Way back in the dark ages of Oct. 2006 I wrote a Right Action column called “Comin’ Around in a Circle”. The idea was that that chorus from the Grateful Dead song “The Other One” was a great evocation of Jung’s theory of synchronicity – that there’s an underlying pattern to the seemingly disparate random actions of the universe. In fact, according to Dead bassist Phil Lesh, the Dead used to play a game called “Radio I-Ching” in which whatever was coming out of the radio would match what they were talking about.
My column played a sort of “Dvd I-Ching” - I looked back at the rash of dvd’s I’d watched the preceding month, pretty much randomly – and searched for the underlying pattern that, in retrospect, tied them all together.
It is in that spirit that I embark upon the maiden voyage of this new Kynd Blog – instead of choosing a topic I will simply throw into the pot what I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to since my last column - and see what kind of circle, in the past few months, has been comin’, comin’, comin’ around…
I’ll start with the night that I was struck with the realization that there was a bit of a range to my tastes when my choices were between watching “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny” or Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet.”
(In fact, a clerk at the dvd store had once remarked while ringing me up, “Clint Eastwood, Lenny Bruce, and “Days of Heaven” - well that certainly runs the gamut.”)
But that was an earlier time. Now I was on a Hamlet kick and had recently watched three different versions (Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Laurence Olivier), plus other films that quoted from the play – including “Billy Madison,” Charlie Chaplin’s “A King in New York” and “Tombstone” (I had been erroneously told this last one quoted Hamlet although the quote was actually from “Henry V” – but, synchronistically-speaking, everything happens in a pattern so for our purposes here even that mistake will have to be included in the mix).
And Hamlet-kick aside, I’ve also got to add in a VHS tape of “Andy Kaufman’s TV Special,” Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” Adam Sandler’s “Click” and “Reign Over Me” (they were in the bargain bin and I was on an Adam Sandler run after “Billy Madison”), Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” “Westworld,” and the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes.”
So there you go – 12 films (counting the Hamlet versions as one) with no intentional connection other than (sometimes) Hamlet and (sometimes) Adam Sandler.
Now you might think it would be hard to pick out one underlying thread amongst such a smorgasbord – but a theme presented itself to me pretty quickly and as each film paraded by it all started to seem almost too connected. (Those wonderful revelatory connections can get a little too profound – maybe sometimes you’re not supposed to see the man behind the curtain…)
But here goes anyway:
They are all about the failure to grow up.
Sometimes this is a willful resistance to growing up, most obvious in Tenacious D, Billy Madison, and Click. As the last two are part of the Adam Sandler oeuvre, it makes sense that the theme would be the same, and “Reign Over Me” is Sandler’s attempt to give a serious reason for his man-child persona, in this case a retreat from the world after severe trauma – his character lost his family on 9/11.
But as we move on from Adam Sandler and the D, the theme still holds. Andy Kaufman launched his whole career from his portrayal of the wide-eyed innocent child-like “Foreign Man” (who would become Latka Gravas on “Taxi”) and his TV special is a brilliant combination parody/homage to children’s TV.
Of course, I hear you say, comedy obviously lends itself to this childlike theme. And you would be supported by Charlie Chaplin’s persona in “A King in New York” – almost as hapless and bumbling as his famous tramp, he is a fish out of water, like all children trying to navigate through the newness of the world.
But as the next slew of films hits - all non-comedies - the theme still holds.
Scorsese’s gritty “Mean Streets” is propelled by Robert DeNiro’s breakthrough role as the unstable, immature, childish Johnny - whose failure to grow up ultimately brings down his friend Harvey Keitel..
Billy Madison, Jack Black, Latka Gravas, Charlie Chaplin and DeNiro’s Johnny – now there’s a Breakfast Club you wouldn’t want to leave unsupervised for too long…
As if supervision would have any effect. Because our theme isn’t about problem kids. As the next films make clear, it’s about the struggle between child and adult in us all.
“Westworld”? Set in the near-future, Michael Chrichton’s movie (before he wrote “Jurassic Park”) is about a Disneyland for adults. Guests pay 1,000 dollars a day to be kids – to play cowboy and shoot robots who look exactly like people with no danger to themselves and no consequences.
“Planet of the Apes”? This one puts it on an anthropological scale – man as a species is stuck in arrested development - literally unable to evolve (or forced to devolve) - below the apes, because he can’t be trusted to be responsible with power.
“Tombstone”? Even taking into account Val Kilmer’s compelling performance as Doc Holliday, I felt like I was watching a movie about fraternity boys. (Maybe that says something about our country’s violent history, but there are mature Westerns out there - I give two kynd thumbs to “Unforgiven”…but I digress...)
Let’s go back for a moment – remember that some of these film choices sprung (sometimes pretty tenuously – “Billy Madison”?) from “Hamlet.” There ya go - the blueprint for the tortured adolescent who literally dies trying to resolve his Oedipus Complex.
Oedipus stays with us further on up the road as I throw in (finally…) some music – the book I was reading at this time was Eric Clapton’s autobiography - much of which boils down to his own repeated admissions that for most of his life he was … “unable to grow up” mostly because of his childhood rejection by his mother.
Now I know what you’re thinking – could it be this is not the universe talking but me? Didn’t I choose, even if subconsciously, these books and films? And doesn’t this all make sense since, as is true of any self-respecting rock and roll guitar player, I am obviously having maturity issues myself?
To which I will reply – I know you are but what am I?
No, wait, let me give you another answer: The thing is – fine. This is the pattern for my little corner of the universe at this time. But also, rock and roll guitar-playing aside, growing up, of course, is in some ways what life is about for all of us.
Consider the plot of “Westworld” - midway through the film something goes wrong – paying guests are actually shot and killed by the robots and the childish fantasy dissolves.
To quote Bob Dylan, “This ain’t a game no more, it’s the real thing.”
Master Dylan, as usual, knew something about growing up. You’ve got to leave your wish for a comfort zone where everything is safe no matter what and somehow take responsibility for your actions, including the repercussions to yourself. It all started way back when you left the protected womb, but the rest is perhaps one long continuum. It’s scary, which is why Hamlet has problems taking action. Mistakes matter - you’d be hard-pressed to find a fuck-up any bigger than humankind commits in blowing up the world in “Planet of the Apes.”
And maybe we make that kind of mistake every day on an individual level – the aging doctor Isak Borg of “Wild Strawberries” spends that film looking to his youthful memories to try to come to terms with a lonely and wasted life. (Cha- (I) - ching! Movie #12! They’re all present and accounted for…)
Now where were we…Oh yeah, mistakes matter, big fuck-ups, end of the world and a wasted and lonely life… Now where did I put that sharp knife we keep around here? To die, to sleep…’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished…
Quick – back to the comedies!
No, we don’t need to go back. I’ve got one dvd left.
It’s the coup de grace, of course, the dvd that I’d bought at the beginning of this spree but hadn’t gotten around to watching – I couldn’t even remember what it was and was wondering if it would fit with this column’s “child” theme as I fetched it out of the bag.
I kid you not:
“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”.
There you go. The full metaphor for life. How to grow up and still retain your joy.
Pee-wee or not Pee-wee. That is the question.
And if that’s not proof there’s a structure to the universe, I’ll get off my (high) horse and pound the sand and let the waves rush over me as I stare up at the half-buried Statue of Liberty.
And say “I meant to do that.”
Jeff Zittrain is currently performing solo acoustic and with the Z-Trane Electric Band. He was the primary songwriter, lead guitarist and co-vocalist of the rocking yet sensitive trio Famous Last Words. He is also an activist and Humanities Professor in Berkeley, CA.