14 September 2017

All the Help We Can Get

I spent this afternoon at the movies: in the movie theater and not in front of a TV or computer screen. I saw Logan Lucky a Steven Soderbergh film, and I was the only person in the theater. To a large extent Logan Lucky is a heist film in the Ocean’s Eleven Twelve and Thirteen family, but to my mind it contained a strong political text that was harshly critical of the direction of recent trends in American society. The theme song of the film seems to have been John Denver’s paean to West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” though the romanticization of the state in the song is belied by the reality of life in this rural, Southern state. There is very little of almost heaven in the lives of the Logans and their eventual co-conspirators. The film begins with the firing of Jimmy Logan from his job because his limp is considered a pre-existing condition and therefore an insurance liability. Clearly, the time of the film seems to predate the Affordable Care Act, though recent attempts to repeal the ACA threatens again the possibility of insurance for those with pre-existing medical conditions.  Jimmy Logan in desperate need of money plots to rob the Charlotte Raceway during the NASCAR Coca Cola 600 race along with his brother, Clyde, who lost a hand in the Iraq War, and an assortment of misfits, prison inmates, working class comrades and friends­, some of whom were women but certainly not lovers. In a series of wonderful twists, this ‘gang’ successful pull off the robbery, and Jimmy, who has masterminded a sub-text to the heist, distributes part of the haul to a variety of surprised, sometimes unaware accomplices. Robin Hood comes immediately to mind, but I think Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd seems more appropriately linked to Jimmy Logan’s largesse.
     NASCAR is a quintessentially American sporting professional group situated predominantly in the South and that seems to cater to a large extent to a working class, often rural population. These are the Trump base. But the film depicts a corruption that sits at the center of the organization and evidenced when the administration of the race track that has been robbed collects insurance money for the lost revenue and cheats the insurance company by overstating how much money was not recovered from the robbery. The administrator then of the Raceway stops the FBI investigation in order to protect this piece of fraud. At the film’s end, the FBI agent who had led the investigation quits the FBI and moves to the West Virginia town where pretense and greed are not basic values.
     I appreciate the political theme, muted though it might be. In this nightmare of the Trump presidency, every little bit of support of opposition offers hope that this too, might pass.



01 September 2017

Never a True Story . . . Always a True Story

Today was the first spin in September and the last spin of summer. Monday is Labor Day and the school year begins with classes on Wednesday. Instructor Jason declared this particular spin playlist a Riders Choice and I submitted my choices: Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” and the Talking Heads “Wild, Wild Life.” The latter is part of the soundtrack for the movie True Stories, a film directed by
David Byrne and that features the music of the group.
     I saw the film when it was released in October, 1986.  I was 39 years old. I took my four-year-old nephew who was staying with me for reasons to complicated to explain here to see the film soon after. Well, in reality (an ironic term really) I am very confused about the exact dates and I know I am conflating and distorting time in this narration. I also can’t quite recall what motivated me to take him to this film as opposed to what must have been an at-the-time current Disney production, but my intention might have had something to do with the philosophical ironic stance the film assumed and which somehow, I had adopted for my life. But perhaps that is another true story. True Stories depicts true life stories that either call into question their truthfulness, or else suggest there is more to the story than can be told: as if there is more truth to be told. Irony means that there is not an objective reality behind my words, my words contain nothing, and certainly not my full meaning that I can’t know myself. Irony means that there is more meaning than my words intend. To take an ironic stance is to acknowledge this gap. Peggy Lee almost expresses the ironic stance when she asks, “Is that all there is?” But the ironist answers, “No. There is always more.” In this way irony offers hope and even transcendence: there is always more to come and therefore, hope for the future. Though irony also acknowledges that we must be less than complete and thus, subject to the ridiculous and the absurd. We often act ridiculous and absurd. And since we can never fully achieve any sense of control or knowledge, we are subject to a power beyond our control. We know very little; we make mistakes. We might learn from our mistakes today, but tomorrow we will without doubt make mistakes. I would like to speak the truth but the best I can do is speak truthfully.
     So, there I was with a four-year-old screening (again) this rather strange film. Roger Ebert writes, “There are more than 50 sets of twins in David Byrne's "True Stories," I learned by studying the press notes, and perhaps we should pause here for a moment to meditate upon that fact. A hundred twins are not going to make or break a movie, and the average audience is not going to notice more than a fraction of them . . . Consider the state of mind of the person who decided the film should have 50 sets of twins.” Consider the effect Byrne’s state of mind might have on a four-year-old! And I might have snuck in a toke or three before the film itself!
     But years later this no longer four-year-old declared that seeing that film that so bewildered him at the time, that at the time to him meant nothing, had come to figure significantly in his life! The ironist I am only could respond, “Go figure!”
     I say this because my musical choice for this morning’s spin of “Wild, Wild Life” reminded me how little idea we actually have of the effect of our actions, or as Isaiah Berlin writes that we cannot know the consequences of the consequences of our consequences. This before I go Wednesday into the classroom.


25 August 2017

Nothing Happened

No, it hasn’t been Writer’s Block. It has just been a denial of the ability to write anything of note in the face of an administration characterized by ignorance, mendacities, and prejudices so appalling that I have felt overwhelmed with despair.  I read the op-ed pages in the New York Times (those pundits trump excoriates on a regular basis because they express disbelief at the blatant lies he tells, his refusal to acknowledge errors, and his appalling and pathological narcissism that seems to motivate every move.
     Enough, no more. It hath made me mad. I would think upon hope. I recall a Peanuts cartoon from long enough ago, and so I’ll probably get it wrong., but I think it was Linus who said I have hope but I have no faith. What this seems to mean to me is that I want the future to improve, but as I look about me I do not see the resources that would effect this positive change. Hope does not exist in the absence of difficult conditions. If all was perfect—in order, say—then the future would be the present. Hope would be unnecessary, a meaningless, empty category. But I hope the future will not be the present, but given the present, I have no faith that my hope will be realized.
     I am rereading Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. I had read the book years ago, but in my purging I had sold to for much less than half-price to Half-Price Books. As usual, as soon as it was sold I needed it and repurchased it.  Frank Linderman, a white man and a friend to Plenty Coups and to the Crow, writes that he could not get Crow Chief Plenty Coups to say anything about the Crow after they had been confined to the reservation. Plenty Coups said that “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Lear explores what Plenty Coups might have meant by this statement. And what Lear suggests is that in the face of the cultural devastation that the Crow experienced, when all the categories disappeared by which they had narrated their lives and given it meaning, nothing happened! In the face of this situation, the possibility of narrative dissolved and after this, nothing happened.
     But after the buffalo disappeared Plenty Coups led his people because he must have believed not that the past concepts by which the Crow lives could be recovered--confined to the reservation that possibility had become impossible. Nor did Plenty Coups advocate for an empty enactment of past events that now had lost all meaning. Those practices would be exercises in nostalgia. Rather, radical hope existed for Plenty Coups in his belief in a future yet without a knowledge of what concepts might develop with which to write a narrative of the lives of the Crow. Hope, for Plenty Coups, existed in the belief in a future even though Plenty Coups could not conceive of this future because he did not possess any concepts with which he could construct a narrative of/for it.
     The antifa movement has hope, but as of yet I have little faith.