This is the first time that I am writing about a subject that has occupied my thoughts numerous times over many years. I have talked with a doctoral student (a filmmaker with years of experience following the lives of “homeless” persons in Toronto) about maybe teaming up to capture bleakness on film, at least that which can be visually captured. He understood very well the presence–the smell, the taste, the sound, the look and the feel–of bleakness. We both agreed that whatever bleakness is, it is not squalor. Bleakness is to be found in the shadow of wealth, urban development, and (post)industrialization. Squalor is marked by destitution, wretchedness, and impoverishment. Bleakness is the blight of urban North America as squalor is the blight of the “underdeveloped” locales of the world. Bleakness mattered so much to me that I think it was a large part of what first impelled me to abandon Toronto, and to leave Canada.

Bleakness is something that can be seen. Large grid-like expanses of warehouses, shopping malls accessible only by highway, strip malls in suburban neighbourhoods, lonely doughnut shops in areas where no one seems to live and they are open all night long even though nobody seems to go to them. Bleakness can be seen in the large, red, abraded arms of the night security guard with his long sideburns and the puffy bags under his eyes. Bleakness is in the story he tells: “I once had my own business.” Oh yeah, what was that? “I sold comic books, pogs, and hockey cards. It went under.” Bleakness is in the restaurant with the red velvet wallpaper, the brownish yellow glasses with the bubbled surface, the candle inside a glass globe covered by red plastic netting, and the brown carpet. You can see bleakness in the orange juice stains at the corners of the mouths of tired looking kids lining up for the morning school bus. When I was growing up bleakness was Kodiak boots, jeans, the red and black flannel shirts, and the t-shirt that said “AC/DC.” Not to mention the banana yellow Gremlins with some hockey-stick stripes on the side, and peppermint-coloured Pintos. That’s the thing, there can even be bleak colours–perfectly good colours, that have somehow been killed, like the weepy plastic blue of Pan-Am and the red of TWA that looks like the colour of stale candy given to you by an old lady with blue hair. Bleak for me was also the sight of the name of another, now long defunct, Canadian airline: “Wardair.” Ward…air? Please, don’t tell me it was named after some guy called “Ward,” that would be too bleak. Ok, Ward was his last name. Where else can you see bleakness? In finished basements in suburban homes, with the padded fake leather bar, the plaid couch, the dart board, and the mounted fish. Bleakness in department stores, with sales ladies that look like wildly painted dinosaurs, and the blank stares eating onion rings in their fabulous in-store restaurant.

Bleakness can have a taste, especially where there is limited choice and the imagination is stifled. To me it had the taste (and smell) of french fries with white vinegar, boiled hotdogs, and anything made with marshmallows. Instant gravy, powdered mash potatoes, Velveeta cheese, Spam, and bright yellow French’s mustard. And corn relish. And ketchup-flavoured potato chips, Cplus orange soda, spearmint gum, and fun dip powdered candy with candy stick. Menthol cigarettes. Molson Canadian. By the 1980s the new popular bleak taste was that of Caesar salad.

The feel of bleakness is not something that stands out for me, probably because it is the most persistent and widespread that I take it for granted, and possibly because I pay more attention to sight, taste, and sound (often in that order). What does stick out is the feel of polyester, and styrofoam food containers, and the corrugated plastic coffee cups one would get from vending machines down some old hallway, serving over-heated coffee that tasted like burnt skunk fur.

Bleakness certainly smelled; in fact, it pretty well stank. Bleakness smelled like those french fries with the white vinegar; an apartment smelling of dirty carpet; apartment building corridors that smell like people are heating canned stew (which smells like dog food); the smell of piss and dog shit in the parking lot where kids traded those hockey cards; and, the blue-haired old lady whose Avon perfume smells like syrup mixed with dust.

The sounds of bleakness are too many to list. They can range from the sound of “Captain of Her Heart” (or “Don’t Stop Believing“) playing every 20 minutes in that nowhere doughnut shop in the middle of a warehouse district at 3:30am, where you sit with that bland coffee and the doughnut with sprinkles on it, wondering: “What the fuck am I doing here? God, take me now.” Bleakness can sound like the Doppler shift of a lonely truck late at night on that 16-lane highway next to which you live. Bleak sound fills the suburban supermarkets, piped music, announcements, price checks–something combining the sounds of a prison, elevator, and airport departure lounge. I have never been in a supermarket that didn’t make me feel like I had a lucky escape each time I exited. Let’s not forget: the hollow sounds of a hockey arena during practice and the mother shouting, “Atta boy Gordie!”

For me the 1970s seem to have been a special time for bleakness. By the 1980s its bleakness started to become dulled by that nouveau yuppie blend of brass railing, green marble, and potted ferns. The only Hollywood movie that for me captured the essence of bleakness was Boogie Nights (revised: one of several).  Bleakness changes, but it becomes most striking at the point of alienation. After that, present bleakness becomes a blur–car models that are now indistinguishable from one another, blocks of people filing into buses and the first thing they do is take out their little gadgets, busy little thumbs scrolling away at a plastic screen, same empty looks, people who are terrified to be alone with their thoughts, needing to fill in the emptiness with all sorts of gadgetry, pixels, and digital signals. A much livelier take on present-day bleakness comes in the music video below, commenting on consumption and family relationships in suburban settings. I found it quite by accident, and went ahead and watched it even though I thought it would be an advertisement for a vacuum cleaner (raised in bleakness, old habits die hard). “Enjoy” (which is also what the bleak waitress says serving Caesar salad in that bleak roadside-restaurant that has been made to look–for who knows what reason–like a bad replica of a medieval castle).

12 thoughts on “BLEAK

  1. John Allison

    Damn! Max, this makes me feel even bleaker.
    I think I’ll go get drunk. Then we can start the Revolution.

  2. John Allison

    Man, it’s loud with this Shop Vac on, but, with this true documentation of the vacuum of “culture” of our nacion, I just don’t see how better to record the ethnography of The USans than an aspect at a time; and this Aspect of Bleakness of The USan’s “cultural landscape” is getting right to the heart of vacuum.

  3. Tom Marvin

    You want bleak? You need to see some bleak? Pull into that parking lot, and watch it fill in around you with the Giant Pickup. The one that cannot make the turn into a space, and runs over the curb and the bush on the curb which is likely dead anyway. You’re hemmed in by canyons of huge white pickup trucks with 5 or 6 doors and 4″ diameter tailpipes. Note the running diesel-particle spewing tailpipes while you’re parked there listening to a plaintive radio voice wondering where the votes are for cap & trade. Bleak. Yes! Split! Get back, On the road! But there it is, again, the canyon of huge new white pickup trucks, now moving past you, moving faster than you, now showing the intent, sad heads of their single occupants.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks Tom! At first I thought how hilarious this is, very nicely written too, and then I realized…I should stop laughing. Over the past 40 years, bleakness becomes more environmental than ever–yes I know about Three Mile Island, Love Canal, etc., but there has been a definite and perceivable change in the air quality, the way the air smells and the seasonal weather patterns, and I know I am not the only person in my age group who is conscious of this.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    If I had used more up to date cultural references, I would have to include Grand Theft Auto as the video game hallmark of bleakness, and I think it’s deliberate on the part of Rock Star Studios. In particular they have these fantastic radio stations in-game, with some original compositions featured in their simpler, earlier games. This one song I heard in one of those early games made me feel like the marrow was being sucked out of my bones, for reasons I can’t articulate–“I prefer God to my kids”:

  5. CM

    According to a survey commissioned by a travel company, Monday, January 17, 2011 is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. You have beaten the date by a full three days. (The remedy, of course, was to take a trip. Wow. Surprise.)

    I am now fighting the urge to self-defenestrate. Don’t worry. I’m on the ground floor at the moment. The worst that could happen would be that I’d find myself up to my knees in snow.

    I think that bleakness is so prevalent because it’s simply easier, although it is soul-destroying. Exactly the same food everywhere, so no surprises. No cooks required, just food preparation technicians. No diners required, just consumers. Meals are refuelling stops, not anticipated events. No critical thought needed. Just accept the propaganda. Security trumps freedom.

    I need a glass of unbleak wine, followed by another one.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      This reminds me: I think that bleakness really thrives in winter, although I don’t want to blame the weather, and in Canada one can experience amazing beauty in winter. Winter in cities can be a bit different, with all of the yellow snow, dirt on the streets, and people rushing past at high speed.

      Speaking with others since I posted this, they object to the idea that you can’t find bleakness in places such as the Caribbean, especially in the homes of the middle class and the very wealthy, or that we cannot find squalor in North America. I think we can, so I was wrong to divide the issues according to the political geography of nation-states–I should have just stuck with “(under)develeopment” as the pivot between bleakness and squalor.

  6. Maximilian Forte

    While I mentioned only Boogie Nights, there are of course many other relevant films that depict either scenes that convey the senses of bleakness, or where the whole film is about bleakness. One Boogie Nights scene that stood out for me was the suburban drug deal and the look of vast emptiness setting in on the face of “Dirk Diggler”:

    or the doughnut shop scene (of course)–and to be really true to bleakness, one has to misspell the word like everyone else now, “donut”:

    However, an even better example–shocking that I omitted this–would be Revolutionary Road. I might write a little about that.

  7. CM

    Shop Vac, God Bless and the “donut” scene are pretty grim. Maybe bleakness includes that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach as a warning sign.

    Two more contenders are “No Country for Old Men” and “Up in the Air”.

    Now they are coming thick and fast. The opening scene in Houston of “Local Hero” followed by the closing scene – same location, ten times worse. The stuff in the middle was pure poetry.

    Now all the streets are dark and bare,
    Oh, if you can live in this town,
    And stick around, you can live anywhere..
    That’s the way it always starts,
    Sitting here and waiting on the beating of my heart.

    And the best of all bleaknesses, “On the Beach”.

  8. CM

    The Onion, as usual, has something to say about this – a hook to the Shop Vac song.

    Family Of Five Found Alive In Suburbs

    BUFFALO GROVE, IL—The Holsapple family, long feared missing or spiritually dead, was found alive in the Chicago suburbs Monday, somehow managing to survive in the hostile environment for more than eight years.

    Rescuers discovered the five-person clan after a survey plane spotted a crude signal fire the family had created in a barbecue grill.

    “Imagine my surprise when, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, I saw these flames,” pilot Tony Riggs said. “I did a second pass and was shocked to see actual human beings down there. I remember thinking to myself, ‘My God, who could live in a place like that?’ It’s incredible to imagine they survived there for so long.”

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