Saturday, May 31, 2008

Warhol Through the Eyes of Babes.

Over the years I have made numerous trips to the Andy Warhol Museum. It's certainly one of the most unique features of Pittsburgh, and makes an interesting destination for repeat visits. I've written fairly recently about the Ron Mueck and Martin Klimas exhibitions that came through earlier this year. On that trip I was joined by my father, his wife, M. and Baby E. In fact I've taken all kinds of folks to see the place. Whenever someone comes in from out-of-town, I make it a point to suggest a visit. I enjoy accompanying them through the galleries, checking out temporary holdings, and sharing my knowledge and opinions of Warhol and his work. It doesn't take a lot of persuasion to get me to return again and again.

So when the prospect of chaperoning a bunch of kids from the exurbs came up, I decided that it would likely be fun. I knew that a trip to the big city for many of these teens would be a special treat, and I wanted to experience their reactions. As we made our way off the highway and into the North Side, everyone got really quiet as they stared wide-eyed through the windows. I heard one girl tentatively ask, "Is this the ghetto?" I found the inquiry naively sweet and a bit pathetic. How is it that people can reach adolescence without knowing the extent of poverty that exists only a short car ride away from their homes? I had fun teasing the kids, telling them to keep their heads low so they wouldn't be shot in a drive-by.

I actually repeated the story as I gave a quick manly hug to my (black) friend who was working the ticket counter in the lobby of the museum. He rolled his eyes and took a quick look at the group I was with, marveling at the incongruity of my presence. Everyone filed into the little theater off to the side, and waited for the introduction from the educational staff. They listened to the very simple rules as if they had never been to any cultural institution in their lives. Then about half of them received new name tags to replace the ones they had either lost or already thrown away, and everyone divided into their respective color-coded subgroups. I was put in charge of fifteen of them, and we headed off with our guide.

It wasn't hard to identify the trouble-makers in my charge. There were only five boys, and one trio immediately drew attention. The docent had to shush them repeatedly within the first five minutes of her lectures. I also noticed that they had some desperate compulsion to touch things that they shouldn't- including valuable works of art. We had a look around the delicate works of L.A.-native Glenn Kaino. His stuff is intricate and very fragile, and I felt a surge of dread as I watched the kids carelessly flit around the gallery. Predictably I caught one of the boys poking at a mechanism animating a particularly complex installation. Later I winced as the guide gave her assent to the group's request to grab some rolled-up posters that were offered free to patrons.

Besides feeling a brief moment of panic as I watched an uncoordinated teen stumble to his feet and almost carom into an Elvis silkscreen, I managed to keep calm. The girls were extraordinarily well behaved, and acted like they were interested. But the boys constantly threatened mayhem. They got a bit crazy in the Silver Cloud/Pillow room, but by that point I expected worse. The most embarrassing thing of all was the oft-stated contention of one particularly unimpressed kid, who kept repeating loudly, "How is this art? I could do that!" The thing is that this is a common response to Warhol, even among adults who are supposed to have an element of sophistication. The only query with more frequency is "Was Andy Warhol gay?"

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Comics Abroad: Phillipe Dupuy and Rutu Modan.

I was hanging out with several new friends the other night, and the subject of comics comes up. This is always a dodgy conversation to have with people that don't know me well, as folks are liable to make all sorts of assumptions about adults that read comics. The few of us out here that have developed an appreciation for 'sequential art' realize that it is an important and interesting medium. Unfortunately, in all too many American minds, all comics means is 'superheroes' and simplistic battles of 'good' vs. 'evil'. Maybe there are some political conspiracies and soap opera antics, but it doesn't stray very strongly into the realm of realism. I guess it's understandable given the marketing behind Marvel and DC characters.

But there's an entire world beyond stories for adolescents. Fortunately I didn't have to do much persuasion in the little circle I was part of, because to one degree or another they had each had some experience with 'art comics'. While that is rare in this country, in Europe and Asia comics get their proper respect as a mature art form. The subject actually came up because one of my friends was born in Madrid. She started rattling off the names of artists that she's encountered throughout her life. The sad thing is, despite my fairly broad interest in the form, I recognized few of the names she brought up. I believe we are all missing a lot of great stuff, simply because there is only a very limited tradition of translating and/or promotingthe modern-day classics from abroad.

So this weekend I set out to address this blind spot in my reading. I've spoken before about how good the graphic novel section is at the Carnegie Library Main Branch in Oakland. It took me about two minutes to find a couple of titles worth borrowing. One of them was Haunted (Drawn & Quarterly,2008), by Phillipe Dupuy- a French comics artist who is well known on the continent for his 20-year collaboration with Charles Berberian. Haunted is notable for featuring a sketchbook approach that is absent from the polished Monsieur Jean stories that Dupuy has been creating with Berberian. It is deeply personal, and centered around the musings of a man (nominally the author himself) jogging through a park.

While some of the little tales within are prosaic, and deal with life-lived-in-the-moment, dreams and memories, the book develops into some increasingly warped imaginings. Talking ducks and other forest creatures appear, first engaging the runner, and later interacting in their own fantasy worlds. These stories are allowed to develop spontaneously, and leave the reader unsure about trajectories and direction. The wide-ranging quality of the book may at times feel disjointed, but there is an undeniable continuity resulting from Dupuy's decision not to hold too tightly onto the reigns. What ultimately stands out is the writing itself. The dialog is wry, witty, and emotionally affecting in turns. It makes the experience of reading Haunted gratifying.

I also picked up Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds. Modan was the editor of the Israeli version of Mad Magazine in the mid-90's. Since then she has been involved with founding the Actus Tragicus Comics group, won the Israeli Young Artist of the Year Award in 1997, garnered praises for her children's book illustration, and contributed a visual blog called Mixed Emotions to the New York Times website. Exit Wounds concerns a young cabby named Koby, who is pulled out of his routine when a young woman named Numi approaches him with suspicions that his estranged father has been killed in a cafeteria bombing. He reluctantly agrees to join Numi on a search for evidence proving that the unidentified victim is really his Dad. Along the way he learns more about the man's secret life, and gets to know a bit more about himself. Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sydney Pollack R.I.P. May 26th, 2005.

For those of you not aware, Sydney Pollack died on Monday at the age of 73. He had been suffering from stomach cancer for the last nine months. The noted film director had made more than 21 films over his long career, including The Way We Were (1973), Tootsie (1982), Out of Africa (1985), and The Firm (1993). He was also an important producer, listing among his credits The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Cold Mountain (2003), and the recently released Michael Clayton (2007). Unlike many filmmakers, Pollack wasn't afraid to appear on screen. He can be seen in such diverse works as Husbands and Wives (1992), The Player (1992), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Will & Grace (2000), The Sopranos (2007), and Entourage (2007).

Pollack was born in Lafayette, IN to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. His father David was a professional boxer and pharmacist. His mother died when he was a teenager. After graduating high school, he moved to New York City and got involved in theater. He served a short stint in the Army, and then returned to the Big Apple to teach stage acting. Eventually he moved into film work, and found success behind the scenes. His diverse body of work earned him several Oscar nominations, and an Academy Award for Out of Africa. Pollack married Claire Griswold, and stayed with her throughout his life. They had three children, one of which (Steven) died in a 1993 airplane crash.

Known as a consummate professional, Pollack is the only filmmaker with two of his movies ranked near the top of the American Film Institute's 100 Most Loved American Movies (The Way We Were and Out Of Africa). He was selected to be the President of the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1986, and was lifelong friends with Robert Redford. He was well known for his excellent relationships with the actors he worked with. The mutual respect he shared with his players paid off- he directed 12 different actors in movies for which they received Oscar nominations (Jane Fonda, Gig Young, Susannah York, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Melinda Dillon, Jessica Lange, Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr , Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Holly Hunter). Gig Young and Jessica Lange won the awards.

Unlike many of the directors that were active during the 1970's, Pollack is not known as an 'auteur'. There really isn't any distinctive stylistic stamp to connect his diverse projects. Still he has made many memorable films. His career included stirring epics, light comedies, and scorching dramas. He was always capable of injecting stirring emotion into challenging material. They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969) remains among the bleakest flicks that I have ever seen. Centered around a 1930's dance marathon, it depicts the pessimism and world-weariness of its main characters (played effectively by Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin). On the other hand, Tootsie was a trifling crowd-pleaser.

One of his most interesting projects was his last release- Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005). Pollack had never before made a documentary, but when invited by his architect-friend to tell his story, he decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. Somehow he was able to draw the connection between Gehry's artistic temperament and his vibrantly extravagant building designs. Despite Pollack's self-admitted lack of architectural understanding, he managed to communicate the magic and movement of Gehry's creations with his camera. As with his other films, Pollack allowed the material to speak for itself. This obviously meant a lot to the director, as he actually once sued a Danish television station for airing Flight of the Condor (1975) in pan-and-scan format.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iain Banks, "The Wasp Factory" (1984).

Iain Banks is a Scottish writer who has written both 'mainstream' and science fiction novels. These two pursuits are distinguished by the addition of his middle initial (M.) when publishing the latter. While he will admit to enjoying writing the genre fiction more, he says he gets slightly more reward from 'literature'. That's because (in his words) he feels he has "achieved more having had to wrestle with reality as well as with (my) imagination." And this struggle with 'reality' extends to his external life as well. After a long period of acquiring sports cars, he recently sold his entire collection and bought a Lexus hybrid. He has also vowed only to fly in "emergencies". These decisions are the result of his political views.

After Tony Blair committed the United Kingdom to partnership in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Banks threw in his lot with a group of British politicians seeking to have the Prime Minister impeached. He even cut up his passport and mailed the remains to Downing Street. Banks has a very defined and elaborate vision for the future of society, and it apparently doesn't glorify aggressive militarism. His futurist works take place in "the Culture", a place where advanced technology and pacifism combine to form a sort of utopia. Banks is not ashamed to dwell in such an imagined world- he has repeatedly stated he would like to live in this world of his own creation. If he can't do it within our contemporary times, he has at least achieved this residence in his head.

Banks is deeply secular and humanistic, but oftentimes he creates the opposite in his characters. In his first novel, The Wasp Factory, the author introduces us to a 17-year-old kid named Frank- a manifestly unsympathetic creature. Frank has a penchant for weaponry and black magick, and he's not at all afraid to exploit these interests in a manner that creates great harm to others. The reader learns directly that Frank has no compunction about having killed repeatedly. He's offed a half-brother and a little cousin with little concern for the feelings of his family. As far as he's concerned, his malicious deeds are only further proof of his own cunning and innovation. The methods by which he has achieved such dastardly deeds are indeed darkly artful.

Judging from his everyday activities, one need not be surprised by his occasional outbursts of extreme mayhem. Frank lives on an island off the shore of a resort town, and guards his territory with diligence. In fact he has accumulated a serious arsenal. He has devised all manner of bombs that he stores in a backyard shed. He's created booby traps and death-dealing kites. He has murdered a variety of small animals, skinned them, and mounted their skulls on poles to serve as sentries against possible invaders. While his father has wisely prohibited him from buying the firearms he desperately covets, he has managed to attain a lethal skill with a weapons-grade slingshot.

Frank's maneuvers and preparations are only interrupted by the impending return of his older brother, who has just broken out of the madhouse. As he anticipates the eventual arrival of his sibling, he realizes that he is on a collision course that will change his highly-ritualized life. He has received signs of this encroaching danger from an elaborate death trap called the Wasp Factory that he has built in his private loft. As if this weren't enough, similar signals are being sent out from a macabre altar he has constructed in a nearby abandoned concrete bunker. Unfortunately Frank is unable to pinpoint the exact nature of the coming transformations. Banks leaves the reader to work his way through the foreboding sense of dread.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

What is a "Progressive" ?

I suspect that many people who characterize themselves as 'liberals' tend to have a more positive sense of humanity than others. Perhaps they believe that there is an innate sense of good in most people that will surely come out if it can only be nurtured. That's why they are always proposing legislation based in a deep compassion for the disadvantaged. Hungry people should be fed. Ignorant folks should be educated. The sick should be healed. If nothing else, it's a tremendously noble perspective. Life is not only about personal prosperity, but also about the well-being of the least among us. To suggest that one should only act to advance his/her own self-interest is anathema to liberals.

I'll confess to having the tiniest bit of vulnerability to this way of thinking. It's like the merest hint of conscience gnawing away at me from the back of my brain. I don't feel it in my heart or in my stomach. But I am aware of its existence. Truth be told I actively submerge it in day-to-day life, and it's not that difficult to do. When a stranger asks me for something, it's not hard for me to blow them off and justify the snub in one manner or another. When I was in college I was a bit of a 'bleeding heart' for a month or two, and I felt taken advantage of pretty regularly by the manipulative and duplicitous. So I don't lose very much sleep over denying beggars in the street. I don't actively contemplate the diseased and the weary.

It's true. No matter what some may think, I am assuredly not a 'liberal'. I'm pro death-penalty and against a welfare system that encourages its recipients to procreate. I'm ok with gun ownership and private property. However, don't insult me by calling me a 'Conservative'. In this day and age, there's not a lot worse you can say to me. As far as I'm concerned, that whole lot is exceedingly selfish, reactionary, and close-minded. They want to legislate morality, yet they refuse to assume personal responsibility for the problems of society. They fight abortion and birth control, yet have no plan to counter overpopulation. They stumble about, puking out phrases like "laissez faire capitalism" and "free markets", as if they were vital components of a new American religion. Quite simply I am sickened by all of that nonsense.

Where does this leave me? If I'm not 'red' or 'blue', then what exactly am I? Despite the inherent problems with the phraseology, I guess I'd have to classify myself as a "progressive". And I hate that word almost as much as the other labels. I reject the fundamental notion of 'progress'. Many of the things classified under this banner have been manifestly bad for life on Earth. Suburban developments, agribusiness, SUV's, expansion, sprawl, aggressive militarism, rampant consumerism, working overtime, corporate welfare, etc.- I question the classification of these 'advancements'. It's a tricky notion to precisely describe my politics. When I call myself a "progressive", I'm speaking in the old sense of the word.

Progressives reject ideology and dogma. They recognize these forces as antithetical to civil discourse. They solve problems by studying the environment in which they occur, identifying root causes, and attempting to develop plans to correct their root causes. This isn't a theoretical approach to society. It's essentially pragmatic. Progressive priorities include minimizing government corruption, regulating corporations, protecting the environment, and improving health care and education. This means that, while I don't want to see the government spending inefficiently, I do not bitch about having to pay my taxes. I recognize myself as an individual, as a member of the human race, and as a partner in the stewardship of the planet. Finding the balance between these affiliations is often difficult, but it's ultimately necessary.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tissue-Cultured Meat. Yum!

Occasionally science provides a potential solution to a problem that is so ludicrous that it ends up being of very little practical value. On NPR the other day, they suggested that the inconveniences arising from a household with both vegetarians and carnivores could possibly be solved in the near future. I want to be quite clear in stating upfront that this isn't a pressing issue for most of society. Yes, it is a bit of a shame that M. and I can't share more meals together- but it's hardly cause for too much concern. Sometimes we find ourselves colliding in the kitchen, while we both try to make our separate meals. To date this has yet to cause a serious injury. We also do our grocery shopping separately. This eliminates a lot of potential bickering about selections.

So what has science come up with to address this 'crisis' in mismatched diners? Tissue-cultured meat! Even the sound of it is a bit grotesque. Yes, we are talking about lab-grown meat. Despite the obvious aesthetic problems suggested by such a concept, the idea (as NPR helpfully pointed out) has been around for awhile. Winston Churchill is notable for having said a lot of memorable things, yet he's not known for his gastronomic expertise. In 1932 he said, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." Apparently a man named Alexis Carrel had been keeping a piece of chicken heart tissue alive for twenty years by the time Winston became a food critic.

It's natural to wonder how meat is created without the beast itself. Evidently it is not as simple as taking a skin cell from an animal, and placing it within a solution of nutrients. It turns out that meat is a complex combination of different types of fat and muscle cells. At least one researcher is getting close- Vladmir Mironov, a biologist in South Carolina is trying to figure out a way to make his artificial squares of meat into a commercially-viable product. The problem is that something this texture-less and formless is a bit of a 'hard sell'. Items like SPAM and other types of 'canned meat' became fodder for comedians everywhere, and that stuff is actually purported to come from a living creature we would recognize.

Certainly the biggest proponents of "tissue-cultured" meat are the animal rights organizations that decry the consumption of animals under any conditions. Last month PETA offered one million dollars to anyone able to create and market "in-vitro" (test tube) chicken meat. The condition is that it must be made and sold to the public by 2012. Not only that, but PETA stipulates that it must be sold at a "competitive price" in at least ten states. Oh yeah... it also has to be indistinguishable in taste and texture from chicken flesh ("to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike"). What I'd like to know is who they are going to get to judge this stuff, let alone sell it. The vegetarians I know would be appalled at the idea.

In fact the greatest obstacle to this invention is that no one really wants it. Perhaps it's going to take drastic changes in our environment to make the concept of "tissue-cultured meat" more palatable. Maybe there are plenty of willing mouths in war-torn Africa. But here in America we still have a choice. Meat eaters are pretty conventional people- they are going to be innately suspicious of anything "weird" happening to their food. It may be cut into a square and placed on a 'fortified' bun, but it better be from a damn cow... and not a cow-like substance. And on the other side of the equation, animal lovers are still going to be reminded of the idea of 'sentient being'-flesh. They'll likely stick with their tofu.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

William Gay, "Provinces of Night" (2000).

In my current campaign to read some of the lesser known contemporary Southern Gothic writers, I came across the name of William Gay. Assuming that he was a new young voice in the tradition of Faulkner, McCarthy, and O'Connor, I picked up Provinces of Night with substantial expectations. In examining its jacket I spotted a blurb from Steve Yarbrough that read, "It is time to stop calling William Gay an exciting new voice. In Provinces of Night he proves that he is simply one of our finest voices." That's high praise from a fairly successful regional author, and it reinforced my preconceptions about the author. But there is a particular irony to those words, because Gay is a 65-year-old man who published his first book in 1999.

This native Tennessean has been writing short stories since 1958, but for decades he toiled in obscurity. He is a veteran of the US Navy, and served in the Vietnam War. Throughout his life he has spent time living in New York City, Chicago and Lewis County, TN. He has worked as a carpenter, drywall-hanger and painter. Gay comes from the sort of background that expects its inhabitants to eke out a working class living. His people are solidly rural and Southern, and belong to a tradition that extends backward to the first days of Reconstruction. Few of his neighbors could have expected him to eventually develop a following as an established author. But that's exactly what has happened over the last ten years.

Gay's first published novel (The Long Home) earned him the James A. Michener Memorial Prize. It also attracted the attention of Doubleday, the publisher of Provinces of Night. His second novel tells the story of several generations of the Bloodworth clan. These hardy sons of the dust refuse to be settled by their surroundings. Each generation in turn strikes out to find some elusive freedom, at once beyond and wholly determined by their inheritance. Patriarch E.F. is approaching the end of his life, and has finally slowed down enough to begin his ruminations over a misspent life. His sons are occupied with their own quests- defining their own relationships with the land and kin.

The third generation is represented by Fleming Bloodworth, an atypically cerebral teenager who is largely left to his own devices. His father (Boyd) has abandoned him in the pursuit of his wayward wife, and Fleming is alternatively repulsed and fascinated by his extended family. His aging grandmother would like to take him in, but has her hands full with keeping up with the chores and her increasingly crazy youngest son. Uncle Brady keeps a pack of feral dogs on the family property, and is not shy about offering his clairvoyance and hexing services for a fee. He is suspicious of his siblings, and displays an outright hostility for E.F. Every one of the Bloodworths is completely capable of complicating what should be honest and straightforward interactions between themselves and the world.

As if there weren't enough players filling his pages, Gay has created a large cast of peripheral characters with complicated idiosyncrasies and warped agendas of their own. Although the book is a modest 290 pages long, it manages to convey enough information so that the reader knows what these folks are about. Gay's writing style is densely evocative. His sentences are the type that may require a pause for a re-read, but the essential economy becomes clear once one processes the words. His prose is so beautifully wrought that (at times) I was overwhelmed by his sense of place. It would be easy for Gay to be intimidated by the literary heritage that informs his work, but he manages to confidently tell an entertaining and moving tale. I'll definitely be returning to his territory.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Filling Out McCain's Ticket. Bobby Jindal?!

Nowadays Barack Obama isn't the only man getting serious about picking a running mate. John McCain has officially let the media know that he is actively engaging the process. It's not exactly clear what this GOP 'maverick' will be looking for, but it's easy to guess what some of his criteria might be. It's well known that McCain would be the oldest newly-elected president in history... should he prevail. This is enough of a concern that he has recently been pressured to release his medical records to the public. For what it's worth, the official record says that he is in decent health. There are no signs of the cancerous skin growths that he has battled with in the past. Of course, I wouldn't put his personal doctors above a bit of obfuscation.

Whether or not McCain's truly on death's door, many observers seem to believe he's going to have to balance out his advanced age with a healthy, young partner-in-crime. This strategy might be of mixed value if there is a real chance an elected McCain will die in office. Will the American conservative public be comfortable voting for a ticket that has an inexperienced candidate a mere tumorous node away from the White House? I guess that remains to be seen. They've already invested their support for eight years in a man who had nothing in his past but failure. Now after the fulfillment of Bush's promise, they are desperate for new hope. Just like the Democrats, they are seeking a fresh face.

Some party leaders are touting the possibilities of Bobby Jindal. Rush Limbaugh himself suggested that the current Louisiana governor might be the right man for the job. Apparently the fat, pill-popping, hack actually holds some real power among the Right- McCain has recently invited Jindal for a sit-down. Bobby Jindal is unique in a few ways. At 36, he is the youngest executive of any state in the union. He's arguably the only living politician who has named himself after a Brady Bunch character. He's a rare Hindu-to-Catholic convert. And if he is chosen- he will be the first Indian (Asian-American) to be considered for a national office of this stature. His parents are Punjabi Indian immigrants.

Bobby Jindal fulfills another perceived need for McCain-he is a known Right Wing extremist. He is well known for publicly stating that he is against abortion in ALL circumstances, including in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's life is at risk. He is also in line with the Theocons on other key issues- he is against stem cell research, and he supports the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' in the public schools. When it comes to the typical Republican platform, Jindal is slavishly obedient. As a US Congressman, he voted with his party 97% of the time. He is rabidly nationalistic, and would like to see a Constitutional Amendment banning flag-burning. Finally, he has a terrible environmental record- the League of Conservation Voters gave him a rating of 7%.

If McCain is truly looking for the "next Ronald Reagan" (as Limbaugh fashions Jindal), then he is right on target. The big question is whether or not the Republicans will elect a person of color to a position that close to the presidency. McCain certainly hasn't limited his search to just this one little guy from the Deep South. He has had discussions with Mitt Romney. And he's looking into another governor from the key Southern battleground state of Florida. At 51, Charlie Crist is a known quantity, and two decades younger than McCain. Despite his near-Draconian stances on crime (for which he earned the moniker "Chain Gang Charlie"), he is more left-leaning than many partisan hacks would prefer. He has good environmental ratings and is known as a supporter of civil rights. More about him if the situation warrants...

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

David Fincher, "Zodiac" (2007).

There are some American film lovers that will insist that director David Fincher is an auteur. His hyper-stylized and frenzied movies have captivated the ADHD generation. He has made a handful of successful thrillers, including Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Panic Room (1992). In the process he has amassed a huge and loyal fanbase. His early development prepared him well for the role he now fills in our cultural landscape. He started off working for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. He then produced a commercial for the American Cancer Society that featured a fetus smoking a cigarette. This brought him to the attention of the film industry, and gave folks a hint of his developing aesthetic.

Fincher has also directed numerous music videos for Propaganda Films. Notable among his clients were George Michael, Billy Idol, Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Aerosmith, and The Rolling Stones. This work proved that Fincher could display comfort and confidence while at the helm of a very large budget. He was subsequently tagged to make Aliens 3 (1992), a project he would later publicly disavow due to creative differences with 20th Century Fox. After this experience he went on to produce the aforementioned series of films, which propelled him into his current status. He is known to take on challenging stories, and commit to an unflinching depiction of oftentimes sordid material.

I've always viewed Fincher with skepticism. I've felt that he undermines his own promise with melodrama and elaborate special effects. While his films are usually good entertainment, there is always at least one 'groaner moment' which keeps the work from ascending to the level of art. With that perspective, I began watching Zodiac (his latest movie) with reservations. I had read some good reviews from sources I trust, but could not imagine being wholly satisfied with a Fincher picture. My preconceptions seemed to be confirmed in the first half hour of this serial killer flick. While we watch the tense lead-up to the first on-screen murder, we are suddenly subjected to the rising volume of period rock-and-roll. It really does feel as if Fincher has flash backed to his time with MTV.

Even if I did find a hint of crass exploitation in the soundtrack, I resolved to make it through the 157-minute running length of Zodiac. I was familiar with the story, having read Kelleher and Van Nuys' This is the Zodiac Speaking. I wanted to see just how much fealty Fincher would have to the historical source material. It didn't necessarily bode well that all of the killings were portrayed in the first hour of the film. I wondered what the director could have to fill the rest of the time. I was mildly pleased to see the story transform from a series of violent vignettes to a brooding study of growing obsession. The Zodiac case kept much of California on the edge of abject terror for almost half a decade. Fincher's approach seemed refreshing.

By the end of the movie I was ready to give Fincher some long withheld credit. Not only was he able to assemble a great cast of major and minor players (including Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Jake Gyllenhall, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Adam Goldberg, Clea Duvall, and John Carroll Lynch), but he was able to include roles that gave them something to chew on. It was refreshing to see that Fincher could include characterization in his film-making toolbox. His trademark atmosphere was present without being overwhelming, and there were only a few moments of obvious excess. It makes me feel better about the rumor that he has agreed to adapt Charles Burns' excellent art comics series, Black Hole. That material is too good to see it marred by an immature sensibility.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Who Plays Second Fiddle?

Generally it seems like a real bad idea to make early predictions regarding American politics. The media environment is often way too arbitrary in its coverage, and has the ability to swing events in unanticipated ways. For instance, who knew that they would lend credibility to "Swift boats for Truth" in the 2004 presidential election? With Bush's poor performance and ratings during his first term, most sensible observers were calling for him to be soundly defeated in his re-election bid. Inexplicably he prevailed. It's my contention that Kerry was torpedoed by the media. They made him look completely ineffectual, even with his long record of service to our federal government. I realize that I offer speculation at my own peril.

About a year and a half ago I suggested (on this very blog) that Barack Obama had a good chance at becoming our first black president. Even on its surface it's a claim that ignores the obvious reality- Obama is as "white" as he is "black". But that's not part of the story this election cycle, and so the terms have been established regarding his racial identity. There were certainly times in the intervening months that I've second-guessed myself. It looked to me as if Obama's handlers were going to make him assume a 'vanilla' campaign strategy. He seemed for a bit to be a bit too conservative in his rhetoric. His usual 'spark' was missing. However it returned in full when the Jeremiah Wright flap hit the press.

Now the media seems more-than-ready to call the race for Obama. They are treating him as the presumptive nominee. It is reported that he has the lead in both pledged and superdelegates. Apparently his lead is insurmountable by Hilary Clinton. Her chances have been trumped by mathematical analysis. "She can't win." So now what? The big question (as far as I'm concerned) is, "Who will be Obama's running mate?" Naturally the obvious choice would be his 'newly-defeated' opponent. The media has been pushing the message that many Clinton voters have expressed their opposition to supporting Obama. I suspect that this isn't true. This assumption may be an unintended consequence of Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos".

While it seemed like a forgone conclusion that, had Clinton prevailed, she would have certainly picked Obama for the second spot on the ticket- I'm not sure that the opposite will hold true. A lot of people have suggested that her ego will not allow her to seek anything less than the Presidency. Others have said that they doubt that Obama would want the former first couple looking over his shoulder. I don't think that either of these contentions are true. Hillary and Bill would obviously bring a wealth of useful experience to the prospective administration. I believe that Obama has a strong enough personality to counter any influence peddling. Likewise he has thought a lot about his positions and would not compromise himself based on external pressures.

Still all of this does not mean Obama should invite Clinton on board. Perhaps he will consider geography when he makes his decision. John Edwards has declared himself out, but Jim Webb from Virginia might do the trick. He's a moderate and a military veteran. Or maybe Obama decides he needs to shore up the Midwest, and chooses the youthful 'rising star' Evan Bayh, or Claire McCaskill from Missouri. Conventional wisdom suggests that he must pick someone who won't 'harm the ticket'. It's not the time to court controversy. I've been suspecting he may tag Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. That would be a major advantage in courting the growing Latino vote, and balance the ticket with a perceived 'middle-of-the-road' bureaucrat with foreign relations experience.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

George Saunders, "The Braindead Megaphone", (2007).

A few years ago I decided to delve into the world of the American contemporary short story. I had been mostly reading "the classics", and had started wondering what living writers were making of the time I was living through. I found the field was exceptionally strong. Writers like Chris Offutt and Dan Chaon became early favorites. But perhaps the most stunningly original author of the bunch was George Saunders. I quickly made my way through the two volumes of tales he had published- CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000). His work was characterized by magical realism, dystopianism, and the critique of corporate culture- all themes that particularly appealed to me.

In one story in Pastoralia, Saunders describes a modern-day theme park that has living vignettes of humans, a la Williamsburg, VA. Reading about how two 'cave people' interact in front of the tourists in this park was funny in a sort of surreal and sad way. Saunders vision of America is certainly colored with cynicism, but he manages to be quite humorous about it regardless. As some critics point out, there is a touch of the modern Kurt Vonegut in his approach. He can be scabrous and pessimistic, but it is quite clear how much Saunders values his characters, no matter how reprehensibly they sometimes act. In a tale called Sea Oak, we meet a protagonist with an unemployed pair of sisters, and an aunt that is rapidly decomposing- yet still manages to retain her acid tongue.

Saunders (who was born in 1958 in Texas, and grew up in Chicago) has an odd background for an author. He received a geophysical engineering degree from Colorado, and has worked on an oil exploration crew, and as a technical writer in his field of study. When he was a young man in the 1980's, he embraced Ayn Rand's Objectivism- but later had a change of heart and decided that her views were "repulsive", and formed the basis for neoconservatism. That accounts in part for his penchant for pointing out the most cockeyed aspects of corporate culture. He targets that world with such relish that he has been celebrated by many of the most intelligent malcontents within our society. For the last several years he has written essays for The Guardian, The New Yorker, Harper's and GQ. In 2006 he received a "Genius Grant" (MacCarthur Fellowship).

One look through his only nonfiction collection (The Braindead Megaphone) demonstrates why he has earned such accolades. With very few exceptions his aim is unerring. The title piece explains (in his inimitable way) the role of the media in our current national crisis. His vast skills as a commentator are underscored by his refusal to dehumanize his subjects. He is never shy about confronting his own presumptions of others. Descriptions of trips to Dubai (in the United Arab Emirates) and to the US-Mexican border demonstrate the amount of equanimity he is willing to show to the traditional whipping boys of Northeastern "liberal society". Invariably he finds a core of decency in those easiest to disdain.

There's something to be said for an essayist who reserves his judgments while interacting with primary sources. While he's not at all afraid to expose the hidden agendas and selfish motivations of some, he's also not going to let preconceptions dictate his story- otherwise why bother making the trip? It's clear that he is a skeptic, and finds much of human behavior completely absurd. Yet he realizes what is at stake. At one point he makes an internal resolution to remain as open to new experiences and information as he can. In his opinion, the opposite tact is a direct route to the death of both the intellect and the spirit. It's extraordinary how Saunders can be simultaneously discerning in his evaluation of human foibles and yet so life-affirming. This feat makes Saunders unique in the American literary landscape.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

StoryCorps.

Lately a pattern has been developing during my Friday morning commute to work. I'm generally feeling fairly positive because the culmination of the week is drawing near, and I'm relaxed and attentive. At some point, usually toward the end of my drive, a series called StoryCorps comes on and I tune in closer. StoryCorps broadcasts recordings of interviews between loved ones. It's a relatively loose concept, and there are a lot of unexpected twists within the several-minute-long edited segments. Strangely enough, it is not unusual for these tales to draw a tear or two from my eyes. I'm not a particularly emotional person, but something about the strange mix of detachment and poignancy of this experience is tremendously affecting.

So sometimes I show up to work in the morning with red eyes. I don't know what my co-workers think of my deportment on Fridays. I try not to make any eye contact, and simply mutter distractedly if someone greets me. All of this is NPR's fault for producing such a great project. It's not as if they pioneered the concept of interviews with ordinary folks (see Stud Terkel). But the idea of outfitting a vintage Airstream Trailer, and parking it outside of our cities' public libraries for public use, was nearly brilliant. Of course there was never any guarantee that people would be willing to tell their intimate stories so openly. There was no way to tell how much skill they would demonstrate as story-tellers. And yet it's a tremendous success.

This nonprofit project got its kickoff in October of 2003 with a StoryBooth in New York's Grand Central Station. Within two short years they were able to acquire two MobileBooths, and they launched them from Washington DC. If you find one of these moving recording studios and choose to participate, you will receive a CD recording of your interview. In addition, a copy of the recording will be housed in the Library of Congress in perpetuity. The StoryCorps idea has really caught on, to the point where it has received a Peabody Award- the most prestigious honor in broadcast journalism. Last year they produced their first book-Listening is an Act of Love, and issued an audiobook as well.

Anyway, this week's clip was especially sad. It was an exchange between an old man and his son. The father described having once beaten his boy for refusing to wear a raincoat to a piano lesson. It was clear that this had not been a regular habit of the man, but rather that he had just had a particularly bad day. Still he reported never having been able to forgive himself for the incident. He had been carrying that guilt with him for almost 50 years. Of course he started weeping, as his son reassured him that he had been forgiven. The son even pointed out that everything good that he had ever done was influenced by the father. It was a remarkable opportunity for catharsis. and a great example of what can happen in a StoryCorps booth.

This tale was especially moving for me, as I have just started the process of fatherhood. I wonder if some day I will have a similar burden to carry around with me... something that my son will resent for years. Is this inevitable? My father used to beat the hell out of me regularly, to the point where I would explode in an upside-down blood fountain, and I've moved past that. I even remember one time... (EDITOR'S NOTE: OK, slow down there, bucko! I feel some responsibility to jump in here and expose Merge's complete misrepresentation of his relationship with his father. His Dad NEVER beat him, other than one occasion where Merge was slapped on the leg during a temper tantrum. The impact left a hand-print for about two-and-a-half minutes before fading into nothing. Of course Merge, in his self-indulgent willfulness proceeded to sulk for the next day in an attempt to make his father feel guilty. -DG) ...(libelous text omitted) and I never lost my affection for the 'old man'.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Intrepid Day-Tripper.

Among my friends and family I can count a number of world travelers. It's not that I know a lot of wealthy people (although there are a few exceptions), but rather that I tend to hang out with folks who put a lot of value on this activity. I've actually gotten into quite a few conversations with them about why I haven't been overseas. For some reason, a lot of my buddies seem to assume that I've been to Europe. But the fact is that I never arranged things in my life so that I could undertake such a substantial journey. When I had enough money, I always had other plans. I'd find myself tied down by commitments, or want to save up for some large purchase. Consequently I have enough possessions. I just don't have any interesting anecdotes about foreign countries.

To be honest, there's another reason I haven't done any extensive traveling- I don't like to fly. Even before 9-11 I found the experience extraordinarily uncomfortable. My height always necessitated a request for an emergency aisle seat. This made the experience bearable, except for the added sense of responsibility that it placed in my mind. Unfortunately. the last thing you want to be reminded of when you are flying is that there might be a need for an emergency exit. A couple of times there were no spots in the 'special' row, and I had to sit in a fetal position for an entire flight. Another time I sat next to a born-again Christian with a golf obsession. All these factors contributed to a sense of foreboding. And then the planes hit the buildings...

So for the last several years, I've been confined to land travel. My wife does no highway driving, so that anytime we go on a trip I'm always behind the wheel. That puts limitations on my range. I can do about twelve hours in a day, and then I start going a bit nuts. I make up for these restrictions of movement with creativity. I have been to plenty of places that most Western Pennsylvanians would never consider visiting. This includes a Hare Krishna ashram, an abandoned reformatory, the world's largest indoor Bible wax museum, and Erie. Of course I've been to most of the notable cities within that range as well- New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Columbus, Asheville, Chicago, Toronto, Knoxville, and Atlantic City.

I'd certainly qualify as a regional explorer. Whether it's an Appalachian backwater, a rural hovel, a historic battlefield, a beach community, or a dying rust belt town- chances are it has not escaped my interest. It's strange to think about the variability in human experience that lays within 600 miles of any point on Earth. There's plenty of exploration to be done around any such node. While it may seem that I've seen the majority of stuff that is worthwhile, I realize that this isn't close to being true. I could spend the rest of my lifetime not going beyond these (somewhat) arbitrary borders, and never experience everything. I wonder how many people throughout the centuries have never strayed beyond such a circle.

My window of opportunity for overseas travel has definitely passed... at least temporarily. The costs and other responsibilities of raising an infant are a bit prohibitive. I realize that I'm going to have to get really creative if I want to continue taking 'vacations'. No more bathing in the lap of luxury, to be sure. I have to consider the well-being of my child, first and foremost. Yet I really have no idea how people travel with such a young child. Where do they go? How do they get to see anything that they want to see? With as many weeks off a year as I usually get, I'm sure I will find the time to work through some of these issues. As baby E. gets older, it's going to be fun to take him to some of my old haunts. I have to remind myself that this journey is just getting started.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jeremy Scahill, "Blackwater" (2007)

Advocates of widespread privatization seem to have triumphed in the US military. Prior to March 31, 2004, this was the Bush Administration's dirty little secret. It was on that date that the burnt remains of several private contractors were suspended on a bridge outside of Fallujah- an Iraqi city of 300,000 up the road from Baghdad. Technically these men had been civilians, but not in the eyes of the Sunnis that were unhappy with the American occupation of their city. The deceased had been escorting a convoy of flatbeds, on their way to pick up kitchen equipment. They wore wraparound Oakley sunglasses and drove in jeeps without armor. They could have been CIA agents, but they were actually employees of a company called Blackwater.

Blackwater was responsible for the protection of Paul Bremer (CPA head) and John Negroponte (US ambassador to Iraq). This certainly validated Blackwater executives' claims that they were a 'secret partner' of the US Government on the War on Terror. Regardless of the actual level of clandestine participation, there is no doubt that most Iraqis perceived these contractors as official representatives of the occupying forces. And thus whatever behaviors they displayed reflected not just on themselves, but on the entirety of the American people. Unfortunately for the US citizenry, Blackwater's soldiers-for-hire are cocky and often act as if they are above the law.

The fact is that (according to Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the Worlds Most Powerful Army, (2007)) these mercenaries are indeed beyond the reach of criminal prosecution. This was by decree of Paul Bremer himself. As Scahill notes in his extraordinarily informative work, "One of Bremer's last official acts was to issue a decree immunizing Blackwater and other contractors from prosecution for any potential crimes committed on Iraq (June 27, 2004)." That basically gave these mercenaries complete impunity... a license to kill and maim at will for any (or no) reason. The real consequences of their missteps were paid by the US Military, who were drawn into a rash campaign of revenge after the "Fallujah-Bridge" incident.

It doesn't necessarily matter that those doomed Blackwater agents were simply lost when they were ambushed and desecrated. They became a symbol of Bush's resolve in the war. At the same time, their company became super-wealthy with expanded government contracts after the grisly incident. Blackwater became the vanguard of the radical change in the role that private companies would have in the theater of war, and even flirted with actual combat. The story begins with the wealthy heir of a Christian Right fortune, and continues through the remarkable series of events that transformed a small arms shooting range facility into one of the most notorious private military contractors the nation has ever seen.

Scahill has obviously put a tremendous amount of research into this book. If it has any flaw, it is its almost overwhelming scope. Obviously this is an inordinately complex story. There are too many problematic aspects of the Blackwater phenomenon to present a comprehensive list here. Among the many things the American public should be concerned about most are: Erik Prince's ties to the radical Christian Right, private contractors overcharging on no-bid government contracts, private security companies siphoning off the best manpower from the armed forces, the lack of transparency in the activities of private military contractors, and the message that using mercenaries to fight the administration's battles sends to the rest of the world. This is a mind-bending and troubling work.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jim Thompson, "Roughneck" (1954).

Jim Thompson was an interesting figure in American literature. He was primarily known as an artist of hard-boiled crime fiction. During his lifetime he wrote more than thirty novels, many of which were published by pulp fiction publishers. Although he only received a little critical attention during his lifetime, he has subsequently been lauded as one of the best writers within his genre. His more refined writing incorporated surrealism and unconventional plot devices that elevated his best work to the status of literature. In fact, many contemporary authors and filmmakers have gone public with their appreciation of his output. Robert Redford, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King and the directors Stanley Kubrick, Sam fuller, Stephen Frears and Steven Shainberg are among the many cultural celebrities who are on record as being Jim Thompson fans.

Thompson was born in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1906. His father was a county sheriff who was forced to leave office due to rumors of embezzlement. While his family lived a nomadic existence, Thompson developed a reputation as a hustler at a young age. One of his first jobs was working as a bellhop in a hotel, where he supplemented his income by trading in bootleg liquor during the prohibition era. This time in his life is documented in the entertaining memoir Bad Boy, and was adapted by Shainberg for his 1996 feature Hit Me. His truck with underworld figures and petty criminals left him plenty of material for the stories he was submitting to a variety of true crime magazines.

Later on he would become an oil field laborer, and then the head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project ( a position created as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's depression-era New Deal programs). During World War II he worked at an aircraft factory where he was eventually investigated for a brief flirtation with the Communist Party. Out of this experience came the fodder for his first novel, Now and on Earth (1942). Subsequent works became progressively violent and dark, and Thompson slowly built a following. Eventually though, having become frustrated by his lack of commercial success, he turned to writing television programs and novelizations in Los Angeles. He died of a stroke at the age of 71, his health ravaged by alcoholism.

Roughneck picks up where Bad Boy leaves off. It finds Thompson entering the struggles of young adulthood in the rough economic climate of the 1930's. He got married young, but had difficulties finding work to support his wife and child. His memoir chronicles his desperate search for legitimate employment. It tells of his associations with various shady characters, who lure him into schemes and con games. At one point he gets a job as a strong-arm collector for an installment shop that caters to clients with extremely bad credit. Thompson's deep humanity and affinity for the underdog shine most strongly in this account. In the midst of tramping around the country looking for sustenance, he never abandons his dreams to write great books. Unfortunately his family often pays the cost of his determination.

The stories of Thomspon's hardships are often funny, but contain a hint of deep pathos about the cold, implacable nature of life. His tale of trying to extract a derelict oil pipe from a backwoods site dramatizes the almost epic battle between intention and fate. His attempts to negotiate the bureaucracy of the Works Project Administration and write a history of the unions underscores the often unavoidable futility of honest effort. Even his modest bid for domestic comfort seems doomed to failure. Thompson finally finds himself in the position to buy a house for his clan only to discover the structure infested by bedbugs and centipedes. Despite the essentially bleak outlook and the rather scattered narrative, Roughneck is an illustrative reminder of just how tough it has been (and can yet be) to make it in the USA.

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Elizabeth Catlett @ Regina Miller Gallery.

I don't usually do this kind of thing... but the request was just so polite:

"The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery presents the works of famed artist and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett in a special, two-day exhibition May 17-18. The gallery, located on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, will be open both days from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Catlett’s exhibit, which features more than two dozen of her figurative lithographs, serigraphs and bronze sculptures, coincides with her acceptance of an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon on Sunday, May 18.

Catlett has been described as the foremost African American woman artist of her generation. Many of Catlett’s works are in the collections of the world’s most distinguished art museums.

Please visit http://my.cmu.edu/site/events/ or http://millergallery.cfa.cmu.edu/ for more information."

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sprout Fund Mural Preliminary Design Exhibition, Thursday, May 15 @ Concept Gallery.

Almost exactly a month ago I posted about my participation in the public arts, and my involvement on the Sprout Fund Public Art Advisory Committee. We held meetings to select a pool of artists who would then go before the communities with their proposals. We also chose the locations that would receive murals. I mentioned how impressed I was to learn how much effort was invested in making sure the selection process was as unbiased as possible. I couldn't go into any detail about the specifics of that meeting because everything said in that room was meant to be held in confidence. This policy no doubt helps ensure that the committee members feel free to share their opinions without provoking ill feelings outside of the meeting.

I do have to admit to having some difficulties in putting aside personal feelings about art and artists. Naturally it is expected of me to bring my aesthetic sensibilities to the process. Not only is individual taste at-play in the judging, but it is in fact significant overall in the decision-making process. It is not enough to be an adept craftsmen- prospective muralists must appeal to a group with wide-ranging preferences and attitudes toward art. The assessment of art is inherently subjective, as I've mentioned before on this blog. However, the people on the committee would not have been chosen had they not been recognized as respected arbiters of taste- at least in the view of the Public Art Program Manager.

Obviously with a dozen people on the committee, one's personal preferences will not always be selected in the end. That is exactly as it should be. Still it can be difficult to see one of your favorites rejected, especially if he/she happens to be a friend as well. Pittsburgh is not a huge city, and if you make it around to the galleries, you quickly meet many of the more prominent artists in town. I've been going to openings and exhibits for at least five years, and so I know many of the creators on a first name basis. It's inevitable that I would like at least several of them. Conversely, there is always the possibility that I don't like someone that applies. It's just as important in such a case to remain as objective as possible.

Anyway, for at least this year, we are done giving our input. And we were only responsible for narrowing the pool by less than half. From the remaining proposals, the communities will select who they want to work with. This year there were enough quality applications to provide several options for each mural site. There is no way to sway the community selections. Many of the people choosing among these artists will have conventional tastes. Others no doubt will have very idiosyncratic ideas about art. Ultimately there is nothing we can do to ensure that our favorites make it through to the end. That may or may not be lamentable, depending on your perspective. I will say that we juried through a wide range of creators, and many of them do more challenging work than what I've seen in murals currently around town.

But I don't need to tell you all of this... you can see for yourself! This Thursday, May 15th is the date for the Preliminary Design Exhibition. It opens at the Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square (1031 South Braddock Avenue), and runs from 6 until 8PM. This is your opportunity to compare and contrast, and see how strong the field actually is. Each artist will present their preliminary ideas for the murals themselves. In many cases this will be the first time they are seen by anybody other than their creators. These designs were not required to be completed and turned in with the initial portfolios that were evaluated by the Advisory Committee. So they are going to be new to me as well. I can't wait to see what this talented group of artists have come up with.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The City of Bridges, Rivers and Irregular Angles.

I've never been particularly sentimental or nostalgic about my relationships with people. That may sound a bit cold, but I don't mean it that way. The thing is that I have always felt fairly free to give myself over to disparate parts of my personality. That means my approach to life has seen radical changes over the years. Although it's hard to be objective about that, I can only imagine that it has caused problems for some folks. There are certainly more than a few friends that I've known who have resisted validating such changes. There's a certain personality type that likes to keep its associates in a generally fixed focus. They are the sort that have a tendency to constantly remind you of who they think you are. That can be an obstacle to personal growth.

If I step back and look at my life, it's easy to understand any confusion others might have about my trajectory. I was a little hot-head right from the start. Being completely willful, I fought against everybody's attempts to define me. Sometimes I would do something extreme just to shake people up. It would be easy to shudder from too much remembrance. I gave hell to several of the closest figures in my life. Then when I anticipated blow-back, I abruptly changed. I pursued the martial arts and JROTC. All of a sudden I was disciplined, controlled, and very conservative. This phase took me through most of high school. It was an effective way against shielding me- both from my wilder instincts, and failure.

I could have easily ended up in the military, such was my embrace of that persona. In retrospect I feel fortunate to have gained acceptance to a large university in a city far from home. That circumstance provided me with a new opportunity to remake myself. I didn't know anybody in the new city, and could take the time to build an identity I could live with. Strangely enough I joined a fraternity. This experience was valuable because it wasn't the typical date-rapin', beer swilling, chest-pounding club that most of these organizations are. In fact, I learned to become tolerant of people who were radically different from me. Some of the brothers were metal-heads, others were hippies, and some were the product of the suburban upper middle class. There were athletes, stoners, Republicans, poets, musicians, and even guys that came out of the closet.

In the circles I ran with in college, you had to be tolerant of young adults who would profoundly shake your perspective. If you weren't comfortable being around individuals that were completely different from you, then you wouldn't stick around very long. Not only did this arrangement serve me well, but it launched me into another decade and a half of wide-ranging exploration. My twenties were a haze of activity, very little of which ever led to my material advantage. On the other hand, I always felt empowered to chase every single repressed aspect of myself out into the open. I tried everything that occurred to me. I'm lucky that there were no long term negative repercussions. And I don't regret anything.

Nowadays I am venturing into what some might see as a conventional path. I've got a house, a decent career, a wife, and a young child. I've been in this place long enough to feel like I belong. Pittsburgh is a small city, and contains the record of a lot of the experiences I've gone through. Still it's also big enough to contain corners where its inhabitants can hide for years. Like ghosts from memory, they can pass by you when you are least prepared for it. I can go to virtually any part of town and run into someone I've spent time with in the past. They reflect back on me the meaning I've taken from the periods I've passed through. They help me form a composite of the varied faces I've worn over the years I have been here. That's pretty extraordinary.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Greg Bottoms, "The Colorful Apocalypse" (2007).

There's something about half-crazed, backwoods, fundamentalist Christians that lends itself to making imaginative claims about looming apocalypse. Sometimes such self-styled ministers have intense visions and decide to commit them to canvas in the form of paintings. Fortunately for a lucky few, we happen to be living through a particularly millenarian age- when even those who can be called nominally 'sane' have their dark moments of terror. This means that there is a growing audience for artwork by these folks. In fact there is even a cultural apparatus evolving to deal in such works. There are galleries, journals, and even museums where you can see it. There's even a formal term to refer to it- "Outsider Art".

Certainly people have their disagreements about just what is, and what is not, Outsider Art. There are some that would suggest that artists who create work outside the mainstream count as members within this category. Others would assert that these creators are, by necessity, driven by mental illness. Greg Bottoms, an English professor, impulsively decided to explore whether or not some of the more famous Outsider Artists were particularly afflicted. Instead of going to the institutions (mental asylums, prisons, etc.) from where much of this body of work originates, he chose to travel to the Deep South and the Mid-West, to meet a few of the most famous Christian Visionary painters of the day. He resolved to keep journals and other recordings from this journey, and eventually worked them into The Colorful Apocalypse.

Bottoms was too late to meet Howard Finster, as he had recently passed away. He was able to meet Finster's sister, who was struggling to preserve her brother's land (called Paradise Gardens) in the face of financial difficulties. After riding around with her for a bit, the author decided to venture forth and meet William Thomas Thompson- an eccentric ex-millionaire who experienced a torrid vision of the end-times, and subsequently devoted his life to depicting harrowing portrayals of Christian horrors. Through lengthy conversations Bottoms was able to get Thompson to expound on his conspiracy theories, and his strident criticism of 'False Christians'. He also managed to wrangle an introduction to Norbert Kox, Thonpson's friend and sometimes collaborator.

Kox was an Outlaw biker from Wisconsin whose revelations came by way of a very bad acid trip. He decided to abandon his wife and child, and his motorcycle body shop, and enter into a decade-long retreat in the woods. There he built an elaborate shrine documenting the visceral sufferings of the crucified Christ, and intended to serve as a tour guide and missionary to visitors. He also painted several hundred paintings along similar lines. Philosophically, Kox and Thompson share a lot of the same obsessions. They are both concerned with the political influence of the Masons, the false teachings of Catholicism, and the impending final judgment. Kox has been 'discovered' by the legitimate art world, and has shown his work in galleries across the US and Europe.

Much of The Colorful Apocalypse recounts the interaction between Bottoms and these artists. The author is clear about not being an expert in the field of art history. And while that is not enough to invalidate his insights, it does provoke an inevitable question- just what is Bottoms motivation for writing this book? Apparently he has had personal experience with madness, and he wants to understand its nature. His brother is a schizophrenic who has embraced fundamentalist Christianity. This is problematic as it suggests that Bottoms is clearly biased in his assumptions about Christian Outsider Artists. While he has crafted an entertaining journal, he has also made himself vulnerable to a disproportionate amount of criticism for such a slim and innocuous book.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Must-See Gallery Shows Currently in Pittsburgh.

I was blind-sided this weekend. With the numerous art events around town the last couple of weekends, I had no expectation of seeing more eye-opening work. I thought I would be too desensitized to truly appreciate the offerings this past Saturday. I could not have been more wrong. The work currently hanging in a select few galleries around town is extraordinary. These venues might be a bit beneath the radar compared to the major local institutions (the Carnegie, PCA, Mattress Factory), but they demonstrate just how strong of an arts scene there is in Pittsburgh. I'll take this opportunity once again to lament the moribund state of art collection in this city. It's too bad there aren't more people in the position (or with the willingness) to financially support the artists.

Anyway- despite better sense, I am still doing my part. I was absolutely convinced of my commitment to be more temperate in my buying habits. I understand that it's getting rough all over, so I don't mean to whine about finances. Let's just say that with gas prices facing a seemingly unending increase, I really should be more careful about 'unnecessary' purchases. So that's the attitude I've tried to assume when leaving my house for the most recent art shows. But the reality is that Pittsburgh is a buyer's market. I'm cheap... I'll admit it. Still I am blown away by the prices young artists are willing to put on their work. I've developed a better idea about the resources that go into making an art object. When you do the math, a lot of these folks are getting sweat shop renumeration.

I started off with Randie Snow's exhibition at Moxie Dada. I was already familiar with her work from the last few years. I tried to cultivate her participation in Carnivalesque at the Digging Pitt gallery a couple of years ago. That didn't work out, but I continued to take a look whenever she had a show. Comparisons to the sadly-departed local legend James Church were inevitable- Snow studied with him during the last couple years of his life. I thought I knew the type of assemblages I would see at Passages at Moxie Dada. I had no idea that Snow has ascended to a new level in her output. She has produced an extremely moving body of pieces based on the seven sins and seven virtues of Catholic faith. She sought out and bought over-sized bibles from the 1800's, and carefully cut windows in their covers, hollowing out their innards. Inside she has encapsulated the very essence of morality. They are quite remarkable, and you can (and should) see them them through May.

Next I rushed over to the La Vie Gallery to see what I thought was a collection of collaborations between Thommy Conroy and James Maysles (turns out that I'm a week late on that one- it opened at the Red Room on April 30th). Instead it was an outstanding group show called A Dream of Fair Women, and included some of my favorite locals (Elina Malkin, Jairan Sadeghi, etc.). I think I'm getting spoiled by this gallery. On several occasions I've believed that the exhibitions couldn't be any better. But every time I drop my guard they exceed my expectations. They got my money again this month. Masha Vereshchenko had a grouping of extremely detailed ballpoint pen and ink drawings. I've been keeping my eye on her work for awhile (she also used to show occasionally at the Digging Pitt). I've been intrigued before, but this time I was compelled to buy a piece. You can see it (and buy a print!) at her Etsy website. Yay! I've finally found an ethical way to spend the Bush tax rebate that is supposedly forthcoming. This will be a centerpiece of my growing collection.

Finally I made a point to stop in at Paul Leroy Gehres' opening for Paid Sick Days at the Panza Gallery. For those not in the know- he is Leroy "King of Art"- man of the multitudes, former illustrator for the New Yorker, designer for Anna Sui, alumni of the aforementioned Carnivalesque show, and the reigning champion of post-pop in Pittsburgh. And as attested to by the wall-to-wall panorama of quilts, drawings and sundry currently up at Panza... he is ultimately irrepressible, indefatigable, and irresistible. The first thing my friend and I noticed in walking into the gallery was that every single damned piece was tagged as if priced at a vintage clothing shop. Listed were crossed-off prices, and the stuff was actually marked up! By his own reckoning, it took him almost 24 hours to hang this aesthetic panoply. But to look at him on the big night, you'd never have known it. He wasn't even winded! You can see this extravaganza until May 31st. If you go, look closely... because the dirty secret is that there are some incredible bargains to be had. If you can't make it, make sure to visit Leroyland today.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Edward Carey, "Observatory Mansions" (2000).

Before my last trip to the library, I did a lot of research on Amazon in an attempt to devise a list of intriguing books by authors I haven't read. Some of my exploration was guided by theme, but there were a few titles that seemed to pop out of nowhere. Such was the case with Observatory Mansions, by Edward Carey. While reading this odd book, I tried to recollect why I would have identified with it in the first place. So when I was was done reading, I made a point to return to its Amazon listing page to try to figure out why I was drawn to it. I noticed right away that the Publisher's Weekly editorial review name-drops David Lynch- a sure way to grab my attention. Anything that elicits such a comparison earns a closer look from me.

Of course this is an easy way to court disappointment. Very little deserves to be placed in a category with the undisputed king of weird American cinema. It seems increasingly popular to try to sell a consumer by identifying his/her demographic, attributing a typical reference point, and then associating it to anything that vaguely resembles a landmark work that might appeal to the target. There is seemingly no end to the stream of contrived entertainment that gets passed off as "Lynchian-weird". So it's a bit unfair to be moved by this tactic, and then suspicious of any work that is marketed this way. In the case of Carey's first novel, it is only vaguely applicable- yet enough so not to add insult.

Francis Orme (our protagonist) is a strange figure. He is strangely detached from all other life forms. He works as a "living dummy" in a wax museum, has very few friends, and refuses to ever remove a pair of white cotton gloves shielding his hands. Francis is clearly plagued by one or another fashionable mental affliction. Maybe he's autistic or maybe he's got obsessive-compulsive disorder- either way, credit Carey with not saying. In fact, we should applaud the author for taking the time to describe his characters through their interactions, rather than force-feed his readership with expository details. The strange tenor of the story lends itself well to slowly-revealed mysteries.

Why does this peculiar individual keep an exhibition of odd objects in a tunnel underneath the building where he lives? Why do his parents sit mute in the background of his tales for the first half of the book? Who are the strange folks who live in Observatory Mansions, and how did they get the way they are? Carey is in no hurry to explain any of this. He is content taking his time and shining the barest hint of light on his delightfully idiosyncratic subjects. There is a woman who believes she is a dog. There is a fusty old tutor who is continuously pouring sweat and a hundred scents from his body. And there is the enigmatic young woman who throws an entire building of flats into upheaval with her facility for encouraging memory and its communication.

Observatory Mansions is not a particularly easy book to read. It is instead fully imagined and surreal without being contrived. The behaviors of these queer fish are never simply arbitrary, and thus they don't seem artificially rendered (this is not a Wes Anderson movie). Sometimes they are brutal, but there is a core of tenderness to many of their actions... if the reader can get beyond the oddity of surface descriptions. Carey has found a way to animate the conflict between modern life and an anachronistic courtly existence, and the deterioration of what was once a grand country estate reverberates in the resignation of its inhabitants. This is a periodically perverse journey into the emotional isolation that can ultimately keep those in close proximity apart. But I'd say it owes less to David Lynch than to Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Amelie).

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Friday, May 09, 2008

John A. Allison, Ayn Rand, and Higher Education.

Sometimes I wonder about the American understanding of 'charity'. In 2005, John A. Allison IV gave a $1 million donation to the University Of North Carolina-Chapel hill. Since then, he and his company have doled out millions more to 25 colleges and universities. This past January, it was announced that Marshall University in West Virginia would be the next recipient. Allison is the chairman and CEO of BB&T (Winston -Salem, NC), which is one of the largest banks in the United States. Allison's contribution probably won't 'break the bank' (so-to-speak), as his company's assets have been estimated by the NYSE to exceed $100 billion. I have no qualms about the size of the gift. If I saved every penny of my discretionary income for the rest of my natural working life, I would likely not even be able to accumulate a fifth of that amount. Although Allison felt no real sacrifice, it was still a generous sum.

I don't want to discourage authentic philanthropy, but the conditions Allison places on the universities where he makes his offers are (at the very least) problematic. He makes his 'donations' contingent on the fulfillment of a very specific set of compromises. Each university and college has to create an Ayn Rand reading room. Additionally he requires that Rand's Atlas Shrugged be included in the curriculum of at least one course. I guess this isn't a huge surprise, given that Allison has been a major contributor to the Ayn Rand Institute: The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism (A.R.I.). Their stated mission is "...to spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today's culture."

It really shouldn't be shocking that a banking institution would try to promote the unconstrained embrace of capitalism. But it is dishonest for Allison to suggest that he is doing anything other than facilitating a program of propaganda in our higher educational system. The activities of Allison and the A.R.I are (by definition) extremely self-serving. Randian philosophy is characterized by an unquestioning devotion to one's own self-interests. It is a 'system' of thought inundated with arbitrary dichotomies and overly simplistic black-and-white thinking. It teaches its students to be doctrinaire in their analysis, and insensitive to nuance. In many ways it reflects the inherent values of the present leadership of the United States.

According to the disciple of Ayn Rand, anything that is not characterized by pure "laissez-faire" capitalism is "statist" (the Randian term for 'socialist'). There is no middle ground, and no acknowledgment of degree. The brand of "statist" is always damning, and serves as a shorthand method of ending conversation and/or negotiation with a 'principled' condemnation. It is the philosophy of late adolescence, when an organism strives for an individuation enabled by personal blinders. In this respect it is no better or worse than any other sort of fundamentalist thinking. It is a useful phase to pass through on the way to a fully mature development. But it is a manifestly dangerous attitude in an increasingly interdependent world wherein relationships grow ever more complex.

Obviously I find much in Objectivist thought to be objectionable. Still I would defend Allison's right to extend his offer to whatever educational institution he chooses. There is plenty of bad literature strewn throughout our nations' libraries. The notoriously awful works of Ayn Rand will be in good company among the numerous volumes of muddleheaded philosophy masquerading as 'novels' in our halls of learning. They are redeemed by the possibility of one single interesting idea. Business schools throughout the nation already extol an unfettered celebration of capitalism, and rarely present any alternative economic model. Another copy of Anthem or Atlas Shrugged is altogether superfluous. So what's the problem? What bothers me is the brazen promotion of extreme self-interest behind the facade of charity. It's a devious way to get a tax break.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Failures of the Fourth Estate.

Isn't it usually the case that a few 'bad apples' ruin everything for the rest of us? I'd be happy to let 'the marketplace' set the terms and limits on a particular service or good if so many folks didn't use the concept as a facade behind which they happily continue their dirty dealings. Unfortunately there is just too much wrong being committed by people who are beyond the reach of public accountability. The system is set up to reward those who have the money to buy off our politicians, and I fear that substantial change is just about impossible. All we can do, as concerned citizens, is continue to shine the light and draw attention to the worst of the ne'er-do-wells. The fact of the matter is that humanity has not proven its ability to act in its own enlightened self-interest.

I would be a greater champion of unfettered freedom if it didn't necessarily mean membership in a group that boils every problem down to decreasing taxes. Too much of that club is only interested in short-term profits. They have no concern for the larger issues, and will do everything they can to avoid having to confront them- especially if it entails any form of personal cost. Others' problems are simply not their own. Their participation in the affairs of their fellow citizens is limited to curtailing social liberties- such as sex, drugs, and access to birth control. I'm not even convinced that they genuinely care about those issues. They just use these divisively to promote their own not-so-secret agenda... unregulated profit.

Witness the political 'Right' and their concept of 'fair and balanced'. They have seized the airwaves using a strategy mixing rabid nationalism, cultural jingoism, hate-mongering, deception and obfuscation. They've assumed command of the great symbols of US hegemony- the dollar, the cross, and the flag. Alternate voices are not being programmed or supported by the corporations that own the media. Unconstrained self-interest is not only encouraged, but demanded. The messenger is embraced only as long as the message is to consume indiscriminately. The Fairness Doctrine, which served the public by protecting them from an unchallenged stream of pro-corporate values, was repealed by Ronald Reagan and his rogue F.C.C. in 1987.

Nowadays Reagan's dismal record as president has been rehabilitated by the deregulation forces that fight to maintain a nation dominated by unchallenged corporate interests. We are subjected to crassly sentimentalized versions of 'The Gipper" on network television. Meanwhile a distinguished war veteran like John Kerry was sabotaged in his presidential campaign by Sinclair Broadcasting, which attempted to force its 62 television stations to air 'Swift-Boater' propaganda in the guise of a 'documentary'. Ironically, such blatant attempts to subvert democracy with lies are hypocritically overlooked by the countless conservative pundits who decry the 'liberal bias' of the media. Unfortunately there's hardly anyone left behind the pulpit to challenge such a ridiculous assertion.

Thank God the Internet exists to provide the opportunity for true democratic participation. There used to be a time when various outlets offered a wide range of political opinion. Nowadays even CNN is forced to hire hacks like Glenn Beck and Tony Snow. These guys don't offer any alternative to FOX or the networks... they ARE the establishment. The only 'progressive' broadcasters are Pacifica and Democracy Now. Try tuning into those grassroots sources in Western Pennsylvania. If you live within a-mile-and-a-half of Carnegie Mellon University, then you are welcome to. Otherwise don't bother looking, because you will only get more frustrated.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Anthony Haden-Guest, "True Colors" (1996).

Because I can't get enough of the bickering and twisted maneuvers of the New York City arts scene, I decided I 'd plunge ahead and read Anthony Haden-Guest's True Colors (1996). Coincidentally, this book picks off where Burnham's The Art Crowd left off. The year was 1973, and the auction houses were beginning to drive the prices of contemporary art to ridiculously high prices. The Abstract Expressionists were ceding their position at the top of the heap. Pop artists like Jaspar Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were commanding six and even seven figures for their work. And at the same time a group of young wise-assed conceptualists were getting ready to pronounce painting "dead".

Haden-Guest does indeed manage to maintain an extraordinary diplomatic approach to the parade of freaks that inhabit his book. Perhaps he really respects all of those 'revolutionaries' who seemed intent to drive art to its ultimate conclusion. Dennis Oppenheim made his name by making designs on his bare chest with a 2nd degree sunburn. Chris Burden one-upped Oppenheim by having a couple of friends nail him to a Volkswagen and then drive him down the street in the spirit of crucifixion. Still not content, he had himself shot in the arm by another buddy, and displayed photographs of the provocation. Piero Manzoni showed his respect for the dialog by shitting in a series of cans and trying to sell them to collectors. Shortly after that he committed suicide.

Things were moving fast and furious in the 70's. Leo Castelli finally began to show his age, and gallery owners like Mary Boone and Holly Solomon started their ascendancy. Just as people started to sour on performance art, Julian Schnabel and David Salle ushered in the era of Neo-Expressionism. Donald Judd and James Turrell worked their formally academic magic in the harsh austerity of the desert. And a second wave of pop artists hit the island, merging itself in complex and confrontational ways with Graffiti and other forms of street art. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring received the approval of the Great Andy Warhol, and became household names.

True Colors documents the ridiculously excessive 80's, which ushered in an art boom that mirrored the 16th Century Dutch obsession with tulips. Larry Gagosian became So-Ho's super dealer of the secondary market, and consolidated his ever-growing empire of power. It was a time marked by Jeff Koons, who seemed to exemplify the perversity of the era by issuing a series of photographs that depicted him having some very distracted sex with his future wife- an Italian model named La Cicciolina. His excessive whimsy (or whimsical excess?) somehow distracted an entire generation of critics and collectors. And while the market seemed to outlast the economic downturn brought on by too many years of Ronald Reagan, a crash was imminent.

The 90's would bring a significant lull in the excitement of the NYC arts scene. Warhol was dead, and no one was buying. But a new generation of art stars like Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst were waiting (not-so-patiently-in-the-wings) to receive their fair share of adulation. So the story continues apace until the end of the century. And it's a brisk read. Unlike Burnham, Anthony Haden-Guest doesn't spare us the bitchery so endemic in the epicenter of the art world. That's a good thing, because the reader is all-the-more-entertained by this fortunate choice. There's nothing that can make us feel truly one with the scene than a heaping dollop of oil-based gossip. Who said what about whom, and why does it matter? Haden-Guest was there to tell us about it later.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Middle Eastern City of the Future.

If leaders of the United Arab Emirates get their way, there will be a revolutionary new urban landscape built in the desert. Masdar City is only a theory now, but if its planned construction outside of Abu Dhabi actually occurs, then the United States could end up falling behind the Middle East in the new global energy paradigm. The word "masdar" means "the source" in Arabic, and considering the global commodity that has transformed this nation of city-states, observers should be stunned when they find out what will actually power the new development. Unlike the Sun Belt cities sprawling through the American Southwest, Masdar City is deliberately being constructed to be sustainable.

The goals of this project are formidable. First of all, there will be absolutely no cars. This proposition by itself is virtually heretical to modern society. The predominant mode of conveyance will be magnetic light rail. The city's energy will be derived mostly from solar and wind powers- sources to be found in great abundance in the dry climate of the region, and alongside the Gulf waters. Age-old wisdom and sensitivity to geography will be employed as well. Designers have imagined narrow streets whereby convective air forces will provide a natural type of "air conditioning". When all is said and done, Masdar City is to have absolutely no ecological footprint, since there will be no carbon emissions or other wastes. This would be remarkable, as the UAE currently produces five times as many carbon pollutants as the world average.

The official plans have set a target for 15,000 inhabitants by 2018. Apparently it is also expected to employ 50,000 workers on a regular basis, and may eventually expand to a population of 100 thousand. Obviously, in a city of any substantial size, energy is not the only problem. In a region with more energy than it can possibly use, water is a much more valuable premium. The planners of Masdar City expect to meet their needs with desalination technology that's been slowly evolving for decades. Meanwhile, palm and grove trees will profit from this inexhaustible supply, and yield biofuels (which the Emirates anticipate as a possible replacement for oil in the future). Crop production will be facilitated by the use of "gray water".

All of this activity will be monitored with a network of sensors and data miners. Academics and efficiency experts will have the chance to continuously re-evaluate their methods, and learn from the mistakes. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology will be formed, and will work in conjunction with MIT to offer Masters and PhD programs. The real world expertise gleaned from the observation and management of a functionally sustainable city will help provide solutions to current energy and ecological problems throughout the world. Alongside with ambitious plans for carbon sequestration (CO2 Capture and storage), the UAE could well position itself as a global leader for generations to come.

Preparations for this model city mirror a similar project in another nation with a similarly brutal environmental record. China's proposed "zero-emission" city is called Dongtan, and will be located on an island at the mouth of the Yangtse River. Anyway- it's ironic that a Middle Eastern country that has so prospered from the world's dependence on oil can form a vision of foresight that includes a sustainable future once its key resource has run out. While the UAE invests its treasure in alternative energies, the United States wastes its own increasingly limited resources on wars to stabilize their access to "black gold". Even our former Cold War opponent Russia has embraced green technologies with a huge project at the heart of Moscow (using Japanese expertise). If we continue our current trajectory, we are doomed to increasing irrelevance.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Limbaugh and Beck Subvert Our Democracy.

If you know me personally (or read this blog regularly), then you're no doubt aware of my distinctly masochistic practice of listening to talk radio. I'm usually doing so while I'm in my car eating an unhealthy lunch. The combination threatens a fearsome assault on my digestive system. Still I make this sacrifice so that I can hear viewpoints and perspectives that I would not encounter otherwise. I never go so far as watching these talking heads on television- I could not bear their smug expressions as they justify and defend actions and positions that have destroyed our economy and made us the most hated nation on Earth. Yet they provide talking points for a large proportion of our society, so it's often useful to keep tabs on them.

Naturally the looming presidential election has brought out some of the worst behavior that these hacks are capable of displaying. Michael Savage spews his hate-mongering rants in vile streams of lying filth. Sean Hannity excretes his self-satisfying belch of populist pandering. Neil Boortz and Michelle Malkin peddle their FOX-news inspired drivel. But these are only the minor characters in the pathetic pantheon of 'conservative' talk. The key perpetrators of this insidious cult of the status quo are Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. They are particularly dangerous because their listeners invest in them a certain authority that extends past their actual worth. They market themselves more as educators than entertainers.

Of course Limbaugh is the pioneer of this particular cult. He blazed a trail of self-righteous hypocrisy throughout the 90's and has actually achieved an unearned respect as a legitimate political commentator. He is utterly convinced of the authority of his opinions, to the point that he publicizes himself as the benefactor of a god-given wisdom and prescience. However his actual agenda is exposed by his dishonest tactics. His program has been running what he refers to as "Operation Chaos", which is meant to throw the Democratic Primary process into disarray by convincing large blocs of Republican voters to switch their party membership, and thereby sabotage Barack Obama's bid for the nomination. Like most right wing strategists he is convinced that Clinton is unelectable, and thus the GOP's preferred opponent.

The amount of success Limbaugh's tactics have actually achieved can't be accurately determined. The pill-popping fat-man himself claims to have redirected 160,000 Republicans in PA alone. Much of this number is no doubt inflated by his own ego, but it's not beyond possibility that Operation Chaos has made it's mark. While the game Limbaugh is playing undermines the democracy of our electoral system, it is definitively not illegal. The same cannot be said about what Glenn Beck and his cronies perpetrated on the day of the PA primary. He made fake campaign ads for Obama and Clinton, in which he had them slandering each other in crassly negative ways. These 'ads' were an abomination, but in and of themselves not against the law.

Where Beck and Co. crossed the line was in tacking on the prerecorded candidate approval statements (in their actual voices, cribbed from legitimate ads) at the end of the fake 'ads'. That was an obvious crime, constituting blatant election fraud. Had a listener tuned in while those messages were playing, he/she would have been convinced that the Obama and Clinton campaigns produced and endorsed those messages. This type of manipulation is not only reprehensible, but completely unacceptable under current campaign laws. Even though I personally filed a complaint with the F.C.C, I have little hope that satisfaction will be forthcoming. That board is (after all) under the control of the Bush administration. The integrity of our 'democracy' is under assault, as usual.

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