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.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cliffs Where I Have Been Abandoned

So here I am again, risking heartbreak. They say you can’t fall in love if you don’t take a chance and that you can’t stay in love unless you are ready to commit. Despite the claims of friends, relatives, employers and ex-girlfriends that I am incapable of committing to anything, I’ve already decided to take another chance. Maybe it’s the first wave of autumn air waking me from my languid summer slumber. I start to come alive a little bit in the Fall.

I think it has a lot more to do with the return of my favorite TV shows – it is a time when cliffs will be unhung only to be replaced by more perilously hung cliffs with each episode. Some people get through long winters that offer little hope for life and love just by watching their favorite serial drama. I’m not quite at that stage myself, but my fear of commitment is tested every year at this time when new shows come out and I have to decide whether or not I’m going to watch them. It’s not that I’m afraid of being disappointed that a new show will suck - it’s that I’m afraid a new show will be great and will then be cancelled and I will be crushed. It is like finding the love of your life for twenty-two wonderful dates only to have her sucked up into an alien ship never to return.

I remember God, the Devil and Bob, with James Garner voicing the Almighty. A great concept for an animated adult series that just didn’t wasn’t allowed the time to catch on. And there was Earth 2 and Nowhere Man, both of which were strong serial thrillers along the lines of Lost, but they came a decade or so too soon to be appreciated. And worse, they finished with terrific cliffhangers. Of course, I’ve mentioned Firefly before. At least the film added what could almost be called an intermediate ending to the series. Shows like Tru Calling and Boomtown had potential. Boomtown was, in fact, one of the few cop shows I’ve ever been able to watch. The idea of having a story unfold gradually through multiple personal perspectives of all the characters involved allowed for complex and suspenseful storytelling and humanized all the characters in the process. And having Alicia Silverstone together with Ryan O’Neal on Miss Match was inspired casting. The premise of a lawyer who operates a matchmaking service on the side combined legal drama with romantic dramedy. And then pfft! Hiatus after a half season and its devoted fans were left feeling like they couldn’t find love even through TV. The biggest heartbreak of all was Max Headroom which was allowed to run for an extra half season before being pulled. I believe to this day that some executive somewhere finally woke up and said, “Hey! Maybe supporting a TV show that attacks television doesn’t make us look hip and edgy, but just stupid,” and quickly pulled it.

This year my candidates for wooing are Smith and JerichoSmith mainly because it’s a crime show that isn’t isn’t isn’t about cops and instead focuses on a group of heist meisters. Let’s have some sympathy for the devil once a week in primetime. And Jericho is an obvious choice for me, with my love of disaster movies and my nostalgia for the good old days when a Republican nuclear war would end it all quickly rather than now when a Republican series of wars will end it all slowly. You could argue it’s simply the inverse of Lost – a small group of people with dark secrets are stranded when the rest of the world endures a nuclear catastrophe.

The pilot episodes have been promising and there’s been a lot of teasing going on. The best of it so far is that I don’t have to choose between them and can play the TV field for another season. For those first weeks of Fall my social life can afford to go on hiatus. I’ll leave major decisions hanging for a little while with a sign on my life saying, “To be continued…” And, who knows? If I can learn something about attachment and commitment to TV shows maybe I can move on to real relationships.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Honk If This Car Is Ascending Too Slowly During the Rapture

When I first woke up on September 11, 2001, I turned on the news and the fire and smoke pluming from the towers had my lapsed Catholic mind, still half-asleep, just for a moment latching onto imagery from Revelations. And, judging by the response of the religious right to the event, I obviously wasn’t alone. Now terrorism and jihad have become prime movers of the Apocalypse in Western minds. And it’s that willingness to believe in pure evil and the possible end of all things has led to war, and to war again.

But the conservative mindset isn’t the only one filled with dancing visions of Armageddon. In the August issue of Harper’s, the cover story entitled “A World Without Oil: Scenes From A Liberal Apocalypse” looks at the mostly liberal-led Peak Oil movement and the concern that eventually oil is going to run out and we may well have to literally head for the hills and learn to live off the land again. (Christ will probably be riding down on a chariot, it appears, because there will be no oil and gas left for the divine Hummer.) Many people (as peace and conflict studies expert Metta Spencer points out in her blog) are giving up the leftist cause and simply abandoning civilization in fear of what is coming. All they see is long lines of unmoving cars and a crescendo of helpless beeping. And add to this the list of people who have just seen An Inconvenient Truth and are heading for higher ground.

Things couldn’t possibly be any worse, right? Well, I used to have frequent dreams of nuclear war and trying to survive in the aftermath. Thank you, Mr. Cold War. For decades, the tensions between the bipolar powers were further strained by movies like Fail-Safe and countless spy thrillers and Godzilla movies playing on our fears of nuclear disaster. On top of this, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, had launched an environmentalist movement that insisted we were destroying the world right from under our own feet - not to mention numerous studies that plotted the booming population of the planet to equator-busting limits by the time the new century arrived. (See Soylent Green or even Logan’s Run if you want some indication of where those fears could lead people.)

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 I thought that at least some of the tension would dissipate, but all of a sudden violent crime surged everywhere – at least on the news. Even while the numbers for violent crime were falling, the fear of it was rising. Could it be that people so strongly needed something to fear, some death wish to hold close like a burning teddy bear, they had to manufacture something out there in the night waiting for them? (Oh, and fear of crime is only going to get worse for an increasingly physically vulnerable North American population. There will be fewer young people to commit actual crimes, but more senior citizens paranoid about young people committing crimes.)

When you read far enough back in history, the Apocalypse and its champions have come and gone far too many times to count. Fated dates have whistled by with nary a cleansing flame. Paths of bloody glory have gone unswathed. Maybe that’s why when I was working on my book of poems about the many possible ways the world would end the tone of those poems grew more satirical with each new piece. The book
I had begun in fear was turning into something that was increasingly funny. I had started to realize that the Apocalypse was just a genre – a genre of thought I could play with and deconstruct.

I realized that people often projected their own insecurities onto the world and the Apocalypse takes the shape of what we as individuals fear or, in some cases, desire. The open-minded and tolerant left, for example, really only fears death. That’s why the left have been so outspoken about eating right, exercising, getting all the toxins out of their systems. And so go their attitudes for the environment. “We mustn’t let the planet die,” they assert with a conviction equal to their own need to eat right and take care of their bodies. The right, judgmental as they often are, imagine a Judgment Day when accounts will be balanced, moral deficits made right and winners and losers chosen at last. It will be the capitalist God & Son come for the last stage of a long-planned hostile takeover.

Me, I mostly like shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel where the Apocalypse can happen in any given episode and represents personal moral choices that people make every day. In Buffy the choices are about establishing independence and still keeping your friends close. In Angel it’s about working well with others as an adult and not letting the corporate mentality overwhelm your sense of right and wrong. If you screw up as a person, you let your personal demons win. You are the grounds of Armageddon. You are where the battle is won and lost with every decision you make. This I can understand.

Of course the real end is coming, but it’s unlikely any human will be alive to see it. The planet will most likely die long after humans have passed on. Humans will most likely fade as a species when more tenacious species emerge. Or maybe it will be some very non-Terminator-like robots. Who knows? All I can do right now is be close to those I care about, write down a few things I’ve learned, and relax in spite of all the world-smashing worries people choose to indulge. For now, I live by Buffy’s words: “If the Apocalypse comes, beep me.”

Monday, September 04, 2006

Writing: The Fairy Dust Factory Turned Sweatshop

The book I’ve been reading the last few days is How To Be Idle, by Tom Hodgkinson. Maybe it attracted me because I’ve been particularly busy lately and I wanted a reminder of what it’s like to not be. Don’t get me wrong – I, of all people, don’t need any lessons in being idle. Just ask my mother. Or any of my ex-girlfriends. In any case, the book has reinvigorated my outrage over the grand plot (according to Hodgkinson and many past literary greats) to make us all feel guilty when we’re not working. Mind you, I tend to be one of the exceptions. When I’m not working I tend not to feel guilty so much as, well, great.

In fact, one of the reasons I like to write is that I’m still an amateur at it – meaning I’m seldom paid for my writing. That means that any time I sit down to write I’m playing hooky from work. It’s an act of defiance – mooning at the pedestrian life of jobs and careers. And it’s no accident that so many writers have felt animosity towards work. Work takes us away from that which we find most rewarding. It is the enemy. That doesn’t mean that the discipline of writing is an enemy. Discipline and sometimes forcing oneself to write when one doesn’t want to can be a good thing. Sometimes we resist writing because the act of creating a poem or a character or even a passage of dialogue can draw out things in us we are trying to avoid. (A poetry sweatshop – an off-the-cuff writing session alone or in competition with other poets – can really open up the creative pores sometimes.) And on the practical side, there is a skill to writing and it does help to keep in practice.

But the problem is that work has been steady infiltrating the mindset of writers over the last century. Things began to go sour, in my opinion, when most people in western society learned how to read. Big disaster for writers. Soon anyone who could read and write felt they could be real writers. What had once been considered a craft of a very few has been democratized. What happened next is only my conjecture, but I think writers started feeling defensive. If anyone could write, then how do we separate the hoi polloi from the true geniuses? If one could be trained to write, then genius was presumably within the reach of anyone who was willing to put enough time into writing.

And that was the way out for writers. Time, effort, perseverance, work. Soon writers were talking less about the inspiration for a poem or novel and more about the many drafts it took and the many many submissions of their manuscripts before acceptance. Screenwriters regularly recommend doing a dozen or so drafts of a screenplay before you even think of showing it to an agent. Even though writing had been stripped of its importance as a result of widespread literacy, it could still earn respect if writers simply changed the way they and their audience saw the endeavor. Call it work and people will nod in understanding and respect.

So we saw the emergence of workshops and writing programs, writer’s retreats and sitting in front of a desk every day whether the words come or not. I assume this was meant to both earn writers some respect and to dissuade wannabes from even getting up in the morning. Now the writer is someone who has to tough it out like everyone else and put in so many hours a day. I wonder if Montaigne felt that way writing his incidental essays on philosophical and everyday issues?

Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that a smaller percentage of writers are from the once great leisure class. There are more working class writers out there – pugilistic Hemingways getting up every day with bloody minded determination to dominate the paper canvass. And many of them want to make their writing seem as natural as possible and therefore less impressive to the average reader. (But if you’re going to do that amount of work, I think you should make your writing seem like something unattainable by mere mortals. Something approaching magic.)

These developments make it hard for a lazy person like me to make it as a writer. I, like Hodgkinson, prefer to sleep in. I prefer the excitement of the first draft of a poem to the constant picayune rewrites that follow. I prefer to think of writing as meaningful play. A game where we all learn something by the time the last period falls. I think all forms of work should aspire to become what writing used to be.

But the paradigms have shifted and left me behind. All I can offer to other writers is that when you get up with first light to begin your work day, I’ll stay in bed a little longer and dedicate at least a few minutes of dream to you.