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January 2006

January 31, 2006

Love & the Pope


As stupid as this sounds, I was thinking about love the other night. I approached it as a linguistic difficulty, and scrawled in my notebook things like: "slave to language--see Burgess' comments...". And I came up with theories--basic and unhelpful ones, easily thought of before me. And then I personalised--I wrote notes about my differing interpretations of love and I'll tell you about them later. But, soon exhausted, I placed my notebook on my bed-side table and fell asleep...
Imagine my surprise, then, to wake in the morning to NPR's All Things Considered and hear that Pope Benedict himself had been thinking a lot about love too. So much so, in fact, that his first 71-page encyclical was all about the stuff. And he made some obvious but useful distinctions, and introduced me to this golden expression: "existential freedom".
Benedict uses Greek distinctions of love to establish his thesis: "Eros"--meaning the erotic love between a man and a woman; and "agape"--unconditional love. Benedict says that "eros" is fine, as long as it is contained within "agape"--ostensibly an extension of marriage.
"Eros, reduced to pure 'sex' has become a commodity, a mere thing to be bought and sold or rather, man himself as become a commodity.
"Here we are dealing with a debasement of the human: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom [snap!]; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less related to the purely 'biological sphere'."
And I would agree. Largely. Our not fulfilling our "existential freedom" is our failure to be all that we can be. That is the meaning of existential freedom--all that we can be. Hunter S. Thompson himself said that sex without love just wasn't any damn fun.
Of course, my problem with Benedict's statements is that they provide no provision for "unified love" outside of marriage or between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.
There's another problem. Relativism. Pope Benedict, though often eloquent, believes in universal truths--endemic, inarguable truths which, if I'm reading my theology correctly, can be seen as the unchanging and benevolent body-glow of God. However, if you've read your Richard Rorty, or just plain simply believe that there's no truth, only perception, Pope Benedict's proclamations can be difficult to reconcile.
And what about the linguistic difficulties presented by the word "love"? What is consistent between the "love" you feel for your partner, mother, best friend, favourite author? What can I find consistent between these objects of attention? Is it what you find consistent between them? Doubtful. In fact, it's doubtful if the shifting shades and colours of the heart, as the heart sees these objects, can be meaningfully articulated. Rather, it's felt.
There is something strange in universalising something so personal. But, looking over these last few words--hyper-extensions of uncertainty and ego--Pope Benedict's universal assertions contain a comforting glow. Unfortunately, for me, it's a glow that remains non-negotiable as long as there are people excluded from the church's definitions.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:58 AM | Comments (1)

January 20, 2006

On Reading (again)


I got up early this morning. It had been the same the morning before, and the morning before that. Why? I have stopped drinking (largely) and so the body has adjusted to nights spent reading, and writing, and thinking. Reading. That's what this piece is really about.
I had bought Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking last Saturday--a lazy day, first spent watching gay cowboys and then spent pontificating about the silliness of it all (the culture wars, that is, not the gay cowboys). When that was done I returned home and it was dark and I took up the reading habit again.
Took it up again.
I had lost the ability to read. I still read around books--I still read Harper's reviews, or studied the NYRB online. I would still talk about books, and I would still purchase them--each practice made with enthusiasm. But I had stopped reading. It had something to do with writing a 20,000 word thesis--and the attendant texts that weighed heavy and thick. It was something in the having to read them. I was subject to an ugly didacticism that I unfairly and unhappily ascribed to all reading.
When I submitted the thesis I thought the curse would lift. I would have the time, the freedom, to read. I made lists of what I would start first, second, third: Joachim Fest's Hitler; John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration; Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. They sat there and they sat there. I bought more books; I flicked through others. Nothing. It went this way for months, until I picked up Bukowski's Ham on Rye. I read it in a day. It felt good. Real good. Then... nothing.
Until last Saturday. I had read Good Words about Didion's latest, and of course her reputation is one of the brightest and firmest in American journalism. I paid $27 dollars and brought it home. I pulled up a chair on the porch and swatted away some mosquitos. I poured a small Bailey's.
And I read.
I read and I read and I read. I read about Didion writing about her husband's death, and her daugher's collapse and eventual coma. Her pain/mourning/grief (she makes clear and smart distinctions between them all) moved me as so I breathed differently.
I read about her reading--in her grief her instinct was to "go to the literature''. She does. She reads Freud, Shakespeare, and a neurologist from California. Also, Cummings, Milton and psychiatry journals. She becomes both an intellectual and visceral expert/victim of grief, and she tells doctors what she thinks about extubation.
What emerges is a text so honest, so brave, that grief emerges as the worst possible demon, and Didion as the strongest and strangest and most beautiful voice of it. Her logic is strangled by grief, but her courage and good instinct never leave her.
Zadie Smith says Didion "is essential" on the subject of death. I have never read Smith, but I want to hug her for saying this. I also want to eat crème caramel with Didion.

I am reading again.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 7:51 PM | Comments (5)

January 11, 2006

Best Films of 2005: Part I


Director/ Oliver Hirschbiegel

Strange that most of cinema’s Hitlers have been played by Englishmen. Or perhaps not, if you consider the habit an extension of the Allies' victory—a sort of meta-capture of Hitler; a showy and unusual detention of his image. Either way, what’s more significant about his cinematic portrayals is the consistent reluctance to treat him as, wait for it… a human.
Our usual, victory-embalmed depictions of Hitler have usually been Hitler as Evil—an unambiguous evil-doer; a spit-specked tyrant kinked with strange sexual appetites, encouraged to destroy Europe by an uncanny force of personality and Germany’s weak collective will. No, no, scrap that first part. There hasn’t really ever been a treatment of “personality''—merely unapologetic archetypes of evil which serve to place Hitler on a stage so lofty, or so low, as to render a real and meaningful examination of him useless.
I’m inclined to think that the stage we set for him is so high, or low, as to prevent us from looking at ourselves—Hitler wasn’t human, so we don’t have to ask ourselves any serious questions. We can sleep safe.
Well, we can’t, and this film--a German film--knows it. It’s smart enough, and brave enough, to show Hitler as flawed flesh—a strange, mad and pitiable character, bent with delusion as Berlin and his 1000-year Reich begin to crumble. What’s more, the key figures around him are portrayed as strange, loathsome, human figures also. Goebbels, his cheeks sunken, his eyes small and black, bleats his absurd belief in the Reich’s eventual triumph, keen to catch the ear of his dear Fuhrer. Colouring his speeches is the unmistakable sound of Russian artillery, their advance inexorable, the German army pitifully spent.
Goebbel’s wife, hysterically piqued, makes arrangements to kill her six children—an effort to save them from a world without National Socialism.
We see Speer—calculating, idealistic, self-serving—wishing Hitler farewell before he leaves Berlin and possible death. Goring is strangely absent in this film, but when we see him the lapels are perfectly kept, and his medals hang straight. Around him are mid-level Nazis, drinking themselves stupid to escape it all.
We also see fragments of Hitler’s plan to destroy public infrastructure (an idea secretly, partially thwarted by colleagues)—and as the Germany he destroyed contemplates this latest act of brutality, Hitler marries his girlfriend and retreats with her to his private room—metres beneath the ravaged Berlin streets—and hands her a cyanide capsule. He takes one himself and, just to be sure, places the barrel of a revolver in his mouth.


Director/ Danny Boyle

I went on my first date when I was twelve. Her name was Collette, and her mum picked me up in an old car and drove us, and two of her friends, to a large suburban Cineplex. It wasn’t the first time I had been in a cinema, but it was the first time that it left a strong impression on my memory.
It would be lazy and untruthful if I told you I remembered the popcorn smell, or the bubble-gum stained carpet. I don’t. Nor can I say that I remember watching trailers for a new Bruce Willis film, or any film.
To be honest, I don’t really remember her… our first kiss, which was exceptionally memorable, came a few hours after the completion of the film, so… I just can’t see her in that cinema. I can only see the film—Sleepless in Seattle. Laugh all you will, folks, but I can also see the warm shield of happy-anxiety that consolidated itself around me as I watched adults fall in love and felt that I was doing the same.
It was something, I tell you. A magical symbiosis—the on-screen love-trials and dreams became my own, although, at the time, I thought they reflected them. So much so that, even today, the wan pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan doesn’t seem that offensive. Nostalgia demand that I still respect the formula, even though Rosie O’Donnell’s inclusion in the film as the loud-mouth-with-a-heart-of-gold does its level best to blow the whole fucking thing out of the water.
But it still stays.
That film is me then—dumb and happy; at one with the flickering lights and still scared to kiss.
And this film, Millions, charmed the frackin’ socks off me, because, in watching the two young leads discover their great bag-o’-loot, I began watching myself fidgeting in that cinema all those years ago. The times when the centre of innocence still held.


Grizzly Man
Director/ William Herzog

“What a piece of work is man,'' lamented Hamlet, and Christ knows if the figure of this film doesn't inspire the same weariness...
I suppose Hamlet’s words concerned man’s capacity for cupidity and blood, whereas Treadwell’s foibles are less Shakespearian than they are… terribly pathetic. A failed actor, surfer, and drug dealer, it seemed Treadwell’s watershed moment came when he was turned down for a role in the sitcom Cheers—a young Woody Harrelson would later fill the position. So Treadwell, his ego unreasonably kinked, loitered in the vacuums of Los Angeles, selling drugs and surfing a little, still careful to tend to his classic surfer-boy locks. 15 years later, when parts of his body were found in the stomach of a grizzly, far, far away in remote Alaska, the perfectly kempt, golden hair still sat atop his disfigured face.
But let’s get back to California. Things didn’t work out so well for Treadwell here. He considered his skills cruelly unappreciated by the city of angels, and he played his beach life out with great sighs, experimenting with violence and drugs and self-martyrdom. Despite these signatures of banality, it seems Treadwell had enough force of personality to attract friends and sycophants. I doubt if he had anything to sell other than his unusual energy, but it all came to an end anyway when Treadwell hit on the idea to reinvent himself as a Wildman of Alaska—as noble guardian of the bears. He headed north, the actor still not dead within him….

Treadwell moved to the remote plains of Alaska, ostensibly as roaming, independent caretaker of the grizzly bears—a self-appointed role, unrecognized by state officials; his attempt at a heroic realization of Indiana Jones and Dian Fossey.
Nothing, except his own hubris, could have prepared Treadwell for this role, but for 13 years he spent the summers camping in some of the most pristine wilderness in the world—a wilderness co-habited with packs of grizzly bears, foxes and salmon.
“Everything about them [bears] is perfect,'' he says, and we know this because Treadwell’s 13-year stretch yielded over 100 hours of footage, ranging from gorgeous panoramic shots, to frightening, pathological monologues cursing the government, say, or the lack of rain.
This is a man whose hubris and self myth-making assumed such grandiose proportions that he stared death in the face every day—but the captured footage, as a result, is breathtaking. Apparently it was the part of Treadwell’s legacy that piqued Herzog so much—in a voice over Herzog congratulates Treadwell for bequeathing him such a fine body of shots—a bear snatching a salmon from a stream; a baby fox running clumsily over a lush field. And it is a remarkable legacy; as Treadwell is too keen to point out, very few humans have experienced (and captured) what he has.

The thing is, Treadwell’s philosophy is corrupt from the beginning. Ostensibly, he is protecting the grizzlies—from indifferent government rangers, and rabid poachers, but the experts say that poaching is beneath negligible, and the rangers work at preserving a vast nature reserve, prohibited to humans. So, yes, not only is Treadwell’s adventuring illegal, it also serves no purpose—there really is nothing to protect the bears from. Treadwell’s manic gibbering, his anti-establishment polemics, contain nothing of substance, but point to a man destroyed by his own vanity and desperate search for redemption. This film is so sad because his own actions implore you to consider that there just may be nothing redeemable within him.

So Treadwell runs and rants through the wilderness, still failing after 13 years to arrive at any meaningful biological, ecological or spiritual wisdom. His position was a unique one, but shy of great pictures, his environment seems to have yielded nothing to him other than fuel for a deranged ego. And so, inevitably, he is eaten by a member of the ones he loves, the tragedy ten-fold for a mysterious girlfriend (Treadwell did not allow others to appear on film) is also eaten—their rib-cages, devoid of flesh, visible from the skies. Clearly, Treadwell’s naïve, hippie-arrogance was child’s play, and could never protect him from these beasts. A bear is a bear is a bear, and man is a very funny creature indeed.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 9:54 PM | Comments (1)