Friday, December 31, 2010

Opening for an Essay I Decided It Would Be Too Depressing to Write

My last five significant jobs (including the current one), along with quite a few earlier jobs, have been thoroughly unpleasant experiences, which either means that I am exceptionally unlucky, or, more likely, that I am not cut out for the working world; since I think many jobs are like that, or would be for me.  [Really, you can imagine the rest!]

Decline in Living Standards

Not that this is a surprise, but the New York Times reports that even those who have found work after a period of unemployment aren't feeling so cheery. 70% of those who switched fields took pay cuts; even 45% of those who stayed in the same field took cuts. And of course, they can all easily get laid off from their new jobs and face yet another search.

One worker reports, "I’d love to go back to what I was doing...But when I talk with the unemployment office here in Michigan, they tell me the chances of going back and using the same skill set I had before are pretty farfetched." Well, of course. A career with a forward path would allow this man some stability, and as Jacob Hacker describes in his book The Great Risk Shift, stability is precisely what the forces in power are intent on denying him. There is something almost vindictive in the way this is playing out, as if the plutocrats were punishing the rest of us for not being plutocrats ourselves. "Take that, loser!"

I am reminded of a quotation from Edith Wharton's great novel The House of Mirth: "If she slipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she was aware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level." I feel that way often myself.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Overlooked Movies

Scott Mendelson posted an interesting list of overlooked 2010 movies at his blog. Mendelson is a capable, opinionated writer that I have mixed feelings about, because, like many of the other capable movie writers out there, from Manohla Dargis to Mike D'Angelo, from Glenn Kenny to Jeffrey Wells, he seems to lack any frame of reference whatsoever outside film and pop culture. But this is still a pretty good piece.

Follow-up point: In my observation, not that this is surprising, book bloggers are a much more intellectually engaging lot than movie bloggers. The good book bloggers tend to be aware and informed about movies, all kinds of music, the visual arts, history, philosophy. It bothers me that movie writers are more closed-off. It could be that, for book bloggers, books function as a window onto the world; while for many movie writers, movies function as a mirror, reflecting their pre-existent enthusiasms back at them. This is not the fault of the movies themselves, of course, but it is an unfortunate tendency in discourse about the movies.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Is America a plutocracy?"

Well, my answer would be, It certainly seems to have become one (and not for the first time, either). Historian and political economist Francis Fukuyama gives the question full consideration in this exceptionally interesting article. 

His conclusions are a bit softer and more tentative than mine would be, especially when it comes to this bit:

At some level, corrupt developing-country elites know they are getting away with murder (sometimes for real); they rarely try to justify their self-enrichment to themselves in moral terms. American elites, however, tend to believe they are helping society as a whole even as they help themselves. Thus the centrality of the efficient market hypothesis: Financiers proudly see themselves as “value creators”, not as highbrow pickpockets of widows and orphans.

I suspect that many of this type do privately see themselves as....well, maybe "highbrow pickpockets" is not the term they would use, but perhaps "clever self-enrichers"? They are true globalists in this sense: The welfare of the United States and its citizens means not a whit to them, except insofar as America is usefully the land where "a sucker is born every minute." They have offshored not only the jobs at their companies but also, to the extent they can, their own money, and their own responsibilities under American laws. In short, I think that they are generally far more cynical than Fukuyama lets on, and that they do not care much about "value creation" except as it applies to their own bank accounts. Of course, promoting concepts such as "value creation," "trickle down, " and Schumpeter's "creative destruction" is helpful to the elite class rhetorically, but we should not be misled by that.

Nonetheless, Fukuyama's essay is an important contribution, and I recommend it strongly.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Single Man (2009)

I finally saw A Single Man, after urgings from friends -- I snapped it up at my local Korean bookstore the minute I saw the DVD on sale. Interestingly, although Koreans ostensibly disavow homosexuality as a Western import, they do seem to have a particular fascination with it, which made me less than surprised to see this DVD on offer. The second-highest grossing Korean film of all time, The King and the Clown, is a gay historical romance, as is another popular movie here, A Frozen Flower. In one of my classes on national cultures just last week, a female student demonstrated extensive familiarity with Tchaikovsky's love life....

But I digress. I liked A Single Man, especially for Colin Firth's wonderful lead performance. but I did not love it and would not rank it very high as a piece of cinema. For me, a gay romantic construct gets no special points just because it is gay. More to the point, is it true? The problem I have with A Single Man (which may go back to the Christopher Isherwood novel, but I'd have to check) is that the dead lover is improbably perfect -- a pure fantasy figure (especially for the era). As incarnated by the incredibly handsome Matthew Goode, he is heart-stoppingly attractive, funny, sensitive, intelligent, hot, dog-loving, comfortably way ahead of his time -- I mean, it's just too much. I can enjoy this as a Boy's Own Romance number -- the flashback depicting the lovers' first meeting is particularly delightful ("I think I'm taken") -- but as a director and co-scenarist, Tom Ford does nothing to complicate the romantic template even a little bit. A truly complex gay film such as the late Bill Sherwood's 1986 Parting Glances -- which features very handsome men, too, but puts them to much more interesting use -- is far ahead of A Single Man even though it came out 23 years before. A Single Man is pleasurable but ultimately rather regressive, I think.

As an instance of that regression, the "looks fascism" of the fashion industry where Ford resides is very much in evidence throughout the film. There is no one on significant display who is less than sexy and stunning (except for the maid, and who cares what the help look like, right?). Tom Ford's vision will not admit that anyone could be short or overweight or average-looking. The film would have been so much truer if the student-in-pursuit had been ordinary and unremarkable instead of a young male model type. Why should the professor kill himself, when he has two knockout sexual opportunities in one day (the other being the hustler), the likes of which most of us wouldn't encounter in ten years? Come on.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Cautionary Tale

I recently unsubscribed from the YouTube channels of a popular vlogger, whom I will not name directly here, as the point is not to attack or embarrass him. He covers the Korea and Japan beats, and since I live in Korea and am interested in Japan, this was an attraction. The vlogger's manner is charming and he is rather a handsome fellow, which always gets my attention. But as I watched more of his videos, I realized that there was no point of view being expressed, and therefore no real content. There was only the appealing delivery, which grows thin after a while. Everything was "cool" or "awesome." You can only coast for so long on two adjectives that convey little more than a general attitude.

So the caution is this: Before you seek to engage people's attention, make sure at least that you have something to say. It's kind of a minimum.

James MacArthur

Famed television actor James MacArthur, Lieutenant Dan Williams on Hawaii Five-O, passed away on the 28th. I was a big Hawaii Five-0 fan when I was a boy (still am), and a particular fan of MacArthur; I sort of idolized him at age 12. In recent years he has maintained a very nice personal website and "digital scrapbook," worth checking out:

His likable personality comes across strongly at this site. He was an interesting, thoughtful man, and he led a very interesting life (including his rearing as the adopted son of actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur). There has been quite an outpouring of affection for MacArthur in many forums these past couple of days.

As with virtually any actor, if you dig through MacArthur's IMDB credits you find some offbeat items. Although the young MacArthur was generally a wholesome presence, in films like Third Man on the Mountain or Spencer's Mountain, in his very first film, The Young Stranger, he plays a somewhat troubled kid. In a 1961 Untouchables episode, he is a punk gangster. Later, he goes all-out Sixties in The Love-Ins (a thinly disguised telling of the exploits of Timothy Leary) and The Angry Breed, my personal favorite, in which he plays Deek Stacey, the arrogant, sexy leader of a neo-Nazi biker gang! No, you didn't misread that.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti has started his music directorship of the Chicago Symphony with a bang, pairing Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with its unusual and seldom-performed sequel, Lelio or The Return to Life, in four concerts last week. (The program will be repeated in New York during the orchestra's 2011 spring visit there.) Symphonie fantastique is subtitled "An episode in the life of an artist," and Lelio returns to the life of that artist in an hour-long piece that is a miniature concert in its own right, consisting of six pieces for vocalists, chorus, and orchestra linked by a dramatic monologue. For the Chicago concerts, Gerard Depardieu appeared as the artist-monologuist. I wish I could have been there, because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I hope it was captured on video and will be made available.,CST-NWS-cso25web.article

UPDATE (10/17/2010): The Muti/Depardieu collaboration on Lelio is in fact available on DVD: 

RIP Arthur Penn

The great director Arthur Penn has passed away:,0,7876188.story

My favorite Penn film is Night Moves, which is one of the finest neo-noirs ever made. Of course Bonnie and Clyde is his most famous film, and I don't think its impact on the course of American cinema has been over-rated; it landed like a bombshell towards the end of a listless decade in American film, and helped kick off the wave of top-notch commercial film-making that lasted for about a decade (1967-1976, roughly). It is too bad that, like most everyone else, Penn hit a rough patch in the Eighties; his last "ambitious" film was the underrated Four Friends in 1981 (although I hear that Penn & Teller Get Killed, 1989, is interesting; and I adore Penn & Teller). One curious item in Penn's IMDB filmography that I would like to know more about is a 1968 television movie -- the year after Bonnie and Clyde -- called Flesh and Blood, with an incredible cast consisting of Edmond O'Brien, Kim Stanley, Robert Duvall, Suzanne Pleshette, E.G. Marshall, and Kim Darby.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pop Movies

Some of my students wanted to take me to a movie, and the only English-language movie playing at the multiplex was Resident Evil: Afterlife. It's not a movie I would choose to see on my own, to put it mildly. But it did get me thinking. The only other movie I've seen at a theater in Korea was Inception, and there should be a big contrast there: pure popcorn cinema versus prestige Oscar-bait moviemaking. But no, what struck me is how similar the two films are.

The directorial strategies, the production design, the murky photography, the thumping use of music in the two films are all quite comparable. Both heavily overuse Matrix/Crouching Tiger-style slo-mo of tossed weapons and flipping bodies. The plotting in Inception is a little trickier, but neither movie really makes any sense. Both films end unresolved (although Resident Evil: Afterlife sets up a sequel and Inception doesn't). There is nothing to choose between the movies as far as dialogue goes; neither is going to win any Oscar Wilde Awards. The thesping, which should be a real point of distinction between an A-list production and a franchise sequel, is about the same quality in both films, too. No one in Resident Evil gives quite as good a performance as Marion Cotillard or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception, but Milla Jovovich is easily the equal of Leonardo DiCaprio as far as screen command goes: a dazzling looker with acting chops. I would a heck of a lot rather watch her in this sort of movie than the insufferably self-absorbed Angelina Jolie.

Resident Alien: Afterlife actually comes out a little better in this aesthetic head-to-head, because it is not so impressed with itself as Inception. But that is not to say that I liked it. In addition to Inception, it has a lot in common with Christian Alvart's Pandorum (a dubious DVD rental of mine earlier this year), Zack Snyder's 300, the bad parts of Neill Blomkamp's District 9, and probably a whole flotilla of movies I have not seen. This rotting dank environs/clanging metal/mutating aliens/future dread (etc.) genre draws on such obvious forebears as John Carpenter's The Thing and Escape from New York, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and Ridley Scott's Alien, as well as less likely candidates such as Tron, C.H.U.D., and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn. Its roots are very largely in pop science fiction and horror films of the late Seventies and the Eighties -- the cinematic junk food of the current crop of directors' youth -- although the products now (including remakes of the inspirations) intend to be bigger and badder, of course. If this is the new operational style of popular film-making -- reprocessed by-products that are vaguely reminiscent of meat -- it's back to Eric Rohmer for me.

I saw Resident Evil: Afterlife in 3D. It looks fine, but the 3D is used very conventionally --objects coming out of the screen at the audience in the same manner that was commonplace during the mid-1950s wave of 3D films. So much for progress. The audience did not gasp at the optic assault even once, which I take as a sign that the new 3D is already becoming ho-hum.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Some Notes on Inception

  • My overall reaction was slightly more positive than negative -- the movie is fairly entertaining as it goes by -- but I have major issues, too. What prevents Inception from being a classic pop thriller is overload. Going down three dream layers is probably too much, but going down four is ridiculous. From the moment the bus goes off the bridge in the first dream layer to the moment when it hits the water is an hour of screen time; that's simply too long, and certainly not justified by the material. Ultimately Inception is a rather wearying experience, and therefore not a film I'll be that likely to re-visit.
  • The rules of the dream explorations are very confusing, and the dreamscapes themselves are often far too stable. I have to agree with a friend who said that he doesn't dream in action sequences.
  • Dreams on film are really hard to do. Jan Svankmajer is possibly the best at this, and it is significant that most of his films are shorts.
  • The cast of Inception is terrific top to bottom, without a single weak link; that alone makes the film enjoyable much of the way. I especially appreciated Joseph Gordon-Levitt's deadpan; if anyone wants to make a Buster Keaton biopic, here's your man.
  • Marion Cotillard gives the single best performance; as David Denby points out in his New Yorker review, her scenes are the only ones with real emotional weight, and that comes out of her acting, not out of the humdrum lines Nolan wrote for her. Although I wasn't that crazy about La Vie en Rose as a whole (Nolan's use of Piaf in Inception is a witty touch), Cotillard completely deserves her international fame and awards. She's right up there with Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett as one of our finest contemporary actresses. 
  • I honestly am having a hard time thinking of any other film that is so thoroughly a tissue of influences. I felt the presence of The Shining (the hotel scenes), Michael Mann's The Keep (the histrionic use of music), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (the ski sequence), Blade Runner (the ambiguous open ending), John Sayles's Limbo (ditto), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (scrambled temporality and overall mood), Zabriskie Point (the exploding streets of France), Intolerance (cross-cutting between four different story-lines), etc., etc. Christopher Nolan is a director of the second rank because he is essentially a magpie; he steals bright shiny objects (and he does not then proceed, as Quentin Tarantino does, to make them his own).
  • I would categorize surprise endings and open endings and any endings intended to send an electric current through your body as "frisson" endings. Inception has unquestionably got one, but it's a little too obvious to be truly magical; it's laboriously set up, and the crib from the Blade Runner director's cut is glaring. Two of the best frisson endings of all time are in the Tarkovsky science fiction films, Stalker and Solaris. The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man has a wonderful and truly unexpected frisson ending that achieves the level of mystery that Nolan reaches toward rather clumsily in Inception.  
  • So: a decent summer blockbuster, far better than most of its kind. But I didn't find it special, and the closing sequence that some especially like is precisely where the film falls apart for me big-time. (When I first typed this, I wrote "clockbuster" rather than "blockbuster"; I think that was Freudian!)
  • Denby's review is by far the best I've read, so here is the link:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Housekeeping: Postscript

I think I spoke too soon about keeping up the effort involved in compiling PMD. I just reviewed my Google Analytics reports for June, and the readership of the blog has dropped precipitously. There was a slowing down in my frequency of posting, but not too drastic a slowing down, and yet the number of visits, unique visitors, and page-views were all off drastically. The average time spent on site was way down, too, and it has never been long enough to browse, let alone read, one of the daily entries. The same few Google searches relating to The Sopranos, The Apprentice winner Bill Rancic, and some menswear topics (black and white spectator wingtips, Bermuda shorts) have been driving the majority of visitors to the blog for months. Hmm, not exactly what I have in mind.

I love researching this blog because every subject it touches on interests me greatly; I will do that spadework in any case. I love writing it, too, but making the entries good on a daily basis is terrifically time-consuming. Now that I am working full-time again, of course my available time has diminished, and so the hours spent on composing PMD cut very considerably into my leisure for actual book reading, movie watching, music listening. If the readership had grown over the life of the blog, I'd happily make that sacrifice. But it hasn't, and so maybe I shouldn't.  

Probably it is time for another format change. PMD has had several. It has gone on hiatus a few times as well, and has always come back; I'm not interested in killing it and I never have. It disappoints me, of course, that the format of canvasing the broader cultural world on a daily basis that I started in December 2009 has not "caught on," not even a wee bit. The world has fragmented, and most people seem to be mainly interested in a niche or two. I cannot be that way; it would be utterly foreign to my nature. I am grateful for the few kindred spirits who have found what I do here to be interesting or appealing.

I may take a little break and then return with posts that cover the same territory in a way that is more manageable for me. I certainly enjoy having the writing outlet. Right now I'm also writing in detail on my Korean experiences for a very select group (that will remain so, for self-protective reasons).

Therefore I'm not really going away, maybe not even for as long as a few days. I might post later today; it depends on what occurs to me. But I think that the June 24 post will be the last of the long-format daily entries with lots of weblinks and the enumeration of birthdays (even that part takes plenty of work) -- at least for now. Those entries lasted six months, and they were a blast to write. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Faithful readers will have noticed that I am still running about a week behind on daily entries, which has been the case since I arrived in Korea. I've thought of doing short entries to catch up, but for now I remain committed to carrying on as usual until I come current. Orienting myself to a new job in a new country has taken a good deal of time and energy, but life should start to become more "normal" as I move into July. I enjoy the discipline of researching and writing the blog, and that has not diminished an iota. 

June 24

When I was a freshman at my Catholic boys' high school in New Jersey, my gifted social studies teacher once played us an LP side of Leonard Bernstein's notorious, underrated, now rehabilitated masterpiece Mass, which was written upon commission from Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein took some hard critical knocks for this extravagant, polymusical piece that drew upon the ferment of its time -- it was premiered in 1971 -- and upon all of the musical traditions that Bernstein loved. But I think time has vindicated this quasi-Catholic mass composed by one of America's greatest Jewish musicians. It has been increasingly performed and recorded (notably by conductors Kent Nagano and Marin Alsop) in recent years; we are only beginning to live with it. When my teacher played it for us, he was discouraged by our apparently noisy, inattentive reaction; but I contacted him years later to let him know that that class was a "life moment" for me -- his example is a key reason why I am a teacher today. The beauties of the Mass, including the majestic opening number "A Simple Song," have remained with me as an inspiration. Here is a gorgeous recent interpretation of "A Simple Song" in a Latvian performance led by conductor Maris Simais; Douglas Webster is the Celebrant.


The vocal and instrumental swell on the lyric "And the sun shall not smite me by day/Nor the moon by night" never fails to wipe me out.

Stephen Bowie is doing some excellent interviews at his blog Classic TV History; the latest is with the wonderful actress Shirley Knight.

Knight pays tribute to the head of casting at CBS, Ethel Winant, who first saw her in a production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger that co-starred Dean Stockwell: "Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career.  She would put me in everything." Winant is one of the unsung heroes of the arts. Robert S. Alley's and Irby B. Brown's excellent book Love Is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- one of the best books ever written about a television program -- has a chapter describing Winant's casting of that show, including her discovery of Valerie Harper at a little theater. Casting (for which there really should be more awards, such as an Oscar) is utterly crucial to theatrical, televisual, and cinematic endeavors, but its nuances are little explored in print; Alley's and Brown's account of the casting process is the best I have read since Pauline Kael's famous essay on the making of Sidney Lumet's film The Group (included in Kael's book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

New music circles have been excited by the recent performance of Iannis Xenakis's Persephassa for six percussionists on Central Park Lake in New York:

Like many of [Xenakis's] works, “Persephassa” has a spatial element. He intended the percussionists to be placed far from one another in a hexagonal formation with the audience in the middle. The 30-minute piece has never been performed on a lake, the producers say. A veritable flotilla of rowboats made it to the west side of the lake on a hot, clear afternoon to hear “Persephassa"....Mostly there were four people to a boat. Two percussionists were stationed in gazebos on the shore; another performed from a bluff of rocks. Three others played on plywood platforms....atop two boats secured together. These boats had two rowers charged with keeping the platforms relatively steady.

persephassa on the lake from liubo on Vimeo.

Spatialization exists throughout Western musical history (the Berlioz Requiem with its placement of  brass bands, for example) but really takes off in the 20th century with Xenakis, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Henry Brant, and others. Of course it needs to be experienced live for full effect; but the video excerpt of the Persephassa performance above is thrilling.

I mentioned here on January 14 of this year how an early Seventies PBS television interview with photographer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton inspired me as a young man (just as hearing Bernstein's Mass around the same time did). The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester has mounted a new show of the World War II photographs Beaton shot for Great Britain's Ministry of Information: 

A Journey Round My Skull has unearthed another wonderful illustrator, Alexandr Mychajlow, although information about him is scant:

Among notables born on this date are poets John Ciardi, Arseny Tarkovsky (Russia), and St. John of the Cross (Spain), short story writer Ambrose Bierce, crime novelist Lawrence Block, scientist/science fiction novelist Fred Hoyle, composers Hugo Distler, Terry Riley, and Harry Partch, film director Claude Chabrol, rock guitarist Jeff Beck, rock drummer Mick Fleetwood, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, philosopher Julia Kristeva (France), political writer Ernesto Sabato (Argentina), economist Robert Reich, and actor Nancy Allen. I can't help loving the excellent story writer Ambrose Bierce for an extra-literary consideration, his disappearance in Mexico as a Pancho Villa sympathizer in 1914, which led to much speculation and theorizing that has continued to this day:

Perhaps the most convincing of the Mexico stories is that of soldier-of-fortune Edward "Tex" O'Reilly in his Born To Raise Hell. He claims to have been contacted by Bierce in El Passo and then in Chihauhua City -- but never met with him. O'Reilly says that several months later, he heard that an American had been killed in a nearby mining camp of Sierra Mojada. He investigated and heard how an old American, speaking broken Spanish, was executed by Federal Troops when they found out he was searching for Villa's troops. The locals told how he kept laughing, even after the first volley of his execution.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Culture of Feedback

...raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something....It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction. Not caring works surprisingly would be good if more women see interesting opportunities that they might not be qualified for, opportunities which they might in fact fuck up if they try to take them on, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more women got in the habit of raising their hands and saying “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,” no matter how many people that behavior upsets.

Clay Shirky (my bolding)

The passage by Clay Shirky that I quote above hit me with the force of revelation, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It comes in the middle of a post in which Shirky urges women scientists and technologists to become more assertive for the sake of their own careers, but the point goes well beyond gender considerations. Shirky's insights help clarify my instinctive recoil from the culture of "feedback." Of course there is no getting through life without feedback, but we have given particular varieties of it an insidious and pernicious centrality. "Let me give you some feedback on that" usually really means, Let me tell you in a polite, business-accepted way what a loser you are; and, Let me also indicate sub-textually how completely awesome I am. Feedback as we commonly understand the phrase today is commentary that intends to assert a "veto power," as Shirky puts it, over the actions of anyone we disapprove. And I think that Shirky's suggested strategic response is the correct one: Try not caring. Do some people who could use a lesson not care about the opinions of others? Of course; we can all come up with examples. Can feedback sometimes be useful? Yes to that as well. But the culture of feedback deserves a spit in the eye, and I am glad to see that, for example, Samuel A. Culbert's and Lawrence Rout's book Get Rid of the Performance Review! has gained some currency in business circles. At my last corporate job, I was -- alas -- responsible for coordinating the annual performance review process; and it is difficult to conceive of a more worthless exercise.   

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 23

It created solidarity between me and my students that America and Korea were both eliminated from the World Cup competition this past weekend!

I think I'll root for Uruguay now -- plucky little nation and all that. (Back between the two world wars, Montenegro was often referred to that way by the British -- "plucky little Montenegro.") I pointed out to my students that even though Ghana keeps defeating the U.S. in the World Cup, our two nations are actually quite close, since Ghana was so honored to be the first African nation visited by Obama after he became president.

Ghana's team is called the Black Stars, and here's how it got that name:

Conceptually, visually, and musically, Josko Marusic's Fisheye is an animated horror short like no other.

Short films of all kinds, which have always been underexposed, find a natural home on YouTube, and it is one of the greatest benefits that remarkable website offers.

It is all Glenn Kenny can do to even halfway describe Giulio Questi's 1968 arthouse/exploitation/serial killer/chicken farming movie, Death Laid an Egg (which sounds like the title of a 1940s Phoenix Press mystery):

Five fun facts about pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904):

1. He was born Edward Muggeridge and changed his name several times before he came up with the unspellable "Eadweard Muybridge."
2. He murdered his wife's lover, pleaded insanity, and got off.
3. He identified with Helios, the Greek god of the sun.
4. The great painter Francis Bacon frequently used Muybridge photographs as a visual starting point.
5. Photography expert Weston Naef (which has to be the best name ever for a photography expert) believes that many of Muybridge's early photographs were actually taken by others, including my fave Carleton Watkins.

A huge show of Muybridge's work, including his famous motion studies that influenced the development of motion pictures, is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Tony Shaw, on a literary mission in France, visits sites associated with the now somewhat forgotten French novelist Pierre Loti (some of whose work was translated into English):

The British World War II poet Keith Douglas is perhaps the closest equivalent for that war to the more celebrated World War I poets Wilfrid Owen, Isaac`Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, and Charles Hamilton Sorley:

....[his] poems demonstrate a range of skill and subject matter most people don’t master in a lifetime of writing, let alone by age twenty-four, Douglas’s age when killed. He composed the enchanting opening lyric, “Encounter with a God,” when he was fifteen or sixteen, and while its Poundian influences are unmistakable, the fact that a teenager can even have Poundian influences is astonishing.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art has mounted an exhibition of the Spanish painter Ferran Garcia Sevilla (b. 1949), whose work "draws on influences as diverse as his travels in the Middle East, philosophy, Eastern cultures, comic books and urban graffiti": 

Among notables born on this date are philosopher Giambattista Vico, poet Anna Akhmatova, playwright Jean Anouilh, composer Carl Reinecke, conductor James Levine, country singer June Carter Cash, jazz bassist Milt Hinton, biologist Alfred Kinsey, mathematician Alan Turing, dancer/choreographer Bob Fosse, ex-Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, golfer Colin Montgomerie, television auteur Joss Whedon, and actors Dennis Price and Frances McDormand. Golf spatwatch: Current European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie and former European Ryder Cup captain Nick Faldo are, um, not exactly getting along:,251679

Monday, June 28, 2010

June 22

Do you recall the presidential campaigns of comedian Pat Paulsen? How about Screaming Lord Sutch of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party standing for several British offices? Neither man ever won nomination or office, although they sometimes got more votes than you might expect. But Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr has succeeded where they failed, winning the mayoralty of Reykjavik:

In his acceptance speech he tried to calm the fears of the other [voters]. “No one has to be afraid of the Best Party,” he said, “because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

(Hat tip to Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.)

The series Heritage Heroes on BBC World News, which I discovered yesterday on Korean cable television, has taken on the attractive mission of demonstrating, in the midst of the rush to modernise and expand our urban landscape, individuals, neighbourhoods and organisations have managed to salvage a part of our endangered built inheritance. The seven-part series shows how people from all walks of life – from princes to prime ministers, archivists to activists – have succeeded in carving out a place for the past in our increasingly urbanised present. 

The program I watched yesterday included a very interesting segment on the High Line park in Manhattan, the story of which is also well told in this visual/verbal essay by Faith and John Stern:

Manhattan is scarcely a city lacking in "signatures," but the High Line is clearly a new one. Sydney's signature, of course, is the famous Opera House designed by Jorn Utzon, re-visited here by ArchDaily:

Utzon, who fell out with his Australian sponsors during the costly and protracted construction of the Opera House, is not a one-building architect by any means. The Kuwaiti National Assembly is a noble structure:

A.O. Scott at the New York Times welcomes a reissue of Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 silent film I Was Born, But..., about two young brothers who challenge the patience of their salaryman father:

Both this film and its loose 1959 sound and color remake, Good Morning, are humane masterpieces of the highest order -- and very funny besides. When I showed Good Morning at the Green Bay Film Society, I had a chance to see just what a crowd-pleaser it is with an audience.

The Toledo Museum of Art is gassing Ohio with an exhibit of classic psychedelic rock posters:

Cimenatographer and photographer Frederick Schroeder captures the neon-noir glitter of night-time Los Angeles:

Among notables born on this date are novelists Erich Maria Remarque and H. Rider Haggard, science fiction novelist Octavia Butler, philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, sociologist Norbert Elias, biologist Julian Huxley, politician Dianne Feinstein, baseball player Carl Hubbell, badman John Dillinger, tenor Peter Pears, singer/songwriters Jimmy Somerville, Todd Rundgren, and Cyndi Lauper, dancer/choreographer Gower Champion, artist Gordon Matta-Clark, film producer Mike Todd, theatrical producer Joseph Papp, film directors Billy Wilder and Abbas Kiarostami, fashion designer Bill Blass, broadcasters Ed Bradley and Carson Daly, voice actor Paul Frees, and actors Kris Kristofferson, Prunella Scales, Meryl Streep, Bruce Campbell, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Lerner, and Emmanuelle Seigner. I first became familiar with he great conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark at a Bay Area exhibition in the late Eighties, by which time he had already been gone for a decade; he died of cancer at 35, in 1978. It seems to me that the quality of a conceptual artist's thought must be very high, since thoughts are their basic materials; the manifestations can't much outstrip the concepts behind them. Matta-Clark, born into a family of distinguished artists -- his father was the Chilean painter Roberto Matta -- had an extraordinary mind, and my initial encounter with his work practically blew me into the Pacific Ocean. There is so much to him, but the famous and provocative "building cuts" are an excellent place to start:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 21

A native of New Jersey should know at least a little about the Channel Islands -- the British Crown Dependency consisting of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, and some smaller islands. The islands are closer to France than to England, and have a fascinating hisory, including jurisdictionally, having never been part of the United Kingdom per se. They were occupied by the Germans during World War II, a history that forms the basis of Moira Buffini's play Gabriel, which recently had its New York premiere. According to her Wikipedia entry, Buffini "advocate[s] big, imaginative plays rather than naturalistic soap opera dramas, and is a founder member of the Monsterists, a group of playwrights who promote new writing of large scale work in the British theatre."

The Channel Island of Sark only gave up feudalism in 2008 (insert "better late than never" joke) and was the intended target of a one-man invasion in 1990:

In August 1990 an unemployed French nuclear physicist named André Gardes attempted a singlehanded invasion of Sark, armed with a semi-automatic weapon. The night Gardes arrived he put up signs declaring his intention to take over the island the following day at noon. He was arrested while sitting on a bench, changing the gun's magazine and waiting for noon to arrive, by the island's volunteer Constable.

This all helps me understand why film director Peter Greenaway is fond of Sark and features it in The Tulse Luper Suitcases (the third part of which is called From Sark to the Finish).

This charming, largely wordless Russian animated short, Dragonfly and Ant, directed by Nikolay Fedorov in 1960, is strongly reminiscent of the Fleischer Brothers' 1941 feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town (a commercial bust at the time, but now a cult classic).

The blog Classic TV History heralds the arrival of three television versions of Tennessee Williams one-act plays, directed by the great Sidney Lumet, that are included as an extra on the Criterion DVD of the Williams-based Lumet film The Fugitive Kind:

....the director....Sidney Lumet....had a nuanced understanding of Williams’s preoccupations and, crucially, his use of language.  All three of the plays are unapologetically verbose, and Lumet’s key contribution is to stage them so that nothing distracts from the almost unbroken exchanges of dialogue in each.

Dr. Tony Shaw devotes his uncommonly interesting blog to the more obscure reaches of literary history, as for example this post on the modern Charentais troubador Goulbeneze, born Evariste Poitevin (1877-1952):

Also of a pronounced regional flavor is an anthology of Rudyard Kipling's work focused on his adopted English county of Sussex:

The anthologist, David Arscott, has also started a Sussex Book Club "to keep readers abreast on everything that's being written on a vast range of local themes." I love this kind of thing. I'm signing up!

Neal Ascherson -- whose extraordinary geo-history Black Sea I heartily recommend -- blends an account of Charles de Gaulle's career with personal memories of his own intersections with that narrative: Gaulle, this profoundly conservative  figure with “a certain idea of France”, an eternal France, went on to destroy for ever the old....political and social pattern which had defined France since about 1830, perhaps since the Great Revolution. He created the Fifth Republic. It was - still is - authoritarian, with heavy presidential powers. But it broke open doors in education, economic regulation, farming subsidies and much else, which meant that in the ten years between 1958 and 1968, France changed more than it had changed in the previous century.

The painter Robert Rahway Zakanitch (b. 1935) has been exploring the floral world in a series entitled "From a Garden of Ordinary Miracles":

Street photographer Leon Levinstein (1910-1988), much less famous than his peer Garry Winogrand, is receiving overdue attention as a result of a Metropolitan Museum show:{C9CE6916-DFEF-4B86-BDB0-EE290C523227}

Among notables born on this date are philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Reinhold Niebuhr, novelists Mary McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Francoise Sagan (France), Fyodor Gladkov (Russia), and Machado de Assis (Brazil), poets Anne Carson and Adam Zagajewski (Poland), cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, art critic Heinrich Wolfflin, painter Rockwell Kent, sculptor Medardo Rosso (Italy), architect Pier Luigi Nervi, composers Alois Haba, Philippe Sarde, and Lalo Schifrin, conductor Hermann Scherchen, singer/songwriter Ray Davies, cinematographer Conrad Hall, film director Larry Wachowski, politician Benazir Bhutto, and actors Judy Holliday, Maureen Stapleton, Joe Flaherty, Jane Russell, and Doug Savant. One of the best sets of illustrations for any classic novel -- really quite stunning -- are Rockwell Kent's for Moby Dick:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

June 20

Putting this blog together, I often wish I had a Star Trek-style transporter that could take me anywhere in the world where a great cultural event was happening -- for example, the Jean-Leon Gerome show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles:,0,624102.story

Gerome may have been part of an "academic" tradition that the next generation of French painters had to reject in order to make their own progress. He may have been part of an exoticizing "orientalist" tradition that Edward Said among others has criticized. But he is also an amazing artist whom we can now take a better measure of. Rejection is seldom final. Almost everything that is rejected in the arts eventually comes back, and it is good that it does. 

Neglected books are usually not rejected as such; they just slip away. But literary explorers are always pulling back drowned books to the surface, as Graham Greene tried to do with his Century Library reprint series in the 1930s:

One of the most obscure authors intended for the series, although not actually reprinted in it, is Leonard Merrick, who seems to have been adored by his fellow writers -- when I was a book dealer, I handled a 15 volume set of his collected novels with introductions by some very big names, such as J.M. Barrie -- but today does not even have a Wikipedia entry. Someone ought to remedy that; he is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.

Although there are artists who take a while to attain the fame they deserve, or maybe never do, I generally think that those who do achieve and sustain fame in their lifetimes (like Gerome) have a lot to offer. I am not one of those "The emperor has no clothes" types. For example, take the film directors who are considered to be at the apex of cinematic expression right now -- Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Bela Tarr, Ang Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, the Dardenne Brothers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant. They are all incredible. In the future, each of them may go in and out of favor at times, but I don't think that any of them will be lost. Michael Haneke is unquestionably of their number:

...what’s most interesting and important in his films is the way he deals with [representation], in terms of the formal techniques he uses, and the doubling. For example, you never know in Caché what the source of any image is. He destabilizes the image. You never know at any moment whether you’re watching a video done by some unknown person that you never discover who it is, or whether it’s Haneke’s shot. He’s keeping you on your toes. Watching his have to pay attention. You can’t nod off. You can’t think about other things. You’ll miss something crucial.

As anti-Twitter and anti-Facebook as I am for my own purposes, I certainly am not against artists who find those media a useful way of projecting their activities around the world. Icelandic jazz pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs talks to Jason Crane about how participating in the virtual world makes her feel far less isolated: 

Living as I now do in another country (and one that is very outward-focused), I see more than ever that continuing the global artistic and intellectual dialogue is urgently important. That dialogue may be at its highest pitch since the Enlightenment, and for all that is wrong with the world today, that is profoundly right.

As a further instance of our necessary internationalism, consider an American newspaper reviewing an English/Dutch co-production of an important recent Russian opera, Alexander Raskatov's A Dog's Life (based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov):

Suicide is a perennially interesting topic, and since I spent some time within the orbit of that idea and discussed it with my therapists, I try not to fear the subject, but to accept the intellectual exploration of it as something illuminating for me, rather than threatening. Andrew Hinderaker's "wise, rich and deeply moving new play" Suicide, Incorporated, currently being performed in Chicago, the greatest theater city in America, would therefore be a play I would attend rather than avoid:

My mother adored the American Craftsman furniture of Gustav Stickley, which we had more than usual exposure to in New Jersey because of Stickley's long association with the state (the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms is in Morris Plains, New Jersey). She was always delighted to see a new book about Stickley, or a new PBS documentary about him. So whenever I see a Stickley news item today, it revives happy memories:

Among notables born on this date are Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone, novelists Charles W. Chesnutt and Vikram Seth, poets Kurt Schwitters and Paul Muldoon, playwright Lillian Hellman, country guitarist Chet Atkins, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, pop singers Lionel Richie and Anne Murray, composer Jacques Offenbach, jazzman Eric Dolphy, pianist Andre Watts, painter Georges Dufrenoy, film directors Stephen Frears and Robert Rodriguez, and actors Errol Flynn, Audie Murphy, Olympia Dukakis, Martin Landau, John Goodman, and Nicole Kidman. One of my favorite films that never found the popular audience it deserved -- maybe it is really more for film and pop culture buffs -- is Joe Dante's 1993 take on the great schlockmeister William Castle, Matinee, with John Goodman irresistible in the Castle role, absolutely spot-on casting.

Friday, June 25, 2010

June 19

Liberate Your Inner Comic: I had my classes laughing pretty hard today with my re-enactments of American used car commercials, among them the classic featuring Rudy the Cuban gynecologist:

This has got to be the only used car commercial with a "making of" video:

Marc Myers at JazzWax interviews alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who got his start in the Fifties and is still going strong at 83:

The Lyric Opera of Los Angeles has performed a great service by staging one of the rarest operas by a major composer, Wagner's suppressed early work Die Feen:

We tend to think of mid-19th century composers as conventional and conservative, but as oboist and composer Heinz Holliger points out, Robert Schumann is anything but:

You never reach a dead end with Schumann and his analytical observations. New doors are always opening up. One door opens onto the next and there is another one behind that, and another and another. In his work, speculative thinking collides head on with a vast, labyrinthine imagination. Schumann was an extremely erudite man. He translated Sophocles at 17. He had considerable literary talents and he was probably one the greatest writers among the composers, up there with Berlioz and Debussy. This makes him an encyclopaedic character. A cosmic figure without limits. The same applies to his music.

Schumann's Swedish contemporary Franz Berwald is another decidedly individual composer of that time. (Hat tip to 3QuarksDaily.)

Larry Fahey at The Rumpus deconstructs the movie version of Mary Poppins (not the P.L. Travers novels). I adored this Disney classic uncritically when it came out in my seventh year, but Fahey is onto something when he notices that the "lovable" protagonist is actually rather unsettling:

The first thing you notice is that, despite her reputation as a paragon of patience, understanding, and love, Mary Poppins simply isn’t very pleasant. It’s not clear that we’re even meant to like her. For one thing, she’s highly and relentlessly critical of the children, Michael (Matthew Garber) and Jane (Karen Dotrice) — you slouch, she tells them, you’re slobs, your manners are deplorable, and when you let your mouths hang open you look like fish. She’s also largely humorless, never satisfied with anyone but herself, and terribly vain (she describes herself, quite sincerely, as “practically perfect in every way”). Furthermore, she’s a bully: When a line of nannies congregate outside the Banks’s front door to apply for the job, she conjures a violent windstorm to sweep them away.
Mary Poppins isn’t just rude and egostistical, she’s also faintly sinister.

The great, challenging Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris has got to be one of the least-known contemporary writers of his stature. It is good to see him recognized with a knighthood at 89:

Yevgeny Fiks's ironic visual interpetations of the work of the Russian-born Ayn Rand, which appropriate images from Soviet socialist realism, attain a power that goes far beyond a mere goof on a dislikable author:

Spaceship Los Angeles: John Lautner's  1960 "Chemosphere," once futuristic, now almost old-fashioned in the way that visions of the future can become, is secure as a classic no matter what temporal angle you consider it from:

Among notables born on this date are novelists Salman Rushdie, Jose Rizal (Philippines), and Dazai Osamu (Japan), philosopher Blaise Pascal, film critic Pauline Kael, activist Aung San Suu Kyi, composer Alfredo Catalani, singer/songwriters Chico Buarque and Nick Drake, bluegrass guitarist Lester Flatt, baseball player Lou Gehrig, and actors Gena Rowlands, Moe Howard, Louis Jourdain, Pier Angeli, Charles Coburn, Mildred Natwick, Nancy Marchand, May Whitty, Phylicia Rashad, Paul Dano, and Kathleen Turner. Here is a great archival clip of a young and wickedly handsome Chico Buarque at a Brazilian music festival in 1967:

Wikipedia reminds us that "Buarque came from a privileged intellectual family background—his father Sérgio Buarque de Holanda was a well-known historian, sociologist and journalist and his mother Maria Amélia Cesário Alvim was a painter and pianist."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

June 18

Jeff Strabone has a clear-eyed view of what can and cannot be expected of corporations. He imagines the Congressional testimony of an honest CEO:

We must do whatever we can to be as profitable as our entrepreneurial creativity allows us to be. That is our only mandate. We cannot be motivated by anything else. If we were to stray from that mandate, we would be replaced by others who would not stray....If you don’t want us to engage in inhumane practices X, Y, and Z, then you must outlaw practices X, Y, and Z, for we will do whatever the law allows....We will swear up and down that we could never find a way to make profits if you impose rule A or regulation B. It’s not true, sir. We are American business leaders. We are smart and talented and devoted to making profits. We will always find a way to make money and beat the competition. We could sell water to a well....the system compels competitive, not benevolent, behavior. We are immune to questions of shame, decency, morality, even humanity. The corporation is inhuman in that it lacks free will. It will always pursue profit and disregard unprofitable goals like compassion and sympathy....The corporation has no decency and neither can its officers if they want to remain its officers. That is the logic of the publicly traded corporation.

Since for better or worse I am not immune to the questions that the corporation is immune to, I will never be a CEO swimming in dough and will never be able to afford this car. It's awfully nice though, an Austin Healey 3000 MkII convertible.

The early Michelangelo Antonioni film Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) has been restored and re-released. I can't wait for the DVD; the Fifties films of the great Italian directors such as Antonioni, Fellini, and Visconti are incredibly warm and vibrant. Each of those directors eventually became more mannered -- as fascinating as ever, but perhaps not as lovable.

Stephen Holden's cabaret reviews for the New York Times, such as this piece on Sutton Foster's new act at the Cafe Carlyle, are one of the least-commented-upon but most dependable delights of that great newspaper:

One of the best lists I've seen recently is this guide to songs of "displacement" (northward migration) in country music:

Bravo to the Library of America for acknowledging the graphic novel with a two-volume set of the woodcut narratives of Lynd Ward:

How I have missed this poem by Thomas Hood I do not know, but it is hilarious:

A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months

   Thou happy, happy elf!
(But stop, - first let me kiss away that tear) –
   Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he's poking peas into his ear!)
   Thou merry, laughing sprite!
   With spirits feather-light,
Untouch'd by sorrow and unsoil'd by sin –
(Good heavens! The child is swallowing a pin!)

   Thou little, tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air –
(The door! The door! He'll tumble down the stair!)
   Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he'll set his pinafore a-fire!)
   Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In love's dear chain so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents – (Drat the boy!
   There goes my ink!)

   Thou cherub – but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
   In harmless sport and mirth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
   Thou human humming-bee, extracting honey
From ev'ry blossom in the world the blows,
   Singing in Youth's Elysium, ever sunny –
(Another tumble! – that's his precious nose!)

   Thy father's pride and hope!
(He'll break the mirror with that skipping rope!)
With pure heart newly stamp'd from Nature's mint –
(Where did he learn that squint?)
   Thou young domestic dove!
(He'll have that jug off, with another shove!)
   Dear nursling of the hymeneal nest!
   (Are those torn clothes his best?)
   Little epitome of man!
(He'll climb upon the table, that's his plan!)
Touched with the beauteous tints of dawning life –
   (He's got a knife!)

   Thou enviable being
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
   Play on, play on,
   My elfin John!
Toss the light ball – bestride the stick –
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies buoyant as the thistle-down,
Prompting the face grotesque and antic brisk,
   With many a lamb-like frisk –
(He's got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)

   Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy, and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star, -
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove –
   (I'll tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he's sent above!)

Despite its being, in terms of loss of life, New York City's worst pre-9/11 disaster, few people are aware of the tragedy of the paddle steamer General Slocum:

Among notables born on this date are fiction writers Richard Powers, Gail Godwin, Ivan Goncharov (Russia), Varlam Shalamov (Russia), and Raymond Radiguet (France), children's writer/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, lyricist Sammy Cahn, film critic Roger Ebert, poet Geoffrey Hill, sociologist Jurgen Habermas, Beatle Paul McCartney, and actors Jeanette MacDonald, Brian Benben, E.G. Marshall, Isabella Rossellini, and Carol Kane. Throughout my high school, college, and young adult years I worked off and on in the children's room of my hometown library in Passaic, New Jersey, and thus had seen every acclaimed children's picture book for a long period of years. So when I say that Chris Van Allsburg's second book, Jumanji, absolutely knocked me out in 1981, you'll understand that reaction was against a background of deep familiarity with the field. Talent tells.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 17

To start the day, a selection of reviews of new novels that capture my reading interest. Benjamin Markovits's Playing Days sounds like the opposite of your typical rah-rah sports narrative: every quiet turn of this unlikely bildungsroman – set against the basketball courts of a small German town – Benjamin Markovits frustrates generic convention....The twenty-something narrator....leaves his hometown in Texas to pursue a basketball career in provincial Landshut....Playing Days is a deceptively slight-seeming narrative, composed largely of ‘empty time’: the ‘non-hour[s]’ before a game starts, and the ‘margin’ of early evenings before practice. Overarching this listlessness however, is a profound desire for shape and structure – visually encapsulated by the arcs and dotted lines of the playing court. 

Rodes Fishburne's Going to See the Elephant appeals in both its subject (journalism) and setting (San Francisco), although when the reviewer writes that "the novel soars into the surreal and absurd," I start to worry that it might be akin to two recent and overrated novels that go that route, Yann Martel's The Life of Pi  and Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. (I was not in the least surprised to see Martel's and Ferris's follow-up novels tank with the critics; when thin talents are overpraised, backlash is inevitable and often happens quickly.) 

Matthew Cheney at The Mumpsimus -- one of the rare blogs that give literature and cinema equal time -- is very impressed by Nnedi Okorafor's complex speculative novel Who Needs Death:

RIP (I guess): Sebastian Horsley. Horsley was one of those outrage-the-bourgeois-by-mortifying-my-own-flesh types that have never stopped surfacing in the arts since Baudelaire ratified the decadent attitude. Shock rockers can fall into this more-extreme-than-thou category (Sid Vicious, G.G. Allin), as do Chris Burden and a good number of his conceptual artist progeny. Horsley qualified by, among other activities, having himself crucified and (of course) filming it. ("When being crucified, his footrest slipped and he fell off the cross, which would have been funny if it hadn't been so gruesome.")

The son of an alcoholic millionaire, Horsley was found dead in his flat in Soho yesterday, aged 47 – reportedly from a heroin overdose....Unstoppable in his eagerness to share the grittier details of his experiences through his writing, art and interviews, he revelled in the intensity of his relationship with smack, crack, sex and death, and would rather stir up a room with an outrageous comment than tolerate a harmonious atmosphere. Once, when a woman offended him, he sent her one of his turds in a beautiful Tiffany box.

As individual and amusing to read as the details of their outrages are, these guys -- are there female exemplars? -- are certainly a recurring type.

Marc Myers at JazzWax clears up the legends surrounding the death of alto saxophonist Joe Maini in 1964:

El Museo del Barrio in New York is presenting a retrospective of the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer (b. 1933). Although it can be a cliche to say that the work of a Latin-Ameruican artists is explosive with color, it is hardly inaccuarate in this case:

Among notables born on this date are composers Igor Stravinsky, Charles Gounod, and Sammy Fain, violinist Christian Ferras, country singer Red Foley, tennis player Venus Williams, film directors Ken Loach and Lee Tamahori, poets Henrik Wergeland (Norway), Ferdinand Freiligarth (Germany), and Henry Lawson (Australia), politician Ken Livingstone, artist M.C. Escher, novelists Carl Van Vechten, John Hersey, and Gail Jones, designer Charles Eames, and actors Setsuko Hara, Ralph Bellamy, Thomas Haden Church, and Greg Kinnear. The Wikipedia article on Red Foley (1910-1968) notes that "his country boogie material was a clear precursor of [rock'n'roll]," and this incredibly brisk performance is a good example of that. The clip looks like it might come from Foley's series Ozark Jubilee, one of the first country music shows on network television, premiering in 1955.

Monday, June 21, 2010

June 16

On the lake in the center of my Korean city, there are a resident pair of very large Chinese Geese (the domesticated version of the wild Swan Goose) who are, to mix species, complete hams. They love the attention they get (and the food they are fed). They are also happy to do call-and-response honking with humans. Here is one of them hanging out by a little floating house; he also has a reedy area that he favors.

The lake is home to cranes, small brown ducks, turtles, and huge koi of many colors (who also greatly enjoy being fed). There is an octagonal pavilion out on the lake which you reach by a footbridge; they sell food and souvenirs there. "Enchanting" is a good word for all this.

Kyle Gann's ongoing series of posts at PostClassic about the economics and practicalities, the satisfactions and dissatisfactions of his composing and pursuing his musical interests, evokes a profoundly sympathetic response in me. I am 51 to Gann's 54, and understand completely what he means when he says that

I've been working very hard for 27 years, through weekends, through summers, on holidays, even on vacations. I've put out a ton of work and after much consideration I'm finding that what I've published and produced is not generating better opportunities for me. I always knew the books wouldn't make money; I thought they might help me in academia, but I have evidence that I've reached the end of that road. I'm just now realizing that to enjoy the rest of my life, I need to change direction. No self-pity here, no depression, just an assessment of unavoidable facts.

"To enjoy the rest of my life, I need to change direction": that is unquestionably a thought I had before coming to Korea.Whatever I was doing wasn't working for me, and ultimately it did not matter whether the fault was in "the system" or myself; something had to give. So far I am hopeful of the results of the change of direction I decided on; I am liking Korea, and even better perhaps, I am gainfully employed at a decent job with a decent boss.

The passage of Gann's that I give above is from a post he first largely scored out, then appears to have removed from his blog altogether; but it showed up in my Google Reader feed, and I don't think that Gann needs to be apologetic at all about writing so honestly of a dilemma that a number of us come to face sooner or later. He mentions that of all his music-related activities, "the blog is the only thing I do not costing me money (and not paying anything either)." That is a saving grace of blogs. Of course they are another sign of the "hobbification" that I have written about here, but for any but a select few, they never held the promise of making any money to begin with, or even of generating other money-making opportunities, and thus are remote not only from external commercial pressures, but even internal ones -- a form that floats free of the almighty dollar as much as anything can. Whatever activities Gann gives up, I hope he keeps blogging, which is something you do just because.

Joshua Cohen, the author of the new mega-modernist novel Witz, compiled a very stimulating list of novels from various countries that are comparable in some respect to Joyce's Ulysses, and then Omnivoracious chimed in with several more suggestions:

Some of these novels were specifically influenced by Ulysses (Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz for sure, Leopold Marechal's Adam Buenosayres); others don't seem particularly Joycean at all, even by analogy.  This sort of comparison is fun as long as one doesn't take it too seriously. The call for a similar list of national War and Peaces could be fruitful, because most European nations did spawn mammoth Tolstoyan novels (Jules Romains's Men of Good Will is a possible nominee for the French War and Peace). 

I am very glad to have discovered dance critic Marina Harss at The Faster Times, where she is doing excellent work; she has also written on dance and film for The New Yorker (a combo reminiscent of the great Arlene Croce). She writes very well about "readjusting her eyes" to the style of the British choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904-1988), in whom I take a special interest because I once attended an excellent lecture on him in San Francisco (artists, take note: it doesn't take much for me to adopt you!).

Some names seem to suggest what their possessors must do with their lives: what could a "Wade Boggs" or a "Chipper Jones" be but a baseball player? Similarly, if your child is named Rackstraw Downes (Rodney Harry Rackstraw Downes, to be precise), he had better be a significant British artist. Being named "Rackstraw" and being insignificant would be quite embarrassing; that is a name you have got to live up to.

The fun blog Television Obscurities discusses the charming British tradition of TV series "annuals":

What’s really interesting about annuals is that a show like The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was given an annual despite the fact that it wasn’t all that successful when it was broadcast in the United States. Three different annuals were published for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., in fact, for 1968, 1969 and 1970 (likely published in December of 1967, December of 1968 and December of 1969, respectively). Shows like The Dakotas, Gemini Man, Logan’s Run, Man from Atlantis and The Quest also had annuals. Even Manimal was given an annual.

I would be more interested in the annuals for British series myself, and might part with a small fortune for any annuals related to The Avengers, Upstairs, Downstairs, A Family at War, and All Creatures Great and Small.

Among notables born on this date are travel writer Jean de Thevenot, newspaper publisher Katherine Graham, novelists Joyce Carol Oates and John Howard Griffin, science fiction novelist Murray Leinster, soprano Helen Traubel, golfer Phil Mickelson, rapper Tupac Shakur, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmnond, photographer Irving Penn, and actors Stan Laurel, Jack Albertson, Eileen Atkins, and Laurie Metcalf. Speaking of Upstairs, Downstairs (my favorite television series, besting even The Sopranos), Eileen Atkins was a co-creator of the series along with Jean Marsh, and originally intended to co-star in it (since she was stage-committed at the time, her slot was taken by Pauline Collins, and it put Collins on the map). Atkins later starred in Robert Altman's transcendent take on the Upstairs, Downstairs milieu, Gosford Park, along with Upstairs, Downstairs alumna Meg Wynn Owen. For me, quite predictably, Robert Altman + Anglophilia = Heaven.