Paperback Reader

Sometimes I wonder why I do it.  Horror is a strange category for books and films, but one thing that may be a draw is that they take me back.  Life, it seems, is cyclical.  I liked monsters as a kid, and grew out of it when college and graduate school taught me to be serious.  As a working academic this genre can spell death to your career, so when my career died anyway, I was left grasping at my childhood to try to make any sense of this.  Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell took me back.  Not that I’ve read all the books listed here—I came away with a list I want to read—but the lurid covers are a reminder of the kinds of things that caught my young imagination.

Subtitled The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, this is actually a very fun book to read.  Hendrix has a light touch and had me nearly laughing out loud (quite an accomplishment) a time or two.  And I learned a lot.  Although I write books about horror, the genre is a large and sprawling one and this book takes a clear focus at the paperback market.  Just a reminder: paperback originals were designed to be sold and consumed quickly.  No waiting around for 18 months while profits from the hardcover roll in.  Hendrix really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the history.  It also seems like he may have read more horror than is necessarily good for you.  He clearly knows how the publishing business works.

Several of these books were big enough that I knew about them.  He starts off with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.  (And The Other, which I’m now obligated to find and read.)  In fact, the first chapter focuses on religion-themed horror.  This is something that only began in earnest in the late ‘60s.  While the horror paperback market may have tanked in the ‘90s, the film side of the genre has been doing quite well and continues to do so.  The late sixties also got that kick-started.  It seems that when people stopped running from the fact that religion is scary, horror itself grew up.  I was shielded from that part as a child, but now, looking back, I can see that things weren’t quite what they seemed.  This full-color, grotesquely illustrated book has great curb appeal.  And if you’re not careful, you can learn a thing or two as well.


The Magic of Cairns

They’re one of those things, my daughter explained, that people do that make them so likable.  She was talking about building cairns.  Cairns are piles of stones, but not exactly the kind a farmer might make at the edge of a rocky field.  Cairns are intentionally built.  And they have been for millennia.  The thing is, while people could choose to knock them over, instead most people add to them.  When we’re out hiking we add rocks to cairns, and we’ve started our own from time to time.  I first became conscious of them in Scotland.  While out with some friends we spied a carefully stacked pile of rocks—I think it was at some remote location on the northern Scottish coast—and they told of of the tradition of adding to them.

While recounting this, I also recall seeing a pile of rocks—it wasn’t called a cairn at the time—at Walden Pond.  Some friends from seminary and I went to visit Thoreau’s famous site and although his cabin hadn’t survived, other pilgrims had started a rock pile.  It was, if I correctly recall, conical because the stones weren’t flat.  Most cairns involve the flat kinds of rocks that break off of bedding planes.  They are fairly easily stackable and they quite often tumble due to the forces of nature.  I recall building or adding to cairns in Ithaca, near Ithaca Falls.  Such cairns would be fortunate to survive the harsh winter and torrents of the spring thaw.  And yet still we build them.

While on the red trail at Bushkill Falls, where picking and taking items is forbidden, we found cairns.  There were isolated stacks along the river, dotted here and there.  Then, at about the halfway point we came across a field of cairns.  Alongside the trail, cairn builders had obviously seen the beauty of repeated patterns.  Other hikers were snapping pictures there as well.  It was clear that this was a joint venture that had spanned years of cooperating with strangers.  Nobody asks your race or gender or orientation when you add to a cairn.  In fact, those who start them are unknown and leave them for other strangers to carry on the work.  This is frequently the case with human ventures, but when they involve money we become very specific about who might be considered a proper owner.  Stones are common, and although useful are generally not valuable.  Make them into a stack and they become a symbol.  And that symbol can be a guidepost for future travelers, left in the spirit of cooperation of those we don’t know.


Celebrating Folk

The whole ox on a spit was kind of disturbing, but there’s nothing artificial about folk tradition.  We’d come to take in a bit of the Kutztown Folk Festival.  The crowds weren’t excessive, and we wore masks if the conditions warranted it.  The oldest continually operated folk festival in the country, this July event is a celebration of Pennsylvania German heritage.  In addition to the usual kinds of festival vendors were a number of specifically folk artists—quilters and hex sign painters prominent among them.  It’s difficult to find a good sarsaparilla anywhere else these days.  We wandered around, watching an old-fashioned hay bailer at work, appreciating the time various craftspeople put into their art, taking in a quilt auction.  (I can’t even imagine having a spare few thousand on hand to buy a quilt, but obviously others can.)

Although mostly white—those of us with blue eyes may have been in the majority here—there were those of various ethnic backgrounds around, enjoying the ethos.  What struck me upon hearing one of the singing, folklore groups telling about Pennsylvania German (commonly called Pennsylvania Dutch) traditions is that this may be one reason people fear the current emphasis on multiculturalism.  It’s fairly rare to hear anyone speaking proudly of being a German, even though Germany seems to be one of the least fascistly inclined countries these days.  Even a dominant culture is afraid of losing a sense of self.  It seems to be a uniquely human problem.  That ox on a spit really bothered me.

While I’m an American mutt, about half of my DNA is fairly solidly teutonic.  Although I was born in Pennsylvania and my grandmother still spoke German, we weren’t Pennsylvania Dutch.  A second-generation American, my grandmother was from Washington, DC.  My germanic grandfather was from upstate New York.  They just happened to settle in Pennsylvania late in their lives.  Still, I felt a strange kind of kinship to those explaining German food—heavily meat-based—and hex signs on barns.  I grew up seeing the latter, and it never occurred to me that while living in the Midwest they simply weren’t there.  I didn’t grow up on a farm—we lived in a cheap apartment—and we never talked of German tradition at home.  No, like the blacks, and south Asians, and those, like me, of clearly mixed descent, that I saw there, we were all simply Americans.  That’s what folk festivals are all about—celebrating who we are.


Search and Research

Woe to those who live to research but who have no professorship!  I have been prone to research since about high school, driven by the need to know.  Almost Wesleyan in my need for certainty, I have always been inclined to check things out.  It took college and a doctorate to teach me the necessary research skills.  It took years of teaching for me to learn how to frame questions on my own.  And it took years of being shunned by the academy to realize that as I’ve been pursuing my personal research agenda that I lack the time to fulfill it.  I’m a slow learner.  Yet I can’t give it up.  The thought process that led to Holy Horror was a kind of epiphany.  I could write a book without reading every last thing about the subject.  The problem, however, would always be time.  I’ve read an awful lot about horror media and I’m only beginning to scratch the surface.

I’m not totally naive.  Okay, I’m pretty far along on that path sometimes, but I want my readers to know that I understand movies and television are made for money.  It’s a business, I know.  But I’m an artist at heart and I like to think the creators are fond of their characters.  Writers are advised to drown their darlings, to put their protagonists on a cliff and then throw rocks at them.  And I also understand that money can make you do even worse to them.  Of course, I’m still thinking about Dark Shadows.  For me it’s been a rediscovery of my childhood.  And just how much time I’d need to make sense of just one television series with a five-year run.  There’s far more information on the web on Dark Shadows than I was able to find in print on Asherah for the years of my doctorate.

And the expense involved.  Plus, it’s only early April and the lawn needs mowing!  I’m still wearing a heavy jacket some days but the grass is always greener.  Period.  What a time to fall into a research reverie!  I need a sabbatical but they don’t have those in the 925 world.  And I need a professor’s salary to be able to afford the media required.  The Dark Shadows series alone has over 1200 episodes.  House of Dark Shadows introduced the fear of the cross to my understanding of Barnabas Collins.  My world has been shaken and to settle it I need research.  What I have, however, is work starting in just a few minutes.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

Ghost History

Books on art are often eye-opening to me.  When I was young and trying to escape the working-class hell in which I grew up, I discovered high culture.  This was mostly through local libraries.  I would check out classical music LPs and look at books of classical art.  I did the latter until I could identify several artists by their styles.  (It was probably originally because they’d painted pictures of Jesus and I went to see what else they’d done.)  In any case, I never studied art history.  I recently read an art-historian on the Devil, and now I’ve read one (Susan Owens) on ghosts.  The Ghost: A Cultural History does not address the question of whether ghosts exist, but rather traces the history of how they’ve been portrayed in literature and art throughout time.

Owens quite ably takes us through ancient to modern, pointing out that ghosts change to fit the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times (not her pun).  In the early modern period ghosts were portrayed as physical revenants.  They were dead bodies that came back to physically harm the living.  We know this fear was widespread because some burials were clearly intended to keep the dead in their graves.  The idea of the physical ghost still comes up in modern horror as the monster you can’t kill because it’s already dead.  It was only gradually that ghosts became spirits and this was largely through emphasis on purgatory, which made it possible for the dead not to be in Heaven or Hell.  Once the idea caught on the literature and art began to focus on the spiritual nature of revenants.  As cultural interests turned towards ruins ghosts inhabited haunted houses.

This is a fascinating study of the way ghosts have evolved over time.  One of the things that struck me was that early commentators often didn’t distinguish clearly between ghosts, demons, and devils.  Demons, as we think of them, really depend quite a bit on The Exorcist.  The use of “devils” in the plural complicates the spiritual geography where we have God v Devil as the main poles of spiritual rivalry.  These ideas, and also those of ghosts, likely blended throughout most of history until a renewed emphasis on literalism came in.  Medieval scholars composed angelologies and demonologies, trying to keep everything straight.  They puzzled over ghosts, however, which don’t fit the scheme very neatly.  They would have benefitted, perhaps, if they had had Susan Owens’ book to help guide them.  It’s an exciting nighttime journey.


Movie Moving?

If you don’t know me personally, you may not realize how frequently I quote movies.  On a daily basis, films I’ve seen—particularly multiple times—are the source of some of what I say.  Films have tremendous impact.  Some theorists have even argued that they are the new mythology.  So imagine my distress when an opinion piece in the New York Times suggested that movies are losing their relevance.  Media comes in so many varieties that we can take our choice.  YouTube and TikTok have given television its first real competition in my lifetime.  Our local CD store is a rather sad place, and does anybody even remember Blockbuster?  But movies—the media of entertainment for over a century—irrelevant?

What of the movie star?  It doesn’t matter which one.  The phenomenon of it.  The person recognized as a household name.  Now we seem to be losing yet one more frame of reference.  There’s no firm ground left for culture, it seems.  Is this why things are falling apart?  Movies weren’t the only glue, of course, but I wrote three books on movies.  The larger implications are sobering.  Media, of course, is always changing.  Movies are but a modern form of story-telling.  Already decades ago the weight for this began to swing towards what we used to call video games.   The younger generation prefers stories where their actions decide the ending.  To a point.  Someone had to program this thing and has predetermined possible outcomes.  Like a movie, it’s a story.

Stories are probably the oldest form of human entertainment.  The nonfiction books that sell the best are those with a narrative arc—they tell a story.  Nonficionados may be reluctant to admit that they’re drawn to stories, but we all are.  It’s human nature.  While I prefer books to movies, there are times I just can’t settle down to read.  And also, horror novels don’t quite scare the same way that horror movies do.  Movies have their place.  They can be tremendously expensive to make and many now have so much CGI that actors are disguised beneath layers of code.  Kind of like The Matrix.  Even so, they are telling stories in a format that has become a huge industry that ties culture together with common references.  Can you image a world where there was never a Star Wars?  The internet has perhaps blurred the line a bit and movies are evolving.  As long as we tell one another stories, however, we’re still human.

Image credit: Georges Méliès

Raven about this Book

Some books are meant to be looked at.  Being busy most of the time, even on weekends, I’m guilty of not enjoying art enough.  The Book of the Raven: Corvids in Art and Legend is a work of art.  In it Caroline Roberts and Angus Hyland have compiled paintings, photographs, and prints that feature ravens, crows, magpies, and jays, interspersed with facts, poems, excerpts, and bits of lore.  It’s not a comprehensive book, nor is it intended to be.  It is, however, a deeply moving book for a certain kind of person.  It was an accidental find in a visit to The Book & Puppet Company in Easton.  When we’re in town we like to support the independent bookstores.  (I was saddened to discover that Delaware River Books, one of the two used bookstores in town, had recently closed.)

Corvids are, on a scale, about as intelligent as we are.  They think, solve problems, make tools, and recognize human faces.  They remember acts of kindness and reciprocate.  They recognize their dead and they also play.  They’re very much like us.  The book includes, of course, Poe’s “The Raven,” but also other poems that draw inspiration from these smart, magnificent birds.  The artwork is arresting.  One of the great sins of modern life is its busyness that robs us of the time for appreciating art.  And reading.  Learning how to thrive in a world that has become purely about profit and ownership.  Art is intended to be shared.  An artist produces so that others might see.  A author writes so that others might read.  And corvids exist to bring wonder into our lives.

I find the strident call of jays comforting.  I often hear them even on my winter walks.  There are murders of crows in the neighborhood from time to time.  They gather on roofs and in the trees across the street.  Recently I spied a large black bird while on my daily constitutional.  It had left a tree full of crows and was flying straight down the path toward me.  As it flew overhead I had a good look at its tail in flight—one of the best ways to tell a raven from a crow.  It was indeed a raven, and even common ravens are rare in this area.  We live on the edge of their habitat.   I was honored by its momentary attention.  I wished I had more time, perhaps to follow that magnificent corvid and to learn from it.  Instead, I will ponder The Book of the Raven with wonder.


Masking the Devil

There are many books on the Devil.  In fact, entire horror movies such as The Ninth Gate are based on that fact.  Since writing a book on demons (Nightmares with the Bible), I read a few of the many.  I’ve continued to read some further since, and one of them is Luther Link’s The Devil: A Mask without a Face.  The first thing to note about this book is that it is the same as The Devil: The Archfiend in Art from the Sixth to the Sixteenth Century, as it was published simultaneously in the United States.  (The former was published in the United Kingdom.)  Many authors don’t realize that when you sign a publishing contract you’re selling the rights (the copyright) for your book.  Some publishers or agents will sell the rights in different territories to different publishers.  They don’t have to use the same title largely because, prior to Amazon it was difficult to buy UK published books in the US and vice-versa.  Now a lot of “buying around” happens so books published anywhere can be purchased anywhere.  (Except in authoritarian states.)

In any case, this book is a study of the Devil in art.  The UK subtitle, A Mask without a Face, focuses on the conclusions drawn, whereas the US subtitle is more descriptive of the contents.  There are a number of interesting points made by Link.  One of the most important is that of his conclusion—the Devil, in the biblical and theological worlds of the long Middle Ages, really isn’t so much a character or “person”as a representation of “the enemy.” His looks and actions depend on the circumstances.  As Link points out, to the Pope Luther was inspired by the Devil, to Luther the Pope was inspired by the Devil.  Both, Link concludes, were dealing with a mask without, well, a face. Further, since the Devil does God’s bidding, whether he can be considered evil or not must be questioned.

Another interesting point is the strange continuity and lack thereof that characterize the representations of the Devil.  Some of the continuities go back to an antiquity (such as ancient Mesopotamia) that had by lost by the Middle Ages.  There was no real avenue of transmission since who remembered Humbaba after the tablets of Gilgamesh had been buried for centuries?  This seems to point to what Jung would’ve considered archetypes.  Or it could be that the same things scare people across the ages.  The point of the book isn’t to be comprehensive, but it does make a good point.  Anyone accusing someone of being the Devil opens themselves to the exact same charge.


Movie History

We take much for granted.  Consider the movie.  We all know what movies are, and, prior to 2020 we all knew what the experience of going to the theater was.  Some of us even recall the drive-in experience.  Technology (and the pandemic) has changed all that.  People now watch movies at home, or alone on their devices.  Nevertheless, we still recognize what movies are and, being creatures drawn to story, we tend to enjoy them.  In fact, many theorists of myth see cinema as the new mythology.  Myths give us meaning and we tend to find meaning in films.  We also find information in them.  One of the points I’ve argued in my own work is that people learn about their religion from what they consume in the media.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith offers a compact introduction to how we got here in this little book.  The Very Short Introductions have wide recognition among those who want to learn something authoritative without taking too much time to do it.  This introduction to cinema history is a wonderful overview of a complex subject.  A few things became clear to me in reading it: cinema began as, and remains, an artistic industry.  Other art forms developed as personal expression of visual, aural, or written expression.  They eventually codified into art forms such as painting, symphonic music, or novels.  Cinema, instead, grew out of the film industry and sought to become a new way of expressing artistic ideas.  Clearly it has done so successfully.  Not only that, unlike other art forms, it has always been a business.

Initially, photographic equipment was too expensive for most dilettantes.  Studios brought together people with skills in the many areas required to put a movie together.  You needed actors, directors, film developers, sound engineers, props and crews to make sets.  Indeed, most art—such as book writing, or music albums—is a group effort.  Movies especially so.  And these people have to be paid.  Film has, and has always had, a profit motive.  While you get the sense that many artists would’ve painted even if they starved (and many did), and that most of us who write will do it regardless of not getting any profit from it, cinema would’ve collapsed without it.  There’s a lot packed into this small book.  For those who may have been reading about film for many years it will contain startling insights.  A wide-angle book with a variety of lenses, it brings many things into succinct focus.


Camera Ready

A friend recently asked me about cameras. I’m no expert, but after I finished my master’s degree I worked at Ritz Camera for about a year. It wasn’t an ideal job, but I learned a lot.  (Interestingly, I say that about most of the varied jobs I’ve held—janitor to editor.)  The conversation led me to dig out my box of pre-digital photographic equipment so that I could familiarize myself with f-stops and shutter speeds.  Handling my old Pentax K-1000, I reflected on how actual cameras (not that device in your pocket) transitioned from using actual film (which is superior for capturing images) to emulating that experience for the needs of digital photographers. Taking a stunning picture was more than just framing and lighting—it involved manual control.  The modern digital camera will allow the photographer control over things like shutter speed, aperture, and film speed (even if in altered terminology).

At the camera store, as in much of retail, waiting was involved.  Sometimes quite a lot of it.  Between customers coming in—and you had to be ready for that at any time—you had to find ways to amuse yourself.  Some would restlessly straighten up counter displays, restock the film (remember film?) bins, or find something that required putting away.  Most (and this was a young adult’s job) found ways of goofing off.  Immaturity takes a long time to settle into more reflective adulthood.  I often used the opportunity to read through the photography books we sold.  Well, in actual fact, I don’t remember ever actually selling one of those books.  If you’ve looked at the pictures most people take that will be evident.  That’s how I learned the little I know of photography.

At least you could see this kind.

We live in an era of disputing experts.  We like to think that we know just as much as the next guy.  Trump’s bull-headed tenure only made this fashionable.  Photography, on the other hand, no matter whether digital or print, is an art where the truth is clearly evident.  Gifted photographers take better photos.  The rest of us can learn some tips, but we all know when we see a stunning photograph.  We might even question if it’s real.  Although cameras can be made to lie—all photographs are fragments of the past—photography is perhaps the most impartial form of art.  Learning about it can improve results, but the camera is a revelatory device.  In the hands of an expert it can change the way we see the world.


Mystical Trip

It’s easy to believe we live in a “post-Christian” world.  People aren’t tied down by Scripture strictures the way they used to be.  Sunday mornings are free for lots of people.  We don’t spend our time hunting for heretics.  One thing that might not be obvious, however, is that our underlying culture is deeply Christian.  Beyond mere assumptions, this goes down to the very presuppositions of the way we think.  While society might not be overtly Christian, it remains so at a deeper level.  I’m reminded of this when I’m out and about (which is starting to happen again) and able to hear, or overhear, people talk.

Grounds for Sculpture is a whimsical, fun space to visit in New Jersey.  It consists of acres and acres of a former fair grounds with sculptures of many different kinds scattered along the shore of a small lake on one end and a busy road on the other.  Many of the statues were designed by Seward Johnson, showing people in a wide variety of activities.  Since the displays change over time multiple visits are rewarded with new insights and displays.  It seems to be a popular place since pandemic restrictions have started to lift.  So much so that the usual seclusion that is part of the charm of a visit is somewhat stifled.  In a typical art gallery, the visitor has some space to reflect and contemplate.  The sheer number of visitors leads to a “wild animal in Yellowstone” situation where, if a creature dares appear, it’s immediately swamped by city-dwelling humans who’ve never seen a bear in the wild before.  This leads to some interesting overhearing.

One of the sculptures I don’t recall having seen before is “Mystical Treasure Trip.”  It is a fantasy scene in which a couple, attired in what could be biblical garb, is sailing across the water in a boat filled with gold.  Perhaps it’s the dress of the characters.  They look like Mary and Joseph, perhaps fleeing from Herod, but with a boat full of gold.  Overhearing others commenting on what they thought it was I heard “they’re going to the ark.”  Admittedly, this is something I would never have come up with on my own.  Noah, according to Genesis, was six centuries old at the time and was commanded to collect animals, not gold.  Material for trading would’ve been pretty useless in a world devoid of other people.  Still, when our imaginations stretch for the interpretation of something we don’t understand, often they reach for the Good Book.  It’s its own kind of mystical trip, really.


Visualizing Twilight

Graphic novels still feel like cheating.  That childhood message that comic books “aren’t really reading” has proven difficult to dislodge.  That, and the fear that we are entering a post-literary world, keep me from reading many of them.  Koren Shadmi’s The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, however, caught my attention right away.  Like many other people my age, my thinking was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone.  As a kid, television had a kind of authority to it.  This is what adults were feeding us.  Although I was hardly intellectual then, I thought deeply about things and one of those things was The Twilight Zone.  The episodes were profound.  The twist endings certainly were among the best on the tube.  Shadmi’s graphic novel of Rod Serling’s life is a tribute to the influence the man had.

For a graphic treatment, The Twilight Man is strangely affective (yes, that’s spelled correctly).  I tend to shy away from hagiographies, and Shadmi’s treatment isn’t one.  It does illustrate, however, how Serling fought against a commercialism that would eventually win out.  Those who control the money control what we see.  Granted, the democratizing influence of the internet has let competition arise from unseen quarters—there are young people who watch YouTube to the exclusion of television altogether—but few shows manage the impact that The Twilight Zone had when there were only essentially three large networks.  Now we have so many choices that cultural reference points are rare.  Those who’ve never seen it, at least for the time being, know what The Twilight Zone is.

This book is biographical, based on published biographies.  There’s something about knowing, however, that the episodes actually happened.  Being in combat (as Serling was) puts some people into their own kind of limbo.  At least one person in my own family was irrevocably changed by fighting in a war.  The remarkable thing is that Serling came out of it wanting justice for all people. The book even points out that he became a Unitarian, although it doesn’t dwell on that point.  Some things, such as spiritual insights, are difficult to illustrate I suppose.  I can  see why Shadmi’s tribute receives good press.  Graphic novels are a means of telling a story that moves people.  I re-learn this each time I read one, which is something I rarely do.  Now that I’m starting to explore this genre I’m perhaps learning to address my own prejudices.  As long as there are still words to read.


Stay Curious

Needle felting.  I’d never heard of it.  I’d got along some five-plus decades without knowing a thing about it.  My daughter received a needle felting kit as a Christmas gift and, being the kind of person I am, I had to research the history of felt.  I always knew felt was different from other fabrics, but I couldn’t say precisely how.  I came to learn it is perhaps the oldest textile in the world, known by the Sumerians.  Felting is a process for making non-woven cloth.  The natural fibers of some wools are scaled, like human hair is, and when compressed and worked with moisture (wet felting), becomes cloth.  Finding out how things work is one of the great joys of life.  It also made me think again of how anyone could possibly be arrogant.

The longer I’m alive the more I’m learning what I don’t know.  Granted, felt has appeared in my life at numerous junctures—how many crafts do kids make of felt?  And I have a felt hat—but I had never thought much about it.  My wife likes to read about pioneer women who had to make pretty much everything by hand.  We call such people “rusticated” these days, but they know far more than most urbanites, simply by dint of having to do things for themselves.  Modern conveniences are great, but I often wonder how many of us might survive if we had to make it on our own.  Just the last couple of weeks we worried about losing power with the storms that blew through.  What do you do when the thermostat no longer works in winter?  Something as simple as that vexed me for days (I had to work rather than worry, so it couldn’t properly use my brain power).

I’ve known many people impressed with their own knowledge.  I can’t imagine how actually learning new things doesn’t make someone humble.  The universe is a vast and mostly uncharted space.  Down here on our somewhat small planet we have so much yet to learn.  I’ve studied the beginnings of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, and religion.  There’s still so much I don’t know.  I wouldn’t do well on Jeopardy—I second-guess myself too much.  Staying curious about the world is a good way, it seems, to keep humble.  I entered into this holiday season thinking I knew a fair bit about various crafting options.  As a family we cover the creative spectrum fairly well.  Then a small, soft thing such as felt made me realize just how little I really understand.  Any invitation to learn is one that should be accepted.


Koyaanisqatsi

I recently saw Koyaanisqatsi for the first time.  This was initially prompted from an excellent blog post over on Verbomania, suggesting words to describe our current crisis.  I had never heard of the movie before.  In case you’re in that same jolly boat, Koyaanisqatsi is a feature-length film from 1982 with no plot and no spoken lines.  A score by Philip Glass underlies, and sometimes dominates, images of an earth beautiful in desolation (the Badlands, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon) juxtaposed with technology.  The images are fascinating and disturbing.  The title translates to something like “life out of balance” and the images of sausages being mass produced cross-cut with humans being lifted by escalators speaks volumes.  The long, slow footage of 747s on the ground was enough to make me wonder if they really can fly.

Frenetic is perhaps the word that best captures images of life in the early 1980s.  The images of Grand Central during rush hour show just how like ants we are.  On the other hand, some of the scenes of people waiting for trains show a high percentage of them reading—we have perhaps lost ground in the last four decades.  The mechanized, technologized way of life has perhaps made us something less than we could be.  There are people in the movie, but not many of them look happy.   Back when I commuted into New York I can’t think of any reason I would’ve been smiling on my way too or from work.  Crowded streets, often smelling bad.  Harried and harassed even before I reached the revolving door to my building.  I watched the movie that was a slice of my life and wondered if so much of my time commuting couldn’t have been better spent.

Of course, I did read on the bus.  On average I was able to finish about forty books more per year than I do now.  Even home owning participates in koyaanisqatsi.  It’s spring during an epidemic.  Cold, yet rainy, the grass continues to grow and there’s no sunny time off work to mow it.  It’s now May and it feels like we haven’t moved since March.  Watching Koyaanisqatsi during the pandemic was itself a haunting experience.  All those crowds.  So many people bunched so closely together.  I don’t miss the crowds.  The cross-cut images of computer chips and city layouts made me wonder just what it’s all about.  The SARS-CoV-2 reality has plunged me into a philosophical mood.  I’m hoping when the crisis is over we might strive for a better sense of balance.


Dancing

An artist is never really gone.  I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.  Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.  Especially when they saw it coming.  Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.  Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.  Still he sings of girls and sins and God.  There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.  The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.  The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.  Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.

Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.  Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.  Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.  Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.  For me he has no pretense.  Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.  For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.  His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.  Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.

Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.  I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.  There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.  Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.  Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.  Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.  Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.  Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.