Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Compudrug Cocktail

The June 23rd issue of The New York Review of Books ran an essay called “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why” by Marcia Angell. The essay is occasioned by three books: The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch; Anatomy of an Epidemic:  Magic, Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker; and Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations About a Profession in Crisis by Daniel Carlat. The same issue of the NYRB featured a piece by Sue Halpern entitled “Mind Control and the Internet,” which dealt with the following books: World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity Machines and the Internet by Michael Chorost; The Filter Bubble: What the Internet  is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser; and You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. Angell’s essay deals with the controversy about antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil and Celexa, and antipsychotics like Zyprexa, addressing findings from double-blind placebo studies. The first in a two-part series, the essay is a thoughtful review of axons, dendrites and synapses, and the role of neurotransmitters like serotonin in bridging gaps between neurons. Psychotics were at one point thought to be suffering from a flood of serotonin, while those suffering from depression were thought to be experiencing a deficit. Thus, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor would prevent the secretion of serotonin by the synapse. One of the issues Angell brings up is how neurotransmitters are affected by the introduction of artificial substances into the brain, a process that becomes particularly important when a patient goes off of a medication. What is curious is how Angell’s essay on mental illness and the interior working of the brain and Halpern’s essay on computers and the mind are linked. A significant development of advanced computational theory is the increasing connection between computers and the brain—the brains of disabled people are now able to manipulate computer cursors and computers are able to access the brain. In discussing Lanier’s theories, Halpern remarks, “The ‘hive mind’ created through our electronic connections necessarily obviates the individual—indeed, that’s what makes it a collective consciousness.” On the other hand, computer programs of the future herald a world of utter subjectivity. “Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm’s perception of who you are, a perception that it constructs out of 57 variables, Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology and assumptions,” Halpern comments. The subject that unites the two pieces is really consciousness, a theme taken up by John Searle in his review of Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain in the previous issue of the NYRB. One thing that becomes clear in all of these pieces is that the human brain is inadvertently being fought over by both computers and drugs. It’s a struggle of Darwinian proportions, with the evolution of the brain ultimately mitigating the outcome.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Tree of Life

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy might be the literary motif for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The movie looks at anything and everything through the lens of the eternal. It’s like being served a pizza with one slice containing a character-driven narrative and the other seven slices containing prehistoric creatures, the creation of the universe and the myths of Job and Mary Magdelene. The narrative slice is an odd contraption that starts out with the loss of a son in wartime and then circles back to the story of a boy and his two brothers, centering on a period in their pre-adolescence. The father (Brad Pitt) is an inventor with 27 patents whose greatest ambition in life was to be a concert pianist, a dream he never fulfilled. He is loving yet demanding and cruel towards his boys, particularly the oldest. The man blames his wife for not supporting him when he plays the disciplinarian, but it’s clear that this theme is secondary to the film’s organic and at times inorganic imagery (huge skyscrapers and the oldest son’s inventions), which place the ontogenic events in a phylogenic context. Several marvelous scenes dramatize this. For example, following the drowning of a child in the Waco town pool, we see the church where the service is held far in the distance in a vanishing perspective, with the families of the other children scattered through the foreground. Thornton Wilder used what was at the time an avant-garde dramatic style, with the Stage Manager in Our Town breaking the forth wall to present the story of an American town. In The Tree of Life, Malick’s device is to have his powerful story upstaged by the history of the world.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Leap Year

The Australian filmmaker Michael Rowe won the 2010 Camera d’Or at Cannes for Leap Year, which recently opened at Cinema Village. The film’s production values are minimal, walking the fine line between low-budget expediency and esthetic choice. But what may seem rough and unpolished to one viewer may feel like gritty realism to another. Laura (Monica de Carmen) is a business journalist from Oaxaca who is trying to eke out a living in Mexico City writing articles with names like “30 Tips to Beat the Recession.” She is a peculiar variety of voyeur who masturbates not while watching people in flagrante but while looking in on enviable scenes of domestic bliss, as when the couple across the way snuggles while watching TV. She also peers in on an elderly couple who live in the courtyard below. By night, she endures a series of seemingly joyless one-night stands. Things take a turn when, after being fired from her job, she picks up Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), with whom she begins a sadomasochistic affair involving, among other things, burning, golden showers, whipping, cutting and eventually a fantasy of necrophilia in which she invites Arturo to “come inside of me while you watch me die.” The leap year of the title refers to the fourth anniversary of Laura’s father’s death, and provides the etiology of her death wish in the same way that the death of the Brando character’s wife in Last Tango in Paris furnishes the essential bit of back story for the self-annihilating sex that film depicts. But Leap Year is more disturbing than Last Tango, Pasolini’s Salo, which features scenes of coprophilia, and most recently Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which vividly enacts an abortion sequence. What is most disturbing is the absence of artifice and invention. Films that feature extreme paraphilia can derange the senses à la Rimbaud, but what could be more disturbing than old Gloucester blinded and helpless or Oedipus with his eyes plucked out? Rowe’s film is clinical without being cathartic. Leap Year is definitely not porn, but it’s imaginatively constrictive, providing little room for anything resembling release. The claustrophic feeling is exacerbated by the intrusive quality of realism. We watch the character wiping herself after urination and picking her nose, but the intimacy is gratuitous and unrevealing. A therapist listening to Laura would have his work cut out for him—particularly since his patient’s bedtime reading is Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Shame Sliding

     There is a school of thought claiming that Gordon Lish ruined Raymond Carver by making him an unwitting minimalist. There is another school that says Gordon Lish made Raymond Carver. George Saunders is what Raymond Carver lovers who like the unedited versions of his work unconsciously crave, though Carver unedited never soars to the glory that is Saunders. The best line in “Home,” the Saunders story in the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker is “I was on a like shame slide.” But there are all kinds of wonderful locutions in this narrative about a returning Iraq vet that are reminiscent of the violence that hangs over early Pinter plays like The Caretaker and The Homecoming. This interchange between the vet Mikey’s mother and her lover Harris takes place early in the story:
     “I love him like my own son,” Harris said.
     “What a ridiculous statement,” Ma said. “You hate your son.”
     “I hate both my sons,” Harris said.

     Renee is Mike’s sister, and she is married to Ryan. Ryan’s parents, who are visiting their grandchild, share their opinions about the well-to-do Flemings, who have flown in planeloads of harelipped Russian babies. “Those kids went from being disabled in a collapsing nation to being set for life in the greatest country in the world,” says Ryan’s father. As the dialogue continues to its morbidly hysterical climax, the father adds, “A truly visionary pair of folks.” Saunders then provides his own Pinteresque caesura.

     There was a long admiring pause.
     “Although you’d never know it by how harshly he speaks to her,” she said.
     “Well, she can be awfully harsh with him as well,” he said.
     “Sometimes it’s just him being harsh with her and her being harsh right back,” she said.“It’s like the chicken or the egg,” he said.
     “Only with harshness,” she said.
     Mikey’s wife has walked out on him, and when he comes to see his kids, her new husband, Evan, won’t let him in. The two men try to take an attitude of equanimity. Saunders’s characters live in a state of physical and emotional dispossession, but they are acutely aware of their own language. “One way we were playing it reasonable was to say everything like a question,” says Mikey.
     Mikey utters the story’s best line as he pulls up to the house of the family he is no longer a part of. He imagines his wife Joy explaining it all to his kids thusly: “Although Evan is not your real daddy, me and Daddy Evan feel you don’t need to be around Daddy Mike all that much, because what me and Daddy Evan really care about is you two growing up strong and healthy and sometimes mommies and daddies need to make a special atmosphere in which that can happen.” On the way to his former wife’s house Mikey also has a memory of being hired by “this guy” to “clean some gunk out of his pond.” He ends up killing tadpoles with his rake, and when he tries to save them it only makes matters worse. So he keeps on “rake hurling,” which in turn reminds him of his behavior at Al-Raz, where he was stationed. “It wasn’t so rotten, really, just normal, and the way to confirm that it was normal was to keep doing it over and over.”
     I was on a like shame slide. Saunders is what people have in mind when they criticize Gordon Lish for taking the guts out of Carver, but no one, not even Lish, would have gotten rid of Saunders’s guts—a self-reflexive cartoon that is pure genius.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gunnar Fischer

Reading the William Grimes’s Times obit of Gunnar Fischer, the cinematographer who worked with Bergman on Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries, one passes through a pantheon of names that underscores the film-historical roots of Bergman’s craft  (“Gunnar Fischer, Cinematographer for Bergman, Dies at 100, NYT, 6/13/11). Svensk Filmindustri—the very words send shivers down the spine of those who remember the credit sequences of the great Bergman films. (Janus Films was the other signpost, though now Bergman is distributed by the more prosaic sounding Criterion.) According to Grimes, “It was there [Svensk Filmindustri] that Mr. Fischer had trained under Julius Jaenzon, the cinematographer for the silent films of Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller, and had developed his high-contrast, often expressionistic approach to lighting that suited Mr. Bergman’s intensely probing psychological films.” The accompanying image for the obit is the famous still from The Seventh Seal in which Max von Sydow plays chess with Death (a scene that Woody Allen would later parody in his “Death KnocksNew Yorker piece). Grimes goes on to point out that Fischer was “an admirer of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on ‘Citizen Kane’”—a significant bit of cinema scholarship. More importantly at Filmstaden, the studio of Svensk Filmindustri, Fischer worked with the important Danish Director Carl Dreyer, whose The Passion of Joan of Arc (starring Maria Falconetti) is a classic expressionist work. The obit is an essay on what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence,” minus some of the anxiety. We tend to think of Bergman as a film director whose substantive provenance derived from Strindberg, but Grimes’s obit illustrates the cinematographic provenance that enabled Bergman to create metaphors for his vision.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Untouchables, Starring Ayman al-Zawahri as Eliot Ness

In its story on Al Qaeda’s appointment of Ayman al-Zawahri as successor to Osama bin Laden, the Times quoted Defense Secretary Gates as saying that Bin Laden “had a peculiar charisma that ... Zawahri does not have” (“Qaeda Selection ofIts Chief Is Said to Reflect Its Flaws,” NYT, 6/16/11). With regard to the seven weeks it took to pick Zawahri, Gates commented, “It’s probably tough to count votes when you’re in a cave.” Gates also said that Bin Laden was “more operationally engaged” than Zawahri. During the Second World War, psychoanalysts were brought in to do psychobiographies of Hitler and other leaders. Naturally, a legion of experts has now chimed in about Zawahri. “Independent specialists largely agree that Mr. Zawahri is not an inspiring model for young militants, noting his lack of combat experience, his long history of ideological squabbles and his abrasive behavior and pedantic speeches,” the Times noted. In a nutshell, Zawahri has to work on his image, and in this global world of value-free social media, there is no reason that Zawahri can’t undertake the contemporary equivalent of what Madison Avenue did for politicians and entrepreneurs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He needs the kind of makeover Ronald Reagan achieved prior to his political triumphs. In 1954, General Electric employed him to host a dramatic T.V. hour in which he chimed, “At General Electric, progress is our most important product.” Upgraded from B-movie actor to mouthpiece for a better future, appearing in homes across the country, Reagan parlayed his feel-good charm all the way to the California governor’s seat. The rest is history, or silence, depending on how you view his presidency. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, recall the Che Guevara posters that hung in college dorm rooms in the ‘60s. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that these were the creation of a young radical who went on to become CEO of Young and Rubicam. Zawahri needs to hook up with one of the utility companies in Waziristan, the Al Queeda stronghold or perhaps Abbottabad Power & Light. Instead of sending out pedantic messages, he should promote the clean energy produced by the company, which in reality probably builds components for Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal. With a little promotional spin, the utility company will be the vehicle to consolidate Zawahri’s following. He will never wear a beret like Che, but big PR companies all recognize the importance of signs, symbols and behaviors that we associate with public figures. Kennedy was a jogger, the captain of PT-109 and the lover of Marilyn Monroe. What will Zawahri’s mythology be?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a monstrosity, proof that even a comic genius who also happens to be the Jane Austen of his age (to the extent that he is a great documenter of manners and morals) can still miss the mark. If we were to see the film with no knowledge of Allen’s oeuvre, we might summarily dismiss it as the work of an inferior artist. Could the meta-view of Paris that Allen presents be intentionally ugly and factitious in order to render a world someone might want to escape from? Gil (Owen Wilson) posits escape as a kind of brass ring when he says “the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.” He later quotes Faulkner’s “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.” But the intention of Allen's directorial disquisition is never clear. Parenthetically, Wilson is as unsuccessful in playing the Woody-Allen-type doofus as Allen is in portraying Paris. It is unlikely that F. Scott, Zelda, Ernest, Salvador, Gertrude or any of the Lost Generation would have been terribly pleasant company, despite their bouts of genius, but the film’s heavy-handed plot line, which transports our protagonist back in time, from the dreary materialism of the present to the Paris of the ‘20s and eventually La Belle Epoque, where he interrupts Toulouse-Lautrec while he’s drawing the Folies and makes the acquaintance of Degas and Gauguin, presents us with a series of gargoyles that would be booed off of a high-school stage. The movie starts with a Paris montage that aspires to Hemingway’s moveable feast, but instead of creative sumptuousness, it has the gastronomic and esthetic appeal of Leonard's, the garish Great Neck bar mitzvah parlor. It's a sequence that would have made Cartier-Bresson vomit.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Winning or Whining

In his review of Linda Woodbridge’s English Revenge Drama in the TLS, David Hawkes asserts, “[The] denigration of defeat is the source of the moral opprobrium the modern world heaps on revenge” (“Equal Payback,” TLS, 5/27/11). Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge drama, on the other hand, apotheosized revenge. “Early modern audiences and playwrights enjoyed and celebrated revenge, associating it with social and economic fairness,” Hawkes notes, summarizing one of Woodbridge’s central points. Though revenge was deemed to be the province of divinity, “revenge satisfied an increasingly widespread fantasy of social equality.” And the punishment had to fit the crime. Theatergoers liked “appropriate or ‘condign’ revenge.” Ultimately, this desire for justice and equality derived from mercantilism. “Commodity exchange involves the imposition of an imaginary equality on objects that are essentially different,” writes Hawkes. Of course, there is another kind of revenge that neither Hawkes nor Woodbridge account for, and that is silent scorn. Sophocles’s Philoctetes was unable to forget his ostracism and was prepared to deprive the Greeks of victory, and himself of glory, in order to make a point. In Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, the protagonist scorns the very people whose attention he seeks. The market economy may have produced a certain equanimity at one point in history, but it’s developed into a procrustean, amoral force that has little tolerance for loss. Though Hawkes ends his review by looking beyond Woodbridge’s concern with the Renaissance, pointing to “the tenacious popularity of the revenge theme,” he also quotes Donald Trump, who once said “it’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sullivan's Travels

There is a wonderful scene in Preston Sturges’s comedy classic Sullivan’s Travels in which a group of inmates in a draconian prison are freed of their shackles, literally and metaphorically, and allowed to watch some Disney cartoons. Sullivan’s Travels is about a big-time Hollywood director who dresses up as a hobo in order to gather material for a script based on a depression-era novel called O Brother Where Art Thou by one Sinclair Beckstein. (The Coen brothers would recycle this title for a film based loosely on Homer’s The Odyssey.) In his hobo garb, Sullivan is mistakenly arrested and convicted of assault, and no one believes him when he claims he’s a famous Hollywood director and naturally innocent. When he’s finally freed through a series of tiny miracles (really directorial sleights of hand on Sturges’s part, the improbability of which only highlights the intractability of real despair), Sullivan is chastened. Having known true misery, he realizes that neither prisoners nor the public at large want to see it portrayed on the big screen. It’s sobering to recognize that despite the great achievements of history’s Caravaggios and Genets, who found beauty in squalor, it’s neither surprising nor even reprehensible that the mass of men, personified by Sturges’s inmates, consume art for escape and release. But Sturges has his cake and eats it too. Yes, The Great McGinty and The Palm Beach Story are delightful treats, but the director is wily. There is a message and a dark side to his classics, which gives us pause for thought as we serve our time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Giornale Pugliese VI: Train

 Drawing by Hallie Cohen

You meet an Argentinian couple on a train from Bari to Rome. It’s one of the high-speed trains that make the whole trip in approximately four hours. You start at the sleepy Bari station, where an impoverished beggar woman is urging a child barely capable of walking to panhandle. Poverty creates a certain discipline, and the child runs assiduously after the coins pitched in her direction, arousing both pity and respect. She chases after the money the way the pigeons scamper for crumbs in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. The couple on the train is almost dissolute looking, the woman bored and her companion unshaven, but they have a cultivated air. They are generous with information about the train’s stops, even though they’re not inhabitants of the country. You wonder if he knew Borges. Trains are a dominant means of transport in both Italy and France and play an enormous role in the way society conceives of itself—a way that is largely absent in America, where long-distance trains are curiosities whose breakdowns and eccentricities of schedule are a constant source of grousing among those who attempt to use them. Preston Sturges immortalized the train to Palm Beach in The Palm Beach Story, with its outrageously funny Ale and Quail Club scene. Then there’s that wonderful train carrying the innocent fugitive through the Scottish highlands in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. And of course there’s Strangers on a Train, based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith. This Rome-bound train is not lacking romance or eccentricity, but it is all business, arriving at its terminus without fanfare only twenty minutes after its scheduled TOA of 6:15.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guys Just Wanna Have Fun

Add Crystal Harris and Hugh Hefner to the list of high-profile breakups that includes Tipper and Al Gore, Mark and Jenny Sanford, John and Elizabeth Edwards and, most recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. Will Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner make it through their own recent scandals? And whatever happened to Silda Wall and Eliot Spitzer? It’s Scenes From a Marriage (or would-be marriage in the case of Hef) American style. Let’s analyze the ashes of some of these marriages on a case-by-case basis. There’s a 60-year age difference between Hef and Crystal, and the breakup comes on the eve of the release of her single “Club Queen.” Hef had previously been married to Mildred Williams (the mother of Christie Hefner) and then, much later, to Kimberly Conrad. But his former girlfriend Holly Madison was the Cassandra when it came to his most recent nuptials. “I think it’s possible Crystal could break Hef’s heart,” PopEater quoted Madison as saying. Moving through the list: Schwarzenegger fathered a child with his maid and Sanford fell in love with an Argentine woman and abandoned the state he was elected to govern. Could Al Gore’s troubles have had anything to do with the kind of behavior he exhibited towards his masseuse, Molly Hagerty? Could John Edwards have been one of those men whose infidelity hides a darker truth, the inability to cope with illness, even though he insists that he strayed while Elizabeth’s cancer was in remission? Ironically, sex is the apparent pitfall for everyone but the geriatric Playboy himself. Not that reports about Hefner and Crystal’s breakup have explicitly ruled out the couple’s sex life as a cause, but one can’t help thinking that the yawning generation gap was the ultimate factor, particularly in a youth culture that Hefner himself helped to spawn. On the other hand, age didn’t deter Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he made his unreciprocated advances on the then 21-year-old Tristane Banon. And then of course there is Humbert Humbert and Lolita.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Elite Business Class

Once in a while a human being has the unique opportunity to come upon something perfectly terrible, something that so epitomizes all that one does not desire, that there actually is pleasure in it. It’s like the experience of being perfectly burglarized. A messy burglar who tears the furnishings and trails dog shit into your house is no fun, but someone who discretely walks in, cracks the safe and steals every valuable thing you own is providing an existential service: the experience of total dispossession. Delta’s Business Elite Lounge at JFK provides one such experience. Yogurt covered pretzels (that old staple of an unstable diet), curried nuts (the gastrointestinal equivalent of the kinds of tornadoes that have devastated the South), chunks of Monterey Jack wrapped in plastic (requiring surgical extraction), packets of hummus (whose contents, in both consistency and taste, could be mistaken for toothpaste) and enticing-looking cookies (which recreate the childhood experience of mistakenly eating sand) are some of the delicacies that can be foraged in the lounge. Unfortunately, rationing is so stingy that hopeful-looking new arrivals quickly find themselves in a Darwinian struggle to survive from the minute the skeptical lounge attendant examines their “Elite” boarding passes. Lack of table space is one key aspect of the lounge’s design, enhanced by the fact that used glasses and indecorous little plastic plates are rarely tidied up, giving the lounge the aspect of an outer-borough dive bar at closing time. If he were alive, Luis Buñuel, who loved despoiled landscapes, might have used Delta’s Business Elite Lounge for one of his surrealistic masterpieces. If this is elite, one hesitates to imagine how Delta treats its plebian flyers—perhaps like the factory-farmed chickens, crowded into sunless pens, whose short, tortured existence is documented in the film Food, Inc.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Through a Glass Darkly

Ingmar Bergman was a student of August Strindberg. Jenny Worton’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic Through A Glass Darkly, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, makes a great movie into what feels like a Strindberg play. The play is remarkably faithful to the movie, with all of the keynote scenes appearing like signposts: the return of the mediocre novelist (Chris Sarandon) with sad, last-minute presents (a shaver, gloves, watch) purchased at the airport; the discovery by the novelist’s daughter of his diary, in which she reads, in reference to her own madness, “observe its process and her descent;” the culminating scene of incest. Carey Mulligan, the young British actress who received much praise for her work in The Seagull on Broadway and in the 2009 film, An Education, plays the disturbed young woman, emphasizing both her withdrawal and a countervailing sexuality that blurs the boundaries between herself and others. Art, madness and God (the title derives from Corinthians) are the prevailing themes of the film, and it was Bergman’s brilliance to defy any of the facile connections among the varying set pieces having to do with the desire for greatness, schizophrenia and the search for meaning in a world where God appears only as a hallucination. The play, like the movie, is a series of missed connections in which the tragedy lies in helplessness and isolation, with no revelation explaining or solving anything. Unlike the movie, however, the play falls short in its rather clichéd depiction of Karin’s illness through swishy sounding voices. But why turn the movie into a play in the first place? However admirable the homage to a masterpiece, it’s all-too-obvious that the current production is overshadowed by the film. The Oedipal overtones, as they relate to competing works of art in two different media, might have amused Bergman who divided his time between theater and film.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In the Media

Question: will Anthony Weiner take over Eliot Spitzer’s slot on CNN’s In the Arena and will Alan Berger, the agent who handled Katie Couric’s new deal with ABC, be able to sell syndication rights for her new show to one of Silvio Berlusconi’s television stations? And what about a Spitzer/Weiner report modeled on NBC’s old Huntley/Brinkley or PBS’s Macneil/Lehrer News Hour? If they bring on Dr. Ruth Westheimer as executive producer, there is no doubt that Spitzer/Weiner could provide the first real competition for two HBO warhorses, “Real Sex” and “Taxicab Confessions.” With Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger dominating the news in the way that Pamela Anderson once did with her famed Tommy Lee honeymoon tape, there will be a need for seasoned commentators to handle the flood of impropriety generated by office holders on the international, national and state levels. For some of us it seems like only yesterday that Bill Clinton was asking Monica Lewinsky to light his cigar (or was it the other way around?), but impeachment proceedings now seem quaint compared to a two-time presidential candidate possibly on his way to jail for allegedly using campaign funds to cover up his affair. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Huma Abedin was covering the Edwards debacle for Al Jazeera.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Giornale Pugliese V: Yours Trulli

Illustration by Hallie Cohen

I Trulli is a restaurant on 27th Street. It’s also the name of peculiar structures that dot the Pugliese countryside. The old town of Alberobello is made almost entirely of trulli, which have conical roofs and keystones that allow them to self-destruct. Puglia is an area of Italy that has benefited from a succession of invasions from nearby cultures. The misfortune of its vulnerability also allowed the region’s populace to rob ideas from its invaders. Between l000-1500 AD, interlopers from Turkey introduced these stone huts in exchange for refuge from the persecution they would be subjected to if they returned to their home country. Their crime: not killing enough Italians. From the point of view of the locals, the Turks provided a service by furnishing a novel form of self-destruction (through the removal of the keystone) as a way of avoiding the dreaded roof taxes charged by the draconian aristocracy of Ferdinand II of Spain, one of a long line of imperialists who planted their flags in the soil of Puglia. By the late twentieth century, the structures became appreciated for the way in which they epitomized the principles of sustainability and bio-architecture. Trulli have two concentric walls, which allow air to flow through the uncemented stones. Fires from within produce an upward draft that quickly exhausts the cold air. What a unique solution to heating problems at a time when we are hell bent on lessening our dependence on fossil fuels!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Weiner's Inferno

The representative’s wiener has been roasted, but hopefully he will not end up in Schwarzeneggerdom, deprived of the loving embrace of his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. However, if he doesn’t mend his ways, he may descend to the 9th circle, reserved for only the worse sinners, and now renamed the Strauss-Kahn wing of hell. Yes, he was bad, but he didn’t touch like Arnold or force (allegedly) like Dominique. He didn’t drown like Ted in Chappaquiddick or cajole with power like JFK or with charisma like MLK. Nor did he hit a hole-in-one like Tiger or take part in monkey business like Gary or used illegal campaign contributions to hide his extra-marital family like Edwards. He certainly didn’t run after (and devour) child pole dancers like Silvio. No, all the democratic firebrand did was show his chest and wiener. Although he didn’t solicit prostitutes, Weiner comes from the same mold as Eliot Spitzer: he’s an evangelical reformer who fell victim to the very sin he railed against, hypocrisy. But what’s wrong about “holding up a handwritten sign reading ‘it’s me’” (“Weiner Admits He Sent Lewd Photos; Says He Won't Resign,” NYT, 6/7/11)? It could easily have been homework for a phenomenology course at The New School. It all seems about as harmless as a children playing doctor. But then we get into another circle of the Inferno, occupied by Martha Stewart, who was convicted not of the crime for which she was originally called to task, but of lying to mommy and daddy when they asked, “Martha did you do something bad?” Weiner’s wiener is being roasted because he didn’t bite the bullet from day one and make his “it’s me” sign visible to the general public.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Katie at Colonus

You begin to feel sorry for the news folks at NBC when you read about their misfortunes in Monday’s Times piece, “For Couric, ABC’s PitchProved Best” (NYT, 6/6/11). According to the Times, NBC head honcho Steve Burke and news president Steve Capus were meeting Couric and her agent Alan Berger “to bring their one-time news star…back into the network fold.” It should have been perfect timing: Couric was four months away from the end of her unhappy CBS contract and looking to reinvent herself with an afternoon syndicated program “while also maintaining a continuing role in a network news division….” But in the end, the negotiations unfolded like a Greek tragedy, with the protagonists blinded not by fate, but by the tens of millions at stake in annual syndication sales. Apparently, the two NBC execs were pretty flummoxed even before Couric arrived for the meeting at the St. Regis Hotel. Why? They’d run into Al Gore, who’d shown up “to announce the hiring of Keith Olbermann for his cable channel, Current TV.” Olbermann, famous and infamous at MSNBC, had had his own bitter-sweet parting with NBC. The Current TV team chatting up a former NBC castoff in the very next room created a vibe that an NBC executive quoted by the Times described as “awkward.” Neither a PowerPoint presentation nor a welcome-home-Katie video seduced Couric, and she ended up signing with ABC, “…which was not even a serious contender….” Yes, there had been rumors that Jeff Zucker, the former NBC exec and rival of Burke who was part of Couric’s team, was the fly in ointment, but reading the Times story, one starts to mourn dear old NBC, once the home of the venerable Cosby Show, and once the Harvard to CBS’s Yale when it came to the now oxymoronic concept of high-quality network news.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Immigrant Movement International

Here are the opening lines of Sam Dolnick’s Times story about the performance artist Tania Bruguera, a “have” whose work of art is to live like a “have not”: “Tania Bruguera has eaten dirt, hung a dead lamb from her neck and served trays of cocaine to a gallery audience, all in the name of art. She has shown her work at the Venice Biennale, been feted at the Pompidou Center in Paris and landed a Guggenheim Fellowship” (“An Artist's Performance: A Year as a Poor Immigrant,” NYT, 5/19/11). Many Times readers probably saw Dolnick’s story and thought, “I could do that. After all, it’s not Marina Abramovic, who has to sit totally still for 736 hours and 30 minutes. What if I simply go home to my apartment with the clanking steam pipes, turn on the CBS Evening News, watch coverage of the interminable Palestinian-Israeli struggle and crack open a couple cans of beer while reheating yesterday’s meat loaf, with its little squiggle of ketchup, in the toaster oven. What if I take out a package of frozen peas and put them in boiling water? What if I am totally alone or have a significant other who hates me almost as much as he or she hates him or herself, and what if we reenact a piece of performance art about this very fact over dinner every night? Will I get a Guggenheim for my troubles? Will I be invited to the Biennale? Will I be feted at the Pompidou?” Dolnick describes how Bruguera, who is Cuban, formed her artwork/advocacy group, Immigrant Movement International, and moved into an unheated, cramped apartment, living on a “minimum wage salary, which she wrote into the project description.” People usually get Nobel Prizes or MacArthurs for their contributions to peace or for original research. But why go to the trouble when misery is so munificently rewarded?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Giornale Pugliese IV: L'importanza di chiamarsi Ernesto

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen

The Theatro Comunale Piccinni, an imposing pink structure on the Victor Emmanuelle II, Bari’s main drag, is now staging L’importanza di chiamarsi Ernesto. It’s nice to know that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which recently starred Brian Bedford in a revival at New York’s Roundabout Theatre, is being produced in this Adriatic City. But it’s been decades since a great Italian classic like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author appeared on the Great White Way. Cultural appetite is hard to fathom. For instance, there are constant surprises in the world of Internet fashion, where the greatest common denominator of taste often runs in contradistinction to what E.M. Forster called “the aristocracy of the sensitive.” Posters of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which opened to record breaking box-office sales in both Europe and the United States, are already beginning to peel off Bari’s walls. Yet the lady concierge at Bari’s Hotel Palace, whose marquee is shaded by gentle palms, interjects the word “onomatopoeia” into a conversion with a guest and goes on to talk about Hemingway and Italo Svevo, a writer whose works are enjoyed by a mere sliver of Italians and Americans alike. Everyone talks about social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but the notion of a shared sensibility derived from reading great literature creates a certain magic for the wanderer. Just when life seems most chaotic and lacking in the profound connections that can link individuals, an association about a writer or a book brings two people together in a strange city. “Only connect” is something else that Forster wrote.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Giornale Pugliese III: Masseria

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen

Architectural legacies are more often than not caused by existential conditions that are the result of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Puglia, which is known as the heel of Italy, is positioned in such a way that historically made it vulnerable to invasions. For instance, it’s only 150km from Albania. Turks, Berbers, Normans and Lombards have all left their mark, a fact that’s dramatically evidenced as one travels through villages of Puglia, where the presence of olive skinned residents in one village contrasts with the blond-haired, blue-eyed anomalies in another. The advent of masserie, or fortified farmhouses, which dot the countryside of Puglia and which in some cases have been turned into luxury hotels, exemplifies how the locals once dealt with both foreign aggression and a rugged, arid landscape. A masseria was usually built over caves, which provided cover for a standing army as well as storage for the property’s mill products and an area where pressed olives could be turned into oil. Masserie once epitomized what now might be termed sustainability, in that they were elaborate agricultural sites that met the needs of the local populace, even transporting water in from other provinces via aqueducts. Puglia’s forward-looking energy policy, based on the use of solar power, is undoubtedly the result of survival techniques that were passed down from generations of Pugliese who grew up in these masserie.