Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Final Solution: Freddy's Dead?

 Freddy Kueger (Robert Englund)
"The Cost of Trump’s Aid Freeze in the Trenches of Ukraine’s War,"NYT, 10/24/19 "Trump’s Syria Troop Withdrawal Complicated Plans for al-Baghdadi Raid,"NYT, 10/27/19 are two recent headlines. Besides the concerns about domestic policy mixing with foreign affairs, the first story continues suspicions of an unholy alliance between Trump and Putin. But what about the mission which lead to the killing of the ISIS leader? In a sense there’s no rationale for the withdrawal of the troops.That's what’s upsetting. It’s almost comforting to look at Trump as a mastermind, concocting elaborate machinations in comparison to the other suggestion that there’s no method to the madness. It’s like the difference between murder #1 and second-degree murder or manslaughter. The lack of premeditation is cause for concern. Conspiracy theories reek of purpose, but what seems to be emerging is the idea that the President should get a DWI since he’s like a drunken driver en route to a head-on collision with every policy his predecessor ever created. NAFTA, Globalism, DACA, Paris environmental accord, Iran nuclear agreement, transgender bathrooms. "Trump Administration Considers a Drastic Cut In Refugees Allowed to Enter U.S.,NYT, 9/6/19 was a story from The Times which could have been a satire from The Onion. It’s all like one of those horror movies where the killer is constantly returning to reek havoc. Is Trump really the Lord of Misrule, a Freddy Krueger character who returns to attack Americans in their dreams?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Final Solution: Getting With the Program

Black Standard used by ISIL
Many states have outlawed conversion therapies for minors ("Colorado Bans 'Conversion Therapy' for Minors,NYT, 6/1/19), a move that reflects a broader understanding and acceptance of gender and sexuality, in all its forms. But what about terrorism? What if your child’s a terrorist and went off to join the Caliphate? Now that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed, there will undoubtedly be an influx of ISIS members seeking to return to their countries of origin ("Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS Leader Known For His Brutality, Is Dead 48,NYT, 10/27/19). In American PastoralPhilip Roth’s emblematic central figure Seymour, “Swede” Lvov, has a daughter who’s a 60s style radical responsible for a bombing in which someone has been killed. Once a pickle, no longer a cucumber. There’s no turning back, at least in the case of poor Swede.  He will never get his daughter back--at least the ideal that once existed in his imagination. That’s the problem with millenarian ideologies, they’re the incubus or succubus that sexually implants itself into their hosts. It’s all a little like the horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which people became inhabited by pods. The fictional condition actually has an analogue in neurology, Capgras Syndrome, where imposters appear to be inhabiting an otherwise familiar seeming person. "Nxivm: How a Sex Cult Leader Seduced and Programmed His Followers," (NYT, 6/14/19), ran The Times headline, detailing the machinations of Keith Raniere. ISIS plainly has no monopoly on violently transformative behavior. On a mass scale the Cultural Revolution in China and the genocide that occurred in Cambodia under Pol Pot illustrate the powerful hold of ideology which can turn the relatives and friends you thought you knew into a frightening strangers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Final Solution: The Return of the Living Dead

Trump is one of the most reviled presidents in the history of the country. Is he hated as much as Nixon was, or Clinton who was hated by those who hated him (like apparently Lindsay Graham) or for that matter Andrew Johnson, the only other president besides Clinton who was formally impeached. Anecdotally it appears that Trump may be abhorred by his opponents more than say Clinton or Nixon. John Hinkley shot Reagan and of course there was the Kennedy assassination. There are many people who wish Trump would face a similar fate. The only problem is that it opens up alternately a Pandora’s Box or hornet’s nest. For example, if Trump is no more you have Pence, who could conceivably be worse, since he doesn’t possess an almost humanizing narcissistic disorder and could conceivably be more effective than Trump ever was. In addition, killing  has become a viral matter. The population should definitely be inoculated against murdering presidents (or anyone else) for fear that murder is an equal opportunity employer. Would that Trump were like the Wicked Witch of the West whose Kryptonite was water! However, you have to feel sorry for a president whose vulnerability may lie in his impregnable veneer. He's like the vampire in the horror film that keeps waking up from the dead and breaking out of his coffin. Now the Justice Department is initiating a criminal investigation into what inspired its own inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 election ("Justice Dept. Is Said to Open Criminal Inquiry Into Its Own Russia Investigation,"NYT, 10/24/19). People hate Trump all the more because he keeps coming back, like a fighter who taunts his opponents into exhaustion. Sounds like Mohammed Ali doesn’t it? If Ali heard himself compared to Trump, he’d probably turn over or even rise from his grave.

Monday, October 28, 2019


Remember the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History, where nature and in particular Mesozoic era creatures come alive. That’s a starting point for understanding Erin Derham’s Stuffed. Currently playing through Tuesday at Film Forum, the movie deals with the art of taxidermy, something between lepidoptery of the kind that Nabokov practiced and serial murder. As portrayed in the movie taxidermy is everything from a commercial practice to an art, but it involves an odd congeries of aspirations since there are down home taxidermy conventions in which talent is judged and practitioners who exist in a higher of realm of endeavor. “Once it dies,” one practitioner remarks about the process, “you have a relatively short window of opportunity to do anything to it.” This can be a relatively complex matter since it involves rendering the personality of the animal. Lonesome George was the last of a line of Pinta Island tortoises. Capturing certain quirks which apparently included the passive aggressive quality of his character was an essential element in immortalizing his form. Most of the taxidermists interviewed in the film are animal lovers though one  makes the show stopping comment that “hunters are the greatest conservationists.” Food for thought? For instance, the one anecdote used to describe Carl Akeley, who fathered the discipline, relates to his strangling a leopard with his bare hands. As depicted in Stuffed, taxidermy is a subculture filled with enthusiasts united by what at times seems like a perverse obsession. There are by the way specialties like "cryptozoological taxidermy", which involves the creation of quasi-chimeras, and "Victorian taxidermy." In its heyday, the latter made fashion statements that resulted in the eradication of certain species.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Death Mask

"Death and the Maiden" by Hans Sebald Beham (Art Institute of Chicago)
So called Narcissism is a normal part of human personality. Who's going to love you, if you can’t love yourself? Of course, the kind of narcissistic grandiosity that leads to feelings of impregnability is a perversion, simply because it’s not true. Joshua may have fought the battle of Jericho, but one man can’t hold back an army. Narcissism can also lead to feelings of specialness and the idea that the normal rules that inure to everyone else no longer are applicable. One of these is the fact of death. Literally everyone maintains the secret hope and wish that they’re different, that no matter how many times they tempt fate by admitting their own mortality, they secretly hone to the notion that their intonations of acceptance will somehow exonerate them, making them the exception that will free them from their fate. Day after day as age brings generations closer to those who will fall before them, both fear and denial are at work. Like micro-aggression, human beings experience successive mini traumas as they realize they’re next in line, while at the same time battling the reality with the endorphin rush produced as the mind goes into shock and ignites overactive defense mechanisms. By definition, everyone thinks they’re different. You will harbor the wish and hope you’ll be spared right up until the last minute of your dying day—until the legacy of your once living self is simply a death mask. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The History of Philosophy

"The School of Athens" by Raphael (1509-10)
You’re not going to ask if reality is a subjective fantasy when a car is coming right at you. Solipsism is an aristocrat who lives in a ivory tour occupied by those who have the leisure to contemplate such matters. Deontology or moral philosophy illustrated by Kant’s categorical imperative may come in handy in everyday life. Do the ends justify the means is a question that falls into this category and it’s something you might find yourself asking in a situation where you’re determined to win at any costs. At what point does the immoral way in which something is done color or tarnish the result? If you’re a phenomenologist like Husserl, Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty, you’re going to be thinking about intention. Here subjectivity rears its head again, but not in terms of whether things exist. Rather it’s a matter of how one perceives them. Individuals have intention toward objects which shapes their idea of them, whereas inanimate objects like tables and chairs, which don’t think, just exist. Sometimes the idea of being a piece of furniture or say a wallflower can be appealing, particularly if there's a hurricane in the offing and you don’t have to worry about your fate—which, if you’re a piece of porch furniture, may be in flying off the patio. How many angels can dance on the top of a pin was a famous question posed by the medieval philosophers? However, don’t forget Buridan’s ass the unique situation, named after a 14th century French philosopher, of an animal dying since it cannot decide whether it wants to eat or drink. It’s by the way reminiscent of “Zeno’s paradox” about Achilles and the tortoise from the Eliatic school of pre-Socratic philosophy (and don't forget the Milesian School, Heraclitus, Anaximander and Thales, who argued the opposite position, that the world is in flux). Of course Achilles is going to beat the tortoise, just like the ass is going to eat his Wheaties, but the impossible situations in which creatures find themselves is always a pretext for conjecture.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Homo Peleton

Peleton on Amazon
This is the heyday for people who aren’t going anywhere. Peleton the spinning company epitomizes this stay at home mentality since it provides the illusion that you're in a bike race with others while not forcing its patrons to so much as attend classes in a gym. Retail is dead and most people acquire their wardrobes and practically everything else on Amazon which was once better known as the name of the famous rainforest in Brazil. It remains unclear why you would need much in the way of clothing by the way, if you’re not going out, but that poses another question: is fashion dead? There are undoubtedly couples who connected on dating sites, but have never actually met. There may even be those who have gotten married on line and have yet to meet. Remember those Neanderthals (Johns) who bought and sold sex (streetwalkers) on the corner. Now you go to chat rooms with live webcams. You don’t have to go anywhere or physical engage another human being for sex. Thinking of a vacation? Why not try virtual reality or a simulated universe like Second Life, which can all be accessed on your laptop (if you don't feel like getting out of bed)? Surely even hot spots like Club Hedonism, with only a slim connection to reality to begin with, must be considering franchises in the virtual reality universe. There are many pluses about going outside, particularly on a beautiful day when the sun is shining, but they’re outweighed by the potential inconvenience of being mowed down by killers armed with semi-automatics, particularly if you make the stupid mistake of deciding to go to the mall.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Memory is deceptive. It cannot be rationally calibrated. It seems as if the fact that it constitutes, to some degree, an orderly chronological procession  ("episodic" as opposed to "procedural" memory) should make it like a slide rule that responds to mechanical jogging. However, remember Proust coined the term “involuntary memory," referring to his famous madeleine.  “The Proustian equation is never simple,” Beckett remarked in his famous essay on the author. Freud famously said “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,” a neat phrase that actually alludes to a rather tortured path. For instance, many people who cannot remember a name run through the alphabet, but the mind is resistant. The very brake applied by the unconscious, which made it hard to recall something to start with will be reinvoked when you come to the letter P when it was the name of that supermarket chain headquartered in Florida , you were trying to think of, Publix. Why were you having so much trouble? Maybe it has to do less with Florida than the idea that you have had so many aging relatives who’ve retired there or the fact that you yourself are aging. Memory is a hot ticket item. Memories get flagged the way the way suspicious transactions are targeted on financial sites. Sometimes memory is like a good run on a ski slope in which you easily skirt the moguls and end up with a dramatic sashay at the bottom. Other times, you take a spill when you're caught in the soft snow of a blizzard and you can’t see anything.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sperm Count: Public Porn

Have you ever been in a public place, a library, a bus shelter, even the audience bank of a movie before the previews of upcoming features begin, and noticed someone watching a porn video in which even the sound is audible? Sometimes those watching these videos are just gratifying their fantasy about have sex (albeit ersatz) in public. You might have a variety of reactions. The first is a voyeurism that's a complement to the exhibitionism that’s going on, but the second is a kind of ingrained probity and even embarrassment at the break from accepted manners and mores. Sure, it’s fun to see someone taking all their clothes off in public.  However, it can also make you shudder to realize that the person undertaking the striptease has their own “issues." Perhaps they're having an adverse reaction to a psychotropic drug. You may find yourself inadvertently taking advantage of someone who's non compos mentis. However, there's no doubt that watching porn over someone’s shoulder can be great fun since it allows you to enjoy both the video or loop in question and also the life signs of those undergoing the stimulation at hand. The experience may be considered under the rubric of primatology, in which the subjects of an experiment are studied in a controlled environment. Back in the 60s soft core films of the Russ Meyer variety were exhibited in seedy drive-ins that ran along Route 1 or near interstate ramps.That was the heyday of public porn.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The A.I. as Thinker

"The Thinker"by Rodin (photo: Douglas O'Brien)
Can A.I. be proleptic? Can it answer questions before they’re asked? As amusing as this may sound, those software engineers who traffic in self-driving cars routinely have to account for contingency. Otherwise, how would they deal with anything that comes in a vehicle’s path including those elements of happenstance which exist only in the realm of possibility? A.I. has shown its mettle in precisely this manner. If you remember Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in l997. But there's a kind of black hole into which A.I cannot go unchallenged and that's in the realm of mind itself. Could a computer "conceive" of Bishop Berkeley’s famed, esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived?” One would imagine that the premise of A.I. is to exponentially increase the realm of possible outcomes in any one situation, but certain kinds of cogitation have nothing to with decision making. When you make a statement about thought itself like cogito ergo sum there's no matrix of possibilities, no answers that are being elicited. It's a de facto meditation on being whose only significance falls into the field of ontology—a discipline which ironically would be out of the realm of computers programmed to tackle baser forms of human reality, which is to say, action in the world. A.I. could note the "bracketing" or "epoche" in a Husserl text analyzing objects, but could it parse the difference between Kantian noumena and phenomena, in any meaningful way or for that matter demonstrate the capability for self-reflexive consciousness? In short can A.I.s think like philosophers or are they just number crunchers at heart?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Final Solution: Game of Thrones

Despite the fact that Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo were rushing off to get the Turkish President Erdogan to “stand down” in the Syria crisis, the President was able to spin his “diplomacy,” which he called "strategically brilliant," in a way that left the wheels of the Washington press corps spinning at yesterday’s press conference with the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella. Why intervene in a land dispute between Syria and Turkey he argued. He did manage to mention the Kurds. Yes they helped the US, but "they're no angels."Anyway, they were good fighters. They would take care of themselves. As for Russia gaining hegemony in the region as they and their proxies, the Assad regime, stepped in to ally themselves with the Kurds, he made a parallel with Afghanistan. The USSR got involved in Afghanistan and ended up having to “downsize.” Note the invocation of the corporate metaphor. Used to be USSR, now it’s Russia. As for ISIS, Russia hates them even more than the US. They’ll take care of it. Forget the whole notion that there are commitments and allies and lives being lost in bombings. It all had an infernal logic and brilliance—which might be summed up as “cheaper by the dozen.” Economic power—especially over China— was greater than military power since it didn’t cost anything, though, not to worry, the refurbished US military is now more powerful than ever. By the way the bealeaguered Italian president looked like a fish trying to swim upstream, as Trump dismissed the comparatively minor reason for his visit (WTO approval of $7.5 billion of tariffs on EU manufactured goods). While CNN anchor Kate Bolduan and Daily Beast editor John Avlon jumped on Trump’s statement that the Turkish invasion of Syria “has nothing to do with us,” the president had received highest ratings ever for his new reality TV show, Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

What Do Shakespeare and Playboy Have in Common?

The Western canon and Playboy centerfolds share the dubious honor of both being regarded as hegemonic male interests. But what do Playboy centerfolds and the Western canon have in common? Harold Bloom who recently died was a great defender of the Western canon amidst the onslaught of multiculturalism. In this Times obit ("Harold Bloom, Critic Who Championed Western Canon, Dies at 89,NYT, 10/14/19), Bloom’s The Western Canon is cited thusly, “What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,' where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. Major, once-elitist universities and colleges will still offer a few courses in Shakespeare, Milton and their peers, but these will be taught by departments of three or four scholars, equivalent to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin.” Plainly Bloom was interested in excellence, a kind of great chain of being with brilliance and luminosity freed from existential compulsions to relevance, nestled securely at the top—in their ivory tower. But what would Bloom have thought about Playboy Centerfolds? Lovers of Shakespeare and Playboy can be strange bedfellows. What would he have said about Dalene Kurtis, the centerfold for September 2001, who was the first Playboy Playmate to appear with shaved pubic hair and Playboy’s Playmate of the year for 2002? Would he have been able to appreciate her beauty despite the fact her spread appeared during the same month as the World Trade Center attack? Being a male of his particular vintage, would he have been disappointed to find that Ms. Kurtis had shaved?

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is about pretense and pretenders. You have those who live in a world of superficial materialism and those who aspire to it. In this regard the climbers and those who have made it all have something in common. Basements are a huge leitmotif. The impoverished family at the center of the film who make their living folding pizza boxes inhabit one with a small window through which they see the outside world.The son, Kim Ki-woo  (Choi Woo-shik) is offered a job tutoring the daughter of a fabulously rich family, Park Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). His sister Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) is then introduced as an art tutor for Park Da-hye's little brother, Park Da-sung (Jung Hyun-joon) who's traumatized. His trauma, by the way, results from the fact that he has seen reality—in the form of an apparition which turns out to be real. Kim Ki-Jung who is introduced by her brother as Jessica, claims to have studied art and psychology at the University of Illinois, when the extent of her knowledge derives from Googling the words “art therapy.” Eventually Kim succeeds in getting his father and mother jobs as respectively the driver and housekeeper for the family. This is accomplished by a host of charades. The former driver is framed as a pervert. Suspicions about the housekeeper having TB are planted. In the beginning it’s all quite funny, with the imposters in their varying roles reminiscent of characters out of Moliere plays like The Bourgeois gentilhomme, Le Medicine malgre lui or TartuffeThe invasion of the servants is also reminiscent of Bunuel’s Viridiana where vandals loot a home. However, the luxurious modernist structure occupied by the Park family has its own basement in which the husband of the now dismissed housekeeper, “the underground man” a la Dostoevsky lives, at one point making his existence known by knocking his head against sensors using morse code. This second basement is a metaphor for the irrational unconscious instincts in which this masterpiece of cinema dwells. All the themes of the film are mirrored. For instance the wealthy family peers out of a huge panoramic window though they’re in the dark about what's really happening to them. Compare that to the impoverished basement aperture through which their poor counterparts view the world. The compromised view ultimately reveals more, but both families share a similar mode of seeing or framing i.e. through pictures. One last visual motif that constantly appears are staircases and inclines. When the housekeeper is let go, she descends with her luggage. There's a lot of rising and falling of fortunes that's manifested in winding “social ladders.” The movie is ostensibly about class, but to see it as purely about social rising is to deprive it of the huge matrix of complexity in which it dwells. Parasite is an "infernal machine," to employ Cocteau's title, that eventually strings a huge net of identity among all the characters. The movie is indeed a thriller and there are some grisly scenes, but one of its most brilliant accomplishments is that whether you regard the imagery as haunting, beautiful or fearful, you can’t stop thinking about it.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Where's My Roy Cohn?

When you see Matt Tyrnauer’s biopic Where’s My Roy Cohn? you may want to keep Machiavelli’s The Prince, Lao Tzu’s The Art of War and The Godfather in the back of your head. About the last, one of the movie’s points is that Roy Cohn was Trump’s godfather and provided the chrysalis of ruthlessness that informs the value- free politics of our current president.“Situationist ethics” is one of the phrases that's bandied about in the film, in reference to Cohn’s no holds bars form of representation in which the primary mode of defense was an attack. Cohn was the godfather to the mafia as well and succeeded in getting John Gotti a two year sentence for murder. However, as the movie shows, one of Cohn’s fortes was to form a bridge between the worlds of legitimate and illegitimate business. Yet like his protégé, Donald Trump, Cohn had his share of failures too. He brought down Fifth Avenue Coach Lines and Lionel trains. Remember Cohn was McCarthy’s counsel and right hand man and if the G. David Shine matter really catalyzed the Army/McCarthy hearings, as the film implies, then it was Cohn who provided the fuse for the Wisconsin senator's downfall. One of the most interesting vignettes of the film  has to do with the construction of Trump tower. Many builders were turning from the use of concrete, which was controlled by the mob, to structural steel. But Trump’s eponymous structure was constructed with concrete due to Cohn’s underworld connections. 200 undocumented Polish workers, whose wages would eventually be the subject of a legal suit, comprised the workforce responsible for the initial demolition of Bonwit Teller which previously occupied the site. “If I could have pulled the switch. I would have done it myself,” Cohn is quoted as saying about the Rosenberg executions. He also lived by Aristotle Onassis’s maxim, “you can never be too tan or too rich.” Part of his sociopathy might be attributed to his mother Dora who doted over her only child. At the family seder she preempted the answer to the “why is this night different from all other nights?” question by answering, “because the maid is dead in the kitchen"—which she was. Dora wasn’t going to stop the proceedings for anyone.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Final Solution: Politics and Mortality

Politics is often associated with morality and ethics, at least if one is talking about Plato’s Republic, the Ur political manifesto, or say the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence. But what about politics and mortality? Human beings are capable of doing great harm in relatively short periods of time. Could it be that tyrants like Stalin and Hitler were under the delusion that by perpetuating their atrocities they’d never die? It may seem odd, but how can one plan mass annihilation with the grim reaper right around the corner? One answer is to treat a political system as if were a church with an intrinsicly millenarian premise. When you consider a political ideology as a religious calling then it allows you to forswear the notion of yours and its obsolescence, as result of death. A Third Reich or a dictatorship of the proletariat both have the quality of being more than just states. You had the l000 years of Rome and there are those who still believe in the notion of  Imperial America. Democracy would certainly be part of the litany, along with a kind of leveling technology that would replace tribalism and ethnicity. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) was an expression of this hope. His latest tome is Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018). Did Fukuyama simply became older and wiser?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Final Solution: Newspeak

Remember when some kid had you in a choke hold and wouldn’t let go? That may be the feeling you’re having selectively watching the continually horrible news reports emanating from you know where. For instance, "White House Declares War on Impeachment Inquiry, Claiming Effort to Undo Trump’s Election,"NYT, 10/8/19) ran the headline in an article in which White House counsel Pat Cipollone is quoted as saying in a letter to House Democratic leaders, “Your unprecedented actions have left the president with no choice. In order to fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch and all future occupants of the office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.” It’s actually a wonderful turnaround. The problem is with the legislators and not the president who by removing troops from Northern Syria has facilitated the Turks initiating a series of bombings of Kurdish towns, "Turkey Launches Syria Offensive, Targeting US-Backed Kurds," NYT, 10/9/19). Talk about “Newspeak,” the Turks are calling their attacks in which civilian sites have been targeted “Operation Peace Spring.” Getting back to the matter of impeachment, does anyone think that Trump is going to be budged from The White House? Even if it ever got by the Senate, The White House would simply label the vote undemocratic. Doesn't all this remind you of the bully back in the schoolyard?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Hic Sum

Girl with a White Dog by Lucien Freud (Tate)
All situations in human existence are by definition laden with significance. What’s peculiar, however, is the fact that many people don’t perceive the iconography of a seemingly innocent scene. What made Rembrandt Rembrandt was the fact that he created an almost instantaneous mythology. Like The Night Watch, Velasquez’s Las Meninas takes something, perhaps more intrinsically symbolic, in medias res, stopping it in order to the allow the viewer to intensify his or her perception. Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece performed a similar service with regard to the artist’s studio, albeit in literary form. Often people take pictures and then post them on Facebook or Instagram with the notion that content is king. They want to mark a birthday or wedding or anniversary, but in the process forget all the spatial relationships, the intrinsic body language of the shot or representation. Take a look at Lucien Freud’s Girl with a White Dog (1950-1), a portrait of the artist's first wife, Kitty Garman. The painting is erotic and almost lascivious, but the image is arresting not because of the voyeurism or sexuality, but the specific way in which it eroticizes its subject. Day after day humans record each other. In fact, recording has taken the place of living, so intense is the desire and need to save and catalogue happenstance. It’s a little like Gray Gardens. People horde reality like the sisters in the famous movie, filled their house with objects they couldn’t throw away. There are so many images that they lose meaning like the books in Borges's The Library of Babel. Ultimately, also, there's no time to regard them all. Most people end up discountenancing the very world they are trying to record and conserve.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


What happens to aging strippers in the middle of a financial crisis? Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers based on a New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers of Scores” answers the question with a kind of Marxist analysis of the lap dancing industry. Commodification is, of course, the name of the game and the movie has its moments, especially when Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the prima ballerina of the film equates the economy of the club, with its VIP room at the top, to the social stratification of the stock market firms who supply the clientele. If you’re expecting a kind of Oceans 8, with its mixture of female bravado, suspense and comedy you’re likely to be disappointed. Further, even though Hustlers is about stripping and also refreshing since it's the women doing the exploiting rather than the men, the movie's curiously like catnip--and, being a jeremiad, may even dull your interest in sex. The territory of Hustlers is pregnant if you look at strip clubs as a metaphor for society. “I have to say the whole country is a stripper,” says Ramona. “You have people who are willing to take their clothes off and those who toss the money.” However, despite the topicality—particularly in the age of Stormy Daniels, the disquisition is as flat as is Lopez's performance—and the subplot about the journalist researching the story on which the film is based, is totally gratuitous. Who cares what Ramona did or didn't tell a reporter about her sidekick Destiny (Constance Wu)? Look at Cabaret, if you’re interested the depredations of both capitalism and the flesh. Weimar Germany bears some parallels to America both before and after financial crisis of 2008. And the packaging and marketing of sex and love will continue to exist in its own alternative universe, despite the #MeToo movement. There will always be an abundance of both product and consumers. "So gross war die Achtung fur gelt," was the way Brecht put it in The Rise and Fall of  the City of Mahagonny.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory is about a director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who has hit a wall, a filmic form of writer’s block in which he can no longer do the thing for which he lives. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he says. Naturally Pain and Glory recalls Fellini’s autobiographical . The difference is the lack of sweep. For a director like Almodovar whose work is characterized by great flights of invention like the Gulliveresque scene in Talk to Her where a character navigates his way into a massive vagina, Pain and Glory is curiously straight forward, tame and even disappointing at times. In the movie the director attempts to patch up the 30 year estrangement with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the star of his first film, Sabor. Alberto’s a heroin addict. In an attempt to either bond or dull his feelings of guilt towards a leading man he once maligned, Salvador joins in and quickly becomes addicted--a narrative element that unfortunately leads to contrivance, as the drug binges become occasions for dreamlike recollections of the past. Addiction is also the subject of a monologue in which Alberto will play Marcello, a stand in for Salvador’s great love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).The piece deals with another painful breakup, but emotional and physical pain overlap. Salvador can’t swallow due dysphagia or Forestier’s syndrome, a calcification of the thoracic spine. He suffers from headaches, back pain, insomnia, anxiety, asthma and tinnitus and the beginning of the movie furnishes a body scan which might have been an FMRI recording his brain too. The line between physical and psychic struggles is constantly blurred. It’s never clear whether Salvador's suffering from the pain of pain or the pain of life and that’s one of the problems with any of the palliatives to which he quickly becomes dependent. In one memorable scene the youthful Salvador comes down with a high fever after experiencing his first homoerotic longings. The fact that both the director and his childhood mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) are played by iconic Almodovar actors adds another level to the film’s psychohistory. However, what's admirable but also noticeably missing is a unifying device or key. A conversation with the adult incarnation of his mother (Julietta Serrano) in which he explains "I've failed you by being simply as I am," unfortunately, feels like a non sequitur. Almodovar employs a striking red backdrop in the dramatic Addiction monologue. And the unearthing of a childhood portrait threatens to become his alter ego's Rosebud. However, these ploys miss their mark, failing to create the kind of indelible impression that was undoubtedly intended. Pain and Glory--even the hyperbolic sounding title seems out of sync for a director whose palette is so suffused with irony.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Broken Symmetry

photo: Roberta F.
Symmetry breaking is a concept in physics and if you consult Wikipedia is responsible for pattern formation. All well and good, even subatomic particles have to go one way or the other, taking a turn in the road which creates a new fate. Broken Symmetry is the name of a brewery in Bethel, Connecticut, but it’s also a concept that might be used to describe the process by which the seeming order and beauty of nature is fractured. For instance one could say that Quantum mechanics breaks the seamless universe of Newtonian physics. Lots of people marvel at things like Pi and Kantian universals that are discovered in nature, but then new paradigms appear which change long cherished views. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for his heliocentrism. The fervency with which people hold on to certain notions is inversely proportionate to the fragility of the assumptions and foundations on which they are built. This, in fact, may account for the insularity of many fundamentalist sects, which seek to protect their ways of life from outside influences. Still if you are looking for certainty, it’s unlikely that any scientific precept will ever unseat 1+1=2, that black is the absence of color or that when you take a bite out of an apple you break its symmetry.

Thursday, October 3, 2019


You can’t force someone to use a particular appellation. For instance, a female may desire to be referred to as “they,” but it’s a free country, right?  If you so desire you can use “her.” However, let’s say that you have a job at a university which is not Chicago, which has lately established an important beachhead in the war against political correctness and our modern day Newspeak ("University of Chicago Strikes Back Against Campus Political Correctness," NYT, 8/26/19) then you have no choice except to think “her”—which is come to think of it the title of a movie about a guy who falls in love with an operating system. Remember when Ms. was an innovation? Now Ms. has degenerated into being a mere piece of punctuation which is only the province of the postman, who never rings twice. If you remember “mister” is something that was whispered by street urchins in Little Rascals movies. The fact is that if you happen to be a time traveler and you set down on the planet in say 50 or l00 years, you’re going to be challenged in social situations. Hey mister or Ms., it’s likely culture is going to have evolved way beyond simply calling “her," "they.” What about anachronisms like “your honor” or “your highness” are they grandfathered in—as far as politically respectful speech is concerned? Let’s put it this way. You can get into a lot of trouble for doing something big and you can also get into a big mess for doing something rather minor. Which way do you want it?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

"Teen Activist Signs With Penguin"

PW announced that Greta (“we will never forgive you”) Thunberg just signed a two book deal with Penguin. “Teen Activist Signs With Penguin” was the headline in 9/30 “Deals” section. Doesn’t Thunberg realize that her contract will result in the loss of quite a few trees? There's been talk about the pig-tailed teenager getting a Nobel (she's already been honored with "the Alternative Nobel," known as The Right Livelihood Award).The question is, in what? Sanctimony? Thunberg is really part of a new class of Untouchables, not because of her caste but because don’t go there. The two books according to PW are No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, which comprises her speeches and Our House Is on Fire, a collaboration with her family. If you can remember back to your high school days, there were these impossibly good kids who didn’t, to quote Woody Allen, cheat "on the metaphysics exam"by looking "into the soul of the boy sitting next to me." The sole purpose of this species of student was to make the normal run of the mill masturbating miscreant like yourself feel like shit. While they were trying to save the world you were slam dunking wads of wet toilet paper over a bathroom stall and then heading for the hills before coming a cropper at the hands of the hall monitor. It would be refreshing if the person who was attempting to save the world were a scumbag rather than Pippi Longstocking. What ever happened to I Was a Teenaged Frankenstein. Nobody wants the kind of adolescent who is a vaping chimney, but with the bar set so high, how is Thunberg going to sow her oats?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Have you ever had a person turn on you for no reason?  It might be an old friend who refuses to return your calls or fends you off when you attempt to make the usual bimonthly dinner date that’s been a fixture of your calendar for years. Of course, there are those who refuse to have anything to do with you from the start. It may even be someone in your field of endeavor and the central question usually comes down to what you have done to offend. Blaming yourself at least gives you a feeling of agency over the whims of human nature. But there's a less consoling explanation and one that has to do with your lack of importance at least to those who have shown such cosmic indifference or even contempt. You fall into a chasm occupied by the other objects and yes garbage which these individuals have tossed away. Life's short and they may simply have made an executive decision to devote themselves  to those who have made the cut. That may be a bitter pill to swallow considering the quotient of narcissism that most human beings require for their own survival. However, the explanation is often less than more since the snap judgment that has made someone write you off is usually based on only the limited data available to them at the time.