Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Diasporic Dining XXXI: The Unbearable Lightness of Corned Beef

Matt Dillon starred in The Flamingo Kid (1984), a coming of age movie which takes place on Atlantic Beach in the 60’s. Like Atlantic Beach, Lido Beach leads right into Long Beach a more modest community on the South Shore of Long Island that’s famed for its boardwalk, from whose berth
 a generation of old Jewish pensioners overlooked a monumental expanse of sand leading to the Atlantic. It’s from Lido Beach that the Lido Kosher Deli gets its name. East Park Avenue is one of the main thoroughfares that runs parallel to the ocean and the deli. The take out menu describes the Lido as being “Sandwiched between Neptune & Roosevelt Blvd. at 641 -1/2 East Park Avenue."  The Lido could have played a cameo in the Dillon movie, as it hearkens back to an era in which people actually talked about the real things in life over an overstuffed Pastrami sandwich, no matter that the denouement in The Flamingo Kid occurs Larry’s Fish House whose motto is “Any Fish You Wish.” Speaking of conversation, no can give lip to the Lido's tongue which is the best in the world. If all tongue was like the one served at the Lido Kosher Deli, we’d be at a loss for words, since this tongue literally melts in your mouth. The Irish pride themselves on their corned beef and cabbage as well as their great poetry, but the corned beef at the Lido is a form of kosher poetry that’s in a class all by itself, a fundamentally heavy food that defies gravity. Milan Kundera should write a sequel to The Unbearable Lightness of Being centered around the Lido Beach Kosher Deli’s corned beef, called The Unbearable Lightness of Corned Beef.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Times Obit Beat

Way back when, lovers of cuisine would recognize the Times reviewer Mimi Sheraton in restaurants, just as aficionados of theater recognized Clive Barnes and later Frank Rich. Howard Kissel (“Howard Kissel,69, Daily News Critic,” NYT, 2/27/12) was one of those cultural commissars whose face was known to the few--a coterie who he himself seemd to recognize and whose withering glances he begrudgingly acknowledged. Erland Josephson (“Erland Josephson, Actor With Bergman, Dies at 88,” NYT, 2/27/12) was known to a crowd too large for him to acknowledge, though smaller than the one drawn by his fellow Bergman actor Max von Sydow (recently recipient of an Oscar Best Supporting Actor nomination and standout in Hollywood blockbusters like The Exorcist). Scenes From a Marriage was the film for which Josephson gained his notoriety. Josephson also made a name for himself as the director of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre. However it was the Bergman classic that extended his visibility beyond the world of the art house cinema to the extent that the persona he created emblematized many of the conflicts of modern marriage. Bergman was a student of Strindberg. Strindberg discovered marital strife as a theme, in the same momentous way that Columbus discovered America. But Bergman was a student of life as well as art and the character Josephson portrayed was truly liminal, his tortured consciousness extending beyond anything Strindberg could have dreamt of in his philosophy. The Times quoted Josephson as saying about Bergman, “A man obsessed with failure has succeeded better than others in portraying it.” Makes sense.

Monday, February 27, 2012

2399 Years of The Academy

The Academy was founded by Plato in 387 B.C. It’s doubtful that any of his students ever got up on a rostrum and began a speech by saying “I wish to thank the Academy…” But times do change. Now there is an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and yesterday was their 84th Oscar awards. 82 year-old Christopher Plummer looked at his Oscar last night and said, “You are only two years older darling. Where have you been all my life?” Billy Crystal hosted and praised the Academy’s wooden president Tom Sherak saying “thank you Tom for whipping the crowd into a frenzy.” His other great line was “Harry Potter made $7.7 billion dollars, but only paid 14% income tax.” And there was the Cirque du Soleil, an imagined clip from a first focus group for the Wizard of Oz with Eugene Levy intoning, “I didn’t particularly care for the Rainbow song,” plus a revamping of the final moving scene from The Descendants where instead of kissing his dying wife, George Clooney kisses Billy Crystal. Comparing Plato’s Academy with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, one would have to say that that the dialogues between varying presenters like Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez lacked the substance of Plato’s Ion where Socrates debates the question of whether it’s craft or inspiration that accounts for the power of the rhapsode.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Humanistic Themes in the Art of the North Korean Succession

David Guttenfelder/Associated Press
The Associated Press’s David Guttenfelder is providing an iconography of the North Korean regime in his recent photo coverage. His photo accompanying the recent story “Shift Expected as North Korea Sets Party Meeting,”  (NYT, 2/20/12) shows Kim Jong-un, the son and successor to the recently deceased Kim Jong-il at what the caption describes as “a military review and commemoration of his late father’s 70th birthday.” But in this case, the picture really does speak a thousand words. Guttenfelder would have done Erwin Panofsky, the German art historian, proud. Panofsky was the author of such classics as Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939), from which the study of iconography has gained its currency. Kim Jong-un is shown in a profile shot that accentuates his jowls and a sporty new haircut, buzzed at the sides. Add a gold chain and he could easily have been a character on Jersey Shore. He is bent in a meditative pose with his eyes cast down at the ground, a lone figure on the rostrum.  Only a stolid soldier, with an AK-47 strapped across his chest, stands at attention in front of him. The soldier doesn’t exist for Kim Jong-un and the potentate is not even within the soldier’s field of vision. Though near in space, the gap between the soldier and the head of state is emphasized by the way in which Guttenfelder makes it apparent both are almost ornamental figures who have no idea of each other’s existence. “On Thursday, American and North Korean officials are to meet in Beijing for the first senior level talks since October,” Choe Sang-Hun’s story Times story reads. But what really is running through the mind of the lone figure, the stout young man with the Maoist morphology, who Guttenfelder portrays?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Hero of Our Time

What singularity of human nature and genetics creates the fearless individual? What allows for the kind of disinhibition that creates a chance taker. Might we venture to say that this personality type is the result of missing factors? If there are chromosomes that account for things like conscience, the reality principal and ethics (concerns usually associated in Freudian terminology with the superego), are these mutated in the great adventurers, gamblers and intrepid criminal minds? In 1969, John Fairfax the English daredevil rowed across the Atlantic and three years later he rowed across the Pacific with his girlfriend Sylvia Cook. Margalit Fox’s Times obit, “John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74,” (NYT, 1/18/12) recounts how Fairfax’s only practice for the Atlantic run was rowing “daily on the Serpentine, the lake in Hyde Park. Barely more than half a mile long, it was about eight-thousandth the width of the Atlantic, but it would do.” But his derring-do began early. “On a camping trip when he was 9, John concluded a fight with another boy by filching the scoutmaster’s pistol…At 13, in thrall to Tarzan, he ran away from home to live in the jungle…at 20, despondent over a failed love affair, (he) resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him…(and) In Panama, he met a pirate, applied for a job as a pirate’s apprentice and was taken on.” It’s the same profile that enabled Philippe Petit to walk a tightrope between the twin towers, that allowed Houdini to practice his death defying stunts, Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic and John Glenn to become the first astronaut to orbit the earth. It also bears similarities to the profile that created Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd and Clyde Barrow. Speaking of the criminal mind, Fairfax also, according to Gawker, liked hookers ("John Fairfax Loved Hookers: Ten 'Juicy'Stories Omitted From His NYT Obit"). Call it an absence or the presence of what psychiatry terms narcissistic megalomania, in the case of Fairfax heredity and environment conspired to produce a hero.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sir Michael Dummett

When a philosopher by the name of Sir Michael Dummett died recently, Harvard University Press placed an “in memorium” in The New York Review of Books with the following quote from his Origins of Analytical Philosophy: “Frege was the grandfather of analytic philosophy, Husserl the founder of the phenomenological school, two radically different philosophical movements. In l903, say, how would they have appeared to any German student of philosophy who knew the work of both? Not, certainly, as two deeply opposed thinkers: rather as remarkably close in orientation, despite some divergences of interests. They may be compared with the Rhine and the Danube, which rise quite close to one another and for a time pursue roughly parallel courses, only to diverge in utterly different directions and flow into different seas. Why, then did this happen? What small ingredient into the thought of each was eventually magnified into so great an effect?”  This brilliant quote can describe so many human situations and institutions in which the path followed by individuals originally brought together for a common purpose eventually separates. Certainly it was true say of Lenin and Trotsky or of Freud and Jung—both examples of individuals united by their devotion to common causes who ended up representing irreconcilable ideologies. In the case of Marxism and psychoanalysis it’s easy to understand the nature of the shared purpose, ie social and individual liberation. Dummett’s quote ends up by asking what element catalyzed the creation of antinomies. But what was the ovum out of which language philosophy and phenomenology were born? It’s a question that can also be asked about the world’s three great and often warring religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Art of Distraction

Photo: Brett Weinstein
Hanif Kureishi’s profound and provocative essay, “The Art of Distraction” in the Sunday Review section of the Times (NYT, 2/18/12) will undoubtedly prove very troubling to some readers whose children are suffering from learning disorders and who have experienced success using drugs like Ritalin. Here is Kureishi, the brilliant director of My Beautiful Laundrette, “You could say that attention needs to be paid to intuition; that one can learn to attend to the hidden self, and there might be something there worth listening to. If the Ritalin boy prefers obedience to creativity, he may be sacrificing his best interests in a way that might infuriate him later. A flighty mind might be going somewhere.” The essay is loaded with gems like this. Kureishi had trouble learning as does one of his sons and in the throes of his adolescence he went through a particularly wretched period. “I was suffering from a form of intellectual anorexia—the refusal to be given anything, to take anything in. As a result of that self-stymieing, I lost hope and believed I’d never catch up or achieve anything.” Many jeremiads about those suffering from symptoms like the ones Kureishi describes point to the consequences of not using drugs. Kureishi points to the consequences of using them, but the path he charts out is one that is not free of things like pain, disappointment and ostracism. He freely admits that he dreamt frequently of the rewards of possessing what one would suppose to be a typical high functioning analytic intelligence and of the feelings of belonging such a gift can produce. But he obviously believes that the pain he endured was justified—if sensibility itself is a just reward. “Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children’s hands in bed, so they won’t touch their genitals. The parent stupefies the child for the parent’s good.” Undoubtedly there will be lots of irate letters to the Times about this piece, and that itself is a good thing. Those who come out on either side of this issue might recall Baudelaire’s famous words, “hypocrite lecteur,--mon semblable,--mon frère!”

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pyongyang Festival of the Arts

David Guttenfelder/Associated Press
Burning Man and Pyongyang are worlds apart, but both are equally hard to get into. Apparently getting tickets for Burning Man has become a real problem. A lottery system devised by the organizers  has apparently backfired according to a report in the Times (“Burning Man Festival Regulars Lose Out on Tickets,” NYT, 2/13/12) “Festivalgoers from around the country are distressed about recent problems that left thousands of veteran Burners, as festival attendees are called, without tickets to the August event and might have landed tickets in the hands of scalpers,” the Times reported. If the festival were to become a totally commercial performance event like say The Book of Mormon, then a good part of its counter-cultural constituency would be lost, with only those willing to pay the higher prices winning out. Pyongyang has always been hard to get into for other obvious reasons and its constituency, one would suppose, has remained fairly consistent, with delegations from Mainland China filling up much of the available hotel space. But there is an artistic community in Pyongyang and the “Pyongyang Festival of the Arts” is currently manifesting itself in the form of two equestrian statues of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. The photo by David Guttenfelder of the Associated Press which appeared in the Times is a happy reminder that totalitarian art is alive and kicking in North Korea’s capital. If you miss the old busts of Lenin installed when St Petersberg was still called Leningrad, then you should try to become a member of Yukiya Amano’s entourage. He succeeded Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Let's hope that under North Korea's new regime, this becomes a surefire way of getting into the country.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Auteur Theory

Andrew Sarris was for many years the film critic of The Village Voice and a champion of the auteur theory. He once commented that everyone wanted his job. What he meant by that was not that everyone literally wanted to be chief film critic of The Village Voice, though back in the heyday of the New York intelligensia, in the 50’s,60’s and 70’s when names like Clement Greenberg, Alfred Kazin, Harold Clurman and Susan Sontag were held in higher esteem than their  counterparts are today and at least one film critic, Peter Bogdonovich of Esquire, went on to Hollywood fame, being a critic wasn't a bad job to have. Sarris was referring to the fact that there was an intrinsic envy in the adoration of followers. They journey to Mecca not only to worship Mohammed, but to be him, to supplant him, to take what he has. Bernard Malamud's work might have been a source of admiration for other Jewish American novelists like Bellow and Roth, but the admiration was inevitably tinged with a certain desire to triumph and replace him. Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer makes a journey to visit his idol E.I. Lonoff, who is to some extent modeled on Malamud. In no writer or artist is the ambivalent nature of admiration and inspiration more manifest than Chekhov. Even male readers identify with his three sisters. Masha, Irina and Olga speak to the primacy of the future over the present, the power of that which has yet to be, over what is, of the way in which we all derogate what we possess.  Chekhov is so good in fact at revealing what seem to be our heart’s secrets that he makes us feel that we could have written the plays ourselves. In the realm of essay writing Montaigne has a similar effect, but gaining an audience with the artist, writer or critic who talks to you is a mixed blessing. Perhaps this conflict explains the murderous relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine. Sooner or later, he or she looks at you and realizes that you want to appropriate his work and made it your own. He realizes that you want his job.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Simon Leys on Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo,  the Chinese dissident writer, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, just one year after he was sentenced to ll years in prison.  In his review of Liu Xiaobo’s collection of essays No Enemies, No Hatred; Selected Essays and Poems in The New York Review of Books (“He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny,TNYRB,  2/9/12, Simon Leys singles out one of his essays, “To Change a Regime by Changing a Society,” remarking,  “I know of Western liberals who, confronted with the extreme puritanism of the Maoist era, naively assumed that, after long repression, sexual liberation was bound to explode sooner or later and would act like dynamite and open the way towards a freer society. Now an ‘erotic carnival’ (Liu’s words) of sex, violence, and greed is indeed sweeping through the entire country, but—as Liu describes it—this wave merely reflects the moral collapse of a society that has been emptied of all values during the long years of its totalitarian brutalization: ‘The craze for political revolution in decades past has now turned into a craze for money and sex.’” Xiaobo’s point about China’s superficial liberalization is curiously similar to the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse's concept of “repressive desublimation.” Marcuse applied the idea to the sixties love generation whose sexual freedoms siphoned off the energy of true rebellion. Thus the brutality of Tiananmen Square is quickly forgotten in an atmosphere of spurious freedom, a materialism that derives from a deep loss of an ethical and moral center. Leys comments in the beginning of his essay that “The general consensus, in China as well as abroad, is that the twenty-first century will be ‘China’s Century.’” But what is dramatic is the parallel ways in which the elites of two radically opposed ideologies have used material pleasures to muffle dissent.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Swimming Not to Cambodia

Kate Upton, this year’s Sport Illustrated Swim Suit issue cover girl is no Anna Magnani. To begin with she is blond rather than dark and she lacks the hair in her armpits that was one of the things that made Open City’s neorealism complete. But she's a giant step away away from the anorexic and pedophilic Brazilian waxed babes that fashion mags stuff down our throats as if we were goose livers being turned into fois gras (although the actual question of whether she is Brazilian waxed or not has not as yet been reported in the press). Yes like Arab spring a popular uprising has occurred due to social networking and this grass roots rebellion has produced Kate Upton. Listen to the Times’ Guy Trebay "waxing" about the phenomenon (“Model Struts Path to Stardom Not on Runway, but on You Tube,” NYT, 2/13/12), “it is increasingly difficult for the industry to ignore the world outside the Fashion Week tents, particularly the one that is virtual.”  Whatever fashionistas may think, deconstructionists should delight in Trebay’s locution which delivers the unmistakable connotation that the ideal will be replaced with the unreal. In his piece he describes how Ivan Bart of IMG Models, “the company behind the multimillion-dollar careers of woman like Gisele Bundchen” came to respond to a woman who came “from obscurity to No. 2 on a list of the world’s 99 ‘top’ women compiled by, an online magazine with 15 million readers.” “ ‘Kate is bigger than fashion,” Trebay quotes Bart as saying. "‘She’s the Jayne Mansfield of the Internet.’” Kate may have something in common with Barbie but she’s got her “Christian Louboutin stilettos” planted firmly in the air.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is our contemporary Zola. He’s a determinist for whom the notion of human freedom is an oxymoron. The Elementary Particles is perhaps his most well-known work to American audiences though his most recent novel The Map and the Territory won the Prix Goncourt in 2010. The Elementary Particles uses the ideological windmill chasing of the sixties, with its cults of sexual liberation, as its petrie dish. The two half brothers, who are the protagonists of the novel, are the progeny of a hipster mother, who has abandoned her role as a parent in her quest for enlightenment. It appears that there’s an autobiographical element in The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq’s mother abandoned him in reality and one of the brothers in the novel is named Michel and has moved to Ireland (as Houellebecq did). In his review/essay, "Off the Map,” (The New Yorker, 1/23/12), James Wood remarks “Houellebecq’s men are unattractive, unsociable, frigid, sexually unconfident, physically underequipped, erotically bored (or some combination of these negatives); they are panhandlers in the sexual souk, and spend much of their time trying to grab what wares they can, by way of porn, prostitutes, or swingers’ clubs.” Houellebecq is a vivisectionist like Zola. Remember Zola himself described the Rougon-Macquart novels as “the natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire.” Sex is the lingua franca of the Houellebecq novel, but the perversity is only a symptom of a more profound pathology. As Wood says about Houellebecq, “Essentially, he argues that contemporary sexuality, though it sails under the colors of liberation and left-ish utopia, is just a continuation of the capitalist, neoliberal market, in which there are always winners and losers.”

Monday, February 13, 2012


North Korean politics is like a soap opera if one follows Choe Sang-Hun’s accounts in the Times. According to Choe Sang-Hun the recently deceased Kim Jong-il suffered from an inferiority complex (“To Sell a New Leader, North Korea Finds a Mirror Is Handy,” NYT, 2/1/12).“He indicated that his homely, pear-shaped looks were loathed by many North Koreans (he once called himself ‘an ugly midget’), according to South Korean who met him.” Apparently Kim Jong-il’s son and chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather Kim Il-sung, a charismatic and good-looking figure who is revered by North Koreans as the liberator of their country. Looks-wise, Kim Jong-il missed the boat. But according to Sang-Hun “Kim Jong-il was a master propagandist who directed several movies. His last work may been casting Kim Jong-un as a successor who inherited his father’s policy but his grandfather’s face.” To add to the drama Kim Jong-un has an uncle, Jang Song-taek who sounds like an eminence grise and a jealous exiled step brother Kim Jong-nam, waiting for Kim Jong-un to slip up. As you can see there are Shakespearean overtones here too, if we look at Jang Song-taek as a once in a future Horatio and Kim Jong-nam is the Iago in residence at the PRSC (Pyongyang Royal Shakespeare Company). But getting back to the soap, can we wager that Kim Jong-il who had a pretty sophisticated knowledge of Western media would have named his soap
simply Pyongyang, after Dallas. Or would the executives at the network have opted for something like Succession?

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini

The Renaissance was the age of the Medicis (Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is still one of the classics dealing with the importance of the Medici family) and the lovely Simonetta Vespucci over whom Guiliano Medici jousted, holds a cameo belonging to Lorenzo in her portrait by Botticelli in, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, currently at the Met. “El Fin Fa Tutto,”  “the end tells all” is the inscription on a portrait attributed to Venezianio from 1440. So Lorenzo di Medici's death mask, which also appears in the show, reflects the renewed interest in a practice that began in ancient times. Pisanello and Mantegna were the two court painters, but Mantegna, who had more of an investment in reality than idealization, sometimes met up with the censure of his subjects. The Duke of Milan, for example, burned the portrait that the artist did of him. The following quote from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1565) accompanies the exhibit: "[Giovanni Bellini] introduced into the concept that anyone, even someone of no rank, could have his portrait done by him or by some other painter.” And the curators go on to point out that “In Renaissance Florence there was a direct correlation between the mercantile class’s practice of keeping a diary or memoir and the commissioning of portraits. In both, the individual asserts his class and status and character.” Art collecting was obviously as much as source of status in the Renaissance as it is today. But is it going too far to say that the commissioning of art and the conferring a certain level of celebrity and social status on the subjects chosen by a painter—in the way that Warhol and Hockney were still doing in the last century— reached feverish highs in Renaissance? “The goal was to confer a distinct identity on the subject,” the curators remark. “…every civilization and culture has evolved its own solutions to this task, but those evolved during the 15th century established the conventions that informed portraiture down to the invention of the camera.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Times Obit Hits Grand Slam

The Times obit page hit a grand slam on February 2. The following obituaries appeared. “Dorothea Tanning, 101, Surrealist Painter of Dream Images.” Tanning was the wife of Max Ernst. Grace Glueck, the Times art critic, who wrote the obit remarked, “in the mid-1950’s Ms. Tanning broke from the mirror like precision of narrative Surrealism to take up what she called her ‘prism’ paintings later renamed ‘Insomnias.’ These are enigmatic canvases in which bodies and body parts, barely discernible visages and biomorphic forms float in dream spaces generated by fractured planes and diaphanous scrims.” The obit of Mike Kelley (“Mike Kelley, an Artist With Attitude, Dies at 57”) was written by another Times art critic, Holland Carter.  Commenting on "a series of sculptural pieces using children's stuffed animals," which Kelley had done, Carter said, “On one level the pieces were sardonic send-ups of trends like Minimalism, which Mr. Kelley despised as elitist. On another, they took aim at the strain of too-easy sentimentality he found repellant in popular culture. At yet another level, these pieces, with their martyred dolls and ruined promise of warmth, were innocence-and-experience metaphors, suggesting the trauma of hurt and loss that underlay the juvenile delinquent antics that surrounded them.” “Don Cornelius, ‘Soul Train’ Creator, Is Dead at 75” was written by James C. McKinley, Jr, the Houston Bureau Chief of the Times, whose piece about the gang rape of a ll year old girl back in 2011 had created controversy.  Describing “Soul Train,” McKinley said, “In its heyday, it was a formative experience every Saturday morning for young people of all backgrounds and afforded some of the most important soul and R&B acts their first national television exposure. It was also a platform for white rock musicians like Elton John and David Bowie to reach black audiences.”  “Wislawa Szymborska, 88, Nobel Poet,” was written by Raymond H. Anderson who contributes to the ArtsBeat blog at the Times and wrote the obit of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky back in 2010. “The Nobel announcement surprised Ms. Szymborska, who had lived an intensely private life, “ Anderson commented.  “She was kind of paralyzed by it,” Anderson quotes Clare Cavanagh, one of her translators as saying. “Her friends called it the ‘Nobel Tragedy.’ It was a few years before she wrote another poem.” "Anthony J Bevilacqua, 88; Led Philadelphia Catholics” and “Ian Abercrombie, a Boss on ‘Seinfeld’” were the two other obits which rounded out the page that day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Fountainhead

The recent Times piece about the explosion in the iPad plant in Chengdu (“In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” NYT, 1/25/12) included the following statement, “In the last decade Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers—as well as dozens of other American industries—have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history. However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves.” Was the Apple miracle too good to be true? Is it a little bit like Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck?” Is the Apple Store with its genius bar staffed by tattooed MIT grads on loan from Utopia, missionaries preaching the iCloud gospel rather than paid employees of an enterprise that marches to the beat of the Wall Street drummer, merely a mirage? The cover of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is almost as ubiquitous as the Apple logo, but who really reads what’s inside. Perhaps the messiah has come or maybe not. The Dickensian conditions that prevail in China’s factories are the dark side of a technology revolution propelled in part by Moore’s Law, which states that microprocessors will double in capacity on an approximately 18 months basis (new microprocessors beget new machines), in part by China’s desire for economic hegemony and in part America’s need to recapture the glory days of its own economic hegemony (Manifest Destiny in technology). Jobs was the Ubermensch, the Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s Fountain Head, the one hope amidst the carnage of foreclosures, shut down automobile plants and the dying Detroit. An aluminum dust explosion, which could have  been avoided by something as simple as adequate ventilation killed two workers in Chengdu? Will it take another Triangle Shirt Company fire to finally halt the juggernaut we call progress? 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Richard III

What is the origin of the evil in Sam Mendes production of Richard III?  Kevin Spacey plays a Richard that will take its place with the great historical renditions of the role and the citations of Mussolini (strung up by his heels), of Qaddafi in his epaulets are quite clear as is the reference to technology (in this case image creation by way of a large screen TV) as the whipping boy of fascism. Elias Canetti wrote a book called Crowds and Power and the crowds in the Bridge Project's rendition of the play abet the evil. This Richard III is not a modernized Shakespearean production influenced by Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Instead Mendes leaves the final chapter of The War of the Roses as a history play that freely partakes of the future.  So that besides our latter day tyrants this Richard is firmly anchored in fantasy and science fiction and could easily be subtitled The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars analogy is made clear from the beginning in the futuristic typeface used to project the names of characters who dominate individual scenes. The current production parenthetically also makes one ponder the Shakespearean origins of Star Wars (and other similar fare) with its ornate universe of evil and in the end as Spacey finally holds court and the perspective of the stage is deepened, the set does momentarily take on a sci-fi quality. But Mendes, the director of American Beauty in which Spacey also starred, is known for his visual effects and the stage at BAM is transformed into a buffet of visual references to die for including one scene in which Mendes presents the London Underground as Magritte might have imagined it, with bowler hats and yes clouds. Spacey played Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, a character who only acts the part of the cripple as a cover up. Spacey’s gnarled Richard isn’t covering up anything and while the malignity is as superhuman as the performance (whose portrayal of gratuitious evil surpasses even the actor’s John Doe character in David Fincher’s Seven), the shock value comes in the recognition of something almost true to life.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

L’Avventura is a mystery about a missing woman, but the supernumeries in what could have been a police procedural, in other hands, move to center stage under Antonioni’s direction. Similarly Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which shared the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2011 and whose title can’t help but reference another fairytale, Serge Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, starts off with caravan of two cars and a jeep with a rotating light, carrying amongst others, a prosecutor, a police commissar and a doctor, who are attempting to locate a corpse in the darkness. The caravan takes on an emblematic significance as it cruises through the breathtaking landscape of winding roads and fields of grass whose beauty and barren immensity are the occasion for window-like set pieces that would qualify as melodrama if they didn’t so perfectly earn the emotion they create. A hogtied corpse is eventually located by a wonderful pair of characters called simply the "diggers." Cemal, the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) sits next to one of the accused men who have been brought along to lead the police to the crime scene. Chekhov was a doctor (he once said “medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress") and Cemal is the Chekhov of the movie, offering not only an autopsy of victim, but a diagnosis of the spiritual illness of his colleagues. For instance, throughout the movie Nusret, the prosecutor (Taner Birsel) repeats the same story to Cemal, about a woman who forecasted her own death.  The seeming non-sequitur begins to make sense as we begin to see that the prosecutor aided by his bonding with Cemal, reveals he is talking about his own wife who killed herself, after giving birth to their child, as an act of vengeance for her husband’s infidelity. The prosecutor’s face is disfigured with dark blotches and then in the autopsy sequence as blood shoots up creating blotches on Cemal’s face, a metaphoric blood-tie between the two men is affirmed. During the course of the night and early morning the caravan stops in a town where they are entertained by the local mukhtar, who has an angelic daughter. The daughter transfixes the miserable party while her father makes a pitch for a state of the art morgue. Most of the young people in the town have left and they need their parents’ bodies preserved until they can fly back from places like Germany. Waiting for Godot is the English title of Beckett’s play, but in the French, in which it was originally written, the title was En attendant Godot or “while waiting for Godot.” Like Godot, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is about the life that goes on and the questions that are asked while men and women wait for the answers to both the great and small questions of human existence. Do not miss this masterpiece.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Diasporic Dining XXX: Kutsher's

In its heyday in the 50’s Kutsher’s, along with Grossinger’s, was one of the great resorts of the Catskills. Now Kutsher’s still hobbles along, a shadow of what its once was, a victim of the exodus of its Jewish constituency to Florida and Grossinger's is no more. For those who mourn the passing of establishments like Kutsher’s and prefer the past to the present, there are two alternatives: the first is to find a little pocket of the past where time has stopped (like the character in a famous Twilight Zone, "A Stop at Willoughby") and the other is post-modernism. Kutsher’s, a restaurant on Franklin Street inTribeca, established by a new generation of the Kutsher clan, tips its head to the past, serving things like matzoh ball soup, charcuterie (pastrami, salami etc), kreplach, Roumanian steak and latkes in a haute cuisine and high fashion setting. Ironically the décor partakes of a style of restaurant architecture that pays homage to the fifties and that was in fact exemplified by an episode of the post-modernist television program Mad Men in which Tip Toe Inn, another 50’s institution was recreated. If you are looking for real deli,you’d better go out to the Mill Basin Kosher Deli in Brooklyn or, Loeser’s in the Bronx with their trademark hotdogs and knishes sitting on an aluminum covered grills and salamis hanging in windows . These last survivors will offer a worm hole through which one can journey back without having to actually die, as the Twilight Zone character, who is fed up with the pressures of modernity, does. The dishes at Kutshers are really high priced citations in which memory has informed a new kind of cuisine. Cholent and stuffed derma were absent from the menu (and one wonders if the Kutsher’s kitchen has any plans to reintroduce these favorite cardio busters), though a version of schmaltz was available at post-modernist prices.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Grief could be in and Asberger’s out, of the upcoming fifth edition of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that is--according to the Times (“Grief Could Join List of Disorders," "NYT,1/24/12). “Depression can and does occur in the wake of bereavement, it can be severe and debilitating and calling it by any other name is doing a disservice to people who may require more careful attention,” the Times quotes Dr. Sidney Zisook, a shrink at U. Cal San Diego as saying. A follow up Op Ed piece by a writer named Benjamin Nugent ("I Had Asberger's Sydrome. Briefly," NYT 1/31/12) who’d been the subject of a film called “Understanding Asberger’s, supports “narrowing” the definition of Asberger’s and goes on to conclude, “I don’t want a kid with mild autism to go untreated. But I don’t want a school psychologist to give a clumsy, lonely teenager a description of his mind that isn't true.” Nugent appears to have been one such teenager and the film in which he appeared “was a research project directed” by his mother. So how to vote? The issue does have serious implications in that diagnosis can affect medical coverage. Those suffering from depression following the death of a loved could be covered for treatment while some patients who were once considered to be suffering from Asberger’s might find themselves in the lurch when it comes to getting help. Nugent may have suffered from the stigma of misdiagnosis, but some other young man or woman, with far more debilitating symptoms, might suddenly find him or herself deprived of a needed support system. Still defining mental illness seems to be a sometimes arbitrary and even trendy affair. In the 50’s, people whispered the word “nervous breakdown” like the characters in a Neil Simon play who are constantly whispering about "cancer." Today bipolarity seems to have taken over as the mental illness du jour. Could so many people be bipolar? And then there are learning disorders like ADD. It’s nice to know that some slow learners are simply having trouble concentrating and that a dose Ritalin might be just the cure for their hyperactivity, but could whole populations of children require medication for their supposed attention deficit disorders? One would hope that matters like these would be addressed by the editors of the forthcoming edition of the DSM, but then one would have to ask who will be applying the criteria. “A Mind is a Terrible Things to Waste,” was a slogan coined by the United Negro College Fund back in l972. But it’s resonant in the context of the current controversies about diagnosis. Is there any such thing as true objectivity when a mind is evaluating another mind?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Crazy Horse

Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, currently playing at Film Forum,
is numbing. If one of Wiseman’s objectives was to make a film about a burlesque house that is totally devoid of sexuality then he has succeeded. And if numbing is the intention then perhaps Wiseman’s next film should be Dentist in which he uses his signature naturalistic method (he uses no voice overs or other forms of commentary in his documentaries) to follow patients walking into the dentist’s office to receive shots of novocaine. Both dentistry and stripping partake of art and commerce. Dentistry is a business, but its aim is also beautiful teeth and burlesque is putatively about beauty too. If there is any dramatic tension in Crazy Horse, it lies between the desire of the Crazy Horse’s choreographer, Philippe, to create imaginative works and the need of the management to make money. Tensions arise when art gets in the way of commerce and some of the best scenes of the film center around the commodification of pleasure, from the lines of champagne bottles to the assembly line approach to the girls epitomized in the film’s audition sequence. In Crazy Horse Wiseman is returning to the subject of dance, which he dealt with in an earlier film on the Paris ballet, and while both films remain faithful to their creator’s credo—which is to keep the camera in observing as opposed to editorializing status—both miss the grand scope of his early films which dealt with things like mental institutions (Titicut Follies), the police (Law and Order) and hospitals (Hospital). Marshall McLuhan famously said the medium is the message, but the documentary form can induce atavistic urges in the filmgoer--like the desire to see meaningful subject matter addressed.