Dienstag, Januar 05, 2010

Archaic torso of Apollo

Rilke makes an impossible, irresistible demand.

Samstag, Juni 13, 2009

The House of life

Why is House the most popular TV drama in the world? I read of its international popularity today, and while I have known that it is a successful show nationally, this news moved me to realize that I haven't really thought about why that is. I'm a fan of the show, but I'm an odd duck, and it had seemed to me that many of the things I liked about the show appealed to the odd duck in me, not the everyman.

One of the most precious things to me about the show is that it consistently endorses a nihilistic, atheistic philosophy. While most every other hospital show has a miracle sprinkled in here and there to force you to think, what if? (as if.), every apparent miracle is debunked as coincidence in House. The good doctor himself always gets the last word, which is a bleak one. Others on the show occasionally endorse prayer and belief and all that, and their beliefs are for a while shown sympathetically, but ultimately House explains that they are deluding themselves, and that ends up being the last word.

Now the show goes on to suggest that House's bleak philosophy is both symptom and cause of his misery, but it seems finally to assert that House's viewpoint is, after all, the true one. It is a bleak world, life is short and bitter and pointless. It's all fine and well for the self-deceivers that they are able to deceive themselves and be happy, but for people like House, whose gravest fault is their honesty with themselves, such happiness is impossible just because it is based on lies and castles in the sky.

So is House popular because the atheists love it? I'd like to say yes, that it is a sign of a further secularizing world, but I suppose there are many other things in the show that would appeal to lower appetites - for one thing, like Archie Bunker, House is given license by the ironic tilt of the show to say all sorts of racist and sexist things that many people like to hear. As with Archie, many of House's fans are probably laughing along with him, despite the screenwriters' best intentions. Hugh Laurie and Omar Epps are terrific actors, each with his own magnetic presence. Then there is the soap opera aspect, which is played lightly but is kept interesting by the characters' nearly universal social ineptness. Finally, as if to throw in the kitchen sink, there is an engaging buddy-movie-type story line between House and oncologist Dr. Wilson. This kind of pseudo-close, heavily co-dependent male friendship is almost completely absent from TV drama, which tends to portray men as perfectly isolated from other men.

But finally, there is some hope for the idea that the popularity of the show says something positive about the human addiction to religious fantasy. For some reason, the religious nuts are not all up in arms about House. Apparently a show that regularly discusses the deeper questions of existence, and consistently ends up on the side of materialism or nihilism, is tolerable today. That's good to know.

Pic is Hugh Laurie in Blackadder. "For me, socks are like sex: tons of it about, but I never seem to get any."

Sonntag, April 05, 2009

Signs of life

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt is hot. He was hot 15 years ago when I took a course from him, and judging by Youtube he looks and acts exactly the same in his mid-60s as he did at 50.

I wasn
't exactly hot for teacher myself, though his genius intellect was unmistakeably charismatic. He was a flirt, and the girls lurved him - one rather modelish-looking freshman was rumored to spend suspicious amounts of time attending his office hours. (It just so happens his first marriage broke up just after this and he married an academic who I figure was a grad student of his at Berkeley, which was then still his home base. This academic was herself a Chanel model years ago, it is rumored...)

I mention
all this as evidence, if any is needed, of the invisible complexities of personality. If to the world at large Greenblatt is a distinguished scholar, if to a former student he is this and these other things, then in his personal reality he surely is this, the other and a hundred further things. Which brings me to his book "Will in the World," which draws out connections in what is known of Shakespeare's life, what can be read in his work and what is known of the politics and culture of England at the turn of the 17th century.

The book is interesting and entertaining, but it forgets - and certainly allows or encourages the reader to forget - that much of what it proposes would hardly qualify even as a theory, but would instead be justly labelled convincing fiction. Some of Greenblatt's work has the interior logic of a conspiracy theory, jumping from temporal coincidence to causality, and above all presuming that imagined chains of consequence that make sense are necessarily true.

Most objectionable is Greenblatt's occasional decision that he knows Shakespeare's mind, that he knows what Shakespeare felt. This is clearly crossing a line that I doubt Greenblatt would claim to approach: it presumes to know something about Shakespeare's personality, and no number of cultural drivers will ever tell us anything about that. We are told by contemporaries that Shakespeare was not as much of a party animal as Marlowe and Co., but that leaves every other personality under the sun. Was he a Greenblatt, a charming, charismatic intellectual? Was he, like many actors, an introvert in person, a nerd? I can't demand that Greenblatt be able to answer such questions, but whenever he claims Shakespeare was afraid (for instance), he is presuming to do just this.

I shouldn't be so negative - I thought the book was terrific, and it inspired me to reread Shakespeare, and you can't ask much more of a book of criticism than rekindling your interest in its subject. It will help me read with an ear much more open to historical context. I just feel a bit like I was led down the garden path - Shakespeare seemed to come to life, but then again the person I read about probably wasn't Shakespeare. Chances are, it seems to me, that a great number of Greenblatt's suppositions are not just wrong but are really just made up, believeable fictions.

I suppose the most frustrating thing about this sort of hypothetical biography is how short it surely falls of its mark: Greenblatt pitches in a few superlatives here and there, but they are detached from the portrait itself, which is consistently ordinary - inevitably ordinary, given that it is derived by a normative process from Shakespeare's cultural milieu.

Freitag, März 13, 2009

All in it together

Kutiman remixes found Youtube posts. He has interesting links to all the original source material in his info.

It's touching to see these tossed-off, low-sound-quality pieces of ephemera turned into moving, exciting music. Having the creators on film really revitalizes the remix idea, which is exciting when you see someone creating it live with turntables but becomes too flat when you hear it on a CD. Seeing a different personality behind each element of the music gives the whole thing an almost novelistic quality.

Touching too to imagine that all the people behind the music, each full of their own intention when they recorded their videos, were unwittingly part of some larger human endeavor to make music - a numinous idea, surely, but almost concretized in these remixes.

Freitag, Februar 20, 2009

Greene, mean and obscene

I finally got a good start on Graham Greene's "Comedians," after several false starts, and promptly finished it. It's a pretty good novel about a couple of dubious ex-patriot Englishmen getting by and getting ahead, at least for a while, in Papa Doc Duvalier's Haiti. The horror of the Tonton Macoute, Papa Doc's enforcer army, is mostly off-stage, which I appreciate - I never care for gore - but Greene manages to capture the menace of a gangster state pretty convincingly.

The central character is not as interesting as many other Greene leading men, and in some ways is Greene's all-too-standard hero - a jealous lover with a dubious background, and above all an uncomfortably lapsed Catholic. The hero - the most made-up part of the book - seems mainly an excuse to bring on the secondary characters and the setting, all drawn from Greene's real-life experience of Haiti. These are almost all captivating, from the at-once admirable and ridiculous idealists, the Smiths, who hope to set up a vegetarian center in Port-au-Prince, to the quiet man-of-all-work Joseph, who is transformed at a voodoo ritual into the embodiment of the warrior spirit and gives his life in the rebel cause.

I then took a left turn and immediately read Greene's "Travels with my Aunt," a slightly ribald comedy (the "obscene" in my post title was just an easy rhyme). It does not have the yawning central gap of "The Comedians," but it never quite fulfills the promise of turning Dudley Do-Right into his lecherous, drinking and drugging alter ego. Nevertheless, it is good fun and I found it to be a page-turner - Aunt Augusta's fabulous tales are carried off with great timing and gusto.

"Travels" is also notable for its non-censorious, often celebratory attitude towards various no-nos of its era and our own, from alcohol and drugs to adultery, prostitution and Don Juan-style misogyny in general. It makes a concerted argument against the safe, traditionally ethical life, and carries it off with the simple trick of never having Aunt Augusta pay for any of it - she's never caught, never sent to jail, never beat up or raped, never knocked up (well, almost never - that's the excuse for the book, and at any rate she seems content to have had her sister raise the child), and never, above all, put off or hurt when men sleep around on her and treat her terribly. She likes it. A truth, certainly, for some women, but not the universal and righteous truth much of the counterculture advertised it to be in the late 60s/early 70s, when this book came out (1969).

That aspect of the book hasn't aged well, but the "enlightened" view of criminality it espouses I think still has much currency, and rings quite true for me. I was just talking with my wife, a law student, about a related observation: I don't doubt that many if not most breaches of the law are bad acts, but I don't regard breaking the law as a bad act in-and-of-itself. Victimless crimes, therefore, are no crimes to me.

Mittwoch, Februar 11, 2009


Just finished watching Werner Herzog's Woyzeck for the first time in maybe a decade, and the second time ever. A great, great film, much better than I was able to appreciate the first time.

It's impossible to get a good hold on the movie, because of the wildness of the play it largely follows. Woyzeck's madness is tantalizing because it seems to involve some sort of specific vision the audience is never quite able to grasp. But that vision seems to have some sort of terrible beauty.

I am one of those who is absolutely head-over-heels rapt by Klaus Kinski in the Herzog movies. I know a lot of his effectiveness is a result of self-conscious effects, but I go with him anyway. You just never see his combination of commitment and imagination, and he is gifted with a uniquely expressive, charismatic face. As Herzog says, Brando and the like are just little kiddies compared to Kinski when it comes to method-like acting.

Ewa Mattes is also wonderful in the movie, complicated, strong yet damaged, a perfect foil to Kinski. Her earthy beauty is thoroughly believable, though it can summon the slightly distracting question of what Woyzeck was like when they got together in the first place. Did she love him, or just use him? That we are moved to ponder these questions in such an expressionistic, almost surreal drama is a testament to the acting abilities of Kinski and Mattes.

I hesitate to attach the following clip, as it is the climax of the film and should be reached gradually. I also don't want people to think I get off on watching women get stabbed. But if you've never seen a Herzog/Kinski film before, the first minute or two of this clip should convince you to have a look.

Just before this clip starts, Woyzeck has walked Marie down to the still pond at the geographical center of the film. She sees he is very out of sorts, he talks some mild crazy talk, she asks, "What is it?", and we suddenly go into slo-mo and the grinding, keening sounds of a period, country string quartet.

Dienstag, Februar 10, 2009

Faking it

Gawker had a terrific post today about the gobbledygook a branding agency put together to sell Pepsi on what looks like a slight tweaking of the Pepsi logo. I have been, in my day, a leading practitioner of bullshit, and I must say I admire this work.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, viz:

And my personal favorite, as it both honors and mocks the taste for popular distortions of relativity and quantum mechanics:

There's much, much more of this. It's really a masterwork of the genre, and I think every over-bright, under-ambitious college student should have a look before they get too full of themselves for getting away with shit.

The beauty part is that this ultimately wasn't about the branding company justifying themselves, so much as the dopes at Pepsi who paid for the logo and will pay, apparently, hundreds of millions of dollars to substitute it for the old one, also paying for the justification, which takes them off the hook. It's a perfect example of a situation in which no one will call bullshit because it's in everyone's mutual interest to go on pretending this isn't absurd.

If only the branders had fun doing this, and thought they were pulling a fast one. Sadly, I'm sure they were dead serious.