My short film ‘In The Vice’ premiered at Santa Fe Film Festival.
But this trip to Ghost Ranch – Georgia O’Keefe’s residence – was, hands down, the highlight of the trip. Me and my crew.
My short film ‘In The Vice’ premiered at Santa Fe Film Festival.
But this trip to Ghost Ranch – Georgia O’Keefe’s residence – was, hands down, the highlight of the trip. Me and my crew.
It was heart, not brains that fueled massive celebrations last night in Philly after Eagles win. It was the same kind of heart that makes people go to Times Square on NYE at freezing temperatures. Perhaps it was the same kind of irrationality that made people pull the lever for Trump. It defies rational analysis. People climbed poles that have been greased and turned over cars. Why? If you asked them they would holler ecstatically and incoherently in your face but would not give you an answer. Any verbal means of expression would feel awfully inadequate under that unique circumstance.
Eric Hoffer in his book ‘The True Believer’ dissects the above sentiment to its basic elements. Human irrationality and passions are a phenomenon with a much bigger political and social implications than we, especially on the left, are willing to assign to it. He points out many culprits, but central of them all is the desire to belong to a cause, often combined with the lack of other channels of expression for one’s personal passions.
To express oneself with words, the kind of words that will telegraph one’s personal sentiments with 100% precision is a skill that takes time to learn and practice. It would be a big ask of a rough-and-tumble, starved for victory blue collar Philly crowd. It is this inability to express oneself that manifests itself in physical form during significant political or social events.
I saw the amount of pent up energy being released yesterday that would put to shame any other march or celebration that I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen a lot. Obama victory in 2008 comes close, and I still remember and relish that magic and camaraderie in the air, but it does not come nowhere near to a high-octane, visceral, shambolic riot (“a Russian riot – senseless and ruthless”) of a first ever Super Bowl win.
If I had to pick one defining characteristic to describe a sports fan whose drought has been broken? A lack of irony. A lack of irony expressed in the irrational. I like that. It’s pure art. A good piece of art lacks irony. To be ironic is to be unsure about the resulting effect on the audience, thus deploying irony as a shield against a possible misunderstanding. Why should I then take such an artist or an author or a person at his word?
Those riff-raff on the streets last night, climbing greased poles, turning cars and eating horse manure? Oh, there was zero irony there. It was beautiful. It was like winning WWII. It was beautiful because it was driven by heart and defied any classification and any explanation. I watched the spectacle from my apartment trying to find appropriate words. It was a tall order, even though I spent years perfecting my writing skills – a pastime that teaches you descriptive rigor, which in turn teaches you things about yourself. (One of the side effects of this process was the realization that I dislike Russian rock music. Because, you guessed it, it’s ironic.) But I digress. To ask that euphoric mob ‘how do you feel’ would be to insult them. That would be asking them to use a medium of expression that lacks adequate conducive qualities.
Mining that irrationality of the crowd is a skill currently perfected by hucksters. It is used to sell us stuff and make us vote for conmen. Can Democrats relearn to harness those forces for the common good next November?
As a beginning writer you write ‘by the book’, with an ‘exciting accident’ happening in the first 10 pages, with midpoint ‘elevation’ and ‘all is lost’, etc. Because of that structure demand is why we get endless films where we know what happens next, while Hollywood is still wrecking their brains trying to figure out why people stop going to the movies.
But then look at a few movies/series that have broken the mold and became iconic in their own way: The Room – the worst movie ever made; The Big Lebowsky – unconventional; Twin Peaks – incomprehensible, self-indulgent. I almost want to read a hypothetical review of The Big Lebowsky’s script if the writer wasn’t Coen Brothers but some no-name: “The main protagonist is missing a goal and thus lacks a development arc. It’s a meandering script in need of a more a solid structure and conflict elevation. What propels him to act?” Fuck! Can people be propelled to act by lesser stakes than the world coming to an end or having an incurable cancer? But as soon as you, keeping with the industry demands, come up with a fantastical, contrived set-up they are ready to throw another complaint: the character is not relatable enough. So, if the first 10 pages have to grip you, a generic industry gatekeeper says, someone has to be assassinated on page 2 or a nuclear warhead has to be stolen; AND it has to introduce an average guy, preferably an accountant, but who nonetheless possesses special skills and can stop the coming mayhem. That’s what the prevailing structure, the modern script conventions are asking us to write. That’s how we get crap scripts and crap movies.
But back to unconventional scripts: Imagine that all of those films were written and/or directed by a woman. Imagine bringing a script that features a backward-talking character that is neither dead or alive (Twin Peaks) to a studio reader. You’d be accused of inhaling too much cat urine to be writing something so incoherent and self-indulgent. The use of allusions and obscure references is like an inside joke – only select few are allowed to use it. Maybe I’m missing something but please name a movie or a script by a woman where she employs a passing reference to some obscure cultural phenomenon. I can’t think of any, but I don’t think that’s because she wouldn’t think of one. It’s because she doesn’t want to risk it. So we see women directors avoiding the designation of ‘crazy cat lady’ by making movies about ‘relationships’, or ‘you go girl’-types – straightforward, unambiguous topics that gatekeepers and critics can delight in and eventually greenlight. Kathryn Bigelow found another foolproof way to make it as a director – make movies about war. Another topic lacking ambiguity (war is bad) and thus a reliable vehicle to build a career as a female director.
But hey, if that’s what it takes to break through… If that’s what will pave the way for my mushroom-induced stream of consciousness to be brought to a screen near you, then, hell, I’ll take it. Maybe at some point there will even be a movie about a movie with James Franco in it.
If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.
Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.
Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.
Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.
Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.
That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.
Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.
So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?
The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.
In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)
But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.
If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.
But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?
I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.
Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.
So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.
I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?
Wasn’t blogging for a while as I was writing a screenplay and playing poker. Nice way to get my mind off of politics. Cashed in Borgata Poker Open Event 1 the other day.
Plus my other script – a TV Pilot – made it into Austin Film Festival 2nd round. AFF is considered a writer’s festival, so even though I didn’t advance into semi-finals, I’m pleased with the result. It’s an encouraging indicator of my writing skills.
On top of that I’m in the process of moving to Philly. Yes, leaving NYC, which I thought would never happen. Still shuttle back and forth to the city to square off things, but I’m primarily in Philly.
A long philosophical post is coming later.
Democrats are at a disadvantage in a game where the other side casually, nonchalantly breaks the rules and doesn’t get punished. Such selective impunity is emblematic of how lopsided our current political discourse is. A Democrat gets punished for an unfortunate slip of tongue, a minor, inconsequential protocol violation where a Republican, no matter how badly compromised, can always count either on a loud, wide-eyed support or a quiet shrug of the shoulder. Democrats, true to their small-d democratic creed, with their commitment to equal representation, are obliged to feel and display compassion even to those who openly hate them. Hillary was forced to display contrition to those who chanted ‘Lock Her Up’, because she understood democratic norms all too well. Democrats, in their attempts to be and be seen as fair arbiters, are thus forced to be adults in the room. But by being adults they thus close many doors – tactical and strategic – that Republicans punch open with their foot without a second thought. As much as I would like them to, Democrats can’t be like McConnell if they ever find themselves in a position of a vacant SCOTUS seat and a majority. The paths that are open for Republicans are all but closed to the Democrats due to our different temperaments and understanding of the stakes involved. For the GOP that stakes are quick tactical victories; for Democrats the stakes are less tangible but more consequential: the democratic processes, the civic discourse, the health and survival of the Republic.
This is the reason why I don’t want to blame misogyny on Hillary’s loss. Republicans don’t have problems with women in power as long as those women are Republican. Hillary lost because she was a Democrat not because she was a woman. The only way where her being a woman came into play is that she respected the rules of the game. It’s a woman’s trait. Many women have tales where they ostensibly, religiously follow the rules in their own personal and professional lives, only to be outdone on the finish line by a freewheeling, smirking brat. But then the same is true of any democratic politician – the respect for norms, the adherence to the rules, appropriate consequences for transgressions. As a Democrat Hillary played by the established norms, by the old rules while the other side dispensed with civility while demanding civility from her. Hillary had no choice but to oblige. She had to cross the abyss on the thinnest of ropes, while her opponent was drunk driving a Camaro on the empty parking lot.
The first impulse would be to advise Democrats to start breaking the rules and norms the way GOP has been doing for decades. This is not a good idea if only because Democrats can never be as good at this game as the Republicans. We would get disgusted and get the foot off the gas pedal just at the time when the right-wing loud mouths are only getting into the groove. We police ourselves too well, given the swift outrage coming from our own ranks if one of us gets out of line.
I think what Democrats can do for now is to learn to mind the context. Bill Maher slip of tongue happen not because he’s a white supremacist who’s hiding under a civil mask, but because he wanted to make a point, however clumsy, in the service of a progressive cause. We have to learn to forgive our sinners the way Paul Ryan forgives Trump. Bill Maher, or any careless leftie’s words won’t deprive millions of people of their health care. Standing up for our own are just baby steps that must be taken before we can even come close to pulling the McConnellesque legislative coups.
However tempting it is to want to jump into the mud ring, I think we have to slug it out as the adults in the room. If we decide to finally employ to the same dirty tricks as the GOP has, we will end up like the eager party goers who were finally let into the nightclub at 4am only to find all the liquor has been drunk, all the fashionable crowd gone and DJ wrapping up the equipment. We can’t outclown the clowns. And by the time we decide to play dirty that game will become so old and tired that Republicans will decide to put their ‘sober statesman’ suits on and play a different game. We should not let them. We’re the fucking sober statesmen. That’s our turf.
If my wings should fail me, Lord, please meet me with another pair.
As devastating as the news of Chris Cornell’s death today was the fact that in his final performance just yesterday in Detroit he closed the show with the rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘In My Time of Dying’.
For years, I can’t get this song out of my head; it has a prominent place in one of my screenplay’s pivotal scene.
This song is so haunting and its lyrics are so visceral that one would be a fool, while entranced by the song and plunged into the depths of contemplation, to rank it on any scale of favorites. Songs of that caliber, that kind of deep reach and hypnotism are in its own class. It would be silly and glib to call this song as a ‘favorite’. Its value can not be measured in aesthetics, in the same way a religious chant can’t be described simply as a recitation of words.
It is harrowing that this song was his last choice on the stage. RIP, Chris.
But enough with the profound.
How about this brutal social commentary. More than 20 years old but still relevant.