Sunday, November 30, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/1/08)

In the event you didn't know, "magic" is realmed in the "imaginable," the moment of it being when that which is imagined dies, is penetrated by mind and known rather than believed in. Thus "reality" extends its picketing fence and each is encouraged to sharpen his wits. The artist is one who leaps the fence at night, scatters his seeds among the cabbages, hybrid seeds inspired by both the garden and wits-end forest where only fools and madmen wander, seeds needing several generations to be . . . finally proven edible. Until then they remain invisible, to those with both feet on the ground, yet prominent enough to be tripped over. Yes, those unsightly bulges between those oh so even rows will find their flowering moment . . . and then be farmed. . . . Realize the garden as you will the growing is mostly underground. Whatever daily care you may give it all is planted only by moonlight. However you remember it everything in it originates elsewhere. As for the unquotable magic it is as indescribable as the unbound woods it comes from.
--Stan Brakhage, "Camera Eye, My Eye"

Painting of the Week (12/1/08)

Chagall, Birthday

LOM USA Behind the scenes

A two part Futon Critic interview (I, II) with Josh Applebaum, executive producer of Life on Mars USA.

Cars, TV Shows

The possible bailout of the automakers as 2008 comes to an end leads Heather Havrilesky (in Salon) to think of the just canceled Pushing Daisies and the increasingly preposterous Grey's Anatomy in car metaphors:




"Grey's Anatomy" occupies a very different place in the TV market than Pushing Daisies. Pushing Daisies is a quirky and delightful Honda Element, a show you admire from afar and wish you wanted to watch more, but somehow, you don't. Grey's Anatomy is a slick, shiny Lexus SUV, a show that you can't stop watching even though it's bad for you and the environment and it'll bankrupt you every time the tiny computer chip that controls the windshield wipers breaks down.

Smart, talented people make Hondas and Lexuses, and smart, talented people write Pushing Daisies and Grey's Anatomy. But sometimes, a very good, original, clever show just doesn't work, and a good but uneven, soapy, overwrought show just does. After all, this is TV we're talking about. We should ask for more from our televisual narrative artistes, I agree, but sometimes when we do ask for more, and we get it, we still don't want to watch.

Call Me Pop-Up


A Moby-Dick pop-up book. Can't wait to see it.

Hancock

I saw Hancock on a long plane flight two weeks ago--watched it twice under anything but optimal conditions, but liked it so much that I bought it on DVD today--the "Unrated Edition." (I was asked for proof of age at Wal-Mart!)



When, after the opening sequence but before Hancock stops the train in its tracks, our drunken superhero is seduced by a woman in a bar and takes her back to his trailers, I assumed I had discovered why this version was unrated (the MPAA had given Peter Berg's film a PG13 upon theatrical release): the scene had not existed in the original.

But as Hancock and the woman end up in bed together, it becomes apparent that it is not the customary nudity that proved problematic. Hancock warns his bedmate that when he "starts climbing the mountaintop," she will want to get out of the way, and the camera shifts to outside the now rocking wildly trailers. As things progress inside, suddenly three blasts of light, presumably Hancock's ejaculation, burst through the roof, shooting toward the sky. The woman, who had been thrown aside just in time, flees in terror.

We later learn that Hancock is an immortal, god-like being--which presumably explains why his "semen" takes the form of bursts of light.

Critics like Roger Ebert praised Hancock for giving us the first film where superheroes' actions "have consequences in the real world." I am not sure this was the kind of realism Ebert had in mind.

It's too bad that Peter Berg, Michael Mann, and company did not acquiesce to a more mature rating with an unprecedented annotation:

Rated R for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and one scene of divine ejaculation.

My Top Tens: Composers

Ludwig van Beethoven
Karlheinz Stockhausen
George Gershwin
Aaron Copeland
Charles Ives
Jean Sibelius
Maurice Ravel
Philip Glass
Johann Sebastian Bach
Claude Debussy

"Falling in Love Again"




This new collection, edited by dear friends Stacey Abbott and Deborah Jermyn, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Color at the Movies (a reductionistic approach)

Well this is certainly a new way to look at a movie's color palette. (Below: Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette.)

My Top Tens: Favorite Athletes

Jim Brown (Football), Cleveland Browns
Roberto Clemente (Baseball), Pittsburgh Pirates
Elgin Baylor (Basketball), Los Angeles Lakers
Muhammad Ali (Boxing)
Jerry West (Basketball), Los Angeles Lakers
Andre Agassi (Tennis)
Michael Johnson (Track & Field)
Tiger Woods (Golf)
Sandy Koufax (Baseball), Los Angeles Dodgers
Billy Jean King (Tennis)

My Top Tens: Favorite Football Players

Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns
Walter Payton, Chicago Bears
Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota Vikings
Alan Page, Minnesota Vikings
John Riggins, Washington Redskins
Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
Steve McNair, Tennessee Titans
Bruce Matthews, Tennessee Titans
Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears
Larry Sanders, Detroit Lions

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Top Tens: Favorite Basketball Players

Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers
Elgin Baylor, Los Angeleles Lakers
Bob Petit, St. Louis Hawks
Karl Malone, Utah Jazz
Rick Barry, Golden State Warriors
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals
Bill Walton, Los Angeles Lakers
Pete Maravich, New Orleans Jazz
Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets

My Top Tens: Favorite Baseball Players

Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates
Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers
Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh Pirates
Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals
Rocky Colavito, Cleveland Indians
Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins
Barry Larkin, Cincinnati Reds
Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals
Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs
Jim Palmer, Baltimore Orioles

Quote of the Day (11/30/08)

Everything that makes us laugh is close at hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. Laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically.
--Mikhail Bakhtin, "Epic and Novel"

My Top Tens: Superheroes

Batman
Green Lantern
Hellboy
Challengers of the Unknown
Flash
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Angel
Superman
Spider-Man
Wolverine
and Hancock--Tie

Handy Latin Phrases

These are supplied by Tom and Ray Magliozzi on "Car Talk." (Mrs. Rebecca Skinner, the enormously bossomed-always-wearing-her-glasses-on-a-lanyard-around-her-neck-wife-of-my-childhood-dentist-who-"taught"-me-the-dead-language-in-the early-'60s, would be so proud.)


Handy Latin Phrases

Fac ut vivas.
Get a life.

Mihi ignosce. Cum homine de cane debeo congredi.
Excuse me. I've got to see a man about a dog.

Noli me vocare, ego te vocabo.
Don't call me, I'll call you.

Radix lecti.
Couch potato.

Sona si Latine loqueris.
Honk if you speak Latin.

Si hoc signum legere potes, operis boni in rebus Latinus alacribus et fructuosis potiri potes!
If you can read this sign, you can get a good job in the fast-paced, high-paying world of Latin!

Utinam coniurati te in foro interficiant.
May conspirators assassinate you in the mall.

Cogito, ergo doleo.
I think, therefore I am depressed.

Abundant dulcibus vitiis.
Nobody's perfect.

Ventis secundis, tene cursum.
Go with the flow.

i fractum non sit, noli id reficere.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Braccae tuae aperiuntur.
Your fly is open.

Furnulum pani nolo.
I don't want a toaster.

Morologus es!
You're talking like a moron!

Catapultam habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem mihi dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane mittam.
I have a catapult. Give me all the money, or I will fling an enormous rock at your head.

Sentio aliquos togatos contra me conspirare.
I think some people in togas are plotting against me.

Tace atque abi.
Shut up and go away.

Utinam barbari spatium proprium tuum invadant.
May barbarians invade your personal space.

Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari?
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Actio personalis monitur cum persona.
Dead men don't sue.


Vescere bracis meis.

Eat my shorts.

Casey/Yogi/Satchel

I have always been a major admirer (and quoter) of the ur-wisdom of Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra (who I recently cited here), and Satchel Paige (pictured left to right below).



Here are links to collections of each baseballer's brilliance:

Casey Stengelisms
Yogi Berraisms
Satchel Paigisms

Here is a sample from each:

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.--Casey Stengel


If the fans don't come out to the ball park, you can't stop them.--Yogi Berra


I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.--Satchel Paige

Annoying Music

Links to all the "Annoying Music" segments with Jim Naydor on Scott Simon's NPR's "Morning Edition Saturday."

"The Onion AV Club" Extras


I have long been a fan and frequent reader of "The Onion AV Club," drawn there by its great interview (two of the best with Joss Whedon, for example) and film reviews, but I have only just discovered that if offers some other wonderful accessories.

In the future I will often be checking out:

The Tolerability Index: A Guide to What We are Barely Putting Up with This Week

Commentary Tracks of the Damned

and, of course,

The TV Club

Friday, November 28, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/29/08)

Central perspective locates infinity in a specific direction. . . . This makes space appear as a pointed flow. . . . The result is a transformation of the simultaneity of space into a happening in time. . . . The traditional world of being is redefined as a process of happening. In this way central perspective foreshadows and initiates a fundamental development in the Western conception of nature.
--Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception

"Science Projects" ("Fringe"/"The Mentalist")

Kelefa Sanneh on Fringe and The Mentalist (in The New Yorker).

This is the first Sanneh I have read, but on first encounter he seems to be one of those old-school TV critics preselected because he doesn't really like TV.

Still, he does have interesting things to say about the rookie seasons of television series. "Since this is the show’s first season," he observes, "each episode is also an audition, a plea for permission to continue."

This leads him to see certain elements of the story as self-referential commentary:

At the end of the pilot, Dunham’s boss, played by Lance Reddick (the straight-backed actor who portrayed Cedric Daniels on “The Wire”), gazed out at the civilian world and asked, “You see all these people going about their lives? No idea what’s happening around them—what they’re in the middle of?” He was talking to us, the viewers, promising us a season of mayhem.

Damian Holbook's Top Ten TV Opening Credits Sequences

Well worth a read (not available online yet--from TV Guide, December 1, 2008, p. 100):

1. True Blood
2. Dexter
3. The Simpsons
4. Mad Men
5. The Sopranos
6. The Drew Carey Show
7. Battlestar Galactica
8. Friday Night Lights
9. Six Feet Under
10. Bones

My Top Tens: Funniest People

Stephen Colbert
Chris Rock
Conan O'Brien
Rita Rudner
Ellen Degeneres
Steven Wright
Sacha Baron Cohen
Ricky Gervais
Tina Fey
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David--tie

My Top Tens: Television Episodes (Drama)

"Restless" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
"Funhouse" (The Sopranos)
"Flashes Before Your Eyes" and "The Constant" (Lost)
"Jose Chung's From Outer Space" (The X-Files)
"The Wheel" (Mad Men)
"Objects in Space" (Firefly)
"Not Fade Away" (Angel)
"Blink" (Doctor Who)
"Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To" (Deadwood)
Episode 2.7 (Twin Peaks) and "in the Beginning" (Supernatural)--tie

The Death of Batman?


Killed, apparently, by Grant Morrison.

They are dropping like flies, our immortals. With the Man of Steel's killer, Doomsday, now manifesting (and breaking up weddings) on Smallville, will the son of Jor-el die in that soapy 'verse even before he's donned the cape?

"Buffy" Goes to the Movies (Again?)

Is it possible that the worst movie ever to become a great television series could stretch the bounds of probability yet again and become a great movie? Well . . .

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/28/08)

I have a tacit command over my body, accomplishing without the slightest difficulty actions I could not begin to comprehend or carry out in a reflective fashion. If I attempted to walk by consciously manipulating all the proper muscles I would soon find myself incapacitated. And, taking it further, if I tried to initiate my stroll by explicitly sending out certain nerve signals from the cerebral cortex, I would not even know how to begin.
--Drew Leder, The Absent Body

"MacBird"


Not sure why, but this morning I have been remembering my performance as a college freshman (at Venango Campus of Clarion State College) in MacBird.

Lee Bluestein directed us in the December 1968 performance of Barbara Garson's controversial transmutation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. in which MacBird (aka Lyndon Baines Johnson) plots to kills President Kennedy so he can assume the throne. Its political implications in a small town in Pennsylvania would alone have made it tendentious, but MacBird's boisterous "Fuck 'em" to the press toward the end of the play was even more likely to bring the heat down on the school and the play's director. Bluestein decided to not charge admission, even for non-Venango Campus/Oil City residents, and few complaints were heard.

I played Bobby Ken O'Dunc (Bobby Kennedy), who got to kill his brother's assassin at the play's end (I ran him through with a lance, as I recall), after first explaining my "not born of woman" conception. I can still remember a bit of my speech:

Your charm is cursed.
Prepare to hear the worst.
At each male birth
My father did prepare
His sons for their envisaged greatness.


I uttered these and all my lines with a "Baston" accent that received some commendations.

Little did we know that in June 1968, barely seven months later, the inspiration for my character would himself be dead, assassinated in a Los Angeles Hotel, June 5, 1968. Of course, our director, Lee Bluestein, would likewise be dead, killed that summer when he was hit head on by a semi in that little MG in which he had often driven me home after MacBird practice. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Lee Bluestein . . . A terrible year.

My Top Tens: Critics and Theorists

Roland Barthes
Umberto Eco
Mikhail Bakhtin
J. Hillis Miller
W. R. Robinson
Antonin Artaud
Gaston Bachelard
John Berger
André Bazin
Richard Slotkin and Susan Sontag (tie)

Zima: A Eulogy

Brendan L. Koerner contemplates the demise of Zima in Slate.

Satan Hmself Talks "Reaper"

Ray Wise discusses his television series (returning in January).

The Glauinator


Jeff Otto makes the case for Summer Glau (Cameron) as the best terminator (terminatrix?).

Ashey Pharoah Hearts "LoM" US

One of the creators of the original British version praises the American transplant.

"Friday Night Lights"


Judging by its weak Nielsen performance in its two years on NBC, I am one of many who failed to watch this absolutely superb television series (then again, I was in England during its 2006-2008 run on the Peacock).

I have been watching Season One on DVD and still have four episodes to go, but I cannot praise it highly enough. Its unfailingly realistic depiction of American life is almost unprecedented. A future culture anthropologist wanting to know about how we live now could learn much from watching these stories about the football-obsessed town of Dillon, Texas, FNL is no more just about football, than Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just about vampires.

Thanksgiving ("Pump it up now!")

To celebrate Thanksgiving (my first at home in three years) I wanted to post a video of a great Saturday Night Live ad from the 1990s:



Hilarious.

Thanks to lateadopter for the embed.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/27/08)

For his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laborers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer's boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as "man" or "woman." He preferred to write about "vocational groups," "elements," "classes," and "populations": for in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.
--C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

My Top Tens: Singers/Songwriters/Musicians

Jackson Browne
Genesis
Dixie Chicks
Leonard Cohen
Bruce Springsteen
The Beatles
Bob Dylan
Jimmy Buffet
Joni Mitchell
Talking Heads

My Top Tens: Philosophers/Thinkers

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Friedrich Nietzsche
Hannah Arendt
James Hillman
E. M. Cioran
Martin Heidegger
Elias Canetti
J. H. Van Den Berg
Lao Tzu
Ralph Waldo Emerson

My Top Tens: Movies

Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder)
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarrantino)
Miller's Crossing (Coen Brothers)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
The Matrix (the Wachowski Brothers)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese) and Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci)--tie

My Top Tens: Poets

Rainer Maria Rilke
Wallace Stevens
William Carlos Williams
Emily Dickinson
Mary Oliver
Gary Snyder
William Butler Yeats
Walt Whitman
Dylan Thomas
Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes (three way tie)

The Truman Syndrome

Now officially diagnosed.

My Top Tens: Intellectual Influences

William Irwin Thompson
Owen Barfield
Jorge Luis Borges
Italo Calvino
Federico Fellini
Joss Whedon
Loren Eiseley
Rainer Maria Rilke
Wallace Stevens
James Tiptree, Jr.

My Top Tens: Most Important Books

Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig)
Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Owen Barfield)
The Denial of Death (Ernest Becker)
The Collected Poems (Wallace Stevens)
Walden (Henry David Thoreau)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard)
Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (Susan Griffin)
Dunio Elegies (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Cosmicomics (Italo Calvino) and Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston)--tie

My Top Tens: Television Sitcoms

Seinfeld
Curb Your Enthusiasm

The Office (British version)
Frasier
Father Ted
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Larry Sanders Show
The Bob Newhart Show
Green Acres
The Simpsons

My Top Tens: Television Series (Drama)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Sopranos
Deadwood
Lost
Supernatural
Dexter
Firefly
Battlestar Galactica
Life on Mars
Twin Peaks

My Top Tens: Painters/Artists

Marc Chagall
Paul Klee
Chaim Soutine
Edward Hopper
Frida Kahlo
Vincent Van Gogh
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Francis Bacon
René Magritte
M. C. Escher

Superman (according to Bill)

In Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill 2, Bill delivers the following famous meditation on the significance of superheroes in general and Superman in particular.

As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating.

Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology . . . the mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”--that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears--the glasses, the business suit--that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.

Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak . . . He’s unsure of himself . . . He’s a coward.

Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Terminator: Salvation"

A seriously cool "web poster" for Terminator: Salvation.

My Top Tens

I will be posting a series of Top Ten lists: influences, books, television series, poets, movies, etc.

These will, it goes without saying, be utterly arbitrary and perhaps forgetful.

Later. Links to all the "My Top Tens" posts:

Movies
Television Series (Drama)
Episodes of Television Drama
Television Sitcoms
Most Important Books
Intellectual Influences
Composers
Funniest People
Superheroes
Favorite Athletes
Favorite Football Players
Favorite Baseball Players
Favorite Basketball Players
Philosophers/Thinkers
Poets
Painters/Artists

Quote of the Day (11/26/08)

A modern film is to an old one as a present-day motor car is to one built 25 years ago. The impression it makes is just as ridiculous and clumsy and the way film-making has improved is comparable to the sort of technical improvement we see in cars. It is not to be compared with the improvement—if it’s right to call it that—of an artistic style. It must be much the same with modern dance music too. A jazz dance, like a film, must be something that can be improved. What distinguishes all these developments from the formation of a style is that spirit plays no part in them.
--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

The Great Escape

Buffy vs. Heroes

With last night's "The Eclipse" in mind, Entertainment Weekly's Marc Bernardin brilliantly uses Buffy the Vampire Slayer to pin down just what's wrong with the characters of Heroes:

And so we come to the Episode After Which Nothing Will Be The Same Ever Again…Until Such Time When We Decide It Will, In Fact, Return to Sameness. The moon was slipping in front of the sun, and that was important. No one was sure why, of course. Not Flaky Mohinder, who seemed to be the only guy who realized that an eclipse was hanging in the sky when everyone in the current Heroes generation got their powers — but didn't draw the inevitable conclusion. At least not until after he emerged from his slooge cocoon. (And, seriously, how did he get up into that "hanging on the wall" position?)

The upshot of the eclipse was that it caused everyone to lose their powers. Kaput. All that was left was people making silly motions that didn't have any special effects attending them. I realized something watching this show in which no one was ''special'': that I can't describe any character on the show in any depth without referencing what his or her power is. With the exception of Noah and Mohinder, none of the characters have character. Taken another way: If I asked you to describe Buffy Summers, you could make a list of things that don't involve her being preternaturally strong and fast. Brave. Insecure. Self-loathing. Funny. Overwhelmed. Solitary. Loyal. Passionate. Headstrong. Dedicated. Stylish. Sexual.

Okay, maybe that's not fair, using one of the most robust characters of the 20th century as a comparison.
But try and describe Nathan — without using the words ''politician'' or ''fly'' — and see how deep you get. Try that with any of the Heroes roster. See what I mean. Almost everyone is a placeholder, a cipher for something real that doesn't exist.

And I think the writers sorta realized that this episode. Otherwise, why was everyone arguing with each other? Why, in the middle of their mission to retrieve the Haitian from Haiti, did Peter and Nathan decide that was the time to air their family grievances? (Know what? I've been to Haiti. And you, forest somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, are not Haiti.) Why, in the middle of laying low in a house that couldn't be more than ten minutes from their own, did Claire choose to lay into Noah about his absentee fatherism while getting a crash course on beating up Roman columns? Why the sudden cases of uncontrollable honesty?

Because maybe the writers thought that the only way to make these people interesting was to have them get more emotional than Spock during pon farr. (Yeah, I went there. How you like me now?) (my italics)

No More Sharper Image

Peter Sagal laments the passing of The Sharper Image on "All Things Considered."

Slough


John Betjeman's lovely tribute (wink, wink) to "Slough," the UK "new town" that was the setting for the original The Office.

Slough
by John Betjeman (1906-1984)


Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales. (1937)

"You call this the future??"

In a "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip published on the eve of 1990, a very demanding young boy harangues his stuffed tiger with thoughts on the last ten years of the century and his great disappointment with technological escalation and the progress of the oblivion of Being.

"A new decade is coming up," Hobbes notes. "Yeah," Calvin replies in disgust, "big deal! Hmph." Reality, it seems, does not come close to matching his science fiction inspired anticipation."Where are the flying cars? [Calvin asks] Where are the moon colonies? Where are the personal robots and the zero gravity boots, huh? You call this a new decade?! You call this the future?? Ha! Where are the rocket packs? Where are the disintegration rays? Where are the floating cities?" As usual, Hobbes offers wise counsel to balance Calvin's pique. "Frankly, I'm not sure people have the brains to manage the technology they've got." And as usual, Calvin fails to listen. He continues to rave: "I mean look at this! We still have weather!! Give me a break!"
--David Lavery, Late for the Sky (my emphasis)


Calvin gets one of his demands.

The "Twilight" Zone

James Wolcott explains how Buffy may have lost the battle against the vampires.

The Full Monty

Monty Python now has its own YouTube channel.

Lost in Translation

Onion AV Club's "Lost In Translation: 20 Good Books Made Into Not-So-Good Movies."

A Letter from Federico Fellini

I received this letter from Federico Fellini sometime in 1979.

Lost Season Five Promo

Less than two months now.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Kring Insults the Fans Again

Heroes' "mastermind" has insulted the fans of his in deep doo-doo series again, referring to them as "dip shits." Ain't It Cool News has completer coverage--with links.

In Saving the World: A Guide to Heroes, I noted another incidence of Kring's superiority complex:

Asked (by TV Guide) to answer viewer complaints about credibility such as Nikki [Stafford] raises, in particular the question why Peter didn’t fly himself away from Kirby Plaza, Tim Kring’s response is quite fascinating. While willing to “admit that there’s a very tiny window of logic there," he insists that doubting Thomas fans broke the rules: “theoretically you are not supposed to be thinking about that,” he gently scolds, and this man who, as we saw earlier happily cited Charles Dickens as an inspiration and a model, then evokes (with a laugh TV Guide notes) an even older 19th century British writer: "But what can I say? It's requires the proverbial suspension of disbelief."

The concept, of course, comes from the great Romantic poet, philosopher, and literary theorist Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and first appears in Biographia Literaria, where it is described as an essential “poetic faith” elicited from a reader by “a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure” it.

Kring, however, has left off an important word in the original formulation: for Coleridge was describing the “willing suspension of disbelief.” A writer (or filmmaker or television showrunner) cannot demand it of an audience. It must be established by “best laid plans.”

Quote of the Day (11/25/08)

The Human Beings [the Cheyenne Indians] believe that everything is alive: not only men and animals but also water and earth and stones and also the dead things from them like this hair. . . . But white men believe that everything is dead: stones, earth, animals, and people, even their own people. And if, in spite of that, things persist in trying to live, white men will rub them out.
--Old Lodge Skins in Thomas Berger, Little Big Man

Interdisciplinarian

The year is 1978. The day of my defense of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida: To Discover That There is Nothing to Discover: The Imagination, the Open, and the Movies of Federico Fellini.

W. R. Robinson directed my phenomenological examination of several key Fellini films (Juliet of the Spirits, Amarcord) and themes (the "open" [as understood by Rilke], the grotesque). In retrospect, it was a brilliant but maddening exercise, all-over-the-map in method and scope, but it would earn me membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

On my committee was Dr. Ben Pickard, an early American literature scholar now enamored with the movies after a decade spent editing the collected letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Early in my time at U of F, I had talked to him about possibly doing a dissertation on Native American literature, but my mid-PhD exposure to Robinson had made that notion a thing of the past.


On the way into the seminar room, Pickard sarcastically asked how my impossibly interdisciplinary diss had managed to avoid any comparisons between Fellini and Native American culture. "Now that you mention it," I responded, pulling out of my backpack a book I had just checked out from the library, Jamake Highwater's Ritual of the Wind: North American Indian Ceremonies, Music, and Dances. I showed him a passage in which Highwater (pictured), considering the “contrariness” of American Indian sacred clowns, known for their scatological and obscene parodies of tribal holy men, naturally thinks of Fellini when he seeks to explain the revulsion missionaries experienced confronting the clowns’ behavior:

The shock techniques of Dadaism and the late films of Federico Fellini, have a great deal in common with the contrariness of sacred clowns, especially those of the Southwest.


Pickard shook his head in dismay and disbelief and stalked away. He remained mostly silent during the defense that followed. David Lavery the Interdisciplinarian was born that day.

Fellini on Creation


In Damian Pettigrew’s mesmerizing documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar the late, great Italian director ruminates on how his movies came to be:

My films happen because I sign a contract. I get an advance I don’t want to repay so I have to make the film. I’ll say it again; you may think I’m being factitious, but it’s absolutely true. I don’t believe in total creative freedom. A creator, if he is given total creative freedom, would tend, I think, to do nothing at all. The greatest danger for an artist is total freedom, to be able to wait for inspiration, that whole romantic discourse. Psychologically, the artist is an offender. He has a childish need to offend, and to be able to offend, you need parents, a headmaster, a high priest, the police. . . . I need opposition, someone who annoys me, someone who opposes me, to work up the energy that I need to fight for what I’m doing. I need an enemy.


H. E. Francis Website


I have restored my modest website tribute to H. E. Francis, a former colleague and exceptional fiction writer.

Go here to read my essay on one of Herb's stories (from Late for the Sky).

What Might Have Been

Back in 2004 I prepared this completely unauthorized flier for the MTSU English PhD for inclusion in the program of the Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A reflection of my dream of what the program might have become.

The dream is now dead.

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Poladroid


An ingenious site, which I read about in Entertainment Weekly. This allows you to take a digital photograph and retrofit it back into a Polaroid, complete with sound effects and slowly emerging image.

Apparently only available for Mac.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Painting of the Week (November 24, 2008)

Brueghel, The Tower of Babel

Quote of the Day (11/24/08)

The books which seal off the long perspective, which sever us from our losses, which represent the world of potency as a world of act, these are the books which, when the drug wears off, go on the dump with the other empty bottles. Those that continue to interest us move through time to an end, an end which we must sense even if we cannot know it; they live in change, until, which is never, as and is are one.
Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending

Live-Blogging Stephen Colbert's Christmas Special

Be sure to tell the Pontif
My people make good yontif.
--Jon Stewart


Serving eggnog without nutmeg is like serving a turkey without a chicken and a duck inside.
--John Legend


This has the feel of a future classic for good boys and girls--the kind that appreciate pot and bestiality jokes and phallic references. Stephen's channeling of Perry Como/Andy Williams, hilariously choreographed singing (all new songs to avoid royalty fees) and dancing, wonderful cameos (Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Jon Stewart), Stephen and his nemesis the bear in a lip-lock under the mistletoe, and a deus-ex-machinish (and bear gutting) Santa--what's not to like?

With echoes of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Stephen cannot escape his house in order to tape his Christmas special in New York (the menacing bear guards the threshold), but a thoroughly po-mo special (Santa brings Stephen the greatest gift of all--a DVD of his own special) comes to him instead.

Later: Andrew Sullivan calls Stephen's special "pure, nihilist (well, almost nihilist) heaven."

Later: Terry Gross talks with Stephen about his special.

Live-Blogging "24: Redemption"

The Season Seven prequel 24 movie still has 30 minutes to run, but the remainder of the story of Jack's redemptive efforts to save the students in an African school from becoming child soldiers in a coup being stage-managed by an evil Senator (played by real-life evil Republican Jon Voight) has proved to be a bloody, predictable bore.

Jack, after all, is not alone in needing redemption. Keifer himself has done his jail time (for DUI) and paid his debt to society, I suppose, but his public image still needs some rehabilitating, and 24 itself, still in recovery from the disappointing Season Six (after the fabulous Fifth)--a "Day" for which writer David Fury formally apologized, will need more redemption than this stand-alone Bauering. We shall see if S7, now without Joel Surnow at the helm, delivers. If it doesn't, the clock will and should stop ticking.

Later: TWoP saw "Redemption" differently.

"Attack of the Giant Chihuahuas"

"Studio 360" offers an SF parody of the possible effects of radiation.

"Everybody Knows"

Out walking the dogs today, listening to Leonard Cohen on my IPod, I was struck by how perfectly the opening lines of "Everybody Knows" capture the current mindset:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows that the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed.
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
Everybody knows.
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking.
Everybody knows that the captain lied.
Everybody got this broken feeling.
Like their father or their dog just died.


Add deterence of this true paranoia to Barack Obama's "To Do" list.

Famous People I Have Met

Over the years I have had the opportunity, not always a pleasure, to meet the following well-known writers, critics, and filmmakers.

I have told the story of my encounters with Nin and Snyder elsewhere in this blog. Several--Spender, Eberhardt, Nemerov, Dickey--were visiting writers/professors at the University of Florida when I was pursuing my doctorate (Crews was a member of the faculty). Many--Wilbur, Kingston, Ellison, Fiedler, Hillman, Barth, Berry, Bly, Bloom, Miller, Snodgrass, Merwin--I had the opportunity to shepherd about or interact with while they were lecturing/giving readings at my university. Herb Francis has been a friend since we taught together at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I had the honor to know Owen Barfield during the last decade of his life and co-wrote and produced a film about him.



A Younger Woman

The year is 1983. I am giving a lecture at the University of Alabama in Huntsville on the space program to a substantial audience gathered for an English Department sponsored consortium I had organized.

I was a visiting assistant professor at UAH, serving out the second of two one year assignments after Joyce and Rachel and I had returned from our traumatic year in Shanghai. I was hopeful of attaining a more permanent tenure-track appointment and wanted that day to make a good impression. UAH's Provost, Dr. Elmer Anderson--a distinguished white-haired gentleman with a daunting, white, handle-bar mustache--was in attendance, right there in the front row.


My talk that day would eventually end up in Late for the Sky: The Mentality of the Space Age. I was attempting to offer a kind of psychohistorical interpretation of the "extraterrestrial imperative"--of our historical longing to abandon the Earth, and quoted in full a passage ("Exploration") from Susan Griffin's brilliant Women and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her that ingeniously juxtaposed the activities of a Martian lander (in parenthesis) to a man leaving his wife in middle age for a younger woman. (For more on Griffin, go here.)

It is said that in his old age (Automatically, at their command the shovel extends) he fears he is losing his powers (and extracts a sample) that the aging of his body (of soil) makes him frantic (which is placed) and thus frantically (in an incubation chamber) he searches (aboard the spacecraft) for a young woman. (The soil is kept) Some say (perfectly dry) being close to youth (and is incubated) makes him younger (for five days at 50 degrees) or at least he feels younger (under an arc lamp that simulates Martian sunlight). Others say (A quartz window) that proving he can still (filtered out ultraviolet light) attract a young woman (that might have caused) restores him (spurious signals). And still others point out (on radioed commands from Earth) that in capturing (the test chamber was filled) a young, even virginal woman (with Martian atmosphere) he has proven his prowess (Then the experimenters) once again. (sent up a radio command) But in all cases (that added a whiff of radioactive carbon) he must (dioxide and carbon monoxide) be free of his wife (to act as tracers in the experiment) at least temporarily (On Earth, green plants) for her age (take in carbon dioxide) reminds him of his age (and if there were life on Mars) and of his limitations (vapor in the chamber would contain) his encroaching weakness (traces of carbon) and death. (55)


After my talk, my favorite colleague, Richard Moore, a UAH veteran, came up to me to whisper in my ear. That woman sitting beside the Provost--the striking twenty something blonde--was his new bride.

For some reason I would not be rehired. I did, however, succeed in winning my first tenture-track appointment at Northern Kentucky University the following fall.

"It Dawns on Me: Teaching Chinese English"

The second piece I wrote about our time in China in 1981.
____________________________________________

I had answered an advertisement in the M.L.A. Job Information List. The People's Republic of China wanted English teachers, and I--a recent Ph.D.--had grown tired of playing Gypsy Scholar in this country. So, with my wife Joyce's encouragement, I had applied.

We heard nothing for fourteen months and has assumed we would not. I was accustomed, after all, to hearing nothing from job applications. In the meantime we had moved from Florida to Seattle so that I could take a one year visiting professor position in Seattle University's Matteo Ricci College. (In retrospect, I realized that I should have discerned the foreshadowing, given that the program in which I had become a faculty member was named after the Jesuit who opened China for the Catholic Church.)

In another minor development, our daughter Rachel had also been born (she had been neither conceived nor conceived of when I had applied). Two weeks after the birth, a letter arrived from China informing me that I had been named a "Foreign expert in English" at East China Normal (Teachers) University (Wa Dong Shi Da) in Shanghai, a city of 11 million people--China's largest. I was to come immediately.

In the wake of the cultural revolution, China had opened its doors slightly to Western influence, as it has at several key moments in modern history, and since English, they well knew, had become the world language, it was imperative that it be widely taught in their schools. And yet English language instruction in the PRC at the beginning of the 1980s was woefully inadequate, as I soon learned.

Anyone with a speaking knowledge of this difficult non-Eastern language, regardless of his or her original field of specialization, was usually pressed into service as an English teacher after a quick re-education, and the materials from which students learned were likewise inadequate. My classes were made up entirely of future teachers, all of whom had studied English for at least six years, who were using thirty year old British textbooks and only slightly newer recordings of British English. Consequently, they spoke with British accents and made awkward conversation with decidedly formal British diction. Stories abounded of young Chinese sent to the U.S. to be translators, only to discover they could not understand even the simplest street conversation in New York. No wonder the government was making an effort to import foreign (American, Canadian, Australian, and British) native speakers to teach their future teachers. For the first time in my life, I became a member of a foreign language department.

After almost a month of getting acclimated to our new surroundings (a month in which we learned that "culture shock" is not just a term in an anthropology matching test but a real, very palpable malaise), I finally began teaching. A few days before we had departed for China, President Reagan had been shot. As expected, my students were most interested in understanding the assassination attempt. Why did this young man try to kill your President? they asked on the very first day I taught. Based on what I knew at the time (from a close reading of the Far East Edition of Time Magazine), I tried to explain: "It seems that Hinckley was in love with a movie star named Jodie Foster, who had appeared in a film called Taxi Driver, in which a deranged young man tries to kill a presidential candidate in order to make a young prostitute (played by Foster) fall in love with him. Hinckley, confusing the movies with reality, evidently believed that if he killed the real President of the United States, himself a former Hollywood actor who would later be characterized as the "acting" President, Jodie Foster (the real Jodie Foster, not the character played by her in the film) would then fall in love with him." They listened politely, and they stared at me like I had come from another universe. I wondered that first day I would ever be able to make myself understood by them.

Many years of teaching apathetic American students had influenced my teaching style greatly. Built into everything I did in front of a class was a presumption of lack of interest. I knew that a large part of my work was merely trying to convince my classes that they should listen to me at all. (Many students, I find, have lost the ability, and courtesy, to even feign interest; in fact, I sometimes fear that I will walk into class one day to find my students all sitting with TV channel changers in hand, ready to blink me away should I become uninteresting.)

I brought this attitude with me to China. But after about a month I began to realize that it was misplaced there. My students--almost all of them--actually wanted to learn! In a country where a "Learn English Now" show became the most popular program on Chinese television, where only a fraction--perhaps one in twenty--of those students desiring to do so can even be admitted to college, they hung on my every word. I was not teaching students who proclaimed in the halls and elevators, as soon as they were out of my sight, how much they hated English. I did not need to convince them to listen. I could just teach. The realization was startling: this was what I went into the profession for.

Each class, I learned, had elected a class "monitor" who was in charge of attendance and other practical matters as well as maintaining esprit de corps among its members. Each class selected its star pupil to serve in this capacity, and, to my surprise I learned that they were, in fact, very, very proud of their monitor. The monitor's success--on everything from an in-class drill to a major test--spoke well of them all. Neither a brown-nose nor a show-off nor a teacher's pet, the monitor represented their own best self-image; his achievement were their achievements.

In one of our numerous discussions of American slang, in which they showed an abiding interest, mentioned one day that we had recently begun to call attractive, sexy young women "foxes." To my surprise, my students refused to believe me. With great resolve they shook their heads "No." Are not foxes understood in my country as sly and treacherous? they asked. Yes, I responded. Then how can a beautiful female be thought of as a fox? they asked again. It is an insult, they insisted, with a metaphorical logic the anonymous poets of slang in American certainly did not possess, not a compliment. I was unable--and am still unable to respond. (I was careful not to tell them that attractive virile men were now being called "hunks," for I knew I could never explain the tenor and vehicle of that piece of slang!

One day my students inquired about the meaning of the expression "it dawns on me" which appeared in one of their readings. As usual, I acted it out for them, trying to make the metaphor buried in the words (which for native speakers are a cliché, and hence seldom thought about) vivid and apparent. I asked them to imagine themselves standing in darkness in the early morning, waiting for the sun to rise. I asked them to recall the wonderful feeling of "en-light-en-ment" they would experience as the sun came over the horizon. I showed them how the world would (literally) "dawn" on them. Then I asked them to bring to mind the last time they had not understood something, being in the dark about it, and to remember the wonderful feeling of coming out of the darkness into the light as it "dawned on them." An excited murmur ran through the room as the students tried out the phrase. They seemed to understand both tenor and vehicle.

The next day they inquired about another expression in their readings. Again, I acted it out, trying to make it dramatically clear for them. Again I asked if they understood. And as a class, with clear voice and proper emphasis, they responded, "It dawns on us." It was one of the finest moments in all my years of teaching.

On their final examinations that year my students did not do especially well, and no doubt the fault was mine, I thought, for after all I was a clumsy novice at TOEFL. In the evening of the day the results were posted, however, I was surprised by a delegation from my class which came to our rooms to apologize for their performance on the test. They had failed me, I was told. They were ashamed of themselves as students to have let me down. With bowed heads they asked for my forgiveness. I could not help but think of how a typical American class would have reacted in similar circumstances. No doubt I would have shouldered all the blame. No doubt some students would have been irate that I had failed them with my test.

We left China earlier than we anticipated. Were supposed to stay a year but had not foreseen how difficult being new parents in a foreign land would be. After less than six months we returned. I bid my Chinese students a tearful good-bye. In the middle of July I managed somehow to find a college teaching position in Alabama. When I entered the classroom that fall to begin my tenth year of teaching freshman English, I was still a teacher of Chinese English. My students, however, often bored, scowling, sick-to-death of English, sometimes anti-intellectual, seldom respectful of teachers, quickly re-educated me to the ways of the American classroom. Now I teach American English.

"The Streets of Shanghai"

Reading James Fallows on contemporary China has inspired me to post here two pieces I wrote about our time in the PRC in 1981. (The next will appear in a subsequent post.)

Go here to read a post about a 21st century visit to China.

___________________________________________
THE STREETS OF SHANGHAI, OR THE PEDESTRIAN IS ALWAYS WRONG: TOTALITARIAN DRIVING IN A CLASSLESS SOCIETY

SCARY DRIVE FROM BEIJING AIRPORT

Editor:

Some of us who have been around a while are accustomed to any number of things which on first sighting seemed rather strange.

I was reminded of this by an acquaintance who arrived at the airport around 10 p.m. He said the cab ride from the airport to his room at the Friendship Hotel had been one of the most scary experiences in his life.

The reason, he said, was that all motor vehicles speed along without their headlights on except for an occasional blinding flash from a car or truck approaching on the other side of the road.

'why?", he asked. "I don't know," I replied.

Beijing
(from China Daily, July 4, 1981)
Todd Marlowe


Like many Americans, I complain a great deal about the careless, lethal driving of my fellow city motorists. I am seriously concerned, for example, over the change in meaning red traffic lights seem to be undergoing in the symbol systems of American drivers: in Jacksonville, Florida, where I recently lived, red now seems to signal not that one should stop, but rather that two or three more vehicles may still go through. It is worth one’s life to drive in American cities.

Last year I taught in Shanghai, in the People's Republic of China, serving as a "Foreign Expert" in the English language at one of Shanghai's universities. During my three months in China's largest city (at least eleven million people), I crossed and crisscrossed its busy streets again and again, sometimes in public have been to Rome and Paris and have witnessed there, as have other Americans, I buses, more often in taxis (like most foreigners, even "resident aliens" like myself, I did not and could not drive in China), and what I saw there has made me more hesitant to criticize my fellow American drivers quite so harshly. I maniacal European driving, but I have never seen driving such as I encountered in Shanghai. I have come to call it "totalitarian."

Mao Tse-tung vowed that the People's Republic would never develop a system of transportation like that which exists in the West. He believed that there should be no private ownership of motorized vehicles, for private cars, Mao was convinced, would contribute to the sort of individualism that could eventually bring about the end of a truly communist, classless society.

Today, thirty years after "Liberation," there are still virtually no privately owned vehicles in a city like Shanghai, although its streets are extremely busy and inordinately noisy. The average Shainghainese gets around on the city's very crowded, but quite efficient and inexpensive, bus system, or by means of China's most popular means of conveyance: the bicycle. Shanghai's streets are a congested and confused mix of buses, bikes, pedestrians, and other motorized vehicles such as pedi-cabs and small three-wheeled tractors sometimes used as passenger carriers. The number of pedestrians alone is colossal. So large are the crowds on Shanghai's busiest shopping street, Nanjing Lu, that two of its four traffic lanes have been commandeered for pedestrians and railed off for their use, thus making the street incredibly narrow.

But for all their strength in numbers, Shanghai's bicyclists and pedestrians have few rights end must yield at all times to oncoming vehicles. There is, as experience reveals, a kind of logic to Shanghai's rules of the road, although it may not at first be apparent: if the masses of pedestrians and f bikes did not automatically move, no car or bus would ever be able to cross the city's busiest intersections; Shanghai would succumb to permanent "grid-lock." Nevertheless, the streets of Shanghai appear chaotic and devoid of logic, and I quite frightening, to all but the most hardened observers.

The tourists now descending in large numbers on Shanghai witness its perpetual clash of steel and flesh only from a privileged position, for they I are chauffeured about town in beautiful, new air-conditioned buses, whose comfort and luxury the Chinese themselves will never experience first hand, or in taxis which, because they carry "foreign guests," move with a kind of regal bearing through the streets, only occasionally (when stopped at a rail way crossing for example) permitting a true encounter between their precious cargo and the Chinese crowds. The tourist buses, operated by Luxingshe (China Travel Service), carry tourists from train station and airport to hotels and major attractions along carefully plotted routes chosen to assure the maximum possible favorable impression of Shanghai as a healthy, wealthy, successful modern city. Tourists who take taxis cannot be quite so easily blinded by Luxingshe, for taxis follow common routes which take them throughout all parts of the city.

Westerners find Shanghai’s taxis inexpensive compared to thaw in theft home countries--so inexpensive, in fact, that they are able to pay to have their driver wait for them for hours while they shop or sight-see. But most tourists never realize that in Shanghai there are actually two cab companies, each serving a different clientele. To understand the "division of labor" on which this two taxi system is based is to get to the heart of the conundrums of the streets of Shanghai.

Tourists use "Friendship Taxis"--usually newer, spacious vehicles which are much more expensive to hire (usually double) because they must; they are simply not permitted to use the cheaper "People's Taxi" company's cars. As a resident alien, able as part of my perquisites to spend real Chinese currency (Renminbi, or "People's Money") rather than the Foreign Exchange Certificates given to all tourists, I was allowed to hire a People's taxi when I needed a car, and I was even given discount coupons with which to pay the driver.

Outside all hotels and tourists attractions in Shanghai only Friendship cabs can be found. People's Taxis are not even permitted to enter the grounds of hotels like Shanghai's famous Jinjiang. When I needed to order a car from the Jinjiang's lobby, as I often did, I had to use a special phone to call my taxi company, not the regular phone at the hotel's cab stand provided for tourists, whose operator, normally very polite, would refuse indignantly to even call a People's taxi for me--for to do so was to him an unacceptable breach of the order of things. And after I had managed to order a cab, I then had to wait outside the hotel's gate for the car to arrive, for the gatekeeper would not allow such a plebeian vehicle as a People's taxi to enter the grounds I of a luxury hotel meant as a show place for foreigners. (In the same way, ordinary Chinese cannot enter China's showplace "Friendship Stores" unless accompanied by a foreigner.)

Such ridiculous rules and regulations seem especially absurd in a supposedly classless society. But the paradox of the taxis is not the only unaccountable] thing about Shanghai's streets. To a Westerner, as the above quoted letter from China Daily (the country's first post--revolution English language daily newspaper) makes clear, the ways of China's drivers seem almost entirely inexplicable. The paradoxes of Shanghai's streets range from the peculiar (such as the Chinese's reluctance--mentioned in the above letter--to use headlights at night); to the annoying (the perpetual horn honking of all Chinese motorists); to the political. Yes, the political. For Mao's vow to prevent American style automotive individualism has produced, in an historical irony, an aristocracy of the automobile, not the only, but certainly one of the most glaring, of the "contradictions among the masses" apparent throughout Chinese society. In a city dominated by the pedestrian and the bicyclist, at least in strength of numbers, those Chinese able to drive have found it one of the few aspects of life in the People's Republic where the human ego can still have free reign. Shanghai's drivers are, almost without exception, tyrants.

On Saturday mornings the Foreign Experts at East China Normal University were taken across town in a mini--bus (made in Japan) for our weekly shopping trip; it was on these odysseys into Shanghai's streets that I observed most clearly the peculiarities of Chinese driving.

Our driver on these occasions (until he broke his arm in a soccer match) was a young Chinese man, perhaps in his mid twenties, whom the other Foreign Experts called "The Kamikaze," and for good reason. Like nearly all Chinese drivers I witnessed, "Kamikaze"--whose Job assignment was as a full-time driver for the university--was to my way of thinking, incredibly reckless. He showed seemingly no regard for pedestrians, often barreling down on crowds or single individuals crossing streets as if he had every intention of flattening them and leaving their squashed corpses behind in his wake. The pedestrians, miraculously, invariably managed to escape. Seas of people would part automatically at precisely the last possible moment, as if these encounters between man and machine--which so terrified me that I often covered my eyes with my hands--were secretly choreographed by some higher power (perhaps the "Great Helmsman" Chairman Mao himself?).

Kamikaze's exploits as a driver were legendary among the other, veteran Foreign Experts. Once, I was told, he had approached a crowd of people blocking a Shanghai street and literally shoved the crowd with the front of the bus (a full-sized bus on that occasion, not a mini-bus), knocking several people down. Turning to the Foreign Expert who sat behind him he proclaimed loudly and proudly, "First you must frighten them." The typical pedestrian in Shanghai seems to have already "reaped this first lesson of the streets at an early age. In Shanghai the pedestrian is always wrong, and it is absolutely amazing how compliant he is with the wills of automobiles and their drivers.

Bicyclists, too, are always wrong. As we left the Friendship Store grounds one Saturday morning, we could see that ahead in the entrance way there had been an accident. A "Red Flag" limousine, a huge, very heavy, official car with curtains in the back to protect the privacy (a real luxury in China) of the "Cadre" (a high government official) who rode within, had hit a female bicyclist. The woman, it seemed, had been moving in quite normal fashion down Zhongshan Road outside the store when the limousine had turned directly into her path while making a left turn, and her bicycle had bounced off the right side of the car. As we moved quickly by the scene, we caught only a glimpse of the accident's aftermath. The woman, who lay on the pavement, appeared shaken but not seriously injured, but the driver of the limousine was already out of the car and screaming violently at her for daring to be so pushy as to have placed her one hundred pound body and one hundred pound bicycle in front of his three ton vehicle with its precious, aristocratic contents.

Red Flag limousines, John Fraser observes in The Chinese, are "vast and sinister automobiles . . . far larger than any equivalent vehicle a 'feudal comprador capitalist exploiter' could have had in Shanghai during the thirties." Like other vehicles in Shanghai they are presumed to have the right of way. As Fraser notes, the horn blast of a Red Flag limousine is normally "sufficient I to alert the masses that greatness is descending upon them." Outside the Friendship Store that morning, however, the signal system had broken down, and there was no doubt where the fault lay--with the bicyclist. It was then I realized that the Chinese rules of the road are essentially totalitarian.

Cars confer status on their users; every American teenager, eager to impress a date with a fancy car, grasps this essential fact. And it is no different in China. One of my students, formerly a driver, like Kamikaze, for the university, described for me once the sense of power he himself felt behind the wheel. It made him special, he explained, in a nation where specialness is at best discouraged and at worst criminal.

Drivers of cars in Shanghai are, to use the perfect Black slang label for their egotistical, domineering, pompous behavior, "Honkeys." Their perpetual command, voiced by constant horn honking and through the unvoiced language expressed in the motion of the machine they control, is "Get out of my way. I am bigger and more important than you. I possess more personal power (that is, horsepower).

I do not mean to imply, I hasten to add, that Americans are not "honkeys" as well. But the universality here of the experience of driving and car ownership makes us a little less obnoxious as drivers than the Chinese, though, paradoxically more murderous (Perhaps: the lower accident race in China can be explained by the fact that drunk driving can be explained by the fact that drunk driving is virtually non--existent and the rate of speed much slower--seldom over thirty miles per hour).

Once, a few years ago--long before I visited China--I was crossing the parking lot of a grocery store in Florida when I looked up to see a Cadillac traveling at least forty miles per hour (in a parking lot!) heading right for me. I do not know what possessed me--other than a personal hatred for bullies--but I stood my ground in a kind of social experiment to see whose sense of rightness would prevail. The car did stop, of course, but its driver glared angrily at me as if I had violated his freedom. Now in China the same situation would probably have had the same result--after all, I had seen even Kamikaze stop for pedestrians once or twice, although always at the last possible instant and only when they simply could not get out of his way. But the Chinese driver in such a situation as I faced in that Florida parking lot would have made me feel guilty, whereas here in the United States it would ordinarily be the driver who felt the guilt, despite any bravado show of anger he might use to mask his true feelings.

In Beijing and Shanghai it is now possible for Chinese to have their photos taken beside a limousine (the same kind which, if it carried a Cadre, would, it seems, remorselessly run over them if they got in its way), as if the status symbol was really their own. In Shanghai, citizens could often be seen sneaking similar photographs beside prestigious cars parked along the street--even a taxi might attract them.

China will not and cannot ever entirely become a nation like our own, of the auto, by the auto, and for the auto. How could One billion people ever expect to own a car? (Imagine rush hour in totally automotive Shanghai.) Yet in the 1980's in Shanghai there are already preliminary indications that more "pedestrian" means of transportation--walking, riding a bicycle--cannot camp compete with the power, enchantment, and status of the automobile. Oh Brave New World that has such potential for technological tyranny within it!

"Pushing Daisies" Pushes Daisies

Well the end is nigh, and not even the Pie Maker will be able to revive it. Dirty, Sexy Money and Eli Stone bite the dust too.

"Who" at 45

Wired on Dr. Who's 45th anniversary.

"Express Train to Douchebaggery"

Gawker offers a route map.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Rules

Bill Maher's final "New Rule" of Real Time's season (from the HBO website);

The rest of the world can go back to being completely jealous of America. Yes...our majority white country just freely elected a black president; something no other democracy has ever done. Take that, Canada! Where's your Nubian warrior president? Your head of state is a boring white dude named Stephen Harper. And mine is a kick-ass black ninja named Barack Hussein Obama!

That's right, everybody. I take back every bad thing I ever said about the good old U.S.A. I've gone from "God damn America" to "God damn, America!"

I feel like a hockey mom at the state fair getting felt up by Hank Williams Jr. While fireworks go off and Jesus appears in my cotton candy. It would be stupid not to be stupid about it.

So, I'd like to take this moment when we've finally got one right, to bask in a little unwarranted, unapologetic, irrational, faux patriotism. Or, as Fox News calls it, "regular programming."

Now, I might regret this. It's kind of like going grocery shopping when you're high. But, here goes, world...[with patriotic music under]

We're Americans. We built the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and Joan Rivers. We're the only country that can look at a sandwich made of ice cream and chocolate cookies covered in fudge and think, "Ah, you think we could fry that?"

And you know what? YES, WE CAN!

They may have 72 virgins, but we have 31 Flavors.

You know what our favorite burger topping is? Another burger!

We invented rock 'n' roll, jazz, funk, R&B, and hip-hop. Without our music, your iPods would be filled with ABBA, Menudo and Men At Work. And you wouldn't have iPods.

Not only did we create the Internet, we're the ones who filled it up with porn.

Jefferson lived here. And Miles Davis and Mark Twain and Frank Lloyd Wright and a lot of other people Sarah Palin never heard of.

In America, strippers and Disney stars have an equal right to be named "Hannah Montana."

And I was freely able to make a movie saying there's no afterlife, and you could watch it while eating crap that'll kill you. But, that's okay, because our corn-fed high school sophomores are bigger than your soldiers, and they're better armed.

I ask you, in what other nation would they tax young people to make sure old people can afford erections?

What you call "football," we call "soccer." And what you call "war crimes," we call "football."

So, let me just say it again: we elected a black guy, and it was because he was the best candidate. Not because it was some cheap gimmick. And we should know, because we are also the country that invented cheap gimmicks.

Yes, America is like Jessica Simpson. Sometimes it's so stupid it embarrasses you, but, on the other hand, how about them titties?!

Quote of the Day (11/23/08)

To be human is to be aware, and to be aware is to lack serenity. The serenity of nature thus becomes an affront to our condition, the quietude of the world a mockery of our estate. In this situation, the overwhelming impulse is to reach out and mark nature with our pain, impress on the vastness of the natural world the sign of our suffering. Technological man possesses the means to do this. . . . All of us have, if only occasionally, contemplated nature in its quietude. We have, perhaps, come upon a serene alpine lake in that dusky and windless hour just before or after sunset, gazing for a moment at the way shoreline and mountain and evening cloud are reflected in the water's placidly flawless surface. And we know our first, our immediate impulse. It is to stoop, pick up a pebble, and idly toss it into the center of "all that serenity."
--Robert Zoellner, The Salt-Sea Mastodon: A Reading of Moby-Dick

Havrilesky on Heroes

In Salon, Heather Havrilesky nails down Heroes' continuing woes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/22/08)

Two runners run the track of time,
Reckless the one, the other strides in awe.
The one from nowhere, wins his goal; the other
The origin his start dies on the way.
And he from nowhere, he that won, yields place
To him who ever strides in awe, and e'er
Has reached his terminus: the origin.
--Karl Kraus

Talking Turkey

Sarah Palin talks about pardoning a Thanksgiving gobbler while one is slaughtered in the background.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/21/08)

The poems composed by every great poet are attempts to put into words one single poem. His greatness depends on the extent to which he has entrusted himself to this unique poem, for it is this which enables him to maintain the purity of his poetic utterances by keeping them within the ambit of their single origin. This unique poem in a poet remains unuttered. None of the individual poems, nor all of them together, say everything. And yet each poem speaks out of this unique uncomposed poem and each time says what is the same.
--Martin Heidegger

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/20/08)

According to one Hindu legend, Shiva, at a particular moment, will begin to dance, at first slowly, then faster and faster, and will not stop before having imposed upon the world a frenzied cadence, in every respect opposed to that of Creation.

This legend includes no commentary, history having assumed the task of illustrating its obvious truth.
--E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/19/08)

A man . . . died and went into the next world where he met numbers of people, some of whom he knew and liked and some he knew and disliked. But there was one person there whom he did not know and he could not bear him. Everything he said infuriated and disgusted him—his insincere way of speaking, his facial expressions—and it seemed to him also that he could see into this man's thoughts and his feelings and all his secrets and, in fact, into all his life. He asked the others who this impossible man was. They answered: "Up here we have very special mirrors which are quite different from those in your world. This man is yourself."
--Maurice Nicoll

Monday, November 17, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/18/08)

Happiness lies in the swiftness of feeling and thinking; all the rest of the world is slow, gradual, and stupid. Whoever could feel the course of a light ray would be very happy, for it is very swift.
--Friedrich Nietzsche

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/16/08)

The proper model for the relation of the critic to the work he studies is not that of scientist to physical objects but that of one man to another in charity. I may love another person and know him as only love can know without in the least abnegating my own beliefs. Love wants the other person as he is, in all his recalcitrant particularity. As St. Augustine puts it, the love says to the loved one, "Volo ut sis": "I wish you to be."
--J. Hillis Miller, "Literature and Religion"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quote of the Day (11/15/08)

"The alarming thing is," he said, "that this time it isn't only the changeable things that are changing, but the unchangeable as well. Anyhow, that's the danger—even for me. Not only dress and manners and bank balances and the social order, but the sea and the sky and Westminster Abbey."

"Westminster Abbey?" the girl repeated.

"The sea, the sky," he answered, "not only the sky and the sea are in question. The songs of birds, firelight and sunlight, the woods, the turn of the seasons, the earth itself and the smell of it, the whole natural magic going on behind our little journey from the cradle to the grave. Well," he said, "you have to chose. What are they? Are they still what they have always been: the perspective of our mortality and for some of us, an emblem, or at least an analogy, of our immortality? Or have they become, as it were, infected by our impermanence? Are they little more than a stage-setting to our personal and social drama? . . . Are we related to them at all, as mankind has always been? Is this earth that we touch a part of ourselves, or has it become just a thing we walk on, like a pavement? Are we becoming, in our consciousness, separated from the stars, as indifferent to them as we are to the electric chandeliers in the lounge of an hotel? Are we being driven, or driving ourselves, into exile from the unity of nature?"
--Charles Morgan, "The Constant Things"