Friday, June 21, 2013

Thrown for a Loop... TK Freaks Unite

One of the staples of the postmodern era is a higher level of self-consciousness or as the narrator in 300 would say, a "heightened sense of things."  This is often indicated by the prefix "meta" which indicates a greater or higher level of awareness marked by self-reflexivity and and impetus for deconstruction.  There are some who argue that the term "postmodern" itself has become (or always was) devoid of meaning.  I used to think along those same lines until I was in the middle of deconstructing postmodernism and realized that I had already breached the cultural event horizon.  The thing is, we can't help but be postmodern because the tenets of postmodernism have become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can't escape their influence, much like the side of the road we drive on, the fact that all movies based on video games (so far) suck goat balls, and the seemingly neverending and incredibly deadly war between Coke and Pepsi.  So yes, the boundaries of postmodernism are arbitrary, but so are any of the meanings we conjure up and attribute to anything.  

Perhaps one of the most clever deconstructions of postmodernism (a cleverly meta moment) came from The Simpsons when Moe revamped his bar and tried to explain the concept to Homer and the bar gang:
"It's pomo" 
(blank stares) 
(blank stares) 
"Yeah, alright, weird for the sake of weird."
Though simplistic, it is still an accurate analysis.  Postmodernism is about deconstructing meaning, but it also about defying or denying the supremacy of meaning.  Making something "weird for the sake of weird" is an example both of this defiance of essentialism and of a heightened sense of self-awareness.  Postmoderism in and of itself is neither a good or bad thing - much like a gun.  It's what we make of it that's important.  So as long as the gun is pointed at some animal that will feed your family or at Andy Dick, then everything is as it should be.  Meaning all depends on relativity - the who, why, what, when, and how.

I can't really rail against postmodernism, because whether we like it or not, we are postmodern.  However, just like even the finest wine when consumed in excess will turn Ghandi into Charlie Sheen, postmodernism is not without its adverse effects.  The smoking gun of postmodernism is a sort of joyless sense of pretentiousness.  Basically, it boils down to the seemingly inescapable fact that a growing segment of the population would rather be "right" than be happy.  People don't want magic - they're too busy rushing to pull back the curtain and strip search the magician looking to see how the trick is done before the show is even over.

It struck me recently when, after watching the movie LOOPER and reading people's reactions online, how widespread this tendency had become.  Any piece of art is bound to have its detractors, but there seemed to be an undo amount of commentary on "plot holes" and "inconsistencies" relating largely to the time travel aspects of the film.  A great number of people seemed to be caught up in the minutia of determining whether the mechanics of time travel that the movie presented were "accurate," as if there were actually some objective quantitative evidence against which to weigh the movie's depictions or their own assertions.  And it seemed that a lot of people just couldn't get passed this to see what a great movie LOOPER actually was.    

The plot of LOOPER follows the exploits of Joe, a specialized assassin in a future who kills random, anonymous people sent back from even further in the future (30 years to be precise) by gangsters because time travel will be instantly outlawed after its discovery, probably for a lot of very good reasons (which you can think up, write down in an itemized list, and share with your friends to show them how clever you are if that's your particular cup of tea).  These assassins are called loopers because as part of their contract they will eventually be called upon to kill their future selves thereby "closing their loops."  Of course, shit hits the fan when Young Joe inadvertently lets Old Joe escape, although you can't really blame him because if your future self turned out to be Bruce Willis, realistically, what fucking chance do you have?  (Also, I just have to point out that the makeup and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's impeccable imitation of Willis' mannerisms helped to both establish continuity of the character and also cross the threshold of the uncanny in a creepily effective way.)
Would you fuck me?  I'd fuck me.  I'd
fuck me hard.

Young Joe then embarks upon a mission to kill his future self, while Old Joe sets out to kill the kid who will eventually become the Rainmaker who is a huge crime boss in his time who kills his wife and sends him back in time to die.  Oh yeah, also some people have developed telekinesis, which turns out to be fairly integral to the plot of the movie and is often overlooked in favour of the other major sci-fi element of time travel. 
Right off the bat I want to make it clear that I loved and will continue to love LOOPER.  It made a decent splash at the box office, but I have the feeling it will end up more as a cult sci-fi movie like EQUILIBRIUM.  Which is cool, because it doesn't detract at all from LOOPER's awesomeness (and may in fact add to its mystique and allure) and because of all the potential for unprotected sects

I'm going to bet that odds are, if you hated this movie, you have become a victim of excess postmodernism.  This is not true for everyone, hence the qualification of "Odds are" that I added to the last sentence.  There are all kinds of reasons people love and hate artistic endeavours (or love and hate in general).  Some art will speak to some people but not to others.  If LOOPER didn't "speak" to you, I have no problem with that.  However, I do have an issue with people actively seeking to deprive themselves or others of pleasure for no good goddamned reason.  As always, you're free to love or hate whatever and however you see fit.  The point of this analysis is to try and inject some pleasure into your life.  This is not so much a dissection of a single artistic endeavour, but a call to love.  Or, if you don't have a lot of time, then at the very least a decent fuck.

One of the main issues so many people seem to have with LOOPER is the many plot holes and inconsistencies that seem to be related to the time travel aspects of the story.  This is a prime example of sacrificing happiness for the sake of "being right."  We all have to prove to our friends and family how fucking clever we are all the time.  As a culture, we seem to have this chip on our shoulder about proving that we're somehow more special than the guy sitting next to us, like somehow we can rise above the masses.  Go against the grain.  Be your own man or woman.  Well guess what: If you're watching a mass-produced piece of entertainment then proliferating opinions about it, screaming into the dark abyss of the Internet or pestering friends and coworkers with your running commentary, then you are most assuredly one of the faceless masses.  There is nothing unique or special about you in this context. 

Which is absolutely fine.  I'm going to do you a solid and help ease the burden you might be carrying around on your beleaguered shoulders.  I'm here to tell that sometimes—most of the time, in fact—it's OK (and largely unavoidable) to be one of the masses.  Just another faceless face in the crowd.  You don't have to prove how smart or special or anything else you are to the people around you.  You don't have to be special all the time; most of the time it's OK to just "be."  Plus, you seem like a really pretentious asshole stating something that most people already know and then trying to pass it off as an original thought.  Seriously, think about it.  You can thank me later (money and/or blowjobs will be fine).

Are there going to be unresolved issues in any narrative that deals with time travel?  Of course there are.  We know that already.  Two examples of excellent movies that used time travel as one of their main narrative devices, BACK TO THE FUTURE and TERMINATOR 2 (the first TERMINATOR works too, but come on), are rife with temporal paradoxes and "inconsistencies" yet still kick a metric tonne of ass.  Are there temporal logical fallacies at play in LOOPER as well?  Undoubtedly.  That's not the issue.  The issue is: Does the conception of time travel within LOOPER adhere to an internal logic established within its own universe? And as we can see with the infographic below, the internal logic "makes sense" as a series of loops or successive timelines, each one built and influenced by the actions or inactions of people in the one before.  The timeline in LOOPER is multilinear, not so much in the sense of alternate realities existing simultaneously, but in the sense that each timeline is successive; the characters in LOOPER are moving in two temporal "dimensions" instead of one: both forward through time and laterally across time.  I found the infographic below pretty helpful visualizing it. 

The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that in any narrative text it is less important how the specific mechanics of time travel work than how time travel functions as a narrative device.  I.e., How does time travel function to advance the plot.  In TERMINATOR 2, for example, time travel is at once supremely important to the plot yet not important at all.  It is important inasmuch as it is the driving force that brings all of the characters together and is the precipitating cause of any and all conflict and drama and narrative that follow it; however, the temporal mechanics of how time travel is possible are completely irrelevant to the subsequent actions of the characters and the specific themes of the movie itself.  And there are all kinds of logical fallacies and temporal paradoxes that many very clever, very right people have pointed out over the years since the film's release. 

But none of that shit matters because time travel was used to serve the larger picture, and enough dots were connected that any (willing) audience could fill in enough of the blanks in order to suspend their disbelief.  And I mean, time travel should have been a major fucking concern.  I mean, hulking, near-indestructible, autonomous, potentially self-aware cyborgs require a great deal of suspension of disbelief even in this day and age with so many advances in cybernetics that have not even come close to touching what was depicted on the screen.  And at least with cyborgs it's stretching the boundaries of what is already, theoretically and practically, possible.  With time travel there's not even a proof of concept available to indicate that any living organism could actually travel through time or that time travel at all is possible.  Yet, most moviegoers who watched or watch TERMINATOR 2 will just brush off the whole time travel part like it's no big fucking deal.  Describing the movie to a friend, most people would probably be inclined to gloss over the time travel deal, even though it is by far the most implausible yet integral part of the entire narrative.
Some would argue that it's because TERMINATOR 2 is a quantifiably better movie than LOOPER, which is true, but only by a matter of degrees.  James Cameron did an excellent job of kind of sweeping time travel under the rug with some narrative sleight of hand in TERMINATOR 2 and kind of avoiding discussing the whole thing.  LOOPER spends a little more time exploring time travel, but not by much, and (in my opinion) satisfactorily addresses a lot more of the nuances than either BACK TO THE FUTURE or TERMINATOR 2.  It's all about probability and possibility and the shades of grey rather than the blacks and the whites of it all:
Old Joe: My memory's cloudy. It's a cloud. Because my memories aren't really memories. They're just one possible eventuality now. And they grow clearer or cloudier as they become more are less likely. But then they get to the present moment, and they're instantly clear again. I can remember what you do after you do it. And it hurts.
Young Joe: So even when we're apart, you can remember what I do after?
Old Joe: Yes, but this is a precise description of a fuzzy mechanism. It's messy.
And much like TERMINATOR 2, LOOPER has a much more important science fiction trope to deal with.  In fact, it really surprised me how little audiences talked about how telekinesis (referred to as TK in the movie) played an integral part in LOOPER.  Discussing LOOPER without mentioning telekinesis is like discussing TERMINATOR 2 without talking about cyborgs.  The fact that Cid (the kid that would eventually grow up to be the Rainmaker and who Old Joe is trying to kill) is, as Young Joe so elegantly puts it at one point, a "TK [telekinetic] freak" is incredibly important. 

In LOOPER's mid-future, where Joe is still young, neckties are no longer in style, hookers are still hot, and hoverbikes exist but are notoriously unreliable (due, no doubt, to the continuing general decline in North American craftsmanship), some people are also starting to develop limited telekinetic powers.  This is fucking huge news!  This is a key evolutionary development.  It's akin to when some of our simian ancestors started walking around on two legs.  The fact that what seems amazing to us in the audience is kind of taken in stride by the characters is significant in that it speaks to director Rian Johnson's ability as a filmmaker (i.e., subtlety) but also that it is a commentary of sorts about apathy and complacency.  I mean, the fact that people can MOVE THINGS WITH THEIR MINDS would be an insane cultural development.  At first.  But then, it would probably become mundane and everyday, like, for instance, the Internet.

More importantly, through Cid and his enhanced abilities (most dudes can barely levitate a quarter while Cid can throw around trucks and tear people apart), telekinesis becomes symbolic of the human potential for great and terrible deeds.  In LOOPER, Cid grows up to be the Rainmaker and uses his telekinetic powers to rise through the ranks of the underworld and exact his revenge on the world which stole from him his innocence, happiness, and hope.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  Cid has this incredible power that in and of itself is not evil or good.  It's the fact that Cid apparently experienced a shitty childhood and lost everyone who loved and cared for him that causes him to, in turn, perpetuate that cycle of violence and hate.  Telekinesis serves as an avatar for the power and potential of all of humanity, both individually and collectively.  Each of us has an incredible power to either create or to destroy, the only question is: Which of those two tendencies will be nurtured and validated? 
That's some pretty heavy-handed shit, I know, which is why it's a lot more palatable and accessible through sci-fi tropes like telekinesis or time travel.  Getting back to the whole time travel issue, though, it ultimately serves the same purpose in  LOOPER as it does in TERMINATOR 2, which is to bring the characters together and drive the plot forward.  It poses an interesting "What if?".  What if you or your child would become the future leader of a human resistance movement that was targeted by an enemy comprised of large, Austrian-accented cyborgs?  What if you could sit down at a diner with your future and/or past self?  What would you do?  What would you say?

This is another issue with the time travel narrative device.  As is so often the case in Life, we don't know what we don't know.  Because time travel is purely theoretical at this point (and potentially—as far as we know—at every point) it's all speculation.  And the thing is, it's fun to speculate about that sort of shit.  So any "plot holes" that an audience might point out when analyzing the mechanics of time travel are just as speculative as the original conception of it proposed by the filmmakers.  All of the sudden after watching a movie that involves time travel, people suddenly become leading experts in quantum mechanics.  Most layman analyses are based on a pretty limited, linear view of causality that many people can't seem to get away from and is insufficient to form a coherent argument.  The point is that nobody really knows how time travel could or would possibly work, so shut the fuck up for a minute, sit back, and leave yourself (and others) open to the possibility of enjoyment and happiness.  If you feel the absolute need to analyze the mechanics of time travel, then at least consider the context.  The important thing to consider is not how the time travel in a movie functions in relation to your abstract, limited notion of how time travel would be "in real life" but whether or not the narrative maintains internal consistency and whether or not enough of the dots are available for the audience to connect to be able to suspend their disbelief.  In the case of LOOPER, I believe that as a narrative device time travel functions absolutely perfectly and there are no glaring internal contradictions or plot holes related to time travel.  

And anyway, since when did plot holes become the benchmark for determining the quality or relative worth of a narrative endeavour such as a feature film?  The good folks over at How it Should Have Ended point out all kinds of movie "plot holes" that in no way detract from my enjoyment of those films.  One of my favourite videos is the STAR WARS one in which they point out the glaring plot hole at the end that would have, could have, and should have spelled doom for the rebel alliance.  In short, the Death Star—you know, the one with the giant, planet-destroying laser—very slowly has to travel around a moon that it could easily destroy with its PLANET-DESTROYING LASER to get a clear shot at the planet that is home to the main rebel base.  The delay inevitably gives the rebels one last chance to ultimately destroy the empire's Orb of Demise, make it to the oft-parodied victory award ceremony, and show up in the sequels.  Despite this pretty obvious and bone-headed oversight, I still love me some STAR WARS.

If you look hard enough for inconsistencies, plot holes, and incongruences in any movie or narrative text you will find them.  Guaranteed.  That doesn't "prove" that a movie is bad.  All that proves is the axiom that because humans are imperfect and flawed any system that they create will also be imperfect and flawed.  It also proves that as a culture we are embracing more of the negative aspects of postmodernism.  As a general rule, people are becoming less willing to suspend their disbelief.  Instead, we embrace cynicism as a means unto itself.  We are becoming more willing to sacrifice long-term happiness for the instant gratification of being right.  Instant gratification is great if it's also sustainable gratification.  But the "instant" in the term "instant gratification" is an apt descriptor for our current culture because it doesn't just denote the speed at which gratification occurs but also its typical duration.  Instant gratification is typically fleeting at best.  Unfortunately, this philosophy is more in keeping with the current corporate and political zeitgeist that encourages robbing from our future to pay for the present.  It's an ugly fucking cycle, and it's tough to break.  Which is where one of the main themes of LOOPER comes in. 
As is clearly implied by the title of the movie (LOOPER), one of the main themes is that of cycles.  This is where the time travel motif becomes so important and really demonstrates the real genius of Rian Johnson and his work.  The "natural flow" of time—as far as we know and as we currently perceive it—is linear, going from point A to point B, from unlife to life to death.  In LOOPER, "natural" time is disrupted and "loops" or cycles are created only through the artificial interference of humankind.  The genius here is using the time travel motif as a metaphor for other cycles human beings create.  Cycles of violence.  Cycles of pain.  Cycles of suffering.  Cycles of hate.  Cycles of exploitation.  Cycles where we repeat the same mistakes over, and over, and over again, leading to more of the same shit.
Say "Yippee ki yay motherfucker" one more time.
I dare you.  I double dare you....

The cycles hamper progress.  The timeline is staggered and can no longer move forward unimpeded.  In short, we fucked up.  And it's not about disrupting the natural cycles or natural order.  There is no natural order.  Order is a human construct.  The problem occurs when the cycles we create perpetuate violence and hatred and exploitation.  The point being made here is about how the selfishness and shortsightedness of individuals and groups perpetuate these cycles and how it's a cumulative effect.  The real problem with greed and hate and anger is not necessarily that they tend to self-perpetuate but that they tend to accumulate.  Unless, of course, we do something about it.

One of the so-called plot holes that a lot of people have been perpetuating has to do with the events at the end of the movie and is, again, related to the idea of time travel.  Just as all the shit is coming to a head and Old Joe is about to kill Sarah, thereby setting in motion a key precipitating incident that will contribute to Cid's downward spiral into hate and revenge, Young Joe has this sudden revelation:

"Then I saw it.  I saw a mom who would die for her son.  A man who would kill for his wife.  A boy, angry and alone.  Laid out in front of him, the bad path.  I saw it.  And the path was a circle.  Round and round.  So I changed it."
Awwww, hell's yeah.

After this epiphany, Young Joe—whose gun (bearing the clever and accurate historical nickname "blunderbuss" ) would be useless in dispatching Old Joe due to its limited effective range of 15 yards—turns his weapon on himself, which, in effect and practice, resulted in the death of both Joes, Young and Old.  Now, I've read a lot of online posts and comments questioning Young Joe's decision to kill himself in order to stop Old Joe.  The most common alternative suggestion I've read would be for Young Joe to have instead shot off his hand (presumably the right hand in which Old Joe was holding his gun) so that Old Joe couldn't kill Cid or his mother. 

Of course, some other clever person pointed out that Old Joe would still be left with one good hand with which to pull that trigger and 30 years of practice.  Though I'm about to present the argument as to why it was so important that Young Joe kill himself in order to save Cid, I would first like to point out that following the disfiguring-one's-present-self-to-hinder-the-shooting-ability-of-one's-future-self line of argument, it would have been far more logical for Young Joe to blind himself instead.  Then again, both the maiming and the blinding would have prevented Old Joe from escaping Young Joe in the first place, or subsequently shooting up diners and hideouts full of bad guys, in which case Young Joe would never have even met Sarah and Cid, in which case Cid still grows up to be the Rainmaker and Young Joe was never in the field and hence never blinded himself… and all you've got is another fucking temporal paradox motherfucker.

Cleverness and paradoxes aside, it was extremely important that Young Joe die and not just die but die by his own hand.  Early on, LOOPER establishes a pattern or cycle of selfishness in both Young and Old Joes and in the culture in which he/they live(s).  When a friend of Joe's fails to "close his loop" (i.e., kill his older self sent back through time) Joe reluctantly helps him by hiding him in the floor safe in his apartment.  Their boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels, yeah that dude from DUMB AND DUMBER), who was sent from the crime syndicates from the future to watch over their operations in the past (don't even try, it will hurt your head just thinking about it), questions Young Joe, offering him amnesty in exchange for his friend.  As part of his interrogation, Abe poses the following rhetorical question to Young Joe: 

"Ask yourself: Who would I sacrifice for what's MINE?"

Young Joe's first response to this particular conundrum was to sacrifice his friend, Seth, to perhaps one of the worst, most horrendous deaths imaginable.  Though there's all kinds of reasons it wouldn't work, the particular brand of temporal torture and execution of Young Joe's friend presents an incredible visual and another intriguing "What if?". 

(It's truly terrifying to watch Old Seth slowly deteriorating for several reasons.  First, not only do Old Seth and the audience understand that in order for this to be happening Young Seth is undergoing incredibly gruesome and horrifying torture, but the criminals performing this torture have to have some sort of medical procedures in place to keep Young Joe alive (and potentially conscious) for as long as possible.  Secondly, as Old Joe later establishes, as each new event moves through the spectrum from possibility to plausibility to probability, it becomes (painfully) integrated into his memories.  So not only do the terrible, painful memories of forced amputation and mutilation come flooding to Old Seth, so do (presumably) 30 more years of memories of having to live with those deformities.  The true horror in Old Seth's on-screen disintegration as he desperately tries to save both he and his younger self from years of pain and suffering is the fact that he is completely aware of all of these implications.)  

Later, Young Joe is essentially faced with the same dilemma as Old Joe is trying to kill Sarah and Cid.  Thanks to Old Joe, Young Joe has a literal truck full of gold that he can go and use to live in peace and happiness for the rest of his life, and, with Cid's death, he would no living enemies who could possibly threaten his prosperity.  All Young Joe has to do is walk away and let Old Joe kill the kid and his mom.  But this time, Young Joe pulls a 180 and completes the journey from total selfishness to complete selflessness.  He could have tried to be clever.  He could have tried shooting off his own hand instead.  But that would have completely negated the point of the movie and Young Joe's character arc.

Two major themes at play in LOOPER—the perpetuation of negative cycles and self-sacrifice—are beautifully woven together by the end of the movie.  It's not that Young Joe had to kill himself to break the cycle.  It's the fact that he was willing to.  It's not advocating suicide and death as a means to break cycles of violence and hatred, but rather the willingness to act.   He saw that it was within his power to act to save another human life through his willingness to sacrifice his own.  He wasn't trying to fucking game the system any more. 

It was the Young Joe at the beginning of the movie who was hoarding away half of his silver (precious metals being the unique, standard form of temporal currency and a sleek integration of some classic Judeo-Christian imagery) and hiding it (quite ineffectively, apparently) from his employers.  It was the Young Joe at the beginning of the movie who would have been the asshole who would try to find a loophole like shooting off his own hand.  He was the selfish prick—just like all the other selfish pricks around him—who wanted to have his cake and eat it too.  He would have been the one to continue to risk other people's lives for the chance to further his own ends. 

But by the end of the movie, he's changed.  Young Joe's sacrifice represents the willingness to go all in.  The fact that he was willing to do something utterly selfless for another human being was a sign of maturity.  The point of LOOPER was to show how half measures and "clever" solutions are never going to break these negative cycles.  If we want to see positive change, we have to be willing to do what is necessary.  If we want this shit to stop, we have to be able to allow for another person's happiness and well-being, even if it means risking our own. 

And that's what is so powerful about the story of Joe's redemption in LOOPER.  Joe is established to be a pretty despicable human being.  He kills people for money, is a hardcore drug addict, and sells out his only friend to save his own neck.  Old Joe, despite getting over the drugs and leaving his violent life behind him thanks to the love of his life, is still a selfish bastard who proves himself capable of some pretty heinous and despicable shit.  I mean, he does show some remorse for shooting some kid in the face, mostly, it turns out, because it was the wrong kid, and he's still intent on blowing away the child who will grow up to become the shit-disturber and mob boss known only as the Rainmaker.  The conversation between Young and Old Joe in the diner does an excellent job of summing up the self-centred attitude that—apart from a knack for violence—seems to be the only common thread in Joe's life:
Old Joe: This is a piece of indentifying information on the Rainmaker.  He's here.  He lives here now.  In this county.  And I'm gonna use this to find him.  And I'm gonna kill him.  I'm gonna stop him from killing my wife.
Young Joe: Fuck you.  And your wife.  None of this concerns me.
Old Joe: This is gonna happen...
Young Joe: It happened to you. It doesn't have to happen to me. You got a picture right there in my watch?  Let me see.  Show me the picture.  As soon as I see her, I walk away.  I'll fucking marry someone else.  Promise.  So when I see that picture, that fog inside your brain should just swallow up all the memories, right?  She'll be gone.  If you give her up, she'll be safe.
Old Joe: Give her up?
Young Joe: Yeah, give her up.  You're the one who got her killed.  She never meets you, she's safe.
Old Joe: You don't understand.  We don't have to give her up.  I'm not gonna give her up.  I'm gonna save her.

At first, the notion seems sort of altruistic, even noble.  The dude just wants to save his special lady.  But then when Old Joe is challenged on the issue, it turns out that it's not just about saving his wife, it's about saving his wife to gratify his own desires.  Which is the exact opposite of altruism and nobility.  It's not that he wants to save his wife's life, he wants to save his wife's life so that he can live happily ever after with her.  It's a pretty thin fucking line to walk, but what Old Joe really wants isn't to save the life of the woman he loved but to save his own life and save himself the pain of losing her. 

Young Joe isn't any better.  One of the coolest "What ifs?" in LOOPER is "What if I had the chance to sit down and talk to my future/past self?"  What kind of shit would I ask my future self?  What kind of shit would I tell my past self?  Would we reminisce?  Talk about what could have been?  I certainly never would have thought that there would be any tension or animosity.  I mean, if you can't even get along with yourself, then who the fuck can you get along with? 

Old Joe: How's your French coming? 
Young Joe: Good. You gonna tell me I ought to be learning Mandarin? 
Old Joe: I never regretted learning French. 

[in French]
Old Joe: I know you have a gun between your legs.
[in English]
Old Joe: No?  Well, you'll get it eventually.  Obviously. 
Young Joe: All right, listen.  This is a hard situation for you, but we both know how this has to go down.  I can't let you walk away from this diner alive.  This is my life now.  I earned it.  You had yours already.  So why don't you do what old men do and die?  Get the fuck out of my way. 
Old Joe: Why don't you just take out your little gun from between your legs and do it?  Boy.

Young Joe is so fucking self-centred that he can only see the world from his point of view. He can't even fathom the possibility that one's own life is never truly one's own. He's more than willing to borrow from his future to pay for his present, even to the point of bankruptcy. Instead of helping Old Joe find and kill the Rainmaker, which in theory—and as far as he knew—would guarantee a happy future for himself, Young Joe give his future self the verbal equivalent of the middle finger. He's only worried about instant gratification in his immediate future, not the fact that he could potentially save his own life and perhaps live another fifty or sixty years instead of the thirty years Old Joe has on him—in relative peace and contentment, mind you—for a good portion of it.

Of course, the animosity between Young Joe and Old Joe also brings up questions of identity. Is the "me" from thirty years from now really still me? I mean, there's an obvious continuity of self as each individual inhabits the same body and perceives the world through a single stream of consciousness built upon the memories and experiences as constructed and interpreted through an individual perspective. But on the other hand, thirty years of experiences and memories and interpretation and reinterpretation of one's own life narrative will unquestionably have an effect on one's perception and identity. So in one sense you are always the same person because of the continuity of accumulated experience, but in another sense you are never the same person today as you were yesterday because each new accumulated experience affects how your interpretation and perception of yourself and the world around you.
Currently, being closer in age to Young Joe, I tend to watch the diner scene in LOOPER from his perspective (I'm sure the 61-year-old me will watch that same scene very differently), and it's actually kind of scary. Sitting across from your Old Self would be a chilling reminder not only of your own, eventual mortality—highlighted in this context, of course, by the fact that Young Joe is on a mission to kill his older self—but of the fact that long before you even reach The End the You that you know will cease to exist. Tomorrow you will wake up mostly the same, but slightly different. In thirty years, the You that wakes up will still be You, but a different You. The You that you know today will have become assimilated into another being that both is and isn't You. That You are just another memory, another step on a very long and winding staircase for all the Yous who come after. In that way, every day is a sort of mini-death. It's a frightening prospect to lose oneself, but part of our existence as human beings means that we are subject to incremental change and the continual loss of self. Every day we gain a wealth of experience but only at the inescapable sacrifice of an earlier fortune.

But, until the end of the movie, Young Joe can't see past the present moment. That's why his epiphany at the end of the movie is so powerful. He is finally able to see past the moment and past himself. A clear sign of emotional maturity, Joe—for perhaps the first time in his life—considers the consequences of his actions and the effect he has on the lives of people around him. He can see and finally admit to himself how he is contributing to the cycle of violence and accept responsibility for his actions. He can finally conceive of a world without himself and in the process consider the lives of the people who will be there long after he is gone. The real tragedy of Joe isn't that he had to (or felt he had to) die in order to help another human being; it's that his first true act of love and selflessness coincided with his death. Finally, he'd broken his own cycle of selfishness and self-centredness, and, though he found redemption, he also lost out on any potential happiness because it had taken him so long to get there.

LOOPER was a poignant reminder to us all not to make the same mistake.

It was also a movie that was, ultimately, all about hope. LOOPER makes the case for individual agency even in the face of what could be considered overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The very fact that Old Joe existed must have caused Young Joe to consider questions of predestination as it did for me and as I'm sure it did for a lot of very clever people out there. The fact that Joe was able to overcome these doubts and keep fighting is a powerful assertion of the power of human agency. If cycles of hate and violence and suffering are human constructions, then humanity also has the power to demolish them. In this sense, I can't help but be reminded of the theme from another great sci-fi movie that there is no fate but what we make. Overall I give LOOPER a 9.5/10 = One Head Levitating in the Middle of a Cornfield Because of a TK Freak


Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Last Coke: A Death in the Family

On Wednesday, March 27 2013 at approximately seven o'clock in the morning Michael J. McAuley drew his last breath.  To the vast majority of existence this event held little to no significance.  A drop in the existential bucket, as it were.  He wasn't a great man.  He wasn't a world class athlete.  He never invented anything that changed the course of humanity.  He never cured any diseases.  He wasn't a renowned general who conquered foreign lands or earned glory on the battlefield.  He wasn't a famous criminal or political figure.  All things considered, with all of the wondrous possibilities the universe held and all of the incredible, unbounded potential for human achievement, the life of Mike McAuley was relatively -and admittedly- unremarkable.  Were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather, I would never have even batted an eyelash at news of his demise.

"Grandpa's been in the hospital since Monday."

It was Friday.  The call came from my mother.  Though oddly out of character for both my mother and grandfather, I wasn't particularly alarmed.  My mother didn't seem to be particularly upset that her father had been in the hospital for a week and the situation reeked of the mundane.  The man had survived the Great Depression, WWII, 50 some odd years of marriage, a major heart attack and accompanying triple bypass surgery, a bout of stomach cancer, and a solid seven decades of smoking.  He was in relatively good shape considering his age.  His mentally faculties were largely intact and he was pretty spry considering the wear and tear he'd endured.  He wasn't running any marathons, but the motherfucker would still shovel his own driveway.  It would take him a while, but he could still do it.

You should come down and see grandpa he's in bad shape.

It was Sunday.  This time it was a text from my brother.  As I dialed my brother's number, the wheels in my head began to turn and the unthinkable began to disprove itself.  It's strange, I suppose, to have been worried about the possibly eminent death of an 86-year-old man, who even by today's standards had what would be considered a "pretty good run." I mean, considering everything that he'd been through, in recent years I found myself kind of surprised that he was still alive.  But the thing was, he was still alive, and until that state was challenged I - like pretty much everybody else - took the whole fucking thing for granted.  In a gross and necessary perversion of the scientific method we tend to assume the immortality of those closest to us until proven otherwise by qualitative evidence to the contrary.  Until we see the cold, rigid corpses of our loved ones with our own eyes, we can convince ourselves that they will never have to face the Grimmest of Reapers. 

A half an hour of deliberation with my wife and the various, conflicting voices in my head later and I was on the road for the minimum six hours it would take to make the trip back to my hometown and the hospital where my grandfather, grandpa - Grandpa - had been stationed for his Final Mission in the very bed and room where he would eventually die a few days later.  Looking back, I feel kind of bad about my half an hour or so of hesitation.  At the time we were in fairly dire financial straights and we could ill afford the time off that my wife would have to take from work.  In addition, I had conflicting reports from my mother about the severity of my grandfather's condition, though I later realized that as well as she seemed to take her father's death, she was not immune to the very human sentiment of denial.  There were no guarantees that he wouldn't have lasted until the end of the week until after what turned out to be a fairly pivotal job interview and when my wife would have her regularly scheduled time off.  On the other hand, there was no guarantee that he would.  Fuck it I finally told myself.  If I went down Sunday night and it cost us a day's wages plus gas and food and my grandfather lived for another ten years, would that really make a difference in the long run?  On the other side of the coin, if I didn't go down and he kicked the bucket the next day I'd always be kicking myself for caving to fear and uncertainty.

It was 11:00 p.m.  I parked a block over from the hospital on a side street in front of an old friend's house to avoid parking charges in the hospital parking lot.  If those bastards wanted my hard-earned cash for the privilege of parking my car while I visited my (possibly) dying relative then they'd have to fight like hell to get it.  The car trip up was mostly a blur, save for the vivid recollection of a harrowing expedition on some god-forsaken 18 km stretch of twisting back roads my GPS lead me on for no good goddamned reason that had or would ever pass through my mind.  In times like these, I had no idea what thoughts should occupy my thoughts, and so my thoughts were largely occupied by the attempted occupation.  Being alone in a car for six hours would normally be for me a little slice of heaven.  This time it had been a sort of purgatory, a gray patch bounded on either side by black and white. 

As I got to the hospital I kept running various scenarios over and over in my mind of explaining to various medical and security personnel what the hell I was doing there at that time of night without a pressing medical issue and eventually being tackled to the ground or tasered for trespassing because I obviously DIDN'T BELONG.  As it turns out, hospital security is actually pretty lax in Smalltown, Canada, and I wasn't stopped by any staff until I got to the second-floor ward where my mission intel had directed me and I had deeply penetrated their defences.  The nurse who stopped me began her expert verbal exercises to prepare me -quite deftly and gently - for rejection and immediate tasering until I mentioned my grandfather's name and the reason for my nocturnal transgression.

"I'm here to see Mike McAuley.  I was told he might not have much time left."

Even before the words left my mouth it had been hard to formulate the sentence.  Consider the possibilities.  Or the end of possibility.  Thankfully, I didn't need to say anything else.  With a knowing look, the nurse led me to my grandfather's room, which was only a few doors down from the ward's desk.  Though I wasn't sure at the time what the outcome would be, I realize now that she did.  When you see death on a daily basis you start to recognize it and can spot it at a greater distance.  It must be a great gift and a curse to be able to look at a man and just know.  Just fucking know.  

The last time I'd seen my grandfather before that night he had been a man.  He walked, and talked, and laughed, and yelled.  That night I saw only a shadow of a man.  I didn't want to disturb him, but the nurse turned on a small light and my leather jacket seemed much louder than normal.  He wasn't really asleep or awake but somewhere in between shifting restlessly in his bed.  He looked over at me when I introduced myself and I wasn't sure he recognized me at first, but later asked me about my wife and children by name so I am certain he knew it was me that night.

"I'm dying."

Perhaps there was something to be said for the loss of one's mental faculties as a sort of buffer from knowledge of the inevitable.  I had no idea how to respond.  How to respond.  Is there an appropriate response?  How the fuck do you comfort a dying man?  What words are adequate to ease the pain of Knowing?

"I know.  That's why I'm here."     

After about an hour or so of watching him drift in and out of consciousness in a sort of non-sleep and occasionally chatting with him whenever he was awake, he finally told me to go because he was tired.  I didn't want to leave, but he seemed insistent and I was tired and mentally drained.  I found my way out of the hospital and back to my car and woke up the next morning at my parent's house. 

The next morning I went back to the hospital for what would ultimately be the last time I would ever see Mike McAuley alive.  Although, as it turned out, there would be no more conversation because that morning he was far to groggy to engage in any meaningful dialogue beyond the assent or dissent made through shakes of the head or grunts resembling words.  Shadows of words.  

He'd already signed the do not resuscitate order and earlier the day before had denied further medical procedures after getting the straight dope from his doctor.  All that was left now was to wait for the end.  His end.  The last medical order was a move to palliative care in a comfortable room to die in, though he would never make it that far.  His doctor had even given my grandmother the go-ahead to give him whatever he asked for to eat.  That, to me, was really the telltale sign.  The Last Meal, which was a staple for the death row inmate, was the true signal, the true acknowledgement of the End.  There was always something symbolic about the breaking of bread together, something common to the hearts and minds of humankind much like death.  Food was life.  The last meal was one final little act of rebellion against that eternal fast.  It was the culmination of all other meals and a reminder of each meal that had preceded it.  The last meal was an assertion of life in the most fundamental sense and a defiant acknowledgement of one's own mortality.

My grandmother was there in the morning as well, and it wasn't until that day that I saw how strong she was.  I thought she would be the one breaking down as she watched her husband dying in front of her while dutifully shoveling rice pudding into his mouth.  But she was the one who held her shit together while other people were falling apart around her.  She asked me if I was alright as I incrementally learned about my grandfather's increasingly grim prognosis. 

It was cancer.  Not very original in this day and age, I know, but there it is.  They found it in his brain, his lungs, his liver, and his jaw before they just stopped looking.  After learning the score from the doctor, my grandfather had finally refused any further treatment because there was no point being poked and prodded when there was nothing that could reasonably be done to treat him.  I can only imagine how it must feel to acknowledge one's own eminent end.  That to me was the truly horrifying part.  At this point in my life I can still reasonably make an argument for my own immortality.  I know that one day it's possible my mortality may try to assert itself, but that day was far off.  The far worse fate for me wasn't necessarily that I would die but that I might come to accept it as a viable option.  I suppose my fear was that acceptance equaled defeat in some way.  Death may be inevitable, but that didn't mean I had to accept that inevitability.  Did it?

"Coke?  Did you say you wanted a Coke?"

It was my grandmother.  My grandfather was mumbling something in between mouthfuls of stew and rice pudding.  I couldn't make it out at first, but then through tired and worn-out lips I heard the last words I would ever remember hearing from my grandfather.

"Coca Cola." 

By this point there was nothing to be done, and a bottle of Coke was the least of his worries, medically speaking.  There was a vending machine around the corner.  Two bucks and a couple minutes later and I returned with what would be my grandfather's Last Coke.  We poured some of the bottle into a cup, and as he sipped the brownish/amber liquid through a straw it suddenly became clear.  It wasn't random.  The Coke had been there the whole time.  Family gatherings, friendly visits.  My grandparents' house had always been stocked with cases of pop, but always and foremost Coca Cola.

Looking back now, it was clear.  The one constant through all the years was Coke.  It was the common thread that ran through every family gathering and stitched together a patchwork of generations.  I can't even begin to count the number of conversations, meals, arguments, board games, movies, sleep-overs, trips to the beach, holidays both religious and secular, and warm summer evenings that had been punctuated with small sips or long pulls of Coca Cola.  I suppose it was a hell of a legacy.  It wasn't healthy by any stretch of the imagination, its misuse having been linked as a contributor to issues such as obesity and tooth decay, and was only to be taken in small doses as an occasional treat if at all.  But as a symbol it was Pure.  It was a heritage of sorts.  It was the kind of heritage that was bought at a store, the only kind of heritage we have left and, really, the only one worth having.  If blood truly was (as the saying goes) thicker than water, then the blood that ran through my family's veins was a dark brown, carbonated, sugary-sweet liquid.  If we had a family crest, it would depict a red cylinder with the all too familiar white ribbon and accompanying text in that unmistakable font.    

Grandpa died at 7:00 this morning.

It was Wednesday.  It was another text from my youngest brother.  I'm not sure if he actually used the word "died" or how he phrased it exactly.  I'll leave the exact wording for the historians to decide.  I do know that though I supplied the last Coke, he shared in the final moments of the man's life.  A dubious honour, to be sure, but one he earned.  I felt no pang of petty jealousy at not having been there at the End.  His End.  I didn't know how to deal with death.  At least, not the death of another.  I wouldn't know what to say or where to look or how to Be.  

I know that for all the time I had with the man and for his fairly lengthy life span I now only wanted more.  More time.  More life.  I didn't want someone who had been there my whole life not to be there.  I didn't the burden of living passed to me and my generation.  Not yet.  His death made it abundantly clear that not only had I already inherited this strange and terrible gift but that I had been thoroughly squandering my inheritance for years now.  My grandfather had stories to tell.  What stories would I have for my grandchildren?  If only he had held on for another week.  Just one more week.  I could have told him about the new job that I got for the first time on my own merits.  Not just a job, but a career.  I could have told him that I'd finally made something of myself.  It was the start of something, hopefully a prelude to many more bigger and better somethings, but it was finally a modicum of success.  I finally pulled my shit together.  I could have told him about that part of his legacy.

But he never knew about any of that because instead he died on Wednesday, March 27, the day before my interview.  And now he'll never know about any of it.         

"Your name tag is on the table over there."

It was Monday.  As soon as I got to the funeral home and hung up my leather jacket the attendant or whatever the fuck he was called led me to the room where my grandfather's wake would be held.

What the fuck is this? I thought.  I wasn't some greasy-faced, shoulder-slouching, gum-sucking teenager working minimum wage at the corner store.  I was a grown man trying to mourn the loss of a loved one.  Why the fuck did I have to wear a name tag?  I was a grandson of the deceased.  I shouldn't need a name tag.  I had every right to be there.  It was all the other gawkers who came to stare at my grandfather's corpse who should have had to wear name tags.  Why the hell did I have to cater to all these fucking mouth-breathers.  How close could they have been to the man when they couldn't even be bothered to know - or even have a general idea about - his family?  If you didn't feel the need to bother knowing my name before the death my family member, then why would you be curious all of the sudden?  Who am I?  I'm the grieving relative; just shake my fucking hand and move on.  I don't mind people coming to pay their respects and trying to mitigate their own sense of mortality and whatnot, just don't try to comfort me with your pathetically false sympathy and meaningless platitudes.  You don't know what to say?  Then take Rambo's advice and don't say anything.

I remember the two most common things the long line of random strangers punctuated by the occasional familiar face kept telling me to try to comfort me.  First, that he didn't suffer long and second, that he lived a long, "full" life.  Intellectually, I understood what these people were trying to point out.  I understand that as far as tragedies go, the relatively quick death of an old man would not register high on the Greek Scale of Ultimate Tragedy.  But to me, these facts weren't comforting, because the simple fact is my grandfather is gone and he's not coming back.  The nature or timing of the occurrence did little to mitigate my feelings of loss.

That's not to say that I was completely crushed or emotionally crippled by his death.  Looking back on the whole thing, I realized that the very things that seemed to cause other people so much grief were the things that were comforting to me.  When we're young we tend to build up our parents and grandparents.  They seemed larger than life with pasts shrouded in mystery, almost like figures from Greek mythology.  Gods and heroes.  Then when they die, the world you thought you knew comes crashing down as you begin to realize that your gods and heroes are mere mortals.  Just men and women.  Like you.  It's sad, but it's also comforting in a way.  Seeing my grandfather lying in that hospital bed tired, alone, afraid, suffering was what was most comforting to me.  I saw, lying in that bed, just a man.  Like me.  Just a man full of all the same weaknesses and strengths and potential for great and terrible needs as me.  I realized that there were no more gods or heroes and that, to me, was comforting.    

But I couldn't articulate these thoughts to each passer-by.  At least, not in the few, brief, terribly awkward seconds we shared together before going our own separate ways again.  Besides, They didn't want that.  They wanted a quick and easy conveyor belt process.  They wanted the McDonald's version of grief.  We had industrialized the entire process.  Death was no longer a mystery.  Death was now a business.  It was no coincidence that at the wake our family stood in two lines on either side of the casket for people to come and shake our hands and tell us how "sorry" they were.  It was an Assembly Line of grief.  It was a quick, cheap way for people to come and experience a whole bouquet of emotional fragrances and leave feeling refreshed and unburdened.  Satan-forbid that you break the Line for any reason.  The whole Machine might fall apart.  I would have much rathered an informal mingling where people could just grab a beer and hang out with the people we actually wanted to hang out with.  But far be it for me to rock the boat.  I played my part and helped churn out satisfied mourner after satisfied mourner.              

"When you die do you lose your legs?"

My daughter's innocent question originated after seeing my grandfather in his coffin with only half the lid open.  I was impressed with her powers of observation and willingness to learn, but the question brought back memories.  In the hospital on what was to be his deathbed, I had finally seen my grandfather's legs uncovered for the first time that I could recall in all of my thirty-one years.  I remember how small and smooth they were.  Tiny.  Not an old man's legs at all.  A child's legs.  It was as if some part of the man had never been touched - hadn't been able to have been touched - by all of the shit and general wear and tear acquired by wading through everything life managed to throw at him.  He'd managed to hold onto something - for lack of a better word - Pure.

It's funny the things you notice.  All through the wake I would periodically look over at my grandfather.  The thing I remember most was the thing I had never noticed before.  We pick up on the copious little cues that a living entity gives us as to its State of Being.  These things become so ingrained that we tend to notice only their absence.  The thing I remember about my grandfather at his wake was his not breathing.  This seems like a fairly obvious observation, but the movement that occurs in a living animal from breathing is so subtle and so common that we take it for granted.  The tiny movements of the chest and shoulders, almost but not quite imperceptible to the naked eye.

"How do you encapsulate a life in a few short minutes?"

It was Tuesday.  I was at the funeral, and this time the words were mine.  I was standing at the front of the church addressing a meager crowd delivering what I had just learned was the Eulogy at my grandfather's funeral.  After my grandfather's death a few days earlier, I had mentioned to my mother that I would like to say "a few words" at the funeral if it was alright with my grandmother.  I didn't want to have an official title.  In situations like this, that kind of official designation seemed to distract from the real purpose.  I didn't want to be a Eulogist.  I just wanted to be a guy shooting the shit and sharing a few memories.  Maybe over a beer.  A fringe element; one among many that day.  But instead I became a part of the whole drama in one of my least favourite places.

The church -and especially that specific church where I had wasted so much time and energy in my youth- was now only a reminder of a person I thought I used to want to be before my mind was freed thanks to the twin deities of Logic and Reason and in a more general sense the negative effects that Fear and Ignorance could have on a human being.  It was my intention at one point to dramatically swear never to set foot in a church ever again, however, considering the slate of weddings and inevitable funerals that have come and are coming up I didn't want to be "that guy" and when I stopped to think about it, that was exactly the kind of closed-mindedness and exclusionary tactic that contributed to my loathing of any and all religious institutions to begin with.

Besides, in my role as Accidental Eulogist, I was afforded the singular pleasure of delivering a decidedly atheistic and secular eulogy in the house of the (a) lord surrounded by (fairly) true believers and even receiving many a compliment afterwards.  Of course, perhaps that sort of subtlety was lost on my audience considering the nature of the social gathering, and it wasn't like I was waving a giant red flag or hijacking the event to express my disdain for everything they professed to believe in.  I made explicit and sustained mention of the finality of death, how my grandfather was gone and not coming back, and that nobody knows what happens after death.  Perhaps it wasn't as blatant a "coming out" as I had worried it might seem, though the pastor seemed to pick up on my theological stance (or lack thereof) as in his "sermon" he directly referenced and responded to several points I made.

It was then I realized that the clergy are trained and become experts in a very specific sort of rhetorical analysis specifically related to sniffing out potential challenges to the dogmas and doctrines and their own religious authority.  It was kind of satisfying in a way that the pastor -whose own speech proved that he had (at best) a cursory knowledge of my grandfather, which was to say none at all- and I were engaging in this secret Battle of Wills in full view of an otherwise oblivious audience.  Though we were both there to honour the life of my grandfather, we were also engaged in a Silent War.  And although his position in the program allowed this pastor to have the last word -another clever rhetorical strategy- and in his own mind claim the victory, I drew immense pleasure from challenging him on his own turf and putting him on the defensive.

"I can't tell you about death.  But I can tell you about life.  Each life is connected..."

I was almost done.  It was my own (not so) subtle atheistic version of immortality, full of easily accessible tropes about how each life affects the ones around it, and so on and so forth, so that the specifics may fade, but the effects/affects of a single life would be felt forever, and yadda, yadda, yadda. "The world will know... that few stood against many"-type deal.  Nothing too original.  I thought of recording my grandfather's eulogy here for posterity sake, but in the end I (mostly) decided against it, though I did cannibalize parts of it for this work.  But all I had really written was point form notes, a skeleton which I clothed in flesh and brought to life in that specific time and in that specific place, and to try to recreate it here would do no justice to the speech or to the man.

Perhaps the most difficult image for me was the sight of the hearse driving off with its gruesome cargo after the service.  As a pallbearer I was front and centre as they drove away, and throughout the whole process the closest I came to losing it publicly was watching the hearse drive off.  I suppose it was the finality of the scene.  That was the end of the whole thing.  Everything from that point forward would be, for Michael J. McAuley merely epilogue.

As for the rest of the story, that remains to be seen.