Paradise of Storm

Tag: Los Angeles

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.

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The Swan

Of whoever has lost that which is never found
Again! Never! Of those who deeply drink of tears
And suckle Pain as they would suck the good she-wolf!
Of the puny orphans withering like flowers!

Charles Baudelaire

105704

Elisa opened her eyes to an overweight cleaning lady standing over her, nudging her, saying “Excuse me miss, very late now.” Elisa jolted immediately, as all people do when woken by a stranger, and then seeing that the middle-aged Guatemalan lady was of no obvious threat, Elisa leaned back with relief and glanced around the hotel room, still unsure of it all. The sixty-inch flatscreen was still on, an infomercial with a man screaming about a vacuum cleaner with ten free attachments. The windows were open, and the tops of perfectly manicured palm trees could be seen blowing gently just outside the window. A seagull flew by without flapping its wings, and the long white window curtains blew inward, in their stiff polyester sort of way. Elisa felt a pain in both feet, looked down and saw she was still wearing Louboutins, and then she grimaced, as if to confirm to herself that her feet actually did hurt, having worn them since the shoot the day before. It was a different pain than in her ballet years, when the pain was a distinct effort of height and poise, when it brought a modish pleasure to ache with one’s own athleticism. The overweight cleaning lady bent over to plug in the vacuum cleaner. Elisa grabbed her purse and sunglasses, thanked Juanita, and hurried out the door.

The throbbing dreamless heat of Los Angeles has not let up for over a month, and the drought is worse. In the hills, bobcats panted during the day, and they are not supposed to pant. Flowers died, or just never grew in the first place. Couples generally had less sex in the summer, not on purpose, but because people don’t like the sweating agglutinative automation of their humping, and so it just works out that way. But the singles slept around even more, almost in a confused frenzy, like trying to get one last fuck out before the end  .  .  .  strangers’ pudenda sticking together when they fell asleep, their dreams plodding along like ephemeral dehydrated farts, trying to pass the restless scenery of dreams.

Songbirds wished they could groan, but in the mornings they open their tired eyes and know they must sing. Heat does not come to a place to be enjoyed  .  .  .  it comes to repulse, to make everyone sweat, it’s a mode of lethargy, a starless drunkenness that hangs from all your body parts. People have different ways of dealing with the heat in Los Angeles: many stay indoors drinking blended margaritas, watching new episodes of The Price is Right on mute as a rotating fan no longer rotates but points directly at a man or woman’s bare chest; others stalk the cafes where there is air-conditioning and other people to sit next to, thus evoking a sense of commonality through association (most people don’t actually talk to the others sitting around them, but they would not typically sit comfortably alone in a largely vacant café either  .  .  .  it’s a declared but unspoken trade: sitting near to one another gives each other an attestation of one’s life, but to speak out of context would be uncouth); others snort cocaine in bathrooms and sweat and talk about future business ventures for hours; others watch Netflix as they munch on summer-themed cookies and milk and wait for the sun to go down, when they can finally come out, like hyenas of rage tempted at the fall of dusk. Elisa was different  .  .  .  she thrived in the heat. She grew up on a ranch in New South Wales, Australia, herding cattle from a young age, One summer when she was thirteen, she castrated several bulls, and could ride a horse better than any of the boys in town, and though her hands were firm and confident they were still slim and gentle. Tough work does not certainly turn one’s hands tough  .  .  .  there are those who cannot callus-over elegance, who cannot make one’s tendencies hard. By fourteen, she moved to New York to dance at Juilliard, and by seventeen she was discovered by a young fashion company in Venice Beach, California, while on a family vacation, while she was playing basketball on the outdoor courts near Muscle Beach, her long red hair tossed in the bright jovial rage of competition; and her fame as one of the prominent models in the world has risen ever since for the last one-and-a-half decades. Women from all over the world sought to have her figure  .  .  .  they drank coconut water and did yoga and rubbed themselves in facial creams, even though Elisa herself did not do any of these things, because men and women alike draw out huge proportions of their leaders  .  .  .  a large-breasted Dziwozona alluring in the fog, Anna Karina smoking cigarettes in Technicolor, Hillary Clinton wide-eyed and cackling about a newborn  .  .  .   it is the brittle tautological nature of the idol that makes it so. The rose-cheeked inamorata convulsing in heat, then lunging at a star. The very static nature of a picture of a man or woman in a magazine is the ontological pseudo-world that we lust and crave. Because the whole physical thing, beyond the representation, beyond the quixotic undergarments and the saturated dawn, is too much. The entirety of a human is too much to remain sane and sober.

Elisa canceled her Uber, and waved down a taxi. “Apollo Studios,” she said to the driver, “It’s down on Main. I’ll tip you well if you can make it quick.” And the driver hit the gas faster than she was expecting. She fell back into her seat, pulled out her phone and texted the photographer: “Traffic is terrible. I’ll be there in 10. Frustrated face emoji.” She looked up and saw one of her billboards: a black and white advertisement for a perfume  .  .  .  in it, she’s shifted most of her weight onto one leg, is wearing only panties and a faded white spaghetti strap, and her thumb hangs candidly from her panties, and with her other hand she lightly bites her index finger, touching the tip with her tongue, staring at the camera, and therefore at everyone who looks at the advertisement, as if to say, “What might be under these panties of mine  .  .  .  and, I thought this finger was food.” The spectacle of the desired is a positively active phenomena, an intenerate dynamism that is held in place for eternity. The picture of Elisa is not a picture, not a pixelated representation to be jaded by in the thrusts of stardom—the picture, or simulacrum, is the active being frozen for eternity. Like a single point on a multidimensional plane. The Knossosian remains are carried in the dust. The Beatles play in outer space. And man trembles to a photograph of a woman in her panties.

She looked to the cars and people shoving amongst each other on the streets of Los Angeles. A lady in pink spandex rode by on one of those bicycles you stand up on and ride like it was an elliptical. Her ass retracted and bulged with each motion, like a physiognomic pulse of weight, you could tell everything from its countenance, enough ass for King Zhou of Shang, a neon envy, a celebrated lodestar in the fog. A girl was sitting on her father’s shoulders, holding an ice-cream cone, staring with her mouth open at the lady ride by, the strawberry swirl melting all over her miniature fingers, the first drips plummeting onto her dad’s balding head. Tourists from Minnesota and Idaho and Japan, wearing large sunglasses, extending their smartphones onto selfie-sticks, posting their photos on the internet with #relaxingwithmygirls and #winning, brief forays from the beige tedium of regular life. Couples drank cocktails under yellow umbrellas, laughing, and smoking long cigarettes. They do this over and over, for months, years, making the nihility of idleness—of life itself—intoxicated just enough to make it bearable.

Elisa made it to the studio almost an hour late. “I’m so sorry,” she said, taking off her sunglasses, “Strange morning.” During the photo shoot, Guy (pronounced the French way of course) asks Elisa to stare into the camera, asks her to, as he puts it, “look sexy.” She shifts her weight, points her chin up in order to pull her jaw line back, and smiles flirtatiously. The camera shutter clicks rapidly. “Yeah. Oh. Yesss. More of that,” Guy says behind the camera. “Oh. Oh yeah. Uh-huh.” She turns around, sticking her ass out a little more than seemed natural, and looks back to Guy, her hair tossed from the large fan blowing in her direction, blowing her up and down. Her smiles straightens into a face of mysterious sophistication. Guy loves this: “Oh baby, you’re so good,” as he clicks away. André Breton ended his book with “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all.”

It was almost a year later. Elisa tied her bootstraps and pushed open the barn door, and could begin to make out the darker silhouettes of fences and trees against the dim horizon, like a little flame was barely lit behind all that sky. Her fingers were cold, and every movement she made she could feel her joints rub in the stiff winter morning, and her own body heat had not rubbed against the inside of the jacket long enough yet to make it warm. She walked past the stall where two-hundred chicks huddled together under a heat lamp, a couple more of them dead, because, as Jim says, the cold pushes out the weak. Jim has farmed and ranched this same land all his life, but his back is old now, and he cannot do the amount of work he did just a couple years prior, and so Elisa has taken over much of the work, and they have dinner together a few nights during the week. Fyodor, the Queensland Heeler, the most compassionate of all the dogs Jim has had on the farm, came trotting up beside Elisa, as he does every morning. His light fur contrasted against the dark air, his tag lightly jingled against his collar, so Elisa always knew it was old Fyodor coming up behind her. He accompanied Elisa through her morning routine, and seated himself politely as she fed the goats and the turkeys and the chickens. The two of them walked to the next pasture in a gorgeous silence together, side by side, the sky still perfectly at rest, and she looked up as she often did and felt satisfied by seeing all the stars again. She could see her breath now, and made a point of exhaling deeply in order to see how much of her breath she could see at once. The many piglets heard their footsteps and came running up to her, snorting in unison, lining up against the other side of the electric fence, one of them getting shocked on its nose, and squealing sharply. Elisa stepped over the wire and set out several large plastic pans in the grass, the little pigs rubbing their wet noses against her legs, drawing a mess of glistening snail-trails on her rubber boots. She poured them their food, and they all fought over each other, as they always have, since they fought for a drop from a nipple, stepping on each other and shoving each other for more room. From the beginning, all animals, including man, must shove away the others and grab hold of the huge leaking tit, and never let go. If he does not follow this rule, the others will, and he will die alone in the cold.

The sun was just now coming over the furthest ridge, the bright love-maddened ribbons shooting across the sky, bringing with it the slightest edge of warmth to Elisa’s face and fingers  .  .  .  the grasses hanging heavily with frozen dew, like limpid coruscating lanterns, the grasshoppers hushing off their frigid bulk. The lethargy of the world was waking up again  .  .  .  no amount of nihilism can stop the grasshoppers from rubbing their legs. “Good Morning Ferdinand!” Elisa said cheerily to the dark sinewed thoroughbred as she entered the stable. Ferdinand looked up and nodded with a gentle excitement. He liked the sound of her voice, and she liked talking to him, and she sometimes thought it looked like Ferdinand knew what she was talking about. “Have you been waiting for me? Look at you.” And he cocked his head and blew air from out of his nostrils playfully. She brushed him down until his hair was smooth and glistened under the lights hissing overhead, and he stood there patiently, his big dark wet eyes watching her. She scraped under his shoes, put on his blanket and then his saddle, and tightened the belt under his belly, his long veins permanently bulging. She hoisted herself onto the saddle, and didn’t say anything because she didn’t need to say anything, and they walked out of the barn and into the pneumatic plain. The flirtish Australian desert gnawing with a million tiny antagonists, long shadows of the dawn stretched beyond the edge of the grasses  .  .  .  the gentle madness stirring from its slumber. They walked beyond the ranch land, where the birds were singing and beginning their flights out from the tall grasses, and they walked up the mountain along the narrow trail. A snake crossed the trail directly in front of them, but neither Elisa nor the horse were afraid. Ferdinand simply held back, watched the snake slither by in the sand, her large pixelated diamonds across her back, her cool loneliness breathing again, as she disappeared into the sagebrush.

The line of sun was a little further up the mountain. They were still in the shadow, but would be there soon. Elisa looked back, and the barn looked so small, and the cows and pastures like little toys, and she smiled.

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