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Curiously Strong
by Thom Fowler

The two tectonic plates that threaten to split California in half at some unknown date when “The Big One” hits and talked about with as much urgency as “The Return of Christ” which is something like “A Terror Attack is Imminent” keeps moving San Francisco closer to Los Angeles geographically. And now, the two poles of the cultural universe are moving together socially in a little yin/yang exchange of entrenched landmarks. Amoeba Music, long the center of everything musically relevant (along with Rasputins –which started out as a tiny record closet on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and is now a veritable empire of New and Used entertainment delivery systems) has opened up an emporium in the area that development speculators, the kind of people who build trendy new lofts in low-rent areas and pray that a 3 star restaurant will open up, followed by a gallery, and a hopping café (and in their version, hopping is generally defined as “Starbucks”) to give the newly designed neighborhood some Friends™ verisimilitude, have dubbed “The Cahuenga Corridor”.

Hoy vas con los dios!

Those two plates, by the way, are the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate moving at a regular rate as if Atlas himself was prying them apart. Menu prix fixé. It’s what we all get for dinner. While I’m at it, I may as well mention the hubris of humans who ignore that the Earth itself is alive and in motion and isn’t taking us into consideration. Pompeii was eventually re-discovered though. So leave some kind of a brilliant garbage so the future humans (you know, the progeny of the ones that win the war, who, I might add, will still be pumping out homosexuals in spite of their best intentions – and you know that any peoples that use war to maintain their dominance are going to be homophobic – it just works that way – and the women will be second class citizens also) can look back and marvel at our art. We should also marvel at our art. Yes, lets all get together and sit around marveling art. That would be marvelous. And wait for the bomb to drop. I guess we are back to the “when the bomb hits” rhetoric. Yay. Progress.

Happy note: By 2014, all 46 million baby boomers in the US will be over 50. Which means that we will have the most experienced, healthiest, savviest senior population ever in the history of the United States, and while I’m at it … the most international. Now, I’m the son of that generation and I’m thus far not entirely pleased with the aggregate effect of boomer desires, but I have looked to the previous generation, at least the ones who told me stories about the old days in Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury, Mario Savo, LSD and Ken Kesey and Jerry Garcia, “Oh yeah, Ken … This one time Jerry …” and I was like a little kid hearing about Santa Claus.

And that generation skillfully deconstructed AND recapitulated historical narratives about race, gender, class, and political, social and religious ideology to bring me a bewildering array of choice and tools to both enforce conformity, manufacture consent and create product desire AND to boldly live a life of creative self-expression, dissent and personal liberation. Wear a suit and tie, show up at 8 am and don’t forget the picket sign. I wonder what all that experience – the birth of Rock, the acceleration of communication, a tripling of the earths population, several significant progressive movements, a bi-polar stock market and Thirty Something, that bubbling cauldron of elements, I wonder, what fearful alchemy is taking place in the cosmic womb. “What are they doing in there?”, sings Tom Waits.

“What?! He brings candy and toys while I sleep?! How do I get in on in this? I have to be what? GOOD?!?”
“If you are bad you burn for all eternity in a place called Hell. What’s it going to be, toys and candy, or burning in Hell?”
“How hot is burning?”
And so it goes. And so it goes.

At some point you have to stop looking at the guts and build yourself a new Frankenstein’s Monster. There must be intelligence in the design of it though. Theory has to inform practice. You can’t just willy-nilly start sewing together the carcasses of the past. There needs to be an elegant rationality, a sine wave of love carrying the animating spirit into your (our)(their) creation.

The problem with Dr.Frankenstein’s experiment is that the “monster” became self-aware and was very angry that his humanity had no mirror in the world. Dr.Frankenstein was the real monster. Which I think is the whole point Mary Shelley was making. That and just being fascinated with “the spark of life” and the dance of spirit and biology in our lives. The Monster is everyone who doesn’t have a mirror in the world and in the narrative of the West, that has been women, gays, non-Christians on a broad scale and in the U.S., on a smaller scale, that was been women, gays, non-Christians, people of color, the poor and the middle class. Although I’m not sure why the middle class wants to look at itself except to see where on the ladder of upward mobility they are and how much farther they have to go until they get to that mythical “there” when the furniture changes from IKEA to Ethan Allen.

Marvel at art.

I’m not a big fan of middle class aesthetics. I was talking to Lesley Manville, an English actress currently starring in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing about a working class family in a housing project south of London. She comes from a working class background as does Timothy Spall (who you might have seen in Vanilla Sky or Rock Star). I told her that it is hard to write about class in the U.S. because we all have middle class pretensions. We are all being herded into the grade C on the bell-curve of life. Our collective goal is to be achieve a certain level of consumption. Manville said about her character, “if she were middle class, she’d just get some therapy or go shopping. Those options aren’t available to her. There is no retail therapy for the working class.”

And my friend Angela, who fronts a rock band called The Cutters, wrote me to tell me she’s 3 months pregnant and trying to move and work on a new album and adjust their performance schedule and summed it all up by saying, “I’m just living the life of a working class rock star.” I think that should be the name of their next album, Working Class Rock Star.

I don’t know what happened to the wasted lives they’ve been slowly scraping off Cahuenga to accommodate this newer, hipper portion of Hollywood, but the net effect has been a siphoning away from the hordes of the vapid mitostisizing along Sunset Strip, thus defying any attempt at shop owners to build a bohemian enclave populated by the new street designers, the underground arbiters of taste, the new Los Angeles street literature and the attendant circus of hanger ons, lights and the morbidly curious. And now for another impossibly polysyllabic biologically related word – the Sunset scene is metastisizing, threatening to swallow up anything in Los Angeles that is remotely interesting.

One could hope for an emergence of a Los Angeles Nouveau Beat that skillfully turns away from the pressure to please “the masses” and can please itself. A Bukowski-fication, instead of gentrification. Although I’m not that big on Bukowski, he at least provided a model of engagement with life and words that isn’t a pre-cursor to a job writing catalog copy. “Must have direct marketing experience” is the road to ruin that lies ahead for many an aspiring writer making those trade-offs. What part of my soul is not necessary for me to produce art and what part is for sale? Unless you are one of “Them”, forget all about the ad-copy, suck it up and do the world a favor and just write your passion.

What is one of “them”, you ask? If you have to ask, there really is no way to explain it. You might be, in fact, on of “them.” The mighty clueless. The surreally unreal. Robots and zombies – the roots of anti-intellectualism. The people who extol the status quo and apply social pressure to maintain mediocrity. The people who have been herded into grade C on the bell-curve of life by vast systems of control that begin at birth and continue on for your family after death. Conform and consume seems to be the message we whisper amongst ourselves. The fifties are long gone, folks.

Long gone.

I went to a press screening of Far From Heaven (starring Julianne Moore) that took the early 60’s suburban social climate and even the aesthetic of film from that era and told a very modern story of how the need to conform and how gays, blacks and women were completely devoid of presence or power at the hands of straight, white men recapitulating the demands of a military culture.

“What is it like to be “the other”, the film asks. I was so angry watching it and I kept thinking, “I would go insane if I had to live with all that oppression.” People did. Its just weird to see some of our government leaders still living out that script. Didn’t anyone tell them that the society has changed? I feel like the Rumsfelds and the Cheney’s and the Ashcrofts feel like cornered animals, lashing out to protect their concept of “truth” or “normalcy”.

If you have to use violence to prove you are right, then obviously, your ideas aren’t holding their own on the open market. I pity them because they are unable to adapt to a changing world. I wonder what kind of psychological turmoil they suffer and why they are so desperate to impose, nay, enforce, their core beliefs – Married, Heterosexual, White, Christian Men, who control financial, political and social power, organized as combat units in a competitive arena, attempting to dominate and control each other while unilaterally united in their hatred of women, homosexuality and people of color because it is a challenge to their rational, orderly, lives.

Armies need enemies. I’m not surprised the Bush Administration is so anxious for a war. This is it, this is the ultimate expression of our culture and as the leader of the free world, he wants to go down in the history books. A standing army makes no sense. Why build a killing machine that you can’t use? A religion that demands destruction of the other, which I need not remind anyone, is a common trait of monotheistic patriarchal religions, which is friendly way of saying, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, makes about as much sense.

And to avoid those nasty accusations of being some kind of anti-Semite, or anti-Arab or anti-Christian – individual desire is often so very different than the over-arching goals of whatever ideology informs their identity. If you give too much power to an ideology that is opposed to “other” then we are just inviting the world to destroy itself. I will let the religious thinkers come up with new apologia to integrate their spirituality with a world yearning to be at peace.

Just like we don’t need to fear all Straight White Men, but you know, just the dangerous ones, the ones with guns with their cross-hairs locked on your contradictory forehead. I highly recommend Michael Moore’s newest Bowling for Columbine if you want to see a mind-boggling expose of political and corporate corruption and the roots of gun violence in America. I’m sure it means nothing, but many of the Columbine parents work for Lockheed building Weapons of Mass Destruction™. Obviously, this not a society that thinks violence is wrong, or that killing is wrong. We are highly in favor of using violence to impose our will on others. Shooting a bunch of a kids in a high school because they made you feel bad is just part of our national psychosis.

San Francisco once was the place where everyone was writing the next great American novel. I don’t need to remind anyone that the Dot Com (and I am sick unto death of using those two words together to describe a moment in history) Bubble (oh god, now I’ve gone and CNN’d this damn thing. Shame, Shame on me) The Dot Com Bubble™ , turned San Francisco into a careerist hell where the baby, the only thing worth nurturing, was unceremoniously chucked out with the bath water and a bunch of suburban refugees desperately trying to stake a claim on the American Dream™, and who can fault them for that, brought white, suburban, middle class values to a city that has always nurtured intellectual and artistic eccentricity – a baroque, and oddly provincial cosmopolitan theatre of human-beingness, and overnight San Francisco, birthplace of the Countercultural movement, became a shopping mall.

Shopping malls, if you need to be reminded, are climate controlled, self-referential, ontological systems designed to broker the deal between the hours you spend at work, and your desires manufactured by advertising gone mad. They provide a safety zone where you can feel like you are making autonomous choices and exercising creative decisions about the direction your life is taking. Will you paint the living room and then will you need a new couch? And which credit card will you use to buy it? And which credit card will you transfer balances from and which lower interest card will you apply for to manage your interest payments while acting as if you own anything at all.

This is living. Really living.

After San Francisco invaded Los Angeles, L.A. returned the favor by opening up two new Out Of The Closet thrift stores in San Francisco. I don’t know what this friendly exchange means. Is progressive culture and its traditional supporters, such as the gay community and fans of Rock Music, uniting along traditionally conflicting geographical boundaries?

I think I understand the SF/LA xenophobia. When I am in L.A people say, “I like San Francisco, I don’t know why they have this whole thing about Los Angeles. But there are a lot of really weird people in San Francisco” And when I’m in San Francisco, people say, “L.A. is so shallow and as the home of the entertainment industry, culturally bereft.” I think SF has its opinion of Los Angeles as being essentially fake because the whole city exists to support a self-referential wholly enclosed performance universe. Although I’m not sure how that is different from San Francisco. Literature and politics in the north, generic frivolity in the south.

Design is an important discipline for our era. We live in a wholly designed society and understanding design is a pursuit as worthwhile as learning your way around the kitchen. And I don’t mean who the trendy designers are but understanding and applying the principals of design to your space to create an environment that supports your whole life. I firmly believe that rearranging a room can change your life. When I get stuck, I clean and rearrange. But I’m not a nester and some of my friends who like to just keep piling stuff up are mortified when they come visit and everything is once again in some new configuration.

They chalk it up to wanderlust or a resistance to “settling down.” I’m a big fan of change, what can I say? I need novelty. I’m afraid I’ll stumble on the perfect organizational system for my life and I’ll be watering plants at the exact time on the exact day and I’ll be eating balanced meals and have my laundry done and my column in without missing a beat. I need a little more chaos than that. It is way too easy to design your life to be a machine and machine thinking doesn’t really honor the elegant chaos of life. Domo Arigato, Mister Roboto. My life has a little red herring that swims wherever it likes. Red herrings, paradox and contradiction. That is the edge of knowing.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=624
originally posted: 10/08/02 06:22:30
last updated: 10/08/02 06:33:10
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