Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Mandelbrot

So, you remember a couple of weeks ago I was talking about the Mandelbrots? Well, I've learned a few new things since then.

I have this friend at work, Jay. Jay's job at Fnorders is basically to stand by the door and keep an eye on people. He's not a security guard as such, since he has no real power to do anything, and as much of his job is greeting people and directing them around as it is preventing theft from the store. He's mostly just there to make note and inform management if something seems fishy. And Jay is singularly well-suited to the job. He's a young guy, 19, quite bright and thoughtful, but happy to stand relatively still and think his own private thoughts most of the time. It's fun to watch him think, because he's so expressive when he's thinking about something -- his interior monologue is being constantly reflected on his face, and you can actually watch his conversation with himself taking place.

He also likes to talk to people -- not to anybody and everybody, but to those people who tend to want to talk to him. We get a fair number of lonely old and/or mentally ill people wandering in, and they love nothing more than to find a receptive audience, a role which Jay will happily fill. He's been known to subtly take the piss out of them if they're not aware enough to catch him at it, but he never means to hurt any feelings. Mostly, though, he just enjoys talking to crazy people, and he's good at listening to them.

He also shares a trait with a couple of other people I've known, in that he'll ask anyone nearly any question, no matter how mortifyingly personal it seems to the rest of us. And he asks so guilelessly that they'll usually answer him. It's something I'm profoundly disinclined to do myself, so I admire it that much more when I see someone else who can do it.

Anyway, Jay got to have a 45-minute conversation with Eunice Mandelbrot not long ago. I wasn't there that night -- god, how I wish I had been -- but Jay listened closely and finally got to tell me the whole story night before last. Here's what he learned:

Eunice lost her eye falling down the stairs, where she landed on her face and her eyeball popped out.

George and Charles' names are, respectively, John and Mark. They're twin brothers. John is significantly mentally disabled, to the point that he can function a bit but can't take care of himself. Mark is the family genius, and has gone a number of interesting places and done some interesting things. He's written a book based on his grandfather's letters and photographs, detailing some historical massacre in Turkey or some such place, which apparently actually stands a chance of being published. However, he's now housebound due to severely swollen legs that cause him constant, excruciating pain, which is why it's only ever Eunice and John that we see in the store or out on the streets.

The Mandelbrots were forced out of their house on the west side a couple of years ago and now live in a shitbag motel room out on 82nd, on the ass end of Portland. They have no money apart from what Eunice brings in by begging, since neither of the brothers can hold down jobs. The family's fortunes, as Eunice figures it, now rest on Mark, and more specifically on the screenplay he's writing, which is their presumed ticket to a new life in the west hills. Hence all the money she's dropping on expensive Criterion Collection discs, for Mark to study.

Jay, realizing how much of the family's funds Eunice is spending on DVDs, suggested maybe trying the library instead? But Eunice seemed too addled to understand the suggestion, and probably wouldn't remember it long enough to pass it along anyway. Jay, being the sort of person he is, asked if he could come visit them at home sometime -- a request which Eunice politely but flatly refused. "Mark can't cope with visitors," she told him. And yet Jay says he'll continue to ask whenever she comes in, because he's become as fascinated with the family as I am. I told him if he ever gets to the point that he's visiting the Mandelbrots at home, we'll start thinking about interviewing on camera. However long it takes, however slowly we have to tread, if we can get there, I'm on board. If anybody could establish a friendship with them, Jay could. And if I can help, I will.

I'm a little torn. I say this is Grey Gardens-quality material, but that's not quite true. The Edies had fallen a long way from their society perch, but they were still proud, if eccentric, people. But the Mandelbrots are not proud; their life is a humilation. They're not without hope, but even that seems a little humiliating when you consider the way it's likely to end. They pin their hopes on a screenplay built around the aesthetic ideals of Mizoguchi and Truffaut, which they expect to sell in Hollywood for millions of dollars. And even if Mark could pull off the former, how can that ever translate into the latter?

And as Jay anxiously points out, once Eunice is dead -- which will be soon -- what's going to happen to the brothers?

It's an engrossing little family drama, one of the most compelling I've ever come across in real life. I want to document these people if only to acknowledge that they were here, and that there was, after all, a kind of dignity in the way they struggled gamely against their own bizarre fates. I could never have made up a better story. At the same time, I'm acutely aware that documenting them would be dangerously close to holding them up for ridicule, which I emphatically would never want to do. But I don't know quite how to avoid it without forcing a single perspective onto the subject, which would defeat the purpose entirely.

I don't know what will ever come of it -- probably nothing. The Maysles brothers got the Edies because the Edies loved attention and wanted to be filmed. If the Mandelbrots don't, there's nothing I can do about that, and I wouldn't want to invade their privacy anyway. I also know that even if there's no film in it, the Mandelbrots will probably appear in my work in some form or other, because the story is too good not to tell. I hope, if nothing else, that I get to find out how it progresses; if not, I can probably fill in the blanks for myself.

Off-subject, but it's made my whole week: do you remember James Burke?

Back in the 80s, I used to love this old-ish BBC series that they played on the Houston PBS station during every pledge drive: Connections, and later The Day the Universe Changed. It made enough of an impact that I've remembered it ever since, even though I was just a kid when it was being aired. Anyway, the whole series is available on YouTube. It's a lot of time spent watching video in a little square, but it's more than worth it -- even thirty years later, even accounting for the immense technological development since it aired, this series is still amazing. A surprising amount of what he discusses has since come to fruition, not always as he thought it might. But the core concepts are still totally valid and immediately applicable, and if anything more obvious now than ever. Burke was damn near up there with Sagan, even if he wasn't as widely known.

Just go and watch it. It's a fine way to spend a weekend.
10:19 PM ::
Amy :: permalink
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