When I was a kid, my older sister was obsessed with the TV show Twin Peaks. I was a little too young for it, though I remember being swept up into its emotional whirlwind world whenever I tried to watch it (without understanding exactly what was going on). I was scared when I was supposed to feel fear (that menacing Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack playing as a heavy wind tossed a red stoplight hung on a wire over some train tracks back and forth and the dark pines shook in the night). I was amused when I was supposed to be (Mr. Badalamenti playing up and down the xylophone as some waitress ran down the specials for some odd customer bellied up to the Formica).
I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point I saw the movie Fire Walk with Me.
Just typing that I got slight chills.
I must have been a couple years older when I saw it, since if I’d seen it when the TV show came out, I would have been traumatized (similar to the way I was debilitated with fear when my childhood friends, who knew I was afraid of clowns, thought it would be funny to show me Stephen King’s It).
I remember not just being terrified as I watched Fire Walk with Me, but feeling sickened and dirtied, as if I’d just been pulled into something evil and somehow made complicit. But it felt necessary to see it, even as the fear in the pit of my stomach increased and the disgust washed over me.
That’s actually a good way to describe the experience of watching that movie: necessary. It was necessary as a young man just entering puberty to see that movie, in order to understand that no matter what minor tortures sexual deprivation imposed on a young man (mostly humorous), sex (and boys, and later men) traumatized a lot of girls and women in sometimes permanent and horrible ways.
All drives have the capacity, if not controlled, for metastasizing into something truly evil. Fire Walk with Me was the first and maybe the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me feel what it was like to be a female, and even back then I knew it to be some kind of extended tone poem created to honor victims of sexual abuse. The movie forced me to experience how it feels to be a female in a world where men give their appetites primacy over female life. Considering that David Lynch was accused of being a misogynist around this time (I think an actress or two from the show refused to be in the film for that very reason), what he accomplished (or at least induced in me as a young viewer) seems incongruous with the charge.
I remember the movie pissed a lot of people off, especially at Cannes where it was supposedly booed and jeered by the audience. I know the critic Roger Ebert hated it. At one point in his career, Rog admitted (I think it was when reviewing Lost Highway) that something in him resisted David Lynch, that his critical faculties were somehow clouded by a personal distaste for something about the man’s aesthetic or his whole Weltanschauung that made it hard to review his movies.
The movie also pissed off a young Quentin Tarantino, the maverick director whose pop culture mashup films have pretty much rewired our collective synapses as cinemagoers, in a perhaps lower-brow but no less total manner than the celluloid worlds created by Kubrick or Scorsese.
Tarantino said words to the effect that, despite loving Lynch’s earlier films, he was done with the man for the foreseeable future, because he’d crawled so far up his own ass with Fire that it wasn’t worth wasting time on the man or his work.
But I still think Fire Walk with Me is incredible. Perhaps my opinion of the movie would change were I to watch it today, but that’s not happening because I never, ever want to see it again. I’m only even bringing it up now because as an object lesson it’s related to the subject I wanted to broach tonight, which is that perhaps there are worse things for an artist to do than crawl up their own ass.
To return to Kubrick, there’s a scene in a documentary about him in which the director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) points out that during Clockwork Orange, in the scene at the record shop, a copy of the soundtrack for 2001 is clearly visible behind the droog Alex hitting on the girls (I think they’re underage in the Burgess novel, but it’s not specified or even implied in the film).
The gag of course is that Kubrick was both the director of Clockwork Orange and 2001, which meant, according to Cox, that this was a man who had become the primary influence on his own work.
Reflexive, sure. Solipsistic? Why not. But is this a creative dead-end? “Navel-gazing” is usually an insult, but I suppose it all depends on the quality of lint that one collects in their belly button. Before I hyper-extend the metaphor, I’ll just circle back around to the central question, which is: Is self-indulgence in itself a bad thing for an artist? Put another way: When one is in dialogue with oneself, is it always really a monologue, creative onanism mistaken for intercourse?
I was about to say that I don’t have an answer, except that I think I do. I think some artists who close off the outer world and work in a house of mirrors make as much or more of the reflections they see refracted in their fun-houses than anyone who’s out there in the real world reporting back from the front-lines or the knife-edge of reality.
Hell, look at Hölderlin. The German romantic poet had a nervous breakdown, hypochondrias, as I believe schizophrenia was then known, and responded by sequestering himself in a tower provided to him by a carpenter who had mercy on him and functioned as a lifelong patron. Herr Hölderlin would continue living and composing in his stone eyrie for the next thirty-five years or so, until his death. There’s some dispute among scholars and fans when he did his best work, but there’s no disputing he created some incredible stuff up there, stopping only occasionally to entertain guests and fans of his work who’d traveled from far-flung lands to visit the hermetic poet. And that was pre-internet and probably with only a couple of windows out of which he could gaze, when not composing his famed quatrains.
But then again, maybe I’m just seeking an excuse to close my mind and stay home as often as possible.
I’m not a social person. It’s not that I don’t like people, but I’ve had more than enough of them. All the same, I do sometimes miss hanging out with my cousin and her husband. We’d go to the movies, or out to dinner, or just hang out at their house. I’d bring my terrier over and let their dogs romp around with mine while we played Scrabble. Normal stuff like that.
These people are Christians, but in a gentle way, not heavy-handed at all about it. I can’t remember how we got onto the specific subject, but I do remember one night my cousin’s husband (who I’ll call Bill) told me his mother’s last words, which she uttered on her deathbed in the hospital. “She just sat up, after sitting there for twenty minutes or so with her eyes closed. Then she opened her eyes, shouted, ‘You tricked me!’ and fell back down onto the pillow and died.”
How’s that for an exit? It ranks up there with Goethe’s Mehr licht! (“More light!”) and possibly bests the apocryphal chestnuts from Oscar Wilde’s last day on Earth (one of which I remember was “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”)
“You tricked me.”
Naturally I asked my cousin Bill what she meant by that. And of course Bill had no answer. He wanted to know, too. And there is the chance that his mother didn’t even know what she meant, either. People aren’t exactly lucid in their final moments all the time, which is why wills get contested on that “sound of mind” clause more than occasionally. There’s even a book dedicated to parsing the subtext of one crazy man’s last words recorded by a police stenographer in the hopes that this rumrunner’s hospital bed ramblings might yield some interesting clues as to the inner workings of the Mob (they didn’t).
Regardless of whether or not Bill’s mom meant anything with her last words, they stick in my craw. I can’t stop thinking about them. And at my lowest moments I think that the words are tied to the betrayal of her own religiosity, which she bequeathed to her son. In this explanation of “You tricked me!” the mother, having dedicated her life to right-living and expecting an eternal reward, sees only a massive vacuum of black Lovecraftian antimatter or whatever void we all face as we slough off our mortal coils.
I know nothing about Bill’s mother (aside from her last words), but in this explanation, I see her as a woman who was perhaps a little hedonistic at heart, like perhaps most people. She wished to indulge in a fling with some sailor while her husband was at sea, but she knew the Commandments forbade it, and so she abstained. In the front of her mind she told herself she’d done the right thing. But maybe elsewhere there was a kernel of regret, budding in her brain, telling her to go ahead and do it, and after the fact that little budding seed kept nagging at her, and she kept fighting it down, tamping it with the recital of the mantra that was her moral code. “I can’t do this to my husband. I can’t betray God’s laws like this.”
But then, as she died, she saw this fellow who had every intention of tupping the hell out of her when she was young. And here he was on the other side, still young and strapping, waiting and winged in the eternal void, but unwilling to lift or embrace her, because she had shunned the pleasures of the flesh with him back when she’d been a mortal. She’d thought her decision the right one, the moral one at the time, but only realized now that it had been a mere act of cowardice masquerading as righteousness.
Sometimes I wonder if the point of life is to maximize pleasure and not only over some long term, but merely in the moment. Part of this refrain in my brain (and, to be frank, in my soul) is probably just a byproduct of the cynicism in which we all marinate. Postmodern America is a very ugly place, with a very short attention span and a collective Id that, rather than being checked or even examined, is fanned and enflamed and encouraged in its every indulgent impulse. It wouldn’t take a prude to look around here (at least at the intersubjective world of pop culture) and see that something is horribly out of tilt.
But there is still a part of me that thinks that these mundane and material pleasures are all that is to be had, and since it’s all going to collapse soon (perhaps due to the icecaps melting, or some bespoke superbug manufactured in the makeshift lab that is some man’s garage), I might as well get mine, too, damnit, while the getting is good.
And since I’m not very attractive or rich, pleasure for me would naturally mean gorging on food.
I’ve lost sixty pounds over the course of the last year (probably more), and would like to keep losing weight. And yes, it feels good to walk around without carrying around that shifting burden of rubbery flesh that clung to me like a polyester suit to a sweaty preacher, but there are still times when I think of giving up and stuffing my face. And in those moments, even though the dissipation, the wallowing in fatitude (sic) is just a figment of my imagination, I still feel a kind of ecstasy that borders on the sinful just thinking about it.
I want to eat an entire pepperoni pizza with the lights off and the blinds drawn, using only my mouth, with my hands tied behind my back like the fat kid in the pie-eating contest in Stand By Me.
I want to use a spoon that practically has the dimensions of a soup ladle to dislodge chunks of chocolate chip from their frozen moorings in mounds of mint ice cream, gripping the pint with my other hand all slippery with condensation.
I want to eat twelve chicken wings, tilt the Styrofoam carryout box in which they came so that all the remaining hot sauce juices pour into the far corner of the container, and then I want to drink that mixture of chicken skin fat, marrow, and spicy broth like Bacchus quaffing the blood of his cult from a grapevine.
Yes, I’m a pig, but I’m a pig who’s denying himself a rut in the mud for reasons I can’t quite fathom. The “why?” question lays heavily upon my chest, growing ironically ever heavier as I myself continue to torture myself losing weight.
To what end am I losing weight? I have no spouse or kids for whom I need to extend my lifespan, or to whom my presence means anything. I have a dog, but considering that she probably only has five years left (at most), I could cast myself into an abyss of marathon takeout Chinese sessions while popping Percocet in a La-Z Boy on full recline from now until the last of her little canine heart palpitations and she would still beat me to the boneyard.
So why not just give in? For fear of having my porcine behind prodded with the Devil’s pitchfork if I were to succumb to the Schweinerei of gluttony I fantasized about a handful of paragraphs ago?
I guess I’m saying, I don’t want to die and realize that I deprived myself of some pleasure for reasons I’ll forget or that will be rendered inconsequential when I pass over to the other side. Yes, the pleasures which I’m denying myself are small, and they are pleasures with consequences, punishment that are more prosaic than pitchforks, waiting for me should I indulge in the transitory and chimerical joys of pigging out.
Before I burn in Hell, there’s the matter of heartburn with which I need to contend.
But regardless of burning in heart or burning in Hell, I would still have that moment, that second of glorious sinful bliss of backsliding that might be worth a millennium of teetotaler’s smug satisfaction. Charles Baudelaire spoke of that instant of ecstasy in exchange for an eternity of fire (though he was probably aiming his ken much higher, to some god’s ichor or at least some good opium, and not a cheeseburger).
The thing is, though, should I feel deceived in my final moments as an ex-fat man, at least I will not be shouting to the void, “You tricked me!”
My deception will have been self-imposed. So if I die (or rather when I die, since it’s a given that I’m going to die), give me a mirror to scream at, a reflection of myself which I can insult. And have someone there (police stenographer or layperson) to record my last words.
Maybe they’ll be funny.
Maybe they’ll be sad, or at least otherwise memorable.
And maybe they’ll be “More!” though unlike Goethe I’m probably apt to be asking for more Snickers or Coke. Screw the “Licht.” A fat man feels better in the dark.