Monthly Archives: July 2008

(untitled #168)

Yes, I just can’t think of anything to call this post.  I wonder if this is true of the many abstract artists whose work gets titles like Contrast #231, and there literally are 230 other Contrast paintings beforehand.  I can’t quite get behind that; why not just call it “Dypsomaniac in a Confessional Booth” or “Trophy-Belt, Strung with Invertebrates”?  Hmm.

Okay, question du jour: are gas prices really going down, or did I have a minor stroke induced by Waco drivers?  My news reading has been a little less pervasive due to the damned lie about my apartment having internet (it doesn’t), but I thought this would make a headline.  I guess it’s not BAD enough.  And on the topic of petrol, how many of you honestly think we should be going to all lengths to reduce prices at the pump?  I’m speaking as a fairly frequent driver here, so I’m not just hectoring from the window of a Portland lightrail car.  I’m serious.  If oil companies see a decrease in demand and have to invest in alternatives to be profitable, not just nice, might that not be better for us all, if we take the long view?

I’ve also begun to think, in the past couple of weeks, that the U.S. must be an incredibly conservative nation.  It boggles my mind how many conservative analysts think of America as some kind of post-Christian wasteland of leftist atheism.  Notice that both candidates have moved right since the general election race began?  That’s right.  A centrist, maverick Republican vs. a fairly liberal Democrat with a talent for cross-partisan work would seem like the ideal face-off after the hardline right-wing Bush administration, right?  But instead, McCain has moved closer and closer to Bush, retaining a token belief in global warming as a distinguishing feature, while Obama has thrown distinctive beliefs over the bulwarks like water from a sinking lifeboat in a hasty attempt to seem like a center-right Democrat.  I find this all very disappointing, not because I want the country to be leftist instead of conservative, but because I think we desperately need balance to keep a check on the torture, spy, and invade view of security that is currently so pervasive in our government … is it seriously just the hard left, and me, who wants something truly different, saner, and more humane?

As said by the immortal someecards.com, “the X-Files were a lot funnier when the government wasn’t actually spying on us.”

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Resurfacing …

I know I’ve been bad, but it’s because of the harsh realities of moving, a class that meets every single day (and I present on poems just about every other day), and a severe case of climate blues (if whales had sweaty armpits that you could live in, and swam around in hot tubs, this is how it would feel to live there).  Sorry.

So, I saw two of the endless streams of comic-book films that have been vomited onto America by the Hollywood cartels, and actually neither one was very bad.  Not cinematic classics or anything, certainly not. But not pitiful or depressing, either.  

I meant to go see Batman: The Dark Knight on the day of its release, but Waco being Waco, and therefore not offering any other weekend diversion but seeing a movie, it was sold out.  So, since my student discount tickets are only five bucks, I took a gamble and watched Hellboy II: The Golden Army instead.  Now, most dudes my age would probably say that Pan’s Labyrinth is no Hellboy — but in reality, it’s the other way around.  The former was really designated an “art film” just because it was in Spanish, and was in fact a brilliantly imaginative fantasy.  Hellboy II is reassuringly filmed in English (with snatches of a made up language) and therefore not an art film.  It’s certainly a version of director Guillermo del Toro’s vision re-packaged to fit the uber-populist mold of the comic book, but mutatis mutandis, the films aren’t as far apart as you’d think.  In fact, the visuals are clearly derived from the same oddly precise imagination, and for once I felt a studio had not been wasting its money on digital technology.  These computers make some art, dammit, not just stupid trolls (though, obligatorily, those are certainly in evidence here).  It’s worth watching if only for the brilliantly realized tree-god, the scene where two characters get drunk together on cans of Tecate, and the rather Derridian implications for the marginalized life of the non-humans.

The Dark Knight, which I did manage to see last night, is a different story.  It’s a true post-9/11 “superhero” movie that barely deserves the title.  It is utterly jammed with moral dilemmas, over everything from warrantless wiretapping to the old game-theory question of whether it is better to collaborate or compete (or blow 500 people to smithereens).  While most superheroes end up vomiting American flags all over their simplistically cackling enemies whilst feasting on apple pie and repeating folk adages in cool voices, this “superhero” is depressed, convinced that he is actually a (sort of necessary) menace, and doesn’t really get that much screen time.  It’s amazing to remember how the first movie of this franchise was considered “dark” when it came out — it has nothing on this baby.  The problem of a convincing villain is brilliantly solved by the late Heath Ledger (and what a shame it is that this is his last role), who marries the spirit of the anarchists of Dostoevsky to that of al-Qaeda with the sort of sheer bravado rarely seen in big-budget films.  Astoundingly, his fate is really not sealed at the end — and considering how easily he breaks from prison in the middle of the film, we cannot imagine he stays incarcerated long.  And here I thought only Cormac McCarthy got away with that sort of thing.  In summation, this film left me rather depressed, but not at the state of American cinema (for once): instead, it vividly illustrates the extreme difficulty of fighting evil and chaos and terror while remaining pure, or even kind of dubiously decent.  Sobering thoughts for this time of war …

Other than that, I’ve mostly been eating and studying, which is what one does in Waco.  And I will try to post more often, especially when I get internet in my apartment.  To absolutely no one’s surprise, the promised AirBear connection does NOT reach to Jamestown #15.  So I’m left again, hefting my silly black bag all over creation looking for some wireless.  I hate it.

Dear U.S. of A …

Well, it’s your birthday again, the big 232.  Sorry I didn’t write earlier; I was at work.  Yeah, on the Fourth.  Nope, no extra holiday pay.  It kinda sucks.  

Anyway, I know how you worry all the time, so I’ll just say it right off: YES, I still love you.  Yes, I’ve not been the best guy — we’ve already been over the times I’ve said some mean things about you in front of my friends, the fling with Italy, a couple of one-night stands with Canada.  I’m not really sorry; after all, you’re getting awfully fat, and there’s a lot you could learn from Italy and Canada (and a lot they could learn from you – let’s be fair here).  But we’ve been over all of this. 

On the bright side, America, you do look amazing for your age, and listen, you’ve had the same government for all these centuries.  That’s more than we can say for just about anybody out there, friend or foe.  Your people are still freer than just about anybody, especially in the speech department, as the recent hate-speech trial of Mark Steyn has shown us (come on, Canada).  We’ll have to just overlook those couple of citizens (and a friendly software guy visiting from Canada) who happened to have the same names as terrorists and got stashed in secret prisons for a couple years.  Let’s face it, they aren’t typical.  But how many times do I have to tell you, just because someone’s named “Mohammad” or “Hussein” doesn’t mean he’s an Islamofascist Axis of Evil Mujahedeen?  Just like you keep saying everyone named “Britney” is a ditz.  You can’t say stuff like that, and I don’t care how many airheaded Britneys you know.  Got it?

You mentioned me giving you the “silent treatment” in your last letter, but I’m not going to apologize for that either.  I think I should’ve done it more, especially four years ago when you served up one of the worst electoral Catch-22s ever.  I still can’t believe I took the path of least resistance and voted for Bush.  Look where that’s gotten us.  Listen, I don’t want to have to give you the silent treatment again.  I liked Barack Hussein Obama quite a bit.  Is it you who’s forcing him to waffle on all his distinctives, or is that his own damn idea?  

Listen, 232 is old enough to hear a little tough love.  I don’t mean to be cruel.  I really only have two things to advise you on.  Number one: don’t be afraid to think outside the box a little.  Yeah, we might need to drill a little for some offshore oil, but seriously, we can get free of our addiction to Hummers and smoldering heaps of coal.  We can give tax breaks to green jobs, and to working people who need them most because their wages never keep up with these prices.  We don’t have to react the *exact* same way to every rogue state.  Sanctions, saber-rattling.  Saber-rattling, sanctions.  Maybe we could give a little more money to artists and universities and things that can help make everybody’s lives better, and a little less to corporate tax-breaks and all that supply-side hogwash.  Maybe we could think about offering paid maternity leave to all women, and health insurance to all children, kind of like every other G8 country, and, oh, you know, Pakistan.  Maybe not tomorrow.  But think about it.  If Norway beat us to the idea by a couple decades, it can’t be that horrendously difficult.

Here’s the second thing: please try to think way back to when you were little, and these States were just a huge crazy experiment, a kind of strange new blend of an Enlightenment utopia and the New Jerusalem, mixed in with a huge dose of common sense.  That’s what we’re supposed to be celebrating tonight, right?  Even if all the rednecks with the fireworks never read the Declaration of Independence, it’s still the point.  So think way back and tell me: what did patriotism mean back then?  Did it mean fighting in a war or having the biggest army?  Saying certain words and waving certain symbols?  (See this very thought-provoking article in Slate).  Or was it the idea of freedom from tyranny?  From things like taxes we have no say over, like getting soldiers billeted in our houses without compensation, like getting tangled up in French-and-Indian Wars that have nothing to do with us?  Wasn’t it something to do with a just government with checks and balances?  Weren’t you guys really terrified of the president, even forbidding us to call him (or her) “Your Excellency” because of that whole imperial tendency?  The whole idea of having a place where you can speak out and not have to worry about getting put on a “list” or having your mail opened or getting “disappeared” in the middle of the night by goons?  

The people you’ve put in charge of you for the past half-century, for the most part, think that patriotism is about having the biggest army, kicking some ass overseas, and storming hills.  Now, we’ve stormed some impressive hills in our history when we had to to do things like, oh, save the world from fascism.  But that’s what we have to do, not what we’re all about.  What we’re about is freedom: freedom to speak, assemble, bear arms, read, make love, live, pursue happiness.  Guantanamo and the Patriot Act notwithstanding, you’re doing a great job of that.  Just don’t let the other guys – the Machiavellians who want us to be all about threats and guns and torture and whatever else is “necessary” – win out, okay?  At least promise me that, and I don’t care if it’s the Republicans or the Democrats who win (see me sometime after work – I’ve got some great ideas for third or fourth parties).

And just in case you think I’m being a little harsh, listen: I’ll always love you to death.  I’m telling you this because of that, not for any other reason.  Hey, finish your cake.  You can work it off tomorrow riding your bike somewhere.  Hey, did I mention these gas prices are killing us?

Happy birthday!

Love,

Robert

Some actual good things about Europe.

It seems to me that Europe is getting a bad rap Stateside.  Oh, their populations are dying out.  Oh, they’re being taken over by Muslims.  Oh, they’re sissies who get their army provided by America.  Oh, the EU is … wait, why don’t we like the EU again?  I either forgot, or never knew in the first place.

I just have a couple of completely superficial observations to make, neither of which is an actual rebuttal of the above criticisms.  But first off, I just got done watching a movie with Juliette Binoche, whose work I always admire.  Now, Binoche is certainly beautiful enough for Hollywood standards, but she’s in her forties now, and I notice that she (and many other comparable actors, male and female) is not retouched or made up in European cinema, nor are these people relegated to sinister/aged/otherwise marginal roles.  This is even more the case for Daniel Auteuil.  Honestly, I don’t think he’s a bad looking guy at all, but can you even imagine an American film with him in top billing?  It’s no wonder he doesn’t work over here; he’d be cast as a villain with twenty lines, twelve of which would be sinister cackles.  And yet both are fantastic actors, capable of working in something like the daunting Michael Haneke’s Cache and also much lighter fare, such as Chocolat or The Valet.  

All of this is to say that the conditions for stardom seem to be much less superficial and destructive in Europe than in the States.  I even read somewhere that public intellectuals like Foucault were treated like stars in France.  That’s quite a tall order in a nation where Angelina Jolie serves the point of both Foucault and Gandhi, but still.  Perhaps we could start with the airbrushing cult.  Couldn’t a semi-intelligent magazine, like (say) Vanity Fair, run a series of photographs of someone who is beautiful, truly and unaided, but perhaps has (gasp) some crow’s feet untouched by Botox?

Here’s another bit.  Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) recently said, in opposition to the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, that “nobody in their right mind” believe we can get half our power from wind and solar or “drive a fleet of golf carts” (from an article in Salon).  Are you absolutely positive, Senator?  Is ownership of an Escalade, a Durango, and a Hummer part of what makes us, essentially, Americans?

Well, probably, at least for now.  However, I have been seeing more Smart Cars on the roads, and with the current price-per-barrel of crude, I’m not surprised that the Smart is gathering steam.  I had to laugh when I read this review by Salon’s Machinist blog, especially the bits where people ask silly questions like “can it go on the highway?” or “does it run on gas?”  I’ve never been all that surprised by the Smart, since I saw absolute droves of them in Italy, Germany, and France during my semester abroad in 2005.  Obviously, the Smart isn’t for everyone — large families, construction contractors — but what would be wrong with it for single people, couples without children, etc.?  Well, one problem is that our infrastructure does in fact favor a fleet of aircraft-carrier-sized vessels.  Everything is so far apart in America that road trips require large gas tanks and plenty of storage space, and the trains and low-budget airlines that Europeans use for long-distance travel either don’t exist or are extremely difficult to get to.  The Smart car is built for city driving, but nobody lives in cities here.  Instead, our enlightened zoning laws have given us neighborhoods like mine, in which you can’t throw a rock without hitting any one of a host of identical Starubckses and banks, but have to drive twenty minutes to get to a CD shop, an independent coffee house, or the public transit station (and that’s without traffic, which is to say, never).

All of which is to say, we should abolish our zoning code and allow people to build things where they live.  New Urbanist communities are a step in the right direction, but as of yet, they’re all pristine yuppie havens in which the cheapest store is Banana Republic and the cheapest sandwich is $9.95.  In other words, most people are priced out of them.  We need to let these ideas get carried out to ordinary people if we want to see any sort of progress on the pollution/environmentalism issue.  Otherwise, people just can’t live without their monstrous oil-burning frigates.

Any thoughts?