Diminishing Returns

One of the aspects of human nature that history and literature demonstrates is responsible for much geopolitical as well as personal misfortune is our inability to understand and apply the law of diminishing returns.  This is the official definition from Wikipedia:

The law of diminishing returns (also the law of diminishing marginal returns or law of increasing relative cost) states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower per-unit returns.

A more common way to say this is that to obtain a percentage equivalent increase of something, proportionately more effort is required. The asymptotic curve perfectly expresses it:

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At the start of a process, a unit of S (input) will produce a significant gain in R (result). As we move down the curve towards the right, it takes increasingly more units of S to gain an equivalent percentage gain in R. When we are close to the asymptote, it becomes prohibitively expense to produce any perceptible gain in R.

How does this phenomenon play out in human nature? Actually, in almost everything we do.  When you are hungry, the first few bites of food creates a flood of pleasure (and relief). However, as you continue to eat, the pleasure diminishes proportionately. [This is probably not a good example because the curve can  actually turn downward and yield less pleasure as we become bloated.]

This law was at the core of Epicurean philosophy: nothing in excess, everything in moderation.  Most commonly, I see this law playing out when people acquire wealth or become food or travel fanatics. After experiencing the ‘simply good’, the seeker must go after more and more exotic tastes and locations. There is now a growing industry of chiefs and restaurants that cater to the search for novel eating experiences. Trading up in houses can also produce an initial swell of pleasure that can quickly diminish. And, if you have unlimited money to spend, you can build or acquire more and more impressive properties. A look at Larry Ellison’s real estate and property portfolio is certainly a convincing example.

And Ellison is a good transition to the political and world historical. Alexander the Great wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. The first few conquests of any world beater (Tamar, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon) taste sweet indeed. But they must be followed by ever greater conquests to obtain the same thrill (anyone for invading Russia?)

It is the confluence of the law of diminishing returns with the bottomless well found in damaged individuals that invariably leads to the immiseration of  all who have the misfortune of being involved with them.  Narcissistic leaders can never feel a sense of inner well-being no matter how many millions cheer them.

The brain has a marvelous dampening mechanism that lets normal people know when they have reached a critical point on the curve of diminishing returns. We run out of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. A prudent person recognizes this condition and curtails or cuts back their efforts at obtaining pleasure until a new reservoir is built up. However, there are a considerable number of people who double and re-double their efforts (more drugs, faster & louder music…) in order not to experience the down that invariably comes when there is no more dopamine/adrenaline available.

A wise person acts carefully to shepherd their inner resources to delay reaching the critical point of diminishing returns. They eat at a two or three star restaurant most of the time and save the four star one for rare occasions. When I had the opportunity to take a gourmet tour of the French Rivera, by the second week I was so sick of the rich food that all I wanted to do was to walk into a dive and order the French equivalent of a burger and fries.

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Bottomless Wells

All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room. —-  Blaise Pascal

I have been reading a wonderful new book by Peter Watson, The Age of the Atheists – How We Have Sought To Live Since the Death of God. It is a meditation on what happened in the 19th century when the intellectual elite of the time decided that a belief in God (and all religions arising from this belief) was irrational and demonstrably false. Since man cannot prosper in a vacuum of meaning, modernity was born. Modernity was the attempt to fill the void left behind by what Matthew Arnold described in his poem Dover Beach:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Modernity has had many expressions and has gone through many transformations since it was born in the poetry of Byron and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra electrified the creative class by announcing that God was indeed dead but that there was a path out of the slough of despond that had opened up and threatened to swallow all of the West. Instead of a transcendent realm in heaven, it was now up to superior men (“Übermensch”) to create one here on Earth on their own.  Wagner attempted to lay down a path in his volkish music dramas – the way of the hero.

Another stream of radical transformation that promised earthly transcendence was socialism and especially Marxism.  The Marxist meme took up residence in countless intellectuals and has, like a robust virus, survived and multiplied. As Leszek Kołakowski says in his magisterial three volume work, Main Currents of Marxism, it can be damned-up, contained, and drained but human nature guarantees that the socialist well will always fill up again.

In the early 20th century, in response to Nietzsche’s challenge, a group of artists and dancers found their way to Ascona, Switzerland, to a place they named “Monte Verita” – the Hill of Truth.  There, they gave themselves over to their primal Dionysian urges and “let it all hang out.” A time-traveler from a 1967 San Francisco Be-In would instantly recognize them as being from the same tribe.

The American intellectual response started in the 1830’s with Emerson and the Transcendentalists of New England and spread to William James and John Dewey. It took a particularly American form: pragmatism. The essence of this philosophy is that, for the most part, philosophy (and especially Kant and his followers) is nonsense. There is nothing transcendent, only what we create here on this planet.  The believed that there was no fixed human nature. They believed that the purpose of life was to enable progress towards Goodness. Pragmatism was the seedbed from which all of progressivism and modern liberalism was born. Since there is nothing “up there” and life must have some purpose, that purpose must either be to create a better world “down here” or, alternatively, as George Santayana thought, to live in a creative/poetic reverie inspired by aesthetic beauty.

A bottomless well was opened up almost two-hundred years ago. The attempts to fill that well have been successful only if one considers the endless stream of bodies that have been dumped into it by well-intentioned dreamers, schemers, and revolutionaries a worthy measure of success. If there is a single nugget of wisdom that an intellectually honest person can discover post their callow youth, it is that collective action motivated by the entirely comprehensible human yearning to fill the well of meaning will almost always result in an increase in suffering and misery. Rather than going out and shaking the world in rage and despair, it is almost certainly better (as Pascal advises) to sit still alone in one’s room and learn to live with the silence and approaching darkness without despairing.

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Rites of Passage

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.
– Talleyrand

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), perhaps the greatest diplomat and certainly one of the wisest men of the last three hundred years, understood that every social upheaval has a price. In a revolution, what is old is abolished and replaced by a new regime and order of things. Such a transformation is always claimed to be done in the name of what conservatives call with a contemptuous sneer, “progress.” And if one is not overly cynical one can actually see progress in some dimensions. It is human nature and certainly the inclination of the young, to wipe the old off the table as quickly as possible, lest it return in some menacing form to reclaim the ground from which it was expelled.

The years from 1963 through the present have seen the unfolding of a set of slow-motion revolutions that has so morphed the consciousness of people that revisiting the past in any form can induce vertigo. The memory hole is well named. In my lifetime I have seen a virtual mountain of objects, customs, pastimes, and mores disappear into its maw. And yet human nature remains fixed. Our instincts, emotions, thought patterns and perceptual machinery have not changed in thousands of years, much less in fifty.

It is often in the rituals and daily patterns of life that change is most manifested. Because these changes happen slowly, they are not often noticed until a transformation is completed.

When I was ten years old, my father owned a late model 1950’s car he kept parked in a rented space two blocks from our apartment house. He and I would take some tools from the large metal toolbox he kept in our front closet and we would walk over to the car and ready ourselves to do ‘work’ on it.

My father explained to me exactly how the engine and each part of it worked. He would open the hood and proceed to remove the top of the carburetor to check the air filter to see if it needed to be changed. Then out came the socket wrench and each of the sparkplugs was removed. As he removed one, he handed it to me. My job was to clean the business end (the one that went into the engine block). I would also check the ‘gaping’ to make sure that it was correct and was delivering the requisite spark to ignite the air-gas mixture and force the piston down. If necessary, I would adjust it. He cleaned the distributer head and checked that every wire that led to the sparkplugs was solidly placed. Next we checked the ‘timing’ to make sure that sparkplugs fired at exactly the right time. This was critical because if the timing was off, the sparkplug would not fire when the piston was at its fully up position. We checked the fan belt to make sure it was taut enough so that it wouldn’t slip and, therefore, not cool the engine correctly. Finally, we checked the oil level to determine if we needed to add more. My father then closed the hood and we walked home.

This was only one of the many rituals that together formed a rite of passage for many boys my age. Later in life, I met men who grew up in the South who were given their first rifle when then turned eleven. It was a defining moment of their lives. It said to the young boy ‘I trust you with something that can injure or kill.’ Often accompanying this gift was camouflage clothing to wear when hunting. The men I met could hardly keep from tearing up when they described the first time they went hunting with their fathers with their own rifle. It was not uncommon to see these rifles lined up in the back of a schoolroom in order for the boys to use them after school during some improvised target shooting of rusty cans or bottles.

Boys and girls who were raised on family farms quickly and abruptly learned the facts of life. They saw both ends: insemination and whelping. Increasing responsibilities started at a young age, typically with milking the livestock. Each year would bring a new task that required more strength or other physical skill. But it was tacitly understood that the first time they stepped into the barn to work, that they had gone through a critical rite of passage.

I’m certain women of my age underwent similar rites of passage in their lives with their mothers (and older sisters): the transition from a play stove to a real one, the handing down of precious recipes, the first dance and ‘sweet sixteen’ party. Some girls so inclined also went hunting (or fishing) with their father but it was not as common.

Boys and girls had their own rituals that did not require the presence of parents (and most likely would have suffered if they had been there). For me, it was learning to use a pocket knife and challenging my friends to see who could use it most effectively in games such as carving up the ground we stood on (to see who would not have enough land to stand on). Adults would pass us by as we played this game and said nothing. They understood that young boys need to push and test themselves and sometimes that might involve some danger. This is almost inconceivable to today’s parents.

Not only did I play with a pocketknife, but along with a few friends I scurried over rooftops putting up amateur radio antennas. We built and experimented with our own radio equipment and quite often I was flung across the room when I touched the wrong wire at the wrong time. I traveled on the New York City subways along with my friends. None of us was older than thirteen. With one friend, I visited every station in the city in order to get the timetable associated with that station.

Gone. All of it.

Today, boys (and especially girls) are kept in protective cocoons lest they are stalked, molested by some pervert, or bullied by a more aggressive peer. There really are no more meaningful rituals that take place with a father or mother. In addition to the loss of these rituals is something as important: the development of mastery.

I learned how radios worked from the top to the bottom. I understood how vacuum tubes, resistors, condensers, coils, and transformers worked. I could follow a signal through a superheterodyne radio and fix it if necessary. In fact, I developed quite a following as a boy who could fix any radio (or television). Today, video games and other electronic toys are poor substitutes. The insides of the objects we work with are opaque and unknowable except to a technological elite. This induces a kind of passivity and disconnection. It creates users but not masters.

Finally, it was the games that we played as young boys that made us face up to our abilities and our limits. There were no adults hovering over us as we took a broomstick and a red rubber Spaulding ball out to a vacant lot or to a street intersection. There were boys who could hit that ball easily for long distances and some who couldn’t (me). We understood quickly that we were part of a hierarchy and each of us had a place within it. We might excel at something else, but we always knew that we could never be as good as another boy in an activity or game that was important to us. This developed a sense of respect and admiration for those who ‘could’ and a sense of disdain for those who couldn’t. Unfair? Prejudicial? Absolutely. But at least we lived in a world that made sense and where we knew our position. We knew that some boys led and some followed.

By removing risk and adventure, by creating an anodyne world with few challenges and few ways for young people to really test themselves against others, we have removed one of the essential elements of becoming an adult. And that is one of the reasons we are a society of perennial children and overgrown teenagers. We are living on the accumulated capital of previous generations and it is about to run out.

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Fragments

Most writers keep a notebook wherein we write ideas, plots, characters, sentences, phrases, or even single words. In rare moments we can be struck with an inspiration that emerges unforced from the unconscious mill within our psyche that relentlessly grinds away every day and something we feel worthy of being preserved is born. I’ve always loved reading the notebooks of great writers: Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky, Wallace Stevens, Emil Cioran, Leopardi and others. A notebook is the furnace in which the raw material of a writer’s art is exposed, excavated, brought to the surface, melted down, alloyed, polished, and finally transmuted into coherence and occasionally, beauty. Diaries are not the same as notebooks. They act like a catch basin of events, people, thoughts that are collected in a linear fashion. While a well-kept diary can also be the source out of which a literary work is formed, it is the notebook which acts as a refiner’s fire.

With this in mind, I decided to share some of the raw material that has accumulated in my notebook over the last few years in its raw and unedited form. I make no claims for the quality of these fragments or their potential for literary alchemy. But they are fascinating in that they expose the wheels of the deep machine that is always turning, turning,….

………..

I’m having coffee in a Starbucks on a breezy Saturday morning. I sit opposite a man in his early seventies who is reading from a book with a green cover and gold embossing. He reads to himself, his lips moving in time with the words. His expression does not change, but the furrowing of his brow follows the rhythm of his reading. He never looks up, drinks his coffee or stops reading. Is he reading a scripture or some other holy book? Is he ill and his reading is holding back the demons of a debilitating disease? Has his wife just died and the echo of the words he reads his only close companion? Or is he perhaps communing with an ancient community of which he is the last member and the only one who can say the words that keep it alive?

………..

My oldest friend and I were young devils in the neighborhood we grew up in. He would make guns (not real guns) out of wood and rubber bands. They shot square pieces of linoleum up to a few hundred feet. When the feral spirit moved us, we would go down to the Harlem River and aim our linoleum squares at passing boats. Luckily, our aims were so poor and the accuracy of these makeshift weapons so haphazard that we never hit anything.

We would mock the rabbi who called out from a second-story synagogue to ask us if we had been bar mitzvahed because he needed to form a minyan [ten Jewish men that needed for prayers]. I went off to college and found out that he had gone off to Antarctica as a meteorologist. My shock came years later when looking him up on the Internet. I learned that he had written a thousand page book telling the stories of the Jewish families from the shtetl of his ancestors. Neither the guns, Antarctica nor our rabbi-mocking had prepared me for this labor of love. Deep within him a flame had burned that in the end became a monument to the families that had been extinguished in the Holocaust.

………..

When I was eleven my grandmother came back into our shared bedroom, fell onto her bed, released a death rattle and died. I screamed for my parents to come in. My mother took me by the hand and led me into the living room and put me on the couch. After a few phone calls, my mother sat next to me. I buried my head in her side and cried. My mother said nothing. Her mother lay dead in the next room and she was mute, her arms slack on her lap, staring silently forward. My grandmother was my savior and my guardian when my mother would descend into one of her black moods. I wanted to say goodbye to her, to make her live again, to take her in my arms and breathe life back into her, but it was not to be.

………..

A woman goes to Paris for Christmas week hoping to find love and solace. Instead, she meets a string of men who treat her badly, lie to her, and use her. On the plane back from Paris she meets a man who at first she isn’t attracted to, but as the flight ends she falls in love.

………..

A first person, real-time narrative of a 15 year-old girl who is committing suicide.

An old man receives an anonymous package containing photographs and other memorabilia from his youth. As he is alone in the world and has no idea of who sent it to him.

A woman keeps an old email address so only her former boyfriends can contact her. She resolves never to answer them.

A man returns to childhood apartment and falls in love with the woman who is currently living there.

A man thinks that someone is coming into his apartment when he is not there. Each time he returns he finds one and only one thing moved.

Hunger is a blessing that no one who is hungry recognizes.

A man avoids looking for a woman to love. When one finally shows up, he is destroyed.

What if every one of us is famous somewhere, but we don’t know it.

A women missing for twenty years floats to the surface of a lake.

He gingerly stepped into a pile of gerunds: walking, eating, shuffling,….

The romance of an onion and a potato.

People who eat in the same restaurant every day but never talk.

………..

Lord of the Rings was an attempt to re-envision the quest for the Holy Grail and the destruction of an ultimate evil for a post-Christian age.

Poets retreat to nature followed by a retreat to the self.

The lost heroic core of Western man.

The final orgy of indulgence, wickedness, and selfishness leading to the downfall of the modern order.

Just before his death, H.G. Wells was nonplussed that the world had not taken his advice that science & socialism are the cure for what ailed society.

………..

[WARNING: EROTIC CONTENT]

She lived in an apartment with her mother. In the living room was a large couch where we started to make love. We quickly moved into her mother’s bedroom where a bright red bedspread covered the bed where she inducted me. I remember the softness of her breasts and the lack of pelvic bones as I got on top of her. She had curly brown hair on top and bottom. Her breasts were large and heavy. She had a dimple that sank into her chin and invited kissing.

After it was over, she was imperturbable. I was giddy and couldn’t stop moving my pelvis. Even after I was soft, I kept thrusting so it wouldn’t end. The red bedspread was bunched up at our feet. We hadn’t taken the time to remove it. She looked concerned that we had left a stain on it and that her mother would find out about the act of penetration we had just finished.

She reached for her pack of cigarettes which were on a table on the side of the bed and lit one up and offered it to me, but I was still too shaken to accept it. I was getting hard again and I began massaging her breasts as the smoked curled around our heads. She seemed somehow reluctant to engage once more and I didn’t understand why. She looked at me and with her eyes said, “That was for you, not for me so don’t make me do it again.” But my engine was no longer idling. Rather it had shifted directly into third gear and I found myself on top of her again. This time, however, I recognized there was a real women under my bones and slowed down. I kissed her while I kept up my rhythm. Quite unexpectedly, she started to move her hips and keep time with me. She reached around me and held me closer. Suddenly, her legs were on my shoulders and her breathing was rapid. My will had been transferred to her and had left me. I moved in time to the gently rolling motion of her hips. Then she came with a powerful orgasm and started to beat her hands on my chest as she made sounds like a wounded puppy. She dropped her legs. Her eyes were closed. She slowly opened them and looked up at me and for the first time since I had touched her breasts on the living room couch, she entertained a smile. Her face turned to the left and she put her fingers to her lips, kissed them and then touched my lips. I was no longer a virgin.

We dressed quickly after that, not knowing when her mother would come home. She rapidly made the bed and the red bedspread once again resumed its familiar position covering the field of flowers and briars that we had trampled down. She looked at me one more time before we left the bedroom and said with her eyes “She won’t know. She won’t know. Let’s go.”

………..

An alien spaceship is discovered under San Bruno mountain. The iconic sign is changed to “South San Francisco, The Extraterrestrial City.”

………..

“Always wear comfortable shoes.” was the only good advice I ever received from my father and it served me in good stead for nearly seven decades.

Frankenstein & Myrrh: A Horror Christmas.

The more time one spends in airports, the less faith one has in humanity.

Seasonal affection disorder.

All my friends are imaginary.

The most important lesson I’ve learned: never throw away your fat clothes. 

………..

It had been rumored that late in the fall of 20xx, a book had appeared. While no specific facts could be gleaned, the rumor spread that its title was simply “Truth”.

………..

We understand them perfectly but they have no understanding of us at all.

The fundamental difference between men and women: for most men, women are ends, while for most women, men are means.

The wealthier a person is, the more unfriendly, isolated, and unneighborly they tend to be.

The greatest truth in a dishonest society can be found in real estate prices.

Many of us carry in our heart our own Manderley, a burnt-out ruin of a love we yearn to return to but know we never can.

Imagine that we were all transparent and within us others could see a diorama of our own drama.

A family loses their dog in Yellowstone Park. The dog joins a wolf pack. Five years later they return and are attacked by the pack. The dog recognizes them and saves them.

A writer’s life: The Comma Sutures.

“If you believe anything a woman says, you might as well believe in astrology, mesmerism, tarot cards, and Billy Sunday.”
“It sounds like you’ve been hurt once too often.”
“Once too few my friend, once too few.”

He was a genius of a lesser kind.

A man loses everything except what is in an old storage unit. He must resume his life with only his possessions of twenty years before.

Words are radioactive.

Face the mountain and turn around.

The dreams of a couple in bed bounce back and forth between them.

Most of life consists of putting things into other things

What if the universe is simply God’s selfie.

………..

I hope you’ve found this short excursion into my soul’s fallow field worthwhile. Even I do not know which seed will spring to life and which will decompose back into the alluvial soil perhaps providing the nutrients for a new growth to appear.

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Two Poems by C.P. Cavafy

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

——————————————————————–

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

Constantine P. Cavafy, (1863 – 1933) was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and civil servant. He published 154 poems; dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form. His most important poetry was written after his fortieth birthday.

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Visual Poetry in Films

What are the elements that make a film memorable? I refrain from saying “great” because cinematic greatness comes from a set of complementary but overlapping features.  A great film  has a story that is compelling because it contains a structure, a narrative and themes typically derived from tragedy or comedy. It arises organically out of the human condition. It  portrays a world of serious moral choice. Nihilistic films are automatically ruled out. A great film should have characters who respond to challenges with awareness and grace, or if they are anti-heroes, with resolute ignorance, malice, or disdain that is the result of an inborn flaw.  If it is a comic film, we are invited to smile and laugh with the characters instead of at them (e.g. the original To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny). It can show evil with all its ramifications, but it must also show the good without taking ironic distance. It cannot mock.  Structurally, all the elements must be harmoniously and seamlessly integrated – direction, acting, cinematography, sound, and music.

A memorable film can be a great film but it may not be. In fact, it might even lie far outside of that circle.  For me, a memorable film must have one element that transcends all others: visual poetry. Before defining this, first let me say what it isn’t: images that are clichéd, hackneyed, overblown, obvious, grandiose, trite, and most importantly, disconnected from the story and put in simply to provide the audience with eye candy. Sweeping vistas of the Grand Canyon are not perforce poetic, neither are flocks of birds flying against a blue sky nor close-ups of a tortured face.  And just as in written poetry or music, the contents of every frame and every element of the composition must contribute to the whole effect. There can be nothing wasted. Nothing can be added as filler.  Just as in written poetry, visual poetry does not immediately reveal itself. It is subtle and works on an almost unconscious level. It usually involves the use of archetypes that are freighted with symbolic meaning.  In the context of a film, a mere few seconds of visual poetry can illuminate the entire story with just a few images.

To illustrate how visual poetry works, I’ve chosen some early scenes from Body Heat, released in 1981, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. In my opinion, this is a minor masterpiece and is close to being a perfect film.  There is not an excess frame or line of dialog in the film. The subtlety of its conception and execution can only be appreciated by multiple viewings.  It evokes both the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock and the great film noirs of the 1940’s such as Out of the Past. Thematically, it is similar to Double Indemnity – the story of a weak, vulnerable man who is ensnared by a conniving femme fatale into being a partner in the murder of a husband. In both cases the payoff for the woman is money (a double indemnity insurance policy vs. an invalid will).

[If you have not seen Body Heat and want to see it without spoilers, this might be a good place to stop.]

Structurally, the film is divided into the following sections:

  • Ned Racine (William Hurt), a lawyer in a small Florida city, meets and sleeps with Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) who is married to Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna), a shady, but successful business man / investor.
  • Ned and Matty’s plans to carry out Edward’s murder.
  • Ned’s growing suspicion of Matty.
  • Ned’s arrest and imprisonment and Matty’s ultimate destination.

The first clip starts immediately after the opening credits. It introduces Ned. He is shown to be a handsome man with an easy-going manner and who, without really trying, is devilishly attractive to women.  The clip opens with smoke and fire against a night sky. There is a dissolve showing Ned’s naked back as he watches the fire. He has just finished a sexual encounter with Angela, a nurse.  We hear sirens.

 

Angela: My God, it’s hot.  I stepped out of the shower and stared sweating again … It’s still burning? Jesus, it’s  bigger! What is it?

Ned: The Seawater Inn.  My family used to eat dinner there twenty-five years ago.  Now somebody’s torched it to clear the lot.

Angela: It’s a shame.

Ned: Probably one of my clients.

Angela: I’m leaving. What do you care? You’re watching the fire. You’re done with me. You’ve had your fun. You’re spent.

Ned: My history is burning up out here.

Angela: Hey, I don’t mind.  I’m leaving.  I’m just getting into my uniform here. Why do they make these damn skirts so hard to zip…

Ned: ‘You’re spent.’ Where’d you hear that?

The image of the fire burning in the night dissolving to Ned’s back resonates on multiple levels:

  • Night is when reason and order of daytime give way to passion.
  • The fire is both outside (greed) and inside the characters (desire).
  • Ned’s torching of another deserted beach hotel will be part of the murder plot against Edward.
  • Immolation was a punishment for sinners (an auto-da-fé). Ned (and we the viewer) is seeing his future, but does not yet know it.
  • Ned’s back is burning up in the heat. This reflects the fire of passion that will soon burn for Matty and consume him.

With a few deft strokes, the scene paints Ned’s character. He lives for momentary pleasures and drifts with their temptations.  He views his avocation as a lawyer as nothing special and will work for whatever lowlife might appear. He doesn’t take it seriously.  Ned is a classic film noir character: l’homme moyen sensuel – the average man with normal sexual instincts but undistinguished and certainly no intellectual or man of strong character.  He is the kind of man who can be easily drawn into a sexual liaison and cares not for the consequences.  In other words, he is red meat for a woman like Matty Walker.

This next clip shows how Ned meets Matty. He is standing at the rear of an outdoor concert when Matty slowly gets up, turns, and walks past him (At this point we don’t know that Matty has planned this meeting as part of her plot to entangle Ned.).  Ned can’t resist Matty’s allure and follows her to the boardwalk and there they have their initial conversation.

 

Ned: You can stand here with me if you want, but you’ll have to agree not to talk about the heat.

Matty: I’m a married woman.

Ned: Meaning what?

Matty: Meaning I’m not looking for company.

Ned: Then you should have said — ‘I’m a happily married woman.’

Matty: That’s my business.

Ned: What?

Matty: How happy I am.

Ned: And how happy is that?

This masterfully crafted scene is designed to show how a spider lures an unknowing fly into her web.  The poetry is based on the contrast between light and dark. If you watch the clip carefully, you will see that Ned is illuminated by light from different sources – on the side, in front, and above. The concert is lit with a warm glow that obscures the lurking danger. Matty disguises her inner darkness with a pure white dress.  We take Ned’s point of view as the camera approaches Matty and he tries his pick-up line. He is an experienced womanizer and exudes the confidence of a man who is normally successful in these situations. Matty understands that to capture Ned she can’t be too eager. She must whet his appetite and slowly reel him in.  The dialog continues as they walk along the boardwalk. With each step they take, Ned becomes more confident while Matty tightens the noose of irresistible temptation.

 

Matty: You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.

Ned: What else you like — Lazy? Ugly? Horny?  I got ‘em all.

Matty: You don’t look lazy. Tell me, does chat like this work with most women?

Ned: Some. If they haven’t been around much.

Matty: I wondered. Thought maybe I was out of touch.

Ned: How ’bout I buy you a drink?

Matty: I told you. I’ve got a husband.

Ned: I’ll buy him one too.

Matty: He’s out of town.

Ned: My favorite kind.  We’ll drink to him.

Matty: He only comes up on the weekends.

Ned: I’m liking him better all the time. You better take me up on this quick. In about forty-five minutes I’m going to give up and walk away.

Matty: You want to buy me something?  I’ll take one of those.

Ned: What kind?

Matty: Cherry.

This is sexual sparing at the highest level. Ned has a clever parry for every one of Matty’s thrusts. Matty consciously gives away her game and lowers Ned’s internal warning system by telling him that she likes stupidity in a man.  She gives away just enough information to bring him to a boil. The poetry is found in what she does with her cigarette. She throws it down and crushes it under her foot. That simple act confirms that she knows she has won the battle and Ned is now in the cage.

Body Heat is one of the most neglected films of the last thirty-five years. These clips only give a small taste of the inspired visual poetry, dialog, and acting that fill the entire movie. Nearly every scene is a rich banquet that rewards a viewer who is willing to spend the time and go past the film’s surface. It offers depths of understanding that soi disant “art films” never reach. Instead of being overblown and pretentious, it is always understated and subtle. I only wish I could see it again for the first time.

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Wisdom Deficit

The annual Federal budget deficit – now in the neighborhood of $1 trillion – is not the only black hole in our civilization. Despite the billions of words that are published each year, the quantity and quality of good thought has been so devalued that what is deemed wisdom today has depreciated as much as the dollar. It is as if no one has ever heard of human nature – the ever-fixed pole star of reality. Or if it is acknowledged, it is promptly cast aside as a remnant of an older, infinitely narrow-minded past that knew not the glorious technologies and modern-a-go-go lifestyles and belief systems that infuse every crevice of our lives.  And yet, human nature remains and affects every action and every thought of each person no matter where they might reside.

To counteract this trend, I have always turned to aphorisms. They embody the precious, distilled essence of human experience. A great aphorism radiates light and can illuminate the darkest, most gnarled and twisted paths of our collective existence.  I often fantasize about teaching a class in high school or college based on aphorisms. I wonder if reading them to the class would be met with bright eyes or blank stares.

There are many extant collections; my favorite collections are these:

The Viking Book of Aphorisms, edited by W.H. Auden & Louis Kronenberger
The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross
Essays and Aphorisms, by Arthur Schopenhauer
The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations, edited by Nobert Guterman

All but the last book are easily available on Amazon. Wikiquote is an excellent Internet source. While much of it is throwaway, it does capture the best from some of my favorite writers:

Robert A. Heinlein (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Heinlein)
Seneca the Younger (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Seneca_the_Younger)
Ambrose Bierce (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ambrose_Bierce)
Jean de La Bruyère (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jean_de_La_Bruyere)
Nicolas Chamfort (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Nicolas_Chamfort)
George Santayana (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Santayana)
Friedrich Nietzsche (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche)

and last but certainly not least:

Yogi Berra (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Yogi_Berra)

Instead of selecting my favorites, I would recommend following any of the links above to Wikiquote and browse. Be warned that one cannot digest too many in a single sitting, however. They are like rich food and one will soon find oneself filled. Choose around ten at a time and simply ponder them slowly.  The net affect of this will be to remove you from the immediate concerns of your life and of the moment and transport you to a place of stillness and contemplation.

Imagine further, if you have high school-age children, engaging them in a discussion based on these aphorisms and quotations. What would they say in response? Would they say “that’s just not true today” or “people are different now” or rather, would they sit back and quietly let a nugget of truth inhabit their consciousness.  Distilled wisdom can be more powerful than any other competing thought if it is allowed in and permitted to resonate. I believe that a child raised on a diet of wisdom might have a better chance of surviving the storms to come. Instead of looks of confusion he or she might remember hearing this:

“The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.” – Robert Heinlein.

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