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Sunday, December 31, 2006

day two: pulp reality

Besides the Spanish painting and all that, another reason for this trip abroad was UK karaoke envy. Sing Sing on Avenue A has monstrously thick catalogues in at least two languages, but the choices there can sometimes reflect North American musical parochialism. What I am trying to say, dear reader, is that they have no Pulp.

I have long fancied my own at-home renditions of Pulp classics, but without the opportunity to submit one's work for public consideration, one can never be too sure about such things. I can now testify, with ample witnesses, that my Jarvis Cocker impersonation ('Common People' and 'Help the Aged') is fabulous indeed. But, better still, my Louis Armstrong was described by an international karaoke expert as 'uncanny'. (Daniel Fugallo, personal communication, Karaoke Box studios, London, December 30, 2006.) What can one say other than, God save the Karaoke Queen!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

day zero: Casa de Guggenheim

Although I'm now in London and did see the spectacular Velázquez exhibit today, I still owe my readers an account of the massive Spanish painting at the Guggenheim in New York.

The Guggenheim has been a troubled institution under Thomas Krens's leadership. The most common criticism is that he and the board of directors are more concerned with growing a global brand than they are with presenting great art intelligently, a critique that I share. They have even reportedly sold off some of their world-renowned collection of Kandinsky.

No institution should ever squander its strengths, no matter how unusual they may seem. The more unusual, the better. Northwestern University has one of the largest transportation libraries in the world(http://www.library.northwestern.edu/transportation/about.html). A transportation library may be a strange thing, but all transportation scholars (or however they style themselves—experts, perhaps) worldwide know they can turn to Northwestern for their specialized research needs. Whatever one feels about Kandinsky—and who doesn't feel when they look at Kandinsky?—it's a shame to see the Guggenheim abandon its commitment to the greatest depth of its own collection.

Over the last several years, the Guggenheim has staged several national-themed shows: Brazil, the Aztecs, Russia. The motivation behind these shows seems to be to build relationships with institutions in those countries, as if perhaps to establish art-colonial beachheads for future expansion. The Brazil and Aztec shows were disasters of monotony and under-curation. (I could not bring myself to see the Russian show: I expected another in their series of disappointments.) But I couldn't miss what looked like, and is, a major exhibition of several centuries of Spanish painting.

Reader, this may be the smartest hang of Spanish painting that we will ever see. It covers the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries thematically. Thematic hangs can be the worst museum experiences, able to diminish great paintings by thoughtlessly clustering unlike paintings as if there were obvious and meaningful relationships among them when in fact there are not. One of the last displays of the MoMA's collection before it closed for renovation was called People, Places, Things. That's all it was: works grouped by whether they depicted people, places, or things. What facile rubbish it was! That's not what I call meaningful connections. Tate Modern was suffering from the same narrative-averse fad when I was last here in 2004. (See my entry of December 1, 2006 for a related complaint of unearned connections in recent hip hop sampling.)

The Guggenheim's Spanish painting exhibit shows the imaginative and instructive connections that thematic hangs can achieve at their best. The paintings are grouped by theme or genre. Let's take bodegones for example. Bodegón is the Spanish term for still life, but it's not just a difference of terminology. As the exhibit and catalogue explain, French, English, and Spanish have their own names for the genre: nature morte, still life, and bodegón, respectively. Each term emphasizes, in turn, death, life, and the pantry (bodega).

Grouping Spanish paintings together by genre across the centuries achieves a number of effects. For one thing, it allows us to see iconic modernists like Picasso and Dali as Spanish painters again, not just as modernists. But in the bigger picture, it throws into high relief the genre and national continuities among particularly Spanish still lifes. The bodegón is not just a still life but a distinctly Spanish form of what we call the still life. One can see in these paintings not just the borrowing and stretching of genre rules but also the national specificity of how that genre was distinctly adopted by painters of one specific country and what difference that makes.

This is no small thing. The spaghetti western is definitely part of a recognizable genre but equally Italian and, as such, can be read in its relation to at least two traditions at once. I am reminded of the same effect by my own research on Scots vernacular pastoral elegy. Much of what is interesting and original about art is how each artist interprets, upholds, and violates the traditions that he or she chooses to work in. When an exhibit enables us to see art being made along multiple sets of legible parameters at once, our viewing is immeasurably enriched and our minds imaginatively provoked.

I will have more to say about the Guggenheim's exhibit when I revisit it after the conclusion of my European tour. After this entry I will focus only on what I see and do here. Tune in tomorrow, Reader, for my report on today's encounter with Velázquez. It may make you want to get yourself over here while the exhibit is still on.

Friday, December 29, 2006

day one: seeing is misbelieving

I arrived in London earlier today, but my trip actually started back in New York last week. I've decided to make Spanish painting my theme for the next month: the Guggenheim's Spanish painting exhibit, Velázquez at the National Gallery, the museums of Madrid, and then back to New York for the Hispanic Society's collection.

I've always believed in the benefits of immersion. A painting, or anything, viewed in isolation can produce a powerful effect, but it can also produce a misleading effect. Take Jasper Johns's flag paintings for instance. If one knew nothing about his work and saw only one of his red, white, and blue single-canvas American flag paintings, what would one think? That he was a folksy patriotic painter, perhaps? Try to imagine it:

Last year a student actually lived this, a bit differently, by wandering through the Met's contemporary wing and writing about one of his all-white encaustic flags. Here it is, White Flag (1955):
The student had the imagination and confidence to read the painting's rough surface and monochrome colour as some sort of political critique of the United States. Good. We want students to use their imaginations. But knowing that White Flag was part of a series of flag paintings by Johns changes everything. One needs to see it as a variation in a larger series of paintings repeating the flag as a symbol, and not the only symbol that Johns took up. The painting has about as much to say about America per se as Warhol's Campbell's soup series has to say about soup. Likewise, seeing just one On Kawara date painting might lead one to think something major happened on that day:
One would never guess that he paints the day's date every day.

So here I am setting out to see all the major Spanish painting exhibits and collections that I can in three to four weeks. Next time: my belated report on the Guggenheim.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

New Year's in the LDN

In a few short days I will fly to London to see the big Velázquez exhibit at the National Gallery and celebrate New Year's Eve with my karaoke posse in the LDN. My plans include new plays by Peter Morgan (The Queen, screenplay) and Tom Stoppard and then almost a week in Madrid to wrap up the Spanish painting tour I began last week at the Guggenheim. Very sadly, due to poor planning, I don't think I will make it to Liverpool to see the Chapman brothers' exhibit.

While I am away, this blog will function as my travelogue. As long as I can get to a computer each day, I will post updates and thoughts from abroad. Stay tuned, Reader. Things could get very interesting.

Christmas in Shaolin

This week I spent my first Christmas Day in Shaolin, a.k.a. Staten Island. As we turned off the oceanfront road into my mother's neighbourhood, she stopped the car so I could see the flock of wild turkeys loitering on the sidewalk. For my readers outside NYC, I should point out that Shaolin is indeed one of the city's five boroughs. And there they were: wild turkeys on a New York sidewalk.

My mother claims to have seen flocks as large as thirty or forty crossing the street and tying up traffic. To my surprise, there are apparently wild turkeys all over the city, including one in Battery Park City. (New York Times, November 24, 2006) And not just turkeys: a deer was recently struck and killed by an automobile on Hylan Boulevard, a main street in Shaolin.

As I sat there watching turkeys occupying an urban sidewalk, I thought about how completely we city dwellers have expelled animals from our lives, aside from pets and meat. Don't mistake me for a faux-nostalgically anti-urban or anti-modern sort. No, I'll have none of that. But something deep inside me was stirred by contemplating all the previous generations of our species who lived among the other animals throughout their lives. What have we lost and what have we gained by expelling wild animals from our midst?

Life is more predictable now, that's for sure: no more wild boars charging through our lives or goats eating our crops. We're probably exposed to fewer illnesses now. Does anyone even get cowpox anymore? Yet, if not for cowpox, we might never have overcome smallpox. Perhaps the case for tolerating random dangers is too rarely made.

Although not mammals, turkeys are essentially like us: they are vertebrates with skin and four limbs and similar internal systems. If catastrophic climate change wipes us out, the turkeys are going, too. And yes, that includes the bad-ass turkeys of Shaolin. In fact, all the mammals and birds and fish could potentially die out within a hundred years.

Which leads one to ask, who then shall inherit the earth? There may be readers better prepared to speculate than I, but the spiders and the insects seem like viable candidates to succeed us. If not them, some species will continue evolving for millions of years until they start building rocketships and blogging, or doing whatever the future rulers of the earth will do to entertain themselves.

Spiders, if they survive, seem like a good bet to me. They must already have very sophisticated brains to operate eight limbs. Much of our brain power is devoted to organ function and muscular dexterity. I'm not a brain surgeon, but it probably takes more brain power to move one's arm than to do complex equations or interpret a painting. If we suddenly grew extra limbs (as happened to Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man issue 100), we would not have the cerebral hardware or software to control them. Also, spiders have some kind of intuitive geometry that allows them to build their homes from their own bodies.

Can we call what spiders do math? How would an advanced arachnid cognition understand the physical world? Is math only something that we do? Would evolved spiders create disciplines for their knowledge? What forms of culture and morality would future spiders develop?

Obviously I don't know the answers to these questions, but thinking about them makes me aware of the distinctly human properties and limits of our own thoughts. Evolutionary biologists have speculated that arachnophobia is a holdover of an adaptation from a time when venomous spiders and other creatures posed a more widespread threat to us. Perhaps. Even the words 'creepy' and 'crawly' bother some people.

But ultimately what the Shaolin turkey episode reminds me of this holiday season is the fundamental plasticity of species, all species. Even if homo sapiens outlive global warming, we and everything else on the planet are constantly changing. Even if the spiders never overtake us, let alone the turkeys, the species we are today could be unrecognizably different in as little as, what, fifty thousand years? Even if we survive, we die.

And with that thought I wish you all happy holidays and an exciting new year.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

blogging Iraqi style

Rather than read the now eleven-comment Iraq-themed thread below wherein two academics sitting comfortably in their rooms debate the meaning of words (see entry of December 16, 2006), I have a better suggestion for regular readers: read Iraqi blogs.

The BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/talking_point/6194329.stm) has published excerpts and links to five of them today:


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

hip hop borborygmi

What is more exciting than discovering knowledge one did not even know one lacked? It's late, as you can see from the time of this entry, but it's worth staying up a few minutes longer to capture the moment.

I've always been fascinated by words that are names for things I did not know were nameable. Take borborygmus for instance, or the plural, borborygmi. It's the term for audible stomach grumblings. But if you did not already know the word, did it ever occur to you that there was a word for it? Or how about protasis and apodosis? Those are the names for the if-clause and the then-clause in an if-then statement. Who knew?

I get the same rise out of discovering the sources of hip hop samples in songs that I did not even realize were sampling in the first place. And yes, reader, I just happened upon one of those discoveries, so kick back while I drop some science on you.

Back in 1990, like you, I bought A Tribe Called Quest's first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Who can forget the sense of whimsy and caprice that characterized the Tribe's work at a moment when West Coast gangstaism was already lurching forward on its path to worldwide hegemony? I'm not dissing the West Side; I'm just recalling the cultural backdrop for the Tribe's arrival on the hip hop stage.

Their debut album is one of the last great omnivorously-sampled albums, before the costly regime of clearances became the norm. Some of their samples were easily identifiable but unexpected for rappers at that time, as when they sampled Lou Reed's Take a Walk on the Wild Side on their track Can I Kick It?

But it was not until this very moment, in the wee hours of the morning, that I happened upon another Tribe source. Earlier this week I copied a greatest hits compilation of Roy Ayers to my hard drive, and there it is, playing right now: Running Away by Roy Ayers is the source text for the Tribe's Description of a Fool, the final track on their debut album. I'd say, Mystery solved, but I had not known that I did not know what I did not know. Now that's what I call science.

[New contest: win mad props from the Minister of Information for proposing a name for the act of discovering previously unknown hip hop samples.]

Sunday, December 17, 2006

never too late to learn

While writing yesterday's entry, I wondered whether George W. Bush knew the difference between Sunni and Shiite. While I have my suspicions, I could not recall off the top of my head any definite indication of Sunni-Shiite ignorance on his part.

But Bush is not the only person in government who ought to know the most basic facts about the world. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), nominated to be the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, should be held to the same standard.

Today's New York Times (section 4, page 7) reports that Reyes, when asked, mistakenly identified the sectarian backgrounds of both al-Qa'ida and Hizballah. The Congressman's excuse implies that knowledge is too much to ask, even of people in government: 'Speaking only for myself, it's hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.' It has been twenty-three years since Hizballah killed 241 U.S. soldiers in the Beirut barracks bombing of October 1983. One would think that would be enough time to pick up a newspaper, let alone an intelligence report, and learn the facts of the case.

Bush and company tend to lump al-Qa'ida with Hizballah and Iran, but if they really believe in such a flattening of fundamental oppositions, then the White House is even more misguided than its adventures in Iraq reveal. The leadership and members of (Sunni) al-Qa'ida see Shiites as apostates and would kill them as readily as they would American troops. Bin Ladin himself has called for attacks against Shiites in Iraq, most recently in his July 2006 audio recording, as reported by CNN: 'Our Muslim people in Iraq need to learn that no truce should be accepted with the crusaders and the apostates.'

Bin Ladin would like to wipe both the crusaders and the apostates off the face of the earth, but at least he knows the difference between them.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reconstruction redux

I was reading a book review by James McPherson in the November 30, 2006 issue of the New York Review of Books when I came across an unexpected comparison: 'Violent resistance by ex-Confederates to the efforts of Congress to reconstruct the South on the basis of equal civil and political rights for freed slaves produced a level of "peacetime" violence unparalleled in American history until the Iraq adventure.'

The Reconstruction is the period in American history about which I have always had the strongest feelings. For my readers abroad I should point out that the period covers the years 1865 to 1877, i.e. immediately after the U.S. Civil War. After the Southern states seceded from the Union and were defeated in war, they were not immediately let back in. Each state's seats in Congress and the electoral college were left unoccupied until they ratified the Constitutional amendments that the Northern states had passed in their absence. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth guarantees equal protection of the law; and the Fifteenth extended the right to vote to all 'citizens' regardless of 'race'. It's scary to think that these amendments might never have been ratified had the South been allowed to vote on them.

In the meanwhile, U.S. troops occupied the Southern states as they tried to re-organize themselves into functioning governments with equal rights of political participation for blacks and whites alike. Many Americans have forgotten that African-American men could vote and hold office all across the South during this period. The number of high offices achieved by African-Americans during Reconstruction—two U.S. senators, one lieutenant governor—have barely been equalled in the one hundred thirty years since then.

But the period was also characterized by rampant terrorism on the part of Southern whites to bring down the regimes of civil society that Reconstruction was meant to usher in. Southern whites, as a community, simply did not want to go from having 100% of political power to any dispensation in which they had to share it with the people they had once enslaved. And you know the rest: it took another century for African-Americans to enjoy the rule of law.

Which brings me to the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. Before I go any further, let me say that I am not excusing the barbarity that we daily witness in the news from Iraq. I am simply trying to explain for my readers the motives of the non-jihadist Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

Demographically, Iraq has three main population groups: Shiite Arabic-speakers (60%), Sunni Arabic-speakers (20%), and Sunni Kurdish-speakers (20%). But under the rule of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party, the Sunni Arab minority dominated civil and professional life. A group with 20% of the population enjoyed nearly 100% of the power.

Groups with strongly tribalist mentalities and monopolies on power generally do not give up that power willingly. The referendum in South Africa in March 1992, when whites basically voted to end apartheid and share power, may be a singular exception in human history, but even that was preceded by decades of activism and struggle. For the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, what's in it for them? Why would they want to accept a democratic order in which the people they once oppressed will outnumber them in the halls of government by four to one? Ay, there's the rub.

Here in the States, the Southern white majority after the Civil War would not even let the black minority participate. Ultimately, the Sunni Arabs will have to accept the rules of democracy, but have the choices made by the Bush administration eased that transition? Was the anti-Baathist purge that laid off Sunni civil servants in every government agency from the military to the DMV meant as a confidence-building measure for a future democracy?

The jihadist insurgency is another question entirely, but it's the Sunni nationalist insurgency that is causing most of the violence and mayhem. At least that's my impression of who's responsible for what. Could much of this have been avoided if smarter people had been calling the shots in Washington? Perhaps, but that day is past. If any progress is to be made now, it won't be by sending more American troops. It will be by smarter people apprehending the basic political realities on the ground. And it wouldn't hurt to see how similar the Iraqi insurgents' anxieties are to those of our own misguided insurgent countrymen not so long ago.

Friday, December 15, 2006

and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

Regular readers of the blog will recall that I recently committed to buy a drawing by David Byrne from Pace MacGill, the uptown art gallery. (See entries of November 22, 23, and 27, 2006.) Today I finally paid for the drawing. The whole affair of wanting it, buying it, and receiving it marks a fitting occasion to reflect on the matter of class.

As a scholar from an urban working-class background, I have often wondered how the hell to account for myself. How is it that I'm buying art and writing about the evolution of British literary forms in the nineteenth century? Why am I so unlike all the people I grew up around? After many years of reflection, I have come no closer to answering these questions, but my improbable lifestyle and place in the world do make me aware of many cultural patterns and phenomena that other people take for granted. And sometimes my class origins reveal themselves in funny ways.

The day I told the gallery director that I wanted to buy the drawing, I did not know what to expect. Reader, I can now tell you from experience that art galleries do not take credit cards. There I was thinking about all the frequent-flyer miles I was going to get. It was quite an unpleasant surprise to learn, a couple of weeks later, that they only take cash and checks.

I wonder why that is. Are credit cards deemed too vulgar by the art-buying class (of which I am now a part)? There are at least two other types of things one cannot buy with a credit card: real estate and securities. How is art like those things? The transfer of title in a real estate transaction is one of the most elaborate rituals in modern society. Is the concern for an artwork's provenance like holding title to a lot of land? I have never been to a casino, but I believe that casinos allow one to use one's credit card to buy the chips necessary to place bets. Why can't one use a credit card to place bets on art or property? Surely they are safer risks than a round of poker.

So there I was today, check in hand, ready to pay for the drawing. Another surprise: they handed the drawing over to me before knowing that the check would clear. What a strange trust to invest in a total stranger: do they figure that if one makes it that far then one must have the cash to back up the appearance? Would someone without the money in the bank simply slink away into the night without even pretending to have the money?

Now the drawing is here in my apartment, unhung for now. Half of me asks myself, how did it get here? The other half wonders, how can I get one of my relatives to come over and hang it for me without telling them how much I paid for it?

inadvertent compliment

Last night a colleague and I assembled an entire karaoke army in lower Manhattan. The mission: to take over Avenue A and bring freedom to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and fabulous. Unlike other recent ventures on the world stage, we had a plan for the peace: to squeeze as many people into a karaoke studio as could humanly fit and use the native musical traditions to sow community and comity among them. What can I say about the results other than, Mission Accomplished.

On a personal note, the evening was quite a triumph as well. Early in the evening I launched into my signature rendition of I Try by Macy Gray. A new recruit to our army looked at me and said, 'Oh no, he's lip-synching.' Yes, Reader, the night was fabulous indeed.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

no, they have no bananas

General Augusto Pinochet of Chile cheated justice by dying last weekend, on December 10, 2006. His coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 ended over forty years of continuous democratic self-rule by the Chilean people. Chile was no banana republic. Of all the countries in Latin America, Chile probably had the longest and least interrupted tradition of parliamentary government.

I point this out because, despite seventeen years of dictatorship (1973-1990), despite the torture and killing of tens of thousands, despite the overthrow of the rule of law, Pinochet to this day has thousands of defenders and supporters in Chile. Why are people so willing to forego the rule of law and, indeed, assist the men who usurp it?

Here in the States we have a White House with as much contempt for the rule of law as any fascist dictator has ever shown. Bush and Cheney's catalogue of offenses to the Constitution and the rule of law is long and well-known: the holding of prisoners without charge, the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions, and on and on. But when it comes to the so-called Presidential Signing Statement, we have before us a mock institution whose sole purpose is to mask in the trappings of officialdom the president's pageant of tyranny and contempt for law.

This past summer the American Bar Association issued a report on the signing statements that I don't need to reinvent here. It's available online here. (Or just read the press release.)

But, basically, we know all that. The ABA report provides detail, history, and summary, but we get it. What I don't understand is why the people with the most contempt for parliamentary government and the rule of law always seem to be the most zealous to run governments. I experienced this confusion as a politically precocious kid every time I heard President Reagan say that government was the problem, not the solution. Well then why the hell did he want to be president?

In writing this blog entry, I was reminded of the strangest case of all: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. This guy actually pioneered 'the new-style signing statement' when he was deputy assistant attorney general in 1986 under Reagan. The memo he wrote on the subject is only six pages long and worth reading.

The document speaks for itself:
'From the perspective of the Executive Branch, the issuance of interpretive signing statements would have two chief advantages. First, it would increase the power of the Executive to shape the law.'
It would increase the power of the executive to shape law? But the executive executes law; it does not make or shape it. For the executive to arrogate new powers to itself would be pure, unconstitutional tyranny. Throughout the document, Alito is clearly conscious of how 'new' his project is, yet his confidence in the ultimate success of his nutty scheme is supreme:
'On the other hand, Congress has the opportunity to shape the bills that are presented to the President, and the President's role at that point is limited to approving or disapproving.'
The President's role at this point? As opposed to the president's role after the suppression of the Constitution?

The memo also outlines a step-by-step strategy: they will begin by 'concentrating at first on a small number of bills' and working their way up. Alito's memo is really a blueprint for establishing American tyranny:
'And by concentrating on bills within our own field of responsibility and concern, we can begin without depending upon the cooperation of other departments and agencies, which may be skeptical at first. If our project is successful, cooperation may be more readily available.'

Eventually, executive tyranny would be so taken for granted that the president would not even have to explain:
'Accordingly, after the first few efforts, the President could merely state when signing the bill that his signing is based on an interpretation to be set out in detail in a statement to be issued later.'

Reader, check it out for yourself if you want to see how the Bush counter-revolution got started.

But here is the mystery that I cannot for the life of me answer: why would Alito, or anyone else, want to be the intellectual architect of someone else's tyranny? And if he has such love for the executive and contempt for the separation of powers, why would he aspire to sit on the Supreme Court? It makes sense for presidents to want to amass power for themselves, but it makes no sense for others to help them and then sit on federal courts deprived of their strength by one's own machinations. I guess I just don't understand the innumerable enablers of tyranny who share this world with us. Sometimes I think they would kill off the rest of us if only they could.

Monday, December 11, 2006

talk to him

I saw Pedro Almodóvar's Hable con ella (Talk to Her) for the millionth time tonight, this time with my students. It is such an improbably sublime movie that it's worth taking the time to figure out how Almodóvar reached such a point in his career that he could make it.

I was a teenager in the late 80's when his films hit New York and they seemed to be everywhere all at once, from the Lincoln Plaza Cinema to the Quad on 13th Street to some cinemas that aren't around anymore. For a while it seemed like a new old Almodóvar fim was coming out every month. According to Lexis-Nexis, The New York Times reviewed three of his films (Dark Habits, Matador, and Women on the Verge) in 1988 alone. I don't know how much I knew about Franco and Spanish politics at that age, but the radicalism of those early films was exactly what every teenager needs to see: absolute shamelessness about feelings and habits and sexuality.

Given the cultural and political moment in Spain, his early films don't depict a lot of consequences, nor should they have. It was a time for anarchy and zaniness and liberation, not a time for gravity and maturity and reflection. This is not a complaint: that's exactly why his early films are so great despite their low budgets and rudimentary film style. After seeing his last few films, I'm starting to wonder if he is returning to old themes but with the weight of responsibility for the actions depicted. Let's consider some examples, and I promise I'll do my best not to give Volver's plot away. It's not called Volver for nothing.

At least two of his 80's films seem revisited by Volver. In What Have I Done to Deserve This (1985), housewife Carmen Maura kills her husband and gives her son to a pederast dentist in payment for the bill. In Law of Desire (1987), Carmen Maura plays a male-to-female transgendered person who, as a boy, had had a sexual relationship with her father and had undergone surgery in order to be with him as a female. Neither film depicts any moral complication associated with what we would otherwise call child abuse. Again, I'm not criticizing, just observing.

Since All about My Mother in 1999, his films have developed an emotional gravitas and a visual lushness unprecedented in his earlier work. And lots of consequences for people's behavior: dying of AIDS, a desperate suicide after the rape of a comatose patient, and the pain that we see among the women of Volver.

But Hable con ella (2002) is unique. Here, for the first and only time, we have in Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti) a soulful and decent straight male character. The University Press of Mississippi (go figure) recently published a great collection of interviews with Almodóvar that spans his entire career. Every time his attention turns to men, he says something like this comment from 1990: 'For me, men are too inflexible. They are condemned to play their Spanish macho role.' (Pedro Almodóvar Interviews, p. 90). The key word here may be 'condemned': for as freewheeling an amoralist as Almodóvar, the only sin would be the suppression of feeling.

Marco, distinctly, is the man who feels. When we first see him at the Pina Bausch performance, he cries, and many of his narrative events throughout the film are simply episodes of crying. The one time he notably does not cry, in the flashback to ex-girlfriend Angela's wedding, he offers his absence of tears to Lydia as proof that he is over his feelings for her. No tears: no feelings.

Would it be too much to say that Marco is Almodóvar's ideal of what a man ought to be? The more I think about it, the more I think that's right. But what on earth led him to write this amazing, soulful male character? If I could ask him one question, that would be it.

(From the see-something-new-every-time department: the next time you watch Hable, notice Benigno's mother's wedding picture, shown twice in the film. The first time, it is framed on the wall as Benigno stares out the window. It is clear that a man, Benigno's father obviously, has been cropped out of the picture frame. The photo reappears when Marco claims Benigno's belongings from the prison. Here, unframed, it is clear that the husband has been removed by tearing. Wow. Now that is visual storytelling.)

Benigno: 'I've hugged very few people in my life.'

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

karaoke queen, young and sweet, only seventeen

Since the disco era at least, pop music has constructed the dancefloor as a special place. It's a place where the cares of life melt away and one can feel, palpably in one's body, one's dreams coming true, though, of course, the feeling only endures on the dancefloor.

Disco Tex & the Sex-O-Lettes (featuring Sir Monti Rock III) were early theorists of the dancefloor back in 1974 with their classic disco hit Get Dancin':

'Come on, do your thing.
Dance your dance.
Do all those hips I remember.
I'm your friendly disc jockey trying to tell you,
It's time to get dancing, baby,
You can't think of all the wrong and all the wrong of the world,
You can't think of all the bad things you do,
You just keep on keep dancing,
Put out your mind,
Be happy and love yourself while you're dancing.'

The dancefloor was a carefree, pagan space, and if there was any shame to be had, it was the 'Shame, Shame, Shame' of not dancing, as Shirley & Company instructed the world later that same year.

The dancefloor was also accessible to all, freed from hierarchies of class or privilege, unlike, say, the ballet studio or symphony hall. The only obstacle was one's own inhibitions, which KC & The Sunshine Band urged us all to overcome in 1975 in (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty:

'Don't fight it.
Feel it.
Give yourself a chance.
You can.
You can do it
Very well.'

In the twenty-first century, little has changed about the trope of the dancefloor, as we find in Madonna's Music (2000):

'Don't think of yesterday
And I don't look at the clock.
I like to boogie-woogie. Uh, uh.
It's like riding on the wind,
And it never goes away,
Touches everything I'm in,
Got to have it everyday.'

Now, I like to dance as much as the next person, but for me, that special place where I feel carefree and fabulous is the karaoke bar, or, even better, the karaoke studio. Where else could I be praised as 'more Macy Gray than Macy Gray herself'? (Schuyler Henderson, personal communication, Sing Sing Karaoke Bar, Sep. 17, 2006.) My posse and I recently got ourselves into some karaoke combat when we encountered an opposing crew poisoning the climate of freedom and fabulousness that the karaoke regime requires. We had to, as it were, get all up in their business. I don't want to stereotype our opponents. Let's just say that the ultimate blow came when I chose a song I knew would be dear to them, Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin, and massacred it. Oh, the karaoke knives were out that night indeed.

But the bigger thing to notice at work here, both on the dancefloor and at the karaoke bar, is how these spaces affect the once heavily policed boundaries of gender and sexual identification. Stay tuned, reader. There will be more to say about that in the future.

Friday, December 1, 2006

the problem with American hip hop today

I bought Jay-Z's new album Kingdom Come the day it came out, but I find I can't listen to the whole thing in one sitting. So far, it feels more like a collection of singles than an album. I have to listen to it a bit more before offering anything like a review of the album as a whole, but it has set me thinking about bigger problems in American hip hop today.

One thing that always attracted me to rap was the way the DJ, now the producer, would take old cultural material and assign new meaning to it by sampling it in a new composition. The combinations could deepen the significance of the new work or they could surprise by bringing out unexpected meanings in the old. The best example of the former has to be Public Enemy's classic 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Sampling Malcolm X and James Brown together not only borrowed X's militant credibility but also used Brown to buttress the claim that 'The rhythm is the rebel', i.e. that the rap form itself could do the work of political education and agitation. The best example I can find of the latter is Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life. Who would have thought that the most treacly-sweet work in the American musical theatre canon would so aptly lend itself to a rap re-fit? But as soon as one hears it one has to admit that, yes indeed, the street life of a hustler is a hard-knock life.

But nowadays samples are boring. A rapper writes some lyrics and each song's music gets outsourced to a different producer. The fit between the song and the sample is rarely earned. I tell my writing students all the time to reflect on the texts they quote, but I don't find many rap artists doing that work anymore. Today's leading hip hop producers specialise in sampling different periods just because they sound good. I can't deny that current producers make good beats and whatnot, but the intellectualism and æsthetic conviction are gone from American hip hop today. All the excitement in rap now is in the UK: Dizzee Rascal, The Streets, Lady Sovereign, and their partners in grime. I was looking forward to the new albums by Lady Sov and Jay-Z, but I did not expect the Biggest Midget in the Game to overtake the Chairman and CEO on her first try.