Monday, October 14, 2019

Where's My Roy Cohn?

When you see Matt Tyrnauer’s biopic Where’s My Roy Cohn? you may want to keep Machiavelli’s The Prince, Lao Tzu’s The Art of War and The Godfather in the back of your head. About the last, one of the movie’s points is that Roy Cohn was Trump’s godfather and provided the chrysalis of ruthlessness that informs the value- free politics of our current president.“Situationist ethics” is one of the phrases that's bandied about in the film, in reference to Cohn’s no holds bars form of representation in which the primary mode of defense was an attack. Cohn was the godfather to the mafia as well and succeeded in getting John Gotti a two year sentence for murder. However, as the movie shows, one of Cohn’s fortes was to form a bridge between the worlds of legitimate and illegitimate business. Yet like his protégé, Donald Trump, Cohn had his share of failures too. He brought down Fifth Avenue Coach Lines and Lionel trains. Remember Cohn was McCarthy’s counsel and right hand man and if the G. David Shine matter really catalyzed the Army/McCarthy hearings, as the film implies, then it was Cohn who provided the fuse for the Wisconsin senator's downfall. One of the most interesting vignettes of the film  has to do with the construction of Trump tower. Many builders were turning from the use of concrete, which was controlled by the mob, to structural steel. But Trump’s eponymous structure was constructed with concrete due to Cohn’s underworld connections. 200 undocumented Polish workers, whose wages would eventually be the subject of a legal suit, comprised the workforce responsible for the initial demolition of Bonwit Teller which previously occupied the site. “If I could have pulled the switch. I would have done it myself,” Cohn is quoted as saying about the Rosenberg executions. He also lived by Aristotle Onassis’s maxim, “you can never be too tan or too rich.” Part of his sociopathy might be attributed to his mother Dora who doted over her only child. At the family seder she preempted the answer to the “why is this night different from all other nights?” question by answering, “because the maid is dead in the kitchen"—which she was. Dora wasn’t going to stop the proceedings for anyone.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Final Solution: Politics and Mortality

Politics is often associated with morality and ethics, at least if one is talking about Plato’s Republic, the Ur political manifesto, or say the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence. But what about politics and mortality? Human beings are capable of doing great harm in relatively short periods of time. Could it be that tyrants like Stalin and Hitler were under the delusion that by perpetuating their atrocities they’d never die? It may seem odd, but how can one plan mass annihilation with the grim reaper right around the corner? One answer is to treat a political system as if were a church with an intrinsicly millenarian premise. When you consider a political ideology as a religious calling then it allows you to forswear the notion of yours and its obsolescence, as result of death. A Third Reich or a dictatorship of the proletariat both have the quality of being more than just states. You had the l000 years of Rome and there are those who still believe in the notion of  Imperial America. Democracy would certainly be part of the litany, along with a kind of leveling technology that would replace tribalism and ethnicity. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) was an expression of this hope. His latest tome is Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018). Did Fukuyama simply became older and wiser?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Final Solution: Newspeak

Remember when some kid had you in a choke hold and wouldn’t let go? That may be the feeling you’re having selectively watching the continually horrible news reports emanating from you know where. For instance, "White House Declares War on Impeachment Inquiry, Claiming Effort to Undo Trump’s Election,"NYT, 10/8/19) ran the headline in an article in which White House counsel Pat Cipollone is quoted as saying in a letter to House Democratic leaders, “Your unprecedented actions have left the president with no choice. In order to fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch and all future occupants of the office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.” It’s actually a wonderful turnaround. The problem is with the legislators and not the president who by removing troops from Northern Syria has facilitated the Turks initiating a series of bombings of Kurdish towns, "Turkey Launches Syria Offensive, Targeting US-Backed Kurds," NYT, 10/9/19). Talk about “Newspeak,” the Turks are calling their attacks in which civilian sites have been targeted “Operation Peace Spring.” Getting back to the matter of impeachment, does anyone think that Trump is going to be budged from The White House? Even if it ever got by the Senate, The White House would simply label the vote undemocratic. Doesn't all this remind you of the bully back in the schoolyard?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Hic Sum

Girl with a White Dog by Lucien Freud (Tate)
All situations in human existence are by definition laden with significance. What’s peculiar, however, is the fact that many people don’t perceive the iconography of a seemingly innocent scene. What made Rembrandt Rembrandt was the fact that he created an almost instantaneous mythology. Like The Night Watch, Velasquez’s Las Meninas takes something, perhaps more intrinsically symbolic, in medias res, stopping it in order to the allow the viewer to intensify his or her perception. Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece performed a similar service with regard to the artist’s studio, albeit in literary form. Often people take pictures and then post them on Facebook or Instagram with the notion that content is king. They want to mark a birthday or wedding or anniversary, but in the process forget all the spatial relationships, the intrinsic body language of the shot or representation. Take a look at Lucien Freud’s Girl with a White Dog (1950-1), a portrait of the artist's first wife, Kitty Garman. The painting is erotic and almost lascivious, but the image is arresting not because of the voyeurism or sexuality, but the specific way in which it eroticizes its subject. Day after day humans record each other. In fact, recording has taken the place of living, so intense is the desire and need to save and catalogue happenstance. It’s a little like Gray Gardens. People horde reality like the sisters in the famous movie, filled their house with objects they couldn’t throw away. There are so many images that they lose meaning like the books in Borges's The Library of Babel. Ultimately, also, there's no time to regard them all. Most people end up discountenancing the very world they are trying to record and conserve.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


What happens to aging strippers in the middle of a financial crisis? Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers based on a New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers of Scores” answers the question with a kind of Marxist analysis of the lap dancing industry. Commodification is, of course, the name of the game and the movie has its moments, especially when Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the prima ballerina of the film equates the economy of the club, with its VIP room at the top, to the social stratification of the stock market firms who supply the clientele. If you’re expecting a kind of Oceans 8, with its mixture of female bravado, suspense and comedy you’re likely to be disappointed. Further, even though Hustlers is about stripping and also refreshing since it's the women doing the exploiting rather than the men, the movie's curiously like catnip--and, being a jeremiad, may even dull your interest in sex. The territory of Hustlers is pregnant if you look at strip clubs as a metaphor for society. “I have to say the whole country is a stripper,” says Ramona. “You have people who are willing to take their clothes off and those who toss the money.” However, despite the topicality—particularly in the age of Stormy Daniels, the disquisition is as flat as is Lopez's performance—and the subplot about the journalist researching the story on which the film is based, is totally gratuitous. Who cares what Ramona did or didn't tell a reporter about her sidekick Destiny (Constance Wu)? Look at Cabaret, if you’re interested the depredations of both capitalism and the flesh. Weimar Germany bears some parallels to America both before and after financial crisis of 2008. And the packaging and marketing of sex and love will continue to exist in its own alternative universe, despite the #MeToo movement. There will always be an abundance of both product and consumers. "So gross war die Achtung fur gelt," was the way Brecht put it in The Rise and Fall of  the City of Mahagonny.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory is about a director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who has hit a wall, a filmic form of writer’s block in which he can no longer do the thing for which he lives. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he says. Naturally Pain and Glory recalls Fellini’s autobiographical . The difference is the lack of sweep. For a director like Almodovar whose work is characterized by great flights of invention like the Gulliveresque scene in Talk to Her where a character navigates his way into a massive vagina, Pain and Glory is curiously straight forward, tame and even disappointing at times. In the movie the director attempts to patch up the 30 year estrangement with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the star of his first film, Sabor. Alberto’s a heroin addict. In an attempt to either bond or dull his feelings of guilt towards a leading man he once maligned, Salvador joins in and quickly becomes addicted--a narrative element that unfortunately leads to contrivance, as the drug binges become occasions for dreamlike recollections of the past. Addiction is also the subject of a monologue in which Alberto will play Marcello, a stand in for Salvador’s great love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).The piece deals with another painful breakup, but emotional and physical pain overlap. Salvador can’t swallow due dysphagia or Forestier’s syndrome, a calcification of the thoracic spine. He suffers from headaches, back pain, insomnia, anxiety, asthma and tinnitus and the beginning of the movie furnishes a body scan which might have been an FMRI recording his brain too. The line between physical and psychic struggles is constantly blurred. It’s never clear whether Salvador's suffering from the pain of pain or the pain of life and that’s one of the problems with any of the palliatives to which he quickly becomes dependent. In one memorable scene the youthful Salvador comes down with a high fever after experiencing his first homoerotic longings. The fact that both the director and his childhood mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) are played by iconic Almodovar actors adds another level to the film’s psychohistory. However, what's admirable but also noticeably missing is a unifying device or key. A conversation with the adult incarnation of his mother (Julietta Serrano) in which he explains "I've failed you by being simply as I am," unfortunately, feels like a non sequitur. Almodovar employs a striking red backdrop in the dramatic Addiction monologue. And the unearthing of a childhood portrait threatens to become his alter ego's Rosebud. However, these ploys miss their mark, failing to create the kind of indelible impression that was undoubtedly intended. Pain and Glory--even the hyperbolic sounding title seems out of sync for a director whose palette is so suffused with irony.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Broken Symmetry

photo: Roberta F.
Symmetry breaking is a concept in physics and if you consult Wikipedia is responsible for pattern formation. All well and good, even subatomic particles have to go one way or the other, taking a turn in the road which creates a new fate. Broken Symmetry is the name of a brewery in Bethel, Connecticut, but it’s also a concept that might be used to describe the process by which the seeming order and beauty of nature is fractured. For instance one could say that Quantum mechanics breaks the seamless universe of Newtonian physics. Lots of people marvel at things like Pi and Kantian universals that are discovered in nature, but then new paradigms appear which change long cherished views. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for his heliocentrism. The fervency with which people hold on to certain notions is inversely proportionate to the fragility of the assumptions and foundations on which they are built. This, in fact, may account for the insularity of many fundamentalist sects, which seek to protect their ways of life from outside influences. Still if you are looking for certainty, it’s unlikely that any scientific precept will ever unseat 1+1=2, that black is the absence of color or that when you take a bite out of an apple you break its symmetry.