Friday, June 29, 2012

Tying the Knot

Changes in social attitudes can affect language. Remember when if you described someone as being gay, it more likely than not meant they were happy and had nothing whatsoever to do with their sexual orientation? Now that the three volumes of the Fifty Shades of Grey occupying the Times bestseller list, the expression “tying the knot” is coming under scrutiny. It used to be that when a couple let their friends know they were “tying the knot," they were getting married. Now with Fifty Shades of Grey "as American as cherry pie," to use H. Rap Brown’s famous quote about violence, and women openly reading it everywhere (it’s not uncommon to sit down in a crowded subway and find women on either side of you reading different or even the same volumes of the trilogy), the expression “tying the knot” can no longer be taken for granted. Actually in its common usage, as symbol of marriage “tying the knot” is an example of metonymy. Using the White House for the presidency is another example of this figure of speech in which an object is called by the name of something else which easily associates to it. Using “tying the knot,” in the sense suggested by the Fifty Shades of Grey revolution actually represents a return to a more literal use of the phrase. In this case a more evolved form of sexual behavior, involving, fetishism, submission and pain has actual resulted in a less evolved used of language. Thus if you are informed by a couple that they are tying the knot, it will not be considered at all inappropriate to ask them what kind of rope they are planning to use and if they possess enough to hang themselves with.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Five Broken Cameras

One can’t help thinking about Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, which dates from the period following the Russian Revolution, when one sees Five Broken Cameras Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi's documentary which just ended its run at Film Forum, takes place in the Palestinian Village of Bil’in on the West Bank. The unrelenting and dispiriting nature of the conflict which literally kills hope is the backdrop, but as with its Russian predecessor, it's the esthetic realm and the Palestinian Burnat's obsessive collecting of experience with his cameras (the other director and writer Davidi is Israeli) that’s the real subject. Art and expression create meaning and respite amidst the war of ideologies. “When I film I feel my camera protects me, “ Burnat says at one point (indeed, one of the cameras literally spares him from a bullet). And there is an equanimity in the island of observation the director creates—whether it involves shooting his wife nagging him “enough with the filming already” or his filming of soldiers shooting. The film derives its title from the fact that each of Burnat’s cameras falls victim to the violence, but while they’re on, they’re equal opportunity employers that exude the passion of the Buddha. Bil’in has its own cast of characters including a provocateur named Abeed and Phil, called “the elephant” due to his thick-skinned optimism. The children wear Fox News, Che Guevara and Brazil tee shirts which are a reminder that there is only one degree of separation between the agit-prop we are witnessing, which takes a tragic turn towards the film’s end, and consumerism. Burnat gets his camera after the birth of his youngest child Gibreel and the film is not only a chronicle of war, but of one human being’s development. “I film to heal,” Burnat says, but what is Gibreel thinking as he sees rocks, bullets and tear gas canisters flying?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yet Another Shade of Grey

Artists like to get attention and what better way to get it than to drop their drawers. Confessional works which reveal demons hidden in the closet say like Susan Cheever’s memoir, Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction about her sexuality are, of course, attention getters. Marina Abramovic the performance artist has done many works where she has either been naked or invited audience members to attack her body. In one piece the actual performance art was to become a prostitute and accept money for sex. Hannah Wilke used both her naked body and her death as the subject of her art. Annie Sprinkle and the Italian porn star La Cicciolina both started in the world of pornography and went on to have careers respectively in performance art and politics. Sasha Grey is the latest example of a porn actress who went on to build a career as a serious artist. Grey is not a fly-by-night porn actress. She took her porn seriously. The scenes she performed were extreme and alternately acrobatic, aerobic and always punishing, with gagging and anal penetration being two specialities de la maison. She then retired from pornography and has appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, HBO’s Entourage and other independent films. She’s also played in the band Telecine. In her book Neu Sex she made herself the auteur of her own filmic experience, using her camera to record herself becoming the object of her audience’s fantasies. Grey has always been interested in French New Wave cinema (she'd toyed with adopting the name of one of Godard's early actresses Anna Karina, according to Wikipedia, and could easily have been a character in Vivre Sa Vie--Godard's film about a prostitute). Watching Sasha Grey's pornography can be harrowing, as she invites suffocation and abuse, and yet she ironically falls into that category of artist whose life threatening brushes with reality become the substance of their life’s work. Despite her fascination with film, can we look at her as a female Hemingway, egging on her male counterparts, the way Hemingway incited his readers to run with the bulls at Pamplona?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Higgs Boson Makes Its Way Through Congress

“The particle is named for the University of Edinburgh scientist Peter Higgs, who was one of six physicists who suggested that a sort of cosmic molasses pervading space is what gives particles their heft,” Times science reporting guru Dennis Overbye remarked in a recent piece about the Higgs Boson (“New Data on Elusive Particle is Shrouded in Secrecy,” NYT, 6/19/12). “Particles trying to wade through it gather mass the way a bill moving through Congress gains riders and amendments, becoming more and more ponderous.” Overbye’s remarks about "the Higgs mechanism, a pervasive field that gives mass to elementary particles" (and he also compared to the difference between paparazzi making their way through ordinary people or celebrities whose “fame” creates an “inertia,”) turns out to be particularly instructive due to what they say about congressional politics. Everyone knows that there are stipulations in congressional bills which either exempt certain institutions like banks, hospitals or stock exchanges from compliance with a regulation, or provide perks for certain constituencies. “If we are building a road, it better not be a road to nowhere,” President Obama famously remarked in a speech following his election. But let’s hope that Overbye’s figure of speech is also characterized by hyperbole. If it turns out that the Higgs Boson does exist and that it’s one of the major building blocks of life as we know it, then if it’s anything comparable to a congressional bill, it’s going be contaminated—as contaminated as pork barrel politics itself. If you think that life is complicated and human motives never pure, it may go back to the original boson which was burdened with appeals to special interests and lobbyists from the moment the big bang hearkened the creation of the universe. Can you imagine a particle comparable to the repeal of Glass-Steagall?

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Good Dictator

The difference between Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is revealed by the title. Sacha’s Baron Cohen’s Dictator (actually directed by Larry Charles from a script written by Cohen and others) is not great and by losing the adjective Cohen is implicitly, perhaps even explicitly paying homage to a master. Anyone who has been named Dick after his father understands what this means, when they remember back to being called “little Dick.” Still The Dictator is good, very good and, in fact, somewhat underrated. The humor of the movie derives right from Plautean farce which revels in the use of the double. In this regard, casting Ben Kingsley as Tamir (the venomous uncle) who is a dead ringer for Hamid Karzai in a movie which is a general takedown of the entire leadership of the planet is one of the most inspired choices in comic film history. The humor of The Dictator, or shall we call it The Good Dictator, parodies not only the Bin Ladens, Gadaffis and Kim Jong-ils of the world (The Dictator is dedicated to the recently departed Korean tyrant)--but the whole bulwark of global political discourse which is based upon afflatus. Democracy itself is the largest offender within pantheon of satirized ideologies, to the extent that the freedom it offers is often false advertising. The climactic scene in which Sacha Baron Cohen restored to his throne is about tear up a document calling for an end to his dictatorship and then reverses himself proves that the movie should really be called The Good Dictator since both the character and satire are good at heart. This scene which inevitably gives audience members a chance to sheepishly grin after a tiring 80 or so minutes of roaring is an example of comic wish fulfillment. As in say Midsummer Night’s Dream the topsy-turvy universe in which two Middle Easterners talking about the 2012 model of the Porsche 911 can be thrown into jail and signs in a restaurant warn that “violators will be waterboarded” is set back to normal with Baron Cohen’s character General Aladeen marrying an Amherst educated fem-lit major who doesn’t shave her armpits and runs a vegan grocery store. If that sounds far flung then tone Aladeen down to the level of benevolent despot and you get King Hussein of Jordan who married the Princeton educated Lisa Halaby who became Queen Noor.  Of course Hussein wouldn’t have asked “are you having a boy or an abortion?” as Aladeen does, when his wife tells him she’s pregnant.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Min Kamp

Photo: Kjetll Ree
The Times’ Larry Rohter reported on the Norwegian author Karl Owe Knausgaard’s 3600 page memoir, My Struggle which naturally cites the kahuna of infamous memoirs, Mein Kampf  (“He Says a Lot, for a Norwegian," NYT, 6/18/12). Since Mein Kampf is still illegal in some countries, Min Kamp (in Norwegian) has appeared under aliases. “In Germany, the first two volumes of Mr. Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’ have sold well, but under the titles ‘To Die’ and ‘To Love,'
” Rohter remarked. Actually the notoriety of Knaugaard’s memoir seems to derive not from the association to Hitler, but due to the frankness with which he talks about things like his father’s alcoholism and his wife’s “bipolar condition.” However ultimately the question comes up why would anyone want their life story to be compared to Hitler’s? Most writers and people not only dislike being compared to Hitler, but usually go overboard to dissociate themselves from his memory. No matter how candid and confessional one is being, ultimately only a self-mutilator would want to say about Mein Kampf what Flaubert famously said about Madame Bovary, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Rohter's Times piece did little to throw light on the reason for Knausgaard choice of title beyond quoting the author as saying that both Mein Kampf and Min Kamp are “about the construction of self.” One might have imagined the choice of Mein Kampf as a title from a shock jock like Sacha Baron Cohen whose most recent movie The Dictator turns Osama bin Laden into a subject of satire. But Min Kampf, whose sixth volume, according to Rohter, does include the author’s own essay comparing the eponymous Mein Kampf to his own, is as deadly serious in its subject matter as was Hitler’s. Imagine how history would have been changed if Hitler hadn’t taken himself so seriously. What if Hitler had turned his ideas into the subject of a standup act—something along the lines of a Sacha Baron Cohen routine— that played in Weimar Germany? Would Knausgaard still have expropriated the title 86 years later?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Diasporic Dining XXXII: China Road

If you want to travel back to the Manhattan of the 70’s—in terms of restaurants that is, take I-81 North of Syracuse to the town of Mattydale. Just as Syracuse hearkens back to the Roman Siracusa, Simon Teng who was the executive chef of such chichi establishments as Auntie Yuan, Uncle Tai’s, David K’s and Pig Heaven has become the curator himself of a certain kind of Szechuanese food, a moment in the evolution of the sensibility of Chinese-American cooking which has become as rarefied as the Cantonese cuisine—served by white jacketed waiters lifting heavy silver lids—that it once replaced. His China Road is a little like Pompeii. When you go there and taste the smoked duck, ma po tofu, twice cooked beans, spicy dumpling, daikon radish cakes, and spicy crispy tilapia you feel that time has stopped and you have rediscovered the fountain of eternal youth—minus perhaps some of the other sensual delights that that the ill fated inhabitants of Pompeii enjoyed before the deluge. The curious thing is that the Chef Teng has reinvented himself as the proprietor of a roadhouse that’s a far cry from the auspicious cosmopolitan establishments he once presided over. China Road is housed in a modest shingled structure that's hardly distinguishable from the cheap motels, bars, Dollar Discount Stores and adult video shops that are scattered along the main thoroughfares in this modest part of the country. Teng’s original restaurants attracted a high ticket clientele way back when. Now the anonymity is what creates the exclusivity. You don’t have to be someone or have a fat wallet to enjoy China Road. You only have to know where the restaurant is, to savor its delights.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Another Shade of Grey

Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan
A while back, The Hunger Games suddenly started to appear in public. You’d be sitting on the subway and someone would be reading the book opposite you. They’d get up and it wasn’t unusual to find that someone else was reading the same edition of the book not very far away. That person could have been a man or a woman. There was a point at which the Harry Potter books were everywhere, but you didn’t see them on subways or buses since they were mostly read by children who don’t tend to read while they are strap hanging  in the way that adults do. Is penetrating the correct word to use for Fifty Shades of Grey? In any case, it’s everywhere—on planes, on buses on subways, but it’s only women who possess copies of the book. What Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Gray all have in common is that they are fantasy and so we can conclude the obvious: that in a world in which reading is increasingly being supplanted by visual forms of entertainment which don’t require much imaginative work, certain kinds of fantasy still capture the minds of an increasingly illiterate public. On the other hand, “the penetration” of Fifty Shades is also a psycho-sexual phenomenon. The book is notorious for its sadomasochistic sexuality which includes bondage and spanking and yet women of all shapes and sizes are not only reading it in public without the camouflage of say of the Kindle, which had initially been a popular place to indulge their interest in the kind of risqué romance fiction whose covers could be a source of embarrassment. They are flaunting it. Are readers of the book actually making a statement? Is the exhibitionism of reading the book in public part of the thrill? Are all these women saying “ravish me” to the potential Christian Greys sitting across from them on the uptown 4? Is Fifty Shades of Grey a revolutionary phenomenon like Occupy Wall Street? Have the masses of women reading it in public not only demonstrated their love of fantasy, but actually crossed some line in which they are now ready to act?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Golden Vanity

Photo: Coffee House Press
Ben Lerner’s The Golden Vanity which appeared in the June 16th New Yorker is a story about a subject that will ring a bell with anyone who’s had problems with their teeth. Extraction is the ostensible area of concern and the catalyst for what transpires is the choice of a local or the I.V. anesthetic, twilight. “The difference between twilight sedation and local anesthesia was not primarily a difference in the amount of pain, but in the memory of it,” Lerner’s protagonist identified simply as “the author” remarks. “The benzodiazepines calm you during the procedure, yes, but their main function is to erase your memory of whatever transpires.” Actually “the author” functions as both a character in the story and an analogue for what might be called the executive function of the brain. In an age in which we're increasingly conscious of consciousness in its neurological, psychological and phenomenological aspects, Lerner offers up a piece of fiction that is Descartes (to the extent that it delves into the very question of what makes us thinking animals) written in the style of Pascal’s Pensees, to the extent that it’s rendered in aphorism, not on the subject of God and man, but about man and thought. All the musings of “the author” partake of the Kantian dichotomy between noumena and phenomena. For instance, here is the author on meeting a character named Hannah who may or may not exist. “Would you know what he meant if the author said he never really saw her face, that faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of bundling features in the memory, even if that memory was then projected into the present, onto the area between the forehead and chin.” While students of neuroscience might recognize this as an example prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by the inability to identify faces (and mentioned later in the story), it’s employed here to exemplify pareidolia, which the author’s Hannah describes as occurring “when the brain arranges random stimuli into a significant image or sound.” The locutions of The Golden Vanity are delectable. The author’s therapist Dr. Roberts sits in front of “a tactically inoffensive abstract painting, rhythmic brushstrokes in lavender , blue, green—very competently executed visual Muzak.” There are other characters, his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephews (one of whom is named Theo—after van Gogh’s brother?), Liza who seems to be the author’s significant other and whose “characteristic” was “to begin an activity by claiming she’d have not part in it.” We all know people with that kind of negative capability. However, you never know never know who or what is real or not. But then again, isn’t that what happens when you go to the dentist and get numbed up?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dark Horse

In his New York Times review A. O. Scott compared the character of Abe (Justin Gelber) in Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse to Willy Loman. Actually a better comparison might be Strindberg and characters like Miss Julie who are trapped by everything they are biologically, sociologically and morphologically. The title of the movie comes from Abe’s position in his family. Still in his 30’s he’s an overweight college dropout who lives at home and works in the family business. His father Jackie (Christopher Walken) is a narcoleptic suburban realtor who is constantly demanding spread sheets. One long shot of Jackie going over rent rolls with his visionless mercantilism paints a character that is about as about as far from Gary Cooper’s portrait of the architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead as it’s possible to get. Abe’s mother Phyllis (Mia Farrow) preens over him and apologizes for his ineptitude while offering a rather dire prognosis of his prospects. His older brother Richard (Justin Bartha) is a successful doctor in a competitive Jewish family—in other words everything he is not. Richard is gay and Abe blames his brother for having abandoned him ten years before for having gone off to Fire Island instead of accompanying him on a cross country trip. Solondz’s family is garish, but there is also a tenderness to the portrayal. Abe is trapped in himself and the victim of a confluence of factors that transcend just bourgeois values. There are all kinds of brilliant touches in the film. One of Abe’s first lines to Miranda (Selma Blair), the catatonic woman he proposes to after one date, is “I never dance. It’s not my thing.” It’s all down hill from there. “I want to want you,” she tells him later in the movie. “That’s enough for me,” Abe enthusiastically responds. Abe’s signature vehicle a Hummer and he gets into a fight in a store, whose Toys "R"Us logo is intentionally blurred (one would suppose that the toy chain didn’t want their logo associated with the production), when he tries to return a scratched action figure. As Abe’s life finally implodes entirely, the movie turns from Strindbergian determinism to Walter Mitty like fantasy. Dark Horse is a mess that gives a new meaning to the word mordant, but outrageously funny too. One wouldn’t be surprised to find Solondz transforming the scene of Oedipus with his eyes plucked out into a sequel to Animal House. Tragedy turned to farce. That’s the unique and sometimes frigid sensibility at work.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Give Them Broccoli

Mattthew J. Broccoli/University of South Carolina
James B. Stewart’s Times cover story about the greatly anticipated Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of Obama’s health care plan, “How Broccoli Landed on Supreme Court Menu” (NYT, 6/13/12) cites Wickard v. Filburn, the l942 decision “which has long been a thorn in the side of those who opposed the New Deal,” and which said that “congress had the power to prevent a farmer from growing wheat.” The question is the breadth of Federal power. Stewart also cites two lawyers David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey who had opposed the Clinton health care plan in a l993 Wall Street Journal article. “The health care law, the two lawyers maintained, did not ban an existing activity like growing wheat, but forced people who were doing nothing to act in a certain way.” It wasn’t a stretch to move from the idea of force to broccoli. Libertarians and conservatives can be strange bedfellows, but they came together on the broccoli issue—though why appeal to the vegetarian wing, when the dreaded word “liver” could be the WMD (though this brings up a more complex issue of the politics of dietary constituencies or the dietary habits of political factions which there isn’t space enough to pursue in this post)? Actually, according to Stewart, broccoli was the idea of a Reagan appointee, Federal Judge Roger Vinson, who Stewart quotes as saying “If they decided that everybody needs to eat broccoli because broccoli is healthy, they can mandate that everybody has to buy a certain quality of broccoli each week.” But The Huffington Post recently ran a piece with the following title, “Cancer-fighting Broccoli: New Study Sheds Light on What Makes the Veggie Super." The article talks about the relationship of broccoli to epigenetics or the way in which environment affects genes and in this case the way genes can be modified as a protection against cancer. It's just one of a plethora of articles about broccoli’s benefits. If it were found out that broccoli was the equivalent of a vaccine against cancer, would requiring families to, at the very least, feed it to their children, be Brave New World?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Car Talk

Charles Krupa/AP
Dean Cappello, the chief content officer for WNYC gave the Times a wonderful eulogy for the enormously popular Car Talk whose hosts, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, are retiring after 35 years. The show will stay on the air in reruns for an indeterminate period of time ("Host of 'Car Talk' to Retire After 35 Years of Automotive Banter," NYT, 6/8/12).  Eric Nuzum, vice president of programming for NPR remarked to the Times that there are enough of the highest rated call-ins (the Magliozzi’s rate calls from 1 to 5) “to make up eight years of material.” But here is what Cappello said, “ ‘Car Talk’ is about the human condition. It’s about the desperation you feel when you’re standing in front of something that doesn’t work, and how you work your way out of it.” Car Talk is also a little like the movie Good Will Hunting, to the extent that it’s spiritual and technological message is rendered in a thick Southie idiom. The fact that the Magliozzis possess these accents along with M.I.T. degrees further reinforces the Good Will Hunting analogy. Remember Matt Damon was a math genius with a big time South Side affect. Remember also that A Prairie Home Companion was made into a movie with Meryl Streep and consider the fact that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck should reprise their Boston brogues and portray the Magliozzi brothers in the film version of the radio series. Naturally other clones have been spawned by the series. Long Island Public Radio has Dog Talk, with advice emanating from Tracie Hotchner who commiserates about man's best friend and one can be sure that the demise of the Car Talk will inspire others to deal with “human condition” in so far as it manifests itself when people are faced with objects “that don’t work.” Computer Talk would might be a candidate but in order to keep the verisimilitude, the sound studios of Bollywood would have to be enlisted—since almost all computer advice these days is outsourced to India.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

All the things that commended classic Wes Anderson films like Rushmore and The Royal  Tenenbaums come to naught in the recently released Moonrise Kingdom. The Royal Tenenbaums paid homage to Franny and Zooey, but it had it’s own colorful take on genius. In Moonrise Kingdom the themes of childhood precocity and genius and the countervailing picture of adult ineptitude and also irresponsibility lie at the heart of the canvas, but all the characters and settings are wooden. Anderson has a highly estheticized view of innocence. It’s not Rousseau so much as the Pre-Raphaelites that are the apparent influence and the film is replete with dazzling visual inventions and camera set-ups that exude a surrealistic panorama, a kind of filmic magical realism only equalled by the Coen Brothers. But the visual sleights of hand—a candy cane lighthouse, a map come to life, a police station that looks like a dog house, an island called Penzance and a scout camp called Ivanhoe—are self-conscious gizmos that lead nowhere. It’s as if you have all the bricks and mortar, the palette of the Wes Anderson style and themes including that of mental illness (Coping With a Very Troubled Child is a pamphlet carried around by Anderson’s 12 year old mascara wearing protagonist, Suzy Bishop, played by Kara Haywood), without any accompanying earned or even unearned emotion. It doesn’t help that Anderson’s A list cast including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Bruce Willis and Tilda Swinton, iterate their lines as if they’d fallen asleep at a backer’s audition and had absolutely no idea what their cartoon characters were about. Anderson’s young hero Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a prepubescent portrait painter who's already turning out nudes, spots his love interest at a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye's Fludde. Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies and Our Town then provide the cultural padding for the movie’s not very pristine and unnatural world.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Hunch, the Pounce and the Kill

If there were a genre called business science fiction and fantasy (a mixture of Philip K. Dick and Malcolm Gladwell), then Azam Ahmed’s recent Times story about the infamous trade that put JP Morgan in the hole for a cool 2 billion and climbing (“The Hunch, the Pounce and the Kill,” NYT, 5/26/12) would definitely qualify. Consider the tale’s protagonists: Boaz Weinstein, Chrysler building based hedge fund trader, one time Stuyvesant High school grad, chess wunderkind and card shark who Warren Buffet once invited to a poker tournament and JP Morgan’s Bruno Iksil, aka “the London whale,” so named for what Ahmed described as “his outsize trades.” Iksil wasn’t Melville’s Great Whale, a creature who would have posed a slightly greater challenge in both life and art. He turned out to be easier prey for Boaz. When the initial reports of the JP Morgan loss originally appeared, most of the attention in the press concerned bank regulation. Here was 2008 with one of the most prominent and profitable financial institutions in America, taking a huge blow for trading in area that many think should be off limits to banks. However, the exact nature of the losses and what they derived from remained somewhat of a mystery. Even more important however was the fact that JP Morgan didn’t exist in a bubble. The bank’s loss had to be someone else’s gain. “The resulting uproar, in Washington and on Wall Street, has largely obscured a simple truth of the marketplace,” Azam Ahmed remarked. “Yes, Morgan lost big—but, as Mitt Romney has pointed out, someone else won. And that someone or, rather, those someones, turn out to be Boaz Weinstein and a wolf pack of like-minded hedge fund managers. In the London Whale, these traders saw a rich opportunity, and they seized it with both hands. That, after all, is the way hedge funds roll.” Like all fantasy fiction, there still is something unearthly about all of this, and for the lay person, who is likely to be stunned by all the zero’s, it’s the question, how does it all happen? Credit default swaps and synthetic derivatives still read like supernatural forces to those who aren’t versed in their workings. To the many who don’t understand these esoteric financial instruments, which are to financial journalists on the prowl for scoops what leveraged buyouts were in the 80’s, they’re the mysterious dark energy of the business world.

Monday, June 11, 2012

How To Die

What does the How To Die cover of the current issue of Time says about the demographics of the magazine. This certainly wouldn’t be the cover of Vibe, Maxim, Esquire, Cosmopolitan or even the French magazine Paris Match for which the “companion” of France’s new president, Francois Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler, writes. Time and Newsweek are the two struggling old war horses of American magazine journalism and one can't help asking if the subject of pulling the plug, that's the substance of Joe Klein's cover story ("How To Die: What I Learned from the Last Days of My Mom and Dad," Time, 6/11/12) isn't a double entendre. Who the hell reads these dinosaurs anyway? At very least, that's obviously a question advertisers are apparently asking, when you look at the current waif of an issue weighing in at a mere 66 pages. There are only so many dental offices in America. Time is plainly a magazine whose time has come. Did the editors even realize that the cover logo itself was oxymoronic considering the name of their magazine. Or perhaps they were just trying to recapture the glory of the controversial "Is God Dead" cover of yesteryear (Time, 4/8/66). You don’t want to know “how to die” if you have “time,” though if it’s your time then perhaps you’d want to know. Perhaps the red was just left over from some old cover story about the days of China’s infamous cultural revolution? The magazine business is more competitive than ever with art and editorial directors trying to do something, anything to stanch the flow of losses, but is fire engine red, bleeding to the edges, really the way to go considering the audience that the current issue of Time (and Klein's otherwise heartfelt and insightful piece) is reaching out to. The post menopause, Flomax crowd may be discussing their “arrangements,” but they don’t necessarily want to see blood.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Say It Loud

The Sunday Times Book Review has been making some inspired assignments lately. First there was Clinton on the latest volume in Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ ("Seat of Power," NYT, 5/2/12) and this past Sunday the review assigned Al Sharpton to do James Brown (“Say It Loud,” NYT, 6/1/12). Back in the 70’s Don King had an office on the Upper East Side and Sharpton refereed a little scuffle that was going on between King and Brown right on the street in front of the office—the infamous self-promoter briefly sidelining a promoter out of control. Now Sharpton's cast in the role of another kind of referee in offering a judgment on RJ Smith’s The Life and Music of James Brown. If a review can be deemed any indication of the sensibility of the writer, then the one time walking agent provocateur has aged well. “People were often surprised at his relevance, but James never doubted his own significance, or the fact that he was a historic figure and an undeniably game-changing artist,” Sharpton opines. A few sentences later, he remarks, “James didn’t bring blacks to the mainstream; instead, he brought the mainstream to blacks and made them appreciate and internalize black music and culture themselves.” Those who might not always cotton to Sharpton’s tendentiousness in politics will certainly appreciate his literate punditry. Perhaps Sharpton’s true calling lies in book reviewing! Newsweek once did a survey about how Americans rated varying professions. Criticism was right at the bottom of the list, along with garbage pickup, but Sharpton has pizzazz and charm and rolls off words like a latter day Samuel Johnson. Sharpton’s review of the James Brown bio was a breath of fresh air. Those who follow the workings of TNYTBR will wait with baited breath to see what Sam Tanenhaus comes up with next.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rivers (Not Larry)

And Quiet Flows the Don was a novel by the Russian novelist Mikhail Sholokhov. Remember it. You’re likely one of the few. But rivers have been great sources of inspiration both to artists and plain folks. Moses was floated down the Nile and the rest is history. In a similar life saving intervention Romulus and Remus were sent down the Tiber and ended up founding Rome. The River Liffey running through Dublin was a source of inspiration to Joyce and "riverrun" is the first word(s) of Finnegan's Wake.  The Thames inspired Eliot’s Wasteland (“Sweet Thames, run softly, til I end my song"). The Vlatava river, the longest in the Czech Republic, would eventually carry Vaclav Havel's coffin. The Danube is so ubiquitous a source of inspiration that one hesitates, for fear of sounding obvious, to make the citations.  We have the temperamental Arno, whose waters flow down from the gentle hills which surround Florence and there’s the Hudson, without which there'd be no Hudson River Valley or Hudson River School of painting. A New Curve in the Ganges: Mohatma Gandhi’s Study of Hinduism was a book by Arvi Scharma and finally let’s not forget the Mississippi without which we probably never would have heard of a fellow named Mark Twain. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sicily Journal VII: Jasmine and Dung

Watercolor by Hallie Cohen
Jasmine and dung—these are the smells of Sicily. The spider’s web of wash lines hanging across the windows of Caltagirone, the vaults hiding the Terme baths under Catania’s Duomo, Scicli’s ancient caves dwellings or Chiafura, the Greco-Roman ruins of Siracusa. Everything in Sicily is layered; all the scents, sounds and sights have their own archeology. Driving into Siracusa or Ragusa’s rush hour traffic, you are rudely awakened from the past. The perfectly appointed landscapes, the picuresque farms with their bales of wheat give way to urbanity, though cows and goats still interrupt traffic on major thoroughfares, leaving their dung behind. This is the land of Etna whose volcano meted out huge destruction in 1693 and is always waiting to unleash its fury in the backyards of Pirandello and Verga. There is nothing as pure as a Proustian Madeleine and no brioche to let them eat. The bread is as hard as the people. You have to be tough to survive in Sicily and there is no escaping its pull as Alberto Lattuada’s l962 film, Mafioso so trenchantly demonstrated. Sicily helped to usher in the Risorgimento. Scholars speak of a Sicilian Risorigimento which paved the way for unification, but Sicilian towns and cities don’t partake of the modernity of Milan, Bologna, Modena or Rome. There’s something archaic and unconscious at work in the Sicilian sensibility. Even as you inhale the perfume in the air, you feel you’re being drugged. Think about it, what really is a Godfather? Isn’t there something almost sacrosanct about the word?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Born to Run

The Times Sports section ran a piece by Barry Bearak entitled “Caballo Blanco's Last Run: The Micah True Story” (NYT, 5/20/12). It has to be one of the longest pieces that’s ever appeared in the Sports Section of the Times and concerns Micah True, born Michael Randall Hickman, the mythic Caballo Blanco of Christopher McDougall’s best seller Born to Run. True was what might be called an extreme athlete in extremis running, according to Bearak, races “two, three or four times as long as marathons,” and often through grueling terrain. Bearak describes how True became fascinated by a tribe called the Raramuri, “loosely translated as the running people. They had retreated into the massive canyons of the Sierra Madre centuries ago to escape the conquistadors.” The Raramuri...ran in sandals and were “barely winded by the arduous climbs…(they) did not possess any locomotive secrets. They simply retained the ‘genetic cellular memory’ most human beings had forgotten.” Bearak quotes True as saying, “Everyone of us used to be a long-distance runner.” Actually Bearak’s piece is a jeremiad of sorts since it recalls True’s disappearance and death from what is suspected to be idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a heart ailment that’s sometimes transmitted genetically. Ironically, though it was good genes True was seeking, it was genes that may have killed him. Another irony of the piece was the way it describes how someone who loved ancient ways and who was comfortable living with indigenous peoples in the wilderness was a compulsive e-mailer who sought out a Wi Fi connection when he “drove east with (his) dog to the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico, one of his favorite retreats.” What a piece of work is man!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sicily Journal VI: Mare Nostrum

Photo: Hallie Cohen
Mare Nostrum was what the Latins called the Mediterranean, Our Sea (a term reinvoked by 19th century Italians to associate the idea of unified Italy with the greatness of Rome). Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the natural harbor of Ortygia which still retains its ancient and ragged splendor. Only a few kilometers away lie the ruins of the ancient theater in Sircusa where a Greek Theater Festival is still performed today and where seeds of classic dramaturgy, which lie at the root of Western drama, were later refined by Roman playwrights like Seneca who storyboarded for the likes of Jonson, Marlowe and Shakespeare. But Siracusa’s famed port still miraculously exudes the shape and intimacy of its legendary past. It’s a place that Odysseus could easily have sailed into. Today Ortygia’s neoclassic Hotel des Etrangers is one of the charming tourist redoubts weary travellers retreat to for its terraced view of both the sea and the nearby squares whose churches and baroque architecture reflect the advent of Christendom and the great struggle of the Risorgimento. It’s astonishing to realize how much bigger the so called "Western World" has become. Sicily was once one of the great trading centers and the harbor of Ortygia lay at the seat of what would have been the equivalent of a combination of the Chicago Commodities market and the New York Stock Exchange rolled into one—during the thousand years of Rome that is.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sicily Journal V: Gelato

Photo: Hallie Cohen
Only in Rome can you get out of the Metro at Piazza Dante and be told to take a right on Machivelli (by the way the subway stop is Vittorio Emanuele). You might then go to Via Petrarca 3 and eat at Trattoria da Danilo. Take another right out of the restaurant and then take your third right and you will come to a half block long store front on Via Principe Eugenio with Palazzo del Freddo inscribed at the top and then Gelateria Giovanni Fassi, under which is Roma, Seoul, Shanghai, and above in English “1880, the oldest Italian Gelato factory.” The Sicilian Procopio die Coltelli was reputedly one of the first purveyors of this manna for ice cream lovers , but Fassi's expansion is truly globalization for a gelateria that was started in l907! You get two scoops with panna, the Italian whipped cream for 3 Euros, which is cheap by Italian gelato standards. Walking back to Dante to get the Metro, you pass stops named Flaminia, Lepanto and Ottavian. The Rome Metro is a fairly new invention, but those stops have could have easily been the names of characters in some Shakespeare play, say you took a right or left at Seneca before reaching Dante and Machiavelli