Welcome to the Ministry of Information.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

welcome, Unspeak readers

Many thanks to Steve Poole of Unspeak for featuring my blog today:
'Jeff Strabone is an eclectic blog about politics, hip-hop and cinema, among other things. It makes me think that Jeff approaches blogging exactly as he does karaoke: without fear.'
If you're new to my blog, here is a tasting menu covering a range of recent topics. Thanks for adding me to your RSS reader.

Dizzee Rascal
My defence of gangsta rap
The Sopranos' finale

Bush's arming of al-Qa'ida affiliates
Bush's conflation of al-Qa'ida and Hizballah

Sex toys and the U.S. Constitution
Part one
Part two

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

If you happen to be a fan of David Byrne, use the search box on the right. I blog about his work on a regular basis.

Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

it couldn't happen to a nicer guy

When I last blogged about Rudy Giuliani on June 30, 2007, I mentioned that I did not think his presidential campaign had any chance of success, but I did not explain why. My optimism lies in my confidence that, when the American public gets to know him as well as New Yorkers do, they will turn away in revulsion.

In chapter 34 of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, Marlow tells his listeners something that has always stayed with me: 'You shall judge of a man by his foes as well as by his friends'. Let us apply the Marlow test to Giuliani and see what we can learn about him.

While Giuliani was mayor of New York, he refused for years at a time to meet with black elected officials. That sounds incredible, but it was widely reported during his second term by journalists and others who had measured the gaps. According to the New York Times for March 25, 1999, he refused, despite repeated requests, to meet with State Comptroller Carl McCall, the highest black elected official in the state, between November 1994 and March 1999. Similarly, he had not met with Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields for over a year. What happened in early 1999 to change his mind? Amadou Diallo was killed by four police officers, and Giuliani was considering a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

That Giuliani regularly went to extremes to identify himself as the enemy of black New Yorkers tells us plenty about him. But what of his friends, or the people we would expect to be his friends? They have recently been coming out of the woodwork to oppose his presidential campaign.

Much of the American public imagines that Giuliani is the fire fighters' Best Friend Forever, but they might be surprised to learn how vigorously fire fighters oppose him. In its March 14, 2007 coverage of the International Association of Fire Fighters' candidates' forum, the New York Times reported the following:

'"Our view is that Rudy does not deserve our support, that if he's going to run on his 9/11 reputation, he's running on a very shaky foundation," said Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the firefighters' association, an umbrella group for firefighters' unions.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said: "Everybody likes a Churchillian kind of leader who jumps up when the ashes are still falling and takes over. But two or three good days don't expunge an eight-year record."'
In July 2007, the IAFF posted a thirteen-minute anti-Giuliani video at YouTube.

Jerry Hauer, Giuliani's director of the Office of Emergency Management, has also come out against him, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph for August 5, 2007:

'"Rudy would make a terrible president and that is why I am speaking now," Mr Hauer told The Sunday Telegraph. "He's a control freak who micro-manages decision, he has a confrontational character trait and picks fights just to score points. He is the last thing this country needs as president right now."

Mr Hauer is a registered Democrat voter but his expertise was so highly rated by the Republican Bush administration that he was chosen in 2002 to co-ordinate America's public health preparation for future emergencies, including attacks with weapons of mass destruction.'

But the most embarassing defection has to be that of Giuliani's own daughter. As yesterday's New York Times reported, she has joined a Facebook.com group supporting Barack Obama for president. For comparison's sake, consider that the Kennedys supported their Republican in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California. Even Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter supports her father's homophobic campaigns.

As I said, sincerely, last time, I would rather have Dick Cheney—Dick Cheney!—running the White House for another four years than Rudy Giuliani. There must be something awfully special about Giuiani to provoke such reactions from friends, family, and foes alike. I look forward to the next several months as more of my countrymen get to know him better. It doesn't take much to predict the embarassment and repudiation that lie ahead, and, I must say, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

not literally

In The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747, Samuel Johnson lamented the ineluctable truth about words, i.e. that their meanings are constantly changing:
And who upon this survey can forbear to wish, that these fundamental atoms of our speech might obtain the firmness and immutability of the primogenial and constituent particles of matter, that they might retain their substance while they alter their appearance, and be varied and compounded, yet not destroyed.

But this is a privilege which words are scarcely to expect; for, like their author, when they are not gaining strength, they are generally losing it. Though art may sometimes prolong their duration, it will rarely give them perpetuity, and their changes will be almost always informing us, that language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.

Far be it from me to advocate syntactical conservatism, but one of our most valuable words is experiencing an intolerable slippage into its opposite, and all of us who care about language must do what we can to stop it. I've always appreciated the ceaseless engine of innovation that is language. For me, the 1980's in particular stand out as a period of great ferment as hip hop shook up the English-speaking world. We are all the richer for having 'mad' as an adverb (as in 'mad phat'), 'science' restored to its original Latin meaning (as in 'dropping science'), and 'dis' as a diminutive for 'disrespect'. But there is one word whose literal meaning cannot be allowed to change, and that word is 'literal'.

People are increasingly using 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'. Here is an instance from the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 9, 2007. The speaker was Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana:
Now, normally this redtape is a nuisance. We work through it. It is inconvenient. It is a nuisance. But we just sort of move through the redtape of Government. But in this case, it is literally a noose that is around the necks of people, of business owners, large and small, family members—strangling their efforts to recover their communities that were devastated.

Is it time for Northern troops to occupy Louisiana again as they did during the Reconstruction? Is someone literally lynching people down South with nooses made of literal red tape? Senator Landrieu seems to think so.

Figuratively, the noose has enormous suggestive power, especially in discussions of government's treatment of African-Americans in the South. The senator's topic was the obstacles impeding post-hurricane rebuilding on the Gulf Coast. The 'noose' could be an apt metaphor for the way that the federal government under Bush and Cheney has squeezed the life out of New Orleans. But literally?

As a literary scholar and educator, I get a lot of mileage (no, not literal mileage) out of the difference between the literal and the figurative. One of my standard parlor tricks (no, not a literal parlor) in the classroom is to de-familiarize everyday figures, like the synecdoche in 'Get your ass over here', or to revive dead metaphors. My favourite is 'planet', thought today to mean a big chunk of matter that orbits a star. The Greek word for those bright lights was 'planetos', literally 'wanderer'. They called them wanderers or wandering stars because they moved idiosyncratically against the backdrop of the celestial sphere of all the other fixed stars that rotated as one. Thus, when we call a big chunk of orbitting matter a planet, we are using a dead metaphor, for the word literally meant 'wanderer'.

If we lose the literal meaning of 'literal', we would be depriving our language of one of the two words, the other being 'figurative', that most help us understand how language does and does not work. The loss would be, to the entire English-speaking world, a straitjacket—no, not literally, but figuratively.

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the end of a century

Ingmar Bergman, my first favourite director when I discovered cinema in my late teenaged years, died two days ago on July 30, 2007. Over the years I have devoted a sizable portion of my brain to studying his work: twenty-seven Bergman-directed films so far, two theatrical adaptations, nine plays directed by him, and several books of interviews, autobiography, and screenplays. Although I never met him, I feel like I have lost someone close to me. On a world scale, we are all poorer for all that we lost on July 30.

I don't think there was another artist alive whose life and work operated at such a level of myth. Even his birthday, July 14, 1918, carried a whiff of myth: the start of the French Revolution and the end of World War One. Greek mythology is full of stories of family members killing each other. Bergman understood the mythic nature of the primal, ineluctable conflicts within families and turned his own life, and his parents', into modern myth. Other directors have made films from his screenplays about his parents and his childhood: Bille August's The Best Intentions (1992), Daniel Bergman's Sunday's Children (1992), and Liv Ullmann's Private Confessions (1996). In Sunday's Children, we get to experience the complicated pleasure of watching his son Daniel's direction of an internecine encounter between actors playing the director's father (i.e., Ingmar) and grandfather. His artistic stature, as one of the greatest film directors, theatre directors, and screenwriters, is Shakespearean and, with his five wives and nine children, his appetites Falstaffian.

Unfortunately, the myth of the Swedish director of doom and gloom has obscured much of his achievement as an artist. My favourite film of his has always been Winter Light (1962), possibly the dourest, bleakest film ever made. (It makes me smile every time, but perhaps that's just me.) With a screenplay about a doubt-wracked priest, played by Gunnar Björnstrand, who rejects the love of a horny, carelessly godless parishioner played by Ingrid Thulin, it could sound like a stereotypical Bergman plot, and perhaps it is. But this film, like most of his work, is a triumph of style. If one blocked the subtitles and just listened to the spare, unmusical soundtrack, one would be able to feel every bit of the story. And, working with cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist, his films achieved some of the most expressionistic black and white since Germany in the 1920's.

I feel especially privileged to have seen so many of his theatrical productions at BAM over the years. I still recall his production of Ibsen's Doll's House in 1991. When Torvald struck Nora in the chest with an open palm, an action not found in the text, the entire audience at the BAM Harvey gasped as one. It is still a thrill to recall it all these years later. No one else could direct Strindberg like Bergman. Back in 1996 New York's Roundabout Theatre staged The Father with Frank Langella. The audience chuckled throughout as if they were watching a domestic comedy. Even when the great Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen did Dance of Death on Broadway in 2001 it felt light and breezy. Strindberg's dream plays are perhaps the most difficult set of plays to direct in the modern canon. When Bergman brought A Ghost Sonata to BAM in 2001, not only did he triumph in communicating the play despite the difficulties of its form, but it was fucking terrifying! And, reader, no one in the audience laughed.

Compounding the loss, Michaelangelo Antonioni died the very same day. Not since July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died simultaneously, have such great, linked figures died on the same day in separate places. Bergman and Antonioni were the last giants of what we often call postwar 'art cinema'. Kurosawa, Ray, Fellini, Truffaut et al. are all gone. (As far as I am concerned, Jean-Luc Godard was only great for seven or eight years.) What linked these directors was a zealous commitment to the æsthetics of cinema, i.e. the deepest explorations possible of the expressive properties of film language and film form.

Ultimately, all film is art, and earlier cinema was undeniably full of great artists of the screen: Feuillade, Sjöström, Lang, Murnau, Ozu. But much of the world only saw their work as entertainment. There are great directors alive today: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami, but only Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar have anything like a Bergman- or Fellini-sized persona. We call the work of the great postwar directors by the imperfect labels of 'art cinema' or 'arthouse' because their claims to artistry were self-conscious, superlative, and, most importantly, persuasive. They convinced the rest of the world that cinema was indeed a great art that deserved appreciation and preservation. They elevated the world's opinion of cinema in part by, like Bergman, mythologizing themselves. Just read the list of names and it sounds like a roster of cultural heroes. And they were. And now the last of that generation has left us for good.

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