View current page
...more recent posts
Steve Mumford wrote a nice review of an Albert Oehlen show a few years back for an art mag called Review. Quite unlike Oehlen's multilayered, idiosyncratic work, the paintings Mumford was exhibiting at the time--thickly-brushed renderings of classic American automobiles--were blandly illustrational. The drawings he's sending back from Iraq, part of his Baghdad Journal on artnet, continue the tradition: they are as lifeless as courtroom sketches. A bunch of these sepia-toned watercolors are on exhibit at Postmasters right now, and based on what's been shown on artnet, one could be forgiven for not making the hike to Chelsea. Being able to draw is cool but art isn't just observation. At some point anger or joy or sorrow--or an idea--should travel from your insides to your arm to the page. Mumford's losing energy somewhere along this drive train. Or maybe it's not there to begin with. Anyway, those pictures are dead, people. I'll stick to reports from Robert Fisk and photos from the foreign press--I don't need to see the Art Students' League turning the slaughterhouse into tastefully smeared contour studies.
Soldiers Host Orphans in Mosul
"[...] Each child was also given a lunch of hamburgers, french fries, soda and ice cream. The restaurant on the CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) grounds provided the meals. The restaurant also provided many of the decorations on the grounds.
"Another event of the day was face painting. A local caricature artist painted designs on the childrenís faces and colored the skin of a few soldiers as well.
"Soldiers interacted with the children, swimming with them, playing soccer and simply being a friend.
"The children each received a gift bag when it was time for them to leave. The bag contained items such as a t-shirt with the 101st insignia, a beanie baby, a soccer ball and personal hygiene items."
While troops are being killed and wounded all over Iraq, that's the kind of stuff being posted on the Centcom website. What is Centcom, exactly? The U.S. Central Command is essentially the military governor of our newest colony, a region including "25 culturally and economically diverse nations located throughout the Horn of Africa, South and Central Asia, and Northern Red Sea regions, as well as the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq." According to the Centcom site, "the entire Central Region is larger than the Continental U.S., stretching more than 3,100 miles east-to-west and 3,600 miles north-to-south." If you're looking for news at the website, though, forget it. The press releases come out of Florida, and it's one story after another about schools, rebuilding schools, paying for schools, helping children, entertaining children, and getting toys for children.
War News for Today. From the Today in Iraq blog. Each item is preceded there by the phrase "Bring 'em on," a pissed-off reminder that all this carnage is happening because of one determined and barely adult man (and many misguided enablers such as the "liberal hawk" contingent, who egged on the war). This is reposted here because the regular media would have you believe the California fires are "today's top story," rather than a frighteningly organized offensive that caused our troops to actually vacate their headquarters. In military terms this is called losing ground, despite the administration's attempt to spin it as victory. Sorry to be a politiical bore, but I think all this needs to be documented and discussed as much as possible. I get as numb as you probably do hearing all this disaster recited, and I think the bad guys want that (meaning our bad guys); nevertheless, not to recite it seems worse.
Two US soldiers wounded in firefight near Fallujah.
Two US soldiers wounded in bomb ambush near Balad. (Second-to-the-last paragraph of this story.)
US soldier killed, two wounded in mortar attack at Abu Gharib prison near Baghdad.
US troops reportedly open fire after bomb ambush in Fallujah. Four Iraqis killed.
Mortar rounds fired into US administration compound in central Baghdad.
Two US soldiers killed, two wounded in bomb ambush in Baghdad.
Suicide bomber kills 18 at Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad.
Ten wounded, including seven Iraqi policemen, in bombing at western Baghdad police station.
Suicide bomber wounds seven at Al-Shab police station in Baghdad.
Three Iraqi policemen killed, ten US soldiers wounded in bombing at Al-Elam police station in Baghdad's Khark district.
Al-Sayidah police station in Baghdad struck by car bomb.
Following up on my Jonathan Lethem post, I'm going to out-geek him here by noting that the cover he describes for an imaginary science fiction book (by "F. Fred Vundane") actually blurs two distinct eras of sf book illustration. The Mirů/Tanguy-style cover mostly came out in the early '60s (below, left), a wildly experimental and exciting time (imagine: quirky abstraction on book covers!) but by the '70s, the period Lethem is describing, book jackets got much more blandly illustrational (right); the "computer style letters" he mentions, however, would more likely be seen in the latter decade. The "electric yellow," "Peter Max" influence did survive into the '70s (e.g., Brian Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head cover), but never with as much style as those early '60s editions. A nice picture essay on the Ballantine book covers, from which the blurry images below were taken, is at Strange Words, a regrettably-not-very-active sf e-zine.
Lethem also plays fast and loose with his Marvel Comics chronology, muddling Silver Age ('60s) stories and characters (eg, Silver Surfer, Black Bolt) with books produced almost a decade later (Luke Cage, Power Man). In 1974 he has kids looking at a book that wouldn't come out till 1976 (Dr Strange #12) and another that in '74 would be hopelessly vintage (The Incredible Hulk #115, 1969). OK, maybe the latter's not so implausible. Also borderline but still dubious is whether a kid would say "Use the Force, Luke" the "morning after the last afternoon of seventh grade" in 1977 when the movie opened in limited theatrical release May 27. (Star Wars opened in a few select theatres and word of mouth built over the summer; if Dylan had been part of the first-month vanguard for this generation-defining epic, you'd think Lethem would have at least mentioned it.) The discrepancies only irk because Lethem's so casual about forsaking the dweebs he claims to be one of--he doesn't have to get his facts right because these people don't matter any more; the readers and writers of Great Novels he wants to run with can be easily fooled with some comics lore tossed off for "authenticity."
My point here isn't to engage in literary class warfare but merely to express disappointment that Lethem has written an old-fashioned bildungsroman after a few forays towards a new kind of narrative, with one foot in popular trash and the other in post-humanity. For a writer grappling with the realities of the disassociated, multitasking electronic media age, the novel, Great American or otherwise, is a limited and convention-bound vehicle. Being obsessively true to pop culture without shucking literary skill could be a way to a different, more relevant verbal art, in the tradition of Burroughs, Kathy Acker, et al (and from there to performance video, games on CD-ROM, web-writing...) Hmmm. This may be circling back to the "Why is Wm. Gibson Writing and Not Blogging?" question. Theory in progress--more later. Also, I really need to finish Fortress before popping off again.
Jonathan Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon read like better-adjusted Philip K. Dick: what's missing in authentic brain-addled paranoia is (almost) made up for in wordplay pyrotechnics. Motherless Brooklyn represents a quantum leap: suddenly an emotional undertow appears beneath the dazzling language and off-the-wall premise (a detective with Tourette's). The emergence of its unlikely heroes from a Brooklyn boys' home keeps the reader on the verge of tears, while the Tourette's creates constant suspense, because you never know how or when the protagonist's outbursts will get him in trouble.
Suspicions about the newest book, The Fortress of Solitude, should have been aroused when some fool came out in Salon, pre-release, calling it the greatest American novel. That's clearly the kind of accolade Lethem's after, because he's turning his back on that silly surrealistic stuff and Writing About His Childhood, thus satisfying English teachers, librarians, and people who give out book awards. Cause for concern number 2: the main characters are named Dylan Ebdus (a Jewish kid growing up in all-black Gowanus in the 1970s) and Mingus Rude (his black best friend). Bad, obvious sociocultural call.
This isn't a review, because your correspondent is only 153 pages into the 511 page book. I keep putting it down; I had already finished Motherless Brooklyn in this same amount of time. I'm enjoying the snippets of cultural criticism, written by the same guy who rhapsodized about nerdy collecting of Dick paperbacks and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name (Marvel Comics) in the pages of Bookforum and who wrote so engagingly about Prince and Don Martin in Motherless. Like Motherless, parts of the book make me sad, but other parts seem really contrived. (Just as Mingus is about to get Dylan in tight with his homeys by taking him on a subway-car-spraying expedition, a white woman walks up and asks Dylan if he needs any help, thus tagging him irrevocably as a privileged white.) I found more humor and pathos in the fall of Dylan's father from artist to paperback cover hack, as captured in this passage, where the book with his first published cover arrives in the mail, wrapped:
When he finally tore it open a shudder of self-loathing went through him, and he nearly ripped the package in half down the center [...]"R. Fred Vundane" breaks me up every time I think about it. This is Lethem getting in touch with his inner sci fi nerd, and it's more convincing than the race theme, which as Joshua Cohen writes in the New York Press, seems awfully sensitized:
Neural Circus by R. Fred Vundane, the first in a series called the New Belmont Specials, heralded as "Mind-Warping Speculative Fiction for the Rock Age." Jacket art by Abraham Ebdus: a third-rate surrealist landscape or moonscape or mindscape of brightly colored yet somehow ominous biomorphic forms, indebted to Mirů, indebted to Tanguy, indebted to Ernst, indebted even to Peter Max, and repaying none of those debts in the least. The art department of Belmont Books had overlaid his gouache-on-pasteboard with an electric yellow sans serif font meant to resemble computer screen lettering. Abraham Ebdus wished now he'd denied them the use of his real name, substituting a pseudonym instead, as the author apparently had: A. Fried Mothball or J.R.R. Foolkiller. The colors he'd applied with his own brushes hurt his eyes.
[T]he great white-written New York race book, especially Jewish/Black book, has already been written: The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. Published in the '70s as a direct response to racial tensions in post-hippie New York, itís a heartfelt novel that makes Lethemís attempt seem too little and too late. [...] In the last pages of Malamudís masterwork, [the protagonists] end up killing each other; whereas Lethem, expounding upon the decades, offers something some critic or marketing exec would call "more complex" or "nuanced" or "textured."More when I've finished the book. If I do.
Miscellaneous links I've been meaning to post:
Computer Movies Suck. This rant is several years old but still entertaining. (
Samuel Jackson Young girl hacker in Jurassic Park: "This is UNIX! I know this!" --described under the category of "blatant factual errors.")
Atomic Cinema. Well-written blurbs about cult, art, horror, and sleaze films, crafted to sell tapes and DVDs (you'll want to buy all of them), but with a prevailing point of view that is pro-erotic & anti-control process, much like RE/SEARCH's Incredibly Strange Films book.
Bonaire Webcams. From this desert island in the Netherlands Antilles, stationary views of beaches, a "reef cam" about ten feet underwater, and a view out the window at Kaya Rotterdam 2 (a street in the Hato section of the island).
More film (and music) stuff. Some new PreReviews are up, describing movies the reviewers haven't seen and neither will you: Karate Kid III, Mystic River, The Human Stain, Elf... This is some kinda service. In his Karate Kid review, Joe McKay mentions a bit from the Jamie Arcangel and the Arcangels show I posted about earlier and forgot to describe: the guitar duel between Arcangels guitarist Cory and Ralph Macchio, using clips from the Macchio film Crossroads. That mid-'80s gem, directed by Walter Hill (48 Hours, The Warriors), is basically Karate Kid with an old bluesman instead of a martial arts master; it climaxes with a battle of the bands type scene where Ralph wows the crowd with some stellar guitar, overdubbed by Zappa/Whitesnake prodigy Steve Vai.
At the performance Saturday, a video projector rolled a clip of Macchio playing a few notes, then the tape stopped and Cory tried to "beat" Macchio with his own, live guitar. This continued through several tradeoffs. Cory has the moves to pull this off, up to a point, but a small minority of people (who knew Crossroads) knew that inevitably Ralph was going to kick his ass. Thus, suspense was created and a kind of unconscious caste system developed in the crowd between the Crossroads elite and non-initiates. At the end of the performance, Ralph let rip onscreen with a long sequence of cascading notes roaming up and down the fretboard like an impossible physics formula, while the old bluesman looked on approvingly. This was the big moment, and singer Jamie asked the crowd if Cory should go for it, prompting a chorus of mostly yeses and a few skeptical jeers. Cory started a solo and then a few bars into it petulantly smashed his guitar to the floor and walked off, leaving the feeding-back instrument lying there howling. What else could you do?
Speaking of PreReviews, I need to eat some crow for calling The RZA's great Kill Bill music "generic hip hop" (without seeing the movie). Turns out the complex, sample-heavy score is one of the two reasons to see it. You don't really realize how much material was ingeniously mashed up until you watch the song credits scrolling forever at the end. [Update: For some reason Elvis Mitchell in the NYT gives credit to Tarantino for all the music choices and doesn't even mention the Wu Tang guy. What's up with that???] A really lovely tune plays while Darryl Hannah prepares to kill the comatose Uma Thurman; I want to go back just to hear it again.
Oh, and here is the other reason to go see the film, the second in a series of Females I'd Like to Be Slaughtered By (the first being the T-X Terminator). This kind of unabashed fandom is just to help the film industry and America's ailing economy, that's all, really.
Chiaki Kuriyama: Scary.
[The following found sentence has been inserted for design reasons, to put a kind of text buffer between completely unrelated photos. OK, there's an animated .gif, too, but it's way over on the right.] Less than a week before "putting to bed" the second half of Artforum's two-volume look back on the '80s, organized by my predecessor, Jack Bankowsky, I found myself seated across from sculptor Haim Steinbach at a Brooklyn kitchen, a late winter light waning on the running tape recorder and a half finished plate of marzipan between us.