Friday, December 31, 2010

Grandmaster Flash

Sampling, in which old songs are spliced into new musical numbers, is not only the province of rap and hip-hop, where mythic DJs like Grandmaster Flash have embellished its notoriety. It has also occurred through the history of world literature. For instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses is an essay in sampling, primarily in its exploitation of Homer. Shakespeare sampled Holinshed big time, and then there are those influential anonymous works of world literature, from the The Book of J (which Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg depict as the antecedent to the Old Testament) to Beowulf (which recently was reinterpreted by Seamus Heaney) to La Chanson de Roland. What parts of Indian culture did Herman Hesse sample in Siddhartha, and where did Goethe’s Faust and Marlowe’s Faustus, titles that are part of the vocabulary of human thought, find their common roots? Talking about provenance is a little like asking when being actually commenced. Oh yes, there was a documented Big Bang, but if time existed before matter, where do we place the idea? Did something actually come from nothing, or must there at least have been the idea of something? And if we believe in a subjectivity freed from any possible object, can it only exist if we accept the notion of the divine? All of this is a long way of saying that there is nothing new under the sun. As people used to say about perversion, “If it’s been done, it’s been said, and if it’s said, it’s been done.”

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Committee Against Obligatory Happy Holidays Salutations

The Committee Against Obligatory Happy Holidays Salutations met on Christmas Eve at the Columbia University Sundial, which was the site of many of the great demonstrations of the 1960s. Old members of the Committee remembered the bearded student leader Mark Rudd handing out screeds as the winds blew across the Hudson over forty years before. The turnout was so great, the response so enthusiastic, that Committee members agreed to hold a congress in Yalta, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had met in the waning days of the Second World War. The Committee elected officers and a treasurer and then began writing a charter, based on the Magna Carta, which would deal with the rights of citizens to refrain and even resist Happy Holidays salutations. Despite the invidious associations with the tea party, “no taxation without representation” was repeatedly evoked in addressing these verbal assaults, which are so taxing. It was agreed that the first clause of the charter would read, “No holiday is worth celebrating,” under the theory that the absence of value would preclude any need for positive reinforcement. A holiday spirit inadvertently prevailed, to the extent that there was no shortage of volunteers willing to participate in outreach towards victims of Happy Holidays salutations all across the world. It was decided that determining how to remove Happy Holidays salutations from electronic media, including e-books and Kindle, would be on the agenda for the next meeting of the Committee.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ABC's Wide World of Periodontics

Network television appeals to an older audience who remember the halcyon days when the big three dominated the news and the Oprah Winfrey channel was just a glimmer in Oprah’s mother’s eye. But if network television execs want to take advantage of its demographic, they should produce sitcoms, soaps and particularly reality shows based on dental themes. We had General Hospital and Marcus Welby, M.D. and Dr. Kildare, but we’ve had no series devoted to dentistry and its attendant arts, even though a dentist’s office is most likely the place where a majority of television watchers will spend their time and money over the last years of their lives. You may have decided to give up treatments for scads of chronic ailments, but if you have a toothache on your last day on earth, you’re going to the dentist’s office. Pain is a great motivator, and dentists reap their rewards from the discomfiture of rotting teeth—which are one of the most potent symbols of the body’s decline, along with the losses of memory, hair and libido. Think of it—dental soaps brought to you by toothpaste advertisers. How about ABC’s Wide World of Periodontics, narrated like Monday Night Football, with leading experts on gums? How about Sixty Minutes doing an expose on gingivitis or cavities? Everyone knows that tooth decay results from the failure to brush and floss (together with an insouciance about tooth care, a hubris resulting from fluoridation), but what really is inside a cavity? Is it literally a hole or cave, as the word suggests, or something more profound? And what about the radical technology that brought about implants and made dentures and denture creams a thing of the past?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cluny Brown

“He’s creating a new and better world,” Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford), the son of English Aristocrat Sir Henry Carmel (Reginald Owen), tells his father about Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), the Czech professor who is symbolically seeking refuge on an English estate. It’s 1938, the eve of Hitler’s Anschluss, at the beginning of Ernst Lubitsch’s last film Cluny Brown (1946), currently in revival at Film Forum. “What for?” Sir Henry replies. The banter of English drawing room comedy is the palette from which Lubitsch is working, and the verbal play centers on class conflict in English society as a metaphor for the domination that threatens the world. In the English context alone it’s a seemingly beneficent condition epitomized by Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) herself, a plumber’s niece whose irrepressible personality defies the strictures of class. Domination in the extreme of course leads to the fascist attempt at hegemony that would lead to the Second World War. The constant verbal play of the film—“feeding squirrels to nuts,” doing “the wrong thing at the right time”—refer to resistance to the social order, and the humor is disconcerting, since the lightheartedness of the reversals will soon have implications that go far beyond the elegant parlors, stately gardens, horses and quaint English village life that constitute the movie’s settings. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Black Swan

Films choose particular arenas or settings in which to establish their plots. Baseball and basketball are the backdrops of Field of Dreams and Spike Lee’s He Got Game, respectively. The famously haunting Kubrick film of the ‘50s, The Killing, was about a heist at a racetrack, and then there were Airplane and Airport and Wall Street, and The Devil Wears Prada. But no setting is as conducive to portraying the human body as the world of ballet, where the discipline of muscles and the regimen of eating and exercising become a kind of narration apart from the choreography of the works performed. The necessarily obsessive nature of the ballerina’s concern with body image is one of the themes of Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan, and the disorders that the movie presents, from cutting and biting to bulimia, are often associated with a search for perfection that the body eludes. The other element that the movie powerfully underlines is how we do to ourselves what we fantasize doing to others. “Perfection is letting go,” Thomas (Vincent Cassel) tells his newly anointed star Nina (Natalie Portman). But how does a ballerina whose whole life is predicated on control gratify such a diametrically opposed impulse without becoming victim to the kind of schizoid state that the film ultimately depicts? The melodrama of the plotline might easily be discountenanced if it weren’t for the way the film employs it to call attention to this confusion between the inner and outer worlds. Many of the scenes in which terror results from the labile nature of the reality are reminiscent of the stomach-churning suspense in films like The Shining and William Friedkin’s masterpiece of supernatural horror, The Exorcist, in which the world literally seems to be on fire. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

The imagined traffic jam of Godard’s Weekend, the imagined dispossession of Empire of the Sun, the Spielberg classic derived from the novel by J.G. Ballard—we have become the repository of these two images. In a massive traffic jam filled with cars loaded with goods from foreclosed homes, where will the traffic go when it’s finally gotten off the highway? Steinbeck imagined the refugees of the Dust Bowl traveling from Oklahoma to California in The Grapes of Wrath, but now the ground is shifting under our feet, and there are whole populations that have become unseated from their once familiar worlds. What will be the fate of Floridians who have left acres of deserted condos? What will become of itinerant Katrina victims, whose lives were turned upside down by nature just in time to meet up with an economy that is as unresponsive to stimulus as a patient suffering from flesh-eating bacteria is to the most potent intravenous antibiotics? California, under constant threat of defaulting on its borrowing, has its own problems, and no longer holds out the hope it did during the Depression. Meanwhile, a new tax package that will add over $900 billion to the debt over the next two years competes with a federal judge’s rule about the unconstitutionality of compulsory insurance. The safety net of social security is under siege, and what will be the fate of Medicare and Medicaid in our deficit economy? The Joads were Steinbeck’s archetypical family. Who will rescue their contemporary counterparts? Who will make a place for them at the table? 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Accent Grave

The South Boston accent came into its own with Good Willing Hunting, in which Matt Damon plays a street-tough math prodigy, and has most recently reared its head not in Boston but on the gritty streets of nearby Lowell, the setting of The Fighter, which tells the story of the welterweight champ Micky Ward and his addict brother/trainer Dick Eklund. Accents, street argot and private languages have always been a big part of books and particularly films. We identify colorful film characters by their accents. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent was immortalized in Pumping Iron and The Terminator, and along with his muscles became the signature of a charismatic personality that eventually ascended to the governorship of California. Of course, accents have played their role in politics, an arena for some of the ultimate performances. Who can forget Orville Faubus of Arkansas, George Wallace of Mississippi, Huey Long of Louisiana, Jimmy Carter of Plains, GA, and of course that other Arkansan, our 42nd President, Bill Clinton? Without John F. Kennedy’s famed version of the Boston accent, aped by Vaughn Meader’s First Family album (“let me say this about that”), how would we ever have conceived of Camelot? Then of course we had Crocodile Dundee and Alfie and Marlon Brando’s famed mugging as the aging Mafia don in The Godfather, not to mention On the Waterfront, in which Italian street and Irish street coalesced in the character of Terry Malone. The difference between Terry Malloy and Micky Ward lies not only in their respective New York and Boston accents, but in the fact that while Terry “coulda been a contender,” Micky really was, only losing to Arturo Gatti at the conclusion of a trilogy that could have been written by Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides, all of whom undoubtedly walked the walk while talking the talk.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Fighter

The famed Micky Ward/Arturo Gatti bouts were among the great trilogies of boxing history, equaled only by Hagler/Hearns and the heavyweight engagements of Foreman/Ali and Ali/Frazier. Ward and Gatti were both brawlers, and Gatti only won the last, tie-breaking fight with a dramatic shift in strategy in which, having broken his hand in the third round, he started to box, meaning that he danced around Ward, making him miss and knocking him off his game. After all, that’s what fighting is about: shutting your opponent down, detoxifying his weapons to the point that he becomes helpless, panics and eventually deviates from his strategy and starts to make mistakes. The curiosity of David O. Russell’s The Fighter, the new film about Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), is that it only mentions Arturo Gatti once. Gatti’s life was perhaps stranger than either Ward’s or his crack addicted trainer and brother Dick Eklund’s (Christian Bale), ending as it did in a suicide that some feel was a homicide. This is not to say that The Fighter, with its emphasis on the effects of drug addiction on talented people (Eklund  had been the pride of Lowell in his youth and had once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard), doesn’t succeed in creating its own drama and subtly interweaving and contrasting domestic violence with the violence of the ring. It’s just that the ellipsis is so pronounced. There is another story to be told, perhaps beginning on the streets of Montreal, where Gatti grew up. Someone should make a movie about the Gatti/Ward conflagrations, and how Gatti ended up dying in a Brazilian hotel room at the age of 37 after an argument with his former exotic-dancer wife Amanda Rodrigues.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Conformist

What is normalcy—in the human being, and in the philosophical perception of reality that is the theoretical underpinning of Bertolucci’s masterpiece The Conformist (1970), currently in revival at Film Forum? Professor Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), the doomed anti-fascist, is the quarry of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose name resonates the search for clarity. Quadri had taught Clerici the allegory of Plato’s cave when Clerici was Quadri’s student, and an initial scene in which they are reunited literally depicts the shadows disappearing from the wall. But the whole style of the film, in which seeming realism is belied by a complex storyline made up of time shifts and flashbacks, also puts the viewer into the point of view of Clerici, whose attempt to rid his life of ambiguity about both his sexuality (he’d had an early homosexual experience with the family chauffeur) and upbringing (he’d been brought up by a drug addicted mother) leads him to seek the illusion of normalcy through joining the fascist party. What then is being normal? At one point Clerici’s blind fascist comrade tells him normalcy is gazing at a woman’s bottom and then going to bars and other gathering places where like-minded men gather. Georges Delerue’s haunting score, the magnificent beaux arts settings, rendered by the great production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and the astonishing work of the famed Bertolucci cinematographer Vittorio Storaro in making Clerici an iconographic almost architectural presence—his fedora-clad silhouette, shot from the back along the narrow corridor of a Paris hotel—all contribute to this great monument to the trompe l’oeil nature of both the political and personal worlds.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Diasporic Dining XX: The Potato Wars

Wendy’s recently introduced a new form of French fry aimed obviously at competing with McDonald’s French fries, which have long dominated the market. As you may remember, the old Wendy’s French fry was a rather flaccid affair, larger and less crispy than its rival and with no real reason for being. The only reason to buy the old Wendy’s French fries was because you were there, marooned, eating one of their assez bien burgers, which made up in texture what it lacked in taste. It’s an axiom of fast food dining that one doesn’t order one element of a meal in one place and another element somewhere else (even in a food court, where opportunities for promiscuity are everywhere). If one is going to buy a cheeseburger at Wendy’s, then why not get the special, which includes a drink and fries. Ditto McDonald’s. So what is the significance of Wendy’s new foray into the French fry fray? The answer is that the world has changed. Despite McDonald’s famous fries, the Big Mac was always the main attraction, and the lines were drawn according to who liked Big Macs and who didn’t. Now, with Americans becoming increasingly calorie-conscious and meat-averse, the potato is the driving force. Wendy’s execs have made a brilliant move in putting the potato at the top of the food chain. Their new fry, made with sea salt and russets with skins, hearkens back to the Woodstock era, with its appeal to natural ingredients. And if they are going to make love not war with their new product, they have, at the same time, created a world-class adversary in the upcoming potato wars.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

House of Mirth

In Sister Carrie and The House of Mirth, Dreiser and Wharton created heroines that were the cosmopolitan equivalent of Emma Bovary. Self-hatred and aspiration—in short the desire to escape—were the driving forces behind characters like Lily Bart and Carrie Meeber. The seeds of the urban megalopolis had an effect on the romantic imagination that was equivalent to a drought feeding a brush fire. The industrial revolution, with its vast accumulations of wealth leading to both pleasure palaces and eventually to museums like the Morgan Library and the Frick, created a buffet of prospects that became the palette of self-invention. Decades later, in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, “Brazilian marching powder” would become the drug that fuels ascent, much the way the cocktail of power and money became the drug of choice for Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities. Voyeurism is part of the life of the modern city. As in Rear Window, we all become material witnesses to both crimes and unattainable delights. We are all inadvertent spies as we awaken in the morning and go to sleep at night with views of huge high rises, their facades like little prosceniums in which we witness the despair and exultation of strangers. Ezra Pound famously said, “make it new,” and in a city like New York, the magnetism lies in the perverse notion that there is always something new under the sun that becomes more sought after the more ineluctable it is, and the more it holds the prospect of something that is in danger of being missed. That which doesn’t exist is always more appealing than those people and things whose parameters we know. Said more succinctly, familiarity breeds contempt—an emotion that Anna Karenina also knew something about.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Talk Dirty to Me

John Leslie, the porn star and director who some considered to be a successor to the legendary John Holmes, died last week. He became famous for his work on Talk Dirty to Me I and II, and he belonged to an era when plot was still an integral to pornography. Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas exemplify the era of ‘70s and ‘80s porn, in which ever-more explicit sexuality was presented in the context of a script. Many of these films played in seedy inner-city theaters into which desperately lonely men wandered at all hours of the night, blasted out of their minds and seeking the companionship of prostitutes, who often worked the aisles. The use of plot was significant in the way it established artifice and the notion of delayed gratification, even for those whose ultimate aim was to get their rocks off. Porn has changed a great deal since the heyday of John Holmes and John Leslie. Firstly, the old triple-X theaters are gone, with pornography turned from a communal into a totally private experience to be indulged via the Internet. In addition, scripts have given way to scenes that get right to the point. There is no longer any magic, mystique or denouement when you go on a site like Red Tube or Naked On the Streets, and the videos no longer have exotic names like Emmanuelle or Midnight Plowboy. What you see is what you get, and the so-called loops go by names like MILF Likes It Hard, Facial, or Gang Bang, and when they refer to Deep Throat, they are not creating a medical fantasy about a girl with a clitoris in her larynx, but simply the shot of a man or woman with the talent and capacity to introduce the penis into the esophageal canal.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


It’s refreshing to know there are still people who smoke and drink too much and look with a jaundiced eye on therapy. Many of those who exhibit these behavioral traits—which include some degree of philandering—are inhabitants of France. However, there are varying regions of the United States which undoubtedly fit the bill when it comes to at least one, if not all, of these tendencies. There is no doubt that it is healthier to refrain from smoking and drinking too much, and that their combination often fuels the kind of extemporaneous promiscuity that leads to unprotected sex. However, living healthily can become a disease in and of itself, with the demands for perfection creating a level of stress that can lead to heart failure, bipolar disorders and even psychiatric conditions characterized by a break with reality. For years, American writers like John Updike and John Cheever charted the existences of hard drinking, smoking and cheating characters whose duplicitous and destructive existences created beautiful stories and, for the writers, reputations that outlived the eras they wrote about. Updike’s autobiographical treatment of the dissolution of his marriage in the story collection Too Far to Go is so perfect that it almost seems like a painter’s setup. He luxuriates in the breakup of the failed relationship, which he describes so incisively that it begins to have the quality of a nature morte, with Updike and his disgruntled wife like the apples that Cezanne set out to express. And to what extent was John O’Hara tempting his own fate in order to create the model of Julian English in Appointment in Samara? Is it really correct to call Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road an autobiographical novel, when many of the incidents could be looked at as being enacted merely for the sake of the novel he had yet to write? Who is going to live out a conflict-free life, devoid of transgressions, to write a novel about a totally healthy, well-adjusted existence, in which the main characters watch television each night as they eat dinner, and then die peacefully in their sleep?

Monday, December 13, 2010


The Hitlergruß, the famed salute Hitler used, and which became ubiquitous in Nazi Germany, is the most indelible image in the Anselm Kiefer show at Gogosian. It is oddly removed, first by time, and then by space. The central installation in the exhibit is called “Occupations” and is composed of 76 photographic images of Kiefer making the salute in 1969 in front of varying European structures. The images are hung within a steel structure from which they are only partially visible. So what are we to deduce? An image from history is one thing. The resurrection of an image from history, performed as an artistic act and then allowed to ferment over a period of 41 years, is another. Hitler died in the bunker in ’45. These photographic images were taken 24 years later. So we are dealing with the residue of a reality and then two levels of memory, which in essence the artist seeks to unearth as archeologists do in a dig. Kiefer, like Freud, seems to be obsessed with archeology and with the layers of memory that are created by human acts. The exhibition also contains a number of peripheral objects contained in vitrines, which almost resemble aquariums filled with artifacts frozen in time. One of these, containing submarines and ships, alludes in another way to the war and is haunting not for the objects it contains but for the empty space in which they hang. Occupation is what an invading army performs. It is also a job— and something to which minds are held hostage.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lives of Our Leaders: The Pardoner's Tale

Thank God, it looks like indecent exposure charges have finally been dropped against Jim Morrison. It’s only taken 40 years, and of course he’s dead, but perhaps the decision by the State of Florida will affect the case California has been pursuing against Roman Polanski for almost as many years. Which brings to mind the question of the first pardons of the Obama presidency. For example, Ronald Lee Foster of Beaver Falls, PA, who was sentenced in 1963 to one year of probation for mutilating coins, was pardoned along with Russell James Dixon of Clayton, GA, sentenced to two years’ probation in 1960 for a liquor law violation. It is apparent that the President dug deep in finding mercy for hardened criminals like Foster and Dixon. Fox News quoted White House spokesman Ron Cherlin as saying, "The president was moved by the strength of the applicants' post-conviction efforts at atonement, as well as their superior citizenship and individual achievements in the years since their convictions." One wonders about the kinds of rehabilitation programs provided for coin mutilators, and one also wonders about the nature of these heinous crimes. Are there people who actually torture coins? Is there coin slavery and prostitution in which coins from foreign lands are lured with the prospect of big-time collectors who will prize them like coins that come from ancient Rome, only to find when they arrive that they are simply pocketed and buffeted around inside of some indifferent purse? Are there twelve-step programs for coin mutilators in which those who have mutilated coins can actually make amends both to the issuing authorities and to the coins themselves. For instance, if one mutilates a 1983 D nickel (indicating the coin was minted in Denver), will one attempt to write a letter asking forgiveness of the municipality, together with its mayor and city council at the time the coin was pressed?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Drama Queen

Last Saturday’s Prairie Home Companion, which was broadcast live from Town Hall, presented a skit that was all too close to home, presented courtesy of POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors). A Yale undergrad decides to switch her major from English to drama so as to be more in touch with her body, which she parenthetically likes to exhibit. After graduation, she lands a job with the Queens Shakespeare Company, located in Queens, where she plays Juliet. A few years later, when the theater runs into financial trouble, she is brought in and told that while her talents are appreciated, they are looking for someone younger. Despite her protests that she is only 32, she is let go. Her next job is with a soap opera called Blazing Pajamas, where she earns $10,000 a week until she’s told that her character is being discontinued and that she should show up for her last performance in a sweat suit so she can be shown falling down an elevator shaft. Next is a bit part on C.S.I., where she has only one line (actually one word) as a drug dealer who stands on the north side of Washington Square saying, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke.” For this gig she brings in a cool $400. If she had been an English major, she could have avoided this tumble to the bottom of the social ladder, which culminates in her dressing up in a chicken costume and handing out fliers for fryers. But the skit ends by projecting the impossible. The drama major with the credentials of an English major is being interviewed about her memoir, Failure, which has been on the bestseller list for 41 weeks.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Modest Proposal on Income Tax

The latest solution to our tax mess—an agreement being hammered out that will allow the Bush tax cuts to remain in effect—brings up the question of whether we are regressing enough. The current proposals, which according to the Times "would cost about $900 billion over the next two years, to be financed entirely by adding to the national debt," ("Tax Deal Suggests New Path for Obama," NYT, 12/6/10) solving some of our problems today, but creating a condition in which there will both literally and metaphorically be problems tomorrow, begs the question: Why not return to a complete supply-side solution to our budgetary problems? If the rich are getting richer and the large Wall Street firms are only trying to think of new ways of passing on huge bonuses to executives, then why not abolish taxes entirely and while we’re at it why not let all social benefits like social security go only to the wealthiest of Americans? Let the rich have so much money that consumerism itself becomes an afterthought, and let the little crumbs that they throw off in their purchases of bejeweled gowns, foie gras and inexpressibly expensive wines be the starting point for our new economy. Forget the intrinsic inequities of a system in which some reap the benefits and others merely get by. Why go only halfway? Trickle-down theory only works when there is so much being filtered through the likes and dislikes of the ruling class that the trickle is almost constant. The problem with the American economy today is that we are neither fish nor fowl. If we are going to go the route of Swedish socialism and the welfare state, let’s do it. But if we are going to depend on the spending habits of the rich, then let’s fatten them up to the point where there literally aren’t vaults big enough to house all their jewels or bank accounts insurable enough to hold all their cash.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Erection: Myth or Reality?

When you think of it, the erection is an odd device, representing just a moment in the evolution of mammalian reproduction. This on-again off-again means by which insemination is facilitated requires the creation of stimulation, which is not a simple matter when it comes to the human being, who at any given moment may have other things on his mind. Some mammals become erect simply by virtue of pheromones, which are produced in anticipation of copulation, but in Homo sapiens the highly developed cerebral cortex complicates matters, creating the need for a state of temporary insanity that produces a nimbus around the potential object of desire. For some men, simply saying the word “French” will accomplish the job, opening a Pandora’s box of lingerie ads from Marie Claire and Elle, along with insinuating both French kissing and the possibility of fellatio, which is also known as a French. For others infatuation takes on a more tortuous course. The erection is also one of the odder-looking contraptions that nature has come up with. In some males with large endowments, it’s easy to mistake for a baseball bat, and there have been cases when erections are grabbed at by those who are stepping up to the plate. Oouuch! Erections also look like everything from towel racks to pastry rollers. Having an erection is a responsibility, since a hard-on is a weapon as well as a lovemaking aid, and there have been people and animals who have alternately been suffocated or torn apart when the protuberance is under the influence and begins the violent pumping mechanism that accompanies ignition, ending in happy inanition. The caveman’s club, immortalized by cartoon figures like Fred Flintstone, may be one of the most potent representations of the erection in the history of culture, but does it not augur the impending obsolescence of what will one day be deemed a historical footnote, the passing of which will only be lamented by the most  hardened of souls? 

Monday, December 6, 2010


“She dumped me or I dumped her, I don’t remember,” Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the feckless gangster in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless—currently in revival at Film Forum—tells his moll Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), a would-be journalist who hawks the International Herald Tribune on Parisian Boulevards, when she asks about his former wife. The cadence evokes the famous first lines of Albert Camus The Stranger (L’Etranger, 1942), “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” The syntactic similarity is not coincidental. From the moment that Michel picks up his gun and shoots a policeman, with the film’s haunting jazz theme in the background, the similarity to Meursault’s senseless murder of an Arab  is established. The only difference is that the desolation of North Africa is replaced by the dusty streets of the American westerns to which both the filmmaker and his two protagonists are attracted. Breathless is one example of translation failing to convey the poetry and meaning of the original language. A bout de souffle is the French title of the film, and it means literally at the end of breath. There are some wonderful exchanges, both of language and telephone numbers, in the film. Danton 0100 is the police. Élysées 8984 is one that Michel is always trying to get, and there is a Belle Épine number. But the final exchange of the film, when Michel is literally breathing his last breath, underlines the poetry of Godard’s title. Michel is dying, still mugging in his death, having made the choice of nothingness over grief in an earlier scene that foreshadows his demise and hearkens to Camus’s themes. Michel says, “Makes me want to puke,” and when Patricia asks what it means, the police detective who has been chasing Michel translates it as, “You make him want to puke.” The expression on Jean Seberg’s face is one of the most unforgettable in the history of cinema, ranking with the horrified open mouth on the nurse in the famous Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) .

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Philately, not Fellatio

Philately, or stamp collecting, is still a thriving pastime, though the production of stamps has inevitably been affected by the decline of letter writing, thanks to the advent of the Internet and email. Numismatics is the study of currency, and coin collecting is only part of this area of expertise. Coins themselves, which at one point in history had intrinsic value, started to become anachronisms with the advent of paper currency in the Romantic era. The paper was only symbolic, the earthly form of something with more transcendent value, like the romantic words of a Coleridge or Wordsworth, which alluded to a fundamentally ineffable state—higher love, in the words of Steve Winwood. Today, in our world of emailing, credit cards and electronic money transfers, you are unlikely to put a stamp on an envelope and mail money to friends or relatives who are having hard times when in an instant the money can be wired from one account to another. Stamps and coins have become artifacts, and cataloguing them is similar to the activity of collecting ancient Greek vases. Money in its physical form is becoming an increasingly rarified item that some people, who use plastic, almost completely do without. The stamp is very much like the old vinyl record. There is a significant portion of the population that still pays their bills by snail mail and requires stamps, just as there is a minority, albeit smaller, that prefers records to mp3s, remaining convinced that digitization narrows the range of sound on many recordings. But an increasing majority pays their bills online and listens to a lifetime’s worth of music on their iPods, before checking their paperless bank statements on their laptops.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cami Secret

CNN has been running an ad for a device called Cami Secret. Cami Secret is a faux camisole that ties to bra straps so that “you aren’t overly exposed.” The ad is reminiscent of the old before-and-after weightlifting advertisements, which ran in the back of men’s magazines in the ‘50s. At the top of the ad, a secretary is working at her desk without Cami Secret. Her cleavage is too apparent, and her boss, as nice a guy as he is, leers down her shirt when he comes over with some papers. But once she dons Cami Secret, the model in the ad is transformed into a demure young lady who, to use the language of the recovery movement, has detached from her boss—someone who now understands that “No is a sentence.” Later that night, she is having a candlelit dinner with a lover for whom Cami Secret is not necessary. Ostensibly, the lover has already enjoyed her wares, so that while she has not gotten herself to a nunnery, to quote The Bard, she is still not being turned into an anonymous sex object. Now, let’s talk about the architecture of Cami Secret. The product could not function with a strapless bra, which is one limitation. Strapless bras are not generally worn in business situations, which require conservative attire, but there are exceptions, which the makers of Cami Secret, for all its inventiveness, have not taken into consideration. Let’s say it’s summer and you want to reveal your shoulders but not your cleavage. What do you do? There are all kinds of problems that the advertisement doesn’t deal with, disclaimers that might have been read off at breakneck speed, as in the ads for tires and pharmaceuticals. But ultimately, Cami Secret succeeds in preventing the equivalent of the Watergate break-in when it comes to breasts.