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Friday, January 24, 2014

Dust Off Your Fedora and Reload the Gun in Your Purse: Noir City is Coming to Town!

Today marks the start of the twelfth annual “Noir City,” a ten-day exhibition of my all-time favorite movie genre, film noir. The festival (which I affectionately call “NoirFest,”) is held at the amazing old-time movie palace in San Francisco, The Castro Theatre. If you’ve never seen the inside of this place, it’s worth a visit even if you don’t stop to watch a film. (Yes, in case you’re wondering, it does actually have a piano that comes up through the floor.) Parking is scarce, as you might imagine, but it’s only a twenty-minute walk from BART – up a very steep hill. I have yet to watch a movie at The Castro without being drenched in sweat. I’m not sure whether that makes the experience better or worse. Maybe it depends on the genre. 

The festival is great fun, but perhaps not always quite what you would expect. Film noir being what it is, you might think the audience would be serious, perhaps even a little glum as they ruminate over the crimes of bitter men and the misdeeds of the unconscionable women they love. Not so. Laughter abounds when the dialogue is particularly witty, clever, or racy. Applause breaks out when actors and actresses barely remembered today appear on-screen. Audience members may stand when Film Noir Foundation’s founder and president Eddie Muller is introduced. He deserves the ovation. This man has been personally responsible for leading the charge in the cause to save film noir from extinction, and with an astonishing amount of success. I wonder if he knew, when he conceived this project, how many of us there were out there, just waiting for someone to come along and give us what we’ve always wanted – a chance to experience the movies we love from a generation gone long before us.

What has continually amazed me is that in every year before this one they’ve managed to find a special guest from the era to make a personal appearance. What a thrill it must have been for these little old ladies, most of whom were B-film stars seven decades ago, to find themselves once again on stage, the recipients of undying admiration and affection from a throng of enthusiastic admirers! I see that this year, however, there’s to be no special guest at the Saturday night premiere. This makes me very sad. Film noir may live on, but the men and women of noir do not… 

The focus this year is on foreign noir. Purists will tell you that noir is an American genre, which, for a host of reasons I won’t get into here, is arguably true. However, there’s no doubt that the dark perspective and jaded worldview that characterize film noir proper also appear in other movies made around the world at the time. Indeed, this makes a great deal of sense; since noir was born in the World War II era, and, in my mind, was in many ways linked to the mood engendered by the war, one would expect its themes to permeate international cinema as well. I’m actually looking forward to comparing some of their creations to some of ours.

Noir City runs from January 24th through February 2nd. Hope to see you there!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Romance Flash Publication and Author Commentary: Delayed Connection

Kind of a funny story behind this piece. It started out as a story I was writing for The Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette, to which I am a somewhat regular contributor. The original version, which will appear in the Gazette in March, is called Missed Connection, and, like much of my erotic flash fiction, it deals with the subject of lost love and is correspondingly dark in tone. Well, when that was done, I liked the idea behind it so much that I wrote another piece with the same premise – a chance meeting at an airport – but in an entirely different style, and with a bona fide happy ending to boot. Similar story, but in two versions: one “dirty,” and one “nice.” I confess I was somewhat surprised at how sweet the “nice” version turned out. Hmm, maybe there’s a romantic in me after all! 

I loved the scenario of running into a former love interest at the airport, with one person about to get on a plane, and the other just getting off one. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all had that fantasy of bumping into someone we once cared about in an unexpected place, and having all the things we always hoped would happen finally happen. It rarely works out that way in real life, of course. You never run into Mr. or Ms. Lost Love ever again, or if you do, it turns out there were solid reasons why you never hooked up in the first place. Still a pleasant fantasy, though. And like Billy Joel says, sometimes a fantasy is all you need. 


Friday, January 10, 2014

Why Young People in Japan Have Stopped Having Sex: An Exploration

They’re calling it “celibacy syndrome,” a condition in which a large proportion of young Japanese, both men and women, have lost interest in both sex and dating. The numbers are astounding – 45% of Japanese women between 16 and 24 report either disliking or having no interest in sexual contact, with more than a quarter of men in the same demographic agreeing with them. 

Hypotheses abound as to why this may be so, primary among which are currently poor economic conditions in Japan as well as lingering outdated conceptions of male and female roles in society. But this can’t be the whole story. Take a country like Afghanistan, which has a terrible economy, but one of the highest birth rates in the world. Look at the United States – we, too, once expected women to fulfill “traditional” roles while men worked to support the family. But society’s opinions change as people do, and there’s no reason to believe that Japan should be an exception.

The mistake, I think, lies in treating this as a social issue. You can’t “fix” this kind of situation with large-scale therapy because it probably isn’t psychological at all. Instead, it’s far more likely that the Japanese are exhibiting a very natural biological response to long-standing conditions in their national environment. 

There is one very noteworthy example of a similar and well-documented phenomenon – the panda. For decades scientists have been trying to rescue the panda from extinction, but it’s not only habitat loss that’s endangering the pandas; they have an extremely low birth rate. Even in captivity it’s difficult to persuade pandas to reproduce. Why? Because they refuse to mate.

Pandas are likely unhampered by clinging to traditional conceptions of gender roles. They’re not still living with their parents when they’re thirty-five, and they don’t see being in a relationship as getting in the way of their careers. Yet their mating behavior is extremely reminiscent of what seems to be transpiring among the young Japanese. Maybe the problem is not the double-edged sword it seems to be; maybe it’s not that they’re experiencing habitat loss and that they also have a low birth rate; maybe the habitat loss is instead the cause of the low birth rate. 

I read somewhere a long time ago that women who are overweight have a better chance of giving birth to girls. I’ve thought a lot about that. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? A high amount of body fat suggests living conditions in which food is abundant; a situation ideal for creating new baby-makers. But then it also stands to reason that people should be less likely to make more people when they live in an environment that is unable to support them. It’s an old story. Think about cacti, patiently waiting for rain to come to the desert so that they may burst forth in their annual bloom. Or about animals with well-defined mating seasons; these creatures are hard-wired to give birth when food sources will be adequate. Are people any different?

In industrialized nations, birth rates have been declining world-wide over the last century. Indeed, certain countries (like Japan) have declining populations because they no longer produce enough new children to offset the number of its citizens who die. The typical culprits presumed to be associated with this international trend are shifting social values, women joining the workforce, and broad access to contraception. But what if those factors are not causes, but effects? 

Among other species, the self-limiting nature of a particular population is often obvious. An overabundance of deer will trigger an increase in the number of wolves available to prey upon them until the increased number of wolves can no longer be supported by the reduced number of deer. Humans, of course, have few predators (besides other humans) and some of our deadliest known diseases have largely been controlled by advances in medicine. And in developed countries at least, hunger is comparatively rare. Yet the industrialized nations are huge consumers of natural resources; far more rapacious than their poorer counterparts. Is it possible that on the most basic, chemical level, human bodies, too, recognize when population growth needs to stop?

Japan has the lowest birth rate of any country in the world. It also has the longest average life expectancy. Similarly, nations at the highest end of the birth rate scale (particularly the so-called Third World countries of Africa) have the lowest life expectancies – as low as 47 years in a nation like Sierra Leone, versus 83 years in Japan. Few would argue that Africa has such a high birth rate because its economy is so strong and the prospects for young families so glowing. It seems clear, rather, that with the comparatively high death rate, there is simply more room in that environment for humans to be born. And in nations which are both physically and economically overcrowded, like Japan, perhaps in spite of our technological advances and know-how, there really is only so much space for a species to expand. 

Children are the customary result of people coupling up, and maybe this reported lack of interest in sex and relationships is not a consequence of psychological factors like doubtful economic prospects or changing social mores, but a biological response to an environment which, like any other, has limits on the population it is able to support. Japan may be only the beginning; perhaps the other developed and people-packed nations of the world will gradually also become subject to Japan’s changing perception of sex and relationships as their citizens’ needs begin to exceed their available resources. It doesn’t mean that humanity is doomed. On the contrary, this may be the start of a worldwide leveling off of the human population; a hint that we’re approaching that natural balance that most long-lived species eventually achieve.

One might even suspect that a century from now, “celibacy syndrome” may no longer be isolated to particular countries, but will be planetary in scope. Indeed, as our beloved Earth becomes less and less fit for human occupation, as certainly seems likely, perhaps sex itself will become a relic of some distant, dirty past, confined to vast digital volumes of internet pornography from the twenty-first century that no one will even want to look at anymore. 

But I don’t think we need to worry that. Humans will always have some interest in and desire for sex; it’s natural, after all, practically a prerequisite to belonging to the animal kingdom. Of course, human sex may eventually end up just like other animal sex; one day it may be reduced to a minimum of foreplay and an eye towards the quick finish – getting the job done, if you will. Then we’ll find ourselves faced with different kinds of questions. Such as whether we still want to live in that kind of world.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How New Year’s Resolutions Weaken Our Resolve

It’s the first of January again, and all over the world, people are making personal resolutions for 2014. Amazing what a date can do, isn’t it? Millions of humans scattered around the globe, all simultaneously attempting to better their lives by altering their own behavior in positive ways. For many, a new year offers an incentive, a reason to push towards self-improvement or greater satisfaction with one’s life and one’s being. And what better day to feel as if you’re starting over than New Year’s Day? It’s a day of reflection on the year gone by and on the year yet to come. It’s a day in which to consider whether we’re moving towards the goals we’ve set for ourselves, or whether we need to change the paths we’re on in order to come closer to achieving them. And the making of resolutions is perhaps the vital final step of this process, because there’s little point in evaluating the state of our lives if we don’t then utilize our conclusions to bring us one step closer to happiness.

The trouble with the New Year’s resolution is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t take effect until after the end of the current year. And in a backhanded way, this encourages us to wait to act upon our resolve. We don’t exercise in December because we’ve decided to get in shape after the holidays. We don’t quit smoking in October because, without the motivation of the New Year’s resolution, we’re afraid we’ll fail. We don’t start tucking money away in August for that dream vacation we’ve always wanted to take, because there’s school clothes shopping to do, and then the holidays are coming up, and once again, we’ve postponed that project to another year.

And then what happens when we, as we inevitably must, fail to keep some of those resolutions we made in so much earnest? We wait again. We try again – the following year. How much of our lives are wasted waiting for this imaginary turning point to roll around so that we can make those changes we believe are so vital to our well-being and sense of fulfillment?

This is the core of the problem with marking time in our lives by special occasions – it causes us to neglect all of the everyday occasions that would have served us equally as well in helping us to attain our goals. Maybe your sweetheart expects you to bring her flowers on Valentine’s Day, but she’ll be much more impressed by the bouquet you bring in November. Chocolate cake is sweeter when it’s not baked on your birthday. Why wait until New Year’s Eve to have a beer and hang out with your friends? Won’t your mom be more pleased if you call her in March just to chat, then if you wait until May to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day?

I don’t ever want to wait until January 1st to change my life. I might want to quit my job on July the 15th, or start writing a book on September the 24th. It doesn’t need to be the first of the year or the first of the month before I decide to move forward with my resolutions; any given Monday will do. I’ll derive just as much joy from turning my life around at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in June, as at midnight on a Wednesday in January.

So that’s my New Year’s resolution. Never again to wait for a new year to arrive before I make my resolve. Never again to pretend that January will be soon enough for me or my life to change. It isn’t.