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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Friday, March 2, 2007

Quote for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Midway through G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" I ran across a very nice passage: Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else ... Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all other women, so when you take one action you give up all of the other courses ... It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold, creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe ... You can free things of alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars, but do not free him of his stripes ... The artist loves his limitations. They constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colorless. Sure there are other ways of seeing and thinking about art. I get a lot out of some of them myself. But isn't it terrific that 1) this view of art exists too, and that 2) Chesterton has put the case for it so snappily? And -- a question that I often mull over -- why is this p-o-v so seldom to be encountered these days, whether in the schools or on the arts pages? Instead we're fed the usual lines about self-expression, about conceptual gamesmanship ... It's almost as if the Chestertonian p-o-v is actively being kept from us, isn't it? I'm reading "Orthodoxy" on audiobook, by the way, a fact that makes my middle-aged eyes happy and grateful. You can find the audio version of "Orthodoxy" at the ultra-excellent Blackstone Audiobooks, and at the iTunes Store. Best, Michael UPDATE: Chris Floyd posts a terrific passage from Chesterton. A funny line from Chris, who has also been dipping into E.F. Schumacher: "For those of you keeping score at home, this may signal my move so far to the right that I've wrapped around to the far-left (the environmentalist and anti-globalization left, to be specific." And Chris links to this well-worth-wrestling-with "Reactionary's Catechism." Stuart Buck posts some passages from Chesterton and some thoughts of his own here, here, and here. Daniel Tammett suspects that Chesterton was an autistic savant.... posted by Michael at March 2, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

False Fronts
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- O, th' agony inflicted by architecture! We Blowhards aren't shy about voicing the pain inflicted on the general public by starchitects and hacks alike in the form of eyesores that persist for half a human life-span or longer. What we haven't been doing is empathizing with the visual pains those self-same architects endure when going about the streets and freeways of 2007 America. The poor dears have to look at buildings that are mostly antithetical to the ideals they absorbed during their training. They see garishness and blatant commercialism and [sob] form not following function. We get to see those same things, of course. But, aside from diehards whose minds spin to the sounds of anti-suburban folk-songs of the Fifties, most of us take it in stride -- if not with enthusiasm. What in the world am I talking about? Why, those false-fronts tacked onto strip-mall and big-box store shopping area structures. 'Twasn't always so. When I was growing up and into middle age (mid 40s to the 70s or thereabouts), false fronts on stores were almost unheard-of. The only places I saw them were in cowboy movies, ghost-towns, and places drifting in that direction. In other words, to me false fronts were indicative of really old-fashioned stuff. Virginia City, Montana scene The post-World War 2 retail structures I experienced were mostly simple, architecturally. No ornament aside from the obligatory signs. Basically cheap-to-build structures in a watered-down International Style idiom: clean-looking, but boring. This changed gradually over the last 20 or so years (can a reader pinpoint when it started?). Where once there was a clean cornice-line one began to see false gables and architectural embellishments from previous centuries cribbed and re-proportioned and constructed about a foot in depth. Some of this was on newly built strip-malls, the rest was retrofitted. It has come to the point where clean-lined malls are no longer being built. Old-style strip mall Stores unoccupied when the photo was taken. New-style strip mall Again, the stores are not occupied. Then there are free-standing stores. Just for the heck of it, here are some photos showing how Safeway supermarkets have evolved over the last half-century. Safeway in Seattle's Lake City district, opened 1956. Or thereabouts. I worked there for 2-3 days during the store-opening surge. It had natural red brick then along with the Safeway signs of the day. Safeway moved out decades ago. Note the clean-line style. Bellevue Safeway, circa 1970 I'm not sure when this store was built, but it was quite a while ago. I took this picture yesterday to record it before it gets demolished. That will happen fairly soon, once a new store a block or so away is completed. Its architecture is still in the "functional" mode, though clean-lining is modified by the (functional) arching of the roof. University Village-area Safeway re-habbed circa 2005 Although not a new structure, this Safeway was renovated and contemporary false-front type detailing added to the facade. Did I... posted by Donald at March 2, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Apatoff on Illustration
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- We Blowhards might not be jacks (some might prefer "jerks") of all trades, but each of us covers more than one waterfront (man, does that last phrase ever date me!). Michael's main beats include movies, book & other media biz, literature, architecture, immigration news and The New York Scene. Among other subjects he's been known to write about are economics, yoga and even sex. His college chum Friedrich specializes in history -- art history in particular -- yet from time to time drops in with solid essays on topics that seem out of synch with the serious persona he often projects here: an article featuring girlie pin-up artist Gil Elvgren comes to mind. And me? Just the usual adolescent drivel about cars and planes along with an interminable series of articles about painters no one with conventional college art-historical knowledge ever heard of. Sometimes I even write about the illustration sub-field of commercial art. I'm very much interested in the subject and really ought to write about it more. But why should I bother when you can always check out David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog. That's because David specializes, unlike we eternal amateurs and arts buffs. As I write this, David's latest post deals with comic book artists who, in his judgment, came up a bit short in the skills department yet produced stuff he finds enjoyable. He comments: I find it is much easier to accept mediocre art when it is unpretentious. Artists such as [Wallace] Wood and [Will] Eisner toiled for decades pouring creativity onto cheap pulp paper. They were under appreciated and underpaid. By contrast, their modern counterparts found early fame and are lauded in deluxe coffee table books from the Smithsonian Institution filled with gushing self-congratulatory prose about how the new generation has elevated the medium... I also like Wood and Eisner and rate their talent higher than David does (Eisner took drawing courses from George Bridgman, after all, and some of it seemed to rub off on him). Plus remember that these guys were cranking out reams of comics, for heaven's sake, and can't fairly be compared to "pure" illustrators such as John LaGatta or Coby Whitmore -- and Apatoff does not make any such explicit comparison. BTW, I'm inclined to agree with the thrust of the above quote. Another article takes on The New York Times' suddend embrace of comics. After listing a number of talented artists the Times ignored in past decades, he observes: The Times seems to have been duped by the currently fashionable "I'm-so-smart-I don't-have-to-draw-well" genre. Many popular comic artists explain that the quality of their drawings is not important except to move the narrative forward. To me, such an art form is closer to typography than comic art. It shrinks from the potential of a combined words-and-pictures medium. Har! Great fun! As one great blogger sage puts it, read the whole thing. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at March 1, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

The Real Thing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Michael Bierut deplores the music in "Dreamgirls" and praises the real thing: the work of the immortal Motown songwriting team of Holland / Dozier / Holland. Great line: "Sometimes our most artless, workmanlike efforts surprise us with their staying power." Hmmm. I'd even dare to pump that statement up a bit. How about: "In the U.S., the art that lasts often turns out to be work that wasn't initially thought of as 'art' at all"? Here's my own rave about the Motown documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." And here's a posting I wrote about some of the wild and whacky ways American art often seems to work. Key passage, if I do say so myself: It's simply a fact that most of what's best, most likable and most vital in American art and culture comes in all kinds of surprising packages, and from all kinds of surprising directions. It takes the professors and the cultural gatekeepers decades to catch up -- movies, for instance, were only begun to be acknowledged as a great American art form 40ish years ago. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 1, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Our Shared and Planned Future
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- If you want an EZ taste of what our betters have in store for us where architecture and urbanism are concerned, you could do worse than to read this Der Spiegel piece about HafenCity, a huge harborsite development currently under construction in Hamburg. Here's a photo tour of the place. Short MBlowhard verdict: It looks like a daffy, off-kilter, computer simulation of a neighborhood, or maybe a videogame version of a city. Does it look like a place where you'd like to live? Best, Michael UPDATE: Edward Glaeser argues that "Modernism has its place in the panoply of architectural styles, and it is particularly appropriate for large buildings in megacities. It is not well designed for building public buildings or monuments that speak to most people." (Link thanks to ALD.)... posted by Michael at March 1, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * I just noticed that Jon Hastings is blogging again. Checkhimout. Jon (who mainly focuses on movies and computer games) may be one of the most erratic of bloggers but he's also one of the best, a match in fact for the tiptoppiest of pro cultureyakkers. * Another on-the-ball filmbuff you'll be glad to get to know: Dave McDougall. Dave blasts "Crash," discovers Elio Petri, and kicks off a weekly series that'll be of special interest to NYC-based cinephiles: a list of upcoming filmbuff-worthy events. * An ailment for our time: Blackberry-vision, or eyestrain caused by excessive peering at teeny-tiny screens. * I knew there was a good reason ... * Market research reveals that many Asian-American kids secretly love easy-listening, lite-FM radio. * Here's a brilliant blog idea from the LA Times: an ongoing report of all the homicides reported to the LA County Coroner. Is it un-PC of me to note that, as I scrolled through the blog's front page, I spotted only four white victims and no Asian victims? Every other murder victim was black or Hispanic. LA County Murders reports that 60% of 2006's LA County murder victims were Hispanic. * Why don't they show this funny video to Econ 101 classes? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 1, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Good Times
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- This Morris Day and The Time piece gets my vote for Most Irresistable Party Video Ever: Suave! Playboy vanity plus comic r&b equals entertainment bliss. I got real bored on a Friday night I couldn't find a damn thing to do. So I pulled out a suit about the same color As my BMW. Nothing wrong with that as poetry! That's a snazzy job of filmmaking too, well worth inspecting more than once. I wonder who the vid's director was. But I found this video of some company's accounting department lip-synching to The Time's "Jungle Love" almost as funny and endearing: There is (or at least can be) something so darned cute about the way white people love black people's style and music ... Here's the official website. Morris Day tells Wave magazine that he had a very good time in the 1980s. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 28, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

The Craft of Interviewing
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm all in favor of holding the feet of the mainstream media to the fire, and god bless the blogosphere for being there to keep pro journalism more honest than it would otherwise be. That said ... Well, as someone who's worked in the media for decades I'm sometimes struck by how much civilians take for granted. Where design is concerned, for instance: Whether or not you like the end products, the people who sling together magazines, newspapers, and TV keep the glitzy graphics and the splashy designs comin' at you at a truly amazing clip. In my experience, the people creating these layouts, photos, infographics, and spinning whizzinesses are often as talented as the fine-art crowd, and are often ten times harder-working. If you don't think their work is impressive (like it or not), well, try keeping up with them. And where the people who bring us our foreign news go ... They're often criticized (as they should be) for their politics, or are dumped-on for being lousy thinkers. No harm in that, of course. But why not give them their due too? These are people who lead seriously oddball lives. They travel more than investment bankers do, they work on impossible deadlines, and they're tossed into stories with little but notebooks, tape recorders, and guts to rely on. The ones who cover danger zones amaze me the most. If I were to get a call from my boss in the middle of the night saying, "There's been an outbreak of guerilla fighting!", my response would be along the lines of, "Thanks for the warning! I'm locking myself in my basement!" Foreign correspondents aren't like that. Instead they respond by saying, "I'm on my way!" I've known a number of foreign correspondents, and though I wouldn't pay a lot of attention to the thinking or to the politics of more than a couple of them they've all been remarkable creatures -- daring, crusty, full of bravado, and not unshrewd about human nature. Plus they all have great stories to tell. It seems to me that another media type who doesn't get the respect he / she deserves is the interviewer. Lordy, I do love a good interview. Is there a more efficient way to convey the gist of someone's thinking, research, and personality? A well-done interview can inform, enlighten, and entertain; it can be charming or brain-opening or both. The idea that interviewing is easy to do seems to me naive. Of course interviewing isn't brain surgery or bridge-building. Still, it isn't nothing either. I say this, by the way, as someone 1) who has done some professional interviewing, 2) who wasn't initially any good at it, and 3) who has learned a bit about how to be a better interviewer than I once was. I make no huge claims for myself, merely: I been there, I stank, and eventually I got less-bad. One of the things I've learned is that there are... posted by Michael at February 28, 2007 | perma-link | (17) comments

Sex and The Art of Shaping Hamburgers
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I need to be careful. Very careful. That's because I'm now living in ultra-liberal Seattle and this post will be stunningly incendiary to the sensitive souls that surround me. Doubtless I'll have to continually "check my six" (that's combat pilot lingo) till next week when I head to California to help with the move. What's this all about? Shaping hamburgers. When I form a hamburger patty I use a flat surface and do my best to create a shape like a very short cylinder. A number of the women in my life over the years (but not Mom, thank heaven) form hamburger patties as if they were were making slightly flattened snowballs. And slightly flattened snowballs are a poor shape for evenly cooking the meat, as compared to the cylindrical alternative. My conclusion from this scientific sample of three or four people? ... There is a clear genetic distinction in hamburger-shaping between the sexes. In fact, I'll hazard the proposition that this rivals the well-proven fact that women squeeze toothpaste tubes from the middle whereas men squeeze from the end opposite the opening. Of course I'll toss in the obligatory weasling that I'm speaking of tendencies rather than Iron Laws of nature. Anyway, now you know. And please excuse me while I go into hiding. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at February 28, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Portraits and Modernism
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- A theme I've been edging up to and that I plan to pursue from time to time in the coming months is the question of the future of painting assuming that Modernism and its spawn prove to be an aberration in the long-term history of art. The validity of that assumption can be left for discussion at another time (are you there, Friedrich?). For now, I simply want to use it as a peg for a series of blog posts. One way of examining this is to look at subject-matter that is comparatively impervious to Modernism and see how artists have been dealing with it. Today I'll take a first pass at portrait painting, perhaps returning later to hit the subject from another angle. Portraiture can be analyzed in terms of whether or not a particular painting was commissioned and, if commissioned, by whom -- the subject or by an organization or some other funding source. It seems to me that portraits most subject to Modernist influence would be those done strictly at the volition of the artist. The least amount of Modernism is likely to be found in portraits commissioned by the subject or perhaps "official" portraits commissioned by governments or businesses. Other commission sources likely fall someplace between, though probably tending to the non-Modernist end of the spectrum. (I posted on Presidential portraits here.) Here's a selective overview. All or nearly all of the paintings shown were not commissioned and present the artist's free-choice side of the typology just presented. Gallery Let's skip Van Dyck, Reynolds and Sargent on the assumption that you're familiar with traditional portraiture in its various guises, and cut straight to Modernism. "Nude in an Armchair - Fernande Olivier" by Pablo Picasso - 1909 The subject of this early Cubist work is Pacasso's mistress. One would be hard-pressed to identify her in a police lineup if this was your only clue. Still, she's recognizably female. "Daniel Henry Kahnweiler" by Pablo Picasso - 1910 The following year, Picasso painted Kahnweiler, his dealer at the time. I don't know if this was commissioned or not. The point of showing it is that a viewer ignorant of Kahnweiler's actual appearance would have no idea what the man looked like on the basis of Picasso's "portrait." That last word was in quotes because the work is clearly beyond portraiture as it has been known and continues to be known. Picasso asserted that this is a portrait: some will accept it on his authority, I do not. "Tadeusz de Lempicka" by Tamara de Lempicka - 1928 Tamara de Lempicka has become known as the archetypical Art Deco painter. This is an unfinished portrait of her first husband (his left hand still needs work). Although stereotyped to 3-D geometrical underpinnings, one has a fairly good idea what Tadeusz looked like. "The Prisoners Sacco and Vanzetti" by Ben Shahn - 1931-32 Some would call this Expressionist -- after all, Shahn was never shy about expressing... posted by Donald at February 27, 2007 | perma-link | (28) comments

RSS, Whatever That Is ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 2Blowhards enters the 21st century! Not that I understand this newfangled "RSS" thing, but visitors who do can now subscribe to our blog by clicking on our brand-new "Subscribe" button, located at the top of the blog's left-hand column. This feature, like every other technical feature here, comes thanks to the obliging, fast, and hyper-competent Daniel Kemp of Westgate Necromantic. If you have web-things that need doing, please consider getting in touch with Daniel. You can find his details here. Our most-excellent webhost is GlobalNet Communications, who I also recommend. GlobalNet delivers fast servers and minimal downtime; they're quick to solve problems, and are hard-to-beat where phone support is concerned. (Real live humans: Yes!) Together Daniel and GlobalNet have supplied 2Blowhards with more than three years of near-flawless service, for which many thanks. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 27, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Fact for the Day -- Research Funding for Diseases per Fatality
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- The following figures are a way of breaking down federal money spent on research into diseases. The number highlighted shows research money spent per fatality from each disease. The figures are from The National Center for Health Statistics and the National Institutes of Health. I found this set via, ahem, the AARP Bulletin. They reflect best estimates for 2007. I'll go lowest to highest. Stroke: $2143 are spent on research into stroke per person who dies of a stroke. Heart disease: $3,649 are spent researching heart disease per person who dies of heart disease. Lower respiratory diseases (such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis): $9,495 Alzheimer's: $10,164 Kidney Disease: $10,552 Diabetes: $13,474 Cancer: $14,006 Influenza and pneumonia: $58,315 HIV/AIDS: $212,330 Always interesting to see public research funds for health broken down on a per-disease / per-fatality basis, isn't it? Even though this exercise probably proves nothing definitive, it certainly whispers into my ear, "The funding of research on diseases is affected by, among many other things, politics." Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 27, 2007 | perma-link | (20) comments

Monday, February 26, 2007

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Are married housekeeper-women really happier than footloose college girls? * Amazon customer-reviewer "Clotilde de Valois" is one dizzy, madcap, inspired writer. Brackets, tildes, breathless switchbacks, arch asides, gasps, notes to self ... She's like an even higher-camp version of John Ashbery. * John Massengale gives Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House a mixed review. * Joanne Jacobs reports that 30% of California students drop out before getting a high school degree. * Today's great line comes from Bookgasm's Alan Mott. He's discussing a book of film crit: As an academic film essayist, Dyer is that rare critic who chooses to focus on the film itself, rather than use the film only as a springboard to discuss the theories of dead French assholes. * There's one specific reason why Bishwanath Ghosh feels sorry for atheists ... * Eight of the ten fattest countries in the world are in the South Pacific. * Rick Darby thinks it's important to wake up to the fact that the U.S. is not a capitalist country. * Glenn Abel brings the happy news that the Criterion Collection will be bringing out a DVD of Kenzi Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" in May. "Sansho" -- one of my fave-est of fave films -- has been one of the latest-in-coming-to-DVD of all film masterpieces. * George Wallace is crazy about Elvis Perkins and "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." George earns himself this week's "Mr. Eclectic" award. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at February 26, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments