The Aviator – A Review and Reflection

The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004.  I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it.  This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood.  It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment.  It looks good, but it is emotionally empty.  The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.

However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting.  You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him.  Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.

That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus.  Scorsese is too smart for this.  The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography.  Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.

If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him.  Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.

Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer.  Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down.  We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order.  If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.

It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government.  When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large.  When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time.  In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.

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W., House of Cards, Deadwood, and Reflections On the Illusions of Power

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The other night I watched Oliver Stone’s W. for the first time since it was in theaters, his film about George W. Bush.  There is that old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time.  The farther we drift from those years the more they seem like some kind of strange absurd comedy.  (And yes I am fully aware of the real tragedies that were part of those times.)  Like when you study the horrors of medieval times they almost appear like a Monty Python comedy.  I think people will look back on that point in our history with disbelief.  How did we knowingly choose to put a man like that in charge for two terms?  Why did we invade a country that posed no threat to us?  It was baffling then to many and even more so now.

If you lived through those years the movie might seem too light for what actually went on.  However, if you view it in a detached way, as someone looking back who didn’t live through them would, I think it emotionally reflects how those times will be viewed.

I’ve also, as stated, been watching House of Cards lately.  Given some of the problems with the third season, I still think it possesses interesting ideas.  Combined with watching W. is the idea that our leaders our just people, no different from us.  They may have better luck, family ties, or ambition, but at the end of the day they are humans.  It is only ritual and stage craft that gives them their power.  We are all part of a play.  The power they possess is only in direct accordance with how much power we believe that they have.  In the show Deadwood there is the idea that history is, “a lie agreed upon.”  There are rules and traditions that create the perception of order and therefore create order itself.  It is the belief in these fictitious sets of principles that holds it all together.

To close, I quote Twin Peaks:  “We live inside a dream.”

Sad Song, When Tragedy Becomes Comedy

Today I was talking to my Dad on the phone about Dante’s Inferno.  Surprisingly we both found it funny.  This is a book where people’s souls are tortured in the most horrible ways imaginable for all eternity, often for no more than religious thought crimes or moments of passion.  The religious medieval mind was sure a strange one!  When things go that dark they, at some point, go through the looking glass and pass into the realm of absurdity, and then turn into comedy.

Lou Reed often makes me laugh in the same way, though I’m almost positive that he was in on the joke.  When he was asked about his album Berlin, which many deem the most depressing album of all time, he said he was just, “having fun.”  Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I can put that album on, or any number of his albums, and find myself instantly cheered up.  The final song on it, Sad Song, is the cosmic punchline to the album.  I was going to describe it, but I found this description on YouTube by Adam Pendleton, the first comment at the time of writing, and I really enjoyed it:

So this poem is about an abusive husband, than his wife kills herself. Even so, he doesn’t really care. He half-heartedly chants “sad song.” than shrugs and moves on. Even after she’s gone he thinks of her as “wasting my time.” and that he was wrong for thinking she ever looked beautiful. He justifies his abuse, “somebody else would have broke both her arms.” At least that’s what I got out of it.

As Mark Twain once said, “Humor is tragedy plus time.”

Batshit Insane Vol. 2: Yeezus

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Kanye West – Yeezus – Kanye West’s album sounds front to back unlike any other record ever made.  Oh there are recognizable pieces all across the record, but it is the combination that is unique.  Electronic noises, Marilyn Manson drums, strings, melodic choirs, and atonal noise all rear their head at different moments.  It’s mood evokes everything from David Lynch inspired dread to raunchy comedy.  It is a hip-hop record only in the vocal delivery, a few of the beats displayed, and its cut and paste genre bending aesthetic.  I get a physical high every time I listen to this album from both it’s sonic insanity and intensity, and his seeming willingness to sacrifice himself to the judgmental and often hypocritical gods of common decency.  West begins the record:

Yeezy season approaching
Fuck whatever y’all been hearing
Fuck what, fuck whatever y’all been wearing
A monster about to come alive again

From that start through the rest of the record West seems like a man unhinged.  It is as if all of the press scrutiny he has faced has been internalized and is being spit back out with maximum venom.  But the record is not a humorless affair.  After spouting one particularly vulgar line, you can hear West start to crack himself up at the end of his delivery.  This is not a dumb record either, as it is masterfully constructed to take an art form to a new level.  The record is also emotionally complex as West plays with the public perception of him as an extremely arrogant yet successful African American, who has overstepped his bounds.  There is pain in certain parts of the record, but there is no mea culpa.  There are times when he is purposely playing into the monstrous version of himself that the media has created around him, but he slips out of any easy categorizations, always one step ahead of those that want to define him as a one dimensional caricature.  It is a dark and visceral listen by someone willingly putting his head on the chopping block and having fun while doing it.  A masterpiece.

For the first week of 2015 I am writing pieces about records that I can only describe as “batshit insane”.  These are brilliant albums that are so dark they cross the threshold into a knowing comedy.  If you want to understand exactly what I mean in more detail read the first paragraph from the start of this series:

I love records that one can only describe as sounding “batshit insane”.  Where the artist seems as if they are out-crazying the din and the whirlwind of the Great Void.  Albums that trump death, even if the artists are alive and the albums don’t even have death as a central theme because, even if it is subconsciously, they know it is out there and they seem not to give a shit.  I am reminded of the character at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who dies, “lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”  I also think of George Carlin, putting on a show making the batshit insanity of this world hilarious, and then ending his set by standing on one leg with his arms outstretched, daring to be smited.  These are albums where artistic fear is not only not present, it almost seems as if the artists are daring you not to like them.  Albums like this make me laugh out loud and warm my heart to its very foundation.  I could be having the worst day possible and when I put one of these records on I think, “Thank God they are out there.”  I wanted to write about several of these records to start 2015 out on the right foot.  My goal is to post at least one record a day for the next week.  I’m just having fun, like a child skipping through a field.

Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

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…constitutes a veritable goldmine for a psychologist – provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can not only be ludicrous but outright funny.  –  Hannah Arendt

This quote is from her Eichmann in Jerusalem.   I purposely removed it from its context, because I believe this statement to be true on many fronts.  As Steve Allen once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”  I was listening to the George Carlin special last night Life is Worth Losing.  In it he has you laughing at suicide, mass murder, and the “pyramid of the hopeless”.   There is a great deal of absurdity in the human condition.  Comedy allows us to talk about things we otherwise might shy away from.

Dark Despair and Gallows Humor

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In order to not completely burn myself out on the new Morrissey disc, World Peace is None of your Business, which I could easily listen to a thousand times until I need to move on, I have been mixing it up with some Frank Sinatra.  I especially like Sinatra’s music where he is drowning in gloom.  This would be on albums like Only the Lonely and No One Cares.  These are albums filled with maudlin songs full of despair over lost love.  Unlike teenage pop songs, where no matter how sad the music is you know that they will eventually be OK, because they are young and will bounce back, this is music for adults, where all hope has gone out of the window.  In teenage pop, which I love as well, it feels like a tragedy, but we know it is not.  On these Sinatra albums they are the sound of a middle age man running out of time to correct his mistakes.  In fact, the narrator of each song, may be out of time, forever destined to walk the earth bearing the grief of his lost love, like Marley’s Ghost with his chains.

When things go this jet black, maybe it’s just me, but I also feel like they go through the looking glass and cross over to a certain kind of gallows humor.  This in no way dims the true sadness of these records, nor do I mean it in any kind of ironic sense as if I’m smirking at the albums.  But tragedy and comedy have always been very close to me.  It is through this sort of transition between tragedy and dark, dark comedy, that emotional release comes and the records actually become therapeutic.  Instead of wallowing in the despair of the narrator, as voyeurs into the world of the narrator, we can exercise our own emotions and transcend them.