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Saturday, Nov 10, 2007

Because of their high profile in the entertainment business and a talent track record of near mythic proportions, it’s easy to forget what Pixar meant to the technological end of the artform. Granted, they are the leading light when it comes to pushing the creative boundaries of CGI, using invention and aesthetic depth to deliver definitive examples of the post-modern genre. From Toy Story to Ratatouille, Finding Nemo to the upcoming Wall-E, they’ve provided a platform for some of the most wonderful, most awe-inspiring cinematic spectacles since pen and ink hit paper. Yet it’s the tools with which such visions are realized that will remain the company’s strongest legacy, a selection of software and applications that allowed everyone else to explore this infinitely fanciful environment of expression.

More than the inherent charm of seeing the medium in its infancy, or the overwhelming value of tracing it’s growth into the juggernaut it is today, the 13 wondrous works offered as part of the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (new to DVD from Disney) are perhaps one of the most amusing and insightful history lessons ever offered. Utilizing the added capacity of the digital format, John Lasseter and his merry band of pranksters are on hand to guide us - via commentary and added content – how a purchase by Apple’s Steve Jobs in the early ‘80s transformed a small tech concern into one of the biggest cartoon conglomerates ever. Along the way, we see how each new mini-movie illustrated and expanded some significant corporate progress, and how a string of industry eyes only promo reels became the cutting edge of a whole new way of bringing manmade movement into the 21st Century.

It all began with The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984). Made under the auspices of Lucas Films, it was the then unformed Pixar’s first production. Wanting to showcase two different innovations in the burgeoning bitmap realm – a pointillism inspired program used to create realistic landscapes and the introduction of the tear drop shape for characters – the story of an alien robot and the bumblebee tormenting him was under five minutes of simplistic action. But it was the proverbial giant step in both form and function. Next up, shadow and physical reality were explored in Luxo Jr. (1986). Named after the desktop lamp on animator Lasseter’s drawing table, this complicated comedy involving a hyperactive fixture and its befuddled father became the recognizable face of the company. Even today, Pixar uses the loony light as its mascot and logo cue.

But it was the story of an unwanted unicycle that made Red’s Dream (1987) the first legitimate animated film for the company. Hoping to combine semi-realistic character modeling (a rather freakish clown) with a true emphasis on story and emotion, the amazingly effective piece became a rallying cry for taking the company into the realm of full length feature moviemaking. Of course, there were obstacles along the way, and Tiny Toy (1988) would be used to address many of them. Winning an Oscar for its clever combination of design (the company’s initial foray into dealing with anthropomorphized playthings) and detail (for its time, the rather monstrous baby was a technical marvel), it proved that the untried novices could definitely play with their most established peers.

Knick Knack (1989) and Geri’s Game (1997) would confirm said status. Both were narrative based, utilizing software advances and new programming paradigms to realize their goals, not visa versa. Similarly, both advanced the concept of the media’s seemingly inexhaustible creative elements. While the former film dealt with a group of souvenirs, and one particularly perplexed snowman, the latter was a single character tour de force that indicated the medium’s malleability as a traditional means of storytelling. Many of the problems solved and trials survived helped the company make the leap, resulting in the first real masterpiece of the fledgling medium, Toy Story (1995).

What followed then was a series of tie-in efforts, films made to accompany the next big screen release from the sudden producer of blockbuster popcorn fare. For the Birds (2000) followed the adventures of some snotty little fowl, while Mike’s New Car (2002) took character’s from the hit movie Monsters, Inc. (2001) and gave them a small showcase all their own. Jack-Jack Attack (2005) did the same with The Incredibles 2004), while Mater and the Ghost Light (2006) expanded on the Route 66 mythology that Lasseter used to make the 2006 masterwork Cars. The remaining efforts – Boundin’ (2003), One Man Band (2005), Lifted (2006) – were all commissioned to complement a theatrical title, offering audiences a chance to experience the ‘short film before the feature’ novelty, just like their grandparents did decades before.

Along the way, Pixar also produced four Luxo-based pieces for Sesame Street. Dealing with simple concepts like “Surprise”, “Up and Down”, “Light and Heavy”, and “Front and Back”, the kid-friendly facets argued for the company’s overall approach. And when viewed all at once on this amazing DVD, you get the real impression of craftsmanship being channeled and challenged in a way that few formats have been capable of balancing. It may have been a 50/50 split in technology and talent at the beginning, but over the years, the outside the box thinking used by the brains behind the scenes have meant that Pixar established the benchmarks used within a burgeoning artform, instead of trying to live up to them.

Indeed, everything that’s right – and wrong – about CGI today is encompassed in this baker’s dozen of definitive films. While Pixar could never be accused of pandering, watching the crazy critter musical extravaganza of Boundin’ belies what most misguided mimics believe defines the production company’s most successful facets. Similarly, the recycling of favored characters matches the constant sequelizing of the entire Shrek/Ice Aging of the genre. Of course, the lushness of the backdrops, the Autumnal feeling behind Geri’s chess match (it practically reeks of fallen leaves and far off campfires) is also indicative of Pixar’s presence. In fact, in an effort to best the big boys, some overdo the detail. A film like Fox’s Robots may seem like a perfect amalgamation of everything innately good inside the format until you see how far out of whack the minutia vs. amusement ratio really is.

Throughout the commentary tracks offered (only Jack-Jack Attack is missing said conversation, and Mike’s New Car has a couple of company kids – grade schoolers – mindlessly riffing away), the members of the Pixar staff, the old stalwarts and the acknowledged new guard, ascertain the sense of freedom and creative license given by the company and the decision to go digital. For them, CG was not all cold, sterile passionless processors (though the 25 minute behind the scenes documentary The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, will flabbergast you with how horribly old fashioned the first company supercomputers were) – it was a means to a much more magnificent ends. In light of the current overabundance of substandard 3D animation, it’s clear that many wannabes missed this part of the presentation. Now, thanks to The Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1, everyone has access to the instructions. The ability to utilize them properly? Luckily, that remains a trade secret.

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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

The idea of affordable luxury is oxymoronic, the kind of market segment that sounds so stupid that even the WSJ feels obliged to put it in scare quotes, as in the headline for this article in today’s paper. The term refers to people who aspire to seem as though they are rich but can’t afford true luxury goods—the allegedly recession-proof companies who make goods for the ultra-wealthy, people who don’t become noticably poorer when, say, the currency they use drops 20 percent in value over the course of a year. Affordable luxury, to cite the examples in WSJ’s story, comprises such brands as Nordstrom, Coach and especially Polo Ralph Lauren, whose marketing reeks of the signifiers of the core affordable-luxury fantasy of spendthrift leisure—yachts, polo ponies, sports cars, country houses and all the rest. The affordable luxury segment delineates the line between middle and upper class, but it makes for a trap—its goods simulate but do not replicate real luxury goods, and thus mark its consumers as forever aspirational. Somewhat like (if I remember right) the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby, it’s a tantalizing beacon that is ever receding the more one chases for it.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Okay, the comparison’s not perfect but once I looked up the reference, I couldn’t resist quoting it. And there is something tragically backward looking about chasing phantasms of the luxe life.

Anyway, I root for marketers in the affordable luxury niche to fail because they prey on the inadequacies of their target consumers, which implies that they are somewhat in bad faith. When they struggle, as they are now, it’s something of a trailing indicator, suggesting that suffering for consumers has already taken place and is being passed down the chain (and sure enough, mounting credit-card defaults seems to indicate that the people living beyond their means can’t keep it up much longer), so celebrating the travails of Nordstrom is like cheering for the discomfort of those insecure not-quite-wealthy people I’d in theory like to see protected from the affordable-luxury vultures. Not that affluent middle class people deserve special protection; it’s just irksome to see economic systems built on individual insecurity and misery—that dynamic trickles down to all the classes, enhancing misery at every frontier between socioeconomic classes.

But still, the fact that the wannabes have begun to stop spending their money at these retailers suggests an opportunity born of crisis (a la Naomi Klein, perhaps) in which the affordable luxury market disappears under a wave of change in consumer purchasing patterns. From the WSJ story:

Alison Santighian says she and her husband, managers for a federal contractor in Washington, are contemplating reducing spending after several years of buying gifts at Saks and Nordstrom. “We might take the money we would normally spend on each other, and put it in savings,” she says.

Why couldn’t this become a habit for such customers, who might then learn some alternative way to establish their presence in a community rather than through signifying status through shopping. Maybe they can banish that status anxiety once and for all. But then I guess that vision is my own green light.

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Friday, Nov 9, 2007
PopMatters Picks of the best of M for Montreal

Stay tuned for part two on Monday…

My voyage to the M for Montreal showcase, which featured 16 export-ready local acts over two days, began with the worst kind of airport red flag: my flight got cancelled.

No biggie, I was re-routed to another, more direct flight, which at first glance, seemed even better. Brandishing the moniker “international delegate” (or as the festival staff put it, a “tastemaker”), I would soon be on my way to this intense examination of some of the premiere emerging acts from the city. Or would I?

I stepped out onto the tarmac to find that I was expected to board a tiny 16-seat aircraft powered by propellers. I actually wondered aloud to myself “is this some sort of (expletive deleted) joke?” This didn’t exactly endear me to my fellow passengers, each similarly shaking with fear.

First, I have to cop to one thing: I am terrified of flying. Period. My initial thought when I was standing on the runway, readying to get onto the plane that was smaller than some cars I have been in, was “I have to get the hell out of here”.

But, in the spirit of international relations, journalistic integrity, and the pursuit of the freshest rock and roll in the world, I did what any self-respecting, tenacious reporter would do: I choked down a valium with the remainder of my latte, had a severe panic attack (always attractive in public!), forced myself to strap in, and started praying.

I did not stop until my feet touched sweet Canadian soil and I was safely in the arms of the crackerjack M for Montreal staff. It was, without hesitation, the single most horrifying experience I have had in my entire life, I can’t stress that enough. Lucky for me, the upcoming two days would hold in store for me a virtual musical bacchanal to assuage my airplane hysteria.

NUMERO [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

NUMERO [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Montreal is a city filled with good looking, skinny, impossibly fashionable people. Everyone smokes and if you don’t, you’ll start! Everywhere you look there are older women with rainbow shocks of punk rock hair color, tight pants, and fur. Outside the airport a Muzak version of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” played. This is definitely more like being in Europe than in North America. It’s a beautiful world beseeched by cultural hybridity, and it rocks hard. So close in proximity to the US, the city and M for Montreal itself are some of the best kept secrets for the young, jet-set, and elite who are sick of average vacations and the same old boring music festivals.

This very special event ain’t child’s play: it is expertly-organized, and friendly. Visitors are given a personal cutting edge experience. In its sophomore year, M for Montreal draws industry types, press, and promoters from all over the world. While many festivals purport to be “international”, this is the one that delivers on that promise: there were delegates from almost every major European festival there to scout acts.

Funded mainly by the government of Quebec allows for a tremendously unique opportunity to showcase the city’s most bright talents for alternative markets in corners of the world that may have otherwise never known about them. This is a brilliant move on the part of festival organizers and the Canadian government.

Such a generous gift to the artists from the state is one that should be not only commended, but aped. Governmental support for the arts in the US might be controversially scarce, but our government’s support of up and coming music acts (rock and roll or otherwise) is practically non-existent. Add this fete accompli to the ever-growing list (pot smoking on the street, gay marriage, universal health care, gruyere cheeseburgers with remoulade) of things the innovative country has made work that need to be emulated by the States.

LES BREASTFEEDERS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

LES BREASTFEEDERS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

As part of the event, the first activity was a panel discussion with American speakers, led by Rhyna Thompson, an M for Montreal organizer and local artist manager. Providing insight to the US music market, specifically for Montreal bands, the talk featured Tom Windish (of the Windish Agency in Chicago, who works with acts such as Animal Collective), Brent Grulke (Creative Director of Austin’s South by Southwest festival), Tracy Mann (owner of MG Limited PR in NYC), Greg Diekroeger (Assistant Director of NACA—a group that brings events to college campuses), and Slim Moon (Senior Director of A&R at Rykodisc). Highlighting current industry trends (such as the notion that record labels might disappear altogether in the next few years), the panel dished out sage advice to an audience of eager artists.

“Things are happening really fast right now. It is a really exciting time,” said Grulke, while lamenting about the “old” way of doing things that is still engrained in the business end of the music industry. Mann had this practical advice for up-an-comers: “Everything is harder. You have to be in all of the places all of the time.” Listing avenues such as grassroots marketing campaigns, the internet and blogs, as well as popular media, she stressed the importance of not only telling good stories through music, but also coming up with the proper mythology for your act. Multi-tasking and a strong work ethic were the two most common talked about elements for new acts, but Moon put it more succinctly, saying that “talent is your best bet.”

The panel explored the impact the internet has had on promotion and sales of records and everyone seemed to be buzzing about the eventual downfall of traditional record labels as we know them. Moon talked at length about the internet facilitating and accelerating a band’s buzz on a global scale and the pressure this puts on labels to sign new acts to high risk deals.

One of the most interesting topics brought up at the discussion was, as Mann said “cultural and linguistic diversity in the industry”, and if geography does indeed matter. For Montreal bands (many of whom sing in French), this is an especially important facet of the business end. The panel acknowledged the need for proficiency in English when dong interviews, but the general feeling was that the tide was slowly turning in regards to what listeners were going for, and that having a reputation (no matter what language you are singing in) was the key to getting play in other markets.

CHOCOLAT [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

CHOCOLAT [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Fortunately for those attending the evening’s band showcase, there were plenty of solid French-speaking bands raring to go. Chocolat, the event’s first act (who do sing in French), had the unenviable opening slot before the crowd could properly get their drink on, but managed to win most people over with their scrappiness and charm.

With a forceful swagger that invoked everything from The Stooges to the blues, Chocolat careened through an infectiously danceable with no shortage of soul. Mostly the attention was focused on lead singer/guitarist/harmonica player Jimmy Hunt, who possessed not only the best, most technically-impressive singing voice of the entire festival, but likely also the tightest pants, begging the age-old question “the tighter the pants, the tighter the band?”

PLANTS AND ANIMALS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

PLANTS AND ANIMALS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Across the board, night number one was filled with surprisingly little mediocrity for a festival so broad in scope. Usually, one would expect to hate at least half the bands when seeing such a large volume, but the festivals organizers really ponied up Montreal’s finest. The second act, Plants & Animals echoed a lot of Chocolat’s bluesy sentiments, but it was third act We Are Wolves that, for me at least, was the night’s biggest winner.

Merging theatric with a pulsing wall of sound, the three piece act seemed to be channeling malevolent digital spirits with giant skull apparatuses strapped to their backs and the nasty, loud electric grooves that were interspersed with shocking squalls of guitar. Think of them as a younger, hungrier Liars with a low-fi edge. Their record, Total Magique was recently released in the US and the boys are currently taking their act on the road stateside.

TORNGAT [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

TORNGAT [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Torngat, which features a member of the Bell Orchestra, was one of the night’s nicest surprises, with a cache of epic, dreamy tunes that boasted a dueling horn section that traveled out into the audience for a striking effect. These guys rocked their horns out like their lives depended on it, with no shortage of showmanship or skill.

PRIESTESS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

PRIESTESS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

This innovative, sensitive sound was given a nice counter-balance sandwiched in between the abrasive metal of Priestess and the most frenetic band of the evening, Les Breastfeeders. The latter band brought a kick-ass French twist to a classic dance-rock sound and featured the only female band member of the first night. Also, as part of their act, they feature a truly bizarre tambourine player who wears ghoulishly macabre make-up and a cropped, fuzzy coat. Apparently, this member has caused quite a stir in the scene.  It’s weird, but it works.

The respectful, congenial crowds of gorgeous, tattooed style mavens were far removed from the usual throng of snotty hipsters you would find at a comparable festival in the US. It was like being in another world, light years away from the jaded indie rock scene. There was a real feeling of camaraderie permeating M for Montreal on the first night, especially with local hero, the completely ageless Melissa Auf Du Mar (formerly of Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as a solo artist) presiding over the festivities, encouraging everyone to see every band.

It is an event like this that have the power to fill cynical hearts (like my own) with hope for the future of music, even when it seems like everything is up in the air. If the situation is as dire as we are being led to believe, then it is a relief to know that there is a contingent out there working their asses off and that at least someone out there who wants the world to see new, emerging acts.

The homespun feeling of M for Montreal really was the first time I have experienced a scene or a city as a whole really standing up for their hometown’s best and proudly promoting them; no matter the band’s style, and no matter how prolific they were or were not. It was intimate. And it was a nice change from the ordinary, gratuitous festivals I have experienced.

Stay tuned for part two on Monday…

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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

The author as critic and vice-versa.

Admiring John Updike Admiring Haruki Murakami

I am myself familiar with the reviewing cliché, from both ends of the business, so I say deliberately that Updike’s scope is rather breathtaking (from Isaac Babel straight to James Thurber on successive pages), and I add that he seems almost incapable of writing badly. When I do not know the subject well — as in his finely illustrated art reviews of Bruegel, Dürer and Goya — I learn much from what Updike has to impart. When he considers an author I love, like Proust or Czeslaw Milosz, I often find myself appreciating familiar things in a new way. I enjoy the little feuilletons he appends, for example on the 10 greatest moments of the American libido.

Christopher Hitchens reviewing Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism by John Updike in The New York Times

Hitchens quotes the “highly affable preface” to the book which has Updike wondering if he’s not critical enough, or critical in the wrong directions. “Should he perhaps have been a little kinder to E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo and Norman Rush or (by implication) a fraction more harsh with Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami?”

But it’s Updike’s calm and discursive attention to the details in Murakami’s second most recent novel, Kafka on the Shore, that provides a context for what can seem to be allegorical non-sequiturs in the Japanese novelist’s books. A man who might have come to life from the label of a Johnny Walker whisky bottle, and the fast food icon, Colonel Sanders are characters in Kafka on the Shore, and Updike muses on their mythological relevance. 

In a prefatory chapter, Crow promises Kafka a “violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm,” with “hot, red blood.” He assures him, and the expectant reader, “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. . . . But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.” At the center of this particular novelistic storm is the idea that our behavior in dreams can translate to live action; our dreams can be conduits back into waking reality. This notion, the learned Oshima tells Kafka, can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” the early-eleventh century Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki….Read in context, in the first section of Arthur Waley’s translation of “Genji,” the episode borders on the naturalistic. Within the tight, constrained circles of the imperial court, emotional violence bursts its bonds. ...

From the inarguable truth of the second observation the possibility of one’s spirit leaving one’s body could be plausibly deduced in a prescientific, preëlectric age when, Oshima points out, “the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.” In Murakami’s vision of our materialist, garishly illuminated age, however, the boundary between inner and outer darkness is traversed by grotesque figments borrowed from the world of commercial imagery: Johnnie Walker, with boots and top hat, manifests himself to the cat-loving simpleton Nakata as a mass murderer of stray felines, jocularly cutting open their furry abdomens and popping their still-beating hearts into his mouth, and Colonel Sanders, in his white suit and string tie, appears to Nakata’s companion, Hoshino, as a fast-talking pimp. The Colonel, questioned by the startled Hoshino about his nature, quotes another venerable text, Ueda Akinari’s “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”: “Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.”...

In “Kafka on the Shore,” the skies unaccountably produce showers of sardines, mackerel, and leeches, and some unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined. The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.” Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as “gods” or “spirits” but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as “anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.”

John Updike. The New Yorker.

In a New York Times Essay Haruki Murakami reviews his own writing, describing the affinity he feels with jazz:

I had practiced the piano as a kid, and I could read enough music to pick out a simple melody, but I didn’t have the kind of technique it takes to become a professional musician. Inside my head, though, I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.

Haruki Murakami. New York Times. July 8, 2007

Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) by Francisco Zurbaran. The cover image for

Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) by Francisco Zurbaran. The cover image for “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” by Jack Miles

The Spiritual Journeys of L.A. Times and N.Y. Times Book Review Editors

Richard Bernstein had been Time’s first Bejing Bureau Chief, and Chief at bureaus in Paris and the United Nations, as well as a national cultural correspondent for the New York Times, before settling into a role he acknowledges as privileged and wonderful in the book reviewing department at the New York Times. He had reached the age of fifty without any significant hardships and his spiritual crisis came about through ennui, not hardship. He maintained his cultural and spiritual ties to Judaism but was absorbed by the pilgrimage made by an ancient Chinese Buddhist monk, who travelled into India and back to visit sites significant in the life of the Buddha.

In the year 629, a greatly revered Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang, set out across Asia in search of the Buddhist Truth, to settle what he called the “perplexities of my mind.” Nearly a millennium and a half later, Richard Bernstein retraces the monk’s steps: from the Tang dynasty capital at Xian through ancient Silk Road oases, over forbidding mountain passes to Tashkent, Samarkand, and the Amu-Darya River, across Pakistan to the holiest cities of India—and back.

Jacket blurb from Ultimate Journey by Richard Bernstein (2001)

In last Sunday’s Times he mused on why news of the uprisings by Buddhist monks in Burma has largely disappeared from the news, contrasting it with how Buddhist monks seized, and kept, the attention of the press during the Vietnam war.

Anybody old enough to remember the Vietnam War will remember that day in 1963: it was June 11 when newspapers around the world carried the shocking image of a 73 year-old monk named Thich Quang Duc sitting in the middle of a Saigon street and maintaining his rigidly erect lotus position even while his body was engulfed in flames.

It was an image that changed the United States and Vietnam forever, a stunning, shocking and, in its way, sublime protest against the heavy-handedness and tyrannical capriciousness of the regime led by Ngo Dinh Diem being supported with the blood of young American men. Among its consequences was the American decision a few months later to engineer a coup leading to Diem’s assassination, though the Buddhists continued to protest against later regimes as well, contributing to those governments’ weakness and instability.

A self-immolation that nobody knew about would have no effect, of course, but in South Vietnam a young American reporter for The Associated Press, Malcolm Browne, was on the scene that day, snapping away with the camera he always carried with him, winning a Pulitzer Prize and changing the course of history.

We know from William Prochnau’s excellent book of 1995, “Once Upon a Distant War,” that Mr. Browne was present at that historic moment because he had been tipped off in advance by the Buddhists’ clever and skillful press relations representative.

Richard Bernstein. A Modern Buddhist Uprising Strikes a Quieter Chord. New York Times. November 4, 2007

Jack Miles spent ten years (1960 - 1970) training at a Jesuit Seminary. He was literary editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1985 to 1991 then spent five years on the paper’s editorial board, writing editorials. His books God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God examine God and Jesus Christ as a literary figures. In May this year he lectured on the soul in modern literature at the Getty Center.

For imaginative reviewers, especially poets, no less than for scientists and a for few more far-sighted religious leaders, including, notably the Dalai Lama, recombinant DNA is our era’s understanding of soul. We are matter organized in a way that has both life and spirit as effects, so long as the organization can be prolonged or reproduced. In a remarkable way, this notion—with its distinction between the phenotype and the genotype—combines the Semitic assumption that as each man or woman has but one life to live with the Indic or karmic assumption that something is passed on that reflects experience passed on over many more lifetimes than one. That DNA is recombinant, its ultimate origin unrecoverably multiple and remote, seems particularly congenial to the belief in “co-dependent origination” associated with the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna.

To say this much is certainly not to claim that science is a religion or religion a surrogate. Yet, granting that there is no moral to the story of evolution, there are choices capable of moral construal as the human species becomes “evolution conscious of itself.” Evolution as such makes no moral judgements, in other words, but you may. 

Jack Miles. Soul Searching. May 23, 2007.

Pankaj Mishra’s Career Begins With Admiring Edmund Wilson’s Criticism

Pankaj Mishra is famous for having discovered Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things while working as an editor at Penguin Books in India. As well as writing his own books of fiction and non-fiction he reviews books for newspapers and magazines around the world. While gathering the courage to become a writer and looking for something to write about, he read the criticism of Edmund Wilson at a University library in Benares. He feels that his career properly began when he came to write for the New York Review of Books after meeting co-founder Barbara Epstein.

I first met Barbara Epstein in New Delhi in 1997. She had come to India to give a talk on Edmund Wilson, whom I had idolized since discovering his books in a neglected old library in the North Indian city of Benares. I never expected to meet anyone who had known Wilson; the young Americans I met in India had barely heard of him. Such youthful idealism as mine does not usually survive its encounter with reality. Yet Barbara’s graciousness, wit, and ironical intelligence more than matched my fantasies of the remote American world of Wilson.

In an obituary for her when she died last year, he wrote:

It was while working with her that I learned the most valuable lessons of our friendship. I began to see more clearly how literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; how it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; how it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.

A new collection of Wilson’s criticism was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times last weekend:

At his best, Wilson has a novelistic drive and intensity so hypnotic that you forget you’re reading criticism altogether. He once wrote of great novelists that they “must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another,” and he did exactly that in “To the Finland Station,” his epic 1940 study of socialism and its founders. ...

An independent man of letters, Wilson mastered the difficult art of freelancing while writing for Vanity Fair, the New Republic and the New Yorker, his home base after World War II. Wilson approached his trade as a journalist: He would find a group of subjects or books that interested him and write up his findings in his articles and reviews. He didn’t compose his books so much as assemble them from this vast output, expanding and trimming his pieces where needed. His method, which he outlined in 1943, is still instructive (budding critics, take note!): “You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject.”

Matthew Price. Los Angeles Times. November 4, 2007.

In 2005 in the New Yorker Louis Menand described the scope, and selectiveness, of Edmund Wilson’s interests:

Wilson had no interest in criticism as such. He wrote a few essays about the critical literature that had influenced him—Marxist and historical interpretation—but he paid little attention to the criticism being written by his contemporaries unless they were good writers themselves, in which case he read their criticism as a form of literature, which is how he preferred to read everything. He detested what he called “treatise-type” books—theoretical or social-scientific works—and avoided them, unless, again, they seemed to him to have literary or imaginative power. He read Marx but not Weber; he read Orwell but not Hannah Arendt. It was his practice, when he took up an author, to read the whole shelf: books, uncollected pieces, biographies, correspondence. When he lost patience with a book, he skipped around, and what he ignored he ignored without shame. “I have been bored by Hispanophiles,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1965, “and I have also been bored by everything, with the exception of Spanish painting, that I have ever known about Spain. I have made a point of learning no Spanish, and I have never got through ‘Don Quixote.’ ” Though he wrote well-known essays on Dickens and on Henry James, he was uninterested in most Victorian fiction and didn’t bother to finish “Middlemarch.” He had a good knowledge of the theatre (he wrote a number of plays, and his first wife, Mary Blair, was in the Provincetown Players, Eugene O’Neill’s company); he had a selective knowledge of art, a very selective knowledge of classical music, and virtually no knowledge of the movies. He loathed the radio.

“A history of man’s ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them”: this was the way Wilson described his ambition in his first major book, “Axel’s Castle,” in 1931.

Louis Menand. Missionary: Edmund Wilson and American Culture. The New Yorker. August 8, 2005.

Gary Giddins and the Impossibility of a Negative Review

Gary Giddins has published two collections of jazz criticism drawn mostly from a column he used to write for the Village Voice: Visions of Jazz: The First Century and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century, and brings to his reviews elements of literary criticism.

To borrow Harold Bloom’s conceit, Armstrong invented the human in American music, supplanting the mechanics of ragtime and traditional polyphonic jazz as well as classical alloys (from Gottschalk to Dvorak to Gershwin) that attempted to create “serious” music from American folk sources, with a fluid, graceful, rhythmically unparalleled model on which a durable art grounded in individualism could flourish.

In Armstrong’s world, it was no longer sufficient to merely master the trumpet or saxophone; instead, jazz musicians adapted their instruments as extensions of themselves, making each solo as distinct as a signature or a fingerprint. At a 1966 concert on Randall’s Island, Edmund Hall and Pee Wee Russell played a duet, and I could scarcely believe they were playing the same instrument, so utterly distinctive was each man’s approach to the clarinet. By then I had learned, with immense satisfaction, that not only is character fate, but also style, timbre, and attack. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman and Herschel Evans all played tenor saxophone and were of similar age and background, yet announced themselves unconditionally in the space of a few notes. Nor was this generational: for the same could be said of their successors, tenor players like Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Charlie Rouse, Wayne Shorter, Zoot Sims, Booker Ervin, and—here is the thing—many others. This apparently infinite well of personal expression quickened my fixation and deepened my resolve.

Gary Giddins. Introduction. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century.

And he explained at length how the changing fortunes of the recording and media businesses contributed to him rarely writing negative reviews.

The trade of writing about music hasn’t changed in the nearly 200 years since it became a journalistic sideline. The trick is still to find concrete images to describe and appraise non-verbal art and the feelings it engenders while sustaining one’s youthful ardor and openness—despite the mellowing or wisdom or crankiness or despair or revelation that comes with age. The death of jazz, movies, literature, and civilization is as confidently predicted as the end of the world and the second coming. Sidney Bechet, in his posthumous memoir, offered a more realistic credo: “You got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It’s that way with music, too.” It’s that way with everything. Criticism is often a battleground between empathy and disdain. A musician once complained that my work is too emotional. He’s right. Much as I admire the writing of categorical intellectuals, feeling is the only arbiter I completely trust. Like everyone else, I aspired to join William James’s tough-minded tribe—just as I determined to be one of those who, in Bertrand Russell’s dictum, braved the future rather than retreat to the past. It didn’t work out that way: As a critic, I am chiefly an enthusiast mired in the past and reliant on sensibility. This confession is not an apology, just fair warning to anyone who wandered out of the rain into these pages.

A vigorous art deserves and requires a disputatious criticism. Better to be wrongheaded and punitive from time to time than reliably soft, predictable, and accommodating. But with the eradication of antitrust laws, and the selling out of the FCC, not to mention the retailing of art to corporate interests (through an insidious extension of copyright protection of what amounts to perpetuity), jazz has all but disappeared from commercial TV and radio. I concluded some time ago that I could not justify using the space allotted me in the Village Voice or any other venues to caution readers against records they’ve never heard of. Much of my time was spent searching for performances and recordings I liked well enough to explore in essay form and that exemplified the art’s liveliness. As a result, enthusiasm became a safe harbour and disputation a matter of personal grousing, except once in a while, usually when covering festivals that guarantee excuses to pick nits.

Gary Giddins. Introduction. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of the Second Century.





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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

For the weekend of 9 November, here are the films in focus:

Fred Claus [rating: 7]

Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas

Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special – a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.  read full review…

P2 [rating: 6]

Sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner – and this describes P2 perfectly.

Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair. read full review…

Sleuth [rating: 5]

Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless.

The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting. read full review…

Lions for Lambs [rating: 4]

For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points.

There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes - conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc. – that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.  read full review…

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