Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Final Solution: In Solitary

The Fortress of Solitude in Action Comics #846, February 2007 (Art by Adam Kubert)
Is it odd that that you can talk on the phone and zoom, but never see anyone in person? The phenomenon possesses a mythic quality. If you recall Orpheus was specifically told not to look back at his beloved Eurydice, but he couldn’t help himself and lost her. You might equate that to those impatient and restless souls who don’t realize that they and everyone else are walking time bombs. If you’re carrying the virus and symptomatic then giving into the desire to really “see” someone instead of merely experiencing them in cyberspace may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At first it was all a lark and some people even said they preferred zooming to actually seeing people. After all, it was easy. You didn’t have to go out of the house. Then when the reality set in, you began to realize video images cannot take the place of the human almost sexual need to be to be in the presence of real people. Virtual reality may be a craze, but it’s not a substitute for real life and so like water pressure building, the pipe starts to feel like it’s going to burst as the pink cloud passes and one's faced with the fact of the long trek ahead, made even more difficult by the solitariness of the journey. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Final Solution: Dr. Seuss and the CDC


Theodore Seuss Geisel (1957)
The Cat in the Hat may turn out to be the King Lear of the coronavirus era. You may recall the immortal first lines of the Dr. Seuss classic, “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.” Would it be wrong to say that the pandemic threw cold water on all of humanity’s dreams and made literally everyone have to stay home, where if you were lucky enough, you might be entertained by such a delicious lord of misrule as the magnificent feline genie who mesmerized generations of children. Remember what it was like when you got sick as a kid? On the first day it was almost fun. You didn’t have to go to school. You could watch TV without restrictions, particularly if you had parents who were employed. But then as time passed, you started to get bored, impatient and eager to see your friends. Besides that you were tired of feeling sick. If you’re following Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor who’s been diarizing his battle and his obvious discomfiture with the length of time, it’s taken for it to pass—together with his worry about his family and wife Cristina (who’s come down with COVID-19 too), you might recall how interminable illness could seem as a child, when the days were long, lonely and filled with things like nausea and chills. Suffice it to say that the world has been reduced to the condition of the kids in The Cat in the Hat. Whether your suffering from corona or not, you’re stuck. You can’t go out, even when the sun finally does shine. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sperm Count: Prostitution in the Age of Coronavirus


 What’s the fate of the world’s oldest profession in the age of coronavirus? Not good. Fundamentalist sects often have set out to eradicate vice, but sex finds other outlets as in the widespread polygamy or polyamory in terrorist organizations and cults. Jim Jones was an example of this. You might also ask about love in the world of corona, but even adulterous love offers the opportunities for quarantine. Let’s say you’re hell bent on having an affair with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, to cite the Gay Talese tome based on the biblical commandment, and say she is equally willing. All you need to do is quarantine each other for two weeks (perhaps recusing yourself from your own spouses with the excuse that you feel symptomatic and then boom). But let’s get back to sex workers. Human beings are inventive and in the 5000 years of recorded history, the sex trade has always been enormously resilient. Forgetting about the virtual sex in chat rooms (Chaturbate is one example) or a resurgence of the 70’s style peep shows with glass windows whose very creation seems to have anticipated a pandemic (of at least sexual compulsion) so perfect are they in offering protection. Parenthetically peep show booths which are also like confessionals seem to offer real possibilities for getting close but not too close being a little more than kin and less than kind. But let’s look at some other possibilities. During the AIDS era, dental dams became popular for those who wanted to practice cunnilingus and condoms were king. However, what about a full body condom that’s a little like a bunny outfit? Some of these might even be adorned with ears. Beyond this everyone loves slippery epidermal tissue covered in some kind of lubricant. Will Purell be the new Astroglide? And will it provide a Happy Ending?

Monday, April 27, 2020

Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum




Didacticism is the country cousin of symbolism. Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum based on the Gunter Grass novel is rife with both. Oskar (David Bennent), the central character, willfully engineers his stunted growth by falling down a staircase at the age of 3, thereby becoming a self-appointed gnome. He’s actually fully conscious at birth, possessed with an unearthly agency, a man who only appears to be a child. In fact, one of the most disconcerting scenes in the l979 movie may be the sight of Oskar consummating sex with a grown woman—particularly with contemporary audiences so sensitive to images of pedophilia (the film was banned in both Oklahoma and Ontario because the then 11 year old actor was depicted having sex with his 24 year old counterpart). But the symbolism is more layered. Beginning at the end of the l9th Century, The Tin Drum is a magical realist history of The Third Reich with Oskar representing a countermanding force of resistance. He literally marches to the beat of a different drummer. At one moment in the movie his erratic drumbeat usurps a Nazi rally turning the martial music into a Waltz. “Once upon  a time there was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus,” he says. "But Santa Claus was the Gasman.” Amidst the often obvious schema are some unsettling ambiguities. Whenever someone attempts to take away his drum, Oskar’s screams shatter glass. It’s obviously a clarion call. Yet there’s an odd mixing of metaphors in the depiction of Kristallnacht when glass is also shattered as Nazi thugs destroy Jewish businesses and houses of worship. Schlondorff weaves a tapestry of associations, a portrait of Hitler is substituted for Beethoven with Beethoven replaced again. Goethe is juxtaposed to Rasputin, as enlightenment is contrasted to demonism. And Oscar has two fathers, Jan Bronski (David Olbrychski) the Pole and the cook, Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), the German. Danzig (Gdansk) which the Nazis annexed on September 1, 1939, functions a little like Vonnegut’s Dresden as the center around which the film’s universe rotates. Poles, Kashubians, Germans and a Jew Sigismund Markus (Charles Aznavour) all inhabit the city in an increasingly unholy misalliance. Potatoes and voyeurism count amongst recurring leitmotifs as do clocks. Despite Oskar's machinations, the march of time is both relentless and irremediable.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Final Solution: Is Coronavirus Transformative?


Coronavirus is not necessarily transformative. You may find out that despite the apocalyptic feeling the world is coming to an end (at the very least the familiar world of barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys you once knew), that you still wake up, look in the mirror, still self-absorbed and still not necessarily liking what you see. Perhaps instead of experiencing a raising of consciousness amidst crisis, you may very well find yourself plunging down a succession of rabbit holes, deeper and deeper into yourself. The same obsessions may haunt you. You still want to go on porn sites all the time to see the naked bodies of creatures you will never be able to have and you continue to be made jealous when lo despite everything there are still people who remain a rebuke to your own piddling existence. You may very well cry out “schmuck” when you see that despite all your over-the-top efforts to persevere for the company,  the dunderhead who once occupied the work station next to you has gotten the coveted promotion, even though the firm is conducting all its activities on-line and everyone is working at home. He will be your now socially distant boss! Despite the collapse and the threat that the world is not going to go on, it keeps going on and while you’re busy looking at life under the aspect of eternity, someone not only doesn't have your back, but is doing things behind it.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Final Solution: The Ice Age



What if this is metaphorically the beginning of a new Ice Age in which dinosaurs like the President finally become extinct? If the giant reptiles who ruled the earth weren’t wiped away by a cataclysmic event then there might never have been human kind. So there is hope, but how much destruction will need to perpetrated in order for the current species at least to get the point? When Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia precipitously opens his state to such needed businesses as tattoo parlors while mayors in cities like Albany and Augusta find their protests falling on deaf ears, one wonders at the almost biblical quality of the governor's defiance. The coronavirus has become like the Golden Calf for that part of the base now marching in the streets as pandemic deniers. The Holocaust deniers occupy sit one pew behind. The problem is that there's little innocence anywhere. In the current environment no one is unaffected, no man is an island. What if those who doggedly resist even White House directives (like the Georgia governor) prevail and little covens of viral activity begin to explode. These hotbeds of disease could possibly undo all the progress made by states like New York. The current situation requires both individual and collective responsibility, lest all the dinosaurs and the gentle animals that are their prey are all swallowed up into a viral abyss. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Diasporic Dining: Coronavirus and Michelin Ratings



During the course of the current crisis, have you ever caught yourself having frighteningly awful thoughts—like for instance hoping that the daily death counts will minimize so you can shop in the supermarket without feeling like it's a dangerous activity? Now here’s another thought. You know you always walked by a restaurant if it were empty? Well, once people start going out again the bad restaurants will suddenly be in demand, precisely because they’ll provide lots of social distance, a much more coveted commodity than good food. The problem is that once people hear about a good bad restaurant they’ll flock to it. Now the once coveted reservation in the haute cuisine establishment will be easy to get and it will suddenly be the haute cuisine establishment that affords more social distance. A new universe is on the horizon at least from the point of view of restaurant going in which diners will have to actually monitor the vacillations in a topsy turvy universe in which unpopularity is directly proportionate to desirability, where the reverse used to be obviously the case. Talk about changes. With these new grading factors in effect, how will coronavirus affect a restaurant’s Michelin rating?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Final Solution: Purple People Eater


Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America. Then there was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Orson Welles’ l939, The War of the Worlds, an updating of the H.G. Wells classic, also hinted at looming Nazi threat in a radio broadcast that scared the hell out of the public, who believed that the US was really being attacked by alien invaders. The fact is that outside the horrifying exception of 9/11, America is unique in never having been attacked. Europe was laid a shambles by both Allied and Axis bombings and Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented a level of destruction that had never been seen before and has rarely if ever been witnessed since. The coronavirus is in fact the only time that the United States has ever been put into a state of total paralysis by an invader, this time in the form of a virus. Americans are not used to their way of life being disturbed. The Life of Reilly was a 50’s television series starring William Bendix as a wing riveter in an aircraft plant. Who knew or cared if he were building B-52s. He lived in his simple house with a white picket fence and carried a lunchbox to work. However, behind the innocent veneer was a shadow. I. G. Farben was the German company that produced Zyklon B and it undoubtedly had its share of portly middle-aged men who lived in quaint dwellings with manicured lawns who simply hammered in the bolts and wouldn't have otherwise hurt a fly. During the Second World War the Russians endured the siege of Leningrad and the English the bombing of Britain when Londoners took refuge in the Underground. Yes, there was Pearl Harbor, but Europeans and certainly the Japanese had threats that came directly to their shores. The coronavirus is the first time that Americans have really looked at the face of death and near extinction.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Costa-Gavras' Z


Seeing Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969) over 50 years after its release, one is impressed by how unutterably au courant the portrayal remains. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The political situation of the movie in which, under the guise of free speech, a group of violent right-wing protestors are given license to unleash their murderous rage is uncannily close to what happened at Charlottesville.The lumpenproletariat proxies in Z are frightingly close to Trump's base. The undercurrent of government authorities giving tacit acceptance to outrageous acts further echoes the equanimity with which Trump treated proto-fascist and even Nazi demonstrators, chanting anti-semitic slogans. But while the movie is remarkably relevant it also represents the ancien regime in its style and characterizations. It is a universe of good and evil, with larger than life heart throbs like Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant representing respectively the ill-fated liberal leader and crusading prosecutor. Quick cuts and flashbacks account for the thriller-like movement of the action and didacticism—both of which diminish the believability that might have been conveyed in say the cinema verité type approach employed by Pontecorvo in The Battle of Algiers (1966). Though the machinations of the right wing junta which ruled Greece at the time, informed the story, the movie itself exudes a Hollywood feel. Z turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a stylistically conservative polished piece of commercial cinema in which a progressive message is contained.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Final Solution: The Power of Positive Thinking


Everyone has a narrative. If it’s a negative one you may experience a self-fulfilling prophecy. The imagination of failure is so great and so real that you lose whatever it was that you wanted to have or win. Subliminally some people will actually go to great lengths to produce the very thing they have always been afraid of. Freud coined the term Febleistung, or “faulty achievement” to explain these kind of maladaptive behaviors. Conversely, there are those who adhere to the delusional optimism intoned by Voltaire’s Pangloss when he says, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Candide was in fact written in the wake of the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which was a major slap in the face to the kind unrealistic thinking that sees nature as perpetually benign force. On the other hand, positive thinking of a beneficial nature is a little like Epicureanism. At its best, it’s a form of constructive action (possibly leading to pleasure) and predicated on the Golden Mean.  Creating a new version of the WPA which would put unemployed people to work to combat the legacy of the pandemic would be a constructive form of optimism. Trump’s desire to reopen business by Easter was a little like someone camping out in Lisbon as the ground began to shake. In essence, the president's positive approach, which fires up his base, is simply a juggernaut of self-will. It like using gluttony to appease an appetite. "Don’t take no for an answer" is the kind of Babbitry Trump is preaching. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking is one of the great iterations of this kind of primitive salesmanship (Peale was, incidentally, the pastor of the Trump family church). It might work when you’re knocking on doors to sell indigent homeowners sub-prime mortgages, but this kind of banging one’s head against a brick wall is unlikely to stanch the onslaught of a pandemic.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Diasporic Dining: Table for Two or Folie a Deux?


Many people who have grown up in big cities or even suburbs eat one or more meals out a day. They have business lunches. Jewish families famously like Chinese food on Sundays. Kids and adults (particularly those in recovery) hang out in diners. New joints with exotic cuisine are all the rage. That Georgian place didn’t serve Southern food but specialized in dishes from Tbilisi which anyone in the know realizes has nothing to do with Russia. Sophistication for your typical metrosexual revolves around trendy nightspots which like the Momofuko chain of restaurants feature colorful and inventive menus. But let’s say you’re at the beginning of a pandemic? Is it worth risking your life to get that table in the place which is so much in demand that you generally can’t even get a reservation unless you know someone? And then what to do when the shelter-in-place orders finally come to pass and you can’t go anywhere? People who have not touched a pot or pan in years and are so used to eating out or ordering in are literally forced to feed themselves, as if they were human fois gras. If any benefit can be said to derive from a calamity in which normal life comes to a halt, it's the ability to compensate for change. Those who haven’t cooked in years, or really ever, may suddenly discover new abilities or find themselves reviewing techniques they originally learned when they studied Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking with their college roommates. Once the shit hits the fan you’re going to be sitting in front of the tube with your significant other either eating cold Franco-American SpaghettiOs out of a can or indulging the delights of canned tuna under glass.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Diasporic Dining: Restaurant Acoustics in the Age of Coronavirus

Bawabet Dimashq in Syria (the largest restaurant in the world)
Anecdotal reports of oneiric activity in scattered demographics suggest that many individuals are dreaming about eating in restaurants. From a psychological point of view, the dreams are obviously reflective of the wish that life would return to normal. But at such a point as social distancing restrictions lessen and restaurants resume business, both diners and restauranteurs will face a new series of design challenges. When you return to your favorite Italian place you’re likely to discover that there are only tables for two and that they're spread as much as l0 feet apart. In order for you to converse with the friends you've arrived with, you'll have to scream much in the way you do in a normal evening at home when voices start to be raised at the dinner table. The average restaurant in the age of coronavirus is going to be an extremely high-tech noisy establishment filled with Purell dispensers and robotic sanitary devices (windshield wiper-like drones that will scour the handrails and doorknobs) and with a decibel level equivalent to that generated by a deafening NASA launch. Quiet candlelit dinners in quaint little bistros with checkered tablecloths are likely to be a thing of the past, along with the kind of handshakes and bipartite cheek kissing that were part of the normal salutations couples once used as they commenced an evening out on the town.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Ashes and Diamonds




Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (l958) takes place on May 8, l945, the day of Poland’s liberation. From the first scene of the movie a series of leitmotifs are suggested. The camera pans up to the cross at the top of a church on the threshold of which the first murder will take place. The machine gun fire is so fierce that the body goes up in flames. Fireworks appear later in the movie at a celebration taking place after the murder of a Communist leader and glasses of vodka are set on fire. Then there’s a hilarious scene in which the secretary to the town’s mayor drunkenly employs another kind of fireworks, mowing down the guests at a banquet with a fire extinguisher—which effectively extinguishes his own career. Black humor is one of Wajda’s devices and it’s part of the mirroring that runs throughout the movie. A poster of Stalin is juxtaposed to what looks like the Polish leader, General Pilsudski. "You can go from one side to the other," intones a drunken journalist. The mirror reflection or the shadows of characters are part of the music which includes the scene of a mock waltz to the tune of a "Polonaise." Almost all the action of the film hinges around Maciek (Zybigniew Cybulski) , a feckless resistance assassin who initially misses his mark, murdering two innocent workers from a local cement factory. Maciek's signature piece of attire is a pair of sunglasses which symbolize the parodox of seeing that is both compromised and enhanced. Cybulski apparently had his own mythology, dying young in a freak accident, a kind of Polish James Dean. However, he also anticipates Jean-Paul Belmondo, the ill-fated gangster in Breathless (l960) and numerous tortured existential heroes, populating New Wave cinema. The beauty of the composition of the scenes reaches a dramatic crescendo with light filtering through windows as in Vermeer, in a way that suggests either dawn or twilight, birth or death. Maciek has fallen in love with a beautiful barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) who makes him question his mission in life. As he attempts to seduce Krystyna,  he's also scouring the floor for bullets. In the end the lovers are in a crypt like the one in Romeo and Juliet only this time the bodies are those of the innocent young men whose lives are lost in the first scene of the movie. Krystyna begins to read a poem engraved in a wall. As she struggles to finish a verse, her lover intones the final words of the poem by the l9th century poet Cyprian Norwid, “Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond..." 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Incitement



The history of attempts for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and a two-state solution have been characterized by polarization and extremist violence on both sides. Yaron Zilberman’s Incitement, now being streamed at Film Forum, reconstructs the assassination of Yizhak Rabin by Yigal Amir (Yehuda Nahari Halevi), an Israeli law student and religious scholar. Amir had been influenced by “the law of the informer and the pursuer” which derives from Maimonides and argues that “he who kills a traitor shall be rewarded.” The traitor in this case is the Israeli prime minister who's portrayed wrapped in the Arab headdress of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, at increasingly violent right wing rallies. Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu both make cameo appearances in a movie set against the 61-59 Knesset vote in favor of the Oslo II peace accord on October 6, 1995.  “Democracy is the will of the people, but what is the people compared to God?” Amir asks shortly before he commits the murder on November 4th.  Incitement intersperses real life footage with acting, but it’s neither documentary nor cinema verité. In a way the hybrid style is a metaphor for a society struggling between a secular and religious identity. Amir is portrayed as a troubled personality, a Yemenite Jew spurned by the dominant Ashkenazi world. He also suffers from a conflicted oedipal relationship with his radical mother and peace loving and religious father, but the backstory often feels contrived, precisely because it’s juxtaposed to the footage of larger than life historical figures like Rabin who upstage the film's domestic subplot. One thing the film does underscore is how different Israel has become almost 25 years later and how far the country has moved from that hopeful era when peace still seemed  an attainable possibility.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Final Solution: Period of Adjustment


There has been much talk about the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, from the point of view of the economy, politics (will the aftermath be the death knell of globalism), culture and particularly social relations. But what about the Stockholm syndrome in which the victim ends up falling in love with the torturer? No one wants to be infected, but humankind has almost ubiquitously been turned into the inmates of a vast internment camp—a gigantic gulag which is fast becoming a way of life. Once you’ve had your freedom taken away, it can be difficult to adjust to living in a world in which the constraints which have dictated your life are lifted. Long-term inmates who have been paroled often find the adjustment to society difficult. At some time, hopefully, they’ll be first a flattening then a descent of the curve of new cases and while there has been much talk about a resurge taking place say next fall or winter, there will come a time when the threat of the virus passes. If you grew up in the 50s you’ll remember posters of polio victims in wheelchairs or  iron lungs. Even though the scourge wasn’t as rampant, fear was great and the Spanish flu epidemic of l918 paralleled coronavirus in  the ferocity of its permeability. But that plague preceded the roaring twenties which themselves became a harbinger of the Great Depression and while there are parallels it may be safe to say that no other disease has brought so many societies to a halt at the same time. All of a sudden survival and all those things associated with it—such as putting food on the table—have become universally paramount. Fame, beauty, greatness—all seem to pale in importance in the middle of a health siege. However, once it’s over, how will life resume? Some of those who have begun to find a meaning and solace in limitation will again be pushed into an aspirational universe, where just the essentials are not enough. It’s not that anyone wants current conditions to continue, it’s just that, if you haven’t been felled by the beast (as the virus is called), then you’re likely to face a difficult period of adjustment once your sentence is commuted and you’ve paid your debt for being alive. What will you do with yourself when you’re released from The Big House?

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Final Solution: Death Knocks?


Woody Allen did a famous parody of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal "Death Knocks," The New Yorker, 7/27/68). The original film which occurs during the plague or Black Death which infected Europe during the Middle Ages, deals with a knight (Max von Sydow) who plays chess with death. In fact, the game is a life and death matter. The title of the film derives from the Book of Revelation, “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.”What’s striking is how serious and spot on the film now seems and how devoid of any potential for humor. With all the advances of modern science and medicine the coronavirus has reduced the whole planet to a state of ravaged helplessness. To some extent the effect is truly medieval. Hospitals can no longer handle the onslaught of patients and many people who thought they were impregnable are finding themselves face to face with the grim reaper. Now with social distancing, the average person is like the solitary knight confronting extinction every time he or she sets foot in a supermarket. Even a chess grandmaster is not going to be able to checkmate a pandemic of this magnitude.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Final Solution: The Eleventh Plague

"Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt (1659)
There’s no chosen people whose first-borns will be spared and given free passage. No malevolent monarch or civilization is being punished for their tyrannies. It’s as if the biblical story of Exodus were deconstructed. But if the current scourge is a product of a culture what are the contingencies that have informed it? One of the things that defines coronavirus is its contagiousness and hence ubiquity. It’s democratic. It’s the great leveler of social status, of economic inequality and ultimately of the individualistic fantasy of a great chain of being, of the Calvinist idea of the saved and the damned. This llth plague is value-free. If there's anything good to be said about the scourge, it's that all of humanity has finally been put in the same boat. It challenges the very notion of morality of a Manichean universe, since there's no notion of good or bad, of agency. Neither Egyptians, nor Ugly Americans nor millenarian terrorists are exempt. White supremacists and evangelicals who refuse to practice social distancing are felled along with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a much-loved CNN anchor, Chris Cuomo. The notion of punishment is inapplicable since the victims are random. The shelter-in-place mandates are the same ones used for an active shooter, like the one who randomly mowed down concert goers from a Las Vegas hotel window without regard for race, sex or political status. There will be no miracles or Exodus (in fact it’s just the reverse—everyone’s told to stay in) and no sea that's going to part--for anyone.

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.