Seen and Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist Paperback – 30 Jan 2015
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"Like a magnet, or black hole, your book has demonstrated the capacity to draw other texts helplessly into its space. As Borges said of Kafka, the best books create their own lineages and predecessors, out of formerly unrelated texts."
~Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and Chronic City (from the afterword)
"Horsley's book is indeed a confession, full of the kind of frank talk one would expect in a tale touted as confessional. In fact, in places the book is jaw-dropping in its raw honesty and relentless self-critical insight. Here is a writer not the least interested in marrying his auteur self to a poseur self. . . . I would go so far as to say to everyone, but especially adolescents and young adults, that Horsley's book can serve well as "the bible" for how to navigate through the treacherous shoals of popular culture, particularly in the form of violent screen entertainment."
About the Author
Jasun Horsley is an author, independent scholar and transmedia storyteller. He lives in Canada.
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The “hell of ‘I’” may suggest Horsley offers a dim view of selves in general and himself in particular but that would be mistaken. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not too far-fetched to see the passage through at least the adolescent portion of our lives as a trek though a kind of hell—a hell that may be described as “identity crisis.” It’s likely few of us get through adolescence without a certain measure of “faking it,” of having no clear sense of who we are and only confused ideas of who we would like to become. In this regard, it turns out that Horsley’s confessions not only evoke the ghost of St. Augustine but also the ghost of Homer insofar as his tale may be seen as a kind of Odyssean saga in search of a way home—to a home within himself.
Now you might think such accounts of personal journeying might seem fine for those who are overburdened with identity issues and the feeling of being lost in the world and not at all relevant for those who have a sense of who they are and know their way about in the world. Well, I would recommend thinking again on that, and Horsley’s book counts as one of the best stimulations for such rethinking that it would be possible to find—given the state of current postmodern culture and its influences. And speaking of influences, Horsley minces no words when he calls out this culture and its most prominent vehicle for transmitting effects—films and other screen entertainments. He calls out this film culture for what it has effectively become or, rather, what it has likely been all along: ADVERTISING. Movies always sell you something and it’s a good idea to know what they are selling before you buy it.
Through his autobiographical and confessional tour into the archive of his childhood and adolescence and his inevitable immersion in popular film artifacts (who can escape them?), Horsley disabuses readers of any inclination to believe sorting fantasy from reality and film from life is a common skill. His point is not so much that keeping the distinction between film and real life is no longer easy but rather that this distinction has become manifestly irrelevant for many people. The era when art primarily imitated life (if ever there was such a time) has now been superseded by an era where life primarily imitates art. This has never been so true as is now the case with popular film and its influence.
In Part One of his saga, Horsley takes readers into the incubation chamber popular cinema has become for emerging youth—now likely as powerful if not more powerful an influence than family and school (especially now with the proliferation of smart phones that literally bring screen entertainments into our lives anywhere and everywhere). But before dipping into his own youthful experience, Horsley introduces readers to an author who had a major influence on him—Jonathan Lethem—someone with whom he finds that he shares many similar experiences and interests. Among experiences, Horsley cites the memorable occasions both he and Lethem had in their early years viewing films with their mothers—a relationship Lethem describes in his book The Disappointment Artist. For both mother and son this sharing operated as a retreat into “the disembodied psychic space of waking dream.” As Horsley recounts, this is where the notion of autism comes into play: “Wasn’t Jonathan Lethem talking about engineering his own autism—dictating the terms and creating the conditions of his withdrawal into ‘inner space’ by assembling a bricolage of pop cultural borrowings to make the space [‘the shared dream space of the mother-child symbiosis’] cozy and inviting and more or less indistinguishable from the ‘real world’? It was my own story as much as his.”
But insofar as popular cinema had fostered something like an autistic, self-enclosed, self-delusional disease, it also, surprisingly, held out a kind of cure. When Horsley begins to explain the revelatory effect the film Taxi Driver had on him, his book—which is already engaging—takes an exceptional turn. This film, he says, held up a mirror to him, which enabled him to see that he, like Travis Bickle, had thus far failed to become anyone other than an isolated soul, alienated not only from himself but also from everyone else in the world around him. In other words, echoing the title of the now famous Pink Floyd song, he had become “comfortably numb” in his inner waking dream space, his virtual world of pop cultural borrowings. Comfortably numb but also uncomfortably empty.
Watching the fictional character Travis Bickle, Horsley gains the ability to see and diagnose himself. Now it so happens that Horsley and I have a disagreement about the kind of effects the film Taxi Driver and the character Travis Bickle reliably generate, but that does not in the least discredit Horsley’s point, which is that popular cinema, through a film experienced as particularly powerful, can initiate an awareness triggering a journey drawing the fragments of the self toward greater integration and understanding. What film, or which films, may trigger a genuine revelatory experience—and not merely a delusional feeling of revelation reinforcing existing comfortable numbness—may differ for different individuals, but the healing potential of certain films for certain people, Horsley rightly argues, cannot be denied.
On the cautionary side, Horsley acknowledges his early identification with Clint Eastwood characters such as Dirty Harry only bolstered an already dysfunctional persona. Dysfunctional parents and siblings created childhood traumas from which he sought escape through movies. The nature of the fantasy he chose to escape into indicated, as he says, “the shape of the reality I was trying to escape from.” But much to his credit, and emblematic of the difficulty of the journey of self-discovery, Horsley describes the pitfall of his identification with Dirty Harry: “Movies [like Dirty Harry] helped me adjust . . . by finding my ‘own’ value system, a value system that hasn’t served me any better than parental conditioning because it was a reaction against it. Eastwood was the anti-father. Emulating him didn’t decondition me, it reconditioned me. It gave a name, a face, and a shape to my rage.”
What Horsley goes on to say in this same chapter on Eastwood counts as one of many not to be missed confessions and insights in this book: “. . . since I didn’t have a strong parental figure to make my home environment safe for me to develop my own masculinity from within, I had to find a way to sublimate my sexuality in order not to be overwhelmed by it. Violent movies—and identifying with violent men—became that way of sublimation.” The film Taxi Driver helped to bring Horsley to the realization that the Eastwood model had reconditioned him in the wrong direction. It had made him worse instead of better, strengthening a sense of identity that only fueled rather than quelled his rage.
Part Two of Horsley’s book continues his journey by detailing his mixed feelings toward the life and work of film critic Pauline Kael and what she taught him in both the positive and negative registers. This part of the book also includes fascinating accounts of his experience with other films that have had a lasting influence on him. But rather than give too much away in this review regarding further details of Horsley’s confessions and his odyssey, it would be hoped that what I’ve said will pique readers’ interest and prompt them to buy this book and explore the extent to which it will touch on themes highly relevant to each reader’s life experience with popular film and the journey of self-discovery.
In sum, Horsley’s book offers a subtle but powerful reading of violent film in popular culture and its potential for generating both beneficial insight and dysfunctional delusion. For depth of insight by way of the persuasive testimony of personal confession, few books on the relationship between individual psychology and popular culture can match this book for its sheer honesty and relevance to everyone. I say relevance to everyone because of the power popular culture has in shaping everyone’s lives in the 21st century—a power this book thoroughly demonstrates. In fact, I would go so far as to say to everyone, but especially adolescents and young adults, that Horsley’s book can serve well as “the bible” for how to navigate through the treacherous shoals of popular culture, particularly in the form of violent screen entertainment. And the two chapters toward the end of the book, which tell the story of his famous brother, Sebastian Horsley, and his fraught relationship with him, show in a very moving way not only how to avoid the abyss of celebrity but also the abyss of celebrity worship, a cliff near which many filmgoers precariously live. In short, get this book and read it. You will never regret it.
There couldn't be a more relevant book for our times. Through a relentless process of individuation, where all layers of culture are shed like snakeskin, Jasun emerges with eyes wide open. It begins (where else?) in his childhood, where with the wisdom of hindsight, Jasun examines his "obsession" with fantasy, in comics and Clint Eastwood movies. Ever-present throughout is the idea of trauma and how it creates a dissociation in our psyche and how we seek meaning through the mirror of entertainment. Rene Girard's mimetic theory is introduced. Autism, or neuro-diversity, is explored. The book is more autobiographical than anything, the author baring himself before us. We learn of his complicated and tragic history with his brother, Sebastian. Earlier works of his (The Blood Poets) are re-examined, elaborated upon. It's easy to see there will be a sequel (and it keeps getting better).
Certain films are highlighted, like Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet. Mostly, movies that explore darker regions of our culture's unconscious. You simply won't be able to watch a movie in the same light after reading this book. Once upon a time, we would eat our buttery popcorn and hold hands with our loved one, and stare mindlessly at the vapid screen. Jasun's penetrating perspective pierces the veil and reveals our complicity, our guilt in the abduction of our very consciousness. Yet it seems he is chasing after a Macguffin; he even seems aware of this. After all, he is admittedly writing another book about movies.
The perplexing thesis (maybe) presented in the book is that we must see our way not out but through. We must account for our obsessions, our heroes, our enemies. Who is writing our script? Hollywood is the mythic template for such a herculean task.
These ideas aren't new or even radical; in fact they are totally logical, and dare I say inevitable. Yet somehow, this is a rarely approached subject. Probably because it is too controversial, too personal. We want to watch movies to take our mind off things, but our mind is being taken. Kudos to Jasun for raking the muck.
I highly recomend it, especially for those who find themselves thinking of life being "like a movie", especially when it is most intense or most beautiful.