Journey to WAP: A Love Story With Ben Shapiro

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Something terrible happened to Ben Shapiro last night. It was a dream, a vivid mirage puppeteering against his eyelids, a nightmare so realistic and awful that it jolted him awake. He was trapped in Cardi B’s new hit single, WAP (Wet Ass Pussy), trapped in the music video version that he watched too many times in preparation for his show of conservative male punditry, until it crept into his fluttering subconscious. Like Freddy Kreuger dressed as an unindividuated series of black women unfurling their curves in glossy leather lingerie. “Yeah, you fuckin’ with some wet-ass pussy, Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet-ass pussy…” Shapiro clambers through random doors along an eery and brightly hued hallway, opening and slamming them closed again. Cheetahs licking their upper lips clean; cartoonish renderings of bedizened door knockers unwrapping themselves as serpents opening their jaws; the floor rushing with a clear pungent fluid that’s clearly not water. Ben runs, stumbling over himself as he splashes his way down the hall, but he trips and falls, skidding to a halt. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion stand over him, blocking the exit, singing in their hypnotic gaze. The walls seem to close in. “…In the food chain, I’m the one that eat ya, If he ate my ass, he’s a bottom-feeder.” Shapiro screams. “Macaroni in a pot, that’s some wet-ass pussy.” The pornographic and predatory grotesquerie sends a sleeping Shapiro into wide-eyed convulsions. He’s awake, trembling, whimpering like a beaten dog. It’s okay. It was just a nightmare.

But what’s this? He looks down and sees that his penis is erect, warm with blood, like a chihuahua that perks his head up because he has heard a creak in the walls. But it’s not erect with arousal—certainly not sexual arousal at least—he is absolutely certain of this. He does not get aroused, and has devoted his entire life to a sexless devotion of political monogamy. Yes, surely it’s just an anatomical glitch of cellular walls filling with blood because he was sleeping. And the woman sleeping next to him (his “doctor wife” as he refers to her) is laying there peacefully like a frozen plank, arms locked at her sides, breathing heavily, as she always does. He slips out of bed, and steps onto the cold marble floor, sending a shivering rush up his legs. His legs of course are just pale tree trunks stripped of their bark—knobby sun-deficient rods of hairless death. His toes resemble more a deck of miniature penises, sprouting mangled weeds atop. He stares down at them, wiggling them, giggling in his iconoclastic squeaky way. In fact, his toes are not miniature penises at all—he has dressed them up to look exactly like those talking bullets in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, each one unique from the others, with a cowboy hat and a fake mustache different from the next. He murmurs something to his toes under his breath, and checks to make sure his doctor wife hasn’t stirred. He looks back to his toes, and smirks. Then frowns. This is unusual—this whole “erect penis” thing—unusual and unwanted.

The cold floor hasn’t subsided his erection, and it still prods awkwardly from his silken pajamas with patterns of Spongebob and cartoon bananas littered across them. “Hmm,” he thinks softly, staring at this strange edifying protuberance in his pants. “This doesn’t seem right. No. No, not right at all,” he whispers. He walks across the floor and into the hallway and then into the kitchen, where he dips his genitals into a cereal bowl of yoghurt and ice cubes, his penis cresting out of the surface like a submarine breaking through the Antarctic ice sheets. It’s no use. His erection is sturdy and everlasting. He begins spiraling into panic, his lips quivering, bubbles of snot glugging with volcanic slurry. “Wha-wha-what is this?” he asks nobody. “Wh-why is my pee-pee hard? I don’t want a hard pee-pee!” He scurries back to the bedroom in short, rapid steps, yoghurt splattered on the bullseye of his crotch like the residual fog of a huge firework. He reaches his doctor wife still sleeping like she was in a cryogenic chamber, and violently shakes her awake. “Wife! Hey wife!! Wake up woman, I have an erection!!!” Her eyes open with a thud—immediate and callous, her pupils instantly sharpening into pinpricks against hazel circular tapestries.

“What did you say?” she declares coldly, not moving an inch.

“You know, a boner. Why do I have a boner? These things are for sin. ‘The skin of sin’ as I like to call it.”

“It’s not a boner, you idiot. As a doctor, conventional wisdom tells us this is a penile tumescence, or being the early morning, happening in your sleep, nocturnal penile tumescence, something that occasionally happens in young men, as yourself.” She begins to close her eyes again, but is interrupted.

“So it just fills with blood, and there’s nothing I can do except wait it out?!” He’s sobbing now. His eyebrows are making violent undulations, his lips curling and uncurling themselves.

“It doesn’t just become engorged with blood. It’s not a balloon animal. When nitric oxide is increased in the trabecular arteries, causing them to dilate and then fill the corpora cavernous to fill with blood. But you also want the blood to stay there, so at the same time of dilation—”

“—No! No!!! I don’t want it to stay filled with blood, you psycho.”

“Well it’s quite interesting, because both the ischiocavernosus and bulbospongiosus muscles constrict the veins, which permits only the blood to only stay in the vicinity of the penis. Like beavers building a dam, if you will…Speaking of beavers…”

“What the f word is wrong with you? Have you gone completely mad? Next you’re going to tell me vaginas get wet when aroused.”

“Well, in simple terms, yes, yes they do.”

His voice squeaks. “That joint where a woman’s legs meet, you know, that indiscernible mold like on a Barbie doll. It allegedly gets…what’s the word? Ugh. The M word. You know, it rhymes with foist [he shudders with revulsion], but it starts with an M, hence the M word. Is that what you’re telling me?”

 

What makes Ben Shapiro truly horrific, is you know his prudeness is real. You know confidently that he has never even thought about the writhing ecstasy you can give a woman by going down on her. He has children, but you know there’s at least a notable chance that his wife’s eggs were fertilized in vitro—that there was no sexual intercourse whatsoever. I grew up very religious, and my father was something equivalent to a church pastor; but when I found my parents’ Kama sutra booklet in their dresser when I was six or seven years old, I remember feeling some indiscernible relief. Maybe some muted respect, or understanding, as much as a runny-nosed six year old is able to feel. Even in my childish naiveté, it humanized my own parents, doing their acrobatic 69’s or whatever they did back then. Other republican lunatics who get caught getting blowjobs through public bathroom glory holes, or Jerry Falwell Junior who watches his wife get plowed by the pool boy—there’s a redemptive quality in these stories. We mock them for their religious hypocrisy, but at least we find a glimmer of humanity in their perversions. Because the sweaty blood-choked limbs of our libidinal fatigue always wins in the end. The religious folk are at war with the flesh, and when the armies of nipples and scrotums and oddly shaped cocks and pussies come marching over the the grassy knoll, singing their war songs with trumpets and drums, you know they will always win. The scrawny trembling lines of Bibles and holy books and discarded cassette tapes of church hymns gets mauled by bludgeoning cocks and big hairy pussies with studs around their cartoon wrists.

And although Shapiro has undoubtedly never seen his wife’s own asshole, and probably takes pride in not being able to locate the clitoris—he is a one man show, a quivering and banal theater of prudeness—his outrage is obvious and performative. He was never actually angry about Cardi B’s WAP single. It’s a gleeful performative anger, like a parent who gets mad at their child for drawing a dick in their schoolbook, but then laughs about it with their spouse in private. Shapiro is snickering through all of this, because he gets to read dirty poems and pretend he is losing his mind over it all. It’s great entertainment. You want to send in requests: have Ben read James Joyce’s love letters to his wife, the ones about how much he loves her spluttering farts. (If you haven’t read these yourself, do it at once.) Have Ben read the dirtier scenes from Tropic of Cancer. Have Ben read Couples by Updike, someone who David Foster Wallace once described as a “penis with a thesaurus.” Even after all these, you come away thinking that Cardi B is better at writing about the erotic. Updike’s description of sex goes as follows: “Her slick firm body was shameless yet did not reveal, as her more virginal intercourse once had done, the inner petals once drenched in helpless nectar.” This is awful writing, and is laboriously painful to get through.

Shapiro behaves as if WAP is the first of its kind to sing poems about sex. He tweeted that his doctor wife diagnosed a wet ass pussy as either “bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, or trichomonis.” His wife surely knows this, and he made the whole thing up. He later tweeted that he doesn’t mind being mocked for never making his wife wet because him and his wife know there’s more to a happy marriage than sexual satisfaction.

I often leave my phone on black and white so I don’t look at it so much, and my speaker on it is broken. So the other day I was watching muted black-and-white porn with subtitles, jacking off in silence to things like “[moaning] Oh yeah, baby, lick that pussy. Ugh.” It was pretty awful, but the thought of Ben Shapiro reading the transcripts of porn for the deaf could be a whole subgenera on Pornhub. Many would finally pay premium. A woman started following me on Instagram who reads classic literature in her lingerie for money. Ben Shapiro basically does the same. But he doesn’t really know the affluent luster of what’s possible. What if he familiarized himself with George Bataille’s Eroticism, reading the philosopher’s lyrically mad rejection of the orgy as an agrarian ritual, he might realize what he’s doing. Bataille committed himself to the dialectic of denial and embrace of the orgy as any semblance of the sacred.

Bataille compares these libidinal torrents of climaxes and orgies under the contextual framework of Christianity specifically. But all religion works the same—Ben’s orthodox Judaism banishes the orgy as part of the profane, and the quotidian piety of the religious experience as key features of the sacred. Rather than a sordid commitment to the non-erotic love of agápē, orthodox religion is an attempted banishment of all unmediated materiality. Women mustn’t only present themselves as sexless beasts, their physical modesty not simply encouraged by the barbarized progeny—but they will actually become these things through and through. When Shapiro refers to a woman’s pussy as her “p word,” it is in reference to Bataille’s nod to a more Nietzschean critical materiality of Christianity, in that sex and the orgy ritual are one step away from violence and war. “A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism,” Bataille famously stated. If Ben says “pussy” he risks a domino blunder of profanity and perversions. He will collapse into a puddle of self-flagellation, crying and trembling as he did in his nightmare.

As Dostoyevsky writes at the beginning of Notes from the Underground, “I am a sick man. …I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” It’s almost as though it’s a ventriloquist’s dictation of Shapiro himself. If he get’s his wife’s pussy wet, he risks even the momentary elimination of the suffering and pain that he and the Underground Man in Dostoyevsky’s book crave so much.


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Let The Sons Debate

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by Guy Walker

If this world could be only a little more perfect, Hunter Biden would join the debate stage, opposing the awkward tandem of Eric Trump and Donald Junior. Let us dream.

 

It won’t be long now before the undeniable perfumes from Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s rotting corpses billow from their basements. Joe Biden is an undead mummy, injected with enough emulsified glue to hold him together just long enough. He mistakes his wife for his sister, reads directly from his staff-written notes while giving television interviews, and still stumbles through it, forgetting most of what he was supposed to say, hacking his way through a simple point about FDR’s New Deal with a weed wacker, tangled in a thicket of lost words. The Democratic Party dragged its corpse across the finish line, so give us his son—the direct bloodline of Biden’s diplomatic wit and charisma—a chance at saving the world.

 

While many tens of thousands of Americans are now dying from the virus, Trump is advocating for armed riots. His external decay resembles more a clumpy scab, breaded chicken singed lightly with a military-grade flame thrower. He’s telling people to inject bleach.

 

Happily for us, these three failed sons are teeming , their blistered progeny summoning the call for redemption. Hunter Biden crawls out of a ramshackled fortress of blue tarps, wood crates, and shopping carts, and a webwork of gnarled twine. He was held at gunpoint to his head in order to score more crack—the self conscious embodiment of the American condition, as we are trying our best to kill the planet to drag on the muted high just a little longer. But he was also appointed an enormously high paying job on a Ukrainian gas company he had no qualification for—another personified metaphor for the upper crusts of the world, and their brooding nepotistic glee only mocking us from their mother-of-pearl thrones. In effect, he is the perfect all-American candidate, squabbling in the cascading limelight for our attention.

 

Eric Trump, the foulest inbred mistake, lurches from his customized leaden trunk, wrapped in garlands of heavy chains like a gimp. His lips are pulled back, exposing his gluey lacquered teeth and gums like a baboon, the glistening fangs shivering in moonlight. But his ugliness—this considerable repulsive complexion—is the rot of familial neglect. It’s merely a symptom of his self-hatred, the years self-immolation and abuse rotting his skin into a tundra of unrecovered acne scars, the red scars traveling like a map of slow moving locusts across the globe of his misshapen head.

 

Donald Junior has grown a beard, and manufactured a jawline with scissors and an entire pack of razors, carving his way through a charred field of needle-sized cabbages, like trying to perform some credible landscaping, mowing the lawn of a recently burned town. His legs flap when he walks, wearing his pants the way only a slobbering drunk would, riding awkwardly up the crack of his ass, as he stares aimlessly at the squirrels in the courtyard, tripping on Baron’s discarded toys.

 

The three of them meet across stage, the plateau of a bombed out city lays between them, the charred ruins smoking against the semblance of a Charles Dickens misery. A gaunt and shivering silhouette of a coyote or feral dog tramples across the frontier, as dust devils made entirely of pulverized concrete and newspapers soiled in grease churn pointlessly under a low and brooding sky.

 

Don Junior opens his mouth first, but he only mimics the moanings of a pregnant cow. He’s drunk again. He was known as Diaper Don through college because he often pissed himself when drunk. These days, he wears a suit, and kills big animals for fun. We mock those Chinese tales of men buying rhino horns to get their dicks hard; but then there’s the Don Junior types, who blunder their way through barren wastelands in their safari-beige jumpsuits, to kill a rhino from behind a fortified steel barrier, his cock now like a blood sausage at the sight of so much butchered charismatic megafauna strewn across the bespectacled plains, everything warmly saturated with evening sun and the spilled guts of a giraffe.

 

Eric Trump leans into the microphone, drool and encrusted pudding scaling the corners of his mouth; it is impossible to tell if he is smiling, as in happy, or just deformed. He spits when he speaks: “Uh yes, hi, haha, what my brother is trying to say is he has always believed in this country, you know, he’s always believed if you vote for us—my brother and I, I mean—we will make this country better for everybody, you know, [nervous laughter]…look, my dad is not a sexual deviant okay? He’s a warrior. Okay, sorry, can I start over? Fuck.”

 

Don Junior moans again. A circle darkens on his pinstriped trousers around his crotch. “Daw-dee,” he drools, looking desperately to his father who’s sitting in the front row, pouting over his dropped ice cream cone. “Daw-dee,” Don Junior repeats, pointing at the puddle forming around his feet. And Father Trump just swears under his breath, and sinks lower into his seat, his polished shoes paralyzed in its own puddle of melted ice cream.

 

Hunter Biden dusts off lint from his shoulder that was never there, and clears his throat. He wears a wrinkled brown suede blazer, like something directly off the rack at Goodwill, and a Hermés Nantucket rose gold watch. He traded the last one—a Jaeger LeCoultre—for a baggie of crack cocaine last week, and got this one in the mail from an anonymous admirer. He is mildly handsome, roughened by the storms of private agony, resembling something akin to a well-dressed and trimmed Iggy Pop. He checks the time. “Look, I can’t be here long, I have many pressing appointments,” he admits, wiping a line of sweat from his brow.

 

“Pressing appointments?” Eric interrupts, stammering through spittle. “This is the debate for the presidency of the United States, Kids Edition. What pressing appointments you have are more urgent than debating my brother and I? Daddy got you running errands in Ukraine again?” At this absolute bodyslam of a remark, a posse of MAGA chuds in the audience with uniform bowl haircuts and bucked teeth victoriously yelp like elephant seals, their tits like heavy waterskins filled with curdled milk under a windless sky.

 

Hunter rolls up the sleeves of his blazer into awkwardly bunched scrunchies around his forearms. ”You know why the two of you are imbeciles? Huh? Do you? I’ll tell you why. From an obvious marketing strategy, KAG doesn’t have the same ring as MAGA. MAGA sounds so similar to Mega, and therefore to the hallmark American phenomenons of Big Gulps and Supersized Happy Meals, the heart and soul of the grotesque American psyche, a psychoanalytical anchor to Donald Trump’s support. This is it actually, the fucking ineptitude of your fucking illiterate acronym might just actually lose you the election. That matters more than all the other volcanoes of raw-dog insanity your father has committed—a fucking advertising mistake. And besides which, killing big animals is so passé. I have seen the two of you jack off over the corpses of animals, thinking you’re the progeny of Hemingway or something, and not that human-sized fried chicken mascot of a father. Fuck off! Now listen, I’m late for a very important appointment, but I wish you all adieu [he gestures charismatically with a bow.]

 

Hunter then looks to the crowd for acknowledgement, a customary glance that tells his supporters it’s their turn to roar in victorious applause. But there’s nobody there—no popular support anyways. Some discarded Cracker Jack boxes, and a toddler walking astray still in his harness and leash. Jill Biden is spoon-feeding her husband applesauce, mimicking a train choo-chooing its way into his warm gaping hole of a mouth, like an inactive volcano steaming at the edges. She dips the spoon back into the trough of his bib to try again after the liquid gruel falls from his mouth. Tom Perez and Hillary Clinton are at the merchandise booth, accosting children to buy “It’s Muller Time” t-shirts. Clinton does that thing she used to do on stage when she was a contender, where points and smiles insanely at somebody who isn’t there. But she does this over and over rapidly, a glitch in her programing until a circuit breaks and wires and sparks explode from her neck.

 

At this, a moderator jumps up on the stage. He has slicked his hair back with Crisco—giant clumps of white grease cook under the dark sulfuric sky. He lights a match, and puts it to his hair, setting it ablaze. With this final theatrical act, the jiggling mass of Trump supporters, and the handful of Democratic establishment figures watch ghoulishly as the man’s head burns. “We’ll see you all back here in four years,” he gleefully screams under flames, “with Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton in an MTV sponsored Celebrity Death Match series event! Now stay safe everyone.”

 

“Stay safe.” “Hey, stay safe.” “Good to see you. Stay safe.” Everyone utters the obligatory gesture in the time of the coronavirus as they exit the scenes of rubble and decay, back to their cubbies of claustrophobia and burnt out dreams, waiting drearily until they can post their “I Voted” sticker selfies on Instagram. Soon enough, the area clears. Hunter ducks under the blue tarp of a homeless tent encampment; and the Trump sons are seen pulling their noses up with Scotch tape, and laughing with their mouths agape. And all that’s left is a heap of smoldering ashes in the middle of the stage; and the first drops of rain begin to patter the ground.


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Coronavirus Against the Day

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by Guy Walker

There’s a famous photo of a man mowing his lawn with an enormous tornado looming in the background. It’s inanity in its rawest form, but also a biblical representation of our own broader calamity as a species. I went surfing a couple mornings ago, fraternizing with friends on the bluff’s edge, smoking weed together, laughing about the skyrocketing divorce rates now that couples have to spend time with one another amidst this global lockdown from coronavirus. But our collective scenery was hued with the grim residue of history’s past epidemics. We all knew, without acknowledging it seriously, that everything was up in the air.

 

Slavoj Žižek called the panic surrounding coronavirus a “Kill Bill”-esque blow to capitalism. Populations are now realizing directly that insurmountable debt, rent payments, and meaningless jobs were just made-up hobbies for the rich and powerful to keep us dithering in the sludge of tomorrow. And it might be more difficult to pack us all back into the paddocks of servitude once this blows over. Suddenly all of Bernie’s ideas and Andrew Yang’s ideas aren’t so crazy after all, and the economic survival of a people is tantamount to global riots. At least for a shotgun-fart of a moment, some politicians seem to be prioritizing the decency and welfare of its electorate over the riches of war. I’m not being cynical. There are real fragments of governance that deliver the morning fog of optimism.

 

But the universal hope now seems to be for things to go back to normal as quickly as possible. We’ve seen it in the Democratic primary race that has all but dwindled into the rearview of reality tv reruns. Joe Biden’s entire presidential campaign is resting on the belief of the return to normalcy. He doesn’t believe in anything—except for immaculate gleaming fangs for dentures, and pocketed hair plugs that camouflages the emulsified rot of his skull, and aviator sunglasses that promote some vague sense of youth, he has never shown us through policy that he cares about the betterment of the people. Now this fiendish poetry of hell actually makes Joe Biden the best candidate for president: we can all return to normal, whatever our pallid impression of that is.

 

The implication of this taxpayer bailout, mortgage and eviction suspension, free medical treatment, etcetera, is that this is only temporary. Those of us who survive the virus (and more concerning, the panic around the virus), will have to return to our obligatory suffering once this is all over, scrambling to collect money to pay rent on time, stressing into our own cauldrons of disease because the banks are demanding their loans back. A return to normalcy is a return to self-immolating idiocy. Wading knee-deep through the binary fusion of human filth, our excrement killing everything in its frothy wake. Most certainly, things should not go back to normal. This experiment of killing the planet for a fucking smashing good party wasn’t a good one.

 

Rahm Emanuel, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, is credited with saying you shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste. (Obviously he did let it go to waste. Or whatever. The bankers never went to jail, they only got richer.) But he didn’t coin the phrase anyways. It was Winston Churchill amid the second World War, and the collective mobilization for a greater good. Franklin Roosevelt used the Great Depression to deliver a massive overhaul of our economic and social systems for the better. It may sound trite, but this is indeed our opportunity to rework so much that has been broken for so long.

 

There will always be a humanity, a decency, out there in the streets, however feral it becomes. I walked by a homeless man early this morning standing in the same place that I walked by him last night. It was still dark and he was shivering uncontrollably, and still had the decency to say “How’s it goin’ brother.” I went back to my apartment and gave him a huge warm coat and a thermos of tea. And for one reason or another, his bedraggled state made me emotional. There’s sixty thousand homeless people here in Los Angeles, and this guy moved me. But now I ask myself if I unwittingly gave him the virus that will eventually kill him in the cold. I surely didn’t, but the pandemic of fear has seeded that thought.

 

I am a young single healthy male living at the base of the Hollywood hills, so I inadvertently speak about this arrogantly. But this is good for us Americans. The terrible swine flu that swept through China months ago; the charred blizzard of locusts ravaging many parts of Africa; the flooding of distant island nations—these are all things that happen to strange people in stranger lands. Our gaudy celebration of rose-scented farts was make-believe all this time. It’s good for us to remember firsthand we are bags of rotting infectious meat scurrying frantically on this flooded rock, spiraling around an enormous fireball.

 

Someone on the Internet tweeted something about the need to eat some peyote and speak to the pangolin in these strange times. This is that time, for all of us. Eat peyote, and speak to the pangolin will become my mantra. This isn’t working for any of us. I don’t believe we have to always be the saboteurs of all life. There’s something beautiful inside us somewhere. When we are free from our quarantine, we should have sex in the tall prairies, drink whiskey by the bottle with our grandmother, kiss one another’s cheeks like the French do, swim in the sea, rub ourselves with handfuls of moss and soil, drive motorcycles out to the desert, fall madly and briefly in love.

 

For now though, Žižek believes we should look to the five stages of trauma while dealing with this crisis: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. But in the final stage of acceptance, he notes, we should look to the social uprisings in France and Hong Kong for a more conclusive trajectory: “they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives.” This, I believe, is most necessary. We should accept we are being presently dragged through the mud into this new reality, and move forward with collective solidarity. Not the fear, but the new reality. Žižek continued that when we are being ravaged by one of nature’s vast reservoir of viruses, it’s “sending our own message back to us.” A virus just reproduces itself stupidly, without reason, identical to the way we humans do. We have barbecued the green terrariums and waterfalls and loamy beds of mushrooms and mosses into a bubbling scab, like a frat party that left half the town dead. It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Charles Baudelaire wrote a great deal about the existential gore of our species. Flowers of Evil is a masterpiece of our collective sin of being bored amid this blaze of life.

 

At my side the Demon writhes forever,

Swimming around me like impalpable air;

As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever

And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.

 

After all this panic, we might compulsively return to the “wilderness of Ennui”. Because we’ll think that’s how it always was—we had a few good years in this viral circle jerk of modernity, driven by a maniacal lust for more bricks and concrete and plastic toys, our swollen genitals releasing like the last rains of winter. But we believed this movie was the sharply bordered tapestry of life, that this is just how the whole fucking thing hummed along and would continue to hum along. Baudelaire said he wanted to write poetry that would fire a cannonball into the future; and somewhere under our panoply of barbarism, we’re all poets, and can do the same.

 

The internet isn’t real. A whole culture industry structured around going viral, groping at the melancholy storm above to magically deliver our drooling, spluttering ego across the globe. We want to be seen; we want strangers we didn’t even know existed to catch the disease of our personalities. Now, some bat in some market in some village in China, gave this virus to another animal, and then to a human, and then to all of us, killing scores of the old and weak, sending the stock market into free fall, directing everyone home to sit behind their screens to make ironic quarantine-themed Tik Tok videos that will go viral. The toilet paper hysteria is purely viral, snowballing on its own momentum.

 

Richard Dawkins popularized the word “meme,” to mean “viruses of the mind,” in which cultural frames inhabit themselves in our minds, only to infest on the emulsified rot of our habits. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote at length about what they termed the culture industry, in Dialectic of Enlightenment. The factory production of popular culture is now facing a burden in this virus. Normal popular culture will survive, of course, but hopefully morph into something more meaningful.

 

As far as social isolation is concerned, the virus hasn’t really achieved anything out of the ordinary. Quarantine, self-isolation, a chronic loneliness that has blanketed the frontier. British journalist, Sam Kriss, notes that it’s only amplified what we were already practicing en masse anyways. Stay home; binge watch made-for-television series until your eyeballs rot from their stems; post clever memes on the internet, and then scroll frantically to tally who saw it, who might be impressed now by your isolated wit and sheltered charisma during these dark times; watch porn; smoke weed, eat edibles, eat food; shelter yourself behind childhood forts of toilet paper, lather your genitals in Purell disinfectant; buy things from Amazon you don’t need. Young people who say they love to read, but the only writers they can name are Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.

 

Adorno wrote elsewhere that “Distance is not a safety-zone but a field of tension. It is manifested not in relaxing the claim of ideas to truth, but in delicacy and fragility of thinking.” The technology of today allows us to not really reap the benefits of this isolation. I want to believe we are collectively introspecting on the acute parochialism of this haphazard arena-of-gore we’ve made for ourselves, and how we will design a better one. But until the power and wifi goes out on all of us, and we can’t take refuge in Youtube self-help tutorials, or FaceTime our ex-girlfriends from a decade ago, we won’t be joining any mass meditations. “Only at a remove from life can the mental life exist, and truly engage the empirical.” We have tethered ourselves to life with evangelical fury. There’s no escape.

 

What about the prisons? The homeless? The nursing homes? More people are dying by the day from climate change, and yet something about the immediacy of coronavirus makes it more of a threat than the growing severity of flood and fire, or storm clouds of locusts ravaging through entire continents. And as bad as this pandemic is, it’s going to be remembered as incredibly tame compared to the next one. Many public intellectuals have called it a dress rehearsal for the next one. Or, what it could be, what another pandemic inevitably will be at one time or another. There is already a great deal of concern when some super-predatory anthrax melts out of the carcass of a woolly mammoth from under the permafrost. This will happen. And coronavirus will be remembered as another era of quaint naiveté.

 

I couldn’t imagine having children who are dependent on me, with bills to pay, and no money coming in sight. Yet still, things aren’t that bad comparatively to what could be. Imagine the so-called Big One—the earthquake, not the frozen pizza company—hits Los Angeles tomorrow. Or up in the Pacific Northwest. It’s entirely possible—we’re something like a hundred years overdue. Or, this panic and virus carries on through to fire season, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing from their homes like diseased roaches.

 

The canals in Venice, Italy have already been returned with swans, dolphins, and fish, as the murky death-blended smoothie of canal has cleansed itself to a pristine shimmering postcard; reports estimate the lockdown in China likely saved 77,000 lives just from the reduction in pollution alone; oil stocks have plummeted to possible unrecoverable lows. An invisible lifeless bug did in a few days what us environmentalists have been trying to achieve for decades. There’s part of me that wants to believe this is only one of a multitude of nature’s self-correcting mechanisms to get back on course. SARS, like corona, came from the wild animal trade—from a civet, the enigmatic wild quadruped. AIDS came from eating wild bushmeat. Lyme disease comes from our disruption of New England forests. Maybe it’s only metaphor, and therefore not real, but sometimes I think nature’s trying to say something. English scientist James Lovelock introduced his Gaia hypothesis to the scientific and popular world, in that the earth functions like a single living organism. Or rather, more mundanely, like a self-regulating system. It was initially mocked as hippie science, but it’s since evolved into widely accepted scientific theories, now known as earth systems science.

 

Whatever the case, this will of course go far beyond coronavirus. When we open our curtains and unlock the deadbolt from our doors for the first time since this quarantine, pale and naked, squinting into the feral daybreak, we’ll scan if everything’s back to normal. The clouds will darken. A butterfly will land on a man’s balls. Stock markets will crawl upwards. And we’ll drink whiskey with our grandmothers.


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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.

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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.

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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.


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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

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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.

Self-Help and the Cult of Banality

(originally published in 2015)

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. -Dylan Thomas

The operation runs smoothly. Hundreds of Chinese child laborers sit hunched over on the cold concrete basement floor, the florescent lights flickering, each of the children scribbling hundreds of inspirational quotes per day. The skittering of a cockroach is heard, and the sudden heartless thud of a stiletto stabs the thing in the center, a white paste oozing out onto the shivering floor. Tony Robbins—motivational speaker extraordinaire—stands over the children, pacing the aisles in his stripper heels, his whip dragging on the floor beside him. Only the sound of frantic scribbling can be heard, along with Tony Robbins’ heels clicking on the impenetrable callousness beneath him. His thin porno mustache twitches. He opens his mouth, white saliva pooling at the corners of his lips, making a smutty moist sound as it smacks open, and he booms, “MAKE MEEEE MONAYYYYYY!!!”  And the little children scribble furiously. “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped,” one bucktoothed boy writes. “We can change our lives. We can do, have, and be exactly what we wish,” a five year old with a bowl cut and a runny nose, writes.

This place was a fortune cookie factory for years, with the same child laborers previously scribbling good common sense and lotto numbers, but Tony Robbins highjacked the place years ago, and uses the kids to write his books. He’s worth $480 million, and suffers from illiteracy and adulthood ugliness. But over the years, he’s inspired millions to buy his books and pay for his courses and motivational lectures on how to become rich. It’s something the Cult of Scientology excels at, convincing throngs of boorishly inept humans to give the institution all their money to become free from all their problems.

There have been countless others before Robbins, promising you heaven, health, love, money, tits, happiness. There was Robert Tilton, the famous televangelist, who’s demographic was predominately old women in the American South and Midwest with only a high school education and an average income of between $15,000 and $25,000. Tilton raked in $80 million a year from contributions, one hundred percent tax free. Discovered in a Primetime special in 1990, donations and pleas for prayer didn’t go to Tilton at all, but rather straight to his bank, depositing the money directly and tossing the personal letters into the dumpster behind the bank. There’s Creflo Dollar, another MegaChurch pastor, who started a fundraising campaign to buy a $65 million private jet. There’s Kenneth Copeland, who used his private jet not to preach, but to ski and hunt and kill endangered animals. But Tilton, Dollar, and Copeland used and use religion as their face, pandering to the incorrigible stolid masses in order to lift themselves from their flaccid arrangements of manhood. What Tony Robbins has accomplished is a mastery over the vulnerable without using religion. The philosophia perennis generalized for any woman or man.

You don’t need to listen that closely to realize they are selling you dog shit wrapped in Reynolds wrap. But then again, men like Robbins are attracting tens of millions of people to their bro-ish fallow theater. You have to wonder why he keeps coming out with books promising you these are the steps to your financial freedom, as opposed to his previous ones. Tony Robbins is the high priest of all the others. There is Tai Lopez, a pubic-bearded general of sexless adulthood, showing you his Lambourghuini (which turned out to be a rental) in his garage, next to his “seven new book shelves” of two thousand new books appropriately also in his garage. Because I always go to my garage when I need a new book. He reads a book a day, because  .  .  .  because he reads good. He quotes Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels, (who was also a charged rapist), and tells you to remain an optimist, that optimism will eventually get you your new Lambo.

Then there is Lewis Howes, a regular guy who still dreams of being a high school jock, who played two games of arena football before breaking his wrist, thus ending his career. He starred on my college’s football team, a Division III Christian Science school who lost to the worst college football team in the country. He called up a girl I know very well, and asked her to buy him a plane ticket to fly him out to see her so he could fuck her. And he recently made the New York Times Bestseller list with his book about how to be great. It’s called the School of Greatness. In his highlighted Facebook video, he teaches you the ten best ways to make money on the internet: 1) teaching and training. 2) providing a service. 3) creating and selling a product. These are his top three, in his words. The androgynous auto-objectification of such a vaguely non-comedic skit, along with the brittle hysteria of telling someone the best way to make money is to make something and sell it, is so horridly adolescent, so mockingly stupid and obvious, you ought to punch a male stripper in the dick. You can purchase an hour conference call with Lewis for $497. I have $14 to my name and a pack of condoms I got for free at Planned Parenthood. A kid from my college bought thirty copies of his book, like a lost evangelical, passing out copies to homeless people at the airport. I just don’t know anymore. Here at Paradise of Storm headquarters, we know the importance of intellectual bravery. Last week, someone found my blog by searching for “throbbing dick.” Another found it by searching for “rob palm oil with penis before fucking besides a dead man in my home town.” Another was “iggy azalea yoga pants fit a little too well naked.” I pride my readers in asking about the big issues, and together we try to nudge ourselves closer to the answers.

On the other hand, I am as much a follower as anyone. We idolize women and men of sun. Over the years, I’ve passed through phases of literary idolatry, pretending to shadow the brazen obsessions for beauty that was lived by the likes of Rimbaud and Celine and Baudelaire and Thompson. I’ve mimicked all their writing styles, drunk and drugged away endless nights, slept with as many women as I could, in some sort of vague pedantic discipleship of the great men who also put pretty words together. I began sailing strictly because of Hemingway. At one point I began writing standing up, slamming away on my typewriter, allowing the breeze to blow through the curtains and across my chest, certain that if this is how Hemingway did it, then so could I. But there is a justified egotism in our ubiquitous want for recognition. A ballet dancer could never merely dance in her bedroom. A singer could never sing to himself. And a writer strains to earn his or her laurels. The ephemeral orgasms in the daily struggle. As a young writer, Hunter S. Thompson would type out the entirety of The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises over and over, just to feel what it was like to write masterpieces. When we realize we’re not becoming the sports stars and the rock stars that we first imagined we’d become, we turn to more achievable men. Bankers. Writers. Politicians. Alcoholics.

But then there are Lifestyle Entrepreneurs. Motivational speakers. Social Media experts. The smarmy inbred tanning salon men who sell snake oil on the internet. They write self-help books and host podcasts, with hundreds of thousands of listeners paying for subscriptions, writing notes on how to make it rich. They use phrases like, “Your life is your message to the world. Make sure it’s inspiring,” with a picture of a footpath winding through a sodden morning forest. Or “Your greatness is not what you have, it’s what you give,” scribbled casually over the sepia stained silhouettes of girls twirling their hair. The magniloquence of their egodystonicity is something from the bowels of poetry  .  .  .  a vague enough catch-phrase stolen from a bunch of fortune cookies. They are the actual vampirish cult leaders of the modern age. Their horoscopic forgery is basic enough to inspire misandry. They steal the insanity from the beautiful. Until there is nothing but a bow tie and a forced smile. We need the gorgeous and the awful, the theater of wilderness and rage. Woman and man will always have a bowl of porridge in the drought, a last glimmering maxim that shines beyond the distance.

In Kant’s What Is Enlightenment? he describes man’s inability to free himself from the herd, from his timid nonage that prevents him from maturing into his hypothetically innate state as Übermensch. Man’s craving for instruction. Craving for “laziness and cowardice.” Kant quotes the Roman poet, Horace: Sapere aude! Dare to know! Dare to be wise! It’s a challenge for bravery, to walk into the unknown night without Tony Robbins holding your hand. Enlightenment, freedom, wisdom, knowledge itself, is the courage to find the beautiful alone, to shiver in the silver strands, to rage and rage until the sky burns spectacle.

‘Cold War’ and the Campaign for Identity

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by Guy Walker

It begins with optimism rising out of the rubble. Wiktor Warski, played by Tomasz Kot, and his colleague Irena (Agata Kulesza) begin as ethnomusicologists, touring Poland’s post-War ramshackled bourgs, its residents doughtily croaking out their best attempts of favorite songs they grew up learning. It’s a designated attempt to categorize and resuscitate the most deserving marks of a Polish identity, to modernize its quaintest musical traditions for a well-founded pride, like an endangered language that is then broadcasted for others to notice its potency. Country peasants are recruited to audition, baited to step out of their lives of slop and moth-eaten tweeds, and earn a spot with the newly formed national folk ensemble, learn choreographed song and dance numbers that best represent their musical heritage.

It’s important, briefly, to frame this in the context of the cannibalistic depression of the Cold War, and what it meant for cultural identity. The Youtube channel, Cuck Philosophy, presents absorbing and well-informed videos that typically analyze elements of pop culture through some applicable philosophical lens: “Hegelian Recognition and Incels;” “The Late Capitalism of K-Pop.” Or more generally, on what makes Jordan Peterson so wrong about postmodernism, which, although satisfying to watch, still requires watching Peterson squeal and whimper about Derrida’s Notion of the Centre, as he’s seemingly always on the edge of bursting into tears, his bones crumbling like saltine crackers, his hair pomaded with Crisco so a curling head-pube dangles somewhere around his forehead, trying to look whimsical. But there’s another important video that analyzes the rise of World Music in the context of the end of the Cold War and the proceeding spread of neoliberalism. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was thought by many as the final stage in our collective sociocultural evolution, that Western liberal democracy had finally claimed victory, such presumption paraphrased neatly in Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Not that different from the First World War considered to be the war to end all wars. Much the same was believed about the Second World War. But, when much of the West’s identity was built around iterations of being “better dead than red,” and defending themselves against the insufferable Red Menace, shuffling out products of a political industry dependent on fear of the Other, the West spiraled into something resembling an identity crisis.

Much of the entertainment industry is sanctioned and propelled by careful state propaganda. Casablanca is widely regarded as the highest form of this, energizing the United States’ citizenry to join the war. In it, Rick begins as an isolationist, preferring to drink and play chess alone, declaring he “stick[s] [his] neck out for nobody,” which in turn is replied as “a wise foreign policy.” But by the end of the film, he guns down a Nazi Major, and helps the resistance leader escape with his own true love. The high artfulness of it though, is that you don’t notice you are being gently coaxed into the dutiful patriotism of going to war, because it’s woven neatly into stories of love and loss, and the velvety throes of self-worship. Remember the Duck and Cover film of 1951, featuring a cartoon of Bert the Turtle tactfully dropping inside his shell when a bomb goes off. Or any of the innumerable films throughout the Cold War that painted the human embodiment of American values succeeding above the gnarled corruption of the Soviet Union.

Cuck Philosophy’s video, “Neoliberalism, World Music, and Corporate Aesthetics,” describes a West void of identity after the end of the Cold War, scrambling like a trust fund teenager trying to find what he’s actually good at, his pimples erupting like snow-capped mountains, his fortune already splayed out in front of him, maids and servants doing everything for him. In this quest, is something inevitable—certain corners of the popular culture returning to some putrid resemblance of the past, something so desperate to look authentic and worldly. As far music, there’s no longer the necessity of the Sex Pistols or Black Sabbath, no chorus of rebellion that in turn find its meaning. Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight” was about the Doomsday Clock during the Cold War that reached that same grim hour, edging towards certain global annihilation. (With the triumphant collision of climate change and the revival of the arms race, the Clock has since returned to this same time.) But with no culturally ubiquitous fear of some ghoulish ungodly people, ours was an “aesthetics of a return to ‘simplicity’ and ‘purity’ represented by third world countries,” as described by Cuck Philosophy. The video tells of ethnomusicologist Hugo Zemp, who recorded a lullaby by a woman named Afunakwa, from the Solomon Islands near Papua New Guinea, which in turn was released by fusion band Deep Forest, and then on to many other corporate commercials. Through the meandering desperations to come across as indigenously literate, the song became known as a Pygmy melody, obviously a gross misrepresentation of where it actually came from.

In Cold War, Wiktor’s initial group who sing and dance traditional Polish songs are then instructed to integrate songs praising their country’s love of Stalin, the renegotiated purpose and identity now a stalwart propaganda. But later, Wiktor has his own identity crisis. After fleeing, and living in Paris for years, he tries to return to Poland to chase after his love, Zula. In what is presumed the Polish embassy in Paris, he is reminded he is neither Polish nor French. Frankly, they tell him, he doesn’t exist. In Paris, he plays piano numbers in the smoke-whipped amour of Parisian jazz clubs, caressing neatly into the finally realized fantasy of falling in love with a beautiful French poet, Juliette—to some of our sentimental prejudices, this achieves the highest romance, so much a cliché it somehow becomes reasonable. But writer-director Pawel Pawilowski only acknowledges their relationship. It’s mentioned, but we barely see Wiktor and his French lover together. It’s a relationship that would have been enough to fill three Godard films, or any other heavily stylized piece of masturbatory nostalgia. It’s something the immigration delegate, or ambassador, asks Wiktor: why would you want to leave? But love is the corruptive madness that would rather ruin us all than let us be together. Once, after getting broken up with, I drove through a snowstorm with broken windows rolled halfway down and no heater for seventeen hours to watch her dance in a ballet, only to be rejected again, finally driving home in the flaccid pain and dehydration, my only food being old wind-scabbed cookies from a rest stop vending machine. It’s horrible, and yet, everyone has a similar story. It connects us. We occasionally divulge these stories with one another for a bit of comically disguised sympathy; or rather, like old men bragging about the size of a fish they once caught, the most of us crow on and on with one another about who acted the stupidest amidst the intoxicated blur of heartbreak. Wiktor on the other hand, took it a step further, returning to Poland and thus being sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor at a prison camp. We don’t see much of the camp, but we nevertheless ask ourselves, more than viewers, the same: why did you leave Paris? You left a world of maple, lace-veiled tits, the velveteen ennui saturated in the heart of cosmopolitan magnetism, and traded it for a bomb-blasted hellworld, everything gross and stupid wrapped in wreaths of barbed wire.

Zula, sitting on Wiktor’s lap at the prison camp’s visiting room, as they kiss and cry in each other’s arms, remarked the rhetorically blunt question: what have we done? She was never really smitten with the overly-confident pretension of Paris. And he couldn’t live there without her. But surely, anything was better than this—his broken and swollen fingers zigzagging their way to resemble a far worse condition than the rickety men singing their best in the beginning of the film.

In their own way, Wiktor and Zula were resistance fighters, pushing back against state tyranny. But the music Zula made in Paris, with Wiktor, wasn’t her music. She called them bastard songs, without a fatherland she loved. At its simplest, Pawel Pawlikowski described Cold War as an intimate story told in a big world—an old fashioned love story where it was possible to look across the room and fall in love. We don’t have that opportunity today, he continued, because we’ve been playing an endless game of Hot or Not on our phones, staring down into oblivion as true love may be walking right by our real-life gaze. We’ve lost our own identities, searching in the blaze of madness for something to love. Cold War, maybe, is about it being right there all along.

Mid90s is the Beginning and Ending of Our Lives

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by Guy Walker

Growing up in Los Angeles in the mid nineties was supposed to be a time of perspiring boredom. There was no Great War to protest against, no major cultural upheaval, no new mind-expanding drugs to try. There was just the day-to-day unfolding monotony of being a kid, wading through the creamy smog the way grandmothers swim, swinging lunch pails, conceding that yo-yos and Pokémon were scenes of glamour and social footing.

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, observes so much more than the fragmented trademarks of growing up in this strange and passionless orgy—the standardized confusion of slang, the Teenage Ninja Turtles ubiquity, the stapled fortresses bunched together into a barren and broken purlieu. Most representations of the nineties serve more like they were accruements of nostalgia organized neatly on the fireplace mantle. And within the context of skateboarding (as well as surfing and snowboarding), Hollywood has never achieved anything worthwhile. For the most part, these types of films have come across as one blurred and contrived iteration of Dazed and Confused, which in itself was feigned nostalgia.

What makes Mid90s the delicate masterpiece that it is, is our own obsession with authenticity. We’ll scour endless hours of interview footage and Twitter feeds to find a person’s single public stumble, and confidently write them off as a counterfeit icon. Jonah Hill rightly stated that a single Kowabunga! in a film that’s really only peripherally about skateboarding would disembowel the whole work, lump it along with the rest of the ridiculous genre.

But there’s none of this caricaturized glee. Thirteen-year-old Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic, comes from a moderately broken home—with a single mother, and an older brother who beats on him, he turns to a new group of friends. He stops watching movies with his mom; he starts smoking cigarettes, and drinking forties in the bathroom in order to catch up with the older kids; he’s deflowered in a sense, vaunting his success of fingering a girl for the first time. But Mid90s is a return to innocence. The resounding meliorism in Hill’s picture is finding family outside one’s own, in the ramshackled guardians who roam around like us, searching for some invocation of purpose. It seems negligible at times to try to pontificate on why a film is so successful in its delivery, in how it was molded over four years into its nice 84-minute package of what it means to grow up in a broken home. And maybe this was unintended. Director Paul Thomas Anderson said it was only well after he completed Boogie Nights did he realize it was about family—about finding it in the most unexpected places.

The return to innocence is what drives so much of the American adult narrative. It’s why so many of us have children, so we can vicariously relive life’s gleaming optimism through our children’s eyes. The innocence is summarized neatly in a scene when Fuckshit, a rhapsodic long-haired skater a few years older than Stevie, played by Olan Prenatt, explains to a genuinely engrossed homeless man about why they skateboard all day: “[It’s] why we ride a piece of wood—like, what that does to somebody’s spirit.” If an adult uttered those words, we could aptly scoff at their own self-indulgence; but the unprompted candidness of the young is what makes it good and true. That same scene was inspired by a moment just before the end credits in Plan B’s 1993 skate video, Virtual Reality, when one of the skaters sings along to Here Comes The Sun with a homeless man playing on his guitar. There was no mockery, no escaped abuse; just a moment of genuine kinship for the streets.

Because the treatment of the homeless and of skaters at the time were similar. Especially a young black man like Na-kel Smith who plays Ray, the oldest and most talented of the group, who occasionally nudges Stevie in a direction that an older brother or father should. He offers gentle encouragements that could only have been learned from his own time living and falling.

Mid90s has been compared much with the 1995 classic, Kids, for the obvious superficial similarities. Kids is about a day in the life of a group of New York City teenagers, their experimentation with dirty words, their required exaggerations of those novel sexual exploits, when every kiss and touch of a nipple felt like Rocky Balboa’s celebration at the top of the stairs. But as accurate as the youth’s depiction in Kids may have been, it was the product of generational cynicism, a sort of updated Reefer Madness that terrified parents on every friendless cul-de-sac than it did inspire more of an introspective art form. The similarities are there: Telly, the main teenage stalwart of awkwardness, intones to his friend about virgins. “I love ‘em. No diseases, no loose as a goose pussy, no skank. No nothin. Just pure pleasure.” It’s two excruciating hours of this. Watching it today, you don’t cringe for him and his clumsy gloating, but for yourself. We remember when this was the way it was—a collective effort of mentally inscribing the most irreverent displays from our older brothers and drunk uncles and coming to school each day as if to share our dirtiest vocal capabilities, gluing “pussy” with “cocksucker” with “your mom” like they were loose interchangeable Scrabble pieces. There’s a moment in Mid90s when Stevie first steps foot in the Motor Avenue skate shop, where he glimpses from behind a t-shirt rack at the private dialogue of his soon-to-be friends. They debate if they’d rather suck their dad’s dick or eat their mom out. Life or death. It’s as accurate of a moment as ever could be. Lunch hour was an endless joust of hypotheticals: would you rather break both legs or let your sister shit in your mouth. Debates that could run on for hours, fissuring our unrealized ideological confines. But there was always the bleary self-awareness that the whole thing was in jest, that life itself is just some strange ephemeral quip, fueled by waggery and drunkenness. Mid90s captured that integral lightheartedness within its dialogue that Kids didn’t.

Because at that age you’re still learning to form words, trying to croak out some meaning from your smutty orifice. As if there’s a vague awareness that we’ve only recently been weened off the teet, and our mouth is now told to perform, to interact casually and senselessly like normal adults do. Before you become a caricature of yourself, miming the sayings of pristine lawnmower American suburbia, drinking a light beer at your buddy’s bar-b-que, saying things like, “just nod your head and say she’s right,” as you all laugh together like you’ve never heard that witticism before. Mid90s is also the last hurrah of innocence before we start acting out these manufactured identities.

At its core, Mid90s is far more related to Hoop Dreams, the nearly three hour documentary that follows two inner-city Chicago teenagers, and their quest to make it into the NBA. Both films have a similar dialectic between chasing some endless victory lap of a debonair adolescence, sinking deeper into the impishness of being young and drunk forever, and pursuing the original dream of doing what you love professionally. In Hill’s film, Ray and Fuckshit begin as best friends, both with exceptional talent, who gradually drift apart amid their differing interests: Ray pursuing skating as a real, tangible career, and Fuckshit just getting more and more fucked up. This same wrestling of temptations underlies Hoop Dreams—it underlies our daily life. Every momentary lull gnawing with the beckoning of sabotage: am I going to drink more chamomile tea and finish this article, or overdose on ghb with my overweight landlord?

I was never much of a skateboarder, but I’ve surfed most of my life. And walking down the steps to the beach parking lot, there’s always the expected coven of old men, softly shuffling around the dusty blasphemous edge of the world with their shirts off, their dark brown beer-tits mummified forever by the sun, the scaled wrinkles folded over themselves. They still wear flip flops. They still ask me for pot. They still even surf on occasion. But most of all, they stand around like human seagulls, scavenging for the last morsels of cool, talking about their hippest days. It’s why a coming of age story with skateboarding serving as the glaring interest that the plot swirls around is so apt—we know this too will change, that our beloved maple-eyed protagonist lays in his hospital bed at the end of the film with two families that love him, with a myriad directions forward.

The skate documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys showed it without categorically declaring it so: the archived footage was of the Z-Boys as handsome sun-tendrilled kids; but their present day interviews were noticeably different. Stacey Peralta became a famous and respectable filmmaker, while Jay Adams slogged in and out of prison serving drug-related sentences, eventually dying at age 53. The blithe enviability of blond-haired grommets sneaking into backyard pools to skateboard disappears with old age.

Mid90s ends soon after the thwarting romance has fallen apart. These decisions are just beginning to be considered, when the audiences’ own desires for self-correction anticipates for a more comprehensive last verdict. It ends when it needs to end, before the rush of school shootings, before one or more of the friends gets addicted to meth, before the shuttering jolt into the next millennium and all its grotesque calamity. Jonah Hill lets us remember the last redeemable decade as it was, before the lights went out on us for good.