Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Uncut Gems

Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems is cinema verité with mostly real actors. It’s a Battle of Algiers of New York’s diamond district, featuring also former Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who has a fixation on the uncut gem of the title. It’s a also a vehicle to demonstrate Adam Sandler’s versatility. If nothing else the comedy star's acting will disabuse critics who may have doubted his ability to play dramatic roles. In this regard Uncut Gems negotiates a delicate territory in which the viewer can find him or herself experiencing involuntary laughter amidst scenes that are meant to produce dread. Jewel trading and gambling, the film’s ostensible themes, make for a volatile combination and the jittery rapid fire cross cut style of Darius Khondji's cinematography creates a jagged territory on which the story moves to its explosive conclusion. However, there’s something almost disingenuous about its exploration of the insular world the film explores. The narrative begins in Ethiopia where the stones of the title have been mined. Then suddenly, the scene switches to Manhattan where Sandler’s character Howard Ratner who’s having a colonoscopy is making a rye jokes about the chosen quality of the Jews being their propensity for colon cancer. A Passover Seder is pictured as a neutral territory similar to the one warring mafia families occupy before shootouts in barber shops, clam houses and social clubs, but the treatment and portraiture is often  dismissive and in the end plot driven in a way that's forced considering the innovative, initially almost naturalistic immersion in its setting.

Monday, December 30, 2019

William Kentridge's Wozzeck at the Met

photograph by Francis Levy
William Kentridge’s design for his production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met is a true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk
Composed of celluloid projections, animations and an expressionist jagged edged eviscerated home extending into tromp l’oeil illusion, it's also a metaphor for the mind of the famously unhinged protagonist. But Georg Buchner’s play upon which the opera is based has always been ambivalent. Though based on a real historical personage, a student who murdered the woman he lived with who was the mother of his child, before drowning himself, the central character has been glommed onto by generations of modernists, who regard the play as an ur-text of counter romanticism (it's hard to believe that Goethe and Buchner inhabited the same universe). However, it’s unclear whether Wozzeck is an almost biblical representation of man’s inner loneliness or perhaps an indictment of the authoritarian society out of which the real Wozzeck emerged. Interestingly Buchner and Rimbaud, who both examined a similar darkness had abbreviated lives. The opening night’s performance was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation, but the Captain (Gerhard Siegel), Wozzeck (Peter Mattei), the mother, Marie (Eliza van den Heever) and the Drum-Major (Christopher Ventris) all could be seen as stock characters from some perverse commedia dell'arte gone awry—which is to say that for all their existential import they may be viewed as extremely thin and even one-dimensional. If you venture over to Lincoln Center to see Kentridge's Wozzeck, you may feel you have to whisper sentiments like these under your breath, considering the veneration accorded both the play and the opera and the important place both occupy in the canon of modern theater.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The War of the Worlds

Orson Welles telling reporters "The War of the Worlds" was not meant to cause panic
Times story, "Chinese Restaurants Are Closing.That's a Good Thing, the Owners Say" (NYT, 12/24/19) has generated some degree of backlash. The substance of the piece was that the well-educated children of Chinese restaurant owners no longer wanted or needed to endure the harsh conditions of restaurant life. Talk about Cultural Revolution! However, after the piece was published, some readers found their attempts to place take-out orders were rebuffed. In one encounter a Phoenix, Arizona Chinese food aficionado reported that when he called in his usual Friday night order of egg foo young, fried rice and wanton soup, he was told that the owner of the restaurant was” in a meeting” and asked "can he get back to you?” The would-be customer waited dutifully, but his call was never returned. “Ordering in Chinese food has always been the one thing I really count on in life,” the customer reported. “I’m in sales and I often find that people don’t return my calls. I don’t need this added aggravation in an area where I’m supposed to hold the upper hand.” Anecdotal accounts of spotty and indifferent service in and out of Chinese restaurants following the publication of the article have generated a response similar to that accorded Orson Welles' famed radio broadcast,  "The War of the Worlds" in l938. Then the fears of a Martian invasion caused mass panic. Here the intimations of the loss of an amenity that some regard as a public utility (which should be subject to government regulation), has actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading many who would normally go out for Chinese or place orders to take a more cautious attitude.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The White Sheik

Federico Fellini's The White Sheik, (1952) currently in revival at Film Forum, is based in the world of fotoromanzo, or photo novels. Michelangelo Antonioni, whose collaborated on the screen play, had dealt with the subject in his short Lies of Love (1949). In essence The White Sheik pays homage to the conventions of the genre, with its melodrama and arch romanticism (“Now that I’ve met you nothing else matters,” “I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m pure and innocent,” “I created you, I can destroy you” are examples of the melodramatic language). No sooner do Ivan Cavalli (Leopoldo Trieste) and his new wife Wanda (Brunella Bovo) arrive in Rome, then Wanda sneaks off to find Fernando Rivoli (Alberto Sordi), the actor who plays the character with whom she’s become enamored. Wafted away by her desires, she becomes totally separated from her increasingly desperate husband. The scenes of the newlyweds separation are reminiscent of another classic of cinematic melodrama, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). Vigo's character was similarly swept off her feet by a performer. However, The White Sheik is also curiously reminsicent ofVittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1949), as Ivan tries to retrieve a lost object (of love in this case) in the streets of Rome. One of the incidental delights of The White Sheik is the way it introduces the director’s vocabulary and palette. There’s the iconic Fellini procession, his own commedia orchestrated to the now familiar carnivalesque Nino Rota score. The beach scenes with the cast of circus characters foreshadow , and a streetwalker named Cabiria (Guilietta Masina), a la Nights of Cabiria (1957), even makes a cameo appearance.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Here Comes Oblivion

Oblivion is a hard concept to grasp, primarily since it’s so personal, referencing as it does the end of subjectivity, yours that is. For instance, you can hypothesize about the nature of time and what came before the Big Bang. Alan Lightman addressed this very subject in an article entitled  "What Came Before the Big Bang?"(Harper’s, January 2016). Such discussions weighted towards theoretical physics and cosmology have enlightenment rationalism behind them. So that while you’re left with no real answers, you’re not a lost intellectual soul, whose bearings have been ripped asunder. However, utter oblivion is a more bitter pill to swallow since it takes an important person out the discussion, you. There's a piece of scientific apocrypha that has Lavoisier blinking after his head drops from the guillotine. Most of the meditations on this have to do with the fact of whether human will could triumph in an instance where the neck is severed from the head, but the real point probably relates to the fact that there are going to be fractures to the skull when the head falls from the guillotine to the ground.  One day, regardless of your condition, you're seeing the world through a lens that's made up of a vast history of experience and associations and the next there's no one home looking at anything with the world going on like one of those old NR films which eluded the censor by avoiding a rating.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Double Indemnity

Everybody reaches for the impossible dream. It's Saturday night and you want to see a great uplifting or at least enlightening movie followed by a delicious meal. But let's say you accomplish your goal and fulfill your wish. Where does that leave you? Your imagination is sated and your stomach is stuffed and you're a little like a car parked in an overly tight space. There's nowhere left to move and certainly nothing to look forward to. But consider the emetic effect of going to a lousy movie and following it with a dreadful meal. Having sunk this low the only direction is up. Instead of feeling stuffed with food and art, you're starving. Now you really have a future, but before you dive in, think. You could read all the reviews and make sure you got the right film and redoubt in which to enjoy the great discussion you imagine will transpire under optimal conditions. Or, you could make the same mistake twice (even perhaps going back to see the same lousy film and eating in the same horrible restaurant) to see if you can finally get it right and really have something to live for. Which will it be?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Marriage Story

Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), the warring couple at the center of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story get hijacked by their lawyers. And it’s similar to the audience’s experience at the beginning of the film. The movie starts with both characters in voice over listing the good and bad traits of their partners in a disarmingly harmless and affectionate way. However, it’s all part of a break up that’s being orchestrated by their marriage counselor/arbitrator. Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) and Ben Spitz (Alan Alda), the lawyers, similarly both turn the couple’s attempt to work out their differences into a deadly legal battle that only ups the ante. Scenes from a Marriage makes a cameo appearance in the movie, but Baumbach’s art is a little like Tolstoy’s “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There’s a little Bergman and a lot of Strindberg in the hijinks. Yet the director displays a sentimental streak that palliates the cruelty, while remaining totally in the category of earned emotion. Spoiler alert: at the film’s very end, their child Henry (Azhy Robertson) has found one of the torn notebook sheets on which Nicole has delineated her complaints. He’s reading it to his father when his mother appears in the doorway. “I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore,” Henry reads, as a tear rolls down his father’s face. The real question is why? It never seems that bad. “You’re so merged with your selfishness, you don’t even know it’s selfishness anymore,” Nicole chides about her husband’s male cluelessness. But the complaints rotate on their own axis. However perpetual and unresolvable, they appear to be, you can’t help thinking that you’ve heard worse.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Pornosophy: Pajama Game

If you’re a purveyor of pornography, you know that one of the problems is real people. There’s a scene in a Howard Jacobson novel, No More Mr. Nice Guy where a sexual problem occurs when the main character’s wife gets in the way of his fantasy. The optimal or ur-pornographic condition is the absence of real people. Were actual human beings to be interposed into a pornographic video through some phenomenon by which virtual reality were spontaneously made real then much of the thrill would vanish. The human element is what kills the salacious integrity of the drama. The fact that porn involves a certain degree of creativity only exacerbates the problem. Editing and sound insulate the dramatis personae from any of the contingencies of everyday existence, with its premature ejaculation, impotence and vaginal or anal irritation. Gagging is nice when it’s intended, but it’s one way to blow a fellatio scene. Now, of course, you have improv and there are porn as well as comedy clubs and of course in the days of burlesque the two were synonymous, but these kinds of performance are dictated by theatrical conventions about which the average amateur sexual athlete is seldomly conversant. Porn is theater, but curiously (in spite of the nudity), not of a naturalistic kind. With its emphasis on exaggeration, hyperbole and grandstanding, it's more like melodrama. Porn marches to the beat of a different drummer with the final destination being at least one degree of separation from the normal everyday comings of the player next door attending his or her nightly Pajama Game.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Final Soluton: Pied Pipers

Pied Piper of Hamelin (illustration by Kate Greenaway)
Certain people seem to be able to get away with anything they want. For instance, if you read Trump’s six-page letter to Nancy Pelosi, you can see how the president’s implacability would appeal to his base—and in fact set up the possibility of a complete abrogation of the constitution. If as Trump claims, the impeachment trial is a coup, then it justifies a counter-coup in which the constitution would be suspended and the president installed for life. "This is nothng more than an illegal, partisan attempted coup that will, based on recent sentiment, badly fail at the voting booth," Trump wrote ("Read Trump's Letter to Pelosi Denouncing Impeachment,NYT, 12/17/19). Indeed, there are those who fear that Trump will refuse to be removed from office. But don’t try to be Trump, the next time you're involved in some kind of dispute. Certain types of sociopathic personalities can be very charismatic, but if you attempt to put yourself in their shoes, you’ll find that you’re arrested. The Donald Trumps of the world are a hard act to follow. Machiavelli might have been jealous, if he weren’t appalled. Think back on adolescence and those bullies who ended up king of the hill. Have you ever gotten slapped in the face when you tried to imitate the behavior of a really cool kid?  Or better yet look back on the leaders of cults like Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard and mostly recently Keith Raniere of Nxivm. Remember the Pied Piper? It’s hard to win, if you’re playing his game. It’s an unequal playing field, since he’ll do anything, including  kidnapping the kids. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Eyes Wide Shut Redux

There's a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut which succinctly and economically epitomizes the very essence of a certain kind of domestic life and one might say happiness. Nicole Kidman is on toilet as Cruise enters their bathroom. To the viewer of the movie, the sight of a glamorous star in such a pose is startling. Actually, it’s one of the most essential points of the movie, one of whose themes might be the old saw of familiarity breeds contempt. For if you look at Eyes Wide Shut as a kind of diptych between the world of everyday domesticity and the kind of sexualization that quotidian relationships tend to squelch, then it becomes evident that this seemingly innocuous interlude, that could easily have been a throwaway, actually contains the germ of Kubrick's idea (actually based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Dream Story)—which is to present the turbulent world of unconscious fantasy though the lens of every day reality. "New Yorkers Still Go to the Bathroom and For Some It's a Must," was the headline of an 80's Village Voice humor piece parodying the rituals of cocaine use. Eyes Wide Shut is worth seeing, if only to underscore the fact that ephemerally beautiful creatures like Nicole Kidman must go to the bathroom like everyone else. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

What To Do When Someone Brags About Their "Affairs?"

It’s actually surprising that Shakespeare doesn’t deal with affairs in Jaques "Seven Stages of Man" speech from As You Like It. In the early years, "affairs" are usually sexual couplings that occur sometimes in or out of wedlock. The connotation of "affair" is often illicit. Affairs can be tantamount to cheating. Graham Greene's The End of the Affair refers to this usage of the word. Later "affairs" tend to refer to business matters. After a man or woman sows their oats they become more concerned with putting their house in order. Though there weren’t IRAs in Shakespeare time, the questions of financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps would fit neatly into such a disquisition. Finally, right before the “Last scene of all, That end this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans Teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” might come a whole section on the use of the word "affairs" in old age. Sex is now gone and elderly couples find their schedules filled with the kind of "affairs" that involve, weddings, bar mitzvahs and christenings. You've undoubtedly experienced an awkward moment when someone is about to tell you about all their "affairs." You don’t know whether to encourage them or to indicate they’d be better off airing their dirty laundry elsewhere and it turns out that they merely want to describe someone’s 50thanniversary party at The Pierre.

Monday, December 16, 2019


On the basis of his Synonymes, one may assume that the Israeli director Nadav Lapid attended Godard university. Certainly the handheld camera bobbing its way along Parisian streets recalls Breathless. Then there's the desultory and fragmented plot and the meditation on words a la the film's title which also pays homage to a slew of Godard films including Goodbye to Language. Finally it’s politics and sex. In Synonymesthe central figure Yoav (Tom Mercier) is an Israeli exile living in Paris. There are vague intimations of military prowess and some kind of psychic break with the net result being a repudiation of his homeland. As for sex, the movie turns Godard’s fascination with undressing and in some cases humiliating women on its head.  Here we have a male character who mysteriously finds himself naked in an empty apartment, eventually succumbing to hypothermia. Perhaps symbolically he’s taken in by two scions of the French bourgeoisie Emilie (Quentin Dolmaire), the writer son of a French industrialist and his girlfriend Caroline (Louise Chevillotte), an oboist. In order to subsist, and this is right out of the Godard playbook (with all the master's signature provocation and showboating), Yoav becomes an actor in a gay porn video. In it he’s told to stick his finger in his anus and say “I finger myself and it feels good.” He’s unable to comply when his tormentor directs him to repeat the same sentence in Hebrew. The question is what's going on? Why and how does Yoav find himself in an empty apartment, relieved of his clothes? And what’s any of this trying to say. There are mysterious flashbacks to Yoav’s career as a soldier, but any of the validity of his disaffection is removed by his obvious mental instability. And what about the fascination with the male genitalia? The movie which is for the most part incomprehensible, does have a unique characteristic in the way it gives full expression to the female gaze. Synonymes’s one contribution to cinema might be that it makes up for decades in which women actresses were unfairly the only ones who had to take their clothes off in front of the camera.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Art is the Subject

Velasquez's "Las Meninas"
The subject of the some of the greatest masterpieces of art can be said to be art itself. Consider Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and might it not be said said that Rembrandt’s numerous self-portraits were by definition about the making of art. Art about art is not the same as art for art’s sake however. The subject of the making of art is almost the equivalent of an spiritual or ideological statement. For instance, it can be argued that the famed Grand Inquisitor poem from The Brothers Karamazov is really about the limits of art since the notion of Christ being put on trial for heresy is a demonstration of the power of story. In the hands of Dostoevsky, the narrative itself becomes a kind of Nietzschian Ubermensch who’s no longer subject to any limitations or rules. Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale is about bringing the dead back to life, a subject that Hitchcock would approach in Vertigo, with one addition. The artist could now bring alive someone who was not only dead, but never existed in the first place. What greater essay can one have on the artist as magician—a subject that Bergman would address in a film of the same name? Ibsen’s The Master Builder, one of the great masterpieces of  theater is also a paradigm about the nature of art with its central figure Solness being an symbol of the Ur artist, whose breathtaking ascent to ever increasing heights of awareness places him or her ever closer to self-destruction and death.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Everyman's Ontological-Hysteric Reality

Images are photoshopped and digitized. Sci Fi epics like Star Wars, Star Trek and most recently Interstellar create the equivalent of virtual reality universes while computerized environments like Second Life present alternate universes. If paper currency is a form of abstraction from say gold, cryptocurrencies take this idea one step further. The idea of artificially created voice systems like Siri taking on a life of thie own is dramatized in Spike Jonze’s Her. The question is not alienation and separation but degree. Activities not mitigated by technology having actual flesh and blood conversations are becoming increasing anomalies in a world where you not only go to simulated voices on Google maps for direction but prefer its tone to that of the significant other who’s likely to say something far less neutral than “route recalculating” when you’ve made a wrong turn. Will there come a time when it’s possible to go on dating sites which offer relationships with artificial intelligences? Will the body itself be dispensed with? Who needs the problems of real relationships when an implant can totally replicate experience? What form of sex could be safer than an idea? And forget about stents, clogged arteries and cholesterol when hunger is satiated in the mind by a disembodied consciousness. Richard Foreman coined the term Ontological-HystericTheater. Little did he know that it might some day become a reality.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Pitfalls of Trying to Avoid One's Own Shadow

Yes, you have had all the Walter Mitty fantasies about triumphing at just the moment you’re spurned. It’s hard to be a war hero in the middle of an Upper West Side literary soiree, or particularly in the middle of one of those competitive situations from your post-adolescence where you end up finding yourself at the bottom of the food chain when it came to work or love—i.e. the professor in the course on Kafka who was impressed by the very unKafkaesque student filled with an intellectual self-confidence that you couldn’t muster. But whoever said life was supposed to be fair? Try this the next time you feel slighted or disrespected.  Simply don’t do anything. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t try to defend yourself, don’t vie for scraps of attention that derive from dropping names or citations or trying to impress people with little French expressions like “faux de mieux.” Stop trying so hard and just take a deep breath. Validation is a black hole that can never be satisfied. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t give it to you and the power of the negative attention will by definition wipe out anything in its path. That which doesn’t exist always trumps that which is there for the asking—simply by virtue of its inherent mystique.  Of course, one solution is simply not to attend one of those events where there are big shots sucking the air out of the room, but eluding feelings of inferiority is a little like trying to avoid your own shadow. No way to engineer that .

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Sphinx

Great Sphinx of Giza
Some people just disappear and it’s as if they’ve never existed and others, supernal presences, make serendipitous appearances in which they’re more like apparitions than flesh and blood human beings. That may be the way you regarded the Angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, a presence whose dramatic purpose is defined by the fact that he fulfills a need which is to persuade Jimmy Stewart he should go on living. A doppleganger or alter ego can also fall into this category. Scientists have identified dark matter and dark energy (which is responsible for the continual expansion of the universe), but it often feels like there's some kind of cosmic silly putty that closes in on the empty spaces and also provides the glue on which a new vision makes its entrance. It’s rather astounding how insistent the ego is and how it conjures its own self-importance right up until the end, always imagining new and greater triumphs despite the reality of imminent decay. One of the most common presences to metabolize out of nowhere is the prophet, who’s usually a robed creature encountered along a road. Oedipus met up with the Sphinx one of the most enigmatic presences in literature---neither fairy nor ghost, but a kind of gate keeper armed with riddles that function as passwords. “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” Spoiler alert. Oedipus got it right when he answered, “Man--who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two legs as an adult, and then uses a walking stick in old age."

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Joys of Pre or Postprandial Bliss

Epicurus (Castellani Collection; purchase, 1873)
Postprandial conversations and activities exist in a world all their own. Hunger can influence one's perspective about the nature of human existence with gnawing emptiness leading to a rather depressing prognosis about the prospects of the human race. Hunger is definitely a depressant. The jury is out about having a meal before sex. You may remember the famous scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen is about to introduce Diane Keaton to the joys of deli and suggests getting the kissing over first. There's something very satisfying about relieving the urge to merge before one enjoys a steak. Generally there's a glow to a couple who have just consummated and also they're less likely to overeat. However playing the devil's advocate one may argue that good food and conversation open the gateways to the heart. What would Epicurus, whose name is associated with both delicacy and the golden mean, have said?

Friday, December 6, 2019


Joie de vivre is a kind of throw-a-away, a tongue-in-cheek means of addressing the tip of the iceberg. Essentially it means nothing. Junkies chasing highs are joy seekers. However, beyond a certain hedonism, there are those who are driven by the gluttonous desire to milk the cow for everything its worth. If you can imagine the dandyish concept of art for art’s sake extended to longevity, you will be confronted with precisely the type of person who insists on prolonging his or her own life at any costs. Maybe fear is the motivation, yet you have undoubtedly read about the situation of families whose nest eggs are totally emptied in trying to defray the medical costs of an older generation who are living preternaturally long lives. Forget the quality of the lives in many cases reduced to no more than the ingestion and regurgitation of food. The fact is they're like black holes that seep the life out of others. Respect for the sanctity of life is often regarded as an admirable intention. However, does that apply to old people hanging on simply because they’re afraid to let go? Praise is often heaped on an aged individual just for persevering and continuing to eat, sleep and defecate every day while the lives of all those around them are squandered on the need to care for someone who has overstayed their welcome. "Living well is the best revenge," said George Herbert. No it's living so long that you outlive your own children.  Advances in medicine are extending the existence of the parent, literally and metaphorically, at the expense of the child.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Le Demi-monde

Alexander Dumas fils
Le monde is French for ‘the world.” You have “le monde” and Le Demi-monde which is the title of a play by Alexander Dumas fils. Demimondaines are the women of the demimonde. Sara Bernhardt was the daughter of a courtesan and an actress, both of which would have qualified her to be a member of the demimonde in the l8th or l9th century. Madame De Maintenon who would marry Louis the XIV also had humble origins qualified her to be demimondaine. In modern times Wallis Simpson who caused the Duke of Windsor to abdicate might have been termed a demimondaine not only due to being a commoner with aristocratic ambitions but because she was a divorcee, a status shared by Meghan Markle who recently married Prince Harry--a woman with no royal blood, a divorcee and an actress to boot. Les Liaisons Dangereux is an epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos later made into a movie with Jeanne Moreau by Roger Vadim. The story is full of manipulative women who use sex as a weapon and tool, but they're not demimondaines because they're all aristocrats, who one would assume were given a certain license to employ noblesse oblige. Sensibilities exist in particular times and places and art may reflect a particular way of life, but it may also create it. The Sufferings of Young Werther famously produced a rash of suicides in imitation of the the behavior of Goethe’s character. "Bounder" is a word used for cads, but it’s not one you’re likely to find in a work of contemporary fiction just as you’re unlikely to meet characters with names like Lady Fidget, Harry Horner and Jack Pinchwife (all characters out of Wycherley's The Country Wife), who marries a simple girl, incapable of cheating on him. When someone created the idea of the demimondaine they locked the door and threw away the key which would have freed their characters from the language (and history) in which they’d been created.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

And Now John Ruskin with Your Forecast..."

In his essay, “John Ruskin: Sermons and Stones,” (The New Criterion, 11/19), Paul Dean says this about the declining years of the great ideologist of pre-Raphaelitism: “One consequence of Ruskin’s mental disturbance was a growing obsession with the weather. One of the few things still generally known about him is that he coined the phrase “the pathetic fallacy” in Modern Painters, and his conviction that storm-clouds portended apocalyptic disaster is a textbook example of this.” Atmospheric conditions are usually considered like wallpaper. But there are, of course, people who look at them as omens and can’t tolerate one form of weather or another because of finding it disconsonant with their own being. When pilots talk about having “weather,” the forecast is usually bad. However, a sunny day might be like water to the Wicked Witch for someone with a phlegmatic personality. The Pre-Raphaelites placed great store on innocence. As Dean relates, Ruskin had a history of being obsessed with much younger women, falling in love with the 18-year-old Kathleen Oleander, who he encountered in the National Gallery, when he was almost 70. The virginal quality of the infatuation might have found a voice in the florid poetry of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who along with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt were founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Ruskin had become famous as the great advocate of Turner and from a meteorological point of view you might say that Turner painted in a kind of cloud, as if he were perpetually preparing himself for a rainy day. In an alternate universe, Ruskin might very well have replaced Lonnie Quinn, the weather anchor on CBS 2 news at ll.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Final Solution: Majority Rules?

The Bill of Rights
Democracy functions on the notion of majority rules, but there are all kinds of interventions. For instance, the constitution allows everyone one the right to vote, but the Bill of Rights provides for inalienable rights--moral imperatives that transcend the will of the crowd. Here is where populism runs aground. It takes its impetus from democracy’s mandate of the majority, but places little value on the individual. If Congress were an energy company then the due process usually a function of the judiciary would be  regulation. In a polarized political maelstrom like the near civil war in which the United States finds itself, it’s hard to abide or even hear the call to principles amidst the din and fury of restless factions. In fact, this very situation was the one which the original founders were legislating in their writing of the early documents of a fledgling democracy. The idea of an electoral college which ironically brought Trump to power when he had less than a majority of the vote, is an attempt to protect against the abuse of democracy. The energy metaphor can also be literally applied. When you think of it the deployment of millions of people through elections was very much like unleashing the power of the atom, but atomic power plants have famously suffered from meltdowns like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. However rugged, down home or grass roots the electorate, democracy insures that power will go to right places by way of a delicate and often subtle latticework of mechanisms that act like car insurance to provide both for liability and collision. It's these protections that are threatened in the kind of populist uprisings which have threatened democratic institutions and processes not only in the United States, but in England and Europe.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Eclipse of the Antihero

There was a time say starting with the advent of Gregor Samsa that antiheroes came into vogue. You didn’t have to be the star of the football team or a war hero anymore, you could be just the reverse, a cockroach. Along the time line of this Age of Faint Praise, there was the Dustin Hoffman persona from Mike Nichols's The Graduate and, of course, Alexander Portnoy, whose notoriety as a character in literature derived from his masturbating into a piece of liver. Woody Allen, a mousy looking creep with glasses, impersonated himself and for a while was one of America’s premier directors as well as actors. In the days when comedians like Woody Allen and Louis CK were ascendant, you had a chance if you didn’t possess a bronze star. But today, the neurotic guys who think too much and have weird sexual peccadillos have no claim to fame. If Porn Hub issued the equivalent of an Academy Award to the sex addict who was capable of monopolizing the lion’s share of its millions of daily hits, there might be a chink of light. But now the curtain has come down and life has again become a nightmare for the meek and the last who neither inherit the earth nor are any longer first.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Fires in the Mirror

Anna Deavere Smith’s selection of the monologue as the mode of disquisition in Fires In the Mirror, her dramatic work about the Crown Heights riots of l991, currently playing at the Signature Theatre, is ultimately the most powerful and humanizing element of her project. The decision to employ the monologue is not surprising since Smith has created a reputation around this art form, in which she's usually the performer in a documentary style termed “verbatim theatre.” In this case Michael Benjamin Washington brilliantly interprets all the parts (though Smith herself performed the role in the original l992 production) which are real testaments of everyone from the playwright Ntozake Shange and George C. Wolfe director of the Shakespeare Festival fulminating generally on “Identity" to the Reverand Al Sharpton on “Hair” and Angela Davis on “Race.” It’s at first a bit reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s oral history. When it turns to the actual historical event in which the unlicensed driver of a Hasidic vehicle, one of the cars in Grand Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson’s motorcade mowed down and killed a 7 year old black child, Gavin Cato and angry mobs retaliated by murdering a 29 year old Australian Jewish scholar,Yankel Rosenbaum, it displays both synchronicity and violence of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Having a black man playing the characters like the activist Sonny Carson or Minister Conrad Mohammed, New York minister for the Honorable Louis Farrakhan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one the founders of Ms., Norman Rosenbaum, the brother of the murdered scholar or the Luvavicher Rabbi Shea Hecht is like one of those biblical tableaux of hands reaching towards God. What’s equally powerful is the mixed audience of people like the one at a recent performance responding to this one character whose identity is both labile and as volatile as a nuclear reactor on the verge of meltdown. As you watch and try to weigh which is the most painful or touching of the speeches, you wonder how in fact the playwright is going to wind up the show. Who will get the last laugh as it were? For, at the end of the day, it’s apparent total equanimity is perhaps not the goal or the point and that there are many subliminal and not so subliminal messages. It’s a little like the collective unconscious of society dealt with in a form of esthetic marriage counselling. In a climate where the guardians of political correctitude mitigate against the portrayal of blacks playing whites or men playing women, Fires in the Mirror opens all manner of possibilities. Still, the play is seamless and sui generis and not some sort of cookie cutter that can be applied to all conflict. It’s power lies in the fact that it's a work of art and not a polemic and that, no matter how raw the wounds, art itself, through the act of mirroring (mirrors are an important part of the set), provides one alternative to suffering humanity.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Annals of Art and Commerce: The Philosopher

Jeff Koons manages to come up in the recent Times obituary for Jake Burton Carpenter, ("Snowboarding Visionary Jake Burton Carpenter Dies at 65,"11/21/19). It seems like an unlikely place to find the name of famous artist. But art and commerce, particularly in the case of Koons can produce strange bedfellows. If they haven’t done so already, Harvard, Stanford and the other major business schools might do well to add a course on Koons, particularly as it relates to the kind of cross-pollination between the worlds of art and business as documented in Nathaniel Kahn’s film about the art market, The Price of Everything.  Koons plays a major role in that movie and while one may despise the artist for his exploitative tendencies, there's a curious self-reflexively Brechtian element by which he not only earns barrels of money from what he does, but also makes a statement about commodification—much in the way that classic Pop Art did. The paragraph in the Jake Burton Carpenter obit refers to the fact that in the course of becoming a snowboarding enthusiast Koons involved himself with Carpenter, producing a snowboard called “The Philosopher.” The Times obit described it thusly: “It used Mr. Carpenter’s technical specifications, notably a twin tip that would let the snowboarder ride forward and backward, and Mr. Koons’s likeness of Plato with a rendering of the allegory of the cave from ‘The Republic.’” "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" was the title of a famous MoMA exhibit, but this art object, made to navigate the ground, has it both ways.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Tokyo Twlight

Yasujiro Ozu was one of the greats of the Japanese cinema, in a class with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Tokyo Story (1953) is the film that's probably best known to American audiences. His Tokyo Twilight (1957) currently completing a run at Film Forum is predicated on a series of narratives in which its characters are trapped. Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) is a banker. His son has died and he has two daughters. The eldest Takako (Setsuko Hara) is unhappily married to an alcoholic teacher, Numata (Kinzo Shin). The other Akiko (Ineko Arima) has become impregnated by her lackluster boyfriend. It's all tightly choreographed in an almost classically theatrical way with the window through which these characters are seen making their entrances looking also like a mirror. Tokyo Twilight is an essay in determinism a la Zola and Freud. The three narratives all compete in providing etiologies. Every time a character steps into a frame, they reiterate their story much the way patients on the couch often repeat the same narrative. In fact for a film made in Japan in the 50's Tokyo Twilight is curiously sophisticated from a psychological point of view. Takako for instance describes her husband as "neurotic." The potential reductiveness of the stories which often come off as melodramas is countered by the remarkable iconography and beauty of the cinematography. Is Tokyo Twilight a tragedy or is it ultimately about the stoic almost zen like acceptance of fate that many of Ozu's characters exhibit? One of the last scenes takes place in a train station. Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada), the elusive mother and proprietress of a mahjong parlor, who has exiled herself from her family, is again on the run. It's track 12. The numbers have no palpable meaning but they're also oddly definitive as the camera insistently returns back to them. It's both pointless and pointed like the nature of fate itself in Ozu's tightly defined universe. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Temecula Journal: Departure

watercolor by Hallie Cohen
Leaving Temecula, you take 15 South to San Diego. You face the verdant foothills with their vineyards which have now become a major wedding venue, though a far cry from Las Vegas. If you were hiking them during your stay, the climb was short but steep. In the elevator of the local Embassy Suites you meet a fellow traveler with a plate filled with sausages and eggs, talking about fortifying himself for the ceremony which lays ahead. Now as you hit the freeway the green of wine country gives way to a borderless sea of craggy rock. You emerge from a civilization filled with tradition and convention, of Indian and Spanish and modern marital culture into something more undefined than historical time. Throughout the centuries in which South California was populated by waves of settlers, no one has managed to leave any imprint on this rocky territory which has an extra-terrestrial appearance. The harshness has an almost emetic effect, in which the spirit is set free. There are famous sites in the area like the Joshua Tree National Park, but these rugged protuberances manage to remain formidable in another way. You may be anticipating a visit to the San Diego Zoo or to the USS Midway Museum, but for now you stare out at an endless vista with its seemingly infinite horizon.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Temecula Journal: Old Town

entrance to Temecula's Old Town (photo: Francis Levy)
On an authenticity scale Temecula's Old Town, with its gated archway dated 1859, is a little more kin than kind. It rates higher than Sacramento's which is Disney-like, with its souvenir emporia, and less than say Key West's whose legendary depredations still convey a lived-in homey feeling. In Temecula you can partake of chocolate covered bacon at the Sweet Shop and listen to music at the O. T. B. C. or Old Town Blues Club. You can hit Old Town Antique Furnishings. A white-columned structure houses Yoga on top, La Pointe Wealth Management below and a Mexican restaurant called Espadin offering "Mezcal Cocina." The Infiniti Boutique advertising "'Its never too late to play dress-up" is located in the white stucco Hotel Palomar. Old Town even has its own process server, an outfit appropriately named, Rascals. There are empty storefronts which look like they could be either the start of a rash of vacancies or renovations and a kindly waiter at Mad Madeline's reassures you he'll save you a rack if you simply call in when they start serving ribs at 6.  A life-sized sculpture of St Nick is standing out in front of the Thomas Kinkade Gallery. Old Town is California's answer to Dodge, minus the hitching posts and horses, which are really a thing of the past.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Temecula Journal: Native Americans, Spaniards and CVS

 Temecula Street (photo: Francis Levy)
Every place has lots of history or it wouldn’t exist, but a city in California 58 miles north of San Diego and 85 miles southeast of LA, by the name of Temecula, gives itself away by virtue of its name. Situated in the heart of California wine country Temecula has both Native American (the Pechango Band of Luiseno Indians  have lived in the region for more than l0,000 years) and Spanish roots, with missionaries introducing Christianity to the local tribal culture. By the mid-l9th century Temecula’s Magee store was the stop off point for the Butterfield Overland Mail a stagecoach line which ran from St. Louis to San Francisco. Who would have dreamt that one day an itinerant traveler getting into town after l0 would be disappointed to find all the restaurants closed with the exception of a Subway and that yes Temecula had something called a CVS open 24 hours a day and that the vista of the town could be seen from the Embassy Suites, a part of the Hilton Hotel chain that provides the comfort of cloned environments! Under the cloak of darkness Temecula is none other than a series of shuttered storefronts. The sleeping empires of chains with their magical logos are greater than that of the Aztecs. But still there's the exotic name constantly inserting its own history. Who cares about Temecula? Though there's an Old Town, many of the major thoroughfares look like your typical Route #1. Yet there are the ghosts that lurk behind the brand lettering which cry to be ambushed by the archeologist of lost cities seeking to unearth another truth. By the way, there is a Temecula Valley International Film Festival.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Final Solution: Alt-Rght or Left?

The Bill of Rights and the Constitution represent a set of beliefs that derived from the thinking of enlightenment figures like John Locke. But these ideas don’t come naturally. Due process is, when you consider it, rather foreign. Most humans have impulse control problems and live by making snap judgements. That’s how you avoid hitting a car in traffic. Notions like globalism or fighting wars in foreign nations or inviting immigration don’t come any more easily—even though this is a country of immigrants who arrived usually because they were fleeing persecution elsewhere, Americans are not immune to the stranger anxiety, that on a socio-political level, manifests as xenophobia. What’s frightening and disturbing about Trump and his base is that the bare knuckles approach to reality has an appeal. Alt-right people have no monopoly on prejudice. When there are a rash of extremist attacks by a minority of any ethnic group, it’s easy to jump to the notion of excluding everyone, as Trump did when he tried to impose his travel ban. It’s easy to come to the conclusion that America doesn’t need to fight other people’s wars and that an Iran nuclear treaty is as nonsensical as the Paris climate accords. In fact, the whole Obama agenda represented some sophisticated higher brain work (as opposed to mid or lower brain, emotion-based thinking) that is as novel as the whole idea of democratic society must have seemed when it was first proposed. The ferocity of the liberal discountenancing of reactionary thinking only displays a certain lack of introspection. It’s like murderous instincts. You have to understand them in order to avoid their destructive eruption on both an individual and collective level.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Was Friedrich Hebbel a Square?

Every once in a while you come across something that isn’t particularly brilliant or wise, but which strikes a note. Carol Tully’s review of Moniker Ritzer’s biography of the German writer Friedrich Hebbel fits that bill precisely (“Never a round nothing,” TLS9/6/19). Tully quotes a poem written by Hebbel and cited by Ritzer at the beginning of her book. It reads: “It is nevertheless better to have been an edgy something than a round nothing.” A l9th century writer who only lived to be 50, but in that relatively short period wrote plays and poems, Hebbel was the recipient of the first Schiller prize. Some people are appreciated in their times with their work living on and some are forgotten. Schiller himself, the author of plays like Mary Stuart and The Robbers is not a household name today. Certainly Hebbel was no George Bernard Shaw, whose legacy remains intact, but this curious bit of doggerel stops you in your tracks. Of course, it recalls the homily about “being a square peg in a round hole.” Yet on a more global scale it takes some attributes of form and places them “squarely” in the service of personality. Is a round the kind of person who goes through life in a state of blissful unawareness? Are “rounds” the types who annoyingly reply “I can’t complain” when you ask how they are? On the other hand, an edge is something that one associates with a ruler, in all senses of the word. An edgy person might in fact end up producing a line of kings. At the very least he or she might turn out to be a satirist or pundit—which, on the basis of the poem at hand, was apparently one of Hebbel’s attributes.