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.

Kitchen Confidential, circa 1933

_bourdain1.gif_orwell.jpg

Orwell’s squalorous masterpiece “Down and Out in Paris and London”  was a precursor to Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”.   Both deal in the frisson that comes from learning the dirty origins of  high-class restaurant food.  Orwell has been revered as THE objective dry-eyed chronicler of modern life by writers like Andrew Sullivan, so it surprised me to read melodramatic passages such as this:

“The cook had a crise de nerfs at six and another at nine; they came on so regularly that one could have told the time by them.  She would flop down on the dustbin, begin weeping hysterically, and cry out that never, no never had she thought to come to such a life as this; her nerves would not stand it; she had studied music at Vienna; she had a bedridden husban to support, etc. etc.”

It reads like a storyboard for a cartoon, I can picture a little cloud of dust rising up when the cook flops down on the dustbin.   Reminds me a little of Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield talks about shaking hands with a guy who “tries to break all forty of your fingers”.  No one much talks about Orwell the entertainer.

Well, THAT’S the pot calling the kettle “beige”

boys_in_the_band1.jpg

I thought “The Boys in the Band” would be a campy ridiculous movie, redeemed only by its groundbreaking status as one of the first mainstream films that dealt with homosexuality.  Instead I found it to be thoughtful, serious, well-written, and brilliantly-acted.  Its dubious reputation is the result of homophobic film reviewers (the dark side of Pauline Kael) and the fact that, as gay liberation blossomed, the gay community felt a need to distance itself from the subject of self-loathing.

In terms of camp, many primetime t.v. shows now feature outre gay characters for comic effect.  Every “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” owes an immense debt to Mart Crowley (writer, producer) and William Friedkin (director).   The point to this campiness in 1970 was to establish that this was not going to be a film about assimilation, about how gay people are just like anyone else except maybe more sad.  Instead this film would show a (literal) walled garden where gay men acted as they would were nobody watching.

The result was pathos, similar in tone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). in which the reigning heterosexual king and queen of the movies, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, exposed a self-loathing just as deep.

The plot is strikingly similar, an outsider arrives and witnesses the reality that lies beneath surface appearances.  In “The Boys in the Band” Peter White, as straight college chum Alan,  plays the naif role that belonged to George Segal and Sandy Dennis in “Woolf”.  Both movies started as stage plays and feature strong acting ensembles.

Leonard Frey, as Harold, the “thirty-two year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” is particularly compelling.  And I just don’t see performances like Kenneth Nelson’ as Michael – breaking down at the end of the movie when the reality of his situation hits him – in movies today.  Maybe I am watching the wrong movies.  The movie ends with a note of hope: after Harold verbally demolishes  hypocritical, abusive Michael, he leaves and as he is going says “Call you tomorrow…”  underscoring that their friendship will survive even this .  I have to admit to envying the depth of their connection, most friendships between heterosexual men, mine included, seem mannered and fearful in comparison.

“The Boys in the Band” highlights for me the terrible treatment gays have received up until a short time ago.  As I’ve mentioned before,  the good old days weren’t so good for gays, blacks or anyone different.  Which causes me to think about which groups are marginalized today in a way that we won’t acknowledge as a society until decades hence.  I think certainly animals: Jonathan Safer Foer’s “Eating Animals” seemed to me to be a necessary call-out to Michal Pollan’s evasive “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I struggle with this issue practically daily and haven’t been able to convert to vegetarianism.   Other groups might include the physically ugly –  the greatest most-unspoken discrimination ever I think, the aged, and, in terms of sexuality, BDSM practitioners, acceptance of whom is slowly becoming more mainstream, at least if you go by porn as a leading indicator.

Most of the actor’s in “The Boys in the Band” died in the first part of the AIDS epidemic.  To me they were brave, and their work showed us a glimpse into “real” life,  often I think art, movies, films, culture are the only true public glimpse into what’s actually going on people’s heads.  To dismiss “The Boys in the Band” as campy self-loathing says more about the reviewer than the film.

Whatever

 whatever-works2.jpg

In the Woody Allen film “Whatever Works” a tone-deaf Larry David plays a Woody Allen manque and falls flat.  It doesn’t help that he’s plugged into a poorly-written formula comedy.  I love Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but he appears to be one of those supremely successful orchestrators who, like Madonna, cannot get outside themselves, or rather, can’t get inside themselves.

The character he plays “Boris Yellnikoff” is crueler and more astringent than Alvy Singer or any of Allen’s previous protagonists.  When the adoring Evan Rachel Wood appears with snowflakes in her eylashes, I literally cringed.  I did the same when Mariel Hemingway’s character appeared in “Manhattan”.  I can’t suspend my disbelief that these attractive young women are attracted to self-congratulary old farts.

A far more realistic scenario played out with the relationship between Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”.  Hershey, although younger,  doesn’t play a noble innocent, and Von Sydow, although bitter, is gritty and truly wounded.

In order to be successful, “Whatever Works” should have been written as a broad, character-driven comedy.   In that case the lack of realism wouldn’t have mattered.  They key is “broad” though, think early Woody Allen.  An alternative would have been to go for realism – to make Boris Yellnikov a serious person, someone more like Sherwin Nuland’s old-world father in “Lost in America” (the book, not the Albert Brooks movie), someone who has seen their beliefs fail.  This would raise the stakes tremendously when the character finally goes against all his fears and falls in love, only to be abandoned.  Von Sydow and Hershey approached this in “Hannah”:

“Lee, you’re my whole world….Good God.   Have you been kissed tonight?  Yes, you have.   You’ve been with someone!

Stop accusing me!

I’m too smart. You can’t fool me!  You’re turning red!     Leave Me!  Oh, Christ! What’s wrong with you?

I’m sorry.

Couldn’t you say something?  You slither…”

Tough stuff and I liked it a lot better.  “Hannah and her Sisters” stopped there though, it tacked on a sentimental ending with a pregnant Hannah and all the main characters neatly paired up.   I wonder if Woody Allen subconsciously put Larry David, in some ways his spiritual heir, into a movie he can’t have helped knowing was a weak imitation of earlier work.  On the other hand he has put out a lot of weak imitations.

Most of the reviews I’ve read for “Whatever Works” have praised the “sunny” performance by Evan Rachel Wood is the best thing about the movie.  To me this is an intellectual shortcut because Wood was in fact playing a “sunny” character, it’s like saying someone gave a “tired” performance when they were playing a fatigued character.  Argh, like Boris Yellnikoff sometimes I hate everyone.

If there is a positive aspect to this film, it’s to put in sharp relief what an original, strong and interesting character Allen Stewart Konigberg created in “Woody Allen”. Woody Allen, more than any other public figure of the time,  broke through the dominant American “Gunsmoke” culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-semitism.  He snuck in through the back door of comedy and soon could not be ignored.

It’s no suprise then that growing up, Allen Konigsberg was an capable athlete, musician, magician and all-around non-schlemiel. These days I can’t keep up with the churn of his mediocre movies.  It was only because of Larry David that I watched “Whatever Works”and I was disappointed on all counts.

The Other Don

mad_men2.gifmad_men.gif

I finally got around to watching some episodes of AMC’s “Mad Men” and I’m finding it strikingly similar to HBO’s “The Sopranos”.  Both about powerful men, alienated by their own success and  pitted against themselves.  Both feature conflicted wives who have  ‘made a deal’ in order to get what they think they want.  I recently learned that the executive producer of “Mad Men”, Matthew Weiner, was a writer on “The Sopranos” so this is starting to make sense.

These series titillate the viewer with vicarious views of internecine battles: in “The Sopranos” someone usually ends up getting whacked, while in “Mad Men” they are simply humiliated and sent down the pecking order.   It’s like being in the court of the Borgias without the personal risk.  Yet the melodrama of a “Dallas” or “Dynasty” is avoided though good writing, the lofty theme of tragedy, and a comprehensive view into a subculture.

In both “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” the societal rules of modern life don’t apply.  The cultures they portray are politically incorrect in the extreme, and that offers a sense of definitiveness and strangeness that is compelling .  I recently read a series of blog entries in Slate magazine by married couple Michael Agger and Susan Barton, describing their experience “trading places” for two weeks: she gives up taking care of the the kids to work at his job as an editor, and he becomes a stay-at-home Dad (note: they have a part-time nanny who remains silent) .  The entries are written with painstakingly care,  neither lifestyle is described as “better”,  no judgments made, and  basically nothing happens.   On “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” judgments are made every 10 minutes, with devestating consequences.  What a relief!

The lack of resolution in the finale”The Sopranos”was a disappointment to me.  I’m hoping that now that David Weiner has his own show, “Mad Men” will follow through on its  tragic promise.

Sometimes not a great notion

 kenburns-main_full.jpg

Last night I caught about 30 seconds of Ken Burn’s latest paean: “The National Parks”, which was quite enough.  I already feel as though I’ve watched the entire series. “The National Parks are the enduring treasure of the great experiment that IS the United States….”  Substitute “Jazz”, “Baseball”, “The Brooklyn Bridge”,  “The Statue of Liberty”, the works of “Mark Twain”, buildings by “Frank Lloyd Wright”, the legacy of “Lewis and Clark”, “Susan B. Anthony”, “The West”, the experience of being black in America…

It’s not that these subjects aren’t fascinating and historically significant, it’s that he’s putting them all through the same Ken Burns sausage-grinder.  I loved watching this treament perhaps twice: Civil War, Lewis and Clark – great stuff, tear in my eye.  But not everything can be THE sepia-toned emblem of the great notion/dream/experiment that is America.

What next?  Pike’s Peak, Amelia Earhart, the automobile, Father Coughlin, Vaudeville, Vietnam, Kennedy, Television, Robber Barons, Country Music, Los Angeles, Newspapers.  What is this guy going to homogenize next? I don’t want to see these archived in his gimbel-eyed  exhausted style.  They deserve a fresh attack.

To me there is something about the narrative style of documentaries that invites corruption, after all, they are always “telling” you something, and leaving other things out.  If somehow a documentarian could focus not on substantive events, but on patterns, might this be more revealing?

I remember watching David Frosts’ interview with Nixon, where Nixon utters a heartfelt mea culpa, saying that he had let the country down. He seemed genuinely aggrieved.  I can’t imagine this coming from a modern politician (“Were errors in judgment made, yes…”)   Assume Nixon is neither good nor bad, and I know this is hard to do,  then you are free to focus on his ambition, and the way it manifested itself compared to a dessicated clinician like Barack Obama.  Can Nixon’s way of doing it not succeed today?  Why not?  These are  interesting questions to me and are not dependent on the question of right and wrong.

There was another quote from the “National Parks” documentary:  “50 years from now my grandaughter can visit this place and it will look to her just like it looks to me.”    I think Ken Burn’s wants us to feel that we are dots on a timeline of an immutable “American” (thus special) narrative.  While this is comforting and makes us feel kinship with historical figures, I don’t buy it, with history, things are never as they seem.  Burn’s intellectual contribution is fading and curling at the edges.

Booking from Facebook

facebook_logo1.jpg

An interesting factoid from life in the advertising trenches concerns the social media habits of teenagers: Coca Cola, anxious to jump on the social networking bandwagon, commissioned a study of teenagers that found their core attitude towards developing a social media presence to be “defensive”.  That is, they felt at risk for losing social status if they did not have an online identity which displayed the proper combination of coolness and connections.  This study further characterized todays teens as overscheduled and stressed.  The agency’s response to this research was to whip up a campaign based on the fizzing sound as a can of coke is cracked open.  Pressure relieved and now you have a minute to yourself.  Not a bad treatment for what it’s worth.

Does this attitude occur in adult social media consumers? Steve Tuttle’s article “Why I Quit Facebook”, along with some other commentary I’ve seen recently, focuses on the banality of “status updates”, short posts where users share whatever thoughts are crossing their minds at the moment.  To me, the subtext of these self-centered messages is a strategic attempt to bolster an online persona and, by reflected LCD-light, increase the status of the user.

In real life, at a party for example, the person who corralls me to tell me that their kid ate an entire bowl of cereal would properly be deemed a “bore”and would be most-likley avoided.  A status-updating (and status-enhancing) Cyberbore faces far fewer consequences than their flesh-and-blood counterpart because they are easier to ignore, and because, in my humble opinion, there is a tacit understanding that posts to newsfeeds are not intended to establish connection, they are intended to advertise.   Although there are token updates in which users wanly express non-hegemenous attitudes, the vast majority of posts hew tightly to a woman’s magazine Weltanschaung: “Joanie just did 2 hours of Bikram and never felt so refreshed, Namaste!”.

I have even seen meta-updates to friends about the number of friends obtained:  “John Doe just added friend number 1,000!”.  This is Onkga’s Big Moka,  writ in pixels. –  the display of a fitness indicator, a cyber-peacock’s-tail. The poster not only indicates that they have the social capital to get 1,000 people to click “Accept”, but they have the energy and focus to monitor and broadcast this.

It’s nothing new that people are always advertising and cloaking their intent in normative memes (“community” or in Huffington’s case, “concern for family”).  The interesting question to me is: “Is this an efficient form of self-promotion?”  I don’t think so.  While some people invest a lot of effort in creating online personas, the audience is fickle.  In order to join an online community, the average user faces a relatively low cost of admission and can leave just as easily.  As the founders of Friendster can attest, and with apologies to  “Project Runway”:  “In social media one day you’re in, the next day you’re out”.  This is the nature of the internet itself, low investment with rapid-switching (e.g. hyperlinking).

OK, let’s investigate fashion as an analog.  Is it a more efficient means of advertising fitness?  It takes energy to seek out fashionable clothing, resources to obtain it, and resilience to withstand the social attention and occasional opprobrium one obtains from wearing it.  It’s an effective fitness-indicator albeit one with greater investment and a lesser reach.  Alternatively the impact of a social media presence is broad but shallow. It seems to me that maintaining a fashionable real-life persona takes greater sacrifice, affects fewer people, but affects them more deeply.  Critiques about the banality of fashion precede those of Facebook posts and probably arise from a similar anxiety – keeping up.  Most people don’t want the pressure of figuring out what is in fashion, or of persuading
1,000 people to electronically approve of them.

The establishment of an enduring community on the internet would require that a social networking mechanism demand greater investment by users, and impose real consequences for their non-participation or departure. Entry would have to be more akin to a barn-raising than to watching Google Auto-Fill complete an online registration form. In real-life communities based on shared sacrifice, such as a farm communities, self-promotion is often viewed with skepticism.  Perhaps the emergence of this attitude is a bellwether for the viability of online communities as well.

World’s Fair-y Tale

 dupont2.jpg

The 64-65 World’s Fair marks the crossing of a cultural Rubicon. In 1965 DuPont Corporation sponsored an exhibit called the “Wonderful World of Chemistry”, featuring a musical with a song called “The Happy Plastic Family”. Two years later, in 1967 the movie “The Graduate” was released, with the famous exchange:

I just want to say on word to you,just one word.

Yes, sir.

Are you listening?

Yes I am.

Plastics.

the-graduate-pdvd_014.jpg

(Dustin Hoffman underplays it the whole way.)

From 1965 to 1967 the concept of plastics was shifting from hopeful to ominous. Today we are faced with a giant floating island of plastic debris in the North Pacific, twice the size of the Continental United States. You turn away and hope that some solution will be found or you will be dead before it becomes a big problem. Imagine, then, not only not worrying about the impact of new chemicals, but actively celebrating it. Imagine GM’s “Wonderful World of Tomorrow” ride which took people on a tour of ecosystems, from desertscape to moonscape, to underwater diving bell, each fantastic and hopeful.

Robert Moses, the organizer of the 1964-65 World’s Fair, broke ranks with the governing Bureau of International Exhibitions, by demanding that participating countries pay exhibition fees. The BIE instructed their member countries not to attend, and the result was a fair dominated by Third World countries, with Spain and Vatican City being the only major exhibitors. Commercial interests filled the void. The ’64-65 World’s Fair marked the point at which corporations finally superceded nations in the Western cultural consciousness. Never again would plastics seem as innocent.