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


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.