Fellini’s “Roma” is filled with many magical and poignant scenes. One that particularly resonates with me is the scene in which excavation for a new subway extension has been stopped because workers have discovered an underground chamber containing miraculously preserved Roman wall paintings from twenty centuries earlier.

An expert is called in. She turns on her flashlight and gasps in awe to see the murals in all of their vibrant beauty. A moment later, a gust of wind comes through the newly opened chamber, blowing the ancient paint right off the walls like dust. In seconds, the magnificent artwork, only just now glimpsed, vanishes forever before her horrified eyes.

It has occurred to me that this theme, of a sublime work of art only briefly glimpsed before it is lost forever, recurs in various ways throughout literature. One of my favorite examples is from one of the Isaac Asimov short robot stories, in which the robot servant of a pianist, wishing to please his master, sits down at the piano to play a piece the musician had been struggling with.

The robot ends up playing the piece with enormous subtlety and feeling. When it is finished the musician is weeping from the beauty of the robot’s performance, which was by far the greatest and most moving piano performance that the musician has ever heard. The robot explains that the performance was simply a matter of studying the mapping from emotion to sound that is employed by humans through music, and recreating that mapping.

The musician begs the robot to play another piece, but the robot declines, explaining that it will never again play the piano. Its reasoning? It has computed that the existence of a machine able to play music with such depth of feeling would be harmful to humans, by causing them to doubt the importance of their own musical intuitions and emotions. To protect its human masters, the robot has calculated that it must never again demonstrate such facility with emulating human emotion.

When he is told this news, the musician is devastated. He has just heard the most beautiful musical performance of his life, and he is being told that he can never hear such a performance again. In a sense he is just like the woman in Fellini’s “Roma”. Their very act of observing perfect beauty – a kind of forbidden perfect beauty – leads to its loss.

Perhaps both scenes are so poignant because they are metaphors for life itself. Beauty, art, music, emotional connection – all of the magnificent experiences in life – are at the mercy of a sudden gust of wind, of being blown away like dust. Life, with all its many treasures, contains the seeds of its own destruction, and so its enjoyment must inevitably be bittersweet.

Art appreciation

The first time I was ever in Madrid, when I was much younger, I went to the Museo del Prado – which contains a great collection of art from the 12th century to the 19th century. I found the art to be inspiring, passionate, powerful, but most of it didn’t speak to me. At the time I was more interested in modern and non-representational art, so I was probably not the best audience for this amazing collection, at least at that particular time in my life.

As my friend wandered around the galleries, enjoying herself immensely, I found myself looking around for one work that would really inspire me on a visceral level. No luck, until I came upon a small abstract piece – unusual in that museum of representational art – that seemed different from the rest of the work. It was relatively small, with an unadorned frame. There were fascinating motifs of lines and rectangles, the one juxtaposed upon the other in a kind of visual music.

My eye was instantly drawn to this piece, and I found myself following its forms and patterns, trying to decypher its deeper meaning. There was a small explanation in Spanish beside it, but I did not yet speak enough Spanish to be able to translate properly. I decided to call over my friend so that she could tell me who the artist was, and perhaps something about his/her intent.

Just as I was about to call her over, the meaning of this fascinating image suddenly became clear to me, as though I were seeing a kind of double image. It was the sign – presumably posted by law – to show you the locations of the fire exits. Oops.

I went back to rejoin my art-loving friend, looking back over my shoulder ruefully, with somewhat mixed emotions. I opted not to share with her my somewhat awkward experience with art appreciation.

Perhaps I should have.

Rupert Brooke

There are snatches of poetry – not entire poems, but rather phrases out of poems – that seem to have the power to yank us from our daily selves, to recenter us, as we find ourselves contemplating their power. These snippets can turn up anywhere, such as in Arthur O’shaughnessy’s 1874 poem “Ode”, with its famous lines “We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams”.

Many people only know this as the line quoted by Gene Wilder in the 1972 “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Taken in isolation, these words have a visceral power that sadly vanishes when the poem is considered in its entirety. But hearing just these lines, rather than the entire poem, one is free to imagine that the rest is just as powerful as this little snippet. It’s kind of like hearing only random phrases of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”. As long as you don’t hear the actual words in their entirety, you can convince yourself that there is something profound going on.

I have similar feelings toward the opening lines of Rupert Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” – written when he was a young volunteer soldier at the front in WWI, shortly before he was killed in battle. The poem itself is no great shakes, but it does start off with the following immortal lines:

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

I’m not even British, and yet reading these lines makes me want to rush over to London to defend country and Queen. This is seriously powerful stuff. It’s a shame that the rest of the poem (you could look it up) doesn’t rise to the same immortal standard.

Perforations for postage stamps

Once, when I was a child, I picked up an old issue of “Walt Disney Magazine”, while my dad was filling up his Dodge Dart with gas at a neighorhood filling station. This magazine has probably been out of print for years by now. I remember nothing at all from the issue except for the following piece of trivia, which I suspect was written just for fun, apropos of nothing:

“In 1968 alone, eight tons of paper were wasted by the United States Postal Service on perforations for postage stamps.”

I have no reason to doubt this statement. It seems perfectly reasonable to me in every way. But what I admired about it then, and still admire about it now, is its pure triviality. In a world awash with useless facts, there is something almost poetically pure about holding onto this one.

For reasons that I cannot quite explain on any pure rational basis, but which I find deeply satisfying on an emotional level, I have treasured this little factoid for all these years. And so, as a child, I committed it to memory, word for word.

I’m sure that at one time, millions of kids across America read this very same statement in the very same issue of “Walt Disney Magazine”. For all I know, some may remember it still. Others may feel only a vague stirring, some inchoate sense of nostalgia and undefined longing, whenever they lick a postage stamp, without ever quite knowing why. Over time this eccentric little factoid has undoubtedly faded from the collective memory.

But I remember it all exactly – the time and place where I first read it – at a gas station in the back seat of our family car. It has stayed with me all of these years – a pure, useless, and oddly delightful bit of mental detail. Until now that is, when at last I share it with you, and so release it back into the world.


I really wanted to like “Terminator Salvation”. Really. I was sitting in the theatre with two fellow Sci-Fi buffs and I had fond memories of the first two flicks. I had even voluntarily taken a memory wipe to remove all traces of the horribly incompetent third film from my brain (I would tell you where to go to get this valuable operation done, but that seems to be one of the memories they removed during the memory wipe).

For the first half hour of the movie I held on, trying to enjoy it, telling myself that Christian Bale’s monotonic schizoid portrayal had some purpose. I found myself inventing back stories for characters, filling in explanatory scenes in my head to explain motivation and relationships. I kept trying to see the much better movie that it could have been, if only director McG had shown the slightest interest in something other than very fast moving things blowing up.

And then at some point something in my mind snapped, and I realized that I was just waiting it out, that the only saving grace of the experience was the certain knowledge that in less than an hour the movie would be over.

Looking back on it now, I’m still trying to figure out why anybody would put so much money and effort into making a movie that had no real sympathetic characters. The one half-hearted attempt at romance was telegraphed so clunkily that the audience was denied any pleasure of discovery. Bale’s character is so obnoxiously self-important and humorless that you just want to slap him. Perhaps to save my sanity, I kept picturing him giving this performance while wearing a clown nose. I swear it all would have been much better.

And then there’s the whole thriller movie aspect. Theres a syndrome I call the “Iron Man effect” – in honor of that early desert scene in “Iron Man” where Robert Downey Jr. is thrown several hundred feet through the air in a giant bucket of metal armor parts, and lands again with such force that giant metal parts fly off in a million directions. Mr. Downey emerges unscathed, and even manages to toss of a witty remark.

In real life, of course, his soft human body would have been converted by this experience to roughly the consistency of mashed potatoes.

“Terminator Salvation” makes “Iron Man” look like realist drama. In scene after scene we see giant ten ton fast moving behemoths built of cold hard steel facing off one-on-one with mere humans, creatures of mere flesh and bone. And each time, the humans emerge miraculously unscathed. These machines are deadly unstoppable killers, relentless, resourceful, and vastly more powerful than humans. One swipe from their giant hard metal paws would clearly pound a hole through your ribcage wide enough to drive a truck.

And yet nobody in the film ever gets seriously hurt after being hit by one of these things. This is clearly not true to life. It it were, Bale’s character would have been killed off in the first five minutes.

Hey wait a minute. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea…

Kiss / sober / kiss

The topic of dating came up in conversation this evening. Specifically, when can you say, officially, that you are dating? To make things interesting, the friends around the table engaged in this debate ranged from fourteen years old to somewhere in their fifties. Clearly our collective group had a broad and representative perspective on the issue.

I floated the theory that you can truly be said to be dating only when the following sequence has occurred: (i) You kiss (by “kiss”, I mean a real kiss – you know what I mean – not a social kiss). (ii) You become sober. (iii) Once in this newly sober state, you kiss again.

Step three marks the moment that begins your official entry into datingdom. My friends around the table generally agreed that this is as good a metric as any. I realize that we could all be wrong on this point.

But I defy anybody to do better.

Song of Eden

The Gods of Eden came to town
They only came to look around
When all was done, they somehow found
The time to take us in

The Gods of Eden swept aside
The protests of the child bride
“Oh come,” they said “and lose your pride,
There’s no denying sin.”

I held you once upon this shore
I said there’s room for so much more
You laughed and showed me to the door
Oh where’s your laughter now?

The Gods of Eden blew this town
For something evil’s going down
Well, who am I to wear their crown
And would you show me how?

I know you’ve named them in your sleep
You’re in too far, you’re in too deep
Of all the secrets you would keep
Was I the last to know?

The Gods of Eden never leave
They never cry, they never grieve
But they have told me, by your leave
That it was time to go

Oh yes, they’ve told me, by your leave
That it is time to go

French film

This evening we went to see a lovely recent french film “L’Heure d’ete” (the title translates to english as “Summer Hours”). I was struck, as I have been before, by how enormously different is the experience of seeing a typical french film from the experience of watching a typical Hollywood movie.

Hollywood films are structured like a pop song. There’s your three verses, your chorus, your bridge, maybe a driving back beat to propel things forward, and and a big crescendo to finish things off. Before you know it the movie is over and you’re back out of the theatre. All very efficient.

French films are a different animal entirely. Stuff happens, but not in a linear progression. Rather, it’s as though you are watching the random events of life – characters having a coffee, opening a book and looking through it, light up a cigarette or wandering into an unexpected conversation. It all seems rather non-linear, leisurely in a way.

It doesn’t make any sense, until you begin to understand that if Hollywood films specialize in a kind of heroic realism, a French flick is closer to impressionism. It doesn’t so much matter what happens, as it does how the characters feel about it. The more seemingly aimless and kanoodling the plot events up there on the screen, the greater the opportunity for characters to respond to those events in surprising and revealing ways.

The French take the principle of “Plot reveals character” to an extreme limit. The little awkward pause, the off-the-cuff remark, the telltale gesture, these are the real tools of the French auteur.

Yes, this form of filmmaking places a burden upon the audience. You can’t just ride along on the surf of relentless plot. You need to catch a hesitation or an awkward embrace, or a locking of eyes between two characters in an early scene (especially if the gesture contradicts the dialog) and use these cues to reconstruct the character arc.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? It’s not what the characters do that we really care about, it’s who they are. Americans sometimes complain that “nothing happens” in a French film. On the contrary, the screen in a french film is often practically exploding with one revelation after another. You just have to look for it.

At the shore

After months of construction work, they’ve finally reopened Washington Square Park, which happens to be a few steps from where I live. There had been much trepidation on the part of the community. Would they ruin a good thing? Would the go all corporate on us? Would they convert our belovedly rag-tag “people’s park” into something official and off-putting?

I’m happy to say the City has managed to make the park lovelier and more elegant, without making it at all off-putting. It’s a bit like seeing somebody you know after they’ve gotten a makeover. It’s still them – same goofy jokes, same oddball interests, only sort of glammed up and presentable.

Folks still gather in Washington Square Park to play guitar, hang out together, read their books and just enjoy the day. There are even picnic tables now – a very nice touch. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the weather has been outrageously lovely. We’ve been having the kind of weather that is so perfect, one half suspects that t’s all a trick of evil aliens to lull our citizenry into a collective calm, while they prepare to beam our beloved city to some far off slave planet.

Ok, maybe I’m the only one who suspects that.

Anyway. Watching folks sit around looking at the gushing fountain, or sitting on the newly replanted lawn under the trees, I am impressed and delighted by how immediately entitled everybody feels. The moment the park reopened, the community moved in en masse, rediscovering everything from the dog run to the children’s playground. Everyone has been enjoying our newly polished treasure to the fullest, knowing just how to get the most out of it.

Looking over this delightful scene, I realize that Washington Square Park is Greenwich Village’s answer to the ocean shore. The feeling here is rather like an afternoon at the beach, communing with the surf and sand. Except that it’s just a few short steps away from where people work or live.

When I walk through our little park now, I feel a new-found appreciation for the ability of people to simply kick back and enjoy a lovely day at the beach – even if that beach is a diminutive park in the heart of a great metropolis. This capacity for enjoying a day is certainly one of humanity’s more attractive qualities.


This evening we saw the terrifyingly funny Yasmina Reza play “God of Carnage”. The cast was Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden. A cast doesn’t get any better than that, and all four were quite possibly at their career best.

The play is breathtakingly funny because it is willing to follow so-called “civilized” people (two self-possessed middle class couples who start out the evening believing they are going to resolve their differences through reasonable discussion) down and down and still further down into the raw depths of long stewing hatreds and resentments.

The effect is completely bracing and exhilarating – and almost unbearably funny – somewhat like seeing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as a laugh-out-loud comedy. Even as I was convulsing with laughter together with everyone around me, part of my mind was spinning away, wondering just why this kind of thing is so incredibly funny when it’s done right (unfortunately it is rarely done right).

My best guess is that these people – through the permissive magic of theatre – are simply expressing the same simmering rages and feral emotions that lie within the heart of each member of the audience. In real life, we are rarely permitted anywhere near the point of expressing the black fires within our respective souls. And on those cases where we do let out our inner furious three year old, the consequences are generally disastrous.

So it comes as an enormous relief to see this kind of catharsis playing out right before us – with perfectly calibrated pitch, thanks to top-notch writing, acting and direction. The people on stage are merely expressing exactly what we all feel from time to time. But rather than suck it up, they end up releasing all that rage and bile. The shock of recognizing these emotions, the sheer cathartic release of it, strikes us as wildly funny.

How strange that our very fears of alienation, of loss of intimacy, fears of personal annihilation, can be the source of so much fun. What is it about humans that allows us to derive great pleasure from contemplating the pain of our own existence?