Monday, December 31, 2018

Cold War



The reception for Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War has been almost as overblown as that for Romaanother film that’s received a good deal of acclaim. The real Cold War is not between the East and West that the movie, which begins in l949 and deals with a music troop in Poland, sets out to describe. It’s between false art predicated on unearned emotion and the real McCoy. Here the melodrama manifests in the meaningful glances and inexplicable longueur that afflicts its two main characters, a conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his inamorata Zula (Joanna Kulig). Even the sex is a tease with the rug pulled out from under the viewer whenever the kettle begins to boil. There’s a worthy musicological subplot having to do with the relationship between indigenous folk music and the demands of the Communist party. The notion of selling out which is occasioned either through co-optation on the ideological front or defection is one of the genuinely insightful elements in an otherwise turgid soap opera. Not since Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt biopic has a lead character smoked as much as Pawlikowski’s male lead. The haunted unshaven look goes along with the butts. What happens to Wiktor in the West is the only argument for the Berlin Wall that has yet to be made in modern film. At the end of Cold War, reunited with her great love in a Tristan and Isolde death-in-life, at an Oedipus-like crossroads Zula says “Let’s go to the other side. The view will be better.” Is a spoiler alert even necessary? Not Brief Encounter might be a better title for this love story.

Friday, December 28, 2018

What is Happiness? (Redux)


Does fulfillment mean happiness? It’s a curious concept. Conceivably one could feel fulfilled in one's work without having satisfied certain needs which are generally thought to be a source of happiness. For instance sex and especially love are associated with happiness. Yet one may have worked for years at helping the poor in a Brazilian favela without having found the pleasure that comes from uniting with another individual. In this case the so-called pleasure would be selfless, deriving as it did from helping other people. Ronald Dworkin the famous philosopher and legal scholar once argued that doing things that were actually deleterious such as starving were antithetical to happiness, but that is taking the premise to its logical extreme ("What is a Good Life,The New York Review of Books, 2/1/11). Certainly the obverse, a life totally devoted to the satisfaction of the senses, in which anyone or thing that came in the way of self-gratification would be expunged can hardly be termed happiness. In fact, such behavior might ostensibly be conceived as a recipe for criminality. Having a wallet stuffed with money or the old notches in one’s belt or corset might be satisfying, but there’s no end to such gratifications or say the amount of Oxycontin or Fentanyl, one would need or could tolerate, if one were searching to search for oblivion through addiction. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Working Class


first edition of Chekhov's Three Sisters
“Man must toil. He must work...” is the famous refrain from Chekhov’s Three Sisters.It’s the plaintive cry of the outlier, the occupant of the landowning class in a hick burg whose dreams of a better life and more cosmopolitan existence have been thwarted (“to Moscow” is another the sisters' haunting cries). Deconstructing the play, "work" can turn out to be prescient, even in a way that Chekhov may not consciously have intended—as it augurs the revolutionary sentiments that were in the air and which Tom Stoppard, for instance, would later channel in The Coast of UtopiaThe working class in this way of thinking becomes a misnomer since it refers to an activity that people in all strata of society require. Still work is a curious device. Workaholism is frequently cited as another form of addiction. “Arbeit Macht Frei” was the infamous sign over the gates of Auschwitz. Yet work itself may be seen in a more spiritual way, if we take it to mean, “work at life.” It’s one thing to dream about uncharted waters, but it’s also axiomatic that that which has yet to come into being generally trumps the tried and true, the knowable. You don’t work at dreaming. You in fact daydream when you don’t want to work. Perhaps what Chekhov had in mind was something positive. With their hopes crushed Olga, Irina and Masha would have to deal with what was on their plates. Their daily grinds would become the gris for their mills. Call it capituation or acceptance, but out of this they'd ultimately discover the happiness lying at their footsteps. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Roma


Alfonso Cuaron's Roma is rife with emblematic images. At a party of New Year’s revelers the baby bottles stand alongside vials of booze—as adults behave like children. Dog shit lies in the driveway of the upper middleclass household, where Sofia (Marina de Tavira) is about to be abandoned by her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who actually steps in it on his way out for the last time. Sofia’s plight is mirrored by that of Cleo the maid (Yalitza Aparicio), who's impregnated then abandoned by her boyfriend, Fermin (Giorgio Antonio Guerrero), a martial artist and protofascist. Would that one could add to the chorus of praise that’s been heaped on this partially autobiographical film set in the 70's Mexico City neighborhood of the title. However the movie is irredeemably shallow. As if to underscore the theme of loss, the family goes away on vacation and two of the children almost drown. An ominous looking crab claw, punctuates a scene where Sofia has informed her brood that their father isn't coming back. The government's violent repression of demonstrators as Cleo sets out to buy a crib turns out to be prescient of the birth. It’s hard to quibble with the notion that men can be monsters and human existence a slog. Yet despite the redemptive aspects epitomized by the self-sacrificing Cleo's love for her charges, Roma's narrative and its heavyhanded symbolism remain stultifyingly in service to the obvious.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Night Watch


"The Night Watch" by Rembrandt (1642)
Art is an opening up of the senses to something the viewer has not experienced before. This does not mean that the painting, book or novel has to trade in a piece of exotic subject matter or content. Rather it refers to the relationship between artist and viewer that’s much like the therapeutic bond between a patient and doctor and is hence something ineffable that can’t be reiterated. There are an infinity of themes great artists deal with. Obviously, the venerable group of militiamen that make up Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” (1642) could easily be the subject of a quotidian group portrait in the hands of another artist. It’s a little like religion actually. The great artist not only has a brainstorm but the means to momentarily instill his revelation in another person. Many individuals are capable of having private esthetic experiences of such an intense nature that they’re like the innocent child who creates a spectacle  due to his or her vision of a deity. However, unlike some kind of soothsayer or savant whose word you have to take, the great artist has the means of translating his inner language into something which can be understood by all. It’s actually a very democratic act and much in line with early Christians who were interested in a relationship between humankind and God that was unmediated by the clergy or church. In this great masterpiece, Rembrandt stops time while retaining the stage presence, agency and immediacy of his subjects.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Delacroix at the Met: The Painter as Polymath



sketch for "Lion Hunt" by Eugene Delacroix (1854)
Don’t fret if you miss the Delacroix Show at the Met. Two of the master's most famous works “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel” (1854-61) and “Heliodorus Driven From the Temple” grace the altar in Paris’s Saint-Sulpice, not to speak of “Saint Michael Slaying the Demon,” which adorns the church’s ceiling. “Studies for Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” are part of the current Met show. Delacroix was omnivorous and the current exhibit might be subtitled “The Painter as Polymath.” He produced portraits of animals as well as people and one can understand why so many classic protomodernist painters found inspiration in the palette of possibilities he offered. Flowers and coins, Byron and Sir Walter Scott were all on his workbench. He was obsessed with Faust as well as Macbeth (he produced 17 illustrations for Goethe's Faust) and, as Roberta Smith's Times review pointed out ("At the Met Museum, the Grand Enigmas of Delacroix," NYT, 9/13/18), his sketch for “Lion Hunt,” (1854) conjures a l9th century de Kooning. "The Death of Sandanapalus" (1827) underscores his painterly mastery of the historical pageant. The current exhibition is extensive and somewhat dizzying. Delacroix was all over the place and your head may spin as you attempt to grasp the breadth and ambition of both the painter's work and this particular show. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Anxiety of Influence



The Anxiety of Influence is the title of a famed tome by Harold Bloom. But it’s become a term that's applied to situations that have nothing to do with literature. If you have any interest in being a professional basketball player, how do you deal with LeBron James? Then there was Wilt Chamberlain famed for his prowess off the court. How do you live up to Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who were so impossibly good? If you can’t be God then why not be the devil incarnate? With the legion of temptations available to humans that’s probably an easier act to follow. Getting back to words, imagine how a youthful poet in Williamsburg feels with Auden, Ginsberg and Ashbery looking over his or her shoulder. How, for that matter, does the average fiction writer do anything facing the tsunami of works by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates? Life throws a lot of curves and you may find yourself ending up being the only person who leaves Thailand with sexual problems, but “so it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut said in Slaughterhouse-FiveLiving is an anxiety producing affair and for some people human existence can crock up to be a perennial embarrassment in which they want to do nothing more than crawl up into a hole, where no one is there to see their paltry leavings.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Ashtray


Do you want to read a book by the filmmaker Errol Morris about how he faced off with Thomas Kuhn who wrote The Structure of Scientific Thought? Further would you like to read a tome about the relativism and realism controversy and the work of Saul Kripke, the one-time Princeton colleague of Kuhn’s who took the opposing position? Or would you rather read a review of the work in question, with the arresting and show-stopping title, The Ashtray Or the Man who Denied Reality, in the TLS? (“Words and Worlds,” TLS 11/2/18). Bt the way, the ashtray in question was thrown at Morris's head by Kuhn when he threatened to go to one of Kripke's lectures, "The Ashtray: The Ulimatum (Part 1),NYT, 3/6/11.  It may be sacrilegious to say, but when it comes to philosophy even handed down by a colorful non-academic personality like Morris, reviews seem to be great time and space savers. Is that in and of itself a problem of say esthetics? If you take this idea to the extreme you may find yourself reading the pornographic version of the Dickens classic, Great Sexpectations,which is short and to the point, rather than the real thing. As a side issue, the reviewer, Joe Isaac’s description of Kuhn’s paradigm shift sounds curiously similar to Stephen J. Gould’s concept of “punctuated equilibrium.” But returning to The Ashtray, Isaac asks, “Why does Morris, one of the most creative documentary filmmakers around, care about any of this?...if Kuhn is right, Morris insists, many of us hoping to grasp the truth must be deluding ourselves. Our knowledge of the world would be relative to our historically formed conceptual scheme.” Hence it would be hard to make conclusions about the nature of reality and produce hard-hitting documentary films in which investigative reporting can free a wrongfully accused defendant, as Morris did in The Thin Blue Line.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls


What happens when you put a B-movie director, famous for his buxom vixens with a screenwriter who's destined to become the most famous film critic in America. You get Beyond the Valley of the Dolls the l970 collaboration between Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert (currently in revival at the Quad as part of their Rated X series). The movie should not really be deemed a sequel as a meta version of the l967 movie based on the Jacqueline Suzanne novel in that it’s a monumental gargoyle, which would earn prime billing in any museum of kitsch. You have all the usual Russ Meyer vixens  including one in man’s dress Ronnie (Z-Man) Barzell (John LaZar) who changes the name of the all-girl band at the center of the plot to The Carrie Nations. Of course, the girls and the whole movie rather than beating their drum for temperance exemplify the kind of intemperate indulgence that might have characterized an orgy sequence from another notorious bit of erotica for which Gore Vidal wrote the script, Caligula (1979). Subliminally, the film does convey the sentiment of the age in which it was made, ie that sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll would be a source of salvation—which is another aspect of both its quaintness and yes innocence. No other movie in the history of cinema begins with a sex scene in which the barrel of a gun is suggestively pushed into a sleeping woman’s mouth and ends with her head being blown off. Last Tango in Paris, which was made 2 years later, was supposed to test the limits, but places a distant second with its stick of butter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Diasporic Dining: Oy Yoy Yoy


"Oi Yoi Yoi" by Roger Hilton (1963)
How about Oy for the name of a Japanese restaurant? Or Oy Yoy Yoy? Remember Yayoi Kusama, the famed artist? There's an expression “Oi” which often occurs in Japanese anime which is apparently an untranslatable verbal expression (really just a noise) like Oy, which of course, is a Yiddish expression of either misery or commiseration with someone who is suffering. But in a world where Yiddish culture still continues to have an influence, a Japanese restaurant with such a name would attract droves of customers. In the past Jews went to their Yiddish speaking bakers for challah and now they would go to Oy. The next best thing for the world-weary individual who's looking for something to sooth the indignities of existence is naturally a California roll. Just think.  It’s dinner time and you’re in the middle of the usual argument about where to eat with your significant other and you look up and see the gold embossed Asian influenced lettering of a sign which reads “Oy Yoy Yoy."Surely you’re going to walk right into the cozy wooded interior and order a bowl, maybe not of matzoh ball, but miso soup. "Oi Yoi Yoi" also happens to be the title of a painting by Roger Hilton, which apparently was inspired by the sight of his wife dancing naked on a verandah screaming just those words.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The National Yiddish Theatre's Fiddler

"The Fiddler" by Marc Chagall (1912)
Remember hating your parents and their friends self-satisfyingly talking about Fiddler when you were a rebellious teenager? Even though you heard it was based on Sholom Aleichem, it was just one more Broadway musical frequented by the old folks. If you were going to see a show, let it be Oh! Calcutta! or Hair. But what an eye opener to see the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's revival at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (the current run is sold out but it’s moving uptown to Stage 42). Perhaps it’s the authenticity conveyed by the fact that the production is in Yiddish and you start off with “ist das ein leben?" "Is this a life?" Perhaps you’re warmed by phrases like “meshugganah gedanken.” But the real crux lies in the iconic title song. “Tradition” is what Tevye (Steven Skybell) the famed character is not doing a very good job of upholding. The world is falling apart around him. From a dialectical point of view it’s not only the incipient liberation of his daughters, but the prospect of revolution itself that looms on the horizon. Like a lot of Russian based literature, by the way, Fiddler has its revolutionary student, its Bazarov, in the form of Pertshik (Drew Seigla) who breaks taboos by introducing the unheard of notion of romantic love and asking Tevye’s daughter Hodl (Stephanie Lynn Mason) to dance. Ironically the very means by which Jewish life created its own secularized literature and mythology, Yiddish, will preside over its own extinction.Yiddish would ultimately lead the way to cultural assimilation.The dissolution of the village creates the drama, but it’s the voice of freedom that’s the real enemy. The narrative presides over the development of consciousness and even though Tevye’s daughter Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy) does the unthinkable in marrying out of the faith, her father caves in and gives her his blessing. The melting pot and liberation that ultimately await these characters will eventually have them speaking English rather than their colorful native tongue. Don’t miss this Fiddler

Friday, December 14, 2018

Bitcoin, Second Life and the Allegory of the Cave



Maybe Plato was right and the reality that's perceivable by the senses is only a shadow of the truth. Ideal forms do exist, but they’re not apprehensible so what you’re left with is the condition of the cave dweller looking at silhouettes. This was the theory behind The Matrix too. Empirical reality is really virtual, the production of a mechanism that leaves the mind in a continual dream. An on-line creation like Second Life creates a universe which plays on this principle in the end offering something, which though admittedly not real in any sense, vies with reality to the extent that it satisfies so many human needs. Bitcoin functions in a similar way since it’s essentially a virtual currency. If anything knowledge from an epistemic point of view seems to be leaning away from the notion of absolute truth and absolute reality. Increasingly the universe is a relative place. In the literary world, deconstruction played a role in this by enforcing the idea that texts were culturally bound; in science you had Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The current occupant of The White House has taken a perverse form of this idea in his labeling  much reporting as “fake news.” Those being accused of propagating “fake news” hurl the epithet back and the two sides are off to the races, having been tossed from Eden of Absolute Truth. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

On and Off Aggression


first edition On Aggression 
Are you the kind of angry person who wouldn’t hurt a fly? Konrad Lorenz wrote a book on the subject called On Aggression, but like sexuality, aggression is an instinct that has braved the shoals of consciousness. Simply speaking, aggression is more easily exerted by creatures who do not partake of complex ethical and moral systems and have never heard of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Still some humans find it relatively easy to go after what they want. Undoubtedly Vladimir Putin’s nostalgia for Imperial Russia and the unmitigated zeal with which he's willing to violate the principals of the liberal global order that was on the verge of forming in the years following Glasnost and Perestroika is indicative of, for good or bad, a rather unmitigated competitive instinct. Is this the kind of unrepressed behavior one finds in sociopaths who are challenged in the area of conscience? Still if you have any problems expressing aggression, you can't but have a longing for this kind of unfettered expression. Popeye is a cartoon character who generally faces a comeuppance when he flexes his muscles, but franchises like The Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible appeal to flyswatters and anyone who like Peter Finch in Network feels like crying out: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Stuff of Which Oneirology is Made

"The Persistence of Memory" (1931) by Salvador Dali
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is the title of a famous Delmore Schwartz short story taken form the epigraph to a Yeats' book of poetry, Responsibilities. The story indeed deals with a dream that the main character eventually wakes up from. But dreams are an odd thing. Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams and he called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious.” The American psychiatrist Allan Hobson takes a far more prosaic attitude towards dreams in which dreaming is a response to physiological stimuli. Giorgio de Chirico’s dream-like landscapes depict streets that are often depopulated and there's the famous dream in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries where the professor goes to the town where the clocks have no hands. Clocks, in this case dripping ones, also appear Dali’s dreamlike painting “The Persistence of Memory.” People often treat their own dreams like the Sphinx Riddle, seeking out soothsayers and even analysts who will look into their crystal balls for answers, while failing to realize that the only real significance to dreams is what the dreams mean to the dreamer. Of course in the bible Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dream. Was the author of that sacred text a little like the French Structuralist Claude Levi-Straus, an archeologist of symbols and signs? Dreaming can be a treacherous landscape since it’s like the ice cream Sunday of the artistic or writerly palette. A dream seems so pregnant, yet where is the objective correlative? The conjuring of an isolated imagination is not necessarily interesting and informative in and of itself. In this sense dreams can be the shoals upon which a creative project can become wrecked. A dream may often be like a beached whale which has become misled by its own built-in sonar. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pornosophy: O


Self-abnegation has a storied history. First of all it can be a spiritual act in which appetite is squelched. Ultimately the object  is to extinguish ego. Once, “I” is out of the equation, the priest or monk or self-flagellant is ready to give him or herself up to God. In S&M the concept get more complicated because the individual seeking domination is orchestrating the show. After all he or she is the one who's doing the seeking. In the literature a dominant may tell his or her slave that they dare not speak up after having totally given up their powers. But usually such behavior is part of a transaction-- sometimes involving prostitution. The session ends, money is exchanged, and hopefully the suppliant has succeeded in getting what they want. God may be all powerful and he or she may demand sacrifices of the kind that Abraham was asked to make, but the only catharsis is faith and there's little notion of earthly pleasure deriving from the experience. However, submission is the common denominator in all these acts and ultimately the person who indulges in bondage, asking to be tied up and restrained is experiencing a kind of freedom from the responsibility of self. That’s what the famous erotic classic the Story of O is all about and for some the book is the bible of self-forgetting.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Sperm Count: What's the Difference Between Having a Meal or Sex With Somebody?


What’s the difference between having a meal or sex with someone.? Is sexual intercourse just another course? For example you order an appetizer which is like foreplay. No wonder they talk about finger food. Freud deal with the anal and oral stages and that's something that most gourmets are interested in too. What comes in must come out is not one of the four laws of thermodynamics, but it’s a simple truth which permeates all human affairs--speaking of which if you’re indulging in an illicit meal, it’ll all come out in the wash. Now the main course is obviously going to be coitus of some sort which explains the expression "you can look at the menu but you don't have to order." Some people just ask for an appetizer which is the equivalent of getting a blow or hand job, but in general the aural satisfactions that derive from kissing and sucking, fellatio or cunnilingus lead up to the kind of degustatory union that's characteristic of both dining and sex. You might employ your penis, vagina, asshole or combination thereof (the combination plate so beloved in all style Cantonese places) and you'll be enjoying the coup de grace. If you’re having a prime rib, this is the part of the meal where you have eaten the outstanding meat and are up to the juicy mixture of fat and grizzle attached to the bone itself. The connection between eating and sex is underscored by the fact that an erection is called a boner. Anyone who had ever enjoyed having something hard and tasty in their mouth will appreciate it. Now we’re ready for the dessert, the after party or post prandial moment when having satisfied your lust you're ready for the cool down which comes from touching stimulated areas, like nipples which might have become hardened and are now releasing their gases like the floats in the Thanksgiving Day parade. Your demitasse is perfectly named due to the linguistic tie which conjures the sight of a sleeping lover’s fundament.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pornosophy: Seven Dirty Words


George Carlin had a famous routine, "Seven Dirty Words," that was based on then forbidden language. It would be informative to see how these would go over in this day and age, were the comedian here to deliver them. The era out of which Carlin came was one in which speech reflected a relaxation in sexual mores.The pendulum has now begin to shift in the opposite direction. A recent cover of The Atlanticfor instance, featured a story on "The Sexual Recession," in which it was argued that young people are statistically experiencing a decline in the frequency in which they have sex on a weekly basis. At least one of the items on Carlin’s list is the dreaded "c" word whose use today can result in a good verbal flogging, ostracization or worse. Others like “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” are a little like our public lands, which are still protected, but in imminent danger. The world over which Carlin reigned along with other comedians like Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks now itself almost seems like an extinct universe; it’s probably true to say that some of the transgressions that the #MeToo movement has rightly fought to curb emanate from a time in which the exuberance of freedom led to its own excesses. Freedom is nice, but not when it is exercised in a unilateral manner. Still seminal texts like J.P. Dunleavy’s The Ginger Man and of course the two Tropics, of Cancer and Capricorn, which were Henry Miller’s contribution to both sex and literature have now become outliers. You remember it, right? The sexual revolution. Talk about paradigms shifting, it’s hard to conjure what that phrase means in a world where university students are more concerned about being "triggered" than “tuned in, turned on and dropped out,” to quote Timothy Leary.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Final Solution: Strange Bedfellows



How can you be a right-to-life person and defend the death penalty at the same time? Of course, this is precisely the position maintained by many conservative voters in states like Texas whose large death row population is supported by the same people who oppose Roe v. Wade. At times similarly held positions between people of opposing ideologies can create strange bedfellows like the unwieldy alliance between feminists and religious fundamentalists who oppose the First Amendment when it comes to pornography. What this points to is the irrational factor in human affairs. Sure it makes sense that if you value life you wouldn’t be in favor of execution, but the individual who opposes abortion might easily think of him or herself as a pioneer mentality whose thirst for vengeance might go hand in hand with his or her desire to protect the helpless fetus. Who knows when gunslingers and bounty hunters in the Old West thought life began. It can safely be said that conservatives don’t like taxes that pay for entitlements like Obamacare or even Social Security. Conservatives also don’t like the kind of over regulation that can thwart individual initiative. But the self-same conservatives who champion the rights of the individual over intrusive government might may also find themselves opposed to individual rights when it comes to gay marriage. For instance the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple ("Supreme Court rules for Colorado baker in same-sex wedding cake case,"CNN, 6/4/18). On other issues, there may be some crossing over. A libertarian might argue that the government can’t compel an individual to buy health insurance while at the same time finding him or herself opposed to free trade. On these issues the ideological lines become blurry, though a person who believes that any form of violent pornography should be available on the internet may believe that religious symbols in public spaces are the kind of free expression that impinges on religious liberty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Sacramento Journal: Downtown


Ruhstaller Buiding (photo:Toyz1988)
When you’re walking along the leafy tree-lined streets of Sacramento’s Midtown, filled with beautiful old houses and quirky stores, you forget that the city is the capital of the third largest state in the union (and the largest in population). Sacramento’s Downtown with its imperious looking governmental buildings, housing agencies like the office of the state’s Attorney General are a reminder of the provenance and initial purpose of the city, which at one time was the last stop on Transcontinental Railroad. You can visit the California State Railroad Museum in the Old Town section that with its restored l9th century structures looks a little like a theme park. Then returning along J, you’ll come upon the Ruhstaller Building, a grand old Queen Anne style structure which houses the Church of Christ Science and is just a stone’s throw from several other churches including that of Scientology, along with a Masonic temple and the Center of Praise Ministries. Nearby a lone figure parades a placard which reads “Christ Saves Souls.” 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Sacramento Journal: Fathoming the Demographic



photo by Francis Levy
Where do all the homeless people come from and the murals of Johnny Cash, Prince and Saoirse Ronan? Sacramento is a mass of contrarieties. Tropical palms line the streets along with deciduous trees which create the feeling of New England in Northern California on a lustrous autumn afternoon. A gun store is down the block from a storefront operated by Franciscans. The Capitol Dome Park is surrounded with a majestic line of portosans in anticipation of a marathon--the line of portosans like an auspicious hedge. Around the corner from LexisNexis on 21st and K are Time Tested Books Sell-Buy-Trade, and Freestyle Relaxed Fashion Boutique--an old-fashioned used book store and a thrift shop a stone's throw from a computer giant. and then there's Harv's Car Wash (1901 I) GET IN • GET OUT • GET CLEAN • GO GREEN! How to unearth the demographics or explain that lamp in the store window of Lofings Lighting on J, with the woman's leg in fishnet stockings for a base?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Sacramento Journal: the Samson Luggage Sculpture


"The Samson Luggage Sculpture" by Brian Goggin (photo: Francis Levy)
If you repair to the baggage claim area at Terminal A in the Sacramento Airport, you will come upon the "Samson Luggage Sculpture." It’s actually two 23 feet-high pillars made up of over 700 valises. The artwork was created by the sculptor Brian Goggin in l998 and the arcane term for a suitcase actually is the most adequate way to describe this agglomeration of beaten up and abandoned pieces—that might remind you of weather worn faces and purportedly represent the entire period of modern air travel. The towers sit in white bins of the kind one sees in airports and anyone who has ever experienced a sinking feeling when the carousel has stopped and their luggage is nowhere to be found will derive a catharsis in this vertiginous version of the lost or unclaimed baggage depot. It’s a little like the straphanger in The Kingston Trio’s “MTA” with the lyrics being changed from “did he ever return?” to “will it ever return?” If you have ever been permanently separated from your belongings, it might be worth scouting out this artwork next time you're in Sacramento, to see how these orphans have been inadvertently canonized. In reality, you might never have gotten your valuables back, but might find your suffering has been requited as part of a universal experience that finally contributed to the making of a work of art. Loss is, of course, the subject and Vittorio De Sica may have had a similar impulse toward restitution in his famed Bicycle Thieves (1948) which dealt with the disappearance of the title object in post-war Rome.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Sacramento Journal: Lady Bird


If you’ve never been Sacramento your view of the city will forever be changed by Lady Bird and the charged relationship between Saoirse Ronan and her mother (Laurie Metcalf). You may find yourself looking for the street where the title character throws herself out of a car. It may be unfair but isn’t that the kind of association Fellini lent to Rome in La Dolce Vita. Anyway you’re more likely to get to Rome than Sacramento, which though the state capital is less a destination than say Los Angeles or San Francisco. Then again if you’re going to Yosemite the setting for another recent movie which may have left it’s imprint on your imagination (Free Solo) you may very well find yourself flying into Sacramento—a city that might otherwise elude preconception, having no Golden Gate or Sunset Boulevard to speak of. If Greta Gerwig hadn’t been born in Sacramento and the movie didn’t have an autobiographical element, this lack of facile distinction in the minds of many viewers might have been a reason why the director might have scouted it out, as a location for her movie. After all, the way it’s painted is as a launching point, a place to escape from for a person who wants to become a great actress. Of course the other element is the Catholicism. There are no bell towers like the one overlooking the Mission San Juan Bautista in Vertigobut religion plays a part of the story. How infused in Catholicism is Sacramento? Lady Bird eventually ends up visiting a Presbyterian church when she gets to New York, but as for Sacramento, you've got to visit to fill in the dots.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Final Solution: Ordering In Chinese During a Nuclear Attack





There are many people who regard take-out ordering from Chinese or other restaurants as an inalienable right. And restaurants have tried to satisfy that right even putting their employees in danger as they attempt to make bicycle deliveries during downpours in which there are torrential rainfalls and hurricane level winds. There's even anecdotal evidence pointing to establishments competing for business during tornadoes and tsunamis. When you talk about rights, there's always the matter of limits. In the famous Oliver Wendall Holmes decision (Schenk vs. U.S.) about “crying fire in a crowded movie theater,” the limits of free speech, for example, are questioned under certain circumstances. So what about the ordering of say Chinese food in the aftermath of a nuclear attack? Should those who enjoy ordering in, expect to see the world weary bicycle delivery person appear at their door with mushroom clouds appearing on the horizon? To what ends will your average Chinese restaurant, pizzeria and diner go to make sure their customers can  place their orders? Of course the right to prompt take-out service is not legally recognized by the constitution or by municipal or state authorities, but there's a de facto situation whereby any Chinese restaurant that's not fulfilling its orders promptly is going to find themselves as extinct as one of the species of pterodactyls who disappeared during the ice age. The implications are enormous both for restauranteurs--who are coerced into having to produce under life-threatening conditions--and for their clientele who risk facing starvation during nuclear Armageddon.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Pornosophy: Oedipus

"Oedipus and the Sphinx" by Gustave Moreau
Are you tired of girls asking what’s wrong? Do your passionate embraces often fizzle? Do you find yourself blaming women when you’re having a problem? Does your proud package look like two wilted Brussels sprouts and rotted carrot? Oedipus killed his father and slept his mother? If you murdered your father you’d be serving time. So maybe you just slept with your mother. Though not a capital crime like murder, not advisable either. Even worse maybe you were like Hamlet. Maybe you just wanted to kill your father and sleep with your mother and that’s what’s holding up the show. You’re so afraid of what might happen that you can’t do anything. Classical Freudian therapy, 4 days a week on the couch is one approach or if you have that kind of money you might as well sign up with SpaceX for the trip to Mars. At least you’ll have something to look forward to. Of course there’s Viagra and even Spanish fly. However, when you come down to it, you’re going to be fucked, and not in a good way since once the incubus inhabits your neurogenic pathways, it takes on a life of its own and you’re going to wish that you were somebody, anybody, but you. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Final Solution: Deconstruction in The White House


Deconstucting the Deutsche Bank Building, photo: ProhibitOnions

As the World Turns was a popular soap opera that ran for 54 years on CBS. What goes around is the point.The concept of “fake news” employs a perverse form of deconstruction to turn history on its head. MBS might have been responsible for the butchering of Jamal Khashoggi or not. Sure there have been floods and fires, but that could be the result of global warming or not. Holocaust deniers used to be considered outliers, but who’s to say that the Holocaust itself is not next on the list for the fake news crowd. Remember Paul de Man the Yale deconstructionist who was found to have ties to the Nazis? No one really has the answers anymore since as Rudy Guiliani recently and memorably said “truth isn’t truth.” Imagine Jacques Derrida as a roving cabinet minister with portfolio sanitizing Homeland Security, Housing and Development Resources and even the Defense Department from any imputation of truth. History has produced strange bedfellows. If radical feminists and Christian fundamentalists can bond over curbing First Amendment rights when it comes to pornography, who says the far left Ecole Normale Superior crowd can’t align themselves with the Trumocracy to defeat Kant’s categorical imperative? The president is in the real estate business and demolition is only a stone’s throw from deconstruction. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Final Solution: Holiday Forecast



More misery is predicted for Venezuela. The Saudis will continue to bomb Yemen. Oil prices should remain on an even keel due to the United States laissez-faire attitude towards the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The migration of impoverished peoples to more affluent societies will continue to result in the rise of anti-democratic populist movements. Fires will scorch California and the West Coast while increasingly biblical level flooding will inundate the Florida panhandle and the Southeast. When and if he ever leaves office, Donald Trump will carry his policies forward by getting into the demolition end of the construction business. In the meanwhile the Russians with the help of Facebook will continue to disrupt elections. The friendship between Trump and Kim Jong-un will continue to blossom, despite their lack of progress on disarmament. On a local level bumper to bumper traffic on the George Washington Bridge will turn drivers into sitting ducks. Uber cars will continue to stop wherever they want to make their pickups. Mayor de Blasio will continue to blame New York’s City's problems on the State--and failing infrastructure. Speaking of lifestyle, people who continue to be randomly punched in the face on the streets of New York and other cities will serve as a metaphor for the current spiritual malaise.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Walking on Broken Glass



In Democracy in America De Tocqueville remarked on how Americans can go from poverty riches and the reverse in one generation. His point of course related to the lack of aristocratic dynasties in American society where you don’t have Merovingians or Windsors or any of the like (though for a while the Kennedy White House was referred to as Camelot). Now with social media, it doesn’t take a generation for one’s fortunes to rise or fall. Andy Warhol famously anticipated our cyber society when he commented that “in the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” Let’s take Michael Avenatti. When he first came on the scene he was a knight in shining armor defending Stormy Daniels against the Trumpocracy. His reputation has been like that of a great slalom skier who climbs to dizzying heights only crash land into charges of domestic abuse ("Michael Avenatti Arrested on Suspicion of Domestic Violence in Los Angeles, NYT, 11/14/18) Then of course there is the former Attorney General of New York State Eric Schneiderman (whose reputation has obviously suffered despite the fact that he will not be charged in the assault case brought against him), former NYS governor Eliot Spitzer and former congressman Anthony Weiner both of whom it would be kind to describe as being in the dog house. Al Franken is a stand alone issue and a cause celebre among those who feel he caved in too quickly to colleagues like Kirsten Gillibrand who urged him to resign. Then of course there are all the media celebrities whose careers were abruptly ended by the #Me Too movement amongst them Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor and the Canadian Journalist Jian Ghomeshi whose non-apologia "Reflections from a Hashtag" caused an uprising that precipitated the resignation of the Ian Buruma from The New York Review of Books. In the current age of meteoric hyperbole, everyone is a potential Icarus, who walks on glass. "Walking on Broken Glass" sang Annie Lennox.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What's the Difference Between Turkey and Greece?


Wild Turkey (photo: Dimus)
Is there anything to Greece and Turkey, some cosmic correspondence between the names of two sovereign nations and the fact that replacing the name of Greece with its homonym results in a fact of culinary life? Turkey has been in the news lately due to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But that turkey which is poultry produces grease when you cook it. It’s natural to chalk this up to coincidence. However, here you have two countries in nearby parts of the world whose very existence is a perfect statement about what goes on when you roast a bird. From a historical point of view, of course, the existence of turkey had nothing to do with the emergence of Greece, as a great power in the ancient world and the home of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who provide the cornerstone of Western civilization. Greece wasn’t like Eve who supposedly came from Adam’s rib, though grease definitely is a byproduct of some of the more cartilaginous parts of the turkey. What can be noted is that Greece and Turkey are both ancient civilizations. Turkey’s past might be a bit more nomadic though Turkey too produced its share of great poets. However, noticing a linguistic connection may point to something akin to Noam Chomsky's universal grammar. If you travel to Macedonia and make stops at Greek and Turkish cities, you are, in fact, making a connection that encompasses everything from geopolitics to the realities of your Thanksgiving Day feast.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Are Anarchism and Nihilism Still Viable Alternatives?




Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is one of the most famous nihilists in literature and there were of course Sacco and Vanzetti whose anarchistic views literally got them electrocuted. But are anarchism and nihilism still viable positions today? Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was an anarchist, but he was also a madman. Bazarov may be modeled on characters like Herzen and Bakunin who who would later appear in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, with their anarchist and sometimes nihilistic tendencies.  The perpetrators of present day terrorism tend to be more millenarian. They’re after something, if not in this life, then the next. A nihilist is really a seeker after truth. He or she is attempting to rid the world of lies and hypocrisy by cutting a path through the pretension of ideology. Nihilism is a kind of emetic, a cleansing that attempts to eradicate pretension and falsity—particularly with regard to the claims of those who offer false hopes. The idea that power is value free and self-perpetuating might be a part of the profile, if you were to attempt to create a nihilist prototype. Anarchism is, in a sense, more ambitious to the extent that there’s a hope that a new world will arise phoenix-like from the pyre on which all the dead and outmoded ideologies have been burned. While a nihilist is having a philosophical tantrum, an anarchist actually has a plan which is to destroy, through bombing or other means. The nihilist is more passive. He’s an antiquarian presiding over a musty shop of outmoded ideas. He or she’s world weary, but there’s a method to the anarchist’s madness while for his nihilist counterparts, it’s still all a matter of words as it was almost two hundred years ago when such self-annihilating creatures first started to appear in the pages of Russian novels.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Why You Need Other People




Why are other people important? To rephrase the question, why do some people isolate? The answer may lie in a profound distrust. Once you get to like someone, you depend on them. The good feelings stimulate the neurotransmitters to produce serotonin and you have at the worst the beginnings of addiction. Hermetic type personalities have perhaps suffered some kind of trauma in which their inclination— perhaps to overdependence— has been disappointed. Even though loneliness is painful, the loss of the once idealized object is even worse and leads to unbearable rage. If “no man is an island” as Donne famously said, then such a geography is exactly the compromise individuals who suffer from this form of narcissism eventually choose. It’s what might be termed “non-assisted” living. You may have noticed creatures like this. Perhaps it's you or some part of yourself. At the very least the self-protective emotion is not unfamiliar to anybody who has endured the breakup of a love affair or marriage. After such wounds one is naturally prone to a certain degree of recusal. Who needs him or her is the way many navigate these kinds of reversals. Most people don’t move to an isolated cabin in Montana after they have been rejected and then become the Unabomber. The question of why other people are important might seem to beg a long answer, but it can be said in two words: self-conception. It is through other people’s eyes that you're able to understand both the limitations and ultimately capabilities of the self.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Living For Dummies



Was life ever simpler? And when it was simpler, was it necessarily better? This is of course the question posed by Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, a primer on the recusal of at least one man from civilized society. Eventually Crusoe finds his Tonto in a local native called Friday. There are, of course, many ways in which such a novel can be read. On the one hand it can be viewed as form of screed, broadsheet or feuilleton arguing for the virtues of the primitive world. On the other it may be seen as an allegory for society itself, under the theory that there is no escaping the human condition. But there are certain incontrovertible facts. The industrial revolution produced economy of scale and most importantly the division of labor, an innovation that exponentially increased the alienation of the worker from the product he was producing. You may have to deal with conflict in even the most idyllic of settings since there's no evidence that either primitive man or his ancestors were free of territoriality or aggression. However, automation and the assembly line created a host of new and invidious paradigms that still inform the workplace today. In the pre-industrial world where men hunted, fished and bartered for those items they couldn’t make, neither deferred gratification nor capital accumulation were part of the equation. On the other hand you had the Inquisition and Salem. In order to survive, the fittest had to conform to a tight mold that didn’t allow for the kind of diversification that would be naturally selective for the species as a whole.Turns out when it comes to that elusive things called progress, you're damned whether you do or don't.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Are You a 100 Lb Weakling?






Have you spent your whole life wanting to be stronger, smarter and more desirable than you are? Are you always underachieving or performing, in your own eyes, simply because you have placed yourself in an arena of those who are stronger, smarter or more desirable than (or perhaps who you erroneously deem to possess talents in which you are lacking)? Do you feel underappreciated in literally every endeavor in which you perform from the bedroom, to the office, to the social circuit? Women who grew up reading Cosmopolitan might remember many of the self-improvement programs offered to those who were dissatisfied with their lot and then there were the famed “Are You a 100 Lb Weakling?" ads which populated the back pages of comics in which before and after shots showed what could happen if men followed a simple program. Characters who looked like Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” were magically transformed into hulking body builders of whom the legendary Jack LaLane and Charles Atlas were two of the most preeminent examples. Weightlifting is a discipline where progress is easily calibrated. The realms of intelligence, creativity and even desirability tend to be more diffult to tally. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being challenged in the area of self-conception. There’s a place for everybody on the food chain. The problem is that some folks aren’t content with their lot in life. There's a fine line between striving and self-hatred. There are those for whom there's no such thing as a goal. No matter what it is they have, the want more and better. They marry again and again searching for a happiness that perpetually eludes them. They want bigger muscles even when they’ve succeeded in becoming an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-a-like or they suddenly decide they want no muscles at all and prefer to look like a sinewy marathon runner. They're constantly caught between a rock and a hard place and end like supernovas that send out their brightest light when they begin to explode.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Words: Body Parts





It’s nice to have a body of knowledge—and comforting too. To be conversant with the in and outs of just about anything and to have a deep kinship with it, whether it’s arcane like numismatics, philately or fly fishing or something more global like the history of SALT  creates a kind of confidence. At least in one area of the barnyard you’re not walking around like chicken with its head cut off. It’s also nice to have a good body, but that’s something like horticulture, a discipline burdened with a built-on ephemerality. Bodies like flower petals wilt. The body politic is another matter since humans are migratory animals and the decline of one demographic leads to the rise of another. Body Double was the l984 Brian De Palma film that was a homage to many such Hitchcock classics as Rear Window and Vertigo. But the theme of the double has its own venerable history going back to a novella by Dostoevsky that was eventually appropriated by Borges in "The Other." Of course it’s always a habeas corpus matter since you have to have a body to make a case. Body parts are what eventually leads investigators to missing persons, although you might find them in the kind of garage you go to when your old Impala needs some body work. Calling a crash, "a fender bender" is an example of synecdoche since it employs the part for the whole. 

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.