Friday, January 20, 2017

An Earthling

The late Stanley Kauffmann, like every other great film critic before him, was much more than just a film critic. He turned to film criticism in mid-life after writing plays and novels, and working for a time in book publishing. In 1958 he submitted a film review, unsolicited, to The New Republic. On the strength of that initial essay, Kauffmann became The New Republic's resident film critic for the next fifty-five years.

One of the many things that made Kauffmann a great critic was not just that his judgements often left him alone, but that he obviously didn't mind being alone. A good case in point is his disappointment at viewing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. When he embarked on the production of 2001, Kubrick already had a considerable body of work behind him. He was a singular inspiration of hope for American film, whose coming of age has been an interminable wait.

But it isn't Kauffmann's disappointment at 2001 that is the most interesting part of his fifty year old review. A year before the first moon landing, Kauffmann used his review of 2001 as a platform from which to inveigle against what Kubrick's film celebrates: space travel.

"His film has one special effect that certainly he did not intend. He has clarified for me why I dislike the idea of space exploration. A few weeks ago Louis J. Halle wrote in The New Republic that he favors space exploration because:

'Life, as we know it within the terms of our earthly prison, makes no ultimate sense that we can discover; but I cannot, myself, escape the conviction that, in terms of a larger knowledge than is accessible to us today, it does make such sense.'

I disbelieve in this sophomoric definition of 'sense,' but anyway Halle's argument disproves itself. Man's knowledge of his world has been increasing, but life has, in Halle's terms, made less and less sense. Why should further expansion of physical knowledge make life more sensible? Still it is not on philosophic ground that I dislike space exploration, nor even on the valid practical ground that the money and the skills are more urgently needed on earth. Kubrick dramatizes a more physical and personal objection for me. Space, as he shows us, is thrillingly immense, but, as he also shows us, men out there are imprisoned, have less space than on earth. The largest expanse in which men can look and live like men is his spaceport, which is rather like spending many billions and many years so that we can travel millions of miles to a celestial Kennedy Airport. Everywhere outside the spaceport, men are constricted and dehumanized. They cannot move without cumbersome suits and helmets. They have to hibernate in glass coffins. The food they eat is processed into sanitized swill. Admittedly the interior of Kubrick's spaceship is not greatly different from that of a jetliner, but at least planes go from one human environment to another. No argument that I have read for the existence of life elsewhere has maintained that other planets would be suitable for men. Imagine zooming millions of miles all those tiresome enclosed days, even weeks in order to live inside a spacesuit.

Kubrick makes the paradox graphic. Space only seems large. For human beings, it is confining. That is why, despite the size of the starry firmament, the idea of space travel gives me claustrophobia."(1)

Kauffmann's reservations about space exploration might be regarded by some as just another way of saying, "If God had wanted us to fly, He's have given us wings." But it goes much deeper than that. I have never been a star-gazer. I know very few of the constellations in the night sky, and I certainly pay no attention to astrology. This lack of knowledge should perplex me, I suppose, but space has always disinterested me. One of the reasons why I don't take most of science fiction seriously as a literary or a film genre is its general acceptance of the notion that in the future human beings will be scattered throughout space, the other planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

The reason, I think, that space doesn't interest me is precisely the possibility of living there. I don't care for sea exploration, either, and for the same reason: both water and space are not our element. We are incapable of inhabiting the oceans or space without being enclosed in air-tight ships or suits that allow us to use our lungs to breath. In both elements, we are like fish out of water - we would die after a few short minutes under water and instantly in the absolute cold of the vacuum of space.

But proponents of space travel regard it with what seems to me an almost religious zeal. The search for an "earthlike" planet with a more amenable environment has acquired an impetus of its own, even if such possible planets are many light years away. It gives me the feeling that, as the despoliation of the earth is reaching an alarming stage, many people are considering travel to another earth as a last resort for humanity.

2001, though disappointing, still represents a pinnacle of the science fiction film genre. It even became the object of pseudo-mystical wonder by technologues. In a postscript to his review of 2001 published in his collection, Figures of Light, Kauffmann mentions a number of letters he received from people who wanted him to see what they saw in the film:

"Usually letters that disagree with my reviews do so in pretty angry and direct terms. I got a number of such letters about 2001, but I also got a quite unusual response: about two dozen very long letters, from four to eight typewritten pages, calmly disagreeing, generally sad but generally hopeful that I would eventually see the light. They came from widely scattered parts of the country, from students, a lawyer, a clergyman, a professor, and others. Most of those letters must have taken their authors a full day to compose and to type, and I felt that this disinterested, quite private support (none of the letters was sent for publication) was the best compliment that Kubrick could have been paid."(2)

Subsequent films in the science fiction genre have been far less ambitious than Kubrick's and have met with varying success. While aiming at much more accessible targets, the degree of their success is proportionate. Look at the latest space adventures, like Gravity or The Martian. Gravity begins with the serenity of an extended space walk that turns deadly. In an important sense, all of the weightless wonder that the first minutes of the film inspires is belied by the lone astronaut's incredibly hazardous struggle to return safely to the surface of the earth - to the very gravity that she had been sent at such enormous expense to escape.

The Martian is kind of like Cast Away on Mars - an astronaut, believed to be dead, is left behind by his crewmates on Mars and is forced to find creative ways to survive until he is rescued (a conclusion as foregone as the prisoner's escape in Bresson's A Man Escaped). I thought the film was a total failure because it never convinced me of the hero's absolute solitude on Mars, or indeed that he was stranded on Mars (which is as yet, I know, impossible) and not some desert mock-up of Mars somewhere in Patagonia. (And I couldn't bring myself to believe in the film's premise - that a man believed to be dead based on sketchy eyewitness conjecture would simply be abandoned by his crewmates.) The Tom Hanks movie Cast Away (2000) at least succeeded in making us feel the isolation of a FedEx efficiency expert on that South Pacific island - so much so that the intervening title "4 Years Later" comes as a shock.

I sense, in so much of the passionate faith in the inevitability of departing our planet and relocating to another - the promise of a life after earth - a strange renewal of a "next world" salvation once promised by religion. Like every good humanist, I reject such a prospect outright. A few years ago I published a post on this blog that presented my reaction to the prospect of the earth becoming so uninhabitable - no breatheable air, no potable water - that it had to be abandoned and humanity evacuated to another world. When the time came to climb aboard the rescue rocket and take my designated seat, I would politely decline. Even if it meant perishing on a poisoned and poisonous earth, I would face extinction with the only world I cared to know. Robert Frost said it much more beautifully:

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.(3)


(1) "Lost in the Stars," The New Republic, May 4, 1968.
(2) Figures of Light, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
(3) "Bond and Free."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Future Life

"The following story is told by the Balolo of the Upper Congo to explain the continuance, if not the origin, of death in the world. One day, while a man was working in the forest, a little man with two bundles, one large and one small, went up to him and said, 'Which of these bundles will you have? The large one contains knives, looking-glasses, cloth and so forth; and the small one contains immortal life.' 'I cannot choose by myself,' answered the man; 'I must go and ask the other people in the town.' While he was gone to ask the others, some women arrived and the choice was left to them. They tried the edges of the knives, decked themselves in the cloth, admired themselves in the looking-glasses, and, without more ado, chose the big bundle. The little man, picking up the small bundle, vanished. So when the man came back from the town, the little man and his bundles were gone. The women exhibited and shared the things, but death continued on the earth. Hence the people often say, 'Oh, if those women had only chosen the small bundle, we should not be dying like this!'"

This story is included by James G. Frazer at the end of his book, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. In his preface for the book, he wrote:

"Of all the many forms which natural religion has assumed none probably has exerted so deep and far-reaching an influence on human life as the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead; hence an historical survey of this most momentous creed and of the practical consequences which have been deduced from it can hardly fail to be at once instructive and impressive, whether we regard the record with complacency as a noble testimony to the aspiring genius of man, who claims to outlive the sun and the stars, or whether we view it with pity as a melancholy monument of fruitless labour and barren ingenuity expended in prying into that great mystery of which fools profess their knowledge and wise men confess their ignorance."

Over the past few centuries, the concept of personal immortality has been gradually disappearing. At the end of the 19th century, the literary critic George Saintsbury could safely say of the 17th century poet Robert Herrick that he was "The last — the absolutely last if we take his death-date — of those poets who have relished this life heartily, while heartily believing in another."

In his "As I Please" column for Tribune in the 1940s, George Orwell quoted a poem by John Skelton from memory:

Sepultus est among the weeds,
God forgive him his misdeeds,
With hey ho, rumbelo,
Rumpopulorum,
Per monia saecula,
Saecula saeculorum.

"It has stuck in my mind because it expresses an outlook totally impossible in our own age. Today there is literally no one who could write of death in that light-hearted manner. Since the decay of the belief in personal immortality, death has never seemed funny, and it will be a long time before it does so again." (14 February 1947)

"I find it very rare to meet anyone," Orwell continued on another occasion, "of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in his hands, a fairly large number would admit the possibility that after death there might be 'something.' The point is that the belief, such as it is, hadn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia." (14 April 1944)


I think that one of the reasons why Dante's The Divine Comedy is not as widely known as has been for a thousand years is because a guided tour of heaven and hell, no matter how exquisitely composed, is no longer of interest to people who never believed in the existence of either.

George Santayana was an American philosopher, poet, and Harvard professor who had a profound influence on an entire generation. It was Santayana who Wallace Stevens immortalized in his moving and magnificent poem "To an Old Philosopher in Rome."

It is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most.
It is older than the oldest speech of Rome.
This is the tragic accent of the scene.

And you – it is you that speak it, without speech,
The loftiest syllable among loftiest things,
The one invulnerable man among
Crude captains, the naked majesty, if you like,
Of bird-nest arches and of rain-stained-vaults.

Edmund Wilson, in his 1945 updating of Europe Without Baedecker, described the same scene of Santayana living out his last days in self-imposed poverty in a Roman monastery. Santayana wrote fearlessly and beautifully on a wide variety of subjects. In the excerpt below, from the collection Little Essays, he tackles the subject of life after death in philosophical terms.


"A FUTURE LIFE

Many a man dies too soon and some are born in the wrong
age or station. Could these persons drink at the fountain
of youth at least once more they might do themselves
fuller justice and cut a better figure at last in the universe.
Most people think they have stuff in them for greater
things than time suffers them to perform. To imagine a
second career is a pleasing antidote for ill-fortune; the
poor soul wants another chance. But how should a future
life be constituted if it is to satisfy this demand, and how
long need it last? It would evidently have to go on in an
environment closely analogous to earth; I could not, for
instance, write in another world the epics which the
necessity of earning my living may have stifled here, did
that other world contain no time, no heroic struggles, or no
metrical language. Nor is it clear that my epics, to be
perfect, would need to be quite endless. If what is foiled
in me is really poetic genius and not simply a tendency
toward perpetual motion, it would not help me if in heaven,
in lieu of my dreamt-of epics, I were allowed to beget
several robust children. In a word, if hereafter I am to
be the same man improved I must find myself in the same
world corrected. Were I transformed into a cherub or
transported into a timeless ecstasy, it is hard to see in what
sense I should continue to exist. Those results might be
interesting in themselves and might enrich the universe;
they would not prolong my life nor retrieve my disasters.
The universe doubtless contains all sorts of experiences,
better and worse than the human; but it is idle to attribute
to a particular man a life divorced from his circumstances
and from his body.

"For this reason a future life is after all best represented
by those frankly material ideals which most Christians
— being Platonists — are wont to despise. It would be
genuine happiness for a Jew to rise again in the flesh and
live for ever in Ezekiel's New Jerusalem, with its ceremonial
glories and civic order. It would be truly agreeable for any
man to sit in well-watered gardens with Mohammed, clad
in green silks, drinking delicious sherbets, and transfixed by
the gazelle-like glance of some young girl, all innocence
and fire. Amid such scenes a man might remain himself
and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on
earth. He might also find his friends again, which in
somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that
chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But
to recognize his friends a man must find them in their
bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests;
for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could
find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyn-
crasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life,
to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not
the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a
reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the
prospect of awakening again among houses and trees,
among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of
wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental
past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect
wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through
these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not
time for each soul to rest?

"Dogmas about such a posthumous experience find some
shadowy support in various illusions and superstitions that
surround death, but they are developed into articulate
prophecies chiefly by certain moral demands. One of
these requires rewards and punishments more emphatic
and sure than those which conduct meets with in this
world. Another requires merely a more favourable and
complete opportunity for the soul's development. Con-
siderations like these are pertinent to moral philosophy.
It touches the notion of duty whether an exact hedonistic
retribution is to be demanded for what is termed merit
and guilt: so that without such supernatural remuneration
virtue, perhaps, would be discredited and deprived of a
motive. It likewise touches the ideality and nobleness
of life whether human aims can be realized satisfactorily
only in the agent's singular person, so that the fruits of
effort would be forthwith missed if the labourer himself
should disappear.

"To establish justice in the world and furnish an adequate
incentive to virtue was once thought the chief business
of a future life. The Hebraic religions somewhat over-
reached themselves on these points : for the grotesque
alternative between hell and heaven in the end only
aggravated the injustice it was meant to remedy. Life
is unjust in that it subordinates individuals to a general
mechanical law, and the deeper and longer hold fate has
on the soul, the greater that injustice. A perpetual life
would be a perpetual subjection to arbitrary power, while
a last judgment would be but a last fatality. That hell
may have frightened a few villains into omitting a crime
is perhaps credible; but the embarrassed silence which
the churches, in a more sensitive age, prefer to maintain
on that wholesome doctrine — once, as they taught, the
only rational basis for virtue — shows how their teaching
has to follow the independent progress of morals. Never-
theless, persons are not wanting, apparently free from
ecclesiastical constraint, who still maintain that the value
of life depends on its indefinite prolongation. By an
artifice of reflection they substitute vanity for reason,
and selfish for ingenuous instincts in man. Being apparently
interested in nothing but their own careers, they forget that
a man may remember how little he counts in the world
and suffer that rational knowledge to inspire his purposes.
Intense morality has always envisaged earthly goods and
evils, and even when a future life has been accepted
vaguely, it has never given direction to human will or
aims, which at best it could only proclaim more emphatic-
ally. It may indeed be said that no man of any depth
of soul has made his prolonged existence the touchstone
of his enthusiasms. Such an instinct is carnal, and if
immortality is to add a higher inspiration to life it must
not be an immortality of selfishness. What a despicable
creature must a man be, and how sunk below the level
of the most barbaric virtue, if he cannot bear to live and
to die for his children, for his art, or for his country!"

The passage that stands out for me in this excerpt is when Santayana mentions how, in the afterlife, a man "might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence." As James Frazer showed, the belief in immortality is an ancient one. Excavated Stone Age burial sites that reveal an incipient belief that the person laid to rest was not entirely lost to the living tell us that the origins of belief in immortality were not, as some may think, a selfish wish to assuage a person's own fear of death, but a wish that the loved ones who have died before them are not lost to them forever, that they abide in a place as yet unknowable where they wait to be reunited.

How can anyone fear death when they think of everyone who has died until now? Some died humbly, some died badly and some heroically. My father, George Sr., and mother, Alice, and my two sisters, Virginia and Elizabeth, are all dead. I will join them when my own time comes, in death, whatever - wherever - that may be.

Friday, December 23, 2016

My Best Christmas

I have waited more than a month to make what will probably be my last post of this terrible year. Since its subject is Christmas, I am at least closing on an upbeat note.

I think Christmas is about memory - as much to do with what we did with Christmas in the past as what we do with it today. Like birthdays, however, it's hard to single out any specific year as especially memorable. I recall Christmases from 1974, 1995, and even a few from the years I have spent here in the Philippines. But the one that stands out for me as My Best Christmas was in 2005. Here's why.

I had been living in Des Moines, Iowa since 2001. A failed marriage took me there, and almost five years later an engagement that fizzled out resulted, eventually, in my having to get out of town. Actually, it's what happened to me after the collapse of my engagement that forced me to leave town. Because of the cumulative effects of heavy drinking, I lost two jobs and, realizing, in mid-December, that I was in the perilous position of not having enough time to find another job to pay the next month's rent, I had to find someone who would give me refuge. It was that or end up homeless in Des Moines - in January.

First I contacted some of my closest friends. Only one was willing to take me in. The rest were very involved in complicated domestic arrangements of their own. Then I contacted my brother in Denver. He surprised me by suggesting that I call my sister in Alaska, whom I hadn't seen since 1998. My brother gave me her number, and I called her.

After telling my sister about my predicament, she told me that she would only be too happy to take me in, that her door was always open for me. I couldn't speak over the long-distance line for several seconds as I wept for joy, and she kept calling out my name and saying "Hello?" fearing the line had been disconnected. After regaining my composure, I thanked her copiously and asked her when I could come.

I first thought of renting a van and driving the distance north through Minnesota and across half of Canada, which would have been a difficult drive in July. In December, at those latitides, the hazards were unimaginable. So my sister laid out the only other plan of action that would work - to gather up everything that I couldn't part with, pack it into boxes and ship it to her using "Media Mail" - the cheapest method available through the U.S. Postal Service.

She sent me enough money to ship about a dozen boxes, which I carried from my apartment in downtown Des Moines to the Post Office a few blocks away. Some of them weighed thirty or forty pounds, so the trudge to the Post Office every day was strenuous.

Once the last package was mailed, I turned in my key at the apartment manager's office, called for a taxi and caught a flight to Anchorage. I left behind in my apartment all the furniture I had bought for a married life that never transpired - a queen-sized bed, a big screen TV, book cases, and a desk. I owed nothing for the furniture, since I had already gone bankrupt in August.

It was nine years ago to this very day - the afternoon of 23 December. I flew first to Minneapolis, and then onward to Anchorage. All I could see in the starlight from my window seat was a world of white below - whether clouds or fields of snow I couldn't tell.

On the approach to Anchorage, I looked down on Cook Inlet covered in ice. The Inlet was named for Captain James Cook, who "discovered" it whilst looking for the mythical Northwest Passage. Coming in for a landing, I saw snow, snow, snow . . . and at last the black tarmac. The plane touched down, I deplaned and collected my luggage. It wasn't until I walked out of the main terminal that I heard a voice yell, "There's my little brother!" I saw a woman approaching me and thought for a split second that it was my mother - who had died in 1998. It was my sister, who had become at that moment my whole family in one person.

The air was frigid. Everything was covered in snow. My sister took me to her burgundy Ford Explorer, that she had long since named "Victoria," and drove me across Anchorage to her house at the nub of a cul-de-sac, where she lived with her two dogs and several teddy-bear hamsters. It was a relatively new house with a garage, a large downstairs living room, adjoined by a large kitchen, a front room by a big front window (where an untrimmed Christmas tree was standing). The steep stairs led to three bedrooms and a loft. My fold-out bed occupied the loft (right above the garage), and I don't remember much else from that night except going to bed.

The following day - Christmas Eve - was clear, crystalline. My sister decided that I should buy a few gifts for her, so she took me to Dimond - not Diamond - Mall and handed me a hundred dollars. Everything was on sale for the few crazy people who had waited so long to shop. I bought my sister a big (rather vulgar) crystal perfume dispenser and a wine decanter in the form of a chef.

Upon retruning home (such a beautiful word), we ate too much and watched some television. And when the sun went down at about four o'clock, my sister got out the boxes containing all of our family's old Christmas tree decorations, some of them decades old, and together my sister and I trimmed her fat artificial Christmas tree. As we removed the decorations from the boxes, I recognized many of them and we shared memories of Christmases past. Finished, the moment came to light the lights. Standing there beside my sister, gazing at the exquisite tree with blinking lights, with the frozen yard and icy street visible through the front window, I felt something I hadn't felt since I left my parents' home: I felt the speechless joy of being with my family.

During the night, more snow fell and we awoke on a gloomy Christmas morning (with sunrise at about nine). I put on a CD of music by Vince Guaraldi composed mostly for the 1965 TV Special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." After breakfast, I helped her load numerous wrapped gifts into the back of her Explorer, and she took me around to the homes of all her friends to give them their gifts. She invariablty introduced me as her "little brother" (I was 47 years old), and they all told me how she had told them so much about me. Driving away from one house, my sister hit a curb and flattened a tire. With the temperature at what felt like zero, her friends came out and helped change the tire.

Back home, we watched, of all things, Home Alone 4, a film I didn't know even existed. Watching it, I learned why. Dinner consisted of a small turkey, cooked in a rotisserie oven, a ham, and the usual side dishes of stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. I don't recall exactly what we had for dessert. It was probably pastries bought from a bakery. When we were done, we watched Turner Classic Movies, which my sister watched religiously, long into the dark night.  

My sister knew, as the saying goes, how to keep Christmas well. I got about ten gifts from her that year, including a remote-control model helicopter. She had read somewhere that every man wants a toy for Christmas. I didn't want a toy for Christmas, but who was I to argue? After such a frightful year, in which my dream of being married again blew up in my face, and after a bankruptcy and losing two jobs to alcohol abuse, it was the happy ending I could only have dreamed of having. And I owed everything to my sister, who (once again) saved me from my life.

Merry Christmas, Bibbit, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Hyper Life

Elizabeth Jane Moreno Gueci Eichner Roberge Michaels, née Harper, was born 22 July 1951 in Stuttgart, West Germany, the second daughter to George Wesley and Alice Jane Harper. He was a career soldier and she was a homemaker and nurse's aid. 

Elizabeth, who went by Liza in her later years, graduated Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia, South Carolina, Class if '71. She briefly attended the University of South Carolina. The first of five husbands, Ricardo Moreno, son of political science professor Nestor Moreno married her in 1971. Her only daughter, Amanda Cristina, was born in 1972. 

Her other husbands were Joseph Gueci of New Jersey, Edward Eichner of Lincoln Nebraska, Robert Roberge of Denver, and Shane Michaels of Anchorage, Alaska. The third, fourth and fifth survive her. She explained to me that when she falls in love, she feels like she's inside a beautiful, protective bubble, but that, soon after she marries a man, she finds that the bubble has somehow burst. It is entirely outside her control.

When our mother had a stroke during pregnancy at the age of 40, I was brought home alone by our father. Since career soldiers made very low salaries at the time, he could not afford a nurse. Elizabeth, aged 7, became my surrogate mother until, after months of physical therapy in which she had to learn how to speak, walk, and write all over again, our mother returned from the hospital. Having known her prior to the devastating stroke as a loving and gentle woman, my sister was introduced to a woman who was emotionally unbalanced. The slightest stress would send her into hysterics. Elizabeth never recovered from the shock, and thereafter her relationship with our mother was close but strained. Upon our mother's death in 1998, Elizabeth moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where she spent the remaining eighteen years of her life. She loved Alaska, the snow and the cold. I invited her to come and live with me in the Philippines, but for several reasons, one of which was her intense dislike of hot weather, she wouldn't come. 

Elizabeth's profession from the early 1990s was medical transcriptionist, at which she was perfectly proficient. But in 2006, technological advances and outsourcing slowly eliminated it as a reliable source of income. In Alaska she took up designing and creating hand-crafted crystal jewelery, offering her work for sale at various bazaars in and around Anchorage until she became physically unable to set up her tent and the tables inside. A home she mortgaged through Wells Fargo became another victim of foreclosure in late 2007 during the collapse of the American real estate market. She lived in apartments from then until her death on 27 October at the age of 65. She is survived by her two brothers, her daughter, two grandchildren and three surviving ex-husbands. The exact cause of her death has yet to be divulged to me. A medical checkup a month prior to her death lists among her complaints a longstanding depression and suicidal thoughts. On three occasions since I left the States I had to call the Anchorage Police Department to check in on her. Lately I have even enlisted the help of some Facebook friends who are considerably closer to her than I am. Their help was above and beyond. 

On the two occasions when my life hit a wall, in 1995 and in 2005, my sister took me in without question or criticism. Even if I set about paying back all the money I owed her in monthly increments, I would never have paid it all back even if she'd lived to be 100. What I owe her emotionally and psychologically is inestimable. 

She was a force of nature - a ball of nervous energy that she expressed in utterly unapologetic impulsive behavior. I could never keep up with her. I would accompany her somewhere, like WalMart, and upon leaving the car the race was on. By the time sje was in the middle of the store and turned to say something to me, I was usually a hundred yards behind her. 

Her health was failing last Spring and she spent a month in the hospital. Aside from the physical trauma, I don't think she quite recovered from the shock of her body betraying her. The wrong combination of a variety of new medications may have contributed to her death. I just don't know for sure and may never know.

When you lose someone who has known you all your life, it is as if a wonderful road into the past down which you were once able to travel freely has become suddenly impassable.  Losing my big sister leaves a giant hole in my life that can never be filled.

Elizabeth Jane Harper - who was and will always be known as Bibbit to my brother and I - July 22, 1951 - October 27, 2016

In the words of Johnny Mercer, 

I should be over it now I know
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go.
 
 

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Deserted City



Imagine that you are living in a modern, bustling city with a population in the hundreds of thousands and you wake up one morning to discover that everyone in the city has mysteriously vanished, as if, while you were sound asleep, every single resident of the city had been vacated or evacuated for reasons that are unknown to you.

Just before he died of tuberculosis in January 1950, George Orwell confided in a letter to a friend that he was having recurring dreams of finding himself alone in a deserted city. Fearless to the end, and without knowing that his own death was imminent, Orwell self-diagnosed the dream as a fear of death. 

Something like this nightmare scenario was enacted in a movie I remember seeing when I was ten or eleven years old called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which was made in 1959. It was a quite direct presentation of the consequences of a worldwide nuclear war. A mine inspector named Ralph Burton (played by Harry Belafonte) is down a mine in Pennsylvania when there is a cave-in and he is pinned, unconscious, under a beam. When he revives, he hears workers digging him out. But after a few days the sounds suddenly stop. After Ralph manages to dig himself out, he discovers that everything is inexplicably deserted. He finds newspapers with headlines describing a worldwide nuclear catastrophe - not from atomic explosions but a poison cloud that circled the earth for several days, wiping out all forms of life. (Quite implausibly, there are no bodies to be found anywhere.) 

Ralph drives to New York City looking for some sign of life, but finds the city deserted. It was this point in the movie that I remember most vividly: images of the empty streets of Manhattan and Ralph despondently searching for someone, anyone. He manages to get power restored to a high rise building, taking up residence in the penthouse. He brings a department store mannequin to his flat, names him Snodgrass (he pronounces it "Snuffgrass") and has conversations with him. Just when he seems to be cracking up from his solitude, he throws Snodgrass off his penthouse balcony. When the mannequin hits the pavement below, Ralph hears a woman's scream. A toothsome blonde (thank you, Hollywood) named Sarah, played by the eternally toothsome Inger Stevens, had been following him and was afraid that Ralph had jumped to his death. 

The injection of an interracial love story might have been ballsy in 1959, but, for me, the movie veered off course thenceforth. Things get even sillier when another man (white Mel Ferrer) shows up before Ralph and Sarah can surmount the racial divide and the film ends with the promise of a menage a trois, the three human survivors walking hand in hand away from the camera and the film closing with the title The Beginning. But the only reason that The World, the Flesh and the Devil has stayed for so long in my memory is due the startling pictures of a city forever stilled by a man-made catastrophe. A soundless, strangely alluring abandoned stage - civilization's end.

I don't dream of deserted cities, but it has become a compelling image for me since the death of my sister two weeks ago. The world feels somehow like it has collapsed. It has grown colder, like the time of year. Familiar places are less recognizable. Where the presence of my sister was, where the promise of Family once stood, there is now vacant space. I have lost all interest in Alaska, where she was living. Its natural wonders, its enormous open spaces, under the drifting snow of oncoming winter, a winter now endless, have lost all their allure. And since she has been cremated, she will have no resting place there to be visited some day, some flowers to leave on the ground - sweets to the sweet.

Even the people among whom I live (a girlfriend, her daughter) seem less familiar than they did. Their sympathy and support have helped me over the shock of losing my sister, but there is a point at which their continuing to live, going about their undisrupted lives, becomes intrusive - an affront to the prevailing sadness. Instead of morning greetings and coffee and breakfast, I feel that there should be lowered voices and muffled footsteps. the cat should be prevented from mewing with a saucer of milk, the television on but the sound turned low. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Turn Off the Lights





On October 10 I published "A Sad Year" on this blog, descanting on all the terrible events that this year had by then inflicted on my family and I. Incredibly, impossibly, eighteen days later one more crushing blow fell.

I watched Jimmy Fallon the other day and Patton Oswalt spoke about how, since the death of his wife last April, grief now catches him unexpectedly at the oddest moments. He was updating an app and he thought about how his wife's apps will never be updated and he found himself weeping.

The British have a saying that accounts for the sudden chill one sometimes feels when a certain thought or memory catches one unawares: A ghost just walked over my grave. It's the same feeling Basho felt when, barefoot in his home, he steps on his dead wife's comb. An existential murmur, an intimation of mortality.

Thomas Hardy's late poems inspired by the death of his wife seem fixated on someone who is no longer there:

A NIGHT IN NOVEMBER

I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

(?) 1913


This is all that I know for now. It was on the morning of Thursday, October 27 in Anchorage, Alaska that her friend found my sister dead. It was early in the morning on Friday, October 28 on my island in the Philippines. When I arrived here from the States I created a chart showing the time in every time zone relative to the Philippines. When it was 8pm Eastern Savings Time on Thursday in New York City, it was 8am on Friday on my island. And Anchorage is four hours behind New York, so it was 4pm. Her friend did the only thing she could think of doing - she called 9-1-1. I was already awake and online, but her friend didn't send me an email and a message on Facebook until 1pm on Friday (5am my time).

I had finished my daily exercise at 10:30am on Saturday morning and my step-daughter told me it was my turn to go online. As soon as the wifi on my tablet activated, I got the email notification. I was surprised that my sister's friend, who hadn't communicated with me since March, when my sister was in hospital, was reaching out to me. But I thought nothing more of it until I went upstairs to my bedroom and laid down. Just as I was about to touch the icon to open the email, I froze. I knew that there had to be something wrong - otherwise she wouldn't have sent me an email. As soon as I opened it and read the first few lines, I couldn't read any more: "hey Danny, with great regret and sadness comes some very bad news...your sister, Liza has passed away....." The time stamp was Saturday at 5:12am, which means she sent it at 1:12pm Friday. So she had probably got my sister's landlord to let her in (he had to do the same thing in March) and discovered her dead on Thursday morning.

The EMTs responded, along with the police to take down the details for a death certificate. I don't yet know what they entered as the cause of death. I was awake in the wee hours because the speed of the internet is fastest when everyone is asleep. But I didn't know until later that morning what had happened 5,500 miles away in Anchorage. That's the distance "as the crow flies" between where I live and where she lived.

Here is what I have surmised this past week, not knowing my sister's official cause of death. Despite her friend's suggestion that her death was probably accidental - that she somehow made the wrong combination of her meds, and until I'm informed of a different conclusion, I think that she probably took an overdose.

I know all about the general reluctance of people to draw such a conclusion - even in their own heart of hearts. But I think that arriving at such a conclusion - and speaking openly about it - is one of the ways we can show our respect for the dead. Besides, it's too late for bullshit. Drawing a veil over a person's last moments, their final minutes and seconds of consciousness - especially when they have come, in their desperation, to such a conclusion - is a terrible disservice. Instead of dying by accident, their death is purposeful and carries with it the ultimate rebuke to the living.

She threatened to do it once before. In 2010, living on the same Philippine island, I received an email from my sister in which she told me that she was going to take an overdose of sleeping pills, that she loved me, and said goodbye. I didn't have wifi at home then. I had to use an internet cafe every so many days. I didn't read her email until three days after she sent it. By phone and at ridiculous expense I contacted my brother first (who assured me that my sister wasn't serious) and then Anchorage P.D. I was cut off twice while I related to the dispatcher my sister's name and address. By the time I called back a second time, the dispatcher told me that a patrol had already stopped by my sister's apartment and that she was well. I explained to my brother that even if she wasn't serious about taking her own life, even if her gesture was nothing but a "cry for help," someone needed to answer, if only to let her know that someone cared.

Living in Anchorage is expensive. A one-bedroom apartment costs more than $800 a month. My sister's profession - medical transcription - is being outsourced and outmoded by automation. At 65, her health was failing but she was finally eligible for Medicare. Her income had been reduced to the Social Security checks she got every month. Since the likelihood of getting myself to Alaska was a dim prospect, I offered to take her into my home here in the Philippines. Her monthly Social Security check would translate into a king's ransom, I told her. But she told me it was impossible. She would have to sell everything she owned and buy a plane ticket, which was simply too much for her to pull off in her condition.

By early October, I hadn't heard from her for more than a month. Since calling her was beyond my means (my only cellphone no longer has a charger), I enlisted my Facebook friends for help. After finally reaching her voicemail, one of my friends left her a message to contact me. The next day she responded on Facebook that she had had another health scare but that she was OK. A few days later, she posted the following on my Facebook timeline: 
 
"Oct 21 9:14pm Listening to Last Train Home by Pat Metheny, looking outside my second storey window watching the first snow of the season, and an indescribable peace fills me. I remember watching the first snow the year Danny joined me in my house in Alaska, and all the times we'd sit in the great room and watch it snow, watch it snow. Such an incredible feeling knowing my favorite person in the world was with me and I wasn't alone. I love you Danny and wish you were here with me right now. Hot chocolate, a real fire going, music, and us. Bibbit."

A week after she posted this on Facebook, my sister was dead. When someone so close to you dies, it forces you to examine everything you said to them in their last days. Last June she emailed me in a fatalistic mood. To spite her, I sent her Philip Larkin's poem "Aubade":

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare.  Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always.  Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels.  Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink.  Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others.  Being brave
Let’s no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t escape.  One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


I wanted to confront her with what Philip Larkin described so succinctly: death as a blunt fact. Her response, however, was typical: "That was unusual. Where do you find these things, Danny?

Almost four years ago on this blog I wrote a tribute to my sister [see Dear Sister] and I included the speech from the end of Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie. But I omitted the last telling line from the speech in which Tom says goodbye to his sister Laura. Here, now, is the complete speech. (I included Williams' stage directions.)

TOM: I didn't go to the moon, I went much further - for time is the longest distance between places. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox. I left Saint Louis. I descended the step of this fire-escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space - I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly coloured but torn away from the branches.
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.
It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow.
Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes ...
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!
I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger - anything that can blow your candles out!

[ LAURA bends over the candles. ]

- for nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura - and so good-bye.

[ She blows the candles out. ]





Goodbye, dear sister.
 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Vampyr

[In the spirit of Halloween, here's my take on a genuinely spooky film.]


When the Danish filmmaker Carl-Theodore Dreyer finished The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which was critically acclaimed but a commercial failure, he decided to make what could only be described as a horror film, which he called Vampyr.(1) In 1931, Ufa, the film's distributor, held up its release until after the appearance of both Dracula and Frankenstein, hoping to capitalize on the craze for such films. That Dreyer's film is more subtle and imaginative with its horror effects than either Tod Browning's or James Whale's Hollywood productions contributed to its failure in Europe. While Bela Lugosi's vampire became an iconic figure, Dreyer's Vampyr fell into a long and undeserved obscurity. As late as 1949, Paul Rotha's invaluable monograph, The Film Till Now called it "A film, much applauded by the intelligentsia, its obscure mysticism, its diffused and meretricious photography, its vague hints of the supernatural, have let the film become very much of a museum piece."(2) There is nothing in the least mystical about Dreyer's film, the photography is often "diffused" (with the use of a gauze filter), but can hardly be called "meretricious" since the film was a commercial failure, and Dreyer's "hints of the supernatural" are anything but vague.  

I must admit that I am not a fan of horror movies. Even when I manage to find one that is effectively creepy, I find myself asking to what end does its creepiness lead?. I saw The Exorcist when I was 15 or 16 and it scared the hell out of me, but only because I hadn't yet made up my mind about the devil. My mother had brought my brother and I up on a diet of "Bucket of Blood Triple Features" at drive-in theaters, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I was afraid of the dark until I was 16. The movies were cheesy, schlocky, usually foreign-made, and laced with plenty of nudity. How my mother got my brother and I through the gate with all those R ratings is a mystery. Admission was "by the carload," so I guess the guy or girl at the gate never bothered to look at the occupants of the car.

Perhaps because they were never taken seriously by producers, few, if any, of the films classified as belonging to the "horror" genre were worthy of serious attention. However, when Vampyr was released it was still possible to take the genre seriously. After all, it was Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1921) that established it at a fairly high level of artistry. Even Dracula and Frankenstein, though incredibly sensationalizied, still have a degree of fascination about them, due to the performances of Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

Taking two stories from the gothic horror writer J. Sheridan LeFanu's collection In a Glass Darkly as his starting point, Dreyer, who was worried of becoming known as the "saint" director due to the overwhelming impact of The Passion of Joan of Arc, acquired the backing of Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg and avoided the expense of shooting in a studio by renting an abandoned chateau in the French town of Courtempierre. The chateau, in disrepair and infested with rats, provided him with just the right atmosphere of decrepitude and death for Vampyr. The Baron de Ginzberg, employing the screen name Julian West because his aristocratic family disapproved of his appearing in a film, played the role of the protagonist Allan Gray who arrives at "a secluded inn near the river in the village of Courtempierre."

Dreyer wastes no time establishing an atmosphere of weirdness: A man in a broad-brimmed hat rings the bell for the ferry. He carries an enormous and menacing scythe like the figure of Death. Once settled in his room at the inn, Gray hears a strange voice through a door leading to the stairwell and, looking up the stairs, is startled to see a man with no eyes emerge from a room. He returns to his room and locks the door but, lying in bed, the key is turned by an invisible hand and an old gentleman enters the room and paces pensively. When he notices Gray lying in bed, he goes to the window and opens the blind. Looking directly at Gray, he exclaims, "She mustn't die! You understand?" He then takes a small sealed parcel out of his pocket and writes on it, "To be opened upon my death." The gentleman leaves the same way he came.

These first scenes are shot virtually without dialogue, except for what I've quoted and three words spoken by a girl who runs the inn. In the early years of sound film, some producers resorted to making different versions of a film: one with German dialogue, one with French, English, etc. To avoid using the heavy and quite immobile sound cameras, Dreyer shot his film silent, adding the spoken dialogue, music, and sound effects in post-production. Dreyer's cinematographer for Vampyr was the great Rudolph Mate, who managed to move his camera fluidly around the film's cramped interiors, following the actors from room to room.

The rest of Dreyer's film involves Gray learning of a girl who lives in the chateau (whose father came to him at the inn) and is stricken by a strange illness. When he discovers she is the victim of a vampire, and that the vampire is being assisted by the village doctor, Gray helps to save the girl and destroy the vampire and the doctor.

Dreyer's cast is made up of mostly non-professional actors. I suppose it would've been too much to ask Baron de Gunzburg, having financed Dreyer's film, why he had to play the hero, Allan Gray. Tall, with unusually large eyes, he isn't required to give us much more in his facial expressions than the look of someone who has just sat on a tack. Otherwise he is utterly bovine.

At the film's end it is difficult to decide exactly what one has experienced. Dreyer indulges in atmospheric effects to create the cumulative effect of an hallucination. Although Gray himself has a vision in the film - the famous sequence in which he watches as his own body is buried alive, including shots through a window in the coffin lid - the entire film has the quality of a vision. Again and again I come back to the truly astonishing effect of a film: mobilizing forces, money and lives to capture images that end up as nothing more than shadows projected on a wall. The shadows captured by Dreyer in Vampyr are indelible, lingering in the memory many years after one has first seen them.

Ufa gambled on Vampyr capitalizing on the vogue for horror films created in Europe by Dracula and Frankenstein by delaying its release until after audiences had seen the two Hollywood films. Their gamble backfired when audiences, expecting a simple horror tale reinforced by expensive sets and elaborate makeup, became bewildered by Dreyer's non-linear style. Critics even condemned it as a ripoff of the vampire craze inspired by Dracula.

For Dreyer, who was his own producer for Vampyr, the failure of the film was so devastating that he suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be treated in a Paris clinic for three months. The name of the clinic - Clinique Jeanne d'Arc - must have seemed ironic to the beleaguered filmmaker.(3)



(1) Aka, Vampyr, or The Strange Case of Allan Gray.
(2) Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now.
(3) Information provided in Torben Skjodt Jensen's 1995 documentary, Carl Th. Dreyer - My Metier.