Wednesday, October 12, 2011


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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Where Art Thou, Hester Prynne? Occupied Street, Unoccupied Mind

It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude after own own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

-- Self Reliance, Emerson

(top to bottom)  Occupy Wall Street slogan, witchcraft symbol, Sean Hannity, 99% protester, Barack Obama, Tea Party sign
At a certain period of human history, one which we today label 'the dark ages', women of an unfavorable social standing were burned at the stake, executed based on the popular consensus that they practiced black magic in service of His Unholy Majesty Below. Popular consensus. The law largely vanished in the West with Great Britain passing the Witchcraft Act of 1735. When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, hysteria over witches was largely diminished, yet the worldview which legally prosecuted individuals on hearsay of supernatural prowess was still enough intact for Hawthorne to organize the fundamental structure of his plot and the plight of his protagonist, Hester Prynne, upon the mob mentality of 17th century New England communities.

For me, I remember The Scarlet Letter first and foremost not for its place in American literary history, but for Hester Prynne. I see her daily. She is the customer service rep at the airport, taking universal blame from commuters for flight delays. She waits tables during the morning rush hour, and getting 50 cents in tips all morning because the cook is drunk and messing up the orders. She looms in execution chambers, files up and down death row in Georgia, maybe in Italy courtrooms too. She's the child of abusive alcoholics, the ghost that's haunted middle school student council and congressional election campaigns since the advent of elections or campaigns. And she does not always inhabit the blameless commoner. She's also President Obama. She's the whole of Congress, she's Andy Reid, she's even the slimiest of Wall Street executives. Hester Prynne is anyone who receives ill-informed assault and battery of character, based upon theatrical shouting, mindless emotion, and most of all - mob mentality.

Here in America the common consensus is that politicians in the 21st century get nothing done. An increasing number of people agree that Democrat and Republican alike, Congressmen are out for themselves first, and their primary campaign strategy is to play popularity contest over rational discourse. This is an astute observation. Yet what have we the people taken to this firestorm? We charge into the political arena with blowtorches and gasoline, leveling accusations and claims no more informed, no more even-handed, no less baseless, than the same madness which attends "conversation" between competing candidates. We tune into Fox News and MSNBC and pay news reporters with less journalistic integrity than Perez Hilton to pander to our biases and arm us with the necessary talking points to choose between the lesser of two evils.

We set the model for our politicians, and they set the model for us. It is a ceaseless and circumambient cycle doomed to repeat itself indefinitely, unless we have the maturity to change our worldview.

This is democracy, many will say of Occupy My Soul protests. This is what America was founded upon. Freedom of individuals motivated by passion and an unerring sense of the rightness of their cause. But what was James Madison saying in Federalist Number 10, when he warned us of the dangers of factions, if not the dangers of the witch-hunt, the value of the popular sentiment based on its popularity? "A pure democracy (direct democracy) can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction," Madison wrote in 1787. "A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party." This is why our government is not run by rule of majority opinion; our very Constitution was defended and instituted in large part due to the corrupting influence of factions and mobs. And yet when it comes time to affect change, the only people who seem to be successfully arguing for constructive discourse are comedians, and large groups of intelligent individuals are doing something akin to fighting the Great Chicago Fire with napalm. And amidst the inferno, I see the charred husk of Hester Prynne burning at the stake.

And how does that differ from any large committed mob in world history? The legions which stormed the Bastille in the French Revolution deposed a barbaric monarchy by guillotining the nobility. Streets run red with blood regardless the governing regime and we are forced to ask, what is the difference? The question is one that could be applied to the annals of time. Each kingdom claims a right to justice just as each cause does; one replaces the next and we are blinded to their identical nature by their newness, their apparent freshness; a faux-virginity that is but a veil to disguise their thoughtless source. Today hundreds of thousands march to the tune of a drummer directly descended from a long line of witch-hunts and communist trials.

Americans whose political memory or history education reaches back a few decades should remember that one of the primary reasons Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy was the sweat beading down his forehead during a debate which, by all critical accounts, he handily won. We live in a nation - the greatest on earth, no less - where vain and shallow popularity contests have long held sway over our destinies. And we allow that. We permit that. We see ourselves as people with no power. The world acts upon us, we do not act upon the world. We feel so powerless that we are deluded into believing the only way we can have our sentiments heard is to join a Faction that has no logical expectation, no definite goal, no researched answer, no idea of mature negotiation. And we actually believe that marching in a mob of people shouting into megaphones and waving signs in the name of such a Faction is some kind of representation of our democratic, American right.

Yes, that is our right. It is our right in the same way that it is the right of a child to smack its head into a brick wall next to the swingset when given free reign of the playground. And of course corrupt Wall Street CEO's are to blame for our economic crises. As are the President and Congress. And maybe Wendy-Sue had something to do with the eggs at Mr. Johnson's table being sunnyside up instead of over-easy. Yelling at her isn't going to change a thing. Because in the end, the social pressure of these movements is a kind of witchcraft all to itself, asserting influence over even the most brilliant and reasoned minds, high school dropouts and college professors alike. That this black magic, pandering to petty egos and the modern mind that has patience for naught but instant gratification, should be allowed to permeate our individual genius, that it takes but one finger to be leveled at some Hester Prynne of the political-economic spectrum, is directly reflective of the clownish acrobatics that attend the election process itself. Like Luke we go into the dark of the cave armed to the teeth, thinking to strike down Vader when truly - truly it is ourself. We are precisely what we claim to hate.

In 2011 it should no longer be deemed acceptable to allow the future of our nation to be controlled by the sort of unproductive, cowardly, pandering mania that runs it today. Real, constructive change of the worldview that has brought us to this state will never occur from a large group of shouting citizens hiding in the shadow of their neighboring protester, letting raw emotion dictate action, consume discourse. It will come from individuals who, uncorrupted, hold within them the power of a thousand mobs. It will come from individuals with the serenity to to sit down and have a conversation with someone whose opinions are intensely opposite to their own. And perhaps most relevantly, most importantly, with the 2012 election just around the corner: it will come from individuals who rock the education, before they dare unleash that wolf in sheep's clothing that is rock the vote.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Hell and Back Again: A Woodsman's Tale

Satan’s home had become God’s own temple.
Paul Schullery, Searching for Yellowstone (1997)

At the edge of the thicket I turned. Thick mud ran up my boot as I planted, listened. Far away between the mountains and the clouds there was the lake, floating platelike, serene and blue, beneath the wispy cumulus. And then came the sound again: the gradually increasing beating of drums, up and up and up to a fever pitch that echoed through the valley like the warring gong of some primal army announcing its vengeful intention. The echo lingered there in the soil at my foot, the way a touch may linger on your skin long after the touch itself, and I listened to it still till its portentousness dimmed and then faded to memory. It was the third time I had paused to hear it.

You are imagining it, I said to myself.

The forest is speaking to you, myself said back.

With the fading portent of the war drums came other sounds to replace it, hymnals of the forest that, like opening fanfare, welcomed our rugged dozen conservation crew leaders into the Lee Metcalf wilderness for trails training. Somewhere there was the trickle of water, dribbling inchwide perhaps down steps of mossy rocks; the trees, now growing thick, rustled proudly their new springtime leaves in the light breeze. Smaller birds chirped and whistled tunes of pleasant surprise, of coming peace. And the sound of our footfalls on the wet dirt trail, heavy beneath sixty, seventy pound packs, completed the wistful melody. There came to me the inevitable sense that I was in the presence of something at once holy and incomprehensible. Spots of sunlight glittered through the trees, lit the trail in sprinkles of yellow dots, and drums forgotten we marched onward to camp.


Hours waned and the sun rose to its zenith in the sky. Six of us stood on the side of the slope, sweating and cursing and laughing a little maniacally at the few hundred odd pounds of food latched to the tangled climbing rope that lay in the grass between the two great spruces. Their thick branches stood stock still in the wind, as though immune, frowning quizzically at the failed enterprise at their foot.

We have been at this for two hours too long, someone said. This is the fourth place we've tried to get this thing to work.

At this point, let the bear have it, chorused through the hillside.

For a time longer we mired at the task at hand, climbing high up each tree and rearranging branches and ropes for weight distribution and sturdiness, and soon we were ready to try again. We all gathered by the untied end, and with a dozen hands on the rope we heaved. Slowly in miniscule increments the load lifted into the hot Montana air, the brightly colored food bags wavering improbably against the a panel of white cloud.

Sweating and breathing audibly now with tightened forearms we yanked. For a moment it appeared as though the load would rise, the bags wiggling slightly off the line with our pressure. Then came the sound of a crisp snap; the pressure was released, the bags crashed to the ground, and the six of us were shot backwards down the slope.

I remember laughing hard, harder than I had in recent memory, laying back on the long waving grasses and looking at the sky which looked in back grimly and neutral and then laughing at that too. I remember dimly shifting my spot, of the others beginning to argue over the next step, and then of the crack and the hiss of the bear spray as it shot from my hip, coating my leg and wrist and safety glasses.

For a moment everything was perfectly clear. I stood up and removed the bear spray from my hip and backed away slowly from the others. Probably stay away from me, I said.

Annie came with me down the slope and to the creek. For a moment I thought about laughing, the way I had laughed when the rope snapped, not at the failure necessarily, but at the absurdity of our effort and the ensuing futility, and if for no other reason than for laughing for laughter's sake, because how else to address the fickle quirks of existence, the temperamental hinges upon which fate swings to and fro? Consider the exact series of events that brings about any great or terrible or important moment in your life, and then remove just a single one of those elements, and suddenly you are no longer you, but some other stranger that will never exist due to the dictums of random chance and circumstance. So I did laugh and grin a little as we went down to the creek, not because I could have been blinded truly, but because I was not, because for the thousandth time catastrophe had brushed my edges and for the thousandth time a part of me I did not know had dodged.

In the little gorge I dunked my burning wrist into the icy creek, squatting in the mud and patches of grass that interrupted the brief flow. Thistles tugged persistent at the exposed place between my boot and the cuff of my pants, almost pulling, as if to lure me off the bank and to the darker places. A sudden sunshower spat down from the blue sky. An attempt to be cute, idyllic, innocent. Kneeling there, the stench of the spray thick on the crisp air, the drumming noise began again.

I could die here, I thought to myself , a little sardonic, a little manic. There was no response.


Galelike and apocalyptic the winds roared down through the valley, driving up the rain and hail and collected sediment into a vicious horizontal force that seemed to proclaim a final judgment upon the workers of the land. Thick fog rendered the rest of the slope more than twenty yards distant in foggy obscurity. Hooded and helmeted figures loomed in that mist, heaving picks into the dark earth, teeth bared and eyes blazoned grimly beneath dropletcoated safety glasses. Movements betrayed moods; the slow lethargic arc of the spirit being crushed by the storm stood side by side with the methodical madness of one that had yet weathered the depravity.

Lunchtime came. We paused only if to stay in vain keeping with the order and schedule and sanity that we had tried to bring with us from without the wild. Eating seemed a lame ritual now; already some dim part of me would have rather dropped my tool at a later hour on a whim and scoured the mountainside for a fresh meal. I even considered it, the sight and smell and taste of the nickelscented air racing through my lungs as I tore through the brush in search of impossibilities ancient to my kind. In forest daydreams I run with lions and hunt bull moose with a pocketknife. I followed it till I was alone there on the trail in the mist at lunchtime, and there were voices calling me.

I hiked up the slope and into the trees after the others and found my drenched sack in the failed cover of spruce branches. I pulled out a large slimy ziploc baggie which contained some grayish-red and gelatinous organlike substance that had, at one point, four days of sunlight and two days of hurricane ago, been considered six peanut butter and jelly tortillas. Shivering and nibbling and gagging I held the substance in my dirtgristled fingers and ate away the fury of my imagination.


At a brief respite from the storm, Mark and Heidi from the Forest Service led a meaning of service discussion on Billy Collins' poem The History Teacher:

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.
And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.
The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"
The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.
The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,
while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

I did not want to say what I truly thought. That it was strange and even cruel irony to hear that poem amidst those pines and amidst that seeming judgment raining down. That the idea that all nature could be less good than evil had haunted me since the moment almost two years ago I set out to see the world alone. That we could clear out and even transport into the backcountry the goods that fill the material shrines dedicated to weathering the wild: REI, Cabelas, LL Bean, Base Camp; and still there would be an element to that uncivilized air that could penetrate any gear to permeate any soul. And finally that perhaps this was knowledge that should not be conveyed to the next generation, to children, even to members of our crews. Because who volunteers to conserve hell?


After the workday the rain slowed to a drizzle and the eye of the tempest seemed to settle itself on the mountainside. It imparted in that furious calm an ominous quality, the way silence pervades a locker room before a championship, the way calmness may inhabit the corridors of an executioner's lair: the perhaps nostalgic recollection of all that has gone before and the grim foreknowledge that you stand upon the brink of a thing that must end. So I decided to go run.

Out of camp, out the thin dirt path that arced through the prairie and back into the forest where the lodgepoles were laden with droplet-heavy branches and the trails were more puddle than earth, slippery like fine ice, this sense of seething doom, of fate momentarily attenuated, was held in the air thicker yet. We ran on our toes, Adam and I, just to stay upright, stumbling and sliding almost as much as running, past trees more ancient than the concept of trails themselves and in the fresh pawprints of what was guessed to be an adult Ursus arctos.

At points the trail opened into meadows, and trusting my footfalls for the thousandth time to the fate of the never-even ground below, I looked out from the ridges to the other mountainsides across the valley. The armies of frost-tipped ferns gently reclined with the slope, the ancient andosite bluffs volcano-shaped and framed in a wispy background of steadily progressing cumulus. Remote and vacant places where ghosts of bears and lions and bears and lions may lurk, where fanged creatures long since extinct have walked more recently than man. With infinite ease I became lost in detail, in the way you become lost watching dogs play, in observing the darker spaces between the trees and the truths they held, truths whose nobility became less unassailable the longer I ran and breathed and slept and sweat and bled there on the mountain, an unwitting supplicant to an ever unfolding mystery.

When we reached the sagebrush plateau where we had parked the rigs, Adam and I split. We were short on food for dinner and I piled into three boxes as many tortillas and extra snacks as I could hope to hold. I paused for a moment there, kneeling on the dry leather of the seats and breathing the warm and stale air inside the vehicle. I paused a moment more than I would have liked to. Through the tinted back window there was a flash of lightning somewhere in the range far to the north, and from that perspective, halfsheltered there in the back of the truck on top of the plateau, the coming sky was absolutely black, in imminent collision with the sunless steady gray that had pervaded during the eye. I shut the doors quickly, gathered up the food in the crook of my elbows like two footballs, and dashed back into the woods.

You were really pretty happy to see those cars, a voice said in my head as I ran.

I really don't want to talk about it, I said back.


In midmorning darkness our crews labored away. The temperature hovered at thirty-five, drizzle having turned to rain and freezing rain and now sleet. What had once been a misty mysterious (and perhaps to some) enchanting fog had become an impenetrable miasma, relegating workers to corridors of constantly shrinking visibility. The sound of the rain and the incessant war drums drowned out conversation and at times I knew only by blind faith that anyone remained with me on the trail at all.

We worked till rumors of hypothermia began to circulate and we quit at noon, nearly everyone returning to their tents in hopes of dreaming away the cold and the wet. Sleep becomes a strange thing in the woods. It is required not so much for rest as it is for escape. Rarely do I know right away where I am when I wake up, all my dreams sourced from places so far distant and so differently shaped that the morning reality is always unclear and foreign. Yet there is something soothing in the opacity it offers, the even momentary ambiguity that all is not as it seems. There is always a part of the true woodsman spirit that craves that sanctuary, even if it may express itself in different ways.

When I came to our communal shelter, a ripped and ravaged piece of tarp strung loosely between the flagging branches of two trees, Jake was the only person that remained there. He sat rigidly immobile and crosslegged, his hands on his knees, his eyes shadowy beneath hood and winter cap, watching the wind move the grass.

Welp, he said, This sucks.

We were to make dinner that evening by five. Some interminable number of hours remained until then and I settled down under the tarp and began to watch the grass too. Jake began describing the symptoms of hypothermic victims and then started to exhibit them himself as he was talking. It was unclear whether he was example or victim and I didn't trust my brain to make the distinction. Time waned. We quoted Star Wars for hours.

I wish we had a taun-taun to cut open, I said.

This may smell bad kid, he said, But it'll keep you warm.

I wouldn't care what I smelled, I said.

From the one time I was there, I don't even remember Hoth being this cold, he said.

This soon morphed into picking which Star Wars character each of our coworkers fit best. When we finished we swore to each other to keep the conversation to ourselves (we broke that promise as soon as people started showing up for dinner). Whenever we became too present in the moment the cold settled, the dampness piercing our jackets and freezing against our skin and the wind cutting through tarp and layer upon layer of clothing straight to the core. So we willfully inhabited the past and the future, living memories and hopes aloud and silent, and then began to play the game of the things we would do to keep warm, which rapidly deteriorated to punchdrunk incoherence. Somewhere in there the rain turned to snow.

Oh, I said, nodding to the frost now coating the valley, It looks as though hell actually is freezing over.

I have to go the bathroom so bad, Jake said, But I highly doubt I'll survive. Assuming I can unzip my pants.

I'd probably just go in the dinner pot, were I you, I said. Like in old times.

Is that what happened in old times? he asked.

Jake left to go relieve himself. It seemed right to start dinner then and I sat shivering and fiddling with the stubborn lighter, fingers numb and swollen and bloody and filthy and unworking and watching the quinoa sit there in the plastic bags, hardened and notcooked and seeming even to condescend a starchy frown at my futile effort. You are not doing very well, I said to myself, when even the quinoa begins to take on a personality.

Jake returned, paler and soggier and lankier yet, the sleeves of his coat soaked and dangling past his hands, his lips purpling now, though it could've just been my blindness. Hey Justin, he said, as he ducked under the flap of the tarp. I think I figured out why there are so many bones of dead things all over the place

I snatched the bait; Jake is a master of all things fauna, surely there was some ecological quirk here that I could write about later.

Oh yeah? Why?

He hesitated not a second, his voice rising suddenly above the gale like a preacher declaring to all his eager parish: Because this is a barren, godless place where nothing lives ever! We're in hell and we never should have come! The freaking grouse doesn't beat its wings as a mating call or as self defense but as a warning to get the hell out and stay the hell out!

And then, though the storm howled like a beast composed of all creation, and the snow and the sleet and the hail and the rain slapped the tarpulin like bullets, and though the mountains funneled the fury of creation into our beaten valley, that sound of drumming emerged again from peak to valley floor, a steadily building resonance answering and affirming Jake's declarations.

In a way I had known all along that it was a small bird that made this noise. But that didn't really change anything.


The rest of the night was a blur. I vaguely recall marching out a mile down the trail we were constructing with a few others to retrieve our tool cache for our departure the next morning. I remember the almost funny way your shins feel, when your feet are numbed into blocks of notflesh and you are only vaguely sure they are touching the ground at all. I remember putting on muddy and frozen work gloves and glasses whose fogginess didn't matter because you couldn't see two feet in front of your face anyway. I had become stripped to my absolute self, barren even of the simplest and most innocuous of creature comforts: 20/20 vision. And I remember carrying three picks, a pulaski and a handsaw and dropping them and picking them up and dropping them again into the muddy slush. There were screams and shouts of terror or laughter or both, my ability and desire to distinguish them long since gone.

We have progressed to the sixth circle of hell, I said. I didn't know what the sixth was and I don't think I even knew if anyone was behind me. I was just talking.

I understood that just like running, the mountains do not take their toll on you by the brunt of their force. It is a long and slow accumulation, the ceaseless repetition, the endless unassailable force of a thing that refuses to diminish. It is not the 20 mile Sunday run that makes a runner a runner, it is the three-hundred and sixty four days of doing it all over again. And it is not any one storm, any one night, which forges the soul of the woodsman, it is the lingering storm that rushes like a river, ceaseless and indomitably willed, until you are callused or until you are destroyed.

All this, yet I and everyone I am with is soon to return.


Maybe I'm not old enough yet. When all was said and done and we returned to the world there was time for it all to marinate. And now when I close my eyes there is no white-out. The nickelscented air that lingers at the heart of the most wicked tempest beckons me off trail all the more powerfully for its bitterness, into the darker places, to chapels of the barren plain, synagogues amidst the flaky schist where timberline has vanished into fog, mosques at the densest and deepest forest places; not without fear, never without fear, but absolutely and without reservation.

The sun glints shapes and figures off the rugged turbulence of a dozen rivers; this is the scripture I read. For priest, rabbi, shiek, shaman, I have myself.

And so does anyone. Like Luke you go guideless into the black of the cave beneath the old willow tree and you emerge with more than you entered with. Hymnals range the spectrum of sound, the silences of the crushing dark, the tranquil songs of streams in summer, music not of praise or worship but only of being. Prayer is a matter of breathing, not kneeling. There is no distinction between the secular and the pious, between being and benediction. You could call it a sort of zen, but there is no confuddling or corrupting social history. Rituals do not stray from life necessities for they are not of a separate piece. Legends and ghosts from nations and kingdoms and oceans away and long since lost are so many Ozymandias', memories rightly lost to the natural oxidization of time. Instead of worldly luxuries, of which there are none to sacrifice, we give up sweat and blood. Instead of abject worship or prostration of self before some terrible unknowable power, I simply become a part of the thing that I used to be. The thing that I came from. We need no elegant or archaic prose to champion our cause, or martyrs to eulogize and evangelize the world to our faith. The world will recognize what is sacred for itself, if only given the chance to search.

And still I would never deny, hell could be found in a thousand places in the wild bowels of our earth. Damn me now.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Cold November slush and mud coated his calves as Walter tore up and down the back hills. Some of the runners were coming back to him now. He ran in a blind fury, dumb and animal like and unconscious of his pain, tearing in air as he flew by the other boys one by one by one slowly and slowly in the dark dunsplattered woods. Leaves of brilliant autumnal pastels tore underfoot, his spikes tearing into the earth and flicking the loose wet gravel back and up his pulsing calf and into the eyes of the boys behind him. He came to a final incline and then a long flat, and in the flat the long line of runners ahead of him and behind him stretched across the gray light and drizzle and to the bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway beyond. Redfaced, deep in oxygen debt, his mania heightened. There were still too many people. There were still so many people. Cross country racing as he understood it was the gradual tortured process of attaining independence and solitude. Yet there had been so many that had started so fast the first mile, and he had forced that unnatural patience (so lauded by books and coaches and even certified by logic yet still unnatural) to govern and contain his early strides.

Countless hours comprised each step, ten sunburnt summer miles behind each breath, dashing over concrete and trail and track envisioning each time these very dark and damp forest corridors, these very winding quadburning hallows, a hundred pushups for every second spent on an incline, a year's worth of early nights and broken toenails and missed dates and appointments and assignments, all, so he believed right then, for roughly fifteen minutes spent on the bitter edge of sanity in a park in New York City.

He crossed the parkway and made the right hand turn down the long and steep hill and sidled up along the brush and the trees and sprinted down with the momentum of the hill. He demanded room be made for oxygen in compartments that had long since ceased to have room to spare. In a rush the other boys slipped behind him one by one by one, and then yet more came into view, as in a race car game that endlessly invents faster opponents as the skill of the driver augments. Deeply into his lungs Walter heaved the frosty latefall air. The roar of the crowd came from ahead as the runners were expelled from the woods and onto Van Cortland Park's legendary finishing straight.

The cinder path arced around the fields, the banners of the finish only just visible in the moiling fog and drizzle. The fans and coaches and other athletes lined the path and Walter hugged the turn so tightly that some of the spectators issued in irrelevant sibilance warnings to back away. And still he passed them, one by one by one. Tall boys, loping boys, struggling boys, muscular boys, suspiring needy breaths and approaching and shying from their threshold, crumbling at the sight of the homestretch, the deceivingly distant finish. And the line of them still vanished into the fog, ten at least, probably closer to twenty, some dying and some only just striking, and some like Walter manic and crazed in the eye like a rabid dog gathering itself for a final display of frothy viciousness before death.

Though his conscious mind made no logical connections, though he did not for even a second consider that the world of his childhood, the emotions that had fueled his youthful passions, were powering this very hysteria, there was nonetheless evident in his every step the desperation of someone who has spent more than he can afford to not win back on a single task.

He began to tighten, his legs like glue hardening and contracting, the rapid turnover of his steps limber and athletic in the cold slushy cinders beginning to fade and diminish and slow as he breached his oxygen capacity. And then it was a different boy who came alongside him and sidled past him, equally irreverent and equally manic, and went on to the next boy ahead with the same calculated indifference. And it was Walter who slipped now, slowing into anonymity, straining futilely and watching without recompense a few more go by him, before the timestopping agonies of the penultimate steps passed and the finish line relieved his furor.

The gray day swam in his vision; someone put his hands on the bony shoulders of the boy in front of him, and soon he felt grimy paws on his own shoulders, and as if in some perverse congo line they traipsed together through the finishing chute. Walter dry heaved to the side, felt his stomach convulse again and retched out dry notair into the latefall bitterness. A card was placed in his hand that had the number 16 scrawled across it in black marker.

Without knowing what he was doing he exchanged frozen halfembraces with the other anonymities that had finished before him, after him, that happened to moil in nausea or an endorphin-crazed affability in his general vicinity. Coach came up to him and shook his hand.

That's not too bad, he said. Not too bad at all.

Walter dry heaved again and cursed. Coach shook his head and slapped his shoulder and started to walk away.

I've never lost a race that bad in my life, Walter said.

Coach turned, his form blurry in the postrace haze and the mist and the runners passing between them vomiting on the grass and stumbling and limping their recoveries about.

Well, he said, turning briefly and nodding to the wounded, Neither have they.

Coach moved on. Walter put his hands on his slushfroze kneecaps, felt the hot blood boiling in his legs beneath his numbed fingers. His neck joined other necks, dozens of other necks, spines supine to the sky, spitting or bleeding or cussing violently to the tundra, searching in that frantic state of heightened and unreasonable emotion for some answer, some reassurance, some mitigation to the raw truth all too evident in that massed collection of bodies, that unfamiliar postrace company.

And as more and more necks joined the fray, as the exit from the triage swelled steadily with the bodies of the countless hundreds yet incoming, there did seem to move within that rolling fog and mist the palpable presence of a generation of kindred spirits, their dreams held still in that same warground soil which had seen their undoing. For it is a truth universal among runners that each must one day run the race that tells them they are more than they thought they were, and each must run the race which tells them they are not (and never will be) what had they dreamed they could become. And though these wraiths knew better than to laugh, they did grin slightly, knowing, perhaps, what was to come to those who had the serenity to take wisdom from the brutality of finishing less than best.

Song of the Day: My Body is a Cage by Arcade Fire

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Magic City Blues

A cold wind was gusting up the street and gathering scattered Billings refuse, whipping between the buildings with a sibilant fury. It was the kind of cold you feel in your lungs, the kind that hurts to touch directly. The kind that gangrene will take, if you let it.

The old Crow Indian was staring unblinkingly into the gusts and the trash which they carried. Scarred face and ratted old gray hair worn by and callused to the brutality in that air, air which settled like a glaucoma in the shivering bodies outside McCormick's Cafe. With curved and mangled fingers the old Indian shakily lit a cigarette and huffed in, then spoke without introduction.

My greatgrandfather was a chief on the Crow reservation, he said, nodding. Yes mhmm. He was there on through 1910.

When he spoke his words sounded ancient and seemed to age him older still. His eyes were pale razors, blue and sharp and exacting, focusing for a few moments on each of us in an almost rote fashion. They were not so much accusatory as guilting, as if in an effort to invoke some truth that in a just world should have been self evident and which he was disappointed he had to explain.

See that rock over there, he nodded his head to the formation jutting out from the Rimrocks which girded the city. That is called Suicide Rock. When the Europeans came and gave the Crow smallpox, they would leap from that rock to their deaths, rather than suffer out their disease.

While he spoke the old shopkeep had come out from McCormick's and stood with balded head and frowning face at the fringe of the group. Something in the Crow's tone or his confrontational disposition was an affront to the shopkeep and perhaps even to the group. Heads turned away from the emotion of his words and the gravity of their implication. Some kind of fear lurks above any sentiment too real; this Crow was no exception.

Javier, the shopkeep said curtly, Vamonos. Que no son bienvenidos. You know you can't be here.

Yeah yeah, Javier grumbled, and turned stiffly away. He waved one of his mangled claws broadly at the group watching before turning and limping away down the road.

Sorry about Javier, said the shopkeep. I've caught him dealing meth on this very doorstep. He always comes when he sees new faces.

It's alright, I said quickly.

We left in the opposite direction. The freezing wind gusted up the long industrial Billings streets, seeming to push out or to freeze out whatever it encountered, succeeding only in veneering everything with a crisp iciness, the sort of iciness that could slice flesh to the bone when the thermometer read (as it did on that morning) negative ten. As we walked back to the trucks I looked up to the Rimrocks and pictured the diseased Indians pitching off the edge in endless droves, killed as much by the killing virus as by the piles of bodies that lured and beckoned with promises of an oblivion that knew no Lewis and knew no Clark, a vacuum unimbued by settlers or settler thoughts, a sanctuary of nothingness from the heretical debauchery which swept through land and man alike. And for a moment through the bitter grayness it was as though something wraithlike in the ancient bluffs seemed to demand justice, as clearly as that grizzled and drugtorn shadow of a man spending the coin of his lifeforces lurking about coffee shops and alleyways. A gust of wind shivered down the trashblown streets again and I huddled my shoulders into that wicked air. It is times like these that I am glad to have left my jacket at home.

A Brief Engagement in the Pennsylvania Dutchlands

There is no such thing as virginity...Purity is a negative state. 
-Mr. Compson from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury

Becky comes out into the dusk. Cornstalks rustle as the sharp wind undulates over the land and into the gravyblue of the sky distant. Goosebumps pimple her chilled body through her dirtstained white dress. A shiny silver ring glimmers on her finger. Dinner sets heavy within her. Night is coming.

She does not walk far from the house. Ten steps down the crusted freeze of the roosterpath tundra the clatter of the dishes fades into the rural silences. About her the stripped bushes and the naked branches of the trees are whipped about into frenzy by the gusts. She does not squint or wince to that tempest. It even seems to caress her. It runs the trajectory of her high cheekbone and sharp jaw. It smoothes the line of her hair back. It writes a healthy ruddy hue upon her olive skin. As though the elements had composed the girl kindly, the dark evidence of their truer natures rattling the windows behind her, scouring over the land to seek unsheltered life and snuff it out. A Fedallah to this as yet unwitting and as yet unprovoked Ahab.

By the edge of the woods where the forest meets the cropfield there is a stump. Mossdecayed, rotting, hard like a block of steel in the winter bone. There she sits crosslegged and without hesitation, the wind blowing back her hair and jetstreaming her jawline and perhaps even forming that self-assured expression of her closed mouth. An expression that seems to doubt its appointed task but not how that task must be done: the bear that is dusklight voyeur to the mountain lion's fresh kill.

She sits there and watches how the gray clouds, in holding the final imprint of the light from the day, in bestowing their swirling gusts with a knifelike chill, wash like turkey gravy over the navy of the young sky. In fusion they seem to say something to her, something of the nature of liminal moments.

Becky had emerged from the womb a lonesome child, made brotherless seventeen years past by that pubescent plight of all thoughtful young country boys who take books too seriously. She did not know about him until she was seven. She made friends with a girl in school who had four older brothers. The other girl told her all about what a brother was. One day, sitting on the old dead stump, Becky asked her mother what she thought a brother was.

Why? her mother asked.

Just cause, Becky said through her braces.

That is not an answer.

Just cause mamma. Everyone says something different about everything.

And that was how Becky found out about her brother Moses. Her brother Moses, hidden from Becky until now, born when her mother was but sixteen, born in a barn on a bed of hay because Becky's father scorned modern medicine, born into the screams and wails of a suburban teen who had thought picking apples would be a romantic job one summer and got a baby in her belly because of it, born into the arms of that very father, preacher of alternative medicine, library bedecked with Kesey and Ginsberg and Whitman and Kerouac but not Flaubert or Goethe, owner of an apple farm and father to a baby from a girl who had once felt, when lost in the woods on a school field trip to Loyalsock State Forest, such a total enervation of spirit and pleasant silence of mind, that she swore to work towards the reattainment of that wildernessborne ecstasy forevermore. It was from such a womb, into such a pair of hands, that the child Moses was born. From such a womb, into such hands.

Though young, Becky's mother performed her tasks in what most would have called an admirable manner. She married Becky's father immediately and took little Moses for long walks on the apple farm during the day when it was not raining. At night when her husband went into the basement to get high, she would set Moses down between her knees by the fire and read to him parts of her favorite stories. She read to him of Arwen and Aragorn, of O. Henry's Jim and Della, later of Odysseus and Penelope; finely selected bellywarming treatises of fantasy from the world's most vivid imaginariums. When Moses was old enough he read too, of great travels, of adventure, of love and sacrifice and good living. All this his father encouraged, all this his mother adored.

Accordingly, Moses grew into a young man of a precocious idealism, the depths of which his parents could have never imagined. This was not a little helped by his saturation into Judeo-Christian culture. Invocations of guilt infected his high school life daily; altruistic sentiments of sacrifice appealed to him far more than what was normal for a youth his age. Though he publicly spurned all institutionalized dogmatism with the flair of a wartime orator, he took to heart and to practice the ideals to which he was exposed. And his love of literature only burned deeper as he grew. He voraciously read Ernest Hemingway. His favorite was For Whom the Bell Tolls. His least favorite was The Sun Also Rises. When pressed by his teacher, he said that he did not find weakness to be very motivational. Nothing is stopping Brett, Moses said. Nothing is stopping Jake. Even worse, Becky's mother reflected (in telling this story), Moses found it funny when Tom Sawyer says to Huck Finn, when Huck wants to set Jim free by stealing the key to his jail cell, Why, hain’t you ever read any books at all? Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that? Moses had laughed at that part. Moses was Tom. Tom in a later era, an era which charged for such lofty sentimentality a far more lasting price than a single bullet to the leg.

Things could have gone no other way. The first love which idle chance inflicted upon Moses was illfated from the instant of its inception. The girl was Pegeen O'Reilly, a classmate, born of the countryside the same as him, purported to be a lover of books the same as him. She of course had a soft, gentle way about her. Her wide, pale eyes seemed in constant peril of being swallowed by the rushing swells of their own skyblue innocence. He glowed in the attention she turned on him, in their childlike games, in a sweet intimacy with another person which he had never really considered possible. He would meet her by moonlight in the country between their farms, sneaking out his window and dashing over the dark verdure hills, a book of poetry tucked under his arm like a runningback, a note for her tucked deep in the folds of his jacket. The illicit nature of their union, the embers of romantic rebellion in his chest that had, since opening his first book, yearned to be kindled, and coupled with the pastoral beauty of the Pennsylvania Dutchlands, made their seemingly blossoming love a perfect storm of catastrophe.

Moses' lifelong search for an ideal to defend had come to an abrupt halt. Never before had he been so alive. It became his sworn duty to defend at all costs the glimmer he had seen in Pegeen's eyes. He called it the skyblue, in the journal he kept. As if this comparison, this name, described her precious quality better than any photograph, any essay, any other description ever could. A simile is worth a thousand words. What could compare to that sort of sweetness and innocence, other than the endless light azure of the sky on a pleasant day. He knew no better than to wax such mawkish cliches; in fact, that he knew no better was the point. He quickly and effortlessly came to do all of his thinking in such lofty language, saying it aloud and proudly to anyone bold enough to broach the subject of love or lust. His life had become reorganized around this priority, and the weight of commonplace tasks vanished, like dust swept from an object long inert.

In all true stories, Becky's mother said, there is a wrong which cannot be righted. Pegeen came from a rigorously Amish family that sent her away to public school after she was banned from her first for some unnamed blasphemy. Sadly, the precise breed of girl that Moses would swim across oceans for; chaining the cement blocks to his ankles himself, if that's what was necessary.

Pegeen's mother was abusive and unfaithful, her father too pious to do any more than deny the reality that was his fractured family. Time and again Moses confronted them without Pegeen's knowing, and, wielding all the holy righteousness of his literary upbringing, eloquently inspired them to be honest with their daughter. He spoke, in not so many words, of ideas such as carpe diem, and of the power of love, of forgiveness. He told them he thought of them as his family, or something to that effect. He may have even said he cared about anyone who cared about Pegeen. Something in his voice must have been reminiscent of their churchly hours, because the O’Reillys fell irrevocably in love with Moses. When he left the final time, it was with three jars of freshly pressed cider, teary hugs, and insistent promises that things would change.

Like many young men and women raised in anything approximating American middleclass society, Moses had done very little of what could accurately be called real living. He had an inherent and instinctual belief in the goodness of the human race and had been exposed to nothing to lead him to believe the contrary. Anyone could do anything. He had found his flower, skyblue-eyed with dimples beside her smile. Faith was required, and Moses practiced constant faith. He idolized, in a near apotheosis of admiration, Franny Glass and her Jesus Prayer. He believed that anything done with a good intention was holy beyond conception. He did not believe the quote about the composition of the path to hell; in fact, he openly scorned all competing dogma. To say he was blinded would be severe and perhaps melodramatic, yet the point remained that all logic and reason that fell outside of the spectrum that was the five feet and two inches that comprised the form of little Pegeen O'Reilly, was blurred out into irrelevance.

What came next was absolutely inevitable, as unstoppable as the monthly rains or the winter freeze or the occasional droughts or the gusts of wind which famously tore across the open pastures of that country. It happened one frigid November night, when he found her trembling on the bank of the hill that was their meeting spot. He knew instantly something was horribly wrong. Her chin rested between her folded knees and she was staring off to the starless night and the sweeping skies and the darkened country that had been her family's for generations. She did not turn into his arms when he held her. He sat down, caressed her cheek, kissed her forehead, his blood boiling and his stomach flipping over and his heart slamming hard against his ribcage like a trapped lion. When she finally turned to him he saw: her shirt stained pink with blood, tears and sweat running down her cheeks. A purple welt swelled beside her eye, which was bloodshot. Her lip was fattened, cut deeply in separate places. Crimson rushed from a gash on her cheek and ran down her neck. His whole body shook and she told him not to go.

It was her? he asked.

It was both, she said, taking his hand in her own.

But he did. And the last time he ever saw Pegeen was when he glanced back up the slope to her crumpled form, her eyes only dimly ruminating his stumbling egression through the folds of her dirtied garments, his own eyes a shade of possessed entirely not his own. He ran the mile to the house with that unholy power vested in him, that power reserved for all those damned to the crueler fates of his kind, that power of such immense evil that it can only be unearthed from a starting velocity of such great good. He went and punched holes in the walls of their house and smashed his forehead against the windowpanes until they broke and ripped the doors to all the rooms off their hinges. He was not an animal, not yet, anyway; he was merely stripped of any of that loose effluent material that makes a man a man. There was no one home. He sprinted back to the top of the hill. Pegeen was gone.

A trail of blood led into the cornfields. It was there that he mired for the next twelve hours, through the night, into the day, until he had searched every row and the woods beyond the rows and the riverbanks and dusty fields beyond that. When the police came around noontime he told them everything, and they took him home.

Pegeen did not turn up that week. Moses spent each night camped by her house. He lasted three more weeks until he leapt off a cliff in a nearby valley, there to perish amidst the glittering quartzfreckled shallows of the Susquehanna River.

Her mother said that Moses would sometimes talk about Pegeen, in those last days. She knew nothing to do but to listen. Declaring love, he said, was like playing a fatal round of poker. You threw all you held within you on the betting table: the light of your insoul, the strength and courage and power of your convictions, the holy unassailable love around which you organized your life. You threw it carelessly, unknowingly. You let it slip gladly, sure that all your chips would  be returned to you tenfold. To gain anything worth gaining you had to risk everything, this was a freely admitted preconception. Seemingly you were without a choice. And when you lost you were left with nothing. You not only did not gain the girl but you did not gain back your chips. Your idealism, your passion. She took a bit of it, perhaps; even the most unrequited of loves flatter the rejecter in some way. Yet most of it slipped away into nothingness, that black pit of vapidity where all crushed faith was sucked away to forevermore, until it was recycled in cruder form to a child some years on who must live through that same excruciation again, should he be cursed with the sworn enemies of the tranquilized contentment that moved our world: passion, thoughtfulness, imagination.

Out on the stump she sits, statue in the wind with brown hair billowing like a maestro's curtain sweeping dramatically into the night. On her finger glints the shiny silver ring, numbed now and made red by the cold. All those days me, Becky, spent running into the wind and all those days you, wind, spent running into me. And all that shaping of me done by you that happened in my face and my skin and the muscles in my legs yes but shaping that went on deeper too. She kneels down into the hardened tundra by the stump and begins to pry at its holdings. Stiff and cracked clumps come away, the keratin of her short fingernails bending as she digs in. After a few minutes of prying she loses all feeling in her hands. And is it even such an absurd thought to think that natural beauty comes from the wind, from the sky, from the elements of the earth? Are not the genetics of our forefathers, passed down to them from their forefathers, passed down to them from the first mean scrap of an atom in some cosmic explosion at the dawn of time, the same thing as that very wind? She breaks through the surface and chunks of the earth began to come up in her hands. Chunks of black hard earth with pebbles and frayed gray arrows of dead roots molten against the frozen masses like specimens interred in amber. Is what comprises and what fuels the wind any different from that which comprises and fuels our cells? When the hole is deeper than her elbow she drops the shiny silver ring into the hole and refills it with dirt and returns up the rooster path to the house.

Inside her mother sits at champagne with her father and Arthur. They have loosened their belt buckles and crossed their ankles over their knees. They turn to regard the reentrance of the daughter, the bride: dirt smeared back across her darkened windburned cheek, her perennially coiffed plait of hair a bouquet of ruffled feathers, hot red blood soaking through - and in fact obscuring - the black earth writ upon her stiffened fingers.

I have decided to cancel the engagement, Becky says.

Song of the Day: Blackberry Stone by Laura Marling

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mountain Monkey's 10 Best Films of 2010 and Oscar Predictions

Vicious indie political satire veiled as a horror flick. An insanely disturbing movie about ballet. A sports movie that avoids abusing montage or the pump-up speech. A romance which ends badly and without hope of redemption. A film which almost entirely takes place in a crevice between two rock walls one hundred miles from civilization. These anomalies, seemingly oxymorons, all hit theaters last year. And they are part of the reason 2010 surpasses any single year in recent movie memory. 

Honorable Mention Shutter Island
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Laeta Kalogridis (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo
IMDB Ranking: 8.0
Metacritic: 63 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 178

Beautifully filmed with stark noir scenery, and bearing a first-viewing unpredictability reminiscent of The Sixth Sense, Shutter Island is perhaps Scorsese's most critically underrated movie in years. Two U.S. Marshals are hired to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a highly guarded mental institution on an isolated island off the coast of Massachusetts. The ongoing investigation exposes a multilayered conspiracy of spookiness that crosses elements of Hitchcock, The Maltese Falcon, and The Truman Show with the best of The X-Files. Though the ending twist is sudden and perhaps difficult to believe, its unpredictability more than compensates.

10. Easy A

Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Bert V. Royal
Starring Emma Stone
IMDB Ranking: 7.2
Metacritic: 72 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 178

A genuinely hilarious high school comedy that lambasts our witch-trial culture, Easy A is the best written movie in its genre in a very long time - and maybe ever. Eschewing the vapid nostalgia of something like Varsity Blues and the truly braindead comedy of most American Pie imitators, Easy A only appears to be anything like its predecessors. The story is the Scarlet Letter rewritten: a girl willingly sacrifices her reputation to perpetuate a lie that is serving and protecting her classmates and teachers. Aside from offering a scathingly sarcastic condemnation of the way we live - during (and well after) high school - it also offers the perfect engine for the sharp tongue of an actress startlingly capable of handling big words (a preciously rare skill, given our society's recently born desire to abbreviate and amputate the English language). If extreme at points, it only serves to highlight the satire.

9. True Grit

Directed by The Coen Brothers
Written by The Coen Brothers (screenplay) and Charles Portis (novel)
IMDB Ranking: 8.2
Metacritic: 80 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 182

Filmed in typically epic Coen Brothers fashion, True Grit brilliantly evokes the colors and character of pre-citified Texarkana. Endlessly witty and darkly comic dialogue transcends a very simple and straightforward story: a young girl attempting to mete homebred country values on the world which murdered her father. This true grit, immediately apparent in Mattie Ross, is peeled slowly back from the in-town, on-trial drunken Rooster Cogburn as the story progresses. Though the conflict of the story is perhaps resolved too easily to allow for the suspense of past Coen masterpieces, True Grit stands on its own for its wit and artful narration.

Directed by David Yates
Written by Steve Kloves (screenplay) and J.K. Rowling (novel)
IMDB Ranking: 7.9
Metacritic: 65 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 183

Very clearly, Deathly Hallows is the first Potter film to truly transcend, and even surpass, its novel counterpart. In my opinion the seventh book has always been the weakest of the seven part series, but that does not diminish what this movie has accomplished. By giving themselves nearly six hours - and two installments - to tell the conclusion to the story of Voldemort's rise to power and the ensuing hunt to end  his immortality, Yates and Kloves finally have the space with which to capture the beauty of the Potter story. The greatest parts of the book are not only captured, they are expanded. It is everything that the first five films could have been, everything which number three seemed to touch briefly, which six explored successfully. The horcrux-seeking, wilderness-wandering travels of Harry, Hermione, and Ron have a distinctly Lord of the Rings feel to them (and the excellent cinematography to match), which is entirely fine. The cliched, child-oriented, disneyesque character of many of the other movies is entirely absent here, and any real Potter fan will appreciate the depth of detail and emotional reality these adaptations have long lacked.

7. 127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Danny BoyleSimon Beaufoy (screenplay) and Aron Ralston (book)
Starring James Franco
IMDB Ranking: 8.2
Metacritic: 82 ("universal acclaim")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 188

The Beaufoy-Boyle team, plus cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and composer A.R. Rahman, responsible for Slumdog Millionaire, faithfully dramatize the story of a desert hiker who must hack off his own arm when it becomes trapped under a rock. Boyle, whose directing past includes Sunshine and 28 Days Later (both Mountain Monkey Hall of Fame movies), proves yet again he is one of the best directors alive today. The story of Aron Ralston's tragedy is interspersed with bits of his past, from the moments that made him who he is, to the adventurous and independent conceit that led him to disappear into Utah's Canyonlands National Park wilderness without telling a soul. The deftly handled transitions from past to present are a major highlight, along with an outstanding soundtrack and a best actor-worthy performance from James Franco.

6. Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis
IMDB Ranking: 8.0
Metacritic: 81 ("universal acclaim")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 189

It took Cianfrance 12 years to write Blue Valentine, and it shows in the careful craftsmanship of the plot and dialogue connections and references. The film alternates between the dark heartbreak and fury of a marriage in the present, to scenes of its humble and innocent beginnings six years earlier. It is filmed in a slow, stripped-down, detailed, contemplative style that seems a cross between Once and The Wrestler. Incredibly realistic, it contains none of the crowd-pleasing Hollywood archetypes which seem to saturate, and eventually poison, even the best-conceived stories. Ryan Gosling's role as a well-intentioned, simple-minded mover was the best acting performance of the year.

5. The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson (screenplay), Keith Dorrington (story)
IMDB Ranking: 8.2
Metacritic: 79 ("generally favorable reviews")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 193

The Fighter ignores and at points defies all the protocols of the typical cliched sports film. Where Rocky 19, We Are Titan, Remember Marshall's Last Friday Night would resort to montage, empty romance, and filler side-characters, David O. Russell delivers a poignant, excellently acted, and complete story. The film is distinctive within its genre for risking to avoid the guarantee of mediocrity that is the formulaic docudrama, and instead shooting a grisly and gusty movie that is real. The sentimentality is never cheap, which is the single greatest threat to all sports movies. It focuses on a boxer from a bad Massachussetts neighborhood, spited by family and fate, clearly competing for more than the empty claim of a championship. It relishes in its focus on detail and overlooks almost nothing in its character analysis. Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and especially Christian Bale prove they can convincingly fill untypical, dangerous roles. One of the better original screenplays of the year, and probably the best sports movie since Chariots of Fire.

Written by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard
IMDB Ranking: 9.0
Metacritic: 74 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 198

Perhaps the most popular movie released since Christopher Nolan's own 2008 The Dark Knight, Inception is an incredibly original action movie continuing Nolan's line the line of innovative action movies. In Memento, Nolan created a film which began at the end, and traced the story of an amnesia victim backwards, scene by scene. Inception is a similar subversion of action-film conventions, taking place almost entirely within a dream, a dream's dream, and a dream's dream dream. The unpredictably of the plotline and the very effective eeriness of the dream storyline is underlined by a consistently built tension that does not cease from the very first moment of the film. If the film had been slowed down and lengthened by another 45-60 minutes to examine some of its complicated twists and fascinating locations in closer detail, it would certainly be a threat for a number one spot.

3. The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), Ben Mezrich (book)
IMDB Ranking: 8.2
Metacritic: 95 ("universal acclaim")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 202

A thoroughly riveting and razorous examination of the founding of Facebook, and the reflection which the popularity of this new form of communication makes upon the human condition. The film is exceptional for its brilliant acting and writing, and more specifically for the cultural relevance to the state of the world in 2010. Every facet of Facebook reflects some aspect of human personality, and each is unflinchingly and often unflatteringly revealed in the story of the website's founding. Admittedly fictionalized and exaggerated for effect, it nonetheless displays, in witty fashion, the darkly comic underside of one of the most successful entreprenuerial ventures in history. The obvious favorite for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Gareth Edwards
IMDB Ranking: 6.5
Metacritic: 63 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 204

A reflective and thought-provoking metaphor of a film, veiled as an evolved Cloverfield yet working more in the strain of District 9 than anything else in recent memory. A photojournalist attempts to escort a woman home to America through a ravaged Mexican that has been infected by 'monsters' - massive extraterrestrial creatures who have been engaged in combat by human military. The giant wall that has been erected at the U.S.-Mexican border plays a prominent part in the film. A final scene near the end, where the true nature and identity of the 'monsters' is revealed, a scene very reminiscent of the legendary lights scene in Close Encounters, was one of the more powerful single moments in a film this entire year. The movie is filmed realistically, with a sharply edited style that cuts all unneeded Hollywood dialogue and filler-explanation. Revelations in plot and scenery are made naturally, and you have the feel that you are discovering the story with the characters, not be guided by an omniscient directorial hand that needs always remind you of its presence. 

1. Black Swan

Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McGlaughlin
IMDB Ranking: 8.6
Metacritic: 79 ("generally favorable")
Mountain Monkey Scale of 2-212: 209

A perfectly directed, written and edited film, Black Swan was obviously meticulously planned by director Darren Aronofsky for tremendous emotional effect. A woman wins the coveted lead role in a ballet company's production of Swan Lake, and undergoes a personal transformation to fit the dueling personas of the black and white swan. Despite the seemingly innocent nature of the ballet background plot, the film maintains a distinctly portentous air of doom. The grisly cinematographic style perfected by Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream to display the brutality of drug abuse is used here to analyze the precarious kinetics of professional ballet. Natalie Portman's character is in constant flux, evolving from real to imagined, innocent to evil, white swan to black, with such smoothness that your perspective of the story changes with her. The lines gradually blur between reality and art, and by the concluding scene, the final production of the ballet, they vanish altogether. Ultimately the movie is a comment on the inseparability of those two things: real life, and real art. By far the best made movie of 2010.

Mountain Monkey also recommends: Never Let Me Go, happythankyoumoreplease, Shutter Island, Love and Other Drugs, The Ghost Writer, The Way Back, Winter's Bone.

Other Top Ten Lists From Around America

One of my favorite parts of watching good movies is comparing them. Consistently, critics, particularly well known ones such as Roger Ebert, offer up some claim that 'art cannot be ordered' and that is 'futile to rank films', yet they still do it every year. It is not futile to rank films, it is difficult to rank films - big difference. Every movie can be compared to every other movie. How different writers do this is the subject of another post entirely, but for now, before I expose you to a slew of reviewers who will tell you the exact opposite without any real explanation, I want to make it clear that it is done and that it should be done. To nominate films for any award, they must be directly ranked. To even distinguish ten films from the rest, their must be some form of ranking.

Take care to note that some of the frequently overrated films on the lists below deserve a final lambasting from Mountain Monkey before they are given props by media monkeys around the globe.

1) Toy Story 3 is a cartoon. It should not be compared with movies which required the full bodies and voices of real people, and the ensuing realities of production and directing, which comprise a live action feature film. Award the animators and screenwriters in a separate cartoon category, but don't compare it to a real movie - it's not! And I use exclamation points about as often as CNN or Fox present an unbiased and educated perspective. So...

2) The Kids Are Messed Up I admittedly did not see, nor will I see. Perhaps stubborness is a terrible trait in a film critic, but I don't think I'm being closed-minded. I will give just about anything a fair shot. This was instantly marketed to be over-hyped, and I have every expectation it fulfills its boring and feel-good promise.

3) The Town Good and suspenseful action movie. Not Inside Man, not even Heist. Keep in mind that many critics use affirmative action to form their best of the year lists. By this I mean they think by selecting the best in a genre or from a certain subgroup, they are portraying the best of the year. Not true, and also misleading to moviegoers.

4) The King's Speech was another well-made movie that gets a bad name on Mountain Monkey because of how overrated it has become.

The Chicago Sun Times (Roger Ebert)
Associated Press
Austin Chronicle
Baltimore Sun
Boston Globe
Christian Science Monitor
Entertainment Weekly
Film School Rejects
L.A. Times
New Orleans Times
New York Daily News
New York Times
The New Yorker
The Onion
The Oregonian
Philadelphia Inquirer
Rolling Stone (Peter Travers)
San Francisco Chronicle
USA Today
Village Voice
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post

Mountain Monkey at the Oscars 

To view a full list of the nominees, check out IMDB's informative page on the upcoming Academy Awards.

Best Picture
Who Should Win: Black Swan.
Who Will Win: Social Network, because Mark Zuckerberg was Time person of the year in 2010, and it's more socially relevant, etc., though not a better movie, than Black Swan. And god strike me down if it goes to The Kids aren't Alright or King's Speech. Or Toy Story 3. I don't care if it inspired the revolution in Egypt, cartoons should not be considered in the same category as live action films. P.S., my friend alerted me to some factual inaccuracies in King's Speech, particularly regarding the relationship between Winston Churchill and the supposed anti-Nazi self-deposed predecessor and older brother of King Firth. Check out Christopher Hitchens outing Edward VIII as a Nazi-sympathizer in Slate Magazine.

Best Actor
Who Should Win: Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine, but since he wasn't even nominated, it should to James Franco for 127 Hours.
Who Will Win: King Firth, of the Royal British Society of Monarch-Worshipping Filmgoers

Best Actress
Who Should Win: Natalie Portman for Black Swan
Who Will Win: Natalie Portman, and if not I will likely not be paying any attention to this ceremony in the future.

Best Supporting Actor
Who Should Win: Torn between Christian Bale for The Fighter, and Geoffrey Rush, the therapist from King's Speech, which was undoubtedly the best part of the movie. Andrew Garfield was decent in Social Network as well, but was not nominated. Bale's part involved losing a significant amount of weight and taking on a drug-addict's accent and persona, so I think he deserves the win here.
Who Will Win: Geoffrey Rush. They will have to make up for not giving Best Picture to a feel good flick. Not to mention, he was the only truly sympathetic character in the whole story.

Best Supporting Actress
Who Should Win: Either Amy Adams or Melissa Leo from The Fighter. Though the main character in True Grit, played by Hailee Stenfield, was undoubtedly good, I don't think she was given enough room by the Coen Brothers to expand beyond the overly (and sometimes unbelievable and so distracting as to be detracting) western vernacular of the screenplay. The former two each played out characters that were pretty shocking, and handled clearly more demanding roles.
Who Will Win: Melissa Leo - with a small possibility of another point for King's Speech with Helena Bonham Carter's six-line role (is there not a minimum limit of screen time or dialogue spoken in order to be considered "supporting"?)

Best Original Screenplay
Who Should Win: Inception, 100%. The mind of a literary novelist was required to conceive the plot. The structure itself is similar to William Faulkner's Light in August, where two characters are presented, and a story is told about their past involving other characters and events, and a story about those characters is told involving even more characters and events. This parenthetical technique of storytelling, simply put - (two men walking down the road meet two children (two children come from a house where a woman was just murdered (the woman was murdered by the mentally deranged cousin of the two men walking down the road))) - is employed by Christopher Nolan in Inception with the dream within a dream within a dream idea.
Who Will Win: The Kids are Alright. There's a double feel good option in this category, as King's Speech was also nominated. I will take this opportunity beforehand to vomit, for manufactured sentimentality being so lauded in our world.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Should Win: Social Network, though 127 Hours was excellent and would win in most years.
Who Will Win: Social Network.

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