Friday, July 20, 2018

Death and Montaigne


Michel de Montaigne
The subject of “Death and Montaigne” ignited a spirited exchange in the letters column of the June 22 TLS. Citing Montaigne’s essay, “Of Exercise or Practice,” Graham Swift, London SW18 remarks, “This essay almost succeeds in refuting the irrefutable premiss that though we can practice many things, death is not one of them.” The best thing about death is that it has often inspired writers (“Death, be not proud”) to great flights of oratory and this generous locution is a little like the famous 360 degree head turning scene in The ExorcistJoseph Ting, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove, Brisbane offers, “Kafka’s ‘The meaning of life is that it stops’ remains scant consolation when life is robbed unexpectedly or prematurely.” Still the quote from the famous Czech writer is strangely consoling in its affirmation of finitude of a godless universe. Aren’t exorbitant expectations often to blame where the spiritual life is concerned? Paul Slack, Linacre College, Oxford begins his brief note with the ominous “I dare say this is no time for me to be making enemies…” Can we assume that Mr. Slack is another gray panther on the lamb? One can only say how British! Jolly good, govna!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company


You may find Jean-Luc Godard’s The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company (1986)currently in revival at Anthology Film Archives, bullshit or brilliant. It’s actually a little of both. It’s filmmaking as a piece of performance art, maybe the kind you’d find in a Richard Foreman work at The Saint Mark’s Poetry project. Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Leaud of The 400 Blows fame) starts off the film shooting screen tests and ends up joining the line of hopefuls who receive 20 francs a shot for their time. Jean Almereyda (Jean-Pierre Mocky), the producer is a fugitive from the New Wave come upon hard times who ends up like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.The whole film replete with Almeredya’s alienated wife Eurydice (Marie Valera) has the feeling of microscopic outtakes from Contempt left on the cutting room floor. A great part of the action is simply the line of actors reading sentence fragments into a camera positioned in front of a poster of L’avventura. One of the female actresses iterates “he’s the only man I ever loved, he’s dead.” She’s asked to repeat it and then the camera holds her wide open mouth freeze-framed in a shot that recalls the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Potemkin. La Grand Illusion is the headline of one of the sections of the film and a book about Jerry Lewis, a favorite of French cineastes, lies in a pile on a desk. It would be cant to say that The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company deconstructs the process of filmmaking, though it does tip its hat ambivalently to the demise of celluloid and the concomitant advent of the video in which it’s shot (it was originally a made-for-TV movie). But the film takes too many creative liberties to qualify as an essay in filmmaking, narrative or anything else. It’s more like a dance and in the end Godard himself makes an appearance as the guest diva. There's a side to Godard which wants to blow everything to smithereens including art, cognition and certainly the social order. If you find yourself shaking your head, you may be responding to the fact that this time his anarchist impulses may have created an esthetics of gibberish.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Banality of Himmler



Himmler’s daughter recently died ("Gudrun Burwitz, Ever-Loyal Daughter of Himmler, Is Dead at 88,NYT7/6/18). And her story epitomizes Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Firstly, she made the Times obit page, which is a distinction in and of itself. There was undoubtedly someone whose relative wasn’t so lucky and who said to themselves “I guess you have to be Himmler’s daughter.” Secondly, she remained loyal to her father throughout her life, refusing to believe that he was a monster which is a reminder that in spite of the haunting box cars, train, whistles, ovens and smoke stacks, life apparently went on with some degree of normalcy (at least for those in high positions) during the Third Reich. You did your job and received rewards, promotions and reprimands (in Himmler’s case he incurred the Fuhrer’s disfavor in the end for advocating surrender). You had your marriages and children. Himmler’s produced Gudrun, a nice Teutonic name. Gutrune was Siegfried's wife in Wagner's Ring. According to The Times piece, Himmler called her “Puppi,” and she called him “Pappi.”  Puppi and Pappi could be a graphic novel say like Maus. A killing machine is a way of life and there are weddings and birthdays and children like the hapless Gudrun who had trouble getting a job due to her resume. Gudrun herself apparently found love, in the form of a right wing journalist named Wulf, which just goes to show there’s someone for everyone. Is there a dating site that caters to the offspring of war criminals?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Three Identical Strangers



Tim Wardle'sThree Identical Strangers is about an unethical experiment. Identical triplets born on July 12, 1961, put up for adoption, were farmed to families who had no knowledge of the existence of siblings. Whether the experiment was testing theories of nature versus nurture, parenting, or perhaps even the heritability of mental illness are all subjects that are dealt with in the film. However the underlying paradox is that the Jewish agency which was involved in placing the children and underwriting the experiment was following in the footsteps of Nazis like Joseph Mengele who also performed similarly inhumane studies on twins. Were those involved as impervious to human life as the Nazis? Obviously not, but the harmful effect on the subjects the movie describes was great. Infants who were summarily separated from each other experienced life-long problems and there’s a particularly tragic circumstance that the film underscores that may have resulted directly from the experiment's methodology. Apparently, there was quite a method to the madness with children being placed in varying socio-economic milieus to test environmental versus genetic factors. The movie is a docudrama which uses real life footage and subjects, but it begins in a carnivalesque atmosphere. Two of the brothers Bobby and Eddie discover each other by accident and tabloid coverage of the meeting leads to a reunion with the third. The threesome appear on TV and even have an appearance with Madonna in Desperately Seeking SusanAt first genetics seems to be the winner. All three like the same kind of girls, smoke Marlboros and wrestle. Their mannerisms and movements, including the way they hold their hands, are unmistakably alike. They become regulars on New York’s nightclub circuit during the early 80’s and even start a restaurant. It’s a little like the bearded lady in the circus. The bizarreness is entertaining until it becomes apparent that there's a price to be paid. And the similarities recede when the relationship among the three unravels.The whole study in question is still wrapped in mystery. Originally the data had been sealed until 2066, though two of the living brothers have been successful in petitioning for disclosure. But how many twins or triplets, who may been subjects, are still out in the world with no knowledge of their others?

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Final Solution: Trump High



Donald Trump is the prototypic schmuck who gets all the good-looking girls. You always said to yourself, "what do they see in him?" If you were casting a horror film about this incredibly blustery dumbbell from high school who comes back to torment a community, you’d want Trump in the role. He’s right out of central casting with the hairdo and to underscore the point you might put him in the kind of white patent leather loafers and double knit suits that were popular in the late 70’s. But he couldn’t have been a character out of Saturday Night Fever. He’s no son of Brooklyn and he moves like a dinosaur. Could you imagine him on the dance floor? But listen to him talking about his friend Angela (that’s Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany) and look at Theresa May smiling benignly at him after he’s dissed her in the pages of The Sun. You remember those kind of kids who could get away with anything while when you threw a wad of wet toilet paper over a stall, you hit the principal and got suspended. Angela, Theresa it’s all like high school and Trump is the bully in the schoolyard. You remember those guys, don’t you? They weren’t smart and were too uncoordinated to be good at sports, but everyone was afraid of them. Then there was a period in your life, call it the Obama presidency, when the world seemed to right itself and the nice guys got all the good looking girls, but now we’re back at the prom. Melania is a nice kid and you feel sorry that she’s stuck with a schlump and cheat, but she’s never going to go for a nice guy like you.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection


Scofield Thayer was the publisher of The Dial, the famed literary magazine from the 20’s that featured such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Virginia Wolf and T.S. Eliot. He also came to Europe to be psychoanalyzed. “Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection” is the title of the exhibition at The Met Breuer. Is it possible to jump to the conclusion that analysis afforded a degree of disinhibition that resulted in Thayer’s “obsession” with the female body? And whose obsession is the show ultimately referring to, Thayer’s, those of the artists he collected, or both? The works that comprise "Obsession" particularly in the case of Klimt and Schiele are not merely women in a state of undress. They’re wanton, languorous figures who are frequently portrayed with their legs spread and masturbating. The project of portraying female sexuality and creating a harem of models who are willing to go the route, as they did for Klimt and Schiele, might go unappreciated in an age that’s so sensitized to erotic politics. Of course, these are no more a Hustler photo shoot than Courbet's notorious "The Origin of the World" (though they're more provocative). Schiele’s “Die Traumbescaute” or “Observed in a Dream (1911) plays on what might be termed sexual hyperbole. And it derives from the flow and lability of the watercolor that's employed. The models pudenda is swollen and she’s depicted pushing her ample pubic bush to the side in order to display the bright orange of her vagina. The same orange appears on her nipples. A similar juxtaposition between the brazen content of the image and formal technique occurs in Klimt’s “Water Serpents II (Women Friends)," l904-7, in which masturbation and lesbianism are countermanded by a rigorously decorative element. "Reclining Nude with Outstretched Left Arm," (1903-4) is one of 50 prelimary sketches for this work that's displayed. Speaking of Freud, the unapologetic sexuality and the uncompromising portrait of the body with all its imperfections recall the much later work of Lucien Freud, the grandson of the eminence grise who haunts this whole show. But what’s going on, institutionally, as least? Having an exhibtion like this is a little like Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un and thereby giving credibility to the DPRK. On the one hand the current zeitgeist mitigates against the exploitation of women by male artists and on the other “Obsession” gives it free rein. Artists who explore the limits of eroticism are always walking a fine line no matter what the age and actually Schiele appeared before a judge who sentenced him to 24 days and also incinerated one of his drawings. The Met has come down on the side artistic expression in the case of Balthus whose work was the subject of protest by those who demanded that disclaimers be posted alongside the artist’s work. But there’s definitely a double standard with painters of another era receiving exemptions due the distance in time. It’s a little like Pompeii, which was once off limits to women and where now all comers are admitted.Thayer employed  some of the most well-known dealers of the day, amongst them Paul Rosenberg in Paris and Alfred Fleuchtheim in Berlin, and ended up acquiring over 600 works including “Erotic Scene” (1903) from Picasso’s Blue Period which is also represented here and which depicts the artist’s own sexual initiation. By the way Thayer paid 60,000 Kroner or $60 dollars for “Observed in a Dream” which would be $741 today. Not a bad investment. Sotheby’s sold a Schiele called “Houses with Colorful Laundry” for over $40 million back in 2011. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Panic!


Life is probably longer than it feels, despite the panic you may feel about time running out. One way of determining this is by looking at the behavior of those who are much older and still continue to navigate the finitude of their existences as if the varying twists and turns of fate still make a difference. In As You Like It, Jaques makes his famed “All the World’s a Stage” in which he concludes by talking about the dissolution of the body and the senses. “Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Stages are, of course, a common way of representing human existence. You have Philippe Aries's Centuries of Childhood and Jean Piaget's four stages of cognitive development. Freud talked about the anal and oral stages. How We Die:Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter was Sherwin Nuland’s meditation on the stages of death. Zeno’s paradox in which the tortoise beats Achilles was a product of stoic thinking, but it demonstrates how distance is relative. Instead of seeing life as a procrustean juggernaut that speeds along despite your protestations you can divide and conquer. If you constantly half the remainder, for example, you will come to an increasingly smaller figure and you'll never reach the end.

  

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Who is Jesse James Decker?



Who is Jesse James Decker and is The South Beach Diet a state of mind? One thing is sure, these will never be questions that Fareed Zakaria asks at the end of GPS. The answer to the first question can easily be found on Wikipedia. Jesse James Decker is a country singer who is married to NFL wide receiver Eric Decker. You have to deconstruct the ad for the South Beach Diet that has been appearing on CNN to answer the second question. First of all Jesse James Decker is a name that's laden with meaning. Jesse James was a famous outlaw. So you have a girl with a boy’s name that itself comes with some baggage. The choice is on the other hand belied by the innocent all American type bikini clad cheerleader who appears on your screen. Is there a subliminal appeal to transgender outlaws who don’t look anything like her? After all no manufacturer wants to limit the appeal of their product. Even if a model looks like she's climbing out of the pool at Mar-a-Lago, the program she’s championing has to attract hermaphroditic creatures with dyed black hair and piercings who stagger out of after hours clubs in Alphabet City at five in the morning. And so the answer to the second question is a definite yes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Taghkanic Journal II




The Mount from the Walled Garden (photo by David Dashiell)
Stockbridge boasts Austen Riggs a mental health facility with a storied history. The famous psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson practiced there and James Taylor referenced it in his song, "Knocking 'Round the Zoo."  Of course only minutes away is Lenox which boasts one of the most beloved classical concert venues in the country and Tina Packer's Shakespeare & Company. Summer camps preponderate in this idyllic part of Massachusetts (with its many lakes) which is also the site of Edith Wharton's residence, The Mount and let's not forget Arrowhead in Pittsfield, where Melville lived. After you drop your kids off at Camp Taconic in Hinsdale, you can repair to Tanglewood. One recent night the program included a magical Boston Pops rendition of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town, performed under the stars. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Taghkanic Journal I

O's Eatery in Chatham (photo: Francis Levy)
Geography often seems gratuitous, but it’s curiously indicative of sensibility. For instance, you journey up the Taconic parkway which is the anglicization of a Native American word, Taghkanic, which means "forest wilderness," through Putnam, Dutchess and Columbia Counties. You pass by quirky sounding roads that lead to sleepy little towns like Ancram and Clinton Corners. Some of these are mere watering holes with a general store and there's O’s Eatery right before Chatham. For Plato reality was the shadows on the wall of a cave, but this is one diner that comes as close as you’re going to get to an ideal form with its oracular waitresses, who look like they have seen it all, and homecooked specials like cornflake crusted chicken. Journeying north for a half an hour it’s as if you’ve made a sea shift. You’re in Stockbridge, which is the site of the grand old Red Lion Inn, the gateway to the culture of  Lenox and Tanglewood and onwards to MASS MoCa in North Adams and The Clark in Williamstown. By contrast if you travel up Route 17, a wilderness once dotted with borscht belt icons like the Corcord and Kutschers, you find the Catskills and towns with Greco-Roman names like Ithaca, Utica and Syracuse. New York's arteries reach out as far north as Vermont and west as Pennsylvania. But one thing is certain, all roads don’t lead to Rome.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The God Palindrome



You might have looked God right smack in the face without even knowing it. In fact, the sallow-faced clueless looking fellow who might turn out to be God possibly wasn’t aware of the fact himself. You’ve always thought of God as someone wise who has a plan.  Might was right. But what if God is one of those value free chaps. You've seen them hanging out at the corner, with the Daily Racing  Form stuck in their back pockets. God might be a little like death, the stalker with the fedora who appears in the rearview mirror of a Twilight Zone called “The Hitchhiker” or perhaps God is like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh or surely the absence that haunts the Beckett masterpiece that dismissively adds an “ot” to create an iconic soubriquet. “Lookin' for love in all the wrong places” sings Johnny Lee, but why can’t the divine manifest itself anywhere? Was Harry Lime inadvertently seeking God in the sewers of Vienna? Carol Reed was a great director, but probably not God. Yet let’s say that God can be anyone and certainly not the person or thing we would expect him, her or it to be. You know how you felt when that really good looking girl went for a guy who you thought was a schmuck. Well you might say God, are you kidding? Him? Remember when all is said and done, God is nothing more than a palindrome. Dog spelled backwards. However, let’s go one step further. If God is not what you think he or she or it is and in fact doesn’t even know it’s God, then why can’t you be the son of God, Christ, or Moses who God appointed to free the Jews from slavery and lead them to the promised land?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Boarder


I.B. Singer (photograph by Yousuf Karsh)
The I.B. Singer story, “The Boarder,”which appeared in the May 7th edition of The New Yorker (after being discovered amidst the writer's unpublished works) is a Socratic dialogue between a believer and cynic who on the basis of his experience of the camps, holds to the notion that there’s no good in the world. At one point Reb Berich Zhichliner, who himself has lost everything, tells Morris Melnik, the boarder who rents a room from him in Williamsburg, “Sin is like froth. When you pour beer into a glass, you imagine that it’s full, but two-thirds of it is froth. When the froth dissolves, only a third of the glass is left. The same thing is true of transgressions. They burst like bubbles.” Naturally there’s no winning such arguments, but what’s interesting is the nature of the discussion which has been going on ever since man invented the notion of God. In fact it might be said that God didn’t create man but man created God if only as a way to get a one up in such debates—men or women who take the Zhichliner’s position that is. Melnik’s view is that of the materialist who offers constant anecdotal evidence which demonstrates that man is simply an animal whose position on the food chain determines his destiny. Melnik of course is not devoid of belief in a higher being. The only difference is that his resembles the Antichrist depicted in Dostoevsky’s famed “Grand Inquisitor” poem from The Brothers Karamazov.“To whom are you praying?” Melnik asks his landlord. “To the God who made Hitler and gave him the strength to kill six million Jews? Or perhaps to the God who created Stalin and let him liquidate another ten million victims? Really Reb Berish, you’re not going to bribe the Lord of the Universe with a pair of phylacteries. He’s a first-class son of a bitch and a terrible 
anti-Semite.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Final Solution: The Ice Age


Dinosaurs became extinct as a result of the Ice Age. As might be expected there were a number of other species and creatures who fell victim to the scourge which scientists believe may have been the result of a meteor hitting the earth. Now that the polls are indicating that Trump could possibly be re-elected, humanity seems again to be on the precipice. Either some act of God which may take the form of Stormy Daniels and Michael Goldman (but not the Mueller Investigation) will end his rule or he will go on his merry way, in the company of other tyrants like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin—who all join hands at that ultimate cyber watering hole, known as “The Summit.” International affairs has moved from the romance novel paradigm to Jurassic Park.These larger than life creatures produced by genetic mutations of reality TV will hopefully gobble each other up before they murder everyone else. With the Russians meddling in the elections of literally the whole world and for instance possibly engineering Brexit to further weaken the EU ("Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate report," The Guardian, 1/10/18), the only possibility for an end to it all would come in the form of an errant comet, like the one that the Japanese space mission is trying to reach ("Japan's Hyabasa2 Spacecraft Creeps Up on the Ryugu Asteroid,NYT, 6/25/18). The only problem is that like with the previous Ice Age, the Dinosaurs are likely to take everyone else with them when they go.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Not So Incredibles 2







The villains of Incredibles 2 boast names like Screenslaver and Underminer“Super heroes make us weak,” says Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) the eminence grise behind Screenslavers. There has been some controversy about the latest entry in the animation saga due to the fact that the flashing lights can cause seizures in those who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy and now the initial credit sequence sports a disclaimer. But it’s not hard to get with the bad guys when you think about it. From the psychoanalytic point of view the superhero is the paterfamilias and it’s not all that unhealthy to break away from the idea of there's an ultimate power and authority that repose in some larger than life being. That’s called growing up and one could easily offer the interpretation that the dark forces that are seeking to outlaw superheroes are those of maturation, reality and finally death. What happens to superheroes like the family in Incredibles 2? There’s a new baby in the house who's just beginning to feel his oats. But do mama and papa eventually die or do super heroes by definition possess the gift of eternal life? And what about Disney, Comcast, 21st Century Fox and all the big corporate giants who are trying to gobble each other up like Dinosaur era creatures? Are they the super heroes of the corporate world.?

Monday, July 2, 2018

Death and Our Times



Margalit Fox announced her retirement as an obit editor at The Times and here is a part of the epitaph she wrote, “She was a decent stylist. She didn’t get too many things wrong. She didn’t tick too many people off. At times she wrote obits with tears in her eyes, but far more often she wrote them with joy. It was the joy that sprang from the extraordinary privilege of tracing the arc—in sweet-smelling newsprint, damp with ink—of lives well lived." ("She Knows How to Make an Exit. You're Reading It,"NYT, 6/28/18) Of course, it’s easy to write your own obit when you've been doing it for a living. You're used to writing endings so there isn’t any problem with form and from the standpoint of content the occupation's quirky and glamorous in an indecorous way. “The child has not been born who comes home from grade school clutching a theme that says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be…an obituary writer,’” Fox remarked. Fox also appeared in Obit, a recent movie that documents The Times's famed  "morgue.” Another Times writer John Leland recently wrote a piece entitled "The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life," (NYT, 6/11/18) in which one of his subjects Shatzi Weisberger coins the term “FUN-eral” to describe the rehearsal/parties she and her friends have been throwing in anticipation of their demise. And Times reviewer Parul Seghal recently reviewed Advice for Future Corpses and Those Who Love Them by Sallie Tisdale (NYT, 6/26/18). Maybe it’s time to read the writing on the wall or Tombstone as it were. Are you going to spin your legacy or leave that to posterity?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Life is Like a Pyramid






Pyramid at Giza (photo: Nina Aldin Thune)
Life is like a pyramid. The early years constitute the bottom in which there's a level playing field. You exist with numbers of other infants. Every year the terrain narrows until as with mountain climbing, if you are lucky, you arrive at a high point where the air is thin and there are few who have made it. The perils of ascending most peaks become greater at those heights. The final ascents are often are characterized by steep and dangerous grades, similar to the pitfalls some individuals face due to sickness, accidents or other acts of God, which can interrupt a climb before it has even begun. Of course, it can be disconcerting to see your fellow hikers falling along the wayside and sometimes there's an aftershock like the concept of après coup in psychoanalysis when the reality of what’s actually happening only makes itself apparent long after it’s occurred. It’s not only death too that takes it’s toll, but from the heights you can’t fail to miss the specter of wreckage left by those who have experienced pain and loss. You witness the misery which befalls some and not others, who have been struck down by their circumstances. They might have barely survived the calamity that characterizes their lives, but they're the wounded who you tend to, yet are forced to leave behind as you continue along your way.