Category Archives: Omphaloskepsis

Things

Let me tell you some things I’m just now figuring out. They’re things I wish I could have known five years ago, but I suppose that’s the point of personal growth or whatever you call this unsettling, slightly raised discoloration. I’m not sure where I’d be had I begun reciting these mantras then, but it’s probably not working at the help desk of the library of the University where I earned my first, “practice” Bachelor’s and am now collecting a second, plus some more debt, all of it a mere 30 glorious minutes through cow shit and unfinished landscape paintings from my childhood abode, where I vacay on weekends to do laundry and resume my high school job because, oh yeah, I’m filthy, stinking poor.

So that brings me to my first Thing, which is sort of rote and tired but still probably isn’t actually heard enough: stop regretting things. As the great (or so I’m told) 20th century philosopher Alan Watts explains in the super-good Her, the “us” that was “we” twenty seconds ago no longer shares that “usdom” that makes “we” “us.” In a more science-y way that I don’t fully grasp, it’s the idea you heard from that dick at work who gets all his trivia from podcasts guest-starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson and feels spiritually liberated from the material plane because he smoked weed twice (everyone knows it happens after four): we are not composed of the same atoms that composed us a minute ago when we thought we had sneaked that fart. Even that fart is an entirely new fart from moment to moment. Every day, we are fresh farts. So don’t be so hard on yourself, because no one was seriously hurt and she’s almost ready to forgive you.

herstill

Feels good, man.

You’ve taken a series of increasingly colder showers, finished that whole six pack of wheat beer by yourself (good job!), and the Council has seen fit to absolve your sins. It’s now safe to proceed to my second Thing, which is actually the primary Thing this post is concerned with, other than the necromancy of this dead, dead blog.

Do rather than watch. Do, create, engage, interact: okay, I know my verbiage is edging dangerously close to a presidential fitness campaign or a corporate PowerPoint slide, but there’s a kernel of truth wedged somewhere between Michelle Obama’s pearly teefers. And this is a painful truth to grapple with for me personally because I love watching. Bad TV, good TV, Netflix, Serious Film, video games, people in and out of their natural habitat. There’s a lot to learn from just hanging back and absorbing information and, as a wealth of blogs and serious criticism suggest, there are new perspectives to be gleaned from all that entertainment we binge on, too. That last assertion is the entire crux of this humble project of mine, after all. There is good work to be done with pop culture.

However, even if pop culture is your work, it shouldn’t be your everything.

Love you, Roger.

Love you, Raw Dog.

I’m overusing the second-person pronoun and, it occurs to me, sounding a little preachy. Let me just ‘fess up like the reverend’s daughter: this is squarely my own problem and any resemblance shared with a problem of yours is unintentional and purely coincidental.

That said, you’re on the internet right now. So.

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by several creative individuals I respect very much: one mustn’t be defined by consumption. By “consumption,” I don’t mean tuberculosis; in fact, I’d be morbidly curious to see a person defined by tuberculosis.

Go be that.

Before you get real stupid and start licking toilet seats (that’s not even how you contract TB, dummy), consider more productive activities. You know that guy, possibly the same guy from before, who corners you at work and proceeds to summarize the third season of Felicity at you until you’re dead? No one wants to be that guy, primarily because he licks the handicap stall clean at night like a thorough mama cat, but also because of the Felicity thing. That guy is boring. I’ve nearly been that guy, bathroom hangup notwithstanding.

Don’t get comfortable with the same old mediocrity. Try to fail at something new every day.

I’m a work in progress. Am I a writer? Sort of. Game designer? I’ve got a notebook. Every endeavor I’ve pursued in life has spawned infinitely many sub-goals; sometimes it becomes a point of frustration. I feel like the football player who crosses the field by taking half the remaining distance with each attempt. Maybe no one ever “gets there,” to a point where they can sit back and say, “yeah, that’s the final passage of my novel, now I can finally eat that bullet and go to heaven.” That’s mostly because it would be a really weird thing to say before you killed yourself, but it must be at least partially due to the fact that humans invented the concepts of inferiority and jealousy, or maybe dolphins did. We all want to be other people, or have other people, or have what other people have, or have what other people don’t. We’re busy looking at the next guy or girl or dolphin, thinking “what a desirable blowhole, wish I had that blowhole,” thinking “that blowhole will really fill a gap in my life,” committing this fallacy of perceiving life’s possibilities as finite, like a 500 piece puzzle or the radius of a dolphin’s blowhole. Make your own fucking puzzle. Drill your own blowhole. That geyser of blood means you’re livin’, dude! 

dolphin

Also, here, I’m not a doctor but I have a few rolls of Charmin Ultra soaked in Windex and you can just jam those up there and I think pray to a god. Next time, get that done professionally. I know a dude who flunked out of veterinary school and likes to look at small animals from the inside-out in his treefort. He built it last year. It is pretty sick. And slightly unstable because this dude’s no carpenter, but he can tell you absolutely everything about Felicity, including Keri Russell’s current home address.

Maybe you’re a failed dolphin, but at least you tried. What’s important is that you keep the dream of self-inflicted, transhumanistic mutilation burning inside. 

I’ll keep writing.

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Still Clapping

One Nerd’s Harrowing Tale

wereback

So- it’s been a while. The disparity between this blog’s date and the date of the previous post is a little embarrassing. Not that I should be embarrassed; you, physically and spiritually attractive, theoretical reader, and I, we both know that single/hand/clap is mostly therapeutic and wholly self-serving. When I shattered that aged Yoohoo against single/hand/clap on the first day of her maiden voyage, I did not intend for the vessel to be so easily lost amidst the roiling eddies of the World Wide Web. I had hoped for new soil to piss on, deeper navels in which to gaze- maybe a few friendly ears or one ear or just my mother.

Hi, mom.

“Hey, how about you indulge some more?” A heckler shouts. I invented him because I am my own worst enemy.

“Buy deeper navels at half-price!” The bot doesn’t come from my psyche but it does offer deep cuts.

I began writing under single/hand/clap for the explicit purpose of indulgence. It’s my own, nerdy way to interface with the pop culture I adore while maintaining a (self) convincing facade of writerly productivity.  Somewhere between departure and the Island of Deepest Navels, I began to focus excessively on the “productivity” part. Eventually, I spent more time worrying about regularity (not a standard concern for a young man) instead of writing regularly. Self-renewing mind traps are sort of a specialty of mine; unfortunately neurosis is a hard sell for mainstream audiences.

Well, reader, theoretical or not, you’re the captive audience for my misery. I’m Cathy “Master Class” Bates and you’re front and center for a surge of literary onanism.

Too gross?

Point is, I’ve done a lot of thinking regarding the fate of single/hand/clap and I find myself unwilling to jump ship just yet. The content will remain more or less the same: one day, heavy-handed film impressions; the next week, a meandering discussion of obscure fiction tropes; three more blood moons and just maybe you’ll find stumble upon a protracted exploration of the intertextuality between William Blake and a cartoon program for children and struggling adults with English degrees.

grandreopening

If you like that sort of thing, great. Maybe leave a comment. If not, I’d be glad to direct you to a variety of top ten lists or slideshows elsewhere.

The narcissism is in the name: single/hand/clap is my little police state.*

*It’s also a ship, the Cathy Bates thriller Misery, and the concept of self-pleasuring, if you’re counting every tossed-off analogy.**

**Oh, so you’re that guy, reader?

Wreck-It Ralph Made Me Cry

A children’s movie brought me to tears.

It’s not how it sounds. It’s not because I’m a simpering, overly-sensitive manchild, although I am. And it’s not because the movie, Wreck-It Ralph, is anything stellar:  the film features some real, resonant moments of emotional punctuation, but these are mostly capping off long stretches of average, goofy kiddie-fare (lots of compound insults featuring words like “stink,” “booger,” and “underwear”).

Wreck-It Ralph wrecked me because not ten minutes into its gorgeously realized conceit, it became obvious that someone had made a movie for me– not the “me” of today, exactly, but the fun-loving kid within. My 16-bit spirit animal.

There’s something weird that happens when we reach maturity. People talk about children “putting away their toys,” as if those toys don’t just get put away by the parents and collect dust as soon as boys notice girls and vice versa. Stuff like Beanie Babies and Small Soldiers action figures occupy a very specific bubble in the life of a growing child. Barring the occasional Woody or Buzz Lightyear, they’re momentary fixations. Thus, the natural order is sustained and from the discarded toy box emerge men and women.

But what happens when the toy grows into adulthood?

Games were a momentary fixation, once. Atari sat alongside toy brands like Mattel and Fisher-Price. Then, Stephen Spielberg brought his sickle down on the wills of young gamers everywhere. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the video game, decimated life as we knew it in a brilliant flash of discordant game design. The 2600 was burned in effigy as fallout rained down in pieces of yellow, orange, and brown.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad (although the real story is much more interesting). The point is this: the modern video game almost never happened: it almost wilted like a Cabbage Patch; it might have lasted as long as the average Teddy Ruxpin cassette tape. It didn’t, though. Another toy company, Nintendo, dared to bring their Family Computer overseas as the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was accompanied by a plastic gun and a useless robot and arrived as a young medium seeking redemption, biding its time in a cardboard Trojan horse with “TOY” scrawled on every side. Nintendo games sparked the imaginations of children everywhere, the sparking of children everywhere lit a fire underneath the likes of Sega and NEC, and the rest is happy history.

That brings us back to my man-tears.

There is a point early on in Wreck-It Ralph, after the initial, dazzling parade of video game character cameos, when a sullen Ralph gives a cherry to the cabinet-less Q*bert (because video games feel hunger, I guess?), who sits dejected in the squalor of Game Central Station, the arcade’s connecting “hub” where peppy sprites and polygonal heroes bustle between their respective games. Q*bert’s home, coated by a thin film of neglect, has been carted from Litwak’s Arcade. As he gazes up at Ralph with the starved eyes of a Victorian orphan, one can almost hear the mourning of digitized violin.

Honestly, the interaction isn’t meant to let loose the floodgates. It introduces the viewer to the concept of video game vagrants, instills a bit of respect for goodly baddie Ralph, and stirs a pint of sadness for Q*bert’s predicament.

Q*bert’s predicament punched me straight in my ventricles. In this and every other scene of Wreck-It Ralph (the races of Sugar Rush, the rail-shooter gags of Hero’s Duty) is embedded a palpable concern and deep love for the video game medium. The animators, the director– everyone involved in bringing Ralph to virtual life clearly regards Q*bert’s plight with genuine gravity. The scene isn’t extended with manipulative cloying. It concludes briskly and doubles as a referential joke, but because the movie’s sense of care for its subject is so obvious to adult gamers, many of whom are sharing bits of their childhood with their own children, the emotion sticks.

I cried because I am not a glitch.

In 2010, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bombed gloriously. The movie, a bizarrely invigorating sonnet dedicated to the most intimate crevices of video game culture, found instant cult embrace but could not earn so much as a side-hug from mainstream moviegoers. Scott Pilgrim truly had versus-ed the world, and it appeared that the world had won. Apparently, the general populace was not quite ready for a blockbuster movie about video games rather than about selling them.

In 2012, Wreck-It Ralph earned $49.1 million in its first weekend, double-jumping over expectations. Now, maybe Ralph is enjoying the slower pace of Little League compared to the Major League challenges which prevented Scott Pilgrim from reaching its considerably older target demographic. To understand my optimism, consider the following:

Wreck-It Ralph is a kid’s movie. It’s a pretty decent one at that, lovingly crafted by a video gaming “old guard” and presented to a new generation. DVDs of Wreck-It Ralph will proliferate in households the world over; it will be some child’s favorite movie; that child will grow up regarding “video game” as a viable medium. The child who loved Wreck-It Ralph, who first watched Wreck-It Ralph with her own game-loving parent, might one day introduce Ralph to her children. He might be their favorite, too. It’s a beautiful, romantic cycle.

The film falls flat in quite a few places. Some jokes are lame. Some references are forced. A blunt, unsophisticated theme of acceptance and self-love is regurgitated through simple dialogue.

None of that matters. Wreck-It Ralph‘s message, especially as it pertains to video games and the individuals who have grown up alongside them, is delivered with ringing clarity through the very sincerity of the film. Wreck-It Ralph is true to itself. It’s a movie about games–kids enjoying games and games enjoying kids enjoying games. It’s a movie about fun.

Games excel in fun. They’re super effective at it. “Fun” doesn’t have to mean superficial or anti-artistic, either. Should we need to create a less frivolous-sounding word to describe this level of engagement? Are we truly desperate for games to be recognized as a “medium” by some mainstream “authority”? Perhaps we should enjoy the slow, measurable progress as the rest of human culture grinds to catch up. As Ralph owns up to his “bad guy” core at the romp’s cataclysmic climax, so does Wreck-It Ralph assert that The Video Game should worry less about following in others’ footsteps and forge its own path, for the sake of fun.

Fun will carry this adolescent art form into adulthood.

As I broke from the theater and into the evening chill, I felt nothing but warmth. I came alone and left with company.

Nearing the finish line of the movie’s final lap, Vanellope von Schweetz, a cute-as-gumdrop-buttons kart racer exiled for her buggy behavior, ends up relishing the glitch she previously regarded as a disability. She harnesses her sequence-breaking quirk to instantaneously skip ahead of the competition. She bounds down her own, inimitable road to success. Cliché, sure, but it triggered a memory in my personal debug menu:

I have a friend who spends his races in Mario Kart 64 ramming into walls. He’s looking for the game’s seams. I tear ahead, chastise him, tell him he’s playing the game “wrong.”

He shakes his head and answers, “It’s in the game. It’s fair.” With one final push, his kart slips through a solid wall and leaves me a lap behind.

He thinks it’s fun.

Art, Again: Revisiting the Bebop and Exploring the Value of Reacquaintance

In a previous post (alternatively, five posts ago; it’s a bit dated. Remember what you were wearing back then? Hilarious.), I touched lightly upon the importance of Cowboy Bebop in terms of its influence on my early, gestating taste in entertainment. After recently devouring Shinichiro Watanabe’s sophomore Samurai Champloo over an embarrassingly brief period, my id turned its ravenous gaze toward Bebop. Before it decked my super-ego, yoinked my debit card and hopped on Amazon to buy the box set, I had a moment of hesitation: did I really want to defile a childhood sanctuary? After all, excluding Cabin in the Woods and pizza, nothing is better the second time around. The diminishing return is a fact of life, so we might as well all tie off and assume the fetal position until death delivers our haggard husks to that big, ol’ Womb in the Sky, right? Should I have left Bebop in the same keepsake box where All That and Space Jam gather dust? Do I believe the Bebop can fly?

Come on and slam; if you want to jam. But do you really?

Yeah. It soars. It sputters somewhere short of the dizzying heights from my memory, but that in itself is an interesting avenue: how does our reverence for old favorites warp with time, and how can returning to a treasured piece enhance our appreciation in new ways?

If you’re unacquainted, the conceit of Cowboy Bebop is this: in the year 2071, space is a young frontier. Efficient space travel technology has enabled the human race to spread to every corner of the solar system. That means colonialism and capitalism tag along, too: the boundless mystique of Bebop’s universe is thanks to a vision of the future that’s never excessively futuristic. Building and vessel design can be conservative, rustic, cheap, traditional or even tacky, but it’s never sleek. While the year 2071 gets closer and closer and the innovation of the warp gate is still squarely in the realm of sci-fi, the plausibility of Bebop’s world is what keeps us invested when we discover that the protagonist’s name is Spike Spiegel, that his crew mate, Faye Valentine, like a sensual Doug Funny, really does wear that ridiculous outfit every episode or that the enigmatic antagonist is a man named Vicious who wields a katana and an imposing, black parakeet. Yeah, for every few moments of brilliance in Bebop, you’ll have to make a couple of concessions. This was Adult Swim’s flagship anime title when it launched in 2001: there is a deliberate injection of pulpy “whoa-dudery” to seal the deal on the 12 to 18 to 24 nerd demographic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome, though.

Because leaning against walls is cool.

Plot-wise, our first meeting with the kernel of the Bebop crew, Spike and the comically-monikered pilot, Jet Black, blasts into action with little background information supplied to the viewer. It’s a true example of in medias res, starting the story after the story starts, and more than that: it’s smart writing. Like many anime dubs, Cowboy Bebop occasionally leans too heavy on expository dialogue (dialogue that plainly explains plot; telling rather than showing) when it comes to rolling out the microcosmic narratives of each stand-alone episode, but the histories and motives of Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed are handled with a minimalist touch. For example, the first episode, “Asteroid Blues,” winds up with a short, stylish mélange of monochrome images from Spike’s past: a poignant music box tune underlies flashes of gunfire. The tension between muted sensory input (sound, color) and violent action perfectly summarizes Cowboy Bebop’s style in a matter of seconds: this is a show unafraid to take Zen-like pauses between furious bouts of chaos, that trusts its viewer to assemble pieces that aren’t always connected or even provided. It’s a show that may seem superficial and often is, but consistently challenges the viewer to dig beneath its thick layer of “cool”: the show’s living embodiment of “cool,” Spike, may move and speak with the fluidity of water, but there is a gritty bed of history underneath his collected exterior that promises to surface; one day, that stream is going to dry completely.

Growing up, I only caught obscured glances at that riverbed. Mere intimations of Spike’s past combined with breakneck action and artful direction were enough to fascinate my adolescent (and admittedly, completely superficial) mind. Spike was the kind of empowerment fantasy I could get behind: he isn’t a musclebound hero, he doesn’t always triumph, but he’s wry and intelligent; he’s the sort of guy I probably hoped to become, as a nerdy kid full on A’s but low on athletic or social skills. That’s the appeal of Cowboy Bebop for many. It’s always cool and we usually aren’t.

In “Mushroom Samba,” even blaxploitation gets a send-up.

Fortunately for adult viewers, Cowboy Bebop isn’t satisfied with just being cool. After the breathless “Asteroid Blues,” I didn’t expect that the proceeding 25 episodes would be packed with significance. Genre pastiches, direct homages, potent social themes, loaded imagery, existential philosophy: Bebop deftly combines these subjects and more in a  performance that is constantly refreshing and feels, like the best jazz, miraculously improvised. “Toys in the Attic” takes cues from Alien, playing out its absurd situation with surprising suspense; the shootout in “Ballad of the Fallen Angels” lovingly mimics the choreography of a John Woo film; “Hard Luck Woman” finds orphan Ed abandoned once again by her absentee father; “Sympathy for the Devil” is haunted by the demons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; “Brain Scratch” draws a clear distinction between intellectual skepticism and bitter nihilism.

I didn’t understand, in 2002, that the story Jet tells to Spike in “The Real Folk Blues Part One” is actually “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a story concerned with reflection. In Hemingway’s story, a big game hunter in South Africa succumbs to gangrene and looks back on a life spent wandering. Despite his concise retelling, Jet admits he doesn’t care for the story, finding the idea that a man only thinks “about [his] past right before [his] death, as if [he is] searching frantically for proof [he is] alive,” ridiculous. Jet may have missed the mountain for the rocks here, but he has a point. We’re always reflecting; every time we seek to improve we are subconsciously evaluating the past. If art imitates life, we should display the same discernment with the pop culture we consume. Dig deep into art, excavate meaning and discard the meaningless. Sharpening your skill as a critic will only increase the joy you extract from worthwhile entertainment.

Broaden your interests. Never stop learning. Never be passive. Maybe watch Cowboy Bebop if you haven’t.

In the immortal words of R. Kelly: believe you can fly.

Bang.

Project Silverscreen: Requiem for a Dream

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (1976; the bicentennial edition):

Re•qui•em (rek′wê ∂m, râk’-, rêk’-) n. [ME. < L., acc. of requies, rest (see RE- & QUIET): first word of the Introit in the Latin Mass for the Dead] [also r-] 1. R.C.Ch. a) a Mass for the repose of the soul or souls of a dead person or persons b) a celebration of this c) a musical setting for this 2. any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead 3. a dirgelike song, chant, or poem

You know what it is! …is not the new slogan for Project Silverscreen, a sometimes belated weekly feature that takes a look at a classic film and vaguely nods, but not before displaying some words on your screen. Maybe read them, because someone in 2012 went to the effort of locating and transcribing a physical dictionary for the sake of authenticity.

Stop smiling, ma. It’s not that kind of movie.

No matter where Requiem for a Dream starts, you can be certain it won’t end up anywhere sunny and verdant. The title promises this much. In a twisted way, however, the whole damned ensemble of Darren Aronofsky’s seminal downer does fulfill their deepest wish. Just as last week’s film, The Graduate, ends on a long, pensive look at the ebbing adrenaline of its eloping couple, Requiem lingers on four similar, sequential images. After twenty, largely dialogue-free minutes of escalating horror, an overhead shot resolves each of the four primary characters’ narratives with one idea: at the nadir of their lives, these victims have achieved absolute anesthesia. If you’ll indulge some freshman-level psychoanalysis for a moment (it’s the kind I’m best at), Requiem for a Dream’s ending is a classic return to the womb.

One ideal–freedom from emotional pain and external oppression–is the sanctuary everyone seeks inside and beyond Aronofsky’s film. Sara Goldfarb hopes to find it by earning celebrity, a commodity that she fantasizes will nullify her son’s dismal life and her husband’s death. Harry Goldfarb, his girlfriend Marion and his partner Tyrone have less distance to fall: obligations flit from awareness as soon as they pass out of sight; their only concern is scrounging up the cash to accommodate the next trip. Infantilism, the way our recollection of infancy surfaces within our personality, is the name of the game for the dreamers: drugs are the “good mother” of Freudian theory, a constant embrace that protects them from harsh reality, the “bad mother” of responsibility and hardship, an amalgamation of all their discomfort. Much of Freud’s work has fallen out of favor, but the idea of the “splitting” of the mother, a consequence of traumatic mothering, still resonates. Considering how Freud’s criticism informs the ill motivations of Requiem for a Dream, it’s difficult not to imagine the addicts’ needle as a debilitating teat–maybe on a super cold day.

Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst not quite as famous but just as foundational, offers another understanding of infant psychology and, tangentially, the infantile adults of the picture. Lacan presents human development as a journey through several worlds. Lois Tyson, in Critical Theory Today, provides a succinct outline: we are inaugurated in fog, not perceiving where one’s self ends and the exterior world begins; after Lacan’s Mirror Stage (estimated at approximately six to eight months) we develop a sense of self as if examining our physical boundaries in a mirror and the fog begins to lift; the Mirror Stage begins our existence in Lacan’s second world, the Imaginary Order. Tyson describes the Imaginary Order as a “world of fullness,” a complete and satisfying union with the mother where the Desire of the Mother is the single determining factor, the last word in contentedness. The Imaginary Order is, as far as the infant can tell, a perfect existence. It’s our first benchmark for quality of life and, unfortunately, nothing afterward compares. We learn language, we develop meaning; we learn what it means to be separated from perfection forever. The Symbolic Order comes along, mucks everything up and forms the prison from which we’ll try to escape every day of our lives.

We were talking about a movie, right? There’s a whole lot of Lacan in Requiem for a Dream, some bits more blatant than others. Mom is everywhere: Tyrone gazes wistfully at a photograph of his own mother throughout the film; Harry and Marion futilely seek perfect companionship in each other; Sara, Harry’s own forgotten mother, grasps at old times and an old dress which is tinted with the rose color of nostalgia. It’s important to note that Sara also clings to a photo of Harry’s graduation that features Harry, departed husband Seymour, Sara and the red dress; although Sara presents the moment captured in this photograph as the height of her own happiness, the Harry in the photo isn’t smiling. From the moment we are initiated into the Symbolic Order, lack is a fact of life. We are never without that emptiness, even in our best moments.

Requiem for a Dream isn’t a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of drug addiction. Drugs are simply a convenient, universal, modern day substitute for Gatsby’s Daisy (or, more recently, Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop and his Julia). They are the ensemble’s objet petit a, Lacan’s term for, as Tyson puts it, “anything that puts [them] with [their] repressed desire for [their] lost object” (that object being, of course, the mother of the Imaginary Order). The various drugs of Requiem for a Dream are used as opiates to distract from a bleak present and fading future.

Toward the end of Aronofsky’s film, Harry revisits a dream from earlier. He stands on a sunlit pier suspended over blue ocean. It is a rare scene in Requiem, one saturated with light and luscious colors; we know it can’t be real.  Harry casts his eyes toward the pier’s end where Marion waits with back turned. As she turns around, he stumbles back, engulfed in darkness. Marion, the pier, the ocean dissipates. That lack comes creeping back. As our fallen friends assume the fetal position, we get the feeling they have finally earned their permanent place in placebo paradise.

Next up: Chinatown

Project Silverscreen: The Graduate

Way back in 2011 and before the Endtimes, two friends and I underwent an oath: to watch one highly-regarded film each week, selecting from a list I myself carefully compiled. A year passed. Now, we’re making good on that oath. No matter how long, esoteric or beguilingly paced, we’re paying each film on the list our devoted attention. In the end, maybe we’ll have learned a thing or two.

It’s not quite criticism; it’s not quite a review; I guess it’s Project Silverscreen.

The beauty of director Mark Nichol’s opus, The Graduate, is that it could be one of the best films of any year; the reality of its release in 1967 is irrelevant to its lasting appeal. As long as there are young men and women who paddle against (or submit to) the swirling eddies of post-collegiate ennui, The Graduate will continue to prick at our zeitgeist. I’m one of those indolent, young men, uncannily resembling Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in nearly every way save the implication that his actual undergraduate experience, skipped in favor of an in medias res exposition, was not an entirely rushed, sparsely satisfying period. Ben’s myriad athletic and academic accomplishments aren’t making his transition beyond academia any easier, though: the criteria for success he has been fed since primary school is suddenly useless. He has come within inches of his education’s celebrated culmination only to reach through what he thought to be solid, to have it blur into the horizon like a mirage. Months after graduation, I still feel the way Ben does, that I’m skimming the surface of the world on a raft, waiting for rescue or to drown in apathy.

Right, I’m back. That regrettably dark tangent is proof of how well The Graduate’s first act, our introduction to Ben and his neuroses (which are played to wonderfully endearing effect by Hoffman), works by fashioning him as an avatar for the viewer. It’s a method of characterization often attempted and so rarely successful: to place the audience directly in the protagonist’s shoes and establish an affinity which, if consistently developed, results in a cathartic payload magnified several times over. Crafting personally identifiable characters has been of popular interest since the inception of the epistolary novel. Those works stand as pioneers of first person fiction. The Graduate’s introductory act is first person film.

The film’s initial few shots, inaugurated by the ever-welcome “Sound of Silence,” are extended, continuous, strange, shoulder-height views that never feel composed. From there, the viewer lodges himself behind Ben’s eye sockets: one notable set piece emulates the “male gaze” as Ben struggles (and fails admirably) to stare a stark-naked, seductive Mrs. Robinson square in only the face; another plummets underwater and places the viewer behind a scuba mask as Ben reluctantly demonstrates his new wet suit for party guests. The camera is an observer: subjects are occasionally obstructed by moving bodies (Mrs. Braddock’s sequined party dress, a wooden knob adorning the hotel’s front desk) just as they would be during one’s most productive sessions of people-watching. Yes, The Graduate is a movie about people watching people (watching people, if you want to get obnoxiously meta), an idea that reasserts itself through composition and narrative frequently. Speaking in excessively broad terms, it is a film about long, paralyzing bouts of passivity and the sudden, rash fits of action which punctuate human life.

As the film climbs toward its frenzied, farcical climax and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson imbues our hero with a fraction of confidence, he accordingly loses a bit of that tendency toward passive hesitation. A change in camera work reflects his growth: the observing eye is further removed; the audience’s connection toward Ben weakens as his character grows more prominent and his situation more complex. This would appear to be the trade-off with avatars, and the reason why so many video game protagonists maintain radio silence, or why so many romantic love interests have absolutely sterile personalities: the true individual cannot be Everyman. The true individual has his own set of ugly problems. This is realism.

There is a clear moment when the scales begin to tip. Having been coaxed into an uncomfortable date with Mrs. Robinson’s own daughter (a plight which is, despite its over-use in today’s lexicon, definitely “awkward”),  Ben is disgruntled and looking to project his frustration onto an innocent victim. What better way to greet his date, Elaine, than from behind a pair of sunglasses (worn at night, no less)? Where so much of the film’s emotion is previously emitted from Hoffman’s eyes and inferred using the audience’s privileged perspective, the affinity is now severed. The viewer struggles to keep up as Ben hurtles down the highway like a bullet with the trajectory of a sin wave and pulls Elaine brusquely into the front row of a burlesque club. Not quite redeeming himself, Ben at least recognizes the injustice of his plan as the curiously mean-spirited dancer’s pendulous breasts threaten to smother poor, sobbing Elaine. It’s strange to witness the fair-weather Elaine’s instant capitulation: immediately after exiting the club, they share a kiss, a hamburger and the revelation of true love. From here, the film transitions from a meditation on the consequences of indolence to those of spontaneity. It all gets reasonably ridiculous and carried away and, as the smiles fade from the faces of the eloping couple during their final filmed moment, it’s clear they feel a bit egg-faced, too.

Following a compelling first act, I’m not sure if what The Graduate becomes is a pear-shaped compromise toward narrative convention or a grounded rebuke of consequence-free, youthful rebellion. Not that any of that really matters: it remains a damn entertaining film.