Friday, June 30, 2006

hit 'em with your best shot

Emdashes gives you an "ask the New Yorker" column. The answers come from New Yorker library staff. And she's extended a special invitation to my canny blog readers. Feel free to use the comments space here to fantasize, brainstorm, draft . . . I've got nothing right now, but when the time is right, I'll submit a little something, you can be sure.

gopnik scores points.

I kind of liked his review of the Disraeli biography. Despite playing fast and loose with the concepts of flaneur and dandy, this was, for me, very satisfying history.

(a) "Things worked out pretty much as he had planned, even though the plan was one of the most improbable ever devised by the mind of man: a debt-scarred, overdressed, effeminate, literary Jew set himself to become Prime Minister of England, and the leader of its right-wing party, at the height of the British Empire. [...] Any responsible historian can see that Disraeli couldn’t have happened. But he did." (72)

When I learned about Disraeli for the first time, in high school, I didn't stick my hand in the air and ask the teacher just how this happened, but I did wonder.

(b) "The English, he knew, have always liked to have one domesticated foreigner, a professional wild man, around to shock and entertain them (the painter Fuseli played a similar role in the time just before Disraeli), and the worst that could happen was that people would sneer at him, which they were going to do in any case." (72)

"But the fairy tale [D created as his own family history] was shrewd: he grasped what kind of Jew would be fascinating to an English audience, and what kind merely Jewish." (74)

I just cut the line about what Disraeli "fabulized" in his fiction from the first quote in this post, but actually, it's important that he did write pop fiction. Because it's fiction that certainly bears out these claims of Gopnik's. George Eliot and Wilkie Collins agree, those "domesticated foreigners" cause a lot of trouble. Whole plots hinge on them.

My usual gripe with Gopnik is his desire to understand the past through simple analogy to the present. This time, he watches his step,

(c) "There was also a handful of Radicals from the nascent industrial North. The closest thing to popular representatives in Parliament, they are sympathetic to us today, but, as true free marketers, they were actually the ones who fought hardest against industrial reform, including child-labor laws." (75)

Points for including the "but" - and, just to be contrary, I'd suggest that today all too many people in power ARE sympathetic to fighting industrial reform and child-labor laws. The irony of an ill-timed but.

Lots of historians are spilling ink over how we could possibly know what genders engaged in which sex acts with what genders when and Gopnik tries to tread lightly on the historical specificity of that one,

"[Disraeli's fiction] is also a land happily inhabited by strong and limber young men of good breeding, whose handsome looks are catalogued. A salacious imagination is not needed to wonder about the sexual orientation of a man who dresses up in pirate garb, writes novels gasping after gorgeous, ignorant young lords, enjoys a series of passionate friendships with handsome younger men, has his closest female relations with sisters and much older women, and defends, as Disraeli did, the love life of the Turks. Most of his biographers now settle on the formula that he was, in our sense, a closeted gay man, and the question is whether his inclinations were acted upon or not. Hibbert, like Blake, seems to think not, though it is hard to imagine so vivid a man utterly without an outlet, chastity being a stranger perversion than secrecy. Kuhn, on the other hand, is categorical and convincing: he has Disraeli come back from his adventures in the baths of Turkey announcing that he will never be married, and fully conscious of his love for men." (75)

FYI, this is not, of course, the only mention of pirates in the article.

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insert Nietzsche joke here.

Having spent all my Nietzsche and food energies on that "Happy Hour" pun awhile back, I have little will to mock Woody Allen's "Thus Ate Zarathustra." But I will draw our attention to that fact that there is not one, but two mentions of Nietzsche's superman in the July 3 issue. Lane brings it up in his review of the movie of that name. I tried to imagine one of my fictional "overheard in the new yorker" scenarios involving an impromptu debate between Lane and Allen (possibly named "The Ass Festival" and moderated by Acocella) on what, exactly, was humorous about the popular uses and misuses of the terminology, concepts and logic of Nietszche's superman in contemporary society but I couldn't quite make it happen. Suffice it to say they are, of course, both right but I laughed out loud at neither.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

so, an ambitious jew marries a naive blonde . . .

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

In what ways is "The Squid and the Whale" different from "Kramer vs. Kramer" ?? You tell me.

"the visible distance between" als and sacks see things differently

Hilton Als writes, of Toland's mythical deep focus and staging in depth innovations in Citizen Kane, "they wanted the camera to reproduce the way we perceive space - with both foreground and background object in focus." (49) What?

Far be it from me to insist on normalizing concepts of vision. Actually, one of the great things about vision is that for the most part (and say, compared to to sexuality), US 20th C culture is actually relatively comfortable with biological, physiological, phenomenological differences in human vision.

So maybe you, or your friends and neighbors see both foreground and background objects in focus at the same time like in that scene through the window at the beginning of Citizen Kane or that scene between Kane and Susan "Exhausted Toucan" Welles, but I don't.

Frankly, I always thought that what one calls rack focus was a sort of clunky reproduction of "the way we perceive" - that is, we could focus on objects near to us, while our perception of background objects became unclear, or the other way round, according to our will. Rack focus shots look a little silly, but that's what happens, more generally, when film tries to "reproduce the way we perceive." Like in Lady in the Lake. Or nauseating Russian Ark. Or that episode of M*A*S*H entitled "Point of View." Obviously, attempts to reproduce the way we perceive are a popular fascination. But not necessarily in Citizen Kane's deep focus, I don't think.

Rather, the ability to see multipe planes in sharp focus silmultaneously is an extension or expansion or variation of human vision, a kind of technological play that allows humans to see in ways that they can't in the world, not in ways that they can.


I'd say the same for stereoscopes. Sacks doesn't claim that stereoscopes reproduce the way we perceive, he's more careful than that. Actually, stereoscopes render what appear to be near and far details in sharp focus, sort of like deep focus camera work. And that particular effect of multiple plane sharp focus is not what Sacks claims produces the stereoscopes "uncanny verisimilitude" (64). The uncanny verisimilitude of the stereopticon is produced by what is variously called "a sensation of depth" and "a magical illusion of depth" or, in Als' language, a production of "the visible distance between." I'd go so far as to draw out Sacks' language a bit and say that what's so uncanny about stereopticons is that the "illusion of depth" feels familiar, but the sharp focus of being able to see that man and the landscape behind him both in sharp focus puts the un in uncanny. Or whatever. You know how that word works. That the familiar "illusion of depth," just one element of human vision, can be isolated and removed from a more unified experience of human vision is, again, technological play.

Sacks comes right out and says that films don't have the same access to stereo vision as "normal" human perception when he mentions Errol Morris, "There may even be certain advantages to monocular vision, as when photographers and cinematographers deliberately renounce their binocularity and stereoscopy by confining themselves to a one-eye, one-lens view, the better to frame and compose their pictures [...] Errol Morris, the filmmaker, was born with stabismus, and subsequently lost almost all the vision in one eye, but he feels he gets along perfectly well. "I see things in 3-D," he said. "I move my head when I need to - parallax is enough. I don't see the world as a plane." (66) Films, and, in this case, special filmmakers, do not have binocular vision.

Morris insists that there are other ways of producing the 3D effect in his own experience of human vision and Sack's agrees with him, "There are, of course, many other ways of judging depth: occlusion of distant objects by closer objects, perspective (the fact that distant objects appear smaller), shading (which delinates the shape of objects), "aerial" perspective (the blurring and bluing of more distant objects by the intervening air), and, most important, motion parallax - the change of spatial relationships as we move our heads."

And film has ways of producing, and, more importantly playing with, exaggerating, modifying all these effects. But REproducing them? Not exactly, not ever. Even if it were possible, what would be the point?

Sacks goes on, "All these cues, acting in tandem [he must mean together], can give a vivid sense of reality and space and depth. But the only way to actually perceive depth rather than judge it is with binocular stereoscopy."

That's a neat distinction - to judge or to perceive - god knows where it's located. The ability to see the space inbetween objects (not, I repeat, not, the objects themselves, in focus or otherwise) is a perception, but the overall ability to see space relies on a series of judgements.

When Sacks starts his discussion of Sue, and the learnablity, mallebility of stereoscopy, it sounds to me like he's modifying this original position a little bit. Maybe stereoscopy is more a judgement than perception or maybe the distinction loses meaning . . . but I like thinking of the "perception" of film (or the world) as judgements based on cues.

There's a bit more to say about Sacks and Sue, but it's in a more personal line, so I'll do that later.

But I thought I'd just close with this puzzle: in Sacks' account of Sue one of the most exciting effects of her stereovision was "Every leaf seemed to stand out in its own little 3-D space. The leaves didn't just overlap with each other as I used to see them. I could see the SPACE between the leaves." (70) The oldest chestnut in the reality effects of the cinema, the leaves on the trees. As in, Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees by Christian Keathley.

Oh, and the biographical career info in Als article could not be more generic. Blah, blah, blah in every sense of the word. All this in the June 19 2006 issue.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

stating the obvious, more or less well, june 19

1. Denby on Jack Black, "He's short and heavy, but he must have powerful legs and arms because he jumps and skips like a demon." (91)

2. Menand on Greenfield on Leary, "The best that can be said about Greenfield's biography of Leary is that it will never be necessary to write another one." (82)

Sasha Frere-Jones and I are, once again, in some agreement.

3. "While deforming the words, [Radiohead's Yorke] revealed the melody's elegance, which I couldn't hear before I saw him sing it. Yorke, as his early sponsor Michael Stipe once did, plays his voice the way his bandmates play their instruments, and he has impressively consistent pitch. Radiohead sounds like an instrumental band that happens to have a singer." (86)

I just this year heard Radiohead's Amnesiac and I found I liked it for just this reason.

But I thought the whole point of pop music was to use the voice like an instrument and if this doesn't happen (if the lyrics as language are foregrounded, or the voice itself or its equivalent isn't present enough) I generally think it's not pop music at all. But the way SFJ puts it, you'd think this voice-instrument thing was exceptional in pop music (as he is the pop music critic) and I think it's not.

Which is why I think it's totally OK to import, export and enjoy pop music that one doesn't understand the languages of. Locally, I thought a bit about this when I read the following, a while back, at Amardeep Singh's blog:

"[On Brazilian pop] The third thing to mention is that the vast majority of listeners, myself included, don't know any Portuguese, which means that reaction to the vocals is primarily driven to the sound of the voice, rather than meaning. Granted, the interest in the sound of the voice has been a big part of the popularity of Punjabi Bhangra as well as the Algerian popular music called Rai (which will have to be the subject of another post), but it is, on the whole, a little fishy. The lack of knowledge also makes fads somewhat hard to sustain. If you don't know the lyrics and don't have ways of learning, you don't develop deeper associations with what you're hearing. Fads developed on such a basis are not likely to last long."

This is well put but I think I respectfully disagree . . . And not at all to say that music is a universal, or immediate, experience. But that one can learn to enjoy pop music without necessarily understanding its literal linguistic content. Knowing its literal linguistic content may change your enjoyment or pleasure somewhat, but if it's a little fishy, I'd put the emphasis on the "little."

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ian frazier, the best poet in the nyer, ever.

I cried laughing reading Ian Frazier's "Caught" Shouts and Murmurs in the May 29 issue.

It's so brilliantly written that if you try to read it out loud the pace and rhythm of the language forces you to read it in this jerky, funny, stilted, rushed, neurotic, performative and cliched, yet totally intimate and familiar type-way.

And I love the whole concept. That stupid quote from Mayor Bloomberg. Corny yet opaque. But to take it as seriously as possible and try and work with it. Hilarious.

It is totally impossible to capture the brilliance of a first person monologue by a coyote who lived in NYC in one sentence, but I give you this so that if you have not read it, you will be inspired to hunt the article out of the bathroom, stack of things at your bedside, under the couch, what have you:

"This variety of sound also happens to be very terrifying to ducks, by the way."

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Friday, June 23, 2006

absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

100% all natural kitsch. Imagine me here.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

you know who needs a new metaphor?

Nora Ephron, that's who. She falls in love with her cookbooks, she falls in love with her apartment. I wonder if it's the reason or by product of being a Hollywood big-wig; the world and all its objects are performing in some kind of bittersweet romantic comedy. Ew. "Moving On, A love affair with the Apthorp." In the June 5 issue.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

june 8 nyrb and snappy metaphors part two

"Unlike Jacques Casanova but much like Dr. Kinsey, who was less interested in his own sexuality than in the meticulous observation of others', Buford is less a gourmand than a voyeur of chefs, a widely shared obsession to judge by the several books and televison shows on the subject and the 'professional' kitchens installed routinely by developers to exploit the culinary fantasies of upscale homebuyers."

Jason Epstein's review of Buford's Heat and Julia's My Life in France in the June 8 New York Review of Books.

I didn't read this, and I don't think I will. But as I was flipping through, the metaphor at the start of this sentence caught me. However, on typing it out, I realized that the metaphor I was grasping for in the last post was sort of along the lines of "It's like installing a professional kitchen to eat take out Chinese."

nyrb june 8 coptic scholars on gopnik

I didn't read the essay on the Gospel of Judas written by Adam Gopnik for the April 17 New Yorker. I think I've mentioned, he's one of my least favorite New Yorker writers.

But I have to say, it isn't necessary for the New York Review of Books to call upon the expertise of three (3) learned scholars "completing doctoral studies at Princeton in the religions of late antiquity, specializing in Coptic texts" to point out the weaknesses of his arguments,

"When we consider the extensiveness and detail of cosmological description in this text, we can understand why the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik found it unappealing in a recent review:

'The Gospel of Judas' turns Christianity into a mystery cult—Jesus at one point describes to Judas the highly bureaucratic organization of the immortal realm, enumerating hundreds of luminaries—but robs it of its ethical content. Jesus' message in the new Gospel is entirely supernatural. You don't have to love thy neighbor; just seek your star. [Gopnik, in The New Yorker, April 17, 2006]

Gopnik is right that the Gospel of Judas is very different from those that were included in the canon; but part of that difference is a matter of genre. As Gopnik himself points out, Judas is not a gospel in the sense that we have come to understand the term, as a narrative of Jesus' life on earth; rather it takes a particular episode from the familiar story and explores its implications. The dizzying cosmological myths of these texts may not easily engage the sympathy of those of us used to a more earthy Christianity of the manger and the shepherd, of parables and miracles of ministering to the poor, but they were no less part of a struggle to answer the perennially troubling question, Unde malum?: Where does evil come from?"

Anyone whose ever tried to read the bible for it's popular catchphrases, ie "love thy neighbor" has probably been a little frustrated. Hence the popular intepretation of many of the stories - "um, is it, the lord works in mysterious ways?" Without the work of so many, many years of interpretations, translations and adaptations [and the kind of ideological filtering many take for granted] of the bible much of it IS just as "dizzying" as the gospel of Judas. Like so many things, it's a question of what one has been educated to recognize as "ethical content". . .

But all this is actually beside the point. I decided to post on this to ask you all if you could think of some snappy metaphors for the idea of answering Gopnik's naivete with the expertise of these doctoral students. It's like . . . what exactly? I feel there are some hunting metaphors out there, but I'd rather not use those.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

may 15: wright on syrian filmmakers

"This society is responsible for creating the dictatorship - it's in our culture, our way of believing and thinking. I am trying to expose the authority inside us and the shadow of political authority in front of our door." (62)

Well put, Ossama Mohammed. In "Letter from Damascus, Captured on Film, Can dissident filmmakers effect change in Syria?" in the May 15 issue.

In the same vein, and in the confront the annoying reporter style (briefly mentioned earlier, maybe more later), "Do you want me to repeat two hundred times each day that my films are forbidden [distribution within Syria]? This is my society. I belong to this world. I am NOT a victim." (61)

At first I was a little put off by Wright's intro,

"Nearly every Middle Easter country is governed by an authoritarian regime, but that hasn't kept many of those countries - notably, Iran and Egypt - from developing surprisingly lively cinematic traditions."

Oh, those plucky Iranians. From the little I know of Iranian cinema, filmmakers there presently have to juggle state sponsorship, state censorship, political participation, political critique dilemmas similar to those Wright goes on to describe in the Syrian situation. The differences in the "livliness" of the cinema might actually lie in the history of funding for filmmaking or the long history of the film industry, national or otherwise, in the separate cases. I was more and more convinced of this when I read about Mohammed's Soviet education, Amiralay's French expatriation and the history of the Damascus Cinema Club.

I like the discussion of the oblique use of things like families, violence and trees in the cinema. I mean, the man titles his films "Sacrifices" and "Stars in Broad Daylight." While it's a sharp call, I don't know if I follow Wright when he suggests that the filmmakers, "revealed a perverse desire to romanticize he artistic constraints of dictatorship." (68)

Also amazing was this moment, "The critics of Cahiers du Cinema had chosen eighteen films, but the Syrian government banned more than half of them. Instead, the French critic Serge Daney sat on the stage and narrrated detailed descriptions of them." (63) Repression + ekphrasis.

More on the development of a reluctantly, critically, national artist, " 'When you live in a garden of corruption, you learn the skills of bluffing,' he said. "Some of my colleagues came and said, 'If this is not a piece of great art, you are going to be fucked.' When I was shooting, I forgot about this, but one day, when I was stuck in traffic, I thought, My God! What am I doing?"

And is it just me (or is it Mohammed? or is it Wright?) that keeps trying to create an analogy between the repression of authoritarianism and the repression of capitalism? Mohammed says, and Wright reports, " 'The kitchen of cinema here is fuull of poisenous materials,' he told me. 'But we are lucky as filmmakers to work in this kitchen. Because there is no audience, at least we don't have to worry about the censorship imposed by commercialism." (67)

And then there is this story, "Before 1963, people could see films the same year they were produced," he said. When 'Spartacus' the 1960 Kubrick classic, came to town, he said, "I didn't have money to go to the cinema, so I would steal from my brother Ali and invite my friends. Ali discovered this, and he brought a big stick and said, 'For every franc you steal, I will beat you once.' I thought about it, and the next day I stole three francs. It was worth it!"

There's a lot more to this article, but I'll leave it at this for now.

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farm box feeding frenzy

apfel kuchen
Originally uploaded by zpa.
So this is your basic shortbread apfel kuchen. Except I put a little rosemary and honey in the crust, and honeyed walnuts on the top, right before it was done. And (Lindy, if you are reading this, stop here) I used margarine. It was no trans fat margarine, so I don't want to hear about it. I just thought that with the slightly savory quality of the rosemary I could give it a try. And it's good.

I actually don't love sweet herb things; I always taste shampoo. But this is fine, and, as my visual evidence indicates, we've eaten a lot of it.

We also made Roden's Morroccan kefta (with turkey) with thyme, a green salad and radishes from the farm box. I fell asleep after that meal just dreaming of green.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

more food for thought

kitchen coincidence
Originally uploaded by zpa.
I got those canning jars from the Pennysaver (a pre-internet craigslist sort of technology) a few years ago. I got those canning jars and like, 20 more. They might have been free, or they might have been $2.

Since we're very likely moving next spring I am slowly emptying our basement. And I offered the remaining jars (well, minus a few, in case I ever add to my heavy rotation spice repetoire) on Freecycle.

And you will never guess who contacted me to pick them up! One Kathy Newman of Carnegie Mellon University. Unless I miss my guess, she's the very same who wrote that Whole Foods critical article. I'll ask her and let you know.

Apologies; I feel this partial image of my kitchen raises more questions than it answers, but it's a start.

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