We adapt. We create new fictions in order to adapt. The more things are beyond our control, the more fictions we create. This is the basic setup for one of the best films of 2015, “Room,” starring Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for her role as Joy, mother of five-year-old Jack.
The room in question is a shed. It’s their entire world, mother and son’s. They are not allowed to leave. Joy invents games and stories and explanations for Jack, in order to make this extraordinary situation ordinary. She invents games and stories and explanations in order to shield her boy from the harsh realities of life as a captive, a woman kidnapped seven years ago by a man they both call “Old Nick.”
We learn bits and pieces of their story as time goes on, but, at first, the freakish abnormality appears almost normal — Joy’s plan for her son. Just the two of them, making the best of it, with the occasional bouts of anger and rebellion from Jack, which Joy tries to defuse with anxious, worried love, never giving up hope of escape entirely, though she hides this from her son.
Emotions fly. This is a very emotional movie, but never cheaply so. No Hallmark card, this. No saccharine uplift. No oversimplified mother and son dynamics. It’s very real, despite the surreal conditions and locale. They fight. When things change dramatically for mother and son, new experiences force new dynamics and they fight in different ways. But there is always love there. There are always deep, human connections and bravery and a sense of wonder at the world, no matter how large or small.
This is a truly wonderful movie, one that sends your thoughts out in a thousand different directions. It makes you see things in a different way, in many different ways, which is something Art does better than anything else.
The holy is not the gods. Humans have been told about thousands of different gods, for thousands of years, primarily to steer us into obedience of earthly powers, and to make us give up our searching.
The holy is not religion. Religions were designed to organize this obedience, to add layers and layers of fictional supports, to add so many layers our heads spin, so we give up our searching.
The holy is not empire, or nation, or nation-state. These things are formed to protect earthly power, with layers and layers of fictional supports, to make our heads spin, while they and their religions use the old gods and the new to make us obedient, so we give up our searching.
The holy is not money, or capitalism, or corporation. These things are used to power empire, or usurp it, to defend, expand or subsume it, so we remain in obedience to the old gods and the new, and stop our searching.
The holy is art, music, literature and philosophy, and whatever pushes us beyond all boundaries, so we stop obeying and go on searching.
The holy is song and the space between, the moment above the sunrise, the first step after, that we may cast out our sad, defeatist, settling natures and soar above them, and go on searching.
The holy is what makes children run from here to there, breathless with excitement, too excited to walk, much less stand still, because they seek freedom from obedience, and must go on searching.
The holy is the ground of love, because it gives us strength of heart, to go on and on, and moments of rest to prepare for journey, and new ways to look at horizons. It is both elixir and nourishment, sustenance and accelerant, and what searchers sometimes need to prevent walking blindly. For blindly searching is just a different kind of obedience, to another false god, and another. It is not freedom from. It is not the holy.
Don DeLillo, the author of White Noise and Underworld, has given us one of his best novels to date at the ripe old age of 79. The subject matter is fitting. It’s about mortality, life after death — or its absence — and is a poetic meditation on the potential of science to extend said life. It may also be about the potential for junk science to heighten and exploit our delusions regarding the hereafter, but DeLillo doesn’t tell us how we should take this. One way or the other. And its success, its strong, compact prose, its aphoristic beauty in parts, its solid craftsmanship, also go against one of my own (poorly supported) theories about artistic creation: That its quality tends to go down over time, and with novelists, especially, declines rapidly after one’s 30s or 40s. DeLillo is clearly, skillfully playing with our prejudices and beliefs on several levels. What is “decline”? Is it all in our heads? Is it something we can prevent? Should we even try?
“Gesso on linen” is one of the enigmatic phrases we get from the narrator’s father, Ross Lockhart, a billionaire in search of a cure for his dying wife, Artis. But not just any kind of cure. A cure that entails her being frozen and stored in a cryogenic pod for who knows how long. Hopefully, so she can awaken one day into a new world where her disease no longer exists, and her mortality is just a memory. To me, this is also an apt metaphor for life’s start in general, for what a painter faces with a new canvas, or a writer when she begins the book, for what any artist must do first before they make art. It may also be that one of the book’s chief locales, underneath an unspecified Asian desert, is just such a foundational moment and place, the gesso on linen needed to induce creation.
And that underground bunker is described in ways uncertain, as a mystery of sorts, and reminded me of Sci-Fi novels from the past, as did the mood set by the narrator. Likely taking their cue from Poe, at least indirectly, many a Sci-Fi book tries to set a mood of the ordinary in the extraordinary, the calm in the midst of a strange and magical storm. The narrator, Jeffrey, does this as well, for the most part, virtually never raising his voice, and almost always speaking in short, measured, careful sentences, reaching the level of poetry at times. There is also one beautiful change-up roughly in the middle of the narrative where the style shifts to match the subject of childhood, and becomes child-like itself — then shifts again. Jeffrey twice voyages to the unknown, underground, with his father, like a Virgil, or a Heracles, harrowing hell.
But it’s not really hell. It’s more like a waiting room between light and darkness — though, again, DeLillo is too smart and too skilled to ever tell us how to think of these things. He presents us with evidence, metaphors, descriptions of our world and the one that seeks escape from it, and then lets us choose. In this way, it differs from his earlier books, which were more insistent and urgent regarding these choices, that we see the systems, above and below ground, and their effects for what they are, now, before it’s too late. In a sense, Zero K assumes it’s already too late, and that our choices don’t really matter, other than choosing which kind of boat for our final departure.
I also really liked one of the habits of the narrator. He feels compelled to name people he doesn’t know, and generally doesn’t want their real name to intrude upon this. Where some people might play the vocation game on a subway, or in a restaurant, and weave stories about secret agents or killers on the loose, Jeffrey seeks to bestow names on people he meets or sees from a distance. He tries to make the name suit his vision of that person, using ethnic clues, personality traits, and other hints to get there. It must calm him in some way, because he almost always seems so calm, again, even in the midst of the extraordinary. Jeffrey is so like an author, or an author’s author.
Perhaps my only (very minor) quibble with the book is I wanted more. I wanted to hear more about Jeffrey’s relationship with his mother, Madeline, who preceded Artis in Ross’s life. I wanted to know more about Jeffrey’s lover, Emma, and her possibly autistic son, Stak. Down in the bunker, on his second and last visit, the narrator sees scattered (news) images of the makings of an apocalypse, death and destruction, wars, famine, torture, and the very young Stak is a part of it, as a soldier now. This is a leap from our last sighting of the young man, though it follows from that sighting and is internally consistent. And the form DeLillo chooses in this novel, elliptical, aphoristic in parts, accepting of mysteries, lacunae and pregnant gaps in time, supports the lack of details I might otherwise want to see. Filling in those gaps would likely destroy the integrity of the story as written. But rereading the book . . . rereading it could both support its integrity and resolve the minor quibble.
Of all the “faults” a book can have, that must rate among the least. Needing to be reread, and provoking that call.
I can breathe here. With exceptions, like when large groups of tourists descend upon the mountains. When engines rev too high. When children flock to the trails, run, scream at each other, in joy or out of spite. Mostly, it’s quiet enough to hear the mountains. If you listen carefully, you can hear them breathe, too. Not like my breath. Especially not like my labored breath after I walk up trails.
Walking down them is much easier.
But that’s not the mountain’s breath. Its breath is slow and long and like a controlled blast of wind. So controlled, it’s more like a breeze set free.
Sent soaring above the valleys, with the birds, with the higher clouds and their child wisps. How many times have I stopped, stared at the clouds, the birds and their inhuman children and wanted to go there. Not much higher than they are. But a little bit. High enough to see them below me, and then follow them, watch the sunlight change the shadows on the mountain rocks and trees, like a painter with very long arms.
Like a magically large painter, who can see everything. If only. If only the magic in books could be translated to the sky, the rocks and the breezes. I know when something is that good. Then it would be a time for suspending time. It would be a way to capture beauty in stillness, but, impossibly, to keep it all in motion, from top to bottom, side to side, a chaos of flight, an onslaught of inhuman Olympian displays. Kinetic, electric, blue and green and brown, with colors I’ve never heard of before, but always see. Colors I once was afraid to look at but no longer can be, once the magic of books passes into this world, on these ancient rocks, overlooking the Valley of the Crows.
Over the years, I’ve become more and more interested in photography — in taking pictures, myself. When I was young and pursuing a degree in Art, with painting the focus, I was ambivalent about it as an art. I couldn’t really see it at nearly the same level as painting, as involving the same degree of talent, much less genius. Of course, at the time, my list of snobbish opinions regarding a host of different things was too long to detail, and would fill a book or two. Snobbery about books was, perhaps, at the top of that list.
But with age comes, if not wisdom, then at least some understanding of one’s limits — perhaps because those limits are starting to manifest themselves in ways we simply can no longer shrug off. Age, if utilized, causes us to slow down a bit, stop, take notice of our once take-no-prisoners declarations of likes and dislikes, and wonder: Could I have been wrong about this or that? Or, if not exactly wrong, could I have been a bit narrow in my focus, unwilling to consider things outside it?
Which brings me to the current dilemma of the amateur. Mustering enough humbleness in life to do away with many a youthful certainty, I now face another obstacle, and more than a few new questions: Should I invest in professional gear? Is my photography good enough to take another step? Would it make enough of a difference to go for superior tech, filters, learn the ropes of “manual” settings on the fly, etc. etc.?
Composition comes naturally. Painting and drawing and sculpture did that. The eye composes what, for lack of a better metaphor, the heart feels. And the sculpture, especially, helped me figure out abstract shapes in context, within a world that doesn’t always help those shapes, or couldn’t care less about them, forcing me to make them fit, make them work with or without that world. But is the end result lacking in too much polish, the kind of thing that could be remedied by expensive cameras, mad darkroom skills and umpteen specialized accessories?
Taking all my photos with a very inexpensive camera, or my phone, leaves me wondering what if. What if I dove headlong into the art of photography from the point of view of artists of the quick snap, with metal between the subject and me, between the object and my eye, with all of the paraphernalia and knowledge generally associated with that dive? Or should I just accept the way things are, so I can echo Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, and say “I coulda been a contender!”? Is it better to be Taoist at this point in life, and leave these things for the young, still in their take-no-prisoners mode?
Known by most as the lead singer of Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter was already a seasoned vet of 30 when he took the helm of that quintessential Glitter Rock band. I became a much bigger fan when he struck out on his own with his first solo effort in 1975, Ian Hunter, and continued to follow him through subsequent efforts — with All-American Alien Boy and You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic being favorites.
For me, Ian Hunter was like an English Dylan, one who didn’t try to hide his accent, his rawness, his earthiness. He wrote great songs, and had excellent Rock musicians backing him, especially Mick Ronson, David Sanborn, Jaco Pastorius and Queen. The sonic variety of his music impressed me always. Tough, hard-edged to sweet, rowdy to contemplative, raw to cooked and back again, his oeuvre is one of the best in the Rock world and is easily among the most overlooked and underrated.
He’s still touring and making music at 75. His restless youth has seemingly turned into restless maturity.