Category Archives: movies

Calmer Than Your Are. Losing my Cool, Walter Sobchak, and PTSD.

Me, always.

“No, Walter. You’re not wrong. You’re just an asshole,” The Dude (Jeff Bridges) admits to his bowling buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Cohen Brothers 1998 Noir film meets the end of The California Dream, The Big Lebowski.

I would accept that description of myself. If I also were not wrong and an asshole so often. I get it often enough, but my reactions need help. I am not to the point of pulling a piece in a bowling alley, yet. But my anger response to a perceived wrong, lack of set rules, or disruption is not too far from Walter’s.

Walter is a damaged Vietnam Vet with PTSD. He is divorced, yet still cares for his ex-wife’s dog, and strictly observes Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. He is a man trying to cling to structures with meaning. They ground and reassure him. And when his routines, rituals, and structure gets disrupted, he lashes out as only John Goodman can. Big and loud.

In an early scene we see him casually talking with The Dude, the old hippie, and Donny, their ex-surfer friend, when he screams “OVER THE LINE!” to an offending bowler.

Calm but deadly serious.
To pulling a piece.
To threatening a bowler at gun point.

Walter clings to structures for comfort. His reaction is to overwhelm others by enforcing the rules, at gun point if need be. He even needs to control when his friend Donny speaks and corrects The Dude’s use of an Asian slur. By the end of the film though, we realize that under all that camo and tactical gear is a scared 18 year old kid who lived through “a world of hurt.” In fact, it turns out he is not even Jewish. He converted for his ex-wife.

But it is Walter who quickly realizes the solution to the mystery of the rug that really tied the room together. He even mentions how “Un-Dude” his friend is being for getting hung up on the “ins and outs.” And he goes whole hog in his attempts to help The Dude on his quest. These are all traits of PTSD. The clinging, whether to habits or routines, rules or people. The shit-losing when anything pops its head into his life with an unwelcome thought. And yet he stares down arch-rival bowler, The Jesus, while Dude stammers. And he will mess up a couple of Nihilists who killed your car with a quickness.

His tears at the end signal the restoration of order and peace for him. The Dude needs Walter. But Walter also needs The Dude. Because The Dude is the one man chill enough to give Walter the grace to forgive himself. When Walter apologizes, The Dude says, “Fuck it, man.”

What the movie doesn’t explicitly show, however, is the embarrassment of being Walter. We with PTSD are simply not cool like The Dude. We tend to be rigid, hold ourselves rigidly, follow routines, and construct a framework to hang the point of life on. And that protects us from the scary truth that our suffering was and is pointless. As all suffering is.

The end result is sometimes you just lose your cool and freak out in a diner over the accessibility of a severed toe. Then Pride holds him in that diner seat long after he has embarrassed himself and The Dude.

Embarrassment, shame, self-loathing, or disgust generally fill the calm after the fit has passed. And it is something I have had to face down fiercely as I do my last days to week in this hotel room. All of my life is uncertain right now. All structure is gone. I have formed habits already to keep me sane in this room. But after living in fear and uncertainty for seven months now, I have had my share of outbursts.

But I have come to realize that I do not have to sit in the diner where I embarrassed myself. Walter eventually breaks down in tears, admits how wrong he had been, and apologizes to The Dude, and to Donny posthumously. “Fuck it.” Says The Dude, as they head off into the sunset to the lanes.

Feeling the shame, getting unbent, and apologizing are the keys. And if you are lucky enough, you will have friends who tell you to “Fuck it” and go bowling. I mean, in the end, all that is wrong — and there is plenty to go around in this world — sometimes flips our asshole switch. And it feels awful. Nobody wants to lose their cool. Good thing all those cool Dudes need us as much as The Dude needs Walter. Because we will do anything to get back your goddamn rug that really tied the room together! Eh, fuck it. Let’s roll.

– JL ✌🏼💙💛🖖🏼🌻

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It IS a Wonderful Life

YOU ARE…FALLS.

For all my beautiful friends, known and unknown to me:

Writing at the darkest time of year, when we string lights and let candles flicker as we await the rebirth of the Sun, I want you to remember that it truly is a wonderful, glorious, miraculous life.

And while other holiday films may delight us with nostalgia, or portraits of crazy families still managing to enjoy their particular life, I love It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1947).

A dark film, for a dark season, that eventually turns its face again to the light. It’s a Wonderful Life presents us with a portrait of a family man who sees his life as a failure, is deeply in debt, and attempts suicide on Christmas Eve. But it’s not that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) actually wants to die. He specifically wishes to have never been born. And his wish is granted.

Having never been born, George Bailey is free to see how life would have proceeded without him. The thousands of little links in the chain of his existence are broken. He was not alive to save his brother’s life, to keep a grieving pharmacist from accidentally poisoning someone, to marry his wife, to fix his dream home as well as build the dream homes of the people of his hometown of Bedford Falls.

Beyond seeing how connected and important his life was to so many, he also realizes that he has no memories, no experience of life, no friends, no family, no connections, no love. And this is when he chooses to live again.

I want you to think about what George Bailey knows when he makes his decision to return to his life. Nothing has changed. There are Zuzu’s petals in his pocket, he is still broken by debt, and yet he chose to have back his experiences, his connections, his friends, family and love.

And though the town pulls together to help erase his debt that night, George did not know that would happen when he chose life. He wanted to kiss his wife and children, run through the streets shouting “Merry Christmas” to all, even old man Potter.

None of us know our future. Whether trouble, pain, or loss will hit us on any particular day, but we go on anyway because the alternative is nothingness.

Imagine never experiencing life. Not simply seeing the stars, or falling in love, or sunsets after a fine day, but never knowing loss, the pain of unrequited love. Life is all of these things, the painful, the glorious, the unjust, the small triumphs, the love and loss. And living with the constant uncertainty of it all.

And yet we choose this everyday. In a dark, cold, and lonely Universe, somehow you were born. A naked ape made from the elements of the Earth, kin to all you see in a very real way. The only difference is that, having life, you get to reflect on the immense miracle of it all. And it is never too late to choose to live in love and awe.

This season, count your riches in the amount of love you give, the joy you bring, and be open to this glorious, uncertain, and wonderful life. May peace and love fill all of your days, and may you safely rest in the arms of love, no matter what this life brings.

– JL✌🏼💚🌼🖖🏼

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Joker, part 2: Boot-straps, Double-standards & Catch-22

If you missed Part 1 of my Joker series, hace clíc aquí

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!

– JL 👉🏼🤡

While you’re here: check out the wonderful work done by the people at The National Alliance on Mental Illness and donate.

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