Monday, April 23, 2018

A Clarification About Hypnosis and “Get Out”

Director Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out, with actress Betty Gabriel

I think I said something I regret. Last week, writing about Jordan Peele’s breakout horror film Get Out, I talked about how ordinary people hypnotize themselves to get along with American society, because remaining awake enough to resist the consensus is difficult and costly. I used Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as my example. Yet, as observant readers would probably notice, Get Out isn’t supposed to be about everybody.

Nobody has said anything to me. Given my low readership, I doubt anybody has even noticed. (This blog hasn’t exactly been the self-supporting resource I’d anticipated.) Yet to remain honest with myself, I feel obliged to clarify what I did and didn’t mean: I, a working-class white man, cannot claim particular affinity with Chris Washington, his experiences, or the Black American experience. We all hypnotize ourselves. But that doesn’t make it a universal experience.

I derive the concept of “consensus hypnosis” primarily from psychologist Charles Tart, whose book Waking Up popularized the concept. When I first encountered Tart and his theories, I didn’t realize he was a popularly derided parapsychologist whose theories about human consciousness are unbounded by such trivia as facts or evidence. I simply surmised, based on experience, that his idea, that we blind ourselves to our surroundings, made sense.

Even if Tart himself comes tainted with career baggage, that doesn’t mean his ideas are invalid. An increasing body of research in psychology, and related disciplines, reveals that everybody, regardless of race or economic status or other indicators, goes through life partly blind. We lack a characteristic psychologist call “mindfulness,” a term borrowed from Buddhism. For audiences interested in learning more, I recommend John Kabat-Zinn and Dan Ariely.


Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out, before the real horror starts

This consensus hypnosis experience isn’t what Chris faces in Get Out. As an African American travelling into a white community, he remains conscious of race and loaded expectations. In an early scene, a policeman demands Chris’ ID following a routine fender bender, even though he wasn’t driving. Chris’ girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) gets outraged by this racial profiling. Chris soothes Rose’s anger while complying with the police.

Chris understands he’s black, with the attendant baggage. He’s just accepted he must perform certain Stupid Human Tricks to persevere. He literally accepts the cultural expectations of black men in America. That contrasts him to the movie’s other two prominent black characters: Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield), who disparages white suburbia before his symbolic lynching; and Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howrey), who warns Chris to stay away from White Country.

Thus Chris hypnotizes himself, not to reality, but to meta-reality. Injustice feeds upon injustice, and compliance with authority is concession, especially when authority misuses its power to restrain and shackle free citizens. Yet the opening scenes demonstrate that, by complying, Chris has been richly rewarded. He has a lucrative career, a beautiful girlfriend, and hasn’t gotten priced out of a Brooklyn so gentrified, even Patti Smith tells newbs to look elsewhere.

I daren’t reveal too much. However, it spills nothing to say that each act of compliance makes the next, bigger act more likely. Surrounded by honkies at Rose’s parents’ house, probably in the Hamptons, Chris accepts one incident of casual intolerance after another with equanimity. Rose encourages Chris to rebel against flippant racism, which gets harder and harder to explain away, yet Chris remains unwilling to rock the boat.

This storyline provides Chris multiple opportunities to break his conditioning, multiple incentives to resist, yet he doesn’t. Compliance has paid handsomely in prestige, and the sunk costs of getting along have become insuperable. Suburbia has to perform substantial outrages before Chris finally balks, by which time it’s too late. He’s bought into the system so deeply, escaping may cost more than he can afford to pay.

Daniel Kaluuya in the iconic moment from Get Out

As a white American, I can’t pretend I’ve ever had that experience. I’ve always enjoyed the protection of a society which equates “white” and “normal.” (Substitute the word “white” with “male,” “heterosexual,” “educated,” and the statement remains unchanged.) Yet I cannot help wondering: how have I complied with the system in ways that measurably harm me? A few answers spring to mind, but more, surely, remain hidden.

I regret presenting my meditation on Get Out as though somehow, the movie were about me. Thinking that, even accidentally, puts me on the story’s wrong side. Yet I cannot know, until they ambush me, what similar compromises I’ve made with the system. This movie emphatically isn’t about me. Yet, with slight changes of luck, it’s about where I could wind up.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Role of Hypnosis in “Get Out”

Chris gets hypnotized in Get Out

Even if you haven't seen Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror film Get Out, you’ve seen publicity stills of its most iconic moment. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), eyes wide and slightly red, sits in a leather chair, staring not-quite-straight into the camera, while tears dribble loosely from his eyes. He isn’t quite crying, but he’s clearly lost control of his reactions. He looks paralyzed, unable to look away, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. This isn’t coincidence.

In this moment, Chris is hypnotized. His white girlfriend’s psychotherapist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) has used deception, and Chris’s eagerness to please, to trick him into therapeutic hypnosis. She’d offered to do this earlier in the afternoon, claiming it would finally help him break his longstanding nicotine habit. He’d demurred, and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) supported his decision, claiming “Some people don’t want others getting inside their heads, Mom.” So Missy resorted to deceit.

On some levels, this misrepresents both psychotherapy and hypnosis. Despite common fears, your therapist can’t “get inside your head”; your therapist only knows what you’re willing to share, and simply reads signs you present. And it’s impossible to hypnotize a resistant subject, much less make them do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do. But in this case, scientific accuracy isn’t the point. Chris and Missy’s relationship represents common fears about psychology, fears that don’t lack foundation.

Without spoilers, this hypnosis experience represents a common struggle among minorities, the poor, and probably women too: the experience of finding your lived experience separated from the messages we receive daily. We see ourselves working extraordinary hours in grueling conditions, yet getting nowhere. Then powerful people in politics and finance tell us our continued poverty reflects our own poor character. People we respect say we’ve achieved equality, yet we look around and see we haven’t.

We ask ourselves: do we trust our experiences, or the words powerful people speak? People who go along to get along clearly have more peaceful work lives, families, and other relevant experiences. If we make waves or resist, like union picketers or civil rights protesters, we know we face struggle, arrest, blacklisting. The undeniable appeal of “fitting in” makes many people deny their experience. Maybe my poverty really is my fault. Maybe the system works.

Alex get hypnotized (sort of) in A Clockwork Orange

Research psychologists understand this experience. Prisoners under torture can be made to see things that don’t really exist, because disbelieving their own senses is easier than facing the continued pain. Star Trek fans will know this as the “There Are Four Lights” scenario. We voluntarily relinquish the evidence of our senses because getting along peacefully, escaping the torture of outsidership and isolation, is a reward we want. We just want friends, family, and human contact.

From the beginning, Chris shows this willingness. A working artist, he’s achieved enough standing to resist gentrification and hold onto his converted Brooklyn loft, tastefully decorated with the accoutrements of middle-class life: posh leather furniture, flat-screen TV, pedigreed dog. Turning his artist’s eye toward commercial ends has been lucrative for him. He isn’t exactly assimilated, but he’s accepted his role in society, and been richly rewarded for it—a common Key and Peele theme, too.

This contrasts Chris with the other Black man he sees in Rose’s parents’ posh surroundings, Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield). In the movie’s prelude, Andre gets lost in a nameless Eastern suburb, walking streets designed to actively discourage pedestrians. Like many Black men in white suburbs, he finds himself tailed by faceless strangers. Andre, who has verbally mocked suburbia to this moment, gets dragged from the streets. Not for Andre the romance of surface-deep white acceptance.

Chris thus arguably makes himself vulnerable to Missy’s hypnosis, because he’s willingly hypnotized himself already. He’s denied the evidence of his senses that a shifting economy, and the preference for white people since around the year 2000 to move into cities (the reversal of historic White Flight) has shattered communities and their support networks. Chris has already chosen to participate in the evolved economy, chasing the rewards of inclusion. Missy doesn’t need to do much.

Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Chris would rather join society than retain his unique experiences. Unlike Alex, Chris has no specific moment he made that decision; it’s been a long string of paychecks, rent payments, and coffee dates. Moment by moment, he’s hypnotized himself, for the reward of acceptance—a reward powerful people could withdraw at any moment. We the audience, rich and poor, white and Black, must ask: have we hypnotized ourselves too?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Mythical Cowboy Rides Again

1001 Recordings To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 11
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger

A strange, off-kilter recording barnstormed country music’s airwaves in 1975: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a nearly thirty-year-old song that, somehow, nobody had ever heard of. Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, among others, had recorded the song, without having a hit. Yet somehow, amid the countrypolitan excesses and slick Chet Atkins-produced fluff of the 1970s, a strange, nasally voice that seemingly couldn’t find the beat, turned this forgotten gem into a certifiable phenomenon.

Despite being a lucrative, if largely unknown, songwriter, Willie Nelson based his eighteenth studio album around two songs written by other people: “The Tale of the Red-Headed Stranger,” a factory-written story song from the 1950s, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” He constructed a story linking these songs together, and recorded the resulting album in just two days. Nobody, Nelson least of all, expected the album to become a hit.

An itinerant cowboy preacher returns home one wind-battered evening to find his wife with another man. Battered by rage, the preacher slays them both, then leaves his life behind. Wandering the horse-and-buggy Wild West, his name and old life forgotten, he struggles with his belief that God has turned His back. Before long, he faces the imminent possibility that he’ll never love anything again, and lose his soul.

The wandering cowboy, the vengeful apostate preacher, the doomed lover adrift in an almost entirely male world: Nelson managed to capture almost every important country music boilerplate while also creating a piece of classic Jungian mythology. The struggles of faith and identity, while wandering in a wilderness hellscape, transcend country music. Nelson calls his failed hero “The Preacher,” but he could be Orpheus or Sir Lancelot. Maybe once, he was.

Willie Nelson, around the time he
released Red Headed Stranger
Nelson had been on country music’s scene for fifteen years without making a name outside Nashville’s Music Row headquarters. He’d written classic songs for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”) and Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), but apart from his sinecure at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters, he had no status as a musician. With his polyester slacks and demure manner, Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo supposedly mistook him for an insurance salesman.

For decades, audiences failed to embrace Nelson’s idiosyncratic voice. Then as now, he often sang ahead of or behind the rhythm, reminding us the literal origins of the term “offbeat.” His jangly nylon-string guitar often overwhelmed his demo recordings. Nelson prepared himself for an unglamorous career in country music’s equivalent to Tin Pan Alley, writing songs that others would make famous, his own voice consigned to demos only studios heard.

Struggling for an anchor on what he suspected might be an anchor, he found the answer in a song. Nelson reports that he’d long sung “The Tale of the Red-Headed Stranger” to his children as a lullaby. His then-wife, Connie Koepke, suggested he turn that into an album. Creating a series of linking songs, and a few instrumentals, Nelson turned one song into a Louis L’Amour-like epic of American rootlessness.

Columbia Records let Nelson bring his live band into the studio, an unusual move in Nashville then and now. For all its homespun ideals, many fans don’t realize how tightly controlled and orchestrated much country music actually is. Despite a handful of famous singer-songwriters like Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson, country musicians overwhelmingly don’t write their own songs; even fewer play their own instruments.

In contrast to this, Nelson composed this album half-spontaneously, improvising lyrics into a tape recorder while accompanying himself on guitar. The album is approximately half original, half organized around already common Nashville songs. Despite his lackadaisical sound, Nelson also proved himself an accomplished organizer, rehearsing his live band thoroughly before recording began. According to accounts published later, this album took less than two days of studio time.

Nelson also benefited from fortunate timing. Released just as the “outlaw country” movement began, Nelson had a personal champion in Waylon Jennings. When studio executives balked at Nelson’s stripped-down sound and lack of orchestration, Jennings aggressively pitched this album to radio stations, critics, and fans. Apparently, country fans agreed. The album went to number one and was certified gold the next year, remarkably speedy for country back then.

Too bad other musicians didn’t heed Nelson’s call. While the then-dominant “countrypolitan” sound continued its heavily orchestrated direction, and outlaw country became electrified and pop-friendly, even Willie himself couldn’t maintain that austerity; his 1980s recordings were themselves slickly produced. But for one brief moment in 1975, amids slick disco and dancing queens, Willie produced something authentic, something bigger than himself.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Lost King of New Orleans' Floodwater Wizards

Bryan Camp, The City of Lost Fortunes: a Crescent City Novel

Jude Dubuisson used to be New Orleans’ foremost finder of lost treasures; after Katrina, he maintains a streetside booth, performing magic tricks to entertain tourists. Like his beloved city, he’s a hollowed-out vestige of his multiracial, French-Caribbean heritage. Until, that is, his former partner returns, bearing a message: Jude owes New Orleans’ own native-born Fortune god a debt. And Fortune is calling in its marker.

I confess, I needed time to acclimate to Bryan Camp’s debut novel. I got distracted by Camp’s fannish nods, some direct and others oblique, to other writers, from Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher to William Gibson and even Graham Greene. But as I moved into Camp’s rhythm, I began realizing he wasn’t so much name-dropping as acknowledging the fan-base already drawn to books like these. He’s crafted a damned decent debut.

Dragged into his old haunts, Jude finds himself playing games with forces older than humankind. Literal games: some kind of tarot/poker hybrid primarily. Except the entire novel unfolds inside one hotly contested hand, as players literally bet their souls. It’s a killer hand, too, as the Fortune god gets his throat slit. Jude competes with a vampire, an angel, and an Egyptian god to assume the divine mantle; vast multitudes ride on one turn of the cards.

Jude resembles similar genre characters, like Harry Dresden and Sookie Stackhouse, in multiple ways. He has vast powers which could shake Earth’s foundations, but which he cannot fully control… yet. He inherited this power from a parent (or ancestor) whose secrets could tragically intrude upon his current life. And though not a detective himself, he must investigate a crime too profound for the police, before apocalyptic ramifications start rolling down.

Bryan Camp
So, Jude must discover who murdered the Crescent City’s most beloved god, having wagered his own soul. But even as he stalks the mysterious killer, the killer stalks him; without meaning to, Jude leaves a trail of bodies behind himself. He quickly realizes that his beloved city, his burg of jazz funerals and voodoo enchantment, hangs in the balance. And his trusted magical gifts… have gone missing.

On his journey, Jude travels with Regal Sloan, whose resemblance to William Gibson’s sidekick character Molly Millions deserves comment. She’s loyal but contemptuous, moral but brutal, and most problematic for post-Katrina New Orleans, she’s white. Jude gives flashes that he might love Regal, but certainly doesn’t trust her. Mostly he needs her, because she’s plucky when he’s discouraged. If only her motivations weren’t so murky.

Behind Camp’s urban-fantasy flourishes, Hurricane Katrina lingers, like Old Hamlet’s ghost. Everyone except Jude has fallen into their “new normal” routines, but Jude, whose magical abilities tie innately to New Orleans itself, can’t ignore the flood damage. His self-flagellation after the levees broke has stained everything in his life. This resembles other post-Katrina novels, like Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge or Erica Spindler’s Watch Me Die, filtered through Camp’s lens.

You’ve perhaps noticed how many prior novelists I’ve already name-checked. As I said above, this probably isn’t accidental. Throughout his first half, Camp is half author, half fanboy, like a reader at your favorite sci-fi convention. Then, around page 200, the novel takes a sudden, unexpected veer into new territory. Well, not really new, it’s actually quite Jungian, but new to Jude. Camp really kicks readers in the pants.

This sudden zigzag, coupled with Camp’s careful attention to detail, gives this novel a literary quality often missing from genre fiction. Camp charts a personal course between conventional beach reading and high-minded belles-lettres. This probably reflects his background: both an MFA scholar and a Clarion West graduate, his learning as a writer is unusually flexible. More writers, literary and genre, should aspire to such complexity.

One could pair this novel with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and unpack deeper truths about now natural disasters create modern mythic journeys. I might do so later. Jude Dubuisson is a complex character with deeper qualities: not wholly mortal, he’s nevertheless as mortal as his city. But it’s also a rollicking genre adventure, if you prefer such fun escapades.

So that’s the experience. Camp starts off nerding out on genre stereotypes, and stuffy purists might want to quit. But as he progresses, and we settle into his groove, there’s so much more going on. Veteran genre readers might wish his early chapters didn’t rely on tropes arranged like Legos. But if we muster grit enough to persevere, Camp provides a deeper journey. If we stick with him.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Über, the Killer Car, and the Dying Pedestrian

When a self-driving car killed a pedestrian last month, the predictable outcry divided into two camps. On the one hand, reflexive distrust of innovation led to retreads of decades-old science fiction wheezers. It’s the rise of the machines, hashtag #Apocalypse! Cooler heads, though no less reactionary, began debating the innate relationship between humans and their creations. I suggest both positions are wrong, because they miss the underlying problem.

And that problem is cars.

The car which killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, ran on software created by the  technology service Über and Tesla, the electric car company founded by tech innovator Elon Musk. Please note, neither company is a charity. Both run for-profit businesses which seek to sell customers something. As with most business deals, the physical item they want to sell us usually matters less than a philosophical premise under that item. We must pause and ask what that is.

Über uses a smartphone app to summon cars to our location and provide us rides, for a price. Tesla manufactures cars that supposedly consume less fuel and spew fewer atmospheric toxins. Both companies offer us access to enclosed, climate-controlled capsules which speed us from one location to another in maximum comfort in a timely manner. With a car (or access to a car), I can be in Kansas City in four hours, Denver in six.

In other words, cars offer us individual mastery over gaps in space and time.

So what’s wrong with that, I hear curious interlocutors already asking. If I need to make it to work through inclement weather, or go shopping while carrying an antsy baby, or just take my family on a well-deserved road trip, shouldn’t I have that autonomy? Well, perhaps. But after a century, we’ve witnessed the long-term effects cars impose on society. And many of those effects are less than salutary.

Elon Musk (stock photo)
Elon Musk’s technological vision has come under criticism for one important issue: it separates people into compartments. I don’t mean for old-fashioned Bull Connor-type violent discrimination, but the literal separation of people into tiny four-person cabs. Even when he talks about mass transit, like his proposed Hyperloop, he mainly wants to put cars in close proximity to one another and move them around quickly. His model organizes human society around cars.

Anybody who has lived in American suburbs since World War II knows it’s impossible to get anywhere without a car. Children may walk to school (though they often can’t because of distance), or to the corner store for candy and comic books. But generally, adults won’t walk or bike anywhere if the commute takes longer than twenty minutes. That means if they live over a mile from work, the grocery store, or social activities, into the car they go.

Urban designer Jeff Speck notes that, when people walk, they also talk. They meet new people, discuss ideas, even organize. Speck says he met his wife on a Washington, DC, sidewalk. Imagine all the new businesses, innovative technologies, and happy families that never happened because adults don’t walk anywhere. That’s the world fostered by Über and Tesla inventing ever-better ways to avoid walking, and thus avoid meeting new people.

I posit this isn’t accidental. Back in 2015, Elon Musk called several of his own employees “fucking soft” for working fewer than 90 hours per week and not coming in on Saturdays. Musk wants his highly skilled professional programmers ensconced in his climate-controlled, beige-colored technological sweatshop for as long as possible. Well-rounded people with families, community commitments, and commutes on foot or bicycle will never accept such conditions.

The individual mastery over space and time which I previously said cars offer is, is illusory. My dependence on my pickup truck, and my city’s reliance of feeder roads, means I drive to work at the same time every day, by the same route. I don’t see anything new, or meet new people, or have new experiences. I don’t take road trips, because I can’t afford the time or fuel. My car has arguably rendered me less autonomous than a poor villager in a developing nation.

But recently, an awkward circumstance left me carless in Lawrence, Kansas, a city I’ve previously called “my second home.” Walking back to my truck, approximately a six-mile journey, I saw things—businesses, houses, even an urban forest—I’d never seen before. I simply had freedom to look.

So there’s my problem with Über’s self-driving car. Not that it killed a pedestrian; but that it reveals we’re already dead.