Wednesday, August 31, 2011
I remember reading an article by a reporter who spent a lot of time among the Taliban, part of that time as their prisoner. He noted the strange mixture of technical sophistication and ignorance among the Taliban fighters. They knew how to use the internet very effectively to access information and to communicate with each other and the world. At the same time, they were amazingly ignorant of the world beyond their own borders. He remembers Taliban fighters asking him if the Vietnamese were Muslim.
It seems to me that even the most determinedly anti-modern theocrat who loathes and hates science, nonetheless loves the power that science and technology can bring. Creationists have no qualms about taking their children to emergency rooms, or about having them treated with vaccines and antibiotics. Fundamentalists who would regard Einstein and Fermi as blaspheming agents of Satan are eager to use the nuclear power made possible by their work.
Monday, August 29, 2011
While the storm spared much of New York City, it clobbered parts north of here, especially in the Catskills. While subway service is up and running this morning in the city and people are grousing that the MTA will not extend weekly Metrocards to cover the lost day, the entire Metro North commuter line remains shut down with multiple damages, each of them enough to shut down a whole line. The Catskills and the upper Hudson Valley saw high winds and heavy rains causing very bad flooding, mudslides and avalanches, washed out roads and bridges, and lost power. One of the remarkable things about New York State is that so much of it is actually sparsely populated and even empty of people, including the mountainous regions in and around the Catskills and the Adirondacks, even areas fairly close to New York City. There is limited or no cell phone coverage in these areas, and when electricity and landlines go out, a lot of people become completely isolated with no way to call for help. And so there are now efforts to find and contact a lot of people who may be completely cut off from the outside world.
New Jersey and Connecticut both suffered extensive wind damage and flooding, mostly inland. New York City turns out to have been very lucky.
For what it's worth, I agree with the Mayor's decision to close down public transportation and evacuate low lying areas. No one knew how big the storm would be when it landed. All the evidence indicated a huge storm of a kind not seen in this area since 1938. The surprise is that the areas worst affected were not the coasts, but far inland.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Saturday, August 27, 2011
So far, it's the calm before the storm, very humid with hardly a breeze. We've had rain off and on all day. In this part of town, people are taking this seriously, but no one is really panicking. I'm very grateful that I'm not living in one of those over-priced cinder-block and drywall high rises right now. I noticed this morning that none of them had taped their large floor-to-ceiling windows. Most of the mob scenes were on Manhattan yesterday. Grocery stores here were open and very busy, but no lines out the door or anything like that. Lots of things like bread were already sold out. Michael and I have enough peanut butter to feed a kindergarten class. We have so many flashlights with fresh batteries that even the cats have flashlights. We also have candles just in case.
Michael is very upset about missing what is usually his busiest and most profitable day of work.
I'm mostly bored. I've finished with preparing for the first day of classes (which may or may not happen on Monday depending ...). I suppose I could walk over the Williamsburg Bridge to my studio, but the building management sent an email telling everyone to stay home. Besides, who knows what the wind will be doing later this evening. No way I'm crossing an East River bridge in high wind.
It looks like Irene will barely qualify officially as a hurricane when it arrives tonight. However, since the storm is so big, it is expected to arrive with a storm surge that could be as high as 15 feet, and that on top of high tide and almost a foot of rain. Flooding will be the big issue in this city full of tunnels and basements with sub-basements. Perhaps the Mayor was wise to order people out of the coastal and riverfront areas after all. If anything knocks the power out, it will probably be flooding, not the high wind. Flooding may keep the subways and buses down on Monday. The college where I teach says it is closed for the duration and will make a decision about Monday later.
I'll try to keep this post updated. If the power goes out, you'll have to wait.
Irene apparently will be fashionably late. She is now scheduled to arrive here at 10AM tomorrow.
Now I'm hearing a different story on the radio. It's now expected to make landfall on Long Island just east of here sometime after midnight. We are expecting 70 to 80mph wind gusts here (higher in Manhattan because of the "canyon effect" between buildings). Long Island is expecting 90mph wind gusts. The major worry is flooding. The storm surge is expected to be very large on top of perhaps as much as a foot of rain. The breeze is picking up, and the heavy rains are just a few miles off the coast and on their way.
One of my colleagues from the college, originally from Israel, posts on his Facebook page:
Well... we pulled everything in, prepared water, food, and batteries, and primed the water pumps. Let God's wrath fall upon the earth - we're ready!
The Mayor's latest press conference:
UPDATE 8:45pm EDT:
Oy! What a media circus! All the channels are doing live coverage. Times Square, Rock Center, all of these places that would normally be packed with people on a Saturday night, now look like the day after The Rapture. They are empty. La Guardia is not only closed, but empty of people.
We're getting a lot of rain right now, but not much wind.
A very windy rainy morning. We still have power, though it's out in much of Queens and Staten Island. Irene is now just barely a hurricane, and its full force is expected in New York sometime between 8am and 9am. The big problem already is flooding, especially in New Jersey now, though there are parts of Manhattan and south Brooklyn that are already flooding. From where we are in Billyburg, at the moment, it's wind and a lot of rain.
The center of the storm is off the coast of Atlantic City. If we are supposed to get hurricane force winds, we should be getting them now. So far, just a little windier than usual. I went ahead and made tea and worked on Powerpoints for my modern art survey class with may, or may not, start tomorrow. I would imagine that the real problem is flooding, and mindful of that, for once I'm glad I don't have waterfront property. So far here, just lots of rain.
I'll reserve judgment for after the center of the storm passes through, but I'm beginning to suspect that Irene, like the great New York "Earthquake" on Tuesday, might go down as one of those greatest disasters television has ever seen.
The storm is officially over. The center just passed through with barely a ripple. The rain appears to have stopped, but it's still windy out.
Glad that's over. Now for the real disaster, tomorrow's commute.
But in the meantime, let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie.
It coulda been so much worse! Thank God it wasn't!
Friday, August 26, 2011
I don't think there is any need for panic or alarm. When Irene hits New York, it probably won't be Katrina or Camille or Galveston 1900, but it will be a serious storm that will make life very rough for a place with a high density population. I think people do well to take this seriously, and the city is right to take perhaps extreme precautions. It's always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.
Besides, beneath all the anxiety and concern, people are really excited about this. It's even better than Tuesday's "quake." It's an opportunity to forget for a moment the daily excruciating grind of living through a rotten economy driven by rotten politics and rotten people. If this does turn out to be nothing more than drizzle with a breeze, then feelings of disappointment will be fighting it out with expressions of relief.
Here's a guide to preparing for Irene specially made for residents of Brooklyn who may not be aware that so much of what we take for granted runs on electricity, and that electricity could be cut off in a storm. What is more, that nice barrista at the coffee shop and the folks at the MTA who normally tell you which train to take to Tribeca might be preoccupied with matters other than our convenience tomorrow and Sunday.
So dude, stay away from the windows in high winds, bro. You might not be able to recharge that phone camera if there's no electricity.
Dudes, the Governor is shutting down the subway system Saturday at noon. The Mayor ordered all of Zone A to be evacuated by 5PM tomorrow, and all of the Rockaways, Zones A and B.
All public transportation will shut down at noon tomorrow. The bridges may close as well depending on the winds. So far, today is a nice sunny day, just like it was the day before the big Galveston hurricane of 1900 that destroyed most of that city. I'm not expecting anything quite that drastic, but the flooding will be rough regardless of "hurricane strength" or "tropical storm strength" winds.
If anyone from the last 65 years deserves a monument on the Mall, it's Dr. Martin Luther King, and I'm happy he has one (even though this monument looks too much like a Soviet war memorial for my taste). However, I've always wondered if all our monuments to him are a way of avoiding, or even forgetting, the imperatives of his legacy. Cornel West certainly thinks so, and says so very bluntly in an essay today in the NY Times.
King weeps from his grave. He never confused substance with symbolism. He never conflated a flesh and blood sacrifice with a stone and mortar edifice. We rightly celebrate his substance and sacrifice because he loved us all so deeply. Let us not remain satisfied with symbolism because we too often fear the challenge he embraced. Our greatest writer, Herman Melville, who spent his life in love with America even as he was our most fierce critic of the myth of American exceptionalism, noted, “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.”
King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.
Who knows what will happen on Sunday. Maybe in the end all we'll get is drizzle and a breeze. But, the city is taking no chances. The Office of Emergency Management has been on overdrive since yesterday. The city issued this evacuation map yesterday.
As you can see, a whole lot of the city could be potentially affected. Zone A, the areas that appear in orange, already have orders to evacuate hospitals and nursing homes today. That's 5 hospitals and 8 retirement homes. The city may order everyone else in Zone A to evacuate at 8AM tomorrow. Michael and I live just one block outside Zone C (in green). Those of you who know New York geography can see that Williamsburg and even more so, Greenpoint, are major flood risks. Also at risk for major flooding is all of Downtown Manhattan below Canal Street. That whole area went underwater the last time the city took a direct hit from a hurricane in 1821. That includes Wall Street and the WTC site.
Police boats and helicopters as well as the Coast Guard are all on standby for rescue missions. The Metropolitan Transit Authority says that the subways could be flooded and knocked out of service into Monday afternoon. If the train yards flood (a real possibility), then they could be out of service indefinitely. Bus service will be inevitably affected by flooding. Manhattan is already a mess since underground parking garages are being evacuated (and those cars are being moved where? I ask). Power and gas could be knocked out as well. Michael and I already have our batteries and flashlights ready. We're still stocking up on food and water.
As I say, maybe in the end it will be just a breezy drizzle. But, in the wake of Katrina, no one is taking chances.
The "quake" here was just an afternoon distraction that gave all the Californians a chuckle at our expense (and deservedly so). This looks like it could be much more serious.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Jim and Tammy's son turned out really well, and maybe we should remember his mother a little more fondly. Here he is in an interview with Don Lemon:
His Revolution Church is just a few blocks from where I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It meets in the back of a bar on Lorimer street on Sunday afternoons (Pete's Candy Store, an old candy store made into a bar). Yes, I've been there a couple of times. I felt old there. The crowd was very young, I suspect mostly children of evangelical parents, alienated from their religion, though not from their faith. I haven't heard Bakker preach, though the sermons I've heard at Revolution Church were very good and spoke to my inner universalist and antinomian. On political and economic issues, they might even be a little to the left of my Episcopal parish which is saying a lot. Jay Bakker may look disturbingly radical in Dallas, but in Williamsburg, he vanishes into the crowd. A friend of mine had to point him out before I even noticed him, even at his own church. I plan to go back and visit again, though I can't imagine it as anything but a supplement to Episcopalianism for me, which is what I think he intended. I'm quite happy in the Episcopal Church and happy with my parish. Besides, as I get older, I get more Catholic. The sacramental side of Christianity matters a lot more to me than to most of those from evangelical backgrounds. I insist on Eucharist on Sunday mornings.
He points out in the interview that his take on faith has caused him nothing but trouble, including a round of bankruptcy. Despite that, he won't back down.
In the interview with Don Lemon (an openly gay man for those of you who don't know), he makes an excellent point that I've always thought since boyhood. The whole business of hell is for the purpose of frightening children and infantilized adults into conformity. So many of these fundamentalist and evangelical churches could not work without it. They can do without heaven, but they really need hell. They need members, and prospective members, to always feel those sulphurous flames upon their feet. I've never believed in such a place. If there is hell, then we make it for ourselves and can leave it anytime we wish. I agree with Jay Bakker, a loving God would never make such a place. God is not the stern frightening caricature of a father figure that these folks imagine (or as one Southern writer put it, the god of the Southern Baptists is "a mean old granddaddy home from a three day drunk"). God does not run a protection racket.
Here is Bessie Smith singing a really dark blues song for all of those who want to feel God's belt across their backsides.
Susan S sends this remarkable video. Watch the crowd reaction.
Watching again Jay Bakker in the interview with Don Lemon makes me miss the Summary of the Law which used to open the Rite I Eucharist:
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment; And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
I wish they would bring this back into the Eucharist. To me, it all boils down to that. The only "test" anyone needs to pass is that of loving God and neighbor, and loving God is meaningless without loving neighbor. The rest is beside the point.
I read all the doctrinal and canonical quibblers in the comments thread over at Mark Harris' blog, all the ones going on and on about the fine particulars of who can be in and who is out and why, and I can't help but come away thinking that they are missing the whole point. I also come away from those comments feeling exasperated and asking "Why bother?"
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
For me, the quake was like some movies I've seen; I felt nothing and I was unmoved.
The religious crazies are already blaming the gays. Never mind that the epicenter was in the middle of pious back country Virginia. Well, someone had to shake up Washington.
New York survived the quake and now finds itself in the bull's eye of hurricane Irene this weekend, a much more serious threat.
The epicenter was in Eric Cantor's district. Draw your own conclusions.
A 19 year old gay man, Marcellus Andrews, is brutally murdered in Waterloo, Iowa (Michelle Bachman's home town).
And do we really still imagine that things like this do not have consequences? Do we really imagine that singling out a whole population for vilification won't end up with a few young corpses with multiple injuries in excess of what was necessary to kill them?
Those of us living in gay meccas tend to forget that the struggle is far from over in most of the rest of the country, that it is still in its opening stages in most places. We forget that, even here in a place like New York, it is the young (and frequently the minority young) who bear the brunt of the abuse and the violence of the hater backlash. The same openess and progress that makes life so much better for me can actually make the situation worse for many others living in most parts of the country. The solution is not to retreat, but to stand by those dodging the shrapnel out there in their struggles to win the same freedom and dignity.
The struggle continues. The only thing that has changed is the location of the front lines. Today, they are in places like Tyler, Texas or Waterloo, Iowa. The front line troops are all those trying to establish gay-straight alliances in high schools or gay advocacy groups or gay centers in rural hometowns or urban neighborhoods.
All of us, whether in San Francisco or in Teutopolis, Illinois, are vulnerable. We have no legal protections on the Federal level. There is no federal legislation stating explicitly that the 14th Amendment applies to us too. What anti-discrimination laws exist are a patchwork of local and state laws scattered around the country, all of which are vulnerable to the whims of voters (even in San Francisco and New York).
Those of us who are gay and Christian have an extra extra extra extra responsibility to call out the toxic shit oozing from our churches, to confront the haters in the pulpits and miters, get in their faces, make their lives as miserable as possible, and to stop them. And who better to do it than us?
James Fallows points out the cynicism and inconsistency of the Republican push to repeal the payroll tax break for most wage earners. He even goes so far as to describe the Republicans behaving like Moonies with their fanatical ideological positions on everything. Worse still, he accuses them of cynicism and breaking with their own legacy:
I had thought that Republican absolutism about taxes, while harmful to the country and out of sync with even the party's own Reaganesque past, at least had the zealot's virtue of consistency. Now we see that it can be set aside when it applies to poorer people, and when setting it aside would put maximum drag on the economy as a whole. So this means that its real guiding principle is... ??? You tell me.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Saturday, August 20, 2011
This month marks 20 years that I've lived in New York. I've now lived here as long as I lived in Texas. I've joined the long long list of immigrants and emigrants who came here to make a new life and new home. The title of this post is from WH Auden who lived here for many years in a second story apartment above a bar in a 6 story walk-up on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. The walk-up is still there, but the ground floor bar and the apartment Auden once shared with Chester Kallman, where Hannah Arendt, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Tillich used to visit him is now a split level restaurant. New York is thick with places associated with people I've admired all my life and whose work shaped the way I see the world. I love being in almost daily contact with their ghosts. I love walking by a certain unremarkable storefront on 10th street and looking up at the windows above and remembering that it was here that DeKooning painted the Women series, and Excavation.
I've always thought of New York as 2 cities inhabiting the same place; the Emigrant city and the Money city. The Emigrant city is infinitely fascinating, as varied, surprising, wondrous, and messy as all humanity. The Money city is unrelentingly horrible and brutal. And yet, both are inextricably joined together. One cannot exist without the other. That has been true since the city's beginnings. What the city is now it has always been. I think it's no accident that New York's founding myth is a real estate swindle (Peter Minuit "purchasing" Manhattan from its natives for trinkets and trade goods). The city's first settlers were hardly godly puritans seeking to build shining cities on hills, but hard-nosed Dutch merchants, Africans both free and slaves, and Sephardic Jewish refugees from Brazil fleeing the Inquisition. New York's ferociously pious Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant believed it was his Christian duty to prevent a ship full of Jews from landing. He was over-ruled by his Dutch employers who valued Jewish professional skills and trade connections. Thus began a pattern that continues to this day. The city's primary motivations are all mercenary, creating a peculiar tolerance for the odd and the misfit so long as they are profitable, or at least that they don't cost anything. Such was the tolerance of 17th century Amsterdam, the real mother city of New York (it certainly wasn't York).
New York is unique among the great historic cities of the world in that it was created out of the hopes and dreams of very poor people, for better and for worse. Paris, Rome, Beijing, London, Mexico City, Cairo, and most others were laid out by kings, princes, emperors, and high priests for their own benefit. New York alone was created from the dreams of the poor and displaced. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, the dream of the poor is not "to each according to his need," but "to each according to his desire." New York is the realization of the old medieval peasant dream of the Land of Cockaigne where ready-to-eat food sprang up everywhere and the sky rained beer. That dream gave hope for a better life of freedom and dignity to millions who previously weren't entitled to have hopes and dreams. It also created a place of glaring vulgarity and horrifying brutality. Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village is one of the oldest public parks in the USA, a generous open space for any and all. It was built on top of New York's first potters' field filled with the remains of thousands of destitute yellow fever victims from the beginning of the 19th century. All of those dead are still there underneath the trees, fountains, and playgrounds of the park, their resting place still unmarked and unnoticed except by those who know the park's history. The Lower East Side where I keep my studio was once the most densely inhabited spot on earth with thousands living on top of each other in "old law" tenements with no plumbing. Tenants had to use hand-pumps and outhouses. Most rooms in these tenement buildings had no windows. The inhabitants toiled in small industries, frequently at home, getting paid piecework wages. Fires and epidemics regularly cut through these neighborhoods. Crime and gang violence were so bad that the city was placed under martial law at times (even before the Draft Riots of 1863). Some gangs even kept artillery. Pigs regularly grazed in the uncollected garbage up Broadway in the early 19th century.
The ideas of the Old World and the New World met and clashed in New York. Refugee artists, writers, musicians, and scientists from the two World Wars met native intellectuals in New York. The two groups frequently fought with each other. The Europeans saw the Americans as bumpkins and the Americans saw the Europeans as parvenus. They clashed, and they also collaborated, and out of those encounters the modern culture of the last half of the 20th century was created. New York's creative sub-cultures are at least as old as Walt Whitman crossing the ferry from Brooklyn.
I've now lived here for 20 years, and I've had a wonderful time. It's crowded, out of scale, way over priced, it's still dirty (though not as bad as it was), people can be remarkably rude, and yet it's a city of abounding and irrepressible life. Despite the best efforts of the real estate industry to price it out of existence and pave it over, New York's creative life continues to thrive as an incubator of new talents in art, music, drama, literature, etc. Little bohemias and alternative sub-cultures still thrive, though they are now scattered throughout the city. The age of globalization and the internet makes New York a lot less of a capital than it used to be, but people still come here for the same reasons that they've always come. Now, just as in the past, groups fight each other for space and for power. People still come to make a new start, as did I. I've had some adventures here that I don't think I could have had anywhere else. I've met lots of remarkable and amazing people here. Despite the popular conception, the city is far from vast and anonymous. I've experienced this place as a series of frequently very close fellowships in small intimate places from East Village bars to ad hoc protest meetings in odd places, to parties in tiny apartments and on rooftops, to small church congregations. It's only when I look down on the city from tall buildings or from planes that I realize just how big it really is.
I've heard two descriptions of the city that I think are both accurate, though they don't quite agree. One friend described New York as not a single city, but hundreds of smaller cities and towns crammed together. Another friend describes the city as a vast college dorm. Indeed, it is.
Me on the roof of my building, 256 East 10th Street in 1994
A fond souvenir of my first trip ever to New York in 1982; I took this in a photo-booth in the Empire State Building; I was a mess; I just finished a fine meal of sidewalk hotdog with half of the mustard going down the front of my coat; I fit right in.
Together with my friend and former room mate Ian Stewart (wearing the remarkable tee shirt who now lives in London) at an ACT-UP march in 1994
With all of my Borders' Union friends in 1998; Jason Chapell is to my left, and David Kaplan is the last on the right.
With the great Tina Benez at A Different Light Bookstore in 1998
In my Lower East Side Studio in 2000
With my favorite New Yorker of all, Michael Bradley about 2006
The Williamsburg Bridge in the movies, the climactic shootout from Jules Dassin's 1948 movie The Naked City, one of the few about New York from that era filmed in New York instead of in a Hollywood backlot. Great fun to see landmarks and neighborhoods so familiar to me as they looked over 60 years ago.
The Williamsburg Bridge in art, a painting of some tenements viewed from the Bridge by Edward Hopper; I think those buildings are still there.
Woody Allen always said that Gershwin was the music he associated with New York. For me, it's Duke Ellington, with some others.
And still more music, some Fats Waller:
How could I forget this one? One, Two, Tree, Foah! ....
Friday, August 19, 2011
Ms. Smith's appearance on Fox and Friends was canceled abruptly after that last number. Roger Ailes could not be reached for comment.
Bessie Smith's tombstone in Mount Lawn Cemetery, Darby, PA. Janis Joplin purchased this monument for Bessie Smith's previously unmarked grave.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
There is a fascinating interview in The Atlantic with Robert N. Bellah, the sociologist most famous for his 1964 essay, American Civil Religion. He has just come out with a new book speculating on the origins of religion from the Paleolithic Period to the "Axial Age," that long period from about the 13th century BC to the 7th century AD when the world's current religions and philosophies were formed.
This is where I really miss Göran. He would have so much to say about this that would be really instructive.
Monday, August 15, 2011
Sunday, August 14, 2011
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the notorious 1936 Olympics, ironically the one Olympics that everyone knows and everyone can name. Adolph Hitler used the Eleventh Olympiad to showcase and legitimize his regime in the eyes of the world, the first and most notorious use of the Olympics for political ends. The International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Berlin in 1931, 2 years before Hitler came to power. He saw the impending Olympics as an opportunity to showcase his regime to the world, and his claims of Aryan racial supremacy. In 1933, German sports clubs purged all of their Jewish members, including some major athletes like champion boxer Erich Seelig. However, the Nazis softened their racist rhetoric for the games, but only in Berlin. The Nuremberg Laws were in full force in the rest of Germany. A number of Jewish athletes participated in the games anyway despite efforts by craven Olympic officials to force them to withdraw in order not to offend Hitler, and despite campaigns by Jewish groups to boycott the games. A substantial number of the athletes representing Hungary were Jewish. A still very segregated USA sent a number of Black athletes to compete. Jesse Owens was the most famous of these, but he was certainly not the only one to win medals and set records. Owens himself repudiated the canard about Hitler refusing to shake his hand. Hitler never personally congratulated any athletes, and was not present during any of the events in which Owens competed. Indeed, Owens blamed FDR for snubbing him. Roosevelt, always anxious not to offend Southern Democrats, refused to send Owens so much as a congratulatory telegram. New York City’s segregation laws compelled Owens to take the freight elevator in the Waldorf Astoria to his own congratulatory banquet.
The 1936 Olympics produced a major work of art, Leni Riefenstahl’s greatest movie, Olympia, released in 1938 in 2 parts, “The Festival of Nations,” and “The Festival of Beauty.” The movie was released in German, English, and French versions. Riefenstahl used the most up-to-date feature filmmaking techniques and technology to document the Olympics, creating a work that continues to influence the filming of sports to this day. She used unusual camera angles, skillful editing, slow motion, close ups of the athletes to recreate the excitement, and even the suspense, of events whose outcome was already known. She edited in sequences filmed from practice runs with athletes, usually from very unusual angles, in order to call attention to the splendor of athletes in motion, and to suggest the suspense of the event. Most of the two years of making the movie were spent in the editing room going through miles of raw footage from several cameras.
For all of its insistent Neo-Classicism (especially apparent in the way Riefenstahl films events like the javelin toss or the discus throw), Olympia is a very modernist movie. There is no real narrative anywhere and no dramatic conflict. The athletes perform, but they are on display. Those very individual stories of athletes struggling against and overcoming obstacles are conspicuously absent in Riefenstahl’s movie. Such stories are the stuff of sports writing from Pindar to modern journalism. The athletes in this movie are remarkably uncomplicated and one-dimensional. At the beginning of the movie, there’s a sequence where Myron’s Discus Thrower comes to life. That crucial scene establishes the theme of this movie; the athletes as magnificent specimens of an excellent type of human being, as indeed were the ancient statues of athletes. Myron’s Discus Thrower was never any particular athlete, but an incarnation of the idea of the perfect athlete. Riefenstahl makes actual athletes stand for an ideal type, like those ancient Classical statues come to life. Actual individuals are reduced to abstract types. That is very modern, and also, very ideological. Their individual struggles are simply beside the point.
The only person in the movie who comes across as an individual is the one behind the camera. Leni Riefenstahl definitely had an eye for man flesh. Jesse Owens clearly charmed her, but her camera gazes almost lovingly upon the decathlon champion Glenn Morris. Riefenstahl claimed to have had an affair with Morris. She told how Morris bared her breasts and kissed them in front of thousands of people when he won the gold medal. Like all of Riefenstahl’s stories, this one does not stand up well in the light of evidence, and can be safely dismissed as preposterous.
Here is a sequence that begins with the high jump that very effectively uses slow motion and close ups from unusual camera angles. The movie uses slow motion very effectively at the beginning of the hurdles. It concludes with the javelin throw, a sport that really does go back to ancient Greece, a point that Riefenstahl makes clear in her filming of the event.
This section begins with Jesse Owens beautifully filmed breaking the long jump world record.
Here is the celebrated diving sequence from near the end of part 2. Film critics, historians, and movie mavens praise this as a masterpiece of rhythm and editing, with long shots that follow divers right into the water. If you look carefully, there are 2 sections where Riefenstahl ran the film backwards to enhance the film’s rhythm and to create that sense of the divers flying in mid air.
I show the amazing opening of this movie in its entirety from the credits through the end of the opening ceremony. It is all of a piece. The whole thing from start to finish is built around the Olympic flame, from lighting the torch with the rays of the sun to the relay race that carries it to Germany, to lighting the flame in the Olympiastadion in Berlin. It is a series of seamless transitions from art to life, from the past to the present, a major masterpiece of visual rhythm, editing, and montage, that sets up the movie’s central themes.
The Olympic flame is a modern creation. It began with the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The idea of lighting the torch in Greece from the rays of the sun and carrying it in a relay began with the 1936 Olympics. It was the brainchild of Carl Diem, head of the Berlin Olympic committee, and Joseph Goebbels. The Krupp manufacturing works created a series of torches fueled with gunpowder and phosphorus (that spark and sputter conspicuously in the movie). Over 3000 runners carried the flame over 12 days and 11 nights from Olympia to Berlin. This movie beautifully evokes that whole relay while only showing its beginning and its end.
Credit also to Herbert Windt's splendid film score.
Pauline Kael once wrote about this movie that in retrospect, it is a salute to a doomed generation of young men and women, young people who came of age in the Depression and would fight in World War II. Indeed, many of the athletes who participated in the 1936 Olympics, and who appear in this film, would die in World War II: in battle, in air raids, or in concentration camps. This movie now has an undercurrent of pathos, in sad hindsight, that Riefenstahl never intended.
As always when discussing a movie by Leni Riefenstahl, there is the question of morality and moral culpability. Riefenstahl always claimed after the war that her work was apolitical, that she was unaware of the Nazi’s true intentions and of their crimes. She claimed that she and Goebbels fought constantly over content and budgets. Neither of those claims survives examination in light of surviving evidence, including this movie. Far from being apolitical, she joined the Nazi party after hearing Hitler speak in 1932. She was a close personal friend of Hitler, who admired her work enthusiastically. Far from meeting resistance from Goebbels, the evidence shows that he supported her readily and happily, giving her an unlimited budget and the full cooperation of the Nazi state. She is most famous for Triumph of the Will, a brilliant propaganda movie about the 1934 party rally in Nuremberg that shows Hitler in downright messianic terms.
I think Olympia in many ways is more insidious than the other more famous and openly partisan documentary. Olympia was meant for both a German and an international audience. It played a key role in Hitler’s project to use the games to legitimize his regime and his ideology in the eyes of the world. Riefenstahl knowingly collaborated in that project by making this movie.
Can art be great and evil at the same time? Yes. As an old professor of mine always said, art ain’t cornflakes. Goodness does not guarantee good art. Moral goodness and aesthetic success are two completely different and unrelated criteria. Can artists be evil and still be great? Yes. Ezra Pound was among the greatest of all modern poets, one of the greatest of the 20th century. He was also a traitor, and the worst kind of traitor, a traitor in wartime who made anti-American broadcasts in the service of the Italian fascists and the Nazis. President Eisenhower pardoned him after he spent time in prison and in a mental hospital. I would not have pardoned him. At the same time, I would not have banned his work from publication either (as some called for). Leni Riefenstahl was one of the greatest filmmakers ever and one of the great artists of the 20th century. She knowingly used that great ability in the service of criminality on a vast scale. She got off far too easy, as far as I’m concerned. At the same time, her films are rightly praised. Great crime does not diminish great art. Great art does not pardon great crime.
Can you imagine being 18 years old and seeing this crawl into bed with you, even if he was paying you money?
Professional homophobe and GOP Congressman Phillip Hinkle gets outed by an 18 year old rent boy on Craigslist.
America's fighting call boys strike again! And so many of these red blooded all American manly men go for the bait. The Gay Old Party indeed.
Friday, August 12, 2011
The great realist and most famous of contemporary British painters, Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund, died recently at age 88. He was a major and celebrated figure in the revival of figurative painting in the last half of the 20th century.
I must admit to profoundly mixed feelings about Lucian Freud’s work, feelings of great admiration and deep ambivalence. To my mind, he was a very great, though very limited, artist who stayed within a very narrowly defined area of specialization, portraiture, and that includes his nudes. His portraits are mostly limited to friends and family. He was certainly not any kind of society portraitist despite the many attempts by the British establishment to turn him into such. He has much less in common with Gainsborough or Reynolds than he does with the aging Rembrandt or even Thomas Eakins. Like both of those artists, he wanted to create an equivalent in paint of the basic unedited animal flesh of human beings. Like Eakins’ work, Freud’s paintings are expanded portraits of individuals. What is there in both Rembrandt’s work, and in Eakins’ work is a sense of tragedy. In Rembrandt, the tragedy is in the constant struggle between the flesh and spirit as they try and fail to come into agreement. In Eakins, there is the contrast between the great task at hand, and the frail mortal who must accomplish it. There is nothing like that in Freud’s work. Tragic drama, like the tenebrist lighting in both Rembrandt’s and Eakins’ painting, does not exist in Lucian Freud’s work.
Lucian Freud, Portrait of Harry Diamond
Lucian Freud, Man with a Dog
Lucian Freud, Large Interior; this painting was supposedly inspired by Watteau.
Lucian Freud, The Queen; Freud clearly was not meant to be a society portraitist.
The lighting is always the same basic chiaroscuro, and the faces on his subjects are usually flat and unrevealing. They are the expressions we would expect to find on people sitting for hours and days at a stretch while Freud paints them.
The point of view and the setting are usually the same from picture to picture: from above looking down, and in Freud’s own insistently dowdy studio with its floor boards, sink, and old ratty furniture.
Freud refused to use the word “nude” to describe his unclothed figures, and rightly so. “Nude” implies that the unclothed are on display, flaunting their unconcealed and unadorned glory for all to see. Freud’s figures are always naked; unclothed, vulnerable, and vaguely repulsive, even when his models really are young and attractive.
Lucian Freud, Blonde Nude
Lucian Freud, Naked Man with His Friend
In his later life, Freud preferred to paint large and ample models, most famously Leigh Bowery, the Australian performance artist.
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery
Lucian Freud painting Leigh Bowery
This reminds me of Rubens’ famous preference for ample women, but in many respects, Freud was the anti-Rubens. Rubens painted gloriously alluring flesh by the acre (something which must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, reproduction can’t do his work justice). Freud painted poxy fish-belly pale clammy flesh by the pound. Like Rubens, he painted it gloriously with heavy meaty strokes of impasto laden bristle brushes, and with a remarkably sure sense of color. It is almost always Caucasian and specifically British flesh, never exactly famous for golden clarity. I wonder if this same approach would have worked with a model of color.
Uncredited in many of the obituaries and eulogies of Freud’s passing was an artist who had a decisive impact on his work, Stanley Spencer, an artist not very well know outside of England or of Anglophile circles. Spencer was from rural England and his work was shaped by his experiences in World War I (in very ferocious fighting in Macedonia). Spencer’s public work was very deeply religious and nationalistic setting Biblical stories in contemporary and very specifically English settings. His private work was about the pain and frustration of his two joyless marriages. It was those private works --most famously the nude portrait of Spencer and his second wife with a leg of cold mutton-- that most deeply influenced Freud.
Stanley Spencer, "The Mutton Chop Nude"
Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, Cookham, this is much more typical of Spencer's work, especially his public work.
The very bland flat chiaroscuro, the cold unalluring realism, the deliberate distortions of scale and proportion that we find in Freud’s work are there in Spencer’s private work.
We can see all of it in a striking early work by Freud, from 1951 titled Interior at Paddington.
Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington
The potted palm has an amazingly palpable realism beyond the capacities of any photograph. The distorted proportions of the young man (his friend and fellow artist Harry Diamond) return us to the fictional world of art. As in his more famous later work, Freud worked for a long time on this picture, six months, and always requiring the model’s presence. This painting reminds us that Freud was making this kind of realism long before he became a celebrity.
After he became famous and celebrated, Freud was often paired with and compared to his friend and fellow painter Francis Bacon.
Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon
I suppose what they have in common is that they were both British figurative painters interested in getting to a certain reality behind appearances. Bacon’s approach was much more brutally dramatic, indebted in form and in spirit to Picasso. Bacon’s paintings are parodies of Christian narratives of redemptive suffering. Human beings and human flesh are chewed up in the meat grinder of history with no hope of a resurrection at the end.
There is no such Christian content in any of Freud’s works, because Freud was never a Christian. Freud’s approach to people is not nearly so ruthless, but then, it is hard to call it sympathetic. Perhaps what Freud was trying to do was to show the vulnerable reality of the human flesh in an age where such flesh is just another commodity to be displayed and sold to gratify desire on one end and make a profit on the other. And yet, that whole sense of common sympathy that makes the work of Rembrandt and Eakins so enduring in their appeal is entirely absent in Freud’s work. People always look a little battered and shell-shocked in Freud’s work, but we never get the sense that we are there with them in the trenches dodging the shrapnel. They always look remote from us, displayed like specimens on a glass slide. Their brute realism always insists upon itself. To me, they call to mind the photographer Richard Avedon’s insistently realistic photographs. They raise the question of just when does blunt uncompromising realism become itself a kind of affectation.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Now, he is unemployed, living off of his savings, and complaining about how little unemployment insurance pays.
The company that employed him for 20 years recently changed ownership, changed management, and decided that he, and a lot of his long time co-workers are now redundant.
Prayers for his welfare, and for his family.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
I'm watching the violence in Britain with growing alarm. It is very different from the political and social unrest in other parts of Europe. In Greece and in Spain, violence is mostly confined to confrontations between protesters (not all of whom are on the same page; Greek protesters complain about the presence of anarchists who charge the police and turn their protests into riots) and cops. Property damage and harm to bystanders is kept to a relative minimum as violence remains confined to areas around legislatures and major public squares.
In Britain, the violence appears to be just random mayhem springing up anywhere and everywhere. It appears to be not only anarchic, but nihilistic with rioters sometimes turning on each other. For example, there is this episode caught on camera where rioters in London at first appear to help another young man who has been injured, and then rob him:
I don't think you would see anything like this in Greece, and certainly not in Egypt or the rest of the Middle East (which is experiencing far worse violence, though theirs is much more clearly defined with people at war with their rulers). This looks more to me like Hobbes' idea of "the state of nature," the war of all against all, which is what makes it so frightening. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it.
To my eye, this looks less like an uprising (spontaneous or organized) of the poor than an outbreak by those who feel that they have nothing to lose, as well as nothing to gain. It looks like kids who have no prospects deciding to go out and help themselves to all that good life that dangles constantly in front of them, just out of reach. Also, I think that there is a large element of what a friend of mine calls "acute testosterone poisoning," a malady all too common in young men, that makes them forget all bounds of reason and decency.
The consequence of all the random violence is the destruction of the rioters' own neighborhoods. It is businesses and homes right where they live that suffer their rage, not the centers of power which remain well protected. It's their own neighbors, people just like them, who suffer all of the harm, not the police, not the government, not the establishment. People who are just as poor and alienated as they are bear the brunt of the rioters' rage.
That tendency of British authorities (religious and secular) to sound like irritated school masters when making public statements doesn't help matters. If anything these "we will find you and punish you" statements only make matters worse, and are primarily for potential voters. They only goad rioters who've never had much time for law into more lawlessness. The disconnect between the political leadership and the people actually suffering this violence appears in bold relief in this visit by London Mayor Boris Johnson to riot-torn Clapham:
And before us Yanks start getting too smug about all the trouble in England, remember that this could happen here, and the violence would probably by much worse since guns are as easy to buy as Coca Cola, and easier to buy than beer. As our economy goes down the toilet while both our legislators and our voters are consumed in ideological warfare, there is a rising population of people of all ages and types who find themselves completely shut out of both the economy and society. Ours is a country where poverty is de facto criminalized with all sorts of punitive fees, rules, penalties, disqualifications, and legislation, further alienating a growing class of the newly poor and the downwardly mobile. As the economy continues to go down like the Titanic, that population will get bigger and ever more restive. There's no reason why the kind of random nihilistic violence that we see in Britain now, where people turn on each other as well as on their society, can't happen here.
I continue to be amazed that in all the abstract talk about the need to balance government budgets in a time of high unemployment, no one seems to reckon with the social and political consequences of these policies. Indeed, the historical record is not encouraging from the USA under Herbert Hoover to Germany under Chancellor Heinrich Brünning, neither of whom saw any success, but saw much suffering with disastrous consequences from their fiscal policies. If any of these financial experts ever bothered to crack open a history book, they might not be so enthusiastic in telling already poor people to suck it up so the banks can get paid.
Hannah Arendt writes in her book On Revolution a whole chapter about uprisings by the poor and by those displaced in the upheavals of modern market economies. She describes their rage as like a force of nature that destroys everything in its path without distinction. She opens her chapter with this epigram by the French Revolutionary leader Saint Just:
Les malheureux sont la puissance de la terre.
Here is Giles Fraser's comment on the now famous video of the bloodied young man being robbed.
Monday, August 8, 2011
After basic training, he was stationed in Key West where he worked as an airplane mechanic taking apart scores of now redundant military surplus aircraft, everything from fighters to bombers. He loved the work, and came away with a lifelong love for the military planes from that era.
My father remembered his tour of duty in Key West in glowing terms. It was one of the happiest times of his life, and he talked about it for years. I remember all the old stories: about barracuda fishing; about the huge stingray pulled into a small wooden row boat that turned out to be not quite dead and thrashed about reducing the boat to splinters; about watching waterspouts in the distance dancing about on the water; about the amazing sunsets; about flying planes large and small.
While digging through accumulated family history in Dallas over the past few days, I discovered a trove of snapshots from that very period in my father's life. These were all small photographs taken on a cheap camera by my father, or by buddies or girlfriends.
My father out on leave; he's in the center wearing the sailor suit and surrounded by girls and buddies.
He took his camera with him on those many plane flights, and took a lot of pictures. He took this while riding in what appears to me to be a bomber.
This looks to me to be a massive sea plane. It appears as if he was leaning out of a window to take this picture.
He took a lot of pictures of the view. This appears to me to be downtown Miami in 1946 viewed from a plane.
I'm not sure, but I think this is Key West from the plane. That appears to be the base down in the lower left. I should point out that I've never been there, so I'm only speculating.
Sunset somewhere over the Keys in a plane.
A lot of these pictures were taken on leave. He took this picture somewhere down beneath the sheltering palms in Florida.
And here's a day at the beach somewhere in southern Florida.
Evidence from these photos (and from some other items we found) suggests that Dad was quite the ladies' man, and a much coveted item. This appears to have been taken by a buddy or another girl with his camera.
My father with friends on the beach.
Dad on the beach photographed by a buddy, or more likely, by a would-be girlfriend. He was only about 18 or 19 at the time.
He was reassigned sometime in 1947 to Texas A&M for some kind of training, and then honorably discharged in 1948. After that, he very reluctantly went to college, to SMU where he sweated through an undergraduate degree in engineering, bankrolled by a wealthy friend of the family. He barely graduated. His next adventure was in Colorado where in the early 1950s he helped his mother and step father build one of the first ski lodges in Aspen. And the stories started up again.