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  1. Fantasy and Reality
  2. Method Look. Now: Method Cropping?
  3. Histories of Music
  4. The Cher Mystery
  5. 1903, or Jumping on Terry
  6. Spending Time in Bruegelville
  7. Spam Musings
  8. Guest Posting -- Salingaros on Tschumi

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Saturday, March 6, 2004

Fantasy and Reality
Michael: I recently made a safari into the dark recesses of the female teenage (pre-teen?) mind, and it got me thinking about the relationship between fantasy and reality in art. The occasion of this mental safari was a decision to take my 13-year-old daughter to the movies, and to let her pick the film we would see. My daughter chose “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” a Disney vehicle originally developed for Hillary Duff (apparently an iconic presence for the pre-teen female demographic) but which had ended up starring Lindsay Lohan when Disney and Ms. Duff parted ways. The upshot was a truly unique viewing experience, sort of like watching a foreign film in a language you don’t understand, and without subtitles. Actually, it was even more disorienting than that, because it seemed as if I could understand the dialogue and yet I still found myself asking (mentally) “What? Huh? Why is this happening? What is supposed to be going on here? Why did she say that? I think I’m missing the point here. Is there a point here?” As best I could make out, the film was an attempt to touch on a series of primal fantasies of very young girl-women. Our heroine, Ms. Lohan, moves from arty Manhattan to blahsville suburban New Jersey, where, despite knowing no one and having no social status, she blithely refuses to knuckle under to the bullying of her high-school’s queen-bitch. She knows that she is destined for Something Better Than Suburban Boredom. As this ‘something’ apparently includes stardom on the Great White Way, she easily upstages the gorgeous queen-bitch in tryouts for the lead in the school play. Our heroine’s artistic-sexual fantasies are focused on the lead singer of a famous rock-group, and she naturally gets to attend a fabulous party in Manhattan held at the singer’s SoHo loft (on the occasion of his world-famous group’s breakup) as well as to rescue said singer from his drunken ways. When the now-reformed singer shows up at the cast party of our heroine’s school play, her rival, the queen-bitch, is so shaken that she actually falls into a fountain and is forced to take our heroine’s helping hand to stand up, which seems to suggest she's been converted by the superior moral force of our heroine and will now ‘repent her evil ways.’ And along the way, naturally, Ms. Lohan manages to catch the eye of a cute boy who delivers her very first kiss (a moment that provoked a chorus of horrified yet fascinated “ewwwww’s” from the preteen female audience.) For me, this was like being trapped for an hour-and-a-half inside a masturbatory fantasy of someone whose erotic tastes I share not in the least. It was made more difficult by a number of incoherent elements in the movie, not the least of which was casting Ms. Lohan, a rather womanly 17-year-old, in the role of a very young, never-even-been-kissed girl. Perhaps the high point of my incredulity came during the climatic rock-star... posted by Friedrich at March 6, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, March 5, 2004

Method Look. Now: Method Cropping?
Dear Friedrich -- It's fun to watch culture fads emerge, gather force, peak and vanish. I haven't noticed too many baseball-caps-worn-backwards recently, for instance, while one style that seems to be everywhere today -- have you noticed it? -- is the silvery-whoosh car ad. A big spread with lots of air; something streamlined, abstract and silver (that would be the car); and a few discreet Quark boxes in subdued colors supplying the necessary information -- the whole of it screaming (but classily) "Expensive German engineering," even if what's in fact being peddled is a Chevy or a Honda. I seem to notice two or three of these ads in nearly every magazine I leaf through. Perhaps that's a sign that the style has already peaked. Perhaps it's a sign that it's becoming a classic. One trope that's been around for decades -- it's a classic with a capital C -- is what I think of as The Method Look. The model gazes out from beneath impassioned eyebrows, making eye contact so direct that ... Well, I guess we're meant to feel that the model's looking deep into our soul and whispering, "I know what you're thinking, and it's something dirty and now, and it's about me and you, baby." A private exchange, meant to turn us on and make us go Yikes at the same time: young, bruised, resentful, hurt, challenging, and of course hot hot hot. For a moment the social niceties have been set aside and the raw Thing Itself -- vulnerable, intense, defiant -- is being channeled. I'm no student of ad styles, but I'm guessing that The Look dates back to early Method days, to Brando particularly. He seemed to look at everyone that way, all the time. Was he the originator? I wonder. Did John Garfield use The Look before Brando did? Going back even further, Navarro and Valentino certainly smouldered -- but was their smouldering Method-esque? Beats me. But it's certain that since Brando, stars like James Dean and Paul Newman, as well as hundreds of wannabes, have used The Look pretty consistently. Let's just say that a lot of actors and models have spent a heckuva lot of time standing in front of mirrors while adjusting t-shirts, leather jackets, and eyebrows. The Method Look has been a big presence in our cultural life for at least 50 years, yet apparently it still works. Pretty amazing, no? I wonder what its magic consists in. Any thoughts? In any case, I'm only just now getting around to noticing a new way the media biz has developed of presenting The Method Look. They're managing to keep it fresh, I guess. Here are a few examples I plucked from current ads. As ever, apologies for crummy scanning skills. The Method Look, Gal Division The Method Look, Guy Division Familiar stuff, no? The sultriness, the eyebrows ... But what I've only recently begun to notice about the way The Method Look is presented these days is how uniform... posted by Michael at March 5, 2004 | perma-link | (20) comments

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Histories of Music
Dear Friedrich -- How many subjects would you say you're interested in beyond the Intro-to, 101 or 102 level? In my case, the answer is "very few." On the other hand, tons and tons of subjects interest me right up through the intro-to level. In fact, where some subjects go -- econ, philosophy, Western art music -- I'm such fan of good introductory surveys that I go through example after example. I just love a good introductory text. I've been through probably 20 intros to economics, and as many intros to philosophy and Western art music too. Where some subjects go, I don't know why, I seem to get intense pleasure out of being marched through the basics all over again. Jokes permitted at this moment about what a thick skull and a slow brain I must have. Funny consequence #1 of this habit of mine: I'll never be anything like an expert where econ, philosophy or Western art music are concerned. Funny consequence #2: I know the basics of these subjects pretty well by now. Funny consequence #3: I've become a connoisseur of well-done intros-to. And, hey, I've got a brand-new tip. Until now, my favorite intros to Western art music were two Robert Greenberg audio series for The Teaching Company: his How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (buyable here) and his How to Listen to and Understand Opera (buyable here). Greenberg's an amazing teacher and lecturer, and they're both sensationally good packages. As always with the Teaching Company's products: buy them only when they're on sale. Not to worry, though, because they go on sale two or three times a year. When they're on sale they're fantastic bargains. But I've just finished going through a couple of Naxos packages that I think would make even better first-times-through -- Richard Fawkes' History of Classical Music, and his History of Opera. (Amazon is out of stock, but you can buy copies from Audiobooks online, here.) Like Greenberg, Fawkes is organized and helpful. His text is beautifully read by Robert Powell, and the musical examples are well-selected. Where Greenberg's an enthusiast and a showman, Fawkes is suave and lowkey, yet friendly and approachable. The big advantage Fawkes' intros have as first-times-through is simple -- they're much shorter than Greenberg's. Sounds silly and basic, I suppose, but it matters. To move through all that material so fast, Fawkes has to present it from far, far overheard. That's very helpful in terms of helping you get a sense of where the landmarks are, how the elements interrelate, and what the general outlines are like. And, like Greenberg, Fawkes is strikingly good at something I admire a lot: summing up the significance of a work, an artist, or an era quickly, in a very short space, and doing so in a way that's clear and vivid yet that actually does justice to what's being described. This may sound easy; it's anything but. Imagine trying to explain Italian neorealism -- the look, the... posted by Michael at March 4, 2004 | perma-link | (7) comments

The Cher Mystery
Dear Friedrich -- Can you explain the popularity of Cher? I marvel at it. She's a phenomenon, one of those performers with amazingly long-lasting careers. Yet I can't explain it. She's got a fabulous look, and although I can't listen to her singing, I thought she was pretty good in some of her movies -- "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean," "Silkwood," "Moonstruck" and "Mermaids." Hmm, so she's pretty enough; she can act; and she has a distinctive if lousy pop voice ... But that's far from enough to explain the persistence of her popularity, or how broad-based it is. I've often been struck by how many women really like Cher. I've also often been struck by how many different kinds of women like her: older and younger, earthy and flighty, office workers and production people. They smile when you mention her name. They don't mind thinking about her, and on a regular basis. They seem to feel like they know her. "She's a survivor," is the answer I usually get when I ask a gal friend why so many women love Cher, and no doubt that explains some of the mystery. But there must be more to it, don't you think? I think she must really connect with many women. On what basis, do you suppose? Do gals relate to the way Cher's both glamorous and a little ridiculous too? Do they like the way she's sexy, yet funny and frank? Maybe they relate to the way that Cher has done a lot of living out in public, to the way she has made more than her share of mistakes, and has even been a public joke -- and yet she never denies any of this, and has learned to laugh ruefully about herself, and then soldiers on enthusiastically anyway. I guess my theory boils down to: maybe women look at Cher and see an embodiment of their own you-take-your-knocks-but- keep-smiling-and-looking-good spirit. Hmm: maybe all of this (and more) is what my gal friends mean when they look at me like I don't get it and say, "She's a survivor." What's your theory about Cher? Ahem: of course, it's not as if red-blooded, alpha-male studs like you and I would ever confer any of our manly thought-energy on a topic like Cher. Hell no. But if we were to, what might you come up with? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 4, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

1903, or Jumping on Terry
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- It's pile-on-Terry-Teachout time! In "An Open Letter to Terry Teachout" (here), John Massengale chides Terry for a characterization Terry once made of the American arts in 1903. Here's Terry's passage: What a difference a century makes. In 1903, comparatively few Americans took anything like a passionate interest in the arts. Only two living American novelists, Mark Twain and Henry James, had done major work, and Twain's was long behind him. Our best painters, the American impressionists, hewed to a style frankly derivative of their European models; our art museums were narrowly provincial in scope and ambition. We had no great composers, no great poets or playwrights, no ballet companies, and only a handful of symphony orchestras and opera companies. Here's a bit of John's response: I�m surprised by your endorsement of this Modernist bias towards the early 20th century. You are breezily dismissing one of the greatest artistic periods in American history ... 1903 was the heart of the period called the American Renaissance and the peak of the widespread and very popular City Beautiful movement. Without question, it was the greatest time in America for architecture and city-building. I feel bad about letting myself be drawn into this, because Terry's a model citizen -- a terrific critic and an ultra-generous and enthusiastic blogger. Writers about the arts nearly all have a lot to learn from him. Still, I can't resist. I think John's got Terry good: it seems perfectly clear to me that the more you learn about 1903, the more it can make 2003 look lame. But the real reason I can't hold back is that I so vehemently agree with what I take to be John's larger point, which is how surprising it is that that even educated, arty Americans lack awareness of how vibrant pre-modernist American culture was. It's a pet rant of mine too. We often look back on early 20th century American art -- let alone 18th and 19th century American art -- and don't see much there. A few painters ... some white marble sculpture ... maybe some folk art ... Melville 'n' Poe 'n' Twain 'n' Hawthorne ... And that's about it. The rap on pre-modernist American art is that there simply wasn't much, and that what was there was provincial, derivative, rube-ish -- hardly worth paying attention to at all. Generally a dismal, almost shameful episode we'd do well to leave behind. One example: even publishing-world pros and insiders tend to assume that there was no "real" American publishing prior to the arrival of some Euro emigres in the early 20th century, modernist figures who finally gave us a "real" book-publishing culture. Um, er ... How many ways can you spell "bullshit"? To explain things a bit more patiently: given the kinds of educations and brainwashings we've gotten for several decades and given the ways our "educated" tastes have been formed, it's understandable that many people hold these assumptions. This is simply part of the... posted by Michael at March 2, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Spending Time in Bruegelville
Michael: I think I’ve mentioned before that the older I get, the more landscape painting seems to satisfy my emotional ‘art needs.’ Well, the other day I was looking through a book on Pieter Bruegel, the 16th century painter from what is now Belgium, and it struck me that perhaps I’ve underestimated landscape drawing as well. Bruegel is of course a one-of-a-kind type of guy, who doesn’t fit easily into categories: he was by turns a history painter, a satirist, an illustrator of proverbs, a depictor of peasant life (without himself being a peasant), a fantasist in the manner of Bosch, a designer of etchings and engravings, and a landscape painter. (Bruegel was a rough contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and seems to have shared with him a cultural mindset combining acute social observation with a vigorous fantasy life.) Bruegel was also the master of a particular style of pen and ink drawing in which every line, stipple, cross-hatch, dot and hook creates an astonishingly atmospheric rendering. It is as though the light shimmers and the air moves between every stroke of his pen. Of course, his pen is also perfectly capable of creating monumental figures, solid tree trunks, and sturdy tools and buildings as well. (Creating is, of course, the operative word here; these drawings are by no means a ‘tame delineation of a particular place’ and appear to spring chiefly from Bruegel’s imagination.) To show you an example, here is a detail from a drawing he made for a series of engravings on the Seasons. P. Bruegel, Spring (detail), 1565 The figures are remarkable, but my eye takes off for the far reaches of space, pausing briefly on the lover’s party on the banks of the river, formed with incredible economy from a few strokes of the pen (and obviously inspiring Ruben’s “The Garden of Love” of the next century.) Another example is “A Landscape with St. Jerome” (the little saint is visible at the base of the tree kneeling in prayer.) P. Bruegel, Landscape with St. Jerome, 1553 But what I focus on increasingly these days are the half-hinted-at distances behind: These drawings, for reasons only known to my subconscious, or to God, make me muse on my mortality, but in a pleasant kind of way. It’s becoming clearer to me that in a few more decades I’ll be leaving, er, this place. Looking at these drawings, I fantasize that when when I do, I’ll head out into the kind of vibratory, tremulous distances that Bruegel’s pen renders so well. It looks like a nice place to, well, dissolve into the mist and the light and the air. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 2, 2004 | perma-link | (12) comments

Monday, March 1, 2004

Spam Musings
Dear Friedrich -- Good lord, but the flow of information on the Internet is filling up with crap. To use this blog as an example: In our blog's mailbox, we receive around 75 pieces of junk for every legit email. Every few weeks, blizzards of spam comments glom onto our postings. I weed them out, and am diligent about banning offending IP's -- I've now banned more than 130 IP's. Nonetheless, every few weeks spam comments barrel in from a new set of IP's. That button in our left-hand column called "Our Last 50 Referrers"? It's a nice feature. Click on it, and you can see the sites where visitors have clicked through from. It's a way to learn about who's linked to us, and a wonderful way to learn about other blogs. Well, that feature is the latest one to fall victim to spam-esque assaults. Nearly half of the sites that show up as referrers are bogus -- outright porn sites, or innocent-seeming Blogspot sites that, when clicked on, wrench you into a hell of popups and endlessly-cycling windows, with no way to put an end to it but to shut down your browser. It's a nightmare. A small and manageable nightmare so far, although I'm not thrilled about the hours I've lost picking through trash email and cleaning out spam comments. We pay a monthy fee to our blog's host; now we're paying yet more in terms of the time we spend defending ourselves against spam and quasi-spam. And it's getting worse; the Economist recently reported that spam now accounts for close to 60% of all email traffic. Do you have any sense of what's likely to happen? A few questions: Spam-commenters spend tons of money buying up IP's, right? Which must mean that they make enough money from scattering spam comments to justify the expense, right? But how do they make money from scattering spam comments? What's going to happen when spammers start attaching video files to their emails? If the 'net is clogged now, how clogged will it be then? Let me see if I'm getting this right: Natural understandings, restraints and arrangements -- costs, weight, physical material -- repress and oppress us, and the Internet sets us free of them. But there's no Internet without spam. To defend ourselves against it, we now have to develop new forms of restraint and control. But this time around we don't get to rely on what's unspoken and passed along. Instead, we have to consciously design these new arrangements; they have to be explicit. And because they'll inevitably have the quality of puzzles, and because some maniac will always be trying to crack these puzzles ... Well, we're stuck in an endless arms race, right? Is my reasoning off here? Do spammers argue that they're exercising their freedom of speech? That would seem to raise the question of cost. For example: it costs the spammer next to nothing to exercise his freedom of speech by adding my name... posted by Michael at March 1, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Guest Posting -- Salingaros on Tschumi
We're pleased to present another Guest Posting by a 2Blowhards favorite, the mathematician and architectural thinker Nikos Salingaros. A little background. This upcoming Sunday, March 7th, Greece is holding general elections. An issue likely to influence the outcome is -- amazingly enough -- an architectural one: the New Acropolis Museum, which is partly intended to house and display the Elgin Marbles, depending of course on whether Greece can persuade England to return them. Greece's more-or-less Socialist current PASOK Government chose the Swiss-born, New York-based Bernard Tschumi to design the Museum. The project has caused an uproar, both because of Tschumi's angular, heavy-on-the-glass design and because of the way in which construction is being carried out. Is the Acropolis a mere piece of real estate that should be subject to political and fashionable whim? Or does it instead belong to Western Civ more generally? In any case, the PASOK government has ignored criticism and is plowing forward in a way reminiscent of the worst kind of top-down, 20th-century development, forcibly evicting residents of apartments which were then demolished to make space for the new museum. As a result, the opposition New Democracy party, which is more-or-less conservative, has a decent chance of winning the March 7 election. If it does, the government of Greece may be able to correct what many see as a terrible mistake. You can click on the images in this posting to view them at a larger size. THE NEW ACROPOLIS MUSEUM by Nikos Salingaros To emphasize that Greece has finally reached the cultural level of the other European countries, its present government chose the Swiss (now American) architect Bernard Tschumi to design the New Acropolis Museum. Surely, with this Museum, the Greeks demonstrate that they are up-to-date! Another goal behind this choice was to convince the British Government that it is time to return the Elgin Marbles (sculptures taken from the Parthenon in 1802) to their country of origin. In a bold gesture of optimism, the upper floor of the museum will remain empty awaiting the imminent return of the Elgin Marbles. As Tschumi optimistically declares: "I truly believe that the day the museum is finished, the marbles will return". Nevertheless, the rest of the world does not share this self-confidence. On the contrary, Tschumi's name provokes laughter among certain architectural circles. The American journalist Robert Locke, in an article entitled "America's Worst Architect is a Marxist" presents Tschumi as a poseur: "an architect of gags that fall flat." His architecture's theoretical bases are characterized as absurd: "Tschumi's theoretical writings, the basis of his reputation, are a tangled mess that alternately induces dizziness and puzzlement as to whether the author actually knows what philosophy is, or merely heard it described by someone in a bar once ... The worst of this stuff is so self-evidently empty as to defy attack." The truth is that Tschumi became famous for his theories without having built anything at all. His buildings in Le Parc de la Villette at the... posted by Michael at February 29, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments