Saturday, January 20, 2007

Annie Nocenti, Comment; Cleve Wiese, First Publication

A fan's notes:

From a comment today to an earlier post, "Ann Nocenti, Daredevil, 1980s":
dear ishmael
someone just sent me this link, and i enjoyed reading what you wrote about me. thank you. i left High Times a long time ago, but for my current derring-do adventures check out my story on baluchistan on

again, very nice writing and great insights into my mind, which apparently i've lost some access too ;)

i hope you keep writing.

annie nocenti
Here's the direct link to Nocenti's "Letter from Baluchistan." Brooklyn Rail is one of my favorite local papers, especially since the Village Voice slashed its staff. The Rail's editor, Theodore Hamm, teaches in NYU's journalism department, as do I. His latest edition features a story by a former student of mine, Cleve Wiese.

Cold War Bibliography

I've been too busy not finishing Power in the Blood -- to be retitled by the publisher, unfortunately -- to finish the post about Alex Maleev and romance comics I started below. And, really, too distracted by the book-formerly-known as Power in the Blood to really engage with any serious media. Sure, I managed to watch twelve episodes of the fifth season of 24 -- yes, twelve -- but I'm not moved to write a word about it. In fact, I think entirely too much is written about 24 -- it is just barely political art, despite the tendency of pundits to read it as some kind of reflection of our terrorist-obsessed times. Mainly, I think, it's pleasurable as a puzzle, an abstract mental problem thinly-dressed up with character and plot.

My more serious media time has been dedicated to research. Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, a sympathetic biography of the anti-feminist crusader by conservative historian Donald T. Crichtlow; Ellen Schrecker's Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, one of the definitive histories of the subject that turns out to be disappointingly thin on detail, as if Schrecker was afraid that the fundamental weirdness of the anti-communist fever dreams would prevent contemporary readers from taking their malice seriously. Also, a new collection of columns by the legendary radical journalist I.F. Stone, which is also turning out to be disappointing. Politics, good; prose, eh. Creep-columnists of the same vintage such as Walter Winchell and Westbrook Pegler are more fun to read. Winchell, in particular, the James Joyce of nasty political gossip.

Best of all has been Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad, a scholarly history based in large part on recently declassified documents. I've a habit of becoming temporarily obsessed with historical figures usually considered bland or banal. LBJ, for instance, has long held down a corner of my imagination. Eisenhower is becoming newly fascinating to me, in part because of Osgood's portrait of his fundamental deviousness. The current conventional wisdom on Ike was that he maintained the piece; detractors say he did little else, while boosters -- amazingly, the more popular position -- say that he did so with great skill. In fact, he did neither. Rather, he waged what he himself called "total cold war," perhaps the biggest and most culturally-deadening propaganda campaign in history, studded with plenty of smaller hot wars in far off places, beyond the reach of mainstream American attention. Ike was a sneaky man, and -- in my reading, not Osgood's -- a conflicted character, torn between his public persona of integrity and his secret self, a Lincolnesque operator, politician-as-artist. This is not to suggest that Ike was another Lincoln, or "great," a term I've discovered that presidential historians (though not, to his credit, Osgood) use with absolute earnestness and unjustified social science certainty. Ike was a killer, moreso, I think, than the subsequent presidents who racked up much higher body counts. His wars were small, quick, and dirty -- Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia -- and the bodies hidden from the media. That's important -- Ike understood that he had to hide the bodies. LBJ and Nixon were so addled by self-regard that they could never really comprehend the carnage they caused. Ike knew what he was doing, crushing democracies to save democracy, as he saw it, and he knew just how paradoxical that was. But he did it just the same.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev, New Avengers #26

1/20/2007 update: I'd been hoping to figure out my thoughts on Alex Maleev's comic book art, as suggested by the original post below, but I'll have to save most of that project for another time. One commenter mistook my few words below as disapproval of Maleev. Just the opposite of what I'd intended. True, I don't like the Scarlet Witch cover, but that's because it's so unlike that which makes Maleev's art unusual in comics -- his attention to texture, his muted color scheme, his ability to tell stories through facial expression.

This last is important, I think. The classic comics artists used template faces for all their characters; their concern was motion and bright color. Modern comics "pencillers" (as they call themselves) wanted to be artier, so they slowed down the action and made much use of close-up facial reaction panels. But they didn't learn to draw faces any better. In fact, they got worse -- reading some no-name superhero books from the 90s, I was struck by the fact that the characters' faces maintained no consistency at all. Maleev's men are individuals, his Daredevil and his Hawkeye distinct characters with expressive faces. Maybe that's my problem with the Scarlet Witch cover -- Maleev's men possess this individuality, but his women, not so much. In the comic referred to below, Scarlet Witch's face is like those drawn by the bland modern illustrators -- she's always hot, but not always the same hot. But being hot always trumps actual expression.

Well, comics are for geek boys, so that's no surprise. But Maleev is more talented than that -- the best panels in this book remind me not of cheap Klimt, a la the cover, but of Ben Katchor, back in the days of his less-crowded Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer panels. Katchor with emotional intelligence. (His surreal strips are not so much about individuals as cityscapes.) Maleev's writing partner, Brian Bendis, writes female characters brilliantly (see Alias -- not the TV show -- a series of graphic novels about a grumpy female detective who quits using her super powers because she's depressed). Apparently, the two are teaming up on a Spiderwoman comic book, so maybe Maleev will create a real female body to go with Bendis' story. The illustrations I've seen don't look promising, though -- too curvy to qualify even as porn. More like satire of porn.


Some really awful neo-Klimt from one of my favorite comic book artists, Alex Maleev. After dropping off my grades today, I took a detour into Forbidden Planet comics at Broadway and 13th. This is what I found. The New Avengers, from which this cover image of the Scarlet Witch comes. I've always hated super heroes and villains who depended on a color for characterization. Except, in principle, for the Green Lantern.

I posted this image of Hal Jordan, aka the Green Lantern, mainly because it's neato, and the subject of the post I'm mulling is romance comics. That, and the work of Alex Maleev. Until my thoughts cohere, Maleev's Scarlet porn and the Lantern's kiss will have to serve as placeholders.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Noahjohn Dittmar, "Mr. Ditty"; Grant Morrison, "Doom Patrol"; John Fahey, "The Yellow Princess"

This is what blogs are good for: As soon as I'd posted some thoughts about Werner Herzog, I got a comment. Terrific -- hardly anyone knows this blog exists. So who's it from? One of my best friends from college, Noahjohn Dittmar, who I've long since lost touch with.

Noahjohn was a wiry, hyper, brilliant, freak from Gainesville, Florida. He wrote amazing stories, about his mom, a pot dealer who gave him an allowance in weed; and the local cops, who'd shake him down for the weed; and "The Melody Club," the dyke bar his mom started taking him to when he turned 16; and his aunt, a Vegas showgirl known as "Miss Derriere" (he had pictures!). And they were all true. He'd come north for college with a contingent of Gainseville scholarship kids -- Noahjohn was poor as piss, like most of Gainesville -- who testified to their veracity. Noahjohn didn't lie, because he didn't need to. The story I remember the best was about his dad, a giant old biker-type, who led a brigade of men to kill the alligator that'd moved into the pond all the kids in the trailer park swam in. They wrestled the gator down, and then Noahjohn's dad, as I recall, plunged a knife between its eyes. Noahjohn accompanied this story with a picture of his dad, relaxing in his trailer, a big .45 inexplicably tucked into the curtain rod above him, next to his collection of ceramic theater masks. (Not the gator Noahjohn's father killed.)

Noahjohn didn't just have great material -- he had the true gift of mimicry. Some writers pay attention to dialogue and dialect, but Noahjohn breathed it. You'd come into the house and find Noahjohn dressed in a skirt and nothing else, frying up a hunk of revolting cheese, yapping a story (audiences were sometimes incidental), cackling at its developments, and channeling all the men and women who lived under the sign of Gainesville Green into sterile, waspy hills of Western Massachusetts. It was better than a movie. Whether or not Noahjohn wrote it down was almost incidental.

That -- and the reality of $ -- may explain why, after a brief stint as a reporter (during which time he attended school board meetings and went about interviewing local police in a black VW bug with an old Porsche engine sticking out of its ass and a shag carpet interior), Noahjohn decided to get his teaching certificate instead of becoming a writer. He moved back to Gainesville, and became a teacher -- from what I heard, an amazing one. But we lost touch. Every few years, a round of email, and then, nothing.

Again, this is what blogs are good for: I check out the comments to this new blog, and I find the following from Noahjohn, in response to a post about Ann Nocenti's "Daredevil" comics:

If it be devils that dare spark your penchant for subversive mayhem, try reading the Lucifer series by Mike Carey. Building on the mythos spawned by Neil Gaimman's Sandman series, the series begins with fallen angel Morningstar resigning from his job as the safegaurder of Hell. Instead he plays piano in a night club and accepts a job from God with the intention to double cross. Or check out Carey's version of John Constantine: Hell Blazer. Don't let the name mislead you. This title existed well before the cheesy American counterparts. Constantine (much like the Lucifer character) manages to save the world through arrogance and sleazy cons. He uses he best friend's child to lure demons from hell. And what magnificently hideous demons they are in pure loathing and grotesque debauchery.

Now if you are looking for some new super heros. Try Grant Morrison's run for the series DOOM PATROL (if you can find them. There from the early 90s) His characters are truly unique. One character is the persona of an entire gay district in poland that was wiped out by Nazis (truth behind this remains unsubstantiated). "Danny the street" is his name, and that is exackly what he is, the ghost of a lost street where lonely men seeking love wandered. There is also a woman with 24 personalities, each with distinct powers. In one issue, she changes into a character who attacks her fellow super heroes. And my favorite, a robotic man with a human heart and brain who strives to nurture the highest human virtues only to find out in the end that he really is robotic through and through (even his brain and heart). Any way, nice to see you reverting back into the interest in the comic form. I am obsessed with this genre and have been working on a white trash sci-fi story that no one will publish but possesses unusual potential as a spiritual commentary. ... Anyway, thought I'd say hi. Always keeping tabs on you. Noahjohn Dittmar or Mr. Ditty.

And then this, more sobering, in response to a post about Children of Men and Iraq movies:

I remember visiting my cousin-in-law in his parent's manicured house outside of Jacksonville before I moved from Florida. Agitated and manic, reaking from booze, he held up his body armor and showed me where a 16-year-old "insurgent" shot him in the chest with a machine gun. He told me he let his guard down while poltroling a quiet zone. When I asked him how he knew the "enemy" were teens, he replied "They looked like me."

A year before, we fired potatoes from a PVC pipe fuled by hairspray. We shot our taters from his parent's front porch at the St. John's River, and he discussed his decision to enlist in that simple way that highschool seniors discuss dreams as if they were reflecting on a life already lived. An almagamation of hippie, surfer, brawler, artist, and daddy's little boy, he said he had no other good plans for the future and that it would mean so much to his dad who loved God and country as much as his steak and potatoes. Daddy thought Bush was the A1 sauce or better yet, some local good-ole-boy BBQ sauce with just enough spice and woop-ass to tame the pallet.

And now, he held that bullet riddled armor, and he twirled his machine gun (ya know, the ones all the boys bring home).

That night he showed me hours of video footage he'd smuggled out. Some amateur, some done very creative and professional, moonlight productions using army editing equipment. He said he could not show them to his parents. He said his mom would cry if she knew what heros had to do.

Almost all the films featured heavy metal music. And all possessed that heavy-handed warrior luster, that Rambo sheen that only revisionist winners can wear.

These films, remarkably, rarely focused on the grotesque (though in a war with unfathomable media attention, grotesque contains many labels sort of like good salsa: Hot, Mild, Chunkey, Puree.) Most of the films showcased American fire power. Automatic grenade launchers firing like machine guns and leveling cities in several hours. Or heroic moments when my Cousin-in-law saw the errant wire above the front door of a home they were about to bombard. As white skinned men littered broken english curses, my cous stood back and RPGed the door and the entire building collapsed.

I suppose the shock and awe of these stories resonated with me in that same way you describe, Jeff. What was I doing about this!!! The one woman I loved more than the world who could actually put up with me, who escaped poverty and bad taste, and who rarely shed a single tear for anything tragic expected more from me on this front.

But coward that I am, I could only listen and tell him things like "good luck" or "I don't pray much , but I will for you." This Christmas, I just saw my cous. He wants to go back after his third tour of duty ends to sign up as a mercenary. When I first met him almost eight years ago, he was painting miniture knights for a role playing game. Damn.

We are all lying, spineless, hypocritical cowards. We cannot murder to solve this war, we cannot protest, nor write, nor scream, nor pray. So what will it be then? You assume we are bedazzaled by illusions, but shit, man, even the illusions of truth are overly accurate if only by analogy. I have only two anwsers and who knows how much either accomplishes. When hijacked, we act or die cowards (ofcourse a hero's death is a small honor to an atheist), so perhaps a little melodrama and art is needed. Perhaps illusion to fight the illusion: a war of muddled illusions where propaghanda subverts truth in the name of TRUTH. (Didn't Michael Moore do this?

I'm so full of ***. I have no anwsers except cop-outs. Art and stories, truth tellers from outside and within the shell of the counrty and the money to push them like heroin into every quiet, small, lazy town where they grow all the potatoes and raise all the cows.

One more, in response to a brief post about a John Fahey tribute album:
Thank God someone still listens to him. Listen to "Yellow Princess", a beautiful tune I recently used in a home movie on Longwood Gardens in Penn. Yvonne, (my goyle) found one of his more obscure vinyl albums. Too bad the record player don' work.
You can hear part of "Yellow Princess" here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Werner Herzog, Three Films, Two Profiles, and a Manifesto; Les Blank, Burden of Dreams, 1982

I had been saving an old New Yorker with an article about a pair of archaeologists who're attempting to settle the question of whether the Donner Party actually cannibalized itself, but when I opened it up my eye was drawn first to Daniel Zalewski's profile of Werner Herzog. I had just read Tom Bissell's essay on Herzog in the December Harper's and thus inspired, rented The White Diamond, which Herzog claims is his best, as well as Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's making-of doc about Fitzcarraldo.

I first saw Fitzcarraldo as a kid, in the little art house theater on the hill above Albany. It's one of my father's favorite films -- I think he had already seen it, but he wanted us to see it, too. This was 1982; I was 10. Even then I could see that the movie represented something my father wanted my sister and I to know about him. Back then he was stern, preoccupied, work-obsessed; a teeth-grinder. Our mother was light-handed, adventurous, and given to convening wild, absurd dinner parties, the greatest of which crescendoed in a spitting-for-distance contest. My mother's boyfriend of the moment, a muscle-bound children's book author named Michael, took first place by surprising everyone with a giant pink goober that sailed across the room (newspaper had been laid down) like a tropical bird. His secret, he revealed, was a bottle of pepto-bismol he'd found in the back of our medicine cabinet. Ancient, and probably once my father's.

My father did not participate in spitting contests, but he did take us to Fitzcarraldo, the story of an Irishman on the Amazon, played by Klaus Kinski, who dreams of bringing opera to the jungle and to that end decides he must haul a steamship over a mountain in order to make a killing in the rubber trade -- money which he will use to bring Caruso to the wilderness. My father admired such flamboyant, poetic gestures, and wanted us to know he admired them. He was not trying to tell us that he was Fitzcarraldo, only that even as one buckles down to the work of life, one must remember the sound of opera in the jungle.

Maybe so. But in Fitzcarraldo, particulary as interpreted through Burden of Dreams, Herzog seems less interested in the sound of opera than in the sound of the jungle itself. He hears the screech and the scream, the terror-filled howls he says the trees would make if they had mouths. Herzog clearly admires lunatics and dreamers who defy nature -- Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man, the balloonist who builds The White Diamond so that he can peer more closely at the jungle's canopy -- but the common denominator of such films is not the flamboyant gesture, but the monstrosity of nature.

This became clear to me reading Zalewski's profile, which centers on Herzog's production of Rescue Dawn, a feature re-make of a documentary he made years ago called Little Dieter Wants to Fly. "Dieter" was an American pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and who then escaped through the jungle. In Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale playes Dieter and Steve Zahn plays his wounded buddy. Herzog spends a day dragging them through the jungle, looking for just the right spot to film an epiphany: "Bale and Zahn, after clambering up a steep hill, get their first glimpse of a wider view. The vista below them, partially obscured by branches, is an Edenic blanket of green, but the effect is deflating: this prison cannot be escaped."

Rescue Dawn has focussed the attention of Herzog's popular press interpreters on Herzog's ambivalent relationship to fact, as conventionally defined. Herzog, for instance, refuses to distinguish between his fictional films and his documentaries. Why then, both Zalewski and Bissell ask, remake Dieter? What greater truth can he achieve in this fictional telling? In the documentary, Herzog films Dieter opening and closing a door in his California home as he explains that the freedom to do so could only be appreciated by a former prisoner. Perhaps; but, it turns out, this was not Dieter's sentiment, but Herzog's idea. Herzog insists that Dieter's willingness to perform the idea is proof of their collaboration -- Dieter would not have done so, Herzog argues, had he not felt that the gesture illustrated some essential truth.

Leaving aside the matter of how a talented storyteller with an enormous ego and a regular joe on the other side of the camera "collaborate," I still pause on Herzog's definition of documentary. One might argue -- though I'm not sure I would -- that documentary is defined by the tension between "truth" and facts. Facts don't necessarily add up to truth, so documentarians must sift through them, identifying patterns, discovering connections, and, yes, constructing arguments. Truth is an argument that the documentarian finds irrefutable.

Herzog doesn't go in for such shaky definitions. To him, in White Diamond and these two profiles, Truth is Truth. He seems confused and annoyed by further questioning on the matter. He seems, in fact, to be rather dimwitted on the subject. Perhaps the apparent artlessness of his films is not a ruse? Perhaps he is an idiot savant?

Or maybe he is a trickster, who knows that the question of truth, seemingly as central to his films as the grand, operatic gesture of Fitzcarraldo, is really a cover for other pursuits -- just as the operatic gesture may be a cover for his exploration of the inherent terror of nature. I see evidence of this possibility in Grizzly Man, and the angry reactions of the few people I've met who hated Herzog's appropriation of the late "Grizzly Man" Timothy Treadwell's footage from his many summers spent living amongst the grizzlies of Alaska. What bothers these people the most, beyond what they perceive as the exploitation of Treadwell -- viewed as either a mentally ill person or a pure soul, either way entitled to protection from public eyes -- is the certainty with which Herzog interprets Treadwell's story in his voiceover. Herzog declares Treadwell naive, blind, in a sense, to the blank "murderousness" in the grizzly bears' eyes. Herzog's detractors may or may not agree with this diagnosis, but they loathe Herzog's assertion of it as fact.

Such sentiments reveal a faith in facts, a belief that they add up to truth. Herzog holds no such convictions. He is more interested in authority. Not the echoes of fascist authoritarianism with which he grew up in Bavaria, but his own authority, his own discovery of truth, his own right and ability to tell a story unbound by qualifications and disclaimers. That is, his chance to respond to the randomness of nature by becoming a force within it, asserting narrative authority not based on facts but on his own literally wild vision -- the facts of a jungle vista as a prison, of murder in a bear's eyes, of the trees slashed by Fitzcarraldo in his attempt to haul his steamboat over a mountain screaming in vengeful fury Fitzcarraldo can't hear because his head is full of Caruso. Like Fitzcarraldo, and, to a lesser extent, the balloonist of White Diamond and Timothy Treadwell, Herzog is a narcissist. But whereas his characters seek to escape into interior visions, Herzog wants to project his outward. That is his operatic gesture, and that is commentary on truth. It sounds awful so-phrased, but as an argument, I find it more compelling and honest than the handwringing of responsible documentary, or even the seemingly artless poetics of cinema verite.

A year ago, I invited the filmmaker James Marsh to come speak to my class about two of his recent films, a feature called The King and a documentary, after a fashion, called Wisconsin Death Trip, inspired by my college mentor Michael Lesy's book of the same name. James brought with him a manifesto by Herzog, "Lessons of Darkness," worth reproducing in full.

1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. "For me," he says, "there should be only one single law: the bad guys should go to jail."
Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: "You can´t legislate stupidity."

9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down.

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn´t call, doesn´t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don´t you listen to the Song of Life.

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

Art for God, "Undefeated"

In the comments to Ron DiCianni, Paintings (below), Steve Prothero points me to another essential work of modern Christ kitsch, "Undefeated":

I can't find an artist's name to go with "Undefeated" on the site that sells prints of it, "Art for God"; they appear to be an evangelical art collective that produces Christian imagery "for the 21st century." Individual creators aren't important to them, apparently, since to their way of thinking, all credit goes to God. That'd be impressive if the work wasn't so awful, inspired, it seems, by the soulless mass-produced crap churned out by purely commercial enterprises, posters of kittens on tree limbs and the New York City skyline. The artists responsible for "Undefeated" are so intent on blending into the culture that they've erased individual style. All that's left is a Beegee on steroids. Who is this picture for? The fellas, who don't want a sissy-Christ, as Hubert Humphrey once called the Jesus of liberal churches? Or the ladies, who want a Christ who's all man and all soul?

If anyone could answer that question, besides the artborg that created "Undefeated," it'd be Steve Prothero, author of a fascinating book called American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. Steve has a new book coming out next month, Religious Literacy, which will be a response to what he calls "a nation of religious illiterates." Presumably, that includes even the art collective behind "Undefeated," whose 21st century ambitions are better described as a revival of the 19th century "muscular Christianity" movement, a rather ugly response to the idea that industrialization was leading to office-coddled girlie men incapable of pursuing British empire and American manifest destiny. Steve also has a new blog, at which you can find his controversial Harvard Divinity Bulletin article "Belief Unbracketed."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Ron DiCianni, paintings

In my feature on Christian fundamentalist historiography for this past December's issue of Harper's (not yet online), I spent a little time discussing this image, offered as a lithograph from an outfit called the Presidential Prayer Team:

Turns out it's by artist Ron DiCianni. I usually don't go in for fundamentalist kitsch -- it's more interesting to take it seriously and try to understand what its creators and consumers see in it -- but my discovery of a whole site of DiCianni's work fills me with cheap joy.

"Chariots of Fire"

"Blessed Are the Peacemakers"

When I wrote briefly about evangelical artist Thomas Blackshear's "The Vessel" for Harper's last year, a lot of folks who didn't see the picture accused me of reading eroticism into what was surely wholesome, if corny, middle American decorative art. I'm with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on this one -- I can't define porn, but I know it when I see it.

I thought Blackshear was special, but with my discovery of DiCianni, I think I've identified a movement in evangelical art. To wit, DiCianni's "The Chisel," in which God appears to be carving a golden Chelsea boy:

Is evangelical art really that gay? If only. DiCianni's, Blackshear's, and God's personal preferences aside, this massively popular reveals an unexplored facet of the Christian men's movement: The manly desire for beauty. Or, to be more precise, the manly desire to look pretty. What's wrong with that? Doesn't that suggest a slightly-expanded idea of gender? Indeed, it does -- the masculine gender ex[anded to encompass and appropriate one of the few virtues fundamentalist men had previously reserved for women. But here's DiCianni on female beauty:

Maybe that's not fair. "A Mother's Love," as this painting is titled, shouldn't be expected to bear the standard of female eroticism. Here's DiCianni's best effort in that regard, "Daughter of the King":

Who's hot and who's not in this picture?

We might write off these sterile representations of women to prudishness, but that still leaves us with the ripped golden muscles and leatherman fetish of DiCianni's man-art. My tentative theory: As religious art traditionally uses eroticism to channel worldly desires toward spiritual concerns, contemporary fundamentalist art uses eroticism to channel sex -- the visual currency of power in an advertising culture -- away from women and toward men. Either that, or it's a vast gay conspiracy.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

David O. Russell, Three Kings, 1999; Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men, 2006; Chava Rosenfarb, Tree of Life, 1972

When I first saw David O. Russell's Three Kings -- the first feature film about the Gulf War --seven years ago, I cried like a five-year-old watching Bambi. This, I knew, was an odd reaction for a heist flick starring George Clooney, Markey Mark, and Ice Cube. But it was more than the sum of its parts, a portrait of the aftermath of a war in a country the U.S. had crushed and, we thought back then, forgotten. My favorite film reviewer, Stuart Klawans, had this to say in The Nation:

"Movies... function as wish fulfillments. In the Rambo movies, when Stallone visited himself upon Vietnam, the wish could be summed up as, "This time we win." In Three Kings, a somewhat more elevated desire is put into play: "This time we don't behave like complete shits." Even in this particular no man's land, the magical thinking of movies makes room for sentiment, so that our four Americans at last act for motives beyond dumb self-interest. The true test of the movie lies in how it goes on to realize this wish."

Three Kings did so with comedy made brutal by its own madcap form and a surreal confusion epitomized by Marky Mark calling home on one of Saddam's cell phones, evidently not wholly certain which country he's in and what has happened there. And then there's the torture scene, featuring a U.S.-trained member of the Republican Guard and Wahlberg's character, played as Melville's Pip lost in an ocean of deceptions and "realpolitik" and raw suffering that he can't comprehend. Given what we now know about U.S. torture, the scene plays as quaint, but at the time it was terrifying.

I caught the movie in Montreal, where I was staying in a empty, dimly-lit and underheated mansion, a "bed-and-breakfast" I'd checked into while I spent a week interviewing Chava Rosenfarb, the last of the great Yiddish writers, for a profile in a Jewish magazine called Pakn Treger. Chava's house was even darker and colder, and she spoke mainly of lies and betrayal -- her own and those of her lovers, the choices they'd made to survive not just the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and Dachau, but also the decades since. Chava, as a young woman, had been political, but the camps had cured her of the notion that politics can avert the horrors that wash over the world like waves, regular and predictable. Never again? Chava's answer, I suspect, would be along the lines of "Probably tomorrow." Still, she wondered: Could something have been done? Could she -- 16 and powerless, a girl in a ghetto -- have done something differently? Should she have fought and died?

My questions, as I watched Three Kings, were considerably more trival, to say the least. In 1990, as a freshman at Hampshire College, I'd thrown myself into the anti-war movement. I took part and helped organize marches, some of them enormous. I was arrested twice and knocked around -- while cuffed, no less -- by Amherst cops in a small police riot that followed the self-immolation of a war protestor named Greg Levey on the town common. By the end of the school year, though, it was all over. The huge numbers we'd put in the street were no more persuasive to Bush the First than the millions who rallied against the current episode of the war -- the largest protest in history, I've heard -- were to Bush the Second. The following winter, I spent six weeks traveling with my sister, an Arabic scholar, through North Africa. Everywhere we went, Arabs wanted us to know that they loved America, but hated Bush. "Me, too," I assured them.

"Then why did you not do something?" they asked.

That was the question that came to me in the dark as I watched Three Kings and and thought about the absurdity of "Never again." One needn't look to Cambodia, or East Timor, or Rwanda, or the Congo in the years since the Holocaust to know how empty that phrase is; one need only turn on the TV, right now. The first Gulf War killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Whether the current war has led to the death of some 60,000 Iraqis (the very low estimate) or 600,000 (the one claimed by nonpartisan academic researchers), the scale of needless death makes a mockery of semantic debates over the terms such as "civil war" and "genocide." The proper question in response to such mass killing, undertaken in part with one's own tax dollars is not "How many corpses does it take to equal genocide?"; it's "Why did you not do something?"

I asked myself that question once again last night as I sat in the dark watching Alfonso Cuarón's new movie, Children of Men, a dystopic thriller set in the near future, when, apparently, some kind of virus has made all of humanity infertile. Most of the world has descended into chaos. "Britain alone soldiers on," blares the announcements on the train as our hero, Theo (Clive Owen), a former radical long since disillusioned, rides home from his bureaucratic job. He's playing hooky to visit an old friend in the country, far from the madding crowd. Jaspar (Michael Caine) is a very old hippie, still radical and still ridiculous, baked and corny and yet the only seemingly fully sentient human left in a world divided between fascism -- Theo's brother, British Minister of Culture, who lives in a sterile white box petting the world's art treasures, looted by the last government still standing -- and the feral. This latter category is represented by the Fishers, a radical militia dedicated to opening Britain's borders to refugees. Theo's ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore) is the leader of the Fishers, and she manages to appeal to Theo's buried emotions for her, if not the cause, to enlist his help in moving one such refugee to the coast. The refugee, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), turns out to be worth the trouble: she's pregnant. Julian wants to get her to a ship off the coast where scientists beyond the government's control can find out how Kee, a young African prostitute, has managed to avoid humanity's curse. But the rest of the Fishers want to keep the baby in Britain as a symbol -- a martyr, if necessary -- for their cause, and so they murder Julian. Theo takes over the rescue.

The set-up is one-third of the film. The chase that follows takes us through to the end. Along the way, Cuarón slowly reveals a response to the current worldwide "War on Terror" that's all the more effective for not being a one-to-one analogy. The fascist British government, for instance, is obsessed with the dangers of immigrants, but it's not fighting a foreign war. "Homeland Security" runs the show, and the posters warning civilians to report "suspicious activity" are dead ringers for those in the subways and on the busstop shelters here in New York, but the fight is not the same, nor is it meant to be. The Fishers at first reminded me of the Weathermen, radicals blinded by adventure and fury; it was late in the film before I recognized them as the Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, absent Islamic fervor.

But the most chilling connection was not meant to be subtle. (Spoiler ahead.) When Theo and Kee, along with a midwife named Miriam, end up in a Homeland Security prison camp, one of the first sights they witness is a man in a pointy black hood, his body covered by a poncho, his arms out as if crucified. This direct quote of Abu Ghraib is disconcerting, but heavy-handed; it's meant, I think, only to signal you to be alert to what's coming. In an effort to distract the guard from Kee's labor pains, Miriam begins praying loudly as they're transported on a bus. A dog handler drags her off. In one long shot -- as if twisting over our shoulders as the bus moves on without her -- we see another black hood shoved over her head.

The full house I saw the movie with gasped out loud. A liberal crowd, no doubt, probably 90% opposed to the war, fully aware of the routinization of torture and brutality in the name of freedom these past years. But still, we gasped. The offhandedness of the hooding, the sudden disappearence of Miriam (we never find out what happened to her), the forward motion of the bus, the plot that moves on without her, and, no doubt, the fact that Miriam is a white woman, a British citizen, a new-agey, sweetly ridiculous soul, a harmless creature, "like us," the mostly-white American middle class. We gasped. This, you could almost hear us all thinking aloud, this is what we're doing in Iraq. And then, for me and many others, I suspect, the question: "Why did I not do something?"

The question is in the past tense because what movies such as Three Kings and Children of Men make unbearably clear is that the damage is done. It's too late too prevent the horror, too late to avoid regret. Whether one believes we're three years into this war, or, as I do, 16, the time is long past when any honest person could maintain that the United States -- and by that I mean not just the current government, but those of us who through passivity and tax dollars and ignorance have empowered it -- is just a little off track, that in Nixon's immortal phrase, "mistakes were made," that Ford-style "healing" is possible. "Why did I not do something?" Many of us did: marched and wrote letters and wrote articles and joined organizations and campaigned for candidates and started blogs with which to spread the word. Not good enough. That's just a plain, empirical fact. All of it -- not good enough.

Was there anything we could have done that would have been good enough? At the end of Children of Men (spoiler ahead), Theo and Kee sit in a rowboat off shore, waiting in the fog for rescue by a militant Greenpeace-type outfit with a ship called Tomorrow. They hear a rumble. The ship? Then, roaring low through the fog come three fighter jets, and suddenly the shore glows orange, as the government's big guns suppress a Fallujah-like uprising in the prison camp with massive firepower. The thunder and the boom and the orange blossoms reminded me of Red Dawn, the 1984 war pic in which a high school football team takes to the hills as a rebel force resisting the Soviet takeover of America. They fight bravely and with cleverness, but there's only so much they can do, and they begin to lose heart. Then, one day, U.S. fighter jets from the "free states" blast overhead and light the horizon up orange. The crowd in the theater, circa 1984, cheered. Twelve-years-old and uncertain whether "communists" were actually human, unaware that Red Dawn was Rambo by another name -- which is to say, a post-Vietnam fantasy in which the "good guys" win -- I cheered, too. Hooray for American firepower!

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the theater crowd for Children of Men watched the bombing run with less joy, to say the least. (Big spoiler -- sort of.) The film ends with Kee and her baby alone in the rowboat -- Theo has slumped over, presumably dead -- as the Tomorrow sails forth from the fog. Screen goes black, then the title, white sans serif on black: CHILDREN OF MEN. Audience gasps again. No closure. Just massive firepower, technically that of the "good guys," erasing a small population, and a fishing boat for the survivors. Thin redemption, indeed. Or, perhaps: Not Good Enough.

What would be good enough? I'm not sure, but I suspect we must abandon our pieties before we'll find out. Not just the democracy-spreading delusions of the neocons, but liberal newsspeak as well, blather about "time tables" and "redeploying," "with honor," no less, a term of profound obscenity given the blood we've all helped spill. So: Step one: Let's lose our illusions. This is a process most of us must repeat over and over, and it's what good art -- especially good populist art -- is for. I am speaking here of movies like Three Kings and Children of Men, and books like Chava Rosenbarb's epic realist trilogy of life in the Lodz Ghetto, Tree of Life, an undeservedly obscure masterpiece first published in two Yiddish volumes in 1972, later brought out in one unwieldy doorstop by an Australian publisher, and over the last two years released in three volumes by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Here's Chava talking about her "influences" with a Canadian radio interviewer:
The ghetto was the soil on which I really grew, I really became what I am now in a certain sense, as far as creativity is concerned, because the ghetto and the atmosphere of the ghetto and the experiences of the ghetto and human relationships in the ghetto, where you can't hide and pretend that you are somebody else, that you are noble and smart and whatnot - the person was completely naked with their soul. And that's how I learned, by observation and by being myself, immersed in that snakepit. What I saw, what I learned there gave me my outlook on the human condition, on how people are, on life in general.

(From Lodz Ghetto Album, by Henryk Ross)

Monday, January 1, 2007

Conrad Milster, Steam Whistle Blow, 1997-2007

For the last several years of New Year's Eves, Julie and I have loudly declared that at midnight we would be standing in the cold dark, listening to the thundering honks and hrrms and general blasting of annual steam whistle blow presented on the Pratt Institute campus by the art school's longtime chief engineer. And ever year, we find ourselves at our friend Paul Morris' lowkey New Year Eve's party, mildly drunk and very full from an elaborate pot luck dinner, too lazy to get on the G and ride out to the Pratt Institute for the steam whistles. But this year, nudged along by some friends, we jumped into a cab at 11:40 and made it in time.

The last time I attended was New Year's Eve, 1997. I wrote about Milster, the Chief Engineer of Pratt Institute, for Spike Lee's shortlived Brooklyn Bridge magazine.


Conrad H. Milster, chief engineer of the Pratt Institute Power House, is a man given to mechanical gestures. His long arms bend themselves into the shapes of machines as he explains their inner workings, and his permanently oil-darkened fingers seem shaped to grip heavy wrenches. Tall and sandy-haired with graying mutton-chops beneath a short stove-pipe cap, he explains his dedication to the trio of turn-of-the-century steam engines that are his working showpieces: "I am a preservationist of mechanical artifacts. Some people save buildings, with the furniture and lace and all that. I save engines. Today, machinery is buried behind walls, but I have seen machinery that was built to be art."

Milster points from his office on a balcony above the engine room to the smooth swell of iron grooves, known as flukes, that line the crankcase covers of the engine below. "Purely decorative! Without purpose! The Victorians were incapable of making plain machinery. They had a passion for ornateness." A passion Milster shares: "I am a technological Victorian."

Every New Year's Eve, Milster takes his devotion to the beauty of machines and the power of steam beyond the walls of the engine room with a midnight blowing of steam whistles that once signaled hurtling locomotives, ships coming to shore and the changing of the shifts at factories. "When I was a kid growing up in Astoria," Milster says, "the factories--which are all gone now--blew their whistles together every year on New Year's Eve."

Now, just before midnight, Milster's wife, Phyllis, bundled against the cold, takes her position by the main valve of a steam pipe Milster runs onto the campus yard for the occasion. Disappearing into a small cloud of hissing vapor, she releases 120 pounds of pressure into the line. The whistles moan, scream, honk, hiss, and roar, the songs and signals of frigates and ferry boars, a great passenger liner and the iron horses of the New York Central Railroad, a candle factory, a rubber factory, and the Brooklyn-based U.S. Projectile Company.

Milter acquired his first whistle, a rusty five-noter, from the Lackawanna railroad a few years before he began his tenure as a steam engineer at the Pratt power plant in 1958. But he didn't hear his whistle blow until he'd worked there seven years. "The first time I blew my whistle was the year I became chief engineer: New Year's Eve, 1965." These days, Milster is joined every year by a small band of whistle collectors.

"There's an argument among collectors about polishing the whistles," Milster says, showing off his personal collection in his backyard, just off campus. "I look at it from the point of view of achievement." He hefted a small bomb-like whistle from an old ferry boat. "This whistle achieved its distinct patina in seventy-five years. Who am I to take that away? I can't argue with history."

Milster's 1965 whistle blow marked the beginning of a rennaissance for the antique engines that powered it. Built in 1887, the engine room was once the pride of the campus, a place for couples to stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Sitting before a marble control panel beneath the viewing balcony, the engines are lit by 25 tulip-shaped lamps. Steam from three boilers once flowed through a network of pipes into the engines that in turn rotated huge flywheels five feet in diameter. The flywheels conncted to generators that supplied the campus' electricity, and the excess steam flowed through pipes to the dorms, keeping them toasty.

But by the 1950s, the steam engines were no longer needed. When Milster began his life's work as a steam engineer, the viewing windows that surround the room had been blacked over, evidence of an age distinterested in its own machines. Milster's first act as chief engineer, seven years later, was to clean the windows. Then, he installed a three-tiered gilded chandelier, and painted the generator casings red, with ornate gold trim. "The spinning wheel is a primitive urge," he says. "Here in the engine room, you see and hear motion, you smell the oil. The man who ran a steam engine saw how things worked. You were always adjusting the flow, checking the bearings, listening to the sound of the machine. To be a talented engineer, you have to emphathize with the machinery. If you have talent, the aesthetics of a good machine will grow on you."


The article went on to describe a New Year's Eve blow, but I'll cut it off here. My impressions, ten years on, are that the particular pleasures of ghost horns and steam clouds rolling into the night air can't -- or shouldn't -- be described in the magazine prose that only hints at Conrad Milster's unaffected devotion to his machines. I recommend attendance; you have a year to make your plans.

(A blogger called "The Real Janelle" offers three photographs of the grittier corners of the Pratt Power House and a short video clip of one of the old engines in motion.)