Monday, August 30, 2010


“They resemble any number of well-meaning couples for whom ‘the home’ has become a citadel of aspirational self-regard and family life a sequence of ennobling rites, each act of overparenting wreathed in civic import—the ‘issues’ involving cloth versus disposable diapers, or the political rectitude of the Boy Scouts, or the imperative to recycle batteries—and the long siege of the day heroically capped by ‘Goodnight Moon’ and a self-congratulatory glass of zinfandel.” The reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have been universally over-the-top, but this quote from Sam Tanenhaus’s piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is particularly significant. However much one agrees with Tanenhaus’s praise of the book, Freedom certainly inspired him to make one of the most cogent statements ever written about the parenting style of the baby boom generation. Furthermore, when he was first appointed editor of the Book Review several years back, Tanenhaus, the author of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography and The Death of Conservativism, was rumored to be more interested in non-fiction than fiction, to the consternation of many novelists and short story writers. By assigning himself the review of Freedom, and concluding that the novel “illuminates, through the steady radiance of the author’s moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew,” he is making an argument for the gravitas of fiction at a time when the serious novel has failed to lay claim to its classically oracular role. By writing about Freedom in the way he does—thereby adding Franzen’s book to the list of great American novels, from Herzog and Catch-22 to Portnoy’s Complaint, Rabbit Run, The Natural and, mostly recently, Infinite Jest—Tanenhaus is making a case that there is still a great American novel.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Diasporic Dining XV: Dallas BBQ

People who eat at the Dallas BBQ chain of restaurants should be killed before they kill themselves and others. They are setting a bad example by making other people think they can live after eating large plates filled with incredibly greasy ribs and fries. People go to Dallas BBQ because of the large portions and cheap prices, refusing in effect to look a gift horse in the mouth and realize that beyond its tonsils is a gun pointed at them. Most of the patrons of Dallas BBQ are on exhibition to street traffic through a glass patio, which the architects of the restaurant undoubtedly created in order to showcase the merchandise, much like the prostitutes displayed in the windows of the red light districts of Amsterdam and Hamburg. Passing by Dallas BBQ is like going to the zoo, because the perception of the imbibing patrons with unearthly looks on their faces recalls the imperviousness of animals at feeding time. For anyone who has been addicted to drugs, Dallas BBQ will bring back memories of their favorite crack house or shooting gallery. Have none of the aficionados of Dallas BBQ ever heard of things like the Twinky defense, in which eating food with certain kinds of ingredients causes temporary insanity? Have none of Dallas BBQ’s followers ever heard of a film called Food, Inc., in which the massive production of chickens, which feeds chains like Dallas BBQ, is as cruel to the animals as it is to the intestinal tracks of those who digest them? The people who eat at Dallas BBQ look dumbfounded, like deer in headlights. Is that the way you want to feel after a meal?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paris Journal XI: Les Banlieues

Paris is the City of Light, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the object of love poems as well as the backdrop for some of the great narratives of Western literature. Once an art student, Hitler’s destructive instincts were inhibited when it came to the prospect of bombing Paris, as compared to, say, London. Paris was a jewel to be acquired, and it’s a wonder that when the Russians routed Napoleon’s armies, they didn’t march on Paris and turn the tables on the Francophilia that had infected the Russian aristocracy from the time of Peter the Great, when French was the de facto second language for the upper classes. The bawdy Pigalle and the meat market of the Bois de Boulogne still exist, though their primacy is threatened by the Internet, whose pornographic version of Paris is probably able to outdo the Folies Bergères or any of its more risqué clones. But there is another Paris that most tourists never see—the so-called Banlieues. Banlieue is the French word for suburb, but these suburbs are nothing like Scarsdale or Short Hills. They are violent places filled with unemployed youth, the disaffected residue of France’s former colonial adventures, particularly in Algeria and Morocco. Intermittently, the seething discontent breaks out in violence. If we look at France as a person, we might say that these eruptions are like the repressed emotions that create neuroses in an otherwise healthy-seeming individual. In France and its cynosure city Paris, the dichotomy is especially vivid. Beauty is bought at a price, and nowhere is this more epitomized than when we travel from Paris’s extraordinary center, with its Pantheon and its Beaux Arts architecture, to the desecrated housing developments (much like “the projects” in the ghettos of Chicago and New York and the council housing in the UK) of the outskirts, where the legacy of the conflict dramatized in Gillo Pontecorvo’s cinéma vérité masterpiece The Battle of Algiers is still taking its toll.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Paris Journal X: Rue Saint-Denis

The women on the Rue Saint-Denis, their faces hardened and lined as they linger in shadowy doorways, look like protestors against an injustice—in this case the obsolescence of their own profession. In Madame Rosa (1977), Moshé Mizrahi romanticized the condition of the aging prostitute, played by Simone Signoret, but the characters waiting along this destitute section of Paris, with its burned out massage parlors and X-rated sex shops, exist in a condition of waiting that precisely echoes Beckett’s En Attendant Godot. Waiting for Godot, or while waiting for Godot, which is a more apt translation of the original French, is a good description of the despair to be found on the Rue Saint-Denis. Susan Sontag directed a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1993, and one of the boarded up storefronts on the Rue Saint-Denis would actually be a perfect place for the Living Theater to stage their version of the play, with audience participation. It is only a short walk from the Rue Saint-Denis to one of Paris’s great cultural institutions, the Beaubourg, but conceptually the two worlds are light years apart, proving that in our quantum universe, in which particles can occupy disparate positions at the same time, contiguity is not a guarantee of continuity. Prostitution may be alive and well in the high priced precincts occupied by expensive call girls and politicians, but the Parisian streetwalker, one of the most venerated practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, has begun her death rattle.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alas Poor Yorick Stuff

If one could describe the preconscious thought process of average human beings, satiation of appetite and the desire for attention might be in a Hegelian dialectic with the fear of death, except for those who enjoy a surfeit of what is known as suicidal ideation. For Suicidal Ideationalists, who are sometimes also followers of German Idealism (with its search for overarching metaphysical assertions, which lead to a level of frustration resulting in suicidal thoughts), and who probably comprise a good part of the Hemlock Society’s mailing list, suicide constitutes a form of hope. Plainly there are people who regard suicide as a good thing, to the extent that it is an escape from the burden of existence. The poets Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Anne Sexton all committed suicide. Clinical depression may have driven their decisions, but who is to say that extreme mental pain must be endured, any more than the physical pain that Dr. Kevorkian attempted to eliminate through assisted suicide. In The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus asserts that, considering the nature of the purposeless world in which we live, suicide is the only philosophical question that is important. One thing is certain: those who commit suicide have a level of control that those of us who open medical reports with trembling hands don’t get a chance to experience. For the average person who is not a member of the Hemlock Society, Death and Life are enemies (in the famous sequence from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Max Von Sydow plays chess with Death). The Faustian bargain wherein the soul is swapped for knowledge ultimately involves a search for the kind of immortality that Ray Kurzweil champions in The Age of Spiritual Machines, in which dying organs are replaced by microprocessors. But from another point of view, death may not be regarded as an enemy. Death is as much a part of the evolution of man as life, and without the death of cells (apoptosis), new cells would not be born. Death is the final life passage and the ultimate change. We are afraid of death because we are set in our ways and don’t want to let go. However, is it possible to accept death and even embrace it? Is that what it means to die with dignity? 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Night at Maud's, My Dinner with Andre

There are certain timeless moments that mean a lot to you and no one else. In early adolescence, these take the form of overheated exchanges in which the tiniest hint of interest from a fetching member of the opposite sex creates volcanic eruptions of meaning, which are the first of what will become a lifetime of misunderstandings. Essentially, human beings are totally isolated from the moment they emerge from the protective lining of the uterus, which may be the reason why shooting heroin—one way of trying to recreate the oceanic symbiosis of gestation—is called mainlining. There are times when conversation may actually create a reciprocal feeling of connection, as exemplified in the films of Eric Rohmer, in particular My Night at Maud’s. (My Dinner With Andre is another example of this connecting-over-dinner genre.) But the Pascalian wager at the heart of Rohmer’s film, which infuses the discussion with the notion of faith, is precisely what is absent in most interactions between human beings, which are usually defined by urges that lack the conviction of the higher purpose in which they are masked. Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream may be a vestige of an earlier era of trendy psychiatry, which expressed the value of emoting (often within a group context), but it is curiously accurate in epitomizing the condition in which we are born and in which we die—which is to say totally alone. Life is bookended with the traumas of birth and death, but in this sandwich of despair are numerous little tales, of lust and love, of friendship and remorse, in which the harsh truths of the human condition are gift wrapped and placed under the Yule tree, along with Santa’s other spurious gifts. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Paris Journal IX: A Moveable Feast

Hemingway called Paris a moveable feast,” but it is hard to regard the Parisian salons presided over by the great cultural figures of the past—Breton, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway himself, and numerous other denizens of Parisian cultural life—as feasts in the same sense as the collations that occurred in American and even English cultural life. For all the brilliance of French cuisine, one associates the great gatherings of Parisian intellectuals that occurred in the early part of the twentieth century at cafés like Les Deux Magots (which are now over priced tourist meccas) with buffets of conversation and ideas. In contrast, Truman Capote threw his famed Black and White Ball for Katharine Graham in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza in l966. It would be hard to imagine a latter-day infant terrible and major French celebrity like Houellebecq throwing a comparable society bash for someone like Carla Bruni. Thus, though one reads about the social mores of the French upper classes in Remembrance of Things Past, it is really difficult to imagine the kind of literary cocktail parties and dinners one expects in New York occurring in Paris, where the spread of ideas has a more extemporaneous feel, fueled by the ongoing presence of a true café society on streets like the Rue Mortorgueil, which is to Paris today what the Boulevard St. Germain was a century ago.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Diasporic Dining XIV: Mill City

Photograph by Hallie Cohen

The Minneapolis Midtown Greenway is a bicycle path that runs through one of the coldest cities in the United States (downtown buildings are linked by closed skyways, which provide protection from the harsh mid-winter cold and give the city center its futuristic Matrix appearance). A statistic: the site of the old Mill Museum, which lies in the shadow of the old Pillsbury and Gold Medal mills, once processed 175 railroad cars of wheat to make 12 million loaves of bread a day. This is the heart of the Midwest, which produced the flour that made such staples of the American diet as Wonder Bread, though most Minneapolitans (cosmopolitan residents of Minneapolis), with their heritage of Scandinavian socialism, are conscientious about both health and diversity. (Minnesota’s Scandinavian roots are also exemplified in all the Svens and Sigs who attend schools like St. Olaf’s and Gustavus Adolphus).

The Midtown Global Market is bazaar of ethnic foods situated on Lake Street, a thoroughfare lined with restaurants that represent the tremendous diversity of a city with one of the largest populations of Hmong in the United States. Still, Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, which is the birth place of F. Scott Fitzgerald, exude the feeling of white-flour Americana, of bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches and Velveeta cheese, of apple pie and the best ice cream in the world, which can be found at Izzy’s on Marshall Avenue. But if you’re looking for art house cinema, don’t miss Minneapolis’s version of Film Forum, The Trylon.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beyond Therapy

It’s time to reiterate some basic rules about psychotherapy, in the light of Daphne Merkin’s recent cover story, “My Life in Therapy,” in The New York Times Magazine. Anyone seeking to be cured faces immediate excommunication. Anyone who goes into therapy for personal gain, either to improve their earning or sexual power, will be drawn and quartered and then boiled in oil. Life may have an end, but therapy doesn’t have a goal, especially due to the number of neurons and synapses involved with consciousness. Think of it—how can there possibly be a goal to therapy when the exigencies of human existence are so limitless? No sooner do you resolve sex then you are confronted with death, with dispossession, with volcanic hate. History and affects constantly war with each other, producing no Hegelian synthesis, since we are fundamentally organic matter, like flowers and vegetables that are prone to SAD (seasonal affective disorder). So what is the point of therapy, considering that providers turn out to be as fragile as their patients and similarly prone to weaknesses of the flesh? Continuing with our list of regulations: therapy must not end with death. The patient is only a vehicle through which the observations of the surviving therapist live on, like a solution in high school chemistry, which becomes acid or alkaline depending on the ratios that are maintained. In addition, the patient is a relatively unimportant element. For instance, from a Marxist point of view, the bill is the most important aspect of therapy. This document records the exchange of services for money. The recording of a financial transaction may be mocked and demeaned as the lower essence of a grander project, but the bill is to therapy what the Ten Commandments are to the bible. It reminds the patient that his doctor is not his friend, but someone who he has paid to help him think.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Paris Journal VIII: Why French Women Don't Go to the Gym

Do Parisian women eat chocolate and tartes, pommes frites, brie oozing with fat, fois gras, canard (à l’orange or otherwise), bifteck au poivre, poulet rôti, épaule d’agneau, cuisses de grenouilles, escargots à la Bourguignonne, coquilles St. Jacques en sauce de crème, soupe à l’oignon au fromage, pain, beurre, café au lait, parfaits profondement plein de calories, petits fours, macarons, éclairs, Napoleons (naturellement), and more pomme frites avec mayonnaise? Do they never exercise or deprive themselves of a single meal, like American women, who eat the calorie-counter cottage cheese with melon and then go Spinning so they can have a big meal at the fancy local French restaurant named after a region of France like Brittany?  Do the French have a more sexually liberated culture in which these same ageless women who never worry about indulging their appetites for food also guiltlessly indulge their appetites for romance, thereby liberating their partners to do the same? Does the average French person indulge in transgressive behavior for which there would be punishment in other cultures? Are the French freed from cancer and AIDS, can they drink infinite quantities of red wine without becoming alcoholics, can they smoke like chimneys without getting cancer? Are the French immortal?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Point/Counterpoint: Age of Love

Screaming Pope:
Jodie Fisher is the opposite of a femme fatale. Is there a comparable word to describe women who undo men like Paris, who fell for Helen and caused the Trojan War?  Apparently, before trying to get a contracting job at Hewlett-Packard in 2007, and subsequently setting off HP CEO Mark Hurd’s tragic demise, she was an actress and television personality, having appeared in such classics as “Easy Rider: The Ride Back,” “Sheer Passion” and “Blood Dolls.” “Sheer Passion” is the story of a lingerie designer who is strangled inside a fashion designer’s house. In a unique plot twist, the fashion designer becomes a suspect. Jodie plays a character named Dana.

Fisher accused Hurd of sexual harassment, and one wonders if her work in “Age of Love,” an NBC reality show in which contestants dated Australian tennis star Mark Philippoussis, created the sensitivity to coercion that motivated her charge. Fisher never won any Emmy or an Oscar, but she went on to sell commercial real estate, to have a position on the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, and finally to work at Hewlett-Packard, where she was paid thousands to greet people at events. One would presume that the reason she was hired at Hewlett Packard had something to do with the fact that she bore no resemblance to Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve.

The College of Singing Cardinals:
What to make of His Holiness taking papal pot-shots at a vapid gold-digger who brought about the "tragic demise" of $43 million/year CEO Mark Hurd, who recently announced that 9,000 HP employees would be laid off in the next three years (presumably to make room in the budget for his salary)?  His Holiness might want to add something about Hurd having reached an out-of-court settlement with Fisher, despite the fact that HP found no evidence of harassment and Fisher denies their having had intimate relations.  Or about the fact that Hurd is receiving a $12.2 million cash severance and $16 million in stock.

His Holiness humorously takes Fisher to task for being a bad actress and an opportunist, but Hurd might deserve equal airtime for, according to HP's internal review, repeatedly paying an unnamed "contractor," with whom he had a close personal relationship, for doing nothing.  All while planning to lay off 9,000 workers in the next three years.  And making $43 million per year.

Also, what does Alan Greenspan have to do with any of this?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Annals of Consciousness: Solaris

Consciousness, whether in an ocean or a brain, does not necessarily reveal truth. Conversely, truth can be too much for consciousness to bear. Solaris, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s l972 film based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, is about a consciousness that reposes in a sea of water on a distant planet. There’s a wonderful scene early in the film that portrays the inside of the mind as series of highways, with cars like neurons running between synapses. The movie oscillates between the inside of whatever consciousness might be, to the phenomenon we might casually call reality.  The philosophical landscape and conundrums of the movie are endless and preachy, but the main character Kris Kelvin’s grief over the suicide of his wife, and the notion of the Faustian bargain by which she is able to return to life, if only in factitious form, along with the recurring theme of the father/son relationship (Kris’s mission may mean that he will never see his father again), provide the emotional underpinnings for a movie that ends up separating the body and the mind. The imagery of Hamlet runs throughout the film. For instance, Gribarus, one of the scientists on the space station who commits suicide, wants to be returned to earth so he can be buried in the ground with the worms and dirt, a fate reminiscent of poor Yorick.  Man’s ultimate condition is that of degenerate matter rather than soaring thought. “Love is a feeling we can experience, but never explain,” Kris says at one point.  Solaris isn’t so much science fiction as a dramatization of the plight of the dualist thinker. “We don’t need other worlds,” says Snout, one of the scientists on the space station circling the planet Solaris. “We need a mirror.”

Friday, August 6, 2010

Paris Journal VII: Madame Ovary

There is a danger in running away to a beautiful place and pretending that you’re somebody else. Paris afflicts many Americans in this way, and before they know it they are groveling at the supremacy of a more melodious language, notoriously tasty food, and the legend of Gallic sexuality. The average American who doesn’t happen to be a French culture hero, like Jack Palance or Jean Seberg, Henry Miller or Jerry Lewis, suffers from an inferiority complex when it comes to French society, a fact that makes the notion of a vacation in France a dubious enterprise. Paris is still filled with couples who kiss fervently in public, which only drives the nail into the coffin for the typical self-hating American couple, conspicuously consuming pragmatists who, knowing of no better way to achieve status than to flash aging packets of devalued American Express travelers checks, find themselves reduced to psychobabble as they attempt to analyze each other’s shortcomings on the corner of the Boulevards St. Michel and St. Germain, only steps from cafés like Les Deux Magots, which are no longer haunted even by the ghosts of De Beauvoir or Sartre. The tendency to speak in Franglais, a polymorphically perverse tongue in which sophistication is attained by inserting French expressions like faute de mieux into otherwise normal English sentences—a bit like using strap-ons and sex toys in place of living sexual organs—is another symptom that appears among those unfortunate couples who suffer from extreme cases of Francophilia.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Paris Journal VI: Paul Klee

In 1939, the last year of his life, the Swiss born painter Paul Klee produced 1,200 works.  17 of Klee’s works were shown in the Nazi’s “Degenerate Art” show of 1937, and with the Nazi’s at the height of their power, Klee was forced to leave Germany, where he’d joined the faculty of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus school in l921. Previously, he’d been influenced by Der Blaue Reiter group, of which Kandinsky was a member. Der Blaue Reiter, which Klee joined in l913, emphasized the expressive power of color. The current show at the Musée de l’Orangerie describes Klee as “a complex character who combined ‘primitive’ lyricism with a passion for systems.” In l920, Klee wrote in his Credo, “Now the relativity of visible things is made clear…” The world Klee would invent represented a dialectic between the opposing forces of color and geometry, underlined by the vector-like arrows that are a constant presence in his work. Having fled Germany, Klee also had to contend with a serious autoimmune illness, scleroderma, during his last year Yet these later works are some of the most powerful in the show, which was taken from the collection of Ernst Beyeler. The color is vivid and the use of line even more forceful, distilled and even ominous in these pieces. Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in l911, but after he translated Robert Delaunay’s 1912 essay, Light, he commented that color had opened up a new world to him. However abstract these last works are, illness and exile give them the immediacy of the social commentary that initiated Klee’s career.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I am Love

Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love is an essay on superficiality posing as profundity. The film begins in snow and ends with rain falling on statues. Using these images, Guadagnino introduces the classic elements of the pathetic fallacy, with nature mirroring the emotions of delusion and sorrow. Add to this the stylized title sequences draped in Art Deco fonts. Name your scandalous heroine Emma and cast the role with an actress who has made a reputation in high-art cinema, like the film based on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Have her fall in love with a chef. Is it her love of his shrimp that is the turning point of the drama, or is it her lust for him that makes her eventually fall in love with the shrimp? Establish the aristocratic, novelistic Italian drama, which is immediately suggestive of truly great works of cinema like Visconti’s The Leopard, and then add lush lyric sequences (including, naturally, the friezes of auspicious edifices) that conjure the sweep of history in movies like De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Portray doting servants of the kind that appeared in the self-same Italian epics. Create leitmotifs like a cropped hairstyle shared by an adulterous mother and lesbian daughter to establish a relationship predicated on rebellion. And then, as the coup de grace, create the ultimate piece of melodrama in an adventitious and tragic accident that reveals the falsity of a world. In The Leopard, as a case in point, Visconti created a tragic figure defined by the complexity of the historical context in which he found himself—an aristocrat at the time of Garibaldi, facing the economic exigencies of an aggressive new mercantile order. Based on the novel by Lampedusa, The Leopard was a profound meditation on the passing of a way of life. Ironically, there are Tancredis in both movies, but the similarity is in name only.