Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Film Review: Swiss Army Man

Summary: A tale for only the lowest- and highest-brow intellects, Swiss Army Man sticks its dirty finger on the peeled flesh of raw human friendship and introduces us to ourselves in all of our fetid charm.

This is a movie with a prodigious amount of farting. And, yes, I thought most of the farting was funny. And yes, I also thought the idea of a corpse being ridden as a jet ski was downright hilarious, especially when Hank pulls down the corpse’s drawers to allow its bare butt to go full-throttle. Yes, that really happened, and yes, I laughed so hard that a stray French fry remains lodged in my sinuses to this very day.

In case you haven’t seen the movie, here is a quick, spoiler-free synopsis: Hank is stranded on an island contemplating suicide when he sees a male corpse wash up on shore which turns out to be weirdly half-alive though nearly immobile, and the two develop a friendship as the duo—Hank and Manny—try to find their way out of the jungle by utilizing Manny’s rigor mortised limbs as wood choppers and methane-producing, versatile bum as a jet-ski and fire-starter; leaving plenty of time for Hank to teach Manny about life, opportunity, love, farting, courage, and fear until Hank finally ends up exploring his own internal landscape—‘unlearning what he has learned’—and recognizing his true self as he comes to terms with the reality and/or delusion (I’m not spoiling it!) of his experiences with Manny which appear to go back-and-forth between psychosis-lucidity-psychosis-lucidity until Hank ultimately releases his inhibitions, expresses his desires, and accepts and affirms himself despite the confusion and possible rejection of his society.

Deep breath.

This movie was a bromance of the highest order with full-on hugging, dancing, rugged survival, avowals of life-long loyalty, drinking of torrential spit from each other’s mouth, and a random underwater kiss that ignited the butt-farting (again) and saved their very lives. Farting. Vindicated.

The question many might ask themselves upon finishing the movie is best phrased by one of the character’s exclamation upon an encounter with this strange scenario, “What the fuck?” We in the theater all nodded our heads in agreement with this sincere and apropos question. There was no overt answer to the question in the movie, but I believe that there is a strong point to the movie though it degenerated quite willingly into complete and utter nonsense at times. But despite this decoy, it returned to its motifs with a more solid punch for every twist.

This story of a man and his corpse explores two themes: 1) bro friendship, and 2) self identity.

1) Bro Friendship

Manny: “If my best friend hides his farts from me then what else is he hiding from me, and why does that make me feel so alone?”

Many men aren’t comfortable with their feelings for their homies. Back in the day, Arabs consummated deals by placing their hands curiously close to the other party’s ball-sack. Socrates and his ilk had no problem proclaiming love for their brethren by wrestling naked. Aristotle went so far as to say that a friend is “a second self.” Christianity’s Apostle Paul—St. Homophobe himself—declared that men should “greet each other with a holy kiss” (with the understanding of course that “the tongue should lie dormant in such blessed mouthing lest his Lordship Caesar should learn of it and want to ‘get up on it’” (I Thessalonians 19 something). Walt Whitman made male bonding even more socially acceptable by cloaking it in his reverence for Lincoln and a Grizzly Adams persona by which he became widely considered as a man’s man with “ne’er a proclivity towards ass-washing.” That brings us right up to the era of buddy films like Good Will Hunting and Lord Of the Rings. The rest is history and mostly legal: guys can like guys, and guys can really like guys.

So it’s all cool, bro-love, right? Well, not yet apparently. People of the modern age are in general still struggling to understand their complex natures, not to mention complicating that search for identity with the multiplied problems of fathomless dimensions of societal relationships with other fucked-up people. If it takes a lifetime or more to “know thy fucked-up self” as Socrates put it, it will take many more lifetimes to “know thyself in the context of other fucked-up selves.” But we don’t have much time, and life gets thick, quick. Guys aren’t always sure about how to connect best with other people, not to mention other people with penises. Watch Fight Club. And for the record, girls aren’t sure about these things either. Watch Bridesmaids. And everything in-between. There, I don’t think that oversimplifies things at all.

Manny: “Girls must be so nice to let guys do all these things to them.”

When we say ‘bro’ most people probably refer to males, but the word ‘bro’ is a reference to a type of friend-relationship that is like family and ideally unselfish. Bros are bros to bros who don’t need them because they have a gaping hole to fill (just in case you didn’t catch that….no pun intended). Bros need bros to just be bros and nothing else. Bros are there when the going gets tough, and bitches be bitchin, and bastards be bastarding. Sometimes a guy (gender neutral) just needs another guy (gender neutral) to be a friend and not require them for ulterior motives or sexual intimacy.

In a nut-sack, that’s what the whole bro thing means. We all want to have at least one pure friendship with loyalty and love that’s not about—what Manny referred to as—“boobs, vaginas, butts.” Or penises for that matter (“Manny, I think your penis is guiding us home!”). Or any of the other parts of the body that human erotica transmogrifies into something to lick or ejaculate on. Bromance is about keeping things completely Platonic so that both parties are bringing something to the table, and leaving each other alone at the end of the day. It’s not sexual, or parental, or dependant, or enabling, or parasitic, or domineering. It is true, secure friendship of separate selves.

Manny: “I'm scared because I fear if I die I might really miss you.”
Hank: “Oh you're the worst.”

So, this film is NOT about farting. Merely. I mean, it’s definitely about farting, but it’s not JUST about farting. There’s more. Lot’s more.

2) Self Identity

Manny: “Oh God I'm disgusting. My body is disgusting.”

Homo Sapiens are gross. And not even in the immoral sense always, but just in the ‘plain nasty’ sense. Movies, meta or method as they often are, still cannot quite approach the metallic taste of reality. Our Victorian puritanistic toilet paper and pretended virginal innocence to our rank crevices and odors are much more absurd than anything in this movie, and our false-piety is a complete denial of our physical grotesqueness, office gossip, barstool confessions, church hypocrisy, and political selfishness. Oh, we are mostly fine being oblivious to ourselves. Joseph Campbell— that great mind that unified myths and stories from around the world and condensed them down into recognizable, recurring themes—believed that even our most horrific stories seldom wish to plunge into the inhumanity of our existence. “Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell.” We’re gross.  And because we are disgusting, and because we don’t like smelling our own excrement, we mold our excrement into devils, ghosts, zombies, hitlers, trumps, step-parents, cool kids, and Teletubbies. According to Campbell, the ogres in our stories are “reflections of the unsolved enigmas of our own humanity.”

But is critical and necessary that we come to terms, to some extent, with our humanity and inhumanity. We must, at some point, explore our dark places if we are ever to find our way. The poet W. S. Merwin wrote that all light gathering leaves are the direct result of roots saturated with darkness, and that humans must grow by “touching the darkness of their whole story from which their leaves open.” The coexistence of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, love and hate, life and death has fascinated people throughout history. Why? Because we can’t seem to escape our fears and filth which dwell side-by-side with our most wholesome traits and cherished hopes. This is so damn hard to admit to ourselves. So we shroud our self-confession in story which helps to soften the blow by a forced, though unconscious, dissociation. Cognitive dissonance and dissociation can be a healthy defense against the bombardment of pessimism and nihilism, but it must be transcended frequently for the sake of a unified self and an honest look at our situation which affords an opportunity to change things for the better.

That’s why farts. Cuz us.

There may be a Nietzschean flare to this whole caper. Friedrich Nietzsche’s character, Zarathustra, sympathetically carried around a friend’s corpse for a while in Thus Spoke Zarathustra until he came to the conclusion that he was finished with “corpses, herds, and believers” in favor of companion-creators. Jesus himself told his followers to “let the dead bury the dead” as a way of embracing a life free from the dead-weight of people-problems (what a dick). Moving on from the corpses—dead-ends and fruitless appendages— of our lives is certainly a recurring archetype in many cultural narratives. But the larger arc of this story would indicate that the ‘adventures of Hank and Manny’ is a simple story of friendship, even if a tad apparitional at moments. Their world’s rules often seem to change from one scene to another, but the writers are under no obligation to be consistent. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson). Come at me.

Manny: “I have a lot of questions about all the things you just said.”

It is, on the surface and near the bottom, a story about a bro being allowed to love a bro. Hank’s neuroses prevent him from enjoying masturbation, being able to accept his mother’s death, expressing his feelings of affection, and farting in front of people. He doesn’t know himself or accept himself. But his stiff friend changes all that. You can watch the film to discover if Manny is real or just another Wilson (from “Castaway”), but the scenes are clearly illustrative of how friends accept each other, mirror back to each other traits that only a friend can disclose, provide a safe place for the risk of exposure, become each other’s compass when lost, wipe each other’s tears, drink each other’s spit, and accept each other—farts and all. Well, most of that.

We are a lot of things to each other including resource, support and reflection. We are each other’s Swiss Army Men and women. We bring each other to life.

“My name’s Manny and this is my best friend Hank. I used to be dead and he brought me back to life.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review of Ada Limon's "Bright Dead Things"

I first read Limon’s poem How To Triumph Like a Girl in a magazine called The Sun—a weird little creative writing periodical that was sent to my home probably by accident, and in which I connected with very little until I stumbled upon Limon’s masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, you need to.  The poem, not The Sun. God, not The Sun. The poem had an emphasis on woman-power, but as a man I felt equally inspired and in awe of human strength and self-belief.

I read a lot of poetry, but this little beauty stopped my world's rotation for a few minutes. So simple and profound. I nibbled on it for days like a sustaining trail mix in a hostile jungle.  Poetry as condensed, creative, and courageous words are important to those of us who feel like we don’t have enough genius or time to catch all the ideas and feelings that run like water through unconscious fingers.

Wait a minute. That was genius. I want to thank my family, my editor, the Academy, and any one of the gods of the top ten religions.

So, I bought the book. Many of the poems in this book delivered the same seismic wallop as “How To Triumph...” Limon is great at appreciating life while complaining about the sucky stuff in a way that doesn’t completely coagulate into mere bitchiness. It’s crude enough to be authentic, but even when it gets a little weird (e.g., squatting to pee in the poem “Service”), it feels like it was about time for someone to piss on the rules. (Pardon the phun…I did mention I’m a certified genius, write?)

I loved Limon’s criticism of the evasiveness and self-loathing of many constricting forms of religious belief. Life is inscrutable but beautiful, and life lived with open-eyed hopefulness—“the sweet continuance of birth and flight in a place so utterly reckless…How masterful and mad is hope”—is infinitely preferable to adopting a traditional faith by which one can pretend to “fix their problems with prayer and property.”

The benefits of her humanistic/naturalistic/agnostic life include:

“…[a] new way of living with the world inside of us so we cannot lose it, and we cannot be lost.”
“…nesting my head in the blood of my body…I relied on a Miracle Fish, once…that was before I knew it was by my body’s water that moved it, that the massive ocean inside me was what made fish swim.”

The coup de grace to fundamentalist religion arrives in a description about a time in her life when she tried believing in prayer as tradition suggests, but she couldn’t make it work.

“There was a sign and it said, This earth is blessed. Do not play in it. But I swear I will play on this blessed earth until I die.”

Sounds like a good idea.

The play part. Not the die part.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review of Humans of New York

This is not a coffee table book. It looks like one, but it’s not. It is a masterfully simple summary of modern human experience and the current evolutionary status of homo sapiens in photos and short stories. It is not a coffee table book in that it ought to be taken seriously and read in earnest by all serious readers. But I guess in one sense it IS a coffee table book in that it ought to be, and can easily be, read by anyone no matter how much they normally read.

I have to admit, I was surprised at how gorgeous-ugly-provocative it all turned out to be. Searching might even be a good word for how it works on the reader. You can’t read it all through in one setting—or maybe you can, but shouldn’t. You have to put it down to digest, and keep coming back. Otherwise, you miss it. I was moved to tears several times. It’s not that the entire thing is profound. Rather, it was a perfect blend of the trivial and mundane, hysterical and hilarious, trite and bizarre, insane and beautiful, horrific and courageous, and sickening and inspiring qualities that make up the still-undefined and open-ended question of what it means to be human. I was actually surprised at how finely tuned its poetry and portraiture was. I don’t know how Stanton does it so well. I imagine that it’s not as easy as it looks. I doubt that even 10% of his interviews or portraits made it to print. It couldn’t have. Every line seemed surgically cut and pasted with tweezers, needles, and magnifying glass to give the impression of effortless storytelling and to get the letting-life-tell-its-own-tale look so precisely. I found myself reading out-loud to my family, sending people texts of some of the pictures and stories, and planning to use it for group discussions.

Stanton doesn’t force the stories to paint the loveliest picture of life at any cost. His humans come across as hopeless, depressed, evil, and oozing with tar and darkness. But they also come across as courageous, loving, pure, hopeful beings of light. There’s something in the book to sicken even the most optimistic; but other things to fill even the most nihilistic with joy. The unresolved dilemma of human meaning might be one of the most unsettling features of the work. Reading it, we’re not sure if humanity is a good thing or a bad thing. This is where Stanton is genius. He offers no solutions. He lets it play out. All the loveliness and horror do their own work in each reader. No doubt he believes that the light will prevail against the dark, but the conflict is real and at times very disheartening. I still can’t shake the memory of the guy who said that he had to get used to spending life alone because he was obese, relating that his first few therapy sessions were filled only with crying. Or the principal who made each of her students stand up in school while she told them one by one they mattered. Or the boy who said that he’ll always remember the day when no one showed up to his 10th Birthday party. Or the old woman who cheerfully noted that today there were ducks instead of pigeons eating the bread she threw.

The book runs through the dizzying spectrum of human emotions in all their colors and shades; and we’re left feeling a rich, deep, wounded, but purposeful sort of acknowledgement of the value and vicissitudes of life. It’s as if Stanton is documenting our joys and pains and saying from his individual but validating presence and work, “I see you, and your experience if valid.”

Or something like that. Or maybe his message is something more like, “You’re not alone.” I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s Question:

A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

Somehow Stanton’s work leaves us with an impression that the scars aren’t too much to pay for birth. Not by a long shot.