Thursday, November 26, 2015

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The Chinese astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death. Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.
     Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lafargue's The Right to Be Lazy.
                                                                            —Jean Ferry, The Conductor and Other Tales

November 26

When Karl Marx read The Right to Be Lazy, he concluded, "If that's Marxism, then I'm no Marxist."
     The author, Paul Lafargue, seemed less a communist than an anarchist who harbored a suspicious streak of tropical lunacy.

     Neither was Marx pleased at the prospect of having this not-very-light-complexioned Cuban for a son-in-law. "An all too intimate deportment is unbecoming," he wrote to him when Paul began making dangerous advances on his daughter Laura. And he added solemnly: "Should you plead defence of your Creole temperament, it becomes my duty to interpose my sound sense between your temperament and my daughter."
     Reason failed.

     Laura Marx and Paul Lafargue shared their lives for more than forty years.
     And on this night in the year 1911, when life was no longer life, in their bed at home and in each other's arms, they set off on the final voyage. 
                                                                                                                —Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days

Monday, November 09, 2015

affinities XXVIII

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Herzog, 1974); A Field in England (Wheatley, 2013)

There are also some similarities between Wheatley's bleak and blackly humorous film and Beckett's Waiting for Godot—some superficial, some not.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

the Monoculture

From Noah Tavlin's "What 'Orwellian' Really Means," animated by TED-Ed.

I really ought to get a tumblr for stuff like this...

Thursday, October 01, 2015


leafie: a hen into the wild, animal rights, vegetarianism, seong-yun oh,
leafie: a hen into the wild, animal rights, vegetarianism, seong-yun oh, world vegetarian day,
leafie: a hen into the wild, animal rights, vegetarianism, seong-yun oh, battery hens, factory farming,

Leafie, A Hen into the Wild (Seong-yun Oh, 2011)

Monday, August 31, 2015

things overheard (I)


A. (a man in his late 20s)
B. (a man in his late 50s)

Scene: A woman in her early 20s stops near the two men. She takes a moment to playfully flirt with B., then exits.

A. (in earnest, turning to B.): "That's low. If I had a daughter who flirted with an older man like that, I'd slap her silly. It's disgusting."

B: "I don't know if I would," B. ponders, giving the thought due consideration.

He longed to beat her, to strangle her, to tear her hair out... He sat still, his arms crossed, his eyes turned skyward, his mind too agitated to think as yet. He only felt within him the rancour fermenting and the anger swelling which lurk at the heart of all mankind in presence of the caprices of feminine desire... Then by degrees his mind became calmer, and bearing up against his pain, he thought: "All women are prostitutes. We must make use of them, and not give them anything of ourselves." The bitterness in his heart rose to his lips in words of contempt and disgust. He repeated to himself: "The victory in this world is to the strong. One must be strong..." —Maupassant, Bel Ami (1885)

* * *

From Anthony Bourdain's The Layover (2011)

Monday, August 24, 2015

consciousness deferred

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
La Noire de... / Black Girl (Ousmane Sembène, 1966)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

a real life conversation (II)

Setup: A. and her sisters have agreed to a book club. The Picture of Dorian Gray is their first selection. B. is a work acquaintance.

B. Have you started Dorian Gray yet?

A. (remembering) Oh! No, not yet. (Pause.) My sister is half-way through, and she said it was boring.

B. Really? I'm surprised. Almost everything Lord Henry says is either witty or funny, and often both.

A. Does it take a while to get started? Is there a lot of description in the beginning?

B. No. There's a conversation between Lord Henry and another character by the second page or so.

A. Well, I think my sister just has very high standards.

Monday, August 17, 2015

inspiration, derivation, or no relation? (2)

After someone in the film gives a nightmarish performance, the MC says the following (not sure why the closed caption is so blurry):

Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2014)

("By the way, he's also available for children's parties.")

"FUCK THAT, I WANT MY ROCKSTARS DEAD!!! I want them to fucking play with one hand and put a gun in their other fucking hand and go 'Hope you enjoyed the show!' [mimics gunshot to the head] YEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!!! YEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!! PLAY FROM YOUR FUCKING HEAAAAARRRRRRRT! [pause] Ahem, I am available for children's parties by the way." —Bill Hicks

Night Train To Lisbon (Billie August, 2013)

"If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses." —Lenny Bruce (early 1960s)

"A lot of Christians wear crosses around their necks. You think when Jesus comes back he ever wants to see a fucking cross? It's like going up to Jackie Onassis wearing a rifle pendant." —Bill Hicks (early 90s)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Twitter, links, etc.

Since Google+ is a graveyard I've moved my "Recent Links & Discoveries" to Twitter (@TheTarpeianRock—link also on sidebar). I'm not 100% adept at Twitter yet, not completely sure I understand every aspect of it, and only one person I know uses the service... But I like trying to come up with pithy things to write. (Warning: Sometimes I tweet lame jokes into the wild!) I haven't done too much link sharing as of yet, largely because I haven't been reading/watching/exploring much online, but this will eventually change. Right now I'm just trying to have some fun with it.

Follow or check in periodically if interested.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

top: Pierre Brignaud via @mattzollerseitz (source)
bottom: Joan Cornellà via (source)

Monday, August 03, 2015

"Borges is half-blind. Never forget that." —Orson Welles

Excerpts from Jean-Paul Sartre's and Jorge Luis Borges' negative reviews of Citizen Kane have been making the rounds lately (you can navigate to them both from HERE). To accompany them I've scanned a chapter from My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles in which Welles responds to their criticisms. (I extended it a little beyond the subjects in question due to the ridiculously amusing nature of the conversation.)

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

an image in 527 words

last year at marienbad, garden, robbe-grillet, shadows, resnais,

It doesn't even look like a photograph anymore, this image. It's too strange, too iconic. All the models have been captured by the camera and turned into a kind of landscape, locked in time like unweatherable statues. The hedges and rectangular space give the impression that the people have been shrunken down into a board game of sorts (Chance, Sorrow). Three couples, three singles. The lone woman standing off by herself, staring directly at us, gives the sense that she knows exactly how important this moment is. She stands like a model before an artist working on an already legendary painting. "No one will know me," she thinks. "Nevertheless, I am immortal."

It's Last Year at Marienbad, yes, but also something else, something separate. Like the Mona Lisa or Starry Night, by the time we finally see this image in the film we can't really see it because we feel like we have already seen it—somehow, somewhere.

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

Imagine them that day, lined up on their marks, some black paint representing their shapes stretched out before them. . . The woman in the foreground a little off, her shadow disconnected from her body. Did Resnais or Robbe-Grillet tell her to do that, or was it an overlooked mistake? Or perhaps an act of sabotage. . . Maybe she was fed up, hot and tired from standing still for so long. . . "I'll show them," she thought, taking a small step back. . . The man standing with her smiles, noticing her defiance and wishing he was as brave—but only after the camera starts rolling. . . "I would have done it with you had I noticed in time," he tells her after someone yells Cut! "But it was too late." They shoot another take. The man stays in place. The woman laughs. Cut!

What did it look like in color? The painted shadows were probably too dark and too defined, lacking the fuzzy outline found when the sun paints our silhouettes. Did they, looking at their black outlines, think it was all a bit too odd, not knowing the composition and how the black and white photography would transform everything? Did they feel silly standing there, motionless, arms to their sides, as still as their frozen shadows? Or were they in another state altogether?

One cannot imagine any sounds while this was being staged and shot, no coughs, no birds chirping. . . Did the birds also stay frozen, wings to their sides?

Looked at another way, eyes slightly out of focus, the white is a reflecting pool, the figures hovering on the water's surface, the triangle topiaries turn into buoys, and in the distance some magic castle. . . An island in the middle, a small bridge across it in the distance, irrigation canals on each side. . . Or ice, yes! A frozen lake. There is more mystery here than a few misplaced and missing shadows. . .

This image is the whole film. Or perhaps another film altogether.

Some of these questions have answers. 

Thankfully, I do not know them.

* * *

"My abuse consists of having photographed you without your permission. Of course, it is not like an ordinary photograph; this is my latest invention. We shall live in this photograph forever. Imagine a stage on which our life during these seven days is acted out, complete in every detail. We are the actors. All our actions have been recorded." —The Invention of Morel (1940)

The poem above is excerpted from Rossetti's "Sudden Light," which Borges quotes in his prologue to Adolfo Bioy Casares' masterpiece The Invention of Morel, a novella that has been described as the "model" for Last Year at Marienbad, as well as—less assuredly—a "possible influence." In her introduction, Suzanne Jill Levine says Bioy Casares' book, translated into French in 1953, "inspired" Robbe-Grillet's script.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003); The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

jurassic worlds

The terrible irony is that we may bring back dinosaurs after all. Not by the purposeful and adept application of our intelligence to some technological end, as we'd like to imagine it, but rather by complete, inept accident. Through our neglectful treatment of the environment via the emission of—yes, fossil fuels—the viscous matter of dinosaurs, as the common lore goes, might very well bring the reptiles back into existence, as if the powerful spirits of these extinct creatures are guiding us to warm the planet for their return. Sixty-five million years hence, some future species might contemplate the mysterious fate of Homo sapiens as they look at the reconstructed human skeletons displayed in their museums. Why did they go extinct?, they'll wonder. Was it a comet? Severe drought? A flood? It's safe to say that the name we proudly gave ourselves—"wise ape"—will not be among the choices considered by whatever future gravedigging taxonomist broods over our poor descendant's skull, alas!

This is something that came to mind while reading J.G. Ballard's 1962 novel, The Drowned World. In some future time, much of the Earth's landmass is covered in water, the top few stories of the tallest skyscrapers providing shelter for a group of surveyors making their way through London. The plants loom large in the carbon rich environment, the atmosphere is oppressively hot and humid, and iguanas, alligators and crocodiles likewise thrive in this new Triassic. (Dinosaurs of some sort have even been seen further north.) The main character, Kerans, begins to feel his mind slipping, as it has slipped in others close to him, into a world of dreams. Except that it isn't a dream, really, but images from a long suppressed tribal memory, a time when such an environment wasn't so foreign.

"All the way down the creek, perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores, the iguanas watched them go past, their hard frozen heads jerking stiffly. They launched themselves into the wake of the cutter, snapping at the insects dislodged from the air-weed and rotting logs, then swam through the windows and clambered up the staircases to their former vantage-points, piled three deep across each other. Without the reptiles, the lagoons and the creeks of office blocks half-submerged in the immense heat would have had a strange dream-like beauty, but the iguanas and basilisks brought the fantasy down to earth. As their seats in the one-time boardrooms indicated, the reptiles had taken over the city. Once again they were the dominant form of life.

"Looking up at the ancient impassive faces, Kerans could understand the curious fear they roused, re-kindling archaic memories of the terrifying jungles of the Paleocene, when the reptiles had gone down before the emergent mammals, and sense the implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it."

Skeletons in an Office (Paul Delvaux, 1944)

Thursday, June 04, 2015


Some half sure & half-baked notes on the endings of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Spoilers for both shows follow, naturally.

* * *

breaking bad, walter white, final shot
mad men, finale, don draper, final shot, smiling

In his article for the LA Review of Books, "Gilding the Small Screen," Javier Grillo-Marxuach argues that the trend of protagonists with dual-identities found in many of the better television shows of the past ten or fifteen years stems from a generation of latchkey kids-turned writers seeking a kind of (unconscious?) revenge on their delinquent parents by portraying them as "inscrutably trying to reinvent themselves at the expense of their dependents." An interesting observation, and possibly correct on the whole. Or the main source of this duality might simply be the most obvious one: superhero comics. Certainly in the case of Breaking Bad, at least. And perhaps even in Mad Men (who is Don Draper if not the Superman to Dick Whitman's Clark Kent?) Regardless of its origin, both of these shows indulge this cliché with varying degrees of success, and to differing purposes.

Breaking Bad ultimately fails in its promise to end in a way that gives the most substance to everything that preceded it, not because Walter White buys into the myth of his alter-ego Heisenberg (that's part of what makes the series so compelling), but because the show does. Rather than exposing Heisenberg as the pretense of an insecure egomaniac, the man in the pork pie hat is made flesh once again in the finale, appearing one last time to dole out justice in a moment of MacGyver like satisfaction. Though we may have come to dislike (or even despise) Walter White at some point during the series—a conflict the show created that was, for me, its guts and glory—we're meant to unambiguously root for him once more in the end. Our own personal badass and virtual superhero, Heisenberg, returns to deliver justice to the evil—yes—nazis(neo), as well as a kind of redemption (or at least catharsis, which we share) for Walter White. Everything that was most interesting about the show is flushed away, its lowest points quickly underscored and brought to the surface. The series was not, it turns out, as daring as its best moments made us believe. White, who began Breaking Bad as a man, ends the show as Heisenberg, a cartoon, the slow transformation finally complete.

Mad Men's exploration of dual-identity functions differently because Dick Whitman is never comfortable as Don Draper, he never quite buys into the myth of his alter-ego. Perhaps White and Draper's relationship to their other-selves stems from their source. Heisenberg is created by accident: a hat worn there, a poster put up there, a reputation exaggerated. And Walter White sees it, likes it, and takes it on, exploiting it both for his own use—to instill fear as a drug lord—and because he thinks it's cool, acting as a corrective to his view of himself as an unsuccessful, ineffectual man. Don Draper, on the other hand, is consciously created by Dick Whitman as a way of starting over, and it is of course much harder to believe your own (conscious) lies than the lies created for you by others (advertising counts on the latter being easy to swallow and hard to free yourself from).

Unlike Breaking Bad, Mad Men ends in a way that gives more, not less, substance to everything that preceded it.

In Season 2, episode 5, Don Draper references Antonioni's 1961 film La Notte in a moment that can be read as an illustration of Draper's truer, deeper self. See, he's actually a deep, misunderstood guy, not just some cynical, status-quo enforcing adman. In context though, it's not exactly that. Don, if you remember, is in the car with a "sophisticated" woman, Bobbie, who asks him about movies.

BOBBIE: You've seen the foreign ones? So sexy.
DON (softlywith trademark furrowed brow): La Notte.

It's as if Draper acquires culture merely in order to add it to his arsenal for seducing women, perhaps having recently come to the realization that, without it, certain women will forever be beyond his reach. (It's not a coincidence that the women he becomes obsessed with are the ones he can't have; specifically, the ones who rebuff him emotionally. The ones who can get enough. He wants their love, too. Needs it.) This is, after all, a man with no sense of identity, a black hole who sucks up everything around him, destroying or warping it to his own ends. He uses manipulative advertising tricks on everyone he encounters, especially women, constantly lying to, and playing games with, them. In retrospect it would be easy to say that he uses culture as a way of mining the zeitgeist for advertising material, as paths towards finding a way to get into the heads of various types of consumers—whether the product being sold is the next big thing from a client, or simply Don Draper™ himself. In fact, everything he partakes in can easily be seen as a form of research for his job rather than an end in itself; after all, he's always stumped when forced to consider the things in life he's truly passionate about (aside from sleeping with women, of course).

We see this later when he's reading Portnoy's Complaint, one of the most talked about books of 1969. If everyone is talking about it, Draper, the adman, thinks, I should probably know something about it. At the same time, yes, Roth's book also acts as a cultural signal flare, a reminder of the times, functioning in a way similar to the show's costumes and sets. This is also true of the scene in Season 5 where we see Pete Campbell reading The Crying of Lot 49 on the train, something that doesn't jibe with his character and rather seems like a misstep, the writers tipping their hat much too overtly to 1966 (or perhaps to Pynchon himself). Of course I understand that, for the sake of realism, such markers are to some extent unavoidable. The particular choices, however, are not. And now that the show is over and the arc is complete, we can go back and see the presence of Lot 49, not as the misstep described above, but as another adman mining the emerging counterculture. Not out of character after all.

mad men, philip roth, don draper reading, portnoy's complaint,
mad men, pynchon, the crying of lot 49, pete campbell, Notice the Coke can in Draper's office.

On one hand the show, like Draper, views art and culture as a pretense, part of a disguise. On another, as something that's adorned and used to communicate information, a mere accoutrement. Another book-on-film moment occurs in Season 6 when Don sits on the beach reading Dante's Inferno, though this time the book isn't there to signal the times or lend easy depth to the character as much as highlight a theme within the series and give it some "depth." In other words, it's not meant to adorn the character but the show. Draper, in voiceover, reads the oft-cited opening lines about the "dark wood." (Forget that it's Don Draper; who reads Dante on the beach anyway? I know, I know. It's a metaphor. He's directionless, in a kind of Hell. Or something. The beach. Hot. Inferno. Etc.)

It also comes across, especially in retrospect, that the episodes where Don hung around beatniks and hippy types were nothing more than his attempts at reaching into the minds of the upcoming demographic, a form of hands-on research. It would have been interesting if the show had gone further with this, showing the youth culture as being little more than a lifestyle (fashion) for the future Drapers to sell to corporations—which of course is how advertising works now, with the selling of consumers to companies rather than the other way around. (The ending allows us to now say that this reading is implicit.)

I suppose there is also much to be said about Kerouac's On the Road in all of this. . .

Anyway, with the above in mind, here is how I viewed the final minutes of Mad Men:

Draper's smile is real, sincere, a true moment of comfort and understanding. Though he mines and commodifies his experience later (as is his habit), he isn't thinking about the Coke ad at the time. As an adman at heart, someone who has spent years selling the world an image of himself but never fully believing it himself, the only way he can find value in the experience moving forward is to turn it into something tangible. Not just money—though that—but also prestige, status, even self-expression.

Gore Vidal once famously said that advertising is the only art form America ever invented.

In the end, having failed to find meaning in his personal life, Draper buys into his profession's own lie, finding meaning in his talent, his place, his status—not as some vacuous, rapacious adman, but as a creator, a voice in the culture, an artist. Peace comes because he's finally able to believe his own advertisement.

The slow transformation is complete.