Monday, August 10, 2020

The Final Solution: An American Family

An American Family
People tell each other stories to ward off fears and also to pass the time during pandemics and storms. That’s the substance of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of l00 tales told by a group of Italians who have recused themselves in the town of Fiesole outside Florence during the plague. Another kind of story telling is taking place in series like Fauda, Babylon Berlin, Mrs. Meisel, Ozark and A French Village which are shown on services like Netflix and Amazon. These tales are not like movies or plays which are one shot affairs. They’re episodes which go on over time and actually mimic life which can sometimes feel like a set of installments. Hopefully an overview emerges in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Back in l973 An American Family took a real family’s life and turned it into a television series. The Louds, who were the subject, had a good deal of drama, but it’s not clear how diverting it would be if someone invented an app which allowed people to see their own life as a TV series. Let’s say someone came up with a device made especially for pandemics, an elaborate selfie that produced a series of seasons. What conventions would it possess and how would the story be wrapped up when say it came to the final episode?

Friday, August 7, 2020


Mesha Stele (Louvre), photo: Henri Sivonen

Religious relics and sites like the Shroud of Turin, Mecca and Jerusalem possess an enormous magnetism even for the secular imagination. The sociologist Max Weber used the term "disenchantment" referring to the force of scientism which removes the ineffable spiritual element from human existence. Bruno Bettleheim wrote an essay, Freud and Man’s Soul addressing  English translations of Freud’s work which attempted to lend credibility to psychoanalysis by increasing scientific terminology at the expense of the sublime. When you were a kid you may have seen the old 30s horror movies in which Oxbridge archeologists incur the wrath of dead Egyptian royalty when they attempt to invade sacred tombs. It’s hard not to see of a statue of Ramesses II or the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut and not feel stirred by a mixture of awe and fear. Will the walls begin to shake? After a parent or loved one has died many people feel the presence of a dead spirit in the room. A flickering lightbulb may be indicative of the presence of the departed. Whether there is one or not, you can safely say the deceased are alive and well in your imagination. You swat a fly or step on an ant. In reality, cremation is no different. The living form disintegrates. Even the bible intones “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Yet something indescribable remains. Bishop Berkeley famously said “esse est percipi,” “to be is to be perceived.” For him only God made the world real.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Final Solution: The Marriott International Space Station

This would have been a good time to join the space station for one of those extended stays that tests the limits of the human being’s ability to endure isolation. Everyone else social distancing back down on earth is inadvertently participating in a similar experiment with no payoffs. Just think of spinning in outer space with an addictive Netflix series like Fauda for company. With the comorbidities of racial inequality and coronavirus creating a perfect storm, it might even start to feel cozy up in the station. In addition, perhaps the orbiting traveler will even write a novel in his or her spare time, say with a transfixingly original title like Social Distancing. The Russian Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov chalked up 438 days in the Mir space craft from January l994 to March l995. With all the free time on one’s hands, a spacecraft would make a great writer’s retreat and one where you won’t have to worry about masks, gloves and Purell since there are no supermarket trips to make. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX were both partially founded to cater to the intergalactic blue stocking crowd. While the travel industry might be moribund with many flights canceled and the cruise business dead in the water, what could be a better bet for than Marriott or Sheraton than starting a chain of orbiting space stations for those who want be “far from the madding crowd?”

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Final Solution: Consciousness and Beyond

Timothy Leary at State University of New York at Buffalo l969 (photo: Dr. Dennis Bogdan)
Back in the 60s Timothy Leary and others sought to expand consciousness through the use of LSD and mushrooms that were filled with psilocybin. Are lockdowns and shelter-in-place mandates with their restriction of ambulation an opportunity for heady adventures? Boccaccio Decameron is structured as a psychic journey undertaken by a group of people quarantining outside Florence during the plague. Consciousness is one of the most stellar products of human evolution and its development went hand in had with advent of toolmaking by prehensile creatures.  However, can it be said that consciousness, a quality that few scientists still understand (is it a biological process like ingestion or something separate as dualists like Descartes famously argued), itself evolving, perhaps in ways that have never been conceived of before. Are technological emulations like A.I. helping to create new amalgams in which the products of man’s mind engender higher states of awareness. Could it be that one day consciousness will no longer occupy the highest rung on the food chain? Just when you felt like a total prisoner, forced to recuse yourself from the connectivity in which you once gloated, will you find yourself freed to explore whole new levels of the quality once known as “thought?” 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020


Sentence is an evocative word. It can refer to a grammatical structure or to a term meted out to someone who's accused of a crime. Sententia is the Latin for opinion which comes from sentire "to feel." Indeed a sentence is defined by the fact that it comprises a thought or feeling. A sententious person is one who excessively amplifies feelings. Today "No" is increasingly thought of as a sentence. When someone is sentenced for a crime they have plenty of time to think over their behavior. In certain societies one is sentenced for the expression of certain opinions, but life itself can be looked at as a sentence in the criminological meaning of the word. One is sentenced to life to the extent that one’s DNA  determines a rather restricted path. If you’re a believer in free will, you might say that individuals are given a lot of rope. A determinist might counter by adding "to strangle oneself with." The more you resist fate, as is evident in the case of poor old Oedipus who brought about his own downfall in attempting to avoid a prophecy, the more likely you are to be reined in by reality. In the meanwhile in your solitary abode, which at times affords the delusion of freedom, within the cell in which even the most swaggering personality resides, lies a profusion of words which ultimately constitute the legacy of a life.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain

Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994) is a film of astonishing brutality and beauty. It's also about modernity and  tribalism and about the conflict between Albanian Muslims and Christian Macedonians in the rugged landscape where much of the narrative takes place. The words from the Yugoslavian poet, Mesa Selimovic “With a shreik birds fly across the black sky, people are silent, my blood aches from waiting,” are the epigraph on which the film opens. They capture the violence that surges beneath the surface of every locale. Aleksandar Kirkov (Rade Serbedzija) a Pulitzer prize winning Macedonian photographer is a bridge between both worlds and he appears in two sections of a three part film titled “Words,” “Faces” and “Pictures.” He’s the modus operandi whose return to his native country sets the stage for the inexorable course of the tragedy.  Though Kirkov has become a cosmopolitan London journalist and photographer he’s lured back by the ancient internecine historical struggles that even make themselves present in an upscale London restaurant who maitre d' is significantly an Ulster native. There Kirkov’s co-worker and lover, Anne (Katrin Cartlidge) cradles her dead husband’s face after a gunmen take aim at the crowd. Kirkov's upscale brand of Western humanism is an anomaly in harsh landscapes in which he travels. One is reminded of Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962) in which the Southern Italian underworld exerts a hold over the modern life of Milan. “Time never dies, the circle is never round,” is the mantra that's repeated at numerous points in the film. In Before the Rain, the clash of cultures of underscored by the almost disconcertingly chic modernist esthetic which turns the violence on its narrative head.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Social Dancing

Cultivating an audience is a daunting proposition. Peter Handke wrote Offending the Audience. The title is a little like playing hard to get. Sometimes a certain hauteur can create interest, but more often it ends up leaving the performer, who would otherwise be seeking the limelight, gasping for breath like the elusive figure Buster Keaton plays in Samuel Beckett’s single cinematic work, Film. But if you're interested in making friends and influencing people and you intend to go about such a project head on, you may not find the odds turned that much more in your favor by displays of honesty and good intention. The one key thing about appealing to an audience lies in the fact that the seducer has to be genuinely interested those whose attention he or she is seeking. Instinctually no one wants to give another person the right time of day. An actor is successful when he shares his talent with those who are watching. In fact it's not only sharing but actually employing the lives of the viewers in order to create his or her role. Those who attract large followings on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram are gifted with a preternatural anticipatory empathy. Social media is in fact like the old social dancing and man is a social animal.

Read "An Incident of Defenestration" by Francis Levy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn