You might call this a cry of despair. Or call it mourning, for the universe I should have lived in.
My name is Bryan, and I’m a writer. I’m a good one. I question it sometimes, but deep in my heart I know it’s true. I work very hard at it, and I aim to tell stories that are good, that matter, that mean something.
But a writer needs to live in the same universe as his readers. And that’s why a movie that I saw this week left me in a crisis.
It shouldn’t have happened. I should have been able to laugh it off, like so many other bad movies I’ve seen. My friends and I have had some great times watching bad movies and giving them the ridicule they deserve. But then there was … this.
That’s from a cinematic atrocity called Vampire’s Kiss, starring the loathsome Nicolas Cage. (I don’t normally think phrases like “the loathsome Nicolas Cage” are appropriate — but what can you say about a human being who throws away his dignity like that?)
I can’t overstate the relentless idiocy of it. A language made for competence can’t describe it. I’d have to use, I don’t know, Pig Latin, and maybe write it in Crayola. It was bad enough to reach me on a metaphysical level, and it overwhelmed me. Here is what I wrote in my journal:
I can’t quite accept this as part of the world I live in. Every last thing in that film was inept. No, worse than inept, worse than incompetent. And somebody wanted it that way, and thought it was good. A whole lot of people with a lot of power and money decided that it was worth making, worth investing in, producing, promoting, … and not one of them said “fuck you, as long as I draw breath you malignant assholes won’t use my name or my talent or my money to bring this shitpile into the world.”
That movie is the direct opposite of me, and the work I want to do, and the world I want to live in, in every way I can imagine. I would greatly prefer to think that some evil mastermind did it to spread misery, than to believe it was the natural result of a herd of dipshits being dipshits. At least then there would be someone to blame and someone to fight. There would at least be intelligence behind it. But there isn’t, there’s none, there’s nothing. There’s just a universe of imbecility that gets to do what it wants.
I know those are heavy words for a stupid vampire movie. But if you think I’m overreacting, please consider this.
Not long ago, I bought a used book of poems by John Donne, written in the early 17th century, printed in the 1930s.
The book was worn out by use, which endeared it to me. Somebody had scribbled a lot of notes in the margins and had studied it very carefully. I admired it, and wondered if it had been used to write a graduate thesis, or what else might have motivated such scholarship.
As I leafed through it, something fell out that stunned me. It was a high school hall pass.
This meticulous study happened at a public school in upstate New York. Because back in those days, this is what kids studied. We once lived in a world that knew that kids are capable of learning, and we taught them.
I went online and looked up that high school. It still exists, and it has a website. Their English department has a section.
It proudly features a Lord of the Flies video game.
If this doesn’t alarm you, then you’re not fully human. If you don’t recognize this as a portrait of a culture that has shot itself in the head, then I don’t know what could convince you. I dare you to name a more damning contrast.
Who needs to burn books, when we can make entire generations immune to them?
Do you understand my opening paragraphs now? What happens to a good writer in this kind of a world, or to any kind of thinker? How many minds that should have been great have looked upon the imbecility of a Nicolas Cage film, or the asinine vapidity of their English lessons, and sunk beneath the waves of mediocrity, never to gasp for air again?
Well, this is me, gasping for air. I would scream for mercy, if there was anyone to scream to. We live in very bad times, and the future promises far, far worse. If you want to make the world better, you’ll have to face what we’re up against. Because the everyday contemptibility of Nicolas Cage is only a symptom.
Now consider Athens, circa 430 BC. This was a city the size of Tucson at the very most. By all historical precedent, it should have been nothing — yet it controlled an empire, with unrivaled wealth and trade. The citizens of this nowhere town created every major science, from philosophy to zoology to historiography. These people knew how to think. And more than that, they knew the value of thought, and accepted nothing less. They produced epochal geniuses whose work still guides us today, even as we let our kids dismiss them as nothing but a bunch of old white men. If you don’t know what you owe to Aristotle, or Solon, or Thucydides, read a little. Then look at Nicolas Cage and the despicable fools who use him. Look at the pitiful excuses for teachers who think a rousing game of “Find Piggy’s Glasses” has anything to do with education. Face them squarely, and tell them what universe they belong in.
It isn’t mine.