February 7, 2004

The $218 Film. The LA Times reports from the Sundance Film Festival:
The fire this time was ignited by a documentary called Tarnation from 31-year-old cineaste in extremis Jonathan Caouette, who’s been filming his gruelingly intimate autobiography for more than 20 years (go on, do the arithmetic). And, oh yeah, he made his film for all of $218 (plus change) and edited it entirely in iMovie. It’s a fever dream of sorts (think Arthur Rimbaud, whom the filmmaker resembles in spirit) about the very painful, bizarre and most of all sentient life that produced the film. ... It’s the chronicle of a monumentally dysfunctional family, as if one of the Friedman kids (as in Capturing the . . .) had been preternaturally talented, arrived at a healthy perspective on everything he and his family went through — and then turned the whole thing into a musical.
(Sentient?)

I love the idea that cheap technology is removing the barriers to filmmaking, so that the artform becomes as accessible as novel-writing. I'm hoping this will mean more films based on great stories. In the case of "Tarnation," though, the great story seems to be a horrible life. Ah, the sadness underneath art!
So I watched the first of the Ed Sullivan Shows with the Beatles, intriguingly intact, including commercials. How strangely sedate the commercials of that time were! Each one emphasized closeups of the product with a voice earnestly, quietly making assurances about how well it would perform. A "shoe wax" would make your shoes look like they had been coated with a new layer of leather, shaving cream would stay moist for the entire duration of a shave, pancakes would rise quickly after flipping. A headache was represented by a closeup of a man's face with one white dot after another appearing on it as the voiceover intoned "pain, pain, pain." The headache remedy ad came on immediately after The Beatles had opened the show with three peppy songs, and surely gave many parents around the country the chance to make wisecracks about rock and roll causing headaches. At the end of the commercial, his headache gone, the man tightens up his tie and combs his thinning hair--as if he had never heard of The Beatles! But he was happy, in a pleasantly serene way, because he didn't have a headache, and he didn't know that he looked all outmoded after the three songs that had preceded him that night.

After the ads, Ed tells the kids in the audience to be good and pay attention to the other acts, because The Beatles would be back in the end of the show. Then out comes a comic magician in white tie who does a long card trick that depends heavily on the continued reappearance of a black card in a group of red cards. But it's black and white TV! And The Beatles were just on! Then he does a long trick involving pouring salt from a salt shaker!

The next act is the cast of Oliver! No, I'm not excited. The exclamation point is part of the title, Oliver! The first person to sing is Davy Jones, future Monkee, who played the Artful Dodger in the musical. How sweet that little Davy is the first person to sing on TV after The Beatles. He does just fine.

Next is Frank Gorshin who does about ten impressions in his few minutes, turning into one celebrity after another in a routine based on the wacky notion, what if movie stars held political office? He starts with Broderick Crawford, in an impression that I've also seen Jim Carrey do. Jim Carrey clearly copied Gorshin's Broderick Crawford, though Carrey, when I saw him do it, made it seem as though it was a special Carrey sort of madness that he would make a weird choice like Broderick Crawford to impersonate--especially interesting since Carey played a role Gorshin had made famous, The Riddler. Anyway, Gorshin was just brilliant, doing Brando, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and more.

The true horror of the evening is Tessie O'Shea, a very large woman who belted songs and played the banjo in a way that must have made sense when people still remembered vaudeville. The strange time overlap represented by this show reaches its height as Tessie tosses her white fur boa about and sings about her "curves" while stroking her huge abdomen.

Then there's a comedy routine, a lesser Stiller & Meara called McCall & Brill, and finally The Beatles come back for two more songs, ending with "I Want to Hold Your Hand." But there's still more time on the clock, so out comes a comic acrobat, a woman encased in a costume that makes her torso appear to be a face. Somehow she's able to make the eyes look back and forth as she does a little dance and ends by taking off the costume hat, which had been covering her head. Great! Then The Four Fays come out and do comic acrobatics for a few minutes, ending with their finale: one woman lies down on a table, gripping its edges, and two other women each grab one of her feet and run around the table several times in opposite directions. The audience loves it!

That's the big show!

UPDATE: I revisit this post on the 50th anniversary of this episode of the show in 2014 and provide some links to YouTube and more.
"So kick back on your sofa, push play and float downstream." So says the copy on the DVD box for The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows. Surely, someone had originally written "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream." Then, I'm thinking, someone else said:

"No, don't say 'turn off,' that's negative. It should be more like turn on. Hey! 'Turn on your DVD player!' But that's not punchy enough. 'Push play!' So, then 'Push play, relax and float downstream.' Or 'Relax, push play, and float downstream,' because naturally you'd relax after making the effort of pushing something. No, wait, I've got it, not 'relax,' 'kick back'! That makes relaxing seem more cool and kicking is more like pushing. So, kick, push, float! All good verbs! That's good copy. No, wait, that floating downstream business is confusing. Where is this floating taking place? Better make it 'kick back on your sofa, push play and float downstream."
Things I bought at Border’s today and why.

1. Decasia: The State of Decay. A film by Bill Morrison. Because I read this article by Herbert Muschamp in today’s NYT, I remembered reading about this film before, and now it’s out on DVD. Because it’s got a sticker on the front with a quote from Errol Morris saying “Haunting, Mysterious and Incredibly Beautiful. A definitive work of art” and I love Errol Morris and am a sucker for art as long as it doesn’t trigger any of my many objections. Even though Muschamp wrote:
Already a cult classic, the movie is a time capsule of the postmodern obsession with decrepitude. What a space saver! Just pop this disc in the player and you'll have all the putrefaction you could ask for. Watch the Master Narratives Crumble! Entropy Now! Pomo's Greatest Hits!
2. The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles and Other Artists Including The Original Cast from "Oliver!", Cab Calloway, Cilla Black, Frank Gorshin, Soupy Sales, Gordon & Sheila MacRae, Tessie O'Shea, Myron Cohen, Mitzi Gaynor, Allen & Rossi, and many more ..." Because I love a historic mishmash that is likely to give me all sorts of weird mixed feelings of delight, anxiety, regret, nausea, horror, and general sublime awareness. Because tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the first of the four shows and the DVD empowers the consumer to mark the occasion. Because I want to rethink how I felt when I was thirteen and had to face the reality that not everyone was as much in love with The Four Seasons as I was. (Oh, how sadly they have fallen out of the culture! A search for "Four Seasons" in Amazon did not show them at all on the first page of a list that began with: The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World...Ever!, Sex and the City - The Complete First Four Seasons, Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long, and Montbell Ultralight #2 Sleeping Bag.)

3. The audio version of Yann Martel's "Life of Pi." Because years ago I learned how to solve my terrible insomnia problem by listening to spoken word. Audio books last years for me, because I can only hear a couple minutes a night. Because I think the elements of the story involving animals and floating in a lifeboat will harmonize well will sleeping and dreaming. Because I've listened to "A Short History of Nearly Everything" for the past year and some aspects of it are not harmonizing well with sleeping and dreaming (e.g., Yellowstone is a supervolcano due to erupt and destroy life as we know it, a large asteroid could suddenly kill us all something like a second after we became aware of it).

4. Sam Kashner's "When I Was Cool, My Life at the Jack Kerouac School." Because there's the adorable Sam Kashner on the cover wearing what William Burroughs called "suspenders of disbelief." Because I opened the book up at about twelve different places and read one sentence and every sentence passed my personal test of goodness (some combination of specific/surprising detail and an arrangement of words that charms me in some way ("I graduated 'in the Earth Horse Year,' whenever that was.")).
Welcome websearchers. A week ago I was deluged with visitors who had searched for American Idol contestant William Hung. This week I've gotten my share of people looking to read/see more about Janet Jackson's breast. (Is the left breast getting jealous? What's so great about her? Why not me?)

The Jackson breast frenzy seemed to be finally tapering off. But now I see some poor soul made his--yeah, I'm going with "his"--way here after searching for "actual nude picture of janet jackson's breast at the superbowl." This site came up number 5 in a list of 15. (Hmmm.... maybe I'm number 1 now that I've told this story....)

The excerpt from this blog given in the search results that sparked a ray of hope sufficient to generate a click to this site was:
.. classic pose of the artistic nude with womb ... of marshalling the evidence, putting Jackson's breast in context, ... shocking than Janet Jackson's Superbowl breast--of the photo of the ...
The poor guy had to find out the the "artistic nude with womb" was a plasticinated cadaver. I hope he recovers from that strange dose of reality and finds his way back to the more widely shared plasticized female fantasy that was our absurd Superbowl halftime.
Carmen bin Ladin. Why not change your last name, if you're living in Geneva and estranged from Osama bin Laden's brother? (She does use the brother's spelling of the name.) For one thing, she has a memoir to sell, "Inside the Kingdom," and the name gets your attention. Marlise Simons writes in today's NYT:
[T]he book oozes frustration and anger and, it would seem, enough detail to upset much of her extended family and the Saudi elite. ... Her unabashed conclusion: "The Saudis are the Taliban, in luxury."
"Mrs. bin Ladin," as the Times calls her, noting that she's "in her late 40's" and "[h]er clothes are tight, very tight," tells of meeting Osama bin Laden for the first time:
[H]e came by looking for his brother, Yeslam. As soon as her brother-in-law saw her, she recalled, he turned his head and angrily waved her away. "My face was not covered by a veil," she said. "He couldn't bear it and walked off."
She describes Osama's cruelty to his own infant son:
Abdallah was practically dehydrated in the 100 degree heat and the baby was howling, too small to take water by spoon.

But he could not be given water from a bottle because "Osama had some dogmatic idea about not allowing the baby a rubber teat," said Mrs. bin Ladin, who protested. "The child's mother, the grandmother and none of the other women dared to intervene."
She tells of the privileged women of Saudi Arabia, who "did nothing, read nothing, and were like pets kept by their husbands," who seemed as if they were "under an anesthetic," and who sought some measure of freedom by faking illnesses that required treatment abroad to deceive men into giving them permission to travel.

February 6, 2004

Speaking of the "yuck factor."

Here
you can take a yuck test. Don't worry, it's from the BBC. Oh, and by the way, according to Dr Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:
"The word 'yuck' is similar in languages all over the world. It seems to be a proto-word."
Selling "a substantive drinking experience.” Adman James J. Jordan Jr., who embedded slogans in our heads, has died.

He came up with the slogan "Schaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one," after reading one of the beer company's internal reports that described its product as "one beer for heavy drinkers to consume when they are engaged in a substantive drinking experience.”

One can only wonder what dull reality, admitted in an internal company report, inspired “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch," "Ring around the collar," "How do you handle a hungry man?," and, for oatmeal, "It's the right thing to do."
Good bad housekeeping tip of the day. If you notice that dust is accumulating, to the point where it's accumulating in the sort of dust ball you could actually pick up, of course, pick it up, by all means, but do you know that you can also use a ball of dust as a duster? It actively attracts other dust, that being its essential nature, its veritable raison d'etre. Then the newly enlarged dust ball can be thrown out in its entirety. Consider the many benefits to this approach:

1. No time is wasted going to get a rag or broom or other implement.
2. No mental energy is wasted thinking about dusting or planning to dust: the dust ball serves as a reminder when the time comes.
3. No damage to the environment is caused by laundering rags or throwing out disposable dusting cloths or pads (e.g. "Swiffers").
4. You don't feel like a household drudge, but more like a household comic performer.
5. It validates waiting for dust to accumulate before doing anything about it.

On this last point, remember the story of the germ-ridden sponge that recently played in one of the back sections of the NYT? Well, if you took that story seriously and started microwaving the allegedly vile rectangle, you could very well have set your house on fire. The link that used to work to get you to the sponge story, now only takes you to the correction, warning you that an insufficiently soggy sponge, microwaved, can catch fire! You may also remember that the article, no longer linkable, said that the least wiped-up kitchens had the least germs, cleaning efforts working mainly to spread the germs around. So point 5, supra, has potential to develop into a general principle (working best for conservatives!).

I was reminded of my dust ball good bad housekeeping tip when a chunk of scone fell into my hot coffee and, with no forks or spoons in the area, resorted to using a chunk of the remaining dry scone to retrieve the fallen piece. And here I was feeling that I had nothing to get the blog started with this morning, until the old scone helped me out.

February 5, 2004

So how does the last stand Dean campaign look here on the ground in Wisconsin? I don't know. It's the middle of winter. I was going to go down to the Library Mall (an outdoor square on campus) and see what sort of campaign efforts were being made, but I changed my mind and got in my car to drive somewhere for a late lunch, then headed home to get some reading done. I don't see how you can campaign very well in Wisconsin in the winter--or even get people to show up at the polls properly.

Dean showed up in person last night and spoke downtown at a theater/dance club called the Majestic. I realized that this morning when I was crossing the street to get to the Law School and saw the local newspaper in the vending machine. (I get the NYT delivered at my house, not the local paper, because I don't want excess paper coming into the house, and the local paper is full of ads, self-help columns, sports, bad cartoons, and horoscopes--the sort of trash the Times generally avoids.)

So Dean spoke at a pretty little theater/dance club that made for some nice photographs, but I can't even find one to link too. About 500 people showed up for a 20 minute appearance, a far cry from the 5000 who showed up to see him in October at the Kohl Center (UW's big arena). The Wisconsin State Journal covered last night's event:
Dean said he's tired of Bush dividing the nation by race, religion, sexual orientation and on the abortion issue.

He also faulted Bush for "playing the race card" by repeatedly referring to the University of Michigan's affirmative action program as "quotas."

"We hate Michigan!" one of Dean's supporters hollered, referring to the university's sports teams.
And these were the people political enough to show up on a winter night in the part of town where you'll probably have to pay to park. Oh well.

I saw my first yard sign in my neighborhood today. A Kerry sign sprang up overnight in my neighbor's yard. The only sign of Dean support I've seen recently was a young guy in a parka trudging down the street carrying a big cutout photo of Dean's head on a picket-sign type stick. It seemed pretty funny and sad, but at least in one sense Dean is a head in Wisconsin.
"The last-stand-in-Cheeseland plan." Thanks, Washington Post. That's really the way I like to think about Wisconsin.
Dean Says He Will Quit Race if He Fails to Win Wisconsin.
Dr. Dean predicted decent showings in this weekend's caucuses in Michigan and in Washington state and Maine, but said "our true test will be the Wisconsin primary," where a victory, he said, could propel the campaign forward to the major showdowns on March 2, known as Super Tuesday, and March 9.

"All that you have worked for these past months," he warned, "is on the line on a single day, in a single state."
Hmmm.... kind of exciting for us here in Wisconsin. Maybe I will venture out of the office this afternoon--after holing up indoors ignoring the winter for weeks--and see what sort of political action we're getting in Madison.

(Also reported here and here.)
Geek irritation reaches a simmering point. This is from the same article discussed in the previous post:
"Go out, get a book," suggests Zack Rubenstein, 28, who has for years provided free technical support for his extended social network. "You went to college and you got a degree, you obviously can learn something. Play around with it; it's not going to kill you."

Mr. Rubenstein, a member of the technical support staff at a New York City law school he thought it best not to identify, is not at liberty to dispense such advice at work. Instead, he answers endless calls about malfunctioning monitors that turn out not to be plugged in, and broken printers that start working again as soon as he removes the single piece of paper obviously jamming them.

"Especially dealing with academics," Mr. Rubenstein added, "you'd think they'd have some ability to deduce or think problems through for a minute."
I don't know how well this identity concealment is going to work within the law school, but it's nice of Zack not to expose his particular group of clueless/shiftless lawprofs to public ridicule.

Actually, though, the world has always been full of very smart, educated people who don't know how to use a screwdriver or a wrench, who need a plumber to replace a washer, or who can't boil water or cook a single thing. These people have never been embarrassed about their deficiencies and are often even proud of it. The difference, though, is, as the article discusses, that spreading computer viruses causes other people a lot of trouble. It's more like driving when you don't know how to work a car.
Clueless/Shiftless/Unsavvy. Which elusive word should apply to the sort of person who keeps doing things like opening unknown email attachments and calling tech support because of an unplugged monitor? The on-line headline on the article in today's NYT is: "Geeks Put the Unsavvy on Alert: Learn or Log Off." On page 1 of the paper copy, instead of "Unsavvy," you'll find "Clueless." The paper copy article continues on another page, where suddenly the word is "Shiftless." What's going on? I note the term "geek" is strangely stable, even though it is being used to include people who aren't in love with computers, but are just willing to learn the basic rules and think rationally through the simplest phases of troubleshooting before bothering someone else.

"Unsavvy" is the nicest way to put it, and oddly that is the one used on line, perhaps in the hope of encouraging people who find their way onto the web to feel that the NYT website is a safe, familiar place to hang out. "Clueless" may have been used on the front page of the paper copy because it's slightly shorter than "shiftless," and space is more at a premium on page one. In support of this theory, I note that on the inside page the article "the" also appears before "geeks," which suggests that there was just more room.

But "Shiftless" is the meanest term. You're not just not into learning computer things ("unsavvy") or airheaded ("clueless"), you're lazy, you have bad moral character.

"Shiftless" might have seemed apt because people who are inattentive to the effects of their computer efforts on other people also often don't bother to use the shift key. They'd rather you put more work into reading than that they should have to extend a pinkie while operating another finger.

February 4, 2004

An iffy arbiter of hipness. CJR Campaign Desk is complaining about the overuse of the term "Stepford Wives" to describe the candidates wives. It ends with this snide comment:
Note to campaign press: The Stepford Wives came out in 1972; the movie in 1975. Come on -- you have 29 years of pop culture history since then to draw on. Can we at least come up with a newer cliche to describe what candidates' wives are -- or are not?
Jeez! How little attention do you have to be paying not to know that "The Stepford Wives" (starring Nicole Kidman) is one of the most promoted future releases of 2004?
American Idol. I really enjoyed last night's show, the one where the kids had to write their own songs and then forgot the words. Why stop and agonize about forgetting? No one else knows the right words, so just sing any words! An early favorite at my house is Jennifer Hudson.

UPDATE: Professor Yin, who liked last night's episode too, notes that it's hard to keep names straight at this stage. It's not a mental feat on my part, it's my beloved Tivo. Anyway, Hudson was on the extra Monday night show. She sang an Aretha Franklin song and talked about working on a cruise ship--and, as longtime AI viewers know, "cruise ship" is frequently used on the show as code for energetic but not really that good. But she was good.
Schrafft's ice-cream sundaes and expense-account call girls. The March issue of The Atlantic arrived in the mail yesterday. (There's only a summary online.) It's got some good letters responding to the December issue, which had a long excerpt from Douglas Brinkley's book "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War." The article included many quotations from Kerry's Vietnam writings and ended with this description:
I was amazed at how detached I was from the whole scene. I just lay in the ditch, not firing because I wanted to save ammo and because I couldn't see what I was firing at and I thought about what was happening in New York at that very moment and if people really felt that I was doing something worthwhile while they went down to Schrafft's and had another ice cream sundae or while some fat little old man who made another million in the past months off defense contracts was charging another $100 call girl to his expense account. And then, when the shooting stopped, I came back to where I was.

A letter to the editor--not currently on line-- from Thomas Martin Pflaum took Kerry to account for referring to Schrafft's ice cream sundaes and "call girls."
To anyone who grew up reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the style and sense of the passage is familiar, especially the references to Schrafft's ice-cream sundaes and fat little old defense contractors with their expense-account "call girls"--images that sound about right for 1920 or 1935, but to my ears are very dated if ostensibly reflecting the thoughts of a young American under fire circa 1969.

Pflaum does not conclude that Kerry is a phoney. He notes that many people pick up ways of speech from their reading, and concedes that he himself was not in combat. Plaum concludes:
I have no basis for judging, but it would be most edifying to learn if the passage rings true according to the bullshit detectors of other combat veterans.

The paper version of The Atlantic slyly follows Pflaum's letter with this one (which is on line):
"According to an excerpt from John Kerry's war diary, when pinned down by enemy fire, Kerry wondered about fat-cat war profiteers who charge call girls' fees to the cost of war materiel. Ordinary combat officers, when pinned down by enemy fire, tighten their sphincters and wonder 1) How the hell am I going to get out of this? And 2) What's the best thing I can do now for my men and my mission? One wonders what Lieutenant Kerry's men wondered while he wondered about higher matters." (Joseph R. Owen, First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.), Skaneateles, N.Y.)
Would those who disapprove of von Hagens's exhibit also condemn the display at the Church of the Capuchins in Rome? The place, also called Santa Maria della Concezione, is quite popular with tourists. Nathanial Hawthorne wrote about it disapprovingly:
The cemetery is beneath the church ... . The arrangement of the unearthed skeletons is what makes the special interest of the cemetery. The arched and vaulted walls of the burial recesses are supported by massive pillars and pilasters made of thigh bones and skulls, the whole material of the structure appears to be of a similar kind; and the knobs and embossed ornaments of this strange architecture are represented by the joints of the spine, and the more delicate tracery by the smaller bones of the human frame. The summits of the arches are adorned with entire skeletons, looking as if they were wrought most skillfully in bas-relief. There is no possibility of describing how ugly and grotesque is the effect, combined with a certain artistic merit, nor how much perverted ingenuity has been shown in this queer way, nor what a multitude of dead monks, through how many hundred years, must have contributed their bony framework to build up these great arches of mortality. On some of the skulls there are inscriptions, purporting that such a monk, who formerly made use of that particular headpiece, died on such a day and year; but vastly the greater number are piled up indistinguishably into the architectural design, like the many deaths that make up the one glory of a victory.

In the side walls of the vaults are niches where skeleton monks sit or stand, clad in the brown habits that they wore in life, and labelled with their names and the dates of their decease. Their skulls (some quite bare, and others still covered with yellow skin, and hair that has known the earth damps) look out from beneath their hoods, grinning hideously repulsive. One reverend father has his mouth wide open, as if he had died in the midst of a howl of terror and remorse, which perhaps is even now screeching through eternity. As a general thing, however, these frocked and hooded skeletons seem to take a more cheerful view of their position, and try with ghastly smiles to turn it into a jest. But the cemetery of the Capuchins is no place to nourish celestial hopes: the soul sinks forlorn and wretched under all this burden of dusty death; the holy earth from Jerusalem, so imbued is it with mortality, has grown as barren of the flowers of Paradise as it is of earthly weeds and grass. Thank Heaven for its blue sky it needs a long, upward gaze to give us back our faith. Not here can we feel ourselves immortal, where the very altars in these chapels of horrible consecration are heaps of human bones.

If we would not ban the religiously motivated display of body parts, should we not leave von Hagens alone? (I am putting the charge of using executed criminals to the side in asking this, though, as noted yesterday, Vesalius made great medical advances precisely because such bodies were made available to him.)
Homme versus hombre. Clark may be the hombre, but Kerry's the homme, the "homme serioux"--according to Nixon in Purgatory:
Q: How did Kerry manage to turn it around?

RN: You want me to say "electability" like all those jackasses yakkin' it up on cable. That's what Rockefeller tried on me, but only the hacks and the hot partisans put electability first. It's one element, but it can get loused up in fluctuating mano a mano polls, and it vanishes as an asset when the election campaign begins. No, Kerry came back because he's an homme serioux — that's French for a man with gravitas — which is what people want, and it doesn't matter that he has a face like a horse.

(It's sérieux, not "serioux," by the way. Can't they check these things?)

February 3, 2004

Art and shock, art and anatomy. I am tired beyond words of artists who make art out of shock, especially when the shock does not come out of challenging the conventions of art itself. It is no longer possible to shock in that manner, the way the Impressionists once did, and then Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp retired from the business early, because he had made all the points that could be made. No more shock points could be scored against art itself.

The only shock left is to offend sensibilities about human decency. The artist will probably want to avoid committing crimes, however, so some cleverness is involved. But art of this kind is too much the publicity stunt, it is just another Janet Jackson breast lobbed into the culture. It's okay to get excited, but it really doesn't matter. It is just too boring to write about other than to say I'm really, really bored--like I think that will make shock artists stop what they are doing.

But what if an artist makes something new and fascinating, and it is also deeply disturbing, challenging our anxiety about the body? No, no one is afraid of Janet Jackson's breast, which really could scarcely be more mundane, though tricked up in "dominatrix/Matrix" costumery. But people are deeply anxious about dead bodies, even to the point of fearing the thought of their own bodies dead some time in the future. Are we scared to think of the frightful skeleton that lurks inside us or the slimy handful of brains that some scientists would like to inform us is all that we are? Von Hagens has engaged with that.

I see Professor Bainbridge is duly horrified:
Yuck. Double yuck. I want it banned and the harm principle can be damned. Do I have a reasoned analysis of how to fit the yuck factor into a coherent political theory?
As Justice Stewart once said, "I know it when I see it."

But the fact is we haven't seen it. Fourteen million human beings have paid fifteen dollars to see it, but we've only seen little pictures and read about it. The exhibit hasn't come to the United States. You'll have to go to Germany and see it. But we ought to wonder what are all these people doing coming to see plasticized corpses? Keep in mind that the objects are not rotten or smelly or discolored. They are plasticized and retain the color of a living human being. Perhaps people are coming to terms with the realities of their own body, looking at the insides and being amazed by the beauty and the intricacy.

There was a time when any sort of dissection of the human cadaver was considered terribly wrong. My original reaction to von Hagens's work is that it was wrong, that he was trying to make money and get attention by taking advantage of the emotions we have about the human body. But look at how many people he has reached. Are these people depraved? Look at the people who willingly donated their bodies (like the people who donate their bodies for medical students). Consider the history of dissection, its role in the development of medicine and art. Consider Andreas Versalius:
In 1539 the supply of dissection material increased when a Paduan judge became interested in Vesalius' work, and made bodies of executed criminals available to him. For the first time Vesalius was able make repeated and comparative dissections of humans. This was in marked contrast to Galen, the standard authority on anatomy who, for religious reasons, had been restricted to the dissection of animals. Galen had worked mainly on Barbary apes, considered closest to the human race. As Vesalius dissected more bodies he realised that Galen's textbooks and his own observations differed, and that humans do not share the same anatomy as apes.
You may say, let the doctors learn by dissection, but keep that business under wraps out of a sense of decency. Von Hagens has completely the opposite notion:
"Yes, some of the specimens are difficult to look at. To see a mutilated body is hard because we have fears about our own integrity. We have a deep-rooted anxiety about when we see the body opened up because in this way we have feelings about ourselves," concedes Von Hagens. "But at the same time, many people who have seen the exhibition have discovered a new respect for their bodies. One girl I spoke to said she had tried to commit suicide twice, but after seeing the bodies in the exhibition she would never contemplate harming it again. It is edutainment." ...

Von Hagens sees himself on a global mission to end the elitism of the medical profession which, he believes, has denied the lay public access to a better understanding of their own bodies. He hankers after the heady days of the renaissance and the three centuries thereafter, when anatomists and artists explored the workings of the human body as never before and made their workings public at anatomical theatres.
It's easy to make fun of the folks in Georgia who don't want schools to use the word "evolution" when teaching science:
New middle and high school science standards proposed by state Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox strike references to "evolution" and replace them with the term "biological changes over time," a revision critics say will further weaken learning in a critical subject.

But how different is it, really, from proposals to resolve the gay marriage issue by using the term "civil unions" instead of "marriage"? In both instances the state is catering to the sensitivities of persons with traditional religious values. Here's Chris Matthews interviewing Howard Dean on Hardball last December:

MATTHEWS: For all practical purposes, whether it's Vermont or New Mexico, is there any difference between civil union and civil marriage? For practical reasons.

DEAN: Well, in terms of legal rights, no, there is not.

MATTHEWS: So why are we quibbling over a name?

DEAN: Because marriage is very important to a lot of people who are pretty religious.

UPDATE, Feb. 4: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court writes: "The dissimilitude between the terms `civil marriage' and `civil union' is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status."
Gunther von Hagens, leaches the water out of human corpses, injects them with plastic, and arranges the various body parts into poses, often showing the figure holding one of its own organs. One British art journal reported:
"Reclining Woman in the 8th Month of Pregnancy", is, perhaps the most arresting. She lies in a classic pose of the artistic nude with womb opened to reveal an almost fully mature foetus; it could be tasteless and offensive, but in fact achieves a poignancy that is more than enough to justify the entire exhibition.

The exhibition of these reconfigured corpses is wildly popular, the NYT reports today: 14 million people have paid $15 each to see it. Is it wrong for people to be fascinated by these things? Von Hagens claims an artistic interest in anatomy and cites Leonardo da Vinci. Not surprisingly, many people are offended, but as long as he was using the bodies of willing donors, it seemed nothing could be done to stop him. But the immense profitability of the exhibit has created “a ravenous appetite for fresh cadavers,” and now there are accusations that he’s buying corpses of executed Chinese prisoners.
At first, Dr. von Hagens said, he worried that the dispute might dent attendance. "Some people might say, 'That's a scandal — I don't want to support a scandal,' " he said. "But in the long run, it won't matter."

On a recent afternoon, visitors seemed so distracted by the cadavers — sliced, diced, some clutching their internal organs in their hands — that no one bothered to ask where the bodies came from.

UPDATE: Here's another article on the controversy, which The Drudge Report is covering. And let me add the word "plastination," von Hagens's name for the process, in a blatant attempt at drawing Googlers.
I thought Bush was supposed to be the cowboy. This is a quote from General Wesley Clark:
"I am one tough hombre, and I can stand against George W. Bush, and we will take him down."

February 2, 2004

Okay, enough blogging about body parts and related spiritual topics for the day. It's time to watch TV. I've chosen the extra Monday edition of "American Idol" and "The Dennis Miller Show." I think Dennis Miller has been figuring out how to do his show. It was nice to see the chimpanzee return to the show on Friday. But you can't predict how good Miller's show will be based on the Friday example, because Friday had Martin Short who was just absolutely perfect as a guest. Oh, maybe the two of them could become co-hosts, as sort of "Hannity and Colmes," but funny. That would be wonderful.
That Renegade Breast Again. Alessandra Stanley is being deliciously cruel to poor Janet Jackson in tomorrow’s NYT:
Even trussed as she was in a shiny "Matrix"/dominatrix outfit, Janet Jackson, 37, has never had much luck being taken seriously as a sex symbol …

[T]he one moment of honesty in that coldly choreographed tableau was when the cup came off and out tumbled what looked like a normal middle-aged woman's breast ….

She’s even harsher toward CBS, putting its denials about the Janet Jackson matter in context with other recent CBS denials:
CBS insisted there was no quid pro quo when it sent Pfc. Jessica Lynch a letter suggesting that an exclusive interview with CBS News would be rewarded with other lucrative contracts within the Viacom empire.

CBS insisted that its decision to cancel the mini-series "The Reagans" had nothing to do with the right-wing lobbying campaign that threatened a boycott of advertisers' products.

And the network insisted that it did not sweeten a deal with Michael Jackson to secure a "60 Minutes" interview with him after his arrest last November as the network was preparing a Michael Jackson entertainment special.

Stanley's got a little denial going for herself--"One does not have to subscribe to conglomerate conspiracy theory to be suspicious"--but the point is, CBS has become a bit of a laughstock and Stanley's done a nice job of marshalling the evidence, putting Jackson's breast in context, and deftly calling attention to "the fungible walls between news and entertainment, and between art and commerce."

(Yeah, "fungible" isn't the right word--permeable? flimsy?--can't they check that stuff?)
The Sound of Two Eyes Not Blinking. (This is from Salon Premium, so you'll have to click through an ad.)
[A]lthough [General Wesley] Clark's low blink rate commands attention, it can also blind some culture watchers to the content of his message, which does not necessarily bode well for his campaign. "You can't hear what he's saying anymore because you're just watching his eyes and waiting for him to blink," said Kurt F., the blogger architect in Virginia. "It's like visual noise."

Salon presents numerous theories on why General Clark doesn't blink, which Wonkette gathers and summarizes nicely.

H. Ross Perot also had the low-blink idiosyncracy, which was widely noted in the 1992 debate, as psychprof Joseph Tecce noted a while back:
"Someone who seems to sport an unblinking reptilian stare can put off people, like someone who blinks upwards of 100 times per minute," he explained. "There is an optimal level of blink frequency that is pleasing to the eye of the beholder."

Unlike too little blinking, too much blinking has been studied. The conclusion is clear, according to Salon: scientists say it betrays "deception or stress."

If, as asserted, a high blink rate signals deception or stress, then the Republicans have done a lot to seem mistrustful and manic. During the fall 2000 presidential debate, for example, the Hartford Courant's Susan Campbell counted the number of times Al Gore and George W. Bush blinked. Bush won (or, rather, lost), with a final tally of 2,867 to Gore's 1,808. In 1996, Bob Dole entered the annals of presidential-debate blinking history when, after being questioned about the nation's economy, he hit a blink rate of 163 a minute. And Richard Nixon's blink rate increased markedly during the Watergate hearings and press conferences.

Thanks for your efforts, Susan...

I wonder if these scientists are taking into account that some candidates may be wearing contact lenses that they aren't completely comfortable with when they face the cameras. If Bush normally goes with glasses, then switches to lenses for TV and Gore did not, that alone could account for the difference.

But the real question isn't whether blinking a lot or not blinking a lot really is evidence of deception or a "reptilian" nature or whatever. The real question is how the viewer instinctively, intuitively responds to a candidate. That is, the mechanism that should concern us is our own reptilian nature.
Germaine Greer versus Australia:

I was 12 years old when I decided that I had to get out of Australia if my life was to begin. I had been bored ever since I could remember. I was ungainly and I was bored by sport, which in Australia is a sure sign that you're a bad person.

"I was 12 years old when I decided that I had to [blank] if my life was to begin." Isn't that pretty much the feeling of being 12?

The first time I ever sprang for the hardcover price of a book because I couldn't wait until it came out in paper, it was for a book by Germaine Greer. The price was $5.95. What great fun that book was back then! I well remember the shock--more shocking than Janet Jackson's Superbowl breast--of the photo of the brash feminist as she appeared on the back of the book: she wore heavy eye makeup right when it had seemed that we weren't going to do that any more.
Janet Jackson's Revelation. Well, I don't watch football and am only looking at the still photo that is up on Drudge, but based on that, I find MTV's apology pretty funny:

The tearing of Janet Jackson's costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance.

The costume was obviously designed to tear away to reveal precisely what was revealed. The "tear" is just too neat, too improbably made through tough fabric/leather, and too well-targetted. And what's with the giant metal attachment?

I do believe this part of the apology--or, I mean half, of it:
MTV regrets this incident occurred and we apologize to anyone who was offended by it.

Basically, that is: we want those who were offended to still like us. Of course, if no one were offended, it wouldn't have been worth doing.

UPDATE: On reflection, I realize that there are plenty of reasons to do it if it didn't offend anyone! One reason to do it is to shock and surprise, but if it didn't upset anyone anymore, obviously, plenty of people would enjoy seeing an exposed breast and some people would be interested in the fashion innovation.
Spiritualizing Hamburgers. Nina's blogging the Sunday Times interview with the Salvation Army commissioner:
So that tidy little sum of $1.5 billion that Kroc left to the Salvation Army (the single largest philanthropic donation to an organization ever)? It's going to the building of new community centers that'll dispense not so much the food and shelter thing (how déclassé!), but advice on how to sustain a marriage (GW, your message is on a roll!), how to enjoy family life, and how to build character and cultivate spirit. When the Commissioner of the Salvation Army was asked how poor people would be able to attend to their souls and their families without food or shelter, he answered that in addition to programs on nutrition (there's a bit of an irony in using of McDonald's fortunes for this), they'll teach poor people how to sit down as a family and enjoy "the fellowship of just being able to sit together."

Consider that the man himself remains somewhat poor:
My wife and I are paid about $500 a week for the two of us. That comes out to about $28,000 a year. ...

Do you feel poor?

Not at all. The Salvation Army also provides our house and a car. My wife and I are very happy.

Consider too that it is more centrally the role of government to provide the basic economic safety net. Government should not feel free to shift that responsibility onto private charities. And private charities are especially important doing what government shouldn't be doing, especially with respect to providing religion and similar spiritual support for people. Is it wrong to choose spiritual care over food?
"Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!"

UPDATE: Nina has a response to my response. I think a key question here is: what did the donor intend? I'm going to assume that Mrs. Kroc was well represented and advised and knew what her contribution would be used for and knew how to restrict the use of the gift for another purpose if that is what she had wanted.
An Italian gynecologist of Somalian descent, Omar Abdulcadir, proposes an alternative to female genital cutting/mutilation, the NYT reported yesterday:

That alternative, as he described it, would be a piercing of the tip of the clitoris that would draw just a drop or two of blood and would be largely symbolic. He said he would use a topical anesthetic.

Jacob Levy over at Volokh Conspiracy comments:
The question is, soughly, whether the substitution of a relatively humane procedure performed hygenically for a monstrous one performed unhygenically outweighs the cost, i.e. undermining the attempt to stamp out female genital cutting and the attitudes that generate it.

(Soughly? I can't even think what that is a typo for. And why is Volokh Conspiracy already up to Wednesday? They blog fast.)

Surely as between the two procedures, it would be better to have the far less extreme one, just as it would be better to be tortured for an hour than for a year. If we could be assured that those who would otherwise have the radical procedure would switch to Dr. Abdulcadir's procedure, and everything else remained equal, we should support this innovation. The first problem is, as the Times article reveals, perhaps no one would move to the middle ground:

Several opponents said immigrants who were deeply invested in tradition would probably deem the alternative insufficient, while immigrants who were liberated from that tradition would feel no need for a substitute.

Sometimes there is no middle ground. The second problem is that becoming involved in developing a middle ground seems to legitimate the evil extreme, and it participates in evil. So we can't trust that everything else would remain equal. Levy has written a book on multiculturalism, which I haven't read, but I rankled at his blogged comment "A Seattle hospital considered doing precisely the same thing a number of years ago, until it was bullied out of it by activists and by Patricia Schroeder." There is at least a basis for principled disagreement here about whether compromise is acceptable. Those who resist compromise are not necessarily bullies. I'd like to know more about exactly how the "activists" misbehaved, if they did.

We may gain from observing the Italian debate. The Times reports:
Italians are still absorbing [the reality of "sudden demographic changes"] and sifting through the related challenges, both practical and philosophical.

A front-page article in the Turin daily La Stampa on Jan. 23 asked why a symbolic alternative to genital cutting would validate that practice any more than the symbolic consumption of the body of Jesus at a Catholic Mass would validate cannibalism.

A closer analogy to communion would be if the symbolic genital cutting was performed on something that wasn't part of anybody's body! And of course there was never any actual cannibalism in the Christian tradition. The original Last Supper used only symbolic bread. There is no belief in the value of cannibalism that communion is honoring!

That said, Dr. Abdulcadir's procedure doesn't seem any worse than the sort of body piercings we tolerate people engaging in for all sorts of reasons. We aren't all up in arms about that. There shouldn't be discrimination against the religious motivation.

February 1, 2004

"What's really interesting... is how precisely wrong some of the information was," Former CIA Director James Woolsey said, discussing the Kay Report, on This Week With George Stephanopolous:

There was very specific and precise information which apparently turned out to be quite wrong. ... Human intelligence ... is not a panacea. If we had done a superb job and recruited a gaggle of Iraqi generals, as of a year ago, and had cleverly gotten case officers in to figure out how to debrief them, they would have, apparently, from what we're hearing now, all have said, yes, we have chemical weapons and would have believed it. Units to the right and left had them, from their point of view.
Has Justice Scalia “compromised his impartiality" by going duck hunting with Dick Cheney?

Jeffrey Rosen marshalls the evidence of Justices hanging out with Presidents: Harlan Fiske Stone played medicine ball with Herbert Hoover, Robert H. Jackson attended an intimate dinner celebrating FDR’s wedding anniversary, William O. Douglas played poker with FDR, etc.

But that was the old-style “model for male bonding between justices and presidents,” according to Rosen. After Watergate, he writes, "Washington became more adversarial":
Socializing among justices, executive officials and litigants continues, but on increasingly wary terms. Consider the unspoken rules of one of Washington's most exclusive poker games, which has included Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Scalia, and lawyers like Robert S. Bennett and Leonard Garment, the former Nixon counselor. Mr. Garment said that during the months he had a case pending before the court, he stayed away from the game. He lamented the growing concern for appearances, and insisted there is nothing wrong with litigants socializing with justices as long as they don't discuss pending cases. "If we can't trust justices to behave appropriately, and force them to live in a bubble," Mr. Garment said, "we can forget about the ability of a court appropriately to reflect a changing culture."

Even though Rosen doesn't think Cheney and Scalia talked about pending cases when they went duck hunting, he worries that justices are too isolated from the political sphere, especially from having informal contacts with politicians of different viewpoints. Rosen makes a big leap here, speculating that "the growing isolation between justices and politicians" is causing the Court to "treat the president and Congress as unruly schoolchildren rather than coordinate branches of government."

Presumably, Rosen is referring to the Court's enforcement of constitutional limits on the commerce power and on the power to legislate to remedy violations of Fourteenth Amendment rights. The NYT reader is expected to assume that these cases he's obliquely referring to are outrageously high-handed. There isn't room in this piece to seriously examine whether perhaps the judicial branch is simply taking its own role seriously, rather than disrespecting the other branches. Even if the Court has reined in other branches in some of these cases, that doesn't mean it has treated them like "unruly schoolchildren." It may simply mean that it has treated them as what they are, human beings engaged in the exercise of vast political power, tempted to undervalue the constitutional limitations that stand in their way.

Stronger doses of real political life don't seem likely to cure that perception.
Camille Paglia has something else to say about Madonna. This is from an article by Dinitia Smith about why "Sex and the City" is "a sociological event," representing "the spirit of the decade."
Ms. Paglia says, the success of "Sex and the City" marks a defeat for the "1980's anti-porn, anti-sex wing of feminists" and a victory for "the huge wing of us pro-sex feminists who came back with a vengeance in 1990, thanks to Madonna."

But even though "Sex and the City" is all about the spirit of the decade, it's full of what Paglia calls "archaic themes," themes found in trashy novels from the 1950s and 1960s, specifically "The Best of Everything," by Rona Jaffe (1958) and "Valley of the Dolls," by Jacqueline Susann (1966).

Too bad the Times article doesn't give us more verbatim Pagliaspeak. But other scholars must be drawn in to support the theory that the TV show is a "sociological event," worthy of scholarly commentary: Prada handbags and Jimmy Choo shoes are "apotropaic," "female sexuality is still punished," and the show is about "the semiotics of masculinity." That last, which the Times translates as "women trying to understand men," comes from a film studies prof who has written "a study of erotic fantasies about ... 'Star Trek.'"