Movie Heroes

Think about your five favorite movies and the main character in each. What are their goals? What kind of quest do they go on? Maybe some of these heroes have similar goals. “Kill the bad guy/save the day” and “get the girl” are popular ones. Do those goals tell you anything about yourself?

Some character goals are simple. If you look at most popular movies, it’s easy to tell what the character wants. In Jaws, for example (kill the shark/save the day), or American Pie (get the girl), the goals are clearly marketed to the audience even before the movie comes out. Often the goal is implied by the title (i.e. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Braveheart, Me, Myself and I, etc.).

“To boldly go where no man has gone before” is a great slogan for Star Trek. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. And who watches Star Trek? People who want to “explore strange new [fictional] worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” Compare this audience to the demographic watching The Place Beyond The Pines. Now look at the audience for Fast and Furious or G.I. Joe: Retaliation and you can plainly see a different set of moviegoers to match the goals of the heroes.

One of the best pieces of pop cinema is Goodfellas. Henry Hill immediately tells us that as far back as he can remember, he always wanted to be a gangster. And he gets to. He walks on the other side of the law until it’s about to cost him his life, and then he jumps into hiding, and back into square society. This is a fantasy a lot of us would love to live out, and it’s no wonder that movie is a classic.

Sometimes the goal of the protagonist is a little harder to figure out. What is Don Draper’s goal in Mad Men? It’s tough to say it in a few words. How about the characters in Glengarry GlenRoss? As a rule, the more words you need to describe the hero’s goal, the less people will go to the theater to see it.

However our tastes are formed, it’s impossible to say all the reasons we like the things we like. Joe Blow might be a natural-born lover of spy thrillers while John Doe might be a sudden convert to historical dramas after seeing Elizabeth. Trying to appreciate someone else’s top five list is tough to do and involves stepping out of our comfort zone.

Here are five of my favorite movies. The hero’s goal in a few of these is fairly straightforward but some of them leave me wondering about my brain.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Eraserhead

8 1/2

Hurlyburly

Lost Highway

Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000”, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.

The Invisible Brat

Sorry! I saw the Toronto Maple Leafs give up a three goal lead to lose in overtime last night, and I’ve been informed that it was probably my fault. I jinxed them, apparently. Whatever your theories might be on Reimer’s rebound control, lack thereof, or Toronto’s unique talent for giving away leads at the last minute, put it all to bed; it was me.

Sports are full of superstitions. So are the arts. Some athletes wear the same item during every game, regardless of whether it brought them a win or loss in the previous game. Actors will curse you if you say “Macbeth” backstage at a play, even if the play they’re performing is Macbeth. It’s a strange world out there, full of strange beliefs.

Interestingly, today I read an article in Scientific American about the power of rituals. The article points out that according to a few recent studies, rituals work. And they work regardless of whether you believe they will. Now, when I say “work”, I don’t mean they make the impossible possible, but they have an effect on the people who do them.

And why shouldn’t they? So many unconscious processes affect us all the time that we really can have only a vague idea why we succeed at some things we attempt and not others. Many of our unconscious processes contradict our conscious intentions, so we often manufacture failure for ourselves without realizing it. If we can perform some ritual to prime our unconscious, to let that invisible brat know it’s game time, we might find our performance enhanced.

I know from experience that the best plays and the most outstanding goals usually don’t spring out of a conscious plan. They happen when the player’s conscious mind gets lost in the chaos of the game and the instinctual unconscious takes action. This is why “beginner’s luck” exists. A new golfer might hit a hole in one while a veteran may wait his or her entire life and still never get one. Beginners don’t out-think their unconscious intent because they haven’t had all the lessons, haven’t heard all the ways their swing is incorrect.

On the other hand, there is a popular theory that we can become an expert at just about anything by accumulating 10 000 hours of practice. This makes sense too because the repetitive conscious practice drills the desired behaviors into our unconscious through muscle memory and long-term potentiation in the brain. When you’ve racked up that much time doing anything, you don’t need to think about it a whole lot to have success. Just let the invisible brat do it.

But make sure you don’t piss the invisible brat off. There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “If you want to see God laugh, tell Him your plans.” The brat loves to mess with conscious intent, and it has the mentality of a four year old. So don’t talk about your goalie’s shutout or your pitcher’s no-hitter until the game is over. I keep my important plans silent so God doesn’t know what to think.

Human Stupidity

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA says “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This sounds pretty straightforward, almost a self-evident truth. It’s a clever statement for simple minds; the sentence says one thing, and conceals its true agenda. The presumption is that bad guys will always have easy access to guns. The NRA and Republicans in the U.S. are doing all they can to make sure of it.

I’m not saying LaPierre is clever. He might be, but what’s more likely is he truly believes in his cause, is afraid his constitutional rights are in danger, and is negligent of the facts. While actively supporting and promoting gun culture, when children were massacred in Newtown the NRA’s first statement was a condemnation of the entertainment industries for promoting violent content.

We should assume from their reasoning that before video games and movies, there was very little violent crime. When Caesar invaded Gaul it’s thought there were over one million casualties and another million people taken into slavery. And that’s people hacked to pieces by swords, not dispatched with the clinical precision of drones or guns. So what precipitated that violence? To be fair, the graffiti on Roman buildings was probably pretty racy. Get real.

It reminds me of these ridiculous controversies about movies being too sexy. Sexual deviance does not exist because of pornography, it is exactly the other way around. Movies and music videos continue to get more explicit, and this shocks the older generation, but it is completely natural. As entertainment and arts continue to show us our humanity in new forms, we should always expect there to be fringes where the boundaries of decency are pushed. There will always be violent art because art draws from and expands the human experience. And while I’ve seen movies that are way too violent, I’ve still never seen a movie that’s too sexy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll radically change human behavior any time soon. Let’s assume there will always be maniacs out there. We can’t lock every nut up preemptively, but we can make certain behaviors difficult. That’s why there are laws. Can anyone tell me why background checks for gun ownership is a bad idea? 80% of Americans think it’s a good idea, including many NRA members, yet the government can’t get it together to do the will of the people.

If you’re a government official and you intentionally stand in the way of the will of the people, plus you’re a pimp for gun manufacturers and completely lack a conscience, you should be thrown out on your ass and kept far away from any policy-makers. This seems very obvious to me, but I haven’t heard anyone take it seriously. It seems that in government broad change is nearly impossible without a bloody revolution.

Maybe that’s what the NRA and Republicans are after. They make their money by selling guns, after all, and what better tool for a bloody revolution? The NRA has given $80 million to politicians to keep the sale of guns as easy as possible. And while gun casualties continue to mount in heartbreaking numbers, the NRA continue their rhetoric about freedom, lashing out like a jock whose manliness is in question.

Well, I don’t question the manliness of the NRA or gun lovers. But I also realize that manliness isn’t something that matters in the grand scheme of things. Intelligence, on the other hand, definitely matters. If there is a revolution, I hope it’s one that stands up and says, “It’s not okay to be stupid.” Kudos to those already fighting that fight.