Carrie & Lowell & Sufjan & Me

The 39-year-old boy, Sufjan Stevens, is bent over, his back almost to us. He is finding the keys and pushing them down, on a piano that looks like it came from an attic and it probably did. The band quietly assembles, accompanying him, but only in presence. The song, “Redford,”* is from an early album, Greetings from Michigan. We are in Wisconsin, which isn’t so far from Michigan, and yet, so very far.

I first listened to Michigan while I was in New York and unhappy, to which Hannah Warren would say, “nobody’s happy in New York, but they’re alive,”** although it’s unclear whether I was that, either. On streets, in head shots, through the casting office, I watched people who had sculpted and hardened and polished themselves into beauty. Inspired, I ransacked the internet for the right diet and died to it, denying myself food and repeatedly purging my system with “natural” cleansing protocols. Then I wondered why my body became a stick figure, my face a red acne bomb and my heart a lead balloon. I listened to track number 13 of Michigan, “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” over and over again, until I was crying, until I was crying and groaning, until the Spirit was groaning for me.

Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin

And so begins the next song, “Death with Dignity,” first on the album this tour is supporting, Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s parents, the former of which died three years ago. There are a series of separate panels behind him, like chapel windows, displaying home videos of a family that we know, and don’t: the mother, who battled addiction and mental illness and retreated from her family; the father, who moved to the front line of his children’s lives; the result, a crossbeam with only one support, upon which the children had to balance. But to balance you have to lean on something.

I leaned on my own understanding. After a crash landing back in Wisconsin, I was a survivor who didn’t want to survive. A mild depression dominated for a time and then was disgusted by me, so it departed. Sexual addiction arrived, committed to drug, impoverish and wreck me, ’til death do us part. I pronounce you man and man and man and man and man… you may kiss the lie.

In a bleached-white light, moving through the audience as though a search and interrogation is imminent, Sufjan’s T-shirt, branded with one word, can no longer be ignored: Hustler. His voice, an apparition of a whisper, sings “All of Me Wants All of You.”

Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used

Suddenly my eyes are memorial fountains, the water pumping from the past and splashing into the present. The teardrops are shadows on my pants. The pants are not mine. They are from a production of Oleanna in which I played Carol, a student of “doubtful sexuality” who “want[s] understanding.” I went on a gender bender shortly after birth and could not stop until a few years ago, although I had waited until legal drinking age to buy a dress at the thrift store. I packed it in a bag for a trip to Illinois to visit my friend. Upon arrival I asked her to wait in the living room so I could change into it and make an entrance. When I did, she smiled and said something no one else ever had, not even my parents: “I think the dress looks nice on you.” We drank vodka with her boyfriend and watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch and at the end he made a joke and she made a face at him and tried to make me mad at him with her and I said, “This isn’t a movie, this is my life.”

Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?

“The first funeral I attended was my great-grandmother’s,” Sufjan speaks, 45 minutes into the concert, for the first time. “She was all made up, like a homecoming queen, like Glinda the good witch of the north…I had this beautiful image of death, of my great-grandmother transcending with the angels…and so I’ve always thought of death as womanly. Maybe because, women sort of have to die to themselves to give birth.”***

Three days before, in group, I said, “I’d like to open my sharing by showing a picture of a polar bear. Isn’t this the saddest polar bear you’ve ever seen? I feel like this polar bear. I’m so sad. I’m so tired of being sad. Finally I understand why people want to end it. I’m not going to, I never could, I just mean, you get so tired of trying so hard. Of waiting so long. To be healed. But things are better, really. I’m not going on craigslist anymore, which is difficult, but good. But I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m recovering from.” Everyone was quiet. The leader nodded. He said, “keep coming back.”

Now the stage is empty, but we are standing, clapping, like schoolchildren trying to create the sound of rain; a rain dance performed by hands, to bring the reign of Sufjan back. Just as the possibility is about to become obsolete, he comes on.

The opening notes of “Chicago” have never sounded so entreating, but nevertheless Sufjan bursts into the beginning and blazes to the end. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he sings. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Behind him, the panels are hanging – still divided – but bearing images of light.

*The song inspired an entire album, Undun, by The Roots.

**From California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross.

***Thanks to Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a complete review and set list.

Grosse Pointe Blank

Billy Collins said that “Death is why poets get up in the morning.” And hitmen. And screenwriters. Or at least the screenwriters of Grosse Pointe Blank, who tell a hitstory that’s so morbid and giddy and cynical and sentimental, it’s like John Hughes, Charles Bukowski and David Mamet patched a script together by mailing it back and forth between them.[1]

It’s the weekend of the “I’ve-peaked-and-I’m-kidding-myself party” (officially, the Grosse Pointe High School Class of ’86 Reunion) and everyone’s in town for it, even Martin Blank (John Cusack). Actually, Martin’s in town to kill someone, but the reunion is close, so he might as well mix business and pleasure. Mixing it up is the adorable DJ of the local radio station, Debi (Minnie Driver), who would have been Martin’s Prom date in 1986, but he never showed. For 10 years.

A lot can happen in 10 years. Or a little. And every day is a little death in Grosse Pointe. It’s appropriate that Martin arrives in a black suit, black shirt and black tie. “My God, it’s you,” a former teacher exclaims. “You’ve been Detroit’s most famous disappearing act since white flight.” The former jock star snorts cocaine and tries to start a fight with him. The former cheerleader teeters like a parrot on its perch, repeating pleasantries. Debi is living in her old bedroom at her dad’s house. “Where are all the good men dead?” she asks her listeners on the air. “In the heart, or in the head?”[2]

Most of the film’s characters lay dying in between, on a lump in their throat, trying to determine what makes sense or feels right. Even the two NSA operatives assigned to “get tough on terror” by targeting Martin aren’t very clear. “Why don’t we just do his job so we can do our job and get the fuck out of here?” One complains. “What do you mean ‘do his job’?” The other retorts. “I’m not a cold-blooded killer…you want to kill the good guy, but not be bad guy? It doesn’t work like that. You gotta wait until the bad guy kills the good guy, then when you kill the bad guy you’re the good guy.”

Such right on, offbeat poetry is the first language of the characters in this film, from Martin’s secretary to a security guard to a cashier. But none are so fluent as Martin and Debi, “two young lovers with frightening natural chemistry.” That same description could be applied to the actors playing them. Like some perfect improvisation, Cusack and Driver seem to be writing the lines as they speak them. The lines are brilliant, but the unspoken ones in between are even better.

But no one can beat Cusack, who plays Martin like a wall with a thousand peepholes. Upon arriving in Grosse Pointe, the first place he haunts is the old homestead, which has been razed and replaced by a convenience store. In a dementia unit he finds his mother, whom he asks, “mom, what happened to the house, and all the money I sent?” She doesn’t have an answer. In the next scene, at a cemetery, Martin walks a bottle of scotch down an aisle, giving it away to his father’s tombstone, watering the grass with the amber liquid and dumping the empty bottle. Cusack wears sunglasses and tightens his lips – and we know everything and nothing.

Underneath all of this existential exoskeleton, Grosse Pointe Blank still has a beating heart – or maybe just a beating head – determined to find meaning. It’s almost a companion piece to It’s a Wonderful Life. You think you’re better off dead, until you come home and no one knows who you are. But then a good woman calls you by name.

[1] This correspondence screenwriting course would have been most convenient for Charles Bukowski.

[2] Apparently it’s a remodeled line from The Merchant of Venice.

1.28.08 2.2.08 1.11.09

-> who what when where why how -> the questions in journalism are the same as in philosophy, and they’re exotically vile hors d’ouevre; the free, they nibble and pretend to enjoy them and spit into a napkin when no one’s looking. The imprisoned have no choice, there is nothing to do but eat them, all of them, over and over, even though they don’t like them, and they can’t throw up, and even if they could they’d eat them again. But two of them – who and why – are impossible to swallow.

The free use entertainment to escape. Some watch movies. Some play games. The imprisoned use bed sheets to escape. Some out the window. Some round the neck.

Andrew Peterson chose the latter. Imagine the bed sheets, puzzled by their removal from the bed, then disgruntled by the stretching, then trembling with cold terror: Oh God, is he going to, oh, please, his little hairs are poking into me, I’m tightening, I can’t stop tightening. NO! no————— ___________ And then, untied from the neck, balled up, heading for the washer: Why do I have to live? Why didn’t I die? I hope the water’s hot.

Suicide is a final dress rehearsal – a performance for oneself. No audience is allowed. And before the show can even open, it is closed.

-> who who who who who who -> Joel. The day Andrew stabbed my cousin Joel it was my grandmother’s birthday. The day of Joel’s funeral it was my birthday. The day Andrew killed himself it was my grandparents’ anniversary. These three days want to retire from their day job, do something else, maybe a third-shift janitor, where they can come into work without talking to people, listen to music, stare at a dirty floor until it’s clean.

After his death, everyone created a role and clutched it closely. Father became “World’s Greatest Dad”, Stepmom became “Mother Superior”, Ex-girlfriend became “Endless Love.” I became half of a comedy team. We used to mutter jokes to one another, adjusting the volume according to appropriateness. Joel was like Vince Vaughn – a wiseass, but, a wounded one. He had this facial expression that came standard – “premeditated mellow” – it sounds like a paint color, doesn’t it? But he made known every thought, without moving. I could lock eyes with him across the room and feel understood. My sister and I called him Joe Cool.

And my grandparents…they looked at life, and looked at death, and laid down somewhere in between them. You had to lay down next to them to have a conversation. Even then, they didn’t look at you. They looked up. They asked why.

-> why why why why why why ->

They asked you why, Andrew.

You said,

“no reason.”