May 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
by Conrad Babayaro
May 8, 2013
IT BEGAN WITH A MISSING PERSON’S REPORT TO THE GANTON-TURSERVILLE DISTRICT POLICE, something Perry Doer would never have dreamed himself being at the centre of.
Eadie Furrows, she who came forward, wondered about the whereabouts of her next-door neighbour, the aforementioned Perry Doer, a fellow resident of low-cost Banskia Mews in east Ganton, unseen for weeks by the time the report was lodged; days shy of a month really. She and Mr Doer weren’t achingly close or chummy in any sense of the word, but they saw enough of each other to expect to see each other often and with little fail. Fleetingly, yes; awkwardly even, but often.
She also had a favour to ask of him, soon.
“What was the name again?” said the lady at the desk who did not look like a cop but was in fact a cop, a senior sergeant; Snr. Sgt. E.B. Dell.
“Perry…?” Eadie asked herself, asked the lady, asked the universe, wondering how it was that she could not state with any certainty what she felt so certain was his name, no, knew to be. The lady’s eyes pressed for more: a last name, a middle name, an initial, anything.
“I had nothing, only Perry — that was all I’d bothered to know. I just stared like a moron at the receptionist lady [sic]. She had a look on her that was like, you couldn’t come up with a more creative way to waste my time, sweetie?”
Yet seeing the speckle of urgency in Eadie’s manner convinced Snr. Sgt. Dell, despite a creeping tension headache, to ensue with a standard stream of police questioning: did Eadie have a photograph of the missing? No, they weren’t nearly that close. When and where did she last see the missing? A little over three weeks ago, in a stairwell. At Banksia Mews? Yes, at Banksia Mews. When did she last hear from the missing? A little over three weeks ago, in the stairwell — he didn’t say much. Any particular place or places the missing might visit? No idea. Did the missing have any medical conditions or require any regular medications? Wow. Wouldn’t have a clue. Any friends or contacts the missing associates with or might associate with?
“She shrugged, pouted her lips, shook her head. I was tempted to ask why she even cared,” Dell recalls. “I think I was even tempted to tell her to eff off, stop wasting my effing time — I had such a headache.” She reconsiders. “Maybe I did.”
Eadie nonetheless insisted that she could provide an accurate identikit of this fellow Perry, which so goes: tall (over six foot) with a very lean build; skin, a dusty, even, unblemished gray; long neck with a prominent apple; close cropped hair of the negroid persuasion; cheekbones high but blunt; apologetic brows roofing the blackest brown eyes; a gaping doorway between his two front incisors; full brown lips of equal size, often dry; something attempting to be a moustache rimming his top slightly pinker lip — otherwise, he is clean shaven; and of all things, an aquiline nose, broken. He has small, low set ears on either side of his head, free-lobed, and a strong, masculine chin — a jaw. Not the most or second-most handsome face by any means, but a strangely pleasant one.
“Oh, and frown lines,” says Eadie, as though she’s only just remembered, no, realised.
“It wasn’t an unpleasant face as it turned out,” recalls Vin Campesino, police sketch artist, nodding. “Yeah, very non-threatening. Forgettable. Something about it was vaguely familiar though. I was sure I’d seen it before. ”
When Campesino casually questioned Eadie regarding her relationship with the missing (was he a loved one, so on, etcetera) she stated that he was just a neighbour albeit one she quite liked, and that she had a civic duty to report his noticeable absence to the relevant authorities. In truth, a truth she could not bring herself to air to the police, she had only knocked on the door to Perry’s flat five days that week on account of her dog, Karl, an aging white-haired Puli who needed baby-sitting.
KARL, A FRANTIC WET MOP OF A POOCH, SEEMS TO HOVER GIDDILY OVER THE LIVING ROOM RUG, letting off little Morse code yaps here and there, suspicious of my shoes yet curious of their scent. Eadie tickles the back of his ear and then shoos him away, looks around her flat, and kneads her hands with a pathos one can’t quite get a handle on. And then Karl is back again, yapping.
“I didn’t want to come off like a selfish, dog-obsessed bitch. I genuinely did wonder where he was, you know, not just for my sake. I mean, you live next to someone for some time, they become part of your — I don’t know — your normalness; your normality? Yeah, sure, it was a little bit about me I guess, but it was definitely about him too.”
What Eadie failed to tell the sergeant and the sketch artist was that, as had been the case on numerous occasions, she wished to leave Karl in the care of Perry while she spent a few days out of town in the coming weeks, reasons for which varied from year to year, some years being writers’ festivals, professional-development workshops (she is a defected bookkeeper), weddings, wakes; other years family get-togethers, school reunions; in the latest instance, some kind of women’s retreat. Eadie always gave fair warning and he always agreed, “as though he couldn’t not.” She was inclined to consider theirs a symbiotic arrangement, but one might call it more a form of commensalism.
A few days passed and Perry persisted in being a no-show, and Eadie still hadn’t a contingency plan regarding Karl should Perry’s reappearance have become indefinite and up in the air.
“I always take siesta,” says Eadie, “don’t ask why. I was taking siesta after lunch and the phone almost rang itself off the receiver, so I rushed over to it all sleepy and it was some lady from the missing persons unit, but not the one I’d spoken to when I was there, at least it didn’t sound like her.”
Ruth Paisi was an intern at the unit and this was one of her first solo deliverances of unsavoury news, over the phone, “which I thought was heartless. At least let her come in to the station in person. I asked her if she was Eadie Furrows, which she was, and if she’d filed a missing person’s report regarding a Perry Doer, which she had.”
“Hearing his last name made me sort of well up,” Eadie says. She has a moment. “Anyway –”
Ruth then proceeded to inform Eadie that Perry was deceased. That he had been involved in an accident roughly three and a half weeks before, run down by a newspaper truck careening through the streets in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning. He was dead on impact. Body had been unclaimed, stowed in the city morgue and later incinerated. It might have ended up in an anatomy lab had the skull bones not been so thoroughly splintered, had it not been a coroner’s case (as are all road fatalities). Perry might have at least been useful in his demise.
Both ladies recall a shrieking silence at the other end of the line punctuated by the odd intake of breath, and closer to home an unease much less bearable, right where they were, where they sat so very still, clutching their phones to their heads.
Eadie couldn’t cry. Crying didn’t make any sense, as though she hadn’t any right to. Her mind was a fog, visibility zero. She was clueless as to where her responsibilities lay with regards to Perry, his remains, his personal effects — the artefacts of his existence, and those by whom he was survived if in fact he was survived by anyone. Legal matters had always raised her pressure, made her fidget, even though she was no more than an acquaintance of Perry’s and no more responsible for him than the street vendor from whom he habitually purchased freshly-pressed waffles.
Wasn’t this the kind of thing that happened to strays, Eadie wondered, dabbing at dry eyes with Kleenexes as though this might inspire them to seep. To die and be scraped off the streets and thrown into a fire? An odd sense of complicity held her captive for some time and she felt driven — compelled — to atone.
“I’m a keen blogger, have been for a year or so,” she says. “I felt as though I owed him a tribute, and an apology for not knowing his last name. I thought I might do a post; say a few words about him, like an online eulogy, a eulogy blog.” A eublogy? “He was the sweetest man; boiled but sweet. He was a — how would you say it — a gentle soul, really gentle, like one of those monks. He didn’t say much, I don’t know why. Maybe he was shy.” She cocks her head in reconsideration. “He didn’t seem that shy; just kept very much to himself. Wouldn’t mind you telling him your whole life story, but wouldn’t so much as tell you whether his day had been okay or not so okay. He was always up to nothing. Nothing much was ever up with him.”
OUR INTERNET IS LIKE A SEWAGE SYSTEM PULSING WITH EVERYTHING IMAGINABLE. FLOATING AMONGST THIS MUCH, of course, are gems and masterpieces of the information era, dynamic, intelligent discourses on politics, science, arts and culture, big business and bigger personalities, this thing the economy, sports, life in the public sphere and all things plebeian, and those beloved Bushisms; there are our watering-holes of knowledge that render our world ever more so a village, yet one progressive and informed. There are these. Then there are the thousands upon thousands of opinionated, well-meaning folk who publish their thoughts and whims in blog form, freely available to whoever might fancy a wander through. The likelihood of being heard, of having a hit, varies. Who knows: perhaps it comes down to nothing more than mere luck. But there clearly is some skill to it, some knack. This is generally understood.
Furrowed Brows is Eadie’s baby, a blog she has maintained for some months, on which she routinely deposits nuggets of amateur social commentary. Much of it is quite readable. Some of it has valid points to make as evidenced by the thoughtful comments she receives, forgiving their grammatical shoddiness and rickety spelling. But most of it is unseen as she has very few subscribers and nary a promotional bone in her being. Consequently, it remains very much a private journal.
So when she laid down a few words in memory of Perry it was no surprise that no one seemed to care by way of simply not knowing. It was at this point that Eadie’s guilt sparked in her a sort of guerrilla creativity.
PETER RICHARDS WALKS BY THE OLD, BOARDED UP REVIVALIST CHURCH ON PENNANT STREET EVERY MORNING, on his way to the Pennant Street bus stop where he waits for the bus to work. outside the church is a large notice board that once sported posters with slogans such as “Don’t let Christians put you off Christianity” and “You think Jesus holds onto your sins? Take a look at his hands”. When the congregation packed up and moved to snazzier premises the board became public property and fell victim to people selling puppies, students wanting roomies (read: fuckbuddies), nightclub party promo, a thousand and one indie bands playing at the local pub, neo-communist clarion calls and flyers insisting that you “VOTE DENNIS CURTIZ”. There is no courtesy amongst people who use this board. Things are pasted over things, things are scrawled over with crayon and sprayed over with spray paint, things are torn down for the heck of it. It’s a fight just to be seen.
“I never take notice of it,” says Peter about the board. “I never took notice of it when it was about God and I didn’t take notice now that it was about rock and roll. And raves. I just walk by and stand and wait for my ride.”
Peter Richards works in Water and Sanitation and puts in his nine to five, and like most ordinary folk he has developed a way of engaging with the world and its inhabitants, at arm’s length so as not to rouse its underlying viciousness. He is perfectly content riding the 442 into the city with the same people, day after day, getting off at the same stop as them, walking down the same stretch of sidewalk to the same coffee cart and sipping from the same type of cup. And he won’t know their names or what line of work they are in. And it won’t bother him. And it didn’t.
“It didn’t. Why should it have? I had my own life and they had theirs.”
He shrugs. He means it.
Weekly meetings are held on Thursday mornings at the office. It was sometime past eight and Peter was half-jogging to the stop when he came to a halt in front of the old, boarded up church. Something on the notice board had stolen his eyes’ attention.
“I remember thinking to myself, I know that man,” Peter recalls. “I must have stood there a full minute – people were already queuing alongside the bus, taking out their passes. I knew I should get going but I wanted to know why this face meant something to me.”
There it was. Vin Campesino’s imperfect but precise greyscale representation of Perry Doer stared at the passing public, its starkness standing out from the spastic papier-mâché mess surrounding it. It was black on a plain white background. The words ‘HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?’ hung like a manifesto above his head. Underneath, in slightly smaller font, it read: IF NOT, GO TO furrowedbrows.blogspot.com.
No number, no police contact, just a blog.
If Peter had ever been hook-line-and-sinker, he no longer was. He had no patience for juvenile silliness, so he went on his way. Decided to think no more of it. But that face…
It was at work, in his spacious-enough cubicle, that Peter realised. He felt like he’d just free-fallen ten metres.
The same thing would happen to almost a dozen people over the next couple of weeks. But back to Peter for the time being: “Three months earlier my wife had walked out on me,” he says. “She didn’t fight for the house, not for anything. Didn’t once raise her voice or blame me or hold me accountable for anything. All she wanted was out. Said she’d decided to wait for our youngest daughter to leave home before she came clean. Like it would hurt her any less. It was clear that she was seeing someone else; that she must have been for some time. And it killed me.”
Peter spent weeks holding back tears. But in his line of work this doesn’t matter. Anonymity is such that even a severe flaky skin disease might have gone unnoticed for some time. Funnily, this applies to the wider world just as much even though, to the grieving man, everyone’s eyes are watching. Add to this the fact that standing in line, waiting for the bus to work, only magnified his self-pity.
“I was trying to keep it together, make sure my look wasn’t any more miserable than anybody else’s.”
Not that anyone would have cared. Anyone besides Perry, who wound his neck round to look at the man to his left, a little to the rear. It was a long, heartbreaking look. He then asked Peter, in the most tentative voice, if he was okay — sir.
“Of course I said I was fine, and gave him a bit of a look. I was a little annoyed that he didn’t mind his own business.”
So what was his impression of Perry Doer?
“I don’t know. He struck me as ragtag, calling me sir and all. Not like a homeless person or anything, but he wasn’t the first person I would want prying into my affairs — it made me uneasy, the look of him. He could have been the nicest person on earth but he could have also been bad news. But I guess that’s true of anybody, I guess.”
Whilst taking a piss at work, Peter broke down: “things like that eventually get to you — someone you don’t even know caring enough to give a shit.” The man at the adjacent urinal made a note to quicken his stream and promptly left Peter to his tears.
Twice, thrice, four times, five, Peter walked past the poster of Perry which was surprisingly undisturbed, probably as a result of unanimous respect for the missing. He spared a glance each and every time. The lucky sixth, on his way home, Peter copied the website onto a loose Post-It and later that night paid a visit to Eadie’s blog.
“What I read made me sick. I felt sick at myself, knowing what I’d thought of him. I felt I should post a comment but I didn’t. Not that I knew how anyway.”
Peter hit up Furrowed Brows with increasing frequency, especially after he conceded to moving out of the house he shared with his then wife and shacked up in an inner city apartment not dissimilar, one could imagine, from the one in which he currently resides.
“I wouldn’t say that it was a phenomenon from what I could tell…I mean, I wouldn’t have known how to know, but when you read a bunch of people expressing regret for never learning the name of some guy who showed them some kindness at some moment…you begin to think. Like…who the fuck is this guy?”
Peter apologises for the expletives and offers more tea. I reject the former and accept the latter.
“I never did leave a comment,” he says after pouring two more cups. “Sometimes I still tell myself that it would have been perverse if I had said a big heap of nothing about a man I had totally written off one time and I kind of still believe that, sometimes.” We observe a moment of silence.
“For all that internet stuff I wonder if anyone actually knows who he was and what the fuck he was really about.”
I waive away his second apology and prove how much I don’t care by drinking some of that tea.
While Peter chose to pay his respects by being silent, others opted to offer tentative public tributes to an individual who for all intents and purposes thrived on not being recognised. What follows is a tiny selection of these e-bituaries, errors left uncorrected so as to honour the spirit in which they were written:
“just ti let you know, i really appreciated it. thanks” j_stamos
“rest easy, Dude” not_THE_anonymous
“Sorry for looking at you weird. I just didnt expect anyone to give a damn. I feel as though you’re at peace. Mad appreciation vibes, Leia” lcmahmood24
“Hey. Why d’you leave before I could say what’s up? Peace” G. Paul Oneros
”RIP strange beautiful man” DDparsons
“I was tempted to feel sorry for those who knew and loved you. then I realise, they were the lucky ones.” patstamp
“doer of good things, lame but true. rip” bleachmeRingo
“My dad asked of you – yeah, I told him about you. I’ll tell him you say hi. wish I could have gotten to actually know you or at least say thanks or something. lesson learnt: notice the people around you and say shit now. Rest inn peace” Argoss
“Heaven clearly wanted it’s angel back. Enjoy!xxx” Dana Brand
“good people should never die bad deaths but they sadly do. So rest now, good sir.” Mrs amherst
“Thank you. our thoughts go out to your family, many condolensces .” sadmangladman85
“ENJOY ETERNITY PERRY DOER! X” randy_dogette
Interestingly, none of the tributes or anecdotes gives evidence of grand sweeping gestures of philanthropy. Nobody publicly declares that they would be dead this very day if not for Perry’s generous donation of a kidney. No one was pulled out from the base of a debt mountain or saved from an assault in an alleyway.
In the spirit of journalistic inquiry, emails were sent to most of the authors of the above tributes, but while roundly received with a decent sprinkle of enthusiasm, there seemed to be a general poverty of memory when it came to reminiscing about what Perry Doer actually did so as to mean so much to so many people he hardly knew, who practically new nothing of him.
“Its kinda disappointing when you think of it,” writes Patricia Stampton in one of the more heartfelt emails, “disapointing because you think this person has had such an impact on you but when you’re pressed to talk about it your mind goes blank, at least mine does. and it’s not because there’s nothing there, but it’s like how things are more defined when you’re in the moment, more concrete than when you think back on it and it seems vague even though you know it was actually significant at the time. He was a guy I would run into years ago, maybe 8 years, cause we lived on the same bolck and would run into into eachother because we went to the same pizza place or laundromat. But we never became friends. We were hardly aqcuantiances but when I look back I realise how unhappy I was and how I felt okay being unhappy after sharing a word or two with him, or lend him some coins for laundry or whatever we did back then. It sounds weird, but I felt as though he allowed me to just feel and be human and miserable and not care about seeming okay — I didn’t feel I had to smile and be happy like I had to with my friends, or felt I had to. And he was the kind of person you noticed, you know? like there was something about him that you remembered, something physical. Maybe it was his skinnyness. Or maybe it was because he seemed sad himself and I gravitated to that. Who knows.”
It seems that Perry’s contribution was to notice that which most people have gotten so good at hiding out on the street while it erodes them from within, and which so many people are so good at not noticing.
Noticing, it seems, was Perry’s gift.
A LITTLE AFTER 2:30 IN THE MORNING, JANUARY 23RD, THE STREETS WERE AT THEIR DEADEST. LAST NIGHT’S OWLS HAD GIVEN IN TO SLEEP and whatever bars were still open closed up. Unsuccessful prostitutes put out their last cigarettes and reported to their pimps, and brief light breezes rolled empty bottles of booze off the sidewalks and into the gutters where they could be a little more comfortable.
Llewellyn Slater was finishing off his coffee while taking two aspirins while doing up his buttons while watching infomercials on mute so as not to wake anyone. He remembers thinking “that’s a pretty sweet deal”; considered ordering a pair of the super-absorptive dish towels for Julie, the woman he was living with, the mother of his second child. For a change, he decided to do his hair up in a bob instead of a ponytail, and ended up looking like a middle-aged samurai, thanks in part to his balding crown. A quick piss and a gargle of mouthwash later and Llewellyn was ready for work.
The big man quietly left the apartment and walked eleven blocks to the head office of the Greater Ganton Gazette, to the back of the building where the loading dock is. For the hairdo, he copped some congenial teasing from co-workers that were filling his truck with bales of newspapers, ready for delivery to 47 outlets across the district. All to be done before 8 am. It’s a rush hour most people don’t know about — trucks loaded with ‘fresh produce’: bread, fish, milk, the morning paper; rushing to provide what the consumer has come to expect in the same way they do the sunrise.
“I’d been feeling pretty poorly for a while to tell you the honest truth. I didn’t know why at the time and I didn’t want to see anyone about it because I didn’t know that it was actually a thing and I didn’t want to have to take any time off work if there actually was a thing and it wasn’t compatible with work. Turns out it was something not so great, but I don’t really want to go into it too much.”
Llewellyn is however willing to go into the fact that he had been passing old blood with his stools for some months by that point. He was, at the same time, plagued by dreams of having a colostomy bag like his granddad and having to empty it several times a day only to fail at it horribly and get watery shit all over himself.
“That’s the kind of stuff that was going through my mind, plus I’m thinking, what if it’s worse than that, you know…my kids, what happens to them if a bag is the least of my problems? I’m thinking all this as I’m driving. I really shouldn’t have been driving but I know guys who drove with bad appendicitis and broken hearts so I got in the truck like a man; like a delivery man. They say ‘don’t drive drunk, don’t drive tired’. What about ‘don’t drive anxious and anaemic?’”
Llewellyn shifts in his chair, quietly enjoying his line, and his new partner, Margo, watches him do so with an air of very gentle supportiveness.
“No wonder I hit him. I was fucking anaemic.”
Margo smiles at Llewellyn. She then smiles at me. “Are you going to run all these cuss words?”
I tell her that I’ll try and we share in the laugh.
By around a quarter to five that morning Llewellyn had covered a very serviceable proportion of his route and was making his way along the southernmost half of Milton road which is in a part of the district of Ganton-Turserville in which the Gazette has never had much popularity for reasons unclear. Llewellyn had two paper drops which he completed relatively on schedule and therefore had no undue need to hurry. Being that he had encountered next to no traffic whether meat or metal for most of that morning shift, Llewellyn was utterly blindsided not just by the fact that there was a man at the side of the road on Milton road at that hour, but that this man had – in half a blink – walked into the grille of his moving truck.
“I don’t doubt that he intended for it to happen now that I think of it. I was there, I saw it. I mean, I didn’t see his face enough to say man, that guy is suicidal, but when I found out that he wasn’t deaf or blind or retarded or anything I figured it had to be that. I could be wrong but what does it matter now anyway? He stepped off the kerb, in front of the one truck in sight on a super long road at four in the morning. And I hit him.” He glances at Margo. “I remember thinking he timed it really well, for like maximum impact.”
Was he speeding when he hit Perry Doer?
“Was I speeding? Maybe. I don’t know. Probably. The limit was seventy and I may have been five over or something. I try not to think about it. I honestly couldn’t tell you because I honestly don’t remember if I even knew at the time.”
According to the coroner’s findings there was no evidence of intoxication on the part of the victim or the driver, no evidence of foul play, and there was definitely no mention of deafness, blindness or mental retardation. It was noted, however, that Perry Doer was in generally poor health which may not have given him the best chance in the face of such a physical insult. On initial impact some ribs were snapped by the truck’s bonnet. The thing which killed Perry, however, was a large and fast intracranial bleed. Perry’s virtual anonymity certainly helped to ensure that the case was wrapped up with little ceremony. A cremation was organised and within three weeks Perry Doer went from carbon-based life form to carbon and a couple of other bits and pieces. The coronial verdict was probable suicide.
“Some insensitive prick – I don’t remember who – said that it was like hitting a really sick dog. Even the slightest knock just ruins it beyond repair. Maybe he was right but I didn’t think the wording was great.”
The incident did very little to derail Llewellyn professionally, something which didn’t sit right with the lapsed Baptist.
“I remember being a little…” he smiles to himself and then his face falls serious again in an equally quick instant. “I remember being a bit hysterical, in like a quiet way, like quietly freaking out. Because I remember going up to my boss and asking him what was going to happen…whether I would have to face some disciplinary board hearing or lose my license or whether the state or district or whoever was going to bring some kind of charge against me. Even though the only thing I could remember having done wrong was having bled out my ass — god, my mouth is really trashy today.”
Margo tells me that he brushes his teeth three times a day but that maybe he should just wash his mouth out instead to which Llewellyn responds with an absent-minded grin.
Llewellyn’s boss told him not to worry too much about the matter and within a fortnight he was back on the road earning his keep and worrying about his health. Soon after, his then partner Julie convinced him to get his bowels checked out.
“I really don’t want to talk about that.”
I assure him that this is fine. I’m here to talk about Perry.
“Well,’ he says, scanning the carpet as though it is his mind, “that’s kind of all I know about the guy, what I’ve already told you. I was kinda hoping you’d tell me a bit more.”
REINER’S PEOPLE REALTY AND HOUSING IS A GANTON-BASED ESTABLISHMENT THAT’S BEEN IN BUSINESS SINCE THE LATE EIGHTIES, PATIENTLY BOLSTERING ITS REACH from local to regional to statewide over the decades. Debbie Reiner derives a measure of pride from the fact that – even as she is both president and CEO of RPRH – she still hosts showings and open houses just as she did when her fledgling company was still scrounging around for a market share. Admittedly, humility is built into RPRH’s particular real estate niche and, admittedly, she engages in the grassroots aspect of the business far less often than she would ordinarily have herself do.
“We’ve always had an issue with destitution and bummery in this part of the world,” says Debbie as we sit in her not so humble office, “and after twenty-something odd years in this business — I still couldn’t tell you why that is. But my philosophy, our philosophy, the RPRH philosophy is that sometimes a roof over one’s head is exactly what some people need and that’s it, at least for a start. I’ve been passionate about low cost housing for quite some time because it seems like such a practical real-world solution to such a pervasive problem in our little locale. No one should sleep out in the cold, not even dogs. Maybe cats; they kind of deserve it.”
Debbie doesn’t remember personally handling the rental application that Perry Doe submitted when he first moved to east Ganton from out of state, but she is more than accommodating with whatever records are available. Together we peruse these.
“…so it was a shared rental, him and someone else — Carson Manit it says, don’t remember him — they must have met through work maybe…which probably made it doubly difficult because they were both new to town with pretty low-paying jobs and zero rental history we could base any of our decisions off of, so we had to get co-signers for both of them who themselves weren’t super watertight …and the landlords at the time didn’t care that their properties were basically four walls and a floor and a ceiling and a door and maybe a window if you were lucky…they just weren’t willing to take the risk and they made things unnecessarily difficult even though they’d eventually cave and randomly approve one of the damn applications. They’d say who are these kids?! And I’d say these aren’t kids, these are grown men that deserve every chance in the world. They never really got my point, but they quickly came to realise that these kids were the only ones willing to sweat out a double shift just to pay for their little brick boxes.” Her fingers ski across the dully white application papers.
“7/45 Inverness Avenue…” reads Debbie. Perry’s unit in Banksia Mews was obviously not his first home in Ganton-Turserville district.
She continue: ”Yeah, there’s a bunch of super cheap flats there, super basic, but we try to get good people in there so it doesn’t turn into a ghetto too quickly.”
That was when ago?
So would it be safe to say that the neighbourhood is now a ghetto?
“Well…I don’t think it would be unsafe to say.”
Perry’s co-signer was his mother Eloise with whom, it can be assumed, he was living prior to his migrating. His first employer in the area was the proprietor of a local fuel station chain who hired Perry as a cleaner, mainly of restrooms and diner kitchens. The position paid poorly but it paid well enough for him to make the rent slightly late, provided roomie Carson pulled his weight which it seems he frequently did not.
And it seems that, towards the end of his time on this planet, Perry was struggling to pull his weight too. The most recent five years’ worth of rental records is news to Debbie, who goes on to postulate that Perry must have been a “shit of a tenant” what with the scores of rental reminders, threats of eviction and incomplete bond refunds. At the time of his untimely passing, Perry had placed an appeal with the department of fair trading regarding his tenancy, the details of which are unclear but which could not be far removed from the picture of rental discord Debbie and company at Reiner’s have dug up.
“So he killed himself?” she asks. I explain that it is the predominant theory.
“Theory?” she says as she draws the mess of paper back into one pile and rounds up our session.
Mohan Emerson, manager of Motormouth Fuel & Food Co circa 1993 declined an interview on the grounds that (a) he was no longer affiliated with the struggling company and therefore did not feel comfortable accepting the role of “spokesperson”, (b) he could not for the life of him remember hiring anybody that went by the name Perry Doer and (c) that even if he could recall such a person, what could he possibly say about a man he’d hired to wipe up piss and spilt gravy?
In deference to Mr Emerson’s rhetorical skills the interview request was pursued no further.
Obviously, Perry’s portfolio of jobs grew with time, but horizontally as opposed to vertically, almost always menial and frankly a bore to investigate. He did a lot of cleaning, a lot of stacking, some hammering and screwing, a bit of packing and the devil’s share of heavy lifting. Whether this vocational stagnation was for a lack of effort, ambition, aptitude, fair opportunity or fortune is any man’s guess but suffice to say, Perry did it tough and did so for quite some time. During the six months predating his untimely slaughter, Perry landed a job, through an employment agency, as a nightwatchman in a largely industrial neighbourhood that had fallen victim to artless graffiti and assorted vandalism. This nocturnal posting was his steadiest job in years though it lasted only seven weeks on account of the appearance of some arguably artful pieces of street art on various walls in the area.
Lydia Korsakoff, acting manager for vOKation, an apparently not-for-profit undertaking that sources employment for those without much of an ego to stroke or lifestyle to maintain, states that the only feedback received from the strata group that had employed Perry to watch their premises at night, was that he was “abrasive and argumentative” and that he “display[ed] little evidence of remorse for his incompetence.”
This will be the first explicit mention of Perry Doer’s aggressively less pleasant side.
IT’S NOT OFTEN THAT A NEWSPAPERMAN IS EXTORTED BY A POTENTIAL INFORMANT, AT LEAST NOT IN THE MANNER that Cosmas Nero goes about it, exchanging a bit of scoop for grocery supplies.
At the risk of stereotyping, for a grubby blue-collar man scrapping a living as a low level council worker, a job that mainly involves him holding up “slow” and “stop” signs during late night roadworks, Cosmas’s requests are surprisingly gourmet. The shopping list he submits, which really finds him pushing his luck with admirable success, feature foodstuffs like kielbasa and ackawi and an assortment of spices, many of which this newspaperman has never heard.
Cosmas (“Call me Cossie”) shrugs as he fries up some haloumi. “I’m a foodie, I like to cook. It’s the only good thing my mum taught me. Unfortunately she also taught me to hate women, which I’m trying really hard to unlearn. That’s off the record by the way.”
Everything’s on the record; it was our deal when he agreed to have his shopping done.
“Fine. But I’ve never been a sexist, just a sometimes misogynist. That’s got to count for something. You know, Perry wasn’t a bad cook either.”
Is that right?
“Yeah, after a long night we’d sometimes head over to one of our places, either his place or my place, and we’d cook up a bloody storm for breakfast. We figured the heavier we ate the heavier we’d sleep. He was into cooking common dishes well, with a bit of zing. I’m into the weird stuff; goat’s brains…Polish food.”
Is Polish food weird?
“Where I come from it is.”
On and off for years, Perry was on the Ganton-Turserville Council casual payroll and would spend many night holding up signs alongside Cossie, striking up a nocturnal friendship in the process, something at which it appears Perry was not a natural, that is to say, friendships, whether at night or during the day.
“I’d talk and he’d listen, that’s usually how it went. When he did say something though it was kind of…” he thinks for a moment. “You couldn’t really just shoot the shit with him and tell him your stories and hear him tell you his stories. Like…I think it was cooking that got us being friends because, now I think of it, food was the one thing he could talk about without sounding like he was going to, I don’t know, cave in, like his soul was going to cave in. I can’t explain it.”
What kind of things would he say?
As we eat our haloumi – and it must be said that Mr Nero can fry his haloumi excellently – Cossie considers what to tell me, perhaps in order that he may portray a dead man with honesty without painting him in an excessively defamatory light, one in which the man in question is too dead to contest. By the way, Cossie’s reaction to the news of Perry’s passing is understandably subdued. Shocked and saddened, sure, but in muted tones.
“I remember him once saying something like…” Cosmas begins to speak with the rubbery cheese rolling around his mouth, “…something about how the most honourable thing he can do is to not let the inside of him get onto the outside, or something like that. He’d say to me, Cos – he called me Cos – he’d say, Cos, when I’m in my apartment, sitting on the couch, I hate everybody, I hate myself, I hate you, I just hate everyone. But I can’t take the hate with me out my door. I just can’t. I walk out and I care about people. I want to protect them from me and from all this dark stuff I represent. That’s almost word for word. And then he says, I’m Mr Jekyll and Dr Hyde [sic], I’m a two face. Shit, I’d hate to have been in his head, but somehow I liked the guy. He was honest is what I thought at the time.”
Can one be both honest and two-faced?
Cosmas thinks about this one for a while. Tired of waiting for a response, I dig back into the relish he’s ladled onto my plate, lapping it up with oily slices of fried haloumi.
“I don’t know,” he begins, out of the blue. “I’m not a philosopher but…if a man is actually two people, is he a liar by being this guy one day and that guy the other day, or whatever?”
He offers more haloumi and, to be honestly, refusal is close to impossible.
“MY BOY WAS ANGRY AND I DON’T DOUBT THAT HE DIED THAT WAY.”
ELOISE DOER SPEAKS OF HER DEAD SON with a resignation so dignified you’d think he was born to die by newspaper truck. If she is grieving, then she grieves like a person who believes sadness is as essential as joy, like someone who does not deem themselves fit to question pain. Or perhaps Perry’s death is a tragedy for which she has been long prepared.
She is one of those people who can hold a stare so strongly that one feels as uncomfortable looking away as they do matching it. But it’s not so much a questioning stare as it is one that forages and scratches at the sand covering another’s soul. And her face is concurrently younger than would be expected for a late septuagenarian and old beyond her seventy-plus years: younger in that she has a certain aura, a vital glow; older in that her face is a maze of shallow wrinkles and shadows.
She doesn’t offer me tea or water or Digestives. We simply sit on old couches, facing each other across a short oak coffee table, hearing the grumble and beep of what sounds like a garbage truck that slept in and decided to do its run in the mid-late afternoon.
“Did they tell you the details of how Perry died?” she asks me.
Being too unsure to open my mouth and speak I decide not to speak, to which she responds saying, “it’s okay if you can’t or won’t say, I shouldn’t put you on the spot like that.”
“But…” she continues, “the truth is, whatever you tell me would only make me feel a bit better because all I can imagine is him dying in fear and being so very angry, and it hurts, to think that those were his last feelings ever as a person. So if you told me the truck hit him so hard that his — that his brains came spilling out too quickly for him to know that it was all over…if you told me that, I’d take some comfort. I’d like to think I would.”
What a large intracranial bleed or a brain splatter would do to the consciousness of a man is probably a mystery to most people, but mentioning this as a if not the cause of death seems to please or reassure Eloise somewhat, although not enough for her to offer a drink.
458km northwest of Perry’s place of death is his place of birth, 116 Quinn Street, Trimsolna, or rather the place to which he was brought when he was torn out of Eloise’s belly at Trimsolna Civic Hospital in the same way that his three older siblings were welcomed into the world.
“I know it sounds wrong but when they cleaned all the jelly off of him and checked that he had an anus or whatever they do when they pull babies out, they wrapped him up in a blanket and handed him to my husband at the time, Perry’s natural father, and he brought him over and I took one look at him and I knew he would be the kid that made my heart heavy. There’s always one in every litter, every decent-sized litter. I have sisters and they’ll know what I mean. You just look at a child and you know that this kid and this world are not going to get along. And I knew it; as I was lying there while they were sewing me up I had his head against my bare chest and it felt so heavy, supernaturally heavy. His eyes were open in a way you don’t see on most newborns and he looked at me but in a way he didn’t look at me, and I just got this overwhelming sense of sadness and I began to sob. Of course everyone thought I was overcome with happiness so I just let them think that. How was I supposed to say, oh, my son’s a sad baby and I don’t know if he’ll ever be happy? How do you say that?”
Eloise’s is an old terrace nestled amongst similar terraces populated by old folks whose kids have left home either for good or with a return ticket tucked in one of their back pockets. All five of Eloise’s have flown the coop and none have yet come a-calling. Perry never did and certainly won’t be doing so now.
Contrary to the picture of lifelong hardship that this profile hitherto seems to paint, Perry was not born into disadvantage but into the middle class from which he would eventually drop out. Unlike him, Perry’s siblings either remained hovering around the median-most social stratum or – in the case of brother Nathaniel and sister Lux – ventured into the dollarsphere with mixed success, the point being that Perry was not necessarily fated to suffer and die as a flag-bearer of society’s underclass. So why then is this where he ended up? And why he of all is siblings?
Perry is survived by all four of his littermates. Apart from Lux, Perry’s immediate elder with whom he shared a close bond in childhood, the Doer children were essentially a pack of boys, and boys’ boys at that. Rough and tumble and gregarious by constitution, the Doer brood required a firm hand if they were to be moulded into men and woman of reasonable social conduct. Perhaps as a habit or due to some inborn belief that mild religious influence in the early stages of life contributes positively to the task of child rearing, Eloise and the Doer kids’ two main father figures (Leroy and Davidson) took them to church on most Sundays. Of course, once they had departed the church grounds, god was simply a figurative entity though it must be said that an element of the concept of a Beneficent Deity would eventually play a large part in fostering in Perry a rage and disillusionment of the kind that makes Eloise still quiver inside. Some of those who bore witness to the very peak of Perry’s meltdown prior to his leaving Trimsolna and heading southeast remember a man who was so internalised as to be virtually absent. Perry frequently wondered what he had done to displease a god for whom he’d honestly rarely spared a thought and he seemed to have an on-and-off belief that the universe had a malicious streak, randomly honing in on people who were already doing it tough only to twist their nipples just that little bit harder. He raged against everything from his apparent ugly duckling status in the family to his tongue-tied ineloquence to the gap between his front teeth to his natural air of aloofness.
Gabby Homan is an ex-classmate who still lives in Trimsolna and still calls in on Eloise every once in a while for the sake of neighbourliness. She and Perry were childhood friends of circumstance; the circumstance being that Gabby lived close-by and was one of Perry’s few peers lonely enough to put up with his brewing unpleasantness. She would frequently present at the Doer home on her bike and ask if any of the kids wanted to ride with her. Eloise, desperate to rid the house of Perry’s gloom for even a good half-hour, would force her second youngest onto his squat little dirt-collecting BMX and watch him ride off down the street in the straightest line, Gabby on her taller mountain bike swooping around his peripheries like an eager bird. A sort-of friendship eventually developed though Gabby denies any romance: “I was lonely, but not that lonely. Besides, he would not have responded well, if at all.”
“He wondered why he couldn’t relate to anyone,” Gabby goes on to say, “but people were spooked by this brooding angry black dude who was constantly muttering to himself all pissed off and whatnot; not like a crazy person but someone who was perpetually frustrated and down on himself. It just wasn’t the greatest combination to be perfectly honest.”
“It was bad,” says Elouise. “There were days when I was certain he would stab someone with something; maybe not there and then, but someday. He wasn’t very external about it, the rage; he never threw tantrums or fits or punches, but you just didn’t want to be around him too long, the intensity of his anger…you could feel it. But at home we didn’t talk about things, especially if it was something that was a little uncomfortable, and none of Perry’s teachers ever mentioned anything to us to make us think that he was struggling. As far as I knew and still know, he sat and did his work and didn’t cause any trouble.”
In fact Perry was a moderately bright student, or rather, a bright student with moderate grades. No one was ever particularly certain of what dreams or plans young Perry had for himself, but it seems no one really asked either. The Doer household was not big on dreams and fostering self-esteem and giving due praise let alone undue praise; you just got on with life and followed where it took you, a philosophy which was likely championed by both his fathers, neither of whom were particularly aspirational men to begin with.
Older brother Lanyon Doer recalls Perry’s possible interest in the electrical: “he was always fiddling with Walkmans and radios and wanted to be like Benjamin Franklin or something. He’d take them apart and put them back together again but they wouldn’t work after that. I remember my father shouting him down for wasting money just because his fingers couldn’t sit still. After a while he stopped talking about Benjamin Franklin and electricity. I didn’t hear him talk about too much before or after that.”
Lux Doer works in airline catering in an administrative and logistics capacity and has been based in the UAE for the last seven years. She hadn’t spoken to Perry much in the last thirteen years when I contacted her by phone. Like her mother there is a determined resignation in her voice but it’s obvious that her line of work does not encourage such passive fatalism and so there is a business-like can-do quality to her speech.
I did not expect to be the one to inform Lux that her brother was dead, and great care was taken to slyly gauge how informed she was of the tragedy that had befallen him. Unfortunately much of the Doer family are estranged from one another to the point that nobody, not Eloise nor Nathaniel nor Randy nor Lanyon and certainly not Lux, has a clue in hell as to whether any of the others know about anything, take your pick of what anything is. So when I explain to her that I am writing a feature article about her brother, Lux asks if he is okay.
There is a dreadfully long pause. “Is he hurt?”
I answer saying, “I’m extremely sorry.”
After the silence that follows I expect to hear a slow wail or sudden deluge of tears, but there is simply a shuddering intake of air and a plain “what happened?” I provide the details within the limits of my knowledge while she quietly listens.
“So this was definitely Perry…” are her first words after my storytelling has concluded.
What about the story strikes her as unconvincing?
“Perry and I don’t talk much, but we did speak in the last year and he was in a pretty bad way. He had to convince me not to fly down to see him. I‘m not saying that things couldn’t turn around in a year, but I’m just trying to figure out what all this online tribute business is about. What’s the blog URL please?”
Who would think that listening to the over-the-phone silence produced by a somewhat estranged sister as she peruses a blog page dedicated to the memory of her recently deceased younger brother would contain such dramatic tension, and one so sustained?
“What exactly did he do for these people that they feel the need to write obituaries online with bad spelling?” Her voice is tinged with anger; I wonder if there is an element of guilt somewhere in there as well. “Hardly any of these say anything about what he actually did. Like, what did he actually do? It just feels like a bunch of people who don’t want to feel as though they contributed to the death of a stranger. Not that they did, but he died, possibly intentionally, after he’d met them all. If he had such a positive effect on them, then why didn’t they have a positive effect on him? Why did it have to take him being hit by a bus (I abstain from correcting) for anyone to notice that he had even had an impact on their lives?” She exhales. “I’m sorry, I just finding it hard to reconcile what I’m reading with what I know. For the love of god, people use the word ‘angel’. I just don’t see it.”
Does she at all wonder if Perry’s apparent rage was related to his home life, his up-bringing?
“But he’d been away from home for years, years, when I spoke to him, and he sounded terrible still. Everyone blames everything on childhood, it’s such bullshit, no offence. I mean, ours wasn’t perfect, but most of us turned out reasonably okay. I just can’t help but feel that this website is getting him wrong. These people obviously don’t know him.”
But does it negate the possibility that he had some sort of a positive effect on them? Or even the possibility that he had found a way to exorcise himself of rage and frustration and whatever else was eating him up?
“No, of course not, I’m not saying that. But, he was so troubled and for this to be how he’s remembered at the end of the day seems almost like an insult to his life. You were talking about negating; doesn’t this blog negate all the pain he went through, painting him like some kind of ghetto saint or something? No, not even that, saints at least suffer. It makes him look like he was kind of simple, like a holy fool or something. I don’t know. I just feel so bad for him, which is so unfair because on the surface this looks like a good thing.”
“What did he want from life; do you know?” I ask.
“Look I don’t know.”
If silences can ever get pregnant, this one has quintuplets. I wonder if that small stuttering breath I can hear for the briefest moment is the remnant of an aborted sob.
Lux quickly apologises for having to hang up on me as she has some errands to run and some places to be, but she is deeply appreciative of the call and would be very happy to be contacted once again if there are any further questions or developments.
Randomly perusing Eadie’s blog some weeks later, I notice that the tributes dried up quite some time ago. But a new post sits at the bottom of the page without any comments or likes or shares:
“Should have flown down back when we talked about me coming down, I kick myself every day but anyway, hope you’re in a better place now, or at least happy wherever you are as long as it’s not hell, lol. Love you much, as always” anonymous
May 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
Of those who watch films and complain that they didn’t feel anything I ask: whose fault is this? If there is a door and the door is closed, can I really blame the door for my not having gotten to the other side of it if I have not even endeavoured to turn the knob? If I turn the knob and the door does not open, have I checked under the mat or above the doorframe for a key? Only after I’ve done all these things and perhaps more can I say “this door cannot be breached.” Unless, of course, I decide to kick the door in, which may be a useful approach if kicking the door can be considered analogous to breaking a film down and analysing it in its innumerable pieces; perhaps not.
The point being that a lot of folk seem to think that art can be indulged in passively, and maybe a lot of art unwittingly or perhaps less innocently encourages this mode of thinking. Written word literature may be the most purposefully active popular art form (with regards to the spectator/patron) in that the content must first be consumed by sensory perception (seeing/hearing words or feeling braille) and then digested by intellectualisation (appreciating the respective scripts and symbols that the eyes or fingers are perceiving right through to comprehending and/or interpreting the literal or expressive meanings or connotations that result from the structural relationship between the scripts and symbols that the eyes or ears or fingers are perceiving), even though reading can still be done with semi passivity if one skim reads and forgets half of what their eyes are half-seeing or their fingers half-feeling. Compare this process to that of viewing a movie or listening to music or watching a ballet or strolling through a gallery. You can exit the Louvre and know that you have seen a beautiful image by van Eyck without having spoken a word of Flemish in your life (or whatever language Jan spoke). You may even attempt to describe ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin’ despite having only seen it as opposed to having truly looked at it and still be able to convey, with some success, something of its content or essence. On the contrary, hand me a Pablo Neruda poem in its original Spanish translation and I could tell you that the words look pretty on the page but probably little else; hand me something by Li Bai untranslated and I’d be able to tell you even less. Admittedly, though, a poem’s appearance on the page may be the one literary instance in which an individual can partake of artistic expression by simply seeing (if due only to the reality that the physical structure of a poem is often less of a slave to variations in publisher typography than is prose). To summarise, film is arguably more subject to viewer passivity than written literature is to reader passivity.
It seems that mainstream film-going culture (at present, but probably always) relies largely on passive absorption of image and sound. People can sit and let images cascade over them, images so obvious and plainly telegraphed that an individual with cortical blindness might process the content simply via thalamic pathways requiring little conscious registration. What’s more, mainstream cinema, particularly of the Hollywood major studio ilk, seems to be of a certain school of filmmaking: that which seems to believe that the more obvious and visually assaultive a film is, the more its spectators can be permitted to sit passively in the dark munching on their popcorn and slurping on their icy sodas, or twiddling with their smart devices on their sofas at home, ultimately walking away with the sensation and impression that they have partaken of something. Admittedly, there is a certain breed of film which encourages a certain type of active viewership, to an extent. ‘Inception’ is a great example of a film whose rabid following stems, I suspect at least partially, from the fact that it seems to validate viewer intelligence by explicitly challenging viewer attention with its “levels” and by concluding with an image whose ambiguity does not seem to infuriate or alienate in the way that other ambiguous endings do, simply because it is largely irrelevant whether A (the top continuing to spin) happens or whether B (the top dropping) happens because the fact that C (Cobb reuniting with his children, whatever the reality) happens is really the crux of the film’s conclusion, I would argue. While delivering the kind of SFX extravaganza and breakneck action that seems to bring in the bucks at the box office, ‘Inception’ also provides viewers the relief that comes from knowing (believing) that they are not simply brainless consumers but “active” participants. This may be a cynical stance, but when a film’s ultimate legacy is that it inspires endless debate about whether or not a spinning top stops or doesn’t stop spinning (aka whether chocolate ice cream or strawberry ice cream is better when the real issue pertains to ice cream versus lack of ice cream), I count this a general loss for the concept of active viewership.
A lot of people expect theme, ideas, emotion, to be pumped into them, to be drawn out of them. They say, “the movie didn’t make me feel anything.” Well, whose fault is that, I ask. People say, “This movie didn’t make me care for the characters.” Well, whose fault is it that you don’t have it in you to give two shits about a two dimensional representation of a human being which is what – to be perfectly honest – the overwhelming majority of people on earth will ever be to any of us, if that even; if not just a CIA World Book statistic.
Let’s talk about digestion.
You eat a meal, say a meal consisting of some meat and some vegetables. You end up shitting it all out and find yourself malnourished and upset. Whose fault is it that the food was not properly digested? Was the food supposed to digest itself? Your gut failed, my friend, either because you have IBD, or celiac, or some intolerance, or an infective colitis, or you swallow but don’t chew, or maybe your gut is in shock from some assault it endured. Maybe it a whole lot of it was cut out and doesn’t exist anymore to absorb anything. Either way, you cannot blame that poor lamb shank and those broiled silverbeet leaves for having gone through you unused. Your body was required to engage in an active process but this didn’t happen. The food is not at fault. Okay, so you say, what if the food is not digestible? For example, what if it’s made of wax or plastic or rock? Well, you’ve got to put the damn thing in your mouth, chew it and swallow it first before you extricate yourself of blame.
I will be the first to admit that a lot of art is bad food, either fake food made of wax and PVC, or junk containing too many calories and deficient in its variety of nutrients. But in order to know this we’ve got to open our digestive tracts and eat, right? We’ve got to ingest these foodstuffs only to realise that we’re fatigued and not satiated, agitated and hypoglycaemic, stunted and underdeveloped, overweight and diabetic with arteries on their way out. Art forms will struggle to achieve the level of purpose and social significance they can and should have until that vital feedback loop is completed.
“We want passive nutrition,” some may say. “What’s wrong with it if it gives you what you need?” Do you really want passive nutrition? Do I really want MY muscles to grow without my having to lift a finger? Want my intellect to burgeon and my soul-life to blossom without ever sitting myself down with a decent book that really challenges me or without crossing my legs on a mat and meditating? Sure, get that cannula into my arm, get that total intravenous nutrition running; strap those electrode patches to my pecs and my thighs and run electricity through them. Let’s see how vital that leaves me. My gut will wither, my digestive hormones will lose their bearings and the day I decide to stick something in my mouth and eat it I’ll find myself utterly ill-equipped. Cinema should be – at least in some ways – an active art form. It should be a mode of intellectual, emotional and psychological exercise. As a spectator, one should be required to bring something to the act of viewing. Emotion should not just be drawn out of a spectator; it should also be invested into the film by the spectator. It’s okay that a film portrays a scene of profound and obvious sadness such that tears spring to the corners of your eyes. But not all moments of emotional intensity are visually obvious, and in these circumstances that which is required is that thing which is so sorely misunderstood: empathy. Which is where this monologue was always heading.
Empathy is not a passive emotion, I’ve come to understand. To empathise is to act. But it’s not just an action that one engages in haphazardly; it’s an endeavour, the pursuit of a particular psycho-emotional ideal. It is to repeatedly subject yourself to a level of emotional skepticism and self-questioning. It is to be aware of who you are in relation to who other people are, what your values are, and why you believe the things that you do, and in doing so to forego them momentarily and in those moments to imagine and to infer that which your own experience might not necessarily bestow. Empathy is goddamn hard. Feeling sad for a weeping widow is not empathy if you know what it is to grieve, whatever the loss might have been which caused the grieving. It’s generally easy to know that she is sad. Sociopaths and psychopaths get their kicks by being able to know when someone is sad, or in pain, or afraid. To empathise is to encounter a stoic widow who you believe should be inconsolable and in tears and to not simply dismiss her as a cold and unemotional and a murderous spider, but to seek to understand how she might be feeling or what she might be thinking, to understand in however miniscule a way what her experience might be, even if you ultimately feel that she is cold and emotional and a murderous spider. You may never get anywhere but you tried and in trying I believe you empathised.
For this reason I admire and hail the films of Antonioni and Altman and Kubrick and Rohmer and Bunuel and all those film artists (and artists in general) who were clearly striving to understand or at least gain some semblance, however minor, of the experiences of others, however close to or far removed from their own experiences, their own milieus, those experiences might have been. People might consider Antonioni’s films emotionally vacant, but the more I watch them the more I get the sense of a man trying desperately to empathise with a particular mindset of a particular section of society at a particular time in the 20th century. There is no judgment, only a desire to understand. As a spectator of his work one is required to invest and inquire and question the inner state of the characters he paints and portrays. These are human beings on screen. As I have previously said, I probably know more about those beautiful, tortured, closed-off individuals Antonioni is showing me than I ever will most of the people I see around me, at the bus stop, on trains, in shopping malls and cafes, even some people to whom I speak more than once. What a sad and terrifying day it will be for me should these individuals cease to be human beings in my mind simply because all I see are creatures with a couple of physical dimensions standing, texting, eating, walking, largely unemotional on a surface level (let’s be frank about it: most people are damn good at keeping their emotions in check when in public) What a sad existence it has been for humanity considering that this seems to be an alarmingly common mindset, whether or not it is acted upon or not by the majority of people.
Empathy, I guess, is to appreciate that each individual you encounter, however two-dimensional and unconvincing they might appear to you is a human being however ‘other’ they might seem, and in appreciating this, to strive to understand what their experience might be. This is why I believe cinema can be, should be and is a premier art form of empathy. In order to live up to this though, it requires an active spectatorship who will guide and develop sincere and purposeful artistry, and vice versa and so on and so forth, until it all comes to some sort of end at some point in the future near or far.
May 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
After the initial giddy feeling inspired by the geeky, cheeky last shot of Jim Jarmusch’s newest picture, I immediately began to wonder if the white-haired iconoclast had unwittingly undermined the preceding two hours of his movie or whether he was making some kind of a statement with this image of married vampires Adam and Eve approaching the camera, fangs drolly bared, coming in for their close-up, for their kill.
This drily romantic movie infuses Jarmusch’s aloof, absurdist style with moments of sensual expressiveness that I can’t remember seeing much of in his previous work. Considering the movie’s setting is entirely nocturnal, source light plays a key visual role in all its forms, from dull glows indoors to effervescent streaks and pulses out on the streets; this somehow provides an ambience that suggests both a sense of nostalgia for the past and a zest for the present. Adam is fed up after being exposed for centuries to the eternal foolishness of mankind (though there is a strong possibility that he is just as equally fed up with himself), but Eve, on the other hand, seems to lack Adam’s misanthropic depression; she has soul, a love of literature and knowledge (hence the biblical namesake?) and the ability to marvel at a breed of fungus and quote its binomial nomenclature. The one thing they do seem to share unequivocally and in equal measure is a love for blood, which they acquire illegally, lap up from little crystal chalices and respond to as if it were grade-A heroin.
So when Eve travels from Tangiers to Detroit to once again free her reclusive rock god husband from his Cobain-as-portrayed-in-Gus-van-Sant’s-“Last-Days” style melancholy, one could be forgiven for expecting Adam to gradually – perhaps painfully – gain a newfound appreciation for life and all its wonders. But being a Jarmusch film, this isn’t quite the case, and though there is a moment towards the end when Adam seems to experience awe for what may be the first time in decades if not centuries, the truth is that when life is stripped down to its bare scaffoldings and they are forced to reconsider their priorities, the only thing that either Adam or Eve seem to give a shit about is blood. Five hundred years ago they would have feasted on the necks of victims; today they acquire screened blood from dodgy doctors. But in the event of a shortage of good sangre they are willing to abandon their modern, civilised methods to get their juice of choice. Even Adam, a man who is practically suicidal, will kill to live. Funny.
Getting back to that final shot: I wonder if Jarmusch is suggesting that human endeavour and human values are ultimately subservient to our innate desire to survive, to simply exist as living beings at the very least. While we are here on this rock we may seek knowledge, expression, love and companionship, pleasure…but above all we just want to breathe. Perhaps this is the irony of Adam’s disdain for mortal men whom he nicknames “zombies” assumedly on account of their (our) mindlessness and their (our) being relative slaves to their basest and most basic instincts. But isn’t Adam, he who is the only living true Renaissance man, just as much of a zombie as the next warm-blooded individual when it comes to his utter dependence on his crimson life force? And isn’t Eve, who seems to think she is Gaia incarnate, no more than a junkie with a predilection for reading and music? Perhaps Jarmusch is gently ridiculing his creations while adoring them with his camera (an approach that scores of film artists over the decades have taken), though I will say that he clearly admires Eve’s considerable verve.
I still think there is more to “Only Lovers Left Alive”, or would at least like to think that there is, but am not quite sure what this would be. This movie’s final image is either loaded with subtext, or it is Jarmusch saying “hey, it’s just a vampire movie after all – this is what they do, is it not?”
* As an aside, I wonder if “Only Lovers Left Alive” would make one half of a fitting immortals-living-amongst-us double-feature when paired with Wim Wenders’ magnificent “Wings of Desire”, if only to contrast Damiel the angel’s desire to become human and to feel human in the latter with Adam’s sheer disdain for mankind and everything it stands for in the former, though one could argue that the very thing which Damiel envies about humanity is precisely what Adam feels our species has lost or perhaps never did have and that Damiel is in for a nasty surprise. But then again, Eve represents much of what Damiel romanticises about the human experience, and she could very well be seen as an analogue of Marion, the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds-loving trapeze artist with whom Damiel falls in love and who is as much a muse to him as Eve clearly is to Adam.
May 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore feature as a writer-director spent much of 2013 screening at festivals where it was widely lauded for reasons unclear to me; unclear not because ‘Blue Ruin’ is a bad film, but because it does not strike me as being undeniably outstanding. It generally follows the current mould of independent American filmmaking: shallow focus, intimate framing, deliberate naturalism, humming score, flirtations with slow pacing, loose narrative flow….
In my mind, this movie’s saving grace is the general feeling it gives off, the feeling that protagonist Dwight does what he does because he truly has nothing else to do with himself and is unable to rustle up an alternative sense of purpose. This may perhaps be the very thing which keeps it from coming across as merely a vehicle for a series of suspenseful set-pieces or just a standard tale of vengeance, which is unfortunately the way in which the final standoff/shootout threatens to immortalise the picture. I appreciate that the final few shots then seem to pull the tone of the film from the edge of trigger-happy bombast back to one of sobriety and mild sentiment, as if to say “yes, there have been thrills, there has much suspense and your heart might be racing, but this is ultimately a lament.” Lamenting what: loneliness and its consequences? Gun ubiquity in the US? Humankind’s affinity for tribalism and the resultant violence? Misguided loyalty? I can’t say for sure.
Through a careful interplay between leading man Macon Blair’s “I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum” performance and the way Jeremy Saulnier chooses to observe and follow Dwight’s endeavour to avenge his ma and pa, a strange sense of motivational credibility is achieved. Dwight is wide-eyed and appears somewhat hyper-aware, but in a way that suggests constitutional behavioural quirks as opposed to plain old paranoia. Maybe he was always a bit “special”, but this specialness has been “exacerbated” by the tragedy he has suffered and the consequent sense of dislocation he likely feels. Saulnier’s directorial approach is a mix of the anthropological and the procedural, patiently watching Dwight as he perceives the world around him, reacts to these perceptions – however heightened, and thinks through the challenges thrown at him. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the significance of this loss on his overall stability as a person is made perfectly clear: here is a man who now has nothing and who is simultaneously angry about it, disoriented by it, and desperate to restore some sort of moral balance. I would tentatively argue that it is this increasing aura of confusion and misguided devotion which subtly separates Dwight’s quest for retribution from the pig-headed bravado that seems to drive most vengeful protagonists, making “Blue Ruin’s” mild mayhem into more than just genre indulgence.
May 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
War would hardly wake me, but Timmy couldn’t sleep through drizzle. Not until fatigue does him in and knocks him out. Rhoda is in between. Nothing worth noting unless perhaps the one-off sleepwalk. Trips to the kitchen to check on the chicken in the grill. Once caught taking a midnight tinkle in the bin. Timmy would never find out about it nor would she. A man must protect the ones he loves. A man must protect the ones he loves but he can do so only so much. Heaven and hell and everything between knows I would have chained my beloved of two decades to the bedposts had I foreseen the terror in the eyes of our ten year old Timmy. Our only kid, Timmy.
From what I gather there wasn’t much drizzle that night. So whatever kept Timmy awake is Timmy’s secret to keep. I suspect it was the dog.
Me, I was out like a blow to the head with a spade. My boy must have pinched me, punched me, slapped and scratched me but I woke to only a gentle rocking of my shoulder. And when he said to me, ‘daddy? Daddy?! Daddy,’ I knew all wasn’t right.
Her silhouette spooked me as it did our boy, motionless against moonlight that leaked into the dining room from who knows which window. I called her name saying, ‘Rhoda’. She said nothing so I took Timmy by the hand and we went to her. But halfway to her I stopped and said to Timmy, ‘Timmy, go to bed.’ He said, ‘but–’, but I said, ‘Timmy–’. So he left me with his mother and I took her by the armpits and staggered back to bed.
Taking Timmy to school in the morning I told him mommy simply had a really big dream, a big humongous one. He asked me, ‘is mommy going to be okay?’ and I said, ‘I think mommy is.’ I dropped him off at St. Ignatius saying, ‘don’t worry, okay?’, and then I drove myself straight to the offices. Jill was in the copy room when I walked in just before midday. I said her name in an offbeat sing-song and she responded saying, ‘hey, Tobes.’ There and then I asked her who to see if I knew someone who sleepwalked. But first we talked about that evening’s lottery, about our chances of hitting the jackpot.
Hay fever was in the air and spring cleaning in the bones, Rhoda’s bones to the very core. She pulled down every curtain one Saturday morning and let the sunlight kill my slumber. And then made me sweep clean the garage for which I hated her until lunch. All Timmy had to do was smooth out his duvet. After a sandwich lunch he gazed at the TV in the sun-beaten living room while I washed the dog and Rhoda tended to the pot plants.
Coda was an Alsatian, a lean streak of shades of black and brown with a regal greying round the flanks and muzzle. Ears that pricked at every rustle, eyes like needles, breath like a gassing, for all he was worth Coda was the dumbest thing I knew on four legs. He was moulting so I quickened things with a heavy duty brush. Funny, each time I dragged it through his coat he whimpered like Rhoda’s nose circa that time of year.
‘They have doctors for sleep.’
I said this to Rhoda in bed, after she was done talking about April. Rhoda always talked about visiting her sister who lived interstate. When we had Timmy April spent two and a half months with us while Rhoda got over her depression. We lived somewhere else then. But Rhoda dragged with her a sense of debt to April, dragged it to every place we’d been since. I see, sometimes, that it makes her sad.
I told her about the sleep doctors. I said, ‘these people dedicate their lives to sleep, Rhoda, think about it.’ And she said, ‘the less they know the more they make. They’re good, these doctors. What did you say they call it?’
‘A parasomnia,’ I said. I’d looked it up.
She considered it. ‘Parasomnia.’ Then she sighed. ‘Coda’s hairs are everywhere.’
I said, ‘sorry. It must have been the wind.’ Then I tickled her tummy, but she turned away; I kissed her nape, but she said, ‘Toby.’ My rise fell. I tugged myself in silence but never quite came and never quite went to sleep. Must have been why I saw the dark blotch cross our doorway like the shadow of a cloud.
My word was to his body what a shock was to the heart and he spun like a wind vane in the gust. He’d been peeking through a window that looked out onto the front yard and front gate. I asked him why he wasn’t sleeping as I shifted the curtain and lace with my hand and squinted into the moonlit dark.
‘Coda squeezed out again.’
As I looked upon the front gate no sense was being made inside my head. The spaces would hardly let through a big man’s thigh; the bars were thick galvanised sheets angled like rooftops, with blunt edges that would peel the same man’s thigh like a carrot being peeled with a fingernail.
‘Again?’ I said to Timmy.
He must have thought I was reprimanding him because he froze up. Maybe I was in a way. My hand swam in his head hair as I told him to go to sleep, that I’d wait for Coda if Coda ever chose to come back. I promptly nodded off against the wall but came to in time to see the dog string his rump and hind legs through two of the bars like a paraplegic, making that dog sound which sounds like a cheap dog whistle, with the odd yelp thrown in. Each yelp he gave shot through me like pain. But as soon as he was through he limped a step or two and trotted off out of sight into the back.
Carlton Keyes was perhaps into dogs because he was himself a dog; on this the whole office could agree. At the water boiler I questioned him about Coda and about the night before. He said it happens, in that voice of his; that it was that time of year, and that the bitches were in heat. He told me this as though no one else in the world knew it. Death alone would stop the males and their heat- seeking missiles, he said. He was painful to be around but he knew things, Carlton Keyes.
I came home that evening to a wife paging through women’s magazines on our marital bed. Three or four of them were spreadeagled beside her submerged ass and hips. Lingeried and like porcelain, every Playtex girl on every open page was a benchmark for and an affront to real women. Rhoda’s eyes searched me where I stood in the doorway.
‘Is this normal?’
The words tumbled past something caught inside her throat.
‘This, Toby, is this?’ she said, and raised up a magazine and thumbed what looked like a chip fat stain on it. ‘He’s only ten. Do they think like this at ten?’
I wished I had an answer she would have liked.
I wished I had something I could have said to her at dinnertime to stop her draping dirty, sad looks over our boy. Sorry looks. Looks you gave someone who was into pain and suffocation and feet. I wanted to tell her not to worry as I put away the dishes she washed and handed to me; I wanted to tell her that there was an explanation for it. But I had to protect them from the facts.
Timmy was in bed and yet to doze off. Walking past the en-suite to my bedside I saw Rhoda inside, in front of the mirror, wearing a dressing gown. She mustn’t have known I was looking. She stared at herself. She touched herself, touched her face, touched her neck, turned her head, stroked her curls, trailed her fingers down her chest and touched her breasts like they were stray dogs. Flicked them up and down because they sagged just enough to allow it. Flicked them with distaste. Then she continued to floss.
When I told Rhoda about Coda she said she’d told me so. By now we were in bed.
‘Told me how?’ I said.
‘We should have had it neutered,’ she said, but I asked her what good would have come of it. She was right in saying it would have been good for Timmy in the end but I wished she would look at me when she said it.
I told her I’d talk to Timmy. I said, ‘I’ll talk to him.’
She said, ‘I’ll talk to him too’ but I said, ‘you wouldn’t know how.’
I pulled the duvet to my nipples and told her not to fret, that it was my place as a father and that I’d do it.
‘Toby,’ she said, ‘I don’t like that the dog does that. It’s not civil.’
‘It’s a dog, Rhoda. What else is it going to do?’
‘I’ve seen better.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that can roll over too, and sit.’
I sighed and pulled at my chest hairs and said, ‘chopping its balls off might be harsh.’
‘Why must I see a shrink because you say I walk when I sleep?’
‘Because you need to get better sleep. And it won’t be a shrink. Just a doctor.’
‘My sleep does me fine.’
‘You never have any energy for us anymore.’
She looked me up and down and looked me all over and her face seemed to twitch a little and before we knew it we were both asleep until I woke and decided to please myself a little. It was while pulling that I heard Coda and his dog sounds and stole away from bed to take a look. Again I drew aside the curtain and lace and witnessed him squeeze himself like a rock-hard motion.
Then he was gone.
That night I took the car for a roll through the neighbourhood. I wasn’t sure if I was in search of the dog or just rolling through the streets of our neighbourhood. Not much was about. I did catch a possum in the headlights scurrying into some poor class act’s prim little hedge. I must have circled our block four times before I turned off onto Karlsson Street and then onto Hunter before busting onto Oates; rode it all the way down to where it became Convent-Leigh. I saw people on the street forming non-memories and being drunken silly with one another. Somehow I found myself down Mason Avenue where all the naughty places were. Places announced by cheap neon lights that bleached clients blue, green and pink. Further along Mason were women and wannabe women smoking and squelching stubs with their stilettos as they held out for guys like me. I parked in an unlit spot and window shopped, thought about finishing that tug but never got round to it. There were cute young ones that looked too right in their school-girl get-up. One of these was acquired by a man in a Burgundy sedan but as they drove past it struck me that he looked like he might be a monster; something about the way he stared out from beneath his brow made me dread one of the next mornings’ papers.
The route I took home was convoluted and stupid. I wanted to wash my hands and rinse my eyes. I rolled through familiar turf not far from our house. And as I did I let the headlights sweep the streets. They caught two more possums; a tyre almost killed one. Calling it a night I headed home and somewhere along the way I found him.
The dog was skipping along the footpath in my general bearing and his eyes flashed twice in the headlights. As did, perhaps, what must have been his dick as it dangled from its sheath. I just drove myself home and left the car in the driveway, left the keys on the coffee table on the way to the master bedroom and was relieved to find Rhoda sleeping. Lay in bed and waited for Coda and, when he came, listened to him yelp and whine his way back in.
Rhoda was at the hotplates flipping cakes in a pan. I was having my juice and my paper but would later be having coffee with pancakes.
I said to Rhoda, ‘you should drop in on April one of these months.’
It took her a while to answer what with all the mixing and pouring and flipping and stacking she was doing.
‘You don’t just drop in, not interstate.’
‘She’d give up her bed; you know it. Call her. We’ll be fine on our own for a few weeks.’
She talked over her shoulder. ‘But you’d have to come too. Wouldn’t you?’
I told her I guessed so and drank some juice.
‘What are you going to say to Timmy?’
I said nothing.
‘Right–’ I said. ‘I’ll just take it as it comes. It’ll be better that way.’
Rhoda took a scourer to the pan in the sink.
I said to her, ‘you should see your sister if you want to. You should see April. I’d hate for me to be keeping you from anything.’
Rhoda said, ‘promise you’ll talk to Timmy,’ and I said, ‘yes, yes, promise.’ Then I watched whatever news was breaking on telly while I waited for Timmy to have his milk and cereal.
Coda watched us exit the driveway after Rhoda had closed the front door.
I drove Timmy to his school and we listened to the radio the whole way there without saying any words. In the lot he hardly let me slow down for him to get out and as he shut the door on us I realised I’d forgotten to talk to him about a thing I’d been meaning to talk to him about. I would have called him back but he was late and in a rush. I’d forgotten to tell him that I would be picking him up from school a little late that day because his mother would be seeing a sleep doctor and we just might be a little late.
May 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is out and in the open, I feel that I have finally come to some conclusion, or at the very least some articulable opinion regarding the practice of putting sex on film. Tossing my mind back to the days when this project was just a rumour in the air about the Danish prankster making a movie starring Shia Lebouf and his member, one that would tread the line between “cinema” and “pornography” more perilously than he ever had before – because ‘The Idiots’ had definitely not attempted this – I am struck by how anticlimactic the whole three-and-a-half hours feels, anticlimactic in the sense that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is perhaps a lot tamer than the hullabaloo leading up to its release suggested it might be, not that hullabaloo is ever predictive of anything. But at the very least, the film in my opinion does not commit any transgressions greater than have been done in previous von Trier efforts. Assuming, also, that the claims made by the director’s production company Zentropa are true – the ones about digitally grafting movies star faces onto porn star bodies – then one could concievably argue with some degree of conviction that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is likely not his most ‘pornographic’ film, which in itself is a problematic claim on so many levels, semantic and otherwise.
‘The Idiots’, a 1998 Dogme 95 film (Dogme 95 being a movement that forbade – amongst other things – the use of effects), featured actual sex between individuals whose heads and genitals were of the same flesh and shared the same DNA. ‘Nymphomaniac’, as far as we’ve been told, does not. Does this then make it less pornographic than von Trier’s 1998 picture? Does ‘The Idiots’ as a film have sex more on the brain than his most recent opus? Well, firstly, I’d argue that ‘The Idiots’ simply has sex in it while ‘Nymphomaniac’ is generally more sex-centric, if only sex as seen through one or two particular points of view.
Thinking about ‘Nymphomaniac’ over the last two weeks has led me to settle on the opinion that it is a film that does not explore or portray sex and sexuality in a particularly interesting or challenging way, but one which, by virtue of its sprawl and ideological indiscipline, is nonetheless a great heaving bonfire around which sex on film can be discussed. Maybe not sex as a complex facet of humanity, but sex as an element of cinematic language. I don’t want to review ‘Nymphomaniac’. I don’t want to critique the various performances and myriad accents featuted in it, the digressional script, the use of multiple aspect ratios, or whether it deserves its two-volume release. I’m not quite that interested in debating whether Lars von Trier is a misogynist or a wannabe feminist, whether he has anything to say or is just eager to be heard, whether he is intentionally or unintentionally tongue-in-cheek, or whether or not he loves or hates himself. Perhaps these are all meatier, juicier talking points, but I would like to take this opportunity to hash out some heretofore muddled thoughts and theories on filmic depictions of sex.
In my time as a young male raised in an epoch of sexual ubiquity, I have had my tiger’s share of media-assisted sexual gratification. I say assisted because some of my earliest autosexual experiences were facilitated by everything from women’s magazines tailored for conservative housewives and Avon catalogues, to kids’ shows hosted by finely-bosomed brunettes and even an admittedly sexually-charged scene from David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenz’. To further clarify, when I say autosexual I do not simply mean masturbation, but any situation in which I was sexually aroused in the presence of myself and no one else, an arousal which I to some degree enjoyed, encouraged, prolonged or actively sought out. Does the fact that I was sexually aroused when watching the host of Kideo (a South Africa kids’ TV show) or that I pleasured myself while paging through Avon brochures imply that that show or those brochures where pornographic or that they at least contained pornographic elements? Sure, they contained sexual elements, and if they did contain sexual elements but only unintentionally so – from the perspective of their creators – then were they necessarily pornography? I can assure you that the host of that show was no more sexually suggestive than a pretty Sunday school teacher, and that those Avon materials no more suggestive than an insurance ad adorned by a gorgeous, smiling face. Now, while the latter may intentionally capitalize on sexuality to sell both insurance and mascara, to say that Avon or AAMI intend on me flopping out my wiener and stroking it is highly cynical.
Conversely, there are sex scenes of varying graphicness that I have witnessed on television or on the silver screen or on my laptop which, despite oozing tits and ass aplenty, barely stir cyclops from his slumber if at all. Some of the above scenes were in films legally registered as triple-x adult material yet for all their sexual explicitness I could have been watching lions mating on Saturday daytime cable TV. In these cases was I or was I not in the presence of pornography? Whereas I was aroused by that which was perhaps not intended to arouse, the converse occurred with that which was certainly intended to arouse to some extent or at least mildly titillate which is, let’s be frank, what most sex scenes featuring attractive actors in ‘non-pornographic’ films are in some way expected to do. There is clearly a difference between something being pornography versus being pornographic. Perhaps pornography is created with intent whereas anything can possibly be rendered pornographic, even transiently so, by way of a patron’s response to its sexual potential. I wonder.
So having established the complexity of the concept of pornography, I would like to consider why – outside of the realm of audiovisual coital aids – sex is finding, has often found, and will likely continue to find its way onto screens.
It’s saying nothing really, to state that whatever is on the mind of society will somehow find its way into that society’s artistic firmament. If this is the case – which it surely is, considering how steeped in sexuality are our oldest surviving tales and myths – then it is no surprise that sex and film has a long albeit problematic relationship. Almost as far back as the advent of the cinematic medium, blue movies and stag films have existed. Sex is and has been on the mind of human society for millennia and there is really no point in questioning why it continues to be portrayed in art. The real question is what purpose sex serves in the context of film other than simply depicting an enduring part of human life or kowtowing to society’s obsession with it? If a filmmaker states, as many do, that they wish to depict human lives in as raw and truthful a way as possible without succumbing to the usual pressures to create drama and omit the everyday, then would it not be a little prudish of them to avoid capturing humans in the act of sex, whether real or staged? In fact, why should sex not be depicted? Surely it’s not in order to preserve some ideal of sex being an intimate and private affair that only the involved parties should have any right to experience, because if this was the case, a staggering proportion of dramatic art would be immediately rendered inappropriate and exploitative for having exposed and portrayed that which occurs behind one’s closed doors and behind one’s eyes. Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the abiding influence of religion and common morality on how sex is approached in various societies. And while the society that I am most familiar with – the predominantly Anglo-Saxon West – has its roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy that traditionally considers sex to be a private and sacred (if not outright holy) act, in the secular here and now of 2014 when and where sexual explicitness and suggestiveness are commonplace in that there are increasingly commodified, it strikes me as particularly odd that the act of sex when transposed from its usual place under the duvet in a darkened bedroom onto a screen in a darkened theatre still seems to inspire discomfiture in so many people; well, at least from ratings boards and champions of moral “decency”.
It was only subsequent to the release in 2010 of Derek Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine’ (a film I like but am not overly fond of) that I felt I understood something of the way sex is handled by the secular west. Now, assuming that the MPAA and other such organisations base their decisions on their gauge of the prevailing public mindset, then it can be argued that sex is not what causes such communal blushing, but the context in which sex occurs; the same goes for violence. This is nothing new. It has been clear to me for some time that violence is considered most disturbing when its psychological implications are brought to the fore. This is what allowed for the popularization – no – normalization of the action movie bloodbath in which hordes can be slaughtered yet nary a gasp or groan can be heard coming from a theatre audience. Kids half-watch such things in the presence of their parents at home, and the clanging of swords and barrage of gunfire are no more alarming to any of them than would be mild interference on the car radio. Similarly, people sit and consume their dinners while watching the news which is often a string of decontextualized violence recited plainly, as should perhaps be the case with all news, the “plainly” part that is. The horror may register intellectually, but there is little if any emotional impact. I know people (who shall remain unnamed) for whom violence is a strong no-no, apart from when it appears on the news in which case it is simply information despite the fact that some parties were actually affected, traumatised, maimed, killed. Violence is palatable, entertaining even, when the significance of the act is bleached out. Countless shootings and stabbings and beatings seen in countless films have barely scratched my psyche, yet one single act of brief violence in a film like ‘Cache’ still affects me, because it should, if only by way of my imagining what would possibly lead an individual to inflict such a thing on themselves and on the onlooker who stands looking on; because this is what the film itself asks.
On that note, back to ‘Blue Valentine’, a film that was threatened with – and may have in fact received (if I remember correctly) – an NC-17 rating (one step below X-rated) largely on the grounds of a scene in which a balding character played by Ryan Gosling fellates a character played by Michelle Williams. There was a mild cyclone of controversy about the MPAA’s reaction to this scene and much was written about it which I did not read, which means that some or much of what I say may echo things previously written and said.
When I heard of the MPAA’s decision I could not remember seeing more than Gosling’s oblong bobbing head shielded by William’s left thigh and seeing the response on the great actress’ face in a performance which consisted of more than the usual mechanical oohs and ahs that seem to score most sex scenes. Hers was a portrayal of vulnerability, desire, relief, uncertainty, frustration, conflict…things usually sieved from mainstream depictions of sexual intercourse. Just as the man who slashed his throat midway through ‘Cache’ did so – I believe – as an expression of something he felt he could not express with words, so too was the sex scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ in which a man tries to rekindle the fire with his wife in a kitschy hotel room and in doing so simultaneously expresses his desire to dominate as well as his utter dependence on her. In these two movies, violence and sex were not just acts for the purpose of narrative propulsion or embellishment; they are acts of communication, whether or not they were successful or even warranted. Moreover, the scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ has no comic or cartoonish undertones to it, just plain sexual honesty; no quick montage of a million and one sex positions, and more importantly perhaps, the deglamourisation of two recognizable and lusted-after faces such that what is on screen is not the Sex Olympics of the Gods but the simple psychosexual yearnings of average humans. Needless to say, it is exactly this type of honesty that disturbs people. Perhaps sex (and violence), when treated with seriousness, has an uncanny ability to access deep recesses of unexplored emotion and subconscious rumination in viewers that many – by conditioning or by choice – refuse to confront until they are expressed through acts that are either pleasurable or confounding or regrettable or all three and more. Violence is, of course, always regrettable…says the pacifist in me.
The sex scenes in ‘Nymphomaniac’ are not so much sex scenes as they are brief flashes of Joe and her lovers in various sexual positions. On this front, the film is disappointingly akin to many of its contemporaries in its approach to sex. Does Lars von Trier have any idea why it might be interesting to depict Joe in the act of sex? One could argue that for Joe, sex isn’t much more than a series of sexual positions with countless partners in which case the director is vindicated in the approach he has chosen. But considering he opted to pepper the film with random and frankly timid shots of penetration and genital intimacy, perhaps he should have utilised this explicitness for unprecedented artistic effect. I don’t think it would be at all presumptuous of me to suggest that the way in which a person interacts not only with their own body but with the bodies of others can provide as much information about their state of mind as a well scripted monologue or exchange; as much if not more. This alone would be a sufficiently strong justification for the inclusion of graphic penetrative sex in a film.
Anyone who believes that fellatio is simply the act of licking or sucking another person’s genitals like it is a bland ice cream or lollipop, and anyone who believes that there is no more nuance to the act than simple mechanical licking and sucking, is frankly kidding themselves. Just as the word “yes” can be uttered in various ways to express various things, so perhaps can an act of oral pleasuring. The most disappointing aspect of a film like Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Battle in Heaven’ is that the sex acts seem to be so aware of their “scandalousness” that they are content with simply being graphic, failing to be little more than plain depictions of sexual intercourse. Admittedly, there are clear attempts in ‘Battle in Heaven’ to utilise sex as an expression of inter- and intra- class/ethnic relations, and the fellatio scenes that bookend the film are perhaps the clearest of all. But even then, the act is so mechanical as to be comparable to the tentative first steps of someone who has only just learnt to do something new and somewhat terrifying. The blowjob that Hugh Jackman’s character receives in ‘Swordfish’ or the one that Captain David Aceveda is forced to give in FX’s great show ‘The Shield’ are almost more accomplished expressions of something in a way that the equivalent acts in Reygadas’ film are somehow not, and I say this as an admirer of Reygadas and his oeuvre. It seems that, as graphic penetrative sex is slowly finding its way into “non-pornographic” somewhat mainstream cinema, there is a self-consciousness that prevents the expression of anything more than giddy exhibitionism and rebellion. Perhaps, with time, once graphic sex becomes less of a taboo, actors, writers and directors will become less concerned with the fact that they’re pushing boundaries and more attuned to the psycho-emotional power and density of sexual activity. Until this becomes more prevalent, artists who use the suggestive power of sex rather than the explicit power of it will dominate in the way that the oft cited scene from Bergman’s ‘Persona’ has dominated this particular conversation since it was first seen in 1966.
By far the most effective moment of graphic sexuality in ‘Nymphomaniac’, the shot of a rising erection is more an expository device than anything, expository in the sense that the penis’s becoming erect tells us exactly what the man in question’s sexual predilection happens to be, which in turn has minor narrative implications. So, I suppose graphic sex can be used to advance plot, though in this circumstance plot would be a strong word. However, with regards to Joe’s dependence on sex, I must say that almost none of the sex scenes in which she features illustrate what exactly sex provides her. I could barely tell you whether Joe actually enjoys sex, or whether there is an element of emotional dependency or self-absorption. The only scenes in which an individual sex act is observed without von Trier’s camera quickly looking away with a blush are the S&M scenes. Joe’s self-loathing and desire for punishment are made a bit clearer, but self-loathing is almost the “go-to” emotional hang-up for sex addicts in fiction. Besides, graphic depictions of sadomasochism are not particularly subversive in 2013/2014 in which case von Trier once again comes across as mildly toothless. At the risk of sounding perverted, ‘Nymphomaniac’ does very little to make a case for the artistic validity of graphic sex in “non-pornographic” film by simply not going far enough. Believe it or not, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’s much hyped sex scenes, while not involving much penetrative action, can be said to at least provide a viewer the slightest insight into Adele’s deep desire for self-actualisation and emotional freedom. In ‘Stranger at the Lake,’ another fine film, writer-director Alain Guiraudie utilises sex more fearlessly and with more psychological heft than does von Trier in ‘Nymphomaniac’, partly by investing his sex scenes with as much time and patience as he does the scenes of dialogue. In that film, sex and speech have similar thematic and narrative weight.
If sex is a mode of communication – non-literary, intuitive communication – then cinema needs to develop a sexual language that can express more than just desire. When two sexy young things manically rip their clothes off and boink each other in your run-of-the-mill television show or movie, one thing that is generally understood, without fail, is that these two individuals want one another on some level; nothing wrong with this. But imagine all other forms of language – verbal and otherwise – were portrayed on screen with equal unsophistication. Imagine actors could only either smile or frown, or were only permitted to speak the words “yes” or “no” and nothing else; hyperbolic as this illustration might be, this is – to an extent – the level of sophistication with which sexuality seems to be used as an expressive modality in film: desire, desire, desire, desire, desire. Maybe domination once in a while. Okay, sure, but what else?
No doubt, if art reserves the right to depict certain aspects of the human experience, on what moral grounds can it be prevented from depicting all aspects of the human experience? Sure, some of these result in more unease when portrayed in art than do others, but perhaps this is because modes of communication like sex and violence are more honest than the average human’s use of verbal discourse, discomfortingly so; honest in that they are deeply visceral and relatively more resistant to social conditioning than our use of words, maybe because we were fucking and fighting long before we developed a form of meaningful oral language and, in the wake of our new-found rhetorical skills, relegated those two to the closet where they can continue to wield immense influence from where they lie in the darkness of our collective id. Wherever words seem to fail, a penis or a pistol is never too far off for better or for worse, so why turn our eyes away or throw coy little glances? As much as it would be nice if violence ceased being a language of its own, if we are to explore ourselves as a species at the current time, we cannot ignore its power and its prevalence, its true terrible power. The same goes for sex.
May 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
On an ageing couch in the Ward 8 lounge the father sleeps with a dated copy of The Lancet blanketing his lap; the newest issue will soon be collecting dust in the family P.O. Box. He took out a subscription seven months ago with the help of a doctor friend, who also helped him subscribe to the MJA, the BMJ and the Journal of Paediatric Haematology/Oncology –
– And possibly the New England Journal of Medicine. Just for some semblance of control. Some way to help his helplessness.
When he’s not quietly cursing the word-tangled articles and wondering about paraproteins and p-values, when he’s not giving ward staff the cynical eye and popping cans of Sunkist from vending machines –
– He co-owns a less than thriving luxury upholsterer, Conroys and Oost, which operates out of Elanora Heights and boasts clientele as far north as The Entrance, down low as far as Scarborough and westwards to the Blue Mountains, out Katoomba way.
“Mr Oosthuizen, sir.”
A cold hand on the arm stirs him and though he is out of it he stands with a cartoonish sense of purpose. The older-than-she-looks nurse informs him that Dr Gunn would like to speak to him and Mrs Oosthuizen. That Kip is now awake and that he has just had something to eat, something light.
He is led off down the hallway busy with people seemingly idle, the back of his shirt rumpled and untucked and The Lancet left lying limp and in an odd way on the floor of the lounge while a soapie plays – muted – on the TV.
A joke must have just been shared if the three tired smiles are anything to go by. They all turn to look as he enters but it is Gunn alone who speaks.
“Sir, have a seat,” Gunn says, slowly letting go of his smile.
“Champ. How are you feeling?” the father whispers to his boy as he settles into a chair near the back of the room.
“Fine,” says someone other than Kip or the doctor.
He’d hardly noticed her on entering, and he knows it and Lydia Oosthuizen knows it. Man and wife stare at each other as though oddities each to the other.
“So he’s eaten then,” man says to wife.
The wife, now as the mother, looks at the boy, who gives a lethargic nod to the man. “Good,” says the father to the son. “That’s good.”
The doctor proceeds to hack at the itching silence with talk of 70% cure rates, outpatient treatment every four weeks, vinblastine, chlorambucil, and the risk of permanent infertility. But Gunn couldn’t be more pleased with the prognosis, the finally clearing horizon.
It all sounds good, Lydia guesses, content that all she can do is nod and guess to herself considering Graham most likely isn’t hearing a thing…considering the blankly smothering gaze he’s fixed upon their son. Despite the ‘I understand’ glances he throws – on occasion – at Dr Gunn.
Once the spiel is over they thank the paediatric oncologist, who then reassures Kip in a quasi-private manner clearly meant for show. He finally sweeps out after quick handshakes with both parents, who then sit if not collapse upon the cheap vinyl chairs. The late afternoon sun saturates the room in a haze of warmth and light, seducing Kip to slumber and tricking the adults into blinking a lot more than they normally would, so much so that they forget what it is to speak; to think.
Kip remembers little of the day of discharge. Only that he felt a weirdness on leaving that was thankfully not coupled with some melancholy desire to return to that place of ruin, that room with its machines. It was strangely low key, and satisfyingly so. No applause. No slow walk through a tunnel constructed from smiling hospital staff in their unflattering get up. Just a quiet departure from the place he’d come to regard as home, an exit dignified in its anonymity.
But if that place was not home then he is not sure where home is. One week on and dad has been oddly absent, not counting the afternoon he took some freshly done laundry – dried but unironed – and disappeared. Shirts for the office and shirts for play. Pants too, and some books and things. And for all the keenness in his eyes he simply could not stay to watch the Tahs and the Crusaders collide on the big 50-inch. The Tahs. Their Tahs.
He just left.
“He comes home when you’re sleeping,” mum assures him as she chops the carrots more viciously than he remembers.
“Why’s he always working all the time? What about on the weekend?”
“Things are hard, Graham, things aren’t getting easier,” she snaps, as she does the asparagus ends.
“Mum, you said Graham.”
“I said Kip.”
That night Kip stays awake with little effort but he hears no car pull up to the garage; sees no car as he stands in the pitch dark living room, staring out at the unlit driveway. It’s sobering how quickly he seasons to a house without a dad. How dumbly he comes to accept that his father doesn’t sleep in mum & dad’s bed anymore, doesn’t live at home any longer. Though the words ‘dad’s moved out’ never quite occur to him. And why should they?
So mum isn’t quite as gifted a carpooler as dad was. Can’t quite work an audience under the age of ten. Can’t quite bring herself to marvel at the awesomeness that is Transformers, the single greatest treatment he remembers receiving on the wards. Besides, the pool’s down from five to three, driver included: just Lydia, Kip, and this other boy Lance.
Ghosh’s parents, Brett’s mother, both very sorry, both very grateful for the offer. But six months is ample time for alternative arrangements to become permanent arrangements. Ghosh has moved schools anyhow, and Brett never cared much for Kip, a feeling fairly mutual.
Lydia watches the two boys toddle off into the bustling quad at St Augustine’s, Kip’s daffodil-yellow cap standing out almost as much as his egg-bald head very soon will. She then slips out the station wagon and steals into the head office, filling the secretary in on her appointment with the headmaster and taking a seat as she is told to please do.
Why the hell would you go private?
The words still sting, variations of which spat forth from every friend’s mouth at every mention of Kip’s lymphoma and of their plans for its destruction. It had been like a reverberating chant, a Greek Chorus of sorts really. No one understood their reasoning nor seemed to want to. But Lydia and Graham were adamant, stoic, and perhaps – in retrospect – daft as shit. They’d researched and they’d decided…what had they decided? They’d thought and thought and finally concluded that…what had they concluded again? Lydia massages her forehead skin as she juggles half-formed thoughts in her jellied mind, hoping she doesn’t mistake this meeting for the interview she will be having at 1:15 this afternoon, during the lunch break of her current job which she is damn intent on keeping.
Kip was never a presence, magnetic, the class Clooney or school Connery. Not anywhere, certainly not on the ward. But never before has he felt so anonymous, egg-head notwithstanding, despite eyes like wet cats in shallow grottos, a gaze pale and famished. One would think he’d never been absent at all, that he had not swayed on the verge of being an absentee forever. That perhaps some doppelganger filled in for him these last few stolen months.
He wouldn’t have thought it but he quietly yearns for the occasional tease, to be called baldilocks or Charlie Brown or Peter Garrett or something equally lame, and to be pointed at. Even a look of pity which comes naturally to some of the teachers might be refreshing coming from some of the boys. Anything other than nothing. Something to assure him that these last six months have meant more than just needles, tears, bad food, hair loss and vomit.
Graham is thankful to have his son for the night. At least before Kip starts spending evenings and nights with the neighbours, the Petits, while Lydia prostitutes herself at some college for adult education, putting her English major to nocturnal use and teaching immigrants phrases they will never use in the real world. Not once did he believe the mother of his child would be working two jobs, like a minimum-wage-earning bum, or a too-young mother, not the wife of a moderately-successful self-employee struggling valiantly to pay for half a year that has come and gone like lottery money, or the mildly talented sales manager that she appears to be.
He sighs into his pasta and carbonara sauce and sighs once more when his son asks him if he is ever coming home.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen, sweetheart.”
“But how come? It’s been ages and you’re always working and mum says you come back at night but you don’t.”
“Kip. Kip, listen. Some things were never meant to happen. See. Sometimes it takes something really really big for you to realise that those things were never ever meant to happen. Ever. But hey. All that matters is that you’re better now. Isn’t it.”
They eat in silence. Not an awkward one, but a beautiful, snug-like-the-quilt-Nan-made-me one. Kip pops a mouthful of penne, puts down his fork and chews. Halfway through chewing he smiles and Graham smiles back. The man then looks around at the tiny flat and the few remaining, unopened boxes and thinks to himself, what a shitbox, what a dump. Fuck.
He washes up while his son watches TV, hopefully something appropriate for a nine-year-old though you can’t be sure about seven o’clock programming these days, these crazy days and times.
Man and boy sit on the sofa together after the washing-up’s been done, son cuddled up to the father who kisses the hairless head at his chest and strokes the once-withered shoulders just below.
Memories of promises he once made flood him out of the blue as though he were a dying man, a bystander shot suddenly through the heart or thereabouts. Promises of a sister or brother for Kip, of another life upon which he and Lydia could dish out love. Promises of a ski trip to Switzerland in the coming Sydney summer, perhaps with a cheeky Italian detour to Lugano, maybe Milano, savings for which he fought to preserve until they simply had to be eaten into as the chemo snowballed and Ward 8 became the place where their hearts grudgingly were.
Has the room gone cloudy and hazy all of a sudden? Graham slyly stubs the inner corner of his eyes with his finger tips, rubs them up and down and sniffles.
“So. Champ. What d’you reckon about Narrabeen Public?”
Kip is slow to answer. “Am I moving?”
Christ, Graham thinks in calm exasperation. That woman. That Lydia.
“No, nothing,” he says to Kip, “dad’s just a little tired.” So fucking tired. “How are things at school?”
“No one being silly, being an idiot?”
Kip lifts his head from his father’s chest and shakes it three times.
Graham attends to the knock at the door and grants Lydia entry with hardly a hello. Kip begins packing his few things with the longsuffering of a production-line worker, as though it’s a job he’s been doing for decades. Slow and joyless.
Lydia says, “Have you had dinner?”
Graham says, “Of course. It’s quarter to eight. What, aren’t you working tonight?”
“After I drop him off at the Petits’.”
“Why not just let him stay here?”
“Graham,” she says with the weariest groan.
“Fuck, he’s your son, take him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she manages to say through lips contorted with disgust.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I know anything anymore.”
“I just want him to be close to home, Graham. I trust Clara and Dale.”
“Whatever. I’m not arguing. I need sleep.”
Only then do they notice that Kip is hanging about in a ghostly manner, his backpack hitched up high, him pretending not to have seen or heard anything though one can’t question the heaviness that must be clutching at his throat.
“Night, champ,” Graham says as he watches Kip shuffle past him and out into the stairwell, eyes on no one, followed out by his mother in her long wool coat.
“Okay then…” Lydia says in a moment of limbo. Then she turns and heads down the staircase, adding an extra two beats to the helter skelter echoing of Kip’s descent.
Back inside and alone again, Graham aimlessly wanders the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, sweeping crumbs onto the floor, looking in the fridge and being disappointed by the lack of Coronas and cubed ice. Ignoring the Manila envelope that wasn’t on the kitchen top prior to his wife’s arrival a few moments ago.
Patience is not a gift of hers and however much of it she might have once had has been depleted so much so that she’s now in the red.
That Colombian bitch, she thinks. And that Angolan prick. And that Taiwanese whorebag, and that Dutch dick who is clearly in no need of late-night English tutoring, the filthy sleaze.
She locks up and makes her exit on tiptoes as some classes have only just commenced, at ten thirty on a Friday night. In the car she takes a moment to breathe not having planned on sobbing much less bawling, head first upon the steering wheel – BAAAAHHP! – And then against the window. How did it come to this? How could something inside a sweet little child turn out to be such an undoing? Undoing everything. Unless nothing had been done up to begin with. And even if there had been nothing to begin with, at a time there had been at least ignorant bliss.
How hard will Kip freak when he comes home to find that his beloved big screen is gone, pawned off for a measly, ordinary 27-inch on which SpongeBob will look so much less than ordinary? The mountain bikes too, exchanged for hard fast cash, as was the tumble dryer, the lawnmower, and a stash of old records and miscellanies. Besides, where they’re going, these things would have been mere redundancies.
They are expected to be out of the house in a little over a week to make way for the new owners, and her sister and her sister’s husband are expecting them any day now, anytime. Whether Kip would understand the very tightness of money is anyone’s blind stab. But it’s for his sake damn it. For the boy to continue living he cannot live as he once did.
Lydia starts the car and careens through a tight angry U in the parking lot, coming to a jolting halt were the gravel meets the road and its steady stream of headlights.
“What’s cancer like?”
Eleven-year-old Karen Petit jumps at the hollow sternness of her mother’s voice. Kip gives her the plainest look, and if a face could pull a shrug then that is what Karen’s face has just done. She stands oddly and skedaddles, leaving Kip alone with the television, all noise, all colour, bugger-all purpose.
Clara Petit calls out from the kitchen: “Honey, your mum won’t be much longer now.”
Kip cares precious little. Tomorrow he returns to Paeds for his first round of outpatient chemo and who knows how that will go. He might sleep through it, or drift off in some dreamy stupor, or he might throw up every inch contained within his skin. Right now all he sees are visions, like a colour-saturated montage from a movie reel. Road trips with the folks out to the country to see Nan and Pa. Trips to Thredbo and slapdash outings to Palm Beach to picnic by Barrenjoey lighthouse. Nights when mum would sit beside him as the fan swept across his sweat-drenched body, as she iced his forehead and sighed, gently cooed. Days when he was so fatigued he could hardly breathe, when dad would read him Watership Down till he dozed. How mum wouldn’t force broccoli on him because he really truly had no appetite. How he would catch them on the sofa, barely touching, watching M*A*S*H wooden-faced and silent, and tell them – with tears in his eyes – how it felt like there were fire ants beneath his skin.
There are visions. Then there is a feeling, guttural, deep down and unwilling to be found. A dull pang, a sting of nostalgia blade-sharp yet murky as a long dead lake; a feeling he cannot articulate to himself. The kind mankind must have felt prior to its very first words, its first meaningful grunts. Words which – on uttering – would go along the lines of “things were so much better back then. Back when I was getting sicker.”