Dog's Dinner

"You're not loved because you're lovable, you're lovable 'cause you're loved."

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Grace Under Pressure

Speaking of (good, Czecho/Slovak) beer...

Inside the Forbidden Citi, or, The Revenge of the Signifier

When I switched banks over a year ago, from the godawful Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), whose only distinction would appear to be that P.G. Wodehouse once worked there, to Citibank, I thought I was doing myself a favor, and in many ways I was, as far as my stateside existence is concerned: Citi has branches everywhere in New York and quite a few in DC, and so far they haven't made such egregious errors with my account as HSBC used to. But I also thought it would simplify and ease matters on the Continent, and in this I was apparently sorely mistaken. There is a Citibank in Gliwice, and I've been using its ATM since I became a Citibank cardholder; but I now see that ATM described on my bank statement as a "NON-CITIBANK ATM," for which offense a harsh penalty must of course be exacted.

Although the logo looks the same to me, it turns out that "Citi" is just another empty signifier, like "Budweiser" or "Tim Williams".

As a flashy poster for a seminar on Diamond Path Buddhism here in Gliwice says, "Things are not what they appear to be; nor are they something else."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

When It All Comes Down To It

I've never been a fan of Tom Tomorrow's smug, condescending cartoon "This Modern World"-- for example, the stupid wanna-be Opus penguin once complained about rightist "Nazi analogies" ("feminazis," "health fascists" etc.) when it was clearly people on the Left that started the regrettable trend by, for example, likening every president since Truman to Hitler. But I do read the strip when I get the chance, and this cartoon hits the mark.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Love of Food

is not the root of all evil, but ever since college, after a Jughead-like youth of nonstop pigging-out without any consequences whatsoever, it's been a source of some dramatic tension: I've had an Oprahesque tendency to blimp out and then shrink back into some semblance of shape every year and a half or so. The blimping has at times been associated with a certain complacency and comfort in relationships, while on one occasion it was not unrelated to a sense of deep unhappiness. The trimming-down (actually it was more filling-out the first time, when I gained muscle weight; another time it didn't involve any conscious attempt to lose weight, but just happened) has been spurred on by jealous rage, or has coincided with falling madly in love, or sometimes with wanting to live life to the proverbial fullest. I'm just now getting back into the routine of daily exercise again, so I'm at that point where at the end of each workout I feel this exhilarating sense of momentum, but the next day it's once again a struggle getting myself on the bike and staying there.

Whilst lying in bed recently reading about Sartre's sense of his own body in an essay on his collaboration with John Huston on the film Freud in Peter Wollen's delightful book Paris Hollywood, I sensed a certain kinship with the "little ball of fur and ink." Those of us who live most of our lives in a world of words, whether writers, teachers or unemployed schizophrenics, are often tempted to deny the reality of our physical bodies to a somewhat disturbing degree. And with Jean-Paul and I both this vertiginous narcissism reaches back to a childhood penchant for play-acting:

Endlessly reading, and taken also to the cinema, the child Sartre played out the roles of knight-errant, swashbuckler, vagabond, outlaw. Finally, aged about eight, these imaginary Poulous crystallized around the figure of Pardaillan, the adventure hero created by the popular novelist Michael Zevaco: a swashbuckler on the side of the people, fighting against tyrants, who 'made and unmade Empires, and, in the fourteenth century, predicted the French Revolution.' Soon Sartre began to write, imitating and exaggerating Zevaco.

[...] Pardaillan would never quite go away. He became one aspect of the writer, the knight who 'had never taken orders from the king'... Gradually, Sartre claims, the writer overcame the knight; he became an 'ex-Pardaillan'. Illusory victory: on the last page of [Sartre's autobiography, Les Mots], he admits 'Pardaillan still inhabits me'.

[...] Right at the end of his life, in the interviews Simone de Beauvoir published under the title Adieux, Sartre returned, unexpectedly, to the image of Pardaillan. DeBeauvoir asked him about his always being 'uncomfortable' in his own body and he replied: 'Yes, but this is more complex, and it will lead us to Pardaillan.' She pressed him further: "You spoke of Pardaillan. What did you mean?' Sartre replied that he had long ago developed 'an imaginary body'-- that of Pardaillan, the swashbuckler, which gave him the feeling of being 'a powerful warrior'.

[...] He described how, before he could even read, he saw himself climbing up into blazing houses to rescue young girls by carrying them out on his back. [...] He talked about his denial of age, his wish to be young, and finally, most revealingly of all, his work-related addiction to amphetamines, to speed: 'I perceived myself through the motion of my pen, my forming images and ideas. I was the same active being as Pardaillan, neglecting...' 'The real body,' DeBeauvoir cut in, 'which was in the act of destroying itself and against which you always had an almost aggressive attitude.'

Well said, Simone.

When I look in the mirror, I always see the dashing cavalier of my twenty-second year, despite the unimpeachable evidence of my now rather massive girth. Yet some compromise must eventually be bartered with reality.

The Food of Love, revisited

I think it's the xylophone in "Once Upon a Time" that makes it. If it is a xylophone. There's also a great xylophone solo in the Beatles' cover of The Shirelles' "Baby, It's You."

And speaking of duets, I just yesterday discovered a different version of Zemfira's big 2000 hit "Khochesh'?" (difficult to translate, literally "Do you want?") featuring Rammstein. I guess not really a duet because I think Rammstein just got permission to take the Zemfira track and lay their own track over it, but definitely worth a listen.

My dream duet would be Morrissey singing the old standard "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" with his known arch-nemesis, the Cure's Robert Smith.

Curiously enough, I heard a Polish version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" playing in a bookstore today, sung by a woman with a beautiful voice. Didn't catch many of the words, don't know if it was a translation or something completely different.

While browsing in the video section, however, I noticed with some pleasure that the title of the (presumably awful) film For Love of the Game, with Kevin Costner, was translated as "Gra o milość" or "[The] Game for Love."

Small Man's Food of Love

1. Total amount of music files on your computer:
Not a lot. My old Compaq desktop PC, which I owned in the glory days of Napster, had plenty of music on it. I had a long playlist in Winamp that I left on shuffle all the time, and it would cycle through the Doors and Japanese and French pop music very cheerfully. My present computer just has a little legal music I bought off iTunes, including the song Portions for Foxes by Rilo Kiley. I haven't felt the need to acquire much music here in Seattle, since I can listen to our great local radio station KEXP pretty much 24 hours a day (and you can too, if you're reading this, through Internet streaming!).

2. Last CD you bought:
One of the artists KEXP plays a lot is Nick Cave. I was actually introduced to Nick Cave through a good friend of mine who happens to be Australian too, but I found out about his new double album The Lyre of Orpheus / Abbatoir Blues through KEXP, which has been playing tracks from it regularly. Anyway a while ago I bought the CD, although I haven't listened to it as much as I planned, mostly because I just leave my radio on and still hear songs from it often enough.

3. Song you last listened to before reading this message?
This is hard to pinpoint exactly, but it was probably one of the songs on this playlist that I listened to before going to sleep.

4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you:
I'm pretty fickle with music. I was passionately attached to some of my old records, some of which I lost through various moves, and many of which I lost through the mendacity and deception of my friend Nathan. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band used to cheer me up a lot, for instance, but I lost the record and it wouldn't feel quite right to get it on CD. One song I used to love was the Doors' End of the Night, which I do have on CD now, but haven't listened to for ages. I am also a big fan of the Japanese girl singer Aiko, who does melodramatic songs about love and breaking up; at the beginning of one song called Power of Love she shouts "ay ay ay," a barbaric yelp of sheer happiness that I find incredibly comforting to listen to. More recently, I was listening a lot to U2's Miracle Drug and to the aforementioned Portions for Foxes by Rilo Kiley. In my early teenage years I mainly listened to classical music, however. Another casualty of the loss of all those records has been classical music; I had gotten a ton of great early twentieth century records from a big sale at my high school library, and I haven't really made any effort even to begin to replace that collection. I don't feel like classical music is entirely out of my life, though. For one thing, I have been reading about it often lately on the excellent blog of Alex Ross, New Yorker music critic. Also, a couple months ago I was sitting in a cafe when I heard this amazing piece played over the loudspeaker. I don't think I had ever heard it before, but for a moment it seemed not only to be the expression of my own sadness, but also to relate all the sadness of the present to the past and to fit it all together in one lovely frame. It turned out to be Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, perhaps the next CD that I will acquire.

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
For the time being I will pass on this, even if it exposes me to getting hit by a truck or whatever other hideous punishment afflicts one for defaulting on a chain letter. There aren't any family bloggers left . . .

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Food of Love

In answer to a questionnaire passed on to me by my friend and inspirator in bloggery, Sutton:

1. Total amount of music files on your computer: 0.
Total amount of computers owned by me: 0.
Total amount of music files on my girlfriend's computer: 8.65 gigabytes' worth.
Total amount of songs downloaded by me onto said computer: at least 86.5.

2. Last CD you bought:
The new version of "Do They Know It's Christmas / Feed the World"-- actually a maxi-single with the new version, old version and a live version of the old one. The old (1984) version featured Bono, Phil Collins, David Bowie, Simon LeBon, George Michael, Paul Young, and other aristos of the 1980s Anglo-Irish Renaissance preaching at times notunselfrighteously to their presumed audience of spoiled European & American teenagers about how It Could Be Worse: You Could Be Living in Africa; not the most Christian message perhaps, but the way Bono sings the line "Tonight thank God it's them... instead of you" leaves it open to multiple readings, and of course the song culminates in the call to positive action, "Feed the world! Let them know it's Christmas." The new version has Bono again, singing the same line I think, Dido, the guy from Coldplay, Atomic Kitten and other youngbloods giving it a spirited go but somehow not achieving quite the same grandeur. I bought it right before Christmas to listen to with the fam, particularly my older brother Geoff and sister Sarah since we used to listen to a 45 of the original back when it came out. It was a pleasant surprise to find that Sarah too was still a big fan of the original (I guess it was she who bought that 45; I had always thought it was Geoffrey, who was the big Anglophile in the family at that time) and we had fun singing along some. Unfortunately the CD didn't have the B-side of the old record, an instrumental version with the various luminaries saying hello.

3. Song you last listened to before reading this message?
A song by the Russian singer Zemfira, called "Znak bezkonechnost'" ("The infinity sign"-- on the tape cover the title is represented by the horizontal 8, the mathematical sign of infinity), from the album 14 Weeks of Silence ("Chetyrnadtsat' nedel' tishiny"). Hadn't listened to it for at least two years but decided to use that album (one of a dozen or so I've held on to from the old stash) for my bicycle workout today and it happened to play at the end, adding a certain poignant brooding quality to my relief and exhaustion. (Language note: technically to be grammatical it should be "Znak bezkonechnosti"-- genitive-- part of the genius of the song is how the line before the title line, a line beginning with "i" ("and"), wraps around it on repetition). The enigmatic Zemfira is one of the great talents of this decade, not only in Russian rock music but in music generally, and the song, while typifying her weakness for the anthemic, not to say apocalyptic, is one of her most [Four callow youths are standing around near me watching a fifth proceed through his grim-visaged vision quest on the adjacent computer and providing running commentary and encouragement, so my already uninspired writing is probably about to collapse into a tangle of incoherent cliches, sorry] intriguing works. Do you listen to her? If not, download some! If you can't do that, you better go to Russia.

4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you:

"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" particularly as performed by the Kingston Trio is probably the most perfect song I can imagine, lyricswise and musicswise. The melody is heartbreaking, and the words are politically and philosophically astute, yet compassionate.

"Le petit pain au chocolat" by Joe Dassin is the most exuberant hymn to love that I know (except maybe "I'm Ready For Love" by Martha and the Vandellas, a song too beautiful for me to even contemplate writing about), a funny little story about a nearly sightless man and the sweet girl in the bakery who buys him a pair of glasses. It's the falling notes of the flute in the third verse that do it for me. There's also something bracing about the fact that it's told in the third person with Dassin playing a kind of wise, detached narrator-- like Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, the type of the boulevardier-raconteur. You might say that makes it more like a McCartney song than a Lennon song, but you'd be wrong: the emotion is untrammelled. The other great Dassin song is "L'equipe a Jojo," a bittersweet reminiscence of lost youth.

"The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" by the Marvelettes is, except for possibly Frank Sinatra's "Swingin' on a Star," the subtlest dose of Bodhidharma ever smuggled into the West in a smooth-like-butter, cool-like-iced-champagne arrangement of a pop song. (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' cover is also sublime, but less memorable.) It's a shame that its glory, like that of so many other mid-1960s Motown gems, has long dwelt in the shadow of the My Girl-My Guy-Heat Wave-Grapevine axis that dominates, or at any rate has historically dominated, the marketing of Motown. (I heard this song, along with several other relatively obscure classics, playing on the radio the other day while I was riding the tram. Strange to find a classic rock/pop radio station in Silesia that allows for more variety than many "Golden Oldies" stations back home.)

(And "Hunter" was one of the hits, back in the actual 60s [before the 60s became "The 60s"]. But there were other great songs that never even made it to a greatest hits album, like Tammi Terrell's miraculous cover of the Four Tops' [mediocre] "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)," or David Ruffin's "My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me)" or Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Either Way I Lose.")

I have trouble with lists that are supposed to end somewhere, and I would like to have included a number of male-female duets that are close to my heart, from the 60s, 80s and 90s, including Tammi & Marvin's "Sad Wedding" (so great because one of the only postwar non-Beatles pre-Morrissey songs that sees the beauty and the joy in sadness) and a number of others, Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown's version of "Hold On, I'm Coming," a-ha's "You'll Never Get Over Me" (with Lauren Savoy) and Morrissey and Siouxsie's remake of Timi Yuro's "Interlude" (themesong for the film, Interlude), not to mention Bing Crosby and David Bowie's "Little Drummer Boy" or "Trespass" with Ices T and Cube. There is something about the dialogical form at its best that is well-nigh transcendent, and some (by no means all) of the best duets are male-female. (The presence of Atomic Kitten and Dido in the new "Feed the World" is, however, one improvement over the testosterone-heavy 1984 version.) The greatest duet of all time is almost certainly Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye's "Once Upon a Time," which, like U2's "Ultraviolet," evokes a sense of shimmering luminescence amid a vast darkness, in this case more tranquilly, lamps (Chinese lanterns, perhaps) reflected on the surface of a body of water late on a summer evening, the mood akin to that of the "On such a night" scene (V, i) in The Merchant of Venice.

The last song is one I just heard last night for the first time in a long time, "Three is a Magic Number," not the wonderful DeLaSoul song but the old (Schoolhouse Rock) one riffed on (& sampled?) by DeLa, written and composed by George R. Newall. Heard it while sitting in a cafe with two good friends. What I like best about the song, and it has many virtues, is that they actually recite the multiples of three, a kind of "found poetry" reminiscent of the nonfiction fragments found in Burroughs or Moby Dick (neither of which I've read, of course, but I like the idea). Also it makes me think about Rene Girard's theory of Triangular Desire, and the afternoons reading that book and similar works at the Paradise Cafe in Astoria while chain-smoking and drinking endless cups of coffee (nonstop refills there, and the Bohemian Beer Garden right round the corner should you eventually need to de-caffeinate).

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Jim, poet, filmmaker and painter, who's made many a fine mix for me in the past, and who is constantly discovering new things in many spheres.

Small Man, aka my brother Nick, poet, scholar, chef, former Hoagy Carmichael impersonator, and man of international intrigue, who's introduced me to some wonderful music of distant shores from Seattle to Shanghai.

My mother, Faith, poet and librarian, a devotee of gospel and bluegrass.

And, since I don't know if my brother counts, being on the proverbial "masthead," or if my mother will be game, I'll also pass the challenge on to my friend Kathleen, whom I haven't seen for at least ten years, but who writes a breezy, charming blog and who once made me a lovely mix tape of what I had boorishly dismissed in several conversations as "Hippie Music."

Hommage to Barthes

From the rough draft of a "senior thesis" type thing for lit. class by one of the third-year extramural English Philology students:

"An Essay on Criticism" was the first poem who wrote Alexander Pope.

Yet these students have never read anything of Barthes, let alone the phrase "The author does not write, he is written"! This proves that we all intuit his truth somehow or other, deep down.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

Another method I've discovered of eliciting poetry out of my students, besides forcing them to write haiku, is an exercise called "Random Nouns" where you have them each write down ten random nouns (sometimes you have to explicitly tell them to vary the nouns and include abstract, proper and personal nouns so you don't just get "Table, chair, desk, pen," etc... which would take all the fun out of it), swap papers and then team up to make comparisons between pairs of nouns. Unfortunately some groups are more inspired than others, and other groups are more inspired than others on different days... and I've yet to find a group that got into the spirit of the thing like the first group I tried it with. I actually only remember one of their sentences, not even one of the best probably, but I like it a lot: "Rabbit is more intelligent than tulips."

I had the first-year English Philology majors play the game back in December, and these are my favorites:

Waistcoat has the same color as a snowdrop.
Gossip is like an orange-- full of surprises.

Some critic wrote of Gogol that he made "the horrifying discovery that everything is like something else." Yet it need not be horrifying.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Hitler: The Movie, Part 1

One of the nice things about living in Europe is that, while American films often come out later (anywhere from two weeks to six months or longer) here than in America, films from neighboring regions of the Continent, naturally enough, tend to come out sooner. A few days ago I went and saw the new German film Der Untergang, about the last days of Hitler, featuring the formidable actor Bruno Ganz, the fallen angel from Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (or Heaven Over Berlin in the original title; I mean to write something about such changes eventually) and The American Friend, and Eric Rohmer's Marquise of O, in a phenomenal performance as the demonic Fuehrer. So far as I know, the film has yet to be released in the States (as always, please correct me if I'm wrong). Though I saw it in the original German with Polish subtitles, the title, curiously enough, flashed onscreen in English: Downfall. (At this, I couldn't help thinking of the flippant title of a book by the British comedian Spike Milligan, "Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall," which I never read, but saw somewhere, perhaps used to own a long time ago, or my older brother did.)

Before saying anything more about the film, I wish to briefly consider the old question whether in fact it is appropriate for there to be artistic re-creations of such horrible people as Hitler and such horrific events as took place in Nazi Germany. Usually, so far as I know, this has come up in regard to such depictions of the Holocaust as Schindler's List and The Pawnbroker, which tell the stories mostly of the victims and perhaps a few low-level Nazi thugs (and of course, in films like Schindler's List and the excellent Good Evening Mr. Wallenberg, others who had the power to save Jews; the tagline for the latter was "Schindler saved hundreds of Jews. Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands," which I thought was not a great tagline). In the film Auto Focus, it was posed by the actor protagonist's wife in regard to the TV show "Hogan's Heroes," with her sarcastic gibe about "the new genre of Holocaust comedy," a comment both anachronistic in usage [the term "the Holocaust" was not current in the mid-1960s] and erroneous in content [Nazi POW camps were not the same as death camps], but presaging [actually, post-dating, but presaging in the world of the film] the lamentable attempt at "Holocaust tragicomedy" by Roberto Benigni. A venerable ancestor of mine, who had in fact been opposed to America entering the war at least until Pearl Harbor, disapproved of Chaplin's Great Dictator, apparently because he thought it made light of the sufferings of Hitler's victims. (It is unclear whether he actually saw the film; I rather doubt it.)

Both Chaplin's and Benigni's films, as well as both versions of To Be Or Not To Be, and indeed "Hogan's Heroes," are nobly anti-Nazi in their intent, but nonetheless run the risk of trivializing the enormities of Nazi barbarism and cruelty. (I suppose technically the same objection could, somewhat Jesuitically perhaps, be raised against Orwell's Animal Farm, which does after all have its funny moments, and which was written while Stalin was still in power [not only still in power, but still very much alive-- it is impressive in its way that he managed to maintain his stranglehold on thought, expression, politics and culture for THREE YEARS after he died] and was in fact posing more of a threat to the West than he had since before the war. [I certainly don't want to get into the ridiculous debate about whether Hitler or Stalin, Nazism or Communism, was worse. I find the idea that such a debate can be resolved somewhat obscene. Though I have great respect for George Steiner, I've never understood how he could say that Solzhenitsyn's likening of the two regimes was a "moral imbecility" or words to that effect.] [Update 8/18/2006. I hold to this in the sense that one could never say to a victim of either tyranny, or a victim's relative, that "It could be worse...". However I do find persuasive some of Hitchens and Zizek's arguments for Nazism having been inherently worse-- Hitchens also quotes Robert Conquest, no loony leftist he, as saying that Nazism was worse because "It feels worse."] But Orwell's fable ends on a note of the bleakest pessimism, which perhaps redeems it from the complacency of comedy.) I remember when I was sixteen watching, with a group of hysterically laughing children, a slapstick comedy with Louis de Funes and Bourvil, two zany, brilliant, occasionally tiresome French comedians, where they spend much of the film being chased around by Nazis; I was offended in some deep way by the portrayal of all Nazis as dolts and oafs, obscuring the sad truth that many of them were clever devils; the same criticism applies to Chaplin, "Hogan" and Lubitsch/Brooks (to his credit, it applies less to Benigni, as I just realized when I remembered the Nazi riddler, who is clever, yet blind).

Indeed, there may be something inherently trivializing about comedy, including satire. My friend Jim told me once that most comedy doesn't really speak to him, I think he meant because it leaves something out (although the poet Patrick Kavanagh said that "Tragedy is underdeveloped comedy"). The wildly popular film (and musical of the film) The Producers documents both the widespread if not universal agreement that Nazi-centred entertainment is in the worst possible taste, and the strangely irresistible lure of Nazi-themed kitsch.
But what about "beautiful" films? With "phenomenal performances," as I referred to Ganz's above. Wasn't it Adorno who said there can be no poetry after Auschwitz?
Should attempts to deal with the Holocaust be limited to documentary like Shoah or The Sorrow and the Pity, or documentary realism like The Wannsee Conference (a re-enactment, using the official transcript, of the SS conference where the plans for the Final Solution were agreed upon, in Hitler's absence but with his explicit approval)? Or do even such efforts as those lend the imprimatur of art to hideous, inhuman modes of thought and being? It's sort of a mirror image of the question, answered by Muslims and Orthodox Jews in the negative, whether it is fitting to depict God and his angels and prophets in representative visual terms. And indeed, when it comes to Christianity, films like The Passion of the Christ make me feel that it is better not to make movies about Christ, although Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew and, slightly less so, Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (with Telly Savalas as Pilate, John Wayne as the centurion who quoth, "Truly, this man was the son of God," and Max von Sydow as Jesus) show that it's a fine and worthy enterprise.

I leave you with these slightly pompous, but, I hope, thought-provoking questions before moving on to my impressions of the actual film.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Panic on the Streets of Warsaw

CATS is coming to Warsaw. Actually it turns out that it came there already last January, but it's coming again, and that's cause for panic. Of course Phantom, the movie of the musical of the movie of the play of the book, is coming soon as well, good cause for panic on the streets of Lublin, Chyzne, and Gdynia...

I'm reminded of two things. One was part of a long (in fact endless), tiresome, yet complex jeremiad by an eccentric and cantankerous megalomaniac and hypochondriac Russian aunt-in-law of mine (she teaches English in Moscow) when I was married, about the (in some ways undeniable) awfulness of life in post-Communist Russia. On the occasion I have in mind, in the midst of slagging film acting in general and Marlene Dietrich in particular while eating grapes in the kitchen of her dacha in August 2001, she threw in the observation that "in Soviet times they didn't let us watch many Western films, but as a result what we got to see was creme de la creme, Orson Welles and Fellini..." so as a result the cognoscenti didn't need to sort through all the dross, dreck and shlock that came out of Hollywood and the West. As someone who has spent at least nine hundred hours of my thirty-one years rummaging through crap books, films, and records to find the gems, first in thrift shops and then eventually in my own apartment, I suppose I can sympathize. But at the time I was too annoyed with the dismissal of Dietrich, a wonderful performer who, along with Michel Piccoli, Gerard Depardieu, Wilfrid Sheed, and Alberto Moravia, shares my birthday, to pay much attention to other parts of the lecture. In retrospect I can entertain the prospect of there having been something to that bit about creme de la creme, even for a devotee of B-movies like myself. Like most of her table talk it was of course 1) a careless oversimplification and 2) an affirmation of the Grand Inquisitor principle that people (even intelligenty like herself) need someone to sort out their salvation (if only culturally; she was and presumably is a rabid atheist) for them. (As the continuing popularity of Putin shows, the principle dies hard in Russia, indeed, may never die.) But the deluge of dreck is quite something.

The other thing I'm reminded of is a conversation with someone in studio art class in tenth grade. We always listened to music while making art and that day it happened to be Phantom. I was in the midst of the first of several phases of Oscar Wilde worship and muttered something about how Lloyd Webber was "vulgar... he's a craftsman, not an artist." The artists gathered round me, including my friend Deep, Marcus Miller, a senior who had been one of the mechanicals with me in Midsumer Night's Dream, and our instructor, the wonderful Percy Martin, were none of them particularly impressed with my withering disdain for craft. It was Marcus who wisely reposted, "This is better than being an artist. With an artist you don't have the drum machine!" to the delight and acclaim of all.

Friday, January 07, 2005


Love is real and amazing.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Happy Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or What You Will

It's also Christmas Eve for the Russian Orthodox, don't know about other branches of Orth. I've always loved the idea of Epiphany because just when you feel like things are or should be returning to normal after the machine-gun burst of bacchanalia that includes Christmas, Boxing Day, my birthday (Dec. 27), New Year's revelry, and my sister Susan's birthday (Jan. 3), things get going again and you get to drink champagne and "tirer les rois"-- eat a piece of marchpane cake which, if you're lucky, has a tiny porcelain statuette of one of the three kinglike Zoroastrian priests who came to see the Expected One (or, if your family is more secularist, perhaps a hippopotaumus or a shepherdess) inside it-- if you live in France, that is.

The Russians, of course, are unsurpassably brilliant at keeping the party going-- after celebrating the regular ordinary New Year's Eve, a rather grand affair over there, they have Christmas now (actually a lot of the "New Russians" now celebrate "Catholic Christmas" too), and then a week later they celebrate the Old New Year (the New Year according to the old, Gregorian calendar, the Russians having adapted the Julian calendar used in the West only after the 1917 Revolution). And of course governmental and other offices basically shut down during this two-week period because of, you know, "the holidays."

Monday, January 03, 2005

"Do You Always Sweat Like That?"

That's what the nice lady said to me as I stood in the Delta check-in line at Baltimore Washington International airport last Friday. When she approached me with her "professional" smile, clearly lab-tested to put me and other asocial types like me at ease, and broke the ice by asking where I was traveling to, I immediately assumed she was one of those security people who have to ask you a series of questions about the history of your luggage, but she must have just been some kind of special Delta "holiday greeter" (a well-chosen one at that, genuinely relaxed and charming, I decided after my initial reflexive hostility) since it never got to that. (Come to think of it, nobody ever asked me those questions this trip...) But after a brief rundown of my itinerary and the not-unexpected "Going home?"-"No, I just was home" interchange, she couldn't help asking about the sweat I was in. When I said yes, I do always sweat like that, perhaps muttering something about being dressed more or less appropriately for the weather outside, her smile turned to a grin as she said, "I won't say what I was going to say." We can only guess...

There is, to my mind, something slightly ridiculous, especially in "a professional environment" in which the profession in question is not topless dancing, or, to put it more broadly, in any of those institutions of modern life which does not feature a coat rack or coat check (i.e. shops, airports, post offices, train stations, supermarkets, libraries, shops, etc.) about cranking up the indoor heat to a comfortable 75 degrees when people coming in from the cold are "dressed up like Eskimos," the way PRACTICALLY EVERYONE DOES crank it this time of year, but then, not everybody has the same metabolism as me I guess.

Morte d'Arthur

Who better than Alfred, Lord Tennyson
to welcome the New Year in? with fervent hopes that it will surpass the old:

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst--if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

So said he, and the barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

But when that moan had past for evermore,
The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn
Amazed him, and he groan'd, ``The King is gone.''
And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme,
"From the great deep to the great deep he goes."

Whereat he slowly turn'd and slowly clomb
The last hard footstep of that iron crag;
Thence mark'd the black hull moving yet, and cried,
"He passes to be King among the dead,
And after healing of his grievous wound
He comes again; but--if he come no more--
O me, be yon dark Queens in yon black boat,
Who shriek'd and wail'd, the three whereat we gazed
On that high day, when, clothed with living light,
They stood before his throne in silence, friends
Of Arthur, who should help him at his need?"

Then from the dawn it seem'd there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.

Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
Ev'n to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.