Thinking about writing a novel. No, it is funny. I've been "working on a novel" since I was about 15 years old. Back then, I sat in my bedroom with the door shut so my insane mother wouldn't see me and shriek at me for, literally, existing. In so shutting myself off, I also shut out the heat from the kerosene heaters in the house. So the room was about 40 degrees, and colder some nights.
In this room, I had an electric typewriter circa 1986, with a funky "word processor" in the tiny unreadable digital screen. At least this was an upgrade to the 1970s typewriter with the cloth ribbon. I had this typewriter set on an open drawer of my dresser, and I'd scoot a chair up to it, wearing my coat and a blanket across my legs. And I wrote unbelievably shitty short stories in that condition.
I've been a writer, and I've stood naked against the world. But nobody looks.
As an aside, the drawer was filled with discarded manuscripts, pieces of stories I'd cannibalize. In the drawer, among the papers, tiny little mice had made their home. In the dead of winter, I didn't have the heart to toss them outside. I didn't have a car, or a driver's license, so I couldn't take them to a shelter even if I knew of the existence of one. And I certainly couldn't kill the cute little bastards.
While I'd write, I'd see a mouse running along the floor molding, stopping to observe me for long periods. Since my head did not fly from my shoulders and swoop down on it like a preying bird, as I'm sure the mouse expected, it would move on. Eventually I'd hear it scuttling up the back of the open drawer and plop into the shredded manuscripts. I once probed into the drawer and found four very young mice, huddled together under the paper for warmth. Four grey balls of fur, precisely the same.
The memory of what I'd endure, for the sake of writing, is like a hernia to me now. I'm hesitant to think hard on it, as if in moving I will cause the hernia to shift, and blaze searingly through a hole in my abdomen until I can force it back inside. Where it belongs. My grandfather, an old car mechanic, had a hernia the size of his fist. When it would pop out, he'd have to lie down on his back and push the thing back into his body.
I imagined, in that artic room, among my scribbles and virginity, I was going to become a "successful novelist." Hemingway, Stephen King, someone like that. Adventure and women. The Florida Keys or Maine. Chad Carter and his expanding universe of hardboiled novels, sex-dappled lovers, and acclaim. My uncomfortable youth would strip Vegas style, revealing ever more amazing reams of happiness and satisfaction. Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury would say I was a great writer, carrying on a great legacy.
The hernia aches, a piledriver waiting to fall. I talked about being a writer more in my adult life than anything else, more than girls, more than jobs, more than anyone who ever meant anything to me. I believed, in the final report, I'd be forgiven if I didn't quite know how to love, or how to communicate, or how to be happy. All of those things come with success. And what is success for a writer really? Money? Movie adaptions? Smug satisfaction?
I don't know. I remember when I was a boy, I'd climb a shed behind my grandfather's garage and sit on the roof, looking out over a corn field. It was where I went when I was hiding, when I was sure I was alone. Beyond the field was a high school and mysteriously fluffed and laughing girls much older than me drove in and out. Sometimes they stopped for gas at the garage, and I'd pop wheelies on my bike to show off for them. I once hit the brake pedal by mistake and flew over the handlebars. I didn't let go, so I ended up sitting on the ground in front of my bike. I scrambled up, too shaken to even get back on. One of the pretty teenagers I was showing off for came jogging over, her friends giving those "aww" noises and half-laughs, and the girl laughed too. I didn't look at her, just shoved my bike fast into the bushes and took off running. It was like I would never ride a bike again. I swore vengenance on bikes and teenaged girls in jeans.
In a way, my writing has become very much a failed popped wheelie. I shove writing around, kind of humilated, cheeks burning, dreams skinned. Showing off had gotten me nowhere but embarrassed. The only difference is, everyone expected the little boy to get back on the bike and show off for the girls again some day, and probably sooner than later. But now?
Now they just say things like, "Well, what are you going to do? You need a hobby. You should think about taking classes. It's over. It's finished. The bike's broke, and lucky for you to still have your balls after that crack-up!"
The persistent ratchet effect of turning 41 years old. It's the feeling of the start of a rollercoaster where the cars are pulled clank-clank to the highest apex, upon which gravity takes over and the cars begin their violent throbbing rush toward an irrefutable end.
Only in aging, in finding myself with a birthday in a couple days, I don't get the sensation of the rollercoaster's power or force, just the tense ratcheting as each day passes.
I don't think people perceive time like I do, or at least as I profess. I think convicts and people in asylums understand the passing of time. To be denied free motion or free thought is a distillation of punishment, pure as 180 proof moonshine. I once watched a burly man take a shot of moonshine: he hit it, doubled over breathless with his hands on his knees, then raised up with a howl, fumes stinging his eyes.
Being a younger man then, I didn't have the courage quotient to take a shot of moonshine. Every time I think about it, I regret it. I wasn't offered a shot, mind you, just that sometimes you have to take what you want. That mentality may get you arrested if what you want is to force some sex on someone, or steal their car, or rob a bank. But in some aspects of life, if you don't act, nothing will happen. Nothing. A virtual and distinct absence of action.
Boys just needed The Girl's validation to become Men.
Nothing crystallizes memory quite like regret. You didn't ask some girl to go out in middle school, you recall plain as day the sensation of failure. You may have suspected the girl, The Girl perhaps, whom you would never believe had "eyes" for you, might have laughed at you. But what if she did not? What if that girl was just as problematically unsure as you? What if she merely had to be presented with the idea of dating, of holding hands, of kissing your virgin lips, to be in love with you? You, the kid with the chuka boots and the too-long jeans because your mother always bought your school clothes too big? "You'll grow into them," she'd say when you complained. "And don't you forget the money I spent! You're ungrateful, you know that? Just roll them up! The other kids won't care!"
But the kids did care. They saw clearly I was a kid in middle school who didn't buy his own clothes. The girl, The Girl, she saw a shy boy with long hair who didn't much like to look other kids in the eye because he might get beaten up for it. A victim of paralyzing social fear. The Girl laughs at the boy too, maybe, just because he reminds her of a raccoon she once saw trying to pry the lid off a trashcan with its monkey paws, its cartoon thief masked eyes goggling comically for fear of the upright hairless monsters inside the house, who might make loud noises to scare the 'coon, or kill it with their magic boomstick.
The Girl may reject you, but God abhors a vacuum.
But the raccoon still made the effort, and that's what made it memorable to the girl. The shy boy doesn't even get the benefit of a survivalist's desperation; because he did not act.
At this point, in my 40s, an age of consent to becoming older, fatter, more stiff, less virile, there's the idea that inaction is regret, but with only so many years remaining in a life, the actions of youth are unforgiving when you're older. The Girl is no longer waiting for love she did not even imagine existed. The Girl is now A Person, scarred, listless, bitter, or merely satisfied. No one thinks of her like boys once did in middle school. She's never going to wonder if there is something better than what she's known. She is a precise result of time, a walking clock face so used to the plodding click of the hour and minute and seconds passing that she hardly has to think anymore to step over them.
For me, a man at last, just as I imagined myself, heroically a man as I envisioned it as a 10-year old boy, too shy, too light in the pants, too sensitive to people's friendly stares, too leary of big boisterous howling men with fumes ruddying their cheeks, I am disappointed in my state of being. My howls are rage-filled, regret-laced and heavy as bowling balls. Without action, without the need to survive, I am a 41-year old mummified raccoon, the bare crumbling outline of hair and bone, with a tiny set of sharp teeth.
HUGO has become everyone's darling. It's a movie with TITANIC-era gloss and pomp, with a magnificent array of schmaltz.
Schmaltz can be a good thing. I don't respond to it necessarily, in general, but HUGO is undeniably appealing to many movie-goers. Maybe in a depressed economy HUGO's the kind of movie, like STAR WARS in its time, which creates a world of fun and innocence by which people can pack up their cares and woes for a while.
In the 1940s, Hollywood turned into the singing and dancing machine, cranking out one silly shiny romantic and ultimately mass-fulfilling movie after another. In Europe, the same thing happened, except the Euro-version of Ginger Rogers was forced to dance around piles of bombed-out debris. No one wanted to see real misery during World War 2, so Hollywood and the other Allies produced sugary dreams full of leggy angels and darling quips.
HUGO is what I'd call "wisty-eyed." It's the kind of movie born of a complete lack of poignancy, yet so willing to please that you cannot fault it. You cannot dislike or remotely hate HUGO as a movie. Certainly, as I've heard, the book is brilliant and much-beloved.
HUGO in 1973, a Martin Scorcese picture.
The fact that Martin Scorcese, who has spent most of his career gut-shooting pimps and blowing up casino owners, directed this sweet delightful cookie of a movie is hardly my issue. In fact, if I hadn't known, I would have never guessed it, as Scorcese as a director or writer is nowhere to be found.
Not altogether true. Scorcese is found, in the heavy-handed fund-raising character of Rene Tabard, a film historian absolutely resolute in preserving/saving lost movies. A pet Scorcese project, for sure, and an extremely important one. Do not get me wrong on this point. But here's the thing: HUGO comes off as mechanical as the automaton at its plot core.
Two and half hours of HUGO later.
I don't write this to be contrarian, and I did see HUGO in 3-D, which I have no use for as a money-grab tech, since it's purely designed for young people who adore shiny things dancing before their eyes. Like many, I was smitten by the falling snow flakes which seemed to come to rest on my 3-D spectacles. And certainly Scorcese gives you three dimensions, if you wish to have them, with rampaging trains and clacking clock's inner workings and dizzying testicle-shrinking heights.
It's alive, and intends to stay that way.
I want people to enjoy HUGO before they enjoy most of the Hollywood tripe. HUGO is good for the culture. But I'm not sure it's a great movie, even if it is a movie of such pleasant whimsy that only a blackhearted villain could have thought, "This movie is too long. When will it end? How many more times must I gaze into Hugo's beautiful blue tear-rimmed eyes while he plaintively asks for help?"
For everyone who loves HUGO: I'm happy. I'd show this movie to anyone, of any age, fearless in the certainty that they would love it. HUGO is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, or GUYS AND DOLLS, or SINGING IN THE RAIN. It's a movie that is wonderful, eager and playful as a puppy. And like a puppy, it can chew your shoes and piddle on the carpet. You can only sigh and put it outside to play, play on, into the cultural twilight.
A traditional Thanksgiving for me involves driving two hours south of Fredericksburg, into the countryside of Middlesex Co. There I'm greeted by friends and their relatives, of a family of long-standing friends, and the rapid extension of themselves through their small children. Even the once-children are growing and preparing to assimulate their pleasant, attractive qualities with that of similar genes, and expand their light in a darkening world.
To solidify the metaphor, there is a bonfire headed by the family patriarch, a ceremonial of sorts burning of dead branches, piles of damp grass and shorn undergrowth, clutching vines and decaying weeds collected over the summer and fall. This tower of bony witch bodies and moldy scarecrows is set aflame against the just-fallen night. It's like a sacrifice to winter gods for another year of good fortune.
This fire is surrounded by amused family, witnesses to the burning, while the patriarch and several other men such as myself work to transfer more and more of the dead pile onto the flames. The work is mildly hard, and welcome in my mind. Sweat trickles, loam squashes beneath shoes, frosty breath flares in the fire-flecked dark, and each heave of heavy wood into the fire's heart sends waves of spinning embers into the sky and down again as ash on shoulders and hats. Under this fire snow, a college boy kisses his girlfriend once, quick as an arrow.
Fire has ever cleansed the world of evil, and taken the hero on a hellish journey.
These long-time faces are transfixed by the fire, pleased by every spasm of it, vocally encouraging the men's feeding. I can't see the ground, the mound of sticks and resistant moldering logs which are pried up and thrown bodily into the mass of consuming heat. Things break in my hands, viny, mewling, and once alive. I'm inexplicably something else than what I was. The fire is all. It is the fire and a desire to perform for the lovely women and proud men watching. This is a dance with a primal force, the very core of civilization. This fire is a forgiving bestial record of every moment in human history, and our future as well. The fire is a time machine, as every fire is a remembered fire. No one has ever forgotten a fire of any size and strength.
Contemplation of the talking flames, or rising fear of what they are saying?
Finally, when everything is burning, there are embers, charged red with energy as old as time itself. This has been the best moment of this day and any day for a long time. Everyone leaves the observance, except for the few to insure the fire is controlled. The silent agreement with fire: feed me, and I will not destroy you utterly. That is how we used fire to construct cities and explore space. Fire is the elemental Swiss Army knife, a dedicated servant and a demanding god all in one.
For the lovers in the fire snow, kissing while fiery ash settled onto them like a baptism, they will perhaps never know whether they are favored or condemned by the flames. And such is the mystery of a life.
The magic of movies, as it's referred. Honestly, I haven't seen much magic this year. I figured to at least point to all the highlights I've seen. Particularly now, right before we're deluded with the Oscar-bait bullshit over the Holidays.
The notable in-theatre flicks: DRIVE with Ryan Gosling, outstanding character study slash sequel to Walter Hill's THE DRIVER (1978). Best head-kicking-in scene ever. Top notch in every way.
Malick's TREE OF LIFE, probably one of the most amazing movies I've ever seen. Brad Pitt is consummate. Anyone who isn't devastated after this movie is a f*cking brain-sucking mutant who should be hunted with pitchforks and shotguns.
HORRIBLE BOSSES: funny, but a bit unreal even by comedy standards. You can go with it, and enjoy for the most part.
That's it for the best at-the-movies. Saw CAPTAIN AMERICA and HANGOVER 2, but wouldn't say they were worth a ticket. As with a lot of Hollywood product, serviceable and mostly forgettable.
On DVD this year:
BLACK SWAN, which didn't shatter my world but still impacted enough to leave a moon crater.
THE LAST EXORCISM was way better than I thought it'd be.
THE AMERICAN with my man crush George Clooney, way worse.
THE TOWN was solid, solidly forcing my further adoration of Jeremy Renner, of 28 WEEKS LATER and THE HURT LOCKER, mainly because he's a Jimmy Cagney lookalike pug tough with a soul.
I SAW THE DEVIL, a Korean human monster movie with OLDBOY's Min-Sik Choi, doing what he does best, which is violate your right not to be mangled by his hands.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD is the real high concept, the future of comic book movies if they had any creative guts.
CATFISH, touching and creepy and slanderous simultaneously. The internet can hurt you.
SOURCE CODE, loved the concept, eh on the execution, but still way deserving a look.
Of movies on DVD, in general:
Finally saw LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972.) The movie that verifies most women are evil, especially French women.
Saw three Criterion movies from director Hiroshi Teshigahara, WOMAN IN THE DUNES, PITFALL and THE FACE OF ANOTHER. Surrealist powerhouse flicks from the mid-1960s. Guaranteed you've never seen anything like them.
Lumet's PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981,) pure vicious cigarette burning thrust into eye movie, brilliant in every way.
Gaspar Noe's ENTER THE VOID (2009) doesn't unleash horrid psychological underneaths like his IRREVERSIBLE (2002) did, but attempts to reveal the circle of life. TREE OF LIFE, by way of heroin addiction.
Rhona Mitra's DOOMSDAY, pure fun. Don't even ask for reasons why, because it's obvious.
Freidkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.(1985) was a movie I sort of avoided, considering the soundtrack is by Wang Chung. That's enough to keep me away for thirty years. Then I saw it, utterly blown away, just a great movie, top-five car chase, top-five 1980's naked women. Everything you want or need in a movie.
Also saw Danny Boyle's SUNSHINE (2007) , released what seems a lifetime ago. Solid science fiction, for what that's worth, definitely quality, definitely unnerving. I may not have loved it, but I've thought about it ever since.
On a side DVD tour, watched all first three seasons of "Fringe." Started off hating everyone on the show except for asylum resident Walter Bishop. But once the show's mythology took off, found an interesting set of scenarios to enjoy. Despite some television-level acting, and pure stupidity on the writing side of things, the show still engaged.
Anna Torv, "Fringe"'s Captain Kirk, didn't really affect me at first. But she has a great voice and smiling eyes, and that's usually a combination that wins me over. Amazing woman.
And that's a wrap on Burly Movies so far this year. Unless something changes soon, this will stand as the best of the year's viewings.