Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Today's Unfortunate Choice of Words

From the article "Amsterdam to Close Many Brothels, Marijuana Cafes"
[City council member] Asscher underlined that the city center will remain true to its freewheeling reputation.

"It'll be a place with 200 windows (for prostitutes) and 30 coffee shops, which you can't find anywhere else in the world — very exciting, but also with cultural attractions," he said.

"And you won't have to be embarrassed to say you came."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Rove planning to ‘name names’ of Bush haters in his new book."

Hanlon. John Michael.

H-A-N (as in "November") L-O-N (another "November").

Just want to make sure you get it right.

(Story below)

Rove planning to ‘name names’ of Bush haters in his new book.»
Karl Rove is reportedly one of the key architects overseeing the “Bush legacy project,” predicting that the President will be remembered as a “far-sighted leader.” In a new interview with Cox News, Rove rails against all the people in America who never “accepted the legitimacy of George W. Bush,” saying that he plans to call them out in his new book:

Rove sees a presidency clouded by the way it began.

“There were people who never accepted the legitimacy of George W. Bush and acted accordingly,” he said. […]

Also reserved for between the covers of Rove’s book is his checklist of the “great many of the political actors in this town (who) never accepted him as a legitimate president.”

“I’ve got behind-the-scenes episodes that are going to show how unreceiving they were of this man as president of the United States,” Rove said, adding: “I’m going to name names and show examples.”

In the Cox interview, Rove also refused to acknowledge the role of Bush administration officials in various scandals, including the Valerie Plame, instead blaming “Washington partisanship.”

Friday, December 05, 2008

Last Night's Dream

Last night I dreamed that I was back in college, hanging out with college friends. I told them I had been to and seen the future (which was my waking life, my life now) and while it wasn't perfect, it wasn't too bad. I reassured them that even though things wouldn't be what they expected, it wasn't too bad.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

06:43 Several Perceptions / 07:43 Remainder

Several Perceptions
Angela Carter

I bought this previously unknown book at The Strand because I love Angela Carter’s work and because the cover features the tarot card from which this website gets its name and that I have permanently marked on my body. It was a sign.

The slim novel takes place in late 1960s London, but it’s not the groovy hippie Sixties. It is a time when social turmoil is happening elsewhere but has left characters everywhere lost and unsure of what to do. The main character Joseph is reminiscent of the directionless and angry young men Dostoyeski wrote about and Carter is able to nail the waste of his nihilism in one sentence: “Joseph had the chance of a fine education but threw it away; he had free choice on the self-service counter and voluntarily selected shit.” He attempts suicide but fails, and the rest of the novel is the rather shaggy-dog story about how he loses his death wish.

It’s the sort of novel in which a large party at the end pairs up various characters, reveals secrets and ties up storylines. It doesn’t come across as contrived due to Carter’s skill and compassion for her characters, even the most unlikable. However, it’s a fairly realistic novel and I missed the rich imagination evident in Carter’s later fantasy or folk-tale based work.

Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is also about a man disconnected from the world and his curious attempts to interact. The settlement from a never-explained accident has left the unnamed main character with over 8 million pounds. He spends the money recreating visions and moments of déjà vu, making sure the re-enactments are accurate down to the smallest detail. A simple moment of looking out the window of his apartment becomes a major production involving the purchase of the building, hiring actors to recreate what occurred in his field of vision and other actors to make the ambient noise heard. Everyone is then paid to repeat these actions nonstop, whether they are frying liver or practicing the piano, so that the main character can enter this déjà vu any time he wants.

McCarthy’s work is similar to J. G. Ballard’s novels about men who pursue their unique obsessions in a rational, almost scientific manner. The language of the novel seems quintessentially British: informed and eccentric, surprised by emotions. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it’s real.” This passage goes to compare forensic procedures to abstract paintings, butterfly wings and cricket. The unnamed main character is obsessed with the real and towards this end, keeps staging imitations. But he doesn’t want the “real” as in the everyday, but the “real” as in transcendent, the feeling gotten during déjà vu in which you are hyper-conscious and aware of everything around you.

Unfortunately, this hyper-consciousness can lead to passages like the following:

“Each time a gun is fired the whole history of engineering comes into play. Of politics, too: war, assassination, revolution, terror. Guns aren’t just history’s props and agents: they’re history itself, spinning alternate futures in their chamber, hurling the present from their barrel, casting aside the empty shells of the past.”

I hate this kind of writing in fiction. Hate it. It shows the influence of Don Delillo, who fills his novels with his “profound” ruminations about What Things Mean. His ideas have never impressed me and strike me as less insightful than they are self-serving and annoying.

Authors who begin with strange premises can trap themselves. Once the premise is explained and disbelief satisfactorily suspended, what then? Return the story to the “normal” and realistic and repudiate what was strange and unique? Repeat, perhaps try to top the oddity that began the story? McCarthy and his character repeat, moving on to new reenactments, and you sense that they are both hoping that some meaning will become apparent. Instead, it just leads to a Very Bad Idea (recreating a bank robbery) that manages to close the novel on a note of suspense rather than philosophizing.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What's New

Beyond the obvious (I voted for him) there's another reason why I'm glad Barack Obama won.

Unlike McCain, Obama ran a campaign without mudslinging, free of dirty tricks. He focused on issues and specifically what he wanted to do if elected, rather than on cynical publicity stunts to impress his party's base and the base in all of us. He treated his listeners as if they were intelligent adults rather than easily frightened children.

Part of our basic moral code as humans is that if you are honest and play fair, you will be rewarded. But such sentiments have no place in politics where it seems those who win are those most clever at deceit and manipulation and are willing to sacrifice anything in their pursuit of power. But every once in a while, I need to see the triumph of those who play fair.

When McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate and subsequently received a rise in the polls (not a double-entendre), the Obama campaign played it smart. Rather than attack her, they bided their time and let her self-destruct as it soon became apparent that, chuztpah aside, she was not qualified for high office.

Watching someone take the high road can sometimes be frustrating. Whenever William Ayers' name was brought up, I thought "why aren't the Democrats making more about Palin's husband belonging to a secessionist organization as recently as two years ago?" Everytime Obama or Biden had to pay lip service to John McCain as a great American, only to be met with McCain's barely hidden contempt and Palin's sarcasm, I wondered "when are they going to stop praising their opponent? That can't be helping." But Obama had to play it cool. Any display of anger or extreme emotion (think of Howard Dean's yell) might have branded him as the Scary Angry Black Man -- lock up the women and children! -- and the election would have been over. It must have been difficult for him at times.

You could argue that Obama never had to play dirty since he was leading in the polls since mid-September; that McCain's tactics were born of desperation (as McCain claimed "if he had just agreed to my proposed town hall meetings, I wouldn't have had to go negative"). But after the last eight years, it's nice to make decisions based on hope rather than fear or despair. Fear is a legitimate reaction in life, but it is not healthy for individuals or societies to live that way for long. Hope and the belief that we can make things better is the more psychologically healthy way to live. Perhaps now we can have the paradigm shift that should have occurred on September 12, 2001 but did not. I'm horrified by all that's happened to bring us to this state (as The Onion puts it: "Nation Finally Shitty Enough To Make Social Progress") but for the first time in eight years, I feel as if being good has triumphed over being cynical.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

05:43 Conversations On Consciousness

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human

Edited by Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore spent thirty years trying to find scientific evidence of various paranormal activity (esp, out of body experiences, psychokinesis, etc.) before concluding, as she puts it on her website “I found no psychic phenomena -- only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud.” Her focus then shifted to studying consciousness and her methods changed from scientific experiments and the academic life to research and journalism. “Conversations on Consciousness” is a collection of interviews with neuroscientists and philosophers as they wrestle with the latest discoveries about how our brains work, how thought is created, and who is this “I” that is thinking.

Blackmore asks essentially the same questions to each interviewee, so there is a certain amount of repetition. She is curious about the brain creates consciousness: if we eventually account for how specific functions of the brain create consciousness, then will we have explained away the individual sense of self and free will? The focus of her questions is a “philosopher’s zombie,” a theoretical creature who has all the brain functions of a normal human but does not have corresponding consciousness. Could such a creature exist? I understand the concept and its use: Blackmore is trying to work out if consciousness is just a result of brain activity or if there is something extra, an ingredient X, which different and separate from brain processes. I have to admit, however, I was sick of reading about the philosopher’s zombie halfway through the book, to the point that I mentally cheered at the following comment by philosopher Petra Stoerig:

In fact I hate zombies because there’s so much paper wasted on a thought experiment. I think they are logically possible and they may be interesting in that respect for philosophers – well, obviously they are! But as a biologist I think it’s a waste of all the trees that go into this paper, because it’s not biologically possible; there is not a single being that we know of that’s able to behave like you and me but with nothing inside.

This argument is, in essence, why I’ve studied very little philosophy.

The best explanation of brain activity creating consciousness which doesn’t account for an ingredient X is from John Searle.

So you can summarize the relation between consciousness and the brain by saying, first, brain processes cause consciousness; lower-level neurobiological processes cause conscious states; and second, these conscious states are themselves high-level features of the whole brain system. So it’s a bunch of neural firings that cause the conscious state, but the conscious state is not identified with any particular neuron: you can’t pick one out and say, this one is thinking about your grandmother.

My favorite passage comes from Thomas Metzinger, discussing how philosophical theories of self may effect the real world. It’s a long passage but worth reproducing in full, as it seems to me the heart of the book.

But what I think many people, including many professional philosophers, don’t understand is that nobody ever said self-knowledge is emotionally attractive, or that it cannot also as sobering or outright depressing effects on you.

There are hard theoretical issues, which can only talk about with philosophers and scientists, but they are also what I call “soft issues” and these soft tissues had been making me more and more concerned recently, because I think something is coming towards us as mankind, and it’s coming very fast, and we are not prepared for it.

Let me give you some examples. There is a new image of man emerging out of genetic and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality and much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth – people whom you basically laugh at it and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world–view as they have for centuries.

Now here we come in these rich, decadent, non-believer Western countries, and we suddenly have theories which work very well in medicine and in treating psychiatric disorders, and which say “there is no such thing as a soul,” and “you’re basically a gene- copying device,” and it is not clear what that will do to us. A chasm will open between the rich, educated, and secularized parts of mankind on the planet and those who for whatever reason have chosen to live their lives outside the scientific view of the world, and outside the scientific image of man.

Our image of ourselves is changing very fast, but there’s a problem associated with it: that image, in a very subtle way, influences the way we all treat each other everyday life. One question is, for instance, whether a demystification of the human mind can take place without a desolidarization in society. What has held our societies together and has helped us to behave have been metaphysical beliefs in God or psychoanalysis or other substitute religions like that.

The question is, can science offer anything like that to keep mass societies coherent after all these metaphysical ideas have vanished, not only in professional philosophers and scientists, but in ordinary people as well? If everybody stopped believing in a soul, what effect would that actually have in the way we treat each other? All this may have cultural consequences which are very hard to assess presently; it may have a broad effect on the way we view each other, and it is very important that crude, vulgar kind of materialism is not what actually follows on the heels of this neuroscientific revolution. For this, transported through the media, makes people believe in simplistic ideas such as that human beings are just machines, and that the concept of dignity is empty, and there never has been such a thing as reason, or responsibility.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Not Bragging, Just Saying

So tonight after work I stopped in one of my favorite dive bars in Manhattan, Grass Roots on St. Mark's Place. I have been there countless times before and at one point was enough of a regular that the bartender John would include me in his private jokes that inevitably revolved around the foolishness of other patrons.

So tonight I walked in and the bartender, who has waited on me before, carded me.

I realize this blog is mainly read by those who know me; either my relatives or friends. But for those who have never met me, who landed here by either by happenstance or some strange internet algorithm, let me just point out this one odd fact about being asked for identification to prove that I am old enough to drink legally:

I was born in 1965. I'm forty-three years old, for Christ's sake.

I realize I look younger than my years, but not that young. If I had impregnated someone on my 21st birthday, my child would now be old enough to drink legally.*

Yes, I know I should feel complimented. But tonight I was more worried about the fact I couldn't find my driver's license, given the fact that I have a new wallet and live in New York, which means the license is less important to me than my library card or MoMA membership card.

*Sadly, there was little chance of me impregnating anyone on my 21st birthday. I turned 21 the summer I was living in Ocean City, Maryland, and try as they might, my friends were unable to make my birthday particularly memorable. They had made me a cake but wanted to wait until our friend Amy got home from work before celebrating. Unfortunately, on this evening (June 19, 1986) Amy was late getting home from the restaurant where she waitressed because a family had come in 20 minutes before they closed and no-one else would wait on them. Not because they were late, mind you, but because they were black. After Amy finally arrived, we had the cake and then headed to a bar that had a JRR Tolkien-theme, complete with Hobbits, broadswords and faux old trees. I didn't drive at the time, so I couldn't offer an ID to get free drinks from the bartender and it was early enough in the summer that all my friends were too broke to buy me a drink.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Just discovered today is Talk Like A Pirate Day, everyone.

Or, rather: I just spied that todee be Talk Like A Pirate Dee, scurvy dogs!

Just A Moment Of Self-Righteousness

From Yahoo!Finance and Reuters

Stock Futures Soar On Plans To Stabilize Markets

By Ellis Mnyandu

Stock futures soared on Friday, indicating Wall Street will add to its gains after the best day in six years, as investors cheered a series of sweeping steps by governments worldwide to contain the spiraling credit crisis...

Early Friday U.S. securities regulators joined regulators from other countries in temporarily banning short sales of financial shares...

"The ban on the short sales is what's having the immediate impact on the market. That should calm the market down," said Paul Mendelsohn, chief investment strategist at Windham Financial Services in Charlotte, Vermont.

Oh, wait a minute, so regulation is actually good for markets? De-regulated markets are actually potentially catastrophic to society at large?


Who'd a thought?

Alright, I'm done.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

04:43 Sex And Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons

Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons
John Carter

Sex and Rockets is the biography of John Whiteside Parsons, a man so divided in his interests that the author sometimes refers to him as “John” and other times as “Jack,” almost like Highlights magazine’s Goofus and Gallant. Jack Parsons was one of the pioneers of America’s rocket program, responsible for such innovations as the fuel that got our rockets to the moon. John Parsons was an eager, enthusiastic occultist, a follower of Aleister Crowley who strove to establish an occult church in California. Never have the seemingly disparate personalities of “the scientist” and “the magician” existed so clearly within one man; never has the link between science and science fiction been so obvious. Parsons was killed in 1952 by an explosion in his home that has never been fully explained. Was he experimenting with something for rocket propulsion? Was he experimenting with something occult? Was it murder? An accident?

Carter’s book is well researched but unfortunately Carter refrains from offering much insight into Parsons’ personality. The first half of the book details Parsons’ experiments with rockets at a time when most rocket research in the United States was a grassroots effort, conducted by enthusiastic amateurs in their garages or nearby fields. This section is rather dry, relying too much on superfluous details discovered by Carter’s painstaking research.

Not surprisingly, the biography becomes more interesting when Parsons becomes involved with the occult. Gossipy, true, but definitely more interesting. In addition to Parsons’ Oedipal relationship with Crowley and his friendship with L. Ron Hubbard (founder of the Church of Scientology who manages to steal Parson’s wife), there are tales of orgies and other illicit behavior. But it’s not until he summarizes Parsons’ life at the end of the book that Carter offers much insight into the man:

“In contradistinction to the underestimation in the field of rocket science in the aerospace industry, Parsons accomplishments in the arcane sciences have been highly overrated and grossly exaggerated. As a magician he was essentially a failure…He loves Crowley’s “law” (“do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”) but could not adhere to it – though he tried harder than most. He violated the rules, undertook unauthorized and unorthodox magical operations, and claimed the grade of Magister Templi without first completing all the grades below. He couldn’t handle working under authority – his ego was too big. His record of failure is valuable in that regard. He was a great promulgator of Thelemic ideals in his essays, but as an idealist his elitism ruined his work.”

The above image came from Zak Snyder's "Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow." Actually, "Sex and Rockets" would make a good alternative title for Pynchon's novel.

Monday, September 08, 2008

03:43 Backwards Into The Future: The Recorded History of The Firesign Theatre

Backwards Into the Future: The Recorded History of The Firesign Theatre
Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.

As a child I was acutely aware that there were two worlds: the adult world and the kids world. The adult world was caught only in glimpses, perhaps an overheard conversation on the telephone, or when I would wake late at night and quietly sneak downstairs where my father was watching “The Tonight Show.” I would sit with him and never fully understand what I was watching, but know the broadcast originated from another world, one in which I did not live. This idea of two separate worlds is hard to imagine now; we all live in kids world. As a child, I remember the sense that, once I learned the rules and the codes of the adult world, I would then be an adult.

Other than manners and rules, adults didn’t really teach you about their world. No, you slowly learned the codes and hidden rules from older kids who were further along the transitional path from kids world to adult world. Older kids were objects of fascination because they were still kids, but had more experience and knowledge.

There are things that always remind me of this period of my life: the Marx Brothers, the Beatles, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Firesign Theatre. I first heard about all of them from older kids (either my cousins or my friends’ older siblings) whose enthusiasm about them held me spellbound. All four exhibit a combination of sharpness and absurdity, and all four were very funny. They were part of the adult world but also made fun of it. I believe this was when I decided that, in order to make fun of something, you really had to understand it.

The Firesign Theatre is the least known of the four. They were a comedy group consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor, formed in the late 60s. Their primary media were improvised radio shows and surreal, longform stream-of-conscious skits released on albums. One of their most famous skits, “Nick Danger,” is in the form of an old 1940s radio detective show. At the climax, Nick instructs everyone to “take off your…” But you never find out what he was going to say, because the broadcast is interrupted by President Roosevelt, announcing that Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese. America has met its Date with Destiny and can only offer her unconditional surrender to the Japanese. As a boy heading towards puberty, I couldn’t imagine Nick’s instruction as anything but “take off your clothes!” I remember telling my mother about the skit, and when I got to the interruption, she said without missing a beat: “masks.” When the album was released on cd in the early 90s, Phil Austin wrote in the liner notes that he always thought the missing word was “guns.”

The group’s heyday was roughly 1968 – 1974, after which they succumbed to the personal differences that seem to inevitably sink all group endeavors. They’ve reunited sporadically since then, to varying degrees of success. Backwards Into The Future: The Recorded History Of The Firesign Theatre is a collection of interviews from a fanzine in the 1990s when the group was experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Complaints first, mainly with the book’s production rather than its content. The design is a little amateurish, the photographs look like Xerox copies, and the entire text needed another round of proofreading and editing. Well-known playwright Tom Stoppard’s name is written as “Tom Stofford” and some of the redundancies in the interviews should have been trimmed. I also wish that more recent follow-up interviews had been included. At one point, David Ossman mentions he’s transferring his radio archives to DAT tape and all I could think was “Oh, David, nobody uses DAT anymore,” my heart sinking at his wasted efforts. I would have liked to hear what they think of America’s various fiascos of the last eight years.

However, for fans like myself, the book is a wealth of information. The interviews convey the sense of four older gentlemen looking back on their lives, trying to explain how they came up with such amazing work for a few years and then were not able to anymore. Their work, though satiric of our world, seemed to come from a completely alien one. But this book shows how it was the result of four men dealing with political, social, and personal issues. The fact that they were so funny given the turmoil of the times makes their work that much more impressive. The interviews reveal how their best work was the product of a specific time (the paranoid new-age of the late 1960s) and place (California, where else?).

“Diana Dew, who had invented electric strobe flashing clothing back in the mid – to late 60s…She invested clothes that strobed. There was this translucent plastic material that would retain an electrical charge and glow. She created a line of men’s ties and men’s and women’s unisex belts and disco dresses and vests and things with this potentiometer that was connected to the side of the dress that would work rhythmically. So that if you are on the dance floor you can adjust the beat of your tie so that it would flash in time to the music. One of her dresses, her most startling, was a black – and – white, plastic vinyl dress, with these strips of plastic material, kind of up-and-down zebra like, slatted, and she could maybe go round circle stroke would not only be a rhythm but we go round in circles even, to the right or to the left. It was amazing! It was great stuff, great disco dresses. It ended up the company went bankrupt and she… sold it to Salvador Dali, who bought everything. So that’s the only so-called straight job I ever held.”
- Phil Proctor

There are lots of other little gems in the book: Proctor’s stories about getting high with Cloris Leachman; Peter Bergman referring to Bob Hope as “one of the most successful unfunny men ever to live, but what a trooper;” and David Ossman mentioning “this one guy who was heavily alcoholed (sic) or something in the front row of an audience in Washington DC and Phil Austin had to go ask him to leave because he was yelling continually.” I was at that show, I remember that guy and no, it was not me.

Reading these interviews reminded me of reading the letters of Robertson Davies. These are stories of men moving beyond middle age into old age, looking back and making sense of their time on Earth and once again acting as guides for people like me as we move further into the adult world.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Where Bargains And Women Are Concerned, It Pays To Advertise

Another Letter From My Great-Great Aunt Ell To her Husband James, October 9, 1917

Postmark: New York, NY
Grand Central Sta.
October 9, 1917, 1 PM
Addressed to: Mr. J.J. Gildea,
Ashley, Pa.
Luzerne Co.
(This letter is written on the stationery of The Langdon Hotel, 5th Ave. & 56th St., New York. This is the hotel where [my mother's] Aunt Mame Mulhern worked as housekeeper.)

New York City
Oct. 9, 1917

My Dear Jimsie,
Are you tired of letters yet. I am back at the Langdon, came yesterday morning and had a very nice busy day.

Mame & Anna came over to Jersey Sunday afternoon for dinner. Then yesterday morning Mae & I came over to Gimbels to a shoe sale. They had 10,000 pairs of Walk Over Shoes they were selling out for $2.69. (Of course) it was my luck not to be able to get a pair. They had beauties in narrow widths but I didn't see anything I could wear. Mae got a pair of white buckskin. And such a mob of women. Where bargains and women are concerned, it pays to advertise. We had to wade through the crowd. Then we went to Macy's and Saks and saw all the beautiful things.

I came up to Mame's then, just in time for lunch, and Mae went on home. I loafed around all afternoon and Mame treated Anna & I to a chicken dinner at seven o'clock. Some chicken. They broil it in front of hot coals. Our dinner consisted of broiled spring chicken, spaghetti-a-grautin (sic), french fried potatoes, french bread and french ice cream & ice water (55 cents a portion.) We have had so much coffee lately we balked on anything to drink with our dinner.

Then we went and Anna got tickets for the Hippodrome for Friday night, and we went to the Strand on B'way. The performance was very good. When we came home, after I was in bed, Mame gave me a nice dose of castor oil & orange, so I said good bye to my chicken about 5:20 AM this morning and at intervals since. I have had a lot of indigestion since I came but I think I will be all right now.

Pete's* a very busy man. Went out to work Sunday at ?:20 (the first number could be an 8, could be a 5 or it could be a 3 - IHH), came in somewhere around midnight, changed and went right out, had to take the Supt. as far as P.burg. He expected that he might reach W-B.

Mae says she will never marry another railroader.

The girls had quite a laugh when I related your experience with the frying pan. You certainly are learning to be some cook. I suppose when I come home I won't have to wash any dishes at all.

I won't be able to work for awhile. I am having such nice times and talk about sights. You see some here. Wish I had a gun this morning and I there there would have been a dead men & women (sic) in the St. Regis hotel across the way. They have no shame or modesty at all.

Mame had a letter from Aunt Ellen** stating that she was coming down on the excursion Sunday and that she didn't think you were coming. That's not right, is it dear. I'm afraid if you don't come I will be some loaded.

It will be more convenient for Pete to meet you and if the train is on time you can both go to six o'clock Mass; if not you can go to seven and we would get an early start for Brooklyn, get there for dinner. Please don't tell me you are not coming.

There was a parade just passed down 5th Ave. which I viewed from my bedroom window. It was one of the artillery's (sic) leaving. They looked fine.

Will close with lots of love from your darling, hoping to hear from you soon.
*This is a reference to her brother Pete, who was a railroad man. Mae is his wife...full name Mary Josephine Carroll.
***I am assuming that this person is Ellen Ruddy Youngblood.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Last Night

Before I went to sleep last night I was reading Time Out magazine in bed. Last year I subscribed to Time Out and New York to keep up on what was going on in the city and initially was quite good about reading each issue each week as they arrived. But lately it seems I only have time to quickly flip through, read an article of note, and then place the issue on the pile of New Yorkers I acquired either through a subscription years ago or when other people put them out for recycling.

After perusing the issue, I got out of bed to turn off the light, glancing at the back cover as I did so. It was a simple advertisement, white letters on a black background, the kind that leaves ink on your fingers and your unexpected fingerprints everywhere. I read the ad and it said:

We Will Bury
* Jewelry
* Watches
* Diamonds

I thought "That's odd. Someone has a service in which they will bury your valuables for you? Who would use such a service? Is there that much need that they can place an expensive ad on the back of a magazine?" I know our economy is not doing well, but people would rather bury their belongings instead of use a safe deposit box at a bank? And if it was time to bury your goods, wouldn't you rather do it yourself and keep the spot a secret?"

Wide awake and perplexed now, I looked at the ad again and realized it said "We Will Buy...Jewelry, Watches, Diamonds."

That makes a lot more sense.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John's DVD Of The Month Club - June 2008

Heaven Come Down

Directed by Michael Mees and Gabriel Wyre

One of the things that I like about life in general and America in particular is the variety, the strangeness, the deep weirdness that you can find in human behavior. It's found everywhere on Earth, but somehow the combination of America's size, its ideal of the pursuit of happiness, and its emphasis on the importance of individual beliefs creates a perfect environment for everyday craziness unlike anywhere else. Spending most of my time on an island of the coast of America, I feel safe to indulge my fascination with how others live, thankful that that is not my life.

So I was interested in Heaven Come Down, a documentary about the lives of those who handle snakes as part of their religious worship. The film offers a textbook lesson in why some people embrace religion: faced with suffering, often self-induced, they need to believe in something greater that gives meaning to their suffering. Their faith in God is so strong that God never disappoints them, no matter what happens. They handle deadly poisonous snakes: if they get bit and die, it's because God willed it. If they get bit and don't die, it's because God willed it. If they don't get bit, it's because God willed it. The idea of not picking up the snake in the first place, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your own actions never seems to occur to them.

It's almost a parody of fundamentalist religious thought: basing an entire belief system (and thus your entire life) on one quote from the Bible. While I find this subculture interesting (especially in scenes where they clandestinely sell snakes), and like the music in it*, on repeated viewings, it seemed too easy, too obvious. There's not much here that really surprises you. I don't think your opinion or knowledge about snake-handling will be much different after watching the film than it was before. I almost wish the filmmakers had found more ordinary people who were serpent handlers, instead of everyone in the film being...well...white trash. But I suppose ordinary people don't handle snakes as a way of communing with God.

The giveaway is the second half of the film, which introduces a snake handler who has been accused of sexually abusing children. This section stacks the deck by playing up to the audience's worst prejudices. But it also happens to be true, so what can you do?

*Recently I happened to watch loudQUIETloud, a documentary about the band The Pixies which featured scenes of the guitarist Joey Santiago recording the soundtrack music for Heaven Come Down.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another Letter From My Great-Great Aunt Ell To her Husband James, October 3, 1917

This is another letter written by my great-great aunt about six months after the US declared war on Germany.

Of particular interest is the fact that Ell wrote this letter from a house (pictured below) only a few blocks from where I lived when I first moved to New York seventy-eight years later.

Postmark: Brooklyn, NY
October 3, 1917, 7:30 PM
Addressed to: Mr. J.J. Gildea
Ashley, PA
#49, Luz. Co.
Top Floor
362 Greene Ave., Brooklyn, NY

My dear Jim,
Lonesome yet? So far this week has been quite stren(u)ous. Sunday, Anna and I went to Mass and came right over here expecting to see Bill* before he left. Well, we got here and Bill was not to leave until Monday. We got up Monday morning and were down at Sheepshead Bay at 10 o'clock (for those who don't know Brooklyn geography, even by train this is quite a schlep - JH). At four o'clock, the company he belonged to, left. Imagine me all that time without a bite to eat. We went to a small restaurant and all they had was hot coffee, everything else sold out, so we had the coffee and it helped some. It was a good thing Bill was in Co. B. because he was in the second train load. There were twelve companys(sic) and the last left at six thirty. The poor fellows must have been tired. The last company remarked that the first co. would be in France before they left Brooklyn.

They are going to Spartansburg, S.C. Charlie** has not been home for two nights and Aunt Mary*** is afraid that probably he has gone. Because they won't know when they are going. Will be sent right off without any warning. Only some of his clothes are here. Aunt Mary is keeping up fine.

Monday night, Helen (Cousin Helen McBride) and I went to a movie. Yesterday Mae (great Uncle Pete's wife?) and I were over to Pete's. Stayed for supper and came back by way of Mame's.

Mame has a very nice smoking set for you. A genuine mahogany stand with the glass ash tray, match box holder & two cigar holders. It stands beside your chair when smoking. Some class. No more saucers or papers for your cigar ashes. She said just a little remembrance for your kindness to mother. It's supposed to be a surprise.

This morning, Mae & I were down town to the stores and this afternoon we are going to Cecil's. Tomorrow aft. I am going over to Mame's to see a Red Cross Parade and, in the evening, to Mamie's sewing circle at a girl friend's house. Friday I expect to go to Pete's (I am assuming this refers to her brother Peter who lived in either Jersey City or Sunnyside, NY at the time-IHH) to stay over Sunday and then I will come back and spend the rest of my time at Mame's. Mamie Mc has a nice little apartment and very nice furniture. She is getting dinner ready now. Some cook. She's a joke. Haven't sent a postcard yet but will get some today. Jim (since she has just referred to Mamie Mc, I believe the Jim here is Jim Anderson, who was Mary McBride's husband - IHH) just got up. We let him get his own supper Mon. & Tues. night and have designs on tonight and tomorrow night. Good natured skate.

Haven't heard from you yet.
Will close with lots of love from your darling.
Don't want any money yet.
Lovingly yours,

*Bill - a reference to her cousin William McBride, who is also mentioned in the previous letter.
**Charlie - this is her cousin, Charles McBride, a veteran of WW1 also.
***Aunt Mary - Mary McBride, Sarah Ruddy's sister, and mother to Charles, William, Mary (Mame McBride Anderson) and Helen.
There was also a daughter Susie, but so far no mention of her in any of the letters.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Letter From My Great-Great-Aunt Ell To Her Husband James, September 30, 1917

My mother (IHH) has been the family historian and genealogist for a couple of decades now. She recently sent me the text of several letters written by her great aunt Ellen (Ell or Nell or Ella) Mulhern Gildea to her husband, James, during Ell's visits to the New York City area. The first is dated just a little over a month after the death of her mother, Sarah Ruddy Mulhern and almost six months after the United States declared war on Germany and became actively involved in World War I.

New York City
September 30, 1917

"Here comes the servant with our breakfast..some speed to your wife."

My Dear Heart,

Mame has gone to eight o'clock Mass and, not being able to find ink, here goes with pencil...a good blunt one at that.

After an uneventful trip, I arrived on time. I had a seat to myself all the way; although quite a crowd of people got on along the line, no one bothered me, with the exception of a little girl who borrowed my magazine for her father.

The two Mamies* and Anna met me at Jersey and talk about soldiers. The 23rd & 71st were at Jersey, had been there from 5 AM waiting to go. The poor fellows, some were all in, sleeping on anything they could put their heads on, others strolling with their arms around their sweethearts and others holding their youngsters in their arms. Almost every woman you saw had nice red eyes. One poor little thing came into the car with us and she simply could not control herself. She would look at her wedding ring and start to sob.

Will** expects to go today. I am in hopes that I will get over before he leaves. They expect that he will go to the Philippines.

Mame just got in from Church and I am getting quite hungry. I suppose her (servant) will soon bring her breakfast, likewise mine. Anna*** & I are going to the ten o'clock Mass and go right over to Brooklyn.

Anna left the Plaza and starts tomorrow to work for Mame in the linen room. This is Mame's busy time, so I will stay in Brooklyn for a new days now.

Well, my dear, take good care of yourself and you can go to see any miss daisy (note: I have no idea what this means, IHH) you wish, providing you leave at ten PM and come home alone to your own wee bed, with the nice we (sic) spring and mattress and think about your darling once and a while, if it is only when you are cracking your own eggs. I told Winnie (Reilly, probably. IHH) to come over and take some tomatoes, both green and ripe.

Will close with lots of love,
Your loving wife,

*The two Mamies, I think, are most likely her sister, Mary Mulhern, and her cousin, Mary McBride Anderson.
**Will is most likely her cousin, William Mc Bride.
***I am not completely sure who Anna is. There are no McBride cousins by that name...I wonder if it may have been Anna Smith, who was a close friend of the Mulhern girls all their lives.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Pictures Of Fireworks Celebrating The Death Of Jesse Helms

On Friday there were fireworks demonstrations in New York celebrating the death of former Senator Jesse Helms. The fireworks were no doubt symbolic of the eternal torment that Senator Helms is now suffering in Hell, in addition to being really really pretty.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


When I lived in Washington DC, I worked with a bosomy, matronly woman who feed off of other people’s grief. If someone in the office had some difficulty in life, major or minor, she would be there to nod and lend a sympathetic ear, prodding them for more details, keeping the hurt going as long as the person was willing to talk. Then she would make her way around the office, trying to draw anyone who would listen into a conversation about said misfortune, shaking her head and choking back emotion about how bad it made her feel.

A yenta will tell you “there’s someone for everyone,” and this woman’s foil was another woman who worked in the office whose life was a slow motion train wreck. I suspect the train wreck woman was also a pathological liar and invented tragedies to cover her increasingly erratic behavior. They completed each other: the train wreck found an attentive and sympathetic audience for her tales of woe and the bosomy busybody found a steady supply of misfortune she could vicariously feel bad about.

When someone I care about has suffered a great loss, I’m always self-conscious about appearing like An Emotional Vampire feeding off their sorrow, regardless of how I feel. I still have mixed feelings about this post, despite the genuine eerie sadness I was experiencing.

Yesterday I learned that Nikola, a friend of my friends Bob and Michele, had died. I had met him three years ago when I was in Paris; hung out with him one night at a French rock club (written about here). His death makes me sad beyond my concern over my friends’ heartbreak. He was so gregarious I just assumed we would hang out again someday.

Two of Nikola’s comments from the previous posting stand out:

They end their set by throwing their instruments on the floor and knocking over some of the drum kit, leaving the audience to stare at the inert instruments while listening to the feedback created. Nicola is disgusted.

"Come on. I mean...now someone has to clean that up."

He also mentions a more disconcerting fact: No-one in [the band onstage] is much beyond 16. "Oh wait, the drummer just turned 17." I mention (actually, I yell above the sound of the band) that that makes me feel old.

"No, no, it should make you feel young!"


Sunday, May 25, 2008


Yesterday I went to the Guggenheim to see the exhibit by Cai Guo Qiang: I Want To Believe. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, there was a line to enter the museum, which I've never seen at the Guggenheim. A straight line at that: surely the queue should have been rounded? Regardless, I left without seeing the exhibit. I want to believe, but I'm not going to wait in line to do so.

Too nice a day to be disappointed, I went to Central Park. I walked for a while in looking-without-thinking mode, and watching the people play and interact, I was overcome with a sense of euphoria, mixed with feeling like an idiot for being so happy that I was on the verge of tears. A guy was playing the vibes and a short distance away, a duo of girls sang while playing violin and acoustic guitar. I searched for a spot where I could hear both equally, hoping to mix Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" with Guns & Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine." At one point, I thought of the park as Heaven, except that most of the people were white. I sat on the ground, taking photographs of birds and running my hands through the grass as if I was patting the Earth on the head.

It was a familiar sensation. On July 12, 1997, my friend Lynn and I took Ecstasy and went to Central Park. The reason I know the exact date is that Sleater Kinney was playing a free show in the park, and to my ears at the time, their music sounded like RUMBLE RUMBLE RUMBLE "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" which I now know is not a bad description of their sound. We sat there talking and I ran my fingers through the grass and I felt good. But after yesterday, I wonder if it wasn't the Ecstasy so much as it was the park.

I feel its necessary to record these moments of bliss, of pure joy at being alive, to remember when things in life aren't so good.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Glamorous Sights of New York City

Living in New York, you get used to the sight of tourists taking pictures just as you get used to how slowly they walk and how they're not really looking where they're going. I've learned, as a courtesy, that if someone is taking a picture, to walk around their back so as not to ruin the shot. I often glance at where they're aiming their cameras and think "what are they taking a picture of?"

Not today - today it was fairly obvious. I saw a guy dressed in camouflage pants, t-shirt, white Yankees' cap, taking a photo of one of Manhattan's great landmarks: the Hooters sign which hangs about the restaurant.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A Message For President Bush

Thank you for the $600 rebate check. Really.

However, you can't buy my love or approval for a lousy $600. My first inclination is to donate this to the Obama campaign, but given how bad our economy is doing, I'm saving it. Sure, I need new clothes for work, but I was going to buy them anyway. I'm not picking up any books or cds that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. The $600 is going to sit in the bank until needed.

While it's always nice to get $600 you weren't expecting, it doesn't begin to make up for the thousands of people, American soldiers and innocent civilians, killed in Iraq due to your war.

There are many scenes in The Sopranos, where, after gangsters beat someone close to death, they give him some money as a "make good." It's seems so familiar now...

So, thanks again. Really.

But it doesn't change how I feel about you or your administration.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

John's DVD of the Month Club - May 2008 Pt 2

Gone (an episode of Spaced written by Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg, directed by Edgar Wright)

So the theme of this month’s dvd was duality: two selections from two different media (film and television) showing two cultures (East and West), each highlighting the conflicts between men and women, reality and fantasy, comedy and tragedy. May is the first of two months partially under the sign of Gemini the twins*. Etcetera, etcetera.

After the creepy beauty of Miike’s Box, there’s something refreshing about the frantic silliness of Spaced. Anyone who stays over at my apartment is inevitably introduced to Spaced, and what starts with “You might like this – let’s watch this one episode” invariably ends three hours later after watching an entire season in one shot with promises made to watch the remaining episodes the following day. There’s only two seasons of Spaced, a total of 14 episodes, which is both a source of frustration and an explanation as to why the show is so good. They stopped before they ran out of ideas.

The setup is this: Tim and Daisy are friends who must pretend to be a couple in order to rent a cheap flat. Around them rotate Tim’s friend Mike; Daisy’s friend Twist; Brian, the artist downstairs; and Marsha, their perpetually pissed (in the British sense, not the American) landlady. The setup is nothing: it’s almost deliberately sitcom-cliché and rarely figures in the show. It acts as a frame on which to hang a fast array of jokes: visual humor (the way the S on a canister doubles as the first letter in “Six Hours Earlier”), character humor (soldier-wannabe Mike’s wistful “yeah” in response to the description of men as being nothing but destroyers), verbal humor (“There’s been a misprint on one of the covers of the new issues.” “Which one?” “Total Cult.” “Oh.”), slapstick (the climatic shootout) and pop culture references. There’s so much funny coming so fast that the number of jokes that do work is remarkably high. What’s more impressive is that the jokes that don’t work don’t ruin the show. The characters never act out of character just to score a laugh. Even when indulging in the most outlandish fantasy, it remains true to the characters and their situation. And funny.

An example of how good Spaced is is that its pop culture references don’t annoy the hell out of me. I’m beyond burnt out on comedy based on pop culture, which means my taste is completely out of fashion with contemporary humor, which seems like nothing but pop culture references. Not jokes, mind you, but references alone. “Tina Yothers” “Charles Bronson” “Gary Coleman” are considered witticisms in and of themselves. The backbreaking straw was when, apropos of absolutely nothing, a moose showed up on the Simpsons’ front lawn accompanied by the theme from Northern Exposure. There’s no joke there, no context, and no commentary of any kind. The moose is only there to flatter those who recognize the reference. This was when I began to dislike The Simpsons. But when Tim and Daisy mimic the frozen Jack Nicholson from the end of The Shining it’s funny because it builds off the previous line of dialogue and because their faces are funny. You could also argue that this is how Tim and Daisy see the world: real-life experience filtered through a media-based framework. It explains Tim’s description of their night out being represented by cartoons and the slow motion "gunfight" at the end.

I feel a certain nostalgia watching Spaced because it reminds me of my twenties and early thirties, years spent living with roommates, hanging out with friends in bars, enjoyably wasting time so as not to worry about the future. The show is a pleasant fantasy: there’s something reassuring about its philosophy of silliness as a way of life. Who doesn’t want to live in a world in which you can escape a beating by spontaneously playing shoot-out with a bunch of hoodlums?

I thought Spaced was coming out on dvd in the US next month, but it's not currently listed on amazon.com. Watch for it - it is well worth getting when it does come out.

*the best sign in the zodiac, I might add.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

John's DVD of the Month Club - May 2008 Pt 1

Box (a segment from Three Extremes directed by Takashi Miike)

Anyone who recognizes his name certainly can’t be blamed for saying “Uh-oh” when they read “A Takashi Miike Film.” Miike is a Japanese director who works very quickly, finishing three or four features a year. Even though he works with different genres and in wildly different styles, there’s always a sense of menace to his films. He’s perhaps best known for Ichi The Killer and Audition, films that, all hyperbole aside, feature some of the most graphic and disturbing depictions of torture and mutilation ever caught on film. Any trepidation on the part of the viewer is certainly understandable.

His short Box is the third part of an anthology film Three Extremes, which includes work by three of Asia’s leading genre directors, the other two being Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan and Korea’s Chan-wook Park. Part of why I like Box so much is that I hated the other two Extremes – context is everything. Chan’s section features a hazy, soft focus style that recalls soap operas and tampon commercials and his story was about a food that keeps you eternally young: dumplings made out of human babies. When the main character discovers the food’s secret ingredient, she continues her diet of baby dumplings because, you know, women are so vain. Park’s film is an exercise in offense in both form and content. It’s about an extra taking revenge on a film director by forcing him to make a heinous choice: if the director doesn’t kill an innocent child, then the extra will kill the director’s wife. An ugly story done in an in-your-face style I hate, one that uses showy but pointless camera moves and a self-consciously cartoony set design. But Miike’s film hooked me as soon as I saw its quiet opening shot of a bare tree in a winter field that’s blue with cold.

I have the movie playing on the other half of the computer screen right now but the images are too distracting; it’s taking me twice as long to write this as it should. It has the easy prettiness of a music video – with a different soundtrack it could be a Smashing Pumpkins video. However, unlike music videos, the pace is slow, contemplative. The lingering shots mimic the magician’s obsession with the one girl but also draw the viewer into this world and its mysteries. The cold of the city that contrasts with the warm reds and oranges in the circus tent. The silence during scenes of horror versus the overamplified roar of fire and crinkling of a plastic sheet.

Hypnotized by its beauty, but the story also interests me. Box is, along with The Wizard of Oz and Mulholland Drive, one of the few films in which the “oh it was all a dream” ending doesn’t feel like a cheat or a cop out, but is instead a clue to the psychology of the main character. The question is: what is the dream and what is the reality? The obvious answer is that most of what we have seen (the circus act, the tragic death, the magician’s revenge) is the dream of one half of a pair of Siamese twins which reveals her desire for independence mixed with guilt for wanting to be free of her sister.

But the film ends with the magician walking away from the field where the girl has been buried alive, which creates another interpretation: most of what we have seen is real, and the sequence with Siamese twins is a brief fantasy occurring right before death, and an acknowledgement that she will never be free of her sister.

My apologies to those with kids. I meant to include a warning with this month's dvd that it was not appropriate for young children but forgot. Again, my apologies and I promise to include such warnings from now on.

Tomorrow: a discussion of the West half of the disc.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Last Night's Dream

I promise that I will not be posting my dreams here on a regular basis.

I was either watching a program on television or someone was talking to me in person. It's hard to say, as it sometimes is in a dream. But this person was informing me that earlier civilizations didn't value the ear that much. Consequently, painters rarely bothered painting ears on their subjects. Yes, sound and music were important, but the ears themselves were not. That's why you rarely see Christ's ears in paintings. The eyes are important, as were His wounds, but His ears? Not so much.

The dream included images of old paintings that proved this thesis, though whether the paintings exist in the real world I can not say. When I remembered this dream late this morning, I accepted its conclusion as true even if I don't know if I agreed with its reasoning, such as it was. You don't generally see the ears in old painting, particularly religious ones. Do you?

If I wasn't so busy at work today I probably would have probably done some research to see if this was true. This may be like the time I was in an altered state, and realized that one of the things that was special about the word "wasps" is that it was the only word in the English language that made you makes the cymbal sound when you said it. Wah-SSSPSS! I was so taken with this realization that I recorded myself saying it over and over. Wah-SSSPSS! It wasn't until two days later, long after the altered state had passed, that I thought of words like "asps" "grasps" "clasps" and "lisps."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Comments on "The Boy with Green Hair" From My Friend Troy

(Edited from two separate emails.)
I wanted to say thank you for sharing "The Boy With Green Hair" with us. As a surreal parable about the ills of war, it has an odd choice of metaphor - shocking green hair standing in for spring-like renewal. That and "Nature Boy" as the theme song and an amazingly naturalistic performance by a young, young, young Dean Stockwell makes this quite an interesting treat. And intriguingly anti-war for 1948, which is perhaps more compelling, in context.

Reading your commentary on your blog reminded me of the boys interaction with the war orphans and how interesting is was. While they were initially presented as some sort of immovable tableau, only to react to him once he acknowledged their presence, his own take on them was much more pragmatic than theirs to him, which was lofty and surreal, since of course, he was their messiah

They responded to his comments with unreal clarity and a sense of the epic, whereas his retorts were snappy and generally annoyed, an interesting contrast I greatly admired. Here they are - these metaphorical visions of tragic suffering and he's cranky because he woke up with green hair, priceless. But once he gets the message, well then...

I also thought the scene where he gets his head shaved was oddly compelling. As Andrea mentioned, there is little to no music in that scene, at a time when most films were over scored, thereby increasing the sense of anguish. It's amazing how upset the townspeople seem over the situation, like they didn't know what else to do, but had to go through with it anyway. It's like a far subtler version of what Lars Von Trier seems to shoot for in many cases, "Dogville" for example.

Troy -
The difference may be that, unlike Von Trier, the makers of The Boy With Green Hair (Joseph Losey, Betsey Beaton, Ben Barzman) seem to have sympathy for their characters, even those who turn against the boy. They also seem to believe in their film's message - the earnestness and lack of irony is one of the things I respond to. Von Trier doesn't seem to believe in anything within Dogville, which limits the film. He wants an exciting climax of the heroine ordering the massacre of the townspeople who wronged her, but wants to justify her doing so as a philosophical and moral point rather than simple revenge, and then taunts the viewer for wanting to see the massacre. To accomplish these contradictory goals, Von Trier's characters have to indulge in a debate of twisted logic that demonstrates there is no meaning to Dogville beyond audience manipulation.


How 38 years and hanging out with Dennis Hopper can change you:

He is so fucking suave...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Favorite Comment (So Far) About John's DVD of the Month Club

Courtesy of an email from my friend Gavin:

As a neurotic, one of the things I dread most is searching for and deciding on a movie to watch. As a member of John's DVD of the Month Club, all I have to do is sit back, relax and enjoy!

If I was going to advertise, this would be my slogan, even if it meant I ended up with a bunch of neurotics for customers.

Friday, April 04, 2008

John's DVD of the Month Club - April 2008

The Boy With Green Hair

One of the consequences of knowing a great deal about something is that it can sometimes prevent basic pleasure. After getting a degree in film production, I find I analyze movies and television shows rather than simply watch them, as if they’re homework assignments and I’m the teacher who must grade them. This means that most things I like, I “appreciate.” But it also means that I especially treasure anything that overwhelms my critical facilities and reminds me of how it felt to watch a movie when I was young. I’m either engaged or bored, like or dislike, without analyzing the reasons why. Charmed while watching The Boy With Green Hair, I decided to share it with as many people as possible and came up with the idea for the DVD of the Month Club. The movie isn’t as obscure as I thought. Two different people, upon receiving their discs, said “Oh, The Boy With Green Hair. Dean Stockwell.”

I’m not sure what lead me initially to record The Boy With Green Hair rather than one of the other old films on Turner Classic Movies, but it may have had something to do with a story from my youth. The first time my cousins visited us after they moved to Florida, they told stories about what seemed like an exotic and foreign land. My favorite story came from my cousin Pat, who told us he knew a kid with green hair. It seems his hair was normally light blonde, but he went swimming every day and his parents had a tendency to over-chlorinate the pool, to the point that his hair turned a light shade of green. I thought that was the funniest story, though, like most stories that impress a child, it was mixed with a healthy dose of “there but for the grace of God go I,” despite the fact that I have dark-hair and swam infrequently.

Things I liked about the movie:

- The montage of various homes the boy lived in.

- The cartoon-like sequence of Paps singing his song. I’m a sucker for non-authoritative Irish man-child characters because I had one for a father.

- The propaganda: “Be nice to war orphans.” They had to make a movie to tell people that? Overt messages in films are considered obvious and counterproductive, but I love them for their primitive approach. Have the war orphans appear in a quasi-religious vision. Make the main character look directly in the camera and deliver your message. Make sure the audience gets the point. Propaganda in films now is much more subtle and much less fun.

- Given that extreme hair color is barely noticed today, it’s almost quaint to watch a story in which unnatural hair color is not only shocking but threatening. The movie has an individualist vs. conformist theme, but the boy doesn’t really choose to have green hair, he just makes the best of it when it happens.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

02:43 Reading Comics

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean
Douglas Wolk

Wolk’s book on comics attempts to establish comic theory, analogous to film theory or literary theory, as a starting point for discussing comics. Wolk himself seems to know how hapless a task this is, pointing to the example of how Scott McCloud tied himself in knots just trying to define “comics” in his book Understanding Comics, only to find his definition immediately denounced by some readers. There never has been a consistent, universally acknowledged approach to understanding and writing about literature, film, music or any of the arts. Criticism is an art, not a science, and is prone to the re-thinking, revisions, and arguments attendant to other art forms. At least literary theory is in the same language/form as what it discusses, a fundamental drawback in film and art criticism. McCloud seemed to recognize this, which is why Understanding Comics is a work of criticism in the form of a comic book. Wolk is determined to codify comic book aesthetics as an initial step in discussing the art form, hapless task or not.

Reading Comics is divided into two sections: an overall history and theory of comics, followed by reviews of comics Wolk likes. The first section is the less successful of the two. Wolk attempts to define theory and detail 60+ years of history in under 150 pages, not only for those familiar with comics, but for those unfamiliar with the form. I read comics and know what he was talking about, but I’m not sure it would hold the interest of those who don’t. I found myself engaging less with his ideas than looking for nits to pick.

His reviews in the second half fare better. I remember reading many of them on Salon.com and they’re intelligent essays, neither stuffy nor puerile. His essay about David B’s Epileptic made me want to put down this book and go read Epileptic – a compliment to Wolk. On the other hand, his piece on Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles made it sound incomprehensible and, even worse, a complete drag. I’m working my way through Morrison’s work right now and it is neither. He finds new things to say about the Hernandez brothers and his dissection of Chris Ware is perfect. “There is insight there” as Pauline Kael would say, and Wolk is at his best when he focuses on individual books or creators rather than overreaching for a theory to describe an entire medium.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Saw the above online but it took me a moment to realize that "Ark." meant "Arkansas" and not, you know, Noah's ark.

I think forecasters would have a little more faith in Noah's shipbuilding abilities.

01:43 Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Steve Martin

Steve Martin’s autobiography covers the most interesting part of his career: the early years of doing standup in obscurity, then unexpected and unprecedented renown and success, early retirement from the stage in favor of movies and writing. There’s a little bit of psychobabble, and obviously emotional topics are written about in his dry, detached voice. But Martin is able to write with wit without coming across as an annoying jokester.

Like the best memoirs, Born Standing Up recreates a lost world, a world that Martin himself had a hand in destroying. Entertainment was not nearly as ubiquitous when Martin started out as it is today. There’s wistfulness in the passages about the small time entertainers who inspired and trained him, and his summers spent performing in a broken-down theater in which the audience could hear the toilet flushing backstage. It was an era when entertainment was a minor part of most people’s lives before it became a constant need and a major engine of our economy. Just as the unprecedented success of “Star Wars” forever changed the movie business, the comedy boom of the late seventies, of which Martin was a large part, expanded the role of entertainment in American life.

Martin himself is a fairly serious person and though he never directly discusses this change in society, it’s not hard to surmise his attitude when he writes about why he quit standup at the peak of his success. It was all too much: too many concerts, too many people, too many demands, none of which seemed conducive to comedy. Further proof: this slim book made me laugh out loud.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Announcing John's DVD of the Month Club

Since getting a new computer I've really enjoyed burning dvds for friends. I'll see something on tv and think "Oh, so-and-so would probably love to see that - I'll burn them a disc."

Well, I was watching a movie this past Friday when I had the idea of John's DVD of the Month Club. Here's how it works: you subscribe by sending me your name and mailing address. Then, at the beginning of each month, you'll receive a dvd of something that I found interesting: an old movie, a documentary about weird religion, episodes of a BBC series not available in this country, whatever. Each dvd will be a surprise.

It's free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at anytime. The discs are your's to keep or pass along to friends or throw away.

If interested, please send me an email with your name and address and "John's DVD of the Month Club" as the subject. Please don't post your address in the comment section of this journal.

The first disc will be arrive the first week of April.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Vaarwel Aan Dat Alle

Every week I check Time and Newsweek's websites, though I don't know why. It's rare that there's anything I want to read, and the websites, much like their parent magazines, are Weekly Reader For Adults: "We'll tell you news that flatters your mainstream middle-class self-image, and if by chance the news does not, we'll sugarcoat it as much as possible so as not to upset you."

So I was fairly surprised when I saw the following on Newsweek.com:

Turn Out the Red Light?
Amsterdam plans to close down its most famous district, citing sleaze, criminal activity and human trafficking. Not everybody is happy about it.

(story below, copied for archives sake)

They're closing down Amsterdam's Red Light District? Or rather, kicking out all the prostitutes to make way for little shops? Never thought I'd see the day. Not only am I surprised that it is happening, I'm surprised I haven't heard about it elsewhere. I would have thought it would have merited some mention in the current issue of Whore Monthly, to which I have a subscription (it was a gift). I guess not.

However, I don't think anyone who doesn't live in Amsterdam deserves to have an opinion about this. Entitlement at its most arrogant expects others to deal with the downside of a situation just so it can have what it wants. Since I don't have to deal with the side effects of legalized prostitution, it's wrong to bemoan losing its benefits, some of which are more symbolic than actual. Considering my experience in the Red Light District consisted of getting so stoned I felt like I was trapped in a maze from which I could not escape (partly due to the fact that I couldn't handle crossing the street) I'll excuse myself from the debate.

In theory, I think prostitution should be legal. If a woman (or man) wants to charge for sex, fine. But in actuality, legalizing prostitution wouldn't benefit the whores as much as it would the pimps, to whom it would offer protection and confer legitimacy. Prostitutes seem to be a mixed bag, but there's one overriding trait that all pimps share: they're all assholes. So I have very mixed feelings about the issue.

In any case, here is the article from Newsweek.com, copyright 2008, etc etc.

Turn Out the Red Light?
Amsterdam plans to close down its most famous district, citing sleaze, criminal activity and human trafficking. Not everybody is happy about it.

By Thijs Niemantsverdriet
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 2:50 PM ET Feb 8, 2008
Two weeks ago a young Dutch fashion designer named Bas Kosters opened a new store. His colorful and sumptuous creations—skirts, handbags, sweatshirts—merit attention. But the most striking aspect of his new venue is the location. Kosters's work is on display in Amsterdam's Red Light District behind two tall windows that until recently were used as a brothel. The ladies have vanished. The red lights and curtains have been removed and replaced by Kosters's hyperfashionable clothes.

Kosters found this studio thanks to an ambitious plan by the Amsterdam city government. Arguing that too many brothels and sex bars are linked to criminality, the authorities plan to all but erase the Red Light District. If the plan goes through, the peep shows, sex shops and prostitute windows that line the small alleys and canals will have to go, giving way to galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants and bars. Goodbye to the big neon signs advertising every possible form of sexual indulgence.

Amsterdam without the Red Light District? Wouldn't that be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower? Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, and his aldermen have demonstrated little nostalgia for the district, which has been the world's most famous home of sexual permissiveness since the 15th century. They first unveiled the plan to close it in December; last month they revoked the licenses of two widely known sex venues, the Casa Rosso and the Banana Bar. The next step is to buy out the real estate owners. Last fall the city struck a deal with a powerful brothel owner, Charles Geerts (known as "Fat Charlie"), to buy 20 buildings.

The driving force behind the cleanup is Lodewijk Asscher. A young star of the Dutch Labour Party and deputy mayor of Amsterdam, Asscher believes it's time to deliver his hometown from sleaze—even if he's scuppering a $100 million-a-year industry in the process. He is pleasantly surprised, he says, by the public support he's gotten for the plan. "Every day I get e-mails," he says. A recent survey confirms the sentiment: the city administration's polling agency found that 67 percent of Amsterdam's population supports a clampdown on sketchy business. The Amsterdam City Council approved the plan about two weeks ago by an overwhelming 43-2 majority.

But not everybody is happy about the change. Jan Broers, owner of Royal Taste, a hotel in the heart of the Red Light District, and eight prostitute windows, has formed a protest committee called Platform 1012 (named after the area's ZIP code). He claims to have collected thousands of signatures. This week the group staged a protest march, starting in front of the Casa Rosso and ending in Dam Square, where thousands of people shared a minute of silence. They carried pink balloons and signs saying "Hands off the Red Light District" and a poster of Asscher doctored to look as if he was with a street hooker.

Broers is afraid that fewer tourists will come to a sexless Amsterdam, harming legitimate, legal businesses. Most of all, he says, he feels "stigmatized" by the city government. "With all his rhetoric, deputy mayor Asscher is giving the district a bad name throughout the world," he says. "People phone me up from abroad every day, worried we might be gone already." Broers questions the city's premise that prostitution leads to criminal activities in the area. Indeed, the city, which is acting under laws that require only a suspicion of criminal activity, can point only to studies from the mid-1990s. "It's a shield. The city just wants to gentrify the neighborhood, so they can make some good money. And they're using public funds to buy all the real estate."

And what about the ladies? The Red Light District has about 450 windows where women offer their services. The majority of those will be closed down. Where will the inhabitants go, once they're forced out of work? Asscher says most of the prostitutes are part of international human-trafficking networks that draw on women from Eastern Europe, and they will most likely move on to Antwerp, Hamburg and other European cities. For those that remain, the city administration may start certifying pimps and require that prostitutes who work for them to be 21 years old.

The Dutch Sex Workers Union fears that many women and girls will be forced to start walking the streets. On its Web site the union calls the city's plans to certify pimps "bizarre." Since prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000, it argues, sex workers don't need pimps to find a place to work. Ruth Hopkins, a Dutch-English investigative journalist who has written extensively on prostitution in Amsterdam, says the city government overstates the extent of involuntary prostitution. "Even though there are gangs of pimps, a lot of women, mostly Africans and Latinos, do their work in complete independence," she says. Hopkins fears that a cleaned-up Amsterdam will be a boring city.

The crackdown fits into a nationwide backlash against the excesses of 1960s "happy-clappy" liberalism, as a conservative Dutch member of parliament recently put it. Over the last few years the Netherlands has adopted a stricter policy on selling marijuana, and a ban on hallucinogenic mushrooms is slated to go into effect later this year. "People in Amsterdam and the rest of the country are starting to discern real tolerance from bogus tolerance," says Asscher. "When Rudy Giuliani started to clean up Times Square in the mid-'90s, some people were warning that no one would ever again want to come to New York City. But as far as I know, it has had record tourist numbers each year since." Perhaps Giuliani, who this week dropped out of the U.S. presidential race, should run for office in the Netherlands.

URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/109373