A Few Thoughts On Death, And Kobe Bryant

kobe

by Guy Walker

It’s hard to describe what Kobe meant to us without crumbling into barbarism. You sympathize with those who are all but required to make statements to the public—how they feel about it, what Kobe meant to them, and so forth—because you know that they face the cold and desolate realization that words are half-formed grunts, helpless ephemera twisting haphazardly through the storm. The moment one begins to describe him, calling him a great athlete, an amazing father, a real competitor, one knows they have already bastardized the cause. He was like a brother, many of his teammates and competitors have said. You know what they mean, and you know you couldn’t have done any better, but Kobe’s death proved the communicable radiance one person can have to so many others.

In his Oscar winning animated short film, Dear Basketball, Kobe begins with his childhood memory of rolling up his father’s tube socks into cotton mock-basketballs, and scoring the game winning shot in his bedroom. Millions of us did the same, and we did it because of Kobe. We tried our awkward best to emulate his chimeric temper, to celebrate alone or with our brother, arms raised to the invisible crowd, parents in the other room smiling at our budding innocence. And the point isn’t necessarily basketball. Virtually none of us grew up to be basketball stars, but it doesn’t diminish his impact on any of us, because heroes are never meant literally. He was the stuff of lore—like Hermes with his winged sandals, he flew almost horizontally through the air.

Regarding his death, I’ve heard so many others make rollover remarks about Kobe just being one more helpless victim caught under the rubble of an impartial world. It’s just collateral damage, so a few of the famous ones die from time to time. And yes, somewhere in the range of thirty-thousand people die every year in the United States by car accident. And none of us, besides the family and loved ones of the victims cared, much less even heard about any of them. I still don’t know the names of the other seven victims that were on board when the helicopter crashed. And if I did, they would sadly mean little more to me than prearranged Scrabble pieces that happened to form a name. I don’t tend to view death—including the cinematic and sudden kind—all that tragic. I’ve gotten into the unfortunate habit of promoting its meaninglessness, as if indifference was the unruffled and mature posture about these things.

But as usual, I’m wrong. When we mourn for one’s death, we do so because the vulnerabilities of our humanity have stepped out from their den. We’re forcefully reminded that the murderous days are impartial to our self-conscious esteems, and faced with the sudden truth we’ve know but necessarily ignored all this time that it could happen to you any moment of any day. Walking to the grocery store to get some eggs, and suddenly you’re gone, into the heap of eternity with all the others. All your anxieties, all your self-reverence and self-hatreds, all your tyrannical animal impulses and hypocrisies, all your stresses about the menial, vanished before you can appreciate this new perspective.

The closest I got was when sailing a twenty-six foot sail boat off some remote prehistoric islands in Norway, suddenly caught in a massive storm. There were five of us, all in our late teens and early twenties, with not nearly enough sailing experience between us all. We were on our way to a friend’s wedding on a further island, and I was already drunk. And in the initial moments of catastrophe, when the sails were torn to shreds and the cabin flooded and side railing ripped from its bolts, before the helicopter and the coast guard showed up to save us long haired and puking imbeciles, I privately shrugged at our own foolishness, with the resolute esteem that I had actually always been a part of the class of humans I loved to scoff at. I knew we deserved whatever miserable, frozen fate we got, that if our bobbing cork of a boat was finally swallowed by the sea, it wouldn’t have made much difference. I rolled my eyes at the prospect of my own death.

When we mourn for one’s death however, such as Kobe’s and Kobe’s daughter Gianna, we’re reminded that our chronic misanthropy and cynicism was a misunderstanding all this time. Sure, we humans are disposable beasts, but only in the statistical sense, which is not the complete sense. Kobe’s life, and his death, showed us not necessarily that life is worth living, but rather that it can be worth living. Our rambling days are grooves in the road we have paved. And beyond Kobe’s human shortcomings, he reminded us of the august decency worth achieving.

There are too many of us, packed too closely together, to notice each other hurting or in need. We are just ants, wishing everyone would get out of our fucking way. When my friends and I made the front page of the local paper for being saved in the storm, I could already hear the predictably defeatist puns being made about us, because I would have made them myself—that the aspiring hippies deserved to drown in the frozen sea. Let Darwinism work its magic; population control; skim off the dumb ones. That type of thing. Or, if I suffer through crawling traffic on the freeway and finally pass the cause—some mangled twisted body of a car, the passenger clearly dead, I too often see it as a totem of drama, something to gawk as we crawl by, see if we can catch a glimpse of a severed head. Or, I just curse, call them an asshole for making me late.

I’ve been told that when my grandfather died when I was four or five years old, I didn’t make much noise about it. But a couple weeks later, my cat was hit and killed by a car, and I cried for weeks. Rational preference didn’t tell us to mourn Kobe’s loss to the degree we are. It feels much more devastating than just one more death, because it is, for whatever reason. The death of our heroes is not just a saying. It’s not merely a concept in a movie we’ve been long ago jaded by. We have our individual and collective heroes because they make the drudgery of life more redeemable. They excite and compel the gods of lore to come down from behind their mythic clouds, and grace us with their greatest spectacle. However soft or invisible, they nudge us towards the direction of our dreams, and forces us to meditate on the unfurling events of our own days.

Stupidly, most of my heroes are writers. I haven’t cared about the Lakers since high school, and always considered professional national sports leagues as some residual sickly phlegm from our colonial days, where a fat white male owner collects his riches as the mostly black players battle it out like bond servants. But the truly great ones supersede even the most devoted cynicism. I loathe the temptation to make comparisons to Roman gladiators, but it’s in our blood to cheer for our favorite sinewed and sweat-drenched cavalier. To root for something so handsome in a world void of meaning. People get in the habit of saying that great spectacle—the movies, sporting events, the circus—are all just fugitive amusements, something to delight ourselves with to forget about our terminable days. Like a nursery chandelier of staggered accruements to awe at with wide-open eyes. But the animated puissance of an athlete as great as Kobe reminded us to push ourselves to live better than we are presently. His work ethic was unparalleled, and he was adamant about the notional truth that born talent only gets one so far. He would wake up at four in the morning to start training, every day. Now, here, it’s ten in the morning, and I’m still in my underwear.

Most of us are barely surviving. And regarding who achieves their wildest dreams, and who has to work three miserable jobs to pay rent on a dusty drywall cube, it’s sad and simply wrong that there’s a carrying capacity for such excellence. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In his last years, Kobe spoke a great deal about the importance of love, in allowing it to cast its net in broadly affecting ways. He did so in a way that meant something—you didn’t roll your eyes when hearing him talk about it; you knew he was being genuine, that he had actually felt and been humbled by the overwhelming subterranean ocean of whatever love is, the kind you feel on occasion when on powerful psychedelics. You saw it resonate, in the way he carried himself, in the way he spoke with and hung out with Gianna, courtside. You could see how positively affected by it she was, the way she laughed and smiled comfortably at his side. That whatever other matters of trivial importance fall to the wayside.

751C9806-6732-4F76-BDF9-15B7B45E230C


Donate Button

The Words We Utter Beneath This New Flesh

videodrome-se_shot3l

by Guy Walker

Tumbling through black space, naked and shivering, I grope awkwardly at the aimless hologramic fog. Something is terribly wrong here. The sky is littered with digitized two-dimensional sparkles; bouncing hearts and doggy noses and ears gone astray, they scatter across the empty void like tumbleweeds; erratic and gruesome gifs bob and float like plumes of glitter. I soon realize these are only the mockings of stars—not light from millions of years away through their boiling tumors of nuclear fusion, but immediate and shallow, outlined with a crude magic marker. The doggy noses are fat and not cute, and mimicking a huge ass with a ribbon of warts on top. This is awful. I look up—or wherever up seems to be from my dispassioned and boorish summersault—and see two thick thumbs the size of skyscrapers tap and swipe randomly, smearing grease like a slug across some invisible barrier. Then, a jolt. And suddenly my formless arena is engulfed with an incomprehensible horror of Youtube makeup tutorials and high definition porn and presidential campaign ads and tsunamis of indecipherable Reddit posts. The entirety of the internet floods over me in the flash of a few minutes, a DMT-like cascade of an entire species’ desperation pleading to be heard.

To feel the gravitational weight of anything, my entire conception is ravaged by a global pandemic. I wake, but the clear distinction between the hallucination of dream and this fleshy terrain here and now is unclear. A cold wind howls outside, rattling my weighted single-pane window, a stale feverish condensation dripping on the inside glass from behind the curtains. Finally, I emerge from my room for the first time in months, perhaps years, realizing that this solitary confinement has been self-imposed all this time. I open my phone. Nothing. A dreary haze waits ahead outside, as two English robins bathe themselves in the birdbath. But all of a sudden one of the birds flickers with television static and vanishes. But static comes from electromagnetic waves from supernova explosions, or the sun, which makes this hallucination all the more confusing. Oh god, I remember that all my exes hate me, and I deserve most of it. Probably all of it. What the hell. I’ll go back to bed. A new season of Earth Planet is out, advertised as extremely bingeworthy.

This is much better. Our sense of nature’s operative machinery is perplexed by another outlandish documentary blockbuster, narrated by a crumbling erudite Englishman.You watch a tiger clamp into the neck of a gazelle at the bank of a river. The HD pictures sold to us as being sharper than real life—the thirty-thousand frames per second capturing every single water droplet mirroring the scenic barbarism on its glossy spheres. Don’t go outside—this is better than real life. Don’t let your children turn over stones and prod curiously at grubs and earwigs—teach them Pokémon Go, where they can chase illusory toy monsters into oncoming traffic or changing rooms at the mall, the hopping neon fragments titillating the masses the way a porch light does for all the country moths. How could we have possibly strayed this far? The coastal redwoods drenched in moss and chandeliers of a dew-soaked spider’s web, and the underground mycelial circuitry that entangles young vulnerable saplings in with the many-century-old torso of healthy forest—this is meant to serve our self-hating narcissism in some way, surely.

I’ve never had a difficult time of tending to the punctuated throes of social responsibility. Most of us are hallmarks of highly educated insouciance, witnessing our major natural habitats burn to a few last smoldering remnants, or the oceans churn and bake into reservoirs of plastic debris. There’s a spray-tanned gameshow host with severe brain damage running my country, tossing bundles of dynamite into the gears of international diplomacy. I’ll watch this all happen through my phone, my neck propped up by three pillows and molding itself into a permanent swollen nodule and double chin. I’ll wake up with all the lights on, an expensive cocktail glass spilled across the goose feather duvet, my willowy legs naturally awkward as they stick out of my Christmas underwear like two pointless roots. My eyes are starting to hold a permanent festering squint, unattractive and more serious by the day as they register the bohemian death drive of our species. I switch on my camera’s selfie mode, and study the slow rot passing across my face. Magnified enough, our skin is an abandoned agricultural field, spoiled of its terraqueous innocence with poisons and perfumes like they were crop-dusters.

There’s no use in trying to deny the neon spectacle just waiting there in its quiet rectangular blackness. It’s there, in your hand now, but when it’s not, it’s waiting, whispering from its depths for you to pick it up again and stuff yourself with the mildest intoxication yet again, your bloated edges spilling out onto the floor. You’ll do this, on average, one hundred and fifty times today. That’s about once every six minutes, if you’re awake for sixteen hours a day. I remember reading Guns, Germs, and Steel many years ago, where Jared Diamond quoted research that stated the average American household watches seven hours of television a day. Published in 1997, we’ve come a long way.

David Foster Wallace wrote endlessly about being raised by television. He would lead his own tv watching marathons, getting drunk and high as he obsessed over his own hypnosis of the thing, the shampoo commercials and applause-track sitcoms and real-crime dramas all blurring together into a mass rotating circus act. The marijuana binges in Infinite Jest are clearly autobiographical; the years that Hal Incandenza wades through have been replaced by sponsored advertisements—Year of the Whopper, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. You can imagine Wallace, stoned out of his mind, slouched in an antique loveseat torn along the seams, watching hours of grainy television, suddenly jolted by the epiphany that this orgiastic circus of commercials will eventually manifest into a dystopic branding of everything, even the Gregorian calendar. His short story, “My Apprentice” is about the swirling anxieties of a fictional female celebrity entering David Letterman’s formidable arena. “Little Expressionless Animals”, a short story in his 1989 collection Girl With Curious Hair, uses Jeopardy! as the platform to write a tale of lesbian romance. For Wallace, television was the new and compulsory chamber around which our dramas are told. Tolstoy used the ballroom or the battlefield; Melville, the sea; Hemingway, the African plains; Beckett, indeterminate locales in Ireland, or perhaps just the rambling mind; where virtually every other writer used the obvious landmarks of this miserable sodden frontier, Wallace knew there was no more frontier to be had. The illuminated screen is where we are born now. It’s where we copulate, argue, fall in love, and apparently now where we declare war.

In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace said he was “raised to view television as, more or less, my main artistic snorkel.” It’s what bonds us as humans, like a monotheistic tribe of bland rituals, our coruscating angst impressed beneath the fuzzy glow. At the time of the interview, the television set had long taken the position of the fireplace as the centerpiece of a home—the fireplace, of which, was always intended less as a device to heat the home, and more to mimic our ancestral storytelling origins—to gather the family around, in their holiday-themed onesies, sipping hot cocoa with both hands, dissembling their semi-glossed happiness into feigned resistance.

Chomsky said something about the television show being the filler that stations jammed within the real programming—the advertisements. Whatever real meat is in a hotdog. Television, Netflix, Instagram, Twitter, fucking TikTok—this is what we do. It’s the interface in which the flowering stink of spring is fully realized. We still have to occasionally make our brief little forays into the shallows of the outside world—afraid and vulnerable, glancing at others from behind our sunglasses, with the same obvious terror advertised across our face that a dog has when taking a shit on a crowded sidewalk, knowing full well we are now prey. Or when we go get drunk with friends, the conversation is often about what we watch when back in our curtain-drawn dens, with the insufferable veneer of any of it being artistically beneficial. This isn’t a cynical move. We just don’t have conversations to the maintained stature as in My Dinner With Andre. Our enviable dramas are on the other side of the screen. And today, we have the means to puppeteer ourselves as some clumsily drawn hero—we’ve become our own miniaturized Lawrence of Arabia’s on wherever our localized online universe exists.

The great French literary titan, Louise Ferdinand Céline, understood well that of all our drooling spluttering orifices, the mouth was the most unredeemable and profane. “When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered,” he wrote, “our sentences are hard put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation.” Everybody knows this, whether they realize it or not; it’s why most people prefer to send text messages than listen to each other speak on the phone. It’s why the laughing-crying emoji was awarded Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year a few years back. The belching profundity of the mouth suffers more through its chronic aching and throbbing, through the discolored leakage of so much exclaimed barbarism. We are perspiring with libidinal fatigue—better to lay in bed with our head supported by a gallery of pillows, with an episode of Golden Girls playing on the telly, and hammer something barely coherent with our thumbs. Better to sit hunched over on the toilet until your legs fall asleep, the pigment from your turds long ago leaking into the toilet water like a rotten teabag. (I receive a text from my boss: “lmk if da shit gatorade , coo? Honey pot too chill.” Fo sho. I got you, boo.) You sit at a series of missed traffic light on the Sunset strip with forty cars behind you, every one of them staring down at their phones—these pulsating factories of imprisoned aurora—doing that selfie-wheel-of-fortune thing, looking cute or ironically disappointed when they find out what Disney princess they are, or what squiggle they are, or what insect they are, or what hole they are. Whatever. Plato’s cave got a renovation. We throw pebbles at jetliners thirty-thousand feet high. We sell pictures of our feet on the internet to pay off student loans.

Two other writers joined Wallace in his interview with Charlie Rose: Jonathan Franzen and Mark Leyner, both of whom are sad Cimmerian men, but not in any desirable way, not in the way Wallace was. They are awful writers. And solemn men who write about trite things are openly denying their grotesque and balmy impotence. That’s what makes suicide so heartbreaking: those who should, never do, and those who do, never should. They complained together that the ubiquity of television has eaten away at the role of their timid fortune. They are writers, you see, painfully straining to articulate the psychic mess of being awake in a world of romance and betrayal and loss—and they have taken up the noble task of peppering their stories with relatable women and men, where allegorical lessons can be learned along the way. And it’s not fair, you see, that the screen has robbed them of their prophecy.

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. This isn’t a cynical move that judges the degradation of the mind into illuminated bits of data, the maze of pneumatic tubes whizzing in and out of the atomic hard drive. Quite the opposite. We are being unified into a complete whole, gradually being sucked back into the other side of the screen, where the lyricism of our conversational prose spills from our mouths like expensive fondue. And glossy men in capes and suits conquer smoke-filled arenas like it was an expensive game of laser tag. The conspired fortitude of our heroes overcoming conflict—we will finally be together.

….Long live the new flesh. David Cronenberg’s 1983 classic Videodrome delivered it best. “The television screen,” a mysterious television operator, played by Brian O’Blivion, tells us through another television framed within our own television, “is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain.” He was right, and I guess still is, but the artful horror of today is far more advanced than a simple television screen. And yet, at over three-and-a-half decades old, the film hits the important marks of technological morphology that we’re dealing with today. By the visual consumption of a plotless television show featuring torture porn and eventual murder, our hero, played by James Woods, gradually transforms into the pulsating machines behind the screen. His hand holding a gun transfigures into a grotesque mass of flesh and gun, unified together into a viscous mess of veins and entrails. His stomach opens up as a vaginal wound, gripping onto video cassettes, guns, and hands, like a cannibalizing anemone. And finally, he gets sucked back into the television screen where he belonged all this time. Where we have all belonged all this time. “You’re reality is already half hallucination.” This is indeed the new flesh, an embryonic culmination of ones and zeroes colliding into a red-stained chamber of gore and ecstasy.

I was infected by the transcendental optimism of Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman at a young age. And I still want to follow their direction. But take the naiveté of Henry Thoreau, for example. He was forever enamored with the soft hymns of the country, and wrote about how we are all born with the same impulses of exploring the outdoors, observable by whatever unwavering spur of children to explore caves and climb trees; and adulthood is merely the ruinous hangover we suffer through, wandering around stupidly, gorging ourselves on expensive dinners, shooing away an ever-expanding list of annoying disturbances, like a cow using its tail to bat away the flies from her eyes. But look at any child today. They are hunched over and commanding the screen like a master conductor. They know home is inside there, somewhere, and they’re trying to figure it out, the secret exchange of passwords to get back in. We were never meant to climb trees and explore caves. Thoreau naively anticipated a Rousseauian-branded return to the unique barbarism of walking on all fours. We are manifesting Voltaire’s Enlightenment. We’ll find a door to the other side.

This is it. We are Nature’s victorious ejaculation, the fermented glob on the crest of a sulphuric pit that has somehow crawled its way into these molds of human flesh. We have committed ourselves to lives that are the equivalent of accosting strangers on the street, shoving our walnut and goat cheese salad directly under their face, asking them for comment. Maybe Wallace and Cronenberg saw it coming, that we would all be self-quarantined in our studio apartments, hunched over our own miniaturized television screens, our eyes bloodshot and eventually rotting. But maybe they were too shrouded by the swirling delirium of the present day to see where it was all headed. Thirty or forty years from now, we won’t be reading Walden from a moss-covered boulder in the evening sun. We won’t be scouring the footnotes in Infinite Jest next to our naked lover. Whatever it is, it’ll be far more fragmented and cloistered than this doggy-eared frenzy here.


Donate Button

Why Stephen Miller Hates the World

by Guy Walker

stephen-miller

Stephen Miller has an obsession he knows he’ll never be able to satisfy. It’s not his contorting hatred of immigrants—leading him to send around nine hundred emails to a Breitbart editor containing stories from the white-supremacist publication American Renaissance and the anti-immigrant website VDARE, promoting the narrative of a white genocide. It’s not his cinematic gloating of villainry, casting himself as some sort of advocate of cruelty. It’s not gaining the political power he has worked tirelessly to achieve.

No. Stephen Miller’s obsession is his own self-hatred. People like him come around every now and then—spluttering fuckless teenagers who are breastfed on slurries of American cheese and Froot Loops, who despise their localized worlds for reasons indiscernible to ordinary people. It’s not difficult to spot. You meet these people all the time. They’re usually just mildly grotesque against the humdrum of other forgettable personalities. Their contrarian evocations are contrived, as you can predict exactly what they’re going to say under each topic of discussion. But Stephen Miller has to campaign for others to hate him. His lifelong mission is to get mobs of people so terrified and enraged that he’ll finally be taken seriously.

Before being Trump’s primary speech writer and senior policy advisor—where he helped design the child-separation policy, as well as pressed to shut down the government in order to force Congress to pay for southern border wall—before he worked for Jeff Sessions when still a Senator, before being a spokesman for Michele Bachmann, before fundraising alongside Richard Spencer at Duke University (or, according to Spencer, being mentored by him), before flailing in a high school speech that janitors should pick up his garbage, there was the pale paralyzed slime of Stephen Miller. Wheezing like the thing in Eraserhead, he drags his tail netted with exterior veins across the cold concrete floor. Bubbling out of the sulphuric pits where the first microbes of life formed, he was there, with contempt for that first form of life. Because, similarly to the Bret Easton Ellis character of cultish lore, there is an idea of a Stephen Miller, some kind of abstraction that behaves willfully on its own. You can shake his hand, and stare into his cold gaze, but he doesn’t really exist in the way you think.

He knows he doesn’t have the countenance to be in front of the public. His leaden scowl is not patronizing enough to hold our attention. So he fashions himself as the hemorrhaging brains of the operation—writing the speeches, designing the policy—the champion ideologue who will set the agenda. But he’s not smart enough to be even notably controversial. His speeches for the President read like an alcoholic paranoid’s Letter to the Editor of some remote Town Crier newspaper. He wants to be viewed, more than anything, as a serious ideologue.

There’s a general public fear around Miller’s nobbled ideology—of kicking all the brown people out, of separating their families, of leaving infants in soiled diapers in frigid chainlinked paddocks, of banning Muslims—in that, he’s often viewed as being serious about what he purports to believe. In what reads like a congratulatory think piece on political villainry, The Atlantic described it a difficult task to outsmart “a provocateur as skilled as Miller.” The consensus seems to be that he’s not just some ordinary troll, that he is elevated from the squabbling carnies inside the White House, and severely focused on spreading his vitriol like it was the diseased gravy poured from a punctured tumor. The New Yorker reported officials describing him as a “savvy operator” who was cunning enough to manipulate a broken system to his advantage. Perhaps. But this determined ‘seriousness’ is wrong. Whatever ulcers of psychopathy slowly ooze from his various holes, he doesn’t believe any of it.

When the story emerged that Stephen Miller’s girlfriend is Mike Pence’s press secretary, and that they are in fact engaged, there was a momentary flurry of callow gossip at how gross it must be that Miller participates in any sort of act that could be called sexual, however balmy and profane it must be. And I guess there’s point there. It seems more likely he greases himself up in a full-body mask of Crisco, and watches hours of grainy 1970’s porn reels in the dark without doing anything himself—just sitting stone still and staring straight ahead until his eyes bleed. But none of it is right.

It’s not that it’s unfair to want to pry into the private life of someone so cretinous; rather, Stephen Miller conducts his fetishes and kinks out in the open for everyone to see. His normal self-flagellation as a teenager curdled like spoiled milk into what makes him a man today, getting off at the sight of mothers crying over their kidnapped children, climaxing to the horror stories of families fleeing gang violence in Honduras, punching the air with victory at the prospect of some poor kid stumbling up to an impenetrable thirty foot wall after crossing the desert. But most of all, his fetish is being hated by anybody. At least he’s something. Some men get off by going to a dungeon to get whipped by a dominatrix; Stephen Miller entered politics.

Then there is the issue of looking presentable. A year ago on Face the Nation, he didn’t even attempt to get a decent hairpiece. His hairline returned one day, sprayed on from an aerosol canister. Whatever the method—polluting his glistening bald head with a crop duster, crude oil thrown at his it through a window screen—it doesn’t matter. You can imagine in the beaming despair of Stephen Miller’s subjectivity as he performed this task himself, in the bathroom mirror, the way a five-year old cuts their own bangs with the kitchen scissors, or a teenager bleaches their hair in the middle of the night, realizing after it’s too late that they seriously fucked it up. So Miller revoked the stenciled blotch of graffiti on his head, and returned to being bald. But it’s in this strangely unskilled attempt to look normal that Miller’s paralyzing insecurity is exposed.

Through his smirks and half-attempts at looking relatably human, he can’t lift his eyelids above the threshold of indifference. He adds hair from a spray can; he gets engaged; he writes speeches; he performs the ordinary tasks of normal politicians and their chronic banality. But he’s so bad at trying to come across as a wicked mastermind. The whole act is a poorly groomed deflection of one’s self-hating idiocy, keenly aware that this routine won’t work much longer, trying desperately to appoint himself the patron saint of an intellectual famine before he’s thrown to the gallows.

Because there is something even more miserable ahead, and he knows it: in a couple years’ time when his tenure of wretchedness is over, and he disappears into the void of history like a background movie extra, he’ll do his anticipated episode of Dancing With the Stars. He’ll pirouette in a permed neon predator’s frill, sweating under the spotlights, smiling with feigned cinematic desperation, and twirl and twirl until the crescendo hits and his act is finally over. After the obligatory smattering applause, he will crawl away to join the other discarded Trump officials, left only to gloat about how serious people used to take him.


Donate Button

When Kings Become Cartoons

best-winnie-the-pooh-quotes

Before his death, a distinctly outlined orange sun sets behind President Xi Jinping, his ears flopping forward like a toddler’s mittens, his tiny red shirt riding up and sticking into the damp fold of flesh between his belly and his tits. He’s not wearing any pants. He never has; but there appears to be just a smooth golden fuzz where his genitals are supposed to be. The smoldering cartoon audience seems unimpressed, so he makes a wimpish attempt to cheer them up, the kind only the doodle of a bear’s gruesome acumen can muster. “Nobody,” he softly exclaims to the benevolent hues of green, and the many other countryside animals of opaque neons, “nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.”

It didn’t take long after images of Winnie the Pooh were banned in China because of his uncanny resemblance to their human leader, for other rulers of other countries to preemptively ban their self-declared animated body doubles.

Amid whizzing gunfire between the rocky throats of canyon, and across some indistinct expanse of desert where Syrian rebels bounce along in their military-retrofitted pickup trucks, the roads just rotted into boiling moats of asphalt and debris, not much other life exists. Perhaps a lizard or two, gasping under the shade of pulverized rubble and rebar; perhaps a lone mushroom, plunging upward in the center of an abandoned city, displaying the phallic victory of nature and her promised resilience. The bombed-out cavern of world echoes the muffled cries from babies, their mothers sifting through the spread-out hunks of concrete with antiqued gold miners pans. This part of the Middle East somehow turned into an awful proxy war, the final realization of Mad Max, with Turkey now invading northern Syria, completing the last orgy of death before the upper atmosphere converts permanently to sulphuric farts, and tendril-strings of superbugs rain down into our cereal bowls of gruel.

But there’s important issues to discuss. And so Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdoğan convene in a dark alley, the walls fortified with garlands of rusted barbed wire and shards of glass. A distant organ player has passed out with his head fallen on three keys out of tune that only produces an excruciating barely audible dog whistle. It’s not peace talks their discussing. It’s not a plan to pull millions out from the charred misery. It’s both an allied and adversarial pact to ban all images of their closest cartoon doppelgängers.

Assad asks sheepishly if they agree to ban Mister Geppetto, Pinocchio’s father. “Oh, and both Super Mario Brothers. They all haunt me, and I’m not even Italian.” The others nod their heads as if this were obvious. Putin demands they agree to ban Porky the Pig. But he won’t even say his name. “Ze pinky,” he says over and over, as the other two make hundreds of random guesses until they finally stumble upon the correct answer, and Putin just closes his eyes slowly, and exhales silently. Erdoğan writes his on a piece of paper, and passes it to them. It reads, “Angelica Pickles, from Rugrats.” Putin and Assad grunt with amusement, the closest thing they’ve come to laughter since Assad dropped nerve gas in Damascus, killing hundreds of his own people. The beams of morning span the horizon as the rapid gunfire draws nearer, and the teeming nostalgia for the wild life becomes unbearable.

Then there’s Donald Trump. He sits hunched over in the Situation Room, the hump of his neck sprouting meaty beds of bleach-blonde hair, his earlobes flopping like sails in the windless sea, the glossy sheen of the lacquered oak table reflecting like a private bowling lane. He leans over the smooth reflecting wood, mimicking Narcissus staring into the still pond, trying to decipher his own resemblance. His pointed and sculpted tufts of eyebrows whipped into miniature waves, his scalded marshmallow face bubbling with hapless glee, crusted mounds of oatmeal coated the edges of his flared nostrils. And the awful trademarked hair woven into a spider’s Halloween thicket, with buzzards and carrion feasting on scraps of flesh inside somewhere. He wouldn’t give the trolls what they wanted. The casino-loser peasantry who only wanted to make him look bad, to subtract from his coruscating flex that swelled like the blood-packed erection of an Aryan wet dream. He would turn the task on its head, and make the people willfully not disperse the images of cartoon’s masculine heroes like Simba from The Lion King, Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid, John Smith from Pocahontas. “Etc.,” he wrote at the end.

What purpose is there for any effective resistance? In the 2016 election, it was initially reported that 11,000 people voted for Harambe, the dead gorilla. Although later proven an exaggeration (these types of votes are never actually tallied), Mickey Mouse is famous for being a favorite protest vote each election cycle. But the famed authoritarians of the modern world know better than to call it a protest vote amongst themselves. The literal manifestation of a cartoon hellworld is upon us, the squeaking and yapping laughter of episodic delirium, simply drawn animals with drooping snouts and eyeballs the size of frisbees, mocking its citizenry who are trapped in an overly saturated nightmare, running between a maze of galloping pianos the size of a city block, rugs heaving into tidal waves that are only trying to toss us by the bum into an empty flower vase the relative size of a skyscraper, so amidst this profane and formulaic squalor, some likable fanged beast can snatch us up by the tail and drop us into his mouth whole.

In the end, in a last ditch effort to bring peace, President Xi Jinping staggers aimlessly under his Winnie-the-Pooh costume. He came to the bombed-out streets of Hong Kong to greet throngs of protestors, clouds of lethal tear gas drifting low in their multi-colored sherbet flavors, another attempt to convince the kids that tear gas is fun and flavorful. All of the protestors were waving banners of their honey-loving god, riding the tops of huge automated floats of Tigger and Piglet and others. If he could actually become the buoyant and lighthearted protagonist of the celebrated bedtime story, maybe he could settle their unrest once and for all. At least, that is what he thought, stupidly. Because they weren’t here to protest the Chinese judicial system, or its encroaching mangled edifice of legislated doom; rather, they wanted the impostor to unzip himself, to step out from his sweaty and awkward disguise.

“Ooo whooo,” Xi Jinping muttered with fake jubilance from behind his Pooh costume, patting his belly of stained and rotten polyester fur. It was of no use. The throngs pressed in, beating him with sticks, pulling him from that panoply of failed innocence, naked and hog-tied by comic irony, his plump adorability now backfired without any chance of its reversal. Before everything went pitch-black and silent forever, before he could feel his gurgling lungs get drowned by the slow motion stomping of boots, a pure white butterfly balanced delicately on his wet nose, opening and closing its wings in the serene beauty of a cartoon. And Trump and the others gathered round, their makeup and costumes half finished, peering down at his limp body wasted away in the mud.

Donate Button

Conjuring the Dead: “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” Is Upon Us

brad and leo

I went to drink another Negroni at Musso & Frank with a couple of close friends immediately after watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood.” It was supposed to be a stewed nod to the director and film, a phlegmed gasp of deference that we were sitting in possibly the same swiveling barstools that Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton—or rather, laconically, just Brad and Leo—sat their firm, libidinal, starlet-asses on, as they finally croaked their lines in front of a camera. You can picture Tarantino controlling this space, kneeling behind the counters, talking so enthusiastically with his hands until they ignite a miniature summer squall, his determinate chin-erection as a glossy and pointed hump prodding at whatever stands in front of it. The white-haired bartenders here were at ease in their decorously soiled red blazers; they didn’t give a shit about our expulsions of theory and decay. We were drunk, throwing money, begging the open sky to make us drunker. They had all been in the film, as themselves, and had also been serving these cocktails for decades. This one hundred square-foot runway behind the counter that my friends and I hunched over was where they spent unnumbered hours, totaling many years, mixing Old Fashions, Negronis, Latin Manhattans, King Robbs, Ginger Gold Rushes, watermelon daiquiris, et al., oceans of sweetened ferment that made us dumber and sad. The people around were comparable: a young white man with a manicured aryan fro, and an “I Am the NRA” pullover with a huge American flag printed on the back; he was trying to get laid, leaning into his date with a desperation comparable to homeless children begging with their hands cupped to tourists. A fat man in a bright Hawaiian shirt sat near me; his face was red from busted capillaries, from decades of alcohol I guess. There was a group of female models in a booth behind me; they kept fixing their hair while staring pointedly into their phones as Magic Mirrors of more eupeptic fates than this one here.

It’s why we watch movies instead. And as Tarantino has declared himself, “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is his love letter to Hollywood; it’s his most personal film, in that he’s displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of the world he loves so much. “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” takes place in 1969, the year of the Manson murders, the end of the so-called love generation, when the besotted delirium of bare feet and acid and tie-dye splattered like multi-colored ejaculations across their chests gave way to the paranoias of cults and charismatic serial killers, an era analogous to the aftermath of a bad acid trip, when the spindly reverberations are still all around you, but the wide-eyed blinking and inability to follow social cues remains dominant.

The night a very pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends got slaughtered was the night the beautiful colors and uncontrollable love and laughter turned schizophrenic, when the politicians got even crazier, when the wars somehow got even more demented. It’s understandable why Tarantino picked this event. It wasn’t necessarily the death of our innocence, because we were already the furthest thing from innocent. But the rich, and famous, and white were now vulnerable, and therefore the spell had been broken. The America that’s been killing its youth, ordering them to fight their insane wars, the America that bludgeons against the black and brown and poor and female finally turned against itself in ways it hadn’t before.

To get as close as one can to the way a director thinks, to his or her psychoses and tempered perversions, in a psychoanalytic arrangement more akin to a sprawling Rorschach journey, you watch all or as many of their films through, as chronologically as you can. Bergman, Fellini, Louis Malle, Agnés Varde, Tarkovsky, Jacques Tati—they and countless others smashed their old successful conventions, creating entirely new ways of telling stories through film. Because telling stories is not the superficial task of carrying the viewer through the glugging pool of characters and plot through some undulating act structure; the filmmaking is equally embraced to the story being told, and Tarantino has been telling the exact same story with only the surface scum of ornamental characters and plot as the remaining difference. His filmography resembles something closer to an Andy Warhol exhibition—a grandiose monoculture of hype with its extravagant blast of color and flair.

His films are just like his soundtracks. It’s about replaying the old hits—the lint-dusted vinyl spun backwards, a bubblebath of glitter and lube so we can no longer identify our nuts from our nipples. It is, of course, about nostalgia. It always has with Tarantino. He’s a doctor Frankenstein of film trivia that’s been shoved through a wood chipper, pasting together old movie posters and cereal boxes and radio commercials and beer cans and cars into one gleaming orgy of cinema only because these things are cool. Perhaps they’re lacking any substantive value in the overall narrative, but at least they remind us of the way things used to be, and more importantly that Tarantino knows about them. And he wants desperately to tell us that he knows about this remote paraphernalia, as if only he is privy to this knowledge, and only he is resurfacing it for your viewing pleasure. The reason he doesn’t create new music for his films isn’t because he wants to authenticate his world with time-appropriate music, but rather because Tarantino doesn’t create anything new in his films as a whole.

That’s not to say that Tarantino doesn’t immerse you in a world of its own. But in “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood,” he created a world that only exists as its tiny exclusive snow-globe existence, purposely leaving out race riots, Vietnam War protests, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, general civil upheaval that was the collective antithesis of its protagonists. There were only the white Hollywood stars, and the hippies. Two worlds of opportunistic self-loathing at war with one another. Every time Cliff Booth or Rick Dalton uttered the word “hippie” it was with a brackish disdain for the voluntary lower class, a predatory resentment of their collective decision to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” also emphasized this indelible snobbery amongst the class of responsibles, with Bigfoot Bjornsen taking every opportunity he could to denigrate hippie scum. But it was part of the pun, amidst the stoned Pynchonian haze teeming from a circus of languid heroes. It wasn’t actually cynical, but part of a private desire to believe in the trip; it was a clumsy jealousy that grown men with military-issued lapels and flattop haircuts couldn’t grapple with. Tarantino’s treatment of this was an emphasis entirely on the Manson family, on the monstrosity that gave an altar to the Nancy Reagan types and their religiosity of squareness, to just say no, and no, again and again.

Besides the obvious informalities when Cliff Booth tells Rick Dalton not to cry in front of the Mexicans, or contorting Bruce Lee into a brash caricature of egomania, contemptuous and irrational, like a schoolyard bully who picks fights he can’t win, or making Sharon Tate the self-admitted klutz who bobs around town stupidly amused with herself, going to the movies to watch herself on the big screen, and glancing around in the dark movie theater, smiling to herself when the other audience members laugh at her falling to the ground and reciting bad jokes, there’s not much offered as countenance for importance characters, much less heroes.

That’s why Tarantino’s portrayal of hippies is so ill-informed. At one point, when Cliff Booth is hanging out with Rick Dalton at his house, watching old episodes of the hit western television series “Bounty Law,” in which Dalton stars, Booth brings out a joint that’s been dipped in acid. He saves it until the end of the film, when the climactic twist comes to a head, and he takes a long deep hit, and mutters, “And away we go.” This is, of course, impossible. LSD evaporates when exposed to light or heat, and so burning it would be a complete waste of the chemical, and if you felt anything close to the coruscating explosions of ego-death, it would be more related to those videos of teenagers pretending to act blackout drunk when all they had was in fact nonalcoholic beer from unmarked kegs. It’s evidential that Tarantino has only been a film nerd, and nothing more. The characters in his films are often great, and especially great for cinema; but they’re always just characters, not quite human enough to jump off the screen and fill us with the reverential charity of a whiskey-soaked communion, even a banal decency brushed up in the dust. The aftermath of his films feel like getting mild enjoyment from a good sneeze.

Cultural critics are obsessed with identifying the point or purpose of things. As they should. The point of a film or song or painting doesn’t need to be prophetic; there’s not enough geographical expanse in our Promethean hungers for everything to be a Guernica or a “Stalker.” And that’s fine. Most films are bad, but at least most of the time you know they’re going to be bad—simple farts honked from the factory windows of an industry already so consumed with itself, The very worst of cinema is when it takes itself as serious as a Kurosawa or a David Lean, but merely achieves the same frustrating pedantry as everything else, as a garrulous drunk who will just not shut the fuck up.

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” doesn’t quite meet the criteria for being terrible. It’s messy, as are all his films, in the way a toddler’s bib is messy, or a porno film’s overall narrative is messy. I want to know why Tarantino made the ending the way it is, why a two and a half hour buildup of tension between the hippies and the Hollywood heroes had to be so prosaically Tarantino, why he couldn’t contain his turrets for overly stylized violence just once. We’re being pandered for cheap laughs, like children at a marionette show who scream gleefully and clap their flat palms together when the good knight parades victoriously on his floppy horse, our mouths and fingers sticky from so much dribbling Coca-Cola and pulverized popcorn debris. Do we not deserve better? Have we reduced ourselves to the delicacies of bucktoothed yokels, juggling potatoes at the county fair, doing body shots every time a firework makes a patriotic allusion to its fearless immortality?

Films of emphasized nostalgia meet the cravings of today. Modernity doesn’t offer us the splendors and blooming appetites that the sci-fi films of the past based in our present decade promised. The films that predicted the future failed us. Or what is more likely, we failed them. Like all our other failed dreams. There’s no Hal 9000 trying to disrupt our autonomy and mission to explore other planets, tossing our best mates into the eternal depths of outer space; instead, we have Alexa who will order us more protein powder when we ask it ten times, yelling louder and slower with each successive attempt. Philip K. Dick’s androids aren’t seducing our wits into murderous paranoias; there’s no javelins of lasers between monarchs with emerald-encrusted pith helmets; what we got instead was a planet that’s breaking out in volcanic blisters, whales washing up dead on the beach with a stomach full of our plastic filth; we got Tinder; Hulu automatically binging your free nights into some bleary pixellation; a growing slouch in your neck, gums that have begun to bleed, the jubilance of youth drying up a little more every successive day; blog posts that jumble into a Mount Everest built with scribbled confetti; a glowing, pleading circus inside this rectangle in your back pocket, sucking your face like a vampire squid; fake plants from Ikea, drywall and fiberglass that looks like cotton candy that separate us from our neighbor we’ve never met; marriages that drag out like skid marks; the incomprehensible mass of other bodies, every one of them seeing the world as you see yours now, that the world is happening to you, and then the occasional assurance that when you melt back into the phlegm of rotted earth under some stump of termites, all your drunken camaraderie was nothing more than a desert fart.

So we’ve given up on the future. Instead, Tarantino turns our attention to vintage beer cans, root beer float commercials, tanning butter commercials, and something remotely bland from Paul Revere & The Raiders. Because the past is alterable. It’s a trinket shop of cool bracelets and some old records that we can rifle through. He’s often criticized for his sensationalized gore—the streams of blood that surge like a firehose nozzle when a limb is chopped off, heads exploding with atomic force, bodies that are violently tossed more as ragged dolls. But it’s the gore of nostalgia that really makes me hysterical, in which his cinema is so caricaturized, it’s more cartoon than live action. It’s what we deserve. Enthusiasm for the mundane is god. Make us rich for a few smothering seconds. And then roll the credits.


Donate Button

Anti-Abortion Laws Discussed in a Bath House

30744703274_0dfcabaea0_b

The following is the unannotated transcript of a discussion in a high-end bath house about the recent anti-abortion laws sweeping through several states of the country. SHARIA KENDOLL is an almost entirely hairless man, with a cavern of a dimple in the bullseye of his chin. He’s a pastor at a nondescript megachurch in Oklahoma not destroyed by surrounding floods, and has been struggling with depression and a test of faith after recently walking in on his only son watching Top Gun—a film of notorious gay propaganda—with another boy. JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA is a part-time sorcerer, and a big fan of spoiled meat and expired produce, who spends his free time shouting obscenities at stray cats and children walking to school. He has a pigeon named HOBBLES. MITCH MCCONNELL is also there, his face and neck sagging like plastered vomit passed his tits; his lips are entirely gone, so all that remains is a black hole, gasping like the violent and muted tremors of an asshole immediately after a gangbang. No one knows why he is here. He mostly just stares at the floor, and thinks about when he would tie worms in complicated knots as a child. JORDAN PETERSON, although Canadian, forced himself in the room for reasons unknown. He’s been on a strict meat-only diet for years, but now just throws a couple of dead pheasants on the table in the middle of the room, and sinks his teeth into them, feathers and all. CLARENCE THOMAS has a beard now, and scratches it furiously, and wipes his runny nose with the back of his hand. This has become a habitual tic. We begin.

SHARIA KENDOLL: So, um, yeah. Thank you all for coming. Thank you for gathering here, I mean. We’re here to discuss the recent abortion bills passing through such states as Alabama, Georgia, Ohio—can I get an “Oh, HEYOOOO!”?

This obligatory introductory attempt at humor falls to complete silence. The others are staring at the feet of MITCH MCCONNELL, where a pool of flesh-colored slime has formed around his ankles. He tries to speak, but his incoherent Southern drawl just splurts out animal sounds, like a cow giving birth in the hottest day of summer.

JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA: What the hell are we looking at? The man is melting. And he just moaning shrieks of death. Would someone put this poor bastard out of his misery?

SHARIA KENDOLL: No, no. He’s by no means melting. And don’t you hear what he’s saying? He’s mapping out a superbly fascinating strategy on how to win back the House. How can the Evangelical community—how can America—expect to win back the House, if we can’t get the houses of America to live by the law of God? We need babies now more than ever. We need babies to crawl out of their mommies already waving American flags. Gosh darnit! If I ever had an idea, by golly that’s it. Clarence, you’re a lawyer. What if you propose mandatory miniature American flags transplanted in with the babies in their little cubbies—what do you call those things?—those liquid jello-sacks they bob around in. Inside the mother…Anyways, we staked the American flag in the virgin soil of the New World, didn’t we? Well, maybe these mothers don’t want their babies because the babies don’t know they gonna be born in the United States of Awesome! Huh guys? Ammirite?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Eat shit.

JORDAN PETERSON: Uh, yes, well, you see, to have American flags planted, Mr. Kendoll—I would like to extoll you the importance of uttering such unsavory mishaps as “trans” anything, as the young postmodern neo-marxists in America are trying to subliminally indoctrinate our minds with these bloody…these bloody words. And I’m not being rhetorical when I say that. Words do have blood, and I have sucked their throats…Anyways, transplanted is not accurate, as it suggests to the subconscious of the deep recesses of the mind that a man can make me call him a her. Well I’m not bloody doing it! Because next a baby is going to tell me it’s not a baby. It’s going to say it’s a booby, one of those blue-footed birds in the Galapagos. And on and on, until nothing means anything anymore. And we may as well not speak because these radical leftists have hijacked language, and then all of a sudden we’re trapped in a jetliner headed straight for the building of meaninglessness. [He starts crying uncontrollably. Then slaps himself across the face, falling to the floor, before eventually collecting himself, continuing as if nothing happened.] But anyways, these are complicated matters that just can’t be succinctly summarized in just a few phrases. As you were saying, put it in the woman’s, um, in her, stomach lining. Whatever it’s called.

JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA: Tummy!

CLARENCE THOMAS: No, not her tummy, you idiot.

JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA: Her midriff! The whores have midriff! That’s where the babies are.

JORDAN PETERSON: Thank you, in her midriff. To get an American flag planted in her midriff is no simple matter, Mr. Kendoll. And for starters, let’s be reasonable. America was never loved for being miniature. A big American flag represents big ideas, big freedoms, big trucks, slaughtered pigs the size of sumo wrestlers, and so on. The bigger it is, the freer we are. A dead cow, with her guts spilled across the floor—it’s a beautiful thing. It’s what I love most about your country—all the dead animals. What are we doing here talking about saving dead babies when we can be talking about the virtues of overflowing hog lagoons. They contain vital nutrients that the environmentalists conveniently ignore…[to JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA, pointing at HOBBLES] Are you going to eat that?

JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA: Hobbles? He’s my best friend!?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Plebeians! The last half of “friend” is “end.” It’s the bird’s fate to be eaten!!

[MITCH MCCONNELL’S neck is now just a flesh-waterfall that has finally reached the floor. His bellicose gargling suffocates him, and what’s structurally left of him falls to the floor, mimicking something like Gumby getting hit with a baseball bat. He’s probably dead, but no one seems to notice except for JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA, who looks around nervously at the others.]

SHARIA KENDOLL: This has been an extremely productive conversation. Justice Thomas, you always seem to declare such enlightening truths. We are all indebted to your lifelong commitment to the law.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Fuck off.

SHARIA KENDOLL: Exactly. So, to conclude, Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat are made from aborted bambinos. Little sprouts, I like to call them. Little buggers, for fun, when I’m feeling cheeky. You get the point. No, no: teenagers, with bad breath, actually. Ha! Ha! I crack myself up. Heck, may as well be graduates of West Point, fighting for the freedoms of the malnourished. Which is why all vegans are the infernal children of Satan.

JAY WALKIN’ DRACULA: This is awful.

SHARIA KENDOLL: I want to thank our sponsors, the protein smoothie startup Loaded Phlegm, and the nightclub The Pulse of God, found in your hometown—actually, in every living room—for making this conversation possible. Thank you all, and I look forward to sweating with you all next week.


Donate Button

The Last Temptation of Empire

Westward the course of empire take its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last
-George Berkeley

800px-Cole_Thomas_The_Consummation_The_Course_of_the_Empire_1836

What role do the arts actually play? The Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, David Mamet, thinks it’s all just for entertainment, which is fine, he says—the kids need a good puppet show to scream and cackle at. The cannibalizing weight of the world strangles us; the tropical depressions swirl like miniaturized cyclones inside. There’s nothing wrong with teasing ourselves with the beautiful and profane. Writer-director, Paul Schrader, sees it differently: the arts are tools no different than a hammer and saw, to build some edifying totem that tells us about ourselves. He wrote Taxi Driver as a story about a man colonized by loneliness in order for Schrader himself not to become that man. And it clearly struck a nerve with the public. The audience of 1976 didn’t crowd around that film with evangelical fanfare because it was simply a well-executed puppet show, only serving us piecemeal entertainment. But who’s to say where the sustained reverence comes from—is it just a necessary and immanent thing to proclaim to everyone that you saw, and you “absolutely loved it!”, no different from posting artfully stained selfies in front of The Starry Night and gloating confessions about how moved it you? You may as well accost every stranger you can on the street, gushing about Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, saying you saw them once…and they’re a-mazing!

Schrader and Mamet agree on this: the arts haven’t changed, but the audience has. Schrader’s 2017 environmental-noir film, First Reformed, received comparable critical accolades to Taxi Driver, and is almost mandatorily a more important film, but it came and went, failing to constitute a wider dialogue about faith and environmental stewardship. I happened to read Mamet’s Theatre before sitting down to write this, in which he states that when he was in acting school in New York more than fifty years ago, there were seventy-two new Broadway plays produced. Half of the forty-three plays in 2009—when he wrote the book—were revivals. Most of the modern art museums today are filled with the abstract expressionists of the 1950’s rather than any new, crusading work that fundamentally changes how we see the world.

I have asked myself this innumerable times as a painter—in the lonely, alcohol-soaked hours of the night, hunched in front the twisted splinters of an easel: what am I actually painting for? Should there be a cultural, topical relevancy, or does all anyone want is glorified hotel art? An expensive ejaculation smeared in the confines of a framed rectangle, arranged so guests can gawk at, eat their rotten cheese, letting the chihuahua lick their hand. Picasso’s Guernica inserted itself into the real world, where war, starvation, rape, general hell exists. But what does one do today, without achieving only inevitable triteness, or just being ignored? Thomas Cole painted The Course of Empire, a five-painting-series on the cyclical propensity for the rise and fall of civilizations, a masterpiece of millenarian form, foreboding the circus of bile and cruelty. It should be studied, and painted again a thousand times.

The timescale represented in the five paintings span over many centuries, perhaps millennia. They’re also single flashes over the course of a day—the rising of the morning sun in the first painting, The Savage State, where man consists of just a few subjects in an otherwise verdant, all-consuming landscape. The sun draws higher in The Arcadian or Pastoral State, where boat-building and the herding of sheep frequent a scene that is still dominated by nature. The third frame, The Consummation of Empire, at high noon, is a towering broadcast with obvious resemblance to Greek and Roman civilizations. All the human achievement collapses in Destruction, where a statue of a headless soldier careens forward with a broken shield. The city around him is burning; women are being brutalized and raped; men killed; and somehow, a child’s toy boat forcibly sunk. The day finally settles into the dreary cycle of return, as the full moon sinks back under the horizon in the last of the series, Desolation. The tangled ivies and clumping herds of trees are finally swallowing man’s phallic landmarks to himself; his bridges and temples how just crumbling relics, mere mineral deposits for mosses and lichens to slowly suck on. Birds have returned, nesting atop the lone column standing in the foreground.

Of course we have our own markers today—this week, this month, this presidency—that make the series seem like a relevant scrying stone. Yes, of course, Donald Trump is what is causing the collapse of our sacred American system, is the guttural temptation, like a pavlovian scapegoat that we can blame all our degeneracies one. But it’s always been. Thomas Cole was responding to Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party carrying out their Manifest Destiny and its slaughter of the so-called savage state. Our corrupted history, our original sin. The innumerable frames not included between The Arcadian or Pastoral State and The Consummation of Empire also necessarily include these same scenes that are shown in Destruction. An American empire built on the backs of slaves, corralling the natives into ever-tightening, sordid paddocks of spoiled land. And Thomas Cole was surely aware of this. The cyclical theory of history spins into rapidly dizzying circles the more you look at history, the more localized and personal you trace the origins of wealth and plunder.

It’s everywhere. Of the five mass extinctions on this earth (most ecologists say we’re causing the sixth), between seventy-five and ninety-five percent of life was wiped out during each one—a near return to the origins of biological life, like a cosmic intervention that decides it’s going to start all over again and try something completely different. This time, we humans are roleplaying the astroid or the sun flare or the unstoppable plague. We have always sort of fetishized the end of the world, building billion dollar cinematic franchises to pawn off a bleak garbage munching future as something to look forward to. A romanticized version of roughened heroes battling their way through fields of angry holograms, limping pigeons, general anarchy.

The Course of Empire was created between 1833 and 1836, a time of seemingly relative innocence compared to our present-day frat party of an existence, the spongey, vomit-soaked legacy of our privileged upbringing, the mess of humanity more resembling the binary fission of some mutant cannibalizing bacteria. Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have repositioned the Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight (the nearest to self-annihilation it’s ever been, including this same time, positioned in 1953). It’s been maintained since 1947, when a devastating nuclear exchange was the only global threat possible to take place. Now, it includes climate change, and the innumerable threats that it includes, from decades-long drought, to flooding of major cities, to wars over dwindling resources, to billionaires clutching onto power with private armies, to the release of zombie viruses thawing in the permafrost. Clearly none of this was a concern when Thomas Cole created his series. The time of Cole was Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau—a splendorous dance of garlands, a big gay festival of erudition. It’s not what we typically think of as fodder of forewarning to our self-destruction. Nevertheless, he was aware that our death drive merely took different forms, that it doesn’t matter how we kill ourselves, because we’ll always be thinking of new, more inventive ways to do it.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and his most recent, Enlightenment Now, make the case that life in general is vastly improving over the course of our domain—that our pessimism about ourselves is more generally a self-indulgent fad. It’s cooler to pontificate some Nietzchean quip of how we’re all fucked as you smoke an American Spirit cigarette you rolled all by yourself, than to look at the encyclopedic data of why things are actually improving, why poverty, violent crime, rape, war, domestic violence, have all declined dramatically over time. And yet, still, clearly we are fucked. The consummation of misery as a ubiquitous norm may have improved; but the extent of our death drive has drowned out these superficial improvements. Killing the ecological backbone necessary for our survival—the bugs and weird bacteria in the jungle—is far more creative, psychoanalytically, than the direct slaughter of each other. War by machete still happens of course, but our death drive has evolved to outwit these antiquated ways, like a horror of mist and function that turns these hellish moth-eaten tweeds to dust.

What is happening in The Consummation of Empire that leads inevitably to the swirling chaos and misery depicted in the next panel, Destruction? Nothing is out of the ordinary: a velvet-robed king is ushered across the bridge by an enormous flock of supporters; an opulent fountain spurts its excess. Children play in its shores, splashing, pushing toy boats. Unbeknownst to them, disaster looms. It will all morph into an inferno of self-destruction, as if we are administering, perhaps unwittingly, the cyclical theory of history through periodic extinctions and new beginnings.

And here, today, at least from my vantage point, nothing is out of the ordinary. The scientific consensus may be that we have triumphantly fucked ourselves for good, but there’s nothing obvious, nothing experientially that demonstrates it such. I’m drinking a foamy latte in a sunny outdoor patio, as every other wannabe prophet of cool writes their screenplays around me. A generation raised by pornstars singing karaoke; the slow drip of dopamine easing everything to a gradual acceptance. I’m headed to surf at Malibu once I finish this piece; herds of others are performing their iterations of the same. And yet, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity stated that up to 150 species are lost every day. An ecological genocide that makes Rwanda look acquiescent, every single day; and most of us who are privileged enough to choose not to notice carry on with a passive awareness at best, our dicks shoved in some glory hole of philosophic pretension.

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, published fifteen years before the first of Cole’s Empire paintings, famously depicted man’s will to life as the source of all our suffering. The possession of more things serves only as the representation of happiness, and quenches the Will ephemerally, this momentary escape soon evaporating like a fart on the windy ocean shores. The insatiable Will makes Destruction and Desolation inevitable. Schopenhauer thought that man’s dismissal of any reasonable stewardship of nature was a guarantor of our general moral collapse.

If Cole painted his series today, it would be ignored. Schopenauer would be ignored. Because First Reformed was ignored, the mass of attention given to the masturbatory ennui of A Star is Born and Bohemian fucking Rhapsody. Schrader strongly believes we are beyond saving ourselves, that we’ve catapulted passed every tipping point, and there’s no turning it back the other way. But he still makes films. He may be a bitter, angry doomsdayer, but he still lectures on filmmaking, teaching young storytellers how to be better, more effective in their craft. David Mamet believes everything is fine, and we should just carry more guns and let Israel conquer the entire Middle East, but he still writes drama, dosing the world with magnified versions of ourselves. That’s all we can hope to do—as an audience, to pay a little more attention, for attention’s sake; and as artists, to lash whatever wands we have, to let the world putter through us, and see what we can make of it.