Sunday, September 15, 2002

I'm trying to read W.G. Sebald's poem cycle After Nature, which in my case has meant spending lots of time today researching the art of Matthias Grunewald. This is one of those cases where you're not going to really grasp the poem unless you do a little homework; you have to find out the real story of Grunewald, and stare long and hard at his paintings, for Sebald's poem to make any sense whatsoever. Grunewald is also known to history as "Mathis Nithart" -- Sebald imagines (at least I guess that's what he's doing) that Nithart was actually his homosexual lover, and that the torment one sees in Grunewald's great paintings is the torment of a divided inner life.

This is only the first part of the poem so I don't know yet where Sebald is going with all this. But it's giving me an education.

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Friday, September 13, 2002

I'm not a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, but this is a great article -- maybe the most extensive written on the author in nearly 40 years.



Wednesday, September 11, 2002

What I'm listening to on the way home.
You need Darrel Hammond's dead-on impression of Dan Rather to get the full effect, but this Saturday Night Live sketch remains one ofr the funniest things I've ever seen on TV.
Looks like the old gutter-gaunt gangster is finally getting his due. I've loved this band since I was 14. And the writer's correct about "Telegram Sam" -- it is one of "the most riveting three-minute achievements of the era," and that sucker LEAPS off the turntable every time I play it.
Damn. I shoulda stayed up to watch.
What I'm reading: Tales, Poems, and Other Writings by Herman Melville. I'm preparing for a book club discussion on "Bartleby," which in my case usually mean over-prepare. I prefer absorbing a lot about the subject before having to either talk about it or try to discuss it with others. I find certain of the stories tough sledding, and at least a couple from the last two days -- "The Two Temples" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" -- aren't even really stories; more like poetic meditations on contraries.

I've been idly reading the book, off and on, through the summer: so far the only ones that have really stayed with me are the great ones: "Bartleby," "Benito Cereno," and "Billy Budd."
Hands down the most poisonous break-up song ever written. But get the classic CD -- that whiplash lead guitar really accentuates the bite.



Forget it, Jeb -- it's Florida, part II. More hilarious post-election coverage from everyone's favorite banana republic. Oh the humanity.
Notes from the Underground

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche. 278 pages. $25.00 To be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

TodayÕs anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center arrives with the usual round-the-clock TV coverage, special sections of the newspaper, and a plethora of books -- almost all of which are surely destined for the please-buy-me rack at Barnes & Noble by early spring. American Ground, William LangewiescheÕs meticulous account of the dismantling of the wreckage of Ground Zero, may not escape the same fate, but it's going to stay in print and it's going to be read for years to come, if only because it captures a vanishing event that (one hopes anyway) won't be repeated.

Like such writers as Tracy Kidder and John McPhee, Langewiesche is interested in how things work; how huge problems, such as pulling apart 1.5 million tons on wreckage, are solved, and how they change the people who solve them. Besides the enormity of the attack, Langewiesche observes the peculiarly American way it was met on the ground. In other countries, he writes, committees would have been formed to draft plans, which would be executed by the military. Here, the "learned committees were excluded, the soldiers relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown." The problems they encountered were unique in scale: the possible release of freon gas from the chiller plants, the cracking of a subterranean slurry wall that could cause the hole to flood. The people who undertake these and thousands of other daily problems associated with the wreckage find themselves transformed -- like the New York City fireman Sam Melisi, who would play the painful role of mediator when tensions rose between the firemen, the police force and New York City's Department of Design and Construction (DDC). His sudden moral authority "surprised and plagued him to the end; he did not think of himself as a leader, and in other circumstances he probably would not have been one." There is also Peter Rinaldi, the Port Authority engineer who knew the building firsthand and had narrowly escaped with his life in the 1993 bombing of the towers, and two top DDC officials, Ken Holden and Mike Burton -- the ex-punk establishment bureaucrat and the careerist lieutenant who served him -- whose steely relationship is exacerbated by their daily involvement at Ground Zero. These and others find themselves defined by their work and their role in history.

As both a former pilot and a hard-working reporter -- on the scene almost from the day it happened, he stayed until the last piece of wreckage was hauled away -- Langewiesche got close to all the right people and writes knowingly and interestingly about speed, impact, and after-effect. He describes in detail the attack and implosion, the myriad logistics, not to mention dangers, of sorting through the debris, and the way sudden horrible occurrences can test the ability of rule-oriented bureaucrats to make things up as they go along. He is as overwhelmed by the attack as anyone but, like the firemen and engineers he followed, he slowly, carefully, and patiently seeks to master it; to uncover the disaster piece by molten piece.

"The frustration was that you couldnÕt dislodge the debris by shooting it," Langewiesche writes. "Because of the bodies that lay there, you couldnÕt dynamite it either. Because of New YorkÕs sensitivity to noise and dust, you couldnÕt even use small demolition charges to fill dangerous cavities or bring down the skeletal walls. There was no choice but to cut and pull and unbuild the chaos one piece at a time." As the DDC's Ken Holden put it, life at Ground Zero was one of "Excavation, remains, recovery, removal -- repeat."

Events such as 9/11 breed any number of abstract thoughts and theories regarding the motives of Osama bin Laden and the American response, and I don't discount them. But part of the appeal of Langewiesche's book is that it deals up close with the known, the tangible, the (literally) concrete. In several thousand well-chosen words, it pulls into sharp focus all those pictures we've seen daily. It's a book about energy -- the kind the towers represented and released, as the author notes, but also the extraordinary kind it required. Serialized over the last three months in the Atlantic Monthly (on which this review is based) and slated for publication next month, American Ground is a first-class piece of reportage.

Go for the throat, Andy. (By the way, nice to see he and Salon.com's David Talbot have mended fences.)
Jeb Bush: "There's no excuse for not turning on the machines."

To paraphrase the last line from one of my favorite movies -- Forget it, Jeb -- it's Florida.

No doubt this will bring a certain amount of sweet schadenfreude to my fellow supporters of the Gore campaign, who have had to smile and pretend they were good sports after getting screwed out of the presidency. Another plus -- it's beginning to look like we won't have to worry about the prospect of a Gov. Reno, thank God.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

It just wouldn't be Sept. 11 without a new reason to despise Susan Sontag. Here she helpfully reminds us that the struggle in Afghanistan has less to do with flesh and blood than semantics. And her casting a wistful eye toward World War II and Gettysburg is gratingly, gallingly insincere. Reflect, hell. Susan Sontag is nothing but a hand-wringing old lady.
This poor silly child writes a column in which she moans about the fact that, despite a degree from Yale, she can't get a job worthy of her intellectual acumen.

Will someone please tell me where I went wrong? she pleads, and boy, have people been lining up to tell her. Shawna Gale of Atlanta, now known netwide as the "Wailin' Yalie," claims to possess "impressive analytical skills" and "well-developed public relations skills" -- neither of which are on display. Verily, verily, I say unto you, a high degree of self-importance invariably means a low degree of self-knowledge. She's a child of the welfare state who believes a degree entitles her to a job.

"I have many valuable skills" -- that word again! -- "honed during my days with Dickens, my nights with Nabokov, those wee hours with Woolf." I've logged most of the past summer with Dickens and years with Nabokov, and chances are excellent I'll never see the kind of money Shawna thinks she deserves and I'm twice her age.

I hate to sound like an old grump, but kids today need to learn to get off their ass.

Monday, September 09, 2002

Saturday, September 07, 2002

Problem Drinker helpfully plugs the re-release of Gould's Goldberg Variations -- giving me a new reason to spend money I don't have. I'm a total musical illiterate who can't tell excellence from garbage where classical performances are concerned, but I do love listening to this extraordinarily complex work on a semi-regular basis -- it makes me want to work hard. I have the Vladimir Feltsen version, who in the liner notes makes a few snide comments about Gould, so it'll be interesting to compare the two. Or it would be, if I could spot the differences.
Well, I got Springsteen tickets for the December 9 show at the soon-to-be-completed Carolina Center in Columbia, S.C. Diane and Katie and I are in Section 113, Row 25, seats 5 to 7. If you're there, look us up.

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Hitler's Killing Fields

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes. Alfred A. Knopf. 335 pages. $27.50

Words fail anyone describing the Holocaust, even Nazis.

"Liquidations, executions, purges," wrote an Nazi officer home in September, 1941, after a day of shooting Jews in the Zhitomir province in the Western Ukraine. "All these words, synonymous with destruction, seem completely banal and devoid of meaning once one has gotten used to them.

"It is a vocabulary which has become general usage, and we use such words just as we talk about swatting disagreeable insects or destroying a dangerous animal.

"These words however are applied to men. But men who happen to be our mortal enemy."

The officer was a member of the SS-Einsatzgruppen (task force), a collection of several thousand German soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats, professionals and criminals who had been selected in July 1941 by two of Hitler's right-hand men -- Heinrich Himmler, who controlled the Schutzstaffel (SS), GermanyÕs internal police force, and his second in command, Lieutenant General Reinhard Òthe Blond BeastÓ Heydrich -- to kill Jews and Slavs across Eastern Europe. Starting in 1939, the Third Reich had employed an earlier version of the Einsatzgruppen as a rearguard mop-up group during the invasion of Poland; now the Einsatzgruppen would follow the German army as it moved into the Soviet Union. The goal was lebensraum (living space) which in practical terms meant destroying one population so another could move in.

"It is a question of existence," Himmler told the troops, "thus it will be a racial struggle of pitiless severity, in the course of which 20 to 30 million Slavs and Jews will perish through military actions and crises of food supply." Divided into four groups, Einsatzgruppen soldiers fanned out across the occupied Soviet Union, simultaneously moving into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus. They would leave in their wake some of the worst massacres in World War II: the Kovno Ghetto and Ponary in Lithuania, Babi Yar in Kiev, where 34,000 people were killed in two days, and Rumbula in Latvia, where 12 men killed 13,000 people in a single day. This was just the tip of the iceberg; some 1.5 million people would die at their hands.

Their methods varied, as Nazis continually tested new ways of killing the most people in the shortest amount of time. In Kovno, they inflamed the anti-Semitism of the locals, using trumped up charges against Jews, or none at all, to justify hauling helpless men and women into the town square, and beating them to death with clubs. Such "attempts at self-cleansing," Heydrich said in a telegram to Einsatzgruppen commanders, "on the part of anti-Communist or anti-Semitic elements in the areas to be occupied are not to be hindered. On the contrary, they are to be encouraged, but without leaving traces, so that these local `vigilantes' cannot say later that they were given orders or [offered] political concessions."

Over the course of the next few years, victims would be hauled into enclosed areas and grenaded, dynamited, or burned alive, either by fire or through using quicklime and water. Handicapped or mentally retarded children were given lethal injections or barbiturate overdoses.

Generally, the standard, reliable method of liquidation was to shoot kneeling Jews in the back of the head or machine-gun them into mass graves. The routine was to round them up under the ruse of jobs or relocation, take them to a nearby forest, swamp or ravine (such as Babi Yar) and line them along the perimeter of a huge pit, which was usually dug by the first victims. Later, under the direction of the Higher SS officer Friedrich Jeckeln, they were shot laying face down in the pit. New victims were piled on top in the same way, and new victims on them; layer upon layer of bodies to maximize grave space. Sardinenpackung, Jeckeln called it; sardine-packing.

Killing on this scale wasn't just a question of manpower and efficiency, but the corruption of human will. The ideal of Himmler's Einsatzgruppen was Kadavergehorsam, "corpse-like conformity" -- molding willing Nazis into remorseless killing machines, not just of enemy soldiers, but men, women and children (since, after all, they would only grow up to avenge their parent's deaths.) Hitler called it a "war of extermination," and Himmler (who like Hitler had no direct experience with killing) told the troops it was perfectly natural.

"We should observe nature," Himmler reportedly said, "everywhere there was war, not only among human beings, but also in the animal and plant worlds. Whatever did not want to fight was destroyed ... Primitive man said that the horse is good, but the bug is bad, or wheat is good but the thistle is bad. Humans characterize that which is useful to them as good, but that which is harmful as bad. Don't bugs, rats and other vermin have a purpose in life to fulfill? But we humans are correct when we defend ourselves against vermin."

It was mass murder by conventional means of war, and as Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes shows in this unsettling new history, it had a mixed effect on Nazi morale. Some, of course, thrived; the ones who liked humiliation and torture, who impaled Jewish infants on bayonets, who stood on a heap of corpses and played an accordion, who took pictures -- such famous pieces of Nazi porn as this photo and this one -- and sent them home to their families. But these raised a problem, as sadists are a threat to civilized society of any kind, even one ruled by Hitler. Himmler's ideal of a good Nazi was one who stoically discharged the unpleasant task of butchering people who were pleading for their lives. "An execution must always be the hardest thing for our men," he said. "And despite it they must never become weak but must do it with pursed lips." Many did it by cracking up, or becoming alcoholic -- liquor and cigarettes were staple rations in some killing squads -- or by committing suicide. Some thought of their own wives and children.

"The wailing was indescribable," said August Hafner, the Nazi officer charged with carrying out the slaughter of some ninety children in Bila Cerkva, a small town near Kiev. "I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. I find it very hard to bear. I particularly remember a small fair-haired girl who took me by the hand. She too was shot later ... Many children were hit four or five times before they died."

Of course, on any moral ledger the Nazi who killed with a twinge of conscience merits no more sympathy than the one who killed with murderous glee. Himmler himself combined both types. In one of the few executions he attended, he nervously ordered a soldier to put a pair of women out of their misery, and at one time seemed to consider saving a young Jewish man's life. But that didn't stop him from furnishing his own home with tables and chairs made of Jewish bones, or a copy of Mein Kampf bound in Jewish flesh.

The moral quandaries and logistics of genocide -- the need to make it as impersonal and faceless as possible -- were met, of course, with Zyklon-B. As the showers in the concentration camps filled with carbon monoxide, fewer Nazis were troubled with nightmares. They didn't have to hear the screams. They just had to haul away the corpses.

It has become something of a convention of Hitler studies in recent years to reconsider how well the Holocaust can, or should, be understood. To "understand" Hitler, as the filmmaker Claude Lanzman has pointed out, is to humanize him, which runs the risk of softening if not legitimizing his evil. Rhodes takes a similar risk with a book that puts a marginally human face on killers who bore the psychological strains of their crimes. But, he writes, "surely any indication that slaughter is challenging and takes its toll on the slaughterers ought to be welcomed, if only as ironic justice. Dismissing perpetrators as inhuman monsters rather than human criminals positions genocidal killing beyond comprehension, beyond prevention or repair."

In trying to get some hold on how these particular minds were shaped, Rhodes draws on the work of criminologist Lonnie Athens, who describes "violent socialization" as a four-step process: brutalization, belligerency, violent performances and virulency. In a nutshell, people are exposed to brutality either in youth or in military training, they advance to the view that brutality is the best means of self-protection, they see the effect of acting on it, and they make it their way of dealing with conflict. Being neither a sociologist nor a historian, I can only say that this theory of violence sounds as plausible as any other; and yet, if the book shows anything, itÕs that the complexity of responses among Nazis toward their crimes defies any sweeping explanation, and this one seemed more speculative as it went along. Himmler himself, the son of a violent schoolmaster, is RhodesÕ prime example, although what really seems to motivate Himmler is his somewhat Freudian desire to please Hitler, for whom the daily killing quota could never be high enough. What does make the Athens model appealing is that it emphasizes the role of choice. Where people cannot choose whether they are brutalized, they do choose how they act on it. The victims of Nazi Germany, of course, were given no choice at all.

This powerful, disturbing, and unfortunately-titled book Ð the word "invention" raises the specter of Holocaust denial, quite the opposite of RhodesÕ intent Ð canÕt be read quickly or pleasurably. As it catalogs the terrible years of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the scenes of terror rarely let up, and when I put the book aside, the pictures it brought to mind wouldnÕt let go. ItÕs the wailing of its victims that we still hear. It remains indescribable.

Friday, August 30, 2002

Today's bizarro e-mail comes from someone I don't know about a class I'm not taking:

Just a Reminder about the second test on Tuesday, Sep 2. I am repeating what I said in class. The test will cover pages 96 through 203. It will NOT cover pages 204-216. IF you can, PLEASE tell the other students who were not there at the end of class about leaving out wssome of the pages. They do not have E-mail addresses. Thanks.

To any others out there still memorizing the salient facts from the wrong pages -- consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I was almost certain that The New Republic was going to slam Master of the Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro's on-going biography of Lyndon Johnson -- and slam it hard. It's one thing I trust the magazine to do, find some kind of vantage point that is just distant enough from conventional wisdom to sound like the real truth, or close to it. I forget what exactly the reviewer of The Path to Power said back in the early 1980s, except that he didn't like it much. Sidney Blumenthal famously debunked the second volume, Means of Ascent, with its ridiculously rosy portrait of Johnson's nemesis, Coke Stevenson. Now here comes Nicholas Lemann to tackle Vol. III, and he kinda likes it, though he tries hard not to.

Caro's writing is not post-ironic, it is pre-ironic (and definitely non-ironic), self-consciously "big," thunderingly moralistic, and dramatic verging on melodramatic. Caro's approach is neither intellectual, if that means interested in ideas, nor scholarly, if that means writing in the context of other work on the same subject. He is aiming instead for an epic, almost scriptural effect. Every chapter builds relentlessly to a climax and ends with a neat moral. The importance of everything is forcefully insisted upon and closely spelled out.

Yes, that's Caro -- the born dramatist. That's the thing about Caro's work -- the anti-Johnson bias is pretty clearly there, and you can scream at it all you want, but you just can't put the book down. The detail is so rich, the story is so carefully built and imagined, that you get swept away by the story.

To put it mildly, Master of the Senate could have been a lot shorter. There could have been two or three fewer examples to support each point. Great events of the 1950s in which Johnson played a minimal part--the Truman-MacArthur conflict, the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the early days of the civil rights movement in the South--might not have been awarded entire chapters.

Oh bullshit. The story may be overly familiar to Lemann, perhaps, but I can't think of anyone reading the story of the killing of Emmet Till and the effect it had in galvanizing the early days of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi who won't be mesmerized.

Lemann, at other times, is mesmerized too:

... Caro does amazingly well with his material.

Caro's general immersion in his subject and his unappeasable drive to chase down every detail have together brought the Senate to life. Its leading characters--Russell and Humphrey and Estes Kefauver and Paul Douglas and so on--feel, by the end, like people you know.

Caro, to his great credit, has managed to re-create not just the Senate in the 1950s, but Washington as a whole.

But Lemann gets it right at the end. As my own review indicated, the book is a little too much of a personal war between writer and subject to really be definitive, as Caro always sees people in purely good and evil terms. No one so far as I know has yet stepped forward to debunk Caro's saintly portrait of Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds -- maybe he was as good as Caro said he was -- but in reading it I sensed the ghost of Coke Stevenson; I wondered that if there was a down side to Olds, Caro might not be the man to notice it. He hardly seemed to know Coke Stevenson was a virulent racist.

Where he is simply in a different, and lesser, universe from Dickens and Tolstoy and their like, however, is in his attribution of godlike (or satanic) powers to individuals, especially his main character, as actors in history, and in his concomitant tendency to be morally simplistic. In great historical literature the times supersede the lives, without in any way diminishing them, and the consciousness of right and wrong does not transform all experience into parable. Caro is held back from the greatness for which he so palpably hungers by his evident lack of interest in rendering life not only as dramatic, but also as complicated and subtle.

He's right about that. Three volumes and Johnson still comes across as a fairly one-dimensional type -- or, as Lemann puts it, "a textbook manic-depressive ... with regular bipolar switches from extreme approval to extreme disapproval. Because Johnson at each moment of the narrative is defined by one entirely positive or entirely negative characteristic, `complexity' is conveyed by having him abruptly switch from one to the other."

It's a fault that runs through all three volumes, all of which are fascinating and have a plentitude of passages of sheer narrative brilliance. Yet I doubt anyone finishes these three volumes, and I read them back to back, without feeling there is something missing, and that the Johnson of these pages, the Texas devil gallivanting around in Robert Caro's rather bipolar head, isn't quite the same man who once walked among us.
"This storm will be magnificent. All the electrical secrets of Heaven. And this time we're ready, eh Fritz?" -- Colin Clive in Frankenstein

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Famous last words

"I went to call the cops but I knew she'd be dead before they got there, and I'd be free. Bannister's note to the D.A.'d fix it; I'd be innocent, officially, but that's a big word, `innocent.' Stupid's more like it. Well, everybody is somebody's fool. The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so I guess I'll concentrate on that. Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die, trying."

--Orson Welles, mourning Rita Hayworth, in The Lady from Shanghai


"You know, the next time you get an urge and I bust my ass getting back here and getting a cab, you think you could possibly add a little more movement, you know, just to get the whole Claymation feel?"

--Ben Stiller, post-coital, to Catherine Keener in Your Friends and Neighbors.



Addendum to below: it suddenly occurs to me that last year's In the Bedroom would make for an interesting comparison with Straw Dogs. Both deal, in different ways, with how anyone living in a seemingly safe environment (which includes most of us) reacts when their world is shattered by violence. The coming 9/11 anniversary makes it even more relevant.
Some slightly rewritten notes on Peckinpah from 1999:

Mere Anarchy: Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs

Things lived on each other -- that was it. Lobsters lived on squids and other things. What lived on lobsters? Men, of course! Sure, that was it! And what lived on men? he asked himself. Was it other men?
-- Theodore Dreiser, The Financier

I watched Straw Dogs this weekend for the first time in a decade, and I was stunned.

I don't know what I was thinking on that first viewing, and why it didn't leave my brain and blood as charged-up as this one did. The film reminded me of two things about Peckinpah. First, he is American cinema's purest modern equivalent of Hardy or Dreiser or Norris; a naturalist who views human society as little different from the world of animals and insects, where every species is prey for another.

Second, the sheer skill of this film shows how so many Peckinpah wannabes are just lazy hacks. John Woo may have learned how to angle a slo-mo shot of a body being blown away from shotgun fire, but could he have paced a film like this, where tension builds at such an unhurried and careful pace, before exploding in the last half-hour? Not bloody likely.

David Sumner (perfectly played by Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered mathmatician who, thanks to a research grant, has briefly retired to the hometown of his fetching wife, Amy (Susan George) in the English countryside. Their home, though not a castle, is as impenetrable as one, a fortress-like fixer-upper with walls of stone, which Amy decorates with medieval antiques.

David and Amy think themselves a happy young couple, but they're dreaming. They have nothing in common: he spends all day burrowed in his study, working some impossible numeric riddle on a blackboard, while she keeps trying to get his attention. All they have going for them is sex, which amounts to a nightcap for David and the only enjoyable part of the day for Amy. When David, at Amy's suggestion, hires her old flame Charlie Venner to fix a roof, the marital tension is stoked even higher.

David is out of his element in his wife's town, and he's trying to survive without demeaning himself. He wants to be a member of the community without being middle-class -- one of the boys without, God forbid, actually being one of the boys. He doesn't just avoid violence but confrontation of any kind. He later acknowledges that he took no role in the problems that -- in 1970, the year the film was made -- were rending apart American society and American universities, namely Kent State.

If David is abstract, Amy is concrete. She seems aware that her chief assets are her tits and ass; they got her married to a brilliant American mathmatician who offered her a chance to escape people like Charlie. She's silly and juvenile, and yet she knows and respects the provincial code of this community; the kind of code her husband views with contempt. She was bred in the values of a small-town world, where the mating traditions are marbleized, and passed on from generation to generation. In the first scene of the movie, the young village girl Jenny consciously tries to attract men's eyes by imitating Amy's sensual gait.

Amy is a somewhat dualistic character. She may represent Peckinpah's Neanderthal view of women -- horny, dumb, respecter of male dominance -- but she also seems like his representative: someone who understands and respects certain codes of honor, who knows that civility will only take you so far, and who can only respect people who act on real problems rather than pursue imaginary ones.Amy doesn't really respect a man who can't take control of her. Charlie and the boys on the roof -- huddled like vultures -- know this, and are anxious to swoop in. Amy recognizes the threat when the family cat winds up dead; David just blows it off.

While she is more aware of danger than her husband, she also brings it on, as if to urge on a battle which she knows, at some subconscious level, must be fought. When she starts casually flashing the roofers, things take a nasty turn. David is lured into an idiotic hunting expedition, a ruse for Charlie to visit Amy, whom he promptly rapes. She is not an exactly unwilling partner, as her face shows just how thin the line between love and hate can be. Her feelings are a bit less murky when Charlie's co-hort shows up, gun in hand, to take his turn.

After charitably taking in Niles, a feebleminded outcast he accidentally hit with his car, David is faced with protecting his home against a howling mob. Niles accidentally killed Jenny, the local Lolita who tried to seduce him; her father, along with Charlie and his crew, all besiege David's house for a lynching party. Although the girl's father has an at least plausible motive, the crew see this as their own cruel and gleeful hour of triumph, when the strong will destroy the weak.

There's a King Lear-like quality to this last half-hour, of a world that seems to have gone completely out of balance because its codes have been violated: Jenny is dead, Amy has been raped, and David is a prisoner in a home that seems destined not to remain his. It's the melee from The Wild Bunch on a smaller, more intimate, and more affecting scale; mere anarchy loosed on the home. The hooligans throw rats in the window, shout obscenities, giggle like maniacs, ride tricycles around the house, and take great delight in destroying the greenhouse. With whatever tools are at his disposal, David is forced to act; to use the words of Marcellus Pierce in Pulp Fiction, he gets downright medieval on their ass.

Straw Dogs was strong medicine for its time, and still is. Pauline Kael, a longtime Peckinpah supporter, famously dubbed the film "fascist." Feminists hated its portrayal of a wife who seemed to want to be raped. Peckinpah -- as a director who had already pushed the envelope of violence with The Wild Bunch -- found himself inheriting the Norman Mailer Chair for the Advancement of Macho Piggishness; the old controversialist couldn't have been happier.

Granted, Peckinpah had a somewhat troglodyte sensibility in this film, but it served him well: the story gets to something basic in human life -- the question of whether a civilized man can survive outside of his neat little abstract world, whether he's lost some degree of will in his upward social climb. Peckinpah presents his answer with artistry that is provocative and merciless.
Top 5.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Our Quote of the Week comes from Milk Plus's Private Joker, my occasional (whenever he shows up anyway) nemesis on the New York Times Film Forums, in his review of One Hour Photo. Gotta give credit where it's due, as the following made me laugh out loud: Now I've seen everything. Around the time Bicentennial Man came out, I would have put money on the bet that I'd never see a movie containing a shot of Robin Williams sitting on the toilet taking a shit. I'd have lost the bet.
If you are an idealist, you'll see idealism in her films; if you are a classicist, you'll see in her films an ode to classicism; if you are a Nazi, you'll see in her films Nazism. -- Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice, October 31, 1974

There's an unavoidably smug contemptuousness in today's Times story on Leni Riefenstahl's 100th birthday, and I'll be the first to say the lady has only herself to blame. For most of her life, Riefenstahl has been parroting this idea that she was just a young naive girl, that she only wanted to get ahead, that she was an artist, not a politician -- and that's why she agreed to make Triumph of the Will,the record of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally that became the most famous propaganda film ever, and some kind of a very strange work of art. What kind is hard to say. Can art be evil? Can it be not just political but demagogic? Can you praise or condemn a film like this apart from its subject matter? Is it not somehow morally wrong to look at Riefenstahl's images and call them brilliant or masterful? It's the work of a cinematographic ace, but to defend it makes one feel like a moral idiot. This is the down side of Riefenstahl's bargan with the devil.

Okay, I am prepared to say, you were a stupid girl. The Nazis fed on stupidity. The Einsatzgruppen (more about them, later) were full of perfectly stupid people who were as talented at butchery as you were at film craft and salesmanship. You can say you weren't a Nazi until your last breath, old girl, but you stayed and prospered when peers like Lang and Sirk in your own country and Billy Wilder in Czechoslovakia were saying "Fuck this -- I'll just go to America and start over."

You were in it, Leni, and you were in it up to your eyeballs.

On the other hand...

... if Riefenstahl's film can never be seperated from its politics, it would be a shame to make the same assertion of her entire career. This is nowhere more true with Olympia her Nazi-financed account of the 1936 Olympics. What the Nazis saw in the Olympics was a chance to prove the superiority of the German master race; what Riefenstahl saw was the beauty of the athletic form, regardless of race. Quite against the designs of Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, for example, right near the beginning she zeroed in on Jesse Owens triumph.

With unlimited Third Reich funds at her disposal, Riefenstahl spared no production expense when it came to composing her images: scaffolds were built or pits were dug to keep these vaulters, divers and runners squarely within the frame as Riefenstahl's camera lingers lovingly on musculature in motion. It's a perfectly enthralling film to watch -- at times like the film equivalent of a sculpture by Michaelangelo or Rodin. It's a sports film like none you've ever seen, where the competition -- half the time, you don't even know who won -- takes second place to the glory of athletic form.

Politically-minded critics, however, reach for other reasons; starting with Susan Sontag's 1975 essay "Fascinating Fascism" -- whose p.o.v. is incorporated in the Times story -- Riefenstahl has been viewed almost entirely through the narrow lens of "fascist aesthetics."

Sontag, who calls Olympia "the richest visually of all [Riefenstahl's] films," finds that all the athletes seek "the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectsator, Hitler, whose presence, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort."

There are, actually, only a handful of shots of Hitler in the film, all near the beginning, but I think there she was just making a neccessary overture to her backer, along with the waving Nazi flag as the film opens.

It is a bit chilling to watch the film knowing its provenance, but just as there is a danger in failing to recognize the real intent of Triumph of the Will, there's a similar danger in looking at Riefenstahl's art in a wholly political way. The simple fact of the matter is that Riefenstahl was photographing athletes in top condition; she didn't make them beautiful, as she told Stephen Schiff in Vanity Fair some years ago -- they are beautiful.

The Nazis fetishized beauty, triumph, achievement, duty and it gave all those things a bad name; the Third Reich soiled everything it touched, and at some degree that goes for Olympia. What's remarkable is how the film soars beyond the ideology that gave it life.

It is a hymn to beauty -- sung by a stupid girl.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Some notes on Kafka's Metamorphosis

Part I --

* Gregor Samsa, as we all know, wakes one morning from "uneasy dreams" to discover that he is a giant insect -- he goes from "uneasy dreams" to a nightmare that is no dream at all.

* Gregor's metamorphosis is not, however, the only one. No sooner does the story begin than we see another one. On Gregor's wall is a picture he has cut out of a magazine and framed: a woman swathed in fur -- fur cap, fur stole and a fur muff "into which the whole of her forearm had vanished." In other words, she is becoming something else -- an animal, and Gregor's own bourgeois ideal. There will be other metamorphoses as well. In fact, although it is not announced until much later, Gregor's own transformation from man to insect happens during the Christmas season, the time when we celebrate God becoming man.

* Discovering you have been transformed into a dung beetle over night will ruin anyone's day, but it is not Gregor's main concern. His main concern is that he is late for work.

* Gregor Samsa entered the working world the way a lot of people do: necessity. His father had racked up a number of debts, and Gregor became a salesman with his father's firm to pay them off. He became quite the success; within a short time he is a commercial traveler -- part of an envied and hated lot within the firm whom are known for their huge expense accounts and lack of accountability. This is not, however, true of Gregor, who is nothing if not diligent. He has never missed a day of work; indeed, he is a workaholic. He gets up at 4 a.m. to catch the 5 a.m. train and usually knocks out a few sales by the time his competitors are sitting down to breakfast. When he has leisure time, he reads the paper or railway timetables -- everything about him spells "work." Today, as he lays in bed rolling about in his corrugated straitjacket, he is painfully aware that it is already 6:30 a.m., and that if he's lucky, if he can get this big ugly bug body up and dressed, maybe he'll make the 7 am train.

* Of course, it isn't long before his mom and dad are on him; his sister, Grete, sits alone in the room to his right, crying for no obvious reason to Gregor or the reader. The family lives off of Gregor -- he is their sole means of support and they have all gotten very, very used to the fact. They are naturally concerned about him missing work and they bang on the door to get him moving. Unfortunately, Gregor's voice has a "persistent horrible twittering squeak" that makes communication impossible. Also, quite as Gregor expected, the chief clerk at his firm shows up when Gregor fails to arrive at work.

* The incapacitated Gregor is, as we like to say, "in denial." He chalks up his aches and pains to overwork, his voice to an on-coming cold. Surely being a bug is nothing you can't overcome with a little elbow grease. Gregor of course has his work cut out for him as the family and chief clerk are outside the door pleading with him to open up. By refusing to talk to them, he seems quite obnoxious. He ultimately manages to get up, clasp the door key in his grinding bug jaws and open the door. The result is a horrific farce: everyone is stumbling over themselves to flee the very sight of Gregor, who with adroit workaday initiative is trailing after the chief clerk, helplessly pleading his case in his trademark cacophonous squeak.

* One of the many amusements of any great story on a second or third reading is that new levels open up. With Kafka's story, there are sexual elements that seem glaringly apparent with each new reading, particularly in Gregor's relationship with his mother and sister. We learn in Part II that Gregor is very close to his sister and that he planned to send her to a Conservatory to study the violin shortly after Christmas. What is particularly noteworthy is the sister's growing attractiveness; Gregor thinks that maybe she, in the room next to his, could have used her feminine wiles to keep the chief clerk from running off. There seems to be here an Oedipal triangle that has as much to do with incest as insects; an emotional menage a trois from which the father has been cut out and to which he will soon restore his place. It is the father who chases Gregor back into what will become his cell -- his lonely bedroom with his writing-desk, couch, and chest of drawers.

Part II

* Despite his initial resistance, Gregor comes to grips with his own buginess. Milk, once his favorite drink, now repulses him. He wants rotting food. He also likes crawling under the couch, and he's generally given up on the two-legged life.

* The family is also adapting to their own metamorphosis, from a fat and sassy family to a tight-fisted and closed one. They are left alone as the household help departs. Even the cook leaves, which is just as well -- everyone has lost their appetite.

* Grete cares for her brother a good deal more than the parents -- it is she who brings him slop and tries to keep the room the way he wants it, even though she never stays long and cannot bear the sight of him. Although the family has long thought of her as useless, she becomes the conduit between Gregor and the parents. She, too, is metamorphosing -- into the creature that will ultimately save the family unit.

* As Gregor can no longer communicate, all he can do is hear what the family says about him, which he does by listening at the door of his bedroom, which opens out into the living room. He learns that the family still has a small number of investments which have earned dividends, although hardly enough to live on. The family's thriftiness makes Gregor happy. Still, the family is going to have to forge its own way. The father, who hasn't worked in five years, becomes a bank messenger; the asthmatic mother sews underwear, the sister becomes a salesgirl who takes night classes in French and shorthand.

* Gregor takes to crawling all over the walls, and Grete has the idea of moving out his furniture to give him the run of the place. The mother thinks maybe this isn't best, maybe it indicates they are giving up hope of their boy ever getting "better." There is a struggle between mother and daughter with the latter winning; Gregor himself is divided between them. Physically, he would love to have the room emptied, but mentally, he still clings to his human past, and he has a sentimental attachment to his furniture.

* The close of the second part is one of the mot interesting sections of the story, as it very neatly weaves together the incest angle. First, Gregor scares his mother and sister from the room. He is on the wall, crawling on his beloved picture in order to save it, so that mother and daughter re-enter to walk in on a sort of reverse primal scene, mother watching her son coupling with another beast: Gregor "pressed himself to the glass, which was a good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly." The father arrives and Gregor, quite cowardly, shrinks from him; his father can kill him and he knows it, and he wants his father to know he is obedient, "to let his father see as soon as he came in from the hall that his son had the good intention of getting back into his room immediately and that it was not necessary to drive him there." The father pelts Gregor with apples, one of which lands deep in his soft back. The mother rushes toward the father, her loosened petticoats falling to the floor, embracing her husband "in complete union with him." The father has restored his place as the head of the household. Where the father was once slow and lazy, now it is Gregor who, thanks to the apple injury, will be the invalid.

Part III

* With the apple stuck in his body -- soon to rot and cause an infection -- Gregor can no longer crawl on the wall. The family, too, feels trapped by Gregor ; they are overworked, tired-out, poor. They want Gregor to become a thing of the past. The family feels utterly hopeless, chained to this thing, this beast, not unlike a family may feel chained by an elderly or disabled family member. All Gregor can do is dream of what was and what can never be again. He is trapped physically but also psychologically.

* Although Grete pays less attention to Gregor, she still jealously guards him from the mother. When the mother cleans Gregor's room, Grete gets upset. This is played out in very Freudian terms, it seems to me, with the father standing to the side getting frustrated.

* New people enter the house. A charwoman takes an interest in Gregor and does not find him intimidating -- if anything, it's the other way around. The family takes in three boarders, to whom they become toadies. The boarders eat in the dining room while the family eats in the kitchen. The boarders are real neatniks, and the family starts using Gregor's room for trash or storage. The father has Grete play her violin for the gentlemen, as if she exists only for their amusement; the father is clearly interested in Grete's marriage potential. But while they are indifferent to the strains of Grete's violin, Gregor is like Odysseus charmed by the sirens -- he is irresistibly drawn to it. "Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?" Gregor's desire for his sister is equally strong -- he dreams of keeping her in his room as his loving companion; he imagines telling her that he had plans to send her to the conservatory, and seeing her burst into tears, and kissing her neck.

* It is difficult, at this point, not to come up with a comically profane image: Grete being ravished by this gigantic insect. There are any number of reasons as to "why" Gregor becomes a bug: the insect is a manifestation of one becoming what he is not, of living like an faceless insect and so turning into one; and there is the fact, too, that the Samsas are themselves an insect-like race, feeding on this or that host, devoted to the solidarity of their little hive. There seems to me, too, a possibility that Gregor feels like a beast in the way he desires his sister.

* The three lodgers, who notice his appearance and immediately make a fuss, interrupt Gregor's reverie. They don't seem revolted, exactly -- more likely, they see a good chance for a shakedown, as surely no one can be expected to pay money to live in the same house as a giant bug.

* Grete takes charge; the "creature" in Gregor's room must be gotten rid of. The father holds out some hope that Gregor, the Gregor they knew, would understand the family's predicament. Gregor returns to his room; Grete bolts it. He dies peacefully, feeling love for his family. The charwoman discovers his body the following morning. The Samsas are relieved. Grete notices how thin the corpse is -- did Gregor starve himself to death? Mom, Dad, and Grete retire to the parents' bedroom. The lodgers come into Gregor's bedroom, and Mr. Samsa throws them all out.

* And so, the Samsa family troubles are over. The three take the day off from their crummy jobs. The charwoman lets everyone know she has got rid of Gregor; just bringing up this most unpleasant of subjects earns her dismissal. Mrs. Samsa and Grete hold each other -- when Mr. Samsa feels left out, they bring him in to their little circle. He isn't odd man out anymore -- he's an object of affection, replacing the son who replaced him. The group takes a trip to the country on this sunny day. As they ponder their prospects, Ma and Pa Samsa see how their remaining child has "bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure." Will that ripe young body attract a husband? Can they feed off him they way they fed off Gregor? Yes, the future looks bright indeed.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Once, as a grown man, I was under ether during appendectomy, and with the vividness of a decalcomania picture I saw my own self in a sailor suit mounting a freshly emerged Emperor moth under the guidance of a Chinese lady who I knew was my mother. It was all there, brilliantly reproduced in my dream, while my own vitals were being exposed: the soaking, ice-cold absorbent cotton pressed to the insect's lemurian head; the subsiding spasms of its body; the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating the hard crust of its thorax; the careful insertion of the point of the pin in the cork-bottomed groove of the spreading board; the symmetrical adjustmrnt of the thick, strong-veined wings under neatly affixed strips of semi-transparent paper.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
I wish I could give Brother Bill his great thrill
I would set him in chains at the top of the hill
Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille
He could die happily ever after

-- Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues"

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Next time you sit down to listen to The Velvet Underground and Nico, pay attention to the clothes, the appearance. They're important. There's the dope dealer dressed in black, the femme fatale with false-colored eyes, the whip wielding dominatrix in ermine and shiny leather boots, Seasick Sara in her hobnail boots, and that sad girl in a "hand-me-down dress from who knows where," heading out to all tomorrow's parties -- probably her last party. The dress will become a shroud. On a record where death oozes from every groove, everyone wears the clothes they'll be buried in. Welcome to a pageant for losers who are anything but beautiful.

As most of its fans know, one of the most influential records in rock history did not exactly have success written all over it. Comprised of writer and (mostly) lead singer Lou Reed, his co-founder John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker, the Velvets hoped to make a name for themselves by becoming the house band for Andy Warhol's psychedelic road show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol "produced" the band's first record, although his main impact appears to have been in adding Nico, a stunningly beautiful German model who had been part of the eye-candy in Fellini's La Dolce Vita a few years earlier. Call it bad singing, call it haunting beauty, but Nico's breathy vocals and imperfect grasp of English phrasing added a certain worldly dimension to several of the group's songs, which were already unique in both perspective and their varyingly sparing and daring execution.

But who cared? They were a gang of Lower East exiles trying to make a dent in a California world. As soon as it was released in March of 1967, the record tanked. As The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll points out, 1967 was "the heyday of Haight-Ashbury" and the number of psychedelic bands in the San Francisco Bay Area alone ranged anywhere between 500 and 1,500. Record buyers, also known as young people, were far too absorbed in the kind of life-is-a-druggy-blissful-wonder aesthetic typified by the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Love and -- of course -- the Beatles, whose Sgt, Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just come out. (This may account for Reed's animosity toward the Beatles' classic, as well as his opinion that it wasn't nearly as good as the Velvets' debut.) Only a comparative handful bothered to listen to this incredible downer, but as Brian Eno has said -- and every article about the band has quoted since -- everyone who did started a band. The band that was, arguably, the first "alternative" band, was an alternative to the prevailing festive mood. Rather than joining the party, their first album announced the party's over. It's the La Dolce Vita of rock.

With it's tinkling opening refrain, "Sunday Morning" sounds as if it could be playing on a music box in a little girl's room and, despite the fact that it is sung by Reed, the song's first-person perspective seems to be that of a little girl who grew up way too soon -- grown up, moved out, moved in and got trashed. She's waking up, probably after a party, probably hung over, and not at all hopeful about her prospects:

Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It's just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind

This is not a Sunday morning in which she'll be connecting with God or faith or peace. She approaches it with a sense of dread, dread for the fact that life is exhausted, played out, that there isn't a whole lot more living to do. In some sense, and whether this was on Lou Reed's mind or not, I don't know, but the song brings to mind Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning," in which a woman finds herself contrasting the reality of earth and (for Stevens) the imaginary world of Christianity. Stevens' poem is full of death, too; but in death, in the fact that nothing is permanent, that what lives, dies, Stevens finds the essence of beauty, that part of what makes a thing beautiful is that it won't last forever, that it's here today and gone tomorrow, just like human existence, and if there is no hope of heaven, there is the joy of earthly existence:

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.

Reed seems to be taking that same woman and yanking from her even that much hope. Reed returns to this theme a few songs later, with the brilliant "All Tomorrow's Parties" (a classic recording as well as a great song). Under the Teutonic spell of Nico's voice, the song is about a habituŽ of the party circuit with nothing to wear to her next appearance. The song takes a social dilemma and turns it into a question of eternity. All she has are the "silks and linens of yesterday's gowns." She has whored herself out, and she's no longer amusing, no longer of any interest to anyone. Her party days are up, and so is her life. The song frames her life in the course of a weekend bender: she starts out beautiful on Thursday and by Sunday she's a figure of ridicule, "for whom none will go mourning." By the final chorus, we finally know that by the next party she'll be a corpse. This may or may not be the same girl who shows up as the "little tease" in "Femme Fatale" or "There She Goes Again" or the "whiplash girl-child" -- kitten with a whip, perhaps? -- of "Venus in Furs." Women, weak and strong, play a role in a good half of the album's songs, but everyone on the record is vulnerable.

(Who is that girl? My guess is Edie Sedgwick. And if those songs, as well as "Femme Fatale" and "There She Goes Again" weren't directly about her, they absolutely were her prophecy. Of course, they were Nico's prophecy too.)

II.

The songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico typify Reed's career somewhat: character sketches that find whatever eloquence is to be had in denizens of both street-life and high-life, on their way down. Sometimes, as in "I'm Waiting for the Man" the two mix: a white kid heads to the bad side of town to score some dope. The locals think he's there for cheap pussy: "Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?/ Hey white boy, chasing our women around?" He's there for another kind of thrill, and the song -- against a jabbing guitar riff and pounding piano -- focuses on both his anticipation and release. The songs that follow echo a similarly desperate desire for death by orgasm.

"I am tired, I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years," says the flagellant in "Venus in Furs." "I wish that/I was born a thousand years ago," says the junkie in "Heroin." Both want something just pleasantly lethal enough to push them over the edge for good.

"Venus in Furs" is a somewhat seedy song that's full of cliched S&M regalia (though they certainly weren't rock cliches in 1967). But the song goes beyond the familiar scenery: the flagellant, not unlike the party girl, is a victim of his own excess. Sex has turned into little more than a series of degradations; now he's at the final one, begging a dominarix for the pain that will remind him he is alive. The junkie in "Heroin" also wants to feel alive, to "feel like a man," but he also wants to "nullify my life." Getting high makes him feel not only madly heroic ("I feel just like Jesus' son") but also like he's flying off on some great adventure on a clipper ship. As he sings, the guitar races wildly ahead, mimicking the poison soaring through his veins and emptying out the pleasure centers of his brain.

Is there a salvation that lasts, beyond the usual tired forms? Reed suggests there is, in what I prefer to think of as the album's real closer. (I always skip the final two cuts, "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son," noisy, free-form experiments that serve to do little more than show where the band was headed, with the double-barrel sonic assault of White Light/White Heat.)
"I'll Be Your Mirror" is one of the tenderest songs in Reed's career and the sole hopeful note on a pretty sad record. Against a lilting melody, the voice here is one of reassurance; one lover to another promising to reflect what's best rather than what's worst -- the one person in life that not only sees through your pretense, but likes what she sees:

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you

Granted, this may be one junkie talking to another, or maybe one recovering junkie talking to another. Maybe they met at a clinic. What's important is that one will be there when the other awakes, a reminder that there's some kind of genuine life beyond all tomorrow's parties.