Friday, August 22, 2003

Language is a Virus

It’s new student week at UC Berkeley. Packs of roaming freshmen have been clogging Telegraph along with the occasional baffled parent. I’ve noted a couple things. 1. That fashion trends, especially amongst young women, have remained stagnant for almost a decade now. The reigning trend continues to be the 70’s melded with a mélange of early 90’s hip-hop/rave/urban influences. This year it’s been all about hip-huggers and tank tops. 2. Milk crates and trash bags are still a great way to move your stuff from home to college.

Ahh, freshmen year! Such giddy potential! I remember walking into my dorm room at Ohio State (I had two other roommates along with a view, for what it's worth, of the Columbus skyline) and being horrified to see Budweiser cheesecake posters commandeering the walls. And one of my roommates was prone to playing classic rock mix tapes with unfortunate frequency. I remember opening my flimsy chest full of tapes (I would finally buy a CD player at the end of the school year, the Spring of 1990) with my two roommates standing before me to gage the all important collection.

I began holding up various cassettes. Had they ever heard of The The? Lloyd Cole and the Commotions? Love and Rockets? Siouxsie and the Banshees? The Smiths? The Cure? New Order? Big Audio Dynamite? Dead Can Dance? Laurie Anderson? This Mortal Coil? Cocteau Twins? The Pixies? Echo and the Bunnymen? Art of Noise? Wire? The Replacements? Kraftwerk? Depeche Mode? (though, “Violater” would enjoy cross-over success that Spring, thanks to the popularity of “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence”) Joy Division? Book of Love? The Jesus and Mary Chain? Nitzer Ebb? Cabaret Voltaire? Xymox? Shriekback? XTC? (If it was part of the late-80’s “Alternative” cannon, there’s a good chance I had it.) No, they hadn’t heard of any of them. My alternative rock credentials were firmly entrenched (I had stopped listening to the radio, more or less, by 8th grade and I wore that fact like a badge) thanks to the steady flow of interesting new music that trickled down through two older brothers, while my roommates were both heavy into the likes of Eric Clapton, Zeppelin, Bad Company, Queen and Aerosmith. I was sonically brutalized by murky mix-tapes featuring stunning feats of guitar froth wankery. It made me a more tolerant person. Of course, I’d never want to live through it again. I mean, my god, Bad Company?!

Winter quarter I attended a stunning Laurie Anderson concert (her Strange Angles tour) by myself, unable to interest anybody else on my floor to go with me, even after I played them O Superman , half expecting its hypnotic minimalist apocalyptic grandeur to act as a siren, luring them to the concert hall for more. I came back to the dorm positively flipped-out and made my roommates sit and indulge my inchoate attempts to explain the unexplainable. How do you, at 18, explain Anderson’s “voice of authority,” her sing/song elegance, her multimedia savvy, her haunting and hilarious and heartbreaking monologues, her dream logic? How to explain when I had been so affected by her highly palatable avant-garde abstractions that I felt nearly boundless, coming down from a post-show high and feeling as though I had been transported by the spectacle of something rarefied and utterly rich and strange. How to explain all that, without the context of her voice, her movements, her video and her music? Well, my roommates were kind enough to listen.

In high school I had listened to all of her albums religiously. She was one of my heroes. With my high school buddies, we practically wore out a video copy of Home of the Brave (the one with Adrian Belew and his bending guitar, the one with Anderson and William S. Burroughs dancing on stage, the one with White Lilly) and I couldn’t get enough of my treasured copy of her masterpiece, United States I-IV, which I had finally found my junior year of high school in a crappy mall record store. She was a making a living as a glorious freak and that definitely inspired us.

So freshman year was, in good part, about musical evangelism. The album I probably succeeded in turning the most people on to was Peter Gabriel’s Passion, his brilliant soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s much-maligned The Last Temptation of Christ. This may sound like a shallow achievement and in the grand scheme of things, there’s no doubt that it is, but then, to have half the floor marveling right along with you to the thrilling vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was pretty terrific. In between there were classes, drinking, dancing (at Mean Mr. Mustards, the infamous and now sadly demolished alternative music bar on High Street, where one could hear Front 242’s Headhunter followed by the Cocteau Twins’s Lorelei) letter writing, late night conversation about Big Questions and Santa Barbara, the cheesy soap-opera that more then half the floor got hooked on and would pile into our room to watch each afternoon from 3:00 to 4:00. We gave it a couple months before our attention wandered off to making plans for returning home for summer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Why Italics?

A gremlin seems to have made its way into my blog. After "publishing" my last post, many of my previous posts magically up and converted entirely into italics. I have no idea why this is.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Phantoms of Lost Liberty Tour, 2003

Almost two years after its congressional passage in the wake of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcrof kicked off a mini-tour to defend the Patriot Act this afternoon. He’s not looking for a dialogue, mind you, and he’s certainly not looking to interact with those who are out there scaring the pants off of “peace loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” like, say, the 151 cities that have passed resolutions denouncing certain controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. You’re either with him, or you’re against him. Such “tactics only aid terrorists.” And here you thought you might have actually had some valid concerns about freedom, liberty and justice.

And what better place to begin then the good friends of the administration at The American Enterprise Institute", publisher of The American Enterprise magazine, whose current September 2003 issue is, get this, all about men! Not just any kind of man either, because as is made evident in their many features addressing masculinity today, we’re talking about a very special kind of man, one you’d be proud to bring home to meet the parents and Dick Cheney.

The table of contents for this month’s issue includes a piece by Steve Sailer explaining to his readers “why we want masculine leaders.” Another, by Christina Hoff Summers, warns subscribers that there’s a vast left-wing conspiracy afoot to “make our boys more docile and emotional.” (I just got back from tonight’s meeting. We’re finally ready to launch our “Boys ‘n Quilts 2003” campaign!) You can read that one here. It’s interesting to note that in making her case, to really bring it all jaw-droppingly home, Summers turns to the switchblade carrying scholar, Camille Paglia. (And really, all I want to know is where that long promised second half of Sexual Personae is.) Oh my, there’s even a mini-symposium made up of six “spunky” women (and women are, no doubt, innately spunky, right?) who discuss “What Women Think About Modern Manhood.” Some highlights:

“Manliness has experienced a renaissance for two reasons. The Bush/Cheney administration has set the tone for political culture. And 9/11, of course.”

“The post 9/11 love affair with police, firemen and soldiers is a return of normal relations between men and women.”

“I am distressed by the degree to which feminism still carries political weight.”

“Most people today never needed to be carried out of a burning building. But once they see 3,000 people that needed to be rescued, they know it takes men.”

“When men aren’t inculcated with manly virtues they become wimps, they become hoodlums.”

“Pat Moynihan warned us about about predatory males being raised by single moms.”

“There’s also the sex appeal of someone like Dom Rumsfeld. President Bush possesses this intangible something- you really saw it on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.”

All this to belabor the point, I suppose, that Ashcroft’s mini “Phantoms of Lost Liberty Tour,” was launched (and opening day is all that really matters here) in a redundant vessel. The good brothers and sisters at American Enterprise are all about beating back the same irksome flames of secular liberal-left relativism as the administration. I would, however, like to offer one bit of advice to those, no doubt, beef fed and hulking husbands of the “spunky” six quoted above- Clearly the bedroom is ripe for some pre-coital role-playing. These gals are practically screaming for a fireman named Iron John! Please, for god’s sake, rescue your women before the Astroturf completely takes over.

So Ashcroft, deep in the bosom of a fellow traveler, the requisite backdrop in place (it read, “Preserving Life and Liberty,”) let it be known, that these aren’t the droids we’re looking for. But first he capitalized on today’s tragic UN suicide bombing in Iraq by saying the following:

“This morning, terrorists struck the United Nations mission in Baghdad, killing at least 13 people and seriously injuring at least 120 others. The victims were innocent people who traveled to Iraq on a mission of peace and human dignity. Let me express sympathy to the victims and their loved ones.

“This morning’s attack again confirms that the worldwide terrorist threat is real and imminent. Our enemies continue to pursue ways to murder the innocent and the peaceful. They seek to kill us abroad and at home. But we will not be deterred from our responsibility to preserve American life and liberty, nor our duty to build a safer, more secure world.”

Terror, you see, is right there in Iraq, which is our burden now. Of course, those of us who might be challenged to ask just how today’s bombing in Iraq relates at all to the Patriot Act- those of us who might even wonder aloud just how, in fact, the war on Iraq was connected to 9/11 at all, would, no doubt, be told that it simply confirms that terrorist threats to our well-being, to our freedom, are real and present and that, thank god, the Patriot Act is there to stop such things from ever happening here. To even suggest, as John Mearsheimer, the Co-Director of the Program on International Security at the University of Chicago was emboldened to do so tonight on the News Hour, that we might have by invading Iraq created a target rich terrorist environment where once there was none, or that Ashcroft and the rest of the Administration have been ruthlessly exploiting and demeaning the veracity of the very real tragedy of 9/11 to advance a dangerous neo-conservative agenda, is to be labeled, as Ashcroft has already made clear, a traitor to the just cause. They know, as we do, that links between the 9/11 terrorists and Hussein’s Iraq don’t exist, but then, so what, most think otherwise. 9/11 is the great malleable onto which an even greater and deadlier agenda is enjoying, at long last, its moment. There are no shades of gray. There are men and there are women, there is good and there is evil, there is right and there is wrong.

Everyone else is pussy-whipped.
Spinning Away

Stewart Brand has called Brian Eno a “wandering clarifier.” I like that. Here’s an excerpt from an article he recently published. You can read it in its entirety here.

In the West the calculated manipulation of public opinion to serve political and ideological interests is much more covert and therefore much more effective. Its greatest triumph is that we generally don't notice it - or laugh at the notion it even exists. We watch the democratic process taking place - heated debates in which we feel we could have a voice - and think that, because we have 'free' media, it would be hard for the Government to get away with anything very devious without someone calling them on it.

It takes something as dramatic as the invasion of Iraq to make us look a bit more closely and ask: 'How did we get here?' How exactly did it come about that, in a world of Aids, global warming, 30-plus active wars, several famines, cloning, genetic engineering, and two billion people in poverty, practically the only thing we all talked about for a year was Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Was it really that big a problem? Or were we somehow manipulated into believing the Iraq issue was important and had to be fixed right now - even though a few months before few had mentioned it, and nothing had changed in the interim.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

"This Time I Bite..."

Poor Audrey Tautou. That’s what I was thinking as I watched Stephen Frear’s new film, Dirty Pretty Things the other night. She’s carrying a lot of Amelie baggage in this picture, her first in an English speaking role and certainly one whose international distribution will rival, if not surpass, anything else she’s starred in before or since. Dirty Pretty Things features a glamorous and sultry shot of Tautou in profile (with a hint of naked shoulder) on its marketing poster. You could be irked that such a scene never appears in the film, or you could applaud the fact that Tautou manages to avoid any resemblance (other then she’s devastatingly charming) to her powerful work in Amelie and embodies, very believably, the character of a Turkish refugee (the accent rarely falters) struggling to get by in London.

The women sitting behind us, however, cooed every time Tatou appeared on the screen. According to an article I recently read, over 25 million people have seen Amelie- and clearly the powerful impression this role has left was still resonating with these (there were 3 of them, each weighing in repeatedly) viewers. “Oh, she’s so cute,” they’d remark, when clearly what she was doing on screen, working at a sweatshop, for example, or contemplating the selling of her kidney, was obviously anything but adorable. Their relationship to Senay, the Turkish refugee she was playing, seemed palpably defined by her turn as Amelie- as if any moment they expected her to begin anew her good works with garden gnomes.

The film she’s actually in, a refreshingly multiethnic mainstream feature with working class sympathies and a tidy, if not entirely successful plot “straight from the headlines,” revolves around a scrappy gang made up, more or less, of illegal immigrants and their morally twisted confrontations with the exploitive and seamy underbelly poking through the so-called better life. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Okwe, oozes noble compassion. He cares deeply, maybe even too much. He’s the film’s conscience, its moral backbone. As such, he’s never given the chance to properly stretch out and do something other then radiate wholesomeness. He veers dangerously close to embodying the unfortunate Hollywood template for the kind, wise and stately African that Morgan Freeman has held for years. He, like everything else about this film, however, manages to hover just beyond its more generic underpinnings and offers something oddly moving and compelling.

A lot of what works with this picture is the dissonance that comes from how it weaves so brashly between humor and tragedy. There’s a queasy undertow at work and Frears never seems to reconcile the two. A couple of immigration enforcement officers have a manic, cartoonish quality to them, bursting into otherwise somber scenes like a couple of keystone cops. There’s a hooker who morphs from coyly malevolent (did she stuff that human heart down the toilet? you’re led to believe) into a hooker with a heart of gold. Sergi Lopez, playing Sneaky, struts and hams through almost every scene he’s in like some kind of vaudeville villain while his actions are, in contrast, shrewd and barbaric. Benedict Wong, as Guo Yi, is a mortuary attendant who deadpans some of the film’s most slyly hilarious lines. It’s a strange energy being thrown off, both wacky and earnest, and while this gives the film its intriguingly off-kilter vibe, it also acts to stop the film from ever settling into a groove. It ends up feeling like it could have used a few more minutes in the oven.

There’s a powerful bow wrapping up the film’s final moments. Tautou and Ejiofor handle its unraveling beautifully. It’s deceptive though, communicating something between its two characters with an enormity not entirely deserved. Still, there’s no resisting, for a moment at least, its magnanimity.
Cathy and i went hiking for a few days in the Stanislaus National Forest this past week. Had a great time hiking around some gigantic sequoias. They aren’t as tall as the coastal redwoods, mind you, but they're definitely wider. Man alive, do they have circumference! Serious girth. Damn. They're freaky wide and glorious to behold. (The third FAQ addressed on the National Park Service’s special Redwoods National and State Parks website asks, after the more practical, “Where are the parks?” and “When are the parks closed,” reads, “Is there a drive-through tree?” and reveals, I believe, that yearning for transcendence so many of us crave and that is satisfied only by driving one’s car through a tree.)

I can’t thing of any other object (natural or otherwise) that so overwhelms and majestically frames a human body. It always provides this exquisite rush of displacement and a poetic punch of context. I’m always left fumbling a bit, thinking, “gee, we’re so…small.” You can’t help but feel a little swept up by the grandeur of it all. And yes, damnit, I am always left with that vague and nagging feeling that it does feel reminiscent of the forest moon of Endor. But who could begrudge Lucas these trees? They are otherworldly.

And while we didn't see any of the heralded Ewoks (or Hobbits, for that matter) we did have bears and plenty of horse manure. The bears came into our campsites (we stayed at designated public campsites) each night, though we never saw any ourselves, only hearing stories of their nocturnal escapades from other campers in the morning. "Hear about the bear?" somebody might ask us, toothbrush in hand. "A couple of them were outside my tent last night, they even picked up my cooler and moved it. I think there might have been two, but my little boy swears he saw a whole bunch of other crazy stuff in the surrounding woods.” We'd nod and think, "What happens if your kid accidentally goes to sleep with a squeeze tube of Chunky peanut butter under their pillow in the tent? What then?" Has this happened before? Did I miss these segments on America’s Funniest Home Videos or in the pages of National Geographic? Or does this never happen?

The first night we camped I awoke sometime in the middle of the night (let’s say 2:30ish) to the sounds of a little girl crying. It’s a terribly distressing sound, a kid crying in the distance under what was, I might add, a full moon and in the middle of an otherwise silent campground. Spooky, that’s for sure. The mind’s little scenario factory starts up and conjures all sorts of possibilities. My best guess, and probably the most rational and likely, was that she was on one of her first camping trips and awoke disoriented and, well, it simply scared the hell out of her to realize she wasn’t in her big-girl bed anymore and that the nightlight was suddenly missing and so her little newly constructed monster factory started up and conjured all sorts of possibilities of its own. She cried for a minute or two longer before somebody successfully managed to quiet her.

The next night I woke up to another creepy sound. Not coyotes- at least I don’t think they were, because I’ve heard coyotes before and these didn’t sound like coyotes. “Maybe they were wolves?” Cathy wondered in the morning. Maybe. They were spookier sounding than the little girl, that’s for sure. Here’s why. They seemed to be replicating that grossly phantasmagoric howl Peter Jackson’s sound designer’s have created and used for the Wringwraiths in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. I lay there in the cocoon of my sleeping bag and awoke just enough to appreciate the tinge of dread such a sound brings to the camping experience. Isn’t this part of the allure of camping, of setting up tent under that canopy of trees and on a bed of needles and sleeping out under the stars? To get…closer to nature? Of course, if that’s so, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s important to reclaim whatever it was I heard from the arguably shallow fate of being understood only by its resemblance to a particular Hollywood sound-designers potent concoction. What was it really? What purpose does the howling serve? Why do we always want to describe this sound as “lonesome?”
My ignorance disappoints me. But still, I wonder and don’t think it the least bit shallow- will the third and final chapter of the trilogy maintain the high enchantment standards of the first two installments?

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Some selected quotes from a front page article(To Mollify Iraqis, U.S. Plans To Ease Scope Of Its Raids) in last Thursday’s NYT’s…

-BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 6- The American military, in a major revision of strategy, has decided to limit the scope of its raids in Iraq after receiving warning from Iraqi leaders that they were alienating the public, the top allied commander said today.

-It was a fact that I started to get multiple indicators that maybe our iron-fisted approach to the conduct of op was beginning to alienate Iraqis,” General Sanchez said, referring to military operations. “I started to get those sensing from multiple sources, all the way from the Governing Council down to average people.

-…Iraqis have complained that during these raids too many of those rounded up by American troops were not Baath Party operatives but ordinary citizens. They say the American tactics have been too aggressive and not sensitive enough to Iraqi culture and traditions.

-…the new American approach also reflects a recognition that widespread raids could unintentionally be creating a reservoir of support for the insurgents or even spurring revenge attacks by ordinary citizens.

(Here comes the whopper, hold on…)

-The general added that Iraqi leaders who supported the allies had indicated they understand the goal of the American raids, but that some had expressed concern over their effects on the Iraqi population.

(Here it comes…)

Their message, he said, has been that “when you take a father in front of his family and put a bag over his head and put him on the ground, you have had a significant adverse effect on his dignity and respect in the eyes of his family.” General Sanchez said the message from the Iraqis was that in doing this, you create more enemies than you capture.

Sheesh! It’s a good thing Lt. Gen. Sanchez has those insightful and supportive leaders keeping him up to date on those exotic and downright bizarre Iraqi cultural traditions! Here in the United States, having a group of nervous and ornery 20-somethings raid a nice little suburban home in a gated community replete with their M-16’s cocked and trigger fingers itching is, granted, a rare thing, but perfectly acceptable. It’s the price we pay for our freedom, you know? And to imagine that any young, corn-fed father, dragged from his bed in the middle of the night, a burlap sack placed tightly over his head and thrown down on that perfectly manicured lawn of his and interrogated by gunpoint would feel anything but calm, rational understanding (his wife and kids, one imagines, might raise their sleepy heads amidst the ruckus only to sheepishly smile in patriotic acquiescence once they took in the scene of their husband/father being dragged away by the freedom fighters) is hard to imagine. “How can I help you fellas,” he might helpfully offer. We’re used to this iron-fisted approach. The Iraqi’s however, having never tasted sweet freedom, obviously don’t understand that we just want to help them. We’ve got a great big old super-sized order of Freedom for them. Do they want fries with that, or are they going to want something totally weird like, say, hummus?
Remember Jack Whittaker ? Of course you don’t. He won the largest ever Powerball lottery drawing last December. Whittaker was already a millionaire, the owner of numerous construction companies, so his winning of additional millions was more than just a little annoying. He’s also a member of the Church of God, and promised to use some of his earning to do “good works.” This too, I’m afraid, is more than just a little annoying. Obviously losing a little sleep as he recalled that sunday-school nonsense about it being easier for a camel to travel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the old kingdom, Whittaker promised to give over 10% of his winnings to the Chruch before he went and spent any himself! Wow, Jesus Christ, what tremendous largesse! So what of the other 90%? What were the good works Jack had in mind for himself? This from last Wednesday’s “National Briefing” section in the NYT’s:

WEST VIRGINIA: LOTTERY WINNER ROBBED AT STRIP CLUB- More than $500,000 was stolen from a sport utility vehicle that a Powerball millionaire parked at a strip club, but the money was recovered, a sheriff’s deputy said. A briefcase with $245,000 in cash and three blank $100,000 cashier’s checks was taken from the vehicle of the lottery winner, Jack Whittaker, who received a $113 million option jackpot after winning a record $314.9 million prize on Dec. 25. The cash and checks were found behind a trash bin. A sheriff’s deputy said Mr. Whittaker carried large sums of money because he liked to gamble.

Apparently, Mr. Whittaker likes a little T & A alongside the Lord's work. To paraphrase our fearless leader, "I am mindful that we're all sinners."

Sunday, August 03, 2003

I run across them from time to time, these neglected and nearly forgotten CD’s in my collection. When did I buy this Egberto Gismonti CD? Must have been a few years back when I was on a heavy Brazilian music kick and willing to give just about any Brazilian album made between the years 1968 to 1975 a try. (Honestly, this span of time isn’t nearly as arbitrary as it seems- it’s a glorious sweet-spot in the history of modern Brazilian music- a crazy intersection where all sorts of interesting genres of music fortuitously collided and artists were throwing off masterpieces left and right.)

Gismonti's album, from 1969, isn't one of those masterpieces. There's some of Baden Powell's flair in his guitar playing, but he's not nearly as adventerous. He hops amongst genre's and sprinkles about some nice sit-up-and-listen moments. He whittles a little pop, mixes in a dollop of bossa-nova together with some e-z crooning cheese and tops it all off with some nice classical guitar instrumentals. Not bad, but I’m still afraid of those ECM releases of his. One fears for Manfred Eicher's patented Wall Of Sheen, keeping all his productions germ-free for decades after their release. That's not an entirely fair assessment, I'm afraid, but it sure is true of dozens of those late 70's and 80's ECM productions of Eichers. So many of them sound like they were recorded in my doctor's check-up room- there's something about them that smells of steralized laytex and Soft-Scrub.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

You know you’re with a good bunch of folks when it’s mutually decided that those first two hours you’ve all spent browsing Powell’s main bookstore in Portland wasn't nearly enough time- that, in fact, another half hour is not only necessary, but vital. Such was the case last weekend when Cathy and I visited our friends, Rob and Katie.

One of the things I like about Powell’s (and there are many things to like about a bookstore that seems to take up an entire city block and is filled with so many tantalizing books) is the old, used ‘n musty trade paperbacks you can find. I like those high-end Vintage trade paperbacks, too- they look great, feel great, hell, they even smell great but they also cost more than double the mass-trade paperbacks, now seemingly reserved for romances, legal thrillers, science fiction and Stephen King only. Works denoted as “serious fiction” are not to be cheapened by the associations now tied to mass-pulp. For example, Vintage recently dressed up the collective works of Philip K. Dick (previously available in mass-pulp editions) in hopes of attracting the new, more status conscious reader. These new high end paperbacks also assuage the fears of those readers who fret over whether or not science fiction is in fact “serious” literature. Each comes stamped with the obligatory New York Times quote/seal of approval. Would I prefer these high-end editions? You bet. What’s a bummer, as I already mentioned, is that they’re a bit cost prohibitive for those of us not necessarily rolling in the bling bling and who like to buy and read more then a few books a year. It would be nice to have the option, but it seems like the only time “serious” works of fiction or non-fiction get the mass-pulp treatment is if they’re made into bloated Hollywood product.

This wasn’t always the case. Before book publisher’s realized that there was a lucrative market for high end trade paperbacks, “serious” literature also made the journey from stately hardback to cheap compact pulp. Thousands of them have found a cozy temporary retirement on the shelves at Powell’s. Oh, and they’re terribly cheap. I picked up 4 of them, each under $4 and all in great condition. Here’s what I got.

The White Album: Joan Didion
Ray Bradbury: The Machineries of Joy
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Watchers: Tom Wolfe
The Woman in the Dunes: Kobo Abe

There were tons and tons more, of course, and I had to pass up dozens, but my own shelves are already overflowing with books I’ve yet to read. Sadly, they didn’t have the book I was most interested in finding, John Woodmorappe’s Noah’s Arc: A Feasibility Study.