Saturday, March 15, 2014

On Melancholia



Leave it to Lars von Trier to save his most searching and sensitive portrait of female leads for a movie about the end of the world.  There is less sadism in Melancholia than in any other von Trier film I've seen.  He is a great director, but I have to force myself to watch his films to some extent, because I know they will involve the utter wrenching destruction of a vulnerable female lead.  He doesn't do that here.  He's almost subtle. And the beauty and incredible composition of every shot, the willingness to let a shot go on and then on some more -- to let people be mundane -- calls to mind Kubrick.  The introduction contains some of the most striking images I've ever seen on film.

The Basics (mild spoilers)
Kirsten Dunst as Justine is the center of Part 1.  It's a lavish wedding at a country estate owned by John (Kiefer Sutherland) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Justine has just wed Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).  If you've ever seen a von Trier film, you know that some sort of extended tragedy is imminent. And yet, the reception, its myriad complications, and Justine's struggle to maintain the appearance of happiness despite what appears to be dread, depression, or mental illness vying for dominance.  Her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), is a "domineering," cruel, antisentimantalist who proclaims she does not believe in marriage, and tells Justine to just flee the palatial estate.  Her father, Dexter (John Hurt), is a dissipate Casanova.  He too appears unwilling or unable to see or acknowledge her terror.

So things do not turn out as all had hoped.  Yet, in the style of the suffocating wealth among which the reception takes place, the disasters are self contained.  Without air, the fire doesn't burn but quickly goes out.  A couple makes a scene and the rest of the party-goers go on as if they had not noticed a thing.  In spite of all provocations, a monied dignity overmasters all but Justine.

Claire is the focus of Part 2, which takes place at the same palatial estate where Part 1 took place.  She tends her family, including her seemingly catatonic sister.  John is masterfully self assured.  He keeps Claire in a bubble, tries to protect her -- as it becomes clear that he sees her, too as fragile.  This part centers around the approach of the heretofore unknown planet "Melancholia," which has been hiding on the other side of the sun.  (The science in the film is somewhat fanciful (major spoiler)) .

Von Trier uses tons of still or nearly still long, wide shots at the outset.  As the film progresses, he continues to do so, creating a dim, melancholy mood, like the earth that seems to be grabbing at Justine's feet. Moments linger, lose their heat, and turn to dust.  Mood and character take the place of plot.  Yet it's not boring.  It's transfixing.  And the acting is on the money.  Even Kiefer, who I don't normally find very convincing, was right on.  The man knows how to be rich and in control, as it happens.  (Props to von Trier for the inspired Jack Bauer casting - I mean that sincerely.)

Interpretation (No Spoilers)
In this mist of the mood are numerous apparent symbols and opportunities for interpretation.  For instance, John refers multiple times to how incredible it is that they are able to have the party at a golf course with how many holes?  As the film nears its conclusion, we see the flag stick for what one might assume is the final hole: 19.  There are other moments like this, as when Justine rearranges the art books on display in the study, or the bridge into the village. I don't pretend to know what these symbols were meant to convey, though I could hazard some guesses t.  I will share, though, a conceptualization that occurred to me toward the end of the film.

My theory is that Justine is the artist.  Her nephew calls her "Auntie Steelbreaker," though she hardly appears to be as tough as her moniker.  He asks her several times when they are going to make caves together.  She is in touch with the other world.  She "sees things" that no one else can.  She knows truth no one else can tolerate.  The business people of the world, the masters of the universe, lose their mastery when confronted with the fundamental why and when of life.  They buy grand estates and expensive telescopes to avoid those very questions.  And they hate the sensitives, the artists, when they can't just put a brave face on and power through, get it done.  The artist must stop when there is no point in going forward.  The artist is spirtually uncompromised.  She refuses to use her talent in the service of money.  The artists is always fundamentally alone, because she alone can face the truth.  She is the Steelbreaker.  She sees the truth, faces it, and ultimately mitigates it for the normals.

Postscript
A little research reveals that Durer created a famous engraving called Melencolia I, of which I found this on Wikipedia:

"Ivan Fenyo considered the print a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying 'shortly before [Durer] drew Melancholy, he wrote: 'what is beautiful, I do not know' ... Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art.  Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable place the spiritual self-portrait of Durer."  Cool.

The Met's interpretation of the engraving.




Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Why Worry

What good does worry do?  It can't magically bring the future within control.  Worry is the epitome of wasted effort.  Example: prepping for trial involves a huge amount of work.  Documents must be read, clients talked to, strategy formulated, motions submitted, and witnesses prepared.  You have to know the case cold so you can handle whatever may happen.  And generally, when you go to trial, the stakes are high.  Big money invested or, more vitally, freedom on the line.

So the specter of worry hovers nearby.  But it does not one whit of good, and often does positive damage.  If things go well, if you win your motions, your witnesses cover themselves in glory, and the opposition witnesses fumble, and the jury goes your way, your worry will not have contributed to that outcome.  But if it goes awry, if you forget to ask an important question, or make a vital objection, if you sweat and stammer your way through argument, worrying about it beforehand will only have intensified the agony.

Not only that, but worry probably helped nudge things the wrong way.  By preventing you from focusing with a clear mind. By keeping images of failure in your mind.  By sapping your capacity for relaxation and enjoyment.

In my case, I had a trial approaching.  As the date grew nearer, so did my worry.  How will I do?  Will I win?  Will I say the right things?  Will I look foolish?  Will I let my client down?  I prepared, but with a pit of anxiety that I am well familiar with.  And then, today, the trial gets adjourned three weeks.  The worry was for nothing.  But the takeaway is, it also would have been for nothing if we went to trial next week.  It's just easier to see now that the deadline has softened.

All this is obvious to the practiced and observant worrier.  But changing reflexive behaviors like worry is easier desired than achieved.  I think it can be done, though.

Step one is awareness.  You notice, "Oh, the reason I'm reading The Onion instead of working is because my work is making me worry."

Step two is observation.   You realize the distraction you're engaged in isn't actually treating the worry, and that it's still there, just harder to hear.

Step three is acceptance.  So you're worrying.  No big deal. It's just an emotion and it will pass like all emotions.

Step four is to not let it control you.  You remind yourself of all of the above.  That it's not helping.  That fleeing the worry is going to help make your fears come true.  And that, if you can just turn to the task at hand, the worry will almost certainly subside as you bring your whole attention to your task.

Step five is it's okay if it doesn't work.  Keep trying.  Sometimes it will.  And that will give you confidence to continue and redouble your efforts.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Most Important Thing

This summer, when I was swimming, just past the breakers at the South Jersey shore, a couple of kids, maybe 12 or 13, got near me. I could tell they had never been in the ocean before because their minds were just blown.  They were giddy and half terrified, their eyes just starting out of their heads.   The tide was going out a bit.  One of the kids was kicking on boogie board, laughing and smiling.  When he floated by me, in the direction of the open sea, I saw his situation was a split second from panic.  His smile was tight, and I could tell his mind was in utter turmoil.

The lifeguard started blowing his whistle.  I reached out and gave the kid my hand, pulled him back to shallower water, until he could stand.  Told him and the other kid (who just had to be his brother) that they should not go above their waist.  That was that.  The lifeguard gave me a quick thanks when I came out.

When I pulled him in, he had just passed to the point where he needed rescue.  He had just gotten into a position from which he could not recover without help. Now, the kid was on a boogie board, and the lifeguard I'm sure was about to come out for him, so it would be a huge misstatement for me to say I saved this kid.  Heck, if I wasn't there, overwhelming odds are, he ends up just fine.

So what I did there wasn't extraordinary, and in fact was extraordinarily easy -- I just reached out my arm and pulled him in -- but if that's the greatest feat of my life, it is enough.  Even if all I really did was save the kid from real panic in the water.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Analog

I got a record player for Christmas.  Yesterday, I set it up after finally managing to get together a couple speakers, speaker wire, an amp, and some records.

Before 2013, I'd never really been much interested in vinyl. I love music, and I listen to a lot of it, but I am not an audiophile in the least.  Vinyl seemed almost perversely difficult: at once fragile and clunky.  Yeah, I'd heard claims that, if you got the right setup, nothing compared to a turntable.  Sure.  If you get the right setup, I would allow for the possibility at the highest level of equipment.  But then, who but the most obsessed could divine the difference?  Any minimal increase in sound quality couldn't possibly be worth an investment I couldn't come close to making.  We're talking thousand dollar styluses (styli is also correct!).  Thousand dollar speaker wire.

Why pursue an expensive, obsolete parallel music platform when I already had first tapes, then CDs?  You could get those anywhere that sold music.  But you had to go looking for vinyl.   After the dawn of constant connectivity (2007?) I got all my music from emusic for a while, then pandora and spotify took over.  Now, the only reason I even own CDs is the car CD player.

My thinking changed in the fall of 2013 when I heard Paul Green play some records on Radio Woodstock.   Maybe Led Zeppelin.  It was something rich and meaty.  It did sound richer than the rest of the (digital) tracks they were spinning.  Somehow brighter and fuller.  This perception of mine may have been a sort of placebo, but, I am sure it sounded good, and certainly not inferior to the other tracks.

I started to think I might want to sink a couple hundred bucks into a budget system.  If the purity of vinyl could come through a radio over car speakers, surely even a mediocre record player and speakers could still produce very satisfying sound.

The lure of vinyl came not just from a perceived richness of sound, but also from its anachronistic quality.
Its simplicity is its advantage.  For one, I have a rudimentary understanding of how a turntable and speakers work.  Not so much with a CD.

And then there's the feel of a record in your hands. I've long been attracted to records as objects because they flat out look cool: all glossy and grooved, spinning smoothly, cardboard jackets like this.  Even better than unfolding the paper insert from a cassette case is sliding a record out of its sleeve, and then poring over the album art and lyrics while the sound washes over you. 

If you put your ear near the turntable, you can even hear the sound coming off the record.  How cool is that?

Looking for records is an adventure with tangible rewards.  I found Born to Run for a dollar. I figured it was probably all crapped up (I can't really tell if a record is in bad shape unless it is severely scratched).   When I put it on, it popped a little on the first song, but after that, it was perfect. Won that find.

Maybe most importantly, it isn't smart, and it doesn't have Internet connectivity.  When you listen to a record, it's not collecting your data or playing commercials at you.  Record listening is a step removed from the commodity and markets that attend every online moment.   Which I think makes it easier to appreciate the music as art.

Then again, all the pre-internet nostalgia and appreciation for the object of an album itself wouldn't com to much if my contemptible little setup didn't sound at least a little awesome.  And it does.  Better than anything I've ever had.  (I admit I've spent an unforgivable lot of time listening to music over computer speakers). Now, if I plugged a CD player into the setup instead of the turntable and cued up the same album, I don't know whether it would sound better or worse or whether I would be able to tell the difference.  But I do know that I've been having a blast with it so far.  Looks like I'm going to need more than four records.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Do It

To keep this feeling.
To stop this feeling.
To feel something.
Because it's what you do
It's who you are.
Without it, there's no spark.
No point.
Nothing to do.
No you.

Only this.
This is what we do.

Maybe tomorrow will be different.
But not today.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

On a Minor Street


One time, a hot wind, high mountainside.
That day, canyons and boulder shade.
You stood easy above.
King panted, pranced.
One time, crude day distilled to sustaining air.  


On a minor street in a lesser city,
In a hard-won room
She sets her lips and winds her hair.
She waits for them to beat down the door.
And drag her away.



Sideways years of crumpled days;
Brittle leaves over ragged lawn.
Beware that man's intentions.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

On the Unit Today

First thing I met with a client who spotted me at the nurse's station, asked me if I was a lawyer, wanted to talk.  So we sat down in private and he began by telling me that he wanted to go back to the group home he had been staying in.  At least I think that's what he was saying.  It was hard to follow him.  He mumbled.  Like many of my clients, he was unable to remain focused on a single train of thought.  I couldn't tell if he was borderline retarded, overmedicated, or acutely psychotic.  Maybe some combination thereof.  He wasn't altogether incoherent, just difficult to follow.  He told me he had two fathers, that one had left him money but the government stopped paying but they weren't supposed to.  His father had to prove he could take care of him.  He had been abused his whole life.  No little kid, 10, 12 should have to see.  All the blood and everything.  Like many of my clients, he was unable to express to me what he wanted me to do.  Probably, to the extent that his thoughts hung together this well, he just knew that he had a bunch of problems and lawyers are supposed to fix problems and right wrongs.

Fix problems and right wrongs.  That's what I thought I would be doing as a lawyer.  It seems almost foolish to me now.  Like I would pass the bar exam and be handed a magic wand.  Yet, I still believe that's my job. It's still why I'm doing this.  Fix problems and right wrongs within a narrowly circumscribed framework.  That second part is what I'm coming to understand.

And a lawyer is only as powerful as his clients.  By that I mean that lawyers appear powerful to people because they are instruments of the powerful.  Corporate lawyers don't win because corporations hire the best lawyers (though they sure try).  They win because they have all the money.

Back to the unit.

My next client made a suicide pact with her husband.  He succeeded.  She had given him the morphine that he used.  She took more than him.  They couldn't pay the bills anymore.  He was slipping into dementia.  And now she was here in front of me.  What is there to say to her?  Sure, I can tell her not to talk to police without a lawyer.  I can advise her of her present legal status.  But really, what in fuck all am I doing here?  What can I possibly say to this woman that will mean anything?  Her husband died less than a week ago.  As far as I can tell, she remains ambivalent about not dying alongside her partner.  She was soft spoken.  Quite friendly in a diffident sort of way.  I felt powerless and wanted to get away.

A while back I sat down for a meeting with a woman who would turn her face away from me, hold one hand over her ear like she was receiving a radio transmission through an earpiece, start muttering to an unseen interlocutor, and then answer herself back.  "Frederick, they're trying to send me away.  Do you see what they're doing to me here?  Sally, this is Frederick, we're not going to let them do that to you.  We're coming to get you today and we're going to take you home with us.  You don't have to take that from them."  When the subject of her hospitalization and the hospital's desire that she take psych meds came up, she would weep and wail "there's nothing the matter with me."

I wanted to run from her.  I wanted to run screaming from from the lobby, run the 60 miles home, and never speak the name of the city of my employ again.

That was months ago.  Still trying to fix problems and right wrongs.  Still earning my paycheck.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Poem





This wing's air wheezes dust,
Day wrought grey by crosshatch screen.
It's quiet time.
Four steps across my room
Four from wall to wall.
If I focus I can find the pattern.

Glue glitter on workbook pattern.
Press into paste metalic dust.
No break in the wall.
No bar to pry the screen.
Shuffle every tangent cross the room
Cold and smeared for all time.

That first time,
Lost in orange mottled carpet pattern
Chanting cross the room,
Ashimmer, every thought burst to dust.
Then on your knees behind the screen.
Shackles bolted to the wall.

Paste it to the wall,
For all the watchers of time.
On every whispering screen
A pattern
Battles dust
For the honor of burying me in this room.

There's no room
Beyond the wall,
Only rubble and dust.
A place outside time.
A readymade pattern.
A silk screen.

They installed the screen
To crowd my will from the room
With pat pattern
Patter banking off blank wall.
So there is no time,
Only layers of dust

Screen upon wall.
Room swelled with time.
Pattern in dust.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Another "Win"

I went in today on what was supposed to be a day off in order to have a hearing for client who wanted out of the hospital. It was a tough fight. Prehearing motions, objections, chastisements from the judge. I went after the psychiatrist pretty hard on cross. He admitted he hadn't examined her for two weeks and that he didn't know if she was presently suicidal. I put my client on the stand and she did fairly well. Admitted to a drug problem. Admitted mental illness (PTSD, not the way off base diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder given by the psychiatrist). Judge reserved decision. I told my client to hold on, that I didn't know how long a decision would take, that the long-term goal was keeping her out of the state hospital. I came home and, around 4PM, got a call from work. We won. The judge ruled that the hospital did not prove that she presented a threat of serious harm to herself or others as a result of a mental illness. Huzzah? I hope she doesn't OD.

Election Angst

The presidential election has been dominating the news for months now. I am so sick of the coverage that I often ignore the news. Most of what is reported is gossip and boosterism. Obama going to Afghanistan on the anniversary of bin Laden's death does not induce questions about the decade-old war in Afghanistan, extra judicial killings, or whether the chase was worth the cost. Reporters simply play a clip from whatever vapid speech he gave and then quote republican politicians and political hacks complaining not about the manner of the killing, consequences of it, events leading to it, or even the waste of resources involved in flying to Afghanistan for a photo op, but about him unfairly trying to gain political advantage from the death. In other words, his critics were offended by his style. He was being uncouth. The unrelenting falseness of it repels me. Even further alienating me from politics is that, as Ralph Nader has long argued, both parties are corporate apparatuses. The federal government continues to strengthen itself and the executive continues to assert greater and greater power to ignore the laws passed by congress. Meanwhile, the supreme court issues impenetrable 100-page opinions to justify decisions that can usually be predicted by the party preferences of the judges. But then I see meaningful issues at stake, such as gay marriage and civil rights for gay people, financial and environmental regulation, and social services, and I re-engage. If a republican is elected, I think the country will be worse off than if a democrat is elected. But Obama has been consistently bad on civil liberties, his white house has operated with corporate-like security, and has loaded with gold the corporate criminals responsible for the market collapse. I live in New York, so it really doesn't matter who I vote for for President. I will probably lodge a protest vote of some sort. But I've been pulling for Obama, rooting against Romney. The lesser of two evils. Someone who often seems like he's trying to the right thing. And there's the fear of what would happen if the Republicans got back into power and no one bothered to throw sops to the peasants. If Paul Ryan got to run the show. Then again, maybe I just get sucked into the simple theater/sport of it. Hooray, the Yankees win! Hooray, the Democrats win! Let's go out for Mickey Dee's! So a big part of me wants to say, fuck mainstream politics, I need to focus on something meaningful. Either guy will continue to support the catastrophic Drug War, either will fail to prosecute elites for crimes that would put a poor person in prison, and either will spend much of his time making sure that the money that got him elected stays satiated. But then, Paul Ryan.