My Tale of Two Cities
We are all Carl
Audrey Petrozzi · August 20, 2023
8 min read
Carl! Oh, Carl, humiliation of the soul, circumciser of himself, and self-sacrificial, stupid lamb. The meek and mighty Carl, with his baby-fat forehead and tiny little teeth. My Tale of Two Cities, most revelatory of them all, an incision, a cut, to the depths of it all. At your core lies humiliation, the sad clown in your breast takes over and turns your words foolish. “Betray yourself!”, we beg, yet steadfastly you proceed, merry in your debasement before the eyes of all. There is no Garden of Gethsemane for you, no moment of weakness, your obdurate skin, so rubbery it bounces off bullets, has far too accommodated you to have you beg for anything but more. More, more, greed lies in your words, your eyes, a hunger for more pricks, more insults and more lashing words. Let it hurt, let it bleed.
Go on Youtube, type in “My Tale of Two Cities”, click the first link, the one uploaded by Carl Kurlander. Watch the documentary and see a man dissected before your eyes. The basics: Carl wrote one movie, St. Elmo’s Fire, one of the big teen hits of the 80s, leaving him with infinite career opportunities. He squandered them all, relegated to the writer’s purgatory of tween television. The film is an attempt to trace his family’s ping-pong back and forth between his hometown, Pittsburgh, and his former life in L.A. He attempts to justify the move by extolling Pittsburgh’s virtues while, quickly, things fall apart. His wife begins to move back to L.A., his camera crew grows obstinate and unwilling to film even the most basic scenes, and the documentary begins to spiral into barely sequential clips of the landscapes of Carl’s overly-dwelled upon childhood. You can tell he was a child of the 60s. An odorous, onerous, and onanistic effigy of a man, a mouth filled to the brim with repeated, little nonsense words desiccated, to be burnt by roaring and lacerating flames. Carl Kurlander himself is, more than anything, a B-movie, complete with repetitive dialogue, nonsensical structure, and flagrant narcissism. And yet, somehow his movie becomes him, it fits him like the Emperor’s New Clothes, perfect for a fool and no one else. In his talkative nakedness, you learn everything. He jokes, none of them land. He jokes, everyone gets mad.
The joke that doesn’t land is a tell-tale sign of the apopheniac, the precursor to the schizophrenic. Apophenia, that marvelous promise of genius, the ability to read between the lines that no one else can see, to feel the connections, bodily, between disparate parts and still see it as part of one, unified whole. The good joke is the real, ludicrous connection between an object and the unexpected. The flop joke consists not of the ludicrous connection but of the baffling one, two or more incongruent elements brought together and deformed until they look the same. The flop jokester, if of sound mind, proceeded because they both saw the connection and thought others would see it too. The gap of perception between myself and the world, but moreover, the gap between the world as I see it and the world as it is, thus becomes manifest in the flop joke. Joking with Louie Anderson, Carl delivers the line “This isn’t Roger and Me, this is Mr. Rogers and Me”. Louie gets genuinely angry, swearing at him and cajoling “How long have you been waiting to use that one”. Carl, king of nonsense, stands alone in his ability to sit with the enervating fallout; he does not even attempt to justify his words, but rather he implores you to tear him apart because of them, a Daniel in love with the lions.
The whole film follows this nonsensical, often pun-based structure. When Carl eats fish from the famously dirty Monongahela River, why, it’s only natural that the next place they visit should be the morgue, as if the promise of Carl’s poisoning and early demise must be given some visual scraps in lieu of its fulfillment. The connection exists only in his mind, and when explicated the resulting logic inspires only a desire to punish and harass the man out of his misguided and puerile thinking.
The production problems glare: a misinformed cameraman, a sadistic editor, and more than all a complete lack of direction. Carl even takes it as a compliment to be called ‘the director’ of the feature. By these means the film becomes incoherent, structured by nothing. It breaks apart into fragments that only an open-hearted audience can practice kintsugi on and restore to a greater, gold-lined form. For in the breaking apart, the film forces you to examine its semes and its seams, its basic units of meaning and how they connect together. We have already seen the connections in the logic of the flop joke, but the meaning of each moment is universal: the humiliation of Carl. You must decide to participate in his humiliation, to watch the painstaking record of it and noting each insufficiency of parenting, each heartbreaking simulacrum of romance, each grandiosity reduced to pitiful laughter. When he visits his childhood crush, the woman who inspired St. Elmo’s Fire, he finally confesses that he wished to write her “a love story so beautiful it could make [her] fall in love with him”. She can barely muster a laugh as her eyes widen with fear. Only through us can the movie be reformed into a tale of sexual inferiority, yet all the pieces lie so clearly there, are offered so kindly upon the platter of filmic incompetence, that the desire to make good on Carl’s promise is irresistible. Is there a thesis? Yes, and Carl says it, immediately after his mother justifies abandoning him when he was still in high school. In response to her positing “Maybe people need to be on their own, the sooner, the better”, Carl agrees with “Yeah, it’s like, sometimes your worst times turn out to be your best times”. This transformation, however, is not one of hindsight, but rather a strange alchemy Carl is able to perform with his and others’ pain. His rationalization is even present in the film when he discusses George Washington’s time in Pittsburgh as vital, going so far as to declare “No Pittsburgh, no George Washington”. What, you may ask, happened in Pittsburgh? Washington’s greatest mistake, accidentally kick-starting a battle with a genuine unforced error. Carl recognizes this fact, but what makes it so central to Washington’s story is that it’s his greatest defeat, is that it is his worst time, because bad times make you the man you are today, and you must be grateful for yourself, so you are indebted to your trauma, forever and ever.
Perhaps this debt is why Carl chooses to put himself in harm’s way over and over and over. It is not that he is addicted to the pain, although he may be at this point. Perhaps originally it was simply the treatment that he saw fit, what he deserved to receive, that he and he alone was meant to be the punching-bag of the entire world. Psychologists often talk of the compulsion to repeat, to replicate scenarios where you were harmed but with you now in the role of the aggressor, to reenact a fantasy of what could have happened where you are powerful and someone else weak. Yet what of the compulsion to repeat that begs for no change, for simply a repetition of pain, where does this come from? Carl knows, Carl lives it, Carl is that ache inside all of us that receives a kick to the teeth and prays only for a further curbstomp.
When my mind takes a flagellant bent, when the plagues of the world seem emanating from me, the only solution in absolution, in death of the strength of my flesh, look now upon Carl to see how narcissism infects me even now! The hairshirt is a call to my crimes against fashion, judgmental eyes still cast attention. Am I not past these school-yard games? The miasma I breathe in, ah, what matters if it be flesh-borne or air-borne, it is choking me now. Fie, fly away from its intoxicating pull, let fleeing not be delayed by the dalliance of the tongue. A woman can talk herself into oblivion while feeling all the while she is doing her God-given duty to accommodate the forces that drown her. If my tongue inches budgingly across some sandpaper world, take leave of it at once. There is a joy to be found in learning to love the taste and friction, but it comes at the cost of your dignity, and it’s everyone’s duty to be a great artist. An artist without dignity is a spectacle; there is a value in that, but never forget that the indignant audience would prefer you to at least put forth a good effort, leave claw-marks along the walls of your pit, a little earnest desperation always enlivens the soul. I salute you, Carl, mirror-image of my ego, more fascinated by making a fool of myself than the jokes I tell themselves. Patron-saint, anti-mensch, I hope to walk as your mirror-image away from this point of reflection, opposite of you in every way but one.
Audrey Petrozzi is a Pittsburgh native who has made Chicago her home. She aspires to be whatever people tell her she is good enough to be. She enjoys Steve Albini’s catalog as producer (although she is middling on his production techniques), timing herself for maximum efficiency on daily tasks, and pretending she’s a psychoanalyst for her friends and enemies. You can find her on Instagram (@gummoenthusiast), Twitter (@herpesma), and Substack (https://freebodydiagram.substack.com/).
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