Monthly Archives: July 2009

It’s only a pixel moon

This Thursday — yep, the day after tomorrow — marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, which four days later allowed a certain Neil Armstrong to get his boots dirty in a manner never before experienced by humankind. To mark the occasion, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has set up a Web site called We Choose the Moon that allows you to follow the timeline of the Apollo 11 mission from the comfort of your PC or Mac — either of which, I am astonished to realize, probably has more computing oomph than the machines used to guide three men safely to the moon and back. They’re in pre-launch mode now, of course, but I expect this will be one of my favorite sites for the next week or so.

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‘Boyfriend with Health Benefits’

I see you checkin’ me
Out on the dance floor
I know you want me boy, but you got something I want more
See, these are troubled times
A bad economy
I got some health issues, and medicine, well it ain’t free

I don’t care about your diamond rings
I don’t need none of those fancy things
If you really wanna be my man
Boy, you gotta put me on your health care plan!

Let’s start a family
And you can be the boss
Just prove to me that you’ve got Aetna, Kaiser, or Blue Cross
I can’t afford a doctor
I need your MDC
When I get sick all I can do is go to WebMD
Well you don’t gotta kiss me
And I don’t need no hugs
Just gotta get a discount when I need prescription drugs!
I need a flu shot baby
I got a tricky knee
And I ain’t seen a dentist since September of two-thousand-three

I don’t care about your diamond rings
I don’t need none of those fancy things
If you really wanna be my man
Just let me get all up in your health-care plan

Wanna be my dependent, girl? / What you got? / I’m gonna break it down…

I hear you say you love me
I wanna know fo’ sho’
You gotta prove it ‘fore I put you on my PPO
‘Cuz my co-pays are modest
And girl you know that’s true
My pre-existing condition is I’m in love wit’ you
My coverage is extensive
They pin my policy
You want some Lasik, baby, I got full optometry
Shi-at-su massage—all day for you’n’me
Don’t sweat the payments, girl, it’s covered ‘cuz it’s therapy

Aaa-oooh! How much is your deductible / How much is your deductible / How much…
Want some acupuncture baby? How ‘bout podiatry? I’ll get you braces, girl…

Hare ye, hare ye

Some months ago I blogged about the Welsh artist Kit Williams and his 1979 storybook cum puzzle, Masquerade. This book, which contained clues to the whereabouts of an ornate golden hare buried somewhere in the British Isles, triggered an international craze that, sad to say, ended badly for all concerned. BBC Radio 4 has an excellent half-hour documentary on the book, Williams, and the storm he unleased available for listening on its site. It will be taken down in seven days, so set aside some quality time.

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What’s the diff

Marissa Lingen raises an interesting question for any writer: How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?

For me, they overlap significantly. I’m not prepared to say that they’re identical, because writing 750 words on Hilbert spaces for an encyclopedia and writing 750 words of short-short story are not at all similar for me. But, for example, telling a story about my cousin and telling a story about one of my characters are not all that dissimilar. I think most people tell stories about their family and friends naturally, without necessarily identifying what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, so it’s harder to apply it to fictional characters because it feels like your ordinary conversational stories are just saying what really happened, and with fiction, that’s not an option.

I’ve written nonfiction in the form of newspaper articles, longer magazine pieces and a book-length work of narrative history, the last published a couple of years ago as The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. I’ve also written several novels, the first three of which were tyro jobs that will probably never be published, but the rest of which may yet see the light of print via the good offices of my invincible agent.

Personally, I think of fiction and nonfiction as arms strengthening each other. Writing nonfiction instills the necessity for thorough research and good organization of one’s materials. Writing fiction keeps one aware of the need for narrative drive and convincing presentation. (The amateur writer’s last-ditch defense for unconvincing fiction — “But it really happened!” — only works in nonfiction, and not always there, either.)

In my case, research provides fodder for my imagination. I enjoy and admire a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but I have no gift for writing it. My mind tilts toward social realism, and the years I spent in the county courthouse — particularly the times I pitched in on covering trials — fired my imagination in all kinds of ways.

And if my agent can pull some of my projects out of the quicksand of the publishing industry slowdown, you may get a chance to see where that imagination led me.

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Blue Monday

Nobody does Hendrix like Eric Gales, as this clip shows: “Resurrection” and “Paralyzed” might as well be outtakes from Electric Ladyland, instead of lead-off cuts on Gales’ first and second albums. That’s older brother Eugene Gales on bass and vocals, but Eric owns the stage during the instrumental breaks. A highlight of Gales’ shows has long been his apocalyptic cover version of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” but I haven’t been able to find a clip.

In this 2007 clip, Gales drops the Stevie Ray Vaughan haberdashery for the Huxtable look. We’ll give him points for nostalgia:

Though Gales plays his Strat upside down, just like You Know Who, he is not left-handed. Eugene Gales, who is left handed, taught him how to play and Gales never modified the technique.

Here is a clip from the 2008 Experience Hendrix tribute tour, playing “Waterfall” with Eric Johnson:

Unfortunately, Gales is currently doing time on drug and weapons charges:

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What’s old is New again

I haven’t exactly been scouring the Internets for Michael Jackson items, but I haven’t seen anyone resurrect this parody of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video. That number, with Steve Martin doing the J-son’s moves, was the first segment of the first episode of The New Show, Lorne Michaels’ 1984 bid to bring the Saturday Night Live format to prime time. It was also the sole high point of the series, which ran out of ideas so fast that by the second or third episode they were recycling Seventies-vintage Francisco Franco jokes. Since the cast was loaded with alumni from SCTV, which had been out-brillianting SNL since the late Seventies, we can only conclude that the network (or Lorne Michaels) was chloroforming the players. The New Show wheezed along for nine episodes before NBC put it out of everyone’s misery.

Here’s the original, if you need a point of comparison:

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Thinking outside the tank

The straight thinkers at Crooked Timber are gearing up an Internet seminar on public intellectual George Scialabba and his engrossing new essay collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For? Since he has an independent turn of mind, doesn’t paddle in stagnant think tanks, lacks a Daddy Wingbucks to pay his bills, and speaks in well-formed sentences and paragraphs that are anathema to squawk shows, Scialabba remains relatively obscure in an era when shambling clowns are free to go on television and radio to inform the world that Mussolini and Hitler were really liberals.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can hear the man for yourself on Chris Lydon’s Open Source. Here’s how Lydon introduces him:

The gods and demi-gods in George’s cast include Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell and Orwell; in America, Randolph Bourne and Dwight Macdonald, Susan Sontag, Walter Karp and Ralph Nader. The tilt is often but not always to the left. George’s deeper enthusiasm is for self-conscious humanists in the public square. “By that,” he writes, “I mean that their primary training and frame of reference were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and that they habitually employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics… Their ’specialty’ lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts but in penetrating especially deeply into the common culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force.”

Scott McLemee says it well in Inside Higher Ed: “If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty’s skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky’s geopolitical worldview — and it’s a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this — then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba’s own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.”

Here is a review of Scialabba’s latest book, and piece that accurately describes him as a model critic. Crooked Timber isn’t being too specific on when the seminar gets started, so maybe you still have time to order Scialabba’s book. Of course, the value of reading Scialabba’s stuff will extend well beyond the event.

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Show and tell

Seventh Seal

Even if there are no movies worth seeing nearby — The Hurt Locker isn’t in my area yet, and while Bruno sounds like nasty fun, it also sounds like the reason God invented Netflix — there are always movies worth talking about. In the past couple of days I’ve come across some excellent blog posts about movies that repay continued attention.

The Seventh Seal, the 1957 film that made Ingmar Bergman the god of the art house — and, in fact, probably did more than any other movie to establish the very idea of the art house as a commercial alternative — has a forbidding reputation for obscurity and difficulty. (One of my old English profs refused even to say Bergman’s name — he was simply “that fucking DeathSwede.”) Max von Sydow became the international embodiment of High Seriousness for his portrayal of Antonius Block, the Crusade knight whose chess game with Death buys enough time for a family of actors to get clear of an outbreak of the plague. That chess game, along with the concluding image of the dance of death (up top), provided ammo for an entire generation of parodists. But as Andrew O’Hehir notes, The Seventh Seal doesn’t really deserve its thorny halo: the film is light on its feet, moves surprisingly quickly, and is shot through with flashes of sometimes bracingly crude humor. Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death (above) as a bored bureaucrat, happy to be distracted from his endless rounds, gave the medieval image of the Grim Reaper a modern, black-humored overtone that has influenced scores of subsequent stories and films. For anyone unfamiliar with Bergman’s work, The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night offer a great introduction.

* * * * *

After decades of unheralded work behind the Iron Curtain, the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski began to acquire an international reputation in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The Decalogue, a series of ten hour-long television films organized around the Ten Commandments, drew acclaim on the festival circuit, and the 1991 release of The Double Life of Veronique made him an art house celebrity. Shortly before his untimely death in 1996, Kieslowski finished a trilogy of films he called Three Colors, with each color drawn from the French flag and the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Characteristically, Kieslowski’s storylines touched on their themes in oblique, ironic ways. The first film, Three Colors: Blue, opens with a car crash that kills a woman’s husband and child — her “liberty” is the unwanted freedom from family ties. Wracked with grief, she suppresses memories of Colors Blueher previous life and withdraws from the world. Yet the world, and life, continue to intrude on her, and as this detailed analysis from Mystery Man on Film shows, Kieslowski shows it happening through a brilliant combination of images and music. Blue is an example of almost purely visual storytelling. It also has one of my favorite “Kieslowski moments,” in which the widow, sitting in a cafe, starts to dunk a sugar cube in her coffee just as a street musician starts playing a tune. The melody is almost identical to one of her dead husband’s compositions, and as she realizes this, the white sugar cube touches the surface of the coffee and flushes with dark color.

All three films are available separately, but you might want to take the plunge and buy the complete Three Colors DVD set, which has a ton of very useful additional features. Ditto the complete edition of The Decalogue, which also has an appreciation of Kieslowski’s work from Roger Ebert.

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Visit Louisiana (and contemplate Evangeline) with Jeff.

Visit Peru (and fly over the Nazca lines) with Geoff.

Contemplate the heavens with Fred.

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