Among the Water-Gazers

I’m the first to admit I can be an agoraphobic crank, but occasionally these modern times really do trot out a whole array of reasons to upchuck all over your shoes. Yesterday I made the mistake of getting to the movies too early. It’s not just the movies that are going down the tubes nowadays; it’s the whole moviegoing experience. A few weeks ago self-proclaimed baseball czar Bud Selig tried to sell logo placement spots for Spiderman 2 on the first-base bags of select ballgames, arguing that the ads would be so small as to be invisible, as if a certain number of TV camera and Jumbotron close-ups wouldn’t be written into the contract. The ensuing outcry from fans and sportswriters caused Selig to abandon the idea, but we can be sure he’s only biding his time, like a bass sunk back to the bottom of his pond, until our cultural responsiveness sinks far enough down to meet his ooze. Someday in the not-so-distant future, I think it’s safe to say, we’ll be watching the Yankees play a regular-season game decked out in crimson, web-laced uniforms that celebrate Spiderman 4 or 5.

But if baseball isn’t quite yet ready for that level of promotion, the movies are already more than there. I’ve long been put off by those crappy slideshows many theater franchises run before movies now – the ones with the Coca-Cola logo plastered all over them that ask you to find Mel Gibson’s name in an anagram – but this thing yesterday was something new. It was a relentless monster, a starburst of cheap computer graphics that jumped along at a hyperactive pace and chewed up the whole half-hour before the coming attractions began, played at a volume so loud it was impossible not to give your attention to it. It was television reduced to its purest form – a production utterly stripped of entertainment and information, and containing only spiels for various products. Overblown summer movies, videogames, reality TV shows, theme-park rides, sugary snacks and beverages – all the worst pieces of poop culture – were pitched at Boeing 747 decibel levels that made it impossible to think, much less talk to your neighbor, and all of it gauged at the emotional and intellectual level of a comic-book.

By the time it was done I was so beaten down I just wanted to crawl out of the theater, and not even the previews, when they finally began, made me feel any better. Mostly they advertised a passel of summer blockbusters that harmonized with the earsplitting dreck I’d been sitting through – mostly, but not all. Stuck into the middle of them was, inexplicably, a trailer for some low-key, naturalistic Chinese film about a guy who falls in love with a woman who never appeared in the trailer as far as I could tell. I couldn’t begin to say what the name of the movie was for that just got slaughtered in the uproar; in comparison to the din surrounding it, it was a mouse ranged against an army of dinosaurs. It was a slight but telling experience, indicative of how the business of moviemaking is overwhelming the charm of actually going to the movies. The relentless push to sell through the pictures, to leave no aspect of them unexploited – well, it’s enough to make Bud Selig choke on his own drool.

But the other day I got some needed reassurance that I’m not just a premature coot who’s been left behind by all this gol-durn modern livin’. The area I’m working in is only a block from the San Francisco waterfront, just on the south side of Market Street. Up until a few years ago it was a drab, decaying quadrant of ancient, abandoned industrial buildings and warehouses, but once the decision was made to build the Giants a new ballpark a little farther along the dockside, the investors and city fathers began pouring money into the area, and the result is frankly dazzling.

On my second full day down there I set out at lunchtime, saddled with thoughts of work and crippled by a hangover from the previous night’s pool match. Set a man’s feet a-going and he will infallibly lead you to water, said Melville, and sure enough without my mind having a real say in the matter my feet carried me down to the bay. I was so stuck inside my head I didn’t even look up until after I’d crossed the Muni tracks and was standing on the Embarcadero somewhat to the right of the Ferry Building, staring blankly into the water. Suddenly I happened to glance up and saw a view so beautiful it was like taking a glass of cold water in the face. From over my right shoulder, at about a thirty-five degree angle, the Bay Bridge shot out towards Treasure Island, where I could see the khaki-colored World War II hangars baking under the sun, and turning around I was confronted by the new skyline that’s taken root where the old Rincon Hill sand dunes used to stand. Many of the buildings are old raw brick factories – Hill Brothers and Folger’s – that have been polished into fine red ziggurats climbing into the sky and setting off the green teardrop-shaped lawns that flow along beside the water. The train tracks built for the jaunty ride between the subway exit and Willie Mays Square, what with their modern cobblestone bedding and humorously casual shelters, have a charming Old World feeling that makes them a pleasure to dash across when the vintage trains are coming, and the overall area is studded with palm trees and surmounted by Cupid’s Span, one of those giant art installations that can make public spaces a civic laughingstock but which here seems perfectly right. The air was so clear that day, and the bright sunshine so evenly distributed, and the people moving around so freely and happily, that every detail in the landscape was laid bare. The beauty was so obvious I felt chastised by it.

I went back to the water today with a different kind of hangover. The movie I saw yesterday – after the horror-show had finally ended – was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and thinking back as I (we) do to all the relationships that didn’t work out, it was just the movie to put me back on my heels. A man loves a woman, she breaks up with him and then acts as if she doesn’t know him – and he goes over the edge. What else needs to be said? Charlie Kaufman, who’s become a one-man revolution in Hollywood, goes straight for the emotional meat of all those vignettes that let us plot out where Alvy Singer and Annie Hall were at any given moment of their relationship, and the result is a movie about forgetting that makes you ache with remembrance. Maybe it was the sight of Kirsten Dunst dancing around in her underwear that makes my mind keep churning up the memory of a live-in girlfriend from the mid ’80s, sitting on the floor in her panties and a silver blouse, and happily gabbing on the phone with her sister while our relationship was falling down around our ears. When she hung up the phone I said to her, “You look beautiful,” which she did at that moment – as beautiful as I’d ever seen her. It didn’t have the desired effect, though. Instead she waved her cigarette hand through the air and laughed, “I know,” then trotted into the bathroom to get ready to go out somewhere. I don’t know why that memory – out of the thousands that could’ve been released by the movie – was the one that should come back to haunt me, but maybe putting it down here will finally get rid of the spell.

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