Friday, November 30, 2007

Dead-End Passions.

The more I get into the Ann Powers book I referenced in my previous post, the more I relate to the themes it presents. There's an entire chapter that examines the work-related attitudes of the self-identified bohemians of my generation. Months ago I wrote about this particular aspect of my life, but the subject is worth revisiting. Assuming that I fit into the specific sub-class of people that Powers wrote about, the reader can assume a few specific things about me. I am interested in the arts- a broad category of endeavor in which it is nearly impossible to make a living. If you have a child, and you are not sure whether to push them toward a career in professional sports or the arts, you should choose the former. The odds are long for monetary success in either field, but there are more slots available on the major league teams than there are in collections of contemporary art.

So if you (like me) grew up with dreams of becoming an art-star or rock-and-roll-hero, you have most likely found yourself in a series of unfulfilling jobs for a significant period of your life. By the very definition of the term, a bohemian is likely to reject the conventional assumptions of his/her society. There's a fundamental belief that everything can be commodified and its value set in terms of US currency. If an activity doesn't lend itself to this type of valuation, then its worth is necessarily minimized. We are taught that the strength of our nation depends on our participation as active consumers. We are told that we can only be truly fulfilled by the status and comfort conferred on us by the pursuit of materialism. These are ideas that are actively challenged by participants and followers of the arts. In fact many artists and musicians invert the priorities of their fellow countrymen.

Still, everyone has to meet the basic requirements of life. If we can't find anyone to pay for the art we make, we must find another method of acquiring the money necessary for food, shelter and clothing. As we become self-sufficient and examine the available options, we feel discouraged and limited. Powers points out that many bohemes gravitate to whatever consumer endpoint most closely approximates their individual passions. So if one aspires to be a musician, he/she often finds him/herself working as a cashier at the local 'Record Mart'. Would-be authors become clerks at the bookselling superstores. A visual artist might similarly attain employment at an art supply chain. While these folks certainly don't gain the satisfaction of getting to sell their own work, at least they can console themselves by being in the presence of the mass product of their chosen medium.

Unfortunately the cynicism produced by this kind of situation can be soul-crushing. Imagine the avant-garde jazz guitar player who spends his time stocking the shelves with the best-selling CD's of Michael Bolton or Toby Keith. Watch his deep frustration as he directs the next consumer to the new Kenny G. album. See him frown as he listens once again to the hottest Brittany Spears hit on the store's stereo system. He wastes all of his vast reserves of music expertise, while he waits for the 2% of customers who either have decent tastes or an open-minded attitude toward recommendations. His job is to pander to the lowest common denominator, and suppress his urges to display the contempt that he naturally feels. The same thing applies at the Barnes and Noble. How can the boheme not despise humanity when the majority asks for the latest Grisham novel?

How do you suppose the 'cultured proletariat' (Powers' term) maintains its sanity under such conditions? How do they protest the system? They regain their humanity through 'slacking'. They take long breaks, linger in the stockroom, engage in free-form conversations about aesthetics with their co-workers, make fun of the drone-like shoppers, and give out deep discounts to their friends. They may even lift some of their favorite products. It is easy to justify such minor scams when you are a minimum wage slave. The disenchantment is shared with co-workers, and the resulting community bands together- united in 'silent protest' to subvert the corporate machine. The rub is that management expects such behavior, and even budgets for it. The money lost is written off as 'shrinkage'. The corporation passes the expense on to the customers, and it actually ends up costing less than paying employees a decent wage. Every once in awhile they make an example out of someone to make sure the indiscretions don't get out of hand. And another worker has become a sacrifice to the bottom-line.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Memorial for 3383 Parkview.

The act of writing my post yesterday brought back a wave of memories from over a decade ago. After graduating with a B.S. in the early 90's, I had decided that staying in school for a master's degree made more sense than trying to enter the world of work. I had recently met a new group of people with whom I felt particularly simpatico, and we all decided to rent a house on the periphery of the university district. It was on a residential street bordering a large city park, and on the edge of the 'hood. On the day we moved our stuff into the place several of the neighbors came up to introduce themselves. They seemed happy to welcome us to a neighborhood that had been deteriorating for over a decade. If they had known us better, it's a safe bet that they would not have been so warm and inviting.

There were six of us moving into what was essentially a three-bedroom row-house. Five of my roommates were in the philosophy department, and the last was an anthropology major. I was the only one who had completed an undergraduate degree on schedule. Our common thread was S., a petite dark-haired girl with a raspy voice who seemed to choose only men for friends. She had her own room until she hooked up with one, and then another of my housemates. T. lived in the basement. He was a diminutive guy with his own drum kit. T. would eventually share a bed with S. On the ground floor, where the living room should have been, slept P. He was a scabrously funny critic of everything and everyone. P. would only remain for a couple of months, due to the love triangle he was embroiled in with S. and T. Finally, C. and M. shared a room next to my single. Theirs was a natural pairing, as they were the closest of friends until they managed to wind up as two sides of a second love triangle involving the house.

Just like everyone else, it was through S. that I found myself cohabitating with this odd bunch. We all met the summer before moving into 3383, and found common interests in music and aesthetics. It was quickly decided that we were individual pieces constituting a complete puzzle. We were basically inseparable for several months. We saw Pavement, Jesus Lizard, Helmet and other indie and post-punk bands together. We stopped in to see each other at work. We ate meals at home, lounging around the mismatched furniture of the increasingly grubby living room. Our entertainment was a revolving playlist of Saturday Night Fever, Joy Division, the Velvet Underground, Goodfellas and Iggy Pop. More than anything else we drank and laughed a lot. Whenever we went out to a bar or party, we did so in unison. It was always as if we owned the place, mere minutes after entering. There was a ring of hanger-ons, constantly trying to get in on our action. But those people remained more like allies than friends... sort of like an extended family.

Because we were so open and honest with each other, and due to the intense intimacy that close quarters fostered- conflict was inevitable. It was as if the ordinary borders between people had been breached, and we melded into one another. Someone made the effort to brand us, and we referred to ourselves as "the scumbags". That had everything to do with the contempt we displayed for anyone we didn't perceive as part of our circle. More than from any real set of shared values, we bonded by defining ourselves as apart from (and often beyond) the external world. The presence of an outsider was only really accepted through consensus, and several of us were excessively protective of our collective. There were many occasions where we found ourselves sticking up for one or another "scumbag" who had provoked a fistfight or outright brawl. We always came out on top.

Our lifestyle at 3383 was so intensely vibrant that it was a wonder that we kept it going as long as we did. After a time the fissures between us began to widen. The messy and interweaving sexual interactions that everyone (but me) engaged in took their toll. It wasn't long before accusations of betrayal were being bandied about. I started spending more and more time away from the house with my girlfriend, who lived on campus. I'd come home to complete mayhem, or its aftermath. One day I returned to find my housemates pushing a player piano down a steep wooded hill. Another time I was greeted by an acid-addled P. carrying my cat to the nearby bridge, ready to toss her off because no one other than he loved her. It was increasingly maddening trying to complete my first year of post-grad studies with that level of noise. I would role play "the scumbags" in my group counseling class. Ultimately I joined the exodus out of 3383, leaving only S. and M. to deal with a storm that caved in the roof.

Despite the drama that concluded our experiences at 3383, and ended many of the friendships between the housemates, I maintained close relations with several of "the scumbags" over time. Years after the fact a few of us would get together and talk about a grand reunion, but we were never able to make that happen. Still for a brief time we had lived among a family of our own making, and I would take the lessons I had learned from that time and apply them to future households. Meanwhile, for the people who were involved, the numbers "3383" serve as a portal to an unforgettable period of our lives.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Redefining 'Home'.

The other day I started reading Ann Power's Weird Like US: My Bohemian America (2000). The author is a mere six years older than I am. I thought her book might evoke some feelings of nostalgia for my twenties, and maybe even suggest some ways to integrate any resulting insights into the trajectory of my current life. For a long time I have lived with a feeling (sometimes vague and at other times diamond-sharp) that I am walking a path outside of the mainstream's social conventions. When I first started having these thoughts, it bothered me to think that I was 'different'. By the time I reached early adulthood, I was comfortable enough with the idea that I began to integrate my individuality into almost every facet of my life. I became truly committed to experiencing as much as possible, and forming my own conclusions rather than simply receiving the wisdom of others.

Part of what facilitated my process of 'becoming' had to do with the people I chose to surround myself with on a daily basis. When it was time to go to college, I deliberately picked a place that was far enough from where I grew up so that I could remake myself without interference from the people who had already decided who I was. I paid close attention to the qualities of those I encountered, and was methodical about considering whether or not they fit my future vision of myself. Needless to say I had a string of roommates throughout those years. Everyone existed on a trial basis for me, and I wasn't tentative about moving away from them if it turned out that our interaction wasn't working. This led some to decide I was crazy, and others to characterize me as 'difficult'. I was perfectly willing to live with those labels. The formation of my new identity was an act of conscious creation that I put above all else.

Powers' book resonated with me almost immediately, as her very first chapter has to do with the alternative living spaces people on the periphery (she calls it Bohemia) seek out. She insists that 'home' has just as much to do with the family one constructs around oneself as any description of the physical facilities where one resides. It's fairly common for college-age folks to live in common spaces with others who may or may not share the same values and interests. This is a typical phase in the 'growth' of many people who go on to fill the ranks of the professional class- the gate keepers of normative morality and lifestyles. The task to be negotiated is learning how to 'go along to get along'. For most it reinforces the idea that there are parameters of acceptable behavior within our society. If you breach the rules, then your cohabitants confront you, and you are brought back into line with convention.

But (quite obviously) not everyone embraces the socialization presented by such arrangements. Eventually I got too frustrated with the expectations of those following the preordained paths. I believed that there were alternative arrangements that could be just as valid, and I threw my lot in with others who had come to similar conclusions. The groups I would end up embracing rejected what they interpreted as the common middle class values that stifled real individuality. We came together to form an informal collective of outsiders, and defined ourselves against the external world. We made it a habit to question the assumed values of our society. If something was considered 'bad', we had to seek it out and make our own evaluation. Conversely we withdrew from many of the things society had deemed to be "good". It was only through dropping such (seemingly arbitrary) qualifiers that we could see the true nature of things.

I can't claim that our experiments resulted in a series of consistently unqualified successes. Our arrangements were necessarily volatile, since we often found ourselves at cross-purposes. It was never assumed that any of us were the 'ultimate authority', so there were plenty of conflicts resulting from inevitable disagreements. However hard we tried to put aside our prior conditioning, elements of it existed as obstacles to mutual understanding. Still I had never experienced the levels of open-mindedness and acceptance that I found among those fellow travelers. I probably never will again. But the lessons learned in that environment still affect me to this day. I try to avoid using terms like 'right' and 'wrong'. I value differences and don't perceive them as inherently disruptive. I believe I have carried with me certain aspects of the lifestyle we forged in our youth. It was the essential re-definition of concepts like 'family' and 'home' that inform me even today.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Good Riddance to Trent Lott.

Political observers throughout the United States are in for an unexpected treat this December. Senator Trent Lott (R.-Mississippi) is finally retiring. He plans to "pursue something else" (i.e. get a job as a lobbyist). Lott first achieved political prominence when he was elected to the US Congress in 1972. He was swept into office by a rising tide of Southerners making the transition from lifelong Democrats to southern Republicans. Democratic efforts to bring about civil rights during the 1960's had poisoned their popularity among racist Dixiecrats. It's clear that Lott never forgot the reason why he had early success. He made a consistent effort to let his constituents know exactly where he stood on issues of race. His journey through Congress to the Senate was a foregone conclusion as he perfectly represented the charm and attitudes of the anti-progressive state of Mississippi.

In his early career he distinguished himself while on the House Judiciary Committee. He famously voted against the impeachment of disgraced president Richard Nixon. For his loyalty he would eventually garner the honor of becoming House Minority Whip. Later on he would make a successful bid for the US Senate, and eventually become Majority Whip and Majority Leader. As the head of his party he pushed hard for the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, despite the fact that there wasn't enough support for a conviction. Apparently he had idiosyncratic, but quite deeply held, ideas about what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors" on the part of the Executive. Of course he was highly lauded by the extreme right wing for his hard anti-Clinton stance. Although he failed his quest to slay the great enemy of the GOP, he continued to assume authority in the Senate.

It was Lott's race-baiting legislative stances and commentary that would ultimately culminate in his fall from grace. As a US Congressman he had voted against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the continuation of the Civil Rights Act, and the establishment of a federal holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King. He even had regular associations with white separatist groups. But it was only with his comments at a dinner celebrating Strom Thurmond that he was publicly outed in the media as a singular bigot. He spoke of his deep respect and appreciation for what Senator Thurmond had fought for when the elder politician made a run for the presidency in 1948. Many observers saw this as a thinly veiled promotion of Thurmond's single platform- racial segregation. Although the mainstream media was ready to bury the controversy, online bloggers continued to apply heat until Lott's colleagues on both sides of the aisle made him step down from his formal leadership position.

Some speculate that Republican party insiders were grateful to get the opportunity to remove Lott from his privileged seat in front of the Upper House. Apparently he had been tagged as a failure for his inability to bring Clinton down. Additionally, his support for ending the ban on using federal funds for stem cell research and a willingness to seek comprehensive immigration reform have further split his pool of possible defenders. It can't be especially rewarding for an increasingly marginalized politician of ample experience to hold on to public office. Lobbying holds out the promise of both huge financial gains and minimal public exposure. If Lott had decided to complete his present Senatorial term, he would have been forced (by new legislation) to wait an additional two years before claiming a spot along K Street. If he had honored his previous commitment (after Hurricane Katrina) to represent his state at this crucial time, he would have likely found himself increasingly disenfranchised- both within his own party and by the Democrat-controlled Congress.

It makes sense that Lott has decided to flee to the private sector. Besides the more obvious reasons, there are whispered rumors about impending troubles that could have also affected this move. A NYC radio talk show host (Brian Lehrer) supposedly reported today that Lott may have been involved in a "gay sex scandal". While this may sound bizarre, there is an online source suggesting that Larry Flynt has Lott's number on this issue, and was promising revelations by the end of the year. It will be interesting to hear what his political allies have to say about Lott if any of this proves to be true. Mississippi isn't known for its open-minded acceptance, especially when it comes to African-Americans or homosexuals.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

A NYC Day-trip.

Thanksgiving break flew by, as I expected it might- given the fact that I dedicated much of it to what amounted to a "day trip" to NYC. As I had planned, I spent my nights at my father's house- a mere hour and forty-five minutes from Manhattan. It was a novelty to have many channels of television to browse through, but most of it is truly crap. I caught a fair portion of Snakes On a Plane, and it was about as mind-numbing as I thought it would be. I also caught a few glimpses of the cartoon Lil' Bush. When I initially saw the title, a few thoughts rushed through my mind in quick succession. I wondered whether it really was what it appeared to be. I marveled that we have reached a point when a sitting president is so truly ludicrous that he is disrespected with an animated lampoon of his foibles on national television. Finally, I realized that this president (or any reasonable facsimile) is only funny in three minute bursts, and then merely pathetic.

Saturday morning we were able to get off to a reasonably early start. My father was willing to drive me into the city, despite his reservations about potential holiday-weekend-traffic snarls. Fortified with four shots of espresso, I was ready to contend with whatever we experienced. It was refreshing to be entering the city with almost no agenda whatsoever. This was my third trip in a little over a year, and the previous two visits were regulated by a set of activities I had planned for weeks in advance. When my Dad suggested that we could drive up to Chelsea and see some of the galleries, I easily assented. For sheer availability of contemporary art, this neighborhood of former industrial buildings really can't be beat.

It seemed like many of the shows were closing when we visited. I really wanted to get inside the Jonathan Levine Gallery, but they were in the midst of an installation- so I was out of luck. But there were enough places that were open to make the browsing worthwhile. I maintained a consistently loose and informal attitude, and so I didn't document anything I saw. I simply took my time and skipped through to whatever intrigued me, without taking any notes. Suffice it to say that we got to see a lot that was to my tastes, and another large portion of work that I considered to be pretentious crap. This time around I skipped all of the boutique-ish salon galleries that specialize in stocking and exhibiting the prints of well-established legends of the Twentieth Century. I stopped for a few group shows (one in particular featured paintings by a group of Europeans influenced by German Expressionism and Surrealism), but mainly stuck to places featuring an exhibition of a single artist. There was nothing that stuck out so prominently that I would remember a name to mention here.

Actually... I take that back. I was surprised (and pleased) to walk into the Charles Cowles Gallery and discover the gigantic photographic prints of Edward Burtynsky. This was a bit of a coincidence, as I had recently wish-listed a documentary featuring his work over at Amazon. Burtynsky took shots of mammoth stone quarries with a large format camera. The results show the full extent of ecological devastation that such industry has caused. But at the same time the vast scale of his shots allows them to assume a troublesome beauty. The brain-twisting enormity of the project sites he depicts allows Burtynsky to play with viewer perception. Only when one notices the (seemingly) tiny presence of people and machinery can he/she appreciate the ramifications of the imagery. It is a truly sobering show.

I couldn't resist an inspiration to take out my own camera as I walked admidst the galleries. There's something about the quantity and quality of work, all packed into a rather limited geographical area, that compels me to engage in the process of manufacturing art. Of the vast amount of sensory data offered by NYC, there is much worthy of partition and apprehension. For an extended period of time, I felt I found my zone. It was a nice warm-up for my talk at the Agni Gallery. It's too easy to forget how invigorating creation can be, when you are involved with trying to represent and sell your work. I had a good time among the few who showed up to hear us pontificate on the process and value of our art. Attendance was modest, but the people who showed up seemed to be interested in what John and I had to say. After we were done, we didn't linger. Our day in the city was happily concluded.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Terri Jentz, "Strange Piece of Paradise" (2006)

Somehow, during a trip I took to Half Priced Books months ago, I ended up buying two books that I would categorize as belonging to a sub-genre of True Crime called 'victimology'. I had no intentions of seeking out works on this theme, but nevertheless this is what occurred. As I pointed out in a previous review of one of these books (Jack Olsen's Salt of the Earth), it is rare to find an account of a crime from the victim's perspective. That volume focused on the family of a girl who was abducted and killed. The second of the pair (Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise) was actually written by the survivor of an attempted murder. One would have to assume that this type of account is extremely scarce. What was strange about my selection of these particular books was that they both concerned crimes that occurred in the Pacific Northwest, a seeming hotbed of gruesome crime during the late 70's and early 80's.

Terri Jentz was a Yale co-ed who decided (in the summer of 1977) to join a female classmate in biking across the United States on what was then called the BikeCentennial Trail. The duo only made it seven days into the trek. Their journey ended in a little park called Cline Falls on the banks of the Deschutes River in Oregon. It was there that they decided to pitch their tent and spend the night. Sometime around 11:30 PM on June 22, 1977 their tent was deliberately run over by a pick-up truck. Jentz woke up from her slumber to find herself pinioned under a front wheel. As if this atrocity wasn't enough, the unidentified driver exited the cab and attacked the girls with repeated blows from a hatchet. Against all odds Jentz was able to flag down a passing vehicle, gather her friend and the gear, and survive until reaching a hospital. Although both of them lived, Jentz and her companion suffered massive life-threatening injuries.

Despite the fact that there were plenty of people at the park throughout the day of the assault, the assailant was never conclusively identified. Both victims slowly resumed their lives as time passed. Obviously they were affected by the physical and emotional traumas of that fateful night, but for a long time they pushed the memories to the back of their minds. Terri's friend had no recollection of the actual attack, but Jentz was clear in the limited impressions she formed of the perpetrator while he stood over her prone and mangled body. Symptoms of disassociation and post-traumatic stress disorder pushed her to eventually seek clarity about what she identified as the single greatest life-changing event of her life. In 1992 she decided to make a return journey to Cline Falls and the surrounding area to recover the pieces of her past, without which she would never feel entirely whole. Her intention was to document the process in an autobiographical work. She started with a request for the case files compiled in the wake of the investigation that followed the initial assault.

Jentz claims that she never expected that she would discover the true identity of the attacker she nicknamed "the Cowboy". Still she had the clues of what she remembered about his appearance. He was sinewy, handsome, and a meticulous dresser who preferred western wear. With the limited documents she was able to gather from the various law enforcement agencies who had been involved in the case, she put together a list of people that might be of some help to her cause. Jentz was astonished to learn that the tragic incident that had waylaid her was still very much alive in the minds of the community closest to Cline Falls. In fact many folks were convinced that they knew who had committed the awful deed itself. Each interviewee would suggest additional contacts that Jentz would track down to add another piece to the puzzle. For the next eight years she would continue her quest. As the picture of that tragic day came into focus, Jentz found herself forming relationships that would continue for years afterward. Her growing bonds within this once strange and hostile land transformed her understanding of both others and herself.

As an author Jentz can be both condescendingly pretentious and remarkably revealing. When I started reading the 500+ page Strange Piece of Paradise, I thought it was going to be tough to get through. The exposition leading up to June 22, 1977 smacked of self-indulgence and rather obvious elitism. However as Jentz made inroads into an environment clearly foreign to an Ivy League feminist, she seemed to expand both emotionally and intellectually. Her 'pop psychology' analysis of certain personalities and her simplistic conclusions about greater social trends can occasionally grate one one's nerves- but there's no denying the force of some of her insights, or her courage in undertaking such a perilous task. She put herself at great risk with her research and publication of this book. There are some tough customers running through her narrative, and she goes to great lengths to expose a lot of their most dangerous secrets. Although she employs pseudonyms throughout her tale, it's not too difficult with a bit of Google to figure out who the major players really are. The knowledge that such extreme characters actually exist and commit the acts described by Jentz is perhaps the most compelling reason to seek out this book.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

The Strange Bedfellows of Curtis Sliwa.

On my way home from work the other day, I was once again frustrated by the local radio options. I know I should probably break down and buy Sirius satellite radio, but I hate the idea of having to pay for this diversion. Anyway, my usual selection Terry Gross was interviewing some singer-songwriter that I had absolutely no interest in. After considering the limited alternatives, I decided to bite the bullet and put on FM 104.7. This is the Pittsburgh home of blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and hometown-cretin Jim Quinn. I had actually forgotten that Sean Hannity was the ghoul who usually fills the slot when I am commuting home from work. Let me point out that I despise Hannity. He is a chubby cracker with the perspicacity of a developmentally-stunted boy scout. He's basically the leading candidate for poster boy of the ignorant and reactionary right-wing.

It was just my luck that Hannity had already begun his holiday break, and I tuned in just as his replacement was introducing the show. I listened closely to the thick Brooklyn accent of his substitute, and tried to guess who it was. I was a bit surprised when I learned it was none other than the infamous Curtis Sliwa. For those who are unaware of Sliwa's pedigree, he is the founder of the Guardian Angels- an organization created to help address the widespread violence on the New York City subways. Sliwa was quite a celebrity in the Northeastern US in the late 1970's and early 80's. At that time, America's foremost city was a hotbed of violent crime. As the Angels grew in size, the red beret and jacket that the group customarily donned became a symbol for frustrated citizens who were eager to take back their besieged city. For awhile they were lionized as heroes. Sliwa expanded his concept to other cities across the nation, and even started chapters abroad. But before long they ran into some bad press.

Apparently Sliwa offended police departments throughout the territories the Guardian Angels patrolled. His vocal criticism of their operations was far from endearing to beleaguered officers. To further undermine his credibility, Sliwa made up some criminal incidents to bolster his own public profile. In 1980 he even claimed to have been kidnapped in the Bronx, and taken to Jones Beach in Long Island. Eventually he was outed in the press, and admitted to having lied. Still he continued to expand his organization's operations. His controversial reputation did not keep him from attaining a radio spot in NYC. He quickly developed a reputation for his rapid-fire delivery and vaguely populist conservative views. In the early 90's he experienced some severe blowback for his verbal attacks on the Gotti family. He was kidnapped and shot by thugs hired by the infamous junior kingpin. Although he would survive his obvious injuries and garner a certain amount of sympathy, his conflicting accounts of the abduction raised some eyebrows. His earlier falsehoods came back to bite him on the ass, and his integrity was successfully impugned in court.

As of late he has been filling in for Hannity. But it wasn't his appearance the other day that returned Sliwa's name to my consciousness. This past October, KDKA radio host Kevin Miller invited the Guardian Angels figurehead to Pittsburgh to confront what Miller characterized as the out-of-control crime rates in the inner city. Reportedly they are old friends from Miller's time in Nashville. Although the portly Miller tried to create a media circus with a dog-and-pony show in the city's troubled Hill District, local law enforcement authorities made it clear that Sliwa's assistance was both unsolicited and unnecessary. No doubt Sliwa's record of bad-mouthing the 'boys in blue' had some impact on their decision. They characterized him and his group as vigilantes and sent them on their way. Presumably they were none too impressed by Cranberry resident Kevin Miller's feeble attempts at addressing urban problems.

Despite the local flap involving Miller and the 'Angels', I was curious to see what type of on air schtick he was selling. I only heard about 40 minutes of his program, but in that time I quickly gathered that he's a political lightweight. He attempted some flaccid criticism of the Democratic candidates for president. He implored one caller not to vote for Hillary Clinton, but failed to indicate why he's against her. His thoughts on John Edwards were limited to a routine about the man's expensive haircut. And every time he mentioned Barack Obama, he felt the inexplicable urge to tack on the inane addendum, "rhymes with 'osama' ". The only comment he had for the other side of the aisle was that Mitt Romney is too much of a choir boy for his liking. I wasn't sure where he was coming from with that assessment until I read that Sliwa is buddies with Rudy Giuliani. It makes sense that he would prep his audience for his endorsement of the Republican 'bad boy'. As a longtime observer of NYC, Sliwa knows the graveyard of skeletons stuffed inside Giuliani's closet. At the same time this connection may provide the clue to solving another political enigma. Forgive me for suggesting that Sliwa's 'Angels' may have been the divine inspiration behind Pat Robertson's support for the 'Big G.' Stranger visitations have happened. Suffice it to say that these guys comprise one ungodly trinity.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

In the Spirit of Thanksgiving.

In keeping with the intended spirit of the holiday, I've decided to try to express what I'm thankful for in my life. There were a string of topics I felt ready to comment on, but none of them seemed appropriate for this special day. Considering all the things I thought about saying made me realize just how jaded and cynical I often am. Much of the time I tend to generate a critical perspective rather than extolling the virtues of the things I appreciate. I suppose it's easy to get into that pattern. Sometimes it feels a lot more gratifying to complain about things that we'd like to see changed. It's a lot more difficult to stop and count our blessings, and express them without coming off as a sap. It's probably a valid question to ask why I feel an attitude of positivity is hard to convey without that 'danger'. Perhaps it's because so many of the the personal blessings I am thankful for actually represent the absence of things that I would perceive as negative.

For instance, I am grateful that I am not saddled with a horrible disease. I'm glad I have all of my limbs. I appreciate the fact that we haven't yet experienced a worldwide nuclear war. I consider it a blessing that we still live under the pretense that we can control our political fate. If there is a god, I thank him for the fact that George W. Bush will only be president for a little more than a year. I'm thankful that the United States hasn't invaded Iran (yet). I am lucky not to have been born in Rwanda. You see, there's really no end to the horrible possibilities that I can imagine. I'd like to extend my sincere and hearty thanks for all the bad things that haven't happened to me. But that's not really the point, is it? I guess I'm expected to frame my blessings in more positive terms. What do I actually HAVE that I feel thankful for?

OK... I can do this. I'll just simply make a list. My wife. The prospect of a child in the near future. My cats! My extended family. People who are willing to call me their friend. Validation for my artistic pursuits. Motivation, time and resources to create art. Anyone that actually reads this blog. My DVD collection (is it appropriate to be materialistic?). My books. Paintings and other artwork covering my walls. Having a piece in a NYC group show. A job that I don't hate. Weekends. Health insurance. My height. A car that takes me where I need and want to go. The Internet. Pittsburgh art galleries. Slim Cessna's Auto Club live twice a year. Extra large mochas with skim milk and half-ice. Live model drawing sessions. The Bill of Rights. Public education. The Brillo Box when it's not too crowded. A great city like Pittsburgh to live in. A creaky old house to call home.

From the profound to the profane, I have a lot of things to be thankful for. All of these things (and a lot more) make life meaningful and enjoyable. When I step back and try to get a measure of objectivity, I have to acknowledge that my life has been pretty good so far. I know I have things better than a large proportion of the world's population. So why is it that I have so much to say about the things I would like to see changed? I guess that ultimately I would like to see everyone enjoy the benefits I have. I'm not sure that it is realistic or good for the Earth, but there it is. It's hard not to get too selfish or demanding.

The big question is to whom or what I should direct my thanks. Scanning the list above, it's obvious that some of my gratitude has to go to others with whom I share my life. How often do I express my thanks to those folks? I can start by thanking you (the reader) right now. Beyond that, it gets a bit murky. Do I thank the United States? I have a lot of ambivalence about that. Would that entail all the people that lived before me that helped provide the opportunities I enjoy today? Or is it only specific individuals whom I am indebted to? What about "god"? Is there a higher being to thank? Did he/she/it put me in the place I am now? What about "nature"? Or maybe "the fates"? How abstract is that? Maybe for some things, I could even thank myself?! Or is that too self-congratulatory? These questions may obscure the entire conversation. So for now, I'll leave it to you to decide- for without the 'other', there is no communication at all. And that's what this is all about.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Artist talk @ Agni Gallery, NYC this Saturday.

So I've decided (somewhat belatedly) to take a trip up to Agni Gallery to see The Blogger Show. You might remember that I mentioned considering going for the opening reception a couple of weeks ago. After all, this is the first time that I've had a piece in a show in a NY gallery. I didn't go, and ended up second guessing myself during most of that weekend. Still there were multiple reasons that I decided to skip it. My car needed a heck of a lot of repair work. There were several things that I wanted to see in town. Most convincingly, I had no one to travel with. I didn't relish the idea of driving into the big city by myself. I had asked my father if he was interested in going with me, but it turned out that he had other plans for the weekend. I could have crashed at his house that Friday night, and took a bus into Manhattan- but this seemed like more trouble than it was worth. After all, it wasn't like it was a solo exhibition.

But things have changed dramatically over the last week or so. I discovered that I would have this Friday off. I had already decided that I would go this upcoming weekend, but this fortuitous development makes the travel plans much more convenient. My father is going to be around, and he has generously offered his house as a way station, and suggested that he would accompany me on Saturday. I have also gotten my car fixed. M. had no problem with me going, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. I called John M. and let him know that I would be coming. I even said I'd do a gallery talk if he had any interest in planning one. He seemed excited because he had envisioned having other events during November at Agni, and he decided that he would do the talk with me.

I've given this type of talk before, and indeed the first time was at the Digging Pitt in Pittsburgh. I had co-curated a carnival-themed show, and was happy to speak about the way the concept had developed. Incredibly there were about 50 people in attendance. I provided a lot of historical context into the traveling carnival and sideshow phenomena in mid 20th century America. I explained why I felt personally connected to that aesthetic. Not surprisingly (for people that know him) John had a lot to say as well. It turned into a lively discussion, and a bunch of folks joined in. While I may have been a bit anxious when I started talking, by the end of the event I was rolling along pretty smoothly. The only disruption occurred when one of my more colorful friends interrupted me mid-sentence so he could get my car keys. Somehow that seemed to be in keeping with the carnival spirit I was attempting to convey.

I have no expectations that this Saturday will be anywhere near as successful as that previous event. This is Manhattan, USA for god's sake- the center of the western art world. And here's this little gallery in the Lower East Side, miles away from the centrifugal force of Chelsea. Is anyone likely to care about a completely anonymous artist from Pittsburgh, PA appearing at Agni? Not really. Even if we had any level of advertising and publicity, there is just too much else to do on the island (like taking an extra long shower, or getting a haircut). If you can make it, I guarantee there will be plenty of elbow room despite the gallery's modest size. Furthermore I'm not exactly sure what to say. I had supposed that I would speak about blogging, as that is the theme of the show. I could make quite a fool out of myself oin that topic.

Apparently I'm going to talk about my ongoing project- The Book of Life. At least that's what it says on the Digging Pitt blog. Yes, I have a blasphemer's audacity that allows me to form the conceit that I am actually re-creating that holy tome of judgment. Still I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't point out that I haven't done this with any direct spirit of irony. I've been living with the creation of this piece for about a year-and-a-half, and the joke would wear thin quickly if I wasn't serious about it. The new work certainly relates to the piece I submitted for the Agni show. It's a bit odd to trace the evolution of my thinking since I completed the component drawings of Separation of Sinner and Saint over ten years ago. We lose sight of the long view so easily while we are obsessed with being "in the present". Even so, I'll probably make shit up as I go along.

The talk is this Saturday, November 24th at 5PM. Agni Gallery is located @ 170 East 2nd Street - New York NY 10009 - 412-389-0288.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Jack Olsen, "Salt of the Earth" (1996)

The more you read within the true crime genre, the more you'll realize that most authors tend to focus on the lives and personalities of criminals rather than the victims. I suppose that there's a good reason for it- generally readers are more fascinated by predators than prey. A lot of people read about outlaws because they are fascinated by extreme human behavior. The victim's role in a crime is passive, and literature doesn't lend itself naturally to studying inactive characters. An author that concentrates on the effects that criminal behavior has on its innocent targets risks being labeled as sadistic or accused of sanctification. Neither trait is likely to garner a wide audience.

A darker view of reality leads me to suggest that many readers are attracted to true crime for vicarious thrills. Although perverse, there is a certain titillation to be experienced in these accounts of mayhem and violence. If you aren't sure if you believe this claim, you need only take an honest look at the most popular television shows and movies in the US. This certainly isn't an isolated phenomenon involving a small cult following. If the readership of the true crime genre is limited, it is only because reading in general is rare in this society. Given these factors, it is a surprise that Jack Olsen chose to focus on the family victimized by a heinous crime in his Salt of the Earth. I'd love to say that I appreciated the unconventional approach, but I have to admit that I wanted to hear more about the monster at the heart of the events.

Olsen introduces his story with a look at the early lives of Elaine and Joe Gere. They are the parents of a 12-year old girl who was abducted and whose remains went undiscovered for years after her disappearance. The author outlines their personal histories so that the reader will have more insight into how and why they responded the way that they did to their daughter's absence. It's an interesting decision that makes his book engaging in the beginning. The descriptions of the small desert town in Southern California where the family originally lived are compelling, and help provide an understanding of the character dynamics between the Geres and their three children. But unfortunately, the continued focus on individual character ends up inspiring little more than cliches once Olsen arrives at the tragedy and the subsequent investigation of the crime.

It was mildly interesting to learn how the Geres, their friends, family and co-workers reacted as law enforcement authorities identified and began to pursue a suspect- but after awhile Olsen seems to have fallen into the trap of idealizing the survivors at the expense of telling an insightful version of the the overall story. Naturally there will be some readers who insist that Olsen's veneration is the proper due of the victimized Geres. Others will begrudge any author who 'glorifies' a 'boogeyman' by telling the perpetrator's story. Still, Salt of the Earth left me extremely dissatisfied. If Olsen would have eliminated just a wee bit of the slavish regard he directed toward the Geres, and spent a bit more time telling us Michael Kay Green's story- then he might have written the true classic that some claim this to be.

Green is a truly hateful creature. He brutalized his wife and intimidated her family. No one knows just how many women he attacked during his criminal career, or the extent of damage he visited on them. He spent his time and money on a vain pursuit to become Mr. America. His steroid rages overwhelmed a personality that was once considered to be gentle and earnest. I have no doubt that Michael Kay Green deserved the punishment he would ultimately face. He probably should have been given the death penalty. However he remains a complete mystery after 384 pages of Olsen's rather repetitive prose. What factors influenced him as he was developing? How did his relationship with a distant father color his self-perception? There are so many unanswered questions that I feel like the tale is insufficiently told.

I thought that I could fill in some of the gaps by Googling "Michael Kay Green". Oddly, there is very little mention of him on the Net- other than Olsen's book. More than anything else, it is this dearth of information that makes me view Salt of the Earth as a missed opportunity. There's ample information about how the various victims are "supposed" to feel about their loss... but the incident itself that created such pain remains (mostly) an enigma.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Srdjan Dragojevic, "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" (1996)

I am finding myself to be less and less a fan of war movies. When I was in my teens, I really couldn't get enough of them. Mostly my enjoyment of such films was a reflection of my militaristic attitude, and corresponding plans to eventually serve time in the armed forces. I guess I formed these interests as a reaction to my family's values. Nobody in my immediate family was much interested in war, and so I tried to carve out a niche that would establish my individualiity within the household. Looking back I suppose I often went overboard. While ordinary teens were experiencing the wonders of the opposite sex, I was tramping around a wooded section south of town, playing wargames with my buddies.

My preoccupation with war lasted until I was halfway through my undergraduate years. When Operation Desert Storm began, I lived with a guy I would have described as a neo-hippie. He noted my strong support for the invasion of Iraq, and began to ask me questions about my beliefs. I credit his approach because he avoided preaching to me- his style was very non-confrontational. He only wanted to know why I thought the way I did. Soon I was questioning myself. This led to a series of changes in my life, but for the purposes of this post I'll merely point out that I would never be cavalier about war again. Although I still enjoy reading about military issues (especially in the post-Vietnam era), I tend to see true horror in almost everything that has to do with war. I guess in some ways I have become the type of peacenik I may have despised in my youth.

In the last fifteen years, I have come to appreciate a number of "anti-war" films. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) and Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001) are among my favorites. That last one concerns the folly and tragedy of the conlict in the Balkans during the 1990's. I know so very litttle about the complex web that constitutes the history of the Balkan situation, but I had little difficulty appreciating the dark humor and pathos of Tanovic's feature. In fact, I was impressed enough to seek out other films regarding the bloody troubles and the multiple wars fought within this relatively small geographic area. That's how I came across Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.

PV, PF is a gritty commentary on the fighting between Serbians and Muslims in the Bosnian War. Just like in the American Civil War, formerly-close friends and neighbors engage in bloody battles and brutality against each other. Dragojevic structures his narrative on the relationship between two childhood buddies who find themselves on opposing sides of the rapidly shifting lines. The director is a Serb, and although he is clearly trying to expose another side of his villified people, he is not beyond showing the absurdity in the incendiary pursuit of nationalism- regardless of the perpetrators. His little band of anti-heros find themselves trapped in an abandoned tunnel that was ironically intended to bring peace and commerce to the divided country of Yugoslavia during the Tito years. We get to know these characters through a series of jumbled flashbacks- revealing back stories as their thirst and madness gradually become more acute.

Along with the poignant emotional and physical difficulties Dragojevic depicts, there is much cynical humor traded between the Serbs themselves, and with their Muslim opponents. The sheer senselessness of the battle is reinforced again and again. The director pulls absolutely no punches in his efforts to convey the terrible destruction visited upon a torn land by war. Relationships are shattered and resentments formed by the gruesome events. There is no simple solution to the problems of the former socialist state, nor for the plights of the principals involved in the fighting. They are caught up in a cycle of ethnic hatred and violence, and even when people avoid the polarization of "us vs. them" mentality- they are not excused from the suffering it causes. Watching this film reminds us that there is a road not often traveled but vitally necessary for our future as a 'civilized' species, and it involves open communication and diplomacy rather than force.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Guy Maddin, "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003)

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has made some of the most idiosyncratic and memorable films of the last twenty years. Yet the vast majority of Americans have no idea who he is. That's in part due to the extremely low standards American film-goers require in their entertainment. The vast majority of people in this country that go out to see a movie don't want to be challenged. They want to be spoon-fed easy fare, and not asked to think too hard about what they see. In fact many folks get confused when they hear that there are some that look for anything in their movies beyond mindless escapism. Relatively few people are aware that there is a segment of society that actually perceives the medium as an art-form. This disparity of perception wouldn't present any significant problem if movies weren't so damned expensive to make. It is only in the last couple of years that the technology necessary to make decent-looking films has become (relatively) affordable. Of course this means that the vast amount of 'film product' released every year is aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Maddin has never produced films that would appeal to the hordes of consumers who expect roller coaster pacing, violent action sequences, CGI effects or dick jokes. That makes him rather unappealing to investors. Still somehow Maddin soldiers on, making both shorts and features that are consistently recognized for the artistry and originality that they contain. It is for this reason that the director was chosen (earlier this year) as the first artist-curator of the UCLA Film Archives. It is a well-deserved honor for a filmmaker that has been influenced by the silent films of Weimar-era Germany, and Soviet agit-prop from the 1920's. Maddin has managed to incorporate these elements into a body of work that remains undeniably distinctive and deals with post-modern themes of psycho-sexuality with sophistication and humor.

I became familiar with Maddin's work by watching his first feature- Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), which is a black-and-white cornucopia of dark surrealism that has been favorably compared to David Lynch's Eraserhead. Although it was often difficult to understand the film's plot, the tale of the relationship between two hospital patients and a small town's trials with small pox was fascinating to watch. It was the sort of distinctive and compellingly nightmarish vision that the viewer could watch repeatedly, and only through multiple exposures develop an impressionistic understanding of the perspective of its protagonists. While it wasn't a film that I'd want to watch every week, it was certainly one that I knew I would be returning to. I made a point to discover what else this strange artist had created.

When I learned that MGM studios was releasing a feature film on DVD directed by Guy Maddin, I was astonished. I wondered what type of concessions the artist would have to make to acquire that kind of funding and widespread distribution. The Saddest Music in the World stars Isabella Rossellini as a legless brewery baroness in Winnepeg in the midst of the Great Depression, who decides to run an unusual promotion to sell more product. The scheme involves bringing in musicians from all over the world to compete in a contest to perform sorrowful accompaniment for the edification of the beer-swilling townies. The description alone should suggest that Maddin managed to preserve his artistic integrity. If I had expected to see a typical Hollywood laugh-fest, I would have surely been disappointed.

The Saddest Music in the World retains Maddin's distinctive brand of visual genius. It has portions filmed in washed-out, black-and-white film stock, and includes several interludes in a strange trichromatic style that lends a dreamlike quality of magical realism to certain narrative events. The plot is much less convoluted than I might have been prepared for, and the motives and intentions of the characters were clear from its beginning. However, that doesn't mean that Maddin stripped the depth from the work. There is both a subtle perversity and a culturally satirical presentation to this film that ensures that it remains a bit beyond the reach of the average American film audience. Likewise, it's deliberate pacing and quirky editing style might leave a lot of people frustrated. But for those with an open mind and a bit of patience, The Saddest Music in the World has the potential of providing an ideal entry point into the career of an adept visionary.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Lamaze Method.

I spent my Saturday this week in an unusual way. M. convinced me to come to a Lamaze Class with her. She gave me the choice of doing it in a series of successive Friday nights, or attending asingle all-day session. Given those options, getting it all over at once seemed like the least painful way to achieve the desired result. Unfortunately, the way the schedule worked out, we couldn't take the class with the instructor that M. preferred. I didn't think it would make all that much of a difference, but in retrospect I think it might have been better if we had gone with the 'known quantity'. Even though I can't imagine that the information presented would differ significantly depending upon the teacher, I can see how the presentation style can affect what one takes away from the experience. In my time I have sat through enough excruciatingly dull sessions, and I should have probably known better.

Anyway, the Lamaze technique was developed by a French obstetrician named Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze in the 1940's. Apparently he had been influenced by Soviet techniques for natural childbirth. Conscious breathing, the incorporation of unconventional positions, relaxation methods, and something called a "birthing ball" are used to make the process less painful without resorting to a lot of drug interventions. Thus they discourage women from requesting the administration of an epidural anesthesia for pain relief. Proponents of Lamaze assert that women have a natural innate wisdom when it comes to birthing, and that their program is centered on increasing maternal confidence in the individual woman's ability to negotiate what is a fundamentally 'natural' (or alternatively God-given) act.

The big emphasis in the Lamaze Method is on something called "normal birthing". This is a term implemented to make a distinction between vaginal deliveries and Cesarean Sections. It was certainly clear that our instructor today was adamantly opposed to c-section procedures, except in cases of medical emergency. To reinforce her point she assigned roles to everyone in the group, and had us stand around foolishly- all to demonstrate the large number of medical professionals that are involved in each Cesarean birth. Her obvious point was that the practice is wasteful, uncomfortable, and unnecessary. She claimed that every year over 800,000 women choose this 'elective' surgery. The problem is that a lot of people disagree about what constitutes a 'medical emergency', and just what each choice entails.

I can understand the basic philosophy behind the Lamaze Method. It does make sense that, since humans have been procreating for hundreds of thousands of years, the act of giving birth has evolved to something approaching perfection. However there have been scientific advancements in the last 100 years that have reduced the incidence of birth defects and infant mortality. Why should we spurn medical technology simply because midwifery is an ancient practice? I would argue for a more measured approach that incorporates a healthy respect for the engineering of both nature and humanity. Don't get me wrong... I absolutely believe that there is much in Western medicine (especially in our profit-driven system) that is suspect and/or unnecessary. However I think it makes a lot of sense to adopt a robust skepticism, and apply it equally to both holistic and institutional medical practices. An exhaustively-informed decision is often the best course.

Ultimately I have to admit my profound ignorance in these matters. I am certainly no source of expertise on child delivery. But I did take away some impressions from the class today. Despite the lack of any dynamism on the part of the instructor, I did find the session reasonably informative (even if I concluded that it could have been considerably shortened in length). I was impressed by the active role the Lamaze method attributes to the father of the expected child. There is a lot that a dad can do to make the birthing environment more comfortable and supportive for his mate. In fact, with the emphasis placed on the role of birth "coach", I started to wonder if there are any Lamaze classes for single moms. Every woman present in the room today brought along a partner.

The other peculiarities that M. and I noticed were the numerous references to God and the Bible that the teacher worked into her presentation. At one point she actually cited divine authority as an objection to 'elective C- Sections'. From further research I gather that this approach isn't necessarily indicative of the orientations of Lamaze Method proponents worldwide. Internet sources suggest that 'nature' is often substituted for 'God' when referring to the ancient wisdom of birthing. But if religious faith is somehow inherent in the philosophy, it serves only to alienate atheists and agnostics. I'm not sure that such appeals to spirituality in medicine are an effective way to inspire confidence in modern expectant mothers. The more cynical among us may react against procedures employed in life-and-death situations that are justified by mere 'peasant superstitions'.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Personal YouTube Night. Vol 3

I know you were just dying to see more of my YouTube recommendations. You weren't sickened, fascinated, compelled, and/or unsettled enough by my last list of videos. So here I am again sharing some of my favorites. I have a lot more where these came from. (I'm not sure whether that's a warning, a promise, or a threat):

1. When I first had the idea to search for some vintage HR Pufnstuf goodness, I knew I was going to be entering the land of the surreal. Anyone who is a kid in the 70's remembers the garish colors, and the rather menacing life-sized costumed "things" that inhabit the work of Sid and Marty Krofft. Even stranger is the interaction between the fantasy creatures and their earnestly human co-stars. These links are for a show called The Bugaloos. I don't imagine that it ran for very long, but these music segments are great documents of the ethereal "trippiness" of this particular era.

Watch the Video
Watch the Video
Watch the Video

2. Here's the theme for another Krofft production. This seems like a real stretch for a continuing series. Thank god they had Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick (of Eddie Munster fame!) on hand to "keep it real". I'd like to have been a fly on the wall at the brainstorming sessions that came up with this loopy stuff. What a wonderful world we would live in if only Sid and Marty had acquired the stature of a Walt Disney.

Watch the Video

3. Of course, everything good has to eventually get co-opted by the "man". How would you like to see your unique creations shilling bad fast food products? Well, apparently Sid and Marty didn't feel too good about it when they saw the derivative characters that the McDonald's corporation came up with. Fortunately there was justice in the 70's. The Kroffts filed suit for copyright infringement and won, proving that there was indeed something rotten in McDonaldland. Anyway, here's a commercial propagated by the evil burger empire:

Watch the Video

4. I couldn't possibly leave you with that kind of bad taste in your mouth. Here's the perfect antidote to the crass commercialism demonstrated in that last entry- it's The Banana Splits!!. Of all the Krofft productions, this is by far the one I remember watching the most. The reason for the lingering effect is likely its maniacally catchy theme song. Watching this clip is like being on a particularly speedy acid trip. It's manic, silly, and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. What's with that freakin' elephant? Could watching this sort of thing have given me brain damage? Where's Tipper Gore when you need her?

Watch the Video

5. While we're on the subject of adolescence, let's shift the tone just a bit. Here we have excerpts from a batch of seedy CK Jeans advertisements. Calvin Klein was notorious throughout the 80's and 90's for the controversy provoked by their television commercials. But these ads specifically cross a sacred line in our society- they are clearly intended to suggest a cheap porn shoot. That might be acceptable if the models were over the age of 18. Obviously these young folks are still kids, despite their naively brazen attitudes. The sleazy tone of the man behind the camera is what pushes these beyond the bounds of decorum. One wonders whether Larry Clark had anything to do with this campaign. Of course Calvin Klein profited greatly from all the publicity generated by the moral outrage. I wonder how these would go over now.

Watch the Video

6. On a more sublime note, there's the case of painter Louis Wain. This English artist was best known for portraits of large-eyed, anthropomorphic cats. As people who know me well can attest, I am a huge fan of the feline species- so at some level I can appreciate Wain's early work. But in my opinion, Wain's output became increasingly compelling as he developed a severe case of schizophrenia. In the following video you'll see the progression of his art, as his traditional subjects became disassociated from reality and began to approximate fractal geometry. It's a fascinating peak into a disturbed mind. Incidentally, some suggest that Wain's mania was caused by the onset of toxoplasmosis- which is a parasitic infection that can be contracted from cats.

Watch the Video

7. Years ago I had a cassette tape of a Reggae Sunsplash concert held in Jamaica during the early 80's. I had never had much exposure to the genre before, and so I was surprised by the range of styles presented on that recording. Everyone knows Bob Marley, buy how many have ever heard EEK-A-MOUSE? To my pre-teen ears, there was something captivatingly authentic about his rambling and loopy vocal delivery. When I came across footage of the early EEK-A-MOUSE, I was overwhelmed with nostalgic pleasure. Then I explored further, and got a glimpse of his current incarnation, which is not nearly as magical. Both clips follow...

Watch the Video
Watch the Video

And with that, I'll be on my way. But have no fear... more than likely I'll run into writer's block soon, and I'll do another YouTube post to cover my lack of inspiration.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jon Ronson, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (2006).

These are surreal times. We've now entered a nebulous world-wide conflict aimed (so our leaders claim) at the ultimate defeat of "terror". Obviously our nation seems drawn toward such ill-defined struggles. Anyone with any sense that lived through the Cold War era knows what I am talking about. It's easy to believe that the ordinary man on the street has no idea what our government and military (which seem increasingly interchangeable) are up to. As the years pass, and military documents are released under the Freedom of Information Act, we glean hints of the shady operations of the past. If you want to enter a maze of convoluted suspicion, simply do some cursory research of the MK-ULTRA project. The idea that the CIA would experiment on unknowing subjects by dosing them with LSD once seemed ludicrous. But there has been ample published documentation that provides evidence that this is exactly what happened, starting in the 1950's.

Perhaps it's ironic that secret governmental subgroups introduced a drug into the American population that made many question the patriarchal authority of our leaders. Yet if the student of military history has the patience to look into it, he/she quickly discovers that much cutting edge technology and ideas originated within the armed forces. It naturally follows that there were incidents of misdirection as well. Why should we be surprised by the outlandish experimentation that the the military engages in? Often innovation requires outside-the-box thinking. It was J.C.R Licklider ( a researcher from MIT) who first envisioned a global mind made up of a network of the world's computers, but it wasn't until he became an employee in the Defense Department that his plan was acted upon. Back in 1960, I'm certain that many folks who heard him out thought he was delusional. Nowadays, I can't imagine how we ever did without the Internet.

For ever fanciful concept that eventually reaches fruition, we can assume that there are a host of others that never quite make it. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, British author and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson digs for some examples of the "ones that got away". The title itself refers to a rumored program at Fort Bragg (NC) in which a group of Green Berets shacked up surreptitiously and tried to stop the heartbeats of goats with psychic concentration. Apparently this clandestine program was inspired by the theoretical work of Jim Channon, a Lieutenant Colonel (now retired) in the US Army. Ronson reports that in the wake of the Vietnam War, Channon was tasked with making connections with the burgeoning New Age movement, in an effort to root out unique perspectives that might help suggest a change in approach for the military. Along the way, Channon met and picked the brains of figures involved with subliminal messages, psychic healing, Reichian rebirthing, and other strange arts. He collated his findings into an operations manual for a theoretical unit he called the First Earth Battalion.

One can only imagine what the hard-line old heads in the upper ranks of the armed forces thought of Channon's document. In many ways, the manual seems to propose an eco-friendly, neo-hippie force capable of "killing the enemy with kindness". Surely the proposition that modern soldiers could learn to use clairvoyance, ginseng tab regulators, primal low frequency lights, and macrobiotics (among other things) to become "warrior monks" capable of winning battles in a uniquely "non-destructive" way was met with ample skepticism. However, Ronson pursued communications with both retired and active officers in the military, and discovered that the influence of Channon's research never completely faded away. On a more sinister note, some of his sources told him that at least a few of the concepts in Channon's work have been used recently for much darker purposes. The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detainee scandals seem to hint at the adoption of unconventional interrogation tactics that may have been adapted from the pages of the First Earth Battalion manual.

If all of this has the reader questioning the sanity of the subjects of "The Men Who Stare at Goats", then perhaps Ronson has done his job well. It must be pointed out that the author strives continuously to avoid passing judgment on the validity of the claims espoused by his interviewees. He does not present his findings in the sacrosanct tones of the garden-variety "conspiracy theorist. Rather he writes with a loose experiential style that's engaging, and not without a healthy dose of humor. The larger issue he conveys is that we, in our position as ordinary citizens, really have no way of discerning the degree of truth in the words of the military and intelligence hierarchies. It truly seems like anything is possible, especially in light of the disclosures we have been privy to over the last 30 (or so) years. Maybe we can trust in the inherent rationality of our generals and policy makers, but would you want to stake your money on that dubious proposition? In fact that is what we are all doing with our tax dollars. All we can do is read/listen with an open mind, and try to ferret out some likely conclusions.

Note: Incidentally, Ronson made an accompanying film for The Men Who Stare at Goats. Youn can watch a clip here.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Troubles in the Woodland Hills.

For the last several months the radio hacks over at my least favorite AM radio station (KDKA 1020) have been attacking schools. Recently they have moved their target to a new local district- Woodland Hills. This district was founded by government mandate in 1981, and includes children from the areas of Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek and Wilkins Township. It is exceptional for several reasons. The football team is a perennial favorite in the regional AAAA championships- they won in 1996, 1999, 2001, and 2002. The program has sent over 50 kids to Division 1 schools. On the downside- the upper grade facilities are known for their extremely violent and threatening atmospheres. This month there was a lock-down due to a bomb threat, and several staff members were assaulted by students.

The type of incidents that have occurred this November are really nothing new to Woodland Hills. In fact it has had a reputation for being a tough place since its inception. Its climate of violence has much to do with the racial tensions that exist between the disparate communities that make up the district. In 1971, a Braddock resident filed a lawsuit accusing surrounding white districts of enforcing an underhanded segregation of the races. Ten years later, Woodland Hills opened and remained under court observation for 22 years. Many of the included municipalities resisted the merger. The judge that ordered it received multiple death threats. During the decades that it was under under court supervision, academics and government bureaucrats made consistent visits to the district's schools to keep a close watch on possible disparities in the way white and black children were treated. All of that created a tension that lingers to this day.

Years ago I completed my certificate program to become a teacher, and I stumbled over the choice of schools where I might do my student placement. One adviser suggested that I might be a good match for Woodland Hills, and I readily agreed. I had no idea what the place was about, and knew nothing of its history. My cooperating teacher (C.T.) had already taught for thirty years, and filled me in on the background of the school. He explained that many of the staff members and educators were perpetually frustrated to be working in an environment chock full of conflict, and that doing so under a microscope made it several degrees more difficult. Everyone was a bit afraid to offend the wrong student or parent. The volatility of particular kids could be dangerously explosive. Many of these children came from destructive homes, where disinterested or criminally-convicted adults 'looked after' them. The administration and staff were constantly besieged by threats, and dealt daily with issues of behavior control in the classroom.

I made a personal vow to follow the lead of my mentor, and instituted a student-centered teaching strategy that was moderately successful. I did witness fights in the hall, but none in my classroom. This fact I attribute to sheer luck. My C.T. got a back injury breaking up a particularly intense fight, and I spent a few days teaching his schedule with a substitute in the room. One day a policeman visited to arrest one of my students during class. It was a sad day. Although I was generally satisfied with my student teaching experience, I was glad when it was over. Everyone there was under an inordinate amount of stress. But in the midst of it all I saw actual education happening. I came out of my placement with several awards and one hell of a recommendation. On my last day, my C.T. gave me a bit of advice- find a teaching position out in the suburbs somewhere, far from the struggles of the inner city. I would not find the rewards I was looking for by teaching at Woodland Hills. It eventually turned out that I followed his advice.

Due to my experiences in that district, it infuriates me to hear radio station pundits and callers talking out of their collective ass and condemning the staff and management at Woodland Hills. Instead of implicating the pervasive injustices and inequities of wealth in our society, they are looking for an easy scapegoat. They want to hold someone accountable for the horror stories that parents share about their children, so they implicate administrators and the teachers' union. It's particularly easy for these talking heads to pass judgment, as they are comfortably ensconced in homogeneous and wealthy neighborhoods where their kids are unencumbered by the presence of poverty, resignation and racial tensions. I understand that they have fled the cities so that they won't have to deal with the problems of other people (and to avoid paying the higher taxes that such issues demand). But to hear their sanctimonious pronouncements about the incompetence of professionals willing to work in tough urban environments is disgusting. They have no solutions, but they want to condemn.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

James Ellroy, "The Black Dahlia" (1987).

Although I've watched scores of films that can be characterized as Film Noir, I haven't read very much Noir literature. The names of the most famous authors of the genre's heyday are becoming increasingly familiar- Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and James M. Cain. These hardboiled fiction writers launched the characters and plots that Film Noir was built upon. Since the classic era, several American authors have been directly influenced by this tradition. Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford and James Ellroy are among the most famous of this group. Of these literary figures I have only read books by the first and the last. In fact my introduction to Ellroy was The Black Dahlia, which I completed yesterday.

Ellroy was born in the midst of the period (1948) that Film Noir first reached popular consciousness. His upbringing (although tragic) set the tone for the type of fatalistic crime story he would become famous for. He was the product of a broken home, and his mother was murdered when he was only ten years old. That crime would never be solved, and would help touch off Ellroy's lifelong obsession with the darker side of life. He would later transfer his unresolved feelings toward his mother on to another famous unsolved murder victim- Elizabeth Short, who was killed about a year before his birth. This 22-year old woman (also known as "The Black Dahlia") met her gruesome end in Los Angeles, and was the source of much mystery and speculation for decades afterward. The extreme mutilation of her body resonated with fanatics of true crime. There were a host of suspects investigated by police investigators, and it is rumored that the lengthy list featured such prominent figures as "Bugsy" Siegel, Orson Welles, and Woody Guthrie.

Almost 40 years after the demise of Elizabeth Short, Ellroy attempted to bring together the loose ends of the case with his novel The Black Dahlia (1987). This work has been credited with bringing serious critical attention to the writer, who had previously been confined to the ignoble ghetto of "detective fiction". He would later follow up with a cycle of three more books that completed what came to be known as his L.A. Quartet. In 1997, L.A Confidential was adapted into film by Curtis Hanson, and Brian DePalma brought The Black Dahlia to the big screen in 2005. The success brought about by increasing media attention was hard earned for Ellroy. For much of his early life he had been an alcoholic, a vagrant, and a petty criminal. After achieving notoriety for his writing, he established a reputation as a slavish defender of the LAPD, a brash political conservative, and a necessary teetotaler. He has since sought to distance himself from the label of "genre writer", and now seeks to create mainstream fiction.

Certainly The Black Dahlia meets several of the requirements for becoming popular art. It has at its center a crime so heinous that it astonished a nation. There is perverse sexuality, violence, gore, and psychological trauma at its core. When constructing the plot of his novel, Ellroy obviously didn't feel constrained by the cold, hard facts regarding the historical Elizabeth Short. He introduces many characters into the story that never existed. The protagonist is an ex-middleweight boxing champion-turned-cop. "Bucky" Bleichert is a hard-bitten warrants officer with a soft center that stymies his ascension to the top ranks of the police department. He is brought into the "Dahlia" case against his best instincts, and gradually becomes infatuated with the dead girl. As he becomes progressively embroiled in the complex world of the case, he latches on to a "Black Dahlia proxy"- a dangerous and manipulative beauty from the ranks of the nouveau riche aristocracy of Hollywood. This association threatens to imperil his life and career.

I couldn't help but be impressed at the exhaustive attention Ellroy pays to the police procedural aspects of his novel. The professional jargon of law enforcement, the crime scene protocol, and the intricacies of investigative technique come off as extraordinarily convincing in the eyes of this (admittedly) shallowly-informed reader. There is also a wealth of period detail that presents a captivating and seedy urban setting for the events that enfold. These elements help to flesh out the often convoluted and twisty contrivances of the plot. Ellroy's evocative skills work to distract his audience from the unreality of his story. In the end, The Black Dahlia bears little resemblance to the historical facts it is based upon. According to the author's own admission, it is a colorfully-imagined attempt at reconciliation that allows Ellroy to come to terms with his own troubled past. It's also a genuinely diverting and memorable read.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Thoughts on Veterans Day.

Today is Veterans Day. It's intended as a public observation of the contributions soldiers have provided to the nation throughout history. The date of the 'holiday' is not arbitrary- it falls on the anniversary of Armistice Day, which ended World War I ("The War To End All Wars). In America it is typically employed as an occasion to show one's patriotism. On "Main Streets" all throughout the nation, people put out their flags to display their deep feelings for their country. We are reminded of the great sacrifices ordinary men and women have offered to sustain our 'freedoms'. This is the official story. Families with a tradition of military involvement will seize their opportunity to express their well-springs of pride.

My family does not have many examples of martial heroism in its recent heritage. My maternal grandfather served as a gunner's mate in the US Navy during World War II. I have some relics of his service, including several certificates he received for crossing different landmark lines on the high seas. He never talked very much to me about his experiences during the war. I know he was wounded by shrapnel in his leg, but it wasn't a debilitating or otherwise very serious injury. If he gave his time served much thought, he never displayed much indication of doing so. He never encouraged his grandsons to join the military. Neither did my father's family. My uncle served in Korea, but never mentioned that portion of his life to me. Overall, Veterans Day meant very little to me growing up. It was merely a day off from school.

Today I heard a caller on an AM talk radio program complaining about how little respect younger people have for veterans. He identified himself as 70 years old, which I guess places him as a fighter during the Vietnam War. It's not the first time I've heard someone bemoan the lack of reverence for soldiers. It's a common tactic used to implicate others' 'lack' of patriotism. If we don't love our military, then how can we love our freedoms? This guy explained that without the service of the people in the armed forces- we could be speaking German, Japanese or Vietnamese (!) right now. Interestingly I never heard him say that without the French we could be speaking with a thick British accent (even though that is arguably more realistic than his theoretical scenarios). The problem is that praising the French doesn't fit his political agenda.

Perhaps I am overly cynical. Maybe all of these sentiments are pure and selfless. But I can't help thinking about the thousands of times I've heard "Support the Troops!" over the last six years. I think it's fair to question what people mean when they say that. In reality, we all "support the troops" with massive amounts of our hard-earned tax dollars. Do they mean that they darn socks and bake pies for them too? It seems that when some self-righteous citizen says "I support the Troops!", they actually mean "I like the foreign policies of the current executive branch, and if you don't agree, then you are treasonous and hate our freedoms!" It's a code... it's shorthand, and it is meant to stifle dissent. If you don't answer with "Golly gee... I love the troops too"- then you are obviously anti-American, a Communist, or a terrorist. Go ahead and give in... you aren't actually making any sacrifice by saying you "support the troops".

So it's for that reason that I didn't wear red-white-and-blue today. I'm not waving any flags. I think nationalism is atavistic and selfish. And I honestly don't think that the troops have been put to good use in decades. We invaded and occupied a country that had not attacked us, and (furthermore) posed no threat to us. Is that something to celebrate? Should we honor the participants just for following orders? How is that supporting them? We'd do better by them if we convinced the Congress to make the President bring them home. That feat would make me feel better about this country. I'm simply not giving in to the goose-stepping spirit of knee jerk (and purely symbolic) 'support' for militarism for its own sake. Would it be appropriate for the German people to honor the loyal ranks of the Third Reich? They were putting their lives on the line too. Does it depend on what they were fighting for? Or do we just commemorate the "winners"? I'm not so sure.

Instead of bumper sticker sloganeering and unmitigated jingoism, let's observe Veterans Day by putting pressure on the administration- so that troops who are putting their lives on the line for an aggressive foreign policy will receive the adequate medical benefits they will need when they get back home. Let's make sure that there is money left over for psychological treatment and education benefits. And let's find a presidential candidate for 2008 that is willing to end the madness. That would be doing something decent for the holiday.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review: The 2007 Handmade Arcade @ Construction Junction.

Ya know, I probably should have written this post a couple of days ago. But I didn't even know for sure whether I was going to attend this year's Handmade Arcade. When I went there a couple of years ago, I was overwhelmed by the crowds of young women packed into the narrow aisles between tables. It would have been ideal if I was single, but as a married man I couldn't truly appreciate this aspect of the event. I mostly tagged behind M. as she looked at all the crafty wares. There were a couple of tables with men lurking sheepishly behind them, but overall it was a vast gathering of the hipster indie rock pink team. I felt a bit self-conscious as I attempted to avoid looking like the creepy husband with the wandering eyes. I spent a lot of the time staring at my feet, and resolved to suggest that M. attend with her "womyn" associates the next year.

It's kind of odd (if you think about it) that the Handmade Arcade is held at the Construction Junction in Point Breeze/Wilkinsburg. The business sells reclaimed and recycled building materials for virtually every home improvement need. I know I risk coming off as a stereotypical chauvinist here- but that is one "manly-man" place. It's raw, dirty and all business. I have to point out that according to my own definition, I am most assuredly not in that exclusive club. No one would mistake me for a handyman. In our little intimate dyad, M. is the one you'd be more likely to see with a hammer in hand. I may make and buy art, but she is in charge of hanging it around the house. While my incompetence in this realm could be more of a pose than an actual innate deficit, I certainly don't aspire to expertise. When I walk into the Home Depot, my blood runs cold and thin.

So suffice it to say that when I walked into this year's Handmade Arcade, I felt like a poser on several fronts. I had every expectation of being a disinterested and uninvolved bystander. Given my apprehension I was surprised to find myself put immediately at ease. I was quickly greeted by friends and acquaintances I know from around town. The same crowd that I'm used to interacting with at a gallery opening or the bar on Friday night was at Construction Junction today. Additionally, I saw plenty of men walking around making the scene... and some of them even left their rainbow pins at home. Overall I felt like I walked into a cross section of my very own marketing demographic. In fact I ended up lagging behind M., as I continually stopped to talk to one person or another.

It's a bit of a shame that so many folks still make arbitrary distinctions between artists and "crafters". There was as much artistry on display at this event as you will find at any gallery in the city. And to top it off, you can actually use these objects! Even if you are not in the market for "onesies" for your infant hipster, there are still a lot of shiny things to be enthralled with. There were several artists hocking their prints, including Ben Keyhoe, Andy Kehoe, Mike Budai, Paul Roden and Valerie Lueth (of Tugboat Printshop). Of course the ubiquitous Curt Gettman was in full force, wrapping up the last push for the 2nd edition of Unicorn Mountain. In addition, Jennifer Baron was selling her (now famous) hand-painted thimble people/photos, and my co-worker Kelly Del Greco had her punk rock "day-of-the-dead" merchandise out on display. There was even a guy doing unflattering caricatures.

Happily, this year's Handmade Arcade was held in a huge open space, rather than in the rather cramped upstairs gallery where people log-jammed previously. The only real critique that I had was that the bathrooms were set apart from the activities and there were long lines of folks waiting to vacate themselves. It was also a bit too cold for M., but I was alright with that in exchange for the breathing space. The two-day expanded format probably helped to alleviate the crowding. And I liked the hipsterish DJ who set the tone by spinning some of my all-time lo-fi favorites (including Slint). There were even multiple options for the stomach- veggie treats, cupcakes and the "Franktuary" for the meat eaters in the building. While it's too late now for you to go if you missed this weekend... remember that this is an annual event. If my description appeals to you, I recommend you keep your eyes pealed for next year's installment.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

John Farrow, Robert Mitchum and "His Kind of Woman" (1951)

The other night I finally decided to break into the Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection #3. I figured I didn't need to let it sit unopened on the shelf any longer because I now have the fourth set, and that package includes ten films. I always like to have a backlog of movies to watch... for some reason it gives me a cozy feeling knowing I've got future discoveries to make here in my very own home. Perhaps it's the American in me. I had to find something to hoard. The first two Warner Bros. Noir sets were very entertaining, and I have to credit them in part for establishing my recent passion for Film Noir. When I scanned the titles in #3, I noticed that there was one featuring Robert Mitchum, and I figured that was an appropriate place to start.

His Kind of Woman was directed by John Farrow, and released in 1951. Along with Mitchum, this Howard Hughes-produced flick starred Jane Russell and Vincent Price. But the star power doesn't end there- the flick also contains Raymond Burr as the arch-villain, and the familiar face of Jim Backus (of Gilligan's Island fame) as a cheesy "playboy" type. The inclusion of Mitchum and Burr in a cast usually means that we are going to be entering true Noir territory. Even Price was known to do some good turns in the genre before he became the Hollywood horror icon that most viewers grew to love later in his career. Check out his performances in the fascinatingly oily roles in such classics as Laura (1944) and Shock (1946). As a young man he seemed to encapsulate an effete, sophisticated charm that worked to confound the typically world-weary and streetwise heroes that tend to anchor the standard Noir entry.

On the other hand, the presence of Backus should have raised the red flag of warning. He's a cliche of comic relief, and plays true-to-form in this ensemble vehicle. Still it would be unfair to blame our thwarted expectations on Backus alone. We've got Jane Russell, who was handpicked by Hughes to become a cheesecake icon. She's simply not able to muster the smoky allure that we are used to seeing in our femme fatales. In fact, next to the seasoned veterans in the cast, she comes off as a lightweight. We're supposed to believe she is an accomplished goldbrick, yet she still stumbles about like a wide-eyed country hick. Meanwhile Price is hamming it up in the guise of a successful actor (a la Errol Flynn) who dreams of an adventure worthy of his on screen persona. Somehow the screenwriter allows him to transform into a backwoods "white knight".

Instead of the gritty streets of the urban wastelands, we are taken to the balmy palms of a posh Mexican resort. We don't get tense stalkings through abandoned factories, but rather a pallid pursuit through the bowels of a large yacht. In truth this film is more Fantasy Island than Out of the Past. Perhaps all of this wouldn't be so disappointing if Robert Mitchum delivered his best work. But what could he do (really) with a script that has him ironing money as a cure for boredom? Is he laconic? Check. Cool under fire? Yup. Nonchalant? Sure. Yet I couldn't help but wonder how much pot he had to smoke to get through this farce of a film. Anyway.. I had to look up the details of his arrest and imprisonment for marijuana usage, and (sure enough) it was a scant two years before His Kind of Woman was filmed.

All of this is not to say that this is a complete waste of time. There are enough hardened professionals in the film to make it interesting- even if everyone has to strain to look busy. The depiction of early-50's, jet-setting tourism was mildly compelling from a sociological viewpoint. And there are a couple of gems within the clumsily-aped patter that the writers tried to pass off as Noir-speak. You could do worse than spending two hours watching this spectacle. You could watch a modern Hollywood crime thriller. But why would you, with the hugely expanded catalogue of movies available on DVD today? If you are a Mitchum or (God forbid) Jim Backus completist, then by all means see His Kind of Woman. Otherwise you're not missing much here.

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