Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Sean Baker’s Tangerine is a little like some of the creatures it describes the chicks with dicks who hangout at a place called Donut Time at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland in Hollywood. Remember Algebra I where you plotted graphs made up of equations in two variables or unknowns, x and y, plotting their coordinates. Tangerine is a mishmash of plots, one major  thread having to do with a pre-op transsexual Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) who is looking for her lover and pimp, Chester (James Ransone) who has run away with “a real bitch vagina and everything” and the other, the story of an Armenian cabby Rizmat (Karren Karagulian) who likes to go down on ladyboys and is unmasked by his mother-in-law, Ashken (Alla Rumanian). But the movie is also like the evolution of our attitudes towards transgenderism. The bizarre, perverse and in case of the movie’s form, crude and improbable yesterday may be understood as normative or even inspired tomorrow. Tangerine titters on the line where found objects become Duchamp’s “Fountain,” both literally and metaphorically since one of the most touching scenes in the film occurs in a restroom. Chester functions a little like Hickey in the Iceman and also like the lost bicycle in the De Sica’s masterpiece. Tangerine, of course, owes a good deal to Italian neorealist cinema which used non professional actors (people playing their own lives) and to cinema verite and there is a bit of Midnight Cowboy in the settings with their pantheon of down at their heels hustlers whose fleshy commodification is underscored with street signs like the one which reads “collateral not always necessary.” But is Tangerine, the end of the line or the beginning of a new life? Just when you think the film’s besotted pair have reached the lowest rung on the food chain, on Xmas Eve in LA, they rise mightily for the occasion. By the way, speaking of new devices and techniques sexual and otherwise, the film was shot with iPhones.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The World Historical Cat in the Hat

If you ask many people they might say that Hamlet was one of the most important, significant or influential creations in the canon—with the exception of Tolstoy who, according to The Guardian, “Thought Chekhov 'worse than Shakespeare’" (The Guardian, 7/11/11). But there is another character who is almost as equally well-known though perhaps not accorded the world-historical significance he or it might deserve and that’s the protagonist and lead mischief maker of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. The oversized Cat with his two colorful sidekicks Thing One and Thing Two (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern?) is a lord of misrule, a projection of his child narrator’s unconscious who reflects the emotion of Yeats’s “The Second Coming," unleashing “mere anarchy…upon the world” simply out of the boredom reflected in the first lines of the book, which begins thusly, “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold wet day.” Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) published The Cat in the Hat in l957 and it’s been translated into numerous languages. The Latin edition is called Cattus Petasatus. Could the famous scene in Bunuel’s Viridiana (l961) in which the peasants have a rambunctious orgy while Viridiana and her illegitimate cousin Jorge, the parental figures are away, have been influenced by this iconic children’s book? The bump that precedes the arrival of the Cat, by the way, also recalls the ghost of Hamlet’s father who haunts Shakespeare’s play. But it’s simpler and more elemental and in the end more powerful, since the Cat eventually cleans up the mess he's made, delighting Geisel’s main characters: Sally, her brother, the narrator, and even the fish, the voice of bourgeois values, who had been a stick in the mud from the very beginning of the tale.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"Too Wet to Play"

There are bungee jumpers and skydivers, solitary cliff climbers (they look like ants when you when you see them scaling rock faces from the distance) elite mountaineers, free divers (who don’t use tanks), long distance swimmers (who have to worry about sharks), triathaletes and stock car racers. There are mixed martial artists and ultramarathoners, fire and tightrope walkers. There are people who practice holding their breath and set records doing it (David Blaine stayed under water for seventeen minutes) and people who set records for how many hotdogs they can eat. Kobayashi ate 50 at the Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Contest in 2001. Sergei Krikalev spent 803 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes in space which is the longest time for any human being. For her performance work, The Artist is Present, Marina Abramovic sat silently for 736 hours and 30 minutes. People do lots of other things to pass time. Charles Lindberg chose to pioneer a solo crossing of the Atlantic and Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers back in l974 which would have been merely a hop skip and a jump for Nick Wallenda who crossed Niagara Falls in 2012. Secretariat who won the Triple Crown also broke records for the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Preakness, but did he know what he was doing?  The Times reported that Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji, a Jain monk relayed back the over 500 items  that were spoken to him over six hours (“A Master of Memory in India Credits Meditation for His Brainy Feats,” NYT, 11/17/14). Perhaps it all goes back to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat which begins, “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house All that cold, cold, wet day”—with childhood boredom.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Synecdoche, New York Revisited

In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a character who is suffering from a number of symptoms, but it soon becomes apparent that the real culprit is existence. Caden Cotard (Hoffman’s character) is dying of life, as we all do. It’s appropriate that Caden is a theater director whose gesamtkunstwerk is an autobiographical piece of performance art because by definition what we his audience all strive for is, at least, the illusion that we're in control of our destinies. And what is life according to Charlie Kaufman? Perhaps no movie has ever envisioned the protoplasm of being in a more poetic way that also rings true. Life is a fungible currency which is  constantly trading. It also resembles a labile dream in which people suffer the neurological conditions of either Capgras syndrome (in which an imposter seems to occupy a recognizable face) or prosopagnosia (in which the ability to recognize face is totally lost). Finally it also resembles the ephemeral stage set Caden is building whose fragile layers comprise a tower of aspiration leading to nowhere, a tower of Babel in which all the inhabitants are locked in themselves and where, lacking a common language, no one effectively communicates with anyone else. Lovers become strangers and strangers turn into lovers. And all the while the director and his proxies wander from room to room, with part of the movie also devoted to Caden’s search for the child who had been snatched away by an estranged wife. Lewis Thomas wrote a classic called Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology WatcherIn biology the cell is the basic unit of organic matter whose DNA and RNA can tell you everything you want to know about a living organism. In Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman creates the imaginative equivalent of a basic component of human life, fragile, ever changing in shape, elusive and contradictory in its instinct both for creation and extinction.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Getting Off the Treadmill

The Boston Marathon GSX Treadmill (Gym Source)
What is the point of exercising if you’re only going to shrivel up and die? A well-toned body is nice, but it’s prone to atrophy. When a cast is removed from a broken leg, the sight of the diminished muscle is unnerving. Injuries or not, at a certain point you’re facing a losing battle. In order to maintain strength, you have to exercise, but the very exercising itself takes it’s toll, due to the decline of the lungs and heart. It’s a Sisyphean struggle. The Second Law of Thermodynamics underscores the entropy that’s a natural condition of all matter. Heat flows from warm to cold, but the reverse isn’t true. Contrary to what experts tell you exercise has relatively little to do with future health or how long one lives. Some people die faster than others. No pain no gain goes the popular saying, but the gains are not about the future. While the effect of exercise on longevity is purely hypothetical (with some people facing death by aerobics on the treadmill), it’s true reward comes in the here and now. Exercising is all about the present. It increases a sense of awareness and mastery and like Zen aids its practitioners in being more mindful and present. Exercising helps you to live in the moment. Mark Greif, an editor of N+1 wrote a controversial essay entitled “Against Exercise” (N+1, Issue 1, Summer 2004). If Susan Sontag’s legendary Against Interpretation made an argument for leaving art alone, Greif extended the sentiment to the body commenting that exercise is “a set of forms of bodily self-regulation that drag the last vestiges of biological life into the light as a social attraction.” The problem with Greif’s point is that he fails to make the mind/body connection. Exercise may start from the physical, but it’s value lies in its metaphysical component—which ultimately makes it a form of prayer.