Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Getting Bogged Down and Sandy

Three cheers for all valiant reporters of the Weather Channel and their colleagues on CNN, and the three major networks, but it was like throwing a wet blanket over any entertainment potential the storm might have had. Every time you’d looked (if you were one of the lucky few who had power) they were up to their ankles, knees, thighs in water. If you were a producer this must have proposed some daunting challenges. While there was excitement about say the hanging crane on 57th Street--whether it might fall and its potential for damage (and the Schadenfreudian wishes that the 90 story luxury tower , a modern day Tower of Babel built for the super rich, would fall) there wasn't much room for movement, when your basic story is that you and we are getting soaked. The actual losses and tragedies associated with major catastrophe were and continue to be heart wrenching. But the reporting was all a little like Groundhog Day, the movie where a weatherman (Bill Murray) ended up repeating himself. Normally commercial interruptions are anathema to viewers, but the pro bono work being done by television became so monotonous that commercial breaks started to be missed. If only we could hear again about the sale at this or that car dealership, about Cialis and Flomax, even good old General Foods seemed desirable. Once we could again be exploited by advertisers instead of the elements, life would return to normal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sewage Lagoon

Martha Nussbaum begins her recent review/essay on Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity and Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (“Sewage Lagoon," TLS, 10/12/12 by enlisting Dickens to speculate on the difference between data and narrative in describing human suffering. “It is said of Louisa Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times that she learned of the poor of Coketown as if they were so many ants and beetles, ‘passing to and from their nests.’” Nussbaum, who teaches philosophy and law at the University of Chicago, then goes on to brilliantly link Dickens to groundbreaking work in social psychology. “What Dickens knew intuitively has now been confirmed experimentally. C. Daniel Batson’s magisterial work on empathy and altruism shows that a particularized narrative of suffering has unique power to produce motives for constructive action.” In his essay “Human Rights, Storytelling and Narrative,” (The Journal of Human Rights, Vol l0, No. 1), Titus Levy delineates literary techniques of both empathy and alienation in the context of a more modern British novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Human suffering is so ubiquitous. The connoisseur has so many choices and vantage points from which to view it (genocide, apartheid, famines and earthquakes) that there is literally a Darwinian struggle in which the varying catastrophes with which mankind is afflicted or which he afflicts upon himself compete for our attention. Just opening the mailings of human rights organizations like Medicins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International can be mind numbing. Kony 2012, about the exploitation of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army, received over 93 million hits. But there were all kinds of problems with subsequent calls to action, not the least of which was that the creator of the film, Jason Russell, had a mental breakdown in which he was found wandering naked and incoherent in the streets. Kony 2012 was sui generis and unless you are a Bono, the odds are not high that your story will be heard. This is where literature and genius come in handy. “The English novel was a social protest movement from the start,” Nussbaum remarks, “and its aim (like that of many of its American descendants) was frequently to acquaint middle-class people with the reality of various social ills, in a way that would involve real vision and feeling.” Another aspect of empathy that Nussbaum doesn’t discuss in her essay is the fact of its curative effect on those who might otherwise have perished from self-absorption.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, currently playing at Film Forum, is surrealism that is not like Dali or Bunuel or David Lynch. If there’s a Theater of the Absurd, characterized by the work of Ionesco, Beckett, Genet and Pinter in which meaning is turned upside down—in terms of the signifiers of personality and language—then Holy Motors represents the Cinema of the Absurd. However, for a surrealist or absurdist work Holy Motors is oddly linear. The main character Mr. Oscar (an allusion to the Oscars?) is driven around Paris in a white stretch limo by his elegant blond chauffeur Celine (an allusion to Louis-Ferdinand Celine the author of the surreal Journey to the End of the Night?).  In this regard, Holy Motors can also be viewed as a road movie. Mr. Oscar dons varying guises as he fulfills his successsive “rendezvous.” He’s dressed as a crippled beggar, as a superhero whose feats are played out in a series of images that represent an amalgam of an MRI and a video game, and a Christ figure with an erection who kidnaps a top fashion model and dresses her in a burka. In two of his assignations he murders himself, quickly surviving in the form of a double (was the director influenced Dostoevsky’s The Double: A Petersburg Poem or the Borges story based on it, The Other?). In several sequences Carax reverts to more classic drama. In one the punishment Oscar’s daughter, Angele, receives for lying is “to be you, to have to live with yourself.” In another the aged Oscar who has been transformed into a character named Mr. Vorgan apologizes to his niece for giving her the money to attract a man who doesn’t love her, but the emotion conjured up is quickly cut short as Carax’s character gets up from his death bed, pats his niece and his dog, and walks off. The movie ends with Celine returning her stretch to Holy Motors where all the cars talk to each other before being swallowed up by the darkness.

Friday, October 26, 2012

House/Divided at BAM

                                                                               Jay LaPrete
“Your mortgage has been securitized.” “We don’t currently own that risk.” These are just two of the lines in House/Divided, the techno extravaganza about “the housing crisis” in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the expression. Ticker tapes run, derivatives are created and cutting edge financial instruments embody the total alienation of man from the objects of his creation. House/Divided is inspired by The Grapes of Wrath and as the financial crisis spins out of control, depression scenes from the Steinbeck classic provide the undercurrent. If the division of labor epitomized Marx’s notion of how industrialization deracinated workers, then House/Divided portrays a financial system that is not just schizophrenic, but on the verge of multiple personality disorder. The form of the play is one of disembodiment. There is relatively little interaction between the varying actors. Instead they perform both their present day renditions and their depression era set pieces in an intentionally fragmentary manner. Their performances might be outtakes from a film. House/Divided is not seamless, intentionally. One of the journalistic curiosities of the production is that it continually alludes to The Bank of America which is currently being sued for 1 billion dollars by the federal government for alleged fraud perpetrated on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by its Country Wide Financial Unit. Either the citation was the result of brilliant last minute adlibbing by the writers (Moe Angelos and James Gibbs) and director Marianne Weems or it’s a reflection of the fact amidst the current upheavals artists are the ones who see the writing on the wall. The company which performs House/Divided significantly calls itself The Builder’s Association.