Monthly Archives: August 2012

One-Percenter humor

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As if things weren’t already weird enough, filmmaker David Cronenberg and actor Robert Pattinson (heard of him?) rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange this morning to hype the imminent release of Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. After a summer of brain-dead corporate movies I’m seriously looking forward to seeing a movie about a soul-dead bankster (played by Pattinson) carving a path of — what do they call it? — creative destruction across a few blocks of Manhattan, but are the banksters themselves even aware of what the movie is about? If not, it’s pretty funny; if they are, it’s even funnier — albeit in a very dark way that should dovetail quite nicely with Cronenberg’s work. One-Percenter humor? That’s a scary thought. Life imitates David Cronenberg? That’s even scarier.

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Summer days, summer nights are (nearly) gone

Yes, the end of the summer is near, and yes, I’m grumpy about it, but at least I can console myself with the prospect of a new Bob Dylan disc to ponder on. The advance word on Tempest has been excellent, but that’s nothing new — Bobcats and critics (to the extent they can be told apart) hail each new Dylan release as “a return to form” as regularly as Big Ben tolls the hours. But the pre-release taster, “Early Roman Kings,” had a nice line of surrealistic humor, and after Modern Times, Together Through Life, and Christmas in the Heart, Dylan has the requisite number of duds to overcome. So I’m optimistic. 

I’m also a bit worried. Plenty of other writers have wondered if the title’s Shakespearean echo is a signal that the magician is getting ready to drown his guitar — with his publisher expecting two more installments of Chronicles, Dylan could hardly drown his book. In his Rolling Stone interview, Dylan made one of his trademark non-denial denials, having his enigma and eating it, too. If Dylan is Prospero, then I guess A.J. Weberman would be Caliban, and Woody Guthrie would be . . . Sycorax? Bob Neuwirth and a host of others have auditioned for the role of Ariel, but the Prospero of Hibbing always keeps aloof . . . jeez, see what a lifetime of listening to Bob Dylan does to your mind?

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A Saturday smile

Mitt Romney. With Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ho. Lee. Smoke.

The Democrats have proved themselves past masters at the art of plucking defeat from the jaws of victory. But not even Cass Sunstein could show them how to blow this one.

And to think I was in a bad mood this morning. 

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I’m home, I’m blind, and I’m broke

Have you ever loved a piece of music — a song, a symphony, an album — and listened to it so many times it that it seemed to soak into the cellular structure of your brain? Did you then learn, after the fact, that what you thought the music was “about,” or how it made you feel, was completely different from what the composer intended? And realized that it didn’t matter? If you thought Appalachian Spring was an evocation of mountains and forests while Aaron Copland thought he was tailoring music to a particular dancer’s style, the music was big enough to accommodate both of you, and millions more as well. That’s the special quality of music: unlike other arts, which create objects with their own rules and definitions of reality, music is a catalyst that interacts with your consciousness to create something other than what the composer intended and the listener expected. It doesn’t even have to be great music. Better still, it does this over and over.      

That’s why I hate most music videos. They short-circuit the waking dream effect of music by marrying it to a standardized set of images. Years after I first heard, say, the Rolling Stones perform “Undercover of the Night,” I automatically think of Mick and Keith pretending to be terrorists in Central America, because that’s what the crappy video showed them doing. It’s somehow worse when the video is actually good. “Every Breath You Take” shouldn’t just be the soundtrack to a miniature noir film, but that’s what it became through the joint efforts of the Police and Empty-Vee.

Having said all that, I now say that this video for “Hell Broke Luce” off Tom Waits’ Bad As Me disc is brilliant, because it uses images the way Waits uses phrases — combining them in ways that seem disjointed but follow an interior logic, which is revealed by multiple listenings (and viewings). That doesn’t mean I’m going to start watching Empty-Vee again. Maybe it helps to know a song well before seeing the video. (I certainly have no qualms about posting the video for “Fairytale of New York” every Christmas, probably for that reason.) Maybe it just means Waits is an artist who breaks rules every time he breathes, though I’m still glad I got to memorize Rain Dogs without the benefit of a video showing me what “9th and Hennepin” is all about.

Another great Tom Waits quality is his penchant for treating interviews as extensions of his stage performances. For that reason I commend this link in which the maestro plays a benign version of the way Bob Dylan used to run rings around journalists trying to nail him down on the meanings of his songs.    

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Robert Hughes

Right on the heels of Gore Vidal’s passing comes word of the death of another protean, two-fisted talent: Robert Hughes, whose deeply informed, bluntly opinionated writing on art is a model for all would-be critics; and whose deceptively informal, elegantly crafted prose is an example all writers should study.

In the Seventies, when newsmagazines still felt obliged to be comprehensive in their coverage of world news and culture, Hughes stood out  in Time magazine like a Hell’s Angel gunning his Harley in the middle of a daycare center. But Hughes was an intellectual biker, one who had seen, studied, and thought deeply about everything in modern and classical art. His 1991 collecti0n Nothing If Not Critical is a showcase for his range: short takes on masters new and old, with room even for a guarded appreciation for Norman Rockwell. He was adventurous enough to embrace new artists and work of genuine value, but grounded enough to resist the fads that swept the art world.     

This educated independence made him the ideal truth-teller for the Eighties, when investors looking for something to do with their Reagan-fattened bank accounts sent art prices into orbit, and the graffiti scribblings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the crockery-encrusted wall hangings of Julian Schnabel were the toast of SoHo. (When Schnabel made his filmmaking debut with a hagiography of Basquiat, Hughes called it “a film about our worst dead artist, made by our worst living one.”) He called Jeff Koons “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary. He has done for narcissism what Michael Milken did for the junk bond.” Nothing If Not Critical ends with a long satirical poem about the art scene, modeled on Samuel Johnson’s London, that pulls off the dual feat of honoring its model while devastating its targets.

A native of Australia, Hughes moved to Italy in 1964 and then settled in London, where he apparently did his share of swinging. (In his 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know, Hughes claimed to have caught the clap from Jimi Hendrix through a shared bedmate.) He relocated to New York for his Time magazine gig and made the city his home base for the rest of his life.

Hughes became something of an international celebrity in 1980 when the BBC series aired The Shock of the New, his magisterial history of the rise of modern art; he administered a shock of his own in 1987 with The Fatal Shore, a breathtakingly readable history of the United Kingdom’s colonization of Australia. It shouldn’t have been a surprise: any good art critic (any good critic, for that matter) is partly a historian. He combined the two skills again in Barcelona (1992), which like all great cities is as much an art object as a metropolis, and his book-length study of Francisco Goya (2004), an artist who opened his work to unfolding history in ways few others have matched.

Not all of his work was stellar: five-finger exercises like Culture of Complaint and A Jerk on One End felt out of date five minutes after they hit the bookshelves. Hughes narrowly avoided death in a 1999 car crash, but the aftermath left him with lingering health problems that probably contributed to his untimely death. They certainly accounted for the numerous lapses that turned his recent study of Rome into a small publishing scandal, and made the book an unworthy successor to his brilliant study of Barcelona.

Here is a clip of a highly watchable 60 Minutes piece on Hughes from 1997.

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Dark blight

Now that the fanboy frenzy has died down, I went to see The Dark Knight Rises and found it to be incoherent junk — steroid-pumped corporate filmmaking at its worst, with some good moments undone by a disgraceful script, bungled action scenes, and the feeling (confirmed by the end) that director Christopher Nolan went into this movie devoid of any ideas that hadn’t already been wrung dry for The Dark Knight in 2008. It even made Prometheus look better in retrospect, and if there’s a more damning thing to say about a movie this year, I don’t want to hear it.

I don’t know what was worse: the ADHD storytelling formula, which required Nolan (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother) to pull a rabbit out of his cowl every ten minutes (Fistfight! Explosion! Good girl becomes villain! Villain becomes good girl! Kung fu brawl! Flying thingamabob chased by guided missiles! Fistfight!), of the indifference with which characters and situations were thrown around.

Nolan was always a curious choice to revive this film franchise, and while the box office has endorsed him many times over, the oddity remains. Though he is a past master at brainy puzzle-pictures like Memento and Insomnia, Nolan is a terrible action director, unable to stage a fight or block out a set-piece so the viewer can make out what’s going on. The bravura opening sequence aside, everything in The Dark Knight Rises flashes by too quickly: fights are over before you can see what’s happening; chases destroy mile after mile of real estate without any sense of direction or purpose; crucial dialogue is delivered in such a rush that you can’t understand why everyone is exchanging Significant Looks.   

These were also problems in The Dark Knight, but they were rendered moot by the care Nolan took with the performances, and Heath Ledger’s definitive rendering of the Joker, arguably the greatest pop-culture villain of all time. Any villain (or actor) trying to follow in Heath Ledger’s footsteps was in for a hard time, but Bane was a legitimately interesting choice of bad guy. Even with his face half-covered by what looks like a modified radiator and his voice processed to sound like a talking Cuisinart, Tom Hardy conveys fearless intelligence and resolve using only his eyes and body language convey. But Nolan undermines him at every turn: in one scene Bane is a charismatic leader, calling his men brothers and persuading them to die for his plans; in the next, he’s a shirtless Darth Vader, casually murdering subordinates who displease him. His backstory is reduced to a few hasty lines of dialogue, barely audible beneath Hans Zimmer’s hammering score (with this film, Zimmer deposes John Williams as the Wagner of the multiplexes), and in the end he is literally flicked aside for a new, late-arriving villain not nearly as interesting. Unlike its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises has no time for revealing character moments: there’s nothing here as poignant as Rachel’s acceptance of her imminent death, or the scene in which a prisoner’s moral authority cancels out one of the Joker’s plots.       

Internet debates over the political meaning of summer blockbusters are now a feature of the dog days, and some right-wingers have proclaimed The Dark Knight Rises to be an endorsement of free market whatevers. Truth to tell, Nolan pours so many conflicting elements into his formula that all political meanings are negated, except for the Fascist Lite notion of an infallible masked vigilante taking down bad guys without hurting a single innocent bystander.

There are a lot of talented actors at work in The Dark Knight Rises, and the probability that they got to collect fat paychecks for their work is the film’s sole redeeming quality. I hope they put their money to good use, because after this fiasco, they have a lot to live down.

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Gore Vidal

At some point back in the Sixties an interviewer asked Gore Vidal if his first sexual experience had been heterosexual or homosexual. “I was too polite to ask,” Vidal responded. A perfect smackdown, encompassing all the inimitable Gore Vidal qualities: aristocratic hauteur (“The subject does not offer personal disclosures,” Vidal once said), dismissal of sexuality as a defining trait (a frequent theme with Vidal), and effortless wit, with an oafish question serving as the launch platform.

Gore Vidal, who died this past week at the age of 86, was a fast man with an elegant quip, and in some of the articles about his death one might think he’d done nothing more than crack wise on television. But this joke is worth mentioning because Vidal’s insistence that humans were naturally bisexual, and therefore homosexuality was no big deal, was drastically at odds with postwar American society and warped his career in many ways. Though he hated the term “gay,” Vidal’s gayness (and his obvious impatience with fools) barred him from the political career he obviously would have enjoyed. His matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality in The City and the Pillar (1948), his third novel, generated an uproar that almost choked off his writing career — Orville Prescott, the preeminent book critic of the period, refused to review or permit anyone else to review the book in the New York Times. The blackballing sank Vidal’s next several novels, both the good (The Judgment of Paris) and the bad (A Search for the King, Dark Green, Bright Red), but the resourceful author turned to writing potboiler mysteries and plays, one of which, The Best Man, remains one of the best studies of American politics yet written.

He put himself back on the map in the mid-Sixties with a trio of novels that established the three main concerns of his career as a mature novelist: historical fiction, Julian (1964); the start of his seven-novel American epic, Washington D.C. (1967); and Myra Breckinridge (1968), postmodern gamesmanship and  satires on sexual roles. Woven through all this work was a stream of essays on politics, writers, politics, sexuality, politics, and politics. And, of course, he took his epigrammatic wit to television. Vidal realized early on that the public was more interested in authors themselves than their work, and he was a consummate performer, playing picador to Norman Mailer’s raging bull and goading William F. Buckley Jr. (Vidal’s mirror image in many ways) into threatening to punch  him out on live television. Before long, television would cease to pay attention to intellectuals of any sort; Vidal saw the window of opportunity closing and made the most of his time.

It was a bit of a sore point with Vidal that he was widely considered an essayist first and a novelist second. His editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, called him the American Montaigne, and in fact the novels often read like extended arguments — essays by other means. But the essays were never less than transfixing, and sometimes they were brilliant. His political writings regularly touched off firestorms: “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (published by The Nation with the softsoap title “Some Jews and The Gays”), started as an outrageously funny response to a Midge Decter gay-bashing piece in Commentary, then ended with the suggestion that Jews, blacks, and gays were natural allies against the evangelical tide just beginning to swell in the Eighties — this was, needless to say, before evangelicals toned down the Christ-killer talk and loudly embraced Israel as a necessary step toward the Rapture. Vidal enjoyed baiting neocons like Decter and Norman Podhoretz, and his casual scorn (he referred to critic Hilton Kramer as “a Tel Aviv hotel”) often led to him being accused of anti-semitism, a canard that has resurfaced in many of the articles pegged to his death.

His essays weren’t all cut-and-thrust stuff: Vidal was a knowledegable and sympathetic booster of the works of Louis Auchincloss, Edmund Wilson, William Dean Howells, and Thomas Love Peacock. Contemptuous of academic theorists, Vidal took a nail gun to the inflated reputations of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon, hooting that their books weren’t meant to be read so much as taught. He also single-handedly rescued comic novelist Dawn Powell from the recycling bin of history. Many of his pieces drew on his insider knowledge of Hollywood, hard-earned through years of screenwriting and script-doctoring, most entertainingly in his essay about how the rules of filmmaking had shaped most of the novels on the New York Times bestseller list for a given week. 

In that essay (collected in Matters of Fact and of Fiction) Vidal doled out some of his highest praise to Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, part of her triptych about Alexander the Great, and a novel that could sit comfortably alongside some of Vidal’s own historical narratives — namely Julian, based on the brief life and even briefer reign of the apostate Roman emperor who tried to turn back the Christianization of the empire. Though his model was obviously Robert Graves, Julian is far more entertaining than, say, I, Claudius. Julian, whose arguments against Christianity were so strong that they continue to bedevil apologists, was the perfect mouthpiece for Vidal’s own views:      

Is one to believe that a thousand generations of men, among them Plato and Homer, are lost because they did not worship a Jew who was supposed to be god? A man not born when the world began? I am afraid it takes extraordinary self-delusion to believe such things.

There is, unfortunately, no getting around the fact that Vidal in his last years was more than a bit of a crank. He could still dissect the predatory imperialism of Bush-era America with merciless precision, but then would discredit himself with long stumbles into loony conspiracy theories about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. It made what should have been the triumphant capstone of his American epic, The Golden Age, into an embarrassing fiasco. When he made public his correspondence with, and respect for, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, many former admirers (myself among them) gave Vidal up as a lost cause. He wasn’t the first writer to go off the rails late in life: Christopher Hitchens (who began his career as a kind of Gore Vidal Lite) became a cheerleader for the Iraq invasion, and Saul Bellow endorsed an odious racist pamphleteer. But Vidal’s decline was most shocking: he had been so clear-eyed and articulate, so cuttingly funny.             

Among his novels, I prefer the historical works. Julian sparked my lifelong interest in the Byzantine phase of the empire — it also has an unexpectedly moving conclusion for such a cool-tempered writer. Creation takes off from the fact that in the Fifth Century BCE, a man with the right resources could have met and talked philosophy with Socrates, Buddha, Mahavira, Lao Tsu, and Confucius. (Vidal completed the tour by making his hero, Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of Zoroaster.) Given Vidal’s stoic temperament and dislike of religion, it was hardly surprising that Confucius came off the best. Washington D.C. never quite escapes the shadow of its model, Democracy by Henry Adams, but Burr and, especially, Lincoln, are bold, forceful works that upend popular notions about their subjects. I never much liked the postmodern game-playing works such as Myra Breckenridge or Duluth. Myron contained one great comic idea: inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller vs. California, which left communities to establish their own definitions of pornography, Vidal substituted the names of Supreme Court justices for the dirty words.

it’s too easy to compile a list of Vidal’s best, bitchiest quips. He outlived and outwrote his immediate literary peers, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, proved again and again his mastery of fiction and nonfiction, and played the role of intellectual gadfly in the days when mass culture still had room for intellectuals. If a writer should be judged by the quality of his best work, Gore Vidal easily passes that test. 

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Dumb clucks

So, Mike Huckabee has ordained that today is Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day? Cool! I’ll order a pizza.

While it’s certainly refreshing to see American conservatives showing an awareness of, much less a concern for, any Constitutional amendment besides the second one,  I’m afraid the chicken wingers lining up outside those hen-hacking stations are, as per usual, not just missing the point but strenuously avoiding it.

Nobody is disputing the right of the company’s president, Dan Cathy, to say that legalizing same-sex marriages opens America up to God’s wrath. Goodness gracious, no — in fact, I encourage him to speak his mind freely. He can take his place alongside Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Osama bin Laden on the executive board of the “America Had It Coming On 9/11” club. Ditto his use of company profits to support anti-gay hate groups. Speak up, fella. Let everybody know what a bigoted creep you are, and decide if they want to help by spending money on your crummy food. 

The First Amendment enshrines the right to express all sorts of opinions. What it doesn’t do is mandate that others agree with those opinions. If Dan Cathy wants to pretend his hatred is an expression of Christian love, he is free to do so, just as I am free to ridicule him as a medieval-minded loon. I am also free to share with others my contempt for his degraded notions, and ask them if they want to give their bucks to creepy clucks.

So speak your mind, Dan Cathy, I say. And take comfort from the fact that I have no wish to give my mockery the force of law. Would that the same were true for you and your bigotry.  

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