Eschatology • 16 November 2008

The city’s on fire. This morning the sun was blood red coming up through the ash. There are two streams in the heavy air, pushed down from the mountains by Joan Didion’s Santa Anna winds (but montionless, eerie-still, outside my wall of windows).

First is is a smell like life—the fast-living oxidation of brush fire. Earthy with undertones of vetiver just like my brother’s French cologne. Our father, also a volunteer fire chief, taught us to love grassfire because the hard-scratched soil couldn’t work without its nitrogen, and love forestfire because that’s what it takes for pine cones to open (there’s a sermon on “refining fire” in which he burns open a pinion cone on the altar—god no wonder I’m doing what I do now).

But, second, there’s just death stench in the air. Homes converted to tarry gas. Grass burns white; forest fires are browned by treesap; but a house burns a horrible plume of black—shingles, paint, insulation, carpeting, appliances, overstuffed furniture, shoes, records, photographs.

We are fine here, eye of the hurricaine style—a mile south of the Getty, a mile east of the beach. But others are not fine. Twenty-six square miles ablaze, 800 homes down. Yesterday on the north end of the city 500 trailer homes went up: the fire chief unfurled a charred American flag and wept in a school gym, telling a evacuated thousand senior citizens the team had done everything they could to save their little hamlet. Usually when my dad calls to ask about fires, I’m just disappointed he cares more about nature’s reclamation of  hilltop mansions that never should have been built in the first place—I ask whether he’s read The Tortilla Curtain yet and change the subject to some less natural disaster.

But this time feels apocalyptic, I guess. I’ve been wearing my apocalypse goggles for months, it’s true—those years training as Armageddon lookout coming back around with every ATM out of service and every thoroughfare billboard painted white because there’s nothing to say now, and nothing to sell. Even art in this moment feel apocalyptically bad. We saw Synechdoche NY last night and wished we’d sold out instead for a quantum of narrative solace. As the Editor said, it's fine for an artist to misunderstand Borges or Baudrillard, but don’t make art demonstrating that ignorance. Abstract referencing is the "art" of unlived experience with a private school degree in lit crit: sophomoric in the extreme. In this case, an incoherent mixing of two conceptual schemas (parallel worlds and infinite regresses) insults the audience–referring to nothing as if winking to a knowingness shared only by "deep" people.

EDIT: The script is so vacant that I was tempted to interpret it as a meditation on emptiness and form: but nothing is not nothingness. Any ape can pelt signifiers at a canvas: what that yields here is neurosis and death, not emptiness and form. I emerged from the theatre awash in manufactured mysterey pumped up on the raw but dehumanized emotion of beautifully rendered little episodes. Over the hours, my irritation grew as I realized that conceptual art has the greatest possibilities but the lowst standards, and that a conceptual piece that seems to be fashionably Buddhist would shortchange me with half-baked nihilism.

Pretentiousness is one thing, but pretentiousness that trades on fake depth blows. Like the Santa Annas. Is this what America has to offer as high art? Dada existentialism? In the end it’s just Kaufman throwing at the screen whatever shit (literally) surfaces from his subconscious, flattering the audience that this shall spark “deep” recognitions about the nature of whatever. Letting the shadow wander on screen is genius when David Lynch does it. But Charlie K is no David Lynch. The film rings false, a small falseness amplified by self-satisfaction, enormous budget, and the adoration of confused reviewers. It's a movie about lit crit posing as a movie about experience. It feels like the end of art not because it's a final statement, but because it's really, really bad.

I do worry for a culture that praises this as its own high art and funds it to the nines. But… Kaufman isn’t really America’s idea of profound. He’s Los Angeles’ idea of profound. Or at least what's left of this town's Bush-Schwarzenegger era conceits, playing themselves out.

Today we burn. Down through the tar to the vetiver, I hope.