Friday, December 30, 2011


James Atlas begins a recent Times Op-Ed piece by quoting Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology saying, “ ‘software-based humans’ will be able to survive indefinitely on the Web, ‘projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality’” (“Life Goes On, and On…,” NYT 12/17/11). There are three circumstances which mitigate against the benefits of life extension and possible immortality according to Atlas:  economics (social security and Medicare are imperiled), quality of life (what good is it to live with consciousness and the senses increasingly limited), the horror of outliving children (Atlas provides the anecdotal case of a recently deceased Washington Post executive, a college classmate of his, whose mother outlived him). And then Atlas brings up the question of the children, the aging baby boomers who have to support parents whose savings have run out and whose medical care is becoming increasingly prohibitive. This is an interesting point that deserves amplification. The “make love not war” generation believed in the sanctity of all life. Their mantra might have been John Donne’s famous line “any man's death diminishes me.” Yet now managing chronically ill parents kept alive by the wonders of modern medicine, many alumni love children may experience untoward emotions. Every one admires older people with spirit, but sometimes the desire to live can be so voracious as to feel like greed. The aging parent who refuses to die seems to be sucking the life out of his own child. Much is made of the oedipal feelings of children, but there's the less talked about Medea Complex which though usually limited to describing the hatred of mothers could also be employed to describe the homicidal and competitive feelings of parents in general towards the children who will outlive them, outdo them and freely partake of all the pleasures which they (the parents) are no longer able to perform or enjoy. No one wants to die. That’s what keeps gun toting criminals in business. Yet will the current generation, perhaps the first to experience the negative effects of longevity, be willing to pull the plug on themselves? No one wants to look up from the hospital bed at the exasperated face of a grown child, who feels the best years of his or her life are being stolen by an ailing parent. No one wants to find themselves like a drunken hanger-on at a party for whom the host is on the verge of asking,  “haven’t you overstayed your welcome?”

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Moliere’s Tartuffe parodied the idealization of soothsayers and seers who sell salvation. Tartuffe was for all intensive purposes trafficking in indulgences by which money would be paid for grace. Moliere’s play was not an attack on Catholicism, but surely it was characters like Tartuffe that Luther was complaining about when he tagged his 95 Theses up on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Today the lingua franca of salvation has shifted from the mind or soul to the body and it’s fitness instructors who are our new gurus. Devotees chase spinning instructors around gyms in Chicago, New York and LA, in the way they once sought out major chefs like Ducasse, Bouley, Batali or famous doormen like Marc Benecke of Studio 54, seeking out the grail of propreoceptivity. Near riot conditions have prevailed outside of some popular spin classes and there was even a legal suit when one agitated rider threw another off a bike at the 85th branch of Equinox. Devotees of boot camps are willing to endure extremes of pain doled out by their drill sergeants while acolytes of great weightlifters practice their power clings, dead lifts and dips. Power lifting is what it’s called and if you feel that mass is for the pope you might go to see one of the practitoners of plyometrics (jumping and fast movements that are used by those training for the decathalon), pilates which employs a suspicious sounding instrument called the reformer or yoga. Naturally yoga has its own crowds of bona fide Indian gurus who practice Ashtanga Vinyassa. If that’s not enough for you, then you’re going to have to practice jiu jitsu, karate, thai boxing or MMA (mixed martial arts) where you will be seduced by the promise of submission. In von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel(1930), Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) falls in love with a beautiful cabaret singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) and sacrifices his dignity as his unrequited love turns him into a pitiable creature. A modern day sequel of The Blue Angel should be made about the aficionados of celebrity trainers teaching what in high school used to be a hated class called “gym.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission Implausible

In the middle of this Hollywood season it’s fun to remind ourselves to what degree Hollywood has come to resemble the clone it engendered, India’s Bollywood, endlessly recycling the same wine in different bottles. So Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol reignites the franchise. However if one believes that manifest content, that is the way  people or things presents themselves,is a signifier of the cultural zeitgeist that goes beyond the hit and run catharsis of the action thriller genre, with its predictable chase sequences, then there are some are elements both ephemeral and eternal to be noted in this latest Mission. On the time sensitive level, the film is a meta cold war thriller, that is to say it engineers an almost fatal re-instigation of the cold war that is revealed  to be the working of a rogue terrorist, out to produce a doomsday scenario. In the end, the Russians and Americans turn out to be simply combative bed fellows, both eager to forestall Armageddon at all costs and then there’s Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt who has earned his stripes in another post cold arena, the Bosnian conflict. On a more long lasting note this last bit of plot leads to a rather charmed ending in which a supposedly dead person is brought back to life. Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol might be better called Mission Implausible (Ethan’s sidekick Benji played by Simon Pegg breaks into computer servers with preternaural facility while his boss engineers a Kremlin break-in and climbs up the side of the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai), but if the film is totally lacking in art or probability, it does recall, in tone and spirit, late Shakespeare plays like The Winter's Tale (remember the purportedly deceased Hermione magically appears) in which through a mixture of artifice and improbability tragedy is averted and the world set aright. Put another way the movie is an exercise in wishful thinking. Mission Impossible is an example of the willing dis-suspension of disbelief. None of it makes any sense.Yet if you were to do a skin respiration test of audience members, you’d probably find that the film gets more than a few hearts pumping.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

In the Dirty Harry films Clint Eastwood established a dynamic by which retribution is justified by the degree of the crime being avenged. Harry Callahan was the best argument there is for terrorism as a response to oppression and his .44 Magnum is curiously prescient of escalating cycles of vengeance and reprisal not only on an individual level but in troubled parts of our present world. In David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a similar dynamic is working. The over the top vengeance that Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) engineers is directly proportionate the traumas she’s experienced both in the present, as a victim of a brutal rape, and in the past by virtue of her abusive upbringing. She's the spokes person for all the mutilated women in the movie, the equivalent of a walking class action suit against a world of serial murders and sexual abusers. The novel and the movie on which it’s based, whatever one may think of them, are, however, beyond good and evil, since they are cultural phenomenae and significant as products of their times. And what makes them unique? Firstly, on the broadest level, to quote George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The film is mired in repetitions, beginning and ending on an accident, perpetrating a family line of sexual predators and propagating the notion of a never ending cycle of revenge. Beyond this, every era produces its own private eyes and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo presents a social misfit, threatened with institutionalization, who is a master of bisexuality, hacking and self-mutilation (to the extent that she is pierced and tattooed). As private eyes go, Lisbeth is about as far from the cool elegance of  The Thin Man as they come, yet she’s an acute observer and up there with the best shamuses.  Archaic forms of  Christianity permeate the plot and also recall the kind of nightmarish form of Christianity that raised its head in, in The Exorcist  and more recently in The Da Vinci Code. Most of the movie takes place on an island and one can’t help thinking about another island in contemporary Swedish folklore and that’s Bergman’s Faro where sadism, familial agony and a God that was both haunting and silent were also portrayed, albeit with eons greater profundity and a total lack of the kind of emotional manipulation that both Larsson and Fincher excel at.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Success and Succession

Determining the order of succession in the new secretive North Korean government of Kim Jong-un, the son of the recently deceased Kim Jong-il is as difficult as discovering the elusive Higgs Boson. As you may recall the Higgs Boson is the tiny particle that scientists have been seeking out for over 40 years. Recently, teams of particle physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva discovered some very encouraging results which would as Columbia physicist Brian Greene recently said in a Times Op-Ed piece, “complete an essential chapter in our quest to understand the basic components of the universe.” (“Waiting for the Higgs Particle, NYT, 12/14/11). So little in fact is known about the North Korean leadership that like understanding the Higgs particle, it would involve in Greene’s words “a rewriting of the very definition of nothingness.” One other thing that the North Korean leadership has in common with the Higgs particle is that any sightings tend to be short-lived. “Finding this particle would be no easy task,” Greene went on to comment. “The Higgs particle would be short-lived, quickly decaying into other, more familiar particles.” Doesn’t that too seem the problem when it comes to determining the ephemeral coterie of officials surrounding around both Kim Jong-il and his anointed successor Kim Jong-un. “Identifying the mourners and absentees in the world’s most closed society is one of the few ways available to outsiders trying to solve the mystery of the unfolding succession in Pyongyang,” Choe Sang-Hun said in a recent Times piece (“Buzz Over Who’s Not in the North Korean Picture(s),” NYT, 12/22 /11). Is it too far a stretch  to think that Angela Landsbury could be brought back to reprise the evil mother she played in Manchurian Candidate to play the role of Kim Ok who Choe Sang-Hun described as “one of Jim Jong-il’s closest aides.” According to Sang-Hun, Kim Jong-un  is “the second son of Kim Jong-il’s third wife” and Kim Ok is now serving “as the North’s de facto first lady since Kim Jong-un’s mother died  in 2004.” Yes we are going from West to East from the extreme right to the extreme left (and beyond), but in our quantum universe where a particle can be in two different places at the same time, nothing is surprising. Lawrence Harvey played Landsbury’s son (Raymond Shaw) in Manchurian Candidate and if he were alive, he would have been the perfect person to play the role of the handsome but baffled looking Kim Jong-un, whose mother Ko Young-hee was a prominent North Korea Opera star. The wild card according to Sang-Hun’s story is Kim Jong-nam (no relation to Viet), the hapless oldest son of Kim Jon-il and the product of KJi's marriage to his first wife who “fell out of favor and was alone in Moscow when she died.” Sang-Hun reports that there were rumors Ko Young-hee, the opera star, had been behind a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-nam who “now lives in effective exile in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macao.” Hopefully, by the time the existence of the Higgs Boson is finally confirmed, more will be revealed about who’s who in Pyongyang.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Panglossing it Over

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, and Joshua S. Goldstein,  a professor emeritus of international relations at the American University, wrote an Op-Ed piece in last Sunday’s Times entitled “War Really Is Going out of Style,” NYT, 12/17/11). For Pinker, the Op-Ed  piece seems to be an extension of the argument that he makes in his recently published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The three reasons that Pinker and Goldstein give for the decline of war are 1) political 2) economic and 3)social. In terms of political boundaries, no one is really the winner. “Since shortly after World War II, virtually no borders have changed by force,” Pinker and Goldstein argue.  Further, economic hegemony has been more effective than geographic invasion. “Today, wealth comes from trade, and war only hurts,” they continue. Lastly on the social front mankind has evolved. “Brutal customs that were commonplace for millennia have been largely abolished: cannibalism, human sacrifice, heretic-burning chattel slavery, punitive mutilation, sadistic executions.”  The natural extension of Pinker and Goldstein’s argument is that benevolence has become naturally selective and that mankind has found a better way of dealing with its aggressive impulses, by making love not war to re-invoke the 60’s. The explosion of pornography might evidence the latter, if the majority of sites weren’t so involved with conquest and submission on an ontogenic basis. Not to be judgmental about playful sex, but the sex on makes water boarding seem like a sport. The question is, are Pinker and Goldstein talking about the two new planets discovered orbiting the star Kepler 20 reported by Dennis Overbye in the Times (“Two Earth-Sized Planets Are Discovered, “ NYT, 12/20/11)?  Do we occupy the same planet as these two eggheads ? They sound like  Voltaire's Pangloss, whose reaction to a succession of brutalities, “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds," takes aim at another egghead named Leibnitz.  What about the brutalities perpetrated by the Janjaweed militia in thee Sudan, the brutal dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, whose fortunes are again on the rise due to a windfall from the country's diamond industry? OK Qaddafi was toppled in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt, but even the reports of Qaddafi’s brutal capture create suspicion about the prospects for peace in that troubled land and the recent accounts of the Egyptian military’s sexual humiliations of women protestors seem to show throw doubt on the old  adage that “every cloud has a silver lining.” Make no mistake the lining of Mubarak regime was a military that controlled the economy of the country. We need turn no further than troubled Afghanistan if we want evidence of the fact that age old customs die slowly. Let the women with severed noses and burned faces testify to the progress of the human race. As for our so-called more advanced Western societies, who walked off with the shekels at MF Global and what made such a sterling institution as Goldman Sachs bet against the collateralized debt obligations it was offering its customers? And what about hazing at FAMU where the drum majors now must bang the drum slowly in mourning for a hard working 26 year old who was beaten to death? Go up to the South Bronx and watch the promoters of cock fights placing razors in the beaks of their contenders and then tell us about mankind tempering its aggressive instincts as two hapless birds run around with heads cut off. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Songun: the Musical

One wonders what Andrew Lloyd Webber is thinking now that Kim Jong-il has passed away? As you may recall ALW was the composer of the huge hit Evita, based on the life of Eva Peron and the myth of KJi has all the ingredients for a great musical. In order of importance here are the keywords one would imagine accompanying any post about the musical worth its salt: Crowds (KJi drew huge crowds willing to starve for him), Trains (he had his own luxury train similar to the one that Franklin Delano Roosevelt cruised across the country in when he was seeking his office), Platform shoes (KJi who loved film and kept a large collection of Western classics probably got the idea of wearing them from Saturday Night Fever), Shades (KJi got the idea of wearing them from another popular 70's film Superfly, which had a famous soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield), WMD’s (KJi presided over North Korea’s entrance into the nuclear arms club and dreamt of sponsoring a meeting of the club in Pyongyang as a way of sticking his tongue out at the South Korean leadership who once hosted the Olympics in Seoul), Army (got to give it to you KJi or your policy of "songun, or 'army first,'" reported in the Times; creating the "fifth largest" standing army of 1.1 million in a country of almost 30 million mostly starving people is nothing short of amazing and merits its own tune---how about “If I were a Manchurian Candidate…” to the tune of Elton John’s “Your Song.”), Hair (KJi had a legendary hairdo that was created for him by the famed salon Helena of Pyongyang but do we envision the KJi of the musical as Warren Beatty in Shampoo or as one of the cast of John Waters’ Hairspray?—probably the latter), charm (KJi was secretive and murderous, but apparently could be quite engaging; the Times obit, "Kim Jong-il, Dictator Who Turned North Korea Into a Nuclear State, Dies,” NYT, 12/18/11 quotes the State Department’s Wendy Sherman as saying, “He was smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident, sort of the master-director of all he surveyed.”), Secrets (Mike Meyers and Sacha Baron Cohen are definitely candidates for the part of KJi as KJi was obviously influenced by both Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Borat to the extent that like a lot of imaginative people he exercised a certain degree of self-invention in the creation of his own persona, based on the many of the films he saw), Bergman (apparently Kji possessed the Criterion Collection version of The Seventh Seal, but apparently was offended by the scene where the Knight plays chess with Death.) Shogun was the title of best seller by James Clavell. Why not call this musical Songun or You’re in the Army Now?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Death Be Not Proud

Many people who are beginning to realize that life is not what it’s cracked up to be are no longer willing to pay big bucks for graduation ceremonies. The Times recently ran a story on the “boom” in the cremation business, “In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money,” NYT, 12/8/11). And there are probably people who would just as soon toss their loved ones down the incinerator as pay for even a cremation. The only problem is that the average person who is finicky about the sight of blood is unlikely to feel comfortable acquiring saws, mallets and other tools which could aid in chopping a corpse into the kind of easily disposable pieces which would fit down the hallway hatch of a highrise. For some reason we are not OK with human abattoirs, unless we are trying to exterminate another race. If we only treated our loved ones the way we do those we hate and despise and have no feelings sending to the auto-da-fe then maybe we could save a buck it these perilous times. But back to the subject of plain old cremation. The Times reported that while cremation was “All but taboo in the United States 50 years ago, cremation is now chosen over burial in 41 per cent of American deaths, up from 15 percent in l985, according to the Cremation Association of North America.” Does the Cremation Association offer health and even life insurance policies to its members and is the plan open to crematees as well as cremators? If one reads the fine print of the Times piece one thing is certain: cremation is a good deal. In an anecdotal example one deceased person’s remains were cremated for $1600. The front page Times story went on to say that the price included "a death notice, a death certificate and an urn bought on line. It was a fraction of the $10,000 to $16,000 that is typically spent on a traditional funeral.” However caveat emptor, at current rates, the death notice is unlikely to appear on the obituary page of the Times.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Dangerous Method

The Three Faces of Eve ((1957) starred Joanne Woodward playing a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. In David and Lisa (1962) Keir Dullea played the part of an institutionalized teenager.  In Snake Pit (1948)Olivia De Havilland famously portrayed another patient suffering back in the days when mental institutions and penal colonies were indistinguishable. David Cronenberg goes back  to Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) in portraying the founder of psychoanalysis in A Dangerous Method.  Carroll as you may remember played the venal Dr. Murchison in Spellbound, but people associate him more with the 50’s television series, in which he really was a sweet old fellow, rather than the l945 Hitchcock movie. Actually the character of Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) both seem to owe a debt to Leo G. Carroll with the once swashbuckling but eventually doddering Jung (Topper) having to deal with a manipulative psychopathic Freud (Murchison) who gets the upper hand in discussions by treating his one-time follower and in fact anyone who disagrees with him as a patient. Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, the patient, who is treated by Jung both psychiatrically and sybaritically (as in treated to a good time which means giving her thrashing she likes) falls off the charts in her depiction of what we can suppose to be hysteria. Hysteria, an affliction that Freud recorded in many of his famous cases (Anna O is one of  the most famous) is reduced by Cronenberg’s to a rendering of something that might have afflicted one of the characters who drank too much and was about to vomit in say Animal House. It’s really a triumph of filmmaking when you can take a significant piece of the past and make it look like the Pleistocene era. But A Dangerous Method is not just a period piece, its success comes from taking major themes and discussions like that of libido, the death instinct and the ego and reducing them to the level of comic book balloons. Rather than hiring a whole cast of expensive actors, Cronenberg would have done better to deal with a seminal moment in psychoanalytic history by creating an animation with perhaps Batman as the dashing Aryan, Jung and say The Joker as Freud.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Thomas Bradshaw’s “Burning” just closed. You didn’t miss anything unless you'd like to see a gay actor named Jack (Andrew Garman), who plays Banquo and is in charge of admissions at a prestigious performing arts high school having sex with a 14 year old boy, Chris (Evan Johnson), whose mother has just died of a drug overdose and whose paternity issues are epitomized by the fact that his favorite play is Strindberg’s The Father. The actor lives with a producer named Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and the two have sex with the boy (incidentally also an applicant at the performing arts high school) and eventually employ him as a butler while introducing him to Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom. Simon has cast Jack in a one man monologue about a pedophile who buys a six year old girl in a Cambodian brothel and brings her back to the States where he turns her into a pageant queen. You still didn’t miss anything unless you would like to see a black painter named Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who does such a good job of hiding his race that a group of German neo-Nazis believe his depictions of Klan rallies are arguments for white supremacy (Peter is also unique in the fact that he has never had sex with a black woman—a situation that Bradshaw’s play rectifies when Peter falls in love with a Sudanese prostitute who reminds him of the recently deceased cousin Lucy he’d spent his life avoiding). One of the neo-Nazis has a handicapped sister who appears half nude on stage. She takes fiber for constipation, likes to quote Emily Dickinson and allows her brother to afford her “release” in the bathtub. You still didn’t miss anything unless you are interested in a total of three mothers who die of drug overdoses with a fourth killed in a car crash, a theater producer who pretends to be gay in order to get work and an aspiring heterosexual teenager whose first sexual experience with a hermaphrodite introduces him to the fact that he might not be what he thinks. You didn’t miss anything unless you like lots of characters who strip themselves bare both literally and metaphorically. You didn’t miss anything unless you enjoy satire whose backbone is back story. Macbeth's "life's...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,signifying nothing,” is quoted during a self-congratulatoryand histrionic eulogy after which the remains from two separate urns are mixed together with Elton John’s “Your Song” playing in the background. But aren't the famous lines precisely what great satire is all about?

Friday, December 16, 2011


The devil lies in the details, but also in two long sequences in Steve McQueen’s Shame. The details are the facts of the film’s central character’s existence. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives in nameless high rise, one of those glass boxes that populate the tonier parts of Manhattan. It could be Chelsea or Noho or Soho; in this case the address is 9 West 31St.  Brandon gets off at the 28th Street stop of the R. He also listens to vinyl, has a volume of collected excerpts from Henry James on his otherwise spare bookshelves and comes home to find his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) naked in the shower.  Brandon works in a modern office and has problems with his computer which is infected with all kinds of porn. He also likes fleeting encounters, has problems with relationships and has to push his sister out of bed, though she doesn’t exhibit any conscious desire to consummate their relationship. The two long sequences take place on a train where he exchanges meaningful glances with a young woman and in a bar where the camera focuses on Sissy singing “New York, New York”.  Back in l969 Rip Torn starred in a film called Coming Apart  that was remarkably similar to Shame, taking place in a l969 version of the high rise apartment Brandon occupies (in the later case the  locale was Kips Bay) which was also the site of compulsive and often hostile couplings. Fassbender is reminiscent of the young Rip Torn in the seductiveness of his sullenness and violence. Shame  has been trumpeted as a film about compulsive sex, but it's really about solitude. It’s a 21st century version of  Strindberg in which relationships are absent and violence is simply unleashed on the self. Brandon steps into his existence like an alien, a creature from outer space landing on earth or an earthling landing on a strange planet. There's a temptation to look at the source of Brandon’s problem as incest or sex sites, but these are really just symptoms. Ironically though the film is full of sex and has an NC-17 rating, you would be better off employing an existentialist than a Freudian in looking for answers to what makes this Sammy run. Drive is unleashed to quench uncomfortable affects and yet the character seems to be suffering from a sense of what Heidegger defined as Unheimlichkeit The word literally means not-being-at-home, what common folk call alienation. Freud actually used Unheimlichkeit to refer to a sense of the uncanny which he associated with anxiety, but it’s an anxiety at being that Shame portrays rather than the kind of anxiety that has its root in some permutation of the Oedipus Complex.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

EMP or Not to Be

Remember Dr. Strangelove. United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) sets off nuclear Armageddon to ward off the Russians who are responsible for  the fluoridation that is attacking “precious bodily fluids.” The Kubrick classic was based on a book by Peter George called Red Alert or Two Hours to Doom. Now according to an article in the Times ("Amongt Gingrich's Passions, A Doomsday Vision," NYT, 12/11/11)New Gingrich is warning about EMP, electromagnetic pulse. The Times piece reports that Gingrich has worked with William Forstchen on historical novels and has written the forward to his doomsday thriller One Second After. “Millions would die in the first week alone,” the Times quotes Gingrich as writing in his forward. The idea is that a nuclear weapon hefted into the atmosphere “would set off a huge and crippling shockwave of electricity.” Like Jack D. Ripper Mr. Gingrich favors preemptive action. “We are on the verge of catastrophic problems,” the Times quotes him as saying. “I favor taking out Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites.” When you think of it, doesn’t Gingrich look like a character out of a Kubrick film? He has the brilliance of  the professorial Strangelove (Peter Sellers), suffers the delusion of Ripper and demonstrates the xenophobia of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott). Gingrich is really a throwback to another era in which people named their children Newt and future cold warriors showed off their latest trophy wives to their congressional colleagues. Weapons of Mass Destruction? Fiddlesticks . Newt has bigger fish to fry.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

Back in early November the Times ran the obit of a 22 year old student who was one semester short of graduation from the N.Y.U’s Courant Institute (“Ilya Zhitomirskiy Dies at 22; Co-Founded Social Network,” NYT, 11/15/11). Along with two other students, he’d propounded a revolutionary social networking idea called Diaspora* which had in turn produced a site, “Mr. Zhitomirskiy, an impish self-syled radical, unicyclist and competitive ballroom dancers, was a member of the  nascent liberation technology movement which views the  conglomeration of personal information by large corporate and government bodies as a threat to civil liberties and human rights,” the Times obit went on to say. Mr. Zhitomirskiy’s parents had immigrated to the States in 2000 according to the Times and both his father and grandfather were mathematicians. So his brilliance had a pedigree, but in many way Zhitomirskiy’s life resembles a supernova one of those burning stars which emit a brilliance blast of light before imploding. It also resembles that of a great youthful poetic genius like Rimbaud. The  German sociologist Max Weber distinguished between a sect and a church. A sect depends on charisma. By the time the sect has become a church the charisma has become routine and institutionalized. The Times reported that suicide was the suspected cause of death and it’s not surprising since utopia (by definition “that which doesn’t exist”) was what this impassioned young man was plainly after—in this case a world where social networks were not lucrative business enterprises. To say that Zhitomirskiy was going against the tide was an understatement.  Prospero's famous quote from Act IV of The Tempest might have been applied  to Zhitomirskiy.  He was “such stuff as dreams are made on…” The front page of today's Times business section has the following headline, "The Facebook Resisters," with the subtitle, "While the Site Has Surged, Some Are Content to Sit Out."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (l954) and Roe v. Wade (l973) were arguably the two most momentous decisions in Supreme Court history. If the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were direct products of the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke. Then Roe v.Wade and Brown v. Board  (which turned over Plessy v Ferguson, the famed “separate but equal” decision of l896) were not only reflections of two great libertarian movements—civil and women’s rights—but also the culmination of an evolutionary process as manifested in jurisprudence. But these two decisions were not only milestones of political, economic and legal thinking. They define an era that began with The New Deal, the Camelot of the Kennedy White House with its resident intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the hope of the troubled Obama Years. When we think about the ideals that manifest themselves in the liberal wings of both the Democratic and Republic parties, Roe v Wade and Brown v. Board redefine the notion of Inalienable Rights. Freedom is the title of Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling novel and it would be hard to imagine this work of fiction and all the complexities of the world it describes without Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board whose outcomes were declarations of new freedoms. Yet Conservative thinkers who criticize these two decisions are probably right. Both Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education extended the notion of human liberty beyond the original intentions of the writers of the Constitution. "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties!" exclaims Hamlet. How will the verdicts  of our 21st Century Supreme Court define or redefine the Rights of Man?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Krapp's Last CD

“Went down to BAM to see Krapp. Heard box 3 spool 5. And just because it’s high art doesn’t mean that it’s not  crap. (sighs) Spool, stool, they’re all emetics. Quiddity refers to 'the real nature of a thing; the essence?' I said again that it made no sense continuing and she who was sitting next to me in the car assented particularly since we’d stopped for a red light at the corner of Ashland Place. Because of two headlights shining, she was squinting. Perhaps it isn’t a wonderful life and I lost the one opportunity I had, but I don’t want any ot it, for reasons I can’t disclose. I knew it was all going to be like silent film, man stripped down to the basics, a tramp slipping on a banana peel, our tramp (whose stage business was written by a one-time graduate of Trinity College, Dublin) making it crystal clear 'this is just a play and I’m just an actor since notice I refuse to step out of the limelight.' Like modern art, a painting’s just paint, an actor just mouths words and consciousness is disemBODIED, the supposedly integrated personality we presume to recognize in the mirror simply a delusion. John Hurt cradling that tape deck is holding on to what brains Krapp has left. Lucky Krapp has a tape to do the remembering for him, but why not a CD? Should be called Krapp’s Last Sound Byte or digital something or other. By the by, on the way to BAM I realized that Marina Abramovic and Robert Wilson must both have been deeply influenced by Krapp even before either had heard of it. Why? What are you saying? Because silence is not merely punctuation? Lucky I brought a banana.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Xuetong's Prince

Yan Xuetong, a professor of political science at Tsinghua University recently wrote an Op Ed piece in The Times entitled “How China Can Defeat America." Mr. Xuetong is also the author of a book entitled Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power. One can be sure his Op Ed piece was studied by our own intelligence services as Mr. Xuetong is uniquely qualified to talk about power in a mysterious country that maintains two parallel systems: one a competitive market economy and the other a dictatorship of the proletariat as represented by the continued importance of the Communist Party. Xuetong begins his piece by saying that though he is often considered a hawk, he is "a political realist." He goes on to point out that “realism does not mean that politicians should be concerned only with military and economic might.” Xuetong cites “the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi" who described “three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny.” Essentially Mr. Xuetong has written a 21st Century version of Machiavelli’s The Prince that is a benign prescription for Chinese dominance. “Humane authority,” Mr. Xuetong avers, “begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.” He goes on to conclude, “thus the core of the competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends. And in order to achieve that goal, China has to provide higher-quality moral leadership than the United States.” In The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick imagines a parallel universe where Japan (along with is fascist allies) wins the Second World War. The implication of the book is that Japan wins by military might. How would Dick describe the triumph that Xuetong envisions? How would the economic juggernaut that is modern China assert its moral superiority? Confucius say, country with population well over billion have many mouths to feed.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

House of Pleasures

Emile Zola is alive and well in the Paris of Bertrand Bonello’s House of  Pleasures, an almost clinical study of a turn of turn of the century brothel called L’Apollonide. The film employs jazzy cinematic tricks such as replaying a previously shown sequence in medias res. It’s one of a number of techniques which create several degrees of separation from pure naturalism. The cinema verite of Battle of Algiers could have been one way to deal with the subject, but it’s definitely not the approach here. Rather what we have is a lot pyrotechnics in the service of a didactic message that actually would have been better told in documentary style. There is the Jewess whose mouth is slit by a sadistic patron and who because of her disfigurement becomes known as “la femme qui rit”, “the woman  who smiles.” Another courtesan, Julie, is disfigured by the syphilitic canker sores which cover her face. One of the prostitutes weeps as she reads a scientific tract called Anthropmetric Study of Prostitutes and Thieves, given to her by a client, arguing that prostitutes have smaller heads which therefore contain less brain matter. The extravagant set piece in which the girls live is contrasted to the harsh lives that is microscopically observed from the start. They live in a state of perpetual debt to the madam that can never be paid off and the rituals of abuse, cleansing and routine inspection by an unkindly doctor are all acutely scrutinized by the camera. It should be mentioned that time is a sub theme, though it’s something that is relatively undeveloped. We are at the “twilight” of the nineteenth century as the film begins and at the “dawn” of the twentieth at another moment. And then with a rock score in the background we view street walkers in present day Paris. The world’s oldest profession indeed, but Nicholas Kristof’s Times columns about sex trafficking are ultimately a far more direct and effective jeremiad than the studied confusion of Bonello’s film.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Masochism, a self destructive impulse in which one derives pleasure from self-destructive, painful or self-abnegating impulses,should not be confused with submission. Submission, in the service of taming a raging ego, is one of the highest spiritual goals. For instance in martial arts, advanced students tend to demonstrate a higher level of humility than lower belts. There are exceptions but the greater the fighter the less the tendency to braggadocio and exhibitionism. Bruce Lee believed in economy of motion. He didn’t need to show off  his technique, to mix it up with opponents to win. Great martial artists submit to a creed, to a way of the warrior like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The problem of submission, of course, for those who don’t study something like karate or jiu jitsu, is who or what to submit to. Self proclaimed prophets are like the pied piper. Demagogues and tyrants can be charismatic, yet this kind of submission—which involves being a supernumerary to a fascist—is surely not the effective way to go. What is one left with? God, the Buddha, the dictatorship of the proletariat? Faith, by definition, is predicated on uncertainty. The further from materialization the ideal is, the more difficult it is to find, the more literal and instantiated, the more labile. People tend to disappoint as ego deflating ego ideals. Those who search for deflation are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is a 21st Century Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai  du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Chantal Akermann’s l975 work, which dealt with the quotidian existence of a prostitute, could be called feminist in the same way that Leigh’s work is—both films turn the female body into a commodity. The fact that Jane Campion the director of The Piano is the producer of Sleeping Beauty would seem to be significant, though the hierarchical universe Leigh’s movie portrays is a far darker view of the existence of at least one woman. There are also shades of Salo, The Story of O, and Genet’s The Balcony at work in the movie. The story takes a university student named Lucy (Emily Browning) from her stultifying existence doing office work, waitressing and offering her body up for scientific experiments to a chateau where she is the subject of another set of experiments or shall we say examinations by a succession of aging men who don’t really need to be told that penetration is forbidden since most if not all are incapable of the act. There are many levels to Leigh’s first feature and many of the set pieces are rich from the point of view of iconography. In his essay on On Racine Roland Barthes deals with the significance of the varying chambers in which the tragedies evolve and here the lush chamber in which Lucy’s self consciously pre-Raphaelite form rests in a drugged stupor allows for a mini disquisition on colonialism, for these impotent old men are definitely representations of a dying order. There’s also a perverse allusion to the crypt in which Juliet lies in the Shakespeare tragedy. The layering of meanings allows the director  to go beyond the limitations of a simple feminist diatribe. Lucy, for instance, moves into a glass tower where none of the windows are covered and everything is revealed while her life as a prostitute is totally shuddered in hiding and secrets. In this version of the myth, by the way, our princess wakes from her sleep screaming. It is interesting to note that another woman director, Catherine Breillat, has recently also offered up her version of Sleeping Beauty.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Park Ave S&M Mag Ring Exposed!

Undercover investigators have discovered a ring aimed at placing highly graphic sadomasochistic pornography in the practices of prominent Park Avenue internists. Informed sources within the office of the Manhattan DA have reported highly detailed blueprints showing how magazines like People in Stocks, Anus Mirabilis and The Scarlet Letter would be added to the worn piles of innocuous weeklies and monthlies like The New Yorker, Time, The Atlantic and Smithsonian which generally appeal to affluent patients. It is uncertain what the purpose of the ring was, but there has been speculation that it might be part of the disruptive activities engineered by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Others have speculated that the plans might have emanated from a totally opposite side of the political spectrum, for example Tea Party organizers hoping to foment a tide of revulsion which could adversely affect First Amendment rights. The plan to place the magazines in the doctors’ offices is regarded as a civil rights violation as well as a terrorist act to the extent that the images in question could cause immediate harm and even death in certain cases. The investigation which has been going on for years has resulted in the arrests of ten suspects who have been charged with conspiracy to provoke  under a number of statutes in the Homeland Security Act. The ten suspects who have already been water boarded, arraigned and released on bail could face lengthy prison terms if convicted.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lana Peters

The final line of Douglas Martin’s Times obituary of Stalin’s daughter, Lana Peters (“Lana Peters,Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85,” NYT, 11/28/11), is a quote from an interview she gave to the Wisconsin State Journal in 2010. “I will always be a political prisoner of my father’s name,” she said.  Usually fiction can take more liberties than non-fiction. But even Dickens with his vast sense of fate and destiny could unlikely have produced the dramatic story that the Times obit tells. History is not just a player in this tale. It is the stage on which it’s set and the turns of fortune are extreme. Born Svetlana Stalina, Americans might remember Stalin’s daughter from two books she published about her life in l969 (Only One Year) and l984 (Faraway Music) under the name of Svetlana Alliluyeva (Alliluyeva was her mother’s last name). In a sense she embodied the paradoxes of Soviet Communism, a dictatorship of the proletariat that produced  its own aristocracy. As Stalin’s purges raged on, proving that power is conservative, self-perpetuating and hardly geared toward the betterment of mankind, Stalin’s daughter, who changed her name to Lana Peters after marrying an American, lived the life of the poor little rich girl. Ironically what happened to her mirrored the fate of the banished  Romanovs who went from enjoying the extravagance of hereditary nobility to that of being dispossessed of all power and slaughtered. The psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold’s book Soul Murder, describes the effect of traumatic childhood experience on a number of great writers including Chekhov. According to Martin’s Times obit there had been  a plan by the KGB to assassinate the once in a future defector, but while Svetllana Alliluyeva aka Lana Peters was never murdered, it’s apparent that her soul was. “He broke my life,”  Martin quotes Peters as telling the same newspaper from the state where she’d died “after decades of obscurity, wandering and poverty.” “ I want to explain to you. He broke my life.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Avengers

The Times quoted Paul McMullan former deputy features editor of Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News  of the World as telling “a judicial inquiry” that “Phone hacking is a perfectly acceptable tool, given the sacrifices we make, if all we’re trying to do is to get to the truth.” The Times (“British Inquiry Is Told Hacking Is Worthy Tool," NYT, 11/29/11)  quoted McMullan going on to ask if “we really want  to live in a world where the only people who can do the hacking are MI5 and MI6.” And McMullan put the icing on the cake when he commented, “For a brief period of about 30 years, we have actually lived in a free society where we can hack back.” If what the Times described as McMullan’s "jaw-droppingly brazen remarks" seemed beyond the pale, they make sense if you consider him as a character in a forthcoming Thames Television series modeled on The Avengers. You remember that Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg starred in that highly popular sci fi and fantasy show back in the 60’s. Well, we can’t be sure until we have hacked into Rupert Murdoch’s private phone, but who knows? Perhaps all the wild antics McMullan describes which included spending “two weeks locked in a hotel room with Princess Diana’s gym instructor” were inspired by The Avengers. Speaking of  Princess Diana, car chases were all the rage until tragedy struck. “I absolutely loved giving chase to celebrities,” McMullan said. “How many jobs can you have car chases in? Before Diana died, it was such good fun.” McMullen could easily take over the role played by Macnee and how about his comely former superior Rebekah Brooks as Emma Peel? And what will these twenty-first century Avengers  avenge? Of course the fact that only enforcement officials get to spy. As we all know, fantasy sells.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Death Takes A Holiday

“Americans as mobile in death as in life”  is the phrase Michael T. Luongo  uses in a recent Times Business Section piece (“Even in Death, Mobility,” NYT, 10/24/11). And listen to the ancillary organizations and personnel who have cropped up to service this trend. Muneerah Warner of the Warner Funeral Home in Philadelphia heads up a women’s funeral organization entitled Funeral Divas. Ms. Warner, who has arranged  “South African funerals for clients born there,”  remarks that while she has not traveled in her work, “You would like to go because your work is being finished on them (the cadavers) in another country.” Speaking of finishing, Luongo quotes Rob Matt, “a hairstylist  with salons in West Hollywood and Palm Springs” as saying that “he had traveled to render what he called  ‘hair services for end-of-life care,’  usually to longtime clients, ‘to be there to see how they appear to others when they pass.’” Luongo goes on to describe a division of Delta called Delta Cares which is the largest carrier of “human remains, moving about 25,000 bodies a  year.”  The head of Delta’s North American cargo operation Andy Kirschner remarks, “People are traveling more. They pass away when they vacation or in different areas when they are away from home, and this is why we see an increase.” You can even purchase what is essentially funeral travel insurance in case you die during vacation  and need to have your remains shipped home. Luongo cites Neill O’Connor of the O’Connor Funeral Home in Laguna Beach who offers such coverage for $285. Death is, of course, the ultimate vacation and the trip across the Styx is reputedly more relaxing than the average cruise.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants

Andre Malraux wrote a famous memoir called Anti-Memoirs.  Anti can be used in the same way in talking about Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Payne posits an anti-hero in an anti-paradise who by the end of the movie steps into the shoes of his heroic ancestors by restoring the paradise that was their legacy. George Clooney’s Matt King is the scion of an aristocratic Hawaiian family. The Kings are the repository of a huge stake of pristine real estate which is about to be sold off, producing a tremendous windfall for both Matt and the clan of relatives he represents. But King doesn’t exude the confidence of his social and material position. In fact, he’s spent his life  compensating for his good fortune both by overwork and by living well below his means. Similarly, the Hawaii in which he resides is a far cry from paradise. It’s a place where everything literally seems to be smaller rather than larger than life. The enormous real estate transaction which hangs over the movie like a dust cloud or tropical storm comes on the heels of a freak accident which has put Matt’s wife Elizabeth into a coma. King is an intentionally inchoate creation who has yet to wake up. His is a role which is not easily defined since it has yet to be and Clooney meets up with the challenge, as do the other actors in Payne’s troop who play Matt’s two daughters  the l7 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodly) and the l0 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra’s slow witted but fast talking  boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). At the beginning they are four characters in search of an author, but by the end of the movie the stamp of “earned” can easily be placed on the emotions they embody.  Pure melodrama is always lurking as a pitfall in a film where one of the central players is a comatose woman on  a ventilator. But Payne mixes up his own cocktail made up of  pathos, turning to humor and violence begetting empathy. Emotions turn on a dime and when in the end Matt says “lovely Elizabeth, my friend, my pain, my joy” you believe he is capable of mourning the fickle and unfaithful woman he has reviled, but still plainly loves.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Star Wars

The inscription over the entrance to the new Islamic wing at the Met reads “New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” And the exhibit of over 1200 objects from the museum’s over 12,000 pieces which takes up fifteen rooms records successions of conquests and movements of peoples that start with Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Medina and include amongst others the Abbasids victory over the Umayyads, the founding of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 which included not only Anatolia, but the Balkans, the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, Arabia and North Africa and the rise of Suleiman the Magnificent the legendary Ottoman sultan in the16th Century. Conquests would bring about relative periods of stability in which great figures like the astronomer al-Biruni (Alberonius) and the philosopher Ibn Sima (Avicenna) thrived. So extensive is this trove that it’s an understatement to call it an exhibit. And, indeed, there is a room devoted just to the collectors, amongst them names like Morgan, Havemeyer and Houghton, whose amassing of works of sculptures, coins, rugs, vases and other precious objects became the lode from which the curators were later to draw. However perhaps the most dramatic conquest that the new wing illustrates is the conquest of the Islamic art over the Met. It was as if some Caliph or Emir with a Maecenas complex had led a crusade through the museum and in so doing created a new Empire that went beyond the bounds of space, time or religious affiliation, something so large, in fact, that no visitor could every really embrace all the sensations it induces. Edward Said wrote a book called Orientalism to describe the Westerner’s middling attempts to reduce and grasp the East. This monumental permanent addition to the Met which follows the Silk Road and encompasses a land mass from China to the Mediterranean and a time period from the Hijira to the fall of the Ottoman Empire needs a more pithy title like say, Star Wars.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Employees of Southwestern Reserve vs. Estate of Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of male and female employees of the Southwestern Reserve Bank who claim their civil rights were being violated when they were forced to attend meetings with the bank’s president who was a Pasolini fan. In briefs filed with the court (“Southwestern Reserve Employees vs Estate of Pier Paolo Pasolini”) the class action suit alleges that for almost a decade the bank president  regularly played films like Salo on his laptop while meetings with his subordinates were in progress.  Salo, a particularly graphic film, based on de Sade’s  l20 Days of Sodom, takes places in a concentration camp where coprophilia is freely practiced. The president, Jim Baker, who now occupies a mostly figurehead position as chairman of the board, is still a Pasolini enthusiast though he no longer empowered to ask employees to attend meetings in his office while he is screening the Pasolini films. Though involving seemingly simple first amendment issues, the case, according to experts is mired in complex legal questions—in part due to a fine point in the law where the estate of the deceased film director rather than the bank president is named as the respondent in the action. One film critic was quoted in a friend of the court brief as saying “these employees were forced to watch people eating poo.” There had been several previous rulings on matters which could impact the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pasolini case. In Gander vs. State of Connecticut, the court ruled in favor of the plaintive, a convent which argued that the presence of a sewage disposal plant made it impossible for the nuns to mediate and perform their offices. In Shapiro vs. Cleveland, the court ruled in favor of the municipality saying that a sinkhole in the middle of a public park was not necessarily a danger to bicyclists if a warning sign had been temporarily removed. The details of the latter case would not appeal to those readers with weak stomachs.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Small Talk

The holiday season is upon us. But along with the tree in Rockefeller Center and the window displays in Fifth Avenue department stores, New York will become home to a number of small talk conventions. Small talk with its famed expressions like “we’re on the same page,” “it’s a plan” and the ne plus ultra of meaningless drivel, “I can’t complain,” is bad enough in English. But it reaches a pinnacle of mediocrity when two people who don’t share the same mother tongue engage in it. For example one of the city’s most popular small talk conventions recently occurred on a downtown 103 Third Avenue bus. Two of the registrants, an indigenous male American and a woman from an unidentified Spanish speaking country, who only spoke broken English, were attempting to exchange opinions on the foods they liked. The conversation had actually been smooth sailing, until the Spanish speaking woman developed a querulous look of panic when the American introduced the word “pilaf.” “You know pilaf,” the American explained. When the woman continued to shake her head, he finally relented from his insistence on the importance of the word and said “it’s like yellow rice.” The young Spanish woman’s face lit up with recognition. Indeed yellow rice was something she knew and liked and it was as if she had run into a high school friend from Barcelona who spoke Polish while touring a Crakow neighborhood whose unparsable billboards and street signs were creating feelings of alienation.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Consciousness is Destiny

Freud said “anatomy is destiny”, but one wonders if consciousness hasn’t become the rogue player making  personality into a more labile affair. How can one talk about sexual identity without cracking a smile? Flaubert said “Madame Bovary,  c’est moi.” Aren’t we increasingly becoming our own creators. Is self invention our most viral secular heresy? Can for example a middle aged married supposedly “heterosexual male” have the sensibility of a woman who loves other women? Or more bluntly have you  ever looked at the person you are making love to and wondered what they are? Some marriage counselors have pointed out that we all marry our same sex parent. Therefore a woman making love with her husband is really making love to another woman. Our woman in question has simply married a man who reminds her of her mother. Objection! you will cry. The man has an appendage called a penis which the mother, unless she had reconstructive surgery following her pregnancy, did not. But isn’t too much being made of the penis in an age when sex change operations have become so sophisticated and readily available. Granted the Supreme Court is unlikely to include vaginoplasties with the issues it undertakes to rule on when it considers the constitutionality of Obama’s health plan. For good or bad sexuality has become an intellectual and even ideological affair. Yes biology is involved, but it’s the brain rather than the genitals that is calling the shots.