Friday, March 13, 2009

the smell of burnt flesh

We alone are the face of our Time

"In America Mayakovsky felt hopelessly limited by his inability to speak English. He stayed close to Burliuk whenever possible, using him as an interpreter, but there were many awkward moments, for example, the New York party Mayakovsky later described:

"But just consider my situation in America. A poet’s been invited. They’ve been told he’s a genius. A genius – that’s even better than being well known. I arrive and right off I say, "Gif me pliz sam tee."
They serve me. I wait a bit and then, "Gif me pliz..."
They serve me again.
And I keep it up, varying the intonation and phrasing.
"Gif me de sam tee, sam tee de gif me." I say my say.
The evening proceeds.

Respectful old fellows listen reverentially. "There’s a Russian for you. Doesn’t waste words. He’s a thinker ... Tolstoy ... The North."

But the ladies move away when they hear for the hundredth time the same request for tea, even though it’s enunciated in a pleasant bass voice. And the gentlemen distribute themselves in the corners of the room laughing at my expense.

So I shout to Burliuk: "You translate this for them. Tell them that if they knew Russian I could, without even dirtying my shirtfront, nail them with my tongue to the cross of their own suspenders, that I could roast this whole collection of insects on the sharp turnspit of my tongue."

And the honest Burliuk translates. "My eminent friend Vladimir Vladimirovich would like some more tea."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

17 by B. Kliban

A friend of mine recently sent me some books in the mail, one of which was a book of cartoons by B. Kliban called Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head & Other Drawings. I had never heard of B. Kliban (though his famous Cats do look familiar), and I was surprised to learn that he is credited with inventing the single panel cartoon where a third person caption describes the action. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, especially appreciating the way Kliban's best jokes are much more thoughtful than they appear at first glance, many with subversive undercurrents that can give us a flash of the world in a new way or simply show us the pure absurdity of life itself. (Many of the cartoons are completely absurd, almost as if Kliban had picked words from a hat and was forced to make a comic out of them.) Some of them aren't funny (on purpose), others are just plain stupid (in a good way), a few are witty, many are obsessed with punning, a handful are brilliant. Here is a selection:

B. Kliban the birth of advertising
B. Kliban cartoon
B. Kliban inglese
B. Kliban  business on parade
B. Kliban  fly
B. Kliban king kong
B. Kliban merchandising
B. Kliban people humiliating a salami
B. Kliban the victims family
B. Kliban fig
B. Kliban
B. Kliban keeping bugs away
B. Kliban debutantes and centipedes
B. Kliban making a flapjack person
B. Kliban knoll coward
B. Kliban a meter violation
B. Kliban

Friday, March 06, 2009

Robert Desnos: And before your eyes, the grass and its flowers

"Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change.

I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man's palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life [temporarily] and the lives of others by using his imagination... In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS."

* * * * *

robert desnos painting hands surrealist
                                                       I lived in those times. For a thousand years
                                                       I have been dead. Not fallen, but hunted;
                                                       When all human decency was imprisoned,
                                                       I was free amongst the masked slaves.

                                                       I lived in those times, yet I was free.
                                                       I watched the river, the earth, the sky,
                                                       Turning around me, keeping their balance,
                                                       The seasons provided their birds and their honey.

                                                       You who live, what have you made of your luck?
                                                       Do you regret the time when I struggled?
                                                       Have you cultivated for the common harvest?
                                                       Have you enriched the town I lived in?

                                                       Living men, think nothing of me. I am dead.
                                                       Nothing survives of my spirit or my body.

-Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Talk Show Nightmares

"A snarker is one who snarks. The word is said to be a combination of snide and remark. There are slithering undertones of shark, bark, and stark. There is also, for me, an association with snipe. The practice involves holding someone up to ridicule not so much for anything they actually did, as for having the presumption to be who they are.

When Joaquin Phoenix appears on the Letterman program and behaves as a semi-catatonic weirdo, for example, he is instantly made the butt of imitators on the Indie Spirits and the Oscars, and the snarky presumption is that he is now a laughable buffoon. [...] Now consider the widely-held theory that it was all an act, a put-on, a chapter in the life of the hip hop persona Phoenix is creating. In my opinion, that's the most likely explanation. In that event, was his appearance on Letterman snarkworthy or praiseworthy? We cannot deny it was compelling television. We watched with an intensity that TV rarely inspires. Something was really happening. Phoenix completely committed himself as an actor. There was no safety net. He bewildered Letterman on a program where David has shown himself unflappable and serene for 27 years. That is no small achievement. Does it deserve scorn, or admiration? We still don't know if Phoenix was "real" or not, and that is an accomplishment.

Step back to see how snarking has worked in this case. It has operated almost as a reflex to smack down behavior that upsets our expectations. It essentially says: Get back in line, Phoenix! [...] What concerns me is that snark functions as a device to punish human spontaneity, eccentricity, non-conformity and simple error. Everyone is being snarked into line." --Roger Ebert

* * *


2.) from Rolling Stone: Nov. 6, 1975

NORFOLK, MASSACHUSETTS - Mark Frechette, the one-time actor who seemed to carry into his private life much of the tortured soul he portrayed in Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, is dead at age 27. He was the apparent victim of a bizarre accident in a recreation room at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, where Frechette had been serving a six- to 15-year sentence for his participation in a 1973 Boston bank robbery.

Frechette's body was discovered by a fellow inmate early on the morning of September 27th pinned beneath a 150-pound set of weights, the bar resting on his throat. An autopsy revealed he had died of asphyxiation and the official explanation is that the weights slipped from his hands while he was trying to bench press them, killing him instantly. A source in the county DA's office, which is investigating the incident, termed the circumstances "a little strange," especially since the bar left no mark on Frechette's neck. However, Frechette's lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, dismissed the possibility of foul play, maintaining that the handsome, bright and sensitive young man was well liked by other inmates, had only relatively minor hassles with guards at the medium security institution and was too strong to have been subdued without leaving some sign of a struggle.

Frechette's friends report, however, that he had been deeply depressed of late, had not been eating and had lost considerable weight. They trace his melancholy mood back to August 29th, the second anniversary of the bank robbery in which his close friend, a fellow member of Boston's Fort Hill commune, was killed. A court psychiatrist's warning that Frechette might become "increasingly depressed" in an institutional setting had gone virtually unheeded until it was too late. No one is seriously suggesting suicide, but attorney Silverglate does suggest that Frechette was "reckless" to attempt a solo workout in his weakened condition.

A French-Canadian high school dropout from Fairfield, Connecticut, Frechette wandered into Boston from New York in 1966 with his former wife and child. He spent some time panhandling around Harvard Square and did carpentry work in the Fort Hill area of Boston's black section, Roxbury. He began reading Avatar, an underground paper backed by Mel Lyman, former member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band turned self-styled guru of the 100-member Fort Hill commune. The charismatic Lyman headed perhaps the first of such Manson-style personality cults short on dogma but strong on discipline and introspection.

Frechette's first attempts to approach his new-found guru were rebuffed. It was only after he was literally "discovered" by a pair of talent scouts on a Boston street corner that Frechette gained an audience with Lyman (during which, Frechette was later to tell an interviewer, "there was this humming in my ears... I mean the whole damn room was humming").

The story is that in 1968 a bearded, down-and-out Frechette was spotted standing at a bus stop, shouting "motherfucker." Antonioni's aides, searching for a star for the film that was to be the director's American epic, interviewed Frechette and selected him for the role on the spot. "He's 20 and he hates," was their ever quotable comment. The film was a critical and financial failure, but it did bring brief fame to Frechette.

Frechette then took his costar Daria Halprin and the $60,000 he earned from Zabriskie Point and a few obscure foreign films and returned to the commune. Halprin eventually fled the reputed severity of the Lyman cult (and married actor Dennis Hopper) but Frechette stayed put, out of the public eye, until two years ago when he joined two other Lyman devotees in an impulsive bank robbery attempted within blocks of the commune. One of his accomplices was killed by police and Frechette dropped his own revolver (with, it turned out, no bullet in the chamber).

The robbery attempt was a desperate political statement. And, like most desperate acts, and maybe like Frechette's entire life, it ended in futility. "There was no way to stop what was going to happen," said Frechette in an interview following his arrest. "We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death."

1.) "John Cassavetes had a theory about why his films gave viewers so much trouble: "The audience comes into the theater and sits down. The lights dim, the movie begins, and they say, 'All right, let's get going.' They watch for a few minutes and say it again. They watch a few minutes more and say it one more time. But what they don't realize is that the film has been going all along - going like crazy - but somewhere they don't understand, somewhere, maybe, they don't want to go."

Sounds like aesthetic sour grapes, the bitter fruit of 30 years of commercial failure and critical marginality, except that he said it with no bitterness or rancor, and said it from the very beginning of his career. In 1969, during the modest critical success of Faces, Cassavetes told Newsday critic Joseph Gelmis that he had organized the film deliberately to defeat viewers' expectations: "The first part of the script was structured very carefully to set up a whole new pattern of thinking so that the audience could not get ahead of the film. Most people think: 'Oh, yes, this is what is going to happen in the next moment.' What happens with Faces , though, is that the first half of the film really bugs people because it doesn't fit an easy pattern of behavior."

"Bugging people" and "not fitting an easy pattern of behavior" are phrases that touch the pulsebeat of Cassavetes' work. His detractors would add that they touch on what made him personally so difficult to work with as well. This is, after all, the filmmaker who re-cut the ending of Opening Night because the preview audience stood up and cheered.

Do any American feature films work harder to prevent viewers from reclining into their La-Z-Boys of the imagination? Cassavetes' scene deliberately swerve away from dependable courses and outcomes. Every time a scene is about to congeal into a predictable tone, Cassavetes will give it a stir; every time a relationship is about to stabilize, he'll give it a push. Just when the audience thinks it's figured out the relationship between two characters, a new piece of information or an emotional adjustment forces viewers to re-evaluate everything. [...] New facts are disclosed after we have rushed to judgment, deliberately to throw us off balance, to chasten and humble us, to make us wary of jumping to conclusions.

The very notions of psychological coherence and behavioral purposefulness that we employ to make sense of most other movie characters are limitations from which Cassavetes frees his figures. He viewed character (in the fixed form in which it exists in most other films) as a dead-end for development. The characters who matter most to him won't resolve themselves into a package as tidy and small as character. They won't relax into a predictable pattern of behavior or monotonic style. They contain multitudes (though in an entirely less insouciant, more strenuous, and more perilous way than Whitman imagined). [...] Their multiplicity stands as a criticism of all the more static, more formulaic, more passive forms of selfhood." --Ray Carney, John Cassavetes - The Adventure of Insecurity

(3 parts)