Friday, March 30, 2012

One Desperate Actress In Search of a Soap

The notion of killing off a character in a television series because the actress who plays her irritates the producer has dramatic possibilities in and of itself. According to a piece in the Business Section of the Times (“A ‘Desperate Housewives’ Mistrial,” NYT, 3/19/12), Nicolette Sheridan’s suit against “Desperate Housewives” producer Marc Cherry and ABC ended with a deadlocked jury. According to the Times, Sheridan, who was paid $175,000 per episode of the series, was suing for damages totaling approximately $6,000,000, after her character, Edie Britt, in a scene reminiscent of the Thomas Eakins painting, “The Gross Clinic,” met a tragic end. The new series would actually be a drama of Pirandellian passions and Jacobean revenge. Let’s call it  “One Desperate Actress in Search of a Soap Opera.” Usually characters are killed off in television series when an actor or actress is moving on or the series is taking a new twist which makes the role that was being played superfluous. When you think of it, the notion of killing a character off out of revenge against the actress who played her is unique. OK perhaps Sheridan was hard to work with, but she wouldn’t be the first primadona on the sound stage. No, to go to the lengths he did, Marc Cherry must have been pretty fed up. “Hell knows no fury like a woman scorned” and we can be reassured that “One Desperate Actress” would be filled with sex and violence. The character who plays Marc Cherry would undoubtedly have an order of protection issued against the lead actress who, though she would be playing herself, would be fueling her rage with lines from Medea. In fact, life has already begun imitating art with regard to all the legal wrangling. The Times quoted, Camilo Becdach, 29, a fan of the show as saying, "It's been like watching 'Desperate Housewives' again,  but in the courtroom. It really would be like a storyline in the show, which makes it ironic. It's something that Edie would have done."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Future is Publishers Weekly

The future is Publishers Weekly. There you can read forecasts about forecasting. Two recent futuristically orientated novels generated author interviews in their fiction preview pages. The first from the February 6 issue of the trade journal, entitled “Sex, Lies and Virtual Reality,” was a talk with a software designer named Michael Olson whose forthcoming novel about the future is called Strange Flesh. Within the interview, conducted by Ken Salikof, reference was made to MMORPG’s or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. The question was, will this increasingly be the way humans spend their time and will these “games people play” eventually, as PW’s interviewer asked, “take the place of real sex?” The book is coming out April 3 so you’ll soon be able to find out. The other Q&A with the veteran sci fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson and called "The Future is Fun" appeared in the March 5th PW.  In that interview, Robinson talked about his forthcoming novel 2312 and “a solar system-spanning civilization” which could make possible a romance  “between two people from Mercury and Saturn.” The interviewer, Susan De Guardiola, then tossed him Robinson a zinger. “Do you see parallels between terraforming planets and the intentional self evolution of humanity?” Robinson’s answer was “that we are going to be changing both ourselves and our environment.” Like in the case of the Olson novel, sex ultimately came into play in a return to the “tradition of feminist and utopian science fiction” epitomized by the work of Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. LeGuin. Robinson’s point was that “science fiction is not just for dire warnings about dystopia or apocalypse, but can celebrate our potential for greatness and joy.” 2312 is no l984 from the sound of it and Strange Flesh, doesn’t sound like Brave New World. If these two novels are any harbingers of the future of science fiction itself, then the days when the purpose of the genre was to blow the whistle on the depredations of the current world (as for instance Orwell's and Huxley's allegories once did) are plainly gone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bad Behavior

Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse-Getty Images

President Obama was quoted in the Times about North Korea, “They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded (“In South Korea Visit, Obama Visits Border and Warns North," NYT, 3/25/12). The Agence France-Presse photo that ran with the story showed Obama in the DMZ looking though a pair of binoculars at North Korea. “Dildo shopping, spying on neighbors, getting high and getting a facial” is the beginning of the on-line description of the 2004 movie Bad Behavior. There was a more high brow Bad Behavior with Stephen Rea and Sinead Cusak from l993 and that blurb begins, “The McAllister family house is the setting for Gerry and Ellie's grapples with work, children and how to get the bathroom fixed.” Bad Behavior means a lot of things to different people. For those of us who attended public school back in the 50’s, before educational reform changed the punitive nature of many elementary school classrooms, bad behavior meant “no recess.” Obama’s jeremiad to the North Koreans, in the light of their imminent launching of a new satellite, is reminiscent of such 50’s warnings. Kim Jong-un, his dad Kim Jong-il and his grand dad Kim Il-sung are all like those bad kids who continued to do even worse things because they had nothing to lose. Since they can’t be good like Angela, little Nick or Barack they excel by getting very good at being bad. We all know how the bad kids responded to threats of missing assembly or having to go to the principal’s office. It rarely did any good at all. The bad kids simply got so bad that they were expelled. They might not have been the sharpest tacks, but they were the ones everyone feared. They were the kids who waited for the Angelas, Nicks and Baracks to come out of school so that they could beat them up for their lunch money. Only Vladimir and that new Chinese kid were able to protect themselves, but they practiced the martial arts.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

                                                                photo: Richard Termine
Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void deals with the incestuous love between a brother and a sister. Set against the strip clubs and drug dens of a hallucinatory Tokyo, with a nod to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the film also provides a good deal of backstory that enables the viewer to believe in the characters. The British Company Cheek by Jowl now offers a production of one of the most infamously incestuous dramas of all time, the Elizabethan playwright, John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Where the brother and sister of Enter the Void have been brought together earlier in life after their parents are killed in an automobile accident, the challenge of staging 'Tis Pity lies in the fact that the intimacy of Ford’s two characters is de facto, functioning primarily as a premise to ignite the ensuring revenge drama. Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary is transformed to John Ford Our Contemporary for Declan Donnellan’s production at BAM. The adolescent Annabella’s (Lydia Wilson) room is covered with film posters from classics like Gone With the Wind,  Breakfast at Tiffany’s and True Blood. True Blood is the one citation that has some relevance to a bloody revenge tragedy that ends with a broken hearted lover sawing out his beloved’s heart; the red set of the teenager’s bedroom also recalls Brian De Palma's  film version of Stephen King’s Carrie. Though Ford was censored for ‘Tis Pity, there is no doubt that the perversity of the love is one of the reasons it has survived and continued to attract directors. Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (presented in theatrical form with Carrie Mulligan last summer) also dealt with incest between a brother in sister who like Noe's characters are orphaned albeit in a more metaphorical sense--by a narcissistic artistic parent. Cheek By Jowl’s production helplessly flails with surfaces in an attempt to lay its mark on Ford’s work. It’s one distinction lies in showing how an interpretation that initially turns tragedy into bedroom farce can result in a bloodbath.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Children of Paradise

Could it be that the carnival scenes in Marcel Camus Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negrol959) were inspired by the final scene of Marcel Carne’s great classic Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis, l945), in which Baptiste, played by Jean-Louis Barrault is trapped in a crowd of revelers chasing the carriage in which his great love Garance (Arletty) is swept out of his life forever? As for Children of Paradise, currently playing at Film Forum, it's inspiration is theater, though the fourth wall, behind the famous painted scrim on which both acts or "époques" of the movie unfold, is constantly broken. One wonders to what extent Jacques Prevert who wrote the script was influenced by Brecht. Indeed Epoque One, “Le Boulevard du Crime,” is curiously reminiscent of Threepenny Opera with its cast of criminals. Lacenaire (Pierre Brasseur) is a fence, Garance, a stripper and prostitute, Frederick, a sometime thief and con artist. The fact that they also writers and actors creates a metaphor: the artist as con man or woman. In addition the really great moments of the movie such as the farcical scene where Frederick usurping the plot of a mediocre play by willfully dis-suspending disbelief remind us that while Children of Paradise may be set in the l9th century, it's no period piece. Its palette is thoroughly modern. Ironically the film for all its sophisticated meditations on theater and acting is, as a movie, the greatest filmed melodrama of all time (with David Lean's Brief Encounter, also l945, coming in a distant second). Baptiste is in love with what he can’t possess, Garance with no one, and the tragic Nathalie (Maria Casares) the innocent victim of imagination gone awry. As a melodrama Children of Paradise is so over the top it almost defies Joyce’s famous definition of sentimentality as “unearned emotion”; in the dramatic finale Barrault, who was one of the stars of the Comedie-Francaise, sounds like he’s speaking his lines in alexandrines.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Tony Judt: A Final Victory

Readers of The New York Review of Books will vividly recall the essays Tony Judt, the NYU historian, published in the months leading up to his death from ALS. Now Jennifer Homans, his wife, has offered an intimate look at the process by which Judt worked in the last months of his life when his “locked in syndrome,” left both him and her in “what we came to call the bubble. The bubble was a closed world, an alternative reality, a place that we lived in and peered out of." (“Tony Judt: A Final Victory,” NYRB, 3/22/12) The beauty of the prose is belied by the horror it describes. A famous New York Times reporter named Nan Robertson, who also wrote about battling illness, once described a fatal plane crash with a similar lush prose; the ability to find beauty in tragedy (which is after all the substance of Lear and Karenina ) never ceases to astonish, particularly when its brought to bear on real events. The title of the book that Judt was working on at the end of his life was Thinking the Twentieth Century and a brief excerpt from it appears in TNYRB along with Homans memoir. Homans essay describes the writing of the book as the means by which Judt escaped his imprisonment in the bubble. “There were…portals to the world where he could find his way, at least momentarily, out of the bubble and back to himself…Thinking the Twentieth Century was part of that: a portal to the world. The past was still the engine of his thoughts. Not history anymore, but memory. Memory was Tony’s only certainty…It was the thing the disease could not take from him.” Judt could have called the book Remembering the Twentieth Century, but thinking is much more powerful since it accounts for both the present from which he is writing and the past and recalls other great works of intellectual history like the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. In an especially riveting part of the essay Homans says “Tony was tormented by the idea of his own absence not in itself (he was as hard a realist as any) but for his two boys.” But as Homans describes it, the book also provided a reprieve from the pain of that loss. “Here he did something extraordinary: he projected himself beyond his own death and found a way to reach ‘back’ from the abyss. I didn’t truly understand it at the time but I now see that the dead can extend feelings across the divide separating the living from the ever after. But—and it is a big but—they can only do it if they think of it in advance, before they actually die.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Peacetime Lies

Louis Begley is the author of Wartime Lies. The novel’s central character Maciek, a Polish Jewish child, escapes extermination by passing for Catholic. Begley is also the author of three novels about an aging gentleman named Albert Schmidt, one of which, About Schmidt, was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson. Both Wartime Lies and the Schmidt books are partially autobiographical. Here is what Begley says “about Schmidt” in last Sunday’s Review section of the Times (“Age and Its Awful Discontents,” NYT 3/17/12). “Schmidt is 60 when we meet him in l991; when we part on New Year’s Day 2009, he is 78, therefore a couple of years older than I was then. Life has not been kind to him, but so far, Schmidt enjoys excellent health, marching up and down the Atlantic beach in Bridgehampton and New York City’s avenues, and doing laps in his pool. Although he worries about performance, his libido is intact. Nevertheless, the reflection of his face in the window of a shop is frightening: he sees a red nose and bloodshot eyes, lips pursed up tight over stained and uneven teeth, an expression so lugubrious and so pained it resists his efforts to smile. My appreciation of my own charms is not very different. Like Schmidt, I see that nothing good awaits me at the end of the road, and that passing years will turn my life into a Via Crucis.” Interestingly both Begley’s earlier widely heralded effort Wartime Lies and his most recent work, while dealing, with two widely separated stages of life (the beginning and the end) share one theme in common: survival. Maciek survives because he can pass for something he is not, particularly since he doesn’t look Jewish. But for all his efforts at fitness, and the kind of health that comes from being able to afford the best medical care, Schmidt (aka Begley) cannot hide his age, nor avoid the imminent extinction which his more youthful though less affluent persona was so deftly able to elude.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey is a performance artist who made things up for his piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs which recently completed a run at the Public Theater. No one says that performance artists can’t make things up. Was Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia enjoyed as piece of journalism or rather for being a monologue whose concerns reflected on reality but didn’t necessarily mirror it? Journalists are embedded with platoons, but fictionistas rarely are and thus we have the difference between writers like Frances Fitzgerald who reported on the Vietnam War and on the other hand those who fictionalized it like Tim O’Brien. And then there was John Hersey whose Hiroshima used fiction techniques in the service of truth. Where Mike Daisey got into trouble was to make things up and claim they were true and then make matters worse by taking them on This American Life, which also employs dramatic expository techniques, but prides itself on high journalistic standards. “It was a fine bit of theater, but worked less well as a piece of journalism,” the Times’ David Carr commented in his column The Media Equation (“Theater, Disguised as Real Journalism,” NYT 3/18/12) Mike Daisey claimed his faux pas was for a good cause: the exploitation of low paying Chinese workers by Apple, one of the world’s wealthiest companies (Apple recently reported it would pay its stockholders their first dividend in 17 years since it had $97.6 million dollars in cash reserves). No one is comparing Daisey to Clifford Irving, but a more exaggerated form of what he did hearkens back to the Clifford Irving case. Irving solved the problem of having an elusive subject in the reclusive Howard Hughes by making up his autobiography. It also recalls the cases of the fictional persona of JT LeRoy made up by a writer named Laura Albert and of James Frey’s fictionalized account of his alcoholism, A Million Little Pieces. Appropriation is an important movement in modern art and literature. But all of these works represented not the appropriation of reality in the service of fiction or art, but the appropriation of fiction in the service of reality. Well, you might say, as Daisey has, that the means justify the ends and that it’s all for a good cause. That’s a little bit what happened with Kony 2012, the video that became an internet sensation and a cause, until as Carr reports the filmmaker Jason Russell “was found running around naked and yelling incoherently in a San Diego neighborhood.” No one doubts that Joseph Kony is bad and should be brought to trial by the ICC, but when an excess of imagination and artfulness actually muddies reality than a dangerous line, what we might called “the story line,” has been crossed. Daisey appeared on a subsequent This American Life to recant and ostensibly explain himself. Carr quotes Daisey telling This American Life’s Ira Glass the following: “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way that would ruin everything.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Like Flies to Shit

According to a front page piece in Friday’s Times (“Learning From the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly,” NYT, 3/15/12), many fruit flies are fruit cakes. Not to take a derogatory attitude towards addiction, which is a serious problem in our society, but it turns out many of these flies suffer from character disorders which can lead them right to the bottle. It’s a fly by night, easy come easy go world out there and the majority of fruit flies, like people, realize that relationships with members of the opposite sex, can be ephemeral until the knot is tied. The Venus fly trap is the equivalent of a prenup in the world of fruit flies. However, there are very thin-skinned male flies who go out and get drunk when they’ve been rejected by an alluring female from their world. This is not an absurdist joke. The Times piece reports on work published in the journal Science. “The study posted on line in the journal Science suggests that some elements of the brain’s reward system have changed very little during evolution, and these include some of the mechanisms that support addiction. Levels of a brain chemical that is active in regulating appetite predicted the flies’ thirst for alcohol. A similar chemical is linked to drinking in humans.” Be reassured the study was not conducted at any prominent Manhattan watering holes say like J.G. Melon on Third Avenue. And there is no plan to release a new version of the Ray Milland classic Lost Weekend with a very tiny version of the Gregor Samsa insect in the lead role. But the next question is how to get male fruit flies into recovery from their disease? When he is not getting drunk, the average male is more likely to be attracted to shit than to a church basement.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sufferings of Young Gerhard

photo: Hans Peter Schaefer
Corinna Beltz’s movie about Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter-Painting currently playing at Film Forum bears comparison to Hans Namuth’s famous film of Pollock and will likely elicit similar questions--about artistic product and process--to those raised by the Namuth film, when it was released in l950. Is the act of Richter moving his squeegee along the surfaces of the varying canvases that appear in the film where the art manifests itself (ie the artwork, like in “action painting,” being a memento of a creative act, that has already occurred) or does the talent and genius reside in the actual composition, the final product that goes out into the world? A side issue is Richter’s obvious interest in Hegelian dialectics, in being and becoming. His squeegee both creates and destroys and what looks finished is what has yet to be undone and conversely what appears to be inchoate turns into an essay on what is good, which Richter also equates with a morality that flies in the face of the estheticism we generally associate with abstraction in art. The Hegelian dialectics not only exist in in the inception of a singular work of art, but between paintings. “Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company,” Richter comments. Whatever Richter is, an enigmatic Chauncey Gardiner figure to whom we attribute more than actually meets the eyes, or along with his contemporary Anselm Kiefer (the subject of another recent documentary, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow) one of the giants of our era is a discussion that none of the cast of characters who appear in the film, who include Marian Goodman, the Manhattan gallerista, Norbert Arms and Hubert Becker (his two assistants) and a number of internationally known museum directors are likely to entertain as they contribute to his hagiography. Richter, as the film  plainly shows, with its elaborate architectural models of the walls of upcoming exhibition venues, is an industry whose artistic pedigree is established with shots from an earlier film of his youthful self (despite his talk about painting being a secretive act, Richter is plainly not the withdrawn Kafkaesque figure he makes himself out to be) disclaiming theories of art like a character in a bildungsroman we might have called The Sufferings of Young Gerhard. However, unlike another painter industrialist named Damien Hirst, the film displays Richter as an artist who executes his own work.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Greg Smith to Babbo

"But I would have to say that who has had the largest effect on the whole planet without us really paying attention across the board and everywhere is the entire banking industry and their disregard for the people that they’re supposed to be working for… the ways the bankers have toppled the way money is distributed and taken most of it into their own hands is as good as Stalin or Hitler and the evil guys."  Is this a quote from Greg Smith, the Goldman Sachs London executive who unleashed a much ballyhooed Op-Ed piece, critical of the rapacious corporate culture of the concern within minutes after resigning? No it’s from Mario Batali, the world renowned restauranteur and owner of Eataly, quoted by the Times (“After Chef’s Hitler Remark, Bankers Change Lunch Plans,” NYT, 11/09/11) at a panel promoting   Time Magazine's Person of the Year year issue. Wall Street took umbrage at Batali, but an Occupy Wall Street type boycott of Batali restaurants by Wall Streeters never materialized and the same heavy hitters who who originally expressed passionate indignation are still competing for reservations at the famed chef’s over priced eateries. Mario is there an opening for Greg Smith, as a greeter, at Babbo (after all he is a Stanford graduate)? Remember that Goldman Sachs was the firm which reputedly bet against its own customers, writing credit default swaps against the collateralized debt obligations it was marketing “Banks Bundled Bad Debt, Bet Against It and Won," NYT, 12/23/09).  It’s a plot similar to The Producers, only there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no hit play that inadvertently doomed the bad guys and spared Goldman’s customers their loss. Now Wall Street executives are lining up like shoppers outside Walmart’s on that infamous Black Friday of 2008, when the sky was falling, raising their voices in a collective mea culpa, one more holier and more self congratulatory than the other in condemning Goldman and admitting that there’s a little bit of larceny in even the most honorable of men. Hopefully no one will suffer the fate of the Wal-Mart worker, who was crushed to death in that infamous stampede. (“Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death,” NYT, 11/28/08)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Republic Friended

“New Republic Get an Owner Steeped in New Media” (NYT, 3/9/11) ran the story in the Media Decoder blog of the Times. Apparently The New Republic, the venerable publication that could be reached by taking a slight right turn at The Nation and a sharp left at The New Criterion will survive the social media revolution after all. The Times story recounted how The New Republic had been looking for a suitor and found a perfect match in Chris Hughes, one time roommate of Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, who had been one of the founders of Facebook, before he went off to devote his energies to the Obama campaign and other philanthropic pursuits. “The influence of The New Republic has often outstripped its small staff and its small circulation (around 50,000),” the Times commented. “Founded in 1914 by the political journalist Walter Lippmann, it has long been a part of the liberal movement, counting presidents as readers, including John F. Kennedy, and luminaries as writers, including George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and Philip Roth.” Hughes' idea is simple, as reported by the Times. The long form of journalism which is The New Republic's credo should find it’s home on the tablet. Naturally, The New Republic is not the only magazine that specializes in in depth and original reporting and criticism. The New Yorker is naturally the epitome of this kind of publication, but it already has a highly developed digital presence. In addition The New Republic is really a link to the old style broadsheets of the past (many of them like The New Leader and I.F. Stone’s Weekly now defunct) which were the stomping ground for the great maverick intellects of their day. In a world which values style over substance, the medium over the message, Hughes acquisition is significant in that it again values and guarantees to bring to a vastly larger audience a certain level of erudition. Many publications are acquired by moguls with huge cash troves. The Daily News and The New York Observer are respectively owned by Mort Zuckerman and Jared Kushner whose wealth derives from real estate, but Gregor Mendel couldn't have picked a more potent cross-breed in The New Republic's new buyer. The fact that Hughes wealth come not just from media, but from social networking is huge.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Joseph Cedar's Footnote could be a typical modern Jewish family drama, something in Jerry Seinfeld’s memory bank or literarily up against Larry David’s kitchen sink in Curb Your Enthusiasm. There is a scene in which we see three generations of a Jewish family piled into the car after watching Fiddler with the grandfather humming “Tradition.” And the father and son conflict is the substance of the kind of Yiddishkeit that would have been at home on Second Avenue a century ago. Two factors complicate matters: the son Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) and his father Eliezer (Shlomo bar Aba) are both Talmudic scholars and the movie takes place in Israel (whose own struggles with secularism and modernity are mirrored in the generational struggle that the film plays out). The plot hinges on many questions which the Talmud surely deals with. One is the question of righteousness. Should a man be righteous and honest when it causes another great pain? A simple and almost iconic struggle between father and son becomes a black hole in which centuries of ethics and morality are brought to bear on the answer to this question. Eliezer, whose publication is limited (the footnote of the title refers to a minor mention in his mentor's work) embodies a past in which great scholars devoted their lives to scholarship for its own sake. His son, who has published many books and works out his aggressions on the paddle ball court, is a creature of the modern world who plainly wouldn’t mind his Talmudic commentaries selling on Amazon. It’s interesting to ponder into which category the great Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz, whose Talmud is on Amazon, would fall. Library carrels are as ubiquitous in Footnote as boudoirs were in the Hollywood movies of the 30’s and talking about books and libraries, there is an almost Borgesian obsession with language and citation which eventually builds to a surreal finale in a wonderful cross cutting scene as father and son attempt to diminish each other’s achievements.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Is Altruism Good?

Is altruism naturally selective? Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on survival of the fittest? But does it pay to care about others? In contradiction to Darwin, do caring, benevolence and even self-sacrifice comprise an important part of the survival mechanism? This is the question Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) asks in his recent New Yorker piece (“Kin and Kind,” 3/5/12). Lehrer quotes Darwin who commented in The Descent of Man that “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.” But he then brings up a researcher by the name of William Hamilton whose equation published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology back in l964, rB>C, and a theory called “inclusive fitness” inspired major figures like the famed Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson. The crux of the idea was a scientific explanation of what had previously been considered a moral trait similar to conscience. Altruistic behavior in animals was not due to the appearance of precocious human traits anymore than it was an expression of a higher brain activity in man (i.e., something which differentiated man from lower forms on the evolutionary scale). Altruism or self-sacrifice were just ways of passing genes on. Hamilton’s equation was predicated on the fact that the benefits of the action (B) exceeding the cost (C). Wilson according to Lehrer would eventually turn against his own embrace of Hamilton’s theory which embodied another concept “an extreme form of altruism known as eusociality, in which individuals live together in vast, cooperative societies.” Like the theory of evolution which has gone through its own evolution due to the work of evolutionary biologists like the late Stephen Jay Gould (who proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium to explain incongruities in the fossil record), Lehrer’s piece demonstrates how, a tidy idea like inclusive fitness, which seems to so brilliantly accommodate biology, mathematics and a kind of anodyne to Spencer’s Social Darwinism (by postulating a scientific explanation for goodness), is wrong. More will be revealed as the saying goes, and since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, the sensible and altruistic thing to do would seem to be to refrain from the perpetuation of more jargon while the jury is still out on this one.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fifty Shades of the Lord's Resistance Army

If you have noticed ubiquitous heavy breathing, it’s because of a sado-masochistic novel called "Fifty Shades of Grey." The only other media event of this magnitude has been Jason Russell’s video, Kony 2012, about Joseph Kony the Ugandan warlord who controls the Lord’s Resistance Army—which infamously abducts children, turning them into Kalyshnikov carrying murderers. Such is the nature of the world of Facebook and social media that these two events were reported prominently in the Times on two consecutive days (“Discreetly Digital, an Erotic Novel Sets American Women Abuzz,” 3/9/12, “On Line a Distant Conflict Soars to Topic No.1,” 3/8/12) long after they were media events on the internet. In other words the Times and indeed a number of other major news sources had been scooped by the internet, since these are what in our quantum age (where some items are reported on esoteric sites before they’ve even reached the stage of conscious thought) must be called old stories. Here’s how the Times described the book, which was published by a small Australian company is now being released by the venerable and literary Vintage Books,  “ 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and the two other titles in the series were written by a British author named E.L. James a former television executive who began the trilogy by posting fan fiction on line. The books, which were released last year, center on the lives (and affection for whips, chains and handcuffs) of Christian Grey, a rich, handsome tycoon and Anastasia Steele, an innocent college student, who enter into a dominant-submissive relationship.” So what is to be concluded? Social media can be given partial credit for Arab spring and a movement to unseat an intractable tyrant, but it’s also appears to have produced a new version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, which is a mixture of romance fiction and the 120 Days of Sodom. Let’s just hope that Joseph Kony, who also knows something about sexual slavery, isn’t blurbing the cover.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Full of Sound and Fury and Signifying Something

                                                                                 David Kapell
Roman a clefs are novels based on real lives. And then there are some real lives that are like novels.  In reading the Times obit of Anna Lou Dehavenon’s (“Anna Lou Dehavenon, 85; Drew Attention to the Homeless,” NYT, 2/29/12), one would have to ask which novel or novel form it resembles to the extent that the tragedy, which occurred in the beginning, when Dehavenon became a widow of the great pianist William Kapell, was followed by a period in which she became a well-known figure in her own right. Few people remember William Kapell these days (despite Dehavenon’s attempts to keep the memory of his work alive), but in l953 when his plane crashed on his return from Australia, he was thought to have extraordinary talent and promise. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann’s novel about Schoenberg might be the model since both Kapell and his widow devoted their lives to music with Anna sacrificing her career for his. But from the point of view of a good title Great Expectations comes to mind and indeed the story has Dickensian overtones. the Times obit begins not like A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) but with the following lines, “Anna Lou Dehavenon, an urban anthropologist was documenting the lives of women living in a Bronx homeless shelter in the l980’s when she had an epiphany. She had just determined that the median age of women at the shelter was 26, and that the median number of children of the women was 2, when she suddenly remembered the day her own life was turned upside down—when she, too, was 26 and the mother of two.” On the verge of homelessness herself, Dehavenon became one of the great advocates for the homeless and documenters of their condition. A tale told by an idiot. Maybe. Fate is ruthless and full of sound and fury? Yes. But this time signifying something great.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Genetic Maker of Men is Diminished

The headline read a little like Kodak’s bankruptcy (which resulted in the famous Kodak Theatre where the Academy Awards were held having to change its name), like the fall of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns or MF Global. “Genetic Maker of Men is Diminished but Holding Its Ground Researchers, Say,” ran the Times headline (NYT, 2/22/12) Of course the article was not about a company, but about the Y chromosome which apparently had been shedding genes for the sake apparently of womankind—Adam’s Rib playing itself out on the genome, as it were. “The Y chromosome began its self-sacrificing downsizing in the gallant cause of protecting women,” Times writer Nicholas Wade reported. “As is well-known, the purpose of sex is to exchange DNA between the mother’s and father’s version of each gene…But the male-determining gene on the Y cannot be allowed to sneak across onto the X because it would insert maleness where it should not be.”  Evolution created a “no-swapping zone” resulting in the Y retaining only l9 of the original 790 genes in this area. Wade’s piece was based on work done at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts where researchers “have reconstructed the Y chromosome’s" history. But all is not lost. The Y chromosome is not another Titanic according to the same researchers who have concluded that all of the Y’s “genetic self-sacrificing occurred in the distant past.” Saab may have had to stop production of its cars, but the male of the species will continue to be produced. Mark Twain’s famous post mortem can be applied to men, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Propostion 7, the last proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus states,  “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” One of the central themes of Wim Wenders' Pina is liminality. Pina Bausch's dance is liminal in that it deals with an edge of experience that can no longer be expressed in words. And what is that edge? It’s pain and love and longing. Her dancers describe Pina Bausch as a watcher. They were her paint and what a great way to view a film about a watcher but in 3-D (in several sequences of the film you actually watch an audience watching—in 3-D— which is one reason Pina   could be subtitled adventures in perspective). And then there are the numerous set pieces which constitute the best of Pina, a woman being dismantled from a lover’s embrace, a man balancing sticks, a kind of Eve in reverse sequence where a muscular woman gives birth to a man. But from the point of view of meaning making one can’t help but ask if the edge is not an “event horizon,” followed by a black hole. Pina’s Bausch’s medium was dance/theater (her company was Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch) and one would assume that the element separating dance/theater from dance is the emphasis on human emotion over pure movement. Yet one wonders. If there are elements of human emotion that cannot be expressed in words, are they not sometimes best left to silence rather than movement?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rachel Kneebone: Regarding Rodin

The old jeremiad “he or she didn’t see the writing on the wall,” would not be applicable to the show of Rachel Kneebone’s sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum. You can’t miss it. Kneebone’s porcelain sculpture owes a great deal to Rodin and the curator, Catherine Morris, has gone out of her way  (sometimes so far out of their way that it seems like a stretch) in pointing to the similarities between the two artists work (which are shown side by side in the exhibit space) in her comments on the wall of the museum. Rilke was Rodin’s secretary and some of his lines are also quoted. The fact that Rodin worked in bronze and Kneebone fashions her medium in porcelain is discountenanced along with the obvious difference between Rodin’s simple undulating forms and Kneebone’s highly ornate, almost ornamental style. Referencing Rodin’s quote that “sculpture is the art of the hole the lump,” Morris writes, “These techniques are also characteristic of Kneebone’s work and they invoke metaphorical readings that allude to the hole in the absence of the phallus that defines womankind in Freudian thought and to the big black lump of earth that gave birth to Adam. These multiple points of reference within both artists’ work—from the art of modeling figures to a psychosexual formation of the individual—are the focus of Rachel Kneebone: Regarding Rodin.” A Rodin of the naked Balzac makes a cameo appearance in the show. For good or bad Balzac didn’t write like that.

Monday, March 5, 2012

This is Not a Film

The Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film begins as a subterfuge. Under a 20 year ban on filmmaking and threatened with a six year prison terms whose appeal is the subject of a telephone conversation with his lawyer during the course of “the effort” as he calls it, Panahi sets out to produce a work of art that is not a film. Without a script, or director (“you're not directing; it’s an offense," his colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb cries out) or cast, he reads from a previous script about a once and a future student, a woman who is locked in her house by traditionalist parents as a way of preventing her from attending university. Panahi isn't the first creative individual who has used a ploy to avoid the censors, but This is Not a Film is much more than that. There are constant references to Beckett. “Nothing to be done” is the starting line of Godot. In the film Panahi says “I don’t know what is to be done exactly.” The Unnameable ends with the famous lines “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And Panahi utters similar words. This is Not a Film starts as being a piece of agitprop and ends with an artistic strategy that is curiously reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s one screenplay, Film, which begins with an edited version of Bishop Berkeley’s famed quote esse est percipi, "to be is to be perceived." Buster Keaton was the star of Film and Panahi plays the comic role here with his terrain of consciousness narrowing from first taped out areas of an apartment, to a window, to a television screen, an iPhone and finally an elevator in which he is trapped with a custodian, a young student, who picks up the trash. The universe grows smaller and smaller and is inversely proportionate to the enormity of the theme, which is consciousness itself. Amongst the many absurdist touches in the film is the presence of Panahi’s daughter’s pet Iguana. In 20 years when the Iran authorities allow Panahi to make films again, he may want to change the title from This is Not a Film to Day of the Iguana.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Simon Baron-Cohen, the developmental psychopathologist, is the cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s not really fair and perhaps even cruel to bring up this relationship when trying to seriously consider his ideas. But since his latest book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, deals with cruel, insensitive and at times life denying behavior, it seems appropriate to indulge the sadistic impulse to associate him with a world renowned clown. As Andrew Scull points out in his recent review (“Blood Flow,” TLS, 2/17/12), Cohen tries to create a statistical model for empathy. Zero-Negatives which are typed as Zero-Negative Type B, Zero-Negative Type P or Zero-Negative Type N are borderlines, psychopaths and narcissists. Summarizing Cohen’s thesis Scull goes on to explain, “The Zero-Negatives are in varying ways highly dangerous individuals…the differences in their ‘empathy circuits’ are largely features of their brains; their ventromedial frontal cortex and their orbitofrontal cortex are under-active, while their ventral striatum and their amygdala are over-active.” Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment in relationship to authority still is one of the most dramatic illustrations of objectification by which not just Zero-Negatives but all of us reveal the propensity to excuse the suffering others. But Scull is critical of the neat little statistical universe which Cohen has created with its questionaires and EQ’s or empathy quotients. In terms of using fMRI’s and other brain measuring devices he points out that “Despite important advances in neuroscience, we are very far indeed from being able to connect even very simple human actions to the underlying structure and functioning of people’s brains.” Six Degrees of Separation was a play by John Guare about human connectivity. If nothing else, Cohen’s book, with its pithy title, points to a performance gene shared with his famous cousin. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Sometimes a cartoon panel really hits the mark. Brian McFadden’s Theocalypse Now from last Sunday’s Review Section (NYT, 2/25/12) is right up with the work of the great Weimar satirists and journalists like Karl Kraus and Joseph Roth in capturing the tenor of our troubled times.  Raging unemployment, debt and a government whose lackluster response to growing problems eventually spawned a hokey, but lethal millenarian solution solution called The Third Reich. Germany which had produced Goethe and Schiller not to speak of Luther and Guttenberg was now being led by a mob which looked for scapegoats and whose solidarity was created by an attack on thinking itself. Here is a l950 quote from Isaiah Berlin on totalitarianism reprised in the current Foreign Affairs: “This is an attitude which looks on all inner conflict as an evil, or at best as a form of futile self-frustration; which considers the kind of friction, the moral or emotional or intellectual collisions, the particular kind of acute spiritual discomfort which rises to a condition of agony from which great works of the human intellect and imagination, inventions, philosophies, works of art, have sprung, as being no better than purely destructive diseases—neuroses, psychoses, mental derangements, genuinely requiring psychiatric aid; above all as being dangerous deviations from that line to which individuals and societies must adhere if they are to continue in a state of well-ordered, painless, contented, self-perpetuating equilibrium.” The Rick Santorum like figure in this edition of The Strip says things like “climate change is a hoax,”  “God gave us dominion over the earth to do with it as we please,” “creationism and prayer should be taught in every school,” “down with birth control and everything else that makes sex fun.”  Cartoon balloons of course or one of the most effective ways of capturing almost all campaign rhetoric, but the cartoon medium is tremendously effective in allowing McFadden to zero in on the leveling quality that characterizes Santorum’s strident appeals to his Tea Party following. Theocalypse Now or Santarmaggedon?