Monday, April 22, 2013

A Subtle Horror

Megan SylviaMad Men is a horror series.  There… I said it.  I didn't believe this until recently.  My impression was that it was a dark and brooding drama about the desperate and horny realities of life.  This was until I had a conversation with a woman who could not watch the show.  “Not watch Mad Men?” I thought… “How could you not watch Mad Men?”  “You don’t understand,” she said… “Watching Mad Men to me is like watching horror movies to you.”

That registered with me because I am a notoriously scaredy-cat horror movie-viewer.  I fidget, cover my eyes like a kid, and furiously fast-forward through the scary parts so I can rewind and watch them, knowing what will happen.  The horrors to her are the lies and betrayal… the possibility that the man she married and trusts is, in reality, a different man altogether.  An avatar for the worst nightmare of one who wants to love and be loved.  It was with new eyes that I began to see many women unable to watch the show.

In Episode 3 (Collaborators) of Season 6 (Spoiler alert!), we find that Don Draper is sleeping with the wife (Sylvia) of the closest friend we have seen him have to date.  This is after believing that he amended his ways in Season 5.  Don’s new wife, Megan, is a terrific, smart, supportive, and beautiful lady.  We find out that she miscarries and, ignorant of the affair, vouchsafes this to Sylvia, who she sees as a friend.  She tells Sylvia she feels “shitty” about the miscarriage and not telling Don about it.  This, in turn, makes Sylvia feel guilty about the affair.

nightmare elm streetIn a following scene, we see Don and Sylvia having dinner together.  It was supposed to be a couples’ dinner with both of the spouses but Megan is feeling ill and Sylvia’s husband, a doctor, is called away.  The stage is set here for one of the most frightening exchanges of the series.  Sensing Sylvia’s guilt, Don says to her in a sadistic and misogynistic way, “Now I understand. You want to feel shitty right up until the point where I take your dress off.”  Don shows us a rare glimpse of the horror character.  Flashing eyes, violent and degrading words… a cruel and black heart driven by domination.  The word “shitty” cues us in here to a contrast between abject vulnerability and cruel betrayal.

All of this is buttressed by scenes from Don’s adolescence in which he lived for some time in a house of prostitution.  The seedy and unfaithful people… the backroom trysts… the fruits of the rejection of love.  In one instance, Don is seen looking at a tryst through a keyhole.  A voyeurism that creates and is indicative of a desire to dominate.  My mind is immediately taken back to the circumstances of Freddy Krueger's birth in Nightmare on Elm Street.  A ghastly, tragic, and formative foundation for a terrifying character… as I believe we are seeing here.

A while ago, I wrote (here, here, and here) of Freud’s understanding of the uncanny and how zombie horror can reflect it.  Right under my nose was an even better reflection on the tragedy of human sin as expressed in the uncanny.  The subtle horror of Don Draper… the thing that really keeps us up at night.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Coal: The Power of the Good Father

In the (by now quite famous in our circles) series of talks given at The Cathedral of the Advent by Professor Rod Rosenbladt on the subject of fatherhood, one of the first insights presented was that of Helmut Thielicke’s The Waiting Father. In this, his work on Jesus's parables, Thielicke artfully and tragically describes modern man’s belief that he is quite alone in a dark universe ambivalent to his existence:
"Man is walking through the dark forest of life in the gloom of night. Specters are lurking all around him and strange sounds disquiet him. The dark forest is full of dangers. Modern man calls this weird sense of threat and danger the anxiety of life, the fear of life itself. He would give a lot if there were someone to go along with him, someone who would put his hand on his shoulder and say to him, "Don't worry, I am with you. I know the pitfalls, I know the dangerous cliffs, I know where the robbers lie in ambush, I'll get you safely through. As long as I am with you nothing can hurt you." He would give a lot if this were so. But now man knows—or thinks he knows—that this someone does not exist at all and that he actually is alone in the dark forest of his life. So he begins to talk aloud to himself, as children do when they have to go down the dark cellar stairs alone, comforting themselves with the sound of their own voices. But there is nobody there, and he is dreadfully alone."
There are very few antitheses to this in current popular culture more powerful than the father/son dynamic of Andy Christian, Sr. and Andy Christian, Jr. in the Spike TV series Coal (for background, see my first post on the series). It is an almost word-for-word answer to Thielicke’s lament. The only difference in the analogy is that Coal is set in dark, dangerous mine rather than a forest.

It is mentioned during the show that Andy, Sr. and Andy, Jr. have been driving to work together ever since Andy, Jr. was old enough to work. The viewer can actually see how apprenticeship to a loving father might have actually looked all those generations ago when such a thing was more common. It is obvious that Andy, Jr. reciprocates his father’s love and he wants desperately to be like him.  Andy, Sr. literally goes down into the dark and dangerous mines with his son and shows him all the pitfalls and dangers. He teaches his son, Andy, Jr., all of the tricks of the trade and how to thrive in what seems to be a most inhospitable place. The great wealth of knowledge passed from the father to the son is clearly done in love rather than duty.

Thielicke concludes his thoughts about the perfect Heavenly Father… the One to whom all good analogies like Andy, Sr. point:
"It is no longer the fog-shrouded landscape where I anxiously keep watch because somewhere out there dark dangers are brewing against me. No, everything is entirely different. We do not know what is coming, but we know who is coming. The final hour belongs to us. We need have no fear of the next minute."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Coal: The Power of Imputation

A couple of weeks ago, the Wizard of Netflix recommended the Spike TV (home of all things faux-masculine) reality series Coal.  It seemed riveting because it followed two shifts of coal miners down where it is “dark as a dungeon” (Merle Travis)… and it was.  I was unprepared, however, for the explosion of Gospel insight.  For this reason, I drank deeply from the series, finishing the first season (and only… so far) in three days.

A bit of background:  Cobalt Coal Company (the focus of the show) is a small coal company that operates in Westchester, West Virginia which is home to a high-grade coal seam.  As small as they are, they have the usual cash flow problems.  Cobalt works two shifts of crews so they can mine 24 hours a day.

There are two insights that jump out at me and I would like to share them with you in as many parts.  The first is that of imputed righteousness.  Here’s how it goes:

The day shift includes a father/son team.  Their names are Andy Christian, Sr. and Andy Christian, Jr.  Andy, Sr. is known as “The Legend” and is heralded to be the best miner operator in West Virginia.  This means he is one responsible for finding the coal seam and directing the mechanized miner to it in the most efficient and effective manner.  It seems he is born for the job.  As cash flow problems manifest and production is needed in the mine to cover them, Andy, Sr. comes through and saves the mine from bankruptcy time and time again.

His son, Andy, Jr., is the miner helper.  He gets paid to help his dad.  Andy the Younger seems to be in his early twenties and displays some of the characteristics of that age.  While clearly close to his father (the subject of the next post), he exhibits some youthful hot-headedness (although, on the whole, he is a fine worker… more on this later, too).  He even exhibits some open contempt for his bosses when he is temporarily taken away from his father and assigned another duty.

The tension is high in this episode but there is no way he would be fired.  Why?  Because his father is holding the place together.  Without Andy, Sr., Cobalt Coal would be a distant memory.  The company hired the son when it hired the father and they are inseparable.  So, in a way, Andy, Jr. is simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously hot-headed and safe.

If this were not perfect enough (in a culturally theological way), there is another worker about the same age as Andy, Jr.  He doesn’t have a father there and he also displays youthful hot-headedness and contempt.  He gets fired in dramatic fashion.  One young man has been objectively justified and one has not.  One young man's family name (Christian!) is his salvation and the other can claim no such justification.  So powerful!

In our next installment, we will look deeper into the father/son relationship of Andy, Sr. and Andy, Jr. and see if there might be some powerful Rod Rosenbladt-ian father/son insight.

Good Friday

Rite I: The Patti Smith Story

Where do the 1970s New York punk scene and liturgical nattering converge? Why, in the person of Patti Smith, of course. She is the most recognizable female punk rocker of the era and this is disputed by very few people. The only one who comes close is Bromley Contingent matriarch Siouxie Sioux.

A little-known fact is that Patti Smith was raised in a serious Jehovah’s Witness family. This is reflected consistently in her music as she continually challenges God, addressing Him as if He exists. One cannot help but identify with and admire her public conflicted-ness and questioning.  In a very famous incident, she began twirling around frenetically during a show and challenged God to stop her. She immediately fell off the stage and broke a bone. Coincidence, legend or superstition? Could be. I’ll let the historians take that one.

We do have her lyrics, for sure. The most famous of her God-challenging comes at the beginning of her re-make of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” where she sings: "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine." Now, this is fascinating to me. I believe a couple of things are at work here (and please pardon me while I presume to psychologize… I am fully aware that I am speaking of a living, breathing person whose complexities I could not possibly know… the following is just my take for what it’s worth).

Smith colluded often with Richard Hell, mostly with respect to poetry. As you may (or probably don’t) remember, I wrote a little piece about Hell’s song “Blank Generation”. In the song, he posits that we are all free agents and totally capable of creating our own identities. My suspicion is that Patti Smith is assenting to this by saying, "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine." 

Somewhere, though, in her Christ-haunted primal recesses, there is a great conflict. Another voice is telling her she is not free. In fact, she is quite bound and needs help. A substitute and a great well of never-ending grace and mercy. And she’s not quite sure it is there for her.

This leads me to an interesting (only if you are totally weird) discussion I had with a ministry friend a few years ago. We were discussing the (Episcopal/Anglican) Rite I Liturgy of the Table, i.e. the more traditional service of Holy Communion. After the Preface, it is said:
All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”
My friend said the portion in the bolded type is didactic and repetitive. I disagree with him. I believe is it poignantly pastoral. No one believes grace, mercy, and love are for us. Especially in the times we assault our consciences with all kinds of terrors. We are so deeply suspicious of an unconditional word of promise from outside that we will take any route possible leading to self-expiation. Far from didactic or repetitive, the words of promise described above insistently and lovingly assault our own assault on our consciences.

So the next time you are in a Rite I service and hear these words, connect with the Patti Smith that lives inside of you (and everyone) and be comforted.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"You Will Be Like God..." The Richard Hell Story

In my all-too-obvious attempt to understand my childhood, I have undertaken a study of exactly what happened in the ‘80s, musically. In order to do that, one must understand the prerequisites. In this particular case, the prerequisites involve what happened at a club called CBGB which is located in the Bowery in Manhattan. It was the locus of the American underground rock ‘n roll scene in the mid-to-late 1970s. Cutting their teeth at CBGB at that time were such icons as The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie, and Patti Smith.

There are many parts of that era that would interest a Mockingbird-oriented person and one of them is the career of a guy named Richard Hell. Hell was a fairly well-read fellow (and from an upper-middle class family as, ironically, many “punks” were). He was a forceful and uncompromising visionary who floated, unsatisfied, from Television to The Heartbreakers (no, not THOSE Heartbreakers) and, finally, to his band Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

One of his earliest songs is his most misunderstood. It is also his most interesting. It is called “Blank Generation” and it is mistakenly taken as an anthem for an uncaring and apathetic group of rock ‘n roll punks like “Pretty Vacant” by The Sex Pistols. Hell describes it differently, however:
“ That is the ultimate message of the New Wave: if you just amass the courage that is necessary, you can completely invent yourself. You can be your own hero, and once everybody is their own hero, then everybody is gonna be able to communicate with each other on a real basis rather than a hand-me-down set of societal standards."

Ugh. (Good tune, though) Blank Generation = Blank Slate or Blank Canvass. Here again, we have an advocacy of self-creation. Just another example in another place. By virtue of the right choices and considerable inner strength, the objective reason of the mind can create the self in any form it wishes. Ah, the glories of free agency. Always ever-present.

It does raise a couple of questions: Why was Hell consistently unable to get his vision across to the other free agents of his revolving door of bands? (To be fair, the Voidoids did for a time.) More importantly, why did Hell feel the need to obscenely self-medicate with some of the heaviest drugs around? (Listen to “Chinese Rocks”!) There seems to always be massive disconnect between the philosophy of free will/agency/identity-creation and a nagging, vociferous reality. We must sound like a broken record about this, but history dictates that it bears a fairly regular hearing.

Perhaps the best assault of reality into this mode of thinking came in Manchester, England during the same time period. Ian Curtis of Joy Division was at the pinnacle of what would soon prove to be the steep cliff of suicide. Nihilistic self-creation was the order of the day, ironically, in a declining United Kingdom with very little opportunity to advance oneself. It was in this atmosphere that Curtis wrote “Isolation”, the other side of the coin to free agency. It was shortly after this song was released that he hanged himself. Rather than liberation, self-creation and free agency lead to an impossible burden and deep defeat.

With this burden of free agency, it isn’t very satisfying to cast your faith on something else (we would argue for the Resurrected Lord) that isn’t true. But that is a different scope for a different piece. For now, we can stand with one half of Richard Hell (his unconscious, perhaps), Ian Curtis, and a host of others who find themselves crushed by the false idea of free agency.

Monday, September 5, 2011