Outrageous events are avalanching, so any analysis risks becoming immediately obsolete, and even quaintly so. Just two weeks ago was the good old days. Remember when you could perform extraordinary tasks like loafing in a bar just to shoot the shit, walking down the street unperturbed or saying to a diner waitress, “Over easy, please,” then leisurely wait for the old bird to bring you your eggs?
“Here you are, honey.”
Is this a bad movie or what? And we’re all just extras, ghostly blurs flitting in the background, with our sickness or death not even a weeny tick in the constantly swelling statistics. Many, though, will insist there is no health crisis, for this is just a trumped-up mirage, orchestrated by all governments, working together.
Fact is, half of America is already under house arrest, with the remainder soon to follow, most likely. All of Italy, Spain, France, Greece and India are already in lockdown. As James Howard Kunstler points out, “At least in wartime, the bars stay open,” so this is an even worse disruption.
Growing up in wartime Saigon, I’d go to the movies, like everybody else, and we watched chopsockies, mostly, but also American flicks like Planet of the Apes and the Poseidon Adventure. For a relentlessly optimistic country that always preaches progress, America can’t stop dreaming of collective disasters and dystopias. Deep down, it always knew, somehow.
I’m writing this in South Korea. Landing here nearly a month ago, I half expected to find a country in crisis, panic and despair, but it’s much more normal here than nearly everywhere else. In Busan, folks still stroll on Dadaepo, Gwangalli and Haeundae Beaches. Arcaded markets are daily thronged with shoppers. Teenagers play basketball outside, as men lift weights nearby. At rush hours, the suits fill subway cars.
Sitting at a convenience store, I can hear two boys goofing around behind me, and see, outside the ample window, cars and pedestrians passing by. It’s an act of grace just to be a zooplankton in the stream of life. Heading for a recycling center, an old woman pulls a cart stacked with folded cardboard boxes, which she has spent all morning collecting. Nearing the end, her juices still flow, so she must exert. Led by his mom, a boy nervously crosses the street on a red tricycle.
Are you being sheltered in place, with only a screen for company?
The electronic screen hasn’t just defined, but shaped and usurped America, so there’s hardly any country left, just citizens, very loosely speaking, in solitary confinement with their magic lanterns, and that’s what we have now, most concretely.
To the rest of the world, America is not just a kaleidoscope of movies, but is itself a film, a road movie launching into space. Mesmerized, they watch from afar and fantasize about being an extra in this greatest of flicks.
On the walls, there were images of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, John Travolta in Saturday Night Live, the Star Trek crew, Batman and Luke Skywalker. Also on display were Darth Vader and Clone Trooper helmets, a Bart Simpson mask, and signs for Hollywood Boulevard, Bourbon Street and Route 66.
Rolling down Route 66, Easy Rider ends with both Fonda and Hopper senselessly killed, just after they had a bad acid trip with two prostitutes in a New Orleans cemetery. The entire movie, though, is pretty much one bad trip, what with them being turned away from a motel, jailed, refused service in a restaurant and pummeled in their sleep, a beating that got Jack Nicholson murdered. The only real fun they had was skinny dipping with two babes in a hot spring. Mardi Gras was like some voodoo rite, with a dead cat by the side of the road.
Despite all that, the movie still seduces, because our heroes are so cool (thus quintessentially American), and the landscape looks so sweet and inviting. It is vast, yet not savage, with the only threatening beasts its rural inhabitants.
Louisiana didn’t appear too appealing in that movie, did it? Still, Morganza (pop. 610) marked the 50th anniversary of its release. An article about this in the Advocate, out of Baton Rouge, quotes recollections by several locals, including those who appeared in the film, so there is tremendous continuity there. People stay put and remember.
Seventy-year-old Elida Hebert Aronstein recalls these Hollywood invaders as “ugly, dirty men. They smelled. They’d probably been on the road all week.” Yet the village welcomed and collaborated with the filmmakers, even to the point of slandering itself as a redneck cesspool.
For a more sympathetic view of ordinary, salt of the earth Americans, one must turn to another Nicholson vehicle, Five Easy Pieces. This is sort of a road movie, since it’s about escape.
Born into an affluent, cultured and musically accomplished family, Bobby can’t stand his sterile and pretentious milieu, or his father’s expectations, so he reinvents himself as just some Joe Sixpack. Bobby works on an oil field, bowls and drinks with his best friend Elton, shacks up with a waitress and beds women. Still, he’s never satisfied, concludes his girlfriend, Rayette, superbly played by Karen Black.
Devoted to Bobby, Rayette can’t help but compulsively play Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” a song he’s so sick of.
Already bored and often short with Rayette, Bobby becomes enraged when she got pregnant. Elton gives him the news.
“She’s all torn up about it, too, which I hate to see. Well, hell, isn’t it something you just have to face up to? I’ll tell you, somewhere along the line, you even get to liking the whole idea. When Stoney first give me the news, I could have shit. Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
Bobby’s response is telling, “It’s ridiculous! I’m sitting here listening to some cracker asshole who lives in a trailer park compare his life to mine. Keep telling about the good life, Elton, because it makes me puke!”
Elton, “Well, if you’re saying you think you’re something better than what I am, now that’s something else. But I can’t say much of someone who could run off and leave a woman in a situation like this, and feel easy about it, and that’s all I have to say.”
This, Bobby eventually does, and that’s how the movie ends. Free, he’s moving on.
America, too, has defined freedom as a self-sanctioned license to ignore consequences, or even disasters, but suddenly, that easy ride has come to an end.
Emma Lazarus calls the Statue of Liberty the “Mother of Exiles,” and America has been certainly been an unprecedented refuge for those escaping, well, just about everything: king, poverty, debts, religious persecution, Communism, Fascism, criminal convictions or war, including many started by America itself. With your house burning, you run towards the arsonist. America has also been a beacon for many who just want more wealth, glamor or space, but what all exiles have in common is a rejection, whether anguished or ecstatic, of their homeland, which is all they have ever known.
Come and reinvent yourself, an American specialty, and this enticement is also dangled to the native-born, for it’s practically an American imperative to turn away from home, hometown, home state and especially your geeky or doofy self, so embarrassing in that high school yearbook. Outgrowing everything, you’ll tatt up, dye your hair, get a new wardrobe and move to, say, California. Though you may end up sleeping on a pissy Tenderloin sidewalk, you’ve made tremendous progress, buddy, for you’re on your own!
As the richest advance their careers and increase their wealth by networking, the poorest are constantly told they must help themselves, as independent loners, for that’s their freedom.
Lately, this escape creed has been ramped up to include even an apostasy against your own anatomy, but nature, though, has her own rules and tyranny, and disease, episodic or final, has always been her way of reminding us who has the last laugh.
About author Linh Dinh’s latest book is Postcards from the End of America, an account of our political, economic and social unraveling. He is also the author of three books of fiction and five of poetry.