July 3, 2004

Truman Capote on Brando.

The NYT Brando obit calls attention to "a crushing profile by Truman Capote in The New Yorker in 1957." The New Yorker has the Capote article up on its website. There is a lot of great Capote writing in the article, so you should read it. I'll just set out my three favorite Brando quotes:
"The last eight, nine years of my life have been a mess," he said. "Maybe the last two have been a little better. Less rolling in the trough of the wave. Have you ever been analyzed? I was afraid of it at first. Afraid it might destroy the impulses that made me creative, an artist. A sensitive person receives fifty impressions where somebody else may only get seven. Sensitive people are so vulnerable; they're so easily brutalized and hurt just because they are sensitive. The more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalized, develop scabs. Never evolve. Never allow yourself to feel anything, because you always feel too much. Analysis helps. It helped me. But still, the last eight, nine years I've been pretty mixed up, a mess pretty much. . . ."

"I’m going to walk through the part, and that’s that. Sometimes I think nobody knows the difference anyway. For the first few days on the set, I tried to act. But then I made an experiment. In this scene, I tried to do everything wrong I could think of. Grimaced and rolled my eyes, put in all kind of gestures and expressions that had no relation to the part I’m supposed to be playing. What did [the director] Logan say? He just said, ‘It’s wonderful. Print it!’”

“I’ve seriously considered—I’ve very seriously thought about—throwing the whole thing up. This business of being a successful actor. What’s the point, if it doesn’t evolve into anything? ... You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was—a big success. I was so absorbed in myself, my own problems, I never looked around, took account. I used to walk in New York, miles and miles, walk in the streets late at night, and never see anything. I was never sure about acting, whether that was what I really wanted to do; I’m still not. Then, when I was in ‘Streetcar,’ and it had been running a couple of months, one night—dimly, dimly—I began to hear this roar. It was like I’d been asleep, and I woke up here sitting on a pile of candy.”

A sport I would watch on TV

if this athlete was playing.
Sonya Thomas ... who weighs anywhere from 100 to 110 pounds depending on the contents of her stomach, ... is ranked No. 2 in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. ... She routinely outgorges men four times her size. She hopes to do the same Sunday at Coney Island, where the contest will be televised live on ESPN. ...

The records Thomas holds are astounding. Eleven pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes. Nine pounds of crawfish jambalaya in 10 minutes. Eight pounds of turducken (chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey) in 12 minutes. Forty-three soft tacos in 11 minutes. 167 chicken wings in 32 minutes. ...

Her body ... seems to place no limitations on her ability to eat. Thomas said her doctors examined her and found that her stomach is only slightly larger than normal. But her slight, skinny build may be one of her biggest advantages.

The prevalent theory in the competitive eating world is the "Belt of Fat" theory, which postulates that skinny people's stomachs can expand more easily because they are not corseted by the ring of fat that burdens the heavy eaters.

So, apparently, the fat on fat people keeps them from getting even fatter? Maybe that's why people regain their weight after they diet: they are in better condition to eat more. In any case, I'm going to TiVo this event: it seems like an exciting and amusing spectacle. Or am I supposed to disapprove of the waste of food or the celebration of gluttony and tie it to what's wrong with America and the SUV problem and that sort of thing? I'll leave that to somebody else.

I will just say: "turducken" is a very unfortunate word. Didn't the people who coined it notice the first four letters? As for the idea of stuffing one bird with another in order of size, why stop with the chicken? There ought to be at least two or three more birds that could be used. Once you accept the basic idea, shouldn't you run with it?

Plastic cadavers in L.A.

The art/science exhibition of plasticized human cadavers, which I wrote about back in February (here, here, and here), is now in Los Angeles, where the kids who see it say things like, "It's kind of cool ... because they're, like, dead."

Maybe Professor Bainbridge, who responded to my February posts (and did not like the idea of the exhibit at all), will check it out now that it's come to his town.

Evaluating Marlon Brando.

The NYT runs an above-the-fold obituary for Marlon Brando. (You'll have to look at the paper copy to see this, but here's the obit.) Meanwhile, will the anti-Brando people resist having their say? Terry Teachout doesn't hold back out of respect for the recently dead. (Via Jeff Jarvis, via Memeorandum.) I favor having a full discussion of Brando, just as I think it was appropriate to evaluate Reagan's life work right after he died. One ought to refrain from nasty sniping, perhaps, especially if there are still family around, but the death of a great man or woman is a unique occasion for a retrospective, for learning about art or politics or some other important area of human endeavor, and readers deserve good information and trenchant opinion. Brando was a controversial figure for many reasons, and he himself had a broad idea of what was appropriate to do on a given occasion, as he showed when he used the Oscar ceremony to plead for attention to the way movies portray Native Americans. In fact, Brando did a lot of bad and sloppy work, and he made too few movies and too many bad movies. He squandered much of what he had to offer, and that was a great loss.

I watched "Don Juan de Marco" last night, and it demonstrates many of the problems. For one thing, Brando's body, once a powerful part of his screen expression, was a constant obstacle to full expression. For another thing, he was not trying half as hard as the two brilliant actors--Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway--who seemed all jazzed up by the opportunity to play opposite him. He didn't bother to meet the enthusiasm they brought to the project.

His off-screen statements show that he was not interested in the phenomenon of being Brando. These statements remind me of the sorts of things The Beatles said about breaking up: they got tired of being The Beatles. But when you're a one-person phenomenon, you can't break up--at least not the way a foursome can. You can become so fat that you're not that screen idol anymore. It's to his credit that he put that broken-down man on film in at least three great films: "The Godfather," "Last Tango in Paris," and "Apocalypse, Now."

Here are some apt lines from the NYT obit:
And more often than not, he would express contempt for the craft of acting. "Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts," Mr. Brando once said. "Whenever we want something from somebody or when we want to hide something or pretend, we're acting. Most people do it all day long."

He described himself as a lazy man, and he was notoriously lax about learning his lines. "If a studio offered to pay me as much to sweep the floor as it did to act, I'd sweep the floor," he said. "There isn't anything that pays you as well as acting while you decide what the hell you're going to do with yourself. Who cares about the applause? Do I need applause to feel good about myself?"

Yet no one was better at finding brilliant touches that brought a character to life. Many have pointed to a scene in "On the Waterfront" during which he delicately put on the dainty lace glove of the young woman he was awkwardly trying to court, a seemingly unconscious gesture that fills the moment with heart-breaking vulnerability.

The NYT refers "to a pair of truly odd appearances on "Larry King Live" in the mid-1990's." I'm thinking King will re-run these over the weekend and recommend setting the TiVo.

A questionable political gesture.

The Seattle Times has this story:
Still smarting from the 2000 Florida recount, a group of congressional Democrats led by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas has asked the United Nations to monitor this year's presidential election.

"We are deeply concerned that the right of U.S. citizens to vote in free and fair elections is again in jeopardy," the legislators wrote to Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The letter writers can't have meant for their request to be granted, since the U.N.'s own standards would demand an invitation from the State Department, not a small group of legislators, so the question is whether the letter is justified as a political gesture. Johnson's aides say it is because of the "widespread allegations of voter disenfranchisement" in the last election and a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights finding potential "significant problems" in the coming election. It seems to me that persons like Johnson, who actually hold positions of political power, deserve criticism for attempting to employ a power that they do not have to solve a problem. Why have you not in the four years that have passed since the last election found a way to use your power to do something? You're concerned specifically about democracy in this case, yet your own actions breed cynicism: Why should voters care about voting if members of Congress have no useful power?

July 2, 2004

Another Fourth of July weekend image:



A Fourth of July weekend image:



Ugly art, ugly politics.

How interesting it is to see that the artist behind the Nation ad that shows Bush devouring a child is Richard Serra (link via Drudge), the artist who imposed that egotistic expression of hostility, "Tilted Arc," on Manhattan office workers in the early 1980s. It especially interests me not just because I've been critical of the ugly images being used by Bush opponents, but because I've been interested in "Tilted Arc" for a long time and even mentioned it in two posts this week.

First, I was praising the colorful carpeting installed in Grand Central as a good public art installation by contrasting it to "Tilted Arc"--"a curving wall of [rusting] raw steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet high, that carve[d] the space of the Federal Plaza in half." The art imposed on people by forcing them to encounter its unconventional aesthetic and by requiring them to take a long walk around it every time they crossed the Plaza. They could then spend their lunch break thinking about how much they detested the artist who forced them to engage with his hostile vision or, alternatively, to curse the federal government, which purchased the thing with their tax money under a federal program that required 0.5 percent of a building's budget to be spent on art. Here's how Serra characterized the experience he'd created for the office workers:
"The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer's movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes."
The entire environment really changed when the sculpture was removed in 1989, after years of complaints. The sculpture's high art proponents ridiculed the complaints, including a fear of "terrorists who might use it as a blasting wall for bombs." Serra himself said that to move the "site-specific" sculpture would be to destroy it. He also said: "I don't think it is the function of art to be pleasing. Art is not democratic. It is not for the people." Fine, but then, keep it out of the plaza! And don't take taxpayer money. The Grand Central carpeting on the other hand, can be walked on comfortably, is amusing for almost everybody, and is going to be removed after a short time, so any perception of ugliness will soon enough give way to the good feeling of relief when it is gone. "Tilted Arc" was there, in the way, permanently, with no feeling or sensitivity for the people who worked in the Plaza. I worked in the area at the time and know first-hand its effect on human beings, who had "site-specific" jobs and did not deserve to be challenged by art to take a 120-foot walk around a steel arc hundreds or thousands of times.

Second, I referred to "Tilted Arc" in a discussion of the awful teardrop WTC memorial, which I hope is never installed. Here, my point was that the high art experts will not defend the piece the way they defended "Tilted Arc." The memorial flouts high art sensibility. I don't want public art by democratic vote either. There do need to be taste leaders. And in any case, there's what lawprofs would call a dysfunction in democracy if the people of Jersey City vote for a big monument that they erect where the people of Manhattan have to look at it all the time. Here, I'm on the side of the high art people. It's not a contradiction: public art needs to satisfy both high art values and the needs of the people who use the space.

So what do I make of Richard Serra's newest creation, the Bush-bashing riff on the great Goya painting? It makes me suspect that Serra, like many artists, feels a raging hostility that motivates his art. I've always thought "Tilted Arc" showed the artist's hostility toward the workers who used Federal Plaza and his sense of superiority about the rightness of his own vision. Serra's Bush ad betrays the same qualities. Yet now he does not have the mantle of high art; lured into the political fray, he has added his hateful image to the pile of vicious anti-Bush propaganda that makes me want to ignore ugly politics and contemplate of high art in a beautiful plaza.

The great Marlon Brando.

The brilliant Marlon Brando has died. He died on Thursday--I had a dream about him in the early a.m. hours of that day. We were looking at the cover for "Don Juan De Marco" just yesterday and talking about what a great actor he was. I was going to watch "Don Juan De Marco" last night; I will watch it tonight. I was just looking at my old computer the other day, the one where I had changed all the little folder icons to other images, and the folder called "ideas" was a tiny picture of Marlon Brando--it was Brando in his white T-shirt from "A Streetcar Named Desire." We almost watched "Streetcar" the last time we had to agree on a movie--it was in the final three. I've seen that film many times. It's a film that is hard to see for the real story it tells because one is so absorbed and affected and fascinated by Brando. IMDB only lists 42 movies for Brando--which ones have I seen?
The Island of Dr. Moreau
The Freshman
Superman
The Missouri Breaks
Last Tango in Paris
The Godfather
Mutiny on the Bounty
The Fugitive Kind
Guys and Dolls
On the Waterfront
The Wild One
Julius Caesar
A Streetcar Named Desire

I've also seen the Brando parts of "Apocalypse, Now."

Brando invented a way of acting that has affected what many other actors have done. Too bad he was not in more great films. Why did he make some quite awful things? I've read Peter Manso's biography of Brando, which explains a lot of his strange choices, though it was published too early to explain how he got the idea to wear a bucket of ice strapped to his head as Dr. Moreau. Ah, it's sad to lose the great man--a great artist! Good-bye to Brando!

UPDATE: There will be many beautiful obituaries in tomorrow's papers. This is from the NYT:
Certainly among the handful of enduringly great American film actors — some say the greatest — he has also been, without question, the most widely imitated. Virtually all of the finest male stars who have emerged in the last half-century, from Paul Newman to Warren Beatty to Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio, contain some echo of Mr. Brando's world-shaking paradigm.

Simply put: In film acting, there is before Brando, and there is after Brando.

And I did watch "Don Juan de Marco." Marlon Brando was last seen dancing on a perfect beach with Faye Dunaway.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I have more to say about Brando and the response to his death here.

Blog dinner ... with earwigs!

Jeremy finally checks in with his report on the Wednesday dinner here, with a post entitled, in part, "Do these weblogs make me look fat?" The prospect of eating a box of earwigs is made relevant to the issue of Senator Feingold.

Laptops and law school exams.

My law school does not yet allow students to take exams on computers. I chaired a committee many years ago that addressed the question whether to allow them, and we decided against it. For me the deciding factor at the time was the expense: we would need to make students buy laptops, and many students wanted their better, cheaper desktops. A related concern was that students from more affluent backgrounds would be more comfortable with computers and more adept, and that would be daunting to students from less privileged backgrounds who would see the test-taker next to them speed-typing and cutting and pasting with great ease. My committee surveyed the students, and a huge concern was how annoying and possibly unnerving the sound of fast typing would be. Then there was the complicated question of exam software to prevent students from cutting and pasting from their notes: would it work, would students have to keep buying it forever?

These days, laptops are, of course, much cheaper than they were then, keyboards are quieter, and everyone is much more used to them. Most students are going to buy them anyway for taking notes in class and using the internet around campus and around town. And handwriting is becoming worse. Word counts can be imposed to keep speed-typers from producing excessively long answers, and word counts are much more effective than page limits on handwritten exams, because page limits create an incentive for small writing, which exacerbates the bad handwriting problem. And as many faculty members switch to take-home exams to avoid having to read handwriting, a change in the computer policy may be needed to preserve the traditional, in-class, time-pressure, proctored exam.

But what about that software? Presumably, the kinks have been worked out. But what is this I see? "The exam software we use does NOT support Macs." (It's not just one law school: see here and here and here and here and here and here and I'll stop now.) Do these schools have any idea of the feelings of revulsion a statement like that on their websites provokes? If you've been using Macintosh all your computer-life, the idea of being forced to use those other things is really depressing. If I were going to law school today and had a choice of schools, support for Macintosh would be a factor. For your damned exam software, you're going to make everyone who has bonded with Apple give up a central pleasure of daily life? It's hard and intimidating enough to go to law school. To make young people give up their Apples? No! Not acceptable!

Law school websites try so hard to project a friendly and welcoming image to prospective applicants. May I suggest supporting Macintosh and highlighting the fact that, unlike many law schools, you do? I look out on my class full of students and the lit-up Apple icons on the lids of laptops are everywhere. No switch to the use of computers on exams should entail taking this basic happiness away from them.

UPDATE: Some of the exam software requires a floppy drive, and of course Mac laptops haven't had floppy drives in quite a while. (And, when we had them, our discs were never floppy.) But a floppy drive is an add-on option for a Dell laptop, so this feature is falling out of favor even outside of the Mac fold. Be careful new law students! You may receive a memo from your law school telling you the requirements for a laptop to use to take exams that does not bother to tell you that you'll need a floppy drive. I know of at least one prominent law school that is setting up law students for this surprise. Call your school's tech advisor--don't rely on the website or some prepared memo.

July 1, 2004

Some Fourth of July weekend images.

A sequinned halter top and some vintage (or pseudo-vintage) posters--all from the heartland of Madison, Wisconsin:





Okay.

Tonya now has her South Africa material up, including lots of photos and that description of lions and hyenas I mentioned in the previous post. (Start here and scroll up.) Still no word from Jeremy today. And not too much from me today either.

A Madison dinner.

Tonya is back from South Africa and posting, though not yet posting about South Africa. I happen to know that she has a great description of a street fight among lions and hyenas to put in writing, but we will have to wait for it. Nina has an account of last night's dinner (where the hyena story was told). Nina has a photograph of a dessert that violates the rule against eating anything larger than your head and some enigmatic references to a part of the conversation that addressed the question whether men over 40 are sufficiently attractive which for no sensible reason ended up focusing on Russ Feingold! I'll file that under "Things That Are Distinctively Madison"--along with the opinion, stated by one diner, that Russ is "too conservative"!

Personally, I was exhausted yesterday and just limping toward my four day break from classes, but I nevertheless met up with Tonya, Nina, and Jeremy for a dinner that went on for 4 hours. Though ostensibly a blogger dinner, little was said about blogging. I'm too tired to figure out why. I can't figure out how I lasted the 4 hours, especially since I drank more than my share of the two bottles of wine the four of us consumed. I did learn a useful thing about blogging: that people read blogs using software that causes every little typo correction I make to seem to be a new post, so the minor tinkering I do is actually quite conspicuous.

June 30, 2004

So what have you been watching on TV lately?

You may have noticed I haven't been saying much about television lately. American Idol ended, and Joe Schmo was too tedious to watch. (After they decided to tone things down to cool the suspicions of one of their dupes, what was the point? The dupes believe they are on a reality show, so what's funny if the actors are acting like regular contestants on a reality show--other than that, because it's on Spike TV, the games are more sexual?) I've even stopped watching The Daily Show, and I'd been a devotée ever since Jon Stewart took over, before the 2000 election. (I just got tired of him laughing at everything that seemed to be going badly in Iraq, acting like Bush is inherently a joke, and not bothering to disguise his hostility toward guests that attempt to take the other side--especially, recently, Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard). And Dennis Miller is irking me from the other direction. (Cheering over the video of L.A. police beating a man who had obviously surrendered was just disgusting.)

So what am I watching? I'm keeping up with the new season of "Six Feet Under." I think George is sending the boxes of excrement to himself. It's clearly not Arthur, who, as Television Without Pity notes, was off buying a suit when the new package of poo arrived. I think it's George because he has had the motive and opportunity. Also, he completely underreacts when a package of crap is opened a couple feet away from him. "Six Feet Under" has its longueurs. I don't find anything interesting in the relationship between David and Keith. Both characters are incredibly bland. I can't help liking Lauren Ambrose: did you see her when she was on the Isaac Mizrahi Show and sang "God Bless the Child"? It was unbelievably good. I like the Arthur character. And I like Rachel Griffiths. The Ruth character--I don't know, how many times can an older woman break out of her repression? After the second or third time, it ought to be ridiculous. But Frances Conroy is so good, the plot line can survive a few extra recyclings.

For some reason, I've been soaking up an excess of dead body material. In addition to "Six Feet Under," I've been watching the HBO "Autopsy" series (on HBO on demand). And the other day, we needed to agree on a movie, and we decided on the old 80s movie "River's Edge," which has a lot to do with a dead body lying on a river bank. "River's Edge" was a big deal in its time: it showed how American society was on the verge of collapse because all humanity had drained out of everyone (except perhaps one drop remaining in Keanu Reeves). But here it is 16 years later, so its predictive value is gone. (Yay! We didn't go straight to hell!) We were saying things like "This movie hates poor people" and "This movie hates young people" and "When are they going to stop just driving around?" and "Where the hell are they supposed to be going now?" and "Is this thing ever going to end?" But you should see the unique performance of Crispin Glover in his prime. And it's the perfect choice if you want to wallow in 80s-style sordidness. The sets are perfect expressions of woeful misery. And there are some memorable lines, like: "I quit being a mother. It's just not worth it!"

Last night I watched the movie I couldn't get agreement on the other night, "Russian Ark." Here the question becomes not "When are they going to stop just driving around?" but "When are they going to stop just floating around?" The film is largely a technical stunt, a single shot 90 minutes long, floating through the rooms and halls of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. We see a lot of art and costumery and try to absorb various references to Russian history. Is it arty enough? Could it be more arty? The word arty was invented for this sort of thing. My favorite movie is "My Dinner With André," which is testament to the fact that I don't need a story or any action, but I found it impossible to stave off boredom. Yes, there are some beautiful images, and the technical achievement can be marvelled at (how all the thousands of actors hit their marks and two orchestras played their pieces flawlessley--or at least appeared to), but my advice is to save this for a time when you want a purely dreamy experience. The term "moving picture" is unusually apt.

Ugly political imagery.

Last night I posted a couple of photographs of rather creepy posters seen in Madison. There was a third photograph I was going to include, of a poster seen in the window of the Rainbow Bookstore a few days ago. After previewing the draft of my post, I decided to delete it: it was too ugly. Today, I see there is an article in the Washington Post about a new novel that consists largely of a character fantasizing about killing the President. (The book is "Checkpoint," by Nicholson Baker, an author I have liked very much in the past, though I never read "Vox," his novel about phone sex that Monica Lewinsky was said to have bought for Bill Clinton.) I found the Washington Post article via National Review's Kerry Spot, which I saw had linked to this post of mine that bemoaned the lack of rational discussion in politics. The Kerry Spot post enumerates many recent over-the-top expressions of rabid hostility to Bush (such as Nicholson's book). Considering that, as well as the ad in The Nation that Andrew Sullivan linked to yesterday, I will go ahead and post the photograph I declined to show yesterday, which I consider extremely offensive, especially considering the recent beheadings in Iraq:

Adult friends ... and dolls from the 1950s.

Nina has a post on the When-Harry-Met-Sally topic of whether men can be decent friends for women. I'm not going to wade into that other than to say all sorts of people can fall short as friends and real friendship among adults may be much rarer than we think it ought to be. I once heard Howard Stern--yes, I like Howard Stern--cut off a guest who was complaining about a bad friend with a harsh statement along the lines of: "I have news for you: adults do not have friends." That's sad and cynical, but his point was if you're looking for what you had when you were a child, you're going to be disappointed. Are your opposite-sex adult friends more disappointing than your same-sex adult friends? I guess it depends on what you were expecting. But I wasn't going to wade into that...

I wanted to talk about dolls in the 1950s. Nina has a photo of herself in 1957 with a favorite doll named "Johnny." This brought pangs of guilt to me as I remember upsetting my parents one Christmas in the 1950s by rejecting a rag doll my grandmother had made. In fact, as I was told repeatedly: she sewed it by hand when she was flat on her back in the hospital! My grandmother had made two cloth dolls, with beautifully embroidered faces and hand-sewn satin clothes. She gave the girl doll to my sister and the boy doll to me. I was outraged and horrified in that special ridiculous kid way, and I couldn't understand that my grandmother didn't know the offense of sticking me with--ugh!--a boy doll!

There are two other doll-related childhood perspectives from the 1950s for me. First, my sister and I maintained an elaborate "doll house" in the form of a large green bookcase. We had many "little dolls"--Ginny and Jill dolls, back in the pre-Barbie days. Ginny dolls were 7" little girl dolls, and Jill dolls were larger and suitable to be the mothers. There were no male dolls in this large family, but there was one Ginny doll that had lost its hair. That doll was named "Anquoinette," and it belonged to my sister, who glued on some of her own hair to cover the bald plastic. Anquoinette was also distinguished by her wheelchair, which made her the best and most important doll. I'm not sure how we arrived at that opinion--surely, not from some conception of political correctness! But Anquoinette was a princess among dolls.

The other 1950s doll story vaguely connects to the most famous dolls from the 1950s: dolls used in the social science research that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In the experiments, black dolls were perceived by children as inferior. My personal story is that my sister and I had black dolls, which were bought probably around the same time that Brown was decided (1954). Our dolls were rubber baby dolls, perhaps the identical dolls that were used in the experiments. I still have mine, though it is somewhat melted from age. Why did we have them? At this time, I did not even know a single black person, though I had seen black people on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, in part of the city that everyone I knew called, quite bluntly, "the slum." Why then did my sister and I have black dolls? Did some enlightened relative provide them? No, my sister and I saw them in a store and begged for them. Even though I can't remember other instances of my parents buying toys because we begged (quite the opposite!), they did buy these. They did not point out that the dolls represented black children, a fact my sister and I were supremely unaware of. We simply saw the dolls as different from any dolls we'd seen before, and we loved that. It was only much later I realized the dolls were black dolls, and it was strange to think back to a time when that was simply imperceptible to us.

Would we tell France to keep their Statue of Liberty?

So asks a letter writer to a newspaper in Jersey City, where there are second thoughts about a plan to install a 10-story tall sculpture on a pier across the river from the World Trade Center site. The sculpture is pictured, in model form, posing with its artist, the Russian Zurab Tsereteli, on the front page of today's NYT. It is a horrendous bronze twin-tower-shape with a large jagged hole through the center and a maudlin, shiny, metal teardrop hanging inside that hole. Like the Statue of Liberty, it is a gift.

I wrote yesterday about the problem of imposing public art on people, and this teardrop monstrosity is surely an imposition, purporting to represent the grief of the city in the form of one artist's egotistic self-expression/self-promotion. People in Manhattan will have to look at it forever. It's not an artwork that seeks to "challenge" viewers the way "Tilted Arc" and "Tumbling Woman" did. Challenging the viewer is a standard high-art goal, which can be a problem in the case of public art (my point yesterday). The horrid teardrop WTC sculpture has a different problem: it's ugly and idiotic. With NYC and the rest of the world now alerted about the monstrosity thanks to the NYT, I presume Jersey City will come to its senses and reject the gift. It will not garner support for the sort of people who defended "Tilted Arc" and "Tumbling Woman," people who favor the placement of challenging art in public places. High art fans are sure to hate this thing, and high art fans are quite likely to see and respond to the front-page NYT story.

But that letter writer raises an interesting point. If Americans had reacted to art they way they do now back in 1886 when France offered us the Statue of Liberty, would we have accepted it? We're so used to the colossus in the harbor that it takes some effort to imagine seeing it for the first time and thinking about whether it is a good idea to undertake the work of building the pedestal and maintaining the site and to force people to look at the thing forever. I think there would be plenty of ridicule: the arrogant sculptor with his self-aggrandizing, oversized hulk of metal, the sentimental and pedestrian attempt to portray an abstraction in the form of a woman holding up a light, the ridiculous spikes on the head, anything we don't like about France, etc. I think the opponents of the Statue of Liberty could easily win if it were in dispute today.

Nevertheless, I dearly hope Jersey City rejects the Russian artist's gift. It needs to shed the teardrop.

June 29, 2004

Poster anomie.

Recently observed in Madison.



I hope Ray Bradbury is not being exploited.

Ray Bradbury did a phone interview with Andrea Mitchell on last night's Hardball. He's upset, as has been widely noted, that Michael Moore derived the title "Fahrenheit 9/11" from Bradbury's title "Fahrenheit 451." You can read the transcript at that link or listen to the interview, which I recommend. Here's a key passage, with a bracketed addition of mine in boldface:
MITCHELL: Well, what would fair compensation be for taking or appropriating the title “Fahrenheit 451”?

BRADBURY: The fair thing would be giving the title back. ... And all I want is my title back.

MITCHELL: You don’t think that you should get a piece of the $21.8 million they made in the first weekend alone?

BRADBURY: No, I don’t care about money. That’s not the point. The point is that he stole something. All I want is to have it returned.

MITCHELL: Certainly, all of your works have been politically conscious and this one in particular. So what harm does it do to have this documentary use the name?

BRADBURY: He’s putting my title on his film. I had nothing to do with his film. Therefore, he can’t take credit; he can’t take my name and my title and have it apply to his film. [Someone in the background is heard whispering.] My novel is not a political novel. It’s an aesthetic novel; a philosophical and a sociological study in modern history. It’s not political at all in any way yet a study of humanity and education.

Note how he changes what he is saying after the whispering is heard. I realize the whispering could just as well be occurring at Mitchell's end, but let me test out a theory.

Throughout the interview up to that point, we've heard Bradbury expressing that his feelings were hurt that his title was used without asking. He says he made one phone call to Moore then waited and waited for six months. That is, he did nothing during the entire period when the film was being prepared and advertised and there was any serious potential for changing the title. Finally, he comes forward. Why? Is someone pushing him forward? He says he doesn't want compensation; he's just mad that his title was put on a work that was not his and that Moore has tried (in Bradbury's view) to gain stature by connection to a book/play/opera that Bradbury is very proud of (with good reason).

When Andrea Mitchell asks how is he harmed, considering that his work is "politically conscious," Bradbury's response is to repeat the same point. Then, after whispering is heard, he says something entirely new, and he says it in a much less whiny way. I find him much more appealing at this point, when he denies that "Fahrenheit 451" is a political novel and locates it outside of politics in the sphere of philosophy, sociology, history, humanity, and education. I found that immensely touching. Yet, I can't help wondering, who was whispering, and why didn't that idea that I found so compelling occur to him at first? Did someone prompt him?

I think most people would, like Andrea Mitchell, think of "Fahrenheit 451" as a political book (albeit not necessarily Moore's brand of politics). So I'm wondering if someone is using Bradbury. I'm sorry if this sounds disrespectful to the great old author, but this interview made me suspicious. I'm no Moore supporter--I just wonder what's going on.

Hallucinogenic carpeting as art.

If I were in NYC, I would love to see the big Grand Central carpet-installation-as-art-installation that is written up in today's Times. The vast expanse of "hallucinogenic blue-rose-patterned carpet" is the work of Italian conceptual artist Rudolf Stingel. But really, this reminds me of the artist who got the bright idea to dye rivers green, when in fact Chicago annually dyes its river green. If you want to see a vast expanse of floral patterned carpet in deliberately crazed hallucinogenic colors, you can go to the Monona Terrace convention center in Madison. (Picture of the carpet pattern.) But I don't mean to knock the NY installation. I think it's cool to take something normal (floral carpet), make it less normal (make the colors a bit strange), and put it where it doesn't belong (Grand Central). I especially like that it will entertain and amuse and cushion the ordinary people that use the terminal and didn't ask to have art imposed on them. It is the opposite of the sort of art that means to "challenge" people and imposes on them in a place they have no choice but to use, like the "Tilted Arc" and the "Tumbling Woman."

June 28, 2004

Ridiculous product search unearths old memory.

I started out trying to dig up an explanation for sauerkraut juice to answer Nina's question: "Did people really once diet on sauerkraut juice?" I know the answer to the question can be found in a really cool book that I read a long time ago called "Inconspicuous Consumption," by Paul Lucas. Really, if you can figure out what section of the bookstore it's in, I recommend reading the entry on sauerkraut juice and all your questions will be answered. All I can remember is that the stuff tastes bad but does something health-related. Buy the book--the whole thing is very entertaining.

In my search, I turned up the Inconspicuous Consumption website, which keeps up a monthly analysis of various products. I enjoyed this description of the use of the word "classic" in branding. The subject of Saran wrap comes up:
Bought a package of Saran wrap recently? If so, perhaps you've noted that it's now called Saran Classic -- apparently to distinguish it from Saran With Cling Plus and Saran With Cling Plus Junior (now *there's* a real winner of a brand name).

Now, Saran is one of the classic brands that I am thoroughly devoted to. As anyone involved in shopping for my household knows, I cannot tolerate other plastic wraps. There are only a few brands I feel so strongly about: Morton Salt, Hellman's Mayonnaise, a few others. Yet those others brands seem to be more a matter of irrational attachment to the packaging. In the case of Saran, I have a personal connection. I remember having this product before anyone I knew recognized what it was, bringing sandwiches to school wrapped in Saran when other kids had sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. For some reason, my father, who worked for DuPont, had received a gift sample of the stuff in a giant-sized box at some point in the mid-1950s. Much later, the inferior thin Glad Wrap was introduced, and the thinness of the product made it more clingy, convincing some people that what was worse was better--an excellent example of spin. At some point Saran must have caved in and made a Glad-style clingy version of Saran. So Saran Classic is important!

Here's an interesting history of Saran:
In 1933, Ralph Wiley, a Dow Chemical lab worker, accidentally discovered polyvinylidene chloride or Saran. Ralph, a college student who cleaned glassware in a Dow Chemical lab, came across a vial he couldn't scrub clean. He called the substance "eonite", after an indestructible material in the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." Dow researchers made Ralph's "eonite" into a greasy, dark green film, which Dow called "Saran". The military sprayed it on fighter planes to guard against salty sea spray and carmakers used it for upholstery. Dow later got rid the of Saran's green color and unpleasant odor.

Yikes! That is so unappetizing! But it's a cool story. I like the idea of the college kid lab assistant recognizing that a seeming problem was really a good thing. It's like Post-It Notes and Silly Putty.

Earthquake felt in Madison.

Last week, it was a tornado. Now, an earthquake. Personally, I was asleep when it happened, and I'm sorry I missed it. "Madison police and local TV and radio stations said they received many calls right after the quake from people worried about what was happening." Hmmm... I can't imagine phoning the police over such a thing.

That "girthy" frank.

I zap commercials, so how are you going to get me to watch a commercial? You can make it something that looks cool when fastforwarding, or you can start a controversy that will actually make me go to a website and download and watch the commercial. That Bush website commercial that includes the MoveOn.org ad is a good example of something that lured me to download (my comments here), and today, there's that Ball Park Franks "Girthy" commercial that's getting written up in Slate and talked about on Metafilter. Congratulations to Ball Park's ad agency for doing something simple and straightforward that got me to watch their commercial and made me laugh. People, it's just funny. "Girthy" is a brilliant comic word choice and the actor is hilarious.

Slate's reviewer, who gives the commercial an "F," is absurdly upset about it. He wonders how such a thing could have happened:
In the end, we're left with two possibilities. The first is that Ball Park, and their ad agency, were unaware of the connotation. I can imagine how this might happen. Were I at the planning meeting where this ad was first pitched, as, like, a junior executive or something, I would not want to be the guy who brought up penises. So, maybe no one brought it up.

The other possibility is that Ball Park knows exactly what it's doing. That somehow consumer research has proven that folks like the hot dog/penis connection. It must have been a doozy of a focus group.

First, I object to the "dog penis" juxtaposition that Slate just made, but Ball Park Franks are always called "franks," so there's no untoward bestiality reference. And it's just silly to think the ad people might not have known what they were doing. We all saw the episode of "The Apprentice" where the women's team won by making their ad campaign as phallic as humanly possible. I'm sure they tested the ad on the sort of people who are likely to eat frankfurters and those people laughed heartily.

TV commercials have shown actors responding sexually to food for as long as I can remember. The actors have been groaning and saying "mmm-mmm ... good" and the like forever. Is there to be some special prohibition simply because the food is phallic in shape? Is there a problem because the food appears to be male and the actor is also male? Is that why Chiquita had to make its animated banana a woman? I think the best way to look at the "girthy" ad is as a spoof of all the many ads that take the sexuality of food seriously.

Artists, their Barbies, and the law.

Much as I feel I should carefully read the Supreme Court cases that came out today and provide some enlightenment on the subject, I am going to address a different legal topic: "Judge Says Artist Can Make Fun of Barbie." You wouldn't think anyone would need a judge's opinion to be free to make fun of Barbie (the doll), but in this case Mattel sued the artist, Tom Forsythe, who was selling photographs of the doll. Click on the link to see one of the photos--5 naked Barbies lying in a baking pan about to be cooked into, apparently, enchildas.
In the summer of 1999, Mattel sued Mr. Forsythe for copyright and trademark infringement.

After a lengthy legal tussle, which included a series of appeals, a federal judge late last week instructed Mattel to pay Mr. Forsythe legal fees of more than $1.8 million.

"I couldn't have asked for a better result," said Mr. Forsythe, 46, of Kanab, Utah. "This should set a new standard for the ability to critique brands that are pervasive in our culture."

...Mattel can appeal the award, but the company would have to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which had earlier instructed the district court to consider awarding legal fees...

Why should Mattel have to pay the defendant's attorneys' fees? According to the judge, the case was "objectively unreasonable and frivolous," as Mattel's "sophisticated" legal counsel had to have been able to figure out, so the choice to bring a lawsuit has to be seen as an effort to pressure the artist to give up what he had a right do by dragging him into frighteningly costly litigation. Exactly! Great decision! And thanks to the artist for not freaking out and giving up when Mattel sued him.

The medical marijuana case.

The Supreme Court took cert. in Raich v. Ashcroft, the 9th Circuit medical marijuana case. Can Congress use the commerce power to criminalize the noncommercial cultivation and possession of marijuana? Many persons have gone to prison for violating the Controlled Substances Act. It is hard to believe that, in general, the Court is going to say that only the states can regulate homegrown, home-consumed marijuana. But what about this more limited category of homegrowers: those who use marijuana pursuant to California's Compassionate Use Act?

Is there a way to segment off this group of homegrowers and place them outside of Congress's reach, while still leaving recreational homegrowers subject to the federal law? To some extent the commerce power depends on whether the regulated activity is commercial, but if anything, medical marijuana is more commercial than recreational marijuana: doctors have a key role under California's Compassionate Use Act in creating the state law entitlement to use marijuana and certainly the practice of medicine is a commercial enterprise. So how can you set medical marijuana outside of Congress's reach without having also to leave recreational homegrown marijuana to the states?

The 9th Circuit solved that problem by characterizing the homegrown medical use as separate from the commercial market in marijuana, both "the broader illicit drug market -- as well as any broader commercial market for medicinal marijuana." The idea is that a home-growing, recreational user could quite easily turn to selling his crop, and the need to control the market justifies reaching him, but the home-growing medical user does not pose a similar risk, so Congress cannot similarly justify looping the medical patient into the large federal scheme to control the sale of marijuana. A key precedent involves a farmer who grew more than his allotment of wheat, but planned to use the wheat on his farm and not sell it. The Court saw the wheat as "overhang[ing] the market": the farmer might change his plan and sell the wheat. Thus, Congress, pursuant to a plan to control supply in the wheat market, could also regulate the home-consumed wheat. Similarly, the Controlled Substances Act means to control the market in marijuana, and people who claim their crop is for home use might turn around and sell it, so controlling their production is a legitimate part of controlling the market. Will the Court say the medical users' supply does not overhang the market? Arguably, these users are off in a different sphere of life where they are not tempted to become dealers.

Surely, we feel much more sympathetic to the seriously ill person who wants to use marijuana for medicinal person that for the ordinary person who simply wants to enjoy himself, but why should that difference affect the relative power of Congress and the states? We might say that the Compassionate Use Act is a particularly worthy or useful policy experiment taking place at the state level, but do we want the scope of Congress's power to depend on a judicial assessment of the value of the state's policy? I'm inclined to think that if the recreational home-growing home-user is subject to the Controlled Substances Act, so is the home-growing home-user with a medicinal purpose. As a matter of pragmatism, it is too late to say the recreational user cannot be reached, so the challenge will be to find a way to distinguish between these two motivations for using marijuana in terms that somehow express something about commerce. That should be hard to do, but the 9th Circuit has put a theory in writing that the majority of the Justices may decide to adopt.

A similar case that may makes its way to the Court is Oregon v. Ashcroft, another 9th Circuit case about the Controlled Substances Act and federalism, dealing specifically with Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. I describe and discuss that case here and here.

ADDITIONAL POINT: I do realize that in the wheat farmer precedent linked above (Wickard) that the Court also noted that the home-grown wheat supplied a need that the farmer would have otherwise needed to enter the market to meet, but the point I've noted plays an equally important role in the Court's reasoning. This additional point is also relevant to the medical marijuana problem, though I omitted it in my original discussion for the sake of brevity. A person who uses home-grown marijuana for medicinal purposes is serving a need that he or she would otherwise have enter the market to meet. Either this person would buy marijuana (the fact that the market is illegal is irrelevant constitutionally) or would buy the synthetic marijuana substitute Marinol or would buy some other product for pain relief. So home-grown, home-consumed marijuana has a substantial effect on interstate commerce just like the home-grown, home-consumed wheat in Wickard. The key difference is the commercial/noncommercial distinction developed in the recent commerce clause cases (Lopez and Morrison). The farm in Wickard was a commercial enterprise and the medical marijuana patient is not engaged in a commercial enterprise. But if that is the reason for denying Congress power, than the home-growing recreational consumer must also be free of federal regulation. My point is: how do you distinguish Wickard for the medical purpose and not for the recreational purpose? The only answer I've seen is the one given by the 9th Circuit.

Supreme Court headlines.

SCOTUSblog announces: "Broad defeat for the government in the detention cases." CNN.com front page teaser is "Supreme Court substantially rules for Bush in terror case." The CNN.com article is headlined: "A mixed verdict on the terror war/Rulings offer partial wins for White House, civil rights activists." The NYT is going with the headline: "Supreme Court Partially Sides With Bush on American Detainee Case."

Clearly, it will take some time to sort out the meaning of the three cases announced today, but it seems that the Court has taken a middle position that provides for some judicial supervision, along with a good deal of deference to the President.

June 27, 2004

What a strange world it is

where a gentle image is projected by, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Hitler Image Used in Bush Campaign Web Ad."

So reads a misleading headline to an AP article printed in today's NYT. Here's the key text:
President Bush's campaign contains online video, removed from a liberal group's Web site months ago and disavowed, that features the Nazi dictator.

The Bush Internet video, which was sent electronically to 6 million supporters, intersperses clips of speeches by Democrats John Kerry, Al Gore and Howard Dean with the footage of Hitler. ...

The 77-second video on the Bush-Cheney re-election site splices footage of Kerry, the presumptive nominee, and his 2004 rival Dean along with 2000 nominee Gore and film director Michael Moore. The spot calls them Kerry's "Coalition of the Wild-eyed." Clips of Hitler's image are seen throughout the spot.

The video clip in question was a contest entry on the MoveOn.org website back in January. Should Bush remove this video from his site, as requested by the Kerry campaign? Does Kerry deserve to have the most vitriolic Democrats hung around his neck? Whoever made the MoveOn.org commercial wasn't even a Kerry supporter.

The Bush campaign's position is that unless Kerry "denounces" these Democrats, their video is appropriate. Whatever effect it has on the content of George Bush's website, Kerry ought to distance himself from Democrats who resort to this kind of ugly language and imagery, but he can't control everyone that is talking about him and he doesn't need to "denounce" them anymore that Bush needs to "denounce" his own supporters who overstate things too and make ridiculous comparisons. The important thing is for the candidates not to sink to that level, and Bush using the images of Hitler on his website does drag him down. He's trying to portray the other side as a bunch of crazies. The video ends with a portrayal of Bush as the sane and rational one we should trust. Yet what has gone before is itself an attempt to appeal to irrational emotions--to generate fear and revulsion.

There is a lot of hostility and ugliness going around right now. It is a real challenge to both candidates to find a way to fight hard without becoming part of that ugliness.

(I had to laugh at the attempt to make Kerry look bad by showing him using the word "ass," after Cheney's recent denouncement of Senator Leahy.)

Searching "torture."

Looking for the URL for the article linked in the previous post ("Defining Torture: Russian Roulette, Yes. Mind-Altering Drugs, Maybe"), I searched today's NYT using just the word "torture" and found 15 articles, sadly. I took some solace at the first headline: "CIA Reportedly Halts Use of Harsh Interrogation Ploys." I click on it and see:
The CIA has stopped using interrogation techniques such as "stress positions," sleep deprivation and denial of pain medication while the Bush administration reviews their legality, The Washington Post said Sunday.

"The whole thing's been stopped until we can sort out whether we are sure we are on legal ground," the Post quoted a former senior CIA official as saying.

I don't think the law relating to torture is like a speed limit. It's not enough to follow the law. There is still a question of morality and humanity. Attempts to show that various inhumane practices are technically legal will be met by the hoots of outrage they deserve.

Sunday morning with coffee and caramels.

The Sunday Times has been read, at least to the extent that I'm going to read it, and not counting the things I've set aside: the Book Review, the Magazine, and this piece, which I've set apart from the usual drive to get through the paper. I'm now at Espresso Royale, with my favorite lunch-substitute, a large cappucino and several of their luscious, homemade caramels. I'm also enjoying the terrific art exhibit that is here today, a collection of intricate pencil drawings, by a UW art student named Zach Mory.

I've checked around to the usual UW blogs, and Tonya, from the look of her blog, would appear to have been stuck in Zurich for the last 10 days. But she's sent an email from an Apple Store in Johannesburg, noting how difficult it's been to find internet access. Well, at least there's an Apple Store. Jeremy and Gordon have not checked in for a while. But Nina, despite sore arms from climbing up on her roof and sawing off tree limbs, reliably keeps up the blog stream that stretches back, oh, I don't know how long without a day off. (And me? I've never missed a day since beginning on January 14th.) Anyway, Nina has her usual report from her trip around the Farmers' Market for the great Madison restaurant L'Etoile. They call it "market buying"--why not just "marketing"? Or maybe "marketing" is what I did yesterday: walked around a bit and took pictures until my battery died and bought nothing. (Scroll down for my pictures or go here and click on the slideshow.) Anyway, Nina has a photo of espresso goat milk ice cream. And scroll down for the picture of the red wagon packed with the local produce the restaurant builds its menu around. Wagons are always popular at the Farmers' Market, as are strollers, and lots of people who walk very slowly and stop a lot. Personally, I don't have the patience or the appetite for it. And I don't like the way fruits and vegetables, once bought, lie around demanding to be prepared and eaten. They are passive aggressive things that quietly emit odors and dirty looks to chide you (to chive you) for your lack of industry and healthy eating habits. Well, screw them! I have have my cappucino and caramels.

Now, I'm in a good mood, having thoroughly caffeinated myself with the strongest coffee on Street Street and the most mood-elevating candy. It's a lovely sunny and cool morning. I plan to do another blog post, finish the acrostic in the NYT Magazine, and do a bit of walking (with the help of my camera). I've contemplated going to the movies, but in fact, I lack the patience to sit through movies. I always think way too much about wanting it to be over, even when I like the movie. So am I going to go see "Fahrenheit 9/11"? I've been told it will give me something to blog about. I could describe the Madison audience and the noises made at various points and so forth. I could monitor my own reactions. But no, life is too short for that. I zap TV commercials--why would I sit through a feature length anti-Bush commercial? If I wanted to see a political documentary today, I would go to the Orpheum and see either "The Battle of Algiers" or "The Agronomist."