Tag Archives: y tu mama tambien

Shards of a Broken Sublime

22 Mar

I have been a writer, in some sense of the word, for over a decade now. On paper, this development was no great surprise. I’m the son of an academic and a librarian, and one side of my family has a strong literary strain to it. I read voraciously as a kid, and had snobby tastes even then. I invented worlds throughout my childhood, some of which endure in recesses of my brain like long-lost friends or fondly remembered vacations. Sometimes I wrote these worlds down, and sometimes they lived only in my mind, but never did I imagine myself a writer as an adult. I was just a somewhat creative kid who grew up in a literary milieu.

That all changed during my freshman year at Georgetown. One night, in the dark of a New South dorm room long after my roommate had passed out, I began to pound out a few lines of a novel. For the next year and a half, I continued to chip away at it every day. While I finished that draft and made some halfhearted efforts to edit it, I immediately undertook additional writing projects as well. My fictional universes grew. I invented people, towns, races, even full-blown theologies, all of which fed on themselves and grew outward even as I went about my daily life as a student. I quietly churned out hundreds of thousands of words that I shared with no one.

My writing birth came at a time when I had no shortage of material. I was astute enough to recognize that, decades later, I might look back on my eighteenth year as the most dramatic of my own life. (I had an older fictional character share this possibility with a teenage protagonist.) From my own journey out of high school to the East Coast to family upheaval to broader a political drama in which I was a bit player, I careened across a full range of emotion, and I had to write about it, both to process what it all meant and to capture it all for my memory. My twentieth year, which included four months in Mexico, brought forth a similar sense of urgency. The intensity of life demanded an outlet, and I’m not sure I would have found it if I hadn’t gone through or done some of the things I did in those handful of years where ambition became reality.

In retrospect, I am in awe of how naturally all of that came. While I still finish most of my nights writing or rereading some of my past writing, my output is a fraction of what it was in those prolific early years. For a long time, I had no concept of writer’s block, no sense of what it was like to ever sit down to write and fail to produce. It was absolutely uninhibited, which may have been the source of its ease. While there were vague pretensions of publication floating around in my mind, I was writing strictly for myself. Not a soul knew about my little project, and there were no expectations.

Maybe some unconscious awareness that I’d lose that freedom was the reason I told no one of my writing life for years. When I finally did start my halting explanations of my efforts, that ease came crashing down, and I began suffering from the aggravating blocks that still plague me to this day. I’d gone from a person who wrote in secret to someone who aspired to the title of writer, and I had to perform. There was no turning back, though: it had become too much a part of my life to hide, and if my writing had half the insight within it that I thought it had, it deserved more than one reader. My writing life aged out of carefree childhood and found its teenage angst.

Recently, as I transferred files from an old laptop to a new one, I took some time to revisit some of those old musings. They had their moments of insight and their moments that don’t deserve to ever be read by anyone else, but above all I was struck by the intensity of the emotion of that teenage author. At that point I was still entranced by the possibility of everything that Georgetown represented to me, still had a sense of unquestioned destiny and a certainty that I would write history. In time I came to doubt this sense, but it never truly left me. That captivation with the power of words and with my youthful dreams has, with distance, returned with renewed strength, albeit through a world-weary recognition of how ephemeral it can all be.

As I looked for an easier outlet for my writing than unmanageably large works of fiction, I started to blog. Or, more accurately, I became an essayist, and had the good fortune to come of age as an essayist when it became the easiest it’s ever been to do so, thanks to a platform that allows for easy dissemination. I wrote my earliest essays from the perspectives of my various fictional characters, an attempt to respond to developments in the 2010 elections from a number of different angles. In time, the stronger of those writing voices emerged as my own, and I decided I had enough material to share on a semi-regular basis. On to a WordPress platform it all went, and has stayed ever since.

As I’ve shared before, blogging comes with its challenges, but is a welcome outlet. Essays allow for much more precise reflection on specific topics, which did a lot of good for the writing development of someone whose fiction tends toward the all-encompassing. (I write novels that look to explore a full swath of society! That plumb the depths of the human psyche! And meta-allegories! And coming-of-age stories! And…you get the idea.) Essays were a valuable bridge between the academic writing I’d honed in school and the fiction I’d honed in isolation. They taught me to be far more precise and concise, two qualities that I have since sought to infuse into both my fiction and my research-related writing in my work life (and really just into life in general). All those styles come with distinct voices, but the fundamentals beneath them never change.

Once I gave up the idea of making a living as a writer, certain things grew easier again. While I still sought to perform for an audience, it was a slightly less existential push, though existential it remained. I also just got older, and developed some maturity as I moved from a passionate sharer of all emotions toward a craftsman trying to perfect his art. Such a claim comes with a certain pretension, clearly, but so, too, does any attempt at authorship. The privilege of writing is accessible to all with a certain level of comfort with the ideas they seek to share; the privilege of being read comes to those who have found some way to consistently craft something memorable.

My writing life was made possible by good fortune and support from parents willing to put up with literary experimentation, and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours since. I wish I could say it gets easier over time, but it doesn’t. Standards rise, the critical eye grows ever more discerning, and when it becomes an expectation, failure to write is a burden. I suspect many writers must first learn how to over-write and over-share, and only with time come to learn how to cut out the excess and hone in on the core message with a deliberate precision.

Good writing, I think, benefits from a natural reticence. There’s a reason we writers have chosen the written word to express our thoughts instead of saying it all aloud to anyone around us. I don’t like to over-share, and while I think stream-of-consciousness has its virtues, the good stuff isn’t something I’d idly write on a lazy Tuesday night. At our best, we find ways to cut through the clutter and form coherent story arcs, and impose order on a world that otherwise can so often lack it. One of my first posts on this blog quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize lecture, and I can’t think of any truer words on the function of good written storytelling.

My writing life, after some time out in the working world, is now at a crossroads. I’m perfectly content to write for myself, and will probably continue to do so on some level for as long as I am able. It’s a method of processing, a method of exploration, a cathartic release. But if I am going to write for an audience beyond my hockey work (where I’ve got my little cult following) or the occasional reaction to a life event (which gets reliably read by people who know me), it needs to evoke a reaction.

Writers may respond differently to the array of responses their work inspires, but for me, nothing is more aggravating than silence. Straight praise, while welcome, also often feels incomplete. My writing has never been a claim to perfection but instead a struggle toward it, a struggle that demands engagement and criticism, and without it, writers are left guessing, or worse, looking at view counts and turning their output into a crass popularity contest. Did we make you think? What about our writing draws you in, or puts you to sleep? On which topics are we at our best or worst? Where to next? If we didn’t want people to engage with us, we would have left our writings in those vast unpublished archives of our minds.

This rambling setup is all a way of saying that I’m going to invest some time over the next few months to see if my writing life can progress beyond the state it’s inhabited for several years now. I don’t know quite what this means yet beyond a certain level of time commitment. I have no shortage of material that is probably a good editor away from publication, from things I could adapt from past essays to a novel draft I finished before grad school to the episodic story collection that I put out on this blog. I need to explore the worlds of writing submissions and publishing, which is foreign to me, and apparently requires one to be comfortable with rejection, which has never been one of my strong suits. I also need to do all of this while keeping up my day job and a couple of other pursuits that will still be central to my life.

No matter where this little experiment goes, though, I will go on writing. The title of this post comes from the New Yorker review of one of my favorite films, Y tu mamá también: the protagonists, writes Anthony Lane, “may spill over with sauce and silliness, but that is the privilege of the young; and it is the job of the adult artist to dig back into that time, and to unearth, from the ridiculous, the shards of a broken sublime.”

Aside from capturing the theme of so much of my writing, that sentiment sums up my writing itself. If I have a task, perhaps even a calling, well, that’s it. Unreason and entropy threaten to drag down lives into despair or apathy, but we have the power to take those downward spirals and turn them to insight, to humor, and to those glimmers of revelation that allow us to reclaim that sublime. It’s time for me to try to share that, such as I can.

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A Very Cyclical Double Feature

2 Apr

This past week, courtesy an absent roommate’s Netflix, I enjoyed a rather absurd double feature involving sincere philosophy, adolescent sex, and excessive smoking: Hannah Arendt and Y Tu Mamá También. Neither one is new: I hadn’t yet seen the Arendt film, but I’ve read her work extensively and written about it here and here; I first saw Y Tu Mamá También last summer, and reviewed it here. As this blog reaches its two-year anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate than with a sprawling synthesis between two wildly different strains of thought?

The Arendt film (2012) is a dramatization of the defining moment in the career of a great thinker, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the worst Nazi war criminal to escape Germany after the war. The Israeli secret police tracked him down in Argentina, and he went on trial in the new Jewish state, locked in a glass box to prevent anyone from finishing the job too soon. Arendt, a German Jew living in America and the first great theorist of totalitarianism, seemed the perfect correspondent, but her ultimate verdict set off a firestorm. She declared that Eichmann was not the embodiment of some demonic form of evil; she called him banal and frighteningly normal, and also pointed out the role of many European Jewish leaders in enabling the Holocaust. She was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew; an arrogant and emotionless woman who used a tragedy to make an esoteric philosophical point.

Trying to make drama out of a philosopher’s work is a formidable task, but one director Margarethe von Trotta achieves ably with smoke-filled rooms and acid dialogue. There are a few moments where it comes off a bit fake, but the circle around Arendt is entirely believable, and Janet McTeer makes a superb Mary McCarthy. The flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful affair with Martin Heidegger, the brilliant existentialist who became an unrepentant Nazi, add another dimension; they run the risk of making her brilliance seem like an offshoot of an old flame gone bad, but they also reveal a greater commitment to an idea, a belief in the centrality of human reason that not even Heidegger could sustain other pressure. He caved to the Nazis, banally accepting his role as university rector under the totalitarian regime. Arendt did not, twice escaping their clutches only to suffer a final exile imposed by many of her old friends for publishing what she believed. But fifty years later, she is the one who achieved immortality, exactly the worldly end she thought public figures should aim for in The Human Condition. Her speech to before a hall of skeptical Princeton students at the film’s climax hearkens to some of the great moments of courtroom dramas, her oratory an impassioned defense and rallying cry for her belief.

The film verges on hagiography, though I’ll leave it to critics who don’t think Arendt was one of the Twentieth Century’s two or three greatest minds to say if it goes too far. It shows the value of her relentless quest, not just to identify the nature of evil but also the pursuit of truth; the recognition of good and evil and beauty and ugliness and other such terms that thoughtful contemporary discourse is often afraid to use for fear of being judgmental. The young Arendt tells Heidegger that the split between reason and passion is a mistake: she believes in impassioned reason, the search for something approaching reality. It’s not hard to see why her political theories tend to reach back to the Greeks. Arendt is on the same fundamental mission for truth, asking questions where others take things for granted, her loyalty only to that truth and those who join her in her search.

A film about spoiled, horny teenage Mexicans may seem as far as one can get from grand philosophical debate about why it is we’re here, but the message of Y tu Mamá También (2001), in the end, isn’t wildly different. In some ways it’s a necessary antidote: “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” one of the boys intones, and they settle for an adolescent manifesto that collapses before them. It taps into a psyche run down by the banality of it all; a narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification. (In one delicious moment, a mutual lover tells the two boys their exploits aren’t worth bragging about because they both come so quickly.) This is banality epitomized, even as it’s dressed up as adolescent swagger.

The story rises above the sex jokes in the character of Luisa, but even then, it’s smart enough not to let them fade into irrelevance. It’s all intermixed, a crucial recognition that those base drives don’t go away. Once again, impassioned reason: we need to understand this side of the human psyche as well, not to repress it but to understand it, and channel it in ways that fuel the fire. The boys are extremes, but they captivate because they hit a bit closer to home than many of us would like to believe. A full life takes these appetites, tames them, guides them, and makes sure there is a place for everything.

This is, of course, a wickedly difficult balance; even those who aspire to it find themselves caught in cycles of blind passion and limp detachment, stronger or weaker depending on their temperaments and personal histories. I have no idea what the end state will look like, if there even is such a thing. But the pursuit is on, and nothing else compares.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

31 Dec

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

8 Jun

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?