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  1. Proving Jesse Right
  2. Movie List -- I Liked, They Didn't
  3. Signs of Intelligent Life
  4. Web Surfing
  5. Another Posting I'll Never Get Around to Writing
  6. Growing Pains
  7. New and Improved
  8. Moviegoing: "The Man Without a Past" and "Irreversible"
  9. Free Reads -- Stanley Rothman on Affirmative Action
  10. Another "Intellectual"

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Saturday, April 5, 2003

Proving Jesse Right
Michael: Jesse Helms once remarked, "Sooner or later, you can always trust a Communist to act like a Communist." As you can read here, Fidel Castro is living up to his political affiliation quite vigorously these days. Some of his little stunts include sentencing dissidents to life in prison. I can't wait until that guy keels over, which I guess puts me in the company of a whole lot of people. Cheers, Friedrich P.S. Apparently, some Cuba-watchers believe that Castro is building up to another mass exodus of dissatisfied Cubans designed to permit his authoritarian rule to continue. You can read an L.A. Times story about this here.... posted by Friedrich at April 5, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments

Movie List -- I Liked, They Didn't
Friedrich -- One movie critic I know dislikes lists -- best-of or otherwise. Why? I'm not really sure. I suspect, though, that it's because of a feeling that lists vulgarize the art-appreciation game. A fair point. Nonetheless, I like arts lists. They can be a good way to get to know someone quickly, a good way to learn a bit, a good source for reading and listening and viewing suggestions, and good conversation stimulants. Still, I confess that I can get a little tired of the usual -- namely, the "best-of" list. "Best-of meaning what exactly?" I'll say peevishly. "Your personal favorites? What you think is great?" (See here for Tim Hulsey making the distinction between "great" and "desert island" lists -- you'll have to scroll down a ways -- and here for me on my quarrels with year-end best-of lists.) But maybe I'm just jaded, and want something a little more original from a list. Remember the old Film Comment "Guilty Pleasures" feature? Where filmmakers would list movies they knew were no good but loved anyway? Something like that. Too bad "guilty pleasures" won't do any longer -- everyone's so proud of their trash pleasures these days that no guilt seems involved. What I'm looking to generate and elicit is some shame, queasiness, embarrassment -- something a little cringe-making. Here's the best I can do for now: a list of movies that I enjoyed so much that I actively pressed friends and acquaintances to see them -- and that almost no one agreed with me about. In many cases, I wound up enduring some ridicule. Sigh. Hurts me still. In any case, consider this a work in progress. For all I know I've got many more movies I love buried under layers of shame and embarrassment, and yet to be unearthed. Romance. To me, this Catherine Breillat eros-and-despair movie was one of the most exciting things I'd seen in years. Finally, a truthful movie about eroticism from a female point of view! It didn't seem to be what anyone else had been waiting for. The Gingerbread Man. Robert Altman directing Kenneth Branagh in an adaptation of a John Grisham story (script by Altman under a pseudonym, I'm told). Despite my aversion to Grisham, I found the movie a sophisticated, moody and convincing thriller, and as visually beautiful as a Diebenkorn painting. It tanked instantly. I still can't understand why. As far as I can tell, most people say they found the narrative leap into the third act impossible to swallow. But not enough people saw the movie in the first place for me to reach any trustworthy conclusion. Cookie's Fortune. More late Altman, and to my mind a touching, sweetly implausible southern fable. I found watching it like sitting on the back porch on a hot day with some bourbon and branchwater and just letting the southern yarns spin out at their own speed. I do know a few people who loved the movie. But many more have told... posted by Michael at April 5, 2003 | perma-link | (54) comments

Friday, April 4, 2003

Signs of Intelligent Life
Michael: One of our correspondents forwards some remarks made by Spike Lee at DePauw University on the state of the black urban high school experience: It's much more dangerous today, and the reason I say that is this: when I was growing up we looked up to guys who were great athletes, guys who knew how to talk to the ladies, and, third but not least, guys who were intelligent. Now somehow between then and today, the whole value system has been upended...Because amongst many African American youth today, if you strive to become educated and get your grades, and speak correct English, and be able to speak a sentence without profanity, then you are ridiculed and ostracized as being a 'white boy' or 'white girl' or 'sellout', which is crazy. But if you're on the corner, drinkin' a 40, smokin' a blunt, and holdin' your privates, then you're keepin' it real. Its pathological and genocidal. Apparently Spike considers today's music culture and gangsta rap a negative influence, including rapper 50 cent: He's been shot 12 times, so its like---how much more legitimate can you get? He's been shot and lived to rap about it. Spike's had his ups and downs in my estimation, but I have to applaud him here. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 4, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Thursday, April 3, 2003

Web Surfing
Friedrich -- 2Blowhards visitors will want to check out  Tim Hulsey's new blog, My Stupid Dog, here. Tim (self-described as gay and conservative -- deal with it, world!) is brilliant, can write rueful and precise circles around most of us, and lugs around enough movie and books knowledge for a half a dozen normal buffs. Tim only began taking his thoughts public about a week ago, but he's already one of the brainiest culturebloggers around. Will and Jane Duquette are a California couple who run a wide-ranging and meaty website, here. The blog is only part of it; there's also Ex Libris, their own book-reviewing publication, as well as much else. Marvel at how much reading the two of them do, and how freely and intelligently they discuss it. A special treat: Felicity McCarthy (usually of Goliard Dream, here) has begun reviewing books for Ex Libris. Do you have much interest in Dave "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" Eggers? I don't. All that narcissism, the whimsicality and arbitrariness, the fatigue-crossed-with-a-caffeine-high, the self-regard masking as modesty, the supposedly winning frank bragadoccio, the bullying, and the ever-lurking threat of a temper tantrum ... Lordy, I've only got one life to live. I do admire his industry and entrepreneurship, though. These days, Eggers is semi-sponsoring a new lit mag, The Believer. Felix Salmon (here) gives the magazine a good going-through. Have you run across soundboard sites? They're web sites where sampled sounds from movies and TV are available. Click and hear Arnold say "Hasta la vista, baby" -- that kind of thing. I can't explain why, but these sites make me crack up. Here's one. Experience Eminem's immortal "Fuck you, go home," then marvel at Sarah Michelle Gellar's classic rendition of "duh." Setting the World to Rights (here) is fresh out of the oven and very promising: British free-thinkers who claim to be real-world libertarians. So far, that seems to be exactly what they are; they genuinely seem not to have that nutty utopian gleam in their eyes that the dogmatic libertarians so often get. Will it last? H.D. Miller, a Yalie and a military man, thinks it's too bad that more elite college types don't have some experience of the military, here and here. "The social and intellectual elites form their opinions about military personnel in the absence of first-hand experience; form their opinions based upon prejudice and hearsay," he writes. The BBC reports here on a study that has shown that the oldest known DNA lineages are from East Africa -- "The most ancient populations include the Sandawe, Burunge, Gorowaa and Datog people who live in Tanzania." Mucho genetic diversity in that part of the world, apparently. Thomas Sowell has a go at the ideas underlying affirmative action here. (A good long interview with Sowell can be read here.) Sample column passage: Being admitted to a selective college does not make anyone become a better student, any more than joining a basketball team makes anyone taller. In reality, affirmative action... posted by Michael at April 3, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Another Posting I'll Never Get Around to Writing
Friedrich -- A posting I've been planning to write for so long that I've finally become certain I never will get around to it... It concerns how I think the web is remaking reading and writing, and how that's likely to affect the place of literature in the larger culture. Short version: as the traditional prof-and-critic-and-editor class loses its exclusive grip on how the arts are discussed and how tastes and standards are defined, the general public (and the lit world itself) will find it impossible to avoid confronting how little most people like what passes for lit these days. How little time they have for it, how little interest they have in it, etc. Lit types up till now have fought these facts. With the web all around them, they'll come to accept that, in the larger scheme of things, lit just doesn't matter that much, that it's just a specialist taste and activity. And -- a Blowhard prediction here -- eventually literary reading and writing will take a new place in the culture -- no longer as something special and above, but as a niche market instead. I'm betting that's going to happen with all the fine arts, come to think of it. But there's yet another posting I'll probably never get around to writing. Damn. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 3, 2003 | perma-link | (16) comments

Growing Pains
Michael: My son, who is pushing two, has been a slow “talker.” While he seems to understand a very wide range of things said to him, he has communicated his wants and needs by a combination of the occasional word, sign language, head gestures, grunts, etc. This hasn’t concerned me a great deal; I think by the time you’re on your third child your capacity for “developmental panic” has been largely eroded away. In short, I assumed (since there was nothing wrong with his hearing) he’d talk when he was good and ready, and not before. The last week or so all the synapses started firing and he’s starting to blaze away, stringing together sentences, mastering new words in a single bound, you name it. And while the speed and power of his learning curve are exhilarating, I’m going to miss my little non-talker. I mean, everybody talks; he was unique. He was in no way isolated; you always knew what he wanted or thought about things, at least enough to communicate the essentials of desire, fear, anger, hunger, love, etc. And he could even carry on conversations with himself, in a grumbling stream of nonsense syllables, when he was vaguely dissatisfied with the state of the universe. (It was like listening to someone read the symbols used in comic strips for swear words: #&*+@%!!!) And when he did use his little arsenal of real words, he could get unusual effects out of them; he had a way of stretching out the word “no” into “noooooooooo” which made a simple negative into a gently melancholic song of regret. Maybe someday he’ll write poetry or a latter-day version of the Gettysburg Address. But I’m going to be nostalgic for the days when our primary form of communication was non-verbal. I guess after nearly 50 years of blabbing away myself, what I suddenly find is that speech seems oddly overrated. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 3, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

New and Improved
Michael: Just thought I'd drop you a note that I've added a lot of pix to my posting on Lucian Freud's retrospective at the Los Angeles MOCA. Taking a look (which you can do here) will provide the following benefits: (1) You'll see the best pictures of Lucian Freud's recent work now viewable on the Web (a lot of his paintings have been pulled from museum websites, presumably for the duration of this show)! (2) You'll get brilliant insight and commentary by yours truly! (3) And if that wasn't enough, you'll see art by famous guest stars, including: MICHELANGELO! CARAVAGGIO! VAN DYKE! BOUCHER! RODIN! Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to educate your eyeballs! Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 3, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Moviegoing: "The Man Without a Past" and "Irreversible"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Made it to a couple of art movies the other day in the company of the God of the Machine himself (or Himself, I suppose), Aaron Haspel, an affable crank and brainiac if ever there was one. (And one who's been doing some especially entertaining blogging in the last week, here.) The first was the new Aki Kaurismaki film, The Man Without a Past. Do you know Kaurismaki's movies? He's a Finn, which I imagine says something, though I'm not sure what. I've only seen a few of his movies, and while I'm not about to urge anyone to devote a lifetime of study to Kaurismaki, he's a distinctive talent. If you can picture Jim Jarmusch doing one of his deapan-hipster shaggy-dog numbers but with characters out of Brueghel at the center, you've more or less got Kaurismaki. Droll, offbeat, and supercool, but with elements of the misshapen and grotesque, and not shy on the pathos, either. But he's skillful and sly at stretching this rather skimpy recipe out. (This interview here with Danny Leigh in The Guardian gives the flavor of Kaurismaki.) In this film, a guy is rolled by some thugs; when he wakes up, he can't remember who he is. He knocks around the underclass, takes a liking to a gal who works for the Salvation Army, discovers an aptitude for welding ... There's an out-of-nowhere, absurdist (but enjoyable) musical interlude, where the Salvation Army's band learns how to get some dance rhythms going. Kaurismaki (who sometimes shoots his films in b&w) uses color very deliberately: early-morning light, lots of blue-greens and red-oranges. Lots of focusing on how hard things are for the poor, and on shiney-nosed, high-cheekboned Finnish faces. What an odd people, not that I know anything about them other than what I've seen in Kaurismaki movies. Still: that language, which looks like it was invented by Navajo code-talkers; and those faces, which seem Hungarian, or even Tartar. A strange outpost of something or other. "The Man Without a Past"? Well, it's something, but not necessarily something worthy hurrying to. Aaron seemed irked by the corniness of the amnesia premise. I wasn't, taking it, probably mistakenly, to be a self-conscious hipster's attempt to face emotionality (ie., corniness) head-on. Bellucci and Vincent Cassel in a rare peaceful moment in "Irreversible" Then it was on to Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, infamous already for three things: two scenes of loathesome ultraviolence (one involving a man's skull being crushed, the other a 9-minute long anal-rape scene), and the fact that Noe runs the movie's chronology backwards. I'd never recommend the movie -- which is way over the top, intense, turbulent, possibly offensive and certainly excessive. But Noe's talented, the film is upsetting in a way I rather enjoy, and it showcases the divine Monica Bellucci, who for my money is the most beautiful woman in movies today. So I'm glad I saw it. Like Wong Kar-Wai's "Fallen Angels," which I wrote about here, "Irreversible"... posted by Michael at April 3, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Free Reads -- Stanley Rothman on Affirmative Action
Friedrich -- I'm a few days late getting to this, as I often am, but even so: did you run across Stanley Rothman's op-ed piece in the NYTimes about affirmative action? It's a good one. Sample passage: Diversity fails to deliver even when all else is equal. When we controlled for other demographic and institutional factors like the respondent's race, gender, economic background and religion, or an institution's public or private status, selectivity and whether it offers an ethnic or racial studies program, the results were surprising. A higher level of diversity is associated with somewhat less educational satisfaction and worse race relations among students. The piece can be read here. I was pleased to notice that he also included kids of Hispanic and Asian descent in his study -- groups that are all too often overlooked in discussions about diversity. But I often like Rothman's work. Bizarrely enough, he's a Smith College prof -- bizarrely, because he seems as free of the usual Northhampton brainwashing as can be. I recently read a terrific book he co-wrote with S. Robert Lichter called Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians and the New Left (buyable here). Very helpful in terms of clarifying where "the '60s" came from, and very readable for a book of serious sociology. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 2, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Another "Intellectual"
Michael: I’ve managed, over the years, to avoid learning much about Noam Chomsky, except that he was a linguistics professor with an endless supply of anti-American vitriol. However, perhaps foolishly, I picked up the New Yorker of March 31 and saw a profile on him, “The Devil’s Accountant” by Larissa MacFarquhar. On the first page of this profile we get the following anecdote from a “class” on politics Chomsky teaches at MIT: Chomsky told the students that the current Administration was essentially the same as the first Bush Administration and the Reagan Administration, and therefore could not be trusted to replace a tyrant.…A student wearing a red V-neck sweater raised his hand to ask a question. “I was just wondering if this is really a strong argument about the motives of the government,” he began, in a European accent. “I’m talking about expectations,” Chomsky interrupted. “If Saddam is a monster,” the student went on, “what does it matter, actually, who is going to get rid of him? If you look at the Second World War, the alliance with Stalin was also not a very nice thing, but it was absolutely necessary.” “Well, let’s pick a worse monster than Saddam Hussein,”Chomsky said. “Suppose we could get Saddam Hussein to conquer North Korea. Would you be in favor of it?” About this point my mouth dropped open at the audacity of Chomsky’s dirty tricks. He is raising a point that is utterly irrelevant to the discussion at hand simply to try to confuse his student (i.e., someone he gets paid to educate.) This world famous guy who is teaching the class, who is the local authority figure, who is sitting up on stage with a microphone, needs to pull crap like this in order to squelch the slightest dissent from his opinions? “The Second World War is a slightly different story,” Chomsky continued. The United States and Britain fought the war, of course, but not primarily against Nazi Germany. The war against Nazi Germany was fought by the Russians. The Germany military forces were overwhelmingly on the Eastern Front.” “But the world was better off,” the student persisted. “First of all, you have to ask yourself whether the best way of getting rid of Hitler was to kill tens of millions of Russians. Maybe a better way was not supporting him in the first place, as Britain and the United States did. O.K.? But you’re right, it has nothing to do with motives—it has to do with expectations. And actually if you’re interested in expectations there’s more to say. By Stalingrad in 1942, the Russians had turned back the German advances, and it was pretty clear that Germany wasn’t going to win the war. Well we’ve learned from the Russian archives that Britain and the U.S. then began supporting armies established by Hitler to hold back the Russian advance. Tens of thousands of Russian Troops were killed. Suppose you’re sitting in Auschwitz. Do you want the Russian troops to be held back?”... posted by Friedrich at April 1, 2003 | perma-link | (40) comments

Salingaros on Deconstruction
Friedrich -- If you’ve got a little curiosity about contempo architecture and you take a peek at its coverage in the mainstream press (as well as the specialist architectural press), you’re probably running into names like Daniel (WTC-site) Libeskind, Herbert Muschamp, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Coop Himmelblau. You’re probably also running into a lot of photos of zigzaggy, blown-to-bits buildings that look a bit like an L.A. kitchen the morning after the big one. Chances are that, unless you’ve gone to architecture school or have been otherwise marinated in contempo "theory," you probably have some variation on what I think of as the "Huh? What the fuck?" response. The writing and thinking seem almost incomprehensible and, when comprehensible, engaged with issues and ideas that seem of no conceivable human interest whatsoever. The designs themselves sometimes seem kind of cool and flashy -- but, lordy, imagine having to live in, or work in, or even have to pass regularly by such heaps of self-referential showboating. (As for the recently-selected WTC-replacement design: nice going, New York. That Daniel Libeskind design you’ve chosen? It’s untried, radical architecture, to which the daily lives of tens of thousands of people are going to have no choice but to submit. Remember the debacle of Richard Serra’s "Tilted Arc"? Well, I may certainly be proven wrong, but my bet is that the WTC rebuilding will be the Serra fiasco multiplied many times over. Serra’s piece just made a pain of itself in the middle of one modest public plaza, while thousands and thousands of people are actually going to have to work in, and live around, Libeskind’s design.) Those weirdo interruptions, disruptions and breaks in po-mo/decon design? (Which, by the way, often strike me as pretty neat in a design sense -- ie., so long as they’re on a book jacket or in a movie poster and not bending and distorting the lives of people who've got better things to do than fret over edgy art issues.) They’ve got nothing whatsoever to do with people, and with how people like to work, live, shop or simply spend time in the city. They aren’t the result of any concern with or respect for daily life, let alone other human beings. Instead, they’re hijinks -- fashion, really -- derived from French theory and naive interpretations of up-to-date science. Showing off, basically, and being brilliant -- and, as far as I’m concerned, irresponsibly so, and usually at the expense of the rest of us. Many people who encounter this kind of thing abandon their interest in buildings and architecture, figuring either that they just aren’t getting it or that the inmates are clearly running the asylum and who needs that. Luckily, there is in fact an alternative, an entire world of building and thinking that’s concerned with beauty and human values. You won’t find much mention of it in the mainstream art and architecture press -- a sign of how topsy-turvy that world is, at least by my lights.... posted by Michael at April 1, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Monday, March 31, 2003

Lucian Freud on Tape
Michael: After months of shilly-shallying, I finally took a few hours, drove downtown to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, plunked down my eight bucks and saw the Lucian Freud retrospective. As an experiment, I took along a tape recorder and mumbled notes into it. Since I clearly ended up looking even more eccentric than I normally do at an art exhibit, I’ve decided that I’m entitled to skip trying to write up something and just share some of my incredibly insightful on-the-spot comments: *** Freud’s early work is intriguing, off-beat, modestly original etc., etc., but it doesn’t look like highly saleable art. I wonder how he paid the bills during, say, the first ten years of his career? Family money? Rich girlfriends? L. Freud, Woman with a Daffodil, 1945; L. Freud, Girl by the Sea, 1956 *** Okay, okay, I’ve got to confess: I do wonder how good the likenesses in Freud’s portraits really are. L. Freud, Head of the Big Man, 1975 *** The reclining figures seem to have been an attempt to extend his treatment of flesh into space, as opposed to his early portraits, which are just three-dimensionally modeled heads against a blank ground. L. Freud, John Deakin, 1963-4; L. Freud, Naked Girl Asleep, 1968 Idea for a piece: From the Famous Painter’s School, Lucian Freud shows you how to paint a reclining nude! *** The funny thing is, along with his distortions, he achieves some marvelous anatomical drawing and modeling. L. Freud, Guy and Speck, 1980-1 *** I understood Lucian is a rather slow worker. I’m fascinated that he can get the damn dog to lie still for so long. L. Freud, Double Portrait, 1985-6 (Detail) *** “Leigh Bowery Seated,” 1990, makes you wonder if Freud was looking at Jusepe de Ribera. The painting must be 8 feet, maybe 10 feet high. The figure is well over life size. He’s sitting, looking directly up at you, which gives the sense that you’re interrogating him. Ribera’s paintings often show saints being worked over by a gang of highly amused thugs, and convey the insinuation that you—the viewer—are among the rotten scum enjoying the spectacle. Freud’s painting has a little of this complicit cruelty. *** Freud has, in his own way, resuscitated the heroic nude. *** His stuff of the last ten years or so feels like history painting with no “overt” history. I guess we supply the history. He’s giving us hints, of course. There’s an extremely long-haired guy in one picture who looks like Jesus being mocked, all he needs is a crown of thorns. (Umm, let’s see, the painting is called “Freddy Standing.”) L. Freud, Freddy Standing, 2001; M. Caravaggio, Ecce Homo The painting “And the Bridegroom” could just as easily be titled “Samson and Delilah.” L. Freud, And the Bridegroom, 1993 (Detail); A. Van Dyck, Samson and Delilah, 1630-2 “Sunny Morning, Eight Legs” could be “St. Paul on the Road to Damascus Holding a Dog” (although the two legs sticking out from under... posted by Friedrich at March 31, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments