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.

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.