Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Final Solution: Getting Away With Murder

It’s not only the things the President does. It’s the fact that he gets away with them. Living through the Trump presidency is a little like high school. There were always these kids who could hit you in the stomach or knee you in the groin and get away with it, but more often than not they had names like Earl rather than Donald, who one associated with goofy characters like Donald Duck. Camus said the "only one really serious philosophical problem" was suicide. Well the only real question posed by the Trump years is, why some people get away with things and others don’t? It’s a little like a flurry of punches that ends a title bout before it even gets started. Trump’s chief method of deferring criticism is to do something so horrible on the top of the thing that he’s already done (the most recent, putting the onus on California for the fires being a little like blaming someone for having cancer) so that the earlier infraction (the attempt to rescind transgender rights), which may be illegal as well as an abuse of power, is totally forgotten. Trump isn’t the only person who's capable of such impunity. Everyone has had their own personal brush with sociopaths. Everyone knows somebody who can do things that are an insult to civilized behavior, whether they involve venality, cruelty or even malfeasance, and get away with it. Further most people learn that when they try to imitate the kind of conscienceless behavior they have a grudging admiration for, they fall flat on their faces. Without endorsing it, one has to respect the fact that Trump’s brand of evil is not in the purview of anybody. Getting away with murder is a gift, that may only be available to the select few.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Comedy is an aggressive activity. Its hilarity is bought at the expense of others. Look at Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Steve Martin. But even amongst bristly comedians Melissa McCarthy has always stood out. Her comic persona which is often that of the loner who's getting  revenge (in Identity Thief she literally robbed other people of their lives) can be over the top. McCarthy’s latest outing Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the story of Lee Israel, a female Clifford Irving, is ur-McCarthy. It’s the comedian without the comic embellishment. Moviegoers expecting laughs were going to be sorely disappointed by the portrait of a lonely alcoholic biographer who forges Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward letters to pay the bills. In reality, Israel who died in 2014, might have done well to simply sell these witty impersonations for what they were. Instead, she ended up in federal court. The relationship between fraud and art was famously explored by Gide in The Counterfeiters and of course Picasso famously said that “art is a lie that tells the truth.” There's something almost emetic about Can You Ever Forgive Me?The character McCarthy plays is totally unappealing and you can’t help thinking that the movie is a kind of ars poetica in which the comedian is showing the pain residing at the core of her own being. These are enormous presumptions, but when you view a number of movies starring a particular actor or actress who time and after time communicates a similar persona you begin to feel the presence of something ineffable that’s not just a role. Seeing McCarthy's character turning the vagaries of her personality  into art, you can’t help thinking you're watching a double header, with McCarthy playing both Israel and herself.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compendium movie. It’s a succession of stories literally popping out of the picture book that's used as a device. They’re set pieces that have no particular relation to each other from a narrative point of view. One unifying theme, however, is the filmmakers’ signature brand of grotesquery. In their usual outings the sense of the absurd is countermanded by humor. In this case it’s just misery. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a primer on unadulterated and unpolished human suffering. For instance in the first piece Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy. In one scene of classic Coen brothers invention, you literally see the world from the inside of his guitar. Scruggs kills with a smile on his face. Then one day he meets his match and that’s it. In another a bank robber (James Franco) is outsmarted by a crafty teller. He escapes a lynch mob only to run into series of dead ends, including one, where alone in the middle of nowhere, the rope which was originally being used to hang him slowly tightens around his neck as he attempts to escape. In another vignette Liam Neeson, who runs a traveling freak show, replaces his quadriplegic soliloquist (Harry Melling) with a chicken. In one more a prospector (Tom Waits) digging for gold is also digging a grave. Gratuitous violence and irredeemable cruelty are the salient characteristics of the Coens' contribution to the Western genre. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has all the blood of Fargo, the Beckettian finality of Barton Fink, the country music of Inside Llewlyn Davis and the visual flare of The Big Lebowski, but ultimately it falls flat. It’s film noir minus the suspense, which is to say, just noir.

Friday, November 9, 2018


You may have to call in The Terminator if you find yourself in a film called Robocaller. Yes your warranty is expiring and no you don’t have a student loan or a low interest mortgage and um yes you, you may no you don’t want the chance to win a free Disney cruise to the Bahamas, but pause….hello, hello, who is this? Does anyone realize you were just in the process of taking a whizz when you stopped, held it in, thinking it was your thirty-year-old daughter, your sixty-year-old year old partner or your ninety-year- old uncle who all needed you, when the call came in from the Cyclides. You've never heard of them? They’re the recently discovered Pacific atoll whose major industry is offshore banking, phone banking that is. Acres and acres of the Cyclides are filled with phone banks whose workers are housed in complexes with their own modern malls in which those work stations are themselves receiving constant calls from the national association of police chiefs in countries you have never heard of or even games like Second Life, in which virtual industries pump out calls that come in staccato bursts, like machine gun fire. Have you serviced your car, your vacuum cleaner? Are you philanthropic or interested in philately? Do you know that for as little as $13 a month you can have final expenses insurance? Do you realize how expensive funerals can be? Do you want to leave your relatives with expenses that will kill them? Call now, call then if you don’t want to lose all your documents, files and connections to everything or if you want to help out a friend, you know whose wallet has been stolen in, you yourself said it, Gibraltar. Hello, Hello…hello, hello, Kemosabe…your order, your delivery, your peace is ready or threatened.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Final Solution: Death of a Salesman

It’s not just Trump. There’s a whole category of individual that doesn’t feel badly about things that would disturb most others. The Republicans lost the House of Representatives, but Trump has been exuberant about the election results basing his view of the midterms on the Republican control of the Senate. His glass is not only half full. His cup runneth over. Willy Loman, of Death of a Salesman fame, would not have felt the same way about the election results were he in Trump’s shoes. That’s why he’s a tragic and emblematic character who has left such an indelible impression on generations of theater goers. “Attention must be paid,” is the expression that the playwright employs in regard to his character’s plight. It’s not something anyone would worry about in relation to Mr. Trump, who gets plenty of coverage. The one thing that differs Willy Loman from Trump, for example, is the overactive conscience piece. While Willy is haunted and full of introspection, Trump walks out of defeat and declares himself the victor. It’s procrustean and unstoppable, a flow of words that literally buries anything that gets in its way. Even if you're someone who finds solace in Miller’s character, you might have a longing to be someone else, the successful salesman who’s undaunted by anything, the kind of person with a Midas touch who makes you want what he or she has. That may be the selling point for Trump's base.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Price of Everything

At one point in the Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything, the 93 year art collector and former plastics manufacturer Stefan Edlis (who donated $500 million worth of art to The Art Institute of Chicago) quotes Oscar Wilde to the effect that "there are a lot of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing." Brecht would have had a feast with the cast of Kahn’s documentary about the art world to the extent that you have what’s essentially value free economics applied to judgments relating to the beauty and value of artistic creation. Imagine Jeff Koons as a character in Mahagonny whose famous line “so gross war die achtung fur gelt in dieser zeit,” could easily appy here. Koons is the person every purist loves to hate, along with Damien Hirst, but the beauty of his work is that it’s so much about both the manufacturing and rape of art. A cut from The Wolf of Wall Street appears in the film and Koons is definitely a creature whose esthetic was formed at the trading desk. It’s really not hyperbole to compare his works to derivatives both literally and metaphorically. Nor is it being critical of the filmmaker to say that all the emotion that characterized Kahn’s previous film about his father, the elusive Louis Kahn, My Architect,” is absent from this documentary about the sterile way money and art have become inextricably tied together like as one of Kahn’s subjects says, “siamese twins.” You have neuro-economics. Is "economic esthetics" the term for this latest evolution of art history? Clement Greenberg  was the ideologist for abstract expressionism which he looked at as a necessary by-product of history much the way the withering away of the state would be for Marx in the dialectical materialism paradigm. Perhaps the art critic Barbara Rose, who appears Cassandra-like in the film, can be relied on as his alter ego. But here's a question that the film doesn’t pose. What would you prefer, a non-existent art market, in which artists had patrons like the Medicis (during the Renaissance) or the  present situation where conglomerates run galleries in a $56 billion dollar a year business that has little interest in or appreciation of the work of artists confronting demons in the solitude of their studios?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Private War

Matthew Heineman’s A Private War is an example of how a movie can be both searing and truthful while remaining totally unbelievable. Even in the face of a barely fictionalized reality, it's hard to suspend disbelief.The portrait of the Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), the chain smoking hard drinking war correspondent who emanated from Oyster Bay and broke major stories like the murder of civilians at Homs for the London Times is doubtless true. Yet what to do with a character who emerges as a pure stereotype. The same problem, by the way, plagued Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic of Hannah Arendt where the philosopher never appeared without a cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth. In A Private War this reaches epidemic proportions when the subject, with bombs falling all around  her and with shards of concrete raining down on her laptop, is still lighting up. By the way where does one get the constant supply of cigarettes in a war zone where there's no food or water? Did Colvin have a special armored van which transported cartons of these distructive little missiles wherever she intrepidly went. No matter how documentary the intent, no fiction film convey actual dialogue. 
And it doesn’t help that the exchanges in Arash Amel’s script whether on the subject of the momentous events occurring or Colvin’s own private war with PTSD or addiction are totally leaden and perfunctory. Nor is the clumsy narrative structure with its laborious and predictable countdown to the events culminating in Colvin's own death in Homs any help. It's always discomforting to poke holes in a hagiography (particularly one like his which is well-merited). But it needn't detract from Colvin's legacy to point out that A Private War fails to do justice to its subject.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Visconti's Senso

Luciano Visconti’s Senso (1954) currently in revival at Film Forum begins with a riot that breaks out at a performance of Verdi’s patriotic opera Trovatore in Venice's famed Fenice, during the Risorgimento. Senso is plodding and doesn’t carry the weight of the great Visconti masterpiece The Leopard (1963), which also takes place in a similar period of Italian history. Both movies deal with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of nationalism, but Senso is far more perverse. It’s heroine Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) falls for the reprobate Austrian Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). Visconti brilliantly frames Mahler’s reflection in a mirror as his character says, “I like looking at myself to make sure it’s me.” He’s a lady’s man and eventually a drunk and his whole life is devoted to the satiation of appetite. The countess sacrifices everything for him and also ends up betraying her ideals. In a climactic scene she finds herself demeaned and degraded by a man who mocks her as he cavorts with a local prostitute. The sexual depravity and violence of Rocco and His Brothers (1960) is prefigured in this drunken reunion. Wandering through the crowds of drunken soldiers in the streets of Verona in her elegant gown, the countess, a loss soul, recalls another casualty of the romantic agony, Truffaut’s Adele H (1975). Senso’s influence is also felt in Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964) whose conflicts are also manifest in an opera house (in that case Parma) where another Verdi opera, Macbeth, is playing. The movie’s neorealist battle scenes are like paintings come to life. However, the beauty of Senso and its weakness is that it never really transcends its operatics. The current version, with subtitles by Michael F. Moore and Bruce Goldstein, includes some of the original English language dialogue written by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.

Friday, November 2, 2018

What's the Difference Between the Melancholy Dane and a Stale Danish?

What is the difference between Hamlet and his culinary equivalent, the melancholy Danish? The chief one is that Hamlet is a character in a play and being a pastry, the Danish, despite its filling, will not possess the same rich inner life. On the other hand when considering both Hamlet and a melancholy Danish, great similarities may be found in the way the character and the food in question comport themselves. “Let them eat brioche” is the famed expression attributed to Marie-Antoinette. But let’s go to your average diner counter where a cheese Danish is likely to be sitting all by itself on a raised platter with a glass top. There’s always something sullen and dejected about such a Danish and the solitude may recall Shakespeare’s character to the customer who’s contemplating getting something to go with the coffee he's taking back to the office. In the old days when there were jukeboxes, you might hungrily stare at the Danish and slip a few quarters in to hear “Mr. Pitiful,” for the l00th time while deciding whether you were going for it. Ultimately, you weren’t going to waste your calories on an item that’s neither fish nor fowl. And therein lies a similarity in the existential predicament of the Danish and Hamlet who famously asks “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The  slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms gains a sea of troubles. And by opposing end them?” Though he might be plagued by doubts, Hamlet does possess agency which is what in the end will separate him perhaps not from his fellow Danes, but certainly from the average Danish. The Danish exudes a sadness due to the fact that it's caught between a rock and a hard place, being the kind of item that's chronically ignored and finally left to get stale. Hamlet’s famed words “Weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,” are a good way to describe the plight of the melancholy Danish.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Is Your Moon in Windshield?

Are you Scorpio Rising or is your moon in windshield? It’s nice to tempt or even know fate, but where are you going to turn to for answers? If you go to a storefront palm reader you’re likely to be wasting your time. Still, one is always tempted. You may walk in off the street on a rainy day, as a lark. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but on the other hand, if you could have a lot of knowledge and if that knowledge wasn’t necessarily positive, what would you do? Simply put your affairs in order? Another catch phrase is “knowledge is power.” Really? Some people will have none of Madame Blavatsky and Tarot. Instead they head out to the Mayo Clinic for a body scan, hoping of course to get a clean bill of health, but also, one would suppose, ready and willing to let the chips fall where they may. Oedipus tried to do precisely this and brought about everything he was afraid of in his attempt to escape the prophecy he received from the Oracle at Delphi; Faust sold his soul for knowledge. Self-fulfilling prophecies are one of the most common by-products of crystal ball gazing to the extent that people often bring about the very thing they’re most afraid of. The irrational element in “loss aversion” is one of the things that the neuro-economist Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated in his writings. Ultimately there may be enough complexity in knowable things that earthly rather than transcendental meditation may provide just the answers you're looking for. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Downward Mobility

In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold described the dichotomy between Hellenism and Hebraicism thusly: “The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness ; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.” Extending this idea you might say Dionysiac or Bacchic impulses are at the center of Greek culture (a la Zorba) while that the law, as manifested in the Torah, the Talmud and the Old Testament is what makes Sammy Run. Naturally the scandal of Portnoy’s Complaint was that Jews were not supposed to masturbate into pieces of liver or anywhere else. Now comes Shalom Auslander who further turns the idea that lurking in every Jew is a future Felix Frankfurter on its head. Yes, there are plenty of Jewish dads who still push their sons to be lawyers, but in his review of Eddy Portnoy’s Bad Rabbi, (“Downwardly mobile Jews,” TLS, 9/7/18), the author of Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir paints a different picture. Auslander quotes Portnoy to the effect that “Family lore conveniently forgets that Zeyde the antiques dealer was actually Zeyde the beggar, or that Bubbe the saintly seamstress was also Bubbe the hooker, who turned tricks during the slack season to make ends meet.” The emergence of the Yiddish press helped to present a more realistic picture of the humanity of the Jew. “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…” says Shylock. Amongst the humorous anecdotes that Auslander exhumes from Bad Rabbi is the advent of the “nosh fest” or gluttonous banquet attended by leftist Jews on Yom Kippur. “I’ve always envied the ancient Greeks,” Auslander writes. “What a joy it must have been to know your Gods were imperfect, that they married their sons, were drunks, paedophiles, thieves and kidnappers. Not so for Jews like me, with their perfect God and exalted minions. We live in the shadow of flawlessness, our ancestors have been photoshopped.” Amen!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Free Solo

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo is the record of Alex Honnold climb of El Capitan without ropes. It’s both boring and frightening. Anyone who has competed in an extreme sport will be familiar with the feeling that the film produces in the viewer and that probably was created in the crew which was tasked with recording the feat. There's the waiting and then the tremendous anxiety produced when your turn comes. It's not Honnold, but one of the camera crew who comments "I'm done," when it's all over. As for Honnold the affect states produced are obviously another matter, which might more likely be related to the ecstasis addicts seek. “It does feel good to feel perfection if only for a brief moment,” Honnold says. Even more telling he remarks “Imagine an Olympic medal athletic achiever and if you don’t get that gold medal you’re going to die.” The problem is that Free Solo isn’t a convincer. At one point Hannold has an FMRI which shows a low amount of activity in his amygdala meaning that he requires a great deal of stimulation to emote in the way a “normal person” would. Perhaps such daredevil antics are what motivate Honnold’s tempting of fate. Surely Nik Wallenda, who has tightrope walked between skyscrapers, displays a similar coolness that might be the other side of being dead, which is, of course, the name of the game here (the movie describes the fatalities of other free soloists). Running a marathon or undertaking an Iron Man test the limits of the human spirit, as do the 12 brutal three minute rounds of a title boxing match. However, the activity under scrutiny in Free Solo seems more like aberrant behavior than a form of bona fide striving. You read about kids who die leaping between rooftops and one wonders if this attempt to defy gravity isn’t just a lucky exception (though the intricate way Honnold choregraphs his ascent is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film). If you remember Icarus didn’t heed Daedalus' warnings when he flew too close to the sun. 

Monday, October 29, 2018


Anyone who attempts to assess their position on the food chain of human existence is going to be caught up short. Of course there are big fish who survive by gobbling up minnows and that’s great if you inhabit a fish tank. The Marvelettes' 60's hit "Too Many Fish In the Sea"cited “short ones, tall ones, fine ones, kind ones… .” In a controlled environment it’s one thing, but when you go out into the big wide world there’s always going to be someone stronger and more talented who’s better equipped to survive. Of course, there are going to be exceptional fish like the White Whale who bore the brunt of Ahab’s obsession and fury. However, the average whale, being just one amongst many, will never become the basis for a famous quest in literature. Andy Warhol’s remark that “in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” seems more apropos than ever in this age of social networking and instant Twitter celebrity. Your candle is snuffed even before it's lighted. Fame was the title of an all but forgotten 80's film. “All the world’s a stage,” says Jaques in As You Like It. But what to make of one’s short appearance and ghastly oblivion? Yes there were Dickens and Tolstoy, Caligula and Leonard Bernstein, but even they will be trumped by time.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Final Solution: Armageddon

Bombing of  Nagasaki (photo: Charles Levy from B-29)
There have been moments when civilization is a hair’s breath from Armageddon. On September 26, l983 Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces judged that the signal of an incipient United States attack was false. It had been a particularly tense period due to the shooting down a Korean Airlines plane. But how many other close calls have gone unreported? In Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick created a satire that was hauntingly realistic, replete with a Wernher von Braun doppleganger in the form of the film's title character and the mushroom shaped cloud at the movie’s end appearing to the score of “We’ll Meet Again." Russian roulette, not realpolitik, seems to be the best way to describe the pressure pot of international relations. Now bombs are being lobbed by a nameless adversary against avatars of liberalism from former presidents, to a network, an actor and an outspoken congresswoman. A Saudi prince orders the mutilation of a columnist in broad daylight. Santayana said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remember that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in a backwater named Sarajevo sparked the beginning of World War I. The fission reaction of the H-bomb is ignited by lesser nuclear device. You don’t need a full-fledged altercation between superpowers to result in mass destruction and now with the stakes, like a Mega Millions jackpot, growing exponentially higher, the sky appears to be the limit.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Final Solution: The Lord of Misrule

Trump is the Lord of Misrule. For the average liberal, the news cycle has become A Midsummer Night's Dream turned nightmare. The Iran nuclear deal, the Paris environmental accords, the nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the Kavanaugh appointment (not to speak of Gorsuch), the responses to the Khashoggi murder and to recent mail bombs, immigration, NATO, the UN, Puerto Rico, gun control, Charlottesville, the repeal of public lands protections and now transgender rights. Whether its Pruitt or Wheeler, Trump appoints EPA chiefs who are not interested in regulation. There’s not one moment of respite. In fact the whole agenda of the presidency is the destruction of the kinds of entitlements (the Affordable Care Act has so far miraculously survived) that most Democrats had mistakenly taken for granted. Reagan and both Bushes had conservative agendas, yet neither mounted an across-the-board attack on everything that most of the President’s New York neighbors stand for. What’s interesting is that Trump himself had once been a Democrat and a friend to the Clintons. What went wrong? Was he snubbed at a fundraiser? Did he finally get the idea that the average New Yorker didn't like his hair? Nixon displayed a similar venom and ended up resigning. Maybe Mueller will come up with something that will topple the presidency. However, what gives Trump his power is that a large part of a divided populace not only thinks the way he does, but are willing to use any means to get to the ends they wish to achieve. Trump once said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters.” It’s not a joke. Due process, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are what’s up for grabs. It’s no wonder Trump is able to buddy up with the likes of Kim Jong-un and MBS. They all share a similar contempt for the very civil liberties which make America great. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Satisphere

Elon Musk should come up with some sort of a ship that will transport earthlings to the satisphere. Everyone is always looking to attain ever greater heights and feats of prowess, with little sense, in a culture that prizes becoming over being, of enjoyment in the goals that have already been attained. Space programs are often about launching satellites for purposes of either communication or spying, but you rarely hear about any sort of aircraft constructed to take travelers to spiritual locations. Oddly enough the Stealth aircraft which is designed to elude radar presents an interesting anomaly to the extent that it can enter and depart from regions while remaining totally undetected—a little like the Invisible Man. In addition to Musk's SpaceX there's Virgin Galactic, but none of these outfits have attempted to venture into the regions of so-called inner space. Satispheric conditions may vary greatly and there’s no telling the data these kinds of missions are likely to reveal concerning the world of affect, a universe whose mysteries and startling beauty are usually limited to the purview of patients on the psychoanalytic couch. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bill Irwin On Beckett

In On Beckett, Bill Irwin offers an analysis of the famous scene at the end of Waiting For Godot where Vladimir tells the boy (Finn O’Sullivan) “Tell him you saw me,” citing amongst other things the biblical parable of the two thieves. For Irwin the question is whether Vladimir is trying to monopolize salvation. Were he more magnanimous, would he have said “tell him you saw us?” Irwin is wearing two hats in the current performance at the Irish Rep, that of the dramaturg/critic and that of the actor, dealing with the performer's relation to lines and stage directions. Actually he’s wearing many hats, brilliantly dramatized in one section where his bowler is deconstructed into a number of different head coverings including a fez and a yarmulke (the spirit of the famous Chaplin bowler of course hangs over any Beckett production). Irwin interweaves his discussion of Godot with selections of from Texts for NothingWatt and The Unnameable. Beckett has many interpreters and one who lived many years before he himself was a glimmer in anyone's eye, Bishop Berkeley, whose “esse est percipti” (“to be is to be perceived”) provides the epigraph of the playwright’s sole cinematic work, Film. But Irwin’s part of a venerable tradition of clowns, including Keaton (who starred in Film) and Lahr who appeared in the first production of Waiting for Godot in America and who have the tools to perform Beckett’s tragic comic stage business. Irwin’s brilliant rendition of  Lucky's iconic speech from Godot offers the ne plus ultra parody interpretation of the human condition culminating in the assertion that the fate of man is to "waste and pine." It also demonstrates why clowning is such an apt vehicle for the playwright's tongue-in-cheek teleology. Beckett’s works are often about the topography of disembodied consciousness (take the famous lips in Not I) and Irwin’s antics are like dendrites and axons flitting around the synapses of the brain and conveying the closest thing to serotonin that you’ll find in theater today.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Words: Deliquescence

Deliquescent means having the tendency to dissolve. Alka Seltzer commercials used to provide a clear example of deliquescence to the extent that this was exactly what the product was selling. Not only were the tablets an example of deliquescence, they hopefully would do the same to the irritation within the stomach. So it was a double whammy. The advertiser got their cake and ate it too and it was an example of onomatopoeia since the word itself seems to dissolve on the tip of your tongue. When you think of deliquescence you conjure a flowing stream, a bubbling brook in which spawning salmon occasionally jump to snatch insects off the surface of the water. There's something pure about the deliquescence that separates it from the toxic green toxic sludge that you find in chemical wastelands in the sea of industrial plants on the Jersey side of the Hudson and you can’t have deliquescence when there’s an inorganic environmental catastrophe. Deliquescence doesn’t go with the notion of the atomic reactor overheating in Chernobyl or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There's something pure and mythic about deliquescence, the stasis in movement of Millais’” Ophelia.” Satie is the essence of deliquescence in music but there's nary a deliquescent moment in Wagner.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Final Solution: Here Comes the Judge

Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham
Jurisprudence and case law have been in the news recently—particularly due to the controversy surrounding the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. But all the brouhaha brings up precedents created by another voice who came into the public eye during an earlier period of conflict. And that’s Judge Pigmeat Markham whose "Here Comes the Judge" and "The Trial" (which was the flip side of the 45 and might be conceived as the closest thing to Kafka in jukebox form) handed down decisions that echoed through the halls of music as well as justice. Remember the opening of “Here Comes the Judge,” “Hear ye, hear ye, the court of swing it's just about ready to do that thing” and later “Every body near and far I’m going to Paris to stop this war.” The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1999), produced by Sylvia Robinson (of Mickey and Sylvia, “Love is Strange” fame) is often credited as being one of the first rap or hip hop hits, but actually Pigmeat, a comedian on the R&B circuit who played venues like The Apollo was one of the first to produce this kind of “talk radio.” The record is also significant to the extent that it directly references the Paris Peace Accords, which though not signed until 1973, had begun to be negotiated in 1968, the year “Here Comes the Judge” was released. In his version of “The Trial,” Pigmeat throws the case of a man who's accused of being a nudist out of court when he finds that the man has had 9 children in 3 years and hasn’t had time to put his pants on. Joseph K's case might have fared better with Pigmeat on the bench.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

False Equivalence

False equivalence is a fetching concept. Understanding it is a good way of undermining a hyperbolic argument. Comparing apples with oranges is one kind of false equivalence. A person is not a car and while it might be poetically useful to use expressions like "putting “the rubber to the road,” it actually makes little sense for understanding the human condition, even for those who wear shoes with thick rubber soles. The following statement from President Trump is an almost perfect false equivalence: "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent. I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned," ("Trump criticizes rush to condemn Saudia Arabia over Khashoggi," The Washington Post, 10/16/18).There's an almost a comical side to many false equivalences since, for instance, a victorious candidate has really nothing in common with a winning horse and an unlikely winner is hardly a dark horse though that expression might simply qualify as a plane old figure of speech. A person with a famously busy social schedule who accuses you of being too busy when you try to make a date with him or her is employing false equivalence. Should a wealthy industrialist who drives around in a Ferrari be more required to ante up his money for philanthropy than the person who plays it closer to the vest? Why should ostentation be tantamount to generosity? Just because you like to show off your hard earned cash doesn’t mean you have to give it away. "The last shall be first" is a wonderful kind of false equivalence since it replaces a wish with a reality. Sure it’s a very pleasant and Christian notion (deriving from the Gospel of Matthew) that those at the bottom of the food chain will be rewarded for their penury, but it flies in the face of the facts.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Final Solution:The New Civil War

If you’re a baby boomer, they’ll be the memory of a day, week or month, some watershed event that marks the moment when the counterculture changed your life and created and transformed your relationship to your parents and/or any representatives of the older silent 50’s generation that preceded you. It might have been the assassinations of JFK, RFK or Martin Luther King. It may have been the violent attack on protestors at the Chicago Democratic Convention or maybe it was the music of the era that was transformative, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Stones. Perhaps you simply regarded yourself part of the Woodstock generation. Martin Buber talked about I-Thou versus I-It relationships. The depersonalized I-It may have described your relationship to those whose humdrum existences (for instance the famous character in The Graduate who recommends "plastics' to Dustin Hoffman) seemed totally irrelevant to your life. Your new bibles were books like On the Road, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran or R.D. Laing's The Divided Self (which was more a primer for the time than some people might have liked to realize or admit) and you found yourself worshipping  at the alter of gurus like Timothy Leary. Today you may also find yourself growing alienated from a whole demographic of people who seem to uphold a totally different worldview that you, but the difference is less predicated on youth and age or appearance (short or long hair) or even matters of lifestyle like sexuality (though abortion is one of the big issues in the current divide). Those who support the agenda of Donald Trump or other right leaning populist candidates in France, England, Germany and Italy are the new “It” for a generation weaned on the globalism and humanism of modern liberal politics. The counterculture of the 60’s was a civil war and before that was the actual Civil War in which many Americans died. Now we're in a totally new civil war which is characterized by the complete eclipse of bipartisanism. It’s war all right and there are few turncoats brave enough to cross the aisles.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Pornosophy: The Second Coming

"The Last Judgment" By Michelangelo
Have you ever been accused of being too selfless in your sexuality? Have you ever received complaints from partners who feel they’re the recipients of more pleasure than they can handle? Overstimulation can be equally as serious as lack of interest and there are people who simply do not possess the wherewithal or have not had the kind of upbringing where they were taught to tolerate or even expect great amounts of attention to their being and more specifically to their private parts. If you’re in a relationship with someone who’s used to the slam bam thank you sir or madam kind of sex, they may even prefer nostaglie de la boue for déjà vu si vous parlez francaiswhich as everyone knows is the language of love. Yes there are those who do not like a French, French kiss, or to revert to the Latin which is source of all so-called Romance languages, fellatio or cunnilingus. They’d rather turn the other butt cheek and follow the precept that it’s better to give than receive. “The last shall be first” and “the second coming” are their mantras. Chacun a son gout! Butt is not usually employed as a conjunction since it’s a noun, but you get the point.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Final Solution: Towards a Value Free Politics

Value free politics means, it doesn’t matter what any regime does as long as they’re on your side. Of course the US has a long history of this kind of realpolitik. In Chile, the right wing dictator Augusto Pinochet became our choice over the democratic socialist Salvador Allende when the “domino theory” and “spheres of influences” were still important catchphrases of US foreign policy. Remember a Secretary of State named John Foster Dulles? The United States would depose Mossadegh and replace him with the Shah. Now the Trumpocracy is  selling us to the selfsame "Russkies" Colonel Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) warned against in Dr. Strangelove.The president has called Kim Jong-un who has yet to promise anything and who likely ordered the murder of his own half-brother (and who the hell else) “a funny guy” “a great negotiator” and “very smart” while still sending the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to a conference in Saudi Arabia. This latter is occurring despite the apparent ordering of the grisly murder of the muckraking journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi born US resident on Turkish soil. With friends like these who needs enemies? In the light of Mike Pompeo returning from a recent stopover in North Korea where he discussed a second summit, it’s as good a time as any to remember Neville Chamberlain’s famous words: "My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Art of Quitting

photo: Byron Rollins (AP)
Is there something to be said for quitting, for giving up in the face of a challenge? Perhaps you're someone who has spent all of his or her life climbing the mountain. Is it possible that for a personality type of this kind the challenge lies in not trying to climb the mountain anymore? Cancer survivors are always told to fight, but there are patients with terminal cancers who may end their lives feeling they're in a final losing match. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote about this in a New Yorker piece entitled "Letting Go: what should medicine do when it can't save your life," (The New Yorker, 8/2/10). Is that the way you want to die, facing the pain of death and feeling like you’re losing a competition or not stepping up to the plate? The ethos of modern civilization is a business model with the idea that no company can survive unless it constantly grows. War is the other metaphor that's employed. Might is right and nobody wants defeat. Everyone is trying to improve and get better. People make themselves miserable constantly seeking out the best life has to offer. Of course, you don’t want to be a lump or blob, but is there nothing between scaling El Capitan without a rope and turning into a couch potato? Maybe there isn’t. Maybe you have to accept the fact that you’re either someone who meets challenges or not and if you're in the latter category, you’re going to do it until the day you die—when everyone will be patting you on the back and praising you for not giving up and all you want to do is sleep. You will never surrender and you will never find peace.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Museum of Modern Love

Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love is a great title for a novel, but the subject, according to a recent review in PW is even more inventive. PW describes the book as “an exploration of love and convergence set against the backdrop of a work of art performed by Marina Abramovic at MoMA in New York City in 2010.” Surely our present period will beget numerous novels set against the background of the Trump presidency with the turmoil of The White House mirroring the inner conflicts of the characters— and even the pathetic fallacy becoming politicized. But Rose’s idea is truly original and recalls an artistic event that however transfixing may have vanished into the collective unconscious of a previous era. Remember the naked acolytes at the entranceways and the eyes of the artist? It was a little like one of those games where you lock into the gaze of someone waiting to see who will crack first, only Abramovic never budged. It would incidentally be interesting to find out if she ever met her match, if anyone tried to take on this Serena Williams of performance art. There was also sense in which Abramovic’s gaze acted like a tabula rasa in which you could either feel you were being seen or ignored depending on the penchant created by your own psychohistory. Imagine further someone writing a novel about the brothel which was the basis for “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” or painting Marina Abramovic. Sitting totally still, she made the perfect model. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Pornosophy: Combat in the Erogeneous Zone

You can be guaranteed that after five days, if you don’t see immediate results, you will receive a complete refund. This revolutionary new program is guaranteed to desexualize any relationship. Using the latest advances in domesticity—such as nagging, devaluation, dismissiveness, together with de-eroticization techniques such as overfamiliarity and watersports (like communal micturition), you will remove all sexual tension and will be totally ready to give up what Ingrid Bengis called Combat in the Erogeneous Zone. In just five days, if you're not ready for a truce, you'll get your money back. Familiarity builds contempt and this fast acting program can turn even the most charged romantic liaisons into scenes of petty squabbling overnight. Learn to transform the most trivial exchange into a power struggle. Learn how you can begin to hate everything about someone you were once wildly infatuated with. See how easy it is to forget the nice things a person does when they exhibit the same irritating peccadillo over and over again. Here at last is a program that will make you question what you ever saw in your supposedly significant other while guaranteeing you'll feel chained to them forever (because you're too washed up to find anything better). Yes, you’re trapped and that’s all the reason to resent your life mate, but this is one holding pattern that will embrace you like the arm of the law.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Vermont Journal: After the Fall

These days when people tall about a fall, it’s usually in the Adamic sense employed by Arthur Miller in his piece de theatre a clef about the destruction of his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Was it she who plucked the apple? The current civil war in America is an essay in the loss of a certain kind of innocence or belief. Talk about innocence, remember “do you want a medal or a chest to pin it on or you’re funny but your face beats you to it”?  But sometimes fall simply applies to the season of the year famed for its refulgent displays of color. Dead leaves are like supernovas and Route l00 in Vermont is the place to go if you want to experience this kind of oxymoronic dying blossoming. The brief flash of beauty is like one of those political movements for which people hold out so much hope. Generally it’s a flash in the pan of congregating and selfless brotherhood, followed by institutionalization, a process that Max Weber termed “the routinization of charisma.” The sect, according to Weber, becomes a church. After the fall comes winter, when the branches are bare and sometimes break under the weight of the snow. This is a peculiarly difficult fall for Vermont, which elected Bernie Sanders. The disappointment with politics is written on the faces of many residents who themselves are facing shorter days and darkening skies, of a not totally seasonal nature.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Vermont Journal: The News of Dorset

map of Pawlet, VT (watercolor by Hallie Cohen)
They’re talking about Cleveland in Dorset. That’s Edgar Cleveland  who's running to represent the nearby towns of Pawlet, Tinmouth, Middletown Springs, Rupert and Wells and whose electoral signs grace the front yards of many houses. Politics and foliage are two characteristics of Bernie Sanders’ state and one hand-painted sign on Route 30 simply urges someone, anyone  to “Get the criminals out of Montpelier. Begin With Robin.” Could the sign be referencing Representative Robin Chestnut-Tangerman, a Progressive Democrat who emanates from nearby Middletown Springs? Dorset boasts the oldest continually run golf course in the United States, the Dorset Field Club, only a few doors down from the gracious old Dorset Inn. Horace Greeley, did an internship at the Northern Spectator newspaper from 1828-30 and his residence in nearby East Poultney down the road from Lake Saint Catherine is commemorated by a plaque which stands in front of the United Baptist Church. The Dorset area is no different than other parts of Vermont where a man still takes his gal out in his Harley Trike for the modern equivalent of a buggy ride, and there don’t seem to be enough refulgent leaves for all the tourists who revel in their wonder. The crowded bars and parking lots are an anomaly in Dorset (population: 2,031) which is six miles down the road from the normally bustling Manchester (population 4,391) whose outlet stores are the primary source of attraction.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy

"Sol Goldman and Alex Di Lorenzo, a Real-Time Social System,  As of July 1, 1971" (Tate)
With all due respect to The Times' team which unraveled the decades of Trump tax fraud ("Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father,NYT, 10/2/18), the paper might have done well to hire artists like Mark Lombardi or Hans Haacke whose works are on view in the "Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy"exhibit at the Met Breuer. Here is where art comes in handy. You don't have to wade through thousands of words. The show is agit prop of a certain kind and displays works like that of Jenny Holzer which are documents about documents. Holtzer's  “The White House 2002” (2006), is a painting of a memorandum from the Bush administration allowing for the use of torture on suspected terrorists. Fred Hampton, the legendary Black Panther, makes an appearance courtesy of Videofreex. Mike Kelley’s “Abuse Report” (2012) is a California filing in which the artist as victim lodges a complaint against Hans Hoffman. The complaint recalls Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence. Lombardi, whose mysterious death has spawned its own conspiracy theories, was a conceptual artist whose work is simply a diagram of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, aka the "bank of crooks and criminals.” Hans Haacke’s piece is “Sol Goldman and Alex Di Lorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System,” As of May 1, l971.” The only difference from the Trumpocracy is that the Goldman Di Lorenzo empire fell apart like a house of cards. What's's so astounding about a piece of "investigative art" like this, which hearkens back to events that occurred almost 50 years ago, is how prescient it was. All you have to do is fill in the blanks.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Pornosophy: The Fate of the Heterogametic Sex

The pornoverse is wobbling, very much like the earth itself. You had the l000 years of Imperial Rome and now like the Ice Age which saw the extinction of Dinosaurs, you have the decline of man. "The Fall of Men" headlined the recent ill-fated issue of The New York Review of Books, which featured an apologia/complaint by banished Canadian journalist Jian Ghomeshi that resulted in the then editor, Ian Buruma's, departure ("New York Review of Book Admits 'Failures' in a #MeToo Essay," NYT, 9/24/18). Not man in the Adamic sense in which an act of temptation led to the fall from Grace, but man as opposed to women, the creature with the XY as opposed to the homogametic XX chromosomes. Imagine if men strutting with their testes and penises were to vanish from the earth and the race of homo sapiens was composed of simply females. In terms of 501c3’s you would still undoubtedly have charities which used the #MeToo hashtag since sexual abuse though it may have been weighted in the male direction (which is one of the reasons why males will become extinct) is still a multivalent phenomenon. In fact, a la the Stockholm Syndrome there’s reason to believe that women, once in power, might very well imitate the worst traits of men, the exercise of power itself being a value free activity. Once men vanish from the face of the earth will drunken women go to Pornhub to view gang rapes of women dressed up as men, during Superbowl half times in which both squads are populated totally by female players?

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Semiotics of Torn Jeans

Torn Jeans (American Eagle)
Style is like the conventions of drama. A particular device or piece of stage business is like a collar or a cuff, like a V or polo neck. By now one of the conventions of casual fashion, particularly clothes worn by women, is that that the knee area and hem should be torn. People go around with big holes in their pants in order to make a fashion statement. Speaking of theater it’s something that Moliere might have come up with. Has the fashion industry Tartuffed the consumer or are they mutually complicit? Is it a folie a deux which at the same time is making both a cultural and subliminal statement. Those with limited means usually wear torn clothes because they’re on a tight budget. By wearing a pair of torn designer jeans an affluent woman is identifying herself with the have nots. It's one way to hide disparities of income and alleviate guilt. In the l9th century upper class women displayed ivory white skin as a sign of class. They didn’t become tanned like those who had to work outside, but by the 20thcentury tanned skin was paraded around proudly as a sign of having the means to travel to Florida and the Caribbean. Today tight fitting suits are the craze. Twenty-five years ago everything was baggy and loose fitting. Is that because the mood of American society was more expansive several decades back? Was the eleemosynary instinct more pervasive? Are today’s snug-fitting fashions a sign that young people are now holding things closer to the vest.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Heavenly Bodies

from Thom Browne's 2011-12 collection at The Met (photograph: Hallie Cohen)
Fellini’s “ecclesiastical fashion show” from Roma (1972) defines "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination"which is just completing a run at the Met (a clip from the movie is presented on a monitor). In Roma the ordering of the Catholic hierarchy is presented in the vestments emblematic of each model’s position in the food chain—for instance a nun’s habit is described “as starched cap with flexible wings.” Was Fellini tipping his hat to Bresson when he presented the “country priest” get up? The curators themselves juxtapose the idea of the fashion runway and liturgical procession in comparing the longitudinal architecture of the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall to a catwalk. The show is introduced with this quote from Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination: “Catholics live in enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are merely hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility that inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation.” Significantly Danilo Donati who did the costumes for Roma also was responsible for the The Gospel According to St. Matthewthe deeply religious (and political) work by the director of Salo. Oscar Wilde once said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” “Heavenly Bodies” underscores the idea that the truth of beauty may lie in its iconography.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Are the Body Snatchers Invading?

The good news is life is continuing on. The bad news is that something has been killed. One of the most touching aspects of the RBG was the piece about the relationship between Scalia and Ginsberg, two justices on the opposite sides of the judicial spectrum who shared a love of opera. Will that continue in the light of the bitter divisions that are the legacy of the latest round of Supreme Court nomination hearings? The Judiciary Committee is not the court, but it’s hard to imagine someone with the bearing of a Kavanaugh mixing it up with his ideological rivals in the way that others have done in the past. Still, and this might roil conspiracy theorists on both sides of the aisle, there seems to be some modicum of dignity left in the Senate. However, inflammatory the hearings and deep the divisions, it's important to report that the decorum and the level of discussion actually existed in a totally different universe than that of Trump’s Tweets. Despite the ad hominem attacks, there were still many thoughtful moments in which the level of discussion exceeded anything that comes out of The White House. You may have been appalled by the gladiatorial spectacle, or if you're an MMA fan, been delighted by the sight of blood and guts, but it was heartening to note that there were no Invasions of the Body Snatchers. The executive and legislative branches are still separate, if only in temperament, and whether you write it off as simple lame duck antics, someone like Jeff Flake turns out to have a mind of his own. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger says Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson). Who knows what will happen if America survives the current civil war?