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Survival List

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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  1. Captain Lombard says:

    Or Dennis Hopper as the tripped out wide-eyed disciple of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now – cameras dangling from his neck and unable to find the right words to capture all that Kurtz was to him. Or Dennis Hopper lighting up his last cigarette in True Romance, and then slowly seeping himself into the mind of Christopher Walken – suggesting to him he as black blood in him.

    What do you mean the end of auteurs? That’s a bit of a sweeping comment – what about Woody Allen, or the oh-so-hip Wes Anderson, or Wong Kar Wai, Hartley, Jarmusch, Lynch, Eastwood, Solondz, Almodovar, Malick, Burton, Haneke, Herzog, Morris, Peckinpah, Wenders, Tarantino, Akin, Inarritu etc …

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  2. brandon edmonds says:

    None of those film-makers were anywhere near their creative peak in the late 50s and 60s, Captain, as Bergman and Antonioni were, which was the moment that Andrew Sarris and the Cahiers’ bunch popularized the ‘auteur’ approach, the moment it had the most reach and resonance. Agreed on the great Dennis Hopper bits. They are legion.

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  3. Captain Lombard says:

    It sounded like you were lamenting the death of “auteur” cinema in general – which isn’t at all dead. A Werner Herzog film is undeniably a “Herzog” film – a singular vision of what he wants to achieve. All Terence Malick films have that same quiet sweeping beauty – that make them instantly recognizable. You just know when you’re watching a Micheal Haneke film, or a Woody Allen film. Auteur cinema is still alive and kicking. Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love is a work of art, and his name is stamped all over it. There are still masters of cinema out there that are creating some of the best films of our times.

    I suppose you can argue whether these guys actually do have the reach as say Bergman in his time, when the culture of film was much stronger than it is these days. So in that sense perhaps auteur “cinema” is dead – but only because the culture around it is no longer as mainstream.

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  4. Gary Coleman says:

    Whatchu talkin bout?!?!

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  5. Captain Lombard says:

    Shut the fukk up, Gary.
    You’re out of your element!

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  6. bizarrojerri says:

    Bizarro is what Willis was talkin’ about!

    Nice piece, Brandon! “Billy” will surely be missed in the Bizarro household, ‘cos we’re part…eggplant!’…

    Hard to imagine guys like these are dying off…but, there it is, we’re all getting old! Ye gods always take the good ones first…

    Lay off poor old Gary, Capn’…he is short! (and dead, too!)

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  7. the cinephile says:

    Get this, Bergman and Antonioni died on exactly the same day! How’s that for a signifier of the death of the auteur? Those two guys (together with Tarkovsky) elevated cinema to a level of visual and narrative poetry that many (including myself) will argue has yet to be matched. Brandon’s comments about the relevance of the era are important and I’ll go a step further to say that these two directors reached their peak at the twilight of modernist cinema. Bergman’s star burned less brightly after Persona and Hour Of The Wolf and this may have been the result of postmodernist pressures re-arranging the space in which the auteur was able to operate.

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  8. brandon edmonds says:

    Wow the same day! Didn’t know that. Sixties alt crooner Tim Buckley and his son, the divine Jeff Buckley, died on the same day too. Albeit years apart. Anyone know any other creepy serendipities?

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  9. Jason says:


    Spiegelman is so-so. Maus as a narrative is ok, but the art is mediocre. Which makes it a little tragic that his legacy will be nothing more nor nothing less. RAW is where he was best.

    It helps that wifey is art editor over at The New Yorker.

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  10. brandon edmonds says:

    Thanks for that, Justin…but you’re like wrong.

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  11. Justin says:

    Yeah, I get wrong a lot.

    But for interest’s sake: some more myopic, petulant neurotics – but with Good Art, as opposed to Poor Art:

    Daniel Clowes
    Ivan Brunetti
    Chris Ware
    Joe Matt
    Jeffrey Brown (ok, ok, Art’s art may be better, but the neuroses are more pointed).
    David Heatley
    David Collier – takes navel gazing to the 5th dimension. Although, one could argue that that is the point of all autobiographical, narrative comic works. Tedium, illustrated.

    Lookie here for some new work, with a bit of edge.

    What certain comic artists do is dwell too deeply within their own pool of shit (and various other excretions). Their time is over.

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  12. brandon edmonds says:

    Oh man Chris Ware is a total genius. Clowes okay. Don’t know the others but will check them out. Though I doubt any of them have a Pulitzer. Institutional recognition impresses me. Lame I know.

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  13. wear-feather friend says:

    But you are applauding the stars the loudest? These people’s lives don’t need more documenting. They are celebrated, and their stories revered. They had actual families who miss them and the art belongs to the rest of us. Talk to the drunk pretending to watch your car. He’s the wardrobe assistant’s assistant’s coffee boy’s toilet-roll replacer and his journey is likely to be more hair-raisingly harrowing and beautiful than many others you’re likely to hear. These people die, and they will not be forgotten because they were never known in the first place.
    We’ve imbibed the gifts of established art, like auteur cinema, it’s part of the way we look and read and feel. But if you were to really learn from the original thinkers and artists they’d probably (if they weren’t too much in the mood for some deep-tissue indulgence) tell you to stop marvelling at what has been created and rather create and contribute in your own way. Using your own mind. Build. Something.

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  14. brandon edmonds says:

    Very Brecht: victors write history and everyday folk “will not be forgotten because they were never known in the first place”. You’re absolutely right. I ought to get out more. I’ve been meaning to chase down ‘actual stories’ and talk to people here and now. It’s what my writing needs, what most writing needs. A jolt of the real. Staying with Brecht, in the interests of ‘de-mystifying the process of production’, here’s my method: get an idea while lolling in bed, balance my computer on my gut, and tap it out. What appears here online is hot off my frontal lobes. First draft every time. The results speak for themselves. Hit and miss to say the least. I’m gonna take up your challenge, and try harder.

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