Season of the Bitch

SUMMER IS A hard season for despair. Especially in Minnesota, land of five million slow-motion manic-depressives--many of whom gather ritualistically this time of year to press sweaty flesh, feed grossly, and pet fat cows in an orgy of frantic enjoyment before the weather turns and everyone enters cold storage. Winter--now that's a season to mislay hope. Not summer, with its juicy backyard tomatoes, soft evenings, and blockbuster movies. Not summer, when zinnias overflow their beds, pop reigns on Radio K, and people actually say hi on the street.

Still, despair, like a dull guest at a party. It's embarrassing to talk about in the midst of such bounty. Yet it sits, obdurate, through Men in Black's bumptious slapstick, through Bis's bouncy adrenalin blur at the Entry, through fireworks and barbeques and the felicitous firing of Strib weather columnist Ken Barlow, perhaps the most banal writer visited upon those pages--and that's saying something. The dumb weight survives even a peek at Ewan McGregor's penis in The Pillow Book. There's just no reasoning with it.

Instead, the unresponsiveness of despair makes a farce of summer's usual pleasures. It leaves you questioning the happy industry's existence: Why "feel-good" stories? Why good over evil? Why good, true love to the beat of 100 million wallets flying open? Why now? Why summer? What is the long-term psychic effect of being introduced to "rock" concerts via Lilith Fair? How can people believe in the benevolence of Julia Roberts's face-eating grin? Why did I pay to see Speed 2: Cruise Control?

The dazzling explosions and ditzy pop songs start to sound shrill, nervous even. I think of the rollercoaster ride at the heart of Contact:

Pressed back into her seat in fright and flight, space traveller Jodie Foster plunges rapidly through tangled, bumpy wormholes; she's spat out, walleyed and panting, to moments of serene silence, then jerked right back into the frenzied, dread-filled flow. There, I thought. There I am. A stunned consumer of hypertension. It's the only time I've been moved in a summer of moviegoing.

Well, you may ask, why did you go to see Speed 2? The short answer: Plentywood, Montana, boasts a single drive-in theater--and guess what was playing? The long answer: This despair of mine is a weak variety and wants to be distracted from itself. Once in the (missionary) position for distraction, however, it won't shut up--I think because, underneath the desire for diversion, despair aches to be known. And part of the process of knowing, at least in this culture, seems to involve seeing yourself on the screen, the page, the radio. What my despair really craves is an entertaining film about hopelessness.

But it's summer, when only hopeless films about entertainment will be served. (Who decided such a thing? Us?) The joke is that happy-face, media-event culture exacerbates a viewer's desolation through its patent desperation: billions of dollars worth of effects, plot, and stars all screaming for an audience's love, the prospect of which is any blockbuster's true subject. My despair recognizes that anxiety, as an addict would another addict, yet it learns nothing but self-disgust. I guess it's not enough to see yourself reflected in pop culture; silly despair yearns for understanding.

Without that cool benediction, despair wanders, irritated and alone in an arcade full of flashing lights, ringing bells, and eager players. Acknowledged by neither games nor patrons, despair worries that she has disappeared, that she is not real. She berates herself for failing to cavort. Yet, now and then, she glimpses a fellow shadow moving along a wall, crouched in a corner. And she could swear, for a second, that she and the other wraiths look more substantial (however awry they feel) than the arcade's smiling faces and busy rituals. The thought always horrifies her as much as it reassures.

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