How Apocalypto Relates to the News

When I watch the news I often think of the movie Apocalypto.   This is a Mel Gibson directed movie that deals with the Mayans.  The movie is an insane spectacle filled with ideas and blood.  The characters speak in ancient Mayan dialogue, but the movie is brilliant because it manages to tell the story in ways that are mostly visual.  It is an extremely intelligent piece of entertainment, an action movie with ideas.  It is barbarous, batshit insane, kinetic entertainment.  

Now why do I think of this movie when I see the news?  This is not due to the themes of the movie.  The Mayan empire is depicted as a civilization on the verge of collapse due to environmental calamity and human exploitation.  It came out during the Bush years and the Iraq War.  Gibson even commented that the Mayan rulers were very similar to Bush in his boys.  Sure, the invading Europeans put the nail in the coffin of the Mayans, but the Europeans are aided by the Mayan leaders’ tyrannical rule.  That is not to say that is true in history, but Gibson is trying to draw a parallel through art.  He is saying if we don’t quit oppressing people, if we don’t protect the environment, history shows that we and our way of life is in trouble.

However, none of that crosses my mind when I watch the news.  The greatest emotional quality of Apocalypto is insanity.  When I watch the news and they focus on the trivial and ignore the important, I feel emotionally like I do when I watch Apocalypto.   When I see war and oppression trumpeted as normal, when I see global warming treated as not real, when I see celebrity eclipse the common good, I feel the same as when I watch Apocalypto.  

There is intellectual truth and emotional truth in art.  Even if you argue that the movie doesn’t have the former, it has the latter in spades.  It feels like what happens when the world turns upside down.  It’s why the movie makes me happy, even though it is largely an action movie and a quite dark one at that.  Someone connected to an emotion that is all too common in the modern world.  It’s always uplifting to know someone feels like you do.  If there are others, you might just stand a chance. 

The Transcendent Quality of Music

I have remarked before that 12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies that I have seen in awhile.  It is not only expertly crafted and conveys its central story with incredible emotional impact, but it also has lots of ideas and themes permeating its margins.  There is a scene in the movie that is of true power where the slaves on the plantation sing Roll Jordan Roll.  This comes at a particularly harrowing point in the movie.  In this scene, especially in the context of the movie, one is made to feel how music allows one to transcend suffering to a degree.  It does not negate suffering, but simply allows one to carry on in the face of it.  Music is not only a source of joy, but also, like all good art should do, allows one to spiritually transcend the human mud of life.  It can allow one to exorcise those emotions that would otherwise tear them apart from the inside.

Cheating With Strings

I’m watching the movie Amistad for the second night in a row.  I’m only about 90 minutes in, as I fell asleep the first night, and it is pretty slow going.  I can’t really critique a movie that I’ve only seen half of though.  It very well might have an excellent second half.  There have also been movies that I have found slow that come together magnificently in the end.

I think though that a movie’s first goal should be to entertain.  A song’s first goal should be to create great music.  No matter how noble an idea is, it needs to work as art first.  12 Years a Slave is incredible, because it manages to fire on all cylinders.  It is telling a story that needs to be told, but it is telling it in a way that is incredibly emotionally involving.  I think if you want to move minds you need to move the heart first.

Another thing I noticed while watching Amistad is there were several moments in the first half where the music tried to make you feel something that wasn’t earned.  One of the worst movies I have ever seen, Mr. Holland’s Opus, consistently tries to make melodrama mean more than it does by laying on syrupy strings.  In 12 Years a Slave, I am referencing that because I just saw it, the score is almost minimal.  When it does come in it deepens the emotion that you are already feeling because the storytelling and performances are already so powerful.  Too many times movies try to cheat with a score.

Anyway, again, I am not really trying to critique Amistad, because I haven’t finished it yet.  What I have seen isn’t horrible, it’s just merely average.  However, I wanted to touch on the above ideas while they were still fresh.

I never did end up finishing the movie last night as I was extremely tired.  I did find a section towards the middle of the movie highly compelling.  There is a scene that is largely wordless, aside from background dialogue, which documents the horrors on the slave ship.  This segues directly into a slave auction, again with very little foreground dialogue, where we watch dandy whites dressed in light colors bidding on slaves.  That section seemed to convey the whole horror and absurdity of slavery through mere images.  I only wished that what I had seen before that was orchestrated with such expertise.  

Happiness Vs. Change

The other day at one of my shows someone asked me if I was happy.  I said yes, but I felt like I was lying.  However, I don’t mean this as I am unhappy.  It’s just that I feel happiness is a moment to moment feeling.  In general, I feel happy, but even on a good day there are moments when you might feel a twinge of sadness, a flash of anger, or a moment of regret.  I’ve said before that I view happiness, in the way we think of it in America, as overrated.

To me it is much more important that you live a life of authenticity than it is to be happy every moment.  One should always push themselves to try and do new things.  Often taking risks and trying new things can be stressful.  I could be happy just reading a book on my couch sitting next to my dog.  It doesn’t take much to make me happy.  But an entire life of that wouldn’t really be living would it?

My last post was me promoting a solo show.  In order to get ready for that show I will have to do a lot of work this week.  I will also be stressed trying to make sure that it is promoted properly, that I am prepared musically, etc.  If it all goes well I will feel some sense of achievement.  However, no matter how well it goes, I will be thinking about what I could be doing better next time and so on.

My point is that playing that show will be the thing I will remember a few months down the road, even though getting ready for it will cause me moments of stress.   Meanwhile, the time that I allow myself to relax and unwind and enjoy myself will be largely forgotten.

Last year my girlfriend and I presented a paper at an environmental conference in Costa Rica.  We had to speak to a full room of people who were experts in the field.  We had the fewest credentials out of anyone else that was speaking, although she has a degree in Environmental Science and Policy, and I was going to school for the same thing at the time.  It required a ridiculous amount of work and there were definitely moments of stress as we realized what we were getting ourselves into.  The thing is, I will always remember that day with pride, but I can’t say that until it was over that it made me happy.

Meanwhile a thousand moments of happiness since that day have been forgotten.  I mentioned earlier this week that I got a Playstation 3 for my birthday.  I was looking up games and I found one that I really enjoyed playing before.  Until the moment that I saw it I had absolutely no recollection of ever having played it, and it was one of those Japanese games that takes like 80 hours to beat.

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t do things that make them happy.  The brain needs times to relax.  I feel that one is able to take on larger more stressful tasks if one also has moments of relaxation and enjoyment.  But it is far more important to take chances and try new things.  Change and risk can be really stressful.  But it just might lead to a life worth living.

Rules For Blogging

There are no rules for blogging.  However, it helped me to establish rules to write by, so that I could be productive.  I have read that the single most important thing to establishing an audience was creating a lot of content.  I have produced almost a thousand blogs in just a little over a year.  Establish your own rules, but these are the ones I set up for myself so that I could pump out a lot of content:

1.  Post almost as soon as I am done writing:  This means that I allow some grammatical errors to slip through the gates, but it also allows me to escape the jaws of self-doubt, which can crush so many ideas.  I try to clean up my writing a little as I go along.  It is so easy to feel passionate about something, write it, and then later on feel like what the hell was I thinking?  Self-analysis is always important, but usually most of the self-doubt that comes into play is what are people going to think about my writing.  What are my friends back home going to think?  What is my family going to think?  These are the kinds of things that can paralyze you, this fear of being accepted.  If you just write and post, and clean it up afterwards, it is out there.

2.  Do not delete things that are posted:  I have broken this rule once or twice, but largely I stick to it.  I allow myself to change my mind and write something that contradicts what I wrote at an earlier date, but by and large never allow myself to delete something I have written.  This again allows you to not let the self-doubt of what will others think enter the picture.  If you are going to be true to yourself and your ideas, you will occasionally put your foot in your own mouth, but that is OK.  Making mistakes and being wrong is part of being human.  If you realize you were wrong, admit it in another post or make an addition to a post, but then move on.

3.  Try as much as possible to be intellectually and emotionally honest:  Again this will occasionally lead to getting something wrong, but this will also again alleviate the the pressure of outside forces which will only water down your writing.  Anytime you write something you are going to be judged.  That is the nature of the beast.  Either you will be judged for your ideas or your style.  Anytime someone reads something you wrote it will be judged in one way or another.  Any fear of this judgment can crush good writing as most writing that is worth anything goes out on a limb either intellectually or emotionally.  If you are saying something that everybody knows already, that just conveys middle of the road vanilla emotions, there is no point in writing it.  This is not the same as trying to communicate universal truths.  Often universal truths can be hidden in plain site.  I’m also not talking about being shocking for shocking’s sake.  If you write something shocking that has no basis in reality, it is a purposeful distortion of the truth and that is no value to anyone. Everyone only has a partial knowledge of the truth.  We again all make mistakes and get things wrong.  I try to get the facts right as much as possible and I try to be as honest as I can about how I feel, given the limitations of language.  If I’m wrong I will simply write another post explaining how I was wrong and why.

Anyway, those are rules I set for myself to allow myself freedom of thought and a high production rate.  If that helps you great, if not, make up your own rules that allow you to do the same.

More than anything I wanted to convey to some of you that have just started coming here how and why I write the way I do.  I view my blog, and a lot of the blogs I like, as outward looking journals.  It is capturing emotions and thoughts about the world in real time.  

All I Ask For In Music

I absolutely love music.  It is not only my job, but also my hobby and religion.  Anyone that travels with me will tell you that I wear headphones around the clock.  Occasionally this is self preservation, a way to disconnect,  but mostly I just can’t listen to enough albums. 

As long as music seems authentic, I’m a fan.  I don’t care if it is Richard Wagner or Slade.  I love trashy garage rock and sophisticated jazz.  I like Frank Sinatra and Jeff “Stinky” Turner.  I love Motown love songs and Lou Reed’s Edgar Allen Poe influenced album The Raven.  In pop music I am a fan of singers first.   I need to connect in some way with the singer.  I need to feel they are singing with their soul and not just copping someone else’s bit off of the radio. 

Sometimes people think I am a music snob, because I’ll slag off this or that, but I really am open to so many different kinds of music.  I am just passionate about this stuff.  Even if civilization broke down people would still be singing something and banging out rhythms,  even if it was just on a trash can.  You can tell so much about someone just by the way they sing. 

I am reading John Lydon’s new biography, Anger is an Energy, and he is talking about how these TV shows like American Idol and X Factor are ruining singing by making it too much about singing correctly.  He says they are basically making pop stars out of cruise ship singers.  Singing really should be about nothing more than communicating some kind of strong emotion. 

I can’t listen to most of modern radio.  Autotune, unless it is used as an effect to purposely make a voice sound robotic, is killing music.  It takes some of the humanity out of people’s voices.  Life isn’t perfect.  Pain and sadness and even happiness are complicated.  Sometimes a great a singer like Sam Cooke can convey how you are feeling, and sometimes it is James McMurtry with his dry monotone delivery.  Paul Westerberg hits bum notes sometimes, but he always gets the emotion of something dead on.  There are no rules. 

I love intellectual music, but music doesn’t need to be intellectual.  It just needs to be emotional.  So much of what is out there is just vanilla emotions.  There is no pain or sadness or joy.  There is just the imitation of life, sometimes with convenient product placements in tow.  It is the song as lifestyle brand. 

Music should open doors, not close them.  As soon as music becomes too tribal, I am out.  “I am driving my truck and waving the flag because that is what a real American does.”  Fuck you!  “Look at all these things I own that you don’t.”  And fuck you too! 

Tell me how you feel and what you think.  Be complicated.  Don’t parrot someone else’s emotions or thoughts.  Be yourself.  When I plug in my headphones, that is all I ask. 

The Mystery of Twin Peaks

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One of the most wonderful universes that you can get lost in is Twin Peaks.  It takes you into the mystery of the world.  It’s strange, but not any stranger than real life.  It’s just that the strangeness of real life is heightened so that it is brought to the forefront.  One of the things that David Lynch does so well is to create strong emotions.  He knows that emotions are abstract, you can’t explain sadness or pain or happiness so much as you can feel it.  Through abstract visuals and sound design he creates cinema of intense feeling.  

The trick to what he does is that he often allows you to feel two different emotions at the same time. The end of Fire Walk With Me, the movie that takes place in the Twin Peaks universe, is one of the most horrifying sequences I have ever seen in film.  It is also beautiful.  The fact that it is beautiful doesn’t make it any less horrific to watch.  In fact in might make it more so, because it opens you up emotionally to it in a way that no straight horror movie or documentary ever could.  David Lynch isn’t afraid to make you feel uncomfortable, but you never ever get the sense he is trying to shock you just for the sake of it.  

The TV show Twin Peaks is a combination of different genres.  There are characters that could have come out of a film noir and there are characters that could have come out of a soap opera.  These more traditional genre elements are laced with episodes of the surreal and uncanny.  At the core of Twin Peaks is a murder mystery.  However, the TV show especially also features many moments of light comedy.  It is again the fact that it is combining different elements that make it so unique.  

But I think one thing that truly makes Twin Peaks special is that in watching it, we not only recognize feelings and emotions from reality, but the show somehow heightens the viewers reality as well.  When we enter the woods after seeing the show we may notice how dark and mysterious they are in ways we might not have payed attention to.  Entering a diner we may notice details and the behavior of people in ways in which we didn’t before.  Twin Peaks is great entertainment, but it is also something more.  It is a fictional world that makes us aware of the mysteries in our own.