Tuesday, June 23, 2015


I know I belong to the binge-watch era. Most people I know go through downloaded TV series, popular book series, whatever, in a matter of weeks if not days if possible. And yet I've always been the opposite, wanting to linger over things for as long as I can, sometimes to the point of waiting for years to finish movie trilogies.

And thus it was that I finally got around to watching Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse, the final film in his trilogy of “modern life” movies, one of the landmarks of world cinema, one name-checked by countless respected critics and filmmakers.

I'd been putting it off for the better part of a decade. When I was 19 or 20, I watched L'Avventura, the first film in the trilogy as part of my drive to become a serious film buff, the sort of guy who wouldn't just namecheck a movie, but prefix it with the name of the director... “Lynch's Blue Velvet,” you get the idea.

Like a lot of teenage boys with intellectual pretenses, when I first started to consider movies as art, I was drawn to the films of Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, movies that in addition to being generally quite well-made, had the additional benefit of having enough moment of badass and detached cool for a 16 year old boy to really dig. Escapist fantasies, really. All I really wanted to do was do the twist with Uma Thurman, or to turn a basement fight club into an anarchist cell.

And from there I moved onward, in fits and starts, through the films of Tarkovsky, Herzog, Cassavetes, Kurosawa, until, after being delighted by Antonioni's far more popular Blowup, I got around to his early landmark L'Avventura. Here were the bright young things of postwar Italy on a fateful pleasure boat journey where one of their number disappeared. Panic, followed by a frantic search, and then everyone just... kind of forgot. Their friend's disappearance simply became a buzzkill, a distraction from their lives of weekends in Mediterranean resort towns, elegant aperitifs, and chain-smoked Gitanes. This was it, I thought. Ironic distance. Ironic title. The blasted landscape of a desert island off of Sicily, the garish horror of the unthinking rush into the modern.

The '60s had begun, and Italian cinema was changing. The neorealists-- wartime poverty, workers trying their best to make ends meet, bread lines and desperate situations-- were on their way out. Italian neorealists like Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti transitioned into lush period films, Pier Paolo Pasolini started the decade with the mean streets of Rome in Accattone and endied his career 15 years later with fascist mountaintop orgies in Salò, Fellini announced his new sensibilities with a helicopter-borne Jesus carried over Rome, and Antonioni began his long journey into vermouth-flavored ennui.

And yet, as I continued to explore the European art cinema of the '60s, somewhere along the line, it ceased to impress me. When I watched the second film in Antonioni's trilogy a couple years later, I was singularly unimpressed. In fact, I can barely remember the thing. It blends into countless other films I'd seen around that time, by Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, and their fellow travelers, all using the same actors, Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Monica Vitti... how many expressionless middle-aged men entombed in their book-lined studies and painfully tasteful high-modern pieds-à-terre cold-shouldering their neurasthenic, be-Prada'd wives, the whole nasty scene pinned down by self-conscious reflections of Freudian and Lacanian devices.

Antonioni reached his low with his voyage to America in 1970, making the mind-numbing hippie fantasia Zabriskie Point, which tries to draw the, in retrospect, beyond-laughable connection between property crime, revolutionary Maoist politics, and human orgasm as equally liberatory urges in a late-capitalist society, all culminating in an en-masse fuck in the California desert.

Watching L'Eclisse saddened me. All these years after being stunned by it, I have to admit that L'Avventura is truly daring, is truly a wonder, and his Blowup is just as good.

And it's not like what Hollywood has on offer most of the time is any better. If I try to go to the latest CGI spectacle, I come out deeply glum, feeling that I didn't just watch a movie, I just watched a heavily marketed magic trick, seemingly designed by a cynical production team with a mission to condescend to its audience's basest instincts.

After a year or two of obsessive film watching, I sort of trailed off. I went through long phases, of whole months even, without watching a single movie. But that period had transformed the way I saw movies, the way I saw art more generally, and the way I saw the world. You so often learn more from what you don't like than what you do.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

After Midnight, 27 May, 2015

There I was, in a living room. I knew that I'd been there before. The sage-green wallpaper, the molding on the windows, there was a certain familiarity. But I knew that I knew this place from a long time ago, early childhood. That's it, a house I used to visit often. I know this walnut table. I know the smell of this room. We lit the candles, and one by one, our friends walked in through the door, sat down at matching walnut chairs, their hands folded.

And then I wake up.

My, that was pleasant.

But then why is there a knife in my hand?

Did I sleepwalk and get it from the kitchen? Or was it under my pillow this whole time? Did I put it there so I could defend myself? If so, from whom? What am I not remembering?

I lie there a second. It's heavy in my right hand. I can't even lift it. I run my left index finger along the blade, and it's dull to the touch.

What is that noise? Whose voices are those? What are they so angry about? Oh god, that's my voice. I'm yelling at someone. Who? Why am I saying these things? And now I've stopped speaking English altogether.

A face looks in through the window, with heavy eyebrows, mouth slightly hidden.

And it knows what I know.

That this knife is about to go directly into my heart.

And then suddenly, I come to.

I hadn't been sleeping there, not exactly. Dreaming, but awake. The knife is simply my right fist, clenched and heavy, and I'm just now able to move it again. The face is the illumination of a streetlight through the palm fronds.

I'm normally loathe to talk about my dreams. It seems so bloody pointless, so false, and so impossible to convey the truly special qualities of a dream through something so vulgar as simple description. But this was barely a dream, and it was one that I had both the privilege and the misfortune to experience while at least partially conscious.


While the physiologically activity of the brain during this process is beginning to be understood scientifically, and has to do with poor signaling in the complex in and around the amygdala during sleep, the root causes for this misinformation remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Genetics, clinical depression, narcolepsy, poor sleep hygiene, stress, sleeping position, and countless other factors are suggested as causes.

Meanwhile, different societies around the world have their own folk explanations. In Medieval Europe, they were incubi and succubi, and in Scandinavia, they were mara, giving us the word nightmare. In the American South, it was the ghost known as the haint riding you, and in Mexico, it was the devil sitting on your chest. And in remote parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in backwater regions of Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines, it is blamed on the same spirits that cause young men to never wake up, a condition with countless names throughout the Pacific hinterlands, but only described to science with the sinister and no less mythological name of “sudden unexpected death syndrome” less than a generation ago.


Of course, this is what I spent the following day reading. I wanted some kind of explanation, something scientific preferably, or if not, at least a comfortable structure, something to provide narrative and meaning, regardless of how true it was.

There was that house, the candles, the walnut table. Yes, I had been in that house. And the smell of the living room, that was real too. And it was the same as that of the perfume of a woman who had shared this bed with me a couple of nights before, the scent of which still lingered in the corners of my bedsheets.

Our daily lives haunt our dream lives. This is nothing new. Freud said the same thing over 100 years ago, but had the bullheadedness to consider his free association to be science.

I'll say it in far simpler terms, without any pretenses of positivism. In our sleeping hours, we walk through far deeper, darker forests.