Thursday, November 30, 2006

Rant on Aging.

What matter of indignities age had in store for me... I had no idea. Ingrown toenails, fatigue, hematospermia, a growing paunch, lower-back pain, headaches that start from the neck, growing moles, cysts... and these are the external symptoms. It would require a team of specialists and a battery of high-tech equipment to chart the internal deterioration. The youthful feeling of invulnerability began to leave me around the time I reached age thirty, and it is nothing but a pleasant memory now. People warn you that it's going to happen when you are older, but no one really conveys the extent of ugliness that accompanies aging.

And this is all merely the beginning. I know that I look forward to all manner of surprises as I continue to experience the ravages of time. The body's breakdown gradually increases, until we are all a flabby and fragile mess. It is not surprise that my phone conversations with grandparents amount to a litany of physical suffering. Ordinary tasks such as mowing the lawn, or shoveling the walk become dangerous tests of endurance. I am constantly hearing about another body part in breakdown, and the possibility of many of these failures had not even occurred to me. The basic rule is that if it works now... it might not tomorrow.

All these sentiments are obvious. Anyone who expresses actual shock that he/she ages is either mentally retarded or hopelessly naive. But isn't it the case that actually experiencing this process is disconcerting nonetheless? We may think we understand what others are experiencing, but it is always abstracted until it's happening to our own body. That lump in the groin... that paroxysm of heart activity... that obscuration of the eye... these are all troublesome enough in theory, but only vague shadows until we live through them. We may believe that we understand when a loved one gets afflicted with something nasty, but we are still fooling ourselves if we think we know how they feel.

So what's the point? It may be easy to laugh at our age-obsessed society... our preoccupation with youth borders on the absurd... but the further we advance, the less humor we may be able to muster. There is a certain threshold beyond which changes in the body are almost always bad (and frightening). I suppose these are road signs on our path to mortality. Unless we take a short cut, or are forced off the road... we might as well try to take our time getting to that ultimate destination.

So the point is that to cope with the issue at hand I have resorted to a rather tired cliche, because it's more desirable than focusing on the ugly reality.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Carbon Dioxide and the Supreme Court.

Today the Supreme Court will decide whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency has the right and/or responsibility to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, does the Clean Air Act mean anything? The law dictates that the EPA must regulate pollutants that can reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare, including those that affect weather or climate. It doesn't get much more clear-cut than the Greenhouse Effect, no matter what the shrill voices from the Red States claim.

It took a suit on behalf of a dozen states to try to force the Bush administration into doing its job for the American people. It has taken three years for the Supreme Court to hear the case. During his initial presidential campaign, Bush expressed explicit support for carbon dioxide regulation. Christine Todd Whitman, then EPA adminstrator, was sent to speak with the Europe's top eight industrial powers, and came back with an agreement to cap CO2 emissions. Upon her return she found that Dubya had a change of heart... after he met with several GOP senators from energy-producing states. Instead of working to fulfill his campaign promises, he decided to support voluntary programs that would rely on the goodwill of energy companies and auto manufacturers to look past their bottom line, and regulate themselves.

The arguments put forth in resistance to EPA regulations are remarkable. They claim that CO2 is a naturally occuring substance required for life, and therefore should not be classed as a pollutant. Past that, they say that there is little evidence that CO2 emissions present any problem. Scientists dispute that particular claim, and liken the relationship between CO2 and global warming to that between smoking and lung cancer. The administration's ultimate argument is that the states involved have no right to sue the EPA or the government. They say that claims of damage that include rising sea levels, lost shoreline, increased smog, and increasingly deadly storms and floods, are too generalized to be decided by the nation's highest court. It's clear that they want to avoid the consequences of being taken to task for a record of lax environmental policies. Yet they have no will to help remediate the situation.

Assuming the responsibility for impending catastrophe is certainly frightening. And so are the prospects of making real sacrifices to avert them. But that seems to be one of the essential functions for a federal government. The Bush administration has constantly asserted its role in keeping the nation safe from terrorism, but have shirked their regulatory capacity in a situation where it could be of much use. This is a high-stakes case. Will the Supreme Court empower the American people to hold the federal government to its mission of protecting the nation's (and the world's) future?

A full 25 % of CO2 emissions are produced by the United States. The administration has notably said that the issue must be determined on a global level, but have continuosly refused to participate in worldwide summits aimed at confronting vitally important environmental issues. This Supreme Court decision could change that. But what have we come to expect in the way of checks and balances in our modern age?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thomas Vinterberg, "Dear Wendy".

Years ago I was lucky to discover a film called Celebration (1998, alt. title= Festen). It was the debut 0f Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who had signed on to the Dogme 95 manifesto along with Lars Von Trier. Their movement eschewed common commercial techniques and equipment such as soundtracks, outside props, artificial lighting, and fancy cameras. Some thought their movement pretentious, but much of the work produced by affiliated members was startlingly inventive and compelling. Celebration was one of my alltime favorites. Raucous energy and bitter humor distinguished its story of perverse family dynamics. I was resolved to watch out for any future Vinterberg production.

Evidently I missed entirely his immediate follow-up... It's All About Love (2003), which starred Joaquin Pheonix and Claire danes. It's supposed to be a vaguely sci-fi meditation upon relationships at a time of social collapse. I'll certainly make the effort to track it down. But in the meantime, I became aware of another Vinterberg feature entitled Dear Wendy (2005). I had it on my wishlist for a while before purchasing it, and I have finally gotten around to actually watching it.

Dear Wendy stars Jamie Bell, Mark Webber and Bill Pullman in a fable set in some archetypal small town in the US. Ironically, the largely American cast was shipped to a set entirely built from scratch in Denmark. Von Trier wrote the script, and lends a stilted sensibility to the portrayal of American youth. Bell (who despite his ordinarily-thick British absent, convinces us that he is a typical Midwesterner) delivers his lines with conviction... but somehow can't quite make the dialogue sound truly authentic. That has largely to do with the writing, which clearly reflects a foreigner's conception of how Americans might talk. Like Kafka's Amerika, Dear Wendy has the subtle absurdity of a film about the perception of a place not yet visited. While the setting and characters are vaguely American, something is clearly just a bit off.

A small gang of "loser" young adults decide to accentuate their innate pacificism by carrying concealed handguns. They make a secret clubhouse in an abandoned mine complex, and devise elaborate rituals and costumes to mark their identity as "Dandies". Their philosophical ideas about gun ownership are dubious at best, and of course lead them into tragedy. Having said that, it is clear that Von Trier and Vinterberg are at least ambivalent about handguns. There are many elements of fetishism in the way gun ownership is presented. I don't believe that the filmmakers had any particular message in mind for the viewer to take away. While this doesn't bother me, it certainly seems to be putting some reviewers off. If you value a clear message in your entertainment, then this is not the movie for you. If you want to see a fresh perspective on guns in America... give the Danes a chance.

Note: This is NOT a Dogme 95 entry. There is much visual trickery and soundtracking. It seems like Von Trier and Vinterberg have tired of their toys.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"The Office" (2001). A BBC Series.

I've finally gotten around to watching Rickey Gervais' The Office. For those that don't know the series, it is the original BBC production that inspired FOX's American version. It was made several years ago (2001), and I had a friend who tried to turn me on to it when it first came out. I remember liking it, but being too preoccupied with other things to give it the attention it deserved. It's a shame because it is an intelligent and very funny television show. On the other hand, my rediscovery of it has been enjoyable... and it hasn't aged poorly during the few years of its existence. It is filmed as a documentary, meant to realistically depict the folly of the modern corporate workspace.

Gervais co-wrote and co-directed the series with Stephen Merchant (who can be seen in a documentary on the bonus disk packaged with the first season)- but he ends up with the lion's share of the credit because he is also its centerpiece performer. He plays David Brent, a lecherous boob-of-a-boss in a branch of a company that sells office paper. He fancies himself a comedian, but he has no sense of tact, and is therefore almost painful to watch. To compensate for his obnoxious tendencies, he gives free reign to his employees... all of whom express their personal idiosyncracies in the workplace. Because it is British, it is very difficult for an American to catch all the quickly-delivered dialogue. The humor is dry and self-referential. The documentary format allows the viewer access to the inner thoughts of the principles through first person interview interludes. The disconnect between the way people choose to represent themselves, and the actual interaction between the actors, does the comedic heavy-lifting.

Sadly the first season only contains six episodes. But a little bit of a good thing is tantalizing- I was left with the feeling of wanting more. The characters are elaborated slowly, without a lot of artificial exposition, and it's a joy to get to know them. There aren't many conventionally attractive members of the cast... these are the type of people that we can relate to as people we might actually encounter in our workplaces. It's not difficult to understand why an audience in another country can appreciate the show. The foibles and awkward situations of the office seem to be universally translatable. It's no accident that its US version was both critically and commercially successful.

Maybe some of the fun involved in watching The Office comes from wondering how much of it is truly representative of real-life office environments. What kind of effect can ennui have in a workplace organized for the marketing and sale of a product so mundane as paper? People seem to be unstintingly attracted to drama, and if the business doesn't necessarily lend that component of human experience in and of itself, then surely it will be manufactured out of whatever is available. No one in The Office seems to be passionate about paper, but rather they seem to be marking time and drawing a check. How many of a nation's workers are dedicated to necessities that are so ordinary and unsexy? How does one devote his/her entire professional life to such an end without risking their sanity? How do those who don't actually make or sell the product justify their existence? These questions are elicited by The Office with the natural absurdity and surrealism of the corresponding answers.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Coming in February, but Percolating Now...

So I've already gotten the prints of the photos I'm going to be exhibiting at my solo at Digging Pitt Too in February. This is a big deal because it requires a tedious trek into the suburbs, to a commercial zone that necessitates a set of byzantine maneuvers to negotiate. Plus I have to wait an hour for them to be printed, and that leads to spontaneous purchases at the nearby Half-Priced Books. The whole thing takes a couple of hours. And costs a substantial chunk of change. But it's done and I feel good about that, even though I should have probably spent the time and money getting a new set of badly-needed tires instead. It's so easy to procrastinate.

I'm happy about the results... although it's merely the completion of one phase of preparation in a long process. I've shown the work to the gallery owner, and he seems excited for the show. We have to iron out a lot of details about how to present the images. There are concerns about weight limits and framing, as well as the more complex aspect of layout. I've got about forty images to put on the walls. Then there are the various promotional concerns. Its common to produce hot cards that serve to announce the upcoming show. These have to be distributed around the city a month ahead of time. Because this is my first solo, I'll also be expected to construct an artist statement detailing my conception of the work. I've done this before... but because these images are particularly abstract, people will probably pay attention this time. The visual information will have to be accompanied by lucid exposition. And I hold myself to certain standards. I'd like to avoid a lot of the art school jargon that I so often encounter in these statements- which shouldn't be too difficult since I have no arts education. But it's a bit of a cop-out to simply say the work should speak for itself. Whatever I offer should accentuate and illuminate the work.

It's exciting to have this opportunity, but it raises the bar to a certain level. There are expectations that linger from my previous shows. These generally consisted of documentary or representational photography, and this exhibition will be wholly different. It's hard to say whether or not the folks who enjoyed my previous work will accept the new stuff. It might be to the tastes of an entirely different audience... and I don't know if that new audience will even see it. It's still months away, but I've got a lot to think about. Maybe it's presumptious to blog about it this early, but what the hell?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Spending Black Friday in the Red.

Black Friday has come and gone. Purportedly named for the ink used to denote income on the yearly balance sheet, it is the day that businesses expect to enter their annual profit phase. So everyone rolls out the sales in preparation for the orgiastic spending activity that consumers are expected to participate in. And yes, it is the beginning of the holiday shopping season. One can only guess at the sheer amount of completely unnecessary stuff that accumulates in houses across the country over this weekend. Much of it will be given away unsolicited, wrapped in more unecessary trappings... only to be rewrapped and re-gifted for the next obligatory recipient. The great consumerist cycle goes on ad infinitum (and perhaps ad nauseum). Of course I'll be a partially reluctant participant.

But I didn't go shopping yesterday... despite the dubious and shiny allure of abundant material choice. I spent hours with a friend scanning drawings at 600 dpi (dots-per-inch). Surrounded by the trappings of the arts industry, I had plenty of time to ponder relative value. Despite the hordes of folks swarming lemming-like to the strip and indoor malls, the purveyors of art saw little business in Pittsburgh. Gallery owners might hope for some evidence of the largely mythical "trickle-down effect", but they do so in vain. Art work makes the perfect gift... it is not something most would buy for themselves, yet it's very personal and unique. It's that ultimate luxury item that performs a mostly vague set of functions. Yet it's quite often "no sale" for those that toil in this strange commodified purgatory. Why is that?

One might consult Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for guidance. Where do we find artistic pursuits? For the artist him/herself we need to go straight to the apex of the pyramid. In order to produce and exhibit one's work, the lower levels of the hierarchy must be met. (Well... maybe not "Love/Belonging", considering the rampant stereotypes regarding the "tortured artist") It's an achievement to be able to construct your life in a way that allows participating in an activity that rarely feeds back to lower-level needs. Somehow, hundreds of folks in Pittsburgh manage to do so.

Having accounted for the supply-side, we must examine the demands of society. The majority who will buy art for others will do so to fulfill "Love/Belonging" needs, and perhaps those in the "Esteem" category. However there are plenty of more conventional ways to meet these same requirements. Sex and more traditional status symbols will consistently trump artwork in our society. Many will fall prey to the insidious effects of "branding" before they will ever consider buying a piece of art. And what art does sell will likely be the result of a more insular form of branding in the art world. Why buy an original piece by an unknown artist when you can convey your demographic identity by purchasing a print of some classic work by a dead famous one? What do you think is more likely to confer status upon the recipient?

It's easy to be discouraged by mainstream trends, whether they directly impact arts and culture, or not. I don't expect many folks to forego Hot Topic or Abercrombie and Fitch for the corner art gallery. But I feel confident in my assertion that any exceptions will be much appreciated by both the makers and dealers of art. If you want to maximize the impact of your dollar in spreading holiday cheer... consider buying art this year. It doesn't even have to be mine.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Dreams, Memory and Interpretation.

Here's one for the "things to be thankful for case-file":

I rarely remember my dreams. That's not the thing that I am particularly thankful for today. No. Rather I am glad that the dreams I do remember don't turn out to be reality. Today I recall much of what I dreamed last night.

Relating dreams is always a tricky proposition. A lot of people simply tune out as soon as they figure out that you want to tell them about a dream you had. I understand that because I usually have a similar urge to think about something else (like bills I have to pay, or having to go to the bathroom) when someone starts relating a dream. It's not that dreams are not interesting... it's that they are rarely interesting to anyone who didn't have them. Because of the way dream logic seems to work, they are often arbitrary and irrationall... and what makes them fascinating while you are dreaming them... makes them deadly dull in the telling. But we seem to have a deep-seated (or is it seeded) need to attempt to understand this phenomena... even if we believe that dreams are merely the result of random firing in our brains. So even though we know that others' stories of them are rarely captivating, we continue to share them with each other.

Perhaps it's the fact that dreams are so visually-oriented that keeps them from being transferable. The only sensory data they contain is either visual or auditory. It's often futile to convey the wonder of the visions that our sleep offers us. They are constantly shifting and undulating. People change their identities... places fade abruptly and are replaced by others... and our potentialities become quite limitless... if we could only harness our intentions in service of that great possibility. Our emotions and relationships subtly affect the plotlines, in ways that are more symbolic than literal. How do we make sense out of such seemingly chaotic data?

Of course some love the challenge of interpretation. Jung and Freud made careers out of dream analysis. They certainly believed that dreams hold the keys to self-understanding. And who am I to doubt such luminaries of thought and mind? They've left such an indelible mark on our culture. So without further expository ramblings, I offer you my best recollection of last night's dream...

I was at some outdoor event, surrounded by friends. We were sitting uncovered along rows of picnic tables. I was playing chess against an anonymous opponent... on a board that rose from the table on layers of mechanized obscurity. The next thing I was aware of was the aftermath of an explosion... although I had no experience of any disruption. I began to examine myself and noticed strange protrusions on my arms. They were t-shaped heads of metal, about the width of a paper clip. I grabbed the top of one and pulled... there was a lot of painful resistance. As I extracted the first piece, I was amazed by it's length- at least three inches. It had a sheath of blood-tinged mucus, and when I reached its end, it exited with a slurping sound. A splattering of deep red blood followed. I continued to discover more of these skewers up and down both of my arms. I had a progressive sense of satisfaction in removing each one. Some resulted in little blood, and others yielded a thick glob that one could spoon like pudding. As if searching for fleas, I would gain confidence that I had gotten them all... only to find another one.

Having finally finished my task... I sought a place to wash out the small pin-hole wounds that were left. I remember being confounded by the risk of infection. At first my arms seemed only minimally effected by the stigmata. But in time-lapse fashion, the skin around the holes started to sag and turn gray in quarter-sized blemishes. I imagined that it was much the same as if I had been bitten by a nest of brown recluse spiders. I awoke with the hope that these unsightly scars would soon heal.

Dear readers... what meaning can we draw from this dream?

Note: If you are interested in dreams and their depictions... I have some recommendations for you:

Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams and Reflections is a memoir of the eminent psychologist's life, and is a great introduction to his thinking about archetypes, dreams and synchronicity.

Richard Linklater's film Waking Life is a compelling meditation on lucid dreaming and the effect of nocturnal wanderings. It uses rotoscope animation to create a unique ambience that effectively engages the viewer subconscious.

Jesse Reklaw is a comics artist whose work centers around an idea in the "Why-the-hell-didn't-I-think-of-that?" mode. He solicits dreams, and illustrates them in a daily comic strip. Check out his work at Slow Wave.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Curmudgeon's Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a strange national holiday. It is inextricably linked with Native Americans, without whose help the colony at Plymouth, MA could not have survived. Most Americans learn that essential fact in elementary school, but it's clear that Native Americans are not the focus of this day. Unless the Washington Redskins play, very few folks will even give pause to recognize the contributions of this continent's indigenous peoples. Most likely the credit (if attributed at all) will go to God. It's God's divine grace... not the contributions of heathen primitives...from which people will derive a deeper meaning. In fact, the third day of Thanksgiving (proclaimed in 1676) didn't include the participation of the Indians. It was instead a celebration to mark the colonists' victory over the natives of the area. It's enlightening to examine what people give thanks for.

At best, Thanksgiving is a time for loved ones to gather and enjoy one another's company. While cynical, I certainly want to recognize the best inclinations of my fellow citizens. Indeed there will be a select few that give part of their day to serving the downtrodden their annual hot meal. But the activities of the many will continue to perplex me. Some will sit down today and give thanks to the American troops, who sacrifice their lives for world hegemony. Many will look forward to a bounteous feast, that they will gorge themselves on until they must sleep or puke. If nothing else, many will recognize the abundance with which the nation provides its citizens a sense of self-worth. Yet others will drink themselves into a stupor in a vain attempt not to talk with their families. Traditions, of course, are varied and complex.

I can't lay claim to any expecially noble inclinations myself. I have spent exactly one Thanksgiving doling out food to the homeless. While I make an effort to analyze the gratitude I owe for all the good things in my life, I often fall into abstraction when I contemplate to whom I should direct my thanks. Often my conclusion is that I am surrounded by a group of very special people that contribute to making my life worth living. Yet I fall short of forming any specific list for fear that someone will be unfairly forsaken. This in itself is something to be ultimately thankful for.

While surrounded by the people one cares for, it is easy to forget those who are isolated... and have no one with which to spend their holidays. I have adopted a peculiarly personal tradition to remind myself that there are many who will spend Thanksgiving alone. They are society's orphans, unseen by those surrounded by the warmth of their personal relations. Every year I make the effort to get in my car alone and drive around the city, searching for the few business establishments that remain open. In these waystations rest the solitary figures that we rarely notice. They have neither family nor friends to join in their observation of the holiday. Perhaps it is by choice, but for some it is surely the result of circumstance. Through some desire to connect with others they have chosen to be around strangers. I sit down in these places and try to empathize with their experience. I don't fool myself into believing I can truly feel their plight. But somehow I think that it does me some good, even in the role of mere witness.

It's too easy to become self-absorbed and neglectful of those we care for. All too often I go through life without the recognition that I am accompanied on my journey by fellow travellers- without whose company I would be surely lost- just like the Pilgrims would have been without the assistance of the Native Americans. It may be too that I walk with others I don't stop to recognize. We are indelibly affected by others that exist on our periphery... assisted in ways that we are unaware of. Perhaps that insight can keep me from losing a wider perspective and insulating myself in my own specific desires and concerns. It is to that end that I seek to make my ritualized observation on this day of thanks.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Those Pesky Minimum Wage Increases.

If you want a healthy chuckle, just try bringing up the idea of raising the minimum wage to a room full of 14-year olds in the exurbs. Kids are generally a direct reflection of their parents' values, and you'll see no exception in this case. Upper middle class people are, by majority, against the idea of a minimum wage... let alone any increases. The same people that whine about tax revenues being directed toward social programs like welfare are quick to speak against any type of "living wage" standard. To me this reeks of contradiction.

I've actually read position papers that argued that minimum wage increases hurt the poor because welfare recipients are consequently attracted by better-paid work... and with the resultant rise in labor supply, there is more competition for jobs. Of course that argument is quickly discarded when they communicate their opposition to welfare programs. The people who offer such "considered concern" for the poor, whenever it suits their political agenda, never seem to get around to offering pragmatic alternatives for addressing poverty. They trot out their purely symbolic support for education. Yet they are always in the vanguard of opposition to public school funding. This sentiment is echoed by their children, when they assert that if the poor just went to college then they could make something of themselves... and not rely on a low wage job. These positions are effortlessly inherited with assurances that their parents will subsidize their higher education.

Finally we get to the real reason these folks oppose any type of wage increase (excepting their own "justified" demands for higher pay)... Prices are going to increase. These exurbanites benefit from cheap labor. They'd quite like to continue enjoying a consumer system built upon the sacred right of cheap labor. Yes, they'll continue to testify to their belief in the "free market"... while they feed at the trough of a system that exports jobs to foreign workers that will toil for pennies an hour. Of course Third World labor costs are an "artificial benefit", just as Western labor costs are an "artificial cost"... but that fact is never acknowledged. Neither is the aggressive foreign policy of their chosen leaders seen as an affront to the "free market trade" of oil. And the military costs that make it all possible? Well... never mind that. Maybe I'm getting a bit off the subject.

The next time someone tells you that they are against the minimum wage, ask him/her to sit down with you and work out a budget for a low wage worker. Here's a sample...

Here is a healthy twenty-something single male with no dependents, and no prior debt. He works 40 hours a week (whenever the company gives him that many hours.)

Makes 40 X $5.15/HR (current PA/federal hourly minimum)= $206/week= $824/month
Less 15% taxes = $700.
-$125 health insurance (catastrophic only) = $575
-$75 heat (budget monthly... very cheap) = $500
-$35 electric (budget monthly... cheap) = $465
-$140 food (peanut butter and ramen noodles) = $325
-$60 bus pass (month) = $265
-$25 (thrift store clothing) = $240
-$240 (rent -a - room) = $0

All these costs were deliberately set low. Notice what is missing... No phone. No cable. No internet. No car. No contraceptives. No beer. No movies. No videogames. No eating out. No gifts for friends and family. No emergency fund. Nothing for education. No savings account.

And what happens if you have a kid?
Good Luck, and welcome to America!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Save Fort Pitt?

As urban planners work to homogenize every urban center of the United States, the city of Pittsburgh seems to be striving to follow suit. Point State Park stands at the confluence of our three rivers... on the former site of Fort Pitt. This military installation protected men and women during the French and Indian War (in the 1750's). It was one of the few forts not taken during Pontiac's siege in 1763. And it's completely gone... or will be soon. This fact is especially troublesome in the light of the upcoming 250th anniversary of Fort Pitt's construction- an event that many plan to celebrate as the foundation of Pittsburgh.

In 1964-65, construction workers building Point State Park unearthed the remains of a wall that formed the music bastion of old Fort Pitt. It is assumed that this is where the buglers sounded their call to battle. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development spent $2 million to have it excavated and restored to its original condition. Since then, the park has been divided by a trench that runs along that wall. Along with a restored block house and the dilapidated portion of the flag bastion, it is all that remains of the original fort. It presents a unique and interesting feature that has been appreciated by several generations of Pittsburgh. But now that same Allegheny Conference and the nonprofit Riverlife Taskforce have decided to fill in the trench and bury the bastion wall. They plan to mark the location of the bastion with a granite slab path.

To what end do they seek to commit this crime against history? They want more room for people to stand on flat ground and watch bad rock bands at the annual Regatta. Surely those music fans can walk an extra 100 yards or so, to the ample space nearer the actual point that currently accomodates large concert crowds. The city side of the park, where the bastion still exists, is surrounded by traffic ramps and congestion- certainly not the ideal place to enjoy a music performance. Lisa Schroeder, director of the Riverlife Taskforce, has tried to brush away criticism of her plan by calling the bastion a "reconstruction". This is disingenuous because it suggests that the actual site is of no real importance... that history can exist arbitrarily wherever it is built anew. As noted above, the bastion is actually a "restoration" of a pre-existing structure. Schroeder further maintains (in a manner completely contradictory to her original position) that covering the wall with dirt will "protect the bricks from the park's visitors and weathering".

Evidently this has all been part of the master plan for five years. The organizations involved claim to have held numerous public meetings about park improvement, yet I just learned about this over the past weekend. The contracts have been bidded, and the work is set to begin any day now. It may not be too late to register your displeasure... you can still contact the Fort Pitt Preservation Society. Here is their website.

Monday, November 20, 2006

John Mowder: Interview With a Carnie. Part 2

This is the second part of a two part interview. If you haven't read the first part... it's posted here.

MD: I have a great sadness that I was not old enough to see that legendary back-end atmosphere. I don’t think I am the only one that feels that way. Now we have crap like Jerry Springer and reality television. Ugh. And at the carnival, it’s all rides and games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but the real magic was under the small tents. Tell me about some of the “freaks” or human oddities you worked with/around.

JM: I have been around real human deformities (Stiles family, etc.) and gaffed deformities (alligator-skinned boy, half man-half woman, two headed babies, etc.). They were all regular people shopping and finding laundry mats and fixing a truck during the day... but at night they became the strange and unusual, behind gaudy (yet simple) eye-stopping banners... and their “unusual’ stories were told by talkers over loud, crackling horn speakers. The carnival today is a traveling amusement park. I believe that marks today might support a sideshow at a large volume spot like a state fair... but those back-end showmen aren’t around today... and the real freaks are getting disability benefits or have found a town and a job. The midway has become all very PC and family-only oriented. There is no bally stage of freaks or girl shows to walk the children quickly by.

MD: I know that you’ve worked a girl show as well. What was life like in the back of that tent? And what was it like in the front? Was it any different then going to a strip bar nowadays? Would it have been the same type of girls working in them?

JM: Girl show gals didn’t last long. They were usually escaping small towns for many reasons. Carnies don’t care about pasts beyond the business. Whether the girl was “working” beyond the show and recruiting Johns in the show was up to her... and the gal show owner. All of this depended on a “legal adjustment” that the show office and patch usually took care of. The last “girl show” I know of was at the Shenandoah County Fair in Woodstock,Virginia... about 1986. The farmers wanted the “gal show” and the town PC’ers did not. The show contracted a girl show producer and a show was framed. The show did very well that week... while the week-long fight between the farmers and town people played out in the local daily. That was the last girl show. The green and white tent we used was housing a watermelon sale the week before... in some parking lot. The producer hired some bar dancers from Baltimore and housed them at the Holiday Inn across the street. It was a lucrative finale for the girl show business. The show in the tent was probably a little “stronger” than what goes on in a bar.

MD: That's just one more missed opportunity for me to lament. You mentioned that you worked as a “patch”, and you explained earlier what that was. Do you have any interesting stories about a particular “beef” that you resolved?

JM: It was usually, “If you didn’t understand the rules of the game, then why did you play?" "No you can’t have a refund because you stopped someone from playing who read the rules and understood the game." "How much did you spend?" - Give them some ride tickets and tell them not to play games that they don’t understand.

MD: Some people simply don't learn the lessons. As far as I’m concerned- if you don’t know better by this point, then you pretty much deserve whatever you get. Anyway… unfortunately we have to wrap this up. But before we end I want to touch upon your work as a show painter. Much of your current artwork reflects an aesthetic obviously earned through your efforts on the midway. What do you think you carry with you from that experience?

JM: It’s an ongoing love of color and the challenge of making a complex yet simple, multidimensional, engaging image. On the midway it's all about attracting attention and curiosity... enough to stop and ponder as the dimensions unfold. The carnival was one big palette for me. My choices of color, shape, line, form, and texture all have traces of sawdust... it’s in the shoes. Thanks for the interview... I didn’t think anyone was interested... it’s so far away.

MD: Thank you, John.

John Mowder's artwork can be seen online at this site. Have a look!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

John Mowder: Interview With a Carnie. Part 1

One of the benefits of attending the drawing sessions that I’ve been frequenting this year is the opportunity to meet and talk with a diverse cross-section of the population. These are folks that I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to meet otherwise. Given my mini-obsession with all things “carnival” lately, you can probably imagine my surprise and pleasure to meet someone who is genuinely “with it”. John Mowder has years of experience plying the circuit, and he is entirely generous with his stories and show wisdom. He graciously agreed to sit down with me and do this interview. I will post it in two parts...

MD: Why don’t we start out with a general overview of your show experience. Tell the readers about the wide array of functions you performed in the carnival world.

JM: I’m not much of a mechanic. Everything else I have done. I have ran every type of joint on the midway. I have owned rides, sideshows, fun houses, games and food concessions. I have been a lot man – placing rides and concessions on locations everywhere from county fairs to volunteer fire department parking lots and city streets. I have patched – been the office representative to disgruntled patrons. I have been the show painter on 100 midways.

MD: And from the conversations we’ve had together, I know that you’ve been in a variety of situations- from Podunk “rag shows” to large outfits with a regular circuit. What would you say was your favorite set-up?

JM: I love the creativity that comes with the small “rag show”- turning junk into an attraction with some mystery lights and color. The larger shows are full of newer “slick” equipment. I welcome the challenge of producing within limits. An unlimited production budget is no real hands-on challenge.

MD: What are some of the tricks that you’ve employed to “flash” your joints in some of those small shows? When you talk about the requirement of “creativity”, what do you mean specifically?

JM: In flashing a joint (displaying prizes) the joint always had to look overstocked- that way people would think that you wouldn’t mind giving a prize away. I once had a funhouse... and I remembered on the second day… that I had played the spot a couple of years before. I repainted the back of the funhouse in the morning, turning it from funny to scary... reversed the trailer and sent them through the same maze with the lights out. Those kinds of creative solutions couldn’t always be easily applied on a larger show due to time and space and the general attitude of the “office”. The smaller show was always about “whatever it takes”.

MD: What kind of places would you show up with a “rag show”? Were the marks different on those lots than with the big shows? Did you have to adjust your pitch?

JM: A carnie booked his equipment wherever he could find the best spot. One week you may be sitting behind a fire hall booked with a carnival with five rides... and the next week on a fairground with a thirty -five ride show. Most carnies spend most of the season with one show and then move around to others for the bigger spots and warmer weather in the fall and winter. Often as much money is made with a five-ride rag show behind a fire hall, or small festival... as is made with a state fair. Sometimes a pitch changed with the perceived sensitivities of the marks. The “bobo” in the dip couldn’t say things at a church-sponsored spot that he could say behind a fire hall. A sideshow act that worked in Farmville may be just too unbelievable on the streets of Baltimore.

MD: I’m glad you brought up the sideshow, because it’s definitely something I wanted to talk about… You started carnie-life on the cusp of the downfall. There was the Grady Stiles controversy and the little disabled girl that was put off by the sight of “freaks” being displayed for money. You were around when all of this went down. What was the mood in the business at that time? Did people realize that the whole thing was going to irrevocably change?

JM: PC (political correctness) became the crippling enemy over probably 10 years. Paying money to see a physical deformity became "not cool". Working acts (fire eaters, sword swallors, gaffed acts... like electric girl, who lights fluorescent bulbs from her tongue, etc. ) and illusions (the headless girl etc.) were OK... but not enough to stop traffic in more and more spots. Fewer and fewer shows were on the midways. These days it is hard to find a back-end operator (shows were always around the back-end of a midway). Those tents and banners and sounds and

Continue on to Part 2.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Yerba Mate

As I have been having severe difficulties with a long-held stomach condition, I have had to forego the joys of consuming several large Iced Mochas this weekend. Seeking some replacement, I have returned to a beverage I discovered two years ago at a local coffeehouse- Yerba Mate (pronounced "yer-be mah-tay"). This drink doesn't tear up my digestive system the way coffee or copius amounts of espresso seem to.

What is Yerba Mate? To begin with, it is a member of the holly branch of the evergreen family. It is grown in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Natives of that region have been drinking mate for hundreds of years. As Spanish Jesuits glommed on to its benefits, they began to encourage the growth of plantations dedicated to cultivating the plant. Today Yerba Mate is more popular in these countries than coffee is in the United States. Typically it is prepared by steeping its leaves (and sometimes twigs) in boiling hot water. In its native countries, it is consumed communally through a metal straw from a gourd. There's a uniquely social aspect to Mate... in fact some characterize it as a "ritual of friendship". It's got a very earthy taste, with a bitter edge. Its chemical components include xanthine (an alkaloid in the same family as caffeine), potassium, manganese and magnesiun.

The effects on the consumer seem to vary depending on the individual. Some report that it provides a mild euphoria. For others in it is simply relaxing. Regardless, it accentuates mental alertness and focus. Scientific research has shown that it relaxes smooth muscle tissue and stimulates the myocardial (heart) muscle, rather than the central nervous system. This means that the jitteriness, heart palpitations and anxiety that caffeine produces is absent in mate. There is also some indication that it acts as a MAO inhibitor (an antidepressant), which would explain its calming effect. Like Green Tea, mate is an antioxidant, and some westerners have gone as far as hyping it as a weight-loss alternative.

There is limited research that suggests that daily drinking of hot mate may contribute to an increased risk of upper gastroinitestinal cancer. It is speculated that this is due to the presence of tannins in the leaf. This has led to its decreased usage in hip cafes in the United States. But it must be noted that these studies involved consumers who were imbibing massive amounts of mate. This website has a fairly unbiased examination of the health risks and benefits involved with Mate.

I've personally experienced some of Mate's claimed euphoric qualities. I first tried it during a period of extreme mental and emotional stress, and found it of tremendous help. It may have had something to do with the fact that my use of it replaced excessive espresso consumption. Obviously I'm not a scientist, nor would I make a claim to being able to isolate variables throughout my daily life. But I continue to use mate occasionally, and it seems to have an ameliorative effect on the more troublesome aspects of my digestive system. I have even found that I can fall asleep after drinking mate, which has never been the case with coffee. Given the very mild health advisories, I have a a small amount of reservation about drinking it daily. But in moderation I have found it to be extremely beneficial. I have eschewed the traditional gourd for hygenic reasons- I find that a french press works quite nicely.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Small Works/Bright Shiny Things @ Digging Pitt, Steve Smith @ The Tom Museum.

Looking for something to do in Pittsburgh tomorrow (Saturday the 18th)? Haven't had enough excitement at Light Up Night? Why not stop down at the Digging Pitt in Lawrenceville, and have a look at the Bright and Shiny Holiday and Small Works shows? It's the perfect opportunity to get a look at the scope and quality of the work collected in the flat files. The opening festivities kick off at 6PM and run until 9PM, at both the main location (45th and Butler Street) and Digging Pitt Too (45th and Plummer Streets).

Is there any better way to say "I love you" to friends and/or family than with a piece of art? I don't think so. And that's not to mention what you'll be doing for the artist. Stroke their ego and give them some pocket cash for that 30-pack of Pabst they've had their eyes on. There's certainly a lot to choose from. Get a photograph, a painting, a print, or an etching. There are over a 150 regional and national artists to choose from. Everything from Juxtapoz-style hipsterism to pseudo-intellectual abstraction. You might even be able to spot a landscape if you look hard enough (and squint your eyes a bit). And there are lots of craftsy-type items to be hypnotized by as well. Even if you don't BUY anything, you'll still be performing your cultural duties as a good citizen, and you might even be able to talk to that hot chick you've been seeing at the Brillo Box. Stranger things have happened.

Of course I have a personal stake in your attendance- I'll be introducing two collages in a style I have not yet exhibited. There are also a few of my photos scattered here and there. If that doesn't compel your participation in the events, then surely nothing will. Come on... baby needs a new pair of shoes. Both shows will be up until February 3rd- but there's only ONE opening.

After you have gotten your fill in Lawrenceville, why don't you head over to the Tom Museum- artist Tom Sarver's adjunct to the Mattress Factory. I've tried to hype y'all to this "living museum" before... have you gone yet? Saturday would be a good time to visit. Tom is unveiling the work of visionary artist Steve Smith. AND (as if that weren't enough excitement) Tom is playing DJ, spinning his favorite Jazz records. What the hell does a transplanted Butler County boy know about some Jazz? Come find out. It's only $5, and I'm told that light refreshments will be served.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nancy Pelosi and the House Majority Leader.

Nancy Pelosi, new Speaker of the House, has tipped her hand by offcially endorsing Rep. John Murtha (PA- 12th District) for House Majority Leader. Pelosi faces the tough task of integrating 40 incoming freshmen into the existing political structure. She must consider the wide array of platforms that brought these candidates victory in an election that saw many Independents (and some moderate Republicans) vote Democratic. Murtha's competition is Steny Hoyer (MD-5th District), the current House Democratic Whip.

Murtha, a native of West Virginia, grew up in Westmoreland County, PA. He attended Washington and Jefferson College, Pitt and IUP, and served as a Marine drill instructor at Parris Island. He volunteered for service in the Vietnam War, and received numerous decorations for his performance. In 1974, he was elected to the House of Representatives, and has served there ever since. His district includes Johnstown and a substantial portion of the Pittsburgh suburbs. He is generally regarded as a social conservative- he opposes abortion, gun control, and campaign reform. He teamed up with disgraced Republican "Duke" Cunningham in proposing a flag-burning Amendment. However he is pro-labor and has opposed NAFTA, Bush's tax and social security plans, and the Federal Marriage Amendment.

As chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Defense (1991 to 1995) and its ranking Democrat, he has garnered a reputation of corruption- steering contracts to a company that employed his brother. Murtha also ran afoul of proper ethics when he got embroiled in the Abscam FBI investigation. This was a bureau sting that involved agents posing as Arab Shieks looking for asylum in return for payola. Evidently Murtha explained to an undercover agent that he wasn't interested in a bribe at the time, but might be in the future.

Some speculate that Pelosi's support for Murtha is a reward for his shifting stance on the Iraqi War. He initially supported the effort, but in November, 2005 he made a very public disavowal of his former position. He called for a redeployment of American troops, and lent credibility to the anti-war movement then forming in Congress. The subsequent election shows that Iraq was a major factor in determining electoral preference. Many relatively conservative Democrats defeated incumbents in traditionally Republican states, and Murtha seems a natural choice to effectively bring them into the process. But his history of corruption might thwart his plans.

Meanwhile, Steny Hoyer is convinced that he will be chosen to represent his party. He has claimed that at least 21 of the incoming class of Representatives will back his nomination. His supporters claim that an additional five will vote in his favor. This is a good foundation to build with, in his quest to become majority leader. He is cited as a favorite among the more progressive wing of his party. He has worked for the rights of federal employees, disenfranchised voters and people with disabilities. Additionally he is outspoken about his support for public education, human and civil rights.

Hoyer is a native of New York City, but was raised in Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland and holds a law degree from Georgetown University. He has served the
5th district of Congress since 1981. In 2002 he was chosen as the House Whip, making him the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Legislature. He was also the chief candidate recruiter for House Democrats from1995-2000.

Note: As I was completing this entry, Hoyer was selected by a vote of 149-86. I don't know whether this is a revocation of Murtha, based upon his shady past... or whether the coming House Majority plans to pursue a more progressive agenda. I wonder what this means as far as a crystallization of the Democratic agenda regarding Iraq. Perhaps this move had less to do with progressive politics, and more to do with a possible bipartisan effort to conclude the war. Maybe the Democrats are guessing that Republicans would refuse to work with Murtha because of his previous calls for a near-immediate withdrawal.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"The Dabbawalla" @ Film Kitchen

One of the great pleasures of the Film Kitchen series at Pittsburgh Fimmakers is that you never know what you are going to see there. It may be something thrown together that is slight and amusing... or alternatively it may be a piece that will teach you about something you were previously unaware of. Last night there was an hour-long documentary by local CMU professor Paul S. Goodman, about a group of workers in Bombay, India called the dabbawalla. These largely illiterate peasant men deliver dabbas (the traditional lunch boxes of Indian society) from suburban kitchens to the urban workplace.

If you are at all familiar with Indian society, then you know about the vestigial remains of a long maintained, rigid caste system, as well as the complicated dietary restrictions of Hinduism. These factors makes the lunch hour a very complex proposition for many in Bombay. Eating at a restaurant can cost from 5 to 15 times what one would pay for a home-prepared meal. And many would not consider eating food made by someone from a lower caste. For safety and preference, they prefer their wives' cooking. Bringing these meals from home has been the traditional solution. But public transportation is crowded, and few want to be encumbered by the large aluminum segmented containers in which lunches are packed in. So for 35-50 rupees (or about US $1) per month, you can get someone to pick up and deliver your lunch for you.

There are between one and two thousand dabbawalla delivering well over 100,000 lunches every workday. This system was able to grow over the last 100 years due to the reliable and efficient system of public transportation in the metropolitan Bombay area. By train, bicycle and foot, carriers bring the lunches with 99% accuracy. Most shockingly, they do so without cellphones, computers or even a formal workplace to sort the lunches. Over time they have developed a handwritten encoding system that is remarkably reliable. It is rare for them to be late in their delivery.

Fascinatingly, the growth of this occupation has been a largely organic process. Rural folk would come into the city from the farms, and in the absence of better prospects become "coolies", carrying everything imaginable. As customer bases were developed, and more relatives came looking for economic opportunity, family and village groups worked together in delivering lunches. At one time the dabbawalla worked for employers, but now they work in a self-organizing system with little central authority. Individual experienced workers build a route over time and then hire "servants" that work for them as their businesses grow. There is a union, presided over by an elected president, that resolves conflicts that arise when cooperation breaks down. The union also offers assistance during emergencies and involves itself in charity.

Goodman's film presents the plight of the dabbawalla in a straightforward and relatively balanced manner. It's clear that he is amazed by the sustainability of such a potentially chaotic undertaking. But this impression is complimented by a wide-eyed portrayal of the squalor that many of the dabbawalla are surrounded by. They make the equivalent of $100 US / month, and many of them are grateful for the demanding work, as their opportunities in a tight job market are extremely limited by their lack of education. Yet their living conditions are nothing that the average American would envy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"The Best American Comics of 2006"

Have you ever read any of Houghton-Mifflin's "Best American.... of ...." series? As in Best American Short Stories of 2004, or a volume similarly collecting the best essays, poems, or crime writing of any given year... They have been expanding their series showcasing the year's finest writing since 1915. There are installments for mysteries, sports, science and nature, travel, "nonrequired reading", and spiritual writing. It's an invaluable resource for discovering notable contemporary work in your favorite genre. For the first time in history, the publisher has offered The Best American Comics (...of 2006).

Of course there is no need to point out to you (dear reader) that the comics medium has been getting increasing notoriety and respect during the last few years. Alternative comics (those that don't feature superheroes) have been featured in museum exhibitions, the New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. Folks who have appreciated this type of thing for a long time are continually frustrated by media assertions that "comics are not just for kids anymore". It shoiuld be patently obvious, but somehow the word is just not getting through to everybody. This volume, which will be carried in bookstore chains throughout the country, should help remediate the situation.

The editor of the budding annual is Anne Elizabeth Moore. Her work began with the selection of 150 of her favorite pieces from sources as diverse as graphic novels, art periodicals, the Sunday funnies, alternative newspapers, minicomics... etc. She then passsed those on to Harvey Pekar, the final editor of this edition, who chose the thirty that made the final cut. Pekar got a boost of recognition from the Hollywood film American Splendor. He's been publishing under that name since the 1970's. He writes quotidian stories of his life in Cleveland, and contracts artists to draw them. Most famously, he collaborated with legend R. Crumb. I think he's an appropriate choice to arbitrate the inaugural edition of this series. If nothing else, he's noted for being an excellent writer.

For someone like me, who has no use for stories and pictures about men in tights, it's refreshing to see the scope of pieces included in the book. We get NO superheroes... instead there is a rich diversity of subject matter, from the realistic to the fantastic. The aforementioned Crumb has a coming-of-age autobiographical selection that clearly demonstrates why he is considered a living legend. Other luminaries include Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Shelton, Lynda Barry, Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor, Rick Geary and Tom Hart. Although the editors took a fairly conservative approach to the selection process, there were some relative newcomers that made the grade- Kurt Wolfgang, Jonathan Bennett, Anders Nilsen, and David Heatley are among the young bucks that have recently gained exposure through the quarterly, Mome.

One could carp over the particular inclusions and omissions of Moore and Pekar. That's an inevitable byproduct of any anthology that claims to be a "Best of" edition. But I find this volume generally representative of the form. Of course pure fiction makes its appearance. And then there are the memoir-style stories that first became popular over a decade ago, and are becoming a staple. There are a few political expose pieces. You'll even find a smattering of truncated epic material. But while there is much that is familiar, there are also a few surreal pieces that seem to have few referents (Rebecca Dart's Rabbithead especially distinguishes itself). It's both diverse and highly readable.

The best thing about The Best American Comics of 2006 is that, due to its format and publisher, it's going to be easy to find and purchase. But if you know of an independently run shop that has been stocking comics for years- then please buy it there. For those of you who live in/around Pittsburgh, I recommend you get yours at The Copacetic Comics Company (1505 Asbury in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood). If you are from out-of-town, you can order it from their website.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dario Argento: "Inferno".

I've written an earlier post about my appreciation for Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to see a few additional films by Argento. Nothing I have seen has been close to the quality of Suspiria. Deep Red (1975) was a fairly conventional example of the Italian Giallo genre. Trauma (1993) was simply abysmal. The director's reputation suggests that I have missed several quality works, and if they are anything like his masterpiece... I simply don't want to miss them.

So it was with subtle anticpation that I watched Inferno (1980) last night. This was the official sequel to Suspiria, and seemed to promise an exciting installment in a planned trilogy. The story (such as it is) presents the mythology of three sisters who seem to have found their embodiment in the architecture of a mad alchemist. Two siblings, separated in New York and Rome, become aware of the lingering presences of strange malevolent spirits in their apartment buildings. Predictably they feel an odd need to explore the darkness. This is the device for a series of gruesome murders and elaborately-constructed setpieces. As with its genius predecessor, Inferno is shot in primary colors, and built on an atmosphere of dread and fascination, with brilliant cinematography and a taut, anxiety-ridden soundtrack (this time around Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake and Palmer provides the compositions).

I knew from watching Suspiria that the plot wouldn't be the focus of my attentions. I wasn't disappointed during the first half of the film. Early in the film, one of the siblings discovers an underwater room in the basement of her apartment building, and her exploration of the creepy depths sets a suitably ominous tone. As the film progresses, we meet a number of freaky characters and travel through increasingly surreal environments. The sharp angles of the designs, and dreamlike lighting of the interiors make the gory interludes startling and cringe-worthy. For awhile, I was completely caught up in the film. And then the bottom dropped out.

For some reason Argento chooses to have a peripheral character attacked by a mob of cats. We see a number of reluctant felines tossed at the hapless victim, only to bounce off and withdraw imediately. This shot is interspliced with a series of kitty profile close-ups... mewing mouths and shifting eyes. I couldn't help laughing, and the mood was effectively shot for the remainder of the film. As if one segment of "When Animals Attack" wasn't sufficient, we later see a bookseller besieged by a teeming mass of rats while ironically trying to drown a bag of snarling cats.

Then the slip into folly acceralates. The only incongruous moment in Suspiria was a cheesey floating pair of yellow eyes that appeared in the darkness through a windowpane. It's meant to be foreboding, but fails miserably. Argento inexplicably manages to repeat the exact same mistake in Inferno, and in this case we simply can't forgive him as we did before. The effects get so low rent toward the end of the film, that it is impossible for Argento to recapture the tone. The conclusion depicts the transformation of a fairly-attractive witch into a skeletal figure of death. The results evoke unfortunate comparisons to the bag-of-bones Halloween costumes that the "bad karate-school" kids wore in the Karate Kid. It's supposed to be unsettling, but I am once again compelled to fits of laughter.

The film's dramatic descent into silliness is a shame. So much care had been taken to assemble genuinely disturbing sets and to shoot with imagination... it makes the incompetent second half of the film seem almost criminal in its execution. One wonders if Argento ran out of money, or simply lost interest. It certainly foretells the corresponding descent in the director's filmmaking career since the mid-80's. IMDB reports that Argento is completing the trilogy that began with Suspiria and Inferno. One can only hope he returns to the inspiration of the former, rather than the inconsistent mess of the latter.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Gestures" @ Matress Factory, Keny Marshall @ SPACE.

The Mattress Factory on Monterrey was a mob scene Friday night. They were offering a sneak peek of the latest installment in their Gestures series. This yearly exhibit presents a variety of smaller-scale, mixed media, site specific work by a selection of regional artists. In the past the shows have featured pieces by people not tradionally thought of as artists. It's an excellent way for this internationally-known institution to connect with the community of Pittsburgh. From the looks of the crowd, the majority ofthe local arts audience was in attendance. They exhausted the requisite supply of wine and hors-d'oeuvres within a half hour.

The combination of the mass of people, and the unseasonable weather made the atmosphere cramped and sweaty. These circumstances were not ideal for forming a considered opinion about the quality of the work. The charm of the building on Monterrey is its residential flavor. The brownstone-flavored intimacy of the environment distinguishes it as a memorable destination. But its three floors of small rooms don't adequately accommodate the hordes likely to show up for this sort of exhibition.

Despite my discomfort I enjoyed area favorites like Laura Jean McClaughlin, Shawn and Alexandra Watrous, Brian Lang, Thad Kellstadt, Adam Grossi, Carolyn Wenning, and David Conrad... as well as the photography work of newcomer Anne Angyal. Additionally, it was nice to see the inclusion of Brooklyn-based artist Kate Temple, whose work I recently saw at the Digging Pitt. I'd like to return later and have another look when it's less crowded. Gestures will by up until January 7th.

After I escaped the congestion at the Mattress Factory, I made the short drive downtown to have a look at Keny Marshall's opening at SPACE Gallery downtown. A look through the glass plate exterior of SPACE hints at the antiquated industrial wonderland inside. A conglomeration of pipes, gauges and joints coalesces into a large free-form mazelike structure reminiscent of a particularly dangerous playground "jungle gym". As impressively foreboding as the piece is, it merely hints of the magic contained at the rear of the gallery.

"Apophenia" is a confounding and playful installation centered on a large glass sphere aquarium. The movements of several fish (successors to the trail-blazing, but now unfortunately-deceased creatures involved during the project's initial conception) are videotaped by unobtrusive cameras that feed into two stacked monitors nearby. Motion-detectors attached to the screens monitor the movements of the aforementioned fish, and send electrical charges to towers with plastic slinky-like respirators. The resulting discharges of air are directed into beat-up brass instruments that announce the activities of the marine life.

Keny Marshall must be some sort of mad genius to have dreamed up such a scheme. As the piece's title suggests, it is a commentary on "patterns or connections in random or meaningless data." Yet it elicits a consideration of the very nature of concepts like "random" and "meaningless". Such carefully orchestrated harnessing of instinctual animal behavior suggests an intricately manipulative plan, whereby the artist has become the divine arbiter of fate. Through his contraption, Marshall articulates a dialogue between chance and creation. And it's all accentuated by an aesthetic reminiscent of the post-industrial tableus of Jean Pierre-Jeunet and Marc Caro (City of Lost Children, Delicatessen).

But why rely on my rather heavy-handed attempts to describe "Apophenia"? You may have missed the opening, but the exhibit continues until December 31st. Make it a point to come out and see this wildly inspired grand design.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Infernal Devices and Priestly Remediation.

Today I entered the surreal wonderland of broken-down mechanics and technical difficulties. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that our water heater was leaking. As we are wont to do, we decided to hope that it was some wholly natural and beneficial process- some purging of bad water expelled from the machine by its healthy immune system. Sadly this wasn't the case. After a few weeks of wringing our hands and hoping for divine intervention, we decided to take corrective measures. I did a thorough survey of everyone I know who falls under the general category of "handy resources". These are my friends who seem to have advanced beyond the practical abilities of a typical medieval peasant.

After I concluded the information-gathering phase of the process, I went ahead and called "Mr. Waterheater". Their response time was astonishing. They came out two and a half hours after I made my initial contact, and within an additional hour we had a functional device capable of increasing the temperature of... um... water. Amazing, right?

I didn't have much of an opportunity to bask in my new condition. Barely five minutes after Mr. Waterheater's representative left, I found myself in another predicament. I needed to burn two discs worth of digital images, and the CD tray failed to remain closed after I made the first one. It would pause, consider following my order, and stick out its tongue at me. Its defiance rattled me, and I tried several wholly ineffective measures to assert my authority. My typical strategy intitially is repetition. I continued to push the CD tray in again and again, hoping each time that I had worn down the machine's resistance. When this didn't work, I tried restarting the computer several times. Finally I began banging the sides and top of the unit with restraint and controlled force. This rarely works with inanimate objects, and this occasion proved no exception.

So now I turned to those of my friends who occupy the postmodern priest class. They negotiate spiritual contracts in Windows and DOS. As one would expect, they are constantly communing with networks of computers. At first they tried to pass me off to the automated software fixes available on the internet. But I was in need of special dispensation and I pressed for it. It seems that they have a holy oath to put their own pursuits aside for those in desperate need. I was instructed to remove the outer surface of my DELL and disconnect and reconnect several vital arteries. I was hesitant to do this without proper supervision. I made several lame excuses revolving around my haplessness, but they persisted. I followed the instructions quite carefully, and hoped for the best. Somehow it worked. All I did was to sever and reattach two cords. Beyond all rationality, this fix worked. I have unbounded awe and respect for those who interceded on my behalf. I know now that there is truth in majick. Turn about your skepticism and embrace the faith.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What Now, Republicans?

So of course now the proverbial fecal lump has really hit the fan. The monster that is the GOP has begun to turn against itself. They've got lots of self-analysis coming. And it's a long time coming. Conservative nuts like Hannity and Limbaugh are turning on their former leaders with a heaping load of hypocritical vengeance. Word is out that the Republicans have lost their traditional conservative values. What a surprise! Where have these folks been over the last six years?

These pundits parroted the Bush administration talking points for so long that they started to believe them. Now they are shocked to see, via exit polls, that more Americans place their trust in the Democratic party for addressing the federal deficit, lowering taxes for the middle class, and decreasing government spending. It seems a bit disingenous to me. All of a sudden they realize that the GOP is responsible for the most wasteful, corrupt political era in modern history? I don't buy it. Would they be making these assertions if the Republicans would have been able to maintain their hold on power? I don't think so. Call me cynical.

So who is out? Donald Rumsfeld? Of course it has NOTHING to do with the Democratic sweep. Bush claims, despite his pre-election prevarications, that he was going to dump Rumsfeld anyway. I'm not so sure I believe that. But regardless, he's being forced to break his ties to the neo-con cabal. Many observers see the shadow hand of George Sr. in this change in direction. Robert Gates is a Bush 41 man. And so is James Baker, who as we speak, is preparing an exit strategy for Iraq. The father is taking away his son's toy... which unfortunately for 300 million Americans just happens to be their homeland and its military. I wouldn't be too surprised to see a gradual draw-down of troops announced this Christmas. At this point the GOP can't politically afford two more years of Iraqi mire. Prepare yourself for Mission Accomplished Part Two.

The big mystery is who will come out on top in the fight for control of the remains of the Republican Party. Will it be the Christian Conservatives- otherwise known as the "Theo-cons"? If that's the case, then they will eventually have to develop a platform that extends past the wedge issues of gay marriage and abortion. Did anyone really buy all that compassion crap? No... that would entail social programs to help the underprivileged. That's not likely with the looming federal debt. Perhaps a "small government" party seeking to build off of a growing libertarian strain in modern politics? Well... that would entail a downsizing of the military and a reduction of corporate subsidies. The groups that benefit from government contracts and handouts are the ones that finance the GOP. No chance. Maybe it transform into a populist party that tries to reclaim the center of the political spectrum that the Democrats have effectively stolen. But do you really see the Republicans calling for a higher minimum wage and an end to the disastrous free-trade policies that have siphoned jobs from the nation? Me neither.

I really do think that the Democrats are better positioned to take up some of these causes. Yet I have an almost equal amount of cynicism regarding that potentiality. There are not many politicians I trust to embrace the issues that loom over our future. What would bipartisanship even look like nowadays? It would probably be aimed at simply maintaining a stasis... at best decelerating our forward march to disaster. We are in for a bumpy ride. It's time for fresh ideas, but I don't believe that they will come from the leadership of either of the major political parties.

Alternative energy... electoral reform... fiscal responsibility... a just and equitable tax system... nuanced diplomacy... international cooperation... human rights...

Who will embrace these values?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Par Lagerkvist, "The Dwarf"

Dwarves are too often made out to be figures of amusement. Either wise beyond their years or brimming with slapstick humor, Hollywood has a tradition of lampooning them. For every happy-go-lucky dwarf that exists in reality, there must be another that is cynical and mean. Par Lagerkvist went a long way to balance the representational possibilities of dwarfdom. His classic allegorical novel, "The Dwarf" (1945), tells the story of a singularly evil man.

Piccoline is the servant of an unnamed Italian prince. His primary duties include being his master's sidekick, acting as a courier, and filling the wine glasses. But this dwarf gets up to all sorts of additional mayhem as well. He killed his last dwarven roommate with his own hands, and has little reservations about killing again. His hatred for "normal" humanity is virtually unending. He wants nothing of love, sex or friendship. He is capable of describing complete horror, without feeling an inkling of compassion. He revels in war-making, plagues, condemnation, and treachery. As one character succinctly points out, he is the "scourge of God".

The only semblance of loyalty Piccoline exhibits is to his master. When called upon, he is willing to go to any length to gain an advantage. In one instance, he secretly poisons the prince's enemies at a feast held ostensibly as a peace offering. But he gets overzealous and eliminates one of his countrymen as well... with the disingenuous justification that it was his master's secret desire for him to do so. He excoriates the Princess to the point that she seeks an impossible redemption, and won't let up until she withers and dies, consumed by her own guilt. He involves himself in the love affair of the Prince's daughter... and his interference leads to more tragedy.

All of the action is told through the words of the dwarf's journal. Piccoline relates his philosophy and speaks of his origins. He views himself to be a member of an ancient race. In his view, dwarves are born old and live their lives with an ancient wisdom. They are not capable of love... nor are they capable of reproducing themselves. Lagerkvist has his character stating that dwarves are inherently sterile, and can thus only spring from humans of ordinary stature. This seems to be a fortunate condition... otherwise ill-intentioned rulers would spawn a mob of these evil creatures to unleash upon their opponents. They would do so at their own peril, because dwarves like Piccoline (or Dick Cheney) simply cannot be controlled.

At the end of the book the dwarf is imprisoned in the dungeon of the palace, where he can do little harm. The Prince has learned the extent of damage that the dwarf is capable of causing. There is too much danger from the unintended consequences of allowing his freedom. Yet the dwarf remains unrepentant and looks forward to being released in the future, when the ruler once again has need of him.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Rising Tide?

Last night, as returns from the midterm elections filtered in to the mediasphere, many questions were answered. Yes... Rick Santorum has been ejected from the Senate (what will K street do without him?). Yes... the Democrats will control the House of Representatives. Yes... Bush's low approval ratings affected the outcome. Yes... people are beginning to realize that the Republicans are corrupt. Yes... the US voted for change. No... people don't care about John Kerry's botched joke. No... there were no rampant voter irrregularities (despite Missy Hart's whining).

That rush of air you hear is the deflating collective ego of the self-righteous. At last, Republicans can no longer claim some sort of broad social mandate. The extremist wing of the GOP will finally have to step back and take an objective look at itself. They do not represent the values of the majority. Bush and company can claim no political capital from this election cycle. Their imcompetence and hubris will no longer go unchallenged. Checks and balances, that essential requirement of representative democracy, is hereby restored. This is learning support for the reality-challenged. The "Republican Revolution", that movement that began with such pomp and circumstance in 1994, has crested and now begins its slide into history.

Of course, there is no such thing as a completely decisive election nowadays. We await recounts to determine the makeup of the US Senate. Both Democratic candidates, Jon Tester (MT) and Jim Webb (VA), have come out ahead in excruciatingly close races. These victories would effectively give the Dems a majority. Yet unlike the Republicans in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, the Democratic Party has somehow failed to declare their full victory. They should have learned their lesson... public perception is a huge component of reality. They should announce the formation of a transition team to usher in their party control of the Senate. The sort of vacillation that has kept the party leadership from seizing the advantage is indicative of the attitude that has kept them weak for so long. The longer Democrats hesitate, the more emboldened the Republican leadership will become. Right now they are stunned by their defeat, but they won't remain so for long.

What enabled this tidal wave of victory was the adoption of an aggressive strategy. The power of the GOP remained virtually unchecked for so long that it got careless in its perceived invulnerability. Like a rat in Grover Norquist's bathtub, the Democrats were so cornered that they had to strike out for their very survival. It just so happened that the bloated Republicans had plenty of soft targets. But now that the Democrats are out of the tub (so to speak), will they strike a bold posture, or scurry about chaotically?

Perhaps they will organize and promote an actual alternative agenda to address the concerns of ordinary working Americans (for clues- they should look toward the success of mimimum wage ballot initiatives in every state that they appeared). Maybe they'll challenge a tax policy that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor... or address the budget deficit and advance a plan to pay down the national debt. Could they pressure the Bush administration to draw down their Iraqi involvement? They might even have a go at formulating a health plan to cover the legions of the uninsured. Whatever they do, they need to advance a program of legislation that communicates clearly what they have to offer. And they need to do so in an assertive, if not aggressive, manner. Otherwise their moment will be a short one.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

T.R. Pearson: "Cry Me a River"

While poking around the Amazon website, which I am apt to do every now and again when I can spare the time, I came across an author named T. R. Pearson. He's evidently been cranking out small Southern gothic novels for the last two decades. Being a fan of Faulkner, Offutt, Pancake, Saunders, McCarthy and other Dixie stalwarts, I decided to land Pearson's "Polar" on my wishlist. There it stayed while I awaited my opportunity to buy the novel at a reasonable price. By the time I found a cheap copy at Half-Priced Books, I had virtually forgotten why I was looking for it in the first place.

I read "Polar" more than a year ago, and must admit that I now recall virtually nothing of its contents. I remember thinking that it was an adequate read, and that if I saw another book by Pearson, I'd be willing to give him another shot. Other than that, nothing about the writing really stood out to me. I certainly didn't intend to make any great sacrifices to track down more of Pearson's work. It was truly by chance that I ended up reading "Cry Me a River". It turns out that its unnamed narrator was the same character that led us through "Polar". But I only became aware of this fact afterwards by reading a profile of the author on the internet.

"Cry Me a River" concerns life in a small town in the South, and examines the foibles and passions of its quirky inhabitants as they react to a succession of violent acts. As the plot unfolds, it seems like it may be a whodunnit style mystery. But the peculiar cadences and detachment of its policeman narrator/protagonist quickly suggest otherwise. The murder at its core serves as a device on which Pearson heaps an interweaving of homespun anecdotes and digressions on the unsuspecting reader. There's a certain folksy tone that belies the meandering run-on sentences that other Southern authors (like Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy) employ. This makes the reading of this book less arduous, but also renders it less affecting. Despite the serious nature of many of the themes explored, Pearson's stylistic choices make it seem a bit slight.

But despite the reservations I have with calling this a "good" book, I did find much of it entertaining. Pearson's humor reflects the slow Southern drawl of the region's people. It comes at you in an oblique and unassuming way, and uses well the element of surprise. The plot itself was almost distractingly predictable, but the twists and turns of the language were not. Perhaps after all traces of the plot are gone from my mind, some essential trace of Southern manner will linger in the back of my mind like a slowly spreading stain. And perhaps Pearson has earned yet another chance.

Monday, November 06, 2006

My Thoughts on 2006 Midterm-Election Eve.

I really hoped I could get away from politics for today's entry. I had every intention of reviewing the book that I'll finish tonight. I just can't seem to get away from this obsession. Every time I think I have about exhausted the subject, I feel compelled to mention something else. It is pretty clear to me why I am in this situation... I continue to read and listen to media coverage of the upcoming election.

If you haven't yet heard, things are tightening up. I'm loathe to make predictions, but what do I have to lose? The Democrats, as anticipated, will take the house. The ramifications of this will be known shortly after the final vote tally is in. I do believe that a few renegade Dems will begin to make noise about subpeonas for members of the Bush team. But the "opposition party" has heretofore been way too cowardly to for me to expect a systematic or partywide call for substantive investigations. Hopefully I'll be proved wrong.

I fear that the Senate is going to remain in the hands of the GOP. I do expect a net gain for the Democrats of four seats. It's going to get sticky if there is an even, or 50-49, split. Lieberman, who looks to take the senatorial election in Connecticut has pledged to line up with the Democrats... but I have no love for that bastard. He is a collaborator, for sure. The Republicans will offer him all sorts of incentives to side with them, and I just don't think he has enough integrity to refuse them favors. He's going to get his revenge on the party for being ousted in the primary. And then, of course, if there IS a true tie... Dick Cheney gets to cast the final vote. As if he needs more power.

Largely overlooked stories of this pre-election period include the gubernatorial and state congressional races. Projections suggest that a number of state houses (including PA) may see changes in party dominance. The races that determine these outcomes are not as "sexy" as those on the national level, but they are significant because party control translates into the power to effect redistricting. This has the potential longterm consequence of eroding the structural advantages the GOP has gained from their gerrymanding activities of the last twelve years.

There is already evidence of "voter irregularities". Have you heard about "robo-polls" yet? Evidently the HRCC (House Republican Campaign Committee) has contracted a Richmond, VA firm called "Conquest" to administer an automated poll that begins with a claim to have special information about "so-and-so Democratic congressional candidate". What follows is a negative ad about said candidate. But the introduction of the call is intended to make the recipient believe that the poll was sponsored by the Democratic target. The especially insidious thing is that if the recipient of the call hangs up, he/she is subsequently called between 5-8 more times over the next couple of minutes. And this has been happening in the middle of the night! The Democratic candidates mentioned have received a slew of complaints from people who have received these calls. They Democratic party has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the HRCC, but the calls continue.

I have also heard about voter purges in Ohio. It turns out that registration volunteers were empowered to strike voters off the eligibility lists for certain "irregularities". The rub is that the potential registrees have never been notified about being made ineligible. Not surprisingly, the focus of such activity has been in largely Democratic districts. It is anticipated that many thousands of voters will be turned away at the ballot box... and they have no idea what is in store for them. Once more, I hear echoes of Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004.

Meanwhile, here in Pennsylvania, there are reports of the receipt of twice as many absentee ballots as anticipated. Long time election observers cannot account for the discrepancy. Registration numbers are not up significantly, and expected voter turnout is only supposed to increase by 5%. Forgive me if I suspect foul play.