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  1. Pic of the Day
  2. Free Reads -- Polanski trial testimony
  3. Department of Male and Female Relations
  4. Bipolar Elvis
  5. DVD Journal: "Enigma"
  6. Throw the Rulebook Out
  7. Free Reads -- Denis Dutton
  8. Newer and Older Horror Movies
  9. Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part VII
  10. Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating redux

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Friday, March 14, 2003

Pic of the Day
Michael: We’ve touched on the strange neglect suffered by 19th century academic painting once or twice, but a picture I came across researching material for my series on Impressionism makes me want to beat this horse a few more times. The painter, Paul Baudry (1828-1886), was once a fairly well known academician (he was, in fact, Napoleon III’s favorite painter.) He was primarily a portrait painter, although he essayed mythological scenes as well. Based on the work I’ve seen on Web, he is by no means a member of the Great Painters of History Club—his multifigure compositions are weak and a bit confused, and he frankly doesn’t seem to have an idea in his head. However, at least in this picture, Baudry illustrates how the technical discipline of academic painting can facilitate the expression of a painter’s genuine emotional response to a subject: P. Baudry, The Wrestler Meissonier, 1848 The handling of the fall of light over the figure is simply magnificent, and the harmonization of the light with the shifting of local skin tones from one part of the body to another to create a maximal aesthetic effect is something that requires, I think it’s fair to say, a great deal of practice to deliver. (At least in my experience, nobody picks up a brush for the first time and knocks out something like this.) Academic painting is like a lot of things in life: if you approach it for what it can give you as opposed to being frustrated by what’s not there, you can have a pretty good night on the town. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 14, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Free Reads -- Polanski trial testimony
Friedrich -- Ever wonder what exactly went on in that Jacuzzi between Roman Polanski and that underaged girl? Now you can go straight to the source: The Smoking Gun has put on its site a copy of the court transcript of the girl's testimony. It can be read here. Link thanks to Colby Cosh, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 14, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Department of Male and Female Relations
Michael: I’d like to nominate Kim Cattrall for an award, Most Flamboyant Gesture in Ending a Relationship. The relationship in question is with her 3rd husband, Mark Levinson (the co-author of Ms. Cattrall’s recent book, “Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm.”) A couple of days ago I happened to glance at the March 17 copy of People Magazine, in which the two are described as “taking a break.” As the story reports: Why? “No exact reason,” says a friend. “No one is dating anyone else. It just happens.” This story of a relatively amicable split was belied the next morning, however, when I was standing in line at the checkout counter of my local 7-11 and caught a glimpse of the cover of FHM (“For Him Magazine”) for April. Who is posing in just a shirt and a pair of underwear? You guessed it, Ms. Cattrall. Before and After But the best part is the quote on the cover from Ms. Cattrall: I prefer younger men. Ouch! I have no idea what really went on here, but based purely on the available evidence it looks like Mr. Levinson must have done something really, really bad. I don't know about you, but I've been dumped once or twice with a certain amount of flair (granted, a quality that is easier to appreciate with the distance of a few years.) Anybody out there got a good dramatic-gesture-in-the-context-of-a-breakup story? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 13, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Bipolar Elvis
Michael: As you know, I’m both a big Elvis fan and a depressive personality. I always thought these were unrelated phenomena, but I’m beginning to wonder. This line of speculation derives from driving around in my car, listening to a CD of Elvis’ number one hits that I received at my company’s Christmas party (my musical tastes are no secret, obviously). As a result of repeat listening, I’ve begun to appreciate the Elvis song released at the same time as his death, “Way on Down.” It’s impossible—for me anyway—to avoid thinking about Elvis’ death when listening to the song. The title, with its double (triple?) entendre reference to dying, is only the start. The song also includes lyrics about “lying on the floor” and something about what the doctor could prescribe. One could go on in this vein. Is the final result morbid? Oddly enough, no. Apparently Elvis had stared into the abyss long enough that he could derive a certain entertainment value out of it. I recall seeing some extreme close up shots of “fat” Elvis performing in a film documentary, and being struck by (1) the cosmic extent of Elvis’ alienation and (2) the way he seemed to find his own alienation amusing. All his life, Elvis seemed to be enjoying a private joke, which he was willing to let the world about halfway in on. Apparently his impending death struck him the same way his ridiculous stardom had struck him two decades before—as a goofy joke. If it turned out to be a joke on him, well, that was okay too. The King's Sense of Humor in Action However, listening to the song, it did suddenly dawn on me that the way Elvis’ periods of extremely high energy—creatively, career-wise, in his personal life—alternated with periods of extreme passivity, secrecy and “ah, screw it”-ism suggested attacks of depression or, possibly, manic depression. So I did a google search to see if anyone else had voiced thoughts along these lines. As it turns out, within a minute or two I found a conversation between Time Magazine and Vernon Chadwick, the chairman of the fourth annual “Conference on Elvis Presley” which occurred in 1998. It included the following quote: This morning one of our speakers, a therapist from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, advanced the thesis that Elvis suffered bipolar disorder, which is a more technical name for manic depression. And that Elvis' substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic depression should be placed in the larger context of a personality disorder. I guess all this should get filed in preparation for my ultimate tract, “Mental Health and Creativity: Is It Possible to Have Both?” A hunk a hunk of burning cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 13, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

DVD Journal: "Enigma"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Hey, a quick and happy movie (er, DVD) recommendation: Enigma. Have you caught it? A thoughtful and grownup British thriller -- "speculative history" (I believe that's the correct name for the genre) from a Robert Harris novel about codebreaking, love, trust and betrayal in WW2 England. Military guys, nerd-genius code-breakers, an early computer, stockings and lipstick, Dougray Smith as a nerd with a broken heart, Jeremy Northam hilariously suave and sinister as a government investigator, fleets of merchant ships on the high seas, wolf packs of German U-boats. That Obscure Object of Desire: The Enigma Machine Kate Winslet plays a bespectacled, mousey and brainy office gal. Are you a Kate groupie? I am. The whole package appeals: the frown-that's-a-smile and the smile-that's-a-frown; the mixture of dowdiness and beauty, of innocence, mischief and lewdness; the fleshiness and stickiness; the just-passable-but-hopeful acting; the real-life tabloid troubles; the weight battles and marriage travails -- everything about her says "life is tragedy and mess, but why not live it with gusto?" And says so with a juicy combination of reluctance and urgency. This isn't a great film for Kate fans, but, heck, she's there, she's in a chubby phase, she's playing "wallflower," and she's as full of doubts and overheatedness as ever. Kate Winslet, Overheated in Enigma The film itself is intricate, lowkey and tense, and it's Michael Apted's best recent movie -- though I say this all too breezily, having seen almost nothing of his recent work. I do retain good memories of Blink, his 1994 thriller starring Madeleine Stowe at her most beautiful. ("Enigma" was co-produced by Mick Jagger, by the way.) The Tom Stoppard screenplay is beyond fabulous. How do you react to Stoppard's work? I'm a weird one about it. I don't care for the plays of his I've seen and read, which so many people adore. For all his talent, dazzle, brains and energy, it seems to me there's a manic quality to his showboating (and "showing-off while playing with ideas" seems to be what his idea of the theater is), and although I don't find it dislikable, I do find it exhausting. But I'm a huge fan of his work as a screenwriter / adapter of other people's writing -- for my money he's one of the very best. "Billy Bathgate," (lousy movie, but a fab screenplay), "The Russia House" (a fave of mine), this one, some others that aren't occurring to me just now -- great stuff, worthy of close study yet easy to enjoy. When he adapts for the screen, he seems to relax and let himself sink into the material; the human values take precedence, and the virtuosity is put to work serving the material. Plus, he's perceptive and humane about love and politics in ways I find moving. I'll spare you the usual feeble attempts at evocative film-crit and just say that if you're in the mood for a newish movie-movie that's classical-but-not-stodgy (ie., not a media-blitz experience);... posted by Michael at March 13, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Throw the Rulebook Out
Michael: In the aftermath of the Enron/Worldcom/Tyco scandals there has been a call for switching financial accounting from a "detailed rules" approach to a more "general principles" approach. The idea is that ultra-precise rules can always be gotten around, while general principles demand that deals must always pass a “good judgment” test. I could argue both sides of this position as regards financial accounting, but I must say that the “general principles” advocates have a strong case in at least one other aspect of human life. That’s the regulation of teen sexuality. When I drop my daughter off at her high school every morning, I am exposed to a number of young women in tight fitting jeans, midriff-baring tops, and the occasional plunging neckline. Still, while dressing a bit more blatantly than their mothers did in my own high school days, these young women are only making a display of their burgeoning fertility—which no one could miss unless they went around in burlap sacks. On the other hand, on my way to work I pass a nearby private high school that has attempted to deal with this issue by instituting school uniforms. This attempt to control sexual display has however, caused an Enron-like result: young women have obviously studied the rulebook carefully to see how it can be subverted. One common strategy is to wear the apparently required plaid skirt as an ultra mini. Because of traffic congestion, many of these young women are dropped off nearby and have to cross several streets to get to school; seeing them standing at the street corners, I have several times found myself thinking: Geeze, this is a nice suburban neighborhood, what’s with the hookers? All this amounts to something of an exercise in institutional cowardice. I understand that it’s awkward to have to confront young women growing up fast and order them to dress in ways that an adult finds appropriate rather than in ways that maximize the amount of peer attention they get. But ducking the face-to-face confrontations by issuing “rules” has only ended up encouraging these girls to dress like objects in some cheesy sex fantasy. A peculiar choice of outcomes. Cheers, Freidrich... posted by Friedrich at March 12, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Free Reads -- Denis Dutton
Friedrich -- Did you know that Denis Dutton, the very brilliant and resourceful philosophy professor who's also the publisher of Arts & Letters Daily, writes a semi-regular column for the New Zealand Herald? I didn't either until recently. He's terrific. Here's a sample passage from a recent piece about Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist": Lomborg also analysed trade-offs that have to be faced in dealing with environmental problems. Suppose, for example, that pesticides hypothetically cause a handful of cancers in countries the size of the United States or Britain every year. If, as many Greens advocate, we ban pesticides, we will inevitably drive up the price of the fruits and vegetables that have the property of warding off cancer. This, in turn, will cause a decrease in consumption, especially among the less well-off, and hence force a corresponding rise in cancer incidence. In fact, banning pesticides may end up causing perhaps a thousand times more cancer than it cures. The piece can be read in its entirety here. He has also written recently on terrorism (here), Saddam Hussein (here), and copyright and the internet (here). Although they were written for a New Zealand audience, the pieces are all bracingly good reads because Dutton is a rare (if very robust) bird: someone with tons of intellectual sophistication but also a down to earth temperament. A philosopher who respects common sense and common experience -- good grief! Which raises a question: Why hasn't one of the publications with a world-scale brand name -- the NYT, the London Times, The Economist -- given Dutton a regular column? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 12, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Newer and Older Horror Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- By chance over the last couple of days, I watched a couple of horror movies from different eras and got a chance to compare their styles. The first was The Serpent and the Rainbow from 1987; the second was Stigmata, from about a year ago. Styles have certainly changed. "The Serpent and the Rainbow" was directed by the horror vet Wes Craven and stars Bill Pullman as a gloomy Indiana Jones sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to look into the zombie phenomenon. It's seedy, set to jungle drums, and is full of writhing and sweating people and B-movie shocks. "Stigmata" stars Patricia Arquette as a Pittsburgh punkette through whom Catholic spirits are trying to speak, and Gabriel Byrne as a sexily tormented scientist-priest who's sent by the Vatican to Pittsburgh to see whether a genuine miracle is occurring: mist and smoke, MTV lighting, 72 shots where only one is needed, strobing lights, thunderous and crashing sound effects -- it's like a Ridley Scott movie made by a hyper-active kid. The Serpent and the Rainbow: As Seething, Sexy-Madhouse Zombie Thrillers Go, Not Bad What do I have to report? First, that "The Serpent and the Rainbow" turned out to be the only Wes Craven movie I've ever really enjoyed. Despite problems (the biggest one being Bill Pullman, who's terrible), it's a trippy and very effective "is he inside my head or am I having a nightmare" thriller. It's more than decent. The black actors (including Zakes Mokae and Cathy Tyson) are phenomenal; and there's a little Carlos Castaneda in the film, and a little "Apocalypse Now" too. Craven uses a traditional trash-horror esthetic, and though the movie is nothing but a seething, sexy-madhouse zombie thriller with a pinch of politics, it has some real hypnotic power, and I liked it better than "Apocalypse Now" (although, hold my horses, it strikes me as I type these words that I didn't much enjoy "Apocalypse Now"). Patricia Arquette in Stigmata: Revelation as Special Effect Second, that I had an experience watching "Stigmata" that I often have watching the do-all-the-work-for-you, image-processed and hyper-Dolbyized new films. Here, the script was functional enough, the actors were fine, the photography and set design were slick. But the effects (of which there were tons) seemed to be only loosely attached to what I was watching. They were churning away very competently and doing all the reacting for me (as they will these days), but they somehow seemed mistimed -- just a little bit off. I had the feeling that on one track was the story, the actors, the drama, the moment, that on another one entirely were the production values and tech effects, and that these two tracks were never in quite the right synch. I often have this out-of-synch sensation at the new made-for-MTV-babies movies. Do you? I wonder why. Could it be because the effects aren't made to grow out of the moment but are instead ladled on? Or... posted by Michael at March 11, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part VII
Michael: This is the next in a series of my postings on what Impressionism meant to its contemporaries and creators. Having disposed of what I’ve described as the Standard Account of Impressionism in my previous posts, let’s move on to what I think is a more accurate explanation of the phenomenon known as the New Painting (a term that, like its synonym, the jeune ecole, subsumes the Impressionists along with fellow-travellers like Manet, Fantin-Latour and others): In the 1860s, the urban bourgeoisie were political underdogs to the rural landowning class, who were the key supporters and beneficiaries of both the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III and the authoritarian governments of the 1870s. Frustrated by a slowing economy and their subordinate political position, the urban bourgeoisie began trying to gain power by pushing a capitalist-republican political “uprising.” This uprising was encouraged by the “railroad revolution” of the previous decade that had encouraged a general belief in the virtues of technology and commercial progress, convincing the urban bourgeoisie that history was on their side. At the same time, there was a significant oversupply of artists and paintings in the French art industry. This led to a greater diversification of subject matter by artists, as they attempted to sell into the genre, landscape and still life niche art markets where growing numbers of bourgeois art buyers had unmet demands. This effort was de-legitimized by the Academy because it would reduce painting to mere craftwork (unlike the Academic specialty, history painting, which by theory and tradition possessed an elevated intellectual dimension.) This was accomplished by denying such paintings opportunities to be seen at the Salon, and by denying any that did get seen any official recognition. Because the Academy and the Salon were government institutions, the battle between artists eager to tap new niche art markets and the Academicians who were working to deny them artistic legitimacy in this effort became politicized. This intensified as republican journalists used the issue to attack Napoleon III’s regime at the end of the 1860s. The Impressionists, as ambitious painter-businessmen with chiefly urban bourgeois backgrounds and sympathies, recognized that there was a market for pictures of the environment and daily life of the urban bourgeoisie, and wanted to tap it. Finding the Academy was blocking their efforts to supply this market, they set out—with help from critics and dealers—to break the commercial monopoly enjoyed by the governmentally organized Salon. Their eventual success created the modern art market. The last paragraph provides a nice climax to my version of events. The only question (all the other paragraphs having been addressed in my previous posts) is: do the facts support this last paragraph? Well, let’s see. Did the Impressionists have chiefly urban bourgeois backgrounds and republican political sympathies? As far as background goes, calling the Impressionists urban bourgeoisie was a pretty fair statement. Edouard Manet’s father was a wealthy Parisian judge. Berthe Morisot father was a well-to-do official at the Cour des Comptes (the financial agency auditing public expenditures) in... posted by Friedrich at March 11, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Monday, March 10, 2003

Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating redux
Michael: In reading your posting, Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating, I realized in scanning your list of authors that I have read books by only two of them—Mssrs. Westlake and Kundera. That got me to thinking about why I don’t read more contemporary fiction. Partly, it is a result of a shift in my taste over the years. Today, I simply prefer the mysteries of fact to those of fiction, the ungainly shape of true stories to the smoother shape of made-up stories. These true stories reach me largely via biographies and works of history (and very occasionally from the pens of “fiction writers” like Saul Bellow who seem, at least today, to be writing ultra-thinly fictionalized versions of real-life family history). This shift seems to have occurred about the time I had children—I don’t know whether that timing amounts to coincidence or causation. Thinking back, however, I realize that since childhood I’ve preferred older fiction to contemporary fiction—by “older” I can mean writing that is a mere 10 or 20 years old at the time I read it. Truly contemporary fiction—especially if it in any way is making claims for its artistic merits—has way too much anxiety and ambition floating around in it. (Joyce Carol Oates? No thanks.) I find those qualities to be like static in a radio broadcast, preventing me from hearing the music being played. I also find that the sheer volume of contemporary fiction writing gives me unpleasant intimations of mortality. Given my limited time and resources for reading, why not utilize the inexorable friction of history to grind away the mud and leave the diamonds? I would bet that any fiction you could actually lay your hands on that's 150 or more years old would be of markedly higher quality than whatever is on the new fiction shelf at your local bookstore. I have never read Racine, but if I had to chose between his collected works and those of Rushdie, Morrison, DeLillo, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon, I’d head for Racine every day of the week. I would certainly prefer to read everything I’ve never gotten around to reading by say, Stendahl--no matter how minor--to a “greatest hits” collection of the above contemporary writers. In what may be a connected issue, I’ve always found it extremely irritating when writers (or artists, for that matter) are dismissed for not being sufficiently “of their time” or praised for possessing this same quality (as if they could be anything else.) Virtually every time I can detect someone as being “of” an era--at least one that I’ve actually lived through--I regard it as a sign of artistic weakness rather than strength—since to me such era-specificity almost always means incorporating a contemporary cliché in place of an original thought. A few years ago it dawned on me, glancing through the New York Times Review of Books at tale after tale of violence, rape, child molestation, et al, that this fiction wasn't the product of the... posted by Friedrich at March 10, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Sunday, March 9, 2003

Why Don't You Know What I'm Thinking?
Friedrich – Why does a woman expect her man to be able to read her mind? And why does she feel perfectly entitled to act indignant when it turns out he can’t? I’m going to assume this holds roughly true (many exceptions allowed for) across cultures and across time. By the way, have studies been done of this? And if not, why not? What might be a plausible evo-bio explanation for this tendency? I’ll (bravely and stupidly) try to get the ball rolling here. A woman is hyper-focused and aware of her inner life (her feelings, her body, her urges and needs). When it turns out that her man hasn’t got a clue what the hell she’s talking about, let alone feeling, it’s quite simply a rude awakening, and rude awakenings make everyone feel irritable. So, two questions: why are women so hyper-focused on their inner lives? What evolutionary advantage does this confer? Question two? Well, what is a man’s role in all this? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 9, 2003 | perma-link | (22) comments

Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating
Friedrich – I haven’t blogged much about books, lit and writing, which along with movies is the current artform I know best. Why? Because I covered the field professionally for 15 years, and I just have too damn much to say, much of which runs counter to conventional lit-world wisdom. Where to start? And how to avoid being knocked over by the sheer pressure of what wants to be said? But, gotta start somewhere, and it’s about time, or so says some inner voice of mine. Why not start by triangulating my peculiar taste set in contempo fiction-book writing? Some of the usual major suspects: I read Rushdie and Morrison thinking “bullshit bullshit bullshit.” DeLillo? I read two of his books, and that’ll last me my next ten lifetimes. Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon? Brilliant, sure, but when I want ideas, I prefer to turn to actual philosophers, and besides, I’m a couple of decades out of grad school. The “what’s great” sweepstakes: Reluctantly, I place my votes for three or four Garcia Marquez books, a couple of books each from Josef Skvorecky (“The Bass Saxophone” and “Dvorak in Love”) and Milan Kundera (but early Kundera, please), two novels (start with “Season of the Jew” -- better than Hemingway) by the almost-completely-unknown-in-America New Zealander Maurice Shadbolt, and four or five of Alice Munro’s books. But, to be honest, those are conversations that I’m not much interested in taking part in. Age and fatigue probably explain this. But also, there are plenty of people clamoring to fight these fights and I’m happy to leave the brawling to them. Me, I’d rather explore pleasure, personal responses, and enjoyment, and do my best to be honest about my reactions. (And I love comparing notes with people I respect and enjoy who are also willing to let go of the damn “what’s great” argument.) I’ll take a pass on arguing over who should win the next Nobel and choose instead to admit that I was surprised to discover that I enjoyed reading Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” and Jackie Collins’ “Hollywood Wives” much more than I did “Cold Mountain” or “All the Pretty Horses.” How about you? The genres. I tend to respond most happily to erotic-philosophical novellas, to mystery, to comedy and humor, and probably best to psychological suspense. Straightforward horror doesn’t mean much to me; neither do political thrillers, sci-fi, or straightforward spy novels. The current lit genres (and, despite the pretences of the lit crowd, there are genres in lit writing just as there are in commercial writing) leave me cold -- the family-dysfunctional, the pinwheeling multicultural extravaganza, the austere farm-based tragedy. My personal faves: So, wading through the thicket of my own rants, I arrive at the currently-active fiction-book writers (and I specify “book” because I also like the work of some screenwriters and TV writers) whose work I most happily look forward to, and most happily abandon myself to. Ruth Rendell, an English specialist in mystery and... posted by Michael at March 9, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments