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  1. Tacit Knowledge -- Writing a Book
  2. A Fistful of Dinars
  3. Blockbusters, Week 2
  4. Free Reads -- V.S. Ramachandran
  5. Torn from the Pages of Friedrich's Sketchbooks
  6. Psychological Suspense
  7. Schizophrenic Science
  8. Computers, animation and drugs
  9. Rungius, Hunting and the Roots of Art
  10. DVD Journal: "Drumline"

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Saturday, June 7, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Writing a Book
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Another posting in my very occasional series concerning the rules of thumb that people in the arts work by but almost never get around to articulating. Today: writing a book. Isn't it interesting how many people dream of writing a book? It's sweet, and it's (mostly) harmless, and I guess I once semi-shared that dream, and I guess one or two brain cells still make room for the possibility that I will someday write a book (fat chance). But, but, but ... Then I followed the book-publishing industry for 15 years. Fact #1: Millions of people are working on books, or believe that they could write a book, or are planning to write a book. And I'll bet that for many of them a part of that fantasy is the making - a - living-as-a-freelancer -doing-something-interesting-rather- than-working-as-a- flunky-in-a-boring- job element. But how many people in the country actually manage to make a living writing books? A couple of hundred. Millions would like to do it. A couple of hundred actually manage it. In other words, your chances of making a living writing books are perhaps better than are your chances of ever playing in the NBA. But not all that much better. Technical pause here: there's an important-to-understand distinction that needs to be made between "book publishing" generally and "trade book publishing," which is what most of us think of when we think of book publishing -- ie., the biz that creates the books that fill up the local bookstore. Book publishing generally is a fairly substantial industry, and most of the money in the field -- 2/3, if I remember right -- doesn't come from "trade book" publishing. It's generated by the sales of products many of us almost never think of as books: medical reference books, atlases, textbooks. This end of the biz operates in the semi-rational way many businesses do, with similar profit margins and incentive structures. There's real money to be made here, other words. You can get rich writing and/or publishing textbooks, for instance, even if it's a very competitive industry. Trade-book publishing, the wing of the industry that fills up your local chain store, is a very modest subset of book publishing. And it's got a quite different texture. It's rather irrational, makes very modest profits, is full of well-meaning ex-English majors, and is forever being invaded (and wreaked havoc on) by conglomerates that think they can run it like a conventional business, and who always fail to turn the trick. Despite the celebrated star authors and the occasional celeb execs and agents, there's rather little money to be made here. And most of that money is as flukey and moody as the money that sloshes around the moviebiz. You'd be surprised by how many name authors don't manage to make a living at their trade. Fact #2: Most people who write "serious" trade nonfiction actually lose money on their projects. Biographies? Serious travel books? Moneylosers for most... posted by Michael at June 7, 2003 | perma-link | (186) comments

Friday, June 6, 2003

A Fistful of Dinars
Michael: I was going through some of my old emails today and noticed two that seemed somehow connected. Both emails contained excerpts from stories that had appeared in the New York Times. The first was from the May 5 edition: In the hours before American bombs began falling on the Iraqi capital, one of President Saddam Hussein's sons and a close adviser carried off nearly $1 billion in cash from the country's Central Bank, according to American and Iraqi officials here. The removal of the money, which would amount to one of the largest bank robberies in history, was performed under the direct orders of Mr. Hussein, according to an Iraqi official with knowledge of the incident… Neither Iraqi nor American officials claimed to know the whereabouts of the $1 billion or, for that matter, of Saddam Hussein, Qusay Hussein or Mr. Mahmood. All three men are being sought by the United States. The Iraqi official insisted on anonymity because, he said, he feared that he could fall victim to Mr. Hussein or one of his associates who remain at large. The next was a movie review from May 25: The newly restored version of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" has three scenes not included in the American release; they were dubbed into English for the first time last year, after Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Wallach made time to record them. These additions give each of the characters a bit more screen time, but overall serve only to increase the dazed lunacy of the chase for the gold, which becomes a slapstick comedy with a gun permit. Suddenly my mind began to wander… A little meeting at Baath Party HQ in downtown Bagdad… (Wild Applause) Saddam Hussein: Well, boys, now that the Americans are about to invade, I suppose you’d like to know my plan. Audience (off): You bet! Saddam Hussein (off): A few days ago I sent a trusted associate to the National Bank of Iraq to make a little withdrawal. Associate: “I’d like a billion dollars. Small bills, please.” Saddam Hussein (off): It was a tidy sum…so large, in fact that it took several hours to load the truck! Don’t worry, I had all of the workers shot. Saddam Hussein(off): It will be plenty to keep all of us in luxury for life in some friendly vacation retreat, so relax and have no fear. I’ve arranged a little show for you. Enjoy! Baath Party Loyalists: Ah, Saddam, we knew you’d think of something! Come, join in the fun! Saddam Hussein: Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll be there as soon as I finish my target practice. (Suckers!) (SFX:) Loud Explosion Saddam Hussein (off): What a bunch of morons! No wonder my little schemes for world domination never worked out. Ah, but no crying over spilt milk. (Sings:) On the road, again...da da da da da....on the road again... One month later at U.S. Army HQ in Iraq... General Franks: So that's how it is. We seem... posted by Friedrich at June 6, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Blockbusters, Week 2
Friedrich -- Interesting article in today's WSJ by John Lippman, their new L.A. showbiz reporter, discussing the way blockbuster movies are more and more creatures of their very first weekend. Some excerpts: It's no longer unusual ... for first-weekend box-office tallies to reach $60 million to $80 million ... But all that this may be adding up to is Hollywood's biggest mistake. America's love affair at the movies is turning into a one-night stand. More and more of the money to be made in ticket sales is coming in the opening days of a movie's release. Increasingly by the second weekend, a movie has likely raked in half of its total box office, and is 75% spent by its third weekend. (Ten years ago a movie was only about half-spent in its first month of release.) This quick-hit trend is actually eroding long-term box office. As fickle audiences shuttle on cue from one sci-fi epic to broad comedy to caper flick, many Hollywood insiders predict there will not be a movie this summer that is No.1 at the box office for two consecutive weekends -- the summer without a blockbuster. "Films don't have legs anymore," says Paul Dergarabedian ... It's a trend that started in earnest last summer, he says, when ticket sales for some notable movies began to drop off precipitously... This year, the drops are even more marked: "Daredevil," "X2: X-Men United" and "The Matrix Reloaded" all broke the 50% barrier ... Far from trying to stop the falloff, studios are starting to play to the fickle audience, 'blasting open' movies by booking as many as 8,000 screens at once at the multiplexes ... One thing missing from Lippman's excellent piece is a little long-view perspective. Time for some Blowhards background! Back in our (ahem) moviestruck youth, it wasn't unusual for a movie to take weeks after its initial release to even get to smaller cities and towns. Hit movies often ran for months and months. It was the sucess of "Jaws" in 1976 that changed all this. "Jaws" was the first big-budget studio pic to be marketed like exploitation pictures had sometimes been promoted, via the process known (if I remember right) as "four-walling" -- blitzing the airwaves with ads, renting tons of theaters, creating a gigantic stir. But the little exploitation pics were only able to do this on a city-by-city basis. With "Jaws," Universal blitzed the entire country at once. On the subject of which, I realize from talking to young people that many of them seem to think that "the summer blockbuster" movie is a phenom that dates to the very birth of movies and may indeed be some kind of representation of the very nature of movies themselves. In fact, it started fairly recently -- with "Jaws." Hard to believe, but prior to "Jaws" there really wasn't anything like what we currently consider "summer movie season." Dept. of Fun Coincidences: in another part of today's WSJ, there's a review of Connie Bruck's new... posted by Michael at June 6, 2003 | perma-link | (18) comments

Free Reads -- V.S. Ramachandran
Friedrich -- From a BBC 4-sponsored talk given by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Programme at the University of California, San Diego: I would say there is something special about humans - that is reflective self-consciousness and it's unlikely that dogs, for example, have that. But there's something even more unique about humans, which I don't think any of us can explain yet. Sometimes reporters come and; humour - you know, we're the laughing primate; we have free will; we can contemplate the consequences of our actions, so on and so forth. But there is one quality that I think is very special and that is the need to be more than human. In other words, you're constantly confronted with this dilemma. You know that everything that you hear from science and from neurology, that you are a beast, just a hairless ape which happens to be a little bit more clever than other apes. At the same time, you don't feel like that. You feel like you're an angel trapped inside this body, constantly craving immortality, craving transcendence trying to escape from this body. And this is the essential human predicament. Good, huh? It's from a terrific five-lecture introduction to contempo neuroscience, presented in very enjoyable, non-technical English. Go here to read them all. Arty 2Blowhards visitors won't want to miss Lecture 3, "The Artful Brain," or this brief discussion here, in which Prof. Ramachandran draws up a tentative list of ten laws of art. Both of these talks left me with an urge to introduce Prof. Ramachandran to our friend Nikos Salingaros. I think they'd find a lot of common ground. I'm tellin' ya: neuroscience, computer science, evo-bio and evo-psych, the classical revival, Alexander/Krier/Salingaros, the Web ... All these semi-parallel things are happening. They're live ideas and fields, and more and more they're feeding into and reinforcing each other. There's juice there to feed on and power there to surf on. Meanwhile the arts continue sucking on the long-dried-up corpse of Euro-theory -- po-mo, decon, etc. How can they be so completely unaware that the world left them in the dust about 20 years ago? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 6, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Thursday, June 5, 2003

Torn from the Pages of Friedrich's Sketchbooks
Michael: Again, as I threatened, I’m sharing some of the contents of my sketchbooks. Both of my examples today are copies after paintings. I make such a copy from a desire to explore the visual logic of an artist—how does he or she produce their signature effects? I suspect some part of my brain thinks it knows and wants to test its hypothesis, although my “normal” consciousness hasn’t a clue (as usual). So I get a sketchbook and start drawing, and see what comes out. The first sketch is after “The Felicity of the Regency” by Peter Paul Rubens. The original is with the rest of Rubens’ Marie de Medici cycle in the Louvre, which I’m sorry to say, is not where I made this drawing. I believe Ingres as he led his pupils through the halls of the museum forced them to shade their eyes so they wouldn’t see these paintings, claiming that Rubens couldn’t draw, which Ingres must have known was nonsense, and that he was “a butcher” which I suspect is much closer to the truth—for Ingres, anyway. In any event, I made this as a pencil drawing and went over it with acrylic paints, because I was investigating how Rubens modeled his heroic nudes, which are both incredibly three dimensional and full of muscular energy (not bad for patches of paint on a 375-year-old-canvas.) Moreover, I had noticed that despite creating terrific heroic nudes in one painting after another—figures that in anybody else’s paintings would have hogged the limelight and turned everything else into mere background—Rubens somehow integrated these figures into the rest of the image so that you looked at the whole canvas. What I discovered is that Rubens used his modeling, and particular his highlights, to create linear webs all over the canvas that channel the eye to and fro, around and down, loop the loop. I first noticed this when I realized that his highlights weren’t isolated little puddles of paint, but either physically or by extension connected to each other, pulling your attention along with them. In short, there’s more than a little Jackson Pollock in Rubens (or possibly vice versa, considering their dates.) The second copy is after “Pregnant Girl” by Lucian Freud, a somewhat more contemporary effort (1960-1). Again, I had been very struck by the plasticity of Freud’s modeling, and surprised myself by reaching for a colored pencil to make a copy (remember about my conscious mind not having a clue. Oh, heck, just assume I never have a clue.) What I discovered is that Freud’s modeling is a sort of jigsaw-puzzle affair, in which rather than blending his various color-tones into each other, he uses them to make quite distinct shapes on the canvas…think of picking up a brush loaded with a yellowish skin tone and drawing a triangle, then using a brush with a grayish tone to create a long, narrow patch, then mixing some pinkish paint to create a lozenge-shaped area, etc. It’s very much drawing... posted by Friedrich at June 5, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Psychological Suspense
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I caught a good French movie the other night -- Claude Miller's Alias Betty. From one point of view, it's a fairly absorbing, not-very-thrilling thriller. But from another, it's a first-rate example of my very favorite genre, the one known as "psychological suspense." Some people like speculative history; some like hobbit-style fantasy; some like Cold War spy fiction. I like psychological suspense. I can't defend my taste for it, which seems built into my biology. All I know is that I tend to be happy and engrossed when I'm in that world. Ever run across discussions of this genre? I can't imagine why; it's not very well known in America. England and France have much more developed traditions of psych-suspense fiction. But it's got its own interesting history, and sets of conventions and expectations. A few movies and authors to get us in the ballpark: Ruth Rendell. Patricia Highsmith. Simenon's non-Maigret novels. "Lantana." The Swedish co-authors Sjowell and Wahloo. "Purple Noon." "Cul de Sac." Chabrol. "The Vanishing." The movie version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" was a highly-compromised version of psychological suspense. Another fairly recent example: "With a Friend Like Harry." Have you seen that one? A French film about a charming murderer, very lowkey and quietly freaky. Tragedy, desperation, psychosis -- and life goes on. What characterizes the genre? I find it helpful to keep in mind that it isn't a mystery-fiction subgenre; it's really best thought of as a crime-fiction subgenre. That helps take some weight off the idea of "mystery." Its main characteristic, though, is it generally uses a crime as a pretext for opportunities to look into personality and sociology. There's a murder or a kidnapping, sure -- but often in psychological suspense you know from the outset who did it. Ie., from a mystery point of view, there's pointedly no mystery. And often the central character, if there is one, isn't the investigator but the criminal. In the crime-fiction world, these fictions are sometimes referred to not as whodunnits but as whydunnits, because they aren't as concerned with the finding of the solution to a crime as they are with psychological and social observation -- with tracing the reasons that lead to a crime and the consequences that flow from it. Where the detective novel, say, drives to a solution, the psychological-suspense fiction lingers over the minds of the criminal and the other people involved. I recall someone somewhere writing that psychological suspense is (roughly) "the story of a crime, not the story of the tracking down of a criminal." These novels and films often resemble Altman movies but with actual pretexts. Suspense? Well, kindasorta. But seldom of the rushing-to-a-breathless-climax sort. There's often a tone of dread or malignity -- you're watching or reading about curious, fated, peculiar things, people and actions. But that tone is usually part of a more "objective" overall point of view. (Because of this, these books and movies are more likely than most to... posted by Michael at June 4, 2003 | perma-link | (18) comments

Schizophrenic Science
Michael: When you were leafing through a magazine, did you ever wonder if the editors ever read the whole publication? Or even the whole section? I recently had this experience in connection with the June issue of Scientific American. On page 20, in the News Scan section of the magazine, I saw a story on “Acting Locally: In Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, States Go It Alone.” The main thrust of this story is accurately summarized in its concluding paragraph: Still, the collective effort of the states is already beginning to compensate for the lack of reductions by the Bush Administration. “You may have some American states that are better prepared, from a policy standpoint, to reduce greenhouse gases than a number of nations that have ratified Kyoto,” [Barry] Raab [of the University of Michigan] comments. The earth’s atmosphere will take whatever help it can get. The Problem, Right? Okay, I thought, that’s interesting, and then kept flipping until I reached page 28—still in the News Scan section of the magazine. Now I’m confronted with a little squib entitled, “Rising Sun”: Humans may be shouldering too much of the blame for global warming, according to a new look at data from six sun-gazing satellites. They suggest that Planet Earth has been drenched in a bath of solar radiation that has been intensifying over the past 24 years—an increase of about 0.05 percent each decade. If that trend began early last century, it could account for a significant component of the climatic warm-up that is typically attributed to human-made greenhouse gases, says Richard C. Willson of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research in Coronado, Calif…[Willson thinks] the evidence merits keeping a close eye on both the sun and humans to better guage their relative influences on global climate. “In 100 years I think we’ll find the sun is in control,” he says. Or the Problem...? Hey, I’m resolutely agnostic on the whole topic of global warming, but it sure would be easier on us average-citizen types if Scientific American, to say nothing of the rest of the scientific community, could make up its mind. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at June 4, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Computers, animation and drugs
Friedrich -- Are you looking forward to seeing the new Pixar "Nemo" movie? I am, if only sorta. I'm not a fan of longform animation generally, but I've found the Pixar movies pretty enjoyable and impressive. A gal I once interviewed spends some time every year visiting the arts schools in the US and Canada recruiting fresh cannon fodder for one of the big animation departments. She told me that the best young artists she sees (ie., skillful, devoted, etc) are the kids who are serious about making a go of it as professional animators. They work hard at conventional drawing and painting skills, and they turn themselves into snazzy and imaginative computer people too. They also think sensibly about making a living as an artist. Meanwhile, the fine-arts kids drink, horse around, feel superior, and carry on like they're doing something important. How do you react to the new animated features generally? I mainly avoid them. Longform animation goes nightmarish on me pretty quickly: please, someone, make it stop! But I do find the Pixar movies bearable. The Pixar crowd gives story and character some real focus and concentration, for one important thing. You don't feel you're being forcefed product. The pictures feel artisanal -- put together as unique pieces of cyber-handicraft. Years ago I took one of those Robert McKee screenwriting classes -- brilliant, by the way -- and wound up during a break talking to a guy from Pixar. Nice, bright, obviously hardworking. He told me that Pixar makes every employee take McKee's class. "It's all about the storytelling at Pixar," he said. "People think it's the computers and the visuals. But it's really all about crafting the story and figuring out how best to tell it." Beats me whether it's true that literally everyone at Pixar takes the course. But he did convince me that Pixar takes storytelling seriously. And I find the Pixar visuals impressive, though I'd have a hard time saying I plain enjoy them. Everything these days is so intense, so overproduced, and the Pixar visuals are no exception. I find that I'm constantly wincing. Why is everything so damn vivid and emphatic? Does everything have to come at my senses so damn hard? I'm also surprised that more people don't seem to have the kind of trouble I do with what computers do with light. This isn't a minor problem for me. Movies? Light? Pretty closely related. But everything in a computer-animated picture looks flat and dead -- as though lit by flourescents that were bounced off of concrete. There's never any sparkle or lyricism in the light; it isn't life-giving. I suppose the geniuses at Pixar are on the case. Heck, they've got hair and fur under some control these days. I wonder how long it'll be before they make the light behave better. But I have a larger thesis here, which is that the whole drive with computers, electronics and the media is to create what are essentially drug trips.... posted by Michael at June 3, 2003 | perma-link | (22) comments

Rungius, Hunting and the Roots of Art
Michael: I’ve written a couple postings on the topic of the “primitive” issues that lurk underneath our modern notions of aesthetics. I didn’t expect to visit this topic again but I ran smack into it in the art of Carl Rungius. I caught an exhibit of his work—the largest ever assembled—at the Gene Autry Museum. (I should note that the show was organized as a traveling exhibition by the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, which contributed the lion’s share of the paintings.) I’d heard vaguely of Rungius (pronounced “Rungus”) before. When I was in art school, I got very interested in drawing animals at zoos, and spent some time learning about wildlife art. My impression of Rungius was as an animal painter from the era—the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th –when not-quite-Modern artists were still trying to blend academic drawing with Impressionist color. In other words, Rungius was a rough contemporary of the California Impressionists, Joaquin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent, who just happened to paint animals in the woods. Rungius, along with the Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors, also seemed to form a link in a chain between the Barbizon animal painters of the mid-19th century and 20th century American wildlife artists like Bob Kuhn and Robert Bateman. As far as it went, this was correct. But that understated the truth by a lot. Carl Rungius—who was born in Germany and educated in Berlin—actually single handedly transplanted the very German tradition of Jagdmalerei (the representation of hunting scenes and game animals) to America. And, because at this very moment hunters (including Teddy Roosevelt) were creating the modern notion of conservation, Rungius also invented modern American wildlife painting, albeit more or less by accident. But I don’t want to focus on the social role of Rungius’ art in this post. Rather, I want to focus on a disturbing quality in his art that I first noticed in this drawing: C. Rungius, Skinned Feline, 1893 The label next to this drawing politely informed me that Rungius had hunted stray cats in order to obtain specimens for these anatomical studies. (Apparently there was some family background in taxidermy.) I could understand the passion of an animal artist to learn anatomy by dissection—not an ambition for the faint of heart, but fairly common since the Renaissance—but I have to admit the idea of deliberately stalking domestic cats struck me as a trifle outré. I took a closer look into his biography, and discovered that it wasn’t the artistic opportunities of America that lured this German artist to America—it was the opportunity for hunting big game! According to Dr. Karen Wonders in her essay, “Big Game Hunting and the Birth of Wildlife Art” in the show catalogue: By the end of the nineteenth century, hunting in Germany, for the average citizen, was an activity carefully controlled by local authorities who granted access to the land and by scientists responsible for managing the state forests and game animals. For an... posted by Friedrich at June 3, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Monday, June 2, 2003

DVD Journal: "Drumline"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- I am one sorry arts buff and one sorry American, I confess it here and now. Why? Because I've always felt in my heart of hearts that one of the great American art forms is the African-American marching band tradition, yet I've never really looked into the phenomenon. In fact, I know nothing more about it (and have no more experience of it) than does any kid who grew up watching college-football halftime shows on TV. But, good heavens, those memories are so vivid -- I loved those marching bands -- that they make me want to do penance for not following up on the pleasures they represent. I feel like I've done a disservice to life itself. Auggghhhhh!!! (Sound of me knocking my head against a wall for being so negligent, then falling to my knees and begging forgiveness.) So I was thrilled to hear about the movie Drumline, apparently the very first feature ever made about African-American marching bands. I rented the DVD last night. Have you seen it? Well, it ain't all it could be, let's say that flat out. Much of it's almost childishly bad -- a Cuisinarted mush of every sports-movie and "Officer and a Gentleman" cliche you could ever come up with and then some, directed in a way that made The Wife lean over and say to me, "I feel like this has nothing to do with movies. It's making me feel like an alien, 80 years from now, trying to make sense of what this was." Market-driven yet naive is how it feels. You watch the movie convinced that the script wasn't written, it was hashed out by a conference room full of accountants. Brace yourself for the tale of the big-city hotshot who's got to get past his ego and learn how to be part of the team -- only the hotshot here is a snare drummer, and the team is the band. Every little narrative element that gets raised gets returned to, including a number I'd have been happier to see dropped. Lessons are learned to the right of you, lessons are learned to the left of you. The movie's also a textbook case of either underbudgeting or ineptness: you've never seen such a lousily-realized "college" atmosphere, or such badly disguised "crowds." Did they even bother asking the 50 people they hired to sit in the stadium seats to change costumes when they went and sat on the other side of the stadium to cheer the other band? Not enough of this The ultimate disappointment is that there isn't nearly enough marching, and what's there is so chopped up you barely get a sense of what the routines are meant to be. Bob Fosse, dude, I loved what you did yourself. But can't you make everyone else stop it, now? Subject for a future blog posting: "Fear of not cutting a scene to shreds." Still: cute performers, some snazzy footwork, glimpses of a lot... posted by Michael at June 2, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Outsider Art--Watts Towers
Michael: Being the worst tourist in the world, after twenty years in Southern California I finally made my first visit to Watts Towers. I went along as a chauffeur for my daughter, who was bribed by her art teacher to attend a ceremony honoring high school art students who were the winners of an “expressionistic portrait” contest. (My daughter seemed rather relieved that her own expressionistic portrait, which she found a bit embarassing, hadn’t been selected for the contest.) The ceremony was held at the Watts Towers Art Center, a building right next door to the Towers themselves. The student art on display at the Center demonstrated to my satisfaction that (1) there are many talented young artists out there and (2) expressionism is not a mode of art making that I would recommend to the young. It’s hard to invest distortion with meaning when there isn’t a context of “standard” representation to play off of, and most of these kids are not yet sufficient masters of mimesis to provide this context. Likewise, the notion of having adolescents make art out of anguish is like throwing gasoline on fires—the outcome is rather too predictable for the creation of great art. I suspect trying to get giddy and tormented adolescents to create art in a classical vein would produce more interesting final results, as it would involve a far bigger imaginative stretch for teenagers. S. Rodia, Watts Towers (Nuestro Pueblo), 1921-54 While I was there, of course, I had to go check out the famous towers, which are just as surreal and yet oddly serene as reproductions would suggest. As I’m sure everyone has heard, they were the creations of Simon Rodia, who in 1921, at the age of 42, decided to leave a legacy of himself to the world and built his own quasi-architectural sculptures on a lot next door to his suburban house for the next 33 years. A construction worker and apparently the only Italian living in Watts (at the time not yet an African American community), Rodia began to build his unique sculptures out of rebar and concrete, decorated with glass bottles, sea shells, and various objects his highly irritated neighbors routinely threw at him. The structures grew and overlapped so that that the final result includes more than just towers; rather touchingly his “Nuestro Pueblo” includes walkways and seating areas for a social life that apparently eluded the solitary Rodia. In short, the creation of a true original, a folk artist, a nut-job, an “outsider,” despised by all of his right-thinking, upwardly mobile neighbors. But wait, he ultimately won that battle, didn’t he? His art is world famous, a scene of pilgrimage. Well, not exactly. Local politicians and community leaders have clearly clasped Mr. Rodia’s creation to their bosoms, but one suspects that their interest in his art is rather more superficial than Mr. Rodia would have preferred. The community has memorialized the site by surrounding it with a huge metal fence, knocking down other homes... posted by Friedrich at June 2, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Sunday, June 1, 2003

The Anti-PPP Party
Friedrich -- Do you understand Primarily Political People? ("PPPs," I think of them as.) I don't. I mean, I do, but only intellectually: drawn to the action, and eager to do good and, oh yeah, get famous and snag power while doing so ... Temperamentally, though, I don't have a clue where the PPPs are coming from. I can't imagine a worse life or, generally, a worse set of people. Politics to me is, at best, an unfortunate necessity. We don't seem to be able to do without politics -- alas to that. But PPPs can't seem to stop scheming; they can't stop dreaming up ways to suck up to power, or imagining things they'd like to see government do. When I, anti-PPP person that I am, think of politics, what comes to me is ways of hogtying politicians into near-immobility, and things I'd like to see government get out of the business of doing. My general -- and highly sophisticated -- theory of government is that 95% of the time nothing really needs to be done. Did I mention that I'm contemplating a run for office on an anti-PPP platform? Care to donate to the cause? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 1, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Manny Farber
Friedrich -- I know you read Manny Farber's film criticism back in our movie-nut college days, but I forget whether or not you were a fanatical Farber-head. Did his writing speak to you much? Has it stayed with you? (Isn't it funny, by the way, to remember how important a half a dozen film critics seemed not just to film buffs but to the culture more generally in those days? Unimaginable today.) If I remember right, during our years in college Farber was making a hard-to-explain turn. He'd become known in the '50s and '60s for championing little, masculine B-movies -- guy-stuff, often directed by people like Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel. But in the mid-'70s, his interests were turning to hardcore art movies, Straub and Huillet, Akerman, Herzog... My mind's on Manny Farber today because I noticed that a show of his paintings is going to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's La Jolla location in September. Have you ever paid attention to Farber's paintings? I like them even better than I like his criticism, which I like plenty. Manny Farber: "Story of the Eye" But it's fun to think about his criticism too. It's all in that one book, a collection of essays and reviews that's been published several times, each time with a few new pieces added. (It's best known as "Negative Space," though it was once published, if I remember right, as "Manny Farber on Movies." His more recent essays and reviews were co-written with his wife, the painter Patricia Patterson.) I suspect I've stayed in closer touch with the battier reaches of the filmbuff world than you have since college, and it's been interesting to take note of how immensely much Farber's writing means to a certain class of film geek. I love Farber's writing and brain. But for some film geeks, his criticism isn't simply what I take it to be -- the journal of a brilliant crackpot, full of bizarrely wonderful perceptions about the visual and rhythmic qualities of movies. It means a whole lot more than that to them. Which isn't to say I'm not a fan. Farber can go off on speedy jags that make your head buzz, and make you think you're seeing movies in a whole new way. His writing is, as far as I'm concerned, about the excitement of getting off on your own intellect -- it's an intellectual-on-a-roll high: all mental/visual crackle. He's freewheeling in a west-coast way. People I know who took his classes and attended his lectures remember how intuitive they were. He didn't do anything systematic, let alone pedantic; instead, he made one nutty, provocative connection after another. He was famous among buffs for not studying movies as whole entities, but for making comparisons between bits of them -- drawing a line between a shot in Herzog and some lighting in an American crime movie, for instance. He was famous as well for letting a passage run unsually long --... posted by Michael at June 1, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments