Monday, June 24, 2019

Rocketman


The structure of Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, Elton John’s biopic, which the singer himself played a role in producing, is that of a recollection as told to fellow patients at a rehab. It’s not a tremendously inventive conceit, but useful if you’re trying to create a hagiography—which is what the film unabashedly is. Here's an example of the kind of homily Rocketman is rife with: "you've got to kill the person you were...in order to become the person you want to be." Landing in the circle of chairs, John (Taron Egerton), in one of his outlandish costumes, is the alien come to earth. In case you didn't guess, the idea is that he’s always been different and hence misunderstood by the father (Steven Mackintosh) who never wanted him, by his selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and by his lover (Richard Madden), who uses him. It’s as much a lopsided picture as it is a recipe for addiction. One might conclude that the very narrative of the film is alcoholic. However, we do learn as the film rolls its final credits that John has 28 years of sobriety and is now in a same sex marriage where he’s the proud father of two boys.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Pornosophy: Bovarysme


Is the romantic agony all just a big mistake, even a perversion? That which doesn’t exist and is prone to imaginative fancy always trumps over the tedium of the known product. The confabulation that makes for romance derives precisely from the empty space in which the chrysalis of possibility becomes a festering wound. Put another way romance is a genre which like say horror participates in certain conventions. The artifice is made up of a series of unending obstacles that in the case of say Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, finally result in the suitor never being able to experience the potential banality of his or her much sought after object. Hannah Arendt’s famed “banality of evil” now becomes "the banality of familiarity." Sure there are those who spend their lives enduring agonies of separation or grief at the loss of a prized and idealized individual, but the mass of men lead lives of alternately desperate or comforting routine. Romance is nice as an art form, but has nothing to do with relationships. If you’re a romantic you aren’t going to fare well greeting the same person at the dinner table or even in bed at the end of the evening. Madame Bovary is an example of a fictional character who couldn’t take everyday life. Would you want to be a Madame Bovary who spends her life disappointed with everything she has and only longs for those things that elude her? Essentially Flaubert’s character is a pain in the ass. Even if you consider yourself romantically inclined you’d probably do well to run like hell from a woman or man who displayed Emma Bovary's traits. You have to be patient if you're living with someone who's felled by romanticism and wait for the fever (or agony) to pass.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Pornosophy: Are Monogamy and Polyamory Compatible?


Are polyamory and monogamy compatible lifestyles? Generally, one pities the monogamous individual as a poor soul locked into a dependent and often loveless relationship with a partner whose role is that of the gaoler. There are, of course, exceptions in the case of those rare couples who’re actually in love and require only each other’s presence to live happy and contented existences. But even such passionate attachments must admit of the occasional animal urge. A farmer generally tends to his own property, but occasionally he or she will plow an adjacent field. However, what of the free spirit, the polyamorous personality who’s constantly setting sail for different ports? To extend the metaphor perhaps his or her vessel requires repairs, gets laid over and has to anchor in a harbor for an extended period of time. Suddenly the insouciant free spirit finds him or herself living a totally different lifestyle as his or her ship is becalmed. Years of jumping from bed to bed, a kind of sexual form of couch surfing, have left a distinct imprint on the neurogenic pathways of the brain. Yet suddenly the itinerant lothario or coquette starts to enjoy the pleasures of familiarity. The constant curiosity and attraction to everything in sight is still there along with a countervailing enjoyment of continuity. The satisfaction can be unique for philanderers whose pleasures ordinarily derive from variety. Their ship may still set sail, but now it’s like a cruise liner which offers a predictable itinerary.

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Varieties of Relgious Experience


Houses of worship tend to be populated by old people. They’re filled with young people too in evangelical religions. However, if you go into your local house of worship you're more likely to find many people who have crossed the halfway mark. That may be one of the reasons they're termed sanctuaries since they offer a respite from the exigenies of fate. Faith over fear is one of the mantras you're likely to hear in this regard. But where how does belief actually figure in? In the age of scientific disenchantment many rationalistic people don’t take belief in God seriously. So what does adherence to religion comprise in modern society? Certainly, it involves congregation, but also the practicing of ethical principles that tend to place emphasis on charitable acts, which don’t involve satiating the demands of the self. If you help others, the thinking goes, then you're getting a temporary reprieve from appetites that are rarely if ever satisfied. Desire is but the beginning of suffering goes the Buddhist koan. The covenant many worshippers experience is less with God than the principles which have emanated from varying spiritual traditions. The Varieties of Religious Experience is the title of a famous tome by William James. Religion is for those who want to avoid going to hell runs a well-known homily of the recovery movement—an offshoot of religion that is not specifically religious—spiritualism is for those who have been there. 

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

To Serve Man



A farmer once countered the remark that pigs were smart by saying, “not that smart.” But who's to say that pigs don’t know what’s coming and that pigs aren't capable of experiencing Heidegger’s authenticity by sharpening their awareness of death. There have been numerous reports depicting the anxiety displayed by animals in abattoirs. Consciousness in animals may be different from humans but the differences are basically qualitative. So if we are against the slaughter of humans, why allow it in animals? Jonathan Swift, of course, provided one of the great satiric ripostes in A Modest Proposal, where he proposed solving Ireland’s famine problems by eating succulent children. The past few centuries have seen so many bloodbaths amongst them the Holocaust that Swift’s brand of satire still tests the limits. The Donner Party is purported to be an exemplification of cannibalism. Vultures eat human flesh, but there seems to be a real taboo against humans imbibing their own kind, even in emergencies. You're hard put to find any recipes that employ human body parts. Titus Andronicus features the famous scene when Tamora’s children are served to her in a pie, but if you go on line you're not going to find any recipes for that piece of pastry. Several years ago a New York City police officer was indicted for selecting subjects for prospective dishes, some of whom turned out to be pretty nice looking ones, at that. “To Serve Man” was the title of a famous Twilight Zone in which the seemingly peaceful title of an alien manifesto belies the fact that it's a cookbook. But it’s the rare meat eater who has developed a taste for their own kind.


N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Seven Ages of Man Speech (revised version)

Petra (photo Berthold Werner)
If you've attained a certain level of affluence, you're probably going to travel when you retire. There are whole industries geared to people with free time and a few dollars in their pockets. Many Ivy League universities lend their imprimatur to travel often to exotic climes. It used to be that the African safari was considered adventurous. Now as you can see there’s a waiting line to get to the top of Everest (which has sadly resulted in a number of deaths). Where only scientifically equipped ice cutters attempted the Arctic and Antarctic, both have become popular destinations. Luxury ships with fully equipped gyms troll the Antarctic allowing  insouciant travelers magnificent views while they work out. For a while even diplomatically challenged destinations like Teheran and Pyongyang were on the lists of potential get-aways, with one German company even planning a luxury hotel outfitted with a golf course to cater to the tourist trade in North Korea. People do Petra, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall. They brave terrorism in Egypt to see the Pyramids, though there are few in this demographic who deign to do a corny backyard site like Niagara Falls. In between the tourism are the procedures, the fusions of the fourth and fifth vertebrae, the dropped foot from sciatica, the prostectomies, the stents that all go with the territory. Old age amongst a certain class is like running an obstacle course with some aged voyagers almost killing themselves in trying to outdo each other in their insatiable search for exotic spots. No sooner do you return from the game park then you’re getting that hip or knee replacement and the surgeries all have to be scheduled to fit the traveI. It’s not a bad way to wind things up and if Shakespeare had been around he might have rewritten the famed “Seven Ages” speech from As You Like It to read: “Last scene of all that ends this restless itinerary is the childish need to see as many sites as possible and find a property with every amenity, Angkor What?

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Endlessness of HIstory


Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, The book paid homage to and at the same time repudiated the isolationist theories of Samuel P. Huntington with whom he’d studied at Harvard. In fact Huntington’s subsequent essay “The Clash of  Civilizations” was an obvious riposte to his former student’s work. Now in his latest volume The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment Fukuyama appears to have come full circle ending up where his mentor left off. In an excerpt published in Foreign Affairs (September/October, 2018). Fukuyama states his point thusly: “Our present world is simultaneously moving toward the opposing dystopias of hypercentralization and endless fragmentation. China, for instance, is building a massive dictatorship in which the government collects highly specific personal data on the daily transactions of every citizen. On the other hand, other parts of the world are seeing the breakdown of centralized institutions, the emergence of failed states, increasing polarization, and growing lack of consensus over common ends. Social media and the internet have facilitated the emergence of self-contained communities, walled off not by physical barriers but by shared identities." As the once Republican (“liberte, egalite, fraternite”) French like say plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story




Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is less a concert film than a poetry reading. In fact, one of the most moving moments occurs when the Nobel Laureate, Dylan, provides a disquisition on the career of Alan Ginsberg, as if to let us know where he (Dylan) is coming from. During the film Ginsberg intones from both Howl and Kaddish and Ginsberg and Dylan even visit the grave of Jack Kerouac in Lowell during the tour. Lurking in back of all this is America, not only the America of Watergate, Nixon and later Jimmy Carter (who also turns out to be a Dylan fan), but of Frost and Whitman and later Anne Waldman who plays a part both way back when and now, as a commentator on the past. Dylan stopped touring in ’66 and the idea to go back on the road didn’t happen until ’75. Rolling Thunder started in Portsmouth, Massachusetts and ended in Montreal, though Pax Americana was the wistful theme. Sam Shepard recollecting his role as the sometime script writer of the documentary that was being made at the time, is dead like Ginsberg (and Suze Rotolo, the girl on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album who has nothing to do with the movie). But Sharon Stone, who was discovered by Dylan when she and her mother showed up for a concert, and Joan Baez, who reminisces as an elder statesman while also appearing in the footage, are naturally both alive and kicking. You’ll have to decide which Dylan you like, the grand old man discussing what he claims to have little memory of and making oracular statements like “life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything, it’s about creating yourself” or the young performer in white face whose image in one scene is juxtaposed with the mime, Baptiste, played by Jean-Louis Barrault in Children of Paradise. Perhaps commenting on his youthful persona Dylan remarks, “when someone's wearing a mask, he's going to tell you the truthl."


N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Dirty Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious



In his review of Terry Eagleton’s Humour in The TLS,  (“Grimace called laughter,” 5/17/19), Jonathan Coe quotes the author thusly about the pitfalls of analyzing a joke: “an anatomical acquaintance with the large intestine is no obstacle to enjoying a meal…Gynecologists can lead fulfilling sex lives, while obstetricians can coo over babies.” Is this really true? Do proctologists, who spend their lives looking up people’s assholes, just grin and bear it and is this where the expression “shit eating grin” derives from? Could a urologist enjoy the sadomasochistic pleasures of the golden shower? And can cardiologists find Romeo and Juliet heartbreaking? But let’s go back to the dilemma of the gynecologist who spends a good part of his day sizing up varying vaginas? Are any members of the specialty aroused by Hustler models who spread their legs for centerfolds? And what about the bedroom? Nudity is one of the things that’s supposed to be a catalyst for sex. A certain chemistry occurs when a woman, man or some combination thereof takes off their clothes in the presence of some wish-for other. Now, of course, attraction and that process of idealization (known as love) whereby desire navigates the shoals of consciousness create a reaction in the serotonin receptors. But still what better antidote to passion than the deconstruction of a female  genitalia into constituent parts like the clitoris, vulva or labia majoris. It’s a little like someone with a plumbing background looking at the penis as a common hose which might be used to water the plants (something which an occasional penis will do). The point is that it’s important to tip one’s hat to those branches of medicine which sacrifice an appreciation of the mystery and even beauty of the body for the sake of a cure.

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Tuscany Journal: Cortona


The merlons on top of the bell tower in Cortona’s main square remind you that it was once a Ghibelline city. Remember the Guelphs sided with the Pope and the Ghibellines, the Emperor. Below these are the red standards emblazoned with the lion which is the symbol of Mark, one of the patron saints of this medieval town (the other is Saint Margherita whose Basilica rests at the top the hill overlooking the verdant Chiana valley—the once swamp lands being the breeding ground for a wonderfully flavorful form of Tuscan beef). It can be said about Cortona what some therapists often inform complicated patients, it’s got a lot going on. Just walk up the street to the Basilica of St Francis. It’s the second Franciscan chapel, following the footprint of the first designed by Brother Elia. His body along with that of Luca Signorelli is buried in the church (along with relics like the piece of wood from the True Cross). Then there are the frescoes under the walls, which were covered up at the onset of the Counter-Reformation when the church was attempting to redefine itself in the wake of Luther’s 99 Theses. “In Hoc Signo Vinces,  “in this sign thou shalt conquer,” echoing Constantine’s famous dream that brought Christianity to the Roman Empire in 330 A.D. It’s hard not to take a step in Corona without coming upon some historical legacy. During the renovation of a house in 2009, a wall built by the Etruscans in the Second Century BC evidences their architectural legacy (which included the advent of the arch) of a highly evolved civilization. As you descend Cortona you'll pass the gated Villa Laura where Under the Tuscan Sun was shot.

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Tuscany Journal: Arezzo




"Santa Maria della Pieve" (drawing  by Hallie Cohen)

Arezzo is Piero della Francesca territory. You pass streets named after paintings like “Via Madonna del Prato.” “The Legend of the True Cross,” one of the painter’s masterpieces, graces the Basilica di San Francesco. If you walk to the park at the top of the hill on which Arezzo rests the view looks like a Piero della Francesca. Arezzo was once strong-armed by the Medicis, in particular Cosimo, which may account for an almost genetic feistiness in the character of the populace. It’s something that’s contravened by the legacy of Francis which is that of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Church of Santa Maria della Pieve, with its three-tiered columned facade includes a moving paen to the working man in its entranceway. Both impulses infuse the atmosphere. Structures like the Cattedrale dei San Pietro e Donato in which the remains of the early Christian martyr, Donatus, who was beheaded, are buried attest to a dream world in which the deeply Christian spirit of sacrifice still remains a very real part of everyday life. Yet Constantine’s dream with the famous words “in this sign thou shall conquer,” could be the credo of this city. 

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Tuscany Journal: Il Borro


For $40,000 per week you can rent Il Borro, a villa and grounds owned by the shoe magnate Ferruccio Ferragamo. It should be mentioned that the villa fits 40 people so it’s just another one of those expensive luxury vacation spots like say St. Bart's. This one take place on storied grounds with structures dating from medieval times and once occupied by Duke Amedeo, d'Aousta (he sold it in l993). It’s just a hop skip and a jump from the Ponte Buriano, one of the famous Settiponti  (Seven Bridges) which appears in the background of “The Mona Lisa." There on a June afternoon a statue of Da Vinci sits modestly overlooking the reservoir over which the bridge runs. It’s a magical but remarkably inauspicious spot and one which it’s hard to imagine provided the setting for one of the greatest and most complexly ambivalent works in the history of painting. Freud famously opined about "The Mona Lisa" and the enigma of her smile and here you can place yourself in the shoes of the artist. "The Mona Lisa" is the apex of the Renaissance in which the full humanity and complexity of the human form evolved dramatically from the pale, flat images of medieval times. 

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Tuscany Journal: Settiponti

 bottles of I Bonsi oilive (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
The Settiponti is the main drag running through the Arezzo region of Tuscany that lies just over the hill from Florence. The name means seven bridges which may refer to the old Via Claudia which led from Florence to Rome, though the number remains a mystery considering the real number that actually exist. You pass through hilltop towns with names like Regello and Loro Cuifenna (where you can visit a museum devoted to a local painter and sculptor, Venturino Venturi). There’s even a place called the Settiponti which advertises itself as an American Bar right down the road form the Villa Cassia di Baccano in Guistinio Valdarno. By the way, this area of Tuscany can be accessed by taking a 30 minute train ride on the Rome train to S. Giovanni di Valdarno. Your modestly priced 5.7 Euro ticket will take you a long way into a universe of luscious sleepy towns which still produce olive oil through centuries old pressing processes that avoid the use of chemicals. Commodification, division of labor and economy of scale are another language when you visit the Fattoria I Bonsi, an establishment whose product sets the standard for what real extra virgin olive oil should be (acidity O.8 by the way). The landscape surrounding the ancient castle where the olives are harvested can reputedly be seen in the background of the 15thcentury master Fra Filippo Lippi who hailed from nearby Florence.

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Tuscany Journal: Exit Morandi



"Natura Morta," 1954 (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
“Exit Morandi” is the eulogy that the art historian, Roberto Longhi, gave for Georgio Morandi when he died in l964. It’s also the title of the show at the Museo Novecento in Florence. Morandi was a super classicist, famous for what the curators describe as his “still, silent” compositions and the emphasis on “form, color and light.” Paintings of bottles which might make you exclaim “what else is there” are one of the things he’s known for. Many of his paintings include "Natura Morta" in the title and to say that still life was his medium is an understatement. It was his message too. This contravention of the expectation for a certain level of complexity is one of the most transgressive aspects of Morandi’s endeavor. He sticks to his minimalist guns. But there's also an evanescence to the work that almost makes the objects recede from you as you gaze into them. It’s a little like Plato’s “allegory of the cave," in which the world of appearances are just shadows of ideal forms. Here is Morandi himself: “I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more surreal, than what we actually see. We know that all we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it.”

N.B.: read Francis Levy's short story, "Pet Buddha"in Vol. 1 Brooklyn. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Tuscany Journal: Florence on $5 a Day

La bistecca alla fiorentina, 55 Euros per KG (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
When you think of Florence, you may recall barely being able to notice Michelangelo’s “David”due to the crowds swarming around it like gawkers at an accident. The Uffizi, the Duomo (designed by Brunellesci), Berenson’s I Tatti in Fiesole and the Pitti Palace are all the Florence of the official imagination. Florence is also famous for its Fiorentine steaks and for Ribolitta or bread soup. But what is it like to live a city that's the Fort Knox of artistic masterpieces? And what about the flood in '66 and the army of art restorers who constituted a virtual crusade? But there’s also another story and that lies in the evolution of tourism to this famous mecca in which every summer in particular the city is flooded with seekers, after what? A destination, beauty? Sometimes it’s just a party in one of the small locandas, situated on one of the winding cobblestoned streets down from one of the many landmarks. Package tours to Florence merit the same kind of scholarship allotted to the studios of the masters. Remember Arthur Frommer and books like Italy on $5 a day and Let's Go? And lurking behind the whole panorama of a modern Italian city is the history of the great families who were the patrons of artistic production. Back in the l9th century another tourist the Swiss art historian Jacob Burkhardt wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy which is required reading for anyone journeying to the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. Like Amsterdam and Venice, Florence’s importance as a center of commerce set the stage for the emergence of great painters and sculptors who, if nothing else, found many of their subjects amongst a growing merchant class. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

Amsterdam Journal: Mozes en Aaronkerk

watercolor by Hallie Cohen
Mozes en Aaronkerk is the name of a Roman Catholic Church in Amsterdam (in addition, there's a Mozes en Aaronstraat). It could also be the title of one of Rembrandt's biblical drawings. However ever since 1578 when the formerly Catholic Habsburg Netherlands followed William of Orange and rebelled against Phillip II of Spain, Amsterdam has been not only Protestant but religiously tolerant. Amsterdam is Reformation territory. Everything is clean, unembellished and unpardonable. Despite the ubiquitous sex shops the city is upright and profoundly moral in its sensibility. The morality just happens to be insistently liberal and mercantile. These are just a few of the contrarieties evinced in the permanent exhibition about the history of this ever-changing metropolis (whose name describes its inception—the damming of the Amstel River) at the Amsterdam Museum. After all despite their democratic attitudes at home, the Dutch were harsh colonizers.  The smell of pot is everywhere and may explain the crowds in the streets at night eating French fries and slices of New York style pizza at an establishment of the same name. Scoliotic 17th and 18th century townhouses line ancient canals and there’s a guttural sound to the language. The mixture is an unlikely but enduring recipe for beauty.