Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Banality of Coffee

Juan Valdez
According to a Times story Migros, a Swiss retailer put pictures of Hitler on its “mini-cream containers.” (“For Swiss, Distasteful Jolt With Coffee: Hitler Creamer,” NYT, 10/22/14). The Times quotes Tristan Cerf of Migros as saying, “Usually the labels have pleasant images like trains, landscapes and dogs—nothing polemic that can pose a problem…You cannot put Pol Pot or a terrorist on a milk container. It’s unacceptable.” According to The Times article, this isn’t the first time this kind of mishap has occurred. The writer of the Times piece, Dan Bilefsky, comments, “In the spring, a German furniture chain apologized for selling ceramic mugs with Hitler’s face on them.” Can we say that rather than this being a wake up call about the banality of evil, that it’s a case of the banality of evil providing a wake up call? Or shall we assume that this is just a matter of one manufacturer dealing with the problem of the banality of coffee which has never been a match for NoDoz. Usually people drink coffee for the caffeine so seeing Hitler on a creamer or a mug is naturally going to add to the jolt. Apologies are really not necessary. The idea of putting Hitler’s face on common household goods is likely to keep a lot of people on their feet. It wouldn’t be surprising if stock in Red Bull took a tumble when Migros started to add the faces of Hitler and Mussolini to its creamer. And if its line of Hitler and Mussolini creamers proves successful, it won’t be long before we see other giants of annihilation like Osama bin Laden and even Abu bakr al-Baghdadi on the labels (in place of more beneficent faces like that of Elsie the Cow or that  famous representative of the Columbian coffee bean Juan Valdez). Of course, any creamer maker worth its salt is going to claim, as Migros has done, that it’s all a big mistake.  But that, as they say, goes with the territory. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Somewhere in Alejandro’s Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) lurks a decent short story. Maybe not a great short story like the Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,”which in Birdman is the subject of an stage adaptation by Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton)—a Hollywood actor who has made his reputation as a superhero. Birdman is a play within a movie and at the end, the lead actually shoots himself. The movie’s bevy of theater row critics eventually tout the self-mutilation as a form of super realism and it goes hand in hand with the film’s surrealist birdman doppelgänger. Added to this are the self-consciously post-modernist elements infusing the director’s whole concept. Michael Keaton was naturally famous for Batman and within its own closed universe the movie continually continually usurps art for reality. Mike Shriner (Ed Norton), a famous stage actor is the loose screw in this regard. Remember the Actor’s Studio, method acting and creating the role. Shriner attempts to fire up a scene in the stage motel, by actually having sex with Lesley (Naomi Watts), his real life wife, on stage. He gets an erection in front of the audience though he’s incapable of having one at home. “I pretend just about everywhere else, but I don’t pretend out there,” he says about the theatre. Birdman is an unruly mess. Riggan says about the work which he hopes will legitimize him,  “this play is like a deformed version of myself that keeps kicking me in the balls with a small hammer.” The same might be said for the plight of the viewer watching the movie. Embellishing Carver’s original creations with the backstory of the actors who play them only serves to upstage once powerful narratives and emotions. The fatuousness of artistic ambition infuses the movie. But it was not a major theme in Carver’s work. Inarritu has inadvertently stumbled onto Chekhov territory, but the irony and simplicity of The Seagullwhich introduces a similar cast of dreamers and bombasts, is a hard act to follow.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Yet Another Perk For Harvard Students

Everyone wants to go to Harvard and now there's another reason why the application pool will undoubtedly swell. An article in The Times describes how, “Dozens of Harvard Law School faculty members are asking the university to withdraw its new sexual misconduct policy, saying that it violates basic principles of fairness and would do more harm than good," (“Some Harvard Professors Oppose Policy on Assaults,” NYT, 10/15/14). California recently passed an affirmative consent law which basically insures that most students having sex will have to employ the services of a litigator. However, if the Harvard Law faculty initiative succeeds, Harvard will boast one of the lower legal costs for being a sexually active student than any university in the country. This a truly a selfless act by the law faculty whose action will also result in a reduction of their own billing hours. However, what’s most important is that the action taken by the law faculty is likely to turn Harvard into one of the leading centers of educated and enlightened sex offense. Potential sex offenders will know that once they get that fat acceptance package  their rights will be protected as they attempt to rape their fellow classmates. Of course, those Harvard Law faculty who have raised their voices in favor of sexual misconduct have not dealt with an ancillary issue which is the rights of those Harvard applicants who are wait-listed or who don’t get in at all. It doesn’t seem fair that only accepted Harvard student get to pillage and rape while those who are rejected or wait-listed aren’t free to force themselves on others.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mirandizing Your Don Juan

Max Slevogt’s portrait of Don Juan in Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Say you're making a citizen’s arrest on a California campus for a person who has not gotten your affirmative consent to sex. Say someone has been cajoling you and flirting with you and trying to get you into bed and after hours of being utterly charming, you say ok what the hell I’ll reward him or her for his or her persistence, should you mirandize that person? Taking this further what if you give your affirmative consent to one kind of sex, but inadvertently find yourself being lovingly cajoled into another kind of sex which you partake in but which is not listed on your affirmative consent form, what recourse should you seek? Let’s say you have read the guilty party their Miranda rights, and they are already whimpering and acting contrite, do you enjoin them in some way? Do you attempt to have their paycheck garnished? What are all the possible ways that people can be punished for getting you to do something you were pretty sure you didn’t want to do? Let’s make this clear, the person didn’t rape you or physically harm you, but he or she talked a blue streak and though you were involved with someone else, you became infatuated and were stimulated to do inconceivably dirty and horrible things with that person, things you hadn’t ever done with the person you say you loved because of the passion this charmer created in you and which you were not in your right mind to affirmatively consent to, in the first place. How should this person be punished?

Friday, October 24, 2014

“Here Comes the Judge"

photo of Somerset Maugham by Carl Van Vechten
In an Op-Ed piece entitled  “The Good Order,” (NYT, 9/25/14), David Brooks bridges the gap between international and individual order, in comparing the discipline of creation to that of a superpower’s obligation to keep chaos at bay. Brooks’s primary examples are writers like John Cheever, Maya Angelou, Anthony Trollope and Somerset Maugham who created rigid routines or schedules and he quotes W. H. Auden to the effect that “A modern stoic knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” This idea of the artist is a far cry from the ethos many baby boomers grew up with, influenced as they were by the idea of creative people as drop outs and rebels against rigidity and routine. Their role models were the abstract expressionists of the 50’s or rock stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix whose lives were like supernovas which blazed forth a blinding light just as they courted oblivion. The kind of writers and artists that Brooks is writing about seem more like businessmen. Brooks remarks, “They think like artists, but work like accountants.” That statement recalls Flaubert’s famous quote that one should, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." How are these two conflicting views translatable on the world stage? Brooks uses the occasion of his piece to praise President Obama’s speech at the U.N. which he says, “put tough minded realism at the service of a high calling.” But is discipline in the political sphere really translatable into inspiration? Artists are attempting to find something through the maintenance of a practice but what is a politician or leader trying to find? The answer is usually a series of intelligent decisions that lead his country out of a quagmire. “Uh-oh, Here Come the Judge, Here Come the Judge/Everybody know That he is the judge," Pigmeat Markham once intoned. A political leader has no choice but to work in a consistent and disciplined way, but it’s no guarantee that his or her actions will lead to the kind of vision that characterizes the work of the artistic geniuses who Brooks cites.