One book that always intrigued me was An American Dream by Norman Mailer. The book came to me at a time when I was unsurprisingly depressed. I know that Norman Mailer’s writing has a horrible mysogynist bent to it but it was the central idea that caught my attention. In the book, according to Wiki’s summary – ‘Stephen Rojack, is a decorated war-hero and former congressman, a sensationalist talk-show host, and is the embodiment of the American Dream. In an alcoholic rage, Rojack murders his estranged wife, a high society woman, and descends into a lurid underworld of Manhattan jazz clubs, bars, and Mafia intrigue after meeting Cherry McMahan, a night-club singer and the girlfriend of a highly placed mobster.’
Rojack is liberated by the experience of throwing it all away and it is only after this that he is able to get into the experience of life.Watching the film Pearl Harbour though I experience the opposite feeling. Each still from that film could be on the front of a post card or some sort of pin up. I am left with the feeling that perhaps the film’s makers should have turned their hand to making softcore pornography instead. Or even hardcore pornography. At least that would have been a bit more real!
Watching Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise recently I took a similar message that people crave real experience. Complete experience. As we are repeatedly told throughout the film the sweet is not as sweet without the sour. In the later part of the film Tom Cruise’s character lives in a lucid dream when he is in a frozen state. He is given the opportunity to forget the negative experiences of his life. He chooses the moment of his rejection by Penelope Cruz’s character as the moment for his memory splice. This is not good enough though. He insists on finding out the truth later on and he is presented with a choice of whether to continue living the dream of to live the imperfect ‘real’ life.
He chooses the ‘real’ life even though he is told that his finances will soon run out. Even before this though his mind rejected the perfection that he could have experienced in this dream world. He instead plagues himself with guilt about the way he treated Cameron Diaz’s character. He confronts himself with the consequences of his actions. There is another element to Vanilla Sky that is interesting. That is the idea of the importance of actions and their consequences. This idea also ties into the idea of ‘real experience’. At a point in the film Tom Cruise’s character makes a decision to sit into Cameron Diaz’s car after she proposes having sex that nobody will know about. In the scene just previous Tom Cruise has fallen love with Penelope Cruz’s character. She represents the ‘real’ woman. She is not taken in by Tom Cruise’s money and charm and holds an additional job as a dental assistant just to support herself.
This ‘reality’ causes Cruise to decide to be vulnerable with her and he reveals that his nickname in the company is ‘Citizen Dildo’. Penelope Cruz reproaches Cruise’s character on the meaning and importance of friendship. She knows that it was his friend who was interested in her first and he tells her that she is more right about this than she knows. The feeling of love is present with Cruise but the feeling is not enough. He is still not the sort of man whose actions follow through with the love. He gets into the car and sets in train a series of actions that lead to his disfigurement and Cruz leaving him. This reflection on the film reminds me of a section in John Finnis’ book, Natural Law and Natural Rights.
In that section Finnis wonders whether pleasure is the whole point of the human endeavour and concludes that is not. He points to Nozick’s experience machine and offers us a choice. He asks us to suppose that we could be plunged into an ‘experience machine’ which, by stimulating your brain while you lay floating in the tank, would afford you all of the experiences you choose, with all the variety (if any) you could want: but you must plug in for a lifetime or not at all. Finnis wonders is it not clear that one would choose the experiences of discovering an important theorem, or of winning an exciting game, or of reading or writing a great novel, or even of seeing God…or any combination of such experiences?
It seems to connect with Cruise’s experience in Vanilla Sky for as Nozick rightly concludes, one wants to do certain things (not just have the experience of doing them – and this applies to Cruise one wants to do love not just to have the experience of doing love); one wants to be a certain sort of person,through one’s own authentic, free self-determination and self-realization; one wants to live (in the active sense), oneself, making a real world through that real pursuit of values that inevitably involves making one’s personality in and through one’s commitment to those values. (as again amply demonstrated by Cruise whose self-examination comes to dominate his lucid dream).
(Here Cypher’s choice to plug himself in to such an ‘experience machine’ is hollow. He wants to be someone rich and important and then he adds ‘like an actor’ but isn’t that exactly what he is? – An actor. He is not the sort of person who does these things but the sort of person who wants to experience these things. He also includes that term that he does not want to remember anything outside of the Matrix perhaps wisely noting that his mind would reject the ‘unreal’.
In 21 Grams we are dealing with the stories of three lives that are brought together by tragic car accident. Jack Jordan, an Ex-Con, who has found Jesus rounds a corner too fast and hits the husband and two little daughters of Cristina Peck. Cristina Peck authorizes the transplant of a heart from her dying husband. Paul Rivers, a dying mathematics professor receives the heart. Each of these characters is in some way being pressured to accept a different reality to their own. Peck’s father urges her to move, like he did with his wife (Peck’s mother), after her death. Peck rejects this entreaty to accept a different version of life to her own as does Paul Rivers.This rejection reminds me of Kevin Spacey’s character’s similar rejection in the film shrink.
Paul Rivers rejects the pretence of a happy relationship with his partner and the ‘bandaid’ of an artificial insemination pregnancy being placed over a wound that has already bled dry. He wants to find out where his heart came from. The hospital staff and his partner inform him that the family remains anonymous but that he can write to the family if he wants. Paul hires a private detective and finds out who authorized the transplant. He demands the real from his life – becoming involved in her life, getting embroiled in her struggles, trying to stop her taking drugs and buying a gun to avenge her husband’s death. The gun we are told by the private detective who sources it is known in the trade as ‘an orphan’.
This is symbolically interesting to me because the gun a symbol of potency, action and aggression is a gun without a history. It is free from pretence but it can do the most damage and it can perform the most action. Later when Paul’s body is rejecting the transplanted heart he chooses a terrible death in lieu of going back to the hospital because it is a death on his own terms out in the world of experience.
Finally, the Ex-con, who’s pick-up truck hit the father and two daughter’s resists his wife’s appeals that he not turn himself in. She suggests that the family needs him and nobody witnessed his involvement with the ‘Hit and Run’. He needs to follow his own logic and experience his own relationship with God. He resists any attempt to alter the message and his experience by either his wife of the reverend when he meets him in prison. When Paul Rivers shoots beside him and tells him he needs to disappear he comes to Paul’s hotel room and demands that he shoot him if he is going to shoot him. This is him putting his life in God’s hands and following the trend of his experience.
Like Jaubert in Les Miserables he must face the totality of his experience. The guilt and the responsibilities represented by the reality of his experience. He tries to live in a motel and reject his experience but this ends with bloody confrontation with the consequences he tried to run from following him to his motel room. He then becomes involved in Paul and Peck’s story and after Paul turns the gun he brought on himself. He brings Paul to the hospital and he says that he shot Paul but he is let off for lack of evidence. This is God letting him go and telling him to go back to his family presumably. It is in line with his own experience though and this is the important point.
Diane Arbus was a woman who lead a sheltered life but then went on to take photos of the marginalized. She seemed to experience something of the real in the psychic danger she experienced in her work. Susan Sontag seems to be suggesting that Arbus’ suicide could be viewed as a sort of combat death. Having trespassed certain limits, she fell in a psychic ambush, a casualty of her own candor and curiosity.
She photographed people who were referred to as freaks at the time. She said that we all have a trauma in our lives and since freaks are born with theirs that makes them aristocrats. How original a way of looking at the world? Sontag’s words relating to the unreality of experience for Arbus seem to capture the essence of my point exactly and for that reason are worth quoting in full.
‘One of the things I felt I suffered as a kid’ Arbus wrote ‘ was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality…And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.’ Sontag also relates the example of Nathanel West, another artist interested in the deformed, who feeling much the same as Arbus took a job as a night clerk in a seedy Manhattan hotel. Sontag suggests that for Arbus her method ‘of procuring experience, and thereby acquiring a sense of reality was the camera. By experience was meant, if not material adversity, at least psychological adversity – the shock of immersion in experiences that cannot be beautified, the encounter with what is perverse, taboo, evil.
Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases – most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings – who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer. Sontag writing of her work says that the photographs of deviates and the real freaks do not accent their pain but, rather, their detachment and autonomy. The female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan Hotel Room, the Russian midgets in a living room on 100th Street, and their kin are shown as mostly cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact. Pain is more legible in the portraits of the normals: the quarreling elderly couple on a park bench, the New Orleans Lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog, the boy in Central Park clenching his toy hand grenade.
Norms (So called)
‘Freaks’ – (So called)
The connection between Kubrick and Arbus is another I would like to find out more about.
A still from the Shining seems inspired by Arbus’ photo of identical twins. There is an interesting article on the idea of duality in the Shining and the point it makes about the image of the twins is that the forced symmetry is even more unnatural than the natural symmetry. The blog notes that it was a brilliant decision to cast to girls who are not identical and actually probably of different ages. It does seem to capture an the Arbus photo and suggest that the attempts to beautify and order experience actually can make something quite unnatural.