In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

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Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

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  1. Fact for the Day
  2. Art Links of Note
  3. Bookstores and Sex
  4. Watching (Almost No) Movies
  5. "Basic Instinct"'s Commentary Tracks
  6. Bagatelles
  7. Gossip and Guys
  8. Peripheral Artists (4): Isaak Levitan
  9. Are We Closed-Minded?
  10. Psst. Wanna Drop a Name?

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Saturday, March 4, 2006

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- According to The Straight Dope, "Per capita soft drink consumption has doubled since 1970; the typical American currently consumes 56 gallons per year." Pass me another Big Gulp, would you please? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 4, 2006 | perma-link | (12) comments

Friday, March 3, 2006

Art Links of Note
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- -- The current Weekly Standard has Paul Cantor's review and commentary on American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting by Steven Biel. Cantor has a lot of thought-provoking things to say, so click here and give it a read. Cantor devotes much of his space to political-social issues of the 30s and later, but also gets in some more purely art-oriented licks. For example: More is at stake here than one painter's reputation. In a conflict that Biel sketches but does not thoroughly analyze or try to adjudicate, American Gothic stood at the flashpoint of one of the great aesthetic debates of the 20th century. Attacks on the work were among the opening salvos in the relentless war of the modernist art establishment against representational painting and in favor of abstract expressionism. In the modernist view, this was a battle between a mean-spirited, narrow-minded regionalism and a generous, forward-looking internationalism. But for those, like me, who are skeptical of the preeminent value of abstract expressionism, the battle could be reformulated as an attempt on the part of a single brand of 20th-century painting to erect itself as the one and only authentic form of modern art, while condemning all alternative visions to the realm of inauthenticity and kitsch, to use Clement Greenberg's favorite term of reproach. -- Among the comments on my Isaak Levitan post (here) was one by painter Jacob Collins. Collins wields his brushes amazingly well. Although he attains what can be termed a "high degree of finish" the result is not the overly-painted hard-edge look that often results from straining to be realistic, by trying too hard. I haven't seen Collins' work in person, but if what's on display on his web site is any clue his results are very satisfying. Take a look. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 3, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Bookstores and Sex
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I was nosing around a Borders bookstore, surrounded by other busy shoppers, when one of those basic realizations hit me: Book-shopping these days is an awfully ... hygienic affair. Indie bookstores tend to be virtuous, beleaguered, NPR-ish places, while the chain stores are about as full of mystery as a corporate headquarters. Why, back in the day -- OKOKOK, yesyesyes, before I embark on my tiresome nostalgia-jag, I hereby agree that it's a marvelous thing that books are cheaper and more widely-available today than they have ever been in all of human history. I've made exactly this point in arguments with friends when these friends have gotten soppy on me. There's no escaping the improvements. In the old days, for example, the big city near my beloved hick hometown had precisely zero good bookstores. These days, thanks to B&N and Borders, it has a half a dozen excellent bookstores. On balance, of course, this is a much-improved state of affairs. But, still, something important has been lost along the way. The mystery. The poetry, maybe. Something central to both life and art. I'm choosing to call it "sex." Books aren't sexy any longer. Books certainly were sexy when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, and they still cut an enticing figure in the '70s, when I was in college and grad school. In arty fiction, there was Terry Southern, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, the many Beats, Celine. In the trashy-fiction realms: Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins, Jackie Susann, Ian Fleming ... These were books that gave off heat, baby: volumes that promised the secrets of life and sometimes even delivered a few of them. When I was a kid, a visit to the library often turned into hours of enraptured reading. The thrill of the hunt (and the capture!) only increased once I was old enough to travel on my own. Now I was able to explore bookstores in big cities and college towns. Dusty, sagging shelves! Graying old Village types! Foreign literature! Art photography! Exchange students in smelly sweaters! The scripts of Off-Off Broadway plays! By the 1970s, the old publishing houses were being bought up by corporations and chain bookstores were starting to dot the landscape. Even so, books still had an allure and a mystique. They could still make the temperature go up and the heart pound. There was mucho dreck and vast oceans of mainstream tediousness to be waded-through or avoided, of course. And for many kids, reading and writing were activities taken part in only because the schools insisted. But for many other kids, books were a wonderland of semi-forbidden, often hard-to-obtain, exotic delights. I consumed trashy blockbusters, sex manuals, my dad's paperback thrillers, and French literature -- they all gave me a thrill. I read from hunger, and I felt grateful for the pleasures and the satisfactions that books delivered. Visual delight wasn't a minor part of this pleasure. Here's a not-unusual paperback book... posted by Michael at March 3, 2006 | perma-link | (18) comments

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Watching (Almost No) Movies
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I don't need to convince you that it's very good that Michael set up this blog and churns out post after post after ... Better yet, he has a broad range of interests. Far broader than [ahem] mine. For those of you who don't keep score, I have not written a single post about movies. And for good reason: I almost never watch them any more. As best I remember, these are the movies I saw in theaters over the past two years or so: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire The Incredibles Master and Commander Spiderman 2 Not a long list. Thirty or 40 years ago, it would have been a lot longer. I was never what might be called a film fanatic, but my viewing habits were closer to the norm until I was in my mid-20s. As a kid I saw most Walt Disney movies and those classic John Ford/John Wayne U.S. Cavalry movies plus a lot of other age-appropriate stuff. In the mid-50s MGM released its pre-WW2 library to TV, and I was able to see The Thin Man and other classics on the tube. Towards the end of high school and into college I saw a fair number of foreign art films. This was easy because Seattle had a handful of art houses even back in 1960. One theater (the Varsity) near the University of Washington campus tended to show lots of English movies, which for me meant not-so-arty "Carry-On" fare and Alec Guiness comedies. And in other theaters I got to see some Fernandels along with the more intellectually-respectable Jacques Tati. Not to mention a lot more Ingmar Bergman films than anyone in his right mind should be subjected to. Maybe I figured art films were like distance-running; you have to break through a pain threshold (sorry, Bergman fans ... they were pretty boring to this 20-year-old, though I did sit through them till the end). I continued seeing movies when I was Stateside in the Army because (1) there wasn't a lot else to do and (2) post theater prices were dirt cheap -- 25 cents, I think, back in 1962. My spiral away from movie-watching accelerated during the 80s partly because I was was now a free-lance consultant and didn't have much discretionary money. On the other hand, my TV-viewing also tapered off a lot during this same period. Fast-forward to today. Why don't I go to see many movies and how do I select those I do see? Partly it's price. I'm not inclined to bet even $10 against a movie I'm not sure I'll like. So if I have some doubts, that's usually enough to nix the deal. Another factor is time. Like price, I try to weigh whether a movie is worth 2-3 hours out of my life to see. This means there are actually two costs -- a monetary cost and a time cost. Combined, they rule out nearly all movies... posted by Donald at March 2, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

"Basic Instinct"'s Commentary Tracks
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The first time I saw "Basic Instinct" was at a screening in early 1992. What a different moviegoing era it was. At the time, Sharon Stone was a barely-known minor starlet. The movie itself had already, before its release, been the object of all kinds of unpleasant press. Because the screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, had made some multimillion-dollar deals, he was despised by the press as a bad-guy vulgarian who was degrading movie culture. (Between you and me, I think many people in the press were jealous of Eszterhas.) Paul Verhoeven, the film's director, had stirred up lots of strong reactions with his earlier films "Robocop" and "Total Recall." The PC gay and lesbian crowd had obtained "Basic Instinct"'s script, and had decided to protest what they thought was the film's unfair treatment of lesbians. They'd done their best to disrupt shooting in San Francisco, and were continuing to apply pressure as the film's release date approached. Perhaps most amazing of all, none of the media people going into the screening had any idea that Sharon Stone -- er, Sharon Stone's character -- was going to uncross and recross her legs in quite that way. It's safe to say that the people at the screening were primed to be appalled by the movie. They weren't disappointed. The film was outlandish, exciting, stylish, upsetting, and extreme. It was lewd and unrelenting yet sophisticated. Me, I loved it. As far as I was concerned, Michael Douglas had given the Michael Douglas performance to end all Michael Douglas performances. The Ezsterhas script had its holes and couldn't exactly be said to be about anything. But it also had tons of crude drive, and a sneaky and filthy mind. Verhoeven's direction married high gloss with trashy, amoral relish. And Sharon Stone! Who knew she commanded anything like that kind of killer poise and power? Her performance was a classic, one for the film-history books: the pornographic apotheosis of all the self-possessed, scary-erotic blondes who had ever stalked across a movie screen. The media people I chatted with after the screening didn't see the film my way. As far as they were concerned, the film was every bit the un-PC, horrifying and despicable thing that they'd looked forward to. And Sharon Stone? Well, surely I was kidding. I only enjoyed her performance because she had shown her pussy. So you can imagine my quiet pleasure when the film became a big hit. Picture me snickering in smug self-satisfaction as the much-anticipated lesbian outrage failed to materialize. I rejoiced particularly when word emerged that, as far as many lesbians were concerned, the reaction to the film wasn't indignation but rapture. "Butt out, protesting PC gayboys," the lesbians were saying. "Let us enjoy our movie. This Catherine Trammel bitch is one hot mama!" (Please indulge my self-congratulations here, btw. I don't get so many chances to gloat that I'm going to turn one down when it comes along.) I'd been eager for... posted by Michael at March 2, 2006 | perma-link | (28) comments

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael has his "Elsewhere" for miscellaneous items he finds on the Internet. So why not moi? Herewith is the first of occasional posts titled "Bagatelles," from the French bagatelle which can be translated as "a trifle." You have been warned. * Hitting the art section of bookstores is a fascinating book dealing with Bay Area art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The focus is on Arthur Mathews (yes, that's with one "t") and his wife Lucia. The Amazon listing is here but it's for the $65 hardcopy version due out 15 March. I bought the $40 paperback last weekend at a Barnes & Noble. * I'm writing this on Ash Wednesday, first day of Lent. You are supposed to give up something for Lent. Traditionally, I give up Lent for Lent. Feel free to do otherwise. * Ever notice those motorcycles with really high handlebars? (A quick Google session failed to turn up a picture to insert, so you'll have to rely on my description.) Anyway, the handlebars extend so far up that the cyclist's hands are about head-level or perhaps even higher. This strikes be a being highly uncomfortable; how can such a posture be maintained over, say, a 100+ mile trip? Moreover, it seems to me that control would be harder to maintain. I know absolutely zilch about motorcycles, yet those odd handlebars have sparked my curiosity for years. Can Shouting Thomas or other congnoscenti explain the phonomenon? * March 2nd 2005 was when my first 2Blowhards post appeared (see here). So in one sense I've been at it for a year. (The first seven months I was a "guest" and I've been full-time the last five months.) Thanks to Michael and all you readers for putting up with my blathering. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 1, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Gossip and Guys
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- When did red-blooded American males become gossip queens? Was it six months ago? Two weeks? Between heroic wrestles with the Renaissance, early modernism, and Rome, FvBlowhard refreshes himself with visits to The Superficial. Another varmint -- the most brawny and swaggering bud I have -- regularly sends friends emails with links to postings that made him giggle at DListed. Me? Well, ever the classicist, I'm couldn't be more thrilled that Page Six can be found online. Where macho het dudes are concerned, is the Web empowering or is it emasculating? Does digital technology free us to do what we've always wanted to do, and to be who we've always wanted to be? Or is the Web like a sci-fi virus, something sinister that's transforming even the beefiest of guy-guys into metrosexuals? And what's your own favorite online gossip site anyway? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 1, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Peripheral Artists (4): Isaak Levitan
Donald Pittenger writes: This is another installment in a series of posts dealing with 19th Century artists who lived far from Paris and other major artistic centers and are footnotes in the Paris-centered dominant art history narrative of the period 1860-1950. I tend to be indifferent to landscape paintings, yet I was struck by some landscapes I saw in St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. On investigation, nearly all were painted by an artist unknown to me named Isaak Levitan. Levitan is most certainly not unknown to Russians. It's a shame that artists of his caliber were essentially ignored by the Western art establishment for the past 100 years. His life was short (1860-1900) and unpleasant in many ways. Levitan was born in Lithuania and as a boy moved with his family to Russia proper. His mother died when he was 15, his father two years later. The only silver lining to the poverty he was plunged into was that it qualified him for a scholarship at the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. During one of Russia's spasms of anti-Jewish sentiment Levitan, and other Jews, were forced to leave Moscow. But his artistic reputation was waxing and influential friends were able to intervene so that he could return. His friendship circle eventually included famed opera singer Fyodor Shalyapin (also spelled Feodor Chaliapin) and writer Anton Chekov. Nearly all of Levitan's paintings were landscapes without human figures. Although he must have been aware of artistic developments in France, these seem to have had little or no influence on his style. We also need to consider the nature of the land Levitan had to work with. Moscow-area topography does not offer the spectacular scenery of Grand Canyon and Yosemite or even the somewhat milder wonders of the California coast and Catskills that inspired major American landscapists. The land around Moscow ranges from flat to rolling hills. There are a few higher hills, and things get almost Alp-like (in a very flat context -- Catskills would loom over these hills) part-way along the route to St. Petersburg. So Levitan dealt with a lot of sky and not much terrain variation, leaving him to work with vegetation, water features and village or farm buildings. Towards the end of his career, the Volga River became a focus of his work. Levitan was diagnosed with a severe heart condition in 1897 and he died in 1900 not long before his 40th birthday. Gallery Isaak Levitan self-portrait. Landscape. Landscape with moon. "Evening on the Volga." Likely one of his later paintings. Commentary As usual, small digitized reproductions don't do justice to the actual paintings. In a museum setting with plenty of nearly grist for one's attention, Levitan's painting stand out as special. If you have the opportunity to see his work, seize it; you probably won't be disappointed. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 28, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, February 27, 2006

Are We Closed-Minded?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Lock the doors. Put plywood over the windows. Hide under the bed. A Blowhard blow is on its way. Yep, I'm gonna straighten up, take in a deep breath and let forth a rant. Nothing you likely haven't heard of before or thought of on your own already. But indulge me: It might be therapeutic for me, and therapy is beyond criticism -- no? Let me build up steam. First there are those bumper stickers that say "Question Authority." I always wonder on whose authority that slogan should be taken. A little closer to my intended mark is "free speech" -- not in the Constitutional sense, but more in line with the once-famous Berkeley "Free Speech Movement" of 1964 and later wherein, amongst other issues, it was deemed desirable to express yourself without regard to social conventions. At one point during my year of Philip Rieff's sociological theory course at Dear Old Penn, Rieff passed along the following anecdote. He gave a lecture at Princeton in 1965 (if I recall) and one in the audience took issue with something Rieff had said, citing the Free Speech Movement claim that speech should be without restraints. Rieff responded something like this: Oh. Very good. Then you approve when people use words such as ... and here he let forth with several crude race/ethnic epithets. Apparently that left the questioner speechless because, in his little proto-Politically Correct world, such terms were never ever used. (I discussed Rieff and the theory course here. Apparently Rieff is still alive -- though not well -- and will have four new books appearing soon, as described here.) By now you might be able to see where I'm heading. People who tell others what to do or think can be doing and thinking in ways that fit their own proscriptions. I'm not sure this is a matter of hypocrisy so much as it is simple lack of self-awareness, a blind-spot. One case I find especially irksome these days is when some people urge others to be "open-minded" about some issue or another. A good many people consider open-mindedness to be a conversion to their point of view and closed-mindedness a refusal to do so, with the stigma that such a refusal is proof of moral inferiority. I would be happy if those folks who toss "mindedness" around would admit this more often. It wouldn't surprise me if a majority of the "mindedness" police don't realize that the game can be played against them. Consider: "What? You don't believe the Rev. Pat Robertson is right on nearly every issue he speaks out on? Why aren't you open-minded?" One likely response would be "The man is an ignoramus and a fascist, and I don't believe a word he says! And I am being open-minded about this". If there was a shred of intellectual integrity, the person would silently admit that Robertson's views (probably) were never examined, being rejected out of hand simply because of... posted by Donald at February 27, 2006 | perma-link | (14) comments

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Psst. Wanna Drop a Name?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Name-dropping is an utterly selfish practice that invidiously separates those with connections from those who don't. It flies in the face of our quest for equality and therefore is probably un-American. Or something. Seriously, name-dropping is not polite because some, many or all of the listeners to the dropped names lack retaliatory names. These folks are faced with the fact that, for whatever reasons, they are not as well-connected as the speaker. One-upmanship can indeed be a conscious motivation for name-dropping; I have contempt for this practice. Other name-dropping might be inadvertent or even could be essential to the topic under discussion; Iím okay with this. Some name-dropping might be a means to reassure the speaker that heís a sorta-somebody himself; I find this understandable, but sad. Then there is name-dropping for sport, for the hell of it. It might be fun to do, if not to listen to. Finally there is a class of folks who donít need to drop names. Thatís because grew up in or exist in an environment where the "names" are simply family members, close friends of the family or people encountered in day-to-day activities. My name-dropping problem -- if it is one -- is that I don't have a lot of names to drop. I lack names because I'm a pretty shy guy who never lived in a name-rich environment such as Manhattan, Hollywood or Washington, D.C. Regardless, let's see how well I can do. First we need some criteria. You can't use the name of somebody you've simply seen. For example, I've seen in the flesh Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. I don't think they ought to count because there was no interaction. So there minimally must be interaction, but not all interactions are equal. For my purposes here I'll rule out simple introductions and a few exchanged pleasantries. So if I were to meet the President in a reception line, I couldn't count that. To qualify, there must be a real conversation of some sort. I suppose the biggest name I can drop is Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson whom I talked with on a couple occasions. The next biggest one is Raymond Burr (the actor who played Perry Mason on TV); size-wise, he was bigger than Jackson. He was touring American bases in Korea and I had to do some publicity work in conjunction with his stop in Taegu. Number three was Adam Osborne who was well-known in the early 80s for his Osborne Computer, the first "portable" PC. He and I were on the same panel at a programming language convention. Oh, I can claim a few other "names" related to personal computers. I did chat once with Mike Maples when he was a Microsoft bigwig (and heavier than Raymond Burr, I should add). Ditto Peter Norton of Norton Utilities software fame. Come to think of it, I also had a brief conversation with Esther Dyson. That's about it.... posted by Donald at February 26, 2006 | perma-link | (41) comments

John Sloan Updates
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- A while back I wrote about American "Ashcan" artist John Sloan (click here to read it). Recently I've come across a couple of items related to that post which I think I should pass along. First, I ran a string of quotations from Sloan and made comments. In particular: "I feel pretty sure that all the heavy, staccato impasto paint in the old masters' work is made with tempera." This last remark is important. Sloan made the comment long before art restoration had become scientific -- magnified micro-samples photographed to analyze paint layering, for instance. And I've never come across a confirmation of his hypothesis; readers are welcome to set me straight on this. But he believed that the masters used tempera under-painting and practiced the technique himself, switching from direct application of color to oil glazing over tempera under-painting. I find in A.P. Laurie's "The Painter's Methods and Materials" (another useful Dover reprint) that during the transition from egg-tempera painting to oils the following might have been the case: The accumulation of evidence is in favour of the conclusion that these painters were painters in oil, but probably on a solid under-painting in egg; the extent to which this solid under-painting was carried being a matter for discussion. [Page 21.] The matter of whether the tempera was in the form of impasto is not mentioned. Secondly, I was pretty negative in my judgment of Sloan's work. But I came across a Sloan I like at Seattle's Frye Art Museum. It's titled "Blue Kimono" and dated 1913. "Blue Kimono" by John Sloan, 1913. My aging monitor doesn't show it in the colors I saw in the gallery -- the blues and greens seemed stronger there. Nor does the excellent brushwork around the face come through in the small-scale reproduction. This is yet another case of "ya hafta be dere." I'm not sure who posed for the painting. However, the woman does resemble Sloan's wife. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 26, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments