Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pokemon Go Observations

I suspect the Pokemon Go trend is going to be one of those things that screams “2016 only” in future nostalgia-based TV shows.  It won’t move forward; it’s not some revolutionary new fad.  I should be angry with these people, but really, this is nothing more than smartphone obsession reaching its logical conclusion: adults acting like children.  You need not wonder what all those people engrossed with their smartphones are doing.  They’re playing games, as they have been since 2007, whether something as obvious as Pokemon Go or solitaire, or more sophisticated games like Facebook and Twitter.
Something odd has been happening the past few days: our corner here in Astoria seems to be one of those places where players congregate to collect points, or whatever.  (Don’t explain the rules to me, unless you can verify that you’re under 12 years of age.)  Thus far, I’ve seen about a dozen people at random times while coming and going from the house.  Always guys.  Guys in their 20’s.  Clearly nerds.  For the most part, mild, unassuming guys, not friendly, but in no way threatening, engrossed in their smartphones.  It’s driven home to me how relatively inoffensive this game and trend is.  Then again, today there was a guy who had a scowl on his face, seemed a bit mangy, and I made it a point of stopping with my groceries after opening the gate and staring at him.  He got the picture and left.
I know what this is … but my 80+ year-old landlord upstairs?  Who sits in her front room all day watching people pass the front of her house?  She hasn’t said anything yet, but I’m waiting for her to call down the stairs, “Ah-Billy, who-ah are these-ah crazy people in-ah front of the house?”  She doesn’t know what Pokemon Go is.  She barely knows what smartphones are.  I suspect she feels vaguely threatened by the strange number of guys in their 20’s sauntering in front of her house for a few minutes with their phones.
So long as they stand around doing their silly thing, I don’t care.  I’m hoping not to see anyone make the mistake of sitting on her front steps.  I’ll draw the line there with the stock NYC “get the fuck out of here” speech.  I gather there are a fair number of imbeciles playing the game who could be graceless enough to conduct themselves this way.
(Sidenote: it occurs to me now that the old trope, "Hey you kids, get off my lawn" applies here.  Save the subtext of that message implies that the kids on the lawn are somehow "cool" while the person yelling this has grown old and "uncool."  Trust me ... grown-ups playing video games will never be cool.  They may as well be standing around out there with the waistbands of their Fruit of the Looms around their necks.)
What do I find troubling about this trend?  The simple fact that if you’re a guy in his 20’s, you should be trying to get laid.  Above and beyond all else.  Or going out for drinks.  Or going to the gym.  The library.  The museum.  The movies.  A band.  Shopping.  Going to church even, if thus inclined.  Not wandering aimlessly on sidewalks playing a videogame meant for children.  Augmented reality?  The future?  When I read shit like this … the future sounds like a very wrong turn.  Unless you’re looking for ways to make money off prepubescent and adolescent males, you should not be concerned with augmented reality.  You should be concerned with reality.  Or trying to escape it in more interesting ways.
I can’t explain it fully, but the past few years, I’ve felt so disengaged from the overall culture in America.  Surely, I always have, but lately it feels like that percentage I have in common with what’s presented to me as “normal” seems to be heading towards single-digit territory in terms of movies, music, literature, art, pop culture, etc.  The political climate hasn’t helped, which has taken on vestiges or professional wrestling in terms of how it’s presented to us.  Topped off with terrorists hitting their prime in urban areas all over the world, racial bullshit going on in all directions, people carrying semi-automatic weapons at public rallies, etc.
Then again, I’ve described the conditions of how I grew up in the 1970’s: all the negative shit going on at the time in the adult world … while I was having a much more enjoyable time as a kid.  Surely at the time, I pretended things were much more rough and complicated in my childhood.  It’s the nature of any good writer to look back and recall the reality of a situation as opposed to the nostalgia.  But I can look back and see I was a relatively untroubled kid, raised in a reasonable/non-abusive family, made to feel important and intelligent, etc.  Nothing special?  Maybe not, but I’ve seen the other side of the coin with kids, now adults, who dealt with all sorts of horrible, negative shit as children and how it’s affected them as adults.  (And not always negatively: some adults with horrible childhoods take those years as profound instruction as how not to live and what to avoid later in life.)
Maybe it’s just the nature of the world for adults, particularly in their middle age, to feel completely disengaged from society.  Which is odd, as that was the vibe I was shooting for as a dislocated young guy in college/in his 20’s/out of college/living in a major city.  The vibe exactly: on the outside of all the bullshit.  Well, I got news for my younger self: it’s a strange feeling when you find yourself in that position.  Advertisers aren’t targeting you.  Movies aren’t trying to appeal to you.  Popular music is geared to make people feel dead by 30.  Nothing’s aimed at you.  Save for relentless TV ads for pills to make your dick hard or lower your cholesterol and/or mortgage payments.
I guess the point I’m trying to make to myself here is that it’s pointless to grovel in the overall culture.  Because it’s mostly fucked, has little of lasting value, or moral, emotional or spiritual well being to offer.  Mostly strange shadows of childhood and that level of self absorption we all felt as the objects of so many things, personal and otherwise.  It’s important to look for real things in all that mess.  Not virtual reality.  Not “augmented” reality via a hand-held device.  And if you’re looking to escape reality, do it well.  The near-daily aroma of stink-weed I get walking the streets of Manhattan over the past few years … is not doing it well.  I don’t take these things as signs of the apocalypse … much more signs of people crawling too far up their own asses.  (Which is a nice place to hide, but you have to come out some time.)
Often I’ll go back to my parents when comparing lifestyles, especially the older I get and easily recalling how they were in their 40’s and later in life.  In their 20’s?  Before 25?  Lived through the Depression, which was poverty of the likes I’ve never known, but plenty of people have, before and since.  A ragged, hard way to grow up with little hope.  Immediately followed by a world war that had a generation war and poverty hardened by the age of 25.
I try to imagine your average 25-year-old war vet in 1945 playing Pokemon Go … and, boy, am I coming up blank!  Something like this would have made zero sense in his context, and I’m sure my similar, feigned lack of understanding is my tribute to their well-earned hardness.  The truth is from the 60’s onward, every generation has been trained to worship youth at the expense of aging, gracefully or not.  We can’t truthfully bitch at this sort of Pokemon Go and smartphone nonsense without recognizing a similar level of self absorption in ourselves.  Do I think it’s worse now?  Yes, obviously, much worse, and not getting better.  But we had that same problem, or at least I know I did, well through my 20’s.  I think getting heavy in my 30’s (no thanks to that undiagnosed hypothyroid issue that took years to correct) drove that home for me, that sense of invisibility you grasp when you get overweight in our society.  As any homeless person could tell you, there’s comfort in invisibility, until you realize you’re so invisible you could drop dead, and people are going to walk right over you.
I’ve got that Mekons documentary on in the background while I write this.  And I guess that’s something good to note, that this band did their own thing and are still doing it, despite never quite making it on that exalted level of say, R.E.M.  At one point an interviewer asks them to what they attribute their success, and the band all snicker at each other, knowing that their "success" has been due to their lack of success.  Or at least success on the level where they’d be destined to burn out after a few years or tie themselves to a time period that permanently identifies them as such.  They’ve succeeded just enough that most people don’t have a clue who they are, but enough so that they can eke out a small existence indefinitely, even if it means most of the band dayjobbing it between tours and recording.
That’s not the romantic rock star lifestyle of yore … but god damn it, they’re still doing it.  And I take that to heart.  The simple ability to do things that matter to you, and by extension to other people who think like you, like the things you do, have the same interests.  That’s what it’s always been about, whatever level you can make it work on.  It’s a warm feeling, not invisible, connected on a level far more real than a video game or Twitter feed.  That’s the odd thing I’ve noticed about the guys on the sidewalk playing Pokemon: they’re not talking to each other even though they’re feet apart, gathered for the same reason.  You would figure that would be a cool starting point to meet like-minded individuals.  It seems more like a slightly-less isolated place than the usual complete isolation they experience walking around totally absorbed in their smartphones. An age thing?  Buddy, if it's an age thing, as screwed up as I've been at various points in my life, I don't ever recall being so screwed up that I would be this oddly dislocated from a fellow human being two feet away from me engaging in behavior that should be creating a bond between us.
I’m not sure there’s any way you can communicate that to some 27-year-old guy playing Pokemon Go on the sidewalk in front of your house.  Then again, it’s a message that won’t make sense to him for another two decades or so.

Monday, July 04, 2016

One Shot

To honor the passing of Michael Cimino, I’ve been having a small film festival today, with two of my favorite movies: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter.  I’m not quite getting the “damning with faint praise” Cimino’s passing is receiving on the internet.  I’d be more than honored to come up with something as direct, honest and lasting as The Deer Hunter.

But that’s how the world is now.  Grave pissing is the order of the day, people with no heart, soul or mind imagine themselves on a higher level than those who’ve created something far beyond their reach.  This is the imaginary world where we’re all equal.  Not the real one where people will watch The Deer Hunter decades from now and still feel something profound.  You don’t make a critical analysis of someone’s work at his funeral … unless you’re a complete asshole.

When people ask me where I’m from, I can say “northeast Pennsylvania,” but I’ll just as often say “the first half of The Deer Hunter.”  When I first saw the movie on HBO in the late 70’s, I didn’t get it.  How could I, as a teenager?  I didn’t give a shit about where I was from – if anything, I looked down on it.  I was far more drawn to the intense, flashy Vietnam sequences (which really make no sense without the first half to show you this trio of young men going through hell in war). 

I can’t remember when it dawned on me that the first half of The Deer Hunter truly captured what it felt like to live in most parts of Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and 70’s.  The movie’s setting may have been Pittsburgh, guys making steel, working-class Russian/Ukranian background, but it could just as easily have been Scranton, guys on the tail end of the hard coal industry, working-class Irish background.  Northeast Pennsylvania was and is heavily Irish and Polish/Ukranian.  Every town has a domed church of the kind you’ll find in any town in east Europe.

The Deer Hunter perfectly captures three young men on the eve of abandoning that way of life, by force, in their case joining the army to fight in Vietnam: Mike (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (Jon Savage).  It’s the little things that ring true: the rotund Russian mother pulling her son, Steven out of the local bar on his wedding day, bitching at him for hanging out with low lifes when she’s really upset that she’s “losing” her son to marriage.  The wedding is like more than a few I’ve been to, although the ones I’ve attended back there featured pop songs and not Ukranian (or Irish) folk tunes.  Still, everything else was note perfect.

Mike and Nick discuss the concept of “one shot”: the art of taking down a deer when hunting with one rifle shot.  Two is bullshit, indicative of an unskilled hunter.  Both recognize the rest of their friends are goofballs, two-shot guys at best.  But they understand one shot.  While talking about this in Nick’s trailer after their last day of work before leaving for the army, Nick makes Mike promise he won’t leave him over there in Vietnam.  He senses Mike may be a little nuts, but he’s hard as nails and understands the world is the same way.  As you could imagine, with DeNiro and Walken, it’s an intense, quiet scene.

Sure enough, shit happens in Vietnam.  Harrowing, ugly stuff that damages all three of the men in every way possible.  In short, Mike doesn’t keep his promise: he loses track of Nick on the streets of Saigon after all three friends escape a doomed situation in a prison camp, and he comes back to Pennsylvania to find that while Steven is there (permanently damaged and living away from home out of shame), Nick is missing in action.  Steve informs him that he's receiving thousands of dollars at his veteran's hospital every week from an undisclosed source in Vietnam.  Mike knows this is Nick, hooked into the grim Russian Roulette gambling scene where they last lost sight of each other. He decides to head back to Vietnam and keep his promise.

This is where I’ve learned a lot about the movie in the past decade or two: one shot.  That concept of staying true, in some sense.  To a sense of home, or a time and place, or an ideal.  Life gets weird when people start dying.  Or things stop working.  The buoyancy of youth gives way to the realities of aging and passing time.  “One shot” still seems like a good idea, a code to live by, but it becomes harder to live by.

And it becomes something else.  Mike does find Nick, days before the fall of Saigon, hooked on heroin, making a fortune for some shady backstreet impresario staging profession Russian Roulette contests in backrooms and warehouses as the city falls.  “One shot” already got turned on its head when Mike and Nick where held prisoner, both made to play Russian Roulette in the prison camp, with Nick nearly cracking and Mike using the concept to kill their captors and helping all three to escape.

I keep saying “the first half of The Deer Hunter” in reference to movie, but there are really three parts: the innocent beginning in Pennsylvania, the horrifying war story in Vietnam, and the aftermath of war upon returning to Pennsylvania.  I find myself just as intensely interested with the last third of the movie now as I have for years with the first, as it captures something of how life goes on after it’s kicked your ass a few times.

Life doesn’t break most people.  Or at least that hasn’t been my experience.  But I’ve learned, you hang around long enough, you go through experiences that have virtually nothing to do with youth and innocence, and in fact are introductions to the hardness of life, which become more commonplace over time.  Most of us are lucky enough not to deal with war.  But we’ll get disease, death, betrayal, misunderstanding, victimization of various sorts, failing health, etc.  The bad stuff.  The net effect is to make us harder, sometimes crazy.  We don’t stay as pure as the driven snow, or the hang-loose, fun people we were as kids or teenagers.  Shit happens.  The challenge becomes to hold on to your humanity, your humor, your sanity, your empathy.

And that’s where The Deer Hunter goes in Act III, what makes it a truly great movie.  Mike does find Nick in the slums of Saigon: vacant, lost, stoned, another person, a seemingly impenetrable being who appears to have no recall or memory as to the person he was before.  This is on the way into one of Nick’s Russian Roulette appearances, in his white shirt and red headband, the uniform men wear to play the game.

Mike bribes his way into a game of Russian Roulette with Nick, the crowd cheering over two Americans playing the game, and they revisit the concept of “one shot.”  It’s how Mike gets through to Nick: you can see it in Nick’s face.  He remembers.  Being from Pennsylvania.  Mike, his tough, smart, older brother in so many ways.  His girl back home, waiting to marry him when he gets back.  And in his mind, he decides, there’s no going back to that place, he’s too far gone, too damaged, something’s broken inside of him, and “one shot” goes another way.

Mike kept his promise.  The movie ends back home in Pennsylvania, a funeral ceremony replacing the wedding that began the movie, in the same bar, the same people, but in a much different place.  It makes sense to me, and I’ve felt my life grow into this movie, never quite grasping the Vietnam sequence (although appreciating it, surely), but now fully understanding the “one shot” concept taking on two different meanings, based on nothing more than personal experience.

In a far less dramatic and destructive way, anyone who’s left a small town to live in a big city relates to Nick’s character in The Deer Hunter.  After decades of doing this, of being around people always angling for something, always hustling, always pushing their agenda … it can’t help but rub off!  Oddly enough, I don’t think living here has made me that much harder, just more suspect of people, more aware of their motives, for better and worse.  If you live here long enough, and you’re smart, you learn how to read people, if only by the way they walk or hold their bodies.  Actions become much more honest than words.  What’s made me harder?  Watching both my parents pass on, pure and simple, same as it’s always been, no matter where you choose to live.  Very few things in life are that much harder to grasp and then live with.

But there surely are!  And they're headed our way.  Ironically, while The Deer Hunter plays up the American angle of Vietnam, there are countless stories Vietnamese people that are even more harrowing, and in some cases uplifting in ways are as profound as any story focusing on American heroes.  And I guess that’s also how The Deer Hunter ends, with that awkward sense of community of people who have just had a series of very negative experiences, taking solace in each other’s company.  The movie begins and ends in the same place, but everything has changed.  That’s not easy to do from a writing point of view, and Cimino did it well.