Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Truther Than Strange

Because the mail never stops...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Poe Honored, Again

"For the 57th straight year, a mystery man paid tribute to Edgar Allan Poe by placing roses and a bottle of cognac on the writer's grave to mark his birthday."

Story in full:


Friday, January 13, 2006

Culture, Part Two – Paging Culture

Once upon a time the U.S. of A. was tops in making films. I really believe this. The Golden Age, parts one (black and white shit you probably heard of but might have missed) and Part Two (the 70’s) shine as glorious times when we knew what a good story was and how to develop characters. And we knew what a movie ought to look like. We might be the worst at this right now.

Actually, there are many examples of talented artists in this country working in every medium, but their voices seem to be lower than others. Rather than overly speculate as to how or why, I will simply say state the sad truth: Joe Sixpack don’t like him some artsy crap that don’t make no sense and got no explosions.

Be this as it may, there’s hope. Brokeback Mountain, a movie I thought was terrific, is pretty popular right now and seems to be doing well against the blander looking Memoirs of a Geisha and the lousy looking Fun With Dick and Jane. More than anything, this is an anomaly and it is not just in the world of cinema. There are always a handful of marginal art films and books every year that attempt to justify our place in world culture. Lost in Translation, for example, did its best and was hailed as a movie that would survive the ages and carry the torch of great American filmmaking. But let’s face it, it’s a lightweight art film.

Not long ago, Jonathan Franzen’s book The Corrections was a big literary hit and everyone seemed to think he was something special. He snubbed Oprah and that seemed to get him some credibility in the eyes of those who think Oprah (while certainly annoying) is for some reason evil. I suppose art is in the eye of the beholder, but my thumb through of Franzen’s novel led to the conclusion that The Corrections is in need of many. Like the story of Bill and Scarlet, like the Chinese actresses playing Japanese people entwined in a frustrating love story, it’s soft. And don’t even get me started on Dave Eggers.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I hold my country’s art up to some impossible standard. If asked, I would say the best literary representatives of the U.S. of A. are Faulkner, Whitman, Melville, Vonnegut and Twain. There are other notables of course (Jeffers, Fante, Ralph Ellison, Eliot, H.D., Bukowski) but the one thing that unties these names is that they are all departed, or, in the case of Vonnegut, almost there. The new breed of novelists certainly tries and often succeeds. A better Jonathan than Franzen, Jonathan Lethem has produced some great books, most notably As She Climbed Across the Table (I haven’t read his latest, Fortress of Solitude which is supposed to be quite good) but even he falls prey to the McSweeney’s brand of cute-n-clever subculture. And the book that allowed him to break through, Motherless Brooklyn, is a starts-with-a-bang-ends-with-a-whimper, slightly better than mediocre book. Michael Chabon was once my great white hope with his second novel, Wonder Boys, but I can’t for the life of me get interested in the big book that garnered him a Pulitzer. Really, only Richard Russo has consistently dazzled me and made me believe that there is hope for the great American novel.

Maybe it is difficult for one to judge her or his own era. After all, we venerate the greats of American art and culture such as Faulkner, Welles, Billy Wilder, Emily Dickinson, Jackson Pollack or even Charlie Parker because they were good and because they have endured. It is easier to think that bygone eras were somehow better because all that survives is the cream of the crop and not the filth. Immersed in so much crap, the odd gem will not shine so bright. Still, I can’t help but see a lack of culture these days, or at least a war on it. Who’s to blame? We are the same people we have always been, right? We all love Citizen Kane and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so why do we settle for The Simple Life and Nicholas Sparks?

Maybe we have been dumbed down, culturally speaking. Maybe hours of Jerry Springer have ruined our sensibilities. Far be it from me to say as much; I have always loved great trash as much as great art. I saw Hostel and think it is one of the best movies I have seen in some time, right along with Brokeback Mountain. There’s a place for both, certainly, but is it true that between prime rib and White Castles most people will go exclusively for sliders?

No, no, you say, most Americans are informed and well educated devotees of culture. We’re not all scared of something that challenges us or might make us think. We crave more than just flashy, loud entertainment. The O.C. is just a diversion from the many hours we spend pouring over quality programming and publications. Well then, why did the first in the oh so popular series of Harry Potter books get published in America under a different title then the rest of the world? What was the original, English title (it’s not even an issue of translation)? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. American publishers were afraid kids would be turned off by the word “philosopher” so they changed it. Yes, our nation’s children cannot handle the slightest intellectual challenge whatsoever. This example just deals with our children, you say? True, but the Harry Potter books appeal to adults as well, just as much and maybe more so, and I can’t help but wonder how many grownups would pick up a book with the “philosopher” on the cover.

The dumbing down starts early and can last through one’s entire life. It makes sense. It’s easy. Them books is hard to read and who wants to bother when Dominos delivers and another Law and Order spin-off is on to show us what smart people are supposed to be like.

Maybe the culture war is not just beginning. Maybe its roots are tied to all the junk that we swallow as children that’s supposed to be jettisoned, or at least moved a bit out of the way to make room for things more intellectually stimulating. I don’t pretend to be the final authority on art and culture by I can certainly tell the difference between a piece of crap and a gem. And lately it seems like the gems are fewer and further between.

Oh fuck it, I’m going to succumb… there’s a big screen and 100 channels waiting for me. It feels good, so why not?

Grumpy old bastard out.

Culture, Part One - Planet Starbucks

Possibly my favorite moment from the movie Fight Club is when Ed Norton’s nameless character makes a reference to the growth of companies such as Starbucks and their seeming ability to swallow up the last shred of identity and culture. My brother made mention of this in his blog, www.10withamop.blogspot.com citing examples of how the coffee chain from Seattle has essentially infected the city like cancer. Nick also comments on the shrinking number of mom-n-pop eateries in the Chicago Loop and laments Marshall Field’s turning into Macy’s. These are all well and good examples of how franchised we are becoming, but the problem is really indicative of my larger concern: where the fuck is our culture?

To be sure, there are plenty of independent stores in other parts of Chicago. Not really in the Loop, but the Loop is not the be-all, end-all of Chi-town. Chicago has always been a series of little neighborhoods that somehow comprise a city. Just look at the age-old rivalry between the Cubs and the White Sox for evidence of this. Comparing Lakeview to Bridgeport, one can see obvious differences. (Incidentally, I was raised in the southwest suburban area, so I should by all intents and purposes be a Sox fan. I am not, but that’s because I find baseball dull. My family, however—all still southsiders—have always been Cubs fans. Ideally, this might serve as an example of how the city can be unified and such concerns can be assailed, but I don’t see that happening soon.)

New Yorkers seem to think anything outside of the 5 burrows is prairie. The L.A. crowd weighs in similarly. I suppose the reason why cities in Iowa or Idaho never seem to fall prey to foreign attack is not so much that they are embedded deep in the county and far from the coasts as much as no one outside the States seems to know of their existence (it stands to reason—how many cities in the Middle East can you name?). I always thought that coastal snobbery was a result of their belief that these cities were the beckons of culture in our otherwise culturally vacant country. Disagree or not (I do), it would be interesting to see how the franchised cancer has spread in Manhattan or on Hollywood Blvd.

If this concerns me it is something I am not doing much about. I have patronized Starbucks and probably will again. I try not to, especially when I have at least 6 cafés near my northside apartment that offer coffee just as good and without the shitty Bob Dylan and Acoustic Alanis Morissette CDs. Still, Starbucks might be the only café in town that offers its employees benefits. So it’s a mixed bag, this franchise concern, and arguments can and will be made for both sides. Nevertheless, I in my pessimistic way don’t see the McCompanies going away. Wicker Park fought to keep Starbucks out even going so far as to put gum in the locks of the coffee chain. Well, that was then… Starbucks stands proudly like a fighter after a K.O. right on the tri-corner of North, Damen and Milwaukee. Andersonville, my favorite Chicago neighborhood, also claims a loss in this fight. Local café owners fought to keep the impossible to beat competition away or at least somewhat removed. Again, evidence of this loss is visible on Clark and Summerdale. At least one of the two independent cafés within a two block area is now history. I always spoke of the shrinking number of indies in a city of growing coporations. Leona’s, which I do like, opened up on Taylor Street, right near two handfuls of wonderful Italian restaurants. I am awaiting the first Chipotle burrito stand to open in Pilsen.

So if I am not too eager to fight against this (and I try to, but I think a large amount of us succumb to the lure of consistency and convenience from time to time) then why the hell does it bother me at all? And if it does, why do something about it? Shouldn’t our beliefs be steadfast? If something concerns us, shouldn’t we take action, rise up, realign ourselves and opt to refuse to purchase such franchised products? I suppose so but again the lazy pessimist rears his ugly head on those days when I am heading to work with 5 minutes to make it my desk and I need an espresso. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Starbucks in my building.

Rushdie's call for Islamic Reformation

Broad-mindedness is related to tolerance; open-mindedness is the sibling of peace. This is how to take up the "profound challenge" of the bombers.

Rushdie speaks, again, on my favorite subject. A few months old but I am always behind on this stuff during a semester.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Tree of Damocles

Chicago says Xmas is over by taking down the damn tree in Daley Center. Picasso’s sculpture stands alone.

Going to work today, the oversized tree was being disassembled and as I walked past the large crane, an evergreen dangled over my head like the sword of Damocles. I could concoct some metaphor about that story and how it applies to me, or, by extension, all of us, but I’ll let it rest. Xmas is dead for now and I can sigh for another 11 months. We all can.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dear God

I was going to post part two of my meandering thoughts on why religion is really a very useless and often destructive entity, not only to nations but also to the human heart and soul. I could, but rather than make arguments that could be met with other arguments (though the opposing ones are easily beaten, email me and we’ll discuss) I opt to present the perfect example of a grown man whose belief in god is so silly and twisted that it causes him to make absurd and asinine statements such as those below. Add to the mix the nutjobs who fail to understand the irony of blowing up abortion clinics and the commander and chief who thinks he’s following Jesus’ example and the Christian goons start seeming as ugly and evil as the Muslim ones that we are all supposed to fear.

Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson suggested Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for "dividing God's land."

"God considers this land to be his," Robertson said on his TV program "The 700 Club." "You read the Bible and he says `This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, `No, this is mine.'"