Friday, March 26, 2010

Herzog Hurts So Good

The first lines about Werner Herzog's movie Stroszek on Wikipedia are these:
"Stroszek is a 1977 film by German director Werner Herzog. It was written in four days specifically for
Bruno S. and was shot in Berlin, two towns in Wisconsin, and in North Carolina. Most of the lead roles are played by non-actors."

This is naturalist absurdity. Nothing in this film is adulterated by special effects. Half of the dialogue is improvised. The female lead exits the film 3/4 of the way through, never to return. We see her with makeup, without, beat up, dressed, and undressed. The lead character, played by Bruno S., is, actually just Bruno S. And who is Bruno S.? A half-mad former delinquent son-of-a-prostitute who plays an accordion in the street.

One of the benefits of life in LA: I got to hear Herzog himself introduce and then discuss the film at the Egyptian Theater. And this in and of itself was absurd--the theater is on Hollywood Blvd, in the heart of the High-Gloss Celluloid tourist trap, but, was stuffed with bespectacled hipsters who clearly belong down Sunset at the WGA, or the DGA, or downtown at USC film school. I wondered how many of them deigned to slum it at the Pig and Whistle, just for shits and giggles, after the Herzog event. He's clearly a god, to many of them, since the theater was packed nearly to capacity on a Sunday night and to my right, a man with a closely shaved head and light cashmere sweater was moved to tears when Herzog took the stage. Before Herzog even said anything.

The film itself, to hear Herzog tell it, is a glorious piece of luck. It's a movie he loves, built almost completely upon happenstance. He wanted to cast Bruno in a different film, changed his mind, felt guilty, and wrote Stroszek in 4 days to appease Bruno, an emotional, eccentric, factory-worker-cum-actor. One of the most brilliant moments of the film, in which Bruno sits at a woodgrain table in a soon-to-be-reclaimed-by-the-bank mobile home with his sort-of girlfriend, a prostitute named Eva (also actually named Eva), was entirely improvised. Bruno delivers a polemic against the American method of quietly, subtly, stealing your soul. At least under the Nazis, he argues, it was brutality out in the open. Here, it's hidden. You are oppressed and you don't know where from, or by whom, exactly. Everybody smiles at you.

I said, "whoah," out loud. I was sitting alone, with Herzog disciples on either side. The one to my left nodded and smiled knowingly. Los Angeles people don't like to verbalize their awe, but he at least acknowledged mine.

The movie ends in a tourist trap, with a chicken, a duck, and a bunny all performing stunts: driving a fire engine, dancing to a juke box. This is the epitome of car-crash attraction. You cannot look away from the dancing chicken. You cannot stand the dancing chicken. You are an American who cannot look away from your culture. Yet you cannot stand your culture. This paradox seems insurmountable at the end of Stroszek.

Herzog told a series of endearing stories after the film. Origin stories, we call them. Where an idea came from. How a moment in the film got captured. Who that mute mechanic was, and how difficult it was to find him months later. I wanted to hear it all, in the vain hope that the movie would start to "make sense."

But it doesn't. And it doesn't for a few reasons. The first, and most important reason, is Bruno lives in three cultural arenas that do not make sense. Prison, at the beginning of the film. 1970s Berlin, where the hustlers and pimps control the streets of his neighborhood, in the middle. And The American Midwest, at the end. Increasingly, Bruno is isolated, as his translator leaves him, his sense of order leaves him, and his last partner in crime is arrested.

In the end, he has a shotgun, a frozen turkey, and a chair lift that runs endlessly up and down a forested hill. On the back of his lift is a sign reading: "Is this really me?"

Is this culture really mine? How could it not be, if I am in it? How could it be, if I am not of it? At some point we all look around and realize all we've really got is a frozen turkey and a shotgun, don't we? This is why we build community. Why we artists create deliberate absurdity in the midst of all that claims (by its hegemony) to not be absurd. At least I think so.

But I'm wearing broken glasses in the desert, drinking cold coffee. My throat hurts and the kitchen is gurgling. My authority is seriously in question.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Power of the Half-Mad

If Daniil Kharms, a surrealist/absurdist writer who died in the psychiatric ward of Leningrad Prison No. 1 in 1942 was not completely bonkers, he was at least half-mad. Here's an informative review of experimental theater group Artel's current show, Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms, which I encourage any L.A. area person with an appetite for oddity to encounter. It's rife with mustaches, theramin-like sounds, and lines like "Gentlemen, let's drink vinegar!" My friend Katira is the dark-haired cutie who will tell you she's not afraid of anything in one of the more meaningful monologues, depending on the night.

But I'm not really a reviewer. I don't write reviews. At least, I don't write them for free on my blog.

Instead, Gorgeous Curiosity is a place to muse about how seeing Kharmful Charms of Daniil Kharms (I admit to forgetting the title of the show continuously, up until the night I saw it) and Burton's new Alice in Wonderland, in short succession, has convinced me that the world's revolutionaries, masters of protest and resistance, are all, necessarily, half-mad. Only half-mad, you see. Not entirely sane, and not resolutely insane. Halfway there. I consider it a conceptual rarity, but in this case, "half-there" is the place of power.

Kharms himself of course was persecuted during Stalin's 1930s, and in Burton's version of Alice, so is she. She's a prototype feminist--doesn't believe in corsets or stockings, doesn't feel like marrying a lord. She's also given opportunity throughout the movie to prove her "muchness"--which the Mad Hatter notices she's lacking at first. She's got to learn to believe impossible things. Madness. In Wonderland, this is fantastic and exciting! She slays a Jabberwocky and gets big and small and wears ribbon shoes and rides a hat and crawls across decapitated heads!

However, when she returns Home to the Real World, her "muchness," and her half-mad visionary power, is transformed into a sort of business acumen (which, if read historically, contributed to Britain's imperialist exploitation of China) that drew my bile. Ooooh look girls, if you're a strong woman you can be a capitalist just like the boys can! (The Disney version of feminism has only not angered me in Mulan, so far.)

In Wonderland, however, The Mad Hatter, who is a model of the half-mad, is the leader of a revolution against the Machiavellian Red Queen. He's occasionally out of control, violent, and hyperactive. He's also calculating, noble, and on the side of the just. What makes him most powerful is that he sees the world unbound. To him, Wonderland is fundamentally unfettered by the current rules. He sees through the game. He walks across the table if he must get to the other side quickly. He has ideas no one else has, makes hats no one else makes. He suggests to Alice that she could stay with him. I wish she had.

Daniil Kharms mades hats no one else made as well. And much like the Mad Hatter, he was working against political systems that oppressed creativity, feared the unknown reaches of human imagination. The Artel crew has taken his work and gone a bit crazy with it themselves--writing songs, designing dresses, infusing vodka with honey and selling it for $2 a shot (yes, darlings), and starting the show with a funeral processional in the parking lot for a couple of insects who got in a fatal brawl. Complete with tiny coffins.

The powerful position, the place of change, is to be cognizant of the systemic problems one is fighting, and also to be wildly imagining a future without them, ways out of them, ways into new and grander meanings, lives, worlds, people. To be an effective visionary you must have the actual vision of something that others think impossible (madness) and also the drive to communicate it, to ask for and accept help from other people. To this end, we could make an enormous list of people who were half-mad. We've never heard of the ones who went totally mad, or never got crazy enough.

If you're completely insane, you can be ignored/suppressed by those with power and thus dismissed by those without it. If you're completely sane, you are generally controlled by hegemonic ideologies that present themselves as "facts of life."

But if you're half-mad--if you've got ideas like cats that can apparate, or Kharms' deconstruction of Man, and also the presence of mind to write them down--Oh Mom. Oh Dear. Oh Yes. Oh Honey. Oh Honey-infused vodka and the tiny shot glass it came in.

My problem is usually a bit too much sanity, too much sober thinking. Walking through Disneyland last week on a mild mushroom trip, I decided this problem is actually a reactionary one--I over-developed my organizational and social skills after a childhood of deep imagination and weird, weird writing/drawing/dancing/etc., because I felt stupider than my academically-achieving sister. I was emotional, sensitive, strange sometimes even to myself, and got scared about this very young. So I suppressed, achieved, organized, succeeded. Now, I have to consciously boot myself out of the Super Functional in order to get to The Weird.

But the Super Functional does not slay the Jabberwocky. The girl who believes in six impossible things before breakfast does. The Super Functional does not scare Stalin with his anti-rational rhetoric or dandy outfit. And the Super Fuctional does not play a toy piano in a tiny theater on Santa Monica Blvd. to an audience of slightly uncomfortable, mostly delighted hipsters who wish they'd thought of it first. No. Therefore, my Super Functional self is heretofore relegated to the tasks of stamping envelopes and getting to school on time, so that the half-mad, the Weird, can do nearly everything else.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Quintessentially Zinn, Quintessentially Bukowksi

Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994. My group of comrades celebrate Buk Day, by starting to drink as soon as we're up, staying drunk all day, reading Bukowski short stories and poems, watching footage of him reading his work and bits of the documentary "Born Into This." The better of us also get some writing done--I was not one of the betters this year. What I was, however, was recklessly emotional, and looking at Buk through a very different lens, after attending a Hollywood-studded tribute to Howard Zinn last week.

I watched a series of famous actors (including some favorites of mine like Viggo Mortensen, Tim Robbins, and Marisa Tomei) read from Zinn's collected works. No frills, no effects, just good voices, good writing, good people, good intentions. A clip from The People Speak, a new documentary about Howard Zinn's life and work, ended with the line: "Don't mourn, organize."

I stomped my feet and sang my heart out with Tom Morello, Boots Riley, Exene Cervenka, and Ben Harper, as they led us in the "missing" 3rd verse of "This Land is Your Land," and we all--famous people, not famous people, artists, business-heads, publishers, weed-smokers, drinkers, AA vets, strippers, writers, directors, journalists, assistants, moms, out-of-towners and Hollywood-ites, we all were, it seemed, for one shining moment, agreeing on a few very important things. Like how miraculous it was that we were there, together. Many of the attendees were public faces, entertainment-industry people for whom being called "a radical" is of more potential social/financial consequence, which made the night even more poignant. Not that anyone might mistake Josh Brolin for anything else. The point is, everyone mentioned Zinn's cheerfulness in the face of such adversity in the world, and one of my favorite readings came from "The Optimism of Uncertainty," in which he wrote:

"An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

I taught a set of poems by Charles Bukowski in my "Infamy and Cultural Deviance" class at Emerson and he was usually met with half-enthusiasm and half-terror-manifesting-as-disgust. The argument never centered on whether he was "honest," because even the scared people can see that--the argument centered on whether it was right, or useful, or helpful to the world, for a person to be as relentlessly critical as he was. He wrote poems about his boredom with current literature, current music, current culture. He wrote poems lambasting normalcy and sanity and people who seemed to believe they were doing something important in the world. He told readers to quit fucking around, quit lying, quit "trying," and above all, quit making him watch their bullshit.

If Bukowski and Zinn had been sitting at a table together, though (and I wonder if this ever happened, since I couldn't find any record of it) I think they would have hit it off. Not because Zinn would ingratiate, or because Bukowski would perform. Not because Bukowski would be erudite, or Zinn would be funny. Not because they'd agree on what to talk about, even. I think they would have recognized in each other, through their fundamental difference in "style," three other, more important fundamentals: (1) a well-researched and deeply felt dissatisfaction with the world as it is, (2) an irrepressible desire for people to wake up, change, do new things, surprise them, and (3) a belief that the latter is actually possible.

If Bukowski was a miniaturist, a writer focused on the most pertinent details of the current, real moment, then Zinn was a panoramic thinker, someone seeing the history of the world in long, wide strokes. Asking their texts to speak to each other is a bit like asking Jane Austen to write a manifesto on...anything. But why not? Why not imagine them at the table?

Zinn: Education can, and should, be dangerous.

Those are both quotes. Think about how much more exciting that conversation could get.

After the Zinn tribute, we were shuffled into an extremely posh party at the Beverly Hilton. We were "under" dressed-- or wrongly dressed, is what it seemed--as Linz bounced forward in her Ivory Coast soccer jacket, Anthony wore jeans next to men in tuxedos, and I sprawled on a white leather pouf in a T-shirt with a big red star and "EZLN" written across the front. We drank wine. We got tired of not being able to hear ourselves. As we left, we were handed bags of swag. This is what the letter, impeccably placed in a glossy black folder in the glossy black bag, said to us.

"Thank you for your support of Artists for Peace and Justice. In honor of your attendance at this evening's 3rd Annual Hollywood Domino Pre-Oscar Gala, I am delighted to personally extend to you a special invitation to join Quintessentially, the world's leading Luxury Lifestyle Group."

The letter, at one point, asks this question:
"Want to charter a jet to take ten of your closest friends on a spur of the moment trip to a private Caribbean island?"

What? I was hot with protest music and hope, fired up on the potential radicalism in a town where image usually seems more important than content, and suddenly, this, THIS was in my hands.

The letter might as well have said:
"Want to ensure that the unjust distribution of wealth in America remains totally unchallenged, as you stroke your ego by donating a tiny bit of your money to a mostly-vanity-run charity?" or "Want to be a part of the world's mostly-white ruling class, and remind yourself of your inflated importance by continuing the exploitation of workers in colonized and post-colonial nations?"

And then, I knew, someone would say, YES! YES I DO! and fork over $5,000, and they would be happy that they now have a brand new leather luggage tag and a 24-hour global concierge. For their NEEDs. Needs like massages and price-inflated champagne.

Oh Howard Zinn, I thought, I'm sorry. And yesterday, I wanted to run to Bukowski's house and give him the ridiculous letter, and let him make a poem about it.

Instead I will make the poem, since he's dead.


Dear Guest,
Thank you for your support.
We are Artists
For Peace
And Justice.
You are right to love us.

You have needs, and we know someone
Who can help you.
Your needs are special.
Your place in the world is special.
You yourself are incredibly special,
and there are many people
who are less special than you
who would like to help you
your specialness.

Don't worry, they want to.
They really do.
They need jobs.
Planning a trip to Athens, and
need to know the hottest places to sleep, eat, and play?
Need a woman, who is pretty?
You crave things.
You can have them, easily
With our help.

Thank you, for your support.
Our membership is tiered, and
is priced beginning
at the low, low, extremely insignificant price
of $5,000
which of course you could send
directly to a local artist
or to Amnesty International
But we know many
pretty women
we promise
we know more
pretty women with massage licenses
in more countries
and we know how to fulfill
your special

Here is a Buk poem to read to your friends' voicemail:

Nobody But You

nobody can save you but
you will be put again and again
into nearly impossible
they will attempt again and again
through subterfuge, guise and
to make you submit, quit, and/or die quietly

nobody can save you but
and it will be easy enough to fail
so very easily
but don't, don't, don't.
just watch them.
listen to them.
do you want to be like that?
a faceless, mindless, heartless
do you want to experience
death before death?

nobody can save you but
and you're worth saving.
it's a war not easily won
but if anything is worth winning then
this is it.

think about it.
think about saving your self.

your spiritual self.
your gut self.
your singing magical self and
your beautiful self.
save it.
don't join the dead-in-spirit.

maintain yourself
with humor and grace
and finally
if necessary
wager your life as you struggle,
damn the odds, damn
the price.

only you can save your

do it! do it!

then you'll know exactly what
I am talking about.
--from Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, The Line, the Way

What is most hopeful about this poem is the last line--the implication that once you've committed, once you've gone over to the side of those who refuse to be dictated by the hegemonic systems around them: capitalism, sexism, racism, etc., that you'll find a true community on the other side, a big BBQ where Buk and Zinn and Boots Riley and Dostoevsky and Tom Morello and Mike Davis and SARK and Che Guevara, and thousands others, and the Cristofanis, and the Teds, and me, with such gratitude I include myself, are already drinking salted Pacifico's (or shots of Jack, or water, or whatever), planning the next move. And singing. And writing. And laughing. And loving, and fighting, and getting waylaid, and getting back on track, and starting again.

As a Frenchman once said to Linz (excuse the lack of correct punctuation):

Join the fete!