random music fridays : river

I was very close to turning this off once we left the chorus for the first verse. The clapping and yelling I can get behind; that coquettish murmur is very much no.* But there’s more yelling and less flirting later. The bass is a bit overkill, but it’s something other than sad or helpless or fecklessly horny**, so I’m a fan.

*For me.

**Not that there’s ever a good time for this, but this moment in history is so not the time.

Choke this love till the veins start to shiver
One last breath till the tears start to wither
Like a river, like a river
Shut your mouth and run me like a river

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eld update

Oh my god, we are made to feel everything I just said about selfhood outright, and the text is as horrified by it as we are. I don’t even have to tug at it to make it so.

And surprise surprise, it is a man acting out of cowardice and lust who is doing this to her. “Perhaps he has some pity left in him, but a man afraid in the core of his mind has little room left for compassion.”

May her vengeance claw him to pieces in exactly the way mine will never shred the sticky strands of brain plaque that take the women in my family from me and from themselves.

May he lie in ribbons.

names

I’m reading The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, because Guy Gavriel Kay recommended it on Twitter, and because its sample ran through my mind the way I imagine it is when people read you stories when you are very ill — like how my father described his mother in her eulogy, her voice rising and falling and carrying him through the tides of scarlet fever. There isn’t enough detail for it to be an escape — not like a big fantasy epic (book or game) into which you retreat. More like a song. And I only forgive the lack of detail, its corresponding failure to remove us completely from this world, when what we are given instead is lyrical enough to stay with us, as a feeling, long after we’ve shut the cover on the words themselves, coloring our actions in this world which we are forced to view anew. And The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld does that.

GGK’s own books do that, as did C.S. Lewis’ Till We Had Faces. Fantasy stories told, not with a profundity of detail — lavish descriptions of cambrics and quarters and mountains — but with sparse, quick-moving words that fill your veins like an IV drip, attacking what is wrong there and attempting to restore, if not order, at least the possibility of it. These are not books from which teachers create vocabulary lists. Nor, I suppose, do they attract vast fandoms online, for their characters speak not as much to each other as to us. It might be easier to create a fandom around characters onto which we project our fears and desires — characters that stand apart from us — rather than around characters who mirror us so closely in some passages that we are too keenly interested in their welfare, too hurt when they get what they deserve, to feel as though we can hold them and a distance and write our own stories about them. For me, at least, stories like this change the source of…knowing? such that meeting the author of such stories would make me terribly shy, because it would feel like meeting someone who knew more about you than you ever meant to give away.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is playing with names and the knowing of them in the way lots of fantasy authors have done — Patrick Rothfuss, for example, in the relevantly named The Name of the Wind and all the books that follow. Rothfuss is kind and (in an insightful way) fragile, and especially given what he said about reading negative reviews in a recent Twitch talk he did on self-care, I hesitate to even mention him here. I wouldn’t, if I thought there was a snowball’s chance in hell he’d encounter these words. But I am well-acquainted with my own usage statistics, and think it is safe to discuss him in the echoing silence of my tiny internet chamber.

There are plenty of similarities between the ways names and their power are used in Eld and The Kingkiller Chronicle, but the horror invoked in me by the passage I took a picture of above speaks a little to why McKillip rings so much deeper in me than does Rothfuss. (And if this is too-recurring a theme from me, I trust you will understand why.) Names in Rothfuss’ books impart the ability to control. For McKillip, here, they don’t just impart the ability to control, but the ability to make you forget. To un-know. That insistent demand, that calling to you in your “ground mind,” blots out all your other knowledge — of your friends, your lovers, even yourself.

And that, for obvious reasons, horrifies me.

Men tell stories about control. I’m sure there are plenty of people who point this out. It is the loss of control, for many men, that throws them into the worst disarray. (I have known plenty of women with control issues too, of course, but on the whole there still seem to be more men with those kind of hang-ups, at least among the incredibly subjective group of people I know.) I have, on some level, tried to make myself comfortable with the ebbing of my physical capabilities over time (happens to everyone), the sunsetting of my creativity (write while you can), even the decay of my dignity, which I know will come with the dementia that is mine to await. But the loss of knowing people…places…the loss of the ability to love, because the capacity to know the object of your affection has been obliterated…that is horrific. That is the stuff of nightmares.

The way names are operating in Eld invites that panic. That passage above made me so uncomfortable, a guy passing with his dog paused to ask if I was okay. When I speak of the horror of my mother’s disease (and, though you wouldn’t know it to read this blog, I do try to do so less and less often, because I am sure it becomes tiresome, something I “should just get over,” for those who haven’t had it shatter them firsthand), I mention the incontinence, the collapse of hygiene, the bodily miseries because they are things people don’t think about (partly because of sterilized images of dementia strewn about by popular media), and because they are so basic a level of dissonance that even the most callous people flinch. But these aren’t the things that fill me with despair. It’s the undoing of all the threads of devotion you’ve woven so carefully to make up the tapestry of your life. Just the wanton hacking of the whole thing to pieces. And there’s not even enough of you left to clutch the frayed ends to your chest and sob. You don’t even know enough to be sad, in the end.

That’s hideous.

Some Amazon description of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld framed the book specifically as a fantastical portrait of being a woman in the loss of her power. That sounds suspiciously like control, I know, and up to this point in the book, it somewhat was. She keeps the animals, after all, through her knowledge of their names. But it isn’t their removal of themselves from her life that shrieks on the page — it’s the removal of her memories, her love of them from her mind.

I have no interest in dubbing “women’s power” to be love, or anything so mawkishly gendered. But when it is self-knowledge, and the ability to know and love others as a result, that is being destroyed, that is a loss far greater to me than any fading muscular or mystical strength. Because I’ve seen it, and I hate it, and I can’t escape it. If that was what Kvothe lost — not a girl he thought was hot, but the ability even to know her when he passed her on the street — I would mourn and fear for him far more than I do.

And if a word, a name, could prevent that loss, I would spend every last breath trying to put it between my lips.

melancholia of the western persuasion

hostiles

“It oughtn’t to be this way, Joe.”

“Have you got a better way?”

In an early scene in Hostiles, Rosamund Pike’s character scrabbles in the dirt with her hands, trying to dig graves for her murdered family. We receive a bunch of closeups of just her hands clawing at the earth, and watching it, I felt this odd visceral familiarity I at first couldn’t place. It’s not as though I’ve struggled to dig graves with my bare hands. Then I remembered an afternoon a year ago, where I clawed madly at the earth with sweat pouring into my eyes, trying to recover flagstones that had been mostly or entirely buried in my backyard for generations, when a new neighbor paused awkwardly on the sidewalk to ask, of all antiquated, misplaced questions, why my husband wasn’t out helping me.

I peered up at the stranger through a haze of sweat and dust and said my husband’s grandmother was currently dying of the same disease I had just committed my mother for the previous weekend, and I couldn’t deal with it, so I had stayed behind when their family gathered to say goodbye. The poor neighbor mumbled something about hard work helping, and couldn’t flee fast enough.

****

Hostiles is somewhat ham-handed in places, it’s true. I don’t know how it couldn’t be. If the acceptance of any of its apologies could not be called into question through their sheer obliqueness, it would rightly be dismissed as insincere. But Hostiles is anything but insincere.

There is a lot of mumbling in this movie. A lot of speaking through hands pushed against faces and chins, fingers trying to twist the skin beneath into the shape of someone else, or to serve as a kind of filter for the words coming out. You have to pay attention to catch all that is said.

When nothing is said, though, there is the physicality to make up for it. It is the physical intimacy that made me draw back and first realize this was not another gritty John Wayne homage I had been dragged to. Or–to be less sulky about it — another visual call-up to what books like Blood Meridian want to be: a pitiless wallowing in the misery that built this country. That is what I expected, but that is not what Hostiles is. Joe’s (Christian Bale’s) crash to his knees, struggling with whether or not to kill himself rather than take on this last duty requested of him says as much. His frankly jaw-dropping guiding of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) into head-butting him in the chest as she briefly exits shock for what appears to be a kind of panic attack says as much. I cannot remember the last time I was so startled by a character’s non-sexual act of physicality. Nor was it — again thinking of Cormac McCarthy here–explained away by him having “a way with horses,” or dogs, or some animal bullshit meant to disguise a recognition of human suffering as some sort of animalistic shepherding urge. When he shields her from the sight that is undoing her with his body, it’s not because he has done this for his livestock. It’s because he’s a person and he knows what this is doing to her as a person, and he is attempting to make it less horrific.

Hostiles exits the modern day for its study of war-sourced PTSD, but it abandons the fraught politics of today for those equally fraught politics that made today what it is. It does not, as I worried it might, attempt to make equal one man’s loss of everything and multiple cultures’ loss of everything. It is not trying to redeem the cruelty of a nation with the kindness of an individual. It’s not even trying to redeem that individual — that is left up to him. And, as I keep insisting in my defense of the ending, if he didn’t doubt that he deserved anything good in his life, he wouldn’t deserve it. It is that doubt, that hesitation in that long shot of his face, that makes him worthy of some kind of upward turn. If he just gallivanted off into the sunset, fuck him. He’d be a poseur. But he’s still, at the end, the man who howled on his knees in the almost-desert, voice completed muted by the storm bum-rushing the plains, wondering if he should die. That is the man who deserves redemption. The one who isn’t sure, himself, if he should get a chance at it.

That is why I loved this movie.

My only character-based qualm is probably nothing to be proud of. I suppose it was bucking a trope, the bucking of which should be praised. But I disliked, at first, the reining in of Rosalie’s madness. “Let her unravel,” I thought. Don’t tidy her up into someone who once again wears pretty dresses and sits straight and speaks when spoken to. She has lost literally everything. She has a dumb line about faith that fits neither her character nor her circumstances. Let her rage. Let it consume her.

I know, I know. Loss-based madness is a kind of fridging, I guess, the avoidance of which should be lauded. But I didn’t think she was allowed the space she should have been to be as angry as she should have been. She has a couple scenes, sure, but she holds herself together too well. The Cheyenne in their party remark on it, saying it denotes strength, which, okay. Still. That thin veil of words (“oh but this has made you so strong,” as if anyone ever wouldn’t have traded that strength in a heartbeat to restore the one who was lost, pithy phrase be damned) was not enough, and would have rung hollowly, if not for one scene in a tent, following the suicide of one of Joe’s long-time companions (again, there is a lotttt of war-sourced PTSD on display here, and I kind of wonder if the pitch for this began from a desire to look at just the effects of it, divorced from the too-nearness of the last 14 years). I’d be curious to know how many takes it took, or what the stage directions were. Because again, were the comfort she offered maternal, it would be bullshit — a dismantling of what was, in fact, one person reaching out to another as an equal. Were it needy and sexual, it would also be bullshit — because if anyone should be past needing a quick pick-me-up fuck, it’s her. But he bows his head into her chin in much the same way she bowed her head into his chest earlier. And in much the same way — though he wouldn’t know this — that she presses her hand against her face, early on, to silence herself against those hunting her in the forest.

Yes, it’s comfort being given, but between equals. Anything else would be unpalatable.

****

I’ve just blathered about the white people in this movie, I know. That exchange in the beginning — “It oughtn’t to be this way, Joe.” “Do you have a better way?” — is telling, in the same way the Joe Henry song Our Song is:

This was my country
And this was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong

It did start badly. Everything about it was brutal and bloody and made what came next. It’s not a justification — just a cause and effect. For there to have been a better way, people would have had to be better than they were. The better way would have been absence, I guess. A not-becoming. Not because, as Hostiles doesn’t hesitate to show, the tribes here were all peace, love and rainbows, but because whatever atrocities they committed upon each other didn’t — so far as anyone knows anyway — erase each other’s way of life, and even the memory of that life, from existence. That annihilation was specific to Joe and the better way he didn’t find.

I expect this is a criticism people might raise with this movie. That he should end as badly as his murdered friends, or the one who shoots himself, or the former comrade who lost it and killed his whole family with an axe — “It could just as easily be you in these chains.” This is, possibly, fair.

But if we would scoff at the idea that the redemption of one man should redeem the atrocities committed by his entire civilization, we should also maybe scoff at the idea that the damning of that same man does anything to help the people he hurt.

Yes, the handshake scene is, to me, ham-handed. The looks are too long; the pan down to the hands way too contrived. But I also recognize that, to me, there is too much forgiveness all around in this movie. And also that were I in any position to dole out that kind of forgiveness, I wouldn’t. I also wouldn’t be healing anything, you understand. People like me don’t fix problems like that, even on an individual, one-on-one basis. We make them worse.

But this movie isn’t about people like me. I wouldn’t have boarded the train. The little old lady in the next row wouldn’t have clapped for me, had I done so. But I didn’t pay to see a story of myself. I paid to see something better:

We’re pushing line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed
As younger and braver and humble and free

The first time I encountered depression, it was in a western. A video game — Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. Like Hostiles, it takes place at the end of the 19th century, when everyone who unfurled their violence out across the plains began to realize even these spaces were no longer appropriate places to become animals. Even here, one was now expected to be put-together. Lawful. Human — despite the inhuman acts committed to
“settle.” In the game, one of the frequenters of the brothel tells you he has been diagnosed with melancholia (“Doesn’t exist,” snaps Christian Bale’s character early on) and that he’s been treating it with whisky and Ruby, one of the girls.

I remember asking my mother what melancholia was, and when she said it was an old term for depression I asked about that. She said it was a disease were you were sad and couldn’t get happy, and I asked if it was contagious, like chickenpox. “Not between people, no,” she said, but then she got into hereditary issues and predispositions — I asked lots of medical questions, when I was a kid, and I was maybe eight or nine at the time — and off the topic of depression itself. But the Western was still where I first encountered it.

All the most memorable stories of it I encountered on my own, unassigned, were set in the West, I believe. From Breaking Clean to Gilead. And I suppose the sadness in all of those stories and people swam on undercurrents of violence. If not in the people themselves, then in the land, and the memory of what people had done upon it.

One of the best scenes in Hostiles is near the end, when Joe has lost everything, and is sitting in a meadow shot through with bars of sunlight slanting through bordering trees, aglow with the floating puffs of some germinating plant. It is striking in the same way Judy Blunt found eastern Montana to be, as she slowly unravelled on its plains: the land is beautiful, and it gives not one damn about whether you live or die, virtuously or in ruin, upon it.

We, however, have to care.