Near perfect

Finally got around, just last night, to seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Indie masterpiece “Near Dark”. I don’t use the word masterpiece lightly. In only her second feature film, the writer/director managed to create a lesson par excellence on how it’s done.

Yes, it’s a vampire film, but that’s a little like saying that Bill Gates is a businessman. That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It’s also a dead-on study of southern rural disaffection, a start-to-finish thrilling action adventure film, a perfect ensemble character study, a novel take on Romeo and Juliet, as well as being a truly innovative update of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Every single shot counts, every camera angle and edit cut adds to the character, story and suspense, and – unlike almost most films – each and every character is truly interesting, rounded, complex and surprising. In fact, the dramatic arc of one of the so-called “minor” characters is so surprising, with such a startling yet insightful late-story psychological twist, that you may find yourself thinking about him for years to come.

The whole thing is done on a very low budget, with the simplest of visual elements used to pull you powerfully into an entire unique world. “Near Dark” may just be as near perfect a little film as I’ve ever seen. I recommend you go out and watch it. And when you’ve done that, go right ahead and watch it again. If you’ve ever thought you might want to make your own movie one day, and are looking for inspiration, this is the one to watch.

Looking forward

Suppose we could all see into the future. I don’t mean that just one of us gets some magical insight, like Harry Potter after swigging a vial of felix felicis or Nicholas Cage in that unspeakably awful 2007 movie adaptation of an intriguing story by Philip K Dick.

No, I mean what if everyone could see all of the threads of possibility extending from the current moment in time until, say, twenty minutes forward. We would all be free to choose from amongst these various possible futures. Of course the possibilities would continually change, since everybody else would also be choosing – changing lanes through the traffic of parallel universes, as it were – thereby dynamically changing our own options.

Presumably the incidence of sudden avoidable deaths would drop dramatically, as would really stupid conversation-stopping comments at parties, inadvertently off-putting pick-up lines in bars, and futile last-minute dashes to airline gates.

Sky divers would no longer start a jump in blithe unawareness of that faulty parachute. Suicide bombers and Los Vegas casinos would both pretty much be out of business. People would generally leave the office and hop on the elevator at just the right time to catch that taxi. Bad movies would sell nary a ticket on opening night.

But those are the obvious things. The subtleties would be far more interesting. The heart-to-heart talk with your girlfriend that could have ended badly, the dear friend you haven’t see in twenty years who just got on the next subway car, the moment when a kind word to a distressed friend would make all the difference. The texture of life would be entirely different – changing even the very way we think about existence, ethical values, relationships.

It’s a shame we cannot experience anything like this.

Except that we can. One could design a sort of computer game to simulate this precise scenario on a smaller scale. In this game everyone would be able to see ahead into the future a limited distance, and everyone would have a chance to modify their choices based on the multiple twisting paths of possibility that lie ahead. I wonder how it would feel to play such a game, to conjure with the very stuff of predestination and free will. It might be fun, but on the other hand it might just completely freak people out – there’s really no way to know.

Unless, of course, you could see into the future.

Double threats

I mentioned Fred Waring in a post the other day. Today, as it happens, is the twenty fifth anniversary of the great man’s death on July 29, 1984. Seems like a good time to talk about one of human nature’s more delightful anomalies – those rare people who are extraordinarily good – say, good enough to be justly famous -at more than one thing. Mr. Waring was a prime example. He was for many years one of the most famous band leaders in America. In fact, at one point he was considered the most influential man in radio. He was also the backer and successful promoter of a little device invented in the 1930s by Fred Osius – a novel kind of food blender that came to be known as the Waring Blendor – at one time the most popular blender in the country.

Another double threat was Hedi Lamarr. Not only was she a successful Hollywood actress and one of the most astonishingly beautiful women in recorded history, she was also co-inventor (together with George Antheil, the avant guarde composer of the Ballet Mechanique and other key modernist works – a double threat too, come to think of it) of the spread spectrum technique to prevent radar jamming – fundamentally the same technique which today allows you to talk on your cell phone without interference from all the other people who are simultaneously talking on their cell phones.

Not that being an inventor in addition to your day job automatically gets you in the club. I have nothing but admiration for Abraham Lincoln as one of the great statesmen in our nation’s history, but his one and only recorded invention – a device to lift boats over shoals he patented in 1849 – isn’t the kind of thing that people get famous for. The gadget was never actually even built, which doesn’t help his case. On the other hand, Lincoln was the only U.S. president to ever receive a U.S. patent, which gives him some sort of bragging rights anyway.

Judy Holliday is a nice example. Not only was she an Academy Award winning actress, she was also the Hollywood performer with the highest ever recorded IQ. This in itself would not be that interesting, except for the fact that she used her prodigious intelligence to talk circles around the House Unamerican Activities Committee – something nobody else managed to do. She snowed them so thoroughly that she managed to get off scot free, without being blacklisted and without naming any names, in spite of the fact that her own name had been on the masthead of more than one Communist newspaper. You can read the transcript of her testimony here – it’s a real hoot.

I can’t really count Brian May, much as I would like to. Being the guitarist for the mega-rock group Queen definitely counts as “good enough to be justly famous”, but getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics, sadly, does not. Although the man is, as far as I know, the only astrophysicist rock star, and that’s pretty cool.

Double threats are rare, but there are even fewer people who are triple threats. The only one I can think of off-hand is Lenny Lipton. On the one hand he wrote the classic 1972 how-to book “Independent Film Making” – which to this day is considered indispensable by film students everywhere. On the other hand, he has been one of the great innovators in the technology of stereoscopic 3D filmmaking – holding 25 patents on innovations in stereoscopic techniques, in addition to being one of the instrumental forces in the current revival of that genre. On the third hand he wrote the lyrics to a little song called “Puff the Magic Dragon”.

I think he wins the prize.

Suspicious behavior

I was surprised to read in a late breaking bulletin this morning of the arrest of candidate for the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor. Apparently she had been seen trying to force open the front door of her downtown New York City apartment building. It later came out that the door was temporarily jammed, but meanwhile the sight of this latina woman fiddling with an apparently locked door had apparently aroused the suspicion of a neighbor who lived on the same fashionable Greenwich Village street.

It is not entirely clear what transpired next. According to NYC police officer James Shepard, when he entered Sotomayor’s home and asked to see her identification, the judge “began acting weirdly”. As Shepard later told the sympathetic hosts of a right-wing radio talk show, Sotomayor started dancing the salsa around the apartment and loudly singing the song “America” from “West Side Story”, in spanish. Then, according to officer Shepard, the 54 year old woman brandished a switch blade and said to him “You gonna get out now or I gotta cut you?”

It was at this point, according to officer Shepard, that he invited Sotomayor to step outside so that the two of them could continue their conversation out in the street – apparently a standard request that the police make when they have just tried to arrest somebody for breaking into their own home. But at this point something unexpected happened – David Axelrod, top advisor to president Barack Obama, showed up at the door, apparently for a scheduled meeting with Judge Sotomayor.

According to officer Shepard, Axelrod – who is Jewish, although the police officer hastened to add that the man’s ethnicity was irrelevant – took one look at the police officer and began cursing in what sounded like Hebrew, although officer Shepard reported that it might also have been a dialect of ancient Aramaic, like in that movie.

Mr. Axelrod then somehow produced a live chicken, which he proceeded to twirl over his head while pointing at the dumbfounded police officer and muttering what sounded like Kabbalistic incantations. It was at this point, according to officer Shepard, that he made the decision to arrest both of them on charges of disturbing the peace. Charges of bribery were later added for Mr. Axelrod when, as officer Shepard explained it, the well-known political consultant pulled him aside and offered to sell him major-brand electronics equipment “at below wholesale prices”.

The New York City police later decided to release both suspects. In a press conference from the White House blue room, president Obama called the officer’s response “stupid”, but then relented and invited the three of them to the White House to talk it over.

The President was quoted as saying “This has all apparently been a misunderstanding, nothing that can’t be resolved amicably over a cuba libre and, um, some Manischewitz.”


I was quite pleased when a good friend told me today how fascinated she was by my blog posts of the last two days – first my description of a Jazz-era novel celebrating carnal relations between a woman and a sewing machine, and then my learned disquisition on the entire subgenre of illicit love between humans and their household appliances, as well as the subsequent political suppression of this literary form on suspicion of being part of a vast communist conspiracy.

It took a moment for me to realize that my friend was taking these two posts at face value. When I wrote them it had never occurred to me that people would think this was a real book or a real literary movement. I must say I was quite pleased to hear that were at least somewhat convincing. If anything, I had worried that the entire premise was so patently ridiculous that nobody would see the humor in it.

Back when I was in high school there was a rule that said that if you wrote a book review, it had to be about an actual book that really existed. You couldn’t just make something up out of whole cloth. Although I do recall that in the twelfth grade, Bill Bauer earned my undying respect and admiration for turning in a report, together with extensive footnotes and properly formatted references, whose subject was an entirely made up book. The teacher gave Bill an A for this report, and singled it out in class as exemplary work. None of us felt any particular need to inform the teacher that Bill had made the entire thing up out of his head. We were far too lost in admiration of our classmate’s bold and brilliant feat to even think of ratting him out.

Now that I’m all grown up and don’t need to worry about grades, it occurs to me that I can write about any book – those already born and those as yet unborn, as the Mormons would say. Well, actually, the Mormons go even further and also talk about the rights of “the formerly living”. But when they do that they are not actually referring to books. Rather, they are referring to lists of names of dead Jews (they seem to particularly seek out Jew names for some reason) so they can baptize the lot of them post-death, in order to send as many souls to heaven as possible, possibly so as to ensure their own welcome there.

You think I’m making that last part up, but I’m not. The phrase “formerly living” actually shows up prominently on signage in the Mormon Church’s museum in Salt Lake City. If you visit there, don’t stand around reading the signage for too long, or else people dressed in weirdly midcentury clothing are likely to save your soul while you’re not looking, and you may find yourself dressing up in outfits left over from the Eisenhower era and selling pencils in the Utah airport.

But I digress….

It seems to me that once you open book review subjects up to books that *might* exist, but just don’t happen to exist in this particular parallel universe, then the space of possibilities grows exponentially. Besides, there’s always the possibility that if you pen a good enough description of a book, somebody will one day come along and actually write the damned thing.

Don’t laugh. After Kurt Vonnegut dropped enough mentions throughout his novels of the fictional author Kilgore Trout, Trout went ahead and actually wrote a book – Venus on the Half-Shell OK, it was actually Philip José Farmer only pretending to be Kilgore Trout, but it was still pretty cool.

Don’t you think?

Household appliances

Curious about the novel discussed in yesterday’s post, I did a little digging. You can’t find out much about it on Google (or on Bing for that matter), but a visit to the old stacks of the New York Public Library reveals some surprising things. It seems there was an entire literary movement in the early part of the twentieth century that featured illicit affairs between humans and their (then newfangled) electrical appliances.

A robust underground publishing industry sprang up to fill this need, in magazines with names like “Bakelite!”, containing shocking stories with plots ranging from dalliances between fair damsels and their alarm clocks to secret midnight trysts between ardent young men and their waffle irons. There was a certain sameness to these tales, an underlying dramatic arc that was rigidly adhered to. This is not surprising – structural predictability is common to all genres of erotica down through the ages. Invariably the human half, who is inevitably portrayed as young, attractive, with excellent prospects, first notices the appliance under somewhat hazy circumstances. There is generally an early scene of “plugging in” (my research indicates that this was the preferred term of art), a phrase which refers to the first moment that the appliance is seen to operate – at which point the young man or woman is instantly smitten.

The dearth of opportunities for conversation between human and appliance seems to be central to the allure of these romances. Apparently the enigmatic nature of the electromechanical Other is crucial to its appeal. Not surprisingly, there is little or no representation in the genre of dalliances between human and telephone, or radio, or any other household appliance that might incorporate a human voice. The possibility of true communication would negate the essential mystery.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 seems to have put an end to this odd form of literary expression, and for a time it was forgotten entirely. But shortly after World War II a new generation of scholars rediscovered the form. You may recall that the period immediately following W.W.II was a time of renewed interest in all things Freudian – fascination with the unconscious mind and its desires was finding expression in genres as diverse as feature films and comic books.

During this period a number of doctoral dissertations appeared, each positing a theory for the brief but spectacular popularity of Appliance Erotica, as it came to be called. Some of these theses are interesting in their own right, notably “Running Hot and Cold: The Water Tap as an Agent of Seduction” (Harvard Press, 1950), “The Auto, the Erotic and the Autoerotic: Mythopoesis of the Household Station Wagon” (Yale University Press, 1948), “The Brave Little Toaster: Kitchen Implement as Transgressive Seducer in American Fiction” (Princeton, 1951). This last thesis was eventually adapted into a well received animated film by the Walt Disney Company, although in a form so changed as to be essentially unrecognizable.

This show of interest in academic circles was, alas, short-lived. By 1952 the rise to power of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee made it politically untenable to pursue such areas of intellectual inquiry – even tenured faculty were not immune to scrutiny.

The government made it clear that household appliances were sacrosanct, a part of the wholesome American dream. Key members of Congress felt that any attempt to unduly eroticize an appliance must surely be symptomatic of a larger pattern of communist infiltration. It was during the widely seen “Waring Testimony” of January 1953, when Fred Waring himself – beloved bandleader and radio star, and inventor of the eponymous food processor – famously declared “I unplug my blender at night.”

Around this time the federal government began a stealth propaganda campaign to fight the pernicious threat of appliance love, thought by many to be a plot by the Kremlin to corrupt America’s youth. Young people were exhorted to “keep it clean with your machine.” In advertisements around this time, the iconography of the kitchen and its electrical appliances began to project a peculiarly – even perversely – wholesome image.

Soon the love of appliances lost its erotic frisson. Functional objects ceased to hold sexual allure, reverting back to the mere machines they were. Eventually everyone realized that the entire movement had been a form of collective madness, an aberrant loss of judgement on the part of otherwise sane and intelligent people. Americans would never again make complete idiots of themselves by foolishly looking upon a mere man-made object – a thing of buttons and electrical parts – with unbridled and wanton desire.

Except, of course, for the iPhone.

The Needle and the Stitch (book review)

I first came upon J. Botangier’s “The Needle and the Stitch” in the Strand Bookstore on Broadway near 12th Street. The Strand is the kind of bookstore that sells just about every imaginable kind of used volume. So finding an obscure American romance novel from the 1920s was not all that surprising. But, as I was soon to discover, this was no ordinary book.

Our heroine, Katherine Olmsley, is one of those heedless and headstrong young women one often finds in novels of this kind. Her upbringing in an old and respected Boston family, one that came “from old money”, as they say, only serves to highlight her rebellion against propriety. By the time we meet Kate, in her early twenties, she is a fully formed flapper, breaking young mens’ hearts left and right, knowing where all the right parties are, able to hold her own in debates about the latest scandalous ideas from Freud, even when tanked up on speakeasy gin.

All of this changes when she meets Rodney. For the first time she finds a deep connection, a soulmate. She is willing to overlook the fact that Rodney is different, even the fact that he is a household appliance. Sadly for our heroine, nobody seems to understand – not her family, her friends, the party people she thought were her true pals. When Rodney comes upon the scene, they all desert her.

And so woman and sewing machine set up house in a tenement on the lower east side. Unlike the young men she had been running with, Rodney is the perfect companion. He never complains, does not stay out late drinking with the boys, never even looks at another gal. When she comes home at night he is always waiting for her.

Certain intimate details of their relationship are elided over, as was generally the case for novels in this period. Perhaps this is for the best – the reader is left to exercise her imagination as to the nature of their bond. Besides, it must be admitted that a certain delicate level of euphemism is called for when discussing relations between flesh and machinery.

Suffice it to say that the relationship blossoms, deepens. Out of their impassioned lovemaking progeny inevitably emerges. At first only a hat, some gloves, the occasional woolen scarf. But eventually they hit their stride, they learn to understand each other in the way that only true lovers can. Kate opens a shop in midtown – the eponymous “Needle and the Stitch”. Word quickly spreads about the fine quality clothing to be had at the intrepid little emporium. Each item seems to be made with a kind of love rarely seen in such merchandise.

I won’t spoil the novel for you by giving too much away. Suffice it to say that if you pick up this little gem you won’t be disappointed. Not that it’s a perfect book. There are places where the thread of the narrative wears thin. And other places that could have used a firm editorial snip of the scissors.

But there are also madcap goings that will leave you in stitches, as well as lyrical and heartbreaking chapters, like the one where Kate, overworked and feeling hemmed in, is temporarily wooed away from her true love, tempted into a hot and torrid romance by a smooth operating steam press named Max. Will cooler heads prevail? Will our dear heroine eventually patch things up with Rodney? Will the two lovers end up tying the knot?

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you. You’ll just have to read Botangier’s little masterpiece for yourself.

Comfort food

I enjoy doing puzzles, whether they be crossword puzzles, sudoku, ken-ken (a recent addition to The New York TImes’ puzzle page), pretty much anything that requires only a pen and a little time. Challenges in puzzles seem soothing to me, restful, whereas challenges in real life can be very stressful indeed.

I used to think that this difference is due entirely to the “magic circle” effect – the fact that the outcome of a puzzle has no real-word consequences. According to this theory, the puzzler understands that they are in a safe place, and therefore can exercise their brain without fear.

But recently I have come to see another difference, one that might be more fundamental. A crossword or sudoku or ken-ken puzzle, unlike problems in the real world, always has a solution. You know for certain, from the very outset, that the Answer is already in there, hidden within the puzzle itself like the prize in a treasure hunt, simply waiting for you to find it.

I would argue that this might be the salient quality of puzzles that makes them so appealing. We deal every day with the weirdness and downright disturbing nature of reality – arguments with friends and strangers that can seem to come out of nowhere, our nation’s economy taking odd and sometimes ominous turns with little or no warning, wars, hurricanes, unexpected illnesses or even deaths of friends or family members. The entire world can seem like a problem with no solution, a continuing set of difficult questions for which the only answer might very well be “There is no answer”.

But a puzzle’s ability to be solved is guaranteed, even before we put pen to paper, a fact which provides a deep source of comfort. We know that our puzzle had an author, that there is somebody out there, even if it’s somebody we will likely never meet, who is looking out for us. And so we know that in this little artificial world there is indeed always an Answer, unlike the situation we face in the often cruel, capricious and chaotic world of our lives.

So I would argue that it may not be so much the fact that puzzles have no real-world consequences, but rather it is their epistemological appeal – in the world of a puzzle there is always a wise (and for the most part benevolent) Creator – that makes puzzle solving so appealing as comfort food for the mind.

Civics lessons, continued

I was going to post a comment in response to Dagmar’s comment on yesterday’s post, but I realized there is enough here to warrant another post. In particular, I was struck by her observation that these TV networks would not be violating this woman’s privacy unless there was an audience out there willing to tune in.

OK, intellectually I understand that there must be millions of people who tuned in to watch while Fox and CBS showed excerpts from that video. But I’m having trouble understanding why those people thought it was ok to watch.

Only when I read Dagmar’s insightful comment I did start to grapple with the disturbing fact that there must be a large audience eager to watch while CBS and Fox engage in deliberate abuse of an innocent party. I hadn’t thought about this before because it had never even occurred to me to watch that video. I’m sure it’s easy to find on the internet, but it seems to me that anyone who watches it, whether on the internet or on TV, is violating another person’s right to privacy.

Here’s the analogy that comes to mind: Suppose John is with a friend in a restaurant, and a diner at the next table goes to the restroom, leaving their pocketbook on their seat. John’s friend reaches into the pocketbook and pulls out two crisp twenty dollar bills. The friend puts one bill in his own pocket and hands the other to John, saying “Hey look, free money!” John takes the money, reasoning that he didn’t steal it, his friend did.

That’s pretty much the position you are in if you willingly watch that puerile video on Fox or CBS. You didn’t air it, they did, so you can tell yourself that you don’t need to take responsibility for watching it. Except that you do. Being a willing audience for such things makes you exactly as guilty as John was in that restaurant.

In my view, each of us – every citizen – has an ethical obligation to pointedly avoid watching Fox News or CBS Early Edition – at all – until those networks apologize for violating the public trust and that woman’s rights. Otherwise we are condoning and encouraging this sort of abuse.

You might not agree. In which case I humbly suggest – assuming you do not wish to be a surprise guest on a national news program – that you make very sure there are no hidden cameras in your bathroom.

Civics lessons

Today I read that some peeping tom recently took illicit videos of an ESPN network sports reporter through the peephole of her closed hotel room door, capturing footage of the unsuspecting woman while she was naked. Amazingly, it was reported, both the CBS Early Show and Fox News had opted to show portions of the video on air.

If you haven’t heard about this, you’ll probably think I’m making that last part up. After all, logic tells us that this woman’s basic rights had been violated – a rather unsavory crime – so surely no responsible news organization would reward such a crime by repeating the violation on national television. That kind of coverage is the ultimate encouragement of continued criminal activity, the kind of validation most voyeurs could only dream about. But thanks to CBS and Fox, for one lucky peeping tom the dream has become a reality.

Since it’s inconceivable that any news organization could actually be either that stupid or that venal (as in “Gosh, let’s join forces with this criminal and help him to violate this poor woman, because that will make our ratings go up”), one must presume that both organizations were following some higher principle, some enlightened path so evolved that it eludes the minds of us ordinary folks.

Fortunately for you, gentle readers, I have obtained inside info – unreleased documents from top-secret executive planning sessions – showing that Fox and CBS made this transition into blatantly criminal activity as a way to raise the consciousness of our nation. It seems that we are merely seeing the start of a continuing lesson in civics, as the producers at these news networks work to expose crime in a truly novel way: By participating in it. For example, in the case of the peeping tom video, they wanted us to understand on a visceral level the monstrousness, the sheer violation, of the invasion of privacy that occurred in that hotel. And the best way to do that was to themselves publicly commit the same crime against the same victim, while millions of Americans watched in horrified disgust.

The actual documents delineating network plans for the fall lineup are too long to reprint here. But I can give you a glimpse of some highlights, a preview of the coming television season, as these esteemed news organizations collectively continue their ongoing foray into civics education:

August: Fox News exposes Michael Vicks’ brutal exploitation of innocent canines by bringing some dogs onto the show, and then proceeding to viciously bludgeon each one to death with a baseball bat, while the studio audience is encouraged to take bets on the order of their demise. In this way we are all made to become more sensitive to the plight of man’s best friend in today’s world.

September: Rising to this challenge, CBS Early Edition brings an assortment of small children from Darfur onto the set, and the news anchors proceed to hack them all into pieces with machetes. By the end of the segment nothing is left but a pool of blood and assorted body parts. Surely such a demonstration will raise our collective consciences, causing millions of caring Americans to open our hearts and pocketbooks in order to ease the plight of our African neighbors.

October: Fox News mails innocuous looking letters to all one hundred senators, as well as all four hundred and thirty five members of the House of Representatives. Each letter has been surreptitiously laced with the deadly Ebola virus. Within five days every member of congress is dead – except for Al Franken, who it turns out is immune. Speaking on behalf of a stunned nation, President Obama profusely thanks Fox News for raising our collective awareness of the potential dangers of postal terrorism.

November: Not to be outdone, CBS Early Edition detonates a 0.5 megaton nuclear device in downtown Chicago, thereby wiping that great midwestern city from the map, killing several million people outright, and effectively making the region uninhabitable for a radius of about a hundred miles around. Americans watching at home get the point, and rally around ongoing negotiations with Russia toward mutual nuclear disarmament.

And so it continues, as our intrepid news organizations, newly empowered with civic zeal, teach us one valuable lesson after another. Looking over the lineup for the coming year, I think it’s really wonderful that these networks are taking such an interest in the teaching of social awareness. Personally though, I’m a little nervous about next April. That’s when Fox News is scheduled to do a segment on the Holocaust.