30 June 2008

I've Grown Accustomed to Her Bass

Spirit design

Among the more delightful features of The New Yorker are the single-paragraph "Critic's Notebook" blurbs that run along the margins of the "Goings On About Town" section in front of each issue. Composed by the magazine's staff contributors, they mostly consist of ruminations on upcoming musical, theatrical, cinematic, or otherwise cultural events. Restricted to a single paragraph - not unlike, say, Robert Christgau's occasionally koan-esque Consumer Guide record reviews - the contributors are forced to exercise those two most precious writerly commodities: precision and economy. Hence Richard Brody's five sentence meditation on Hitchcock's Vertigo on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, in which he expounds on a vintage print screened by the Cinematheque Francaise made with a dye-transfer process, develops a cogent single-sentence synopsis of the film's convoluted plot, delineates the parallels between the film's central conceit and the Hollywood star factory, notes the critical indifference to the film at the time of its release, relates its current stratospheric station in the canon, and speculates on the reasons for this stunning reappraisal. Bing, bang, boom. If you aren't at least curious about Vertigo after that whirlwind romance - I am and I've already seen the movie several times - then you are unreachable.

Also in this week's issue (already made famous by Seymour Hersh's latest exposé on the Bush administration's attempts to engineer a war with Iran) is a Notebook from fan favorite Sasha Frere-Jones, who recently appeared on Jezebel's "Pot Psychology" video feature, although it is unclear if he partook. In his more reputable day gig, Frere-Jones writes about a free upcoming show this July 4th at the Battery featuring '80s indie stalwarts Sonic Youth and the recently reunited Feelies. By way of introduction to each band, SFJ splits their chief influence at the atomic level: "...the Feelies are the logical extension of the breakneck strumming in the Velvet Underground's 'What Goes On,' while Sonic Youth are the logical extension of Lou Reed's solo." Jones' real goal is to prompt a reevaluation of the Feelies (who hail, it should be noted, from Haledon, NJ), the far-lesser known of the two acts; a difficult task, given that their records, including 1980's seminal Crazy Rhythms are well out of print. No matter: SFJ suggests that you can check them out live for free on the 4th. Which is true, kind of: turns out that while tix were free, there were tix, which were gobbled up virtually the instant they became available. As Chris "Mad Dog" Russo would say, that's a terrible job by Frere-Jones, getting my hopes up only to be completely and utterly dashed; I only hope that legions of less rigorous bespectacled latte-sipping NYer subscribers don't end up being turned away en masse.

Back, though, to Sonic Youth - who are a Downtown indie rock institution in much the same way that Nathan's hotdogs will always be a Coney Island institution - I was reminded of an excerpt from Stevie Chick's new tome on the band I had recently read over on The Quietus describing the Bad Moon Rising era - 1985, or thereabouts. In the book, Psychic Confusion: The Sonic Youth Story, Chick describes a date at London's Institute of Contemporary Art on the band's concomitant UK tour:
Sonic Youth were a shock to the system for a London live scene that could only muster the comparatively puny Jesus & Mary Chain by way of competition for the group’s brutally artful attack. “I’d seen the Mary Chain, William Reid standing there with his back to the audience, the weight of the world on his shoulders, making his racket. I’m a fan, but its very English, very non-confrontational. The Youth were completely in your fucking face. Thurston was this huge guy, whacking the shit out of his guitars, and the noise they made was fantastic. I loved Kim’s lurching bass-playing, it wasn’t ‘technically good’, but it was emotionally brilliant. She was doing this weird, very sexual frug. It was so striking, this petite girl handling a massive Thunderbird bass, having to throw her whole body-weight into it to get what she wanted out of it.”

The Airing of Grievances

Today it's Pitchfork's turn to interview Liz Phair re: Guyville Redux, and they do a far better job with it than the Voice a couple weeks back. Most illuminating is a reference to the famously acerbic doyen of Chicago's underground, Steve Albini, whom Phair describes as having "kind of sidestepped and said [Exile in Guyville] was an important record for women in that period" in the accompanying DVD documentary. "Sidestepped what?" you ask. Well, an adjacent link whisks you off to a 1993 exchange between Albini, Chicago Reader critic Bill Wyman, and the Reader's readership, touched off by Wyman's year end column celebrating Chicago's three most commercially and critically successful rock acts of the year: The Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Phair. The offending passage: "Once it became apparent that the fine line between the two was blurring, the rear guard from the underground--which I would define as deliberately non-pop, whereas I guess alternative would be relatively personal music that doesn't necessarily exclude pop--tried not only to keep them clear, but to make a big deal out of which side of the line you were on. This, of course, is bullshit, and these artists took a stand and the resulting heat to prove it."

Albini's hilarious and wrong-headed response (wrong in dismissing two great records that have "stood the test of time," although admittedly, he was right about all three acts in the long run) is worth reading in its entirety, as are many of the reader responses that flooded subsequent editorial pages. While brushing aside the sexist overtones of the Phair backlash, he deftly dismisses her music - and by extension her personally - as "more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to." The coup de grâce occurs at the sign off, where, after excoriating Wyman for privileging "this year's promo fixtures" over artist making "timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists," he tells the critic to "[c]lip your year-end column and put it away for ten years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it." Whoops.

27 June 2008

"It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."


The real question posed by District of Columbia v. Heller, if not in a legal sense - afraid I have to agree with the majority here, within "reasonable" limits, ha ha - then in a philosophical one: is what's good for the goose always good for the gander? If we're willing to accept that the Second Amendment permits some restrictions on gun ownership, as the Court clearly is, then how is D.C.'s proscription on hand guns (and the attendant trigger lock and storage requirements for long arms) any more defective than, say New Jersey's ban on assault-style weapons? Refer to the text:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Now, as gun control advocates have pointed out, in the Framers' time, you didn't have Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers; nor did you have readily-available hand guns with high-capacity clips, nor the drug trade, nor mind-blowing urban murder rates, et cetera, et cetera. What we then have is an 18th century instrument constraining lawmakers attempting to address a 21st century problem. Of course, given that a) the Bill of Rights is binding social contract with a lot of important, desirable goodies still left around from Ye Goode Olde Days (free speech, protections against unreasonable search and seizure, bans on cruel and unusual punishment) and b) it's amendable, it's difficult to argue that well-intentioned legislators should be simply be permitted to ignore the Second Amendment when it becomes inconvenient - after all, this is pretty much the same argument the Bush Administration has employed (and the Court has largely endorsed) to justify the extralegal tactics attendant to the War on Terror. Yet, to some extent, this is pretty much exactly what has happened.

How else to explain the panoply of prohibitions and restrictions on firearms ownership? Even if you don't accept Justice Scalia's dismissal of the "militia" clause as merely "prefatory", surely one can argue that in today's military environment, fully automatic weapons might have "some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia" - the standard employed by the Court in upholding the federal ban on sawed-off shotguns in 1939's U.S. v. Miller. Yet not only does federal law still prohibit Americans from possessing machine guns - not to speak of other battlefield implements such as rocket launchers and hand grenades - but many states ban ownership of assault-style semi-automatic weapons: if it looks like a duck then it must quack like a duck, I suppose. While Heller is a landmark decision in the sense that it delineates some ill-defined baseline individual right to own certain firearms for lawful purposes, it also largely upholds the nation's patchwork quilt of gun control regulations; in other words, the Court is interpreting "infringed" not as an absolute prohibition on governmental interference with otherwise lawful gun ownership, but as an indefinite yet discrete set of activities, thereby creating a relatively narrow legal minefield for lawmakers to negotiate.

Today's ruling was, of course, cheered by anti-gun control advocates, who take a more absolute view than the Court and view most types of restrictions on firearms as inherently unreasonable and infringing. Some of these (mostly, I imagine, members of Congress) actually reside in the District; the majority undoubtedly traveled from surrounding states such as Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania wherein gun regulations are lax, if not altogether anathema. These jurisdictions, are, with some exceptions, largely suburban and rural, with hunting and shooting common recreation activities; in Washington, D.C. this is not the case. In fact, with the exception of the plaintiff, Mr. Heller, certain members of Congress and other transient members of "official Washington", it's safe to say that the full-time citizens and voters of Washington, D.C. - i.e. those most likely to be victimized by illegal gun violence - strongly supported the ban, which was adopted by their duly elected representatives over thirty years ago. Which brings us back, of course, to the question of goose and gander.

The gun control issue is characterized by its tensions: the rights of the polity versus the rights of the individual, and states' rights versus federal constitutional requirements. Demographically and culturally, New Jersey is not Georgia, and New Jerseyans and Georgians, by and large, take a far different view of the proper role of guns in society: thus New Jersey law and Georgia law differ on how to regulate firearms. Now, this seems all well and good - to each his own - unless you happen to be a gun-owning Georgian transplanted in New Jersey, or a New Jerseyan of the minority opinion. Then you might consider New Jersey's more stringent gun laws an infringement on your right as an individual, irrespective of the majority consensus, to "keep and bear arms." Like supporters of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments marching in the segregated South in order to end the de facto impingement of the rights they confer, proponents of Heller perceive an assault on the Second Amendment anywhere as an injustice everywhere. Indeed, they may have a point: after all, advocates for the separation of church and state across the country become exercised when they see the Alabama Supreme Court install a monument to the Ten Commandments in a public courthouse, and supporters of reproductive rights nationwide bemoan the statutory hurdles placed before a woman seeking an abortion in Mississippi. That each of these examples is popular with the majority of Alabamians and Mississippians strikes them as irrelevant: the rights of the individual must be safeguarded against "the tyranny of the majority."

Obviously, there is a strong temptation to cry "apples and oranges"; after all guns kill people (although, in the eyes of many, so do abortions), and what's more, factors unique to certain jurisdictions - population density and poverty, chief among them - conspire to deprive guns of many of their "lawful" contexts. Yet this is just an extension of the same cherry-picking mindset that allows the Court to guarantee a narrowly crafted individual right to gun ownership for the purposes of home defense while concluding in dicta that a broad swath of gun control regulations are inherently reasonable (a contention which, it should be noted, would be more simpatico with the "collective right" opinion proffered by the dissenters). If we are going to accede to the view that the Second Amendment actually protects any right applicable today, then we must find that it is applicable everywhere, and not just where it is socially acceptable or convenient. Regardless of the consequences, we can ill afford to have some Amendments construed as being more equal than others, as has been the position of conservatives who dismiss rights to due process and freedom of religion with one hand while clutching a rifle in the cold, dead fingers of the other. People will die: this is the logic so crudely applied by Justice Scalia in dismissing the right of Guantanamo detainees to appear before American courts and contest their detention, so it is more properly applied to the still-unresolved question of the Second Amendment. If you don't like it, you can always amend the Constitution.

24 June 2008

Trenton Makes The World Takes

The State House dome, around 9:00 A.M.

Senate office, State House Annex

Believe it or not, this is a parking deck.

Committee Room 7

The Great Seal of the State of New Jersey

A rather generous artistic interpretation of the view from Pennsylvania

The front of the State House, West State Street entrance

Fountain in courtyard between State House and State House Annex

The State House Annex main entrance

No skateboarding

Fountain in State House Plaza adjacent to State Museum

The State House dome, seen at dusk

The State House rotunda

Portraits of New Jersey governors past. For inquiring minds, Jim McGreevey's portrait hangs inside the Governor's Office, out of public view

The Delaware River, Route 29, the "Trenton Makes" bridge, and beyond that, Morrisville, PA as seen from the garden atop the State House parking deck

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) listens to Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) inveigh against bonding for urban school construction

The Senate Chamber (another view)

S-2009, the FY 2009 State Budget bill. The $32.9 billion spending plan (a net reduction of $600 million from FY 2008) would pass in a party-line vote.

A five dollar bill lying unattended on the Democratic caucus room floor, which goes to show you something, I guess

Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), right, and Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), right, from the front page of today's Star-Ledger

21 June 2008

Cinema of Cruelty

"Revolting" isn't a term I apply to a film lightly, and though Michael Haneke's Funny Games in some sense begs for the label, I refuse to give him the satisfaction. Haneke intends his movie, a remake of his own 1997 German-language feature, as an indictment of cinematic violence and by extension his audience; the images of wanton, senseless barbarity he bombards us with over the course of two hours are designed not to titillate but horrify, and in some sense, castigate. This approach can succeed, and I invite anyone who believes otherwise to consider Sam Peckinpah's soul-killing Straw Dogs an emphatic rejoinder. Yet while Funny Games is "shocking" in the sense that any film that involves nasty things being visited on undeserving, unsuspecting people for no apparent reason is shocking - it reminds me of George Lucas' quip that if he wanted to reach his audience emotionally he would wring a kitten's neck on-screen - it is difficult to discern why we should consider Haneke's movie exempt from its own implicit critique. Consider his cherubic torturers, Peter (Brady Corbett) and Paul (Michael Pitt), each lifted from the same Mephistophelean sketch pad as A Clockwork Orange's Alex; the increasingly obnoxious acknowledgments of the audience; and the arbitrary and capricious nature of the "games" that give the movie its title: each of these represents a building block in a film destined to find its cult among sniggering post-adolescents who, to their credit, know that a movie is a movie is a movie, no matter how severely smug and condescending.

Funny Games, though brutal, isn't a bad movie, necessarily. Once I set aside the idea that I was supposed to be learning some kind of lesson about what a bad person I am, I found the film to be an effective thriller, expertly leavening the tension with spasmodic episodes of violence. The premise is simple enough: two boys, late teens to early twenties, hold a young family hostage at their lakeside retreat, and bet them that they won't be alive by 9:00 A.M. the following morning. Sadism ensues; to go any farther would both spoil the movie and be irrelevant. Should you want to see Naomi Watts and Tim Roth physically and psychologically brutalized for two hours, but consider Hostel too graphic and The Strangers too juvenile, Funny Games is the movie for you, the discerning torture porn connoisseur. Yet if you do see the film, please, please, please don't surrender to Haneke's browbeating and feel bad about yourself: after all, I'm pretty sure that all involved were compensated for their participation and suffered no actual injury because of it. Even the dog.

19 June 2008

The Interpreter

Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind is perhaps best regarded as a metaphor for its director's career: the film takes flight when its protagonists - thinly-veiled versions of stars Jack Black and Mos Def - set about recreating Saturday afternoon staples like Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, and RoboCop, and grinds to a halt when the interstitial plot, penned by Gondry himself, kicks in. As deft as he is at applying his whimsical visual stylings to the material of others, he seems incapable of mitigating his own weaknesses as a screenwriter; as with The Science of Sleep, a turgid rip-off of his brilliant Charlie Kaufman-scribed debut, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind's intriguing premise is soon drowned in a pool of lukewarm mediocrity. What plot there is revolves around an eponymous video store, whose VHS-only stock is inadvertently erased by a magnetized Jack Black (don't ask). In order to keep the store - already threatened with demolition in order to make way for condominiums - afloat, Black and Mos Def resort to producing made-to-order "sweded" (the term means nothing) versions of actual movies. Predictably, in Gondry's Capra-esque universe, the gambit pays off, and soon the denizens of Passaic, NJ, are lining up around the block for their own DIY editions.

These charming reproductions, wherein Jack Black hobbles around attired in auto parts as RoboCop or Mos Def attempts to approximate Chris Tucker's machine gun cadence in Rush Hour 2, are the heart and soul of Be Kind Rewind, and it is the film's greatest deficiency that, as a supposed paean to the ramshackle and handmade, it devotes so little time to them. Like Max Fischer's meticulous stage version of Serpico in Rushmore, Be Kind Rewind's reinventions amount to both an homage and a critique, praising the indelible verve and wit of these cheeseball '80s and '90s diversions while implying that present day Hollywood, with its addiction to bigger budgets and garish computer effects, has forgotten that the human element is what causes audiences to form such strong attachments to these movies. If Jack Black and Mos Def can recapture the magic of a WPIX weekend matinee with some tin foil and an ancient video camera, why can't the Wachowski Brothers? Why can't you or I?

Or, more to the point, why can't Gondry? The hysterical "swedeings" only serve to draw an unflattering comparison with the half-bored tone of his film, content to coast along as a vehicle for Black's mugging and Mos Def's shrugging, when it's not busy under-utilizing the veteran presences of Danny Glover or Mia Farrow, who is given little else to do besides act bewildered. An important underlying plot thread involving a mythical - in more ways than one - jazz pianist named Fats Waller is picked up and put down so often that it becomes an irritant. There are a few scattered non-sweded moments of amusement, most notably Danny Glover's video store owner reconnoitering a West Coast Video and arriving at the conclusion that he needs only two sections to succeed: Action-Adventure and Comedy. Yet, for the most part, Be Kind hides its light under a bushel: beyond the extended making of Ghostbusters, the other "swedeings" are handled mostly during amusing montages - in one two minute sequence we see When We Were Kings, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Carrie, and Men In Black. I, for one, felt somewhat duped; having been drawn in with promises of madcap ad hoc recreations and all kinds of goofy movie love, I ended up sitting through, well, Jack Black doing his best to perform CPR on a misfire.

18 June 2008

"Exile is a vision of revolution: Elba, not St. Helena."

Lock up your daughters

I don't know if I can lay it at his feet, print real estate for arts journalism being at a premium these days, but awful job by Rob Trucks over at the Voice vis-a-vis the "don't-look-back-ing" of Liz Phair's landmark 1993 LP Exile in Guyville. Basically, Phair's been all over the map flogging a double-disc exhumation reissue, and this Voice piece, though not puff, is meant to be a walk down memory lane; Trucks, who's a pretty solid scribe (which leads me to ascribe blame elsewhere) decided that his hook was going to be a moment of contention relating to a Phair quote in Billboard: "I can honestly say for the first time in 15 years, I feel creative."

15 years is a lot of water under the bridge, and if you can do a little math, it's also the exact amount of time that has elapsed between Guyville and, well, Guyville's reissuing. In the interim Phair has released a set of disappointing-to-controversial records, most recently the slick Matrix-assisted pop-jobs Liz Phair and Somebody's Miracle. As Trucks notes, despite these blatant grabs at elusive commercial success - no value judgment intended on my part; in fact, I found Phair's contemporaneous statements regarding the need for financial security refreshing - Liz has pretty much presented each of the four intervening records as "some seemingly new awakening." So, his point, as an unabashed Exile partisan, is "which is it?" (Not to mention the inherent self-serving contradiction in claiming a new peak in creative fecundity while hawking essentially 15 year old wares.)

Trucks opens his piece alluding to the tensions that develop between him and Phair once he broaches this delicate point:
...she probably gets the gist of my feelings, because once I ask the question about her return to creativity (despite her hailing each interim release as some seemingly new awakening), both of our voices rise in volume. Our words become harder-edged. So, Liz Phair's kind of screaming at me. But she then changes course, adopting a tone of voice that probably was not in her arsenal until she became a mother: a sort of "Now, you are going to eat your peas, aren't you?" approach. I also take a different tact, speaking very, very quietly, as though I am a flight attendant attempting to keep an unruly passenger calm until the plane lands so the authorities can deal with her. Which, admittedly, is not a good thing.
After tendering this juicy tidbit in what can only be called a verbal trailer for the actual interview (Liz Phair's peeved at me! We reach an uneasy truce! She hugs me before speeding away in a taxi cab!), Trucks proceeds to unspool the exchange as merely a series of discrete Phair quotes, presumably representative and presumably in some working narrative order. Here is the aforementioned contentious exchange, as published, in its entirety:
"OK, now listen. This probably sounds hollow coming from people who get written about, but it's true: You cannot look at an interview, or pages on . . . a piece of paper, an interview, and freak out about it. Like, you can't look at what a politician says in one context and freak out about it. We love to do that. We love to be like: 'Oh, my God. So everything that you've done now has not been creative . . .' "

"I mean, I'm not going to get upset about it, but I think that you're being a little overreactive about it."

"Just a second. The tone in this room has gone antagonistic."

"Rod Stewart—I mean, he used to make, like, brilliant music, right? And then he kind of went the whole celebrity route, and he stopped making brilliant music. But I wasn't mad at him. [Laughs] I didn't go, like: 'You fuckhead! You fuckwit!' Like, I don't get that. Like, I don't get people . . . Like, I just stopped buying records, which to me is the appropriate response."

"You've asked me to accept responsibility for one dumb line in a Billboard interview. It's a fucking interview in a magazine."

"Get mad at the record. Throw it across the room. Get really angry at it. Step on it. Burn it. You can do whatever you want. But, like, it is unhealthy for someone to assume that they know someone, or have any . . . when they don't know me. That's just inappropriate."

"Honestly, my boyfriend said something like this to me at Valentine's Day. He's like: 'You can't say what you say in interviews. You have to say this, that, and the other thing, because it's coming across really badly.' Something about Guyville—I can't remember what it was. See, I didn't even really take it in. I was just so affronted that it was Valentine's Day, and he was taking that moment to critique my interviewing. But I can promise you: I will never learn this lesson. I will stick my foot in my mouth until I die. That's just who I'm going to be."

"Do you think that the person who would know what to tell you in an interview could write Exile in Guyville? Do you think the person who would know how to send a polished image out into the world would fucking write that thing?"

"I'm a messy, crazy, do-what-I- fucking-want pain in the ass. And, like, I will be forever. And hopefully, one of these days, I'll do something that people are grateful for again. But, like, I cannot be two things—I cannot be this polished person that does what's right and does what I'm supposed to that'll make everyone feel good, and do the work that says 'Fuck you!' with the double guns."

"See, a polished persona would not let you take a picture of her in a bathrobe, but I'm willing."

Now I wouldn't argue that this is uninteresting; nor would I argue that it's incomprehensible. (Unlike the seemingly apropos-of-nothing: "But you're wrong. Because I was . . . does that come across as aggressive? Let me try it again. Well, actually . . . [laughs]," followed by, "You're totally wrong—100 percent. And I have to tell you, you're wrong about that other thing, too, but we'll get back to that.") But I would argue that it's terribly unfair to Phair, who emerges from her bout with a shadow opponent looking flighty, discombobulated, and slightly childish. Trucks, who is apparently asking some provocative questions, to say the least, remains silent throughout; we the readers have no idea what prompted these reactions from Phair. It could be that we would be in total concert with Truck's line of attack, as established by his "whoa, whoa...just wait a gosh-darn minute!" introduction. He overtly states that he had to talk Phair down in order to diffuse the tension, speaking "as though I am a flight attendant attempting to keep an unruly passenger calm until the plane lands so the authorities can deal with her," but we have no confirmation in the actual record of this. What we do get is a (perhaps inadvertently) biased portrayal of Phair as that unruly passenger.

Like I said, Trucks is generally an incisive, insightful writer, so I'm loathe to blame him. I also believe, in the absence of mitigating evidence, that the interview went down as he described it. Still, it's a shame that when we're ostensibly celebrating a feminist landmark in rock music - wherein even fifteen years later the "blowjob queens" are largely still looking up at the stage instead of on it - what we get is little more than shock puppeteering: crazy Lizzy and her dirty mouth, pull the string and see what comes out next. This interview reads as much like a fair exchange as Goya's "The Third of May, 1808" reads like a fair fight.

13 June 2008


Adding a link today in the blog roll to Double Decanted, a site maintained by an oneophile friend whose professional pursuits and private enthusiasms currently occupy the same delightsome spot. The site serves both as a repository for ruminations on all things of the grape and also as the author's rum (and whatever-else-have-you) diaries, cataloguing whatever he might have imbibed on a given day; hopefully, for his liver's sake, these posts won't be too frequent. The choice cut is his description of that down-shelf staple, Miller Light: "Fizzy, yellow, almost flavorless but for a pleasant cereal note on the blink-and-you-missed-it finish."

11 June 2008

Inside the Lines

"There is nothing outside the text,"Jacques Derrida once wrote, and Roy Lichtenstein's oeuvre stands as either a robust endorsement of this sentiment or a potent rebuttal. His most famous works are essentially isolated, blown-up comic strip panels; some, like "Drowning" (above) appear with ambiguous snatches of text, while others, like "Blonde Waiting", simply present an image. They are like stills from from a larger imaginary narrative (who is Brad, and what has he done to this woman to make her forswear his aid?) or simulacra of our own reality, rendering it strangely abstract while intensifying it. As pop art, Lichtenstein's work is both the thing itself and an implicit critique, playing up the vapid and the melodramatic, finding a mixture of pathos and joy in the former, and an ineffable sense of mystery in the latter. Yet, even if these paintings "are intended as ironic commentaries on modern man's plight, in which mass media — magazines, advertisements, and television — shapes everything, even our emotions," as the cataloguer at the Metropolitan Musuem of Art would have it, they are also undeniably playful. With his bright palette, bold lines, and eye for gutter drama, Lichtenstein's art, like Spider-man or Peanuts, requires no explanation or justification; its appeal is effortlessly self-evident.

04 June 2008

“I’m not sure my estimation of George W. Bush is quite low enough to believe this really happened."*

Bush and Sanchez: this is what we call "foreshadowing"

The Washington Post's Michael Abromowitz on a passage in Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez's new book, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story, describing a "'confused' pep talk" given by President Bush to the Iraq War's military leadership following the killing of four contractors in Fallujah in 2004:

"Kick ass!" he quotes the president as saying. "If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal."

"There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"

*Matthew Yglesias, The Atlantic

Hillary Agonistes

Don't stop believin?

The endgame became all too clear yesterday as Senator Barack Obama sealed the victory that became inevitable as early as two months ago: Hillary Clinton is angling for the number two spot on the ticket. First came word yesterday that on a conference call with New York lawmakers, Clinton indicated that she was willing to accept the vice presidential nomination if it would help the party. The kicker was a perfectly crafted (for her purposes) speech, wherein after perfunctorily congratulating Obama on his "campaign", she rattled off all of the states she had won, laid claim to victory in the "popular vote", and all but claimed the white working class as her loyal base. The suspense was terrific as she gravitated from a valedictory tone to one of almost defiance; at points you could could be forgiven for thinking that she was initiating a bid, instead of ending one. Yet, there were two key signals of her intentions to negotiate an end to the race on terms most favorable to her: the fact that while she did not concede outright, she also did not state an intention to continue fighting, and her rhetoric about "uniting the party." My guess is that Clinton intends to wield her formidable base - which, let's face it, continued to deliver her primary victory after primary victory despite the general consensus that Obama's nomination became mathematically inevitable weeks ago - as an anvil, using the specter of mass defections to John McCain in November to pressure Democratic leaders, fearful of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, into pressuring Obama to offer her the VP spot.

I'm almost certain that Barack would rather eat ground glass than have Hillary Clinton on the ticket; I'm also almost certain that Democratic power brokers would rather be fed into a wood chipper than have this thing drag out until the convention in August. My best guess is that the party leadership would win out if push came to shove: after all, Obama did, with their implicit support, end up with the top spot, so why should he not consent to Hillary as number two in the name of party unity? And it's difficult to deny that, while accepting Hillary comes with some obvious risks (a lot of people hate Hillary Clinton, for one), there are also advantages: she would give Obama more credibility with party's traditional working class base (right now, upper class intellectuals, college students, and African-Americans are not a guaranteed winning coalition), be forced to actually try and help him win (if she chooses to sit out the general, the silence could be deafening), and, hell, since change is the meme of the election, what could be fresher than an African-American and a woman on the same ticket? Certainly, the more contrast the Democrats can draw between themselves and an increasingly geriatric McCain (where did he give that speech last night, a mortuary?), the better their prospects in November.

But what does Hillary get out of being number two? Well, she becomes second in line for the presidency, and should Obama win two terms, first in line for the nomination in 2016. Also, she doesn't have to go straight back to being a backbencher in the Senate, where seniority matters over star power, and where there are a lot of warm bodies between her and a committee chairmanship. Yet what might be most important to remember is that as First Lady and a member of the Senate, she had a front row seat to two of the most powerful vice-presidencies in American history: those of Al Gore and Dick Cheney. (Certainly, Cheney the puppeteer has long since overshadowed Gore's contributions, which were more the product of partnership between he and Bill Clinton - a partnership, incidentally, which Hillary helped to sour.) Perhaps she thinks that the office has permanently become more than a "warm bucket of spit" and that she could be a key voice in the putative Obama administration. While I believe that Obama is far too intellectually independent to accommodate a Cheney-like role for Clinton, I also think that he's too savvy to believe he can just consign her to four years of attending foreign dignitaries' funerals and breaking ties in the Senate. She would have to be accorded a key portfolio of some sort - perhaps health care, although that didn't work out so well the last time - and undoubtedly she would expect to be consulted routinely as a matter of course. This relationship certainly could work, although it could also devolve into an executive branch civil war, given the already-extant obvious mutual distaste and Clinton's honed reputation for not playing well with others. Doubtlessly, it is this last point that fuels Obama's reluctance to select Clinton: why would he want to spend the next five months (and possibly the next four years) worrying about being undercut by Hillary?

Of course, I could be wrong about what it is that Hillary wants: perhaps she's jockeying for a better position in the Senate, or maybe she's genuinely trying to assess whether or not she has sufficient support to carry on the fight for the nomination. What remains clear is that nothing Clinton does is selfless: on a night when she could have bowed to reality and graciously conceded, thus becoming part of the Democratic Party's historic celebration, she stood ominously apart, alone in a room of her own surrounded by dead-end fanatics. It was the epicenter of the ever-shrinking bubble where Clinton's candidacy is still considered viable; denial, it seems, is not just a river in Egypt.

03 June 2008



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02 June 2008

Everybody's A Critic

Peter Schjeldahl on Jeff Koons:
I remember my first encounter, in Germany, in 1992, with Koons’s famous “Puppy,” the forty-three-foot-high Scottie dog enveloped in living flowers. As I was judiciously taking descriptive and analytical notes, a bus arrived bearing a group of severely disabled children in wheelchairs. They went wild with delight. Abruptly feeling absurd, I shut my notebook and took instruction from the kids’ unequivocal verdict.