Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Old School

A couple nights ago, as part of my long penitential march through Michael Haneke, I watched Benny's Video, and was reminded of an incident from my high school days.  This is one of those things that, looking back on it, I can hardly believe it actually happened -- that it wasn't just a dream I had.  Like the time I was flipping through channels of German television around Christmas time in 1990, and stumbled across a show titled "King Size Dick singt Weihnachtslieder."  Until I had the internet to back me up, I spent a few years mistrusting my memory -- did that really happen?

Here's what happened: I was in a "U.S. Government"class that every student was required to take in their senior year.  As usual for these classes in which everyone is thrown together haphazardly, the thing had the feel of a gym class -- the buzz of low levels of aggressive annoyance from a bunch of students who really didn't want to be there.  It was taught at a low enough level that anyone could understand the material, which made it tedious for most, and deadly dull for everyone.  The teacher was a recycled Driver's Ed guy who, like us, really didn't care about the material.  What he did care about was showing movies during class, which meant less hassle for all concerned.

The Incident involved a particular one of these films -- a movie on the women's suffrage movement that we were watching one day, which was actually pretty interesting -- lots of original footage.  One of the more colorful (and by "colorful" I mean, inter alia, "bomb-throwing") figures of the movement in the UK was Emily Davison, who was killed by the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, as she sprung out in front of the racers as part of a suffragette protest.  Her death was captured on film, and was part of the movie we were watching in class.  When we got to the part where she jumped onto the track and was cut down by the horse, the teacher quickly jumped up and stopped the film.  He then turned to the class and said -- "Ok, everybody -- want to see that AGAIN?"  At which the other students all yelled "YEAHHHH!"  So he rewound the film, and once again played the footage of Emily Davison's death -- this time with the class cheering and clapping as she dashed onto the track, was crushed by the horse, and fell, mortally wounded.  I just put my head down on the desk -- all I could muster by way of feeble protest.

I still remember watching it unfold as if in a dream -- as if it never really happened.  I thought of it when my high school class had its 25th reunion last month.

The jockey whose horse killed Emily Davison was "haunted by that woman's face," and committed suicide years later.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Not here the darkness, in this twittering world

140 characters is goddamned few, and the worst thing is that it tempts you (me) into "cleverness."  How many times have I tried to tweet some thought or other, and then swerved aside into whatever formulation seemed witty at the moment?  When I first was learning to speak German, I went through an interesting period when I was limited to the truth: I didn't yet know enough of the language to think I could try to defend myself with subtexts and shades of meaning.  I had my handful of substantives and a few rudimentary ideas about verb tenses, and from this I had to construct my social world.  It was bracing, and though I would like to say I learned a lot from this time in my life, and now I'm a new person, more in touch with my authentic self, PLUS I also speak German, it's probably not the case.   It was just a thing that happened, and this is now -- back to the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.  Back to Angelus Novus, watching the warped meanings and inauthenticity, wreckage upon wreckage piling up as one struggles to express oneself, to say even one moderately true thing.

But this is my own fault for not having paid enough attention in deconstruction class.  Or maybe I paid too much attention.  "Don't overthink it, now!" the marvelous Julie Snow used to say to me.  I didn't, or maybe I did, but now I use words as machines to build mechanical clocks where the cuckoos pop out and show you your friends, your pornography, or what you think you think of yourself.  It's a living!

[And in my spare hours I construct subtexts and double meanings, machines that live below the surface, and that rushing you hear might be the steam and the pistons and the fire underfoot, or only the wind through the grass.  I shoot cannonballs disguised as clouds, or maybe the other way around.]

In conclusion, let me conclude that I like to tweet, love to tweet, that I was born to tweet, etc. -- but, dear reader, may I confess?  The only reason I'm saying this is because it's a nice little twist on a quote from the end of Philosophy in the Bedroom  -- did you recognize it?  Aren't we clever?  Because actually, I don't feel that strongly about tweeting, nor that I was born to tweet.  Perhaps I should have left the original quote unaltered.  I don't have the French version memorized.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On a Savage Encountering Netflix for the First Time

Attention must finally be paid!  Out of my cave (or perhaps back into it, to watch the shadows flicker on the wall), being so over the local library's meager offerings, and too chicken to torrent, I've decided to enter the wonderland of Netflix.  

Initial reaction: O joy! My opinion is desired! I will discover my authentic identity, just like in a Cosmo quiz! I immediately dived in and started hurling thunderbolts right and left.  Sucked! Awesome! Indifferent! ...but then, I started wavering.  For example, I really thought "Memento" was boring.  It would have made a great short story, but -- watching the trick play out over full movie length was like watching a ball fall through a pachinko machine.  A neat trick, but the whole story was just logically determined by the beginning -- there were really no surprises, and I didn't feel like the movie had a heart.  On the other hand -- lots of people whose opinion I value (perhaps you, dear reader?) really liked this movie.  If I rate it "2" (my inclination), will I deprive myself of the opinion of Memento-lovers in whose other clusters I would dearly like to be included?   Or how about my deep-rooted love for "Smokey and the Bandit," or "Animal House?" Dare I confess it to Netflix, or will it constantly tease me: "Hey, check out 'Porky's II' -- you like that kind of crap, right? Heh heh heh..."

Despite my misgivings, I was brutally honest -- Netflix had become my therapist, and I wasn't going to hold anything back --otherwise, how could it reveal my True Desires?

So, having rated 120 movies, and already streamed 2 (Aimée &  Jaguar, A Brief Encounter), here's a sampling of what Netflix thinks I should watch:

The Return (2003)
The Sheltering Sky (1990)
Double Indemnity
All About Eve
Raising Arizona (which I dearly love -- good guess!)
The Squid and the Whale
Fighter (2001)

All delightful, I'm sure -- but as one who has been acquainted with the vagaries of machine learning clustering algorithms, I still prefer the human touch.  Indeed, there is a list waiting for me elsewhere, compiled by someone who knows me mainly through the briefest of 140-character flashes of myself upon the virtual wall -- but who has deftly made of the scattershot glimpses a sensitive zoetrope of my inclinations, and seems to see quite clearly which way the horse is running...

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I saw a bullfight once, in Barcelona.  I went with a group of German architecture students.  They all bought seats in the cheapest area -- I paid extra to sit down with the elderly Spanish men, and took my sketchbook.  I really wanted to see what it was like.  There were six bulls, as usual.  The first bull came out angry, charging, and took down a picador with his horse.  But he had no chance -- a bullfight is really no fight at all, just elegant slaughter, as the bull is at first bled out by picadors and banderilleros, and then finally murdered by the matador with a lights-out thrust to the neck.  There is a lot of blood as the bull is lanced; his body is drenched in red, and he's staggering and slowed by the time the matador appears.  You don't want a man to die, but it seems unfair.  This fight proceeded as expected, and ended with more blood in the ring, as the bull's body was dragged out across the sand. 

The architecture students were all green, nauseated, and heading for the exit; I grabbed a sausage, and went back down to watch the rest of the corrida, a bit unsettled because I was in a sense fascinated rather than viscerally repelled.

I don't think I have anything fundamentally new to say about the ritualized killing of bulls for pleasure.  I have my own feelings, which tend to favor the primitive and passionate, and I see the corrida as part of an essential human wildness, and I like that.  But I also have nothing but sympathy for the bloodied beast, teased into mindless rage, murdered for the pleasure of the crowd.  The corrida drags me in both directions at once, holds me suspended in pity, rage, and pleasure, with no clear exit...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Everybody Dies

I first heard The Ladies Who Lunch in about 1979, when I rented the LP of Sondheim's "Company" from the Rock Island Public Library (though back then, "Barcelona" was my favorite piece, because I could just about follow the story -- alcohol-fueled late-life cynicism is not so accessible to a 12-yr-old).  But today, for the very first time, I realized that the key line at the end of LWL isn't "everybody does", but "everybody DIES." So the lines are:

Look into their eyes
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.

Dear Sondheim -- I want to cry when I think about how you scored this.  Yes, my panties are in a bunch!  Why on earth did you put "dies" at the climax of a transitional line -- that's not even transitioning to bigger, but to smaller ("A toast to that invincible bunch / The dinosaurs surviving the crunch")?  In fact, this whole fucking final stanza is denouement -- the center of the song is OBVIOUSLY the one right before it -- "Another reason not to move, Another vodka stinger" is the heart, and the drunken, wrenching "aaaaahhh" that follows it is the soul.  You can't just throw "You'll see what they know: Everybody dies" in afterwards like that.  Say, fellows, I have an idea!  How about if after the Titanic sinks, a goddamn giant narwhal comes and spikes all the drowning Irishmen on his unihorn?   After Hamlet dies, why don't we have Fortinbras come in and set fire to the fucking castle?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

du coq-a-l'ane

I remember a lot about Gravity's Rainbow, which I read twice, but (why "but?" why not "and?") most of what I remember is pornographic.  Or quaint: 

Down the toilet, look at me
What a silly thing to do!
Hope nobody takes a pee
Yippee dippy doo.

That was from decades-old memory, so certainly error-riddled; don't go quoting me.  Hell, don't bother with Pynchon any more -- have you seen what's going on at the amateur porn sites like xtube?  I'm not talking about the videos -- I mean the communities coming together in the margins.  (Heh.)  Cocksmen strut and wag, and then have little chats with their viewers in asides, in which all boundaries of sex, age, and beauty are disregarded; the leatherbear with trussed-up balls is wildly cheered by his fellow burlies and the definitely-not-his-ilk lady watchers alike -- and he responds appreciatively to each in turn.  Sometimes suggestions (as to sound, camera position, technique) are traded, and worked into future opera.  The atmosphere tends to be enthusiastic (indeed, much more so than most other parts of the web), generous, and non-give-a-fuck-ish -- I'm guessing like a pre-HIV bathhouse, but, honestly, I have no idea.  It seems to be something entirely new;  a real queering afoot.  I feel like a late Victorian confronted with the first village telephone: I sense the earth moving under my feet, but I don't know what direction it's headed.  

For one thing -- who *are* any of these people (I mean the community of watchers, mainly)?  Avatar pics represent something or other -- the person's fascination or hiding place -- but talk about displacement.  This isn't technische Reproduzierbarkeit -- it's fucking the machine, through the machine, as the machine.  Which isn't news.  But who knew that it would seem so playful?  Like a bunch of bonobos -- more campy than dystopic, really.  So far.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thirteen ways of looking at May 6th, 2010


Radiohead -- Faust Arp


In the machine learning class at G today, we watched a video by DPC on the basics -- modeling documents as vectors of word occurrences (with one dimension per word -- meaning an unvisualizable number of dimensions).  Reducing a document to a bag of words always seems so deeply wrong -- like technical stock market forecasting.  Even if it works for some set of problems, you're throwing away so much feels like a Ptolemaic model, like a fundamentally flawed, inelegant system.



1 potato
several organic carrots
a jar of minced garlic


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


I had thought that June 5th was going to be pretty tough on my embouchure, playing for eight hours during the day in a chamber music workshop.  But today I signed on to sub for a bassoonist in an orchestra above my level that's playing a concert the night of the 5th.


Amon Tobin -- Verbal


When I was a child, I was afraid of this movie -- my dad had the soundtrack, and the chaos, insistent rhythm and wild wailing in the opening track terrified me.  I could hardly look at the album cover, I was so frightened.  Then when I was in my twenties, I finally saw it (on ARD, I think) -- and I really loved it.  I bought the soundtrack on CD.  But now that I've read Obama's criticism of it in his biography (his mother liked it, and O rightly nails the naive primitivism) I'm kind of embarrassed about liking it.  But I love it.


How long does it take to bake a fucking potato?  Jesus Christ!



Why is online chatter so snarky?  Is it that the absence of human aura drives a violent free-for-all, along with the abandonment of the primate rituals of hierarchy and conciliation that evolved over the millenia to protect us from one another?  Is snark violence by other means?  Or is it the natural currency of the hyper-democratic online society, in which 14-year-olds jostle with bankers and blogger moms for attention?


The FAQ on the "Hells Angels" website uses the word "metonym" three times.


Bebel Gilberto -- Samba e Amor

Monday, May 3, 2010

Miniver Cheevy

We are having a team outing to "Iron Man 2" on Friday.  I looked up reviews and decided to read Anthony Lane, who tends to put the "too" in "too clever by half," but rarely is dull.  His review of IM2 was paired with one of "The Duel," a Chekov story that I've always found compelling and unsettling because it cuts too close to the bone -- like an Iris Murdoch novel.

...the team outing to IM2 is, I am given to understand, entirely voluntary.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Gyulchatai, show your sweet face"

In honor of C., who is single-tweetedly responsible for the reawakening of PT, I devote this post to my favorite Soviet film -- Белое солнце пустыни -- which is available in its entirety on google videos (though you'll have to bring your Russian phrasebook, as subtitles are Not Included). Now -- time to blast off!