Monday, October 31, 2011

Alice Munro

Russ Scurr’s review of Alice Munro’s New Selected Stories in the TLS is itself something that aficionados of Alice Munro’s work should run to read (“The Darkness of Alice Munro,” TLS, 10/4/11). If you subscribe to the TLS you now have automatic access to their online edition and if you haven’t read this review/essay you should, for the locutions alone. In analyzing a Munro story called “Chance” from 2004, Scurr zeros in on one of the characters, a 21 year old PhD  candidate named Juliet who happens to be reading E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational while riding on a train. The young woman pushes off the advances of a man who then commits suicide just as her period intensifies, one bloody act superimposed upon the other. Scurr goes back to Dodds’ book which begins with the following quote from William James, “The recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder states of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making.”  Scurr goes on to say, “Munro centers her fiction on catching real fact in the making in precisely this Jamesian sense. Her characters are meticulously located…Through their specific constrained lives she probes the human condition…she explores the irrational states associated with dreaming, sexually desiring and murdering. Her characters are almost case studies; her artistry in creating and observing them recalls the  close attention and cool detachment of a psychoanalyst.”  Munro’s stories, which have appeared in The New Yorker for years are deceptive since they mostly take place in provincial Canadian towns. The fact that they are really tales and not the kind of modernist collages that sometimes appear in The New Yorker sometimes draws attention away from the subtlties of Munro's sophisticated style that as Scurr points out proceeds “through hiatus and interruption.” Scurr’s review/essay elucidates both the intellectual ambition and emotional profundity of Munro’s work.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Eye in the Sky

In a recent story, the Times’ John Markoff described the creation of a fully automated data base which some weird sounding government agencies are supporting(“'Government Aims to Build A "Data Eye In the Sky'” NYT, 10/10/11). Markoff pointed out that Isaac Asimov had anticipated this kind of collaboration between "mathematics and psychology to predict the future" when he coined the term “psychohistory” in his Foundation series back in l951. The term “cyberspace" emanated from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the concept of the web was prefigured in Samuel Delaney’s novels so we shouldn’t be surprised at Asimov’s prescience. Markoff quotes someone named Thomas Malone, identified as director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at M.I.T. and  mentions Intelligence Advanced  Research Projects Activity or Iarpa, “part of the office of the director of national intelligence.”  Does this sound like something to worry about? Is such tech speak tantamount to the 'banality of evil'?  Should we be assured when we’re told that this system would be fully automated?  Is there such a thing a value free data collection? “The automated data collection system is to focus on patterns of communication, consumption, and movement of populations,” Markoff reported. “It will use publicly accessible data,  including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic web cams and changes in Wikipedia entries.” There has always been a certain ambiguity about Big Brother? Was Orwell referring to a human entity or a  collective consciousness? Even Wikipedia, which puts forth the dichotomy, can't seem to decide. Was he anticipating some sort of artificial and transcendent intelligence, resulting from the kind of “data eye in the sky” that is being talked about—a more evolved form of the military industrial complex that we might term the academic/intelligence complex?  Or was he simply envisioning the E-Z pass?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cries and Whispers at BAM

Last summer Carey Mulligan starred in what amounted to a staged reading of the Bergman script Through a Glass Darkly. The Flemish director’s Ivo van Hove’s Cries and Whispers is as much a transformation of Bergman as say Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was of Shakespeare. Bergman was firmly the artist in control of his characters in his original movie. In van Hove’s adaptation his dying character is the artist, creating in this case a multi-media (video and painting) rendition of her own death. Where Cries and Whispers might have recalled Chekhov’s Three Sisters in the powerful relationships created, van Hove’s work is reminiscent of the artist Hannah Wilke’s documentation of her own demise. Pictures are constantly being generated and remind us that we are a culture of image collectors. The collecting of the images takes the place of memory and even contains an element of wishful thinking. If we are too busy recording ourselves will there be no time to die? What are we humans going to do with all the pictures we ceaselessly take? That is not a question van Hove is asking, but it’s a good question to ask in a digital age in which pictures are so facilely rendered that there will never be enough hours in anyone’s life to see them all. The first half of the current production is literally disembodied even as the dying Agnes (Chris Nietvelt) is figuratively disemboweled. But the further away it drifts from Bergman’s narrative the closer it comes to the spirit of the great master and there is one scene between Karin (Janni Goslinga) and Maria (Helena Reijn) which has the dramatic power of Persona. Bergman's Cries and Whispers employed intense colors (in particular red, white and black) and to that extent was a product of its time. The narcissistic self recording which characterizes van Hove's Cries and Whispers is what makes the current production timely. Be prepared besides an Alice in Wonderland set composed of projections and silhouettes this Cries and Whispers features a soundtrack highlighted by Janis Joplin singing Cry Baby.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXVIII: Feeling His Neurogastronomic Juices

You’ve heard of neuroeconomics, neuro law and a host of other disciplines which try to isolate areas of the brain that are involved in undertaking  particular types of thinking or emoting. Neurogastronomy is the latest entry into the neuro sweepstakes and it’s the “brain” child of Miguel Sanchez Romera, a neurologist who has named a restaurant after himself, and whose pretensions, which include a $245 prix fixe menu, have provoked the ire of one time Times restaurant critic now Op Ed columnist Frank Bruni (“Dinner and Derangement,” NYT, 10/17/11). Here is a quote from the restaurant’s web site: “Neurogastronomy embodies a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient. The result is a natural cuisine driven by the importance of neurosensory perceptions, the taste-memory and the emotions of food.”  Some restaurants get bad reviews, but few get lambasted on the editorial page of the paper of record. Bruni’s wrath was such that he wrote a an op-ed piece about it proclaiming how the restaurant exemplified “the way our culture’s food madness tips into food psychosis.” “While blazers are optional at Romera,” Bruni remarked, “straitjackets would be a fine idea.” Though Bruni’s biting humor might not spare Dr. Romera’s feelings, there’s a certain poetic justice in this fillip against a provider who doesn’t spare his patrons’ purses. Bruni’s verdict on Romera is a kind of culinary Sharia since it hits Dr.Romera where it hurts. But Bruni’s Inquisition is a breath of fresh air at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to find simple well cooked food at moderate prices. Food has become like the emperor’s new clothes. People actually fall over each other paying exorbitant prices for increasingly microscopic portions, while this time Chicken Little may turn out to be right. The sky is falling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Letter from Riverhead

A friend writes: “I just got back from a truly marvelous vacation and one that was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I went on a walking tour of discount supermarkets. You go to Costco, Sam’s Club and end up at the BJ’s Wholesale Club on Route 58 in Riverhead. Butterfield and Robinson is a Canada based touring company that specializes in high end biking and walking tours and there are some multi-sports of which this one should qualify since there was walking and shopping for items like toilet paper in bulk. In these economically challenging times many active vacation companies which specialize in bike trips to the Loire where they place their customers in Chateaus at night and pick up the pieces the next day, when wine tastings lead to bike crashes, should consider this growing new market. Holiday Inn Expresses can replace the chateaus with chains like Panera’s and  the Olive Garden substituting for the two and three star Michelins that still grace high end tours. The spirit of the old active vacation trips was still there, if the clientele was somewhat changed in both attitude and appearance. The high rollers, who normally would check their walking sticks and settle back by the pool with a bottles of Merlot, were now seen heading back to the same discount supermarkets they’d spent the day touring with their new found coupon books in hand.  Our trip ended with tearful fair wells at the BBB (Bed, Bath and Beyond), about a mile from I-495, the Interstate that would carry us all back into the major airports and Manhattan—from which we would all disperse to the four corners of the earth.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

Delacroix, David and Revolutionary France

Here’s a curatorial quote about Ingres’ Studies for the Turkish Bath (1859-60),one of the collection of drawings hanging in show Delacroix, David and Revolutionary France currently on display at the Morgan. “In this large preparatory sheet, the eroticism of the Turkish Bath is anticipated in a series of lushly rendered figure studies drawn from life. The sheet seems to summarize Ingres’ ongoing fascination with the female body and reveals a more vigorous richly modeled approach than is typical of his drawings.” The austerity of the portraits of Madame and Monsieur Louis-Francois Bertin, publisher of the Journal de debats and a major cultural figure during the July monarchy of Louis-Philippe, testifies to the polarities of sensuality and severity within the character of Ingres. David Hockney once propounded the theory that Ingres used an optical device and the question with Ingres is always whether the lines are copied or found. Odalisque and Slave from l839, mounted in a separate exhibit of just Ingres drawings simultaneously on display at the Morgan, of course, poses another question entirely, how is it possible to produce a drawing that has the detail, depth and dimensionality of a painting? Two studies by Delacroix on the Death of Sardanapalus, one of his murders and the other of his spoils are brilliant exemplars of how the handmaiden to painting often exhibits a brilliance, modernity and freedom that, in the hands of a master draftsman, can outdo the painting itself. Gericault, Daumier are amongst the other artists whose works are on exhibited in the Delacroix, David show and it's an exhibit that's a testament to social as well as artistic revolution. Apparently Ingres said that the plaque above his studio should read Ecole de dessin.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Evil

Rae Langton’s review of Terry Eagleton’s On Evil in the TLS (“All About Death,” TLS, 9/23/11) begins at the crossroads of Christian theology and psychoanalytic pathology. “Eagleton’s project is to regard evil in terms of a Freudian morality play that doffs its cap, in all the right places, to its venerable Christian forebears,” Langton remarks. Later Langton says in commenting on Eagleton’s thesis, “The special character of evil is to be located in its attitude, its death-seeking desire to somehow make a nothingness of being.” Not surprisingly Eagleton, being a prominent literary critic, uses literary sources to make his point, amongst them, William Golding’s Pincher Martin, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Eagleton quotes Greene about Pinkie, the iconic criminal at the heart of the novel thusly, “God couldn’t escape the evil mouth which chose to eat its own damnation.” Leverkuhn, the protagonist of Doctor Faustus presents a unique twist on evil as he flirts with his own annihilation for the sake of art. Langton is critical of Eagleton to the extent that he finds limiting evil to being “an attitude to non-being he leaves out some of its more mundane features.” Finally Langton asks “Will readers be charmed by this Freudian rendition of original sin?” as the roots of the Holocaust are sought in what Langton describes as the weak reminding “the powerful of their own inner nothingness.” Langton admits that Eagleton pre-empts criticism by eschewing the very examples he supplies offering up Kant who “described ‘radical evil’ as a fundamental egoistic choice to place our own ends above those of others.” In the end Langton dismisses Eagleton’s “Freudian Calvinism,” saying “there is need for social change that will render evil less reasonable and readily learnable” urging Eagleton to write “another book on evil, giving voice to his Marxist Jekyll, instead of his Freudian Hyde.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Skin I Live In

The notion of the mad doctor or scientist, who kidnaps and imprisons subjects for his experiments, is a staple of horror films. It is a also unfortunately a recurrent staple of reality, where newspaper headlines routinely report cases of imprisonment. In one an Austrian psychopath, Josef Fritzl, actually fathered children with the imprisoned daughter he’d incested. If nothing else Pedro Almodovar ‘s The Skin I Live In exemplifies the director’s obsession with plot. Horror film plots, romantic plots crimes of passion are all gris for this plotmeister.  He is the most plotty of modernists. No Bergman or especially Antonioni film was ever so heavy on plots as Almodovar's are and The Skin I live In takes the cake. The enormous reticulations of the plot in question lead to the simple conclusion that however much we change the surface, the inside of the human being is stubbornly unmalleable . The skin we live in is still an intransigent ego, no matter how much it’s tattooed or it the case of  the term the film coins, transgenesized. It’s an anti-Pygmalion if you like or another version of Vertigo in which the protagonist falls in love with someone who doesn’t exist. What’s really interesting is the brute grief that lies at the heart of all the desire to remake and reshape reality--another curiously simple, but essential element that is like the sun around which the other planets of the complex story turn. Louise Bourgeois makes a cameo appearance in the form of a book of her work. Bourgeois’ sculptures are psychohistories and testaments to trauma. The appearance of the Bourgeois book also makes a cool art critical point in comparing plastic surgery with her preoccupations. Robert Ledgard (Antonion Banderas) the villainous plastic surgeon who drives the action has lost his wife (a burn victim who jumped out of the window on seeing her reflection) and a daughter (who has never recovered from the trauma of seeing her human cinder of a mother fall to the ground). There is yet another level of the movie having to do with other mothers, the mother of the plastic surgeon  and the mother of the kidnapped victim, a young man who undergoes a vaginoplasty. To return back to Vertigo, the movie is vertiginous, highly flawed and much more powerful than some critics are crediting.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stonewalled III: Post Modernist Sexuality

Sexuality is a biological drive, but it is also a figment of the imagination. If consciousness is ever separated from the body, with our species preserved as pixels of intelligence migrating through cyberspace, then the very notion of what it means to be male and female will revert to being a fiction.  Our present culture is obsessed with pornography, which has become infinitely ubiquitous and is still looked at as a virus which distracts unwary minds from a more innocent sexuality—which they might be more prone to undertake had they not become so infected. But is there reason to believe that pornography has become the fuel for migrating consciousnesses that are increasingly separated from the mother ship? We are still men and women, made of flesh and blood and hormones, but increasingly we find our functions usurped by technology. No wonder radically fundamentalist religions are so intent on shielding their followers from the influences of modernity. Enlightenment ideals of reason and equanimity have no  place amidst the brute inequities of biology. It’s no wonder that there is so much sexual dysfunction in the battered and defeated armies of heterosexual culture.  However, there is a hope. Once mankind has totally done away with its dependence on the body—Ray Kurzweil’s idea of immortality coming in the form of organs made from microprocesssors is only one of a number of possible outcomes—then sex will take its rightful place as one of a number of cultural institutions for which tickets are purchased say like for Lincoln Center or BAM.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stonewalled II

Early feminists had railed against pornography and the objectification of women, but feminism was evolving and succeeding generations began to reevaluate the role of the women in the context of  Enlightenment notions of freedom and liberty. It would be hard to consider the famous Italian porn star and politician la Cicciolina, who was the wife of the sculptor Jeff Koons, to be an example of a woman who was exploited by men even though she might, in fact, be the object of their fantasies. Entrepreneurial personalities like la Cicciolina and Madonna marketed their own bodies without the need of exploitative male pimps and were in control of their own destinies. By the 1980's Vagina envy replaced penis envy as the manifestation of covetousness between the sexes. As Camille Paglia would point out in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nerfertiti to Emily Dickinson women had superior powers, both physically (genitally) and metaphysically, of which men were in awe. Men’s need to compensate with increasingly violent pornography centering around the notion of submission, in particular gagging (deep throating) and defiling (facials), were signs of male jealousy rather than male desire (and ultimately exemplified the higher regard in which females were held by their male counterparts). Within the short period of time from 1969, in which the Stonewall riots occurred and gays had begun to assert their rights, heterosexual men and women had begun a journey of their own, characterized by a new dialectic in which self-realization and self-expression challenged both classical feminist and male chauvinist ideals.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


In the '50s and even '60s, it was still fun to be a heterosexual. You were part of a group. The guys watched football and maintained a double standard in which they worshipped or defiled the opposite sex depending on whether they were courting their ideal or preying upon unreciprocated love. On the distaff side there were a complementary set of affects, not so much having to do with the dichotomy between romance and lust as with the notions of beauty and femininity. Two of JFK’s love objects were thus Jackie, a lady, and Marilyn, a siren. Then the pendulum shifted and it became more fun to be gay. After Stonewall, gay people came out of the closet in droves and wreaked vengeance against their  tormentors. Now it was not only fun to flaunt and turn images of what it meant to be male or female upside down, it was a cause. Sexuality was not merely a matter of desire, but of rights, and so a whole class of gay and lesbian people who’d had to hide their inclinations fought for the right to be legally married (and call their male partner “wife” or their female partner “husband”) and join the military. Male heterosexuals were literally left walking away with their tails, or penises, between their legs, for masculinity, at least in its heterosexual form, was troubled and impotence was on the rise. If only impotence and loss of desire were a cause, some guys might have been able to walk away with shit-eating grins. But now the troubled heterosexual was in the position of the still-closeted homosexual of the '50s. Our new all-American male had something to hide. And how did  the post feminist heterosexual female fit into the picture? (To be continued.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ecole de Nettoyage

Nettoyage is a French word that refers to house cleaning, but the modern école de nettoyage, which grants terminal degrees in house cleaning, generally has a school of continuing ed where you can attend non-credit courses on relieving oneself. Wouldn’t it be great to feel the next time you use an airport bathroom that you will know your way around the faucets, and the next time you hit a rest stop on the thruway you won’t feel that you need to worry about your husband or wife accusing you of having an illicit relationship when you contract an STD from the fowl waters shooting up into your asshole, vagina or penis? Have you ever gone into a bathroom at one of the airports and stuck your hand under the electric-eye controlled soap dispenser? Have you ever then stuck your hand under the electric-eye controlled water faucet to no avail? Have there ever been instances where neither the soap nor the water has come out, no matter how frantically you have waved your hand under the dispensers or faucets? Have you ever gone into a stall on The New York State Thruway and found that the electric-eye controlled flusher flushes while you are still sitting so that the unfriendly waters in the drain shoot up into your orifices? Have you ever been in one of those futuristic affairs where there are no electric eyes, but at the same time no recognizable soap, water or paper towel dispensers? Have you just had to go on your nerve in these strange bathrooms and has it ever seemed to you, once you have entered such an environment, that you are never going to be able cleanse yourself or even go to the bathroom to begin with? In today’s modern world, it is becoming increasingly necessary to attend an école de nettoyage.

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Outline of Sexual History

The English writer David Lodge has written in a novel about H.G. Wells called A Man of Parts. Lodge wouldn’t have been true to his subject if he hadn’t painted the famed author as bedding everything in sight. Apparently Wells had the kind of charismatic intellect that made women forget any of that famed piece of psychobabblese known as boundaries, but Wells certainly didn’t stand alone. Cross the channel almost a century earlier and you’d find Hugo and cross it a few decades later and you’d find Georges Simenon, the human bunny. Bertrand Russell was man of peace, but he also was a swordsman. It’s always refreshing to know there are people like Wilt Chamberlain who reputedly slept with  l0,000 women and Catherine the Great who, according to myth, was a great stud in reverse and whose doomed relationship with a horse was harbinger of the partitioning of Berlin during the cold war. Sexual appetite when it reaches these gargantuan proportions has something in common with extreme Genius (Shakespeare) and Evil (Hitler). There is something almost spiritual about it that represents the departure of the soul from the body to the extent that the body begins to function soullessly and without the burdens of conscience. There are great talents like Chaucer, Rabelais and Henry Miller who have undertaken to imagine extraordinary feats of sexual prowess. However it’s one thing to write a dirty poem like Catullus and another to be Caligula himself.  The interesting thing about Wells was that he was of modest birth and had none of the entitlement that characterized the great dandies of the Edwardian period. The fact that he lacked the Sadian noblesse oblige makes him one impressive Lothario.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Diasporic Dining XXVII: A Word to the Wise

Andrew F. Smith, according to a recent Times obit, is the author of The Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food. "He widely gets the credit for Doritos," the Times, quotes Smith as saying about the recently deceased Arch West ("Arch West, Who Helped Create Doritos Corn Chips, Is Dead at 97" 9/28/11).  A spokesman for Frito-Lay, who the Times also quotes, was more hesitant in giving credit where credit is due, saying, “As a company there’s never one person to invent or is the mother or father of a given product.” This is the first any of you has probably heard of the hive mentality at Frito-Lay. Who ever thought that Frito-Lay was like one of those ant colonies that are studied in close-up on The Discovery Channel? In this regard the obit is an exercise in contradiction. On the one hand you plainly have a company with machines that account for the 5 billion in sales that make Doritos their “second-best seller.” On the other you have a solitary man thinking up new ideas. The Times quotes Mr. West’s daughter Jane Hacker describing how the family, on holiday in San Diego, stopped at "a little shack restaurant where these people were making a fried corn chip." The rest, as they say, is history, and for lovers of Doritos the Times obit, with its citations from the Smith tome, is a wellspring of recondite knowledge and observation about the effect of phenomena like Taco Bell on the advent of Doritos. Suffice it to say that the cheesy and spicy taste of the Dorito, which first went into production in 1964, was a rebellion against the quietism of the '50s, when Americans imbibed a numbing variety of less distinctive junk foods. Eating potato chips might have been practical, but it wasn’t always the Wise thing to do. Arch West changed that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age

The Times' Dwight Garner recently reviewed the latest edition of Dale Carnegie's classic tome (“Classic Advice: Please, Leave Well Enough Alone,” NYT, 10/5/11) The review of the updated version of the long-time bestseller, which has sold over 30 million copies according to Garner—and will soon reach its 75th anniversary—appeared on the front page of the paper. The new book, which lists the authorship of Dale Carnegie and Associates and Brent Cole, is called How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. A self-help book in the age of the Internet is almost an oxymoron, but we should remember that it was William Gibson who coined the word “cyberspace” in his science fiction classic Neuromancer. It’s fun to imagine what it will take to cut an imposing figure on the Internet, where sites like and insert viral imagery into the unsuspecting browser. Can you imagine entering a site or chat room the way someone might have attended one of the suburban gatherings that John Updike describes in Couples or that John Cheever depicts in Bullet Park? Hi I’m Bill Witherspoon and this is my avatar Bill Witherspoon. Garner constructed a helpful little table in his review, comparing the language between the old and new Carnegies and between the old and updated edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, which was also under review. So the corresponding update on Dale Carnegie’s original “We nourish the bodies of our children and friends and employees, but how seldom do we nourish their self-esteem?” becomes “While self-help and self-promotion are not inherently deficient pursuits, problems always arise when the stream of self-actualization is dammed within us.” Wow, how are we going to make friends and influence people with such atomic powered locutions?  Dale Carnegie was Dr. Feelgood, but if Garner’s table is any indicator, then it’s going to be hard to influence other people. With consciousness spinning like an electron, you’ll never get out of your own head.

Monday, October 10, 2011

de Kooning Retrospective

Capitalism and Marxism were the two predominant ideologies of the l9th and 20th centuries, and those who gloat over the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union made capitalism the winner might be counting their chickens before they’re hatched. The sociologist Daniel Bell wrote a book called The End of Ideology. Later came Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In the world of art, the two great ideologies were of the l9th and 20th centuries were figuration and abstraction, and it would be nice to associate the more traditional form with the more traditional ideology. But, as we know, artistic and political avant-gardists chose different paths, and the art of the totalitarian state tended more towards traditional than non-representational or revolutionary forms. Clement Greenberg became the ideologist of abstract expressionism, doing for revolution in art what Marx did in politics, and showing that the work of Rothko, Pollock and others was the necessary product of history, at least from the point of view of what might be called evolutionary esthetics. Which brings us to the interesting case of de Kooning, whose works are now on display in a retrospective at MoMA. De Kooning is to art what Daniel Bell and Fukayama were to political philosophy. Here are some of his quotes, taken right off the walls the museum: “Art should not have to be a certain way;” figuration or abstraction “could simply be different options;” “I never was interested in how to make a good painting…but to see how far one could get;” “Being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional.” Of one of his most famous paintings, Excavation, he said, “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in, drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.” Whether de Kooning’s anti-doctrinaire views emanated from Picasso or not, the two artists shared an obsessiona love-hate relationship to women (to regress into psychobabblese). Picasso’s famous portraits of women were a hard act to follow. They had to be the monkey on de Kooning’s back. His Woman I (1950-2) is a kind of Mona Lisa in reverse. Did he adore or revile his creation, a vagina dententa (with the dententa part placed right back in the mouth) with glowering eyes? Picasso’s discarded women became his masterpieces, but de Kooning was far more faithful to his ambivalence.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Terra Cotta Warriors

If you’ve ever been in the company of friends who’ve been to China, you’ve heard them launch into the requisite, world-weary confirmation that they have indeed seen the Terra Cotta Warriors. The establishment of this fact has the quality of a salutation. It’s like the meaningless “How was your trip?” converted into Renminbis. Of course there is also the Great Wall. How could one go to China without “doing the Wall?” doing being the gerund that is generally used by affluent couples who joylessly check off the must-see sites in their progress from middle to late-middle age. Imagine going to China and not seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors. What would happen? Would one have to make an appearance before the International Criminal Court of Tourism, where travelers who have gone to Rome without journeying to either the Caracalla Baths or the Vatican are put on trial, along with those refuseniks who, when visiting London, play hooky on seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Many nice, intelligent people go to these sites. Many of them have advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, so it is hard to fathom what is going on. Did André Malraux visit the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors or the Forbidden City when he was collecting the impressions he reflected on in Man’s Fate? OK, yes, the Forbidden City was probably not as overrun by tourists as it is today, and the Terra Cotta Warrior had yet to be unearthed, but you get the idea. Great fiction writers like Malraux, Graham Greene and V.S. Naipaul who travel and write about their travels more often than not tend to prefer red light districts to tourist sites, for what it’s worth.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Threepenny Opera

Brecht cut against his own intrinsic sentimentality by constantly breaking down the fourth wall and reminding us that all was fake, all was artifice, and the human condition was far too complex to tolerate the idealizations of catharsis. This is what is known as the Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. Robert Wilson out-Verfremdungseffekts even Brecht in his current production of The Threepenny Opera at BAM. Firstly, it’s Wilson, so everything is slowed down. Secondly, the production is a virtual iconography party, from the scratching sounds of an old phonograph to Chaplinesque vaudevillian touches and sound effects that evoke the themes of ingestion and regurgitation that are so intrinsic to Brecht’s characterization of man as beast. The world is poor and man is shit. Food is the first thing. Morals follow. The words evoke the classic Brechtian theme of man as a thinking animal. The famed Theater de Lys production with Lotte Lenya that became a Manhattan institution spawned an LP that many baby boomers grew up listening to. One may question the extravagance of Wilson’s direction, which almost seems in competition with earlier interpretations, like the one at the de Lys, with their more intimate cacophonies. At the same time there are two things that really bring the crème to the surface. One is the performance by the Berliner Ensemble, which Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel founded. The other is Wilson’s mastery at creating a spectacle out of human consciousness. There is nothing like hearing The Threepenny Opera in German. Mack the Knife becomes Mackie Messer, and Stefan Kurt will probably turn out to be one of the great Macheaths.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Las Vegas Journal II: Leaving Las Vegas

Back in 1972 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour wrote a watershed work, which became the bible of postmodernism, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas. Classics like Caesar’s Palace, The Golden Nugget and The Flamingo (the first real Las Vegas casino hotel, built by Bugsy Siegel)—became the centerpiece of the glorification of vernacularism, as manifested in architecture. If you’ve ever felt any love for the McDonald’s arch or how it might function as a secular form of the crucifix, then you understand Las Vegas’ heretical rebellion against the sleek perfectionism of Mies van der Rohe and other modernists who dominated the post-war landscape. But Las Vegas has not learned anything from Las Vegas. It’s the only city where you can buy a tee shirt on the strip that reads “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck,” and where you can experience a series of faux environments that are a black hole sucking in the big chains and the chain smokers and the cult followers of the movie Leaving Las Vegas, who, drink in hand (apparently there are no municipal ordinances against public drinking), attempt to outdo the depravity of the original script. Monumental glamour bathrooms that resemble mausoleums are Las Vegas’ contribution to modern architectural style. The musical Cats has a famous song called “Memory.” The theme song of Las Vegas could be titled “Mammary,” seeing as the ersatz Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, King Tut’s tomb and Lake Como are littered with a plenitude of ersatz mammary. Silicone is everywhere, and it’s hard to tell the hookers from the wannabees just showing up for the weekend to audition. Venturi, Brown and Izenour had a cool idea, but the original site has abused their revelation. It’s an excuse for a proliferation of despair that’s infected the once pristine desert like a virus. After a day walking along the strip, one longs for the real Palladio.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Las Vegas Journal: The Bicycle Thief

Vittoria De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is a truly great classic of post-war Italian neorealism. It’s a little like Gogol’s The Overcoat—a story of the loss of a seemingly mundane item that has great significance to an impoverished worker, who invests the object with almost magical significance. De Sica’s protagonist voyages in despair through Rome with his son, vainly trying to recover a lost bicycle. In a latter-day version of De Sica’s tale, a guest recently checked into the Las Vegas MGM Grand, only to arrive at his room bereft of a valued duffle bag. Anyone who has ever visited the MGM Grand will realize that any comparison with post-war Rome is nil. Bombed-out buildings and ancient ruins are replaced by an air of gaudy opulence and faux antiquity. Still, a lost bag is a lost bag, and when you have been deprived of something, you desire it even more, even if the contents—a couple of shirts, some underwear and socks—are relatively modest. But lo, myths are constantly being made. Every River Acheron provides its Charon, every Inferno its Virgil. In this case the MGM sent a messenger named Deepak from hospitality, who exuded a Buddha-like compassion, leading the traveler from the gruff, unhelpful lost-and-found attendant, who acted and looked like a dangerous barking dog, to the inner sanctum of hotel security, manned by one Officer Dobbs. Dobbs, a genial fellow with an earplug, knew his way around the maelstrom. The check-in time of the traveler was ascertained, recordings made by hotel video cameras were studied, and it was determined that the bag had never come into the MGM in the first place. Rather, it had been left in a cab whose number was easily identified. By three o’clock the next morning the bag was returned.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tom Jones Reconsidered

Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) is an insidious film that had a deleterious affect on the manners and morals of a generation of young men and women. After 48 years the movie should finally be banned, along with the 18th-century Fielding novel on which it was based and the script by John Osborne of Look Back in Anger fame. Now you’ll ask what’s so bad about a largely forgotten mid-20th-century film starring Albert Finney, who was only 27 when the role of Tom earned him an Academy Award nomination. What’s wrong is table manners—Tom’s bawdy adventures with wenches are exemplifications of poor etiquette. Emily Post would not approve. As depicted in the film, Tom had a Henry VIII complex, though he was plainly the embodiment of the notion of everyman as libertine. It is really unpleasant to be in the company of someone like Tom, who has his fun at expense of others. Richardson’s movie glamorizes gluttony and eating as a sexual act in the same way that Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs glorifies violence. Both the film and the book are incidentally sexist in that they sensationalize the function of mammary glands, fetishistically objectifying them along with their possessors, and turning both into a form of nourishment. If Pasolini had made Tom Jones, he would have had men exhibiting their penises instead of women showing off their breasts. However, it is doubtful that this would have been much of an improvement.