Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Birthday Massage

On Monday I went for my annual Birthday Massage. I was about a month late, but my schedule didn't allow for the massage any closer to the actual day. After every massage I think "I should do this more often -- at least twice a year" but never do.

On my way, I saw a typical tourist family consulting maps and trying to orient themselves. The parents were wearing matching "I [heart] New York" shirts. I thought of telling them "Thank you, but you know you don't have to wear those shirts. It's not like a law was passed." Although if Giuliani had remained mayor, I'm sure one would have been.

My massage was scheduled at a spa for men located in an old bank building. The decor is New York Chic: minimal furnishings, steel gray walls, catwalks leading to the different rooms, what I assume is good feng shui. An impressive place, the effect of which was undone by bright yellow water in the toilet I went to use. Apparently the massages are so good that you're too relaxed to flush when finished.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

08:42 Brecht: Collected Plays Volume 2

Brecht: Collected Play Volume 2
Bertolt Brecht

Lead to this book because of my interest in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, I discovered it was actually my least favorite of Brecht’s plays, preferring A Man’s a Man and The Threepenny Opera. I’m rather bad at reading plays – even Shakespeare – never getting as much from the text as I do from an even halfway decent performance.

But some understanding of Mahagonny was needed as I was going to see an experimental film that used the entire opera, sung in German, as its soundtrack. The filmmaker Harry Smith was (wikipedia puts it best) “an American archivist, ethnomusicologist, student of anthropology, record collector, experimental filmmaker, artist, bohemian and Kabbalist.” As your grandmother might say, Harry was a “real character,” the kind that used to populate Greenwich Village and gentrification has dispersed to God-knows-where. Smith’s film of Mahagonny divided the screen into four equal quadrants, showing a variety of images in each quadrant. Often the same image would be shown in two quadrants though reversed in one, creating a mirror effect. The images were home movie quality, shots of New York as it was in the 1970’s and stop motion animation using whatever Harry happened to have in his apartment, mostly cigarettes and liquor bottles. I had seen the film several years ago and this time, read Brecht’s play beforehand, thinking that a familiarity with the opera would add to my understanding of the film.

Sadly no. I realized fairly early on that there isn’t much correspondence between Brecht’s text and Smith’s film; or rather, that like much of Smith’s work, the connections and meaning are so esoteric and personal that viewers remain outside. Brecht’s play itself is said to be a satire of America, following the experiences of immigrants to a golden city who seek only to get rich, become vulgarians when they do and eventually succumb to the city’s violence and corrupt legal system. I can see why it would appeal to a bohemian like Smith; what I can’t see is what it has to do with his film. As nostalgic as I am for the New York of 30+ years ago, my second viewing was a restless experience.

Brecht’s play features the standard Brechtian devices to remind audiences that they are not seeing reality but a play, a representation of reality. Culture, not nature. But the vaudeville-type satire is rather tiresome, despite the inventive technique involved. Again, this is as text. It’s likely that a well-staged production would reverse my opinion. Better are the two earlier plays included in this volume. The Threepenny Opera features the scheming and fighting among the criminal underclass and has better characters and a narrative drive lacking in Mahagonny.

The real surprise was A Man’s a Man. A group of soldiers, fearing the wrath of their sergeant when one of their company goes missing while drunk, convince a local dockworker to impersonate the missing man. He agrees with the ruse, thinking it to be temporary, but stays and eventually becomes a better soldier than the rest of the troop. It’s a funny take on identity as being determined more by your surroundings than anything innately personal. The military farce is silly enough to be an episode of Sgt. Bilko or a lost chapter of Catch-22 and its theme on the malleability of identity haven’t dated at all.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

07:42 A Void

A Void
Georges Perec

I thought I had first learned of Perec’s A Void -- a novel in which the letter e never appears -- from The Book of Lists, which I read and re-read as a teenager. However, I just checked The Book of Lists and there is no mention of either Perec or his novel, a strange disappearance completely in synch with A Void. My interest was reawakened when I found myself constructing sentences without the letter e while half-asleep (details here). My sister Ann gave me a copy of A Void this past year for Christmas and I was off.

Reading the book, you can’t help but be aware of the game the writer is playing, and as you read, you constantly check to see if he slips up. Nope, he never does. Some stylistic indulgences are to be expected: past tense is avoided and some numbers are represented by digits rather than spelled out. Even though the book is based around a clever conceit, there is a sense of sadness and loss. Written as a mystery, it begins with the disappearance of the main character’s best friend, soon followed by the death or disappearance of others in his life. It includes the genre’s conspiracies, hair-pin turns and sudden reversals to portray a stable world sinking into chaos. It’s interesting that Perec, a life-long Parisian, wrote this, the most rule-bound of novels, during the political turmoil of the late sixties. It is anarchic in its imagination though reactionary in its respect for rules and order.

How clever is the book? Well, the second section and the fifth chapter are “missing” (because e is the second vowel and the fifth letter of the alphabet). Not content to craft his own work with one letter tied behind his back, Perec also rewrites and incorporates Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Poe’s “Black Bird” (“Quoth that Black Bird ‘Not Again’”), and, for the ultimate achievement in being a smart-ass, Shakespeare’s “To Be Or Not To Be”:

Living or not living: that is what I ask:
If ‘tis a stamp of honor to submit
To slings and arrows waft’d us by ill winds,
Or brandish arms against a flood of afflictions,
Which by our opposition is subdu’d? Dying, drowsing;
Waking not?…

I should point out that A Void is a translation, skillfully handled by Gilbert Adair from the original French, which may actually be the greater achievement. It brings to mind the old line about Ginger Rogers being a superior dancer to Fred Astaire because she had to do everything he did except backwards and in high heels.