Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Growing Up While Going Nowhere

Jennifer Handford
Last week I reviewed Jennifer Handford’s third novel, The Light of Hidden Flowers, and I hated it. It’s a novel about a grown woman’s failure to do anything, to break outside the pre-written script she established as a sophomore in high school. Though I soft-pedaled that opinion in the review itself (the writing world is small and exclusive, and I still hope to publish), I’ll say now: this book wasn’t done baking.

But it got me thinking. The heroic journey, a sort of narrative manifestation of the psychological journey we all undertake to become adults, has been an obsession of mine since I first read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in graduate school. We simply assume, reading novels, that our characters will undertake some journey; even if they remain rooted in place, the changes they undertake internally will fill the role quests played in medieval myth.

Though Campbell didn’t craft a writers’ guide, many writers have used his book thus. George Lucas famously wrote the original Star Wars with two books on his desk: a dictionary and Campbell. Although Campbell only intended to describe patterns he and others identified in comparative religion and world folklore, subsequent readers have found his description sufficiently insightful that they’ve consciously mimicked what past storytellers did unconsciously.


In his introduction, Campbell quotes several case studies in psychological literature of people who, for whatever reason, failed to become adults. They retained childhood identities, repeated patterns they established in high school, never transcended the family dynamic they began with. Symbolic dreams of oedipal inclinations, wounds that replicate Christ or the Fisher King, and other Jungian forms abound. Campbells point is, adulthood remains astonishingly rare.

Joseph Campbell
See, Campbell really did have prescriptive intent. He didn’t write for writers, but for psychologists, hoping to provide ancient insights into the modern phenomenon of people who, lacking religious adulthood rites, stayed trapped in childhood. People like Jennifer Handford’s protagonist, Missy, who never had a clear break from adolescence, and therefore continues enacting household roles that brought comfort and satisfaction when she was fifteen.

Maybe I missed Jennifer Handford’s point. Maybe her book isn’t about a character who fails to grow up. Maybe her book is about the protracted adolescence that defines modernity. French philosopher Alain Badiou recently wrote that permanent adolescence has become modernity’s default setting, especially for men: “The adult becomes someone who’s a little better able than the young person to afford to buy big toys.”

That’s Handford’s story. Missy affords a big house, lavish dinners, a nice car. She has her own office with elaborate IT setup and her own receptionist. She inherits her father’s status as Richmond’s leading voice in financial planning for the extremely well-heeled. Yet somehow, she never does anything; resplendent gold-plated inaction defines her life. She spends hundreds of pages failing to start… as, arguably, do we.

Because that’s life today, isn’t it? College or trade school provides a chute to transition us from dependence on parents, to dependence on employers. The rise of automation means fewer low-skilled jobs even exist, while technology races ahead so fast that high-skilled workers need constant retraining. An IT specialist I know tells me, if he doesn’t have regular continuing education, his skills become obsolete and unmarketable in just eighteen months.

Several years ago, I critiqued Harry Potter for having his journey largely internally. Harry goes to school, and enemies and monsters assail him there; his journey doesn’t involve actually going anywhere. Even in book seven, when he finally does journey, or more accurately meander, his path returns him to school, where he confronts the bugbears of adolescence, avenges his parents, and apparently, marries his high school sweetheart.

J.K. Rowling
I intended this as commentary, not criticism. Hey, I figured, it’s a new kind of journey. But Rowling, like Handford, understands something I largely missed: today’s society isn’t about the journey. Though we’re more mobile than ever, with cars and air travel and space tourism, we’re rooted, from adolescence, in an identity and role we never wholly shake. If I could describe modernity in one word, it’s certainly “stationary.”

This doesn’t excuse Handford’s writing style. As her protagonist narrates hundreds of pages of waffle, I struggled to care. She tells a story of somebody who sabotages herself, then seeks our sympathy for it. But setting aside Handford’s book as artifact, maybe she understands something us willful myth-makers keep missing: that life today isn’t about the journey. Somebody else needs to finish the thought, but Handford’s gotten it started.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Verses of War and Fatherhood

Martin Ott, Lessons in Camouflage: Poetry

Themes of “who I am” regularly permeate Martin Ott’s poetry and fiction. As a writer, a father, and a former soldier, he has alternated among identities with the urgency of an actor trying roles. So, like many of us, he sits down quietly with himself, as poets have to, and he doesn't know exactly who he’s sat down with. This struggle becomes the driving force behind his quiet, introspective verse.

The tapestry of identities Ott draws upon to create this collection may seem familiar, especially to anyone who’s read his previous books. The rural Michigander living in the city; the working-class boy in a creative-class job; the quiet introvert with an energetic family. As in previous collections, though, Ott’s history as an Army interrogator looms large: the man assigned to extract truth, like a tumor, in situations of hostility and violence.
A retired interrogator walks
into a bar with himself,and asks for bold spirits,
untraceable in the lineage
of fevered fermentation.
Who is greater than gods,
creator of zealots and fools,
apocalypse of every shade,
architecture of storm and awe,
maker of mountainous tombs?
Saying a poetry collection turns on themes of “identity” has become almost cliché anymore, since poets write for self-selecting audiences rather than mass publics. Everybody writes about identity, because they write about themselves. But Ott takes this a step further. The question-and-answer tone of the poem above permeates this book. Many of his verses stride forth boldly, then interrupt themselves with questions that reverse everything that came before them.

Martin Ott
This probably reflects his own rapid transitions in life. At various times he’s needed to nurture and to kill, to discern truth and to obfuscate, to create and to destroy. Who hasn’t, of course, even Solomon wrote something similar; but having served in the military, at a time when the moral certitudes of the World Wars have fled us, this conflict between Ott’s present and his past forces him to constantly re-evaluate himself. The past isn’t gone, but the present changes it:
The older I get, the less well I do at hide
and seek, my kids able to see the bulges
poking out, fewer places for me to disappear,
the essence of fatherhood to be in plain view.
(“33 Lessons in Camouflage”)
Most of this collection’s early poems deal explicitly with Ott’s military experience, littered with references to basic training, maneuvers and orders, the disciplines necessary in war. After the first twenty or so pages, this theme recedes, becoming not a driving force, but an implicit piece of background radiation. Like a musical theme in a symphony, it becomes a necessary part of a larger composition, no longer demanding attention, but fundamentally part of the structure.

This happens with several concepts throughout this collection. Themes introduced in one poem achieve maturity in another. Hide and seek, mentioned in the stanza quoted above near the end of the collection, refers to another poem near the beginning. In that one, he writes about being so good at the game, in childhood, that even police tracking dogs couldn’t find him. This seems a momentary blip, until Ott unexpectedly completes the arc, over thirty pages and twenty poems later.

Readers weaned on the way poetry is taught in high school, with each poem essentially a separate specimen considered in complete isolation, may require some time to get accustomed to this. (Hell, I have a graduate degree, and it threw me at first.) For Ott, poetry collections like this aren’t anthologies of individual verses, written separately and brought together for publishing purposes. He constructs his poetry collections as consciously as any novelist.
When I was a boy, my family and I took
long forays into the woods for berries,
Dachshund in tow, pinging our haul
into pails, sometimes searching for morels.
Mom’s body is pale, tumors nestled between
windpipe and heart, five days since she collapsed.

Motifs of gravel, and fire, and morals/morels crop up throughout the collection. They seem to have the randomness of everyday life. Yet suddenly they’ll come together in an explosion of clarity, sometimes in a poem’s closing lines, sometimes later. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, this collection progresses toward its final movement, in this case the mini-epic that provides the title for the collection.

Like us, Ott’s identity isn’t monolithic. It comes together in a sudden explosion of insight, not always looked for, but forever impending. We wait for clarity, and aren’t disappointed. And we’re grateful Ott invited us along on his personal journey.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Biggest Rock Stars in Nashville

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part 12
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Critics sometimes floated the Byrds as America’s answer to the British Invasion, especially the Beatles, and this wasn’t completely unfair. They gave songwriters Bob Dylan (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) and Pete Seeger (“Turn! Turn! Turn!”) their first number-one chart hits. They pioneered the folk-rock, psychedelia, and moody singer-songwriter genres. So when their sixth album dropped in 1968, fans probably expected more of the same.

Yet this album swerves so seriously from anything that came before, it gave listeners audio whiplash. Critics loved the album, then and now, and it had a terrific influence on other musicians, but audiences didn’t know how to interpret a serious rock band’s careen into another genre, one often regarded as at war with rock. Music historians occasionally call this the birth of “country rock,” but by any serious standards, it’s a full-on country music album.

This album opens with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a Bob Dylan composition from the Basement Tapes. But this arrangement, layered with steel guitars and twangy electric lead, sounds little like either a Bleeker Street folk club or Roger McGuinn’s distinctive jangly Rickenbacker 12-string. Fans couldn’t comprehend what they’d heard. Despite Dylan’s famous non-linear lyrics, this tune sonically would’ve fit nicely on most AM country radio back then.

By 1968, the Byrds were down to only two original members. David Crosby had found another home singing close harmonies, while Gene Clark had become a solo singer-songwriter, critically lauded but commercially mediocre. Original drummer Michael Clarke had become a session musician, and would never regain his prior fame. Only lead singer McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman remained. Desperate to record, they hired Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelly on percussion.

Most significant, however, they hired Gram Parsons as guitarist. McGuinn considered him a sideman for a planned one-disc history of American music. Parsons, however, had a passion for country music dating from when a friend played him a George Jones record years earlier. He found a kindred spirit in Chris Hillman, whose music career began by picking mandolin in various bluegrass outfits. Teaming up, Parsons and Hillman lobbied successfully for a serious country record.

The Byrds in 1968 (l-r: Kevin Kelly, Roger McGuinn, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman)

Besides two Dylan tracks, this album includes one each by the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Woody Guthrie. McGuinn and Hillman composed no original tracks for this album; despite being award-winning musicians, even at the Byrds’ height, they didn’t write much, trusting Clark and Crosby for original material. However, they include two Parsons compositions: “One Hundred Years From Now,” a concert barn-burner, and Parsons’ trademark song, “Hickory Wind.”

Parsons’ love of George Jones drives the sound. It has a rough-hewn fifties honky-tonk texture, but the rhythm section of Chris Hillman and Kevin Kelly gives the band a well-defined low end much like the “Bakersfield Sound,” pioneered by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, that was contemporaneously transforming country music. This complexity does borrow heavily from rock music, but little resembles later country rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Marshall Tucker.

The Byrds’ longstanding fans regarded this diversion as too extreme. Rock-and-rollers saw country music as reactionary music for white trash, while country fans considered the Byrds ignorable long-haired hippies. The album died on arrival. However, as often happens when something artistic breaks new ground, much of the reaction simply reflected discomfort with something too new and different. Once forgotten, this album now has influential cult following.

Besides core band members, this album includes contributions from several veteran Nashville session musicians, including Earl P. Ball, Jaydee Maness, and Clarence White. (White would later become a band member after Parsons quit.) This complex, layered sound gives the album a legitimate country music vibe. Ten to twenty years after this album’s release, its influence was clearly audible in most Nashville country music.

Despite Parsons’ influence, Columbia Records discovered at the eleventh hour that a contract with a prior band prevented them using Parsons’ vocals. Roger McGuinn rushed into the studio and re-recorded six songs Parsons had already sung, mimicking Parsons’ style. On the Louvins’ “The Christian Life,” this sounds almost like parody, like McGuinn held country music at arm’s length. By “Hickory Wind,” however, he’d found, and embraced, Parsons’ voice.

This album basically consigned the Byrds to permanent “cult” status; they never regained mainstream prominence. But it marked a seismic shift; less than ten years after its release, groups like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Pure Prairie League had Hot-100 hits, while Waylon Jennings covered rock gods like Neil Young. Two warring genres began collaborating, and it happened right here. Music would never be the same.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Day Daddy's Girl Had To Grow Up

Jennifer Handford, The Light of Hidden Flowers

“I had aced every test I had ever taken, but I had also failed to grow up, and of that fact, I was now suddenly keenly aware. I was smart, but I wasn’t wise. I had clung to my role as my father’s child.” (Page 49)
I sometimes complain that books tell me what to think or feel, but rarely do they contain something so akin to a thesis statement as the above quote. As protagonist Melissa “Missy” Fletcher faces her steadfast father’s apparently sudden senility, she realizes she has accomplished little in life. It isn’t a dawning realization from evidence, either. She has a divine afflatus so abrupt, one suspects she knows she’s a character in a novel.

This novel commences on Missy’s thirty-fifth birthday. She insists she doesn’t work for her father, a successful financial planner in Richmond, Virginia; she’s a full partner in the family business. The mere fact that Dad’s the company’s public face, while Missy handles market forecasts, mundane paperwork, and other behind-the-scenes tedium, doesn’t make her inferior. Anyway, she keeps telling herself that, and by implication, us.

But one sunny morning, Frank Fletcher, pillar of Richmond’s financial community, forgets his well-rehearsed banter. A seemingly insignificant “senior moment” marks the beginning of a pattern, as memory slips, blown judgement calls, and getting lost become remarkably common. It takes 100 pages for a neurologist to confirm it, but don’t worry, the dust-flap synopsis spoils the reveal: Dad has Alzheimer’s disease. Missy has never felt so alone.

With postponed adulthood suddenly thrust upon her, Missy doesn’t know what comes next. She’s dating a handsome but uninspiring tax analyst across town. He’s asked her to marry, but she dithers, because he’s so plain-vanilla (literally so: vanilla ice cream is about the only thing he gets excited for). I can’t fault Missy’s ambivalence. She’s a foodie, he enjoys TGIFriday’s and tap water. She wants to visit Italy, he considers Yellowstone an adventure.

Jennifer Handford
Missy grasps the hypocrisy in this judgement, though. She chose her college and career specifically to keep close to her father and hometown. Despite longing to visit Italy, the one time she attempted travelling anywhere, paralyzing fear forced her off the airplane; her bags went to Florence, she stayed home. (This is Missy’s only deeply investigated fear, but she misconstrues even this. Since panic struck before takeoff, I think she fears, not flying, but travelling.)

Most tellingly, Missy Facebook-stalks her high school boyfriend. She admires his glamorous wife and three handsome children. Because Joe selectively curates his life, though, we know what she doesn’t: Joe’s wife has left him, he lost one leg in Afghanistan, and his daughter suffers major depression with suicidal ideation. Wait, he’s getting divorced while she’s contemplating loveless marriage? Which character will crack and divulge the truth first?

Perhaps we’re supposed to consider Missy an unreliable narrator. Though she spends chapter after chapter reminding us how homely, geeky, and uninspiring she is, occasional chapters told from Joe’s viewpoint stress Missy as elegant, beautiful, and awesome Missy is. Though Joe is unhappily married and raising emo kids, he’s clearly paused his heart, waiting for Missy to return. Anyone who’s reconnected with their high-school crush in their thirties cringes inwardly.

I make fun, but there’s a decent coming-of-age story underneath Handford’s authorial baggage. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, adulthood isn’t a matter of turning twenty-one or whatever, it’s about taking possession of your own life. Just because Missy doesn’t start doing that until she’s thirty-five doesn’t make it less meaningful. Today’s generation knows that technology, economics, and other forces often force “adults” to continue living like kids for years.

Sadly, when I mention Handford’s authorial baggage, there’s lots of that. She overextends Missy’s adolescent hand-wringing well beyond necessity. It takes too long to reach Dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, especially since we already know it’s coming. Then the disease progresses so quickly, we feel pity, not empathy. Her romantic life has more red flags than a Soviet parade. We, the readers, desperately want Missy to get out of her own way and do, well, anything.

One wonders, reading this novel, whether any editor anywhere, at any point, took Handford’s manuscript and said, “You need to have characters act, not narrate.” We know Handford has the ability to write with telling detail, because she describes financial documents and dinner preparations with exquisite specificity. She just doesn’t use such skills on human interactions. Handford, through Missy, holds her audience at arm’s length. In the end, I just got bored.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Bloody Streets of Clockwork City

Morgan L. Busse, Tainted: the Soul Chronicles, Book One

Katherine “Kat” Bloodmayne is among the first women admitted to the World City Academy of Science. Like her father, Kat trusts science to explain her steampunk world precisely. But she harbors a secret: when passions run high, she can call fire from her fingertips and kill with her mind. When a spoiled son of wealth attempts to compromise her, Kat virtually destroys him. She has to flee everything, including her father, whose motivations are less than fatherly.

Morgan Busse’s fourth book, first in a new series, is a smorgasbord of genre clichés and boilerplate changes. The literary purist in me wants to lambaste the novel’s derivative content and well-worn tone. Yet Busse so eagerly acknowledges her borrowings, and so gleefully invites us into her clockwork world, that I can't hold it against her. It’s almost like we’re in on the joke with her.

Stephen Grey, formerly World City’s youngest police inspector, quits the force when events undermine his faith in law and humanity. Now he hunts criminals as a “Fugitive Recovery Agent,” because it sounds classier than “bounty hunter.” One ordinary day, Kat Bloodmayne arrives in Stephen’s office, scared and desperate. Tragedy follows close behind her, hitting Stephen right in the heart.

Together, Kat and Stephen escape World City just ahead of bloodthirsty lawmen. Standing at the brink of their empire’s frontier, they seek the only doctor who might cure Kat’s condition, a researcher disgraced for bringing the soul into scientific discussion. Their desperation for answers makes them vulnerable, and in the genre tradition, that makes feelings run high. But before they profess to one another, Stephen discovers what Kat’s been hiding. He may never trust her again.

Morgan L. Busse
Reading along, it feels like Busse has smooshed two shorter novellas together to create one standard sized novel. In the first, Kat’s passion for science, and Hermione-like dedication to learning, drive her into conflict with the patriarchy. She stoically bears the cost, however, in hopes of winning her scholar father’s love… a hope doomed from the outset. Meanwhile, Stephen’s love for law is matched only by his love for a society heiress. In one brutal day, both loves are shattered, stunting his ability to trust anyone.

The second novella, which Busse clearly enjoys more, judging from the attention to detail she invests, begins with a moment of violence. A handsome but amoral fellow graduate forces himself on Kat; she defends herself with her only tool, her superpower. Pursued by scientists who consider her a specimen, she turns to Stephen, the only person she can trust. Together they escape the comfort of civilization for the rigors of the frontier, where they may find themselves, if they live long enough.

As noted, my literary purist inclinations initially made me tetchy when Busse signposted the comfy tropes she pinches from genre classics. But I pushed through my grad-school habits long enough to realize: Busse knows exactly what she's doing. She makes no pretense of art and literature, she's kicking her heels up and having as much fun as she can stand. And she invites us to join her in her barn dance of genre abandon.

Like most steampunk fiction, this novel foregrounds a premature collision between modernity and tradition. World City has built an empire of science and gleaming, multi-story architecture. (When they say “science,” they mainly mean “technology.” There's little pursuit of pure knowledge.) But this capital built on modernism willfully ignores that most of the empire is still poor, hanging on for dear life. Our heroes must venture into the wild to find the answers technology can’t offer.

This novel comes from a dedicated Christian publisher, and there's a definite subplot of faith. Kat, raised without religion, must understand her soul to contain her superpower’s destructive edge. Stephen rejected childhood religion when the law and his fiancé both betrayed him. Faced with threats that put them outside their society, both Kat and Stephen start to pray. But this theme never becomes overbearing or preachy. Readers can simply enjoy a good boilerplate genre thriller if they want.

If one theme runs through this book, it’s this: science is reliable, but people aren't. When humans turn science to selfish ends, we have to find our center outside ourselves. Eventually, we’ll our own frontier, asking ourselves the same questions that plague these characters. Busse mercifully refrains from preaching at us, even at her most overtly religious moments. But she does present one possible answer to questions that are more universal than we might like to admit.

Friday, September 7, 2018

I Don't Give Two Rips About Your Fake “Resistance”

An open letter to the author of the New York Times anonymous op-ed published earlier this week.

Dear Self-Important, Anonymous Insider:

You clearly want everyone to consider you the hero. You call yourself “the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” the “adults in the room,” and the “steady state.” You treat yourself like a bulwark against national and, presumably, global anarchy that would ensue if President Trump had unrestricted access to enact every whim crossing his mind. But we ordinary Americans see you for what you really are: complicit.

Do you really think that, because you’ve stopped the President from calling an airstrike on Ciudad Juarez, or whatever, we’ll forget you’ve helped preside over the most capricious, lawless, harmful executive administration in generations? If you’re part of the administration, you were there when ICE forcibly separated refugee children from their parents at the border. Or when NATO basically promised to keep going without us. Or when the President cuddled a dictator in Helsinki.

By any reasonable standard, America’s place in the global network is less certain, less stable, less worthy of praise than it was when your President took office. He’s backed us away from climate accords, despite global warming having a more robust scientific consensus than Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics. He’s alienated trade partners in East Asia, the EU, and even North America. He’s made our diplomatic position with Iran more precarious.

Don’t get me wrong. President Obama has plenty of problems history will hold him accountable for: deporting more immigrants than any President in history, or signing death warrants on foreign nationals with drones, or basically holding the door for financial industry insiders after they imploded the economy in 2007 and 2008. Things weren’t sunshine and free beer three years ago. I don’t have rosy-eyed false memories.

But the administration you serve, which has enacted policies I can only assume you approved if you have the kind of authority your op-ed purports, has made things objectively worse. In an attempt to recreate supposed lost greatness, which perhaps existed during the Eisenhower administration, you’ve severed America’s ties to the global community, and to reality. America, and the world, don’t look like they did in the 1950s.

For starters, back then, America could unilaterally do whatever it wanted, largely because Europe and Asia were busy filling bomb craters from World War II. Only America had the manufacturing and agricultural capabilities to rehabilitate the world. But those conditions don’t exist anymore, and won’t again without major global conflict, which nobody should wish for. This is worse than naive pining for the past. It’s a complete divorce from reality.

You can claim that President Trump’s presence allows you to do some abstractly defined good for America, provided you restrain his impulses. You cite three specifically: “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, [and] a more robust military.” I think you’re full of beans. Effective deregulation? This presidency wants to return asbestos to the market. Asbestos, a known carcinogen at any quantity! Whose life is improved by this?

Your tax reform promised every American a $4000 pay increase. Instead, America’s largest employer, Walmart, offered its seniormost employees a one-time $1000 bonus. Your tax “reform” has resulted in the most massive concentration of wealth and resources in history. But like massive tax cuts throughout history, the benefits don’t reach Americans with jobs. Or didn’t you notice the correlation with your recent freeze on federal workers’ pay?

As for your more robust military, are you serious? We proved in two things in Iraq in 2003: first, that no foreign adversary can challenge American military might without nuclear weapons. But second, we suck at nation-building and other cleanup operations after the shooting stops. Why bother making Earth’s most powerful military even more powerful? We need a more robust diplomatic corps to prove anything on the global stage.

Who, then, is your posturing for? Trump supporters, who already believe a “Deep State” conspiracy shackles their President from messianic transformation of the system? QAnon types, who think inside leakers have magic powers? Democrats, who want someone to restrain Trump’s racist rambles and nationalist gut reactions? None of these types will thank you for what you’ve done. You’ve only succeeded in digging your grave a little deeper.

In short, your “resistance” actually worsens ordinary Americans’ lot, jeopardizes our standing internationally, and makes cataclysmic collapse more likely. You strutting across the pages of the Newspaper of Record, patting yourself on the back because things would be so much worse without your intervention, only reveals the depths of your Administration’s moral bankruptcy. You aren’t the resistance, friend. You’re just another collaborator.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Prisons Men Build For Ourselves

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 28
Jairus McLeary with Gethin Aldous (directors), The Work

Twice a year, a large number of men march, willingly, into New Folsom, one of California's harshest maximum security prisons. They do this to participate in four days’ group therapy with some of America’s most hardened violent criminals. In 2009, filmmaker Jairus McLeary followed three men who participated in this therapy session, allowing outsiders, for the first time, to witness one of the most intense learning experiences available.

This documentary got released in 2017, after nearly a decade of production holdups, to almost no notice at the time. Which is both sad, because people missed the ability to learn from the content, and perplexing. Perhaps editing required consultations with clinical professionals to ensure the therapeutic impact wasn’t lost; that might explain the extensive “special thanks” credits. It might also explain why it’s hard to watch this documentary without tears.

Though the therapy session includes dozens, perhaps hundreds, of inmates and civilians, McLeary focuses on just six. Vegas, Kiki, and Dark Cloud are inmates, all affiliated with gangs on the inside as well as the outside. Their names are almost certainly pseudonyms, adopted perhaps because all three purport having cut gang ties. All three continue atoning for serious crimes, both against the state of California, and against humanity.

Outsiders attend for reasons entirely their own. Brian, young and angry, has problems with authority, bounces from one meaningless job to another, and casually picks fights. His inmate mentors immediately recognize him as a prisoner in the making. Charles, fortyish and pudgy, never knew his inmate father, and fears repeating family sins with his own children. Chris simply hasn’t done much with life, and hopes to understand why.

Other, more popular documentarians might have failed to handle what follows with appropriate dignity. Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock would’ve inserted themselves into the narrative, or used intrusive voice-over narration to tell audiences how to perceive. Network newscasters might interview their subjects looking directly into the camera, expounding on important take-home themes. Either way, they would’ve told us what to think.

Promotional image for The Work

Instead, McLeary withholds authorial judgement upon his subjects, content to let the camera simply observe events unfold. We watch over subjects’ shoulders as they occupy their therapeutic circle, seeing ways to open themselves to honest experiences. This proves difficult for all, especially the inmates, whose all-male environment fosters attitudes of extreme stoicism. The movie never directly comments on toxic masculinity; it never needs to.

This matters, if for no other reason than that his subjects clearly don’t have firm mental understanding of their own situation. Following one exercise, the facilitator instructs the men to write down their insights about their own unfulfilled desires; the results are mostly trivial bromides. “I don’t want people to tell me what to do,” Brian writes. “I want to be happy,” says Chris. Both miss what really motivates these desires until the eleventh hour.

Rather than traveling inward, the most important moments are actually physical. Near the beginning, Kiki, one of the inmates doing a life bid for murder and armed robbery, struggles to mourn his sister’s death. Surrounded by men, he can’t open up sufficiently, until the facilitator instructs him to stop clenching his jaw. Without this defense emerging from his body, Kiki cannot squelch his emotions any longer; he becomes able to truly mourn.

Similarly, near the end, Chris finally drops his ironic distance and admits his problem. Where others have abusive or absent fathers, Chris’s father simply dismissed and ignored him; he drifts listlessly now, awaiting approval that will never come. (Here I paused the film and left the room.) The men appoint a father figure, then make Chris push through a wall of men’s arms to confront him. Pushing from the chest to reach his “father” unblocks Chris’s impediments.

These men find their mental blocks in their bodies. Not all successfully overcome them; one suspects Dark Cloud will face many more sessions before achieving release, and Brian may still do time eventually. But those willing to confront the physical barriers they’ve learned, almost all from fathers, manage to achieve some level of acceptance. These men’s struggles are just beginning, but they have tools forged for the purpose.

This movie’s all-male environment may seem off-putting to some, but reflects the prison background. It also reflects the patriarchal limitations these men must overcome: being a “real man” is both their goal, and their enemy. After four days’ therapy, they’re perhaps somewhat closer to achieving that goal. This movie doesn’t offer pat solutions, but it does offer goals.