|Jul/Aug 2014 • Miscellaneous|
Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
Anxiety being the fundamental question.
It starts as a concern for food, for shelter, for survival. In the contemporary world, no less than that of our technologically primitive ancestors, the vast majority of lives are occupied with meeting these fundamental needs. The alleged progress of society, scarcely discernible in any sense but the increasing sophistication of popular gadgetry and the development of more streamlined ways of killing people, does not help. No one anymore believes in the idea of progress.
When these basic needs are reliably met—and even when they're not—attention turns to other, lesser concerns. There is no shortage of daily triggers of anxiety, from navigating a crowded subway to discovering a leak in your faucet. But even when no such external factors manifest themselves, the anxiety still remains. We still must live, and we still know abstractly that we must die.
When a person is debilitated by anxiety, it is difficult for him (and if here I retain the masculine pronoun, it is because I am largely thinking of my own experiences) to do much of anything. Focus wanes, work becomes impossible, and the goal of a given day becomes little more than the assuaging of this gnawing, constant nervousness. Attempts to locate the source so that the effect can be lessened are launched, and if one is lucky, all this anxiety is too much for the body to take and it shuts down. Anxiety cedes temporarily to fatigue.
He arrives late at the movie theater and does not get an aisle seat. He always gets an aisle seat, but he does not this time. He should not have stopped to get a cup of coffee, but he always has a cup of coffee when he goes to see a film.
He finds a seat in the middle of the row, as close as possible to the aisle, but it is not very close. He sits down and watches the movie. He is fine for 15 minutes. He sits still and doesn't move except to sip the coffee. Then he thinks about his lack of proximity to the aisle and wonders what will happen if he needs to go out. He is drinking coffee, after all, and he may need to urinate. He does not want to disturb the people sitting beside him.
He takes another sip of coffee and tries to concentrate on the movie, but as the liquid is about to pour down his throat, he thinks about the possibility of his vomiting it back up. It is harsh and may not sit well in his stomach. He feels like he will spit it out before he is able to swallow it, that just thinking about his body's potential rejection of the liquid will lead to that rejection. But he eventually gets it down and, suppressing a minor gag reflex, holds his lips closed and refuses to open them for ten seconds.
He does not drink any more coffee but leaves his cup mostly full. He does not have to go to the bathroom. He just sits and watches the rest of the movie, and despite the occasional worry that he might still vomit, he is mostly able to focus on the screen.
In my neighborhood, there is a fair amount of violent crime. There is also a community group whose goal is to raise awareness about this situation and presumably, to propose solutions. Their presence is felt most significantly on the streets via a series of signs they have created and that local businesses post in their windows. These signs count down the number of days since there has last been a shooting within a certain designated area. They operate like dry erase boards where merchants up the number by one every day until a shooting occurs and then, the slow progress rudely interrupted, the sign resets to zero. It is deeply unsettling to walk by a store window and see that round digit staring back at you. Rather than call attention to a problem that surely everyone in the neighborhood already knows about, the function of these signs seems to be to instill in the residents a greater sense of fear.
The flip side of anxiety is, of course, depression, but also perhaps boredom, the sense that we have been so limited in our ability to experience life because of fear that we suddenly want to do something reckless, to temporarily ignore our hereditary curse (by means of whatever intoxicating substance we choose) and make something, anything, happen.
It was on that popular dating website—you know the one—where vague hopes of achieving some ill-defined, but presumably lasting connection mingle uneasily with more concrete desires for immediate gratification. On that night, I was far more preoccupied with the latter pursuit, and so I turned to the site's mobile app, which then offered a feature that occasionally—but only very occasionally, if you did it just right and had an inordinate amount of luck—functioned as a hook-up tool. The way it worked was people would broadcast a message then made visible to anyone else using the app, who could, in turn, respond to the original poster and make their pitch. As with the site proper, would-be daters tended to make various uses of this particular function. While some regulars used the broadcast as a sort of substitute Twitter account, keeping a running log of comical observations having little to do with the partner-seeking game most of the rest of us were playing, others were clearly, if cautiously, looking to arrange some on-the-spot meetings. (Here, I hasten to add that I'm talking strictly about the broadcasts of women looking for men. I have no idea how things operated in the reverse context or in the non-hetero world.)
I had only ever arranged one successful meeting via the app, although here the term "successful" is necessarily relative. For a while, torn between a nagging loneliness and a reckless desire for sex—the two by no means so easily distinguishable—I would go out by myself, drink too much, find myself still unable to talk to any of the people around me at the bar, and seclude myself in a corner where I fiddled endlessly with the app, attempting via the virtual to effect the real-world encounter I could not otherwise figure out how to achieve.
One Saturday night, sufficiently intoxicated, I came across a broadcast indicating the poster was looking to get into some "springtime mischief." I responded; she replied; an hour later, she arrived to meet me at the bar where I was sitting by myself; another hour later, we were back at my place having sex that in my memory is defined by endless—and eventually tiresome—pounding that seemed to bring neither of us any closer to orgasm, and me desperately varying my limited stock of dirty phrases I uttered to suit her pleasure.
The next morning, hungover, our bodies at last revealed to each other in all their unloveliness, we agreed at my suggestion to meet again, a gesture likely offered out of a sense of misplaced duty. But neither of us ever followed up, and so my relentless coital promise of the night before to "fuck [her] pussy" never found its sequel, reaching its endpoint in an indifferent a.m. parting.
"What was life like on planet Earth on July 24, 2010?" Setting out to answer that question, Kevin Macdonald's crowd-sourced collage film Life in a Day reaches some pretty unstartling conclusions: Unless you were starving to death or living in Afghanistan, it was probably pretty fucking boring. Crafted from 4,500 hours of user-submitted YouTube videos, all taken from a single day, the movie records such personally significant moments as a teen's first shave and a tearful man in his hospital bed reflecting on the successful heart surgery he just underwent, but without any prior familiarity with these people's lives, the snippets fail to shift the emotive import from subject to viewer. Furthermore, the sympathies that these scenes depend upon are undercut by the unchecked narcissism of the people involved, so that even the rare moment of genuine pathos (a young man calling his grandmother to explain that his male "friend" is actually something more) leaves us wondering why exactly the subject felt the need to document such a private moment and broadcast it to the world.
Appearing in January of 1977, the Buzzcocks' 10 minute EP, Spiral Scratch, was one of the earliest examples of British punk, but its larger significance lies in the fact that the record was self-released on the group's New Hormones label, inspiring generations of DIY punksters. Of the album's four tracks, the key number is "Boredom," an irrepressible, slightly tongue-in-cheek ode to the eponymous state, most fervently evoked not through Howard Devoto's numbskull lyrics, but through Pete Shelley's two gleefully moronic solos, each consisting of the guitarist alternating endlessly between the same pair of notes for a good 20 seconds. But while the content of these solos neatly mirrors the song's theme, the effect of listening to them is paradoxically thrilling. In short, they are anything but boring.
Several weeks later, again without plans, again drinking by myself, although this time at home, I was back at it, responding to broadcasts and even posting one of my own. (This effort was beyond feeble—"drinks in Brooklyn?"—and yielded the predictable lack of interest.) After replying without result to all the remotely appealing broadcasts in the area, I came across one that promised something far from the regular business usually transacted on the app. "Couple seeks someone to film them," it read, adding that they were looking for "someone who will keep their pants on." The accompanying profile was the woman's and she was cute enough that the thought of simply seeing her naked was enough to convince me to proceed.
I responded, indicating my interest and requesting more information. I received a reply, and after a few back-and-forth exchanges in which it transpired that, whoever may have nominally owned the profile, I was communicating with the man, I asked if there would be any girls there for me. I don't know what I was expecting, but he replied that he couldn't help me out there, but that I'd have all the weed and whiskey I wanted while I recorded them going at it. He also told me that the two of them were so hot that I would definitely need to jerk off afterwards.
Whatever. At that point, there was no longer any question of my staying in, and since this was my only opportunity to engage in any form of sexual activity that evening, however vicariously achieved, I got in my car and drove, quite drunkenly, along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway until I got to Astoria. I parked, and the guy was waiting for me on the corner by himself, a tall blond dude with a vaguely southern accent. He led me up to the apartment, which I believed belonged to his girlfriend. The main room was sparsely decorated, containing little more than a couch and a television. The woman was sitting on the couch, alternating between fooling around with her phone and glancing up at the larger screen in front of her. She barely acknowledged my presence.
The man directed the conversation, tried to put me at ease. He explained that his girlfriend was Chinese and her English wasn't terrific, but, he assured me, whispering conspiratorially, she liked to fuck. He also informed me that the two of them had both taken a week off from work, were on molly, and had been hanging out in the apartment for days on end, riding the drug's highs and lows and only leaving the living room to go out for snacks and booze or to the bedroom for sex.
He started in on a little get-to-know-you talk, the effect of which was to make me think that I would rather not know him at all—except as a sexual object to be filmed. He explained that, although he was from Texas, he was a liberal (he even voted for Obama!), but then seemed to contradict this claim by sharing a story about his failed attempt to lead a "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" chant on the Long Island Rail Road when news of the assassination of Bin Laden broke.
I sat there drinking whiskey and waiting for the moment when he felt comfortable enough to begin. His girlfriend was apparently prepared to start at any time. None of this seemed to faze her or even really interest her, although perhaps it was a question of the language barrier. But the man clearly needed to work up to it. When I sensed he was finally ready, I gently prodded him, reminding him of the now late hour and suggesting that we get going. After a brief discussion of porn shooting techniques—an area in which I had no firsthand experience, but about which I had many ideas—we began.
Eight years before the Buzzcocks were outlining their vision of boredom, the Stooges were articulating their own very different take on the subject. With songs like "No Fun" and especially "1969," the Detroit quartet's first album was less a refutation of the ideals of the decade at whose tail end the record appeared, than one joylessly indifferent to anything outside the unfulfilling pleasures of teenage kicks. Undeterred by any idea that the year might have any of the world historical significance others tried to attach to it, lead singer Iggy Pop declared 1969 as being nothing more than "another year with nothing to do."
But if the lyrics seemed unaffected by history, the music felt anything but. The sound was denser, heavier than any (no)fun-in-the-sun offerings heard before, and there was always the sense (fully confirmed on their next record), that Pop's bored pose concealed a man on the verge of breakdown. Unlike in the Buzzcocks' playful anthem, the Stooges found little humor in their situation, and the tell is that rather than Shelley's cheeky minimalist solo, the Detroit band's sound is dominated by guitarist Ron Asheton's endless washes of ear-straining, feedback-laden noise, a clamor no less appealing than the Manchester group's more streamlined sonic attack.
When the anxiety reaches a certain level, it takes on physical dimensions. It is, of course, a roiling in the stomach, but also a concentrated if dull throb at the base of the neck, a stiffness of the lower back, and a continual sense of pressure in the temples whose oppressive crunch is immune to Advil and cold compresses alike. It can also be felt, on occasion, in the legs.
He handed me his iPhone, which was switched to the video function, and moved in on his girlfriend on the couch, immediately pulling off her pants and underwear and licking her clit. I stood over them, watching though plastic and metal. Filtered through the iPhone screen, all the eroticism I had expected to encounter was drained out. It was as if I were merely watching, rather than participating in the making of, a pornographic film.
After about five minutes, the man stopped and told me he couldn't continue. "I just can't do it," he said. He apologized to me and, exhausted, I climbed into their bed and passed out, setting the alarm on my phone for 8 a.m. Presumably, they continued to stare sleeplessly at the television while I dozed.
I got up at 8 and drove back to Brooklyn. A few days later, the man contacted me, informing me that they were now prepared to go through with it, that they liked my work, and that I should come back if I was interested. I didn't respond.
A few weeks after that, I noticed the two had set up a couples profile, the man evidently having moved so far beyond his original timidity he was now prepared to include additional partners in his lovemaking.
After a lengthy hiatus from the site, I returned to find the broadcast function had been removed from the app. I wondered if there had been some unfortunate incidents resulting from the random meetings the app facilitated that had forced the site's owners to take action. It seemed likely. After all, the whole thing was designed to facilitate unfortunate incidents of varying degree.
Looking back, I find myself missing the excitement borne of seemingly endless possibility that the broadcast promised—even if the excitement nearly always turned to disappointment. But I think we can scarcely deny it's for the best (for humanity, really) that this particular feature has been relegated to the ranks of failed facilitators of instant romance. Besides, in a culture that dizzies as frequently as it isolates (the two being flip sides of the same thing), where we continually demand a cure (now!) for our unquenchable loneliness, when there's always ready money to be made from strange new ventures, we can be sure of one thing: there's always another app on the way.
He first noticed the problem in college. He would go to the dining hall and suddenly be unable to eat. The hall was very large. It was a converted church, and the high ceilings and endless rows of communal tables made it seem even larger. At first, he didn't mind eating by himself, but by the second year, if he didn't see any friends, he would feel very uncomfortable. He sat by himself and hoped no one he didn't know would sit down and try to talk with him. He looked for a seat at the edge of the table in order to effect a rapid escape when he was done and minimize contact with others. He ate quickly.
But, then, this anxiety about interacting with others turned to a worry about the act of eating itself. He began to imagine himself vomiting in the middle of the meal, and these thoughts took on added force when he sat amidst a group of people and could not take his favored place at the edge of the table. He tried to arrive as soon as the place opened, taking his dinner at the improbable hour of 4:30 p.m. This was not always possible, but even when it was and he was one of the few people in the hall, he still fixated on the possibility of vomiting, and each bite he took was an act of willing himself to swallow the food and keep it down. All this concentration on not vomiting only made the situation worse.
I once dated a woman, however briefly, with something of a similar problem. After a successful first meeting, I proposed a dinner out for our second date, but she replied she had problems eating in stressful situations, and so we made alternate plans. She was excessively thin, but she didn't seem to refrain from eating out of a sense of a warped body image; it appeared rather she was simply anxious about consuming food, at least in the company of others. I don't know if she ate more when she was by herself, but I never saw her take more than a few bites of food in the month or so we were together.
Among the least felicitous trends in recent American cinema are a focus on the inarticulate male wandering the lonely city, the compulsion of characters to videotape everything they see in an attempt to get at some higher truth, and the use of politically oriented radio broadcasts as a way of situating the action in a larger social context. Generation Um... is built around all three.
This graceless, intellectually bankrupt hodgepodge follows that aging embodiment of the inarticulate male, Keanu Reeves, here playing a marginal figure named John, as he wanders around Manhattan's Lower East Side and spends time with two younger female escorts he befriends, Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), mostly observing in passive silence as they get drunk and high and lose their shit. John's perambulations, which include a stop at such hotspots as Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, where he slowly nibbles at a cupcake, suggest a battered-down, vaguely menacing conception of the LES, in keeping with the character's presumed anomie. While these sequences have an undeniably appealing, spaced-out rhythm, they quickly grow tiresome. This becomes especially apparent as director Mark Mann spends a good third of his movie just watching John do nothing and Mia and Violet snort coke and pass out in their panties as if these observations were in any way worthy of the viewer's attention rather than being just another lame non-comment on contemporary alienation. An ongoing radio broadcast talking about the dire state of the economy scarcely qualifies as sufficient context.
Still, with their occasional moments of visual flair, these scenes are far preferable to the balance of the film, in which, following a single moment of non-passivity in which John steals a camcorder from a performance-art enactment in a city park and eludes a gang of performers in hot pursuit, he begins to film everything. This leads to his quizzing Mia and Violet about their past lives and present sexuality, a turn that proves about as revelatory as a Psych 101 seminar. Mistaking half-assed questioning with profound probing, Mann proves that the generation(s) he portrays indeed have little more to say than the faltering utterance indicated by the film's title, even when subjected to the supposed high-intensity catalyst of John's (and Mann's) camera.
From the website of New York's recently opened Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space: "During the 1970s housing crisis, activists, punks, hippies, street kids and other homeless individuals took over and reclaimed derelict buildings on the Lower East Side through mass homesteading and squatting movements. At the peak of these movements in the late 1980s, over 30 squats existed in the Lower East Side, providing homes for nearly 1,000 people."
Although the city has granted some of these older squats limited-equity co-op status, and while activists continue to advocate for affordable housing, the idea of such a widespread underground movement taking shape in the now money-saturated LES—or anywhere in Manhattan—is almost quaint. It belongs firmly to an earlier era.
At a gallery opening, I caught up with a friend I hadn't seen in a long time. He refrained from drinking wine, and when I asked him why, he said that, lately, even the mildest form of drug use triggered intense anxiety. He not only was not drinking alcohol, but had given up coffee, too. (Even decaf, he explained, made him feel jittery as it still contained a trace amount of caffeine.) He could barely smoke a cigarette because the little jolt the nicotine provided upset his nerves, despite the fact that he'd been consuming a pack a day for years. At a certain point, you wonder how much of this is simply in a person's head, until you realize all anxiety is a question of mental maladjustment and the trigger is often completely disproportionate to the result.
Sometimes the reaction to debilitating anxiety is not boredom, fatigue, or recklessness, but anger. When the nagging intensity of constant dis-ease begins to lessen, it can give way to rage, properly directed at the self, but often turning outwards instead. Whoever is closest at hand will be the likely target. If no one is around, the walls of one's apartment will do nicely.
A leading New York-based anger therapy group rejects the idea of "management," arguing there are other ways to look at the emotion than something to be controlled. Their website asks, "What should we do with anger if we don't manage it?" and concludes:
Build with anger. Give it to others so they can make use of it. There are a lot of good reasons to be angry—difficult circumstances from our past, the state of the world. When we relate to anger as something that needs to be managed, whether in a therapy group or elsewhere, we diminish its value. We cut ourselves off from the ways that anger can be put to good use.
They can't find weed, and they want to smoke. They are home from college on winter vacation, and they do not know where to find weed. If they were back at school, it would be everywhere, but they no longer have any connections here, in the place where they grew up.
They want to get high. They want to get high, and they do not know how. They decide the only thing to do is to buy cough syrup. They go to the store and buy a bottle of cough syrup, which the two of them will share.
They go back to his house and wait until his parents go to sleep. They each take six doses of the stuff and wait. Eventually they both feel a warm pulse move through their bodies. They put Can on the stereo. They call up forgotten television advertising jingles buried deep in their consciousness and sing. They declare themselves fit to perform a rock show should the need arise. (They are not musicians and do not play any instruments.)
Then things get odd. He begins to hallucinate, candy-striped lines moving in front of his eyes. He does not think this is possible, having only taken six doses, but there they are, and they continue when he lies down in bed, unspooling across the ceiling. He sleeps little and wakes up the next day and calls his friend who has reported no ill effects from his own experiences.
The hallucinations stop, but he feels a continued pressure in his spine that won't go away. He feels nervous. He feels like he is not himself and is unable to return to feeling like himself and may never return to feeling like himself, and this makes him more nervous. He tells his parents what has happened, and they reproach him mildly. Then he rests for a few days and feels normal again.
One of the pressing issues facing the NFL is the question of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease that seems to be striking an alarming number of retired players and reducing them to something resembling a vegetative state by the time they hit middle age. There is no doubt this is a tragic and scientifically-verified consequence of a nonetheless highly-entertaining sport, but one wonders what sort of other psychological consequences dog these ex-athletes throughout life without physically affecting the brain. Do former defensive ends always find themselves on the offensive, bringing their endless pursuit of human prey to civilian lives? Do ex-quarterbacks cower in corners in their later years after two decades of being chased by these relentless stalkers every weekend?
Medication list (ages 16-33): Prozac, Paxil, Klonopin, Xanax, Celexa (brand), Lexapro, Cymbalta, Abilify, Wellbutrin, Celexa (generic), BuSpar.
He goes back to school, and he can't wait to smoke weed. He doesn't have to wait long. The first night back, he is hanging around his dorm room, and some friends come over, and they bring a bag of marijuana and some papers. They roll a joint and start passing it around. He takes one hit and passes it on. He takes a second hit and then stops. The earlier sensation from his cough syrup experiments—a tingling in the spine rapidly evolving into a total loss of control—returns. He has never experienced any negative feelings from smoking pot before.
He leaves the room and goes for a walk, but the feeling remains. He cannot gain mastery over himself. His thoughts refuse to focus, and he feels like he will never be normal again. He does not hallucinate as he had in the earlier incident, but otherwise it feels exactly the same. He walks for about half an hour and then comes back to his dorm room. It seems tiny.
"Where did you go?" asks one friend.
"Are you okay?" asks another.
He does not know what to say. He nods and sits down on a chair pulled up to a makeshift coffee table composed of several pieces of somebody's luggage. It seems the weed has already been smoked, and everyone is just sitting around. Eventually they leave, and he settles into his bed, the top half of a bunk. He can feel the tension in his muscles, and he cannot sleep. He stares at the ceiling, which is only a couple of feet from his eyes, and focuses on the imperfect textures born of a halfhearted paintjob. The bumps and squiggles close in on him.
We live with the threat of several kinds of annihilation, but perhaps the one that comes least to mind was once the most prominent in the national consciousness: nuclear devastation. Now, with climate change taking pride of place among our collective fears, we forget about the very real possibility of being nuked to oblivion.
This tension between our cavalierly quotidian attitude and the apocalyptic scenario that may still await us is at the heart of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's 1987 effort Missile. Taking as its subject a 14-week Air Force training class for the men and women who will be responsible for triggering the launching of ICBMs at specific overseas targets, the film unfolds in the director's signature "observational" style, which eschews interviews and direct authorial commentary. The story is in the editing, and in Missile what emerges is a vision of bland functionality and generalized banality underlining the process by which the world can be destroyed at the press of a button.
As a compilation film, The Atomic Café is no revelation, but given the quality of the footage being compiled, it hardly needs to be. A skillful audio/visual assemblage of newsreels, army training movies, television spots, radio broadcasts and novelty pop songs, Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty's 1982 film offers a startling cultural record of the atomic age as seen through the official rhetoric leveled at the average United States citizen. Proceeding in roughly chronological order and avoiding much in the way of their own rhetorical flourishes, Loader, Rafferty, and Rafferty let the material speak for itself, and when your holdings include such outrageous items as Burt the Turtle advising children to duck-and-cover, a newsreel announcer positing the suburban shopping mall as the crowning achievement of capitalism (take that Soviets!) and a U.S. Army film comparing the risk of atomic energy to that of cooking on a stove or showering (what with that slippery soap), that's probably not such a bad strategy.
Still, those who laugh at the quaintness of a bygone era—and admittedly there's a grim humor to be found in the sight of schoolchildren being told to drop to the ground and cover their heads as a ward against nuclear attack—do so at their own risk. Much of the rhetoric on display will be eerily familiar to those who haven't stricken the Bush II administration's public idiom entirely from their memories. LBJ calls USSR the "enemy of freedom" while Truman invokes God's guidance to justify his use of the A-bomb. The politics of fear are well in place (newsreels advising children to be constantly vigilant for a flash in the sky) as is an insensitivity to the destruction being visited upon foreign civilians (one radio wag compares Hiroshima to "Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants"). Watching this footage today, it's easy to see how little the rhetoric has changed; it may have gotten a little more sophisticated, a tad subtler, but we've simply replaced one enemy with another, while nuclear war remains every bit as much a threat as it was in the 1950s.
Another day of feeling the same, and he checks himself into the emergency room. He has not managed to regain control over himself or to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. It is the weekend, and much of the small town surrounding the campus has shut down, so he has no options but to go to the hospital. It is a tiny emergency room, and they lead him past many old men who look like they are dying, and his anxiety increases because he does not view himself as being in the same state as these hopeless cases, but suddenly he worries he might be.
He is led into a consulting room, and he explains his situation. They do not believe him when he says he has only taken two hits from a joint and two days later he is still feeling this way. He cannot make them understand how he feels. They admit him to a room, and he lies there on the bed, feeling the same way, trying to sleep. He falls asleep, but only for an hour or two at a time. They give him medication every four hours. He does not know what this medication is, but it does not seem to help. Nonetheless, he finds himself wandering the halls in the middle of the night, asking for more. They do not give him any, and he returns to bed and sleeps very fitfully.
The next day his mother arrives in the early afternoon, having taken a five-hour plane trip out to the Midwest to visit him. She checks him out of the hospital and then takes him back to her hotel. She gets on the phone with a doctor or maybe several and then gets off and hands him a Xanax. She says the doctor or doctors or whoever she was talking to have approved it. He swallows the pill, and 20 minutes later he feels fine and goes to sleep. He wonders why they didn't just give him a Xanax at the hospital in the first place.
How will humanity finally meet its end? Global warming? Overpopulation and the subsequent exhaustion of resources? Lucy Walker's slick, fear-mongering Countdown to Zero makes a pretty good case instead for an old Cold War standby. Full of amped up rhetoric and glossy graphics, along with a wealth of frightening information, Walker's 2010 documentary is both a clear-sighted, easy-to-follow primer on the current state of the world's nuclear situation and the cinematic equivalent of those Homeland Security color-coded threat levels. As when the government raises the alert from yellow to orange, the principal effect of watching the doc is to leave the viewer feeling terrified and helpless.
In 2007, I became a film critic. I had wanted to make the move for a long time. After reading dozens of books of film criticism and catching up with innumerable cinematic blind spots, I felt ready. I began a blog, and when that started to get attention, I wrote to editors from various reputable outlets and managed to fashion a marginal freelancer's existence. I never made enough to fully sustain myself, but I contributed to many high profile publications and had the self-serving thrill of knowing my work was read by more than the 100 or so people who generally constitute the core audience for this sort of thing. Eventually, at the end of 2013, burned out from reviewing so many mediocre films and frustrated at not being able to earn a proper living in the field, I gave it up.
The first thing you learn when writing film reviews is to construct well-thought out arguments backed up by textual evidence. It's a long way from the rude and unsubstantiated opinions you rattle off to your friends, although there's room for that sort of tossed-off opinion in film reviews, too, particularly if your word count is, as is often the case, embarrassingly low. While you never want to get overly enamored with this sort of thing, it's too fun a gesture to ignore entirely. It bestows a sort of instant power, however small-scale, on an existence marked by generalized impotence.
The rest of the semester is a wash. He goes on medication. He goes to see a therapist, but she does not understand him, so he skips his subsequent appointments without informing her in advance. He drinks every night for two weeks straight and does not attend class during that time. He is in danger of failing all his coursework, but he shows up for the last few weeks and takes the finals and passes all his classes. The highest grade he gets is a C+, in Introduction to Philosophy, and this is only because when he hands in a long overdue paper he includes a note confessing his precarious mental state to the professor.
After the semester, he goes home and rests, and then he returns after summer break and feels better.
"How should a person be?" asks the title of a recent, celebrated novel, the simultaneous vagueness and universality of the question presumably being the point. This is the conundrum that every narrative work of fiction deals with, the author—or whoever named her book—seems to say, so I'm going to put it front and center, but do so cheekily and with a knowing sense of the impossibility of fully grappling with such a vast and fundamental problem.
The actual experience of reading the book, though, reveals a text marked by all of the earnestness and little of the irony implied by the title. It is simultaneously unabashedly blunt and surprisingly pedestrian in its treatment of the eponymous queries. Nonetheless, the questions it asks remain valid.
How should a person be, then?
How should a person be when that person is free to pursue any line of work he or she chooses?
How should a person be when that person is limited by material circumstances?
How should a person be when that person is constrained by the limitations, psychological or otherwise, of his or her own mind?
How should a person be when his or her life is marked principally by anxiety? How when by boredom?
How should a person be when that person defines his or herself through relationships with friends, family, lovers?
How should a person be when that person defines his or herself by work?
How should a person be when that person defines his or herself by money?
How should a person be when that person feels unable to live as he or she wants?
Beth walks down the road, slipping on ice. She slips on ice and men call out to her, but she does not fall, she does not heed the calls, she keeps on walking.
"Be careful, now," says one of the voices she ignores, but she is through with being careful. She does not want to end up with her face in a pile of snow that looks soft but is marked by hidden, spiky shards of ice. Neither, though, does she want to return home exactly as she left it. She is just walking, west as it turns out.
She walks west, and the streets empty. There are no stores or restaurants. There is just ice and snow and emptiness. Behind her is fatigue, ahead of her is nothing.
"Slow down, now," says a voice she hears or maybe imagines, but there is no slowing down. She must walk until she sees something, anything, really, and then she may stop.
She sees a cat jut across the road. There are a lot of stray cats around, and yet she is surprised to see this one. The movement startles her, but she does not break stride.
Finally the street ends, and she sees a few men hanging out in the cul de sac, doing she cannot tell what. Perhaps they are just standing there and doing nothing. They see her, and they look at each other for a few seconds, and no one says anything.
She turns around and retraces her steps and walks faster than she was walking before. "What's the hurry?" she hears a voice say, but she does not look back to see who is calling to her and continues looking directly ahead until she has returned home.
To be overcome with anxiety is to cede power to the parts of yourself that you would like to imagine don't exist. To go out, to give into a conscious intent to interact with others, to write, to express strong opinions, these are all ways to attempt to regain this power.
Looking back from the vantage point of a devastated, CG-crafted future, Franny Armstrong's cautionary climate-change film The Age of Stupid outlines the present day ills that, in the film's hypothetical setting, effectively made the world uninhabitable by 2055. As the Sydney Opera House burns and the Taj Mahal lies in ruins, Pete Postlethwaite sits in the global archives—a digital repository of all that's valuable in our vanished civilization—recording a jeremiad against our current age of willful ignorance. In between teary laments, the actor, playing some combination of last survivor and himself, introduces clips from the archive, documentary snippets from the present day that make up the bulk of the film's content.
Taking the form of individual profiles, these segments chronicle the collateral damage of global warming and its principal agent, the unending quest for oil—as well as the efforts of a few activists to combat climate change, both locally and globally. But if Armstrong seems to endorse these gestures of individual activism, her film nonetheless registers a largely pessimistic attitude toward their efficacy, as in a lengthy segment chronicling the dogged efforts and eventual defeat of one man's project to install a wind powered farm in the English countryside. Only a global system of carbon rationing, a plan outlined in a voiceover interlude, seems to earn Armstrong's full endorsement as a means of averting the film's imagined apocalypse, but given the oil companies' stranglehold on world governments the director outlines throughout the movie, the implementation of such a program ends up seeming hopelessly quixotic.
For a while the anxiety lessens, and he focuses on his schoolwork, and his grades return to normal, but then he starts seeing someone, and the old feelings return. He goes for a semester to study abroad in France, a set of plans that he has made before he met her and which he cannot change now. He does not want to go, does not want to leave her behind, but he must. While he is abroad, he drinks enormous amounts of alcohol and spends his remaining money on phone cards with which to call her. He calls her every chance he gets. After a while, he has been in every tabac in Toulouse, all of which sell their own phone cards, and he knows which stores sell the cards with the most minutes.
One day, he inadvertently learns that she has, without consulting him, arranged to study abroad in London the following semester. A friend sends him an e-mail containing this bit of news, assuming he has already heard it. He has not. He calls her from the booth outside the apartment where he is staying and they talk for hours until he is temporarily calm. But for the rest of his stay abroad, he is perennially agitated and he drinks every night.
It is one thing to endure this feeling for one semester—the sense that everything he experiences is not only incomplete, but not even real because she is not there to share it with him—but the thought of having to do it all over again for another five months is intolerable. And, then, there is the sexual jealousy. He does not know what she is up to back at college, but the aggression of the French men, which he sees continually directed at the American women in his program, many of whom are responsive to the advances, stirs up generalized feelings of suspicion he naturally transposes onto his girlfriend back home.
"Bacteria are on higher evolution plane than a movie critic," writes one syntactically-challenged commenter on a recent worst-films-of-the-year feature at a respected film website. This hatred of movie critics, and critics in general, is nothing new—see the repeated barbs against the profession in the works of writers from Samuel Beckett to David Markson—but the more recent internet-based hatred seems to be rooted in some misguided "populist" response to perceived elitism. This sentiment, combined with the idea that critics are just rattling off opinions for the sake of contrarianism, helps explain further comments from the same feature like "Fuck movie critics! Some of these movies were entertaining. The best thing is to judge a movie for yourself," ignoring the fact that critics have (presumably) an advanced knowledge of film history and spend their entire professional lives thinking about movies and thus have a privileged relationship to the art form.
But, like any arena of writing, criticism is not a purely objective practice. No matter how stringently the critic aims at neutrality, strives to avoid the mere giving-of-opinion that detractors accuse him or her of indulging in, the art form is still undertaken by individuals with their own inherent biases and their own experiences which shape their viewpoints. Unless it manifests itself as the mere settling of petty scores, though, this is not necessarily a weakness of film criticism, but, indeed, a potential strength.
Psychiatrist 1: On a scale of one to ten, with ten being unbearable, crippling anxiety, what number corresponds to the least amount of anxiety you ever feel?
Me: Probably a four.
Psychiatrist 1: And what are you at now?
Me: I feel okay now. Probably a four.
Psychiatrist 1: And last time you were here?
Me: An eight or a nine. I wasn't doing too well then.
Psychiatrist 1: But you're doing better now.
Me: For the moment.
Psychiatrist 1: So, I guess, the way I see it, and tell me if you agree, the idea here is to manage the highs and lows, so that there's less of a gap between the two.
Me: Well, yes, that's one thing. The other thing is to have my baseline be more like a one or a two. So I don't feel anxious every second of every day.
He comes back to the U.S., and then she goes away. While she is gone, he starts drinking almost every afternoon and passes out by ten. One day he picks up his desk chair and slams it down, and it breaks, and then the woman in the dorm room next door knocks on the wall and yells at him to be quiet, but he screams back at her to shut the fuck up, and then they are both quiet.
Eventually she comes back from London, and then they are together. They graduate, and he goes to grad school, and she moves with him, and everything is fine, and he feels almost calm for close to a full year.
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Throughout their lengthy and prodigious career, but especially in the early years, British rock outfit The Fall have written and performed no shortage of songs dealing with drug experience, particularly the use of amphetamines. Their 1980 classic "Container Drivers," a song about the vagaries of the long-distance trucking life, arguably represents the peak of their exploration of the manic upside of that brand of controlled substance abuse. (Honorable mention goes to the self-explanatory "Totally Wired".) While the lyrics play it coy—excepting the single pun "speed for their wages"—the twitchy rockabilly beat and the sputtering vocals of Mark E. Smith perfectly suggest an amped up trucker—or really anyone high on the drug in question—zipping his way down an empty road, metaphorical or otherwise.
The previous year, with the song "Frightened," the group presented the flip side of the amphetamine experience, using a midtempo beat sounding deliberately held in check and the blistering guitar work of Martin Bramah (a sound soon to be excised from the band along with the guitarist himself) to suggest a sinister foreboding in keeping with the song's title. But it's Smith's hyper-intense vocals—each line he delivers punctuated by his trademark "uh"—that makes the tune terrifying, a testament to hellish sensations. In the end, however, the song is perhaps more frightening than it is truly representative of a frightened state of mind. Each member of the group is too certain, too confident in his or her singing and playing. This is, finally, not what anxiety sounds like.
One of the defining features of our country's mental landscape is a sort of bland optimism in the face of a world the consideration of which should logically result in any reaction but positivity. This response appears, paradoxically, to be mixed with a certain sense of helplessness, fostered by a fear-mongering news media. It's as if we're being told, "Be terrified, but do what we say and everything will be okay." Or, "Since you're fucked anyway, just forget about everything and focus on being very mildly entertained." The absorption of this message and the corresponding mindset, born of willful ignorance and suppressed fear, is no less prevalent in the supposedly enlightened Brooklyn where I live than it is in small-town America. It is, as they say, intensely problematic.
For example, a representative quote from the online dating profile of an intelligent, middle-class Brooklyner might read something like this: "I am an optimistic person. I awaken in the morning thinking about how great life is."
He cannot drive on highways anymore. He can drive on local streets, but not highways. When he is zipping along, he always thinks that he is going to intentionally crash the car, and then he has to pull over and stop until he has sufficiently banished these thoughts from his mind to continue. Eventually, the thoughts become unbanishable.
Martin goes out of his house and walks down the street he lives on and then turns left on the next street. The roads are empty, and he is scared. There is something just the slightest bit off here. There is no one around, and it seems like there will never be anyone around again. He turns right on the next street, and still there is nobody. No people, not even any cars except for the ones parked by the side of the street and which look not so much temporarily placed as permanently abandoned.
There are not many stores on the block, but the ones there look closed, their grates drawn down like silver teeth stricken with lockjaw. Martin does not know what to do, so he just keeps walking. Soon he is lost, or perhaps everything just looks the same. No matter where he turns, the streets give off the same vibe of utter abandonment.
He turns right at every street, making right angles leading him in a circular path, but eventually he finds himself back on his block. He goes upstairs and finds his apartment exactly as he left it and does not go out again for a long time.
The anxious mind prefers crushing disappointment to prolonged uncertainty. It is a very bitter relief.
Prolonged certainty, however, is preferred. Once it is achieved, any threat to this stability is strategically ignored. After all, no one wants to return to what came before.
Lately things have not been right with her. They have gotten married and moved to New York, and they are both working, but things are not right. She goes to see movies, and then she comes back and says the movies are about her. At first he does not know what she means, but it eventually becomes clear she thinks every movie she sees is literally about her. As if the film's producers have been spying on her and then putting her life up on screen in some sort of coded language only she can comprehend. She checks a website that posts box office updates constantly, and when a movie she has seen tops the receipts, she is both alarmed and vindicated. After all, the whole world is paying to see the intimate details of her life.
He knows something is wrong, but he does not pay much attention. He has his work, a breezy office gig in which he spends most of his time socializing with co-workers, and he is on medication that has significantly reduced his anxiety. It is easy for him to ignore what is going on with his wife, especially since she is able to maintain employment. But then she gets fired, and he knows she is in no mental position to go through the process of getting another job, and he starts to get worried, if only because of questions about financial stability.
Amount of money earned for writing film criticism by year:
An uncertain future is no longer the strict provenance of the newly minted college grad. If two relatively recent films are any indication, the thirtysomething woman, faced with the sudden loss of her man and job/social function, is in just as precarious a position. First For a Good Time Call... mined pre-middle-age anxieties through a female protagonist who's dumped by her boyfriend and laid off from her job, achieving empowerment and financial success by running a phone-sex business. That film was more or less a straight comedy, but it wasn't very funny, and it swallowed its insights into its lead character's situation in a world of strict fantasy.
Hello I Must Be Going is also a comedy, albeit a far more restrained one. More importantly, Todd Louiso's film presents a believably nuanced picture of thirtysomething uncertainty and the tensions of family life. Mostly it's able to do so because the uncertain woman in question, Amy, is played by Melanie Lynskey, who not only nails the mopiness of her character's depression, but also the little ticks of behavior signalling both the character's resignation and her increasing willingness to try to work her way out of her situation.
Things continue to get worse, and he does not know what to do. She is home all day, and she calls him at work and tells him how the world is out to get her, how her every movement is being monitored and she is scared for her life. He tries to calm her down and end the conversation because his boss is noticing he is spending lots of time on the phone.
When he gets home, she is waiting for him to continue her paranoid harangue. Sometimes it is directed at him, as if she believes he is in league with those who are out to harm her. He ignores it all as best he can and goes into the other room and puts his headphones on. He begins to sleep on his couch in order to get the necessary distance from her to get a full night's rest. She sometimes comes in and wakes him up, but otherwise he sleeps fine. His medication is working well, and he feels like everything is under control.
In the world of professional sports, mental illness, even of the mild variety, has long been relegated to the realm of the unspoken, seen as incompatible with an environment that privileges a certain conception of manliness. But in recent years, the taboo has begun to break down, with players acknowledging their bouts with depression, anxiety, and social anxiety disorder.
Recently, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey called his drafting of Royce White, whose acknowledged problems with anxiety have kept him from playing in an actual NBA game, arguably the "worst first-round pick ever." Despite the fact that the massive amounts of money teams now pour into signing and developing players in professional sports leagues inevitably put GMs in a difficult situation when they don't get any kind of return on their investment, White is probably more than justified in having taken repeatedly to Twitter to criticize the Rockets for not properly acknowledging the legitimacy of his disorder.
Twitter is also a good place to get in arguments and settle scores too insular and specialized for generalized real-world expression. This is nowhere more true than among that most isolated and motley assortment of individuals, the cinephile community. There, professional critics, semi-professional critics, bloggers, and enthusiasts argue over the minute points of films the majority of people will never even have heard of. This is done out of a general enthusiasm for the art form—and is often carried out with a good dose of humor—but one wonders if this is the best forum for such discussions. Too often, they devolve into petty spats and spur-of-the-moment unfollowings. Clearly, there is a lot of anger at play.
She is always upset now, smashing up the apartment, and the place is a mess. She yells at him all the time. He has to do something, and so he puts her in the car and drives her to Mount Sinai Hospital and takes her in to the psychiatry department. He does not tell her where they are going, and when they get there, she is apprehensive and threatens to run away, but he informs her they are just going to have a quick checkup. He does not know where her head is at, so he does not know how much she believes of what he tells her.
"But you're having a checkup, too, right?" she asks.
They go in to the reception area, and he has her sit down, and he walks up to the desk and explains the situation to the receptionist, half-whispering so she does not hear him from where she is seated. He joins her, and they wait, and he is worried she will get up and leave, but she doesn't. Then they call them in, and they go into a second waiting room, and he repeats the information to another receptionist, and then they wait some more.
A woman tells me about a stressful situation in which she was deciding what movie to see with an ex-boyfriend. The man insisted on seeing the popular stranded-in-outer-space spectacle Gravity, but the woman was worried, based on what she had read, that the film's alleged intensity, especially when magnified through the 3D and IMAX formats, would trigger her anxiety. Any particularly thrilling movie had the effect of boosting her feelings of nervousness well beyond the normal levels people experience during heightened cinematic moments, leaving her in a state of extreme discomfort. Eventually the couple did go to see Gravity, but there was no need for her to worry. She found the movie surprisingly dull and was far more upset by what she took to be the film's reactionary sexual politics than by any sort of overexcitement it may have caused her.
Psychiatrist 2: How are you doing on [current medication]?
Me: I don't know. Okay, I guess.
Psychiatrist 2: Do you want to try something else?
Me: I'm not sure. What would you recommend?
Psychiatrist 2: Well we could try [other medication] or [other medication].
Me: I don't know. Which would you recommend?
Psychiatrist 2: Either could be effective. I would just prescribe one, and then you would have to see if it works.
Me: I sort of want to try something else, but I'm concerned with the process of switching off [current medication]?
Psychiatrist 2: How do you mean?
Me: I mean withdrawal symptoms. Like I always get this head zap feeling when I change medication.
Psychiatrist 2: I haven't heard of that.
Me: Well, I guess I'll just stay on [current medication] for now.
Eventually, they call them in. They go in together and speak with the doctor on rotation. The doctor asks them to explain the situation, which he does. He tells the doctor how she thinks every movie is about her and how she obsessively checks the box office receipts. He tells how she thinks the world is against her and that sometimes he is against her. He tells how she can no longer function in the world. She denies it. She says that she is fine. It's just that they've been having some marital problems lately, she says, that's all. She is sounding very rational at the moment, and he is worried that the doctor does not believe his story.
Then the doctor asks him to leave the room to talk with her alone. He waits outside for ten minutes, and then he is called in to talk with the doctor. He explains she is putting on a good front now, but she is not normally like this. The doctor believes him, but clearly her performance has made things seem less serious than they are. The doctor decides not to admit her or even prescribe any medication, but to send them home, set them up with a recommendation for a psychiatrist, and call it a day.
According to WebMD, mental health disorders afflict 22 percent of American adults each year. Among these conditions, the site lists the following categories: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, impulse control and addiction disorders, personality disorders, adjustment disorder, dissociative disorders, factitious disorders, sexual and gender disorders, somatoform disorders, tic disorders. No doubt the classification of some of these states as "disorders" is hotly contested, none more so, one imagines, than in the case of the "sexual and gender" category.
Is an exploration of sex addiction, in all its different manifestations, the new flavor of the week in contemporary American cinema? Opening a week before Joseph Gordon-Levitt's portrait of a porn obsessive, Don Jon, Stuart Blumberg's Thanks for Sharing takes as its subject a group of sex addicts who meet at a 12-step program. More earnest than both Don Jon and Steve McQueen's Shame (the "classic" in the new subgenre), Blumberg's film is largely the best of the three. While avoiding the reductiveness of the Gordon-Levitt and the complete emptiness of the McQueen by spreading its inquiry across an ensemble of characters all with their different shades of struggle, it's still undone by its rather mechanical plotting and its inability to offer the occasional frissons of its similarly-themed counterparts.
Things get worse from there. He succeeds in getting her to her psychiatrist appointment, but once again she is able to sound entirely rational, and the doctor holds off on prescribing medication. As soon as they get home, she yells at him.
He begins sleeping on the couch permanently, but she always comes in the middle of the night and screams and wakes him up. She rants every day about a vast conspiracy involving the college where they met, the United States government, and Hollywood, a conspiracy hatched with specific aim of ruining her life and possibly killing her.
He comes home from work one day to see she has purchased a dog, a wiry black thing with obscene amounts of energy that clearly can't be contained by their small apartment and can't be cared for by its occupants. He resolves that day to move out, and he does, settling in with a friend who is looking for a roommate. He comes back to check on her every few days, and the place is a mess. She never cleans up, and there are always papers and garbage and dog shit everywhere. Sometimes, she is glad to see him and hugs him; other times, she blames him for the conspiracy against her and curses him and occasionally hits him. The lease is up at the end of the month, and he has to find some way to move her out without entirely abandoning her to the sidewalks and gutters of the city.
Another sort of obsession: a new dating app (you know the one) where you're presented with an endless series of photos of prospective mates, complete with their first name, age, and a brief bio line. If you like someone, you swipe their photo to the right; if not, to the left. Then if that person chooses you, too, the app informs you that you have a match and you are free to begin texting each other.
Probably designed as a hook-up tool and, no doubt, occasionally functioning in that regard, the app ultimately falls between two stools. After all, you know almost nothing about the other person, a fact which makes the app rather completely ineffective as a dating device while also presumably making people reluctant to rush out and meet some random person whose agenda is no doubt to try and have sex with them. Nonetheless, the app is addictive as fuck.
Sometimes it is hard to turn off your thoughts. Sometimes there are endless distractions, particularly if, as is almost always the case, you are near your phone or computer. This is partly what anxiety is about in the 21st century.
All he can think is, I'm glad we didn't have kids. They almost did. They were trying for a while. He never wanted them, but he gave in to her pressure and agreed to refrain from wearing a condom during sex. Then when she started to show signs of mental instability, he started wearing condoms again, but by that point they almost never had sex anymore.
Now he has to figure out what to do, and he doesn't know how. He has tried to get her help, but he was unsuccessful in his efforts. He can think of nothing else, so he calls up her parents and tells them to come to New York and get her and take her back home, which they do. They even take the dog with them.
Once she is gone, he feels some relief, but much more than that, he feels an intense guilt at abandoning her. This guilt increases when he begins getting a series of angry e-mails from her, calling him a motherfucker and threatening him with a lawsuit in international court for his crimes against humanity.
At a party for film critics in 2008, I get in an argument with several other guests about my dislike of the film Slumdog Millionaire, which, while dividing critical opinion in my circle, nonetheless finds several supporters at this particular event. I am trying to make a name for myself in my new field, and am desperately, drunkenly attempting to stake out bold conversational territory. But in the end, I achieve little more than that sense of frustration that comes from engaging in non-arguments designed more for stupid self-assertion than any kind of understanding.
Years later, having stepped away from the profession, I attend another party at the same venue, with roughly the same core of guests, supplemented by the next wave of aspiring young critics. Although I would seem to no longer have much stake in the extremely specialized conversations and arguments transpiring among my former peers, I still manage to get into a petty argument, this time involving my distaste for Rachel Kushner's celebrated novel The Flamethrowers. "This is not the type of book we need," I say. It is like 2008 all over again.
It is common practice to judge a person's actions based on intention. As if anyone acts out of any motives that are not in some degree self-serving. To me, it seems far more important to consider what an individual actually does than the reasons why he or she does it. If someone takes an action that has a positive effect on the world, does it matter if that person did so only for personal glory?
It is the same thing with the practice of film criticism. There is little use in assessing a film based on whether or not it measures up to the director's supposed intentions. We simply have to judge the work as it appears on screen and accept that it doesn't necessarily match up with what the filmmakers thought they were doing. We also need to be aware that just because a film (or other work of art) meets its author's intentions, it doesn't mean that those intentions aren't misguided—or even occasionally monstrous.
Current psychiatric diagnostic criteria recognize a wide variety of anxiety disorders. Recent surveys have shown that as many as 18% of Americans and 14% of Europeans may be affected by one or more of them.
It has been theorized that high rates of anxiety are a reaction to how the social environment has changed from the Paleolithic era. For example, in the Stone Age there was greater skin-to-skin contact and more handling of babies by their mothers, both of which are anxiety reducing strategies. Additionally, there is greater interaction with strangers in present times as opposed to interactions solely between close-knit tribes.
After a while, he is comfortably settled. He is living with roommates and then by himself, and his wife has long since departed, returned to the care of her parents. But the anxiety returns, the feelings of nervousness and fear remain a fact of daily life. There is never a moment when they are entirely absent. Sometimes he is just sitting at home, and he will be overcome by a wave of nausea, and he will just lie down on the floor and try to breathe deeply until it passes.
He still hears from his wife, via a series of increasingly hostile e-mails that continue to allude to her plans to launch an international trial with almost every powerful entity in the world indicated as a defendant. He, too, is to be counted among the defendants in the majority of e-mails he receives, but sometimes she decides he is a victim instead and then the e-mails are not so angry. These correspondences fill him with intense feelings of guilt, and so, as soon as the idea occurs to him, he blocks her from his Gmail account.
When I was a sophomore in high school, which is to say around 1995, I enrolled in a video class offered as an elective. The focus of the course was strictly technical, and while it was useful in teaching me many practical skills, especially in the editing room, my friends and I found the teacher's anti-artistic orientation particularly annoying. We did everything we could to shake up the class, and our grand gesture was our final project, a 16-minute Dadaist jape (four times the required length!) called "White Ugliness."
Heavily under the influence of Frank Zappa's music and cut-up aesthetic, we crafted a movie consisting of little more than us walking around the school's hallways, performing silly bits of business like pretending to masturbate, and interviewing other students we encountered about whatever came into our heads at the moment. We laced the soundtrack with non-stop Zappa, as well as other artists (early Replacements, electric Miles Davis) we were into at the time, and we divided the piece up into four parts of four minutes each, with each segment ending in a fade to green (because why not?).
In retrospect, the most memorable section of this somewhat dubious project was a guest appearance by my friend Martin. We accosted him with our camera and told him to say something, anything. After thinking for a minute, he intoned a dire prophecy. "This country," he said, "has 20 more years to exist. Then it's over."
For sale, a stock of VHS cassettes found in the basement of an affluent suburban home. Buy them before the format falls into complete obsolescence and they are no longer watchable. The collection includes several volumes of music videos taped directly from MTV (1992-1994), a generous selection of amateur home movies originally shot on 8mm, and some very crude video projects that appear to have been far more fun to make than they are to watch. These include an adaptation of Raymond Carver's story "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," spliced with some Persona-inspired subliminal imagery, an adaptation of the spoken-word narrative running throughout the Velvet Underground song "The Gift," an allegory about labor featuring stuffed animals as actors, and some lengthy and incoherent bits of adolescent indulgence.
I'm not exactly sure what is meant by the term "zombie apocalypse." (Well, okay, that's a bit disingenuous. The phrase itself is pretty self-explanatory.) But I'm really not certain why this particular end-of-days scenario, in which the earth is populated nearly exclusively by the wandering undead, should hold such currency in the popular imagination. Within the last week, I've met two people for the first time who, within minutes, turned the conversation to the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps there is something comforting about having little more to contend with after the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it than creatures whose slowness of movement render them easily neutralizable. Or alternatively, the fancifulness of the scenario may be just enough to distract people from more plausible, and thus more terrifying, apocalyptic scenarios. For me, of greater concern are the rising oceans threatening to flood our cities. After all, water is a far more potent destroyer than any number of brain-eating ghouls.
A certain feeling of vague longing takes over his life. He lives by himself and works from home. He is isolated. He has always lived with women, and now he lives by himself. He has always worked with others, and now he is alone. He turns to online dating sites for the first time and becomes obsessed with them. He spends hours a day online and finds himself unable to log off of the sites. After all, there is always the possibility the next profile he looks at will be the one.
He makes dates whenever he can, and then he is nervous all day before the date and is barely able to work. The more dates he makes, the less he is able to do anything else. When he arrives for a date, he has spent so much of the day filled with anxiety, he is exhausted and has difficulty making conversation. Sometimes he shows up half an hour early, both to avoid waiting around his apartment any longer and so he can down a drink before his date shows up and thus both eliminate some of the nervousness he is feeling and stimulate his weary brain.
When he goes on a date with someone he likes, things are worse. He cannot resist the urge to text her immediately after they part ways, and then, if she responds and agrees to go on a second date, he can think of nothing else until the appointed day has arrived. If that goes well, or even if it doesn't, he then becomes completely preoccupied, impatient for the nascent association to transform into a more permanent relationship at some distant point in some as yet indeterminate future.
Not to be confused with Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A.) is a 12-step program for people recovering from sex addiction, love addiction, romantic obsession, co-dependent relationships, fantasy addiction, and/or sexual, social and emotional anorexia. The organization's website posits sex and love addiction as "a progressive illness which cannot be cured," noting that, with the disease "an obsessive/compulsive pattern, either sexual or emotional (or both), exists in which relationships or sexual activities have become increasingly destructive to career, family, and sense of self-respect."
Considered in these terms, the anguished singer in a very high percentage of classic rock and country songs, pining away for (usually) his inamorata, is little more than a maladjusted, dangerously obsessive neurotic. Love may be the drug, or love may be the disease, but none of this really has anything to do with any kind of remotely selfless sentiment.
A Case of You takes the comedy of discomfort to new levels of cringe-worthiness by presenting a lead character whose behavior leans dangerously close to pathological and then asking us to get on board with this troubled individual's antics. Sam (Justin Long) is an uptight writer, cranking out movie novelizations in his luxe Williamsburg pad while dreaming of becoming a serious man of letters. When he meets Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood) at his local coffee shop just before she gets fired as a barista, the two seem to hit it off. Sam easily tracks her down on Facebook, but rather than messaging her, this supremely insecure wordsmith studies the lists of "likes" on her profile and sets about turning himself into what he imagines to be her ideal man. What follows is a film seeming to want to function as a portrait of desperate personal insecurity and resulting madness, but which undercuts this goal by insisting on the essential sanity—if offbeat nature—of its lead character's antics.
Lately he is thinking a lot about cuckolding, a sexual practice he knows about almost exclusively from watching it enacted in porn clips on his computer. He doesn't know how accurate these representations are, but they excite in a way no other category of pornography is capable of doing. The clips take several forms, from a man simply watching his partner having sex with another man, to more active scenarios in which he is forced to perform fellatio on the other man or to lick the post-coital semen off of his partner's vagina, stomach, or breasts.
He wonders what is so compelling about this idea. In some of the blogs he reads on the subject, men talk about the practice as being a means of female empowerment. While he can certainly see how this could be the case, it seems far more to him about men turning their wives or girlfriends into whores for their personal sexual gratification. Clearly, this holds some appeal for him. Also, given his rather marked tendency towards jealousy, he has to acknowledge this scenario would be playing into and exacerbating his strongest insecurities. Sometimes, he thinks, our biggest turn-ons are directly linked to our greatest anxieties.
At the moment, however, he is entirely single, so he has no opportunity to put these fantasies into practice.
(Setting: A party in a Brooklyn brownstone attended almost exclusively by film critics)
Older Film Critic: Hey, you wrote something recently that I wanted to come over and disagree with you about, but now I can't remember what it was.
Me: It was probably that piece I wrote about the politics of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo.
Older Film Critic: Yes, that was it.
Me: So you disagree with it? I mean, what do you disagree with?
Older Film Critic: Well, I think if you look at criticism, all criticism is essentially the critic saying the filmmaker should have made the film that he, the critic, wanted him to make.
Me: I guess.
Older Film Critic: It could be something as simple as criticizing an acting performance. You're saying the actor isn't doing what you want him to do. Or it could be something much larger. It's a range. But all criticism does it.
Me: So, my piece is at the other end of the range, then, is what you're saying? By objecting to the political positions taken by the films.
Older Film Critic: Yes, I guess that's what I'm saying.
Me: So, is it not permissible to critique a filmmaker because you fundamentally disagree with, essentially, their world view? If, for example, you find their movie politically repugnant?
Older Film Critic: Well, sure, it's permissible. I just think you take it too far in your piece. There are only so many demands you can make on a filmmaker. At a certain point, you just have to let him make the film he wants to make and judge it on its own merits.
Sometimes one sees what one wants to see. Other times, it works the other way. It becomes instead a question of not seeing what is plainly there.
He proceeds cautiously, oftentimes not leaving his apartment for lengthy stretches of time. He does not like to go out unnecessarily. It is not that he is scared to leave his apartment, but simply that there is so much to contend with the second he exits his building, so many people walking down the street, talking loudly, so many stores and restaurants demanding his attention, so many abandoned industrial structures he finds more than a little menacing.
So he prefers to stay in. Sometimes the thought of going outside is exhausting. He becomes physically fatigued when he thinks of what such a gesture would entail. If he goes out to the store to get some food, he comes back even more exhausted, but with a sense of relief that he doesn't have to go out again in the definite future.
For a while, he does not go on dates and does not hang out with friends, and so he pretty much sees no one except for the people walking on the street and talks with no one except for during his brief exchanges with shop clerks, primarily consisting of him answering the question "credit or debit?" Then, after several weeks of self-imposed solitude, he gets restless and feels like he can no longer be contained within the suddenly oppressive confines of his apartment.
In a 2013 online article, a writer coined the term "sexnology" to describe the increasing convergence of, well, sex and technology. Although he had in mind some rather sophisticated scientific achievements (his concern was chiefly with technological advancements in virtual sex), his neologism certainly applies quite neatly to the relatively recent proliferation of dating/hook-up websites and apps. Whatever the specific referent of his coinage, though, one thing remains sure: there's a seemingly limitless market for new catchphrases.
He is now desperately trying to break out of his self-induced solitude. He goes to the bar and gets drunk, but he doesn't meet anybody. He comes home and tries to make dates online, but no one is responding. He goes to sleep and sleeps most of the next day. Then he goes online and tries to make dates, but no one responds. He goes out to the bar and meets no one. Then he comes home again.
When he wakes up, he is feeling depressed and anxious. He is hungover, and the effect of his hangover is to eviscerate his nerve ends and make him feel like there is nothing left to do but wait for death. He is unsettled, and he feels like the world will never settle back down. He sleeps some more, and then when he wakes up, he is less tired, but his state of mind otherwise remains unchanged. He goes out again and drinks, and while he feels more lonely than ever, his anxiety at least lessens momentarily.
In my early days of film writing, my criticism was confined exclusively to my personal blog. The first outlet that reached out to me was a now-defunct website called Armchair Director. The editor wrote to me and asked me to join their staff, and although after looking over their content, I was singularly unimpressed by the writing, and although the gig was obviously unpaid, I accepted the invite. The association winded up being extremely short-lived, however, as some rather severe editorial clashes over my first piece made it abundantly obvious my working relationship with the outlet's administrators was untenable.
What first struck me about this particular site, though, was the title and the set of assumptions it seemed to entail. I didn't believe the role of the critic was in any way that of an armchair director, that we existed to second-guess the filmmaker's choices. But now, I'm not so sure. Insomuch as the site's name implies the critic should put himself in the director's place rather than viewing the movie from an outside position, it still bothers me. But if the title implies the critic has the right, even the duty, to evaluate the filmmaker's ethical standpoint, his or her worldview, then I can't really disagree. It's still a lousy name for a website, though.
As I write this, I hear the intermittent though stunningly regular dripping of water in the other room. In the midst of a particularly harsh winter, the roof of my building has sprung a leak, affecting all of the apartments directly below the site of the breach. Although I am only on the second floor (out of four), the ceiling above the entranceway in my apartment is infested. Or at least it looks that way. Beige splotches spread out like lesions across my ceiling, with small cracks in the center, bubbling forth with drops of water falling to the floor the second they've accumulated sufficient mass. I've placed several towels on the floor underneath the sites of the drips, but it is not enough to muffle the deeply unsettling, because reliably metronymic, sound.
This situation can't help but bring to mind the films of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, where water often plays a destructive role in the lives of the characters. Desperately alone, these urban dwellers often find unwanted intrusions of rains and flooding their only company. In The Hole, for example, in the midst of an endless downpour, the main character ends up with an ever-widening opening in the floor of his apartment, which when sufficiently large, allows him to communicate with the woman who lives below him. In the breathtaking conclusion, he pulls her up through the hole and ends his solitude. I don't think my own ceiling will yield to such a massive breach (I certainly hope it doesn't!), and I have no idea who lives above me, but something about the idea of being pulled up to higher ground, to the possibility of new human connection, remains endlessly appealing.
I've never had anything but bad dreams as far as I can remember. It's always been that way. I've not once been able to share in the enthusiasm of those people who awaken delighted with the whimsy their subconscious has just offered up. Mostly, my sleeping moments are filled with images and feelings of dread, my waking fears magnified into new and sinister proportions. Lately, and unsurprisingly, my dreams have frequently involved water, offering up never-ending rains threatening both daily life and human life at large.
Last night, in between these aqueous visions, I had another unsettling dream. I was visiting a new luxury apartment building in lower Manhattan, and to get there I had to climb a foreboding and dangerous path, resembling at times the horizontal face of a cliff. After making the climb, I found the building, while exuding the expected sense of luxury, featured impossibly narrow hallways with the apartments seeming to close in on each other across the tiny expanse. But the really disturbing moment was when I looked down at the realtor's brochure and saw the building was called "Occupy Wall Street Apartments," consigning the still relatively recent populist movement to a safe historical moment in which it could then be plundered for a commercial use running exactly counter to the spirit of the original undertaking.
In my subconscious, then, the nightmare of global (or at least meteorological) catastrophe meets the nightmare of unchecked development. Clearly, the two are related.
He is out one night and drinks a lot and then goes home. He is intensely frustrated. Even with the plentiful amounts of alcohol he has consumed, he has not managed to talk to anyone at the bar. He has only sat in the corner and fiddled with his phone, hoping to contact people via a new dating app he has discovered.
He saw women who he wanted to talk to at the bar, but he was filled with panic at the possibility of translating thought into action. One time he got up and moved in the direction of a woman, but then he kept walking right past her and went to the bathroom. Now he is at home and feels empty and frustrated at himself for his inability to exist properly as a human being in the world. (Those are the terms in which he views his failure.)
He goes across the street to the bodega and buys two beers and goes back home and starts drinking them and fiddling with the app again. None of this makes him feel terrific.
As I write this, our little theme—the contemplation of which has led us down some surprising side alleys and small backstreets, pausing to consider some related real estate, some mossy old buildings rising amidst a round of grass-strewn lots—has gone national like never before. The cover of a recent issue of the Atlantic, for example, features an image of a man cowering on the ground, his glasses discarded and his arms grasping his head in agony, beneath the title "Surviving Anxiety," with the latter word stretching in large blocky print across the width of the page. Inside, the feature article consists of one of the magazine's editors reflecting on his lifelong struggle with the condition.
Perhaps everything in the world really is about anxiety, a possibility I floated in the opening sections of this work, and perhaps it always was. But, now people are much more explicit about the true nature of the topic under discussion. Maybe, in the future, we will talk about nothing but anxiety.
Perhaps, too, what we talk about when we talk about love is always and only anxiety. Even as far back as the Symposium, Aristophanes, in the work's most compelling speech, imagines love as a melding of two existences into one, so that when this ideal state is not achieved, the lovers feel incomplete, overcome by a sense of yearning, of anxiety at not being whole.
Self-righteousness, no less than boredom, anger, or states of periodic incapacitation, can be the upshot of an anxious personality. It is a reaction against the void.
My own self-righteousness has manifested itself in many forms over the years, from drunken political rants that have, at times, become so frequent and so vociferous they have ruined relationships, to my own film critical practice whose moral stances have no doubt proved annoying to many. Below is a portion of a piece I wrote several years ago, chiding both independent American filmmakers for their narrow worldviews and fellow critics for praising their works.
From "Some Reflections on 'Personal' Cinema":
A problem with so much of recent American cinema is an insistence on that old Creative Writing 101 saw, "Write about what you know." Whether it's the insular mumblings of filmmakers like Joe Swanberg, the privileged wallow of Lena Dunham's overpraised Tiny Furniture, which makes a virtue of its deliberately narrow worldview, or the wave of look-at-me-and-my-family, first-person docs, our national independent filmmaking has become practically synonymous with what often feels like a round of glorified vanity projects. Many critics have responded to criticisms of these films by arguing that artists are free to, and indeed obligated to, create works that are reflective of their own lives, no matter how unrepresentative of humanity at large, and that all subject matters are uniformly valid. Any other conclusion is simply anti-democratic.
But are all subjects equal? Just because you're white, middle- (or upper-) class and apolitical, does that make your story any less valid than those of less privileged people? (Certainly if a film's focus on working-class life consists of an unholy mix of sentimental heroics and class contempt like David O. Russell's The Fighter, it doesn't). But whether dealing with Sofia Coppola's filthy-rich movie star in Somewhere, Dunham's wealthy recent college grad in Tiny Furniture, or the aimless twenty- and thirty-somethings of Joe Swanberg's and Kentucker Audley's films, I would say that the answer is that these films' subjects are simply not terribly interesting objects of study. Not everybody's life is.
As a young, white, middle-class (by lifestyle if not income), though hardly apolitical person, I wouldn't think of turning my life into a film; it would probably be the dullest thing ever committed to celluloid. But at least I can say this: Unlike the protagonists (and directors) of most American independent films, my interests extend beyond my own daily existence. Rather than assert that my social life is more important than the larger issues facing the world (impending climate catastrophe, growing wealth inequality, endless wars abroad—or the politics of sexual inequality that play out daily in less dramatic theaters), I freely admit my personal insignificance. In the final analysis, what's ultimately lacking from the vast majority of independent American films being released to groundswells of critical acclaim is any kind of political awareness.
In retrospect, this piece seems flawed by several assumptions, most of which have to do with my willingness to dictate which films deserve to be made and which do not. I still, however, can't manage to summon up any enthusiasm for movies that take privileged lives as their focus and fail to subject them to any kind of critical scrutiny. Read into the present work what you will.
Interpretation is the prerogative of the reader, but not everything is permitted. There is always the hard truth of the text to deal with.
He is still there, drinking and fiddling, drinking and fiddling. There is nothing on the app of interest. He is getting drunker.
Self-interpretation is the prerogative of the individual, but here, too, not everything is permitted. There is always the unfortunate truth of life to account for.
We build our way out of our own fears or accustom ourselves to living with them. Otherwise, we remain paralyzed.
Sometimes, we move too far in the opposite direction. This can lead to greater unhappiness, maybe even to personal or, depending on the amount of power we wield, global catastrophe.
Anxiety being the fundamental question.
He fiddles with the app and finds nothing until he comes across a couple who are looking for an amateur pornographer to film them having sex. He contacts them and then gets in his car and heads out to Queens.
(Sections 9, 17, 29, 37, 52, 61, and 77 previously appeared in Slant Magazine, and section 27 previously appeared in The L Magazine.)