Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Confessions of Lonerism: The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye

Do you ever feel like the world is the set of a movie that you've stumbled onto by accident? Or rather, a reality TV series, and you're the camera, rolling, rolling, taking it all in? Occasionally, a player in some particular scene -- a waiter in a restaurant, a random passerby, an under-5 extra -- will acknowledge you or address you directly, like in those testimonial portions of The Real Housewives of New York City when the ladies play Greek chorus, commenting on the action, defending their own bitchiness, slamming someone else's, or talking just because the camera is trained on them. Then they return to a scene already in progress, leaving you, the spectator, the camera, still rolling, rolling, taking it all in.

I'm no psychiatrist, no psychologist, no therapist. I'm not even 100 percent sure what the differences are between the three. But I suspect this is the point when the state of being alone crosses over into something more troubling. You are no longer all by yourself and happy to be that way because it's up to you whether you engage others or not. You're more like a ghost on one of those TV shows, Being Human perhaps, the walking dead that the undead never notices, struggling to be seen, hoping to be heard. You want to break down that fourth wall yourself and be part of the action, not just the documentarian of story, but the powerful life force that drives it.

Sometimes I miss my routine in New York City, where I had the constant stream of friends, work, distractions and recognition to make me regularly feel like the lead in my very own series, the star of my very own reality show, or, occasionally, the one true thing in a universe where everything else might have been just a figment of my own imagination.

Today my feeling of extreme isolation, my true blue lonerism, began the moment I entered my gym -- or rather, tried to. I can never figure out those sensor-controlled things that open electronic gates. When I'm in Melbourne, I've often spent up to a minute trying to get them to work with my "myki" card at the rail stations, feeling the angry glares of travelers behind me, occasionally just missing the train and having to wait 5, 10, 15 minutes or more for the next one to arrive.

Luckily, there was no train to catch on the other side of the gym entrance. But as other members walked right past me, entering with no trouble and ignoring my plight in the process, and the woman behind the desk patiently tried to guide me to just the right angle so that the bar code on my membership card would beam me in, I felt like everyone was in on some joke that I just didn't get.

The feeling of disconnectedness followed me through my workout and to lunch afterwards at a restaurant a block away as I spent my meal doing research on the work of Robert Mapplethorpe for a letter that I'm composing to send to his estate to request the use of one of his photos for the cover of my book. I considered calling someone to come and join me and pull me out of my own head, but I knew that when they arrived, I'd still be the camera, rolling, rolling, and they'd just be sitting across from me, blocking my view.

I had to let this play out. As I looked through the articles, I tried to remember the first time I ever saw a Robert Mapplethorpe photo. It was 1989, and I was staring at the cover of an image the artist, who had died of complications from AIDS the previous year, had shot of Susan Sarandon that adorned the cover of the issue of Esquire magazine that had just arrived in the mail.

The second time I was exposed to his work, it was 1993, and my first boyfriend, Derek, had taken me to an exhibit of his black and white photos at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City. I can clearly remember what was going through my mind as I wandered through the part of the presentation with all of that black flesh on display, black men in various states of undress, usually undressed, like gods, or animals. Was this Mapplethorpe's celebration of the black form or his fetishization of it?

I remember the impression the photos made on me because this is the same question that has followed me around the world since I left New York in 2006. It pops into my head every time I walk into a room full of gay men, and I become the center of anyone's attention, or whenever they ask, "Is it true what they say about black men?"

But why couldn't I remember any of the photos other than the one that I want for my book? Even that one I can recall only because my brother Alexi sent it to me two years ago when I first started considering images for the cover. I can't even say for sure if it was part of that Mapplethorpe show in New York City. Eventually, all of that black cock had just blended into one for me. Is that what it's like for gay white men who fetishize, or ostracize, black men, especially in a place like Cape Town, where, unlike in Buenos Aires, or Melbourne, or Bangkok, there's so much black to go around?

All these years later, I was starting to wonder if that exhibit in New York City had happened at all. "The past is just a story we tell ourselves," Samantha the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johannson says to Theodore in Her, the best-written, if not necessarily the best-executed, film of 2013. This afternoon at lunch I fully understood what she was saying, which was an echo of the main theme of the 2011 film Martha Marcy May Marlene: Is it the past, a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare?

I also understood how Theodore felt, more keenly than I have since I saw the movie, as I drifted through the day, like a camera, rolling, rolling, taking it all in. If ever I needed an OS to lull me into a sense of security, of belonging to somewhere, to someone, to something, it was today, beginning at 11am, at the electronic entrance to Zone Fitness in Cape Quarter
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I'd continue observing the lives of others from my safe distance until mid-afternoon when I returned home, and there was nothing to record other than my own life and my own thoughts. As I settled into that old familiar and comfortable state of solitude and started to write this blog post, I felt alive again, like the star of my own story, if only in my own head. And far far away (16 stories, to be exact) from the public that occasionally makes me doubt myself and my existence, that was just enough for me.

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