Gorillas and Lions and Wolves, Oh My


Yesterday, I watched a gorilla at the zoo have what appeared to be a brain-tingling moment when he removed some dung from the anus of another gorilla. I might be assigning human emotions to the gorilla when I write this, but soon after eating the concoction, the gorilla closed his eyes. There is a variety of reasons why a gorilla might close his eyes, and most of them are most of the reasons we close our eyes, but I thought he was taking a moment out of his day to savor whatever that other gorilla ate and whatever flavor that other gorilla’s digestive system added to it. The elongated, almost spiritual closing of the eyes might have been a coincidence, but I thought the gorilla enjoyed the concoction so much that he wanted to savor it for a moment before going back to the dispenser. There was a full tray of food awaiting the gorilla, in the southeast corner of his enclosure, but he preferred going to the dispenser before him. Watching that gorilla go back for more, I realized that individual tastes are so relative to the flavors we create that it’s pointless to try to fashion our work in such a way that it pleases everyone. We can only create whatever our nervous system produces and we flavor it with the dispensaries we have at our disposal in the hope that someone somewhere might enjoy it for what it is.  

Yesterday, I realized the roles those two gorillas played in this display defined for me what proved to be one of the most unusual and successful pairings in music history: Ben Folds and William Shatner. I enjoy the music of Ben Folds, and I’ve been a fan for a long time, but there is something missing in his music. He has some fantastic singles, but I’ve never been so attracted to his oeuvre that I would list him as one of “my guys”. If I informed Folds how frustrated I am that he comes so close to reaching me, I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Not only would he not care, he shouldn’t care. If I met him and told him that most of his music misses the mark for me, he should say, “That’s on you. I can only do what I do. I can’t worry about pleasing you, offending you, or infinitely pleasing you. If it pleases enough people that I can make a living at this game, that’s great, but I’m not going to change what I do to please you or Betty Beatle from Idaho.”  

William Shatner is not one of “my guys” either, but he’s always around. He’s the green bean casserole of the entertainment world. I doubt anyone who has yet to try green bean casserole would look at it and think, “Yum!” but it’s at so many family get togethers and potluck dinners that we eventually “what the hell” it, until we discover it’s not so bad. As long as we don’t overdo it, repetition can even lead to a level of fondness for it, until we look forward to the next get together or potluck dinner that has a tray of it.

No one should confuse the term “my guys” with a description of talent. I’ll drop the typical line people drop to explain the discrepancy. “I respect the heck out of what Folds and Shatner do, but it just doesn’t reach me on a personal level.” I know people who love John Lennon so much that they suggest Paul McCartney was not talented. I understand that we all take sides in any rivalry, but to suggest that a talent on par with Paul McCartney has no talent is ludicrous. The Silly Love Songs vs. Important Songs debate rages on in some quarters, as Lennon fans suggest Lennon was not only more important he was more creative. These people relate more with Lennon, and because of that Lennon was “their guy”, but to prove that point, some try to so by belittling McCartney’s Silly Love Songs talent.

I missed Folds and Shatner’s collaboration for years, because they weren’t “my guys”. When I eventually heard the album Has Been, however, I was blown away. It reminded me of one of my favorite concoctions: cranberry granola and banana flavored yogurt. On its own, this yogurt flavor is too sweet for me, and while this flavor of granola is tasty, I probably wouldn’t eat it as a standalone. When I put the two together, however, I enjoy it so much that I’ve considered submitting it to the overlords as my reward for living a decent, moral life. When I pass on, I want to meet my long-deceased relatives of course, and I wouldn’t mind it if someone played me a Brahams Sonata on the harp, but if your’re wondering how best to reward me for a life well lived, might I suggest that the floors and walls of my reward taste like the banana-flavored yogurt and cranberry granola concoction I created.

When we eat concoctions like these, we spoon too much of one flavor most of the times. Some of the times, we spoon too much yogurt, and some of the times, we spoon too much granola, but there are occasions, at least once a container, when we hit a Goldilocks spoonful. The album Has Been is the Goldilocks concoction of talent for me, and when I listen to it, I close my eyes to savor the moment. I’ve listened to that album so often that I’ve tried listening to the other concoctions they’ve made together, but they rarely hit the mark in the same manner. On their own, Shatner and Folds create interesting, quality material that doesn’t quite hit that brilliant, Holy Crud! mark, but together they created what I consider their Goldilocks moment. I would think that such moments are so fleeting in any artist’s career that when they hit one, they would immediately run back into the studio to dispense another collaboration, but perhaps they don’t think they can create another Goldilocks moment. I know they did singles together before and after Has Been, but that album was so good that I would think it would drive them right back into the studio to do another collaboration. We know that Folds affinity for Shatner brought them together, but we don’t know why they don’t make another album together. They might also think that fate and whatnot permit but one Goldilocks moment a life.

Carnivores in Cartoons

Yesterday, I thought carnivores were the mean, bad guys of the wild. Today I realized that the cartoons we watched conditioned us to believe that when a lion, shark, alligator, or any animal at the top of the food chain eats one at the bottom, they do so with some evil intent. We can find a definition of this in Aesop’s fable in which a mouse removes a thorn from a lion’s paw. The lion, in turn, agrees not to eat the mouse. The mouse does something nice for the lion, and the lion, in turn, agrees to do something nice for the mouse. The inference is that if the lion betrays this agreement, and instinctually eats the mouse, that means the lion is mean.    

Think about all the cartoons we watched and books we read in our youth. They depicted carnivores with jagged teeth and menacing growls. As we often do, we confused being scary with being mean or bad. Today I learned that they’re not mean, or bad, they’re just hungry, and like all other animals, they eat when they’re hungry. Regardless what it does to their reputation as a beautiful animal, wolves enjoy eating fluffy bunny wabbits. They do awful things to bunnies if they’re able to catch them, but that does not mean they’re mean or evil in the manner we define such terms. By teaching young humans lessons, using animals as main characters, some of us anthropomorphize these characters to such a degree that we assign them human characteristics. Lions, tigers, and bears aren’t nice, they aren’t mean, and they don’t make decisions on what to eat based on how other animals interact with them.   

Yesterday I learned that even if the animals at the top of the food chain are not the meanies we thought they were when we were kids, we should still consider doing everything we can to avoid one in the wild. After watching videos that focus on animals biting humans, nature lovers qualify the instinctual actions of these wild animals by saying, “We are not on their diet.” The nature lovers then provide a number of theories regarding how these incidents often involve nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. These theories are true, of course, as most animals in the wild, and in the ocean, have never seen a human, and self-preservation is more important to animals than eating in most cases. Animals often take a pass on anything unfamiliar if they think they could get hurt in the process. Sometimes, however, they’re so hungry that they’re willing to eat anything that moves, especially if it moves slower than other prey.

Most animals don’t know what a human is, and that’s why they fear us, but we are also a point of curiosity for them. Thus, when they see us walking around in their domain, or floating on the surface, they’re curious, and that curiosity is almost exclusive to considering whether they should consider adding us to their diet. Yet, seeing, hearing, and smelling us might not be enough to satisfy their curiosity, and they obviously cannot communicate with us, so their last resort is to taste us to try to figure out what we are to determine if they might want to start adding us to their diet.

The nature lovers further their argument by opening up the belly of a bull shark. “When we open up the belly of a bull shark, we find everything from license plates to cans of paint to packs of cigarettes. The bull shark, unlike other sharks, is not very discerning. They’ll eat anything they see floating on the surface of the water, even if it happens to be a human on a surfboard.” Translation: They do not intend to devour us. They’re just curious. They just want to taste us to see what we are. I see the nature lovers working here. I know they’re trying to relieve our fears about sharks, and in turn preserve the shark population, and I know wild animals are not bad or mean in the context humans define the terms, but it does not comfort me to know that all they want to do is taste me. If I happen upon one of these carnivorous beasts, and it’s clear that all they want to do is taste me, I’m still going to do whatever I can to get away. If I fail to escape, I’m probably going to shoot it, because I have to imagine that even though they’re just tasting me, it’s still going to hurt like the dickens.

Mindhunter


“The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. [These] Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.” John Douglas and Mark Olshaker wrote in an excellent memoir titled Mindhunter to explain that serial killers are not a recent phenomenon.

What’s more scary the idea that monsters are real, or the idea that your neighbor could commit monstrous acts? Before we giggle at our predecessors for believing werewolves and vampires walked among them, we need to keep a number of things in mind. They were afraid. We’re afraid, and we still don’t know what drives ordinary people to commit monstrous acts in general. We might have better theories and educated guesses, thanks in part to the interviews conducted by John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler and many others, but we still don’t enough to stop current and future monstrous acts. When we’re afraid, we want answers, and future generations might giggle at us for our “more modern, informed answers”. The answers we have, thanks to advancements in the fields of law enforcement, science, and technology inform us that we’re not surrounded by vampires, werewolves, or any kind of literal monsters, but ordinary people who are in some ways triggered to commit monstrous acts. The question is, do these answers provide us more comfort, or do they make it more frightening?

Our predecessors obviously considered the latter more horrific, and they developed the idea of monsters to help create some distance between themselves and those who would commit such acts.

We could very easily say that our predecessors were less informed on such matters, but that is almost solely based on the idea that they didn’t have the science and technology we have to help them explain matters. (Anyone who thinks it’s a stone cold fact that we’re smarter on average, need only take an 8th grade examination to compare.) I don’t think they were less intelligent, or that most of them truly believed that men all over the world were turning into wolves and vampires. I think they wanted an explanation that might help them avoid discussions on the subject of whether or not a normal man was capable of such monstrosities.

Those of us who watch the NFL often enough begin to think we know what we’re talking about when we question our favorite team’s general manager (GM). If I were a GM, I would open my press conference with eleven words, “You know nothing. Please keep that in mind throughout our Q&A.” If I led an investigation on a psychopath committing serial crimes, I would issue the same intro. Most of us know nothing about law enforcement. Most of us know nothing about the long, laborious task of collecting evidence, and the mind-numbing task of studying case files. We might think we do, because we’ve logged thousands of hours watching movies and TV shows on the subject, but we know nothing.

If we were to devote our lives to learning more, by way of TV shows, movies, and the books in the true crime section of our favorite book store, we might one day reach a point where we know next to nothing. If, that is, are engagement is studious. I knew nothing when I first picked up the book Mindhunter decades ago, and I probably know next to today. I knew nothing when I proceeded to buy all the books written by Douglas and Olshaker, and all of the other books that line the true crime section of the book store, and I know next to nothing now. I do know that Mindhunter was the best of these books, and I couldn’t believe it took over two decades for someone to make a movie, or a TV show on Doulgas’ excellent memoir.

Those who haven’t yet watched season one of the Netflix series, based on the book, should know that the consensus is that it starts out slow and confusing. To some, each episode of the series is slow and laborious, because it does not involve FBI agents knocking down doors, taking over investigations, or engaging in gun fights. Mindhunter is not the typical profiling show of FBI agents trying to catch a serial killer before he acts again. It is the story about two FBI agents who used the information gathered during interviews with psychopaths to understand such people better for the purpose of helping law enforcement identify them sooner, apprehend them later, and then convict them. Uber fans of the book, who never understood why no one made a movie about this chapter in John Douglas’ life, and this chapter in criminal justice, realized that sometimes even fantastic books don’t play very well in visual mediums. The Mindhunter series on Netflix is largely cerebral, and if you have no interest in this subject, the pace can appear plodding in parts.

Those of us who loved the book and wanted viewers to see the genius of the book for themselves cringed through the slow start, because we know that a slow start can be a death knell for any movie or series on a streaming device. The reason for the slow start is that a series such as this one needs to establish the modus operandi (M.O.) behind the FBI agents interviewing criminal minds to understand the criminal mind better, the series also has to establish the characters involved to spark interest, and the series creators needed to add the requisite (albeit fictional) romance. The characterization and the modus operandi of the FBI agents is necessary for any show, of course, but if I were the head writer of the series, I would’ve opened with the Ed Kemper interviews and dropped the backdrop information in accordingly. I might have also attempted to integrate the M.O. into the first episode, but I would have done so after the initial Kemper interview. My cringe was not because the series was done poorly, but as a member of the short attention span generation, I cringe when a series start out at a snail’s pace, because I can hear the millions of viewers who didn’t read the book, flipping to the thousands of other options available at their fingertips. Those who are patient enough to work through the largely fictionalized characterizations, will learn of a fascinating retelling of a 1995 memoir, by the same name, written by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker.

Although Mindhunter, the book, would influence some award winning movies and TV shows, the more faithful-to-the-book Netflix series, contains little to no action scenes. The book, and the series, are more about the groundbreaking work two FBI agents did to change the procedures law enforcement officials use to investigate violent crime. This story is more about the cerebral tactics these two agents advanced to a level unseen in the FBI prior to their arrival. Previous work done in the FBI influenced their work, as did the work of local level law enforcement officials, and the occasions when law enforcement officials brought in a psychiatrist to assist them with a case. In the book Mindhunter John Douglas also noted that his work derived some influence from literature, specifically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and a British novelist named Wilkie Collins.

The work Douglas and Robert Ressler did inspired the creation of numerous gun-toting FBI-chasing serial killer Hollywood movies, including Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, The X-Files and hundreds of other movies and TV shows, but John Douglas says he didn’t care for any of those portrayals.

“They don’t put across accurate portrayals, and [that] aggravates me,” he said. “I can’t look at those movies.” As for the Netflix series, Douglas says, “They’re going by the book and I am very pleased.” Watching the series, he said, “is like reliving my life all over again.”

We can guess that Douglas didn’t care for the Hollywood attempts to tell his story because they felt the need to Hollywood his story up, and I join him in this general sentiment. I loathe movies that do whatever they can to add action scenes, and a romantic angle, to involve the audience in the lives of their characters.

After watching the Netflix series, however, I now understand why various producers, directors, and all the players involved in making the Hollywood versions of his tale, felt the need to Hollywood it up in their versions of the story. If they maintained a stance that their versions would adhere to the book more faithfully, they probably wouldn’t receive funding for it. Their rejections would probably state that no one wants to watch FBI agents doing behind the scenes work.

John Douglas characterized his twenty-four year career in the FBI, as putting himself in the mind of the hunter. To do so, Douglas developed a process of interviewing and studying psychopaths for the purpose of understanding their methodological approach to choosing victims, securing their removal from the public space, and covering their trail.

On the latter, Douglas wrote, “No matter how much a criminal thinks he knows, the more he does to evade detection, or throw us off the track, the more behavioral clues he’s going to give us to work with.”

When asked how John Douglas would describe his role in these investigations, he said, “If you’re a cop and I work with you on a case, I help to develop a more proactive technique.”

Douglas also tried to clarify the role the Investigative Support Unit (which is part of the FBI’s national Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at Quantico) played in investigations:

“We do not catch criminals. What we try to do is assist local police in focusing their investigations, then suggest some proactive techniques that might help draw a criminal out.” Douglas then writes, “We (also) try to formulate a strategy to help the prosecutor bring out the defendant’s true personality during the trial.”

My analysis of John Douglas, the work he did after the interviews in the field of profiling, and what I once considered the most brilliant books I’ve ever read on the subject, might sound like a love affair gone awry from this point forward. Like an impulsive, physical attraction to another person, I was gaga over this book, and my initial impulses resulted in me failing to view this book objectively.

Before I get into that, however, there is one chapter that no one will ever be able to make me see the light on: Everybody has a Rock. In this chapter, Douglas writes that he attained a confession from an alleged perpetrator by placing an ordinary rock in the corner of the room. It was not the rock that various law enforcement officials believed the alleged perpetrator used to inflict blunt force trauma to the head of Mary Frances Stoner. It was just a rock that Douglas found that he considered roughly the same size and shape as the one law enforcement believed a perpetrator used in Ms. Stoner’s murder, and he placed it in the corner of the interrogation room before the interview. Douglas used numerous behavioral techniques in that interview with the alleged suspect to inform him that he knew the suspect as well, if not better, than anyone who interrogated him previously. Throughout the interview, the suspect kept glancing over at the rock waiting for Douglas to broach the topic of the rock. John Douglas never did. He used it as a triggering stressor, combined with the detailed information he had on the suspect, to make him sweat. Long paragraph short, the man confessed, and Douglas concluded this by writing:

“If the triggering stressor is a legitimate, valid concern, it will have a good chance of working. [The rock] could be mine. Yours would be something else and we’d have to try to figure out in advance what that would be. But there would be something. Because everybody has a rock.”

We all have a vulnerability, in other words, a susceptibility of sorts in the case against us, and it’s law enforcement’s job, and the prosecutor’s job to find it. It’s not a ground-breaking idea, of course, but when it works, it can sound so perfect, as in this case, that it sounds like a magician revealing that he’s had a rabbit in his hat the whole time.

Most also credit John Douglas as a pioneer for a controversial art form called profiling. When I first read Mindhunter, I was an unquestioning fan. I considered John E. Douglas a flat out genius, and I thought he personified the idea that every problem is one genius away from a solution. In the decades since, I’ve read numerous naysayers state that many of the profiles Douglas and other profilers have created for unknown subjects (UNSUBs), are equivalent to Forer Effect.* I was a little shocked by the pushback for I considered profiling an art form, if not a scientific approach to help law enforcement locate and determine which type of criminal was most probable. I considered profiling on the verge of hard science. I was also shocked to learn that many law enforcement officials groan when profilers enter into an investigation, because they don’t believe profilers can help them in investigations any more than they believe psychics can.

One of my naysayer friends asked me the pointed question if I thought psychics could help law enforcement locate and determine suspects. “Of course not,” I said, “but that’s not what John Douglas does.” After a back and forth that involved the details we both knew from the book, the naysayer encouraged me to re-read page 151 of his Mindhunter book.

Page 151 of Mindhunter contains John Douglas’s description of profiling, a description I now consider tantamount to a confession:

“What I try to do with a case is take in all the evidence I have to work with –the case reports, the crime-scene photos, and descriptions, the victim statements or autopsy protocols– and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender. I try to think as he does.” So far so good, this was the summary I provided my naysayer friend. The next part is what I presumably skimmed over in my first reading. “Exactly how this happens, I’m not sure, any more than novelists such as Thomas Harris who’ve consulted me over the years can say exactly how their characters come to life. If there is a psychic component to this, I won’t run away from it, though I regard it more in the realm of creative thinking.” {Emphasis mine.}

The next paragraph in the book details Douglas’s praise of psychics, “I’ve seen it work,” he says. Douglas does admit, however, that hundreds of psychics were brought in to help law enforcement officials solve the Atlanta child murders, and they weren’t even close in their descriptions of killers and methods.

Other naysayers who argue that the effectiveness of criminal profiling John Douglas is suspect, ask how many of his profiles were wrong? One suspects, if other naysayers are correct, and what Douglas does is equivalent to what psychics do, that he is wrong more often than he is right, but that he might say that that’s the nature of profiling. Mindhunter is John Douglas’ book, and he can include any information he wants, but if Douglas and others’ profiles had a praiseworthy track record, I think he would’ve proudly listed those statistics. He probably still would’ve added that profiling is an art form, it’s not a science, but he could’ve added something along the lines of “Our figures show that qualified profilers have been proven correct ‘X’% of the time since we developed the technique for law enforcement.”

It’s been a long time since I read the book word for word, but I can’t remember the chapter listing the success rates, and there is no statistics of listing in the index. In the end, this is a memoir of John Douglas’ life as an FBI agent, and the many successes he’s had. As I wrote, he doesn’t have to list anything he doesn’t want to list, but for those of us who believed in him and his techniques, these facts would’ve given us ammunition against his naysayers. Having said all that Mindhunter is a great read, and he never claims he found a scientific approach to crime solving.

As has been reported, season two of this Netflix series will focus on profiling and the Atlanta child murders, but those who might fall prey to the belief that profiling is a hard science that will result in some sort of exactitude must keep all of this in mind.

They should also keep two key facts in mind when watching the focus on the Atlanta child murders. The state was able to convict suspect Wayne Williams of killing two grown men, but they were never able to convict him of a killing a single child. As Biography.com states, “Once the trial (of the case of those two grown men) was over, law-enforcement officials declared their belief that evidence suggested that Williams was most likely linked to another 20 of the 29 deaths the task force had been investigating. DNA sequencing from hairs found on different victims revealed a match to Williams’s own hair, to 98 percent certainty. But that 2 percent doubt was enough to prevent further convictions.” (One has to imagine that the various levels of law enforcement were disgusted with the prosecuting attorney’s office for their unwillingness to pursue these charges to preserve their success record.) 

I noticed that the first season of Netflix’s Mindhunter paid little attention to the art of profiling. I cannot remember if the series used the term, unless they said something like, “we could use this information to build a profile on him”. As far as I remember, the first season didn’t use the term at all. Perhaps, that was because Douglas didn’t coin the term in the time period season one covers, or it may be that the series producers wanted to stay away from the controversial term. (If they used it, I expect fans will help me correct the record.) Regardless, I read that they will put more focus on profiling in season two.

The almost painful confession I must make in regards John Douglas, and his insight into criminal profiling, is that I believed it 100%. Even though Douglas confessed in his book that profiling was more art than science, I considered the art of profiling based on science, behavioral science, and I considered John Douglas an indisputable genius. Even though he said, if someone were to accuse him of using psychic components, “I won’t run away from it.” He then added, “I’ve seen it work.” Any rational mind would respond, “Okay, fair enough, but how often do psychics provide unequivocal assistance to law enforcement work? How often does their information lead to a suspect who is later convicted?” I’m sure there are some who might cite a case for me that pinpoints a case in the history of law enforcement where a psychic helped solve a case, but my rational mind takes me back to that question, “If this particular psychic has a gift, and they were able to help law enforcement solve a case, how often have they been wrong throughout their life?” If there were more documented stats on the powers of even one psychic, perhaps juries and the overall court system would accept and acknowledge evidence that was obtained with a psychics insights in the courtroom. At this point in history that has not happened.

In my excitement, I failed to read his book with enough skepticism. I do this, because I enjoy falling in love. I’m a relatively intelligent person who appreciates how math and hard science can help explain most of the inner workings of the universe, but I will not apologize for the emotional, almost romantic attachments I have to ideas before the facts roll out. I continue to believe, for example, that for every problem that plagues man we are one genius away from finding a solution, but I am now more skeptical of the former FBI agent’s influential approach, techniques and procedures than I was when I first read his book. Although I was wrong, painfully wrong, I believe a book such as this one highlights the discussion of belief. When I learned that many in law enforcement do not value criminal profiling as much I thought they should, and I reread Mindhunter in a more skeptical mind frame, I was swayed that it wasn’t the hard science I assumed on initial reading. I’ll take the arrows when they come my way, but I won’t give up the optimistic beliefs that have served me well over the years.

*The Forer Effect is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions tailored to their personality, but is in fact vague and general enough to be assigned to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality tests.

Leonardo’s Lips and Lines


Hyper-vigilance is not a switch an artist turns on to create. It’s less about what an artist does and more about who they are. If this is true, we could say that the final products of artists, their artistic creations, are less about some supernatural gift and more about a culmination of hyper-natural observations of the minutiae that others often miss that we call hyper-vigilance. Thus, in some cases, the final product of an artist’s vision is less about an artistic vision and more about using that product as a vehicle to reveal their findings. Did Leonardo da Vinci’s obsessions drive him to be an artist, or did he become so obsessed with the small details of life that he become an artist?

What goes on in the mind of an artist? That question has plagued us since Leonardo da Vinci, and before him. Those who don’t understand the complexities and gradations of artistic creation love to think about an “aha moment”, such as an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head. Others think that brilliant artistic creation often requires one to mix the chemicals of their brain up with artificial enhancements, or that they ripped off the artists who preceded them. These theories combine some elements of truth with a measure of “There’s no way one man is that much more brilliant than I am” envy. As an aspiring artist, I can tell you that nothing informs the process more than failure, or trial and error. There are rarely “aha moments” that rip an artist out of a bathtub to lead them to type a passage half naked and dripping wet. What’s more common in my experience involves the search for an alternative, or a better way. Rather than intro a piece in the manner I’ve always done, maybe I should try introducing another way, maybe I should build to the conclusion a different way, and all of the gradual, almost imperceptible changes an artist makes along the road to their version of the “perfect” artistic creation. 

To the untrained eye, The Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman. The Last Supper is nothing more than a depiction of the apostles having a meal with Jesus. We have some evidence of da Vinci’s process in his notebooks, but we don’t have his early artistic pieces. Due to the idea that they probably weren’t great, either da Vinci trashed them, or they’ve been lost to history in one way or another. These pieces would be interesting if, for no other reason, than to see the progress that led him to his masterpieces. Of the few da Vinci paintings that remain, we see a progression from his first paintings to The Mona Lisa. His paintings became more informed throughout his artistic career. This begs the chicken or the egg question, what came first Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic vision or the science behind the paintings? Put another way, did he pursue his innovative ways of attaining scientific knowledge to enhance his paintings, or did he use the paintings as a vehicle to display the knowledge he attained?

On that note, anytime I read a brilliant line I often wonder if the inspiration for the line dropped in the course of the author’s effort, or if the brilliant line was the whole reason for the book. Was the book an elongated attempt to verbally shade that brilliant line, in the manner da Vinci did his subjects, to make the brilliant line more prominent?  

Whatever the case was, the few works of his we still have are vehicles for the innovative knowledge he attained of science, the mathematics of optics, architecture, chemistry, and the finite details of anatomy. Da Vinci might have started obsessively studying various elements, such as water flow, rock formations, and all of the other natural elements to better inform his art, but he became so obsessed with his initial findings that he pursued them for reasons beyond art. He pursued them for the sake of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book capture an artist’s artistic process as well as Walter Isaacson’s Leonard da Vinci biography has. The thesis of the book is that da Vinci’s artistic creations were not merely the work of a gifted artist, but of an obsessive genius honing in on scientific discoveries to inform the minutiae of his process. Some reviews argue that this bio focuses too much on the minutiae involved in da Vinci’s work, and there are paragraphs, pages, and in some cases entire chapters devoted to the minutiae involved in his process. In some places, I empathize with this charge that the book can be tedious, but after finishing the book, I don’t know how any future biographer on da Vinci could capture the essence of Leonardo da Vinci without the exhaustive detail about the man’s obsessive pursuit of detail. Focusing and obsessing on the finer details is who da Vinci was, and it is what separated him from all of the brilliant artists that preceded and followed him. 

Some have alluded to the idea that da Vinci just happened to capture Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, in the perfect smile for his famous painting The Mona Lisa. The inference is that da Vinci asked her to do a number of poses, and that his gift was merely in working with the woman to find that perfect pose and then capture it, in the manner a photographer might. Such theories, Isaacson illustrates, shortchange the greatest work of one of history’s greatest artists. It leaves out all of these intricate and tedious details da Vinci used to bring the otherwise one-dimensional painting to life.

Isaacson also discounts the idea that da Vinci’s finished products were the result of a divine gift, and I agree in the sense that suggesting his work was a result of a gift discounts the intense and laborious research da Vinci put into informing his works. There were other artists with similar gifts in da Vinci’s time, and there have been many more since, yet da Vinci’s work maintains a rarefied level of distinction in the art world. 

As an example of Leonardo’s obsessiveness, he dissected cadavers to understand the musculature elements involved in producing a smile. Isaacson provides exhaustive details of Leonardo’s work, but writing a couple of paragraphs about such endeavors cannot properly capture how tedious this research must have been. Writing that da Vinci spent years exploring cadavers to discover all the ways the brain and spine work in conjunction to produce expression, for example, cannot capture the trials and errors da Vinci must have experienced before finding the subtle muscular formations inherent in the famous, ambiguous smile that captured the deliberate effect he was trying to achieve. (Isaacson’s description of all the variables that inform da Vinci’s process regarding The Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile that historians suggest da Vinci used more than once, is the best paragraph in the book.) We can only guess that da Vinci spent most of his time researching for these artistic truths alone, and that even his most loyal assistants pleaded that he not put them on the insanely tedious lip detail. 

Isaacson also goes to great lengths to reveal Leonardo’s study of lights and shadows, in the sfumato technique, to provide the subjects of his paintings greater dimension and realistic and penetrating eyes. Da Vinci then spent years, sometimes decades, putting changes on his “incomplete projects”. Witnesses say that he could spend hours looking at an incomplete project only to add one little dab of paint. 

The idea that da Vinci’s works were a product of supernatural gift also implies that all an artist has to do is apply that gift to whatever canvas stands before them and that they should do it as often as possible to pay homage to that gift until they achieve a satisfactory result. As Isaacson details, this doesn’t explain what separates da Vinci from other similarly gifted artists in history. The da Vinci works we admire to this day were but a showcase of his ability, his obsessive research on matters similarly gifted artists might consider inconsequential, and the application of that knowledge he attained from the research. This, I believe, suggests da Vinci’s final products were less about anything supernatural and more about an intense obsession to achieve something hyper-natural.  

Why, for example, would one spend months, years, and decades studying the flow of water, and its connections to the flow of blood in the heart? The nature of da Vinci’s obsessive qualities belies the idea that he did it for the sole purpose of fetching a better price for his art. As Isaacson points out, da Vinci turned down more commissions than he accepted. This coupled with the idea that while he might have started an artistic creation on a commissioned basis, he often did not give the finished product to the one paying him for the finished product. As stated with some of his works, da Vinci hesitated to do this because he didn’t consider the piece finished, completed, or perfect. As anyone who experiences artistic impulses understands, the idea that an artistic piece has reached a point where it cannot be improved upon is often more difficult for the artist to achieve for the artist than starting one.

What little we know about da Vinci, suggests that he had the luxury of never having to worry about money. If that’s the case, some might suggest that achieving historical recognition drove him, but da Vinci had no problem achieving recognition in his lifetime, as most connoisseurs of art considered him one of the best painters of his era. We also know that da Vinci published little of what would’ve been revolutionary discoveries in his time, and he carried most of his artwork with him for most of his life, perfecting it, as opposed to selling it, or seeking more fame with it. Due in part to the luxuries afforded him, and the apparent early recognition of his talent, most cynical searches for his motivation do not apply. As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonard da Vinci implies, it’s difficult to find a motivation that drove the man to create the few works of his we now have other than the pure, passionate pursuit of artistic perfection. 

After reading through all that informed da Vinci’s process, coupled with the appreciation we have for the finished product, I believe we can now officially replace the meme that uses the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to describe an artist’s artistic peak with The Mona Lisa.

Ten Reasons to Buy: Based on a True Story: A Memoir


Number Ten: Norm Macdonald appears to have had no career advancing goals in the writing of this book. Most artists use the memoir as a vehicle to promote their career, and the idea that while they may appear to be a little quirky to the naked eye, deep in their heart, they are actually a very wonderful person. No matter how apathetic, somewhat cruel, and insensitive an author of such material is, the unspoken rule of such comedy is that the author break down the fourth wall, in some manner, to let the audience in on the joke. Norm Macdonald, the character that he has created for this book, and all of the layers in between do not appear to care that the reader regard him as a wonderful, compassionate, good guy. Most authors that approach a style similar to the book, qualify their motivations for doing what they did with follow ups that redound to the benefit of the author. Norm Macdonald does not appear to care why the reader bought his book, about their outlook on him, or if that reader feels good about themselves, and their world, when they have finished the book.

There are no politics in this book, in other words. Norm Macdonald appears to feel no need to convince us that he is actually very smart, savvy, or anything more than he is. There are no subtle approaches to politics that inform the audience that Norm is compassionate, empathetic, or nuanced. For those of us that do not care what a celebrity thinks, this approach is refreshing.

29937870Number Nine: The narrative voice in Based on a True Story: A Memoir comes from an old world influence. (How many modern books invoke the word “Hoosegow”?) That voice provides contrast to the cutting edge, nouveau humor Norm Macdonald employs in his narrative, but that contrast serves to intrigue more than it confuses. If the reader is the type that needs some sort of qualifier, or apology, for somewhat cruel, and insensitive scenes, takes, and reactions that occur throughout this book, it can be found somewhere in this kind, Midwestern sounding voice that Norm, and his ghost writer Charlie Manson, employ.

I knew nothing of Macdonald’s upbringing, prior to the reading of this book, and I didn’t care about it either. After reading the initial chapters of this book, however, I found myself relating to the rhythms and verbiage the author employed that was later explained by the fact that Norm Macdonald had an older father, and that he spent much of his youth surrounded by old, hired hands that knew nothing beyond manual labor. These were no-nonsense men that had an old world structure to their being that is too often lacking in today’s weak, easily offended culture. The locale of Macdonald’s rearing was different than mine, it turned out, but the small details of his maturation were so similar to mine that I was surprised to learn we didn’t grow up the exact same. This could be as a result of Norm’s better-than-expected ability to relate to the reader, or his ghost writer’s ability to translate Norm’s thoughts into a book that I found my voice in. The ghost writer is renamed Charlie Manson for the purpose of this book (not that Charlie Manson, the other one.)

Number Eight: There is some name-dropping in this book, but on the number of occasions in which he runs into celebrities, Norm’s character does not ingratiate himself to that person, or the trappings of that world. His character remains on the outside looking in, and there are no subsequent tropes that reveal a little guy finding his place in a larger world. This is not the typical celebrity memoir, in other words, but Norm Macdonald is not the typical celebrity. Norm’s character remains outside their world throughout, and it’s endemic to the character that he not endear himself to these people any more than he distances himself from them with insider insults.

Number Seven: For those of us that have never been able to explain why we find Norm Macdonald intriguing, this book only serves to highlight that confusion. He is an unusual person with unusual insights, raised in an unusual culture (unusual to most celebrities that is), and he has an unusual outlook on life as a result. A comprehensive nature of Norm Macdonald’s voice has never been captured as well before, and it remains consistent throughout this piece. How many talk shows has Norm Macdonald been on where he provides a brief glimpse into his mind with an unusual story that is funny in a way that the audience (and often the host of the show) doesn’t completely understand? How many of them have laughed with raised eyebrows, or other visual displays of concern for either Norm Macdonald, or themselves for laughing? That voice is here, in this book, and expanded upon.

Number Six: The shifts in perspective that Norm Macdonald achieves in this book are near seamless. Some call it style, others simply call it a proficiency for storytelling. Whatever the case is, if the reader has gained an appreciation for such minutiae in their books, they will thoroughly enjoy this. On those occasions when the seams are exposed, most of them involve Norm’s trademarked conclusions that remind the reader of the obnoxious conclusions Macdonald achieves in his stand up routines, and more famously on Weekend Update.

Number Five: A number of comedians, and top shelf celebrities have learned how to poke fun of themselves, but I would suggest that most of those people have learned the art of how to engage in self-effacing humor while allowing the audience in on the joke. There is a point by point, color by numbers approach to this form of comedy that has evolved thanks in part to Andy Kaufman, Chris Elliot, David Letterman, and perhaps Will Farrell. Other comedians have displayed the base nature of their talent by attempting to take the premise of this approach to crueler, and more obnoxious levels. It’s all good, though, because we all know it’s all in good, clean fun. We know that these jokes are all delivered in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In the character Norm has developed, onstage and off (with this book) the reader is not so sure. The narrative of “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” leads the reader to feel sorry for the character, while laughing at his naiveté, and his inability to abide by social norms.

Number Four: Although each bit in this book is a bit of one form or another, the layers of reality, coupled with the careful wording of each story leads the reader to believe that the author, the character, and all layers in between, believe otherwise. The book achieves that fine art of “the willing suspension of disbelief” in other words, that leads the reader to believe that they are being exposed to an uncomfortable level of nudity that is so sad that Norm Macdonald may either be a bad person, or a person that missed a few monkey bars on the way to maturation.

Number Three: Monty Python had a slogan that prefaced much of their material, “And now for something completely different.” For those of us that pine for something different, this book contains stories, reactions, and anecdotes that I have to imagine most authors, and almost all celebrities do their best to avoid. I have a sneaking suspicion that Macdonald’s public relations people asked him to include the “Based on” words to the title of his book. I have a sneaking suspicion that Norm wouldn’t mind it one bit if the reader believed this was the true story of Norm Macdonald’s life. Something tells me that his people, friends, associates, and business partners cautioned him to bolster the doubt regarding the material, because too many people might believe it’s his true story, and that this book may do some damage to his career.

Number Two: As one of Norm’s good friends says on a near-daily basis, “Always be closing.” As such, “Based on a True Story: A Memoir” is either building to a close throughout the various chapters, or its closing throughout. When it’s not strict to script of the respective story, hilarious anecdotes break the story up so well that one has to gather one’s self and remind themselves where the narrative was heading. The anecdotes appear to be accidental humor in other words. In the beginning of this book, I began highlighting some of the jokes believing that they would be precious jewels that I would have to remember. I do this with all provocative lines and paragraphs, but as I continued throughout the book, I gave up, knowing that when one highlights too often, the portions that are highlighted begin to lose value.

Number One: Norm Macdonald does whatever the hell Norm Macdonald wants. Is this a true narrative, Norm not does appear to care what the reader believes one way or another. Is this a readable narrative that involves the time-honored traditions of storytelling, Norm doesn’t appear to care. The storytelling format does have a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feel to it, but other than that it does not follow the rules of any celebrity memoir that I’ve ever read. He may have informed us of some true facts regarding his upbringing, and the many things that have happened to him along the way, but he doesn’t care if the readers knows the difference, or, apparently, if those distinctions could lead to some damage of his career as an entertainer. As a result, I would say that this is by far the best celebrity memoir I have ever read, but I have the feeling Norm wouldn’t care what one way or another.

A Review of Suicide Squad


The first and last thing that the audience of the movie Suicide Squad should know is that Intelligence Operative Amanda Waller is one bad mujer (as opposed to hombre).  It is imperative to the plot of the movie that the audience member regard this paper pushing bureaucrat in a pant suit(?) as an intimidating figure that warrants such respect from the most ruthless, murderers of our society that they are willing to do whatever they have to do to prevent her from being cross with them.

If you are not convinced that a bureaucrat –a character that is often depicted as a bumbling fool in so many other movies of this genre that the creators of this movie knew that they would have to continually shove the audience over this otherwise insurmountable hill– can be intimidating, you will be inundated by the characters in this movie informing you that they are intimidated by her.

Advance-Ticket-Promos-Amanda-Waller-suicide-squad-39774461-500-281Operative Waller is respectfully trumpeted as “The boss” by a ruthless, murderous character in one scene.  The question that immediately comes to mind is, why does this bad guy care what the institutional makeup of the hierarchy constructed against him is?  If he is a ruthless bad guy, one would think his entire existence has been to thwart authority, regardless its makeup.  Waller is then depicted (by the same ruthless, murderous character) as an intimidating leader that knows how to fire up the troops in another scene.  Again, why does he care?  He’s being informed that he is going to be forced on a mission that stands in direct opposition to his principles.  One would think that his goal would be to thwart that mission, regardless who is delivering the steps of the mission to him.  In a third scene, in which Waller enters a room shrouded by ominous music, another ruthless, murderous character asks her if she is the devil.  Why a ruthless, murderous character would show such deference, respect, and intimidation to anyone, much less a paper pushing bureaucrat, is not explained.  Yet, as the movie progresses, we learn that it’s germane to the plot that the audience know that they do.

We then learn that Waller is not only respected and feared by “the worst of the worst”, but she is actually liked by them, as evidenced by one of the ruthless, murderous characters saying, “I like her.”  This is the only scene in which the audience is left to infer that Waller has the type of powerful, bad ass leadership qualities that a ruthless, murderous character can appreciate.  In the other scenes, the audience is pounded over the head with this idea so many times that it becomes redundant.

I write the word idea, as opposed to fact, because as anyone that has ever attempted to write knows, a fictional fact can be established in the minds of an audience by showing that character in action.  An idea, on the other hand, is transferred to the audience by having the characters tell the audience something.  Those that have attempted to write novels or short stories, are informed that telling an audience something, as opposed to showing them, is a violation of the highest order, and in movies this is an even more severe violation.  Unless, that is, there are future scenes of action to establish the idea to the point of fact.  If there is only telling, the audience will still be left with notion that the characterization has not been proven.

There is one attempt to prove, or establish, the bona fides of the Waller character in a scene in which she whips out a machine gun and ruthlessly kills some of her employees, and the characters that surround her are shocked by this action, and one of them says something along the lines of, “I thought I was supposed to be the bad guy.”  By this point, however, the movie has established the fact that these bad guys have ruthlessly killed so many men that one ruthless act should be considered relatively meaningless to them.  One can guess that anyone, even a murderous thug, would be shocked to witness a bureaucrat taking out the office with a machine gun, but one would also think that a murderous thug would follow such shock by either laughing at a paper pushing bureaucrat’s attempt to appear intimidating, or they might find some sort of camaraderie with her after such an action.  Neither is the case in this particular movie.  They gain so much respect for her that they’re intimidated.  It’s germane to the plot.

One could say that a portion of the fear, intimidation, and respect the ruthless, murderers have for Waller is based on the fact that she holds their lives in her hand, but since when do irrational, murderous thugs fear for their own lives, in the movies?  Such characters are supposed to have an unusual disregard for their own lives.  And since when do ruthless characters, purported to have no respect for anything, begin to respect anything or anyone?  We do witness these murderers disrespect their more immediate authority figures, early on in the movie, but when it comes time for them to meet their ultimate authority figure, they have respect for her.  One would think that a rebellious group of murderous thugs would hate and disrespect an ultimate authority figure more.  They don’t, because she’s a paper pushing bureaucrat in a pant suit.  It’s germane to the plot.

My guess is that the actor that played Ms. Waller either did not inspire fear and respect in market testing, or the creative powers that put this movie together feared that the audience would have a tough time making the leap to a pant suit wearing bureaucrat engendering such intimidation from the ruthless, murderous bad guys (turned good guys! Surprise!! Spoiler Alert!!!) that they would do whatever she says.  Whatever the case is, the actors that play the bad guys in the movie are forced to deliver stilted lines that suggest that they respect her more than any of the non-pant suit wearing contingent that attempt to take temporary leadership roles in the movie.

I understand that it is germane to the plot that these ruthless murderers go servile to a paper pushing bureaucrat, but in most movies any level of respect, fear, or intimidation a bad guy may feel for the ultimate authority figure is either unattainable for that authority figure, due to the ruthless, irrational nature of the bad guy, or it’s left unsaid and constantly rebelled against.  About the only time, a bad guy concedes to an authority figure, if ever, is after the authority figure has achieved unquestioned victory at the conclusion of the movie, and even that is often left unsaid.

Most movies attempt to define the relationship between the bad guys and the ultimate authority figures that they fear, or hate, in the movie, as existing by means of a tenuous thread.  This helps define the conflict of the movie, the relative nature of good versus evil, and further characterization for the characters involved in this conflict that is, for the most part left unsaid, with the action sequences saying more than lines of dialogue ever could.  The place we’re currently in, at this point on the timeline of movie making, dictates that we place females in a position of power, and that more often than not those females be some sort of minority.  The movie makers do this with a combination of bravado and insecurity, the latter being something they feel they have to compensate for with constant verbal references to the ultimate authority figure’s power, her ability, and the manner in which everyone that encounters her, backs down for no discernible reason, and they do so in a manner that ends up proving to be detrimental to the ruthless, irrational characteristics that they hoped to instill in the murderous characters.  If we are going to continue to insist that females be in positions of power, in our movies, we are all going to have to agree that this can happen, and it is plausible, if for no other reason than to end this preoccupation movie makers have for establishing the idea that it can happen, and that it is plausible with tedious, redundant, over-the top characterizations that supplement what the movie makers must fear is a lack of whatever they think makes us believe is impossible regarding characters in their movies.