Monday, November 19, 2018

Living For Dummies



Was life ever simpler? And when it was simpler, was it necessarily better? This is of course the question posed by Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, a primer on the recusal of at least one man from civilized society. Eventually Crusoe finds his Tonto in a local native called Friday. There are, of course, many ways in which such a novel can be read. On the one hand it can be viewed as form of screed, broadsheet or feuilleton arguing for the virtues of the primitive world. On the other it may be seen as an allegory for society itself, under the theory that there is no escaping the human condition. But there are certain incontrovertible facts. The industrial revolution produced economy of scale and most importantly the division of labor, an innovation that exponentially increased the alienation of the worker from the product he was producing. You may have to deal with conflict in even the most idyllic of settings since there's no evidence that either primitive man or his ancestors were free of territoriality or aggression. However, automation and the assembly line created a host of new and invidious paradigms that still inform the workplace today. In the pre-industrial world where men hunted, fished and bartered for those items they couldn’t make, neither deferred gratification nor capital accumulation were part of the equation. On the other hand you had the Inquisition and Salem. In order to survive, the fittest had to conform to a tight mold that didn’t allow for the kind of diversification that would be naturally selective for the species as a whole.Turns out when it comes to that elusive things called progress, you're damned whether you do or don't.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Are You a 100 Lb Weakling?






Have you spent your whole life wanting to be stronger, smarter and more desirable than you are? Are you always underachieving or performing, in your own eyes, simply because you have placed yourself in an arena of those who are stronger, smarter or more desirable than (or perhaps who you erroneously deem to possess talents in which you are lacking)? Do you feel underappreciated in literally every endeavor in which you perform from the bedroom, to the office, to the social circuit? Women who grew up reading Cosmopolitan might remember many of the self-improvement programs offered to those who were dissatisfied with their lot and then there were the famed “Are You a 100 Lb Weakling?" ads which populated the back pages of comics in which before and after shots showed what could happen if men followed a simple program. Characters who looked like Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” were magically transformed into hulking body builders of whom the legendary Jack LaLane and Charles Atlas were two of the most preeminent examples. Weightlifting is a discipline where progress is easily calibrated. The realms of intelligence, creativity and even desirability tend to be more diffult to tally. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being challenged in the area of self-conception. There’s a place for everybody on the food chain. The problem is that some folks aren’t content with their lot in life. There's a fine line between striving and self-hatred. There are those for whom there's no such thing as a goal. No matter what it is they have, the want more and better. They marry again and again searching for a happiness that perpetually eludes them. They want bigger muscles even when they’ve succeeded in becoming an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-a-like or they suddenly decide they want no muscles at all and prefer to look like a sinewy marathon runner. They're constantly caught between a rock and a hard place and end like supernovas that send out their brightest light when they begin to explode.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Words: Body Parts





It’s nice to have a body of knowledge—and comforting too. To be conversant with the in and outs of just about anything and to have a deep kinship with it, whether it’s arcane like numismatics, philately or fly fishing or something more global like the history of SALT  creates a kind of confidence. At least in one area of the barnyard you’re not walking around like chicken with its head cut off. It’s also nice to have a good body, but that’s something like horticulture, a discipline burdened with a built-on ephemerality. Bodies like flower petals wilt. The body politic is another matter since humans are migratory animals and the decline of one demographic leads to the rise of another. Body Double was the l984 Brian De Palma film that was a homage to many such Hitchcock classics as Rear Window and Vertigo. But the theme of the double has its own venerable history going back to a novella by Dostoevsky that was eventually appropriated by Borges in "The Other." Of course it’s always a habeas corpus matter since you have to have a body to make a case. Body parts are what eventually leads investigators to missing persons, although you might find them in the kind of garage you go to when your old Impala needs some body work. Calling a crash, "a fender bender" is an example of synecdoche since it employs the part for the whole. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Final Solution: Getting Away With Murder



It’s not only the things the President does. It’s the fact that he gets away with them. Living through the Trump presidency is a little like high school. There were always these kids who could hit you in the stomach or knee you in the groin and get away with it, but more often than not they had names like Earl rather than Donald, who one associated with goofy characters like Donald Duck. Camus said the "only one really serious philosophical problem" was suicide. Well the only real question posed by the Trump years is, why some people get away with things and others don’t? It’s a little like a flurry of punches that ends a title bout before it even gets started. Trump’s chief method of deferring criticism is to do something so horrible on the top of the thing that he’s already done (the most recent, putting the onus on California for the fires being a little like blaming someone for having cancer) so that the earlier infraction (the attempt to rescind transgender rights), which may be illegal as well as an abuse of power, is totally forgotten. Trump isn’t the only person who's capable of such impunity. Everyone has had their own personal brush with sociopaths. Everyone knows somebody who can do things that are an insult to civilized behavior, whether they involve venality, cruelty or even malfeasance, and get away with it. Further most people learn that when they try to imitate the kind of conscienceless behavior they have a grudging admiration for, they fall flat on their faces. Without endorsing it, one has to respect the fact that Trump’s brand of evil is not in the purview of anybody. Getting away with murder is a gift, that may only be available to the select few.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Comedy is an aggressive activity. Its hilarity is bought at the expense of others. Look at Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Steve Martin. But even amongst bristly comedians Melissa McCarthy has always stood out. Her comic persona which is often that of the loner who's getting  revenge (in Identity Thief she literally robbed other people of their lives) can be over the top. McCarthy’s latest outing Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the story of Lee Israel, a female Clifford Irving, is ur-McCarthy. It’s the comedian without the comic embellishment. Moviegoers expecting laughs were going to be sorely disappointed by the portrait of a lonely alcoholic biographer who forges Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward letters to pay the bills. In reality, Israel who died in 2014, might have done well to simply sell these witty impersonations for what they were. Instead, she ended up in federal court. The relationship between fraud and art was famously explored by Gide in The Counterfeiters and of course Picasso famously said that “art is a lie that tells the truth.” There's something almost emetic about Can You Ever Forgive Me?The character McCarthy plays is totally unappealing and you can’t help thinking that the movie is a kind of ars poetica in which the comedian is showing the pain residing at the core of her own being. These are enormous presumptions, but when you view a number of movies starring a particular actor or actress who time and after time communicates a similar persona you begin to feel the presence of something ineffable that’s not just a role. Seeing McCarthy's character turning the vagaries of her personality  into art, you can’t help thinking you're watching a double header, with McCarthy playing both Israel and herself.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs




Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compendium movie. It’s a succession of stories literally popping out of the picture book that's used as a device. They’re set pieces that have no particular relation to each other from a narrative point of view. One unifying theme, however, is the filmmakers’ signature brand of grotesquery. In their usual outings the sense of the absurd is countermanded by humor. In this case it’s just misery. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a primer on unadulterated and unpolished human suffering. For instance in the first piece Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy. In one scene of classic Coen brothers invention, you literally see the world from the inside of his guitar. Scruggs kills with a smile on his face. Then one day he meets his match and that’s it. In another a bank robber (James Franco) is outsmarted by a crafty teller. He escapes a lynch mob only to run into series of dead ends, including one, where alone in the middle of nowhere, the rope which was originally being used to hang him slowly tightens around his neck as he attempts to escape. In another vignette Liam Neeson, who runs a traveling freak show, replaces his quadriplegic soliloquist (Harry Melling) with a chicken. In one more a prospector (Tom Waits) digging for gold is also digging a grave. Gratuitous violence and irredeemable cruelty are the salient characteristics of the Coens' contribution to the Western genre. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has all the blood of Fargo, the Beckettian finality of Barton Fink, the country music of Inside Llewlyn Davis and the visual flare of The Big Lebowski, but ultimately it falls flat. It’s film noir minus the suspense, which is to say, just noir.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Robocaller


You may have to call in The Terminator if you find yourself in a film called Robocaller. Yes your warranty is expiring and no you don’t have a student loan or a low interest mortgage and um yes you, you may no you don’t want the chance to win a free Disney cruise to the Bahamas, but pause….hello, hello, who is this? Does anyone realize you were just in the process of taking a whizz when you stopped, held it in, thinking it was your thirty-year-old daughter, your sixty-year-old year old partner or your ninety-year- old uncle who all needed you, when the call came in from the Cyclides. You've never heard of them? They’re the recently discovered Pacific atoll whose major industry is offshore banking, phone banking that is. Acres and acres of the Cyclides are filled with phone banks whose workers are housed in complexes with their own modern malls in which those work stations are themselves receiving constant calls from the national association of police chiefs in countries you have never heard of or even games like Second Life, in which virtual industries pump out calls that come in staccato bursts, like machine gun fire. Have you serviced your car, your vacuum cleaner? Are you philanthropic or interested in philately? Do you know that for as little as $13 a month you can have final expenses insurance? Do you realize how expensive funerals can be? Do you want to leave your relatives with expenses that will kill them? Call now, call then if you don’t want to lose all your documents, files and connections to everything or if you want to help out a friend, you know whose wallet has been stolen in, you yourself said it, Gibraltar. Hello, Hello…hello, hello, Kemosabe…your order, your delivery, your peace is ready or threatened.