Friday, April 29, 2011

Mammal Watch: Siberian Weasel

I am an enthusiastic mammal-watcher, which is harder to be than a bird-watcher because mammals are more visually elusive. Last night as I was walking through Yongji Park in Changwon, I saw a mustelid mammal that I thought might have been a feral ferret. But the coloration also matched the Siberian Weasel, which is indigenous to Korea. Here is a picture of the Siberian Weasel that I lifted from the Web:

I got a really good look at this mammal, since it was not particularly fearful and the lighting in the park was good. After I got home, I posted queries at the forums at Animal Rescue Korea and (an excellent site). Respondents confirmed that the Siberian Weasel has adapted to urban environments in Korea and China, and is seen in Seoul, Busan, and Shanghai, also on Jeju Island off the South Korean coast. So I was able to confirm my sighting as this species, which excited me considerably. There is not much mammal action around here; I’ve only seen Red Squirrels a couple of times locally. And I've never seen any mustelids in the wild before, so this was a great experience.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

In the Shadows

Have you ever noticed how in biographies, a fringe character who pops up periodically but about whom little is known is always described as a "shadowy figure"? Well, that guy is me. It's not so easy to be mysterious in our electronic era as in earlier times, but I am doing my best. This blog, of course, is written under a pseudonym (one of several handles that I use online). I have never been on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, and recently deleted my LinkedIn account. I have been scrubbing a lot of my Internet presence elsewhere as well. I have moved rapidly from city to city and lately from country to country, and am about to make another such leap. Usually when I leave a place, the vast majority of people I knew there never hear from (and perhaps about) me again. I want to be hard to find, except for that small group of family and friends that I keep apprised of my movements.

Our worldwide social movement towards oversharing of information, total personal transparency, and constant surveillance both overt and covert, appalls me, and whatever little I can do to resist it, I will. I rather expect that a small but vigorous counter-movement will form around this notion of renewed privacy and semi-visibility; Mark Zuckerberg et al. have swung the pendulum so far in their "We Live in Public" direction that an opposite if not equal reaction is probably inevitable.

The surveillance society, a development of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon concept employing all the latest modern technologies, is especially troubling to me. Lately I have noticed how about half the visual content on local television news programs in Korea is made up of hidden camera videos. Blaise Pascal once said that "the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room"; but we may all have to do that if we wish to have any personal zone whatsoever.

We are not only over-watched, we are over-identifiable. It used to be that you could remake your identity fairly easily. Crossing borders without papers was common. Then, as Paul Fussell discusses in his wonderful book Abroad, passports and visas became required burdens and avatars of modern identity. You could still gallivant around in your own country without much fuss as late as the Fifties and Sixties, the time of On the Road and The Fugitive. The premise of The Fugitive, that Richard Kimball could move from state to state without ever having to produce a picture ID, open a bank account, or obtain a driver's license -- without ever having to prove who he is -- is unthinkable nowadays. We are demanded to produce such proof all the time.

It becomes harder and harder to say, as Frank Sinatra sings in "Angel Eyes," "Excuse me while I disappear...." But I think that when the ability to disappear, to not be known, is lost, something fundamental has been taken from us. And yes, I admit that when that ability does exist, people will misuse it to evade taxes, to escape from the consequences of their crimes, to bail out on responsibilities -- naturally they will. There is no benefit without that kind of corresponding deficit. But it is a trade-off I would happily return to. A world without shadows is glaring, frightening, and Orwellian.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

David Foster Wallace

With David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King coming out, there has been a surge of essays and articles about the late writer, and one of the most interesting is this account in The Guardian (those British newspapers strike again!) of a visit with his widow, artist Karen Green:

I love this bit about Wallace's friendship/rivalry with Jonathan Franzen:

Franzen was one of very few literary figures with whom Wallace kept in touch. They had both been beset by similar doubts about their work, and about the future of the American novel, which they had attempted to resolve in different ways; Franzen committing himself to "old-fashioned" storytelling in The Corrections, Wallace persisting with his sense that fiction had to be frenetically alive to the way "experience seemed to barrage me with input".

Green recalls their rivalry with a smile. "They were really great together, you know like two kids in the back seat of the car, squabbling, it was really delightful to see them together. Jon has lost that neck-and-neck competitor, his soccer-field pal."

In one corner of the room where we are talking is a beautiful guitar given to Green by Franzen, which she is learning to play: Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright. "Jon was one of David's very, very few writing friends," she says. "He was sort of like a god to David and I think Jon maybe felt something the same about David. And he has been an incredible friend to me since [Wallace's suicide] happened. He feels like a brother."

At the end of the article, there is a nice little annotated bibliography of Wallace's writings.

RIP Sidney Lumet

What a great film-maker he was (and by every report I have ever read, a fine and thoroughly decent man). Roger Ebert has put up a thoughtful obituary:

Lumet's output is equally rich in accepted classics, and re-discoverable neglected films. He started out performing on the Broadway stage as a child, and always had a marvelous touch with actors, who revered him. He is underrated as a visual artist because he created a separate style appropriate to the needs of each movie. And as a dramatic director, keeping the audience involved in every scene, very few are in his league.

I am partial to so many of his films, but would give special shout-outs to Prince of the City, probably his most complex movie, and in my view a masterpiece; the stunningly tense Fail-Safe, under-appreciated because of its proximity to the identically plotted Dr. Strangelove; and Network, in which Lumet, brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and an incomparable cast, foresaw the world we live in now.

POSTSCRIPT: Jeffery Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere is with me on Prince of the City:

To me Lumet's masterpiece is Prince of the City ('81) -- a nearly three-hour-long drama about the morality of finking out your friends in order to find your morality, and entirely about New York cops and mob guys and district attorneys and junkies, most of it set in the offices of this or that prosecutor with guys dressed in suits and shirtsleeves with cold takeout food and tepid coffee on the desk.

POSTSCRIPT: I found an interesting tidbit in a tribute piece by Clint O'Connor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

When I asked about some of his all-time favorites, he wouldn't bite. "I'm not going to tell you that," said Lumet. "If I tell you about the ones I feel good about, it makes orphans of the other ones."

Robert Altman made a very similar comment in an interview once: The films are all my children; whatever one you say you don't like, I'm going to stick up for that one and say it's a favorite.

No orphans.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Human Jungle

[Cross-posted as a "TV Noir of the Week" at The Blackboard.]

In addition to everything else that Sigmund Freud wrought, he made inadvertent major contributions to the practice of narrative. Since the Freudian sub-conscious is a place where information can hide, the ascendancies of the mystery as a genre and of the surprise ending as a narrative device can be partly traced to Freud. Further, the process of accessing the sub-conscious can usefully form a major strand of a story’s plot, with the accessor, usually a psychologist or psychiatrist, playing an important and often heroic role, and the end results of the access being one or more cathartic big “reveals.” Variations on this narrative template have been ubiquitous in literature, theater, film, and television for many years, to the point where it can seem rote and tired and needs a special dose of cleverness to revive it (as in The Sixth Sense).

The title of the 1963-1964 British psychiatric television drama, The Human Jungle, perfectly captures the appeal of the Freudian scenario for storytellers. The jungle of the mind, like the actual physical jungle, is wild, it is lush, and there are things in it you cannot see, at least not at first. I wish I could say that The Human Jungle rings interesting changes on the typical psycho-narrative, which was worked pretty hard throughout the post-war era. But in the episodes I have watched, it is fairly standard stuff, offering predictable and humdrum revelations that are insufficient pay-off even for the low investment of a televised hour. Its noir markings are exceedingly faint, although the smoky credit sequence, with our hero-psychiatrist listening pensively to a taped patient session while slow background jazz plays, seems to promise more in that regard.

Herbert Lom plays psychiatrist Dr. Roger Corder with an intense manner (that is however capable of relaxing into friendliness) and a slightly beady stare; one imagines he might be good at hypnosis if required. Like most psychological professionals in this sort of set-up, he is a locksmith who can provide you with the missing key. He is assisted by an ambitious young colleague (check), a trusty secretary (check), and a seemingly madcap but actually quite sensible teenage daughter whom he is raising alone as a widower. The widowerhood provides an aura of personal loss that suggests that Dr. Corder will not have to fake his empathy with patients: he too has suffered.

The episode “Fourteen Ghosts” is quite emblematic of the series and its approach. The wife of a prominent judge has been arrested for shoplifting. Naturally she has no economic reason to steal, so the kleptomania is expressive of deeper issues (as it is in Hitchcock’s Marnie). When a woman shoplifts, then you can be sure that somewhere, sometime, the men in her life done her wrong, and in this case it doesn’t take Dr. Corder long to figure the particulars out; you or I could have done it. Lady Shaw had a difficult relationship with her rigid father, and now has an even more difficult one with her super-rigid husband. Hubby the judge has his own deep unresolved traumas, and Dr. Corder diagnoses that he too should submit to therapy, but of course the judge is having none of that. He wears down quickly, however, this being television, and his shameful war history of responsibility for the deaths of others (implied in the title) comes spilling out.

The Shaw family situation also includes a supportive and sensible daughter, a type apparently thick on the ground in Britain at that time, and a son-in-law who has been unfairly rejected by the judgmental judge for not being “good enough” for his daughter. (A penniless artist! It just won’t do!) Even from my brief description, you can sense the metaphoric group hug this is all going to end with. Another triumph for Dr. Corder!

I am scarcely immune to the pleasures of this type of story; I bawl my eyes out every time I watch Ordinary People. But that is an unusually effective example of the classic-style psychological family drama, partly because it is more realistic: the super-rigid mother played by Mary Tyler Moore adamantly refuses the group hug and packs off instead. It is a standard that The Human Jungle doesn’t measure up to. Despite my fondness for Sixties London in black-and-white, this series is too blah and formulaic in its execution to win me over.