Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Surface Selves

How far into our fantasies do we allow ourselves to get? Oh, I don’t mean psychotic breaks or shrines to a secret admiree in the closet, but the smaller fantasies, the day-to-day moments we play out. Body image fantasies, let’s say: the perception of the body as flawed, “wrong,” too fat, too bald, not enough muscle, weird earlobes, hairy knuckles, that yellow toenail…It can go on and on. But the scary part isn’t the initial body fantasy, but when people try to “correct” their flawed bodies with absurd diets, overindulged fitness programs, Just For Men, the whole array of body-adjustment—some of it healthy, some not—that our culture provides. This always seemed strange to me. If the body is made up of these overlapping fantasies, then why do people try to fix it with more fantasy? And that’s what I mean when I ask how far do we go. How tangled and complex do we allow our daily fantasies to get, and how much control do we grant them?

A man in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada, was charged with murder last month. Mark Twitchell is a filmmaker, whose only complete accomplishment is a prequel to Star Wars that he wrote, directed, produced and starred in. His other project was halted in the middle of filming: an eight-minute short depicting a man being tied to a chair and tortured by a vigilante out for undone justice. Eventually the man is decapitated. This little gem sadly won’t be the darling of the Sundance short-film category, because Mark Twitchell was arrested for killing a man in much the same fashion as his character does on screen. He even used the set designs of his film for the actual murder.

If the fantasy line is almost entirely blurred away by this point, then it was erased when Edmonton police discovered Twitchell’s obsession with the television show Dexter and his idolization of its main character. On the program Dexter is a serial killer, claiming that he has no feelings or emotions, and who blends into society by wearing a constant mask of cheer and friendliness. This allows him to hunt his victims without drawing attention to himself, and his victims are all themselves murderers or serial killers. Anyway, the premise of the show and Dexter’s psychology apparently resonate with Twitchell, who first translated his own version into film, and then reality. I want to know why.

Sometimes characters in movies, books and TV shows seem pretty real. They have traceable, defined habits and mannerisms, and they are generally bound by premise to behave in certain ways towards their circumstances or other characters. I often find myself wishing I were Dr. House, smart enough to get away with pissing everyone off. A friend of mine wants nothing more than to have lunch with a real-life Rory and Lorelai Gilmore. I’m pretty sure my uncle wants to be Humbert Humbert. I have to stop myself, and remember that real people aren’t like that. People aren’t coherent, or defined by cause and effect, and overall just don’t make sense. We are messy creatures with histories and hang-ups we ourselves can’t even parse out. Maybe that’s why befriending a character is easy—they never change, or if they do, it’s in a straight shot, tied to events themselves grounded in story. In fantasy.

But where is that line again? What makes a man descend into himself so fully that he can’t recognize his fantasy? Catharsis in watching a torture-porn flick like the latest Saw, sure, why not, if it works for some. But when a man watches the blood and gore go dripping down the screen and says to himself, “I will make this happen,” can it be called the same thing? Mark Twitchell must have at some point noticed that Dexter isn’t real, otherwise he wouldn’t have felt the need to create such catharsis in his very own garage.

Or maybe I have it backwards. Maybe he just finally felt he’d found someone who was similar enough that he could learn something. We all have our idols, don’t we, those fake-people who for whatever reason seem like they have something to say, even if it comes from fiction. Mark Twitchell might have thought he’d really learned from Dexter, really seen some kind of shining possibility for his own life.

So I come again to the nature of fantasy. How enmeshed in ourselves, and the things we incorporate into ourselves, are we? How do we create for ourselves a reality that seems so concrete when it ultimately just isn’t? (I am thinking of the Buddhist concept of absolute reality, wherein nothing has inherent meaning and therefore everything is nothing, unless we convince ourselves otherwise...more or less). It’s necessary, I guess, this world-building that we do, otherwise we wouldn’t go to work, do our chores, learn, fight for causes, or even write. We have to generate for ourselves these less-than-realities. But that line again, that blurry line will always be there, and I worry sometimes whether I’ve stepped across it without knowing. I wonder if Mark Twitchell worries about that, as well.

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