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Friday, June 23, 2006

"Bollywood Comedy"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- David Chute reprints a good article by Lisa Tsering about non-Indians who have fallen under the spell of Bollywood films -- Chute himself is one of the smitten, and is quoted in the article ... And Tsering mentioned a Bollywood parody video that has been a hit on YouTube ... And I wound up laughing a lot watching it. Here's comedian Winston Spear: Don't skip the Tsering article, which includes the titles of many promising-sounding Bollywood films. I've put them on my DVDs-to-watch list, and I'm eager to hear MD's evaluation of them. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Americans and Preference
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- When I look over the many comments that accumulate on my various postings about immigration policy, what puzzles me most has nothing to do with people's thoughts about immigration policy. Reasonable people can/will disagree, it's fun and enlightening to compare notes with civil and intelligent acquaintances, etc etc. No, what puzzles me far more than the question "How can anyone fail to succumb to the brilliance of my arguments?" is another question entirely: "Why are so many Americans so very shy about expressing their preferences?" Preferences are important. Preferences help us decide how to live our lives. Without preferences, how would we prioritize? We need to connect with our preferences to help us answer important questions. What do we want our lives to be like? What are we hoping to get out of our lives? Perhaps preferences don't determine anything in an absolute sense -- but surely they deserve to be taken as respectfully into account as, say, predictions about the future. Predictions are nothing but predictions, after all. Where immigration policy is concerned: An infusion of tens (if not hundreds) of millions of Latinos might mean a glorious rebirth of American prosperity and optimism (Glen's view, I take it), or it might bring "Blade Runner"-esque crowding, pressure on lower-income natives, and lots of ugly ethnic horse-trading (my view). But both these points of view are finally nothing but predictions -- and who has ever proven to be any good at forecasting the future? Unlike predictions, which are almost always uncertain, personal preferences can be known. Yet when I throw out the question "What would you like your country to be like?," only a few visitors volunteer a response. Very quickly, most people turn back to the apparently more-fun game of dueling ideals and warring predictions. I've been so puzzled by the reluctance of many people to volunteer their preferences that I've put some thought into how I present these postings. With my last one, I thought I finally had it nailed. I would ask visitors what population they would be happiest for the country to be at. How to wiggle out from under that one? After all, where border policy is concerned, the one thing that we can be certain about is that a more-open regime will result in a larger population than a more-controlled regime will. So, "How big a population do you want your country to have?" I asked. Yet only a few visitors volunteered a preference where population totals are concerned. I know that I rely on France far too often for the sake of comparisons, but since it's the only other culture I know (or once knew) well, I'm going to turn to it once again. French people are anything but shy about expressing preference. They're tiresomely opinionated, really. Ask a room of Frenchies about their opinions and tastes, and they'll still be jabbering enthusiastically six hours later. As a friend who lives in Paris likes to point out, Frenchies... posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (50) comments

YouTube Questions
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Watching an old video of some yoga immortals that someone posted on YouTube, Alan Little wonders what kind of legal ground is being trod. Watching some videos of the Harlem Globetrotters posted on YouTube, Bill Gates wrestles with the same question. Great Gates quote: "Stolen's a strong word. It's copyrighted content that the owner wasn't paid for." I've been telling young people for years to go into copyright law. There isn't going to be a shortage of work in that field for a long time to come. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Anyone whose blood pressure is a little low could certainly do worse than pick up a copy of today's Wall Street Journal, which features an excellent and outrage-provoking article by Ellen E. Schultze and Theo Francis. The article's gist: Even as many companies are pruning back or terminating conventional pension plans, pension plans for top executives are growing more deluxe and expensive. Though the rationale for cutting back trad pension plans is that companies simply can't afford them any longer, many of those same companies are piling up ever more in the way of financial obligations to their executives. Oh, and btw? These liabilities require supersonic accounting skills to tease out. Since I can't find the article online, I'll pass along some of its more gasp-inducing facts: While pensions for grunt-level employees generally replace 20-35% of the employee's final salary, pensions for top executives often replace 60-100% of the executive's salary. Schultze and Francis compare the financial fates of two AT&T people. CEO for a grand total of five years, David Dorman will receive a pension of $2.1 million a year -- 60% of his salary. Ralph Colotti worked as an accountant for AT&T for 33 years. His pension: $28,800 -- 33% of his final pay. Pfizer chairman Henry McKinnell will receive a $6.5 million-a-year pension -- 100% of his pay level, and an $85 million liability for Pfizer. Edward Whitacre of AT&T will receive $5.4 million a year for life on top of a lump sum of $18.8 million -- a cost to AT&T of $84 million. William McGuire of United Health can look forward to a $5.1 million-a-year pension on top of a $6.4 million payout -- a liability to the company of $90 million. Executive-pension liabilities make up a substantial portion of total pension liabilities at many companies. Some of the figures Schultze and Francis (and the accountants who helped them) dug up: "12% at Exxon Mobil and Pfizer; 9% at Metlife Inc. and Bank of America; 19% at Federated Department Stores Inc; 58% at insurer Aflac Inc." At some companies -- Nordstrom and Dillard's, for example -- regular employees don't even have pension plans, while high-ranking execs do. Companies are under no obligation to report executive-pension liabilities separately in financial filings. This can produce strange bookkeeping illusions. An example: TimeWarner's filings make its pension plans look underfunded by 7%. Yet the plan for TimeWarner's regular employees is more than fully-funded. According to Schultze and Francis: "The shortfall is entirely due to a plan for highly paid employees. That one has a $305 million unfunded liability." At Lucent, the pension plan for regular employees is so solidly in the black that earnings on it generated 82% of the company's profits last year. Yet an unfunded plan for Lucent's highest paid people had a liability of $422 million. The way Lucent's management is dealing with this puzzle? It has been cutting back pension and medical benefits for regular employees. For tax reasons,... posted by Michael at June 23, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Facts for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Among Americans, average daily calorie intake "increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000." (Source.) Meanwhile, for the first time in 20 years, soft-drink sales are falling. (Source.) The category isn't expected to bounce back any time soon. According to a Morgan Stanley beverage-industry analyst, soft drinks are expected to continue "to lose their positive image as a popular, versatile, fun beverage choice as consumers are cutting back on sugar, drinking more water and watching calories." Could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Fat-American era? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

Richard Wheeler Reports
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm delighted that I've been able to coax another piece of writing out of our new friend, the Wyoming-based (CORRECTION: whoopsie, make that Montana-based) Western novelist Richard Wheeler. Richard recently attended the convention of the Western Writers of America, and has generously filed this report about the event. *** Report From Cody by Richard Wheeler The convention of Western Writers of America, held here in mid-June, was remarkable for its size and vitality. There was an overflow crowd attending, the mood was upbeat, and the six hundred-member organization is in fine financial condition. This is a remarkable feat, considering that western fiction is no longer a significant part of mainstream publishing, and exists only as a niche market. Most mass market publishers have abandoned genre westerns, and the remaining ones concentrate on dead western authors. University presses have to some extent taken up the slack, publishing a little western fiction and nonfiction. The transformation of WWA from an organization struggling to survive as western fiction and film declined in recent decades, to its robust status today, is largely the result of remaking the organization. It began in 1953 as an authors guild, with membership confined to well-established professionals. In this respect it resembled its brother genre fiction guilds, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Some years ago WWA quietly began to ignore its membership bylaws and admitted people who did not qualify. Later this was legitimized by changing the bylaws to admit self-published authors, paving the way for the flood of members who resort to the new print-on-demand vanity presses such as iUniverse or PublishAmerica. Today, perhaps three-quarters of the members have no significant professional credentials. As traditional book publishers retreat from western fiction, that percentage is likely to increase. The Mystery Writers and Science Fiction Writers have gone the other direction, tightening membership requirements to preserve their professional status, and requiring applicants for membership to be published by an approved list of legitimate royalty-paying presses. WWA is also steadily expanding its Spur Awards. Two new ones were announced at the Cody convention, one for best original audio novel, and one for best western song. The latter is actually a major departure for WWA, the first move from literature to music, or to put it another way, a departure toward the performance arts. The new awards will draw WWA away from print and into other media. For an organization wrestling with its irrelevance to traditional publishing (New York editors and publishers and agents no longer bother to attend its conventions), WWA offers an amazing number of awards. With the new additions, it now offers seventeen Spur Awards, plus the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. Some of these awards, notably the Best First Novel and Storyteller, began life as subsidiary honors, and were not intended to be Spur Awards, but recent boards have converted them. WWA hands out more awards than any other genre literature society. By way... posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (8) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Laurence Auster wonders why the cultural neocons at the New Criterion are so attached to modernism -- and comes up with a convincing answer. Some of Laurence's readers pitch in here. * Where did the absorption with the Self so characteristic of artists originate? We can blame it on the Romantics. * All that said, I do like a fair amount of modernist art just fine, including some paintings by the Brit Howard Hodgkin, who has a big new show up in London. Online repros of some of Hodgkin's work can be eyeballed here, here, and here. Dig the way those colors vibrate! * The sly and witty Bluewyvern has put up a a posting of links to some amazing photography sites. * Did you know that only two biographies have ever been published of the painter John Constable? He does seem to have led a very boring life ... * Rick Darby reads an article in the Orange County Register and thinks he may be seeing a little progress. Rick's blog now features a beautiful new banner headline, made for Rick by Daniel of Westgate Necromantic. Daniel is the sweet and heroic webguy who has been tech angel for 2Blowhards. Daniel's a joy to work with -- as well as (shhh!) very reasonable. * Although I've paid for Apple's .Mac service for a number of years, I have yet to make any real use of it. I see I'm not alone in wondering if .Mac is just a big waste of money. * In his explication of the Aussie slang word "bogan," Dirk Thruster lets fly with a lot of shrewd (and earthily-stated) good sense. * Design Observer's Adrian Shaughnessy raves about the German obsessive-mystic movie director Werner Herzog, one of The Wife's favorite filmmakers. DO's Michael Bierut links to a Wes Anderson American Express commercial that confirms me in my conviction that Wes Anderson deserves an Oscar for Most Annoying Filmmaker Ever. It's good to see that DO has given its own visuals a classy upgrade. * Lynn wouldn't mind living in a big Victorian house, or in a spacey bionic structure either. * Recently I put up an enthusiastic posting about the neo-Oakeshottian English philosopher John Gray. It's evidently his moment. * Pistol-packin', red-blooded George Bush has been the wussiest of weenies when it comes to his own country's southern border. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 22, 2006 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

San Jose Snazz
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards: San Jose is like a pin-headed giant. Even though there are more than 900,000 residents within the city limits, the place has small downtown. There's a reason for this. The reason is that the city didn't develop "organically." I first laid eyes on San Jose in 1951 while on my first trip to California. We were probably driving along the Milpitas-Alviso road (state highway 237). In those days it was a country road, the first dry-land opportunity south of San Francisco to duck across to the east side of the bay. (We had breakfasted in Santa Clara and were on our way to Sacramento via Stockton.) To the south of the road were acres and acres of fruit trees. And I could spy way in the distance the tops of a few office buildings. That was downtown San Jose, basically an agriculture business center. Thirty years later the orchards were gone and San Jose was part of the Silicon Valley sprawl. Offices for high-tech companies were spreading from Sunnyvale and Santa Clara across the south end of the bay below the Milpitas-Alviso road to a point a few miles north of downtown. There were other office pockets, but not a large amount of development downtown. Today there are more tall buildings downtown, but not nearly as many as one would expect for a city of San Jose's population. You see, after around 1955-60, San Jose didn't expand from its center. Rather, it was flooded with largely residential growth from the northwest. Its downtown wasn't the economic growth-engine found in more isolated large cities. Efforts have been going on for some time to establish a viable downtown. As I mentioned, there are some new-ish office buildings (though their height and location are constrained by the fact that downtown is partly in the flight path of the airport). There is a nice Fairmont hotel and a fine, restored movie house that is now home to a lively opera company. What the city could use is a really snazzy retail development that would bring in lots of people and dollars. As a matter of fact, San Jose does have such a development. But it's not located downtown. The glitz capitol of southern Silicon Valley is Santana Row on Stevens Creek Boulevard across from the Valley Fair shopping center and near the interchange of Interstates 280 and 880. Santana Row is a mixed retail-residential area atop a street grid. It's three or four blocks long (though the blocks are of unequal length) and two or three blocks wide. The main street is lined with four story structures intended to evoke a European city street. The three upper floors house apartments and condos while street level is for shops and restaurants. Here are some pictures I recently snapped. Shopping is decidedly upscale -- Wikipedia notes that it was intended to be the Rodeo Drive of the north. Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Furla, Tod, Donald J. Pliner, Tumi, Brooks Brothers and Burberry... posted by Donald at June 21, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Polly Frost recalls a dear friend of hers, the late film critic Pauline Kael, who would have turned 87 the other day. Another friend of Kael's, Craig Seligman, talks about Pauline with Julie Copeland. (Everyone who read Kael's reviews thought of her as "Pauline.") Funny and sad to think of that whole generation growing so old. It's funny too to encounter, as I often do these days, young film buffs who have never heard of Pauline Kael. * David Lynch thinks we should all take up meditation. Watch and listen to him here. * I'm one of the few people you'll ever meet who will say that one of his favorite filmmakers is Marco Bellocchio. Even among hardcore filmbuffs, Bellocchio's work isn't very well-known. Now in his 60s, Bellocchio emerged in the middle 1960s with an amazing first movie, "Fists in the Pocket." For a few years, he was celebrated alongside Bernardo Bertolucci as a brilliant young prodigy. Bellocchio grew more and more radical, though, and as he did his films grew prickly and ingrown. (I like a bunch of them anyway.) In recent years, he has emerged from this psychoanalysis-and-Maoism stretch, and has entered into a period of reflecting mournfully and ruefully on the costs of extremism. His film "Good Morning, Night," a small-scale chamber fantasia about the Red Brigades' kidnapping of Aldo Moro, is quietly devastating; it's also one of my favorite new films of the last five years. I saw it at a film festival, though, and thought it would never be commercially released in this country. So I'm surprised and happy to notice that it's now available on DVD. (Amazon, Netflix.) I wrote about the film when I first saw it here. I'm even happier to notice that Criterion has brought out a deluxe DVD version of "Fists in the Pocket" that has been embellished with some tasty-sounding extras. (Amazon, Netflix.) The film is often described as a savage and satirical attack on the Italian family, but it strikes me as more useful to think of "Fists" as a punk-rock-like frenzy of youthful movie talent. * New on DVD too is Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger." (Amazon, Netflix.) I wrote about this austere and slow-moving yet magnificent (in a backpackin'-hippie kind of way) film here. * Anne Thompson reports that Seattle-ites see more movies per capita than people in any other U.S. city, and that she loved the new Brazilian film "House of Sand." * Word comes from pulpier parts of the cinema universe that you can now buy or rent a freshened-up DVD version of the scrappy, funny, and sexy Italian zombie thriller "Cemetary Man." (Amazon.) Director Michele Soavi demonstrates that beauty, poetry, and audacious emotional effects can be achieved on a tiny budget. * I got half a kick -- and that ain't bad! -- out of Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects." (Amazon, Netflix.) The film is an attempt to do a wild-ass, hell-for-leather, ridiculous/absurdist, get-high-on-excess variant on... posted by Michael at June 21, 2006 | perma-link | (4) comments

The Interstate Turns 50
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Going somewhere? A remarkable anniversary is upon us: The US Interstate Highway System was signed into existence by Dwight Eisenhower 50 years ago, on June 29, 1956. Dull and dry as the Interstate may sound, it holds a firm place on my personal list of the Key Factors That Have Made America What It Is Today. Some of the others: the mechanization of cotton-picking; the Civil Rights movement; urban renewal; the corporate/government embrace of modernism; the mortgage-interest deduction; the Vietnam disaster; the GI Bill; the 1965 Immigration act; the birth of pop culture; and the embrace of adolescent values ... Partly inspired by Germany's Autobahns, partly out of a conviction that the country needed an efficient way to move its military around, President Eisenhower made the the Interstate one of his top political priorities. In his vision, it was key that the system should include no intersections and no traffic signals. Construction began soon after Ike signed the Bill in 1956. The System was officially declared completed in 1991. Some fun facts: For a long time, the US Interstate system was considered history's largest public-works project ever. The Interstate was enthusiastically supported by the automobile industry. Interstate lanes are as wide as they are and Interstate overpasses are set at the height they are to enable passage of trucks carrying missiles. All those in love with ambitious government initiatives please take note: The initial cost-and-time estimate for the system was $25 billion over twelve years. It ended up costing $114 billion, and took 35 years to complete. If that isn't a vivid illustration of one of my favorite general principles -- namely, "we oughta be wary of excessive ambition where government programs are concerned" -- then I don't know what is. One widely-acknowleged mistake was made: Interstates were often run right through the centers of urban areas. It was a disastrous move. When cities are chopped up, they never recover. I remember discussing the future of St. Louis with one of the city's planners. According to him, although there is much that can be done to improve the attractiveness of downtown St. Louis, the city will never come back very far. The main reason: In the '50s and '60s, downtown St. Louis had been sliced up into isolated islands by Interstates and other highways. Generally speaking, the Interstate system gets high marks for convenience and for enabling trade. It's also often believed to have contributed to anonymity and ugliness. "When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing," wrote John Steinbeck. Artery of trade? Un-scenic view? It can sometimes seem as though America's post-WWII elites were determined to wage merciless war on the country's cities. The building of awful office shoeboxes and housing projects ... Disastrous and ambitious "urban renewal" schemes ... The creation of the Interstates ... It's hard not to read this... posted by Michael at June 21, 2006 | perma-link | (19) comments

Theatre, Cinema, Roles and ... Race
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- From time to time I stumble across the assertion that a good actor (regardless of his race) should be able (and be allowed) to play any role (regardless of any stated or implied race). I have no problem with having actors of any race playing characters of undefined race. That is, if a script calls for the part of a police inspector (with no other qualifications imposed) then it's okay with me if a white/black/Asian/you-name-it is cast in that role. But I would be troubled if the white/black/Asian/you-name-it actor was 17 years old. That would be unbelievable, because police inspectors normally don't get their job unless they have had a lot of experience: you don't find any 17-year old police inspectors in the real world. This potential tension between good intentions/political correctness/whatever and real-world believability became manifest for me a couple years ago when I saw an outdoor production of Hamlet on the campus of hyper-liberal University of California at Santa Cruz. The actor playing the king of Denmark was black. And the people playing his children were white. I suppose the actor did a good job as the king. While it's likely I can spot a really bad job of acting, beyond a certain point I lack the ability to distinguish "acceptable" from "great." Anyhow, so far as I could tell, the guy didn't muff any lines or do anything else to demonstrate that his performance was anything but competent. Still, casting him in that role was wrong because the man was unbelievable, and it took my (doubtless vile, racist) mind off the play itself. Empirically, kings of Denmark have never been black. And black males are highly unlikely to have natural children looking as white as the actors playing the king's children. I suppose an intrepid director might have taken one edge off by simply replacing the word "Denmark" with some contrived name. The remaining credibility problems might then be cured by casting blacks as the children. All a bit odd, but such changes might have allowed me to better enjoy the content of the play. Actors of one race playing the part of characters of different race are nothing new in theatre or cinema. But this was seldom like the Hamlet situation just described. Why? Because the actors usually were disguised as members of the other race. Blackface, whiteface -- all a matter of makeup. Here are some examples from movies. Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. This is a classic minstrel show type of blackface performance. Laurence Olivier in Othello. It's Shakespeare, but blackface all the same. Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in The Good Earth. Here two whites are cast as Chinese. Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. Oland is an interesting case. Yes, he was a Swede playing the famous Chinese detective. But Oland apparently appeared without special makeup. His heavy eyelids came naturally -- from Russia and possibly points east on his mother's side, he claimed. On the... posted by Donald at June 21, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Bad
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Apologies to George Orwell and Animal Farm for the title but, hey, I'm a sucker for word-play. I'm also probably a sucker for writing this post, as I expect readers bearing torches and pitchforks to storm my humble abode. Hmm ... maybe I shoulda petitioned Michael for a pseudonym after all. Bicycles. I used to ride a big, heavy, single-speed, fat-tired Schwinn when I was a kid. And I won't categorically rule out buying a bike in the future, though I'd have to be living in a fairly flat and relatively car-free environment before I'd do so. But, bicycle enthusiasts, I'm not of your faith. Sadly, sometimes you just have to choose sides. I'm a car guy. You can talk about pollution, resource-depletion, aerobic factors and the entire litany, but you won't change my mind. As I stated in the title, four wheels good, two wheels bad. My line is drawn. Sharing the road with bicycles makes me nervous. The speed, weight and protective differences between cars and bikes are profound. Simply put, I'm afraid a bike rider will do something stupid and I'll kill him by accident. Bikes belong on trails, not roads and most streets. The bicycles that really get my goat are the "recumbent" kind, where the cyclist is usually in a supine position. A Wikipedia entry on these bicycles is here. Scroll down for a discussion of pros and cons compared to conventional bikes where the rider is upright. (For me, the greatest disadvantage of recumbent bicycles has to do with dismounting. When I rode a bike I encountered many situations where I had to stop to dismount or reposition my bicycle. This is manifestly hard to do starting from a semi-supine position. Recumbent bicycles strike me a being most useful in cruise-mode out in the country as opposed to the herky-jerky city biking environment.) Here are a couple pictures of recumbent bicycles. The first picture is public-relations fantasy for a build-it-Urself vehicle. The second shot is closer to what you're likely to see on streets and roads. With one exception. My experience has been that, in almost every case, the rider of a recumbent bicycle is a wiry guy with a beard. I'm not kidding. I almost think that the factory making those bikes has a laboratory (over there, that cement block building halfway hidden behind the paint shop) where they clone those riders. Another thing about those wiry riders with beards is that they exude an aura of intellectual superiority over the socially-unconscious likes of me. And in fact they probably are smarter than me in raw-IQ terms. Then again, Einstein combined a stratospheric IQ with gaping holes in the common-sense department, so I don't automatically take such people seriously. Matter of fact, I regard recumbent bicycle riders as little more than show-offs. Sorta like Ferrari drivers. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at June 20, 2006 | perma-link | (21) comments

Monday, June 19, 2006

YouTube Update
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- For those curious about what the world -- and the entertainment industry -- is making of YouTube ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 19, 2006 | perma-link | (0) comments

Popular Artists (2): Mian Situ
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- This Popular Artists series deals with painters whose work sells well and who have the potential of being rated as artists of note, if not lasting fame. The first subject was Pino and another is Jack Vettriano, but through oversight, I failed to use "Popular Artists" as part of the title of the Vettriano post. The present subject is Mian Situ. He has been featured on the cover of Art of the West magazine, and the biographical information below was culled from the March/April 2005 issue. Mian Situ. Situ was born in a small town in southern China in 1953 and didn't get involved in art until he was a teenager. The Cultural Revolution made it hard to learn about Western art or to get training. Eventually the Guongzhou Institute of Fine Art reopened and Situ was able to take classes from some instructors who had been trained in Russia. His training was in the classical academic vein, starting with intensive drawing. Following Chairman Mao's death, Situ was able to complete an MA in art. While working on this degree he decided that he was better at realism than abstract art, and dropped the latter. MA in hand, he continued at the school as an instructor. Caught up in the get-outta-China fever of the time, he moved to Los Angeles and, later, Vancouver BC where he worked as a street artist, thence to Toronto and finally back to the LA area. During this period his paintings began to win prizes. Now he is well-established and, from gleanings I find in art magazines, respected by his peers. Here are some examples of his work. Gallery What's Next The Word of God 1865 The Golden Mountain: Arriving in San Francisco John Chinamen in the Sierra Second Helping Evaluation Let me begin with my standard disclaimer that I tend to be a pushover for displays of technical (as well as artistic) skill. Mian Situ displays skill in spades. Besides being an excellent draftsman, his brushwork and use of color are impressive. All things considered, I believe that his color work is his strongest suit. Rather than using mostly pure colors, he often tones down much of a painting's surface by mixing in large proportions of complementary colors, this to help frame the areas of focus. And he maintains good overall color-key discipline. So far I've only been able to examine one of his paintings in person (at a gallery in Santa Fe). What struck me was his skill in defining objects using just the right colors in the right places. Linework is essentially absent in his paintings which are built using color in a kind of Post-Impressionist manner. As for subject matter, the Situ work I'm aware of falls mostly into three categories: (1) landscapes, (2) pictures of Chinese in rural Chinese settings, and (3) historical western American scenes wherein at least one Chinese is in view. The paintings featuring people tend to be "illustrations" in that... posted by Donald at June 19, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Moviegoing: "A Prairie Home Companion"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Although I've never enjoyed the radio show, I loved -- and make that triple L-U-V'd -- Robert Altman's new film, "A Prairie Home Companion." I found it magical and transporting: touching, funny, engrossing, conceptually daring, and "alive" to the max. Rich in detail and filigree, full of seductively intimate golden-crimsons and emeralds, it has enough aural texture and visual sumptuousness for ten films. (Cinematography: Ed Lachman. Production design: Dina Goldman. Costumes: Catherine Marie Thomas. I'd like to list a sound person too, but IMDB is unclear on who was in charge of film's sound department.) For the Altman buffs out there: "Prairie" is like a warm-and-sweet, chamber-dramedy version of "Nashville," only with metaphorical-Americana touches resembling those in "Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean," and tonally in the retrospective, allegorical, fable-like mode of "Cookie's Fortune." Though the film -- half cultural anthropology about how Midwesterners deal with life's big moments, and half a melancholy backstage musical comedy -- is set almost entirely inside a theater, it's also a loving sweep through a lot of American art history: Twain, Fitzgerald, and the hardboiled dick; the western and the tall tale; Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. Weak on storyline and action, it's nonetheless focused and controlled -- more a "Tempest"-like poetic picture of life than a narrative: We live among spirits and archetypes; death and beauty are never more than a few steps away; gallantry, generosity, humor, and belief carry us through ... It's a jewelbox and a metaphysical romance, yet it's fully inhabited and embodied, and it never stops rolling along. Lindsay Lohan and Meryl Streep Filmgoing tip: Watch how Altman gets you focused on his performers' flesh, and how he uses performance as his central metaphor -- he has his reasons for suggesting how much a theater can resemble a church. There are moments when Meryl Streep's face seems to have collapsed. Yet at other moments -- especially when she's belting out a song (who knew she was such a good belter?) -- her face is radiant and transformed by joy. Despite life's trials, most of us somehow find ways to keep moving forward, and even to give a little more than we take. Garrison Keillor -- with his bulldog head, his massive physique, and his out-of-it moonchild manner -- moves through the movie surprisingly delicately. He's like a benevolent visitor from another planet -- an Asperger-y Prospero, never blind to the depths below yet unable to understand why anyone should choose to spend too much time dwelling in them. I loved the film so much that I was surprised, when I caught up with its reviews online, by how many of them seemed grudging and condescending even when they were positive. Here's a typical example. It isn't "The Player," it isn't "McCabe" ... Do the reviewers think that, in his 80s, Altman should be making the kinds of movies they loved him for making when he was 50 and 60? Yet... posted by Michael at June 19, 2006 | perma-link | (13) comments

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Modernist buffs -- and modernist haters too -- should enjoy this package of stories from The Guardian. It's pegged to a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Robert Hughes is as full of caustic, blunt good sense as always. He visits Le Corbusier's legendary Unite d'Habitation (much doted-on by art-history and architecture profs when FvB and I were in college), and finds it to be anything but a modernist paradise: It was in pitiable condition. Corbu's beton brut couldn't be cleaned, the metal-framed windows were hopelessly corroded, the electricity kept shorting out, the brise-soleils or concrete sunscreens were permanently foul with pigeon shit, the "shopping street" halfway up inside was locked and shuttered because ordinary French people prefer to do their marketing on real streets (an obvious aspect of social behaviour that eluded the intellectual grasp of the formgiver, who believed that folk ought to behave in accordance with the dotty authoritarian notions of idealist philosophes like Saint-Simon and Fourier). Deyan Sudjic sneers at those who aren't enraptured by modernism's purities and austerities but has the grace to run a lengthy statement by the British New Classicist Robert Adam: Modernism was founded on a frighteningly arrogant idea that an elite group of people could remake society into something supposedly better, regardless of what the general public actually wanted. It was labelled 'true architecture' by people who believed they had found the gates to heaven ... Paradoxically, Modernism is still around today and in fact it completely dominates the architectural profession. So much so that if you meet an architect, you expect him to be a Modernist. Modernism ... can be seen as a style but I believe it is more than that: a historical theory, based on the idea that only the things that are different in each period are important. So in the engineering era of the Twenties and Thirties, everything had to conform to what was new in engineering, otherwise you weren't being modern. It's like saying that because we have the ability to produce blobby things with computers today, that's all we can do. In architecture courses now, if you do traditional work they fail you or recommend you go into conservation. It's like a cult and if an architect is to be recommended or chosen through a competition, you will invariably end up with a Modernist building. Simon Jenkins found the V&A's show "the most terrifying exhibition I have seen." The modernists were the neocons of 20th-century art. They took a sound methodology -- the questioning of conventional wisdom -- and made it a dogma that brooked no opposition, even from reality ... Modernists approached the past not as an aesthete does, respectfully building on it, but as an autocrat, destroying it and substituting his own values and rules. And ain't that the truth. All the best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to Mr. Tall, who points out this hilarious, sensible, and well-illustrated James Lileks visit to Minneapolis' avant-garde, Jean Nouvel-designed,... posted by Michael at June 18, 2006 | perma-link | (7) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Thanks to visitor Robert Holzbach, who found and passed along this beautiful online gallery of fantasy art. Amazing visuals, and stunningly presented: You can click in for very close views. As Robert writes, "With subject titles like 'Possession and Insanity' and 'Danse Macabre,', what's not to love?" * Peter wrestles with a moral dilemma on the LIRR. * I meant long ago to link to John Baker's blog but am only now catching up to doing so. An English writer, John is hilarious, well-seasoned, brainy, and very tart on any number of subjects, including book publishing and modernism. * A good line from Joseph Stiglitz: There is obviously something peculiar about a global financial system in which the richest country in the world, the United States, borrows more than $2 billion a day from poorer countries -- even as it lectures them on principles of good governance and fiscal responsibility. * I hang out in the wrong parking lots. (NSFW) * Mary Scriver turned up this amusing piece -- insightful and perverse both -- by the British art critic and artist Matthew Collings. I also enjoyed this talk between Collings and Julie Copeland about Robert Hughes. My own reaction to Collings is an odd one. I think he's brilliant, and I agree with about 80% of what he says -- a high ratio, especially given that I often find him very annoying. This page shows a couple of the paintings that Collings has made in collaboration with his wife, Emma Biggs. * Watching "Children of the Century" and "The Dreamers" has Prairie Mary herself asking one of those key questions: How did the idea of Romanticism seize us so deeply and thoroughly even way out here on the prairie? Is it the existential result of war? ... How did we get sex and violence so enmeshed with love and tenderness? Who knows what the answer is, of course. But how can you be an arts buff and not spend some time gnawing at that one? * Iran is now the nose-job capital of the world. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at June 18, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments