I’ve been aware of Kanye West since the early 2000’s. I love his music. He ranges all over the spectrum: jazzy here, thoughtful there, big and slickly produced, to spare and minimalist. He’s that rare musical artist who is talented, prolific, and generally knocks it out of the park.
But I never paid attention to the gossip. He wants to be called Yeesus or Yeezy? So? Prince changed his name to a symbol. Old Dirty Bastard changed his name to Big Baby Jesus. There’s even a Madonna. He was “eccentric.” But now he’s the punchline to a joke.
When I first started hearing the name Kardashian, I wondered if everyone had gotten into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Cardassians were the often charming, but authoritarian and genocidal race that played the bad guys in the series.
My knowledge of celebrities is fairly slim. I don’t care who Brad Pitt married. But as time wore on, it became clear that Kanye was a troublesome celeb. One of those artists whose fans love and defend, haters hate, and everyone else stands back, stares, and judges.
And then he revealed that he had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder (manic-depression). And he went from “eccentric” to “crazy.” His long and winding talk. Microphone grabbing. His image of himself as a Christ-like figure. His recent forays into MAGAdom, and now his Presidential bid. This is what the “manic” part of “manic-depression” means. This sort of behavior.
It strained on his marriage. His wife, Kim staunchly standing by him. Insisting he get help. I never thought much of her before. But as a wife and mother, living with someone with a mental illness became part of her identity. And she’s done as well as could be hoped. She’s an awesome wife.
Of course they are both massively wealthy and enormously privileged, but they write large the very real, and largely hidden world of living with mental illness. Whether you’re the “Kim” or “Kanye” in your own situation, you know how it goes.
Of course, when I get upset — deleting social media posts, and apologizing to my loved ones — no one is snapping my picture. My family doesn’t need to issue public statements, or fear a bad makeup day photo will go viral. But our suffering is as real as the Wests’. And I can’t help but thank them for their frankness regarding both their insistence on privacy and their life in public.
The fact that folks are waking up to the reality and pain of the lives of the Wests has changed the conversation. Kim called for “compassion” in recent Instagram posts regarding her husband. And she’s absolutely right.
Kanye harms Kanye, and his loved ones suffer for and with him. He’s not affecting you. It’s not as though he were the President of the United States. That would be a matter of concern. But Kanye is hurting himself. And his family is hurting with him.
Does a heart attack victim need to apologize for having a heart attack? Would you bother their family because a member had heart disease? Would you stand back and say: “That’s what he gets for drinking whole milk?”
Mental Illness is as funny as a heart attack. You could sit in judgement on a heart attack victim’s way of life, diet, smoking. But then you’re a jerk.
So, don’t make fun. Don’t call Kanye “cray-cray” or “nuts” or “batshit crazy” or say “he had it coming.” Kanye West has had a series of heart attacks. Just like any other human being who suffers from mental illness, and the effect on their loved ones is the same.
So, enough about Kim & Kanye. They’re not hurting you. Just remember that when your family with a drug/alcohol problem, Bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, or anxiety has an episode, treat it like a heart attack. There is a lot of support out there for grieving families, and those who live with mental illness. Take advantage of it.
And please, remember to give those of us who share Kanye’s diagnosis or live with mental illness the room and compassion just to be without expectations. No one wants to be crazy.
We only miss something when it’s gone. But now the end is near for my three-part series on Joker. We’ve viewed this film through many lenses. What else lurks in the crushing, taut, shocking, and riotous abandon of this film?
By the end of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), the entire city is on fire, and anyone with a credit card is fair game for a mob of clowns. With a little help from an angry white man. Can you think of a better metaphor for our current dumpster-fire “society?”
Shootings by white males is a part of our society now. And Joker had to address that. We all remember the Aurora theater shooting during a showing of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger as Joker. Ledger had recently committed suicide, and there were rumors that the shooter was dressed as the Joker.
Christopher Reeves will always be Superman. But Joker changes with the times. He can be Jack Nicholson or Mark Hamill. The Joker has to stand in relation to the culture he inhabits.
The power of Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning toure de force deserves a lot of credit. But he doesn’t bear all the load. How does this film with an angry, white male lead make a Joker that works for our current culture?
First, down play his whiteness: give him zero sense of privilege to show his feelings and use the white clown-face as an anonymous symbol. Make him completely alone, poor, mentally ill, beat up, abused, betrayed, and a bit too old: everything no one wants to be. You can also surround him with black women who at least tolerate him. Make him apolitical. And then question his masculinity. Bam! 👊🏼
Look around at the faces in this movie. Who is his therapist? His psychiatrist? Who decides he’s not a threat to her kid after reading Art’s card when he breaks into laughter on the train? Who is his imaginary girlfriend? Who does he dream laughs at his jokes when he does open mic? In whose eyes does he search for recognition? A black woman’s, in the form of his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Ah. The elusive black female vote.
Now let’s look at the white males in this film. There is his co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleschler channeling Pete Boyle), who’s fond of making fun of Gary (Leigh Gill), the little person they work with. Randall had pushed a hot gun on Art as a “favor.” Midst owning “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in a hit performance to a children’s cancer ward, Arthur drops the gun. Randall tells their boss that Art had asked him about buying a gun. Betrayed, Art lies that the gun was a part of his act. There goes Art’s job.
On the train home in full clown, Art’s laughter boils up over three finance bros rapey treatment of a young woman. She leaves. But, unable to find his card, he becomes the immediate target of these blue-balled, drunken jerks’ ruffled sense of privilege. They rush him. He tries to fight back, but one punch and he’s down. Then a bullet hole explodes through one of the bros’ chest, and we see Arthur, gun in his left hand. He shoots the second of group down. Then wounds the last whom he pursues on the train and onto the platform where Art is at home, and his fleet feet soon bring him into range of his victim.
After this first burst of violence, Art runs to a public restroom. Echoing Buffalo Bill’s famous dungeon dance in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme), his arms begin moving as on invisible strings, his dancer’s feet begin a graceful step. He curls into his body then pushes out in a ballet that ends with him standing, arms wide, head high, viewing himself in the mirror, at last, as Joker.
The only white woman in the film is his dreadful Mom, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). She tells him, “I thought you had to be funny be a comedian,” when he discusses his dreams. And persists in calling a grown man “Happy.” When he finally learns that she writes to Thomas Wayne constantly for help for “their son” who is a “sad boy,” he searches deeper. Did Wayne force her to sign fake adoption papers? Is Wayne really his Dad? He finally discovers she had been a patient at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, a record search reveals that he was neglected by his mother, who let her boyfriend abuse him to the point of brain damage and left him tied to a radiator. He decides she needs to learn about the thin and twisted line between “mother” and “smother.” With a pillow over her face.
And what about Dad/Thomas Wayne (puffed up with rich, male outrage by Brett Cullen)? Wayne appears on TV, reveals that the train bros worked for him, calling them “family.” But the report of a clown shooting down Beavis, Butthead, and Eric on the subway has already captured the minds of the mad as hell citizens of Gotham.
Wayne pours oil on the fire by declaring, as only rich white men can, “What kind of coward would do something that cold blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask. [Like Bruce Wayne/Batman?] Someone who is envious of those more fortunate than themselves, yet they’re too scared to show their own face. And until those kinds of people change for the better, those of us who made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.”
Soon everyone but Arthur is wearing a clown mask, and protesters hold signs like “WE ARE ALL CLOWNS!” “WAYNE IS NOT GOTHAM!” and, my fave, “KILL THE RICH!” Arthur walks through the crowds, beaming. Amazed at what he has caused. He ducks into an exclusive, black tie, screening of Charlie Chaplin dancing on roller skates in Modern Times (1936) because these people are unselfaware and awful.
Disguised as an usher, Art smiles at the screen in joy for a moment. Then, spotting Thomas Wayne, he follows him to the men’s room. Arthur introduces himself to Wayne, addressing him as “Dad.” But Wayne pulls no punches, calling Penny Fleck an “insane woman,” and then punches Art in the face. So much for paternalism.
Now completely alone, but still tuning into Murray Franklin’s (Robert DiNero) late-night show. “Check out this joker,” Murray quips in his monologue. He plays a painful clip of Arthur’s open mic performance. The light seems sucked from Art’s eyes. His dream came true. Murray acknowledged him, but played him for a clown and a joker. More betrayal! Like Smeagol and Gollum. Art is gone, only Joker remains.
Art’s also got some negative attention from a detective duo now. After climbing into his refrigerator doesn’t work out, Art picks up the phone. This time it’s a booker for the Murray Franklin show. So he books for Thursday, and prepares. And the gun will be part of his act.
On the big day, while a mass clown protest is taking place downtown, our boy puts on the flourishing touches. Stabs Randall, who came by to get their “stories straight” about the gun. But Art opens the door for Gary, who can’t reach the latch, to escape. Kissing his head he whispers “You were always nice to me.”
Cue the Gary Glitter! Yeah, he was a pedo, but there’s a reason why every stadium used to play “Rock and Roll Part 2.” After tracking his swaggering catwalk to the elevator, Art turns to camera, green slicked hair, full makeup. Dressed in the dark reds, sickly yellows and teals of his world. And Joker is cool! And kinda sexy. Now out and rocking, he thrusts, jumps, twists, turns and shakes his way down that damn staircase. Until the detectives spot him.
After a mini French Connection chase, with his speed, Art’s reaches the train. Where everyone is dressed like a clown. Finally, his essential anonymity, ability to navigate tight spaces, and years spent on that train become superpowers. He disappears in the crowded car, pulls a classic fight starting fake out. And a cop shoots the man Art set up.
Pure rage spills out of the train. A crowd of clowns pile on the cops, kicking and punching. Joker dances a happy little Vaudeville jig as he passes with a light-hearted wave.
Now, all that remains for Arthur is Murray. Art didn’t conjure the increasingly violent mob outside. They projected what they wanted on him. The man with nothing to lose, this nobody, symbolizes everybody, and the anonymity, freedom. For Art, this is his chance to be seen, and to set the record straight at last. As he told his therapist, “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
But I promised we’d talk about gender and masculinity. There is a man not in the film but is magically everywhere. Frank Sinatra. Several of his famous, Capitol and Nelson Riddle recordings, and the later Stephen Sondheim hit “Send in the Clowns,” play a big league role in Joker.
Frank Sinatra said he founded his singing style on the tragic black female jazz icon Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday was a torch singer. Perhaps the first to become famous to white audiences. She sang about heart ache, loving someone who doesn’t love you, loneliness, being left by your lover. And so does Frank.
When Sinatra began, he was young and pretty. Big hair, big blue eyes. He was the first Beatle or Presley. I have from first hand that the guys back in the day all called him what? Gay. But as he grew physically, through his film work, learning his developing voice, taking charge of who he worked with, while encouraging the idea that he was mobbed up, Sinatra earned a manhood pass for singing torch songs and playing a tap dancing sailor.
Frank Sinatra: the first of the famous, international playboys of 20th Century Pop. And that includes Pavarotti. But, while both men maintained their compassionate side, in other ways they acted like pigs. Which made it OK for a mobster to cry to “Vesti la Giubba” or “It Was a Very Good Year.”
But, while the film gives Art a case of the not-gays in his delusional relationship with his neighbor, Joker is noticeably more effeminate. He coyly asks Murray to introduce him as “Joker” because that’s how the late-show host introduced his video clip. He twists and grins, batting his white eyelashes.
Thin and lithe, he twirls his way onstage, flicking a cigarette butt, and taking a long time to kiss the Not-Dr. Ruth guest. Settling himself, he stares for a moment before commenting that this was how he always pictured being on Murray’s show.
Going full Blanche DuBois in mannerism and lilt, while maintaining that inscrutable face beneath the makeup, Art works his way round to his point. Joking about a mother losing her son to a car accident. Reprimanding the crowd for deciding what’s right and wrong, funny and not.
He confesses to the subway murders, launching into a manifesto. Claiming that Thomas Wayne’s “crying over” these guys on TV was the only reason anyone cared about them. He insists that if he were dying on the street, people would step over him, though he’s just like them. Like any other person you see everyday in the city. Everybody and nobody.
He shreds the notion that he killed out of any political motive. Announcing, “I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” Adding, “and they couldn’t carry a tune.”
Turning on Murray, he lashes out, “Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? . . . Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. [Facebook?] You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit there and take it, like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!”
As Murray struggles to regain control, Art plunges forward, insisting Murray is awful because he only invited him on the show “to make fun of me.” Snarling, “You’re just like the rest of them.”
Drawing himself in like a cat, he unloads over Murray’s attempts to shut him down, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner…with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?…I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you fucking deserve!”
A gunshot. Murray is slumped back in his seat, bullet through his head. Arthur, still holding the gun, blinks, looks confused, then skips away.
As he rides in the back of a police car, his makeup a mess, Art stares out the window at the looting, fires, and violence with an awed smile.
The car passes a theater where Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son — and future Batman — Bruce hurry from a theater showing Zorro The Gay Blade (1981, Sam Medak). A man in a clown mask corners them, shoots Wayne and his wife, tearing off her pearls, while young Bruce stands in shock, blood splashed on his face.
Headless of what happened to the Wayne family, the cop driving the car shouts to Art, “The whole city’s on fire ’cause of what you did.”
Art smiles, dancing flames reflected in his eyes, “I know. Isn’t it beautiful?” Recognition at last.
But life has one more surprise for Arthur. A hijacked ambulance slams into the cop car. Anonymous clowns gather around the wreck. Seeing Art, they reach down, pull him from the car, and place him on its hood. Bleeding and dazed, Art recovers consciousness. Touching his fingers to the blood, he pauses, then paints himself a wide grin with his own blood. He stands and bows to cheers. Someone did pick him off the street as he was dying after all.
He can now rely upon the kindness of strangers.
Joker sucked the charged out the story of a character that has always represented white, male violence and insanity by making Arthur both everyone and no one. His makeup became a symbol. His anonymity a super power. A nobody becomes a somebody, and gets some kick ass revenge. I can’t imagine a more satisfying story. It worked for Luke Skywalker.
And thanks to the combined insanity, creativity, meticulous craftsmanship, performances, etc of Joker, we get a cautionary tale for our own world. A tale of the failures of run-away capitalism, toxic masculinity, racial and class divides, and the dangers of ignoring the weakest and most desperate among us. Ultimately Joker makes a plea for civility, kindness, understanding, and tolerance.
What did you think? How about the final scenes? How much of the movie, if not all, took place in Arthur Fleck’s damaged mind? And, does it ultimately matter?
Let’s celebrate the end of my tenure in clown town. Come on, grab a Rock ‘n Rye, and sing like it’s 2 am, and you’re the last guy on the karaoke machine at the Triangle Tavern on 9th and Passyunk.
The 14th Earl of Gurney — Peter O’ Toole in Sam Medak’s savage 1974, The Ruling Class — declares “Behaviour which would be considered insanity in a tradesman is looked upon as mild eccentricity in a lord.” If you’re rich, you’re eccentric. If you’re poor, you’re crazy.
And as Joker (2019, dir. Todd Phillips) waltzes its way to the Oscars with three new BAFTAs, the film is getting a second, and deeper, look from everyone from psychoanalysts, to disability rights groups, critics, fans and movie goers. I can’t imagine a better time for it. Because, for better or worse, Joker has captured the imagination and feeling of this moment, the uncertainty, the fear, resentment, and anger all around.
So, Batman doesn’t have super powers. Or so I’ve been told. Batman/Bruce Wayne has the most super power that exists. He’s rich. Not simply rich, he was born ridiculously wealthy. Living off the fortune amassed by his father, the vaunted Thomas Wayne, respected citizen and weapons developer. He simply has an “eccentric” way of using his wealth. And while Joker dances around its comic book origins, the film definitely wants you to think about this. Going so far as to have Thomas Wayne declare on TV that anyone who reacts to the evil in their world similarly is “a coward in a mask.” Or clown makeup.
So, what’s Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) super power? Or, more bluntly, is the only difference between Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck that one was born to be rich and privileged, while the other was not? One is “eccentric?” And the other is “crazy?” One nobody. One somebody. Somebody who has somehow earned some leeway? And a nobody expected to just shut up and tow the line?
Art doesn’t know much about himself. When his therapist asks him if he’s thought more about why he was hospitalized, we see a quick cut to him banging his head against a window in a white padded room. He answers, “Who knows?”
Arthur pursues the truth of his life and who he is because he hopes to be set free, but the truth has consequences. Oedipus was blinded by the truth. Arthur turns on the truth in rage. Oedipus was a king, like Bruce Wayne is the privileged son of a wealthy father. Arthur is a nobody who, he learns to the say as Joker, “If you saw me dying on the streets you’d walk right over me!” Arthur doesn’t know he has a to right to feel upset, or angry, or fooled, fall in love, be loved, even have one positive thought about himself or his life ever. He is the ultimate expression of what it means to be abused. And the different standards applied to different sets of human beings.
So let’s talk about double-standards. Let’s talk about pity, compliance, mental illness, and folks living on the edge of humanity. One of the “sins” those who live with mental illness stand accused of is “self-pity.” The same for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the left behind. Everyone and their mother can go on Facebook or Yelp! or Google and get a waitress fired over putting ice in their drink, and never have to face the woman who lost her job. But try fighting unfair, illegal, or abusive treatment at a mental health clinic, by the Department of Human Services, the police, the “justice” system, your school, your work, your family. You might get some tear drop emojis if you’re lucky. But hell no. No one wants to hear or think about that! Put them off the lunch they just posted a picture of.
“If you quit feeling sorry for yourself, and [get a job, work harder, get two jobs, and some boots with straps] then maybe [your concerns will be legitimate].” This society loves its bootstraps. Off course, the original phrase — “to pull yourself over a fence by pulling up on your bootstraps,” — meant something absurd or ridiculous. If you pulled up on your own hair, would you raise yourself off the ground? No. And you need boots (with straps) to pull on in the first place.
Which leads me to “compliance.” Compliance deals with the insistence in mental health treatment, the justice system, and folks who require any sort of assistance, to trust fully in their “betters” and jump through all of their hoops without complaint, simply to keep basic necessities. What if they want you to go “volunteer” to community service 3 times a week? Well, what if you don’t have a car, or bus service, or can’t afford an Uber? Too bad. Guess you’re walking five miles to the bus station. I don’t have bus fare. Well you don’t get your 194$ a month to buy food with. Do you think you’re crazy? Well, then you’re sane enough to fly a plane.
A therapist once told me, “Depression is anger turned at yourself.” When we meet Arthur, he’s so compliant. He has a job. He takes care of his Mom and humors her Thomas Wayne fixation. He makes his appointments. He takes his meds. He walks like “a compliant individual.” Do you know what that looks like? It looks like a person hand-cuffed to the front. Their shoulders pulled forward with no ability to stand erect like a human being. The only sense we have of what Art’s been shoving down all his life is that tortured laugh that erupts from him without his control. And the occasional lights in his eyes, like if a shark had a glint in those black, “doll’s eyes.”
The system lets Art down. In his second visit to his therapist. He finally vents about how bad his life and world truly are. She tells him that social services for his program have been cut. Getting real, she confesses, “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a shit about people like me either.” She’s out a job, he’s out a therapist and his meds, and everyone is shit out of luck. Except the Thomas Waynes, of course.
The two social supports Art is left with are his job, and his Mom, but he does have one thing he didn’t have before.
The gun his co-worker Randall told him he “could owe [him]” for. And like the Wizard of Oz’s “gifts,” the gun allows him to access the angry part of his personality that he always had with him. A sensitive, lonely, vulnerable man, unable to articulate his feelings, now finally has the one thing that our society values. The ability to be an aggressive male. Because real men don’t get sad, or feel lonely, or unloved and unloveable. Real men only express one emotion: anger. And Art is a volcano of anger.
Another repressed emotion now pops into Art’s life, now that he’s packing his new manhood. Art lurches up those weary stairs to his apartment, and is getting on the elevator. A female voice calls to him, “Hold the door. Please!” As the door closes, all we see is one, gracefully extended, shiny, black male dance shoe under short trousers a la Gene Kelly. Wait. Did Art just do something mildly attractive? Oh god, look at his face, no.
Art’s intro to his sexy but so over it, single-mom neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz — who deserves way more recognition for this role), consists solely of her commenting on how “awful” the building is, as her daughter repeats “awful!” tugging at her mom’s coat. Rolling her eyes at Arthur, Sophie puts her fingers to her head, like a gun, and pulls the trigger. Exhaling “pshew.” Arthur tries to look down at his hands, folded in front of him, “compliant,” covering himself like Adam. But before they part, he summons the courage to turn and say “Hey!” He mimes shooting himself in the head. She twitches a smile.
Art is now alone, fidgeting with his gun. His fires his first shot, while pretending to dance with a woman, declaring himself, “a better dancer than him.” He aims at a horrendously racist Fred Astaire movie playing on the TV. The gun goes off, the bullet tears the wallpaper, and Arthur is brought back to real life, as his Mom shouts from her bedroom to keep it down. “Sorry, Mom!” He hollers in a panic.
But where before Arthur was a passive participant in his life, he has taken his first real steps towards self-discovery, and all that means. Now he’s actively taking notes at a comedy club. And while he makes observations like “slick hair???” “eye contact,” and “sexy jokes alwaze funny.” When the comedian makes a joke about not being hired for being a Jew, Arthur looks around at the room before he fakes a laugh. Some part in him knows that Fred Astaire’s white-washing of black culture is awful. That being poor is awful. That not being able to get a job because you’re Jewish is awful. He’s finally realized that all those feelings he stuffed down were correct. Awful.
Arthur looks over his notes at home. “Make funny observations.” He begins a sentence, writing, “The worst part of having a mental illness is,” dropping his pen from his right hand. Picking up a cigarette, he inhales in thought. And, as if pulled like a puppet on strings, his left had drifts to the pen. He takes up the pen with a flourish, and in childish, left-handed writing, scrawls, “people expect you to behave as if you D🙂N’T.”
And Joker is born. A man losing what little he had. Replaced by a persona made of his greatest hopes and fears. A man who has finally found a means of getting attention. And a symbol that others can follow. A man whose life suddenly means something. For better or worse? I don’t know. How many innocent people do you think were killed in Avengers? Or the new Superman films? What about all of those Storm Troopers Finn guns down? Isn’t he a former Storm Trooper? Didn’t he just meet a group of fellow, former Storm Troopers? But violence against nobodies doesn’t count.
What you need to do is shoot three rapey-dudes who tried to beat you up, but also worked for Thomas Wayne. It’s like he shot some other finance bros with high foreheads and slicked back hair. And suddenly, the town is on fire, and soon enough, literally. Everyone knows those guys are awful. And they don’t really care that they were subjected to the sort of thing they face every damn day. As a matter of fact, good. Why can’t bad things happen to bad people once in a while?
That is the main violence committed by Joker in the film. The question on everyone’s mind isn’t if the murders were justified. But how it is interpreted by the media. The important, and the unimportant folks reaction in the city. What does this killing touch off that turns a city against itself in a French/Russian Revolutionary frenzy? And what about Bruce Wayne? Where is he? How does he receive his “super power?” Why’s his daddy complex better than another’s?
Tune in next time to find out! Seriously, I just have too much to say on this film. So, since the film comes in such a neat and trim, perfect 2 hour, 3 Act format, we can all re-watch and learn more together. I’ve brought us to the beginning of the end. We’re well into “the point of no return” for Arthur Fleck and for this wonderful flick, Joker. We’ll wrap it up after the Oscars. And see what the Academy thought.
In the meantime, let’s remember what Sinatra sang on the subject:
That’s life, and as funny as it may seem Some people get their kicks Stompin’ on a dream But I don’t let it, let it get me down ‘Cause this fine old world it keeps spinnin’ around.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate A poet, a pawn and a king I’ve been up and down and over and out And I know one thing Each time I find myself flat on my face I pick myself up and get back in the race!
That’s life, I tell ya, I can’t deny it I thought of quitting, baby But my heart just ain’t gonna buy it And if I didn’t think it was worth one single try I’d jump right on a big bird and then I’d fly!
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) will tell you. “What you fucking deserve!” Joker, 2019, dir. Todd Phillips, is the Joker we deserve.
Which is why this film disturbs and terrifies. There is no combustion in a vacuum. If Howard Beale (Peter Finch, Network, 1976, dir. Sydney Lumet) had yelled “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” into the camera, and his viewers at home weren’t already fed up, no one would have run to their window. No one would have joined in the chorus of their neighbors screaming the slogan. And Howard Beale would have simply lost his job.
And Joker would not have earned over a billion at the box office, been nominated for eleven Academy Awards, nor feared by Tipper Gore moms and theater chains if it didn’t have one fat, clown shoe firmly planted in our world. Our world where mass shootings crowd the news, the gap between the rich and those barely holding on increases, the holes in our social safety net widen, the rampant untreated mental illness of our war veterans, crushing poverty, Incells, opiates, and a rate of “deaths of despair” by over-dose or suicide that has lowered our national life expectancy. This nation spiraling towards chaos. This horrifying world on fire.
This tale of a lonely, damaged man soaks in the visual cues and themes of pre-Star Wars American classics from the 70s. When Time Square was a seedy string of peep shows and pawn shops. The ignominious Nixon presidency and ineffectual Carter administration. The end of the Vietnam war with its alienated veterans. Drugs like cocaine and heroin replaced weed and acid, as the Boomer generation’s Flower Power wave broke, and receded back into the primordial ooze.
Boldly shunning slick CGI destruction, clear good versus evil, and countless bloodless deaths of no consequence, Joker is murky, full of questions and consequences. Beginning with exactly one logo: the Warner Bros. logo from 1981, the movie trips up your first expected step into its world. From there we are thrown onto the graffitied and trash filled streets of Gotham (New York) City in 1981. And into the tortured life of Arthur Fleck. But, make no mistake, this is not Taxi Driver except he’s a clown. The references to that film, Network, The French Connection, etc. root us in a known world, while standing alone as a story firmly rooted in our own time. Even the name, Arthur Fleck, seems like a twisted pun on Art Flick.
I was drawn to see the film, and write about it for its gorgeous use of visual story-telling, music, color, and fabulous actors because I am a film student. But also because the film deals with mental illness, loneliness, poverty, abuse, and a society so broken we’re thinking about electing an 80 year old man who promises us everything for nothing. And that is the world I live in.
We first meet Arthur at the rent-a-clown agency where he works. We learn that he lives with the invalid mother (Frances Conroy) he supports. That he tells people he aspires to be a comedian, like I tell people I’m a writer. He visits a therapist at Arkham State Asylum like the horrible places that pass for mental health clinics in my life, takes seven different pills (I take four to five, but one three times a day), and carries a card to show strangers when his brain trauma causes him to break into torturous, uncontrollable laughter no matter what emotion he may be feeling. He has elaborate fantasies/delusions (I’m working on this!), but more than anything, Arthur hopes his life is more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Mac 5. 5. 24-27)
Or, as he writes in the “joke diary” he coyly produces for his therapist to read, “I just hope my death makes more sccents than my life.” He wants someone to truly see him, and love him for who he truly is. But he may be the loneliest, most over-looked man in the world. The saddest clown ever.
Physically, Arthur is emaciated. His skin looks translucent stretched over his rib cage and bones. His straggly, greasy hair, reaches his shoulders, sometimes looking mousy light brown, others appearing black. His gaunt face is angular, with a long nose, and large, deep set eyes that shift from blue to black that mirror a light within that varies from sparkling, to confused, from enraged betrayal, to murderous fire.
On a personal level, Fleck, painfully shy, awkward, and effeminate (from our Macho Man society’s point of view) likes to dance, visits comedy clubs to take notes, and seems to genuinely enjoy being a clown. His mom calls him “Happy,” and says he was put on earth to make people smile. But we see glimpses of another side of his personality. He slashes at his Mom’s dinner to cut it for her, while patiently engaging in her incessant ramblings and letter writing to Thomas Wayne, the richest man in Gotham. He twinges with resentment when she explains that Wayne, whom she worked for thirty years ago, would be “sickened” if he saw how they were living. He fixates on and stalks his cute, single mom neighbor down the hall (Zazie Beets). And imagines that Murray Franklin (Robert DiNero), his favorite late-night host, picks him out of a crowded audience, and admits that he’d give up his fame and show-biz to have “a son like you.” And there is his ever-present laugh, which he vomits out like there is a wild beast trapped within that slight figure, and it wants out.
In fact, Arthur’s entire life seems to be lived in locked in confined spaces. The camera barely nudges down long rows of lockers at his job, in cramped rooms full of folder files or dusty tchotchkes. The streets he walks are narrowed by ever-growing heaps of trash bags from the city’s garbage crisis. The commuter trains are packed with unhappy humanity. Walls are covered in graffiti. And the long staircase he trudges up nightly on his way home seems longer and steeper each time we see him do it.
When we are close to Arthur, we see him through dirty glass, metal bars, and mesh grates. Or he is shown in close-up, his face taking up only half the screen, as his pained features react to the disembodied voices of characters off-screen. He seems to melt into the sickly green of institutional fluorescents, yellow tinged sunlight through grimy windows, or covered in deep blues and maroon, brick-reds, untidy whites. The colors of his world.
Through this constraining and muddled lens, we watch Arthur’s daily routine. Painting his face, stuffing his hands in his mouth and twisting his face into grotesque grins, crying through his clown makeup while he listens to the bad news on the radio. And all the while that laugh like the howls of a wounded animal. I know that howl. It’s the primal noise you make when you are utterly alone.
Arthur gets beat up a lot. In an early scene, he’s in his clown costume, trying to be seen between the press of people and ever-piling garbage spinning a sign that reads, “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” A group of punks steal his sign, and we learn Arthur can run. Finally following the kids into an alley made narrower by the ever-present black trash bags. He’s jumped. He drops immediately to the ground and assumes the fetal position. No crying out or fighting back as he’s repeatedly kicked, while people pass perpendicularly in the back ground. Just stay still, and wait for it to stop. I recognized this move. This is how I learned to react to abuse. Arthur is a pro.
The colors of his bruises remain with him through the rest of the film slowly turning from blue, to purple, to greenish-yellow. And then a co-worker uses the excuse of Arthur’s beating to push a .38 special and bullets in a brown paper bag on him. He says it’s a “favor,” and Arthur can owe him one. Arthur squeals with nervous laughter at the sight of the thing. And yet, this a turning point for him. One that will both give him the confidence to try to achieve his dreams, yet set him inexorably on the road to the collision of his fantasy world and his reality, and his ultimate transformation.
There is a lot we don’t know about Arthur. We learn that Arthur doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about himself. In fact, we don’t even know if he is The Joker. But this film disturbs because, whatever we have faced in life, most of us can relate to the struggles, loneliness, and fears of Arthur Fleck. That is a rough lens to view anyone through, mainly yourself. And while most of us manage somehow, there are many Arthurs out there, slipping through the cracks. Grasping desperately for something real to hold onto. Hoping against hope that somewhere there is someone who cares.
There is simply too much I want to say about this film for one blog. I hope you’ll stick with me until next time, as we follow Arthur’s journey to Joker.
In the mean time, remember Charlie Chaplin’s injunction:
🎶Smile, though your heart is aching Smile, even though it’s breaking When there are clouds in the sky you’ll get by If you smile through your fear and sorrow Smile and maybe tomorrow You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile what’s the use of crying You’ll find that life is still worthwhile If you’ll just Smile🎶
People often ask why I keep re-reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. While others ask, “What good is a BFA in Film?” Well, here’s all your questions answered. I’ve had this footage from the film Downfallfor a bit. I am not attempting to glorify Adolf Hitler. But instead to insist that calling everyone Hitler cheapens the evil this man wrought.
Both monstrous human beings and products of our imagination lie scattered throughout our species’ dodgy history to choose from when insulting Donald Trump, Bill Barr, random folks online, or your parents and Chemistry teachers. I recommend that all my friends take the time to look into my list of ten other really awful folks and characters you may consider using next time you feel that urge to toss a “Yes, mien Fuehrer,” at whoever mildly annoys you. “Heavy words are so lightly thrown.”
Darth Vader: He wanted to rule the Galaxy, but was just a wormy dude in a mask. Death bed confession aside, I find Vader a go to for lawful evil, and imperialist intentions. Although I really sweat that Force Choke power. He is the ultimate embodiment of the man who has accepted his mask (persona) and role as a cog in the machine of evil that he himself has become, in the words of Obi-wan Kenobi, “more machine now than man.” He did kill the Emperor, until JJ Abrams resurrected him because JJ.
JJ Abrams: Unquestionably awesome for his ability to establish both the main characters, themes, and mystery of “The Island” in the two-part “Pilot” of the series Lost. And in The Force Awakens. He has sinned against all Star Trek fans, recasting Kirk as an ne’er do well who somehow gains control of the Starfleet flagship Enterprise, destroying the Id, Ego, Super Ego relationship between Bones, Kirk, and Spock, and forcing Trek fans to accept action and special effects over the Trek brand of intelligent speculative fiction that reflects on modern issues. Good God man! It’s Trek not Star Wars! He is also the man known for complicated alternate timelines, disappointing endings, and Spock shouting “Khaaaaan!”
Julius Caesar: He waged a savage campaign against the people of Gaul. And, while we all love his pithy, intelligent wit, and obvious charisma. He was a mass-murderer who waged illegal wars full of appalling inhumanity. He needed to stay in power to avoid prosecution for his many crimes. Instead he was stabbed by his “friends” at the feet of the statue of his old frenemy, Pompey Magnus.
Brutus: The betrayer! The friend and “son he never had…or did he?” that literally stabbed Julius Caesar in the back. Brutus was looking to protect the rich Senatorial class, not the freedom of the Roman Republic or its citizens. His actions led to a vicious 10 year civil war that ended the Republic and ushered in the age of the Emperors.
Napoleon: Don’t give this Corsican the, uh, short shrift! This former nobody rose through the ranks of the new French Republican Army, and then destroyed the Republic he fought for by naming, and crowning, himself Emperor. His successful quest for a way to preserve food aside, this guy began as a liberator, but ended up a conqueror and died alone on a rock.
Al Capone: This repulsive individual wrote the book on organized crime. He ruled Chicago through terror, while little caring whether the booze he peddled made his desperately dry customers blind or dead. His code of Omerta (Silence), and demands for absolute loyalty from his “soldiers,” complete disregard for human life, money grubbing, and addiction to his own press lead to his ultimate downfall for, wait for it, tax evasion! And every Italian-American since has had to live under the shadow of this creep. Thankfully, he died a slow and horrible death due to syphilis!
Pontius Pilate: Roman governor of Judea, played by David Bowie and Michael Palin equally well. His infamous “washing of his hands” of any involvement in the fate of Jesus of Nazareth, ranks him as the very first Quisling, and epitomizes the “eh, whatever” attitude of those who can’t be bothered to care.
Vidkun Quisling: This Norwegian army officer’s name has become synonymous with “collaborator” and “traitor.” Nominally head of the Norwegian government during WWII, this particular jag-off was a Nazi plant and stooge, who helped jack boot out the legitimate government of Norway, and sold the nation and its people down the river to his Nazi overlords in Germany.
Ahab: The first PTSD sufferer in literature. An undeniably great yet tragic man, who, unlike MacBeth or Oedipus, does not suffer from an inborn flaw, but instead suffers the results of a trauma. This fictional captain commanded the whaling ship Pequod. With a crew comprised of all faiths and races of Earth, he manages to unite the souls in his charge in his deadly personal quest for vengeance against a silent, monolithic beast of the unknown watery realms. Sending all, save one, to their death in his rage against what he perceives as the silence of an uncaring God.
Jaws: The greatest terrorist. Yo. Jaws don’t give a fuck. Pretty young girl, a Chocolate Lab, kid on a raft, your wife’s holiday roast, awesome hung-over Irish actor? Jaws don’t give a fuck. Jaws is senseless evil. He embodies the power of nature and our animal impulses unleashed. He comes from the alien world beneath the water, the monster from the deep. The monster deep within ourselves, who will wreak havoc on human life if left unchecked. It takes Chief Brody — Ego — and Richard Dreyfuss — Super-ego — and the raging Id of Captain Quint to slay the beast and restore order and health to life. Both ancient and eternal, we all fear Jaws because Jaws is the ultimate unknowable. Jaws reminds us that monster within is always just lurking beneath the surface.
So, that’s my list of suggestions of other horribles, deplorables, and monsters to cite instead of Hitler. Let me know what you think of the video and my list! What would your list be? Tell me who or what nightmare fuel you’d add or remove in the comments below. And, remember, humanity has a deep bullpen when it comes to evil, both past and present. Heck, I didn’t even mention Stalin!
*First one to find the Easter Eggs in the video wins.
I’ve become a huge T. Swift fan. That’s a lie, obviously. She isn’t from England and/or Ireland. But the fact is that I was on my way to therapy, concerned that the driver was a bit late. When this song came on. It topped the hour of the driver’s station. Suddenly, and to my continued surprise, I found myself listening to the song on the radio. I had an idea that it was Taylor Swift only from reading about her lyrics, and sure ’nuff.
OK. So obviously this is about a certain Individual, we’ll call him Individual #1. The video added a colorful depiction of all sorts of folks doing their thing and just being happy. And the end has a pro-LGBTQ rights message. It was fun. I hadn’t seen the video before. But I’d seen headlines, the pictures of the dress and knew that there was some controversy over the entire thing.
So. Then my brain shattered as I had a terrific brainstorm in the back of the Uber. Everybody. You need to calm down. I need to calm down. So do you. And your mother. And your cousin Frank. (No offense, Frank. You’re calm.) Even the song and the dress became a big deal between pro and anti-gay and LGBTQ rights groups, and some simply criticized her for cashing in on Pride Month.
Let me tell you something. You need to calm down. It’s a damn pop song. And artists want to make money, LGBTQ or not. I couldn’t rock that dress, but she can. It’s cool. So you need to calm down. But so do I. I just gave several minutes of my life to typing the above sentences.
Enter the need to make more of an effort at being calm and doing your thing, despite the haters. Yes, The Hater in Chief, but also all of them. And quit hating on others and yourself. Just, calm down.
It may seem silly, but I found it cathartic to hear this woman slice into Individual #1 without apologies. And if that upsets you, then you need to calm down.
Wistfully pining for the death of Prime Minister Thatcher in Margaret on the Guillotine, by Morrissey happened. Biggie wrote a song in which he brags about robbing “pregnant bitches.” Um, John Lennon posed naked with his wife in bed. You realize that’s how they get attention right? Courting controversy. Famous people like attention.
Anyhow, this tune is dead basic pop. But its spirit and message is the response to the world and life that I have been searching for. I did anger, and depression, and I’m just over who said what on social media today. Blah, blah, blah. Life has become The Walking Dead, and someone needs to stab it in the brain. It just became too awful, too convoluted, too unbelievable, and just too painful to sit through any longer. It needs to stop.
Or I need to change the channel. I need to calm down. I’m just going to stay chill and focused on me, while you do your thing, and we’ll see how this turns out. It’s like feeding Tribbles. The more you feed a relationship tribble, the worse you’ll look and feel when all that tribble drama comes tumbling down on your head. When I am thinking about the Picard trailer, the more likely I’ll compare relationships to tribbles. See?
We all know the rainbow, glitter, star-studded video — or the rainbow dress — reflects nothing in reality. No one’s experience of life is that simple. If I could just calm down, I wouldn’t still require therapy or medication to help me work through and/on myself. But there is a nifty, gestalt, zen, Bob Newhart about “You need to calm down.”
We’re all like the guy in the joke who beats his head against a wall because it feels so good when he stops. We need to calm down. And, it is a wise-assed swipe at people who don’t help. Because, on top of the horrifying absurdity of life, do we need unhelpful people? They need to calm down or be out of my life.
The magnificent American, Carl Sandburg declared in his epic poem The People, Yes. “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” I don’t know if that day will ever arrive, but these days, everyone is enraged and looking for a Casus Belli. And when you look for trouble, or violence, or war you usually find it.
Why go looking in the first place? Do you wear orange to a bar named Tir Na Nog on St. Patrick’s Day? And yet we have actual citizens calling for the deaths of — or actually have killed — other citizens. Over what? You need to calm down. Now. Nobody should die or be hurt or commit suicide because you can’t control yourself. Because you need that much attention. I don’t have it for you anymore.
There are those who will misread everything I wrote above as an attack. Like tile yields in a strategy game, they see the world through lenses of interest. I can’t help that. But I can stop seeing the world through their eyes. Let me show you the world through my eyes! I could worry about what my abusive ex is up to. I could communicate with him. But I’m not gonna. I don’t care. So, you know what? I got 99 problems, but that guy ain’t one. I need to calm down, and he wouldn’t help.
So, yeah, that’s the tale of my Taylor Swift related revelation in the back of an Uber. ” You need to calm down.” We all need to calm down. Down the line. Et al. Every single one of US. Because if we are all miserable in our private or personal lives, we’ll continue to cross new Rubicons on the social front. And the public strife works to make us terrible/miserable human beings. We cannot sustain relationships in this way, nor can we reestablish our nearly broken public trust in government and laws and morals. I promise to calm down if you do. You know, give peace a chance. 😉
The name Moby Dick is a byword itself. So why am I offering up my experience after reading it five times in a row since winter? It has been rough. A rough time. And I’ve been breaking my mind to come up with a response. But I have none. Except that I feel as though if I don’t find a way to express this growing surge in my chest, well there will be some trouble, is all.
This will be the fourth blog post I’ve written or rewritten since I last posted. I haven’t been able to publish one.
So, I am just going to write through this writer’s block by writing about my recent experiences with Moby Dick. It reminds me of when I read Homer and think: ooooo! This thing everyone has thought was so awesome that it has lasted 3,000 years is really great! Bravo me? I just caught up to basically literate in 800 B effn C and E. There really need be no award for that. You’re simply punished if you don’t. I dunno. Maybe it’s some kink of Greek thing.
First off, there’s Ishmael. Now this guy is easy to like. For one thing, he is a depressed school teacher, who refers to whaling as “his shot and ball.” So basically, “I don’t want to shoot myself, so I’ll go do this crazy thing that’s sure to kill me!” But then his gentlemanly acceptance of Queequeg as his sleeping companion, stating that it’s better to sleep “with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” makes him seem amiable, worldly and thoughtful. And so he proves.
Then, Ahab. He is great and terrible. This wounded genius and twisted greatness. He uses his skill at leading men to convince a cross-section of the races and religions of the world to madly rush towards death for him. And gentle Starbuck. With neither just enough courage to kill Ahab nor just enough capacity to convince him to stop through love. And, yes, I love Stubb. Who doesn’t love the guy who sees the world coming to an end, and his first thought is to strip buck naked? Ishmael says Stubb would face death as just another order from above his rank to be followed. So, Stubb just follows orders.
Ah. And the way Ishmael explains everything! It’s beautiful. Trying to show off. But I love his meditations from the look outs. I love to follow his mind out ranging over the azure below to where it meets the azure above. It reminds me of being lulled to sleep by the song Breathe before every clock in the world wakes you up for Time. On Dark Side? You get relaxed into a lack of care, before suddenly reality rushes back on you.
Oh, and duh, Jess. But there really are two Ishmaels. One is the younger man in the story, and the narrator says this happened “nevermind how many” years ago. So, finally I realized, Oh! so this is why I can hear Ahab speaking to Starbuck in his quarters.
My other big bangs from my recent reading of Moby Dick are more pop culture. Well, for one, Gregory Peck is Ahab. He just is. I know that’s not a faithful rendition, but it’s John Ford? Houston? I don’t know. Ahab is Ahab is Gregory Peck. In the big stove pipe hat.
And my second pop big bang is Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. I realized that there is a coffin at the end of each. In Moby Dick, it’s QueeQueg’s coffin refitted as the life buoy that saves Ishmael. And in Khan it’s a photon torpedo outfitted as a coffin for Spock shot at the Genesis Planet where life renewed. Apart from Khan quoting Moby Dick the entire film, and having a copy in his bunker.
Oh yeah, and Jaws! Jaws is Moby Dick if Starbuck had lived or won. And the three day chase, the three whale boats, the three barrels. And both are a sequel for one character, so this time it’s personal. I love that movie. It has traumatized me for life though.
Not only am I glad that Ishmael gives us as much whaling information as we need to follow the action, but his anatomical descriptions, particularly o fthe head. Because the head of this animal is like a monolith. Like THE Monolith from 2001. Unseeing, unfeeling, unstoppable, unknowable, with a jaw full of teeth attached to this monolithic front. It’s terrifying. And it’s white. The whiteness of the whale made a chapter name, why do you think the whale’s head is white?
Ha. I guess sometimes it’s just relaxing and easy to talk about a book because I could go on and on. What have you all been reading?
Comment and Like below! Trim topsails! Up anchor! Ten degrees to leeward laddies! Did I mention this book is both extensively brutal, with homosexual themes?
Depression paralyzes. We all know the story of the Prince of Denmark whose grief did passeth shew, but not enough for him to really do anything about it. Everyone dies in the end. It’s a mess. I don’t want to be like that guy or his dippy girlfriend. Except that I am. I’m wearing a long black cardigan over a Darth Vader shirt and listening to The Smiths. I am drinking tea I made from herbs I grow. But at least I’m doing something.
Putzing around, farting around, puttering, tinkering; I’ve done them all. I have big projects, one involving terracing out a garden on a hill. There is my guitar of course. I’ve been serenading the neighbors as much as weather permits. Breaking in my new Doc Martens. I’ve become quite a hand at making granola bars and veggie burgers on an industrial scale. Watching the tomato and other starts, start. Making and using my own potting soil, thank you.
I suffer from some hypo Depressions. So, I’ve adopted a “just do stuff” code. I mean, some of what I’ve been up to has been intense. I was on steroids for two weeks after I cleared out this one overgrown area behind the house. I had poison oak on my arms. It wasn’t that bad. The steroids helped. But yeah, I don’t care what I do, so long as I do something. Sure, I cleared that area, but I also worked out a lot of aggression!
I can’t sustain whatever overcomes me (sudafed) when I Hulk out on a hill or garden or whatever project. But I can sustain a good putz. Sometimes I do a small thing. Like clean and oil my fisker’s and lose them immediately. Sometimes I make a mental Scarlett O’Hara note: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” But you know what? Aside from just getting me up an about and not languishing in the depths of despair, I do feel like I get things done. It may not always be a super lot, but doing stuff at any pace is good for me. I get to think “Hey! Look! I did this stuff!” And people are like “Nice stuff doing, Jess!” And I’m like “thanks.”
Putzing around has more benefits now than ever. I mean, did you notice the Constitutional Crisis and other troubling developments in the news? I did. So I just keep doing stuff. Breathing and doing stuff.
The more meaningless the better, really. Butterfly gardens. Blogging. Playing guitar. And now I finally have an idea for a bigger writing project I have in mind. We can talk about that later. But I have been out of writing form for about two years. It’s painful now. So I have to write. In this sense, the putzing lead to further putzing with the world, and now I have a new writing project.
Something else to do. Something to wrest my mind back from the anxiety and depression. And from yeah, That Thing. The Thing that won’t just frakkin go the frak away.
Writing is just a way to fart around, and give my brain a good long, meaningless problem to work out. It’s exactly what I need. Hopefully by the time I’m finished, the weird scary shit will have gone away. Especially the big scary man. ugh.
Nothing seems to matter anymore. And there’s not much we can do but look through our fingers for a time. So why not fart around!? I’m going for more brain activity, and some small rewards to help check my Depression and Anxiety. But I firmly believe we should all fart around. I mean, what else is there to do? Wait for Barr to be stabbed behind the curtain? Just go fart around. That’s an order.
Oh you all are missing out! I’m telling you. If you were my neighbors you could enjoy the joyous noise of my totally sweet guitar stylings every evening. And, if you were super lucky, the dulcid tones of my voice echoing up through the valley. It’s so sad. I’m so sorry.
I haven’t had any official complaints yet, but it’s THERAPY. OK? So go ride your ATV around and let the dogs chase you, noisy. You’re missing out. Anyhow. It’s true. I live in a sort of natural amphitheater back here in a hill at the bottom of a big open valley. And I have a kitchen porch that is one floor up. And that is my stage. And on it I am a rock god, and all my neighbors, my adoring fans.
I can’t help it. I’ve experienced difficulties lately. This is how I’m adapting to my new reality since I moved here and, you know, when we fell into the Twilight Zone in November twenty billion years ago in 2016? There were two main offshoots of that. First was that I had no idea what to do. I felt overwhelmed and PISSED. I’m in a new house. Totally inundated. My dog had just died. I did not know what to take care of first. The second became an inability to be articulate. To speak, yes, but mainly to write! And that’s me. My thing. La cosa mia. Writing.
So much flew out of my control, and my world was turned around. I felt powerless. That spiraled into rage, constant anxiety, and abject depression. So, I tried a lot of things. Coloring, gardening, playing Star Wars Battlefront II, vegetarian and vegan cooking, making gardens with a pick axe, but I was also led back to the arts. I painted again. And then I picked up my Dad’s old guitar. And that was it.
I practice guitar whenever I have a moment. I always want to play my guitar. I always want to bring it with me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because music can express what other art forms cannot. A sort of soul-longing. And in general I play The Pogues, Woody Guthrie, other traditional music, and The Smiths. I have the same music as a Spotify playlist that I call Pissed Poor.
This music reflects struggle with a world that doesn’t really like the fact that you exist. Okies, Irishmen, Morrissey. And hard times and a bad place: The Dustbowl, the history of the Irish, Thatcherite England in a post-industrial town. Playing this music helps me engage with feelings that are similar to my own. It’s a way to sympathize and not be alone. Be connected by the feeling in the music.
Music became a new tool to experience and process more complicated emotions and difficulties than I could in words or pictures. Partly this is because it is instant. It appears, exists, then disappears. Like magic. But I credit the emotionally honest state that I achieve when playing with my complete lack of musical knowledge. It is by far my worst “art.” Medium. Whatever. What sort of medium is music anyway? It’s mathematical vibrations in the air.
I don’t get music. But I think that’s why it works for me. I know how to draw. I know how to write. I understand the concepts and practices of those art forms or media. So I can contrive to achieve a feel, but music for me is just raw, how it comes out. Like Shane MacGowan spitting out a song while wrestling with gravity.
It’s not important what I do anymore, so much as that I am doing something besides freak out with rage, depression, or anxiety. And music helps me achieve that. I have a system for my daily routine, but it’s wide about edges. I just need extra time. That’s all. I usually use the rule of three. Whatever you think it’s going to be in time, or money, or whatever, multiply that by three.
Music comes in because I want to squeeze every second of time for practicing. It gives me joy. So I look forward to when I can play. Of course, sometimes I cheat. But I can’t just drop a song I just picked up at prime time like that. Jeez. I have to have time to practice the song before I debut it. But I do that when no one can hear.
So this late Spring season we’ve added some Guthrie and Pogues, but my current musical therapy session is focused on learning “I Know it’s Over” by The Smiths. So my neighbors are no doubt happy about that. Lucky them. I don’t normally play six and a half minute songs. So my fingers get tired. But don’t you worry. I’m getting close to it. You’ll all hear the full performance, sobbing and all, someday, live, on my porch, in my rock god delusion therapy session. Lucky.
Check it out: I’m writing again, about music. Nice trick, huh?
I never made a point to go back and speak about the trauma I suffered at the beginning of this summer. It was a deep betrayal of a bond that kept me propped up emotionally. And I collapsed with it.
As I pointed out in an earlier post (In Which I Sing), I did pick up my Dad’s old guitar and have been practicing.
I suppose I enjoy it because my brain is full of words. Words strung together around an idea. Words to songs. Words to stories. I’ve never been short for words, until I was.
I suppose the answer lay the nature of the betrayal I experienced. That relationship was built on words. My words, mainly. And my words were suddenly turned against me, and worse, didn’t matter. I didn’t matter.
I’ve always been a talker. I have opinions on everything that I’ll back up with reams of words. I don’t even have to understand what I’m saying, or why, so long as the words sound good. That they string along well. They’re unusual or surprising, alliterative and witty.
But I can’t say I’ve ever been the popular type. I am exactly what I seem, the former editor of my high school literary magazine.
But I’ve always had friends. Until I was married, really. By the time I came to leave that relationship, I can’t say I had a friend. No one knew me, and I knew no one. My family and old friends had become strangers to me, and I to them.
One of my joys in piecing my life back together was rediscovering friends. Old friends and new. Renewing bonds and learning to understand what had changed during the gap in my life. Some friends took longer to regain, some I never have. I accept that.
Individual therapy has saved me more than once. In therapy, beyond the formal learning, I am able to practice being me. I was no longer sure who “me” was. I had a memory of me. Me healthy. Me full of confidence. Me the pain in the ass who wants to explain evolution to you. But who is “me” now? I knew I was deeply changed. In some ways irrevocably. But therapy gave me a safe space to explore this new “me.”
I suppose such a bond as that with a therapist becomes like a friendship. Mainly one-sided, but an open, honest, trust-based relationship. I like to wear my nice clothes and put on makeup to see my therapists. Present myself well. I want to impress, to prove I’m learning.
So, it was what I view as a betrayal of that bond by a woman I’d seen for two years as my therapist that sent me quiet.
I live with someone I love very much, who is good and kind to me, and who needs me too. I have family close by. But I don’t drive, and there is no public transportation here. I can’t say that I’d see many more people if my situation were different. But I would get out more. And a betrayal on such a personal level makes me less likely to seek people out.
The most helpful friends I’ve had lately are those like myself. Old and new. Involuntary hermits. Kindreds in mind and spirit.
As I said, I haven’t been writing as much. But music seems to help me channel some of that shattered pain, and the frail shards of happiness I’ve recollected.
Instead of speaking, I’ve become a prodigious doer of stuff. Good stuff. Extreme stuff. Gardening, fixing this old house, etc. I’m actually tough! But it all would be empty without my music. And if I feel nervous or unhappy, there is my music. I need my music. But what I listen to most is the words.
I’ve found a lot of solace in the music of resourcefulness. The kind that people make when times are hard, on what instruments they have. When work, if you can get it, doesn’t necessarily pay, and music is a chance at release. The music of folks who make a great noise at the passing of a loved one because they’ve earned their rest.
I like music about the confusion. About the search. Music to raise the dead. I’ve been working on this song above for some time. There are layers of meaning in it that speak to me of misspent youths, friendships come and gone, and somehow, purges my own demons. This song tells me “It’s OK.” Music to soothe. Music so I don’t feel alone.
I’ll borrow the words of others, until I regain my own.