20 July 2012


What is there to say?

That these events are common, now as spring floods. Insightful, eloquent things have been said before, many times. An avalanche of idiocies will be certain to follow, true to form. Few capture the awful fascination, or how grief moves those who did not know the victims.

Or how you live with a weird anxiety during the suspense of wondering if someone you knew might have been there. Through Facebook and Twitter, we find that a friend of a friend from high school was shot. Two degrees of separation from the blood and smoke filled room.

It sounds like rank superstition, but there was something evil in the air, some black smudge that bleared the hot night. No one slept well. Restless, without knowing why, we tossed and turned. Those who lived closer heard sirens as the ambulance sped the wounded to outlying hospitals with more space. The cineplex -- an ugly made up word for an ugly, made up place -- is in a modest area. You can rent a single bedroom apartment for around $500, and most of the places around there are rentals. Hooligans, as an Asian acquaintance put it, hooligans like to loiter on the parking lots.

Some offer statistics showing that killings like these are unusual, and your chances are good for avoiding some man who is heavily armed and sick with his own heavy blood and ready to shed the blood of just about anyone.

You have to wonder, too, about the film. Conservatives won't wonder, liberals will silence their misgivings about filmed violence to talk about gun control. They're both right in a way.

The last Batman film played a guy getting killed with a pencil through his eye for laughs, and offered up for our thrills one explicitly S&M inspired scene after another, dealing bondage out like playing cards. Then I felt, more than thought, that it was the most depraved movie I'd ever seen. I hate making this argument, and I am vehemently against censorship, and I've read the stats that don't show much of a link between fictional violence and the impulse to be violent. But the breathtakingly casual way that violence is manipulated for sensation and for profit is vile.  It is dishonest and morally bankrupt for a creator to disown all responsibility for a work that presents killing as entertainment, to pretend that it's just good fun. It's when violence has no weight, no heft, no human price attached to it, that is disgusting.

But even if we could wave a magic, sanitizing wand and dial the portrayal of violence back to the 1930s level and ensure that for each act of violence the audience would experience emotional pain or dread, it wouldn't work. It wouldn't stop Dylan or James from making that final leap.

And, as a gun owner, I'm vehemently for gun rights. But should stacks of semi-automatic weapons be legal to own, really? Should driving a car be more regulated than owning a pistol that can pump 15 rounds out in less than a minute?

But even if we had sane gun laws, which will not happen any time soon, that would not stop atrocities like the one last night. The suspect bought his guns legally. A determined person can buy guns illegally. At most, you could guess that there would be fewer wounded or dead. But reform's not going to happen.

The victims, as they usually are, are innocent. Or, at least, innocent of any injury to the shooter. An Aurora teenager doesn't have much to do with PhD programs in neurology, or existential failure or, perhaps, the snapping of a neuron gone wrong.

Instead of chatter, even expressions of grief, I'd like to offer a keening moan in a corner for their deaths and their pain.

 Or silence.

The Birthday Party - Fears of Gun

For art school grads

Here's the always insightful Father Guido Sarducci on art school:

 And here's how to talk about your work once you graduate.
You're welcome.

19 July 2012

Travel teaches you things

“And many rose from their meal, upsetting chairs, others growing pale, ran along the corridors to the library, and the question asked in many languages, was heard; “What is it? What has happened?’ And no one was able to answer it clearly, no one understood anything, for until this very day men still wonder most at death and most absolutely refuse to believe in it.”

– Ivan Bunin, “The Gentleman from San Francisco”

More on distraction - George Packer

And he’s not alone. Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest—including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head. The other day I had to reshelve two dozen books that my son had wantonly pulled down, most of them volumes from college days. I thumbed idly through a few urgently underlined pages of Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” a book that electrified me during my junior year, and began to experience something like the sensation middle-aged men have at the start of softball season, when they try sprinting to first base after a winter off. What a ridiculous effort it took! There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world. The Internet and the devices it’s spawned are systematically changing our intellectual activities with breathtaking speed, and more profoundly than over the past seven centuries combined. It shouldn’t be an act of heresy to ask about the trade-offs that come with this revolution. 

18 July 2012

Happy Birthday, Hunter

Canadian TV brings on Hunter S. Thompson and a Hell's Angel.

We’re creating a culture of distraction

Joe Kraus, a Silicon Valley dude on a very high level, angel investor, serial entrepreneur, decries our culture of distraction. (You can read a transcript of his talk here).

The entire speech is worthwhile, but particularly the point he makes at the end:

Imagine the world 10 years from now. My third grader will be graduating high school. What does that world look like? I’d guess that it’s going to be more fast paced than ever. That people are going to be even more distracted, even more unable to pay attention to things for any length of time. Even less able to tolerate boredom. Even less able to pay attention to one another.
Now imagine your own child in stark contrast to that culture of distraction. Technically literate, but also balanced. A calmer presence. Not distracted. Not constantly seeking out mindless stimulation. An ability to make real human connection by not signaling that there might be something better on his smartphone to look at. An ability to pay attention to a problem for a long time.
I believe that the biggest gift we can impart on our kids is the ability to be mindful – to pay attention to the things and to the people that are actually around them. In 10 years, that’s going to feel VERY VERY different than the norm.
Have you noticed that it's no longer only Humanities majors and Luddites that are worried about the mental and emotional world we've made for ourselves? Lately, the techies and the engineers are warning us, too. The New York Times a few months back ran this article about how Silicon Valley honchos are educating their children.

No computers allowed. An elite that's closest to the tools and structure of the media environment who, when it comes to their own children, ensure that their kids aren't overexposed to its toxic effects.

For me, the realization that I needed to address my need to suck on the big electronic tit has been building for a long time. My attention span is shredded. I tend to fall into a new state, that of boredom and restlessness quite easily. It takes real effort to read actual books with 19th century sentences. Work that I don't remember having to devote before when I seemed to simply read.

I've lost a lot. I notice it most painfully when my attention drifts away from people I care about.

I'm not alone. People, mostly over 25, fret about this or joke about it a lot. They worry about their twitchiness, about the nagging impulse to Check On Something. A few practice media Sabbaths, a whole day away from electronic media.

Unfortunately, you can't just give it up, in the way you could -- theoretically, at least -- smoking or sugar or alcohol. Unless you're rich or a celebrity, you can't hire a cyber serf to do you online chores and connecting for you. You have to be online. People need to reach you on a cell. And, I like my mobile phone. I love that it can take pictures and 1080p HD video and tell me the weather and so on.

But, as the man said, you pay for what you get. I've paid in hours of time lost to . . . what? I can't tell you. I can hardly tell you what I read online last week. A few things stick with you, but the rest?  So, time lost and attention wasted, two of the more precious elements of life, drained away.

My plan is to follow up on some advice that I keep seeing repeated by some smart people. I'll start with the media Sabbath practice. That seems practical and appealing. I'll keep the computer off in the evenings and devote the time to reading some challenging books instead. If I go online, I'm going to practice staying on task, and I'll use the app Freedom when I'm writing or cutting video or messing around in Photoshop. I'm also going to get back on the mat and start meditating again, even though I feel like a New Age fool for saying so.

I have a feeling that this will be a struggle for the rest of my life, sort of like staying off tobacco, but it's time. It's past time.

17 July 2012

Warhol and Ali

photo by Victor Bokris

Monk time

Some excerpts from The Twilight of American Culture, by Morris Berman

Economic and technological appearances to the contrary, American civilization is in its twilight phase, rapidly approaching a point of social and cultural bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater; our long-term ability to pay for basic social programs is increasingly in question; the level of ignorance and functional illiteracy in this country is so low as to render us something of an international joke; and the takeover of our spiritual life by McWorld—corporate/consumer values—is nearly complete.
 As Marshall McLuhan once pointed out, if you could ask a fish what was the most obvious feature of its environment, probably the last thing it would say would be “water.” If you swim in it all the time, you just don’t notice it; this is how any culture functions. What is crucial, of course, is the nature of the water. In the case of the United States, the “water” is corporate consumerism.
 If literature survives at all, it is as a retreat for those who refuse to assimilate to American mass culture.
 When I say, then, that I am optimistic about contemporary “monastic” possibilities, it represents no more than an educated guess on my part, and maybe it is just wishful thinking; history remains a strange and unpredictable creature. But this much I do know: If we make no attempt to preserve the best in our culture, we can rest assured that the possibility of cultural renewal is pretty much ruled out.
 The more individual the activity is, and the more out of the public eye, the more effective it is likely to be in the long run. Not that like-minded souls shouldn’t make connections, but the key is to keep these links informal.
 Most of those who claim to oppose the world of corporate sci-tech consumerism will themselves become commodities, making the round of the talk shows and selling “soul” or “green earth” or “total health” as the latest commercial fad. Their ideas will become slogans on T-shirts; they will become the trendy spearheads of the latest form of “liberation,” soon to be forgotten for the next fad on the horizon.
 Craftsmanship should apply to all of life, and since its core value is the work itself—the very opposite of the purpose of American corporate consumerism—those genuinely committed to the monastic option need to stay out of the public eye; to do their work quietly, and deliberately avoid media attention. Indeed, a Taoist rule of thumb might be that if the larger culture knows about it, then it’s not the real thing.
 You and I can lead the “monastic” life, and we can start to do it right now. And don’t worry about being marginalized; this is good. As Don DeLillo says, in a culture such as ours, the writer, for example, is likely to be more significant for being marginal. “In the end,” he suggests, “writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.” The same can be said of all monastic activities, and of the people who engage in them.

For you fellow optimists, Berman has a blog, too, Dark Ages of America


15 July 2012

After the Fall

I recently worked on scenes from After the Fall, by Arthur Miller. He wrote it two years after his ex, Marilyn Monore, died. It's his most autobiographical play that takes place, as the stage directions say, in his protagonist's mind. Quentin, 40, puts himself on the witness stand to understand his own life, to struggle to a way to live honorably, authentically, justly. He addresses the audience directly as his memories play out.

Many of the scenes center on betrayal -- his mother of his father, himself of his father, and later, he weighs his own integrity during the McCarthy era. And, finally, his relationship with a beautiful and sexually charismatic singer who plunged into drink and drugs and whom, finally, he could not save.

We had three actress play Maggie, the character based on Monroe. Stole it from -- no, wait, I mean "inspired" by -- Bunuel's Obscure Object of Desire. After all, one woman, desired, is many women; Monroe herself had several faces both in public and in private: coquette, sex bomb, naif, comedienne, martyr.

We were really lucky with the actors. One sings well; we had her cover "Little Girl Blue", a Hart song that, according to the play, was Maggie's big hit.

I learned a lot from this. That you can't ignore icons -- you have to address them, either by subversion or incorporation. Thus the mix you see in the photos of the Wig. We didn't land hard, and we should have chosen -- but we justified the back-and-forth by the many faces of Eve idea. Not sure it played.

Curiously, sexuality is a huge block. The women, who in daily life are far from prudes, really had a challenge getting in touch with their inner seductress, in channeling blatant sensuality. Maybe it's an antique notion, maybe it's because they're too American, but making them into 50s torch singers with all that flirty, sexy hints of raw desire, that was tough. They had a hard time going there. The men, too, were awfully shy about just being horny for the girl. For all the supposed openness about sex and all the frankness, we really have lost a directness and a respect for desire. We're still, on some level, buttoned up Puritans, and I think, judging from the lit and the reading only, we're more prudish than we were. A paradox.

Also: There were a few tics and choices that I should have done more to eliminate. My old mentor Brusilovsky said that directing was like training bears to dance. He has a point.

It's fascinating to see the effect of adrenaline on a performer. The quality always makes a leap upwards. The nerves add electricity, focus, life. But, at the same time, the performers tend to fall back on their "tells" -- their habits. What was good in rehearsal, what we'd worked on getting rid of tends to creep back in under pressure.

But the audience liked the performance; it went over well, and that's what counts.

From Epitaphs of the War

Kipling lost his son in World War I. Then he wrote a series of epitaphs, each one scorching.

Here are a few:

 An Only Son 
I have slain none except my mother. She
(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

 Raped and Revenged 
 One used and butchered me: another spied
Me broken -- for which thing an hundred died.
So it was learned among the heathen hosts
How much a freeborn woman's favor costs.

 R.A.F (Aged Eighteen) 
 Laughing through clouds, his milk-teeth still unshed,
Cities and men he smote from overhead.
His deaths delivered, he turned to play,
Childlike, with childish things now put away.

Common Form
If any questions why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.



If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! 

-- Rudyard Kipling

  via the greatest blog in the great white North

 See also Hopper quoting Kipling again at about 3:19


09 July 2012


And then the rain -- True West

RIP Ernest Borgnine

 I spent too many afternoons watching him in reruns on our black and white TV.

One night on the late show, I found out he could bring you to tears in an amazing portrayal of loneliness and self hatred, when cinema could occasionally look on regular people and not make them into losers or buffoons. 

Then I found out what a scary sadistic beast he could be.

And here's what he had to say about the best movie he ever appeared in, The Wild Bunch. (He looks pretty great for a 90 year old).


03 July 2012

Love leaped out

Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck us both at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes! She, by the way, insisted afterwards that it wasn’t so, that we had, of course, loved each other for a long, long time, without knowing each other, never having seen each other… 

- Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita