Monday, November 15, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Four: Cities of the Plain, by Marcel Proust

I was expecting, since the more recent Modern Library version of this volume is entitled Sodom & Gomorrah rather than the innocuous Cities of the Plain, that this would be the book in which Marcel comes out. It's not. It is, however, the volume in which Marcel's eyes open to the existence of homosexuality, chiefly as expressed by the behavior of Baron de Charlus, my favorite Proustian character to date. Wide-eyed Marcel, in a lengthy passage about bees pollinating flowers that I would argue rivals the famed madeleine pages, witnesses through a key-hole of sorts, the Baron flirting and then copulating (I think—Proust is very subtle) with Marcel's lower-class neighbor Jupien. The remainder of the volume, following the Baron in his wooing of the working-class, devil-may-care violinist Charles Morel, elucidates Charlus' strange treatment of Marcel in the previous volume: his possessiveness, his tenderness, his raging midnight invective; for before desiring Morel, the Baron desired Marcel.

But our young Proust is busy with Albertine, chasing the vivacious brunette but pretending not to care, loving her so long as she appears out of his reach, tiring of hers when he has her full attention. The middle section of the book drags a bit, as the author returns to his tedious habits of the previous volume, cataloging conversations at parties, most of these now at the Verdurin's "Wednesdays," dinner salons with many of the same "faithful" that witnessed Swann wooing Odette so many volumes ago. Charlus, by way of Morel, somehow becomes one of the faithful, despite his disdain for this set, whose members aren't aware of his pedigree and fraternal relationship to the Gueremantes.

The "excitement" in the volume comes toward the very end: the juxtaposition between the final sentence of the third chapter—"The idea of marrying Albertine appeared to me to be madness." and the final sentence of the fourth, and of the volume: "I absolutely must—and let's settle the matter at once, because I'm quite clear about it now, because I won't change my mind again, because I couldn't live without it—I absolutely must marry Albertine." This sudden change of heart is inspired by Marcel's "discovery" that his earlier suspicions about Albertine's lesbianic tendencies are valid, this "fact" confirmed by Albertine's mentioning that one of her dearest friends, who was like a sister, like a mother to the orphan, is the very same girl that was the fragrant lesbian lover of the composer Vinteuil's daughter. Marcel, that masochist, tells us, "I who until then had never awakened without a smile at the humblest things, the bowl of coffee, the sound of the rain, the roar of the wind, felt that the day which in a moment was about to dawn, and all the days to come, would no longer bring me the hope of an unknown happiness, but only the prolongation of my agony. I still clung to life; but I knew that I had nothing now but bitterness to expect from it" (1155). Oh, Marcel—you do it to yourself.

Dance: Voices and Dance within the Americas, at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

This night, the Guggenheim presented three short pieces by three different choreographers: one American (though his biography describes Jonah Bokaer as "an international choreographer") and two Cubans, Judith Sanchez Ruiz and Maray Gutierrez.

Gutierrez could not make it to speak on the panel, and Eduardo Vilaro, Ballet Hispanico's new Artistic Director, took her place, though he didn't have much of interest to say. The real star of the night was Ruiz, who danced in her piece before joining the panel. With energy as buoyant and vibrant as her barely-controlled curly mop top, Ruiz described, in a charming foreigner's English, her interest in the Cuban American feminist performance artist Ana Mendieta. I know Mendieta's work, though I had never thought much of it, and was fascinated by Ruiz's ability to do what I thought Mendieta, like many politically-inclined artists of the '60s and '70s, was never able to do: make work successful on interconnected aesthetic, physical, and emotional levels, in addition to and in support of the intellectual-political intention.

Ruiz collaborates with Korean-born, New York-based artist Sun Kwak for this piece, which starts with Kwak's "signature expression." Kwak, shoeless, small, and dressed in black, armed with a massive roll of wide, black tape, attaches the free end to the center of the stage front, and pulls the tape across the stage, choosing a line, bending one leg to reach down and smooth and flatten the line she has created, tearing the tape when the line is complete, and beginning again. Her work is rhythmic and repetitive, with minor variations and subtle flourishes. After she works for some time, two dancers (one of them Ruiz), step out, and begin to dramatize Kwak's patterns, playing with the artist's gestures, mimicry, variation, improvisation. This builds until Kwak completes her "drawing," and leaves the stage; another dancer eventually enters.

Ruiz's piece is distinctly feminine, even if her intention is feministshe described during the panel discussion her interest in Medieta's meditations on "women's work," which is rather refreshing after the somewhat indulgent images of liminal masculinity presented by Bokaer in his Filter, also inspired by the work of an artist: Cuban-American photographer Anthony Goicolea, who takes a place on stage as a dancer. Goicolea's multiple-self portraits are beautiful and haunting, some of the most impressive staged photography I've seen, but I thought Bokaer's piece failed to capture the full promise/threat of the artist's photographs. The stage was dotted with gold-leafed, bare-branched miniature trees (Goicolea's creations) and offered a see-sawing platform at its center, allowing the look-alike dancers to play gently with weight and gravity as the "floor" moved. But the dance, perhaps too faithful to the photographs, relies too heavily on tableau, and felt stilted rather than silent, oppressed rather than suppressed. The rich underchurnings of Goicolea's photographs, strange to say in this movement-art, are missing. It's Ruiz instead who conveys the pre-eruption of bottled emotion with her trembling bodies.

The final piece of the evening, Puntos Suspensivos, further carried this perhaps unintended theme of suppressed and exploding emotions, but only one of the six dancers honestly embodied the piece's intention. Toward the end, the dancers slowly stepped forward, stretched across the stage in a horizontal line. Cued by the music, one at a time and apparently at random, a body would recoil as if shot and fall to the ground, then get up and walk forward again. The soloist's body moved in clear response to this invisible trauma, but every other dancer anticipated her moment, acting instead of reacting, dropping instead of falling.

Movies: Howl

I have the greatest respect for the intention and ensuing construction of this film: the elucidation of Ginsberg's poem Howl through biography and history, but multiple complaints about its execution.

My foremost accusation is against the animators, a Thai outfit led by Eric Drooker, in a style is too techno-age to suit Ginsberg's time and tone, which nevertheless comes off as dated. This is animation that might have been considered super-edgy in 1995, but would never have been considered—at least by me—as appealing. Nor is it unappealing in the way some of Ginsberg's lines call for: "yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars;" it's not rich enough to demonstrate half of that.

The animated sequences accompany Franco's reading of pieces of the poem (not in entirety, and not straight through, but in jumbled sequences, which I don't mind). His reading is a bit over-studied at times; there is something distinctly schoolboyish in Franco's voice as he reads or recites. But his physical performance as young Ginsberg is more natural, less hiccuping—or maybe still hiccuping, but in a way that jives with young Ginsberg's own uncertainty.

Much of Howl reminds me of Milk—is it just that we again have Franco, in hippy-hipster San Francisco, sorting out being gay? Both films use the dictated monologue-incited flashback structure (which I lamented in Milk), and so it was little surprise to see, when the credits rolled, that Gus Van Sant (Milk's director) served as Producer here. It's hard for me to squelch the gossipy girl in me who wonders if Van Sant has a gay crush on Franco (who is supposedly not gay, but. . . really?), if not more.

I loved Howl from my first reading (in a Catholic high school English class—that's how far we have come from the 1957 obscenity trial), but despite this film's many frustrations, it nevertheless deepened my affection for the work, explaining to me just who Carl is, and what Rockland was, and why that matters. It could have been so much better, but the movie is still good.

Dance: The Music of David Lang Interpreted at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

I saw this show six weeks ago, but haven't yet forgotten my surprise that two pieces of music by the same composer—the so-called laws of nature and forced march by David Lang—could be so different. The aim of the program was rather to demonstrate how differently two choreographers might interpret this music, offering first Jessica Lang's (no relation) interpretation, then Pontus Lidberg's, displayed on the bodies of the same dancers from Morphoses. And yet, while there was certainly a difference to be seen in the choreographer's linear tone, it was far more subtle than the overt difference in the two musical selections each were given to work with.

Lang composed the so-called laws of nature for a percussion ensemble, providing in the score instructions for creating the "instruments" with which to make the sounds. The resonant eastern chimes are actually the vibrations of teacups, which plink and tinkle with the organic delicacy of rain on a wind-free lake. While Jessica Lang ties her dancers to the staccato rhythm of these sounds and Pontus Linberg to the length of their reverberations, both choreographers work in a modern, sensorialist vocabulary. To find a parallel in painting, Lang uses the bolder lines of the Expressionists, and Lindberg the softer insinuations of the Impressionists, but the intention is shared, and the styles are only separated by a decade, and a taste of hardship.

The audience's hardship is in being assaulted not just once, but twice, by the interminable forced march, a meandering piece for virtuoso electric guitar which Lang gleefully admitted was an experiment in extending a phrase, forced into a march's time signature (and enforced by a loathsome snare), for as long as possible. The choreographers were given freedom in ordering the musical selections, and Lang chose to begin with the so-called laws and conclude with forced march. Our respite was only for the short duration of conversation between the choreographers and composers before we were again subjected to forced march, for Lidberg chose to use it first, perhaps in hopes of getting it out of the way, and then assuaging us with the softer patterns of the so-called laws. Unfortunately, after sitting through forced march twice, our nerves were raw and frazzled, and no balm could do them any good—even the magical, color-changing costumes that echoed for Lidberg the mid-night blooming of a flower that only shows itself every hundred years, and which showed itself to him while he was choreographing the piece.

Movies: Back to the Future, I & II

When I was a kid, I videotaped Back to the Future II off HBO and watched it again and again and again. I had only seen the original movie once, and even then probably missed the opening sequence, because when I watched it on DVD last month, it was completely unfamiliar. What surprised me most was the quality—or lack of quality—of the film. Accustomed to the texture of classic as much as contemporary films, this thing looked like it was shot on VHS by a group of fifth graders on a ten-dollar budget. This is not to detract from its brilliance; I was totally captivated.

Plenty of websites are dedicated to the analysis of the technical possibilities and impossibilities of the film, but as much of a nerd as I am, my attraction to these movies has little to do with time travel (despite the fact that one of the other few movies I obsessively watched on VHS as a child was also structured by time travel: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Though I am fascinated by the presentation of various “presents” and futures based on seemingly minor edits of the past, I’m more interested in the characters’ emotional development. These aren’t “deep” movies dedicated to character development, but they manage to convey something essential in their sweeping way: our emotional health and stability is derived from our parents’ emotional health and stability.

I could be critical, and insist on deconstructing the movies’ typological characters—Biff of the 1950s is the same bully as Biff of the 1980s, who is the same bully as Biff of the 21st century—he never grows, changes, learns to do anything other than beat Marty McFly over the head for stolen homework. But Biff is a mere personification of everything in the world that is base, lazy, complacent, gross in appetites and behavior. Marty, the plucky hero, the uncertain dreamer, he who knows what is right, though he is often in deeper than he would like, is the counter force, everything in our would that has potential. So long as that shoot is protected and cultivated, the future is promising.

Analysis aside, everything about these movies is simply so fun and imaginative that I spent the four hours watching them yelping in glee. I felt the same way watching ET. There is a quality of wonder and creativity particular to movies of the 80s, and I don’t think this is subjective (I was born in 1982). Culturally, we are so savvy today, so postmodern, so ironic. Nothing ruffles us. We are so cool, we’re cold. We’re dead. Our films are filled with fast cuts and flashy effects and explosions and noises and slick, shining bodies; even our arthouse flicks are cool, over-experienced, jaded. Before the 80s, movies were stuck—grotesquely over-produced in Hollywood, emotionally flaccid in the arthouse. I’m making sweeping generalizations here, and I’m not saying that brilliant movies weren’t made before and after the 80s (obviously—I do enjoy grotesque over-production and slick bodies and emotional impotence, I swear!). I suppose I’m saying that for a moment in the 1980s, movies were as plucky as 1980s Marty McFly, with the potential do amazing things, though still lacking a bit in tools with which to do them. I’m just afraid that, cinematographically at least, we are living in the alternate future of Biff-world.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Three: The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust

Apparently, readers are itchy because I haven't posted on Proust for more than a month. Blame Marcel for writing such a dreadfully dull third volume, in which nothing of consequence ever happens, other than the attendance of chatter-filled dinner parties and "at-homes" in which the characters gossip about who is a Dreyfusard and who is an anti-.

Frankly, I find the Dreyfus Affair rather dull. As an undergraduate, I constantly heard it referenced, so I finally looked it up. It made so shallow an impression that, coming across it again in The Guermantes Way, I had to again look it up. As it turns out, the case is quite a bit more interesting than Proust makes it out to be. Still, Volume III now represents to me, in a particular way (i.e., not the way Marcel intended) lost time.

If I thought the volume warranted more discussion, I would offer it, but so far it seems that it is only worth reading to fill in the logical lacuna generated by reading only Volumes II and IV (the former filled with the titillations of heterosexual desire, the latter promising the titillations of homosexual pursuits (or so it seems; I've only read the first few pages)).

Music: Gotham Chamber Opera—El Gato con Botas

To file this post under "music" is a bit deceptive, but not any more deceptive than the Guggenheim promising "El Gato con Botas" and presenting "Puss in Boots." The Gotham Chamber Opera will be offering the Spaniard Montsalvatge's opera both in the original Spanish as well as English translation performances, but I was rather disappointed that the Works and Process preview gave us the lesser of those two choices.

I was equally disappointed that, promised "puppets" in plural form, we were only shown one puppet (though it was a puppet comprised of plural pieces, and quite an astonishing puppet at that), for this production at the New Victory Theater is a puppet production, inspired by Artistic Director Neal Goren's admitted discomfort with the idea of live people playing animal characters. No self-respecting opera star is willing to dress up in a cat costume, it seems—save that trash for Broadway.

The excessively caffeinated Goren practically stole the podium from moderator Anotoni Pizà, whose greatest moment was cutting off the conductor's effusive stream to ask him whether or not he keeps a pet cat. But the more intriguing character was Mark Down, the Artistic Director of Blind Summit Theater, the collaborators responsible for the puppets. For these are not Sifl & Olly sock puppets. The one puppet we saw tonight—the ogre—requires seven sweating puppeteers, never mind the opera singer who stands alongside them, sweating and heaving himself.

I found nothing particularly interesting in Montsalvatge's music (I'm by no means an opera fan, but I still think I can recognize whether a particular work has any value), but the puppet—oh the puppet! What a creation of astonishing artistic and physical genius. Never have I seen such an enormous living, breathing thing made of seven sculpted hunks of foam mounted on poles, operated by the nerdiest subcategory of theater nerds: professional puppeteers. What stars they are, these puppet-wielders, brutishly, nimbly, willfully dancing this other being into life.

I say, more puppets, less singing.

Dance: Maa: A Ballet by Kaija Saariaho, Choreography by Luca Veggetti at the Guggenheim's Works and Process

I was previously unfamiliar with both Kaija Saariaho and Luca Veggetti, but bought tickets (as I generally do) to all of this season's Works and Process shows involving dance. While I enjoyed the dancing, though, Kaija Saariaho's composition absorbed me more fully, the bodies onstage merely echoing faintly the deeper sensations the music inspired in me. The evening began with a piece for four dancers and a live harpist, but the vibrations that impregnated the air were and were not the sounds of a harp. The skittish rhythms and unsettling tone progressions were not those that flow mellifluously from a typical harp. The musician's visage expressed the screwed concentration of a violinist playing something by Steve Reich, rather than the beneficent glow that typifies the classical harpist. The music was intellectual, architectural, vast, and though without what one would call "melody," extremely beautiful. How surprising, then, when the composer revealed herself for discussion, an elderly, fragile thing with orange hair and a smear of red lipstick.

Saariaho explained that what we had heard was not merely harp, but harp processed through live electronics—the source of the sound's vast "-scape."* Maa was composed in 1991, as a ballet in seven parts for choreographer Carolyn Carlson. Saariaho described her artistic differences with Carlson with the generosity that comes, in part, from age—originally imagining the piece for seven dancers, Carlson ended up casting 24; agreeing with Saariaho that the piece would be abstract, she eventually inserted narrative drama. Veggetti, on the contrary, uses seven bodies with no narrative outside of the dialogue between the shapes of the music and the shapes of their bodies. . . perhaps to such an extreme it becomes a fault.

What Veggetti said of consequence during the interluding panel discussions was the importance of casting dancers with skill, aside from the artistic and emotional openness to try something new. Skilled indeed—sometimes restrained by that skill—are his dancers, the majority of which are Julliard students or graduates (as are the musicians—what a disturbingly talented lot of young people). Frances Chiaverini, a great**, tall dancer, combining somehow the sleek, heavy musculature and subtle force of a thoroughbred and a panther, nevertheless stands out amongst the group; to her, of course, goes the solo la Terre.

Veggetti prizes ballet's long, high leg and proud, upright head. Never, not once, did a dancer drop her head into a movement, giving into the sensuous abandon I prize in the best practitioners of contact/release. That said, from modern dance he takes the liquid torso, the element of chance (his dancers danced not in shoes, and not barefoot, but in thin, slippery socks, in which they could run across the stage, sliding to a stop), and an interest in inter-body counterbalance. The more interesting moments of choreography are the architectural pauses, where one dancer uses two other bodies, firmly planted, to push herself slowly into a floating arabesque, or some other root-to-rise expression.

But after this evening, I won't look for Veggetti's work again; it is fine enough, but in a world of many dance-makers, not sufficiently compelling. Saariaho, contrarily, has completely captivated me, and I have already begun seeking recordings of her echoing, mysterious music, and wondering when I will be able to see her newest opera, Émilie (a monographic monodrama on the female mathematician and physicist Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, who also happened to be Voltaire's mistress).

*My description, not the composer's.

**as in "big"

Movies: The Back-Up Plan

Even on an airplane, some movies are better left unwatched. No one thinks of J-Lo as a great actress, but I'm still trying to understand how one can go from making a film with Steven Soderbergh to dribbling out such a diarrhetic stream of inane romantic comedies, of which The Back-Up Plan is the latest fecal plop. The plot is barely worth recounting; Lopez plays Zoe, a single girl who owns a frou-frou pet store and a dog with no hind legs. Frustrated by dating and ready to be a mom, she gets artificially inseminated—but then meets the man of her dreams later that day. Hilarity, as the saying goes, ensues as their relationship develops and he adjusts to the reality of becoming the father of a stranger's babies (she's having twins).

But what I found most offensive about this movie was not the plot. Instead, it was Zoe's self-absorption, insensitivity, and inability to communicate. Throughout the film, she makes unfair demands of her beau, and again and again, even though he chafes under this treatment, he returns to her and her insanity. I'm more and more disturbed by media that present poor examples of relating as successful models. Women will watch this film, and expect men to smilingly succumb to this kind of treatment; then, when real-life men fall short of these false expectations, real-life women will be disappointed and confused, but won't identify their own spoiled behavior as the problem.

For the record, I am a girl, and I did cry—multiple times. The film is drivel, but it is effective drivel. Luckily, I can keep my critical faculties plugged in and calculating, even when my permeable emotional self is penetrated and besieged. The two must remain as separate as church and state when entering Hollywood's territory.

Theater: Fela!

I discovered Fela Kuti the same week I discovered Midnite, thanks to another mix-CD from the same source. Months later, I saw posters all over downtown Manhattan announcing FELA! with the very special name Bill T. Jones at the bottom. I have been following Bill T.'s work for awhile, first having heard him speak when I was a dance student at Berkeley, up until reviewing Serenade/The Proposition nearly ten years later. He is one of the few artists I have ever encountered whose work is driven by an immense intellect, expressive of political rage, modulated by honest emotions, and sculpted by rigorous aesthetic standards. He is—and I say this without shame—the perfect artist.

How did Bill T. become Bill T.? Certain biographical facts are helpful, as are certain habits. While studying dance at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the 1970s, the big, black Bill T. met a little red haired theater student named Arnie Zane. They became lovers, then partners, forming Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company. Their work played with their difference of shape, size, and color, and their sameness of gender—some of the first modern dance that addressed gay issues. In the late 1980s, AIDS took Arnie from Bill T. and the rest of the world, but the company still bears both names together. And yes, Bill T. is HIV-positive.

He is also a voracious reader, and an intellectual task-master. When he starts thinking about a new work, before stepping foot in the studio, he reads. For his last cycle of works—three pieces on Abraham Lincoln, of which Serenade/The Proposition was a part—he read over 100 books on Lincoln and the American Civil War. He made his dancers read, too. In fact, as if they were high school students, each had to choose an individual figure from the period to research, bringing their intellectual and emotional knowledge of that personage to the studio.

I am certain that during the creation of Fela!, he and his cast worked in the same way. Kuti was a performer, but he was, perhaps more importantly, a political figure. I don't doubt that Jones identifies with him in some ways—both artists whose intellects refuse to let them igore injustice, both black, both HIV-positive. The first half of Fela! is mostly fun: an introduction to the sounds that make up his Afrobeat music, a dance lesson that gets the audience up on its feet and ticking its collective pelvis around an imaginary clock. Toward the end of the first act, though, things get dark, as we see the Nigerian government becoming uncomfortable with Kuti's power. It is in the second act that we see Bill T. as we know him really come forth. Fela's personal compound, where he lived with his mother and many wives, was literally besieged by the police; his women were raped; his mother was killed. For this scene, mugshots of members of the female ensemble are projected above the stage, and the women, one-by-one, tell us—in one cool sentence each—what the police did to them. Here is Bill T. demanding heart and mind from his dancers, as well as body.

The show is as good as a two hour Broadway show about Fela Kuti can be. That is not to say that it is perfect; the confines of telling such a big story in such a short time make for a show that is a bit episodic, conveyed in one of my less-favorite formats: flashback. And oddly, Jones does not address Kuti's HIV-status, which I found strange, even disingenuous. That said, the scale of Broadway, in exchange for what it takes, offers quite a lot in exchange. Jones has long been integrating projection into his work, but it has never worked so seamlessly as it does here, bringing Fela's mother back from the dead when her portrait opens its eyes and turns to chide her boy on stage. In the past, Jones hasn't had the funding for production to match his imagination, but now that he is a Tony Award winner, he will continue to work on Broadway, and I have no doubt that he will carve greater and greater width down that strip of fluff and flashing lights for meaningful political and artistic discourse.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movies: Carne (1968)

One of the most well-known "collaborations" between Argentinian writer-director Armando Bo and his actress wife Isabel Sarli, Carne (which is not available on DVD) was recently offered to American audiences at Walter Reade Theatre's mini-retrospective of Sarli's work. Not knowing what to expect, other than an Argentinian Bridget Bardot, I went, finding myself in the rather awkward position of watching a soft-core porno at an art-house filled with stylish hipsters and film nerds eating popcorn. Forty years ago, this film played at theatres near 42nd street, where lonely men in the audience kept their hands busy with something else.

The film is disturbingly biographical, if you follow its extended metaphor. Sarli, 1955 Miss Argentina, was "discovered" by Armando Bo, and recorded her first nude scenes with him unwittingly. Recounting the story, she describes the way she told him she would not do a nude scene, and he promised she could wear a nude-colored swimsuit. "Later, when we were shooting the film in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle, needless to say, there was no swimsuit. I made them keep the camera very far away. I didn’t know anything at the time. I wasn’t even aware of zoom lenses and things like that. When I watched the film at the premiere, it was a terrible shock."

In Carne, Sarli plays Delicia, a meat plant worker who is raped in a tunnel by one of the men who works in the plant. She hides the fact from her lover (played by Bo), who seems to know that something is wrong, but spends too much time brooding to do anything about it. Soon, Delicia is raped again, by the same man (called Macho)—this time in a meat locker, on a cold, red, cow's carcass. This begins as an almost Hitchcockian suspense scene, in which she sees Macho's eyes between the dressed carcasses hanging from hooks, then his feet down below, and begins to hurry away (in her tight dress and high heels), as he chases her between the swinging rows of meat. But, it quickly devolves into a cheap and rather disgusting soft-core rape scene, which today's audience is supposed to gleefully watch in the name of "camp."

But there's actually very little artistic delight to be had in this "exploitation" film, because it is so truly exploitative. This isn't art or games or an empowered woman playing with her sexuality on-screen. As the plot goes on, Macho kidnaps Delicia and takes her, in a meat truck, to the outskirts of town, where he has collected a handful of his friends and coworkers for a game of cards, a few drinks, and—for a price—a turn at Delicia. She is locked in the truck with a small cot. Macho is the first to enter, and he rapes her a third time. When the next man comes in, she is shocked, still unaware of her fate. She tries to reason with him, but is unsuccessful. Four more men follow. Only once is she given a break—in the strangest of scenes—by a man who admits in a high-pitched voice that he is a homosexual, with a crush on Macho.

All the while, Delicia's behavior is very strange. She sits simpering on the bed, begging not to be taken, while tossing her hair and caressing her (extremely large) breasts. After she is let go, she runs home and takes a long shower; Bo's camera follows her here, where she again writhes and caresses herself as she flashes back to the ordeal she has just experienced.

At the film's conclusion, Delicia's lover finally realizes what has been happening, and finds Macho, challenging him to a fist-fight. He gives the wrong-doer a good beating, kicking him into a muddy creek. This is the extent of his punishment. Delicia and her lover go off to live, we assume, happily ever after.

Sarli and Bo made more than 25 films "together," and though this is the only one I've seen, both from it and from what I've read, I gather that he was no better than a pimp. Sarli describes Bo's brilliant ability to write a script in a few hours, but what little script Carne has was quite clearly written by a hack—and I refuse to blame the translated subtitles. What Bo did—take a beautiful naive, sweet girl, and put her naked body onscreen for the delectation of strange men, against her will, to line his own pockets—is what Macho did. No wonder it was so easy for Bo to write this script; it's a confession. What breaks my heart is that Sarli loved Bo nevertheless, sharing her body with the public against her will because he told her she had to. She had offers to work with major studios, to take control of her own career, but she refused, devoted to her abuser to his death.

It may be trendy to watch dated porn as art, but Sarli is deeply unsettling onscreen. Her discomfort and ambivalence are more palpable than the "sexual frisson" for which she is famous. The notion that I could watch a woman willingly suffer this kind of abuse and giggle, or say "hmm," stroking my chin, is ludicrous. Equally distressing was the presentation of the series, by its female curators, who did not for a moment problematize Sarli and Bo's working relationship, instead giggling about their memories of watching their first Sarli films illicitly, on Argentinian cable television. If films like this are going to be presented to a thinking audience, they had better be contextualized.

Music: Midnite at S.O.B.'s

I'm writing about this show nearly two months after the fact; I admit, I've been remiss, and I have excuses that you either already know, or don't care about. The one applicable excuse, though, is that I've been in somewhat of a quandary as to how to describe this experience. I was introduced to Midnite by a handcrafted mix-CD without track listings. I eventually found out that all the very best songs came from the same people: Midnite—and, because I am the luckiest, the person who made me this mix-CD also bought tickets for the Midnite show at S.O.B.'s.

When I used to go to late-night movies at Film Forum, and would descend into the Houston Street 1-train subway stop, I would always hear a pulsing beat leaking out of the vents of a utility room off the tracks. I used to think, "Damn, that MTA knows how to party!", picturing a secret break room behind those doors with a bumping stereo system. Eventually, I realized that the beat was coming from S.O.B.'s, a club right up above the subway station. That was years ago, but this was the first night I had ever been inside. It's a small club, wider than it is deep, which is good, because basically everyone is right up in front of the band—and Midnite is a band you want to be up close to.

I don't know much about them and I won't pretend to know more than I do; what you need to know is that they are from St. Croix and they are the antidote to what Reggae has become under the tutelage of Sean Paul. But at that opposite end of the spectrum, they don't merely inhabit what sound Bob Marley once did; they are something completely their own: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and totally rocking. Vaughn Benjamin is not a singer; he is a prophet. Streams of language bubbled up out of his mouth, and the rastas in the audience, with their dreadlocks bundled up in scarves, watched with reverence. A few times that night, while the band played over four hours straight, one of the older rastas in the audience, a lumbering man with dreadlocks down past his waist, held his locks up to Benjamin, simultaneously giving and receiving blessing.

We danced and danced and danced. A few times, I recognized a series of lyrics that linked back to mix-CD, but I don't know what songs were played; the experience was too organic for the "performance" of tracks. Not was the show like one of the drug-fueled interminable meanderings of, say, Phil Lesh—each moment was startlingly lucid, deep, memorable. I still see Vaughn's eyes glowing with a knowledge simultaneously dark and bright as he looked out and through us, holding the mic in fine, slender hands up close to his lips, murmuring warnings, instructions, and dedications.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Two: Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Marcel has matured much between Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove. I found myself able to push through Swann's Way with some ease only because the child-neuroaesthete* steps aside (and back in time) for over 200 pages to narrate the story of Swann (an older, more well-manicured neuroaesthete) falling in love with Odette de Crécy, a social-climbing common courtesan. Swann's fits of jealous anxiety are clearly designed to mirror young Marcel's fits of longing, first for his mother, then for Gilberte, daughter of Swann and Odette. But by Within a Budding Grove, though Marcel still thinks all too often of Gilberte, his desire has become sexual. After an impromptu wrestling match in the early pages of the novel, during which he experiences orgasm without quite realizing it (a passage I must admit I find far more compelling than that of the madeleine; call me a boor), Marcel begins to visit Gilberte at home, and transfers his obsession from the capricious girl to her more worldly mother.

Not long after (two years pass with a page turn), he leaves Paris for Balbec, a seaside resort town, with his grandmother. Sent there for his health, Marcel indeed achieves new heights of physical robustness, lusting interchangeably after various members of a "little band of girls" vacationing at the same resort. He eventually singles out their ringleader, Albertine Simonet, for his intrepid sexual advances (which meet with her vehement rebuff). Once Albertine leaves (not long after the rebuff), the band dissipates, and Marcel lurks around the half-closed hotel at the season's end.

The other object of Marcel's obsessive affection is Saint-Loup, nephew to his grandmother's friend, the noble Mme de Villeparisis. Writing now from the perspective of having read ahead slightly, Marcel's affection for Saint-Loup will transfer to his aunt the Duchesse de Guermantes, in The Guermantes Way, but until then, Marcel's affection for Saint-Loup, without ever overtly expressing sexuality, seems to foreshadow the author's homosexuality. He writes about Saint-Loup's breezy manner, his fine—if scandalously informal—attire, the figure he cuts walking across the beach, and the messy affair the young man has with a mistress in Paris. At this stage in his personal development, Marcel desires Saint-Loup by desiring to be like Saint-Loup, making do with desiring to be near Saint-Loup. Letting on, perhaps, homosexual tendencies of his own, Saint-Loup takes Marcel as his dear friend.

At this point, I will address something to which I alluded in my post on Swann's Way, which is the pronunciation of the author's name. It was around the time of my reading of Within a Budding Grove that I began to notice that, when I said "I'm reading 'Proost,'" people looked at me with some confusion, until I clarified, "Prowst," and they said, oh, yes. In fact, I had mentioned to my Francophile friend, who had just spent the last six months in Paris, that I was reading 'Proost,' and he responded, in an academic tone I assumed was ironic, "Uh, I believe it is pronounced 'Prowst.'" I laughed, because I thought he was mocking the many who mispronounce the name, but he did not laugh with me, leaving me with an empty sense of dread. Had I been mispronouncing Proust myself? Wikipedia tells me just what I like to hear: I'm right. "French pronunciation: [maʁsɛl pʁust]" in which the upside-down R is like "red" and the "u" is like "zoo."

If this entry seems to stop abruptly where it only ought to pause, I've successfully passed to you the sensation one feels when coming to the end of Within a Budding Grove. Thus, one must have The Guermantes Way on hand to pick up immediately, as if only turning a page between chapters. The two are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, I will need to get through 600 more pages of reading before offering you the next installment; sincere apologies.

*Yes, a made-up word, eliding "neurasthenic" with "aesthete," both of which apply and seem to be regularly co-symptomatic.

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume One: Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust

What I remember most strongly about my first weeks of college is the revelation of the lacunae in my learning. In comparison with my high-school peers, I was (without knowing it), quite a Proustian character: constantly reading, physically weak, and intellectually smug. I had read from Henry Miller and Kerouac to Kafka and Dostoevsky, all in my free time and in addition to school work (my school had a bias toward Shakespeare on one end and contemporary novelists of color on the other, leaving the great swath of what I considered literature unattended); I thought myself very well-read. But I sat down for the second lecture of my Existential Philosophy in Literature and Film course with my new friend Suzanne, and her friend (a bleached blond, name-dropping homosexual) told us that he was reading Marcel Proust's (pronounced "Proost's") À la recherche du temps perdu. He told us in French, even though he was reading it in English. He told us that his goal in life was to read all seven volumes.

Not many weeks later, in my Environmental Design Writing About Space workshop, our professor invoked Proust's (again, pronounced "Proost's") madeleine, as if it were some iconic trope we should all recognize (it is). He gave us, as a reading that night, the introductory pages of Swann's Way, in which Marcel, given a cup of lime-blossom tea in which to soak his madeleine cookie, begins to recall his youth in Combray. I didn't find it particularly moving. My last year at Berkeley, I wanted to take the Proust senior seminar, in which all seven volumes were read, but I was already pushing it by taking four English courses in one semester (ill-advised), and in order to graduate that year, my senior seminar needed to simultaneously satisfy the dreaded pre-1800s requirement. And so, I had to put off Proust.

Nearly ten years later, this lacuna remained in my literature knowledge. I found a tattered copy of Volume I of the silver-bound Vintage edition* in my building's laundry room and began reading. My intention was, at that point, to read all seven volumes on end, but from the start, it was a slog. I hated Marcel. He was neurotic, obsessive, and above all, long-winded. For fifty pages on end, he tossed and turned in bed, longing for his mother's kiss on his cheek, plotting ways to send for her, but too anxious to take action lest he offend his father. I finished Swann's Way and started Within a Budding Grove. I didn't blog about Swann's Way because I had so little of consequence to say that I planned to simply write one blog entry upon completing the work in its entirety. But, wearied that Marcel had transferred his obsession with his mother to an obsession with Gilberte Swann, I set the book aside for a time and never picked it up again. Hence, Swann's Way went unblogged.

A year later, I encountered another copy of Swann's Way in my laundry room. For some reason, I mistakenly thought this was the second volume, which I had never finished, so decided to start the project again. Luckily, it was in fact the first volume of the Modern Library edition, and I was able to reread with occasional rapture something I had once dismissed. Enough had shifted in my life that I can't be certain that the revised translation is what changed things, though having had such an experience with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I remain open to that possibility. I emerged from Swann's Way fresh enough that I was able to proceed directly through the Modern Library's Within a Budding Grove, and though I haven't had time until just now to write about either of these, I am now a quarter into The Guermantes Way. My only challenge now will be to address the contents of Swann's Way here without eliding them with Within a Budding Grove. Or have I here already written enough?

*A note on the volumes: Proust's novel is written in seven volumes. The 1982 Vintage edition, which was used by Berkeley's Proust senior seminar, is entitled A Remembrance of Things Past, and collapses these into three silver-bound bricks. Volume I contains Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove; Volume II The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain; and Volume III The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained. The Modern Library's 1993 edition, entitled In Search of Lost Time, is in six volumes: Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive and The Fugitive together in one cover, and Time Regained. For this edition, D. J. Enright has revised the original C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation found in the Vintage edition, and is responsible for the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in titles. In 2005, Penguin UK released a new edition featuring all new translations, edited by Christopher Prendergast and featuring further title shifts: Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve, The Guermantes Way, translated by Mark Treharne, Sodom and Gomorrah, translated by John Sturrock, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark, The Fugitive, translated by Peter Collier, and Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson. I would be thrilled by the prospect of all-new translations by various authors if I had already read the "standard" translation years ago, but I don't think this is the place to start, and will see The Modern Library through before proceeding to anything too fresh.

Movies: Double Take

Unlike Nightfall, which I saw the same night as Double Take, at the beginning of June, Johan Grimonprez's pastiche may require two month's of consideration to understand. Unfortunately, it didn't compel me to give it this kind of thought.

Perhaps my expectations were unfair. I had read about the film before, and understood it to be a collage of found footage synthesized into a plot-driven movie in which Alfred Hitchcock encounters his double, addressing his famous instruction: "If you meet your double, you should kill him." In fact, Double Take is a film-studentish riff that for some reason parallels Hitchcock's self-acknowledged demise in televisionland (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) with the televised conversations between Nikita Kruschev and Richard Nixon, and later John F. Kennedy (at which debates, unaccidentally, the availability of television in every American home is no accident). Hitchcock impersonator Ron Burrage plays himself playing Hitchcock in 1980, encountering (vintage footage) Hitchcock in 1962. They converse over a cup of tea; one finds himself poisoned and dies. Mushroom clouds punctuate the picture.

Perhaps there is interesting potential for an in-depth analysis of Kruschev/Nixon/JFK as doubles (except that they are three rather than two, Nixon is far from JFK's double, and so if Nixon were Kruschev's double, JFK could not be, and vice-versa, so. . . ), but this film does not offer any thorough analysis on the topic. Instead, in amateur fashion, it presents a number of amusing if not potentially interesting selections of footage (clips from Hitchcock's various introductions to his television program, scenes from The Birds, vintage advertisements for Folger's instant coffee, documentary footage of the Soviet and American leaders at the World's Fair) and leaves it to the audience to suss out what the connection is. Die-hard Hitchcock fans will cling to the Easter eggs Grimonprez plants along the way (look, it's a bird! Oh, isn't that Bernard Hermann? I would recognize that soundtrack anywhere!), but ultimately, the film is an artistic exercise flaccidly executed with little relevance.

Movies: Nightfall

I saw this movie two months ago at Film Forum. It wasn't so challenging that it's taken me two months to digest it, nor was it so tedious that it's taken me two months to rally my sense of responsibility to write. I've just had a busy two months.

Sitting down to write today, I had, I admit, forgotten the title, and, in fact, most of the plot. The only thing I remembered vividly was the action-packed climax: a fist-fight that tumbles out of the driver's seat of a snowplow—the snowplow still proceeding voraciously toward a lonely lean-to, in which the heroine and another character are bound at wrist and ankle. The shot that sticks is the dead-on, full-screen, look into the maw of the plow, which fills the contemporary audience with drunken giggles, though I imagine the 1957 audience sat on the edges of their seats with their eyes wide open, or else closed them, shrinking away in terror.

But how did we get here? The lurchingly sweet Aldo Ray (I always think he would make a good Frankenstein's monster; his body is too big for his personality) has suited up the innocent Anne Bancroft in winter hiking gear, traipsing into the snowy wilderness of Wyoming in search of a doctor's bag stuffed with cash. The money isn't his, but accidentally fell into his hands the winter before, when he was camping with his friend (incidentally, a doctor). When the two of them stopped to look into a roadside accident, they unwittingly found themselves fraternizing with a couple of criminals—bank robbers on the lam, whose bag full of cash happens to look just like the doctor's bag. Not only do the robbers take the campers' car, but they shoot the doc dead with his rifle, and try to kill Aldo Ray, too. He escapes, taking what he thinks is the doctor's bag, but what is actually the bag of money. Somewhere along the way, he stops to sleep in a lean-to, and forgets the bag out in the snow, never realizing its contents.

Months later, Ray is a hunted man. The bank robbers think he has their money, and the bank's insurance investigator thinks so too, though he has a hunch that Ray is innocent. Bancroft unwittingly steps into the middle of this web when she lets Ray pay for her martini and subsequent dinner at a lonely restaurant in the middle of the night—the same night the robbers find him and drive him out to the waterfront to deliver an information-seeking beating. He escapes, but knows that the only way out of this mess is to find the money himself, which is how he finds himself rolling around in the snow, wrestling in front of an unmanned moving snowplow. The bank robber, I'm afraid to say, becomes food for the beast.

Ultimately, the film is basically as generic a noir as its title implies (I at last remembered the title, but had doubts that it was right, it being so generic). For those with a particular interest in really bad bad guys, bank robber number two is a little gone in the head, with a penchant for torture. For those with an interest in 1950s haute couture, Bancroft plays a model, and one of the better chase scenes involves the robbers crashing her rendezvous with Ray at a classy department store's garden fashion show. And of course, for those with an interest in snowplows, it is a must-see.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Books: The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome, by Denis Noble

When writing non-fiction, the author must make assumptions about his audience, so that he conveys the right depth and detail of information. Denis Noble, though, seems not to have asked himself whether he was writing for a scientific or lay audience. Sometimes, he gives maddeningly obvious information, reminding us, for example, that the four bases comprising the DNA molecule are known in shorthand as A, T, G, and C, and that DNA is shorthand for deoxyribonucleic acid. This I learned in school when I was sixteen. He tells us that a millisecond is one-thousandth of a second. Then, perhaps forgetting that we readers are too uneducated to understand simple power prefixes without his assistance, he launches into a description of how the heart's pacemaker function works by a feedback system of electrical charges, showing us graphs of cell voltage in milivolts against potassium, mixed ion, and calcium channels in nanoamps, which are nearly illegible to a layperson.

I think that Noble's trouble is that he's not writing science for the layperson or the scientist; he is a scientist with strong humanist tendencies, railing against his less-humanist colleagues, at anyone who will listen. Noble wants badly to present his philosophical ideas in a way that seems scientific, so he uses one of literature's staple techniques: the extended metaphor, which allows one to build two parallel columns of data that correspond one-to-one, preserving the clean, linear aesthetic of science. Life, he tells us, is like music.

But things get messy, because Noble neglected to draw a schema for his one-to-one correspondences before he began. He presents DNA as information that gives rise to a human in the same way that a compact disk contains information that gives rise to music—but only when inserted into the correct stereo system. Thus, as a CD is silent without its player, DNA creates no life without a womb and its chemical inputs.

This is fine, but things fall apart when he tries to build the correspondence from the bottom up. DNA codes for life in the same way that a score codes for music; a score exists, but without the musical instrument and musician, the score is silent. In my lay understanding of biology, the correlate for the instrument would be pre-existing tissues, the cells that surround the DNA, and the musician would be the chemical signals that flush these cells and drive DNA to do its work of dividing and coding and protein-building. But I haven't taken biology for more than ten years now.

Noble tells us no: "If there is a score for the music of life, it is not the genome," [italics mine] because "DNA never acts outside the context of the cell." And yet, as I've worked it out above, neither does a score "work" outside the context of the instrument. So, what is the problem? Likely, there is none, for Noble then flips back to the original construct, describing how "protein and cell machinery works to stimulate and control transcription. . . this is what 'plays' the genes." So DNA is again the score. But then, in the chapter on the Conductor (how does a Conductor fit in?! Certainly, music can be played without one. . .), Noble reminds us that "we have also developed the metaphor of the genome as a [pipe] organ, which needs someone to play it." So, wait. Now, the genome is the instrument? What is the score? Noble attempts to clarify: "We should think rather of a 'virtual conductor'—the system behaves 'as if' it has a conductor. The genes behave 'as though' they are being 'played' by this conductor—rather like some orchestras that play without a separate conductor." But Noble had told us that "the organ is not a program that writes. . . the Bach fugues. Bach did that." So corrodes our tidy one-to-one correspondence.

Clearly, what Noble means by the sentence quoted at the beginning of the preceding paragraph is that "the genome itself is not the music of life." It is in his penultimate chapter that he clarifies this, realizing his true goal: to demonstrate that "the self"* can not be located in one isolated part of our being, be it DNA, a section of the brain, or any other proposed lone location. "The self," he tells us, is "an integrative process that can be deconstructed;" not a mere "neurological object." This is his reason for insisting on an integrated "systems" biology, which doesn't assume bottom-up or top-down causation, but, in a much more Zen way, understands life as a feedback loop of being. The messy music metaphors, it turns out, were completely unnecessary in the making of this point.

*philosophically speaking

Dance: Christopher Wheeldon's Estancia at the New York City Ballet (with Danses Concertantes and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet)

Tuesday, June 1st was the second showing of Estancia, one of seven new ballets commissioned this season by the New York City Ballet under the "Architecture of Dance" rubric, for which Santiago Calatrava has created the sets. I expected something modern, kinetic, and minimal. I've seen Wheeldon's work before, and while he is too much of a traditionalist for my tastes, for the antiquarian NYCB, he's a young Turk, more interested in static shapes than traveling jumps. Estancia is the first time I've seen him revert to one of ballet's most cloying traditions: plot. Though it can't be much longer than 20 minutes, this ballet proposes a love story in the Argentine Pampas, between a city boy and a country girl, the latter rejecting the advances of the former until he proves his manhood by conquering one of the region's wild horses.

Strictly choreographically, Estancia offers a few stunning passages. The five dancers in the roles of wild horses embody that particular equine breath, the trembling chest, pawing feet, and tossed head of the wild creature that first refuses to be conquered, until its spirit is broken, and its feet fall into a measured trot once the bridle is fitted. In partnering horse-dancers with people-dancers, Wheeldon creates exceptionally fresh and captivating pas-de-deux, impressionistic sequences of shapes describing not only the physical interaction of the human and equine body, but the exchange of power between the two. This break from the standard pas-de-deux, in which the male dancer supports the female as she turns innumerable circles around herself, is very welcome.

That said, the piece is not so modern as we might have hoped. I would have happily watched 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour of plotless human-equine interactions, but this wouldn't satisfy the typical NYCB audience. But, because this is a piece set in the country, the jeweled and feathered pomp native to the theater would not suffice either. Wheeldon takes recourse, oddly, to the free-wheeling sun-and-dust palette of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Estancia has the feeling of a ballet sequence in a Broadway show staged in the 1950s, Carousel or Oklahoma!; Estancia! would in fact be a title more fitting in tone.

As for Calatrava, what is his contribution? Not the kinetic, architectural sculpture I had expected, but a watercolor-esque painted backdrop of swaying grasses and a few stark palms. The show is beautifully lit, and as the action occurs over a 24 hour period, the backdrop does glow beautifully with the first pink light of dawn, when the city boy and country girl wake up to find themselves lovers, and discovered.

I can forgive Estancia for not meeting my expectations, for it interested me nevertheless, but cannot forgive NYCB for sandwiching the piece between two antiquated Balanchine pieces, the first a parade of harlequin-like trios who present us with their "charming" escapades as if we were royals and they our court entertainers, and the last an example of that airless jeweled and feathered nonsense, an interminable series of emotionless drawing room postures better suited to a fancy-dress photo shoot than the stage of art or entertainment. What is the point of commissioning new works, bringing together contemporary artists, if you are going to then subject your audience to offensively outmoded selections both before and after, poisoning both any anticipation and any lingering sweetness from the piece that is new? Fie.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Movies: Two in the Wave

I've long felt obligated to like Godard, and I've struggled with that sense of obligation, because I've not really found his films enjoyable. Thanks to the documentary now showing at Film Forum, I have a better understanding of why: my tastes are too entrenched in the petit bourgeois.

Two in the Wave follows the rise of the Nouvelle Vague through the growing friendship, and after 1968, the growing rift, between Godard and Truffaut, the filmmakers who most defined the movement. Godard himself was petit bourgeois, Truffaut a poor miscreant, and they met writing criticism for André Bazin's Cahiers du Cinéma in the late 1950s. Certain they could do better than their stuffy, tired countrymen, they seduced producer Georges de Beauregard into backing Breathless (written by Truffaut, directed by Goddard, assisted by Chabrol). From that point forward, the movement was fairly well-defined: rules were for breaking (jump cuts during tracking shots? Of course!), and cinema was of, by, and for the youth.

As 1968 changed everything for everyone, so too it changed the relationship between these two men. Let's be honest now: Godard is a total prick. You feel it watching La Chinoise, one of the most pretentious pieces of crap ever made, which might actually be good if it was edited down into a 20-minute ironic short. This is a pre-1968 film, and we already see Godard rejecting completely his bourgeois upbringing. The famed student-worker uprisings made him even more political. He wanted another new cinema, a cinema of the worker, and so he torched his friendship with Truffaut on political-aesthetic grounds. Truffaut still believed in art for beauty's sake, quoting Matisse, who lived through three wars but painted windows, women, and fishbowls nevertheless.

The Truffaut films I've seen (Jules et Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, and the post-'68 The Man Who Loved Women) I've found less unbearable, but still not particularly compelling. The fact is that I'm too stodgy for the New Wave, and I'm okay with that. I want elegance, efficiency, and most importantly, craft. If Breathless works, it's because of Belmondo's charisma, not because Godard used a wheelchair as a dolly.

Movies: All the President's Men

Nothing soothes the burn of a trans-Pacific flight like 1975 Pacino and 1976 Hoffman: the best actors the decade had on offer. Hoffman as Carl Bernstein shares his limelight not only with Redford as Bob Woodward (or Woodstein, as their editor at one point calls them), but with a killer screenplay based on those author's book on the Watergate scandal—something I never found very interesting until this film.

I don't find Nixon a particularly interesting character and haven't enjoyed any Nixon movies, but he's wisely left out of this film, which is really an investigative procedural more than a political drama. We already know that Nixon is at the bottom of the Watergate break-in, so are more concerned with whether or not our heroes at the Washington Post will finally get front-page exposure for their story, and whether they'll be able to find a source willing to go on the record. In short, the movie is as much about news room politics as it is about national politics, and, perhaps strangely, I find the former far more interesting, so appreciate that indulgence.

It's interesting to see how State of Play, another of my airplane movies, basically ripped off its entire strategy from All the President's Men. One would have thought, after more than 30 years of innovations and achievements in filmmaking, SoP would have been more compelling, but it's unfortunately not. I found it disappointing when I saw it, but now having seen what so clearly inspired it, I find it insulting.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Movies: Dog Day Afternoon

Wait. What is going on in this movie?! At first start, this appears to be a classic much entrenched in a traditional genre: the bank robbery gone wrong. Big-eyed, baby Pacino, smooth of face and trembling of hand, is Sonny, the classic no-good greaser set to rob a bank with a pair of skittish and incompetent companions; the sweaty bank manager and the tellers are taken hostage, and like all good 1970s hostages (see the original Taking of Pelham 1,2,3) well represent their types: the mouthy one who takes control, the quiet one who calls her husband, the vivacious one who is found in the bathroom putting on her make-up. The semi-competent cop comes to talk Sonny down, and Sonny demands that they bring him his wife. And who shows up? Not the fat mother of Sonny's two kids, but a frail, trembling homosexual in a bathrobe with painted nails and a Jewfro, whose most recent residence is Bellevue.

The fact that Sonny is a homosexual who married Leon in a traditional ceremony (in which Leon wore a floor-length white gown—we are shown a picture), in spite of already being married with children (i.e. not divorced, but still married), and that Leon's desire for a $2,000 sex change is one of Sonny's incentives for robbing the bank (which, by the way, has no money, since the truck has already come and picked up all but the petty cash) is treated surprisingly casually, considering that this film was made in 1975. Perhaps we are expected, since it's based on a true story, to just accept facts as facts, but it's hard for me to imagine audiences 35 years ago, going to see a bank robbery movie starring Al Pacino—the Al Pacino they already know from The Godfather—and not balking at his playing a homosexual. . . aside from the fact that he's not a very convincing homosexual, and relates to Leon more like an indulgent older brother.

Movies: Boy

New Zealanders were mad about Taika Waititi's new film*, probably because they have pride for their own. For them, it seemed to be a sweetly honest depiction of life in the East Cape; to me, it was more of a charming appropriation of Wes Anderson's signature, featuring imaginative Maori children living in a poor, dysfunctional family rather than imaginative Caucasian (grown) children living in wealthy, dysfunctional families.

Boy is our hero (my first bone to pick is the blatant everymanism of his moniker, which I find flat and aesthetically displeasing, despite the irony that the character is more a man than his father, the film's real boy (in the term's most negative sense)). He introduces us to his small, warm world: his quiet, creative little brother, his cousins, his friends, his crush, his bully, his mother's grave, and his grandmother, who leaves him in charge of the household to go to a neighboring town for a few days. As soon as she's gone, Boy's father (played by the director), a mythical creature, blows in with the wind, bringing two no-good friends, a crappy muscle car, and a hunger for a plastic bag of cash he buried somewhere in the yard before going to jail years ago. Boy is transfixed, blind to his father's lazy desperation, until a series of sweetly sad events bring about his disillusionment.

James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, and the other kids cast in the film are brilliant, shifting from exuberant to wary to deflated with natural ease, and they make the film worth whatever it's worth. Waititi, though, like the character he plays in the film, will need to grow up a bit, and do his own creative work, if he's going to make something of himself.

*See, for some reason, "Taika Cohen" on IMDB, even though Taika uses the surname Waititi in Boy's credits.

Movies: Wall Street

Thanks to Air New Zealand's personal entertainment devices, which offer 78 films, contemporary, foreign, and classic, I was able to do some catching up on the '70s and '80s. Wall Street was likely on offer in anticipation of the sequel due this fall, and I chose it based on a poorly recalled exchange between two of my best and smartest friends on Facebook (they were actually discussing Glengarry Glen Ros, which I've not seen, so therefore cannot say whether my mis-recollection was forgivable).

That said, I don't know whether any film more completely epitomizes the '80s: it thinks its hot stuff, but its all flash and no content, just like the blond and leggy Daryl Hannah's Darien, whose hero is Laura Ashley. Forget Gordon Gekko's speeches, Martin Sheen's working class exhortations; no scene in the film is more telling than that in which Darien renovates hero Bud Fox's Upper East Side apartment (a hideous post-war monstrosity in a building that no contemporary financier would condescend to enter) with false exposed brick, gold leaf-flecked moldings, and Keith Haring-meets-Jean Michel Basquiat canvasses, after which they make passionate love in silhouette. Shoulder pads and perms you can get in Die Hard, but only Wall Street demonstrates clearly the 1980's perspective on how to hook a big fish. Oh, how I would love to write a paper on gender, sex, and space in the filmic 1980s, contrasting Wall Street with She's Gotta Have It: so much fodder! White/black, masculine/feminine, Manhattan/Brooklyn, big studio/indie. . . it never stops!

The Royal Family, by William T. Vollman

This dark, degenerative epic is clearly Vollman's submission to the big-boy's club; clocking in at around 750 pages, it strides in scope alongside the works of Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster-Wallace. That said, it's contents are classic Vollman: location: San Francisco, particularly the Tenderloin; cast: prostitutes, pimps, johns, junkies, vagrants, with plenty of double- and triple-dipping into categories; plot: a man (at first possibly and increasingly likely of unsound mind), searches for a lost love, which search masks his true pursuit: a reason for living.

In a sense, then, this is a more developed version of Whores For Gloria, or perhaps a kind or prequel. We first meet private investigator Henry Tyler smoking crack with a prostitute while he questions her about the Queen of the Whores, whom he has been tasked by a client to find. But this is not a pulpy P.I. novel, a contemporary, seedy Dashiell Hammett. Although Tyler frequents the TL, pays prostitutes, and takes the occasional hit of rock, like WFG's Jimmy, he's less interested in the physical than emotional payoff of these activities; what he wants from these women are their stories, their companionship. If he shares their drugs or sex, it's only to gain their trust by entering their world.

One gets the sense early on that this won't be a detective novel; the simple search for the Queen won't support so many pages of text, and indeed, less than a third of the way into the novel, Tyler's client fires him, certain that the Queen is just a myth. Tyler continues the search anyway, driven by something he doesn't quite understand, but knows must be related to his illicit desire for his brother's Korean wife, Irene (Irene will, to Vollman insiders, reprise Jenny of The Blue Wallet in The Rainbow Stories). Irene, pregnant and unhappy with her unaffectionate, type-A husband (who, incidentally, has no love for his brother), commits suicide, sending Tyler down the chute of dark desperation. Along the way he will find and fall in love with the Queen of the Whores, who will ameliorate his pain by pissing* down his throat. Soon enough, though, she too will disappear, and Tyler will become a freight-train riding vagabond, traveling from squat to squat, asking once again if anyone has seen the Queen.

The height of the novel is the middle, in which Vollman develops the "royal family," the Queen, a small but strangely powerful black woman, ageless, whose breath is more potent than crack smoke, and whose saliva serves as a drug to the group of girls she cares for. These prostitutes—a violent blonde called Domino, a Mexican runaway whose street name is her real name, a girl called Strawberry who has a boyfriend (the Queen's right-hand-man Justin) in spite of her line of work, amongst others—stay together in a network of squats around the TL, the Inner Mission, South of Market, and occasionally across the Bay in Oakland when the heat is on, paying 10% of their take to the Queen's fund, which in turn helps them get well** when they don't have the cash, bails them out when they're arrested, and buys them protection—or at least retribution—when they are done wrong. Think of it as a union.

I've always felt that Vollman deals rather fairly with the subcultures he explores; the book is graphic in the extreme (sensitive readers, for example, will be horrified by the unflinching presentation of the character Dan Smooth, a child molester who goes long unpunished because his connections are of use to the police department in pursuing bigger criminals of his ilk), but Vollman never writes to condemn, nor does he write to titillate (though there may be slightly more titillation here than in his earlier works). Ultimately, the obsessive love that Tyler transfers from Irene to the Queen is a manifestation of his isolation, his sense that he doesn't fit in the world his brother so facilely inhabits. He lacks an internal driving force, and thus seeks it in a series of impossible affairs (cf. The Green Dress in TRS). And so, Tyler's crumbling world is quite tangible, and our feeling for it is pure tenderness. The demons here are not the prostitutes, nor the kindly if sloppy-drunk johns, but the justice system, which unjustly sets bail arbitrarily (Vollman proposes a prison triage system that sends junkies to rehab and the insane to asylum, rather than throwing them in a cell with actual criminals), and the capitalist abusers who parade as wholesome while hypocritically indulging their dark side (Tyler's brother John becomes Domino's customer; Tyler's client Brady, who instigates the search for the Queen, opens a Vegas casino called Feminine Circus, in which men hire "virtualettes" for sexual abuse; these virtualettes are said to be unreal, but they are, in fact, actual women, mostly mentally and physically disabled, who are bought into sexual slavery by Brady and used until they die).

Unquestionably, the work is dark, but it's not the smut for which one might mistake it, reading the first few pages. In pushing toward the epic, Vollman does indulge in a few excessively broad strokes, but if you look past the sequins on the street whore's miniskirt, you'll notice the dirt under her chipped fingernails.

*I considered using the more delicate "micturating," but it wasn't in keeping with Vollman's tone.

**in the narcotic sense

Friday, May 21, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Eight

It poured rain all yesterday afternoon, all last night, and so far today, all day today. Being in this country without my love is no good. Outside, the chickens are huddled under their blue chicken house, which is where I saw them yesterday. Why don't the chickens go inside the chicken house? I would hate to spend today huddled underneath our shack, where there is indeed a roomy hollow crawl space, where I could squat and shiver just like the chickens.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Seven

This afternoon, I drove Aldo to the airport for his flight back to the states (my flight isn't until tomorrow). Pulling his suitcase out of the trunk at the curb, the rubber seal around the inside came loose. We were in a hurry, so I shoved it back into place, kissed him goodbye, and got back in the car to park it while he got on the check-in line. We heard a honk from behind; the trunk was open. He closed it and ran inside. As I pulled away from the curb, I saw the open trunk bouncing behind me. I pulled over (into a bus stop) to fix it and a smoking man jumped up from his bench to close it for me. A bus behind me honked. The man closed the trunk, but it flew up again. He closed it again. It flew up again. He closed it hard and it stuck, and I drove to the parking lot without further trouble.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Six

Tonight, we had our goodbye dinner at No. 1 Chinese Seafood BBQ. I couldn't believe how many people were there; we took up two giant round tables, pushed together to create a kind of infinity sign. I was sitting next to Tristan, one of the boys from our big house, who is about 8 or 9 years old. I overheard his father, on the other side of the table, tell people that they had only been in the country for three years, which I hadn't realized. I asked Tristan where he had been born. "England," he said. I asked him if he had lived anywhere else. "Hong Kong," he said. "For how long?" I asked. "Eight days," he said. I asked him which place he liked best. "Hong Kong," he said. I asked why. "Because they have Legoland there," he said earnestly.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Five

A week ago, we caught a little mouse hanging out in our trash bag. We tied that trash bag up and put it in the rubbish bin outside. Today, I realized that not only was the rubbish bin full and stinky, but it was unlined by a big bag. Here, the rubbish truck will only pick up your rubbish if it is in a special gray bag, which is provided at the cost of $2 per bag (this is quite brilliant, as people are thus less wasteful). In any case, I had to transfer the little plastic baggies of trash piled in our bin into one of these gray bags. As I got to the bottom, I remembered the mouse bag, because there was a soggy sack of liquefied brown, seething with tiny, blind white worms. I thought about waiting for my man to come home to take care of it, but after much vacillation, I wrapped each of my hands in more plastic bags, put the lid on the trash can, turned the can upside down and then lifted it, and plucked the nasty bag up off the lid and flicked it into the gray bag, tying that sucker up. Then I washed everything, including me.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Four

Home alone with a sprained ankle and feeling very sorry for myself, I wanted nothing more than ice cream. I wanted a pint Ben & Jerry's, with more nuts and chunks and fudge ripples than actual ice cream, and I wanted to eat the entire thing from the container while I sat with my foot up on ice and watched a dreadful movie on our tiny TV set. So, I limped my way to the car, and drove two blocks to the dairy. The options were grim. There was no Ben & Jerry's, no Häagen-Dazs, no nothing in a pint, in fact, except for some generic gelato. There were some equally generic tubs of foamy stuff, and two freezers full of brightly packaged ice creams on sticks, none of which were appealing. I settled on something I'd seen advertised, which is a block of vanilla ice cream, one-half sandwiched between two not-very-chocolatey biscuits, and one-half dipped in milk chocolate and ground almonds. I ate it in the car and found it rather dissatisfactory.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Three

This afternoon, the family at the big house had a barbecue. We had a few glasses of wine as the sun set, and then started grilling. It was dark by the time we were ready to eat, but there were more guests than plates. Our hostess asked me to run down to our shack and get some more, and, in my haste to keep people from waiting hungrily, I ran down the hill to find the front door of our little house locked. In the dark, I skipped along the path that goes around to the back door, and then came down with a snap on my foot where there was an unexpected and unseen step down. I cried. It is said that most accidents happen close to home. It's rather ironic that I managed to go night-hiking unharmed, only to sprain my ankle the next day, five paces from my own front door.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-Two

This afternoon, we went to Karekare. I had a bad headache, so as we walked on the beach, I kept my eyes closed, with Aldo's arm around me (an exercise I'd done at summer camp as a kid, called a trust walk). When I eventually opened my eyes, he'd led me away from the beach to the wetlands where families of black swans live. We climbed a black sand dune and crossed a footbridge. Without realizing the time, we decided to walk back a different way, on the Hillary trail that follows the ridge behind the beach. Dusk fell. The climbing was hard and I was tired, but I knew that each minute I stopped to rest was a moment of daylight squandered, so I pushed on. Nevertheless, we spent over an hour hiking in the black night. There was no moon. Sometimes, I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I saw only the same darkness. This became a real trust walk, both of us shuffling slowly forward, single file, feeling for the trail through our soles. When I fell off the trail, wailing, I had no idea how far down the drop was from which Aldo pulled me back up.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty-One

The big news today is that the New Zealand government has apologized to Maori rugby players for having complied with South Africa's requirements during apartheid that the country only send white players to the world cup games in that place. Some years, South Africa did allow Maori players to come, but made them "honorary whites." This is revolting. The South African government apologized last week, and suggested that New Zealand apologize as well, and for some strange reason, a week of public conversations were required before this actually happened. I actually heard a panel discussion on public radio during which the speakers said that the government shouldn't apologize, because they were tired of our new culture of apology. This is revolting.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixty

Today, the cover story in the New Zealand Herald was about the gang-related "assault" of a four-year-old boy on the playground.* If, however, you actually read the article, you found that the assault consisted of a man taunting the child for wearing a red shirt, then poking him and pulling the shirt off. Now, I am not condoning this behavior, but is it really assault? This label strikes me more as a diagnosis for this country's particular hysteria; in the states, it would be headlined as child molestation or attempted kidnapping. The mayor was quoted as saying, "Gang colours are part of life in any town in New Zealand," which is the most absurd thing I've ever heard. A local mother, the paper stated, stopped dressing her two children (3 and 5) in red, "After she heard of an 80-year-old woman being abused for the colour of her jersey in downtown Whakatane." What?!

*Article here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Nine

Today it poured rain, so I couldn't do any washing. We slept in and went to the Packing Shed for brunch, where, for the first time, we sat inside, due to the weather. According to the sign taped up in the bathroom, if you want to sell your art at the Packing Shed, you should bring in 2-3 pieces to show to the owner. Indeed, the cafe is filled with 2-3 pieces each of different local artists' work, one of which was a very finely painted oil portrait of two chickens. I might take up chicken painting if I lived here permanently, too.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Eight

Tonight, Aldo was working in the lab quite late. Auckland closes up pretty early, but we were too tired to cook, and the only place we found open for dinner was a milk tea bar filled with trendy Asian youth playing cards. All of the waitresses had bangs, and none of them spoke comprehensible English. I haven't worn nail polish since my 8th grade graduation, but I was fixated by our waitress' manicure, which had mega-glitter tips. When we went to pay, Aldo asked to see her nails. "Bling bling!" she grinned, showing him her hands.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Seven

This morning, when we went out to the car, one of the chickens was in the driveway. "Chicken," I said, "What are you doing out here? Go back home." Instead, it walked out the gate and into the neighbor's yard. I took Aldo to the train station, and he said that I should probably get that chicken back inside and close the gates. When I got back home, I looked everywhere for that goddamned chicken, but I couldn't find it. All day, I've only seen two of the three chickens, and I am actually starting to worry about the darned thing.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Six

This morning, we took our reading to the Alleluia café in town; usually we walk there from Graham’s house, but today, since we were coming from home, we took the car and parked it around a big corner. We walked through a small park to get there, encountering a marble sculpture of a grave man dressed in robes and sandals, carrying a tablet, with. . . horns emerging from his curls. A plate notified us that this was Moses. Hmm. What is the degree of political correctness of horned Jews these days?

Books: The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell

In writing about Russell’s tome, it is not my place to address individually the thoughts of the philosophers whom he discusses. Instead, my goal is only to assess the degree of success the author achieves in his own assessment of these figures and their works, as well as to comment on some of the thoughts that the reading of this book inspired in me.

If those two sentences feel extremely lucid, logical, and measured, it is because I have spent the past month steeped in the style of the greatest academic writer I have ever encountered. Typically, the prospect of reading 750 pages of what appears to be something not unlike a textbook would be rather daunting, but Russell writes with such grace and wit that the book is a pleasure. In fact, I find myself wishing that he had written a companion volume—the History of Eastern Philosophy—as well as a History of Western Art, a History of Western Economics, a History of Western Music, et cetera ad infinitum. Ideally, I would like to learn the history of the whole wide world, according to Bertrand Russell.

He’s not perfect—in the chapters on Plato, for example, he very uncharacteristically shuttles back and forth between describing Plato’s understanding of both “God” and “the gods,” without ever clarifying what that difference means, and whether Plato is the first monotheist in western philosophy’s trajectory. Furthermore, he leaves out one of my favorite philosophers—Søren Kierkegård—but includes other thinkers (e.g. Byron) who were not, technically, philosophers—though he does make a strong argument for such inclusions. But, considering the scope of the task, he is near enough.

Not having read many of his primary sources myself, I cannot say whether the strong focus on metaphysics (as opposed, for example, to ethics, which, though it is in some cases discussed, does not receive equal attention, though a pragmatist like myself would deem it far more important) belies a personal penchant of the author, or derives purely from the primary interests of the philosophers whom he discusses. I can say that, after a cursory examination, philosophers, on the whole, have quite absurd metaphysical tendencies. I could not, in fact, bring myself to agree with the comprehensive propositions—metaphysical, ethical, or otherwise—of any philosopher discussed until I reached the section on Locke. I was quite taken by Locke’s measured relativism (which I found to be not unlike Russell’s own), and even copied out a quotation which would have been good reading for President Bush (W.) on the eve of his Iraq invasion.* But, as the chapter moved on to illustrate Locke’s metaphysics, I was again stymied.

When I was a small child, I used to ask my father, a scientist and an atheist, where people came from. My curiosity was no doubt due in part to what I was learning in kindergarten at my Catholic school. This question of mine would lead us, always, through a long chain of technically unsound but generally meaningful evolutionary derivations. “People came from chimpanzees.” “Where did chimpanzees come from?” “Chimps came from smaller primates, like monkeys.” “Where did monkeys come from?” “Monkeys came from smaller mammals,” and so on, through sea creatures, and invertebrates, and single-celled organisms. The last two questions were always the same: “Where did the single-cell organism come from?” “Energy.” “Where did energy come from?” “It was always there.”

It was always there. So, I would say to him, there is God, he’s just energy; but my dad would shake his head and tell me no, energy in its pure state is not cohesive, it’s not a being, and it hasn’t the will of the thing that people call “God.” For a time, I believed what I was taught in school—that there was God, a god who had created me intentionally because of his love for me, individually, and that he had a plan for me, which he would reveal to me, when I was older. Later, I looked at the world, with its panoply of religions and ethical structures, its countries, its economies, its starving masses; I looked at the sky with its billions of stars and felt how small even the starving masses are, relative to the scope of the universe, and I condemned my earlier beliefs as naïve, the product of my tendency to passively accept information provided by authority figures. Anyway, what had been there at the beginning, be it energy or otherwise, ceased to matter. In fact, nothing mattered. I don’t mean that in the depressive’s sense. I simply mean that, ultimately, when considered against the scale of the universe, and the necessary infinitude of space and time, our lives here on Earth, in fact the existence of the entire planet itself, were random and meaningless. Though this thinking terribly depressed my mother, I, having read the portions of Nietzsche in which God is proclaimed dead, thus freeing all men to become gods themselves, found it rather liberating.

Russell divides his History into three sections: the Greeks, the Christians, and the Moderns. I tried, throughout the first two thirds of the book, and even half of the final third, to understand the various thinkers’ metaphysics, be the world comprised of something as simple as fire or as esoteric as windowless monads. In discussing this with Aldo, we became engaged in a conversation about quantum physics (which has always hurt my brain, and which I’ve never liked), including Schrödinger's cat (which I refuse to accept, for the cat knows whether the cat is alive or dead, and it matters to the cat), and the proposition that, in a vacuum containing only a single electron, that electron could be measured as simultaneously inhabiting more than one position (which I also refuse to accept, although I accept that there is a possibility for that electron to inhabit more than one position, and that, as additional electrons are introduced into the vacuum, that range of possibilities decreases. Frankly, even if an electron does inhabit multiple positions simultaneously in a vacuum, it does not matter to me, because we do not live in a vacuum; thus, metaphysically speaking, the point seems to me moot).

Having had this conversation the night before, now sitting alone in our friend’s living room in the dying light of day, pondering the infinitude of space and time, I had a momentary lapse of reason. Everything is made out of electrons. As if I had smoked some drug that I have never smoked, this suddenly concerned me greatly. Why? I asked myself. Why are there electrons? I found this extremely disconcerting and, to the best of my understanding of the term, tripped for about ten minutes or so as the room went from orange to blood red to dark purple to black with the setting sun. Somehow, I was able to pull myself out of this upon realizing that electrons don’t actually exist per se, but only as a way that we measure energy. And I had long ago accepted that “Energy was always there,” after all, the Law of Conservation of Energy states that Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another. And, since energy exists now, and it cannot be created, it was always there, Q.E.D.

Furthermore, I decided that, yes, at a most basic level, I am made of nothing but energy, and that the curtain hanging against that window, too, is made of nothing but energy. Metaphysically speaking, then, it makes no difference whether I spend the remainder of my life sitting on a couch, eating KFC from a cardboard bucket, and watching marathons of MTV’s The Real World on television, or instead move to Malawi to teach HIV-positive women and orphans organic farming. But this is absurd. Ethically, I know that there is a difference. Therefore, I can throw all Metaphysics out the window, for its truths are truths inapplicable to the scale of our world, our society, our lives. What matters is ethics—how do we know what we should do? For too long, people have tried to determine their ethics based on metaphysics (this is the mode of religion). A truly relevant and efficacious ethical system is based on a smaller scale: be there a God or gods, ideal ideas or things-in-themselves, our actions have consequences here and now that are far more relevant. This is my thinking, not Bertrand Russell’s, but I think that he would approve. I think that John Locke would approve as well.

*"We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavour to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has uncontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say, that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. . . . There is reason to think, that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others." John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter XVI, Section 4, as quoted in Russell, page 555.

Clearly having taken this to heart, Russell writes, "In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held" (47). I would like to think we could substitute "studying a philosopher" with "negotiating with another party," and give this wisdom to the leaders of parties (from local to international) in conflict. In fact, as Russell concludes, writing in 1946, "To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time" (660). How prescient was this man! But who will take up this task?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Five

This morning, we got our usual breakfast of sticky rice with banana from the Thai woman at the farmer’s market, but for some reason I was voraciously hungry, so we topped it off with a purchase from another booth: fried bread with an herbaceous, oily topping. I’ve been seeing signs for fried bread the entire time I’ve been here, and from a purely linguistic appraisal, I did not want to taste it, and I did not want to like it. But, it was purchased, and it was consumed, and it was, I’m afraid, delicious.