15 December 2009

The Denial Twist

You should know that the doctors weren't kidding
that she was singing it all along

but you were hearing a different song


Upon every unveiling of public scandal, particularly ones in which the general public feels betrayed by an institution or individual, I get to thinking whether the shock expressed is truly warranted.  I'm referring of course to Tiger Woods and his now infamously daily growing harem. 

Let me put the Tiger aside for a moment and quickly peruse a few other high-profile scandals.  There's the grandaddy of them all:  Watergate.  Dick Nixon glumly told the American people on national TV that he wasn't a crook, but his public service record, in spite of his apparent success, had leaks of unethical, self-serving behavior throughout.  He witchhunted Alger Hiss into prison for being a Soviet spy and his own Vice-President was the first VP to be convicted of bribery and forced to resign office.  Nixon existed in a nucleus whose orbit nurtured ethical breaches and illegality.

A few decades later, another President got caught up in a different kind of public shame.  The masses were appalled that Slick Willy had shot his load on the June Cleaver dress of a White House intern.  But before this affair, his purported indiscretions were widely known.  Where to start?  Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, the list goes on and on.  The only real shocking part of the whole thing was the universal unattractiveness of all the women involved.

On to the Tiger.  Sure he expertly marketed himself as the ultimate human being, a Nietzschean Übermensch if you will,  a man with no flaws, seemingly capable of any feat.  But we really knew nothing about Tiger save for what he chose to show us, and that was limited to the golf course.  He inculcated himself around an army of PR men who maniacally controlled all access their prize client.  But if you looked closely there were cracks in the Portrait of Tiger Woods.  His petulance on the golf course, going beyond mere cursing to throwing his driver so hard recently that it richoted and struck a bystander.  At the British Open, he relinquished a last day lead, something that he'd never done before.  Perhaps his tumultuous inner life had finally caught up to his incandescent public one. I noticed all these things and I didn't look too closely.  I don't even like golf.

The signs were there all along. No one knows anybody, not that well, and anyone is capable of anything at anytime.  Betrayal is always around the corner.  And remember, what people think is true is often shaped by the context in which information is presented to them and their willingness to be deceived -- even by themselves.

15 November 2009

La Mariée était en noir




"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
--T.S. Eliot, 1920

Perhaps the loudest - and most recurring - criticism of the work of Quentin Tarantino indicts the master auteur with cinematic plagiarism.  He simply usurps set-ups from classic films, known and unknown, polishes them wish modern luster, and voilà, is proclaimed a genius, so they say.  To his loudest critics, Tarantino isn't so much a master originator as he is a master thief.  

From a purely technical perspective, this view is highly flawed.  Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds surely borrow elements from both film and literature, but the shocking novelty of their central conceits is undeniable.  It must be this reality that boils the skin of all the haters; it seems to me these philistines must be of the same crowd that denies Shakespeare to be the sole author of his plays and sonnets, and who are convinced our President was born in Indonesia, or worse, Kenya.  

Not a single of Shakespeare's plays exhibited original plotting.  The comedies, the tragedies, the histories, can trace their antecedents to Aristophanes, Sophocles, Plutarch, Petrarch, Boccaccio, just to name a few.  What Shakespeare did - what all great artists do - is take an established good idea and present it in a refreshing and revealing way.  Through this method, Shakespeare elevated himself to the greatest contributor of world literature in history!

The French New Wave is widely considered to be one of the greatest eras in filmmaking.  Beginning in 1959 with Les Quatre Cents Coups, by the end of the 60s, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Léaud became household names.  The French New Wavers were obsessed with American film noirs of the 30s and 40s - and they translated that aesthetic into a wholly new French form.  Looking back, arguably the first true New Wave film came in 1956 with Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur.  Melville was so in love with American culture that he changed his surname to reflect his favourite author.  Here is the trailer to Bob:



The homage to American ganster/heist films is crystal.  Nowhere is the adulation of American cinema more obvious in the French New Wave than Truffaut's often overlooked 1968 revenge film, La Mariée était en noir.  Truffaut adored Hitchcock.  So he essentially set out to make a French version of a Hitchcock thriller.  Truffaut employs Hitchcock's favourite cinematic device, the macguffin, by misleading the audience into investing itself into who/what caused Julie Kohler's (Jeanne Moreau) husband's murder, he raises the suspense ten-fold as we watch the inconsolable bride take revenge in increasingly manipulatively inventive ways.  To top it all off, Truffaut brought on Hitchcock's composer, Bernard Herrmann, to compose the score:

20 October 2009

Sacred Feminine - Film Review: Coco avant Chanel


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single celebrity in possession of a good legend, must be in want of a biopic.  

Another a truth that may not be so universally acknowledged is that a successful biopic must dedicate itself to not so much showing the protaganist doing what made him famous, but rather showing why the protaganist arrived at the destination that made him famous.  One of the more fascinating biopics of the last decade -- albeit one whose subject is fictional -- is Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins.  Nolan grasped what separates the Batman origin myth from other comic heroes -- he's not an alien from another planet, he hasn't been exposed to massive radiation doses, nor is he the disgruntled victim of an ultra-secret government experiment.  No, he's just a child of privilege who suffers an unimaginable tragedy who then projects the pain borne of that trauma into devoting his life (and wealth) to the cause of striking fear into the hearts of predators who prey on the weak and defenseless.  Batman's superpower is his mortality; underneath the mask he is but Bruce Wayne.  Ergo, every scene of sequel The Dark Knight sans Heath Ledger descends into fuggy cartoonishness.

The filmmakers behind Coco avant Chanel, director Anne Fontaine co-wrote the script with her sister Camille, masterfully unfurl the why of Coco Chanel with muted detachment.  We don't see gamine Audrey Tautou performing the quintessential Coco Chanel posture -- overseeing her own fashion show with detailed intensity -- until the closing moments of the film.  Instead the film focuses on Chanel's early life adventures while quietly stitching the identity garment she would ultimately slip into.

After the prerequisite opening sequences of a miserable childhood (is it a coincidence that seemingly every great man and woman in history began life as an orphan, an abuse victim, a friendless loner, or hopelessly destitute?) we're introduced to Gabrielle Chanel busking in a seedy early-20th century French version of a nightclub/brothel.  After an uber-wealthy sexual suitor nicknames her Coco for the ditty she performs, Chanel instantly establishes herself as a headstrong individualist who spits at convention (and the men who perpetrate them).  

Tautou scowls, glares, and snaps at everyone around her, in this case conformist hedonistic Parisian bluebloods while criticizing their dresses, their hats, and their mores.  Shrewdly maneuvering herself into a high-class world doggedly devoted to exclusion, the film slowly consecrates Chanel as not simply the first fashion superstar, but the first woman of the 20th century.  From her refutation of corsets to her simple and dark livery, Chanel's philosophy was to accentuate femininity through adoption of masculine style.

Fontaine did such a wonderful job of establishing Chanel's revolutionary spirit that the second half of the film takes a most disturbing turn.  Suddenly, this beacon of feminist strength succumbs to a weakness that undoes all the goodwill she had earned.  Let's just say the nickname of the man she falls in love with is Boy. Yea...

Coco avant Chanel is a very likable film.  It draws you in, it makes you care about the characters, and it's technically proficient, but I suspect the lasting sourness I felt is the result of philistine studio bosses diluting a perfectly artistic film for the purpose of American marketability, for a French-speaking film this new world encroachment is surely an unpleasant surprise.  Sacrebleu! 

06 October 2009

unKindle: An Argument Against Digital Reading Devices


I love my fifth-generation iPod.  It's 30-gigs, black, named Othello.  I take it practically everywhere, often to the chagrin of my companions.  But their groans of protest matter little to me.  Othello has improved my quality of life dramatically.  Since it's acquisition, my bench-press weight has increased fantastically, no more suffering through Hall & Oates in the supermarket, and in the evenings, Al Green is a scroll away.  Of course there is a downside:  my driving record has endured a precipitous blow.

My point being that I'm decidedly not an anti-technology guy.  I dig my 21st century toys, and as I make clear above, I fetishise my digital music player.  That said, I am impassionedly against digital readers of any kind (at least for those with better than 20/200 eyesight).  Devices such as Amazon Kindle represent the dark side of technological advance.  Eviscerating the romance from the loins of literature is something I will never quietly let slide.  Amazon Kindle is an abomination.

A quick story.  I attended a book festival recently.  Forget the "featured author readings" or the gratuitous literary wares; I go for the rare/used book flea market.  There are few more satisfying experiences than digging through the sandpit of Emeril Lagasse cookbooks, Tony Robbins motivational tomes, and twenty editions of The Devil Wears Prada to find buried underneath a true pearl.  In this particular case, it was a hardcover edition Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors:  Robert Burns.  

The pages are as thick as impecunious wedding invitations, the binding smells of the 19th century.  It contains no publication date but research revealed that Hubbard perished on the LusitaniaAt the latest, this book's origins coincide with my late grandmother's birth.  Who knows whose hands this book has passed through, what history it's seen.  The imagination trembles.  And now, in 2009, the book is mine (for an outrageous $2) to possess into posterity.  How can Amazon Kindle ever stand up to that?  It doesn't, it can't, it won't.  Thank goodness!


I leave with you with the first page of Little Journeys:  Robert Burns:

The business of Robert Burns was love-making.

All love is good, but some kinds of love are better than others. Through Burns' penchant for falling in love we have his songs.  A Burns bibliography is simply a record of love affairs, and the spasms of repentance that followed his lapses are made manifest in religious verse.

Poetry is the very earliest form of literature, and is the natural expression of a person in love; and I suppose we might as well admit the fact at once, that without love there would be no poetry.

Poetry is the bill and coo of sex.  All poets are lovers, and all lovers, either actual or potential, are poets.  Potential poets are the people who read poetry; and so without lovers the poet would never have a market for his wares.
 

22 September 2009

Obscure Writer Series: Sergei Dovlatov

A feature of this blog I'm introducing today may at first glance seem self-serving.  A title such as "Obscure (Anything) Series" denotes a certain kind of intellectual arrogance, namely, patronization.  But let me assure you that my aim here is completely innocuous, and based solely on my desire to share artistic wonders typically hidden from public view.  And yes, I'm fully aware that this introduction only further reinforces that which I'm trying to avoid.  On with the show:


Sergei Dovlatov was born to a Jewish father and an Armenian mother just two months after Hitler broke his Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin.  His parents, foreseeing the hardships a young man with a Jewish last name would endure in an increasingly anti-Semitic nation, gave him his mother's maiden name - a common tactic employed in mixed marriages during the Soviet regime.  Clearly, being Armenian was slightly better than being Jewish.
 

In spite of his parents best efforts, Dovlatov had an especially nasty anti-authoritarian streak in him, and had tremendous difficulty getting published throughout his life in the Soviet Union.  Due to his unyielding nature, he was relegated to menial jobs just to get by.  Eventually, he immigrated to New York in 1979 after some of his stories had been published in Western magazines causing his expulsion from the USSR.  Upon arrival, he quickly made a name for himself by publishing in The New Yorker.  
 

In The Compromise, Dovlatov's "bite my thumb at the man" quality is in full display.  It relays a series of eleven miniscule articles he wrote for the party newspaper in Tallinn, Soviet Estonia.  Beginning each chapter with a reprint of these articles, Dovlatov follows with a balladeer's voice the tale behind how that particular article came to be, and how he was forced to compromise his original vision - hence the title.  

His writing is jumpy and jocular, melodic yet scathing.  In one instance, he's sent by his editor to a Tallinn hospital to commemorate the impending birth of the city's 400,000th resident.  Given strict instructions to choose a proper baby (married parents, Party member father, etc.), Dovlatov first chooses a baby of half-African extraction (the father is a student from Ethiopia, and a Party member!), then a Jewish baby, all to the extreme consternation of his long-suffering fully interpellated editor, Turonok, who berates him over the phone, "Dovlatov, [he] says in a voice choked with torment, 'Dovlatov, I'll fire you...for attempting to discredit the very best...Leave me in peace with your rotten Ethiopian! Wait for a normal - do you hear me? - normal human baby!"

The book is surfeited with such comic moments, usually beginning and ending with Turonok's accusation, "Are you crazy? What are you drunk?"  Usually he was.  

Dovlatov's writing delivers great pleasure on a personal level, laughs abound,  and his style, simultaneously elusive and embracing, is wholly original.  But the geopolitical implications of such work is inexorable. While the Soviet Union, and Communism in general, provoked paranoid nightmares in the West of nuclear war, foreign invasion, and even flouridation, the view from inside the juggernaut exposed a nation whose core foundation was gnarled rotten.
 

The "Brezhnev Stagnation" wasn't just a cute term used in lecture halls during political science courses in the West, it was a real phenomenon.  Repression was rampant, beauracracy dominated over society, and defeatism became a virtue worn on one's sleeve like a merit badge.  While the powers that be inside the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House fetishistically focused on the USSR's bulging surplus of nuclear arms, they failed to recognize that the guy manning the fort, so to speak, barely had enough in his coffers for a bottle of vodka per week, was forced to share a bathroom with three of his slovenly neighbours and their equally slovenly families, and, most distressingly, saw nothing in the works to think his son's or daughter's life would be any better.

"Are you crazy?  Have you been drinking?"


 

07 September 2009

Maryland-Pennsylvania Tomato Challenge 2009

In most American workplaces, "the office," as it is so reverentially called is where most American residents of legal working age spend the majority of their lifetime energy.  A minimum eight hours per day, 5 days a week, 40 hours per week, with a staggeringly low two weeks of paid vacation per year.  And here we all thought middle school was painful.  And so, a workplace culture, replete with its own customs, traditions, mores, came into being.

I come into the office and am offered the honour of being the inaugural taste-tester in the Maryland-Pennsylvania Tomato Challenge.  Pennsylvania's moderate real estate market has attracted half of my office's workforce to make their home there.  Two tomatoes, two neighboring states, one passionate rivalry.

Each side claims their tomatoes are the best...and so I was picked to blindly point out which one I preferred.  I examined them, palmed them, smelled them, and then cut them.  At first I sprinkled salt on them but it made both taste so delicious I couldn't tell the difference.  And then I ate them straight up, chewed them, savoured them, analysed my own taste buds, and finally was ready with my decision.

I point to the one I like (its color is a darker shade of red, and the taste is richer)....Maryland's rich soil prevails!

The victor raises her arms in exultation:  victory is sweet!  sweeter than the tomato even!  The defeated drops his head away in disappointment...tomato is a cruel mistress.  Bitter is the taste of defeat.

In an unprecedented show of her gratitude, the triumphant offers up her best tomatoes for me to choose from as a reward for my favourable palate.  The vanquished returns to his desk, vowing to challenge another day, with another vegetable.

31 August 2009

Inglourious Basterds Redux - The Grace Paley Connection

I return briefly to Inglourious Basterds to illustrate further the genius that permeates even the smallest details of Tarantino's work.

There's an insignificant scene showcasing Tarantino's literary prowess:
Brigdet Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger):  There have been two recent developments regarding Operation Kino. One, the venue has been changed from the Ritz to a much smaller venue.
Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt):   Enormous changes at the last minute? That's not very "Germatic."

It's a malapropism line played for laughs, but buried within is a reference to Jewish-American short story writer Grace Paley (who recently died) and her famous book, Enormous Changes At The Last Minute, hence the added meaning of not being very "Germatic." Ha-ha!
Brilliant stuff, Quentin.   

29 August 2009

Review of Inglourious Basterds

Fans of Quentin Tarantino have come to expect one thing from his films:  the unexpected.  The ear-slashing, the Gimp, a raged Robert De Niro, all of Kill Bill, have become staples of the Tarantino ouevre, and of current cinema as we know it, and as future generations will remember it.  

Inglourious Basterds delivers the unexpected in droves.  The film's marketing suggested a Kill Bill-esque 'Jewish-Americans mercilessly slaughtering Nazis' bloodbath, instead, Tarantino gave us a deeply cerebral picture smattered with bursts of relatively mild violence.

With his wordy script and the eye-opening performance of "Jew-Hunter" Christoph Waltz, Tarantino shrewdly captured the true terror of the Nazis.  It wasn't the cattle-car deportation to death camps -- horrible as they were -- but rather the corruptibility of otherwise good people, of the ever-present fear of being found out, whether you were hiding Jews, sympathetic to Jews, a partisan, a spy, or a Jew.  The Jew-Hunter's subtle innuendos, probing questions, suspicious gestures, and discomforting good humour would drive even the stoutest resistance fighter to his breaking point wondering, "How much does he know?" and "How do I escape this man?"


Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy.  In a reality where the majority of the literature, fiction and nonfiction, portrays the Jewish people, helpless and crippled, enduring unimaginable horror from the hyper-aggressive Juggernaut of the Third Reich, Tarantino imagines an alternative where the victims not only have a voice, but a baseball bat as it were, as a vehicle of vengence.


It has become marvelously clear that Tarantino's capacity for innovative storytelling has eclipsed the standard 2-3 hour feature film format (ahem, Kill Bill). Basterds clocked in at 153 minutes, and yet the film felt like it breezed by, with multiple plotlines and asides that begged for proper exposition.  Tarantino has entered the realm of eminent Polish auteur, Krzysztof Kieślowski, who required multiple films (10 to be exact for the appropriately titled Dekalog) to fully express his vision.

With Tarantino you never know what to expect, except this:  he'll keep on keeping on with films that make our palms sweat, our heads shake, and our mouths go, "Oh!"

15 August 2009

Patron Saint of Cinema - St. Quentin Tarantino


The evening was moving along swimmingly: South American wine, richly prepared surf-and-turf cuisine, surfeit of bon mots. Just settling into our respective digestifs, the dinner party suddenly careened off a cliff hovering above the River Hades.

Someone had unwittingly committed the grievous garrulous sin that will certainly ruin any social gathering wherein participants aren't intimately acquainted: initiating a discussion on the merits of Quentin Tarantino. It matters little if that first remark is favourable, the mere mention of his Latinate name will spark a wildfire in a docile conversational stream.

I had to straddle the index finger and thumb of my right hand upon my forehead and cheekbone as I anticipated the tremendous headache I would momentarily suffer in my eye. When the requisite irrationally reasoned criticism was inadvisedly and recklessly announced, my eyes were already closed in full-throttled paroxysm.

"Can we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?" I groused, "Or maybe the pros and cons of abortion if you prefer?" This was not my attempt at inappropriate humour. This was my plea to maintain some semblance of sanity. I'd rather delve into the fiery quicksand of those aforementioned issues than writhe in the indignity of having to defend the merits of this generation's greatest cineaste, the current patron saint of cinema.

Coming Attraction: The Found Generation will elucidate why St. Quentin Tarantino is a
monstre sacré. Also, a review of Inglourious Basterds, which looks to be the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy film.

04 August 2009

The Power of Erotica


The school bus ride home serves as the modern day watering hole for adolescent children in America, the fertile ground where rumour, tall tales, and urban mythology are excitedly dispensed and skeptically believed. Here, a particular kind of teenage subversive wisdom converges from an an equal balance of naïveté and precociousness. The ride to school is too depressed, the schoolyard is an unsafe panopticon, and friendships in time become too inculcated. Only on the bus ride home can an outsider looking for troubled attention find a ready audience.

I must admit at first my interest in erotica was purely prurient. The hormonal 13 year old raged on unapologetically. Upon hearing that such a thing existed, from the resident troublemaker on my 8th grade bus, I became obsessed with experiencing it for myself. Jeff had a strong weaselly quality about him, so I scoffed when he told me about a salacious story involving a brother and a sister he had downloaded off an IRC the night before. When he promised he'd bring me, and three other skeptics, copies the next day we prepared ourselves to cut him down when he wouldn't deliver, but deep down, I think we all wanted for Jeff's lurid claim to be true.

Amazingly, the old boy came through. And the next day he had four fresh copies of the filthiest 10 pages I'd ever read. The shock to my system was substantial. Of course I was aware of pornography, I'd even stolen a few peeks here and there, but I had never imagined that someone would be perverted enough to verbalise carnal knowledge. In many ways, it was a revelation.

I began to insatiably scour endless networks, IRCs, and BBSs, for my own special kind of contraband. And indeed it was contraband. When some of my hidden stories were unearthed underneath my mattress, a confrontation ended with a stern warning for such a mutually embarrassing discovery to never repeat itself. This slight deterrence was just a speed bump in my burgeoning sexual education. In just a few weeks, I learned more about the physical enaction of love from these lust filled tales than any porno or health class.

In my post-adolescence my fascination gradually waned. I had essentially abandoned erotica for the last decade until recently when I decided to read
Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin. Thinking my sordid history precluded me from any sort of affectation, I was shocked to find myself blushing at Nin's graphic yet beautiful descriptions. I couldn't understand the source of my uneasiness. After all, we are bombarded by sexual imagery on a daily basis to the point of complete desensitisation. Yet here I was needing to turn up the AC whilst reading a book!

What had happened to me? Had I grown soft in my dotage? Was I pulling a Wordsworth and turning - gasp - conservative? Impossible, an explanation simply required some intensive pondering. Slowly I realized the strength of Nin's writing was her poetic characterisations. She forces you to invest in the narrative and care about its outcome, and when the more kinky elements are introduced it results in a visceral reaction.

Nin's work reminded me of the cosmic joys of emotional and physical attraction, of the awesome potential of the libido, and of the humbling power women and men exert over each other.

One final impression: sure glad I wasn't part of a carpool growing up.

27 July 2009

Notes on a Scandal

The pendulum of social outrage is a peculiar thing. It swings with unerring prejudice to one side and just as quickly swings back, constantly resisting the calming equilibrium between the two extremes. Unsurprisingly, when the most important and influential black intellectual in the world is arrested in his own home for disorderly conduct, the resulting amplitude of the pendulum swing is enormous. And unlike the flying trapeze artist who disembarks at the top of the period, this pendulum just seems to entrap more players, and accelerates momentum.

The details of the arrest trickled out slowly. What we do know, that is, the facts undisputed by both sides, go like this: Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American was arrested by a Caucasian cop investigating neighborly reports of an attempted robbery on what turned out to be Dr. Gates' home in Cambridge, MA.

A tenured professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, Dr. Gates is the academic equivalent of a rock star. His work in the Academy is so widely known and universally respected that in my first week of grad school his The Signifying Monkey was required reading, and his name continued to pop up on almost every syllabus, in spite of the fact that my focus was Early Modern Literature. This is a great man.

So when the story first broke, my instinct deferred to the narrative Dr. Gates presented, namely, that the cop refused to identify himself and then goaded Dr. Gates onto his porch where he could be subsequently arrested. Clearly, the charges had no teeth, and when the police department realized who they had arrested, they issued a contrite apology. Dr. Gates, traumatized and angered, vowed to throw his weight into the issue of racial injustice in law enforcement.

Things got a lot more complicated, however, when President Obama -- in a news conference meant to sell the nation on his new health care plan -- was asked about his views on the incident. His now (in)famous response, and the reaction to it, has subsumed the notoriety of the original controversy. How dare the President weigh in and presumably take a seemingly antagonistic side against law enforcement?

What has become clear to me is that this issue is not so much about race as about our constitutional rights as American citizens. I'm willing to go out on a limb and express my belief that Sgt. James Crowley is not a racist, perhaps a bit prejudiced, assuming the worst in people is part of the job description. The real crime committed by Dr. Gates is that he refused to be totally subservient to Sgt. Crowley, that he didn't kiss his ass. Dr. Gates felt that being suspected of breaking into his own home was an indignity too great to bear without due repercussion.

It's hard to be unsympathetic to Dr. Gates, although, like the President, I do carry an admitted bias. But the clear fact of the matter is that in practically any situation where there is police-citizen interaction, the citizen must show complete and total subordination to the police officer, and if he doesn't, the police officer can and many times will haul you to jail -- just because he can.

Working law enforcement is a difficult job, no argument there. And we should be grateful to the honest men and women whose occupation involves legitimate life-threatening risk. The problem is accountability. Have you been to traffic court lately? In all my experience, there has never been an instance where the judge took the defendant's side, or even minutely doubted every last detail of the cop's testimony. It just doesn't happen.

Let's put aside race for a moment and try to agree on this one national tenet: no person should ever be arrested in his own home when he has committed no crime. Was Dr. Gates being a sanctimonious jerk? Probably. Could this whole unfortunate business have been avoided? Absolutely. Since when is being a jerk an arrestable crime, hell, being a jerk in your own home is a fucking human right as far I'm concerned. Take away Dr. Gates' public visibility and this would have been just another case of abuse of police authority.

It's an awfully heavy pendulum for a society to support when arrest awaits those who refuse to indulge the adolescent ego trips of those in a position of power. In police states, it's a weight upheld with vigor.


21 July 2009

Music Review - The Dead Weather


In the interest of full disclosure, I unabashedly consider myself a Jack White fanatic -- in my eyes this guy is the rock artist ideal: inscrutable, devilish, elusive, uncompromising, impassioned, dark. The White Stripes singlehandedly reawakened my interest in contemporary music. Just you wait, the forces of posterity will elevate White Blood Cells and Elephant into the pantheon of all-time classic records. Jack White, as guitarist, songwriter, producer, and over-all presence has proved he can hang with the big boys.

He looms so large, that it seems whenever he starts a new band, the music press defaults to the term supergroup, even though I've never heard of vocalist Allison Mosshart or guitarist Dean Fertita. And bassist Jack Lawrence rings a bell only because he's part of Jack White's first supergroup, The Raconteurs. Supergroup used to mean a group of previously established musicians each of whom is widely acknowledged as being one of the top at their respective instruments who get together to blow our minds, like Cream or The Traveling Wilburys. The age of exaggeration demands bloated accolades -- but let's face it, perhaps Jack deserves the plaudits.

Horehound is loud as hell, rawer than a rare steak, and dirty enough to make you have a go at your ears with sanitary wipe covered Q-tips afterwards. It's ripped with fuzzily screeching guitars and evil over-exposed synthesizers. With titles like "I Cut Like a Buffalo," "So Far From Your Weapon," "Treat Me Like Your Mother," "Bone House" the tracks ooze an ominous naughty goo, and although aren't outrightly rude per se, surely seem non grata in wholesome company.

Horehound's (not exactly chaste either) best (and loudest) track is "Treat Me Like Your Mother," an all-out assault on the senses replete with amusing wordplay. My other favourite track is the broody instrumental, "3 Birds" which sounds like it could easily have been lifted from the soundtrack to David Lynch's weirdfest Lost Highway. Check out the wicked video directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) no less. Turn the volume up:



It seems like Jack White's penchant for side projects lies in his illimitable creative potency, and in his desire to unbound himself from the aesthetic tethers of the White Stripes. When The Raconteurs first came out, you could barely recognize him unadorned in his customary red, white, and black leitmotif. Broken Boy Soldier disappointed me a little in its poppiness. I liked it, but it felt compromised, disingenuous to the hard man I had come to love. And it's like ol' Mr. Jack White heard me, because this is one bad-ass record -- completely authentic. Jack tries to recede into the background by listing himself as drummer, and Mosshart as vocalist, but every track has his brilliant fingers all over it, and either Mosshart's delivery sounds EXACTLY like Jack's, or it's all him with her backing him up.

Horehound may not exactly be a classic, but it is great, and gets better with every spin.

15 July 2009

Paparazzo


In what has now become one of the more infamous instances of life imitating art, the etymology of the now ubiquitous term paparazzi looks to the startling imaginative mind of the Maestro, Federico Fellini, and his masterpiece, La Dolce Vita. Portending the surrealist fantasies of his later work, La Dolce Vita is an explosion of images and storytelling, ideas and emotions, form and content. Deconstructing with a coy eye the hedonistic tendencies of the Italian elite, he named the insatiable gossip photographer Paparazzo, who like a mosquito was always buzzing around, annoyingly invading the privacy of his evasive subjects.


I heard on the NPR the other day a startling statistic. Despite the macabre toll the economy and the internet have exacted upon the print media, gossip magazines such as OK!, People, and countless other worthless rags have all increased readership and advertising revenue. This is astounding to me, but I really shouldn't be so
naïve. Who reads the New Yorker, The New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic or The Economist anyhow? Curious educated people? How boring.

Who are these poor souls who lust for every minor detail of the sordid lives of celebrities? Don't let me disabuse, I don't want to come off as some elitist ponce taking a piss from my ivory tower, when the Starr Report came out I greedily read every disgusting detail with vigor. And I'm well aware Amy Winehouse has some serious issues with crack, but I can't ever imagine spending more than a minute's thought on this nonsense. It is a stray hair on the page of today. Isn't life complicated enough? I'm no celebrity and my life isn't very glamourous, but I find fascinating, frustrating, fulfilling moments in my personal life on a daily basis -- I'm not strong enough to deal with the issues of people I'll never even meet.

Celebrities have become the modern equivalent of mythological gods and goddesses of ancient Greek & Roman civilizations. Who's fucking who? who's fucking over who? Who's snorting what? Isn't it just too much? I don't know what Jon and Kate is, and I'm damn proud of that.

07 July 2009

The Passion of Ingmar


"Listen to the cry of a woman in labor -- look at the dying man's last struggle, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment."
--
Søren Kierkegaard

It would seem that master Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman ingrained this above censure into every reel of film he ever cut. Bergman's worldview is one of despair, loneliness, betrayal, suffering, and insanity. Surely his films had their odd moments of levity. Smiles of Summer Night (1955), first showcasing his immense talents beyond the borders of his Scandinavian homeland, was a full-fledged comedy in the tradition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But even this lighthearted gem drew its humour from duplicitous lovers, unloving family members, and all-around disloyalty.

Matching the arctic climate of his difficult youth, Bergman's films deal with the cold reality we are faced with in the absence of God. Bergman's characters find life dreadful, unfair, and cruel: Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) grappling with this ecunemical vacuum while grappling for his life with Death personified, Tomas Ericsson (
Gunnar Björnstrand) unfairly projecting his own godless desolation onto his increasingly vulnerable children.

Watch as Antonious explains why he plays chess with Death:


It is clear that Bergman's strict Lutheran upbringing ignited a viciously deep hatred for organized religion's dependence on blind faith. The idea of an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent higher power plays like a cruel joke, like something an older sibling will force the younger to engage in for his own sick amusement. There is no reprieve, no justice, no fairness.

But it is absurd to maintain anger and resentment at something that doesn't exist. You call to God, and there is no answer. At first you think he is ignoring you. Pretty soon you get angry, and finally you resign yourself to the fact the absense of any answer is due to the complete void of presence. The anger will remain, but must directed somewhere else: humanity.

By the late 60s, Bergman's films had strayed from the existential crises of individuals to the emotional breakdowns of entire relationships, and it is here that I feel the real tragedy of the human condition unfurls itself. As he notes regarding The Passion of Anna, Bergman realized that the evil lies not in God, or lack thereof, but inside all of us:

My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained -- a virulent, terrifying evil -- and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil.
--
Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film, 1994.



30 June 2009

29 June 2009

Can't You Hear Me Knocking?


I had just finished packing my bags in a tiny room on Charlotte Street when news came through that soul singer Barry White had died. It was a hot day, for London, and there were many people milling about outside, determinedly competing with each other over whose outfit and accessories conveyed the maximum enjoyment of the sun. Lugging my baggage, I steamed into a café for a cooling respite. I was taken aback at the buzz over Barry White’s death, he seemed to be more popular in the UK than in the States – maybe it was the result of an unaccustomed English reaction to summer heat. The television was tuned to an interview of the bass-toned modern-day Lothario.

Naturally, the conversation turned to love, and music. How was he able to make so many women swoon over the years? Where did all that passion come from? How did he know so much about love? “I don’t know of any artist who’s made a record that doesn’t deal with love, in one form or another,” he retorted with an indignation that belied his embarrassment at the ridiculous insinuation that he was the preeminent musical purveyor of love. It got me thinking if I could come up with one. Go ahead and try. Google won’t help here.

The closing moments of that British summer came back to me this past Thursday as the international zeitgeist went ballistic over the King of Pop’s death. I was reminded of Barry White’s challenge, and my mind skipped forward, what inspires great music?

Let me catalog what I have been listening to. What moves me? Which music makes me smile? Lately, practically every time I sidle into my car (where my music-listening is most intense), I instinctively put on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971). The record splays out the bad boys of rock ‘n roll at their hedonistic zenith, displaying the kind of decadence best indulged in vicariously. This is a record not so much about love as it is about, well, lust – primordial and profound. Listen to ”Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” Mick Taylor’s and Keith Richards’ intertwining guitar riffs alone will do to your libido what the sun does to an orchidaceae bud. And Mick Jagger’s barked pleas hearken back to the coyly veiled naughtiness of Slim Harpo’s “(I’m a) King Bee.”

So I’ll have to challenge Mr. White’s lofty assertion by amending it a little, perhaps sex (wanting it, having it, losing it, wishing you had more of it, being good at it, insecurity over whether you’re good or bad at it, thinking about it) is the more common thread in memorable music, particularly rock n’ roll, than love. Too often, love songs are rooted in too much pain and misery, and quite difficult to pull off with aplomb unless you’re Al Green. No, coitus is a much safer emotional mine. Even the Man himself, Bob Dylan, composed eternal classics about the variety of Persephones he’d shagged (Edie Sedgwick) or tried to (Nico).

At rock’s inception in the 50s, rock ‘n roll god Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin Jimmy Swaggart famously labeled the new musical art form the “New Pornography.” The Killer just chuckled in his throaty joie de vivre way. To him it was an inadvertently fitting, albeit extreme, compliment.

25 June 2009

The Found Generation - Inaugural Post



Welcome to my blog, or web journal, whichever you prefer. I've named it The Found Generation for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is a call-back to my favourite literary movement, The Lost Generation. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, all giants in field of letters, whose merits deserve inexhaustible praise. I beg the pardon of any visitors to the pretension of being some kind of "literary heir" to these behemoths, but my reference to this generation of lost souls is layered. My hope being the rationale for such a moniker seems less self-indulgent with due time.

Today we are The Found Generation. The world is a much better place to live in than 80 years ago. Our great literary heroes were called the Lost Generation as a way to describe their return from the Great War, disillusioned by humanity, shellshocked by the unimaginable horrors of total war, left to fend for themselves in an world they could hardly recognize. They quickly realised they never knew it in the first place. Never had humankind turned upon itself with such unrestrained savagery, and sadly, it would do so again, with even more devastating results.

We know who we are now, maybe. We are blessed with infinite access to knowledge and information, and there is no world war to speak of. Of what global or national tragedy will future generations will study in us? I can't think of one. The one civic duty our social contract demands is avid consumerism. Social injustice has waned. We are free to pursue happiness and revel in prosperity. Comparatively speaking, for the average human there is no greater time to be alive than right here, right now.

So we're Found, but not really...not at all actually. We should be Found, we have every advantage to achieve it, but we aren't. In many ways, we're more confused, disaffected, and disjointed than ever. This space is dedicating itself to exploring this phenomenon through the lens of literature, cinema, music, sport, and social commentary.

As is customary of this medium, interaction is strongly encouraged. Ideally, the Found Generation will act as a beacon to all those restless souls who tirelessly strive for something greater than themselves.