31 March 2010

Lord of the Flies

I've always loathed bullies. Hated their filthy, grisly guts.

Reading this article about that girl, pretty, foreign, driven to suicide by her fellow students in high school made me want to tear my teeth out by their roots.

The authorities are trying to prosecute the evil bitches that set upon her. I don't see much hope for that, but maybe justice could be done.

The American  high school, like the English high school and like the German high school is an unbelievably barbaric place. (I mention the English and German schools because they're well documented in literature; try Young Törless, by Robert Musil, or Roald Dahl's memoirs, for starters.).

It's a central and disgusting lie that high school is some quirky, charming way station where prettily confused boys and girls put up with little struggles and emerge, unscathed but wiser, into the bright dawn of college.

It's a savage hell-hole, and, from what I can tell, always was. Nearly everyone who writes about the atrocity at Columbine or thinks about it seems to miss that fundamental fact, because it's too painful to admit, to remember or confront. Of course, high school is inflicted on you when you are the most vulnerable, open, defenseless and least able to protect yourself.

A smart friend of mine said of Columbine that they'd fucked with The Wrong Two Guys. And Werner Herzog, up in Telluride also said one day that he regretted never going back to his high school and burning in down. They both have a point, although so many innocents were caught in the crossfire; Klebold and Harris became über-bullies themselves.

I was lucky in many ways. For one, I have a vicious temper, an overwhelming and sudden rage that can take me by the scruff of the neck and make me recklessly violent. This trait helped me in elementary school and middle school. Some bully would get on my case. I'd ignore it for as long as I could. I'd dwell in fear of meeting that ravening little motherfucker.

One day, inevitably, I'd snap and lay into the bastard for all I was worth. They were nearly always bigger than me, so when hauled off to the principal's office, or separated by some teacher or some Responsible Adult, I'd get off fairly lightly.

In high school, I had a relatively easier time. I was often called a faggot, though, because I was in drama and not a jock. By then, however, our tribes had formed up, and I had a certain immunity. Plus, my willingness to mix it up stood me in good stead. But it still fucks you up, and no matter what any body says or how tough you try to be, it leaves a mark.

I consider myself particularly lucky to be a male in all this. With men, it was in the open, and the knuckle-dragging gorillas who tried to torment me never had the guile to pretend to be my friend. With girls, it's much worse.

And, I want to emphasize this: my experience is in no way special, or uniquely horrible or even very remarkable. It was, and is, simply normal -- better than normal, probably.

Overall, I return to the novel, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. We had it assigned to us in eighth grade, and we -- at least, my friends and I -- understood it immediately, even if some of the symbolism had to be explained. I'm thinking Golding really deserved that Nobel after all, for creating such a powerful fable, one that has the bones and stone of a Greek myth. We also watched the film by the genius, Peter Brook. Later, I would learn that Brook took his cast of boys off to an island, so that they would experience the same reversion to savagery and cruelty that the characters in the book did.

It only took a few days for the boys to turn into bloodthirsty little maniacs -- much more quickly than Brooks had anticipated. He had to quickly call off the experiment and start shooting the movie, with adults firmly supervising.

Not surprising when you examine the situation.

I'd happily hang each one of those vicious animals who worked that girl over.

Of course I would.

I'm only human.

Go doggy go!

As faithful readers (all two of you) may have noticed, I don't post animal videos as a rule.

But Winston, the dog below, is my latest hero. Apparently, the cops pepper sprayed him and tasered him, but he would not quit.

Here's to you, Winston.

Michael Steele making it rain

Corrupt republicans, San Fran DS strippers. . . really, who can resist reading the newspapers these days?

28 March 2010

Ten most influential books

One of those parlour games/memes is spreading around. I usually ignore them. But it's seems worthwhile to identify your influences and lazy not to take the time to think it through.
"Influential" turns out to be a trickier concept than it looks like at first. Influences, for one thing, run in both directions, towards and away. Influential doesn't necessarily mean high quality or best or favorite.
Anyway, here's my list of books that changed the way I think about things or that still shape my life.

The Bible
(Not because I'm Christian, but I grew up in a church where we studied the Word intensively. I read it through, once as a believer and again, later as a heathen.)

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

The Portable Nietzsche,  Friedrich Nietzsche, edited by William Kaufman
(Includes the complete Thus Spoke Zarathustra, together with long selections from the Gay Science and Genealogy of Morals as well as letters and essays)

Essays and Aphorisms, Arthur Schopenhauer

Letters from a Stoic, Seneca

Victory, Joseph Conrad

Collected Poems, W.B. Yeats

On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz

Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer

Oops, that's 12.

What are your top 10?

27 March 2010

More birds

Jim Marshall, ‘Johnny Cash (Flipping the Bird)’, San Quentin Prison, 1969



"That's a honey of anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson."

Amateur cinema

 Jia Zhangke talks about the future of movies: amateur cinema
Turning on the TV in Korea, what I saw was the same satellite TV channels as those I got in Beijing. I was disappointed. In a few years, young people throughout Asia will probably sing the same song, be attracted to the same clothes; girls will wear the same makeup and carry the same handbag. What kind of world is this turning into? It is precisely in this cultural environment that only independent films that remain committed to the depiction of local culture can provide some cultural diversity. I feel more and more strongly that people can only achieve emotional communication and equal position through diversity. The trend of globalization will make this world become tedious.

They ignore the so-called professional methods, so they have more chance to be innovative. They refuse to follow the standardized principles, so they acquire more diverse ideas and values. They free themselves from conventional customs and restraints to an infinite space for creation; at the same time, they are earnest and responsible because they persist with the conscience and conduct of intellectuals.
Read the whole article here

19 March 2010

Bye bye birdie

Jerry Lee Lewis flipping the bird, back when it meant something

So I got into a road rage situation a few days ago. Some jackass thought I cut him off or something, I really don't know what I did to piss him off.

What I do know is there I am, zipping along at 65 miles an hour on my morning commute and this big shiny red truck about two stories high is drifting into my lane -- whoa! -- very fucking deep into my lane, Jesus Christ whatthehell: I swerve deep into the shoulder, gravel starts flying up, and I start calculating whether to brake hard, to slam into the median, and then finally I look over in shock to see what kind of brain dead drunken moron is trying to murder us both.

He's a red haired guy, close cropped, balding, rusty goatee, same tantrum-prone ethnic family as me, probably. 

His face is nearly as red as his cherry truck. He's flipping me off and yelling at me through his window.
Now, road rage is a luxury I gave up about 15 years ago. In a rare moment of clarity, I realized that it's really not worth dying over a traffic incident. Several people are. This sound melodramatic, but a mere few weeks ago, two guys in their twenties got in an argument on the highway. One guy shot the other driver. He died, all of 21 years old. The other man, 23, went to prison for at least 25 years.

Over a lane change.

But the other day, pumped full of adrenaline and shock, that Dodge truck trying to dig its hub caps into mine, I forgot all my hard won lessons about how fighting a fool makes you a fool. I simply lost it and started yelling and flipping the asshole off myself.

That's when I realized: flipping the bird, waving that middle finger in the air? Doesn't have the same weight it used to. No satisfaction in it. It didn't come near to expressing my fury at that particular moment.

I wished, even in the upswell of my anger, that my middle finger would grow claws, fur, bristles, swell up to some nasty fat size and smash through his window like a mace. As a gesture, it's lost all it's meaning. Like the word "fuck" or "motherfucker."  They used to be shocking anywhere away from a work site, ghetto, or a piece of modern fiction. I'm screaming motherfucker and flipping the bird, and it all felt so paltry, so tiny.

It didn't used to feel that way. One could, and I, in fact, did, provoke fist fights by a simple flip of the bird. But now? Not even close.

We need some new class of really offensive gestures, something so heinous and foul and depraved that would make even hardened criminals blanche, that would be used only in the rarest of cases, that would have the same gravity as drawing a gun.

As well as a new class of curses that won't fall from the lips of 12 year olds any time soon.
I had a bunch of inventive insults just waiting to lay on that cretin, mostly involving pus and semen, and a plan to run out and punch him if the traffic ever stopped.

Luckily, the traffic didn't. 

Kaiser Karl Lagerfeld, the Vice Magazine interview

You’ve said that possessions are a burden and one mustn’t get attached to things, that owning things victimizes and imprisons you. 
It’s nice when you can afford something, but the minute you become a victim of it you shouldn’t keep it. 

Coming from you, some would think that’s quite a contradiction.
It’s exactly like people who say they don’t like money. Be rich first, and then you will know. If you have never touched money, you don’t know what money is. If you’re rich, get rid of it. It’s very easy. 

It’s lightness.
Yes, for me the most important thing is light. Nothing overweight, anywhere. Not on the body, not on the brain. 

And a certain detachment, too.
Yes, totally. I was brought up to be detached. You can take nothing with you. There are very few important things, and they are not possessions. 

Yoga is such a trend. There are all these rich people who study yoga now. I heard a story about a famous yoga master who was working with this woman who had a lot of wealth and money. He was in her mansion and he walked over to the mantle and took a Ming vase from it and he dropped it on the floor, smashing it. She was freaking out. That was the first lesson for her about not being attached to the material world. 
That’s the best lesson there, because I don’t believe too much in yoga. It’s another culture; it’s not my culture.

People treat it like it’s exercise. There’s no spiritual dimension to it. 
Yes, I know. One of my best friends does it all the time. It’s not my culture because I have not got much time. 

Which brings us back, I think, to trying to avoid distraction in the digital age.
I don’t know how people can concentrate today when they have their cell phones ringing and all that. I like to be with music, books, and paper and to sketch and think everything over. To brainwash my own head and to write letters. I never have the feeling of being alone. For me loneliness is when you are old, sick, have no money, and nobody’s around. But if you are vaguely known and vaguely not poor, to say it nicely, then it’s the top of luxury. 


17 March 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!

Okay, so we've covered the Guinness/Bushmills side of the bar.

Now, for contrast, one of the best and of course most melancholy love songs -- about the love of a parent for a child. A song that makes strong men weep. What a great singer she is:

12 March 2010

Punk is Dead

But the corpse is still warm, mofos!

10 March 2010

Who cheats?

A web site that hooks up adulterers has some statistics on which professions have the most affairs, broken down by gender:
For Women:
1. Teachers
2. Stay-at-home Moms
3. Nurses
4. Administrative Assistants
5. Real Estate Agents

For Men:
1. Physicians
2. Police Officers
3. Lawyers
4. Real Estate Agents
5. Engineers
Now, these results are drawn from the computer site, so some levels of society may be under represented. Like pizza delivery guys, for example. You'll notice right away that medical professions score high for both sexes. Soap operas apparently were more fact-based that we knew. Maybe the proximity to all that death and suffering is a kind of stimulant.

Which would also apply to the "teacher" and "lawyer" categories as well.

The only profession that surprises me is "engineers." Really? Those guys? I guess they know how to run more than cantilevers through their calculus.


09 March 2010

Hank Williams, Sr.

Shudder Island

image via

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is yet another remixed artifact of a culture that's burning itself out, or, at least, a filmmaker who has lost the touchstones of his art..

This time, the karaoke background noise is Hitchcock and a few hundred B movies that you couldn't pay me to see because life is really too short to spend drooling over deliciously over the top mise en scene.

It often reminded me of an inferior version of Mel Brooks' masterpiece Young Frankenstein. All the motifs and twitches of the old movies are there, out front, mad scientists, crazy stone fortresses, creepy hags. Only, with Brooks, it's a funny and affectionate parody. 

With Scorsese, it's merely pretentious kitsch. 

He's smart enough to hire the finest talent to cover up that kitsch with exquisite cinematography, modern concert music and febrile acting. Classy. And, sure, some of the scenes are quite beautiful in a Bougereau kind of way, the kind of lushness that rock video directors like to throw around and that aesthetically oriented maiden aunts use to guide their interior decoration choices.

Just because Scorsese watched a lot of shitty movies and, worse, remembered them, doesn't mean I have to care. Worst part was, you see the twist coming from a million miles away -- because, you know, that's how these movies work, so you try to anticipate it. Once you put it together, you reject it because, well, it's too damned obvious. Sure enough, your suspicion's confirmed, and its disappointing. This is, of course, to completely ignore the preposterous set up in the first place.

The cast is fine -- how could they not be? They're stuck playing types that were moldy by about 1962. Easy tasks. Veterans like von Sydow, Kingsley and company find their grand guignol groove easily. Di Caprio does his scowly, tortured-soul shtick, pretty much on the same level throughout. He does have a startling moment near the very end of the movie, so it's not all one-note. Just mostly.

Martin Scorsese made at least three certifiable masterpieces, maybe more. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are out and out great works. Goodfellas, Casino, and even After Hours are also extraordinary movies.

So, in a way, I don't begrudge him playing with the cinematic palette available to him. He's earned the opportunity in his golden years to pursue whatever games he wishes. But I don't understand why this flabby exercise in stylization deserves any special respect, or why certain critics are hailing it as a return to form, or that it's somehow it's his most personal film. What I saw was a fantastically skilled collage pasted on to a rickety b-grade narrative.

Bibi Arranging Flowers


Bibi Arranging Flowers, J-H. Lartigue

Can't come too soon

Now, THIS movie looks like it has everything.

08 March 2010

Avatar(d) Part II

Okay, let's offer thanks to the maligned Academy and breathe a sigh of relief that it didn't win the Best Picture Oscar after all.

I saw it, and I have to admit I liked it while I was in the theatre. Avatar drowns you in an amazing spectacle, and, as spectacle, it succeeds on its own terms. My jaw dropped.  I haven't seen anything like it, and for the duration of the film, it creates its own world and draws you in. Several sections are exhilirating. It's fun to identify with phosphorescent creatures that are long, lean, and graceful, who can flit effortlessly through the forest and fly on the backs of dinosaurs. My inner eight-year-old squirmed with delight.

The plot hits all the major beats. Much of it reminded me of the movies Disney produced in the 1990s -- films like The Lion King, Pocohantas, and Mulan. Standard stories, coupled with themes about harmony, the cycle of life and set in exotic locations like ancient China or pre-colonial America. Avatar hums with more juice, violence and conflict, but the sensibility is familiar.

And it's fun, after all. You forget yourself and, at the end, you emerge from the theatre like a drunk coming out of a bar at dawn or a woozy teenager getting off the rollercoaster: staggered and a bit disappointed in the bland reality closing back in.

The vaunted 3-D, though, was suprisingly uneven. You see amazing effects -- the water dropping from a leaf got some special effects award or another. At the same time, the 3-D's distracting -- whole sequences of the movie happen when you mentally slap your forehead and say to yourself, wow, that's 3-D happening up there! Which is to say: the 3-d ripped me right out of the story and the movie as much as it immersed me in it. During some shots, it seemed clunky -- certain pans, for example, made me think I was back to looking at some hokey 3-D illustration in a kid's book instead of a supersonic blast of the latest Hollywood technology.

For me, 3-D's problematic, anyway. Two-d works well for conveying what I care about. Artists and cinematographers have been figuring out how to convey depth on a flat plane for several centuries now. Flatness itself can be a useful directorial tool, and you give that up completely. You also loose control over depth-of-field -- the easy way directors and cinematographers have of emphasizing what's important in the scene by focusing on it and leaving the rest of the frame out of focus. (Some great directors, like Ford, Wyler and Welles used extreme deep focus powerfully, but none of that staging or mise en scene was happening in Avatar).

Overall, emphasis on special effects is a sterile and capitalistic approach to filmmaking -- technically difficult, but difficult in an engineering way; the difficulty lies in writing the write code or creating the better motion capture instrument. It aims at the nerves. I prefer movies that deal in the physics of the heart and soul, that capture something about life as it's lived: sweat, tears, blood, that sort of thing. I'm -- not desperate, exactly but -- eager for some kind of insight into the shape-shifting dream around me.

The ingenuity with Avatar is all in the look and the production of the film -- that is to say, the surface. In that, as well as its themes, it's an almost perfect representation of the Boomer aesthetic. Depth in the superficial. Cliched themes. An easy and cheap political correctness that masks a love for power and authortarianism.

Now I don't expect a lot of narrative innovation or character depth in a movie that costs hundreds of millions. Studios used to take those kinds of risks with films like Lawrence of Arabia or even the Godfather, which combines psychological insight along with the action. But the obvious corporate policy is to play it safe with the tropes everyone loves, and that's what Cameron does. You can argue about the bankruptcy of that approach, but not its financial savvy.

Still, one narrative element in particular bothered me, even during the movie and more so after. The Na'vi are strategic idiots. Jake tries to help them out, but he's a moron as well. His strategy? Run away from overwhelming force. Then, attack with all you've got -- even when all you've got is bow and arrows against sci-fi tech.  The plan is to swarm the vastly superior earthlings and hope for the best.
It's oddly dismissive of the indigenes, too. Historically, natives do get slaughtered. Some, however, turn into brilliant military leaders. Chief Joseph, one of the greatest humans who ever lived, and Crazy Horse bedeviled the US Army. They did not draw on the talents of a rogue paleface, either. Not to mention battles like Yellow River or Cannae where outnumbered and technically overmatched armies beat the supposed superiors through guerilla tactics or through brilliant strategy.

I was hoping that Jake would come up with some ingenious lure, some gambit that would satisfyingly rip apart the larger, clumsy musclebound oafs. It's also a common theme in fairy tales as well -- the clever trickster gets the better of the lumbering giant.

Instead you get Na'vi swarming over the machines, and slaughtered mercilessly. In story terms, this creates feelings of rage and helplessness, so you really, really want to see the bad guys' asses kicked. It sets up the Final Confrontation. But it's limited, flat. You have a meathead urging all the Na'vi to commit suicide by swarming.

And then? A literal deus ex machina saves the day.

This merely reinforces the power worship of Avatar -- it can be as pro-science and multicultural as it wants to on the surface, but it's underlying sympathy is with raw power -- the power of 800 pixel slingers in the production room. And by saying that only a divine intervention can help a rebel army, it enforces the futility of struggling against The Man.


A place for spectacle movies -- movies like theme park rides with stock characters confronting big choices -- exists. Spectacle has been around forever; Aristotle talked about it back in the day. It's still around because it's satisfying to be shocked and awed, particularly from a safe seat. But you leave stunned, not enlightened, not thoughtful, with nothing but your nerves buzzing. A form of pornography.

Spectacle is fundamentally stupid. Drama, comedy, tragedy, even melodrama: why throw all that heritage and invention out the window? It would be nice if we could build on Shakespeare and O'Neill, or even Cassavetes and Bergman instead of blubbering like apes in the ruined temples of their works.

The main issue for me is that these spectacles tend to cannibalize other movies and other forms of drama. It's as if you walk in a bookstore, and they only sell Dan Brown or Stephen King. Or that theatres only mounted Broadway spectacles, like Phantom of the Opera or Cats with lame stories but super cool sets (oh. . .wait . . . )

I don't see this toy-like experience as the future of cinema that matters.