Thursday, June 21, 2012

Watching Twilight in a Small Town with Big Tacos

So here's what happens when you bring a playwright from New York to Fort Morgan and make him watch Twilight: 

Actually the most happening event most nights in Fort Morgan.

But I’d rather not start with a discussion of vampires.  As a matter of fact, I’d prefer to create my Joseph Campbellian jumping-off point when I was about six.  Well, maybe not six.  Six has become my default age for childhood stories.  I’m always six.  Six or 26 are the L.A. and New York of my life.  Very little in between. 
So I’m six.  I’m on a family vacation to New York City where the inevitable mother-son trip to the Museum of Modern Art was underway.  We lived in Knoxville.  My parents pined for New York City the way Snooki pants at that 2pm bottle of wine.  We all have our home bases.  This was theirs.  Mine was? 
We’re in the modern art museum because Mom[1] figured anything not made out of feces could go straight to hell.  It was there that I took a personal interest in the warmth of museum couches.  It was there that I dreamt, between “Look, Jonathan”’s, of all the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episodes I could have been watching had the Nazis not won the war and subjected me to this fate.[2]   It was there that I, perhaps just out of frustration, found my favorite painting.
 It was the Edward Ruscha.  OOF.  1962.  Reworked in 1963, whatever that means.  It’s just the onomatopoeia “OOF” – all capital letters – written in yellow in front of a blue background on a 72”x67” canvas.  Turns out Ruscha spent his formative years in Oklahoma City, before finding out that that town might not quite know the difference between pop art and a Dairy Queen.[3]  He hightailed it to L.A. after that.  Little did I know that I was on a similar timetable.
But in the moment, “Oof” just seemed like something I might say because the comic books I read might say that.  So I thought it was cool.  I was drawn to it.  I related to things not because I might say them, but because some item in my life might – a comic book, an action figure, a Lego city about to be stomped on.  Upon reflection, I’d wonder if this somehow made me without substance.  Made me whatever I watched.  Or perhaps it was more wonderful than that.  Perhaps it was just that I had become entirely my escape to, after spending so many years[4] spewing the ectoplasm of my escape from.  Oof.
Now, 20 years hence, I can still look at the Ruscha and smile.  I can smile the smile of Patrick McGoohan at the end of the last episode of The Prisoner.  It isn’t something I can do often, though I’m brimming with affinity for other artists.  Romaine Brooks.  Robert Rauschenberg.  Edward Hopper, though I suppose his pretty routine abuse of women forbids my lips from being taxed by stretching for his work.  Seriously, I hear the guy used women like my six-year-old self used museum couches.  Just something to sit on while thinking about The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers
The nature of escape is also different.  I tend now to escape to where I once escaped from.  Big Lots is a store that exemplifies this surely Africanized tendency.[5]  Wal-Mart, to confess a surely deeper sin.  Waffle House.  Maybe there comes a time in everyone’s life where all you want is to get back to a place with sticky floors and bacon somehow on the ceiling.  The comic books and action figures – the ones that spat “Oof” with such imagined regularity – are still paramount to my own escapism, but I wonder, sometimes, if I’m not now more interested in the rug, than what’s under it.  Or, like the absurdist gedankenexperiment Schrodinger’s Cat, I can’t shake the feeling that, under the rug, is whatever I want, so long as I don’t peel back the corner.  So if I just wander the aisles of a Big Lots, I can pretend that, just one row over, is that Optimus Prime I’ve lost track of.[6]  That Cobra B.A.T. Soldier that had a backpack that screamed, a la a Charlie Brown teacher, “B.A.T.s attack!” whenever a small rubber button was pushed.  The things my dad bought me, pre-me-earning-a-paycheck.
Tracy introduced me to a land, a town, a fort amidst other forts that assured no Native American would escape the law of a land that was theirs, that now, instead of erecting those high, wooden, Lincoln-Log-On-Crack barriers, builds Big Lots’s and Wal-Marts and surely some sort of waffle-oriented establishment (John’s Tacos?) as though these are the prosperity any young man headed West ought to bask in.
After my 11-year stint as a New Yorker[7], such a sight was a landscape of Ben Stein for my beach ball-red eyes.  Though I knew at this point it would not just be my escape at hand, here.  After all, Big Lots had to close at some point.  Somehow, Tracy’s collection of, like, 17 unreleased cuts of Lord of the Rings[8] permitted the immensely successful failure of American escapism to appear in their midst: Twilight.  I think the conversation went something like this:
TRACY:  Want to watch Twilight?
ME:  No.
TRACY:  We can make tacos.
ME:  Tacos?
So Twilight it was.  I was vastly unprepared for that decision, you see.  I mean, here’s how every other conversation I’ve ever had about Twilight went:
And the story was off.  Girl separates from Mom and New Dad (Phil!).  Girl goes to live with Dad Original.  Girl almost dies.  Girl saved by Loner Guy.  Girl falls for Loner Guy.  Turns out Loner Guy is a Vampire.  Turns out Girl is Into It.  I’m pretty sure I stole all that off the back of the DVD, verbatim.
I think the front-DVD-cover review said something like: “If you love hanging out at the DMV, you’ll love this movie!”
Well.  I guess that’s apt, accurate or not, as a review.  What I guess I didn’t get then[9] and what I don’t get now[10] is that why, if three letters – “Oof” – can be a sufficient escape for the human mind[11], why the epic-ness and the melodrama and the glitter?  Are we, as a culture, starting to drop the sparsely-decorated landscape for the Tunnel-of-Love Vision of rapid-fire, Bourgeois[12] minutiae that happens so quick we just trust in…something?...that it has merit as a whole?  Maybe it’s the natural progression of things, from the railroad to the radio signal to now.  Faster.
I hope that doesn’t permeate.  I hope I can still revel in all the thoughts of all the things that lump under the rug might be. 
I’m a bad narrator because I can’t supply you with any real dialogue from this adventure.  I can only use it as a laser-scanned lens through which I can look and see, well, everything else.  I say “well” a lot.  That also doesn’t help my narration skills.  I have no excuse for that.
I’m not terribly interested in the parts of Twilight that stretch beyond 3-4 letters.  I’m not on Team Edward or Team…the other one.  I’m on Team Phil.  The New Dad.  The guy who had the sense to be in the movie for, like, two seconds.  The “Oof” of the movie.  Phil gives me a character about whom I can – if merely by editorial error or restriction – use my imagination.  I can think about him at a Waffle House, reflecting upon his childhood, and how that might have been a simpler time when his stepdaughter didn’t run off to a place where it rains all the time and vampires are essentially The Fonz. 
Phil would probably like Ruscha.  He’d probably think theatre was the way to go, but film paid the bills, so here he was.  And I’d bet he thought his new wife, sans Vampire Vixen, was pretty much the bee’s knees for showing him, for instance, an arid clime with cool deserts and stars and places like CiCi’s Pizza, where you can get pizza, buffet-style, pretty much any time you want it.  And if they don’t have the kind of pizza you want, they make it for you on the spot.  It takes like 10 minutes, too.  And there’s always Pac Man you can play while you wait.  I’ll bet Phil would go for that in a heartbeat.
Phil’s surely a man who spent too many quarters on those little plastic eggs you get out of machines outside the Krogers’ that have little toys in them.  I’m sure Phil’s got a collection, but it nowhere near rivals that one he had when he was a kid, that he got with the one quarter his mom managed to muster off the bottom of her seemingly endless and oddly maraca-sounding purse.  Phil’s whole life is probably a quest to find that toy – a needle in a haystack – and this whole vampire thing is just an intermezzo.  A brief hiccup before he gets back on track to his actual destination.
See and Phil.  Phil probably just gets it.  I doubt he needs things to sparkle. I doubt he needs anything to even shine.  I think he simply wants to know something is there.  That there’s a there, there.  Like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland.  Something under the rug.  Phil understands this.  The importance of this.  He’s not in a saga.  He’s in a Ruscha.
There are people like this.  People that can bathe you in the simplest of terms that are also the most complex.  People whose eyes hit you like the crest of a wave that never breaks.  Like a high water mark that stays high.  And when you’re wrapped up in such beauty, you forget the things that glitter in the sun.  There’s nothing you have to carry with you.  There’s nothing you have to say.  Just.  Oof.

--Jonathan Alexandratos

[1] It feels so weird to call her that.  “Mom.”  I never called her that outside of stories I wrote in elementary school.  Those little limericks they made you write in praise of at least one parent.
[2] I didn’t know about Nazis then, but one can assume I would have mentioned them, were I more historically savvy.
[3] Wait.  Is there one?
[4] Years 0-5.99?  This is where the six-year-old all-purpose-age thing starts to break down.
[5] Africanized like viruses.  Not, like, in any way racist.  I’d just as soon call it “Belgianized.”
[6] When?  We’ll say when I was six.
[7] All right, so some things did happen between six and 26.
[8] All of which I need to see – especially the one where Gandalf the Grey oddly becomes Gandalf the Fuchsia.
[9] Because I didn’t think about it.
[10] As I do think about it.
[11] My human mind, I guess.
[12] A term I use because Lindsay Anderson did, not because I want to be like that.


  1. There was a guy named Phil in the movie? Huh. Maybe I'll just have to watch it for the 1100th time to see if I can find him!