Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.

Hamlet, 1.5.76


I’m, alas, just about buried but not too far away from sending Cut—issue ten of Link—to the printer.
amputation of big toe
My fellow editors (Stephen Janis, Mark Durant, and Janet Little) and I have been dealing with the usual headaches that come from putting out a small, independent journal, but there are pleasures, too: this time, in the form of essays from journalist Eric Trump (on voluntary amputation) and medievalist Kerr Houston (on the cinematic grammar of jump cuts, and how they’ve been quickly absorbed into our visual culture).

I’ll have more to say about their work soon—I’ve been working up a piece on Houston, whose work will interest anyone reading ff—but, in the meantime, the issue previews at the Baltimore Book Festival over 23-25 September in Mount Vernon. Mark your calendars for that Saturday, 24 September, when yours truly and the rest of the gang will be hosting a launch party at the Contemporary Museum, downtown, from 9p until midnight. Alcohol will be served, a dj will be spinning, and Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture will still be hanging. I hope to see y’all there!

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

One good idea

The idea that an artist is a different sort of person is a lie. “To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity,” writes Mr. Kimmelman of Pierre Bonnard and us all. These essentialist ideas about artisthood scamper—discreetly, for the most part—throughout the book. Mr. Kimmelman’s thesis and, I think, his true belief is that the joys of art may be found in pilgrimage, in obsession, in collecting, in enjoying extremely private activities, even in just looking. Any of us, artist or not, can experience this joy. But Mr. Kimmelman cannot quite shake the mistaken idea that artists are a race apart.

“Most artists, like most people,” he writes, and the emphasis is mine, “have one good idea or maybe two in life, and that sustains them.”

Choire Sicha, from his review of Michael Kimmelman’s The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa [via MAN]

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Bresson’s little donkey

Lotsa good stuff from the beach vacation, already fading from memory: I’ll start with the Criterion disques—for all of you Netflixen out there, note that the essays printed on the DVD notes are considerately provided, free of charge, by the good folks at Criterion (and linked, below, in the discussion)…

Au hasard Balthazar box
Au hasard
Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

It’s funny: I associate children and animals so much with commerce that I instinctively run the other way when I get close to a movie that traffics in cuteness (I’ve never seen this one, for instance, despite impassioned recommendations from several friends). But Au hasard Balthazar’s use of the donkey as a dramatic reflector is moving and complex, its muteness and our natural faunal empathy have contributed to a rich matrix of meaning on the role of Balthazar (named for the Biblical magus). The most captivating of these involve casting the donkey as Christ, a nod to numerous religious allusions in the film (including the first scene, where children baptize baby Balthazar with water and flowers), which tells the beast’s life story.

This elegant infrastructure doesn’t begin to address the look and feel of the movie, either: from Bresson’s natural, lyrical style to his preference for untrained actors, from his framing techniques that focus on a portion of his “models”—his preferred term for actors—or the animal, to his minimalist score that captures the music of the donkey’s braying, AhB is a quiet and moving marvel.

Extras include an interesting television show from the late fifties that features an interview with the director, as well as testimomials from cinematic and literary lions from the French pantheon, including an hilarious Godard, heaping praise on the master and looking every bit the beat hepcat. Also included: an essay by James Quant.

Short Cuts box
Short Cuts site
• Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993)

After the theatrical release of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia—a flawed film that I admire immensely—one of my talking points was something along the lines that Altman didn’t feel for his characters in Short Cuts, whereas Anderson loves his. (The connection between the two films was recognized immediately, of course, both set in the Southland with interlocking storylines and a cataclysmic event that marks the each film’s climax; now we find that the two directors shared the set for the eighty-year-old’s Prairie Home Companion, for which Anderson is available to the studio for insurance in the event that the master falls ill.) I got it wrong then—Altman operates at a distance, often nudging the viewer into a voyeuristic state (a strategem that works well in a social study, or an examination of alienation, or a snappy, humorous take on a subculture: think pieces of Nashville or even Dr. T.; 3 Women; and The Player, respectively—even as his style suffers in contrast to Anderson’s earnestness and manic energy while observing the constellation of stars that form the text fot both Short Cuts and Magnolia. As disconcerting as the plague of frogs is for some folks, Altman’s earthquake is sillier and less believable. Included in the Criterion package: an essay by Michael Wilmington.

F for Fake box
F for Fake site
• Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1975)

Much is made of this film’s literary form, which Welles is said to have characterized as a “new kind of film,” one that others, since, have dubbed a visual essay; FfF proves novel and largely entertaining, befitting its charming narrator, magician, director, and chief raconteur. (The film’s opening—chock full of jump cuts, color, and pulchritude, the latter supplied in abundance by Oja Kodar, Welles’s mistress—stands out, as well as the sight of Welles, comfortably ensconced in a booth at La Méditerranée [a Parisian restaurant] dismissing one carnivorous main course for a second of lobster.) If the punchline is a little tired, or we see a little too much of Ms. Kodar, the ride is a good one. See also: an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum from Criterion’s package.

Casque d’or box
Casque d’or site
• Jacques Becker’s Casque dor (1952)

Becker’s perfect period piece par Paris is the kind that makes you itch when it starts; it seems as though it should be boring. Slowly, though, one is captivated by the prospect of a relationship between the central characters, a young Simone Signoret and her reformed-gangster lover (the viewer is never tempted to stray); of course things will end badly for both of them, but not before we soak up the Belle Époque ambience, and experience the joy and sorrow of doomed love. The director works with perfect economy—he was an assistant to Jean Renoir before WWII, and the maître’s influence shines through. A gem; Criterion includes an essay by Philip Kemp.


The others:

• Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), counted by the director himself as his best, shows him at his most self-aware: Fassbinder casts himself as the director’s assistant, ably illustrating the capriciousness of the filmmaking endeavor. Filmed in Spain after the completion of the filmed-in-Spain, sauerkraut-western Whity, ‘Holy Whore’ has the great, shambling feel of a good party, a pedigreed 1960s look (with the great director foreshadowing a sound eighties fashion-sense in his white suit/black shirt/white tie), with a dollop of shaggy-dog comedy where actors are constantly shattering glassware in anger, disgust, or simply for the hell of it. The lampooning is punctuated with striking visuals, particularly when the camera ventures from the hotel lobby (on the veranda overlooking the sea, or asea, or driving about town): not particularly good, but very entertaining.

Bonus essay: Luc Sante on Fassbinder for Slate.

• Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) suffers from Klaus Kinski’s mania, a mania that doesn’t read well compared with other actors for the duration, despite some great scenes (including the storied Machu Picchu opening, plus the madness of Aguirre at the film’s end, where Kinski is babbling at monkeys and slaying Peruvian natives on a shoreline raid). The narrative seems to argue for all ‘river’ movies (cf. Apocalypse Now), where the existential dread increases, palpably, as we stay on the water.

• Herzog’s Cobra Verde (1987) is super-flawed and super-weird, but strangely compelling. The last collaboration of Herzog and Kinski, and a film that both men were disappointed with, Cobra Verde tells the story of the titular bandit, one Francisco Manoel de Silva, based on Bruce Chatwin’s Viceroy of Ouidah. The early scenes—detailing de Silva’s journey to his involvement in Ghana’s slave trade—are particularly good, and the frame of Kinski standing in the ocean, looking to his eventual destiny, is beautiful and poignant.

Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (1958): the Sin City of the fifties, handsome and forgettable.

• David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) is akin to a collaboration between John Carpenter and Roman Polanski; elements of schlock meet psycho-thriller à la Rosemary’s Baby; watchable.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Julian Stanley, remembered

Julian Stanley
Julian Stanley, dead at 87

On my plane flight home this morning, I was saddened to discover that my undergraduate advisor, Julian C. Stanley, died on Friday (New York Times obituary here).

I attended Hopkins from 1975-78, and knew the man since 1972, when he was in the midst of research that would result in the widespread administering of the SAT to elementary-aged students for use in predicting academic excellence in mathematically precocious youth.

His southern probity and gentle manner, coupled with his scientific bearing—those who suppose that social scientists lack rigor should have met him!—made him a capable shepherd and father-figure for this young student. As I aged, I didn’t always agree with his (and, more importantly, his protégés’) take on issues concerning what has come to be known as “gifted education”—in particular, the emphasis on the avoidance of boredom as a prime motivating force, and an examination of the psychosocial that was, shall we say, less than nuanced—but the man, an expert in experimental design, had little time for speculating on that which could not be measured.

Later in his career (and ever the scientist), he acknowledged something lost on legions that have followed in his footsteps, selectively reading from his work: those who suppose that radical acceleration is the best for their child should consider

Another danger of starting early is that you may get into the wrong field. If you’re good in math and science, you get moved into physics, etc. At each stage, you get moved up. But if you do it too early before you’ve thought it out, you might settle for a career that you end up not being happy with.

His involvement in my youth profoundly affected my life’s trajectory, an influence that I honor today; a memorial service will be held September 17th at Vantage House, 5400 Vantage Point Road, at a time to be determined.

Clarification: In reference to “boredom,” I’m focusing on the practice of using acceleration as a response to boredom in school, a JCS (and gifted parent) bugaboo. [cws::16 Aug]

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A fashion portal

Funny, sometimes the Internet works as advertised.

Yesterday, I’m killing time, reading Marginal Revolution, when I happen upon this (a marriage proposal executed via intricacies of blogging software), akin to the guys who ask via Jumbotron. Dopey, yes, but the object of his affection—an apparel industry pattern maker and author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing—runs Fashion-Incubator, a site that, apparantly, is a very interesting nexus amidst the fashion web. Take, for instance, this image, one that immediately caught my eye:

Galliano pattern puzzle
The pattern, and… the result.

It’s a “pattern puzzle” by John Galliano—striking, no?—found on SHOWStudio,

…an online project committed to showing the process of creativity. Throughout its first four years, SHOWstudio has consistently broken new ground in pioneering new forms of interactive and motion imagery at its London studio and broadcasting these unique art and fashion collaborations via its award-winning website. Providing a ‘view from within’ the industry, its aim is to unpack every aspect of fashion image-making, from the generation of ideas and production stages through to the problem solving and minutiae of executing the final images.

The minisite for the puzzle has the pattern (for a “pirate jacket”); a discussion of the garment (“Unfurled,” an essay by Jane Audas); a gallery for realizations of the puzzle, submitted by users; and references. Impressive. (You’ll want to check out the projects—the current, “open” ones are here—and there’s a forum page, too.)

Pinar Yolacan 'Perishables'
Untitled, Pinar Yolacan,
from “Perishables” (2004)

And then, to the archives: in July 2005, scroll down to 21 July to read about “Pinar’s Portfolio,” the beginning of a trail that will lead one to the very interesting work (some of which I had seen reviewed in winter issue of Bidoun) of Pinar Yolacan, a Turkish artist educated at Cooper Union and in London. (The photo at left is from a series where the subjects were dressed in garments made from animal flesh: tripe, cow stomach, chicken skin, and lamb testicles—but if you continue to follow the links, you’ll find suits with cauliflower epaulets, embroidered pumpkins, and other marvels.)

Anyhow, there’s plenty to chew on in the vicinity: sometimes, one website can make all the difference.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The mating rituals of Laguna Beach

Of all of my, what, few dozen readers, I know that most of them skip right over anything television-related, and of those remaining, all but one will be scratching their collective head at my love for the sublime reality-verité “Laguna Beach,” (on the ol’ MTV, Mondays at 10p)—but I have to relate a captivating moment at the end of last week’s episode.

(For the uninitiated, LB films the day-day social interactions among an affluent cluster of blond SoCal teens, with an emphasis on the trials of young love; the scenes are captured with a long-distance lens so that the camera is minimally intrusive, and, as a result, an unusual quality of “reality” is found on this lightly-scripted show.)

'Indian Head' monoscope pattern
From the Television Test Card Gallery,
which includes a test pattern FAQ (courtesy Coudal).

From the episode guide summary,

Finally, Jessica confronts Jason about the relationship warnings she’s received from her friends. When she asks Jason what he talked about with Alex M. the night before, Jason is quiet, and swears on his relationship with Jessica that nothing happened between he and Alex M. But Jason admits that he very well could be forgetting all that they talked about . . .

After the discussion, Jason invites Jessica to grab a bite to eat, in the tentative way that all boys on the show have when venturing into the lioness’ den. What follows can only be appreciated by querying Jessica’s facial expressions directly as she replies by asking him whether she should drive separately, and after Jason diffidently indicates that that’s his preference. No acting is required on Jessica’s part.

See also: Playa-hatin’. [cws::27 Oct]

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Pit

The Pit!
The Pit #6
(Click here to check out the photo set.)

Over vacation, I took a few snaps (0 1 3 4 5) of an abandoned bar—perhaps a strip club—on a drive over U.S. 13 through the Delmarva peninsula (for folks outside of the middle Atlantic, that’s the piece of land that separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, a portmanteau of parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—once abbreviated “Va”).

“The Pit” was decorated in 1970s-vintage imagery, rendered in painted wood. Particularly groovy is the “the,” crudely jigsaw-ed and just barely visible (underneath flora) here.


Monday, August 08, 2005

Six Feet Under

What makes for good television? In the eyes of those who treat the medium seriously enough to care to answer the question, it usually has to do with form (cf. the real-time-ness of “24,” or fusing the action drama with the soap opera—see “Alias” and “Lost”—à la J. J. Abrams), instruction, issues, or in illuminating a certain culture (“The Sopranos”). Does the soap opera—even a well-heeled one—qualify?

Peter Krause
Peter Krause

Consider Alan Ball’s “Six Feet Under,” HBO’s funeral-parlor, er, “dark comedy” that [according to its Wikipedia entry],

…is a conventional family drama, dealing with such issues as relationships, infidelity, homosexuality, and religion. At the same time, it is a show that is distinguished by its unblinking focus on the topic of death, which it explores on multiple levels (personal, religious, and philosophical), rather than treating it as a convenient impetus for the solution of a murder.

Since its debut, SFU has not been as well-regarded as HBO’s flagship “Sopranos,” with recent commentary downgrading it to an “unrelenting tragedy bonfire,” an “upper-middlebrow melodrama” favoring sentimentality instead a more bracing authenticity. (Virginia Heffernan, in the New York Times, stakes this authenticity to “a confrontation not with the self, which its practitioners regard as elusive and false, but with death, horror, being, nothingness.”)

Michael C. Hall
Michael C. Hall

But, in Heffernan’s hurry to distance herself from the hoi polloi—“weepie cable-television dramas like ‘Six Feet Under’ … appeal mostly to women and gay men”—she (and others, who are seeking the more familiar hallmarks of “quality” television) miss, and misread, the series’ literary character, one that argues for a place in the pantheon reserved for serious, more traditional works of fiction.

Frances Conroy
Frances Conroy

It’s not enough to credit the work of the exceptional cast (and I have nothing but the highest praise for their fine ensemble work), nor to say that the teleplays are smart (though, of course, they’re terrific): even in times of higher quality programming from top to bottom [an argument detailed in Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter], “Six Feet Under” is way better than what passes for good TV. If the sincere prefer to deal with the “elusive and false” self rather than the void, perhaps that is because it’s profoundly human to look the other way when death comes calling.

Lauren Ambrose
Lauren Ambrose

I was reading “Feodor’s Guide,” an essay by David Foster Wallace from War of the Words: Twenty Years of Writing on Contemporary Literature, when I encountered this passage,

The thing about Dostoyevsky’s characters is that they live. And by this I don’t mean just that they’re successfully realized and believable and “round.” The best of them live inside us, forever, once we’ve met them.

something that describes exactly what we get with SFU. Peter Krause’s Nate Fisher—the fucked-up heart and soul of the show—is chronically unable to commit, well on the way to sabotaging his second marriage, and yet he’s a gentle, confused, and angry guy (I’m a bit too familiar with this profile, to tell the truth). On the other hand, parts of his brother, David—played by Michael C. Hall—remind me of my inability to let my hair down. If all of this sounds pedestrian, and sometimes melodramatic, as plain text in the TV Guide previews might suggest, perhaps, in some respects, it is. But no other document has better captured what life in contemporary America is like for someone raised in the suburbs, during a broad period between the mid-sixties and the mid-eighties; if the things that happen to the Fishers sometimes seem too unreal, or surreal, I would submit that that’s perfectly in keeping with great fiction, too.

Rachel Griffiths
Rachel Griffiths

It’s the essence of the actors’ portrayals, in the hands of smart, beautifully-wrought scripts, that transcend the pedestrian adult drama. (It is important, as many observe, that the show is concerned with death, but it is even more captivated by sin, the sin of the religious and the secular alike.) If the bulletin boards are concerned whether Nate was a bastard or not, answers are not so easy to come by. Last night’s episode dealt with the aftermath of his death, a death I met without emotion last week. This week I was less reflective and more weepy, a pretty accurate reading of my true modus operandi when it comes to loss. The shift may have taken place during a visit to the mall on Friday, when I heard a fantastic folk-y cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in Anthropologie. Haunted, I asked one of the sales gals whether it was from a in-store music machine or a recording.

“It’s from the ‘Six Feet Under’ soundtrack,” came the reply.