Sunday, November 25, 2018

Movie review: "At Eternity's Gate"

When you live in the desert you shouldn't say, "It's a desert out here," because what else would it be, and because deserts aren't really deserted; they're full of wonderful things.  But you might find mine a cultural desert, at least if, like me, after weeks of gazing along with your fellow humans in forced passivity at the horror show of history, seeing it strive for some sort of climax in our time and in the process unveil your mistakes and demonstrate that you did everything wrong, that there is no one to blame but yourself for a parade of world catastrophes that seems to emerge directly from your guilt, you develop an urgent need to view a beautiful work of art about a man driven mad by what he sees.  

So you decide to watch the new movie "At Eternity's Gate," about Vincent van Gogh, written and directed by the masterful Julian Schnabel.  With your laptop on the kitchen table in your Pearblossom shack, bathed in a blast of setting sunlight coming through the window, van Gogh's nuclear fission streaming over the San Gabriel Mountains, you search the theater listings, scanning hundreds of square miles of desert which you find contain too few people who want to see this film to justify the economics of showing it at a multiplex in Lancaster or Palmdale, so you continue to scan and finally locate a showing in Encino- an L.A. suburb sixty miles south- at the Laemlee, an art theater you've been to before (most notably with your telepathic lizard friend- keep reading for more on that), but the schlep has got to be worth it, you think, because it looked like it would be a really cool and rare movie, and that it was.  

If I may dwell on the Laemlee for a moment, the audience is an older crowd, especially for some movies, like those about men driven mad by what they see, which strikes me as odd...I mean, that a teenage boy, say, wouldn't be drawn to a movie about a man going mad from what he sees, but might choose instead a movie about a giant robot smashing iconic buildings.  Are they not two forms of the same thing?

Anyway, Willem Dafoe was stunning as van Gogh.  He's always stunning, but in this case he was stunning because he created an actual Vincent van Gogh, whether or not it was accurate in all respects (the movie opts for the recent theory that van Gogh's death by bullet wound was not self-inflicted), a van Gogh that shimmers off the screen like van Gogh's oils shimmering off the canvas.  It was almost too much.  How long can you love watching the beauty of a man going mad from what he sees before you start to wonder, is this entertainment, is it therapeutic, or is it about all of us joining together to merge with this Christlike figure and go mad from what we see, in which case I deserve double my senior discount because I don't want to go mad from what I see, I want to survive it, if possible, and not prematurely enter the heaven of exploding suns that must have informed van Gogh's study of theology and love of light.

Of course, you need help to not go mad from what you see.  Works of art like "At Eternity's Gate" help, but you also need help from the crass, physical world- what we often call "the real world."  What kind of help from the crass world?  I personally would like to see an element of political force at our disposal that is not cynical, because, seductive as cynicism can be, it's a dangerous indulgence when you're on the edge the way humankind is.

I should add that by cynicism I mean lying.  I'd like to see a political force that states the obvious so we don't have to feel like van Gogh, alone with what we see.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Midterm journal- Day 3

The midterm election acted as a closed mental floodgate, holding Americans in an emotional, intellectual thrall long enough so that politicians and our democratic system could focus us on a reality in which elected officials represent specific things, like taxing too little or too much;  opposing Trump enough or not enough.  During the process many people felt they were making decisions about critical matters.  On day 2 the floodgate held, as the midterm results defined our central reality.

But on day 3 the floodgate opened and stored-up real life poured in: A man undone by hatred killed 12 people and himself in a Thousand Oaks bar; the next day a fire of unprecedented destructive force erupted a few miles from the bar, ending the dreams and lives of many and sending shockwaves through millions of people in California and the world.  

But we did not vote on gun control in the midterm, or policy regarding the multitude of isolated, despairing people who live as time bombs among us.  We did not vote on development in fire zones, or effective moves on climate change.  

For the rest of today and in the days to follow the floodgate will remain open and real life will pour in unrelentingly. Very little of this real life will have been voted on.

My sense is that some of the war potential that has been stored in multiple locations around the world will soon be realized.  There will be provocations about everything from Brexit to Gaza.  War is the ultimate distraction, so distracting that if it happens now, no one will notice that war was not discussed in the midterm; we did not vote on it.

Are there decent alternatives to what we call democracy?  The word itself has sacred status.  No one questions democracy.  I'm not going to question it either, except to ask whether we have it. 

Let's keep our concept of democracy, but realize that it's an attempt rather than a fait accompli, and try to make it more real.  We can do that by inserting into our political vocabulary terms reflecting our immediate situation: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, automation, mass displacement and unrest, total surveillance, total control.  If the national election in 2020 does not recognize what is actually happening to us, we will not have a democracy even in a theoretical sense.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Midterm journal - Day 2, Results

Today everyone is falling into their proper categories.  Here are three common ones (I'm in the second):

1. People who are empowered and joyful that the Democrats took the House.

2. People who are somewhat relieved that the Democrats took the House but are constrained by a sober reflection:  The basic uncertainties about humanity's current direction remain uncertain, and would have remained uncertain even if the Democrats had also taken the Senate.  People in this category tend to see our elections as correctives for mistakes that came out of previous elections, but not necessarily as correctives for anything else.  

3. People who accept Trump's tropes and believe they are in a spiritual war against evil.  They will rejoice in the saving of the Senate and vilify the new House.

No one has been vanquished; the battle lines are sharpened.  There will be much noise ahead.

The word democracy was coined by the ancient Greeks to denote rule by slave-owning wealthy males.  In our culture, democracy means rule by politicians and consultants, who pick the terms and definitions for the rest of us.  Trump usurps the consultant role and uses his own terms and definitions.  With the terms provided, our democracy can connect us to immediate matters like taxes and social policy and give us some impact.  Unless it produces the proper terms, however, our democracy will give us no impact on matters like war and peace, or rewriting our genetic code, or replacing human judgement with machine intelligence.  Those questions, unless terms are provided, will be addressed behind closed doors as if there were no such thing as an election.

It's almost as if we are expected to project our lives onto a video game called Democracy, where everyone is battling about economics, ethnicity, gender, religion morality and the future, fielding candidates and holding elections.  It can be an exciting game, but when you look up from the screen, you encounter your life.  Your actual life.  The video game is not real.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Midterm journal - Day 1

The weeks leading up to today's midterm election have been bizarre for me and the other 200 odd telepaths in the LA area (no pun intended).  We've been communing lately to share stress stories.  Our most common observation is that in crowded public places there has been an unusually persistent and so far indecipherable static emitted by almost all the randomly passing heads.  It sounds something like a snake hissing, suggesting that people are feeling threatened in unexpected ways, that long familiar paths forward have become confused, ambiguous.  What does this have to do with the midterms?

I'm not sure, so I've decided to start a journal today, November 6, 2018, the day of the midterm, and to write something here every day until it becomes clear what the midterm election means.

Tomorrow's post, of course, will reflect the results of the election.  Who knows what they will bring?

For today, I note that it's mostly Trump bouncing around in people's heads as they vote, as if Trump's downfall or triumph will decide the fundamental questions facing our species: Will we or should we continue on as the same species, with the same specs, or should we let biotechnology change us?  If AI surpasses us in all mental activities, will there be any further point to human intelligence? If so, what sort of intelligence will it be? Will the earth remain habitable for traditional humans?  Should humans have one more world war before they go extinct?

A Trump victory would not give reason to take heart for anyone concerned with these questions, but Trump didn't cause the problems the questions address.  They have been ignored by politicians before him.  That is not surprising when you consider that the United States government and its constitution do not regard ultimate questions of this sort as within their purview, because they were not urgent when the country was founded.  They are urgent now.