Monday, February 28, 2011

Acquired Taste

When a friend of mine came into some money several years ago, he immediately set about acquiring a taste for all the fine things that were suddenly affordable to him. He visited wineries in California and bought expensive red wines by the case. He visited tobacco shops that had their own humidors and took up smoking expensive cigars.

On a trip to Spain, he stopped off in Morocco and bought an expensive rug. When the rug arrived at his home in Iowa, he contacted an appraiser to examine it and tell him its fair market value. Fascinated, I watched him as he waited anxiously for the appraiser to call him back with his verdict. I thought that he bought the rug because he thought it was a beautiful object that would adorn his beautiful home.(1) He seemed more concerned that he may have been cheated by a Moroccan rug dealer. When he learned that the rug was worth considerably more than what he paid for it, the look of relief on his face made me chuckle.

Then he decided that he should learn, with my assistance, to like single-malt scotch whisky. We chose a suitable-looking 15-year-old scotch, and every day he poured a go into a glass and we both drank it slowly, wincing all the way. We repeated this painful exercise for three more days before he gave up, disappointed that a taste for expensive scotch was beyond his powers of acquisition.

Throughout my life, I too have sometimes tried to like some things that I thought I should. Spinach and mashed potatoes. Guinness and India Pale Ale. Brahms and Schumann. Abstract Expressionism. Jean-Luc Godard and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. After all these years, I'm no closer to liking them than I was when I started. In some cases, when an aesthetic standard isn't involved, I can simply call my inability to like them a difference in taste and not worry about being right or wrong. It's only when an aesthetic scruple collides with a political one that a matter of taste gets complicated.

Norman Rockwell, The Saturday Evening Post illustrator, probably knew a thing or two about Jackson Pollock when he painted "The Connoisseur," shown above. A well-dressed older gentleman stands smack in front of a painting that looks for all the world like one of Jack the Dripper's works. Rockwell makes us wonder what the man holding his hat and gloves behind him must be thinking. The title suggests that he might be admiring the painting. But, if so, why is he standing so close to the canvas? Pollock worked with his canvases flat on the floor. Is Rockwell's connoisseur absorbed in scrutinizing a particular area of paint droppings? Or is Rockwell trying to tell us something about the absurdity of an art enthusiast looking totally out of place before a work of art that has substance but no identifiable purpose? Was he saying that he simply didn't like such a labored and overrated abstraction? (2)

Speaking of Schumann, Samuel Butler commented in his Notebooks in 1919:

"I should like to like Schumann's music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all."

(1) My friend did something clever when he visited his local art gallery and saw a painting that consisted of three slabs of solid color of equal size. He went to a paint store and got a book of swatches and went back to the gallery to match the colors the artist used. He then bought a blank canvas, bought cans of the matching paint and made a perfect copy of the gallery artwork. I was only happy that he hadn't seen Mark Rothko's painting "White over Red".
(2) I recommend Randall Jarrell's essay "Against Abstract Expressionism" - "A great many people are perfectly willing to sit on a porcupine if you first exhibit it at the Museum of Modern Art and say that it is a chair. In fact, there is nothing – nothing in the whole world that somebody won't buy and sit in if you tell him that it’s a chair. It’s the great new art form of our age."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Tiger in the Rain

Tiger Woods has been busily competing in golf tournaments - seventeen of them - for the last fifteen months without winning one of them. If any other athlete had suffered a slump for a comparable amount of time, he would, at a minimum, have been obliged to go on an extended hiatus from the game.

Yet Tiger shows no sign of slowing down. He continues to be invited to compete in tournaments all over the world. And his amazing slide is documented on television and online with unusual enthusiasm. When the results of every round of every golf tournaments that Woods appears in are announced, people still want to know how he did.

His fall is fascinating, and doesn't appear to be reaching the bottom any time soon. It fits Malcolm Gladwell's definition of "choking" perfectly: under pressure, the greatest player in the world will sometimes correct a mistake by thinking too much and by ignoring his instincts, making further mistakes until he starts to look like a beginner.

What some people don't know is that Woods is getting paid large sums of money simply by appearing in tournaments. His mere presence on the golf course attracts attention from viewers who aren't usually interested in the sport. In the recent Dubai Desert Classic, in which Woods finished in a tie for 20th place, he was reportedly paid $2.8M to play - and lose. Apparently more people can be expected to show up or tune in to watch Woods lose than would ever have been around to watch someone else win. And the other players must be aware of this.

The reasons for his fall, which everyone knows by now, would appear to be effecting his ability to perform at his customary level. Evidently a deeply shy person, Woods found in golf a means of becoming world famous and wealthy without being required to talk about it much. But now that some sensitive aspects of his private life have become so disgustingly public, his appearances in public - on the golf course - are freighted with emotions that are affecting his game. No matter how many high profile coaches Woods hires to help him with his putt or his drive, when he takes center stage and he knows everyone is watching, he chokes. Tiger Woods' problem isn't in his swing but in his head.

What makes people want to watch him choke is one of the elements of sports that enthusiasts don't like to talk about. When people watch a boxing match, one of the reasons they watch is the sadistic desire to see the boxers - athletes is superb physical form - reduce each other in a matter of minutes to bloody helplessness. Gladwell goes further: "We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail." The emphasis in sports on winning is one of the reasons I can't take it seriously. But when people take a greater interest in losing, it becomes clear that there is something we can learn from sports. Losing sometimes bestows nobility. When Mark Twain published Ulysses S. Grant's autobiography at his own expense, he discovered that people were far more interested in the autobiography of Robert E. Lee.

Woods is one of those athletes, like Wilt Chamberlain and Serena Williams, who have been so dominant that they transformed their sport. The trouble is that, as the level of play changes, other athletes make the adjustments required to win. So Chamberlain, Williams, and Tiger Woods saw declines in their dominance as the general level of play in their respective sports was raised to their level. The end of Woods' dominance in golf was inevitable, but his mistakes off the green have accelerated his end. How much longer will people find his swan song - or swan dive - worth watching?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Social Network

Self-exposure and self-promotion are by now no longer the domain of celebrities. Twitter, in fact, comes close to providing for its users a realization of Andy Warhol's prediction that "in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes."

The various internet social networks have provided otherwise faceless people who might feel too exposed or vulnerable in a public forum with a means to speak their minds. The beneficiary of considerable hype, Facebook now has more than half a billion users. Unlike Twitter, which is more of an online celebrity bulletin board, Facebook enables its users to create their own "wall" on which they can post birthdays, hometowns, bios, photos, and their current locations. It has provoked concerns over privacy and questions about exactly who has access to all the personal information that users seem all too willing to give up. It has also brought up issues about the privacy of all internet use. Many people are so deluded about that word "privacy" that they behave as if social networks like Facebook allow them the freedom of expression that only their neighborhood bar used to provide. One could always deny having said certain things in a bar, or just attribute them to intoxication (like Mel Gibson), but you can never take back what you have once posted on the internet. For better or worse, it is out there forever.

Some people in public service who harbor racist, sexist, or homophobic views mistakenly believe that Facebook is the place to express such views and wind up on the six o'clock news when they are "outed" by one of their alleged friends. Others express personal opinions of their bosses and find themselves fired for it.

The new film, The Social Network, based on the book The Accidental Millionaires by Ben Mezrich, calls into question every available definition - including the legal one - of the term "intellectual property." Its hero, Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is an unattractive, nerdy computer genius who creates a social networking program that he calls "Facemash," which is little more than a college prank. It gets him into some trouble at Harvard, where he is studying - you guessed it - computer science. His interest in a particular co-ed is frustrated by the embarrassment she endures at the hands of Facemash. He meets Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss who try to enlist his help in the creation of "HarvardConnection." Zuckerberg takes the idea and runs with it, creating a social network by himself (with the help of Eduardo Saverin and two others). In a matter of days, The Facebook attracts thousands of users.

The film explores how The Facebook became Facebook, thanks to Sean Parker (played with scary smoothness by Justin Timberlake), and to what lengths Zuckerberg decided to go to realize a dream - which, the film suggests, was simply an elaborate means of getting a girl. The film is told in flashbacks from legal hearings in which Zuckerberg is being sued by former friends. Zuckerberg remains cocksure of the importance of his vision until the very end of the film when he realizes what he has done to some of his friends- the ones who supported him emotionally and financially from the beginning, until he maneuvered them out of their shares in Facebook. Zuckerberg emerges in the film looking like something of a fool as well as a canny, if uncaring, businessman. A title at the end of the film mentioning that Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world is supposed to be rueful.

The film takes a fascinatingly dim view of Zuckerberg and the people who helped him to create Facebook. It doesn't say anything at all about what Facebook does for its subscribers or what it means to them or to human discourse in general. Zuckerberg emerges as a remarkably single-minded character, determined to establish his idea, which was not entirely original, as the overwhelmingly dominant one. The rise of Facebook has been swift, making me wonder how soon it will peak in popularity and profitability. Claims for the site, not to mention the internet itself, are extremely optimistic.(1) A common scene in public places nowadays is people sitting next to one another, completely absorbed in conversations with others on their cellphones or laptops. Human discourse is becoming a matter of connections between people out of physical reach, "facing" one another only through the intervention of webcams or videophones. Nobody but Zuckerberg knows what his next move will be. But based on his past actions towards former friends, I wonder if it might not be so welcome to his subscribers.

David Fincher has been around longer than his filmography would suggest. He started out in music videos before turning to feature films in 1992, His second film, Seven,(1995) is an extraordinarily effective thriller. Fight Club (1999) would seem, for now, to be his masterpiece, combining an interesting visual sense with - god help us - genuine ideas. He made Zodiac (2007) a fascinating period film (I don't recall the 70s being so ugly). He hit it big with the Benjamin Button film, which is grossly overrated. The Social Network is well made, thought-provoking entertainment.

(1) A recent book, The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov, suggests that social networking poses dangers to users in countries where freedom of speech is not considered a right. What the secret police know about the people who use Twitter and Facebook might surprise many of its most avid users.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

An Embarrassment of Beaches

When I was a boy, my family always managed to live close enough to the ocean that it could be reached without too long a drive but far enough away to make reaching it an infrequent occasion. Places like Folly Beach, near Charleston and Myrtle Beach were the settings of some of my fondest childhood memories. I will never forget seeing the ocean for the first time. I was in the back seat of my father's car (a Rambler, as I recall). We were lost, sitting in a parking lot, when I rolled down my window and heard a sound I had never heard before. It was the sound of surf rolling in. I opened the car door and I walked to the crest of a low hill and saw the makings of a sunrise on the horizon of the Atlantic.

Now I live on a small island and the Pacific Ocean, warm as bath water, is only a few hundred yards from the house where I live. How I dreamed of living in such a place when I was a boy. Unlike the beaches I mentioned above, the beaches here are not affected by an off-season. There is a "summer" observed here, between March and June, but only because it occupies the last few months of the dry season, when the lack of rain makes it seem that much hotter than it always is in these latitudes.

One of the many surprises I experienced when I moved here was noticing that Filipinos, unless they are fishermen, (1) don't seem to care that they are surrounded by beaches all their lives. Children, who might be expected to find the most pleasure in the ocean, play instead in the streets, and stay away from the beaches, except when they are fishing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, for a race of islanders, Filipinos have a strange, suspicious and mistrustful relationship with the sea. For them, the sea is a hostile, threatening element surrounding their world. There is even a reluctance to allow their children to learn how to swim, since it would only encourage them to enter the water more often. So, by their fearful logic, the ability to swim only increases one's chances of drowning. Of course, having a history of some of the worst maritime disasters in the world has not endeared the sea to Filipinos. Watching children play in the hot streets where I live, within a few hundred yards of the Pacific Ocean, makes me think they might just as well be in Kansas.

As the beautiful beaches of Thailand dwindle in number and appeal as industrial tourism spreads like a blight, the Philippines remains pristine, thanks largely to the inaccessibility of the vast majority of its 7,107 islands. The number of potentially outstanding beaches to be found is virtually incalculable. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Filipinos to discover or develop them. Foreign investment is just about the only way that these microcosmic paradises will ever become known.

Boracay, for example, was already a world-class beach when Filipino tourists - a growing minority who have disposable incomes - discovered it was there, just north of the island of Panay. Now it is so overcrowded that foreign tourists are looking for alternative destinations. They will get no help from Filipinos, who evidently have no use for beaches. They might splash a little in the tide pools or in ankle-deep surf, or indulge in safely life-jacketed water sports, but otherwise they are at a loss at what to do at the beach.

Another reason why Filipinos, particularly women, avoid beaches is because they don't want to risk exposing their naturally brown skin to UV rays, which would promote even darker skin. These brown people were taught by 400 years of colonial rule by white people to hate their skin, and have lately been persuaded by unscrupulous skin lotion manufacturers like Ponds, Vaseline, and Garnier, to use exfoliants and keratin-blocking chemicals on their brown skin to make it as white as possible. More well-heeled Filipinos resort to routine bleaching treatments at salons.

If, by some miracle, the Philippine government should decide to remove the many obstacles in the way of foreign investment and development in these islands, this country could easily eclipse Thailand as the tropical island destination of choice for tourists seeking secluded and pristine beaches - untouched by a native population living in fear of the sun and the surf.

(1) I had already heard of the notorious practices of some Filipino fishermen of using dynamite and cyanide, when I noticed one day on a stroll down a typically deserted beach a group of men unloading a generator and a big spool of electrical cable from a truck.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bully Pulpit

Turning its capricious attention to the phenomenon of bullying, the American media reported a few months ago on a spate of suicides involving teenagers, some of whom were gay, who were alleged victims of bullying from their peers. The news coverage prompted calls from the otherwise disinterested public for more attention to the problem, to include some sort of criminal prosecution for the behavior of bullying. Without offering suggestions of exactly how such behavior could be punished, especially when minors are involved, the stories fell back into obscurity in a matter of days. (1)

About twenty years ago I saw a documentary on child care as it was being practiced in three very different countries - Japan, the U.S., and Denmark. The film revealed some significant differences in cultural preconceptions about finding solutions to people's problems.

One of the things it showed was how bullying was dealt with in the three countries. In the segment filmed in a Japanese day care center, a group of preschoolers were playing when a boy who was bigger than the others started pulling the little girls' hair and stepping on the boys' fingers. Despite outbursts of tears, the Japanese teachers did not intervene or disturb the children's interaction.

When it was time for lunch, low tables were brought out and the children sat down to eat wherever they pleased. They sat together, but when the bully tried to sit with them, the other children moved away. Eventually, the bully was seen eating his lunch alone. Somehow, the children themselves had found a solution to the problem of the bully.

In the segment filmed in an American daycare center, the same situation arose when a big boy started pulling the girls' hair and pushing the other boys around. Immediately a teacher stepped between the bully and the other children, took him aside and asked him why he was being so mean to them.

When they watched this scene, Japanese viewers pointed out that the children were not being given a chance to figure the problem out for themselves and that it demonstrated to them the reason why America is such a "litigious" society. Americans, they argued, never learn how to solve their own problems, which is why there are so many policemen and lawyers and people suing one another.

Literature abounds with stories of bullying, from Tom Brown's Schooldays to Dickens' Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. They probably only appeared when society became prosperous enough to bother itself with the problems of children. It is a serious problem, but I don't think there is a better solution than that exacted by those Japanese children: making a bully face being ostracized from the group is he doesn't learn to get along.

(1) The appearance of gay celebrities like Ellen Degeneris, and a discussion on the Larry King Live television show, tried to change the argument about bullying into one about homophobia and gay-bashing in American schools.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Falling in Love Again

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) was probably the most popular poet of his generation. His cycle, A Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since it was published, at his own expense, in 1896. Most English school children of the first decades of the 20th century knew at least some of the poems from the book by heart. Then came modernism, T.S. Eliot, and Housman suffered a radical shift in poetic taste.

Housman's poetry is imbued with a profound pessimism, and some biographers have suggested it was because of the disappointment in love of his youth. He had met a Canadian named Moses Jackson at Oxford in 1877 and fallen in love with him. Jackson couldn't return Housman's love for him, and eventually married in 1889. Housman was not invited to the ceremony, and didn't know of the wedding until Jackson had left the country. Housman continued to write voluminously, but didn't publish again until 1922, as Jackson lay dying in Canada. One poem, included in his last collection, Additional Poems, reads:

He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.

In his collection, More Poems, Housman was more explicit:

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
`Good-bye,' said you, `forget me.'
`I will, no fear', said I.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.

Philip Larkin, who called Housman "the poet of unhappiness," and said of him that "no one else has reiterated his single message so plangently," reviewed a biography of Housman in 1979,(1), which closes with a curious paragraph:

“To be more unhappy than unfortunate suggests some jamming of the emotions whereby they are forced to re-enact the same situation even though it no longer exists, but for Housman it did still exist. If unhappiness was the key to poetry , the key to unhappiness was Moses Jackson. It would be tempting to call this neurosis, but there is a shorter word. For as Housman himself said, anyone who thinks he has loved more than one person has simply never really loved at all.”

Larkin was probably telling more about himself than he wished to, but he was saying what he knew about love, and at a point in his life (only a few years before his death) when he was certain that it was true.

(1) Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Falling in Love

This deceptively ordinary film from 1984 about two average people who fall in love (the title is purposely explicit) is founded on an extraordinary idea: that the people we fall in love with are not always the people we end up with, but love will not be denied. The two people in the film are serious adults who have already made life choices, who have substantial careers and expensive homes. In New York City, Frank Raftis is an architect, Molly Gilmore is a graphic artist. Both are comfortably married, Frank has two young sons, Molly had a child that died.

Their meeting, while Christmas shopping in a Manhattan bookstore, is punctuated with annoying mishaps, resulting in the inadvertent mix up of their gifts (books), which they discover on Christmas morning when their respective spouses unwrap the wrong books. (The books are already gift-wrapped when they leave the bookstore, so the mix up is plausible.) Three months later, they see each other on the Metro-North commuter train (what a commercial for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority!) and remember the mix up of the books, which gives them a pretext to speak to each other. This is not the most promising beginning for a love story, but its lack of fireworks makes it all the more convincing. The mix up also points to another element at work in the story of these two unremarkable people: how a chance encounter brings fate into play.

Fate is a very old pagan notion that makes sense of human motivation by giving it a cosmic context. There is some kind of design in our seemingly compulsive behavior. We fall in love with certain people because we are genetically or psychologically hardwired that way. And we had better obey these unseen promptings so that the universe can go on functioning harmoniously.

The opening shots, mostly under the credits, show us how Frank and Molly inhabit the same world, how they pass each other in a crowd, sometimes so closely that they almost touch. Yet each fails to notice the other until they literally collide - a convergence of the twain not nearly as laborious as the Titanic and the iceberg. Fate, after all, is not the dominant force it used to be.

Later they talk about the meeting on the train with their friends. Molly says that Frank "looked sort of familiar." Their friends encourage them to go further the next time they meet. They do meet again, on the train. They go to lunch together. Things suddenly become serious, without either of them intending them to.

They finally agree to go somewhere alone together, to a friend's apartment. Inexplicably, to both of them, they are unable to go all the way. Molly's father dies and she stops taking the train into the city. She tells her friend that "we were meant to be together, even though we never will be. I just think it's the right thing. Everything else is wrong."

This is the only point where, for me, the film comes up short of reality. The script (by Michael Cristofer) has Frank and Molly's relationship remain chaste. Neither of them violate their marriage vows. In this regard, they are above reproach. Falling in Love was inspired by the David Lean-Noël Coward film Brief Encounter (1945), in which the two lovers (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) never actually become lovers. That was fine for 1945, but I think Cristofer made a mistake. He gives Molly the line, "Maybe if I slept with him it would've made things easier?" It is a whopping underestimation of sex.

When he believes that it's over with Molly, Frank tells his wife about her: "It's over now. Nothing happened. I'm not seeing her. I'm not having an affair. It's nothing like that." But his wife says, "No, it's worse, isn't it?" She even feels obliged to slap his face.

The director of the film, Ulu Grosbard, is an excellent theater director who directed only seven films in more than forty years. He directed the superb film Straight Time in 1978, which I regard as one of the best American films of the past fifty years. He has an undeniable talent directing actors, and his two leads in Falling in Love are at the top of their form.

Robert De Niro had played Jake Lamotta four years before. He has played so many heavies - spectacularly - that it's a shame that some of his other roles aren't as well know. Frank Raftis wasn't the first role in which he wasn't killing people or beating them to a pulp. He was brilliant as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, so scary as Harry Pupkin in King of Comedy.

And Meryl Streep. I mentioned before how some of the roles that Kate Winslet has played would not have come along if an actress like her hadn't been around to play them. The same was certainly true of Streep. In the last scene of Falling in Love, when Frank and Molly are flung by fate into each other's arms again, you can watch all the emotions of the moment played out on the face of Meryl Streep. It is her face we see last, in freeze frame. And even with the greatest screen actor of his generation standing beside her, it is her film.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Nightmare in Wonderland

In Tim Burton's 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, we are very far from the book that Charles Dodgson wrote "as Christmas gift to a dear child in memory of a summer's day". Now that we know what there is to know about the Reverend Charles Dodgson (having to surmise all the rest), it isn't surprising that some people approach his writing with less than reverential curiosity.(1)

The first movie version of Alice was made by Cecil Hepworth in 1903. There have been twenty-two versions since then, according to Wikipedia. I haven't seen very many of them, but I think it safe to say that Burton's must be the stupidest and most tedious by far. Burton's sinister imagination made him a good choice to direct the film version, massive cuts and all, of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. He was not as good for Washington Irving (Sleepy Hollow) or Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In his Alice he lives up to his macabre reputation with touches like filling the moat surrounding the Red Queen's castle with severed heads, on which the little Alice must step as she makes her way across it. In fact, he turns Alice's adventures into a recurring nightmare that the poor girl must figure out in order to exculpate. Incidently, I saw the film in 2-D, since I wouldn't have seen it otherwise. ‎2010 was the year 3-D became a real threat to filmgoers who, like myself, do not suffer from the prevailing American infantilism. Some have called 3D as important an advance in film technology as sound and color. Baloney. It's just another attempt to reduce film to a child's toy, to an amusement park ride, a video game, or a comic book. Superfluous to point out, Burton's Alice grossed a billion dollars at the box office.

Burton and his script-writer Linda Woolverton (who made mincemeat of Mme Leprince de Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and has specialized in the Disneyfication of childhood), have managed to grossly misrepresent the books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. His computer-generated creations are sometimes interesting (the Jabberwock, for instance, looks just like Tenniel's illustration in Looking Glass), but that Alice should be pubescent - let alone post-pubescent like Mia Wasikowska, would've been unthinkable to Dodgson.

That there was an actual Alice - Alice Liddell - to whom Dodgson dedicated the stories is a fact that doesn't seem to matter any more.(2) There was a marvelous film called Dreamchild (1985), written by Dennis Potter, that invents an episode late in Alice Liddell's life in which the old woman, on her way to receive an honorarium from Columbia University, comes to terms with her troubled memories of Dodgson (played beautifully by Ian Holm).

Of the other Alice films I have seen, only Jonathan Miller's, made in 1966 with live actors and no special effects, stands out. To think of how many auditions were required before Tim Burton and his producers settled on the utterly graceless and untalented Mia Wasikowska as Alice. This oversized Alice is as bad an idea as casting Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.(3) I suspect that Burton's insistence on making Alice nineteen, and making her an "empowered" modern woman, had more to do with his obvious disdain for children. Johnny Depp, who obviously cannot resist making movies with Burton, plays a thoroughly silly Mad Hatter. His farewell to Alice is straight out of The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy tearfully tells the Scarecrow, "I think I'll miss you most of all." The "futterwacken" dance is just one of several anticlimaxes, which Burton has Alice repeat (feebly) when she returns to her engagement ball.

Another indication that nobody bothered to read the books is the misidentification of the monster whom Alice is obliged to battle. In Looking Glass , the monster is called the Jabberwock. In the film, everyone refers to it as the Jabberwocky. The poem, not the monster, is called Jabberwocky.(4)

(1) Whether Dodgson was clinically classifiable as a pedophile or simply in love with childhood and not just particular children, has been a subject of debate ever since his diaries, with pages and volumes missing, and his photographs of nude little girls, were discovered. His family evidently destroyed as much as they could.
(2) Some have suggested that one of the missing pages from Dodgson's diaries was evidence of a marriage proposal he made to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.
(3) "The Wizard of Oz was intended to hit the same audience as Snow White and won't fail for lack of trying. It has dwarfs, music, Technicolor, freak characters and Judy Garland. It can't be expected to have a sense of humor as well - and as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet." (Otis Ferguson)
(4) Then there was Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, another mirthless exercise in medieval scatology.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sticking to the Script

"If the sun and moon should ever doubt, they'd immediately go out." -William Blake

Reading excerpts from George W. Bush's recently published memoir, Decision Points, and listening to Condoleeza Rice and Rudy Giuliani in interviews, and Tony Blair's statements to the British Iraq Inquiry, I was struck by the near-verbatim consistency with which all of them defended the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It was as if they were delivering the same lines from a carefully prepared script. While they all repeated the argument that Saddam Hussein had developed and was developing WMDs (an argument that has since been completely discredited), they insisted that transforming Iraq into a semi-stable, multi-ethnic, nominal democracy was worth the destruction and loss of life that the invasion wrought.

The vacuum left by the ouster of Saddam Hussein - a monster created by Ronald Reagan - has emboldened Iran to assert itself as the new regional superpower. So we are back at square one: the problem of a hostile Muslim state arming itself with WMDs simply shifted to the east. But the notion that democracy is something that can be exported or transplanted from one country to another, that it can simply be handed over to people who have a history of nothing but tyrants or colonial masters is as foolish and offensively racist as the line from the movie Full Metal Jacket, delivered by a gung ho American general in Vietnam: "Inside every gook there's an American trying to get out

I happen to live in one such country, the Philippines, that modeled its constitution and government structure after its former colonial masters, the United States. Yet more than sixty years into its independence, it is no closer to being a true democracy than any of the Arab states in current turmoil.

I believe that it is safe to conclude that the decision to invade Iraq was a foregone conclusion for at least a year before it happened, based on one of two scenarios: either the intelligence evidence of WMDs was uniformly false, but fooled everyone anyway - in which case it represents a systemic and historic intelligence failure, or the evidence was known to be weak but that the Bush administration was aware that it was the only thing that could sell the war to the UN, and the American and British peoples.

Listening to Condi, Rudy, and Tony deliver their lines on television was amusing but also chilling. They gave me the distinct impression that they would carry the truth with them to their graves. It reaffirmed my conviction, not just that people in political office are professional liars, but that politics itself is an instrument designed to obscure the truth. As with so many historical events in the past fifty or so years, we will simply have to make up our own minds and try to get on with our lives here in the free world.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Check, Please

Defenders of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution must be watching the ongoing events in Egypt with lip-smacking satisfaction. When martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, and tanks were rolling in the streets of Warsaw, American gun owners insisted that such a thing could never succeed in the U.S. because of the abundance of guns. They also contended that no government would attempt such a thing with so many Americans exercising their right to bear arms.

Of course, they never explained exactly how a handgun was supposed to stop a tank or an armored personnel carrier full of soldiers with AK-47s. In fact, armed resistance - albeit with handguns - would probably provoke a violent and bloody reprisal, something that hasn't happened in Egypt largely because the people have chosen to engage in "peaceful" demonstrations.

But advocates of gun control in the U.S. have seen some significant setbacks in recent years that would seem to signal a retrenchment of the debate. The state of Arizona passed a law making it legal for anyone to wear a sidearm in public places like restaurants and bars. The coffee chain Starbucks even announced that, in states where such a law is in place, customers can feel free to enjoy their java with a loaded weapon strapped conspicuously to their hips.

Incidents like the recent shooting in Tucson caused another call for stricter gun control. But gun owners argue that if everyone at the scene of the incident had been armed, the shooting spree would either have never occurred or it would have ended quickly with the attacker himself being shot. And this is a relatively small price to pay, they argue, for their safety: that everyone should be prepared - and equipped - to defend his own life by taking another's.

But sensible people quite naturally see such a prospect as nightmarish, or something out of a Hollywood movie. And never mind the Freudian interpretation of male inadequacy being buttressed by a gun. But how can gun owners possibly consider eating or drinking in any establishment in which they felt it was necessary to arm themselves? If I were to discover, on entering such a restaurant or bar, that there were people inside wearing sidearms, I would unhesitatingly depart. A good steak and a draught beer are not worth the risk of getting caught in the crossfire.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Widower's Tango

Ten years ago today, I was driving a Ryder van eastward through Nebraska as eight o'clock PM approached, aware that it was the time when she would be getting off work back in Denver, where she and I had been living together since 1996. I knew it would take her about fifteen minutes to get to our apartment, and with every passing minute it seemed to me that I was driving myself clear of the epicenter of an atomic explosion, and the farther I was away from it, the greater the chances would be of my survival.

That morning I waited until she left for work at around eleven AM. She gave me a perfunctory kiss and descended the stairs from our third floor apartment. I went to our bedroom window overlooking the parking lot and watched her as she drove out of sight. Then I moved the van I had already rented to the bottom of the stairs, packed everything that was mine - books, cds, a computer, clothes, papers, photographs, mementos - in boxes and carried them down. I was done in two hours, but I expected her to return at any moment, having forgotten something or other, and interrupt my departure. I left a goodbye note taped to the screen of her big screen TV. I somehow did not expect to get away scot free.

It was only once I had locked the front door and slid the key underneath it, and driven the van to a nearby gas station that I began to feel as if I was in the clear. By the time she made it home that evening and found the note, I was several hundred miles away. I had second thoughts and contemplated pulling off the highway into a motel and thinking it over. I could always go back and make things up with her, couldn't I? But I kept on driving, knowing that it was beyond hope, my love for her - that she took without returning. Our life together had become as airless as a tomb. I loved her, but there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

I haven't seen her since that day - today - ten years ago. When I created this blog in 2007 I called it "Widower's Tango," after the poem "Tango del Viudo," written by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda had been sent to Rangoon, Burma in 1927 as Chile's honorary consul. He encountered a community of expats there, mostly English, with whom he quickly had a falling out because he consorted openly with a Burmese mistress.

On the street she called herself Josie Bliss, and dressed in Western clothes, but when alone with Neruda she put on a sari and told him her Burmese name. Their relationship was passionate, but she quickly showed Neruda a terrible side of her, an insanely jealous side. He awoke one night at a noise and in the darkness of his room, outside the mosquito net, he saw her pacing around the bed like a Burmese panther. And he saw the dagger that she clutched in her hand, as she fought with the idea of killing him, since only his death would free her of her jealousy.

The next day, Neruda found her dagger and buried it under a tree in the garden. Hopeless, he knew of no way out of his predicament until he received orders from his superiors to transfer to Ceylon. Seeing it as his only opportunity for escape, Neruda said nothing about his transfer to his mistress, and on the day of his departure by ship, he dressed and left his home just like he was going to work. Boarding the ship that was taking him to Ceylon, he abandoned everything he owned so that Josie Bliss would never suspect what he was doing. As he was sailing to Ceylon, the first words of the poem that would become "Tango del Viudo" came into his head. "Ah maligna..."

Oh evil one, you must by now have found the letter, you must have wept with fury,
and you must have insulted my mother's memory,
calling her rotten bitch and mother of dogs,
you must have drunk alone, all by yourself, your twilight tea,
looking at my old shoes forever empty,
and you won't be able any longer to recall my illnesses, my night dreams, my meals,
without cursing me aloud as if I were still there. . .

Of course, I knew the story of Neruda's escape from Josie Bliss before I made my own escape ten years ago. Unlike Neruda, the woman in question didn't track me down or camp out on my doorstep, eventually calling for the intervention of policemen and the woman's deportation. Neruda carried the wound of those years in silence until he wrote his memoir Isla Negra in 1963. He even wrote two more poems to Josie Bliss, wondering what might have become of her.

The image of a widower, dancing a tango without a partner, a man dancing with a ghost across a void, seemed apt enough for my situation. And while I was not a Pablo Neruda, neither was my woman a Josie Bliss. Neruda was just 23. I was 42. Neruda feared for his life. I feared for my soul.

Evil one, really, what an enormous night, what a lonely earth!
I have come again to the solitary bedrooms,
to lunch on cold food in the restaurants, and again
I throw my trousers and shirts upon the floor,
there are no coat hangers in my room, no pictures of anyone on the walls.
How much of the darkness in my soul I would give to get you back,
and how threatening to me seem the names of the months,
and the word winter, what a mournful drum sound it has.

(Donald Walsh translation)