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Saturday, May 15, 2004

1000 Words -- "Carmilla"
Dear Friedrich -- It's been called to my attention more than a few times that I often write postings that are just, well, too damn long. Point taken. At the same time, sheesh, y'know, I'm forever running across bits of culture-lore and culture-thinking that I'm eager to gab about and pass along. What to do? I'm resolving this problem for the moment this way: I hereby initiate a series of postings on topics of cultural interest that I'll be presenting in a thousand words or fewer. Not an easy challenge for long-winded me. But no doubt good exercise, sigh. *** The First Vampire Novel? I bleed, I swoon "The first Vampire thriller" -- it said so right there on the dustjacket of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla: A Vampyre Tale. How to resist? I'm no vampire-fiction buff, to say the least. But, an ever-curious lit-history and genre-history buff, I read that jacket copy and thought: "Whoa, a vampire novel that came earlier than 'Dracula'? Who knew? Well, I guess it makes sense. And, hey, maybe it's the ur-vampire novel!" So I bought "Carmilla" and had myself a read. I know very, very little about vampire-lit history. (Note for a possible blog-rant: why doesn't a typical lit education nail down the history of the various genres: the western story, the romance story, the crime story, etc? Wouldn't you think that would be basic?) When I read "Dracula" long ago, I simply assumed that it was the archetypal vampire tale. I'm pretty sure that the only other vampire fiction I've read since has been a couple of Anne Rice's novels. Have you ever tried her work? I think she's a brilliant commercial novelist. For one thing: what a great idea, fusing vampire and rock-n-roll attitudes and iconography -- fiction for stoners, bikers and heavy-metal-heads. No foolin': I genuinely do think this is brilliant. That said, and although I find Rice's porn novels (published under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure) pretty hot, I was barely able to get through a couple of her Lestat vampire novels. I spent my hours reading them alternating between a daze and a trance. I'm not sure why this was so: could it have the guitar-solo/mind-altering language? Or does the whole vampire thing -- the blood, the dark mutterings about immortality, the puncture wounds, the Goth fashions -- simply mean something to fans that it doesn't mean to me? What Roger Vadim saw in "Carmilla" As far as movies go, I've seen the standard, well-educated-film-buff vampire canon, plus a few more; I have a small but real taste for funny vampire movies, and for porno vampire movies. But I've never searched the genre out. And let me tell you, there are vampire-film and vampire-lit buffs who know this stuff. (Check out Dagon's site, for example, here.) Vampire-wise, I sit a very long way from the head of the class. So what was "Carmilla" like to read? Inevitably, I tranced out a fair amount. But I had a good time... posted by Michael at May 15, 2004 | perma-link | (42) comments

Cheapo DVDs
Dear Friedrich -- Have you bought many DVDs? I haven't: who needs more things? But the prices have dropped so much on some movies that buying has become harder to resist. Ten bucks for a DVD? That's less than the cost of a single Manhattan movie-theater ticket. I was browsing around Amazon the other day and noticed a few cheapo movie DVDs that deserve Blowhard recommendations. Used Cars -- A rowdy comic extravaganza from the Spielberg-sponsored team of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Although Zemeckis went on soon afterwards to direct such hits as "Romancing the Stone" and "Back to the Future," there are film geeks (me included) who think this is Zemeckis' best and most irreverent movie. Set in the Southwestern desert, it's a raucous, satirically cornpone joyride, like Preston Sturges souped-up and gone even more rambunctiously haywire. Jack Warden and Kurt Russell -- both of them never better -- co-star as rival used-car dealers. I haven't watched the DVD version of the film, but have heard that the disc's commentary tracks alone are worth the price of admission. The DVD is buyable here. The Tenant -- Roman Polanski's more personal movies are a special taste, and this bizarro 1976 thriller may be Polanski's most personal movie. He stars in it himself as a mousey Parisian loser who may or may not be going insane. Those strange neighbors ... That graffiti on the bathroom walls ... That beckoning courtyard ... Polanski has a rep for straight suspense, but his more distinctive tone -- evident in such movies as "Repulsion," "Bitter Moon," and this film -- is much stranger: creepy, semi-ludicrous, borderline campy, clunky-yet-precise, obsessive and distressing. (As far as self-absorbed, weirdo brilliance goes, Charlie Kaufman's an infant by comparison to Polanski.) It's psychological suspense of a very, very peculiar kind. First comes the horror, then the comedy and pathos ... and then the barren chill. Some love it (I do) and find their brains doing hallucinatory flipflops as they watch these movies; but, fair warning, there are plenty of people who just can't find Polanski's groove. If this description appeals nonetheless, then "The Tenant" -- shot by the great Sven Nykvist (best-known as Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer) and co-starring a very young Isabelle Adjani -- may amuse and fascinate. It can be bought here. Masquerade -- A sleek, dark, and luxurious thriller set among a moneyed, yachting Northeastern crowd. Rob Lowe (who's good here) plays a gigolo-esque sailor boy; Kim Cattrall's a decadent, rich-man's wife; and Meg Tilly's an innocent young heiress who doesn't know whom to trust. The film features mucho expensive, hush-hush atmosphere, and a lot of tiptop actors (John Glover, Dana Delany) in the secondary roles. It's a classy performance all around -- old Hollywood gone a little sleazy, in the vein of "Basic Instinct" and "Jagged Edge." Written by Dick ("Law and Order") Wolf and Larry Brody, photographed by David Watkin, and directed by Bob Swaim (an American who'd spent many years in France), the 1988... posted by Michael at May 15, 2004 | perma-link | (10) comments

Thursday, May 13, 2004

"The Dreamers," the novel
Dear Friedrich -- Remember my conversation with TurboKitty about the recent Bertolucci movie The Dreamers? (The posting is here.) The movie was based on a novel by the British film critic Gilbert Adair, whose film criticism I like. Well, the novel has an amusing history. It turns out that Adair had always been unhappy with the novel, which was his first. Then, when he worked with Bertolucci on the movie, he started to see how he could fix the novel, and after filming was over he went ahead and did a rewrite. Why not, eh? It's his damn book. So these days, in England anyway, the novel known as "'The Dreamers' by Gilbert Adair" isn't the original, and it isn't a novelization of the movie either. It's Adair's rewrite of the novel of his that the Bertolucci film was based on. Could this be a first? I couldn't resist, ordered up a copy of Adair's rewrite from Amazon UK (here), and wound up liking the book a lot. It's a creepy, sexy, fast read. It packs a lot more punch than the movie does, and it has a very different feel too. The characters, for one thing, are much more maliciously motivated. The incestuous French twins are charismatic monsters who are straightforwardly using the blank-faced, tremulously gay -- and eager to be used -- little American. In the Bertolucci movie, all three characters come across as pampered neurotics playacting out rather charmingly on each other. In the Adair, the narcissism is much more dangerous and pungent. Fascinating also to see that the book also has an entire third act that shows up for only a minute or two in the movie. Adair's style and approach cross a sinister and precious neoclassicism with a spare, hallucinatory avant-gardism. The book moves from gorgeous, slightly-sickly tableau to sickly tableau, with little of the action conventionally dramatized. It also has some enjoyable conceptual brilliance. Adair has somewhere said that in his opinion what the student revolts of 1968 were really all about was the first TV generation acting out for the cameras. Reading the novel, you can see how he's worked that perception out. You're in the front row at a kind of film, gazing at a screen that's beaming back at you: the incestuous, Cocteau-ish twins; the blank-screen American; their film-buff sex games; the window that breaks, drawing them out of their make-believe world and into the city; the riots that originate at the Cinematheque and then spill out into real-life street theater ... It's all quite flakey and high-strung, yet it's all quite calm and well-composed too. I enjoyed the book a lot. But -- fair warning -- it's only for those with a taste for ultra-arty (and High-Queer) modernism. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 13, 2004 | perma-link | (9) comments

Dear Friedrich -- * I loved snooping around Alex Chun's website, here. Alex, a devotee of the work of pin-up cartoonists, collects saucy art by guys like Jack Cole, Bill Ward and Dan DeCarlo. (During his G-rated work hours, DeCarlo was the main artist for the "Archie" comic books.) Alex has published collections of the work of some of these guys too; they can be bought at Amazon. * JW Hastings thinks that the modernists gave "middlebrow" art and audiences an undeservedly bad rap, here. "America is pretty much a middlebrow country. This makes sense: Americans, as a type, aspire to be better than while shunning elitism," JW writes. "Most of our best artists aim for a middlebrow audience. And this is a good thing." * I don't link to Alan Sullivan's blog Fresh Bilge (here) often enough, and though it's my fault, I'll pin the blame on Alan anyway. He keeps the thinking and writing levels so high it's hard to pick one posting over the others -- just about all of them stand out. Alan's a really good writer; it doesn't hurt that he seems to be a seasoned human being either. Be sure to ogle this wild piece of art-furniture (a "throne-screen," whatever that is) that Alan's peddling, here. * Gerald Vanderleun's obit/memoir of the poet Thom Gunn (here) is personal and very moving. * Ian Hamet has posted a lovely biography/appreciation of the great Buster Keaton here. * Mara Miller's discussion of how to teach Japanese aesthetics (here) is also a firstclass introduction to Japanese aesthetics. * Whisky Prajer has posted a sensible appraisal of The Atlantic Monthly here, and links to an interview with the crime writer Dennis Lehane here. * A new study (here) suggests that women remember how other people look better than men do. Interesting to notice that both women and men were better at recalling how women look than at recalling how men look. What to make of this? * Tyler Cowen (here) points out a study about how women select their mates, here. Encouraging if tentative conclusion, at least for us prettyboys: "As our ancestors evolved, the ability to attract a female mate through good looks may have become more important in the mating stakes than the ability to fight off male rivals." Take that, brutes. * Fenster Moop works in a position of responsibility at a college, yet he's an unorthodox (if responsible) free thinker -- imagine that. He also has a way with the language, and a lot of unapologetic common sense. His recent posting about diveristy policies and accreditation (here) is characteristically smart, rueful and feisty. * John Massengale visits Frank Gehry's $300 million new computer-science building for MIT (here) and isn't impressed. Neither is James Kunstler, here, who gives it his Eyesore of the Month award. The NYTimes' Sara Rimer seems to consider the building a Major Art Event, here. * Toby Young writes an amusing Slate Diary that begins here about a recent trip to... posted by Michael at May 13, 2004 | perma-link | (8) comments

New-Urb Elsewhere
Dear Friedrich -- Fun Web rumblings on the New Urbanism front. * John Massengale (here) has dug up a report (here) about architecture news at Princeton University. On one side of campus, a swoopy, titanium-clad new Frank Gehry building is being erected. (Wouldn't you think Gehry could have come up with a new trick by now?) Meanwhile, on another side of campus, a gray-stone, collegiate-Gothic dorm complex in the style of Old Princeton by the brilliant New Classicist Dmitri Porphyrios is being built. So who's the real radical here? * The ever-practical David Sucher has put up a posting that'll teach you at least half (and maybe more) of all you need to know about urbanism and suburbanism in less than 30 seconds, here. * The excellent Witold Rybczynski 's review of a new Duany/Plater-Zyberk/Alminana book is a sleek and amusing sprint throught the crucial basics of American urbanism history (here). The book itself can be bought here. * Larry Felton Johnson documents Cabbagetown, a pleasing Atlanta neighborhood, here. Larry's been blogging up a storm recently; it's been a special pleasure hanging out at his site. * As everyone who's more in the know than I am has already pointed out, the great Jane Jacobs' new book, "Dark Age Ahead," is now on sale. It can be ordered here. * I've read it before and I'll read it again: Roger Scruton's long essay for City Journal entitled "After Modernism" (here) is, IMHO, one of the greats. A headful of energized thoughts is a guaranteed minimum result of reading this amazing piece; a complete brain-reorientation is a distinct possibility. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 13, 2004 | perma-link | (0) comments

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Salingaros on Tschumi -- The Response
I hope visitors have taken the opportunity to read Nikos Salingaros' eight-part essay about the work of the deconstructivist theorist and architect Benard Tschumi. (You can access all eight chapters from this posting here, or you can read it straight through at Nikos' own site here.) IMHO, Nikos (like his colleagues in architecture Christopher Alexander and Leon Krier) is doing some of the most-provocative, solid and productive thinking that's being done about the arts anywhere these days, right up there with the work of Frederick Turner, Denis Dutton, and Ellen Dissanayake. It's quite a privilege to show his brain and thoughts off on our blog. If anyone has hesitated to plunge into Nikos' essay, please give it a try anyway. Even if architecture isn't one of your passions or hobbyhorses, I suspect the essay will get your mind buzzing about a lot of arts-related subjects: the proper role of the artist, for example, and the function of theory in art. And it's likely to be helpful in getting what's happening in the cultural sphere generally in better focus. I see evidence of what Nikos describes and wrestles with, for example, in graphic design, literary fiction, and movies too. It was fun to notice Nikos' essay being discussed around the blogosphere. After all, the more the discussion about the built enviroment we share opens up, the better off we all are. I forwarded along some links to Nikos and asked if he'd be willing to pull together a response. He was, and here it is. Architectural Theory and the Work of Bernard Tschumi: The Response by Nikos Salingaros 9. APPENDIX: Reactions to this paper. Following the publication of my paper online, readers wrote in comments; others published a response on their own website. I was very curious to see how people would react to my arguments, as it would indicate whether the original points registered or not. Non-architectural readers were intrigued if not totally convinced. At the very least, my article opened up a healthy debate on the topic of contemporary architecture OUTSIDE the normally closed architectural circles. I was pleased that those architects who did not dismiss my arguments outright tried very hard to come to grips with what I had said. I never expected to convince them at once, and was delighted that they took the trouble to engage. On the whole, however, my paper provoked the type of response I anticipated. Nearly every critique bore out my thesis on the existence of an architectural cult (as I describe elsewhere). The reaction consisted of standard cult responses to an external threat. One may even consider this as a sophisticated scientific experiment, although that was not my original intent. Perturb the deconstructivists and their followers by criticizing their beliefs, and see how they respond. Interpreting their response then gives invaluable information on what type of system we are actually dealing with. This is especially important when the inner workings of an institution are shielded from the outside world, or when... posted by Michael at May 12, 2004 | perma-link | (4) comments

Froggytime 2 -- Frenchwomen
Dear Friedrich -- One of the great Western cultural creations, IMHO, is The Frenchwoman. What an archetype: poised, funky, individual, stylish. Whether whipping up classic food or conducting a despairing/rhapsodic affair, she's self-possessed, alert to the moment, at ease with her body, and alive in her senses -- never frazzled, never shocked, famously content to be female, proficient at the office yet a wizard at the game of love, and always, always getting a great deal of juicy enjoyment out of Being a Frenchwoman. Perhaps the Frenchwoman has less fun than the American woman does. How confounding then, especially given our religion of "fun," that the Frenchwoman seems to get such a lot of voluptuous pleasure out of life. I know American women who are obsessed with "the Frenchwoman," even enraged by them. I'm not entirely sure why, and would appreciate enlightenment here. My guess is that it's because Frenchwomen seem to quarrel so little with their fates as women, and because their success seems to put the lie to one of our most cherished myths -- namely, that what stands between us and unending happiness is lack of freedom. In America, we tend to equate formality with uptightness, and we like to imagine that if only some barrier or other would be removed we'd finally be able to experience bliss. We're always on the verge of bliss, yet never quite there. We use our dissatisfaction to trigger off another round of inevitably-frustrated striving. And then the fun and the dissatisfaction get to seeming like two sides of the same inescapable coin. (Cut to quick montage of channel surfing, empty bags of fast food, New Age religions, and SUVs idling outside big-box discount stores.) But behold the Frenchwoman. Her life is a strict one, and a strictly codified one -- immensely uptight, at least by our standards. Control is not a quality that's in short supply in her life. Yet she relishes her daily existence, and she enjoys far larger portions of erotic transport and sensuality -- of satisfaction -- than we generally do. (Hey, does it seem to anyone else that we Americans are forever mixing up sex with dynamism? We seem to confound sex with, I dunno, aerobics. It's a chore, if a healthy one; it's proof that we're competent as well as proof we're having bustin'-out-style fun. Another thing I admire about the French is their ability to find what's erotic in the moment, whatever that moment happens to be. The eroticism of ... a lazy moment. The eroticism of an ... exhausted moment. The eroticism of a ... sad moment. And why not? Good lord: why make "feeling sexy" depend on "feeling good," let alone "feeling dynamic"? Talk about limiting your opportunities.) My mind's on these matters because I've been enjoying Debra Ollivier's book Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. (It's buyable here.) Have you run across Ollivier's writing? I first became aware of her a few years back when I... posted by Michael at May 12, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments

Monday, May 10, 2004

&tDear Friedrich -- I'm having another one of my Froggy moments -- a stretch when, without having consciously intended it, I find myself in the midst of a lot of French, or France-related, art and culture. I stumble into these episodes regularly. It's been more than 30 years since I spent a high-school year (and a college summer) in France, and lord knows I don't ever need to revisit that country. But I guess my stay had its effect. Here are my current Froggy culture toys: Pascal's great Pensees. Pascal makes the most plausible and attractive case for Christianity that I've ever read, er, heard (I'm going through the book on audiotape; it can be rented here). What's most fabulous about the book, IMHO, is the coexistence of Pascal's clear and mild writing style, the grace of his thought processes, and the man's deep convictions. Moving and beautiful. Gilbert Adair's novel about Parisian cinephilia circa 1968, The Dreamers, which was kinda-sorta the basis for the recent Bertolucci movie that Turbokitty and I rapped about in this posting here. I like the book -- it's very smart and peculiar -- and will blog about it soon. I know there must be someone somewhere who's got some interest in this book and what I have to say about it. No? Yes? I'm halfway through showing The Wife a Froggy movie I love, the cheerfully perverse gay chamber dramedy Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which Francois ("Swimming Pool") Ozon adapted from an early Fassbinder play. (I blogged about this movie when I first watched it here.) Those curious about the pleasures of le cinema francais could do a lot worse than order this beauty up from Netflix. It's got many of the French cinema's virtues: it's small and witty, spontaneous yet formal. Some tips for those just getting started. Pay attention to the framing choices Ozon makes: when and how characters move on and offscreen, and moments when inside-the-camera-frame frames (doorways, windows) are introduced. Watch the way Ozon orchestrates his simple yet intense color palette. It's based on eggshell blue and rust -- and doesn't that make the occasional intrusion of dull green and black super-eloquent? Marvel at the quality of light; young as he is, Ozon is a master at using light to bring out contrasts in textures, as well as the translucency of flesh. I was about to type something like "Mid-Americans queasy about seeing men kiss might want to take a pass" when it occurred to me that red-blooded he-men who dig the adorable and sensual Ludivine Sagnier will probably never find a better chance than "Water Drops" to enjoy her charms. Gay film that it is, it's also a sexily rewarding film for hetero hunks. ;i>Quel paradoxe! I just finished Annie Ernaux's exquisite (or precious, depending on whether you like it or not, and I do), abstract/existential having-an-affair novel, er, text, Simple Passion (which is buyable here). Is it essay, memoir, fiction, or philosophy? Whatever it is, it's basically... posted by Michael at May 10, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

How Modern Painting Became A Secular Religion
Michael: In your post, Religious Needs -- What To Do About 'Em?, you talk about the tendency over the past 150 years or so for people to treat non-religious aspects of life in a highly religious spirit. I thought I’d try the experiment of looking at one such ‘secular’ religion through the lens of religious sociology. My methodology in this regard is entirely ripped off from religious sociologist Rodney Stark. (I became aware of Mr. Stark from one of your previous links and bought one of his books; thanks for the tip.) In “The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy” Rodney Stark and his co-author Roger Finke use numerical data from U.S. religious history to debunk many commonly held notions about religion in American life. A few of their many interesting conclusions about the ‘market penetration’ of religious organizations in America include: 1. That the decline of so-called ‘mainline’ Protestant denominations (such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians et al) is not the result of such organizations ‘losing touch’ with the culture during the Sixties, but has been ongoing since at least 1800. 2. The rise of aggressive fundamentalist and evangelical religious sects is likewise not a recent phenomenon, but has also been observable continuously over the past 200 years. The growth of such supernaturally-oriented denominations has also been the biggest motor inflating the role of religion in American life. 3. That the increase in the number of Roman Catholics (now the largest U.S. religious group) was not a natural consequence of immigration from Catholic countries, but the result of the American Catholic church matching the aggressive, supernaturally-oriented Protestant sects ‘revival for revival’ and demand for demand. Stark and Finke don’t just peddle isolated facts, of course; they also offer explanations. They begin to make sense of all this with an idea borrowed from H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 analysis of the evolution of religion, The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr’s locates the origin of new religious organizations (and the fading vitality of older religious organizations) in social class and in the dichotomy between what he termed ‘sects’and ‘churches.’ According to Neibuhr: In Protestant history the sect has ever been the child of an outcast minority, taking its rise in the religious revolts of the poor. That is to say, the least-successful members of society (in worldly terms) need a religious organization that stands apart from the normative social order. This ‘standing apart’ allows the group and its members to redefine conventional notions of success and failure (e.g., success may not be a matter of wealth, but of, say, being ‘born again.’) ‘Standing apart’ also increases the solidarity of the members in their struggles with the larger society. In Niebuhr’s terminology, the poor need a ‘sect,’ a religious organization that is in considerable tension with the surrounding social order. And he means tension quite literally, as illustrated by the conflict-laden early years of sects such as the Quakers, the Mormons, the Puritans. Virtually all innovative religious organizations begin... posted by Friedrich at May 10, 2004 | perma-link | (6) comments