Sunday, November 29, 2009

GOING TAME: Jesse Walker vs. Sarah Palin (and in partial defense of her fanclub)...

and John Reynolds here and here. "Ronald Reagan showed more substance in his delightful book written mostly about his time as an actor than Palin shows in her four hundred pages."
"UNSAFE AT ANY CREED": My current AmCon column looks at Brookland/CUA. Subscribers can read it here (PDF).

This issue isn't as good as their stellar books issue--I think the cover article rests on a naive view of an American Golden Age when we had a "humble foreign policy" (TM GW Bush, summer 2000) and the press afflicted the comfortable--but AmCon consistently finds interesting and entertaining writers, and then gets out of their way.
I WONDER IF HE'LL ROT UNDERWATER?: I bought a 2010 calendar with a horror-movie poster for every month; and, in a burst of cheapjack awesome, the calendar comes with four dvds so you can see all twelve movies! I think April's selection is Dementia 13, which also happens to be the directorial debut of one Francis Coppola.

People, this is the good trash. The plot is a Frankenstein skeleton, the writing is obvious, and the acting is workaday, but you know what? The direction is genuinely lovely. The opening sequence is shot in tight, high-contrast black and white, exploiting the lead femme's white-blonde hair; it's got terrific control of the soundtrack as well. The credits are eerie, subaqueous and beautiful. There are many terrific scenes later, such as the pool death--just perfect and horrible, and wringing the most out of the b&w. Scenes are framed well and creepily. There are also some nice character moments, though this isn't a movie you'll remember for complex characterization. It's deeply over-psychologized in that midcentury style: You know the bit at the end of Psycho where they try to explain things? That attitude is threaded through this movie.

Nonetheless, Dementia 13 is really worth checking out, especially if you can strongly privilege looks over substance. Corman + Coppola: How can you not be at least intrigued?
"I LOVE THE '30S": This is amazing. So far the Monopoly episode is my favorite, but the Hindenberg one is also epic, and really, all of them have been hilarious. (If you just let this link run it will play all the videos. They're all about three minutes long.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH: As he does every November, Daniel Mitsui is posting Catholic and Orthodox artwork/liturgical whatnot relating to the Last Things. Yes, there are a lot of Dances of Death; you also get Alaskan spirit houses, Requiem chasubles, ossuaries, death's-head rosaries (!), and the Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Too many people say step out on de word. But all dem words don't say preach. Sometimes God writes and just as soon as God git to de letter P--they run off and go preach. God wuz gointer say "plow," but they don't wait tuh see.
--as told to Zora Neale Hurston by Eugene Oliver; Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States

Monday, November 23, 2009

FACTORIES THAT MAKE FACTORIES: I really loved (Untitled), even though I went in to the theater with a lot of skepticism. Basically, I expected the movie--no wait, I mean "film"--to beat up on experimental art from a fairly basic "my kindergartner could make that" perspective. Instead, I got a complicated, even humanist (not my favorite philosophical stance--I'm a personalist, not a humanist--but still) fable in which both commercial success and boundary-pushing were simultaneously celebrated and interrogated.

So here are three points/questions about the movie.

1) It's so funny! I mean, I'd already seen the line, "Harmony is just a capitalist plot to sell pianos!" in ads for the flick (and using that line in ads is kind of adorably recursive); but there were so many other great lines and moments. I think the sex scene, in which the classic "How does a bra come off?" puzzle was made vastly more complex by the lady's baroque clothing, might have been my favorite.

And I note that many of the satirized characters are also humanized. Not all--the Damien Hirst caricature, for example, doesn't get more than a comeuppance, and ditto the easily-snowed male collector. But this movie is more a debate or dialogue than a treatise: Lots of perspectives get their say, and get to be human.

2) I love how the movie draws out the bluntly literal bent of so much avant-garde art. This isn't art you experience, or even art you endure; it's art you solve. Possibly the most blatant expression of this fact comes early in the movie, when the hot haute collectrix says that the rattling of a bucket on the end of a chain signifies "the unchaining of desire," or some such. I will always stand up for abstraction and stylization as a way of representing a truth behind "realist," Naturalistic human experience; but this movie showcased the ways that abstraction can become childish, an alphabetic relation of image to concept in which the image adds nothing to the concept.

I think that's one reason that the movie manages to show so much terrific avant-garde art, and contrast it with the art being mocked. I mean, I personally didn't care for the shimmery-glasses music of the Avant God at the end--I thought it was pretty and twee. But I did nonetheless get that it was attempting to be music, something nonliteral, something unspeakable, something more lovely and complex than a chain falling into a bucket to represent the unchaining of desire.

3) Freddie's old post about Damien Hirst made me think about one question. I mean, I think Freddie is wrong on at least five different levels!, lol (what is actually wrong with fifty beautiful pictures of water lilies?), but the thing I most want to question right now is the idea that art has been emptied of meaning.
I think the responsibility of the modern artist is to recognize the inability of symbols to signify.

Look. In the modern era, wherever you'd care to place that, there was a crisis of representation. (I should say that this next bit isn't mine alone but rather is boilerplate undergrad art history. It's still true.) Everywhere, traditional structures of certainty and meaning were being subverted. Religion, science, government, civic society were all facing new and frightening challenges. Into this maelstrom came the popularization and eventual universality of the camera and the photograph, a direct and insurmountable challenge to the preeminence of the artistic image as the primary mode of representation. In the face of this challenge, the response of many artists has been to abandon the notion of representation at all. Just as literature in the modern era was the literature of exhaustion, art in the modern era was the art of a tradition that had, in a small but significant way, admitted defeat. Art itself fails, in the modern era.


Because I agree with Freddie that "beauty" isn't the only aim of art. And (Untitled), I think, does as well: It gives the stellar line, "When did beauty become so [redacted] ugly?!" to a pretentious painter of pretty corporate sunbursts. (One of the movie's many triumphs is that my self-confessed Philistine friend said, afterward, "You know--I really liked his paintings!" They're likable! They're pretty and pleasant, and I actually don't mean that with any degree of contempt; I would think well of a hotel or office which had these lovely, balanced abstractions on its walls. Anyway, point is, I get that art can go beyond beauty; I just want it to go beyond beauty into sublimity.

But even that isn't the fight I want to pick right now. The thing I'm curious about is... why some media and not others? Why are painting and "orchestral" or non-pop music so incredibly conflicted and self-doubting, so willing to accept narratives about the death or dearth of meaning... while novelists continue to churn out adultery stories, and movies continue to do more or less everything, and even comics seem to be recovering from a late-'90s period in which they were swallowed up into the maelstrom of their own navel? Seriously... if the Weakerthans are doing something new-enough; if The Wire did something new enough; where does anyone get off saying that painters, sculptors, and non-pop musicians have exhausted the possibilities of meaning?

Maybe "fine artists" are living in the world of The Last Unicorn--where most unicorns have been captured, it's true; but every time they see a real unicorn, they think it's merely a strange white mare.
Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail--but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

lots more--really interesting. Via Jendi Reiter.
FLOW MORPHIA SLOW...: This is pretty amazing. Click on the YouTube link.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"HEAVEN CAN WAIT": Me, at Inside Catholic, in which I discuss Hell, American character, slapping your mama, and the centurion who speared the side of Christ:
There's a terrific moment in the TV show House, in which the irascible and brilliant Dr. Greg House is explaining to a lapsed Catholic subordinate why he doesn't believe in the afterlife. House, with all the self-lacerating irony that actor Hugh Laurie can impart to the character, says, "I would hate to think that all of this was just a test."

House is right -- and he's offered a crucial diagnosis of one form of Catholic piety. There's a way of thinking about the afterlife that makes this life, here, irrelevant and even inexplicable. Catholics will sometimes argue against universalism -- the comforting belief that all people must be saved, because God would never be so cruel as to damn somebody's grandma -- by asking, "If everyone is saved, why even bother to do the right thing here on earth?"


Sunday, November 08, 2009

KITCHEN ADVENTURES: LIKE A GOOD PENNY! Today I cooked with turnips for the first time, for a warm salad. I can confidently say that this vegetable will be making many repeat appearances in my kitchen. Turnips are just as creamy and blank-slate as all the best comfort food.

So here's what I did: I heated the oven to 400. I chopped up some cute turnips with a Japanese-sounding name I can't remember, into big chunks. Imagine approximately a smallish button mushroom: That's how big they were. I then placed the turnip chunks on aluminum foil, drizzled seriously with light olive oil, tossed with cumin and a bit of curry powder, wrapped the turnip in foil, and stuck that in the oven. I waited about ten minutes.

(While I was waiting, I made a quick dressing by whisking ex-vir olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some marinating liquid from a jar of water-packed artichokes, with a bit of salt and pepper.)

I chopped the turnip greens, chopped up a small hot pepper, and put that on to saute with ex-vir olive oil and salt and pepper.

I cut up a ciabatta roll into smallish pieces, and put it in the toaster oven for medium-well.

I chopped up some mozzarella.

At this point the toaster oven chimed. I let the ciabatta cool off. Once the turnip had roasted for about 20 minutes, I shredded the toasted roll, combined all the ingredients, drizzled with the dressing, and gave it another grind of black and white pepper. Then...


This was great. The balance of the salad wasn't exactly right--it could use another bright vegetable, not necessarily an out-of-season tomato but maybe I could get another pepper up in there, and I had a bit too much mozzarella proportional to the other ingredients. But the caramelized creaminess of the turnip, combined with the dark rich cumin, was just perfect. I think I could just eat roast turnip with salt, pepper, and cumin, and feel like I was eating macaroni and cheese.

The greens were also delicious. Raw, they were much sharper but also much tastier than raw spinach, which has always struck me as kind of like eating dogwood leaves; cooked, they grew dark and rich, ready to play off of the hot pepper. Raw turnip greens reminded me a bit of raw sorrel (yum), while cooked turnip greens were more spinach-like, darker, more distinctive than cooked sorrel.

I just liked this so much. Which is good, since I don't have a lot of winter vegetables I really love--even butternut squash, which of course is delicious when someone else cooks it, I've never quite been able to master.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!: Two reviews of The Descent... Final Girl.

The Horror Blog.
YOU WILL GO DOWN IN DARKNESS BEFORE YOU DIE: Wow, I loved The Descent. edited!--I've moved this review to the other blog, the one where I post spoilery stuff.

ARGH edited to add actual link! Sorry!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

HURRY UP DAY JOB: MarriageDebate! This week, IVF mistakes and what we mean when we say a child is "ours"; adoption and parental investment; fathers, and whether family-resource centers tend to assume that they're irrelevant.

Last week, marriage in the movies, a CNN debate about monogamy, a chewy Newsweek piece on the future of abstinence-only sex ed, libertarianism and culture, "your brain without Dad," Stephen Colbert, and much much more.

I know I don't post there regularly enough. But believe me, even if you have signed up (as I hope you have!) for the IMAPP weekly newsletter, you're still missing interesting marriage- and family-related links, if you don't check in at the blog. (The weekly newsletter does give you the more scholarly stuff, so if your time is limited, consider signing up for that. The site itself is a bit more freewheeling, basically whatever I feel like throwing into the hopper plus whatever the IMAPP overlords consider interesting plus occasional flotsam. That can be a real advantage, though, since the blog addresses a wider range of issues and perspectives than the newsletter.)

I am not being paid to tell you this! I just think we've got stuff up there now which would interest many of the readers of this site.

PS: As always, send me links! As you can see from the cornucopia above, the site deals with marriage, family, parenting, and gender issues, and we're willing to publish pretty much anybody's perspective as long as it's well-written and/or intriguing. Our job is to advance the debate.
A GIRL ON A BEACH: On October 30, I watched Nosferatu at the AFI Silver, with a live score by the Silent Orchestra. There are a lot of things one could notice about that experience (SOMEDAY I will own the SO-scored version of Alla Nazimova's Salome!!!!) but I will just pick one.

This movie is very long, for a silent movie, and it does have bland stretches. But it also offers lots and lots of scary ship upon a scary ocean. And it also is only the second movie, after Barton Fink, where I've found an image from my personal horror iconography presented in all its beauty and terror.

The Mina Harker character--I can't remember her nom de ripoff, but you know which one I mean--sits out on the beach and waits for her husband's ship. The waves crest black; the grasses shake in the wind. Crosses are planted here and there around the bench where she sits, memorials to sailors lost.

This one scene twists in my gut. It takes the hope, the memory, the sense that once there was a place where we were at home--all the things I associate with this scene of a beautiful girl on a beach--and studs it with crosses, with death and heartbreak.

I have been here before
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

--Dante Rossetti, "Sudden Light" (more from me)

Somewhere I have heard this before...

--Nirvana, "Drain You"

Just a beach and a pretty girl,
If you just take this potion

--The Levellers, "Fifteen Years"

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;

--Edgar Poe, "Annabel Lee"
Oh life looked so rosy in the blogwatch,
But I'll be a friend and I'll tell you what's in store...

Belated Halloweenery edition.

Camassia on Synetic Theater's Dracula adaptation. I strongly second her belief that Synetic should've stayed wordless; the best moments of the production were all dance, from the snaky vampire women to the eerie invisible horse. (That horse really should NOT have worked--it should've evoked memories of Monty Python members banging coconuts--and yet the amazing lighting work and the actor's total commitment to the moment made his galloping seem terrifying, not silly.)

Dresden Codak: 42 Essential Third-Act Twists. FOOD STARTS EATING PEOPLE.

Pumpkin Gutter: This may be the most fabulous thing ever. Iron Pumpkin, embryo pumpkin, American Gothic pumpkin, braces pumpkin, scary eye pumpkin, tarantula pumpkin... there's something here for everyone (in the Addams Family). Sadly, I forget where I found this.

Sean Collins: Reviewing Al Columbia's Pim and Francie:
But moreover, these scary stories and disturbing images are all so gorgeously awful that they appear to have corrupted the book itself. They look like they've emerged from the ether, seared or stained themselves partly onto the pages, then burned out, or been extinguished when the nominal author shut his sketchbook and hurled it across the room or tore up the pages in terror.


Plus, he reviews Paranormal Activity. While he ended up with a different overall stance on the movie than I did, I really liked a lot of his review, e.g.:
...For some reason, the lights being flipped on and off really got me. They weren't flickering--something was walking around turning lights on and off. Not only was something else present in the house, it was basically using the house the way we would--only it was nothing like us in nature or intent. I dunno, that creeped me out pretty bad.

But best/worst of all were the two scenes where somnambulist Katie got out of bed, turned to face it, and just...stood there, for hours and hours. That's pure automaton Freudian uncanny, of course, and a monumental horror-image par excellence. ...These are actions that really have no inherent emotional or psychological content whatsoever. They're purely neutral. But when you have no idea why someone's doing them, even totally neutral actions can become sinister, almost intolerable.

(whole thing--plus comments-boxing!)

Basically, the buzz around PA has made me really want to rewatch The Blair Witch Project--especially since I am in the minority who really liked the Heather character!--so that's probably good.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT: If you don't check out the Kindertrauma Jukebox... well, I reckon we don't like your kind 'round here.

The Specials provide my favorite tune by far.
The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo.
--Donald Barthelme, quoted in the American Conservative, of which more later