Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Movies: Sicko

This is the first (and to date only) Michael Moore film I've ever seen, but I've heard plenty of the ruckus made about his style over the past few years. It is, of course, all true. He's plenty off-putting, both physically and socially, but he has a knack for propaganda, and I happen to agree with him on many accounts.

Propaganda: yes, that's the word I used, and that's what this film is filled with. It seems that Moore has worked hard to find the sickest, saddest, and stupidest Americans (except for the fit and stylish bourgeois yuppies living the glorious expat life in France) with which to illustrate the failings of our privatized health care system. For example, one woman, who had Kaiser, noticed that her young daughter was running a fever of over 104˚ and brought her to the hospital (but not the Kaiser hospital). When the receptionist refused to admit her, telling the woman to bring her daughter to the Kaiser hospital in town, the (dumb as a doorknob) mother continued to insist that they treat her daughter right there. She continued to argue with the admissions desk for hours, until her daughter went into cardiac arrest and died. Is this a failing of our health care system, or a failing of a woman's intelligence? Exactly. Moore would have you think otherwise, though.

He does better in depicting the behind the scenes reality: lobbyists buying congressmen's votes in Washington, and doctors, investigators, and administrative staff hired by insurance companies to either reject health care applicants, reject payment for requested life-saving services, or take back payments they've already remitted for services already rendered. The money machine is what, ultimately, makes the difference for a logician like myself; I'm certain that lengthy shots of crying widows move other Americans, but I admit to being hard of heart, particularly where the proletariat is concerned. But Moore points out that firefighters and policemen are paid by the government, as are public school teachers, and it is clear that health care correlates closely with safety and education as a service a public ought to demand from its government in exchange for their tax dollars. And I would be willing to have my taxes raised (unlike most other Americans) in exchange for free, universal health care (although I would prefer to see corporate tax raises, as companies would no longer bear the burden of insuring their employees).

Which brings me around to the big '08 election. I like Obama, but I'm far from in love with his health care plan (leave the employer-insurance connection unchanged, and provide subsidies for the currently uninsured, further, have the government foot the bill for expensive "emergency" services like cancer treatment, heart surgery, etc.) I can't stand Edwards, but he has a pretty good-looking plan (described as bringing socialized medicine to our country via a Trojan Horse in this good article) that, like Obama's, has a good chance of passing, but, unlike Obama's, would bring actual change. I have insurance, and I don't have any great complaints other than the fact that it doesn't cover certain vaccines that I consider important (e.g. the HPV vaccine, which consists of three $175 injections). But I prefer the efficiency possible in a single-payer system. As a good capitalist, do I worry that a lack of competition and profit-seeking will lead to a decrease in quality of care and innovation? Theoretically, it would, but Moore makes a convincing argument that it hasn't done so in England, France, or Cuba (my favorite two people in the film, in fact, are the young English and Cuban doctors Moore talks with, who seem competent, humble, and frankly embarrassed at the praise that is lavished upon them by Moore and his coterie (at one point, the Cuban doctor looks at the American woman he's treating, who is sobbing in gratitude, and pats her on the shoulder awkwardly, saying, "You don't have to cry. Everything is going to be okay."

I certainly hope it will be, though I have my doubts.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Books: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

If one doesn't mind old-fashioned (that is non-problematized and sometimes gimmicky) narratives, this is a pretty fun read. Usually I do mind these things, but lately I've been a bit more forgiving, or, at least, able to read and react within the appropriate cultural frame.

For all of his fame, Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, is not the plot's driving force. Though he is a key figure, the story is actually that of the gypsy Esmerelda, and how she is punished (what a surprise) for being beautiful and thereby (unintentionally) seductive. Aside from the entirety of the Parisian mob (which Hugo captures brilliantly), Esmerelda's beauty fascinates four main characters: Gringoire, a destitute poet turned tramp who, by a twist of events, becomes her husband (though he never does taste the, ahem, conjugal fruits); Phoebus, a military captain, gallant, and rake, with whom she falls in love, and who attempts to take advantage of her; Claude Frollo, the lonely, learnéd, and suddenly lusty Archdeacon who lives at Notre Dame who rescues Esmerelda from Phoebus' attempt on her chastity (only to attempt to violate it himself), and of course Quasimodo, the malformed and malsocialized hunchback who, impressed not only by Esmerelda's physical beauty, but also the compassion she once showed him by bringing him a drink of water while he was publicly whipped and shamed (for having attempted to kidnap her (by the order of Claude Frollo, his foster-father and only "friend")), rescues her from the Parisian mob that intends, thanks to the rabble-rousing of Frollo, to hang her as a witch, and hides her within the sanctuary of Notre Dame, where he tends to her every need.

Esmerelda is described in a mostly empty way, although Hugo dedicates many words to the delicate turn of her foot. Mostly, she dances with a tambourine in the public squares, sometimes sings as well, and has her pet goat Djali do tricks. She has lithe, tan arms, bounteous dark hair, and beautifully flashing eyes. She is sixteen years old, and she is an orphan. She wears a pouch around her neck that the gypsies promised her would lead her to the secret of her parentage. That is all. We are not privy to her interior, although she seems very much to want to find her parents, and she wants even more to be reunited with Phoebus, whom she loves (for no real reason other than the fact that he is so. . . dashing (a mistake Quasimodo will so elegantly indicate with a variety of metaphoric gifts, for example, two bouquets of flowers, one withered in a cracked crystal vase because the water all ran out, and one brightly blooming in a homely but sturdy clay pot; that scene becomes even more poignantly eloquent (or obnoxious, depending on whether you are a feminist) when Esmerelda grasps the withered bouquet and clutches it her chest, ignoring the other bouquet and continuing to gaze out the window, sighing for Phoebus.)

Perhaps the most interesting character is the Archdeacon, because he doesn't have any logically sound reasons for his actions. Obviously Phoebus would want to have a tumble with Esmerelda, because he'd like to have a tumble with any woman, and this one is particularly attractive. It is easy to see, too, that Quasimodo, isolated by his disfiguration and his deafness (from ringing the church bells), would be enchanted by an attractive woman's small kindness, even to the point of obsession. Frollo, however, is highly educated (too intelligent, Hugo often implies, for his own good), and has mastered not only theology and philosophy, but has for some time been exploring alchemy as well. He has for family a young brother, whom he raised from infancy when they were both orphaned in his teenaged years, and whom he has adored and spoiled all his life (without thanks), and Quasimodo, too, whom he adopted as a foundling to protect him from a death sentence (the Parisian mob assumed he was a devil-child because of his misshapen body). But this man, seemingly educated and compassionate, from the very sight of Esmerelda becomes a lecherous, godless beast, certain that she is sent by the devil to tempt him, and completely willing to sell his soul to hell in order to possess her body.

There are a few details that I found bothersome; one in particular is Quasimodo's selective hearing; he is supposed to be deaf, which is why he cannot defend himself whenever he is asked a question by a magistrate or the mob. Claude Frollo uses a language of signs to communicate with him. Yet, while Esmerelda is imprisoned in his church tower, she sings a plaintive song one day, and stops when she sees him. He then begs her to continue. There are other instances in which he appears to be able to hear, and this inconsistency is frustrating. Additionally, Hugo has a way of introducing new characters by describing scenes that seem quite separated from the plot with a great amount of length and color, and then, chapters later, revealing that said isolated scene and character are actually critical to the next plot twist. It's a kind of tiresome foreshadowing that, as an m.o., outstays its use as the reader becomes acclimated to the technique and sees the "surprises" (including the big big big surprise about Esmerelda's parentage) about a mile away. And of course, it's all terribly old-fashioned, non-problematized, and gimmicky. But for all of that, it's still a fun read (if one can trudge through the lengthy early passages on the architecture of Notre Dame and medieval Paris), something of a fairy tale for adults who aren't intellectually evolved enough to enjoy Barth or Foster Wallace.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Movies: Interview

Sometimes, I walk out of movie theatres completely in love with the people I've just seen (The Dreamers). Sometimes, I walk out of movie theatres completely disgusted and embarrassed to even be a human being (Sideways). This is the first time I've walked out in such a complete and utter quandary.

Steve Buscemi is a washed-up political journalist sent by his magazine to interview Sienna Miller's character, a television actress on a 90210-ish program who has also made a few slasher-style B movies, and is mostly famous for being hot and for having affairs with other hot, famous people. Neither of them brings very much to the table; the actress shows up over an hour late for the meeting, and the journalist has seen none of her movies, no episodes of her television show, and hasn't even read the bio brief that her PR agent sent to his magazine.

After an unlikely turn of events, the actress invites the journalist up to her loft, where the movie progresses in real time as the two drink, spar, flirt, and verbally abuse each other. Eventually, things get deep, confidences are exchanged, and confessions are made. Not long after, we see that confidences have been betrayed. Not long after that, we see that the confessions were false.

And then the movie is over, and we, the audience, are in a quandary. At least I am. The actress is a manipulative, spoiled brat who drinks excessively, snorts coke in her bathroom, and has a pink Razr phone with the most annoying (but the most brilliant) cell phone ring (it is the sound of a purse dog barking, which, since she doesn't actually have a purse dog, is completely brilliant. Kudos to whomever made that executive decision). But she is a vixen, and she seduces us, just as she seduces the journalist. And it's sick and it's twisted, because she is the cat and he is the mouse and she is torturing him for her pleasure, but she is so goddamned sexy—the way she moves, the way she speaks, the way she takes off her boots—I can't help but fall hopelessly for her. The journalist is a liar and a bit of a thug; he's every bit as manipulative as she is; he's a loser; he's an inebriate; he's a con man. He's not the mouse—he's the flea: a bloodsucker and a parasite. But there is something intelligent about him—he was once high-minded, it seems; he's been wounded; he's needy.

And so, how do we feel? What have we learned? People are dreadful and horrible and abusive? Or is it just these two people? Or is it just actresses and journalists? Or is Steve Buscemi (writer/director) simply sick of Hollywood, but unable to wrench himself out of its seductive claws? I still haven't decided.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Books: In & Oz, by Steve Tomasula

I picked up this book completely at random while looking for Anna Karenina (Tolstoy, Tomasula), which, believe it or not, the Mid-Manhattan did not have "in stock." I actually first picked up Tomasula's VAS: An Opera in Flatland because of the interesting binding (I don't know anything about Tomasula, but based on the looks of these two books, he's something of a designer, or, dare I say, artist), and the interior looked something like that of Danielewski's House of Leaves, only more baroque, less linear, and also more pictogrammatic. I think it would be fair to call Tomasula's writing experimental fiction, although In & Oz, despite it's elegant tall, thin shape, somewhat random interlude of simple drawings of billboards advertising billboards, and inclusion of a few pages listing the text "$1.00 $1.00 $1.00. . ." in repeated blocks, isn't all that experimental in form.

In content, interestingly, it somehow pushes forward and backward, resting and resisting cliche simultaneously. Characters are named by their vocation; our hero is Mechanic, a salt of the earth laborer who lives in the urban-blighted In. Mechanic falls in love with Designer, a wealthy, well-coiffured woman who designs auto bodies and works in the Essence of Oz building, a building so tall that it is completely comprised of elevators that go up and down all day. Designer's office, in fact, is in an elevator, and she therefore listens to elevator music all day. Other characters include Mechanic's new friends, Photographer and Composer, who also live in In, but who, as the simple narrative progresses, appear to be different from Mechanic and other residents of In in essential ways (think hipsters in Williamsburg versus the original residents of the area). Both are artists frustrated by their media who now make an art so alternative that it isn't easily consumed by the market of Oz (Composer, for example, writes music in registers that the human ear cannot hear, and therefore to experience his music, one must simply read the notation and thereby experience the sounds in his or her head).

Mechanic has become friends with them because of his recent crisis: one day, he could no longer simply "repair" cars; he was infuriated by the way people neglected to see the mechanical aspects of their vehicles, and his repairs manifested this fury. He welds doors to the roof, inserts radiators into windshields, and took the wheels off of his own car, which he then continues to use, pushing it around wherever he goes. Photographer tells him that he is an artist. Mechanic grapples with this. . . shift in identity and his affection for Designer, who doesn't much acknowledge his presence. No longer able to support himself as a Mechanic, he takes a job collecting tolls for the bridge between In and Oz (hence the pages of $1.00 $1.00 $1.00. . .)

It's a very lovely little book, poignant and curious and somehow hearkening to the era of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and not without a bit of Ayn Randism mixed in. But I like it. And I will now make a point of finding out who Steve Tomasula is.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Movies: Hamlet (1969)

Tony Richardson's smoky, oily, dim and dirty production filmed at the Roundhouse Theatre back when Anthony Hopkins had a full head of bristly black hair was available for my big screen delectation at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre this weekend. Hamlet is played by a too-old Nicol Williamson (whose copper curls were tinged with gray) and Ophelia by a bleating Marianne Faithfull (really, she's beautiful, but her good looks and bad speaking voice mean that Girl on a Motorcycle (Naked Under Leather), which DVD I own, can only be watched on mute, preferably while drinking, or, others might add, smoking; her performance this time around is no better, despite the valiant efforts of her stylist to make celestial orbs of her coiffure and bosom).

There is no doubt in my mind that this production far exceeded my eighth grade's own, in which I, sporting a beard drawn in black eyeliner, played the evil King Claudius during my bout of insistence on dominating all "evil" in drama club (having starred in sixth grade as Lady Macbeth), although I was very impressed by my recollection of nearly all of Claudius' (and Gertrude's) lines (Gertrude was played by my grade school best (and only, really) friend, making us unpopular girls the butt of many a lesbian joke, probably to the greater merriment of our drama club moderators, the obese sixth and seventh grade teachers who lived together and drove to and from school together, veritably squeezing their marshmallowy bodies into their rusting metallic blue (classic) VW bug (which had one orange door, in retrospect the poignant cherry on the top of their poverty sundae). In retrospect, they were likely lesbians, although, teaching at a Catholic grade school this fact was certainly taboo. In retrospect, though, the school was in San Francisco, and the best teacher of all, our eighth grade teacher, was certainly a gay man, who, to my dusky knowledge, even went so far as to participate in the Pride parade and perhaps the Folsom Street Fair, in chaps, nonetheless. In retrospect, too, our fifth grade teacher was also most likely a lesbian. Our fourth grade teacher, though, was a nun named Sister Mary Joseph, and despite the gender confusion of her chosen name, was so conservative that she chided me for pronouncing "often" "awf-in," rather than "awf-tin.")

This digression may seem ill-placed in my musing upon the film, but actually it mirrors rather precisely the way in which my mind wandered during the watching, for Shakespeare is difficult enough to follow (this coming from a top university English major, mind you) without all of the darkness and smoke and and the speaking very fast (which speed Nicol Williamson is quite guilty of); I wouldn't have minded subtitles, and was grateful for my eighth-grade studies of the abridged (but not adapted) script. With regard to style, I like very much Hamlet's soliloquy, at the end of which he snuffs an entire candelabra's lights, one by one, with his exploratory fingertip. I also like his chastisement of Ophelia and the feminine arts ("God give you one face and you make yourself another. . ."), which Richardson filmed from behind the cords of a hammock in which Ophelia cowers while Hamlet leans authoritatively over her and into the frame, showing us the view to which Polonius and Claudius are privy from their hiding spot behind an arras (I believe it was an arras. . .) I am less supportive of the excessive smiling that both Ophelia and Hamlet engage in when they are supposed to be angry or sad or mad or any combination of the above (smile plus tears equals mixed message, and, in this case, wrong message).

Having been the first time I've read/seen the play since reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I was surprised to notice that the title of my favorite book comes from Hamlet, from the scene in which Hamlet and Horatio converse with the gravedigger over the skull of Poor Yorick. I do recall there being many a Hamlet allusion (including the inclusion of a Yorick figure) in Infinite Jest, but I don't recall what they were. It looks like it may be time to give my favorite book a second read, in light of this new information. That is big commitment, but it's less of a commitment than my other plan, which is to re-read all of Pynchon's oeuvre as an exercise in preparation for Against the Day.

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Movies: Manhattan

Film Forum is screening this classic Woody Allen masterpiece, giving me the opportunity to watch it (the fourth or fifth time around) as it should be seen: in the theatre, munching on a sandwich (it's actually in Crimes and Misdemeanors when Woody and Mia's characters play hooky and smuggle cheeseburgers into the movie theatre to watch classics, but eating and watching is featured in Manhattan just as tenderly). Though billed as a love-letter to the city, which is featured from top to bottom in beautiful black and white, the film more details how we (a very particular "we") live in the city—how the patterns and coincidences of our madcap, raging island affect our lives in ways we cannot—or maybe just do not—control.

Allen is Isaac, no far departure from his usual character: a brainy, funny writer who quits his tacky television show in order to write a book. Though in his mid-forties, he is dating the beautiful and limpid Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who, at seventeen, answers the question, "So, Tracy, what do you do?" thrown at her during a double date with Isaac's peers with the unassuming "I go to high school." (The Dalton School, mind you). Her quiet and straight-forward (some would say naive) speech is the perfect foil to Diane Keaton's frenetic, neurotic, dismissive, and high-pitched Mary, a hyper-intellectual journalist with low self-esteem wrapped under onion skin layers of mortar and barbed wire. Mary is the sudden object of affection of Isaac's friend Yale (Michael Murphy), another writer (who can't seem to write the Oscar Wilde biography he's been talking about for years), who is, unfortunately, already happily married to Emily (Anne Byrne) (although with some underlying tension: Emily wants a baby and house in Connecticut; Yale does not). When Isaac first meets Mary, her opinions and mannerisms rub his nerves raw, but they encounter each other at an opening at the MoMA, and end up passing an entire night in conversation, stopping at a diner for take-out and finally watching the sunrise over the East River. It isn't long before Yale decides that he must end his affair, and gives Isaac (over a very 1979 game of racquetball) the go-ahead to woo her.

For a moment everyone is happy, except poor Tracy, whom Isaac dumps over a chocolate milkshake at the soda fountain. Soon enough, though, Yale misses Mary, and begins calling her. It isn't long after that before Mary decides that she still loves him, and she breaks the news to Isaac, who, in classic Woody Allen fashion, hangs his chapped mouth open and looks at her, saying "I'm stunned. . . I'm just. . . I can't believe it. I'm stunned," and soon enough, Yale and Emily are separated, Yale and Mary have moved in together, and Isaac and Emily are sitting in the booth of a coffee shop, talking about their busted relationships, Isaac realizing that he had let a good one go when he parted with Tracy.

What affects us the most, perhaps moreso as New Yorkers, is the way the city pushes these people into these situations of desire, comfort, and then heartbreak. It's the romantic majesty of a walk during an 80˚ summer night that brings Mary and Isaac together, and it is in the dark je ne sais quois of the Natural History Museum's Planetarium, in which the two have taken refuge from a summer thunderstorm during their day in Central Park, that Mary softens her armor and allows desire to thicken between them (this is one of the most beautifully shot scenes in Allen's oeuvre, perhaps in all of filmic history). The film is brimming with such examples, too many to list here. Like all love letters, though, it is forlorn, and begs for satisfaction or release, rather than the constant tease that the city, worse than any vixen, provokes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Books: The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe

Possibly the most readable 18th Century novel (coming in under the wire: 1794), The Mysteries of Udolopho, in the case that you didn't read it in college (I was only assigned to read a section, and, since then, have always intended to circle back and read the entire thing) is probably the most famous Gothic and Sublime novel. Somewhere (in a plastic storage bin in my parent's garage), I have copious notes from English 45B that delineate the finer points of this genre, but, being far from home, I will have to rely on memory in stating that novels of this kind, most often featuring a young and helpless female protagonist, embodying innocence, though not naivete, use rich and dark descriptions of nature, architectural ruins, and the supernatural to inspire a delightful terror in the reader. Perhaps I should have saved this book for for the long and lonely nights of winter, when the wind whistling through my windows, snuffing out my candles, would amplify my thrills, but I didn't. It was deliciously frightful anyway. Well, not if one is accustomed to Stephen King, but I am not.

Emily, our heroine, is a generally plucky and good-natured young woman, until her parents die and leave her in the care of a careless Aunt, who marries an ill-intentioned Italian who whisks the two of them off to a dark and drafty castle (Udolpho) filled with secret passageways, soldiers, corpses (!) and possibly ghosts (!!). Our heart skips beats along with Emily's as she wanders the dark and empty corridors after midnight, propelled by an intense desire to know what horror lingers behind the black veil hanging over one of the paintings in an abandoned wing of the castle; what she sees is so horrific that she cannot bear to look for it longer than a moment and she runs away in a fright, often remembering afterward what she saw there with a shudder. It is so horrific, in fact, that Ann Radcliffe does not tell us what it is until within the last twenty pages of the novel's 600+ and for that reason, I will not here disclose what it is, either. What I will disclose is that, at the novel's end, there is a quick and synoptic explanation given for all of the previously supposed supernatural occurrences, and Emily is ever-so-slightly embarrassed at her prior degree of fear.

The book is typical of 18th Century English literature and paves the way for later, easily-digestible fare like Anne Rice (perhaps, not having read Anne Rice, I oughtn't say this, since I don't really know what I'm talking about); it is easily-consumable writing that does not problematize gender inequities (it is an evil man that traps Emily in the castle, but it takes another man, this one valorous, to rescue her), even as it highlights them in order to propel the plot. (Most infuriating to feminist readers (of which I am not one), for example, would be the way Emily constantly laments the loss of her fortunes not because the loss renders her dependent, but because she had looked forward to giving her all of her wealth up to her lover, who hasn't any of his own.) It isn't unlike any other novel by a female author (neurotic, emotional, fraught), but it is somehow less obnoxious; most likely this is because my expectations are set at a different standard by the genre itself—I expect and desire a melancholy young lady with doleful eyes to sit in her casement, playing a sad dirge upon her lute and remembering with sorrowful fondness the sun-filled afternoons she spent roaming the gardens with her lover. Furthermore, however silly they are, Radcliffe holds her cards close, stretching our thrills and fascinations all the way through to the end, in a way few novelists of her time could do.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Movies: Rescue Dawn

I read enough about the making of this film that, upon watching it, I kept saying to myself, "yeah, he was right, yeah, that totally works," he being, of course, Werner Herzog. The things that work are, at least for me, primarily cinematographic: opening the film with stock footage showing gorgeous bursts of smoke and flame against a verdant riverside village of thatched huts, then sticking with a film stock that mimics the color and quality of the 1970s (a beauty we rarely access these days), holding the camera in hand while following the actors fighting through the jungle's lush and sinewy seven foot high thicket rather than using smooth dolly shots, and bringing the camera (encased in water-proof plexi) into the river alongside the actors on their raft so that the brown water splashes, repeatedly, up and over the lens, shoving us, in the theater, under the cold, opaque water along with our heroes, fighting to keep their heads above the current.

Considered against our country's behavior during Vietnam, and now in particular, one must bristle at Dieter Dengler's American pride when he refuses, soon after his capture, to sign a document excoriating his government for its activities in Laos and Vietnam. His explanation—that he didn't want to go to war, but only wanted to fly—ought to be problematized as precisely the juvenile, solipsistic, lack of mindfulness for which Americans are constantly criticized. Instead, Herzog allows us to bask in the triumph of his will (and his intelligence; before Dengler leaves his base, we see him requesting certain items other pilots lacked the foresight to desire). Herzog has long proclaimed his love for the "American Spirit"—the rugged individualism that made Dengler prefer to take his chances in the jungle than remain prisoner of abusive enemies. And yet, Dengler has no qualms about serving the intentions of a government about which he probably knows little, and, if his statement about not wanting to go to war is true, a government with whose agenda he does not agree. He is therefore not so much the rugged individualist* that Herzog himself is, who fought tooth and nail with his production company during the making of this film, that it could be made in his own way, and rightfully so.

For all of this problematizing, the film is a visual spectacle that oughtn't be missed; each shot is masterfully framed, whether a portrait or a landscape or a genre scene (yes, they look like paintings, or maybe photographs in the era of Cartier-Bresson). Steve Zahn toes the line between acting at his maximum and over-acting; he occasionally crosses that line to ill affect. Christian Bale's performance as Dengler is perfectly fine—completely believable—but Jeremy Davies steals the show as the skin-and-bones ghost of himself, doing the same lost-his-mind act as he did in Soderbergh's Solaris, but with more probable cause this time around. He shows us the lowest point of the human spirit, as Dengler's robust intent embodies the highest. It's not unusual that the pathetic moves us more than the triumphant; his "failure" (it isn't fair to call it that, although that is the light in which Dengler's character can only cast it) is far more poignant than Dengler's accomplishment.

*Because Dengler was a real person, I must here specify that I am referring to the character in the film as written by Herzog, not the man himself, whose words, emotions, and intentions, may have been warped by time and filmic process.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Speakers: Dr. Eric Kandel at Union Hall's Secret Science Club

One thing is for certain: The Secret Science Club is Brooklyn's worst-kept secret. The line to get into Union Hall's basement for this Nobel Prize winner's talk was slung down the block when I arrived, 15 minutes to showtime. My companion had arrived twenty minutes earlier, and was already toward the "front" of the line—into the bar, down the stairs, and at the door to the cramped basement/lecture hall, whose 100 some-odd chairs were already filled, as well as another 150 bodies of side and rear standing room. This means that all those people in line, another 100+, never got in, and perhaps had to satisfy themselves instead with a beer, a book, and a shot on the indoor lawn-bowling court (don't ask). We ended up standing toward the front and side, leaning against a pillar against which, as the talk went on, I slowly slid down, until I was sitting on the floor, one leg stuck out between feet crowding the walkway, one leg stuck out underneath a very accommodating female Brooklynite's chair. Yoga is useful that way.

Dr. Kandel gave the kind of talk so many brilliant minds often end up giving to crowds of indecipherable and mixed background such as these. He spoke for about half an hour on his life history—born in Austria in the early 1930s to lower-middle class Jewish parents, robbed by the Nazis, relocated to Brooklyn as a child, pushed to attend Harvard rather than Brooklyn College by a proactive high school teacher, interested first in History, then Psychoanalysis, then Medicine, only then Science, of the biological and experimental variety, and in particular the nervous system and brain—and about half an hour on the history of his research: early experiments, mostly, and a bit of explanation on the difference between short-term and long-term memories. With tortoise-shell glasses, a coat and tie, and a shock of white hair ringing around a bald spot, he looks the consummate intellectual, but his accent is 100% Woody Allen, and had I closed my eyes, the words "mutha" and "Hitla" could have just as easily been coming from a shock of red hair as from this white.

Dr. Kandel stressed that, should we remember anything from his talk, we should remember that short-term memories do not make the kind structural, anatomical change on the brain that long-term memories do. He also explained that there is truth to the old axiom "practice makes perfect;" even in mice, which can of course be trained, with one or two lessons, the subject will remember something for a few hours, but with many more lessons, it will remember that lesson until it dies. The richest information came out during the question and answer period, when actually research scientists hiding amongst the crowd of beer-swilling intellectual hanger-ons asked detailed, specific questions that allowed the Doctor to explain certain things in greater detail. For example, there is an inhibitor that prevents us from remembering things, and it is only when our bodies release a chemical to inhibit that inhibitor can memories be "etched" into our minds. This is why we remember highly emotional moments so vividly, but might not recall what color pants we wore yesterday. There is a drug available that inhibits the release of the inhibitor's inhibitor (sorry, that's a terrible sentence; he was much more erudite) that, for example, fire fighters can take prior to going into a grisly scene. This drug will prevent them from making memories of the horror, thereby preventing post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, there is thus far no retroactive drug or treatment (e.g. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that will erase a painful memory.

Listening to this sort of talk, a bit scatter shot, re-invokes my nostalgia (is that nostalgia ever actually dormant?) for school. Is it weird that I just loved school this much? I could listen to lectures all day long, on practically any subject. Dr. Kandel, like most brilliant people I've considered, has been successful not merely because of his intelligence, but because of his rampant curiosity, which made him want to try and figure things out, experimentally. Constantly frustrated by theory, he warned that because psychoanalysts approach their work as Talmudic study—a never-ending, self-reflexive, internal conversation—and never do experiments to try to prove anything, their relevance is flagging. I see that those who are truly successful are do-ers, and I worry about myself, because I am such a sponge. I don't seem to want to do anything but listen to what other people are doing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Movies: Live Free or Die Hard

For some reason, sometimes the most fun movies to watch are the hardest movies to write about. Perhaps that is why I've been procrastinating with regard to this post on Die Hard, which I saw for the first time on July 4th, and again a few days later.

As a self-proclaimed "intellectual," there is much that I could problematize about the film: the jingoist, anti-Eurasian race relations, or simply the physical impossibility of a number of scenes (in particular, the final chase sequence, in which McClane surfs through the air on the wing of a kaput F-35), but that is precisely the kind of thing that takes out the fun.

I have to admit that, unlike the first Die Hard, a second viewing also takes out some of the fun. The chases, shootouts, and explosions are so beautifully choreographed in LFoDH that, upon first viewing, the sheer glee and adrenaline rush completely blinded me to the CGI (again, in particular, during that final chase sequence, where the concrete highway starts to digitally melt rather than break, and the curvature of the F-35's trajectory runs like a watercolor painting), which is extremely well done (better than, say, 300), but still not as good as the real thing. The best explosion, crisp and full of that "no way!" factor, comes much earlier in the movie, when McClane drives a police car out of a tunnel, rolls out the door with the car still running, and sends it up a ramp into the air, where it meets with the enemy 'copter in a glorious ball of fiery fury.

For all of its expensive glory, LFoDH can't top the spare, hardest-core ever, original Die Hard, but it does beat out, in my humble opinion, DHs 2 and 3. Actually, I've not seen DH2, but I am assured by all that it's dreadful.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Books: Dom Casmurro and Quincas Borba (Philosopher or Dog), by Machado de Assis

Whatever wayward review pointed me to Machado heralded his work as proto-postmodern, ironic, and witty, which perhaps stacked my expectations against him unfairly. Machado is perhaps the most esteemed of Brazilian authors, certainly of 19th Century Brazilian authors, and these two of his big three (the third being Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (Epitaph of a Small Winner in English translation), for which Quincas Borba is actually the sequel) show him to be a competent, if sometimes tedious, storyteller who, while hardly a postmodernist, directly addresses his reader often enough, referring to his book qua book.

Dom Casmurro clocks in around 200 pages, and the first 150 are told through the somewhat affected lens of breathless youth; the narrator tells us about the endangered love affair between his teenaged self and girl-neighbor when his mother insisted on sending him to the seminary and priesthood. The last 50 or so pages fast-forward to their marriage, which ought to have been happy except for the narrator's (perhaps true, perhaps faulty) realization that his wife has carried on an affair with his closest friend, and that his son is actually his best friend's son. In the anodyne way of the 19th Century, though, while the narrator indulges dramatic fantasies about killing both wife and son, they instead die in Switzerland after a legal separation, leaving the narrator to age alone and tell this story to his readers.

Quincas Borba is better, though still a far cry from Pynchon. A not unassuming schoolteacher who had, all his life, lived hand-to-mouth (Rubião), develops a friendship with a suddenly wealthy philosopher by the name of Quincas Borba, who has, conveniently, gone insane and died, leaving his complete fortune and his dog (also Quincas Borba) in custody of this not unassuming schoolteacher, who maintained his friendship with the madman specifically for the purpose of collecting some monetary prize at his death. Suddenly wealthy, he meets a couple on a train ride to the city and tells them of his good fortune. The man becomes his closest friend and business partner; the woman the object of his (never realized) affections. We are introduced to this scenario over the first 50 pages, and Rubião's passion for his friend's wife develops over the next 200, as steadily as his wealth declines due to imprudent investments, parasitic friendships, and general profligacy. In the last 50 pages, Rubião loses his mind in the mold of his benefactor, thinking himself Napoleon and oft shouting, as Quincas Borba once had, "To the victors go the potatoes!" Machado's portrait of Rubião evokes veritable pathos when our mad but madcap protagonist prematurely breaks out of his asylum and wanders rain-filled streets penniless, attended only by the confused but dedicated dog, while his palatial home, having suffered the ruins of deferred maintenance, is ransacked by old friends, who help themselves to handfuls of cigars from his private library's reserve. For all of his faults, Rubião was not unlikeable, and the rubble of his life is sad and pretty.

Ultimately? Dom Casmurro is not a fascinating book; it's nothing so very special. Quincas Borba is worth the read, and would make an excellent film, though I would still hesitate to attribute greatness to its author. Perhaps the keystone lies in Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, the story of the first man who uttered the connection between victors and potatoes.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Movies: Le Doulos

Jean-Paul Belmondo gives a goofy, atypically non-smoldering performance in Jean-Pierre Melville's (coughtotallyoverratedcough) 1962 "film noir" about cops, robbers, and snitches. Belmondo is Silien, a snitch who pretends to be a friend who turns out to actually have been a friend mistakenly perceived as a snitch, which perception (spoiler alert) costs him his life at the film's end, at which point everyone gets shot to death and we receive our required moral take-away: crime doesn't pay. The secondary take-away is that you can't trust a broad; it turns out that all of the snitches were actually the sexy and solicitous girlfriends of the robbers.

Le Doulos is playing to sardine-packed audiences at the Film Forum, perhaps thanks to reviews recalling the theatre's previous Melville rer-elease: Army of Shadows, another completely overrated (so overrated that there is no need for coughing). Le Doulos is better than AoS, if only because it is shorter, it is intentionally black and white (rather than grayishly colored), and for the final shot of Belmondo's visage pausing in an elliptical mirror before he falls, dead, out of frame. And this shot, which got a good laugh out of the audience:

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Art: Stephen Shore at the ICP

I'm not a maniacal Shore fan, but I like his pictures enough that went to the ICP to see their Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969-1979. I've never been before, and never heard about anyone going, even though I roll with a museum-fanatic set, so I was surprised to see so many people there. They weren't looking at the Shore pictures, though. The museum has three additional shows up right now: a small, intimate room of magazine cuttings, scrapbook entries, and photographs of Amelia Earhart, another small room of photographs by Magnum's Chim (David Seymour), and the immensely popular Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits.

These are black and white portraits of mostly well-known, and a few lesser-known, African American musicians, athletes, writers and thinkers, freedom fighters and politicians, taken by a variety of photographers, most of them white (the exhibition does not anywhere mention that, only lists each photographer's name for each picture). While most of the photographs are stunning, I must, from a curatorial standpoint, denounce the exhibition, which reads like a fourth-grade primer covered every February (Black History Month). The wall labels, rather than discussing the photograph in any way (where or when or under what circumstance it was taken, its provenance, its composition, the way the photographer got access to the subject, etc.), merely give a biographical summary of the subject of the portrait. Perhaps thanks to those fourth-grade primers, I knew most of this information already. I recognize that others might not; perhaps they attended fourth-grade prior to the institution of Black History Month. Still, this is a museum of photography, and I expect the photography to be discussed. That said, everyone at the museum was looking at these pictures, and the pictures themselves were, on the whole, aesthetically compelling, although for reasons generally inadmissible: the subjects themselves are attractive and/or auratic. Is it then great photography? Better than what we see daily on the cover of US Weekly, but not necessarily better than anything by David La Chapelle. In fact, certainly not.

Onto Shore. The exhibition is a good one, including pictures from his 1970s heydays, large and small, a selection of found images, in particular postcards, that Shore collected, and pages from his scrapbook cataloging his photo-journalistic road trips. The scrapbooks I found particularly interesting, perhaps because I have recently completed a mini-roadtrip in Iceland, which I liveblogged. Shore included rudimentary details, including the number miles driven per day, the location and contents of each meal, and the hotels where he spent the night. He kept receipts, postcards depicting local sights, and in one instance, a parking ticket. Looking at these pages gave me a bit of a shake up as I realized that almost no one under the age of 30 is keeping a paper-based scrapbook today. Rather than launch into a vituperous and nostalgic bent about the loss of analog beauty in our digital age, a lament for generations of children who will no longer be able to eat paste—after all, for all the diaries, journals, and blank books my parents foisted upon me throughout my youth, being artists and writers both, I staunchly refused to use said books and never did any consistent journaling at all until I had my own laptop and later this blog—I will merely remark on the effects of the transition.

The youth of today will grow up and become the artists and writers of tomorrow, and their affects and memoirs will be digital. Therefore, the museums of the day after tomorrow will replace their vitrines with. . . screens? Terminals in which one can click through the dessicated blogger and livejournal pages of Artist2046? It hardly seems appropriate, given that blogger and livejournal are available world-wide in real time. If we can read artists' blogs today, we have no need for an institution like a museum to make public the hidden artifact tomorrow, which dismisses instantaneously not only the institution, but its concomitant trappings: boards of directors, fundraising, hobnobbing. . . curating?! PR, I'm certain, will come even more to the forefront, for fame will still be necessary if only to direct a viewing public toward what, in an ever-increasing panoply of media, it ought to view. Upon more thorough reflection, I don't suggest that all museums and the wealth-driven art market will in any way falter; discrete, physical works of art will continue to be created to fuel the fair beast. But the vitrines, surely, will go.

Back to Shore for a moment—there are questions inherent in his work, rather than merely associated to it, as my little (perhaps a bit vituperous after all) harangue up there. Again, however, the then-versus-now question cannot be ignored. That is, the very style and content of his pictures (giggle, but it's true)—interior decor, packaging, cuisine, fashion, architecture, graphic design, etc.—is inextricably tied to what was merely the quotidian aesthetic. His pictures are beautifully hokey, but that's because the 1970s appear to us today to be beautifully hokey (if you don't believe me, just check out the constant 70s-a-thon at American Apparel). I wonder, then, whether he ought even be considered so much an artist as a mere documentarian, whose pictures are of value now only because of the time elapsed since their processing. To support this proposition: two separate arguments. The first considers the work of Shore's contemporary, William Eggleston, who often made pictures in the same vein as Shore—fonts on sides of buildings, refrigerator interiors, people in goofy outfits. I saw a conversation between the two of them at a symposium last year, but what they said was less interesting than how they looked and the way they interacted with the moderator and the audience. Shore wore stonewashed jeans and a sweater; Eggleston wore a black tuxedo with white gloves (I kid you not). Shore was down-to-earth and discussed his recent exploration with digital cameras; Eggleston was effete, inscrutable, and hard of hearing, and admitted a combination of fear and disgust with digital cameras. Compare, though, this Eggleston picture from the 1991 portfolio to a picture by Shore in a similar vein:

I admit to cheating a bit by choosing a rather boring Shore picture (the one at the top of this post, with the melon and pancakes, is better), but to be fair, for all of its stunning, balanced beauty, the Eggleston picture is far from his best as well. I choose these two because they show a straightforward comparison. We see Eggleston's artistic impulse, which documents in spite of itself, contrasted with Shore's documentary impulse, which comes off as artistic, in spite of itself. Perhaps it's ultimately a personal choice; I've run into the odd person who prefers Shore to Eggleston (low-fi lovin' hipsters, usually), but there is a rich depth in Eggleston that Shore rarely reaches, and that depth is what makes a photographer an artist rather than just a dude with a camera.

So I would argue that if Eggleston and Shore each took a picture of the same hotel room on August 25, 1974, Eggleston's picture would be great on August 25th, 1974, but Shore's wouldn't be any good until August of 1998. What makes this interesting, and which brings me to my second piece of supporting evidence for my anti-Shore (okay, that's a bit harsh, but you know) argument is the inclusion of some newer work in the ICP's show. Shore had admitted to experimenting with digital at that symposium I mentioned, and the fruits of these experiments are on view: Apple iPhoto books, eight of them, on a variety of topics: flowers in the garden, a family outing to the beach, etc. The pictures are dull, dull, dull. Some are better than others, but on the whole, they stink (with the exception of this rad shot, which looks like something of a Gursky-meet-Misrach or Jeff Wall-meet-Ansel Adams rip-off):

It follows my theory, though, that the pictures Shore is taking today aren't any good today. We'll have to wait 20 or 30 years to witness the completion of this proof; will they be good pictures in 2030? Probably, yeah. Which brings us around to another oh-my-God-what-does-this-mean-for-the-future-of-art moment: all of today's visual ephemera will be sexy in 2050.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Movies: La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

All the standard troubles of the biopic plague this film about the life of Edith Piaf, who basically had it worse than you can imagine for her entire life. Raised alternately in the streets, in a whorehouse, and on the road with a traveling circus in poor and filthy WWI France, she was torn repeatedly away from everyone she ever loved, and had nothing except for her powerful voice and an inimical zest for life.

The film progresses as a series of flash-back-like scenes, cutting from a1959 concert-hall performance to her 1918 childhood to her 1963 deathbed, back again to childhood, and then to the 1930s when she was discovered by a cabaret owner and taken off the street corners, where she had sung daily to earn her dinner. We see her alone and at parties, surrounded by her entourage of musicians and managers who all become care-takers; she had, it seems, numerous chemical dependencies—severe alcoholism, injections (painkillers?) often numbering ten per day, and later, it is implied, heroin as well.

Marion Cotillard gives a awe-striking performance, transforming from the bandy-legged teenaged street singer to the shaking, balding, stooped crone of 44 years of age (after such a roilsome and substance-filled like, Piaf looked easily twice her age in the years leading up to her death). Her big-eyed, loud-mouthed, fragile-bodied Piaf is the only pithy piece in the puzzle, though; she is surrounded by a hackneyed screen writer, a cloying director, and an irrelevant supporting cast (although her contortionist father is played with truly French aplomb).

There is, of course, the matter of the music, which is fine, but I wouldn't give the filmmakers too much credit for that; it is Piaf's own possession—her only possession—and it is the very best part of the film.

Monday, July 2, 2007

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Books: American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman

This wayward catalogue of neuroses, parading as stream-of-consciousness, is a prime example of why I read the work of female authors so rarely. For approximately three hundred pages, Tillman, in paragraph-long run on sentences, using commas where she ought to use semicolons, writes about her sensitive skin, the Polish beautician who gives her weekly facials, her "wild young cat" who scratched her leg and left a scar, as well as her childhood cats and dogs, particularly the ones put to death by her parents, her aging mother, her friends who have died, her dead father's fabric business, her preference for 100% cotton or wool to synthetics, as well her meals and surroundings: a residential colony of sorts, providing respite of some kind for people of a kind that is never disclosed (it cannot be a half-way house, for they are allowed to consume alcohol. Neither does it seem to be assisted living of any kind, as the residents are free to roam about on their own, although there are daily lectures offered, and meals are given according to schedule in the group cafeteria. Perhaps it is a writers' or artists' colony.)

For the first two hundred and fifty pages (approximately), nothing happens outside of the narrator's memory. She ruminates on the list of above topics in concentric circles, skipping via tenuous connections from one memory to another, to an observation, to a quotation, to a recollection of a fact (from American History, from Psychology, from Design (she has a fondness for chairs, particularly those of Eames, most likely due to her "sensitivity" and her tendency to feel uncomfortable). In the last fifty pages, more is revealed, as she begins, at last, to engage with other characters—other residents of the colony—who stage a play and then a seance. There is at last (some spare) dialogue, and we learn the narrator's name: Helen. It is true that the book improves dramatically at this point, but to move from a zero to a two on an interest scale of one-to-ten is no great achievement.

Released by Soft Skull Press and with various positive reviews, American Genius, A Comedy is described as being somehow ground-breaking, but I found that the only new height it achieves is that of tedium. It is womany to a fault, and is not particularly American, intelligent, or comedic (in the sense of humorous or that of matrimonial climax). Its use of commas as opposed to semicolons to separate independent clauses frustrated me throughout the novel's entire duration—grammar can be tossed to the wind for stylistic purposes, it is true, but for the sake of readers' comprehension, Tillman, or at least her editor, ought to have followed the rules. If her intention was to mimic the tone of a journal or diary, or even the breathless marathon of the mind's voice, she succeeds, but to no worthy end.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Movies: Ocean's Thirteen

For the third in the series, Soderbergh slumps. Eleven was grand fun, and Twelve, even, too. George Cloony I love; Brad Pitt, too, though less these days. I have no problem with slick, with commercial, with glitz, or with solipsism, even. But Ocean's Thirteen just, well, is a sloucher. It's not unlike the pretty girl you're admiring ahead of you in line at the coffee shop, until she can't figure out what she wants to order, can't find her wallet, and takes a cell phone call while she's trying to do both, narrating her situation to the person at the other end of the line.

That is, it's shallow, but worse: it's hollow. A shallow pool can cast beautiful reflections on its surface, and be appreciated, if only for that. An empty pool is useless, unless you have a skateboard. This movie was so disappointing that I put off writing about it for an entire week, setting a new record.