The summer Californian weather was nigh unbearable inside the central headquarters of the Walt Disney Corporation. A building composed out of nothing but crystal walls and the most basic of frames seemed like a great idea at the time; yet, come 2010, global warming quickly transformed such modern mess into a frying rectangle of doom. Every floor was as stuffed with workers as it was stuffed by hovering particles of gaseous sweat. Oxygen supplies were low. Canisters full to the brim with freshly produced O2 were being ordered by phone, but it proved unsuccessful. The sun’s disdain for the human race was so powerful it had blown up all artificial oxygen canisters on the West Coast with heat alone. The nearest oxygen dispenser was three states over. Continue reading
The sound of someone vomiting violently in the next room awoke me suddenly. My first thoughts pointed to the possibility of everything being a residual sound effect from my dream, still lingering near my ears, but that was quickly dismissed by my brain as an illogical premise.
I fell fast asleep once I finished reading the anti-communist tale of Onion John. As a result, I dreamt about how the story of the mustached, onion-headed unemployed man the book’s title promised me would develop. With my eyes closed I wandered through the dystopian streets of a post-nuclear war city side by side with my good friend Onion John. Time and time again he got rejected from every job he applied to. The only one he could rely on was me. And, while he was constantly described as having the foulest stench this side of the Hudson River – by my brain and everyone else’s mouths –, no one had had the courtesy of displaying their half-digested meals in the floor before him as a very graphic and accurate description of his bodily odors.
Everything played out exactly how I imagined it would be. Unfortunately, it stopped. Back in the real world, the vomit noises kept increasing in volume and quantity, leaving alternate Onion John’s story without a proper conclusion. I felt a rush of unhappiness strut all around my body.
According to my clock, it had been three whole hours since I jumped to bed with my now defrosted cat popsicle, time enough to transform my frozen blank check into something pleasant to see. By that time, it would be easy to mistake the once frozen corpse for a soft furred live specimen. The only things that gave its lifeless reality away were its 125° broken legs and an eye that kept constantly popping out of its socket. Nothing a couple yards of plaster and an eye patch couldn’t fix.
Once again, my mental musings were interrupted, this time by a particularly long and painful sounding vomit. The time for me to leave my bed and inspect the bathroom had arrived.
Everything seemed normal behind the door. The grimy water pool inside the clogged sink remained intact, my dirty clothes were still all over the place, the mat was still rumpled up in a corner, and my five years younger sister was lurching towards the shower’s drain pipe while greenish drops of stomach acid dripped from her mouth.
“Good morning to you, sis.”
“Urgh…” she responded.
Despite being a pretty common sight, it was like she had magically appeared inside my bathtub after disappearing for almost a week and was now trying to get rid of all the alcohol she ingested during her five-day weekend party.
“When did you arrive? I didn’t hear the door.”
“About twelve–” she began before another powerful jet of puke came gushing down her throat cutting her words short.
“About ten vomits ago? That’s not very much…”
“About twelve hours ago, you asshole! Why are you always such a fucking prick?”
“Yeah. I’ll leave you alone now to sort out your breakfast.”
“Berk!” she screamed. Then, she followed this word by another jet of vomit.
Before I could see the color of this new spraying, I closed the door behind my back, leaving her and her gastric juices alone.
Eight years ago, my mother was able to force me to let her other child to stay at my house “just until she finished college”, an endeavor my sibling scientifically proved as an impossible task. During all those years, she remained an eternal freshman. A freshman in what, I do not know, nor do I care.
The mere mention of such an idea as “hosting the little sister I so gladly left behind for good the moment I left home” led to a lengthy discussion that lasted several nights without dinner. After been beaten in the word battlefield by the power of “I gave birth to you!”, I reluctantly agreed to host my sister at home just to make my mom happy.
There was only one condition, though: I would provide her with a roof, running water, electricity and, if luck was on her side, a bed made out of hard, old cushions and cardboards where she could sleep sans any sort of blankets; however, I would not sponsor her nightly alcohol-gushing escapades. First and foremost, because she was still under age and, secondly, because if I wanted to throw my money away I would rather stop buying toilet paper and keep a handy mound of bills in the bathroom.
Since everything seemed reasonable, and due to the fact I made her laugh because her “little girl would never drown herself in alcohol by her own will”, my mom accepted. And, just to prove how satisfied she was with the overall arrangement, she promised to provide us with a substantial monthly allowance that was supposed to provide for our food and needs. I never had the heart to tell her that monetary fund was reluctantly stolen every third day of the month to fund my sister’s eternal pursuit to answer the question “how much alcohol gallons would you need to destroy every neuron on your body?”.
I have no idea how she managed to keep herself alive for so long. I always wondered but never asked. However, it was imperative that she remained living, at least until I found a decent job; otherwise my monthly allowance would’ve disappeared and I would be officially bankrupted.
Once the sound effect incident was sorted out, I returned to bed to tend to my fuzzy business asset. I was planning to have it curled up inside a small blue blanket and make everybody believe the little black feline was asleep. With any luck, this ruse would grant me the necessary time to sprint away from the scene, reward money in hand, before anyone could catch up with me. But, when the preparations were almost finished, a scandalous shriek was heard throughout the whole neighborhood.
“Where the fuck is my cat?” were the words hidden behind the continuous ear-splitting acute parade of “i”-sounding noises coming from my sister’s throat.
“Since when do you have a cat?”
“Stop being a fucking smart ass and tell me what you did with it!”
“I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you do! I’m talking about the cat I stole from the Carpenters house the other day, the cat I stole so I could demand the reward money, reward money I need today so I can afford to go to Lynn’s party! Where is it? I hid the stupid thing inside my socks drawer and now it is gone! Tell me now! Where is it?!”
“You must be drunk, sis.”
“I may be still drinking a couple of bottles in my room, but I’m doing it slowly so, no, I am not drunk, okay?”
“Does that mean this ‘cat’ of yours might not exist?”
“Hand over the cat before I destroy your sorry ass!”
“You mean this pretty thing right here?” I said while lifting the former cat popsicle above my head.
“Fucking thief! You stole it! Give it back right this instant, goddammit!”
“Oh, but it couldn’t possibly be the cat you told me about. Oh, no. You said yours was hidden on your sock drawer and I found this beauty in the fridge! So, obviously—” I never got to say what was obvious to my eyes. My whole body was paralyzed by a well-aimed kick right in my left shin before I had a chance to finish my statement. All I could do was throw myself to the floor in pain and watch how my sister ran towards our front door, with the dead cat beneath her arms.
“The fucking money will be all mine, you asswipe thief!” she screamed from the outside. Then, she stopped midstep to vomit one more time.
I considered running behind her, but the possibility of a shattered shin stopped me. I never thought pointy heel shoes made out of cheap translucent plastic could ever be such a powerful weapon.
ALSO KNOWN AS: How To Befriend the Town’s Hobo in 7 Simple Steps
GENRE: Realistic fiction about how much the author misses his childhood.
This particular book is an important landmark of literature for one simple reason: its title forced me to commit my very first crime at the tender age of twelve. Nothing serious, really; a little victimless crime that I’m sure will remain unpunished for all eternity. It just happened that, after reading such an awe-strikingly amazing title as Onion John, whose potential I thought would probably be never fulfilled by its author; I just felt the need to steal it. I know I broke the law but, to be honest, I don’t think anybody ever really cared since nobody really knew we had books on our school, let alone a library.
I was days away from finishing my run in elementary school when I first discovered it. Despite walking right next to it virtually every morning of my young life, I hadn’t the slightest idea we even had one. Of course, it’s hard to acknowledge something as a “library” when it’s nothing but a half-empty bookshelf buried inside a pocket-sized room that remains closed all semester long. The contents of the shelf were limited to eighteen battered books, hidden under a thick pile of dust, a bunch of crooked paper pins and a couple broken broomsticks. That was it. That was our library. That was supposed to cater to the reading needs of the whole student body. Fortunately for the school’s PR department, no one really knew we had such an astonishingly small literary collection at our disposition, simply because kids back then read as much as kids today, which is to say: “squat”. As such, the fact this library exists remains hidden from the public to this very date.
But, even though it had been carefully concealed to me by the renowned technique of “not telling anyone about it”, I managed to discover the nearest thing to a literary paradise we had on campus. All I had to do was wander aimlessly throughout my school’s halls one afternoon until I found myself right in front our janitor’s old broom closet. A slight twist on the door handle was all I needed to reveal the secret to my eyes. The only defense mechanism installed was a continuous leak of murky water originating from beneath the door frame.
As I avoided this trap and approached the cabinet curiously, my hopes of finding something actually interesting were flying lower than the soles of my shoes; just high enough to prevent my steps from faltering but low enough to not get unnecessarily excited.
A couple of inches separated me from the shelf when the title of the only book whose cover faced me directly grabbed my attention by the groin. Onion John. The moment I laid my eyes upon it, they grew twice their size in an instant. My heart was jumping in and out of my throat as my mind conjured three particular words to sum up my feelings: “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!”
I had never heard anything about it but something had to be done; a book with a title like that just had to be read immediately. As I read its title time and time again, my imagination ran wild, figuring its pages would tell the exciting story of a man that looked like this:
And thus, I performed my very first misdemeanor. Exploiting the fact that I was the only human being alive on campus, I stretched my hand and took Onion John along with the three books next to it. Carefully, I stuffed them inside my backpack, without even noticing the scantily clad spider web sweater that covered their bodies, and got away from the scene of the crime. A slight adrenaline shot ran through my body as I ran through the abandoned halls, maniacally laughing my way out.
However, the books’ excitement of finally being read was short-lived. When I arrived home, I carefully placed them on top of my nightstand, swearing to read them first thing in the morning, where they remained, untouched, collecting a brand new coat of dust for over ten years.
Fast forward to 2010, when I was in dire need to kill a couple of hours while I waited for my cat popsicle to defrost. Just then, I remembered their existence. Without even glancing at what my hand was doing, I grabbed Onion John from my night table by its literal dust jacket. Once I dug out its title from underneath its own layer of dirt, I couldn’t help but feel the same excitement I had when reading those two words for the first time. I was more than ready to dive into the book that chronicled the adventures of a grown mustached-man with an onion for head while he looked for a job to survive on the cold streets of dystopian New York City.
Unfortunately, the story had nothing to do with that character and everything to do with a children’s story about the issues of growing up, friendship, and finding one’s identity. Such a wasted opportunity….
Instead, the title of Onion John refers to a 1950’s version of the guy that wanders past my street every morning, muttering unintelligible conspiracy theories while carrying a huge block of Styrofoam everywhere he goes for no discernible reason. In short, Onion John is nothing short of the village’s crazy guy – and by “village’s crazy guy” I mean “European immigrant who is unable to speak a word of English and who, therefore, is considered an unnecessary asset by the good people of the aptly named conservative small town of Serenity”. To drive the point further home, the guy even lives in a small hut practically made out entirely out of old tubs and eats onions as if they were apples (hence his bodily odor-based nickname).
And, just like good old’ Styrofoam Mark, John limits his social interactions to whenever he is hired to perform important community jobs like mowing a lawn, cleaning an empty pool, taking out the trash, grading multiple choice advanced algebra tests or just keeping as far away as possible from the children’s impressionable little minds.
However, although John’s mere existence rapidly becomes a torrential cavalcade of literary entertainment, he, sadly, cannot be labeled as “the main character of the novel that bears his name as a title.” The one that has to carry the protagonist burden is a random kid named Andy Rusch Jr. only because he decided to be this novel’s narrator by fictionally writing it. Despite this, Andy does manage to deliver one or two pleasant surprises throughout his story, like the fact that he has a somewhat intriguing perspective on life, or being surprisingly content with his current lifestyle.
Unlike the countless array of generic main characters that spend about a quarter of their books wallowing in their own self-pity about how nobody really seems to understand their intricate labyrinth of pure emotions and feelings, this guy starts up by saying life is good. He’s not relentlessly searching for the fame and the fortune that fate has denied him, and he does not seek to be internationally praised. He merely desires to enjoy his time on this Earth. Furthermore, his lifelong dream is to eventually follow in the footsteps of his father and own the family’s hardware emporium. It’s almost as if Andy’s nothing but a regular twelve-year-old kid that wishes to be nothing more.
And, just like any other boy his age, whenever he meets a strange bearded man siding with all existent communism causes that guarantees him the whole world is filled with evil spirits that need to be sprayed with a heavy smokescreen so that rain is allowed to fall from the sky, Andy rushes to bestow upon him the title of “my new best friend forever”. It goes something like this:
ONION JOHN: Mrzzsbouevhov knjb kn ulbn oljkbl n bkjvbovk vkh jjn lhnn.
REMARKABLY UNSARCASTIC ANDY: Oh my god! That’s exactly how I’ve always felt! Let’s hang out together for all eternity and discuss this stuff everyday!
ONION JOHN: Lkjnjklbkl hihnhln bujbl ijnjb oulb!
ANDY’S NAÏVETY: Of course we can, you silly and endearing hobo! Let’s be best friends forever!
ONION JOHN: Juikljnkblb oouubi ouvyvyiv kvbyifi?
UNABLE-TO-ACKNOWLEDGE-WHAT-IS-WRONG-WITH-HIS-ACTIONS ANDY: I love you, too!
Fortunately for my sanity, I have never been in a similar position. However, if my twelve-year-old self ever encountered a homeless man wearing a coat two sizes too large, his identity concealed almost entirely behind a thick green aura of rancid onion smell, I’d be scared stiff, with an ear-shattering scream waiting for the right moment to escape from my vocal chords and strike the oxygen around me. If, thereupon, said creepy dude approached me while spattering nonsense in a tongue that reminded me of how my god-fearing grandma used to describe demon talk, I’m sure I would probably usher said scream and run the hell away from there as fast and as far away as possible, without even glancing back, swearing myself to never ever approach the geographical location where such a specimen had been spotted, and leaving my nightlight on every night for the rest of my life.
As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure not a single commonsensical kid nowadays would ever meet their local variant of Onion John or Styrofoam Mark and think to themselves “This weird adult I have just found today seems like a fine fellow that deserves to be understood and befriended”. If what I know about the outside world is correct, kids nowadays have been trained to consider every stranger out there to be a blood-thirsty maniac lurking the streets in search of the next kid whose organs will be barbequed for their pleasure.
Luckily, for the sake of this plot’s development, Andy is a far less paranoid human being that what my mother made myself into. And everything would turn out to be just as Andy liked if not for the presence of what appears to be the one and only reasonable man in Serenity. Whenever the friendship between Andy and Onion John is about to reach its peak, that’s Andrew Rusch Sr.’s cue to enter the scene and try to make things right. He does this because he knows. According to his own thoughts, Mr. Rusch is sure to be the wisest man alive. He knows what is truly time worthy and sensible; he knows exactly what would be the more convenient course of action every single living creature around him should take. He knows his offspring is destined to become the greatest astronaut this side of Corneria, whether he likes it or not. He knows his kid’s attitude towards life, his idea of not embracing the most extremely ambitious dreams available to men as his, is as foolish as foolish can be.
But, most of all, Mr. Rusch knows for a fact that Onion John is nothing but a rejected European socialist who seeks to revive communism and create a classless, moneyless and stateless socially structured Serenity; something that is bound to affect negatively upon poor little Andy’s fragile mind, decimating the young one’s possibilities of succeeding in life, thus destroying America at its most vulnerable core. Therefore, the logical conclusion Mr. Rusch arrives to is that the only way to improve upon everyone’s life is, clearly, by vehemently destroying John’s character and replacing it with that of a plain, rednecked drone devoid of dreams or personality named simply “John Smith”. How is he going to achieve such a daring and needed soul transformation? By building John a modern household and forcing the poor fellow to enjoy his new way of life, of course! That’s exactly how progress is and should always be achieved in this world of ours.
And that’s precisely the issue Krumgold wanted to talk about in his novel. Onion John is not about the importance of that little something called “independence” who so many human beings aspire to attain to no avail while so many die without even knowing it is a possibility. While many readers enjoy Andy and John’s struggle against a most peculiar conservative town led by Mr. Rusch, where the idea of defending our right to be as extravagant as we please can be found peeking its head from behind every third paragraph, saying “hi”, those people are, sadly and unmistakably, wrong.
Onion John’s main thesis contains no such ideas. It speaks to our most capitalistic hearts, warning us of the dangers of a society that is quickly becoming idle, desperate and aimless, incapable of noticing when the red evils of European socialism are threatening their ways of life. Onion John is about understanding how the people need a leader that is as normal as normal, a leader who can battle this deranged future of classless equality that society is unknowingly imposing upon itself by listening to the unorthodox musings of the first odd man that comes before us. It’s about how we, as a people, as a race, can achieve freedom only when we become a conformist blob constructed by indistinguishably equal individuals with no distinctive personalities of their own.
Take for example the idea that, just because the owner of the only hardware store in town suggests Americanizing someone, all Serenity’s citizens band up together throws a national holiday-sized kermesse to fund Onion John’s transformation and depersonalization. People are, according to this and many, many, many other books, easily manipulated. No need to worry though, it is always for their own good and just a few dare to ask the dreaded “why”.
In short, Onion John is about the bright future that holds being grey and unremarkable; a peaceful future featuring an uneventful and boring, yet long, life.
Despite been written over sixty years ago, Onion John’s themes are still as identifiable and prevalent as they were back then; which is nothing to boast about, but it at least validates the old saying of “history repeats itself”.
Now, while this book is capable of somewhat honoring the “awesome beyond belief” title it publicly exposes, it does have a teeny tiny small flaw: its somewhat slow pacing. There’s a high risk that Onion John can be considered excruciatingly slow by some readers, especially those who fear the act of reading any sentence containing more than seven words inside its grammatical body. For this reason, too many people – especially children, the supposed target audience – will willingly abandon Onion John before even reaching the end of its first half. And, although it’s easy to understand their point of view – mostly because a couple of moments where the plot appears reluctant to move anywhere do exist – it is important to note this book was written in the fifties, when children were a little less stupid. It was written with an audience with a different mindset in mind.
All in all, Onion Johnis a highly unlikely story – even more unlikely in today’s social climate – that uses the presence of an extravagant and oddly sociable hobo as an excuse to discuss the shortcomings of society and the horrors of socialism. Basing my opinion in this text and this text only, Krumgold appears to be a man who knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, a man capable of creating characters and interactions that are able to resonate inside anyone who decides to give its pages a chance. Sometimes, it is nice to enjoy a quiet, grounded story with a clear and concise message that challenges the familiar clichés often used to say “do not be afraid to be yourself” and “accept the differences in others”.
And here’s hoping the resurrection of communism, as foretold by both Onion John and Styrofoam Mark, never does arrive.
Once I finished reliving Baraka and my conscious self returned to the real world, I found myself diving right into an anger-induced comma in the middle of the road. Images of my dad’s happiness and a couple screenshots from the first movie I’ve ever hated in my entire life filled my dizzy brain. The resentment was slowly shutting down every active brain cell. But, just before I lost both my sanity and my consciousness, a sheet of paper carried by the wind trail left behind by the orange van bitch-slapped me in the face. I snapped out of it immediately after the blow. Given my current state, I found myself unable to feel anything but gratitude towards the thing that had just interrupted my silent breakdown. So, as a token of my appreciation, I decided to read it. Any piece of text that makes me momentarily forget something like Baraka even exists deserves to be read.
I noticed there were several phrase written all over the paper, like the words “LOST CAT” or “We call him Thriller but he never responds”, but I found it extremely difficult to give half a damn. Not because I’m a heartless human being but because the image that covered about 70% of the flyer itself was breathtakingly superb and demanded my whole attention: a black and white picture of a cat wearing a pair of cardboard glasses and a bowtie while in the middle of making a Thriller move. It was, in a word, awesome. So much so, that I was about to have it framed so I could look it up every day of the rest of my life. Unfortunately, that plan had to be momentarily scraped due to the fact that I did know the animal portrayed was. Only instead of dancing its butt off to Michael Jackson’s tunes, it laid frozen, wearing a poor-quality garden gnome costume, right there in my front lawn.
Gradually, the urge of returning my feline garden protector to its rightful owner took over me. Not because I was willing to sacrifice my own fleeting happiness for anyone else’s, but because the phrase “REWARD OFFERED: $200” shone despite its comic sans-ness. For weeks now Mr. Sandberg had been nagging me about paying him, at least, two of the fourteen months of rent I owed him, and the probabilities of me finding any job at all during the following two months were less than zero. As such, cashing in on this lost pet reward seemed to be the only solution to my economical woes so far. It had to be a sign from the man upstairs.
The address mentioned on the flyer was not two streets down the road, giving me the chance of actually earning two hundred bucks in less than fifteen minutes. After carefully folding the piece of paper and stashing it inside my mailbox, I waved hello to the crazy guy that walks a stuffed green ferret every morning, grabbed the frozen cat off of my garden and was on my way. I suppose having a huge smile on my face was as rare thing to behold back then as it is now, because every single member of the town’s “official unemployed job hunters society” out on the street looked at me as if my head had turned into a completely functional beehive. Even Phil, one of our oldest members, asked me if I was okay before boarding our official job hunting bus. “Benner netter”, I said.
I kept on walking, imagining how much would four hundred fifty cent coins weigh in my pocket. Every step rendered me even happier, picturing me finally eating food that did not taste like cheap plastic. But, two houses before I reached the end of my financial journey, I had to stop mid-step. Something was very wrong, and both my heart and my brain knew so. I suddenly realized the awfulness of what I was about to do and I couldn’t go on. Holding the costumed cat popsicle under my arm, ready to exchange it for money, made me feel like a guy selling frozen corpse of a child to her mother. Even the vaguely skew-eyed look of the feline gnome considered me an insensitive bastard. And it was right. It would be morally reprehensive to charge any money for the cat I was carrying. The correct thing to do was to first thaw it out so that, at least, it looked like it was alive.
Back home, the first thing I did was to stuff the poor cat into the microwave oven. 99 seconds would do the trick. However, prior to starting the procedure, I remembered the gruesome fate my pet chicken had suffered when my four-year-old self tried to warm her up one winter. My second alternative was to defrost it out with the help of a blow-dryer. This turned out to be impossible, given the fact that I have never owned any blow-dryers. Sticking it out outside, waiting for the sun to thaw its ice coating would take too long, as well as being a potential danger to my business operation if anyone with a real heart noticed the presumably dead cat. The only option I thought was left was the cheapest and most natural I had at hand: using my body temperature.
It was approximately 9:00 A.M. and I was about to jump back to bed for business reasons. I seized my best blankets from the floor, grabbed one of the many books I’ve been putting off, tucked the cat popsicle in, and cuddled up with it, patiently waiting for my body heat to deice my future paycheck.
Somehow, the screening of Baraka came to an end. A slow clapping noise began in the utmost back row of the theatre, presumably from the projectionist chamber. The sound slowly grew, both in volume and rhythm. A new pair of clapping hands joined in. Then another, and another, until every single member of the audience was caught up in the applause. Everyone inside the room stood up and roared with excitement. I’m not quite sure, due to the smokescreen covering every inch of the surrounding obscurity into a greenish obscurity, but I swear even the couple of underdressed hobos that were making “love noises” during the whole film, clapped and roared. Right there, on theatre number four, Baraka was being the object of a standing ovation from everyone that had just seen it. Everyone, that is, except me.
I remained seated. While other people applauded Fricke’s genius, I did nothing but stare directly into the screen, hoping my anger would be powerful enough to burn it from afar. I didn’t even blink for three whole minutes. My rage jammed my eyelids in place and dilated my nostrils. However, my mouth, being the silent victim of another chemical substance in the air, was fixed in a half-open continuous goofy smile.
“So,” my dad asked me as we were walking towards the car, “how did you like the film, huh? Pretty awesome, right? I saw you didn’t stand up to acclaim the movie. What gives? You were so flabbergasted by the life changing experience, weren’t you?”
“Well,” I said trying to fight back the fake smile all the indirect ganja smoking gave me, “I think it looked pretty.”
“’It looked pretty’? That’s all you have to say about it? That’s it?!”
“What else do you want me to say? It looked pretty. What, do you think it looked ugly?”
“That’s not it. Tell me, what did you feel while watching it?!”
“I… Well… Nothing, really…”
My dad came to a halt.
“Nothing?” he screamed. “Nothing?! What do you mean nothing?! How can you feel nothing?! What are you, dead?!”
The other twenty people that had just recently smoked their time away inside the movie theatre noticed the little scene we were performing. Instead of acting like regular people by minding their own business and walking away, they started surrounding us. It was elementary school fighting ring once again, except everyone implicated had bloodshot eyes before any punch had been thrown.
“I… well… when they were burning the chickens, I felt bad for them.”
“Ok, that’s something. What else did you feel, son? You felt enlightened?”
“I felt…” But I stopped. The lifelessness of my dad’s eyeballs let me know it’d be a terrible idea to finish the sentence and confess how I really felt. Every pair of red eyes was fixed to my lips, expectant, craving the next syllable that came out of my mouth. Not a single sound was uttered by the crowd, nor a single nose breathed in. The only noise available to our ears was a distant thunderous roar and a guy coughing from too much weed consumption.
“You felt what?!” urged a woman with what looked like a dissected shit-zu rolling around on her head.
“You what?” said a guy with a Dhali-esque moustache that moved rhythmically by its own, following an unheard song.
“Tell us! You owe us and reverend Ron Fricke at least so! What did you feel?” yelled a man whose color scheme was moving constantly in and out of the line art of his squiggly body.
“I… I…” the lightning and thunder show continued. Everything around me was moving slowly, leaving blurry imprints of their previous location behind them.
“Tell us, dammit!” insisted a pair of anthropomorphic pants with the face of a seal.
“I was bored out of my mind, okay?” I finally snapped. “It sucked.”
“What?! Tell me that was a joke, son!”
“No, it wasn’t. What was a joke was that that thing is considered a movie!”
“What would you know about movies? You spend all day watching Disney crap at home!”
“May be, but I know about having fun, alright? And that was, hands down, the single most awful experience of my life! Nothing can be as boring as what you just forced me to watch right now! I have spent an entire afternoon watching grass grow, and you know it because you forced me to do it last week, and it was a thousand times more exciting that whatever this crap was supposed to be. Whoever did that melon farmer film is an idiot with a coal dark pigs knuckle of a brain” Still, all these years later, my sentiment has not changed a beat. I stand by my infantile insults.
“Oh, no, he didn’t!” was the reverberated response that came out of almost two dozens of throats.
“Son, did you just insult Ron Fricke, master of time and meditation, creator of photography and journalist of mother Earth’s spirituality? Did you?”
“Yes, I insulted whoever that guy is and every single one of you demented hamsters that adore him!”
A collective gasp turned off the volume of the whole Earth. The crowd circle took a step back, so as to prevent any direct contact with me.
“You take that back, son! You take that back and I will not regret buying you an overpriced movie ticket on a Tuesday night!”
“I won’t take it back. That thing was boring and whoever did it is as big a pretentious blouse as whoever enjoyed it.” A bearded man had a pretended heart attack and fell down to the ground. The woman beside him yelled her lungs out while running in circles. Everyone else walked away sobbing, trying to stop the tears in their eyes. For a second there I thought I may have overdone it with the derogatory babble.
“Then, starting today,” my dad told me as sternly as ever, “me, officialy, has no son.” I wanted to correct his terrible grammar, but a nearby thunder shut me up. Just like that, he walked up to the car, started the engine and drove away. He left me, his eight-year old son, alone in a parking lot, at midnight.
I waited for his return for almost an hour, desperately trying to transform my stoned smile into any other expression I could. But he never came and my mouth never caved. The rain poured down and I was high, mad, and tired; a terrible combination for such a young heart. When I knew it was up to me to return home, I forced my feet to walk the 2.5 miles that separated me from my bedroom. Except for the neighbor’s son, Jamie Thicke, flashing me from his garden, I found no obstacle during my travel. It didn’t matter that I was soaking wet and smelling worst than a damp cat, I went right up to my bed and fell asleep, swearing to stay away from movies for the rest of my life.
For the following month, my father and I had no verbal communication with each other. Our only exchanges during that period of time were a couple of looks that conveyed our anger to one another. Not only that, but I was forced to paint the walls of our basement and literally watch the paint dry out. It was, without a doubt, a more exciting experience than watching Baraka. I still do that, watch paint dry, every now and then, when feeling extremely bored.
ALSO KNOWN AS: Earth Looks Pretty Through My Lenses: The Motion Picture
GENRE: Experimental nothingness of neohippian value
Ron Fricke’s Baraka, is nothing more than a collection of pretty-looking establishing shots that aims to tell the viewer something really deep. Unless we count “Ron Fricke is friggin’ awesome” as a really deep spiritual message, it fails miserably.
When approaching this film, it’s easy to mistake it for a cinematographic ode to our beautiful planet Earth, to suppose it a movie whose only purpose is to showcase the amazing and awe-inspiring landscapes scattered throughout our six continents, a collection of stunning visuals accompanied by magnificently composed music gathered from all around the globe in order to create a soothing atmosphere of comfort and wonder, a motion picture whose one and only redeemable quality is the very reason why it has to be considered as a masterpiece to every filmgoer around the globe: the meditative thesis of stunning natural splendor. That’s how it disguises itself. Make no mistake: Baraka’s nothing but malevolent and pointless.
Allegedly a film that, without the use of superfluous things like plot, actors, common sense or dialogue, Baraka tries to evoke meditative reflection on the viewer through pure cinema. In the words of its director, it is a technical and philosophical voyage into the immortal theme of “humanity’s relationship to the eternal”. To each and every New Agey human being alive, this sounds like a cinematic paradise, the perfect movie to meditate with about the course humankind is taking. Unfortunately, Baraka has nothing to do with such conceited themes and everything to do with “I have a camera and I can film nice-looking images with it.”
That’s not to say the 96 minutes of its running time are void of any striking image whatsoever. In fact, I consider most of the stuff that ended up being on screen to be prettier, in fact, than seven litters of newborn kittens making eye contact with me at the same time. If the need to watch it should arise, it deserves to be viewed in a humongous screen capable of the highest definition available to the human race. However, there is one underlying issue that ruins the whole experience: it pretends to have a point. Everything would be just fine if Fricke was contempt with being the author of the most gorgeous collection of establishing shots known to men, but no, he had to stick his New Age attitude and be preachy about it.
The story of Baraka, which is far more entrancing than the film itself, began in 1975, when a man named Godfrey Reggio had the exact same idea Ron Fricke had, only about twenty years earlier. Reggio’s design was to create a film composed entirely of expertly photographed scenes, with zero dialogue and no plot, to convey a highly environmental theme. The outcome of this scheme was a visual tone poem movie called Koyaanisqatsi that actually does work. During the production of said film, a very young and impressionable guy named Ron Fricke was hired as its head cinematographer. And he did a damn good job at it. So good were his photographed images, that after literally leaving speechless all the producers/executives at The Institute of Regional Education for two straight weeks with his work, Fricke couldn’t help but think to himself: “Man, anyone with my photographical sensibility could do a better movie than this Koyaanisqatsi hodgepodge! In fact, screw Reggio and his work; he is nothing but a credit-stealing hack! I will make a better movie myself! I’ll travel around the world filming pretty things and voilà! A far superior movie will be instantly created!” And that’s precisely what he set out to do.
Instead of an actual film, Fricke, after spending nearly thirty-six months of continuous kaleidoscopic travels around the world, both inside and outside of his body and mind, returned home with seventeen hours of something that resembled more a collection of establishing shots stock footage for any film studio to buy than an actual film. But, as far as everyone involved in the project was concerned, Fricke’s work was nothing short of spiritually uplifting, although, that might’ve been the LSD speaking. Whatever it was, they decided to release it upon the world, pretending it wasn’t an unofficial Koyaanisqatsi remake and denying ever knowing the existence of anyone named Godfrey Reggio.
Since postproduction is meaningless for meditative works of art, Baraka, as a film, lacks a particularly important ingredient. Nowadays, we know it as “editing” or “the art of arranging a movie’s scenes in a cohesive way”, where shots are put together, one after another, so that they interact both visually and conceptually. Simply put, editing is the art of “having a movie make sense”. Ron Fricke, being too busy loving himself and his genius to apply this knowledge, decided that editing is bovine excrement and that even an untrained cactus could slap two or three scenes together.
The end result is, therefore, a mess. During an hour and a half of screen time, the visionary force behind Baraka, unsuccessfully juggles all his neo-hippie beliefs with his own ego, making it impossible for him to decide what in Gosh’s name is he trying to say. His visual rambling begins with a very understandable “nature is so beautiful! I ORDER YOU TO ADMIRE IT RIGHT AWAY, DAMN IT!” – that reminds you that you just paid to go inside a dark theatre to enjoy a two-dimensional moving picture of nature instead of, you know, actually going outside and enjoying the actual nature – to “human beings are evil monsters that live only to destroy precious defenseless mother Earth”, after which he promptly points out that “human beings are beautiful creatures that create wonderful artificial landscapes that deserve to be observed!”, going through a “our planet would be better off without people on it”, making a rather long stop into the “the only thing that could save us is religion” just to assure us that “religion is what’s tearing us apart!” going back to “Earth is purdy!”, then reassuring “religion is good when its ancient and underground but it’s really bad when it’s mainstream and common” and finalizing his statement, once again, with “Earth is beautiful, despite human beings, who are the most awesome thing ever, unless they are religious beings, which is the reason why they are bad, and they must be exterminated, unless they practice religion, so we can enjoy and create the artificial landscapes that decorate our planet, while destroying life in a vapid stream of gorgeous images of despaired hope of beauty”.
In the end, Fricke, through Baraka, ends up saying nothing more than: “Hi, my name’s Ron Fricke and I’m so proud of myself that I’ll force you to look at my pictures despite returning time and time again to the same visuals because I just love myself and my work and so should you and everybody else.” And that’s something terribly sad, because most of the film’s so-real-and-not-in-any-way-staged-shots-that-definitely-do-not-include-natives-the-production-bribed-to-make-them-look-nativey-while-not-looking-directly-into-the-camera shots are, definitely, breath-taking.
Ultimately, Fricke’s ego is so monumentally huge, it alone manages to transform something with real potential into a superficial look over every aspect of humanity. A superficial and non-interesting look. What really bothers me, however, is the fact that so many people overlook this rather important aspect of the production in lieu of a spectacle of lush images. Processed mindless entertainment for the self-proclaimed intellectual crowd at its best. But, damn it, does it look good on HD! (And even better on LSD. Or, so I’ve heard…)
Prior to November 1993, the fateful month in which I was dragged against my will to witness the cinematic blandness that is Baraka, my film experience had been carefully limited to everything Disney-related on VHS. Since my birth, my mother took it upon herself to protect me of all the evils lurking outside the world of family entertainment as her lifelong mission. She even went as far as to remove the bunny ears antenna off of our TV set. The only channel we could watch was the ongoing battle between black and white hyperactive ants that goes on inside every TV with no signal. And, after a couple of years, even that gets boring. Enter my mom and her handy VHS player. Thanks to her, I grew up tirelessly watching such classics as The Cat From Outer Space, Pete’s Dragon, Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs and the likes, and being blissfully ignorant of ideas such as drugs, suicide, cow tipping or emancipation.
Come November 24th 1993, the date I discovered movies could be loathed with a passion. Barely a month after I turned eight, my father decided it was time for his “little donut” to watch “real movies” and “dive directly into the wonderful world of quality cinema”. The day was coming to its inevitable nightly end and I was getting ready to sneak under the blankets to enjoy a lengthy session of Tetris. Just as the game cartridge crashed for the first time, my dad came bursting with joy into my room, ushering the biggest grin his face had ever felt. After making sure I had survived the shock and that not a single splinter had hurt me, he resorted to screaming nonsense about the most beautiful visual experience available to the common man. His descriptions of what he felt were so vivid I couldn’t help but ask him to tell me exactly what he saw.
Next thing I know, we’re en route to what was once our town’s one and only multiplex. Father managed to built up his excitement to such a staggeringly high level that I found myself sharing his feelings, despite having no idea whatsoever of what I was about to go through. But I felt safe. I figured that, if it made my dad smile so much for so long, it had to be first-rate. My expectations were humongous, and they were increasing with every mile. As I soon learnt, my first mistake was having any expectations at all.
In theory, my father’s was a neat idea. And it could’ve worked perfectly with virtually any movie ever created by a human being so far. Instead of having an experience that would bind me to the world of film for the rest of my life, I got stuck with watching the one picture that made me both hate film altogether, and love my father less.
Once we entered the movie house, I noticed something was wrong. Not only were there about seventeen people, at most, in the whole theatre, but they all looked like washed up hippies from the roughest months of the seventies.
“Dad, who are all these people?”
“Great men and women that know how to appreciate cinema, my boy, that’s what they are, and pretty soon you’ll be one of us, too!”
Unable to understand if “being one of them” was either good or bad, I kept my words to myself. I couldn’t ponder too much on the subject, however. Just as the questions began to arouse in my head, the lights of the theatre went off, the movie started, and an ominous “shhhh” forced us to silence even the words on our brains.
As the movie was projected before us, I could sense the smile of my father continuously growing to inhuman levels of happiness, even managing to poke through my personal space. As I sustained this imaginary damage to my being, I did my best to keep my eyes focused on the screen. After literally a whole minute of staring towards a collection of mountain tops shot from basically the same angle, I found I was far from enjoying the film my father had dragged me to. I dared to disturb the utter gasping silence that had possessed the whole theatre when the title card appeared. “Baraka” it announced.
“What are we supposedly watching, dad?”
“A non-verbal guided meditation, my son. You’ll feel how mother Earth fills you and your soul with an incomparable feeling of peace and decision.”
“Shut up and enjoy it, or I will make you enjoy it!”
And, just as he finished uttering this warning of forceful happiness, I heard the distinctive sound of a lighter being lit up. The sound was quickly followed by a certain smell that was new to my nose. The word “pungent” comes to mind. It was zesty and grassy, like a mixture of herbs and spices, and yet, refreshing at the same time. It reminded me of the smell that came out of my father’s pipe, but different altogether, as it lingered more than tobacco smoke in the air, and had this oily herb scent incorporated. Whenever I asked my father if he knew what it was that permeated the oxygen in the room, he nonchalantly pretended to be unable to hear my voice. The stench soon began to multiply all around us, as if every single person inside that theatre was smoking the same thing at the same time. It took me exactly nine years and eleven months to put a name to this odor. When I finally went away to college, it was reintroduced to me with the moniker of “weed”.
Once my nostrils grew accustomed to the continuous smell of ganja, I could finally focus on the mission at hand, which was to watch the film that injected my rather stern father with an astonishing amount of happiness. Merely fifteen minutes of Baraka had gone by and my eight-year-old self was already longing for it to end. I was bored beyond belief.
What was later revealed to me as a 96 minute film, felt like nothing short of three uneventful hours of wasted life. It’s possible that the marijuana smokescreen around me was affecting the way time elapsed for me, but the fact remains the same. The mere idea of “ending my own life to finish the psychological torture I was being subjected to” was a term unknown to me at the time. As such, I settled with pretending I possessed a time traveling device that could take me right through the end of this torment.
Even today, I’d pay generous amounts of money for the chance of going back to that very day and preventing either the showing, or my subsequent month-long moaning.