Indigestion’s a pain.

I found myself in the midst of an especially bad bout last night, tossing and turning in bed, struggling to fall back asleep. In such instances, I occasionally find myself achieving a heightened level of awareness and concentration: as if hyper-awareness of one’s natural (or unnatural, as the case might be) biological functions carried with it an increased sensitivity to other surrounding circumstances.

In this instance, I found myself dwelling upon a recent essay in-progress, which seems to be going nowhere slow. The subject of my reluctant essay is the suburban experience (more specifically: American films that have explored suburban themes in a Mythical vein). It’s one of those frustrating instances where the writer knows what he wants to convey—even how he wants to convey it—but once all the pieces are lined up together, they no longer convey what was meant to be conveyed.

I’m reminded now of a startling incident that occurred earlier in my workday, as I was driving a client back to her residence—which was located in a somewhat run-down suburban neighborhood. As we drove past some smartly structured houses, I offered some casual observations to break the silence of the drive—small talk about some of the more striking residences, many of which featured alarmingly pointed rooftops. It was then that my client interjected a most unexpected anecdote: “Yeah… A lady shot her two kids in the head last night, over there by that school. I guess she had told the cops the world was a terrible place, and she didn’t want them living in it anymore.”

Understandably, I found myself at a loss to form a suitable response. I’m certain I said something nominal and insufficient, something along the lines of “that’s horrific,” or “how terrible.” It was a jolting reminder of just how fleeting and cruel this life can be. It also underscored the inadequacy of my writings on suburbia, which paled in comparison to this shocking anecdote—having failed to represent the surreal perversity of the suburban experience, in its full scope. A recently released Sun Kil Moon record came to mind, as well. In the opening track, “God Bless Ohio” (a follow-up, of sorts, to the preceding “Carry Me Ohio”), songwriter Mark Kozelek pays tribute to the Northern gothic elements of Midwestern living, touching upon a range of suburban issues: alcoholism; A.A. meetings; the loneliness of being a child; nursing homes; psychotherapy; human trafficking; mass killings.

Maybe I should just scrap my essay and let Kozelek’s song speak for me, instead.

Sleeplessness has been a recurring motif of 2017 for me. During the day, I frequently find myself struggling to concentrate on basic tasks—easily distracted by the latest development in the investigation of our president’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and government operatives, as well as the on-going toll of devastation mounted by a conscience-free Congress and an administrative agenda fueled by corporate greed, short-term private gain, and a stiff middle finger to the vast majority of our country’s population. I was struck by a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show on HBO, in which Dr. Cornel West and David Frum were guest panelists. In an exchange that was (admittedly) cringe-worthy at times, Maher and West sparred on the subject of the 2016 election: West, who was outspokenly opposed to another Clinton presidency, stood by his idealistic decision to not vote for either of the primary candidates; Maher challenged his decision with an itemization of some notable areas in which the two primary candidates differed from one another, with an emphasis on the compounded harm being inflicted upon minority groups by 45.

Hearing Cornel West’s voice rarely fails to bring me joy: his combination of humor, zeal, and intellect is unsurpassed by his few peers, and his perspective is fiery but reasonable. Watching him spar with Maher on this issue brought to light the deeply personal nature of his investment in politics, and I found myself torn between two equally impassioned points of view. As I think back on the debate, I’m struck by the awkward correlation between religion and politics in this country. Apart from the obvious investment of religious power in American politics, it strikes me that politicians in this country are frequently placed on a similar plane to religious leaders: they are often evaluated as much on abstract moral principles (or lack thereof), as they are on competencies and qualifications. West makes it clear during the debate that his opposition to Hillary Clinton was of a moral nature—a perceived “lack of integrity,” as he defined it. On the flip-side of the argument, we find the pragmatism of the vehemently atheistic Maher, who is able and willing to look past the character flaws of a given politician in order to hone in on the practical, real-life outcomes of their stances and actions.

Setting aside my love of Dr. West (and that tremendous laughter of his), I cannot help but feel a sense of exasperation at our country’s obsession with bringing religion into all facets of life. I’m reminded of an observation shared by a philosophy professor I had in college, who attended multiple symposiums at home and abroad, only to find that European nations have little (if any) of the political hang-ups our country has developed in this regard. Theories of evolution and creationism coexist peaceably; women, atheists, and non-Christian theists are allowed to hold public office without controversy; and outside the Vatican (a unique religious outlier, if ever there was one), it’s unanimously agreed that religion ought not to be a deciding factor in economic and social policy. I think of David Fincher’s American film masterpiece, Se7en, in which the seven deadly sins of Christian folklore provide the foundation for a rigorously coherent series of horrific murders. I think also of real-life horrors committed by the Ku Klux Klan (a white Christian organization); the so-called “conversion therapies” imposed upon gay people in Christian communities; the persecution of victims of rape, in an assortment of forms, under the alarming guise that their assaults may have been “God’s will;” the historical genocide of Native American people, performed in the name of a Christian God and country.

“God bless Ohio
God bless every man
Woman and child
God bless every bag of bones, six feet under the snow
God bless O
God bless O
God bless Ohio”

I think of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, which stole the lives of 22 unsuspecting concertgoers and injured 120 others. (I will refrain from making mention here of the terrorists responsible for the attack, or the religion of which their organization is a perverse offshoot, seeing as how they have gathered sufficient negative publicity over the years—and it doesn’t seem to be helping any. Perhaps it is best to remove the plank from one’s own eye, first.) I think of all the different religions in the world that provide a foundation for the most appalling crimes against humanity, and I think of the unscrupulous support lent to our current administration by millions of American Christians. I think of that genius of early American cinema, Ernst Lubitsch—having just watched Trouble in Paradise for the first time the night prior. I think of the excruciating cleverness of Lubitsch’s characters; the hilariously amoral, yet totally functional relationships they foster and maintain with one another. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s beautiful and unassuming essays, compiling assorted theories of eternity and ontology: the power of the human mind to overcome the self-inflicted impositions of religion—and the seeming refusal of the human spirit to embrace the assets of pragmatism. I think of Morrissey’s early song for The Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) about two highly pragmatic, non-religious sociopaths from a separate, but equally dark chapter in Manchester’s history (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). I think of the silence on the moors where their innocent victims were slaughtered; I think of the screams and explosions that jolted Manchester Arena on this god-forsaken Monday night. I think also of the solace offered during a non-religious vigil held in Manchester on Tuesday, to mourn lost lives and lost innocence; and the open gestures of solidarity extended by individuals and cities around the world—none of which required the pretense of religion to achieve their intended message.

Oh, human (t)error:
So much to answer for.

I’ve thought a lot (and continue to think) about the ways in which the jolt of last year’s election outcome sent shockwaves pulsing through every facet of the American experience—many of which we have yet to fully appreciate (or, in some cases, even to recognize). I’ve noticed tiny paradigm-shifts taking place in areas of everyday life, some of which are so minute they might be disputed as misperceptions. For instance, there’s the weekly program CBS Sunday Morning, formerly hosted by Charles Osgood and currently represented by Jane Pauley: previous segments on ecology and environmental issues have accentuated the well-documented, factual impact of climate change upon different parts of the planet (many of which provide source material for the show’s closing “moment of nature”). In the most recently aired episode, Jane visits the city of Amsterdam, where she is forced (as commentator) to acknowledge certain obvious changes in the landscape—including a visible rise in the sea level, and subsequent changes in irrigation. A phrase she uses in this segment has been stuck in my mind all week: “whatever the cause.” As in, “whatever the cause of these changes…” As if the matter were still up for debate.

I think of the shifts in media coverage that have historically accompanied drastic regime changes in different countries throughout the world. I wonder to myself how long it might have taken for Mussolini’s state-operated propaganda machine to fully infiltrate popular Italian knowledge, or for Lenin to convince his minions of the evils of Western living.

I imagine this essay reading like a poor man’s attempt at a Mark Kozelek ramble. I’m reminded, again, of my meandering essay on the suburban experience—and how truly difficult it can be to write about something when you actually have some pre-existing knowledge of it (in contrast to the old adage). In a way, such a task is even more difficult than writing about the unfamiliar: at least then, one can quite easily acknowledge and convey the limitations of one’s lived experience. But in the case of a subject that lies close to home, the writer is expected to have some sort of preternatural grasp on the topic—a near-omniscient, no-stone-left-unturned level of understanding. Maybe this is why so many Americans are turned off when a politician fails to publicly answer a question with utmost knowledge and understanding of their personal interests: instead, they’re expected to be godlike magicians, sauntering into town on the campaign trail and telling everyone exactly what they need (or, more commonly, want) to hear. God forbid a politician should ever be heard saying those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” Far better to hear someone say: “I am your voice… I alone can fix it.

* * *

I think of the recent return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s much-beloved television series, Twin Peaks. I think of what a tremendous joy it was, watching those first two hours of this new 18-part series—momentarily forgetting about issues of popularized ignorance and man-made atrocity (of both the religious and the non-religious variety). I’m grateful for creators—true creators—like Lynch and Frost, who seemingly have made it their lot in life to build upon and restore popularity to Myth (the only human creation that continues to transcend pure reason and pure religion). It makes me feel lucky to be alive, to witness the brilliant and awe-inspiring fruits of their efforts. I hope these efforts—and the efforts of other keepers of the flame—are ample enough to keep the Myth alive, for all the atrocities that are coming down the pipeline.

And I continue trying to shake my hyper-awareness of how terrible things have gotten. I continue trying to just live life, for what it’s worth, and not let it bring me down. But damn: indigestion’s a pain.

© 2010 IFC Films

© 2010 IFC Films

I missed Tiny Furniture during its brief run at my local art house theater, but I was intrigued by the advance trailers. When I finally caught it on Netflix (what a truly dreadful way to define one’s initial experience with a film), I felt simultaneously disappointed and exhilarated; to this day, I think both terms remain applicable when defining my feelings as regards Lena Dunham’s rising career.

For starters, I should explain the exhilarated half of my conundrum. As a twenty-six year old gay man, I cannot help but empathize with Dunham’s conflicted portrayals of aggravated modern existence; especially in Tiny Furniture, where she taps directly into this sense of built-in apathy that so thoroughly pervades her (and my) generation. The dilemma of severe desperation perceived as laziness—a condition whose authenticity I can readily vouch for—has rarely been captured so astutely. The fact that she is quick to confess the shred of truth inherent to this perceived laziness makes her portrayals all the more endearing, at first glance.

My disappointment with Dunham arises from a combination of things: her derivative reference to creative influences (especially Woody Allen), her sometimes overly-abrasive characterization—which can be downright hateful on occasion—and her inclination towards framing problems so as to negate any possible solution. This last item is the most discouraging, and it carries a definitive historical precedence in American film, perhaps warranting a brief overview for the purpose of better understanding the topic at hand.

During the early seventies, a phenomenon occurred in American film, which some characterized as the “Easy Rider syndrome.” It entailed an almost misanthropic obsession with the futility of good intentions—stemming in large part from the disappointment of the failed hippie movement, the multiple political assassinations, and the ongoing war in Vietnam. It did not take long for film studios to realize the profit potential of capitalizing on this prevailing hopelessness, and beginning with Easy Rider, many a downbeat premise was greenlit and financed for major distribution. Some filmmakers—like Sidney Lumet, Bob Rafelson, and Robert Altman—seized the opportunity to make lasting works of art on a large scale that would not have been possible if despair weren’t so culturally en vogue; the strength of films such as Network, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Nashville arises not so much from the time of their making as from the timelessness of their vision and insight. Many films of this subgenre, however (which might as well have been dubbed “futility chic”), were just self-indulgent portraits of a world devoid of hope, humanity, or any saving grace.

Needless to say, it did not take long for the popularity of this trend to wane; after all, an audience can only be told that life is shit so many times before it either buys the message and gives in to suicide, or grows weary of the helpless sermonizing and sets out in search of some light at the end of the tunnel (Star Wars?). The unfortunate side of this return to optimism was the disappearance of the likes of Lumet and Altman from the mainstream. The pendulum swung so heavily in the direction of vacuous entertainment that many filmgoers surrendered the prospect of having to think altogether; of course, it didn’t help that the new batch of film school “auteurs” was so eclectic in intent as to lack any cohesive drive: Bogdanovich wanted to make movies that belonged to a previous place and time (namely, America in the fifties), Scorsese was violently trying to bring the sensibilities of early American filmmaking up-to-date, while Spielberg and Lucas just wanted to entertain at (quite literally) all costs. It should come as no surprise which direction audiences were most driven towards.

Presently, there are more options available for independent artists to create and distribute than there have ever been before; consequentially, there is also an inundation of artists within most every medium that—coupled with the overwhelming resources of the Internet—is making it increasingly difficult for individual voices to stand out and be heard. (By comparison, the Bogdanovich-Scorsese-Spielberg splinter effect was a highly focused and calculated division of interests). With this in mind, I could never have foreseen the magnitude of Lena Dunham’s success, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat delighted initially—after all, this is a natural human response to seeing a “dark horse” climb ahead of the pack. But this initial delight only made my subsequent disappointment more profound.

As I watched the first season of Girls on a weekly basis, I felt much as I did watching Tiny Furniture for the first time: amused, startled, and somewhat exhilarated. There is an undeniable spark to much of Dunham’s writing, and at their best, episodes of the show play like well-tailored short stories. Tiny details emerge from the whole to form an unexpected outline, and the characters all seem blessed with a livelihood they are frequently stripped of in mainstream television. It also didn’t hurt that Dunham and her casting directors had assembled one of the most riveting and dynamic groups of young acting talent in recent memory—in particular, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet. All the elements combined to make for a rare combination of sitcom-structured humor and self-critical social commentary. Even with the benefit of syndicated viewing (on demand or on DVD), it is difficult to pinpoint where it all started to go sour; the more I think on it, I get the impression there was a fly in the ointment all along.

A large part of my excitement behind the show’s first season stemmed from the fact that such a young writer/producer had been granted such enormous creative privilege, both from a financial standpoint and a platform vantage. One gathered the impression upon viewing Tiny Furniture that Dunham was still unsure as to what it was exactly she wanted to say but, like Fellini’s doppelgänger in 8 1/2, she was going to say it anyway. Four years have gone by since the debut of that first “major” feature, and I’m quite convinced that Dunham is still unsure as to what it is she’s trying to say. The shark-jumping moment (for me) occurred somewhere during this season’s subplot about the “e-book” her character is attempting to publish (though I’ll readily admit that the appearance of Gaby Hoffman as Adam Driver’s deranged sister hasn’t helped in restoring my estimation of the series, either).

A running joke of the series has been Hannah Horvath’s obliviousness to the ramifications of her privileged upbringing; though Dunham insists she is playing a character, the similarities with her own personal background are undeniable and, to an extent, admirable. After all, honesty is one of the most neglected traits in contemporary teleplays, and the brutality of Dunham’s analysis is oddly reassuring at times. “If many young folks are truly this devoid of personal values and good judgment, at least they are aware of it”—this is the message one might have taken away from the series. But as Ruth Gordon said to Bud Cort when he shared his love of a local junkyard with her in Harold and Maude, “is it enough?” And this is my question to the show’s ardent admirers: Is it enough to just admit one’s lack of sensibility, episode after episode? Is it enough to say, “yes, young people are this deplorable—but look at the world they live in: how can they be otherwise?” Isn’t this just an extension of the Easy Rider syndrome?

I am taking the time to pose these questions in writing because I still believe Dunham to be a very talented and creative individual, and I find it inspiring that she has obtained (and maintained) such high visibility in a culture riddled with illiteracy and rampant diagnoses of ADD. There is an almost literary quality to much of Dunham’s television work, and it is encouraging to see that young people are willing and able to respond to it; this, in and of itself, throws a little light upon the lie of the show’s increasing cynicism. Although I was willing to overlook Dunham’s lack of focus at the start of the series, figuring she would find her way through the process of writing these episodes and ultimately find the words to express her obscured intentions, it’s all become more than a trifle tiring. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that Dunham is not merely unaware of what she’s trying to say; perhaps she’s not trying to say anything at all, in which case my disappointment is doubled. In a day and age where artists have to struggle against every sort of media configuration (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other “likes”-driven outlets—all ruled by a mob mentality) to maintain their purity of voice and complexity of reasoning, it would now appear as though she climbed to the top of the media mountain without any camping gear.

It seems to me as though Dunham has at least two options at her disposal for recapturing the original appeal of Girls: she could attempt focusing more on the social and/or environmental circumstances that are shaping her characters’ behavior (Hannah in particular), or she could attempt to offer some solutions to their increasing nihilism. Although Adam is still the moral compass of the series—a fact which was once touchingly ironic, but is now nothing short of depressing—it isn’t helping that we see less and less of him. Even Ray and Jessa, the voices of reason complementing Adam’s sense of right and wrong, have become increasingly marginal and, like the other members of the core cast, much too confused. One gets the unfortunate impression that Dunham is striving for some trendily despairing form of artistic integrity here (much like those films of the early seventies), and if this is the case, the joke is on her: she appeared more in control, and demonstrated far greater clarity of artistic vision when she was just writing out of love for the characters.

This is my ultimate disappointment with Dunham’s award-winning series, really: it is starting to lose its natural sense of social consciousness. I firmly believe in the necessity of raising awareness for the problems faced by the youth of today, and Girls has succeeded in doing this at times. For example, many folks are unaware of the strain placed by the baby boomer generation’s postponed retirement on the employment opportunities of young people; many young folks are having to lean on their family resources, “sponging” off of their parents to make ends meet and struggling to maintain a shred of optimism in their own future career opportunities. Some become so numb to their own perceived ineptitude that they never really grow out of the cycle of filial dependency—a problem that, as shown with Hannah in the first episode of the series, can be compounded by their parents’ reticence to cut the financial umbilical cord. In Tiny Furniture, the issue of an inadequate minimum wage was aptly satirized by a single close-up of Dunham’s first paycheck from her job as a restaurant hostess: we know from the financial logistics of New York City living that she would practically have to work an 80-hour week to make this wage meet the cost of living. In short, the problems Dunham examined early on in the show were problems that most of her audience could relate to directly; those who couldn’t, could at least appreciate their validity and significance.

In the latest season of Girls, there is not a trace of down-to-earth sensibility to be found. It truly seems as though the financial success of the series has gone to Dunham’s head: it can most clearly be seen in Hannah’s sociopathic insistence on having her e-book published, (deliberately) refusing to pause for an emotional breath when her agent is unexpectedly found dead. This particular development reads more like the rotten fruit of an over-indulged celebrity than the keen observation of a Midwestern twenty-something. I am not implying that she should be prohibited from showing despicable behavior among her characters (hasn’t she been doing that all along?), but the basic rules of storytelling dictate a certain minimum of respect for one’s characters and audience—and both are sorely missing as of now. The depth of Hannah’s misanthropic leanings is possibly starting to reveal more about Dunham’s displeasure with herself than it is about her character’s pathology, and I don’t think anyone wants to sit through this much self-disparaging analysis (no matter how big a fan of Woody Allen one might be). The show has effectively become an ugly caricature of its former self.

In closing, I would like to reference something I once read in a collection of Pauline Kael’s writings—something which has popped into my head on numerous occasions while watching the past few episodes of Girls: “Allowing for exceptions, there is still one basic difference between the traditional arts and the mass-media arts: in the traditional arts, the artist grows; in a mass medium, the artist decays profitably.” I am still holding out for the possibility of Lena Dunham proving herself a rare exception to this rule, but she certainly has her work cut out for her now.