Thursday, March 31, 2011

Arcadia

The Stoppard universe is like one of those cartoons of an enchanted forest where the trees (in this case ideas) come to life. The current Broadway production of Arcadia begins with a young girl, Thomasina (Bel Powley), asking her tutor Septimus Hodge (Tom Riley) the meaning of “carnal embrace.” He parries humorously with the Latin “Latte et carne vivent,” but then relents, describing the mixture of pleasure and procreation that constitutes the sexual act. “Is it love?” Thomasina asks. “It’s much nicer than that,” he replies. Before we know it, Thomasina, whose project is to stop the atoms of the universe and trace their mathematical trajectory, is on to the question of the proof of Fermat’s last theorem written in the margin of Diophantus’s Arithmetica. The play takes place on an estate in Derbyshire called Sidley Park, first in 1809 and then 150 years later, when a literary sleuth is on the wrong track in trying put the pieces of the past together—in particular Byron’s relationship to Septimus and a poet named Ezra Chater (David Turner). But soon we are dealing with Romanticism’s deleterious effect on The Age of Reason, an overgrown gothic garden replacing classic topiaries, the questions of who created calculus first (Leibnitz or Newton), free will vs. determinism and the laws of thermodynamics. Stoppard employs ideas musically, letting them live for their own sake without the benefit of any conclusion. “That’s the order things can’t happen in,” one character opines during the play. As far as knowledge is concerned, you may only be able to know what’s not true. The statement “in Poland he is a count, in Derbyshire a piano tuner” is one of the numerous absurdities that turn the pursuit of truth to banter. The style of Arcadia is drawing room comedy. The content is the history of thought.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini

Nuclear Armageddon is in the air along with spring, and if the events in Japan weren’t so dire they might spike opportunities for book and movie tie-ins. The primary candidates would be John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Neville Shute’s On the Beach, along with the box-set of the entire Twilight Zone television series. Books about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are more to the point, but there were none that reached the iconographic levels of the three aforementioned cultural artifacts. The fifties were the heyday for the imagination of nuclear holocaust. The U.S. was testing H bombs on supposedly deserted Pacific atolls like Bikini that were immortalized in the folk song "Old Man Atom" (“Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini”). The stockpiling of canned and dehydrated foods along with the concomitant conventions of fallout shelter design were beginning to emerge. Remember the yellow and black signs for fallout shelters, which were one of the first things you saw when you walked into a public school or other municipal or federal building? If only the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis and the realization of how close we’d come to a conflagration hadn’t spurred the first test ban treaties, which at one point had only been twinkles in cold warriors’ eyes! By the sixties and seventies America had fully entered the Viet Nam war, but it was a curious divagation. Protest movements shifted their concern from nuclear energy to American imperialism and our penchant for protecting democracy by supporting anti-democratic leaders like Diem and then Thieu in Viet Nam and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In fact, nuclear energy seemed like a clean and efficient way to deal with the West’s appetite for oil and its increasing dependence on OPEC.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Operation Petty Bourgeoisie

NPR’s “On the Media” did a short segment this past Sunday morning on the names given to military actions. Did you know the invasion of Normandy was called “Overlord” and that a few weeks before it happened a crossword appeared in an American paper with the words “Overlord,” “Utah” and “Omaha”? Did you know that naming an operation after the god Wotan, which the Germans did, furnished important information, since that particular god has one eye? Or that the Germans naming their Russian offensive Barbarossa was a form of narcissistic megalomania that enabled the Russians to administer a humiliating defeat? Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information, went on to delve into the significance of nomenclature. “Desert Storm” was the first time an operation was also the name of an entire war. “Mission Impossible,” a fictional operation and the name of a TV series and a movie franchise, has a modifier following a noun, and “Odyssey Dawn,” the current Libya operation, sounds like a cruise ship and is a little disconcerting to the extent that Odysseus wandered for ten years before reaching home. Listening to “On the Media,” one couldn’t help wondering what secret name the Republicans are using for their operation to deprive Public Radio of funding. Could it be “Lady Gag Order,” to invoke the title of a recent Screaming Pope blog post? This would be the perfect combination. Lady Gaga is a cultural icon who will continue to dominate the airwaves whether public radio exists or not, and her name contains the root word “gag,” which is what the Republicans are out to do. Or how about simply calling it “Operation Petty Bourgeoisie”?

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Personal Matter

Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese Nobel Prize-winning novelist, known to Americans most prominently for A Personal Matter, recently contributed a short piece to the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town (“History Repeats,” The New Yorker, 3/28/11) about an article he’d written previously. Oe explains that he had written a piece “the day before the earthquake” and that it “was published a few days later, in the morning edition of Asahi Shimbun.” “The article,” Oe writes, “was about a fisherman of my generation who had been exposed to radiation in 1954, during the hydrogen-bomb testing at Bikini Atoll.” What is striking about Oe’s piece is the fact that the whole subject of radiation poisoning was on his mind even before the catastrophe occurred, and that the fisherman he was writing about was someone he’d “first heard about...when I was nineteen. “Was it a kind of somber foreboding that led me to evoke that fisherman on the eve of the catastrophe?” he asks. The fisherman has devoted his life to “denouncing the myth of nuclear deterrence,” and Oe himself was involved with “looking at recent Japanese history through the prism of three groups of people: those who died in the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who were exposed to the Bikini tests, and the victims of accidents at nuclear facilities.” George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and that is the conundrum Oe raises. He goes on to distinguish between natural and man-made “phenomena.” “What did Japan learn from the tragedy of Hiroshima?” Oe cries out. Has Japan remained truthful to the principles of its post-World War II Constitution, “which included the renunciation of the use of force and, later, the Three Non –Nuclear Principles”? Late in his own life, Oe is writing a “last novel” that he hopes will start with “the last line of Dante’s Inferno: ‘And then we came out to see once more the stars.’”  With the human propensity to deny and forget the past (which Oe himself points out), one wonders if there isn’t something quixotic about Oe’s optimism.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is the best film of 2008 ... and 2009. It may also be the best film of 2010. With a one-night revival at The Philoctetes Center this Friday, it could even make your top-ten list for 2011. What other film features a heroically sexually dysfunctional central character, and what other film raises sexual dysfunctionality to its rightful exalted place in the pantheon of human pathology? What other film in the history of cinema is named after a figure of speech? (By the way, Charlie Kaufman should expropriate William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity as the title for his next film). Much is made of the illness of Kaden Cotard, the film’s central character, a theater director whose MacArthur grant supports a lifelong piece of performance art. But Kaden’s malady is life. He is dying of life, a brilliant reference to Samuel Beckett, whom Kaufman outdoes at his own endgame.

Numerous neurological afflictions, including Parkinson’s, manifest themselves throughout the movie. The most significant of these is Capgras syndrome. Capgras, which appears in the film as a name next to a buzzer in an apartment house, occurs when doubt is thrown on the identity of  an otherwise familiar individual. It plays deftly into the estheticizing of reality that takes up the last half of the film. Virtually every element of so-called reality is turned into a scene of the play that Kaden is creating. There is theater within theater, as set pieces reappear in later scenes from the director’s “actual” life. To this Kaufman owes a debt to Pirandello, who is the eminence grise behind Synecdoche. At one point Kaden is proposing new titles for his work—The Obscure Moon Lighting an Obscure World and Infectious Diseases. What about Twenty Post-Modernist Characters in Search of a Mise en Scene?

Come to think of it, Synecdoche is not just the best film of 2008-11. It’s the best American film since Hal Hartley’s masterpiece, Henry Fool (1997).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Moonwalking with Einstein

Joshua Foer, who is the brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and New Republic pundit Franklin Foer, is getting a lot of publicity for his book about memory, Moonwalking with Einstein. Even in these precarious times, the unpublished author got a $1.2 million advance for Moonwalking, which was also optioned as a movie. “Even in his early 20’s, Joshua Foer was forgetting to remember a lot,” Maureen Dowd writes about Foer in her Op-Ed column (“Sexy Ruses to Stop Forgetting to Remember,” NYT, 3/9/11). “Our gadgets have eliminated the need to remember such things anymore,” she quotes Foer saying about things like phone numbers. Memory is only one of a number of mind and body functions that atrophy in the course of being displaced by technology, but Foer, who won the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship, has a theory about how people can cultivate their mnemonic abilities. The human brain that we know today came into fruition during an earlier stage of evolution and is now trying to adjust to mechanization. Thus, we need to go back to our more primitive roots if we want to activate its potential. “When forming images, it helps to have a dirty mind,” Foer says. In short, if you’re having three people over for dinner think “threesome.”  If it’s two couples, think “swapping.” Let’s say you’re trying to remember a geometric sequence that increases exponentially: think about doing a sixty-nine with everyone in sight. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

And That's the Way It Is

The debate over Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s controversial “Hardcore” piece, which appeared in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, rages on in the letters column of the April issue (and was previously addressed in the SP piece, "The Dukes of Hazard"). While porn is the putative subject, it’s the nature of the human animal that is really in question. Vargas-Cooper is an amoralist whose position combines Hobbes, to the extent that it eliminates altruism as a motive in human action, and a bit of Nietzsche, to the extent that it portrays dark instinctual forces that are beyond the rational certitude of good and evil. In response to criticism from Lux Alptraum, the oddly-named editor of a site called Fleshbot.com who wrote, “True, plenty of porn sites plumb the Hobbesian depths of human sexuality. But plenty of others offer a different view,” Vargas-Cooper remained steadfast. She is not surprised that Alptraum, “the editor of…a commercial site…would go out of her way to put a cheery spin on the state of pornography,” but goes on to aver, “If you were to open your browser to Tiava.com, you’d find 438 videos of women (and some men) getting double anal.” And when Alptraum argues that “a violent, abusive fantasy is hardly proof positive of a violent, abusive nature,” Vargas-Cooper comes back with a left-right combo when she describes “the undeniable drive for male domination and female humiliation that is embedded in most porn (and sex!).” What is most refreshing is Vargas-Cooper’s lack of histrionics about the symptoms she describes. She is neither censorious nor particularly enraged in the manner of old battleaxes like Andrea Dworkin, who crusaded against the depredations of male sexuality like a rabid animal rights activists decrying mink collars. Vargas-Cooper looks on the parade of appetite and instinct with the kind of solicitous resignation Walter Cronkite employed when he ended his broadcasts on the CBS Evening News, saying, “And that’s the way it is.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Taxi Driver

Robert De Niro recapitulates his iconic scene from Taxi Driver, where he fires on imagined enemies, in Raging Bull, where as Jake LaMotta at the end of his career, having lost everything, he stands alone in the dressing room of a theater reinventing himself as a monologist. Martin Scorsese, who has done for modern American film what the ancient Greeks did for drama, himself appears in the film, in a voyeuristic sequence that recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Hitchcock played cameo roles in all his films, and the score for Taxi Driver was composed by Bernard Hermann, who did the scores for Vertigo and Psycho. Taxi Driver’s ensemble—with Albert Brooks, Cybill Shepherd, Leonard Harris (playing the presidential candidate Charles Palantine) and Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster, playing the hooker/pimp team of Easy and Sport—is the ’70s equivalent of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre. Then there’s the New York of the ’70s, which is itself a character in the film. Remember the Belmore Cafeteria on 28th and Park Avenue South, The Terminal Bar opposite the Port Authority, Variety Photo Plays on 14th and Third, Playland and Fascination on the deuce? And let’s not forget the guns: the .44 Magnum (making a guest appearance after an earlier performance in Dirty Harry), the .38 snub-nose, the .380 Walther, the .25 Colt automatic. Betsy (Cybill Shepherd ) says Travis reminds her of Kris Kristofferson’s lyrics: “He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” The only thing missing in Scorsese’s masterpiece, which is currently in revival at Film Forum in a new 35mm restoration, is Deney Terrio’s Dance Fever, a glaring absence in a film that defies the categories of both truth and fiction. Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory, about an unstable taxi driver (Mel Gibson) obsessed with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, is only one of many American films that would never have been made without Taxi Driver. In the case of Conspiracy Theory, however, the part got away from the actor playing the lead, and life ended up imitating art.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Towards a Unified Theory

The February 12-18 edition of The Economist reports on a technological advance that will have revolutionary implications for the production of almost everything. “Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450 or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing” (“Print Me a Stradivarius,” The Economist, 2/12/11). The article outlines an “additive approach” in which  “mass production” is replaced by “mass customization.” This sea change in the classic economies of scale by which capitalist enterprise functions will, according to The Economist, affect everything from urbanization to outsourcing and intellectual property. “When objects can be described in a digital file,” the article explains, “they become much easier to copy and distribute…” So, let’s say you have the idea for a new Halloween mask. Let’s say you call it “The Unified Theory” (patent pending) and let’s say “The Unified Theory” is based on Linda Blair’s head doing a 360 in The Exorcist. What a windfall! What a triumph of modern innovation! A mixture of the hell William Friedkin depicted in his cinematic version of the William Peter Blatty novel and everyone’s experience of an old fashioned Upper West Side literary party filled with wannabe intelligentsia. Here, in a form of prolepsis, you anticipate the wandering eyes of the person you are talking to by producing a facsimile of your own head— which is capable of doing a 360. Thanks to the wonders of 3D, you end up freaking out your potential tormentor before he has a chance to display his indifference to your very existence.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dirty Hands

Are we seeing a replay of the Bosnia situation in the dilatory behavior of the Obama administration in imposing a no fly zone, or worse a replay of George H.W. Bush’s reticence to topple Saddam Hussein during the first Iraq war (despite the mandate he had in defending Kuwait), only to leave the U.S. to pursue a Johnny-come-lately policy that resulted in the loss of more lives 13 years later? Admittedly, the politics of intervention are complex. You are constantly shaking hands with the devil. We armed what is now the Taliban against the Russians, only to find our own weapons turned against us. Qaddafi is now using his huge lode of hard currency—piled up from oil sales to Western democracies—to hire mercenaries. If we are to opt for the no-fly zone, then perhaps we will realize that, contrary to those officials who the Times recently described as fearing “a backlash against the United States for meddling in what is a homegrown political movement” (“Obama Seeks a Course of Pragmatism in the Middle East,” NYT, 3/10/11), the U.S. will gain the moral credibility it has all but lost in its policy of supporting a host of repressive monarchies and self-appointed generalissimos for no other reason than to safeguard its oil interests. To complicate matters further, the latter is a source of renewed concern, particularly in light of the anti-nuclear-energy drive that is bound to result from the Japanese tragedy. We came late to Bosnia (“After the Vultures: Holbrooke’s Bosnia Peace Came Too Late,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1998), but if we hadn’t come at all, the genocide would have continued beyond the devastation of Sarejevo and Srebranica. Looking at it on a country-by-country basis, Bosnia is an example of an intervention that paid off. The bad guys (Milosevic and Karadzic) were routed and eventually tried at the ICC, we didn’t end up with “dirty hands” (to invoke Sartre’s famous existential play) and for the most part everyone lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Woman in the Dunes

During the early ’60s, Teshigahara’s movie Woman in the Dunes played at New York art house cinemas. Based on the Kobe Abe novel, the movie concerns an entomologist trapped in the infernal world of a woman who is a slave to the sand in which she lives. Sand is the perfect medium for the Sisyphean struggle that the film portrays, since there is so much of it and the task, the metaphoric mountain the film sets out to climb, is ultimately impossible to fulfill. But there was another level to the film, that of the bleak landscape of nuclear Armageddon that Japan had faced only 17 years before. The recent Times headline, “Japan Reels As Toll Rises and Nuclear Risks Loom,” with its shot of a lone woman holding herself with her legs folded up against her chest against a background of burning rubble, was hauntingly reminiscent of both the feeling and the harsh world that the Teshigahara film evokes. The Times reports Japan to be a “$5 trillion economy, the third largest in the world” (“Death Toll Estimate in Japan Soars as Relief Efforts Intensify,” NYT, 3/13/11). Yet the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear meltdown have brought an advanced society to its knees. Powerful earthquakes have already caused extensive damage in New Zealand and there is a threat there of a recurrence, even as Japan still suffers from aftershocks. But what makes matters exponentially worse is the man-made problem of deadly radiation from cesium-137 and iodine-121. As David Sanger and Matthew L. Wald so eloquently summarized in their Times story, “In a country where memories of a nuclear horror of a different sort in the last days of World War II weigh heavily on the national psyche and national politics, the impact of continued venting of long-lasting radioactivity from the plants is hard to overstate” (“Radioactive Releases in Japan Could Last Months, Experts Say, NYT, 3/13/11). 

Monday, March 14, 2011

What is a Good Life?

Mrs. Henry Adams, the wife of the novelist and memoirist, once said about Henry James that “he chewed more than he bit off.” The reverse might be said about Ronald Dworkin, whose essay “What is a Good Life?” taken from his book Justice for Hedgehogs, appears in the February l0th New York Review of Books. Though Camus (in The Myth of Sisyphus) famously said that the only real philosophical question was suicide, presumably even he would have given some credence to professor Dworkin’s query. Besides vaguely alluding to Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox in its title, Dworkin is really trying to deal with one overarching idea: individual happiness, which derives, according to Dworkin, from ethics (“how we ought to live ourselves”) in relation to morality (“how we ought to treat others”). The reconciliation of these two impulses also recalls Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where socialization is bought at the price of repression. Dworkin writes: “We need, then, a statement of what we should take our personal goals to be that fits with and justifies our sense of what obligations, duties, and responsibilities we have to others. We look for a conception of living well that can guide our interpretation of moral concepts. But we want, as part of the same project, a conception of morality that can guide our interpretation of living well.” Hobbes and Hume are invoked in the course of Dworkin’s discussion of how to resolve this conundrum, as is religion. Then Dworkin gets down to specifics: “Morality may require someone to pass up a job in cigarette advertising that would rescue him from poverty.” On the other hand, he reverses himself when he talks about the “sacrifices” that morality may require, concluding, “It is hard to believe that someone who has suffered such terrible misfortunes has had a better life than he would have had if he had acted immorally and then prospered in every way, creatively, emotionally, and materially, in a long and peaceful life.” Dworkin proposes a distinction in ethics that is tantamount to the distinction between “duty” and “consequence” in dealing with morality. “We should distinguish between living well and having a good life,” he writes. Or, as someone recently asked at a New York social gathering, “I knew what pleasure was, but did I know happiness?”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Letter from an Unknown Woman

The Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig spoke at Freud’s funeral, and seeing the 1948 Max Ophuls film based on the Zweig novella, Letter from an Unknown Woman, it is easy to see why. Novelist and self-professed Freud aficionado Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and C, which was short-listed for this past year’s Man Booker Prize, talked about the film after a recent screening at the Philocetes Center. “We move to a certain pace, which is set a long time before we step into the dance,” he said, describing the inevitability and determinism that haunts the film. In Remainder, McCarthy describes a factitious house that is very much like the world of the film, one in which what appears to be reality is simply play-acting. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the Joan Fontaine character’s obsession with her counterpart, played by Louis Jourdain, is totally unreciprocated. There was much discussion between McCarthy and members of the audience about the film being a love story, but how can you call something in which a woman bears the child of a man she is enchanted by but who practically doesn’t know she exists a story of love? Under the guise of a Hollywood romance, the movie champions something far more frightening and perverse. Freud once described analysis as a train ride, with associations and memories as the scenery viewed through the window. One of the most dramatic and disturbing scenes of the film takes place in a funhouse setting, where ersatz versions of major cities are produced by a diorama. The scene evokes Kierkegaard’s maxim “subjectivity is truth.” A touching sidebar is that the love object is a failed artist, a concert pianist. One would hope that love might conquer all, and that the muse the handsome young artist fails to recognize would provide the missing piece of the puzzle, but that is plainly not the case either.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Prince Jihad of Cloudy Arabia KO'd

Considering the growing power of the democracy movements in the Mideast, Scott Shane poses the following question about Al Qaeda in the February 28th issue of the Times: “Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high?” (“As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al Qaeda Sees History Fly By,” NYT, 2/27/11). Shane remarks that these movements have eschewed “the two central tenets of the Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism.” Creating democratic institutions in Iraq was precisely what our previous president listed as one of his objectives in toppling Saddam Hussein, and the failure of our intervention was looked at by some as proof that democracy is an indigenously Western institution. The democratic shoe would not fit the Middle Eastern foot, considering centuries of historic conflict between Sunnis, Shiites and Christians that defies the kind of rationalist solutions that are at the heart of democratic thought. But, lo and behold, current events are defying cynicism about the prospects of homegrown democracy and the belief that democratic values are culture-bound and therefore not exportable. Recent developments have also shown that the lesser-of-two-evils approach that has prevailed as a response to the realpolitik of the Middle East no longer seems to constitute an enlightened or even prudent foreign policy. The U.S. has had to do an about-face in its support of tyrants and former terrorists like Qaddafi whom they’d befriended for the sake of expedience. Shane quotes Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment as saying, “We have to make clear that our security no longer comes at the expense of poor governance and no rights for the people in those countries.”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eye of the Beholder

If you go to St. Tropez in the month of August, during the period the French call “les vacances,” you will confront armies of Gallic beauty readying themselves to take over the imagination of the importunate tourist. Such procrustean and impenetrable displays of beautiful eyes, chins, breasts and cheeks serve as a reminder of how ugly beauty can be. There is a famous episode of The Twilight Zone called “Eye of the Beholder,” in which a horribly deformed creature about to be sent off to a colony filled with other similarly mutilated beings is given a last chance at corrective surgery. But when the bandages are taken off there is a gasp—the operation has failed. However, when the camera pulls back we see that the object of the failure has what we might call exemplary features and those looking down at her are gargoyles. Rhonda Garelick’s op-ed piece in Monday’s Times (“High Fascism,” NYT, 3/7/11) deals with the John Galliano episode in light of the fascistic history of haute couture and idealized beauty in France. “Dirty Jewish face, you should be dead,” Garelick quotes the English designer as having said during his notorious outburst in a Paris bar. “Your boots are of the lowest quality, your thighs are of the lowest quality. You are so ugly I don’t want to see you.” Garelick goes on to point out that, although the woman in question didn’t even turn out to be Jewish, the “reprisals came quickly.” Galliano was fired by Dior and now faces “charges of using a racial insult, a crime in France.” Significantly, in our modern age, with its sensitivity to problems of alcoholism and addiction, no one asked if Galliano had any problems with alcoholism, which sometimes produces self-undoing behavior. Without condoning his outburst, doth the lady (in this case Dior and the French judiciary) protest too much? Galliano’s vulgar pronunciamento was plainly too close for comfort in a culture that prizes a kind of appearance so curiously aligned with the Aryan ideal. “The Nazis were so enamored with fashion’s place in French culture,” Garelick points out, “that in their plans for postwar Europe, they stipulated that, unlike other industries, the fashion sector would remain in France.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Public Speaking

Fran Lebowitz gave us Metropolitan Life and Social Studies and now Martin Scorsese has directed a movie about Lebowitz’s life with the equally pithy title, Public Speaking. Public speaking, by Lebowitz’s definition, is the kind of mouthing-off that she was told to “take back” as a rebellious youth and is now rewarded for as a celebrity aphorist and salonista who holds court at the trendy Waverly Inn. Martin Buber’s I-Thou and I-It get reinterpreted in Lebowitz’s Weltaunshaung as “them and us,” the in-crowd being the world of hip, gay New Yorkers of the 1970s—a discerning audience that is all but gone. It is hard to give much credence to Lebowitz’s fiats about the state of culture in the post-AIDS world when in fact great American writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison (who appears as an interlocutor in the film), Susanna Moore, Lorrie Moore and Joyce Carol Oates have attended to a serious and discerning following who all survived the scourge of AIDS. But Lebowitz nevertheless renders all kinds of verbal gems, the digestibility of which lie in inverse proportion to the global nature of their import. She refers to her notorious writers block as “blockade,” comparing it to the Vietnam war. “I don’t know how I got into it and I don’t know how to get out of it.” The problem with “being ahead of your time,” complains Lebowitz, is that “by the time everyone gets around to you, you’re bored.” About self-expression she remarks, “When Toni Morrison said ‘write the book you want to read,’ she didn’t mean everyone.” About New York: “If you run into a New Yorker in Times Square, it’s like running into someone in a gay bar in the ’70s. You make excuses.” Lebowitz is our generation’s Oscar Wilde, an anti-Christ whose salvos act as an enema, cleansing the system of sententiousness and milquetoast humanism. She can’t understand how gays want to defend their right to marriage and to be in the military, two institutions that she equates with “slavery,” and she believes second hand cigarette smoke is more sinned against than sinner. Lebowitz is a Luddite who claims that her refusal to use cell phones, Blackberries and computers enables her to live in the present more effectively than sufferers of modernity. But she drives a Checker cab and is hopelessly lost in her nostalgia about two pasts—the first being the age of Algonquin wits, after whom she plainly fashions herself, and the second the disco age of the ’70s, when doormen to nightclubs, standing behind velvet ropes, became the arbiters of sensibility.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXII (Escalation)

Escalation is when you say, “I had lunch with Marty Scorsese,” and your envious old college buddy, who has just arrived in town from Des Moines, says, “No way! Gag me with a spoon! How cool is that???” And you go on to describe the meeting you had with Scorsese at The Waverly Inn. “Funny, I don’t know what the hoopla is all about. I thought the mac 'n' cheese with truffles was mediocre and the only celebrity I saw was Chloe Sevigny, whose fellatio scene in The Brown Bunny was a bore. I’m as voyeuristic as the next person, but once I’ve got the idea I don’t feel the need to revisit the same territory. Actually Scorsese spotted me at the gym. I still like to work the speed bag and I think he was planning to do some kind of boxing film, not really a sequel to Raging Bull, but something about this middle aged Jewish guy who is generally upset and goes to the gym to work out his aggressions. You know how these directors are—I looked perfect for the role and he figured I was going to be another Cathy Moriarity, but then the script was changed and I didn’t get role. Anyway, we went back to Scorsese’s place for a nightcap after dinner and he introduced me to his former wife Isabella Rossellini and showed me his Oscar, and now here I am.”