Friday, October 13, 2017

My 31 Favorite Dark Movies


There's no more inspiring time of year for me as a fiction writer than autumn--particularly September and October. Halloween looms in the darkness igniting my imagination with the flames of horror and dread. The wind howls as the temperature dips filling us with chills both physical and psychic; the days grow greyer and night encroaches ever closer upon the day.

It's a time that's geared perfectly towards snuggling under a cozy blanket with popcorn and watching horror movies. It's a genre that I grew up around as my mother would always rent movies or watch them on television while she conducted her daily chores. I can remember sneaking glances of B-horror movies like The Wishmaster and classics like The Hills Have Eyes while she ironed or folded laundry.

My personal taste in movies (horror, in particular) is as eclectic as my musical preferences and I believe stems from an inborn desire to blaze my own path in whatever I do. Though I can appreciate the classics in both cinema and music my favorites tend rarely to reflect the most popular of hits. As such, my personal list of favorite dark movies is at once multifarious and indicative of an inclination towards films that resonated with me--ones that I enjoyed instinctively and instantaneously regardless of their success at the box office or their ratings on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes.

**MINIMAL SPOILERS MARKED WITH AN ASTERISK PAIR AHEAD!**

#31 DUEL

Anyone who attended Marine Park Junior High School in the nineties knew Mr. Perl. He always rode his bike to school and was one of the most popular teachers in the school thanks in large part to his wealth of knowledge and depth of interest in movies, horror in particular. I was lucky enough to take his class and was introduced to a slew of incredible films including the directorial debut of one Steven Spielberg--an awesome thriller called Duel. Based upon a Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone fame) short story, it serves as the ultimate warning tale against road rage.

**SPOILER ALERT**

What makes the movie work is the ever-growing sense of dread and danger that builds throughout the film and ultimately ends without ever seeing the face of the driver; the true terror comes from the circumstance rather the identity of its progenitor.


#30 STIR OF ECHOES

This one flew under the radar for the most part but it's my favorite Kevin Bacon film because I remember his performance capturing the terrifying sense of mania experienced by the main character as he descended slowly into perceived madness. I'm pretty sure I saw this one at the movies (Knapp Street UA FTW!) and so it has a special personal relevance as an adolescent evening adventure. I can still picture both the lovemaking scene and the creepy ass appearance(s) of the otherworldly figure that serves as the central plot point.

This one works for me because its focus is fairly narrow but the real horror comes from the impact that the situation has upon not just the protagonist but upon his relationship with his wife as well; his fear of losing his sanity resonated with me at an integral time in my own emotional development.


#29 THE BIRDS

Hitchcock is a master of cinema in many regards but my favorite of his contributions is The Birds. Though the practical special effects seem dated by today's standards the ever growing sense of dread that he manages to manifest in the movie is exceptional. Also, the visuals at certain points--portentous moments that seem to imply that the end of the world is approaching--are terrifying in their own right.

The impact of this one is apparent as soon as one steps outside and sees a murder or crows perched upon a power pole and telephone lines!


#28 KRAMPUS

This one is a relative newcomer to my catalogue but its impact was both immediate and long-lasting (as soon as the movie ended I began my hunt for an authentic replica of the Krampus bell and began looking forward to watching it with the children one night before Christmas). It's a pretty straightforward modern horror film though its execution places it more in my wheelhouse. I believe that comedy and horror go hand-in-hand and the performances in this film manage to capitalize on both (though the humor is inherently dark and occasionally situational).

The visuals are strong, the subject matter is unique as far as this list is concerned, and the overall effect (including an ending that generates quite a few questions!) made this one an instant favorite for me.


#27 WITCH

My relationship with this movie is a complicated one: I had expectations that went unfulfilled but what ultimately replaced my preconceived notions was an awesome, unsettling cinematic experience. Much in the vein of other films **SPOILER ALERT** where characters are picked off one by one, there is an inherent element of mystery that keeps viewers engaged. Where this film draws its greatest strength though (apart from the phenomenal performance of its lead actress) is from the ever-mounting sense of dread as the situation devolves perpetually towards its inevitable albeit surprising conclusion.

This is a film that maximizes the minimization of setting changes and characters; what you see is what you get right from the beginning of the movie. Excelling amid those constraints is difficult but remarkably rewarding when the end result is as successful as it is here.

Definitely want to add this t-shirt to the collection now from the folks at Teepublic.com!

https://www.dreffdesigns.com


#26 THE FOG

I'm a sucker for inclement weather when it comes to my movies and my photography (I love dark clouds, in particular). The Fog employs this in spades while also utilizing minimal jump scares and excellent lighting to proffer the implication of impending doom. The film gradually develops but then sustains an elevated level of tension that persists right through until the end thanks in large part to the music, which serves to create an environment of ambient eerieness.

A John Carpenter classic that features one of his best soundtracks.


#25 IDENTITY

Any movie that accomplishes its genre-specific tasks while also bucking those conventions and inciting deep thinking on my part is a winner in my book. Identity's premise revolves around that very premise as the horror that unfurls through the plot also unravels the underlying mystery that fuels the film. John Cusack provides a consistently excellent Cusackian performance amid a seemingly inexhaustible slew of plot twists that entertained and enthralled me the entire way through.


#24 GET OUT

Speaking of plot twists and convention breaking, Get Out isn't simply one of my favorite horror movies--it's one of the most well-executed movies of all time. Another film where the horror stems more from the circumstance and inborn traits than anything else, Get Out made my skin crawl not just as a social commentary (for which it serves as exemplar) but also as a legitimate scary movie. Jordan Peele managed to set the bar ridiculously high for himself and I can't wait to see what he follows this one up with down the road.


#23 THE VISIT

This is definitely a case of low expectations being absolutely obliterated by the end product. Like most people, I had long since given up on M. Night Shyamalan after having my interest piqued by films like The Happening and The Lady in the Water only to be let down with a resounding thud. Truth be told, the only interest I had in The Visit stemmed initially from the characters' names (my kids call their grandparents the same thing as the children in the film). I wanted to see it more as a goof than anything else and I was thusly shocked by how engrossed I became in the movie and how well executed it was.

In short, it hearkens back to the best elements that made Shyamalan popular in the first place including his emphasis on the vulnerability and humanity of his cast and some well-executed plot twists that were at once telegraphed but still surprising.


#22 SCREAM

Scream is another one of those coming-of-age moment movies that holds a special place in my heart. I remember going to see it in the theater and, more than twenty years later, I feel like it captured the zeitgeist of the mid-to-late 1990s. The premise itself isn't particularly novel nor is the cast, which capitalized upon the mega-popularity of its younger stars like Neve Campbell and Matthew Lillard as well as those slightly ahead like David Arquette and Courteney Cox.

The home invasion/stalker aspects always strike a chord with me and the mystery involved with the killer's identity was a great one with an awesome reveal. This one's just a really well-done movie by one of the giants of horror, Wes Craven.


#21 THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

I think this one appealed to me more on visual and conceptual levels than purely upon plot and performance. I remember finding the aesthetics striking and the subject matter horrifying but intriguing. I should probably read the original H.G. Wells story at some point but I feel like it would be a different experience from the film. I know that this one is notoriously reviled not just by audiences but even by those involved with its production but I loved Val Kilmer in it and Marlon Brando was just creepy as all hell.


#20 SE7EN

Se7en goes beyond the realm of dark thrillers and ascends directly into the upper-echelon of all-time greatest films. It has its own iconic moment and quotation akin to Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, and the Sixth Sense, and features a cast of megastars that is loaded with incredible performances. I'm a fan of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins and so their inclusion as central plot elements allured me immediately; their implementation of course serves as the foundation for one of Hollywood's greatest thrill rides.


#19 I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

This movie is the epitome of right moment in time influences. It came out right when I was hitting my stride in adolescence and so the themes and situations of the movie resonated deeply; the fact that the screenplay was written by Kevin Williamson served only to enhance my connection with it. I had no idea at the time that the Dawson's Creek dude had any involvement with the movie whatsoever but having watched it recently twenty years removed from that initial viewing, I'm dumbfounded by the fact that I didn't pick up on it (the vocabulary in the dialogue!!!).

I remember one moment in particular at the very end of the movie--an instant of pure surprise that I still laugh about when I picture it. I had gone to see the movie with my best friend James and we anxiously awaited the inevitable jump scare towards the film's conclusion. When it failed to materialize when we expected, we both went to relax only to find ourselves scared out of our seats...literally. We each jumped about a foot out of the seats and landed on the floor, probably scaring each other with our screams as much as the jump scare did on the screen.

Also late-'90s Sarah Michelle Gellar. Enough said!


#18 THE VILLAGE

A lot of people loathed this film and its out-of-left-field twist but that latter point is precisely why I loved it. This movie felt like one glorious Twilight Zone episode and the monster costumes were absolutely terrifying. I thought the performances were great (again, thinking of it as a modern Twilight Zone episode), the plot was concise, and the reveal was awesome. 


#17 THE THING

I didn't see this one until recently (either late last year or early this year) and I was impressed with not just how well the horror was employed but with how incredible the practical effects were. You simply do not see things like that utilized in modern cinema and it's a shame because you can't get certain things out of CGI effects. One of the best **SPOILER ALERT** pick em off movies with sci-fi and supernatural elements. The ending too is one of the best ever given its lack of clear resolution. Another Carpenter classic.


#16 SIGNS

Full disclosure: I was TERRIFIED of aliens as a kid. From a psychoanalytical perspective, I think it stemmed from an innate fear that I have of not being in control and so the thought of these beings infiltrating my home (a supposed safe place) and then rendering me incapable of fighting back while they probed away was panic inducing. It's why I've never seen movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fire in the Sky, and the Fourth Kind. It's also why I found Signs to be as terrifying as it was despite being panned by most media outlets and M. Night fans alike.

Another instance of subject matter superseding performance and even plot!


#15 FROM DUSK TILL DAWN

The vampire genre is engorged with failed attempts to capture the terror of the phantasmagorical blood suckers. From Dusk Till Dawn takes a markedly different approach in that **SPOILER ALERT** it doesn't even address the plot element until deep into the film. In fact, arguably the creepiest and most unsettling element of the entire film is Quentin Tarantino's portrayal of Richard.

Still, the movie's action and horror elements are executed perfectly and are enhanced by the aforementioned late development of the primary conflict. Plus, it features possibly the greatest monologue in movie history courtesy of Cheech Marin--a character named Chet Pussy delivering a vaginal litany at a bar called the Titty Twister.

Inane and profane all the way, baby!


#14 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

This is one of my mother's all-time favorite movies and with good reason: it's arguably the greatest zombie movie of all time. It was revolutionary for its time having a black male lead actor and **SPOILER ALERT** his untimely demise is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in cinema history. The black and white aesthetic serves to enhance the darkness of the film and helps to build the overwhelming sense of despair that pervades.

Definitely the best of the best, genre-wise.


#13 28 DAYS LATER

Much like the realm of vampire movies, the zombie genre is rife with missed opportunities. 28 Days Later bucks certain conventions though and does so to great effect most notably in the way the infected move at breakneck speed--something that was rarely seen in films that featured the slow steady shuffling of the undead. I would shit my pants if I saw something like a Rage-infected individual barreling down upon me at breakneck speed!

For fans of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later (and even its sequel to a lesser extent) serve as a great precursor to the awesomeness of Kirkman's universe.


#12 SAW

Profferer of one of the greatest mindfucks in movie history, Saw was a revelation when it came out. Even its first few sequels were incredible as they built upon the foundation laid by the original. A psychological thriller whose gore and visual horror was surpassed only by the visceral emotions elicited by the plot, Saw remains an all-time great. I would go so far as to say that its iconic, "OH SHIT!" moment is even more jaw-dropping than the Sixth Sense's.


#11 PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

I really enjoy movies that enable me to suspend by disbelief and to buy wholesale into the premise; few movies did so more powerfully for me than Paranormal Activity. As someone who routinely experiences things that defy explanation, I was already predisposed towards buying into the movie's raison d'etre; then, when the similarities between the film and my own life started piling up I found myself thoroughly spooked out.

The best films (and especially literature) transport their viewers/readers into the story--incorporating rather than inculcating to achieve the intended result. With Paranormal Activity, I felt like they weren't just telling a story but rather that they were telling my story--a sense that was strengthened by the whole found-film aspect. This one still gave me the creeps months later.


#10 THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

The second of three consecutive found film horror movies, the Blair Witch Project was the first and best of the genre. When it came out (as the nascent Internet had yet to become the de facto source of news), word-of-mouth was still the primary form of spreading information. The idea that this film was found was rendered all the more believable by the incredible grassroots and guerilla marketing employed by the studio and the film's makers.

The execution of the premise was damn near perfect with instances of genuine terror responses by the cast (the tent scene, in particular) and, as an avid hiker, it's one that still freaks me out every time I'm in the woods and I find some sort of copycat creations like the little men made of sticks or incongruent man-made structures situated in the middle of the forest. Its power lies in its plausibility despite the supernatural implications and that ending...sheesh.


#09 CLOVERFIELD / 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Though they are two completely different films with only the most tenuous of connections between them I felt it prudent to combine them into a single entry since the things I like about one film are mirrored in the other. The first Cloverfield was a motion sickness-inducing whirlwind of a thrill ride that maximized the usage of indirect terror (so much so that, for people who hate the film, the majority seem to **SPOILER ALERT** abhor the only close up shot of the monster). Since I was eleven and first saw The Stand on TV, I've been hooked on the post-apocalyptic premise; the closer to reality the better.

Cloverfield allowed me not merely to juxtapose myself with the cast but actually to put myself in among them. Their terror became my own as I envisioned myself reacting to the same unbelievable set of circumstances that they faced. Its relatability then served as its greatest strength for me.

10 Cloverfield Lane, conversely, was an intense thriller that built up perpetually throughout the movie finally exploding (literally and figuratively) along the way. The psychological stress that the movie puts on the viewer is astounding and is phenomenally executed. It's one of the rare movies that necessitates a second viewing to allow for greater processing and comprehension of the sum total of hints, details, and loose ends that all are tied neatly together by movie's end.


#08 IT

The original television mini-series is second only to The Stand for me in terms of sheer awesomeness. As a film though the 2017 iteration of Stephen King's clown classic takes things to a whole new level. The cast and the requisite performances are all tighter--the sense of terror and dread rendered all the more horrifying in the face of pure unadulterated evil. I can't wait for this one to come out on Blu-Ray so I can watch it with my little ones!


#07 THE PROPHECY

Few movies had as profound an impact upon me as The Prophecy did. First, it was recommended by my brother who, at the time, I saw precious little of and so the film served as a tether for me--a connection point that bridged the many gaps that separated us. Second, it furthered my love affair with apocalyptic material that began with The Stand. It also made me an instant Christopher Walken fan courtesy of his performance as the angel Gabriel.

Much of my debut novel, The Lion in the Desert, was influenced on some level by the first and third Prophecy movies. They also got me thinking more deeply about religion (or specifically the relationship between a creator and its progeny) and cosmology--two of the primary themes of my Kosmogonia series. Just a great, great movie and the first to make me terrified of all-black eyes!


#06 RAVENOUS

Ravenous sums up my taste in movies and music perfectly. It exists as an improbable impossibility--an odious olio of disparate elements that amalgamate into a melody of dissonance. Ravenous is at once campy and terrifying--stultifyingly inane and riveting. Its moments of levity leave you feeling unsettled and uncertain but its horror pervades throughout. Robert Carlyle is absolutely MASTERFUL and the supporting cast is elevated by the collective performances of Guy Pearce, David Arquette, Jeffrey Neal McDonough, and especially Jeffrey Jones.

This movie is perhaps best summed up in its soundtrack--the main theme of the primary protagonist, Captain John Boyd:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLt98WxrYAw

If you've never seen this one then I cannot recommend it highly enough!


#05 DARK CITY

Kiefer Sutherland is not often praised for the diversity of his acting ability but, as the son of evil guy par excellence Donald Sutherland, it should come as no surprise that the former can nail the odd creepy performance. Dark City came out a year before The Matrix and, for me, serves as its spiritual predecessor. Its aesthetic is dark--its subject matter and themes even darker.

One part Matrix, one part Inception, and one part the Fifth Element, Dark City is a phenomenal amalgam of deep-thought and dark imaginings. Great, great movie.


#04 THE MIST

Not much to be said about this one: the ideal visual representation of the greatest novella of all time. Simply put, this is the movie I always dreamed of seeing since I first read The Mist as a kid. It manages to elevate the source material simply by altering the ending--one that will shock and awe audiences for all time (and one that Stephen King himself said he wished he had written).


#03 THE NINTH GATE

This movie features my favorite Johnny Depp performance of all time. A seemingly straightforward plot gradually obfuscates as it becomes infused with occult and supernatural elements. The mystery aspects coalesce beautifully with the dark overtones as the rare book dealer finds himself handling way more than he bargained for. I just love the way the plot unfurls; it's like a roller coaster ride where the ascent feels like it takes forever only to be supplanted by an enormous rush as gravity takes over.


#02 EVENT HORIZON

Few space horror films are as genuinely terrifying as Event Horizon. The movie makes use of all of the hallmarks of great atmospheric horror movies imbuing the plot with an ethereal sense of there's-something-more-going-on-here. It's hardly novel in its premise but rather excels in its execution with INCREDIBLE performances by both Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill (more on him in a moment).

This one stands out because of the horror of its nightmare-inducing visuals as well as the terror invoked by this idea of interdimensional possession (which is slightly Lovecraftian in its own right).


#01 IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS

The best John Carpenter film of all time. In The Mouth Of Madness is a massive mindfuck that generates one memorable moment after another. Sam Neill's greatest acting performance comes only a year after Jurassic Park and three before another great horror stint in Event Horizon. This movie combines the best aspects of a powerhouse trio of horror heavy hitters: John Carpenter's directing and soundtrack creation, Stephen King's exploration of small town terror and psychological horrors, and the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft's penchant for combining the ordinary with the impossible--the mundane with the monstrous.

It wasn't until my most recent viewing of this film a few months ago that I realized why I'm perhaps innately inclined to adore this movie: **SPOILER ALERT** it's essentially about a writer whose work will bring about the end of the world all while muddying the waters of reality and sanity. It combines all of the things that I love not just about horror movies but of fiction writing itself. Watching it is the most meta of experiences and it serves as a perpetual source of inspiration!

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Importance of the Visual in Fiction Writing

The art of fiction writing is a deceptively elegant one. On the surface it seems straightforward enough--put words on page and tell story. To do so effectively though requires a far greater attention to detail...and knowing how and when to employ those words to maximize their efficacy.

When it comes to my own fiction writing, I find that I come from an inherently cinematic perspective. I tend to have very strong visual depictions in my mind not just of characters or events but of place and time as well; in essence--a scene not unlike those found in movies or stage plays. My innate perfectionism drives me to convey those visual images to the best of my ability--not so that I can force readers to see the exact same thing that I am envisioning but rather so that I can provide the most authentic representation of that vision; the trick then is to ensure the latter while still allowing room for an individual's interpretation of the material.

In approaching my writing from a cinematic angle I therefore try to establish an environment--to evoke a mood with my word choice. I employ details not unlike a movie director who selects prop and background elements specifically to provide additional layers of understanding and information as a supplement to the events occurring in the primary focus. The director though has an advantage over the writer in that she can make use of those visual aspects with absolutely zero wasted effort.

The writer's challenge then is to make use of those same elements without drawing attention to their presence and without beating the reader about the head them. We must find the right (and potentially fewest) descriptors to convey our images--always to show rather than tell. We want to elicit certain emotions and to engage our readers in unconscious thought processes--to force the understanding into the background as a subconscious act. The only way to ensure this then is to describe what we are seeing without actually describing--to connote rather than to denote.

Here is a pair of examples that describe the exact same scene: 

FIRST
Janet stood in a cemetery over a casket that was being lowered into a hole that had been dug into the ground by three men using shovels. The sky was dark and rain started to fall as lightning flashed and thunder sounded out. She felt very sad over the loss of her oldest son who also happened to be her only child and who died in a car crash that also happened on a rainy night. She wondered whether or not she would be able to recover from his death, which had left her feeling depressed.

SECOND
Janet felt like she was standing at the foot of the abyss—her toes touching the precipice’s edge. A steady stream of tears fell from her eyes like the rain pattering upon the small wooden box in the ground beneath her. The darkness of the sky above paled in comparison with the gaping hole festering inside of her. She winced as lightning flashed awaiting the inevitable thunderclap that would follow. It was like seeing the oncoming headlights and hearing the crash that took away the tiny life that she had made; he wasn’t just the oldest—he had been her only.

She closed her eyes knowing that an eternity of sleepless nights awaited her—sensing that the most difficult days were still to come—her only company the pain and misery that tortured her from within and the three men waiting to shovel the earth back into place.


Though the latter example uses more words than the former to tell the same tale it manages to do so with fewer direct descriptions; the effect then should be a higher quality reading experience. The natural instinct is of course to tell rather than show; this stems from a fear of impotent communication--the writer's inability to cajole the reader into seeing the same thing that they are. Learning to suppress that urge and to rely upon the indirect will ultimately yield an end product that is not only more effective in its impact but likely more enjoyable to read as well.

Reducing clutter (words that are ultimately unnecessary in the telling of a tale) helps to service this end as well. All too often writers use a surfeit of descriptors thinking that they are adding to the story when really they serve only to interrupt the flow. In the previous pair of examples, the image of the "small wooden box" is just as powerful as the one evoked by saying, "dark brown wooden child-sized coffin."

In the latter example there is too much detail that strong-arms the reader into seeing a very precise image. In the former though the reader is led on a journey--one that ends with their own realization of what is actually being conveyed. Reading the word coffin will invariably evoke a certain emotion and visual image but the term "small wooden box" is loaded with information that the reader must unpack and in so doing provides a much richer reading experience.


Flash fiction is a genre that emphasizes this maximization of information through the minimization of words used. Arguably the most famous example of this style of writing is one that is often erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway. It is referred to as a "six word novel" and reads as follows:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Not only does that sextet of words proffer a wealth of information and emotion it serves also a catalyst of imagination allowing readers essentially to write their own mental novels in response. In the context of actual novels however writers consequently have their own stories to tell and thus want to rein in the reader's reaction while still allowing room for individual interpretation. Using a red candle as a symbol for a character's lust and betrayal of body is fine but either overemphasizing or inundating the reader with superfluous descriptors will only reduce its impact. Another pair of examples:

FIRST

She lay on her back upon her king sized mattress and stared up at the ceiling watching the black shadows that the orange candlelight created. She was used to the shape of her lover--the man who was not her husband--occupying the space beside her but now that space was empty. She had been cheating on her husband for seven months and each night would light a single red candle before consummating her elicit affair. She had wanted to end the additional relationship for some time and finally made her mind up.

Rolling over to her right, she reached up her left hand to the mahogany nightstand and picked up her golden, diamond-covered wedding band. She put it onto her left ring finger before rising from her black, Egyptian cotton sheets and walking to her left towards the window. She looked at the red candle and the round, brown table that held the white saucer that it sat upon. Since her lover hadn't come over she did not put any makeup on and so she leaned over with her naturally colored lips and blew out the candle's yellow-orange flame.


SECOND
She watched the solitary shadows dance across the ceiling as the flame flickered in the unseen drafts. Rolling over, she felt the coolness of the empty space beside her and smiled; her mind was made up. Reaching over to the nightstand she picked up her wedding band and slid it onto her finger before rising and crossing the room.

She stood before the red candle, pursed her pale bare lips, and blew out its light.


I would argue that showing not telling is only half of the writer's golden equation; the second half would be to do more with less. Wasted words serve only to distract readers and should be avoided wherever possible. Maximize the value of and information conveyed by your words and you'll wind up with a far greater finished product for your efforts!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Temporal Transilience: On The Implications Of Eternity & The Meaning Of Life

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/d/dd/The_Persistence_of_Memory.jpg/300px-The_Persistence_of_Memory.jpg

The human mind is innately incapable of processing terminally unbound concepts like infinity and eternity. We can conceptualize them and discuss them at length but to envision and embody them is nigh impossible for most. We are a species that is obsessed with extremes where, contrary to popular belief, size does matter. We ask constantly: what makes up the smallest things? How big are the biggest things? How far is the farthest thing? How old is the oldest thing?

It is perhaps ironic that we are comforted by boundaries though it may seem that we like to push or pulverize them at every opportunity. Knowing the limits of things provides us with reassurance: we like our seasons to change every few months (for those of us in temperate climes)--we like our lowest seafloor to stay put and our highest mountaintops to remain relatively stable. It allows us to go about our everyday lives content in the knowledge that we understand the way of the world.

Where we get into trouble then is when the limits are unknown or when we are unable to accept those limits (or, more importantly, a lack thereof); time in particular is perhaps the most unsettling. We are hardwired to think of time as being unidirectional--of events occurring in singular sequence. To us, life is not unlike a novel: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything--past precedes present with future following faithfully ahead.

We examine time and reality from a position of myopic solipsism, assuming that, because we view and experience things one way, that such is the true nature of things. Our examinations invariably lead us along similar directional arrows both spatially and temporally. With the advent of telescopes we began to look deeper into space and thus time and with the advent of the microscope so did we look inward.

The discovery of the atom led us to think in terms of composition: what are we made of? I'm still awed by the beautiful symmetry that exists in our cosmobiological histories: the elements that dominate our lives from the carbon and hydrogen in our bodies to the gold in our wedding rings all came from stars billions of years ago--some of the biggest things in the universe that existed in a time and place almost impossibly distant from our present state. We are all made of star-stuff from aeons past...how poetic!

The problem though with our tele- and microscopic explorations is that they led us constantly along the same direction to points that might not actually exist (again something that addles us incessantly). If the atom makes up matter then what makes up the atom? And thus the discovery of subatomic particles--protons, neutrons, and electrons. But, then, what makes up these particles? Why, quarks and leptons, of course! But what makes up...

You see, no matter how small we go we will always ask what is smaller because, I believe, it is simply how we are programmed to think. We cannot envision something that cannot be divided further--dissected into yet smaller constituent pieces. At that point we wind up falling back upon approximations:

"Well, at that point it would be so small that we couldn't measure it so it wouldn't matter anyway."

Go in the opposite direction and we reach a similarly disconcerting conclusion. If the universe is finite in size then what lies beyond the edge of the universe? And if it is infinite then is it not still in our nature to wonder what exists outside of it?

Once again we find ourselves trading in science for the metaphysical or philosophical. Even religion is forced to shrug its shoulders in response to such queries. If God created everything then who or what created God? (The typical answer is, "It's a mystery," which is the sacred equivalent of the secular, "It wouldn't matter anyway." Ditto for the responses to, "Where does God live?" and "What came before God?")

We live within a bounded world and thus it is exceedingly difficult for us to picture anything being physically unfettered...but what about time? Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations that:

"Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."

This notion of time as a river seems to complement our typical perspective of an arrow of time dominating and directing our lives since a river begins at one point and moves steadily in one direction...and yet it works also to contradict that purview. A river, despite its motion, exists all at once. Heraclitus famously proclaimed that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man,” and yet, while the river does change, it exists still in perpetual entirety.

But just what is time? It is commonly defined as:

...the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future. Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change of quantities in material reality or in the conscious experience.

Time in physics is defined by its measurement: time is what a clock reads. In classical, non-relativistic physics it is a scalar quantity and, like length, mass, and charge, is usually described as a fundamental quantity. Time can be combined mathematically with other physical quantities to derive other concepts such as motion, kinetic energy and time-dependent fields.

We know from Einstein's work that time is malleable--that two people with identical clocks traveling at significantly different speeds will experience differing durations of it but this refers essentially only to the present. The real issue stems from the past and the future--those uncertainties that stultify us (the past with its esoteric origin and the future with its questionable inevitability). We are used to experiencing things and analyzing them in terms of three time states: past (before), present (now), and future (ahead) but, as I stated earlier, merely because we encounter reality with such boundaries does not mean that time cannot or does not exist in an all-at-once state; perhaps we have evolved to be so constrained in our thinking or have yet to evolve to a higher order level of cogitation.

I should note that what prompted my thinking on all of this was a movie I saw recently that probed the idea of a timescape as opposed to an arrow of time.

(*SPOILERS* AHEAD FOR THE MOVIE ARRIVAL)

In an excellent analysis of the film on NPR, Marcelo Gleiser refers to the brain's "neurological plasticity" when it comes to learning new languages enabling it to adjust for its differences to other already known languages. He references too the iconographic language of the Heptapods--beings who view time in its entirety and thus speak in a way that is devoid of time values. They are able to move freely through time and space because of this perspective and, consequently, there is a profound impact upon the protagonist when she eventually learns to become untethered in time. (The article can be found in its entirety here.) 

I could not fall asleep after watching the movie because my brain was afire with analytical excitement. Two recurring queries dominated my thoughts though and it is this pair that I wanted to explore here in this essay. The first and perhaps most pressing is: why don't we see all states of time simultaneously or, more importantly, why can't we? If there is neurological plasticity with regards to language then why not time?

It might seem like an insignificant differentiation between don't and can't but I believe that it is utterly material not just to our discussion here but to our very existences. I understand that the notion of time existing all at once seems incongruent with commonsense and indeed our everyday experience but many giants in physics not only support but adhere to that very belief. Richard Feynman touched upon it in his sum over histories theorem but Einstein took it a step further. In 1955 the latter wrote a letter of condolence to the family of a friend who had recently passed saying:

"Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

We are used to our arrow of time and we allow it to shape not only our thought-processes but the very actions of our lives. We have our earliest memories from childhood or perhaps infancy that represent one terminal boundary and then we have our inevitable demises that, presumably, create the second terminus thus closing the loops of our lives. We can read about the distant past much as we can surmise about the far future but in terms of actual memory--that which is utterly internalized and drawn upon with a much different sense of realism and emotional energy--we are privy to only that which we have already experienced and are experiencing now.

Having access to all of our life at one time (as explored in Arrival) would have an intensely immense impact upon our present (ha!) states of mind as well as our future actions; it would defenestrate our long adhered-to beliefs and tenuous knowledge about the natural order of life. In the movie (again, SPOILERS!), the protagonist knows that her daughter will eventually die prematurely of a disease and that her foreknowledge of this presumed inevitability leads to the disintegration of her marriage (with the assumption being that she knows of the future circumstance but will take no action to affect the outcome). She remembers what it is like to hold and to be held by her beloved as she meets him for the first time.

She manages somehow to live her life in spite of this knowledge but how would we, then, approach such daunting information in our own lives? How could we possibly engage in relationships that we know are doomed from the start? How could we develop attachments to things that we know are going to break?

Say you had a favorite teddy bear. You know that nothing lasts forever except love but even this fades over time. Let's say you could see the future--the exact moment the bear falls apart. Would you hug it less or sleep with it less frequently if it would extend its life by a year? A few months? Even a day? Wouldn't you get to the point that you never interact with it just so that it can go on existing...and yet now you run the risk of losing the meaning that it had to you in the first place?

The first issue with what I like to think of as temporal transilience is whether or not knowledge of future events can impact the present and thus lead to changes in said future. If we see the pain of a future loss is so acute that it destroys us would we then at the moment of genesis of that relationship or interaction choose not to embark upon that journey in the first place? Of course few things would be solely saddening and thus one sequence of poignant pain couldn't possibly negate the perhaps lifetime of happiness that would precede it.

Would we exist then as representatives of Feynman's sum over histories? Instead of particle wave paths canceling each other out resulting in a few states of higher probability would it be our emotions that experience time as such? Would we feel in the present the net sum of emotions resulting from past and future in concert?

And, again, what if we could choose to alter things? Being somehow conscripted to the events of our lives would make it easier to accept the bad things but think about the implications: knowing every single thing that will happen to you at one point means in essence that there is no such thing as free will--that fate and destiny dominate your narrative. These are concepts that I explore deeply in my second novel of my Kosmogonia series, which, in turn, is inspired by the very nature of its name (Kosmogonia is a bastardization of the Greek word for cosmogony or the study of the origin of the universe) and that I still grapple with today.

Our discussion thus far has been merely superficial though--hardly scraping the surface of the topic. We have probed temporal omniscience as it pertains to one life bound by birth and death but what if those limits were altered? What if, at each point of decision in our lives, new universes or dimensions were created based upon the options that we chose?

Though it might sound like far-fetched science fiction it is actually based upon a well-known interpretation of quantum mechanics called the Many-worlds interpretation. It is described as:

...an interpretation of quantum mechanics that asserts the objective reality of the universal wavefunction and denies the actuality of wavefunction collapse. Many-worlds implies that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual "world" (or "universe"). In layman's terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.

The quantum-mechanical "Schrödinger's cat" theorem according to the many-worlds interpretation. In this interpretation, every event is a branch point; the cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened, but the "alive" and "dead" cats are in different branches of the universe, both of which are equally real, but which do not interact with each other. (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation)
The concept of a multiverse caters to this interpretation and perhaps makes better sense than a universe in isolation: every possible outcome has a universe or place of existence. To put it into perspective, imagine that in this universe you went to work wearing a navy blue skirt and white blouse. In another universe you opted for a floral print top and a rose-colored blazer. Then imagine that, for each of those, you stopped at Starbucks and ordered a different drink. In some of those instances it was raining and in others still there was sunshine. You left your house or apartment at 6:58 a.m. or 6:56 a.m. and drove yourself or partook in a carpool. Now imagine all of these possible scenarios where one tiny grain of sand was moved a millimeter to the left by the wind and another to the right...

When you begin to consider all of the possible outcomes and the variables therein then you begin to get a sense for how large and all-encompassing infinity is! With regards to the aforementioned access to all-time, what would the impact be of having access to the timescapes of all of those different realms of existence? Would we lose our sense of self and our penchant for persisting in the present? Would we become lost in the time-stream--choked by the waters of the past and future, drowning in the overwhelming flow of time itself? How could we possibly exist with exposure to that much information about ourselves?

Again, the Feynman approach might somehow factor in where conflicting realities would annihilate each other and we would be left with access to fewer outcomes but still, such omniscience seems to me a burden of unimaginable weight! And all of this is restricted to our own personal places in the multiverse! What if we had the ability to see literally ALL time? Not necessarily the memories of others, per se, but that which existed before and will exist after our own time on this plane?

Even this can be further divided between eternal and finite existences. If the universe had a beginning and has an end then what would we do with that information? The ability to see not just our own ends but the end of everything? I would imagine that it would be terrifyingly beautiful but also innately debilitating (for reasons I will explain in a moment).

And what if there really is no end and was no beginning? Would it be possible then to become trapped in our own examination of past and future--traveling forever through perpetuity thereby a) losing the ability to live in the present and b) depriving us of our physical experiences? We would be like YouTube videos buffering forever as we awaited a return to our regularly scheduled programming!

At that point, past and future would lose meaning because they would be indelibly linked; there would no longer be beginning and end--only a single state of being. Time would essentially loop in upon itself, which, interestingly enough, is the way that the universe's shape is often described. Many believe that there is no end or beginning to the universe and that one who embarks in a particular direction will eventually return to the spot from which one left or that there is merely the appearance of an end like the map in a sandbox type game like GTA IV.

Temperature too appears to be malleable in a quantifiable sense based upon the discovery of negative temperatures--the idea of the temperature scale looping back upon itself.

(By definition, Absolute Zero is the coldest theoretical temperature--the point at which all motion ceases--and yet temperatures have been discovered and created below Absolute Zero. At these so-called negative temperatures behavior changes from that of extremely cold particles to extremely hot ones thereby implying a closed loop of temperature--go too far in one direction and you find yourself approaching from the other end. For more information scope out this awesome article: about negative temperatures.)


http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/img/FLP_I/f05-09/f05-09_small.jpg

This is a photo of virus molecules but, to me, it sort of looks like a lunar settlement: the macroscopic mirrored in the microscopic...the loop of existence demonstrating itself once more.

Wading into the murky metaphysical waters of the afterlife, what about time after death? Would we be privy to the arcane wisdom of the great beyond whilst still we lived? The ontological implications of this epistemological miracle would be profound! They would shake the very core of our philosophical and scientific beliefs (saying nothing of the various religions this would shatter) effectively redefining life and what it means to live--to be.

And what then of an endless array of afterlives? The idea of a paradisiacal post-life was created in part to comfort those who feared death but also to ensure obedience from those who existed on the present plane of existence. By fostering desirable behavior from the flock, the political heads ensured both obeisance and order through the promise of an idyllic post-existence rife with halcyon days spent amid empyrean environs; life was bisected into two distinct eras: now and then.

Of course, the notion of reincarnation most closely approximates the idea of an infinite existence but even that is curtailed by the confines of our lovely blue orb: each return trip would be inherently earthbound. There would be no need for other times or realms of existence because everything would take place here ad infinitum. In those instances, would we keep our memories of our past selves (assuming a lack of access to the proposed all-timescape)? If so, would we continue to accrue lifetimes as we aged?

The nature of the self then is tested; who are we if not ourselves, after all? Reincarnation implies that the self remains but the vessel changes. Our consciousnesses then defines us: we are comprised of our mind and memories--our emotions and experiences. The emphasis of course is on the word our; to have someone else's memories would be an exigent existential enigma!

Access to all-time would, I believe, damage our innate senses of self. We define ourselves based upon boundaries that we take for granted or aren't even aware of. It is the amalgam of experiences, decisions, feelings, and remembrances that make us who we are, bookended by birth and death--awakening and eternal sleep. Without these delineations we cease to appreciate our respective individualities.
 
A step even deeper into the rabbit hole leads us back to where we began: if there was a beginning of the universe and thus time and we had access to knowledge of such a point then what came before that? This, in my opinion, is the fundamental question that baffles most people and which sends them scrambling to God or the physics textbooks for answers. It is arguably the single most difficult thing to conceptualize: what came before time itself?

To ask such a question, to quote the great Corey Taylor, is a pseudo-sacrosanct perversion of the fabric of everything; time is the most hallowed aspect of our existence because, by its very nature, it establishes the parameters of our lives. By relinquishing our grip upon the need for such clearly defined parameters then do we begin to appreciate our own places amid the infinite.

The faithful find their answers in God. The universe itself was created and there was nothing before that--just an endless void. God the creator then becomes a cabalistic entity--the recondite source of all whose existence cannot be questioned and thus answers everything.

The scientific find their answers in inquiry. Though their godless examination is viewed as sacrilegious or even heretical by some they choose to use logic and reason to reach a qualitatively definable conclusion. The inimitable Stephen Hawking said of both time and God:

"Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there's no way one could measure what happened at them. This kind of beginning to the universe, and of time itself, is very different to the beginnings that had been considered earlier. These had to be imposed on the universe by some external agency. There is no dynamical reason why the motion of bodies in the solar system can not be extrapolated back in time, far beyond four thousand and four BC, the date for the creation of the universe, according to the book of Genesis. Thus it would require the direct intervention of God, if the universe began at that date. By contrast, the Big Bang is a beginning that is required by the dynamical laws that govern the universe. It is therefore intrinsic to the universe, and is not imposed on it from outside."

(Excerpted from http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html)

The answer from a scientific perspective is simply that there is no before; within the singularity that preceded the Big Bang (and thus time), the laws of physics broke down and thus time was impossible. Existence had yet to be and instead there was only a timeless point of potential--infinite energy and an eternity of time compressed to an impossible degree. What has ensued--now bounded by the laws of physics/quantum physics--has set the limits on not simply what is knowable but what is relevant.

We live in what is termed the observable universe. It is dubbed as such because it is as far out in space (and thus back in time) that we can possibly see: given the age and size of the universe, it is as far as the farthest photons could have traveled in the time that the universe has existed. We need light to see and so if the light is so far away that with even an infinity of infinities of lifetimes it could never reach us then whatever lies beyond that point has no meaning to us because we simply could never observe it. It is impossible to reach the edge of the universe and so whatever lies beyond it (whether something or nothing) is meaningless; it is impossible to measure time before it began and thus a time before time is also inconsequential.

I find that answer to be both confounding but utterly fulfilling: there is no place beyond space and there was no when before time.

Still, I can't help but wonder whether or not time exists all at once and whether our perspective of the temporal arrow is in consequence of or opposition to that reality. Like the heptapods in Arrival, were we to maximize our cognitive capabilities would our increased faculties enable us to see the true nature of things and to process it in ways that we are presently incapable of doing? Or have we evolved in such a way as to protect ourselves from time--to create boundaries that enable us to exist as ourselves (just as we have evolved to ignore background noise so as not to have our senses perpetually engaged)?

It leads me perpetually to one overarching question: would omniscience and omnipresence render our lives devoid of meaning?

We spoke earlier of the possibility of our free will affecting fate. What if through our free will we were capable of altering things in the present thereby changing our potential futures? Would we become obsessed with this tinkering--struggling to find the "right" combination to result in a perfect life? Wouldn't we lose much through the elimination of negative experiences since there is so much to be learned from them?

What if the decisions we make are irrevocable? What if we could STILL see the future but maintain knowledge of the past and thus our other possible futures? What if we give up the dream relationship in one for the dream job in another and lose twenty years due to illness or accident?

Is it like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? You have a certain amount but you can gamble getting more; when you lose you're saddled with the knowledge that you could've simply walked away with what you had and been happy...but then again, what if the what ifs would have torn you to pieces and you wound up obsessing about what could have been rather than what was and what is?

If you could see the entirety of your life at a given moment then the joys would constantly be balanced by the sorrows. Would you still watch the big game knowing your team is going to lose? Would you still be as invested in that job or relationship knowing that it's ultimately doomed to fail? Being able to see all points in time and all places neuters those experiences of value--it robs you of your ability to experience them in their proper temporal position and it makes your present a living hell; it would make every living moment a nightmare fraught with worry about the future, which, by definition, would already be in the past for you in your present--something to look back upon before it even happens.

The problem with omnipresence and omniscience is that it strips the importance away from life events; their value lies in their mystery--in our not knowing the outcome. In any given circumstance--whether it's a sporting event, a relationship, or simply a walk in the park--it's our blindness to the end result that renders the experiences both enjoyable and worthwhile. We need the boundaries of temporal spacing--past, present, and future--but also simultaneously boundaries with regards to knowledge of our lives.

Being omniscient would afford us the knowledge of all-things but would at the same time render them worthless; it is the openendedness of each moment and experience that imbues them with meaning--the fact that they have potential and that we must make our decisions based upon the unknown that shapes not only who we are but the lives that we live.

The solution then is to take each day as it comes, to plan for the future, to reflect upon the past, and to derive our personal meanings in the present from the memories we've made and the moments we've yet to encounter.

Not knowing is ultimately what gives our lives meaning.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Subjugation of Subjectivity



Somewhere in the past ten years or so there has been a seismic shift in people's ability to handle subjectivity. Opinions, while proffered at unprecedented rates, transmogrified from simple observations and standpoints into full-fledged mission statements and personal philosophies; modern Americans have so much of their self-esteem tied up in their viewpoints that they no longer view them as malleable manifestos but rather as rigid truisms--ones that they must convince others are not simply the right ones but in some cases the only ones. Whether it's about something as intimate as one's personal politics and religion or as inane as musical or television preferences, people have inexorably entangled their self-worth in their opinions...and it's driving me crazy.

I'm a voracious consumer of music--it's easily the most important passion I have and is something that I partake in daily whether by listening, writing, or playing it on guitar and piano. My love of music has its genesis in my early childhood but it didn't fully take root until the mid to late '90s when I began to explore it more deeply. Growing up, my mother always had the radio on and there was no shortage of records and cassette tapes arranged next to the stereo. In the mid-'90s my parents got me my first CD player and, having nothing to listen to on it, my father took me to the Wiz on Avenue U to pick up a few albums. Among them were Billy Joel's "The River of Dreams," Seal's self-titled 1994 release, and the Batman Forever soundtrack. I remember loving the first album, being indifferent about the second, and having a mixed reaction to the third.

From 1997 through 2001 (incidentally the breadth of my time in high school), I began to refine my taste in music and drastically expanded my collection from radio classics to then-current alternative rock, nu-metal, and rap. Some of my favorite albums still today came out during that time and I remember discussing them extensively with my friends--both musically inclined and casual listeners in their own rights. We had our favorite bands with preferred albums and tracks among them; what we didn't have was the petty, puerile arguments that dominate discourse in 2016--not just about music but about everything.

I was so stoked when Korn released their new album in October and then again when Metallica's first release in eight years dropped last month. For as excited as I was about hearing the music though I was equally and oppositely dreading the inevitable explosion of ersatz experts on my favorite guitar site and on Facebook proffering their insipid musings about both. The torrential shitstorm of commentary that ensued though far exceeded the conjecture I was anticipating.

See, the problem is that it's s no longer enough simply to have an opinion on something. It used to be that people could engage in discussion about things without it turning into an argument with egos on the line. Sure there was always the odd argumentative type who would turn anything into a debate but nowadays it feels like everyone does that. Facebook, Twitter, and the like abound with faux perspicacious peripatetics spewing their uninformed diatribes, obscenely overcomplicating things that should be way simpler and that exist almost solely for our entertainment and enjoyment.

Take the Metallica release for example. At its most basic level, here's what happened: a band released an album comprised of a dozen songs. Here's what should have ensued: people made a decision to buy or refrain from buying the album based upon their feelings about the band; the ones who did make the purchase then decided whether they liked the album or not.

That's it! No rocket science involved--no smarmy, pathological pedantry. IS that what happened? Not hardly!

Aside from the requisite trolls who came to comment about how much they can't stand Metallica or how awful the band is (something that I still can't comprehend--do these people go into restaurants or stores that sell food and products that they dislike or have no use for just to pass judgement upon those places despite having exactly zero use for or interest in their offerings?), you had actual FANS of the band parsing through the album--dissecting it to the point of idiocy. I saw comments about the following:

Metallica trying too hard to sound like "the old" Metallica.

Metallica needing to sound more like "the old" Metallica.

The album sounding too much like the last album (Death Magnetic).

How washed up the band is/how terrible the band's live performances are.

The songs are too long.

How terrible Lars is.

I'm not saying there isn't any sort of veridical value in these statements nor am I trying to say that they aren't valid viewpoints; my gripe instead is that these are even issues at all for people in the first place. Look--I get wanting a band to sound like they used to. There's a lot of emotion and memory tied up in that era of personal discovery when it comes to bands but people often fail to consider the human and creative aspects of making music; writing fast, heavy, angry songs as a teenager works when you're that age but it might not necessarily still apply when you're middle-aged. Metallica, in particular, consists of some pretty old dudes and Lars in particular is fifty two years old! After playing this style of music literally for decades I'd be shocked if he didn't lose a step physically in terms of his playing; ditto for James and Kirk as well.

My problem with the Metallica album along with everything else is people's seemingly innate need to deride shit--to manufacture this sham sense of superiority in an effort to elevate themselves. It's become:

"Oh? You like the new album? Yeah, it's okay I guess. I mean it's not as good as Master or Kill Em All. Actually, I could barely sit through most of the songs. I'm done with Metallica. They're garbage."

The same thing happens with television shows. People no longer get behind a show and stay there. Instead, they live and die with every episode: one night it's the greatest show on television and the next it's full-on, "I'm DONE with this show." The Walking Dead is one of the biggest victims of this type of behavior and it stems mostly from a separate issue of folks demanding instant gratification and having non-existent attention spans. Two of the most incredible episodes of the series had comparatively little gore and violence and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are among the show's lowest rated. They weren't artsy, highbrow pieces nor were they dialogue-heavy slogs; instead, they took what makes The Walking Dead great aside from the gore, violence, and special effects--the atmosphere, the inner/emotional turmoil (both for the characters themselves and the viewers), and the ability to evoke a very real sense of terror and dread--and they maximized them to great effect.


Think about it: would a show like LOST have a snowball's chance in hell of making it through six full seasons if it started airing today? I doubt it! In 2004, millions of people watched the first few episodes and had the same simultaneous response: "What the hell is going on!?" Back then (it feels like 112 years ago instead of the decade and change that it actually was), that was enough to get people interested in the show and to maintain that interest for years on end. They didn't decide from episode to episode whether this was the greatest show on television or the worst: they recognized that the writers were telling a story and they wanted to see where that journey would take them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, towards the end of the show's run, people began to grow disenfranchised with the aforementioned story. It took too many twists and demanded too much from them to keep their fandom and hold their interest; the genesis of the modern mindset was already beginning to be seen. Lost was judged suddenly on a per-episode basis with more and more people jumping ship--citing "this season (5 or 6 in particular) sucked--it was wAaAaaAy better in season 1 or 2."

People are clearly entitled to their opinions but my problem is two-fold: if you're going to pass judgement on something then at least have a reason for that critique OR, if you can't qualify that stance, at least don't try to act like you're basing it upon some unspeakable enlightenment that the rest of us mere mortals are incapable of processing or at the very least aren't privy to. I don't understand why things (bands, albums, songs, television shows, movies) can no longer be viewed in isolation--assessed based solely upon their individual merits. At their core, why can't the Metallica songs be good or bad--ones that you like or don't like? Why do television shows and movies have to be judged on the whole based upon isolated instances of mediocrity?

Again, my problem isn't the negative opinions that people have about things--it's how shallow and uninformed those statements ultimately wind up being. If you ask someone who says, "Eh. Metallica's sucked since The Black Album" WHY Metallica has sucked since The Black Album then you'd like to think there would be a well-thought out reason; more often than not though all you get is fluff, rhetoric, or circular reasoning. If you're going to start a debate about something or take a differing stance then you should at least be able to articulate YOUR OWN STANCE ESPECIALLY if you're shitting all over someone else's!

My plea though is just for folks to take a step back (or one down off of their soapboxes) and just enjoy shit for whatever it is. Either you like it or you don't so why not just leave it at that? Just because there are schisms of opinions doesn't mean either side is wrong or somehow less valid or worthy than the other. It's okay to take a dissenting stance and not feel the need to put down the other side simply to make yourself feel worthy or righteous. I just can't wrap my head around the schizophrenic way in which people approach their recreational activities! How enervating must it be to listen to a twelve song album and, with each track go, "LOVE IT. BEST BAND EVER. UGH. HATE IT. SO OVER THESE GUYS. THEY'RE THE WORST. OMG LOVE THIS ONE. THESE GUYS STILL HAVE IT! THIS IS TOTAL GARBAGE."?

I miss the days when opinions were just that: responses to a yes or no type of question. Did you like the movie? Yeah--thought it was great/Nah, it wasn't my cup of tea. What do you think of the new album? It's awesome/It's terrible. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for having a meaningful discussion about something but the problem is that most people no longer engage in actual discourse. It's become: I think this, I'm right, I don't care what you think because you're wrong. People don't take the time to listen to other people's viewpoints and, if they do, they rarely resist the urge to convince them why their opinion is the wrong one!

I'm just amazed by the capriciousness that defines people's perspectives and how alarmingly incapable they are of backing up whatever claims they make. "This was the worst _____ ever...because." Is it really that hard to go that extra step and to explain why you feel that way? There'd be so much less bickering and unnecessary arguing if only that seemingly trivial act were to occur with greater frequency.

Then again, what do I know?

Everyone's a critic.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Power of Silence

Silence, in all its forms, can be one of the most destructive forces in existence. It is a perplexing dichotomy--a perfect marriage of two opposing effects elicited from the same catalytic source. Silence can heal and silence can kill: it can condemn and absolve. It can provide for moments of contemplative introspection or it can feel like the weight of the world.

I have been reflecting upon the power of silence lately because I have encountered it in numerous forms. There are people I was once close with with whom I will likely never speak again. This type of long-term silence is at once enervating and invigorating. I have been the victim of the so-called silent treatment before and know all too well the pain that being shunned brings with it but, unexpectedly, the same circumstance with different people can bring about an entirely different response. By shedding these negative influences from my life I feel free--as if I have been liberated by the shackles of the past. This seemingly simple silence has washed away the poison that festered in my heart allowing me to look forward to the future; it has rendered me cancer-free in a mental and emotional sense.

Silence certainly has its healing properties. I love my kids more than anything but there is certainly a yearning for a few moments of solitude by the end of the day. There is a peacefulness that accompanies the bedtime rituals--calm and quiet to help whisk them away to the land of dreams. Then, in the tranquil time that ensues, the silence that fills the house is restorative and rejuvenating--replenishing my patience and energy for the next day.

Silence is integral to music as well oftentimes offering as much in the way of musical meaning as rhythm and melody; rests can fill sonic space in a way that no number of notes or chords ever could. It provides a sense of anticipation and can be the source of the heaviest moment in a heavy song or the darkest, most ominous one in a dark tune. Two of my favorite examples come from songs from the late '90s/early '00s. If you listen from 2:25 to 2:52 on Incubus' Pardon Me, you'll see that the dip in volume and that brief silence before the final chorus renders the closing section all the more powerful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhZvDJ2opsM

The frenetic, upbeat tempo of the Foo Fighters' tune Monkey Wrench has a similar moment of anticipation built in to the end of the intro:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKp5v588-Vs

Still, there is a dark side to silence--one that, in many ways, overshadows its positive aspects. Social silence can be demeaning whether it occurs in person or digitally. I know this type of silence doesn't bother some people but it absolutely infuriates me because of the implied denigration. Picture yourself sitting at a table with friends. The group is carrying on a conversation with each member participating in turn though in no particular order. You offer up an observation or a quip...a moment of silence ensues...and the conversation carries on as if you never spoke. How does that make you feel? For me, that act of dismissal is one of the most derogatory things that can happen in a social setting. I'd be less offended by someone telling me off to my face with a string of colorful expletives than I would someone completely ignoring something that I said.

Silence often reminds us of loss and conflict. Parents fighting and yelling undeniably has a negative impact on children but how much worse is it to live amid the tension that comes with icy silence between one's parents? Silence is what often fills the room as one awaits test results in a doctor's office...and what comes from the other end of the phone line when bad news is delivered.

Victims of abuse are often shamed into silence; when many do find the courage to speak up, they are either met with silence or told to keep quiet (at least at many, many institutions of higher education where the cash cow sports teams matter more than victims' rights). Lying by omission is by its very definition the act of remaining silent to suppress the truth--ethical elision at its finest. When people fail to speak up in defense of another or when they fail to correct an egregious error their silence can have a far-reaching impact.
 
The most poignant destructive distinction of silence though comes with the assumptions that we seem compelled to draw when we encounter it socially. How many quiet girls who abstain from friendly communication get dubbed bitchy or priggish--snobs who think they're too good to talk to others simply by the act of keeping quiet? I met a few including my wife in college who were unjustly and improperly judged and who suffered as a result of these specious suppositions levied upon them; they were wallflowers assumed to be elitist divas.

Young children, too, are forced to bear the burden of their verbal reticence. How many kids respond with silence to well-meaning adults who try to engage them in conversation and are then questioned as to their mental faculties? They can't merely be shy or simply not in the mood to speak with a stranger--no no, instead, there "must be something wrong with them."

This assessment of cognitive capabilities is the one that I find most troubling and the one that has occupied my mind the most of late. For many native-born Americans there is this bizarre connection that is drawn between silence and intellectual function. How many folks see an immigrant who doesn't speak English--regardless of race, mind you--and automatically assume that, because of their silence in responding to questions, that they are intellectually inferior or even mentally retarded? How many of these supposed imbeciles, in turn, were professionals of distinction in their home countries? Doctors, lawyers, engineers? How many mocking epithets were hurled at these people especially as children by their classmates?

I spent almost a half an hour on Tuesday night speaking with the father of one of my son's flag football teammates. He speaks English fluently but has enough of an accent that I suspected that he emigrated from elsewhere; what I couldn't have predicted was the magnitude of his actual life story. Having already served in a war as a native son of Montenegro, he decided to exile himself from his homeland when he was recruited to engage in the Yugoslavian conflict of the early 1990s. He engaged in a harrowing journey that took him first to Germany, then to Mexico, and, ultimately, across the border and into the United States where he had family awaiting him.

He came to New York City without speaking or understanding a word of English. He lived first in Brooklyn and then in Staten Island, working and going to school to provide for himself and his family, spending his spare moments engaged in labor as opposed to the sports and games that his neighbors enjoyed. He taught himself English, worked his way through his adolescence, and ultimately came to be in charge of a significant construction company. He now provides for several children of his own giving them all of the things that he never had and shielding them from the atrocities that he endured all for the sake of their own peaceful existences. He does so in silence, never burdening them with the pain that marred his early life.

I thought of him earlier today when I was at the doctor's office with my son. I watched a white woman explaining to a Hispanic man the paperwork and procedures that he needed to fill out before his son could be seen. It was obvious that he didn't speak English and didn't understand most of what she said--particularly in the way he and his wife proceeded to pore over the paperwork like a test given in a foreign language (which, in a way, is precisely what it was). Meanwhile, she's holding their baby and trying to comfort their older son who is in a cast and still with a hospital bracelet around his wrist, wincing every few seconds as tears of pain sprang to his eyes.

I thought of my own recent ordeal with my son--the time spent at the hospitals and the slew of assorted doctor's visits that we've endured. I thought of how draining it has been for us and then I thought of that man and his family. Can you imagine how much worse it must be to go through those things--emergency room visits, ambulance rides--doctors and nurses trying to explain things to you while your child is suffering in pain...and not understanding most of what they are saying? Responding, more often than not, with silence?

Don't get me wrong--I am a firm believer that anyone who wants to live here should, at some point, learn English. I understand how incredibly difficult it is for older folks who make their way here but at the same time I also believe that it is the single most important thing that an immigrant can do. If I decided to move to France, Spain, or the Middle East then I would be damn sure to work as hard as I could to learn to speak the respective languages. Often the burden is laid upon the children of immigrants to be the translators and go-betweens and I'm sure that in at least some of those instances it's not for a lack of trying on the parts of the parents.

With that said, there's clearly a learning curve involved--one that has nothing to do with intellectual faculties. I think of Gonzalo Le Batard--one of my favorite sports entertainment personalities. He fled Cuba and was able to build a life for his wife and two sons in Florida while so many of his relatives remained trapped in Castro's time capsule. One glance at the Tweets and Facebook comments written about him tells you everything you need to know about the perception towards non-native English speakers in this country. Mr. Le Batard is fluent in English but clearly picked it up as a second language. How many people listen to him speak and think that he is unintelligent or mentally defective? How many people know that he was an engineer in Cuba? That he came here and earned an American engineering degree in his second language?

Think about that for a second. This man, who is routinely derided and called stupid (or worse) did something that many native-born Americans can't do...in his weaker language? If you have a four year or specialized degree then can you imagine going to school in a different country and earning that same degree in a second language that you didn't even learn until you were an adult?

The closest experiences I have come from trips I took to Puerto Rico and Ireland. Puerto Rico was the first country I've ever gone to where English wasn't the dominant language spoken or written in and even then it's still a part of the United States! I remember wanting to take photographs at the capitol building in San Juan and not being sure if I was allowed to. I used my piss-poor gringo Spanish to ask a security guard if it was okay and I barely understood what she said in response...so I nodded and smiled. She nodded and smiled quietly in return, giving me a thumbs up. She might've been giving me the approval for the photos or maybe she thought there was something wrong with the grown man with the childlike Spanish pronunciation; another silent gulf.

As apprehensive as I was in Puerto Rico, it was even worse in Ireland, if you can believe it. I mean, we are talking about a place where the people not only speak the same language as me and enjoy a nearly identical cultural background as me--they even look exactly like me! And yet, it was my first time being in what was, to me, a faraway, foreign country. The language wasn't so much an issue as the customs were. I didn't think of it until my wife and I left the hotel to head into Dublin and had to get on the bus. I realized that I had no idea how the bus worked. I knew that it would be easy enough to ask...but I was afraid of looking stupid.

I was in a place that was as close to being identical to home as it could be and still be different--the closest thing to a foreign comfort zone as possible...and I was still petrified of being judged and ridiculed. It made me think of the few foreign students I encountered as a student growing up in Brooklyn. I remember the abuse they took and I can only imagine the effect it had on them.

I think now again of the father of the boy on my son's flag football team. Can you picture yourself as a child and him suddenly showing up in your elementary school class? The new kid who stares blankly at the teacher--unresponsive when prompted for an answer? Who blinks and nods instead of speaking up? Can you imagine the fear that he must have felt--not wanting to be made fun of, not wanting to be thought of as stupid for the way he spoke or for his lack of understanding of an utterly foreign language? Can you picture the other kids laughing at him? The names they must have called him? A boy who wanted nothing more than a better shot at life than he had back home.

There is an alarming lack of empathy that is exhibited by people when it comes to immigrants. These people are presumed to be something that they are not and it sickens me; it also stems from one simple experiential factor: those who sit in judgment have never been put in a similar situation. I would be shocked if any of them have found themselves in a foreign country where they didn't speak the language and were forced to engage in daily functions with absolutely no help and then still had the gall to judge the immigrants who come here seeking a better life. Would you be able to muster up the courage to work shitty, low-paying jobs to give your kids a chance that literally millions of people take for granted--one that they have never given a second thought throughout their entire lives? Would you be able to be that kid--the one who gets laughed at and picked on because he or she dresses differently and doesn't speak the language correctly if at all? That teenager whose entire life has been uprooted suddenly in a place that might as well be an alien world? That feeling of awkwardness and wanting desperately to fit in but being utterly incapable of doing so?

Do you know what the answer most often is to these questions when I pose them to folks who barely interact with people of other cultures--particularly those who came here from somewhere else? The single most common response?



Silence.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Why Fear The Walking Dead is Failing in its Mission (Spoilers within)

Please note that this entry contains potentially MAJOR spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, LOST, and Better Call Saul. Please also note that this is entirely subjective in nature and is not intended to offend or inflame anyone who holds these shows near and dear.

I was thrilled when I first heard about a new companion show to The Walking Dead. For me, few programs have ever approached the amalgam of success that The Walking Dead has fostered and improved upon during its run on AMC. The characters are engrossing as they are written but even better are the performances by their respective actors; the dialogue is often meaningful and thought-provoking--the special effects and settings are inimitable; and the action sequences are among the best television has ever produced.

With that said, I had the highest of hopes for Fear the Walking Dead before it began and now, after the past few weeks of painful squirming, I feel like I am on the verge of tapping out. I can count the number of shows that I've bailed on on one hand, which makes this all the more disappointing. I don't watch a lot of television to begin with and so the shows that I watch I usually get behind early and remain an ardent supporter of even through their often untimely demises (Playmakers, Tilt, Invasion, Jericho, Firefly, and the Whispers to name but a few).

Upon further reflection, I feel like the overarching reason that spurs on my bowing out of viewership of a given show is simply this: a drastic departure from the initial driving conflict or style. The shows that hook me do so without any flashy gimmicks or over-the-top premises; instead, I find myself compelled to care about one thing or another--sometimes the characters, the circumstances they find themselves in, or even the time or setting of the show. When one or more of those things change for the worse then I find myself questioning whether or not I am wasting my time; I have reached that point with Fear the Walking Dead.

To provide a final preparatory example--I remember being excited to hear that Under the Dome would be coming to television. Admittedly not one of Stephen King's best stories (or at least not one of his strongest endings), it was still compelling enough to render me intrigued. I hopped on board from the premiere episode and, though concerned by some of the creative liberties taken by the show's writers and producers, I felt like it was worth sticking with. Then, as has happened with so many shows of late, things took a bizarre turn and the show transmogrified into an unrecognizable shell of itself; in short, it lost sight of its original direction.

For me, LOST is still the greatest show I've ever seen (Breaking Bad was a better show but because I watched it after its television run I missed out on the week-to-week cliffhanging aspect along with the communal discussion that followed each episode of the two shows) but it wasn't without its warts. Most of the things that bothered people about the show didn't perturb me in the least. The reason for this is simple: the things that I was interested in learning about I knew wouldn't come until the very end. Again, many people griped about how things concluded but I was satisfied because I understood that a) not every answer would be hand fed to the viewers and b) it didn't feel like a cop out.

Part of what made LOST stumble in the middle of its run is also at the heart of what has been making Fear the Walking Dead almost unwatchable. The characters, at times, have been running in circles--recordings looping ad infinitum. Think about LOST and those two seasons or so where, in every episode, one group of characters went into the jungle looking for another character or group of characters. It seemed like every episode repeated this trope as if signaling that the writers simply didn't know where to take the show; I feel like the same thing is happening on Fear.

How many more times will we have to hear Madison and Strand argue? Or Madison and Travis? Or Travis/Madison/Strand with Daniel? How many self-indulgent emo moments will Chris subject us to? I hated Nick in season one because of the repetition but he's arguably the only one who is interesting in season two! He's changed enough to warrant our buying into.

Here's the problem: Fear the Walking Dead was pitched initially as a prequel of sorts to The Walking Dead. The primary draw was being able to see the devolution that fans of the latter missed out on by way of Rick Grimes' comatose state. We were promised to see the gradual unraveling of society with an emphasis on how these everyday people would first encounter and then ultimately cope with the unthinkable. It would likely be a far more psychological and emotional source of terror that these characters would face as opposed to the corporeal horror that has captivated us for more than half a decade in the world of The Walking Dead.

Now, admittedly, it's incredibly difficult to build the necessary amount of tension in only a six episode season (as season one was) BUT--and this is an important but--it is hardly impossible. One need look only a day and a time slot ahead to Better Call Saul to see a show that did not allow its length to limit its storytelling ability. Some fans of Saul expected to see Jimmy McGill's transformation be complete by the end of season one if not season two but the fact that (*SPOILER ALERT*) that hasn't happened yet is a testament to the storytelling abilities of Gilligan and Gould.

Think for a second about what these two have managed to do: they took a minor character from arguably the biggest show in history--one whose outcome we already know--and have managed to make a compelling narrative not about what happens after Breaking Bad but what happens before and presumably during it.

Masterful.

For Saul's writers the intention was at the beginning and continues to be the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. The assumption is that this will occur at some point but the purpose is the journey not the end result. Fear the Walking Dead could have and should have taken a cue from this.

In only six episodes of Fear they ran through the entirety of what they wanted the show to be about. Again, I understand that they weren't sure of whether or not there would be future seasons but neither did Into the Badlands! They told enough of the story to end it on a compelling note but left MANY doors wide open to keep the narrative going. And what did Fear do?

They took us out to sea.

Seriously? The show was supposed to be this insightful slow burner that brought us into the heart of society's collapse and instead we're stuck in season one with Madison whining about Nick multiple times an episode, Travis trying too hard to be the good guy and to do the right thing, and Chris and Alicia rendering themselves incapable of being rooted for as the angsty, too-old teens. At times the performances were competent and the moments captivating but until Strand and Salazar entered the fray the show was, at best, treading water.

And so we find ourselves in season two on a boat--the characters as lost on turbid water as we are as viewers of a show that is clearly adrift. There is little beyond a superficial level that is worth rooting for in these characters and their often overwrought performances (Madison as moralizer, Strand as the aloof pseudo-villain, Nick as the detached antihero). This of course falls on the writers and producers of the show and not the actors who are clearly doing the best that they can with what they are given.

Again though: this was supposed to be a show that we would get behind emotionally because of our ability to relate to the characters and their predicament. We root for who we do in The Walking Dead because those characters exhibit the aspects of ourselves that we suppress but secretly wish we could employ. We have been given reasons to root for these people over several seasons! Remember Carol early on? Most people couldn't stand her! Then, at least until the last few episodes of season six, she was arguably the best character on a show with Daryl Dixon and Rick Grimes!

The problem with Fear the Walking Dead is that it was rushed through the exact thing that made it interesting in the first place. In only six episodes we're basically where we start off in The Walking Dead. Worse, in only a few more episodes, we find ourselves nearly caught up to speed in terms of the mindsets that Rick and company have taken literally years to develop.

Stay with me on this: at the beginning of Fear the Walking Dead, Madison is a high school guidance counselor with a sordid set of circumstances at home. She exhibits a willingness to defend her family at all costs but hardly the acumen becoming of a postapocalyptic survivor--even when facing the recently-risen familiar faces of a coworker and neighbor.

Fast forward to tonight's episode and, BARELY THREE WEEKS LATER, she is *SPOILER ALERT* leading the charge on a rescue mission with gun in hand to retrieve her husband and daughter.

Think about that: in twenty or twenty-one days these people are supposed to have gone from completely normal (and clueless about the undead I might add) to fucking cold blooded experts!? Connor, the presumed antagonist only an episode ago, seems to have managed to arrange an intricate pirating gig for himself despite being a normal, everyday person less than twenty days earlier. I'm all for suspension of disbelief when it comes to my fiction...but that's pretty fucking ridiculous.

Again, I understand that art imitates life only to an extent and so, in theory, it's plausible that these people could undergo such drastic changes in such a short amount of time...except for one thing: the whole point of the show was supposed to be normalcy not evolution. It was supposed to be about the journey that these characters took to reach the point of Rick and the Atlanta survivors at the beginning of The Walking Dead. Twenty days simply doesn't cut it!

I remember when Hurricane Sandy hit our area. We were without power for six days but a few of the neighboring regions went much, much longer without it. During that time of being off the grid there were lootings and a general sense of unease but the entire fabric of society managed to stay intact. Even in the places that were the hardest hit (like Staten Island and southern Brooklyn) people managed to retain their humanity. No one became a bloodlusting murderer or an Anton Chigurh-inspired pirate. There were no primal orgies in the streets or inversions of societal norms. There were ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances with the intention of returning to a previous way of life.

Fear the Walking Dead is based on a far more calamitous premise and yet these characters go from being utterly clueless about their circumstances to exerting their wills in highly unlikely fashions. You've got Nick becoming a secret agent of sorts--Madison the gun-toting superhero. Strand the not-so-bad-guy. Arguably the only character who might have performed such a feat on The Walking Dead was Shane and he was a goddamn sociopath!

And therein lies the rub: these characters have become caricatures of themselves--almost completely unbelievable to varying degrees. Give me a break!

Everything has been rushed and now it's all falling apart. This show's staff are attempting to cash in on the success of The Walking Dead by surreptitiously transforming its own plot and performers into pathetic mimeographs of the already established ones of note. We were promised a show that would focus on the rise and fall of the undead and society and instead find ourselves in nearly the exact environment that The Walking Dead took literally years to establish only in a few weeks instead.

We have had eleven episodes of Fear the Walking Dead so far. How many main characters have we lost? My current total is 0.75 because Eliza was hardly there enough to count as a full character and Mrs. Salazar was ancillary at best. In the first eleven episodes of The Walking Dead we lost Ed Peletier, a slew of Atlanta Camp Survivors, Andrea's sister Amy, Jim, and Otis.

Would a main character death help or save Fear the Walking Dead? I can't say for sure but it would certainly help! I'd hate to see Strand, Madison, Daniel, or Nick go but as for the others? Chris and Ofelia are undeniably expendable, Alicia has at least been engrossed more in the plot, and Travis could go either way. In all that's eight characters that this show is dragging from one episode to the next! EIGHT!

You want eight from The Walking Dead?

Rick, Carl, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Glenn, and Sasha.

Pick any ONE of those and put them up against even the best that Fear the Walking Dead has to offer. There's just not enough substance in the latter to warrant an attachment like the former has engendered throughout its run.

Without some sort of emotional manipulation I feel like this show will squander what interest it has managed to sustain to this point. If the initial build up was supposed to be towards the very early days of the end then what the hell are we supposed to look forward to now? Some impossible reunion or crossover with characters from the main show? A happily-ever-after story by way of Baja? It's not a rhetorical question--I genuinely have no idea just what it is that we're supposed to care about.

I'm willing to stick it out through the end of this season but I have a bad feeling that this might be AMC's first dud for me--a premium channel version of Under the Dome that had the utmost promise but became ultimately nothing but sweet nothings whispered into our ears.