I was just thinking about the childlike knuckleheadism of karma, that form of magical thinking summed up as “what comes around goes around” that’s as easily dismissed as so much mystical poppycock.
What triggered this thought was how some unpleasant things have happened to me recently with little rhyme or reason and how some people, using karma as lazy shorthand, might reduce my miseries to retribution for some naughty past behaviors.
Was it the time I shoplifted records when I was 14? Or when I flipped off a fellow driver who cut me off ? Could it be that I ghosted a girl I was dating because she didn’t read books? I doubt it, on all counts. I just don’t think the universe works that way.
Karma is synonymous with cause and effect, destiny and fate. It’s a measure of the luck one deserves and an incentive to do good deeds: you helped starving children, now you will be rewarded with a wish-granting genie! And it’s a deterrent from wrongdoing: you probably got in that fender bender because you never call your mother, you selfish wretch.
It’s not about getting a wicked hangover because you drank too much. That’s not karma; that’s ill judgement. Nor is it getting a promotion for a job well done; that’s hard-won exceptionalism.
No, karma is about the intangible, rooted in coincidence. It’s a strenuous leap of faith. A bit of chance. It’s not unlike the gauzy fictions of astrology or palm reading, though it’s probably less harmful and deceitful.
In college, a furry Grateful Dead fanatic — a bona fide Deadhead — chided me for talking about scalping some Dead tickets at inflated prices. “Oh, dude, that’s bad karma, man,” he whined. I ignored him. I sold the tickets. The only adverse effect was the wad of cash I gleefully made.
But maybe karma was at work there. Had my hippie friend refrained from calling me dude, I might not have sold the tickets. Peace would shine upon the land and a few less Deadheads would noodle in druggy bliss to inexplicably horrible music. Then again, nah.
The term karma is from the Sanskrit for “action, effect, fate,” and it echoes the biblical notion of reaping what you sow, not to mention such needlepoint philosophy as: “Life is a boomerang. What you give, you get.”
I don’t buy it. While I believe you are the author of your life, that your choices navigate where, to an extent, things will take you, I also think most of it is out of your hands. There are no messages in the universe, no cosmic justice. There is, however, striking coincidence, dumb luck, chance. Life as the Lotto.
Karma, ergo, is a cockamamie crutch. It’s got woo-woo written all over it. It’s as plausible as Santy Claus, spirits, or my friend Tom picking up a check at lunch.
And now that I’ve spouted off here, with snark and a smirk, you just know something is going to get me.
Every once in a while a writer says something that has you nodding like a madman in unalloyed agreement. I’ve been reading essays by Meghan Daum, and much of what she writes strikes a mean, piercing chord. Far from negative, Daum trades in an admirable candor, some of which is rimmed with bile but is mostly benign and boldly human.
Take this paragraph from her collection “The Unspeakable.” It could have — should have — been written by me at my most exposed. And though it makes her sound morose and malcontent, she is not. She’s merely describing how some people see her — including, sometimes, herself.
“Clearly, I am a killjoy. Clearly, I have problems with pleasure, with letting go. Surely, I am an unhappy person. I do not enjoy most activities that are commonly labeled ‘fun.’ Moreover, I’m weary of ‘happiness,’ both as a word and a concept.”
Daum grazes dysphoria (a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life) and hints at anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). But, like me (mostly), this isn’t quite accurate. Daum lives big and loud and gulps life, in all its pitiless unpredictability. She’s a humanist, not a pessimist, even if unhappiness creeps in with unsettling frequency.
On the About page of this blog, I caution that my writings here are “forever random and rambling.” Rarely has that been so true than right now …
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The Tao of Cubby
Cubby, the über-mensch of mutts, scurries across the wood floor, his nails recalling the tip-tap of a typewriter. (If only he could actually type. That would save me tremendous carpal tunnel distress.)
He is fleet, balletic. Though he resembles a gray Oscar the Grouch — bodily bedhead, articulate brows — the dog is chipper and civil, venting frenzied yaps only when evolutionarily expected (read: Amazon).
Cubby is also mindful and meditative. He follows the flow of the universe and the whiff of tacos. Part Chinese sage, part Scooby-Doo, he adheres to the Taoist tenets of simplicity, patience, compassion, and the canine tenet of raw sirloin.
Spiritual but godless, Cubby finds solace in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” — self-deception! free will! — but not in Scripture. He likes to quote Socrates: “I am the wisest dog alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
For Cubby, things just are. Why this, why now? As Cubs might say, Because. Just because.
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In anticipation of Easter, a short tale featuring baby chicks
When I was five, we had a pair of baby chickens, a female (yellow) and a male (black). They scuttled around our backyard and slept in a wood and wire coop, also in the backyard. The birds were strictly decorative. We had no intention of consuming their flesh.
One night a possum tried to get the chicks. Hearing the ruckus, my Dad went outside and our black Lab followed, charging and half-killing the hissing marsupial. Distressed by the injured animal — drama in suburbia — Dad tried to put it out of its misery using a broomstick (why not a spatula, or a straw?).
He failed, unsurprisingly. The possum was either unconscious or playing dead. Because the next morning the creature was still moving in the garbage can in which it was placed. A man sans a plan, Dad left it there to die on its own, to the collective horror of his family.
Soon after, we gave the chicks to a cousin who cared for them on his sprawling farm. I’m sure they were delicious.
* * *
Speaking of chickens …
Braided with wisdom, wit and woe, Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a deceptively slight novel about a woman caring for a small brood of chickens as she copes with the personal tragedy of a miscarriage.
Not sold? Be, because Polzin’s debut is sublime. It’s steely, and gentle as a breeze.
The chickens are both main characters and peripheral walk-ons in this compact book, so don’t fear a poultry-centric story. In fact, there’s not much of a story at all. Deeply contemplative and minutely observed — à la Jenny Offill (“Weather”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) — Polzin limns her nameless narrator’s life with by turns clinical realism and dazzling impressionism. There is much to learn about chickens, and life.
The precision of the prose, so nipped, tucked yet vital, is a marvel. Even the chicken passages, with their homely brown eggs, scratch feed and scaly feet, are poetic reveries. A human- and chicken-scale miniature, “Brood” loses none of its emotional texture next to its lo-fi humor. It’s one of the most lulling and pleasant books I’ve read in a spell.
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The larger worth of small talk
Strolling down the sidewalk, you run into an acquaintance — someone you know only faintly, yet well enough for a stop and chat; say, your mechanic or a few-houses-down neighbor — and you find yourself beaming hello, how are you, and before you know it things have devolved into vapid chitchat, the dreaded small talk.
Small talk eats the soul — the empty jawing about weather, work, kids, traffic, assorted gossip and platitudinous pleasantries. Defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” small talk reeks of the banal, the trivial, the sort of airy transactions saved for your Uber driver, that guy you went to high school with and haven’t seen in years, or the faux-cheery barista you encounter each morning.
Still, while it can be painful, what with the groaning predictability of the exchanges, small talk serves a purpose: it fills the dead space we all fear. It’s a buffer, prosaic padding, a time-killer of minor moments that would otherwise be awkward, excruciating, or both.
Words. They will save us. No matter how crudely utilitarian.
In my first semester of college, Marlon Brando blew open my bitty blinkered brain.
I was 18 and watching the actor at a small on-campus screening of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ torrid fever dream of a play. I was mesmerized, disturbed, rattled.
Who is this guy? I wondered. What is this guy?
I had seen Brando in “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” on VHS, but this was different. This was the young, bristling Method actor, a radical of modern performance, searing the screen with unseen naturalism — a combustible churn of physical and psychological muscle, animal charisma, brute sexuality and roiling menace.
He was a new kind of screen male. He hollered and knocked things over. He was sensitive, a raw nerve. He was scary, feral. He was gorgeous. He was hideous. He was fantastic.
This, I thought, is what college is about: revelation, learning, getting gobsmacked by the greats. All at once, in that Brando bombshell, was a liberating feast of ideas and culture. The very next day, I borrowed a Brando biography from the library. I craved more.
A curious kid at a university in a wildly diverse, culturally rich city, I gulped it all, from Hong Kong action flicks to Zippy the Pinhead comics. In a city of famed seismic activity — yes, San Francisco — Brando was one of the first icons to rock my late-teen world.
He wasn’t alone. Other cultural forces who uncorked my brain included, in no order: Beethoven; Sartre; the Marx Brothers; Shakespeare; Freud; Stanley Kubrick; the Beatles (I’d always known their music; I just didn’t know their music); Orson Welles; Buddha; Nietzsche; John Waters; Dalí; Bogart; Buñuel; Kafka; the Ramones; Fellini; Charlie Chaplin; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.
(Woke alert: I realize there is only one woman and, save for Buddha, exclusively white people on the list. This is just before I fell for Toni Morrison, García Márquez, Miles Davis and all the rest. As it’s the past, there’s very little I can do to remedy the situation.)
I adored my school. It was an institution that showed scant regard for sports and frats. (I sort of felt sorry for our neglected little football team, but not really.) It was the kind of liberal arts college where August Coppola — brother of Francis Ford Coppola and father of Nicolas Cage — was Dean of Creative Arts and the city newspaper’s erudite pop critic taught my History of Rock ’n’ Roll course.
Protests were big — pro-Palestine, anti-apartheid. The Red Hot Chili Peppers played the stamp-sized Student Union for five bucks a head. Director Sydney Pollack gave a seminar on filmmaking. Free movie screenings abounded. You barely needed class when almost everything around you was an education.
Take the campus library: nerdy, for sure, but a free, all-you-can-eat buffet of intellectual stimulation. There I’d watch esoteric documentaries, listen to concertos and symphonies and pore over rare books. It was all part of this teen’s great game of cultural catch-up.
And isn’t that what college is, a way to get young minds up to speed on the world, culture, history, life? It’s about my freshman geography professor dismissing the Bible as a book of fairy tales and the above rock history teacher expounding on the lush productions of Phil Spector, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
It’s about watching bad improv groups perform in the dorms and serving as Opinion Editor on the fiery campus newspaper. It’s about eating falafel for the first time and meeting Allen Ginsberg at a reading of “Howl” at City Lights bookstore.
College as entrée to life’s rich pageant, untrammeled exposure — that’s how I took it. There were city museums and concert halls — at 19, I got a student subscription to the San Francisco Symphony — the Haight-Ashbury, its own mad cultural-historical corridor; movie theaters like the Castro, Red Vic and Roxie; plays at ACT and the Magic Theatre. Not to mention the cultural cornucopia awaiting just over the bridge in Berkeley.
I got my first good camera as a freshman, styling myself a shutterbug about town, a wee, wannabe Weegee. I got deeper into my drums, soaking up sophisticated masters like Steve Gadd and Terry Bozzio, learning to kick things up while toning them down.
It was all about finesse, those early college days, about forging newly freed passions into a prismatic worldview that made sense to me. And it began with a revelatory sensation that was balled-up in the raw, sweaty brio of Marlon Brando.
Not for a moment has that novel feeling stopped. Once launched on the journey of discovery, you’re pretty much stuck. College lit a fuse; the explosions keep on popping.
So I’m watching the Democratic primary debate last night on CNN, and amid the candidates’ kerfuffles and catty crossfire, a moment of clarity sprung up during a commercial break. In a 30-second ad, a pouchy-eyed man, self-possessed and wearing the teensiest smirk, spoke animatedly to the camera. The man happens to be President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, and this, in its entirety, is what he said:
“Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed at the intrusions of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep church and state separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
This remarkable bulletin at first registers as a jape, a mock commercial on “SNL,” especially with that wonderfully puckish parting shot. (Watch the ad HERE.)
But, thank heaven, it’s no joke. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an honest to god (ha) society devoted to “promoting non-theism and defending the constitutional separation between religion and government,” says its website. “With more than 30,000 members, FFRF, a non-prophet non-profit, works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for free thought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”
Refused by ABC during the Sept. 12 Democratic debate, the ad last night was a hit. “Ron Reagan” was the top trending Google search after it aired. Twitter twits tweetle-deed with abandon. Though Reagan “wasn’t among the 12 candidates on the stage in Ohio, his appearance in a commercial promoting atheism clearly caught folks off guard,” said one news outlet. It was his sign-off about not fearing “burning in hell” that had people reeling, or, like me, laughing.
Speaking of hell, it’s the devil-may-care defiance, brazen irreverence and arch humor of the godless (heathens! pagans!) that endears them to skeptics and agnostics. Their highly evolved strain of enlightenment certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. These are savvy individuals who’ve weighed their stance with logic, philosophy, empirical evidence and bullet-proof common sense. Biblical fairy tales have only sowed their doubt and disgust.
There are myriad groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation — the muscular American Atheists and the mischievous Satanic Temple, profiled in the provocative new documentary “Hail, Satan,” come to mind — and FFRF is one of the largest. I appreciate what they’re doing, these Constitutionally correct freedom fighters. And if this brief blog post sounds like one big ad for them, well, that’s all right by me. Perhaps I am going to hell. I kind of don’t care.
I’m a nervous guy, anxious about some things (social situations, small children, cancer, Tyler Perry movies) though calm about others (air travel, clowns, death), making my anxiety pool a kind of grab-bag, a Kellogg’s Cereals Fun Pak, if you will.
Neuroses are a blast, a frothy enchantment of stomach pangs, irritable digestion, insomnia, jitters, fatigue, hypochondria, fatalism and an ambient unease that makes you want to switch skins with the nearest stable person, no matter if his name is Rupert.
Mornings are the worst. But as the day unfurls, the bad, the black, slowly burn off. By night I’m mostly calm, relaxed, hardly even thinking about brain tumors and leukemia. I assume that’s why I am steadfastly nocturnal, vampiric, stiff drink in hand.
For instance, when I wake each morning, my upcoming Japan trip sounds like a terrible idea, an exorbitant blunder and colossal miscalculation. My stomach flips; I wince. Around midday, I warm to the thought and picture an experience of Michelin-star sushi, bullet trains and megalopolis madness. By dark, optimism flowing, I’m on the computer or flipping pages plotting my incontestably epic and mystical adventures in the Far East.
They make pills for this, of course. But meds are at best serviceable. Too meager a dose scarcely soothes the nerves. Too much tends to narcotize. Things are lighter — aren’t they always when you’re napping? (Not really. My dream realm is an id-iotic hellscape of troubling memories, fraught encounters and anything that gnaws on my insecurities. Kafka would clutch his chin and nod.) Plus, you don’t know what’s what with some of those sedatives. A doctor once told me to chuck my Xanax. “That stuff is crack,” he scoffed. Oh.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a panic attack, unless that time browsing with my niece at the American Girl® doll store counts. Though I have experienced shortness of breath, racing heart and a kind of overwhelming, generalized terror of being alive. I suppose that counts, even if I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a clinically defined panic attack and merely my reaction to deliriously unfunny ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s latest Netflix special.
Want to churn my anxiety? Make me speak in front of a group, crowd or microphone. I don’t do meetings, panels, town-halls, televised interviews or, for that matter, karaoke or charades (charades — parlor game of the dark arts). I kind of recoil singing “Happy Birthday” among friends. With pathological resistance, I avoid having my picture taken (keep your cameras to your selfie).
My low-frequency embarrassment, raking self-consciousness and broken self-esteem are congenital delights. In the words of Morrissey (indeed, Morrissey), I am infected with a ”shyness that is criminally vulgar.” None of it is fun or poignant. But what are you to do? Therapy, meditation, yoga, tequila shots, a fistful of Clonazepam. These have been tried. Futility reigns. Relief is fleeting, often downright illusory.
And yet we soldier forth. We function in spite of the topsy-turvy tummy, mild paranoia, paper-thin skin, social squirming, hyperbolic pessimism, etc. Then I think: I’m going to Japan in three weeks. That’s something. During my extensive travels, my angst all but evaporates. I am unshackled, life’s daily detritus dispersed by an existential leaf blower. For this trip, I expect elation, moderate ecstasy, radical stimulation and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Nothing short of sublimity.
I’m pretty sure Cubby the dog doesn’t believe in many things — God, playing dead for treats, how wonderful I am — though I’m convinced he believes in some things. Like meatballs and bully sticks and tummy massages and bedtime snuggles and brisk walks and peeing on the rug. He’s a good dog. And like most good dogs, he’s ridiculous. Neurotic, but nourishing.
Rescued from a shelter, Cubby has, in the past year or so, learned how to act like a tried-and-true doggy, a small, curly-haired mutt with a pleading gaze and a tail that swoops up and over into a large Spaghetti-O.
He now knows how to worry a bone, chomp stuffed toys, play tug of war with said toys, scurry after the bone when it’s tossed then make you chase him around in a game of try and get it, sucker. All this is heartening. He’s maturing. He’s getting sillier.
But I think he’s deeper than all that stock dog stuff. Cubby is a wise old soul, beyond his four or five years, attuned to his lot in life, his place on the totem pole of existence, and, with a melancholy tinge, his impermanence.
This struck me last summer, detailed in this blog post, where I observed:
“The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he wipes his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s existentialist theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.”
Cubby may be a Buddhist. He is mindful and meditative, his solace arriving many hours each day. (Some call these naps; I call them rumination, deep cogitation, mini comas.) He is a passive soul. Barking he does sparingly, almost exclusively when the mail comes, then he claws the paint off the front door and cries like an aggrieved banshee. It is the yelp of an injured Indian spirit, whose dead have been gravely molested. Then he shuts down, curls up, and ponders the teachings of Siddhartha and the joys of a good tennis ball.
We wonder. What does this animal believe in? Tasty bones, yes. Death, alas. A vigorous rub behind the ears, certainly. Bacon Beggin’ Strips, no doubt.
Yet the question resounds: Can animals really believe?
Cats — pshaw; they believe in their own supercilious godliness. Forest dwellers — a humble group deeply in accord with nature’s bylaws, true believers. African wildlife — a hot mess, as seen on “Planet Earth,” strictly heathens and satanists that believe in ritualistic bloodletting and organized torture on the Serengeti.
None of that for Cubby. He’s a fuzzy little wiseman. He should be wearing beads and vestments and lighting incense. He is a philosophical creature; don’t let his crazed, leg-scratching greetings fool you. When you gaze into his small eyes, worlds are revealed. One’s heart softens and the soul cracks open. He is telling you something, and not just “Get the leash, I gotta poop.”
Was it Nietzsche who said “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs”? Or was it Harpo Marx? No matter. This is an inversion of the master/slave equation, wherein the master (you) succumbs to the overpowering ardor and joy provided by the slave (doggy). That is this dog’s wisdom. He has our number. And he calls frequently. Collect.
Cubby’s beliefs are better than his bite. In his canine universe, he is disciplined, devout, enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose. The dog is, indeed, dogmatic, a mutt with a mind. And, uh, yes, that’s him over there, avidly licking his genitals.
But why does that quote sing? As I’ve touched on in prior posts (like this one), we are the whopping deniers, gymnastic dodgers, when it comes to confronting or even thinking about death. We know it’s there, lurking in the gloom of the collective id. Most people, as Tisdale says, are “trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”
I find this absurd and annoying, because I wonder: How, on a daily basis, does one not consider their inevitable, totally inescapable and at once entirely unpredictable (how and when will you die?) and completely predictable (you’re gonna die!) mortality?
Why this death-book boomlet? Because lots of us are understandably freaked about the fearsome finality. (At least those who even consider it.) For one, people are living longer than ever and we find ourselves taking care of aging, often incapacitated parents and relatives. Death is in our face. And still, so many look away.
Call me sick. Tisdale quotes William James on two personality types: the “healthy-minded … with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting,” and the rest, the “sick souls” who cannot blot out the naked prospect of mortality. Yes, a sick soul am I, but also enlightened, awakened and aware that our flimsy, fleshly bodies will someday fail us and atomize to dust.
I’m a nervous type so the fact that I look death in the eye doesn’t mean it’s a steely gaze. I lose that staring contest every time. Death scares me, even if, as I believe, it’s one big great nothingness — no heaven, no hell, no paradisiacal virgins — and we shouldn’t be scared of nothing. Yet the unknown is killing us, so to speak. Its foreverness terrifies.
Tisdale writes: “The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the ego facing extinction as being ‘staggered by the enormity of eternity, of being dead forever and ever and ever and ever.’”
“At some point,” Tisdale says, “most of us shift from realizing that sooner or later some future self will die to realizing that this very self, me, precious and irreplaceable me, will die. It’s a terrible thing to grasp, and though this insight may last a mere second, it changes your life.”
Her breadth on the topic dazzles. She addresses both sides of death-phobia (terror vs. liberation), our response to death (unalloyed grief), the certainty that we will die, the notion of the “good death,” personal anecdotes such as her dying friend shopping for biodegradable coffins and shrouds, and Zen-worthy declarations like “cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.”
She naturally can’t get to the bottom of it — death’s mystery is all-engulfing, impenetrable, the Big One — but her Buddhist-nurse compassion touches every page and she sheds copious slats of light into our shared abyss. My favorite citation comes from a dying Rabelais, whose last words were: “I am going in search of a great perhaps.”
It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.
I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)
So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson.
What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:
Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied piper of cheering children across the land.
He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting, cooing instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs, and soaring imagination.
Not a scintilla of this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.
It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked.
You slip behind the scenes ofthe papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.
It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.
Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.
The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself.
Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.
Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.
Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.
Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.
That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.
Easily the most moving film of the year —I rhapsodizedabout how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.
Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity.
Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence.
A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there.
Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.
If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.