Film critic A. S. Hamrah on the life, mind, and work of David Lynch, including his pursuit of a fearsome disease and darkness lurking in the heart of everything, including America:
A nicotine fiend and a coffee addict who mixes existential dread with sadomasochism in all-American settings, Lynch is that rare director who makes subversive films without a chip on his shoulder, seemingly without any will to provocation. He is at home with his neuroses and obsessions. His secret is that he proceeds as though he is acting from the most impossible condition of all: normalcy. While directors like David Fincher and Lars von Trier explore similar terrain with grim determination, only Lynch enters nightmare worlds like the Eagle Scout he was, as inquisitive about the depths of human psychology as he is about bugs and twigs.
“There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force—a wild pain and decay—also accompanies everything,” Lynch has said. “There’s this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer, and it’s all red ants.” Like the ones on the severed ear in Blue Velvet. Lim connects Lynch to the dark forces that drive the American psyche, the same ones D. H. Lawrence analyzed in his Studies in Classic American Literature, and there is more than a touch of “Young Goodman Brown” in Lynch’s homespun American surrealism. Like the character in Hawthorne’s story, Lynch is drawn to the woods at night, where ordinary people confront the demonic. The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks houses America’s violent soul.
I watched. I listened. I laughed (out loud). And I was strangely mesmerized, as I suspect you may be, too. This parodix remix and transformation of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s McConaughified commercial for the Lincoln MKZ, courtesy of Auralnauts, amplifies the ad campaign’s channeling of McConaughey’s True Detective-inspired chain of dark, stream-of-consciousness ramblings to surreal proportions. And it’s pretty perfect.
How did I get here? Why did I order this water? There’s perfectly good water falling from the sky. What if this is the End of Days? I bet I can move this glass with my mind.
In case you missed this when it basically took over the Internet for a couple of weeks last fall (late October to early November 2014), I give you Too Many Cooks, which I think has been described most ably by Simon Pegg: “Too Many Cooks is so deftly engineered to unnerve stoned people in their mid 30s, it might actually have been created by the US government.” Imagine a 1980s/early 1990s American sitcom gone terribly, horribly, cosmically wrong. Then you’ll have the barest inkling of what’s in store.
Too Many Cooks originally played during the wee hours of the morning on Adult Swim’s “Infomercials” programming block, showing up with no warning or fanfare and simultaneously amusing and traumatizing viewers everywhere. I warn you that it’s definitely not for the squeamish, nor for the easily offended. People who enjoy having their reality hacked, however, are advised to watch. And although I basically agree with The Atlantic when it cautions that the less you know about this thing in advance, the better, I’ll issue this one additional piece of advice: that you refuse to give in to the temptation that may arise to stop watching after a few minutes because you think you’ve already gotten the joke and it’s getting boring. Just push on through that feeling if it arises, because after several minutes of a hilarious but increasingly annoying (because apparently endless) parody of sitcom opening credit sequences, the universe itself basically goes off the rails.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Too Many Cooks for days after I watched it. And since you’re somebody who is attracted by invocations of the names of Ligotti, Lynch, and Dick, I suspect the same may prove to be true of you.
A couple of years ago when I watched the movie God Bless America, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwaite (whom I once had the pleasure of seeing live when he was doing standup comedy), it didn’t turn out to be as good in its entirety as I had hoped. The trailer (see below) had been awesome, and the advance buzz about the movie had been highly encouraging, since it made it sound as if Goldthwaite had borrowed cues from both Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and the likes of Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture to make a movie that would channel the rage, horror, and sadness many of us have felt as we’ve watched America transform itself into a cruel, decadent, and degenerate “society of the spectacle,” to borrow Guy Debord’s useful and accurate term.
The finished film didn’t quite live up to the buzz or the trailer, since the pacing was off and the third act, including the climactic scene, felt particularly off-kilter. Nevertheless, it contains several scenes and sequences that fulfill the promise of the buildup, and none is better than the one below, where protagonist Frank, played by Joel Murray (yes, Bill’s brother), goes to the office one morning and delivers an immortal rant that, in my estimation, ranks up there with Howard Beale’s prophetic condemnations of America’s mass mediated lunacy in Network. And just as Beale was basically a mouthpiece for screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky’s personal views, so is Frank a mouthpiece for Goldthwaite’s.
Fair warning: Use with care. This clip contains NSFW language and some (intentionally) shocking violence. It also contains a compressed diagnosis of America’s (and the whole first world’s) cultural disease here in the early twenty-first century that’s incisive enough to start a revolution.
“Nobody talks about anything anymore. They just regurgitate everything they see on TV or hear on the radio or watch on the Web. When was the last time you had a real conversation with someone without somebody texting or looking at a screen or a monitor over your head? You know, a conversation about something that wasn’t celebrities, gossip, sports, or pop politics. Something important or something personal. . . . This is the ‘Oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth. Nobody has any shame any more. And we’re supposed to celebrate it! I saw a woman throw a used tampon at another woman last night on network television, a network that bills itself as ‘today’s woman’s channel.’ Kids beat each other blind and post it on YouTube. I mean, do you remember when eating rats and maggots on Survivor was shocking? It all seems so quaint now. I’m sure the girls from Two Girls, One Cup are going to have their own dating show on VH1 any day now. I mean, why have a civilization any more if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”
The updated/remade version of the classic Carl Sagan series Cosmos has been drawing lots of attention in the past few weeks, both positive and negative, and one of the areas that has come under the most scrutiny is the show’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century philosopher, occultist, mystic, and proto-scientist whose life and death (he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600) have been exalted to legendary status in the Western cultural narrative of the war between religion and science. (This is despite the fact that the man’s name and memory have remained relatively obscure in mainstream popular awareness.)
Bruno held and taught a heliocentric view of the universe whose scope exceeded even Galileo’s attempt to build on the Copernican model, and the story that is commonly told today — including by the new Cosmos — is that he was a martyr for science in an age of benighted and militant ignorance, when religious authorities waged a merciless campaign against freedom of thought.
Many observers have weighed in on the problems with this approach to Bruno in the past few weeks. The chatter has been extensive enough that it has even drawn a response from one of the series’ co-writers.
One entry in the conversation that I find to be especially astute and important comes from the pen/word processor of Daily Beast writer and editor David Sessions, who argues that the Cosmos portrayal underscores our tendency to rewrite the past to conform to currently fashionable biases, ideologies, and cultural narratives — in this case, the very narrative of the “war between religion and science” itself, with religion framed as the villain and science as the hero:
Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. [Host Neil Degrasse] Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”
What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild — and occasionally correct — guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”
Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions — monarchies, patriarchies, churches — are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.
The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated — so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.
. . . [T]hat Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno — especially one skewed in this particular way — is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are [sic] so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling — even terrifying.
For more on the subtle history of the relationship between religion and science, and also the whitewashed/propagandistic mainstream secular narrative about it, I recommend David Metcalfe’s Teeming Brain column De Umbris Idearum, whose title is in fact drawn from the work of Giordano Bruno. See especially “Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet” and “Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We.”
Remember Ray Bradbury’s famous fascination with the idea that hot weather spurs an increase in assaults and other violent behavior? This was the basic premise behind his widely reprinted 1954 short story “Touched with Fire,” in which two retired insurance salesmen try to prevent a murder. In a key passage, one of them shares his thoughts on the relationship between heat and violence:
More murders are committed at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature. Over one hundred, it’s too hot to move. Under ninety, cool enough to survive. But right at ninety-two degrees lies the apex of irritability, everything is itches and hair and sweat and cooked pork. The brain becomes a rat rushing around a red-hot maze. The least thing, a word, a look, a sound, the drop of a hair and — irritable murder. Irritable murder, there’s a pretty and terrifying phrase for you.
Notably, Bradbury adapted this story twice for television, once for Alfred Hitchcock Presents as the 1956 episode “Shopping for Death” and then more than thirty years later for his own Ray Bradbury Theater as the 1990 episode “Touched with Fire.” He also inserted the same idea about heat and violence into his screen treatment for the 1953 minor science fiction classic It Came from Outer Space, which was thoroughly reworked by screenwriter Harry Essex, who got the actual screenplay credit, but which ended up including much of a Bradburyan nature, including a detailed statement of the 92-degrees thesis, placed in the mouth of a small-town American sheriff confronting an alien invasion. (Note that you can hear an audio clip of this dialogue at the beginning of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ 1986 song “92 Degrees.”)
Now comes a new study, conducted by several U.S. scientists, that appears to offer preliminary “official” vindication for this idea that so fascinated Bradbury when he encountered it somewhere or other during the early decades of his long and fertile career:
Bring on the cool weather — climate change is predicted to cause extreme weather, more intense storms, more frequent floods and droughts, but could it also cause us to be more violent with one another? A new study from scientists in the US controversially draws a link between increased rates of domestic violence, assault and other violent crimes and a warming climate.
That conflict could be a major result of global warming has long been accepted. As climate change makes vulnerable parts of the world more susceptible to weather-related problems, people move from an afflicted region to neighbouring areas, bringing them into conflict with the existing populations. That pattern has been evident around the world, and experts have even posited that conflicts such as Darfur should be regarded as climate related. But the authors of the study, published in the peer review journal Science, have departed from such examples to look closely at patterns of violence in Brazil, China, Germany and the US.
The authors suggest that even a small increase in average temperatures or unusual weather can spark violent behaviour. They found an increase in reports of domestic violence in India and Australia at times of drought; land invasions in Brazil linked to poor weather; and more controversially, a rise in the number of assaults and murders in the US and Tanzania.
. . . The underlying reasons could run from increased economic hardship as harvests fail or droughts bite, to the physiological effects of hot weather.
— Fiona Harvey, “Climate change linked to violent behavior,” The Guardian, August 2, 2013
To illustrate this study, here’s that episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents:
You can also watch the (alas, decidedly inferior) adaptation of the same story for Ray Bradbury Theater online.
It’s an hour-long episode of the radio program Encounter that was broadcast just three days ago by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Encounter “invites listeners to explore the connections between religion and life — intellectually, emotionally and intuitively — across a broad spectrum of topics.” Here’s the official description of this particular episode:
From the legends of Frankenstein and Dracula to films about zombies, witches and vampires, supernatural horror has always captured the popular imagination. Fictional horror scares us because it confronts us with our deepest fears about death and the unknown. It make us tremble, but it also acts as a catharsis. So it’s no wonder then that the horror genre often intersects with religion.
- Jana Riess, author of What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide
- Douglas E. Cowan, Professor of Religious Studies, Renison University College, University of Waterloo, Canada
- John Morehead, co-editor of The Undead and Theology and creator of website TheoFantastique
- Mike Duran, Christian novelist, California
- Ashley Moyse, Research Affiliate, Vancouver School of Theology, Canada
- Philip Johnson, Theologian
I simply can’t say enough good things about this presentation, which delves with unexpected depth into various important aspects of the relationship between religion and horror, including Rudolf Otto’s formulation of the seminal concepts of the numinous, daemonic dread, and the simultaneous attractive and repulsive power of the mysterium tremendum. The list of interviewees is particularly excellent. You’ll recall that John Morehead is a long-time Teeming Brain friend who was one of the panel participants on our podcast about Lovecraft, Machen, and the possible spiritual/philosophical divide between cosmic horror and sacred terror. (Interestingly, the exact same subject, minus any mention of Machen, is broached on this Encounter episode.) And Mike Duran and I have interacted on the issue of religion, horror, and apocalypse in the past.
Do yourself a favor and set aside an hour to listen with full attention. You won’t regret it.
Yesterday I posted some excerpts from and commentary on last weekend’s interview with Stephen King in Parade magazine, in which King says he’s uneasy about the future of reading in an increasingly screen-oriented culture. The main data point he cites in this regard is his experience of teaching a couple of writing seminars to Canadian high school students last year and finding that although the students were very bright, their written language skills — and by implication their reading skills — were dismal. (See “Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading.”)
Following on from this, and for what it’s worth, I can confirm King’s observations and worries from my own 13 years of experience as a teacher, first in high school and now in college. The scary things you’re hearing about the collective state of literacy, or rather a-literacy, among the screen-reared generation are not just hype, not just hand-wringing, not just empty Chicken Little-ism. It really and truly is the case that among people under, say, 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even, in many cases, tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And it looks for all the world as if the ruling idea from the Highlander mythos — that “There can be only one” — is fully in play. And reading is losing the war. Badly. Read the rest of this entry
Fans of both The Twilight Zone and the realm of philosophical, spiritual, religious, and psychological inquiry represented by the likes of books such as Daimonic Reality and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness — the latter featuring contributions from Teeming Brain teem members David Metcalfe and Ryan Hurd — will find much of interest in comments made by science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson in a 2003 interview conducted for the Archive of American Television. (A special thanks to Teeming Brain contributor Richard Gavin for bringing this interview, and this particular portion of it, to my attention.)
At one point during the five-hour (!) interview, Johnson speaks at length about the actual psychological, spiritual, and ontological reality of the liminal zone epitomized by the very idea and title of “the Twilight Zone.” What’s more, he asserts that the series itself can serve as a “tool” and a “consciousness expander” for helping people — especially children — to wake up to realities existing beyond the pale of the mundane world. Read the rest of this entry
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part One
Novelist Jonathan Ryan recently wrote an essay, “Meaning to the Madness,” that was largely devoted to exploring the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Teeming Brain head honcho Matt Cardin wrote a response. There was then a Teeming Brain podcast (the first ever) about the whole thing. And now I’m writing this column inspired by all of them. Hopefully someone will then write a piece inspired by my column, and so on, until we take over the entire Internet.
Now, while Jonathan and Matt* centered their discussion around the nature of Lovecraft’s philosophy, I’m personally fascinated by this particular comment from Jonathan’s original essay:
[T]here is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules.
(* I’m going for the informal approach here and fully expect any references to my own good self in any future pieces on this subject to be in the form of “Stuey baby.”)
It’s easy to see what he means. The protagonists in Lovecraft’s stories always wind up going mad. Or dying. Or going mad and then dying. But, being a contrary fellow, I’ve decided to try and prove that it is possible to write uplifting stories while still playing by Lovecraft’s rules. Not only that, but I’m going to prove that Howard Phillips Lovecraft — or Howie-poos, as I like to call him — did himself, on occasion, write stories full of sunny optimism. Yes, that’s the same H.P. Lovecraft who suffered night terrors as a child and witnessed the mental health problems of both his parents, whose father died of tertiary syphilis and who himself suffered a nervous breakdown and died of intestinal cancer.
I do like a challenge.