Author Archives: admin - Page 2

Phillip Roth – Masked

 

proth

Phillip Roth turns 80 today.  He’s quite a pleasant fellow, at least based on the recent documentary “Phillip Roth – Unmasked” which just wrapped up at the Film Forum yesterday. One doesn’t get a sense of how dark, sardonic, and satyric (is that a word?) his writing is.

Given that he’s faced a lot of feminist criticism, it’s interesting that most of the commentators in this film are women, including Mia Farrow, who we learn is a staunch friend.  I wondered whether Claudia Roth Pierpoint, another commentator, was related to the author, that’s never explained and I haven’t been able to find out online.

Although it’s not an in-depth view, I did learn some things about Phillip Roth:

 

  • He was extraordinarily handsome as a younger man and attracted women easily
  • He had a terrible first marriage and went into psychoanalysis 3 to 4 times per week, which he felt helped him
  • “Portnoy’s Complaint” was written using the model of an analysand speaking to a psychotherapist
  • He suffered from chronic back pain for years, which made him suicidal (I have since learned there is a character in “Everyman” who commits suicide due to back pain)
  • He fears death and is very discouraged by aging

So although this wasn’t a comprehensive biography, I found it refreshing to see a movie with intelligent conversation and at least a few insights.  I’m looking forward seeing “Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner”

Herzog the Unnatural

Remember Werner Herzog speaking on the topic of nature while filming Aguirre, Wrath of God ?

herzogBWnature

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Click to see the interview on Youtube, it’s worth it)

In his latest film, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, he’s done a complete about-face, creating a paen to nature:  a cross between a Leni Riefenstahl-style “Bergfilme” and a Disney documentary.

Let’s not forget, this is a director who created a definitive cinematic statement on man’s powerlessness against nature – “Aguirre – The Wrath of God” In that film nature is an irresistable force that causes only madness and death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even as recently as Grizzly Man there was an ominous undertone to his depiction of the natural world. Gradually though  (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World) his view has become much more sanguine. And by that I don’t mean “bloody”.

“The Happy People” features self-reflective, ethnic-Russian fur-trappers, musing philosophically as they conquer nature with a series of canny traps, self-made gadgets, dugout canoes, and home-brewed insect repellent (along with snowmobiles, chainsaws and plastic sheeting). I find this sort of thing very enjoyable, there’s a Robinson Crusoe-esque self-reliant quality that seems like a good antidote to the anxiety of modern life.

The problem I had with “The Happy People” isn’t want Herzog puts in, it’s what he leaves out. He barely touches on the indigenous “Ket” people of that region of Siberia, who are at the bottom of the social order.  They are plagued by alcoholism, and their culture and language are disappearing.

Ket

As you can see, these are not the “Happy People”. They are like the mythological Eris, left out of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and it would have been more fruitful for Herzog to explore their discord. They in fact invented many of these canny traps and techniques that the Russians use.

But Herzog now seems to be beyond provocation and provocativeness.  He’s in a steady groove that ignores reality but garners good reviews all around. Kael’s comments on later Scorcese seem applicable:

“He has become a much more proficient craftsman… but the first films he did that I responded to intensely – Mean Streets and Taxi Driver had a sense of discovery. He was looking into himself and the world…. Even though Scorcese shows what he can do in some ways, he doesn’t shape the material.” (Conversations with Pauline Kael, p. 167)

I have some other quibbles. Could a man really travel 150 kilometers in -50F weather at night in a snowmobile? I don’t think “Survivorman” would try this with the best gear.  How would you survive if your snowmobile breaks down? How do you get out of bed when it’s that cold? How do you wash yourself? How happy a person are you when a tooth becomes infected?

Creative people often have a brief shining period of amazing originality, followed by years of reputation-coasting. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be Picasso.  Herzog has become a master emcee.  I’ll remember his earlier work.  I’ll remember Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier films” too.

In the meantime, may I recommend the low-budget film “Alone in the Wilderness”, the story of a man who builds himself a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with just hand tools.  Think of it as  “The Happy People” without the quirky Bavarian voice-over.

alone-in-the-wilderness

 

The Tattoo Artist

This entry courtesy of Herbert P. Zornow, my Pop (text by myself).

The New Yorker magazine recently published a cover featuring Mitt Romney in a parody of Normal Rockwell’s famous painting “The Tattoo Artist”:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the original:

 

The New York Observer pointed out that this parody had been done before, in 2005, in their article on Angelina Jolie:

Not so fast, said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and editorial cartoonist R.J. Matson.  Although it came later (2005), this version, featured presidential candidate John McCain and is thus closer to being a direct rip-off:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As noted in a comment in the online version of the New Yorker, it is ironic that Romney “replaces American sailor in the original illustration, especially since Romney clan has no record of ever serving in the US military, including his five able-bodied sons.”

Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Absent (thanks to HBO)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries.  In “Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present” HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that’s a considerable feat.

Critics are lauding “The Artist is Present”: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it “A riveting portrait”.  It’s easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn’t work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice.

Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought “negative” elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country” (Sean O’Hagan, Guardian UK).

In “Rhythm 0” she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her.  As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns.

“The Artist is Present” is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition.  There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  As the exhibition continued, Abramovic’s rock-star status began to grow – people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her.  Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds.  There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad.  This is jarring because most of Abramovic’s work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body.  Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored.

Instead the focus is on the crying.  Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock.  The soundtrack repeats the sins of  “March of the Penguins”, a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that “it’s time to feel now”.  A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad.  Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can’t help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic.  Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big “faceless” corporations.  It’s about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get.

Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians.  Sure there are some films where the event is the event (“The Last Waltz”), but here it’s used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn’t have the curiousity to explore the question “What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?”

As I’ve suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken.  That is all the event you need.  And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance.  Focusing on an orchestrated “happening” can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative.

What are some of those themes that could have been explored?  In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse.  Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life.    She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck.  He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success.

So to me a central question raised by the film was “What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?”  Is she less successful now that she is “successful”?  What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want  (“Rhythm 0”) to being prohibited from make a simple gesture (“The Artist is Present”)?

Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn’t as a neglected child.  Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering?  If she were to find love, would her art suffer?  She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it’s worst.  What does this say about art?

There are many other areas in this artist’s life that would have been fruitful to explore.  Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.

Down the River: The De-Evolution of Boy Scout Handbooks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve always admired the austerity and simplicity of the 8th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook (1972-76), which I read during my harrowing time in the Scouts.  The subtle greens and no-nonsense font complement the inside illustrations, which are impressionistic line drawings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a sophistication that works nicely with the simplicity of the Handbook’s messages: Be a good person.  Be a good citizen.  And the artistry of the  drawings – check out the tension lines on the boy’s pants above, how they meander outside border –  suggest a respect for the (young) reader’s imagination.  There’s a purposeful ambiguity at times: is the boy above Asian or White?  Hispanic?

Although I had a mostly-negative experience with Scouting, my Scoutmasters quit the troop and we disbanded, I continue to enjoy the magical aspirational quality that started with Baden-Powell.  The 8th edition captures this wonderfully.   The design style and artwork tell the reader “This is how things could be.” rather than “This is how things are.”   To any child growing up in the 70’s it was very apparent that the simple wholesome life portrayed by Scouting was at direct odds with the zeitgeist, which was suffused not only with the collapse of traditional values, but also with the collapse of 60’s idealism, which was an alternative set of values whose demise was particularly painful to youth due to its greater respect for children. I can remember when I very young, having “hippies” bending down to speak to me as if I were a person with an opinion, something the “straight” adults rarely did.

What a treat then, to be offered a world that both traditional values and alternative design.  And with a philosophy that looked hopefully to the future:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And in berets no less.  Yet never resorting to comic-book exaggeration, instead offering a reassuring adult sensibility.

 

Today’s Handbook, in comparison, is a 4th of July Happy Meal that someone has dropped on the ground:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing you notice is that almost half of the cover is taken up by the patriotic tableaux of a confused looking bald eagle in front of a pixelated American flag.  The eagle looks anxious, as if the inflatable boat is about to come crashing down upon its head.  The Scouts are unidentifiable as scouts, they could be any campers or just kids out on a rafting trip.

This cover reflects anxiety.  The action is down, not up to the stars.  The visual metaphor that today’s youth are being sent “down the river”, that there is no solid ground under them.  And the demographic reality is that they will be forced to prop up the aging population, with few benefits or social safety net of their own.  The eagle has good reason to be anxious.

The imagery is realistic, like a photograph.  It says “This is how things are.” which undermines the beautiful (and useful) fiction that the 8th Edition captured so tenderly and  knowingly.

For something from the WWII era, check out this illustration from my father’s Boy Scout Handbook:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here, the Scout, a Tenderfoot no less, is placed directly in the historical pantheon in between a Founding Father and an explorer.  It looks like an illustration from “Treasure Island”.   And although the collapse of civilization was a distinct possibility at the time, the tone is confident, the Scout’s identity secure.   As always though, I have to point out that the good old times were not so good for those who were different.   I doubt you will see many brown faces in these lovely drawings.

What then would a non de-evolutional edition of the current Boy Scout Handbook look like?   It’s a cliche, but today’s world is even more complex.  There is less direct disappointment than in the early 70s: you no longer see the flag-draped coffins on the evening news, there is no draft and no there are no protests.  Today’s youth are numb.

A solution would wake them up, and make use of the identity-strengthening archetypes, like the WWII edition did.   Another book from the 70’s that offered a way out from the turmoil was the “Whole Earth Catolog”.  It featured all sorts of interesting projects and facts that were clever and low-tech.   A new Scouting handbook would show kids ways to use their energy and resilience to turn reduced prospects for traditional prosperity into a positive rather than a negative.  You can see this with locavore and permaculture movements.  To get kids to turn away from the video game and build a lean-to is a daunting task.

I think a return to seriousness, as opposed to the current edition’s candy-apple style, might be a way of getting through to the younger generation.  A new type of handbook that would convey both “This is how things are” (Wake up!) and “This is how thing could be” (Use this for inspiration).   A darker, more brooding BSA Handbook is the only one that will be successful.

 

Jazz gets it’s ass kicked by Korean shaman who then dies

“Intangible Asset 82” is an independent film which chronicles Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker’s trip to Korea in search of grand-master shaman drummer Kim Seok-Chul.  The title of the movie refers to the fact that the South Korean government has declared Seok-Chul to be a national “intangible” asset.  I bought the dvd after seeing a recital by Barker and some traditional Korean muscians at Lincoln Center’s “Target Free Thursdays.”

At the recital Barker tells the story of first heard the grandmaster on a rare recording.  The person who played the recording for him said something like “this is an example of awful drumming.”  Barker’s reaction was that this was the best thing he ever heard in his life and he wanted to find out all about it.

This is a great start.  He likes what other people hate, this chaotic free-form improvisatory drumming.   As a jazz drummer he must have had a degree of freedom to improvise, but nothing like what he heard on the recording.  I find that jazz, in general, despite its reputation for creativity and freedom, can often seem bland and overly formalized.  Think of how much jazz sounds the same, or of the traditionalist spoutings of this guy:

I would rather hear Koreans banging on pots and pans than Wynton Marsalis hectoring me on the classicism of Louis Armstrong.

Barker visited Korea seventeen times before this final trip, where he meets Seok-Chul just days before the shaman dies.   Along the way we meet various other shamans and traditional musicians.  We are told that the apprenticeship for being a shamanic singer is to live in a hut by a waterfall for several years, and to shout at the top of one’s lungs for literally seventeen hours a day.  Have you ever tried to shout at the top of your lungs for 10 minutes?

I wished that Barker would have taken a more questioning approach to Korean music and culture.  For example, he often describes Korean rhythms as “incredibly complex”.   The point is made several times that improvisation is based on rigorous technique and years of study.  I didn’t hear this.   As an erstwhile drummer I didn’t hear time signatures being changed, or intersecting polyrhythms, I just heard pleasant banging.  But I liked the banging, and I like the traditional singing, which was most often  like a throaty wail.  It seemed highly improvised and honest.  I didn’t see the need to justify it.

Barker seemed blissed out for most of the film, like a Deadhead (another genre I don’t get) and the soft-focus cinematography reflected his mood.  Lots of sunrises and sunsets, lights blinking on, picturesque old men in the public square, little children running.  Like a K.A.L. commercial.   My reaction to this was that I was being sold something.    Perhaps he was trying to put a sweet coating on a challenging type of music that can sound harsh and simultaneously chaotic and repetitive.  I longed for a happy traditional Korean tune.

 

Fixie WHIMPS!

hipster on a bike

“Fixies”, or  fixed-gear bicycles, are still popular amongst a certain subgroup of NYC hipsters.  Part of the appeal is the danger, in addition to not having gears, many fixes don’t have brakes and instead require the rider to either apply reverse pressure to their pedals, or to hop their rear wheel up, lock it, and go into a skid.

OK so these are some brave hipsters right? NOT SO FAST.

Try going into a skid on one of these:

Men on penny farthings in Los Angeles, 1886

The first bicycles to, in fact, be known as bicycles are now known as “penny-farthings”.  The name is based on the similarity in the ratio of the back to front wheel size to that of an English penny and a farthing coin  The wheels were large to increase speed – without a chain or gears,  the size of the front wheel limited how fast one could go.

“Penny farthings were also highly dangerous, and crashes leading to serious injuries – or death – were common. Front wheels grew to gargantuan sizes, with the biggest specimens measuring about two meters in diameter. If a rider hit a bump or any other obstacle on the road, riders were sent flying over the handlebar, a type of accident known as ‘taking a header’ or ‘coming a cropper'” – A Short Illustrated History of the Bicycle By Carsten Hoefer

Penny-farthings were ridden by the hipsters of the 1880’s, typically young men who wanted to show how dashing and brave they were.  In fact a penny-farthing IS a fixie, albeit one where you can die if you accidentally tilt over.  Have today’s riders gone soft?  I think anyone who rides any kind of bike in New York City should get a medal for bravery.

Midwestern Gothic

Around the time I got back from my trip down South. I heard David Lipsky interviewed on NPR. It’s embarrassing how little I listen to music in favor of talk radio on NPR. I come from a very verbal family, perhaps it reminds me of being a kid and the comforting feeling I would get hearing my parents talking downstairs when I was in bed not yet asleep.

Lipsky was speaking about his book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”, which is an annotated transcript of his road trip with David Foster Wallace in 1996, during the publicity tour for “Infinite Jest”. David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at age 46.

I admit to the twisted thinking pattern that committing suicide grants an artist emotional legitimacy. They are Sincere. This bona fide, and the fact that this was an account about the end of a road trip, prompted me to buy the book. Although I was grateful to be excited about reading something again, I found that the book’s insider literary focus obscured what I really wanted to know: how someone with a highly-attuned of a critical mind (David Foster Wallace) navigates his way through the meaninglessness of modern life.

David Foster Wallace himself points out, that having a writer interview another writer can make for an unrevealing article. Lipsky wants DFW to tell him how great it feels to be a famous writer. DFW doesn’t want to appear prideful so he hedges. Stalemate.

Does Wallace not want to jinx himself? Does he just want to appear more appealing? Or is he genuinely self-deprecating? That one extra question would have helped me enjoy the book more.

Lipsky otherwise is suprisingly aware and insightful. He notes that Wallace wants to impress him, but doesn’t want to be seen wanting to impress him. He notes that when Wallace’s dogs appear to like him, Wallace makes sure to comment on it – he flatters Lipsky via proxy.

I enjoyed the fact that Wallace, older than myself, considers himself a Gen-X’er, and I found it quaint that a major concern of his was T.V.-addiction. The road trip occurred in 1996, even given the times though, the idea of being concerned about watching too much t.v., watching until the 11 o’clock news comes on and then going through the Late Late Show, strikes me as kindly and nostalgic, especially compared to the massive internet addiction almost every person I come into contact now has.

After I finished “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”, I went out and bought “Infinite Jest” which I’ve just started. A few times in being interviewed, DFW emphasizes that he is asking the reader to do work, for which she will be rewarded later. That doing these sort of “adult” difficult things will add meaning to one’s life in oursuperficial culture.

Dave Eggers writes the glowing preface to “Infinite Jest” and although I haven’t finished the book, I’m feeling like theres a sloppiness to DFW’s writing that I also found in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” Wallace at times writes dialog that sounds like it’s coming directly from his head:

( Dean of Athletics speaking about a tennis scholarship prospect)

“Just so, Chuck, and that according to Chuck here Hal has already justified his seed, he’s reached the seminfinals as of this morning’s apparently impressive win, and that he’ll be playing out at the Center again tomorrow, against the winner of the quarterfinal game tonight, and so will be playing tomorrow at I believe scheduled for 0830.” (p.2 “Infinite Jest”).

If this is page 2 I’m not sure I can make it to page 1,079. This is supposed to be one person talking to another, I’m bothered by “this morning’s apparently impressive win” and also by the whimsical “Just so”. Would you vouch for someone by saying their win was “apparently impressive”? It’s like a movie director said “give me an eccentric coach, now TURN ON THE FAUCET”.

Lipsky, when he errs, goes more for a Kerouac-style jumble:

“Wipers making weird rubbing noise because ice is caught underneath the blades; a frozen, Midwestern-style problem.” (p. 90 “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”).

This is not a frozen problem. It’s a real problem. And I’m sure it happens in Alaska and Siberia and the Urals. But it’s fun to decorate the narrative with that glob of paint.

I’m nitpicking here, but it’s in order to show that there is a forced “Midwestern” “average guy” sensibility being promoted that doesn’t reflect the realities of what I experienced growing up in the Midwest. And I think it does a disservice to a class of people I call “Midwestern Gothic”: guys – they are almost always men – I grew up with, now in middle-age, with an artistic sensibility, who either didn’t have the talent or the connections to become successful in the art or publishing worlds.

These are the art-school aspirants who end up staying in the Midwest and EATING IT, working low-paying jobs and making the kind of impoverished contract with modern life that strikes terror into those who have achieved greater professional success. They often are single, due to both an introspective nature and not making enough income to attract and keep a wife. They have opted-out. Society considers them to be losers. Interestingly many have cats.

Nobody cares about these guys and I wish writers like Eggars and Wallace had left some of the acrobatics aside in order to explore what it would mean to get up everyday and NOT BE SPECIAL.

In “A Heartbreaking Work…” Dave Eggars lauds brother Toph as “the greatest kid ever” at length, he describes trying to get onto MTV’s “Real World” to gain celebrity. Is the “extraordinaryism”, for lack of a better word, of his characters meant to be legitimized by the tragic circumstances they endure? That sounds like a Lifetime movie concept to me, and has little to do with a real life “loser” going to the dollar store to pick up some cat food after working his shift at the copy shop, hoping he’ll have the energy to do some digital art after dinner.

Do people just not want to read mundane stuff like this? DFW quotes Updike who says that if you write the truth and possess powers of observation, anything can become compelling. The sad fact for me here is that, once again, I am more interested in the truth of the writer’s life, than in their writing. I hope this changes as I get through the book, and I’m aware that the mundane world of an IRS office was the setting of DFW’s subsequent effort.

Separated at Birth?

_louisarmstrong_small3.jpg_tracy-morgan-sag-award_small3.jpg
Louis Armstrong – a founding father of jazz

Tracey Morgan – does an annoying schtick of a black person imitating a white person imitating a black person

Miss on the pro side and just miss?

Jim Loy has one of the best pool and billiards websites I’ve seen.  It’s look and feel is from 1997, which I love, because it proves that content is king.

In this article, he  discusses the concept of missing a shot  “thin”, here’s his diagram and description:

jim_loy.gif

Here’s a tough situation; both of you are shooting the eight ball, and you have a tough cut. Some of the pros say that if you have to miss the shot, miss it too thin (the light green line here), rather than too thick (red line). The reason is that after the cue ball has gone back up table, you haven’t sold the farm when you miss.

In most of the discussions I’ve seen about “missing on the pro side”, the object ball (8-ball here) is closer to the short rail than it is to the long rail.  When this is the case it’s easier to make the ball on the “non-pro” side – you have a better chance if you undercut it:

royz_miss_thick.gif

I’m using the same layout here, but showing shot-paths that “miss by less”.   You can see that the angle of approach is equal for both balls (relative to the pocket – see the black centerline) , however the undercut shot (red line) produces a gentler, obtuse angle of reflection, allowing softly hit shots to be pocketed in off the jaws of the pocket.  The angle of reflection for the green line is acute, if you miss you miss.

So it’s a compromise: you have a better chance of making a shot with on the “non-pro” side, but if you do miss, you will probably leave your opponent an easier shot.  Pool is filled with these trade-offs, the longer you play the more you discover subtleties like this, which can drive you crazy but also keep you interested.