Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Fall Gallery Crawl in Downtown Pittsburgh.

It might very well be ungrateful of me to complain, but last night's downtown gallery crawl (Pittsburgh) was disappointing. One would expect that since it only happens seasonally (that's right- a mere four times a year!) that they would roll out the very best. The Fall is the traditional opening of the annual cycle, and that should mean that the galleries are presenting some of the best work that they have lined up for the year. If last night was an indicator of what he have got coming in the downtown arts scene, then this is going to be a bland year.

A big part of my dissatisfaction obviously has to do with the expectations I had for the night. Two of the anchor galleries downtown are SPACE and the Wood Street Galleries. I have consistently enjoyed the high quality of shows these institutions bring. SPACE is a Pittsburgh Cultural Trust project, and so tends to roll out some of the better, more challenging installation art in the city. Despite the complaint that it so often relies on a small group of local artists that tend to show up repeatedly, I almost always find something in their openings that I like. Last night's show of video installations very well might have continued that trend, but unfortunately I couldn't process a single piece. Why? Because they had a band playing at a very loud volume, which made it impossible to hear the audio tracks accompanying the videos. I even liked the band, but I was very annoyed at the setup. One would think that the Cultural Trust would be eager to share their enthusiasm in the artists that they sponsor, especially considering the large crowds that the events bring. Unfortunately that didn't seem to be the case.

Wood Street Galleries is a prestigious non-profit that features the work of an international array of artists. They have recently shown impressive pieces by Doug and Mike Starn, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy and Chico MacMurtrie. Despite the fact that they also seem to get distracted by their inclusion of band performances, that is usually just a bonus feature at openings. But for this gallery crawl, they hosted a game night by local dance troupe, Attack Theater. This outfit is certainly an asset to the city, and they put together some very impressive shows... but I didn't fight downtown traffic to play Twister and foursquare with a bunch of hipsters.

To be fair, my impressions of the night were formed by these two destinations. They set the tone for the entire night. There were several other galleries that I stopped in. Future Tenant had a mildly interesting show of conceptual work- I imagine they sold a lot of $1 cans of Pabst last night. 707/709 Penn had some nicely executed photography, including evocative landscape shots of Highland Park by David Aschkenas (I'd actually recommend making a special trip for that). The instructors at the CAPA school downtown put on an eclectic group show. But having had the experience of disappointment to start things off, it was difficult for me to recover my initial interest.

It seems to me that the Cultural Trust and the two galleries mentioned above should take the seasonal "gallery crawls" more seriously. The Cultural Trust would do well to get over their obsession of providing rock and roll distraction where visual arts should be the focus. They went as far as to arrange twelve band performances throughout the downtown area. To me that's simply excessive. Wood Street and Space should understand that these events are some of the best opportunities to attract attention to the visual arts (and their specific venues) in downtown Pittsburgh. People who don't make it out to galleries often are attracted to gallery crawls as "happenings". I'd love to see these two institutions presenting the quality of art that they labor to put out there throughout the rest of the year. If that's not going to happen, then at least we have the Penn Avenue "Unblurred" to satiate our monthly appetite for art.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Jay Munly: "Ten Songs With No Music"

The first time I saw Jay Munly on stage with Slim Cessna's Auto Club, I felt like I had travelled through time to some gothic southwestern desert town, only to be visited by a creature half-human and half-demon. He stood on stage and glared at the audience, unblinking, while he conjured up some vocal warnings from his own dark and private wanderings. His words (those that I could decipher) seemed to contain the promise of primitive folk magic filtered through a millenarian's prophecy of tribulationl. I grew curious to learn the sources of his inspiration and conviction.

I picked up "Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots", and threw it into rotation with the Slim cds I had been listening to. Songs about prison eunuchs and rural conflict sat side-by-side with a dirge about tragic boxer Jerry Cooney. To listen to those songs was to enter a world of malignant emotionality and country intrigue. I was fascinated, and somehow conversely uplifted by its energy and sincerity. I wanted to hear more.

Some time later I learned that Munly had written a couple of books. The next time he came into town, I asked him about them. He said that they were out-of-print, but if I was so inclined, I might find a copy to buy on ebay for a hundred bucks. I resigned myself to never reading them. How was I to know that I would soon find someone willing to lend me their copy? I waited in anticipation until the book was recovered and passed on to me.

"Ten Songs With No Music" is a remarkably transparent title for a book of stories with exceedingly enigmatic content. From the blurb on its back cover, these tales sprang full-force without interruption from Munly's mouth to be translated via his Remington typewriter. While ordinarily I would view this claim with suspicion, I firmly hold to my belief in the truth of the statement in this case. And that's not just because of the multiple syntax and grammatical errors. In point of fact, while these lapses bothered me at first, I soon decided that they were inevitable (maybe necessary?) in its creation. Munly speaks through folk who would not have had the benefit of a lot of book-learning, and a careful revision of the script might jeopardize the authenticity of these voices. Perhaps they would have kept their silence if the author stopped to correct them.

As it is, the stories come off as genuine American folktales from a population plagued by the condescension of society. But they'd have none of your pity because they give no quarter. The characters are unashamed of their prejudices and proclivities. They have ways that cityfolk would be strained to understand. They speak in a rambling patois that requires the reader to drop his own preconceived notions of inherent logic and sense. I had to attempt to suspend my judgment and allow the writing to wash over my consciousness, and accept whatever meaning sunk down into my roots.

A miner walks away from his family, only to build himself a barrel and ride in it over a waterfall. A son is asked to show his merit working a portion of his father's land. A deacon leads his people to a makeshift raft made from personal belongings, and they await a flood of redemption. An angel tries to outrun the sun, and is transformed into a lowly stinking beggar. A mysterious man leads a crew of orphans into the fields to build a sanctuary, only to be set upon by grasping and lazy townspeople. An aggressive chinaman is set upon by a stranger in a country store. These are morality plays, but the weight of decisions leads only to greater ambivalence. There is less resolution than resignation. Once again, I strive for the embedded messages, but they elude me.

It would be nice to take my time with it, and decode it slowly through multiple readings, but I feel as if a borrowed book offers limited chances for that. I will finish the last story, and return the book to its owners. Perhaps some day it will be re-issued, and I can return to its puzzling contents. But until then I will await Munly's next work, which he says is coming soon.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fritz Lang, "Clash by Night"

Within the last few years, film noir has made such a comeback that every studio and label is tripping over itself trying to flesh out their catalogue of DVD releases. As a recent convert to the genre I have benefitted greatly, but it's easy for the budding film buff to get taken in by the shifting standards of these companies. I have seen several films recently that, despite being filed under the noir category, were categorically not representative of the style. I recently wrote a post about a Hammer film studio collection that falls short of the archetypal description of noir.

For every noir set that exploits the craze, there is another that presents some of the major works of the canon. The first Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection lived up to its name with ground-breaking works such as The Asphalt Jungle, Murder, My Sweet, and Out of the Past. This set really defines the genre, and is a great place to start for the curious. It establishes the defining attributes of noir- an undeniably criminal element, convoluted plots, femme fatales, snappy dialogue, moral confusion and shadowy cinematography. Warner Brothers followed up on their success by issuing two subsequent collections, and plan to release several more. The problem is that there are only so much film noir to release, and many of the best have already been made available. As WB plumbs the depths of noir, the selections become more debatable. That brings me to Fritz Lang's 1952 release, Clash by Night.

Fritz Lang made some of the best-known and best-regarded noir in film history. Some experts claim that his 1931 M was the first noir ever. Regardless, it is hard to deny the credentials of such notables as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. But it's a mistake to affix the noir label to every other movie in his wide ouevre. Clash by Night is a story of small-town romance gone bad. It stars two luminaries of noir stardom- Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) and Robert Ryan (Crossfire, The Set-Up). Stanwyck is a cynical, bitter woman who returns to her hometown for want of any better option. She meets and agrees a fishing captain, played by Paul Douglas. Douglas is clearly not up to Stanwyck's conception of attractive- he is none-to-smart, conventionally boring, and the prototype of a "lunk". But he's a nice chap, honest, and ready to worship the ground that Stanwyck trods.

The tough broad decides to settle for a marriage that reeks of domesticity, despite her inclination toward romantic complexity. Robert Ryan plays a troubled and disillusioned divorcee who poses as Douglas' friend. He decides that he needs Stanwyck, and pursues her in his brash and overconfident way. The film traces the ambivalence of a woman resigned to the caprices of fate, examines the morality of her decisions, and shows the repercussions for the characters involved.

The story is believable, affecting, and even compelling. I was at times shocked at the emotional impact of the script and acting. The moral complexity sustained itself until the ending, and then deteriorated into cliche. Yet it's hackneyed finish didn't take away from my enjoyment of the film as a whole. I'd recommend it, especially for those who like other films made during this time period. But it is clearly drama and not film noir. In fact there is not even a single criminal act commited throughout the film. Stanwyck's character lost her femme fatale's credentials with her last-minute decisions. The interaction between characters has a touch of sentimentality that is frankly unwelcome in noir. The addition of traditional film noir elements wouldn't make this a better movie. It is fine as it is. But I think it's disingenuous to mislabel a decent film just to cash in on a profitable consumer trend. That does an injustice to the filmmakers and the audience alike.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Steven Johnson, "Emergence".

Postive and negative feedback... pattern recognition... neighbor interaction... self-organizing system... These are all qualities that Steven Johnson associates with the broad concept that is the title of his 2001 book, "Emergence". Johnson is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Discover magazine. At the same time, he strives to incorporate his scientific knowledge into a practice of cultural criticism.

What do ant colonies, neurobiology, computer games, the Web and cities have in common?Johnson maintains that they are all clear examples of bottom-up systems, where the component parts of each follow simple and clear rules, yet together serve to create a broader unconsciously-formed intelligence.

Harvester ants follow trails of pheremones, and organize their collective behavior without the direct command of any individual leader.

The system of neural connections in your brain is formed from many independently functioning circuits, and each individual connection only has meaning relative to the millions of others that make up the whole.

Computer game designers are working to grow artificial intelligences that start with simple rules and basic code, but in their relationship achieve atonishing and unpredictable results.

The Web consists of countless nodes that send signals in a seemingly haphazard fashion, only to lead you and fellow travelers to new understandings and orders that cluster the like-minded.

And finally, cities themselves gather and transmit information through the many interactions of their inhabitants. In this manner, the seeming chaos of urban life transitions into an organically built system of neighborhoods and business districts that ultimately makes more sense than the guidance of urban planners.

Johnson weaves the many threads of these examples, slowly building impressions of the "emergence" phenomena. He characterizes this process as the engine of evolution, and proclaims the study of it to be a revolutionary intellectual development. He predicts that the growing understanding of emergence is going to spark a paradigm shift in politics, the entertainment industry, technology, and the business world. He gives examples of how theorists and inventors have already begun to adjust their thinking. Despite the technical nature of much of this material, many of Johnson's explorations are entertaining and thought-provoking for the layman.

Unfortunately for the reader, Johnson never really synthesizes the mechanics behind emergence. Even after working my way through his somewhat disjointed prose, I can't say I have a clear picture of how these parts make up the whole. And that's a serious failing considering his book is based upon the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Or maybe that's his point... but I don't know (and I guess can't consciously know) what "it all means". Is he presenting a prescription or merely a description?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A discreet affinity for Hockey.

OK... everyone's got a guilty pleasure or two. There's always some particular source of enjoyment that needs to be experienced in secret, away from the prying eyes of one's peer group. For me, September brings that temptation once again- for I am a hockey fan. The first preseason games arrive with the end of Summer, and once again I am on the message boards following the new developments.

I follow this game with the full knowledge that doing so makes me a hypocrite. Get me started on sports (football in particular) and you'll have a hard time keeping up with my invective. I'll tell you of misplaced resources and reverence... of the vicarious enjoyment of the cult of athleticism... I'll rail against the "us vs. them" mentality that sports perpetuate. If the United States only devoted a fraction of the loyalty and analysis it reserves for sports, then the nation could solve a good measure of the problems that plague it. Spend the money on education... pay attention to politics... invest in the local community... I have so many suggestions for you- the sports fanatic. But still, when I get a moment by myself, alone at night in front of the computer... I'll spend a few moments checking out the scores of the latest contests on the ice.

And what makes it even worse is that I am still a follower of the team closest to where I grew up- the Philadelphia Flyers. I love Pittsburgh, and prefer living here. There are a multitude of reasons why I wouldn't want to move to Philadelphia. Yet this irrational loyalty is hard-wired, and difficult to sunder. I bemoan the construction of two stadiums in Pittsburgh, yet would happily support the building of a new arena... just so I can find a friend with cable who will let me watch the Flyers play the Penguins on local television. I haven't even gone to a game in years.

If pressed I will explain the distinctions between hockey and all other sports. It is the "unpopular" game... once one of the major four, and now relegated to a spot in the mainstream culture somewhere between professional wrestling and soccer. It's fluidity and grace stand alongside its tacit approval of on-ice fistfights. The pads and uniforms are loose-fitting, and seem not to unduly accentuate the male form, unlike football or baseball. The players display modesty and poise in after-game interviews. Hell... it's the national sport of Canada. As a pastime, it is a scrappy and little-heralded underdog. It exists on the margin of public consciousness. They even kicked it off of ESPN. But I'm not fooling myself. I realize that all of this amounts to mere justification.

In fact that is the point of a guilty pleasure... it should be beyond any need for justification. So go ahead, and enjoy your vulgar obsessions- football, basketball, and baseball. But don't assume I am interested. Don't expect me to "get into the spirit" of Monday-night gridiron struggles. Don't talk to me about the October series or March Madness. I won't be wearing black-and-gold on casual Fridays. But if you watch carefully, you might catch me sneaking a peak at the latest goal stats, or the NHL injured reserve... and then you can me on my bulls--t.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Charles Bukowski --- "Born Into This"

Over the years I have maintained a strong attachment to the work of Charles Bukowski. It is not without ambivalence that I admit to this sentiment. His work is at times objectionable, simplistic and cliche. Yet it is by far the most accessible poetry I have ever come across. There are many who now credit him with grabbing the poetic form from the hands of dilettantes and academics, and placing it firmly within working class hands. Of course this affinity plays against the legions of lost twentysomethings who have sunk themselves through drink and underemployment, in a futile attempt to slice off a bit of his muddled magic. His work has been the blueprint for much wasted talent. And yet I am often inspired to write when I read his words... even in the throes of full adulthood.

I remember where I was when Bukowski died. I was lolling about on a girlfriend's bed in the middle of the afternoon, and watching her television. Kurt Loder, of MTV News, delivered the story. "Hank" had finally acquired cultural cache among "the hipsters", and the coverage of his death was played as if it was cutting-edge journalism. Somehow the news seemed cheapened, but it was debasedly fitting that I heard about Bukowski's tragic end in this manner. I felt a palpable sadness, and yet knew that a laconic acceptance was more appropriate. I continued to read his work, and posthumous volumes followed, one after another for years.

Finally a decent documentary of his life has been released- director John Dullaghan's "Born Into This" (2003). Dullaghan made the proper choice of minimizing academic interpretation. Accounts of Bukowski's life are presented by his ex-girlfriends, friends, and colleagues. But most significantly the bulk of the film consists of collected footage of the man himself. This is Bukowski as icon. We see him reading, driving, musing philosophically, and interacting with his lovers. We are even treated to Barbet Schroeder's footage of him at his misogynistic worst. Yet his complexity of character often slips past his tough exterior. He was much more than his public image. Despite what he would have you believe in his poetry, there was more to his life than women, horses, bars, classical music and fighting. Bukowski was a biographer... Not just of himself, but of the city he lived in- the underbelly of Twentieth Century Los Angeles... And of all those men living working-class lives of anonymous, but not-so-quiet, desperation.

I've seen it often repeated that appreciating Bukowski is appropriate for a young man, but exposes a lack of sophistication in a "mature adult". While I can understand why people make this claim, I don't entirely agree. You may have to sift through a lot of posturing, but there is both simplicity and wisdom in his work... and to deny these qualities is to descend into the sort of myopia that Bukowski resisted his entire life. For whatever flaws this documentary may contain... it avoids the type of manufactured exploitation of identity that the poet himself sometimes fell prey to.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Immigration and Jingoism.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from my grandmother. She is a fairly progressive, openminded woman, and she reads "Serendipity". So she forwarded me some text from some screed that is being passed around. She asked me specifically to write my thoughts about it on my blog. I'm not going to disclose how she responded to it, but I will say we had very different reactions. Here is the text, written and sent anonymously:

It is Time for America to SPEAK UP

I am sorry but after hearing they want to sing the "National Anthem" in Spanish - enough is enough. No where did they sing it in Italian, Polish, Irish (Celtic), German or any other language because of immigration. It was written by Francis Scott Key and should be sung word for word the way it was written. The news broadcasts even gave the translation - not even close. Sorry if this offends anyone but this is MY COUNTRY - IF IT IS YOUR COUNTRY SPEAK UP ---- please pass this along...
I am not against immigration. - Just come through like everyone else. Get a sponsor; have a place to lay your head; have a job; pay your taxes, live by the rules AND LEARN THE LANGUAGE as all other immigrants have in the past --- and GOD BLESS AMERICA!

If you don't want to forward this for fear of offending someone-----YOU'RE PART OF THE PROBLEM !!!!
Will we still be the Country of choice and still be America if we continue to make the changes forced on us by the people from other countries that came to live in America because it is the Country of Choice??????
Think about it!
All we have to say is, when will they do something about MY RIGHTS?
I celebrate Christmas...........but because it isn't celebrated by everyone .............. We can no longer say Merry Christmas. Now it has to be Season's Greetings.
It's not Christmas vacation, it's Winter Break. Isn't it amazing how this winter break ALWAYS occurs over the Christmas holiday?
We've gone so far the other way, bent over backwards to not offend anyone, that I am now being offended. But it seems that no one has a problem with that. This says it all! This is an editorial written by an American citizen, published in a Tampa newspaper. He did quite a job; didn't he?

IMMIGRANTS, NOT AMERICANS, MUST ADAPT. I am tired of this nation
Worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their
Culture. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Americans. However... The dust from the attacks had barely settled when the "politically correct! " crowd began
Complaining about the possibility that our patriotism was offending others.
I am not against immigration, nor do I hold a grudge against anyone who
Is seeking a better life by coming to America. Our population is almost entirely made up of descendants of immigrants. However, there are a few things that those who have recently come to our country, and apparently some born here, need to understand. This idea of America being a multicultural community has served only to dilute our sovereignty and our national identity. As Americans.....we have our own culture, our own society, our own language and our own lifestyle. This culture has been developed over centuries of struggles, trials, and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.

We speak"ENGLISH", not Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese,
Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society, "LEARN THE LANGUAGE"
"In God We Trust" is our national motto. This is not some Christian,
Right wing, political slogan.. We adopted this motto because Christian men and women.......on Christian principles............. Founded this nation... And this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home.........because God is part of our culture.

If Stars and Stripes offend you, or you don't like Uncle Sam, then you should seriously consider a move to another part of this planet We are happy with our culture and have no desire to change, and we really don't care how you did things where you came from. This is OUR COUNTRY, our land, and our lifestyle. Our First Amendment gives every citizen the right to express his opinion and we will allow you every opportunity to do so! But once you are done complaining....... Whining...... And griping.... About our flag...... Our pledge...... Our national motto.......or our way of life...I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other Great American Freedom......

It is Time for America to Speak up. If you agree -- pass this along; if you don't agree -- delete it!"

OK... so here's how I responded to it in an e-mail to my grandmother:

"Well... you asked for it, so I have to risk that you might take offense at my response to this e-mail:

jin·go·ism (jĭng'gō-ĭz'əm) n.

definition: Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy; chauvinistic patriotism.

For more information click on the following link:

Note: It's pretty clear that this society is entering into a state of "bunker mentality". The manufactured fear and paranoia (courtesy of the Bush administration and the complicit media) in this country is leading to a reactionary distrust of all foreigners. However, in this case, the target population does not easily conform to a "foreigner" label. Mexican immigrants are direct descendents of the original occupants of this continent... a group of people against whom English-speaking Europeans practiced a campaign of systematic genocide. It's always interesting that chauvinistic Americans (such as the author of this e-mail) like to impose their version of a history lesson on the reader... but instead expose their vast ignorance. Even if you would rather not consider how we stole the Native-American land we now occupy, you should revisit the history of US imperialism and expansionism that contributed to our current borders. In 1846, President Polk provoked the Mexican government into defending their borders with a "pre-emptive" attack on US troops that were intentionally placed within Mexican borders to rile Santa Anna (leader of Mexico). In the following war, US troops invaded Mexico and continued their assault until their ransacking of Mexico City (the capital). As a result Polk was able to force the Mexican Cession, which transferred the land currently occupied by the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada... and parts of Colorado and Wyoming to US ownership. Mexico had effectively lost 1/2 of its territory.

Critics of Mexican immigration should be thankful that these immigrants are willing to sing the US National Anthem in any language."

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Panza Gallery

I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce you to the Panza Gallery. Owned by artist and framer Mark Panza, the gallery is located on 115 Sedgwick Street in Millvale, a neighborhood that nests on the Allegheny River across from Pittsburgh. The building itself was once a German Song and Dance Club, and it's outfitted with a couple of floors of galleries, a frame shop and other amenities.

Mark is one of the most generous and accesible guys you could ever hope to meet in the Pittsburgh arts scene. He is genuinely interested in art, and enjoys meeting and interacting with other artists. I first had the pleasure of encountering Mark when I showed up at a life drawing session at the gallery. This is a weekly series (cost - $7) that I now attend every Thursday from 7-9PM. Mark is so unassuming and laid back that I would never have guessed that he was the proprietor of this mini arts-empire. It is not surprising then, that he has been able to surround himself with a community of like-minded artists. It's not uncommon to have several of the session participants kicking back and enjoying some lively conversation after putting in a few hours of drawing.

If you can make it, the Panza Gallery is offering an opening reception tonight- Saturday, September 23, from 6-9PM. Artists featured include Marie Kelly, Al Blumberg, James Shipman, and Mark Panza himself. I've seen the works of Blumberg in the lower gallery, and I can vouch for the vibrant, stirring qualities of these portraits. They are hung along the wall in rows, and form a sheet of abstract expressionist vitality. I respectfully disagree with Mark's contention that he went overboard in their presentation. A former Pittsburgh Center for the Arts "Artist of the Year" (1961), Kellly's work plays around the edges of high fantasy, and is just as likely to amuse as to disturb. I haven't yet had the opportunity to check out the upper gallery, and I look forward to doing so tonight.

Friday, September 22, 2006

What century is this again?

On the way to work this morning I caught a segment on NPR about a book being published that documents an attempted coup ( in 2004) in a small African country. The story was sketched out in broad impressions, and lasted only a few minutes. It struck me as being reminiscent of a history of Western colonialism that seemed a thing of the past. But think again. It is the postcolonial period, but that doesn't mean western powers have given up in their attempts to control nations. Intrigued, I spent some time doing some research on the internet.

Equatorial Guinea (E.G.) is the Africa's third largest oil-producing country, and its leaders are growing wealthy off of the proceeds. Although the government is supposed to function as a multi-party democracy, it is indeed run with a dictatorial spirit. Torture, arbitrary detention, restrictions on speech and assembly have been reported. The wealth from the emerging oil industry does not seem to be trickling down to the impoverished people in the nation of 500,000. This situation must have seemed ripe for exploitation by a group of South African mercenaries who planned to enter the country, overthrow its government by force and assassinate current president President Teodoro Obiang Nguema M'basogo (known to his subjects as "God").

The plan was foiled before it could be implemented. The government of Zimbabwe apprehended the group and impounded their airplane when it landed in that country. The 64 mercenaries aboard were arrested. Fifteen additional men were arrested in E.G., and charged with being the previous group's advance party. President Obiang promptly accused an expatriate opposition party leader, Severo Moto, of being involved in the plot.

Interestingly, Sir Mark Thatcher (former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's son) subsequently pleaded guilty to bankrolling the coup atempt. It has been suggested that he helped finance the plot in order to access some of the country's oil wealth. Moto had allegedly promised Thatcher and coup leader Simon Mann oil rights and a lump sum of cash if they were able to install him as the new leader of E. G. Evidently Thatcher bought the plane that flew the plotters to their mission launch , in the neighboring country of Zimbabwe.

Before we condemn the nasty mercenaries for picking on the little country and its beleagured leaders, the current oil situation should be noted. Somehow BGplc (a British oil company) had manuevered to buy a large amount of oil from E. G. for a moderate price over a period of several years. They did so in speculation that the price of oil would rise dramatically, and they stand to reap windfall profits. Marathon Oil, a Houston-based company, also benefits greatly from contracts worked out directly with President Obiang and other government officials, who seem to have gottten paid personally as a result. With bribes going directly into the pockets of their corrupted leaders, the people themselves are seeing very little percentage of the profits from their most precious resource.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Witness Protection (WITSEC)

Imagine that two dark-suited men in sunglasses appear out of nowhere at your door while you are making dinner. They instruct you to drop whatever you are doing and pack a small bag with a change of clothes. They are anxious and hyper-alert. One of them identifies himself and his partner as US marshals. He tells you that your life is in imminent danger, and it is his job to shepherd you and your loved ones to safe harbor. You, and your immediate family, are whisked away to a town or city that you have bever been in. The men set you up in a motel, give you some cash for groceries and tell you that they will be in touch. Perhaps one of the men sets up in the room next to yours, ostensibly for your own safety.

You have now officially entered the Witness Protection Program of the Department of Justice. Hopefully your spouse, who was convicted of a serious crime and incarcerated, found some way to let you know ahead of time that he/she had turned state's witness... cut a deal with the government for a shorter criminal sentence. Either way, you have to make some major adjustments. You can never return to your home again, and must rely on the Marshals to forward whichever of your personal belongings that they decide to collect. You will be given a new social security card, birth certificate, and driver's license- all imprinted with your brand new name. You are told to forget your previous identity and destroy any evidence of your previous existence- photos of friends and extended family... your academic certificates... personal letters... your car... organizational memberships , etc. You no longer have any credit history, and your former bank accounts have been closed out. The person you were yesterday no longer exists in any official capacity. You are in a complete state of isolation.

It quickly dawns on you that your children need to be enrolled in a new school. You hope your contact with the Justice Department expedites the transfer of their records. For that matter, you hope he helps you find a job quickly. You have nothing to do but stay in the motel with your kids, watching TV. You are not allowed to talk to (or see) your relatives or former friends ever again. If you do, you will be dropped from the government's program and exposed to faceless killers- contract hitmen or thugs. Your contact tells you that he will forward letters to your parents and siblings, but that you must be patient as the local Marshals Service office has a huge backlog of casework. You are utterly cut off from everything you knew to be reality.

This is the type of scenario described in Pete Early and Gerald Shur's Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program. Since 1969, thousands of witnesses and their dependents have been in similar situations. Of course, individual particularities and concerns apply in each case, but without exception they have all been irrevocably uprooted from their lives. Shur knows from direct experience- he started the program, and got to know many of the witnesses. He was called upon to develop procedures to protect mafia informants during the early 1960's. La Cosa Nostra was materializing beyond rumor during this time, and the US Justice Department under Robert Kennedy was adamant about crushing it. The main obstacle to this crusade was "Omerta", a code of silence that prescribed the punishment of death for "ratting". How would seemingly all-powerful organized crime figures be snared if no one was willing to risk the dire consequences of informing? It wasn't until WITSEC was set up that men like Joseph Valachi, Jimmy the Weasel, and Sammy Bull Gravano spilled the beans.

This book traces the history, politics, struggles and tragedies of the program. It keeps the tale lively with individual tales of the colorful figures involved. The authors worked together to outline an objective account of the events that formed WITSEC. They made a special effort to include a detailed account of its failures and the substantial criticism that society had in store for it's agents and clients. This work was not easily dissected in black-and-white tones of morality. Often the men who benefitted from WITSEC were more dangerous than the targets of their testimonies. Communities that learned about the relocation of these criminals into their borders vehemently resisted the continuation of the practice. The US Marshals, responsible for providing the day-to-day security of witnesses, sometimes looked upon their charges with disdain, and resented their responsibilities. But ultimately, the potential value of putting high-ranking mafioso behind bars seemed to justify the special priveleges extended to witnesses. Certainly the families of witnesses had done nothing to deserve being targeted for retributive execution. But they were making an involuntary sacrifice for their country. They certainly found their lives complicated beyond all expectation by being placed in the program, and unlike the witnesses they were related to, it was most often not a matter of choice for them.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rick Santorum IS a Christian Zionist (?) Why should you care?

When the "fig tree (Israel) is once again in bloom" we can expect the war of Revelations and the return of the Messiah. When this happens, the Israelites will recognize him as their true saviour, and will convert to Christianity. True Christian believers will immediately ascend into heaven, in an event referred to as the "Rapture". Those who fail to see the truth will be forever doomed, along with any nation that had encouraged the separation of Israel. Non-believers will live on Earth during the trials of Armageddon, during which period God will unleash plagues, pestilence and war.

To many living today in the US, this tale of end times is not an allegory. There are approximately 20 million Christian Zionists currently living in the United States, and their biblical views lead them to encourage a radical destabilization of the Middle East. In their account Jews must occupy the lands between the Euphrates and Nile Rivers, return to occupy the entirety of Jerusalem, destroy the Islamic Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and replace it with a rebuilt Holy Temple. Only then will the Second Coming of Christ occur. Of course there must then be a showdown between the reborn Christ and the forces of the Anti-Christ. Who do you suppose might comprise that army... that "axis of evil"?

These "true-believers" proclaim that anyone who supports land-for-peace in the Middle East will be punished eternally by God. Israel must be restored to its biblical borders before the Rapture can occur. Thus Christian Zionists have cast their lot with the furthest reaches of the political right in Israel (such as the Likud Party). They have raised funds for the immigration of Russian and Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and for the increased settlement of Jews in the West Bank.

The government of Israel has participated in this alliance. Despite the implicit notion that Jews are mistaken in their rejection of Christ as the Messiah, many are willing to form a tentative alliance with any group that openly espouses pro-Israeli sentiments. Eminently practical, they can cross the bridge of conversion when they come to it. After all, British Prime Minister David LLoyd George and Lord Arthur Balfour, who penned the 1917 Balfour Declaration, were Christian Zionists (or "premillenial dispensationalists", as they called them at the time). This document was the first to officially promise a Jewish Homeland in the Middle East, and was effectively responsible for the modern day partition of the region.

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are notable leaders of this movement. Terry LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have written the "Left Behind" books, a series of populist novels foretelling this particular set of apocalyptic events. Republican strategist Ralph Reed has been active in trying to muster Christian Zionist resources for party goals. But infinitely more threatening is the support this movement is gaining from federal elected officials. Tom Delay and Senator James Inhofe view the Isreali occupation of disputed lands as a "biblical mandate".

Particularly problematic to a resident of Pennsylvania... senatorial incumbent and candidate Rick Santorum is a Christian Zionist(?) This past July, Christians United for Israel held a summit and rally in Washington. Sen. Sam Brownback and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman were notable supporters present. But Rick Santorum was a keynote speaker, and made his case to end the "War on Terror" and substitute it with the "War on Islamo-Fascists". He thus became the most influential political officeholder to call unequivocally for Holy War. He was specifically calling for the end to diplomacy and negotiations with Iran, a nation he sees as the center of his so-called "Islamo-Fascism".

Sources include:
Christian Science Monitor- July 7, 2004.
NPR- Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 19, 2006

and further reading:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Non-Aligned Movement (a.k.a. "Them")

Need any more evidence that the US is not universally recognized as the "beacon of freedom" its current leaders claim it to be? The 14th Annual Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement ended in Havana last weeked. NAM was originally founded in 1961 as a group of nations asserting their independence for both the US and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. What nations are members of this group? Venezuela, Bolivia, Iran, Cuba, North Korea... among others.

"Yes", you say, "but those nations are our enemies! Who cares what they say?" Well... what about India, Jamaica, South Africa, Kuwait, the Bahamas, Pakistan, Malaysia, Chile, and Peru? These are all countries that have nominally positive relations with the US, are listed in the NAM membership rolls, and presumably were also represented at the Cuba summit. In fact there are over one hundred countries in the group... almost 2/3rds of the total UN membership (and 55% of the world's population). The countries excluded from the group include any nation involved in a global defense pact (related to "Great Power conflicts").

Now that the Soviet Union is extinct, and the Cold War has drawn to a close, shouldn't NAM be obsolete? Not according to its member states. It is still dedicated to the right of "independent judgement", the struggle against imperialism, and the "use of moderation in relations with all big powers" (this presumably refers to the United States). What are some of its resolves, as expressed at this year's summit? To support Tehran's development of nuclear technology for peaceful ends. To reject the Bush administration's characterization of the "Axis of Evil". To critize global poverty and unfair trade practices. To condemn terrorism "in all of its forms". Indeed many of its members consider its existence as relevant now as it ever was.

Now having identified the parties involved and their mission, we must consider the Bush Administration's admonishment that all the world's nations are either "with us" or "against us" in some nebulous "War on Terrorism". Presumably, the raison d'etre of NAM is to stand neutral in regard to the affairs of the sole remaining world superpower. Given Dubya and friends' logic, one might assume that these states are in league with terrorists. Does that sound ridiculous? Sure, but so does a lot of the bluster coming from our current leadership. Some folks apparently consider this group to be dedicated to the opposition of the United States. Apparently there are still quite a few in this country (besides the president) who have difficulty understanding the concept of non-alignment. I suggest that such people leave well enough alone, and resist making the entire world decide what side it's on.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently picked up Andrew Douglas' Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. I am always on the lookout for depictions of strange sociology, so this skewed tour through the backwaters of the South appealed to me. Our guide is Jim White, a musician who has gained some notoriety for his appropriation of Southern culture. He kicks off the film by suggesting that the filmmaker rent a beat-up old muscle car for the trip. This, he suggests, will help encourage the locals to expose their hearts.

White explains up front that he was born in Southern California, and dragged to the South as a child. He tells us that he loathed his transplant status. After some time traveling, he returned to discover the beauty he had missed as a child. Despite his new-found love, the best he can hope for is to become a good imitation of a Southerner. While this could easily turn into a form of condescension or exploitation, it's not hard to be convinced of his sincerity. He exudes Southern folksiness and charm, and yet is powerfully drawn to its dark gothic side.

Particularly interesting sections include scenes filmed inside a prison, in a honky-tonk, at a holy-rolling truckstop and in various Pentacostal churches. Images of writhing white folks spouting glossalalia were transfixing. I could have sat through twice the amount of the already substantial footage of Southern worship. This is clearly a population obsessed with the twin prospects of Heaven and Hell. As White points out, in the South everyone makes a choice between doing good or doing bad. There's not a whole lot of nuance or moral relativity in this culture. Do you serve Jesus or Satan? The poverty of much of this region leaves many with very little else to choose from.

The approach White and Douglas take to their subjects is so personal and stylized that I hesitate to call this a "proper" documentary. Your enjoyment depends upon your willingness to take this ride with them. The live appearances of performing friends can be a bit jarring to whatever realism exists in the film. And who are these folks? David Johansen from the New York Dolls? 16 Horsepower... The Handsome Family... While I enjoyed all the music to one extent or another, I had to wonder whether this music truly represented the people chosen to appear in the film. A glaring example of possible misstep seemed to me to be the inclusion of a Cat Power song in the beginning. Never for a moment will I consider Chan Marshall to be Southern kinfolk.

Despite these reservations, I was not unhappy that I bought the DVD. It is filmed beautifully, truly capturing the essence that is referred to by its people as "God's Country". It made me think that once you get past the politics, the people, and the community... it is truly the land that lends a region's personal god his/her essential quality. This is wild country, and that has its reflection on its people and their way of life. So maybe this isn't the most objective or realistic portrayal... its impressionism and atmosphere bespeak of a truth beyond "mere fact". The subject of this film is the mythology of the South... and that's potentially more powerful than straightforward documentation.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Who is Joe Coleman?

A couple of years ago I happened to stumble across a short-lived television series called Disinformation. The show was a sort of post-modern news magazine, detailing outsider artists, conspiracy theorists and odd cultural phenomena. Despairingly, the creators of the show (who are also coincidentally the men behind a controversial publishing house) were not able to get it aired in the US. The four episodes that were made were shown on BBC television. One of those episodes contained a segment with an introduction to a Brooklyn-based artist named Joe Coleman.

Coleman made a lot of noise as a performance artist, when he became known for strapping explosives to his chest and detonating himself a mere few feet from shocked audiences. He had other strange proclivities too, including biting the heads off of live mice. Disinformation collected a few snippets of those early performances, along with Coleman's elaborately detailed, comicbook style paintings. The artist portrayed himself, his friends, loved ones, serial killers, Jesus, and his enemies, in post-apocalyptic settings reminiscent of Bosch and Brueghel. His process is so meticulous that he wears magnifying glasses and employs a single-hair brush to paint. The artist also has his own private museum, called the Odditorium, that he allowed the television crew to view. In this collection are human and animal oddities, the grisly remains of biblical saints, and a genuine pickled punk affectionately-named "Junior". The entire Disinformation segment was a mere tantalizing glimpse at this strange and dark figure.

Fortunately for me the Disinformation label has recently issued a DVD of Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman. In this fine documentary by Robert-Adrian Pejo, we are privy to a substantive exploration of the man, his history and his work. We get to see him at work in his studio... blowing off steam with his companions in the Odditorium... at work and play with various friends and associates... and yes... performing his explosive act as Professor Mombooze-o. We also get a heaping helping of his homespun philosophy. Coleman believes we are living in a "Time of Death", in which perversion is natural. He also likens humanity to a cancer threatening the health of the earth.

Despite his dark tendencies, Coleman is exposed as a rational thinker, a romantic mate, and a generally nice guy. Interviews with friends, former girlfriends (including the lovely Dian Hansen), a sibling, and others demystify the artist, and give valuable insights into the man. It's not surprising when we learn just how obsessed Coleman is with Catholicism. I found quite a lot to like about him- we share a wide array of interests including carnivals, moral relativity, freaks, film noir, the occult, horror movies, true crime, and cults. He's a shamanic persona, who is not afraid to speak truth in the face of glaring hypocrisies. You could do a hell of a lot worse than tracking down this film.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Whether or not to eat "The Apple".

Sometimes I find it interesting to contemplate the lore and mythology on which our society has been based. These come in all types of packaging- such as commercial culture, received history, urban legends, and religion. If one tries to view these messages with an objective perspective, the possibilities of alternative interpretations can be fascinating to consider.

I've always been intrigued by the story of Eve and "The Serpent'". Eve is persuaded by "the serpent"to pick the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and offer it to Adam. Adam accepts the offer and the couple becomes aware of their nakedness. God is unhappy about this, and casts them from the utopia known as Eden. For the Catholic church, this was the "original sin". Due to the action of the original humans, we are all born into a state of spiritual flaw- already compromised and in need of a saviour. That savior was Jesus Christ, according to the church of Christianity. Within the church, this logic is inescapable. It provides the rationale for the structure of faith itself.

But I am also compelled to examine this story's meaning from a secular point of view. Not everyone in the society is a practicing Christian, yet the message of "the fall from grace" is pervasive throughout. Eve's sin was to question the dictates of the ultimate authority. Without this unwavering adherence to "the law", she (and Adam) became lost. For the individual in society, this is a cautionary tale. We have leaders who, through the "divine right of democracy and the free market", have been chosen to show us the path. The means of dissemination for "the word" has been transferred from the "church" to the media. The hierachy of the priesthood finds its reflection in the structure of government and law enforcement.

We are taught that if we obey the dictates of our leaders we can expect to prosper in a worldly utopia. If we consume from all the authorized sources, we will be protected. If we question the logic of the establishment, then we are rashly acting above our station, and assuming powers and knowledge that threaten the entire system. This is a potent message and a truly ingenious method of social control.

I wonder if somehow, by questioning the value of the conventions of mainstream society, I haven't cast myself from a figurative "Eden". Would I be happier had I not challenged the received assumptions, and exposed my own vulnerability within the system? Am I recapitulating the "original sin"? I look outside of myself, and see folks going about the business of our society, embracing the wisdom of authority and extolling its vitues... they seem so satisfied in their faith. Have I not endangered my peace and innocence by eating the "apple" of discord?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Barbara Bamberger Scott, "With It- A Year on the Carnival Trail"

For awhile I have been casting about searching for a memoir, or likewise documentary material, of contemporary carny life. Sifting through my rather large Amazon wishlist, I came across an item that was very close to matching my criteria- Barbara Bamberger Scott's "WITH IT: A Year on the Carnival Trail". The book is a recounting of the author's experience of running several "joints" (concessions, games, "garbage" sales) on the carny circuit in the mid-70's.

The author got swept into the "show life" as a result of her husband's wanderlust and gritty capitalist ambition. With their young daughter and some friends in tow, they learned the hard lessons of the lot very quickly. The mysteries and initiations of this particular substrata of society were disclosed alongside the dreary inconveniences and discomforts of the lifestyle. We learn about the gradual process of transitioning from a "First-of-May" (novice) into a seasoned operator. We read, enraptured, as the hierarchy of the midway- from the ride jocks to the agents to the jointees to the patch to the "big man"- lends it's peculiar structure to the lives of our heroes. We see them progress from a "Sunday School" outfit, to the last bastions of grift (the lower class fun on the "back-end", with everyone "working strong"- freaks, flatties, and girlie shows).

In the process, they learn the gaffs (tricks) of the hanky panks, alibis, and flat store games. They tempt the marks (suckers, rubes) with their "flash" and "slum" (plush stufffed animals and other cheap prizes), and drain their wallets. They learn how the carnival deals with the "wrangs" and the "beefs" (fights and complaints, respectively) of their customers, and how a bit of "smice" (payoff, bribe) can make the local authorities look the other way. They also come to terms with the "blanks" (show dates that are unprofitable and forgettable), the "dings" (the surcharges that jointees pay for unreliable electricity, security, and clean-up), and the wearisome tear-downs.

Scott's story is slightly fictionalized, and she freely admits recalling all of this experience from decades-old memories. Some of it is obviously sensationalized, yet overall it has the ring of truth to it. All of the characters in the book, while based upon people she actually encountered, appear under fictional names. Grady Stiles, Jr. is transparently given the nickname "The Crawfish Kid". Scott peppers her bally with thinly-veiled newpaper article updates of Stiles' continued legal trouble. This choice does serve the function of putting the author's personal experiences on the road in the context of the final decline of the golden era of traveling carnivals.

** NOTE: If you are interested in carny lingo- HERE's a great web page that seems pretty comprehensive.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Michael Haneke and "Cache" (2005)

I finally got around to watching Michael Haneke's Cache (2005). The Austrian-born director captured and held my attention with the artfilm "hit" Funny Games (1997). For many (like me) the film was an introduction to the cynical matter-of-fact brutality of a talented auteur. Its plot revolves around a pair of apparently harmless, indulged young men who turn a couple's yearly return to their vacation home into an exercise in nightmarish endurance. Funny Games was not without its detractors, as one would expect with such emotionally harrowing material. Haneke was criticized for his almost sadistic manipulation of the viewer. Some hailed it as a masterpiece, while others maligned it as a gimmicky piece lacking humanity and redemption. I resolved to track down as much of Haneke's material as possible.

Over the last few years, a trickle of Haneke's films have been given sporadic release in the United States. Code Unknown (2000) consolidated interest in his work, with a temporal interlocking of the lives of four individuals. That was followed by The Piano Teacher (2001) with Isabelle Huppert, a film that would garner much attention and controversy for its depiction of a woman's descent into masochistic relations with her student. The 2003 post-apocalyptic Time of the Wolf slid under the radar, as Isabelle Huppert returned in a struggle for her family's survival in the devastating aftermath of an unnamed disaster.

Cache was unique, in that it was the first of Haneke's films to get fair distribution in this nation's video rental outlets. It continues the director's work in themes of voyuerism, emotional detachment, and guilt. The story begins when an upper middle class couple (Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) receive video footage of the exterior of their home. They are understandably unnerved by this, and as they puzzle over its origination, several more videos follow... now wrapped in crude, childlike drawings. This continued low-level process of terrorism begins to expose cracks in the otherwise professional arrangement of the couple's marriage. When Auteuil forms a hunch about the perpetrator, a web of deceit and memory is constructed that threatens to obstruct the relationships in his world. He must face a long-buried childhood experience, and a long-denied sense of guilt.

Haneke doesn't make any of this easy for the audience. If you are the type of film-viewer who needs clear resolution, then I recommend you leave this film wherever you find it. It certainly leaves more than one gaping abyss in the telling, and by the end of the film one wonders if it is even about the themes that it originally appeared to be exploring. On the other hand, if you are the type that enjoys puzzling through a film long after it is over, then this is a great choice. It's seeming cold exteriors and extended static shots require a lot of patience, but it's rewards are formidable. While Haneke seems like the ultimate cynic, his stories are ultimately obsessed with morality. And while he can be viewed as a manipulative filmmaker, he is also generous in his presentation of work that allows multiple interpretations. It could well be that your reception of his films exposes as much about you as it does about Haneke's intentions.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Women Taking Over Nation's Colleges?

In the year 2003, 49% of college graduates in the workforce were women. In 2006, women make up 55% of the college population. Perhaps more alarmingly, male students are three times more likely than females to be enrolled in special education. I think we can expect that women will make up an ever larger proportion of the group of college graduates within the US economy.

There is much speculation as to why this might be so. Young men may no longer be pressured to enter higher education the way they once were. At least in my circle of friends, males were not ensured of a high-paying job if they completed a bachelor's degree. Maybe male high school graduates are turning to the military or the trades for careers instead. Males outnumber females in these professions- and although females are not barred from these pursuits (construction, electric, HVAC, plumbing), many don't consider them as a matter of course. There is at the same time (since the 1960's), a growing expectation that women will need to work outside the home. With income disparities between the genders, attending college can be viewed as a way to gain that extra competitive edge.

Less convincingly, some suggest that the activities contemportary young males are involved in, such as playing videogames and sports, do not encourage the pursuit of scholarly goals. Sports are surely nothing new to the American male mindset, and playing cowboys and indians (whether outside, or virtually on the game console) is an age-old tradition. Would we suggest that dressing up, and playing with dolls would conversely encourage college attendance?

While it's interesting to wonder about the causes about our current higher education gender proportions, it may be even more fun to predict how the situation will play out in our society. Will women increasingly find their roles as the nation's administrators, consultants and managers? Will men play the role of insectoid drones, toiling to do the bidding of the new queens until they outlive their usefulness and are put to death? Well... perhaps the latter case is a bit too "cyberpunk"... but we should never say never.

It is safe to say that young co-eds won't necessarily expect to find their marriage partner at the University. Female students will have to socially compete for the dwindling sample of males. For the losers, couplings will not necessarily reflect cultural or educational parity. Maybe they will form spinster sisterhoods of higher learning enclaves. Or otherwise, they can learn to love the local football team.

Perhaps we can expect to see a slight shift in the primary breadwinner demographic. Maybe more men will opt to stay at home and look after the kids? (Or pretend to do so while they stay at home with their Playstation and ESPN) More realistic a scenario is a continuing belief that our changing economy requires two incomes... and all bets are off as to who does what around the house.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another Collection of "Freaks".

I finished Bill Carmichael's "Incredible Collectors, Wierd Antiques and, Odd Hobbies today". I t was a quick read, quirky, and a written in a manner reminiscent of tabloid journalism. Several times throughout the book, it seemed like Carmichael was using the various categories of collectibles as a vehicle to share triva about arcane subjects such as vinous grapes, bawdy-house tokens, World Fairs, death masks, glass eyes and barbed wire. Certainly he was, more often than not, able to make this information interesting, but the approach seemed to dehumanize the collectors involved in these obscure pursuits.

Particularly intriuguing to me was a chapter about two different men that collected photographs of "human oddities" (or freaks), that were sold by these performers to supplement their incomes on the circus and carnival circuits. Carmichael was consistent in this chapter's presentation- he got so wrapped up in the stories of the individual freaks, that he gave short shrift to the collectors. It worked out for my benefit as I learned of several historical figures I had not yet been aware of... and additional information about some whom I had heard about.

1. Emma Leach- A dwarf whom George Washington made inquiries into meeting. Washington was actually present at the first circus put on in the US (1793). That adds significant respect to my estimation of our founding father.

2. Grace McDaniels- The original "Mule-Faced woman"- billed as the ugliest woman who had ever lived. Evidently she wasn't ugly on the inside- she received many marriage proposals, and eventually accepted one, and had a son of "normal" appearance.

3. Miss Caroline Akers- At barely over three hundred pounds, she would not have been an impressive "fat lady", if not for the fact that she was a mere thirty-four inches tall, and she had a beard.

4. Chang and Eng Coffin - Sure... everyone knows the most famous "Siamese Twins" of all time. But did you know that they were originally kidnaped from China? Did you know they despised each other, and often got into physical fights in public? Did you know that Chang was a drunk lecher, and that Eng was an intellectual vegetarian? Did you know they hated P.T. Barnum, their employer?

5. The Toccis Twins- Born in Turin, Italy, and exhibited in 1875, this oddity consisted of two heads on a single torso. Each of its legs was governed by a different brain, which made walking difficult.The Toccis learned to play handball, dance, and sing duets (with each other).

6. Myrtle Corbin- With four legs, and two sets of sexual organs below the waste, she was quite the phenomenon. She was married and gave birth to five children... three delivered from one vaginal canal, and the remaining two from the other.

7. William H. Jackson - Also known as "Zip the What's It?", he was Barnum's favorite microencephalic, and was given his moniker by the Prince of Wales. Throughout his long life (he died at age 84) he was under the happy impression that he was the owner of every traveling outfit and museum he ever worked for.

8. Jean Libbera and Piramel - Both of these men had parasitic siblings sticking out, neck-first, from beneath their breastplates. The parasites had names, fully developed bodies (other than heads) and were said to be aware of what was happening in the outside world. They also each shared their sibling's bloodstream and nervous system. They could move their arms and legs "upon command".

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Ongoing Tragedy of 9-11

I wasn't going to write about the events of 9.11.01 today. Everyone and their mother is going to be trotting out their 9-11 emotional porn, and I have a hunch that a lot of folks would rather just go through this day as if it were any other. But then I reconsidered... perhaps if I don't do this blog about the tragic events of 9-11, then the terrorists have won... and I'm just not gonna let that happen (with thanks to David Cross for the inspiration).

In the five years since the planes hit the towers, that fateful day has been used to justify the complete revision of civil rights in the United States. The Patriot Act was bullied through Congress with the threat that anyone who voted against it would be made to look unpatriotic. The President and his aides have used this tragedy to instill fear in the citizenry, and promote a black-and-white, "us vs. them" mentality that alienates Americans from the world's citizens and each other.

This simplistic mentality has been used as a justification to invade a foreign country that presented no real threat to the United States. Bush and his executive branch presented a fallacious case, suggesting that the president of Iraq played a role in 9-11, that he harbored terrorists, and that he had "Weapons of Mass Destruction". In fact, Saddam Hussein had refused to assist Bin Laden in his war against America, and was on the record as being Bin Laden's enemy. He had no WMD, and was against (what are now being fashionably referred to as...) "Islamo-fascists". In reality, Hussein had actively attempted to capture and incarcerate Abu Masab Zarqawi- the former commander of "al-Qaeda in Iraq".

Unfortunately, the facts in this instance do not matter. As of last December, despite copious amounts of evidence and testimony to the contrary, 44% of Americans still believed Hussein had strong links to al Qaeda; 24% believed that one or more of the hijackers were Iraqi (none of them were); and 22% believed that Hussein "helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the US on Sept. 11." Who would deny the speculation that these numbers constitute the base of the dwindling support for Dubya and friends? Do you find it at all ironic that Hussein's trial was re-opened today after a layoff consisting of several weeks? Could that really be a coincidence?

If 9-11 truly changed the United States forever, it did so due to the reactions and strategies of the Bush administration and its craven congressional supporters. It gave this administration carte blanche to enact foreign policy intiatives that had been planned by the neo-cons since the early 1990's. The loss of over 3000 American lives has been used as a pretext to stifle civil liberties and wage aggressive war. Meanwhile, 3000 Iraqis die EVERY MONTH due to our Middle Eastern policies. And so we stumble perilously closer to a war of civilizations- an outcome that just so happens to be Bin Laden's originally stated goal and purpose.

We are now engaged in the "War against Terrorism". This Orwellian pursuit has no parameters that aren't set at the convenience of the ruling party, and enacted with the acquiescence of the "opposition party". It has no set goals and no practical strategy... but will last an indefinite period of time. Bush's friends and financers benefit as a result of the no-bid contracting of this adventurism, and meanwhile the insidious plan to drive the federal government into bankruptcy moves forward rapidly (recall Bush-buddy Grover Norquist's memorable quote..."I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.") Remember that Bush strategy when we face the very real threats of the coming century- natural disaster, global health threats and the compounding problems of a world energy crisis... we are explicitly not supposed to rely on our government to help us. Does that elicit any memories from a more recent American tragedy... (ahem...cough...Katrina?)?

And yet the country inexplicably continues to look toward the Bush adminstration to "keep us safe". Tonight he will outline the "threats" that face the nation. He may mention certain foreign governments he had previously identified (along with Iraq) as the "Axis of Evil". He WILL evoke the "fallen heros of 9-11" to muster our support for his policies. He will NOT apologize for his failure to capture the man responsible for the attacks on 9-11. He will NOT explain why exerting dominance in Iraq meant more to him than capturing Bin Laden. He will NOT address his administration's inability to follow the recommendations of the 9-11 commission- a bipartisan group asked to come up with a real, practicable plan to ensure the nation's safety.

We have been placed in a position of almost incalculable risk by the actions of George W. Bush, his administration, and its supporters. Keep that in mind when you watch his emotionally evocative speeches tonight.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tom Sarver, "The Tom Museum" at the Mattress Factory.

Last night I went to the preview of new installations at the Mattress Factory. I don't think people in Pittsburgh realize just what a great resource this place is. It adds a hint of international credibility for Pittsburgh in the arts sphere. Whenever I do make it a point to go to the museum, I always wonder why I haven't been there in such a long time.

The inspiration for this particular visit was the opening of the "Tom Museum" (at 410 Samsonia Way), an installation centered around the life and work of local artist Tom Sarver. Artists can be a notably envious lot, and if it's appropriate to reward just one with such indulgence, then I am glad Tom was chosen. For those of you who have had the pleasure of meeting him, he's a very generous and accessible guy. I felt particularly welcome yesterday as Tom took the time, in the calm before the storm of his official unveiling, to give me a personal tour of his new living/working/installation space.

The exterior of the townhouse (which belongs to the Director of the Mattress Factory) has a colorful mural done in Tom's bright cartoon-like style. Walking through the front door, you enter a fantastic foyer with carved wooden stairs, like a monotone version of a Dr. Seuss environment. You step through another door, and are treated to a video feed from a piece in the basement. Down another short stairway, and through the reception room, you reach Tom's conceptualization and media documentation room. Out the backdoor, there is a courtyard that will be transformed over the next few months. His companions will be two interns from the museum, and the killer Rottweiller that lives in the yard behind his (don't worry, Tom has installed additional reinforcement to the back fence!). And visitors, of course. The intention is to encourage day-to-day interaction with the museum's patrons. He plans a series of special events throughout the life of the installation. One of Tom's annual projects is intensive partcipation in the Black Sheep Puppet Festival. This October, he is planning to move the festival's puppet-making workshop to the Tom Museum.

The second floor of the house consists of Tom's handmade puppet archives, and the one room he has alloted himself for personal living space. The third floor is yet another work in-progress (and you'll just have to visit in the future to see what he has planned- I know what it is, and believe me, it's gonna be worth the wait). Sarver has plenty of time to complete his vision- he will live and work out of his museum for the next eight months. After that, who knows? Tom talks of maybe wanting to take some varaition of the concept on the road, or continue his developing relationship with large-scale mural work.

The Tom Museum can be visited Wednesday through Sunday, between the hours of 11AM and 5PM. Contact the Mattress Factory for further details. This is a must-see.

*And if you want some additional "Tom", please make sure to stop in at the very first traveling exhibition from the "Tom Museum" at the Digging Pitt Too. The opening reception is this Thurday (the 14th), from 6-9PM, on the corner of 45th and Plummer Streets in Lawrenceville (Pittsburgh).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

About the Proposed Smoking Ban in Pittsburgh...

There's been a lot of talk about the proposed smoking ban in Pittsburgh. Like any other issue that gets a lot of play in the local media, the idea has led to all sorts of speculations and half-informed discussion. There was a "controversial" hearing about the proposal last Tuesday.

Now I understand the urge to protect the general health of our citizenry. Never mind that a large percentage of this same citizenry lacks adequate health insurance, and the government seems perfectly unwilling to do anything about that. Never mind that corporations are allotted pollution credits to spew carcinogens into our breathing space. Never mind the effect of the area's coal-fired power plants. Never mind that our automobiles emit way more carbon monoxide than all the cigarettes smoked at any any given time. This is serious, and our leaders care about us.

There is one particularly problematic aspect of the ban that especially bothers me, and it hasn't garnered the amount of discussion I believe it deserves. The ban would extend to any business that does not receive at least 85% of its profits from the sale of tobacco products. OK, that's fair... that makes sense- but here's the kicker- the Associated Press notes, "The bill would also ban smoking within 15 feet of any building's entrance or exit, on subway platforms, in pool halls and bowling alleys. The ban would even extend to food cart vendors. "

Within 15 feet of any building's entrance or exit. Hmm... let's see... if I am on the South Side on a weekend night, with its stream of drunk suburbanites crowding the walk, and I want to smoke a cigarette- not only do I have to exit whatever establishment I am patronizing, but I have to find a spot that's fifteen feet away from any building's entrance/exit. The next time you take a trip to the South Side, or virtually anywhere else in the city where people go (or live)... try to find this mythical neverland of non-development. You'll be searching for a 30 foot swath of abandoned lot. Certainly, our municipal leaders aren't encouraging us to smoke in the middle of the street?! That surely can't be their conception of protecting us? And what about my front porch? Is it 15 feet away from my neighbor's front door? I don't believe it is. I'm going to have to put my house up for sale if I want to continue smoking, since I respect my wife's preference for "clean air", and therefore don't smoke in my house.

And while I'm on the subject... what about smoking indoors?? Do I have to retreat to the furthest reaches of my basement or attic to ensure that I am not within fifteen feet from my front or side doors? Because that is literally what this law proposes. Am I going to have to get into my car and drive to the hinterlands to find a spot of grass or gravel where I can smoke? Of course I will be trespassing (and loitering) if I do that, and therefore in violation of a wholly different law.

Why not just drop all pretenses? Outlaw tobacco products today. Quit jerking us around. Obviously what we are in need of is complete prohibition. And while we are it, we should address the environmental pollution of cellphones, because there is some evidence that they radiate waves that can be harmful to human health. That's not to mention the public health risks presented by all those SUV-driving soccer moms that use their transit time to catch up on their gossip and talk to their friends about last night's episode of Desperate Housewives. While we are on the subject, surely we can find evidence that automobile emissions are similarly destructive to our well-being. We also need to ensure that manufacturing doesn't compound the problem with its pollutants.

Hell, I might even be able to make the case that your drunk-assed public presence is a potential nuisance to my comfort and health. We need to outlaw the consumption of alcohol. What about billboards? Don't they clutter our public spaces, and impose their own brand of mental pollution? And then we need to address my neighbor's choice of house paint... it's ugly and makes me hurt when I have to look at it... and what about that fat dude with the shirt that's two sizes too small, and the lowriders exposing his ass-crack?! Can't someone protect me from the anguish that cause me? Hummers, SUVs, strip malls...

Look... I understand that I should quit smoking cigarettes. They are clearly not in my best interest. But y'see... my smoke breaks help me resolve some of the tension that the rampant hypocrisy and righteousness of our society engenders in me. I'm not againt a ban in public and commercial businesses... but can't we find even a wee bit of a compromise? Must we frame every public issue in extreme shades of black and white?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Tramp Art

In an earlier post, I outlined the difference between a "hobo" and a "tramp". Hoboes traveled around the country to find transient work, while tramps considered hoboes "suckers" for working at all. Tramps had their own hierarchy, with the "profesh" at the top (a professional tramp, who was known for his fastidousness of appearance), and the more typical "fakir" (who had repairman or trade skills to employ when needed). Tramps did whatever they could to survive. They engaged in thievery and begging, and more rarely in robbery and murder. Sometimes they resorted to hobo status in order to build a "stake" to live off of for a short time.

This is not to say that tramps never gave anything back to the society in which they lived (or more properly- lived outside of). In the "jungles" (campsites) where they lived, they often used a technique called "chip carving" to craft a variety of objects including doll furniture, picture frames, jewelry boxes, and even full-sized chests of drawers. Chip-carving entailed using knives to make triangular-shaped cuts to form intriguing and intricate designs. Tramps used cigar boxes and packing crates to produce these items, and traded them for food, lodging and other necessities on the road. The finished pieces are known today under the classification "tramp art".

This folk art had its heyday between the 1870's and 1940's. Ironically, it only drew notice in the realm of culture during the 1950's when its period of production had largely passed. Nowadays, in the postmodern era of cultural consumerism, tramp art has become a highly collectible commodity. Of course, there are galleries devoted to this traditional folk-style Americana. What confounds collectors of such work is that most of it was left unsigned and undated. Good luck doing an internet search for the names of "famous tramp artists"- it's very difficult to find specific names. Bill Carmichael (information on this author provided at bottom of post) mentions Big Boy Billy, Frisco Fred (who gets a mention here), and Lanky Larry.

When most talk about "tramp art" today, they are likely referring specifically to the chip-carved pieces linked to above. But indeed there is a whole range of craft that is associated with both tramps AND hoboes (furthering the confusion of classification). Check out this confusingly- titled link. Evidently some make a distinction between hobo art and tramp art, saying that the latter is more utilitarian in nature, while the former used whittling to create objects that were more whimsical.

(By the way, I particularly like this vintage religious tramp art.)

** I became aware of this fascinating type of artisans' craft when I came across a chapter devoted to its collectors in a (1971) book by Bill Carmichael called "Incredible Collectors, Weird Antiques and Odd Hobbies". Carmichael seemed to be well ahead of the curve in recognizing the validity and future colllectibility of tramp art. But it's inclusion in this book of "strange collections" is illustrative of just how under-the-radar the artform was until recently.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"You can take Film Noir out of America, but..."

Being a recent convert to film noir fandom, and simultaneously a fan of the English-based Hammer Film Studios, the Hammer Film Noir Collector's Set seemed like a no-brainer. This is a collection of six films that were released in the 1950's, and meant to capitalize on the recent American trend of crime thrillers (the term "Film Noir" only recently been coined, and was not in widespread popular use).

The idea was to make low-budget films in Britain... import a few lesser lights from the pool of actors in the US (in order to gain an element of international appeal), apply the studio system mentality, and distribute the product to run as the B-side of a program containing a like-minded Hollywood film.

Having had the pleasure of discovering the Hammer Studio horror pictures released over the last few years, I had high expectations. They are workmanlike productions, with competent directors, screenwriters and actors. The Hammer horror series pays extra special attention to atmosphere, and this may be it's main strength. I figured that since Film Noir relies so heavily on atmospheric elements, then this collection would be a "can't miss". What I didn't realize is just how peculiarly "American" the Film Noir category is.

Film Noir is grounded in the historical context and style of post-WWII America. It's the hard-boiled underbelly of the prosperity that followed the end of the war. It's moral relativism, urban cityscapes, and quick-witted street dialogue combined to fashion a wholly distinctive counterpoint to the then prevailing self-concept of the nation. It's black-and-white, neo-chiaroscuro film-style belies the moral complexities of it's themes and storylines. It moves quickly, and is confounding to those looking for easy answers or ethical clarity.

Why did I think this would be translatable to the English? Their mannered sensibilities, while seemingly perfect for the Gothic horror of Hammer films, simply don't work in the crime-thriller genre. And the British accent certainly takes away from the tonal qualities of classic noir dialogue. Try to imagine the following spoken in a "limey" accent:

"Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver."

"When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it."

"You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle."

"Now, do you wanna talk business, or do you wanna play house...?"

I don't know about you... but I have a hard time with it. In the Hammer Noir films, the actors don't even try to deliver lines like this... maybe the scriptwriters knew better than to write them. As if this weren't enough to discount these films as Noir, many of the scenes are filmed in bright daylight, and virtually none in the obligatory gritty-urban milieu. There are none of the quintessentially slimy or thuggish bit players that make watching American Noir so much fun.

All this is not to say that the films on this Hammer collection are without merit. Terence Fisher is a damn good director, and many of these actors are better than adequate. Some of the settings are intriguing- such as an antiquarian book store (Man Bait), or plastic surgery lab (Stolen Face). But if you are expecting to find the classic elements, you need to stick with the American-made Film Noir. These are just too "proper".

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Strange Crime of Hazel McNally.

In my ongoing reading of Woody Register's "The Kid of Coney Island", I have come across a very strange story about a Hammond, Indiana woman who was accused of killing her children in 1922. The resulting court case illuminated the fact that the victims were in fact Effanbee dolls- anatomically correct toys made by Fleishaker and Bawm of New York.

Hazel McNally was a sterile divorcee when she married the man whom she worked for as a housekeeper. Her new husband was thirty years her senior, and evidently wanted a visible product from their marriage. Prosecution witnesses in court, which included the bereaved "father", swore that the victims had been living children. McNally countered that this testimony in particular was proof of her husband's "mania to pose before the world as a father" (Thompson, p.240).

Of course when the truth came out... the charges of child murder were unceremoniously dropped. McNally went on to celebrate her new freedom from accusation by purchasing two replacement Effanbee dolls. Her endorsement of the realism of the product led the Toys and Novelties Journal to feature her in a photo spread with her new "family". Her post-trial plans included divorcing her husband and studying law.

Register used the strange story of Hazel McNally to accentuate a process of cultural shift that occurred during the first couple decades of the twentieth century. The advent of consumer culture and the simultaneously shifting gender roles were challenging the hegemony of the patriarchical world of the American white male. Women were starting to question their "predestined God-given" roles as mother and homemaker. Their attention was turning increasingly toward material desires. Native-born middle class white men began to fear a sharp decline in birthrate. Particular attention was focused on the toy industry, and its effect on the traditional development of children.

The unease among traditional society was exacerbated by a craze for the newly-invented "Teddy Bears", which seemed to replace the age-old desire for dolls. Would these stuffed animals hinder the natural acquisition of maternal values among little girls? Would these toys encourage bestiality? What about boys? They had these toys too... what did that mean as far as the feminizing of white men? Obviously the popularity of dolls came back around, but as Hazel McNally's case demonstrated- this popularity sometimes had unintended consequences.

Intrigued by Hazel's story, I did an Internet search and was able to come up with only a single link referencing this scandal. It's from the October 20, 1922 edition of the Reno Gazette, which is catalogued on a newpaper archive site, transcribed with copious grammatical and spelling errors. The URL is way too long for me to accurately hyperlink to, so i'll just give it to y'all direct...

"PLAYING MOTHER WAS MANIA OF ACCUSED AS YOUNG GIRL HAMMOND, INd., Oct. Hazel McNally, accused by her husband of murderINg twIN babies claims were born to her last December was discharged .at the close of a prelimINary hearINg to- day.
HAMMOND, INd., Chi- cago women who knew her as a child today went to the defense of, Mra Hazel McNally, accused by her hus- killINg the twIN babies he says, were born to her last December. with said she deceived her firiends and relatives by "motherINg" two dolls, was, if true, a repetition of n similar deception she woliked. when, she was sixteen years these women said. Hazel Hill, the name by which Mra. MoNally was known as a child, pos- sessed a mania for "playINg accordINg to Mrs. G. A. Kahne, whose daughter, Rhea, was. a playmate of Hazel. At sixteen tlje manfa became so pronounced that..the girl. actua'llj fooled her closest Ir.tends, Mrs. Kabne said, made them believe she was to .become a mother and later appeared .with, "twINs? which later turned ,otit be only dolls"

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Location and Cultural Import.

Now that I have some time to reflect on this past summer's trips to the East Coast, it occurs to me just how culturally central that area is to the priorities in my life. I was reading Edward Winkelman's blog today. He owns a gallery in Chelsea (NYC) called Plus Ultra. His latest entry hammers my point home- there are 129 gallery openings in Chelsea over the next seven days. And that's just a portion of the overall art venues throughout the Five Boroughs. The only type of business in Pittsburgh that there are more than 129 of are bars (ok... maybe restaurants too).

The further you get (in the US) from large urban centers, the more culturally marginalized you get. I'm talking about the big ones- L.A., NYC, San Francisco, DC, Chicago...etc. I hadn't been to "the City" in six or seven years, and in that time it was easy for me to fool myself into thinking differently. As much optimism as I have that one can make a contribution to the evolution of culture from anywhere... I am starting to have serious doubts. Certainly the Internet has provided a platform to get ideas and product to a larger audience. And it's also true that it gives me virtual access to some of the events in the big cities... but there are some things about actual day-to-day existence in such places that can never be approximated virtually- immersion and scope, among them.

The centers of culture teem with ideas and personalities that carry them. There is always an opportunity to leave your personal space and confront others grappling with the same themes and concepts that you are working through. There are demographic niches that dwarf what you could find in a medium-sized city. The art scene in a smaller city is a hodgepodge of folks working in such disparate mediums that they often marginalize themselves, even at an arts venue or event. They see the few folks that "matter" in any artistic form, and hone in on them to the exclusion of others. That's doesn't happen in the great cities- there are so many things happening on any given day that people can be more discriminating. But at the same time, they are dealing with new faces every day, and because the environment is such a hothouse, it's risky to write anyone off. Anyone could be on a rapid ascendancy.

The gatekeepers in the medium city have the opportunity to get entrenched. The art critic at the local newspaper becomes immensely important as an image-maker... and the quality (or lack of same) of the publication, or its commitment to art, just don't mitigate that importance. If one of these pillars of the art community decides not to like you or your work, it means a lot. It makes the scene a bit stagnant, because it stifles innovation. The same process applies if there is a recognized local academic institution that is recognized for its "uncontested sophistication" in any given medium or form.

There are serious obstacles and tribulations to living in those great cultural centers... cost of living and real estate, congestion, crime, pollution... and there is something to say for the personal level on which things operate in the smaller places. But despite all the very real "quality-of-life" benefits of the smaller and medium cities (such as Pittsburgh, and Portland, and Columbus... ), you still need to get your work shown in the big city before you can expect a place of influence in the larger cultural dialogue.