Friday, January 30, 2015

American Sniper

What’s a hero? Odysseus is one of the most famous heroes in literature and the complexity of his return might be said to be a metaphor for the perils of the calling. As you may recall when Odysseus returns, he’s only recognized by his dog Argos. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the story of navy seal Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper),  American Sniper: the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U. S.Military History is curiously reminiscent of the Homeric myth to the extent that it’s on his return home that the shit literally hits the fan. Kyle did four tours in Iraq, starting in Fallujah and ending in Sadr City. He served for l000 days and picked off 160 enemy soldiers. Heroes might be said to be ideologically neutral to the extent that there are always soldiers who manifest heroic character traits, no matter which side they're on or how good or evil the cause. There were heroes on both sides of the Peloponnesian War just as there were heroes amongst both the Axis and Allied powers during the second World War II. The weakest points of American Sniper in fact result from the attempt to give Kyle a kind of moral superiority and the strongest come in the recognition of his humanity. There are two scenes when he has to take aim at a child. In one he shoots and in the other, he breathes a sigh of relief when his quarry puts down a weapon. And our latter day Odysseus is guilty of hubris too. In a scene where he finally shoots an evasive enemy sniper, who is his counterpart, he gives away his platoon’s position. American Sniper isn’t very forthcoming about matters of psychology. “We’re protecting more than just this dirt,” Kyle says at one point, but such high flown language doesn’t really distinguish him from cowboys like John Wayne. Significantly in real life Kyle was a cowboy before he became a soldier. He starts off as a bronco buster and good old boy and then war takes its toll on his personality (which may or may not have been evidenced by an incident recounted in the book and not in the movie for which former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura sued Kyle’s estate and won $1.8 million in damages). And that’s about as far as the film goes in exploring the subject of character or character building. There's also a tedium to American Sniper as it methodically makes it way through Kyle’s story. However that can be blamed on the nature of war itself, which is depicted to be as relentlessly repetitive as it is frightening to endure.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Being Where?

Times writer Ben Ratliff quotes the subject of a recent obit he wrote (“Kim Fowley, Rock Producer and Svengali, Dies at 75,” NYT, 1/19/15) thusly, “I’m so empty that I don’t have distractions. If somebody has substance or has developed something, I have the time for them.” It’s rare that human beings develop this level of perspicacity about themselves, particularly when the insight they are making refers to the absence rather than a presence of characterological attributes. Fowley was involved with legends like John Lennon and Alan Freed and such groups as The Runaways, the Byrds and the Mothers of Invention. Of course, his self appraisal, which would also have made a wonderful epitaph for a tombstone were it put in the third person, could be taken simply as a description of being “cool.” “Cool" was an affect so ubiquitous in the music business, particularly in 60’s and 70’s, it could almost be the subject of parody. But Fowley’s Zen like description of himself also resembles the main character of Jerzy Kosinksi’s Being There, played by Peter Sellers in the Hal Ashby adaptation of the book. Chance was a tabula rasa on which others painted their wishes and desires. When you think about it such selflessness whether intentional or inadvertent is a marvelously unexpected persona for a promoter—no matter how laid back or cool the come on. The music world has produced many unique personalities and the songs they created are often descriptions of a philosophy or world view. Fowley who had both song writing and production credentials apparently stood out even amongst this colorful and eccentric crew. It probably didn’t hurt either that according to the obit, “He was 6-foot-5, narrow-hipped, square jawed with a dead-eyed stare, perverse and well-spoken, often in makeup or face-paint." In the piece Ratliff also quotes Fowley as saying, “I became an actor in life. I used theatrical illusion to reinvent myself for whoever I was trying to get something from, whether it be an audience, a band or a song.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Pornosophy: Moby-Dick vs The Humpty Dance, An Essay in Comparative Nonsense

etching of Joseph O. Eaton’s portrait of Herman Melville 
“Call me Ishmael”is the famous opening line of Melville’s Moby-Dick.  “My name is Humpty” is a defining moment in Digital Underground’s Humpty Dance. The syntactical parallel is not without significance since both works of art are inured in phallic imagery. What better symbol of phallic worship than a novel titled Moby-Dick about a big white whale. Similarly when Shock G cries “I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom,” he is making no secret about the fact that he enjoys employing his penis. He enjoys employing it so much that he will do so even in inappropriate situations. Ahab might also said to indulging in edgy behavior in the pursuit of his obsession, in that he puts not only his life, but the lives of his crew in danger as he gives chase to the whale. Maybe he doesn’t go so far as Humpty Hump when it comes to being caught with his pants down. However he certainly goes after Moby in nature’s bathroom, the ocean, where his vaunted whale resides. It’s important to remember that Melville and Digital Underground are storytellers at heart. The phallus is both an object of worship as well as narrative device to the extent that both are intent on telling a whale of a tale. It should also be noted that that in terms of classical dream interpretation, the whale is a symbol of snot. When children are reprimanded for picking their noses, their parents or teachers attempt to embarrass them by asking if they have caught a whale. And in the famous "Humpty Dance" video, Humpty Hump's overly large nose has a whale like capacity for mucus. The nose lays like a dark cloud over the rest of the video, to the extent that it threatens to unleash its contents on his crowd of admirers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Chris Ofili: Night and Day

The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996)
There’s a lot of good shit in Chris Ofili: Night and Day currently on exhibit at the New Museum. Not the selfies of shit that are popping up on iPhones these days, but dung. Ofili is quoted as saying this about “The Holy Virgin Mary" (1996) whose profane Madonna includes inlays of assholes along with the infamous fecal matter: “As an alter boy, I was confused by the idea of the holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are.” Ofili comments thusly about another centerpiece of the show, “Shithead,” a piece of dung with teeth, topped with bits of his own hair: “They’d look at me. They’d look at the shit. They look at me. Then it would get to them. So it was a cycle of looking in which they put me together with shit and created an image from those two.” The show is titled “night and day” since some of the paintings are so conceived that the color of a face will change from black to white depending on the perspective of the viewer. Ofili grew up in England and his parents were born in Nigeria. Race is one of his subjects. Blaxploitation and hip hop are elements of some other works. Big Daddy Kane’s song “Pimpin’Ain’t Easy" is reflected in an Oflili artwork of the same name from l997 which also hearkens back to the Notorious B.I.G lines, "Pimpin’ ain’t easy but it sure is fun.” But what’s almost disconcerting is the profound religiosity which infects all of the work. “The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Star” is the title of yet another painting. Ofili partakes of a tradition of transgressive Christianity that goes back to Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, to Graham Greene’s fugitive priest in The Power and the Glory and to the damnation that infects the saintly fallen creatures in Pasolini’s films. Then Mayor Rudy Guiliani took offense at "The Holy Virgin Mary” when is was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in l999 and tried to have it removed. In another age, Ofili would have been burned at the stake.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Spoiler Alert!

In case you haven’t noticed, the campaign for the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey has already begun, in anticipation of a Valentine’s Day release.  Many of those who go to the movie will have read the book. But will the movie version have A HAPPY ENDING? Everyone has their own kink. In the Freudian model, human behavior is driven by subliminal motivations that the plucky protagonists of most romance novels would have little access to. Indeed in Plato’s allegory of the cave, reality is only a shadow. So what if it turns out that in the movie version of Fifty Shades, the prospect of a totally submissive woman, naked, blindfolded and bound—however tantalizing that sounds—turns out to be far from what Grey is after. It only causes early onset ED or even PE (premature ejaculation). Let’s say that Grey’s real desire is to be yelled at in a non-sexual way that leads to the kind of humiliation that's not exciting for him or his lover. What if Grey has an unconscious urge to be nagged to death by a harridan? Now this type of scenario would create some problems in terms of the script. A movie is a different kettle of fish than a book and you're not going to have your HAPPY ENDING, you must find something uplifting in its place. Those filmgoers who read the book are going to be disappointed if there isn’t some kind of pay off. Romance is romance, love is love and sex is sex. If your going to film Fifty Shades of Grey like an episode of The Honeymooners with Grey as a blustering loud mouth who is always walking away with his tail between his legs, then you still have to figure out a way to give the popcorn crunching, soda slurping sex crazed audience what it wants--whatever that is.