Permission to be Unproductive

A thing a sack of problems like me is supposed to do to mitigate crippling anxiety and PTSD is to allow oneself to escape, to decompress. I am notoriously terrible at this. And it’s not just because of the overt crazy from which I suffer, but all manner of tangential hangups.
Let me begin with an experience from earlier this afternoon. I was having my twice-yearly dentist appointment, which is really just a chunk of time during which a very nice hygienist scrapes, polishes, and flosses my teeth, wonders aloud at my bizarre lower teeth (long story), and warns me again to floss more.

But because I don’t floss much, portions of this otherwise banal process are rather uncomfortable. I was already coming into the appointment is a kind of emotionally exhausted daze, so this seemed like a good time to practice separating myself from any stressful stimuli, to rehearse something less uncomfortable.

So as that little sharp thingy scraped away at my teeth, and occasionally jabbed my tender gums, I made a point of gazing deeply out the window, trying not to think too hard or intentionally process what I was seeing, but just allow myself to take in the clouds, the colors, and the very slow movement. If I couldn’t see the window, I’d watch whatever tool was being used on me, as its handle went back and forth. I didn’t consider in detail what it was doing, just kind of stayed with it visually.

I had some success with this, and found it somewhat helpful. But the larger point is that I need to make myself escape in this way, become a little “mindless” more often, and at targeted times when I really need it.

I was unable to do it last night. I simply couldn’t allow myself to escape, to divert my attention from my issue-of-the-moment, but I so wish I could have.

My five or six regular readers will know that I have a lot of hangups around how I spend my time. I loathe going to bed, and I resist sleep, seeing it as a kind of “little death.”

I read books slowly, and often nod off, and worry about what other books I’m missing out on, what other things are happening while I’m reading, and what more productive things I should be doing. This is probably why I have tended to favor nonfiction over fiction, because at least with nonfiction I’m “learning” something in a way that is more concrete than I might with fiction.

I have made an attempt to calm myself and escape through music, and that turned into a nutty and obsessive hunt for The Perfect Headphones, documented here. But there again, I feel that allowing myself to sink into a reverie of musical consumption is somehow wasteful, that better uses of my time are beckoning. What they are, I don’t know.

And more of the same with TV and movies. I resist them both because I know that they take up chunks of wakeful time that I could spend on something that matters.

What are these things that matter that I ought to be doing? I guess writing, more creative pursuits, and whatnot. But do I engage in them when I’m not “escaping”? Not usually! Obviously, I do write, I do at rare times make music, but I’m certainly not filling every moment in which I could be watching a two-hour movie with artistic fulfillment. I’m probably just dicking around on the Internet and thinking about phones I don’t have.

But I’m coming around a little. A few weeks ago, because I knew we’d be seeing Age of Ultron soon, I leaned back in bed, plopped my MacBook on my lap, plugged in my headphones (I have stuck with the same ones so far!), and watched the first Avengers movie.

It was about the most therapeutic thing I’d done for myself in years.

What a release! What an escape! For the length of the film I was gone. I was just in this fantasy world, absorbed in something utterly removed from my own life, and when it was over, I felt, well, almost rested, even though it was probably two in the morning.

Most movies aren’t going to be that effective in this way, I know that. But there are plenty that are. I still have hangups about getting stuck in a movie that just isn’t all that good, and wasting those hours. But hell, being a parent, I can really only make time for the best of the best anyway. Experimentation with something stupid or ponderous is a luxury I don’t even have.

I am also being swept away by Seveneves, Neil Stephenson’s newest novel. Fiction! Long, long, epic fiction! Taking me away from me. I still nod off too easily, and I still take way too long to read, but I am trying to let that go.

Because at issue here is not achieving some sort of cultural or content-consuming quota, but to escape. To give my self a chance to get some distance, some room to breathe. So if it takes me all year to read Seveneves, whatever. So be it. (Or so I am telling myself.)

What really needs to happen is for me to be okay with being utterly unproductive, to allow hours to go by without anything to show for it. Not in total idleness, but in active removal. Not “boredom” per se, but engagement in activities or experiences with no industry attached. There can be some productivity as a byproduct, like when I zone out while mowing the lawn or assembling some new shelving piece or something for the house. But that’s incidental. Even in those “productive” times, I’m still not “here.” I’m still getting out of my own head.

This should not be hard for me, but it is. I know I wasted years of my youth on cable and late night TV, that I threw away precious time – after school, on summer vacations – time I could have used to better myself in some way. I just let my brain rot on pop culture, which was itself an escape from other things. But it was a poor avenue of escape, a kind of trap in itself.

But I’ve since overcompensated. It’s time to find the balance. The nice thing is that the only one who gets to decide what that balance is, is me.

That’s also the bad thing.

The Power and Pathos of Optimus Prime

As you might know, I am a great fan of the old-school Transformers, the 1986 Transformers animated film in particular. (I even hosted a whole podcast episode about it.) For all their flaws (which are plentiful), the franchise was a watershed moment for me, introducing me as a child to a kind of storytelling, a style of animation, and a degree of out-and-out violence I’d never experienced, for better and/or worse.

What stays with with me more than any other aspect of the franchise, more than the novelty of form-shifting robots or the grandeur of heavy-metal space opera, is the character of Optimus Prime. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the “leader of the good guys,” or that he was strong, or visually striking, all of which are true. But there is a kind of nobility to Prime that permeates every manifestation of Transformers, be it the old cartoon, the animated film, the comic books, or even the recent Michael Bay movies (of which I have only seen the first). Though astoundingly powerful and even deadly, Optimus Prime has always been at the same time almost naive in his idealism, his self-discipline, his personal sense of morality and honor.

My friend Kyle Calderwood directed me to an interview with some of the folks behind the 1980s show and film, and one part stood out to me. Here, voice director Wally Burr described creating the Prime character’s voice with the man who would play him, Peter Cullen:

We were auditioning lots of people for the show, and he was auditioning for Optimus. [Cullen] didn’t have it yet, but he was well known, so he was obviously going to be one of the best candidates. And I was pushing him pretty hard at that audition. And he’s a big guy, a master of everything. And he said “Wally, I’ve got about thirty promos to do for ABC tomorrow, can we back off a little bit?” And I said, “What if we back off a lot and just make Optimus a very nice gentleman who doesn’t shout at anybody, because he knows what the hell he’s doing?” And so Peter softened his voice, and became noble! Instead of a shouting boss, he was noble. And he credited me once at a convention when someone asked him how he created the character. He pointed to me at the back of the room. He agreed with me that we could soften him, yet still make him a very strong character. And he’s been doing it for over thirty years now!

It feels kind of obvious thinking back to it now, but it makes sense that this decision by Cullen and Burr to “soften” the character’s delivery, rather than voice him as some kind of ultra-macho task-master, made all the difference in making Prime a character with a palpable pathos. It spoke to Prime’s strength that he didn’t feel the need to constantly project it. It spoke to his authority that he didn’t need to reinforce it. It spoke to his determination that he didn’t waste effort making grand protestations about it.

I am reminded of Optimus Prime’s entry in Marvel Comics’ Transformers Universe series, a kind of Transformers encyclopedia in comic book form, and even though I last read them at the age of 9 or so, the closing lines stuck with me. I rediscovered them archived here at this website, where, under the entry for Prime’s weaknesses, it says:

Otherwise the only weakness he could be accused of having is being too compassionate and concerned about the safety of others. He would be a more effective military commander if he were more ruthless, but then he wouldn’t be Optimus Prime.

Performing Artists, Kill Your Guilty Conscience

My amazing and talented wife Jessica recently did some voice work to help another actress prepare for a film, for which she was paid. She was told today, however, that the film project had been canceled. This, of course, happens sometimes, and it’s not has though Jess was going to be in the thing, so no harm, no foul for her.
But then she admitted to me that she felt a twinge of guilt for accepting payment for her work now that the film won’t actually go into production. When she said this to me, I think my eyes bugged out of my head, and I may have dropped whatever I was holding. Had I been sipping a beverage, I probably would have done a spit take over my laptop keyboard, necessitating a puppy-dog-eyed trip to the Genius Bar.

Guilty? For being paid for your work? I made the comparison to someone who might have built an object: If someone had constructed a set piece for the film, and the film was canceled, no one would think that the builder shouldn’t be paid. Work done is work done.

But somehow with artists, I think particularly performing artists, there is a feeling that what we do doesn’t really count as work, and that if we happen to get paid for it, it’s just icing. A happy coincidence.

Part of this is fueled by raw economics. The supply of performers (actors, singers, dancers, etc.) is far, far, far greater than the demand for them, which leads to performers doing ungodly amounts of work for nothing, and in many cases, actually paying to work in order to get “experience,” get “exposure,” and really, get “exploited.” (Say the word “showcase” to an actor and see if you can detect them dying inside.)

There’s also something about the evanescence of performance work, particularly live performance. You do it, and the work then flitters off into the ether, perhaps captured in recordings or memory, but now passed.

Finally, there’s the trope that’s related to the idea that one must “do what you love,” which can easily be misinterpreted as “since you love doing it, doing it is payment in itself.” Actors and other performers are made to feel that they are privileged just to be allowed to ply their craft at all, and that it is only a rarified few who should deign to feel entitled to compensation for it. It can feel to some as almost impolite to expect to be paid for performance-art work.

And I get it. I have been there. As someone who is usually drenched in self-loathing, I know what it is not to value one’s own labor. Adulthood and the oppression of debt and expenses has changed me a great deal, however, plus I’ve been out of the performing arts workforce for several years now. Raw necessity has hardened me somewhat when it comes to expecting fair compensation, even for work that I might do on my own time for nothing anyway. (Music, for example.)

Here’s the key difference: If I choose to do creative work on my own (and on my own terms) for no payment, all for me, that’s my decision. If you want me to do similar work for you, on your terms, you must pay me. The two are not related, but we sensitive artists types are primed to conflate them.

Back to Jess. Her work in this case was not even “performance” per se, but using her talents to help another performer with their vocal work. It was a kind of training. So it’s not even as though she got the chance to spread her creative wings and practice her craft at its fullest for the sheer joy of it. She did contract training work. And yet she still felt bad for accepting her compensation.

It makes me more than a little angry that our culture has been set up this way, so that my brilliantly talented and already overworked wife would feel bad for being paid for her services, done in her extremely scarce spare time. And it happens to all manner of creative professionals, not just performers but writers and designers too. Because it’s “creative,” it doesn’t count as real work.

Get paid. If you also happen to enjoy that work? That’s the icing. And it’s irrelevant. Get paid fairly for your work and treat it like the business transaction it is. Everyone else does.

Robin Williams and the False Promise of Success

I have no idea why he did it. I have no special insight into whatever darkness weighed on the heart of Robin Williams. I haven’t even seen a Robin Williams movie since Man of the Year, which was terrible. But he’s someone I absolutely idolized as a young comedic performer, someone whose career I would have done anything to emulate. He was an early example for me of a performer who was utterly beloved entirely for his performances, for his talent and energy, for the laughs and pathos he was capable of bringing about, as opposed to his looks or some veneer of “cool.”

And while I can’t know what haunted him, I can relate to him both as a comic actor and as someone who struggles with depression. I think, in the immediate shock of the news of his apparent suicide, that Williams’ death gives the lie to the idea that I, and I’d suppose that millions of others who also live with depression, tell themselves: That if we can just reach a certain level of success, if we can just cross this undefinable threshold of validation, our hangups and sadness will be cured.

I know I think this. I don’t think it intellectually, of course, but it’s there. Something deep in my own mind, where I can’t yet correct it, believes this.

Robin Williams embodied a dream I once had of who I would become. He had reached the pinnacle of that ideal. But it didn’t cure him. Whatever his demons were (and again, I have no idea as to what they were beyond what is common public knowledge), they could not be erased by popularity, acclaim, awards, a guaranteed place in our cultural pantheon, or the laughter and tears of millions – billions? – of people.

I was in the audience for his Inside the Actors Studio appearance during my brief time at that school, and it was one of those evenings where he could do no wrong. He had this huge room of self-obsessed actors (many of whom probably already considered him yesterday’s news) howling with laughter, absolutely adoring him for his sharp and quick mind, and for his humanity. Because while he was cracking us up, between the frenetic barrages of wit and energy, he would pause, and he would reveal a little bit of his true self, showing us how vulnerable he really was.

Success won’t cure us by itself. That’s not what’s wrong. We have to find another way. I’m sure he tried. I wish he’d succeeded.

The One Unwelcome Intrusion on the Near-Perfect “Gravity”

Having just now seen Gravity with my wife this weekend, I have a feeling that I had more faith in the movie’s power than even the filmmakers did. 

I realize I’m a little late to the party, but allow me to first add to the chorus of saying that Gravity is an extraordinary film, unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen, a genuine triumph of the medium. It’s also one of those extremely rare films in which an IMAX 3D showing really does mean something to the complete work, in that it’s a gimmick, and it’s not about “tricking” you into thinking what you’re looking at is actually in three dimensions, but in that it skillfully and tastefully takes advantage of the illusion of depth and change of focus to give an almost overwhelming sense of the immensity of the setting, the sheer vastness of the stage on which the film is set.

I loved it, and that’s why I’d like to see one simple but major change that I suspect (but am not sure) might have done a world of good.

I’d love to see a verion of Gravity, in its full, IMAX 3D glory, without the music, without the underscore.

 (Hereafter be spoilers!)

One of Gravity’s great strengths is how “natural” it feels. Despite any fudging of physics the filmmakers may have perpetrated, the film is harrowing and tense before anything bad has even happened. We are engrossed and tense right along with Dr. Stone from the first moments. When danger strikes, the stakes are obvious, and terrifying all by themselves. Later, when there are triumphs, they feel collossal, all on their own — because of what is happening before our eyes and from the sounds of the events and the environment.

I felt that the music often intruded on this. There’s the vast empiness of space, the simultaneous claustrophobia and vertigo of the spacewalks, the chaos and terror of the debris invasions and impacts, the physical and psychological struggle to reach each new phase of the attempt to escape. None of it, not a whit of it, needed any help from the outside. And the underscoring came from the outside.

It felt unnecessary, for one thing. But it also felt condescending, like someone was standing at the front of the theater with signs and a bullhorn telling the audience how to feel. (“Okay, now you’re really scared! This thing that’s happening now is very bad!!!”)

So what if they had tried a version without the music? The music itself was fine, but it was in the way. I didn’t need it. Give it to us at the closing credits, fine, but not a note until then. Have a little more trust in the film you’ve already made, before adding on an artificial layer of emotional button-pushing. Believe me, it’s already a doozie.

Tony Stark and Me and Our PTSD

On an episode in May of this year of the podcast The Incomparable, which is a great panel discussion show about whatever bit of culture, entertainment, or literature strikes their fancy, the topic was Iron Man 3. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Guy English takes the temperature of the group concerning the introduction of Tony Stark’s panic attacks, a symptom of his PTSD following the harrowing events of the previous film, The Avengers. There was general agreement that, yes, what Tony experienced battling the aliens at the climax of The Avengers would definitely fuck one’s shit up, but there seemed to be some ambivalence about whether it out of place in the context of the film in question.

I quickly want to address what they did not, which is whether it was done well. I watched Iron Man 3 only recently, on my MacBook during a flight a month or so ago, and I found the portrayal of someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder shockingly realistic.

Let me qualify: I have only my own experiences to draw from. Read this to get a better idea of how I know anything about the topic — it doesn’t involve aliens. I do not at all want to assert that my experience of PTSD is universal or even common. It’s just what I know.

All that said, I was amazed at how much I related to Stark in his moments of panic. I recognized my own behavior in his when one of his attacks set in. (For the sake of rhetoric, I’m going to use the word “you” even though I’m really talking about “me.)

Something sets you off — a reference to an event, an association, a physical stimulus, what have you — and an animalistic fight or flight instinct takes hold. But it doesn’t necessarily own you entirely, you don’t turn into some werewolf in a waking nightmare. Your conscious mind is aware of what’s happening. You know you’re having an irrational rush of emotions and that your body is now compelled to act with sudden and overwhelming urgency. Maybe you run, maybe you fight, maybe you hide, maybe you scream, etcetera. All the while, you recognize that something not of your neocortex is in control. You may even be able to make jokes about it while it’s happening.

So I was mightily impressed and very much surprised by the way it was handled in this movie. It would have been easy to overdramatize Tony’s episodes, to make them Hulk-like in their violence and intensity, to make Tony unrecognizable in those moments. Instead, they let them be very much Tony’s episodes. We got to see him become aware of something happening to him, see him comment on it, struggle with it, and even try to mitigate it based on circumstance. And yes, he could even have a sense of humor about it in the moment. What was so true to life for me was that Tony never loses all control in those moments, but you do see his whole body carriage change as though a new force were asserting itself on his body’s operation, as though he was the Iron Man suit, and his amygdala now the driver.

We see a lot of troubled superheroes. Too often, though, their traumas exhibit themselves in brooding or vendetta. It was extremely refreshing to see a trauma manifest clinically in a superhero character, in a way I as a fellow-sufferer recognized. Indeed, Downey’s portrayal of PTSD episodes was so real to me, it mildly triggered my own responses, sitting there at over 10,000 feet, in the dark. My heart raced with his. My amygdala called shotgun in my mind for a little while.

I understand why it might have seemed a touch superfluous to the Incomparable cast. There are a lot of ways to tell the story of Tony growing as a character and knowing what it is to have weaknesses and failings. But this way of telling that story was crystal clear to me. For a big, explode-y Hollywood blockbuster, they told that about as well as I imagine anyone could.


Episode-IIThanks to a Fireballing, I rediscovered this essay by Rod Hilton on a suggested viewing order for the Star Wars films which, he says, makes for a much better story, retains most of the big twists and reveals, and concentrates more strongly on the more compelling narrative: the Luke story over the Anakin story — the Anakin story winds up serving as flashback-background material for what really matters.
What you wind up with is this:

1) A New Hope (IV)
2) The Empire Strikes Back (V)
3) Attack of the Clones (II)
4) Revenge of the Sith (III)
5) Return of the Jedi (VI)

Hilton’s order, which he calls “Machete Order,” makes one big sacrifice, which is the omission of Episode 1, The Phantom Menace.

Says Hilton:

. . . this creates a lot of tension after the cliffhanger ending of Episode V. It also uses the original trilogy as a framing device for the prequel trilogy. Vader drops this huge bomb that he’s Luke’s father, then we spend two movies proving he’s telling the truth, then we see how it gets resolved. The Star Wars watching experience gets to start with the film that does the best job of establishing the Star Wars universe, Episode IV, and it ends with the most satisfying ending, Episode VI. It also starts the series off with the two strongest films, and allows you to never have to either start or end your viewing experience with a shitty movie. Two films of Luke’s story, two films of Anakin’s story, then a single film that intertwines and ends both stories.

I am intrigued by this, but I have one major problem with it. While Hilton obviously has no love for Episode I, to me, the real problem in terms of movie quality is Episode II.

Let me be a little more clear about this. The Phantom Menace is not a great film, but Attack of the Clones is, perhaps, the worst movie ever made. And it’s really for one reason: The Anakin-Padme scenes.

Don’t you remember the one time you saw it (I presume it was only once because it was so awful)? The insipid, schmaltzy, drippy dialogue between Anakin and Padme in their atrociously-written “love” scenes? The mush-mouthed, one-dimensional performance of Hayden Christensen, who should never have been allowed near a piece of text? The deadening of Natalie Portman’s acting skills through terrible writing and absent direction?

It was almost too much to bear. My friends and I seeing it in the theater were cringing, silently at first, and over the course of the film vocally, contorting our faces as we endured this cinematic offense. Only because it was Star Wars did we power through, for if it were a standalone movie it would be too much to stand, and we’d have left a half-hour in.

Episode I has a mediocre child actor and some borderline-bigoted portrayals of CGI aliens, but it’s not the wholesale disaster that Lucas inflicts on us in Episode II.

But Hilton is no doubt correct in his essay, though, that Episode II is too crucial in terms of constructing the whole reason behind Vader/Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, and Episode I really isn’t at all.

So if we’re really talking about a “Machete Order,” maybe some enterprising remixer could take Episode II, and heavily edit it to sufficiently tell the story of Anakin and Padme’s relationship and its importance to the arc, while making it more merciful on the viewer. Maybe just leave in longing looks or something, and skip the dialogue altogether.

Never the less, I think I may give this order a shot. I’m not even that big of a Star Wars fan (I’m a would-be citizen of the United Federation of Planets), as I think it rests on too many tropes of prophecies and “chosen ones” and hyperviolence that interest me very little in terms of fiction. But it’s still a fun trip, and if this makes it a better trip, then it’s worth checking out.