Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

Mel Gibson

Gibson is so reactionary and full of lethal, misogynistic, anti-Semitic rage he makes the Ancien Régime of France look like a hippy commune. The man’s so toxic you need a Hazmat suit to venture within ten feet of the guy. But I love his movies. He stars in at least three of my favorite films: Road Warrior, Signs, and Braveheart. Gibson’s pain and religious conflict had genuine conviction in Signs because he himself is full of conflict and religious passion. He was drawing on his own inferno. But Signs is not quintessential Gibson. I can see William Hurt or Jeff Bridges or Denzel Washington in the role of Graham Hess. There is no shortage of skilled actors who could have occupied that role and it still would have been a damn good movie. Not so with Road Warrior, and absolutely not so with Braveheart. Gibson’s William Wallace was as lustrous and hard as the sword he flailed on the Scottish heath. When he rides his horse onto the field at the Battle of Stirling with half of his face painted blue, you can feel the heart of Scotland pounding in his chest. It’s a thrill to watch him in that movie. I even prefer Gibson’s Hamlet to Branagh’s priggish Dane. Gibson played Hamlet with much more ferocity and humor. I hear people howling with incredulity over this statement, but fuck it, it’s true, I mean it, Gibson’s Hamlet blazed with isomers of Sturm and Drang. Does it make me squirm a little to force myself to admit to these things? Yes. It does. Do I risk social alienation? Possibly. Does Mel Gibson need defending? No. Then why? Why spend any time writing about the guy? It bugs me. Bugs me that so much talent has gone so terribly awry.

John Wayne

Wayne’s oafish endorsement of war and lame “my way or the highway” tough guy swagger has been off-putting and repellant since age fourteen, but, as in the case of Gibson, I love his movies. Unlike Gibson, Wayne couldn’t even really act. He was wooden and one-dimensional and had no sense of artistry. Gibson could do Shakespeare, and do it extremely well. No way could Wayne do Shakespeare. Try to imagine a young Wayne as Orlando in As You Like It, a middle-aged Wayne as Petruchio on Taming of the Shrew or an elderly Wayne as King Lear. You can’t. It’s laughable. But I fully confess, I love watching Wayne tractor his way through human emotions as if they were silly weeds whose uprooting is a healthy development. Wayne was the antithesis of intellect. He did not deal subtly or delicately with issues emanating from the infernos of human anguish. Intellect was worthless, treacherous, the refuge of sissies and shyster lawyers. Fancy words and pretty sentences were the province of women and failed men or misled men. Wayne’s uber-masculine image was based on the premise that people respect power and that honor and honesty are best delivered bluntly, sans eloquence, because life is a continuous, never-ending battle, and the only people you can trust are other men. Men who spurn the vanity of rhetoric and use their fists. Men who shoot first and ask questions later. Whatever truth there may be to any of this, it is an outrageously simplistic way to deal with life’s true complexities. Its appeal in the movies is pure fantasy.

Wayne’s favored element was war. And yet Wayne himself did not serve in the war; he was once booed by a group of wounded Marines during WWII for having the temerity to show up in a place dressed as a cowboy where there was real suffering. There are reasons to jeer at the mention of his name, which I have done many times over the years, hiding my real enjoyment from public view. But the truth is, I enjoy seeing movies featuring John Wayne; the presence that he brings to the screen is real and undeniable. And so I wonder: is there a gun-toting, war-mongering right-wing nut screaming to get out of my progressive skin? I don’t think so, because people like Oliver North truly freak me out. I don’t see much of my personal reality in Wayne’s screen presence, but I respond to it on some dark level, some inner chamber of my being where old Viking kings dream of blood and glory. I see something and feel something that I can recognize as juvenile and dangerous while simultaneously admiring the audacity and mythic power of it. The old male bull who will fight to the death rather than submit to anything or anyone. It’s a pretty strong narrative, and Wayne was the right guy at the right time to give it heft and body.


I love meat. But I love animals more. I do not want to see them suffer. I do not want to think about them standing knee-deep in shit in some foul-smelling stockyard until routinely and brutishly slaughtered so I can enjoy a hamburger or steak. I’ve tried eating a vegetarian diet many times, and always abjectly fail. I don’t know why. I can’t explain what it is about meat that makes a meal so much better. Why I need to chew it. Taste it. It doesn’t help that I can’t stand most vegetables. I like beans and potatoes and that’s about it. The best I’ve been able to do so far, apart from exercise my God-given right as an illogical, totally irrational human being to employ a healthy measure of cognitive dissonance, is eat as little meat as possible. Gnocchi with a little pancetta, for instance, or omelette with little cubed bits of ham.


Sugar enjoys an irrefutable universality in the realm of the guilty pleasure. Sugar is everyone’s guilty pleasure. Jellybeans, ice cream, chocolates, whipped cream, pudding, cake, pie, the list is endless. I was never into candy much until I quit drinking. Then I began binging on jellybeans. When I was working at the UW mailing service running mail through a Pitney Bowes machine I would routinely go through an 8 oz. bag of jellybeans in 15 minutes flat. I could barely stand from the dizziness brought on by the sugar rush. I would erupt in silly, hallucinatory phrases that had nothing to do with external reality, such as "I like my job, I really do," or did you see that beautiful pink angel flutter out of my left nostril and hatch a crocodile in the supervisor's eyebrow? And at home, I would gorge on a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, look down at my paunch, say fuck it, and stuff another spoon-load of Cherries Garcia into my mouth. These days, my dessert of choice is strawberry shortcake. I can’t get enough of the stuff.


I would never recommend anyone take LSD. It’s a dangerous, highly powerful psychotropic agent that, once ingested, produces a state of psychosis. But at the same time, there are certain people I sure wish would take it. LSD is a life changer. It will permanently alter your view toward life, the universe, everything. It may bring you into a state of near-madness, or very real delirium and psychosis, but it will also give you feelings of overwhelming reverence and powerful insights into the mysteries of the cosmos. You will not emerge from a so-called “trip” the same person. You will emerge it from a sage. A visionary. You will want to do good things for people. Sweet, loving things that make people feel better.

My attitude toward drugs used to be a lot less ambivalent. I never liked marijuana, so that one was easy to avoid, but cocaine? Loved the stuff. And codeine? Codeine is heavenly. Angels murmur softly to my bones that life is wonderful and wispy as cirrus on a soft summer day in Provence. I love it that it doesn’t so much numb me to pain (and this would include emotional pain) as distance me from pain, so that I can still appreciate whatever wisdom the pain is trying to impart without being burdened by it.

But codeine, like all the other drugs I enjoy, is addictive. I’ve always thought the term “abuse” with reference to the imprudent imbibing of drugs just plain stupid, like the term “self-abuse” for masturbation. Taking a drug for the sheer pleasure of mellowing one’s internal noises is eminently sane. But taking it again and again until your teeth start falling out and your flesh begins to rot is clearly a mistake. And you don’t know you’re making this mistake until it’s too late to back out gently and gracefully with the least amount of damage to yourself and other people.

So I don’t know what the upshot is. What am I saying? Take drugs, but take them cautiously? I’m not giving advice at all. I’m just saying that on the occasions when I’ve taken a Xanax or Ativan to help me through a personal crisis, or sleep, or just spend a few mellow moments without my brain going into overdrive on a diesel of worry and nihilistic pessimism, the brew that is me, it’s a guilty pleasure. In the back of my mind I’m thinking I’m weak, I’m lazy, but fuck it, this shit feels good.


Facebook is stupid. No two ways about it. What is the point of it? There is no point. I thought at first that it might function as a very convenient promotional platform where I could announce books and articles and provide a link to my blog and increase my audience. Doesn’t work. Didn’t work. People are just too self-centered, self-absorbed and mentally lazy to give a shit. They don’t click on the link. This has a lot more to say about people and what shallow, lazy, hypocritical jerks they’ve become in the new millennium, but Facebook is where you are most apt to find these people because Facebook promotes this insanely superficial social network. So why do I keep coming back and posting my drivel? Why do I feel compelled to check in every day? I don’t know. I have no answer.


I love TV. Always have. I grew up with TV. Literally. I was born in 1947, the year television usage in the U.S. and Britain began to skyrocket. My parents were among the first to have a TV. My first memory is of a Flash Gordon show, a rocket traveling through space shooting sparks.

TV has kept me company my entire life. It’s been there during some really rough times, a source of comfort, creating the illusion of being around people when I couldn’t be around people, because being around people required way more energy and skill than was within my possession. TV was there during countless hangovers, nursing me through long afternoons of bone-crushing anguish, regaling my black, bilious, nihilistic mind with silly romances, dumb jokes, and diverting journeys to distant planets.

I have spent long periods of time without TV, and felt fine. TV has never conflicted with my love of books. Both, I soon discovered, can be enjoyed with balance and discernment. Much of what is on TV is mindless IQ-lowering garbage. But much of what is on TV is fascinating, fun, and intellectually stimulating. Roberta and I have been subscribing to TV5 Monde for almost a decade. It’s an excellent aid to helping us learn French, and a lot of the programs are fascinating. I saw one about color yesterday. The history of color, the making of color, the physics of color. And HBO’s Deadwood and The Newsroom are vastly better dramas, better written and performed, than most of the movies have been lately.

And I have discovered, thanks to Larry David, that I am not alone. There is at least one other person out there who gets riled when people park sloppily, or butt ahead in line.

So where is the guilt? I don’t know. TV probably shouldn’t be on this list.


David Grove said...

I feel guilty about watching TV because it implicates me in the collective lobotomization of the American people, though I can expiate my guilt somewhat by reflecting that I watch things like Hitchcock films and Wimbledon. But I don't feel in the least guilty about drinking wine or smoking grass, though I know that alcohol and drugs have destroyed countless people. Hmm. And TV has been important to me: growing up I loved the dialogue on Hill Street Blues, and reruns of Mary Tyler Moore helped me get thru the night when I was afflicted with panic attacks. And John Wayne is great! Love Red River, The Searchers. How do I reconcile that taste with my anti-militarism and general hatred of macho shit? I don't know. It's no good trying to impose ideological consistency on the merry mix-up in your heart, is it? "One likes what one happens to like."

John Olson said...

I know, I know, it's crazy that you can like something that you are ordinarily opposed to, or runs contrary to your general drift. Red River and The Searchers are two of my favorite movies as well.

David Grove said...

I hope it's a sign of maturation when I indulge a heretofore errant (widdershins to my drift) impulse, a sign that I'm growing more flexible, defining my self-image more broadly. I hope it's not just moral corrosion.

John Olson said...

It's an interesting dilemma. I often wonder the same thing. I do, admittedly, have certain impulses that are better kept in check. The sort of impulses Freud discusses in Civilization and Its Discontents. Certain movies permit a vicarious enjoyment of behavior I would find disturbing or reprhensible in real life.

David Grove said...

Speaking of movies that afford vicarious pleasure in disturbing behavior, I really enjoyed The Wrestler--thought it much better than the same director's Black Swan. Saw it a couple days ago with my family. The wrestling scenes are at once appalling and fun, cathartic as the Three Stooges lambasting one another with hammers and such. And it's one of those affecting "loser" movies à la Taxi Driver, cathartic in the Aristotelian sense as well.

John Olson said...

I loved The Wrestler. I've seen it twice, possibly three times. Aronofsky, I suspect, is familiar with Roland Barthe's essay on wrestling in Mythologies, in which Barthes emphasizes the grandiose theatricality of wrestling. Perfect choice for a movie. And Rourke was perfectly cast as The Wrestler. A good double feature would be Barfly and The Wrestler. I totally disagree with The Ram about Nirvana, though.

David Grove said...

"I've always had a problem with the average macho man - they've always been a threat to me." --Kurt Cobain

Henry: "Why did it have to be Eddie? He symbolizes everything that disgusts me. Obviousness. Unoriginal macho energy. Ladies man..."
Wanda: "You're right. He's not much."--Barfly

John Olson said...

Now I want to see Barfly again. But tonight it's going to be Unstoppable and Source Code. I've been on a movie binge after being released from the hospital last Friday for an infection I picked up at Lake Washington. What an odyssey. Go to the doc for some antibiotics and maybe a little Vicodan for the aches and pains and next thing I know I'm quarantined in a hospital.

David Grove said...

I hope you're over your infection now or soon. Take care of yourself.

That's why I'm afraid to go to the doc even for paltry ailments. I'm always afraid he'll tell me I've got HIV or esophageal cancer or something.

I saw Barfly again about a year ago after reading some Boarding House Madrigals. It was fun and stimulating.

John Olson said...

I'm much better. I gotta tell you, though, the older you get, the better it is to go to the doctor and catch things before they get out of hand. I'm not in love with colonoscopies, but they can definitely save your life. Getting old is appallingly similar to driving an old car. You want to check those little noises and problems before the whole rig breaks down.

We watched Unstoppable last night, then discovered a few minutes afterward online that its director, Tony Scott, had committed suicide earlier in the afternoon.

David Grove said...

How sad. The Hunger is one of my favorites.