Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March 31

I quite agree with Terry Teachout that the quality of arts programming on PBS has dropped precipitously from the "high-octane" offerings of the Sixties and Seventies to the "Three Tenors"-style pap of today:

What should PBS be doing instead? For openers, it should air fine-arts programs that encompass the full range of the performing arts. That means not just "The Nutcracker" but ballet and modern-dance masterpieces of all kinds. It means not just ultrafamiliar operas but solo recitals and chamber music. It means not just Broadway musicals but performances of classic and contemporary plays. And these performances should take place not just in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco but in cities throughout America.

It embarrassed me to write that last paragraph, because every word in it is—or ought to be—humiliatingly obvious. Any TV network that claims to be "public" should be offering more than the ultrasafe programming in which "Great Performances" specializes. Nor should it air only operas performed at the Met, or musicals performed on Broadway. This is a big country, and you can see great performances of all kinds from coast to coast and in between.

This is a problem not just with PBS, but with "arts centers" nationwide, especially in medium-sized and smaller cities, which, I can tell you from extensive experience, bring a whole new meaning to Teachout's apt phrase "ultrasafe programming." From a steady diet of what they offer, you would come to the conclusion that the arts are always nice, inoffensive, occasionally "multicultural" in a "local color" kind of way, and slightly but vaguely morally uplifting. That doesn't correspond to any serious conception of art that I would endorse. At a very accessible level, South Park and The Daily Show are both more serious and more entertaining than arts center oatmeal. And PBS and the centers simply won't go to more challenging levels.

In an exchange on The Blackboard today, two of us realized that we had first seen Roman Polanski's great Polish debut feature Knife in the Water, as well as other significant foreign and silent films (King Vidor's The Crowd came to mind), on PBS in the late Sixties, when we were not even in our teens yet. Kenneth Clark's art history series Civilisation blew me away when I was still in middle school. I think it's good for kids to start getting exposed to "adult culture" as soon as they can handle some of it. PBS used to be a leader in that respect; it opened worlds for me, just as my local public library did. But no matter what Terry Teachout and I say, I doubt the network will take on that role again.

One way in which the arts can and should disturb "solid citizens" is that the political sympathies of artists can be unpalatable to us on both sides of the spectrum. Bertolt Brecht was a Marxist and a defender of Stalin and a great playwright; Celine was a ferocious anti-semite and an overall asshole and a great novelist. Such seemingly incompatible (but actually pretty ordinary) facts make a lot of people very nervous. In the Los Angeles Times Culture Monster blog, Mark Swed thoughtfully considers the case of composer Hanns Eisler, Brecht's equally leftist friend who was deported from the United States to East Germany in 1948:

Also at Culture Monster, Christopher Hawthorne looks at the careers of the new Pritzker Prize in architecture winners, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the firm SANAA:

Their buildings, such as the New Museum in New York, are indeed exciting:

In that design, Sejima and Nishizawa, working with a lean budget, produced a precariously stacked collection of boxes wrapped in an opaque skin of aluminum a symbolic presence in the Manhattan skyline....the $64-million New Museum was prescient. In its commitment to doing more with less, and in its suggestion of a real-estate culture teetering on the edge of collapse, it was among the first high-profile buildings to signal the end of a flamboyant decade for both top architects and the American economy.

Another renowned contemporary architect, Jean Nouvel, is in the knock-your-socks-off game, too, with his National Museum of Qatar:

Leonardo Finotti has made an enviable career of photographing buildings of this caliber. Here is an interview:

Among notables born on this date are philosopher Rene Descartes, novelists John Fowles, Vardis Fisher, Marge Piercy, Nikolai Gogol (Russia), Alexandra Kollontai (Russia), and Borisav Stankovic (Serbia), poets Andrew Marvell, Edward FitzGerald, Octavio Paz (Mexico), and Nichita Stanescu (Romania), film directors Volker Schlondorff (Germany), Nagisa Oshima (Japan), and Alejandro Amenabar (Spain), screenwriter Valerie Curtin, politicians Al Gore and Barney Frank, activist Cesar Chavez, hockey player Gordie Howe, composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Joseph Haydn, ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, conductor Clemens Krauss, country singer Lefty Frizzell, jazz vibraphonist Red Norvo, bandleader Herb Alpert, voice artist Lucille Bliss, and actors William Daniels, Richard Chamberlain, Shirley Jones, Richard Kiley, Rhea Perlman, Christopher Walken, and Ewan McGregor. Lucille Bliss, the voice of Crusader Rabbit, Smurfette, and many other characters, turns 94 today: Happy Birthday, Lucille! I took a voiceover class from Lucille in San Francisco in the late Eighties; there were only three or four of us in the class, so it was very individualized. Lucille is a great teacher and a great person (and with stories like you wouldn't believe), and even though I haven't used the training she gave me to go into the professional voiceover field (a highly competitive one where "name" actors have a current advantage), I still do use it every time I speak publicly, or even just teach. Learning is always good, because whatever you learn, you use, whether directly or indirectly. I have very happy memories of that class.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 30: All Literature Edition

From my own temperament and experience, I can thoroughly endorse every word of this bibliophilic post by litlove at Tales from the Reading Room:

I recently got into a debate at a Korean jobs forum about my upcoming move: I innocently inquired about shipping my personal library to Korea, and all hell broke loose. Apparently, if I can't fit my entire life in a single suitcase, I'm a worthless human being, and why transport books when you could just get a Kindle?

To which my reply is: I don't think so.  Oh, I may get a Kindle eventually, that's not the issue. It wouldn't eliminate my love for the books I buy, borrow, collect, handle, and read; it would just be another toy. I will undoubtedly spend way too much money getting my books overseas and way too much space storing them in my no doubt small apartment, or in exorbitantly priced Korean storage. And what of it? Books, as litlove says, just make me happy, and that's that. Pfui on the haters.

John Self at Asylum has a go at Jocelyn Brooke's The Image of a Drawn Sword, a perennial on "neglected novels" lists: 

Kevin from Canada performs a similar resuscitating service for James Schuyler's What's for Dinner?, and considers the phenomenon of the poet-novelist:

At the Neglected Books Page, high praise for Miklos Banffy's Transylvanian Trilogy, "one of the finest works of the 20th century":

Brooks Peters investigates, in his inimitable style, the peeping-out-of-the-closet Forties novelist Hubert Creekmore (who also shows up on "neglected" lists):

Did you know that A.A, Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame wrote a novel about marital challenges? I had heard of his crime novel The Red House Mystery, but not of Two People: 

Jabberwock likes Paritish Uttam's new Dreams in Prussian Blue, in the Penguin India Metro Reads series:

Jabberwock also has a neat interview with Gautam Bhatia about his graphic novel Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India:

Weirdmonger tantalizes with a brief appreciation of Frances Oliver's Xargos:

More established novels deserve their re-appreciations, too, such as Steve Donoghue's of Howard's End:

Priests are having a rough time of it in the news media lately, so many salacious episodes are coming to light; but let us remember their better side, too, as with these great priests in literature:

Among notables born on this date are painters Francisco Goya and Vincent Van Gogh, novelists Tom Sharpe, Jon Hassler, Jean Giono (France), and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (Bengal), poets Paul Verlaine and Countee Cullen, dramatist Sean O'Casey, children's writer Anna Sewell, psychologist Melanie Klein, statesman McGeorge Bundy, singers Tracy Chapman, Celine Dion, and Frankie Laine, rocker Eric Clapton, bandleader Ted Heath, race horse Secretariat, and actors Warren Beatty, Paul Reiser, John Astin, and Robbie Coltrane. Shakespeare apart, even highly literate people are likely to have read fewer great plays than great novels, short stories, or poems. I'm not sure why this is, because with a decently developed "mental theater" you can not only read but see astonishing performances of countless masterpieces. When I bring up Sean O'Casey in educated company, I am likely to draw blanks in a way that I simply wouldn't if I mentioned James Joyce or William Butler Yeats. But he is their equal, and -- to name just one of his plays -- The Plough and the Stars is as great an experience as reading has to offer. If you can see it in the theater, by all means do that; but read it in any case. 

Harder to Please

Well, I wouldn't have believed it possible, but I just scrolled through 800 blog posts in my RSS feed and didn't flag a single one for consideration as an item in PMD. And that's just the first cut. Am I in a grumpy mood today? No, quite a good one actually. I've seen this coming on for weeks: You spend a lot of time looking at material, you just become harder to impress. I've become much more picky on the second cut, too, deciding against items I thought I would use but that on closer inspection didn't really grab me.

Still, this review session was singular. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if I came across 20 great items tomorrow. But that would be singular, too, although much more gratifyingly so.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 29

I wrote to a friend who just went to the NCAA regionals in St. Louis:

"As you may know [PMD 7/20/2008], my main interest in basketball has to do with the coaches' fashion. Of the coaches in this year's Final Four, none is exactly Jay Wright of Villanova or Kerry Keating of Santa Clara, the current standard-bearers, but Brad Stevens (Butler) and Mike Krzyzewsi (Duke) are sharp dressers, and Tom Izzo (Michigan State) isn't bad. Bob Huggins (West Virginia) brings up the rear, but I mean, West Virginia, what do you expect? Every year lately there has been a 'Runway to the Fashionable Four' fashion competition for the best-dressed coaches in the land, but I haven't been able to locate any information about it this year. Other faves of mine are Billy Donovan (Florida) (although I wish he would wear his jackets at courtside!), Bill Self (Kansas) (sometimes charmingly prone to wild colors), Bruce Weber (Illinois), Mark Gottfried (ex-Alabama) (particularly good at shoe selection), Eric Musselman (ex-NBA), Jim Les (Bradley) (an up-and-comer!), and Steve Alford (New Mexico) (best of all the coaches at rocking patterned sportcoats)."

Here is Alford in one of those sportcoats:

I agree with Animalarium that the animation at the first link below, According to Birds by Linde Faas, is exceedingly lovely; the subtle use of quiet is most appealing.

As much as I dislike film critic Dave Kehr, I will admit he performs a useful service with his DVD review column at the New York Times, in this instance drawing attention to Criterion's new box set of the films of rising Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa:

Maddie Oatman at The Rumpus sat down for an illuminating interview with photographer Mark Murrmann, whose interests take in prisons, politics, and punk rock:

Edward Rothstein at the New York Times puzzles over the troubled mission of science museums:

....which brings to mind The Onion's hilarious piece, "Science Channel Refuses to Dumb Down Science Any Further":

"Look, we've tried, we really have, but it's simply not possible to set the bar any lower," said a visibly exhausted [Science Channel president Clark] Bunting, adding that he "could not in good conscience" make science any more mindless or insultingly juvenile. "We already have a show called Really Big Things, which is just ridiculous if you think about it, and one called Heavy Metal Taskforce, which I guess deals with science on some distant level, though I don't know what it is. Plus, there's Punkin Chunkin." 

"Punkin Chunkin, for Christ's sake," added Bunting, referring to the popular program in which contestants launch oversized pumpkins into the air using catapults. "What more do you people want?"

....As evidence of their refusal to further water down programming, network sources pointed to a number of proposed shows they've abandoned in recent weeks, including an animal-based bungee-jumping program called Extreme Gravity, and Atom Smashers, a series that was was roundly rejected by focus groups as being "too technical" and "not awesome enough."

....While they won't be dumbing down their already crude lineup of shows, Science Channel officials assured viewers that the network will continue to cater to the lowest common denominator and will keep airing embarrassingly base content completely stripped of all intellectual integrity.,2897/

Among notables born on this date are President John Tyler, Monty Python member Eric Idle, baseball pitchers Cy Young and Denny McLain, race horse Man o' War, novelists Ernst Junger (Germany) and Marcel Ayme (France), poets R.S. Thomas (Wales) and Yvan Goll (France/Germany), composer William Walton, film composer Vangelis, and actors Dennis O'Keefe, Warner Baxter, Brendan Gleeson, Arthur O'Connell, and Bud Cort. I posted on O'Keefe today at The Blackboard, relating him to some themes of interest to me:

"Transatlantic? Check. He was in Brit-noirs from 1953, and made four by my count: The Fake, The Diamond, Angela, and Lady of Vengeance. He is listed as co-director on the middle two. Angela was an Italian co-production and was filmed in Italy. O'Keefe also made a Spanish noir, El Aventurero, in 1957 -- bet that's rare!

Early casualty? Check. He died in 1968 at the age of 60.

Interesting career arc? Check. He was an extra for a decade in the Thirties, with many appearances but very few named credits until 1938. He acted under lots of different names until he settled on 'Dennis O'Keefe.' I like the fact that he made three 'city confidential' films in a row in the mid-Fifties: Las Vegas Shakedown, Chicago Syndicate, and Inside Detroit. He appears to have done his share of noir-ish TV episodes. His last feature was a northwoods Canadian indie for which he wrote the screenplay, The Naked Flame (1964).

Menswear moments? Check. He was a good-looking fellow, and nice clothes sat well on him. He's dressed very sharp in The Leopard Man."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

March 28

Jeff VanderMeer at Omnivoracious conducted an email interview with Daniel Maier-Katkin, author of a new joint biography of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. No book on such a fraught subject, involving both Heidegger's apparent Nazism and the Jewish Arendt's apparent forgiveness of her former teacher's and lover's "error," could fail to be controversial -- or interesting.

The genre of the email interview has also yielded a stimulating discussion between Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions and Hungarian novelist Peter Esterhazy, who like many fine European writers is immersed in literature to an extent that I think is rare among Americans: a lot of classical literature, all the Hungarians – Kosztolányi, Móricz, Mikszáth – the great French, the great Russians, the great English writers. When I read something, I didn’t think of it as a chore. I always read for my own amusement, my own pleasure. The way I drink wine....I read Joyce the way I read Balzac. But Joyce was important because – though it sounds like the arrogance of a young man – I saw that I wasn’t alone. That’s why the Austrian avant-garde was also important [to me] at the time. For example, Handke. Or the modern classical authors, mostly the Austrians rather than the Germans, Musil rather than Thomas Mann, Broch rather than Hesse. Still, I had great, orgiastic experiences reading Mann into the wee hours of the morning. That goes without saying.

The litblog Eve's Alexandria posted a helpful guide to the longlist for the Orange Prize, given to a novel written in the English language by a woman of any nationality. Literary prizes and their related longlists and shortlists generate much greater interest in Great Britain, in France -- let's face it, almost anywhere in the world -- than they do in the United States. The value of the prizes and the lists is that they bring so many great reading possibilities to people's attention (if they are paying attention), and the international literary Web and blogosphere does its bit to keep to us all informed about the prizes (just as the film Web and blogosphere performs the same function for the world of international film festivals). Be warned, though, that the resulting debates, as with any disputes in cyberspace, can become vicious; some European contributors to the World  Literature Forum came this close to taking out a hit on me after I mentioned "Amelie Nothomb" and "Nobel Prize for Literature" in the same blog post! 

The release of the legendary and long-unavailable mid-Sixties rock concert film The T.A.M.I. Show on DVD is creating quite a stir:

Greta Gerwig, the "mumblecore" star who is now playing opposite Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, has been tagged by the New York Times's A.O. Scott as "the definitive screen actress of her generation," a judgment which, as much as I like Scott (and may like Gerwig once I've seen some of her movies), is unlikely to resonate beyond the small but intense circle of hardcore film geeks:

Gerwig herself has given an intelligent, disarming interview to The Faster Times that scarcely suggests she wants to be an icon, even in the ironic way A.O.Scott meant the phrase "definitive screen actress":

In a recent discussion at the film noir discussion board The Blackboard, we were talking about the DIY aesthetic of certain under-the-radar Fifties film-makers such as Hugo Haas and Ed Wood, and I brought up mumblecore (a style of film-making that has generated some epic debates in the blogosphere):

"The DIY reference is apt. An equivalent in movie-making today is the 'mumblecore' movement, which David Denby wrote about in kindly terms in a recent New Yorker piece. If you criticize such movies on their lack of 'production values' or 'professional acting,' you're falling into a trap, because that is distinctly not what they're about. Which is not to say that no distinctions of quality can be made among them -- indeed, they must be. But criteria need to be adjusted on the grounds of the filmmakers' intent and the resources available to them. As Denby said, it is rather 'cheering' when creators take back a form from the money-men who often act as culturally witless gate-keepers. A problem I have with Avatar (say) being proclaimed as the 'future of the movies' has less to do with technology than with scale and financing. What, you need $500 million to make a movie now? That's a pretty plutocratic concept of movie-making, and although I'm not against the existence of spectacle, I think the notion that spectacle trumps everything else needs to be resisted. I'd be more impressed by a good-looking, intelligent movie made for $5 million (or $500,000, or $50,000) than I am by Avatar. And indeed, such movies are made all the time. A film world without Hugo Haases and, yes, Ed Woods, would be a poorer one in many senses."

I very much liked that Denby was willing to meet these movies half-way and give them their due. Many critics and consumers are not so open. And some of the worst are male twenty-somethings raised on and conditioned by a steady diet of nothing but "pop" -- fanboys, in short. They are exactly the audience that should be interested in a movement like mumblecore, since it's about their age cohort, but it also falls too far outside their preferred video-game stylistics of thrills delivered intravenously.

The Delaware Art Museum has mounted an ambitious show. "On Assignment: American Illustration, 1850-1950":

Two architects, one artist: "Eamon O'Kane takes on the controversial story of Le Corbusier's admiration and eventual vandalism of fellow architect Eileen Gray's villa, E-1027, in the south of France."

Among notables born on this date are novelists Nelson Algren, Russell Banks, Maxim Gorky (Russia), Bohumil Hrabal (Czech Republic), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), historian Iris Chang, philosopher Daniel Dennett, composer Robert Ashley, conductor Willem Mengelberg, bandleader Paul Whiteman, pianist Rudolf Serkin, bass Samuel Ramey, country singer Rena McEntire, film directors Mike Newell and Richard Kelly, and actors Dirk Bogarde, Flora Robson, Conchata Ferrell, and Dianne Wiest.

I recently finished reading Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, and am intensely saddened not just by the subject of the book but by my knowledge of Chang's own unhappy history, culminating in her suicide at the age of 36. The book uncovered an enormous amount of previously unknown or under-studied material about what happened in Nanking in 1937, but because Chang was a journalist (and an impassioned one at that) rather a PhD historian, her work came in for attack from some members of the academic history community as well as (predictably) right-wing Japanese who have always denied the massacre. Any intelligent reader of The Rape of Nanking can guess that it is probably not unflawed and that, as an early attempt in popular English-language historiography to come to grips with an under-reported sequence of important events, it leaves much for specialists to fill in and correct. Not having a knowledge of the Japanese language, Chang undoubtedly missed sources and commentary on the Japanese side. Should she, then, not have written the book? That is a preposterous conclusion. Historians' books are not flawless either. Chang cared enough about the material to grapple with it and bring it to a needed wider audience.    

The grappling cost her, not just in terms of that criticism by academics (which you have to be prepared for when you venture onto "their" turf), but in depression brought on her prolonged engagement with the most horrifying examples of human misconduct. Perhaps inadvisedly, she planned and researched a never-finished book on the Bataan death march which re-launched her into the field of historical atrocity. I have read that there is a higher-than-usual rate of suicide among Holocaust scholars, and can readily believe it; Chang may have fallen victim to that same effect, at least in part. No one but a psychiatrist could fully explain what happened to Chang, who had "everything to live for" in an important career, world attention, a supportive husband, and a two-year-old son. Her last writings before she took her life read painfully, paranoiaically:

I can never shake my belief that I was forces more powerful than I could have imagined....As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me... I had a deep foreboding about my safety. I sensed suddenly threats to my own life: an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box....I will never be able to escape from myself and my thoughts. I am doing this because I am too weak to withstand the years of pain and agony ahead.

Having suffered from suicidal ideation myself, if not quite that full-bore sense of persecution, I have an inkling of what Chang must have gone through during those final months. I wish she could have been saved, just as I wish David Foster Wallace and others who have gone over that edge could have been saved. But Iris Chang accomplished much in her short life, and ennobled the rest of us through her work.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

March 27

Long-time readers of this blog (if there are any!) may recall that I try to avoid most Internet discussion boards because of their snarky nastiness, but that it is sometimes a struggle for me to maintain that wide berth. So every now and again I will check out a few boards and contribute to them briefly, until I run away screaming,  "It's worse than ever out there!" I don't know if it's actually worse, but it's certainly not any better: The boards are still infested with the dreadful, superior insult humor that seems to be chiefly perpetrated by bitter younger males who have too much time on their hands (probably because they're not getting laid; you have to read between the lines). They all think they are Don Rickles, Jr. I posted what I thought was an innocent-enough query on one board, and within two hours, I was being called a "pompous cretin"! I didn't take it too badly, though, because I've noticed that on some boards, "pompous" is a term of art indicating that you write in complete sentences.

With all this in mind, I was delighted to encounter a blog post entitled "Ivy Compton-Burnett as a template for Internet discussion forums," which quotes to great effect a description written by British novelist Elizabeth Taylor of the work of her fellow novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett:

A dark madness pervades. Beyond the insanities, nothing happens. A bunch of rococo & unpleasant people stand talking in a room; first in one house, then in another, then back again at the first. Who shall sit down 13th at a table they discuss for a whole chapter. They all speak the same, even the children. They are all nasty. No one does any work - not even the governess.

I adore the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, but to read, not to live through.

Let's face it, the bad in the world is mainly the fault of young men. Take the fate of poor Sandra Bullock. From Oscar winner to "My husband cheated on me with a Nazi hoe!" inside of two weeks -- if it gets any worse than that in the public eye, please do not tell me, I do not want to know about it. For all the loose socio-biological talk about men being more naturally promiscuous than women, I think there's more going on with Jesse James and Tiger Woods than that, because those guys were already married to incredibly beautiful, classy, respected women -- women that other men fantasize about -- and not only did they cheat on them with complete skanks, they don't seem to have put up the slightest struggle against doing so. Aaron Traister at Salon asks quite reasonably, "Why do cheaters marry?"

Wouldn't it be easier for a man not to get married, at least until he decided his carrot was sufficiently wet? Why put yourself through the strain of a potentially messy extramarital affair? Don't we live in a brave new world where we don't judge others for choosing not to worship at the altar of familial bliss? Wasn't it our grandparents' generation who naively worried about the status of being "an older bachelor"? Look at George Clooney. That guy will never have a sex scandal.

I have something in common with Bullock and Elin Nordegren, in that I was in a "committed relationship" for several years with a man who, I later discovered, spent every available minute and particle of energy trolling the Internet for pick-ups, trolling the Internet for porn, orgying, barebacking (he was HIV+), making home-made porn, injecting crystal meth, injecting club drugs, selling the same drugs, and embezzling from his employer in order to pay for the above, all beneath an unimpeachably middle-class, church-going veneer. How could I not have known? Well, a certain part of you does not want to know, and you indulge that part (and feel like a total blithering fool later). It is probably true that Sandra Bullock should not have married a man named Jesse James who used to be married to a porno actress -- red flags! -- but I'm not the one to cast stones.

It also strikes me that modern technologies have been an incredible gift to horndogs everywhere. It used to be that it would be surpassingly difficult to initiate your cheating from within the confines of your home. You couldn't receive letters that your wife wouldn't see, you couldn't take phone calls that she wouldn't hear. Now, through the silencio of web-surfing, email, and "sexting," those hurdles are long gone. You can be arranging your next liaison with your thumbs while you're eating dinner. Gotta answer the boss on the Blackberry, honey!

The technologies themselves seem to be especially addictive for males, and drive their other compulsions forward. Internet gambling, child porn, fetish discussion groups -- it's all an electronic world. As a cautionary example, look at the experience of Tom Bissell, a young writer who got sucked up in the world of the video game Grand Theft Auto, which he would play so long at a time that he developed a cocaine habit just to keep going: 

Or you could waste the next few years of your life having random encounters with deeply random people on ChatRoulette:

Well, at least I can get a blog post out of all this idiocy. The great historian of reading and publishing, Robert Darnton, compares blogging to the zesty world of 18th century news-sheets (a comparison I made myself as a throwaway comment on June 29, 2008):

Among notables born on this date are novelists Henri Murger, Heinrich Mann, Budd Schulberg, and Shusaku Endo, poets Alfred de Vigny, Louis Simpson, and Kenneth Slessor (Australia), statesman Cyrus Vance, cartoonist Carl Barks, illustrator Nathaniel Currier, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, French urban planner Baron Haussmann, composers Vincent d'Indy and Ferde Grofe, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, pop singer Mariah Carey, cellist Mtislav Rostropovich, jazz saxophonist Ben Webster, jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, film director Quentin Tarantino, and actors Richard Denning, Maria Schneider, Gloria Swanson, David Janssen, Michael York, and Austin Pendleton. The great poet Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971) is one of a rather large group of Australian writers who simply don't get the attention they deserve outside their home country. "Five Bells," "a meditation on the death of a friend by drowning" (Martin Seymour-Smith), is as moving a poem as you'll find in English-language writing through the whole of the 20th century, and intensely written, with memorable phrases tumbling one after the other:

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship's hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine's voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In the air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name;
Yet something's there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!

But I hear nothing, nothing...only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There's not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait -
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten - looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells.

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you'd cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you'd found.
But all I heard was words that didn't join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something that had just run, gone behind the grass,
When blank and bone-white, like a maniac's thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There's not so many with so poor a purse
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that's what you think.
Five bells.

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
The sodden ectasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you'd written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
"At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room - 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many differant things
And differant curioes that I obtained..."

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle's neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water's over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid -
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

I looked out my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon's drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Friday, March 26, 2010

March 26

Well, it took me all of 72 hours to find a perfectly decent job at a good salary teaching English in Korea. I'm headed out at the end of May. I'll have more to say about this as time goes on, but for now I'll just marvel at a contrast: Last year, after being laid off, I spent six months looking for a teaching job nationwide, plugged away at the search every day, and wound up receiving one offer, at a charter school that I suspected was marginal and turned out to be unbearable. This year, after leaving the same charter school, I spent two-and-a-half months looking for any work, and came up with nada. Then I go on the ESL boards on a Monday night; over the next three days I respond to 28 postings (and could have responded to many more if I didn't need to sleep and eat occasionally); I posted my resume on two boards and had 24 responses to those postings; was interviewed Thursday night; received an offer an hour later; worked out all the details by Friday morning.

What is wrong with this picture? I'm the same person in all these instance: I have the same bachelor's degree, the same master's degree, the same experience, the same interviewing skill or lack of it. Why are the results so different? Yes, we're in a crap economy, but it's more than just that, Job-seeking in this country has become a ponderous, embittering, incredibly protracted and largely futile pursuit. This may serve the hidden agendas of HR departments that need to make work for themselves -- and I've been attached to an HR department at a corporation, so I know what goes on -- but it is perfectly pointless otherwise. We're all being made like the miserable rats in psychology experiments whose learned helpfulness makes them retreat into a corner wanting to die.

Awareness of what is happening in this country depresses me, but it's not the same as the clinical depression that I have also suffered and continue to be medicated for. That is truly a rough beast. I read with genuine admiration Jennifer Michael Hecht's plea to....well, all of us....not to kill ourselves; Hecht has lost two close friends to suicide and feels this subject keenly.

Know that the rest of us know that among the faces we have met there are some right now who can barely take another minute of the pain and uncertainty. And we are in the room with you, going from one moment to the next, in whatever condition you manage to do it. Sobbing and useless is great! Sobbing and useless is a million times better than dead. A billion times. Thank you for choosing sobbing and useless over dead....Don’t kill yourself. Suffer here with us instead. We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.

I respond to this absolutely, but I also know that the controllable factors that impel people in the direction of suicide deserve our anger and attention. Unemployment (which means, of course, lack of livelihood, of the ability to live) is clearly one of those factors, as every study has shown. And it is controllable. Don't give me some nonsense about "the economy" obeying its own laws. We are the economy.

Among notables born on this date are poets A.E. Housman, Robert Frost, and Gregory Corso, novelists Patrick Suskind and Erica Jong, dramatists Tennessee Williams and Martin McDonagh, journalist Bob Woodward, psychologist Viktor Frankl, scholars Joseph Campbell and Vine Deloria, scientist Richard Dawkins, composer Pierre Boulez, pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, pop singers Diana Ross and Teddy Pendergrass, Mexican film director Emilio Fernandez, and actors Sterling Hayden, Strother Martin, James Caan, Jennifer Grey, Martin Short, Alan Arkin, Leonard Nimoy, and Michael Imperioli. Although one couldn't exactly say that Diana Ross ever went into a Garbo-like seclusion, the fact is that it's hard to make sense of what she has done with herself. Oscar-nominated for her first feature film, Lady Sings the Blues, she only made two more features in the Seventies and then gave up acting until the Nineties, when she made two TV movies and then dropped out again. Her pop music mega-stardom faded after the early Eighties, which is only to be expected (although she retained more of her popularity internationally). She was still a very young woman, and her varied talents gave her options, none of which she seemed to feel like exercising. Maybe, like fellow pop star Cher, who won the Oscar for Moonstruck and then more or less gave up movies, she just didn't like acting.    

Thursday, March 25, 2010

March 25: All Art and Architecture Edition

Christopher Knight at the Los Angeles Times provides a useful overview of the career of California painter and architect Millard Sheets:

The Royal Academy in London is currently featuring the neglected 18th century watercolorist Paul Sandby, and a very appealing artist he is:

I've been entrance by Scandinavian painting of the 1825-1925 period ever since discovering Kirk Varnedoe's excellent book Northern Light. It is good to see that Christen Kobke (1810-1848) is getting his first London exhibition:

Since I have turned PMD into a true daily diary and been scouring the Web for noteworthy material, I have become acquainted with so many terrific visual artists that I did not know about, such as painter Mark Grotjahn:

These encounters are very encouraging to me! If I had any doubts that there is tremendous work being done these days, I don't any longer.

Here is another painter and print-maker new to me, Barbara Rae, like Paul Sandby currently on exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. I love her vibrant use of color:,315,RAL.html

Coloration is also a strength of the Hungarian modernist Simon Hantai, who died just a couple of years ago:

Nicholas Roerich's mountain paintings are studies in ice-blue:

The Estonian photographer Alexander Gronsky has won the Foam Paul Huf Award for "a young international talent in photography under 35 years of age." Check out his website, there are a lot of fine pictures there:

The Palacio de Cristal in Madrid is currently home to a site-work by French artist Pierre Huyghe, "La saison des fetes," that incorporates plants and flowers "associated with festivals and celebrations familiar across the world":

As watchtowers go, this is pretty snazzy:

The municipality Inden wanted to erect a watchtower and landmark at this location [a coal mine!]. MUA decided on using the shape of an immense, 36 m tall robot: the Indemann. The Indemann’s design is characterised by its striking external appearance, but the real surprise lies in the staged experiences that the visitors can expect in its interior. The public experience the building as a composition of architectonic experiments, with tremendous overhanging elements, surprising transparencies and, for example, accessible grid floors in the outstretched robot arm 18 metres above the ground.

Also modernist in an inviting way that makes you want to explore it is the Porta Volta Fondazione Feltrinelli in Milan:

Among notables born on this date are feminist Gloria Steinem, pop singers Aretha Franklin and Elton John, country singer Hoyt Axton, soprano Magda Olivero, artist Matthew Barney, astronaut Jim Lovell, composers Johann Adolph Hasse and Bela Bartok, conductor Arturo Toscanini, sportscaster Howard Cosell, baseball pitcher Tom Glavine, race-car driver Danica Patrick, film directors David Lean and Helmut Kautner, novelists Penelope Gilliatt, Toni Cade Bambara, and Flannery O'Connor, historian A.J.P. Taylor, and actors Simone Signoret, Kari Matchett, Bonnie Bedelia, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Ed Begley Sr. Someday I really must sit down with Matthew Barney's seven-hour film cycle Cremaster 1-5, but in the meantime here is an extended video interview with Barney describing the entire series:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 24

In a widely quoted column on the implications of health care passage, David Frum made a very interesting point:

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished.

Frum is right, of course, and part of the reason is what I like to call the "yammer factor": These guys need something to talk about for hours on end. Has there ever been a culture that rewarded so handsomely the ability to yammer endlessly to no particular purpose? It is a gift, of a kind; certainly not everyone could do it. And it is by no means restricted to right-wing talk radio: Howard Stern does it, Keith Olbermann does it, every ESPN announcer and wannabe had better be able to do it. (Would Doug Gottlieb just shut the fuck up already?) The rewards come partly because in a 24/7 media culture, there is so much time to fill. Dead air is, well, deadly (unless you can turn it to comic purpose, as Jim Rome effectively does). And the non-stop yapping serves a subsidiary purpose in that it creates minor media scandals which are then the pretext of much more talk, in a sort of Moebius strip of meaninglessness. A good example is the recent flap over Glenn Beck urging his listeners to back away from churches that promote "social justice" (which, with the exception of the Church of Glenn Beck, is effectively all of them). I'm not excusing Beck from making stupid, but I will acknowledge that if I had to talk for three or four hours a day on both radio and television, as Beck and Jim Rome both do, I would say an awful lot of idiotic and embarrassing things. Because no one can be smart in public for that long, day in and day out. Yammer yammer yammer.

By the way, have I ever said that I like the way Glenn Beck dresses? I do. The French cuffs and spread collars and bright ties are exactly my kind of thing. I figure that if I ever met the guy, we could talk about matters sartorial, and the risk of my doing him harm would be much reduced.

I love this feature on creepy unsolved crimes (hat tip to Bill Crider):

(If the subject had been creepy unsolved mysteries rather than crimes, there would need to have been a spot for the mystery of the still-unidentified "Little Miss 1565" from the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944. Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire is a great book on this disaster.)

Another good unsolved creepy crime is the 1948 Teikoku Bank massacre in Tokyo, the subject of David Peace's new novel Occupied City:

If you're in the mood for still more creepy reading, check out these books on the Spanish Inquisition. There is even one that is a minor mystery in itself -- list-maker (and novelist) Theresa Breslin can't remember the author or title and is asking for help!

Deaths of woulds-be immigrants along the Arizona/Mexico border are not so much creepy as depressing (although the current wave of drug-related murders in border cities and elsewhere in Mexico is both):

OK, enough doom and gloom, it's time for cheerful bears:

Or for a service station that doesn't dampen the spirits (in Grisons, Switzerland):

Among notables born on this date are cultural critics Dwight Macdonald and Malcolm Muggeridge, explorer John Wesley Powell, novelists William Morris, Olive Schreiner (South Africa), Martin Walser (Germany), and Peter Bichsel (Switzerland), crime novelist Donald Hamilton, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, playwright/performer Dario Fo, Spanish essayist Mariano Jose de Larra, animators Ub Iwerks and Joseph Barbera, photographer Edward Weston, psychologist Wilhelm Reich, magician Harry Houdini, baseball great George Sisler, businessman Andrew Mellon, pop singer Nick Lowe, film director Curtis Hanson, comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, and actors Sir Lancelot, Annabella Sciorra, Richard Conte, and Steve McQueen. Curtis Hanson has had a curious career as a director, to put it mildly. He was slow getting started (quite understandable in Hollywood), and didn't make an "impact film" till he was almost 50, with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle  in 1992. He made everyone sit up and take notice with the very impressive L.A. Confidential in 1997 (for which he won a shelf-ful of best director and screenplay awards), and matched it with the equally confident but very different Wonder Boys in 2000. Since then? Three features starring Eminem, Cameron Diaz, and Eric Bana, none of which did much critically or commercially (but which spawn a reasonable trivia question: what could those three performers have in common?). I can't make any sense of this trajectory at all, but the film industry is a tough world.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 23: All Political Economy Edition

Bob Herbert at the New York Times addresses the financial "meltdown" at the state and local government levels:

When hundreds of thousands of teachers, among other public employees, hit the streets as the year progresses, we'll see just how bad this is. Well, actually, I can tell you now: It's so bad that I've pretty much given up on job-seeking stateside and am instead vigorously pursuing teaching employment abroad -- with tons more response in 48 hours than I could hope to see in 48 months in the United Stares. It's very very bad, folks.

Kathryn A. Higgins at The Faster Times describes how being poor and applying for various sorts of assistance can be " a full-time job":

I can relate to this, too, as I just qualified for food stamps today. That's a tough moment for a middle-class kid!

The perspicacious historian and intellectual Tony Judt is understandably concerned about where we find ourselves:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.... The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor.,0,5702961.story

Judt can well be concerned about where he finds himself, as well, stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease and unable to move or even breathe on his own. Yet he continues to illuminate the way for the rest of us, in a new book Ill Fares the Land, and in occasional pieces such as this interview in the London Review of Books:

We need to rediscover a language of dissent. It can’t be an economic language since part of the problem is that we have for too long spoken about politics in an economic language where everything has been about growth, efficiency, productivity and wealth, and not enough has been about collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour. We have thrown away the language with which to do that. And until we rediscover that language how could we possibly bind ourselves together?

It has gotten so that even conservatives such as David Brooks are looking longingly toward communitarian ideals, which are finding a new spokesperson in "Red Tory" Phillip Blond:

Brooks predictably took a beating from libertarians and free-marketers for venturing in the communitarian direction, but with all due respect for the engaging libertarians out there -- Tom G. Palmer, say, or Ron Paul -- they are awfully doctrinaire for a group that has never and will never wield actual political power. Brooks is at least demonstrating some flexibility here, taking the edge off the slightly caricatured view of him that progressive Matt Taibbi likes to indulge.

Among notables born on this date are psychologists Erich Fromm and Philip Zimbardo, painter Juan Gris, composers Julius Reubke, Franz Schreker, and Michael Nyman, scientist Wernher von Braun, film directors Akira Kurosawa and Mark Rydell, cinematographer David Watkin, botanist John Bartram, science fiction writers H. Beam Piper and Kim Stanley Robinson, pop singer Chaka Khan, rock singer Ric Ocasek, novelist Roger Martin du Gard, and actors Joan Crawford, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Ugo Tognazzi, and Amanda Plummer. When Tony Judt criticizes, in the words of reviewer Tim Rutten, "a simplified Anglo-American reading of that generation of Austrian thinkers -- the economists Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Joseph Schumpeter, the social philosopher Karl Popper and the managerial theorist Peter Drucker -- whose traumatized experiences of fascism drove them to oppose any governmental intervention in economic affairs" (the Mises-ophiles in particular can become ultra-tiring), what he would like to bring into balance with those Austrians' views could be partially represented by the deep social humanism of an Erich Fromm, their great contemporary who also had his roots in Germanic culture.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March 22

My comments about "hobbification" the other day find an echo in the latest column of academic "Thomas H. Benton" (William Pannapacker), who has been beating the warning drum against graduate education in the humanities for quite a while:

The suffering of underemployed Ph.D.'s is great because their devotion is so remarkable in a culture defined by marketplace values. Far from being a cultivator of the humanities, the academic labor system has destroyed dreams and stamped out passions; it routinely drives gifted and idealistic people to the brink of despair and beyond it. It has done so for 40 years now, and there's no end in sight. The enemies of intellectualism—for whom the word "professor" cannot be uttered without a sneer—have no greater ally than the wasted lives of so many would-be academics.

Graduate schools ask students to behave like idealists, but the schools act like the corporations they train students to despise....professors are becoming deprofessionalized.

Waggish adds nuance to the discussion by drawing attention to certain inexorable economic forces in higher education:

Inexorable economic forces are also shrinking the market for middle-tier goods, as James Surowiecki explains:

Fun with Artistic Movements: The Automatistes were Canada's first "true avant-garde" (Jean-Paul Riopelle may be the best known of them):

The Society of Independent Artists was a group of early modernist Ukrainian painters centered in Odessa. The largest collection of their work, long assumed lost, is going to be auctioned as a lot in April. Since the estimated going price is only $1.5-2 million, I assume some enterprising museum will snap the collection up: 

The Nouveau Realisme movement of the Sixties believed in using "junk" materials and sometimes blowing them up:

The exhibition will....feature works by Niki de Saint Phalle, well known for her “shooting paintings”. Using plaster, paint, and a .22 caliber rifle, Saint Phalle would elevate her works onto a platform and open fire, exploding bags of pigment – thereby creating a work of art.

I've got to think that these Nouveau Realistes were a key influence on Mark Pauline's Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco, with their destructive machines and robots -- I recall that in the Eighties, you had to sign an insurance disclaimer to attend their shows!

"The Pleasure of Flinching," a Susan Sontag phrase which would have been a good name for an SRL performance, is also the title of an interesting Nicholas Sautin essay about our troubled relations with shock-documentary-type images that are readily available on the Internet:

Among notables born on this date are painter Anthony van Dyck, theater composers Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, film composer Angelo Badalamenti, literary translator Edith Grossman, mime Marcel Marceau, figure skater Elvis Stojko, educators E.D. Hirsch and Derek Bok, sports broadcaster Bob Costas, comedian Chico Marx, novelists Nicholas Monsarrat and Gabrielle Roy (Quebec), Western novelist Louis L'Amour, pop/jazz singer George Benson, and actors Bruno Ganz, Reese Witherspoon, Lena Olin, Matthew Modine, Karl Malden, Ross Martin, M. Emmet Walsh, and William Shatner. Devoted as I am to Shatner, I cannot resist sharing a primo piece of video, his unforgettable performance of "Rocket Man" at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards (introduced by no less than Bernie Taupin, who I hope had a bottle of scotch handy). This is The Shat!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March 21

Fridolin Schley at The Millions has posted an impressive account of reading German novelist Uwe Johnson's four volume Anniversaries (only available severely abridged in English):

Michael Orthofer's review of the complete German Anniversaries is also helpful:

Anniversaries is a very long book; remarkably, it hardly ever flags. The variety of narrative techniques -- quotation, different voices and perspectives -- help keep the reader focussed, and the different storylines...are woven together well. It is a history of Germany, 1933 to ca. 1953, as well as of 1968 America. It is about the experience of being a European emigrant, and about being an almost-teen in the late 60s. It is about past and present and, emphatically, morality in its broadest senses. It is about society -- German and American, and society under Nazi, communist, and capitalist systems -- and works as such because it isn't a moralising text and offers little forced philosophical exposition and debate: Johnson shows by example and experience.

Johnson died quite young, at the age of 49, and in my searching the Web to learn more about that, I have yet to come across more than vagueness: he broke off a reading tour "for health reasons" (what were they?); he died on February 22, 1984 at a house where he apparently lived alone in Sheerness-on-Sea, England, yet his body was not discovered until March 13 (then how do we know what day he died?). If anyone can offer more information, I'd be grateful, because the references suggest a mystery that may not exist. There is no hint of suicide in them beyond the sheer vagueness, although suicide seems to have been a theme that preoccupied Johnson in his fiction.

As an emigre from East Germany, Johnson was undoubtedly familiar with the genre of "totalitarian kitsch":

Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70 goes far afield from the exploitation films he usually writes about, but back in the direction of his own training as a historian, to consider Roberto Rossellini's controversial (because so different from other costume films) The Rise to Power of Louis XIV:

Southern California photographer Bill Dewey has a nice eye for patterns of landscape that are only visible from the air:

Could there be a weightier title for an exhibition than "Metamorphoses of World History"? No, I didn't think so. German artists such as Markus Lupertz (whose show this is) or Anselm Kiefer are unafraid of taking on the "big themes," and often do so successfully:

And speaking of big gestures, here is a typically brash project by Daniel Libeskind, the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin:

"The 2000-seat Grand Canal Theatre is a landmark that creates a focus for its urban context" -- I'll say!

I had been a little worried that the fine aggregation site Arts & Letters Daily was tilting just a little too heavily toward conservative think-pieces, since I prize a balanced selection of viewpoints there. But lately they have been linking to substantial pieces from The Nation, such as this profile of Sixties activist Mario Savio, so maybe the tilt was in my mind:

Among notables born on this date are composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikos Skalkottas (Greece), violinist Arthur Grumiaux, cellist Paul Tortelier, cowboy film star Broncho Billy Anderson, film director Russ Meyer, theater director Peter Brook, Mexican statesman Benito Juarez, talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, German novelist Jean Paul, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and actors Francoise Dorleac, Timothy Dalton, Matthew Broderick, and Gary Oldman. Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) is, with the Frenchman Charles Koechlin, one of the most under-played of the super-prolific composers of the 20th century (among whom are Darius Milhaud, Bohuslav Martinu, Paul Hindemith, Alan Hovhaness, and Heitor Villa-Lobos). After studying with Schoenberg in Berlin, he returned to his native Greece but didn't achieve much acceptance there (although he is now considered Greece's pre-eminent composer of the first half of the century). He died sadly young and never heard most of his music performed; scholars are still digging their way out from under the manuscripts.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 20

Richard at Wasp 101 is a political consultant who is refreshingly honest (in his blog, at least) about the state of politics in this country:

....truthfully, regardless of who controls Washington, the special interests run the show. Corporations, social issue groups, you name it and if they have the funds they can play ball. The American people truly are the least heard group, but I blame the American people for letting this happen.

....I guess I should rejoice that people are ignorant because it helps me garner clients who need help putting together 30 second ads. However, I would gladly give up every dime I have ever made on political campaigns if American voters would become involved and responsible enough to research candidates and how the system truly works. Imagine a world where candidates only had to make television appearances on news stations, publish websites stating their beliefs, and possibly participate in public forums to get their message across. Inevitably, the people of this country are the sole reason campaigns have become so expensive, and it is their ignorance and lack of character that forces candidates to capture their attention with 30 sec TV ads. Maybe one day people will stand up, truly do their homework, and demand more from their elected officials.

I probably wouldn't like most of Richard's candidates -- he doesn't work with Democrats -- but I applaud his analysis (and his classic fashion sense).

Ivy Style is another fashionable blog I enjoy reading. Here is blogmaster Christian Chensvold's take on preppy jazzman Bobby Troup, who married the amazing chanteuse Julie London (and they were together for forty years and never parted, bless 'em). Play the clip, it's great:

I first encountered Troup and London as co-stars on Emergency!, which is not the best way to remember them. The Seventies were just not as flattering to talents as the Mad Men era was.

Auteurist Confession: In all my decades of film-going, I have yet to watch a single film by the persistent film-maker Henry Jaglom. Jaglom works on small budgets and is unknown to the general public -- there is a documentary about him (which I haven't seen, either) called, appropriately enough, Who Is Henry Jaglom? Nonetheless, I think it is roughly true that a cineaste can use Jaglom as a test-question to identify other cineastes; someone who has heard of him qualifies, someone who hasn't doesn't. Here is a stimulating interview with Tanna Frederick, who has starred in Jaglom's last three projects, Hollywood Dreams, Irene in Time, and the upcoming Queen of the Lot:

Since the sea is one of my favorite artistic subjects, naturally I would gravitate towards an exhibition titled "The Sea as a Pretext" at the Valencian Institute for Modern Art:

The exhibition catalogue is viewable in full here:

I need to get hold of a hard copy of this; my reading Spanish is just good enough for me to able to enjoy the text as well as the pictures.

{feuilleton} revives an appealing turn-of-the-century illustrator, Dugald Stewart Walker:

Camilo Rebelo's Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Coa Valley (Portugal) is "conceived as an installation in the landscape":

The Coa Valley boasts one of the world's largest concentrations of Paleolithic art (and specifically the largest in open air rather than caves):

Among notables born on this date are tenors Beniamino Gigli and Lauritz Melchior, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, popular singer Vera Lynn, jazz pianist Marian McPartland, management theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor (not my favorite thinker), psychologist B.F. Skinner (ditto), children's television host Fred Rogers, poets Ovid and Friedrich Holderlin, playwright Henrik Ibsen, Australian novelist David Malouf, film directors Carl Reiner and Spike Lee, comedian Vaughn Meader, and actors Wendell Corey, Theresa Russell, William Hurt, Michael Redgrave, Holly Hunter, and David Thewlis. It is hard not to feel a little sorry for Vaughn Meader, who rose to comedy stardom on the basis of his spot-on impersonation of John F. Kennedy, in the process recording the fastest-selling comedy album in history, The First Family, only to have it all go bad when Kennedy was assassinated. As Lenny Bruce said at the time, "Vaughn Meader is screwed!" And indeed he was, sinking into depression and substance abuse, although he later rebounded somewhat as a local bluegrass performer in Maine. The ways of fame are cruel; no one can tell when the lights will go down on their show.

Friday, March 19, 2010

March 19: All Literature Edition

A very interesting literary fuss in progress, between Cameroonian novelist Leonora Miano and her U.S. publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, which added a Foreword to the translation of her novel Dark Heart of the Night that she takes grave exception to. Michael Orthofer at The Complete Review, to whom Miano sent her complaint, judiciously assesses the situation (and praises the novel):

One of the telling aspects of this feud is that Miano did not send her detailed and thoughtful letter to the Times Literary Supplement (say), but to Orthofer -- a sign of how the literary blogosphere has gained in influence. Her instinct was correct: News of the disagreement has spread quickly across the Web because The Complete Review is (rightly) one of the most respected book sites.

At The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel posts an excellent essay on the theme of "disappearance" in recent literature:

English musician and political activist Billy Bragg enjoys books that grapple intelligently with the meaning of "Englishness":

The Victorian Geek looks at one of Anthony Trollope's lesser-known efforts among his 48 novels, Lady Anna:

Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader toots his trumpet for the neglected Carpathian novelist Gregor Von Rezzori:

Contributors at The Second Pass likewise get excited about deserving but under-read books:

Post St. Patrick's Day, but the celebration of Irish literature never ends: Omnivoracious has posted a nice video of a conversation over beers with award-winning Irish novelist Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin). Complete with background noise -- hey, it's a pub!

If your taste runs to "alternative Irish classics," you might want to check out these authors, of whom Flann O'Brien and Gene Kerrigan are familiar to me, Julian Gough and Phillip O’Ceallaigh not:

Literary critic Terry Eagleton (himself Irish) is interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire (not, as I at first misread, his political opposite number John Derbyshire) at The New Statesman:

Every Friday a bunch of crime fiction bloggers around the Web resuscitate forgotten and semi-remembered titles in their field. This week, The Rap Sheet discusses a reprint of Norbert Davis's comic pulp stories about detective Max Latin:

A fine guide to the pulp detectives of that era which I just finished reading is Ron Goulart's The Dime Detectives.

Among notables born on this date are explorers David Livingstone and Richard Francis Burton, novelists Tobias Smollett and Philip Roth, poet William Allingham, theologian Hans Kung, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, statesman William Jennings Bryan, Plymouth Colony Governor and diarist William Bradford, Western artist Charles Marion Russell, Western lawman Wyatt Earp, painter Josef Albers, composer Max Reger, pianist Dinu Lipatti, pop singer Ruth Pointer, film producer Harvey Weinstein, film director Bigas Luna, and actors Louis Hayward, Bruce Willis, Patrick McGoohan, and Glenn Close.

The 19th century Irish poet and diarist William Allingham is one of those"minor writers" (not my favorite phrase) who repays acquaintance in a charming way. Such a well-known anthology piece as "The Faeries" is remarkable not simply for encapsulating leprechaun myths, but for its infectious lilt:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music
On cold starry nights
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag-leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
If any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!