January 14, 2010

How Chuck Klosterman taught me to think.

Since I read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, I've loved Chuck Klosterman.

But if you had asked me why, I probably wouldn't have given a satisfactory answer.

I might take the lazy way out and say his essays were "funny" or his insights were...I don't know, "insightful". But I'd know that response was boring, and incomplete, and probably indicative of how little I liked this particular inquisitor.

I could instead say, however, that I really enjoy how he relates seemingly irrelevant circumstances from unexpected popular culture sources back to societal and cultural issues as a whole.

The latter explanation sounds, and is, smarter. It's also painfully obvious, and it's basically the point of his entire career.

But as recently as a few years ago, I wouldn't have been able to express that kind of perception clearly. And if I didn't sit down and think about it prior to this blog post, while reading Klosterman's latest opus Eating the Dinosaur, I'm not sure what I would have said in its place.

I wouldn't classify myself as that deep a thinker, at least consciously. I assume that, in my brain, I'm able to grasp metaphors and recognize symbolism and all that stuff necessary for consuming more complex forms of art. And I assume this because, when genuinely prompted for justification in regards to a specific like or dislike, I can usually summon something satisfactory.

But I don't ever really think about it. I don't listen to Bruce Springsteen and analyze his lyrics, or even really wonder why I like them so much. I would say that I appreciate his music both sonically and lyrically, but while I might say, "I like how Max Weinberg rocks out on the drums there," I probably wouldn't say, "I really love the protagonist's misguided and possibly dangerous sense of freedom in 'Thunder Road'."

And maybe no one does it that way. It just occurred to me that I never really asked anyone, "So how do you absorb art?" Perhaps the only person who thinks the way Chuck Klosterman does is Chuck Klosterman.

But I doubt it. And I hope not, because there are definite benefits to that kind of thought.

A good example are the movies Blue Velvet and The Royal Tenenbaums. Blue Velvet is directed by David Lynch, a filmmaker whose movies I typically dislike. And The Royal Tenenbaums is directed by Wes Anderson, a filmmaker I unequivocally love. I like both of these very, very different movies, and to be honest, I never entirely thought about why.

Blue Velvet is a dark, often disturbing look at the seamy underbelly of a small town. Tenenbaums is a quirky, understatedly witty look at a disintegrating family of geniuses. They both tackle common cinematic themes, the idealized American hometown and the life of an American family, and they both do so through the distorted lens of the director's distinct worldview. I consider both films masterpieces.

But if you asked me a few years ago why I liked them, I'd say, "Well, Dennis Hopper is a great villain," or, "Gene Hackman is really funny." Neither of those responses are wrong, but they don't really illustrate why I appreciate these movies.

But then, I read some of Klosterman's work. And rather than occasionally surprising myself with unanticipated bits of wisdom, I started thinking about what it is that made these movies so interesting. Not from a technical sense, or even from a performance or writing sense. More about what the movies meant, the messages they were sending, and how they made me feel about my own life.

It didn't make me like the movies more. But it made me, consciously this time, aware of what these movies really had to say. And also a little bit more aware of why these movies matter to people other than me. And I did feel smarter, so that was nice.

A lot of this has to do with writing. Klosterman discusses writing in Eating the Dinosaur, saying that it can sometimes be like "talking to a stranger who's exactly like yourself in every possible way, only to realize that this stranger is boring as shit." That can be very true, which is why I'm always surprised that people actually read this blog.

But I also learned that these sentiments I had trouble expressing verbally or summoning consciously came out much smoother on a piece of paper or a keyboard. My fingers would become extensions of my brain, and thoughts and arguments and opinions I wasn't fully aware of were staring right back at me.

It sounds stupid, but it takes some courage to do the "brain-to-fingers" transition and trust that what you're writing isn't idiotic. To be honest, this might be idiotic right here. But I like doing it, and I'm pretty sure that the order in which I'm pressing these keys will end up making sense.

And I have Chuck Klosterman, at least partially, to thank. It feels a little weird professing such deep appreciation for a man who ultimately chronicles the impact of Britney Spears, Billy Joel and KISS, but if the end result is a deeper, more penetrating level of thought, who's to say he isn't the one we should all aspire to be?

No comments: