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.

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.

Movies: Koyaanisqatsi

Our host here is a filmmaker. In addition to screening his own films, he runs a film club and screens other movies around town every few weeks. Last Friday night, he screened Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, the early 1980s characterless, plot-less, and dialogue-less first in the series of three portentous -qatsi films, showing it on an outdoor screen set up in the clearing of a tropical garden. It was one of the last fine evenings of the summer here in New Zealand, and as the clouds moved across the screen in the opening scenes, they outpaced the actual clouds, which moved in the same direction, sympathetic to the tempo of the moment.

Tempo is the key to this film, as its set to an original score by Philip Glass. I had already long loved this music before seeing the film for the first time in 2003, when it was accompanied by the Philip Glass Ensemble, playing the score live to a screening of the film at Davies Symphony Hall. Perhaps for that reason, I found the music more compelling than the video, both years ago, and again just the other night. That said, there are moments in which the sound and visuals are in such concert that one does get a slightly additional thrill than if one were merely listening to the record at home.

Reggio’s video, which begins by scanning the beauty of the natural world, then catalogues the terrific achievements of the industrial world, from the hot dog factory to the mushroom cloud—and I use “terrific” in the etymological sense. The director is not subtle, and while there is certainly much that is aesthetically pleasing about hair-netted women working a processed cheese assembly line, particularly when set to the edifying strains of Glass’ choral arrangement, the ultimate sensation one takes home is less poignant than despairing. In writing about the second film of the series, I described feeling it as a sort of invitation to mass suicide. Koyaanisqatsi, too, though its hideous scenes are often beautiful, seems designed to inspire a loathing for humanity.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Four

This morning, I didn’t want to hang around Graham’s flat as usual; I was feeling unsettled, so I went for a walk in the Domain, one of Auckland’s big parks, which is actually a grassy volcanic crater. I went into the Wintergarden, two small glass arboreta connected by a courtyard with a pond, which opens onto a fernery in the back. Inside one of the arboreta was a Maori woman with the traditional lip and chin tattoo. She and her ten year old son were sketching the plants. So much for savagery.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Three

Today, I drove our rental car back to the agency because the letters ABS had lit up on the dashboard, and the breaks were making a stuttering sound, accompanied by a sticking feeling underneath the pedal. This was our third rental car thus far, both of the previous having been returned for brake issues as well, in addition to the second one having an expired registration, for which the car received a $200 ticket. They didn’t have any other available cars on the lot, so they had one of their guys drive with me to their airport branch to pick up a different car, which we did. Back at the city-center agency an hour later, it was found that our new car had an expired registration, because, in fact, it was supposed to be for sale. One would think that a business would be better organized, but one would be wrong.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-Two

Washing today was more successful than it has been yet, except that when it came time to take it all in, the boys were playing with another friend and the chickens in the garden. As I swung the giant clothes-tree round and round, I kept laughing and shouting “Watch out!” as the sun-stiffened sheets slid over their shoulders and across their faces. The garden is sufficiently large that they did not need to play underneath the clothes-tree, but the chickens like it there, for some reason, and the boys like it where the chickens like it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty-One

The past few weeks, I’ve been taking Aldo to the train station in the morning and driving into town later in the day, so that he doesn’t spend the first hour of the workday sitting in traffic. The train in the morning seems to come on time, which is a good thing, because the trains in the evening tend to depart a few minutes early. I think that a train that departs 3 minutes early is worse than a train that departs 3 minutes late, but there is a tipping point somewhere; a train that departs 3 minutes early may be better than a train that departs 25 minutes late. The precise location of the tipping point also depends on the length of time until the next train. At night, when the trains only come once on the hour, more lateness is acceptable as opposed to a bit of earliness.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifty

This afternoon, driving home from the Coromandel Peninsula, we stopped at a roadside cafe for a snack. It turns out we had stopped into a royalist cafe for a snack, where we read pamphlets provided by The Monarchist League of New Zealand while eating chocolate banana cake. You can read some of their delightfully innocuous propaganda at Here is a particularly tasty morsel: "Like most monarchs, the Queen receives no salary for serving as New Zealand's head of state. She is a volunteer. . . She does this, not for personal glory or accolades, but out of a great personal respect and admiration for New Zealand." As a New Yorker, it was hard for me to believe that this cafe and all its memorabilia (commemorative cookie tins for the wedding of Price Charles and Princess Diana?) wasn't displayed ironically, but Aldo assures me it is in earnest.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Nine

Today, we wanted to buy land. Driving around, one gets the feeling that the whole country is for sale, there are so many signs up, but this one made us pull over to get a leaflet from the Take-One box. Unfortunately, like so many good properties for sale in this country, the price was listed as "By Negotiation," which, to me, is meaningless. Obviously, by the nature of selling, all prices are by negotiation, but the seller is responsible to open that negotiation by asking a specific price from which the buyer can begin negotiating. Now, Heather Benson is going to have to waste her time reading my email and responding to me with the price, which will be some figure I cannot afford.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Forty-Eight

This morning, we got a surprise call that a friend's beach house in Tairua was free for us to use. Tairua is on the Pacific Coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, and it is so beautiful there that you cannot stand it. When we got there, just before sunset, the tide was out. Most of the harbor is so shallow that, when the tide goes out, the sea leaves behind vast expanses of sand, made reflective here and there by licks of inch-deep water. When the tide comes back in, everything brown turns blue.