June 5, 2011

Sometimes We Think We’re Normal


There’s this film historian I know, see? Very bright, enthusiastic, knowledgeable fellow. His primary interest is in pre-code films—those movies made in the twenties and thirties before the dreaded morality code went into effect, which told filmmakers what they could and couldn’t show on screen. As you might expect, pre-code films tended to be much racier, nastier, and more openly political than those that followed. (Those that followed had merits of their own , but that’s beside the point right now. This guy I’m talking about likes pre-code films.)

            So anyway, the other day this film historian went to meet this other film historian and writer. They’d never met before, so when they finally did meet this first time the conversation revolved around, of course, movies.

            Things went well for awhile, until the writer mentioned that he was working on a book about Faye Dunaway. After that things didn’t go so well, and when he got home the film historian called me.

            “When he said ‘Faye Dunaway,’ I immediately realized that we had absolutely nothing in common, and that we’d been talking at cross purposes that whole time. He was looking at me like I was spouting gibberish because I was talking about these films—the kind of movies you and I watch—but he was only interested in these mainstream pictures. He had no idea what I was talking about.”

            He had been so focused on this very limited sub-genre of pre-code obscurities, these films no one else had ever heard of let alone seen, that he’d all but completely lost interest in anything made after, say, 1947 (and, for that matter, movies that had been seen by more than ten people). Anything made outside that era was nothing but cosmic dust to be brushed away. Unfortunately it seems most people nowadays don’t seem to be aware that films had actually been made before 2004. It makes conversation difficult.

            It wasn’t that he was upset with this other guy, that he held him in contempt for liking Faye Dunaway and mainstream movies. The problem was that never before had the film historian been made so painfully away of his own alienation—not just from other film buffs, but from the rest of the world. It finally struck him at that meeting. He’d gone through life thinking he was having normal conversations with people when in fact no one knew what the hell he was talking about most of the time.

            It was a problem I was all too familiar with, so I told him a little story I thought might help.

            For the last, oh, twenty-five years or so I’ve been completely buried in the music of the Residents, an avant-garde pop performance group from San Francisco who’ve been around and quite productive for about four decades now. The Residents are, in a word, weirdies. They’re what you might call a bit of an acquired taste, who have over the years built up a mythology as tangled as their history, and whose music and artwork can probably best be described as “extraterrestrial.” They’ve never seen fit to pay any attention to the usual conventions of the music industry or public taste, preferring instead to simply do what they want. I listen to other things, of course, but in the end I always return to The Residents.

            Now, a couple of years ago they released a new album called The Bunny Boy. As I listened to it for the first time, I remember thinking, well this is pretty mainstream—I can imagine hearing this on the radio. It was a new thought to apply to a Residents album. These were distinct, normal-sounding pop songs with real melodies. They had a good beat and you could dance to them, sort of. After working so hard for forty years, who knows? Maybe they just wanted to tap into some of those big label millions. That’s fine, I thought—they’ve earned a little sell-out. Get a song on a Toyota commercial or something.

            One night not long after the record came out, I was at a bar and someone asked me about it. Or maybe he didn’t ask and I just decided to tell him about it, given that it had such mainstream potential. It was a mainstream sort of a bar, and now finally maybe I’d fit in.

            “Well y’see, like a lot of their records it tells a story,” I said. “This one’s about a guy who’s obsessed with rabbits. He wears a bunny suit and lives in a basement. His brother’s missing, see? So he sets out searching for him online, eventually becoming convinced that his brother’s on the island of Patmos, off Greece—and that the Apocalypse is approaching. But this guy, the Bunny Boy, see? He’s the only one who can stop it, so he has to go to Patmos and do battle with the Beast. First he needs a mirror . . . ”

            As I heard the words spilling out of my mouth, I slowly began to realize what they must sound like to someone who liked Bruce Springsteen and Mariah Carey or whoever’s popular nowadays. Here I thought I was making some contact with the world when in fact I was only alienating myself further.

            It happens to everyone in one way or another, I suppose—only most people don’t seem to notice it. In Taxi Driver, Peter Boyle says “A man gets a job, and that job becomes who he is.” And it’s true—whatever we do for a living (or non-living as the case may be) becomes the world we live in. When I worked at a newspaper, I saw the world through the screen of that newspaper. When I work on a book, the story at hand dominates my perceptions of everything I encounter until it’s done. Everything else is just flotsam and jetsam.

            Should you ever get the chance, watch a truck mechanic try to talk to an astrophysicist. It’s pretty funny and painful at the same time. I guess that’s why someone invented baseball—so mechanics and physicists could communicate. But then there are those of us who don’t pay any attention to baseball. We’re screwed. We find we’re living in an alien world without the vocabulary at our disposal to communicate with these lumpy creatures around us. And even if we did, what the hell would we say? I guess that’s the point. The film historian who called me was horrified by his alienation, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.