Howdy folks. Too much time has transpired since my last missive. No resource is more abundant, none quicker to slide through your fingers than Time, like the Ozymandian sands that flood the Western landscape of my cinema-drenched brain. That brain took a beating these last few months. I won’t bore you with too many of the details. Let’s just say that I’ve spent my life ingesting cultural product at a high velocity, absorbing plot points and conflicts and feelings and ideas and abstractions as the remote experiences of fictional characters, all while cozied up in my middle class whitebread problem-free linear-careerism where none of those things really had to be viscerally experienced. But, y’know, they do have to be experienced – the storm-door of your mind won’t stay bolted shut forever – and as of last October I experienced them with a vengeance. I held existentialism in the palm of my hand and felt its melon-rind texture, while depression chained me to the ocean floor and the water pressure asphyxiated all sense of happiness and stability and day-to-day perceptual neutrality. It was pretty fucked.
During this time, movies lost their luster. I mean, what’s the point? “Ah yes, another movie under my belt! My Allan Dwan expertise is through the roof! This is important and totally of value to my mental health!” How to prioritize the kinda consumption I’d built so much of my life on when actually grappling with what finally felt like Reality for the first time in my fucking life? But my aversion to cinema was also Fear of Cinema. It would be self-deception to frame the issue in terms of cinephile self-loathing – whereby watching movies is frivolous, for shut-ins, and all that rigmarole – and ignore the harsher truth engraving the underside of the coin. That being that actually engaging with cinema – where it’s not for checklist cred or mired in ally-watch offhandedness or fossil fuel for hobby-horse habituation – is impossibly stimulating. Depression destocked the armory of my mind, leaving it volatile, vulnerable, like an untended herd of cattle at the onset of a thunderstorm. And if I let cinema into my head – really and truly into it, where its equal parts nebulous and expressive appendages could burrow into my scarily impressionable brain – then what kind of chemical reaction might ensue? Or, to strip my prose of its floridity a bit, would I lose my mind? Would I get terrifying ideas, make frightful associations, exacerbate my depression, lose my grip on the reality I really and truly and desperately needed to reclaim?
That question is not a rhetorical one, and I’ll leave it unanswered for now.
So here’s another: what of other artistic pursuits? It’s interesting. Listening to certain music was a downright terrifying prospect, but literature attained that height of therapeutic serenity advertised by all evangelical bibliophiles. Like existentialism and depression, this too was made tangible – picture a Scandinavian hot spring, the way sunlight glints like crystal on a liquid blanket of aquamarine, and how it feels to lean your head back and stare up at the sky to refresh your numbingly straight-ahead perceptual default. And the books I read! ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, that perennial classic, gave me real perspective, reminded me that my growing pains and uncertainties and anxieties are not exclusive to me as an individual (duh) nor (more revelatory) to the century that spawned me (the fear of being exceptional is a big part of all this, as are the travails of being emotionally sensitive, neither of which I feel capable of exploring at length right now but both of which were assuaged by the original Chuck D at the height of his powers!). ‘The Great American Novel’ by Philip Roth gave me a pleasure I never thought I’d experience again (Alliteration alleviates all ailments! Who knew?), and Joan Didion gave me the itch to return to essayin’ (you are reading the result!).
But no book was more important than ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements’ by Bob Mehr. My critical faculties are gonna fail me here….Well, look. It’s this meticulously researched tome about the band that epitomized working class Middle American depression. It’s a book about music, but it’s more about alcoholism, bipolar disorder, abusive relationships, self-destruction, the fear of success, and, uh, a lot of harrowing shit. And, I mean, you read those words and they’re just words and maybe even the stuff you expect to get out of biographies generally. Sordid backstories illustrating the dark side of success. Yeah yeah yeah, we know. But I guess the setup/punchline of great famous figure –> fucked up in some hidden unexpected curiosity-piquing buy-this-book kinda way isn’t really a factor here. Cuz Bob Mehr respects that The Replacements aren’t Great Figures, so much as a bunch of fuckups who fortuitously banded together and happened to make great, indelible, borderline primitivist musical illustrations of what it means to be a Minneapolis street urchin with no aspirations. And it’s a testament to who they were as human beings that as they became successful by any objective metric they could still attest to a fundamental aspirationlessness without giving off a whiff of hypocrisy.
If anything, the despair is the core of the story and the music practically incidental. I would recommend this to people who don’t care for music. Just think of a band as a family unit and read it like it’s Eugene O’Neill, except a rock bio. And if you’re depressed like me, then it’s empathy-as-heroin. Like obviously I Feel For These People, but their problems are not pornographed so that I could get off on any “well at least my life isn’t that fucked up” satisfaction. Nor is it some false hope that perhaps I might wield my depression in service of some great artistic achievement the way they managed to. It’s more like: for better and for worse, the depressing aspects of human experience that produced this band have also produced me at this scary juncture in my life. No potential success is gonna redeem or cure me and no amount of despair is gonna keep me from putting one foot in front of the other and slumming through the days ahead, even if I gotta turn to substance abuse to cope.
And, well, I haven’t had to do that! Life is pretty good. I have friends, I have antidepressants, I have a therapist…and I have books! And music! And even movies! To come full circle, I did end up watching a movie, a life-changing one. And I really and truly engaged with it, at the risk of overloading my battered brain with strange new stimuli. The Landlord by Hal Ashby (listen to the commentary folks!) deconstructs the ways in which certain people (guilty as charged) compartmentalize and commodify the experiences of others, such that self-definition is a patronizing matter of measuring oneself by another’s yardstick – other people are means to an end, and that end is existential tourism. And the glorious genius of this movie is that it somehow avoids compartmentalizing and commodifying the kind of privileged fucks (again, raises hand) who are so guilty of same. And so human experience really does take on a liberating nebulousness, an ineffable empathetic mist whereby the streams of many consciences commingle.
Which is kinda the ideal?