“Well I been workin’ in a coal mine
Goin’ down, down
Working in a coal mine
Whew! About to slip down…”
There’s a memorable bridge in Allen Toussaint’s hit song, “Working in a Coal Mine” (first recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1966, but cleverly reiterated by the avant-punk Devo during their New Traditionalists phase): “how long can this go on?” Setting aside the uncanny relevance of the song’s labor-specific subject matter, this bridge—which operates as a segue into an endless loop of the song’s other two lyrics—may well be the defining phrase of 2017.
I’ve been publishing a series of essays (written while all of this insanity unfolds in real time) with the intent of trying to make sense of the insensible, and of enhancing my perspective with the insights—some timeless; some timely—provided by our shared experience of the arts. It’s become abundantly clear to me, and to many others with whom I’ve discussed the matter, that engaging in dialogue with others on current events frequently leaves us stranded and frustrated amid a disparate range of willfully self-directed interpretations. On the left, center-left, and center-right, we find a fairly willful adherence to some form of factual certainty and coherence (though even this can vary quite a bit, depending on the topic); on the right and far-right, and in certain fringes of the far-left, there remains a recurring, willful defiance of factual certainty, and an open embrace of the incoherent (who knew that flat-Earthers, Holocaust deniers, Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists, vaccination skeptics, and 9/11 truthers would become so… normalized? Or perhaps, stealing their line of attack, we are meant to believe they are the hoax: mere figments of Alex Jones’s disturbingly profitable imagination–or a series of engineered holograms posing as panelists on Fox News*). The doom-laden phrase, “triumph of the will,” has rarely seemed so relevant.
And as our respective news feeds continue to proliferate themselves—with our curated diets of information sources acting as an imperfect filter—we find the same streams of angry, embittered comments, flowing like a river of wasted time and effort beneath the bridge of each newly disturbing headline. An archetypal troll from the opposing side of the political fence will invariably pop up on any given news news site to rectify the perceived injustice committed by rival commentators; a clone of social consciousness will swiftly rise to the occasion on the other side, basking in the private glow of self-righteous fact-and-privilege-checking, and occasionally sharing their moment of triumph with their entourage of fellow liberal Facebook friends (“look at me! I was right… again!”) Undoubtedly, there is some social benefit to be attained by taking down trolls on social media. But as someone with no real taste for the sport—and a lack of adequate patience to keep up with the furious, sleepless pace of said trolls—I question whether this perceived benefit can ever outweigh the inherent shortcoming to this game: namely, the failure to affect any notable change in the offending party’s stance or conviction of their own rightness. More often than not, such exchanges leave both parties confident in their own private victory. To steal a lyric from Errol Morris: Every 1’s a winner, baby—that’s the truth!
Short of re-calibrating my own parameters for social media interaction (not to mention, reallocating valuable time in each given day, which could be used to research the issues most pressing to my community and call a Senator or Representative, in a more organized effort to bring about a concrete change for the better), I’ve settled upon my existing blog format as the ideal venue to explore these issues from a different angle. Since writing about films, books, music, and other media has always come more naturally to me, perhaps it’s best I operate within this scope—using arts as a lens through which these disorienting issues, events, and catastrophes might achieve a newfound clarity; after all, isn’t that what the arts were intended for?
* * *
A literary hero of mine, the late Robert Pirsig, wrote in his well-loved manual (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) about the surgical knife that all of us—meaning, all thinking human beings—wield to divide and conquer various fields of knowledge. At great length, he expounds upon the assorted hazards and perks associated with slicing apart issues into identifiable components—with some incisions leading to a heightened or improved sense of awareness and understanding, and others leading to greater misinterpretation and chaos. One faulty incision I’ve found myself culpable of (on occasion) entails the somewhat naive division of “good” from “bad,” cut along the same lines used to objectively divide “fact followers” from “fact deniers” (or, worse yet: “alternative fact followers”). It’s the same mistake I see many commenters perpetrating in their counter-attacks to those pesky right-wing trolls: in less time than it takes for someone to even decipher the nuances of another’s perspective, the gauntlet of character aspersions has been thrown down, and ignorance has quietly been conflated with an innate “badness.”
It’s a tricky incision to navigate, to be sure. After all, ignorance is “bad”—insofar as it frequently provides a foundation for malicious, combative, even assaultive behaviors (not to mention bad life choices). But if one returns to the definition of the word itself, one will be reminded that ignorance is a mere “lack of knowledge or education,” and does not invariably imply malice. Because contrary to the view held by some (if not many), simply presenting factual information does not constitute a fully-formed act of education (though it’s certainly a starting point): explanation, moderation, and clarification are essential follow-up steps—steps, I might add, for which comment threads, memes, and sardonic commentary have consistently proven themselves structurally prohibitive. After all, how many times have we found ourselves questioning facts that contradict our pre-existing cognitive bias, or pointing to isolated incidents as vindication of our own fears? Perhaps Randy Newman said it best in a recent interview for BBC Radio 2, in which he observed of the many folks who voted for 45: “there are people who are older, looking for something to blame for hurting when they get up.” And whereas willful ignorance remains a perceived offense (in my private opinion), it is, nevertheless, a testament to the strength of the human will; and therefore our duty—as humans—to recall how all of us fall prey to misguided impulses on occasion.
But while I’ve brought myself to the stage where I can accept the fundamental error in this analytical incision, the foremost question on the tip of my tongue remains: “how long can this go on?” For it is clear we are at a tipping point, as a species, and the cliff we’ve perched ourselves on presents a longer fall than many of us are prepared to embrace (the fall of unmanageable climate change factors, a brewing civil war, and an all-too-near nuclear holocaust). A situation this urgent and precarious is unlikely to be resolved by memes, Twitter wars, and desktop social justice warriors. Quite simply, something’s got to give or go—and for the majority of the country (thankfully), that something is our current administration. If/Once 45 is gone, however, what next? To paraphrase a classic Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac song, will we know how to pick up the pieces and go home? And where is home? For thousands of Americans who became victims of hate crimes following the election of 45, millions of minorities whose basic civil rights have been stripped and/or called into question, and the thousands of immigrants arrested and/or deported (many forced to leave with their naturalized, U.S.-born children), it is unclear whether the United States really is a home. If all it took was an ex-wrestling con man with a bad haircut and “billions of billions“ in foreign debts to scratch away the surface of social politesse we’ve so steadily clung to over the past five-plus decades, perhaps we were doomed from the start.
* * *
Just the other night, I revisited Billy Wilder’s classic Hollywood satire, Sunset Boulevard (1950). It’s a film I’ve known and loved since I was a teenager, but it has been years since I last screened it, and I found myself reading the movie in a very different light. Having just finished Kenneth Anger’s infamous tell-all Hollywood Babylon, I carried with me an increased appreciation for the proliferation of in-jokes and allusions to old Hollywood lore; I also carried an aftertaste of Anger’s cynicism. For as brilliant and frequently hilarious as Wilder’s film remains, there is a bleakness permeating the picture that corresponds both to Anger’s witchcraft-laced brand of queer mysticism, and our own country’s present-day aura of despair.
It would be difficult to watch the fateful narrative unfold and not draw parallels to our current administration: and if that lamenting, narcissistic ingenue of days gone by (Norma Desmond, unforgettably personified by Gloria Swanson) reads as a stand-in for 45, then Max—her chauffeur, doorman, and former director (played by the legendary silent filmmaker Erich Von Stroheim)—fittingly represents the monster who created him (Steve Bannon—who, ironically, got his start in the movies). And Joe? Well, he’s the aspiring go-getter who become inextricably entangled in the White House web: the young staffer who stumbled upon a seemingly golden job opportunity, had his doubts from the start, but was ensnared by the allure of climbing the ladder and joining the ranks of those who are winning so much they’re “sick of winning.” But there are several key differences between the scenario of Wilder’s film and our present-day circumstances—foremost of which is the simple fact that Norma Desmond actually worked for her position. Though propped up by the pampering adulation and decadent luxuries of Hollywood in the “roaring twenties,” Norma represents a beacon of hard-earned popular appeal: having starred in an untold number of pictures and climbed her way up through the sycophantic studio system, Ms. Desmond reflects the corruption of the social and economic structures that made such a life appealing in the first place. On the flip-side, our 45th president remains—and will forever be seen as—a reflection of his own over-inflated ego, and the unearned/un-achieved laurels he must rest upon in perpetuity to stoke its dying embers.
If Norma Desmond is a first generation diva, having sweated her way to the top of the pop culture food chain (only to fall hard and fast upon entering her “golden years”), 45 is a third-generation wannabe—who is unlikely to fall very far, having the advantage of nothing to live up to (along with the simple socio-economic advantage of having a penis). Some Americans seemed to question how, at the apex of his candidacy, 45’s supporters found themselves willing and ready to overlook the appallingly direct and vulgar vernacular of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that was dredged up; maybe they failed to recognize that 45 demonstrated no base-line of decency to hold himself accountable against in the first place. [How low can you go?/How loose is your goose?] Whereas Norma Desmond’s maniacal striving for renewed relevance and appreciation is perceived by the viewer as a testament to the ageist and misogynistic structure of the “star system,” 45’s perpetual striving for “big boy” status can only be read as fall-out from his failure to accomplish anything of note in his lifetime—which, in turn, is a testament to his unwillingness/inability to put forth even a modicum of effort. High-rises, casinos, cheap wines, steaks, and for-profit universities have abounded—his family name proudly emblazoned upon them; but something tells me, deep down, 45 is acutely aware of how vacuous and unremarkable they all are. Having failed to turn a real profit in any of these pursuits (apart from his campaign fundraising, for which he need only stand behind a podium and soak up the adulation of all his misinformed minions), 45 cannot fail to recognize what a miscarriage of potential his existence represents.
Having inherited large sums of cash and real estate from his more soundly ambitious (albeit no less unethical) father, independent analysis has shown time and again how 45 would have achieved greater success by not playing his shaky hand in the real estate market at all, and simply investing his inheritance in the stock market (setting aside the exaggerated “Occupy Democrats” claim, which fails to take into account the 8 years of mediocre business management between accepting his inheritance and embarking on his own, frequently miscalculated real estate ventures. Leave it to the left to manufacture superfluous critiques, when there’s already a plethora of legitimate terrain to pick apart). Which further highlights the mediocrity (at best) of his business abilities, and the incompetence (at worst) of his combined life’s effort. And whereas many ardent critics are quick to write him off as an oblivious idiot, my own interpretation rests upon the assumption that 45 carries a hyper-awareness of his own inadequacy. Hence the insistence on responding to every criticism with a roll call of his token accomplishments; a forced proclamation of “you see? I’m a big boy after all! I can do things… Big things!” In essence, it’s a “lady doth protest too much” condition—crossed with the propulsion for higher ratings and a natural inclination to feed the reality show of his own being. And this is where the similarities to Norma Desmond might be seen in greatest relief: for when all is said and done, both of these unlikely villains are stuck in a show of someone else’s design. Both dedicated their lives to living out a vainglorious dream, with the belief that it was of their own making; both now find themselves in their latter days, looking back on their lives and realizing that all they had to offer was a dramatic gesture—and the dream wasn’t even their own. And if Norma was a stunted screenwriter, and Hitler a frustrated visual artist, perhaps 45 is actually a big rig driver who missed his life’s calling(?)
Whatever the case may be, the Maxes of 45’s administration continue to fan the flames of this socio-political dumpster fire they’ve created, and the Joe Gillises of the White House remain trapped in a corrupted system that will leave no honest effort unpunished. But the show must go on; and here comes 45 again—gliding down a golden escalator, demanding his close-up. [How long can this go on?] In revisiting Wilder’s masterpiece, it dawned on me that the most relatable character (from a general audience perspective, at least) is Betty Schaeffer (played by Nancy Olsen)—the Paramount script reader who calls Joe’s learned sycophantic behavior into question. “Don’t you hate yourself sometimes?” she pointedly asks. “Constantly,” he replies. And just as Joe’s self-loathing echoes the self-loathing of Norma/45 and Max/Bannon, their collective self-hatred is paralleled by the general public’s disdain for a country that is sacrificing its remaining points of pride with every passing news cycle.
It is worth noting, in examining the similarities between Wilder’s scenario and ours, that Sunset Boulevard ends in bloodshed—and the movie itself is an ouroboros-shaped ghost story, eventually collapsing into its own murky waters. In his best-selling book, A Generation of Sociopaths (which I have yet to read), Bruce Cannon Gibney tackles the 21st century American crisis by placing the blame squarely on the mismanagement of the post-WWII “economic miracle” by spoiled-cum-sociopathic Baby Boomers. I’ll give Gibney the benefit of the doubt that his finished text isn’t as reductionary as his chosen title, but I can’t help but cringe at the finger-pointing inherent to such an analysis. Undoubtedly, 45 represents the very worst of the Boomer generation: stubborn, self-aggrandized, misinformed, and hyper-critical of everyone around him—since he cannot face up to the criticisms leveled against him by others. But to attribute the sins of some bad apples to the orchard of an entire generation seems to me yet another part of our current problem.
From where I stand on the matter, every time an individual derives some entertainment from witnessing the unfolding disaster of 45’s administration, the shit show lives to die another day. Every time a bigoted troll or a self-righteous justice warrior engages in a Twitter feud or a comment thread argument, the flames of the dumpster fire rise higher. Every time a snarky analyst finds an easy linchpin for the crisis at-hand (whether by blaming a ratings-driven news network, or an entire generation), the intrinsic complexity of the variables at play is either muddied or diluted. And unless one looks the full catastrophe straight in the eyes, without flinching or cracking a smile, the reality TV apparatus will continue unabated—and it is quite possible that 45 will eventually achieve the career vindication he has sought for so many years: not through any sort of constructive accomplishment, but through the total disintegration of the fabric that once united this country—a nation that can no longer see past the fear of its own neighbor, or the disdain for those poor fools who fell foul of an increasingly irrelevant educational system (to the extent they no longer perceive it to have any real merit).
The Germanic notion of schadenfreude has historically enabled those with a wicked sense of humor to derive a perverse sort of satisfaction from the demise of others. In our current situation, such a concept cannot be deferred to for intellectual respite. For the demise at hand is our own.
“No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”
– Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
*I do hope the satirical nature of this observation comes across clearly for the reader. Anymore, it’s difficult to ascertain how anything will be interpreted—no matter how clearly spelled out it may be.