Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Final Solution: COVID-19 Hurts Provocation Industry

Bob Hope (photo: Marion S. Trikosko)
If you’re a person prone to flamboyant, provocative and outrageous behavior, you may be finding COVID-19 is cramping your style. It’s hard to parody “Schenk v. United States,” the famous Holmes decision when the theater is actually burning down—which is metaphorically the state of things. How can a curmudgeon survive a pandemic? Naturally pundits like Bill Maher, who have gotten mileage on their sardonic and scrappy remarks, are going to have an audience. However, if you’re someone who enjoys pointing out the failings of your fellow man, sees the worst in everybody, and refuses to join the human race even as more valiant souls struggle to put out fires on one continent (Australia), only to find themselves fighting the modern version of the plague on the next, then you’re going to be a fish out of water. If you’re the kind of individualist who makes a profession of underscoring human foibles you’re probably not going to be asked to take a seat at the table—aka Zoom which is technology’s gift to social distancing. Dorothy Parker famously said about a Katherine Hepburn performance that “she ran the whole gamut of emotions from a to b.” That kind of cutting remark is not going to gain traction in a world where theaters have been closed down. While Oscar Wilde was jailed for homosexuality, his witticisms would make him virtually unemployable in the current climate—where the evangelical spirit is what the walking wounded crave.  Edwardian dandies need not apply. Remember it was Bob HOPE not Lenny Bruce or even George Carlin who performed before the troops.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation

“What they do with the tape is their own business," say Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who a colleague calls “the best bugger on the west coast.” The protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) just does his job, listening then turning over the result to his clients. Of course the complexity is that he’s a tortured Catholic who goes to confession and a saxophonist—both of which activities put him on the other side of the fence. In addition, as much as he's hired to find things out about him, there are those like a girlfriend, who want to know who this mysterious quiet, unforthcoming character with the onomatopoeic name is. Spoiler Alert: in the event you haven’t seen this classic, the tables turn on Harry and he becomes the mark. Like a lot of buggers, he ends up getting buggered. In this case, the subjects Harry's studying turn out to be running the show. The Conversation is a homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966), using sound bytes as opposed to snap shots, to get at truth. Without it, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s great The Lives of Others, which also plays on the themes of surveillance and art, would never have been made, (by the way, the movie, which was originally in the repetoire of Film Forum's spring season, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis). Interestingly, The Conversation was made between The Godfather and Godfather II. The movie also came shortly before Nixon's resignation in the aftermath of the spying on the Watergate---and is a trenchant historical footnote a la the Mueller Report. But there's one oddity. Some older films are charming because of their age. You love the Florida bound Pullman car in the "Ale and Quail hunting club" scene of Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942) for its quaintness, but here the props are the story. No one uses tape recorders or rotary phones anymore. Calls aren’t made to phone booths. It’s not necessary since cell phones, though ultimately trackable, do a better job of camouflaging location. For all the brilliance of the plot, the anachronisms weigh heavily on a movie whose template is technology. One other point, it’s implied earlier in the film that Harry’s work has had consequences and that there's no way that what he does can be considered value-free. "He's the guy who told Chrysler that Cadillac was losing its fins," says one of  his employees, Stan (John Cazale) sarcastically understating the stakes. So why is this suddenly becoming an issue? Still like Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) every setup is a masterful exploration of the voyeur.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Final Solution: Microbe Hunters

As Andrew Cuomo pointed in one of his press briefings before his brother the CNN anchor was diagnosed with COVID-19, the expression “shelter-in-place” is usually applied when there's an active shooter or a case of a threatened nuclear attack like the false alarm that was ignited to Hawaiians a while back. For those who grew up in the era when Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) was a popular novel, television programs could be interrupted when Civil Defense was testing the early warning system. Back then it was the mushroom cloud that was the monster. The moribund humor of Dr. Strangelove (1964) derived from the fear of nuclear Armageddon. Who would have dreamt that the threat to the world would ultimately be a microbe, with no political affiliation? Like the asteroid that might have created the Ice Age, COVID-19 is a value free adversary. The Ruskies that  Major T.J. King Kong (Slim Pickens) feared are in the same boat as the US of A. Even Kim Jong-un couldn’t have dreamt this one up. The closest thing was Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds (1938), when a Martian invasion threatened the earth. Now it’s like one of those dreams where you try to resist an attacker and punch at air. It’s all of mankind up against a silent opponent who’s too small to see. Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters (1926) was prescient.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Final Solution: Disaster and Evolution

Do calamities bring about cultural change? Jared Diamond’s Collapse dealt with the legacy of upheaval and Stephen J. Gould’s concept of “punctuated equilibrium” points to exogenous factors in evolution. Certainly, the Ice Age resulted in the extinction of dinosaurs, pterodactyls and other prehistoric creatures. The Black Death in the Middle Ages transformed European society. Perhaps there even was an Atlantis, a kingdom that lies buried under the seas. Global warming has already shrunken the polar caps, affecting water levels and, in some cases, totally eradicating coast lines. Venice recently was totally flooded; what compensations will occur to offset the eradication of ways of life? The current pandemic will have greater consequences than even 9/11 despite, Isis, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Obviously the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki leveled unprecedented destruction as did the bombing of Dresden, but the current pandemic is unique for being a truly equal opportunity employer. Within a relatively short space of time whole populations are adapting to radically changed regimens, based primarily on social distancing. The question is, will many of the accommodations made in the name of safety turn into viable lifestyles? Division of labor and economy of scale were two by-products of industrialization that radically transformed the nature of the worker’s relation to the products of his labor. Social distancing might be looked at as the end result of the industrial revolution, with the computer replacing the work place or work station and the communal human element reduced to little more than a relic of the past.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Final Solution: Somnambulism

Even for the insomniac who's plagued by nightmares and night sweats, sleep has become a playground. It’s the only getaway, the only escape that’s corona free—unless you happen to fall asleep in the subway. One of the side effects of the pandemic, even for those who have not contracted the virus, is narcolepsy. You hear many people complaining that they can’t keep their eyes open, that staying at home due to the shelter-in-place mandates, they sleep all day and can’t wait to get to bed at night. Sleep always had the appeal of the great children’s books like Through the Looking Glass and The Little Prince, since it’s a place where anything can happen and the mind, if not the body, can range freely. Apart from free market capitalism, sleep is the greatest expression of individual initiative. There are no regulations or certainly quarantines in the world of sleep—other than those opposed to by the executive functions of the brain or perhaps the superego, which is usually set out to pasture enough to allow the expression of the kind of forbidden pleasures that occur in sex dreams. Sleep research together with increased knowledge about what goes on in sleep may turn out to be one of the most prominent legacies of the current crisis. So much of mankind will be sleeping for so much of the day that a great trove of data will be produced by a new generation of somnambulists.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Final Solution: Art in the Age of COVID-19

Eruditon has been generated under all manner of conditions. Though everything is existential there are undoubtedly examples of philosophic premises like Wittgenstein’s “The world is that which is the case,” the first proposition from the Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, which exist in an ether. A field like language philosophy might seem irrelevant to war, though those who traffic in ethics and game theory like "prisoner's dilemma" or especially "the trolley problem" (which is unfortunately exemplified in many recent medical instances where equipment is scarce) would naturally find an application in situations in which there's great conflict, like our present pandemic. But the history of thought is unpredictable. Does the ivory tower provide the repose necessary for the generation of great ideas or are the trenches where the human spirit is tested, the places where great insights into the nature of both art and humanity are to be found? Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Remarque’s All's Quiet on the Western Front and Picasso’s Guernica are all products of the battlefield. Yet what about Emily Dickenson who worked in complete isolation from the world? One can only wonder what the esthetic products of the current calamity will be. The fact that coronavirus is an equal opportunity employer poses perplexing questions since there are no haves or have nots—no one is unaffected. Darkness at Noon and l984 were responses to totalitarianism. Wings of the Dove and The Remembrance of Things Past might be said to derive their impetus from the project of Art itself while Stephen King's The Stand and Steven Soderbergh's Contagion were plainly the product of fear.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Final Solution:The WPA

The natural human tendency is to think life will return to normal. The soldier goes to war and comes home expecting to continue on where he left off—and there are many cases which illustrate that happening. Many veterans have come home and extended their educations courtesy of the G.I. Bill. The high school sweetheart or wife they left behind was waiting for them—or not. There are many people who think that after the period of disruption caused by the coronovirus, life will return to normal. Donald Trump is one of them and he plainly believes it will even be better. The appeal of his rhetoric is understandable Who wouldn't want to indulge the fantasy that those who lost their jobs will get better ones? The Hoover campaign of 1928 offered a chicken in every pot. Now it’s around $1200. But is it pessimistic to believe that the current pandemic will live up to its name with its effect being truly global? The United States economy will not simply pick up on its own since its interconnected with so many others which have taken terrific hits. If America gets up from the canvas, it’s hard to believe that the fighter will still not be sent staggering into the ropes after taking subsequent hits from failing economies elsewhere which suck out energy like a black hole (not to speak of the fact that the virus may strike back again). It’s great to hear the American economy will be even more robust and Trump's skyrocketing approval ratings reflect this. However, with as much as a possible 20% unemployment from the collapse of so many businesses, perhaps what’s called for is a new WPA. That's in essence what those like Governor Cuomo want when they're asking the Federal government to employ private industries--and by proxy millions of layed off workers--to get the job done.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Final Solution: Rock Around the Clock

You may be one of those who have exulted in terminal uniqueness. You have tenaciously held onto the love of extraordinary people with larger than life personalities, who seem to be impervious, invulnerable and insouciant and who seem to have written the music for the march to the beat of that different drummer. Well, it seems like coronavirus has drained all the exquisite eccentricity out of the world. All the proto-Edwardian dandies, the Oscar Wilde clones, pundits and insouciant fops, the "Kubla Khan" loving Coleridge-wannabes with the world-weary views have all been displaced by EMS workers in their hazmat suits. How is it possible to be different and special when the world is falling apart? The whole bohemian rhapsody has been eradicated in the face of a disease. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet? Down the tubes, at least for now. In the era of social distancing Verlaine and Rimbaud wouldn’t get close enough to have it out with each other. The dyspeptic Bob Dylan, with his whining complaint is an afterthought. No one is rocking around the clock. Do you really want to see Mick Jagger performing the social distant version "Gimme Shelter" wearing a mask in front of an empty seat bank? What about The Remembrance of Things Past in the time of coronavirus?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Final Solution: Social Distancing

Social Distancing is a pithy little meme. If it weren’t being invoked to prevent the spread of a pandemic, it might be employed by a novelist and screenplay writer of manners like the late Nora Ephron or a playwright like Jules Feiffer. Social Distancing could stand next to Little Murders as a document of metrosexual life, the kind of thing Candice Bushnell might have written and that Larry David would have a starring role in. Social Distancing aka Curb Your Enthusiasm. It could also be the title of a porn film. Someone like La Cicciolina, the former wife of Jeff Koons, would be perfectly cast since she was a porn star who went on to have a career in politics. Obviously, the phrase was created as part of a health alert, but it could easily turn into a legacy of Coronavirus. Socially distancing is a far cry from social rising which was the theme of novels like Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. Or certainly from sexual liberation a la Portnoy’s Complaint or countercultural rebellion, the seeds of which constituted the plot of The Graduate. In its current iteration, social distancing has little to do with “plastics" or alienation from the culture of prosperity. It's a survival mechanism.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Final Solution: The Lonely Crowd

"Let the chips fall where they may" goes the old saw. But what really will be legacy of the pandemic? One used to think of neutral countries as impervious to shifts of geopolitics, but in this world of interconnectivity, there’s literally no Switzerland —no place to use the words of the famous Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. The filibuster of the American economy has been dealt a staggering blow—say like Odysseus' men staggering Polyphemus by shooting an stake into the monster’s eye. But let’s get back to cosmopolitanism, metrosexuality or whatever soubriquet you may want to use for the social contract. With cities from Milan to San Francisco on lockdown, people first bemoan the loss of human contact, but the process is multivalent. It's developmental like the stages of mourning or dying. The dreaded isolation becomes a relief. The pandemic (for those who don't contract the disease) is regarded as an emetic, flushing out contacts that seemed superfluous and wasteful. Undoubtedly the fallout may be that while 20% of the population may be unemployed, another 20% will conclude that they didn’t like Bob, Alice, Ted and Carol anyway and have no need to resume social relationships which weren’t fulfilling in the first place. Some marriages will grow stronger as a result; others will implode due to the stress and for those who have chosen a totally solitary path, multiple personality disorder may be in the offing. But there's going to be a legacy of change on both macro and individual levels. If it turns out employees work as effectively from home as from the office, many business may ask, is the sense of community afforded by a workplace worth the price of rent? Downtown Detroit was dealt its death knell years ago, but many center cities may be threatened, with office towers becoming vacant. Canny real estate investors might better put their money into warehouses (which are potential shipping depots for Amazon) then into glitsy Towers of Babel. One change will be bought at the price of the next and who knows what Phoenix will rise from the ashes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Final Solution: Coronavirusville

Coronavirus (CDC)
Social distancing has become the lingua franca of human interchange, but most experts believe that once you've become infected with Coronavirus, you’re immune. And one wouldn’t be surprised to find some canny entrepreneur exploiting the population of those who have gotten the disease and recovered from it. Imagine a chain of Club Med type all-inclusive resorts limited to those who have already been infected. You might even have a Club Hedonism for those who walk on the wild side called Club Covid- 19. The resorts would spawn towns and even mini cities whose requirement for entry and condominium membership would be a certain level of wealth and naturally a certificate of infection. While the rest of the world went about their impoverished existences worrying about touching infected shopping cart handles, this new group of jet setters will constitute a permissive counterculture who'll thumb their noses at the rest of suffering humanity forced to recuse themselves from all the fun. Talk about gated communities. Within these guarded enclaves, it'll be be Woodstock all over again. After months and years of isolation, the inhabitants will frolic in nude hot tubs within communes loaded with, what else but that precious commodity, other people! La Corona might be the name of a three star Michelin restaurant in cities with names like Coronavirusville. You may have heard people talking about wanting to get infected, but it’s not only to get a head start on the disease, it’s because they want to have a good time.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Final Solution: Is the Libido Right Wing?

If the inner life were political, what party would the libido belong to? Would it be the Democratic or Republican? Certainly, it wouldn’t be a member of the Green Party. And is the superego, a moralizing wishy-washy liberal perpetually appalled by displays of instinctual and selfish behavior? Is sexuality right wing? Now with the up and coming presidential election laying itself out as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, something that a Cecil B. DeMille or even Stanley Kubrick could have down justice to in his Path of Glory and Spartacus days, it feels like the struggles that really matter in the hearts of human beings have been consigned to an emotional Lilliput. For those who hate him, Trump has become a Satan of Miltonic dimensions who sucks the air out of any room.  On a practical level, the whole existence of Trump is a little akin to the relationship between the keyboard and cursive writing. The electorate have become so polarized and inflamed by the Trump phenomenon, together with Coronavirus they’ve lost the ability to partake in normal conversation about comparatively puny human interactions like who has a crush on whom. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Final Solution: Ubiquity

Ubiquitous is probably the best description for the current pandemic. Most misery is conveniently compartmentalized so that a considerable portion of the world is able to take solace in the fact that it’s not happening to them. That's the way many people treat huge hurricanes and tsunamis, their displays of anguish for the victims scarcely belying the glee over the fact that it’s not happening to them. “It could happen to me,” is the punch line of an old joke in which the recipient of much commiseration is finally asked “what could be worse than that?” Many people watch the Weather Channel to indulge their schadenfreude. Most bad things that happen are very far away. The iconic shot of the South Vietnamese general holding his gun to the head of a Viet Cong was estheticized as encapsulating the injustice of the conflict. Pol Pot was like Pere Ubu, Idi Amin a bad joke. But there are no distant observers, no safe vantage point from which to watch this ultimate gladiatorial conflict between man and nature. And yet it’s curious. Since coronavirus is an equal opportunity employer, it’s not like the Holocaust with its built-in racism (though Trump has been taken to task for referring to it as a “Chinese virus”). It’s like an anarchist or nihilistic terrorist whose target is mankind itself. Was it some value-free form of terror like the current pandemic that Mr. Kurtz foresaw when he said "The horror! the horror!"

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Pornosophy: What You Get

Every war has its legacies. After the Second World War you had the MacArthur Plan. Coronovirus has led to the widespread employment of on-line video conferencing facilities like Zoom which have allowed people to instantaneously reconstitute the socialization and fraternizing that was cut short by the pandemic. There are people who're finding they actually prefer Zoom to listening to someone talk in a crowded environment full of distracting stimulae. In the sexual arena chat sites and virtual reality have long been industries. It’s more enjoyable to engage in on-line foreplay, which requires a greater degree of imagination, then to indulge the real thing which can always be disappointing in the way reality, compared to fantasy, usually is. When the dust settles it may turn out that people eventually find they prefer to live in a state of perpetual social distancing. Why not put the "Just Married" logo up on Zoom? Your partner may be in one city and you in another, but you’ll enjoy screen time together on your wedding night. Sweet nothings can be exchanged, with each of you being able to consummate in full view without having to worry about STDs. After whatever quarantine period, previously decided in the pre-nup, passes and you’re both deemed to be free of any ailments, you might agree to meet in person and even spend the night together—though what you get is unlikely to be anything like what you saw in the preview. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Final Solution: The Plague

In the existentialist paradigm existence precedes essence. Thus a human being is defined by his or her actions. Camus wrote two novels The Stranger and The Plague. He apparently was reticent about adding the existentialist label to The Plague, but the emphasis on action seems particularly applicable at the present moment with global crisis centered on a particularly virulent disease. Numerous questions about behavior are spawned on an almost hourly basis, particularly around social connection.  In his play No Exit, another existentialist thinker Jean Paul Sartre famously intoned, “hell is other people” and that becomes a literal truth when it comes to COVID-19. Decisions constantly need to be made. Social distancing has become the mantra, but recusal makes altruism more difficult. Do you help someone when you yourself may be infected? You monitor your own condition so as not to do anything that would be adverse to someone else; at the same time you decide to take chances which you deem to be possibly beneficial, knowing at the same time that the adverse consequences of self-sacrificing behavior may come back to haunt both you and others. You're constantly weighing and there are, of course, no answers--though, ironically, you'll ultimately be defined by successions of actions whose moral intent may ulitmately be belied by ulterior motives.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Final Solution: Ministry of Fear

Some people are always afraid. Almost everything they do is based on the avoidance of anxiety-producing situations, though like hypochondria one particular object of concern is quickly replaced by another. Adrenalin is produced as a reaction to fear and a doctor can easily elicit a panicked response by diagnosing a disease. He or she was afraid of their own shadow is the expression used to describe those whose vulnerabilities are easily excited. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of jumping when you spy your reflection in a store window. The instinctual acknowledgement is mediated by the fact that the shock of familiarity is cut short; the preconception in one’s own mind may be different and many people don’t really look at more than a part of their faces in the mirror, say the part they're shaving or brushing with powder. Terror is a matter of perception and the failure to be met by the familiar (say in those suffering from prosopagnosia or Capgras syndrome), can result in the loss of the consoling feeling of recognition. A classic situation which is bound to get the heart racing is the perception of a dangerous or threatening-looking character on a darkened street. The Edward Hopper corner with the lonely street lamp light is an archetypically ominous situation. Acrophobia is the fear of heights and agoraphobia of open spaces (from agora or marketplace). Daredevils like Houdini or the Wallendas thrive on fear, tolerating it at levels that would be lethal to normal people. Stock car drivers and Olympians who compete in the ski jump traffic in apprehension and apparently learn to control it to such an extent that it can generate fuel in conditions that would have produced paralysis in almost anyone else. Loss aversion is talked about by neuroscientists and constitutes a form of irrational fear that may result in maladaptive behavior. Panic! was a 50s TV series. Ministry of Fear (l944) is the title of a Fritz Lang film, starring Ray Milland, based on a Graham Greene novel.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Final Solution: Negative Capability?

Posthumous Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton
When you hear a lot of negative and frightening reports, you begin to be attracted to bloviators, even when you know better. After all you instinctually prefer a soothsayer, even a false prophet who’s going tell you everything is alright, even when it’s apparent they’re spreading the kind of false cheer that’s aimed at puffing themselves up at your expense. On the other hand no one likes jeremiahs and doomsayers. The negative side of negative thinking is that it produces stress, but how can one possibly deal with reality unless one has access to the facts, however dispiriting they may be? Of course, anything can be spun one way or the other. Social distancing is a case in point; obviously it’s a necessity in the case of a pandemic. On the other hand, at its furthest extreme, it can lead to a kind of xenophobia in which people and countries stop helping each other. You want to take precautions, but is preventing Europeans from flying to the United States going to do any good when it’s already too late to have more than a symbolic effect? When hysteria builds, there tends to be grandstanding both by optimists and pessimists. It’s not that the truth is necessarily somewhere in between. Rather no one has the answers. Is Keats' notion of “negative capability” applicable?

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Final Solution: Crossdressing

Dealing with a pandemic in the midst of election is a little like crossdressing. On the one hand you want to stay away from people; on the other, if you’re politicking you have to show up. Sanders and Biden are supposed to face each other in a debate Sunday night, but they’d better make sure that they don’t spit. It’s basically hard to use the word global anymore, since literally everything is connected both electronically and physically. "You can run, but you can’t hide" said Joe Louis. Another one is Mike Tyson’s famous “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” the pragmatically spiritual form of “man plans, God laughs.”A leader is supposed to be a power of example. There's something sensible about staying away from other people, but not if you’re trying to run for office. Conversely if a political figure parades around in the middle of a health crisis, to make a case, that person is a public health hazard. If such an individual stays out of the limelight, responsibility is being abdicated. No matter he, she or it. What are they going to do?

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Final Solution: Journal of the Plague Year

Do you remember where you were on September 10, 2001? Do you recall what you were doing that Monday night? Perhaps you got up to meet someone for an early morning breakfast or you were sweating bullets at the gym as the planes hit the Twin Towers. Catastrophic occurrences are a little like mini event horizons which rarely presage the black hole into which the human race is slipping. The present pandemic presents a similar bifurcation. The rising of Joe Biden’s fortunes have come on the heels of the arrival of the coronavirus on US shores. At first there were distant alarms, but it was all far away in China and there were still a crowded field of  Democratic nominees. Then any beneficial feelings that might have derived from the closing of ranks in the Democratic party were lost to the dark clouds on the horizon that have been growing like the threat of one of those tsunamis that obliterates entire coastlines in Malaysia. After the Fall is the title of a famous play by Arthur Miller and no one would claim the world before say 9/11 or the current viral threat was lacking in its problems and difficulties. But people licked their electoral wounds at communal events like Austin’s SxSW which has been canceled. Life went on. When major calamities occur like 9/11 or Hurricane Maria which struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, whole populations are traumatized as they have been by the threat of coronavirus and life is never the same. You may look back wistfully on a previous state that felt comparatively carefree, but you may also find yourself consigned to documenting what you can no longer control like t the central character in Daniel Defoe’s novel, Journal of the Plague Year--which dealt with the bubonic plague which struck London in 1665.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Final Solution: I-It

People usually find strength in numbers. There are candlelight vigils when injustices or crimes have occurred. A number of bikers were killed this past year in New York and there have been angry marches, protesting the city's inability to provide adequate protections. In the midst of a scourge or pandemic whether it’s the Bubonic Plague, Ebola or the current Coronavirus this kind of solace is contraindicated. The advice is to avoid large groups, particularly if you're an older individual and also to avoid close contact with others. Holding hands as a sign of unity is no longer recommended. You’re not going to find too many Hands Across America movements of the kind that the director Jordan Peele satirized in his horror film, Us (2019)One of the side effects, you might say, of a virus, is isolation. If man is a social animal then this basic instinct is thwarted when contagion becomes a threat. Lots of people are entertaining ways in which they can recuse themselves from society while still doing their jobs and remaining responsible members of their communities. However, body warmth in a literal and metaphorical sense should not be underestimated. Solitary confinement and isolation are two of the most onerous punishments and while many individuals will find ways of compensating for the loss of human contact, restricted travel and movement can be a little like SAD, seasonal affective disorder. In this case it’s not the loss of light that’s the source of the depression, it’s a diminution of the faculties of empathy and altruism, (the Ich/Du rather than Ich/Es relation that Martin Buber delineates) which come into play when people live in close proximity to each other.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Final Solution: What to Do?

photo of Lenin (Grigori Petrowitsch Goldstein)
What Is to Be Done?was the title of a tract by Lenin. Revolution is attractive not necessarily because it brings about a new world order, but because it’s a suspension of business as usual. They talk about corrections when an inflated stock market takes a dive. Well, mass movements offer corrections on a sociopolitical scale. Life comes to a halt and there's a basic redefinition of commodification, i.e. what constitutes value. If it’s anything like the upheavals that befell Cambodia under Pol Pot or in China, during the Cultural Revolution, the process entails a return to a rural agrarian life in which workers have a more primal connection to work. The period of revolutionary zeal might be compared to a natural disaster like a hurricane that brings down the power—literally and metaphorically or even a pandemic. Of course, when life starts up again and the dominant cadre begins to prevail, there's what the sociologist Max Weber, once termed the “routinization of charisma.” A profound institutionalization sets in. Weber used his term to distinguish between sects and churches, but isn’t that always what happens? Crowds take to the streets and roar with approval at the value-free exhortations of the demagogue du jour. There's the ensuing changing of the guard, but power is by its nature conservative and self-perpetuating. Vilfredo Pareto the Italian economist used the term “circulation des elites” to refer to the fact that someone is going to occupy the presidential palace or dacha—even when change is in the air.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire derives from a whole tradition of French films of sensibility, of which Eric Rohmer was the maestro. These are essentially long discussions together with "explications de texte" (the Orpheus myth comes under particular scrutiny with regard to the gaze, which is one of Sciamma's leitmotifs). Marianne (Noemie Merlant) the central figure is a painter commissioned to produce a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), an aristocrat with a mother (Valeria Golino) right out of Les Liaison Dangereuses and the world of 18th century manners and morals. The portrait is a form of offering to an Italian suitor to whom Heloise’s deceased sister was once betrothed. Yes there are no major male characters in the movie. Bravo! Yet the eminence grise, the suitor, is a man. The deeper subject is who is looking at whom and in this case the conversations go on and on before the inevitable happens and the two women fall into each other's arms. "I didn't know you were an art critic," Marianne says to which Heloise responds, "I didn't know you were a painter." Is it the painter or her subject who's the centerpiece of the artist project? The last scene of the film in which Marianne spots Heloise at a concert is so ridiculously inflated, it retrospectively irradiates the preceding narrative with an ineradicable nimbus of sententiousness. This is the world of long meaningful stares and glances and while some are earned in the service of themes of art and life, the preponderance of afflatus undermines any residue of believability. There is, in fact, one unwanted pregnancy in the film, but a surfeit of pregnant looks. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also exceedingly long. Bloviation is the director's style. When Marianne eyes light on Heloise, chest heaving and eyes filled with tears (in that final scene), for yet one more last time, you find yourself hoping that there aren’t any epilogues.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Final Solution: Don't Behave Like an Ass

The scholastic philosophers famously asked “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (spoiler alert, the answer is two). And then there was Buridan’s Ass, the donkey who couldn’t decide whether it was hungry or thirsty and ended up dying of both since it couldn’t decide. The fallacy with this particular argument may lie in the imputation of such an anthropomorphized version of consciousness to an animal. Of course, the donkey pays a price, but the philosophical question is basically frivolous. Despite the fact that Camus averred that the "one truly serious philosophical problem" was "suicide," Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” is similarly gratuitous. It’s not a real choice unless you’re suffering from suicidal ideation. Philippa Foote’s “trolley problem” in which an out of control train could either hit five people or one is closer to home. Sacrifices get made for the sake of many is one of the ethical principals involved. Elizabeth Warren faces a similar quandary ("Will Elizabeth Warren Endorse a Candidate?  She Has Few Options,NYT, 3/5/20) Should she back Bernie as a matter of principle since he wants real change rather than simply the kind of gradual progress Biden advocates? Or should she sacrifice the one man and his ideals in order to save the many—from Trump? 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Final Solution: Rebel With a Pronoun

Aimless youth is a cliché that was perpetrated in many 50s movies, among them Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Wild One (1953). However, the beat generation were already channeling their energies. Jack Kerouac wrote a book called On the Road (1957) and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) might have been an elegy for rebellious spirits who lost their way. By the late 60s randomly anti-social behavior had been directed to revolution on a mass scale. Abby Hoffman famously wrote Steal This Book (1970) whose evangelical message was contained in its provocative title. Not caveat emptor but caveat venditor, seller beware! The youthful association with movements which promote social change has continued today. The demographics for supporters of Bernie Sanders are more likely to differ from party regulars who support Joe Biden and hone simply to the idea that anything is better than Donald Trump. There have been jeremiads about the unelectability of a candidate on the left, but they tend to come from proponents of a hard-earned pragmatism who don’t trumpet the ideals of the 20-40 crowd. The sex revolution of the 60s was a youthful rebellion against outmoded morality, but a new generation is challenging liberties which have not always benefited women (who may been the victims of overly permissive standards). Freedom has become supplanted by the notions of limits, though the current generation has also tested the boundaries of sexual identity (and pronouns) in a way that's never been done before.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Venus Flytrap

photo of Venus Flytrap by Noah Elhardt
Numismatic refers to coins and philately to stamps. Lepidoptery applies to butterflies. These varying disciplines all have something in common. For instance, stamps are basically an anachronism as are coins when you think about it (though ancient coins which were minted with great care and at human cost in themselves often tell stories that few dimes, nickels or quarters would be capable of revealing).With the internet people send e mails rather than letters and money is electronically transferred with most goods being acquired on credit cards or through cryptocurrencies. Vladimir Nabokov famously collected butterflies, an occupation that will always be rarified and limited to a few people gifted with certain kinds of observational abilities--together with an appreciation for flights of beauty. Then there are those who collect paperclips and rubber bands, which they carefully bunch together. String, ribbon and the wrapping paper in which some gifts are received are stowed away by another class of collector who hoards goods simply because they’re not able tear themselves from them. Dickens’s Miss Havisham was a character who lived in cobwebs, through which she protected herself from the traumatic memory of being jilted. There are museums devoted to prison life such as the Big House Museum at Folsom or sex like the institution of the same name on 27th Street in Manhattan. Objects aggregate and proliferate and either become prized as repositories of memory or simply saved as a kind of insurance, to the extent they may provide a significance that will someday be unearthed--perhaps giving an insight into the sensibilities of their one-time users. How can you jettison one of those old albums with serrated-edged photos held together with ornate corners—the kind of thing that embodies lifetimes (viz. Wisconsin Death Trip) found in tag sales. Everyone is dead and you may not know a soul, but that’s just the point.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Final Solution: Left of Center?

It is always astonishing how quickly the unacceptable becomes acceptable and how long it takes to unapologetically recover high standards and values. The latest attacks on Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg, which would have been unthinkable in any other presidency, have become normalized. Now the sole object of many voters in the current election is simply to get rid of Trump, with the solution relying on some sort of centrist coalition made up of moderate democrats. A Biden/Klobuchar ticket may be more inviting to a part of the democratic electorate who might have been disposed to Sanders, simply because a socialist can't win. Let’s say that hypothetically Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote, had also won the election, then the base line would have been slightly left of center to start, but now much of the energy of progressive politics is being used up to recoup losses. Health care, the environment and economic inequality have all been put on the defensive and many voters are just interested in securing a beachhead for restoring the United States’ commitment to NATO, to the Paris Environment accords, to the Iran Nuclear Agreement and to a two-state solution in Israel. The motto of the Weather Underground (taken from Dylan) “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows,” (from Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues,") is still oddly oracular (though in a different way than it once was). Politics is almost barometric. The needle has to swing back toward the center before it can go left again.

Monday, March 2, 2020


Luchino Visconti’s last film L’innocente, (1976)currently playing at Film Forum, is based on a late l9th century Gabrielle d’Annunzio novel of the same name whose translations are The Victim or The Intruder. Many Americans became acquainted with Visconti through his dramatization of The Leopard (1963), which starred Burt Lancaster and was also based on a novel, in that case a classic of Italian literature by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Both works deal with the l9th century Italian aristocracy. However, while The Leopard is historically focused on Garibaldi and the Risorgimento and its effect on a tragic figure caught between two worlds,  L’innocente is a portrait of a decadent and almost self-consciously narcissistic aristocrat. Giancarlo Giannini of Seven Beauties fame plays Tullio Hermil, a dandy whose life is devoted to the gratification of desire. Laura Antonelli plays Giulia his suffering wife and Jennifer O’Neill is Countess Teresa Raffo, the lover. For a late film L’innocente is oddly earthbound since its basic themes are both marital and oedipal jealousy and rage. While the settings are lush, the eroticism reeks of a turn of the century disenchantment and skepticism that almost strips it of emotion. One of the characters (Mark Porel) has written a novel and the subject of good and bad art is one of the themes. The notion that the characters are, in fact, acting out a work that has yet to be—their lives, is another element. Everything is estheticized and art for art's sake is a component of this universe. Part of the greatness of The Leopard lay in the breadth and expansive of its characters and settings. L’innocente, though filled with beautiful bodies and interiors, can be as insular as it is disturbing following as it does the predictable trajectory of its central character's ultimately murderous obsession.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Final Solution: Mad Max

Movies like the Mad Max series exist in a dystopian future where the scourge of technology has reduced the earth to an almost primitive state. Warring factions scramble for scarce resources and power is wielded by directionless machines and conscienceless robots. It’s a value free universe hauntingly similar to the one that is beginning to assert itself across giant swathes of the planet which are quickly dissolving into an unwieldy mixture authoritarianism and lawlessness. Mad Max or Mad Men (the series about the world of 60s advertising)? Will a Bolsonaro burn down the Amazon? Kim Jong-un, a character out of a sci fi jeremiad, plays with missiles like a child, while states like the Syria become the proxies for value free diplomacy carried on by warlords like Putin and Erdogan and tyrants like Duterte perpetrate atrocity in the name of deterrence. Civil order and due process are the first thing to go, but what's particularly disconcerting is that a certain degree of gratuitous destruction seems to be a prerequisite for the total return to tribalism which these cyber epics depict. All the ingredients exist for a multivalent Armageddon to wit religious states with millenarian ideas, charismatic leaders with unquestioning followers in and out of government (like our current president) and apocalyptic conditions like the melting of Antarctica which run the risk of creating cataclysmic climactic conditions which bring down the battlements and structures in which democratic institutions have been housed. The fact is that a certain level of affluence or the prospect of it seems to be a sine qua non for the thriving of advanced societies. America survived the Depression, but it’s unsettling to realize that one of the spurs to the resurgence of the economy was war.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Cultural Revolution

Open Table and Grub Hub are sites where you can make reservations or order food on line. These are all part of a process by which there’s less human interaction involved with transactions between the consumer and producer of services. Gone are the days when you had to know somebody if you were calling for a reservation at an “in” spot (the one bright light in the consumer's increasingly antiseptic relationship to food). The choreography associated with ordering in Chinese in which directives, like “no MSG” were “lost in translation” is now becoming a rather arcane phenomenon that only the most retrograde computer illiterate patrons are still able and willing to endure. And there was a delicious fear of rejection that once accompanied calls to some of the city’s great redoubts and watering holes. Your heart beat a little faster and you rehearsed your spiel before you dared dial up one of these Ivory tower eateries to ask for a table, whose very positioning was a sign of your position on the food chain. Elaine’s, a restaurant catering to literati, famously had “the line,” which were a group of tables in the front room where celebrities sat. Some patrons put the cart before the horse thinking that one short cut to getting renown was to get one of these tables. Conversely, though ordering in Chinese on Grub Hub is a cultural revolution, it’s a far cry from the one that Mao was talking about when he forcibly exiled the urban intelligentsia so they could participate in reeducation programs in impoverished rural areas.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Vanishing Point Redux

Rallroad in Northumberland County (photo: Jakec)
The vanishing point in a perspectival image is supposed to be an illusion, but it actually contains a bit subliminal realism. Yes, the lines move to a point in the distance beyond which you can’t see. Yet life literally has a vanishing point at which the road ends. There is, of course, “The Last Supper.” However, no one has endeavored to produce, shall we call it, “Life’s End?” Attempt to imagine one of those far away bits of sublimity, a cheap bucolic scene, picked up at some tag sale which hangs above the couch in your dentist’s waiting room—as envisioned by a latter day, Edvard Munch, something teeming with the terror of the mundane and at the same time disconcertingly emphatic. You stare at the vision realizing that it’s not an illusion, but a vision of finality!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Relativity and Gerontology

Albert Einstein (photo: Orren Jack Turner)
According to Special Relativity time slows down as you reach the speed of light. Hence a person traveling to a distant galaxy in an advanced spaceship that approaches 186,000 miles per second will age more slowly than his counterpart back on earth. The potential traveler may face a quandary before he or she embarks on their prospective voyage. They will, in effect, outlive those who haven’t taken the trip and also when they come back, they will find that literally nothing is likely to be the same. It’s a quality of life issue. The problem for the person traveling at speeds at or near the speed of light epitomizes something which is felt more keenly by average people who reap the advances of medical science. Sure it’s nice that one’s life can be prolonged, but you may end up feeling like an alien. Beyond this there’s an even more profound question about the nature of the life one's living. Yes, the organs, including the brain can be kept functioning, in the absence of any pernicious diseases, but to what end? The body is reduced to an eating and excreting machine. It’s capable of existence, but no much else. Longevity may result in little more than unwanted solitude. You have outlived your world, but to what end?

Monday, February 24, 2020

Il traditore

Tolstoy’s famous comment “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” may apply to films about the Mafia. Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962) concentrated on the drama of one man to show its magnetic hold. Then of course there were the Godfather films which are almost Dickensian in their breadth and domesticity and The Irishman which though investigative was more about the iconic cast that Scorsese's assembled. Marco Bellocchio’s Il Traditore, currently playing at Film Forum, is similarly documentary, but has a hard-edged cinema verité approach. Where Coppola and Scorsese couched their grisly plots in a comfortably cathartic epic narrative, here the reality of history creates a mixture of confusion, boredom and even disorientation in the viewer. It's life. Even when the traitor of the title, Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), is about to blow the whistle on the Sicilian underworld to the investigative judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), it feels anti-climactic. You're not sure what's going to happen and how. Though the mobsters are apprehended, the trial's a circus. There's a distinct feeling of disconnect. Will these civilized conversations between the judge and the whistleblower Buscetta result in shaking the hold of the syndicate? The one fictional device that's exploited throughout is leitmotif and a repeated theme is that the mafia never forgets (though Buscetta discountenances the appellation). Neither does its number #1 snitch who is plagued by nightmares. A potential hit covers himself with his infant son and later clings on to the child as a shield. Years pass, but the minute the son gets married, the execution finally takes place. Little moments stick in your head like one in which a prison dorm is emptied when a prostitute is brought in with the comment “Buscetta likes to fuck.” It’s stark, but it’s repeated as a theme throughout the movie. Toto Riini (Nicolo Cali) a capo dei capi is differentiated by his maxim, “better to command than fuck.” Cosa Nostra literally translates as “our thing,” but how do these words apply to the movie's palette? Bellocchio doesn't really answer the question. However, Il traditore is deeply unsettling and even anxiety provoking to the extent that it's far more open-ended and closer to a clear delineation of the enormous power of organized crime than its forebears.