Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sexy Beast

I watched Sexy Beast again the other night. It was almost a totally different film than I remembered. What I remembered was stylized escapism, crisp and superficial, like a bank lobby or a copy of British GQ. But last night I now saw a parable, as if by Hemingway, about people who had survived their bad choices now living for love, idyllically baking away like lizards on rocks under a hot Spanish sun. A parable of people sneaking at joy - with guilt about their joy - and being haunted by a dark pursuer. In the special features commentary, Ben Kingsley says that if he had to sum up the film in one terse line, as mythology, it'd be: There once was a man who was happy; and so the gods sent to him the most unhappy man in the world.

In Sexy Beast this misery's missionary (Ben Kingsley) is portrayed as a man who is a manifestation of a demon. The demon beast itself, which appears in slurred edits, wears closely tailored pants and dress boots and is shirtless, with long limbs, patchy hair hanging from them like diseased bear fur, finger claws and a wretched rabbit's head. It's usually waving a firearm, and staggering deliriously, drunk with rage, toward its prey. The incarnation, as man, is only slightly less ominous, more composed by degrees, with bothered eyes and neatly pressed clothes. He comes on a mission to convince one of the happy people to leave paradise and return with him to hell. It's an impossible sell, which he will make anyway through sheer willpower, bullying - sometimes physically, but mostly in a different way: he intimidates through indecency. His jagged, berating nastiness and unpredictability are an open threat, leveraging the fact that he will always be angrier, always want confrontation more.

Watching this movie with new eyes, deep resonances caused a vibration. In my way, I've always felt pursued in my paradises. As a child it was as simple as the constant rub of "reality" against wistfulness. "Take this seriously, Daniel!" shouted while I lay in the outfield grass during a little league game, abandoning my post to cloud watch (corny as it sounds). Eventually a kid like this can develop habits and overgrowths of competency. A kid like this can learn to worry like everybody else, but it'll never look good on him. Seriousness won't suit him. Like people who hate confrontation and look raw-eyed and unhinged when they are pushed to confront, not because they're cowards, but because it's not in their nature and is a form of extremism for them. In this way, I've agreed to take the world literally and this literalness is deforming.

But the flakey kid who becomes an over-serious man can't shake the pursuer. He'll think, "I thought by accepting the world's worries it would leave me alone, in privacy, so I can sneak at dreaming." But the gods will hate his talent for concern and practicality even more and resent his duplicity. They'll know his mind drifts in private, like a balloon waiting to be let go; that he disappears between a pair of headphones or out open windows, and punish him for these excursions. They'll send him the most unhappy sexy beast in the world.

There's a biography of Jeff Buckley and his father Tim Buckley, which contrasts the stories of their lives in alternating chapters. The men actually never knew each other but lived nearly the same 30 odd years of failure, twin lives of coincidental ruin. More aware, Jeff often talked of his dark pursuer and of his cursed blood. His Demon John. A generational curse is a thing which meaning can't be made about. There's no knowing who the gods will choose to thwart, or why. About eight years ago, I asked my preacher dad (a mystic with strict parameters for his superstition) if he ever thought there was a curse in our family. He surprised me by not being surprised. And then he changed the subject.

Jeff Buckley's demon John makes me think of Sal Paradise in On the Road, and his shadowy Shroud which, in nightmares, hunted him across the continent. The Shroud had an earthly form: Dean Moriarty, the hipster imp who inspired Paradise and corrupted his mind with wild ideas.

I want to understand everything (so I can control it). Even my dark pursuer. I can put myself in the demon's place. It's not that hard. In myths, vampires lust after the unperverted mortals with a naked will to corrupt. The ones deprived of innocence, deformed by hyper-awareness, envy the purity of the oblivious. Lucifer's being was forever altered by information. Possessed with the energy of a fuller truth, what choice was there but to cleanse the universe of its unaware, of its minds not yet blessed with ruinous knowledge? I use to wonder how it is that molested children sometimes grow up to be adults who molest. How they, of all people, could damage a child in the way they were damaged. But it's vampire logic; The ruined wanting to ruin; the blessed wanting to bless. We impose our ideals as well as our corruptions on others, asking the world to conform to our image.

Lately I chew on one question, over and over again like a mangled toothpick: What to do about the sexy beast. Fight? Bow down? I have a head cluttered with the conflicting truths of movie morals and children's stories. Being educated in pews certainly didn't help since there is no greater embrace of inconsistent principle than the American Christian church, which told me to both turn my cheek and vote for the best defense.

It's in my nature to fight back. Sometimes I'll be alone in my dark basement, working on my computer with my back to the room. I'll feel something standing behind me, breathing hateful vomit down on the back of my neck. There'll be a second of panic before I'll turn to meet whatever's there so that I can look at its face and choke it if necessary. I feel partly ashamed about this. I don't know why I respond this way. Why I don't turn with empathy for my demon. If I had a hero's heart, I would find the thorn in my demon's side and risk removing it, like Chihiro in Spirited Away. If I had a buddha soul, I'd let it devour me. I don't have the guts or the nature for either. I'm scared, so I fight.

There is more than one way to fight. The world is getting a lesson in non-linear warfare. For a poor zealot with humble resources, there's no sense in lining up on the battlefield against a superpower. To defeat a giant, break its will, not its skin. Take the side door, ignore the rules of civilization, kill your own people, kill yourself if you have to. It's passive aggression. It's Judo, to use the enemy's force and strength against them. But ultimately this is just another form of violence, and every bit as corrupting.

In Beast, the hero tries to take a third, meeker path of passivity. He's the larger man, but lowers his head and never makes eye contact. He tries to diffuse his demon's anger by not fanning the flames of its aggression. This doesn't work and his decency only makes the beast angrier. Thinking people love to play at pacifism, accessorizing their belief system with it like a pair of earrings. But I don't personally know anybody who is really willing to take non-violence as an absolute: to be overrun by anyone who simply has the will. The pacifist dream, one of the great earthly dreams, is born to crumble; a means to an end, but never an end in itself; ultimately discarded, in deference to the immense imperative of our will to power.

I wish the movie gave an answer I could do something with. In the end, the happy people blow a hole in the chest of the beast with a shotgun and bury it beneath the pool, under tiles laid in the shape of a heart, leaving it to eternal writhing. Despite the symbolism, they didn't kill it with love. They killed it so that they might go on loving. As far as I can tell, this is the ultimate moral of our conflict narratives: to defeat evil by overcoming its will with our own. Our reasoning will ultimately reduce all aggression to an abstraction of Hitler which we are happy to burn in effigy. I've been paying attention to the things my daughter watches and reads and there is literally no exception to this. The Care Bears will line up against an enemy and shoot a beam of good vibrations at it, overpowering it with care. LOVE was the Beatle's fluffy weapon of choice in Yellow Submarine. But the outcome is the same. The imposition of will, which is the definition of a violent act, even if it's covered in Care Bare cream. Our stories say: good should triumph over evil by the good imposing their will on the evil. But don't look at that sentence for too long. The words get mixed up and pretty soon, good becomes that which we will.

The fourth way - the Jesus way - is just something I was never taught as a child. Does it exist? I can't get my head around why I should lie down before a tank.

Raised religious, I look for the sermons in things. But I see through a glass darkly. That is, I see through dark eyes, of glass. I listened on the radio Sunday to a man who lost the use of his legs to spinal cancer talk about the great religious value he had found in his affliction. How he had embraced the dark pursuer eating at his physical body. But it just seemed like a mind inventing; compensating in beautiful ways for the ugliness of its experience.

In Beast, what finally wears down the happy people is not the ugliness of the aggression, but that the beast relents and then unexpectedly returns. Its not the onslaught, but the respite followed by onslaught, which is almost impossible to cope with. To have survived the dark pursuer, stronger and wiser, comfortable under your quilt of life lessons, only to have it return and wipe those lessons away. This is what I would find unbearable about cancer or any struggle with remissions. The thought that it might never go away for good and so I might never make a permanent meaning out of the affliction.

I want to understand my sexy beast. To believe it's not a vain struggle. Not senseless (and therefore unbearable).