Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 28

Well, this takes the cake -- the House Ethics Committee voting unanimously that there is no impropriety involved in politicians steering earmarks or government contracts toward their campaign donors. Notice how nicely this dovetails with the recent Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to make unfettered political contributions:

Voting the bums out won't do much good if there is another rank of bums waiting behind them. This is the system we have created, and I honestly don't know what it will take to change it. What strikes me about this ruling is the utter shamelessness of it -- no one is even bothering to cover their tracks anymore.

I cannot resist quoting the great George Carlin:

Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do, folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here… like, the public. Yeah, the public sucks.

Maybe we could get a song out of all this politico-criminality, since, as Peter Rozovsky points out, crime songs have a long pedigree:

Sticking with criminals, how about "The 14 Freakiest Serial Killers You've Probably Never Heard Of" -- of whom it might be said, at least they only killed their direct victims; crooked politicians go much wider than that. Thanks to Bill Crider for spotting this post, which is most entertaining. I think someone needs to do more work on The Doodler, since, as the Wikipedia entry on him says, "the slayings have faded into obscurity; very little information is currently available about these crimes"; besides, he sounds like a villain on the Batman TV series.

Michigan Senator Warren G. Hooper was assassinated in 1945 because he "had made the courageous decision to testify in a probe of rampant government corruption" -- those were the days, when a politician would actually make such a decision. The excellent blog CLEWS Your Home for Historic True Crime brings us some details of a story new to me (and the subject of a forthcoming book):

John Kenneth Muir, demonstrating once again the difference between mere reaction to a genre film, and actual criticism that brings out things in it we haven't seen ourselves, illuminates a 2009 crime thriller, A Perfect Getaway, that I liked and now, thanks to Muir, understand much better why I liked:

The location scenery (meant to be Kauai in Hawaii, but shot both there and in Puerto Rico) is quite gorgeous, which added not a little to my overall enjoyment. Tropical views go a long way with me.

Another excellent resource, The Classic TV History Blog, brings us an interview with character actor Tim O'Connor -- you'll recognize his face immediately -- who made his share of crime show episodes:

Novelist Aifric Campbell identifies ten great fictional treatments of people at their jobs -- many of which (cop, realtor, car salesman, spy) can turn criminous on a bad day:

Among notables born on this date are architects Frank Gehry and Elias Holl (Germany), Rolling Stone Brian Jones, cartoonist Milton Caniff, philosophers Jose Vasconcelos (Mexico) and Ernest Renan (France), illustrator John Tenniel, essayist Michel de Montaigne, scientists Linus Pauling and Peter Medawar, poets Stephen Spender and John Montague, children's writer Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), Irish journalist Padraic O Conaire, film directors Vincente Minnelli, Marcel Pagnol, Otakar Vavra, and Mike Figgis, novelists Ben Hecht, Colum McCann, and Berthold Auerbach (Germany), economist Paul Krugman, Estonian composer Artur Kapp, and actors Gavin MacLeod, Tommy Tune, Bernadette Peters, John Turturro, Mercedes Ruehl, Charles Durning, and Zero Mostel. Those actors are quite a group of award winners/nominees. Let's see -- and this is not comprehensive -- Zero Mostel won two Tonys. Bernadette Peters has won two Tonys (among seven nominations), and a Golden Globe (for Pennies from Heaven). Mercedes Ruehl has an Oscar and a Tony. Gavin MacLeod has five Golden Globe nominations for television work. Charles Durning has a Tony, a Golden Globe, two Oscar nominations, and eight Emmy nominations. John Turturro won Best Actor at Cannes for Barton Fink. And Tommy Tune has won nine (count 'em) Tonys -- two for performance, three for direction, four for choreography.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

February 27

I am out of touch with Tabloid America. It used to be that I had at least some vague sense of what transpired there, which I excused on the grounds that it was almost impossible not to. But such has been the proliferation of minor celebrities and reality TV "stars" that I happily no longer have the slightest idea what is going on. This morning on the supermarket check-out line, I could learn from the cover of In Touch that Kourtney is pretending to be in love with Scott. Who is Kourtney? Who is Scott? Or from the cover of OK that Ali and Jake's "secret reunion" (nothing on the cover of a tabloid is a secret) is "Vienna's worst nightmare." Who are these people? Why does anyone care? I think I need to watch Idiocracy again, as we're obviously getting closer to its premise by the minute.

Vulpes Libris shares my liking for field guides:

As I wrote in a comment at the blog: "I complete agree about the delights of field guides. Those Golden Guides, pocket-sized as they were, were awesome books for a kid naturalist. My absolute favorite was Pond Life, published in 1967 when I was 9. I took that book with me to local ponds and parks and on vacations, always looking for the creatures and plants and phenomena it described. Since the guide concentrated on a setting rather than a category such as birds or fish, it gave me a wonderful feeling for what an ecosystem is."

Another fun type of book is the Fireside Book of various sports:

The Singapore-based opera blog The Mad Scene -- let it never be said that I do not go far afield in collecting material for PMD! -- interviews singer Thomas Mannhart on the occasion of his involvement in a Singapore production of Orazio Vecchi's 1597 madrigal comedy L'Amfiparnaso (produced the same year as Jacopo Peri's lost Dafne, the first true opera):

Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times makes an interesting comparison of two young classical pianists, David Greilsammer and Denis Matsuev:

The Hollywood Interview quizzes William Friedkin on his notorious, misunderstood, and vastly underrated film Cruising:

I remember watching this film on video with a group of about six gay friends; of course, we were aware of the film's "homophobic" reputation. (It was the subject of protests while it was being filmed and when it was released.) In actually watching the movie, however, we were -- unanimously -- completely enthralled. It struck us all as an honest outsider's view of the leather subculture, filmed with considerable atmosphere and erotic charge.

The Theatre de Quat'sous in Montreal certainly brings life to its street corner:

The wood sculptures of the Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres Garcia (1874-1949) are being re-assessed in an exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art:

Tragically, many of Torres Garcia's works were lost during an earlier exhibition in 1979 at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, when a fire broke out.

One of my favorite visual blogs is If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger, There's Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats, which continuously offers enthralling images such as this 1940 shot of the RCA Building in New York:

Among notables born on this date are singers Mildred Bailey, Marian Anderson, Lotte Lehmann, and Mirella Freni, violinist Gidon Kremer, politician Ralph Nader, legendary theatrical actress Ellen Terry, jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, golfer Gene Sarazen, broadcaster Charlayne Hunter-Gault, actors Franchot Tone, Joan Bennett, Barbara Babcock, Howard Hesseman, Van Williams, Donal Logue, Elizabeth Taylor, and Joanne Woodward, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and novelists James T. Farrell, N, Scott Momaday, John Steinbeck, Lawrence Durrell, Irwin Shaw, and Peter De Vries. I've always been amused by the fact that, concurrently with her appearances as America's archetypal mom in Vincente Minnelli's Father of the Bride and Father's Little Dividend (the first a great film, the second a tolerable sequel), Joan Bennett was smothered in scandal when her producer husband Walter Wanger shot her agent and presumed paramour Jennings Lang. Ironically, both Wanger (who served four months) and Lang came out of this just fine and continued to work for decades, but the incident pretty much wrecked Bennett's film career. Now that's tabloid.

Friday, February 26, 2010

February 26

Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema (love the blog name) highlights an obscure World War II flick starring and directed by George Montgomery, The Steel Claw (1961), made either a little late for a contemporary WWII film or a little early for a retro WWII film:

A "lost" Scottish comedy from 1952, Laxdale Hall, has been rediscovered in a clean 16 millimeter print and will be issued on DVD:

The nonpareil Armenian film director Sergei Paradjanov is getting a full-scale retrospective in London and Bristol. Hat tip to {feuilleton}:

All eight of Paradjanov's completed narrative features are included.

Blogger Brooks Peters, remembering one of his favorite children's authors, Jerrold Beim, wonders whatever happened to him, and does original biographical research to find out, as well as ruminating on the distinctive and offbeat characteristics of his books. The result is a first-rate post that makes me want to read Beim:

Imogen Russell Williams speculates on the role of gruesome violence in children's literature:

{feuilleton} celebrates the digitization of the beautiful turn of the century German Art Nouveau periodical Jugend:

The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is putting on an exhibition of the American Impressionist Maurice Prendergast's warmly colorful views of Italy:

Photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov has been documenting the capital city of Baku, Azerbaijan:

Here is a charming waterside office building in Istanbul:

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester take you back to Jazz Age Berlin (and take some contemporary songs back with them):

Among notables born on this date are philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Claude Helvetius, literary critic I.A. Richards, artist Honore Daumier, baseball pitcher Grover Alexander, animator Tex Avery, composer Frank Bridge, French novelists Victor Hugo and Michel Houellebecq, mystery novelist Elizabeth George, science fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, poet George Barker, politician Tim Kaine, country singer Johnny Cash, pop musician Fats Domino, and actors Tony Randall, Dane Clark, Betty Hutton, Margaret Leighton, Bill Duke, William Frawley, Jackie Gleason, Robert Alda, and Madeleine Carroll. The now neglected British poet George Barker (1913-1991) had a decade-long affair with the Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986), and (uniquely?) they both wrote fictional accounts of it: Barker's The Dead Seagull (1950) and Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25

I'm greatly enjoying Richard Rayner's A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age. It views the Los Angeles of the late Twenties and early Thirties thorough the careers of district-attorney-turned-murderer Dave Clark and and police-photographer-turned-pulp-writer Leslie White. I just reached the chapters on silent film star Clara Bow, which are a hoot:

After a visit to New York, where she hobnobbed with boxer Jack Dempsey, socialite Jack Whitney, and gangster Dutch Schultz, [Bow] announced that she was returning to L.A. because she wanted to have her nervous breakdown "in the proper surroundings."
Frederic Girnau, publisher of the Pacific Coast Reporter, [a] "political weekly," jumped in with the "facts of the blushless love life of Clara Bow." "'IT' GIRL EXPOSED!" ran the headline. Girnau asserted that Bow had seduced her chauffeur, her cousin, and a pet koala bear.

The list-crazy Daily Beast knows the books you missed (but shouldn't have) during the Oughties:

The blog Waggish outlines the recent career of Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, offering a helpful theoretical structure for considering his books of the past decade or so:

Vulpes Libris acquaints me with the 18th century German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes:

Levi Stahl at Ivebeenreadinglately has been having a grand time with a series of posts on the early 19th century literateur Isaac D'Israeli, author of the multi-volume compendium Curiosities of Literature (and father of novelist and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli). Here is one of the most recent posts (you can use Stahl's labels to navigate to the others):

Speaking of big books, they don't get much bigger than a three-inch thick, 1560-page "construction manual" of arcitectural projects (realized and unrealized) by Eric Owen Moss:

Some of Moss's projects are fanciful, but for pure architectural fancy it would be hard to beat this building in Nantes, France by the Coupechoux Design Group. I'm not sure I like it, but I would sure notice it:

In addition to hosting the Winter Olympics, Vancouver has made a home for a traveling site installment called the Candahar -- an authentic Irish pub complete with publicans, beer, and actual drinking by visitors. At this rate, everything in your life could be accounted a piece of performance art:

Today's animal fix is a piece on racing pigeons on the rooftops of New York:

Among notables born on this date are playwrights Carlo Goldoni (Italy) and Franz Xaver Kroetz (Germany), Beatle George Harrison, Marx brother Zeppo Marx, baseball player Ron Santo, golfer Tony Lema, statesman John Foster Dulles, politician Millicent Fenwick, tenor Enrico Caruso, television writer Larry Gelbart, broadcaster Bob Schieffer, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, country singer Faron Young, pianist Myra Hess, philosophers Rudolf Steiner (Austria) and Benedetto Croce (Italy), film director Neil Jordan, Portuguese poet Cesario Verde, actors Jim Backus, Tom Courtenay, and Sean Astin, and novelists Anthony Burgess, Gerard Bessette (Quebec), and Karl May (Germany). Third baseman Ron Santo is probably the best baseball player who has not yet been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame despite years of eligibility; this is not just a fixation of Chicago Cubs fans. He is clearly a much better player than many who are in the Hall, and since he was and is a quite famous player as well as a great one (it is called a Hall of Fame), it is difficult to figure what the voters have had against him. He is next eligible in 2011.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 24

Economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of the new book Freefall, essentially reiterates Matt Taibbi's thesis of a global banking swindle for Forbes (my bolding):

...the rewards to the bankers were given on the basis of profits. There are two ways you can get higher profitability on average. We use the word alpha and beta. Beta means you undertake more risk, higher leverage.

On an average, if you take more risk, you get, on average, higher returns. You have an incentive system that says if you succeed, you get to keep it; if it fails, you put it onto the shareholders. That's a system of failure, because taking under more risk, anybody can do that. You know, any college graduate.

The other one we call alpha--that's outperforming the market. And that's very hard. What's so interesting is that the financial system did not even understand how to design good incentive systems because they should have been focusing on alpha, not beta. And they could have done that. They could have said, "OK, we are only going to reward you for higher returns consistent with the risk that you undertake and relative to those in the industry. If the stock price goes up because there's a stock market bubble, we're not going to give you high pay because that's not because of anything you've done. That's because of monetary policy or what's happening in the stock market."

But they didn't do that. And there are two interpretations of that. Either these guys did not understand risk, or these guys were engaged in a charade, using incentive pay as a way of taking money out of the system for their own benefit.

I also like this related point:

...when you look at the incentives, they were incentives for excessive risk-taking and short-sighted behavior. I don't call those animal spirits. I call that old-fashioned failures of corporate governance.

If it were going back to the 19th century, if it were real individuals with animal spirits risking their own money, I would feel very different. But when they're risking other people's money, that's not animal spirits in the old-fashioned sense. And that's the problem we have to deal with.

The Onion Video Network goes international with this hilarious report, "Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed by Lars Von Trier":

Dave Kehr is a film critic I generally find insufferable, but I must admit his take on the DVD release of Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow is well-done:

Gilbert Adair also has a fine entry on this film in his book Flickers; he can scarcely believe it is an actual 1930s Hollywood release. It does sound terribly depressing and uncommercial.

The more lists you look at on the Internet, the more specialized ones you find. Here are the "five best books on British military deception"! It's an intriguing group:

Daniel Kalder, author of the excellent and funny-as-heck travel book Lost Cosmonaut, about travels in Russia's obscure European republics, muses on why Russian authors over the centuries have been so hard-assed and manly. It's not been the easiest country in the world to live in, not ever:

"In the exhibition 'Midnight Matinee,' Gary Simmons uses images of drive-in theater marquees and infamous houses from vintage horror films to reflect on ghosts and abandoned pasts" -- and the results are very distinctive:

The French illustrator Floc'h is new to me, and I like his bright graphic style a lot:

La Llotja de Lleida, besides being a pleasingly alliterative phrase, is a striking multi-purpose center in Caralonia, designed by the firm Mecanoo (architectural firms have odd names these days). Once again, ArchDaily gets me learning about an interesting city as well as an interesting building:

Adelaide in Photos presents: The Emu! (My affinity for such items reminds me of an opening Linda Ellerbee once used on NBC News Overnight: "On the theory that your body never outgrows its need for animal stories...")

Among notables born on this date are folklorist Wilhelm Grimm, librettist/composer Arrigo Boito, poet Weldon Kees, painters Winslow Homer and Charles Le Brun (France), architect Ralph Erskine, rocker George Thorogood, singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked, explorer Ibn Battuta, baseball great Honus Wagner, comedian Mitch Hedberg, popular composer Michel Legrand, film director Todd Field, soprano Renata Scotto, novelists August Derleth, George Moore (Ireland), and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Poland), and enough actors to cast a mid-sized play: Dominic Chianese, Dennis Waterman, Zachary Scott, Emmanuelle Riva, Billy Zane, Mark Moses, Barry Bostwick, Steven Hill, and Edward James Olmos.

Weldon Kees (1914-1955?), who at the age of 41 left his car near the Golden Gate Bridge, and may have jumped to his death, or may have escaped to a new life in Mexico -- he talked about both suicide and planned disappearance to friends -- was one of the most bewilderingly versatile creators of his time. He wrote poetry, fiction, and criticism, made films, helped put on shows, composed songs, played jazz piano, painted, took photographs, knew everyone in the arts in New York and San Francisco, and totally "made the scene," as they say. Anthony Lane wrote a great piece about him in The New Yorker a few years back:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 23

I was trying to avoid linking to one more unemployment story, but a comment in this New York Times piece on "The New Poor" caught my eye:

“American business is about maximizing shareholder value,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics. “You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”

It's not just capital equipment that can replace workers, of course; it's new technologies, new efficiencies, outsourcing, offshoring, reduction of middle management, use of temp labor, use of volunteer labor. (Not just unpaid interns; much "content" is now obtained for nothing. The popular DVD review website DVD Verdict doesn't pay its contributors a dime, and still has to beat writers off with a stick.)

It's in every company's interest to have consumers; it's in no company's interest to have workers. But since we have so strongly linked the ability to consume to the money earned by work -- which seems like a necessary and self-evident link, but in fact is not -- the paradox we face is that every company in attempting to maximize its "shareholder value" is undermining the very basis of the economy it participates in. Unless we have a major paradigm shift, this can't end well.

David Bromwich, who has written perceptively on President Obama before, offers a devastating take on his relations with bankers:

John Judis writing in The New Republic identifies reasons why Obama would take "pride in the fact that he moves in [bankers'] circles": He was educated with them at the nation's best schools; he was raised by a bank vice-president (his grandmother); his class allegiances are professional rather than working class; essentially, he's a yuppie. (And hey, I am, too, but I think Judis is onto something here.)

When Obama's bankers get together in southern Europe, I suggest they meet at the Ibiza Conference Center, because it is gorgeous:

I love night photographs, so I wish I could see this exhibition of work by Robert Adams (but happily, there is a book version):

The night photography blog The Nocturnes (yes, of course there's a night photography blog!) has featured some outstanding work:

Going beyond night into near-total darkness are the "black" (but actually subtly mutlti-colored) paintings of James Krone:

Jaime J. Weinman at the blog Something Old, Something New resuscitates a Seventies oddity, Mary Tyler Moore's variety special Mary's Incredible Dream, a "unique, no-holds-barred musical happening" (or something). It sounds right up there with The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, also a product of the bicentennial year 1976. Everyone must have been high then.

Check out MTM's rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" at the start of the Act 4 clip -- as one commenter on the post aptly says, it's "Shatner-esque"!

And if that isn't far enough out for you, how about a Voyage to the End of the Universe?

As a 2001: A Space Odyssey precursor based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, this would seem to be well worth seeing, especially if we could have it restored to its original form.

Among notables born on this date are intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, philosophers Richard Price, Edouard von Hartmann, and Karl Jaspers, diarist Samuel Pepys, soprano Regine Crespin, Ukrainian painter Kazimir Malevich, composer Georg Frideric Handel, pop singer Howard Jones, journalist/historian William L. Shirer, German children's author Erich Kastner, film directors Victor Fleming, Terence Fisher, and Claude Sautet, NPR personality Tom Bodett, and actor Peter Fonda. Whether or not it is politically correct to do so, I still find Du Bois's concept of the "Talented Tenth" to be very persuasive. I agree with him that the "conversation" of a civilization -- the ongoing debate of concepts and culture -- is conducted by about ten percent, at most fifteen percent, of its citizens, who are, as Du Bois asserted, the people of influence and the engines of action (this is in large part what John Judis means by "yuppies," who are not just young urban professionals by any means). Everyone else, nothing against them, simply goes along with the dominant flow.

Monday, February 22, 2010

February 22

Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is a science fiction film with a lot on its mind -- racial themes, medical experimentation, recent South African history -- and deserves high praise for that alone. There are some interesting ruminations on its thoughtfulness here:

But the science fiction scaffolding of District 9 is pretty sketchy; maybe a sequel will make all clear. The last third of the movie draws heavily on the aesthetic of video games in a way that doesn't interest me; I'm reminded that Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson originally planned a feature version of the Halo video game. I agree with Roger Ebert, too, that the alien "prawns" are kind of repulsive to watch, and that also limited my enjoyment. But this is undeniably an impressive film, worthy of its spot in the expanded group of Oscar Best Picture nominees. In fact, if that expansion draws attention to films such as this, I have no problems with it.

The Auteurs offers a compelling two-part interview with Ramin Bahrani, "the new great American director" (Roger Ebert) of Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo:

Australian novelist Markus Zusak contributes a stimulating list of the ten best books on boxing:

War Poets profiles another of the "one hit wonders" of World War I poetry, Julian Grenfell:

One of the great merits of ArchDaily's presentations of buildings of note is that they take you to places around the world you might not otherwise have given a thought to -- for example, Cagliari, the capital of the island of Sardinia, where the colorful Condominio P designed by C+C04 Studio has recently vivified the streetscape:

Animalarium draws my attention to the appealing Japanese artist Kiyoshi Awazu:

On April 29th last year, Kiyoshi Awazu died of pneumonia in Kawasaki, Japan at the age of 80. A self taught painter and graphic designer, Awazu was a man full of curiosity and imagination. Born in Tokyo, he started working at 12, and soon became interested in Christianity, philosophy, communism and western cinema. At 18 he started to teach himself drawing by copying from old art magazines and sketching fellow commuters on the train to work. At 21 he started working in the animation field making rough sketches, and at 25 had his first opportunity to design a poster, commissioned by a theater group. He went on to become a famous multifaceted graphic designer and artist involved in book design, illustration, printmaking, painting, sculpture, exhibition and urban design, playwriting, film production and art direction.

Another artist of markedly different leanings, towards images of "urban desolation," the Dutchman Tjebbe Beekman, comes my way via {feuilleton} (scroll down):

The thumbnail images at Beekman's own website are well worth clicking on.

These designs for covers of classic Jules Verne novels are completely delightful. They were created as "a senior project in the illustration department at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia," rather than for an actual publisher; but I would bet a considerable amount that an enterprising publisher will spot the obvious potential and produce these.

Among notables born on this date are President George Washington, Senator Ted Kennedy, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, poets James Russell Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Hugo Ball (Germany), novelists Ishmael Reed, Jane Bowles, Morley Callaghan (Canada), Jules Renard (France), and Sean O Faolain (Ireland), artist/author Edward Gorey, sculptor/designer Eric Gill, painter Rembrandt Peale, film directors Luis Bunuel and Jonathan Demme, jazz saxophonist Buddy Tate, rocker Brad Nowell, literary critic Terry Eagleton, and actors Giuletta Masina, Miou-Miou, Paul Dooley, John Mills, Kyle MacLachlan, and Drew Barrymore. I have had a Gorey fixation for years; I find him endlessly fascinating. He was a man of incredibly broad culture, as the interviews in the book Ascending Peculiarity make clear. Opera, ballet, obscure Victorian novels, French comic poets, forgotten children's authors: He knows much about and has delightful observations on all of these and more.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 21

It is with some relief that I announce that blogging has officially become passe. Lord knows I wouldn't want to be too cutting edge:

Blogging is an awful lot like real journalism, when practiced so many other activities requiring talent and commitment, it will eventually become a smaller enterprise, in this case engaged in by people who are serious about having their say--at some length--in the world.

I like blogging because I think it's the contemporary equivalent of 18th century broadsides -- very immediate, very democratic, and you can use it for anything. But, as a professor quoted in the AP article says, the form does take time and effort. Texting and Twitter have become popular because they don't. I acknowledge that a well-turned tweet might be remotely akin to a haiku -- but even Asian poets have never written in haiku exclusively!

The death of attention, focus, and concentration is very troubling to me. You see it everywhere. Fortunately, the Internet can be used to help create a true counter-culture that still values those qualities, without rejecting the benefits of modern innovations. We should not let technology dictate to us; we should dictate to it. We have to decide whether we are still the masters, or whether our cell phones are.

BBC 4, a bastion of intelligence in a fallen world, is putting on an ambitious series of programs by Mark Lawson, Capturing America, a radio history of modern American literature featuring many interviews with out great writers of the second half of the 20th century -- Morrison, Roth, Updike, Vonnegut, Oates. The full-length interviews excerpted in the programs are all permanently available on an "American Authors" page:

British novelist David Peace, currently getting plenty of attention for the telefilm adaptation of his Red Riding Quartet as the Red Riding Trilogy, posted a very interesting "Literary Top Ten" at

The author of Tokyo Year Zero has a special appreciation of Japanese culture. I like his citation of Yumeno Kyusaku, who according to Wikipedia "exemplifies modern Japanese avant-garde gothic literature," but has apparently not yet been translated into English:

This is the "Exploded House" in Bodrum, Turkey, designed by Global Architectural Development (GAD):

The National Gallery of Canada has mounted an exhibition of the work of an imaginative photographer/artist, Nicolas Baier, "whose subjects include antique mirrors, the surface of polished stone, and water-stained paper":

The Latin Americanist provides an interesting update on the Argentine desaparecidos, the "disappeared" of the Dirty war of the late Seventies and early Eighties:

The European literary world is a-twitter over a six-volume, 3,000-page Norwegian novel by Karl Ove Knausgard cheekily titled Min Kamp (the Norwegian equivalent of Mein Kampf -- "My Struggle" in English) and described as "obsessive" (you think?):

Devotees of Stanley Kwan's great 1992 film Actress, about the Chinese silent film star Ruan Lingyu (one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen), will be pleased to know that one of her surviving features, The Goddess, is now available on DVD with a 94-page book about her by Professor Richard J. Meyer:

Among notables born on this date are film directors Sam Peckinpah, Sacha Guitry, and Margarethe von Trotta, diarist Anais Nin, guitarist Andres Segovia, novelists David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, Clemence Dane, Ha Jin, Karel Capek-Chod (Czech Republic), Waldemar Bonsels (Germany), and Raymond Queneau (France), theologian John Henry Newman, poet W.H. Auden, composers Carl Czerny, Leo Delibes, and Charles Marie Widor, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, philosopher John Rawls, singer Nina Simone, and actors Tyne Daly, Gary Lockwood, William Petersen, Kelsey Grammer, Rue McClanahan, and Alan Rickman.

Rather than fumble with my own words to pay tribute to W.H. Auden, let me just go all "Writer's Almanac" and give his poem "The More Loving One":

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

February 20

Continuing this week's (unplanned) theme of international unemployment, here is a piece from the Los Angeles Times on the "Young, educated and jobless in China":,0,4022980.story

Planners believed a rise in college rolls would help China transition from a largely export-driven, low-wage manufacturing economy to a more balanced one populated by upwardly mobile white-collar workers. Undergraduate enrollment quintupled to 20 million students by 2008; last year 6.1 million Chinese earned diplomas, up from 1 million in 1999. But it soon became clear there weren't enough suitable jobs for these freshly minted graduates.

This goes some way towards confirming a suspicion that I have that the world -- not just the United States, not just Europe -- simply isn't creating many new "upwardly mobile" careers. And there is always downward pressure on low-paid grunt work; how long before India and China are too expensive for outsourcing, and that work starts moving toward Indonesia and Nigeria, where you can pay even less? Actually, maybe that is already happening.

Axolotl Roadkill, the as-yet-untranslated novel by Helene Hegemann that I mentioned a few days back because I liked the title, has already become a cause celebre because of plagiarism accusations:

Since there are never enough scientist/artists out there -- there were more in the 18th and 19th centuries, frankly -- we need to pay attention to those like Harold Edgerton, the revolutionary high-speed photographer who captured the unseeable for our eyes. He disclaimed artistic intent, yet his images are beautifully composed, utterly memorable. Edgerton is currently the subject of a show at the Delaware Art Museum. There is a nice selection of "Fast Facts" about him at the bottom of this announcement:

Steve Donoghue at stevereads "love[s] a good biography," and presents nine excellent ones for your reading consideration:

Thanks to a reference at The Rumpus, I recently discovered the ArchDaily blog, and cannot get enough of its posts on exciting new buildings around the world -- "architecture porn," as The Rumpus's Dan Weiss says. Here is an example, the not-yet-built Taiyuan Museum of Art designed by Preston Scott Cohen:

This recital by three singers of late Romantic songs sounds like a very appealing program -- “dissolute, drugged out and, dare I say, horny,” in the words of the accompanist Steven Blier. So many interesting composers were represented -- Mahlers (both Gustav and Alma), Berg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Szymanowski, Schreker, Medtner, Wolf, Strauss, Joseph Marx:

And may I self-indulgently say that the tenor, Joseph Kaiser, would have had my complete attention, since he is quite a handsome young chap? (A search at Google Images more than confirms it.)

Among notables born on this date are film directors Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, Claude Miller (France), and Danis Tanovic (Bosnia), conductor Ricardo Chailly, MST3K host Joel Hodgson, "song stylist" (her preferred description) Nancy Wilson, seaman Joshua Slocum, singer/songwriters Kurt Cobain and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Steely Dan member Walter Becker, photographer Ansel Adams, novelists Richard Matheson, Georges Bernanos (France), and William Carleton (Ireland), and actors Brenda Blethyn, Lili Taylor, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Strauss, and Sidney Poitier. An unusual number of celebrants today whose work matters enormously to me! Certainly no one compiling an honest list of representative American artists of the second half of the 20th century could leave off Robert Altman or Kurt Cobain, one artist who happily lived long enough to have what seemed like several careers, another who was just starting his journey and could have shared so much more if the fates had been kinder.

Matt Taibbi

As I am scarcely the first to point out, Matt Taibbi is playing the role of a modern-day Ida Tarbell, and playing it with panache. Tarbell (1857-1944) has been an inspiration to me ever since I read, in my early adolescence, a wonderful 1970 article on her in American Heritage, "The Gentlewoman and the Robber Baron" by Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton, available for your reading pleasure through the miracle of the Internet:

Tarbell had her Standard Oil, which she helped to bring down; Taibbi has his Goldman Sachs. I mentioned in passing the other day the calculations of Lloyd Blankfein; Taibbi lays out for us just what those calculations have been and are:

Like Tarbell, Taibbi is an investigative journalist, not an economist, so there will always be economists and insiders to say he's getting this or that wrong. But I don't think his basic thrust is off at all. He starts by asking the right questions, and proceeds to see where that will take him:

The question everyone should be asking, as one bailout recipient after another posts massive profits — Goldman reported $13.4 billion in profits last year, after paying out that $16.2 billion in bonuses and compensation — is this: In an economy as horrible as ours, with every factory town between New York and Los Angeles looking like those hollowed-out ghost ships we see on History Channel documentaries like Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, where in the hell did Wall Street's eye-popping profits come from, exactly?

His explanations and his conclusions are so plainly put that anyone can understand -- which is precisely the journalist's role, of course:

It isn't so much that we have inadequate rules or incompetent regulators, although both of these things are certainly true. The real problem is that it doesn't matter what regulations are in place if the people running the economy are rip-off artists. The system assumes a certain minimum level of ethical behavior and civic instinct over and above what is spelled out by the regulations. If those ethics are absent — well, this thing isn't going to work, no matter what we do. Sure, mugging old ladies is against the law, but it's also easy. To prevent it, we depend, for the most part, not on cops but on people making the conscious decision not to do it.

I've noticed that one of the flashpoints for Taibbi's critics is his critical account of how investment banks not only bet against their own customers, but against the actual advice they have given those customers. To insiders and to many economists, that's unremarkable, all in a day's business. To Taibbi, and to the man in the street, it seems surreal, especially at the massive level at which it occurs; and I think this common sense view of the situation has merit that economists and insiders, deep in their more "nuanced" view, often completely fail to see.

One of the most common practices is a thing called front-running, which is really no different from the old "Wire" con, another scam popularized in The Sting. But instead of intercepting a telegraph wire in order to bet on racetrack results ahead of the crowd, what Wall Street does is make bets ahead of valuable information they obtain in the course of everyday business.

Say you're working for the commodities desk of a big investment bank, and a major client — a pension fund, perhaps — calls you up and asks you to buy a billion dollars of oil futures for them. Once you place that huge order, the price of those futures is almost guaranteed to go up. If the guy in charge of asset management a few desks down from you somehow finds out about that, he can make a fortune for the bank by betting ahead of that client of yours. The deal would be instantaneous and undetectable, and it would offer huge profits. Your own client would lose money, of course — he'd end up paying a higher price for the oil futures he ordered, because you would have driven up the price. But that doesn't keep banks from screwing their own customers in this very way.

The scam is so blatant that Goldman Sachs actually warns its clients that something along these lines might happen to them. In the disclosure section at the back of a research paper the bank issued on January 15th, Goldman advises clients to buy some dubious high-yield bonds while admitting that the bank itself may bet against those same shitty bonds. "Our salespeople, traders and other professionals may provide oral or written market commentary or trading strategies to our clients and our proprietary trading desks that reflect opinions that are contrary to the opinions expressed in this research," the disclosure reads. "Our asset-management area, our proprietary-trading desks and investing businesses may make investment decisions that are inconsistent with the recommendations or views expressed in this research."

Banks like Goldman admit this stuff openly, despite the fact that there are securities laws that require banks to engage in "fair dealing with customers" and prohibit analysts from issuing opinions that are at odds with what they really think. And yet here they are, saying flat-out that they may be issuing an opinion at odds with what they really think.

To help them screw their own clients, the major investment banks employ high-speed computer programs that can glimpse orders from investors before the deals are processed and then make trades on behalf of the banks at speeds of fractions of a second. None of them will admit it, but everybody knows what this computerized trading — known as "flash trading" — really is. "Flash trading is nothing more than computerized front-running," says the prominent hedge-fund manager.

For a little guy like me, whose every dollar is valuable, allowing a bank to take advantage of me in that way -- especially when the facts are pretty much out there -- would be idiotic. Does money not mean as much to the clients of Goldman Sachs? The value of common sense it that it reasserts itself if you let it, and the reassertion here would be the simple query, Why would you, why would anyone, do business with these people? It doesn't compute on the capitalist face of it, let alone the ethical face.

This is the role of a Taibbi or a Tarbell: to simplify matters even at the risk of occasionally over-simplifying them, to act as a counter-force to the purposeful obfuscation and manufactured complexity that allows the swindlers to swindle you. We needed that illumination a hundred years ago, and we need it now. We never stop needing it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

February 19

The problem with defining terrorism is that most people believe that certain extreme actions are permissible under certain circumstances -- but which actions, and which circumstances? You'll get no agreement on that. Was John Brown a terrorist? He seems to have been pretty unhinged to me, but his cause was just, and many still consider him a hero. Were the American revolutionists terrorists, at least some of them? Darned if I know, and I've studied the Revolution my whole life. How, as an American, could I look at that question in an objective manner? Would assassinating Hitler have been a moral act? Many would say so.

Another problem is that we habitually underrate "non-violent" but systemic crime. Who is the worse criminal -- someone who snaps and takes five lives in a mass killing, or a white-collar criminal such as Jeffrey Skilling whose actions negatively effect the lives of millions of people, even arguably the whole world? Skilling didn't snap; he calculated. Although both are terrible criminals that society needs to deal with harshly, I know which I think is morally more heinous and merits the greater punishment and censure. Joseph Stack snapped, and it is deplorable. But Lloyd Blankfein calculates, and that is beyond deplorable. People who snap are a symptom; people who calculate are a cause. Let's proportion our outrage correctly.

Speaking of Goldman Sachs, The Epicurean Dealmaker has a blistering post on GS spokesperson Lucas van Praag, titled, I kid you not, "The Mouth of Sauron":

By the way, I must say that The Epicurean Dealmaker is, whether you agree or disagree with him on specific points, one of the very best writers in the blogosphere, on any topic whatsoever.

As a long-time devotee of World War I poetry, I read Professor Tim Kendall's blog War Poetry with pleasure. He deals not just with the big names such as Wilfred Owen, but also with the comparatively obscure poets like Patrick Shaw-Stewart (who, in fact, wrote only one surviving poem, given in full here):

Shaw-Stewart was an Old Etonian, and a Classics scholar of legendary genius. [Elizabeth] Vandiver makes the point enjoyably and in revealingly excessive detail [in her book Stand in the Trench, Achilles] when she quotes at length a letter which Shaw-Stewart wrote to the most celebrated beauty of her age, Lady Diana Manners. Explaining how Lady Diana might enjoy sexual relations with him while preserving her virginity, Shaw-Stewart has recourse to the Classics, quoting liberally (in what Vandiver calls 'ascending order of erotic satisfaction') various sexual practices as described in Aristophanes, Theocritus and Ovid. It seems that much of this may have been lost on Lady Diana, who did not have the Greek or Latin to be able to translate. Perhaps she asked her parents.

Animal Watch: "Caplin Rous, the world's most famous capybara, is an ambassador for giant rodents everywhere." I love this guy! (Hat tip to Bill Crider on this one.)

The Herald, Glasgow's newspaper, offers a pleasant profile of children's book illustrator Michael Foreman:

The Los Angeles Times discovers artists for me every week! -- this time, painter Daniel Dove:

Cinebeats pays tribute to the late Emilio Vieyra, "the Roger Corman of Argentina":

David Cairns, one of our very best film bloggers, unearths another Curiosity of World Cinema, Ion Popescu-Gopo's 1961 Romanian science fiction spoof A Bomb Was Stolen:

Among notables born on this date are astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, novelists Carson McCullers, Jonathan Lethem, Kay Boyle, Amy Tan, Jose Eustasio Rivera (Colombia), Yuri Olesha (Russia), and Jaan Kross (Estonia), crime novelist Stephen Dobyns, poet Andre Breton, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, legendary stage actor David Garrick, composer Luigi Boccherini, explorer Sven Hedin, activist Karen Silkwood, violinist Gil Shaham, memoirist Homer Hickam, singers Lou Christie, Smokey Robinson, and Seal, German painter Gabriele Munter, film directors John Frankenheimer, Jacques Deray, and Frantisek Vlacil, actors Cedric Hardwicke, Merle Oberon, Louis Calhern, Lee Marvin, Jeff Daniels, Benicio del Toro, and Ray Winstone, and Peruvian-born rapper Immortal Technique, whom I must love for his name alone.

The greatest American network news program ever aired, NBC News Overnight, hosted by Linda Ellerbee, Lloyd Dobyns, and Bill Schechner, only lasted a year and a half, from mid 1982 to late 1983; it was simply too literate, informed, and irreverent to persist in any corporate setting, even in a 1:30 AM time-slot, but for these very reasons has become legendary and a touchstone for newspeople and newshounds to this day. ("Possible the best-written and most intelligent news program ever" was how the duPont-Columbia broadcast journalism awards put it.) The last broadcast featured a wonderfully upbeat montage, set to Lou Christie's ecstatic 1974 version of "Beyond the Blue Horizon":

I'm the producer who created the video. We used Lou Christie's version of the song. We looped a verse to play twice so as to have more time for video. Every frame of the piece came from spots that had aired on NBC News Overnight--network pieces or pieces sent in by affiliates. This video aired twice. The 1st time was for the 1 year anniversary.We all liked it so much that when Overnight was cancelled, we decided to air this again on our last show.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February 18

Lawyer-turned therapist Will Meyerhofer has many cogent, perceptive things to say about the legal profession:

The high suicide rate among lawyers isn’t hard to explain: you trade away your life for money and clutch at possessions to substitute for what’s missing. You’re already dying.

Having spent a good amount of time inside BigLaw firms in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, in both "permanent" and temporary paralegal professions, I can only concur with Meyerhofer about the toxicity of the environment in those places. It destroys a lot of people, and seeing that happen was one of the reasons I could never persuade myself to go to law school (which I wrote about here at PMD on June 9 of last year).

Once again, balancing depressing stuff with a Day Brightener, in this case the colorful and energetic illustrations of Jim Flora:

I actually own this Mambo for Cats LP; it is the awesomeness:

Michael Dirda, the great Washington Post book reviewer, has written a wonderful account of the fiction of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811):

I am indebted to the Lit Lists blog for pointing me in the direction of many useful and amusing lists, such as this one by John Mullan of ten great unfinished literary works:

Another excellent blog, The Latin Americanist ("The English-language forum for all things Latin American, covering business, politics, and culture"), brings us a video visit with the great 102-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Be sure to go to full-screen mode for the full effect:

The second part of the interview is here:

I'm well aware that Robert Hughes, never to be taken lightly, has some unkind things to say about Niemeyer's Brasilia in The Shock of the New, and his strictures are pertinent, but they must be balanced against the visionary quality of this capital city designed from scratch. The Wikipedia article on it is very thorough:

io9 helpfully catalogues all the ways sex can go wrong in science fiction:

Among notables born on this date are designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, psychologist Hans Asperger, physicist Ernst Mach, artist Yoko Ono, cartoonist Gahan Wilson, novelists Wallace Stegner, Toni Morrison, Len Deighton, Nikos Kazantzakis (Greece), Alexander Kielland (Norway), and Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish language), Puerto Rican poet and politician Luis Munoz Marin, film directors John Hughes, Milos Forman, and Istvan Szabo, country musician Pee Wee King, poet Audre Lorde, and a bus-load of actors -- Edward Arnold, Greta Scacchi, Cybill Shepherd, John Travolta, Molly Ringwald, Mary Ure, Jack Palance, Matt Dillon, Sinead Cusack, and Adolphe Menjou. Since Yoko Ono has always gotten a bad press in certain quarters, I want to go on the record with my admiration for her. She was a major conceptual artist before she ever met John Lennon, and has always been a most thoughtful and interesting woman. The notion that she "broke up" the Beatles is asinine; she re-invigorated John Lennon's artistry, and the Beatles's late albums benefited from her presence on the edge of proceedings.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 17

If you think unemployment is bad here, check out what's going in Latin America:

Ten years ago, French writer Viviane Forrester theorized that work was the regnant illusion of our age. Her book The Economic Horror would seem to be newly pertinent:

Our concepts of work, and thus of unemployment, around which politics revolve (or claim to revolve), have become illusory. Our struggles with them are as much of a hallucination as Don Quixote's tilting at the windmills....The unemployed today are no longer put aside temporarily or occasionally, and in only some sectors; they are up against a general implosion, a phenomenon resembling those tidal waves, cyclones or tornadoes that don't aim at anyone in particular but that no one can withstand. Yet the jobless are treated and judged by the same criteria as when jobs were abundant. They are, therefore, made to feel guilty for being jobless, at the same time as they are lulled by deceptive promises that an abundance of jobs will once again be available. So the vast and ever-growing number of job-seekers are made to feel incompatible with a society of which they happen to be the most natural product. They are led to consider themselves socially unworthy, and above all responsible for their own situation....They wonder what inadequacies, what aptitude for failure, what ill-will or errors can have led them there. They lose not just income but status, contacts, self-esteem and peace of mind. They feel shame. They undergo work experience and retraining only to realise more forcefully than ever that they have no real role. They come to realise that there is something worse than being exploited - and that is not even to be exploitable.

(I'm tempted to go on quoting and quoting, so just read the whole excerpt at the link!)

OK, now for a much-needed Day Brightener: ancient animal sculpture! Two London galleries, one specializing in ancient art, the other in modern animal scultpture, are collaborating on a show. Love the crocodile:

The congenial litblog stevereads shares my enthusiasm for the more obscure Penguin Classics, such as Marguerite of Navarre's Heptameron:

Here is a very pleasant cross-cultural story of a dedicated Chinese translator of Australian literature:

Critic Wyatt Mason appreciatively sums up the career of the late novelist Leonard Michaels, and Scott Esposito offers additional thoughts at the blog Conversational Reading. Michaels received a lot of attention early in his career, but after 1981 "hid in plain sight" by publishing mainly with smaller presses and literary journals; Mason argues that his later, unnoticed work is actually his best.

Among notables born on this date are novelists Mori Ogai (Japan), Mo Yan (China), Sadeq Hedayat (Iran), and Fyodor Sologub (Russia), poets Jack Gilbert, Banjo Paterson (Australia), and Gustavo Becquer (Spain), crime novelists Ruth Rendell and Ronald Knox, science fiction novelist Andre Norton, explorers Nicolas Baudin and Isabelle Eberhardt, composers Arcangelo Corelli (Italy), Henri Vieuxtemps (France), and Leevi Madetoja (Finland), singer/songwriter Gene Pitney, composer/musicians Fred Frith and Karl Jenkins, and actors Arthur Kennedy, Brenda Fricker, Hal Holbrook, and Alan Bates. I always tend to think of Alan Bates and Albert Finney in tandem -- great stage actors, great film actors, born only two years apart. They were at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts together, and also made their film debuts together, as Laurence Olivier's sons in The Entertainer (1960). Playing Olivier's sons -- no symbolic pressure in that!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

February 16

One day past Presidents Day, here is a fun gallery of our most bibliophilic presidents from The Daily Beast:

The terrific blog Caustic Cover Critic comments on a new Penguin series, "Victorian Bestsellers," which is exciting both from textual and graphic standpoints, reviving "sensation novels" by Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, William Harrison Ainsworth, and others with beautiful, eye-catching covers:

The great actor Ed Harris is burning up the Los Angeles stage in a recent Neil LaBute monologue play, Wrecks, which he had already performed in Ireland and New York:

The Rumpus, a website which meets the definition of multiculturality I gave yesterday by covering most everything, has a nice interview with Romanian novelist Dumitri Tsepeneag:

The Beiderbecke Affair has done excellent historical investigative work in uncovering an 81-year-old imposture -- a 1929 newspaper "interview" with jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke that was entirely cooked up from other sources:

The Groovy Age of Horror rediscovers the periodically resuscitated proletarian tough-guy novelist Jim Tully:

The rock guitarist's rock guitarist, Jeff Beck, is thoughtfully profiled in the New York Times:

While we're on rock music, here is yet another list of significant list of rock novels (only one of which, Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street, overlaps with a similar list I posted on January 30):

Among notables born on this date are German explorer Heinrich Barth, novelists Richard Ford, Iain Banks, and Nikolai Leskov (Russia), memoirist Henry Adams, literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, German naturalist Ernst Haeckel, actor LeVar Burton, singer Patty Andrews (of the Andrews Sisters), historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, film directors Robert Flaherty and John Schlesinger, and the two George Kennans -- the explorer (1845-1924) and the diplomat (1904-2005) (they were cousins twice removed). Although Van Wyck Brooks's meaty, rich literary histories -- The Flowering of New England, New England: Indian Summer, and so on -- may be out of fashion these days, they still make remarkably good reading and illuminate the world of 19th century American literature. "World" is one of Brooks's key words (The World of Washington Irving), and he builds up a vivid sense of the worlds he writes about through the re-animation of personalities, telling ground detail, and gorgeously written novelistic prose.

Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15

Much recent satire -- South Park, The Onion in all its multi-pronged glory (print, web, audio, video), The Daily Show, the fine political film In the Loop which I finished watching last night -- actually pays tribute to its objects, for providing the material needed for the satirists to ply their trade. Thus, they embody no more anger or reformist zeal than a Johnny Carson opening monologue. I'm reminded of a comment that Peter Sagal of NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! made about the Bush administration, that they "practically wrote our show for us"; the dominant note there is gratitude, not outrage. All the examples I'm citing make me laugh heartily, and serve a useful function in flagging the idiocies that surround us; but at bottom, they don't really wish those idiocies to go away. Charles Dickens in his satiric mode was not perhaps as funny as these modern exemplars, but he was furious; he intended to have an impact. So did Mark Twain. I'm not saying that there are no contemporary equivalents -- I think Bill Maher is genuinely angry, and I know George Carlin was -- but they are few in number compared to our more amiable satirists.

In the Loop, for all its surface toughness and cynicism and its non-stop parade of profanity, is rather a sweet and toothless film; it enjoys the monsters it portrays a little too much, and it puts forward no argument that "things don't have to be like this." Watching what seems to be a fairly accurate and acute depiction of how current politics works (as others have pointed out, it's a bit like The West Wing uncensored), I felt the instinctive recoil I often do, and thanked my lucky stars that this is one career field I never seriously explored. I wouldn't be up to it; I'm not made of that stuff. I can barely read about Rahm Emanuel, let alone imagine dealing with him. Unfortunately, the high-pressure, ego-ridden political model for "getting things done" (or not, as the case may be) is well established in business, academics, medicine, and elsewhere; there is scarcely any escaping it. Sometimes I feel I should put in for a transfer to a different paradigm.

All that said, In the Loop is an enjoyable, recommendable film. A highlight of the DVD is the section of deleted scenes, which are brilliantly edited together to create a miniature film in their own right, a pendant to the feature that delivers a ton of laughs.

I've been reading a lot about the space programs of the Sixties and Seventies, so I was intrigued by io9's speculations on "Which Country Will Be the Next to Put an Astronaut on the Moon?"

Christopher Hitchens is unimpressed by the role of the Olympics, and sports in general, in fostering human harmony:

Hitchens cites his master George Orwell's famous essay "The Sporting Spirit" to bolster his argument (as Joseph Epstein did in his own anti-sports essay "Trivial Pursuits" several years ago). As long-time readers of this blog will know, I'm down with all of them on this; though I'll never lose a warm feeling for baseball and golf, I think that sports loom ridiculously large in the current Weltanschauung. It's the lack of proportion that offends me.

Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema discusses Michael Adams's new book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro-Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made. Ever since the pioneering volumes by the Medved Brothers some thirty years, this whole field of "bad films" has been exceedingly well-trodden ground; reports from it are usually mildly entertaining but also generally somewhat pointless, because, as Wilson perceptively notes,

...identifying a truly Bad film is just a way of saying that it's interesting in some distinctive way that an objectively Bad film shouldn't be. The perfect Bad film, perhaps, would be the one you forget as you're watching it and can't describe afterward. We've all seen films like that, but they'll never be written up in books and unlike those movies memorialized in Adams's and other tomes, they'll take every new generation by surprise.

Mikita Brottman, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, doubts the value of the "learning objectives" which have become a fetish at all levels of educational endeavor:

I do not expect the students who take my courses to absorb any particular "body of knowledge" or attain any new "skills." On the contrary, for the most part, they will probably develop new kinds of doubts and anxieties, concerns and hesitations. They will not learn anything that has any advantageous practical implications, nor will they learn anything that can be "applied" to any other situation, except in the most oblique ways. They will not develop any new "transferable benchmark skills." They will not achieve any "goals or outcomes." Indeed, they will not have "achieved" anything, except, perhaps, to doubt the value of terms like "achievement" when applied to reading literature....for me, teaching and learning are inseparable and driven not by "learning objectives," goals, outcomes, performance indicators, or assessment rubrics, but by complicated, often painful, but always irresistible compulsions.

I read this with empathy, because Brottman is clearly an "existential educator," and that is the tradition that I was educated in myself during the Seventies and that I uphold the value of today. Unfortunately for her and for me, it is not an attitude currently in vogue in the profession -- far to the contrary, I have routinely encountered the most savage denunciations of it. It has gotten to the point where I wonder whether there is any place in education for me at all.

Among notables born on this date are cartoonists/graphic novelists Art Spiegelman and Matt Groening, scientists Galileo Galilei and Douglas Hofstadter, composers Michael Praetorius, Georges Auric, Jean Langlais, and Harold Arlen, feminist Susan B. Anthony, crime novelist Sax Rohmer, philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Alfred North Whitehead, actors John Barrymore, Claire Bloom, and Kevin McCarthy, film directors Tsui Hark and Miranda July, and explorer Ernest Shackleton. The Great American Songbook is among America's major contributions to world culture, and Harold Arlen is one of the most distinguished and original contributors to it. Here is the premiere performance of "Blues in the Night," from Anatole Litvak's underrated 1941 film of the same name:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

February 14

Synchronicity, or something: A couple of weeks ago -- February 3, to be precise -- I watched Frank Borzage's interesting Southern film noir Moonrise on TCM, and discovered a useful essay on it at Senses of Cinema that gives full credit, as such pieces often don't, to the source novel (by Theodore Strauss):

A few days later, the blog mardecortesbaja published a post that was completely apropos:

Drunk late at night in 1955, Jack Kerouac watched Frank Borzage's Moonrise on TV, and wrote this poem about it ["Dumb Poem about Moonrise'], in his notebook of religious meditations eventually published as Some Of the Dharma.

The full text of the poem is given, and it's a perceptive and imaginative response to the movie.

More synchronicity: On February 6, two posts about exhibitions of river photography showed up in my RSS feed. First, Mark Swope's exhibition of black-and-white photographs of the Los Angeles River was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times:

Hours later, Artdaily alerted me to a London exhibition of color photographs of the Blackwater River by Scottish photographer Steve Macleod:

Also on the photography front: The Milwaukee Art Museum has put together an important exhibit, and accompanying monograph, of American street photography of the 1940s and 1950s:

At first I thought it was odd to omit Garry Winogrand, but he didn't exhibit prominently until 1963, and is more associated with the Sixties.

I'm always interested to read about the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York:

Be sure to check out the accompanying slideshow. A spot-check at Wikipedia reveals entries on most of the artists mentioned by Ken Johnson in his review -- although not the interesting sounding Pearl Blauvelt and Eugene Andolsek, but Google turns up plenty of material on them as well as the others. Outsider art is such a vast field, I admire those who work to map it.

Another Times art critic, Roberta Smith, is a little dissatisfied with the current exhibition season in New York:

Good slideshow with this piece, too, and plenty of references to artists that I wouldn't mind knowing more about. It is difficult to keep up, but exciting that there is so much to keep up with!

(....and this might be a good place to sneak in a parenthetic mission statement: No one who reads more than a handful of these daily entries will have missed the point that I'm aiming for a multiculturalism that is not simply cross-national, or alert to identity, but that takes in a pretty full range of cultural and intellectual fields, traversing the film turf and the literary turf and the history and music and art and theater turfs, ad infinitum -- partly because, despite all the wonderful bloggers and commentators out there, I don't see people doing that much -- most web and print endeavors are pretty focused, often to their benefit, while PMD is quite deliberately unrestricted. I see myself as a bit of a free-form disk jockey, here -- I always admired those guys, Vin Scelsa and Jonathan Schwartz and the whole WNEW-FM gang, see and for the scoop on them if you're not from the New York area....)

Among notables born on this date are memoirist Frank Harris, comedian Jack Benny, German sociologist Max Horkheimer, soprano Renee Fleming, journalist Carl Bernstein, dancer Gregory Hines, magician Teller, folk singer Tim Buckley, actors Thelma Ritter, Vic Morrow, and Meg Tilly, and film directors Alexander Kluge, Alan Parker, and Masaki Kobayashi. I went to a Penn & Teller show in San Francisco in 1988 or 1989, completely awesome experience, and the guys were hawking their own paraphernalia in the theater lobby afterward. I was in my usual garb -- suit, tie, overcoat, fedora -- and Teller, the silent, hailed me as I went by: "Great hat!" I'll always treasure that.