It Was Mother

It Was Absolute

It Was Absolute
Wayras Olivier
SEPTEMBER 2016


Absolute certainty, for those extraordinary few who can, at length and regularity, recognize it merely as an idea that has just rather tediously held the mind hostage, will invariably have its demands met by the feeble person who finds the experience altogether exhilarating. When asking "How come I'm never wrong?" The extraordinary are disposed to dread while weaklings race for ecstasy when, right out of the gates, they feel: "I'm right again!" The clement and lenient, for whom fairness and honesty are second nature, will as a reflex be put off, and not invent a reason but instead endure the struggle of: "This can't be right." Those easily weakened by doubt, the so-called headstrong, will invent a question (that has no answer) with an expedient shrug: "Why fix what isn't broken?" Because the latter can't utter, let alone arrive at a second question that the former routinely can (and ask without pouting): "How come this keeps happening to me?" They never navigate the extraordinary. Which draws out from their liberated faculty the cultured answer. And here it is: it keeps happening to them because they continue to ignore the shameless—and somewhat ugly—addiction they have to being aroused, while being held captive, to the two-step. Sound familiar? Grandeur leads, conviction follows, and one stomps to the dizzying progression of timing and clapping that, when broken down, despite being country, presents itself as the only move in town.

America's negotiated two-step in the eighties was the exchange of "high-concept" ideas for cash. When reduced to a phrase, or, preferably a few punchy words, a not-so-straightforward premise could become—despite the rather large probability of poor execution—a sure thing in the minds of those fronting the cash. Take a big complex idea, now, relatively simple, called Star Wars. A Soviet attack on America could be deterred if orbiting U.S. satellites could shoot laser beams from space. A defense strategy, on the near side of ridiculous, that could purchase, with its fatuous one-trillion-dollar price tag, credulity and support. But not all negotiations involve money. Those who, in 1985, watched Commando may have found themselves asking "Where's that?" when ransom for Schwarzenegger's kidnapped daughter in lieu of cash was the political assassination of a dictator in Val Verde. A dummy country created by 20th Century Fox to infer the current hot spots in South America. Used again, to avoid PR backlash when Schwarzenegger's character was set to have, two years later in Predator, another violent hissy fit, the studio soon realized he couldn't very well have it in Nicaragua so they enlarged the borders of the aforesaid colloquialism to include Central America.

Uprooting his family from Massachusetts, so he could, off the bordering Honduran and Nicaraguan coastline, execute his conviction that "ice is civilization," you'll see a similar wringing of the mind (of what variety, I won't spoil, for those who haven't yet seen the film) when fictitious inventor Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) gets credulity and support from his wife (Helen Mirren) and children in The Mosquito Coast. (An idea somewhat similar to the one shared—and successfully executed—by the 19th century Massachusetts' visionary Frederic Tudor. In Nova's documentary The Conquest of Cold, the "Ice King" as he was called, harvested ice from a frozen New England pond and introduced it as a commodity in the tropics, the narrator elaborates: 

"Tudor's dream to make ice available to all was not confined to New England. He wanted to ship ice to hot parts of the world. New England became the refrigerator for the world, with ice shipments to the Caribbean and the coast of South America.")

"He [my father] dropped out of Harvard to get an education ..." I'm quoting Charlie now, (River Phoenix), who continues to set up TMC in voice over: "All winter father had been saying there is going to be a war in America ... the signs were everywhere, in the high prices, the bad tempers, the gut worry, and the stupidity and greed of people." A line that punctuates Allie's visit to a junkyard as he salvages the necessary parts to complete his invention; parts Allie refused to purchase from a hardware store that sells inventory made in Japan. Indeed they were everywhere. The "signs." And they found, in 1986, their way into our homes. Debuting on television, viewers favoured the unreal affairs of Alf, (a bipedal Alien that resembles an ant eater, who, after crash landing on Californian soil, bunks with a suburban family) over the current reality of Gung Ho. (A lax American working for a thriving Japanese auto manufacturing company.) And then there was the "educated" advice that, while some welcomed, others were left scratching their head asking "Who let this guy in?" A creamy TV promo that ran like this:

"There is a plague in the land and it's called abortion. There is a plague in the land and it's called pornography. There is a plague in the land and it's called homosexuality. The plague in the land is threatening us all. "If the Christian does not redeem the culture, this nation is in trouble.'"

Unmistakable is it not—the rash, I mean, not just the message, that prompts a man to sojourn with a prostitute—when two years later, impresario Jimmy Swaggart was unable to execute the solution to the plague he spoke of. Though, Swaggart wasn't alone. That is, his reputation fell into likeminded company, another prosperity theologian enmeshed in a sex scandal: Jim Baker.

Or how about this for educated advice? Allie, stirred by his idea to make ice in the undergrowth of Central America, enters uninvited into a migrants group home, to show his two sons how foreign labourers in the U.S. still live in squalor. Jerry, Allie's youngest, doesn't feel so entitled, "I don't think we should be here," he says. Allie nurtures his simple-natured son with the poetically laudable: "They welcome visitors son. Be kind to strangers they say, you never know when you might be one yourself." His teaching trips (at least for critical thinkers) when Allie oversteps himself with his fustian conclusion: "That's the law of the jungle." Knowing full well that that law had been inscribed quite differently in seven stanzas by the "court" transcriptionist of The White Man's Burden. You'll see that the two men, Allie and Reverend Spell good (the Christian minister) Allie meets on the boat voyaging to "La Mosquitia" are both erring, in their own determinate way, on Eurocentric racism with their mission to uplift the indigenous people of their destination.

Meanwhile, outside of cinemas, an unlikely answer for those who were undecided on the Nature vs. Nurture debate could be found on the far side of ridiculous. One that continued to gain support, when prolific Gary Larson had his second comic compendium The Far Side Gallery 2 published in 1986. The brilliantly imbecilic sketches often granted enterprising animals dominion over all things on Earth, including, let us not forget, humans—mostly society's intelligentsia: scientists, mathematicians and inventors, at the height of thick. (Perhaps a reason to believe why Larson's first pitch for the comic strip was called Nature's Way). From the series of sketches, three remain peerless. First, a scientist cautiously constructs a missile warhead while an ill-timed prank, set by a careless colleague, is about go off. Second, a prodigy struggles to push open the front door to "Midvale School for the Gifted" that is clearly marked pull. And, third, with the caption: Childhood Innocence, an inculpable baby ant, shouts from the bottom of an anthill: "Mom! Dad! He followed me home! Can we keep him?" He, being a lurching anteater. A world view of "irreverence and cynicism" Larson jokingly said, in an interview on 20/20, he developed as a kid in response to growing up during the cold war.

And so, the "Harvard drop-out" is decidedly on point with his children about the real law of the jungle when they arrive. One year prior to the film's release, Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Caroline Persell's book: Preparing For Power had been published. In it, the curriculums of America's top elite boarding schools: Putney, Exeter and Grotto, to name a few, were examined with a rather counter intuitive finding about giving "entitlements" to students. From the chapter Cultural Capital: Curricula and Teachers:

"Generally speaking, the schools that take the position that manual labor and firsthand experience are good for the soul as well as the mind and body, are more progressive in orientation than other schools. At the Putney School every student has to take a tour of duty at the cow barn, starting at 5:30am. In their own words, "Putney's work program is ambitious. We grow much of our own food, mill our own lumber, pick up our own trash, and have a large part in building our buildings. Stoves won't heat until wood is cut and split.'"

"No need to worry about these kids' education Mother," Allie yells, in his novel unstudied way, after waking his younglings at the crack of dawn to toil on his jungle construction site. He continues with Paul Schrader's words:

"This is the education they need. This is the kind of education every American should have gotten. When America is devastated and laid to waste by nuclear holocaust these are the skills that will save them. Not finger painting or home economics or what is the capital of Texas. But survival. Rebuilding a civilization from a smoking ruin."

Yet, it's Mother's one seemingly trivial shot at edifying her children in the ways of entomology that, while slightly inconclusive, remains most redolent. When a trio of bandits (political fighters gone rogue? Remember we're in Central America in 1986, and, curiously, for which side?) show up, evidently holding Allie hostage by demanding permanent lodging, he stymies their interest by tearing down his home on the false pretense he has waged "War on the ants! Total war." Mother can be heard off in the background correcting her children "Termites, darling, termites" (As an enemy, the former are a mere nuisance; the latter, capable of legitimate damage.) Whether the bandits symbolize the Sandinista's position or the Contras remains a mystery, as does to whom Mother correlates the termites.

Let us also remember that 2016 is the thirtieth anniversary of the Reykjavík Summit. (Back when the "great communicator" was in the thick of—although it wouldn't break publicly for another month—Iran-Contra. Reagan, well acquainted, due to his Hollywood grooming, with the "high-concept" premise, was distancing himself from the one he may, or may not, have heard. As the premise went: Iran had American hostages, America would trade arms for hostages, and the profits from the sale would go—oops—to the Contras in Nicaragua. Oliver North did hear the premise, he was involved in the premise, and thus, was given another premise, a more character driven "low-concept" one: success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.) Reagan and Gorbachev played it cool in Iceland, scratching each other's back for both U.S. and Soviet ballistic missile disarmament. And it worked. A done deal. That is, until Reagan suddenly became frigid when Gorbachev wanted a bit more neck with the deal. Reagan, however, was unwilling to give it up: Star Wars. I know the feeling, and I believe others my age do as well. So it was that SDI, Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars' other name), caused Reagan and Gorbachev's deal to go into "turn around." A term in the movie business for a green-lit film that has just unexpectedly had its plug pulled. What rips the cord from the socket, if not lack of funds? You said it: the exchange of too many, direct and indirect, current and uncurrent, grounded and ungrounded, visions and revisions, between executives and artists, on how the material should be conducted to generate a dynamo. (In the early eighties Director Peter Weir had to take on another project when lack of funds for The Mosquito Coast put the picture in turnaround—a project starring Harrison Ford called Witness.) It generated so much heat in 1985, that there was money to burn for TMC.

Of the hundreds of curated talks given over the course of his career, I'll cite a few lines from my favorite: Stop Competing With Yourself. Although the talk itself dealt primarily with LSD, philosopher, gifted writer and orator Alan Watts always made his mordant points generously broad as to leave ample room so they may be disciplined in other areas of one's life. The following insight is relevant to Allie's obdurate preference for the jungle over America:

"Anybody can have ecstasy. Anybody, as a matter of fact, can become aware that he is one with the eternal grounds of the universe. But, since that's what you are anyway, I'm going to ask: so what? When a hero goes on an adventure and he leaves his people and is going to a strange land he can go away and just hide himself around a corner in an obscure house and then appear a year later and say "I've been on a heroic journey' and tell all sorts of tales, but they'll say "prove it.' Because they expect him to bring back something, something nobody has seen before. So in the same way exactly anybody who goes on a spiritual journey must bring something back. Because if you just say "Oh wow it was a gas' anybody can say that."

If one cares to take a closer look at 1986's top earners: Aliens, Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, Stand By Me, Labyrinth and Platoon, one will see they are all predicated, to some degree or other, on the idea of a hero desiring "a return." Except for Allie. Even Blue Velvet and Howard the Duck's narrative prompts the "I" to its proper home as to avert eternal isolation. (The puff from the latter was so epic and protracted that it coated an equally disastrous movie the following year with its demolished reputation, when for Hollywood insiders it was common knowledge that, indeed, Ishtar was Arabic for Howard the Duck.) Allie's so-called ecstasy, the one scene most everyone remembers and the manner in which he ecstatically squeals: "That's why I'm here. That's why I came!" to the indigenous people when his invention makes ice, without electricity, in the heart of the tropics, is foolishly absolute. Even writing, with its "rules," has its exceptions. The use of the personal pronoun, normally deemed as an indulgence, can, when used judiciously, provide good company to the reader. When not used judiciously; I refer to the weighty words of Oscar Wilde: "a bore is someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company." Like space, where no one can hear you scream, the jungle is no place to be trapped with a bore. Far worse is to be the very bore in question. Still, it is a film that itself is not a bore for no other reason than, as a single installment, it managed to kill off hope for that other perennial eighties patrimony: the franchise.

W.