Me and the Thunderbird


Thunderbird, on a 19th-century Cheyenne drumhead, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The co-opting of Native American culture makes me sad. For years I thought a thunderbird was a car driven by greasers and meatheads and Pontiac not a doomed, desperate tragic hero of the Ottawa but a disreputable manufacturer of cars. If it weren’t for the automotive industry, though, would I ever have even heard these names? I guess we owe them for keeping the memory alive, in however twisted a form.

And there are instances of co-opting that make me unashamedly happy. There’s a really nice Mexican lager called Bohemia brewed by cervezeria Motecuzoma Cuauhtemoc in Monterrey which I would never have tried if it weren’t for the portrait of Motecuzoma they use for their logo. I could do without Mel Gibson, but he put native Yucatec Maya speakers in a big-budget film. When I heard Johnny Depp was playing Tonto in an inexplicable remake of The Lone Ranger, I was as annoyed as everybody else until I remembered Dead Man… that long, wordless opening scene, a bespectacled, comically pale-faced young Depp staring out the window of the train at the landscape of the West as the grim faces of passengers shift and fade around him, visions of his own death in the wilderness pass before his eyes, and that brutal Neil Young noise riff gnashes over all. Just thinking about it makes me want to go watch that movie right now….ahh, but I have shit to do. Anyhow–however trumped up Depp’s one-sixteenth Cherokee blood, I give him credit for caring about Native American culture, to the point that I’ll probably see The Lone Ranger.

And so on and so forth, with mixed feelings of reverence and liberal guilt. I am not really supposed to talk about it, being as how I am a white male.

Which brings me to the point of this. I have co-opted Native American culture. Part one of my novella “Death and the Thunderbird”, featuring those lovable, culture-raping centaurs; a locomotive powered by sorcery; and yes, a thunderbird, is live today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #97, opposite the excellent Tina Connolly. I labored long and hard over it and am proud. If you’re a fan of the centaurs, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I doubt it will win any awards for cultural sensitivity despite my best intentions. By way of beginning to atone for this, I share below a brief bibliography of American culture-rape. As usual, I would almost rather you read the source material than my story. But read the story too, if you have time.

Ok. Must stop myself. Enjoy! Be edified.

Sympathy for the Lorax

The other day I went to see this indie documentary, Kalamazoo River: Us, which tells the history of that river’s pollution since the frontier era and the efforts of activists to get it cleaned up. It’s a bizarre film, full of hilarity and musical numbers. The director, Matt Dunstone, was on hand to answer questions afterward: a quiet, humble guy about my age, with two young kids and a wife in academia. He made immediately clear the love and dedication and enormous heaps of painstaking work that had gone into making it.

I came away full of turmoil. Sure, it made me happy to be reminded there are people who care that much and the news isn’t all horrible. And it filled me with sympathy for those tireless activists and the frustrations they’ve suffered in the face of indifference and corporate stonewalling. I know a little of what that’s like. A tiny bit. But not enough to keep me from wondering what heartwrenching environmentalist tragedy I could have made a documentary about, or written a book, or chained myself to something in protest against, if I’d just left off banging my head against fiction.

They tell you a writer is someone who just can’t not write, and there’s truth to that. But they also tell you short fiction is dead, and they’re not entirely wrong about that either. And I didn’t have to be writing short fiction. I could have written environmentalist documentaries or journalistic research or bitter political screeds. Not that it’s impossible to send a message or win hearts to a cause with fiction, but it’s hard. And doubly hard with short fiction because nobody reads it but other writers, for most of whom it’s all they can do to glance up from their own navels at the world. Didacticism, it’s called: trying to teach people something in a medium intended to entertain. People hate it. Not everybody, certainly. I’m not one of those people. In fifth grade, not long after seeing the maligned Ferngully for the first time, I helped write and appeared in a play about the importance of protecting the rainforest. Looking back, I feel bad for the parents who had to sit through that. They were probably bored, annoyed out of their skulls. That, no doubt, was didacticism done badly. It certainly can be done well, or at least better. Swift and Voltaire have survived this long. Ayn Rand still hangs on, though she’s bored plenty of people out of their skulls. Even Dr. Seuss had his conservationist masterwork, The Lorax. But look what’s happened to it now: neatly neutered and injected full of SUV tie-ins for a new generation of the coddled oblivious. Fiction wins people over and changes minds by happy accident, not because that’s what it’s for.

Of course, I know why I chose short fiction over film. For one thing, with film you have to rely on a ton of other people to help get your final product out there. With fiction it’s just you and the page: control. The selfishness, the unwillingness to engage, the navelgazing: these things are inherent in the form. And they’re common flaws in writers. Go look at your nearest online writers discussion forum (yeah, you know the one) and see what they’re talking about, fencing their way endlessly through meaningless nitpickery week in, week out, exploding like moldy confetti the moment anything really serious comes up. Who cares? But who can blame them? If writers could be heroes, pathmakers, changers of the world, they wouldn’t be writers. Except for the rare, unspeakably lucky few who can be both.

Which I guess is why this blog post: my feeble effort to try and get there. I do what I can, I tell myself, but it’s not very much. Not compared to those activists or to Matt Dunstone. I’m too busy gazing into my own bellybutton trying to divine the universal truth. But the dream, the thing that lets me sleep at night, is the hope that of course on of these stories will be so fucking good that it makes people care, enough of them that, even though maybe I’ll never know about it, they’ll go on to chain themselves to trees and make heartwrenching documentaries.

No Apocalypse

I love the Mayans. That ought to be obvious to anybody who’s even looked at my WordPress theme. And I guess that makes me biased. Look back through the film category of this blog and there’s a lot of needley criticism of a lot of movies with Mayan themes. For a movie that’s blatant about it the way 2012 is blatant about it, I go into the thing harboring at the same time a sense of dread and a set of unattainable expectations. Which is, of course, not anything like the state of mind that causes people to make movies with Mayan themes. They do it because human sacrifice and murky prophecies penned by ancient mystics from lost civilizations are freaky and cool, and there are a lot of other people out there like me who drool over them.

And I guess because of the mystery involved, people’s imaginations seem to be more inspired by the iteratively more far-fetched folkloric misinterpretations of these myths than the real thing. Crystal skulls, for example, sure do seem a hell of a lot cooler in the popular perception than, say, mossy ones. And I can get behind that. I can sit and enjoy the popcorny adventure elements while managing to mostly ignore my nagging annoyance with the associated historical inaccuracies, cultural insensitivities, even the occasional new-agey hyperbolic pseudo-prophetic ego trip. For the sake of the story, I can look past that stuff. I know what poetic license is. And to a certain extent, the organic, evolving, cyclical nature of Mesoamerican and precolombian mythology lends itself perfectly to that kind of speculation. These are stories that propagate and develop through oral tradition, improvisation. Changing old stories to tell new truths, and vice-versa. There’s room for sprawling, reverently researched historical epic like Gary Jennings’ Aztec, transportive surrealistic allegory like Asturias’ Hombres de Maiz, absurdist, hallucinatory postmodern ultraviolence like Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex and intimate, intense contemporary fairytale like Aliette de Bodard’s “Blighted Heart”.

I love all that stuff. I love it to death. Which maybe means I’m less critical of Mayan influence in fiction than in film…or maybe it means that fiction’s better! Ha! But anyway.

All that said, every time I see the 2012 trailer, it gets harder to sit through, and my inclination to see it gets tinier. The best thing about that trailer is over before the titles have even finished rolling, and it’s this:

An actual, beautiful piece of Mayan relief art, CGI’d to look like it’s carved into the side of the three-million-foot high movie title logo. That one tenth of a second gives me tingles. The rest of it can go throw an aircraft carrier at itself for all I care. Because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t have a story. It may have a character or two, but mostly it appears to be about some CGI death and destruction. It doesn’t even seem to be bothering to use the mythology at all, even for entertainment purposes—it’s just a convenient date they can assign some doomsday to. And that kind of thing really does have the potential to make me mad. Because not only is it playing to the lowest common denominator at the expense of practically any resemblance to the noble, ancient art of mythmaking, and frankly bears more resemblance to a fireworks display or a line of cars slowing down to look at a wreck than it does to storytelling, but it’s perpetuating the worst, most irresponsible part of the stupid pop culture folklorification of Mayan culture. And it’s making me afraid that what I’m about to say actually still does need to be said.

There won’t be any %&*@ 2012 apocalypse.

Now, if we’re lucky, maybe there just might be a singularity. Or at least a global reawakening. I sure hope so, because for crying out loud, we could use one.

More about all that, and what the Mayan mythology and “prophecy” actually predicts, next week.

But the main point of this week’s angry anti-2012 rant is simply this: go ahead and entertain me with alien-powered crystal skulls and doomsday scenarios if you must—but couldn’t you at least try to engage with the underlying ideas a little bit? The history, the art and culture and mythology of the Mayans has so many fascinating, pertinent, complex and thought-provoking lessons to convey. Can’t we talk about that just a little?

More of that next week too.

Winsor McCay Centaurs

Winsor McCay was the creator of the surrealist newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, a beautiful, eye-opening classic that ran from 1905 to 1914 and has influenced me not a little. It can be had in glorious full-color reprints from los eeenternets for colossal amounts of money, or, the way I got it, from la biblioteca. A few strips are available online, like this great one from wikimedia commons. Ray Bradbury did a film adaptation in the ’90s, and there was an 8-bit Nintendo game I rented once when I was 11….

But anyway. Here, courtesy of Paul DiFillipo, is a little-known animation fragment McCay did, featuring some centaurs frolicking in a forest to tasteful piano music:

[Inferior4+1]: Winsor McCay’s Centaurs

Note the well-endowed female centaur, and then note the comment below from John Crowley about the apocryphality of said endowedness, being as how there were no female centaurs in greek myth. Woo Crowley!

Predictably, my favorite part comes around the 0:44 mark, when the strapping young male centaur heartthrob, for no apparent reason, throws a rock at a passing albatross and kills it.

The Fountain

Those of you who have not seen the movie might want to look away. I suspect there will be spoilers.

The Fountain is this movie by Darren Aronofsky about a doctor, Tom, researching an experimental drug from the Guatemalan jungle in order to find a cure for his wife Izzi’s brain cancer. There are two other parallel timelines: an alt-historical treasure hunt framed as a story-within-story written by the dying Izzi to her husband, and a far-future psychedelic space voyage of spiritual discovery in the tradition of 2001 (not to mention a certain Tool video), which I think we are supposed to interpret as a manifestation of Tom’s internal conflict as journey of self-discovery.

Aronofsky has only made two other movies in his career. I have not seen Requiem for a Dream. I’ve kind of been avoiding it because of what I understand the content to be, ie too fucked up for my palate. I’ve seen Pi, and it has a similarly ethereal quality and nonlinear structure. Also a similar running thread of unpleasant head trauma raised to mystical significance, which may or may not turn out to be relevant.

The ‘fountain’ of the title is the Fountain of Youth, that thing Ponce de Leon was supposed to have been looking for in the jungles of Florida in 1521, the mythical spring of eternal life. But the theme of The Fountain actually ends up being death–fear of death, denial and acceptance, death as spiritual journey. Like Pi, this is an idea story. It fits into a tradition of nonlinear SF film with 2001, Solaris, AI etc. People tend to be annoyed by these movies. I tend to get really psyched about them. And I started to get really psyched about The Fountain, for the first twenty minutes or so, when it became clear that the alt-historical story-within-story was about a Spanish conquistador who, at the behest of his queen, had gone looking for eternal life, not in the bayous of southern Florida, but in the jungles of the Peten–and that the source of eternal life was not a fountain, but a tree.

The Fountain leans heavily on Mayan mythology, albeit in a revisionist sense. It focuses particularly on one image, that of the Mayan cross or sacred tree. Franciscan monks in the service of Cortes, upon encountering this symbol, mistook it for a muddled heathen desecration of the Christian cross, and used it as justification for summarily destroying every piece of Maya writing, art or culture they could get their hands on. Aronofsky’s lone monk does just the opposite: he takes the cross as evidence that the same God exists on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Mayan Tree of Life is the same one that grew next to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Which is a fascinating premise, and one with which a lot of different stories could be told. Of course, a lot of those stories would very likely suck, and I’ve got to give Aronofsky credit for not turning this into a Da Vinci Code-style thriller. (Which I guess is what Pi was now that I think about it, but low-budget, with a kickass soundtrack and mystical head trauma.) Unfortunately, and despite having a reasonably kickass soundtrack of its own, not to mention the absolutely beautiful visuals, the story he did decide to tell doesn’t work.

Part of it is that he just tries to do too much. The movie’s only 90 minutes long, and he’s cramming in a near-future SF setting, a historical fantasy setting, and a far-future drunkass Tool video ripoff setting (no really, go ahead, watch The Fountain, then go watch the Tool Parabola video), and then trying to knit them all together into a coherent whole. So for the first twenty minutes, I was staring at the screen with my jaw around my ankles, thinking “Damn. Mayans, immortality, wierdass postcolonial commentary, psychedelia… this bastard is stealing all my thunder!” But after another twenty minutes, when he’s not done bringing in new crazy shit and is already dropping old crazy shit by the wayside, I start to lose hope.

At the center of this rapid spiral out of control (I think) is the least-developed and most abstract of the three parallel timelines: the music video bit, where an inexplicably hairless Tom, dressed up like a monk, rides a psychedelic spirit spaceship composed of a small lump of rock out of which grows the dying remnant of the Tree of Life into the heart of the Orion Nebula. Which we have been taught to equate with Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, thus allowing us to interpret this journey as another representation of Tom’s deluded effort to find the cure for brain cancer/drink the sap of the Tree of Life, and thus provide immortality both to himself and the dying Izzi. And that’s the wierd thing about my negative reaction to this whole thing: it’s all there. The connections are there, the clues are all made available to us. I am required only to follow the threads to pull it all together. Were this AI I was watching, or 2001 for that matter, I would be absoutely tickled pink at the opportunity to do just that–to find some wonked-out means to draw a line between that monkey picking up the bone and the baby gestating in orbit around the earth. So what’s the deal? Why am I so annoyed? It is because Aronofsky made everything too easy, because instead of a three hour epic he gave me a flip 90 minutes crammed so full of unaddressed ideas he had to dangle the important ones right in front of my nose?

Critics called The Fountain ‘inaccessible’ and ‘innovative’. I’m actually kind of surprised to find that I don’t think it’s either. I had no trouble following the three plots, intuiting how they were supposed to interweave. At the end I knew exactly what I was supposed to think. And through the whole thing, I couldn’t stop myself making comparisons. In this scene he’s cribbing from Kubrick, here from Soderbergh, over here from Charlie Kaufman (mostly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Why the fuck does Tom have to be bald to ride his crazy psychedelic spaceship? Why is he wearing that buddhist monk habit? Because Aronofsky wants us thinking of Neo, waking up in his tub of nutrient goo and putting on those coarse grey clothes that smack of Ultimate Truth. And yeah–I just kept coming back to that Tool video.

None of which, really, detracts from the flabbergasting beauty of the movie’s color palette and the nature of its visuals. Honestly, this movie is worth seeing just for that one shot of the hall in the Great Mosque at Cordoba in darkness, its shadows strewn with hanging candles like a field of stars.

That said, I think the rest of it could have done just as well as a ten minute music video–and without trampling all over my favorite themes.