Monday, March 31, 2008

Movies: Paths of Glory and The Killing

As early films in his career, these might defy your Kubrick expectations; and yet, I would argue that their odd, stilted, heavy-handed (dare I say ham-fisted) qualities come not from their being early movies, or old movies, but in fact, Kubrick movies: for all his fame (well-deserved, of course), there is something very odd, stilted, and heavy-handed (and dare I say ham-fisted) about later Kubrick movies (I'm thinking 2001, Eyes Wide Shut, and Clockwork Orange, respectively, though all qualities apply to all of his films).

Paths of Glory is a war movie turned courtroom drama (think All Quiet on the Western Front (the book) meets 12 Angry Men (with Kirk Douglas as Henry Fonda's voice of reason, this time silenced by military corruption). Douglas plays Colonel Dax, charged to send his men on a suicide mission by General Mireau (George Macready), who is hoping for a promotion. When the men run back into their trenches under unrelenting fire from the Germans, Mireau insists that his artillery man fires on his own soldiers, cursing them as cowards, but the artillery man refuses. Incensed, the General demands that all of Colonel Dax's men be charged with cowardice and sentenced to death; his superior, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), agrees to charge three men as examples to the rest of the company.

Dax (who was a famous attorney prior to entering the military) volunteers to defend the three soldiers in the next day's court martial; he does what he can, but that isn't much, as the entire court is against him and his soldiers from the get-go. The three are unfairly sentenced to death and, after a grueling night in prison, during which one man breaks down into tears and prayer when he meets the priest, one man asks the priest to deliver a letter to his wife, but refuses to pray, and the third soldier lashes out and attacks the priest, leading to a near-fatal injury that leaves him in a coma all night long, all are blindfolded and shot to death in the early morning (the comatose man leaned up against the pole on a stretcher). Kubrick inserts a painfully long pause prior to the shots, cutting to show the faces of Dax and the two Generals who might, at any time during a different movie, pardon the men and spare their lives; they don't. Three gunshots are fired, and the three soldiers collapse dead. Afterward, we do see Mireau get his comeuppance; since Dax had privately explained to Broulard Mireau's orders to fire on his own troops, Broulard brings Mireau into his office while he and Dax are lunching to break the news that there will be an inquest. After Mireau's sputtering, splenetic exit, though, Broulard offers Mireau's job to Dax, having assumed that Dax was motivated all the while by his ambition rather than his ethics. Then it's Dax's turn to exit, shouting and splenetic, rather than just sputtering.

My number one complaint about this film is that it's all in English. Oh, did I not mention that these soldiers in question are French? Well, I didn't figure that out until halfway through the movie, either, because, well, French soldiers, particularly during WWI, speak French! Not American English. I realize that in 1957, there was probably less of a market for foreign-language films, but then why not make the film about English soldiers (based on a true story or not, Hollywood always allows finagling)? Everyone else I've asked about this has just shrugged, but I still insist that it's important.

The Killing is a much more fun-to-watch film, a kind of horse-race noir in which an incredibly well-planned robbery of a racetrack goes all according to plan, until it's foiled at the end by the gun-wielding boyfriend of the spoiled femme fatale wife of the nervous and victimized track clerk, who's in on the robbery as the one who opens the employees-only door for the robber in exchange for a big cut of the take, with which he hopes to finally satisfy said femme fatale wife. In that way, one would think that all the other characters fall away, but we also follow a number of amusing side plots, which lead up to the dramatic end, when, after everyone but the actual robber has been serendipitously (for him, of course) killed, he stuffs all the cash into a giant suitcase and tries to carry it onto a plane with his girlfriend. As those airline bastards are wont to do, they force him to check his bag due to its size and, on its way to the cargo hold, a little dog runs onto the tarmac, causing the cargo driver to stop short, the suitcase to tumble to the ground, and the million dollars to go up in a delightful whirlwind. The moral? The same as all old movies: Crime doesn't pay, of course, and Never trust a broad.

So what makes this one identifiable as Kubrick? Nothing as much as in Paths of Glory (although there is a similar sour chord struck in the soundtrack during the opening credits, when the name "Kubrick" flashes up onto the screen, as if the director had chosen his identity before he was ready to make it known to the public), although there is an obsessive fastidiousness (and more the Kubrick kind than, say, the Hitchcock kind). The sad, soured morality we find in Paths of Glory precursing the same in future films is lacking in this noir, because noir doesn't lend itself to that kind of existential nobody-wins scenario: either the bad guy gets caught (for the triumph of "good"), or the bad guy gets away with it (for the triumph of lawlessness).

Art: SCOPE and The Armory Show

Why would an artist who can do this:
do it, but also do this:
These are two pieces by Karl Haendel that I saw at the Armory Show this year, which highlight the kind of confusion endemic to the art scene these days (you'll find it at the Whitney Biennial, gallery-hopping in Chelsea, and so on). The first picture is a pop/photo-realist pencil drawing, about three feet wide; the reflections are the fault of my shoddy photography on the glass. The second picture is of a work about the same size, but portrait instead of landscape: a list of ways in which Hitler and Karl Haendel are different. It's funny, but I would personally hesitate to call it good art. I would be less hesitant to call the giant baby good art, but I wouldn't buy it for my house, either. It feels a little dated. Both pieces do, actually, although they represent opposing ends of a dated spectrum (pop and conceptualism; all image versus no image).

The positive thing that I can say about Haendel's work is that it caught my attention and made me want to take a picture and write down his name. I didn't take pictures of any of the exploded-craft-store variety (the kind of work we see a lot today, in which labor intensity is highlighted, while "craftsmanship" is ignored, using a good amount of sequins, tape, fabric, wax, blinking lights, vinyl banners, colored plexiglass chips, markers, sparkles, rhinestones, day-glo paints, and all other ephemera of bling-meets-kitsch). I didn't take pictures of any of the so-tedious-I-walked-right-by-without-noticing stuff, either. I didn't take pictures of anything at the Eleanor Antin booth, because I couldn't decide whether I liked it or didn't (I know I don't like the Eleanora Antinova film, but I do maybe possibly like the photographs, and the concept of Eleanora Antinova, and I do probably like the new photos, the full color ones that play with the photography/sculpture/painting and post-modernity/antiquity (they would have fit in nicely with my graduate thesis), but I do remember it, which is more than I can say for much of the rest of it.
I also didn't take pictures of my favorite thing at the show, because I instead bought the book: The Hyena & Other Men by Pieter Hugo. I really wanted to buy one of his gorgeous, serene, dingy pictures, but at $9,500 a piece, that wasn't really a possibility. While I didn't see anything else at the show that I would have actually wanted for my own collection, I wrote down a few names of artists whose work was sort of maybe remotely interesting: Anthony Goicolea (it must have been photography, because looking at his website now, his drawings are awful), Dan Perjovschi (who did a fairly amusing installation at MoMA recently, although I've already forgotten what he had at the Armory that made me note his name), Juliao Sarmento (whose paintings I remember seeing last year and liking then, too), Youssef Nabil (whose small, hand-tinted pictures grabbed my attention at first, but quickly grew tiresome and gimmicky, and don't work as well in large format), and Justine Kurland (whose name I wrote down, but whose work I can't remember at all).

I feel like I actually had better luck the day before, at SCOPE. Perhaps the smaller festival is just less overwhelming, or perhaps I was a bit more fresh. Or, perhaps SCOPE features art that's way less hip (I think it does), and my tastes are sort of dated (I get that feeling more and more; when it comes to art, I can defend my generation against an older naysayer, but I'm not genuinely of it, and amongst a group of peers, I'll play dinosaur). At SCOPE I fell in love, really in love, with a painting by Gavin Nolan. It was already sold, so I didn't bother asking the price (I think that was a mistake), but here it is; I love it, and I can't even tell you why. It's just brilliant.
The gallerist showed me some photocopied images of some other Nolan paintings they still have "in stock," but I didn't like them at all; they were very Bacon-inspired. . . sort of Bacon-meets-Interview magazine. They didn't combine the hyper-real flesh tones with the blocks of print and color; this is apparently a new departure for him. I hope he sticks with it, because it's great. It's the best painting I've seen in a long while.

The other thing at SCOPE that really caught my eye was a group of little icon-like paintings, on small scraps of wood and tin, in brilliant orange and greens that were clearly heavily influenced by graphic arts, but maintained that extra je ne sais qua that makes art art. They were hung on a wall with no label, and were minded by no gallerist. I had to circle back a few times, hoping to find out what they were; at long last, I was able to interrupt an obnoxious L.A. slag wearing a clingy leopard-print wrap dress with spike heels while she chattered away with a (male) client, refusing to give me the time of day. I stood next to them for a few minutes, looking at her pointedly, and being pointedly ingored, and then they started to walk away. I had to interrupt and ask her cooly "excuse me, but does this artist have a name?" "The Date Farmers," she snapped, and walked away. And so, to the internet, where I found some more pictures, and decided that these guys are totally awesome, wherein painting is concerned (I'm hesitant on installation in general, and their installations looked a little. . . crafty/cloying/tedious). But their paintings? Brilliant.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Movies: Raging Bull

Watching the young De Niro is sort of dangerous for me, because he always reminds me of this, um, fellow I used to know, who had a similar sweet smirk, and who would snap from unbelievably tender ("You're like a miracle") to unbelievably vicious ("You're just a hole") and back again in the way that De Niro does in The Panic In Needle Park, Taxi Driver, and now Raging Bull, in which he plays middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, switching like a light bulb from love to rage, from power to weakness, from fat to thin, from proud to wretched. He's amazing, but so amazing that it hurts.

I hate boxing and I hate violence and I can't watch it (a friend expressed something bordering on shock that I was going to see this movie, but it couldn't be avoided as part of my education); I did have to close my eyes during some of the more explosive fight scenes (broken noses in particular nauseate me). I love that Scorsese shot it in black and white, even though it was 1980, and I love all of the other old movie glamour touches (the roadsters, the high waisted pants, and the bathing suit Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) is wearing when he first meets her) that can more easily be taken for granted in the period piece (although the film has too much grit to be an actual film from the 1940s, such that it becomes something hyper-real: the violence that was always there, but that we never got to see before).

What we see here are the risks of old-fashioned manhood: the rage and then sullen sickness that follow when weakness and self-doubt and fear have to be repressed and wrapped up in layers of denial and rebellion like papier-mâché, hollow inside and not as sturdy as it looks. LaMotta's relationship to his growing belly, fueled by his brother's comments and the weight restrictions for his class (his brother is played by a brilliant Joe Pesci, who offers his own treatise on manhood in concert with LaMotta's, smaller than his fighter brother, but constantly trying to keep him in line) begins as a symptom of depression but becomes an act of defiance, the same defiance that used to erupt in fights but has now mellowed into a different kind of destruction, pointed inward rather than out.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Books: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, by Tom Wolfe

Before I requested it from the library, I thought that this was a chronicle in the vein of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it turned out to be a volume of essays on a variety of topics comprising 1960s Americana (kind of like 25 mini Acid Tests). My only real experience in essay reading comes from my devotion to David Foster Wallace, whose volumes of essays originally published in magazines like Harper's and Esquire are the contemporary versions of this volume. They're great (both Wallace and Wolfe, but we're discussing Wolfe here): absolutely fantastic.

Wolfe catalogs the ephemera that constitutes America via the microcosms of cars (hot-rodding, customizing, drag racing, demolition derbies), fame (Baby Jane Holzer, Phil Spector, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, and the Beatles (and the Stones, indirectly)), and style (tight pants, big hair, "decal" eye makeup, and dances like The Mashed Potatoes and The Monkey) from the point of view of the innocent bystander, tossed about in the flotsam and jetsam, part confused but mostly delighted; he registers this delight in everything-but-the-kitchen-sink lists of everything that he sees, creating a kind of transparency and putting the reader right there in the middle of it.

Essay-reading can become tedious when the essayist uses his topic as a platform from which to spout about his personal philosophies, and continually "steps back" to analyze whatever it is that he's writing about. Wolfe never does this. It seems his only personal philosophy is "Wow—Aren't people neat?!" and all he has to do to prove it is to faithfully describe (with infectious excitement) all of the crazy things going on around him. It's not that he's non-thinking; he's more non-judging (even though we can tell he feels a smidgen of disdain for the girls with the tight pants and big hair); mostly, he's just fascinated, and he makes us fascinated as well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Movies: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

So you've probably seen E.T. like 600 times and you can't believe that I hadn't ever, until now. But it came out the year I was born, and we didn't watch movies when I was a kid, and what teenager wants to see a ten-year-old kid's movie? And anyway, I have a feeling that I would have been deathly afraid of E.T. In all honesty, I was a bit frightened watching it now, and I'll be 26 this week. I was also terribly upset. I cried, and cried, and cried, starting in the middle (when E.T.'s ravaged body is found in the creek in the woods, and he's all pink and emaciated and about to die) and going all the way through the elating rescue, and to the end, when E.T.'s spaceship comes back to get him, and he has to say goodbye to his new friends. I'm generally quite wary—even disdainful—of the word "magical," but there's no way around it; not only are flying bicycles and instantly healed wounds and childhood friends that parents can't see magical (all found in the movie), but the darned thing is just magical all around; just the sound of E.T.'s gravelly voice, simultaneously ancient and naive, saying "Ell-i-ott" (the name of his friend and the movie's human hero) moves one to profound realizations about the beauty of language and communication and friendship and the development of each of these (E.T. is like a baby and an wizened old man at the same time—both cute and hideous). And of course, there is the cutest childhood performance of all time by Drew Barrymore.

And somehow, all of this cuteness is never cloying, and the profundity never reaches or grasps, talks over our heads, or down to us. The movie makes us see the world with fresh eyes, kids again; we're scared, we're sad, we're worried, we're triumphant, we're in love (the non-sexual kind, which is plain and simple and not at all confusing, unlike the adult version). That's the magic; I wish it could last forever (without, perhaps, so many tears).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Movies: Jaws

I wasn't yet born in 1975 when Jaws came out, and all through the 1980s when it might have aired on television, I was too young to watch such a scary movie. Throughout the 1990s it must have seemed embarrassingly hokey, because I never heard a thing about it, and plenty of people, more than 30 years later, still find it embarrassingly hokey, because, when I announced the other day that it was being screened at the old Ziegfeld and I that I was going, I received a variety of unimpressed and sarcastic responses. And so, as usual, I went by myself, and I had a grand old time.

Since I wasn't even born until the 80s, it can't be simple nostalgia speaking when I say that they just don't make movies like this anymore. I screamed out loud four or five times, but my screams were of delighted, delicious terror (the distinction between a scary movie (like Jaws)and a horror movie (like The Hills Have Eyes, listed under IMDB keywords "gory violence" and "mutilation") has something to do with whether the fright attacks your spine (that tingle means it's scary) or your stomach (that feeling that you're going to puke means it's horror)). While plenty of people refused to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws, I doubt that anyone puked in the theater; the "gory violence" is generally off camera (all we see is blood-red water, and few already-dead body parts), and when on-camera, never sustained (screams, yes, but mastication, no).

It might be safe to assume that you know the plot of Jaws, but I didn't know it walking into the theater, so there might just be one or two of you out there who, like me, grew up under the rock of extreme youth. And so, here it goes: Brody (a likably nerdy Roy Scheider) is the new Police Chief of Amity Island, an Eastern Seaboard summer resort; he has just transferred with his family from New York, and this is his first summer on the job. When the remains of a missing girl point to a shark attack, he tries to close the beaches, but the mayor, worried about preserving tourist income, won't let him do so. The shark, though, keeps attacking; soon a little boy is eaten alive, then a few fishermen. Hooper (a young, bumbling Richard Dreyfuss), a young shark aficionado from the Oceanographic Institute, arrives on the scene to tell the fishermen that the shark they've just caught is not the shark responsible for the attack. Ultimately, he, Hooper, and kooky old Quint (a salty Robert Shaw) sail out to catch the beast; it's quite a battle of wills, and after the shark chomps more than halfway through the boat, and all the way through Quint, man finally prevails.

What's really so delightful about Jaws is the intense aestheticism. I was warned about a "mechanical shark" that would make me laugh with embarrassment, but I found myself screaming and squealing instead of laughing, even at the end, when we see its giant head up and out in plain air. In fact, this film is never visually wanting; Spielberg creates a number of stunning tableaus, often of the lone mariner/man against beast/allegorical variety (what I really feel like he does here is make Moby Dick accessible, giving nobility back to the humans). Toward the end, the tilted sails and rigging of the sinking ship stand in silhouette against a darkening sky, with Brody's exhausted body perched in elegant exhaustion at the top. You never would have imagined that the ocean could be so peaceful just minutes after the explosion of a giant shark (and it probably wouldn't actually be so; I imagine all the blood and fresh carrion would bring on a swarm of sharks and carnivorous fish). This accomplishment, resolution, sigh of relief is key to the scary movie (the horror movie would have ended with the threat of continued violence—a shark fin following the two heroes as they swam home); it frees us to walk out of the theater happy, satisfied, reassured, and ready to swim in the ocean again.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Movies: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures

We didn't watch movies much when I was growing up, but we did get a VCR in the early 90s, and I was able to record a few movies off of television (Big Business, Troop Beverly Hills, and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures). I was the kind of kid who could gleefully watch the same movie over and over again, and I probably saw each of these over 100 times. I watched Bill and Ted so many times that, to this day, my sometimes socially-awkward father still speaks to me in Bill and Ted-isms (e.g. "Would you like to taste my stir fry? It's most excellent.") Of course, by high school I had grown out of such nonsense, and started seeing fresh movies at theaters; I hadn't seen Bill and Ted for more than ten years when I saw that it was IFC's midnight movie last week, and decided that I had to go.

I mustn't have caught the opening credits on my childhood VHS tape, because they were completely unfamiliar. As soon as the throned, silver-clad figure announced "It is time," sending Rufus (George Carlin) into the time machine/phone booth, though, everything progressed as I remembered. If you happen to be so unfortunate as to not know what this movie is about, I will tell you (though you really need to see it for yourself): Bill and Ted live in Southern California, where they attend public high school and spend their free time in the garage, rocking out with electric guitars that they don't know how to play. In the future, a highly-evolved society is founded on their music, and so, when they are about to fail history, with the consequence of Ted being sent to military school and their band, Wyld Stallions, being broken up, the people of the future send Rufus back in a time machine, to help them pass their final project and thus evade a less-excellent alternate future. Bill and Ted, after meeting Rufus and 24-hours-into-the-future versions of themselves, pack into the phone booth and start traveling through history, kidnapping such historical figures as Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, Socrates, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon, etc. They bring these figures to the local mall to get a taste of modern life (where hilarity ensues), and then bring them to school, where they put on a blow-out presentation, causing the auditorium of students to wave their cigarette lighters and their teacher to give them an A, ensuring that the future is protected. It's sort of silly, and it's sort of brilliant, featuring such existential moments as when Bill and Ted meet themselves the first time, and then, go back to meet themselves again and have the same conversation, only this time as the other two selves (remarking afterward that, woah, that conversation made a lot more sense this time around).

A note on the language: Bill and Ted are the first main characters of a film to speak in the stoner/surfer Southern Cal lingo that would later define Pauly Shore. If there had been no Bill and Ted, the future (the present as we know it) would be different; there could have been no Dude, Where's My Car?, for better or for worse (I've always found that film existentially brilliant, but perhaps all that can be blamed on my childhood obsession with Bill and Ted).

A note on fame: Ted, as you likely know, is one of the first serious (ha!) roles played by the now-famous "hearthrob" Keanu Reeves. Bill, as you probably don't know, is played by some guy named Alex Winter (who never had a Speed or Matrix to cement his fame). I distinctly remember being a little girl and thinking Bill was the cute one. So how is it that Ted became the famous one? I thought that maybe my tastes had simply been childish (after all, my earliest childhood crush was on Davy Jones of The Monkees), and yet, upon re-watching, it's clear that, while neither Bill nor Ted is cut out for rocket science, Bill is definitely the smarter of the two (he fixes the broken time machine with a wad of gum and some tin cans, he tends to use the larger vocabulary words in more creative ways ("We are destined to flunk most egregiously"), and, when caught in a Waiting for Godot loop with regard to recruiting Van Halen for the band, and first needing a "most-triumphant video," but not being able to have such a video until they know how to play their instruments, and hence needing Van Halen, Bill's thoughts the more coherent, whereas Ted's are the more circuitous). It does not surprise me that, even as a child, I went for the more intelligent of the two characters (who also happened to be blond, which had to have helped, since I hadn't yet grown into an appreciation of the "tall, dark, and handsome" thing).

A note on watching movies hundreds of times: Yes, I still remembered most of the lines. Brains are amazing.

Books: Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe

This isn't Wolfe at his best, but Wolfe is generally pretty good, even when he's lazy. Not that these two essays are lazy, exactly, but somehow (and it might simply come down to a personal preference of mine with regard to essay content) they aren't as gripping as those contained in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby and other volumes.

Radical Chic is definitely the better of the two, describing in great name-dropping detail a party thrown by Leonard Bernstein and his wife for the Black Panthers, to help them fund raise. All of the New York liberal intelligentsia attended, ready to throw money at this violent, revolutionary cause, and Wolfe plainly lays out the before, the during, and the aftermath: a PR backlash criticizing these wealthy liberals for demonstrating their hipness by throwing a party in honor of a bunch of bigoted killers (rightfully so, Wolfe seems to think, without telling us that outright).

Mau-mauing the Flack Catchers also approaches the topic of race, and less gingerly. The scene this time is a government office, in which a bureaucrat is approached by a group of Blacks, Hispanics, Filipinos, and, most frighteningly (to him, of course) Samoans. These people are there to demand more summer jobs for the district (something over which this office seems to have some but not much control), but ultimately, they get much more satisfaction out of scaring the bejeezus out of him by shouting and making a scene (this threatening without making good is the mau-mauing, the man, whose sole purpose is to catch flak while the boss is out in Washington lobbying for more funding, is the flak catcher). The laziness here, I think, is not in Wolfe's writing, but in his intellectual conclusion—a bit of a cliche, and a racist one at that.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Books: The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński

I picked up this book after reading about Ryszard Kapuściński somewhere, and deciding that I should be familiar with his work, and then finding out that he had written something on Haile Selassie. A long-time reggae fan, I've always wondered who the hell this Haile Selassie guy is (he's probably the most name-checked figure in all reggae). Unfortunately, while The Emperor gave me quite a good idea of Selassie's governing style (he was the Emperor of Ethiopia until 1974), it did not refer in any way to Jamaica, Rastafarianism, or reggae; in fact, it presented Selassie in a negative enough light to make me wonder why my favorite songs would celebrate him with lyrics like "Hail to the King, Haile Selassie."

Kapuściński's volume is comprised of a well-curated series of interviews he conducted with a number of people who had been part of Selassie's retinue, as servants, ministers, and lackeys. (One testimonial, for example, comes from the man whose job it was to place a pillow under Selassie's feet each time the Emperor sat in a chair (he had short legs, which dangled from his high thrones).) What emerges is a shadowy portrait (if I were to make a movie from this book, Selassie would never be shown in an objectifying light; he would either be constantly in shadow, or, occasionally, he would emanate his own light) of a self-isolating paranoiac who retained power much in the way that Stalin did (rather than killing his enemies, though, Selassie seemed able to achieve the same affect by simply demoting them: either a testimonial to his greatness, or to the absurd poverty of Ethiopia).

Later, I read about Selassie on wikipedia (where I found out that his birth name was Ras Tafari, hence Rastafarianism. . .), and it seemed as though what actions Kapuściński presents as the empty gestures of bad leadership (traveling the world to meet with other leaders, building factories and dams and other signs of industrial progress, erecting palaces in far-flung regions of the desert, all while his people were starving) had paid off rather well; wiki presents him as a good leader who modernized his country and spoke out internationally against colonialism. So. . . who's biased? It seems that Selassie, like Christ, never asked that a religion be started in his name. And yet, he did arrive in Jamaica and see people praising him, and failed to deny his divinity. While that doesn't disclose whether his leadership was good or bad, the fact that he closed Universities (where subversive Western ideals of Democracy were spreading) and squashed a Democratic revolution (as told by Kapuściński, not wiki) is haunting. There's no reason why a leader can't be somewhat good and somewhat bad, or good for awhile, and then bad, but, if I had to choose right now, I would lay my odds on Kapuściński. One man on the ground speaking in real time with people close to the throne must know more than a bunch of wiki drones who weren't there. Although the wiki drones should have read this book. Hmm.

Movies: Le Mépris (Contempt)

I was warned that this movie was awful, but I went to see it anyway; that might be why I liked it so much. It's not that I'm a complete contrarian, but I have noticed an inverse correlation between expectations and pleasure (but not for brilliant films and terrible ones, merely for the fence-straddlers). Contempt scores a ten for aesthetics, featuring not just Bardot, whom I actually don't like so much (there's something about her teeth that makes her look sort of dumb), but the insuperable Mediterranean coast of Italy, as well as director Godard's primary color obsession, such that every shot features items in at least two if not all three: mustard yellow, fire engine red, and royal blue. Bathrobes, books, couches, towels, dresses are tossed against a generally neutral background (the creme color of raw canvas, or the stark white of gesso) in pre-meditated carelessness, disclosing that we are in a stylized, aestheticized world: the world of the cinema (which, the opening quotation from Bazin instructs us, is where we go to find "a world that corresponds to our desires.")

Bardot might be the simplest thing that corresponds to our desires (or the thing that corresponds to our simplest desires?), and so Godard serves her up nude, in bed, in the opening scene, bathed in cool blue and warm red lights. She speaks to her lover and asks him, starting with her feet, whether he likes each part of her body, and he tells her yes, he quite likes her feet, her knees, her breasts, her face. The camera roves over her bare buttocks and we rather like them, too. Coming on the heels of the opening credits, in which we see part of the film being filmed, while a voice speaks the credits aloud (in whimsical French a younger movie-goer might associate with Jean-Pierre Jeunet), until the cameraman turns and points his lens right at us, we immediately know we are watching an "art film," and our expectations are set for such. But then, Godard turns a bit on us, and turns his film into a kind of domestic pot-boiler; it turns out that Paul (Michel Piccoli) is more than Camille's (Bardot) lover; he's her husband, and he's a writer, and a rift is about to come up between them.

American movie producer Prokosch (a magnificent caricature by Jack Palance) has hired veteran Fritz Lang to shoot Odysseus, but the artiste keeps filming unmarketable shots; he wants Paul to rewrite the screenplay. Paul seems amenable to the project (Prokosch writes him a big check, which he examines and then puts into his breast pocket in assignation, at which point we are to read him as something of a sell-out, though he maintains a kind of psychic connection with Lang throughout the exchange, so that we are hesitant to accuse him of completely subsuming art for money), and even sends Camille off with the lecherous Prokosch as a kind of collateral, packing her into Prokosch's two-seater red convertible, against her will. This starts the boiling (and also the first tiring lull in the film, which I would argue is a bit too long for its plot). Back at home, Camille and Paul quarrel; she's clearly angry with him, but refuses to explain why. She toys with him, wearing a black wig over her blond locks, getting in and out of the bathtub, walking around their Mondrian apartment wearing a bath sheet, insisting that she will sleep on the couch that night, refusing to Capri with the film crew. He asks whether anything happened between her and Prokosch; she declines to answer.

Ultimately, they do both go to Capri, and during filming at the producer's awesome villa, which clings to a cliff over the sea, the proverbial pot begins to boil over. Camille at last kisses Prokosch (even though she clearly still detests him) when she knows Paul will see. Paul gets a gun and tries to decide what he ought to do with it. Camille goes for a swim in the ocean, naked, baiting him. All the while, Paul and Fritz Lang are engaged in a conversation about the Odyssey, considering a theory that Odysseus originally left home for the Trojan war because he was unhappy with Penelope, and stayed away for so long for that very reason. (It is clear, when Paul gets the gun, that he is mirroring his actions in some way on those of Odysseus, who kills Penelope's suitors upon his return.) But Paul doesn't use his gun; instead, he says goodbye to Fritz Lang and leaves Capri, having read a note from Camille, who has already left with Prokosch in his little red convertible, which crashes into a truck and kills them both (in a very aesthetically pleasing way, I should add).

I generally have trouble identifying with women's feminine behavior in films, but here, I found Camille's wrath, motivated by, dare I say it, contempt of Paul's sell-out behavior (selling out art is one thing, selling out your wife quite another) perfectly understandable and perfectly defensible. In leaving with the revolting Prokosch (who, I failed to mention, speaks only English, whereas Camille speaks only French), she almost literally cuts her nose to spite her face. It's the kind of retribution that simultaneously seeks to detach and enrage, demonstrating to the offender the infinite conclusion of his actions. Though Bardot plays Camille as a kind of passive, frustrated chess piece (even if she's the Queen, she can't travel off the board, as she seems to want to do, moving from room to room of their small apartment like a caged animal), it works; at first I'm as annoyed at her as her husband is, but soon he begins to annoy me as much as he annoys her, and though I hate Prokosch (as much as they both do), I don't blame Camille for using him for the dual purpose of escape and retribution.

Books: The Inspector General, by Nikolai Gogol

I don't know how this ended up in my stack of books to read (I went to the library the other day and they had eleven books on hold for me, which I had supposedly requested; this was one of them) but I've read it anyway. It's pretty funny political satire, and a good enough way to spend two hours (it's a short play), but I haven't much more to say about it, I'm afraid. The plot revolves around a silly mix-up, in which the haughty, crooked Police Chief of a small town gets wind (via the Postmaster, who regularly opens the mail and reads it) that the Government will be sending an Inspector to the town. Meanwhile, an overextended young Dandy is staying at an inn with his Servant, and the Police Chief determines that this Dandy is the Inspector, incognito. Immediately, the town, at the Police Chief's behest, begins lavishing bribes upon the Dandy, who is all too cheerful to play along, demanding loans of 300 rubles from each official that he meets, and moving into the Police Chief's house, where he eats and drinks debauches the Police Chief's daughter and wife. He then leaves town for a brief sojourn of a day or two, and once he's gone, the Postmaster alerts the Police Chief that he's opened another letter, from the young Dandy, who within reveals that he's not the Inspector at all, but has been hilariously taking advantage of the entire town. The play ends there, with all the townspeople standing in shocked tableau.

Interestingly enough, it is safe to assume that the Dandy doesn't know that his letter was intercepted, and that he is greedy enough to come back to the town in two days time, and expect to be treated just as well again. Of course, the butt of Gogol's joke is the government, but it's hard not to wonder whether the Dandy won't get his comeuppance after the curtain comes up again, in some totalitarian sequel. As blithely cheerful Gogol's little joke is, it lacks the nuance that would make it applicable to reality, where cruelty and revenge are just as potent as flattery and advantage.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Books: Lullaby, by Oakley Hall

I felt a little guilty reading this book, as if it were not really literature. I picked it up having just finished the brilliant Warlock, and wanting more; Oakley Hall is primarily a writer of Westerns, and I was going to get one of those, but this stood out as different. A combination of ghost story and beat narrative set in Hawaii, Mexico, and Northern California, it's too fun to be literature. Oakley Hall is an amazing storyteller, and unlike, say, Pynchon, upon whom he supposedly had some effect, style never stands in the way of the story.

The story is as follows: a divorced husband and wife (she is originally from Hawaii, but they both live in San Francisco now) are still held together by a family business (real estate and land development) and their two adult children (they had three, but the youngest died in a childhood drowning incident): a messed-up daughter, in Honduras with the Peace Corps (we don't hear much from her), and a son in graduate school, working on a novel (also to his father's chagrin, who wished he would find a more substantial career). Quickly, their son takes a near-deadly fall off a bridge and, after intensive surgery, survives with some brain damage. This accident brings them back together, as does the necessary purchase of a shopping complex back in Hawaii. The mother, who was raised by a superstitious Hawaiian nanny, is certain that there is a curse on the family that explains the deaths and accidents, and indeed, as the story unfolds, there have been incidents of grave desecration by her husband's developing projects. Meanwhile, their son has his own ghosts and curses; he was writing a novel about the (literally) bewitching blonde he used to date, who dragged him and two other (male) friends first up to a house in the mountains to start a psychedelic band (at which time they experimented dangerously with the occult, seeing some things they would have preferred not to see), and then down to Mexico to take part in a big drug purchase (at which time our hero bows out, instead joining a group of Mexican spiritualists on a peyote pilgrimage, which doesn't go so well for him either). Another curse seems to be at work, because two of the four men involved in the drug scheme (which went horribly awry, as we find out in flashback) are now dead, and our hero himself almost died too.

As you can see, this is all deliciously nervous and fun, but also rather silly, and the characters are more than a bit stock. Hence, my guilt at enjoying it so much.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Movies: Paranoid Park

One of my many cinematic obsessions (and perhaps one of my less healthy ones) is the disturbed adolescent boy (as found in Storytelling and L.I.E. for example). This obsession was most likely born in high school and college, when my friend and I would go the independent movie theater in the rain to see what had at first appeared sexy and what quickly became depressing. But it was the good kind of depressing—the kind that, in the raining twilight of the Embarcadero, being a teenager, you wanted to hold on to. I still, in fits of immaturity, grasp at that feeling, and find myself going to see movies like Paranoid Park, knowing no more than the fact that they feature a disturbed adolescent boy (bonus points: he's a skater). This was a far stronger motivating factor than knowing that it was a Gus Van Sant movie (I adored Gerry, but. . . Last Days, Elephant, and Good Will Hunting. . . not so much at all).

One night in the rain, high schooler Alex (the mysterious Gabe Nevins, whose IMDB page offers little to no information) goes to the rather intimidating East Side Skate Park (known to insiders as Paranoid Park) without telling anyone where he is. He meets an older, somewhat unsavory character (who somewhat too overtly looks like his father (who is in the process of divorce and doesn't live at home)); they walk out to the nearby railyards and jump a freight train to get some beers. A security guard comes running after them, wielding his nightstick, and Alex bats him off with his skateboard; the guard looses balance and falls backward, right into an oncoming train, which completely severs his upper body from his lower. The older guy runs away and Alex, after stopping for a moment to look into the still-alive eyes of the severed man, who drags his torso a few inches across the dirt, does the same, heaving his skateboard into the river, and throwing his bloody hoodie into a dumpster.

This sets off the existential tailspin in which Alex is the middle when we first meet him (the movie doesn't progress in order). All the skaters at his high school are being questioned by the police (who don't quite know what happened, but think a skater was involved due to the proximity of the railyards to the skate park. . . bad detective-ing, if you ask me), and if that weren't hassle enough, Alex's cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer (the spectacularly vixenish Taylor Momsen) is insistent upon their loss of virginity (that's a perfectly storyboarded scene, in which she climbs up on him and we see nothing but the mellifluous strands of her long, straight hair flecked with light as they hang down over their faces, and then, abruptly, she is quickly dressing and running into the bathroom with her cell phone to squeal "Yeah we just did it! It was amazing!" The scene in which Alex then breaks up with her is equally perfect, with the sound of her tantrum turned completely off, in her cheerleading uniform on the field with the rest of the squad loosely ringed around behind her, we stare numbly at her moving mouth, feeling as little as Alex does.) He deals with all of this pressure by writing it down, as recommended by the perfectly cast and styled Macy (Lauren McKinney), who looks like any teenaged skater girl you might see at a middle-American mall, and who emerges as his only real friend. (If you want the plot spoiled, I'll spoil it: he never gets caught).

Paranoid Park was a completely watchable movie (unlike Last Days), but too plot-driven to channel the existential brilliance of Gerry. In its most "experimental" moments (I didn't find it to be all that experimental at all, but I did read it often reviewed as such), it failed miserably, and were I editor, I'm certain that Mr. Van Sant and I would have had a falling out over the long, slowed-down shots that dramatize Alex walking through the hall of his high school, shaggy long hair and voluminous unzipped hoodie presciently bouncing. These shots feel tedious and consciously "artsy," while the rest of the movie is a pretty limpid story about teenagers. The best shots (also arguably "artsy," but in a gritty, rather than pretentious way) are those of the skaters at the skate park, who zip up and down graffiti-covered concrete curves on digital film stock to a gorgeous ambient soundtrack, catching air in the silent spaces where we try to catch our breath.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Books: Whores for Gloria, by William Vollman

This book puts this book to shame: as literature, as a portrait of the streets, and as a depressive. After I finished reading it, I was so despondent that I wanted to jump out the window. Here is a truly desperate, gritty, honest depiction of the lives of whores, pimps, addicts, and street-walking transvestites. Even without the appendix (which contains interviews Vollman conducted with real prostitutes) it's clear that he did actual in-depth (from the looks of his author photo, perhaps too in-depth) research in San Francisco's tenderloin, because his novel is direct and agonizingly honest about prices charged for services rendered, slang terms for same, diseases, condoms, wigs, sores, tracks, stilettos, cops, liquor, alleys, bars, abandoned cars, payphones, by-the-hour and by-the-week hotels, chicks with dicks, lubricants, panties, ponytails, murders, rape, molestation, fear, loss, anxiety, desire, emptiness, loneliness, frustration, insanity, brutality, friendship, convenience, abuse, and, yes, love (as defined by a muddy cocktail of the above).

Jimmy, a Vietnam vet who lives in a by-the-week hotel, subsists on disability checks, which he spends on alcohol and whores. He is looking, desperately, for Gloria. Because he is an unreliable narrator extraordinaire, we aren't ever certain if Gloria exists, and, if she does, what her relationship is or was with Jimmy. At times he calls he calls her his wife, at times she is a childhood friend, but he hasn't any genuine memories of their time together; instead, he is slowly building an illusory projection, by copulating with whores, buying their underwear, their hair, and then calling it Gloria's. He pays them to tell him "happy memories" from their childhood (which they do while he masturbates), which he then re-frames as his own memories of innocent (non-sexual) things he did as a child with Gloria (like going to the movies, or taking long car rides, chewing gum). Many of the whores either can't think of any happy memories to begin with, and instead relate horror stories of rape or other abuse, or they do have seemingly happy memories, which are actually tainted by not-so-happy realizations (the girl who talks bright-eyed about going to the movies alone when she was seven, for example, remembers that she was molested at the theater by an old man).

This is my first dip into Vollman, and I honestly don't know if I'm ready to go back for more. He writes well; the sentences have a simple, transparent elegance that allow you to read through rather blithely (rather than harassing or shocking you), so that you don't feel the terribly intense affect upon the belly of your soul until it's far too late, and you want to jump out the window.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Movies: Be Kind Rewind

Wow. This is the most genuine "feel-good movie" I have ever seen—as in, it actually made me feel good. And I mean good. Not nice, not happy, but good—as if humanity is something to celebrate, rather than something to eradicate immediately for the greater benefit of the rest of the bloody solar system. As if people are creative and inspired and excited and social, rather than numb and bored and lonely and isolated. Because they are. We just see it so rarely that when it does come along, we walk out of the theater grinning like happy fools. Which we are.

You probably know the plot: Jerry (Jack Black, in a brilliant return to true Jack Blackism, after an ill-fated foray into the serious) becomes magnetized in a bungled attempt at power-plant sabotage and erases all the tapes at the Be Kind Rewind video rental shop in Passaic, NJ, where his buddy Mike (Mos Def, who has enough pride not to switch to his birth name for his film roles) is in charge while the boss, old Mr. Fletcher (in an almost-but-not-quite-magic-negro role) is at the nearby chain competitor, doing secret reconnaissance; the building that houses his shop (and his home, upstairs), has been condemned, and he needs to raise enough money quickly to perform the necessary repairs, or else close up shop and move out to the projects. Desperate to keep Mr. Fletcher from finding out that there's been a problem, the two friends recreate Ghostbusters (a 20-minute version) using a video camera, their two selves, whatever props they can find in the junkyard where Jerry lives (in a perhaps-abandoned trailer), and a lot of tinfoil. Oddly enough, the young thugs who end up watching the tape love it, and come back for more. Next thing you know (and thanks to the business cunning of Alma (Melonie Diaz), enlisted from the local dry cleaners to play all the female roles, Be Kind Rewind has more demand than it has ever had before, with lines out the door and customers coming all the way from Manhattan for the special "Sweded" movies (an extension of a hilariously bad excuse why they take 24 hours to produce—they must be imported from Sweden), while the threesome remakes film after film, eventually involving the community as actors as well, just to help keep up with the demand (and to appeal, a bit, to a kind of positive hubris).

Jack Black makes a disturbingly good Jackie Chan (Rush Hour 2), but the film's longest movie-making montage (with an absolutely amazing 2001 bit, along with basically brilliant bits from all sorts of other movies) is really a treat for anyone who loves movies. I'm the sort of sucker who always falls for books about writing books, and movies about making movies (CQ happens to be my favorite), but that's because it's these books and movies that wear their hearts on their sleeves; Michel Gondry loves making movies (you already knew that from watching the similarly brilliant opening scenes of The Science of Sleep), and you can't help but fall in love with his love. The more you love movies in general, the more you will love this movie; its plot isn't particularly filled with intellect-bending twists (there were, in fact, a number of children in the audience with me, and they laughed at every joke just as gleefully as the adults did), but who needs existential when you've got cardboard and aluminum foil ?

During the film's crescendo, the community comes together (I know it sounds trite, but it isn't, I swear) after the FBI comes and destroys all their Sweded movies under federal copyright law. They decide make one more film—this time an original: a fictional documentary about jazz pianist Fats Waller, who was from Passaic and was born and lived in the condemned Be Kind Rewind building (a kind of bedtime story turned myth turned fact, perpetrated by Mr. Fletcher when he was raising Mike. In black-and-white, recorded with an old fan blowing in front of the camera to produce the flicker of old film stock, this short is so good—so creative, so tender, so grassroots-ad-hoc-beautiful—that it dropped my jaw and made me laugh and cry simultaneously (I'm a sucker for jazz, but still. . .) Mike and Jerry project the movie on a white sheet hung in the window of the Be Kind Rewind store for the premier screening and, as you can imagine, the image can be seen from outside, too, and all the residents of Passaic who hadn't been involved, all the cops who had hassled Jerry in his trailer night after night, the construction workers gathered to begin wrecking on the building, and even the city planning official who condemned the building in the first place, have stood outside watching, and have, of course, been won over. And even if happy endings like that don't make you feel good, you'll already be feeling overwhelmingly good from the preceding action.

Books: Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Contained in this elegiac, meditative memoir are Exupery's meditations from the time he spent as a pilot flying mail over the desert for the Aéropostale. These include the kind of philosophical brooding that can only spring from not knowing whether the twinkling light you sees out your window is from a lighthouse or a star, as well as the rational ravings sprung from the detached intensity of dying of thirst after crashing in the Sahara, wanting to shoot yourself, but knowing that you can't, because of the people back at home hoping to find you, and for the hope of your co-pilot, dying of thirst and mirage alongside you.

This book did not come off the fiction shelf, and it not the kind of book I would choose for myself, but it was recommended a long time ago, and it took me something of a pilgrimage to find it (I really wish that the New York Public Library's online catalog worked so well as Whether it was a particularly breathtaking read I won't say, but its quiet humanism (aside from two egregious instances of racial epithet—which were less objectionable in 1939) is good company for a long, rainy afternoon, when one is feeling moody and spiritually-inclined (n.b. I am often moody, but rarely spiritually-inclined, even in the rain). Exupery's best moments (of the philosophical kind) come at the end, when he visits Madrid in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. His metaphors for war, his insights on soldiering, and the spiritual (argh!) openness with which he approaches the problem of political fighting is something quite quite missing in war correspondence today.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Books: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera

The real question here is: Why do I keep reading books by Milan Kundera? There is a real answer (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was on my inaugural reading list years ago, but the library never had it, and so I read The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being in the meantime), but the answer doesn't address the problem of the question; I've read more than one book by quite a number of authors.

The problem is that all of Kundera's books are the same. There are some Czech people, mostly middle aged, who are intellectual, but are forced to perform menial labor because of the oppressive Soviet communist occupation. The man argues with his wife because she doesn't understand his need to have hundreds (literally!) of mistresses. The wife engages in semi-lesbianic behavior with one of his mistresses in hopes of getting on equal sexual footing.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has a few other bits that could set it apart, if they weren't written in that same (obnoxious) pseudo-sexual/pseudo-parable tone (there's an attractive, sad woman who finds herself living on an island inhabited only by children, who at first ignore her sexuality, then delight in it, then attack her for it, until she swims out into the sea and drowns herself.)

There is an accessible pretension in Kundera that really drives me up the walls. He's so. . . smug and pseudo-everything (pseudo-political, pseudo-sensual, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-poetic, etc.)—just enough to make the average reader think that he's been granted access to something elevated and lofty, when in fact, he's only being titillated by soft-core. And for that, keep your Kundera; give me Henry Miller any day.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Books: Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran-Foer

I decided to read this in spite of the "Ugh. I hate Jonathan Safran-Foer." I hear every so often. I don't really know why anyone would hate him, unless they were terribly jealous. Everything is Illuminated isn't a perfect book, but it's damn near close, and the author was a mere 26 (yes, exactly what I'm just about to be) when it came out, which makes me feel terribly behind.

The novel is a kind of fictional (semi-fictional?) memoir (argh, he's even stolen my genre right out from under me! Or does this only speak to the timeliness of said genre, or perhaps the solipsism of my generation?), in which the eponymous "hero" (but not the narrator) takes a trip to Ukraine with little more than a map and a photograph, searching for a mysterious Augustine, who protected his Jewish grandfather from the Nazis, thus enabling that grandfather to move to the US and sire the eponymous hero's father.

And this is where the brilliance comes in. The hero's story is told not by the hero, but by his Ukrainian tour guide and translator Alex, in epistolary form. Alex writes letters back to Jonathan, after the trip has ended, enclosing chapters describing their journey. These packets are interspersed with sections written by the hero and sent to Alex, which are historical fictions describing the hero's ancestors living in their shtetl in the 18th century (his line begins with a hyper-intellectual, malsocialized girl who is mysteriously birthed from the Brod river, and raised by an tender, sentimental, neurotic (Jewish!) old man).

But wait, that's not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is the diction of Alex, who writes in a madcap, babblefish/thesaurus-speak, in which "rigid" always replaces the word "difficult" by way of "hard," idioms are consistently mangled, and a longer, more awkward word is always used in place of the more simple and obvious choice: (E.g. "I must eat a slice of humble pie for not finding Augustine, but you clutch how rigid it was.")

Some readers may love this book for the Holocaust connection (toward the end, there are semi-lengthy descriptions of the nights the Nazis came to the Ukrainian villages to root out the Jews, and at the novel's end (SPOILER!) Alex's grandfather, who has been along for the trip, driving, kills himself out of grief over his complicity, which led directly to the death of his old Jewish friend), and while that certainly lends it some emotional credibility, it was, for me, the least interesting part. Many readers may love this book for its imaginative pictures of the shtetl, which features two congregations (the Uprights and the Slouchers, who might directly correspond to today's Orthodox and Reform Jews) and a synagogue on wheels that is moved regularly as the chalk-drawn line separating the holy from secular portion of the village shifts, and appreciate this as clever commentary on the state of Jewish culture and religion today. Being a bad Jew, I couldn't really care less about either of these things; language may be my first god. The book is brilliant because of the way the author renders Alex's speech and letters.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Books: My Romance, by Gordon Lish

Please don't think that I'm a disdainful jerk when I say that this is the shittiest piece of shit to ever have been passed of as literature ever. I've read some real crap in my day, but little of that had the pretense to pass itself off as other than crap. Shit in a paper sack I will suffer, but in a gilded take-away container? That I can see right through? Fuck that.

I'm sorry to be so vitriolic. The thing is, I don't know a thing about Gordon Lish, and I don't have a clue how this book slipped into my reading list. Christopher Hitchens (a brilliant writer, whether or not you agree with what he has to say) writes a pro-Lish blurb on the back cover, so I assume Lish must have something going for him, at least as an editor (Esquire mag and Knopf books). Then again, he's buddies and co-champions (as in, back-scratch exchanger) with Don DeLillo, which isn't saying very much at all.

The text of My Romance is a sort of full transcript of a rambling talk that Lish gives to a literary audience, in which he discusses in meandering length his troubles with psoriasis and his amelioratory habit of sunbathing nude, covered in mineral oil, on the roof of his midtown office building; his expensive watch, which originally belonged to his father, and which was a gift from his fathers brothers, which he is willing to sell for a five-digit figure to any member of the audience, due to his financial difficulties; the color of his clothes and their size, the type of shoes he wears and their affect on his height (which is not tall, but rather short), his jobs at various New York-based publications, and a smattering of other varietal neurotic tics and patterns in which he engages regularly. Unfortunately, what I have described in one paragraph, Lish describes over page after page after page (112 of them, which aren't that many, really, but suddenly become a lot when there aren't any characters, and there isn't any plot, and you are terribly bored).

After reading My Romance, I know an awful lot about Gordon Lish personally, but I have no idea as to why his book was published, which basically means that he failed, at least as a writer, at least this time around.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Art/Performance: FluxConcert2008

Dare I semi-waffle on this post, given that FluxConcert's creator is one of my very few (and therefore very precious) readers? I don't dare.

I might have an M.A. in Modern Art and Critical Studies from an Ivy League university, but what I know about Fluxus is hardly enough content for a critical blog post. I believe it was a movement of the 1960s, I believe that it was an art of words much more than an art of pictures, and I believe that it had a performance-related manifestation. I believe Yoko Ono was involved.

The FluxConcert was a (mostly successful) attempt to reënact (or in one case, debut) rarely-seen pieces of art from the Fluxus "catalog." I don't have my program (it was crumpled into a ball and thrown onstage, in a very Fluxus-appropriate act of audience participation), so I cannot provide you with the names of any of the pieces that I particularly liked (or disliked), but I will describe them.

As the audience arrived, each person was given a paper airplane along with his or her program. Although few of us realized it, this gifting was the first piece (Snowstorm—I only remember the name because it was the first one), but those airplanes served as ammunition; the audience began throwing them at the stage as soon as what we thought was the first piece began to wear on our nerves (which was quickly (the piece consists of four masked people standing in a row for the duration of ten minutes, although we in the audience did not know that the duration was of any given time, and hoped that by throwing airplanes and/or shouting, we might be able to make it end)). Some of the more impressive pieces were successful for non-Fluxus appropriate reasons (in one, two performers took turns making loud, improvised, bird-like noises at each other, and I was blown away by their skill and talent (dirty words, I imagine, for a Fluxor)). Others worked in very Flux-appropriate ways (like one in which all the performers walked on stage and set up complicated instruments, only to play one simple note together, and then dismantle their equipment.) The performer who conducted audience questionnaires on preference of shoes did an excellent job recreating (and thereby deadpan mocking) a market-research interview. He was great.

I think that Fluxus pieces in general must have been much more successful in the 1960s, when it could be counted upon that a major percentage of the audience was chemically altered. Our crowd, for all of its hipsterishness, was rather meek and uptight. If, say, 50% of us had been chemically altered, we would have been more participatory; we would have been louder and more brash and more engaged and less polite. The work, then, would be more experimental, rather than merely performative. We were, after all, in a warehouse in Brooklyn, watching seven men, aged 25-35, in tennis shoes and zip-up hoodies, do random arty stuff; that's about as ground-breaking as New York magazine—it's amazing the show wasn't sponsored by Brooklyn Brewery.

Maybe next time, they'll hand out acid tabs instead of paper airplanes. . .

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Movies: King Kong

It's not that easy to write about cheesy old movies. I've put this off for over a week now. But that could just be me.

Believe it or not, I had never seen King Kong before. Film Forum screened it for the film's 75th anniversary, and before the movie started, the introducer took a headcount: who had never seen King Kong (that was basically just me, along with a bunch of kids whose hipster parents had brought them for educational purposes), who had seen it more than 10 times (a disturbing number of hands went up), who had seen it more than 100 times (yes, five or six people (which was five or six too many) raised their hands), and finally, who had seen it in it's first run (there were no hands raised for that). The introducer showed us the front page of Variety from the week that King Kong came out—1933 was a bad year for money, and some theaters were accepting barter for tickets. He then showed us an ancient (disturbingly racist) animated short featuring Huggy Bear, in which King Kong appears at the very end, cheering from the Empire State Building at Huggy's return. (This was a good preparation for King Kong, which turns out to be equally racist.)

In the case that you, like me, grew up in a box somewhere, and don't know anything about King Kong other than the fact that it involves a giant gorilla climbing up the Empire State building and snatching out a lithe blond in his meaty fist, I will summarize the plot for you: A filmmaker takes an unsuspecting young beauty to a secret island inhabited by heathens and giant monsters to make a movie, but the heathens kidnap the beauty and give her to King Kong as sacrificial bride. The ship's first mate, along with the filmmaker and his crew, rescue her and use her as bait to capture King Kong, bringing him back to New York where they expect to make millions selling tickets to people who want to see him, but King Kong breaks his chains and runs amok in Manhattan, climbing the Empire State building and reaching in the window for the beauty. The first mate, who has since become the beauty's fiance, rescues her yet again, and King Kong is killed. The End.

And so why is this silly thing so famous? First of all, it's visually spectacular. Sure, the giant monsters seem to be pasted a bit naively into their surrounding jungle, and lurch around with a strange, mechanical discomfort, but, um, they are GIANT MONSTERS! The natives are horribly offensive caricatures of "the racial other" (as is Kong. . . but I don't feel like going there) and the ship's Chinese cook will make you cringe (though be grateful that he smokes no opium; I've seen worse), but haven't you always wondered how King Kong, an herbivore with stubby fingers and broad, flat teeth, could kill a T-Rex, with giant claws and sharp, flesh-tearing canines? The answer, my friends, is that King Kong uses his incredible strength to pull T-Rex's jaw open and apart, until it breaks (this takes awhile). How cool is that?! Exactly. THAT is why this is such a great movie. Forget the girl and the Empire State Building (although it is a pretty awesome visual). The moral of the story—don't mess with giant gorillas—is a lasting one.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Movies: Violent Saturday

Small time, small town tragedies cheerfully unfold in this beautifully-colored 1955 film, in which a violent bank robbery solves every one's seething troubles: the wealthy but aimless alcoholic is freed from his cheating wife (when she's shot dead by the robbers), the shy, peeping-tom bank manager is able to clear the air with the nurse he's been lusting for (when she tends his gunshot wounds in the hospital), the old librarian in debt pays back her loan (with stolen money, but who cares?!), the father (a very orange Victor Mature) plays hero and gain his son's respect, and the Amish family (!) at the nearby farm only lose one of three children and their barn in exchange for the privilege of stabbing a bank robber to death in the back with a pitchfork.

I know I'm being rather nonchalant here, but the film glosses over this town equally as blithely, dipping into the ugliness of humanity with brilliant humorous touches (Lee Marvin, as one of the bank robbers, has an incessant sinus problem, and keeps sticking a white plastic inhaler into his nostrils and snorting). The nurse has an exceptionally pert bosom, which the camera clocks as carefully as every man in the film does. In the middle of the robbery, one of the robbers produces a handful of candy from his pocket and gives it to a kid standing under his mother's protective arm. The Amish man has a dreadfully stiff beard clearly glued to his face, and speaks without contractions.

It's all about as serious as any film could be in 1955, and as I've already said, the color is gorgeous and perfectly describes the dusty light of a western afternoon. The characters are fairly stock, but forgivably so, given the inhalers and the candies and the bosom. And you won't find more entertaining Amish families in any other movie of the decade.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Books: The Exquisite, By Laird Hunt

This is a weird little book. It snuck into my reading list by means still unidentified, and, though I snickered at the tag line "an East Village noir" printed on the back cover while reading it, it nevertheless left an aftertaste of unsettled-ness that could only be attributed to its noirishness.

The narrator is a likable young thief who has somehow lost his girlfriend, his apartment, and, quite likely, his mind. He spends his days alternately visiting the apartment of a strange old man whose interests include anatomical antiquities, herring and crackers, and a fetching young woman named Tulip who naps in his bedroom, and lying in a hospital bed watching nature programs on television with another incarnation of the same old man (which hospital, we slowly begin to gather, is an insane asylum). At the hospital, Tulip is reincarnated in the lovely Dr. Tulp, and Job the bartender from the narrator's "outside" life is reincarnated as Job the orderly inside the hospital walls.

To darken this parade of doppelgangers, the old man introduces the narrator to a friend his who runs a small ring of hit men. . . who enact simulated murders; they hire the narrator. He performs a number of such attacks on a variety of clients, and is then asked to do the murder (simulated, of course, as they all are) of his own friend and benefactor, the old fish-eating man, who is terribly excited about it. Everything goes according to plan, until it's done, and our narrator is arrested for an actual murder; his friend and benefactor is actually dead; documents and accessories have disappeared; our narrator has been framed. The book ends.

And what are we to make of the parallel stories? Is the plot simply non-linear? Did our narrator actually meet an old man, engage in simulated murders, and then find himself in an institution after being caught for a real murder, which turns out not to be a real murder after all, since the old friend is resurrected and present in the same institution? Or, has our (delusional) narrator been in the institution all along, and merely dreamed up everything—the old man's anatomical antiquities, the acrobatic twins that assist in the simulated murders, and the night of sexual escapades to which Tulip finally acquiesces—while wasting away in his hospital bed, waiting for medication? The book is prime raw material for a David Lynch film, in which people are and aren't quite the same as other people, and which frustrate me to no end.

Hunt writes with an exquisite (no pun, I swear) poeticism, which ensnares the reader in the heady inscrutability of the plot, drugging one, in a way, against the ability to clarify or argue, dissipating logic. It's good. He does it well.