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, April 6, 2007

Landscape, Movies & Modernism
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards: Does it ever strike you as odd that movies focus so little on landscape? I know, some films engage landscape extensively, but by and large it seems kind of used as little more than a backdrop, or as symbolism. I wonder if that is at least partially because conventional movie language prefers to fragment space (to say nothing of time). Think how rare it is in a movie that the action takes place in any truly coherent space. By coherent space I mean, a situation in which it actually matters in what precise spatial relation people are to one another, or to things. Of the basic w-type questions, movies are big on who, what, why and how; not so much on when or where. I wonder if that's one reason I like Buster Keaton movies. Slapstick comedy definitely requires spatial coherence, and he takes this to a very high level in many of his films. His movies are among the few in which spatial coherence really counts for something. Of course, that may also explain something profound about modernism in art generally, for as we know, movies are the modernist art form par excellence. To wit, modernism claims to be rational (truth of materials, form follows function, no shenanigans about ornament) and yet modern art forces you to interact with it in a fragmented, chopped up way, forcing you to make it all add up in your head. Modern architecture notoriously photographs better than it feels in person, a very "cubistic" quality if you think about it; whereas walking through classical buildings makes sense in person, and requires very little conceptual fancy-dancing. Hmmmm. Any thoughts on this? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at April 6, 2007 | perma-link | (20) comments

DVD Journal: "5x2"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Because I was such a fan of Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool" and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," I'd been looking forward to catching up with his recent "5x2," an episodic marriage drama that starts with a couple's divorce and then moves backwards in time. Verdict: it's a nicely-done exercise, no more. It has been discussed as being half Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" and half Pinter's "Betrayal," and that's about right: It's an analysis of one relationship's stages of romance, tension, arousal, misery, betrayal, and failure. What makes it distinctive is its determination to thwart interpretation and frustrate your desire for answers. The thing you anticipate with this kind of backwards narrative is learning how and why everything went wrong. (Mysteries often work this way too: They move forward by uncovering the past.) So why did the marriage come apart? And how did the relationship become impossible? How can you not want to find out the answers to these questions? But here, there's no way to tell what they are. You expect that the episodes being presented will reveal hints: they don't. You anticipate that the arrangement of the episodes will convey a larger truth: it doesn't. At first I watched the film wondering if I was just being dumb. Then the penny dropped and my dim brain awoke to the fact that "5x2" is one of those so-fis-ti-kated movies that isn't going to present a key to its mystery, let alone build to a revelation or (heaven forbid) a climax. So I shifted into appreciator-of-modernist-art mode -- hey, I can do that! -- and ... well, I still found the film unsatisfying. Though I often adore art that leaves a lot to the imagination, leaving everything open to intepretation was a little much even for me. The events the film portrays don't just seem barely-linked, but tenaciously (if hyper-subtly) arbitrary. It's all very tantalizing, and then it isn't any longer. If you were in an uncharitable mood, you could say that "5x2" is a gay man's -- Ozon's -- doomy view of straight marriage as a hopeless mess. Women and men will never understand each other; their drives are at such odds that it's miraculous they ever cross paths. Why does the husband seem so withholding? Why is the wife such a weeper? And what, in any case, did they see in each other in the first place? I was OK with the fact that the story and characters didn't come to anything, really I was. But I was less pleased by the fact that the nothing the film came to was as un-resonant as it was. All that said, I sat through "5x2" in a fairly pleasant state and even found the film piquant. That's because of the commitment of the actors (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stephane Freiss), and because of the stylishness of Ozon's work. He makes the film a miracle of concision, design, wit, and paradox. It may be nothing more... posted by Michael at April 6, 2007 | perma-link | (10) comments

Installation by Megan and Murray
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see that Megan and Murray McMillan have created "Channelbone," an installation that will go on view in St. Louis starting today. A big thing -- with a ribcage and video screens -- "Channelbone" sounds somewhere between nifty and spectacular. Here's the gallery's info. But hurry: The piece will only be on display for two days. Megan and Murray blog here, and show off a lot of their art here. Megan wrote a Guest Posting for 2Blowhards here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 6, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Fact for the Day: L.A.'s Illegals
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- 12 percent of the 10.2 million residents of Los Angeles County are illegal immigrants. Thirty percent of the county's public health patients are illegal immigrants. Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 5, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Laugh as we will at the French -- and why not? But they sure know how to build and run a TGV (train a grande vitesse). Some previous postings about France and the French: here, here, here, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 5, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments

More on Thom Mayne's Federal Building
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Back here I linked to a funny and smart Philip Murphy blast at San Francisco's hideous new Federal Building, designed by the disgraceful Thom Mayne, a favorite bete noir of this blog. What our betters want us to be grateful for... Quick recap of the pertinent points: The building is in a Deconstructivist style that flaunts Green credentials. That might sound attractive on many levels. If Modernism was overly rigid, and all about clean lines, blank planes, and right angles, Decon buildings are wobbly and zigzaggy. Whee! Problem solved! If Modernist buildings -- steel-and-glass cages, after all -- were inefficient users of energy, and were spectacularly inhumane in their treatment of their inhabitants and users, a Green building opens up, filters, and recycles. It returns power and respect to the environment and to the people. Green/Decon is Modernism transcended, in other words. Well, it is if you buy the propaganda. M. Blowhard doesn't buy the propaganda. The M. Blowhard view is that all these claims are (hilariously, tragically) spurious. The design problem with Modernist buildings wasn't just that they were rigid and grid-like, it's that they transformed our living and working spaces into abstractions. Decon's package -- exploding planes and lines -- is every bit as abstract as what Modernism was selling (clean lines and right angles). It seems to be a simple fact of life that many people feel lost and adrift in abstract environments. Many people in fact find the experience of wandering through faceless voids and double-back spaces to be nightmarish. What could be easier to understand? After all, these buildings and spaces offer people nothing for their feelings and their imaginations to nestle into or latch onto. The environmental / human problem with Modernist buildings was less a matter of raw BTU's than it was of top-down arrogance. Thom Mayne talks a good anti-establishment line, but he's as determined to play the genius-visionary, architect-as-god role as any pompous Modernist. You have a problem? He has the solution. And you will live in it. Totalitarian-corporatist environments that wear a coating of populist rhetoric aren't any more palatable than totalitarian-corporatist environments that announce their natures more frankly. Short version: Deconstructivist architecture is Modernism by other means -- it isn't an alternative to Modernism, it's what Modernism has become. As for the Green component ... Well, it's like the chaos-theory claims that Decon often makes for itself. Traditional architecture was already plenty Green; traditional architecture -- if your eyes and mind and imagination are really open to it -- already embodies plenty of chaos theory. Why do we allow our elite architecture world to continue getting us all worked up about attaining what's already ours? But these are generalities. What's the reality of the Federal Buiding like? I'm revisiting these topics because just this morning a comment was dropped on my blog posting by a woman who's actually familiar with the building. I reprint her comment here: Folks, As someone who's actually going... posted by Michael at April 5, 2007 | perma-link | (37) comments

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Fact for the Day
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Tony Blair's government has created 3000 new criminal offences in just ten years. Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 4, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Culture / Biology
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Agnostic has put up a nifty posting about how cultural evolution might affect biological evolution. In a comment I dropped on his posting I managed -- in however scatterbrained a way -- to ask a question I've meant to ask for a while, namely: I think there's a lot to it. New niches crop up, and -- to everyone's surprise -- previously unnoticed creatures take them over. Geeks are a good example. Anyone old enough can remember when "the geek" wasn't a big or at least much-visible part of society. Computers caught on, and suddenly geeks were everywhere. Everntually even geek taste (sci-fi, Wired) became culturally important, alas. Another example: When a quirky beauty becomes famous, suddenly you find yourself surrounded by girls who look like her. The world is suddenly full of Meg Ryans, or Britneys, or Lindsays. Were they always there, and we didn't notice them because we had no template to stick 'em in before the star established the the template? Or did the star's success make it possible for the girls to assert their quirky looks with some confidence? I remember noticing this happen with Claire Danes, for instance. She became an It Girl, and suddenly the world was full of Clarie Daneses. Where had they been hiding until then? Any thoughts? Best, Michael UPDATE: Another GNXP commenter provided a link to a fascinating -- and NSFW -- page featuring and discussing some ancient Etruscan art.... posted by Michael at April 4, 2007 | perma-link | (4) comments

Howard Gardner: Seven? Eight? And Now Five?
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- What a nice franchise Howard Gardner has. First he sells the idea that intelligence doesn't come in one flavor but in seven. (He later upped the number to eight.) Now he's back with a new book, this time arguing that the future will demand and value five different types of thinking . How do you suppose Gardner settles on these magical numbers of his? I find Gardner a strange case. I dislike much of what he stands for. He's one of those progressive educators who believes that it isn't important whether students learn any facts, for instance -- instead they need to know how to "solve problems." My personal bullshit alarm goes off extra-loud when I run across that particular opinion. I also find it telling where Gardner's approach leads him. He's now questioning freedom of speech: The cartoons of Mohammad that caused such a fuss a while back shouldn't have been published, he argues. While being skeptical of tradition and custom, he seems to believe that it's possible to create laws that will guarantee courtesy and respect. And I'm happy to agree that the science behind his eight-types-of-intelligence notion seems shakey at best. All that said ... Well, I do think it's clear that talents come in many flavors, and I do think that that's a fact well worth standing up for. I wish Gardner weren't arguing about intelligence per se. There does seem to be such a thing as raw intellectual horsepower, after all, and why not assign it a number if your measuring-stick seems trustworthy? But Gardner wants no part of such a project. Why not? Though kindness may play a role in Gardner's thinking, his main motivation seems perfectly obvious: He dislikes the fact that some ethnic groups score higher on IQ tests than others. He finds the fact unacceptably harsh. It's hard to avoid thinking, "This Howard Gardner is a bit of a 'if the fact hurts, then ban the fact' kinda guy, isn't he?" Still: nothing wrong with kindness. And nothing wrong with recognizing that talent comes in many flavors. (If life teaches us anything ...) IQ may be an important topic, but it's certainly possible to make too much of it. Physical prowess, craftsmanship, musical ability, loyalty, a gift for relationships, verbal pizazz, erotic attunement, a knack in the kitchen, emotional insightfulness, persuasiveness, social adroitness, humor, visual flair -- these are all talents as well, each one of which strikes me as eminently worthy of respect, and of nurturing and guidance too. No need to feel bad for Howard Gardner, btw. Though he seems to have a knack for portraying himself as a beleaguered rebel -- hey, that's a talent too -- he has a secure position at Harvard, some of his books have been huge sellers, and he has even won a MacArthur "genius" grant. He hasn't lacked for influence either. Harvard is re-doing its curriculum to come more in line with his thinking, and he... posted by Michael at April 4, 2007 | perma-link | (21) comments

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Java Joint Hangin'
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Once upon a time -- call it 1980 -- shopping malls ruled the the American retail world. Then came the invasion of the Big Box Stores. Followed by village-style shopping centers. Even though customers are slipping through mall stores' fingers there is still one unassailable category of mall-denizen: teen agers hangin' out. Or is there? One mid-afternoon last week I was havin' my cuppa caffein at a Starbucks. Not long after I claimed a chair at a table and was scribbling blog-subject ideas on one of those brown paper napkins, in came some early-teen girls. Then more arrived. Pretty soon there must have been ten or so hanging out around the couches and tables. Then it dawned on me that the Starbucks was only a quarter mile from a middle school and it was around 3:00 p.m. -- basically dismissal time. I didn't notice boys of similar age, so maybe the gals were there simply for the beverages. Could this be a new social trend? Or am I late to the scene as usual. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 3, 2007 | perma-link | (5) comments

Charlton / Juvenal
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I recently had a wonderful time going through Charlton Griffin's audiobook of Juvenal's "Satires." Amazing material, of course. Juvenal was a Roman poet given to wild caricature of the life he observed -- he's like the poet version of Hogarth, only for Roman times rather than for 18th century England. The poems are given a superbly-judged production and reading by Charlton, who presents them with a winning combo of dignity, lasciviousness, and merriment. The effect is like spending a sozzled, off-the-record evening with a dirty-minded senator. You can download the audiobook from Audible, or from the iTunes Store. Charlton -- no stranger to merriment or to witty observation himself -- has forwarded along some tasty links. * Cliff's Notes for "The Sopranos." * Enough already with the super-slow-mo shots of bullets. How about a slow-mo shot of a samurai sword in action? That's one sharp blade. * The immigration crisis, via The Onion. * Do men really like the hourglass figure best? * How to resist game-show bloopers? * When it's over, it's really over. Charlton is currently reading a history of Rome for XM satellite radio. Best, Michael UPDATE: Thanks to The Man Who Is Thursday, who points out this Roger Kimball essay about Juvenal.... posted by Michael at April 3, 2007 | perma-link | (2) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Creepy? * NZConservative thinks that conservatives ought to be more concerned about population growth than they are. * Tyler Cowen recommends his favorite Monteverdi. * The very idiosyncratic and droll Ilkka blogs again. * Although I've linked to and written about the phenomenal -- and much too-little-known -- gospel-blues singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe a few times, I've only just now awakened to the fact that a biography of her was recently published. Hmm, Beacon Press ... Not good: an earnest, political publisher ... On the other hand, the bio does sound thorough and careful. And where else are we going to find the information? * Caleb Crain takes a shrewd look at some recent sales figures from the book publishing world. * Tokenblackchic is hoping to make it to NYC. Tokenblackchic is a resourceful and funny short-video maker. * The good news is that total income in America is rising like gangbusters. The bad news is that nearly all of the rise is going to the same tiny sliver of people. * Anne Thompson raves about "Grindhouse," links to a hard-to-resist Bollywood version of "Pretty Woman," and lists some of her favorite Hollywood book-fiction. * You can find podcasts with a lot of British authors here. I'm especially looking forward to a rare talk with the crime-novel genius Ruth Rendell. * Here's video from some really virtuosic jet piloting. * The biologist E. O. Wilson thinks there may be something to the idea of group selection. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 3, 2007 | perma-link | (25) comments

The Barriers Crumble
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- People continue to venture into all kinds of previously off-limits subject matter. * Steve Sailer thinks that high-school kids interested in college ought to apply to a lot more schools than they're usually told to. * A common good-liberal assumption is that human evolution stopped dead the moment some humans left Africa. Steve links to a report about a Gregory Cochran-John Hawks paper contending that human evolution has, if anything, speeded up in recent millennia. * In the Jewish magazine Commentary, the Scots-Irish Charles Murray surveys Jewish accomplishment and Jewish brains. (Link thanks to ALD.) The GNXP gang pile in here. * Jewcy's Joey Kurtzman tries to lure John Derbyshire into a discussion of Kevin MacDonald's theories about the Jews. Although Derbyshire mostly does a lot of sensible stonewalling, Kurtzman himself kicks over an amazing number of taboos, not the least of which is admitting to having enjoyed reading Kevin MacDonald. * Lovers of frank and vervey conversation generally should enjoy many of Jewcy's "Dialogues." In one of them, Daphne Merkin confesses that the gay-marriage issue annoys her: "It [strikes me] as a red herring, not to mention as some sort of baiting of the culture at large," she writes: Also, I think it's troublesome, at the very least, to both mock the very idea of marriage as a delusional and retrograde "straight" institution, as many gays have done, and then happily go and claim its financial/property benefits on behalf of the tiny minority of gay marriages that exist in this country. * Another Jewcy Merkin crack is at the expense of the literary world, which she describes as existing "in a self-inflated universe all its own, in spite of the fact that no one reads." * ALD also points out a links-heavy article in the Chronicle of Higher Education making the very forbidden argument that some college-prank videoclips are actually worth your time. * Doug Anderson wonders why mixed-race couples aren't more visible in the media. As one of the commenters on Doug's posting writes, "So many chances to be politically incorrect, I scarcely know where to begin." Un-PCness most definitely welcomed in the comments on this posting, but obnoxiousness strongly discouraged. Well, I take that back. Let's make all the obnoxious fun of the literary world that we care to. That's always good sport. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at April 3, 2007 | perma-link | (13) comments

Monday, April 2, 2007

Taking Pains
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Sloppy is easy. Craftsmanship and taking pains have to be learned from a mentor or from bitter experience. When I was young my father and grandfather did small-scale woodworking projects. I saw that they took care in measuring and sawing, etc., but I lacked coordination and patience, never rising above wood-butcher status. I didn't learn serious craftsmanship until I started programming computers. If a program isn't properly constructed, it won't run. And even if it runs, it can be a nightmare to maintain if it isn't well organized and documented. I witnessed this on a more mundane level last week when I was keeping an eye on the moving crew packing up the California house for our move to Seattle. The moving company supplied them boxes of different sizes along with rolls of sticky tape and semi-sticky sheets of wrapping plastic. One item they had lots of was sheets of packing paper -- a newsprint-like material measuring a little more than two feet square. They went through lots of that paper. In many cases it was used simply as filler material, padding the inside of a box so that the contents wouldn't shift. For fragile objects such as glasses and china, each piece was wrapped, sometimes quite thickly. The crew worked steadily. Little waste motion, yet attention being given to each object while being wrapped and placed in the shipping box. That was last week. Now I'm having to reverse the process as I unpack. After cutting open the top of a box I have to remove and carefully unfold each piece of packing paper. Many sheets are simply padding; nevertheless they have to be checked for objects and then piled flat for later recycling. Presently the basement contains four or five piles of paper that are nearly two feet high each. I've found myself mimicking the moving crew's deliberate, steady pace. Yes, I could rip that paper off much faster and cram it into empty boxes. But items might get lost if I was that sloppy, and that wouldn't be good. Reminds me of computer programming. And doubtless other tasks such as automobile repair and hanging wallpaper. Fear of trouble creates discipline. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 2, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Thin Mustaches
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I suppose they'll be back: that's the nature of fashion. But I hope it's not any time soon. What am I venting about this time? Why, thin mustaches of course! If you've watched many 1930s movies you'll probably have seen lots of them. Here are some examples: John Gilbert Melvyn Douglas William Powell Clark Gable In the Thirties those little mustaches -- some being almost pencil-line thin -- were considered quite masculine. Nowadays I suspect that they strike most folks as being fussy, almost sissy-like. That's how they strike me. The thin-mustache fashion faded in the late 40s for whites, but hung on for a couple of decades longer for blacks. If a man grows a mustache sans-beard these days it's likely to cover the area twixt lip and nose and might range from trimmed to bushy in style. Handlebars seem fairly rare. Waxed mustaches moreso. As I write this I'm trying to remember when thin mustaches where popular before the Thirties (that's the peak -- the fashion ran from 1920 or before until 1950 or thereabouts), and the best I can come up with is foggy images of riverboat gamblers in movies or TV shows. If such mustaches are indeed an historical rarity, it makes me wonder why they appeared at all and why they appeared when they did. Perhaps such speculation is fruitless. They were a fashion. Sometimes fashions occur in response to outside forces (World War 2 fabric restrictions killed the Zoot Suit, for example) other times they are reactions to previous fashions (the post-WW2 New Look long, full skirts) and sometimes they just happen (heavily-padded shoulders for women around 1990). Feel free to kick this around in Comments. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at April 1, 2007 | perma-link | (16) comments