he was definitely genetically hard-coded towards a pathology, his abuse as a youth set the stage. The song played as a convenient excuse.    

Arguably, the most notorious case in recent memory involved the heavymetal band, Judas Priest. In 1985, two Nevada teens made a suicide pact after listening to their music all day while drinking beer and smoking pot. They went to a playground at a local church and aimed shotguns at themselves. The one died instantly, the other survived and was left with a severely disfigured face. He died several years later, even after numerous surgeries. The parents brought the case to trial in 1990. Rob Halford had to experience the ignominy of singing the offending lyrics from the album Stained Glass in court, and was specifically instructed to sing it in the same style as he did on the record. The prosecution claimed that it wasn’t just the words, but also how they were conveyed. The court ruled the band not responsible. The teens’ mental state was compromised with chemicals and existing depression. The album only reiterated an idea they already entertained. Still, the lack of precedent doesn’t keep others from attempting the same scapegoat defense.

Book burning

How many books have been destroyed in an effigial attempt to banish violence from our society? What, outside of a waste of resources, does it accomplish? Even Reverend Terry Jones’ recent showboating plans to burn the Quran were misguided. Yes, there are many fundamentalists who take a literal and/or incorrect interpretation of the work and wreak horrible havoc on those with dissenting opinions. My own views of religious persuasion aside, burning a book that can easily be reproduced and not abused by the majority, does nothing but incite further violence. It is laying the blame on the printed word instead of the individual. Sticks and stones and all that.

Mark David Chapman claimed that he re-enacted scenes from Catcher in the Rye when he fatally shot John Lennon. While Holden Caulfield was a dark character experimenting with rebellion, I personally focused on the symbolism of watching children on the carousel grab the brass ring that gave me hope that there was salvation in his future. How did Chapman devise such sinister machinations from this classic piece of literature?

Really, unless bookmakers can create a technology that will cause the reader’s hands to blow off if the story is not acted out, there is no one to lay blame on but the criminal. There are a bunch of Humbert Humberts running around deflowering nubile girls because they are compelled to do so, not because they were inspired by Lolita. Who reads about pedophilia and thinks, “Hmm, interesting concept, I think I’ll give it a whirl,” and then later blames Nabokov for corrupting them with his beautiful literature? Ridiculous.

Film noir

It only takes a modicum of common sense to intuit that thrusting two fingers at someone’s eyeballs will never end well. Yet, impressionable people tried that after watching The Three Stooges. It doesn’t matter that upon closer scrutiny, it is obvious that Moe Howard aimed at his brother Curly’s eyebrows. We are just such curious creatures that sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.

Filmmakers recognize this, and in fear of the consequences that could arise in our litigious society, they make allowances for that via disclaimers. The Mythbusters remind the audience every episode that they are professionals and since the average viewer is not, they are ordered to “not try this at home”. Does that stop everyone from trying to blow up Buster, as an example? Of course not, but it does remove the show’s culpability. My question is this: Should they be held responsible when their efforts to entertain result in criminal acts?

John Fowles The Collector was made into a movie in 1965 about a man who kidnapped and imprisoned a woman he was obsessed with, and held her until a relationship developed. She died, and he blamed her for it and looked for better ways to hold a woman captive and improve the experience for himself. Robert Berdella, a.k.a. The Kansas City Butcher, credited the movie version for planting the seed of fantasies about his subsequent acts. While he admitted that it just laid the foundation for the feelings that were already there, it seems fiction always must play as fodder.

Supposedly, Mark David Chapman’s obsession with killing John Lennon was assuaged temporarily by watching the movie Ordinary People. It was an emotional movie that inspired a lot of people in different ways. There hasn’t been an issue with crediting positive influences to any art form. Should there be a double standard applied?

But of course!

Don’t shoot the messenger

There is a precarious balance that faces artists in providing necessary escapes in entertaining ways and with giving fodder to disturbed viewers. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, humans are fascinated with violence and the ability to inflict it on others, thus determining their fate. It gives us the control that we feel we don’t have over our own destiny. Most of us are content with experiencing it vicariously, and there are plenty of opportunities out there to do so. From slowing down to check out car accidents, restraining ourselves from asking a soldier if he or she has killed people, flirting with road rage, and more to the point of this writing, immersing ourselves safely in pure fantasy. It’s there, and we are drawn to it. Like screaming at the plants, it shouldn’t hurt anyone, and it is a great stress-reliever.

We are born with a survival instinct, and it is manifested in a fight or flight response. When crimes are committed, we want to know why it happened. This provides an opening, and some are inclined to take it to save their own asses. In the movie Primal Fear, Edward Norton’s character faked a stutter and dissociative identity disorder, i.e., multiple personalities, to avoid the death penalty. That is not a stretch by any means, nor is blaming actions on works of fiction. Remorse can result in sincere apologies, attrition, retribution, as well as accusation. Apparently, the first three are more daunting and difficult than sitting back and pointing the finger. It is a convenient and alluring escape hatch.  The fight is owning up to one’s actions; the flight in laying blame on outside influences.

The show Dexter is a brilliant tour de force. The actors, writers, and directors succeed where many fail—they make an otherwise reprehensible character not only sympathetic, but also likable. We root for him, even though in reality, it would be the opposite. If faced with that character in our world, we’d be horrified and humiliated that we were so duped. We know this to be true, so we are free to embrace this alternate reality. Leave it to a few bad apples to spoil it for the rest of us.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must gaze at Piss Christ, then punch a priest for bastardizing religion. That is what Andres Serrano wanted me to do, right?