I believe most in humanity through community, not as a replacement for what has traditionally been called God or faith or religion, but as the most perfect expression of precisely these things.

It is only through one another, through community, through being with and for each other that God appears, that faith finds substance, that religion becomes more than empty theology and conquering orthodoxy. It is not in the rigorously spiritual nor the perfectly orthodox that we discover God. It is in love for one another, not a love that is perfect, but in a love that desires earnestly for perfection.

All else is meaningless.

I watched Sunset Limited a few months ago, jotted down some thoughts the next morning, but then forgot about it until I was going back through my notebooks, which is why I’m only posting it now. The film is written by Cormac Mccarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s comprised of a single conversation in a small apartment — ninety minutes of dialogue relieved by only the most inconsequential action, like taking a piss or putting soup on the stove.

The premise of the film is that BLack (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has prevented White (played by Tommy Lee Jones) from jumping in front of a train. Black, who is a former convict and a deeply religious man, tries to rescue White, who is a deeply atheist professor, from his emotional and spiritual crisis.

The starkness of the film is profound. Not only is is strictly limited in place and time, but the set is sparse, almost rudimentary. There is no music or sound effects, only ambient sound, except for an eerie sort of noise that sounds when each of the men come to the crisis of his argument.

In this sense, Sunset Limited directly contrasts popular movie making, which constantly overwhelms the viewer with audio and video excess, with relentless action, and with an ever-cutting camera, to the point where dialogue and character development are almost irrelevant. Without these distractions, the script of Sunset Limited must stand entirely on its own, for ninety minutes, without relief, a task that it usually accomplishes.

The staging sometimes feels a little forced, with the characters changing locations on the set more frequently and with less motivation than would be normal for a real conversation, but the dialogue is generally natural and free, a serious accomplishment, especially considering that the conversation takes up topics — religion, morality, death, personal responsibility, and so on — that can quickly feel heavy and awkward.

The discomfort of the film is precisely in this contrast between its visual starkness and its conversational depth, in the sparseness of the space that it uses to confront the profoundness of its moral questions. In this sense the film does what McCarthy always does, relentlessly, in every book and film he writes — he present us with the moral question of what we are in ways that are difficult to avoid.

A friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t like McCarthy. He always makes me uncomfortable.” And that’s true. His work is often uncomfortable because of its intensely moral character, in the sense that it confronts us with the nature of our inhumanity, which is always an uncomfortable experience.

This is why McCarthy’s voice is such an important one in American culture, because he insists that his work perform this moral function, no matter the genre, whether he is writing westerns, or cop dramas, or gangster films. He contradicts the assumption, now thoroughly ingrained in us, that art should be merely entertainment, should leave us feeling content and comfortable, should leave our understanding of ourselves largely unchallenged. What his writing does is make us sit with the questions we would rather ignore.

In the case of Sunset Limited, he makes us sit with questions of faith, morality, meaning, death, and human responsibility, makes us sit in close proximity to them, in a cramped apartment, with no other distraction, until we are forced (like his protagonists) either to flee the room or remain and be broken by them.

What good is it, my love, that words outlive us if we are no longer there to read them? I am uninterested in posterity. The path I trace on the flare of your hip is a literature far greater than the contents of any book. It’s meaning is truer, more certain.

I almost never include images on this blog, because part of my purpose is to emphasize textuality through a medium that emphasizes visuality. However, my mother, Mary Jo Gordon has created a painting in response to one of my prose poems, “The Genuflection of the Moment”, so an exception is in order. I’ve also reprinted the source poem below.

The Genuflection of the Moment

There is a drifting and a falling that seizes time when the sun is setting and a summer is becoming an autumn and the heat of a day is fraying into the cold of a night. Each moment then genuflects to the circling of the sun and of the seasons, and their adoration makes us all the hushed attendants of a mystery. This time disdains all measure, passing with the incalculable rhythm of rustling leaves and blowing grasses and singing insects and cresting waves, finding the hollows and the spaces of the dimmed day. Such moments are marked only in their passing. They leave no inheritance. Without memory or remainder, they are only the splendid instant of their worship.

When Devon turned eighteen he went to the bank and withdrew the entire trust fund that his grandmother had set aside for him, all thirteen thousand and change.

The clerk was a friend of his mom. “What will you do with all that money?” she asked. She had taken off her glasses to show that she was concerned.

“I’m buying an airplane,” he said.

Her eyes brightened, and she put her glasses back on. “I didn’t know you were a pilot.”

“I’m not.”

“So why are you buying an airplane?”

“I’m just gonna sit in it.”

“Oh?”

“Maybe smoke some weed.”

He put the envelope of money in the back pocket of his jeans and used the disability buttons to open the doors on the way out of the bank.

His buddy Cranston, the one whose dad ran heavy equipment, gave Devon a ride up to the airport that afternoon. Mr. Ross was waiting for him at the back, where the old planes were kept, the ones too broken for service. “They’re all pretty much junk,” said Mr. Ross. “You don’t want one of these.”

“That’s the one there,” Devon said. He pointed to a little two-seater, white with a red stripe.

“It doesn’t even have an engine,” said Mr. Ross.

“I don’t need an engine,” said Devon.

“What the hell good is it then?”

“I’m just gonna sit around and smoke in it,” said Devon.

Mr. Ross looked at him oddly. “Right,” he said. “Well, I couldn’t charge you more than a grand for it.”

Devon took the envelope from his back pocket and gave Mr. Ross a crisp new thousand dollar bill.

Cranston took Devon by his house on the way home. Cranston’s mom asked Devon to stay for ham and scalloped potatoes.

“Can you put an airplane on a pole in my backyard?” Devon asked Cranston’s dad?

“What?” asked Cranston’s dad. His mouth was full of potatoes. “An airplane?”

“Yeah,” said Devon. “I bought an airplane, and I want you to put it on a pole in my backyard.”

“On a pole?”

“Yeah.”

Cranston’s dad swallowed his potatoes. “How high?”

“As high as you can get it. With one of those circle ladders that you climb through.”

Cranston’s Dad drank about half his beer in one go. “I guess I could probably manage that,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be cheap.”

“How much?”

“I don’t know. Put in the pole – pick up the plane – attach it somehow – install the ladder.” He shrugged. “Maybe ten grand.”

Devon gave him ten of the thousand dollar bills from his envelope.

“Hell,” said Cranston’s dad. “You’re flush.” He left the money on the table. “We’ll need a permit though. When they ask me what it’s for, what should I tell them?”

“I’m just gonna sit in it,” said Devon, “way up there, see the whole neighbourhood while I smoke my weed.”

Cranston’s dad shook his head. “That’s messed up kid.” He finished his beer. “I’ll just say its a weathervane.”

They installed the pole and the ladder a few weeks later. Devon’s mom was away visiting her sister in Arizona that Saturday.

“We’ll let the concrete cure for a couple weeks,” said Cranston’s dad, “then backfill and hoist up the airplane.”

“How high is it?” asked Devon.

“As high as the boom can reach,” said Cranston’s dad. “Almost eighty feet.”

“That’ll do just fine,” said Devon. “Just fine.”

Devon’s mother didn’t think so though when she came back from Tucson.

“Why can’t you be like other kids and just have parties when I’m gone?” she asked.

“Sorry,” he said.

“What’s it even for?”

“It’s for my airplane.”

“Your what?”

“My airplane. I bought it for my birthday.”

“With what money?”

“With my trust fund.”

“But that was for your education!”

“No,” Devon said. “It was for my airplane.”

Devon’s mom went to her room and cried. Devon talked to her through the door. He told her not to cry, that the airplane would look great in the back yard.

“Why the hell do you need an airplane anyway!” she yelled.

“To sit in,” he said, “and smoke.”

She opened the door and looked at him with her hair hanging in her face. “You can sit and smoke on the couch,” she said. “It’s all you do anyway.”

“Sure,” he said, “but this will be higher. Much higher.”

She slammed the door again, but she didn’t try to stop Cranston’s dad when he came to install the airplane a few weeks later. She just went right on folding the laundry and reorganizing the basement and making lunch.

“Can I try it now?” Devon asked once the plane was bolted into place and the boom was lowered.

“Sure,” said the inspector. He signed the papers. “You just going to sit up there and look around?”

“Just gonna sit up there and smoke my weed,” Devon said.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” the inspector told him.

Devon climbed rung over rung, opened the door of the airplane, and sat in the cockpit. He took a green and speckled glass pipe from his pocket. Filled it. Lit it. Took a hit.

He could see the roofs of the houses below, his neighbours going about doing whatever it was they were doing. The wind swept beneath the wings, and the body of the airplane moved just enough for him to feel it.

He exhaled. “Yep,” he said, “that’ll do just fine.”

My new chapbook These My Streets will be officially launched on Thursday, December 10, 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM, at the ANAF (32 Gordon Street) along with other Fenylalanine Publishing chapbooks by Darcy R. Hiltz, Jessica Avolio, and David J. Knight. It will be a fun and relaxed evening of poetry, music, and conversation. You can also bring some finger food to share. All are welcome.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,684 other followers