Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Influence of Anxiety

Franz Kafka
Harold Bloom wrote a famous book called The Anxiety of Influence. The subject was really the weight the past holds over the present. Eliot also wrote Tradition and the Individual Talent which treated a similar subject in terms of the impersonality of the artistic sensibility. But what about a tome called The Influence of Anxiety or The Anxiety of Anxiety? In order to sell, the book would have to deal with some famously anxiously individuals, Kierkegaard in philosophy, Bergman in film and Kafka in literature, but such a book would probably derive its greatest power from dealing with the average Joe. After all anxiety is a great motivator. In Manhattan children grow up anxious and they read the anxiety on their parents faces when their early rejection from pre-schools presages a long life of pink slips and unfulfilled dreams. They face further anxiety when they grow into adolescence and realize the symbols of male and female sexuality they see in advertising, films and television have little to do with their actual anxiety fraught interactions with the opposite sex (this is one of their first experiences of meta-anxiety or the anxiety of anxiety). Later in life they will go through anxiety about the fate of their IRA’s or retirement plans, realizing that in a bull market theirs has the singular distinction of having been managed by a bear. Anxiety comes in big time when they themselves become parents, burdening their own children with the task of living out a parent's unfulfilled dreams—a task that most children deal with by openly rebelling against the unreasonable expectations that have been placed on them. Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence was an important book, but The Influence of Anxiety will be a blockbuster that'll make its author rich enough to pay for an unlimited supply of serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Extreme aspiration in its most cosmopolitan and materialistic forms is the substance of Blue Jasmine. Self-invention is what makes the wheels of commerce run and yet it’s the dark side of the American dream. In Blue Jasmine Woody Allen has entered a new phase of his career in which he becomes an American Zola, also calling up the spirit of Wharton’s House of Mirth, a novel that deals with an abject woman who had a taste of something better. In its tale of financial malfeasance, Blue Jasmine also partakes of some headline grabbing that  hearkens back to Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was based on a news story. Allen looks with an almost surgical eye at the ugliest side of the urge to rise which is painted as a highly contagious virus crossing class lines. Social elevation and sexual desire work in tandem as symptoms of the soul sickness Allen describes. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Jasmine (Cate Blanchette) are two adopted sisters who don’t share the same genes. Jasmine, tall and blond, has a classic aristocratic look and poise that enable her to engineer her ill-fated marriage to a corrupt financier, but Ginger is no less immune, in her desire to strive for something better. “You can tell a lot about people when you look in their mouths,” a dentist named Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) says at one point. The comment is a parody of the notion of insight, in a film where appearance plays such a huge role in the way judgments of character are made. But the key to the movie may lie in Jasmine’s depiction of her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin’s) suicide. “It wasn’t strangulation,” she says of his hanging himself in his cell. “Your neck snaps.” What she's describing is not a slow suffocating death, but something more violent. In Blue Jasmine. the world of illusion pops like a pin pricking a balloon. Andrew Dice Clay, who plays Ginger’s first husband Augie, steals the show from the slick Alec Baldwin and it’s a form of poetic justice. The lack of social graces of both the actor and the character he plays receive their just reward in the topsy-turvy universe of Allen’s tale of downward mobility.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Animal Jaws

What is the ideal summer movie? Jaws was the epitome of the summer blockbuster, but when you think about it, it’s an odd choice. Theoretically the summer is the time when one goes to the beach. So why produce a movie about the danger of sharks? The notion of danger lurking everywhere—even in beauty—is something that overly protective parents communicate to their children when they constantly warn them about wall sockets and the window as a possible guillotine. When you think about the summer you imagine a comedy like Animal House, though that too has it’s own jeremiad in the overdose which killed its star, John Beluschi. So what do we look for in a summer film? Remember that most people like to be on the edge of their seats. That is why they go to amusement parks where they endure the kind of gut wrenching fear generated by Coney Island’s Cyclone. Summer may be a time for chilling out on a hot beach, but most people court danger for pleasure, whether it involves surfing waves or rapids, galloping over jumps or negotiating challenging mountain biking trails. So summer movies will ultimately reflect this love of cheap thrills. Man of Steel, World War Z and Iron Man 3, three of this summer’s big releases, indeed fit the bill. Perhaps in the ultimate marketing coup,  Hollywood will create a blockbuster called Animal Jaws.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Bill Clinton For Mayor

If the qualifications for high position in New York municipal government are a history of sexual peccadillos then why not elect someone with some real credentials, Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton not only has a history of tawdry sexual involvements with Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky, but brilliance and political savvy to boot. Of course there is the question of residency, since Clinton lives in Chappaqua. But these would certainly be compensated for by the potential candidate’s track record in fulfilling what we might call the Caligula requirement. When we think about the great presidents of the twentieth century, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Ike—they all strayed. But unlike Spitzer and Weiner they were great politicians and thinkers. In a way it’s not what Anthony Weiner did— which by any standards was mild and didn’t actually involve any sexual acts. It’s what he didn’t do in failing to exercise even minor judgment when he allowed himself to employ social networks. Social networks are used when you want to draw attention to an activity. Occupy Wall Street uses Twitter when it wants to organize a demonstration. Do we want a mayor who attracts crowds every time he literally and metaphorically drops his pants? Eliot Spitzer disqualifies himself from the comptroller’s position not because of going to prostitutes but because of the outrageous sums he paid for them. Would you elect someone to balance your budget who got taken to the bank by an organization with the hokey name of Emperor’s Club VIP? If Bill Clinton were mayor or comptroller he would undoubtedly avoid the Emperor’s Club and being a true statesmen at heart, he would only use social networks for political purposes.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


There are two basic ways to go mad. One is historical and the other, existential. Your personality may be festering one or more maladies of a psychological or neurological nature which eventually produce madness. Addiction can always help.  Essentially, a wet brain is an alcoholic who had been driven mad by drink. Most existential madness results from torture, used as an expedient to get information out of political captives. But a small slice of the madness pie can be accounted for by jackhammering, what in New York parlance is called “opening up the street.” Steam and sewage pipes are always bursting and there is nothing to do, but go down under to dig up the mess and if the problem is serious enough, as in the case of a major water main break, the going down under can go on for days, weeks, even months, with the result that those living in the near vicinity of these excavations pay the price. Noise pollution is the polite term. It’s like termination with extreme prejudice or extraordinary rendition, euphemisms that covers over the murder that is taking place. If "Macbeth does murder sleep,” such projects take eliminate any vestiges of peace in the urban jungle with its sirens, honking cabs and insistent car alarms that go off in the middle of the night. If silence is golden, then in Manhattan the experience of silence is the equivalent of the gold rush of ’49 to those who crave relief from the pounding that’s driving many of them nuts. Tinnitus is a condition where one hears ringing in the ears. The sound of the streets constantly being opened up is outside the ear, but it leaves its mark on not only he eardrum but the neurogenic pathways that monitor auditory sensation in the brain, many of whose dendrites and axons  get rubbed raw. “It was like getting a note saying you’ll be executed at dawn,” The Times quoted a sufferer by the name of Roberto Gautier, a Brooklyn Heights resident, after he was informed “that nightly construction was likely to continue until 2014” (“Behind City’s Painful Din, Culprits High and Low,” NYT, 7/12/13).