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Fishing with David Lynch


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David Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead (1977), a dark, disturbing and deeply surreal exploration of the directors own subconscious, was initially pronounced as un-releasable upon completion, but in short time became a cult classic and critical success, launching Lynch to the forefront of avant-garde film-making and earning him the favour of Stanley Kubrick, who proclaimed Eraserhead one of his all-time favourite films.

lynch_catching_the_big_fish.jpgThirty years later David Lynch is still exploring the sub-conscious, and unusually for a notoriously private director who refuses to discuss the details of his plots or their meanings, has written a book about… himself. Not a traditional biography mind you, but a surreal, whimsical exploration of his own consciousness. His legion of fans would expect nothing less.

In Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, David Lynch puts aside his filmic quest to get inside the viewer’s head and lets them instead inside his, an invitation almost as rare as a ticket to fiction’s Wonka Chocolate Factory, and possibly just as out of this world.

“When I first heard about meditation I had zero interest in it, I wasn’t even curious. It sounded like a waste of time. What got me interested though was the phrase, ‘True happiness lies within.’ ”

So begins Catching the Big Fish, and from the very first page, as though entering a state of deep meditation, ordinary reality is left—along with one’s shoes—at the door. A practitioner of meditation for twenty minutes, two times a day, for over thirty years, Lynch invites the reader on a mind-altering journey, expounding upon his commitment to Transcendental Meditation and the powerful creative wellspring it has provided him in 85 alternatively light and lofty chapters, many in koan-like form. Citing his daily sessions of silence and inner happiness as essential to the creative process, one can only wonder what kind of films this director might have made otherwise—Academy Award nominated Blue Velvet (1986) among the most disturbing, unsettling films of all time.

Catching the Big Fish is a blend of thoughts and themes, sometimes random like a stream of consciousness, or the analogy he personally prefers for creativity, casting a hook into a bottomless sea, and melds biography, film analysis, philosophy and spirituality with a heart on sleeve sincerity, narrating the author’s passion for charting the world of dreams and ideas and rendering them unto action. Few probably realise that this famously reclusive director is putting his own money into establishing meditation centres around the world, or that he has founded the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and Peace to further his meditative ideals.

A little like a rare sighting of the Loch Ness Monster, any public appearance of one of the greatest American directors of modern cinema is compulsory viewing, or reading in this case, and whether or not you are ready to tread the same waters, Catching the Big Fish is worth at least a dip.

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art literature

Nagual Art by William S. Burroughs


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william_burroughs.jpgWilliam S. Burroughs, like Yukio Mishima, is a difficult writer. Like Mishima, I am not sure if I will ever get around to reading his books in full, but I can not help but admire, even secretly envy this author’s insight and perception—even if at times it is shaded by a cruel, cynical undertone which, although an understandable response to the madness of this world for some, I personally cannot stomach.

Of all the beat writers, Burroughs was the only one not to be strongly influenced by Buddhist thought—a strong interest of my own from years gone by, and thus a reason for my semi-disdain. Still, he has a razor-sharp humour, a straight to the point, spade is a spade clarity, and an obvious talent with words—although it took the insistent encouragement and personal assistance of friends Kerouac and Ginsberg before he finally recognised the fact, first beginning to write aged well into his thirties.

Nagual Art by William Burroughs

In the Carlos Castaneda books, Don Juan makes a distinction between the tonal universe and the nagual. The tonal universe is the everyday cause-and-effect universe, which is predictable because it is pre-recorded. The nagual is the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. For the nagual to gain access, the door of chance must be open. There must be a random factor: drips of paint down the canvas, setting the paint on fire, squirting the paint. Perhaps the most basic random factor is the shotgun blast, producing an explosion of paint into unpredictable, uncontrollable patterns and forms. Without this random factor, the painter can only copy the tonal universe, and his painting is as predictable as the universe he copies.

Klee said: ‘An Artist does not render Nature. He renders visible’.

That is, he glimpses the nagual universe—the unseen—and, by seeing, makes it visible to the viewer on canvas. If the door to the random is closed, the painting is as predictable as the universe—it can only copy, and for many years painters were content to copy Nature. What I am attempting then, can be called Nagual Art.

The shotgung blast that exploded a can of spray paint, or a tube or other container, is one way of contacting the nagual. There are, of course, many others. The arbitrary order of randomly chosen silhouettes, marbling, blotting . . .

He who would invoke the unpredictable must cultivate accidents and randomness . . . the toss of a coin, or a brush, the blast of a shotgun, the blotting of color and form to produce new forms and new color combinations.

He can carry the process further by arbitrarily inserted silhouettes, the outline of a man, a house, a tree, can be as random as an explode paint can, leaves dropped at random on the surface, grids, masks, circles, pieces of broken glass on picture puzzles, and word. I have used a phrase like ‘Rub out the word to wind’ then translated this phrase into Egytian glyphs. The word is being used, not for its meaning, but as image.

Since the nagual is unpredictable, there is no formula by which the nagual can be reliably invoked. Of course, magic is replete with spells and rites, but these are only adjuncts, of varying effectiveness. A spell that works today may be as flat as yesterdays beer tomorrow.

The painter is tied down to the given formulae of form and color applied to a surface. The writer is more rigidly confined, to words on a page. The nagual must be continually created and re-created. The bottom line is the creator. Norman Mailer kindly said of me that I may be ‘possessed of genius’. Not that I am a genius, or that I possess genius, but that I may be, at times, ‘possessed by genius’. I define ‘genius’ as the nagual, the unpredictable, spontaneous, capricious and arbitrary. An artist is possessed by genius sometimes, when he is so lucky.

January 1989

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art beauty japan life literature

The selfish, selfless Yukio Mishima


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I’ve been going through something of a Yukio Mishima phase again recently. I did once before, many years ago, until a cursory read of his biography saw me dismiss him as deeply flawed, and in his fascination with violence, perhaps more ugly than beautiful.

But I am having second thoughts. I don’t think I will ever condone his suicide—it bespeaks to me ultimately of selfishness, and short-sightedness, and for one so enamoured of the virtues of duty, strength, sacrifice and courage—the forgotten“bushido” code of the Samurai—even of weakness.

He was a man who cared passionately for his country, and his pronouncement that she would gain little satisfaction through her headlong rush for material prosperity has been more than vindicated, yet it seems common sense to say that he would have been better placed to make his point living rather than dead. His word alone was newsworthy, and as one once connected to the wife of the Emperor and personal friend of the Prime Minister, he moved in circles that suggested a career in politics was there for the taking should he have wished.

So his death can only be seen as a waste; his desire to live his life as a poem and die by the code of bushido ultimately a vain, selfish act that more served himself than the greater good.

Still though, I find much to admire in his written and lived ideals, and it should be emphasised in Mishima’s case that they were always lived—his death the ultimate example of that. He prided himself on turning ideas into action, a form of self-abnegation in which he sought to erase, in his view, the effeminate, ineffective intellectual of his youth, by becoming a man of strength and action.

And I can’t help but secretly admire, half in horror half in awe, his final, mis-guided act, and the un-imaginable courage—or insanity —it must have taken to do such a thing. Almost completely un-heard of now, seppukku was near common-place in pre-modern Japan; Mishima’s however was the first recorded of the post-war era.

In the short excerpt that follows, some will see simply an idealisation of self-destruction, and in the tale of a pre-war army officer, a glorifying of the militarism that so led Japan astray. But that would only be a shallow reading of the story, very much incomplete.

Yes, Patriotism is a celebration of death, but not in a negative, destructive sense. Rather it celebrates the death of an army officer and his wife as the ultimate form of sacrifice—his death for belief and country; her death for him—the wife takes her husband’s beliefs as her own.

Patriotism asks the question “what if?”—what if the sacrifice of 1936 Niniroku Jiken uprising, of which this real life army officer was a part, hadn’t been in vain, if this last stand against the faction in favour of western style militarism and imperialism—forces incidentally which the “rightist” Mishima saw as negative, “un-Japanese” imports—had been successful.

With the restoration of the spirit of bushido to the army, and its spirit of sacrifice and honour, of true service to the greater good, the destructive war with America might have been averted—a war which very near totally destroyed Japan outwardly, and, in Mishima’s view, in the occupation that followed, with its enforced constitution, robbed her inwardly of half her essence—the sword no longer beside the chrysanthemum.

Mishima saw Japan as having lost her spiritual values, and in her excessive materialism, dying slowly from a “tediousness” and “insipidness” of the soul. Sadly, although largely proved correct, he left the earthly stage prematurely, and with surely much still to contribute.

It is perhaps worth saying that his criticism of Japan is hardly unique to Japan; the whole world would do well to heed this warning near forty years old against materialism unchecked.

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life literature

Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Speech


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Kurt VonnegutFor those old enough to bemoan the youth of today, but not quite old enough to be their elders, a recent speech by American author and living cultural legend Kurt Vonnegut may be enough to inspire hope; far from being satiated consumers of dis-interest and the apathetic, Ohio State University students in their thousands queued to attend—about 2000 were successful, at least that many more were turned away.

It would be his last speech for money, the greatest living American novelist explained, but it was soon clear that his passion and concern for the world were far from at an end:

“I’m trying to write a novel about the end of the world. But the world is really ending! It’s becoming more and more uninhabitable because of our addiction to oil…people are in revolt again life itself.

“While the economy has been making money” he continued,“all the money that should have gone into research and development has gone into executive compensation. If people insist on living as if there’s no tomorrow, there really won’t be one.”

Vonnegut switched from the politcal to the personal without breaking stride:

“As the world is ending, I’m always glad to be entertained for a few moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a night.

With his audience rapt, Vonnegut broke into song, performing a tender rendition of“Stardust Memories.”

Now they were reverential.

“To hell with the advances in computers,” he said after singing.“YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find out what’s inside you. And don’t kill anybody.”

Now argument there from this web-developer come meditator.

Back to the political again:

“There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come from? There’s nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the Seminoles: ‘what the hell did you do?’ after the tribe’s traditional livelihood was taken away.”

Answering questions written in by students, he explained the meaning of life:

“We should be kind to each other. Be civil. And appreciate the good moments by saying ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’

“You’re awful cute” he said to someone in the front row. He grinned and looked around.“If this isn’t nice, what is?

A soliloquy about the joys of going to the store to buy an envelope:

“One talks to the people there, comments on the ‘silly-looking dog,’ finds all sorts of adventures along the way.”

Any suggestions for great writing?

“Never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You’re reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you’ve been to college.”

And…

“Make sure that your reader is having a good time. Get to the who, when, where, what right away, so the reader knows what is going on.”

Back to life, and isn’t a writer just a more observant reporter of life than most?

“Live one day at a time. Say ‘if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!’

“You meet saints every where. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.”

And to conclude:

“The greatest peace comes from the knowledge that I have enough. Joe Heller [Catch 22] told me that.

“I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I wrote and I said ‘How the hell did I do that?’

“We may all be possessed. I hope so.”

I hope so too.

But please don’t tell Kurt I’ve been using semi-colons…

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literature movies writing

Elmore Leonard’s Top Ten Writing Tips


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elmore_leonard.jpg

I have just finished writing an article on crime novel author Elmore Leonard’s top ten writing tips, tips which I discovered, and here comes that word again, quite serendipitously after stumbling across a page about George Orwell on the same site.

Now I should admit to raving fans of Get Shorty or Maximum Bob that I have never actually read a novel by Elmore Leonard—I had never heard of the man until a couple of days ago; yet don’t take that as a conscious or unconscious slight on my part—he sounds like the ideal paperback companion for a round-the-world plane trip, which here in New Zealand is the only way to get absolutely anywhere.

On the plus side to my wavering credibility, I can admit to having seen several of his film adaptations, incidentally the same adaptations he also recommends: Get Shorty wasn’t bad, although I can tell my attention began to wander by the fact that I can remember nothing from halfway through; Jackie Brown was an entirely regrettable experience, and the last time I take advice from a co-worker about films to watch; Out of Sight however was quite the opposite—and further backs my without hesitation recommendation of every title Steven Soderbergh has ever made—although by way of disclaimer: take the age of any film and the year that I watched it, and you’ll end up with some sort of formula as to the reliability of my opinion on it; I have at times been severely embarrassed recommending films that I liked a very, very long time ago.

So if my opinions on films are at times a little suspect, what exactly would I know about contemporary America’s best-selling crime novelist—also a ‘genre’ writer respected for his technical ability? Not a lot, but I did like his main point of advice on writing:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

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