Monday, August 31, 2009

Fowles/Pinter - The French Lieutenant's Woman [1981].


Perhaps it is no surprise that I would be attracted to a movie adaptation of a novel (The French Lieutenant's Woman, 1969) written by Harold Pinter. As I noted with The Servant [The Compass Rose, March 29th, 2009], Pinter's skill at adaptation is among the most impressive of any serious playwright in the history of the medium. Meeting the challenge of translating an ambitious full-length historico-philosophical narrative by a serious novelist of ideas, he created an alternative "double-thread" parallel technique to replicate Fowles's contemporary (modern) point of view with respect his very Victorian story. 


I was long an admirer of Fowles before he published The French Lieutenant's Woman. As a teenager, I picked up a copy of his The Magus [1966] in paperback, intrigued by its promise of sophisticated sexual dalliance mixed with intellectual speculation. And it didn't disappoint. I immediately fell under his spell, and went on to read The Collector [1963]. For those who many not realize it, Fowles actually wrote The Magus before he wrote The Collector, but because of the many difficulties he had in disciplining his sprawling "Greek" novel into a shape acceptable to his publisher, The Collector was published first. And Fowles wasn't satisfied, even then, going back and issuing a Revised version in 1977. (I never read the Revised version, but I doubt whether I would find any pleasure in doing so, since first impressions of novels one loves can seldom be improved upon.) 
        

I was totally enthralled by The French Lieutenant's Woman when I read it in the American hardcover edition. Newly married, a graduate student in English, I thought it the perfect "recreation" from my survey courses on Victorian Literature, a seminar course in Blake, and deep readings in Tennyson, Browning, Dickens, Hardy and Matthew Arnold. As a casual (popular), though absorbing, speculation on the relationship between Victorian values and sensibility, and Modern scientific temper and curiosity, it set the stage for a lot of my thinking about sexual nature, sexual archetypes, and women's liberation (which was very much in its early stages at that time). 

How would Dickens have written this story if he could be alive today (with the knowledge of the last 100 years (circa 1967) at his fingertips)? Perhaps it would resemble the book that Fowles wrote, albeit with somewhat more felicitous language. 

The screenwriter's task, then, was to figure out a way of playing the narrator's privileged modern view of his Victorian subject-matter against the basic historical plot. The method Pinter chose--creating a frame of present tense (a film company filming the story of The French Lieutenant's Woman) in which the "real actors" interact, the two central "actors"[Streep and Irons] conducting a parallel clandestine affair during the location shooting schedule--now looks inevitable. Sort of a movie within a movie within a movie. This may sound confusing, but it works very smoothly. It allows Pinter to conduct an implied "commentary" upon the Victorian narrative through contrasts between the present and past, assuming the function of the novelist's narrative voice. Did Fowles have any part in cooking up this ingenious solution? I'm not sure.

In any case, the technique (or trick, if you will) keeps the viewer on his or her toes, as the film cuts freely back and forth between late Sixties London, and mid-Victorian Lyme Regis. This seamless switching emphasizes the interchangeability of personae, as well as our intimate connection between our recent ancestors and our intellectual remoteness from the world they inhabited. It brings the 19th Century to life in a way no other kind of intimate information or viewpoint could afford. 

Streep won the Oscar for her performance as Sarah Woodruff, Pinter took best screenplay adaptation from another medium, and the film also won for set direction. The film itself is beautiful in all respects, both in its graceful evocation of a spoiled/unspoiled England (rural countryside versus the dingy coal-darkened urban-scape of London). Perhaps ironically, Fowles set his story in the seaside community where he chose to live for the last half of his life, Lyme Regis, on the Southwest coast. Lyme, despite the passage of time, retains much of its Victorian architectural flavor, and the opening scenes, set along the curving breakwater (or "cobb") are especially effective.* Streep's interpretation of the emotionally conflicted romantic heroine, with long red curls and by turns coyly seductive, and fitfully depressed (gloomy) demeanor, is perfectly set against the primly inquisitive Charles Smithson (whose passion awakens him from his aimless ennui of scientific puttering to a full realization of his need for a strong opposite). 

In his New York Times review of the movie in 1981, Vincent Canby said "The device [of cutting between the parallel narratives] must have sounded better in story conferences than it plays in this film. This contemporary frame is peculiarly flat. It illuminates nothing more about the differences between the manners and mores of 1867 and 1981 than any reasonably alert 1981 adult might be expected to bring into the movie theater uninstructed. It certainly doesn't give Mr. Reisz anything comparable to Mr. Fowles's opportunities to quote at what sometimes seems pure name-dropping length from Matthew Arnold, Hardy, Austen, Darwin, Freud." Which is true enough in its way, though it's difficult to imagine what general movie audiences in the States would have made of a more "honest" film that dealt with ideas as complex as those which Fowles discusses in the book.

Our sense of the possibility of the Victorian relationship is perhaps heightened by our knowledge that these "same people" a hundred years later are doomed to lose their connection, out of the obligations and preoccupations of quotidian life.  Is the romantic love which tempts Sarah and Charles a greater indulgence than the adulterous affair between Anna and Mike? Do feelings of love change over time? Naturally, we want to say. Did the Victorians suffer more, and feel more, for the forbidden fruit of both self-realization and unconditional passion? Or were they living under an illusion? 

In the end, each age creates its own illusions about love and sex and obligation. The idealization of a fated, irresistible, or profound, passion comes down to us from the early Renaissance, an invention of secular apologists for the animal instincts we all feel. The lyric passion of the Romantic Era in poetry and music is an investment in the redemption of the flesh, divorced from the canonical disciplines and rigors of organized faith: The emancipation of woman from the sterile purity of obedience and subservience.         

_____

*In one curiously familiar sequence, Anna (Streep) and Mike (Irons) are lounging along the rock shingle under a cliff along the coast, which appears (to my eye) to be the exact location of a series of haunting mood shots by the British photographer Bill Brandt.                     

Permission to Treat the Witness as Hostile - Watten's Grand Piano 7 Essay




Being Non-Being

Identity Non-Identity
Remembering Forgetting
Testimony Nostalgia
Truth Hearsay
Remembering: Deliberate Distortion Accidental Distortion
Conscious Distortion Unconscious Distortion

Being as Living vs. Being as Not Living
Identity as Not Living vs. Non-Identity as Living
Radical Being as Living vs. Non-Radical Living as Non-Being (and Non-Identity)

Memory as a Creative Act  

Here, in Grand Piano #7, Barrett Watten addresses, in his essay "Nonidentity"--for the first time, as I read him--the central dilemma of the Grand Piano project, of what he calls, in the sub-heading of the series, "an experiment in collective autobiography" [italics mine]. Grand Piano is a series of ten "essays" by ten writers, whom the editor has chosen, to represent (or explore) their mutual interaction(s) and imagined versions of events at a key period in their creative lives, during a time when they were forming ideas and programs for living and creative activity (creative writing). 
 
The curiosity and interest would be: What do we remember? Or, what did they remember? How do we corroborate and collaborate to confirm our versions of our own existence in such a way that we can derive meaning and confirmation, in other words "proof that we [they] even existed?" 
 
Living itself is a creative act. Memory, which is the supposed residue of conscious living, is not static: Each of us derives a unique record of experience. This unique record undergoes constant transformation: Decay, rearrangement, recycling, refreshment--in a gigantic swirling mass of "data" which itself is constantly undergoing reformation, transformation.
 
Memory itself is largely unconscious. We can't "choose" to remember, any more than we can " 'choose' to live" (the great fallacy of "Existentialism"). In genetics, the gradual adjustments of DNA (mutations) insure that no species need remain static against the context of its own survival. In remembering, the flux and incremental augmentations of mental data, constructed out of the oscillations and minutiae of perception, insure that no one individual will ever have a completely accurate record of what "happened".
 
In his essay "Nonidentity" Watten explores a few of the crucial contradictions inherent in his project, and provides a surprising provisional conclusion: As an ideal form of identity, he would like to think of himself as having had what he has called "non-identity". Non-identity is acquired, through the conscious radical position of resistance to prevailing modes of behavior (in the present). When he looks back on his past, he wishes to think (if not believe) that the success of his life rests on his ability to convince us (and perhaps himself) that he had indeed "achieved" an effective radical persona, through his ability to define an effective non-identity, and a "correct" response to the (creative) challenges of his life. 
 
In earlier responses to Grand Piano, I had challenged the notion that, as witnesses of their own shared past, the contributors would be able to furnish accurate (and useful) reports about those shared memories of event. Writers write in the present, turning over memory, looking at it from multiple viewpoints. But the context of this process is first of all personal: That is, the motivation for making an account of some part of one's experience (in the past) is driven by a desire to create: If memory itself is a creative act, then what writers write about their own past(s) will be another layer of the textual surface. 
 
We tend to think of autobiography as aspiring to an idealized truth, of what did happen, versus what others may have thought happened to us. But there is a layer of distortion--that of the conscious or unconscious disambiguation, which we may or may not wish to acknowledge. If we deliberately set out to provide an augmented version of our past, one made out of a certain preferred set of facts and events (as opposed to any other set), we are remembering deliberately. Ultimately, autobiography must deal not only with the vanity of deliberate distortion, but with the unconscious decay of actual memory (which is, after all, subject to the constant influence of desire, regret, boredom, delight, play, anger, jealousy--or all the positive and negative feelings we have about the mass of experience which is thrown into the cauldron of remembered experience).
 
Grand Piano, then, was never about a mutual recollection of what actually happened to a group of artists, but about a creative use of the past. Truth--in the sense of the legalistic use of testimony as a source of verified, substantiated fact--was never its aim. 
 
If one were to attempt to create a version of one's past that was an idealized (or imagined) account--one that portrayed one's actions and decisions as having a certain shape and purpose--that attempt would constitute a creative act. In other words, it would be a kind of fictionalized partial autobiography. Partial in both senses--that is, incomplete, as well as "preferred". The sad or happy fact is that all autobiography is a combination of deliberate and accidental intention, made up of eccentric (prioritized) data, as well as conscious manipulation. Is any individual consciousness capable of even a partial veracity to event and experience?

If autobiography is an acknowledged creative use of materials, we must be cautious about imputing any significance whatever to the purported meaning of the one's own (the Author's) version of the past. Watten's essay is an explicit acknowledgment of this dilemma (or fallacy).   

"What is the past, and how do we know it?...How would we learn to know the difference--in the form of a work of art, from out of the culture's bounds?"
 
In discussing Watten's Progress [The Compass Rose, May 22, 2009], I wrote the following: 
 
"The poem cannot be permitted to belong to the context from which it derives, therefore all aspects of its pedigree, its terms and conditions, must be scrubbed clean of association. All "events" "feelings" "episodes" are merely jealous fictions, possible exhibits in the conspiracy of bankrupt cultural residue."
 
In other words, in order for Watten to achieve a sense of "non-identity" (radical negativity, as in "relief" against the background (backdrop) of the zeitgeist (culture)), he must strive to portray (a version of) himself in opposition to prevailing modes. This idealized version of his past is the "preferred" (partial) account, which the Grand Piano is designed, in part, to furnish. Certain events, certain persons, are excluded from it, and certain other events, certain persons are emphasized. Events and persons are scrambled and rearranged in order to present a preferred order and hierarchy of history. This is partly deliberate, and partly unconscious.
 
Is it possible to make people and events disappear, as if they had never happened, or, collaterally, to "make up" versions of events that are so unlike what actually happened that they constitute a superior reality? Obviously, this is what everyone does, to some degree or other. If you start with the supposition that you have no duty or obligation to the truth as you experienced it, there is little likelihood that what you tell the reader will have much value in terms of the events and characters themselves. 
 
If the set of possible persons and events to which the contributors in Grand Piano refer in their respective accounts, is limited to each other and their shared experience--and not to others--we can be reasonably sure that the result will be channeled and directed towards a mutual approbation. Conflicted, contradictory, or different accounts create controversy. This is why the accounts in Grand Piano tend not to reinforce or reify each other. Each participant's account is limited, but the sum of them together is no more accurate nor reliable than any one of them, because truth (an accurate account) was never the intention.
 
If Grand Piano is not an accurate account of what any of the participants experienced, then Watten's acknowledgment of the creative purpose of his program, allows us to treat it as a kind of hybrid fictionalized nostalgia. We ordinarily think of nostalgia as a longing for a real or imagined past. By summoning up a version of the past, made out of unverified or freely manipulated memory, we are acknowledging our preference for another reality (or unreal dream). The desire to inhabit and indulge our memory for aesthetic purposes is a form of escapism from the creative present, as if by writing the preferred version of our own past, we could transform ourselves (and our present) into a preferred identity, or, as in Watten's case a "nonidentity". 
 
If the present is Being, the past is non-Being. If the past is non-Being, it is also non-Identity, but only in retrospect: Being--the total experience of all participants--did once exist, even if we wish that it hadn't, or that our experience had happened differently. If all autobiography is a form of nostalgic longing (or a longing to alter the past to suit a superior version), then truth is simply a hostage to intellectual vanity. If we treat our past the same way we treat the present, i.e., as material for formation (clay for the shaping), we are unreliable witnesses. 
 
The Grand Piano is like a grand conspiracy of evasion in which all the participants agree beforehand to tell a false version of an event (or events), in order than none of them can be held responsible (or "guilty") of having committed a deliberate lie (or set of lies). It doesn't matter whether this vow or virtual oath ever happened; It is inevitable: Even if the participants believed they would set out to create a true version of something, they would be unable to produce coordinated accounts, or a "collective" truth. They could, of course, agree to write a single text to which all would sign their names. This would blur the identity of the account, and raise questions of coordination and consistency; but that will happen in any case. 
 
Personally, my impression is that the "editing" process for Grand Piano has a subtext of exclusion, designed to privilege the members of the collective through a deliberately distorted account. In other words, we can change the past.
 
Conscience is a word we use to describe a personal responsibility against a prevailing mode of conduct. Against such rules of conduct we can posit any version of identity that suits our purpose. If that purpose is ruled by vanity, or ambition, or jealousy, or hatred, then conscience becomes nothing more than a convenience, a hypocritical self-justification. 
 
As the example of Pound's life demonstrates, the consistency and validity of one's hypocritical self-justification, on balance, isn't really the defining criteria against which a literary reputation can be measured. We all delude ourselves constantly. Self-delusion is nothing more than another form of creative behavior. Indulging it, however, carries risks. One can, like Pound, literally become the fool of one's own dream.    

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bernstein's Fancy Free - Revolutionary Ballet at the Dawn of the post-War Era

The ballet Fancy Free [1944] was the collaboration of Leonard Bernstein (score) and Jerome Robbins (choreography). Premiering just 15 months before the Japanese surrender in August 1945, its theme was three sailors on shore leave in New York.  



The ballet, and Bernstein's music, was a melding of musical theatre, jazz and classical traditions, in a way that really hadn't been attempted before. Bernstein, a young composer and budding conductor, was interested, as Gershwin had been 20 years earlier, in the possibilities of uniting American jazz with classical elements. Copland's ballets Billy the Kid [1938] and Rodeo [1942], had broken new ground with native American subject-matter and popular "Western" folk music material, but the idea that you could combine the hard intellectual surface of Stravinsky with the lyrical Ellington style had never really been tried before. 
    

The production of 1944, which my Mother saw at some point later (in San Francisco?) was an unforgettable experience in her life, and her nostalgia for that was sustained by the concert suite recording of the music on record, which became a staple in our home during the 1950's and '60's. Reviewing the debut in the Herald Tribune, Edwin Denby called it a "smash hit", saying "It is a direct, manly piece: there isn't any of that coy showing off of 'folk' material that dancers are doing so much nowadays. The whole number is as sound as a superb vaudeville turn; in ballet terminology it is perfect American character ballet." 

Ironically, the success of the ballet led to the idea of its being adapted as a regular musical (On the Town). Having produced a fine score for the ballet, Bernstein went right back to work and produced a parallel adaptation for the musical, a new work from scratch. The musical, as everyone knows, was eventually adapted to the screen, as the movie On the Town [1949], starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller.   
   

The whole idea--a sort of short story dramatizing America's wartime consciousness of fatalistic euphoria--became a success in three media, with Bernstein's music for the first (ballet) version entering the revolving concert repertory as the best example of his ability to meld disparate elements of musical traditions into a popular tapestry of dramatic program-music. Alongside the score for the movie West Side Story [1957]--his other great popular success--Fancy Free stands, alongside Appalachian Spring [Copland, which premiered in the same year], as among the highest expressions of the populist trends of the Depression Era, a socially responsible belief in the importance of folk thematic material, and a faith in society's ability and willingness to support serious art. 
              
Bernstein himself, all his life, struggled with the competing demands on his imagination, between pure classicism--conducting the Philharmonic, producing serious uncompromising concert works in the 19 Century tradition--and popular, accessible stage and movie works. For Robbins, this was less of an issue. Ballet suffers less from the contradiction between traditional and popular modes, and can accommodate innovative styles (such as jazz or modern abstraction) with less strain.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Modest Proposal & A Footnote

There are a lot of things wrong with our world, but try making a simple, sensible suggestion to solve just one tiny problem.

Have you ever sat disconsolately at a stoplight, waiting as NO TRAFFIC passed across the intersecting road? 
 
We're all aware that the technology of traffic control has become a lot more sophisticated than it used to be. They have sensors under the pavement, sensors that read oncoming traffic from the opposite signal standard, sensors that read cars passing through an intersection after the light has turned red (triggering a camera which records your license plate number and automatically sends you a ticket!). 

Whoever it is that sets the timing on intersections in our neck of the woods needs a lesson in common sense. One of the main arterial trunk roads from the residential hills in the East Bay runs directly West, downhill, towards the freeway on-ramps, across a half dozen well-traveled suburban throughways. 

These intersection signals are uniformly set at about 1 minute and 15 seconds each for crossings at four four-lane interchanges, night and day, without variation. Ignoring the commute hour log-jams, they hold back hundreds of cars for no particular reasons, simply because no one has taken the trouble to adjust them for peak load usage on certain streets.  

How stupid is this?

Think, if you will, about the waste in human time. E.B. White once said that if you wanted a refutation of the value of the industrial revolution, look at the expressions on the faces of drivers who wait for stoplights to change. Then think about the waste in resources. We waste incredible amounts of gasoline and oil as automobiles "idle" while vehicles aren't moving. It's bad enough when people just idle while talking to a pedestrian, or leave their car idling while they run into a business to do an errand, or to make a call. On an individual level, people tend to scoff at this. If, say, only 3% of your gas is spent on idling (that is, not pushing the car around), how much could that actually cost you? Not much, right?

Probably not. But multiply that inconvenience and wasted fuel by tens of millions, 24 hours a day. We all know that gridlock and clogged freeways account for a lot of waste, but what about those profligate uses we DO have some control over?

How many billions of gallons of gas does humanity simply burn up out of laziness, stupidity, crowding, poor driving habits, etc.?  

But here's one practical suggestion: Install automated sensors in all traffic signal intersections. If there's no traffic coming from the other road, the light should change promptly to allow for the vehicles which are waiting to pass. "We have the technology!" It's true! How difficult would it be to implement this practical improvement? How many millions of gallons of gas would be saved, simply by installing traffic sensors to count build-up and facilitate passage? 

***

I saw this bumper sticker on a VW Vanagon today: "My other car is a Pynchon novel." Apparently, this is by now a familiar sticker, but I hadn't seen it before. Very witty.        


Monday, August 24, 2009

Doubt


I'm unfamiliar with the play upon which the movie Doubt [2008] was based, but I'm not sure it really matters at all. The production is a fairly static drama, without any real action or cinematic qualities. All conversation and gestures.

I'm not sure why, but I thought I was going to dislike this movie. I was not raised in a religious family, and I have precious little patience with dogma and the hokus-pocus of elaborate ceremony. What is it that Frank O'Hara said about the Catholic Church?--"only a very mediocre introduction to cosmic entertainment"? Whatever. 

This story is set in a Catholic middle-school in the Bronx. It was filmed on location, and has all the right gritty dreary feel of the place. A lower-middle-class mostly Irish working family kind of neighborhood. Priests and altar boys, the stereotyped strict Mother Superior principal--it sounds like a cliche situation, and it is.

But that's where the predictable part ends. You might assume--as I did--that Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the Priest Brendan Flynn) was going to dominate this film, since he's the "suspected" child-abuser around whom the action revolves, especially given his credentials. But he's completely overshadowed by Streep (the school principal), Amy Adams (as an idealistic, naive young instructor), and Viola Davis (the mother of a boy suspected of having been seduced by Flynn). The plot comes down to a siege between Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep) and Flynn (Hoffman). 

The "doubt" of the title is our growing suspicion that Sister Aloysius is correct in her belief that Flynn--with a history of repeated short appointments--is a closet child molester. The recent high-profile court cases in New England over the last decade have fueled public interest in this subject-matter. 

But the really great thing about this movie is Streep's classic, mature performance as the frustrated, driven, demonic, frost-bitten old crone. Confined by the nun's habit, the dark hooded bonnet surrounding her face, she manages, just with her expression, her hands and a few sharply controlled bodily gestures, to suggest a full range of passion, frustration, triumph, and grim predatory assault. Her performance here is probably as good as anything from the legitimate stage. I doubt Katherine Hepburn, or Betty Davis, or Ingrid Bergman could have done half as well. Streep has always had a sort of dry Nordic posture, but she's never before had the opportunity (well, maybe The Devil Wears Prada is the exception) to exploit this side of her acting resource.                

Her Sister principal is hard as nails, without a single redeeming molecule of pity or sympathy. Even in the end--having triumphed over Flynn, and sent him packing after he's capitulated to her threats and intimidation, when, in the very end, she pulls a quick little seizure of tearful self-doubt--her self-possession is so impressive that you really don't buy it. It's just a bit of dramatic editorializing meant to soften her monolithic composure.  
    

Amy Adams is almost as good as the obsequious little Sister James, meekly asserting her virtuous good intentions against the intimidating Streep. 

I was reminded of The Scarlet Letter--the same dark, swirling gossip, the evil angels of righteousness cloaked in authority, filled with creepy sexual denial and loathing. 

I won't give the best part of the plot away, because it's truly a surprise. 

This isn't a great movie, perhaps, but the performances of Streep, Adams and Davis are among the best instances of pure acting of the last 20 years. It's the kind of movie you watch again, just to savor those "moments" when the drama is brought repeatedly to a boil.       

Giants Batting Woes Result of Poor Coaching


The San Francisco Giants' recent difficulties at Denver highlight a season-long problem the team has had generating runs in the clutch. Sporting a major-league leading low team pitching ERA, the've lost at least 20 games as a result of weak hitting. As the design of teams goes, the Giants can claim that they've constructed a line-up based on opportunistic hitting, speed, hustle and "smart" at-bats; since they lack power and don't even really have a classic RBI 4th-place man, since Barry Bonds left. But their performance in terms of on-base percentage, walks, average, and in clutch pressure situations, has been dismal.  

Overall, the team is young, with a median age of 29+. The team started the year with a handful of mostly untried rookies or second year candidates, including Ishikawa, Burriss, Sandoval, Lewis, Schierholtz, Velez, Torres, Whiteside, Downs, Frandsen, Bowker, Guzman. They added Renteria and Aurilia in the off-season, but both of these players are clearly at the end of their careers, and haven't done much to contribute; Renteria, especially, either as a result of injury or declining skills, has been a disappointment.  

The veterans--Molina, Rowand, Winn, Uribe, were joined in mid-season by new acquisitions Ryan Garko and Freddy Sanchez. Garko has been mostly a bust, so far, and Sanchez seems to have multiple injury issues, has been out for a week, and his situation is a big question-mark. 

What's most hurt this team, with its good pitching, both starting and relief, has been a lack of timely, clutch hitting, up and down the line-up. Sandoval has emerged, in just the last year and a half, as a potential top-flight average hitter, who may be the next Tony Gwynn. A wild swinger, he's presented a dilemma for opposing teams: How do you pitch to a guy who gets as many hits on bad balls as he does with strikes? And yet, despite his high average, he still shows weaknesses which seem endemic to the whole team: A tendency to swing at bad balls, a tendency to "freeze" on first strike fast-balls, a general impatience at the plate, particularly in clutch situations where even a fly ball or a decent bunt could mean the difference in a game. 

This generalized failure has been attributed by announcers and columnists to "immaturity" and a lack of big-league experience. But it's the same problem the veterans on this team are having. Winn, Molina, Rowand all are having what looks like sophomore plate appearances, each having difficulty judging pitches, appearing to "make up their mind" about pitches before they're thrown, and showing little or know count-sense or presence of mind. 

You'd expect players like Ishikawa and Sandoval, Schierholtz and Velez to exhibit some of this behavior, but not the whole team. Clearly, what's needed is some coaching intervention, expecially with the younger players. 

Having gone out and traded for extra help in Garko and Sanchez, the Giants have signaled that they're interested in remaining competitive for the present campaign, rather than simply throwing in the towel in and "waiting for next year." 

In November, the Giants hired Carney Lansford as their hitting coach. Lansford has been pursuing a major league coaching career. As a former AL batting champion, he possesses the official credentials to offer advice to young hitters. But the results speak otherwise. This team has been in a deep batting funk all season. There are flashes of excitement, when they string together a series of singles and doubles, and can score half a dozen runs in two innings, but far too often, their failure to put up respectable numbers, against even ordinary opposing pitchers, suggests that they're not getting their money's worth out of the talent they do have. 

This is a team based on great pitching--it has to scratch and scramble for runs. But its failure to bat "smart" is costing it countless opportunities in important games.

All the signs point to an ineffective batting coach.  Lansford looks like a bust.   

            

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wynn Bullock - Visionary of the West Coast Group


Wynn Bullock [1902-1975] is recognized as one of a handful of visionary photographers working along the California coast after the War, whose images command immediate attention across the spectrum of popular and serious academic audiences. Working alongside contemporaries including Edward & Brett Weston, Morley Baer, Imogene Cunningham, Don Worth, Minor White, he carved out a niche composed about equally of technical mastery and inquiry, visionary insight, and a strong sympathy to the human condition in nature. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the number of his signature images is small, but their power is undeniable. Unlike Brett Weston, for example, whose exploration of abstraction in nature is almost purely graphic (not symbolic), Bullock has clear philosophical purposes inside and alongside his images. The famous photo of the tree in fog against a backdrop of sunlight piercing clouds provides a dramatization of striving and agonized tragedy as a dialectic between the knarled dead oak branches and the tangled obscurity or the romantic atmospheric mass beyond.   


Bullock was interested in the tension created between "rough" nature and vulnerable human nudity, which he sought to capture in various moods. There is never anything vicarious or prurient about Bullock's nude studies; they're invariably "staged" with care, and intended to exploit specific differences in scale, texture or context. 
    

The famous image below--which carries profound qualities of Biblical (or Miltonic) overtones--is startlingly alive and pungent. Who can not look at this photograph for the first time without being swept away by its pure audacity and ingenuity? The child's nudity within the pristine carpet of soft greenery is both comforting and terrifying at once. We see immediately that it's a constructed setting, yet it's a testament to the artist's insight that the "message" is more sincere than any reservations we might have about its "artificiality" or "staginess."  
  

Many of Bullock's images seem to possess a metaphysical, visionary quality. The picture below has an astronomical quality, as if we were looking into a magic window into the universe, as asteroids and gallaxies collide and spin about, with random particle collisions and trails criss-crossing a void. We "know" consciously that what we are looking at isn't any of these things, but there is a sense of a vouchsafed "presence" which the subdued tones and surreal design provoke in our imaginations. It's one of the great "honest" visionary abstract images of all time. 
   

It almost seemed, during the 1960's, when many of these images were coming to public consciousness, that Bullock had captured the "spirit" of the counterculture. People would often say how they seemed to represent Zen-like "koans" or masterful gestures or insights into human or universal consciousness. The deep "Ah!" of perception.   


On one level, this kind of mythologizing of image can have a negative effect on our apprehension of form and meaning. But in Bullock's hands, we are in a position of trust. We sense a level of sympathy, gentleness, and care both for the purposes to which matter and form may be put, as well as a resolve to make out of this life a statement of abiding truth and nourishment of the spirit. 
  





Friday, August 21, 2009

Quote Verbatim Quote Sic



Rust Belt

Narrow gauge pantaloons begat the Roaring Twenties
Rugged-up to drown buggies
And sashaying mistresses
The loop couldn't stop the derringer on its way to heaven

Brooding nightstick...

Old oxy needed a gauzy jazz blimp
So the story goes, a slimeball idiom
On its way to Prohibition

Big nouns standing around, unfettered, unlettered, old father grime
Was it you, Ducky, stole my fibs?

Feelgood race ethics chasing its tail
Aurora in all her mullioned sassafras
Down by the haunted tracks
Descendants be my makeshift
Along the Tuscaloosa

The party of beer butts supports a tough laugh
Kid onus sat back & laughed

Who interviewed the oracle to age-date the slugger
Vocab yr Oshkosh to nipple her bal negre

Sauce me, baby, I got red on my rain
Leaving out the guts part gets me exactly what?

The dream sieve, waking amidships withering fallguy
Night traction, frozen select, cheap eagles, alloy
Space in which reading unravels the share-balance

Taste is adjectival, it worms and stains against the gyro
Give me a cool dry lake any day,
Apple yarns, crennelated barn snarks

Have we passed yet, the magic thrashing fashion-lid?

Sad how rye it makes, albeit on a dud nanny
It amounts to a white / ask me in September

Thursday, August 20, 2009

San Francisco City Board of Supervisors Member David Campos has made a proposal that undocumented juveniles (read Latino criminals) not be referred by the city to federal immigration officials, in direct controversion of Federal law. 

Let's put this in perspective. Campos arrived in America at age 14, an illegal alien who grew up in the barrio of South Central Los Angeles. Taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by the American education system, Campos qualified for scholarships through college and law school. Moving to San Francisco, he capitalized on his minority roots to build a constituency out of the Latino community. 

Now, positioned in the City government, he's using his authority to further the aims of the immigrant community, by softening statutes and regulations designed to control illegals.

The City has been the target of criticism for its policy of shielding illegals from immigration officials, following a triple murder by a Mexican illegal set free by the city authorities. The mayor's office has warned the supervisors that if they push the illegal "sanctuary city" position too far, they risk inviting unfavorable rulings at the Federal level if anti-immigrant advocates sue the city.   

What are Campos's ultimate aims? Obviously, he believes--as many contemporary Hispanic politicians do--that his political future depends on his using his Latino background to build support in a growing constituency of legal and illegal South and Central Americans. It is clear that he will use whatever political clout he eventually acquires to represent the causes and agendas of the Latino community, even if those policies cause harm, or are not supported in the general population.

This is a pernicious evil perpetrated upon the citizens of California, and Americans in general. Campos exploited a generous and tolerant American society for personal gain. How does he demonstrate his gratitude? By representing the interests of foreign nationals seeking to follow the same illegal path he did. 

Campos deserves everyone's repudiation. There's nothing admirable about him. He's a political carpetbagger; a virus, an infection upon the body politic. He's a pest, and should be treated as such.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ground Zero



Poem

In the 1950's, audiences watching 3-D movies
Couldn't feel the wind from the atomic detonation

Because they were too far away from ground zero
Because they were actually watching a movie

Of themselves watching the detonation
Sitting calmly without shock or awe

In neat rows on folding chairs in the desert
As the invisible fall-out rained down over them

The California Delta - Focus of the Resource Debate




The California Delta has been the focus of the debate over water usage in the state since early in the last century. The American West, in particular the Southwest, is relatively water-poor when compared with other parts of the country. As the settlement of the West proceeded in the 20th Century, water rights and access became hotly debated topics. Big agriculture was able to broker advantageous agreements. As the urban and suburban population centers grew, their political clout enabled them to compete for those same sources of water.   

The Los Angeles Basin is a desert. Without water drawn from the Southeastern Sierra, and the Colorado River system, it would wither away. Presently, a significant amount of water is also diverted from the Sacramento River system to L.A. The Delta, which is a fresh-water tideland fed by the Sacramento River to its outlet into San Francisco Bay, has suffered a number of ecological problems as a result of water diversions, pollution, and questionable development. 

It is clear that minimum flows are required to keep the Delta system from collapsing. With Global Warming progressing as predicted, we can expect seasonal flows from all Sierra Rivers to decline over the coming decades. 

At the same time, California's population growth has been allowed to proceed unchecked by any environmental safeguards. We are now at a crossroads: Growth advocates (and those who think of themselves as "compromisers") tell us we need more dams, and strict new conservation measures, to allow for more continued "growth."  

The "growth" paradigm is one that hardly anyone questions. People talk about forcing "higher density" habitation, of recycling resources, to permit more expansion. But the real challenge is holding the line against growth, so that we can preserve an ecological balance between capacity and use.  

Stated simply, our society, region by region, must acknowledge inherent limits to population. Around the world, we have seen what happens when populations explode: Widespread hunger, famine, lack of sanitation with disease and poor health, degradation of land and water, over-exploitation, financial hardship, poverty, hopelessness. 

In America, we tend to pooh-pooh the catastrophic potential of over-population. We're a big country, and we can solve these problems if we think creatively. 

But fresh water isn't something that can be "manufactured" or creatively stretched indefinitely to accommodate more use. De-salination is far too difficult and expensive to expect it ever to provide an alternative to naturally occurring run-off from snow and precipitation.

Given the available water resources of California, the state has already exceeded its allotment. Agriculture has sucked the aquifer dry; all the damns that could easily have been built have been built; and the water resources (especially fish) are already in a state of emergency.

Clearly, the answer to California's future water dilemma is to restrict growth throughout the state. There simply isn't enough water left to accommodate hundreds of thousands more new residents. If we don't stop the influx now, we can expect our quality of life to decline markedly. 

The environmental community has encountered resistance when raising the population issue, but ultimately that's the built-in limit that will, in the long run, curb growth. 

Instead of waiting until we run out of water completely, why not do what we can now to stop suburban sprawl and so-called "high density" urban concentrations, before we completely outrun our resource base?

In the end, must it be our fate to live in our own filth and congestion, or do we have the will to reject that version?  

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Funding Deficits & Universal Health Coverage

The crucial contradiction at the heart of the debate over public "universal health coverage" is that society ultimately cannot afford the same level of care for all of its citizens. Just half a century ago, medical insurance was largely nonexistent. It wasn't until the 1940's that group health coverage plans began to gain traction in America.  

Since the medical services industry--hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies--has been based on profit motive, the costs of providing service in all means of delivery (group insurance and private individual) has steadily increased as a share of GDP. Public governmental group ("single payer" plans in various forms) have not stopped this trend, though they may have moderated this steady inflationary cost pressure).  

What does it cost society to provide both responsible preventive treatment, as well as emergency, drastic and terminal care, for all of its citizens? Is it prudent to imagine that every man, woman and child in the United States could have comprehensive medical, dental and vision care for life? What would be the actual cost of providing such levels of protection across the board?

Traditionally, in America, medical coverage and paid services have been tiered according to financial class. During the 1950's and 1960's, coverage was broadly increased to masses of people through employer or union connected group plans, as it was for military and governmental classes. 

Medicare, as originally conceived, could not expect to "keep up" with the rising costs. Medi-caid, the need-based general treasury funded benefit, has also ballooned out of control. There is no doubt that both these plans have helped millions of people, just as the group plans have. 

Both Medicare and Medicaid are scheduled to be entirely insolvent within a decade or so. The drug benefit provision will only bankrupt Medicare sooner. Health services costs, as a share of total GDP, are expected to rise much faster than any other segment of the economy. Why?

Because expensive, inflated care is being made available to larger and larger numbers of people. The private insurance industry knows that trying to run coverage systems based on universal coverage can't succeed, because there isn't any way to make universal coverage economically viable. Providing the very best coverage that science and technology offers, to everyone, is not sustainable.

At some point, there is a sifting process that distinguishes between those who can qualify for treatment options, and those who can't. That process of discrimination includes denying coverage to those with chronic conditions, and forcing those who have no resources into inferior treatment options. Medical insurance, and medical treatment, are like anything else--not everyone can expect to drive a Cadillac--some will be forced to ride bikes, or even to forego vehicular transport altogether. 

Presently, the process of sorting people for treatment is controlled by the private health insurance industry. It sustains itself through rigorously enforced coverage management. Its for-profit model is one we would like to believe can't work to everyone's advantage, but that's a dangerous illusion: Blaming private insurers for discrimination is no different, in the long run, than blaming public universal systems for making people wait 6 months for an important surgical procedure, based on "prioritizing" the assets and facilities available. 

Passing a "single-payer" plan in America won't solve the underlying problems of universal coverage. It will increase the obligations of an already over-burdened Federal budget, and it probably won't have the effect of lowering the costs of services either in the private insurance sector, or in the public one. Certainly medical costs haven't been controlled through Medicare or Medicaid.

The "efficiencies" envisioned by the optimistic believers in universal coverage plans will never be enough to overcome both the runaway costs associated with increasingly sophisticated and expensive technologies, and the "obligation" to those who will never be able to "afford" even a small percentage of the services they will expect and demand.

In the end, society will have to acknowledge that health care may be a "right" and not a "privilege"--but it won't be able to afford to facilitate that "right." Universal health care is a pipe-dream. Presently, we're in the last stage of an era in which a large percentage of people got what was the best care in history. But that era is ending. As the population of the earth burgeons out of control, and the earning power per person ultimately declines, the health coverage dream will die. Today, tens of millions of people die each year for lack of proper sanitation and health facilities. That number will increase rapidly throughout the 21st Century. In this country, attempts to expand coverage will bankrupt our Federal and State bureaucracies, with the result that eventually coverage--both in terms of availability and quality--will decline for most people. As the middle-class shrinks, and the lower classes grow, medical care will increasingly be the province of those able to afford it. It's an unpleasant reality that we can't "afford" to have everything we want, either from the government, or from life in general. We can't all have the best house, the best car, the best outfits, the best entertainment, the best vacations, or the best health coverage option.   

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Brett Weston 1911-1993 - From the Gallery of Heroes


Brett Weston [1911-1993], was the second son of Edward Weston [1886-1958]. It is not unheard of for a superior artistic talent and proclivity to pass from one generation to the next, but it's unusual when the son's work carries on and elaborates upon the father's accomplishments, as seamlessly and interestingly as Brett Weston did. The Twentieth Century saw the flowering of the first phase of art photography; in fact, father Edward was instrumental in showing the potential aesthetic possibilities of "straight" (clear-focus), on a par with the efforts of painting and sculpture. 


At an early age, Brett was taken by his father into the realm of photographic practice, and the precocious boy took to it like a fish in water. By the age of 20, he had already produced a handful of images, whose visual insight and formal sophistication would soon rival that of his famous parent's. Father Edward's career was cut short by Parkinson's Disease in the early 1950's, just as he had come to the height of his powers. But Brett lived into his eighties, and one has the feeling that, through his single-minded dedication, he managed to accomplish just about everything he had set out to do. A couple of years before his death, he burned all his negatives, in the conviction that no one should ever be allowed to "interpret" his pictures (make prints of them) in ways other than he would have chosen. For three decades, their respective careers ran side by side, Edward's fame essentially overshadowing his son's work. Perhaps as a result of this curious overlap, Brett was slow to attain his just recognition, especially with the general public. 

In addition, given the nature of Brett's genius, and his aesthetic preoccupation(s), it was perhaps also not surprising that his images were not greeted with the same favorable response that Edward's had enjoyed in the 1930's and '40's. And Brett was the loyal son: He selflessly aided his Father to produce a summary portfolio of his work in the early Fifties, and jealousy doesn't seem to have played any significant role in their relationship.  

Whereas Edward had settled on the 8x10 format early in his career, and insisted on contact printing as his preferred print mode, Brett experimented with different formats. Early in his career, he spent time with the 11x14 (affording elegant contact prints), and later in his career, he worked with smaller formats, even medium format, partly in response to the improved technology of smaller cameras and lenses, and also to lighten the burden of lugging heavier equipment around as he grew older. 

Brett was a plein-air photographer. What "studio" work he may have done was largely restricted to portraiture. Landscape was what he loved, and he spent the last 40 years of his life traveling the world in search of subject-matter.  

              

What particularly distinguishes his vision is his concentration upon formal abstraction. In the 1940's and '50's, Abstraction Expressionism swept across the art scene, pushing aside representation and realism in favor of other qualities than mere pictorial effects. Historically, I'm not sure which came first, Brett's interest in abstraction, or the art movement. Maybe it doesn't matter. What is clear is that Brett Weston's abstract vision, seen in black & white, derived from a broad range of different kinds of texture and subject, is the primary focus of his imagination. He could, and did, turn out magnificent panoramic landscapes, nudes, architectural studies, urbanscapes, and so forth. What makes him unique was his ability to construct vivid, often high contrast, compositions out of varying phenomena, to a degree that the ostensible "subject" itself becomes almost (or completely) irrelevant. One of Brett's little jokes is making images so abstract that you can't figure out what they are, or whether they're upsidedown or sideways. This picture of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska is clearly a study in water and ice, but it's so much more! The stark contrasts, and serene, mirrored floating bergs, have a dreamy, ethereal quality that is beyond any simplistic "appreciation" of nature. Ultimately, the "beauty" and vastness and glowering symphonic lyricism (which was what Adams sought, finally) aren't Brett's interest. He was a conservationist, but making pretty pictures of national parks had nothing to do with his art.    
    

The point of his images, then, was in making anything (what he referred to as "magnificent gorp") into an interesting photograph. Harry Callahan famously was quoted as saying that a good photographer should be able to make interesting photographs of anything within 15 feet of wherever he was at any moment. That may be taking it a bit too far, but BW's work is in some measure a demonstration of that possibility. Droplets of rain on the surface of a tar roof may not sound like an inspiring subject, but look what effect(s) he's able to achieve with it!  
 

One of the conundra of abstraction is that it is possible to suggest symbolic or familiar shapes, while not wholly investing the occasion as a visual joke or crude irony. BW was a master at deriving abstract shapes that hover delicately on the edge of symbolic representation, without losing their intellectual integrity. As weird and suggestive as his images often are, we are never allowed to forget that we're looking at a specific thing in the real world. These are not manipulations like Jerry Uelsmann's images, for instance. "Reality is stranger than our dreams"--Frederick Sommer.

       

The power that BW brings to the photographic act derives from an ability to apply the expedient rectangular frame to the variability and chaos of form as experienced. Everything that needs to be in the frame is there; we don't feel the need to see outside what he has chosen to present to us. This holistic vision is a gift. As you study a potential image through the ground glass, you search both for resolution (balance and fit), as well as certain undefined qualities (mystery, disorientation, lyrical shape, etc.). These formal qualities aren't easy to define; Brett himself was reluctant to discuss the aesthetic meaning or significance of his work, preferring to let others do it. Like many abstractionists, his approach was deeply intuitive, and probably unconscious: Perhaps talking too much about a profoundly personal method would only have seemed a violation of the private realm in which he worked. 

             

I didn't have the opportunity to know Brett, but I did see him once, at a book signing in Carmel. I asked him if he'd be willing to print a certain image of kelp he'd had reproduced in a book published by The Friends of Photography. "I don't know which picture you're referring to. I take all day to make a single satisfactory print, so it will cost you." I never got in touch with him after that, though I did eventually buy three of his archival prints from a dealer after he died. 

Brett Weston's work has been a big inspiration to me as a serious black & white landscape photographer. His work was my main inspiration.