Thursday, February 28, 2008
'The Sparrow' explores interesting issues concerning the basis and justification for faith, friendship, cultural prejudices and social misunderstandings. How indeed would you approach contacting a strange race and culture? You wouldn't know if you'd made a huge cultural mistake, until it was too late. On Rakhat, the mistake is slight and a deceptively neutral one, but because of it the initial success of the mission suddenly, and tragically unravels. For most of the book you are intrigued by the slow unpicking and teasing out of information buried in the stories structure. Then, about three quarters of the way the pace begins to flag and doesn't pick up again until the final revelatory chapters. These last chapters feel rather rushed, as if Russell sensed the book could grind to a halt if she didn't draw it to a close quickly. It ends weakly,we know something horrible has happened, its been widely trailed through out the book, so when you are finally told clearly what it was, it fails to live up to your anticipation. Emilio's full recovery once the retelling of his story to his superiors is completed, was nothing if not miraculous. The overall abruptness of the novel's conclusion, takes the edge off what would otherwise have been a wholehearted endorsement from me. Otherwise, it is a very engrossing novel, one that is humane and packed with fascinating insights.
The Indian woman enquires at one house, a very flashy place obviously owned by someone with lots of money. We enter in and look out from the balcony over the town. Even from this height it is nothing like the Halifax I know, I still cannot get a glimpse of the church at all. Whilst we are gazing out, a gang bursts in and starts wildly shooting around the house. The Indian lady and I hide. At this point I awoke. The dream left me with a strong feeling of distress and frustration, which persisted most of the following morning. Somehow the situation of being somewhere that should be very famliar, yet it isn't, and feeling a stranger, and uncomfortable in my own home town, seems to represent the tone of my inner emotional world at this present moment.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Sometimes I feel so embarrassed. Here I am in my fiftieth year on Earth, and still find myself tripping and falling into the same black mental pot holes in the road ahead. The same ones I've been attempting to avoid for decades. Yes, they are less frequent in occurrence, and shorter in duration, so this could reasonable be called progress. But still, how about being able to see them coming and take evasive action? In hindsight, and reading back through my most recent diary entries, the signs of a possible descent into a trough of despond have been showing themselves for weeks. Those anxious ridden dreams, lack of sleep and turbulent internal emotional states, were all bound to result in a collapse of the defenses sooner or later. I just get so worn out mentally, I lose all power to put up an effective resistence. So, on Thursday this week my self confidence and sense of purpose tumbled like the walls of Jericho. I don't think things have collapsed with quite this calamitous intensity for about seven years. The trigger has undoubtedly been my job. I've just felt challenged on too many levels at once - by practical, managerial, psychological, team and spiritual difficulties - and these being unrelentingly present over a number of weeks. I don't think David has ever seen me quite this low before, so he has obviously been very concerned for my well being. These days, fortunately, this state never last for long.
Quite why it happens is a question I've frequently asked, but found no one source that provides a comprehensive answer. Though it does appear to relate to feeling out of my depth, feeling the odd one out, to feeling I don't fit in somehow, to feeling existentialy criticised, as if my very being is just wrong - which discovering I was gay has never exactly helped. From a Buddhist perspective this may be a karma viparka, a volition from a previous life, still working itself out in this one. I find this a helpful way to view things, irrespective of whether I believe it's true or not. It stops me from looking under the carpet all the time for a hidden psychological cause to make sense of it all, because I've never found one. It helps me relax and focus my energy on just cleaning the shit off the carpet. Perhaps my main task in this life, is either, to prevent the shit hitting the fan in the first place, or learning how to eat the shit, or transform shit into ambrosia, the very nectar of life. There is a small, but discernable improvement - even when I'm in the middle of the state I know it's an untrue representation of how I actually am, or how I'm really perceived. But when I'm in this hole all such elements of positivity, however consciously knowable, are still unreachable, and thus impossible for me to hold onto for support. Nothing it appears can stop me from falling into the hole, once I'm perched on the edge of it. Did I fall as a result of circumstance, or did I give myself a final push in? It is usually a mixture of both. If I've learnt anything over the years it's that once you're in the hole - stop making it worse, stop wallowing in it, stop flailing about in resistance, its too late, your in the hole now, stop digging yourself deeper into the state and shout loudly for help. Fortunately my good friend Saddharaja, knows me, and my hole very well. He invariable is the one to help me get out of it, which he did this time. I just wish I could learn how to do this for myself.
In the past these 'pit falls' have prefaced some sort of major change, usually circumstantial - I leave behind a situation, a place, or a job. In some way I'm trying to shake the dust from off my feet, but it clings to my sandals and gets stuck between my toes. So I end up taking it with me. I'm beginning to see that this behaviour has been a strategy of avoidance, an aversion from facing up to the fundamental issue - the subconscious feelings of worthlessness. Changing my circumstances has never changed these. It's just me attempting to manage reality, so it doesn't provoke the underlying suffering state to arise into full consciousness. Though I can achieve this for short periods, it is unsustainable in the long term. So this time, I think I'm just going to have to stay put, and learn how to overcome this pernicious emotional state.
Since then succeeding generations vocally and visually pay homage, mimic, and rip off Bowie's stylistic influence. Hunky Dory, at that time (1971), received a lot of critical acclaim, but the general public failed to buy it in droves. It was left to the 'boy next door' checkiness of Peter Noone to have a hit with 'Oh, you pretty things', which would have annoyed any self respecting artist. But, it did mark the beginning of the return from the wilderness that Bowie had somehow got lost in, after the unexpected success of 'Space Oddity' in 1969. He had long since been consigned to the musical margins as a one hit wonder. His cross dressing sexual ambiguity seemed attention seeking behaviour, and overshadowed the quality of his musical output. Hunky Dory, arose out of the then prevalent trend for singer/songwriters – lyrical and tuneful inventiveness with an acoustic guitar were all you needed. Carol King's album Tapestry, had, after all, been in the top twenty for an unbearable amount of time. Hunky Dory, contains a high percentage of Bowie's very best songs, - Changes – Life on Mars – Queen Bitch – Kooks – Oh, You Pretty Things. They still demonstrate what a good songwriter he could be when he put his mind to it. It wasn't until the success of' Ziggy Stardust' and bisexuality became fashionable, that this back catalogue started to be plundered for further hit material.
Life after Ziggy was full of changes in musical and visual style, these started increasingly to dominate over song writing and lyrical craft. He became defined, if not imprisoned, by his ability to re-invent himself with every album. These 'changes' becoming more extreme. Eventually unconsciously flirting, in his most alienated, drugged up to the eye balls phase, with neo-fascistic imagery. Yet this was, paradoxically, his most adventurous time musically, moving through soul, funky and electronic experiments. In retrospect this inventiveness looks like it was driven, to some extent, by desperation, to produce something which would eclipse and rid him of the musical ghost of Ziggy. It wasn't until his collaborations with Brian Eno that he finally achieved another peak to match, if not supersede, that glam rock period. 'Low', surprised us all, and finally laid that seventies spectre to rest. Yet by the time of ''Scary Monsters' it was obvious Bowie's changing room was exhausted of new musical persona's to adopt, and he was now consciously recycling his own back catalogue. He attempted disastrously with Tin Machine, to go back to basics. From then on, his once unerring ability to predict, and ride on, the next trend before anyone else, has consistently misfired. These days Bowie may have escaped the 'change monster' and become just himself, but unfortunately,he really isn't all that interesting anymore.
When you hear Hunky Dory, 37 years on, it easily eclipses his most recent work. Bowie lost it somewhere in the late eighties, and has never to return to the greatness he once so gloriously exhibited here.
On Hunky Dory, Bowie's own influences show via his undoubted vocal dexterity – sometimes its Dylan, then Bolan, then Lou Reed, all with a glint of Anthony Newley around the edges. This was his third album, the preceding ones, Man who sold the World, and Space Oddity, were too quirky, led by a vague storyline that made them complex beasts to fully grasp the meaning of. Lyrically they hovered between Science Fiction and Psycho–analysis. Since then, they've been endlessly pawed over for autobiographical subtext, and insights into what ever it was that makes Bowie tick. With Bowie, we have never become any the wiser. As a human being he has simply remained a mystery. He might just as well be the alien he played in 'Man who fell to Earth', or a robotic creation with no feelings. He is the sort of person for whom the word enigmatic was invented for. Hunky Dory, seems to be where his influences and storytelling gift, became integrated into something accessible, that had a voice all its own. Over the decades the vocal expressiveness first explored here, has proceeded to become more and more affected and rigidly mannered. His voice these days sounds like an OTT impersonation, or a ludicrous self -parody like Elvis in his LasVegas years. One wonders how he's got away with such an operatic level of pomposity in his singing style for so long. Out of respect for his undoubted legacy I suspect. Hearing Hunky Dory again, it still is a refreshing, life enhancing and playful recording – it just goes to show if our teenage heroes don't die early, they are in danger of becoming an embarrassing travesty in later life. On the final track - The Bewlay Brothers, he sings - 'He could be dead. He could be not. he could be you. He's Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature.' - Hmm! Indeed.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Having seen both movies about St Francis, and read pamphlets in the Guardian about the life of monastics at St Athos, I'm feeling inspired to simplify my needs and wants from life. All in order to find and cultivate a deeper sense of contentment in myself. Living a lay lifestyle as a Buddhist is never easy. It is the main challenge that Sangharakshita's 'neither monk nor lay' vision for the WBO, throws up. It would be much easier to guard the gates of the senses and renounce desires, if you're physically isolated from the source of them,half way up a mountain. Instead we are perpetually surrounded by tempting choices all the time. But then things are just things, and desires are just desires, only in our minds do we bring them both together. We can't entirely place the blame on the things for stimulating the desires. It is more that desires reach out and attach themselves to things.
My daily life seems currently consumed by the anxious fretting and morbid discontent of a fractious tormenting gremlin. It speaks a persistent question - 'what exactly would make life happy for you Vidyavajra.? Have you any idea at all?' Much of the time, I fall into the same patterns of behaviour as most people do. I find myself looking to material possessions, people and physical circumstances to bring contentment. To some extent these work, and they are the good things in my life, things I feel grateful for - my practice- my relationship with David - my friends and my creative interests. But, somehow this never seems enough to make life feel complete and resolved. I find I'm still searching for some indefinable thing,which is always out there, hidden beyond the horizon. This imagined future is always richer with dreams, that possibly will bring fuller contentment, than the present experience can summon. Though the solution is sought externally, the problem is driven by an internal sensation, of existential emptiness - a being devoid of meaning. Could I be more content with what I already have, and abandon the seemingly futile search for something to fill and plug that emptiness with?
It seems an even more remote possiblity after weeks like the one just past. One where internal conflicts and strain within myself, competed for my attention, as disharmony underlying in my work team poked its head out from under the carpet. I'm finding it difficult to bear with, and overcome the resistance and dread I'm feeling about going into work. I have been objectively overwhelmed, with far too much on my plate. So it is no wonder that I've longed for a simpler, less stressful life. I don't think this means just adopting a simpler lifestyle, it is, I believe, pretty simple already. It has primarily to become emotionally simpler. As I formulate the question 'How do you cultivate a state of stillness, simplicity and contentment, within an existing state of restlessness, complexity and discontentment?' I know the answer already. It comes down to observation and awareness of what causes discontent to arise, to a change incorrect perceptions, and the feeling responses that arise on the back of them. Half the battle is knowing how to do that. It comes, in essence, back to the meditation and dharma study I already do. But, do I trust that this is the way to a solution, that here is the answer? For me it appears to be just lying there dormant, like an enormous beached whale awaiting the right time and conditions to throw it back into the ocean, only then to find its simplist and most natural engagement with life. What would that be like if I found that way of living?
The film is really a series of episodes, each prefaced by written sentences like 'Francis encounters a leper, and is profoundly shaken', which feels a bit like some archaic throw back to the silent movies. Tarkovsky uses a similar device in his film Andre Rublev, made over twenty years later. Though it occupies quite different spiritual territory,as it follows the struggles and trials of a man who has lost his faith and meaning in life, not found it. Quite what relevance the term 'God's jester' has to the movie, I failed to see. Though this may have been a flaw in the translation, where 'jester' was chosen instead of 'fool'. This would make better sense, as St Francis's asceticism could easily be construed as a foolish idealism, which mocked and flew in the face of traditional society and religious practice at the time. The film tells you little about St Francis's life before his 'conversion'. What it does show you is how strong the master /disciple relationship was between Francis and his male followers. A strong sense of brotherhood and friendship bonds them together in their spiritual endeavour, to live a happier simpler life. Half the time the film focuses on the adventures of an naïve but errant disciple, and not St Francis. So I wasn't at all sure what sort of comment about St Francis, the director Rossellini was really trying to make. What it does quite plainly portray is how rough and ready the Franciscan lifestyle was, at first it was a hard living, inhabiting the same makeshift straw huts as their livestock. Overtime, these become stone built huts the size of large pig pens, eventually developing into a small monastic building. It demonstrated a simple rudimentary asceticism, a life stripped back to its barest essentials. Of the two films it felt the more authentic and spiritually truthful, if a little affected and quirky stylistically .
By contrast Franco Zefferelli's 1972 movie 'Brother Sun,Sister Moon' is an altogether more traditional biographical picture. With all the plush costumes and soft focused, romanticised camera work Zefferelli's big budget could plaster over the story. This English/Italian co-production, was thematically more coherent, but had an opulence and sentiment which frequently over sweetened St Francis's message. It inhabits script wise, a late sixties psychedelic backwash, with excruciatingly saccharin songs from Donovan, full of the vacuous sentiments of peace and love of the time. The largely young and inexperienced English actors, speak with the cut glass RP accents they all emerged from drama school with. This lends a certain unreality to their performances, constantly you are thinking, 'no one has ever talked like this,' unless they were in a Merchant Ivory movie of course. It was frequently left to high calibre actors such as Kenneth Cranham and Alec Guinness to show how even a small part can be fleshed out and given emotional truth, if you have the vocal and physical dexterity available. The young leads of Judi Bowker and Graham Faulkner, were often vapid and unbelievable, lacking the emotional gravitas to hold down their lead roles.
Bad casting is an eternal problem, and has ruined many a half decent film script. These days St Francis would probable be played by Brad Pitt, with Angeline Jolli as St Clare. Now there's a film to look out for, St Francis with great abdominal definition, and real balls, and St Clare with attitude and a pout to die for! Joking aside, I have to say, St Francis must be an enormously difficult person for even an experienced actor to play. If the script is weak, or in this case rather ponderous and predictable, could anything be done to save it from purgatory? How, indeed, do you portray kindness and goodness without it becoming cloying, irritating or risible in these more cynical secularised times? Discuss.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Gore Vidal seems a rare commodity these days, a man who knows and speaks his mind. This is not a knee jerk, reactionary, leather booted mind, but one endowed with perhaps more than it's fair share of wit and real perspicacity. There is a genuine breadth of understanding and perspective evident in these memoirs. Though he comes across as a little world weary, and in an 'I told you so' frame of mind, as he sums up his life, and that of others who've inhabited it. I've heard him speak quite eloquently on the radio, and read some of his novels, plays and essays, in a compendium volume I picked up cheaply at Fopp for £3. All contain elements of a wise, ironic perception of the political and cultural landscape that is the American Empire, as Vidal insists on calling it.
He calls both 'Palimpsest' and 'Point to point navigation', a memoir, these are not autobiographies. Of the two, 'Palimpsest' is the better realised. The structure is more obviously a reflection on a full and incident packed life. Passing too and fro, from remembering how a person or incident felt at the time, to reflecting and reconsidering it from today's perspective. 'Point to point navigation' felt, in comparison, insubstantial and closer to a book of celebrity gossip, or even bitching. Assembled not out of necessity, but out of a contractual obligation with a publisher. Snippets of recollection are presented with no real thread, like some left over crumbs from a much richer, and more fulfilling meal, that was 'Palimpsest'.
Born into a politically active family, with a Senator for a Grandfather, but with no real wealth or estates to pass on, Gore Vidal was forced to make his own way in life. He was not to follow his entrepreneurial Father into the aviation business, but to make his name as a writer. After the scandal which followed the publication of 'The City & the Pillar', the first novel to deal openly with a homoerotic relationship, Vidal became a pariah amongst the literary movers and shakers in Mc McCarthy's America. This forced him to work in low brow Hollywood and TV, before later returning in triumph to success in the Theatre, as a means to earn a living. His interest in politics, however, never deserts him, his most successful play 'The Best Man', still has contemporary relevance, particularly in this presidential election year. It is an uncomfortable and revealing play about the wheeling, dealing and mud slinging going on in the back rooms at a Democratic convention. He clearly brought his own experiences of real political figures to bare in it's characters and plot.
Vidal doesn't suffer fools gladly, dislikes all forms of deceit, out and out lying, and the inveterate fake. He has not a kind word to say about Truman Capote's habitual fibbing, and repeats his accusation that Capote shamelessly ripped off other peoples work, and paraded it as his own. His close association with JFK, and Jackie Kennedy in particular ( she being his step- sister ), is not without bitterness. He regrets, in hindsight, supporting such a flawed individual as JFK, and knowing it was all part of a concealed family plan to found a political dynasty. Gore later blows the cover on this plan, not just to expose the deceit, but to deliberately sabotage what was left of his own standing in conventional politics. At some point he seems to fall out with even his closest friends, usually because he speaks his mind, unguardedly and far too plainly. Does he have any lifelong friends left, one has to ask?
Though his observations are as acute as ever, and his criticisms informed, prescient, but sweeping. I get a sense of a certain emptiness at the core of Gore Vidal. He hold himself perpetually aloof, as only from that distant perspective can he observe all people and things with such dispassionate clarity. Though there is plenty of insight and criticism of others, there is little by way of concrete self-reflection, or self- analysis. Gore, as he presents himself here, seems to have grown up with his self-confidence undiminished, and his intellect flawless. Certainly, he was a handsome, if not striking man, in his younger days. His first, and so he says, only love of his life, Jimmy Trimble, died early in the taking of Iwo Jima, when he was 19 years old. Gore presents this in 'Palimpsest' almost as if this love was an unfulfilled obsession that continues now. How he felt towards Howard Austor, the man he lived with for over 50 years, remains a mystery. Even Howard's illness and eventual death is described in the manner of reportage, stripped of emotional resonance. Gore cannot seemingly drop that mask of detached observer even then. The nature of his relationship with Howard, is never explored, all he says is that it wasn't based on sex, or even love. One must assume it was an 'open' relationship, as he talks repeatedly about his compulsion for promiscuous sex. Whilst understandable not wanting to be caught in any predefined category, he leaves his personality and motives as one prolonged and worrying question mark.
Whilst I found both books interesting, they were rarely a fascinating or absorbing read. The lack of emotional presence, hampered and bothered me. It bothers me still. As clever, humorous and perceptive as Gore can be, I'm not sure I'd like to be in his company for long. In many ways it's not surprising he's made enemies inside and outside the American Establishment. It also explains why he's always been popular in the UK, we love any American who'll give the USA a hard time. Though I don't think he currently occupies that role. For a while Noam Chomsky was adopted for this dubious position by the informed liberal intelligentsia. The present occupant, Michael Moore, seems by comparison, a lightweight buffoon, and almost an indictment of the very shallowness and duplicitous nature of the media, which Vidal is so scathing of. Gore Vidal remains a maverick political commentator, but his cold streak of heartlessness, means you can never really warm to him.
Saturday, February 09, 2008
Those two previous snippets from my dream life, sort of give imaginative flesh to aspects of my inner state of mind this week. At times overwhelmed and darkly introspective, on other ocassions deeply frustrated with being me,or with my job. Both have appeared to be in a bardo of treading stagnant water, which is most likely to have its origins in a perceptual bias or colouring, rather than being an actual physical circumstance. As ever it was all in the mind.
My acupuncturist performed a particular pin formation on my body last Saturday morning, to release blocked creative energy. The rest of the day I felt distinctly uneasy, without being entirely clear what the focus for my apprehension was. By Sunday I think it had emerged, I was just extremely irritable and unhappy with almost everything. Even though I was expending most of my energy in trying to contain my responses (which were many), it was palpable enough for David to sense it. He was concerned incase he'd done something wrong, which he hadn't, it was just me feeling as prickly and sensitive as a Venus Fly Trap.
Doubts about my job in Customer Services emerged strongl, once again. I couldn't even summon enough enthusiasm to engage with my own creative writing, which is often a great source of sustanance when I'm finding things difficult. Life at that particular moment felt full of discontent, it was as if I was being sucked in by some mental form of quicksand. Eaten up and spit out by negativity of the most feral kind. An old, and very unhelpful, view re-emerged; that no matter how much effort I put into improving a situation, it's all a waste of effort, and bound to fail. Keeping positive and optimistic in the face of this sort of onslaught Ifound a task and a half. This black metal billed bird has effectively consumed my creative brain power many many times in the past
I have also sensed before this shadowy part of myself who seems pretty inhinged, if not mad with me, or life. It appears to have lost patience with waiting, and wants to pull me away, to escape from the tyranny and shackles of responsiblity. Desiring more creative freedom and playfulness than I'm currently able to offer it. Strong imagery,with strong emotions attached, are obviously stirring restlessly in my meltingpot. Perhaps it is an indication that I need to change or improve the ingredients, or find a more appropriate recipe for what I'm currently doing with my life.
I'm in a sort of minder relationship with a childlike, if not mentally retarded man. Most of the time I'm trying to prevent him escaping. When he does break out, I'm chasing after him, hoping to prevent him perpetrating some mad atrocity of some kind. On one occasion he gets out yet again, with an open tin of white paint and a brush in his hand, and is found dramatically slapping the paint over everything in sight. Paint blobs are splashing and flying everywhere. The dream ends when white specks of emulsion paint land on me, and spoil my new black shirt.
It took place out in the desert scrub, surrounded by rocky outcrops, scree and scorched grass. I'm observing this strange otherworldly beast, a black bird/man with a huge bill made entirely of shiny silver. It's furiously ferreting earth away, digging deeply beneath the desert surface. It appears to be looking for dead bodies, when it finds them it cracks open their cranium and eats their brains. It reminded me of a figure from the Egyptian book of the dead, which is half hyena and half crocodile, and refered to as 'the eater of souls'.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Why this movie didn't get a wider distribution I really don't know. David and I have been looking out for it for weeks. Finally, it's turned up in Cambridge, but it has been worth the wait. It's a real corker, but hard going emotionally, as it's unremitting and doom ridden storyline unfolds. The essential premise is the classic heist that goes seriously wrong, the repercussions for all involved, are tragic. 'Before the devil knows your dead' deftly plays out it's unfolding storyline, revealing its hand gradually through a series of flash backs from differing perspectives, which expand your understanding of what has really gone on. Slowly you realise what a mess the relationship between these people was in before the robbery, and what drove them to the lunacy of it in the first place. Under the skilled hands of octogenarian director Sidney Lumet, you are drawn into a hard hearted, grubby and unforgiving world, as they try to conceal their duplicitous involvement in the heist.
Two brothers, Andy ( Philip Seymour Hoffman ) and Hank ( Ethan Hawke ) plan to rob their parents jewellery store. It seems an easy thing to do, no one will get hurt. If all goes well, both of them will sort out the financial mess they've got themselves into. Whilst Andy initiates the idea, he's coldly manipulates his no hoper brother into actually doing the job. Hank can't face doing it alone, so he employs an experienced hit man. What starts out as a clean robbery without consequence, fails, but turns into the murder of their Mother instead. The veneer of civility within the family, eventually fractures, as buried hateful resentments come to the surface. Even the brother's Father, Charles ( Albert Finney ), appears to have a dirty and unscrupulous past. In his grief and anger, he wants to find and take out whoever planned the heist. It's only matter of time before he'll find out, and everything unravels without a trace of mercy.
The acting plaudits go to all three lead actors, who lift this superlative film script to even greater heights. The plot twists give the film sufficient momentum, but do so without the split second editing or a heavy handed soundtrack, a weaker or more poorly realised movie might employ. It remains always a very human film at heart. It's a sign of its quality script and acting that you never lose sympathy with the characters. You stay with them, even as the consequences drive them to increasingly unpalatable and extreme actions. 'Before the devil knows your dead' might hide its distinguished calibre, but it remains an unassuming, but classic movie, which is currently being shamefully ignored.