Images of My Suburban Dreamworld: 6


My life right now might best be described as a Manchester by the Sea kind of awful. A few weeks ago, my mother, who broke her hip back in March, developed an intestinal blockage after undergoing hip surgery, and then brain damage as a side effect of the procedure to clear the intestinal blockage. Apparently this is common for elderly people under anesthesia.  In any event, she’s now almost completely disabled and will require my brother and me to liquidate her property to pay for a nursing home or a twenty four hour home health care aid. In one “stroke” (pun intended) my family has gone from petty bourgeois to fully proletarian.

This morning I looked out of the window to see tulips in the backyard. How is this possible? I didn’t plant them. I don’t know anybody who did. Is there such a thing as a wild tulip? They have renovated the house next door. They have done landscape work to the park down the block. So it’s possible tulip seeds blew over onto what will soon not be my property, and bloomed this morning after the big rain storm. What do these wild tulips symbolize? Are they nature telling me that Spring always follows the Winter? Or are they nature reminding me that I’m living on a piece of property that will soon have to be sold? Are they flowers of hope? Or are they flowers of evil? I’d like to think that the yellow tulip is reminding me not to be a coward.

(Thanks to the people who got back to me and reminded me that tulips are grown from bulbs and not seeds. So someone planted them. I just don’t remember their being there.)

Rogue One (2016)


I saw Star Wars, now called Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, at exactly the right time in my life. I was twelve-years-old. As an adult I would come to see its flaws. It was elitist, racist, and simple-minded. It raised the issues of imperialism and nuclear annihilation only to dismiss them without really addressing them. If Richard Nixon, the man who almost used nuclear weapons on Vietnam, came from Yorba Linda, California, Grand Moff Tarkin, the man who actually did order the destruction of Alderaan, came from Old Europe. The heroes, by contrast, Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, were as American as apple pie.

For a twelve-year-old from suburban, New Jersey, Star Wars was thrilling entertainment. Luke Skywalker was no ordinary nineteen-year-old farm boy. He was a hero with a special destiny. Who wouldn’t want to have a father like Obi Won Kenobi or a big brother like Han Solo? In the real world, nineteen-year-old American farm boys raped and murdered Vietnamese peasant girls. In that “galaxy a long time ago and far far away” they rolled into the heart of the evil empire, rescued the princess, and got to fly jet fighters without even passing the Air Force Academy entrance exams. What Star Wars taught us – and by “us” I mean late Boomers and Early Gen Xers – was that perhaps America still had a future. Forget Vietnam. Forget stagflation. Forget the gas lines. Ordinary Americans from out of the way places like Stanley Rogouski from Elizabeth, New Jersey or Luke Skywalker from the desert planet Tatooine could still go onto do great things.

What a cruel hoax it all turned out to be. Star Wars was not only rotten, Cold War Propaganda – it was no accident that Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” – it was the end of American cinema. Star Wars was not the first “blockbuster” – that honor belongs to Jaws – but it was a key moment in the process whereby storytelling became marketing. After Star Wars, Hollywood began to concentrate, not on selling movie tickets, but on selling brands. The great American films of the 1930s and 1940s were surrounded by hype and publicity, but they were one off events. The screenwriter had to say what he wanted to say in ninety minutes. After Star Wars, moviegoers had to assume that any new “blockbuster” was probably the first movie in a long series of movies, little better than a teaser. The Hunger Games is a good movie. It’s not three good movies. I’ve long since lost count of how many times they’ve remade Batman. The Matrix should have ended with Neo’s monologue about the continuing struggle. Shailene Woodley wisely gave up acting in the ongoing Divergent series to combat the real evil American empire at Standing Rock. Worst of all is Star Wars. It just goes on, and on, and on. What seemed so fresh and innocent in 1977 was already stale in the late 1990s when George Lucas brought out the insipid Phantom Menace. Astonishingly, in 2017, thirty-year-olds are paying to see Star Wars reboots, to watch films based on a simple-minded screenplay written for children over a decade before they were even born. Indeed, more than anything else, the release of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and the coming Last Jedi indicate that we are living in a dead culture.

Sadly, it turns out, “these kids today,” the millennial generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t want anything new. They simply want a more inclusive version of what the Boomers had. The Force Awakens, which was a bad movie, gave us a female Luke Skywalker. Rogue One, which is actually a pretty good movie, gives us a Latino Han Solo. I suppose it represents some progress that Gareth Edwards cast Diego Luna instead of say Ryan Gosling, a Mexican white guy instead of an Anglo Saxon white guy, as Rogue One’s ruggedly handsome, morally ambiguous hero Cassian, but it’s not that much progress. What saves Rogue One from becoming a tedious bore like The Force Awakens is not only Felicity Jones, who with her pert British face, girl next door athleticism, and wounded, angry demeanor, is utterly believable as an action heroine, it’s the film’s doom laden dramatization of a world, and of a culture, with no future. Whether or not Gareth Edwards intended it – and I strongly suspect he did not – Rogue One is the negation of the Star Wars franchise, a good slap to the back of the head for the millennial generation, an exhortation to forget about the past and create something new.

In my review of La La Land, I remarked that Damien Chazelle’s musical would have been a much better film if it had been about zombies, if Ryan Gosling twirled Emma Stone around the dance floor only to rip her arm off, and, in turn, get beheaded. Rogue One comes a lot closer. While its hero and heroine are not zombies, Grand Moff Tarkin, one of its most important villains, is not only depicted as a zombie, but actually played by a zombie, a digitally created zombie to be sure, but still a zombie. In the original Star Wars, Tarkin, played by the gaunt, almost cadaverous British actor Peter Cushing, annihilates Alderaan, Prince Leia’s home planet, right in front her eyes. Aside from Obi Won Kenobi feeling a “great disturbance in the force,” we forget about it thirty seconds later. Not only does Leia not go through any kind of ritualized mourning process, she immediately falls into a meet cute “I’m only fighting with you because I really want to fuck you” relationship with Han Solo, who never once says “God Leia, it must really suck that your entire species got wiped out by the Death Star. Can I run to the store and get you a pint of Häagen-Dazs or something?” In Rogue One, by contrast, we vividly experience the effect of Tarkin’s serial genocide spree from the point of view of the races of people being destroyed by what Darth Vader once referred to as “this technological terror,” twice.

It’s probably not worth thinking too much about whether or not “the holy city of Jehda” is Baghdad or Mecca. Yes, Forrest Whitaker’s extremist rebel Saw Gerrera is more Al Qaeda in Iraq than George Washington crossing the Delaware, and yes, kyber crystals are probably supposed to represent oil, but Rogue One’s script is too underwritten to make any real political point about American involvement in the Middle East. The real point that the film makes, whether it intends to or not, is the sense of there being no future. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and Diego Luna’s Cassian will not live to see the Death Star destroyed. Whether it’s a fear of global warming, nuclear war, or economic disintegration, the millennials feel, deep inside their bones, that they will never see old age, that they are part of the human race’s last generation. The current obsession with reboots of Boomer franchises like Star Wars, the lack of any real new youth culture, the millennial generation have a problem with “the horizon.” In the memorable words of the reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO “there is no horizon.” In the original Star Wars franchise, Luke Skywalker not only had a father. He had two, the choice between Christ, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Satan, Darth Vader. He also had Yoda. He had mentors, teachers, older men who either would help him grow up to be a Jedi Knight, or seduce him into serving the dark side of the force. Jyn, in turn, has two fathers, her biological father, from whom she’s separated as a little girl, and Saw Gerrera, who teaches her how to kill a whole platoon of Storm Troopers with a baton. Nevertheless, she has no future, neither with Cassian or anybody else. Jyn, like Luke Skywalker, watches both her fathers die, but she only outlives them by a few days.

Jyn Urso and Cassian die a heroic death, vaporized in each other’s arms, but they save, not the future, but the past. After they die in the holocaust created by the digitally recreated dead actor, the cgi zombie Peter Cushing, the story picks up at the beginning of the original Star Wars. We have come full circle back to 1977. The plans for the Death Star, bought so dearly at the cost of two planets, are handed off to none other than Princess Leia, played by none other than a dead Carrie Fisher, her digital likeness superimposed on the young Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila. Take this to heart millennials. Take this to heart. Not only will your elders make you work at unpaid internships, they will replace you with digitally recreated versions of themselves. I wasted my future. If you kids don’t rebel now, you won’t even get that opportunity.

Images of My Suburban Dreamworld: 2




Last month my elderly mother — she’s in her 80s –and I went to a family reunion where we both caught a nasty case of the flu. I was in bed for two days with a 102 degree fever. I had to give up running for a week, but I managed to recover. My mother wasn’t so lucky. The flu led to pneumonia, and in her weakened state she fell and broke her hip for the second time in three years. The surgery was successful and she was transferred to a physical therapy and rehabilitation center, but at that age you don’t recover easily from a traumatic injury. Her limbs became swollen. She was unable to make progress in physical therapy, and she developed an intestinal blockage, which required a second major operation.

So this is a big part of my life now, walking up the big hill in downtown Summit, New Jersey and taking the elevator to the ninth floor of Overlook Medical Center to visit my ailing mother. Overlook Medical Center is not only an excellent hospital. It has stunning views of Manhattan. My mother is getting just about the best healthcare money can buy. Nevertheless, as she nears the end of her life, my mother is not a happy woman. The American healthcare system is excellent for people who can afford it, but it’s still coldly rational. It treats the body but ignores the soul. The doctors and nurses at Overlook see the world through the very narrow perspective of treating the body. One has an injury. You treat the injury. There are then a series of steps you most go through to recover from that injury.  In the case of a broken hip it looks something like this: After you undergo surgery, you are moved from the operating room to intensive care to the cardiac and surgical division back to a regular hospital bed before being discharged. Then you spend the next few weeks in a rehabilitation and nursing home learning how to walk again.

It all makes perfect sense. Who doesn’t want to get better? Back in 2013 when I had a cycling accident and spent three days in intensive care with a severe concussion I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. Had they not let me out the day after I was moved to a regular bed, I probably would have escaped and walked to the nearest New Jersey Transit station. But while doctors and cranky middle aged cyclists see recovery as a rational series of steps that lead back to normality, frail elderly women do not. The constant moves, the lack of a regular routine, the inability to get up and walk around, the knowledge that she’s approaching the end of her life have disoriented my mother.

My family is not religious. We don’t prepare for death. It’s not supposed to happen. The result is denial, and my mother, not wanting to face the grim reality in front of her, is beginning to deny reality. Her old habit of repeating questions until she gets the answer she wants is getting worse. She asks me to explain things that I, not being a doctor, cannot explain. When I call a nurse into her room to give a more authoritative response, my mother drifts off into her own world until she can once again ask the same question to me, hoping she can bully me into saying something like “no, you will not have to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of your life” or “yes you are being treated badly by these excellent health care professionals.”

Perhaps it was better when Hospitals were managed by the church. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the soul. A purely rational approach to healing based on pushing the injured person through a series of steps on the way to recovery might make sense for a 30-year-old, but for an 80-year-old it almost seems like a death march of denial. So I stay as long as I can and say whatever I can. Then leave my mother’s room and walk down the hall to console myself with the view of the Freedom Tower off in the distance.