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Survival List

by Brandon Edmonds / 01.06.2010

It’s tough surviving. Survivor guilt made the world’s greatest living cartoonist, Art Spiegelman, pen the world’s greatest graphic novel, Maus, a miraculous 2-part epic about his parents’ passage through the infamous death camps of the “Final Solution” with Jews hauntingly depicted as mice and Nazi’s as cats. It won a Pulitzer prize (and deserved ten). Spiegelman grappled with maddening questions in that book. Why do some make it and others not? Who or what decides? Does chance rule our lives? How close are we always to an outbreak of murderous chaos? His work has since become increasingly depressive and self-involved. It didn’t help that he could see the Twin Towers collapse out of his apartment window. So yet more survivor guilt to process. Poor Art.

We know survivors in Kosovo, Rwanda and Liberia continue to attend NGO run therapy courses, slowly, years after the horror, re-building a sense of normalcy through talk. We had our own TRC which turned memory into meaning, and stage managed our collective “psychic passage” from debilitating enmity to whatever it is we got going on today: a kind of free-floating guilt, a healthy forgetfulness and bouts of less constructive indifference. Happily, few of us are unfortunate enough to be confronted with life at its deadliest. But the survivor guilt dynamic still applies in smaller, less dramatic ways. I tend to feel it when someone I respect in the arts dies.

The night I learned Raymond Carver, the great American short story writer, died I took one of his books off my shelf and read aloud – hoping for a nuance, a flitter of communion. But there was nothing. Just a dude reading aloud late at night. I really should have had a tribute drink instead. I wrote, “Why you why you why you?” on the inside flap. Then watched television.

That ghoulish cavalcade at the Oscars each year, the “In Memoriam” montage, is an orgy of survivor guilt for me. Faces flit by you’ve seen in films that meant something to you, a smile, a kiss, a turn of the head, living gestures captured in stories that matter more now that the person doing them is dead, or less? Then the appalling applause, less for technical people, the lighting and wardrobe workers, more for stars who everyone knows. There’s something so American about a competitive hierarchy of applause, even in death. That makes me feel guilty for the lesser knowns.

I think you can only have survivor guilt for those accomplished artists, writers and performers who die in your own lifetime. I don’t feel much that Van Gogh’s a pile of bones, but Dennis Hopper, the livewire actor who played the crazed hyper-ventilating daddy-figure in Blue Velvet, and died recently, is still mostly flesh and blood, albeit blue. I feel guilty that I never got to thank him for Blue Velvet or Apocalypse Now, or just for embodying a bridge between movie eras – from Rebel Without a Cause alongside James Dean, through Easy Rider and on into Speed – where his savvy maniac ran rings around a bewildered Keanu Reeves, regrettably failing to kill Sandra Bullock’s pouting bus-driver, allowing her to go on, unfathomably, to win an Oscar this year.

In 2007, both Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died, thereby symbolically closing the chapter on “auteur” cinema – the idea of a singular visionary shaping the overall look and feel of a picture, signing it with a signature touch. It was a theory which really got going in their creative heyday in the late 1950s and 1960s. Film seemed to matter more then. It was the centerpiece of a night out and argued over long after. You could smoke and watch back then. Their passing seemed as exquisitely timed as the rhythms of their great films, just before the current return to a gimmick that had nothing to do with the “arthouse” fare they pioneered, 3-D. I would have loved to thank them for Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal or La Notte and La Eclisse. Would have loved to sit at their feet and hear how it’s done, how work that counts, that matters, is made.

Nina Simone died seven years ago and Miles Davis almost twenty now. Jesus, imagine the stories they had to tell over a couple of drinks. The lives they led from obscurity to acclaim, carried along by world-historical talent. I watched a shitty Bruce Willis movie awhile ago, the one with surrogates, and slipped into the Michael Jackson concert movie instead. It was right at the end. The cinema was empty. Just me and the closing credits. Jackson spun in a spotlight and ran through the remarkable octaves of his distinctive tweety-bird voice. I was overwhelmed by his non-presence, a material ghost on screen, performing to an empty auditorium, yet right there before me, projected. I felt worse for me than him. I’d have to return to the living once the houselights went up.

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