Archive for December, 2006

Tales from the Gym – Doctor Who’s Sauna

The sauna at the gym bears a striking resemblance to Doctor Who’s time and dimension-traveling Police Box.  It is, similarly, tiny on the outside but has a surprisingly capacious interior.  Complex “chameleon circuitry” allows the time machine to disguise its true nature, to appear sauna-like to all casual observers and thus blend in with the gym wall.  And, like the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), the sauna actually pilots its occupants through a dizzying array of dimensions without ever seeming to move at all. 

To whit:

The other day I was hanging out in the sauna, enjoying the 200 degree weather, perma-dusk lighting ambience, and the smell of baking cedar.  I decided to take a break and go stand in the little foyer just outside of the sauna which serves as a kind of crossroads for people going to and from the main gym, the pool, the showers, and the locker area.  As I settled onto a bench and admired my lobster-red skin, a woman in her 50’s wandered out of the shower area wrapping a towel around her head and demanded of the foyer in general: “do you think Snoop Dogg really is a pimp?”  Another woman, also in her 50’s, who was mopping the floors looked up and replied: “I don’t know, but that sure is what he’s telling Rolling Stone Magazine.  Though I don’t know how anybody who looks like he’s twelve years old can convince anybody else that he’s a ‘pimp’”  A third woman, this one in her 60’s or 70’s, was supine on a bench opposite me and appeared to be asleep until she added: “did you all hear what he’s doing now?  Dogg was arrested outside of Jay Leno’s for having a handgun and drugs; and that’s not even counting the stuff he tried to bring onto a plane last month!”  Amused, but with the odd feeling that I’d accidentally wandered onto a movie set, I hurried back to the sauna.

Ten minutes later I was ready for another break.  The foyer was empty of everyone from my last visit; there was a single woman sitting on the bench opposite the sauna door.  And she was already in mid-conversation with me, even though I’d just come out of the (largely soundproof and therefore not conducive to talking through walls) sauna.  “…nd and I got such a good deal at the garage sales this morning.  I bought some of those folding chairs; you know, the kinds that are good to take to the games?  Well, they were still wrapped in plastic they were that new.  Originally twenty dollars.  Got ‘em for five apiece.”  I smiled, as she was making very direct eye contact, but looked around discretely – sure she must be talking with someone else.  But there was no one else in sight.  As she started explaining her garage sale-ing methodology (“I make a little plan the night before, you know, with our route drawn out on a map?  Then we start at seven o’clock in the morning.  And we just drive by most of ‘em, you know?  Some people just throw all their junk out in the front yard and you can tell by driving by that there isn’t going to be anything good in that mess”) I scrutinized her ears for the tell-tale signs of Blueteeth – those disconcerting nearly invisible earpiece telephones that make it look like complete strangers are talking to you, or to themselves.  Alas, nary a Bluetooth in sight.  Totally unsure of how she’d started a conversation with me before I was even there, I congratulated her on a successful morning and shuffled quickly back into the sauna. 

The next time I came out of the sauna, the foyer was again emptied of all prior occupants.  Instead, there were three delightfully Rubenesque naked women sitting one right next to the other on a tiny bench, silently eating orange slices and chewing on ginger root.

And this is why I believe that the sauna is actually a TARDIS.

Add comment December 17th, 2006

Apocalypto

I saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in sneak-preview format the other night with a crowd that included Mayanist scholars and university undergrads fresh out of finals week. We were a rowdy, engaged bunch; there was spontaneous cheering whenever one of the protagonists did something admirable – like escape from the bad guys, or give birth while simultaneously holding a toddler, balancing on a rock, and drowning. When it was all over, many applauded. Someone sitting behind me said “I’m glad I didn’t pay ten bucks for that.” One Mayanist left the theater with a wry smile, saying “yes, and that’s exactly how it happened,” while the other pointedly changed the subject to a discussion of the relative merits of Roman concrete and Central American lime.

There are things to be said about Apocalypto from a film-making perspective: it would be interesting to speculate about the strange, shallow look produced by the digital film for example, the thinking behind the jiggling hand-held camera, or the point of the droning soundtrack. But all of these impressions quickly fade under the visual onslaught of graphic violence that is Apocalypto’s ultimate raison d’être.

Apocalypto, much like The Passion, is an exercise in gratuitous violence that can only be described as pornographic. There is neither reason nor justification for most of the violence; instead the story contorts ridiculously – or blithely accepts gaping narrative holes – in order to produce scene after scene of carnage. An almost incomprehensible amount of time and creative energy has gone into imagining new ways to destroy the human body. The film opens with the deployment of an elaborate hunting device: a pig is flung into the air and then impaled by a kind of giant spiked fork that swings horizontally at high velocity. It’s disgusting, and you will not be surprised to learn that this overly-designed device makes another, even more disgusting appearance later in the film. After the pig is disengaged from the torture-fork, we’re treated to several minutes of entrail removal… heart, liver, etc., all of which is merely a set-up for a comedic scene in which one member of the hunting party slowly gnaws and slurps his way through the viscera of the pig’s testicles, only to vomit and be informed by his laughing comrades that no one actually eats pig testicles. And it goes on. Expect to see skin ripped from fascia by jaguar teeth in great and excessive detail, throats slit by unwieldy dull-looking knives in slow motion, blood pouring in sheets over well-muscled torsos, skulls grazed open to the brain revealing the pulsing jet of arterial bleeding, and human hearts cut out and held high – still beating – then tossed into braziers of hot coals while the unfortunate victim looks on, twitching.

The only reason, I think, that Mel Gibson isn’t known by his true occupation – a pornographer of violence – is that he has enough money to buy the trappings of cultural capital for his projects. The dialogue in Apocalypto is delivered entirely in Yucatec – a Mayan language – with English subtitles. While this might seem admirable, it was hardly necessary, as Gibson represents 16th century Mayans through bawdy humor reminiscent of the Lethal Weapon franchise, and storytelling clichés straight out of late 21st century America. The culmination of an unnecessarily long subplot about an impotent young husband who is heckled mercilessly by his family and neighbors reminded me of nothing so much as Danny Glover sitting on a booby-trapped toilet while his house was deconstructed. At one point during Apocalypto my partner looked at me with wide, amused eyes and said “it’s like a Mayan Jackass!”

In another gesture towards cultural awareness, the film was cast with indigenous individuals – many of whom were not actors prior to this film. Again, I have to wonder why Gibson bothered, as he uses indigenous actors to ventriloquize an array of disturbing and well-established stereotypes. For example, viewer sympathies are quickly elicited and manipulated by representing Mayans as coming in one of two un-nuanced varieties. There are benevolent, peaceful, child and family-loving, nature-dwelling, tradition-respecting Mayans. And then there are cruel, vindictive, amoral, sickly, human-sacrificing city-dwelling Mayans. Neither group merits explanation, development, or contextualization – we’re meant to accept that one group is inherently Good and the other inherently Evil. Good Mayans live in tidy, hygienic villages; their bodies are beautiful, healthy, and well-formed. Evil Mayans live in filth, and count midgets, the deformed, the handicapped, and the mentally ill amongst their numbers. Gibson’s storytelling strategy is as old and as dangerous as the 19th century pseudo-science of phrenology – which posited that individual character could be inferred by physical appearance. The casting of indigenous actors seems less politically progressive and more like an attempt to disguise age-old discriminatory yet comfortably familiar storytelling strategy.

In another example, random Mayan characters are endowed with unexplained psychic powers; they can see the future, they utter prophecy. And there is no attempt to explain such abilities. Here, again, Gibson takes advantage of established racist storytelling shortcuts. Hollywood films about Native Americans delight in imbuing indigenous characters with intuitive, psychic, otherworldly powers – but rarely feel the need to explain where the powers come from, why, to whom they are granted, and under what circumstances. The audience is meant to assume that if the characters are indigenous, then of course they can talk to the dead, see the future, channel spirits, manufacture tangible good or evil out of thin air, etc. So the question becomes, why did Gibson bother to cast indigenous actors, if he was also going to recycle the same racist stereotypes that movie-makers have used since the days of black and brown-face acting?

It is interesting to note that in Apocalypto only the Evil Mayans are overtly psychic and pagan, while the Good Mayans have more understated psychic powers, rely mostly on reason, and are conveniently represented without any overt religion. This makes the arrival of the Spanish colonizers rather troubling. The film suggests that the Evil Mayans deserved to be slaughtered (and the film’s protagonist gets started on the work ahead of time), and that the Good Mayans welcomed “a new beginning.” Are we meant to believe that the only Good Mayans are dead and Catholic Mayans?

Finally, there are the sets – elaborate temples, paintings, sculpture come to life in the form of masks, and exquisite bodily ornamentation. It is surely the urban costumes and sets that have provoked many reviewers to decide that in spite of its overwhelming violence the film is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, I can only see this as another ruse on Gibson’s part – another wave of the “authenticity” wand in an attempt to convince the audience that there’s something more to his method than an obsession with visual sadism. But beauty and pornography have never been mutually exclusive. And, given the wildly ahistorical use of 19th, 20th, and 21st century stereotypes to describe the 16th century Mayan world, the historical accuracy of the Evil Mayan city felt like so much ambiance manufactured in the service of fantasy.

Ultimately, the language, actors, and settings in Apocalypto are meant to convince us that the film is historically accurate. Gibson has amassed tremendous personal wealth and built a cinematic franchise out of disguising his personal fantasies in historical drag. In Apocalypto he goes a step further and projects them onto real, living, disenfranchised people. At a time when politically-conservative Christian Americans are steering a violent, bloody, catastrophic war that many have linked with US imperialism… it must be asked what kind of cultural work Apocalypto is doing. What lessons are imparted when the ancient Maya are represented as modern-day indigenous Jackasses, who are – in addition – in desperate need of being killed or converted? And will those lessons stay anchored in the past, or will they – like Gibson’s storytelling strategies – find their way back to the 21st century?

Add comment December 13th, 2006

Tales From the Gym: The Case of the Sinister Steam-Bath…

Today I decided to hang out in the steam bath. It’s a lovely little room, glass-walled of course (the gym is designed to facilitate peer-surveillance on a massive scale) with tiled, graduated benches built into opposite walls. What makes the steam-bath so delicious, however, is also what makes it sinister: the same steam that cleanses and purifies also temporarily removes all visual data. The little steam-producing factory in the corner works on a kind of cycle, you see; the temperature in the room gradually drops, and when it reaches a certain critical point, the factory chugs to life, issuing steam forth in rectangular blocks that quickly flower into tendrils and blossoms and waves and finally banks of steam. The more steam, the less visibility, until finally it’s insanely, nose-burningly, one hundred percent humidity-hot, and you can’t even see your own toes wiggling in front of you. You can hear, but you can’t see. You can breathe, but you can’t move – pinned down, as you are, by a thousand pounds of clouds.

It was at this precise moment that someone chose to enter the steam-bath. I heard the door swing open, and vaguely sensed the swirling of vapor that marked the passage of a human-sized body. The form settled itself into the corner with a strange sound, as though the benches were made of a thousand empty, crunchy, plastic grocery store bags instead of tile.

Time is marked by hydration-level and sweat beads in the steam-room. Halfway through my water bottle, the figure began to move, and the slow, rhythmic crunching of a thousand plastic bags shot unimpeded through the room and echoed off of the tiled walls. Crunch-rustle-rustle, crunch-rustle-rustle, crunch-rustle-rustle. I finished the water bottle and time promptly stood still. Vapor entered my nose and left my mouth. My toes wiggled unseen somewhere on the other side of the world. Water dripped from the ceiling, from my fingertips. It might have been several days later when the vapor began to thin, or it might have only been minutes. I was suddenly aware that I could almost discern the outline of the mysterious figure with the gentle, rhythmic, perpetual crunch-rustle-rustle, crunch-rustle-rustle. But just as I focused my eyes on the wisp of an outline, the figure billowed through the door, and disappeared. For now, the sinister plastic rustling remains a mystery.

Add comment December 6th, 2006

Tales From the Gym

We joined a gym. On the good side, it’s only a half mile from our house and it has everything we could want in a gym – lots of cardio, nautilus, free weights, a pool, hot tub, sauna, steam-bath, even the occasional yoga class. On the bad side, it’s part of that evil gym empire… if you’ve ever joined, you’ll know the one I mean. Where the gym-folk are actually cold-blooded salespeople cleverly disguised as fitness enthusiasts in workout pants and ponytails. Where, upon whispering “I might like to join your establishment” you’re whisked away to a glass-enclosed office, given a “deal” which is both spectacular and just beyond your means, told that you’re welcome to deliberate to your heart’s content, but should you dare leave the office the offer will be rescinded until the end of time. The office gradually fills with smoke and mirrors as your own personal mesmerist waves his hands and performs stunning feats of mathematical sophistry.

Surviving the sales-people is daunting, but once you sign the contract they – along with the rest of the staff – ignore you, leaving you free to observe human nature in one of society’s more contrived environments. The drama, the mystery, the startling ritual known as “naked networking”…

Add comment December 6th, 2006

Odyssey 2006 Day 9 - Present

I haven’t done much literary musing lately, though certainly not for lack of subject matter. When last we met, we were watching Sam save a litter of baby puppies (I know it sounds redundant, but puppies might be infants, toddlers, or even adolescents, right?) from where they languished in darkness and anonymity under the porch of a log cabin in East Lynne Missouri. I am happy to report that the baby puppies are now adolescent puppies, the mother survived the double ignominy of constant, indiscriminate petting of herself and her offspring by a parade of strangers, and nearly being nursed to death by the eight aforementioned offspring who, within days, were collectively bigger in mass than her.

Meanwhile, Sam and I continued westward in our adventures. After Missouri, we stopped overnight in Denver, for a few days in Mesquite Nevada, then arrived in Los Angeles on the 28th of September. Our first stroke of magic was quickly forthcoming. The afternoon of our arrival we drove directly to a house in North Hollywood that had a master bedroom suite available for the month of October (thank you, CraigsList). We liked it, the current occupants gave it to us, we unloaded all of our earthly possessions from the car, and were on our way again – maybe 45 minutes later – with an address, a home, and a place for our stuff.

October went quickly, with trips to San Francisco and France taking up chunks of our respective time. When at home in “NoHo” we found an office at a local independent coffee shop with free WiFi for the computers, and started looking for jobs and our next place to live post-October. And, we struck gold again – Sam is now quite busy with graphic design and web work, and we’re settling into our new home in the West Los Angeles/Santa Monica area. We absolutely love our neighborhood; we bike to the ocean for sunsets, walk or bike to the office (local coffee shops), and have two organic grocery stores and a Trader Joe’s near-by. To make things even better, on our block I can get a pedicure for $10 and a massage from a local school of massage for $35. Heaven! Los Angeles is turning out to be great. We’re rarely on the highways (which is good, since “highway” is synonymous with “time warp” and it takes an hour to go five miles during rush hour), have clean air, and walk or bike to just about anything we need. I still meet people who don’t understand how we could just pick a city seemingly at random, with no jobs lined up, no family waiting, no apparent and compelling reason to go, and orchestrate a cross-country relocation. But so far, I have to say… I’m happy we followed our instincts. I’m sure rational reasons will present themselves later. As if living two miles from the Pacific, and around the corner from a school of massage wasn’t rational enough…

Add comment December 4th, 2006