The Universal Mass Shooter

There used to be a familiar refrain in the aftermath of a mass shooting: don’t name the killer. Don’t give him the fame he wanted. I never took to this – it always seemed like magical thinking to me, a connection to the old days when a name was a power object – but I understood the rationale well enough.

Today we don’t really know the names of mass shooters, and I don’t think it’s because this campaign for an attitudinal shift worked. I think it’s because no one can keep up with them. Of all the statistics about shootings in this country, this is maybe the one that shakes me the most: these events are so common we don’t even have the time or the energy to care about who did it.

I come from the world of true crime and serial killer fascination; reading about and learning about the worst offenders in history are hobbies of mine. I do not turn away from these people – if anything I’m fascinated by these deadly outliers. But the mass shooter is no longer an outlier; he’s an increasingly banal figure stepping out of the shadows, unsurprisingly legal weapon in his hand. He’s angry, disaffected, almost always white. 99% of the time a he. We are fascinated by novelty – there was a time when mass shootings were so novel that they warranted songs about them, not in protest but in kind of stunned amazement (“I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, about one of the few mass shootings carried out by a woman) – and the reality is that mass shooters are no longer novel.

At the same time mass shootings are not quite banal. We are in a place where the same horrifying thing happens with almost clockwork regularity; we endure scheduled public traumas. The horror is real but everything else is kind of a blur. It’s the equivalent of being jumped by six guys – each fist and foot is a new and terrible pain, but the people beyond the limbs are out of cognitive range. The fists and the feet are almost independent agents of hurt.

There’s another song I think about, Phil Ochs’ “Universal Soldier.” It paints a picture of one soldier throughout history, fighting and dying in all wars:

He’s five foot-two and he’s six feet-four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of thirty-one and he’s only seventeen
He’s been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s a Catholic a Hindu an Atheist a Jain
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill
And he knows he always will
Kill you for me my friend and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada
He’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way
And he’s fighting for Democracy
He’s fighting for the Reds
He says it’s for the peace of all
He’s the one who must decide
Who’s to live and who’s to die
And he never sees the writing on the wall
We now have a Universal Mass Shooter. The details may be different, but they’re just masks worn by the same horror. And if we can’t keep up with the shooters, how can we possibly keep up with the victims?

A STAR IS BORN And The Crisis Of Authenticity

What does it mean to be authentic? What even is authenticity? Is it a simple, stripped down identity? Is it who you are when you’re alone, in the dark? Is it in an impossible thing that does not exist because whatever you are doing right now, even if you’re faking it, is authentically you?

Authenticity haunts A Star Is Born, the third remake of a movie starring an actor as a singer and a singer being an actor. Authenticity is what Jackson Maine hungers for, what he strives to embody and, in the end, maybe what kills him. He tries to be authentic in his rootsy, bluesy rock n’ roll, always preaching that you have to have something to say, something meaningful. When his protege and wife, Ally, plays Saturday Night Live he is disgusted by the falseness of her pop persona and the shallow repetitiveness of her lyrics. Where’s the pain, where’s the blood? He looks at her and sees a phony, and later he takes out his anger on her, cruelly tearing her down with words. Are the insults authentic?

More importantly, is Jackson Maine authentic? He believes he is, but the script, by Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters and Eric Roth, gives us hints that Jackson is fundamentally full of shit, that he wouldn’t know an authentic person if she punched a cop in a bar for him. Jackson Maine, played with such crusty greasiness by Cooper that I could smell him from the screen, is presenting a persona that is utterly false, and it’s quite possible that he doesn’t even know who the authentic Jackson Maine even is, or if he does, he hates that person and needs to kill him.

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The Words Of My Imperfect Teacher

The first time I met Noah Levine, I thanked him for saving my life. And I meant it; in the weeks after experiencing the consequences of my past actions – I had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman 13 years prior, something I did not recall but responsibility for which I accepted – I had become sober, but I was floundering with how to deal with my new reality. I was shamed, my life as I knew it was over, and I didn’t know how to live with myself. As is common for the newly sober I threw myself into sobriety memoirs; I wanted to read about other people’s hard bottoms and see that they had survived and maybe even flourished afterwards. One of those books I read was Dharma Punx, Noah’s story of being a young drug addict and alcoholic who got sober and got into Buddhist meditation.

The first time I ever meditated it was based on the instructions that Noah wrote in that book. I sat on my couch and focused on my breath, counting each one, starting over if I got distracted. I couldn’t get past four that first time (today I can sometimes get to ten. Don’t set goals in your meditation would be my advice. Just do the thing). I picked up Noah’s other books – Heart of the Revolution, which presented spiritual awakening as a form of guerrilla warfare against a corrupt and degenerate society, and Against the Stream, which really explained the Buddha’s teachings as a form of radical countercultural protest. These things spoke to me deeply.

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HALLOWEEN 2018: The Shape Of Trauma

This contains full spoilers for the 2018 Halloween.

In the original Halloween II there was an elaborate, soap opera-y reason for Michael Myers to come after Laurie Strode yet again – she was his secret sister, and just as he had killed Judith, he wanted to kill Laurie. This kind of explanation was needed to franchise the characters; if you were going to have Laurie and Michael face off again and again you needed to have a reason. As John McClane once wondered, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The answer, for decades, was that Michael Myers cared deeply about Laurie.

What Halloween 2018 asks is… what if he didn’t? What if Michael Myers did not care about Laurie Strode at all, but rather Laurie Strode cared so much about Michael Myers that she couldn’t let him go, couldn’t leave him behind, and as such she ends up in the middle of his 40th anniversary prison break, once again being stalked by The Shape who, in other circumstances, would have been happy to just keep killing strangers.

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Suffering And Acceptance In Video Games (aka CALL OF DUKKHA)

I play Call of Duty online multiplayer. Maybe more than I should; perhaps any COD online is too much, as the game is the opposite of what I am trying to cultivate in my mind. No, this isn’t a military violence thing, rather it’s an acknowledgment that shooters like this are twitch-based games. They are about reflexes and reactions, and I am trying to train my mind to respond more slowly, not more quickly. I think they make me kind of jumpy and amped up in a not-great way.

Maybe I’ll kick the habit, but in the meantime I was playing this morning and noticed some serious dukkha happening in the game. Not to me, although I do notice my own suffering sometimes when the game isn’t going my way. No, I saw it in another guy who was ranting and raving about the other players, whom he was calling the kind of slurs that I as a straight white man cannot repeat.

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FIRST MAN: Neil Armstrong Is Trapped In A Glass Case Of Emotion

This contains spoilers for First Man (by which I mean bigger spoilers than “They get to the Moon”).

Ryan Gosling has given many performances that are the equivalent of a glass of water that had some fruit briefly dunked in it – he is so stoic and blank that he just gives you the hint of an idea of the concept of an emotion. Often, as in Drive, these performances have left me cold. But in First Man Gosling – playing one of America’s most iconically emotionally distant men – finds another place to go within that stoicism. As Neil Armstrong Gosling lets us get beyond that stoic exterior and gives us the fragile, live wire trauma that is hiding just beneath the surface.

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Michael Myers Is Not Mentally Ill

Lately non-genre publications/sites have been covering genre films, largely because that’s where the clicks lie. You get all the mainstream mags and the generic film blogs covering movies that were once the sole province of Fangoria or Starlog, and sometimes you end up with writers who don’t know a lot about genre doing the coverage. Add to that hot take/problematic culture and you end up with something along the lines of what Little White Lies published recently, “How Halloween stoked our fears and misunderstanding of mental illness” by Frazer Macdonald.

The piece is well-intentioned – it takes to task how horror movies use mental illness as a shortcut to making a villain/killer scary – but it’s applied incorrectly. Very incorrectly. See, Michael Myers isn’t mentally ill. There’s nothing “wrong” with him, nothing to be “fixed” or healed. And that is what makes him scary.

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VENOM: Tom Hardy Knew This Was Stupid When He Made It

Now on Patreon for $10 subscribers: my review of VenomHere’s an excerpt:

Venom is terrible. The script is an atrocity, from clanging dialogue to dim-witted motivations to terrible structure to characters who are lucky to have one dimension, let alone three. It’s a stupid movie, a listless and pointless movie. It has no momentum, nobody accomplishes anything and I’m not even sure what most of the characters even WANT.

I loved almost every minute of it.

This isn’t a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie. It’s just a bad movie. But Venom has at its center a Tom Hardy performance so excellent that he makes the entire movie about two or three hundred percent better. Hardy is watchable in Venom in a way that few movie stars are anymore, completely magnetic while also being completely unhinged. It’s a performance for the ages.

Hardy gets it – he knows what movie he’s making. He understands the tonal line he has to walk to make this work, and he never takes Eddie Brock too seriously… yet he never tells us that he’s anything but serious. It’s brilliant, a totally straight-faced slapstick performance. It feels like a muted Evil Dead 2 era Bruce Campbell, a very straight take on a very ridiculous character doing and saying very ridiculous things. But he’s never broad; I love Campbell, but he’s winking in all his best roles, playing to the back of the theater. In Venom Hardy takes that broadness but crushes it down into a mumbly, naturalistic form. It’s extraordinary – a performance full of emotional resonance springing from a script utterly devoid of emotional resonance. Hardy’s Brock is absolutely non-dualistic – he is at once real and phony, serious and ludicrous, played straight and played as a gag. There’s no daylight between these opposing concepts; Hardy is both things at once.

To read the whole thing, become a $10 patron at Patreon.

The Gravitational Pull Of Negativity

This week I wrote about my second sober birthday, and the response I got was phenomenal. So many people contacted me to express not only their well-wishes and congratulations, but also to tell me how what I wrote impacted them. As a writer this is the dream – to talk about your own experiences and life and have other people say “This resonates with me. You’re saying something that means something to me.” Some of the kind words came from friends, some from longtime readers, some from people with whom I had never interacted with before. It was wonderful.

But two guys left less than complimentary comments on the piece. One guy says he knew me sixteen years ago, and wanted to make sure I knew I was an asshole. The other guy I don’t think knew me, but wanted to make sure I knew I was a bad person.

There were a dozen kind, affirming, positive replies (and hundreds of positive interactions on my Instagram post about my sober birthday) and two less kind ones. Guess which reactions I internalized?

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Two Years Sober: How I Drank

In recovery we celebrate the worst day of our lives. After all, you don’t get sober with the help of a 12 step group if you’re doing just fine – you usually have to come in the door beaten and battered. Some people come in on their own two feet, but most of us come in on our knees. More than a few come in on their backs, wheeled into a hospital or jail.

But it’s like the Smashing Pumpkins song Today, which is all about how the worst day of Billy Corgan’s life was also the best – because he knew it couldn’t get worse. Hitting bottom doesn’t just imply that you have no further to fall, it implies that you’ve landed, and now you can start standing up.

Originally on this, the second anniversary of my sobriety, I wanted to write about my bottom and how it wasn’t just one event but rather a long skid of alcohol-fueled disaster that stretched throughout 2016. People sometimes think that a bottom means you decided one day that you had a problem, when the reality is that you knew for a while. The bottom is just the moment when you can no longer ignore that problem.

Writing about my bottom seemed self-indulgent, though, and maybe a little too “look at how I suffered!” Perhaps I’ll tell the full story of my annus horribilis at some point in the future, but I don’t think that story will be helpful to anyone except me today. What I do think might be of some help is if I tell you how I drank.

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