She also explains why one character is suddenly shown hanging dead from a tree: "The cat committed suicide over the shame of not knowing to put soy sauce on his omelet as well as his fried eggs." (Which is kind of a cliché, don't you think?)
All of this is nice to know, but I have to admit it lowers rather than boosts my appreciation for the film. I preferred it when it was completely incomprehensible -- an inscrutable Eastern mystery, if you will. I suppose that makes me an Orientalist.
Fortunately, my world faces no shortage of inscrutable mysteries, and not just from the Far East. In a couple of hours, we're supposed to catch a plane to Texas. I've studied our tickets good and hard, and I still don't see how we're going to get from Baltimore to Houston via Newark.
DYLAN UPDATE: Rob Fagerlund reports that when he saw Bob Dylan play in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago, the concert began with the same bizarre introduction I described on Saturday. In fact, though he isn't completely sure, Rob thinks it may have been a member of the band who read it.
Brian Doherty, who saw Dylan three nights in a row this year in Los Angeles, informs me that the intro has been "the standard one on this tour, used as a self-deprecating joke." It was apparently derived, perhaps verbatim, from something a rock critic wrote about the singer last year. He adds: "It's a recording, of course, and I don't think the voice is anyone in the band -- just some pro announcer type. I might be wrong."
I'm glad to hear it's probably a deliberate joke. I never bought the theory that Dylan has lost his sense of humor, and am happy to see more evidence for my opinion.
WHAT LIES BENEATH: Stephen "VodkaPundit" Green doesn't care for something I wrote about Iraq. This is to be expected: If there's a great big issue that Green and I disagree about, it's the wisdom of this pending war. So he describes my little rant as "snide," which is accurate; as "willfully ignorant," which is not accurate (if nothing else, I wasn't being willful about it); and as "misleading," which may or may not be accurate. That is: I don't think it's misleading, and while I may be wrong about that, Stephen hasn't yet explained just what was screwy about what I wrote.
He goes off the deep end, though, when he says that my piece was "beneath" me. I'm a journalist, Steve. No writing is beneath me. Take away my salary and I'll write pretty much anything to pay the bills: porno scripts, Bazooka Joe comics, football players' English homework. I've got a friend in L.A. who once had a job writing little poems for the tags they stick on teddy bears. And you know what? I think that's cool.
Beneath me? Good God, man, I once wrote a country-western song about a bowel movement. It rhymed "profane intentions" with "propane intestines." And you think my squib about Iraq was low?
From urban archeology to urban ecology: In Saturday's New York Times, there's a fascinating article about botanists' and zoologists' newfound interest in city environments. "Until recently," writes reporter Alexander Stille, "the only real environments thought worth studying were in 'pristine' nature, remote areas as far as possible from the footprint of human beings. Cities, by contrast, were seen as unnatural, nonenvironments, whose parks and gardens, ornamental plants and scraggly sidewalk trees and weeds were of as little interest to ecologists as house cats and lap dogs are to big game hunters." In the last 25 years, though, those assumptions were shaken by the discovery that "virtually all 'pristine' environments bore clear signs of human intervention: fires, the hunting of animals, the harvesting of plants, herbs, nuts or fruits." Meanwhile, cities contain much more biodiversity than previously assumed, undermining the conventional wisdom on everything from urban planning to invasive species.
The debate is over just how homogenous and consolidated radio has become, with the NAB attacking a critical study by the Future of Music Coalition before the report was even released. Now the coalition is firing back, with a point-by-point response that leaves most of the broadcasters' case in tatters. For those of us who've seen our fill of industry proclamations that format diversity is at an all-time high, the coalition's most salient observation may be this: "All the studies cited by the NAB equate variety of formats with diversity of programming. This approach overlooks the major issue of format homogeneity -- the overlap between formats. These NAB-cited reports do not recognize that slicing and dicing the same songs over and over again does not increase diversity."
The debate has one drawback: both sides persist in describing the current radio landscape as "deregulated," as though the only rules that mattered were the limits on station ownership that have been lifted in the last decade. Seems to me there's a few more laws to be addressed. Real deregulation would take a scalpel to the legal entry barriers that protect the incumbent industry.
"Although I suppose my piece could be read as putting Hanson and Bellesiles on the 'same scale,' that wasn't what I meant. I don't think Hanson ever makes stuff up, but rather that he cherry picks.
"And sure, Thucydides made up the speeches. But when he says that Cleon is 'the most violent man in Athens,' it's hard for me to envision that is meant to be read as, 'So you should follow the advice I'm putting in his mouth.'"
IN DEFENSE OF HANSON: Evan McElravy, whose binational weblog is worth reading regularly, writes: "Although I would say that Callahan gets a few reasonable points in (like Hanson quoting from both the Spartan and Athenian position without making it altogether clear that he's doing so), to be fair to Hanson, that's not much of a distortion, let alone on a Bellesilian scale. Greek historians in fact tended to make up the speeches they attribute to others, and although Thucydides was probably less fanciful than Herodotus, the speeches substantially represent his own feelings on the events, his particular feelings for Pericles for instance. Hanson is a classicist, not a historian, and is no doubt used to referring simply to 'Thucydides' as all classicists (and ancient historians) tend to do."
I grant the point about the Bellesilian scale. I don't buy the idea, though, that Hanson was "referring simply to 'Thucydides'" in the classicists' manner. Hanson's article took the form of a mock interview with the Greek writer, in which his words were clearly assigned to the historian himself, not to "Thucydides" as a matrix of views embraced by the historian or as a shorthand term for a text. That's a distortion, and Callahan was right to call Hanson on it.
DOMESTIC PROCEDURAL: Last week in Slate, Michael Kinsley revealed a fascinating discovery: Around the country, high-achieving women are tuning in to Law & Order reruns, at times watching them back-to-back, despite the sometimes substantial derision of their mates. I just described this as "fascinating," but a better word might be "reassuring": it tells me that my household is not unique. Apparently, R.'s strange fondness for this show, an affection which allows her to spend time unwinding even in front of episodes she's seen before, is not unique to her; and neither, apparently, is my general distaste for the series. At last I understand that I'm-not-alone feeling that other people must join 12-step programs or alt.sex.sockpuppets to enjoy.
Not that I hate the show, you understand. Indeed, having been forced to watch so many more episodes than I ever would have viewed on my own, I've been forced to concede that it has some things going for it. Oh, sure: the plots are formulaic (quarter past the hour -- time to arrest the red herring), Jerry Orbach's wisecracks are invariably dumb, the acting is somehow both too flat and too mannered, and the Ripped From The Headlines! conceit apparently derives from the belief that all it takes to explore the events of the day is to plagiarize them. But Fred Thompson is amusing as the new district attorney, Jesse Martin is occasionally allowed to shine in his sidekick role, and every now and then an episode will dispense with the formula and actually engage in some creative plotting. In the meantime, we've both grown fond of one of the L&O spinoffs, Special Victims Unit, which boasts both better writing and better acting, though it still has those annoying scenes in which every member of the cast crowds onto the screen and takes turns hyper-competently explaining the state of the investigation to their superior officer, who then chimes in with his own brief paragraph of information, leaving one to wonder just who was getting briefed.
But at bottom, I don't care for Law & Order, and she does. Each Wednesday night, we debate what to watch at 10, Sam Waterston or South Park, before returning to domestic comity when it comes time for The Daily Show. Until now, I thought this disagreement was unusual (unlike most of our recurring debates, such as the proper placement of used bathroom towels or the proper apportionment of blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I assume are rehearsed by couples everywhere). Now I learn that we're part of a social trend.
Footnote: R. asks me to add that she likes the show "because it engages you for an hour, and then you don't have to think about it anymore. Why are you blogging now, anyway? Law & Order is on."
YET MORE SELF-PROMOTION: The new issue of Cool and Strange Music -- the one with Les Paul on the cover -- includes a piece I wrote on "fake" Middle Eastern music. Unfortunately, due to some sort of editing snafu, the first two sentences of the article are missing. I offer the proper opening paragraph here, in hopes that it will move you to visit your local music-store newsstand and read the rest:
"There is a barely clad belly-dancer on the cover, her right arm raised as though beckoning the record-store browser, though on closer examination she appears merely to be playing a pair of finger-cymbals. Below the album's title -- The Music of Port Said -- we are promised 'Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East captured in High Fidelity.' The exotic rhythms are attributed to Mohammed El-Sulieman and his Oriental Ensemble, though on the record itself the artist's name has transmorphed into 'Hassan the Assassin.' The title, too, is different on the actual record: Port Said forgotten, it is now Music of the Middle East."
MORAL EQUIVALENCE?: The headline to this Australian ITarticle is misleading: to judge from the actual quotations in the piece, Star Wars producer Rick McCallum did not say that movie piracy is "like terrorism." He did, however, say that we need "as concentrated an international event as the war on terrorism" to fight media pirates, which I suppose means that China and Gnutella should be granted seats in the axis of evil.
You'll note, incidentally, that Al Qaeda doesn't seem to charge for those Osama tapes. I wonder what their business model is...
RAINBOW STEW: In his syndicated column this week, Alexander Cockburn raises a familiar topic: an antiwar alliance of left and right. He brings it up in an unusual context, though: in the wake of his last Merle Haggard concert. Hag has been speaking disapprovingly of John Ashcroft and other dark Washington forces on this tour, and Cockburn thinks he sees a possibility of alliance. "Merle's political positions have evolved somewhat since the late Sixties," he writes. "There's a slab of the Right that's denouncing America's imperial wars. That wasn't happening in the early Sixties. If the Left could ever reach out to this Right, which it's almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we'd have something."
Has Merle really changed? Yes -- but he didn't have to change all that much. It's not so hard to imagine a bridge between at least some of the leftists who launched the '60s and the Haggard who sang "Okie from Muskogee." One link would be Woody Guthrie, who's up there with Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Lefty Frizzell in Hag's personal pantheon. It's no surprise that Haggard sang about an "Okie" from Muskogee, even if the message of that song was a little distant from Guthrie's "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." (These days fans argue over whether "Muskogee" was meant as a joke or as a serious bit of hippie-bashing. I've always taken it as a dramatic monologue, sung from the view of a character Haggard likes but who isn't necessarily himself. As he once told an interviewer, "Son, Muskogee's just about the only place I don't smoke it.")
As for "Fightin' Side of Me," the song says quite directly, "I don't mind them switchin' sides and standin' up for things that they believe in." What roused his ire was something else: "When they're runnin' down my country, hoss, they're walkin' on the fightin' side of me." Not a bad distinction, and one that a lot of people, left and right, don't seem able to learn. (Granted, the same song includes this bit: "I read about some squirrely guy who claims that he just don't believe in fightin'/And I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on bein' free.")
Guthrie's influence suffused Haggard's output during this period. His albums were filled with terrific songs about dust bowl refugees and their latter-day successors -- from "If We Make It Through December," about a laid-off worker who can't afford Christmas, to "Working Man Blues," which might have appealed to a Wallace voter in Michigan, to "Irma Jackson," an interracial love story that the Wallace voter would've liked somewhat less. In the last decade, he's chatted up interviewers with militia-style conspiracy theories about foreign troops on U.S. soil, even while happily posing on the cover of a hemp-oriented magazine. If Haggard embodies American crossover populism today, it's because he's been doing it all his life.
Not a bad credit for someone who's also the best bandleader in current country music, one of the finest singers in American pop, and, along with Bob Dylan and Ray Davies, one of the three greatest songwriters of the last century.
Footnote: Left-right cooperation still has a ways to go. A few months ago, Haggard posted a note on his website saying he'd like to host his own radio show. "Not everything can be set to music," he wrote. "If anyone cares to respond or help me in my endeavors, please email me." I passed this along to some friends at a certain leftist radio network, mentioning that "a Pacifica that gave Merle Haggard a talk show would be a Pacifica to be proud of." Never heard back about that.
According to the performer's dismissal letter, such comments "are not in keeping with our very clear standards for a first-class oriented environment." In academic economics, the technical term for this is corporate prissiness. I only hope we can keep it from infecting the rest of the city, lest we find ourselves living in some ugly combination of Canada and Singapore.
ANNOTATING BRAKHAGE: Sunday I commented that "a film shouldn't require an external annotation to have its effect." Now Little Fyodor writes to object. "Why not?" he asks. "I'd dare say it's rather arbitrary and constraining to insist that any work of art CANNOT be enhanced by information outsided the direct experience."
I agree. Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of a film that couldn't be "enhanced by information outside the direct experience." But it shouldn't require such information, and I think the work in question, Stan Brakhage's Self Song & Death Song, does just that. This film doesn't have any impact unless you know what you're looking at, and I didn't know what I was looking at until I read the program notes.
Fyodor goes on to relate an anecdote about the director. "Back in the '80s, I hung with a crowd that was in with Brakhage, and so I sometimes attended get togethers at his domicile where he would show films and accept the worship of his followers. One film of his that he showed he introduced by saying that it depicted the history of England. It turned out to be brief, blurry images of some castle or somesuch in England interspersed with periods of blackness that lasted longer than the blurry images. Now, I hate it when people dismiss something 'weird' out of hand, but suffice to say I found myself no more edified on the history of England after this viewing!
"Probably the best part of the experience was hearing Stan describe how people on the street in England where he shot this film came over to ask him if he were okay, due to the way he was leaning over at various angles while shooting. Now THAT was charming!"
So does Stan Brakhage, though I like him enough that I drove to Washington today to watch two back-to-back programs of his films. Just as I never really appreciated Peter Greenaway's movies until I stopped thinking of him as a storyteller and started regarding him as a painter, I never really understood Brakhage until I stopped regarding him as a painter -- even though he sometimes eschews photography altogether and paints directly onto the celluloid -- and started thinking of him as a documentarian. Sometimes the connection is obvious: The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, an unflinchingly graphic half-hour of autopsy footage, is clearly a documentary, though it eventually transcends that category, achieving a sort of snuff poetry. But even his purely abstract films are inspired by such familiar phenomena as the strange dance of light on the inside of one's eyelids. One of his life's obsessions is finding ways to present such universal yet rarely articulated visions on film. "Imagine an eye un-ruled by man-made laws of perspective," Brakhage wrote in a 1963 essay that is, conveniently, quoted on the cover of the afternoon's program notes: "an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure in perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of 'green'?"
Sometimes this works for me: I loved the dancing colors of Interpolations I–V, though I don't have the vocabulary to explain why. More often, I was diverted but not engaged: Abstract impressionism isn't usually my cup of tea, even when it's animated onscreen. Brakhage's photographed films also blow hot and cold for me: The Act of Seeing... is a difficult but rewarding experience, for example, while Self Song & Death Song simply mystified me until I read the program notes' explanation of what I was seeing. A film shouldn't require an external annotation to have its effect.
Meanwhile, December's print edition of Reason is now out. I don't have any feature-length articles in it, but I do have two short items in the "Citings" section, one on anarchistic parallel institutions in Argentina and one on the movement of private enterprise into outer space.
While I'm at it: I added a new post this afternoon to the antiwar weblog Stand Down. And one of my older columns has just been reprinted by the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing.
I can't say that the program was entirely free of underground-film clichés or that every movie they showed was worth watching. But most of them had merit, and some of them were excellent; only one came close to violating my Screensaver Rule. ("In order to be taken seriously, an experimental film must show more craft, and be less predictable, than a screensaver.") I attribute this high batting average to the MicroCineFest's admirable aesthetic: They like films that challenge audiences, but not ones that ignore them.
* Infomercial Aesthetics: My favorite film of the evening, directed by Daniel Martinico. From the program notes: "Built entirely from the eerie debris of late night television advertising, this piece takes multiple fragments from a week's worth of infomercials and pushes them together into a desperate video remix." Pointed, hilarious, and disturbingly catchy.
* Composition in Red & Yellow: My girlfriend's favorite film of the evening, directed by Roger Beebe. A Super 8 tribute to McDonald's, in road-film format, presented to the tune of "Hands Across America." Funny stuff, though I still can't forgive Beebe for getting that awful song stuck in my head for the next two days.
* Kinetic Sandwich: The crowd's favorite, from local filmmaker Eric Dyer. I'm sick of quoting the program notes, so I'll quote the Baltimore City Paperinstead: "...rips the lid off the standard American midday meal, one layer at a time. The result makes visual poetry out of the same-old, same-old white bread, lettuce, tomato, and lunch meat. As Dyer's camera burrows through the ingredients, it catches folds of iceberg curling and unfurling with dancelike grace. Seedy tomato interiors come alive and writhe while Swiss cheese bubbles like a pot of boiling pea soup. In the less-than-three-minute video's most memorable sequence, Dyer even makes olive loaf sing."
* To Hug You and Squeeze You: Wago Kreider's short is a cinematic cut-up, splicing animal footage into a home movie of a wedding, while the audio track mixes two stories of -- to quote the program notes again -- "the doomed marriage of a Hollywood starlet and an African prince." It may sound like a dry formalist experiment, but it was actually one of the most compelling films of the night.
* Kerry May: Here's a rarity for you: an avant-garde feminist film with a sense of humor. And I mean actual wit, not just self-congratulatory jokebots. Made with considerable craft by one Christina Vantzos, on a very low budget of just $7.
I could spend time dissecting the films I liked the least, too, but for now, I prefer to praise.
"This track starts off like a New Orleans funeral parade, but is interrupted by the bizarre West Indian, Clarence Babcock, who demands an order of chitlins, annoying Louis, who accuses him of interrupting his solo! Babcock's culinary needs satisfied, Louis goes on a rampage, cutting and dicing everything in his path, until he surrenders the last word to Babcock who, as far as I know, never appeared on another record."