"There's a game out there, and the stakes are high. And the guy who runs it figures the averages all day long, and all night long. Once in a while, he lets you steal a pot. But if you stay in the game long enough, you've got to lose. And once you lost, there's no way back. No way at all."
For almost ten years I have had this shard of a monologue stuck in a back corner of my mind like a splinter under a nail, waiting for it to grow out. It finally did a year or so ago thanks to Google (I don't know why I never thought of using it earlier). I first heard it in What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 2) on DJ Shadow's 1998 Preemptive Strike. Hearing it was like one of those deja vu moments, a memory that you may or may not have had in real life. It first caught my attention because I could have sworn it was Kevin Spacey's voice, and I thought "What movie is this from?" It wasn't until I googled it years later that I discovered Davis was pulling the sample from a line in an obscure 1971 anti-war movie called Johnny Got His Gun.
Solving this riddle made me feel like a bit of a Junior Detective cracking his first big case. It quickly became apparent, though, that the real mind worthy of praise was Davis'. Like a lost civilization embedding clues in history to tell future generations of a cataclysmic event to come, Davis has embedded in his music clues to lead the listener...somewhere else.
Could it just be coincidence that I happened to watch this movie as a result of thinking I heard Kevin Spacey's voice on a track and being bugged by it enough to want to investigate its origins? Sure. But could there also be something to Davis' artistry that is especially effective at communicating that which could not be communicated in any other way? I think so.
So despite originally just wanting to watch the movie in order to hear from the source this obscure six line monologue, and going so far as to order the DVD from overseas because it is not available anywhere in the U.S., watching Johnny Got His Gun last night opened more doors, which led down more corridors, into still darker parts of the psyche and grayer states of morality; it was like Alice and the rabbit-hole.
From this I can only conclude two things: that Josh Davis is either simply one of the greatest hip-hop artists of the 21st century for both his innovation (a model representation of introspective hip-hop, in my opinion), ingenuity (Endtroducing made the Guiness Book of World Records in 2001 as the first completely sampled album in history--a AKAIMPC60 12bit drum machine was the only piece of equipment used in production), and style; or, that the possibility exists that Davis has found a way to graft his work into the fabric of time and history to communicate a message of utmost importance, so much so that it must be embedded in past, present, and future as code, stitched together, package, and delivered to the recipient, who is then left the task of unzipping and deciphering it. Davis is the appointed messenger in this regard; the senders can not be located in any time-bound sphere of existence but make their temporal nest in the subconscious of each and every recipient, like larvae waiting to be hatched. The message and purpose is left unknown.
I could write a lot about the movie and may at another time; I will admit that it was not what I expected. There was one (actually two) scenes that I was thinking about last night and this morning. Joe, who describes himself as a piece of "living meat" (he is essentially a torso and a head and genitals--everything else has been blown off in a mortar blast), is being kept alive by the army as a marvel of modern science--the ability to keep someone alive injured in war. The army hospital doctors consider this some kind of benevolence, but are cold and merciless to Joe's real needs. All Joe wants is death. But there is one nurse who is the film's model of compassionate humanity. She is warm, and kind, and compassionate. She is so moved by Joe's condition and feels his pain so accutely that she sheds tears on his chest. She writes on his chest with her fingers to say "Merry Christmas." She is a deeply religious Catholic, a model of compassion. But as if to show--using morality as one particular vessel--how upside down Joe's world is, her own religious behavior contorts into a strange representation of mercy completely foreign to contemporary religious reason. In one scene, she notices in changing his feeding tube that Joe has an erection. A look of anguish washes over her face; she thinks for a minute, then to her knees and drops prays. After she is done praying, she lifts her head and thinks again. Then she gets up and masturbates him. It is a very moving scene, to be honest. But if you take it seriously, it is also very conflictive.
Likewise near the end when Joe figures out he can communicate with Morse Code by nodding his head. Over and over he signs 'Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.' The army doctors coldly refuse, answering with a sedative and a promise to 'make him as comfortable as they can.' The army chaplain says in response to their asking "can't you do something Father? Can't you tell him to put his faith in God?" to which he responds "I will pray for him for the rest of my days...but I will not risk testing his faith against your stupidity." It is a brilliant, scathing line. The intersection between personal morality, religion, and political authority at this point, though, is getting kind of muddled. Near the end the nurse, again dropping to her knees after everyone has left the room, makes an act of contrition--which is meant to be made after a sin is committed. Ironically, she makes it before she pinches his breathing tube and attempts to suffocate him. Her behavior is bizarre...and makes perfect sense at the same time. It's an affront to the rational, cut and dry, black-and-white theoretical morality laid out in ethics classes and seminaries. Because it intersects with the heart...and we all know how that can fuck things up.