Contagion, the new Steven Soderbergh film, is about an epidemic. Stephen King devoted one of his most famous magnum opuses to a similar subject in The Stand. If you look at medieval woodcuts, you can see the earliest attempts to depict the devastations of the bubonic plague. Novels and films on similar subjects cross a wide variety of genres, from horror films like George Romero’s famed Night of the Living Dead to Nevil Chute’s On the Beach. And depictions of persecution and brain washing run the gamut from the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and of course The Manchurian Candidate, whose cast of right-wing conspirators (including Angela Lansbury) and leftist brain washers palls next to the reality of the tea baggers, luddite unibombers, ideology driven serial murderers and underground wannabees who populate both the imagination and early 21st century reality. Columbine and Oklahoma City have turned out to be as viral as any plague when you look at the Virginia Tech and Fort Hood massacres. Contagion has been praised for its realism, but can any degree of realism do justice to the AIDS epidemic—a nightmare come to life? Geneologies are created in an attempt to divine the source of the infection, epidemiologists search for ARV's (anti retroviral drugs) and retro-thinkers see the virus as a sign of coming Armageddon. May 21 was supposed to be Judgment Day. Meanwhile, Tom Perotta deals with the imaginative consequences of “The Rapture” in his recently published novel The Leftovers.
Friday, September 30, 2011
Thursday, September 29, 2011
If capitalism is part of the dialectical process that leads to communism and the eventually withering away of the state, why were Lenin and Marx so intent on destroying it? If the antichrist as manifested by the advent of the secular nation-state is the process by which the world is destroyed and the Rapture and Second Coming occur, why try to impede its progress? These are the contradictions raised by Mathew Avery Sutton, a professor of history at Washington State University, in a recent Times Op-Ed piece (“Why the Antichrist Matters in Politics,” NYT, 9/26/11). “Like orthodox Marxists who challenge capitalism even though they say they believe it represents an inevitable step on the road to the socialist paradise,” Professor Sutton remarks, “conservative Christians never let their conviction that the future is already written lead them to passivity.” Both Marxists and Rapturists (or, as I like to call them, Velocirapturists) are species of fundamentalists who have an attraction-repulsion relationship with dialectics. In other words, though both these troglodyte specimens would be great candidates for a reality show called “The Best of Hegel,” both are dialectically challenged. The good news is that this learning disorder is imminently treatable through the use of antipsychotics and experience-based cognitive therapy. Last May 21 came and went with not even a chance to refund our misery, and one only need take one of the battered cruise ships that the North Korean government is running out of Pyongyang as a means of attracting foreign currency to see the pathetic residue of Utopia at work.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Not all Republicans are bad. Remember the liberal wing of the party, led in New York State by a man named Jacob Javits? Some of their primitive attempts at thoughtful behavior should be encouraged, even when they are wrongheaded and insensitive. Such is the case with the “Diversity Bake Sale” thrown by Cal Berkeley’s youthful Republicans. Yesterday’s Times reported the event thusly: “Last Week, the Berkeley College Republicans announced its ‘Increase Diversity Bake Sale,’ scheduled for Tuesday. On Facebook, the group listed the price for a pastry at $2 for white students, $1.50 for Asian students, $1 for Latinos, 75 cents for African-Americans and 25 cents for Native Americans. Women of all races were promised a 25-cent discount” (“A ‘Diversity Bake Sale’ Backfires on Campus,” NYT, 9/27/11). The Times quoted Shawn Lewis, a political science major and president of the Republican organization as saying, “We expected people to be upset. Treating people differently based on the color of their skin is wrong, and we wanted people to be upset about that.” Nice try Shawn. Satire is a tough game and if you don’t offend somebody then you aren’t doing your job. You might want to switch your major from political science to English so you get to read the great satirists like Swift. The fully annotated hardback editions of Gulliver’s Travels are something that every young Republican will be able to afford, as long we continue to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest sector of the population. But Swift also wrote A ModestProposal, in which he proposed solving Ireland’s hunger problem by eating the babies. Now don’t jump your guns and get the idea that Swift’s screed should be employed to deal with the growing homelessness, malnutrition and starvation in America. Still, it’s a piece you should take a look at, since it employs two techniques that were missing from your nice little attempt at humor—those being hyperbole and irony. If you have a point to make about inequity, it’s only going to be strengthened by the humanizing force of art.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Fucked-up people of the world unite! Let’s take over. Let’s have rallies where we tell all the little intimate secrets about our most intimate habits. Let’s leave no stone unturned. Then let’s find an object of blame. Let’s call ourselves the have-nots and call the blameworthy ones the haves. Preferably it will be a country with people of easily identifiable ethnicity. Let’s call these people Turds. The Turds had a cultural this and a cultural that and in addition they encouraged their children to triumph at the expense of our kids, who were taught to be honest about their apprehensions and failings. OK, it’s a plan. We start off with small rallies in beer halls. These are the garden plots in which the seeds of discontent are sown. We will build up to a big demonstration in a venue like Yankee Stadium. There will be a veneer of democracy and understanding. Secretly however we will no longer be democratic or understanding. All of our members will now have brown uniforms with leather straps running diagonally across the chests, and while we were all once l00-pound weaklings, we will be pumped with Muay Thai and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. We will all be trained in tactical nuclear warfare. We’ll get back at those urbane sophisticates in a way that will make Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge look like high school guidance counselors. We will cleanse the world of the confidence men, i.e., those who give off plastic confidence. Yes, the impotent, the constipated, the losers in board games will finally rule. We will begin by conquering the Turds and then we will march through the Sudeturdland and we will raise our flag with its universally recognizable cardboard toilet-paper-roll tube. We shall bury you!
Monday, September 26, 2011
“Walter O’Malley once said I was so good at it, they should just let me make the whole damn thing up and forget about playing the game.” That’s Nat Allbright talking to the Washington Post in 1982, as quoted in his recent Times obit. Walter O’Malley was the famous Dodgers owner, and Allbright had been conscripted to broadcast re-creations of the goings-on at Ebbet’s Field for radio listeners, using telegraph messages as the raw material for his scripts. Allbright provided details and sound effects like “snapping his tongue against the roof of his mouth that sounded like a bat striking ball” and “tapes of the tide-like murmur of the crowd.” When technology made him obsolete, Allbright created personalized broadcasts for those who wanted them. “A 240-pound would-be jockey rode Secretariat to victory in the Kentucky Derby,” the Times recounted. “Another customer fought Sugar Ray Leonard, saying realism demanded that the customer himself be knocked out.” He also “created games even when the seasons were suspended because of labor strife.” Many gamers still play fantasy football today, but Allbright came from a world where radio produced magic. Listeners really believed what they heard but couldn’t see. That’s why Orson Welles was able to suspend his listeners’ disbelief and create mass panic with “War of the Worlds,” his infamous broadcast of an alien invasion that never occurred.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Photo by Hallie Cohen
The Chelsea Royal Diner in West Brattleboro, Vermont, is now a vacation destination. It’s rare that a restaurant, still less a diner, would be chosen is the raison d’etre for a visit to Vermont or anywhere else. Usually travelers go to Vermont in the fall for the leaves, in winter to ski, in the spring to break a leg in the metaphorical sense of the word and in the summer for hiking in the mountains. But why bother with these things when you can attend this dynamic restaurant in the shape of a railroad car, with an old-fashioned jukebox in the front? Make a weekend of it. You can stay down the road at the Holiday Inn Express. This not one of those ersatz affairs like say Manhattan’s Brooklyn Diner, with its theme-park Las Vegas feel. It’s the real McCoy and serves both a standard menu and home-cooked daily specials that are listed on a black board. You can get the sirloin tips or fried haddock, soup or salad and dessert or coffee, all for $7.99 on the early-bird special. On weekends Mexican food is served, and the Chelsea Royal boasts an award for best Mexican in Brattleboro in 2007. The lamb shank, at $l0.99, was one of the specials on a recent night, and the diner is renowned for its buffalo wings. If eating creates a state of mind, it’s not an exaggeration to say that well-being is the dish served at the Chelsea Royal. Back in the ’60s people went to Esalen and Big Sur to get high. The Chelsea Royal creates its own high through a feeling of instantaneous intimacy that’s not something to scoff at. It’s the direct opposite of the feeling you get when you walk into a four-star Michelin restaurant and feel you’re doing something wrong before you’ve even ordered.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
The Emperor is dying and calls a messenger to his deathbed. The message is sent “to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun….” So begins Kafka’s A Message from the Emperor, which appears in a new translation by Mark Harman in The New York Review of Books (9/29/11). Harman writes in a brief introduction that the composer Martin Bresnick had asked him to produce a new translation “that could…evoke the at-first unimpeded progress of the emperor’s messenger and then the obstacles that begin to clog his path.” A Message from the Emperor is the kind of parable that presents a series of paradigms. In its most basic form, the message is Sisyphean, since the messenger never gets to where he is going, meaning that the wisdom contained in the message never arrives. Like the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, ideal forms always elude the perception of human consciousness. In psychological terms, the unrevealed message is the unconscious: that which, by definition, we are not conscious of. In religious terms, the emperor is the ultimate authority figure, the divine Father. The parable sets the stage for the Judeo-Christian concept of faith, since it closes out the possibility of actual connection, replacing it with the notion of the leap. The divine Word will never be successfully passed from God to man. Such is the predicament of both God and man.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
When we think of art collecting today, the names Gogosian and Saatchi come to mind. Huge international galleries function almost like stock markets, catering to wealthy individuals who buy art for its investment as well as esthetic value. Collecting Matisse and Picasso: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, an exhibition at The Jewish Museum, provides a different perspective on the art of collecting. Dr. Claribel Cone and her sister Etta collected before there was a market. They bought Matisse when critics savaged his work and those of his contemporaries in the Salon D’Autonme (1908), dubbing them les Fauves, or wild beasts. By 1913, when Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne were presented to New York society in the famed Armory Show, Claribel and Etta had already been collecting for a decade. Gertrude and Leo Stein befriended the Cones, further helping the sisters, who were beneficiaries of the fortune that their brothers Moses and Ceasar made in the cotton trade, to feed their passion for art. There are many wealthy people, but relatively few amass a trove of art that rivals the Cone sisters’ collection, which would eventually comprise 3,000 works, now housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Their accomplishment underscores the importance of the pure form of collecting that comes out of a love of beauty, as well as the crucial role that patronage plays in the survival of artists, particularly in seminal periods like that which led up to so-called Modernism. The Cones, like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, took an almost maternal role towards artists like Matisse and Picasso. There is a wonderful Picasso drawing in the show, which was included in a letter to Etta, in which the artist portrays himself as a portly gent with his hat in his hand. In a BBC documentary narrated by Michael Palin, which is part of the current exhibition, a commentator remarks that when you looked out of the Marlborough apartments—the building the Cones occupied in Baltimore—you saw the past, but on their walls you saw the future, insured by the sisters’ loving attention.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, currently playing at Film Forum, is what would normally be called a tableau vivant—a painting brought to life. Actually it’s art history come to life, as Majewski not only wrote the haunting music for the film, but also co-authored the screenplay with the art historian Michael Francis Gibson. The subject of the film is Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 1564 painting The Road to Calvary, which today hangs next to The Tower of Babel in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, and in one sense the film simply presents the backstory of the painting. The depredations of the Spanish occupiers of Flanders, which included burying infidels alive and crucifying them, are the centerpiece of The Mill and the Cross. But there is also the human comedy, or carnival, manifested in the ubiquitous macabre depictions of both human sexuality and sadistic children’s play. Ironically, the most haunting moment is the final shot in which we see the Brueghel painting behind a rope in the museum as the camera pulls away from it in a long shot. All along we had been brought into the center of the artwork, and now the painting is consigned to being simply an object photographed at a distance in a famous art museum five centuries later. Even more jarring are the presences of Michael York, Charlotte Rampling and Rutger Hauer, who plays Brueghel. These aging cinematic icons break the silence that introduces the movie, but to what end this parade of acting royalty? Kirk Douglas played the tortured Van Gogh in Lust for Life, but Majewski’s subtlties are muddled by the display of star power.
Friday, September 16, 2011
George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948. By switching the numbers he came up with a future that must have seemed far off, though it was only 36 years away. In any case, the supposed case of futurism was not so much a futuristic vision as a regurgitation of the past, in particular the world of the totalitarian police state, the deformed child of the marriage between the Utopian ideologies of fascism and communism. 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick movie based on the Arthur C. Clarke novel (written while the movie was in production), was similarly un-ambitious in its choice of future, since the year of the title was not that far away from the year in which he movie was made (1968). And what about Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and The Minority Report, two sci-fi classics that deal with realities that might have occurred or could soon occur? Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (which popularized the word “cyberspace”), Samuel Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (which anticipated the web), Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Stanislav Lem’s Solaris and any of the works of Ursula K. Le Guin could also arguably be regarded as reportage, albeit of a philosophical cast, like one of those three-part series the Times sometimes runs about the devastation wrought by wars or climate change.
There is nothing too futuristic about science fiction, and in fact nothing too futuristic about the future itself. Of course there are novels that take place in futures that are tens of thousands of years away, but it is a curiosity of most science fiction that the worlds created, whether they are wish fulfillments or not, have irrefutable relevancy to the times in which they were written. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days were not so much fantasies as reflections on the Age of Exploration, which culminated at the end of the 19th century. Is Hal, the computer at the center of 2001, a character of escapist fantasy or a piece of sociology that is merely unsupported by any data? And what better forecast of the anonymity of technological society than H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man?
Science fiction is not harmless escape. It’s dangerous because of its propensity to tell the truth. That was what Orwell was hinting at by simply rotating the digits for his classic novel. Isn’t Orwell really saying that the dyslexic reversal of two numbers only hints at their identity, that 1984 is really 1948, and vice-versa, with Big Brother still in command? Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is neither brave nor new but chillingly close to our present-day attempts to control and manipulate the gene pool. Newspapers might be rendered anachronistic by the ubiquity and speed of electronic media, but there is one thing faster than television and the Internet and that is the imagination of the science fiction writer, which distills the undercurrents of reality, turning them into parables that can easily be said to contain the real headline stories of the day. Remember Tiresias?
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Colum McCann, the author of the novel Let the Great World Spin, did a “Talk of the Town” piece for the September 12 issue of The New Yorker. Actually, there were a number of “Talks” in the issue by fiction writers—among them Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran-Foer, and Edwidge Danticat. McCann’s piece, “Dessert,” was about an Upper East Side woman ordering a piece of chocolate cake the day after the towers fell. “It arrived in front of her, and the waiter spun away. A slice of two-layer cake. Dark chocolate. A nipple of cream dolloped on top. A sprinkling of dark powder. The woman was elegant fiftyish, beautiful. She touched the edge of the plate, brought it toward her.” In an odd way McCann’s vignette recalls Chekhov’s famous story "The Lady with the Dog." McCann is intruding into the life of the woman he observes in much the same way that Chekhov’s unhappy Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov spots Anna Sergeyevna with her dog. McCann conscripts the woman into his story just as Dimitri brings Anna into his life, extracting her from history for the sake of both his fantasy and his guilty desires. “I still have no idea—after a decade of wondering—whether I am furious at the woman and the way she ate chocolate cake, or whether it was one of the most audacious acts of grief I’ve seen in a long, long time.” Chocolate lovers, lovers of Chekhov’s great story (set in Yalta over a hundred years ago) and all those who had the luxury to hear their own hearts beating back in the days following 9/11, when the skies were overcast with dust, should take note of McCann’s little jewel.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
“Jimmy Sangster, Writer for British Horror Films, Dies at 83” was the headline of a recent Times obit (NYT, 8/21/11). The Times noted that Sangster wrote “The Curse of Frankenstein,” “Horror of Dracula” and “The Mummy,” all produced by Hammer Films. If you grew up in the ’50s you will remember the genre. Usually there is a book-lined study, a roaring fireplace and a heath from which the howls of werewolves and their victims emanated. There were also the usual vampires, who left their mark not only through bites but by turning their victims into clones. Well it makes sense. If someone sucks your blood away, you’ve got to suck for survival. There were also a whole genre of films that took place on archeological digs in Egypt. Invariably an ingénue out of Cambridge, decked out in shorts, high socks and a pith helmet styled to look like Sherlock Holmes’ double visor hat, pushes the wrong button, unleashing a secretly entombed Egyptian Queen or princess whose soul transmigrates into the body of an aristocrat whose manse is not far from the dig. The princess who ruled way back when still has her marbles after a few thousand years and looks remarkable for her age, and she’s quite aware that another poor soul is paying the price for her reincarnation. Her rationale is simple—let me undo some curse or fulfill some ancient prophecy and I will gladly relinquish the body I’m illegally occupying. (The kind of lost souls you found in these old British movies were early versions of squatters.) Sangster was candid in describing his influences. “I wrote horror movies because it was my job,” the Times quoted Sangster as telling the Hammer Graveyard Web site. “So, when anyone asks me what were the influences that prompted me to be a ‘horror film’ writer, I tell them it was Wages!”
Monday, September 12, 2011
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation starred Gene Hackman as a jazz saxophonist who spies on people. Several years ago, The Lives of Others dramatized electronic eavesdropping by the Stasi during the Honecker years. This past weekend, the Times reported on an appeal of a lower court ruling against using GPS devices to keep tabs on people (“Court Case Asks if ‘Big Brother’ is Spelled GPS,” NYT, 9/10/11). The case, United States v. Jones, No. 10-1259, will come before the court in November. “Repeated visits to a church, a gym, a bar or a bookie tell a story not told by any single visit, as does one’s not visiting any of those places in the course of a month,” the Times quotes Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the United States Court of Appeals for the District Columbia Circuit as writing. “A person who knows all of another’s travel can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups—and not just one such fact about a person—but all such facts.” The Times also reported that “Judge Diane P. Wood of the federal appeals court in Chicago wrote that surveillance using global positioning system devices would ‘make the system that George Orwell depicted…seem clumsy.’” It’s great to know that the judiciary is still protecting our rights and that the evolution of the wiretap will be impeded by concerns for civil liberties. On the other hand, can we say about electronic peeping-tomism what is often said about married people whose eyes stray? “You can read the menu, but you don’t need to order.” It would certainly be fun to know who is ordering anyway. In fact, while GPS snooping devices might be forbidden to law enforcement agencies, fictioneers and roman a clefers remain hard at working doing their job, which is something Choderlos de Laclos did before there were even phones, i.e., using the most powerful listening device known to man, the imagination, to get the goods on someone.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Sex and Zen 3D: Extreme Ecstasy, currently playing at the Village East Cinemas, is advertised as a smash hit in Australia and New Zealand, among other places. The plot of the movie concerns an artistic and scholarly young man living during the dynastic era in China. We know this because the emperor is alluded to and all the men and women wear wigs and robes of an ancient regime, though the candor with which sex is discussed creates significant cracks in the historical authenticity. In a nutshell, the young man’s lust for his new wife is marred by the fact that his penis is too small. He goes through a number of lucubrations, eventually involving concubines, before he seeks out medical help. There is a dramatic scene in the office of a pair of would-be doctor/healers, a couple of off-duty gravediggers from a stray Chinese Hamlet who do organ transplants. In the course of the operation, the horse’s penis that is supposed to be transplanted is accidentally flattened, and a dog eats the young artist’s original penis. It must be stated that there is no evidence that Christopher Sun, who directed Sex and Zen 3D, or Mark Wu, who wrote it, were thinking of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when they made this film, just in a case anyone mistakenly thinks otherwise. Having a small penis is better than none at all is obviously one of the themes that the filmmakers want to burn into the minds of film-goers, with the assistance of the latest in 3-D technology. There is also a subplot involving a renowned Buddhist monk whose seduction by a beautiful transsexual ruins a lifetime of keeping desire at bay. If this film was a smash hit in Australia, one wonders what its popularity says about the cinematic sensibility and movie-going habits Down Under, no pun intended. Forget about the Chinese demographic; using the success of Sex and Zen 3D as a litmus test, there’s no doubt that any filmmaker interested in producing the as-yet-unmade John Wayne Bobbitt story would find a ripe market in the Outback.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Interesting that The New Yorker, a magazine long associated with parody, particularly in its Shouts & Murmurs section, has itself become the subject of a parody. The Times reported that the Church of Scientology has published a parody of the magazine which they have passed out in front of New Yorker headquarters (“Scientology Strikes Back at The New Yorker,” NYT, 8/31/11). What incited the parody is a 25,000-word exposé of Scientology written by New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright back in February. However, what distinguishes the Church of Scientology parody from your typical Shouts & Murmurs piece is the amount of time, effort and money that has obviously gone into it. The New Yorker may parody the Times, as it has done on numerous occasions, but it doesn’t go to the trouble of having its parody printed up on Times newsprint, using typeface close to that used by the Times along with other symbols (the Scientologists expropriated Eustace Tilley for their purposes). Nor does it hire people to hand out its parodies in front of the Times offices. Nor does it attempt to go after particular Times staff members, such as the church does when it “singles out editors, fact-checkers and other New Yorker staff members who worked on the article by name and prints their photos.” Parody and satire are fun—there have been satiric versions of both the Times and The New Yorker that have been printed up as gags over the years—and also function as means of social criticism. To this extent, the church has every right to parody whatever it likes to. However, parody becomes a form of intimidation when the parodist creates a garish mask of the subject he or she is parodying and shows up at that subject’s front door.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Some children believe that their parents aren’t their real parents. They maintain the delusion that their real parents are royalty, or at least better off in some way. This is what psychoanalysts call “the family romance.” In Haruki Murakami’s recently published New Yorker short story, “Town of Cats,” the title character Tengo has this fantasy (The New Yorker, 9/5/11). “Tengo would tell himself that his father’s home was not where he belonged,” Murakami writes. “He had been mistakenly locked in his cage, and someday his real parents would find him and rescue him.” There is a story within Murakami’s miraculous story, also called “Town of Cats.” In this story a character journeys to a town occupied only by cats. The cats eventually sense the intruder, but they can’t recognize him, even though he is right before their eyes. The character realizes he is in danger and attempts to take the first train out town, but the train that had left him off no longer stops for him. It’s as if no one’s there. The father in the story is a subscription collector for NHK, a Japanese telecommunications company. The father had come from poverty and had raised the child on his own after the mother died or left—it’s not clear. We'd learned earlier that the father has "entered a sanatorium ... that specialized in patients with cognitive disorders," and the story ends with the son's actual visit, just like the protagonist of “Town of Cats” (the story within the story) journeys to the town to deal with some unfinished, as yet unspecified business. In one of the most touching moments of Murakami’s narrative, the father tells his visitor, “I don’t have a son.” “So what am I?” Tengo demands. “You’re nothing” is the response. Still, there are hints that Tengo is breaking through, one of which is the tear that runs down his father’s face. It’s plain there are no answers. His father says this when he talks mysteriously about a vacuum that needs to be filled. But when Tengo tries to learn more, he is rebuffed. “If you can’t understand it without an explanation,” his father says, “you can’t understand it with an explanation.” So we return to the idea of the family romance again. The troubled man who’d shown little appreciation for his boy as a child, and who claims not to recognize him as an adult, in fact appears to be his father. That’s Murakami’s implication, and therein lies the pain.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Crazy, Stupid, Love is a classic romantic comedy, a vehicle for stars like Marisa Tomei, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell to strut their stuff. When seeing an all-Hollywood product like this, one is reminded of Dorothy Parker’s famous quip, "Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” But there are odd things that push the envelope. For instance, a 17-year-old babysitter sending nude pictures of herself to her charge’s father. And in an otherwise milquetoasty comedy of this sort, based on the simple premise that a husband left by his wife of twenty-five years has to reinvent himself, the viral nature of Oedipal complexes should also be noted. A thirteen-year-old is in love with his babysitter, who meanwhile pines for the boy’s father. The boy’s older sister falls for the smooth-talking lothario who has, unbeknownst to either of them, been her father’s Mephistopheles, coaching him in his efforts to reinvent himself. To make matters even more complicated, the father eventually ends up repudiating his prospective new son-in-law, who had been his mentor in promiscuity and thus a father figure of sorts. Anagnorisis is the Greek word for a scene of discovery, like the one in which Oedipus confronts the reality that he has murdered his father. Crazy, Stupid, Love, a movie with not all that much to recommend it beyond its Dr. Feelgood effect, has anagnorises in spades.
Friday, September 2, 2011
In a review essay in Foreign Affairs (“What Is Totalitarian Art?” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011), Kanan Makiya, Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis, asks, “But what exactly makes something totalitarian art?” This question comes up in Makiya’s review of the second edition of Igor Golomstock’s Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People’s Republic of China. He quotes Golomstock as saying that the cultures he deals with are “simply too diverse” to account for the phenomenon and characteristics that unite the art of the Third Reich, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and The People's Republic of China. “As Golomstock argues, the similarities within totalitarian art demonstrate ‘the universality of the mechanisms of totalitarian culture,’” Makiya writes. Makiya’s essay is fascinating not only because of the subject matter, but because of the biography of the writer he is reviewing, whose job was to lead children through the Pushkin Museum long before the words glasnost or perestroika became significant historical reference points. “He discovered that children who were well versed in the Stalinist art of the previous decades were unable to tell the difference between Nazi and Soviet works,” comments Makiya. It was in his capacity as a tour leader, experiencing this seeming aporia, that Golomstock formulated his ideas about art. Makiya’s review covers many fascinating elements of Golomstock’s apparently seminal work, including the ephemerality of totalitarian artwork, which “seems to be rejected once the political conditions that led to its creation are lifted.” The Victory Arch in Baghdad, alluded to in Makiya’s piece, and modeled from Saddam’s “own forearms,” is one of the most searing examples of such transience.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Only the French can make a film shot of a child with a cigarette dangling out of the side of his or her mouth look romantic. Only the French can portray an older woman's infatuation with and exhibition of her naked body to a prepubescent boy not look like pedophilia. These are among the accomplishments of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, the story of the pop singer and songwriter famous for hits like “Je t'aime ... moi non plus” and “Lemon Incest,” now playing at Film Forum. Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) was born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian Jewish immigrants, and the film dramatizes the evolution of his persona with the use of animations and a puppet alter ego that finds its seminal energy in the early period of the Second World War. Gainsbourg grew up during the Nazi occupation of Paris, wearing the yellow Star of David on his chest. The film’s use of animation and puppetry can be accounted for by the fact that the director, Joann Sfar, is a comic book artist who has never made a film. Still it's a French film at heart and only the culture that produced masterpieces like Breathless, Jules and Jim and Diary of a Country Priest could succeed in making the depiction of Gainsbourg's relationships with starlets like Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot as lacking in romance and sensuality as this failed piece of hagiography does.