To My Czech Penpal - October 2020
Personal entry follows. It's what I wrote to my Czech penpal earlier this evening. This includes some redactions, in brackets.
Our previous messages were linked long and far enough. So I started a new one, hoping that you don't feel slighted for me doing so. I just didn't feel like seeing "Hello From [the town where I work]" in the subject line anymore, you know? Time for a change. :)
Thanks for writing, and letting me know of the current state of affairs where you are. I've read and heard about Spain and other places across Europe, and how it's approaching USA levels of infections per day and numbers of patients on respirators. I hope things stay calm and not-overwhelming to the Czech healthcare system. What a nightmare things are, aren't they? It seems that the US education system had no useful lessons to pass along to the rest of the world, either. Or at least, the useful, helpful lessons weren't effectively communicated to the rest of the world. It seems like what you describe isn't too different from what my mother describes about her grandchildren's experiences of school - my twin nephews - in that it's quite chaotic and leaves a lot (or perhaps, a lot more) to the parents to manage.
I've had a bit of a cinematic journey over the past several days, and I'd like to share it with you. I'm definitely in a writing mood, and beyond the rollercoaster that is the training I'm heading right now, it's a main highlight of my recent days and I think worth sharing with others.
This past Friday, I visited the cinema and saw the original "Nightmare on Elm Street" on the big screen. I have to say, it holds up as a horror film, and was a very well-done introduction of Freddy. There's a lot in the foundation laid in that film that was later left behind - or even lampooned as a kind of self-referencing joke in some of the later sequels. But personally, I think it was just as good as, if not better than "The New Nightmare," which up until this past Friday I was thinking was the best in the series. But sometimes I suppose you just can't beat the original.
Sunday afternoon, I went back to the cinema, and saw a filmed live performance of the UK National Theatre's production of "Frankenstein." It was, for lack of a better word, admirable. It was an awe-inspiring piece of theatre, and the story was well-told. Benedict Cumberbatch played the doctor, Victor Frankenstein, but I think his performance (or maybe just the character he portrayed) paled in comparison to the actor playing the role of the Creature. Although I think they knit it together a bit too nicely at the end, I suppose it was destined to be that way. The journey to that end, of course, was worth it.
Clearly still hungry for more, just last night I watched a documentary (on a fantastic website that allows me to rent films for no cost, through the use of my public library card account...! ) about horror cinema history in the USA. Although it didn't cover any of the Italian "giallo" features I really enjoyed for a time (a film from 1977 called "Suspiria" being pretty much my favourite "dark fairy tale" of all time), it did touch on films from the Silent Era, through the gigantic monsters of the '40s and '50s, to the internal, psychological horrors of the '60s, through the gruesome '70s, the slasher '80s, and then the eras of remakes and realist gore of the '90s to the 2000s. There was also a reverence for fairy tales and fables, and how traditional tales have been woven into films and filmmaking through all these decades, and how the "zeitgeist" of the times is often woven into the fabric of the story to lend context to the current audience's experience and connection to the film itself. In this way, the films can become a mirror of the times, while simultaneously creating new trends in filmmaking.
I remember you mentioning previously that you're just not into violence and that horror is a kind of turn-off. I won't go into specifics, though I do want to mention that one of my favourite filmmakers was interviewed for the documentary: John Carpenter. He's made films like "The Thing" and "The Fog," but also real awesome (and ridiculous) action jams like "Big Trouble In Little China." He brought up a great point about horror cinema: each film is essentially one of two stories. He described the group sitting around a campfire in the woods at night, and there's an old man telling ghost stories. One of the stories is "fear of the other," and that something Out There is coming to get us. Giant monsters, aliens from another world, cosmic horrors and the like... They are all from the outside, intending to violate us and we have every right to fight back with everything we have.
Carpenter mentions that the second type of story is always tougher to tell: "the monster is us." If the old man at the campfire described this kind of tale, it would be someone "just like you and me," who suddenly snapped because of a traumatic event in their life. They became a monster... But the truth is that each of us is just as capable of becoming a monster. Two recent examples of this that were cited in the film were "Se7en" with Kevin Spacey as the killer, or the extremely graphic "Saw" series... Which I've only seen one of. After the first one, "I got it." But also things with a broader reach, like "The Purge," which show humanity becoming its worst, sometimes supported by society itself.
After seeing that documentary/primer last night, I wrote a short message to a friend of mine who I had worked with in some local indie film and music projects: what kinds of horror films will be made to reference the current times?
It was a question that I'd mulled over myself. I've been watching horror and science fiction films for decades, and I'm curious what cultural aspects of Right Now will be latched on to create the next otherworldly films. I did some journal-writing later that night where I asked what I would miss about life today were I somehow transported back to live in the 1970s, and what I wouldn't mind missing from the present day. A fairly typical "journal entry" kind of thing, for sure. But after even a short amount of pondering, the answer was clear: the Internet.
Earlier tonight, I watched another documentary: "Lo & Behold, Reveries of the Connected World." Werner Herzog made this one in 2016, and in it he explores ideas about the history and influence of the Internet. Apparently it started in 1969 at UCLA, with the sending of a computer signal of two letters: "L" and "O." The "Lo," in the title of the documentary. But he also touches on social consequences of the spread of the Internet, its cultural impact, anonymity, personal identity and security, tracking and surveillance, automation, AI and machine intelligence, and of course the "transcendentalism" of thinkers like Elon Musk.
The end credits weren't rolling longer than 30 seconds before I resolved to dedicate November to "No More Facebook." To sum up: I'm just gonna be done with it, for a lot of reasons.
So that's what's been rolling through my head lately, since you last wrote to me. I wonder how things are in the Czech Republic, I'm trying to find people jobs in the town where I work. I'm trying to find reasons to celebrate and have fun right now. My personal favourite holiday is coming up, and I think it's time to bring out my old DEVO helmet. It's the "flowerpot" style hat from their early years, most famous from their video for "Whip It." I am about 80% certain I'll be attending a backyard event at my most recent ex's house, where I'll dress up like "a DEVO guy," drink hot cider, and eat cinnamon rolls until late.
Then the morning of 1st November is the final volunteer day at the community garden. I'll be doing a bit of hauling and digging and clean-up stuff, and maybe dump some more coffee grounds on the plot I used this year, just in case I do go back in 2021.
I hope you have a chance to head out to the mountains and woods again sometime soon. Thanks for sending the pictures. I do hope things improve where you are. Take care, and please write back when you have the time and inclination.