Reading Review: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1983 edition) by Harlan Ellison

classic sci-fi at its most misanthropic.
Ellison’s best known work.

I haven’t read much Ellison. I was very impressed with a collection of his later work titled Angry Candy when I was in high school and undergrad, so much so that I told more than one person he was my favorite author. Even then, I knew I was cheating if I said that without reading the earlier collection I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream. It was a long time before I got around to doing my homework – a long time before I asked for a copy of the collection, another long time for my copy to sit on my shelf gathering dust and not being read, a long time between when I started reading that copy and when I finished it. But I’m done now, and I have some things to say about this seminal work.

The Collection’s Unsung Gem: Delusion for a Dragon Slayer

The only aspect of this collection that really troubled me was its misogyny. I talked about it a little with my friends, and one of them pointed out that Ellison’s work is misanthropic overall, but its world-weary cynicism about people in general doesn’t bug me as much as I might expect; its attitude towards female characters, however, does get under my skin. In its pages, both men and women get mistreated and occasionally murdered, but women also get denigrated, ‘taken down a peg’, objectified, beaten and raped, etc. and the men who do these things generally either get away with it or in some cases are rewarded for their behavior. Yes, I understand Ellison wrote this material in the 1960s and misogyny was in the water of the genre, but after regarding Angry Candy with such fondness for its insight, I kept turning this collection’s pages hoping to see Ellison pass on the Kool-Aid – and kept getting disappointed.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer was the story that broke the mold.

The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.
The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.

Its premise is simple: when the protagonist dies in a construction accident, he regains consciousness in the body of a strapping hero taken straight from epic legends. He learns that Heaven is real, it is individual, it takes the form of the innermost dreams and aspirations of a person’s spirit, and it must be won in a trial that will take the shape of that person’s beliefs about challenge and the highest of standards… and then his trial begins. In case you didn’t notice, this is good stuff, people. Ellison weaves a story of mythic archetype proportions and expresses it in delirious prose that is both descriptive and taut. And this is the only story in the collection in which a man experiences direct and dire repercussions as a result of treating a woman deplorably. As a woman and a feminist, these pages read like triumph, but that triumph is expressed through lamentation, not sanctimonious sermonizing. This is the Ellison I love.

…And the Raspberries Go to: World of the Myth

Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).
Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).

At the other end of the spectrum, from triumph to tragedy, we have World of the Myth, in which a bizarre love triangle of the future churns out its unrealistic drama after a crash landing on a planet populated by hive-minded telepathic ant creatures. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even an astronaut, to reason out that a woman who has been violently raped is not going to be coquettish with her rapist afterwards (unless she’s trying to deceive him as a means of self-preservation, and that’s not how Ellison’s protagonist spins the actions of the female character in question). The rapist is not likely to be a serious contender for the woman’s affections. Her sick dread and bone-chilling rage, likely. Affection and love? Not very likely. The vast majority of real women do not view rape as a contest of wills in which the rapist is a winner and therefore worthy of respect. Real life is not The Fountainhead. The way Ellison scripted Iris in this story made me want to throw the book against the wall. Needless to say, I was not surprised to read in the introduction to Lonelyache that Ellison’s first and second marriages failed.

Another failed attempt to create a realistic female character.
Another failure at creating a realistic female character.

Maybe you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who can take misogyny with a grain of salt. Maybe you’re really good at saying “Cultural context! The Kool-Aid musta gushed into his mouth like a firehose!” I’m not so good at that. I like authors who can get at the truths I perceive to be timeless. Angry Candy demonstrated that quality to me. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream just felt… dated. And the title story? The one that won the Hugo Award in 1967? Maybe I would have loved it if it weren’t considered such a classic, but after all the hype, I felt really let down. My advice is to skip this collection and focus on Ellison’s later work. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Film Review: Seven Samurai

six circles for the real samurai, a triangle for 'Lord Kikuchiyo'
One should never have a battle without a flag.

When my husband told me he’d never seen the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, my jaw practically hit the floor. Looking back, I’m really not sure how many times I’ve watched this film; I do know that the first time I saw it was for my Analysis of Film class during my senior year of high school. I eventually bought a VHS copy as a gift for my father (yes, I really did just say ‘VHS’) and I may have watched that copy more times than he did. For Joel’s viewing pleasure, I got my hands on a copy of the Criterion Collection edition, and let me tell you, reader, if you’re going to invest in a copy of Seven Samurai, the Criterion Collection is the way to go, if for no other reason than the superior translation quality of the subtitling. As someone who has seen three different subtitle translations of the same Japanese, I will say that the Criterion text catches more nuances and provides more subplot details than either of the other two. While I doubt that I have anything to say about this masterpiece that has not already been said, I’m still going to offer my two cents about it. Note that this review probably contains spoilers, but give me a break, Seven Samurai came out in 1954, I should be able to discuss it freely.

Plot

There's a reason Kikuchiyo is in the foreground.
The old man said to find hungry samurai.

The premise is simple, yet compelling: some starving farmers decide to fight the bandits who want to steal their entire barley harvest, by hiring samurai to defend the village. Much of Act One is devoted to the process of finding the samurai who are willing to do this, and their tactical decisions upon seeing the setup of the village. Act Two is battle time. Subplots include the question of just how low the villagers have stooped in their past bargaining with the bandits, and also the question of what intent the worldly samurai have toward innocent village girls, but really, Seven Samurai is a primitive, small-scale war movie. I know that Kurosawa was inspired by the Western genre (which is why the Hollywood response of The Magnificent Seven feels so ironic) but Westerns tend to bore me, while war movies, I adore… see one of my previous posts,my review of Apocalypse Now. And I do adore Seven Samurai. My one criticism of this film has to do with pacing. Because the plot is so simple, I’m not sure about Kurosawa’s choice to linger so lovingly on details and turn this into a two-act film. It just moves so slowly! And I like to think of myself as having a longer-than-typical attention span. We broke this viewing in a couple of places, to deal with phone calls and food, and with the Criterion Collection material present, it ended up taking more than four hours. That’s a pretty big demand to put on today’s viewers. Maybe when Seven Samurai came out, people were less busy, or at least more patient.

Characters

He hasn't had a good day in a really long time.
If your wife had been sacrificed to the pleasure of bandits, you’d be pretty sore too.

In previous viewings, I was drawn to the character of Heihachi, samurai “of the Wood Cut School.” His genial nature, gentle humor, and attempts to balm the spiritual wounds of his comrades won me over. Heihachi wasn’t any less of a great guy this time through, but I actually found myself drawn to someone who hadn’t really caught my eye before: the intense, simmering farmer, Rikichi. Rikichi is the first farmer willing to take a stand and fight the bandits, and pretty much the only one for most of the story’s length (until after the samurai have trained the farmers to defend themselves and have instilled confidence). According to several passages of dialogue, Rikichi should really be considered an aberration, as it is the farmer’s way to (depending on who’s talking) endure, to grovel, or to two-facedly deceive as an act of self-preservation, certainly not to fight! The question becomes, would Rikichi still have thought to attack the bandits – his original plan being to do it himself, not to involve samurai – if his wife were still with him? To what extent is the aggression he exhibits part of his spirit and identity, versus to what extent is it the result of scarring and trauma? He does not get enough focus in the script for the answer to this question to be clear, but I would be willing to guess that it is mostly due to the trauma… because if he had been so aggressive before losing his wife, the villagers would have picked another woman to sacrifice, to avoid angering him.

Acting

"It's time for The Speech... You know the one..."
Mifune gives The Speech.

No review of Seven Samurai could be complete without discussing the performance of Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. I have heard that Mifune had a background in kabuki theater. I can’t find much information on the Internet to give credence to this, but neither can I find anything definitively disproving it, and whether or not Mifune was actually trained in kabuki, his exaggerated facial expressions and expressive gestures smack of the art. He chews the scenery, but the kicker is, he makes you enjoy him doing it! You want to see more of the scenery chewing! I’ve never seen another actor grandstand so effectively. And Seven Samurai, as a film, seems to have a conflicted soul regarding the simple question of whether it is an ensemble performance, or a vehicle to showcase Mifune’s bombastic talent.

Seven Samurai is a hallowed piece of cinema that has stood the test of time. I could grasp and appreciate its themes as a teenager, but re-watching it with adult eyes was a pleasurable experience and fresh mental exercise. Be warned, if you embark on its journey, you should probably block out a full afternoon of time. It’s worth it. Believe me.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Morning Dew”

The day my sister first married,
her eyes glowed green
as a spring leaf caught against a ray of sunlight.
I was seventeen,
and time has faded that day in my mind
covered many moments with a patina of wistful fondness
I was jealous of her that day.

I wanted to be ready
for love and family
for life and freedom
but I wasn’t even ready for college.
The maid-of-honor has a story too.

I remember waking up early
for rituals of beauty
preparations
marking a special day.
She was marrying a soldier,
and in his remarks during the ceremony
the minister said there was a time for war
as well as a time for peace.
I stood and smiled.

I remember fast and blurred impressions
of the reception
of watching the first dance, a cryptic U2 hit
of my sister coyly shaking her head
before her soldier retrieved the garter
of fast high kicks from the young men, joined by my father
during a rousing country line dance tune
I remember that I didn’t want to eat.
It was my most poorly-timed fast for political protest.

I remember that I ate the wedding cake anyway.

My sister has always been beautiful.
In the pictures taken of her that day,
she shines
with ripe golden potential
wearing a fine, full gown
and our mother’s garnet cross.
Dark red goes so well
with gold and white roses.
But it is her eyes that captured me then
that capture me now
Their ecstatic shades of green as life-giving as farmer’s soil.

Commentary

After being warned by a test reader that the first poem posted to this blog, “Hatred”, was ‘a little opaque’ (which is a nice way of saying “I had no idea what you were talking about, Lyn!”) I knew that I wanted my next poem to be easy to follow. While I do enjoy writing cryptic material, I don’t want to frustrate my audience to tears because then I won’t have an audience for long. I decided to take a little stroll down that familiar avenue, Memory Lane. As I did, I noticed something strange; the houses I was passing didn’t look the same as they had on previous jaunts. Everything seemed to be coated in mist, so that I could make out general shapes and looming impressions, but few fine details. I decided to craft a poem to reflect this far-away, misty experience.

OK, enough with the extended metaphors. “Morning Dew” is an example of a poem that was written in its entirety without a title, and then I chose a title for it as a capstone or summary of what had already been created. I chose to title it “Morning Dew” because I wanted an image that implied three things: 1) a fresh beginning, 2) messiness, and 3) ephemerality. The purpose of a wedding is to celebrate the fresh beginning of a marriage, and my sister’s first wedding was no exception to this. It was a celebration, but I also remember it as being a somewhat messy one, not in a literal sense like I spilled my food or something, but in my role as maid-of-honor I remember a lot of rushing around and worrying about loose ends. My guess is that most of the guests did not experience this aspect of the event, but this isn’t their poem. Have you ever walked across grass coated in morning dew? Definitely messy. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted the title to invoke an ephemeral quality. Just like dew evaporates, my sister’s first marriage eventually ended. (She has recently remarried, perhaps it was attending her second wedding that stirred these memories in me.) Also, as I have already noted, memory is ephemeral. Almost everything that I remember from that day is contained in this poem. That’s not a lot of details for a full day of existence, and it’s much more than I can remember of the days that surrounded it.

Structurally speaking, this can be looked at as another “5 paragraph essay” poem, with a slightly longer introduction and a truncated third body point (for dramatic effect). The rhetorical repetition of “I remember” as a stanza starter points to this. Maybe next poem I’ll try to focus on varying my structure a bit more. Structure may be the poetic element that I put the least amount of conscious thought into and for which I am most likely to just ‘go with what I know.’

I don’t have as many comments to make on specific lines in this poem as I did in my first one. This may be a sign that this poem does better at standing on its own feet. I will say that the image of my sister’s eyes being the color of sunlit leaves was not created fresh for this poem; I believe I thought of it around the time of that first wedding, and it has stuck with me ever since. Almost every time I see green leaves with sunlight shining through them, I think of her. I will also say that in writing this poem, I faced one of my least favorite artistic challenges: to pop-culture reference, or not to pop-culture reference? The song that the men danced to during the reception was the mid-90’s version of “Cotton Eye Joe,” but having just given a specific band name a few lines before (U2), I decided not to drop a second reference. If I were going to change anything about the poem as it currently stands, I would probably figure out a way to take out the mention of U2 as well. I generally try to avoid pop-culture references as much as possible in my writing, because I feel they quickly date the work and I want my material to hold up to the test of time, but sometimes they are unavoidable and I do recognize that some people really appreciate them.

“Morning Dew” was not a difficult poem to write, and I didn’t really challenge myself creatively in the process for it (though I did look up the definition of “patina” to make sure I was using it correctly). But art doesn’t have to be a painful struggle to express a truth, because the truth is not always painful (thank goodness!). Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to play it safe and speak comfortably. Plus, when you make exploring painful and uncomfortable material a regular staple of your artistic process, exercising restraint and not going there becomes, simply put, another type of challenge.

Image found through the Open Clip Art Library.

Lyn’s Essays: On Politics and Patriotism

Second Wave feminism had a motto: “the personal is political.” This motto makes sense if one defines politics as the means and methods by which power is negotiated in a society. Power to take actions, power over other people, the distribution of material resources, are all political questions that have been wrestled with and renegotiated over the years. Today is a national holiday for the United States of America. The word holiday came from the term “holy day,” a sacred and certainly religious observance. So I guess the celebration of Independence Day is an indication of how it is possible to make a religion out of patriotism. (Some other time, I’ll write an essay called “On Religion” that will explore how people frequently divorce the concepts of religion and spirituality from the concept of God. As a spiritual atheist, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.)

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a patriot. I do not derive any part of my conscious identity from my country. I derive some part of it from the geographical region I have been tied to, referring to myself as a Midwesterner (or prairie blossom if I’m feeling eloquent), but the way I see it, on a fundamental level what I’ve gotten from the USA as one of its citizens is laws to govern my conduct. The fact that something has been done to me, doesn’t change who I am (unless I let it).

You see, my political philosophy could probably best be termed “anarchosyndicalism lite.” This means I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, and if you got that Monty Python reference, this image is for you:

There you go, bringing class into it again...
There you go, bringing class into it again…

I call it anarchosyndicalism lite as an acknowledgment of the fact that I haven’t done a lot of homework on my position and despite the obscurity of what I did learn about it, I’m not invested enough to do any more research on the topic. I found out about anarchosyndicalism through my reading of Noam Chomsky. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Chomsky is a brilliant linguistic theorist and political intellectual based out of MIT. I read a book of his called What We Say Goes and while I was a little miffed at his lack of citations (as a friend of mine pointed out to me later, “When you’re Noam Chomsky, you don’t cite the source, you ARE the source!”) I was amazed at how everything he was saying gave factual credence to the way I’d suspected the world worked all along but had never bothered to put into complete thought. Then I started reading Hegemony or Survival, in which Chomsky does cite sources, and it still felt like someone had finally found evidence for what I’d suspected in my heart for as long as I’d had independent thought. So I looked up information on Chomsky online and found out he’s an anarchosyndicalist. I read the definition of the philosophy provided by Wikipedia and when I read it, it completely made sense to me, but I had trouble keeping it stuck in my mind. The terminology was easy to forget.

I have a libertarian friend. To maintain a friendship with him, we have agreed to disagree on many points of political philosophy. But of all the people I know, he would be the one best able to correctly identify and label fringe political positions. So I turned to him one day and said, “I think I may be an anarchosyndicalist. Can you help me figure out if I’m right?”

He asked me, “In your ideal world, what would government look like?”

I thought about it for awhile. I knew that what came out wasn’t going to be substantial or eloquent. “Two things come to mind,” I replied.

  1. When I was a child, I read a lesser-known novel by Piers Anthony called Triple Detente. The world governments in that book are governed by a principle of child psychology: if you have a slice of cake that needs to be divided between two children, for optimal results an adult does not cut the cake. The children will resent the adult for somehow dividing it unfairly. Instead, the adult gives one of the children the knife and says “You get to cut, but the other child gets to choose.” What will result are the two most mathematically equal slices of cake those children will ever see.
  2. The other concept that governs my political philosophy is decision-making by consensus. Democratic and even republican systems can produce a “tyranny of the majority”, in which the rights and needs of smaller minority voices get trampled on. In decision-making by consensus, the process is an active negotiation and compromise in which no one has to give away the farm but everyone recognizes that they’re not going to get everything that they want. Decision-making by consensus is a painstaking process and it falls apart in large groups, so I’d say I wouldn’t want any unit of governance to have direct control of more than a tribe of about 300 people.

My friend looked at me evenly. “I’d say you’re right. You just summed up the philosophy of anarchosyndaclism pretty well.”

Viewing my society and life through anarchosyndicalist eyes isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s pretty frustrating. This post from The Onion sums up much of my internal monologue when I try to relax, and not be so serious all the time. Life out here on the fringe can get pretty lonely. For a while, when I was living in the city and my thinking was more muddled and my loneliness more desperate, I flirted with joining a Trotskyist activist group. Thanks for the memories, but no thanks, guys. I’m just a writer.

I hope this post has shed some light on my reticence to participate in 4th of July festivities. If I show up at a fireworks party, it’s only because I want to see the other people there. I’m not endorsing my country.

Film Review: Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, artistically rendered.
A Francis Ford Coppola classic.

I love war movies. Truly and sincerely. This might come as a surprise to those who know how much I hate war. As a woman, I have never been draft material, but I suspect that I might have been able to make conscientious objector status had I ever been in a position to make the argument. I’m the sort of person who, to the argument that WWII and fighting the horrors of Hitler was just, will reply that Hitler would never have risen to power without WWI. I hate war, truly and sincerely… yet I love war movies. The only war movie I’ve ever started that I didn’t love was Enemy at the Gates, I couldn’t abide its stereotyped, no-nuance portrayal of Communism. That one, I didn’t finish. Apocalypse Now is much more my style.

Use of Color

golds and greens and tans, reds and black for accent and shadow
This shot exemplifies the film’s color palette.

The color palette of Apocalypse Now is very limited. Gold and green and tan dominate. Red shows up for accent (usually in the form of blood), white is used for highlight and contrast, and dark brown or black makes the shadows come alive. The only real notable exception to this palette is the diegetic (film term: pertaining and relevant to the world of the characters) use of purple smoke by the soldiers, and let me tell you, after taking in so much of the same information in slightly different permutations for so long, those swaths of purple smoke are almost a relief to the eye. At the start of the film I was enjoying how completely the color was controlled while seeming to remain natural and diegetic. Even the sky is somehow gold all the time! But by the end of the film I was dying to see something blue. The color control seemed not just forced, but suffocating. That may have been the intent. The film as it stands definitely conveys the heat and mugginess of Vietnam. There were some shots in which beads of sweat were captured in such exquisite detail that I felt slimed by them.

Acting

Marlon Brando, doing what he does best.
Very intense.

Apocalypse Now is wonderfully cast. Marlon Brando is at the top of his game as the megalomaniac Kurtz, and Dennis Hopper seems even more disconnected from reality as the photojournalist playing into Kurtz’s cult of personality. Harrison Ford’s leading man charisma gets dampened down perfectly in his supporting role as a staff officer during Willard’s briefing, and I doff my hat to him for managing that, I’m sure it was harder than it looked. Laurence Fishburne’s talent is evident in his portrayal of unripened youth faced with terror. And regarding the character of Willard, our narrator – I haven’t seen much of Martin Sheen’s work but he conveys the stark horror and hypervigilance of PTSD without chewing the scenery. Really, there’s not a single performance here that’s flawed, and with the ensemble working together as well as they do, if there were a flawed performance it would be noticeable. Coppola drew out the best in these men.

Themes

Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.
Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.

This film has become best known for Kurtz’s dying half-whisper of the phrase, “The horror, the horror.” Yet despite the carnage Willard wades through and at times participates in, it is not a grisly show of horrors we as viewers have been invited to here. Make no mistake, gore is present (at one point, the Cambodians ritually slaughter a large animal, and the killing blow is shown). But it’s not the point. There are no cheap thrills, no edge-of-the-seat jumping at a sudden noise after silent tension. This is far from a slasher film. The pace of the film is slow – agonizingly so, at times. Apocalypse Now is an exploration of what it means to be evil, what it means to be mad, what it means to be human and ultimately what it means to have honor. If this film is to be believed, in the Vietnam War humanity had to take a backseat to honor. Kurtz loses his humanity but retains his honor and an argument can be made that he is more the film’s hero than Willard. Apparently there is a fine line between honor and horror, and not just linguistically.

I’m sure that Apocalypse Now is not for everyone. The first time I saw it, more than a decade ago, I was bored long before the end, most likely due to the slow pacing. But for someone who likes war movies, appreciates good acting from a professional cast, and wants to see what tight directorial control can really produce, Apocalypse Now is a film to watch with the lights off.

Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Hatred”

A single star

shatters through

a lonely night

to burn the earth.

Sharper than my fingernails,

colder than blue ice,

torn from the pages of a comet,

it drinks me

and drains me of discontent.

I would catch it with these hands

if they were real,

and would not burn

like the gorgeous

clay

my feet have squandered.

I would whisper secrets to it

if they were real,

and could be heard

without the ugly squeal

of tires on the road to my dreams.

I would give it a new name

if names were not real,

and able to spell death

or life

or blood, dripping

like candy melting under rain.

I leave the star

in its new bed.

I will keep watch

and watch it sleep

forever.

Commentary

Sometimes, when I write a poem, I will craft the entire body of lines first, and then search my mind for a title that crystallizes what I have said. I’d say this is my strategy around titling most of the time. But there are poems for which I begin with a title, placing a word or phrase at the core of the poem, and then I add layers around that core, in the form of lines. “Hatred” is an example of the latter type of poem.

I was not filled with hatred when I wrote this poem. Looking back on the experience of writing it, I wasn’t actually filled with any particularly strong emotion. I simply felt the desire to examine the emotion of hatred while I was in that detached state, and perhaps that’s why my mind chose the particular image that it did to guide the poem. About 14 years ago, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, I saw a meteorite fall at night. Not an off-in-the-sky safe little shooting star; I saw a quick, fiery streak that poofed into nothingness perhaps twenty yards away from me down the street, with the atmosphere choking off its descent probably an equal number of yards up into the sky. It was extraordinary. I can remember that its descent made no sound. I can also remember thinking, “I’ll probably never see anything like that again.” That was the image that guided this poem. That was the “silent star” of my hatred as I wrote.

I don’t have very much experience with hatred. I experience it when I think about certain aspects of the world we live in, like war, or exploitation – but unless I’m thinking about a specific instance of those phenomena that I have actually experienced, that’s a soft, safe kind of hatred. When I do think about specific instances, I experience the hatred in brief, searing flashes, like the meteorite’s fall. I’ve only experienced real, sustained hatred for an actual person once in my life, I believe, and that was such a scary and tainting experience that I eventually made the conscious choice to let it go. One of my favorite sayings goes like this: “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die from it.” I would think holding onto hatred would be like drinking an even nastier poison.

So I had chosen a title for this poem (“Hatred”) and I had a guiding image too (the meteorite). Where to go from there? I decided I really wanted to explore related imagery and choose some striking words. The last couple of poems that I’d written were constructed as miniature narratives. The focus was on the story they told and the words conveyed plot. I wanted to do something different this time. So I did something I really enjoy with poetry and started quickly building imagery, trying to convey each image in as few words as possible.

It should probably not come as a surprise, given that this was my strategy, that the poem’s structure is very conventional. It’s basically a tiny five paragraph essay: introduction, three body points constructed to be rhetorically similar, and a conclusion. This is a comfortable structure for me and I use it for many poems when I want to put my focus on the word choices and not push myself to play with structure.

Some thoughts on some specific lines:

    • “Sharper than my fingernails” – something that very few people know about me and probably even fewer care about is that my fingernails are not particularly strong or sharp. I used to peel them to keep them short and they still peel easily. So to say that the meteorite is sharper than them isn’t saying very much. I think this line is probably a reference to the softness of the guiding image in my mind. I have done my best to hold onto the memory, because it really was something extraordinary and I think I might have been the only person who saw it, but time blurs everything.

 

    • “colder than blue ice” – for this line I deliberately chose to work with a very common image. Everyone understands that ice is cold and everyone understands that blue things are colder that white things (or nearly everyone). I wanted to use this as a touchstone for understanding, because I knew I was going to push myself elsewhere and didn’t want to risk incomprehensibility.

 

    • “and drains me of discontent” – this line is an attempt to grasp at a less-frequently-discussed side of the truth about hatred. Because hatred can override reason, frequently when I have experienced hatred, life has seemed less complex, and in that experience there is an addictive peace. This is why righteous indignation can produce a high.

 

    • “I would catch it with these hands / if they were real” – a reference to dissociation. Strong emotional states have frequently separated me from awareness of myself as being grounded in my body, have led to a feeling of unreality about something as basic and ever-present as my own hands. This can be dangerous. I actually got a tattoo in an attempt to remind myself to avoid this type of emotion. Hatred certainly has the capacity to do this.

 

    • “gorgeous / clay” – here we have an example of me pushing myself. Trying to find an image that will puzzle the reader and juxtapose parts of reality that are not normally put side-by-side. I’m proud of this one.

 

    • “clay / my feet have squandered” – this might be going too far. Even I’m puzzled by my use of “squandered” in this line. I decided to stand by the choice and not change it to something more conventional, because it just feels right, but I really have no idea why it does. Sometimes art is mysterious even to the artist.

 

    • “the ugly squeal / of tires on the road to my dreams” – ugh. This is the image that I am least satisfied with in this poem and if I were going to change any lines in it these would definitely go first. But I generally don’t do a lot of finicky correction on poetry. My poems generally drop out of my head as units in a single sitting. I will make edits as I go, fixing a line or stanza as it feels right, but there comes a point where I feel done and I wouldn’t go back and change the poem after that point any more than a chef would try to re-bake a cake. Maybe part of it got burnt, or the ingredients weren’t mixed right, but if you want something better, you have to bake a new cake. That cake is done. And whether I like it or not, this stereotypical image about tires and roads is a part of this particular cake. Maybe someone else out there will like it better.

 

    • “like candy melting under rain” – this line is really noteworthy only for its use of the preposition “under” rather than a more conventional “in the”. I chose “under” because I wanted to bring a sensation of pressure into the poem. Hatred can be an awful burden.

 

  • “I will keep watch / and watch it sleep / forever” – another reference to the seductive and addictive quality of hatred. Life is so complicated, when one finds something to override and simplify, even if that thing is destructive, it’s easy to fall into the trap.

 

Well, that’s all I’ve got to say about this poem. I hope you enjoyed my first attempt to dissect my own poetic process. Stay tuned for more and if you enjoyed reading “Hatred”, please think about buying the poetry book when it’s done!

Film Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Before viewing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I would have summed up one of my cardinal tenets of film-viewing as: “In Gilliam We Trust.” Terry Gilliam has created many flights of fancy over his career, from the mischievous lunacy of Time Bandits to the distilled dystopia of Brazil, and without exception I have loved them – until I encountered this particular work. While grand in scope and beautifully composed, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus fell flat.

Mise-en-Scène (“placing on stage”, for those unfamiliar with the term)
I mentioned this film’s beautiful composition. Gillian here displays the same loving attention to detail that characterizes the rest of his work. When he wants something to look antique, it is antique all over; when he wants something to look ethereal, it glows and flutters in perfect arrangement. He paints with the broad strokes of spectacle, and he knows his craft, so of course the result is spectacular. If I had watched this film solely as a collection of visuals, as moving tableaus in a modern art museum, I probably could have walked away sated. But this film has a narrative component, and that’s where I got disappointed.

Plausibility/Continuity (warning: this section of the review contains spoilers)
The central conceit of Imaginarium‘s plot works fine for me – after living as a monk dedicated to keeping the universe going through story, Doctor Parnassus made a wager with the devil that imagination would beat… what, banality? (It’s a testament to this film’s confusion that the most significant event of its backstory gets such afterthought treatment that less than 24 hours after viewing it, I can’t remember how it was framed.) Parnassus won immortality but has discovered it to be a curse, as he cannot keep up with the times. This much, I can roll with. I can even buy that a thousand-year-old ex-monk dedicated to enlightening humanity might experience love at first sight for a woman of the twentieth century, and choose to bargain away his offspring for the chance to pursue that love. It’s implausible, but I love a good streak of romanticism. But when it comes to explaining the mechanisms that keep this clockwork toy moving, the hows and whys, these details are completely lacking. It’s as if Gilliam spent so much time and energy making the jet look aerodynamic, he didn’t have any energy left over to build an engine so it would actually fly. Example: the characters of Anton and Percy. It’s obvious why Valentina is with Parnassus, but where did Anton and Percy come from? And if the Imaginarium is in Parnassus’ mind, when Anton falls into the void, where does he go and how does he get out to be in the closing scene? More questions: why is the devil so dismayed when Valentina chooses his door? How does that make her “free”, as he later claims to Parnassus? Why is such a big deal made about Tony having the Satanic symbols on his forehead when he is initially found – and then they return in the Imaginarium – if they’re never going to get properly explained? Maybe Mr. Nick does explain them near the end, but in Tom Waits’ gravelly tones, I was unable to make out the dialogue. I guess my biggest question would be: is the Imaginarium in Parnassus’ mind, or is it in the mind of the person who has gone through the mirror? I ask this one because Joel and I watched it together and I was assuming the latter until Joel brought up the possibility of the former. Something so basic to the plot should be explained, clearly, at some point. Ditto for the reasoning behind switching out actors playing Tony. It’s obvious from the film’s first scene that the Imaginarium can do this; the question is, why does it keep doing it?

Vision/Originality
When I was doing research for my disability studies’ thesis, I studied a primer on critical discourse analysis. There was one sentence in that text that burnt in my mind like a brand. Reading the entire book would have been worth it to encounter only this sentence: “A voice that is wholly original runs the risk of being incomprehensible.” That is the downside of Tori Amos music, at least the early stuff that I like to listen to, and I fear it is the downside of this film. I’m sure that all of the questions I posed in the previous section have an answer in Gilliam’s mind, and I’m pretty sure he thought he communicated those answers… to the extent that an artist has an obligation to do so. After watching this film, I fear that Gilliam and I are no longer on the same page, regarding where that extent lies.

I know the temptation to canonize Heath Ledger is very strong. He was indeed a fine actor who died young. But not everything touched by fine actors who die young turns to gold. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, while visually spectacular, does not deliver as a narrative and is far from Gilliam’s best work.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.