Monday, April 30, 2007

The Tarnish and Tumult of America.

Has anybody else out there experienced firsthand the decreasing amounts of civility in our society? I know that they certainly have in Blacksburg, VA. It seems that the example provided to us by the Bush administration is coming home in measured doses. Unlike the wealth that is supposed to be shared as a result of tax cuts, it seems that hostility really does "trickle down".

Drivers out on the road seem to be just a little more impatient and aggressive than usual. Strangers rarely greet each other on the street in their own neighborhoods, let alone in unfamiliar areas. AM radio is filled with hate-spewed, polemical rants. Immigration is a huge point of national contention again. I have seen surprising incidences of anger in places I never would have expected them. Two weeks ago at one of my regular drawing groups, I had to defuse an impending fight between two men over the age of sixty. One of the men suffers from heart ailments, is on blood pressure medication, and has a pacemaker. The conflict started when one of the parties set up his easel six inches in front of the other, completely blocking the view of the model. The usurper had a complete lack of concern regarding the person whose view he had blocked. For some reason a lot of people just don't believe they are under any obligation to consider the plight of others.

This past weekend an unnamed family member threw a full-blown meltdown at a 4-year old's birthday party. The argument started over the relative merits of FOX News and NPR. The person in question increasingly raised his voice to a boom, decrying the "liberal propaganda of National Public Radio". As the stunned onlookers tried to quell his rage, he left (without his wife). Regardless of my opinion regarding the legitimacy of those news sources, I would never have expected the outcome of the interchange (believe it or not, I had held my tongue the entire time- I could see it getting sour quickly and knew that I could only exacerbate the tension).

I guess I could point to a lot of reasons why there is so much animosity leaking out these days. Of course we are mired in a war without any clear objectives and with an indeterminate end. There has been increasing political polarization in the nation for (at least) the past six years. And there is an increasing gap in wealth and outlook between the economic and social classes.

That last point is particularly salient. Since the beginning of the Bush administration, a process of social stratification has been continuing without any substantial counterbalance. This certainly didn't begin in 2001, but it has become more and more evident to a growing audience. Part of that has to do with the type of people that are fighting in Iraq. Another component has to do with the shifting of the tax burden away from the wealthiest of Americans. And some of it is no doubt caused by the continuingly disastrous results of GOP policies.

This is all very timely for me because I have been presenting information on the Gilded Age (late 19th century America). Economist Paul Krugman also sees a connection between the current state of the nation and that bygone era. This period was characterized by the absence of any meaningful government regulation of business and industry, the reliance on private charity rather than government-funded social programs, minimal taxation (in 1894, the Supreme Court actually declared the Federal Income Tax unconstitional), anti-immigrant sentiment, and class resentment. Does any of that sound familiar? Welcome to the Twenty-first Century! Predictably many of the rabidly rightwing men who run our government today are nostalgic for the Gilded Age, consider it the apex of the US civilization, and earnestly await the return of its conditions.

The biggest difference between the late 19th century and today is trajectory. Back then our young nation was developing into a major economic power. Today we are merely trying to hold on to some last vestige of superpower. Several foreign currencies have overtaken the US dollar, and we are no longer assured of world hegemony. That seems to be having an effect on the psyche of the nation's citizenry. The American people have lost their unshakable confidence, and many of them are looking around at each other and outside the country, trying to figure out whom to blame.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Plight of the Honeybee.

In the "as if you needed another reason to worry" department, we now get to add the plight of the honeybees. It's true. We may not have to fret about global warming, peak oil, the bird flu, mad cow disease, fundamentalist terrorists, nuclear proliferation, or George W. (wait... I guess that one's redundant). Word is that if bees go extinct then human life will disappear within four years. This reportedly originated with Albert Einstein... a hell of a physicist. But is it true? For those answers we have to turn toward biologists.

Bees are what is referred to as a "keynote" species. They are essential pollinators of wild flowers, oil seed rape, strawberries and apples, etc. These plants, in turn, sustain many other animals. Eventually the impact makes its way up the chain to us humans. This is an elementary sequence oif reasoning that is sadly not universally understood or accepted.

Why is this happening? Some atttribute the threat to farming practices. Others blame the parasitic mites that target our honey-producing friends. Those mites (both Varroa jacobsoni and Trachea mites) have virtually killed off all wild honeybees. They are also becoming resistant to chemicals that protect Apis mellifera, a commercially domesticated version of bee. Other people speculate that the environmental noise of cell phones is somehow affecting bee populations. These folks suggest that the signal radiation is interfering with their inherent navigational system, and that affected bees are unable to find their way back to the hive.

All of this is especially alarming because the bees have weathered extreme environmental circumstances before. When the Earth was clobbered by an asteroid 65 million years ago, and a harsh cycle of cold temperatures resulted from the dust that rose to obscure the sun, the dinosaurs went extinct- but the bees survived. They are a remarkable resilient animal. It is wise to consider their well-being as an indicator of the general well-being of all living things.

What hope do we have to confront the problem? Well... genetic scientists are stuudying the DNA structure of the surviving bee populations for answers. We also need to confront our ideas of land management in order to preserve natural habitat for hives.

Maybe we'll be relegated to tapping the plants by hand so that they can experience artificial population. Of course this will require an extensive temporary workers program, because clearly Americans "won't be willing" to do that type of job- at least for the starvation wages that agrobusiness will be willing to pay. There are people that shrug off the importance of bees, and point out that 2/3rds of the food we eat is not dependent upon the specific pollination activities of bees. That perspective seems a bit pollyannaish to me. Even if literally true, does that mean that we shouldn't take substantive steps to remedy the situation?

Remember... if we save the bees, our job is still unfinished. We have our hands full with the impending mass extinction of life's diversity. See this link for more details.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Chuck Kinder and Wild 'n Wooly West Virginia.

From the very first time I caught a glimpse of its wooded rolling hills and hollows, I have felt drawn to West Virginia. Most people that I have known are puzzled by my fascination with the state. But most of these same people have never been there. The common perception among Pennsylvanians is that inhabitants of the "Mountaineer State" are backward, inbred, ignorant, redneck hicks. My experiences with West Virginians have been overwhelmingly positive. They are some of the most generous and accesible folks I have ever met.

Granted there are a lot of eccentric people among our near neighbors. The Hare Krishna North American headquarters is outside of Moundsville in the northern panhandle. Dr. William Pierce III (author of the white supremacist Turner Diaries , and founder of the religion of Cosmotheism) also made his home there. Jesco White, reincarnation of Elvis and the Dancing Outlaw, was born and raised in WV. Bob Denver (Gilligan) adopted it as his home after being busted for marijuana possession. And of course "the Mothman" is said to be hanging about, bugging the good people. Ex-KKK member and Iraqi war critic Robert Byrd currently serves as the senior senator from the state. The National Security Agency eavesdrops on all of us Northeeasterners from a remote listening post in West Virgina. Hasil Adkins, Brad Dourif, John Kruk, Joyce DeWitt, Soupy Sales, Jacob Young (the director), Bill Withers, Breece D'J Pancake, Lynndie England, Jessica Lynch, Mother Jones, Harry Truman (Mt. St. Helens victim), John Knowles, Chief Cornstalk and Devil-Anse Hatfield all hail from West Virginia.

That's an illustrious list. But let's not forget Chuck Kinder, the real-life figure that inspired film character Grady Tripp of The Wonder Boys. He's a shit-kickin' native from Montgomery, West Virginia. But he's also an author, professor, and director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He once wrote a 3000-page meandering manuscript about his friendship with Raymond Carver. He fashions himself a real outlaw too, and makes much of the fact that he has been a boxer, a bank robber, a bartender and a coal miner. Until recently I had never had any real compulsion to read his books, but when I saw Last Mountain Dancer (2004) at Half-Priced Books, I knew I had to take it home with me.

In the wake of a very serious affair that almost broke up his second marriage, Kinder decided to take a sabbatical and get back in touch with his inner hillbilly. Toward that end he moved to Billsville and tried to get his head straight with moonshine and long drives in his SUV. He had some specific destinations in mind- Point Pleasant and the hollers of Boone County to hunt for the aforemmentioned mothman and "Jessico" White. But in all this time, he never leaves his academic tower completely behind. He indulges in long and rambling descriptions that mostly consist of a reiteration of stereotypes about the West Virginians he seeks out in the first place. Perhaps he has that right, being born among those people. Yet it seems akin to the comedian who cracks wise about his ethnic group, just because he can. It's certainly amusing, but at the same time- a bit cheap.

Kinder's reflections of his great extended family seem a lot more sincere than his commentary on modern West Virginians. The haunted tales of memory and loss that he passes on add something to the mythic landscape of those hills. And much of the local history is compellingly readable. But the most affecting sections of Last Mountain Dancer occur whenever Kinder takes the time to analyze the damage he is causing through his adulterous relationship. While at times he pats himself on the back for being able to hook a pretty young chick, there are other occasions when he writes with true courage about the emotional realities for all involved. Taken altogether this book contains enough truth and beauty to sustain my interest, and makes me sufficiently curious to check out another one of Kinder's books.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Art All Night Tomorrow!

This Saturday (tomorrow) brings us the tenth edition of Lawrenceville's Art All Night. Started in 1997, the very first event drew 100 artists and 200 attendees. Over the years it has grown tremendously. Last year there were 883 artists dropped off work and 10,000 people showed up. It has evolved from a neighborhood highlight into a major attraction for folks from all over the city and beyond. The allure of the spectacle is that anybody from anywhere is invited to submit one work of art to be displayed at the event.

There's no submission fee and no censorship. Individual creators can choose to put a price tag on their work (or not). It's a very democratic approach for including artists of all skill-levels. Art All Night is open at 5PM and runs continuously until 2PM on Sunday. There's always plenty to engage the visitor (besides what's on the walls), including public radio station WYEP's live broadcast of music, bands, performance art, beer and food. The accessibility and promotion of this party make for a very eclectic crowd. This year it is going to be held in the Catalyst Building, which is located on 41st and Foster Streets. It's a former schoolhouse.

I first started attending Art All Night in the late 90's. I appreciated the fact that it gave me a late night option that didn't necessarily include drinking large amounts of alcohol. The fact that it was in the part of Pittsburgh where I lived was a bonus. M. and I would have a group of our friends meet us at our house, and we'd all walk down together. I remember seeing local favorites (now sadly dispersed) Boxstep play one of their early gigs at Art All Night (was it at the Icehouse?). Back then you could see everything in about an hour. Year after year, I paid attention to make sure I didn't miss the event.

In 2004, I finally decided to submit a piece of art for hanging. This was the very first time I exhibited my work for public viewing. That year the event was held in a newer warehouse in the 50's, down toward the Allegheny River. I dropped off a photo that I snapped through the front corner window of the South Side Beehive- two girls walking hand-in-hand down the street. I was excited by seeing the shot hanging on a composite panel of corrugated wood, along with the work of so many other local artists. I hung out in the passage that led by my photo, obsessedly watching the reactions of passersby. Through some kind of strange post-modern, self-referential urge, I actually took photographs of people looking at my art.

By the time 2005 rolled around, I had experience with showing my work, so I was a bit matter-of-fact. That time Art All Night was housed in the old abandoned Heppenstall factory building, right down the street (Hatfield) from where M. and I had lived for more than four years. I enjoyed being back in my old neighborhood. I entered a piece from my upcoming solo, which would be located at the Beehive. It was a close-up shot of a mannequin that represented Jesus in a deteriorating outdoor Bible walk in West Virginia. I enjoyed collaring my friends as they stopped by in little groups.

Last year the event was held in a former plastic plant factory up on Penn Avenue. The night was steamy, and the ventilation was minimal. For most of the night, I enjoyed the open air and easy accesibility to the port-a-potties out back in the weedy lot. Groups of folks mingled and sipped their refreshments out in the night air. I submitted a photo of a hallway located in an abandoned prison reformatory in Mansfield, OH. It was part of a series that I'm fond of, but I haven't yet seized the opportunity to show those images together. Despite the closed and cramped conditions, I had a lot of fun running into peole I rarely see around town. I even made several new friends. I employed my annual strategy of returning at 4AM so I could take my time and absorb the art in comfort (and at the same time regroup for my drive home).

I'm looking forward to Saturday. It will be interesting to get a good look at a building that I have passed countless times on my way over the 40th Street Bridge. And it looks like it will accomodate the anticipated crowds more effectively than last year's facility. This year I am bringing a preview for a solo show that I'm having at Filmmakers in July.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Who Would Have Known? Pittsburgh is #1.

Rand McNally's 2007 Places Rated Almanac has been released, and SURPRISE... Pittsburgh is rated #1 in the nation. The last time the city received this status was in 1985. But Pittsburgh is the ONLY city that has been rated in the top twenty in every single edition (falling to its worst 14th-place ranking in 1997). It is the only city rated #1 twice, out of a pool of over 350 metro areas. But what is the criteria? Well... the editors looked at a variety of factors including housing, transportation, jobs, education, climate, crime, health care, recreation and ambience. And what is the key to Pittsburgh's continued success? As publisher David Savageau points out, "It's the triumph of the better than average place. It's not spectacular but it is very good in all of the areas." Certainly that's good news to its inhabitants. We are no one-trick pony.

Once mired in a deep depression after the decline of American steel, the region's economy has refocused itself on education, technology, healthcare, nuclear engineering and financial services. The Wall Street Journal, noting a particular growth in robotics, refers to the city as "Roboburgh". The city has a number of diverse and quirky neighborhoods, many of which seem to be succeeding in their strenuous efforts to improve their identity. Pittsburgh has the lowest property crime rate and a lower-than-average violent crime rate among cities of similar size. There are many quality educational institutions, including the University of Pitsburgh and Carnegie Mellon (both ranked in the tip 25 in their respective categories nationally). The city is very clean and beautiful, and has an incredibly eclectic mix of architecture. And it has more bridges than Venice, Italy.

As I've tried to document on this blog, Pittsburgh also has a thriving arts scene. Internationally known institutions such as the Carnegie, the Warhol, and the Mattress Factory give the Burgh a much needed dose of serious culture. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, The Frick Art and Historical Center, Phipps Conservatory, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, The Society for Contemporary Craft, and Pittsburgh Fillmakers all do their part as well. Additionally, the last few years have seen the opening of many quality private galleries, as well as the continued presence of publically funded spaces. And for the masses, there are art parties including the Flux series, seasonal Downtown Art Crawls, and this weekend's Art All Night in Lawrenceville. That's not to mention the numerous smaller functions held in bars, galleries and industrial buildings throughout the year. Opportunities to take classes abound and there are multiple drawing sessions available weekly.

Most of the information about the excellence of the arts scene (here on this blog) has been anecdotal. But American Style Magazine has just named Pittsburgh the #1 destination for the arts among all midsized cities in the nation.

And that's not the end of the accolades either:

Foreign Direct Magazine (an affiliate of London's Financial Times) recently rated Pittsburgh one of the top three "North American Cities of the Future" (among participating cities) ahead of such cities as Boston, Atlanta, Montreal, and Miami. Only Toronto and Chicago fared better. Yet there is a strong caveat with this award- only ten cities in Pittsburgh's subcategory eligible for ranking returned surveys. Still the Burgh received specifically high marks for cost effectiveness and technological infrastructure.

In 2005, The Economist ranked Pittsburgh and Cleveland the top most livable cities in the United States, and tied the cities for 26th world-wide.

In 2006, Expansion Magazine ranked Pittsburgh among the top 10 metropolitan areas in the nation for climates favorable to business expansion.

It's quite clear that Pittsburgh's status as a "best-kept secret" can't be maintained forever. Eventually the area is going to attract a growing population, and that will result in congestion along with all the typical hassles of a rapidly developing city. There are many inhabitants of our town that are anxious for growth. But part of what makes this place #1 in so many areas is the room people have to move around in. Sure it would be nice to have more wealth flowing into Pittsburgh, but not at the expense of the qualities that make it the "Most Livable City" in the US. Folks should learn to appreciate what they have.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Keith Gordon, "The Chocolate War" (1988).

When I was downtown last weekend, I happened to stroll by the store where I used to purchase many of my new DVDs. I was once in the habit of stopping by there every Tuesday when the new releases were shelved. I'd make it a point to comb through the list on Amazon every week, and pick out a few to buy locally. Eventually I started thinking hard about my finances, and discontinued the regular practice of movie-buying. But last Saturday I realized that the store would be having its annual anniversary sale this week, and I found it too difficult to resist returning for a look yesterday. Everything in the store is priced at a discount, and all new DVDs are cut by 30%. I made a special trip after work and bought a bagload.

One of the films that was released recently had lingered in my mind since I rediscovered it a few years ago. Keith Gordon directed The Chocolate War, and it came out in 1988 (the year I graduated from high school). There aren't many recognizable faces in the cast, and it's probably not a movie that many people remember. It starred Ilan Mitchelll-Smith, who you might remember as Anthony Michael Hall's buddy, and Bill Paxson's little brother, in Weird Science. Mitchell-Smith plays a freshman (named Jerry Remault) at a monk-run private school called "Trinity". He's a bit depressed and confused by the recent passing of his mother, and the difficulty his father is having with the loss. He soon runs afoul of the interim head of the institution who, through unchecked ambition, has initiated a fundraiser that focuses on selling a ridiculous amount of chocolates. At the same time, Renault gets drawn into a conflict of wills with a secret club of teens called "The Vigils".

The second-in-command of The Vigils is a boy named Archie (played by Wallace Langham). This is an articulate and deviously manipulative boy who has formed an unlikely alliance with Brother Leon (the interim head mentioned earlier, who is played by John Glover). The plot tracks Renault's continued attempts to resist participating in the school fundraiser, and Archie's accelerating schemes to break down that resistance.

There are many films from the 80's that examine the plight of the "new kid" as he butts head with the established order. That in alone would not have made me remember The Chocolate War. The acting and dialogue are acceptable, if not notable. Neither is it the quirky direction that ultimately makes the film memorable- athough it's competent and unconventional. Keith Gordon is most known for being Rodney Dangerfield's kid in Back to School. He's done a lot of TV work since, and his highlights include directing two episodes of the largely forgotten mini-series Wild Palms. There are two main reasons why this movie sticks in my mind- the soundtrack and the message.

The score for the film is brilliantly played by Yaz- a short-lived synthpop band from England that got a bit of American exposure in the 80's. Even if you can't recall the songs by name, you have probably heard their hits "Dont Go" and "Only You". Their sound was both spare and emotionally affecting. They had both male and female lead singers, and the minimalist symphonic strains of electronica combined with the haunting quality of the vocals made Yaz a perfect choice for The Chocolate War.

Equally intriguing is Gordon's comparative examination of teenage rebellion. Archie's approach is sophisticated and meticulous. He considers life largely meaningless, and therefore adopts a somewhat nihilistic attitude towards life. He engages the system, and corrupts it from within. Jerry Renault, on the other hand, challenges the authorities by assuming some internally determined sense of the moral high ground. But the devious process of co-option is played out in a surprising way. By the end of the film, all victories and losses are tainted with ambiguity. This was an especially timely realization for the self-centered 80's. Success was measured with rewards likes social status and power, but it was often difficult to determine the actual substance of the spoils. While the book The Chocolate War was based on (by author Robert Cormier) was banned widely and often since its 1974 publication, it wasn't because of an excessive level of sex, extreme language, or violence. The challenges of The Chocolate War have more to do with the relationship between the individual and the power structures of society than anything else.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fabrice Du Welz, "Calvaire" (2004)

Upon seeing the thriller Calvaire my first inclination was to find it strange that someone from Belgium would make such a film. In fact I thought (because the dialogue was in French) that director Fabrice Du Welz was a Frenchman. Here in the United States, people have all kinds of assumptions and asociations regarding our cousins across the sea. They are thought to be snobbish and effete, with a hearty disdain for all things American. The other side of that coin is that those of us who are less proud of our country admire Continental Europeans for their cutural sophistication. The films that come out of that region tend to be nuanced, subtle and intelligent. They require patience and an ability to see beyond the moralistic tones of black and white categorizations that Americans are so fond of. Additionally, many European movies aren't tied up by a neat little bow offering up a package of obvious resolution. There are often open endings.

So regardless of whether its from France or Belgium, it was a bit of a shock for me to see the influences of Calvaire. There is an established tradition in American film of constructing horror out of the city-dweller's fear of rural people. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Series, The Hills Have Eyes, Wendigo, Deliverance and a multitude of other nasties feature plots about cityfolk confronting the alien culture in the backwoods. The common thread of these movies is the set of stereotypes used to represent both groups. Country people are represented as bestial and deformed idiots, and ultimately prove to be as dangerous as they are ignorant of "civilized" ways. The urban visitors are always a bit arrogant and condescending, and they are shown to deserve what happens to them due to their own dismissive attitudes.

This is exactly the case with our protagonist in Calvaire. Laurent Lucas (who is indisputedly a Frenchman) plays a lounge singer who commits the cardinal sin within this genre- he gets lost in the woods. We shouldn't be surprised by this setup. In fact the American trailer establishes the premise with,"LOST IN THE WOODS. WHAT'S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN?" I would have to asume you can already imagine. But for those of us that are still stumped, the filmmakers have provided their own little piece of advice for finding the answer ("ASK THE PIG.") So right about now, the satire is obvious, right?

Indeed Lucas' character undergoes all manner of indignities. And there are referential homages to the films I listed above as influences. If you've seen those films, the visual allusions will be quite clear. Stuck at an inn, Lucas gets sadly mistaken for "someone else" in one of the oddest onscreen examples of psychological transference I've ever seen. He makes several attempts to escape, and these form the bulk of the later action. But unlike with his American counterparts, Du Walz takes his sweet old time setting the scene. He pays attention to little things, and establishes the personalities of the characters by showing, rather than telling. Indeed that's where he's not willing to give up the European filmmaking approach. He also spends a lot of time making art out of the atmospheric elements of his settings. That makes all the set-up that much more compelling. Sure there are going to be those viewers who are used to immediate and extreme gore, and characters so stock that they are immediately recognizable. But that type of viewer is already going to resist the subtitles, so there's no real loss here.

This is an amazingly creepy film. There are some touches of dark humor- but rather than give the viewer a break, they tend to unsettle one further. The English translation of the title is "the ordeal", and to a large degree this is a fair representation of the experience of watching this film. I'm sicker than average, and so I was more amused than many will be. Look for a scene involving the hillbillies in their drinking spot- I thought it demonstrated particular genius. The madness displayed at times is truly palpable. In many respects Calvaire stays true to the culture-clash formula described above. But ironically I felt that this film served as another sort of allegory. There's a hint of wily commentary beneath the surface. To understand what I mean- substitute Europe for the main character, and the United States for the villagers.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Atom Egoyan, "Ararat" (2002).

I purchased the DVD of Atom Egoyan's Ararat some time ago. I had enjoyed several of the director's previous films, such as The Sweet Hereafter, Calendar, and Speaking Parts. But somehow it never felt like the right time to open this sealed package. From its cover and description, Ararat appeared to be a rather convoluted docudrama about a time and place I had very little interest in. I was certain that it would be a well-made film, but I expected it to be difficult to get through. I wasn't even sure why I had purchased it.

But M. chose it among the many shrink-wrapped movies sitting on my shelves. So I resigned myself to be patient, and settled in for the duration. From the opening credits forward, I knew that it was going to be (at least) good to look at. Twenty minutes in, I realized that this was an intensely intricate film, with answers that were going to be only slowly revealed. Before the viewer can get a purchase on one set of characters, the story introduces another group. Then we discover that Ararat contains a film within a film, and that careful attention is going to be required if we want to understand what is going on. But rather than seeming like a chore, all these complications drew me completely into the film-watching experience. It doesn't hurt that there are a lot of beautiful people to watch.

The stories of several characters interweave throughout the arc of Ararat. The focal point is a young Armenian man named Raffi (played by David Alpay). He is relating the story of his ancestors to an initially reluctant customs agent (Christopher Plummer). Another thread involves the emotional conflict between Raffi's girlfriend and his mother (aptly portrayed by the Egoyan's wife, Arsinée Khanjian). The customs agent-man's son and boyfriend (Elias Koteas) make appearances in order to play their roles in the extended drama. Additionally, we see scenes from a drama being created about the Turkish-enacted genocide of the Armenians. The connections loop back upon themselves as Raffi's mother (an art historian) is hired on as a consultant on the film set. The fictional director (Charles Aznavour) has decided to incorporate the story of a famous Armenian painter into his masterpiece.

What? Wait a second... The Turkish-enacted genocide of the Armenians?! Who has ever heard of such a thing? Unfortunately, all too few. In 1915, during WWI, Turkish soldiers (under the command of the Ottoman Empire) entered the western part of Turkey (called Anatolia), and systematically slaughtered 800,000 Armenians. Many believe that this stemmed from the contempt Turkish Muslims had for the Christian Armenians. The official action was justified by Turkish propaganda that claimed that Armenians were in league with the enemy (Russia). This monumental tragedy was (in part) subsequently overshadowed by the holocaust(s) of the second world war. Incidentally, the lack of consequences for the powers responsible for the genocide were later said to empower Adolf Hitler. When challenged about his plans for the Jews, Hitler notably replied ," Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?" To this day, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that there was a systematic campaign of genocide against the Armenian people.

Beyond the light that Egoyan shines upon a little-known event of monumental suffering, there is a similar illumination that the director directs upon the vulnerable relationships of Ararat's contemporary characters. He asks vital questions about self-doubt, perception, creativity, and memory. These are consistent themes for Egoyan, so it is no surprise that emotional complexity would be a strength of Ararat. But it is notable just how seamlessly he is able to weave a very large story through these highly personal interactions.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review of Zafira Dance Co. and Vaudeville Carnivale at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

Last night I did something I seldom do- I attended the theater. This wasn't just any theater though, and it wasn't a typical theater production. I went to the Kelly Strayhorn in East Liberty. For those of you unfamiliar with Pittsburgh, East Liberty is a predominantly black neighborhood that has recently seen the intial phases of the type of gentrification that is both understandably bemoaned and celebrated in our modern society. East Liberty was the third largest commerical district in Pennsylvania in the 1950's, but after decades of neglect and decay it became one (among many) symbols of the downfall of the Pittsburgh economy. But with the birth of the twenty-first century, a new wave of enthusiasm was focused on beginning the transition to a new era in the life of the neighborhood. An unfortunate housing project was demolished, and several large corporations began to construct stores there. Excitement built to refurbish and reopen the last of the surviving theaters in East Liberty- the Regent.

The Regent Theater was built in 1919 on the corner of Penn and South Highland Avenues. During the 1900's its doors opened and closed several times, but in 1996 the Regent's footlights were extinguished for the last time. In 2000, a $1.3 million renovation was initiated, and the facility was completed by August of 2002. It was named after two former Pittsburgh East End residents- Billy Strayhorn (composer for Duke Ellington's band) and Gene Kelly. It is a beautiful facility with much of its original charm surving intact in the look of both its facade and interior.

I was at the Kelly Strayhorn theater to see Zafira Dance Company's Vaudeville Carnivale. My friend Olivia Kissel founded Zafira (with Christine Andrews and Maria Hamer- sorry for the omission!) , and the concept of the show intrigued me sufficiently to ensure my attendance. As I stepped into the lobby, I was delighted by the American-hipster version of a middle eastern suq and the musical stylings of another group of friends- the Dishwater Cocktail Trio. Propelled by the driving jazz beats of drummer Ian Green, the sultry sax notes of Amy Murray, and the stand-up rhythm of Shawn McBride (with a mini-electric guitar duct-taped to the front of his upright bass)- this combo is smokin'. They had people dancing before and after the show. I watched for awhile, put a couple bucks into the donation basket for a beer, and waited impatiently for the program to get underway.

Local celeb and artist Bob Ziller was suited up in his carny best to play the role of emcee. He regaled us with a series of alliterative, fantastically-fabricated descriptions for each of the performers in turn. The opener was chunky chantuesse Phat Mandee- the very definition of regional stardom. She belted out some of her loungey, jazzy originals and was accompanied during one song by a dance performance courtesy of Olivia. Mandee was succeeded by poets Rebecca Cooper and Vanessa German, who delivered a tag team piece addressed at every man who had picked at their collective heart.

Next on the bill was songwriter and ukulele-strummer Liz Hammond. Her vulnerability mixes with her witty charm to bridge the gap between performer and audience. A highlight song detailed her misadventures with dating Pittsburgh boys. Then we were treated to several enchanting dances by the women of Zafira. I've been watching these folks explore middle eastern dance for more than a decade, and their evolution is notable. It seems that within the last couple of years they have begun to take more risks, and consequently have elevated their art to a higher level of stylish excellence. I'm by no means an expert on bellydancing, but I can say that, for the first time in my life, I was absolutely mesmerized. I couldn't turn away.

There was a much needed 45-minute intermission featuring the fire-eating, acrobatic antics of Springwood Forest. Along with the drumming of the aforementioned Trio, these young men stopped traffic outside of the theater with their incendiary glee. The audience ate it all up from a barely safe distance, and then filed back in, to stock up on alcohol, tea and goodies. Thus fortified and relieved, the audience reconvened for the remainder of the program.

The second half contained revisitations from MC Bob, Mandee, Hammond and Zafira (who performed the culminating act to a standing ovation). We also got to see a sizzlin' performance from Carolina Garcia-Loyola and Pittsburgh Centro Flamenco, and a racy number from a pair of vaudevillian damsels that billed themselves (quite confusingly) as the Triplets of Bellevue. I was initially surprised by the $18 admission charge, but I will take the risk of saying that just about everyone who saw the Vaudeville Carnivale received their money's worth. These people put on a hell of a show.

As we exited the Kelly-Strayhorn into the warm night air of East Liberty, we brought the wide open energy of the show out with us. I would have liked to see more of the neighborhood's fulltime residents mixed in with the crowd, but it would have been foolish to expect an unqualified embrace. While the activities of the night were assumedly alien to the routine Saturday passersby on that part of Penn Avenue, I did feel a worldly tolerance directed toward our band of interlopers. Townies always perceive these traveling shows with a hint of suspicion, but in this case I believe there was an accompanying hint of amusement.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Werner Herzog, "The Wild Blue Yonder" (2006)

With Werner Herzog, the film connoisseur has every reason to expect a surprise. Whether or not each of his individual works is an unqualified success, the viewer can count on being taken somewhere that (s)he hasn't been before. His fictional dramas all have an element of undeniable truth to them, while his documentaries often verge on the fantastic. And like Ehrenful's "gestalt", they are always greater than the sum of their parts. For instance, Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) was not merely a documentation of a man living with the bears in Alaska. Nor was it simply about the folly of a Rousseau-inspired approach to nature. Just the same, its meaning extends beyond the vanity of a single individual. These are all components that form the experience of watching the film, but they don't independently contain the essence of Grizzly Man. An executive producer in Hollywood would likely reject any five-minute pitch that you could construct about a Herzog project. This is an artist of almost unyielding genius.

All of this explains why I really had no idea what I would discover watching Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder (2006). The director describes it as a "science fiction fantasy". What exactly does that mean? Good luck with that categorization. Here there's no cheesily costumed aliens nor pointy-eared heroes. But there is high concept physics, mathematics, and wonder. Prepare to be taken to some truly mind-bending spaces with imagery that is at once out-of-this-world and yet strangely familiar.

The project began when Herzog learned that there was a NASA control center near his house in Southern California. He was priveleged to be given a tour of the facilities. During his visit he was told about a neglected warehouse in which is stored all types of documentation of the numerous space flights that the United States has undertaken. He was allowed access, and he found footage of the Galileo mission that was launched in 1989. Somehow he was granted permission to use this 16 mm material film stock in Wild Blue Yonder. The next step was putting together a musical score- something herzog is notorious for being %100 absorbed by. He assembled a group of musicians including avante garde composer Ernst Reijseger, singer Mola Sylla, and a five-voiced Sardinian choir. These folks had never worked together before, but the improvised results of two days of sessions are quite striking. The soundtrack is fittingly otherworldly.

While he was putting together the score he was shown digital camera footage of an Antarctic diving expedition. Experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser (the industrialist's grandson) had shot the images. Herzog immediately decided to work it into the film. In order to string the disparate elements (all shot in different formats) together, the filmmaker constructed the story of a mission of visitation by aliens from the Andromeda star system. This was a risky device, and will strike the viewer as either silly, pretentious or amusing- depending upon your affinity with the actor Brad Dourif, who portrays the lone survivor from Andromeda. Dourif delivers a narrative monologue of his people's (?) travels, all amidst a dilapidated Northern California ghost town setting. This is all done with a generous dose of ironic humor. It is certain to put some people off of the film. As if all this wasn't enough, Herzog adds interviews he conducted with mathmeticians and physicists concerned with the ideas of cosmology.

Beyond the disparate segments of this work, there is a less-than-subtle commentary about the folly of believing in intergalactic travel. It is clear that Herzog does not believe such a thing possible, although he does give time to some wacky eccentrics who aren't willing to let go of the fantasy. Herzog definitely has affection for the dreamers among us. But along with this appreciation, there is also a Cassandra call regarding the damage humanity has visited upon the earth. Given his skepticism about the chances of an escape to unspoiled territory, it naturally follows that he would like to see our modern society make some abrupt changes in direction. Perhaps we have breached our external limits, and we can only take our next steps by turning inward. Chalk another one up for ecstatic truth.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Welcome to the War of All Against All.

In the wake of the tragic events at Virginia Tech, there's been a lot of discussion about intentions and motivations. Ultimately it is appropriate to lay the responsibility for this tragedy on Seung-Hui Cho, the troubled young man who committed these vile acts. We don't do his innocent victims any service by fabricating justifications or excuses for Cho's acts. But there is nothing wrong with trying to understand the mental state of the killer. We certainly have enough relevant data about his life to make some informed speculations. As long as we are talking about the whys and the wherefores- I think that the present would be an ideal time to step back and think about how we, as a nation of "liberty", treat outsiders.

For a country that prides itself on its inimitable "freedoms", the United States contains an excessive amount of pressure to conform to certain "ideals". One obvious example is all those automobile accessories that popped up in the wake of 9-11. No matter what your political bent was... no matter how you felt about the US government's response to that set of tragic events... every red-blooded American was expected to show his/her sense of national pride by buying an attachable flag or ribbon magnet. Regardless if you thought that our military had no place invading a sovereign nation that had nothing to do with 9-11, you were still expected to "support the troops". Even now, after multiple failures and numerous demonstrations that the executive branch cares nothing for individual liberties, the Bush administration is still trying to paint dissentors with a broad brush. Even our congressmen, who are supposed to represent the will of their constituents, are accused of being anti-American for wanting to end the debacle in Iraq. And that's just the situation on a macro-level.

How do you think you would react if you were an immigrant from a third world country? You'd be looked at with suspicion and expected to act like a typical American- but you'd probably be a bit confused about what exactly that meant. Should you buy an SUV and a McMansion? Should you send an audition tape to American Idol? Should you buy a pair of cowboy boots, adopt a swaggering gate, and speak with a Southern drawl? What about buying a firearm? Surely that's as American as apple pie? Don't all Americans have a love affair with guns? You'd probably also do well to see everything in shades of black-and-white. You should figure out who is for you, and who is against you. And then once you identify anyone who is a threat to your identity, you should wage a pre-emptive war against them. Because they "hate your freedom".

Why are people surprised when an event like the Virginia Tech massacre happens? Don't we instill values of violence, class warfare and intolerance? How do you expect someone to respond when they are rejected, made fun of and marginalized? We are taught that being self-sufficient is American. Standing up for ourselves and our beliefs is American. Bearing arms is American. That's what we are teaching our youth. If someone picks on you, hit 'em. Even better... hit 'em before they strike at you. What are you... a liberal? A damn communist hippie?

Take someone who is unquestionably different. Bully them until they build a protective shell around themselves. Then pile the abuse on until they withdraw completely. Ignore their uncoordinated appeals for acceptance. Let them stand on their own two feet, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If they become delusional... well fuck 'em. That's their own problem. Everyone's responsible for their own well being. It's survival of the fittest, and that's what makes the United States the mightiest of all. But by all means, let them have easy access to firearms. Because that's the ultimate equalizer and our God-given right in the war of all against all.

I'm honestly surprised that there aren't more 4-16's, 4-20's, and 9-11's.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Jason Reitman, "Thank You For Smoking" (2005).

Want a bit of humor to lighten your mood in the midst of this very dark period? Thank You For Smoking did the trick for me. Directed by Jason Reitman, the film follows the exploits of a charismatic lobbyist for "Big Tobacco". Nick Naylor (played superbly by Aaron Eckhart) has the gift of gab, and the social abilities to negotiate the treacherous minefields of representing one of the most maligned industries of the day. He's good-looking, self-assured, energetic, and very smart. By his own reckoning, he's the guy that can get any girl he wants. But of course, his life isn't perfect. He's recently separated from his wife and living in a rented apartment by himself. He would like to see more of his pre-adolescent son, but his ex considers him a bad influence.

In fact a large portion of society hates Nick Naylor. That's the main challenge he must contend with. This story takes place in our modern day, and you'd have to be a hermit not to note the anti-smoking campaign that has permeated society. Naylor has to confront kids with cancer, angry parents, environmental activists, the overzealous media, and sanctimonious politicians. He does have a couple of friends... fellow lobbyists who represent alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms. The three of them regularly meet for a secret lunch, and fashion themselves the "Merchants of Death". They entertain themselves by commiserating about their critics and cynically comparing the harm their respective industries do to their consumers.

The success of this film ultimately rests on the likability of Naylor. If the audience fails to identify with him, then the whole affair risks becoming cartoonlike or turns downright nasty in a hurry. But Eckhart proves so adept at owning the role that the viewer can't help but be drawn to him. Particularly in scenes featuring the relationship between Naylor and his son, Eckhart displays a vulnerability that stops short of betraying the essentially jaded nature of his character. We can like him without the sappy, emotional fakery that we've become so used to being force-fed from Hollywood.

Then there's also the sterling supporting cast. Robert Duvall plays the Southern patriarch of the tobacco interests. Sam Elliot portrays the cancer-afflicted "Marlboro Man". William H. Macy plays a well-intentioned but ludicrous Senator. Rob Lowe manages to create a ridiculously smooth Hollywood executive producer. You really couldn't ask for more sheer talent. How does Jason Reitman (a first-time director) attract these venerable actors for such a potentially controversial movie? It probably has something to do with the fact that he's the son of famous director Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Meatballs, Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop). Surely family connections like that have something to do with access.

But Reitman must also be credited with creating a visually-striking picture that uses its few visual gimmicks to good effect. The dialogue was intelligent and involving, and the editing set a perfect pace for its 92-minute duration. Most importantly, Reitman crafted a deft treatment of a politically volatile issue. Nowhere in this film does the director tip his hand toward a black-and-white position regarding his subject. He reminds us that smoking is a multifaceted activity with complex implications for all involved. And in doing so, he questions the nature of liberty in American society. Thank You For Smoking is a remarkably intelligent dark comedy, with a broad and ambitious scope of commentary.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Warning Signs of a Mass Killer.

One of the most common cliches in cases of mass killers is the claim that so-and-so (insert name of someone who knew the killer) "had no idea that the killer was capable of such horror". I think that probably has something to do with the fact that people rarely extend themselves beyond their own cloistered existence. Too many folks just assume that others feel the way that they do. That's a shame because mass killings are only the most extreme of events that occur partially as a result of such willful ignorance. In many cases, if people had been more perceptive and thoughtful about the feelings and thoughts of others around them- it might have been possible to avoid some troubling incidents.

In the case of Cho Seung-Hui (perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre), it's hard to believe anyone who says that they saw no signs that he could commit potential acts of mayhem against society. From all accounts, it was quite clear that Seung Cho was estranged from humanity. His roommate used to come home to find Cho seated at his desk and staring at nothing. The most common label attributed to his personality is "loner". His professors in the English Department (Cho had switched from his business major) were fully aware of Cho's cast of mind.

Have a look here at one of the killer's plays. In "Richard McBeef" a 13-year old boy tries to suffocate his stepfather with a cereal bar. Like the paintings of notorious killers John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez, there's no doubt that true crime fanatics will be analyzing these pieces for decades. They are written poorly, and seem to indicate a serious lack of emotional development. Addionally, it's pretty obvious from them that Seung Cho was obsessed with violence. That was certainly the conclusion of at least some who surrounded him. His fellow students walked very lightly around his moods. When called to participate in peer reviews of their fellow students' work, the weighed their criticism of Cho very carefully. According to Ian MacFarlane, he and his fellow classmates were afraid Cho "might snap".

Almost to a person, reports indicate that this young man refused to engage in casual conversation. He'd simply shake his head and walk away. About the most that people got out of him was a one-word response. His poetry professor had him removed from class because he frightened other students. At least one of his professors referred him to campus counseling. Another spoke to school authorities about her fears, but was (by her own account) not taken seriously. He was apparently a diagnosed depressive, since he was taking prescription medicine to address such a problem. He was investigated by campus police in two separate stalking incidents. He set a fire in his dormitory. There are even reports that he was briefly institutionalizd for suicidal ideation. And yet he was still allowed by federal law to purchase several handguns, which he subsequently used in the massacre of more than 30 people. It is also known that Seung Cho methodically planned the activities that he carried out this past Monday.

Somehow I feel that there should be some system within our society to address individuals who are in such obvious need of assistance. If substantial intercession had occurred at some point along Cho's trajectory of increasing pain and violence, then things might have turned out differently. I don't know exactly how to go about it, but some sort of structure should be adopted. And I think it's important that such a system is bundled with access to quality preventive mental health care. But this is a nation of reaction rather than prevention. Instead of focusing on an attempt to understand the perpetrator's mental state, and brainstorming ways to prevent such violent outbursts, our leaders are using this tragic event as an opportunity to lobby for personal gun ownership (with the dubious assumption that more guns in more hands will reduce the incidence and extent of killing sprees).

Our society values above all else a myth of "rugged individualism". Besides justifying the acquisition of wealth at the expense of the public good, I'm not all that sure what this actually means. The general attitude of Americans is that everyone starts with equal opportunity, and other people's problems are their own to deal with. The culture of violence promoted by our leaders and the entertainment media suggests that the way to deal with others is with force. Unless we change our ways, becoming more sensitive to the complex difficulties that our fellow humans face, we are sure to encounter a continuing chain of problems that periodically escalate to the level of tragedy that we witnessed this past Monday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What is Age-Appropriate Exposure?

With the extreme level of violence in our culture and society, I often wonder what children should be exposed to as they grow up. Someday I will have a kid of my own, and I'm going to have to confront this question with a mix of personal ideals and practicality. Being involved in education, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how other people deal with this dilemma. It's startling to discover just how varied parental strategies are.

There have always been self-proclaimed experts ready and willing to tell you what children can handle. Tipper Gore became infamous during the 1980's for her efforts in forming PRMC (Parents Music Resource Center). By her own account, this issue revealed itself to her as she was driving with her daughter and listening to the car stereo. A Prince song ("Darling Nikki") came on the radio, and she realized that the singer was referencing masturbation. This made her extremely upset. But apparently it also piqued her interest enough for her to begin watching MTV. She found the graphic sex and violence depicted in videos (Van Halen, Motley Crue, The Scorpions, etc.) shocking. Her organization worked toward a specific set of goals that included trying to convince record companies to adopt a labeling system, to print lyrics, and to reconsider the contracts of performers who used explicit language. The PRMC also inspired Christian groups to take a more active role in trying to censor pop culture.

Over the last several decades, Christian conservative and rightwing pundits have been blaming the breakdown of "traditional family values" for virtually every problem that exists in the United States today. Even acts of Nature (or God, as they would have it) find their roots in the evils of moral relativism. Somehow many Christians believe that we can reverse the trend by embracing Christian Reformation, and instituting a religious state that would protect us from alternative ideas. Obviously only church-sanctioned books, music and films would be acceptable to these folks. That solves the problem of having to figure out what to expose your children to- simply cede your authority to the church hierarchy. Let them decide for you.

But what about the secular among us? How do the rest of us prospective and active parents make these decisions? Clearly we could fall back on the ratings systems already in place for film, television, and music. Or we could take a more active role and actually examine these cultural artifacts for ourselves. This is time-consuming and tricky because we would have to trust our own individual judgements regarding culture and development. For instance, I am disturbed by the levels of violence endorsed and/or glorified in films and television today. Compared to the commonly-held puritanical attitudes about our bodies and our sexuality, most of society is downright permissive when it comes to violence. Are these the relative values we want to place on these factors? Is it more important to shelter our children from the existence of gay people, than to discourage the use of physical force as an approach to conflict? If we seek to make decisions about these issues ourselves, we are in for a lot of introspection and explanation.

It's perhaps not enough to merely decide what your children can watch, or listen to. It seems to me that it's crucial to include communication as an essential component in child-rearing. Arbitrary age cutoffs may do little else besides stunt the mental or emotional development of your child. Only by encouraging discussion about difficult issues can you assess the maturity level of your kid. When they have encountered something that challenges the way they look at the world, they should feel welcome to to come and talk to you about it- otherwise you are giving away your responsibility to their teacher, the television or their peers. No one else is going to give the kind of individualized attention to a child as his/her parents are prepared and qualified to give. And perhaps that is how it should be.

Monday, April 16, 2007

David Slade, "Hard Candy" (2005)

As if there were not enough violence floating around in the ether today... what with the most deadly mass killing in US history- I somehow felt the need to view a particularly nasty little flick called Hard Candy. I guess violence just begets violence. Why not dive in head first?

The film concerns a fashion photographer who lures a young girl to his house. Predictably, he contacts her first through an internet chat room, and then meets her (at her prompting) at a coffeehouse. This is, of course, an almost unavoidable device for a thriller in our contemporary era. Horror films commonly seek out and reflect the fears of society-at-large. And this is a threat you can't go a week without hearing about in the media. Online predators are stalking our children. Know what your kids are doing with that MySpace account. Don't take anything at face value. People wear any mask they want. These are no doubt important lessons for all of us to learn.

But kids are more savvy than we sometimes give them credit for. Or at least that is what director David Slade would have us believe. Just ask the wannabe child molester at the center of Slade's film. Today's teen is very resourceful, and in some ways his/her comfort with the virtual world far outstrips his/her elders. So listen pedophiles... be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it (and more... so much more).

Hard Candy is basically a slick updated version of the 70's cult classic, revenge-exploitation genre, which was best exemplified by I Spit on Your Grave (1978). The putative victim, who appears to represent the archetype of victimhood, turns the tables on her would-be attacker. The collective suffering of a whole class of previous victims is visited upon the classic villain, and a cathartic explosion of violence satisfies the film-viewer. This is supposed to be entertaining.

Granted it was obvious that Slade and Co. attempted to transcend this formula by portraying the pedophile as a complexly flawed human being... but those efforts resulted in abject failure (at least as far as I was concerned). From the very first scene onward, I had no sympathy or compassion for the man. Whether or not he deserved his fate didn't matter to me even a bit. I automatically judged him to be despicable. Tough shit. I felt nothing as I watched him undergo extreme torments that probably exceeded the justice of the situation. I simply found him impossible to identify with. And that was a death sentence for the film. There was no conflict for me. So all that remained was the gore and a series of cringe-inducing moments that I had no difficulty detaching from.

Additionally I found the role of the girl unlikely and simplistic. I can't blame it on the actor- there was no way her character could have been performed with any believability. Yet the role wasn't played for camp value either, so it was no fun at all. Where there is no true emotional depth, there is also no redemption. The entire scenario was executed much better in Matthew Bright's Freeway (1996). So skip the empty calories of Hard Candy, and seek out that Reese Witherspoon classic.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Impressions of Flux # 14.

The weather last night was cold and wet, and I'm certain it kept a lot of people from attending Flux #14 in Braddock. That's a bit of a shame because it was just as good as I remembered it being from the last one three years ago. It was a bit of a surprise too, because my only previous experience with this beat up East End neighborhood filled me with sadness and abandon. Take a ride through the heart of the town during the day some time, and you'll see what I mean. It's true inner-city squalor. On my visit there a couple of years ago, there were a few pawn shops and beat-up antique stores still holding on amidst the desolation. Had there not been a truly enticing event, I wouldn't have been tempted to visit Braddock on a Saturday night.

Driving down Braddock Avenue at 9:30 PM, I was struck by the lack of activity. The few people on the street were rushing through the drizzle to the event. They walked with their heads down, afraid that they might make eye contact with some dangerous permanent resident. The Flux logo was projected in large letters on the side of a former bank on Library Street. That throughway was blocked off to traffic, and there were steel barrel fires with shivering art-lovers huddled around them. We entered through the bank entrance, showed our IDs, and paid the $10 admission fee. Walking through this empty center of finance was surreal- like it could be the set for some raving capitalist zombie film. We exited through a side door into an alley, and proceeded through another portal into a derelict church.

The church building housed the main stage, and had a huge sloping wooden floor facing it. There was a table off to one side where you could buy a little platic cup for two bucks, and a long line (that moved fast) to wait in to get the cup filled with beer (Penn Brewery products). Throughout the night that line oddly grew shorter and shorter. I watched some band I've never heard of playing some predictable, if competent, hard pop-rock. Later on I saw the positive, old-school, hip hop act called Lucid Music. I'd seen them before and enjoyed them. They've got flow, and they are good to dance too. The space could have accomodated at least 15 times as many people as were there- which was alright with me because I like my space.

There was art on the side, and in the little hallway passage behind the stage. I really enjoyed a Brian Docherty installation that consisted of multi-colored strings of yarn running in patterns up the wall, some of which were being animated by an electric pulley. It was a nice effect. In back there was a collection of macabre assemblages reminiscent of the Brothers Quay (sorry, I forget the name of the artist, and it's not listed on the official Flux webpage). On the other side of the stage, where you exited back to the main hall, was an interactive video installation that I didn't have much time to process. In the basement was scuptor James Simon's temporary studio, and patrons were randomly throwing balls of clay at an evolving animal figure. There was also installation art by a group referring to themselves as the Hospitable Food project. I'm fond of some of the work of the artists involved, but I have to say that this conglomeration looked to be rather hastily thrown together. Plus it smelled like puke down there, so I beat a fast retreat.

Having drank a good quantity of vitamin water, it was time to seek out a bathroom. In the basement of another building resides the rapidly-approaching-infamous Braddock Elks Club. That's where Mayor John Fetterman holds court every Friday night, welcoming tourists. Last night it was packed with every variety of hipster to be seen around town. In one corner they were selling hot dogs, nachos, ham BBQ, and some very water-logged kielbasa with kraut (guess which I had). At the other end was a fully stocked bar. And yes, there were the bathrooms too, and no line to speak of. Upstairs was another performance space. When I visited they had DJ's and hotties shakin' it on the dance floor. There was art on the walls here, but it was difficult to squeeze through the dancers to get a close look. There is a wide front porch outside, and Bob Johnson was holding court with a video presentation of his new Ravine Cubes project (an evolution from his River Cubes, which consist of refuse pulled from the region's waterways and compacted into 1600 pound squared clumps). On the flatbed of a sturdy-assed pickup was chained the inaugural piece of his latest series, pulled together from the ravine below the Bloomfield Bridge.

Between the Elks and the Church is Dorothy 6- the first floor gallery of the Mayor's residence. They were having a poetry slam there, and I caught a rant about the evils of Walmart. The thing about Flux is that you constantly feel like you are missing something you'd rather see, so you spend a lot of time wandering from one venue to another. Then you need a fill-up on refreshments, or you have to piss, or you need to find one of your misplaced friends. This is both the curse and the blessing of these events, depending upon your transitory mind state. I was anxious to see what the very first branch of the Carnegie Library had to offer.

I'm not certain how much of the library is still in operation, but I have to say it's an amazing place. I slogged up the grand flights of stairs to a basketball court at the very top, and found a huge inflatable sheep by Tom Sarver and Tim Kaulen. I peeped that and noticed that I had just missed some performance piece by a group calling themselves the Dutchmasters. Too bad. I worked my way through another series of entranceways and passages and found myself entering a beautiful, full-sized theater with wraparound balcony. It felt as if I had stepped into the year 1925. There were rows of wooden seats, and I sat in the back and watched some locally-made film projects. I would have liked to stay there for awhile, but it was time to make an honest effort to find the friend that I had come with, and drive home.

Overall I'd say that the event was successful, despite the oppressive weather. Flux has recaptured their status as the premiere art party of Pittsburgh. With the scope and potential of those classic abandoned facilities in Braddock, it is easy to understand why the organizers would make a commitment to hold an event there in each of the next two years. The place is brimming with imposing and eerie flavor. It's truly a feast for the eyes, and provides an ambience that will linger in your memory. I can't wait for the next one. Walking to my car at the end of the night and seeing the flames pouring from the smokestacks of one of the last industrial plants of Pittsburgh, it became possible for me to believe that this neighborhood might just capture the imagination of a new generation of urbanites.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Changing Cityscape of Pittsburgh.

Last year I realized that I had been in Pittsburgh for 18 years. I came here when I was 18, so that meant that I had lived in the 'Burgh just as long as I had in the town where I was born. That realization felt like some kind of milestone. I've spent enough time here to feel like a "true Pittsburgher" (whatever that means). This is indeed my home. I'm not just passing through. And I'm happy about that- I like it here. I have no plans to leave.

Over the period that I have spent in this city, I have seen a number of the inevitable changes that effect any city of significant size. There is rapid development in some neighborhoods, and the quality of other sections change. It's not something that you usually notice in the day-to-day routine of the present, but over a number of years these evolutions become obvious. The main difficulty resides in gaining enough information about what is being planned in a specific area. But that's not sufficient to predict what effects time is going to have on a place. You need to hone ypur ability to see things with a larger perspective. You also have to rely a bit on intuition and be a fortune-teller. Achieving any element of accuracy in this type of forethought can be challenging, because the feedback you are getting at any single point in time consists of such incomplete and speculative data.

But I have seen major shifts in the span of years that make up a single generation. In 1988, the South Side (on the banks of the Mongahela River) was an overwhelmingly working-class neighborhood with very little excitement along its broad business district. It was still in the throes of a post-steel mill depression. I watched as the area made its transition through the attraction of young artists and nightlife. I remember when the first coffeeshop and the first edgy, hipster fashion boutique came in. Galleries opened and thrived, and the bars and restaurants soon followed. The arc of development for the South Side now seems near complete, as it is currently the social center of the city. Ask a native where to take a tourist, and they will unfailingly point to Carson Street. On any given weekend, thousands of outsiders descend upon the place to revel in their weekend. Parking is near impossible. I knew someone that bought a house in the flats in 1990 for $11,000. It was in good shape, smack dab in the center of the neighborhood, and fairly representative of what was available at the time. That same property would sell for at least ten to fifteen times that amount now.

Around the time that the South Side was being molded into the place it is now, there was plenty of speculation about two other neighborhoods that looked to be on the cusp of major change. Lawrenceville sat astride the bank of the Allegheny River, and looked to be very much a mirror image of South Side. The make-up of the population was similar, and it also had a long underexploited business district. It was situated between the Strip District (with its extensive markets) and Bloomfield (Pgh's "Little Italy"). There was talk of several microbreweries that were seeking to establish themselves there. But unlike the South Side, the residents were resistant to this kind of change. They were quite satisfied for it to remain the way it was. But of course it didn't. Crime, drugs, and prostitution increased throughout the 1990's. Instead of becoming hip, it was falling to squalor. Finally, at the beginning of the new century, its inhabitants began to welcome new blood. Art galleries, boutiques and a couple of coffeshops trickled in, attracted by the low cost of real estate. The University of Pittsburgh decided to construct a state-of-the-art Children's Hospital there. Companies began to move in with plans to build loft apartments in its abandoned buildings. And a political fight was started to fight against the proliferation of Section 8 housing. Within the last two years, the transition of Lawrenceville has become undeniable. There are now several quality nightspots and the price of houses has started to rise noticably. It may not be long before the young people and artists that spearheaded the recent changes are priced out of the market.

The other neighborhood that people had great hopes for in the early 90's has been developing a lot more slowly. Local politicians and developers have had great hopes for the North Side (along the Allegheny River) for years. This area presents special challenges that the aforementioned neighborhoods were unburdened by. Both the South Side and Lawrenceville are bound by a river and a mountain, and have a long central business district centered on major thoroughfares. The North Side is significantly larger, with a dispersal of commercial centers. Additionally, the majority of its population is poorer, and has been traditionally disenfranchised. And despite its close proximity to the Downtown, it is (geographically) at the margin of the city. Pittsburgh pretty much ends at its borders. While several large institutions have recently built facilities there (the stadiums, the Warhol Museum, and the Science Center), they are spread out and not integrated well with residential development. But aside from the scale of projects located in the North Side, it has another great advantage. It has a surplus of fine old homes waiting to be purchased with little investment, and restored to their former glory. There is a subsection of the North Side called the Mexican War Streets that illustrates this potential. Hope is also supplied by the unflagging energy of some of its residents. The owner of the Mattress Factory (an internationally-known installation art museum located in the neighborhood) has invested a large amount of resources into a redevelopment plan. The major question facing the North Side is whether there is enough wealth in the city (or whether it can be attracted) to revitalize a neighborhood of its size. Perhaps it will eventually be broken up, with its identity split into smaller neighborhoods.

It often seems like every part of Pittsburgh is competing for the attention of developers, and hoping to become the "next big thing". There have been significant changes made in East Liberty, Garfield, and other East End neighborhoods. Even Braddock is now staking its claim to the future of the city, and actively trying to court young residents. It would take a lot of research and a wealth of luck to foresee the condition of Pittsburgh eighteen years hence. But I believe it's going to be interesting to watch the as that distant city slowly approaches.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Don Imus, the Man and the Comments.

I really thought I'd be able to stay away from writing about the Don Imus controversy. It seems like everyone has to weigh in with an opinion. Well... due to reader request, I'm going to add my thoughts.

I was only rather vaguely aware of Don Imus before his recent and unfortunate comments. It seems that very few people know much about him as a man. He was honorably discharged from the marines, and has worked as a miner, railroad brakeman, gas station attendant and a rock musician. Evidently he's held a slot on morning radio continuously since 1979. In the 1990's Imus and his wife started a working cattle ranch in New Mexico as a charitable organization for children with cancer. He is a recovered alcoholic and former cocaine user. He has permits to carry a concealed handgun in New Mexico and New York. Along with his wife, he is a vegetarian.

He was fired from KJOY (Stockton, CA) for saying "hell" on air in the late 60's. IN 1977, He was fired by WNBC in the wake of addiction and "unprofessionalism"(he missed 100 days of work in a single year). Later reinstated by WNBC, he often made appearances on his station mate's (Howard Stern) show, and they were marketed together. He was the inaugural video DJ for VH1 in 1985. Imus' morning radio show achieved national syndication in 1993.

Imus has always been associated with the "shock jock" school of radio. He is notable for having called Rush Limbaugh "a fat, pill-popping loser", and Tucker Carlson "a bowtie-wearing pussy". But he's not always been so easy to fix poliically. Imus has been a significant supporter of overseas troops. He raised $6 million for a rehabilitory center for disabled US soldiers, and has recently been unleashing fierce attacks on the US Government for the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

But (as we all know) Imus made some controversial comments on a show that aired on April 4th. The media seized on his characterization of some female college basketball players as "some nappy-headed hos". A transcript of that conversation can be read here. It's evident that Imus went over the line. But it's also clear that Executive Producer Bernard McGuirk instigated his star on live radio. This is an aspect of the event that has been given virtually no attention in the media. In fact, if your read the transcript, it's clear that McGuirk's comments were much more offensive than those of Imus.

The rightwing McGuirk, who has been known for his inflammatory impressions of black public figures such as Ray Nagin, Muhammed Ali, and Maya Angelou, has been given a pass. This is the same McGuirk that Imus admitted (off-camera to Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes) was hired to perform "nigger jokes". That hasn't kept commentators like Sean Hannity from proclaiming that Imus' sacking is just the latest in a PC witch hunt against conservative talk radio. In fact it's quite clear that this scandal is going to be trotted out by each and every repressed white malcontent as evidence that the system is against them.

Imus does indeed have a history of racially antagonistic comments. Twenty years ago he was accused of referring to then employee Gwen Ifill (now a PBS anchor) as "the cleaning lady". He's also been known to complete his persona with anti-semitism, homophobia, and misogyny. In 2004, he referred to Simon and Schuster's publishers as "thieving jews". Certainly Imus' latest remarks were insensitive, but it seems like placing so much attention on them is likely to obfuscate the real issues of race that underscore much of the social relations in this country. I think that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (who pubically called for Imus' dismissal) should choose their battles more carefully. Their outspoken criticism of Imus displays inordinately poor timing in the wake of the exoneration of the three Duke lacrosse players that were accused of raping a black stripper.

It's way too easy for the "oppressed white middle class" to see shadows of conspiracy against them. Now comparisons are being made to the treatment of the Duke players while, for all intents and purposes, the two incidents have NOTHING to do with one another. As a result, a lot of bigoted white folks are getting uppity in their self-righteous indignation. They want to know why there wasn't more media hype about what now appears to have been a false accusation. Those "poor boys" will never have their reputations restored. And they want to know why rappers can call each other names, while they themselves are punished when they do it. Is this really what we need in society?

Most of the people who are coming to the defense of Imus are quick to point out that they neither liked nor listened to his show. But now his treatment is a matter of social record, and they are more than ready to use it to justify their own prejudices. I think that's the biggest shame of all. Imus has always been a complex and flawed man, capable of both good and bad action. But now Don Imus has become a martyr.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Flux #14, in Braddock.

After a three-year layoff, Flux is back in Pittsburgh! For those of you who don't remember it, the Flux series brought artists and musicians to a special one-night-only location for each event. They were always held in abandoned buildings in neighborhoods in transition. Some of the past 12 Flux events (starting in 2000) have been located in Garfield, East Liberty, Lawrenceville, Downtown, the South Side, and the North Side. Oftentimes the locations have been notable - the former 'Stock Exchange", the present Pittsburgh Glass Center, an outdoor event at the Brew House, the photo antiquity museum, and the Oakland Beehive Theater. But perhaps the most memorable space was the parking garage of the no-longer-existent St. Francis Hospital. The view from the top deck was simply breath-taking. That was the last Flux that I attended. When I found out that they were going to discontinue the series for lack of funding, I was disappointed, and so were many of my friends.

Now the Flux organizers have partnered with the Three Rivers Arts Festival. There will be three parties every year from 2007 through 2009- one will be located in Braddock, one in Downtown Pittsburgh, and one at an unspecified location. The cooperation with TRAF should result in benefits for both principals. Flux will receive assistance in staffing and funding, while the TRAF will strengthen their ties with local artists. Additionally, instead of participation being based upon informal groupings of friends, artists wil be selected by special coordinators with expertise in various artistic mediums.

The basis of the Flux series will remain intact. Each event will include a broad roster of visual, installation, performance, and musical artists. The excitement of Flux is the constant and varying range of activity going on at any given time. While a band plays in one section, a dance troupe is improvising a guerilla stomp somewhere else... and a sculptor is assembling a work-in-progress in a third area. To date there have been over 800 artists involved with the series, and over 20,000 attendees. No doubt some of that clientele is liable to resent one change being made. While at past editions of Flux beer and water have been free- there will be a charge for refreshments this time around. For many, getting looped on free beer was much of the allure.

But this series is also about the emergent communities where Flux has been held. These neighborhoods are seeking to revitalize themselves, and showcase the possibilities for their development. Indeed each Flux has had its own unique identity based around the particular feel of its location. Part of the fun is knowing that each audience is going to have its own flavorful mix, and that you will have the opportunity to run into people you rarely have a chance to see. The atmosphere is festive, and folks are often open to meeting new friends. That can certainly be said of John Fetterman, Mayor of Braddock. He's been actively working to promote the attraction of artists and young people to his beleaguered community. It seems that he's scored a coup in scoring Flux, both for now and the near future.

Flux #14 will be held on Saturday, April 14th on the corners of Braddock Avenue and Liberty Street (in Braddock). Participating venues include the A.J. Silberman Building, The Carnegie Library, the Braddock Elks Lodge, and at the Mayor's house. Operating hours are from 8PM-1AM. Featured artists include Tim Kaulen, Tom Sarver, James Simon, Tony Buba, Andreas Tapias-Urzua, Chris Ivey, etc. Music and other performance highlights will be provided by Attack Theater, Daryl Fleming & Public Domain, Centipede E'est, Lucid Music, the Pandemic DJ's, and the Steel City Poetry Slam Team. Admission is $10.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Peter Steinhart, "The Undressed Art: Why We Draw" (2004)

After showing a drawing buddy of mine a project I've been working on, she lent me Peter Steinhart's book, The Undressed Art. I've written a few entries here about various live figure drawing sessions that I've been frequenting since last June. Reading this exploration added some contextual depth to my experience.

The book begins with a lamentation for the gradual decline in respect for drawing in the fine arts. In the age of computer-generated graphics, increasingly accessible photography, and abstract art, the skills and draftsmanship of portrait drawing could be disappearing. Yet throughout the United States, artist of varying abilities gather in weekly figure drawing sessions to continue a tradition that is thousands of years old. Just in the Bay Area of California alone, there are currently more than 80 such groups. Some are organized by universities, some meet in galleries and/or studios, and others take place in the homes of the artists. But few of the members of such groups will ever seek to display or sell their works. And it is the rarest exception for a man or woman to actually make a living from their artwork. So why do they do it? That's the question that intrigues Steinhart the most.

Steinhart is a naturalist who spent 12 years writing and editing for Audobon. He currently resides in Palo Alto , CA. When he was a child he began to love making portraits of the wildlife he was so enamored with. He used this practice in order to see the animals better. It is Steinhart's contention that this systematic practice of learning to see better motivates many artists to attend live drawing sessions. But there are a variety of personal reasons to draw- for meditation, to improve one's skills, to get out of the house, to participate in a shared experience... the list may be as as expansive as the range of people that draw.

Of course Steinhart doesn't deny that there can be an element of the naughty or risque in drawing nudes. But as anyone who has frequented these sessions on a regular basis knows, it's not about sex. In fact Steinhart devotes whole chapters to the culture of the figure drawing session. He examines the varying social dynamics between models and artists. Every group has its own formal or informal set of routines. Some moderators won't let any of the artists speak directly to the model while they are posing. A loose and casual feel characterizes other groups. Generally newcomers pick up on whatever unspoken rules prevail. Models pose in a mix of gestures (less than two minutes long), short and long poses (up to 30 minutes without a break). The effort required to maintain the stillness of these poses is often physically demanding. And just like artists, models have a wide variety of reasons for doing such work. Undeniably some are exhibitionists. Others are marginally employed and need the money. Some experience a sense of empowerment and a greater acceptance of themselves by taking their clothes off in front of strangers.

Given the author's background, it should not be surprising that Steinhart often looks to science to explain some of the phenomena that he explores in his book. There are parts of his book that read like an anthropology text. But just as often, he lapses into a nonsectarian spiritualism that may put off more jaded readers. It is obvious that he sees drawing as inextricably linked to his being. It's refreshing to hear a perspective which restores an almost sacred regard for a neglected side of the contemporary art world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Henry Darger.

Did you ever hear of Henry Darger? Some have claimed that he was the best self-taught artist of the twentieth century. But for the vast majority of the 1900's, virtually no one knew that he existed. Born in 1892 in Illinois, Darger's mother died when he was only four years of age. When he was eight, his father entered a Catholic mission home and he was placed in a boy's home, and later transferred to an asylum for the "feeble-minded" in Lincoln, IL. Apparently a doctor determined that his heart was "not in the right place" (physiologically-speaking). Another early diagnosis involved "masturbation". His experiences in the asylum seems to have influenced his life's work. It involved forced labor and "strange punishments". He escaped and walked the 100 miles to Chicago in 1908. It was on that hike that Darger witnessed the utter destruction of an entire town. He would return extensively to this memory in future years.

During his entire worklife (50 solid years) Darger served as a janitor in a series of Catholic hospitals. He attended church frequently, and mostly kept to himself. He did have one close male friend for a period, with whom he apparently shared an enthusiasm for the protection of children. He tried unsuccessfully to adopt a child on numerous occasions. But at home he had a secret fantasy life. He created an imaginary world called "The Realms of the Unreal". He wrote extensively, completing a 15,000 page book (thought to be the longest novel ever written) about an epic battle between fictional nations. To illustrate his world he collected hundreds of scraps of advertisements and magazines (which he collected among the discarded debris of alleyways), and used them as source material. He painted and collaged on butcher paper, and glued separate sheets together to create pieces over ten feet long. He also wrote 10,000 pages of additional work, including a horror sequel to his magnum opus, and a biography that he expanded into a roughly 5000-page fictional account of a tornado named "Sweetie Pie". He also kept extensive journals and weather logs. He shared his work with no one.

When Darger was 81, he entered the very same Catholic mission home where his father had passed away. Shortly after this, his landlords (who were involved in the arts) discovered his workshop full of his creations. They decided to take charge of his estate after Darger died a few weeks later. They have since worked to publicize his work. Having had the opportunity to view an exhibition of the original watercolor paintings at the Andy Warhol Museum here in Pittsburgh, I feel no small debt to Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, who have worked tirelessly to expose the work of Darger to the outside world.

The work itself is odd- heavily influenced by children's books written by Frank Baum, Uncle Tom's cabin, and the New Testament. It concerns a holy struggle to end the practice of child slavery through the rescue of a group of young protagonists called the Vivian Girls. The Vivians, and the vast majority of the child slaves in the paintings, are depicted as ordinary (albeit old-fashioned) and sweet little girls with undeveloped male genitalia. This causes a jarring and disconcerting reaction in many viewers. Much speculation has been devoted to Darger's decision to paint the chidren this way. But to focus solely on this aspect is to do an injustice to the artist's vision. Darger went to extraordinary lengths to detail the principles involved in the conflict. He created backgrounds for them, and devised a series of magically hallucinatory creatures to interact with his characters. His compositions are vibrant and colorful. There is some amount of sweetness and light, but the emotional pain that Darger must have experienced throughout his life is plainly evident in his work. There are eviscerations, hangings, torture and strangulations of the children displayed in his work. It is challenging stuff.

In 2004, Jessica Yu made the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal. The director made the interesting choice of animating Darger's paintings, so that the viewer doesn't lose the sense of the size and scope of the work. The effect is well articulated, and contributes to the fantasy elements of Darger's imagery. Instead of using psychoanalysts and academics to deconstruct Darger's works, Yu allows Darger to speak for himself through the use of narrators reading from his various writings. This choice results in an effective immersion for the viewer. Instead of offering speculative answers in attempts to explain this enigmatic artist, Yu's film focuses on articulating Darger's mystery by framing the essential questions. I enjoyed this approach.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Black President?!

The fact that I'm compelled to address this issue is problematic in itself- Is the United States ready for a black president? I am self-conscious about being a white man writing about this. But somehow this question has come up time and time again whenever I have expressed my support for Barack Obama. Sometimes it's hard to believe that this is all the further we've progressed by the twenty-first century. I guess that pretending the problem has been resolved is simply futile, and maybe even dangerous.

I'll freely admit to having been, at times, racist in my thinking. It's my opinion that such thought is inevitable in this nation. My definition of the word "racism" is a bit unconventional in that I try to view it as a value-neutral word. Thinking about things through a racist perspective involves considering social phenomena in a way that includes the observance of race. If race exists in reality, then we are foolish (or deliberately ignorant) not to include it among the variables that make up a human (or collective) identity. Having said that, I also believe that we have to take into account the motivations and intentions of racist communication. The descriptors "white" and "black" are emotionally-laden terms. People actually have a broad range of personal associations with these words. For some, such a label inherently invests an individual with negativity.

Certainly it's irrational to apply specific attributions and expectations to an entire mass of people just because they have relatively less or more melanin in their skin. Yet the moment that we talk about what black people want... or what white people think... we have engaged in racist thought. So I believe I have already set racist terms for our discussion by asking whether the nation is ready for a black president. Having established that parameter, I'd like to move on.

Most observers are going to identify Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as "black". It doesn't matter that he is of mixed-race heritage (his mother is white and his father is from Kenya, and thus black). I believe that he is comfortable in identifying himself as black. But does he fit the common stereotypes for a "black man"? Is he good at basketball? Can he speak in ebonics? Is he disenfranchised? Does he have "soul"? More to the point, does he fit your stereotype of a black man? Because that's really what's at issue here- the individual voter. It strikes me as a bit ridiculous actually. Obama has attended private academies. He is eloquent. He strikes me as honest and purely ethical, and he has a clear reputation of integrity. These qualities are the sole province of neither blacks nor whites (or Asians... or Latinos, etc.).

So what does it mean that Obama is "black"? Perhaps he has insight into what it feels like to be immediately identifiable as an "outsider" in many of the social and political situations he has been part of. He must have had to deal with a self-perception of "otherness", and experienced being treated accordingly. In today's political climate, I can only see this as an asset. Because quite obviously he is unlike the vast majority of political power-brokers in American history- just simply in terms of skin color. And people are generally dissatisfied with the political leadership of our country. I would hope that my fellow citizens would be drawn to at least the outward appearance of "otherness" in this case. Just by being able to avoid being identified with the status quo, I believe he gains an advantage.

I could well be mistaken. There are many people willing to offer their opinions on race who have inherited and accepted their notions without question. There are reactionaries with inordinately simplistic ideas about black people. And there are many poor white people who are going to resent the idea of a black man being empowered while they are still mired in their impotency. And then there are the naysayers who give Obama no chance of acquiring his party's nomination because there is still so much racism in the United States. The political structure we have lived with for hundreds of years has been very adept at turning the disenfranchised elements of our society against each other. That's how they have maintained their control. Obama is a (at the very least) symbolic threat against this order. If the will of the country demands significant change, then he could well have a good chance of succeeding in his quest to become the next president.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Meaning of Easter.

Happy Easter! All over the United States little kids are feeding mass-produced sugar products into their grubby mouths in honor of the Son of God. What better way to remember Christ's great sacrifice than by gorging on crap? Thank God that we have these traditions to celebrate the inevitable salvation of all true believers. Really... Nestle, Hershey's, Mars, Walmart, and Jelly Belly all thank you from the bottom of their chocolate-covered souls. Boil, color and hide the eggs. There's nothing cuter than a gaggle of little tykes on a chicken-abortion hunt. As you watch the kids frolic, bite the head off of a marshmallow peep and savor the sweet sensation of boiled animal skin, bones and sinew. Yum! Cows. Pigs. Horses. If Jesus turned water into wine, then surely it's a logical extension to make Gummy Bears out of our furry friends. That's certainly a better use for all of God's creatures than the manufacture of skin moisturizers (hydrolyzed collagen) for aging beauty queens.

Of course there is a far more serious side to the celebration of Easter. One thing that has always puzzled me is the floating date of its observance. The first attempt at setting the timing of the event occurred under the authority of Roman Emperor Constantine I, at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). The council agreed that Easter should be on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. But there were complications concerning the discrepancy between the lunar and solar years. Controversy ensued until 465 AD, when the Church adopted a method of determination developed by an astronomer named Victorinus. And then the switch to the Gregorian calendar (in 1582) eliminated some of the confusion in fixing the date. But the calculations of Eastern Orthodoxy churches still differ from Western Christian conclusions- which all means that it still remains a convoluted mystery to me.

The derivation of the name is much more compelling. The 8th-century English scholar St. Bede believed that it came from "Eastre" (sometimes spelled "Eostre"), the Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility. During the vernal equinox festival, eggs were painted to represent the sunlight of the new season, and rabbits were venerated as a symbol of fecundity. One can only imagine the pagan bacchanalia that sprung from such activities. The Saxons baked "hot-cross buns" to honor Eastre, the markings of which were meant to symbolize the moon's quarters (and later adopted by the Christians to represent the crucifix). The Greeks had their Persephone, who returned to the light of day after a period in the underworld. The Phrygians chose this time of year to wake their slumbering deity with music and dancing after the harshness of winter. And of course the connection to the Jewish Passover is obvious.

The credit for the "Easter Bunny" falls to the Germans. Theirs was called "Oschter Haws", and was said to visit homes during the darkest hours of Easter Eve. He was supposed to be delivering colored eggs for the children, but with the purportedly voracious sexual appetite of the rabbit, I think I'd have made sure he stayed away from my wife. I might be tempted to go all Elmer Fudd on his ass... ("Kill the wabbit. Kill the wabbit!). I'd make a jelly out of him.

I'm not even gonna get into the subject of "Maundy Thursday".