28 December 2016

Death, movies, prophets, names, taste...

Dear diary,

Seventeen is a good age to be, not a good Fahrenheit temperature. I always start out my public speeches with a quip about the weather, because I have nothing better to say. “If that’s really the case, then get off the stage,” audiences insist. But like all beings in a desperate time, I keep clinging.

Seventeen was my favorite age. Except for twenty-three, it was the best age I’ve lived.

I started today by reading an article from a film critic. Not Roger Ebert; though I like Ebert, Ebert is… What do people say nowadays? Not “dead”—the truth has always rightfully been frowned upon. “Passed on”? “No longer with us”? “In a better place”?

Well, if you want MY opinion, Captain, I think that we have the wrong idea about Hell, just exactly like we have the wrong idea about Paradise. […] I think that Sunshine left Hell for a better place. I think that WE are the dead, and HE is alive.

That’s part of Officer Duke’s interruption of Andy’s speech during Sunshine’s funeral, from the film Wrong Cops (2013), written and directed by Quentin Dupieux. You can add this title, by the way, to the list at the entry’s end.

As I was saying, I started my day by reading an article from a film critic. He explained that almost all his life, he’s followed the tradition of watching a movie on his birthday; and the article consisted of a list of each of the titles that he watched, plus the year that he watched them. This amazed me, because I can’t remember ANYTHING about my life: it’s all a blur, like a plodding fever dream. The film critic was able to recall not only the title of the birthday film for each year, but a whole paragraph of memories surrounding each viewing: he relayed which of his loved ones accompanied him to each showing, and what the film was about, and whether or not he liked it.

Contrast this with my inability to recall even one single reason why I said that seventeen is the best age, and also twenty-three. Let me see if I can remember what my seventeenth year was… Nope: can’t do it. The numbers all run together. It’s just a feeling, swirling like the rainbows in a suds bubble.

If you die as an infant, it’s bad because nobody got to see what kind of a person you’d become. If you die as a teen, it’s bad because you didn’t get a chance to pursue the dreams of your youth. Dying at midlife is bad because you’re barred from enjoying the fruits of your uphill labors. And dying peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age is the worst, because your wisdom is permanently extinguished.

But if you die as an infant, it’s good because you didn’t have to suffer any growing pains. And if you die as a teen, it’s good because you checked out before life got boring. And death at middle age is good because your life does not have a chance to become unadulterated suffering. And dying in old age is the best, because you abandon the most awful habit.

But what does it mean “to fear the LORD greatly”? I was reading in the biblical book of Kings, and at the end of one of the verses (1 Kings 18:3) were these words: “Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly…” Since it’s the King James translation, and the word “LORD” is in all caps, it’s referring to Yahweh, also known as Jehovah; but even if we waive the proper name and use the title “God” instead, what does this mean?

Usage is the key to definition. In this respect, language is inherently democratic; that’s one reason I love it. So I’ll consider how that word “God” is used.

It seems that, whatever happens, God is the cause. If good happens, God is the cause. If bad happens, God is the cause. Amos says (3:6), “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” Add to this Juliet’s famous lines from Shakespeare’s “most excellent and lamentable tragedy” (2.2.43) “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet…” And this is why I call Jehovah “luck.” So what I’m asking is: What does it mean “to fear luck greatly”? For I consider myself an atheist, or at least a non-believer; yet, in truth, I fear nothing more than luck.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I don’t have any aim to this entry; I’m only writing to pass the time. So I’ll copy another passage (21-24) from the same chapter of Kings, because, reading it from the perspective of my “modern” mind this morn, and despite the fact that religion is still a divider of people and a cause of much conflict and discord, Elijah’s proposal in the story struck me as a funny idea that nobody would follow through on today. (How I wish they would!) Even if you substituted the sacrifice for something less unfashionable, would contemporary religious fundamentalists allow such a contest to prove the true deity?

Elijah came unto all the people, and said, “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.”

And the people answered him not a word.

Then said Elijah unto the people, “I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God.”

And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.

Here’s an interesting side note: its entry in the encyclopedia explains that the word Baal “was a title meaning ‘LORD’ in the Northwest Semitic languages spoken in the Levant during antiquity.” Also Mad magazine regularly published a cartoon that featured two identical agents who were constantly trying to get the better of each other; this comic was called Spy vs. Spy. So I think of Baal and Jehovah as Lord vs. Lord.

But you wanted to know the movies that meant a lot to me. Milestone movies. I’ll try to remember them…

Now I recoil from making another list. Who cares? Since everyone can publish their preference in this online kingdom, few value any personal revelation. The only thing that counts is violence, which is why the Ivy Leaguers are interested only in bombing.

The movie that means the most to me is Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (not the longer version released in 1975 under a different title, but the re-edit from the 2012 Eclipse Series 33 set) – I’ve mentioned this film before; but I’m compelled to repeat my praise, so as not to lack proof of fidelity on Judgment Day; for I find that people are unable to grasp how great a poem this is: they lack the eyes and ears: “Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.” I think that its own director is unaware just how breakingly the alien future-bliss vesseled him.

Yet when I say that people can’t sense the superiority of a favored artwork, aren’t I simply complaining that they do not share my taste? Aren’t I saying: you’re unfit because you’re not me? I hope this isn’t the case. I hope I’m truly right about everything, and that you should trust me.

I’m inspired by this subject to steal a “noted story” from the essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” which David Hume in turn stole from Don Quixote:

It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.

I have a friend whom I’ve known since grade school – he loathes the “subjective” world of artistic judgment. He likes to golf. He programs computers. He preens his credit score.

It is written that God called for a messenger, and Isaiah answered, and the following instructions were given:

Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

I’m positive that Isaiah 6:10 would answer as I have below, if asked to name, off the top of his or her head, a full fist’s fingers’ worth of films.

  • Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
  • Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
  • L’Eclisse (1962)
  • My Dinner with Andre (1981)
  • The Fog of War (2003)

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