Monday, January 31, 2011

Social Notworking

In the current issue of Publishers Weekly, Andrei Codrescu, poet, NPR commentator, editor of Exquisite Corpse, learned gadfly and now Luddite, urges his readers, in the style of a biblical jeremiad, to “Leave cyberspace. Go back to Ohio!” (“Promote This! Forget Facebook,” PW, 1/31/11). “Oh, but woe is unto us!” he exclaims. “The social networks aren’t selling books! They are giving away stupid prose for free!” Being friendly is not the way to sell books, Codrescu argues. “Not only do you not sell books by being friendly, you won’t sell any because everyone in your ‘social network’ thinks they know you. Why buy your books, since you’ll tell them everything they want to know for free.” For Codrescu, Facebook is not even a good place for writers to search for material. “Even if a novelist, let’s say, mined a social network for stories, he’d find nothing but lies and fake grins. There would be no smells and no skin.” Codrescu’s point about the one-dimensional view of human personality perpetuated in the pages of Facebook and other social networks is something that is also discussed by Zadie Smith in her recent essay/review in The New York Review of Books of the film The Social Network and of Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget (“Generation Why,” NYRB, 11/25/10). Smith, who foreswore Facebook after just two months of status updates, writes, “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Sensibility.” Bravo Andrei and Zadie! Let’s have a Fahrenheit 451 moment in which all the iPads and Kindles are burned, in which hedge funders short Facebook and in which friends parse each others’ essence through the complex characters in the novels they browse in their local independent bookstores.

Friday, January 28, 2011

“Travelling to funerals was once an important family rite, but with greater secularity and a mobile population increasingly disconnected from original hometowns, watching a funeral online can seem better than not going at all.” Thus writes Times reporter Laura M. Holson in a front-page story in this Tuesday’s paper (“For Funerals Too Far, Mourners Gather on the Web,” NYT, 1/25/11). Event by Wire, Funeral One and Service Corporation International, the company that controls “2,000 funeral homes and cemeteries, including the venerable Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” represent some of America’s hearty entrepreneurial spirit harnessed to this effort to add a cybernetic dimension to the mourning process. It’s all so simple when you read the Times piece, it almost no longer makes sense to attend a funeral at all. For busy Americans who already multitask around the clock, funeral attendance may turn out to be just one more app on their iPhones. “Two weeks ago a friend of Ronald Rich, a volunteer firefighter in Wallace, N.C., died unexpectedly,” Holson goes on to explain in her Times piece. “When Mr. Rich called the mother of his friend to say he could not make the eight-hour drive to the funeral because a snowstorm threatened to close roads, he said the mother offered to send an e-mail invitation so he could watch the service online.” But the question is, will those who avail themselves of these funeral webcasts simultaneously pay their bills, check their Facebook accounts, and go into seedy chat rooms with dominatrixes who tantalizingly offer to shove their stiletto heels into their mouths and listen to the Dead Kennedys, all while friends and family members are being eulogized? 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lives of Our Leaders: Daniel Bell and Bruce Gordon

Daniel Bell, who wrote The End of Ideology, which was a forerunner of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, and Bruce Gordon, who played crime boss Nitti on The Untouchables, both received obits that together took up a full page in Wednesday’s Times. Another Untouchables regular, Paul Picerni, who played Ness’s sidekick Lee Hobson, was also memorialized in the Times several days earlier ("Paul Picerni, Actor in ‘Untouchables,’ Dies at 88," NYT, 1/20/11). Curiously, the Times’s description of how Bruce Gordon played Nitti was also a fitting description of Bell, if you switch the criminal enterprises for intellectual journals such as The Public Interest and The New Leader. "As played by Mr. Gordon, Nitti was memorably in control, presiding over an illicit network of late-Prohibition era breweries, drug running, gambling and much else…. Yet because of Mr. Gordon’s essential warmth as an actor, his Nitti had tremendous rough-hewn charm" ("Bruce Gordon, TV Mobster, Dies at 94," NYT, 1/25/11). The Times describes Bell’s rise from City College, "where he had no trouble finding his way to Alcove No. 1 in the cafeteria, where, among the anti-Stalinist socialists who dominated that nook, he found a remarkable cohort that challenged and sustained him for much of his life as it helped to define America’s political spectrum over the last half of the 20th century" ("Daniel Bell, Ardent Appraiser of Politics, Economics and Culture, Dies at 91," NYT, 1/25/11). One man was born from immigrant stock (Bell’s original name was Bolotsky) and one man played an immigrant on the rise in America. One man rose through the ranks of New York intellectuals and one played a character who worked his way up in the Chicago Syndicate, becoming a crony of Al Capone’s. But the two personae had much in common, emerging as they did out of the blood politics of Depression-era America.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Alchemist

Jack LaLanne, the fitness freak who died on Sunday at age 96, was the product of a school of thinking that actually began in the Middle Ages and was known as alchemy. Alchemists turned dross into gold, a subject the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson wrote about in The Alchemist. Alchemy was what LaLanne did with his own body after being “a self described emotional and physical wreck while growing up in the San Francisco area” (“Jack LaLanne, Founder of Modern Fitness Movement, Dies at 96,” NYT, 1/23/11). In a quote that sounds like a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, La Lanne said, “I can’t afford to die. It would wreck my image.” It’s no surprise that the origins of LaLanne’s philosophy go back to the outlandish worlds of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, in which outsized characters carried out outlandish plots. “At 60 he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat,” Richard Goldstein wrote in his Times obit. “At 70, handcuffed and shackled again, he towed 70 boats, carrying a total of 70 people, a mile and a half through Long Beach harbor.” Though LaLanne “maintained that he disliked working out,” he once did 1,000 push-ups within 23 minutes on “You Asked For It,” a TV program popular in the ’50s.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mamma Roma

Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, currently in revival at Film Forum, begins with Da Vinci’s Last Supper, ends with a reference to El Greco, in a desolate shot of burned-out ruins, and nods to Mantegna’s famous painting Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Actually, from the beginning, Pasolini’s second film establishes two of the director’s central obsessions—the low life of Rome’s pimps and prostitutes and Christianity, if not the passion of Christ himself, which puts the director in good company when you think of Augustine and Dante’s Divine Comedy, also mesmerizingly evoked in a tragic prison sequence. But the really great art historical reference is Anna Magnani (she, like the Madonna, will likely go down as one of the great subjects for all the artists—in this case filmmakers—who tried to embody her), who plays a majestic whore and lush who wants the best for her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). In the first scene she leads pigs into her pimp’s wedding while celebrating her freedom by swinging her then little boy in the air. It’s the bags under Magnani’s eyes—with their world weariness, their lust, their rapture and compassion—that leave such an indelible imprint. Guilietta Massina played a prostitute in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria with an almost Chaplinesque mixture of humor and pathos, and years later there was Sigmone Signoret’s Madame Rosa. But Magnani is the ultimate whore, strolling through Rome’s underworld in a series of literally death-defying soliloquies—only why did she have to shave her armpits?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXI: Lichtman's Brain Cloud

Go down to Banjo Jim’s on Avenue C on a Monday night and listen to a group named Lichtman’s Brain Cloud. They call what they play Western Swing and have one or two fiddles, a bass, a single drum and an electric guitar, amongst other instruments, including the electric mandolin. The group is presided over by a lead singer named Tamar Korn, a petit, dark haired young woman with a charismatic, startling voice. She can dance in a country music kind of way, but the voice is mesmerizing. It sounds like Billie Holiday as heard through an old-time radio, only turned up loud and clear. It’s distant yet creates vibrations that could make a string ring. It ignites your inner harmonics. Tamar can also use her voice to mimic the sounds of instruments. When she takes a breather, Brain Cloud plays instrumental numbers all on its own. The group has a small following, but some day they are going to make it to the big time. Garrison Keillor’s talent scouts should head down to Banjo Jim’s to hear Tamar and Brain Cloud one Monday. They’d be wonderful guests on A Prairie Home Companion.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Chariots of Shit

Hugh Hudson, the Academy Award winning director of Chariots of Fire, has signed on to direct a sequel called Chariots of Shit. The year is no longer 1924, but sometime in the second decade of the 21st Century, and the arena has changed from competitive running in England to politics in the United States. Two candidates are running for election, one is a conservative Republican who believes that no American should receive health care, that aborted babies should be stuffed back into their mother’s uteruses and that the rich should pay little or no taxes while their employees support the few public programs that remain, such as work-placement making coins at the U.S. Mint. The film will highlight the importance of coins even in the age of electronic transfers, since the American economy will be in such dire straits that begging for them will be one of the few employment opportunities for graduates from elite colleges. The Democratic opponent is a hedge fund manager whose guilt over the enormous profits and tax breaks she has received has turned her into a progressive. She owns an island in the Caribbean to which she retreats on her private plane, but she is the female version of Prince Hal, making forays into the real world and playing the part of everyman in disguise. No, Chariots of Shit will not be a remake of Preston Sturges’s classic Sullivan’s Travels. Instead, our idealistic Democrat learns little from what she sees when she ventures out into the real world, loses the election and simply retires to her island, where in a culminating scene she is shown reading Plato’s Republic, as her Hawaiian “Man Friday,” wearing a lei (and little else), brings her a tall, exotic drink with an American-flag stirrer.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Berlusconi Makes Partner at Goldman

Two recent pieces in the Times segue neatly into each other. The first, “Study Points to Windfall for Goldman Partners” (NYT, 1/18/11), describes the enormous compensation received by Goldman Sachs executives, particularly as a result of stock options offered at the height of the financial crisis. The options were issued in December 2008 "when the stock was trading at $78.78. Since those uncertain days, Goldman’s business has roared back and its share price has more than doubled, closing on Tuesday at nearly $175.” The second piece, “Wiretaps of Berlusconi's Teenage Friend Emerge” (NYT, 1/18/11), concerns “an investigation on charges that he (Berlusconi) compensated Moroccan-born Karima ed-Mahroug, nicknamed ‘Ruby Rubacuori’ or ‘Ruby Heart-Stealer,’ for sex at his villa outside Milan when she was a minor.”  Post hoc ergo propter hoc means if something follows it is necessary, and in the case of the two articles the fact that the Goldman piece was at center stage and the Berlusconi piece bottom right suggests an equation or future etiology. Like a theorem in geometry, these two articles constitute a proof that Silvio Berlusconi should resign his position as premier of Italy and become a partner at Goldman. Any firm where executives can write credit default swaps against the placements of its own clients, as was the case with Goldman’s approach to borrowing by the Greek government, can employ the services of a leader of a country whose finances could turn out to be similarly imperiled. It doesn't hurt that the capital cities of both countries, Athens and Rome, are the seats of classical antiquity, a fact which further strengthens their common bond. Q.E.D. In addition, Mr. Berlusconi would be able to use some of the political skills unearthed in the recent scandal, like spending “evenings with dozens of women, who would strip down to their underwear,” to increase Goldman’s client base.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Miró and Gossart at the Met

The Gossart (Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance) and the Miró (Miró: The Dutch Interiors) exhibitions at the Met, both of which closed on Monday, evinced a pointed concern with the past. Gossart, like Poussin, was infatuated with antiquity, the idealization of which took the form of a brazen sensuality that must have been shocking in its time. He was the Courbet of Flemish painting and traveled to Rome for his inspiration. Now that both shows are firmly parked in posterity, they become energy sources whose images will reach a later age, in much the way that light from distant stars reveals the nature of a universe long past. Miró’s extrapolations were extraordinary, like the work of a realist landscape painter who sets up his easel in front of a nature scene—only the scene in question was a postcard reproduction of a Sorgh or Steen, acquired on a trip to the Netherlands in 1928, that became the basis for his figurative abstraction. The postcards themselves are curiosities in that they exist like relics of a Sebald narrative, coining a geographic and temporal pastness all their own. There were numerous journeys recorded in these two exhibitions—physical, imaginary, religious and esthetic—not the least of which was Miró’s journey back to the Northern European world out of which Gossart’s work emanated. In this regard, Miró’s esthetic is that of the perpetual tourist. The curators quote him as saying, “When I finish a work, I see in it the starting point to another work. But nothing more than a starting point to go in a diametrically opposite direction. Need I remind you that I despise nothing more than permanence?”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pre-war Four Bedroom, River View

Owner relocating Munich apartment with tableau of idealized figures over fireplace mantel available. The owner of this duplex, a former head of state who moved to a Latin American country after noteworthy career in service to his country, is selling this immaculately appointed pied-à-terre at a price competitive with other apartments in this exclusive neighborhood. The central galleria of the apartment is perfect for entertaining—auspicious and intimate at the same time. Amenable to both ballroom dancing and goose-stepping, the apartment is equipped with an oversized oven, which can accommodate large crowds and is perfect for fowl. The lampshades are authentic tattoo print, giving them the appearance of real human skin. The building has an updated security system that is backed up with electrified barbed wire and sentinels who will shoot intruders on sight. Within walking distance of national library, renowned art institute where former owner studied, and sites of legendary Beer Hall Putsch and Reichskristallnacht festivities.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Leopard

“For this to remain the same, everything must change.” Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) repeats these words two times in Luchino Visconti’s screen adaptation of Giuseppe Tomaso di  Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), currently in revival at Film Forum. The paradoxical sounding utterance are the words of both an idealist, who longs for a world that no longer exists, and a consummate practitioner of realpolitik. The film, which is being shown in a magnificent new print courtesy of Martin Scorsese, is remarkably faithful to the complexity of the original novel. Set against the Risorgimento, in which Garibaldi overthrew the old Bourbon order, unifying Italy under Victor Emmanuel, The Leopard is a complex portrayal of the decline of the old aristocracy, represented by Salina, and the rise of a new middle class, represented in the character of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), the mayor of Donnafugata, the small Sicilian town where the film is set. His beautiful daughter (Claudia Cardinale) marries the Prince’s nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), himself a striver and a representative of the new world, with its freedoms, its opportunism and its labile sense of values. At one point, the Prince gives an audience to a representative of the new government, who epitomizes the enlightenment values of progress in his attempt to bring modernity to the South. Refusing to accept an appointment to the senate, Salina says about Sicilians, “Their sensuality is a longing for oblivion.” Visconti and Lampedusa, whose work was rejected for publication in his own lifetime, were both aristocrats, and while it’s impossible to make unknowable generalizations about the inner lives of dead artists, one can’t help but feel that the movie and the novel reflect an almost conservative bias toward irrational truths about human beings that defeat the notion of change.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Take Me to Heaven

The great disco-era singer Sylvester has faded into the past, hopefully buried with his own “band of gold,” to quote the famous Freyda Payne song. Sylvester prefigured RuPaul, the transvestite singer who was popular in the early ‘90s, but he wasn’t ostentatious in the way of Rick James, who was the Caravaggio of disco performers, singing about a violent world and eventually ending up in prison himself. Sylvester’s music was filled with the urgency and cadences of the gospel world out of which he emerged. The lyrics reflected the sexual promiscuity of the permissive San Francisco club scene where he earned his stripes, but like much of soul music, with its big band sound, Sylvester’s crescendos simply turned the love of God to man. R&B, soul and disco of the kind that Sylvester sang are fundamentally romantic idioms, and this differentiates them from the first rap artists like the Sugar Hill Gang, who started to appear in the later years of Sylvester’s career, and who presented a gritty urban realism. “Do You Want to Funk?” was one of Sylvester’s most famous songs, and the answer, in an age when almost anything went, was usually yes. But one of the greatest numbers in his repertoire is “Take Me to Heaven,” a song that inhabits the crossroads between aspiration and sexuality. Heaven is hopefully where Sylvester landed after he died from AIDS in 1982. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mister Roberts

Does Captain Owen Honors, the commander of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier Enterprise (also of Star Trek fame), sound like someone who would make lurid videos, which, according to the Times ("Navy Captain Is Investigated Over Videos," NYT, 1/4/11), included "…scenes of simulated masturbation, simulated eating of feces and two men as well as two women showering together…" and show them " entertainment to some 6,000 sailors and Marines…"? Captain Honors, who was relieved of his duties for "profound lack of good judgment" just as the Enterprise was being deployed to Afghanistan ("Aircraft Carrier Captain Is Removed Over His Role in Coarse Videos," NYT, 1/5/11), received over 11,000 supportive comments on Facebook, according to the Times. Plainly this is progress from Tailhook, the scandal that shook the Navy back in 1992. Tailhook occurred primarily in hotel corridors, but it gets lonely and boring for sailors out at sea, and the search for suitable entertainment is always a challenge. When it comes down to it, Honors’ videos, however inappropriate, were a victimless crime that may inadvertently have provided a realistic picture of life on a gigantic carrier, where the food tastes like shit and where masturbation is the only kind of outlet possible in cramped quarters. Instead of showing his videos aboard the vessel during 2006 and 2007, as the Navy alleges, Captain Honors should have sent them to Sundance, where they might have been treated like Mister Roberts—another film that portrayed the lives of American sailors on a ship. The videos also included "…a scene that suggests an officer is engaged in sex with a donkey…" but as anyone who has been under fire knows, both men and women react to danger in a wide variety of ways.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Red Shoes

What happens when you pick the el primo dance critic to discuss the vocation of prima ballerinas with an analyst versed in question of the character of maestros who create great works of dance? And what if you do it in the context of perhaps the greatest dance film of all time, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes? Martin Scorsese’s recently released print of The Red Shoes provided the occasion for the above-mentioned chemistry this past Saturday at The Philoctetes Center. So what did Joan Acocella of The New Yorker and Leon Balter of The New York Psychoanalytic Institute reveal about the film? That The Red Shoes is based on one of Hans Christian Anderson’s grisliest fables. That the male lead, Lermontov, was based on Diaghilev, the creator of the famed Ballets Russes, for whom Léonide Massine (who appears in the film as Lyubov) had danced, done choreography and commissioned sets by Picasso. That Diaghilev had fired his lead dancer Nijinsky when the latter announced he was getting married, and that Nijinsky subsequently went mad. That Moira Shearer, the dancer who played Vicky Page in the film, had given up her career as a dancer at Sadler’s Wells, where Margot Fonteyn was prima ballerina assoluta, though compromises not of art but of life itself would exact a far greater toll on the character in the film, whose fate is mirrored by the ballerina in Darren Aranovsky’s Black Swan. Acocella invoked the famed Yeats quote, “perfection of the life or of the work,” to explain the predicament of dancers whose devotion to their craft may start as early as age eleven. “Why do you want to dance?” Lermontov asks Vicky early on. “Why do I want to live?” is her reply. The monomaniacal obsession that makes great dancers was explored, along with the psychoanalytic notion that for a certain kind of maestro—the kind that the film describes—the dancer becomes a phallic extension. Central to the discussion was the astonishing, surrealistic disquisition of a ballet called The Red Shoes, which forms the core of the film and which, as a kind of play within a play—similar, Acocella pointed out, to “The Mousetrap” in Hamlet—inevitably illumines the world of movement genius that the movie describes.

Monday, January 10, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman

One could have joked that there was some sort of structural damage to BAM’s Harvey Theater, and that the damage became the set for the Abbey Theater’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. The snow and ice that New Yorkers have seen quite a bit of lately was as ubiquitous on the stage as it was outside, particularly in Brooklyn. Blinding snow is indeed a fitting image for the agon that is described between the title character (Alan Rickman), who excuses the financial transactions that have destroyed so many lives by saying that he wanted to achieve the power to make other people happy, and the universe. Borkman, according to the woman he has thrown off, Ella Rentheim (Lindsay Duncan), is guilty of another crime, “the murder of love in a human being,” in that he has sacrificed her love, given her up for the sake of his ambition. The play begins with Borkman’s wife Gunhilde (Fiona Shaw) saying, “People like us have no time for happiness.” And happiness becomes the lingua franca of the play. When Borkman’s son Erhart (Marty Rea) brings it up as the goal to which he aspires, his mother mockingly asks him where he thinks he will find this so called happiness (the burden of parental wishes is yet another theme of the play). And what is the relationship of happiness to aspiration? In late Ibsen plays, imagination is always juxtaposed to reality. In The Master Builder, Solness’s muse Hilda pushes him to make “castles in the sky.” Isn’t the imperfect nature of reality always at odds with the perfect world that the imagination creates? The start of John Gabriel Borkman presents a compelling metaphor: imagination held prisoner. Borkman, convicted of his crimes, sentenced and now released and in exile in his own home, walks back and forth in his room as the clock ticks. Ibsen introduces us to his character through the sound of his footsteps. Ibsen’s characters could be artists or dictators in the monomaniacal way they subsume humanity to ideas. Both Strindberg and Ibsen influenced Bergman, and one is reminded of the harrowing picture of the artist in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, sacrificing the sanity of his abandoned children to his ambition for greatness. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lives of Our Leaders: Watch Out for Your Boner

John Boehner, whose name is pronounced variously as “Bo-ner,” “Bay-ner,” or, for Francophiles, “Bonheur” (for the sake of argument, we’ll stick with Boner), is the new Speaker of the House. He is known to be a hard man, except on those occasions when he makes a boner. Ostensibly he’s had one of those, since he has daughters. There is also a picture of him hugging Nancy Pelosi. It’s hard to decipher what all the hugging is about, since Boehner’s Republican party is out to undo all of President Obama’s work, particularly healthcare reform. Without being crass, can we assume it has to do with one of the pronunciations, or mispronunciations, of his name? Boehner, the Times points out, has a hard job. He has to satisfy the Tea Partiers, who want “to cut spending and rein in what they see as an overactive government” (“Taking Control, G.O.P. Overhauls Rules in House,” NYT, 1/6/11), while living up to his promise “to run the chamber in a more inclusive and business like way,” which presumably means not tea-bagging his opponents. The Times also reported that Boehner’s wife “kept hitting on the theme of how she and her husband are ‘just normal, average people’” (“Speaker’s Wife Emphasizes ‘Normal, Average’ Life,” NYT, 1/6/11). Mrs. Boehner, the Times reported, bought “a $100 beige dress from Dillard’s to meet Queen Elizabeth II at a state dinner in Washington in 2007.” It looks like you have to give up a few things when you marry into a family of Boehners.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mark Twain at the Morgan

In his journal of November 6, 1953, Alfred Kazin remarked that both Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield didn’t like "phonies." The passage is part of the recent Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress exhibition at the Morgan Library, where the curators also quote Kerouac, another Twain admirer, as saying, "[Twain] was an uncomplicated man, a man who did not believe that literature is a constant tale of sorrow and nothing else. Mark Twain piloted steamboats, dug for silver in Nevada, roamed the West, 'roughed it'…worked as a foreign correspondent, newspaper editor, lecturer, and was a family man—and yet, he did not have to sacrifice all that to his 'art'…. He was just writing what he felt like writing, not what he thought 'literature' demanded of him." The exhibit also devotes some time to Hank Morgan, the firearms foreman who is the hero of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s Hank’s love of empiricism and pragmatism that makes him the enemy of the inequalities of the chivalric world into which he is thrust. However, it’s the same traits that enable him to use all his capabilities to destroy himself and Camelot too. That contrariety of motive, which is so aptly underlined in the Morgan Library’s presentation, hardly reflects the workings of an uncomplicated man. Garrison Keillor’s unflattering front-page New York Times Book Review critique of Twain’s recently released autobiography, the sleeper bestseller of the current season, further complicates the question of Twain’s personality by pointing to the disingenuousness of an author whose reputation was based on honesty. As Keillor comments,  "He speaks from the grave, he writes, so that he can speak freely — 'as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter' — but there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation" ("Mark Twain's Riverboat Ramblings," NYT, 12/16/10).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Twilight Time

Two Twilight Zones shown during the annual New Year’s marathon hearken back to literary past and foreshadow, in line with the Sci-Fi mythos of the series, inventions of the future. “The Little People” is Gulliver’s Travels with Swift’s satire of human nature in a space-age context. Two astronauts crash land on a far-away planet. Fletcher, the captain, is all about working to get the ship back into orbit again. His despondent subordinate Craig wanders off and discovers a civilization of microscopic people who treat him like a god, even going so far as to erect a statue in his honor. Convinced that he can become the one and only God, Craig orders Fletcher off the planet as soon as the ship is repaired. The only problem is that enormous Brobdingnagians also appear on the planet. In a climactic scene, the little people pull down the statue they have erected, much the way the statues of Stalin and Lenin were be pulled down at the end of the Communist era. “A Kind of a Stop Watch” introduces the garrulous character of Peter Thomas McNulty, who abuses the gift of time. This episode introduces a device like the one that would become the centerpiece of Nicholson Baker’s erotic novel The Fermata. McNulty wants attention, but no one listens to his ideas and he is soon fired from his job at a lingerie company. However, given a magical stopwatch that puts time on hold, McNulty realizes he can rob all the banks and get everything he wants. The problem is, the stopwatch breaks, and though he has all the money in the world, he can’t start life up again. The denouement is reminiscent of the famed Burgess Meredith episode (“Time Enough At Last”) about the book lover who finds himself in a paradise without people until his glasses shatter on the ground.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Chaos and Classicism

It is disconcerting to find oneself enchanted by the images of Leni Riefenstahl’s prologue to the Festival of Nations, from the 1936 Olympics, which is literally the apex of the current Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy and Germany 1918-1936 show at the Guggenheim. The Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the Acropolis and the famed Discobolus superimposed over a shot of the German decathlete Erwin Huber all serve to tie Teutonic with classical Greek and Roman culture. It’s also a testament to the profoundly immoral intelligence of the fascist project and propaganda machine that aestheticization of the human figure was conscripted in the war against mankind. “I love Caesar,” the curators of the exhibit quote Musssolini as saying. “He was the only one who united the will of the warrior and the genius of the wise man.” Mussolini coined the term “uomo nuovo” to characterize the classical model for the new superman during his march on Rome in 1922. Ironically, the futurist Marinetti, who was a follower of Mussolini, eschewed classicism, but the flirtation with classical forms in the work of Italian artists like Morandi, De Chirico and Severini, and amongst Picasso and other artists and filmmakers who were anti-fascist (segments of Cocteau’s surrealist film masterpiece The Blood of a Poet are shown in the exhibit) are indicative of how pervasive the aspiration to what Cocteau termed the “rappel à l’ordre” was on both ends of the political spectrum during the interwar period. Interestingly, representations of ideal forms could apotheosize the human face or return as satiric jeremiads against regimentation amongst those who foresaw the looming threat of totalitarianism.