Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Invasion of the Genre Snatchers

The last science fiction writer that truly influenced me as a writer is gone. Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) died earlier this week. Lem was a genre bender who managed to write science fiction and philosophy and comedy – often on the same page. His Ijon Tichy stories were throwbacks to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and satirized politics and culture and science. His Pirx the Pilot stories were hard SF puzzlers that made you work at remembering what was in the last unread chapter of your Grade 12 physics textbook. And The Cyberiad was a work of fiction, satire and philosophy that was to our current sentient robots what Aesop’s Fables was to the Greeks. Ask any robot and they’ll tell you that the only two writers who got it right were Asimov and Lem. Then add to this Solaris, the novel that was made into both Russian and American films. And then there are the works of non-fiction as well as his book reviews of books that haven’t been written yet. Lem like to mess with his genres. Postmodernists called him one of their own, but he insisted he was there before they were and he didn’t like being lumped in with them.

When prodded about his favorite non-European science fiction author, Lem chose another genre-bender, Philip K. Dick. In an essay on Dick, Lem expresses his distaste for the sameness of American science fiction. No one ever accused Lem of being the same as anyone, that’s for sure. But his point about American SF should not be dismissed. Is he right? I don’t want to do a survey of the genre, but let’s just consider a few touchstones.

First of all, science fiction is not the genre of the moment in the U.S. Fantasy is. Whether in books or video games or in films, fantasy has slowly climbed over SF in terms of popularity during the last thirty years and especially with the emergence of The Lord of the Rings on film and the Harry Potter franchise in general. Now, when it comes to genre fiction, I fully support the genres that are the furthest stretch from ho-hum realism. But of horror, SF and fantasy, my least favorite genre is easily fantasy. Too much ‘restoring the order of the cosmos’ for my taste. Much better to have the horrors or the dystopia still in control at the end of the story – just like in real life. (What’s truly scary is that my spell check doesn’t or won’t recognize dystopia as a real word – frightening red lines under the word denying the possibility of its existence.) I mean I cut my teeth on the Alien and Road Warrior series along with Blade Runner and The Terminator – with Deckard unsure of his true identity, Max left alone after his heroic sacrifice, Sarah Connor driving into the storm she knows is coming, and Ripley waking up in film after film in a recurring nightmare she can’t escape from. None of this ring nonsense, or using the force and beating the bad guys. The hobbits of my kind of SF don’t win and the little kid with the wand gets put in a gulag.

What really bugs me, though, is that there’s a lot of unintentional genre-bending going on in North America. And I blame the bookstores. For years, they’ve put SF and fantasy books under the heading Science Fiction and Fantasy or, if they couldn’t afford the extra letters, just under Science Fiction. So a couple of generations of speculative fiction readers have grown up thinking the two genres are one and the same. I was once interested in a woman who leaned forward at that crucial moment when you are deciding upon first meeting someone whether you are going to sleep with them or even marry them (or so I’ve heard), and she said, “Oh, I love Science Fiction too. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best Science Fiction books ever.” Good night and good luck.

In this kind of environment, does SF stand a chance? The Matrix, of course, bailed the genre out for a time. But though I liked it very much, it was always too hip, stylish and smug a story for me. And the hero wins in the end. Dark City showed more promise with a main character who might just be a serial killer, but he can’t remember. Much less Charles Dickens and more Philip K. Dickens. But the vast majority of SF films these days rely on action rather than ideas to drive the plot. V For Vendetta stands as a recent partial exception. There is some style to it and some sidelong commentary at current events, and what young and future anarchist out there could resist the possibility of the British Parliament building being blown up? But the enemy is an unsubtle one – a standard Orwellian dictator backed up by a religious talk show host. Not very challenging targets.

The relative success of V For Vendetta points to the potential eclipsing of regular science fiction books by science fiction graphic novels, one of which spawned this film. And with their emergence (which, as a former comic book reader, I certainly don’t oppose) film has found a natural ally. Both media deal with visuals and this might well mean that the SF movies of the future will be dominated by visuals – even more so than SF films of the past - with the noticeable lack of compelling and challenging ideas. Comic books also have a tendency to create heroes. Notice all the superhero films these days. Will those heroes be of the perpetually triumphant variety, or will they be more like the antihero of The Planet of the Apes pounding his fist in the sand with the crushing realization that mankind has destroyed itself?

The short of it is there are too many optimists out there making the genre of films I used to most enjoy. There are too few truly and deeply negative voices. That is one of the reasons I will miss Lem. His work can’t be summed up by saying, “It’ll all work out in the end if we just put our faith in one man.” He was too skeptical for that. He was too much of a satirist. Perhaps that is why he never received the recognition he felt he deserved from the American SF writing community. Perhaps that’s why there won’t be that many movies based on his work. I think he would be fine with that. And he would understand it too because the dystopia of smiles always wins.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Quarantines, Morgues and Where Poets Are Born

This month’s issue of Poetry was a surprise for me. First of all, I read a lot of literary magazines – mainly to find out what a particular mag is looking for in terms of style and content so that I can submit some material. I don’t read literary magazines to find new talent. That’s why I browse through bookstore shelves and eavesdrop on other poets talking about a new writer they’ve found. I’ve discovered three American poets by browsing – Jeffrey McDaniel, Sarah Lindsay and Stephen Dobyns. These finds are what can keep me going for months. But in literary magazines the odds are much slimmer. In them you find poets who have been lucky enough to be published in their first journal and may never be seen again. Many others are the type of writer who consistently publishes over the decades and you even come to recognize their names, even if they don’t ever seem to achieve any acclaim. Then there are the established poets. Once in a great while, you find a new poet that you think is going to go the distance.

That’s what happened to me this month when I read Katherine Larson’s five poems in the March Poetry. I won’t ruin the experience for you and will let you decide for yourself if you like her work, but all I know is it was a pleasure for me to read poems that actually have thematic integrity and a muted power that is all the more powerful for it being muted. And these poems finish well, unlike so many poems I read. (Remember people, sometimes open-endedness and the claim that you want readers to find their own meanings in a poem is just an excuse for having nothing to say.)

The real choker for me is that these are Ms. Larson’s first published poems. She did win a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship in 2003, but still… It amazes me where poets come from and how some can get so good so fast. If she were a stock, I would be in on the ground floor right now and I would buy, buy, buy.

At the other end of things, and in fact in the same issue of Poetry, are those other writers. A number of writers take some time to look at poets who, though they had variable reputations while they were alive, have already faded into the dust that covers their books. The look at these poets is loving, focusing on their strengths and their best lines – a courtesy probably less frequently given them while they were alive. It is a poignant thing to look at any poet’s work, seeing as how even the best known poets are hardly recognized in our culture (unless they are as savvy as Leonard Cohen and can play a guitar). But to look at those who seem to be on their way out of human memory, that hits a little to close to where I live.

It seems I’m still reading poets and commentaries on poets just to take stock of my own poetic fortune. I go to local readings and open stages both to be surprised by a poem or even just a line that will stay with me for a while, and to see where I fit in the local poetry scheme. I like to think it isn’t just about ego, though. I’m drawn to crowds of poems and poets because of some larger force. We poets are merely the vehicles by which poems meet other poems, much like some scientists hypothesize human bodies are merely methods of conveyance for viruses and bacteria who are the true architects of the world. The main snag in that analogy, of course, is that poems can only dream of being as sophisticated as viruses and bacteria. Poems are the much slower disease we are all dying for (not from) as they commingle and create new possibilities. They are the disease I hope might someday change us.

Still, it would be nice to be the author of the mutant poem that set everything in motion – the poem that got out of the literary quarantine of magazines and coffee houses and got the sirens wailing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

How the Ugly Truth Breaks Art's Mirror

Talking to some high school teachers recently, I’ve discovered why all pop culture and all art is doomed to obscurity. What these teachers told me was that they had a hard time getting students interested in old movies not only because of the stagy acting and the inferior or absent sound, and so on, but because the actors just weren’t very attractive. Standards of beauty have changed so drastically over the decades that the stars of old come up short every time.

So that means the stars of today, no matter how realistic the acting or exceptional the set designs and special effects, still won’t appeal to the students of tomorrow. Brad Pitt will be the late 21st century equivalent of Harold Lloyd, or maybe James Dean. (I never can quite place Pitt.). Tom Hanks will be nothing more than a revamped Jimmy Stewart while the attractiveness of Julia Roberts becomes as much a mystery as that of Katherine Hepburn. (And even I can’t imagine a time when Humphrey Bogart could ever have been attractive.)

Maybe this thought makes you smile. What a shallow point of view, you’re thinking. People look at films as works of art, not as beauty pageants. But in art, looks and style are everything, dah-ling.

I mean, many fans would argue that films now are better than films of olde simply because the special effects are far superior. After all, what we see in Metropolis is clearly transcended in a film like The Matrix, right? What did Fritz Lang try to recreate? Electricity and a robot. Ooooh. Funky. But The Matrix gives us those great slow motion, multiple-angle shots of combatants in mid-air. It recreates whole worlds. There’s no comparison. For some viewers, that is the only way to measure a science fiction film’s success – the beauty of its effects.

Meanwhile, sometimes an entire technology comes along and changes the nature of the performer. That’s what happened with music videos and the types of singers and musicians that could be successfully marketed to the video audience. You have to look good to be a video star – although that doesn’t explain Rick Ocasek of The Cars. It’s just the way things are. But one look at the video stars of the early 80’s vs. the stars of today and you can already see the shifts in aesthetics. Cindy Lauper couldn’t make it in pop music today, but then maybe we’ll say the same thing about Pink tomorrow.

And every other art must often become fashion’s bitch. In poetry, for example, one of the most common forms for the last few decades has been the slim, anorexic shape, with one or three words per line. In another time, this form would have seemed hideous, but now it is the Kate Moss of the poetry world. (I mean the poems are unnaturally skinny, by the way, and not that they are smuggling drugs.) And if you teach poetry in the classroom you will soon understand that one of the things your students will most remember about you is not what you said about what William Carlos Williams meant by that red wheelbarrow, but how you often would wear one shirt cuff rolled up higher than the other and that one hair on one of your eyebrows tended to curl up toward your forehead. (That’s how I console teachers who worry about what their students are learning. I just tell them to be respectful and to make sure they are well groomed with as few boogers as possible hanging from their nose per term.)

I know from my experience working in television that the things I say may be deemed important by my producer, but of equal and, I suspect greater importance is that I have a very good complexion and hardly need any makeup at all. My choice of clothes, though, is another thing. Golf shirts bad, suit jackets good. I apparently often fail to project a sufficient degree of authority based on my wardrobe alone. This is a lesson I hope to have learned when I go back to the rough and tumble world of speed dating where researchers, I’ve heard, have determined that the most accurate predictor of whether or not one participant is attracted to another is not their sense of humour or the ease with which they speak or the excitement they have for their work, but the way they look and the timbre of their voice. We dream of deep emotional attachment, but we hunt according to surfaces. The person wearing clothes and a hairstyle that are twenty years out of date can have all the love and tenderness in the world, but they’re going home alone.

Could it be that Oscar Wilde was right all along – that “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” with the corollary that “Fashion is merely a form of ugliness so unbearable we are compelled to alter it every six months”? These were observations of a truth he sometimes despaired of and which his own work often contradicts. There we can find love and compassion as well as forms of truth other than fashion. Perhaps the best art transcends fashion. Or it might be in fashion but not of the fashion. There are some positive signs here and there. I mean, young stars like Scarlett Johansson almost seem to have an Old Hollywood air about them, as if she could have been in films alongside Irene Dunn, while other stars of the past still seem beautiful today. For instance, if you teach film and you have students who say that Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn are not beautiful, you send them on over to me. I’ll be the guy with one sleeve rolled up higher than the other, just ready to go to work on these young minds waiting to be refashioned.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

It’s Alive! It’s Alive! (Pop Cultural Icons For the Ages)

Here’s a test that will rekindle those nightmares you used to have about high school English. Name a character from nineteenth century literature that you could guarantee most people you know would be familiar with. Got one? Okay, now name more than one. How many can you come up with?

So far, I’ve thought of four. They aren’t characters from the often-touted literary works that many departments of literature are assigned to keeping alive for the present and future generations. But if you went up to anyone who has grown up in Western culture – even the stereotypical guy sitting in front of a TV watching a football game through a boozy haze – you would get a glint of recognition by saying any of these names: Frankenstein, Dracula, Scrooge, or Sherlock Holmes. Of course, your unwilling test-taker might get Dr. Victor Frankenstein mixed up with the monster he created. And he might not even be aware that there was a novel by Bram Stoker. He might wonder if that guy Dickens ever wrote much else besides A Christmas Carol. And he might be puzzled when you mention the guy from Baker Street. “I thought you said the character had to be fictional.” I would even throw in another ‘character,’ despite the fact that he was real. Jack the Ripper was in fact fictionalized in any number of the so-called penny dreadfuls of his day – fan literature, if you will. And his name in the popular imagination precedes his history by a fair bit.

Why do I bring this up? Because it’s the post-Oscar, post-Golden Globe, etc. season when many people have tried to determine just what it is that is the best our culture has to offer in terms of the arts. We’ve watched and we’ve nodded. But do we believe that Brokeback Mountain has the gas to live on, or is it rooted in a current cultural crisis that will date it? I’ve had that feeling before, watching many films that were hard-hitting in their time and then…pfft! I didn’t see the film Philadelphia until about ten years after its release. And the A.I.D.S. story had moved on beyond the events of the film. Think back to the serious dramas you’ve seen in the past – which ones leap to your mind? Okay, try this instead – are you more familiar with 1981’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Chariots of Fire, or with another of the nominees that year, Raiders of the Lost Ark? Which one has the most steam at this point in time?

Many of us who have taught English at one point or another like to imagine that the truly great and profound writers will last, even if we weren’t there to promote them to the sleepy and those who are actually asleep. But even Shakespeare’s most familiar characters – say, Hamlet and Macbeth – don’t have the staying power in the popular imagination that someone like Don Quixote has – a character created by Miguel de Cervantes who, as fate would have it, died in 1616, the same year as Shakespeare ditched the mortal coil. And if you look again at the nineteenth century novel, who remembers the classics from that period without having a Wikipedia chronology open in front of them? And yet if you mention The Three Musketeers, people tend to respond, even though Alexandre Dumas wouldn’t be considered a literary giant by today’s standards.

All I’m saying is that the popular culture of the past has given us some of our most iconic and enduring figures and too often the literary world fails to recognize the power these figures have in our cultural consciousness. Why these figures? Why for so long? And that’s to not even mention King Arthur and Robin Hood who have outlasted their often nebulous authors and gone on to Hollywood fame and fortune. Call it the revenge of the populace.

Doesn’t this make you wonder, then, what cultural icons we are creating even now that might last beyond our time? Maybe there aren’t any right now. One look at the serious lineup of Oscar nominees for the past year, and you have to wonder if those stories will outlast the times they are commenting on. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t wish them ill. But will any of the characters in those films rise again to fight another cultural day, following in the footsteps of Batman and King Kong?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Gorging On Mea Culpas

The cover story of the March 13, 2006 issue of Newsweek is about the confusion that results when the media try to sum up the latest research in diets. Things, it seems, are over-simplified and often misreported. So this is another example of the media eating crow by exposing how the media has a bad influence on us. But even if you’re tired of the media’s navel gazing, the article does reveal what we value in our society – better and longer life through proper observance of nutritional intake.

The article points out that there has been a steady increase in TV news pieces on food and nutrition and health in general. And that only happens because there is a demand for this focus. How healthy our foods are presumably affects everyone. And many people are frustrated when cult diets come and nutrients like calcium, bran, milk, eggs, coffee, and wine rise and fall in the popular estimation like gods in a modern pantheon.

The question is: to what extent is the media to blame for our confusion? Yes, a TV piece is bound to shorten things, being a visual diet of brief scenes and sounds bytes that are the aural equivalent of two-bite brownies. Things are going to get lost as the story ingredients are cooked into a five-minute soufflé. But the Newsweek article gives too much credit to the medical and scientific community. This is the same community that brought you leeches as a treatment for various illnesses. Uh… bad example, actually, as some practitioners are currently reviving the use of leeches in certain kinds of post-operative scenarios. Someday we may look back at the brief period when we didn’t resort to leeches as a time of medical ignorance. My point is that our store of medical knowledge is constantly being remaindered and restocked. And you can see this flux in the ever-changing news about what foods are good for you and are not good for you.

It’s the kind of contentious debate that a book like The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous To Your Health indulges in. Author Paul Campos takes things beyond the mere eccentricities of diet and hits us with the big question: why are we so obsessed with whether or not we or others are fat? He launches into studies that show that moderately obese people are actually healthier overall than moderately underweight people. (Okay, so I’m maybe oversimplifying. Woo hoo! I guess that makes me a member of the media.) But in the process he points out that how we define obesity has changed over the years. And let’s face it, when some studies argue that 70% of Americans are overweight and that only 10% of people who manage to lose weight actually keep it off, we’re facing a long uphill struggle against impossible odds. Why are so many people so obsessed?

Of course, this focus on food isn’t new to humankind. Various religions have had and continue to have dietary proscriptions based on beliefs about good and evil. What’s interesting to me is how the language of ‘being bad’ and ‘being weak’ once used to define the ‘sinner’ in religious society where now, in a secular society, these descriptions characterize the person who has fallen off their diet or who can’t even bring themselves to get on one. The sinners are the overweight, and, lo, we can see their sins hang upon them and drag them down. So have we really changed all that much as a species? People used to count their rosaries, atone for their sins, and buy relics of the saints to help them on their way to heaven while now they count their calories, atone for their snacks and buy wristbands and exercise machines from late-night celebrity-hosted infomercials. When someone says their body is their temple, I’m sure they really mean it because they don’t have a sense of other dimensions to their existence.

Never mind that our picayune dietary concerns are almost obscene given that, and I’ll be maudlin for a moment, so many people on the planet don’t have enough to eat. Never mind that all the energy we put into being careful about milligrams and organic might be better spent redistributing food to where it is truly needed. But I don’t need to tell you to never mind, I know you will. But what the religious model of the new body as the stand-in for the soul reveals is that we are obsessed because we are attempting the impossible. Just as religious devotees come to be frustrated by the inability of the individual to consistently and gladly conform to the dogma of the divine, so too do our individual bodies resist broad one-trick schemes to make us all look more like some predetermined ideal. The soul and the body are in complete agreement here: you can’t make them do what they won’t do. They frustrate our doctrine of free will and self-determination and the ancient fascist ideal of the perfectibility of humankind. They tell us that the self is not in control.

The contradictory reports that we see on the media and from the medical community, then, are glaring reminders of what many people can’t accept. And so we try to blame someone because that’s how superstition works. The medical community blames the media, the media mea culpa’s itself and then blames the consumers, the consumers blame the professionals and, finally, everyone blames the overweight because their fat doesn’t act in a predictable way and because they have an ungodly obsession with food.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Hang Gliding With Emily Dickinson

Surveys have shown that one of the most popular dream occupations for Canadians has been that of writer. According to still other surveys things might be changing, what with reading on a slow, steady decline these days - although, if you hang out in poetry circles, you’ll soon realize that a disinterest in reading poetry does not prevent plenty of people from writing it. Why do so many people feel attracted to writing? (And what kind of mind games are these survey people playing with us?)

Well, obviously, writing is the cheapest ego trip you’ll ever take. You can self-express yourself silly and stand in front of a group of people who will actually listen (or pretend to listen) to what you have to say. How many can claim that kind of attention from their family, peers, or colleagues? Add to this the incredible ease of writing. Add pen to paper, or throw fingers at keyboard repeatedly and bring to a boil. Let cool and serve it up. That perception of ease is captured nicely in the apocryphal story of the writer at a cocktail party (how the writer got in there, I’ll never know) who is having a discussion with a brain surgeon. “Oh, you’re a writer,” the brain surgeon says. “I keep telling my wife that at some point I’m going to take a year off from my job and do the writing I’ve always wanted to do.” To which the writer responds, “What a coincidence. I’ve always wanted to take a year off from writing and do some brain surgery.”

But there’s more to the attraction to writing. For many people there is something classy, romantic and exciting about being a writer. It is about the independent spirit. There is the sense of adventure. The vast majority of people who do not dream of being a writer understand exactly how silly this fantasy is. “You actually sit at a desk and call that work! Get out and into the world for Pete’s sake! Get out among the living.” Never mind the fantasy of globetrotting and immersing yourself in foreign cultures. If you want to be a writer, you have to sit at a desk, shut the world out and do the writing.

When I’m the road for any reason, I find the rush of sights and sounds too much to easily absorb. In order to write, I need the comforts of home. I need some semblance of routine – not necessarily a writing routine, but some kind of a framework I can hang my day on. It can be as little as knowing which way to turn as I walk out of my bedroom. There are people who can do the globetrotting and the writing, but I’m not one of them. Nor was Emily Dickinson, who stayed close to home (mostly in her home) for the better part of her life. And though I’m extroverted among a friendly crowd, when I write I tap into my inner Emily. And I don’t trust the passion that some writers have for gobbling up all sorts of experiences. Just a little will do, thanks.

Gustave Flaubert once said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I’m not a big fan of Flaubert’s work. Maybe I identified a little too strongly with the bored housewife Madame Bovary. But I do fully endorse what he has said about the regular and orderly life. In fact, when I read poetry that seems flat and unoriginal I often imagine that the person who wrote it must lead a much more exciting life than I do. Nevertheless, out of my boredom and the rut I have paced into the center of my life some surprising ideas and lines and poems jump out of the shadows of my gray days and startle my pen into motion – a needle turning the page into an EKG reading.

The good news, then, is that there is still great and innovative writing to be done out there. The kind of writing that can shatter you – the kind of writing that is the hang-glider for the soul as you (and somewhere to the left of you, Emily herself) drop over the edge of your own expectations and hope your steering and the wind can bring you safely to the ground again. The bad news is that, based on my experience, you’re going to have to go sit in a corner and shut up long enough to write while the rest of the world plays outside your window. Still interested?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Violence In the Media IV: This Time, It’s Personal

The odd thing about the people interested in the effects of media violence is that the discussion always descends into statistics and whose are bigger… I mean better than the rest. Sure, there are news stories about just how many violent video games and movies the Columbine duo enjoyed, or to what extent racing games might induce kids to drive recklessly. (When I was young, we didn’t need video games to teach us reckless driving - we taught ourselves to be indifferent to our own lives and those of others. But I guess kids these days need help with every little thing.) Why is it that the effects of media violence always seem to happen to someone on the news? It’s always somebody else’s kid. What about the effects on you? Or on me? How can I write about this unless I know my own history with the beast?

When I was a kid I used to get in fights. Luckily, I didn’t stay in any fight long enough to rack up a lot of cuts and bruises. I was a one-shot-to-the head kinda guy. I usually got more cuts from falling limply to the ground than from someone hitting me. There were no video games, I couldn’t get into truly violent movies, and the violence on TV went no further than Mannix and Cannon, and later on, The NBC Mystery Movie. Despite the appalling lack of media violence in my life, I was an uppity kid and my face was a knuckle magnet. If I wasn’t insulting a guy who was bigger than me and getting beaten up, I was insulting a guy and then running like hell. Luckily, this was in elementary school and most of the school’s bullies by then had a two-pack-a-day habit and I could easily outrun them if I didn’t make a wrong turn down a dead-end alley.

My bullies – funny how possessive and sentimental I’ve become about them after all these years. I’m not sure about their TV habits, but I can tell you that you have to put in long hours waiting by the corner store to fill your quota as a bully each night. They would fish for geeks with insults and reel them in with threats, occasionally tossing one back if he was too small. There was little time for TV and they often couldn’t afford movies – cigarettes weren’t cheap even back then, especially for a bully who had to keep his hangers-on happy.

How did this constant threat and occasional violence affect me? Well, it was often terrifying. But the avoiding getting beaten up was the most frightening part. When a bully would catch me I would feel something like a sense of relief. The running was over. A few quick hits – the location of which depended on the style of the bully (these guys weren’t craftsmen yet and were still learning their trade) – and it was done. The beating was never as bad as the fear of being beaten. But don’t get me wrong, it hurt. And then the tension over until my turn in the bully queue came up again.

There is no comparison at all between the comic book violence so many people complain about and the actual thing itself. Watching Arnie outmuscle or out-shoot a bad guy is not traumatizing at all compared to what it was like just having to go to school some days. The over-the-top violent stories are often of mythic proportions, and the violence is symbolic of the conflict between good and evil. The hero often faces an opponent who he or she shares characteristics with and must defeat them. This, according to Joseph Campbell in his many works, including The Hero With A Thousand Faces, is about the hero subduing the darker part of himself. and when we watch a story like this, we are the hero. The stories are an impersonal way of recreating our everyday personal struggles.

That kind of stuff doesn’t phase me. If you want to make me uneasy, force me to watch boxing or hockey on TV. Or some graphic news stories. It amazes me that when people discuss violence in the media they almost never mention these things. The imaginary violence frightens them much more. Maybe it’s because they simply see the real violence as happening to ‘other people.’ Geysers of blood spurting from a teenaged slasher victim in a movie on the TV bother them more than a story about real Iraqi civilian casualties (with close-ups of the bodies).

It’s not everybody’s fault. As we grow older, we all become desensitized to everything, whether it’s street people looking for money, the ever fainter tug of love on the heartstrings, and the fate of the dying. We lose touch with ourselves and with others. (And we wouldn’t want to not be desensitized because a life where everything is just as intense as the last time would be very difficult to bear.)

So it occurs to me that it’s time to reconnect with my old bullies. I’ve got a big job for them if they’re up for it. Maybe I’ll tell them it’s a kind of redemption. I’m going to assign them each a long list of names and they are going to have to find the people on their lists and pound the daylights into them. They will be using that old evil power of theirs for a greater good. Because violence can’t be understood until you make it personal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Violence In the Media III: How I Became Desensitized To Essays On Media Violence

Right now, even as you read this, communications professors are being exposed to an average of 5.7 essays per hour on the effects of media violence. Think about this. By the time you’ve finished this article another professor will be one essay closer to poking his marking pencil through the next student that walks into his office. Imagine the barrage of the same statistics over and over every day. After a while, this kind of inane parroting of numbers from very old texts and journals (quoted and recopied more times than the Bible was by medieval scholars) has to numb even the sharpest mind. It’s only a matter of time before these professors become desensitized to the senseless and utterly predictable arguments that people fall into because they lack the imagination to solve society’s problems in any other way. Always resorting to essays against media violence – that can’t be the answer, can it?

Inevitably in these essays, the concept of desensitization comes up. You’ve heard the idea before – usually through the very media that supposedly endanger our moral sensibilities in the first place. Desensitization to violence happens when you are exposed to so much violence on TV and in films and video games that you hardly react at all to real violence in your surroundings. Granted, I do get an uneasy feeling in my stomach after four or more hours straight of Halo, but I think that’s more due to the pizza I swallowed without chewing and then washed down with some gummie bears and a ginger ale.

At the same time, though, we do learn to copy the actions of our heroes or those actions we learn in video games. When I used to play street hockey as a kid, the kids whose heroes were the enforcers tended to check me into snowbanks. And I can remember many a time coming out of an arcade after playing Galaga and having the urge to shoot all the cars that cut across my path. There was also the Tetris effect of having the urge to fit shapes into variously shaped empty spaces. And I never ever went into a crowded department store parking lot after playing Pac-Man. I would wander around the aisles for hours, gobbling up garbage and running from the blue parking enforcement guys.

But these were eidetic responses to the visual imagery and would soon pass. What media critics more often focus on are the tendencies for children to behave more aggressively after watching aggressive shows. But as Gerald Jones points out in his book Killing Monsters, one study (Coates-Pusser-Goodman) “found that preschoolers were three times more aggressive after watching a video than before – even though the video was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He goes on to say that this led some to conclude that watching TV itself led to violence, but Jones sees it differently: “I love Fred Rogers, but I suspect if I were forced to sit in a hard plastic chair in a strange room and stare at him when I’d rather be out playing, I’d act aggressively too.” Still, there are enough studies out there that show an immediate although short-lived imitative response to violent shows for us to conclude that –

Ah ha! Gotcha! That’s what I want to write in the margins of these students’ essays. How can the same violent stimulus (say, Mister Rogers) desensitize us – in other words, lull us into passivity – and at the same time prod us to commit violent acts? The fiendish television must be pulling us in two directions and we are much like James T. Kirk in the episode where he becomes the calm Kirk and the angry Kirk. Who will ever put us back together again? Oh, who? Who?

Of course, the writers of these essays are not concerned for themselves, but for the children. (Won’t somebody please think of the children!) Children, they contend, are much more impressionable than adults. They see the Road Runner knifing and gutting the coyote, thrusting his beak repeatedly into the coyote’s eyes – ooops, that’s the underground version I’m thinking of. Anyway, children are more apt than adults to be traumatized by violence and deadened to it (again, you can see the contradiction). Children are more apt to imitate something they have seen on TV or read about in the wrong books. Children are more apt to mindlessly imitate words they hear and read and then repeat them without doing the proper research or trying to come at an essay topic from a new and exiting angle.

Hmmm… maybe there’s something to this desensitization after all.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Violence in the Media II: Girls On the Lam

With more and more young girls committing violent acts, it’s time to consider what exactly is driving them to such extremes. By this I mean, just how are television and films and songs and video games doing it? Don’t these media spend all their time spurring young boys on to violence? Is it a wise marketing move to branch out and tackle the young female demographic as well? I’m worried that the media will spread themselves and the violence too thin.

Of course, there’s the old fallback – simply show the news stories and clips of girls bullying girls and fighting girls. That usually helps. The media know that they have to emphasize exactly how powerful they are by showing what a terrible influence they can be. S.O.P.

But then they have to come up with the culprits – name names. Xena, Buffy, Sydney Bristow, Lara Croft, Max Guevara – these are the usual suspects. Never mind that they are fighting for good causes or beating up bad guys – they provide bad role models. After all, how can the young girls who watch these shows know who the bad guys are in their real lives? In the end, critics argue, it’s just about the aggression (and the form-fitting or revealing outfits) and girls are learning to solve their problems with violence.

Some say this trend goes back to the character of Ripley on Alien. In terms of appearance, Sigourney Weaver pulls off the he-woman look and fits in well with the guys on her ship. And when the fur and hatchlings and acid blood start to fly, does she try consensus building with the alien? No. Does she try to empathize with the alien’s pain? No. She does things like a man and blows the thing out the doors of her shuttle. Yes, she has power, but she chooses to use it in a very unfeminine way. And from her cinematic loins have dropped the other female power heroes mentioned above, up to and including the central characters Kill Bill and Ultraviolet, although when I saw those movies I recall mostly male audiences. They must have gone home and told their women-folk about the films. Sometimes that’s enough to get the fem-rage on.

And Lord knows The Spice Girls didn’t help. The more prescient cultural mavens must have realized even back then that these five tough grrrls heralded a shift in the cultural winds. All I knew was I was sure that they could kick ‘NSYNC’s ass and give the ‘battle of the bands’ new meaning. Forgive me for those long ago and still recurring violent thoughts.

But I worry sometimes that the media can’t be everywhere – that sometimes it may let some young women slip through the cracks. For example, where was the media when a group of mostly girls punched and kicked to death the young British Columbia girl, Reena Virk? I worry that the media might not get sufficient credit for something like this because these girls were not TV addicts, for example. It’s possible that, in a case like this, family problems, drugs, alcohol and a whole host of social issues might have had more to do with the violence than the media did.

And what can you say about the incident in 2002 in Lauro, Italy when a few days after an argument in a beauty parlour three women were dead and five wounded after a shootout between rival factions of the Cosa Nostra? It turns out that many women who rise to power in the organization after their male relatives are killed or imprisoned have some nasty non-media-related habits. Not many TV shows, for example, deal with the finer points of carrying around bottles of acid in purses to throw in rivals’ faces. There is a certain cultural acceptance of aggression among women there, perhaps. And maybe there is the increasing recognition among the women of the west that while there are still inequities in the system, power is gradually seeping into the feminine realms and with power almost inevitably comes violence.

Unfortunately, that means that if the media were as powerful as some of us like to believe, they wouldn’t waste time encouraging us to participate in violent acts – they would be out putting the hit on their competition. When they are powerful enough to do that, then we can take them seriously.

Violence In the Media I: Babies Kicking Talcum-Powdered Butt

I’ve finally realized that the real threat embodied in a show like The Family Guy is how it might affect the preschoolers. After all, their main model on the show is Stewie, a toddler who has grand plans to kill his mother. And, of course, Freud would probably have something to say about the murderous impulses of all those compulsive rubber-nubbin-suckers with the oh-so-wide eyes. Pacifier aggressives, he called them… I’m almost sure of it. But the short of it is that we can’t let our toddlers watch a show like this because they might become desensitized and come to accept the ‘mommie-killing’ model.

Even if you don’t see the threat, some of the writers that weaned me could see this diaper rash of murders coming for decades. Just look at a couple of stories from Ray Bradbury, for instance. “The Small Assassin” deals with a mother who begins to fear that her baby is trying to kill her. By the end of the story the baby has put the hit on both parents and as the family doctor brandishes a scalpel and advances on the baby, even Las Vegas bookmakers wouldn’t want to put money on the outcome.

Another of his stories, “The Playground,” centres on a father who fears for his son in a world of bullies. Are these bullies urged to violence by too many late nights watching violent 1950’s TV? Doesn’t come up. All the father can think about is his own tormented childhood and how the time of bullies for him was the most traumatic of his life. But his love for his son is so great that he finds a way to take his place and throw himself into that world as he becomes a child again.

Even in an adult-centered futuristic film like Logan’s Run the adults fear the place called Cathedral where all the young kids and teens hang out and wait to jump the next lost passerby who comes too close… It seems some writers just assume that kids will be violent from the get-go.

So Stewie starts to seem like not so much of an anomaly, despite his post-grad vocabulary. With just a little close observation, you can see the Stewie effect in action. Watch a child play with a toy or a pet (even grown up pets fear the pudgy junior Frankenstein lurching toward them) or reach for your finger. Sure, you don’t even feel much of a tug, but imagine if that child were adult-sized. If we all behaved like babies (I can hear you already saying it, but park it for now), the jails would not be big enough. Come on – do you think the design of the playpen is an accident?

Studies (I’m foggy on the names – sorry) have shown that babies commit more aggressive acts in an hour than a teen might commit in a week. And teens, of course, commit more aggressive acts than adults, etc. What this seems to indicate is that we’re born with a little bit of violence in us and most of us grow out of it. Unless we have kids who play hockey or we read too many Danish cartoons.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Music Envy

Little did I know when I went to a recent poetry reading/lecture by poet, playwright, literary critic and librettist George Elliot Clarke that I would end up thinking about my relationship with rock and roll. The discussion was supposed to be about poetry and political engagement, not music. But it turns out that he and I have a lot in common, including being born in the same year and being from Nova Scotia. And, like me, Clarke has never gotten over an early desire to be a musician. In fact, he has never really left that desire behind, working as he has on operas involving both classical music and jazz.

Back in high school I tried guitar, but my instructor didn’t have any guitars for the left-handed and said I could just adapt, which I did - for two lessons. My mother, like many parents, tried to encourage my interest in music and bought me a harmonica and a bongo. But after a few tentative stabs at these objects, I soon realized that they weren’t going to play themselves. Music did not come naturally to me. And my private in-car singing performances on the way to my grandparents’ place were soon postponed indefinitely while my mother took pills to stop the ringing.

And so began a long life of music envy. I, like Clarke, wrote lyrics before I wrote poems. His output was prodigious during his junior high years. I managed two hundred lyrics in one year and then, after a failed attempt to form a band with some equally unskilled friends, I went back to writing short stories. Let’s face it – growing up in those days or even now, music was/is God. You are judged by the bands you listen to. You follow (sometimes literally) the local bands that are struggling to get noticed and if one of those groups get a record deal you can proudly say you were there before they sold out.

But more importantly, the guy with the guitar gets the chicks. It’s a cliché, but I’ve watched it happen. A few people gathered together in a university residence lounge - one guy picks up his guitar and you notice that the cute girl who never shuts up has gone all quiet and the guitar man’s roommate later returns to the room to find a bra hanging on the doorknob. (No one said musicians were subtle.) Meanwhile, a former friend of mine once introduced a tableful of us to a couple of aerobics instructors who had approached us at a bar. There was a lawyer, a medical technician, a teacher and, of course, my friend saved me for last – “And this is Jacques. He’s a poet.” The girls went back to watching the band. If things had gone differently that night I might be the healthiest guy my age, although I might have a compulsion to count to four all the time.

I was attracted to poetry only gradually. Sure, I was aware many of the best poems had an element of musicality, but at least I didn’t have to spend a fortune trying out pens or types of paper – unlike the world of music where you have to make a bit more of an investment. I might end up being a bad poet, but I could be bad with very little overhead.

Another thing that Clarke pointed out during his talk, though, was that the intense interest in music starts to fade after one’s early 20’s. True enough. My knowledge of current music is more than spotty. The experience of listening has changed somewhat as well, although listening to an iPod-shuffled mix isn’t all that different from throwing a stack of seven 45’s (you know – vinyl) on my turntable and playing a string of very different artists. Sure, bands like No Doubt, Evanescence, Good Charlotte, White Stripes, The Hives, and Jet come along to get me interested in what’s happening now – or, more like a few years ago. And I can still hear a song like “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys and recognize that it is in the ranks of the all-time best torch songs. But I envy the passion that younger listeners have for their music. And I’m sorry I missed out on raves and got stuck with disco.

But, then, age gives me some historical musical perspective. I now know that one of the few disco songs I liked – Amii Stewart’s “Knock On Wood” – was a cover of an Eddie Floyd song. Not unlike the minstrels of medieval Europe, modern songsters cover and re-mix and re-vamp. So Janet Jackson uses a snatch of America’s “Ventura Highway” and Madonna grabs a snippet of Abba’s “Gimmee! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” – some of us know where those pieces have come from and it’s a little something to make us feel smug, and to remind us that there’s nothing new under the sun.

I’ve learned to accept my place as an amateur music historian and my contribution is my personal knowledge of the period from the c.1970-c.1986. I’ve also learned to accept that words have always come more easily to me than notes. Poetry has been there all this time for me – the Betty to music’s Veronica. Not too shabby. And words will still be in my head long after I’ve blasted my ears to hanging shreds of protoplasm listening to Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll” on the headphones. Genres of music have already changed a dozen or more times since my taste was relevant and will continue to change, leaving the songs I hum very much out of style. But some the best of the poems I knew back then are still zip-lock fresh (same with some of the songs, as it turns out). Poems, for whatever reason, seem to age more slowly. Maybe the muse is some kind of cosmic aerobics instructor who still has me counting, “One, two, three, four…”

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Spoiler Alert: Ten Best Movie Endings

One thing that Hollywood is often criticized for is the ‘Hollywood ending.’ You know – the heroic triumph, the guy kissing the girl, violins swelling, broad horizons opening up in front of our protagonists. But all Hollywood movies are not, thank God, made the same. With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite film endings – many of which will illustrate my point.

Many others before me have noted that an ending can make or break a movie. Both cases are certainly true. A movie-ruining bad ending can leave you feeling cheated. Such is the case with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Meanwhile, a so-so movie, let’s say Pitch Black, can almost be redeemed by a great ending. And a good movie with a good ending is often award-winning material. But there are also many movies that are quite good and fizzle in the final seconds – like Wall Street. The final scene where our young inside trader gets out of the car and heads up into court feels unsatisfying. But the movie is still good enough that we can forgive a lapse of intensity in the dying moments. So a film’s ending isn’t absolutely everything.

What endings are about is giving the viewer a sense of satisfaction – both of the aesthetic and the moral variety. I say moral because I remember when The Talented Mr. Ripley came out I spoke to many people (mostly women, as it turned out) who absolutely hated the movie and really really hated the ending where the young Mr. Ripley gets away with murder on more than one occasion and caps everything off by killing his only true love. Interestingly, this ending almost makes my top ten movie endings list. I loved the fact that precisely because he has to kill his only true love to conceal his true identity and then go on to pretend to be in love with a woman while he is gay is one of the most bitter and harsh forms of justice I can imagine. In order to remain free, he has to be someone else. But not everyone agrees. And a film that fails to fulfill our need for artistic and moral symmetry will have a rough time.

But before you go any further, you should know that I’m going to be talking in detail about the endings of ten films, some of which you may not have seen. This will ruin some of these films for you. I don’t want to be the type of person who asks you if you’ve seen a movie and before you can answer tells you how shocking the ending was when the old woman turns out to be a werewolf. Or like the guy who came out of the movie Jagged Edge and told everyone in our lineup going in, “It’s his typewriter.” Or the guy who drove by a lineup for Armageddon and screamed out to us, “Bruce Willis dies!” But, then, if you haven’t seen those movies, I’ve already done the damage. Sorry.

A final point: in picking my top ten endings, I cheated. I’ve chosen the very final moments of some films – the dénouement – and from others I’ve chosen the climactic moment, the turning point where something is revealed. If you’d like your money back, talk to the cashier. Anyway, here they are:

10. The Sixth Sense
I hesitate to put this film in here at all because I don’t want to encourage Mr. Shyamalan to keep making movies that try for shocking revelations in the final reel. But when the technique works, it can change your entire sense of what has come before. When Malcolm Crowe realizes that he is actually dead and that he, not only the kid who’s afraid of the dead people that come to him, has also been rescued as the kid has helped him work through his fear of giving therapy, it’s a revelation. The film shows us in its ending that the healing in a therapeutic relationship flows both ways. Besides, the ending forces you to watch the movie again and see where you were misled at every possible turn. That’s only good Hollywood money-making sense.

9. The Thing (1982)
Okay, this film will never crack my top 100. Sure, John Carpenter’s music is always nifty, and Kurt Russell is in fine post-Snake Plissken form. But the effects veer between startling and creepy-funny (remember the head on tiny bug legs?). And the story itself isn’t all that interesting, although there are some legitimate scares here and there. But the last line of the film is probably my favorite last line ever. Picture the utterly destroyed Antarctic science station, flames rising high into the sub -60 night. Our protagonist McReady and another last survivor, Childs, sit across from each other with a bottle of booze, both of them knowing that there is no hope of rescue and that even if there was hope maybe they shouldn’t be rescued just in case, because one or the other or neither or both of them might be infected by The Thing and ready to spread to the rest of the human population. Childs asks, “What do we do?” and McReady answers, “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while – see what happens?” And then they each take a swig from the bottle. It’s the ultimate ‘guy’ ending. Bring it on, alien.

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
…Also known as one of the hardest films I can possibly watch to the end. After Chief realizes that the rebel McMurphy has been given a lobotomy for his disruptive behaviour (just when McMurphy was so agonizingly close to leaving the place and never coming back), he smothers his friend with a pillow and then busts out of the asylum. This ending is the ultimate statement about what the system will do to the free spirit, reflecting the essence of Beat writer Ken Kesey’s book and, simultaneously, the post-70’s disappointment in the Boomer generation’s failure to change the system. I would argue that the film and its ending transcend the period in which they were made and have become iconic for the both the defeat and the survival of the free spirit ever since. And I must be right because they parody the moment on The Simpsons.

7. Falling Down
This film is on the list because of one moment during the climactic confrontation where a police detective with no will to resist his wife or his colleagues has to face a man who has finally found his guts and has been spending the day standing up for himself while gathering a small cache of guns and occasionally exploding in violence. D-FENS, his license plate number – the name we come to know him by – has confronted a surly Korean store owner, gang members, an Aryan supremacist and others in his odyssey through the city as he finally expresses himself and descends into… is it insanity or near-insanity? It’s an open question because when the film was originally released, viewers were split on whether or not this character was sympathetic. But for those who found D-FENS’ situation compelling, we are finally reminded, as he is at the end of the film, that he has become somebody quite different from who he started out as. Det. Pendergrast tells him that he was going to kill his wife and little girl and then himself. And D-FENS pauses and almost soulfully asks:

D-FENS: I’m the bad guy?
Det. Pendergrast: Yeah.
D-FENS: How did that happen?

As we have been watching him throughout his day and he has acted out our own frustrations and aggressions, this near-to-final moment is a reminder to us of how slippery the slope of ‘self-expression’ can be. Meanwhile, Pendergrast, forced to kill D-FENS, absorbs some of the man’s uppitiness and stands up for himself against his wife and his commanding officer with a much more reasonable amount of forcefulness. The proper balance is restored. Almost a Taoist observation about the proper use of force.

6. Dead Poets Society
For many an English teacher, this film has been either inspiring or controversial and potentially dangerous. As a former English teacher myself, I’ve heard both sides often. And the ending of the film really brings both ways of looking at the film into sharp contrast. After inspiring his students to live life to the fullest in the midst of a repressive boys’ school environment in late 50’s America, John Keating is forced to resign when one of his students commits suicide after following Keating’s advice to pursue his passion for acting -a decision which provokes the boy’s father to send him to a military academy. Many teachers feel that Keating’s advice crosses the line of what a teacher can do – especially in the environment of the modern school system where teachers’ actions and words are sharply circumscribed. At the very end of the film, the future poet among Keating’s ‘disciples’ stands up and calls out “O captain, my captain” (quoting the Whitman poem Keating had earlier quoted to the boys), leading many of the boys to stand on their desks. Some people (ok, me too) might be brought to tears by the moment while others see this scene as a contradiction to the earlier scenes where Keating advises the boys to be individuals. Here, instead, they have become loyal ‘troops.’ I can see that, and I don’t care. The fact is, those who feel uneasy about the film react in a remarkably similar manner to the administration of the fictional school. The idea of a teacher not following curriculum and instead giving life advice to students is completely irresponsible to many. But for anyone who pays close attention in school, education isn’t about learning things, it’s about learning to emulate people you admire while you construct your own identity. John Keating, then, is as good a model as any. And even though I’ve never warmed to Whitman, I’m usually standing on my couch by the end of the film.

5. High Noon
Marshal Will Kane has a problem. At noon, the train carrying men who have promised to kill him is arriving. His wife, his deputies and the town have all abandoned him and it looks like he will have to face the bad guys on his own. He manages to defeat them, with the help of his Quaker wife, and then faces the town at the end. He takes off his badge and throws it at their feet in the dirt before riding off with his new bride. It is a scene that warms my sometimes anarchist heart. The town order is restored, as in so many Westerns, but we don’t care. The hero rides off, but he gets the girl. A couple of common conventions are defied here. And screenwriter Carl Foreman gets to take a sidelong swipe at the House Un-American Activities Commission and his friends who abandoned him during the time when he was subpoenaed to testify about Communist members of Hollywood. He refused and, like many of the time, had little support. The image of a Marshal tossing his badge to the ground in contempt, though, resonates beyond that moment in American history. And it’s the kind of thing you don’t expect to see in a Hollywood Western.

4. Fight Club
The important thing in Fight Club is that the guy gets the girl – the Hollywood ending, right? Only if you like wearing nothing but black (face mask included) and show up frequently at anti-W.T.O. rallies. The beauty of the final moment is that our hero rids himself of his Tyler Durden doppelganger by shooting himself. But will he make it to the credit card company hi-rises that have been wired to blow? Maybe in another movie he might. But here he just has enough time to console Marla, his on-again off-again girlfriend (depending on whether he is himself or Tyler) by saying, “Everything’s going to be fine.” And that’s when the explosions rip through the buildings across the way. The buildings begin to fall in a fireworks of destruction as the two lovers reach for each other’s hands and our narrator says, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” And they go back to watching the pyrotechnics in what would have to be described as the most romantic moment ever for anarchists. Sorry – I’m trying not to cry as I write this.

3. The Terminator
Again with the violence and destruction, right? Not quite. Actually another tender moment, of sorts. Sarah Connor, the pregnant mother of the future rebel leader who will save mankind from destruction by the machines, has survived the final battle with the terminator and pulls up to a gas station. Just when she thinks about Kyle (the man who dies trying to help her), a boy takes her picture – the same picture Kyle used to look at, wondering what she was thinking of at the time. But then the boy points to the darkening skies and the old man nearby says that a storm is coming in – a symbolic parallel to the real storm that is coming in the future when the robots take over. Sarah knows everything that is ahead – that she will have to struggle and die and watch the slaughter of countless humans. The happy ending has already happened in a sense, but now she has to endure the horrific part of the story. So she drives into the heart of the storm. Thank you time paradoxes and loops for an ending that is both happy and ominous.

2. Memento
The first time I saw this movie, I kept asking myself, “What would be the worst possible thing that could happen in a story like this? What would be the least optimistic conclusion possible?” And the possibilities I went through in my head fell a little bit shy of the actual ending’s truly dark implications. We only learn at the end of the film (but actually the beginning of this inversely told story) that Leonard Shelby himself is just doing what everyone else has been doing – taking advantage of his lack of long term memories. He sets himself up to kill the closest thing to a friend he has. And if Teddy is telling anything near the truth, the odds are that it was Leonard himself who killed his own wife, and not the mysterious John G. he has been looking for. The story turns out to be about the impossibility of certainty, but even more so about the power of denial and the inability to accept what one has been and done. The implications stretch far beyond the film, of course, to all of us who are, in less obvious ways, memory-impaired and unknowingly altering our pasts to create an acceptable version of ourselves. Are there enough Post-its to help us ever know ourselves and our relationship to those around us?

1. Pulp Fiction
What many critics like to talk about in regard to this film is the joy of its aimless romp through the articulate and yet seedy underworld. They love its nihilism. They are watching the wrong film. The ending in the restaurant brings the whole film together through Jules quoted passage, Ezekial 25:17 – a passage which he has altered somewhat from the original. The bits about the weak man, the righteous man and the shepherd, while reflecting the tone of Ezekial, are not part of that passage as written in the Bible. But it does nicely delineate the film for us as a series of redemption stories about a weak man (Vincent), a righteous man (Butch) and a man who is “trying real hard to be the shepherd” (Jules). Jules’ speech to Honey bunny while he holds a gun on him (and on us – that gun is huge on the big screen) still makes me shiver. We think we know how this is going to end, but the moment turns into one of spiritual change once Jules realizes that he himself is “the tyranny of evil men.” It isn’t a highly emotional transformation. But when this Buddha with a Star Model B 9mm. sets that gun down we know everything that is going to happen afterwards and we know it’s the wise decision. So, even though this ending takes place chronologically before the other two stories, Jules’ revelation becomes a vision of not only his future but that of the other characters in the film.

Clearly, these are very personal and idiosyncratic choices. Far from definitive. But you can learn something about a person by closely observing their favorite movie finales. For example, most of these endings have a defiant tone. Also, while I was composing the discussion of the above films I discovered that my top three picks all question the concept of endings itself. In these three films I find satisfaction both in the structural design and in the points the films make about the possibilities for and obstacles to redemption. And even though I get a feeling of completion from these endings, there is also the sense that things simply don’t come to an end – the road goes on past the film itself, in both directions.

This is certainly something I live by and so my favorite film endings simply reinforce what I already believe. Nothing new there. We go to films not to lose ourselves but to find ourselves. In some ways, we try to embody those values – we become the ends of those films as we step back into the light, spoiling for another chance.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Scanning For Names

There is a cluster of questions writers often face. The primary one, I would guess, is some version or another of “Did that really happen?” usually accompanied by, “I know someone just like that.” Then there are the other questions about where the ideas come from, the frequency of writing, how one might make a living as a writer. And of course there’s, “Would you be able to take a look at a few short pieces of mine for me?”

In my case, there has often been another question that I’ll admit I’ve brought on myself through a single decision I made a long time ago to not go by my given name, but by the name I grew up being called. The question is, “So why do you go by ‘Jocko’ instead of ‘Jacques’?” I wouldn’t bother anyone with my thoughts on this, but that question has been the most pressing one for people asking about my work and I’ve had to think about the reasons for this a good deal and so have decided to inflict those thoughts now on others.

So I’ll answer the question. In several stages.

My name began in the midst of a political struggle between my French grandmother and my English mother. When the baptismal bloodbath had cleared, the name of my baptismal certificate was: Joseph Pierre Alexandre Jacques Benoit. Joseph was a traditional name given to all Quebec-born boys, and the other tradition was to list the names in reverse. But for years my driver’s license said “Joseph Pierre Benoit”, my S.I.N. card said “Jacques Pierre Benoit” and all my other I.D. said “Jacques Peter Benoit.” This last complication was because my mother was under the impression I had received “Peter” after my grandfather rather than “Pierre” after my uncle. So for years I filled in forms as Jacques Peter Benoit. When we found out the truth, I kept the name Peter as a way of balancing out all the other French names. The French-English war over my name was hopefully, by then, over.

Shortly after I decided as a teenager that writing gave me more bang for very few bucks than any other activity I’d tried, my mother threw her support behind me (all the while emphasizing that I would have to have a real job as well – a rule she reminds me of probably only once a week now). She was pleased on returning from a convention one year to present me with a novel she had found. On the cover I could see the big, broad lettering: “Jacques Benoit.” A well known French writer of science fiction and fantasy. Since I was thinking about going into science fiction, this bothered me a little, but I consoled myself with the fact that he was solidly a French writer while my name only sounded like that of a French writer.

It was not long after this that I discovered “Jacques Benoit” was one of the most common names you could find in Quebec at the time. For that matter, my father’s name was Jacques Benoit. Technically I was a Jr., although no one has ever called me that. My father was someone I hadn’t seen since I was five and I began to wonder if I really wanted to write under that name.

There are, in Canada, other complications as well. For one thing, my name is French and I don’t speak French. And in the early 80’s with one referendum down and any number left to come, I wondered if it was a wise thing to be a French-named English speaker. For one thing, I was a French-born ex-Quebecois who had lost his grasp of the mother tongue. I was exactly the kind of child the French were afraid would proliferate. Let’s face it - I was the reason the province wanted to separate from Canada, although I tried not to take it personally.

With all these things in my mind when I first attended the poetry sweatshop at The Rivoli in Toronto, I was all set to write a poem that night in late 1987. I had watched a few of these events before and laughed now and then at the names people chose to go under. I wasn’t quite so adventurous and decided to write my first poem for the sweatshop as Jocko. It was the name my mother called me. It was what my father was called during his rowdy boarding school days. It was a name that sounded like a little bit of trouble. Exactly the kind of image I wanted for my poems, and it wasn’t even a name change at all. Besides, so many poets went by three names, I figured that going by just one name was my way of contributing to name conservation and maintaining the etymological balance. Over the next several months, I was a finalist in the competitions a few times, and even one of the winners once. My new writing name was off to a good start.

I began sending poems out under that name and after a few acceptances, the troubles started. Because I self-addressed my poems to “Jacques” (I didn’t want the mail getting lost) many editors began to ask to publish my poems under my ‘real’ name. And some editors simply insisted they couldn’t publish a one-name poet. Other editors simply published my work under my given name without even asking me about it. Two poets I approached after readings were very friendly until they asked me my name and then they gruffly insisted I use my given name. If I had used a pen name from the start, none of this would have happened. But there was something about my nickname that was getting me into trouble. Eventually, I started compromising by writing under “Jocko Benoit” and the publications in more ‘serious’ magazines picked up.

One of the most common things I heard was that I should use “Jacques Benoit” because “it’s such a nice French name.” No one ever said it was a nice name – always a nice French name. And I wondered if there were different standards for nice English names and nice French ones. And of course, these were all Anglos saying this to me. I began to pick up on the subtlest of prejudices underneath it all. Or it could have simply been that, as the restaurateur in the film Addicted To Love argues that his foreign name and accent in a country like America make him like Superman, maybe I was throwing away an obvious advantage.

At one point I looked up the two first names on a web name database and found that “Jacques” is often perceived as a stable, conscientious and accountant-like individual while “Jocko” is often more of a jester, a rambunctious ne’r-do-well. In many ways, the two names together probably aptly sum me up. But in my poetry I wanted to be the latter with just a hint of the former. My poetic voice works best when it is telling people all the wrong things to do, and when it is being petty and jabbering at the idiots (which would include everyone, I suspect). The tone of my poems has to be unpoetic wherever possible.

And that is probably the main sin of my name. It doesn’t sound like a poet’s name. It doesn’t convey the right tone or air. Never mind that it suits the image I want for my work. It doesn’t have the proper seriousness for the job. It’s the name of shipyard workers who open bottles (and possibly cans) with their teeth, or Aussies who sell batteries on the telly (well, actually, his name is Jacko), or the guy who shoulders you heavily as he walks out of the bar you’re going into and is obviously looking for a fight, the slick-looking guy in the suit who’s always coming onto your wife at work and the only way she can get him to move on is to let him surreptitiously cop a feel or two so he can know he got some. Meanwhile, my last name has the same root as “benediction” and “beneficence,” providing a neat balance that I hope my poems represent as often as possible.

Still, for many the image my nickname conveys is wrong. And we all know that when you’re trying to sleep with close relatives or cheat on your spouse (yes, I’m talking to you Byron-Coleridge-Poe-etc.), it really helps to have a Lord in front of your name or perhaps a good sturdy middle moniker or dignified initials that make everything scan nicely for the reviewers.

Why There Can Be No Guilty Pleasures

There is probably no other term that makes my neck hairs burn. Guilty pleasures. Everyone seems to have them. The English professor who likes to watch Three’s Company reruns. The sound engineer for a national arts radio network who likes to read comic books on the sly. The basketball phenom who, when no one is looking, sneaks out to go bowling. The monster truck driver who puts Abba on his iPod. The hobo who sometimes eats his campfire stew with a fork instead of a spoon. The social misfits who can’t quite close off avenues of enjoyment that would cost them their social status if anyone were to find out.

As a poet who is immersed in pop culture, I suppose I’m expected to have more than my share of guilty pleasures. But I don’t. Here’s why.

First of all, the term is overused. I hate being a cliché, so I wouldn’t say I had a guilty pleasure even if I did. I would at least find another more interesting term. Mind you, that need to stand out makes me a bit of a snob.

Second of all, the term ‘guilty pleasure’ makes the person who uses it sound like a snob. Probably because when they use the term they are being a snob. To say you have a guilty pleasure is to say that you have a form of enjoyment that you feel is beneath you.

Third of all, you’re not feeling guilt, you’re feeling shame. Guilt has to do with committing an immoral or unethical act. Shame is all about losing face and social standing. So if someone said they had a shameful pleasure I would have to nod in agreement at their precision, if not their opinion about themselves. That is, unless they told me they had happened to kill someone with an axe to the head and discovered they had enjoyed it. That would be a guilty pleasure and I would defer to their linguistic acumen. But until I find myself smilingly washing my hands of blood in the bathroom sink, I refuse to have any guilty pleasures.

Maybe it’s because I’m a poet (which is at least three pay grades below hobo) that I can’t have guilty pleasures. After all, you can’t look down on anything if it’s all above you. But I unfortunately know too many poets who have scads of guilty pleasures. This proves that you can have a guilty pleasure no matter how low you are on the social scale. Many poets, while making no money, often see themselves as culturally superior to those who waft money and power around. The culture of ostentatious consumption is full of totems and icons that poets, artists and others see as culturally deficient. And to be a poet whose eyes have begun to linger over passing SUV’s is to be a person with a dark secret in the middle of an environmentally conscious, anti-capitalist crowd.

Of course, the cultural lapses may happen in any number of ways and directions. You can see this in a film like Educating Rita, recently released on DVD. In this film, Dr. Frank Bryant has reached the end with his pampered snobbish students. He’s become lost in his own subculture and no longer wants any part of it. He gradually drinks himself out of a job by acting like a lower class lout. Meanwhile, he’s developed an interest in one of his Open University students, Rita – who eventually wants to be called Susan because that sounds like the type of name a more cultured person might have. She has to hide the shame of going to university classes from her working class husband and kin because they wouldn’t look too kindly on her new found interests. In this case, education is her guilty pleasure. And through the course of their interactions, Rita/Susan actually becomes Frank’s guilty pleasure. He wants her to stay rough and unspoiled with a creative energy and brutal directness that hasn’t been sapped by intellectual life.

It’s that energy that many people find in their guilty pleasures – that thing they had to leave behind in order to assume the social role they have worked hard to attain. But in every role, something is missing. No individual can perfectly fill their role, even if they’ve chosen it for themselves. A song we can’t admit to liking trickles into our ears and babbles like a musical brook in our thoughts all day. A B-movie full of stop-action animated monsters that thrilled us as a child comes on late night TV and we sit bathed in the warm familiar flickers we remember from a long ago matinee.

You can tell what aspects of the self a person has had to sacrifice by what they label as their guilty pleasures. It’s a sad but, many would say, necessary cultural rite of passage to leave things that used to please us behind. But why do we do it? In fact, as I’ve pointed out, the very existence of ‘guilty pleasures’ proves that we don’t leave things behind. We only claim we have. The only way we can fill a role we’ve chosen for ourselves is to lie to everyone and lie to ourselves. Luckily, we are good at both of those things.

The unthinkable alternative would be to embrace everything we like and make no apologies. This is something I am trying on a lifelong basis. Mind you, I hate many things and I’m indifferent to many others. But I think it’s worth trying to be truthful about what we do like and what we don’t. (Maybe at another time I’ll say something about how we pretend to accept many parts of our assigned roles that make us acutely uncomfortable.) Why not simply say we (okay, I) still listen to Abba and The Partridge Family? Why not make a point of championing Ishtar (as one of my friends often does)?

You see, the real danger is that you might convince yourself that you don’t like something you actually do like. You will have achieved the next possible stage of evolution – the reprogrammable robot. Of course, the other possibility is to transcend roles altogether, but I can tell by the way you’re quietly shoving your Archie comic books under your bed with your foot that you aren’t ready for that yet.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Problem of Place

Normally I don’t agree whole-heartedly with the literary declarations of Carmine Starnino. But I have to make an exception for his recent comments in the March 2006 issue of Quill & Quire where he sums up the career of Irving Layton. And I especially support what he says about Layton's relationship with this country:

"I was amused to learn from the CBC that Layton fought for a 'Canadian' voice in our poetry. Layton didn’t have a Canadian bone in his body…He was the first poet from this country to disown his assigned historical self, that boondock checklist of 'Canadian' behaviours."

Admittedly, maybe because Layton wasn’t Canadian-born the roots were just never there. Maybe it takes a certain amount of time for a person to become Canadian or a child has to breathe Canadian air and swim in Canadian water before a certain age or else it’s all for nothing.

But Starnino has nevertheless hit on one of the main things that attracted me as a beginning poet to Layton – that dismissiveness towards the place where he lived. Granted, Layton wasn’t just dismissive, he was contemptuous, as in his poem, “Centennial Ode”:

Like an old, nervous and eager cow
my country
is being led up to the bull
of history

The bull has something else
on his mind
and ignores her

The truth is that the cow did the best it could to enlist the poets at the time of the centennial, including the likes of Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood, whose body of work hasn’t exactly been one long ode to their country of origin. Cow-nada in this is like every other country in assuming that the artist is a citizen first – someone Adrian Clarkson (even before she was Governor General) can parade around like national literary trophies.

Layton’s work puts the lie to this, though; partly because his poems mostly ignored the country he lived in even while embracing Greece and Italy, and partly because most of the poets of this place never welcomed him as one of their own. Sure, there’s the sexism, the strident pro-Israeli statements, and the occasional annoying gnat of poem that many poets saw as a lower art form. But how many poets and publishers who have survived only because of a beneficent state can say they weren’t at least a little bothered by his contempt for this place? Why make such a fuss, especially when there is apparently so much here to be celebrated?

My collision with Layton’s poetry came not long after I had been reading Hermann Hesse, a German writer who abandoned his country between the World Wars because he didn’t like the direction it was heading in – a finely tuned apprehension as it turned out. One of the books I read was a collection of letters entitled If The War Goes On… In it, Hesse and Romain Rolland exchange thoughts on the nature of war and doubts about the validity of the whole national enterprise. Great stuff for a kid in Grade 11 whose English teacher has just said that even though he doesn’t want to teach poetry, he will put the class through two weeks of Canadian poetry “because it’s Canadian.” So the tinder was there and Layton was just the right spark.

But Layton did write about Montreal. He did write about places where he travelled. And there he and I part company. And while the blurbs on the backs of most poetry books published in this country usually end with the writer’s bio and a final sentence saying, “She lives in...” (possibly because where you are from as a poet is more important to most readers than what you actually have to say), I blithely ignore the places I have lived. And they’ve all been decent places – Montreal; Red Islands, Sydney and Antigonish in Nova Scotia; Windsor, Kingston and Toronto in Ontario; and Edmonton. These places stubbornly refuse to inspire me even as they have been good homes for me. It is mainly in my dreams that they appear in any creative way. A high school hallway leads to a university classroom whose door opens onto Alexandra Road in Sydney which intersects Santa Monica Boulevard (must have something to do with the similarities I saw between part of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and George Street in Sydney – a lot of empty retail buildings on a wide, desolate street), which brings me to a poetry reading on Whyte Ave. in Edmonton. If dreams reveal anything about the innermost desires and intentions, then I must not see much difference between the places I’ve been. Or I see them as essentially interconnected, if only by my having been to each of them.

Let’s face it, though – how many of us in North America are born, grow up and live in the same place all our lives? Does place mean the same thing to us as it once did when we couldn’t easily pick and move our lives? Are we as a species gradually moving towards a revelation about the nature of our places – something akin to what the 12th century monk, Hugo of St. Victor wrote? "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land."

I’d like to believe we are moving in that direction – not because it’s some pseudo-religious rejection of the world we live in, but because it’s a more realistic assessment of what land and sea mean to us as a changing species. Yes, species. Most poets like a more folksy approach – a more locally rooted way of being in the world. Who, after all, would dare speak for ‘the species’? But if modern man can reject the possibility of God as a superstition, then why cling to the near mystical belief that a place has a special hold on us? Why choose to reject one superstition and then live inside another one?

The truth is, maybe I just suffer from ‘place envy’ – a baffled fascination with people who write in such loving detail of the places that are close to them. I don’t begrudge anyone their attachments – so long as they don’t look askance at my poems. My poems with no sense of home that wander the page like descendants of Cain, knowing they’ve done something wrong to become so unmoored from the earth, but determined to see what’s out here beyond the ‘Here Be Dragons’ signs.