Sometimes the stars align.
Christmas lists are ordinarily drawn up at gunpoint in my abode, and this year was no different. Mine had been mainly comprised of a select few books and Blu Rays that I had long deigned to acquire. Fallen Angels in HD, one of my absolute favourites and the very film that adorns the header of this blog, was one such treasure that I should ideally have owned from the first days of its release. Downloading it would not do.
Likewise, I wanted to feel the hefty tome of Dom Delilo’s Underworld in my hands as opposed to its comparatively lightweight kindle pretender, a digital file compressed onto my iPhone with a faux-antiquated veneer identical to every page. Lest I lament conventional cultural norms I will find myself veering into discussion of Holy Motors; this particular entry is instead half-centred on Dom Delilo’s output, as it so transpired that Underworld was sold out, and I would therefore have to settle for White Noise instead. A worthy trade, a learned friend informed me.
“Underworld’s sold out.”
“That’s too bad. Go for… that one, then.” I pointed to an black square decorated with headphones and a crucifix.
“Oh,” said my mother. Then, confused: “It has a cross on it.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Your point being?”
(I respect my parents’ right to worship, and conversely they respect my decision to abstain. It wasn’t always this way. I recall with amusement the local church youth worker beckoning them to confiscate my Korn CDs (yeah, yeah). an action that would, in turn, provoke me into embracing more reactionary music. The guitars were increasingly drenched in fuzz, the drums doubled in time and the vocals ceased to resemble the voice of a human being. (What do I listen to nowadays, you ask? Lil B, natch.))
Human beings react to incentive, and one would find it hard to reason that Christians are any different no matter their claims to the contrary. Thus one of the biggest advantages to embracing the faith is its promise of a utopian afterlife, one which I often describe – as Christopher Hitchens so deftly put it – as North Korea, and ‘where the fun really begins’. Nevertheless, this afterlife is sought after through wholesome morals and charitable deeds on the part of the faithful. I’ve often found myself lying awake and thinking, “Well, if there is a heaven, I wouldn’t want to be so presumptuous and assume my name is in the Book of Life. All I can do, really, is DO MY BEST.” An alien concept to some. While there’s no doubt countless Christians working tirelessly to secure their place at the logic-defying all-you-can-eat buffet in the sky, the media has a predilection of – oftentimes quite rightly – spotlighting to us those who somehow possess an ethereal perception regarding who goes where. “I know where I’m going!” And, likewise, the rest of us are hellbound.
Heaven is a pre-emptive cure for death. It consoles us, soothes our anxieties over old age and decay so that we may no longer fear that our end on this earth is the conclusive full-stop.
Dom Delilo’s White Noise has a crucifix on its cover, although religion is never explicitly alluded to until the final few pages in which a nun acts as yet another of the book’s perfunctory messengers, appearing to spout a diatribe of intellectual ponderances before falling away again. I haven’t read Cosmopolis, but it’s clear from Cronenberg’s film adaptation that again, we have a string of characters whose sole function is to deliver one theoretical monologue after another. I have little qualms with this in the film or the book (Cronenberg’s is one of my favourites of the year); Delilo’s great chunks of dialogue are structured with a simplicity that has them fall from the page, creating an easy read out of a hard sell, and the descriptive passages compensate for gratuitously wordy discourse by way of their vivid, succint insights.
The protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a college professor whose fear of death is compounded upon the twin discoveries of both a dubious chemical in his bloodstream and a mysterious medicine that may have an outside chance of relinquishing his life of this very same fear. The encroaching pulse of death is all around, it is the eponymous white noise, the slow decay of everything hitherto secure and of great comfort. Its spectre forces Jack to frantically search for a preventative method whilst deciphering the codes of conduct that he had previously allowed to simmer under the surface of his daily life. Familial conventions are dissected with pinpoint accuracy. Idiocy mistaken for intellect is thrown under the knife. Most scathingly, our consumerist culture is on full display, though not in any obvious, preachy fashion, for it mirrors its role in our own world: shaping everything we see and do.
Jack’s voyage through the human pitfalls of the 20th century comes to a decidedly dark final act which appears as the absolute inverse of Cosmopolis‘ own. I won’t spoil.
And then, the stars aligned.
I finished White Noise mere minutes before the DVD of Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe was slotted into the player. Sometimes we happen upon a chance pairing of two cultural artifacts that perfectly complement each other through an overlap of themes and aesthetic devices. Here, I was taken from one man’s spiral into fear-addled oblivion and into… one woman’s spiral into fear-addled oblivion. Many tenuous links could be made between many dissimilar works of art, but it was good fortune that I found myself moving from one near-perfect piece of literature to one of the best films of the 90s whilst still retaining a sense of thematic momentum.
In Safe, Julianne Moore plays housewife Carol, victim to her own variation of white noise. It’s a thrum on the soundtrack, sinister and foreboding, growling, growing in magnitude, lending the picture all the ambience of a horror film. What is there to fear? Haynes’ camera knows too well; it mimics its lead woman in keeping a ‘safe’ distance from all proceedings. We’re left to sit back and gaze upon a panoramic of immaculate suburban interiors, inhabited by ostensibly perfect individuals.
Carol is the unlucky one to have to croak. A coughing feet, a bleeding nose and an asthma attack combine to pummel her into physical agony, but the true source of her anxiety is clear as day when presented on Haynes’ visual plane. Much like Jack Gladney of White Noise, Carol is under attack from both external forces and within. She is alone in the frame, isolated by the force of her existential quandary.
Her solution is to attend a New Age rehabilitation centre, and it is here that the film misleads its least savvy viewer into a hopeful ending. Whereas she is now being steadily drained of her colour, it was in her previous life thats its luminosity was too much to bear. What awaits her in this new, sedated, safe existence? One could look to the poster for a possible clue.
If I were to continue down this thematic path I could do worse than to turn to Lucrecia Martel’s exceptional bourgeois attack, The Headless Woman, mired as it is in the pervasive guilt and somnambulance of a similarly beleaguered individual.
Of course, there is absolutely no shortage of trite offerings detailing the obvious ‘suffocating’ nature of a seemingly idyllic suburbia. Take for instance, Desperate Housewives, wearing its conceit on its sleeve. Or even Downton Abbey, adopting the upstairs/downstairs angle with all the subtlety of a luncheon tray to the skull. As I speak there’s an episode of Suburgatory airing somewhere in the world – and the only phonetic remnant of that poorly coined title is ‘burger’, if we’re honest.
The surface/secrets tension is mined to complete exhaustion in film and television culture, although it doesn’t simply suffice to present the audience with these tales devoid of any conviction or finesse. It is with the likes of Martel’s lethargic distress, Hayne’s cautious witness and Delilo’s laconic elucidations that we are able to feel the connect between the work of art and our own private experience. We can feel without prompt, understand without the need for condescension.
And thus, the dots are connected. The stars, aligned.