Out of Control

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about an impending police state or martial law, about “the socialists” and what they’ve got planned, and so on.  And it made me think of something.

You know those toy cards, the ones where you can look at it one way and see something, like Spider-man doing a kick, and then turn it slightly and look at it the other way and he’s in a different pose? That’s what all this stuff about gun control made me think of.

The gun control issue has deep roots in the age-long battle between the so-called right and left.  And since it involves the Constitution, many people dig their heels in deep.  There’s no real good argument as to why assault rifles are necessary, or even guns are necessary – a hand gun in the home is 12 times more likely to kill a friend or family member than an intruder.  And there’s no real good reason to make it a “the government can’t tell me what to do” issue, because nobody really balks at there being a speed limit, or that heroin is illegal, or that you can’t marry more than one person legally.  These we feel are reasonable restrictions on our lives.  But when it comes to guns, it becomes a power struggle.  It’s a chance to start talking about the evil empire trying to overtake and enslave us.

But I turn the card, just ever so slightly, and that’s what I already see.  I see socialism in the elite hegemony which controls the government through the banking industry.  I see a herd of automatons going to Wal-Mart, a country homogenized by Ford dealerships, strip malls and McDonalds.  I don’t see this mythical system of free-thinking people working the free-enterprise system for the benefit of all.  I see wage slaves throwing their crumbs into the mouth of the ever-inflating deficit beast.

The thing is, once you really start to think through an issue, the partisanship disappears.  An ultimate corporatocracy of bankers and private industry juggernauts are the results of capitalism run amok, and yet their existence resembles fascism, an oligarchy, or even a polygarchy.  Our economic system produces more traits in common with communism – the vast and growing global middle class acting as wage-slaves for the deficit looks like something from out of I, Robot, or what Ayn Rand was railing against in Anthem.

We all want to preserve the independent spirit of mankind, and maintain our freedoms.  But, for most of us, our use of freedom, whether we know it or not, is little more than an attempt to be comfortable and buy what we want, go where we want, and be left alone.

Real freedom, freedom from commercialism, from advertising, from debt, from the banks, from essentially economic enslavement, that’s different.  That requires a whole new paradigm to examine and to dismantle.  And I think people feel this – everyone feels something is pulling at them, and we react in this polarized fashion, with the pro-gun people gloming together over here, and the no-gun people globbing up over there.   We’re all feeling the same thing, but for whatever reason these people over here turn the 3D card just so and say it’s Obama and the “socialists” and the other group says it’s Republican rednecks and big business to blame.

It’s not either side.  It’s not about sides.  We are not a capitalist society or a socialist society. They crisscross and interweave.  Both “sides” have lost sight of essential truths, or wisdom, and instead more and more radicalism is growing so that people can feel heard in the din.  And in the midst of it, we lose logic and common sense.

Missing from the debate over gun control is whether or not the average person even really has a sense of what it is to own a gun and use it on another human being.  Lost in the argument is the simple and obvious truth that the majority of us have no real idea and are not emotionally or physically prepared to handle such a scenario.  Probably only the men and women who have been in the military understand the gravity of it.  And then you have Prince Harry, who was recently reported as comparing flying an Apache helicopter and firing on live targets with playing his Xbox back home.  You have a kid in New Mexico who just shot up his entire family (using a .22) who was said to spend an exorbitant amount of time playing Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.

We have these video games and these movies where we have become completely desensitized to what it actually means to shoot someone.  And the reality of shooting someone or getting involved in a shooting is far different than we may imagine. (The one person in recent history who tried to stave off a mass murderer by returning fire was shot five times.)

I’m not saying we don’t defend ourselves.  I have a family and will do anything to protect them.  But I don’t own a gun.  Who would I be shooting?  Some storm trooper who comes to my house to take my family away from me and send them off to internment camps?  I’d probably end up shooting someone by mistake.  In a world of guns, I’m more worried about my trigger-happy neighbor mistaking me for an intruder while I’m out having a smoke one night then some government police coming to my house to take me away.

But these G-Men – they DO sometimes come, don’t they?  Don’t men in Bowler hats or Fedoras wearing trenchcoats sometimes come and take people away?

They do.  But guess what.  They work for Monsanto.  Or Halliburton.  And they come because you threaten their profit margin.  You’re trying to do something on your own, be who you are, and they don’t like it.

Doesn’t that sound like the Gestapo?  It does to me.  It sounds like a powerful, private corporation.  It sounds like the government.  Thing is, they are virtually one in the same.  So it’s not a matter of a bloviated government fixating on reducing civil liberties just for kicks.  And it’s not about big business just being the bad guy because they have a gimmick that won the game for them and made them rich.  It’s the two in collusion. It’s when the government is completely controlled by the corporations who are controlled by money. That’s the nightmare scenario.

That’s what’s happening.  All of this strident debate over gun control is gas on the fire.  It’s making the people prone to keeping guns and worrying about the impending martial law even more paranoid.  And it’s making the people who don’t have guns tend to be more concerned than ever, worrying that these shootings and murders are only going to get worse.

Let’s stop worrying each other so much about guns, and start coming together about the things we can work on.

I recently sat down in my son’s room with a book called “How Things Work.” It was a fascinating read, about how electricity works, magnetism, car engines, generators, and all sorts of stuff.  He and I started talking about the flow of electrons through conductors and how batteries work with zinc on one side and copper on the other.  My baby daughter played around us as we talked, babbling and grabbing at things.  These two people are the future.

I want them to grow up in a world where what we’re talking about is becoming energy independent and sustainable so we don’t have bloated companies fabricating scarcity and product obsolescence in order to get us to keep buying, keep buying.  Our discourse should be about shifting our personal focuses towards resource conservation and away from the acquiring of money and power.

Once again, the issue of the day is symptomatic of a more systemic, underlying disease.  Let there be no mistake – the NRA takes in a ton of money.  It’s all about money.  We’re easily fooled by the rhetoric about rights and the Constitution because we want to badly to have something to believe in, something that protects what is our misguided sense of freedom.  We deserve to be free.  We deserve to have rights.  We deserve to form democratic groups and use our innovations to make life good, make life fun.  But once again we are rallying around an issue that obscures the real problem.  Our system is broken.  We don’t answer that by either disarming everyone or stockpiling guns in our basement.

One final word:  There’s a lot of religion-bashing going on lately, too.  Yet the biggest belief-system in an invisible god that exists on our planet is the faith in the money-market scheme.  Any human being alive who believes that the way our economy operates and the way we are exporting that system to nearly every other country on Earth is a participant in the hugest religion on the planet.  The myths of capitalism, free enterprise – they’re all just beliefs.  And today we live in a time where the man behind the curtain has been exposed, for those brave enough to look.

We don’t need to shoot that man in order to change.

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Books in the Hangover Sun

Many-BooksI was a user and a drinker for 15 years.  I’ve used cocaine, crack cocaine, ecstasy, MDMH, LSD, mushrooms, marijuana, mescaline, meth-amphetamines, snorted Ritalin; drank wine, beer, vodka, whiskey, whatever I could.  I never did heroin (though one night we thought we scored some in Harlem to snort, but it turned out to be bunk), so I don’t have any personal experience with that.

Mostly, alcohol was my drug of choice.  I started drinking in my early teens and kept on until I was 33.  Sometime around when I was 21, I noted to a friend gleefully: “I’ve been drunk every night for ten days straight!”  A triumph.

Before the DWIs, dysfunctional relationships, and squandered opportunities, I actually enjoyed alcohol.  I even enjoyed hangovers.  The thing about hangovers was that you kept feeling better as the day went on – and I am addicted to feeling better more than anything else.  As Frank Sinatra said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink; when they wake up, that’s the best they’ll feel all day.”  However, once my drinking was no longer socially acceptable, it became the behavior I concealed and protected.  Those walls can’t last forever, though, and soon began to crumble.

So I say I was a user, or an addict, for 15 years because that’s a rounded off number.  Really, though, I was born an addict, and still am an addict.  But it was that 15 years which was the period that marks my journey from first coming to see that alcohol and drugs were negatively impacting my life until the time, wracked with constant guilt, paranoia, anxiety, and health problems, that I finally hit rock bottom.  That I finally quit.

Glass molecules on a chemistry chart

In a way, we’re all addicts.  We all have a hypothalamus gland and cells with receptors for the peptides which feed them a variety of “chemical emotions.”  We all have brains equipped with neurotransmitters and the chemical-messengers dopamine and serotonin and others.  We have cells in our brains with opioid receptors, and we produce natural opioids like endorphins.  The chemicals we contain have many functions – endorphins have much to do with everything from childbirth to exercise.  They are responsible for many of the natural highs we talk about, called endorphins because of their endogenous nature and their similarity to morphine.

I learned a lot of this thanks to Gabor Mate’s  In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.  Mate, a Hungarian-born, Canadian-dwelling doctor, has produced a book as much a confessional as it is a series of jaw-dropping anecdotes about his work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where he spends his days dealing with the most desperate and forgotten kinds of addicts.  Mate’s own admission of addiction to classical music CDs seems absurd by comparison, but underscores the point: that addiction is addiction.  It is not caused by drug use; drug use is one of its expressions.  Mate asserts that both nature and nurture are at the root of it.  Certain genetic propensities create a vulnerability to stress, and when triggered, the coping mechanisms realm of ghostswhich either exist inherently in other people or are taught to them successfully don’t exist in the nascent addict.  Hence, he begins a lifelong pattern of poor coping skills.  Depending on the support in his life, or lack thereof, this often leads to a downward spiral.

Mate’s book seems relentlessly dark at first, but then illumines with hope as he progresses through coping with his own problems, and displays an admirable veracity for dealing with some of the worst addicts in the country.

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When someone tells you they love you, on a chemical level, your body literally feeds its cells the molecular equivalent of the abstract concept of love.  Your glands wash your cells in the peptides which correspond to the brain’s ideas of “love” – what it means to be validated, to be respected, and so on.  When you have a bad break-up with someone, it is literally like a withdrawal from a drug – the love drug is gone, no one is telling you they love you, and you have to “come down” from it, as your body replenishes the chemicals in other ways.

Some people over-eat.  Some people don’t eat.  Some people get into serious exercise, some dive into work.  Whatever it is that “distracts” the mind from feeling the loss of love also produces new chemicals to supplant the absent wash of the love-feeling.

It’s like cross-addiction.  It’s like suddenly discovering a zeal for coffee when alcohol gets the boot.  (I drank so much coffee after getting off booze that I felt like I could blow things up with my mind.)  We’re constantly switching and regulating so that we can keep our equilibrium, our medium of feeling.  And we tend to want more, too.  Whether it’s shopping to feel fulfilled, or it’s sex, or sports, we often aspire to feel better. We habituate ourselves to what rewards us.

There are those of us who use the less socially acceptable methods than others, and some who use methods which can wreak havoc on the body and deteriorate the mind.  The habits we form can kill us – but we can learn how to change them.

book-cover-duhiggIn his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg talks about the basal ganglia in our brains, the very primordial underpinnings of our habit-forming minds.  Everything, according to Duhigg, comes down to the simple equation of cue, routine, and reward, from brushing our teeth to picking up a drink.  It is not possible, he surmises (or at least not probable) to try and disassemble this equation, it is, to borrow from a concept in Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex.”  Rather, what works is to swap out the routine.  If the cue is stress, and the routine is beating the crap out of elephants (not good for elephants or the ecosystem) and the reward is a feeling of stress-relief, then that middle part of the equation needs to be switched for something else, like jogging, like meditation.  It may sound oversimplified, but it’s the way our minds work, boiled down to the basic mojo.  Duhigg’s writing is a little dry and you can feel some distance from the author, but perhaps this is the way the book is so effective in its delivery of these simple no-nonsense truths.

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During my active addiction, my mind was unraveling.  I was often locked in a hell of fear and guilt.  My habits were so strong they had altered the chemistry in my brain, the topography of my mind.

I couldn’t imagine walking through the door into someone like Gabor Mate’s office and saying, “I have a problem,” much less facing a group of people and saying, “Hello; my name is…”  It was inconceivable.  So, I kept using.  And eventually, to combat such seriously debilitating feelings of crushing depression, I started drinking in the morning, too.  Three, maybe four beers in the shower.  A couple more to make a six-pack’s worth in my bloodstream before walking out the door to take care of business.  Not long after that, a flask in my pocket filled with Jack Daniels or Kentucky Bourbon (it didn’t really matter the brand) and I was self-medicating all day long.

I finally managed abstention one Christmas Eve, five years ago from the time of this writing.  After many months of post-acute-withdrawal, I was able to start putting my life back together.  After that, I was able to build an even more improved life.  Now, while every day still requires the work of recovery, I can’t say I’ve ever had it better.

Surely You're Joking, Mr.FeynmanEarly in my time of repair, Mircea Eliade’s book The Sacred and the Profane helped me to gain perspective on some of the religious / spiritual concepts I was wrestling with.  Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s work, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai was a must-read (just as the Jim Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog, which references the book, is a must-see).  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers helped dispel my constant self-deprecation over why I wasn’t a best-selling author yet, or a film god, a professional hockey player for that matter, or an astronaut.  “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman nibbled away at any lingering notion I had that I was some sort of amateur physicist, and helped me move on.  Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser depicted the last seventy years in a way I could finally relate, never having realized the wondrous connection between the paving of our country and the thirty-second hamburger.  And retreating into David Mamet’s Bambi versus Godzilla allowed me to vicariously feel and say everything I had ever wanted to about the fractious movie business I had crawled away from, under a scorching hangover sun.

It is my deep conviction that the way a person is advanced (and the way that the world is advanced, collectively) is through the evolution of thought.  The brain is an organ, and that organ can be sick.  But there is something we each have in us that is a “wise heart” and a “wise mind,” which allow us a sort of meta-cognition, or “thinking about thinking,” and can transcend biological limitations. Reading the works of the author’s cited above tapped into that seat of my soul, and helped progress my thinking to where I was not only able to get out of the trap, but find the hope and reinforcement to stay out.  This is crucial for any addict, anywhere.

Feed your mind now that your stomach is empty.

Others:

The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure – Chris Prentiss

The Tao of Abundance – Laurence G. Boldt

The Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu

The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker

The Road (fiction) – Cormac Mccarthy

This is How – Augusten Burroughs

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Untitled

I am going to predict the future.

First, so you understand who I am: I am a happy person with a family.  I own my own business.  I am not a Democrat or a Republican, but a registered Independent.  I subscribe to no particular religion, but enjoy and apply elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism to my life.

Many controversial topics end up in a war of “Church” versus “State.”  These debates are of little value.  Religions are not appropriate institutions to govern and legislate to a large group of people because in order to work, fundamentalism needs to be reinforced.

But, secular society is flawed, too.  The “state” operates via a money-market system which promotes economic slavery, both nationally and globally.  The state is little more than laws which fluctuate based on corporate interests.

Recently, a friend of mine returned from a trip to Nicaragua where he shared a single room with a family, showered in a bucket, and witnessed their adulation of America.  “We live in a fantasy land,” he said to me.

If you ask the average person on the street why we are such a relatively powerful and robust country, they are likely to talk about free enterprise.  They will point to hard work and democracy as the reason why the US currently uses 50% of the world’s resources.

It is not the case.

Why do we have so much compared to others?  Authors like Jared Diamond have described a history of guns, germs, and steel.  Tracing things back to a time when humans began leaving behind their nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life to create agricultural societies, a shift occurred in how we live on the planet.  Based on certain favorable conditions, some early agricultural societies flourished and evolved, while others did not.  Put very simply, these societies then conquered the others via guns, germs, and steel.

The first empires were formed.  Civilizations rose and fell.  In its most current incarnation, the great empire is the corporatocracy which is firmly intertwined with the U.S. government.  The U.S. provides the most capital of any nation to the World Bank, which lends money to struggling countries who are offered “conditionalities” for the loan which are hopelessly untenable.  The underdeveloped nation then cannot pay back their loans or the interest and are forced to sell their resources cheaply to our country and / or go to work in factories making our clothes and amenities.

This is global economic slavery.

At home, we are a nation of wage slaves who provide for ourselves food and housing, but exist primarily as units paying into the monumental deficit built into the money market system through fractional reserve banking and interest-generated inflation and debt.  We serve the bankers and the corporatocracy.

It’s easy to flinch at this and say it is a bleak, pessimistic view of the world.  It is not.  It is simply the portrayal of how things are with the rose-tinted glasses removed.

We do not spread democracy to other countries.  If our corporations cannot get the resources we need from other countries, we have a simple three-step procedure.  First we send in economic hitmen (private “consultants”) to try and corrupt any politician who doesn’t play our ball game.  These leaders are sometimes bought off, such as Mossadeq, in 1950s Iran, who was then replaced by the Shah.  When this doesn’t work, “Jackals” are used to apply more extreme measures, as with Ecuador in 1981, when Roldos-Aguilera was democratically elected in an overwhelming landslide, his platform that he would use Ecuadorian resources to benefit the people.  He died in a plane crash shortly after his election.  Or, the same year when Torrijos of Panama who wanted to put the Panama Canal back in the hands of the Panamanian people also went down in a plane crash.  When that doesn’t work, as was the case with Saddam Hussein, the military is sent in.  The list goes on and on.

People often react to notions like these as “conspiracy theories.”  For them, it should be noted that the corporatocracy owns the very media which influences their opinion.  Propagandaist movements with marketable storylines featuring dehumanized nations and demonized leaders are used to manipulate popular opinion.  “Reds,” “Commies,” “Terrorists” are some of the propaganda terms which come readily to mind.

Still, the hardest thing for most people to swallow is the idea that there is some conscientious malfeasance behind all of this.  That in order for such a nefarious empire to exist, there has to be some mastermind behind it all, and that is hard for people to accept.  It isn’t, anyway, the case.

We are built to pursue pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy.  Some people are narcissists, others are not.  Some are more susceptible to greed, others less tempted by it.  Hence, some politicians can be bought, others stick to their ideals.  It all comes down to personal psychology and how each individual was born and raised, and what epigenetic influences helped shape who they are.  Aggregately, we then form groups, consciously or not, of different types of people.  People who knowingly dump pollutive, toxic materials into a forest to save money, or who look the other way when a dehumanized nation is enslaved are a certain type of people.  And for most of us, we aren’t necessarily “bad,” or “good” people, but highly susceptible, especially in an age of endless, fractious stimuli, to oversimplify and become easily distracted by the cultural and religious myths of the day.

That’s all there is to it.

Now, what’s going to happen in the future is a logical extension of what is happening now.  Right now, for instance, the great continent of Africa is home to seven of the ten fastest growing nations in the world.  They are on track to rival Russia and India in their spending power.  The way they have been evolving is through entrepreneurships in technology and communications.  These nations are going to demand better roads, want to build bridges, need better schools, and so on.  In short, they are going to need resources.

According to Jim Garrison, President of the State of the World Forum:

“Taken cumulatively, the integration of the world as a whole, particularly in terms of economic globalization and the mythic qualities of ‘free market’ capitalism, represents a veritable empire in its own right… Few have been able to escape the ‘structural adjustments’ and ‘conditionalities’ of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or the arbitrations of the World Trade Organization… Such is the power of globalization that within our lifetime we are likely to see the integration, if unevenly, of all national economies in the world into a single global, free market system.”

Essentially, in our exploitation and structural adjustment of other countries, we simultaneously export the myth of our freedom and material wealth.  The economically enslaved country naturally covets what we are advertising.  From kids wearing T-shirts depicting American pop icons to governments and businesses seeking to model our own, they struggle to do just what we commit them to: become like us.

The only problem is, what the planet needs is 180 degrees the other way around.

It is estimated that by 2050 or sooner, these nations of the world with growing industrial economies, such as China, India, Russia, and these African nations, are going to push the globe into a food shortage crisis of unprecedented implications; we simply are not going to have enough food or any other resources to accommodate an industrialized global society.

The earth is having so many problems now serving the gluttony of the United States, there is no way it will be able to support its developing clones with current fossil-fuel based, corporate-controlled resources.  “Globalization” means, essentially, a Corporate America which runs the whole world.  There is no other ideology; the naïve sentiment of a global free enterprise where everyone is fairly competing and contributing value is simply impossible within the prevalent (read: only) existing infrastructure.

That infrastructure is a money-market system wherein currency is created out of thin air by fractional reserve banking and interest repayment.  Absolutely zero equanimity can be achieved under the precepts of this system.  In fact, according to massive studies, more than half of every developing nation influenced by U.S. economic policy has suffered an increase of unemployment, poverty, and famine.  This is because that economic policy, and the money-market paradigm which pervades it, is antithetical to equality and empathy.  Its lords are profit and social stratification.

At a national level, profit-motive and social stratification have immense implications and tragic, observable results.  The dependency, poverty, unemployment, violence, greed, and inequality of any country are not contingent on its President or its law makers.  These things are a direct result of the social and economic systems which structure that country or society.  Hunter-gatherer societies do not have the myriad problems of money-market, bank-run countries. More communal societies, and nations which have simply less of an idea of personal entitlement have far fewer inequality and pollution-related problems as capitalist countries do.

Imagine these problems on a global scale.

This is the future.  A global money-market system where the ubiquitous profit motive fabricates resource scarcity and plans product obsolescence in order to maximize profit.  A gigantic “middle-class” which demands the material standard the American middle class does today with controlled, dwindling fossil fuel resources.  An enormous, global “lower class” with almost nothing to survive on and nothing to lose, forced to riot and war with one another in a struggle to survive as their lands are further depleted of monetized resources.  And an even loftier-than-now and more inimical hegemony of an ultra-rich corporatocracy at the top of it all, untouchable and unimpeachable, wielding the power.

That is the future as it stands.

There is no altering the course; globalization is part of the law of entropy and is inexorable. The only way in which we can possible weather the scope of the growing pains to come is to switch from a monetary system, which favors social stratification, resource scarcity and monetary profit, to a resource-based system, which engenders abundance, equality, efficiency, and sustainability.  Oil, coal, gas, and hydrogen need to be swapped for tidal, solar, wind, wave, magnetic, and geothermal power.

Is it possible?  That’s one thing I don’t know that any one of us can predict.  The only thing we can do is try.

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What Happened to Nicolas Cage?

In this article we’re going to try to answer three questions.

  1. Why does Nicolas Cage make so many movies?
  2. Why, lately, do most of them stink in ice?
  3. Where did his sideburns go?

Nobody cranks out movies quite like Nicolas Cage.  In the past ten years, the 49 year-old actor has churned out 25 feature films – almost all of which have received tepid reviews and mediocre box office responses, at best.  Every movie looks like the last.  Single-word thrillers like Next, Knowing, Trespass, and Stolen.  Occasional forays into the fantastical with Ghost Rider, Kick-Ass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Season of the Witch. The adventuresome National Treasure Series.  Lending his voice to the animated Astro Boy and G Force.

cage driving angryMost frequently, Cage is a two dimensional anti-hero in a fast-paced, 90 minute thriller.  It’s as though the actor has turned acting and moviemaking into an assembly line job.  Maybe he was meant to work at the factory?  Each of these movies feels like an idea which could have been executed as a better film by more skilled directorial or writerly hands.  It isn’t Cage that ruins the films, is it?  National Treasure is a subpar Indiana JonesGhost Rider’s flames are luke-warm in comparison to other superhero flicks like the Batmans or even Spider-Mans.  The animated features are second-tier.  Sometimes it feels like a Cage production is a dealing with Disney on acid.  But it didn’t always used to be this way.

nicolas-cage-bought-a-pyramid-seriously.jpgThere was a time when the actor who wore an apron for Fast Times at Ridgemont High didn’t buy funeral pyramids, or dinosaur bones, and didn’t sue his business manager after going nearly bankrupt.  Is a mismanagement of funds or alimony payments part of the reason that Cage has become a machine making back-to-back “paycheck” films?  Probably.  You can always follow the dollar.  But, you can always peer behind the curtain, too, and seek the underlying motivations for such irresponsible behavior and fiscal chicanery.

One thing is for sure – somewhere, Cage took a wrong turn.  But which came first – the chicken or the Cage?  Did the actor start making bad movies because he was going broke, or did he start acting irresponsibly because he was making bad movies?  Because in his pock-marked career, there sure are some good flicks.  Even some great ones.

Remember Raising Arizona?  What other glassy-eyed, perpetually bed-headed, hapless protagonist could you picture in that role?  Or what about Adaptation?  Cage’s role as the twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman are nothing short of brilliant.  Turns in other films like Matchstick Men and Lord of War come to mind; the former has Cage prone to horrific panic attacks as he deals with chronic anxiety and social phobias, the latter pits him as a narcissistic international gun dealer grappling with an immigrant’s inferiority complex.  Bringing out the Dead was an incredible film with Cage’s character an utter mess, purple rinds under his eyes, sallow and haunted.  And lest we forget the brilliant Leaving Las Vegas.  No one plays a suicidal drunk like Nicolas Cage.

adaptation-still-1

…Wait, are we seeing a pattern here?  Maybe we are seeing two patterns.  Cage seems to do well as a deeply flawed character with the hounds of hell at his heels.  And these types of characters exist in films crafted by gifted writers and directors.

Ok, let’s do this.  Let’s break Cage’s career apart into three realms.  One, the most recent churn-em out, cookie cutter movies by more or less no-name directors we’ve already noted.  Two, what we haven’t acknowledged yet: the slew of mid-nineties actioners usually produced by the then Simpson-Bruckheimer team, mostly from the mid-90s, like Con Air and The Rock and Face/Off, back when action movies sort of mattered.  And then three, films we’re talking about now where Cage plays a character who is a miserable wreck of a human being, and the director at the helm is one of the most talented in the field.

Consider:  Wild At Heart.  Cage is Sailor Ripley, an outlaw with a severe identity crisis; he thinks he’s Elvis.  Director?  David Lynch.  Raising Arizona, Cage is a pushover whelp, used by his wife to kidnap a baby, and unable to stand up to the ex-cons who come and mess everything up.  Writer and Directors?  The Coen Brothers.  Who brought out the dead in the Paul Schrader scripted drama about an ambulance driver in NYC?  None other than Martin Scorsese.  And Adaptation?  The talented Spike Jonze.

con air cage

It’s as though, like with Adaptation, there are two Nicolas Cages.  Maybe three, but the third one has all but died out – giant action extravaganzas packed with other stars like Con Air or The Rock have gone bye-bye.  Just two Cages remain, like Charlie and Donald Kaufman.  And one of them is dying, too.

In the hands of a great director, and with a great script, playing a deeply flawed character, like Little Junior Brown in the 1995 remake of Kiss of Death, Cage is memorable and often even amazing.  Then, in the throwaway films like Drive Angry and Seeking Justice, Cage is a cardboard cutout, much like the films themselves.

Is he a “true actor” who needs to be molded by the story and the director in order to shine?  Or is something else going on here?

In looking at the Cage movies to come – Kick Ass 2, Wild Side, Outcast, Left Behind – it seems like we are in for more of the same forgettable “thrillers” of the past ten years.  Hiring Cage guarantees at least some semblance of decent box office numbers.  He probably doesn’t have to do too much in a film like The Expendables 3, except show up and get paid.  And speaking of showing up – it’s known that the actor requires three trailers on set – this is stipulated in his contract – one is where he has his mobile gym, and the others are for sleeping and entertaining.

Nicolas CageAnd there’s something about his sideburns.  I know it may seem like a stretch, but think about this:  Not since Gone in 60 Seconds has Nick sported burns.  At some point the notion must’ve gotten into his head that they don’t look good.  So, every movie since, Cage doesn’t have them.  His hairline doesn’t even bear the subtle hint of them.  No.  His hair is sheared right above ear level in every single movie.  They say he is self-styled in this way.

Is he a little bit nuts, do you think?  He should’ve been a billionaire by now, with the number of films he has done.  But then there’s that financial mismanagement and alimony to consider. Okay, but why would such a bankable star not recoup losses making top quality films? He’s done it before. Why keep cranking out mediocrity? Why one throwaway flick after another?  Why live life perpetually in your three trailers, pumping iron, shaving your sideburns vigorously, saying your pat, formulaic lines, and never stopping?  Yes, he needs to buy back some of the houses and valuables he sold in order to pay off the IRS, but there’s got to be a deeper reason. Is he too hard to work with? Too inconsistent in his performances?

nicolas-cage-yngThe head-shrinkers have a word for it.  It’s called Pathological.  Here’s my theory:  Cage, born Nicolas Coppola, nephew to Francis Ford Coppola, changes his name as a young man.  He picks something action heroish, but still with the “C,” to keep a little tie to his heritage.  Name change or not, he gets a few opportunities the rest of us probably wouldn’t.  After a tiny role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cage’s first noteworthy role is in Rumblefish, directed by – you guessed it – Francis Ford Coppola.  Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little nepotism.

Next, though, Cage goes to work on Racing with the Moon, brought on board by Ridgemont High star Sean Penn.  Nothing much happens until a couple of years later when Cage gets another chance to act in a memorable film, one that will finally put him on the map.  This is Peggy Sue Got Married and it’s directed by…yep, Uncky Francis.  You can see why Cage changed his name.  Raising Arizona follows, and the rest is history.

So, in his early days, Cage was nurtured and molded by great directors, starting with his own uncle.  He was given juicy roles where his primary concern was likely not to screw them up.  The early successes steer Cage toward his time as a bonafide action star in the Simpson-Bruckheimer films.  During that era he is trading off to work on that ilk of films where he is able to shine, films made by talented people which feature depraved and troubled characters – the ones where he is hitting around the mark at some deep truth within himself – that he is an anxiety-ridden pushover whelp at heart, a man with an identity crisis, his soul cleaved in two.

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But all of the success these truth-mining performances bring, along with the big billboard successes of the action films goes to Cage’s head.  Inevitably, he gets the swollen “actor head” and starts with the quirky habits – one can only imagine.  Now his career starts to take the shape of a man obsessed.  A man running from something.  The “important” films are less and less (the ones in which he plumbs his own psyche to produce some decent work) and now replaced with titles like Next (as in, “Let’s get on it with it, keep moving, onto the next set!”)  and Seeking Justice.  Is little Nicolas Coppola seeking some of his own justice?  Maybe he’s still trying to find out who he really is.   After all these years he’s still trying to prove he can do it on his own, he can still be the Cage.

Maybe that name has some psychological implications he is only now beginning to understand.

(But probably not, because he is pathologically busy working and thinking about buying another pyramid.)

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NEXT:

What happened to Val Kilmer?

The Movies of 2012

If you’re like most people, when you hear the media buzzing about the “best of 2012” movies towards the end of the year, chances are you haven’t seen a lot of them.  Maybe there’s a few you’ve never even heard of.  I have two kids and a modest travel budget, so I don’t often go to film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto.  And that’s where a lot of the movies on the critics’ top ten lists were screened.

2012 was a year of major blockbusters; much-anticipated continuations of a saga, from Twilight to the Alien and Batman franchises.  It was a year for stunning debuts, disappointing megaflops, surprise hits, and computer animated adventures.  And it was a year full of festival favorites, comedies, and innovative independents.

I’ve broken things up into five categories.  Among these seventeen noteworthy films, you may find the independent gems you missed, features which got the most creative with the least money, and the highest grossing films of the year.

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The Little Guys Are Giving The Big Guys A Run For Their Digital Money

The line is blurring between independent films and bigger fare.  The technology is available for austere films to create some special effects and deal with the subject matter of time travel or monsters in a way that rivals the big studio juggernauts.

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-At a paltry $1.8 million, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of a six year-old girl called Hushpuppy who encounters magical creatures.  These “aurochs” have manifested due to global warming – particularly the flooding of Hushpuppy’s board-and-batten bayou town, thanks to melting polar ice caps.  The filmmakers employed a method of special effects some call “going analog,” meaning due to budget constraints they had to forego digital effects for more traditional make-up and puppetry.  Effects director Ray Tintori looked at the practical methods from the 1940s to the 1980s to see what could be done.  The results had fans of the film declaring that the effects in Beasts were better than anything made by a computer.  With that endorsement and a riveting story featuring a bright young star, Beasts soared from squalor to heavenly praise – it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

-While 30 mil is nothing to sneeze at, it’s still relatively modest compared to other sci-fi films that star either Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception – $160mil) or Bruce Willis (The Fifth Element – $90mil in 1997) and yet totally delivers the goods.  Looper dares to plumb the depths of mind-bending time travel, deftly negotiating the sticky paradoxes and parallel realities that arise with the subject, all while keeping in the budget.

Chronicle uses $12 million to portray three teenage boys who come across a mysterious, buried artifact which bestows them with great powers.  Part of the cunning of this film is that it uses the “found footage” genre style of often shaky, amateur camerawork to enhance its effects (or sometimes hide their shortcomings.)  Taken one frame at a time, a few seconds of a blurry, handheld shot is far cheaper to build an effect within than, say, a steady, close-up shot of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies, which costs megabucks.

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We Didn’t Blow Up After All

After a rash of disaster and end of the world films over the past decade (some of which dealt directly with 2012 as the apocalypse) we seemed to decide this year to lighten up, laugh at ourselves a little bit, and indulge in romantic notions.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a road movie that puts a self-aware spin on the “asteroid-headed-for-earth” genre.  Steve Carell and Kiera Knightley star in the drama/romance/sci-fi film that situates them on an Earth which has three weeks left before celestial disaster.  Abandoned by his wife when news of Armageddon hits, Carell responds to a love letter from a former high school sweetheart and hits the road, hoping to spend his last days happy, but unable to predict how his neighbor (Knightley) will turn his plans upside down.

Silver Linings Playbook showcases three talents at the top of their game – director David O’Russell and actors Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Bradley Cooper (Limitless).  Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a former teacher who has moved back in with his parents after doing a stint in a mental health institution.  Jennifer Lawrence is Tiffany, the girl he meets who has problems of her own.  The film, though, seemed to have no problems at all, and took home the People’s Choice at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

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-Another film which deals with time travel in an economical and creative manner, Safety Not Guaranteed stars Mark Duplass.  Duplass, who currently lives in Vermont, often directs films with his brother, Jay.  In Safety, Duplass takes a turn as an actor, playing a character who believes his vintage Datsun 280Z is actually a time machine.  The film is based on a real-life classified ad placed in a magazine; the person who placed the ad was looking for someone to travel back in time with.

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If It Goes Boom, The Box Office Explodes/ aka A Superhero World

$623 million is more than the GDP of some small countries, but when you put megawatt stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson into a film about a group of superheroes saving the planet in a time when super hero movies have never done better, you can understand the response.  The Avengers was the top-grossing film of 2012, both domestically and worldwide.  (The global gross is a whopping $1.5 billion.)  Plus, there are the half a dozen films which were somewhat planned to and somewhat accidentally prequel the movie, fueling the anticipation for the culmination.  Like a lot of pics in 2012, the genius is in how The Avengers doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet remains vigilantly dedicated to satisfying the fans.

Batman wasn’t far behind the pace; The Dark Knight Rises grossed nearly $450 million eight years after the preceding The Dark Knight swept audiences into the dark cowl of the lone hero’s cloak.  In the third of the Christopher Nolan written and directed trilogy, the gritty, psychologically-burdened Batman takes on Bane, a sociopath bent on turning the city of Gotham into total anarchy.  The Dark Knight Rises, then, did indeed take itself seriously, but this didn’t seem to hurt the audience response.

The Hunger Games, ringing the till at $408 million is one of those zeitgeist films that had the thrall of a black hole.  Author Suzanne Collins struck gold with a trilogy of books about a future world where children are pitted against one another in a life or death struggle for survival.  The event is an appeasement to the powers of the day, and the “games” are broadcast live to the world for mass entertainment.  It doesn’t matter that stories-turned-movies like The Running Man or foreign films like the Battle Royale series have nearly identical subject matter which predate Collins’ books and the subsequent films.  In fact, it probably only helped her success.

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The Films We Didn’t Get To See At Film Festivals Because We Live In The Real World

The Sessions was called The Surrogate when it appeared at Sundance early this year.  Starring John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Helen Hunt (Twister), the film takes us on the incredible and intimate journey of a 36 year-old poet and journalist in an iron lung.  He decides he wants to lose his virginity and hires a sex “surrogate” to seal the deal.  What results is a relationship which brings far more than carnal maturation, but the evolution of the poet’s manhood itself.   The Sessions won the Audience Award at Sundance.

Seven Psychopaths boasts an all-star cast and a trope like we’ve come to expect from Los Angeles, a city famous for its ouroboros’ tendency to devour itself.  In Psychopaths, a struggling screenwriter gets mixed up in an L.A. crime syndicate when a gangster’s dog is kidnapped by the writer’s friends.  But the hackneyed plot and Snatch-like ensemble storytelling wasn’t what captured the Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.  With razor-sharp writing, loaded with laughs and imbued with an awareness that avoids being cloyingly self-conscious, Seven Psychopaths succeeds because, simply, it’s good material.

Taking the Palme D’Or at Cannes is not easy.  This year in May, Michael Haneke was able to achieve the prestigious honor with his film AmourAmour brings us into the world of Georges and Anne, who are both in their eighties.  They are a pair of cultivated, retired music teachers whose daughter lives abroad.  One day, so the story goes, something happens to Anne, which severely tests the bonds of her and Georges’ relationship.  Born in Munich, Michael Haneke has written 25 films and directed 24.  Each film is like fine art.  Time of the Wolf, from 2003, is a must-see.

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Honorable Mention: The Impossible was premiered at TIFF as a special presentation and received a standing ovation.  It was later released in Spain to its first audiences.  The film stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a married couple searching for their children in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami which wrought unprecedented devastation to Thailand in 2004.  In a world with a 48 hour news cycle, even the big disasters tend to shrink in our rear view mirrors.  Films like The Impossible – beautifully crafted and acted, help us to remember our humanity.

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Everyone’s Got One

In the end, movies are defined by their audience.  It’s no surprise that the top-grossing films of 2012 and the top user-ratings on the Internet Movie Database are nearly the same.  But what about other voices?  Rottentomatoes.com is a website renowned for being an alternative resource for encountering films outside the mainstream.  Tomatoes lists This Is Not a Film, How to Survive a Plague, and The Invisible War as its top-three rated, all documentaries.

And then, of course, there is my humble opinion.  I wanted to get to see Lincoln, but, like I said, having two young kids makes getting to the movies sometimes not so easy.  I did, however, manage to sneak away under cover of night and see these:

Prometheus had already drawn mixed reviews, but I sat down with an open mind.  Dyed-in-the-wool fans of the Alien movie legacy had voiced disgruntlement that the film departed from the proper lore, and critics in general decried numerous plot holes.  It didn’t matter.  Prometheus was a dark and memorable journey, immersing my mind in the elements of great sci-fi.

-When I saw Argo, I couldn’t help but think how Ben Affleck spent ten years in the hot seat as America’s favorite celebrity to hate.  His meteoric rise to fame made him an easy target.  When the actor reemerged as a feature director, Gone Baby Gone handled controversial subject matter both judiciously and unsparingly, and The Town was a straight heist film with a flawless approach.  Argo presented the challenge of telling a story based on real life – one in which most people already know the ending.  Yet the film delivered taut suspense and once again showed off Affleck’s chops.  Argo recounts the tale of a group of diplomatic personnel escaping revolutionary Iraq in the 1970s.  In its own way, the story is also self-referential, or “meta,” like a lot of these 2012 films; the cover for the fleeing fugitives is that they are part of a movie crew.

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-Finally, My better half dragged me out to see Life of Pi on a rare date night.  Like a typical oaf, my mind wandered as the story set itself up, introduced the likeable main character, and hinted at a love interest.  As things unfolded, however, my attention grew until I completely gave over.  The only movie I’ve watched in 3D this year, I wonder what the Ang Lee film would have felt like without the extra effect.  But without a doubt, I was captivated by this fantastic story about a boy who, adrift at sea, has a Bengal tiger for a companion.

Perhaps we can all relate.

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My absolute favorite for 2012?  Joe Carnahan’s testosterone-charged The Grey.  The film, starring Liam Neeson, is often listed as a 2011 film, but it was actually released January 27th of 2012.  Which is cool, because nothing else topped it all year.  And no, it’s not because it’s “testosterone-charged” that I love it.  That was just something I thought, for a moment, was smart to say.  The Grey succeeds precisely because of how packed with emotion it is.  When Liam Neeson is in the plane just after it, you know (okay if you haven’t seen the film by now, I’m sorry but I’m gonna spoil it) after it crashed, and he’s taking that wounded passenger through dying; I mean, really guiding him home – that did it.  I knew right there that this was the movie.  The Grey cuts to the bone and gets to the heart of everything – nature, what it is to be a man, what it is to lead, what it is to love, to lose, to die, and to fight.  Nuff said.

Liam Neeson in The Grey

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