Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Take a look at the lawmen/ Beating up the wrong guy..."

Okay, so we can debate about the Gates case, but I'm going to say these cops in Mobile, Alabama could have handled this situation differently...

"Police in Mobile, Ala., used pepper spray and a Taser on a deaf, mentally disabled man who they said wouldn't leave a store's bathroom."

The guy was feeling sick while in the Dollar Store, so he went to use the bathroom. After about half an hour, the store employees did what anyone would do when someone's in the bathroom for too long- they called the police. The cops came to the store and tried knocking on the stall door. When that didn't work, they did what anyone would do in that situation- they resorted immediately to extreme force: they sprayed pepper spray under the door, dragged the guy out and tasered him. But here's the thing that gets me: After the cops discovered that the man is deaf and has the mental abilities of a ten-year old child, they again did the reasonable thing- they charged him with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and failure to obey a police officer.
Here's an interview with his family. You get no points for correctly guessing his ethnicity.

And one bright spot: a Judge threw the charges out.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Etiquette Police

I have avoided commenting on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. until some time passed and the details of the case became clearer. Also, I have avoided listening to the public discussion of the case because I tend to find such discussion about "racially-charged firestorms" to be a bit... well, the diplomatic word for it would be 'unhelpful'.

I'm perhaps a bit more sympathetic to Gates than other people would be. Claire and I went through a fairly similar incident about five years ago. My grandmother had passed away and we were suddenly found ourselves needing to get to Virginia in a hurry. We booked a flight out of an American airport, in order to save money, and therefore had to cross the border. Crossing the border, in my experience, goes smoothly about 90% of the time.

This time, Claire was sick as a dog, having caught one of those sudden illnesses that seems to arrive at inopportune times like these. She was violently ill, could barely speak, was running a fever- generally feeling terrible. Anyway, the border guard was... not to put too fine a point on it, a macho dick. Whatever she said in response to his questions he read as "giving him attitude". The things she was saying were perfectly normal, but spoken in a raspy croaking voice that offended him for some reason. She would say things like, "We're married", in response to, "What is your relationship?" and he would bark, "Why are you giving me attitude, Ma'am?!" And then, when she would say, "I'm not giving you attitude. I'm sick", this was taken as arguing. You couldn't win with the guy.

And so, we were held for two or three hours and put through a series of irritating and obnoxious questions in a border office filled with everyone who looked vaguely "Muslim" that had tried to cross, as well as an idiotic white couple who tried to cross with cocaine in their back seat. We missed the flight and had to book another, and in general, it was a total pain in the ass. The reason, of course, was what lawyers call "contempt of cop".

And I look pretty square. Amongst my friends in the DC punk rock scene, getting run in by cops was distressingly commonplace. My friend Chip actually had the singular misfortune of getting beat up by a drunk yuppie with a tire iron who mistakenly thought he had yelled an insult (a passing driver had), only to be "rescued" by an officer who took his turn beating up Chip before arresting him for assault! These stories all end the same way: the cop drops the charges and everyone's happy... sort of. Nearly every one of my friends back home has a story like this. Also, incidentally, every black person I've ever met has a story like this. This is something to keep in mind here.

Now, in my experience, it's only about 1 in 10 police officers who are macho dicks. And one would imagine about the same percentage of people in any position of power and authority to abuse that power and authority. This doesn't make the institution inherently corrupt- failure to correct the people who abuse their power and authority is what corrupts.

That said, I think it is a mistake to jump to the accusation of 'racial profiling' in the Gates case: the charge would seem to be aimed at the woman who called the police, and I'm not sure it makes sense to suggest that a white man trying to jimmy open the door of a house would, or should, go unoticed. Calling the police seems justified and the officer questioning Gates at length seems justified. At the point in which Gates produced identification, the cop should have left. Even if Gates was "rude" and "disruptive". You're allowed to be an ass in your own home.

The President shouldn't have said the police officer acted 'stupidly', given that he's the Commander in Chief. But, since he's already said this, he might as well state the obvious: arresting an elderly man in his own home because you think he was being a jerk to you is a clear-cut abuse of power suited to a banana republic and not to a country with constitutional protections. It's not 'disturbing the peace' to be rude in your own home; it's not 'obstruction of justice' if you've already produced documents showing that you live in the residence and aren't breaking in; it's just 'contempt of cop'. The colloquial term for it is bullshit.

Now, I understand that Skip Gates wasn't exactly wise in mouthing off to a cop. I understand that he downright reeks of Ivy League privilege here, and that he lost his cool at the worst possible time. And, again, I think it's a mistake to call the cop a racist. But I simply bristle at the argument that a certain segment of the populace makes every time we hear about a cop abusing their power: "Well, you'd better do what the guy with the gun and the badge says! And if you're too stupid to do that, you get what you deserve!" Not to put too fine a point on it, but I find that argument to be grotesquely authoritarian.

Lastly, I find it somewhat distressing that it seems to be accepted as a matter of course than a citizen cannot criticize, or perhaps sharply criticize an agent of the state, within their own home, and not be arrested for doing so. (It's also, incidentally, weird to me that every place I go in the US, I see about ten times as many police officers as I do anywhere in Canada. I suspect they're a bit over-employed in the states.) And, of course, I realize that the cop is only human and subject to making mistakes. But, given that he did make a mistake, he should man up and apologize. And the people who defend the right of the authorities to play etiquette police and lock up anyone who "has a problem with the way we do things around here" should find themselves an actual banana republic and move there.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Slime City Survivor: Episode 9, Mercenary Weekend

If you look closely, you can see Claire for about a second in this video. Also the top of my head for even less time than that .


Jerusalem Delivered

Most societies first learn their history through epic: these foundational texts serve as a guide to valor, heroism, family, politics, and man's relationship to the natural and supernatural worlds. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna's revelation of the divine is relatively straightforward- his loyal charioteer Krishna reveals his divine appearance containing all other beings in existence- if a bit terrifying. In the Iliad and the Aeneid, the gods take sides and fix fights in favor of their favorites, or more often, against the humans who have angered them. The key to tragedy is that human existence is fragile, knowledge is limited, nature is cruel and capricious, and life is unfair. The question in the Iliad is whether Achilles will overcome his pride; we, and he, know from the beginning that he will die in battle. But will he die with dignity?

A Christian epic is a bit different- God has already picked one side to win and is not particularly capricious (neither is Krishna, incidentally). The risk is that a fair universe makes for a boring story: battle after battle in which the good guys mechanically win. If you've ever read the Book of Mormon, you know how tedious this can become. How do the heroes struggle with their inner characters if they know the universe is basically on their side? And how to keep that struggle interesting?

One easy answer is sex. Torquato Tasso's epic of the Crusades, Gerusalemme liberata, is laced with sexy descriptions and romantic subplots. Admittedly, it can be a bit jarring in a Christian story to read loving descriptions of bared breasts; certainly, many Renaissance readers complained that Tasso should cut the mushy stuff and keep the battles. And he did: Gerusalemme conquistata (1593) was a more stern and somber work with the amorous passages castrated- more like Tasso conquistata. Naturally, nobody reads it today.

Anthony M. Esolen's translation of Gerusalemme liberatata leaves no doubt as to why people still read Tasso or why he is often called the second greatest Italian poet after Dante. It was often hard to understand this in older English translations. Affected phrasing 'twas the usual course/ And strange-ordered words for rhymes to force/ Pompous prose and obscured meaning/ Away from the tome one could run screaming. Esolen preserves the rhymes in verses that are supple, easily read, yet evocative: this should become the standard translation.

Epics are chronicles, poetry, and propaganda. Tasso doesn't entirely escape the occasional dull historical passage: this knight was from here and acted like this, while that knight was from there and acted more like that, and so forth. But his propaganda, when it works, soars: his exemplars are fully-formed human beings. He blends the intimate and the wide-frame, the personal and the political. Even his Saracen hordes are made up of human beings with contested souls- there we don't know which side will win. This makes his writing richer and more interesting than contemporary accounts of military crusades in the Middle East, which tend to keep the propaganda, while losing the poetry and sense of history. This is the other key to tragedy: societies exist in a state of forgetting and must learn its painful lessons with each new generation. Frankly, I'd rather read the book.


A Surfeit of Seeming

I grew up in a small town that was transformed into a large, sprawling suburb around the time I was ten or eleven. The change was rapid and total. My great-grandfather's farm- long since sold- became townhouse developments, my family's hardware store eventually closed down, and dozens of strip malls went in. The population quadrupled.

Naturally, I am not exactly happy about what has become of the old town. The strangest thing I notice when visiting there- aside from the fact that the middle aged suburbanites who live there are some of the angriest people I've ever encountered- is how artificial everything is. It's like they replaced a town with an advertisement for a town. The local radio shows- which actually used to be local- give the sensation of hanging out in a locker room; the local restaurants have been replaced with theme restaurants in which you can pretend to be in Venice or Texas; and most of the "entertainment complexes" and stores offer similar make-believe "experiences". One encounters so much marketing and hype- even in the standardized greetings they give you in these places- that you feel somehow untethered. It's as if the economy is completely fueled by artifice.

Whatever happened to reality?

That's a clumsy way to ask the question, and I'm not sure I can do better. Luckily, Ihab Hassan has written a challenging, and more cogent, article on this question. Here are the first two paragraphs to entice you to read more (Aha! Marketing!):

"The way we live: when I think of that in the cusp of some small frustration—say, holding the phone waiting for a warm-bodied techie—random themes begin to buzz in my brain, like restless bees in a hive. Themes like politics, marketing, celebrity, trust, art, the void. How can I quiet these themes, these concerns, long enough to make sense of the noise?

I do not mean to make an essay out of the tribulations of writing an essay—that’s tacky; I mean only to explain my title as a bewildered approach to the multitudinous present, the way we have become. It’s a large topic, relevant to what V. S. Naipaul called “our universal civilization,” relevant also to all those errant souls—immigrants, refugees, displaced persons, expatriates like myself—wandering the earth. It’s a large topic, but I have tried to hew to a particular line: the tyranny of appearances, a surfeit of seeming in America. Yes, now things must seem, not be."



Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hamilton Fringe Festival: Giving into Light

It's not easy to tell a story well. Often I find people's eyes wandering when I tell a story for too long, or go into too many digressions, or just lose the point. Claire will also attest that my idea of what is funny often differs from what other people find funny. I have told stories before that ended with me convulsed in laughter at things that no one else was amused by.

Alison Wearing knows how to tell a story really well. Her book, Honeymoon in Purdah is a funny, eye-opening account of a trip through modern Iran as a Canadian newlywed. I'd imagine that her one-woman play Giving into Light will become a book too, at some point in the future. I think it should be a DVD. The writing is impeccable; not a word is out of place. However, in a book, you would miss her performance; she does characters, dances, delivers jokes, and even sings beautifully. It is a breathtaking performance. My immediate response was to call family members and tell them we're going to see this show this weekend.

Wearing details the birth of her first child and how a condition that can only be described as post-partum elation led her to move to Mexico. The first section deals with how we respond to birth in Canada, while the second deals with how the Mexican women Wearing met understood birth and motherhood. The contrast is funny and enlightening and Wearing's portraits of various people she's known are rich and humane. She hasn't a mean bone in her body.

The result was the best play I've seen in a number of years. It's rarer than I'd like to admit that I am delighted by a work of art, but this was such an incident.


Just 'cause I think it'll be liked here...


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

New Hope for the Auto Industry

Here is proof positive that my father is a great man- he and his buddies built this "car-boat" for a friend. This article tells about the fully functional car/boat hybrid; however it does neglect to mention my father- thanks a lot, liberal media! He did the wiring. He also drove the lobster-boat from which this photograph was taken.


The Interview Project

"It's so fascinating to look and listen to people."
-David Lynch, describing Interview Project: the team made a 20,000 mile trip around the United States interviewing completely average people. The results are totally fascinating. Check it out and see if you can avoid watching all of them.


Monday, July 20, 2009

More on Etiquette

Looking at my post about the importance of dressing and behaving well in public, I noticed two cultural blind spots on my part: the first is that immigrants to Canada and the US, particularly from more 'traditional' cultures, often dress and behave a lot better than the locals; the other is that this discussion about dressing and behaving with dignity has, of course, been going on for decades now in the black community. The always good Ta-Nehisi Coates writes today:

"I think it's easy to underestimate how much this Organic Black Conservative tradition resonates. It really is one of things that connects us. It's about going upschool to check on your son, and finding out that the kids that are cutting up the most in class, are the one's whose parents are the least involved. It's about walking up Lenox, at ten in the evening on Sunday, and seeing eight year-olds out playing. There's a deep sense, in all of us--even left-wing me--that we aren't doing enough.
I don't know that that sense is rational. I don't think it makes policy. But we have a strong need to believe that we don't have to wait on policy reform (read: the consent of white folks) for change. That if we just change how eat, how we raise our kids, our study-habits, how we talk to each other, then everything will be OK. I feel like that all the time. It is the religious part of me."
He's right. I recognize a lot of this having lived in a few "black neighborhoods" and working with a lot of older black men. I remember listening to guys my father's age agonizing about why they can't get their sons to dress and speak better. My own parents, who were certainly working class too, generally told us to do what we wanted and not worry too much about what the old farts thought about it. My father is a great man, but he can be a bit obstinate, and I remember my parents fighting over his insistence on wearing his dirty work clothes to PTA meetings. His point: if they didn't like it, well then screw 'em! I remember, as a child, thinking that there was something snooty and phony about being too dignified. Luckily, we lived down the street from my grandfather, who spent hours teaching us how to comport ourselves. He was pretty old school.

However, it was funny to me because, in the largely black areas that I've lived in, the men my father's age dress just like my grandfather. It's not dressing "rich"; it's just dressing well. They look sharp. Maybe this is what's so weird to me about Hamilton, another working class city with a largely white population- I see men in their 40s with dirty, sleeveless shirts, hanging jeans, and a general demeanor of angry defiance- if you don't like it, then screw you! I'm not actually used to seeing this in large numbers of middle aged men. It seems weird.

As for the "Organic Black Conservative tradition", it's strange how little you hear about it, outside of the black community or its media. Coates is absolutely right here: there is a strong cultural conservatism in the black community, an almost "Midwestern" emphasis on dress, demeanor, family, faith, and tradition. I always called it "churchy", meaning no disrespect. So when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama talk about these things, they're speaking within a tradition; there's nothing 'revolutionary' or even unique about it. Coates is also right that it's tempting, and probably wrong, to assume that these behaviors can solve every social problem. I do think that this Organic Black Conservative tradition he's talking about might gain a bit more attention with Barack Obama, who is absolutely a product of that tradition, becoming President. But, that's another post.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Playing Dead in a Movie

It's a lot harder than you'd think to play dead in a movie. Oh, it's not as hard as acting, I'd imagine. Getting into the frame of mind to play pretend in front of other people, who might well be critical of your pretending abilities, seems extremely difficult to me. Claire and I did some "acting" on the set of Slime City Massacre, but nothing like those actors who had to deliver lines in a convincing way. Nevertheless, lying in a pool of blood on the floor of an abandoned postal building, covered in more blood, with about twenty other people, is a lot harder than it sounds. It's also probably the worst way imaginable to wake up after a long night of drinking, but that's a different story.

I'm a fan of the horror genre and have been since I was a kid. Horror films mediate our fears of mortality in a way that most other sorts of drama cannot. For instance, I remain convinced that David Cronenberg's The Fly is one of the best movies I've ever seen about terminal illness. By abstracting themes of death and decay through fantastic frameworks, horror fiction can get at the ugly and unfair fact that we don't get to hang out on this planet forever. Also, as a collective experience, horror films are visceral and emotional and seeing them with an audience is a blast.

Provided they're good, that is. There are a lot of bad horror movies. I suppose there are a lot of bad sci-fi movies, or action movies, or comedies too. But my critical facilities go out the window with horror movies. If an action film is terrible, I know it. If a horror movie is bad, I can know that it's bad and still have a great time watching it. If it's terrible, I look forward to watching it with friends and beer.

So, when I found out that they were making a sequel to the late 80s horror movie Slime City, I was pretty excited. And when I found out they were shooting it in Buffalo, my first thought was to see if I could watch the filming from afar. Finally, when I read the post on the Rue Morgue message board entitled "Can I kill you in Slime City Massacre?" I was overjoyed. I'm sort of a geek that way. It's a bit embarrassing, but I guess we all need to be giddy about something.

Day One
The first day of filming with extras began at 9:00 am on a Sunday. I drove down and crossed the border at an ungodly hour and found the location- the old Grand Central Terminal in Buffalo- before anyone but a nice couple from Baltimore who knew the director Gregory Lamberson. They had driven up for the shoot, so they beat me for distance. They were very friendly in a way that I find most horror fans, and actually most people in the states, to be. There was also a police car parked at the location. None of us knew for sure that we were supposed to be there, but the building is so incredible (as I've talked about here) that it seemed most likely.

People began straggling in. The call was for extras to play homeless people in a post-apocalyptic New York in which a terrorist blast has leveled part of the city. We were the survivors and I'm sure the cops were a bit surprised to see people driving in dressed like characters in The Road Warrior. It was reassuring for me though.

The crew arrived before long and this was a relief too- they were a very professional bunch with good equiptment and they knew what they were doing. I wasn't expecting a full Hollywood production staff, but it was nice to know that it also wasn't two guys with a camera trespassing in old buildings to shoot, with one guy watching for police. They had secured the location, which was perfect for the story, and I think Lamberson wrote the story with the location in mind. It really was perfect- like a full soundstage already made to look post-apocalyptic.

There were about 20-30 of us the first day and we all got made up in fake dirt and grime. I found that the mixture actually tasted pretty good- some of it got in my mouth and I think it must have had corn syrup in there. So my face was both ugly and delicious.

They positioned us on the old railway platform for a scene in which the heroes arrive in "Slime City", a dystopian homeless person's paradise. We were supposed to interact with each other and then stop to glare are the heroes, an attractive young couple, who will likely be much less attractive by the end of the film. I was interacting with a funny local actor who played a one-armed man. We were fighting over a stick. I was turned towards him and away from the camera, so I was mostly doing what my friend Cheryl calls "backting".

We were done by about 3:00- it took us about four hours to get done with our minute of screen time. Apparently, this is the norm. Claire's uncle, who is a professional cinematographer, has told us the same thing. Shooting a movie involves a lot of waiting around. You can see why actors like having trailers. A lot of the other extras had worked on other local movies- most of them seemed to have been in Poltrygeist. They said that this was one of the best run and fastest shoots they'd done.

Day Two
The second shooting day took place in the "Den of Cyn", a sort of county fair after the apocalypse. I played a haggler at a table where two men were selling "goods" they'd found. The two of them were great. They reminded me of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show. We mimed most of our "business" in the scenes to avoid talking over the main actors. I wanted to mime shoplifting, which I thought would be funny, but couldn't figure out how to do it without moving around the 'merchandise'. Since they shoot scenes out of order, you don't want to move things around or it will look strange when edited together. An example would be a scene at the end of The Goonies, in which a woman's hand is holding jewels. She has on nailpolish, until we cut to the next shot and suddenly she doesn't!
There were more extras this day and many of them had on great outfits. There was a metalworker selling machetes, our haggling table, a leather slave, transvestites, drug dealers, and a madame with a group of hookers. I'm thinking this will not be a PG film. There was also a funny bit with two "bros" looking to slum it in Slime City and gawk at the homeless people. It looks like there will be a biting, satirical edge to the movie, which I liked.

Day Three
The third day Claire and I went down together. They wanted fifty extras for this day, in which the titular 'Massacre' was to take place. Indeed, they seemed to have about that many people show up. It probably helped that it was a Saturday. Claire and I got made up and waited. Interestingly enough, we found a prosthetic chin lying in the grass, which sounds like something out of an Alice Donut song or a Dali painting. I took a few pictures.

On this day, they were shooting quite a bit of material involving a group of mercenaries from the fictional "Blackwater Security" and the residents of Slime City. The guys playing the mercenaries looked just like action film heroes. They were definitely into their characters- a few of them unnervingly so. I thought back to playing soldiers in the backyard.

It also became clear just how ambitious the movie is. Considering that it's shooting for about $100,000, they're definitely going to accomplish a lot. I think it's going to look like a five million dollar film when they're done. In the era of 140 million dollar movies, that might sound like damning with faint praise, but it's not. Most of us couldn't pull off anything like this movie for $100,000.

Without giving too much away, our characters on this day had to look scared. It will likely sound inappropriate, but I tried to evoke this child in this famous photo from Nazi Germany. I imagined my character as a paranoid schizophrenic whose worst nightmares are coming true. A bit too much thinking, perhaps, but it was important for me to take the film seriously. The film might have a satirical edge, but the filmmakers take what they're doing seriously. So I saw no reason to camp it up.

Claire got to get splattered with blood in the shoot- lucky girl. There was a "gag" involving a character getting shot in the head and the air-compressed blood was required to hit the wall and a character played by the F/X guy. There was some concern that it wouldn't work, but it did- the blood hit the wall and the bystanders, including Claire, and everyone applauded after the shot was done.

For the massacre, we were all lined up in the postal building. I tried to look scared. Here I realized how hard it is to act in a movie. You're trying to look terrified, while trying to ignore the crew, who are not at all part of the scene. It's hard not to feel goofy, but I think we got it.

Then it was outside for more waiting. We watched the effects guys walking into the building with huge buckets of fake blood, and I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. Finally, the producer (I think) came out and asked some people to get killed inside. He called Claire and asked if I could come back the next day. My heart sank. I was happy for her, of course, but realized I was going to be a survivor. Only a horror movie geek would be saddened by that.

In a heartwarming moment, Claire stopped and asked if her husband could get killed to because he'd really want to. "Okay, come on Rufus!" the guy yelled. I'm not sure if he was the Producer or the Production Assistant, but he was a great guy all around. I ran in smiling. This is why I married Claire.

I did sort of worry that I was making the next day's shooting difficult in some way. But I also figured that my extra role was not "pivotal" to the story. I really hope that we weren't out of line. Claire was right though: getting killed in a horror film is a dream come true for me.

Actually, we were killed off-camera. So, the twenty of us were lying dead on the floor of the postal building. They laid out cardboard and positioned us on the floor. I took off my shoes so the Nike logo wouldn't be in the shot. Right before we got into position, the effects guy came and splattered us with blood. As you'll see in these pictures, we did have reason to worry about having to go through the border crossing afterward!

We were there for a crane shot from overhead and had to remain still and lifeless. It was harder than that sounds because we "fell" in rather uncomfortable positions. Also, the shot was about a minute long, so I had to breathe. Worst, and perhaps most disgusting of all, was the fact that I had recently eaten a bagel that seemed to want to be regurgitated. I kept bringing up bile into my mouth while they were shooting, and I was trying to keep the motionless face, and Claire was positioned on top of my stomach.

This went on for some time. They wanted to get several takes of the shot. I kept thinking that I was twitching in the shot, and worried that I'd be "that guy" who is spotted moving by viewers and joked about on the Internet. Also, I was worried that I'd vomit on camera, which would probably ruin the scene too. Not to mention how close we all were- like a game of Twister. It could have resulted in something like the barf-o-rama scene in Stand by Me!

Luckily, I made it through and I think I looked okay for a dead guy. Overall, working on Slime City Massacre was an absolute blast. The crew was both professional and kind and it is clear that Gregory Lamberson is living a dream making this movie. I look forward to seeing the DVD and showing it to friends. As I commented to Claire, it was great to be an extra on exactly the sort of movie I'd go see.

And, for the record, the border guard coming into Canada was very amused by our story and in no way freaked out about the dried blood in my ear.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Hamilton Fringe Festival 2009

If you are in Southern Ontario or thereabouts and fond of theater, come check out the Hamilton Fringe Festival running this weekend, next week, and next weekend. There are 28 plays, most of which are being performed more than once. None of them are particularly expensive to see.

I will be there, backstage, volunteering fairly often. You'll also notice that one of the two runners up in the playwriting competition is a play written by a familiar rogue.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Etiquette Training

Today, I read John of Joinville's account of the Fourth Crusade under Louis IX. It's a rousing adventure story and a historical account of the Christian crusaders. What interested me, though, was that Joinville intended the book, in part, as a guide for the king's son and heir towards leading a pious life.

It always interests me so how many older texts offer their readers examples of upright, pious, or dignified behavior to imitate with the intention of making them good people as a result. So, for instance, this text gives us several instances of the king's behavior in situations that were important, or even very trivial, and the son is supposed to follow those examples, and thereby become a good king.

I think most of us see characteristics like piety as internal: you believe or think certain things and, in turn, your behavior reflects that. But these guides to behavior argue just the opposite: you act in a certain way externally and this, in turn, structures your inner life. In a sense, you play the role of being a pious person, and eventually it becomes second nature.

I could be reading too much into Joinville, but it strikes me that there is something basically correct in this. And it's an idea that has sort of returned. Judith Butler wrote about gender as "performativity" in a book that was very popular with college students, but Erving Goffman's book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is the one to read- he got there first and it's much better written. Actually, if you just travel to a different society and watch people go about their daily lives, you'll notice how much of it looks like acting from the outside- how much 'natural' behavior is performed. Or just take a new job and stay there for a year or so, and you'll notice behaviors that once felt unnatural and 'phony' become almost unconscious.

In North America, there is a cultural emphasis on not "acting", on being "natural", but this is a pose like any other, to rip off Brother Oscar Wilde. And it's performed in imitation of others as well. Thus the "natural" pose tends to be weirdly identical and conformist. Claire and I live in a very blue collar town in which a certain percentage of young males behave like roughnecks: walking around without shirts, often drunk in public, starting fights, using continuous profanity, etc. But the ones who behave this way all look, dress, talk, and carry their bodies in exactly the same way. After a certain point, you get so accustomed to the performance that it begins to seem totally fake. It's an affectation of being unaffected.

The implication seems to be that most behaviors are learned, either by conforming to certain rules or by imitating others. So, if it's ultimately just a choice as to how we behave, wouldn't it be better to affect the behavior of, say, a boarding school dandy, if only because it would eventually become second nature? I mean, it seems like dignified behavior would be good for your psychological state, whether or not there's an eternal soul. And acting undignified, with the mistaken assumption that it reads as more natural, would eventually convince you that you are, in fact, undignified.

I do remember getting a bit of this sort of education as a child, mostly in regards to how we behaved towards other children. I'm not sure that the obedience training helped me very much, but perhaps etiquette training conditions you to think more highly of yourself. If you affect the
pose of being a "thug", after a while you might come to think of yourself as inherently undignified; whereas, if you adopt the behavior of a lady or gentleman, you might come to think of yourself as being inherently worthy of more respect. So, maybe more people should encourage their children to be less natural.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Buffalo Central Terminal

Slime City Massacre was filming today at the Grand Central Terminal in Buffalo, New York, a truly amazing building in the heart of the Broadway district of the city. It was designed by Alfred T. Fellheimer and Steward Wagner in 1927 and opened in 1929. It was the main train station in Buffalo, and I believe it served the Empire State Railway, Canadian Railway, The New York Central, and a train between Toronto, Hamilton, and Buffalo, which would be nice to have now.

As you can see from these pictures I took, the art deco architecture is something amazing. I have no idea if there are people who can still replicate these details, when they get around to restoring the building, but I`d like to see them preserve the original look. Buffalo is a great city for architecture anyway. I walk around downtown with my mouth hanging open every time I visit the city.

The Grand Central station was always too big. It started with 200 daily trains in 1929, but you'll notice it was built as the Depression was reaching full pitch, and it quickly went into decline. However, business picked up and the station reached a peak capacity during WWII, serving 152 daily trains from all sorts of different lines by 1944.

After the war, it went into decline again. New York Central tried to sell it in 1956, but there were no serious buyers and they demolished a few buildings in 1966. In 1968, New York Central merged into Penn Central, which became Consolidated Rail in 1976. The next year, Amtrak restored service to Toronto and Niagara Falls on the Maple Leaf line. It was too little too late- besides, Amtrak was in no condition to prop anyone else up at this point- and they switched to a different station in 1979, the same year that all passenger travel from Grand Central ended.

In 1979, the site was sold to Anthony Fedele & Galesi Realty for $75,000. They held galas, hockey games, and other events in the space for a while, but defaulted on their taxes in 1986, effectively abandoning the site. Tomas Telesco bought it and started selling off the artifacts inside, and it was then bought by Bernie Tuchman and his Uncle Samuel, who allowed it to fall prey to looting and vandalism, as had Telesco. The beloved bison statue inside was even smashed by a truck removing light fixtures, there were arson attempts- it was essentially treated like many old buildings in the rust belt are today.

Preservationists complained that nothing was happening with the building, and the owners responded, "If you think you can do better, I'll sell it to you for a dollar." Scott Field and the Preservation Coalition of Erie County knew a bargain when they heard one and bought the entire site for $1 plus $70,000 in back taxes in 1997.

The building is currently owned by a non-profit, the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. They have restored much of the main concourse and host about twenty events here every year, as well as tours. There have been a handful of low budget horror films shot in the site, as well as an episode of Ghost Hunters. As far as I know, they hope to eventually restore passenger and light rail service to the Terminal, as well as retail shopping, restaurants, and so forth. The amazing thing is that trains pass by the terminal on a track that runs about forty feet away from the old platform!

It would be easy to make something out of the station, but it`s also hard to know how much business it would get- that part of Buffalo is a long way from thriving. I do plan on going on the tour, though.
I'm surprised there haven't been more large scale movies shot here. The inside of the building is even more beautiful than the outside- check out this picture- and it's possible to shoot there for a song. I could imagine Batman hanging out there and feeling right at home. If anyone from Hollywood is reading this, give the CTRC a call.


Saturday, July 11, 2009


Okay, maybe films can be art after all...

Agnès Varda made the best documentary you'll ever see: Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse (The Gleaners and I), as well as a number of lyrical, poetry-on-film like La Bonheur and Cléo from 5 to 7. I actually can't think of a Varda film that I haven't enjoyed. She's a national treasure; not of France, but of the larger nation of artists.

This is her newest film- Les plages d'Agnès- she was working on editing it when I visited Paris last- "in the tunnel" as she put it. The film was completed soon after and won the French Cesar for best documentary- basically the academy award for French cinema. By all accounts, it's a great Proustian film.

I actually met Mme Varda on the sidewalk outside of her studio on the Rue Daguerre in Paris. I was looking at the posters and she walked up and asked me if I had discovered something interesting. She's as gregarious and funny in life as in her movies, which of course are an extension of her life. Anyway, you often have these interactions with artists and decide to buy a work from them only to find out it isn't so great. I bought a few DVDs from her and was completely floored by them. Then I went to her gallery show L'ile et elle, which I suspect inspired this new movie, and became a fan for life.

If you get a chance to watch The Gleaners and I, do so. It's out on DVD and available through Netflix. Okay, maybe you've seen a better documentary- I haven't- but, you'll still love it.

So, in the right hands, film can be art, and then some.


More from Paris Fashion Season

French officialdom might not be big on the burqa, but I'm guessing Givenchy isn't big on Sarkozy. Or maybe they had no point to make with this stunning middle eastern ensemble...


Slime City Massacre

Now, having said all of that about films not often rising to the level of art these days, I keep thinking to myself, "Will Slime City Massacre be a work of art?"

The sequel to the 1988 micro-budget horror film Slime City is now filming in Buffalo. The director, Greg Lamberson, has written entertaining articles on the film's pre-production here. It will be shot on hi-def video, which I just bitched about; however, it does make a bit more sense to use HD on a $100,000 movie than on a $80 million movie. Here you have a group of dedicated non-professionals giving their all in the hopes of making a really good movie.

Who wouldn't want to take part in something like that? I'll be making the two-hour drive to Buffalo tomorrow to play a homeless extra and I will post here to let everyone know how it goes. I probably will not put this on my CV however.

Can I promise that Slime City Massacre will be a work of art? Oh, God no. But, I'm pretty sure it will be an extremely entertaining movie made by people who love what they're doing, and there it's quite different from the dreck currently in the multiplexes.


Move Notes: Public Enemies

Will Hollywood go the way of the Detroit auto industry? ...Please?

Millions and millions of dollars are poured into these ugly, abrasive, disjointed movies aimed solely at the tastes of a very small segment of the population-young males between the ages of 12 and 25- that happens to spend the most money. The end result? Hollywood has done exactly what American auto companies did: spending entirely too much money to capture too small a segment of the market at the expense of alienating nearly everyone else. When we went to the multiplex last night, I didn't see anyone else there above the age of 22. After we watched the "film", I understood why.

It was also surprisingly undersold for a "major Hollywood movie" on a Friday night. So many seats were empty that at least half of the teenagers in the theater had their feet up on the seat in front of them, and about half of them had their shoes and socks off. Also the new rule seems to be that you're okay if you sit in the middle of a multiplex. The back is now understood to be the "talking section", while the middle is where they just whisper loudly and film the movie on their cell phones. I'd imagine they'll be pissing in the trashcans next, since the washroom is such a long walk away.

As for the movie, bootlegging Public Enemies on a cell phone is appropriate because the "film" looks like it was shot on a cell phone. It's amazing: they spent eighty million dollars, made incredible costumes and sets, and hired some of the best actors working in movies, and shot the thing on crappy HD video that makes it look like something a college kid posted on Youtube. If you watched the thing on a PC, it would look the same, if not better. It is, mercifully, filmed in a hand held style that helps distract from how ugly it is by giving the viewer motion sickness. And, like most Michael Mann films, it's edited so quickly that you can't generally tell what's going on anyway. One new innovation here however is that the sound drops out during some of the dialogue scenes so that you can't always hear what's being said either. Viva progress.

This painful technical ineptitude is supposed to seem "current" and "edgy", but it just looks like cable access television. The target audience has no taste anyway, and clearly I'm too old at 35 to be in that focus group. The movie scrimps on actual dialogue scenes because teenage boys don't like to watch people talking; and so, there's no character development whatsoever. The lovemaking scenes are awkwardly chaste, because teenagers get uncomfortable with nudity when they're on dates. And, since teens love violence, most of the scenes feature ridiculously inept bloodletting, whether it fits the story or not. Thankfully, however, there wasn't the excessive CGI that makes most multiplex movies look like video games. This one looked instead like web cam footage.

It all becomes most painful during the last scenes. The real John Dillinger, of course, was gunned down while exiting Chicago’s Biograph Theater after watching a Clark Gable gangster movie, which means that we get to see a film-within-a-film that is much better than the actual film we're watching! It wasn't even a good Clark Gable film, but the few glimpses of sumptuous closeups and acting unhindered by technological gimmickry made me misty eyed. Johnny Depp is a great actor too, but they actually allowed Clark Gable to act, instead of giving him two or three clipped lines and shooting them with the camera zoomed up his nose.

That's what's most frustrating about Public Enemies: Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, and Christian Bale are great, gorgeous actors, and it's thrilling to see them together in a movie (even if it isn't porn). The acting was very good, the sets and costumes were beautiful, and on occasion there were some powerful scenes- the scene in the movie theater was particularly effective. And it's not a bad movie- it's just a really mediocre movie that had all of the resources to be a very good movie. Sadly, they just didn't try very hard. And, it's definitely not a film worth seeing in a movie theater, like we did. Rent it on DVD, or better yet, wait until it's on television.

In fact, there really aren't a lot of movies made any more that are worth seeing in a theater. It used to be commonly understood by 'cultured people' that movies are not, and cannot be, works of art- an argument that I've always strongly disagreed with. But, clearly, I'm in the minority now. Modern filmmakers would be offended to be called auteurs, or to have their product called art. And filmgoers... well, they just want noise and fast cars to get their minds off their failing grades and overbearing parents. The rest of us are better off renting old Criterion Collection stuff from Netflix or Zip, or reading books. The hype and horseshit won out- films are not art.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fashion and its Triumphs of Engineering

And here we have an incredible outfit by Francois Emyric that surely qualfies as a triumph of engineering only slightly less impressive than the Brooklyn Bridge! I love fashion that amply demonstrates the high level of design that goes into these clothes, working off of and highlighting the female form (a wonderous design itself!). I love the combination of form and function, utility and aesthetics. Most of all, I simply love it when people put in hours and hours of work to make something well. Where we live, and on our budget, we are often awash in cheap clothes, food, and stuff. This sort of fashion raises my spirits. There's something beautiful, and meaningful, about seeing someone devote themself to just making a thing really well.


I'm a celebrity- get me out of here!

Right now it's impossible to wander around the Internet without stepping in a pile or two of hyperbolic speculation about television personality Sarah Palin's rambling roundelay of a resignation as Governor of Alaska. I'll try to avoid the urge to contribute more.

I remain a Palin Agnostic. Nothing she has said or done has yet risen to the level of 'interesting' for me. Some people hate her. They think she's 'horrible' and 'dangerous' because her manner of speech is odd and unpolished. Admittedly, her foot seldom misses an opportunity to pay a visit to her mouth. And so what? Her off-the-cuff style seems to be a point in her favor among her admirers, and forgive me for not running to man the barricades myself. Oh, and she's also supposedly 'intellectually uncurious'. Unlike which other politician? Is Harry Reid noted for his intellectual curiosity? I'm sure Diane Feinstein is completing her study of the morphology of that new insect species she discovered in the Amazon basin as we speak. Palin is supposedly 'provincial', but with most American politicians, it's hard to tell if they're provincial or just playing provincial. Wasn't it John Kerry who pretended not to be able to speak French? Lastly, Palin is supposed to just be too mediocre and rural to serve in higher office- as if these characteristics weren't qualifications for American politics at this point. I fail to see why she's uniquely bad.

Nor do I understand the childish personality cult that surrounds her. See if you can get a Palinite to tell you why she would be a good leader without them saying ''She's just like us'', or ''She understands us''. Gooble, gabba- we accept you! One of us! Sorry, I'm not looking for a drinking buddy when I vote, and I feel like shaking some of these people and saying, "I swear- she's not going to marry you!" Also, for all their supposed 'averageness', her supporters often come across as a snobbish clique, forever bragging how they ''get'' her in a way that outsiders (New Yorkers, journalists, academics, rich people, other assholes, etc.) just can't. And yes, it's exactly the same with the United Church of Obama Consciousness people too. I'm convinced the last election was about two dimwitted personality cults arguing with each other about their scriptures. Seriously: people in political office are not your friends, heroes, messiahs, or spiritual guides- they're just these dopes that work for you.

American politicians aren't leaders as much as celebrities at this point. The problem the Republicans have right now is that it's better to be a Republican media figure than a Republican political figure. "Liberal media'' aside, there are now two distinct structures of Republicanism: a Party and a Media Empire. A clever young Republican thus has two distinct career paths:

  1. Become a Senator or Congressman, making about $120,000 per year, sitting in boring committee meetings, rarely being able to speak your mind, and being vilified by nearly everyone, including those Republicans who despise 'politicians'.
  2. Work as hard and as long to become a nationally-syndicated talk-show blabber, write some bestselling boilerplate books for people who don't really like to read, get paid in the millions, be encouraged to say outrageous things to rile up the audience, and get treated like a rock star, especially by those Republicans who despise 'politicians'.
When I first saw Sarah Palin, I thought, ''She should become a right-wing version of Oprah". And why not? The money's good and the work's easy. If I was her, I'd ditch the struggling Party for the booming Media Empire. It's hard to keep them down in Juneau once they've seen Paris Hilton.


Haute Couture Season

It's now haute couture season in Paris, and I'll post more pictures as I get time. Here's a ravishing, red dress by Turkish designer Cengiz Abazoglu. I think she might need to lose the hat if she goes outdoors, to avoid perching birds. But, otherwise, I quite like this ensemble.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Vermeer- View of Delft

In line with the postings on Proust, here's Vermeer's View of Delft, a painting that comes up repeatedly in À la recherche du temps perdu.


Clip metro Java

Now for something completely different... A tribute to the Paris Metro system by Java, a popular musical act in France that must be the first musette-rap act in history. Enjoy.


What the hell just happened in Iran?

It's not entirely clear what the impact will be, but Christopher Hitchens says the recent statement by the Association of Teachers and Researchers of Qum, a much-respected source of religious rulings, to the effect that the recent elections in Iran were a sham, is a big deal:

''It's not too much to read two things into the association's statement. The first is that public discontent with the outrages of the last few weeks must be extremely deep and extremely widespread. Differences among the clerisy are usually solved in much more discreet ways. If the Shiite scholars of Qum are willing to go public and call the Ahmadinejad regime an impostor, they must be impressed with the intensity of feeling at the grass roots. The second induction follows from the first: It is not an exaggeration to say that the Islamic republic in its present form is now undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy.''
Of course, I can't possibly claim to know if the elections were rigged, as so many Iranians believe, or not. However, my point all along has been that, fair elections or not, when a state takes to shooting its protesters in the street because they criticize election results, they no longer get to call themselves a 'democracy'. The 'serious crisis of legitimacy' is entirely self-inflicted. There's nobody to blame but themselves- not that this will likely stop the arrests, beatings, and so forth. But, it's increasingly hard to see any chance that this will all end with the current Ayatollah and President having a long and peaceful time in power. Stay tuned.


Book Notes: The Guermantes Way (Marcel Proust)

As I've mentioned before, I'm currently re-reading À la recherche du temps perdu, along with all my dissertation-related books. With Volume III, we're now halfway through Proust's masterpiece and our narrator has become a young man. In a series largely driven by young men and their never-fully-requited longing for women, we get a glimpse of the narrator's future obsession with Albertine, the girl he met at the beach in Volume II, but the real object of fascination in this volume is the Duchesse de Guermantes, which draws the reader into the Guermantes set.

The narrator is somehwat obsessed with the Duchesse and her, ''smiling, disdainful, absent-minded air.'' He makes a point of encountering her on her morning walks. She is known as the ''smartest woman in Paris''. Eventually though the narrator and those of us reading recognize Mme de Guermantes as a frightful snob and her husband as vulgar and arrogant. In the last scene of this volume- thus at the halfway point of In Search of Lost Time- they foresake their old friend Swann in a way that highlights their moral bankruptcy.

And what a tremendous scene it is: really one of the best in literature. If you read it apart from the rest of the work, the passages seem banal; but in the context established by the first three volumes, it's absolutely devastating. The Duc and Duchesse simply lack the basic human decency required to do the right thing, and the forms mandated by decorum are no help at all for them. Ultimately, they just don't care about other people. What's masterful about Proust is that he gets this all across while remaining understated.

Essentially, he's detailing the waning years of an aristocracy whose legal powers were removed over a hundred years prior, but whose cultural powers continue in a vestigial form. One gets the sense in all of these salons and parties of witnessing the freezing of time. These people are no longer aristocrats in any real sense, and they struggle to be independent-minded; but they maintain aristocratic behaviors in an unthinking, instinctual way that Proust compares to being driven by a genie. It reminds one of certain holiday rituals that we all perform without having any idea what they mean. These people cannot break free of the blood-traditions that they pretend not to care about.

Perhaps the most free-thinking of them is Robert Saint-Loup, a young man who befriends the narrator and whose love affair with a girl of ill repute mirrors that of Swann in Volume I. In Proust, all love relationships seem to inevitably turn to jealousy and pain, and I think he believes that we're doomed in these relationships to want to know the beloved more completely than we'll ever be able to. Of course, Proust suffered no longing for unreachable women, but as a homosexual in the Belle Epoque, he likely knew unfulfilled longing.

Saint-Loup is also a Dreyfusard. The Dreyfus Affair figures prominently in this volume, with Proust showing how it divided French society from the bottom to the top between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards. For anyone wondering about the history, Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer who was arrested for treason- allegedly, for passing on military secrets to the German embassy in Paris, and was subsequently sent to Devil's Rock in 1894. It came to light, however, that Dreyfus was entirely innocent, and one Major Esterhazy was guilty of the crime.

In the eventual retrial, members of the Army brass framed Dreyfus, presenting forged documents supposedly proving his guilt. Dreyfus was sent back to prison, the result being a loud public outcry led by the writer Emile Zola. Dreyfus was retried yet again in 1898; this was when the public debate reached a fevered pitch. A Hungarian journalist named Theodor Herzl assigned to cover the case was so shocked at the angry mobs calling for Dreyfus's blood that he wrote a book, Der Judenstaadt, arguing that Jews would never be fairly treated in European society and so needed their own homeland- this was the birth of the Zionist movement.

Proust does a good job of showing how where one stood on the scandal reflected a basic attitude towards French society, between preserving it warts-and-all and a more 'free-thinking' attitude about reform. His older aristocrats are so anti-Dreyfus that they see no need to express their opinions. Some of them, who one might expect to be pro-Dreyfus, are not. Swann, importantly, is pro-Dreyfus and a Jew, and his alienation from high society is completed here, while his wife, pathetically, pretends to be a nationalist. There's again a sense of mental calcification, reinforced by 'tradition'. All the Guermantes set are anti-semites, although some will come around in future volumes. In the end, Dreyfus was exonerated, freed, and went on to serve with distinction in World War I. It took French high society a shamefully long time to recognize the obvious.

So, is In Search of Lost Time a six-volume indictment of French high society? I've heard some readers point out the inconsistency of Proust's critique of snobs when his own social connections are fairly evident. Being undercultured is overrated and Proust is one of the most cultured writers imaginable. High Society in the novel is sort of like a greenhouse: it allows clever minds like Swann's, Saint-Loup's, or our narrator's to flourish, but it's a rather artificial environment separated from the outside world. The culture within has nearly calcified and frozen in time. And the fact that a man as brilliant as Swann is on the outs suggests the reversal of values of a sub-culture in decline. Proust is writing in retrospect about this world's last gasp. He is like an anthropologist detailing a vanishing tribe that will disappear completely after 1914.


What the hell just happened in Honduras?

Here's something you no longer see everyday- a military removing a president in Central America. It used to be a regular occurrence- I believe there was even a 'Coup Season' each year. Now, they're relatively rare. Perhaps this was a coup for nostalgia's sake.

It's also been a somewhat popular coup within Honduras. The Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, had organized a non-binding future referendum on convening a constituent assembly, a relatively naked, if weak, power grab, and in violation of the Constitution, Congress, and the will of the people. However, it also would not have likely worked out for him because he's fairly unpopular at this point. Nevertheless, the legislature had the military arrest him and remove him from the country. They then installed his opponent as a successor, basically fighting an illegal power grab with an illegal power grab. As the Economist put it: ''Lousy president, terrible precedent''.

Every country in the Americas has condemned the coup, as well they should. It was unnecessary and stupid. But, the punchline is that Hondurans aren't so keen on getting the elected president back to replace the unelected one anyway. What happens now? One of two things:
1. Zelaya returns to power for the next five months, until his term is up, and then there are elections in January,
2. The unelected president, Roberto Micheletti, stays until there are elections in January.
And, since the proposed referendum was pretty much doomed to fail, there would have been elections anyway, most likely without Zelaya taking part. So, it's all a case of moderately annoying times calling for desperate measures. But, alas, if democracy is to work, people have to be satisfied with voting the bastards out, because these coups can get to be a bad habit.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Mazel tov!

Recently, we've been discussing some of the old school laws on homosexuality and HIV that are teetering on the edge of the wastebin of history.

There's a heartening update on the US HIV travel ban: the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed a regulation to remove HIV from the list of “communicable diseases of public health significance”. Congress is all for it and once the regulations are published, American law will catch up with the general consensus of the medical community. If you'd like to cheer on the HHS, you can do so here. It's very easy to do, and afterwards you can lord your ''activism'' over everyone you know.

Also, the Delhi High Court has recently decriminalized homosexuality. According to the Bonne Nouvelle blog, this means we've gone ''from Bombay to Bomgay''. I don't know if I'd go that far, but it is a bonne nouvelle indeed.


C'était un rendez-vous

Claude Lelouch's Rendezvous... from Dat on Vimeo.

If you've ever wanted to see Paris... This film was shot in 1978 with a camera mounted to the front of a Mercedes Benz. They had no permits to shoot any of this and filmed at five in the morning. Yes, the director was later arrested for endangering public safety. Pretty amazing stuff.


Friday, July 03, 2009


On the off chance that Rufus hasn't seen this trailer yet. It's pretty much mandatory.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Happy fourth of July, too!

We're going up to cottage country for the next four days, far from the demands of 'internet access', so I won't get to wish everyone in the states a happy fourth of July, but I hope everyone has a good time. I'll light off some fireworks in celebration.


Happy Canada Day, eh!

Today is Canada Day, and so here is a video that my first thought upon seeing it was, 'Jeez, that is so frickin' Canadian!' BC punk band Nomeansno also play as 'The Hanson Brothers'- basically aping the characters from the great movie Slapshot and playing Ramones-style music. Here they are covering the Stompin' Tom Connors hit The Hockey Song. I don't know that I've yet been to a wedding in Canada- aside from my own- without hearing the DJs play at least one Stompin' Tom song, usually to thuderous Canuck applause. Enjoy.


Book Notes: Effi Briest (1894)

Effi Briest is Theodor Fontaine's greatest novel and German readers swear it's one of the best of all time. Tomas Mann talked about it being one of the six novels he found indispensable. I don't know if I would go so far myself, but it's certainly a fine work of art, and not many novels are.

The story is about a young girl married off by her family to an older Landrat in Bismark's Germany, shut up in his house and bored out of her mind. Things end badly.

The situation in which a young girl married off to a much older man by her family strikes us as barbaric; but it's been the norm in most parts of the world throughout history. I thought of a ten year old girl in Yemen who became a national heroine last year when she made her way to a courtroom and demanded a divorce. Of course, there are several characters in Shakespeare who could understand the situation- given from a father to a father figure with love playing no part in the transaction. We have friends whose marriage was arranged, and they live in true wedded bliss; but they weren't children at the time.

Effi is still just a child at age seventeen- she believes in ghosts and folk tales, believes the spirit of a 'Chinaman' is haunting the couple's home in Kessel. She is, however, more intelligent than her husband, who comes off as a Bismarkian martinet; and she's not a romantic drip of an adultress like Emma Bovary- Flaubert's novel is brilliant, but I can't be the only reader for whom, if Emma hadn't poisoned herself, by a hundred pages in, I'd have rather done it.

The Landrat husband Innstetten is ascending the ladder of the Prussian state following the unification of Germany. However, Landrat is a low-level political office. He is stuffy and pompous, but a good 'match' for Effi socially. He reminds one of the old cliche that Germans have to have all the pencils on their desk perfectly aligned. There is a sense here that his stuffiness and headmaster arrogance have become totally transparent; the German Empire is already in decline. Authoritarian Realpolitik cannot compete with the irrationality of eros. The nineteenth century is already over.

Effi is miserable living in Kessel with the provincial prigs and her paternalistic husband. The affair she has seems inevitable somehow; it's hard to blame her really. Much of her struggle seems to be about avoiding being subsumed by this married persona that her parents feel is best for her. I suspect that the ''betrayal'' of adultery is often a matter of a person's weak willed inability to commit the greater betrayal of a clean break. It would be hard to blame Effi if she had left her husband instead of the reverse. In the end, her parents disown her- they'd rather have the married persona than the unmarried daughter. Innstetten kills the lover in a duel that seems superfluous.

One of the things I've always found fascinating about patriarchal societies is that a man can be a King, a general, head of the Royal Navy, or the greatest mind of his generation; but if his wife sleeps with someone else, he is automatically reduced to the status of cuckold. It is amazing that a culture can invest so much power in men in such a way that power is so remarkably fragile. Effi's affair was brief, fleeting, and long over; but Innstetten can't just forget it and keep walking. It is hard to see him as a ''blood and iron'' Prussian. And yet his duty compels him beyond his humanity.

In a way, Effi has a 'happy ending' because she dies Effi Briest and not Effi Innstetten; but the reader is left with the feeling that she could never have lived happily as Effi Innstetten in the Germany of the time.

Note: here is the trailer to the newest film of Effi Briest. The great German filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder made a film of Effi Briest back in 1974.


The Defense of Pandering Act

Brian brings up a good point in the comments a few posts down:

"I believe you are confusing the current occupant of the White House with a fellow ofthe same name who campaigned for the office of the Presidency in 2008."
Well, I wasn't actually saying I was surprised that Obama hadn't lifted the HIV travel ban; just that it would seem like a political slam dunk for him to do so. Also, apparently- according to Andrew Sullivan, who is directly affected by the ban- the government has been working on getting rid of the thing for some time now; it's just taking forever.

I guess a more interesting argument could be made about the Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed in 1996 by Presidential Schmuck Bill Clinton, which states that federal law will only recognize marriage as existing between a man and a woman (and an intern). At the time, there was thought that Hawaii would legalize gay marriage. Currently, there are three states with gay marriage and three more that have legalized it. So, if you're gay and get married in Maine, the federal government says, "Screw you and screw Maine!"

Naturally, I'm against a federal law on the issue, but I'd be against a federal law mandating gay marriage as well. I think the states need to work it out. If we end up with something like Roe V. Wade, in which nine old farts in black mumus decide the issue for the entire country*, the debate will be as unresolved decades from now as Roe V. Wade is now. Let the states decide, and if ten years from now, West-by-God-Virginia doesn't have gay marriage and Vermont does, move out of West Virginia. I'd recommend that in most circumstances actually.

Anyway, President Obama should get rid of the DOMA, and most gay rights groups are pissed at him that he hasn't. As always, I'm of two or three minds about this:
  1. I'm glad they're upset with him and I think they should protest. It is a stupid law that should be done away with. In general, I think Obama needs to have an iron fist more often than he does and stop dithering about every single issue.
  2. On the other hand (and here I dither!), people feeling "betrayed" by him seems bizarre since it's only been what- five or six months now? The reason I'm not surprised by these sorts of things is that I always thought Obama was a great politician, but didn't make the assumption that he'd be a great leader. (I will, however, say that nearly everything John McCain has said or done since the election has confirmed my belief that he'd be a fucking nightmare as President.) Many of Obama's supporters seemed to have thought that he'd get elected and solve all of their problems for them. This is not a healthy stance to take with any political figure. Democracies are maintained by the eternal skepticism of their electorate; not eternal hatred for all politicians, but not starry-eyed faith and hope either.
  3. So, on the other hand, I don't think people should accept it when they feel a politician has let them down. Raise hell about it. The thing about democracies is you have to make them do what you want. You don't just vote and ignore things until the next election. If you feel betrayed by Obama, raise hell. That's what you're supposed to do. Please, though, don't give up on US politics and move to Canada- you're bound to be disappointed by Canadian politics, which consists of a room full of dipshits yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing, and vowing to get together and yell at each other again after the break.
  4. And, finally, I'm happy to see more people gettting pissed. I think the "betrayal" stuff is overblown, but I think it's much healthier in a democracy for people to hold elected officials' feet to the fire than march around with HOPE posters dreaming of the day when their favorite politician will tuck them in at night.
And I'm sorry West Virginia: it's just how I feel.

*(I can't remember who I stole that line from.)