The Whale


I have regarded Darren Aronofsky as my favorite director for 20 years. He competes in a space that he shares with provocateur directors such as Lars Von Trier and David Lynch but I have an affinity with his films, unlike the others. The first of his films I saw was Pi when I was about 17 years old. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Subliminal glory between the lines of brutalizing flesh. And every film of his after wrestles with threadbare flesh trying to make contact with glory.

His most recent incarnation The Whale grapples with this same universal and persistent question that is the substance of all his films; what is the meaning of all this?

It’s no coincidence that I have such an affinity with an Atheist Jew who can’t resist existential questions that have spiritual overtones. He and I, or at least his art and I, have the same curiosities, wrestle with the same nagging life pangs, both wish for truth to break through the veneer. The caged bird does indeed sing. We’re all caged inside our flesh, our vices, our peccadilloes. The spirit is caged inside the body.

There is a scene when the missionary, Thomas, discovers Charlie’s lover’s Bible and the passage under Roman’s 8:13 is highlighted.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

The Whale is the most acute examination of the body as a cage that Aronofsky has explored to this point. The film is a slow burn. It is quite a passive film compared to Aronofsky’s last film mother! that was frantic chaos. The passivity is purposeful. Charlie puts up no resistance to the fate of each day. He is Superman at weathering blows. The few loved ones in his life, at first sight, are uncomfortably abusive. We, the audience, can’t believe the cruelty.

There is a scene where his estranged daughter manipulates morbidly obese Charlie into getting to his feet and walking to her that reminded me of a perversion of Christ’s walking on water. He ends up crushing the end table under his weight and flopping down into a devastating heap that is utterly heartbreaking. His daughter storms out the door in disgust.

There is another scene where we can infer that his daughter smashed a plate that had food remnants on it that Charlie was using to feed a bird on his window sill, the one creature who gave him comfort. Again, how evil of her. But there is more than first sight with Aronofsky films. We learn through its slow crescendo that the finale to this story is about freeing the caged bird. When that bird feeds at Charlie’s plate each day it grows dependent, it has no desire to explore, it becomes imprisoned in its domestication. The missionary, too, is caged in his assumption that his past is irredeemable. His daughter is caged inside her abandonment. Charlie’s lover is caged inside his religious hypocrisy. Charlie is caged inside his grief.

It was quite a poetic, quite biblical, ending. During the entirety of the story it is downpouring outside. The following is borrowed from Alissa Wilkinson writing for Vox:

“The real apocalypse is happening at Charlie’s house, at least if we take “apocalypse” to mean a moment of revelation. [The GOP primaries of 2016 are playing on tv in which Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump in Idaho where the film is set]. We know — everyone knows — that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s raining continually outside, like a flood is coming. Charlie is obsessed with an essay he keeps reading about Moby-Dick, an apocalyptic book if there ever was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There’s an atmosphere of dread, both of what’s about to happen in Charlie’s house and what’s going on beyond its walls.”

But in the final scenes the clouds break to sunlight. Weight becomes weightless, flesh walks on water and the spirit is freed from the body.

Charlie exclaims near the end that he thinks it’s impossible for people to be completely careless. Implying that our inherent nature, our instincts, care. In a world that so obviously perpetuates bad, is this sentiment true? I’m perplexed by this existential supposition. There is also Charlie’s obsession with honesty. He implores his students and his daughter to write honestly. Despite his own refusal to confront his flesh. It’s another perplexing theme.

But Aronofsky once again succeeds in creating a picture like that of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in which man is reaching out for the spark of life from God.

The Whale

Play me that Mountain Music: out of many, one


“You’ve got to have smelt a lot of manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” –Hank Williams Sr.

Country music has become the subject of the quintessential ‘eyeroll’ of the 21st Century. It, as well as the South in general has become the pariah of the intellectual hipster and the urban Progressive. Those that have hung onto a respect or even downright like of country music are thought to be one of the following: either an unintelligent clueless mainstream suburbanite or an unintelligent inbreeding red neck yokel. Either way they have extremely bad taste and are not sophisticated!

They are not as cool as we.

What’s a travesty about all this is that Country music is a deeply American creation, E Pluribus Unum, that has influence from the Calvinist morals of the Puritans, the folk songs and ballads of the emigrating English, Scot and Irish settlers to the Appalachians, the Jazz, Gospel and Blues from the Black community, and Ranchera from the Mexican community. Country music always had history and heritage entrenched in its bones while navigating the rootlessness of the new frontier. It was one of the first genres of music to speak plain about death and suffering, especially around the Civil War, while music at that time was often too syrupy in its sentimentality. Country music embraced the rugged, drawing on the reverent. It was born out of a time of perseverance and fortitude. Life was not cozy and affluent as it is now. You worked hard and you barely got by but by the grace of God. Mourning was a very acute emotion. Death and suffering was a cloak over the rural working South.

My pocketbook is empty

And my heart is filled with pain

I’m a thousand miles away from home

Just waiting for a train.

-Jimmie Rodgers

As I said, Country music is one of the clearest examples of Southern working-class attitudes toward life and death. Evangelical hymns and sermons in the rural South fostered Country Music. The Protestants that founded America brought a deeply devout way of thinking that included Reformed Theology (Calvinism) advocating greater purity of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety. They were archaic survivalists coming from State control in England, Lowland Scotland and Ulster Northern Ireland. They are familiar with being ostracized and believe in the strength of the family as a survivalist method but also as a deeply religious value. Southerners mourn in their songs. They mourn their wife, their lover, and their children, even their dog. In modern times this is heckled and laughed at but unlike the Northeast in the 19th Century who established institutions to avoid suffering and death, the South digested tragedy, mourned suffering, always looking to the afterlife, the eternal. To the struggling Southerner who was deeply poor with low mortality rates and a laborers stoicism death, if God wills it, was often a relief, for the Lord is on the other side. Interestingly, suicide rates in the South were strikingly low. There was an understanding of our status as human beings, fallen, in need of regeneration, of the love for community to shoulder the suffering together and to live with Godly dignity, not suppressing suffering but accepting it.

“Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.”  -Johnny Cash

Blues music, though that term was not coined yet, was born out of the black laborer slave community. The earliest blues-like music was a functional expression, rendered in a call-and-response style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure that was rooted in the African American spirituals. It was later when the southern, black, ex-slave population was acculturated to a considerable degree by and among their Scots-Irish “redneck” neighbors. A common trait among Blues in the Black community and Country in the rural White community is both were generally regarded as poor people music, separate from the upper- and middle-classes. Which speaks to the bourgeoisie attitude, in fact prejudice, that still infects the intellectual and Progressive minds of today.

By the 1920’s broadcast radio made exposure for country music more available and the first country ‘hit’ was in 1923; Fiddlin’ John Carson’s album. By the late 20’s the fiddle and guitar began replacing the traditional banjo. The Appalachian dulcimer, mandolin, and harmonica also turned up on the scene. The Great Depression forced many rural whites into industrial areas where the genre was influenced by modern Blues and Gospel music with the sub-genre Boogie Woogie which was Blues with a dance beat focus.

In the 1930’s Texas-Oklahoma region Country started developing an influence from Swing-Jazz and came to feature the steel guitar. In the 1940’s Honky-Tonk music developed including a steel guitar-fiddle combination with its roots in Western Swing and the Ranchera music of Mexico. Also during the 1940’s Bluegrass emerged out of a nostalgic yearning to bring Country music back to its roots. Nashville was established as Country music’s studio city with the help of Hank Williams. The term “Country and Western music” (later shortened to “Country music”) was adopted by the recording industry in 1949 to replace the derogatory label “Hillbilly music” that was coined in 1925.

By the 50’s and 60’s Country music was a full blown commercial success with the advancement of Rockabilly that some describe as a combination of Country and Rhythm and Blues as others describe it as a blend of Bluegrass and Rock-n-roll of which Elvis Presley is the most notorious example.

The 1970’s saw Outlaw music rise up with music recorded outside the corporate Nashville sound from such artists as Willy Nelson. Southern Rock also established during this period blending Bluegrass and Boogie with Rock producing such artists as Lynyrd Skynyrd.  The gap between Country music and Pop narrowed during this time as the electric guitar took prominence. By the 80’s and 90’s country went pop. Today there is a multi-genre diversity in Country music with inclusion of Pop, Rock, Hip hop, even Techno.

One can say Country music as it is today bares no resemblance to the Americana it evolved from but he would have to be intellectually honest about all genres of music as they stand today. Popular culture and commercial sales changed music. All music. Nothing is what it was but one could argue that the soul of the music still lingers in the unconscious backdrop of the Country song. What music more clearly shows its soul than Country in which you will still catch its artists singing of God, family, community, suffering, death and mourning, reverence and humility, and perseverance? And heck, modernity introduced into the music the luxury of fun, aint nothin’ wrong with that.

Play me that Mountain Music: out of many, one

The metamorphosis of Shia LaBeouf

'Nymphomaniac Volume I (long version)' Premiere - 64th Berlinale International Film Festival

“When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”   -Eric Cantona (French soccer player and actor, following a media frenzy over an assault on a fan) and later repeated by Shia LaBeouf as he walked out of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac press conference

There is an antagonizing duality that comes with celebrity. Being innovative, creative and heroic like the first celebrities, the ancient Greek athletes, and being a mere human being with all its fallibility. There are two curiosities about Shia LaBeouf. Who does he hope to be and who is he? Does he even know himself? Should anyone care? One thing that’s clear… he’s fumbling… groping for something.

Shia was inducted into Hollywood when he was 14 years old in the tv show Even Stevens on the Disney Channel. At 21 he starred in the film Disturbia that is a moderately well done run-of-the-mill teenage thriller and the widely circulated big budget film Transformers. If one is keeping track they’re coming to the conclusion at this point that Shia is not interested in anything more than becoming famous and making lots of money. For years I discounted him as another manufactured star churned out by the Disney machine. Certainly he’s not interested in quality let alone anything avante garde.

He had a seemingly predictable Hollywood upbringing of partying and alcohol consumption. In 2007 he had a DUI arrest and was kicked out of Walgreens for misdemeanor criminal trespassing while heavily intoxicated. In 2011 he had an altercation while drunk at a bar in which he threatened to assault a guy who called him a name and instead he himself got punched in the face. There was another bar fight in Vancouver in 2011 and one more in London in 2014. This all reads very ordinary and very predictable of a well financed 20 something maturing in front of the paparazzi eye.

He was in an Indiana Jones and two more Transformers before it seems that something ignited in his brain.

In 2012 he started to disembark from the Hollywood studio.

He became meta.

He started pursuing more creative endeavors. He released 3 graphic novels, was cast in the cerebral and eclectic band Sigur Ros’ controversial music video about desire and addiction in which he is in the nude. He was cast in a Broadway play in Feb. 2013 but was fired for feuding with Alec Baldwin.

By the end of 2013 his semi-divorce from Hollywood seems to have reached an apex. Two of the graphic novels he wrote were revealed in 2013 to have been plagiarized. Then his short film was revealed to have been plagiarized and his apology for plagiarizing was plagiarized. What follows is either a conciliatory attempt at humility, a rebranding for the sake of hubris or a frenetic effort to become the artist he always wanted to be but was typecast out of.

A spiral of what to some seems downward is to Shia the beginning of a meta-modernist art installation.

  • Jan 2014 Shia takes to Twitter and says it’s his outlet for ‘meta-modernist performance art’
  • 2014, Shia walked out of the Berlin Film Festival press conference for the provocateur Director Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac quoting “When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”   Later at the red carpet showing of Nymphomaniac he showed up wearing a paper bag over his head that read ‘I am not famous anymore’
  • 2014, two days after the red carpet showing Shia performs an art installation called #IAMSORRY in which he sat in a room with a paper bag on his head wearing a tuxedo. Attendees were invited to select an object (symbolic of moments from Shia’s past) and enter the room one at a time to do as they wish. Some of the implements were a Transformers toy, an Indiana Jones whip, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pair of pliers, a ukulele, a bowl full of hateful tweets directed at LaBeouf, and a copy of Clowes‘s book (that Shia plagiarized) The Death-Ray
  • 2014 Following the art installation Shia had skywriting done that said #startcreating that was the converse of his skywriting a month earlier (in response to Crowe’s cease and desist letter) that said #stopcreating
  • May 2014 he took part in a performance called “meditations for narcissists” in which he and attendees jumped rope for an hour
  • June 2014, Shia is kicked out of a Caberet performance on Broadway for drunken disorderly conduct and arrested. He stood up and screamed out at the actors and was later seen crying outside the venue and had spat at arresting officers
  • In 2014 he gave a lecture on ‘metamodernism’. He and a collaborator define metamodernism as “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons,” and concluding with a call to “go forth and oscillate!

Check out the manifesto. Does it make sense to you? 

  • 2014 it was revealed that a woman “raped” Shia during his #IAMSORRY art installation

When the old gods withdraw, the empty thrones cry out for a successor, and with good management, or even without management, almost any perishable bag of bones may be hoisted into the vacant seat.   -E.R. Dodds, “The Greeks and the Irrational”

This art installation is sounding eerily familiar to Joaquin Phoenix’s stunt five years earlier in Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here. Is this the new Millennial quarter life crisis for celebrities or is this a rebirth? Are these the artistic ideas of someone shattering boundaries, expanding horizons, and embracing chaos in an effort to reach truth? Or is this someone that has been weaned from a very American, very affluent idea of what ‘soul searching’ is? Is meta soul searching a bunch of nonsense that allows belligerence and excuses immaturity? What does it mean to be both naïve and knowing, ironic and sincere? I have a feeling that his adaptation of the paradox is not the kind Mother Teresa was talking about when she spoke of love and loss. It must be a strange thing to try to be a famous artist yet a human being in the ‘meta-modern’ world of American pop culture.

I, for one, found Shia’s performance art in Sigur Ros’ and Sia’s videos to be a breath of fresh air for an actor I discounted as a clone. I hope he keeps questioning for the sake of truth and doesn’t get lost in the meaningless gibberish that is the pop culture idea of art or, likewise, the pop culture idea of truth. Eventually the journey should lead to something productive, objective and timeless otherwise it’s a lot of time wasted on ones vanity. And God, keep him from his transgressions that are broadcast to the world. Or at the very least grant him privacy in this digital age so that when he reaches out through the landscape of life he may arrive at something eternal.

The metamorphosis of Shia LaBeouf