Monday, December 31, 2012

Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2

The question is, was the launching of the satellite by the North Koreans, a stillbirth? The Times   interviewed a Harvard astronomer named Jonathan McDowell who said, “It’s spinning or tumbling and we haven’t picked up any transmissions. Those two things are most consistent with the satellite being entirely inactive at this point.” (“Astonomers Say North Korean Satellitge is Mostly Likely Dead,” NYT, 12/17/12) Meanwhile the Times also reported that the North Korean “state media” have been portraying the launch as a resounding success, claiming that the satellite is broadcasting such hot songs as “Song of Gen. Kim Il-sung” and “Song of Gen. Kim Jong-il” while “South Korean media detected what they considered a visibly swollen belly” on Ri Sol-ju, the wife of the new North Korean leader.  Schadenfreude is a German word that is used by psychoanalysts to describe the enjoyment of another person’s suffering. If we take pleasure in hearing that something bad has happened to an enemy, we suffer from Schadenfreude. Being able to enjoy the success of someone we hate or who threatens us might be the equivalent of turning the other cheek. Ri Sol-ju’s miscarrying would be a great triumph for the Schadenfreudians, but the birth of a healthy baby and the satellite launch proving such a success that Song of Gen. Kim Jong-il becomes a phenomenon on You Tube would at the very least be a challenge to those turn the other cheekers who might not like Kim Jong-un’s militaristic politics. Meanwhile get the name of the satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2.  A moniker like that poses a communications problem all its own.

Friday, December 28, 2012


If you utter “la mort" slowly and let it slide off your tongue, it sounds like “l'amour.” Try it. Michael Haneke’s film, Amour, currently at Film Forum, plays with this sonority since it’s about the most cherished and dreaded of life processes. The image of Anne (Emannuelle Riva), an ailing concert pianist falling into the arms of her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he takes her to the bathroom, is one of love and death. Amour is an autopsy of death and its unsettling intimacy lies in the way it paints the little moments, the intimacies of decline. Stillness is Haneke’s music and most encounters in Amour (as in the director’s previous film, The White Ribbon) lead to some form of set piece. Anne tells him to turn off a CD. Then Haneke frames the couple, her wheelchair in profile against him, and holds the shot. Georges is a storyteller and the vignettes he relates become like signposts— not act I, act II, act III, but stone markers on a trail. Amidst the ghastly and at the same time quotidian goings on, Georges attends a friend’s funeral. Anne wants to hear about it and it’s to the director’s credit that he’s able to pull off a laugh-out-loud funny scene. Apparently George’s friend’s urn is too large for the gurney it’s placed on and the friend’s secretary in a moment of passion decides to play the Beatles’s “Yesterday.” The priest who gives the eulogy turns out to be an utter fool. As George concludes what amounts to a very good standup routine, Anne announces that she doesn’t want to live. The diagnosis of Haneke’s characters is critical and their fate inevitable, but the genius and humanity of the film is that its disquisition is never predictable.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

All That Fall at BAM

One may or may not accuse Beckett of being a dualist, but no writer is as adept at dramatizing the Cartesian agony. Put in another light, let us just say that Beckett, a la what Harold Bloom said about Shakespeare, dramatized what it means to be human. The Pan Pan Theater Company’s production of Beckett’s All That Fall recently completed a run at BAM. All That Fall was written as a radio play and even though it has been staged as a conventional theater piece, Gavin Quinn who directed, remained faithful to Beckett’s original intentions.The audience sat on rocking chairs in a darkness that was punctuated with brilliant lighting and sound effects. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed Fred Newman on Prairie Home Companion would delight in comparing notes with what Pan Pan sound designer Jimmy Eadie brilliantly accomplished for this rendition with its trains and mooing and constant footsteps. Albeit, this is a radio play, the audience’s being deprived of sight (like one of its central characters who is blind) is curiously Beckettian in and of itself. Disembodiment is one of Beckett's ongoing themes. For instance, in the famous Not I, Billie Whitelaw is just a mouth uttering words. In Film, Buster Keaton gradually looses his sense of self-conception. In the current production of All That Fall, the audience is in the dark literarily and metaphorically. There is a wonderful monologue in All That Fall (which is not to be confused with Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, though it’s striking that two so radically dissimilar playwrights appropriated the same iconography) in which Beckett’s central character, Maddy (Ain Ni Mhuiri), describes having gone to hear a lecture by a neurologist as a way of dealing with her lifelong obsession with horses’s buttocks. The lecturer is giving a case history of a girl he couldn’t help. At the end he concludes that all she suffered from was the fact that she was dying “and she did as soon as he washed his hands of her.” What better argument for a mind/body dichotomy? In another section Maddy's husband, Dan (Andrew Bennett), does an accounting of his existence and figures out that it would be far more profitable if he simply stayed home and did nothing and yet another character is described as coping with pain by beating his wife. “What a piece of work in man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Inventing Inventing Abstraction

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky
There are sultanates in the Middle East and there is the sullenate of Manhattan which appears as midtown begins to empty out in the hours before Christmas Eve. If you are foolish enough to think you can avoid the crowds lining up for the newly installed Inventing Abstraction Show at MOMA by  going on Christmas Eve, you are left holding the bag, i.e. holding your overly salty perennially disappointing oversized pretzel in your hand as you are greeted by an unbeauteous yellow notice behind a closed grate, “Museum Closes at 3:00 P.M. Today." But you can enjoy the low definition approach by which the imagination fills in the space between the lines. Inventing Abstraction…who needs a show? You can invent inventing abstraction in your own mind. To begin with it’s not realism. So you don’t have to worry about illusion and therefore perspective. You don’t have to worry about the painting representing anything. Why? Because the painting is about itself. Admittedly you read these ideas when you were studying Clement Greenberg and you also read about people like Duchamp who said that art didn’t have to be a gilt framed portrait of the dauphin. It could even be a urinal. Though you’re making your way down Fifth Avenue rather than Broadway, you’re reminded of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Yeah, art can be a little bit like music too, patterns interrelating for the sake of themselves. You’re still itching about not being able to see the new show. Secretly you’d also hoped you’d get lucky and have been one of the fortunate ones who didn’t have to sacrifice their lives in order to see The Clock (also on exhibit at MOMA. However, in your frustration in not finding something to fill the emptiness you always feel on Christmas Eve, you started to talk to yourself and in the course of talking, you leaned a little something about what you thought about art.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Soul Power

Christmas and Hanukkah are deeply religious holidays yet joyful as compared to say Lent and Yom Kippur which being thoughtful and penitential involve some degree of bodily deprivation—particularly as it relates to the ingestion of food. Both Christmas and Hanukkah also celebrate miracles. In the case of Christmas, it’s the virgin birth and in the case of Hanukkah, it's the miracle of the Menorah which only had enough oil to burn for one night but still burned for 8. Believers and non-believers enjoy these holidays, but they ultimately make the theological assertion, if there are miracles, there must be a God. Miracle on 34 Street is a delight, yet it’s also an argument for divinity. And if there is a God, there must be a soul. But there’s the rub. If we look at life in an evolutionary perspective (and as a number of scientists have said, “evolution is not a theory, it’s a fact), we would have to accord the existence of souls to the whole of Noah’s Ark and even to lower forms, like one-celled amoebae. We may be acting a trifle like the medieval scholastic asking how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. However, is the soul of an amoeba the same as the soul of a man? Let’s say there are 50 or l00 trillion cells in the human body, does the amoeba then have a soul that is one l00 trillionith the size of man? Is the soul equatable to consciousness, with creatures lower down on the evolutionary ladder, with only vestiges of consciousness possessing fractional degrees of soul power? Children wake up on Christmas and run to look at the presents under the tree and as they excitedly unwrap the gifts that have been delivered from the North Pole by Santa in his sled, their parents are left with the responsibility for finding answers to the unanswerable.