For this post-Halloween malaise, here’s a long-winded, big bummer of a Traumafession. Feel free to reject it if it’s too much of a drag (or if you’re sick of hearing from me).
As all the unexpected scares I have encountered on film or in real life have managed only to strengthen my spirit, it has been difficult to contribute Traumafessions from memories that have come to make me feel alive and vital through fear—difficult because under the rubric of “trauma,” I am more likely to list mundane anxieties like job interviews and beet salad. On an agonizingly slow, brackish day, I look to those more startling memories that will ease the scabbed-over nerves produced by tedium and indifference: everything from the time I was mugged at gunpoint on the street at night to the relatively harmless experience of watching the The Shining in a theater when I was ten years old.
There were a few Melancholiafessions-in-the-making, however, mostly culled from the ‘70s, when I became aware of my relationship with certain dreary attitudes and conditions depicted on film, and realized how much they could infect my well-being and endanger my love of life.
Chief among these is a daytime television broadcast of Bless the Beasts and Children. I must have been home sick from school, as I recall fading in and out of the story while lying on a couch under an itchy blanket that smelled of furnace dust. So my recollections are piecemeal. I remember the dream sequence during which parents shoot their children in a corral as they behave like herds of cattle. I remember the line of misfit kids at camp having urine poured over their heads. Worse yet, I remember that dreadfully limp title song performed by The Carpenters. And worst of all, I remember the languid piano chords that open the soundtrack music now known as “Nadia’s Theme” on Young and the Restless. (Henry Mancini, what have you done?!?!) When I hear either one today, I feel my legs atrophy like the antennae of a snail you touch, and my mind begins to see everything through a dirty window of listless emotions on a hot day. It was pure catatonic misery distilled in that music. As a future musician, I tended to be highly sensitive to the associations of sounds and images. And as a future basket case, I tended to feel depressive states at that age as external assaults by a giant translucent sponge saturated with warm moisture and bacteria. It was all a harbinger of terrible, eventless days to come.
I couldn’t sympathize with the misfits in that movie, even though, if nothing else, I am an outsider myself. But I couldn’t stand them. Even fighting for the buffalo—a noble cause that resonates intensely with my love for animals—could not shake my irritation and intense desire to be rid of them. I hated their yellow T-shirts tucked into pants belted above their stomachs, and their shapeless heads of floppy neck-length hair, and Billy Mumy’s freckles. Dirty, dusty, hot, dreary, oppressive, cruel, and lacquered by a soundtrack meant to subdue the viewer with tender piano and maudlin strings and Karen Carpenter’s perfectly lifeless voice. Like shit trapped in amber.
Little did I know at that age: these outcasts were more or less my people. But Stanley Kramer presented them like unctuous creeps when he thought he was uplifting them.
And I hold Kramer, the director, personally responsible for this. I want to tell him, if he were alive today, “Yes, the problem you present here is terrible and worth combating, but somehow your aesthetic is more damaging than gun violence! Don’t ask me how! I realize that sounds ridiculous and perhaps even offensive to victims of gun violence. But, God help me, it’s true! The same thing happened when you made that stupid movie about a black prisoner and a white prisoner on the lam chained together, and that may be the best thing you ever did. A good cause—eradicating racism and healing race relations—but a horribly realized allegory that would make W.E.B. Dubois himself plead with you to stop working on behalf of African Americans.”
I saw Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story many years ago, and it was only then that I realized that something good could be fashioned out of something so bland and suffocating. It was my first tentative step toward bringing the ‘70s back into my heart, however ironically. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was soon to follow, more sincerely stoking the fires of reclamation. In some ways, those two films are the perfect double feature.
And Unkle Lancifer, if you have love for this film and find yourself outraged by my account here, I apologize, but really the best revenge against me would be to include an embedded YouTube video of “Cotton’s Dream” (AKA “Nadia’s Theme”). I would have a psychotic PTSD episode hearing that again. I would probably throw on a yellow T-shirt, tuck it into a pair of corduroy pants, and run to the closest animal pound with a kill facility and burn it to the ground.
(I would recommend posting the trailer, which is rather remarkable—a phony television debate between a fire arms advocate and Billy Mumy—but it contains footage of buffalo getting shot, and that part is genuinely upsetting.)
Here’s to happier days,