Saturday, January 21, 2012

Memory, Mood, and Film

The other day I went to the movies. It's something I hardly ever do anymore-- a few times a year, maybe. But Lars Von Trier's Melancholia was playing at the Varsity, so I walked up to the University District, paid my eight dollars, and had a seat.

In the era of Netflix and torrents, we watch most of our movies at home, on television and computer screens. We put on a movie, and sit back on the couch with a box of Chinese takeout and a beer. When we go to the bathroom, we press the pause button. When I watch movies in my apartment, it's usually because I'm bored. I'm watching a movie, and it's usually a movie I've looked forward to seeing, and it's often a movie I wind up being thrilled by. But it is specifically a video experience, dominated by the norms of video viewing rather than theater viewing.

When we go to the theater now, it's a rejection of that mode of entertainment. You don't have the ability to pause, you can't run to the refrigerator and grab another beer. You are in a darkened space entirely devoted to the idea of film.

People wax on about the grand old movie palaces. However, they're not commenting on the quality of the theaters-- they're pining for the sheer beauty of their architecture, for their bannisters and balconies and scrolled columns. And they're pining for a community of film-goers, for a world in which going to the movies was the thing that people did. In Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, the small town theater only barely plays into the plot of the film. But when it closes, it signifies the end of an age of innocence.

And when critics describe the desire to see a movie in the theater, they rarely use logical lines of reasoning. Rather, their desires are driven by something else. For true cinephiles, it's as if cinema is a holistic thing encompassing the film, the theater, and something ineffable. All existence dissolves into projected light.

Perhaps because of this holistic experience, we don't remember how we saw the movie-- we don't remember the color of the seats or the people sitting next to us. And when we do remember these things, they're viewed as a distractions. We want to remember the movie itself. The darkened theater is imagined as a blank space.

Those memories I have associated with movies, apart from the movies themselves, occur in the afterglow: the collective murmur of the audience exiting the theater, the drive home, the way your faculties slowly readjust to your everyday reality.

As I walked home from the theater, everything seemed imbued with dread. The iron bridges over the Ship Canal creaked, waves lapped at rotting piers, a red sun slowly set over Queen Anne Hill. For hours afterwards, the outside world seemed full of omens, and all my life was imbued with cinematic memory.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Histoire de la Folie

When I write a nonfiction piece, I tend not to tell stories from my daily life. I'd like to think that I write about daily life. But when I say I'm writing about daily life, it's more likely a quietist meditation on reality and memory, informed by morose continental philosophers.

So I’d like to at least try to write about my world as it is now at this place, at this time. For the past few weeks, I've worked at an outpatient schizophrenia facility, which I regularly refer to as the Cuckoo’s Nest. The proprietors have tried to put the bad old days of the Victorian asylum behind them. They’ve filled the lobby with soft chairs and beige carpeting, and laid out a color scheme of warm oranges and browns. But in an era where every medical institution looks like a Starbucks, this makes the Cuckoo’s Nest look all the more antiseptic. Foucault famously pointed out that in the modern world, our schools look like our hospitals and our prisons and our sanatoria. These institutions were once painted sea-green and clinical white, and now they are done up in tasteful earth tones.

The walls are covered with motivational posters, pointing the path to sanity through antipsychotics and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The faces in these posters are serene, their eyes smiling. They don't have the blotchy skin and broken teeth of the real patients, the track marks and bruises and open wounds, the stained and ill-fitting clothes. They are the faces of an inner peace most of the patients will never attain.
In each encounter I have with a patient, there is a certain regret and pity. There is something so dismal about talking a man 30 years my senior, with a gray beard and a wrinkled forehead, as if he was a small child. I try to approach them with empathy; after all, the odds are stacked against them. They are variously schizophrenic or bipolar, possessed of borderline and histrionic personality disorders, addicted to crack and meth and Five Star vodka. Once they were working poor, now they are just poor.

The patients don't reside in hospitals. They live in grim '60s apartment blocks with faux-Hawaiian names on the fringes of the city. Unconfined, they wander down windswept highways and smoke cigarettes in front of low-slung brick corner stores. People in the neighborhood avoid their gaze, and they are as invisible as they would be in Bedlam.

The Cuckoo's Nest is located in an area developed during and immediately after World War II, when returning servicemen and blue collar workers streamed into the region. They came to build the ships and airplanes that would win the war, to cut timber for Weyerhaeuser, to forge I-beams for Seattle Steel. They built their American dream on the broad boulevards that cross the Southwest corner of the city, on Ambaum and Delridge and Roxbury and Pacific Highway.

Now the streets have rotted. The GI bungalows now moulder with peeling paint under the damp Seattle winter sky. Those streets, Ambaum and Delridge and Roxbury and Pacific Highway, are now lined with boarded up strip malls and cinder-block apartment buildings. This is one of the several unincorporated nowhere zones down in this part of the metropolis. This is where Seattle sticks its unwanted: migrant Hispanic laborers, refugees from the Somalian Civil War and the Laotian Secret War, Native Americans from the tiny reservations that dot the Puget Sound, Samoans and Filipinos whose grandparents experienced American colonization, the poor whites with gray skin whose ancestors came over from Norway to fell the great forests.

The sun sets early here in winter. On my bus ride home, I look out at the dusky streets and glowing gas stations, heading back towards the bohemian neighborhood in which I’ve happily ensconced myself. I go home, and will spend the next 16 hours in the land of the sane.