Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Admirable Miranda July

Miranda July feels different. The 37-year-old performance artist, fiction writer, film actress and director has made and starred in two admirable movies, the prize-winning Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), which is now playing at an art house cinema near you. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, among other places, and are collected in No one belongs here more than you. (Scribner, 2007). Yet despite these conventional signs of success, Miranda July, like many other artists,  feels different.

Born Miranda Jennifer Grossman, she changed her surname to July once she became a professional artist. The name change presumably expressed her sense that she is different, the daughter of hippie intellectuals, her father Jewish and her mother Protestant. She kept Miranda (from the Latin for “admirable”), probably taken by her parents from Shakespeare’s ingénue in The Tempest, the character who exclaims, "O brave new world!" The name Miranda July sets her off as distinctive, the way “George Orwell” submerged and improved on Eric Blair, who was also felt uncomfortably different from the lads he went to school with.

Though a blue-eyed, raven-haired beauty who can resemble the young Liz Taylor, July at times appears uncomfortable in her own skin. As Sophie, her character in The Future, says, “I wish I were one notch prettier.” This sense of personal unease contributes to the anxiety her protagonists feel about physical intimacy onscreen. In The Future, for instance, though Sophie and her androgynous boyfriend live together, sharing the same bed, it’s not clear that they are lovers. That might be why she has an affair with a conventional businessman with conventional lust for her. She seems bemused but not displeased by his attention.

July’s short-short story “The Moves” begins, “Before he died, my father gave me his finger moves. They were movements for getting a woman off. He said he didn’t know if they’d be of use to me, seeing as how I was a woman myself. . . .” Later he says, “You’re going to make some woman very, very happy. . . .” But the narrator doesn’t indicate that she is a lesbian and speculates that one day she’ll “have a daughter and I’ll teach her what he taught me.”

July’s sexual ambivalence or ambiguity probably explains why a lesbian group has petitioned Wikipedia to include in her bio a note that raises the issue of whether she is gay or bisexual. In any case, she is married to the artist and director Mike Mills, whose film Beginners (Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer) explores his father’s coming out at the age of 75.

One of the treats in The Future, which grew out of a performance piece, is a dance that July conjures up while wearing an expansible yellow t-shirt that has the power of self-animation before she picks it up off the floor and pulls it on. July has the body control of a modern dancer and has performed at such venues as The Kitchen and The Guggenheim Museum. She seems slightly more at ease when dancing, usually solo, than when acting.

Whatever her art, July remains compelling. She has a sly sense of humor and an intriguing persona that tests the line between innocence and knowingness, ambition and retreat, desire and ambivalence. I suggest you make her acquaintance by seeing her films and reading her stories. You, too, might feel she’s appealingly different and an admirable artist.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Weather Porn

Isn’t it astonishing the amount of coverage a “weather event” receives these days? All the networks and cable news channels in NYC invested heavily in televising Hurricane Irene (HI), with the 3 major networks bringing in their veteran anchors for the weekend coverage. Part of the broadcasters’ strategy was early on to call HI “devastating,” “major” and “historic” and to stick to this gigantism even when the hurricane became just a tropical storm by the time it reached NYC.

Even now as I write, at 7:15 AM, the highest recorded wind today in Central Park is 25 mph, not even a gale. But the broadcasters are committed to full coverage for the rest of the day. Of course, with the cancellation of golf tournaments, baseball & football games, and car races, they need substitute programming to attract watchers.

Storm chasers are performing live from the eye of HI, reporters are out in local spots to highlight the damage from wind and flooding, deaths (10 so far) are solemnly recounted, and the focus is on the most ghastly scenes, so some footage is repeated over and over to titillate the TV audience with what is now called “weather porn.” But no context is provided for the sort of routine storm damage done so far by HI. No channel is showing comparative footage of the immense wall of water that only last March obliterated several towns near Fukushima, Japan, causing damage to a nuclear plant that is still threatening the area.

How about our own disaster in New Orleans caused in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina? That was truly “devastating,” “major,” and “historic.” We in the Northeast will soon recover. New Orleans today has a population about one-third smaller than before HK hit. Katrina, which caused almost 2,000 deaths, remains the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States (Wikipedia).

Have a nice day. J

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Congressman Nadler

I have praised Jerry Nadler, my Congressman on the West Side of Manhattan, and if you'd like to see evidence of why he is probably the truest progressive voice in the House, please read this interview at today's Truthout:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Recommended Reading & Viewing

I have recently finished Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, densely printed on 509 pages by Melville House, which I began last fall. If you like long realist fiction, I recommend this book as one of the best novels I’m familiar with. It deserves comparison with Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Dos Passos.
What struck me most strongly about Every Man Dies Alone is how much his picture of Nazi Germany resonates with our own time, when a fascistic nationalist political party is working fanatically to destroy our republic. As one of the few decent characters in the novel says about the Third Reich, it is “vile beyond all vileness.” So far, we Americans have been lucky that such vileness has not yet overtaken us, though elements of the far right try to sow the seeds of it.
But even a conservative would appreciate Fallada’s depiction of the ways the Nazis succeeded in subverting decency and supplanting it with a dog-eat-dog mentality that allowed the survival of the fittest at exploiting fascist immorality and brute force. Thus one of the young strivers in the Nazi Party, when confronted with possible arrest for a break-in, formulates his behavior during an interrogation this way: “For an instant, Baldur Persicke thought the game was up. But then he remembered one of his maxims, Shamelessness wins out,” and he proceeds to lie his way out of his predicament by putting the blame on others.
“Shamelessness wins out” strikes me as the rationale of the executives at Enron and on Wall Street, of many politicians and their “strategists,” of too many Americans who today manipulate our own immoral, broken system. But leaving out any comparisons to contemporary topics, Every Man Dies Alone is a powerful fiction that lays bare a rotten time and shows how two principled people try to bring down Hitler and pay with their lives.
Fallada, the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, survived the Nazis but not his own abuse of alcohol and other drugs: he died, at 53, a few days before this, his last, novel was published in 1947.
I’ve also recently finished Spies of the Balkans, the latest of Alan Furth’s eleven novels about the origins of World War II in central and eastern Europe. While I can recommend the three previous Furst books I’ve read—Dark Voyage, The Polish Officer, and, especially, The Foreign Correspondent—the new one is too generic, with sterotyped characters (always a problem with Furst) and clichéd language, for me to endorse. Furst, by the way, provides a blurb for the Melville House edition of Every Man Dies Alone.
Two outstanding films are now playing the art houses in Manhattan, and my wife and I loved them. One is a documentary on the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who is best known for Fiddler on the Roof, the musical comedy based on his stories about Tevye the Milkman.  The film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness offers not only a biography of the writer but a history of shtetl life and Jewish culture in the 19th-century in what is today called Ukraine. Sholem Aleichem, by the way, lived in New York for the last few years of his life and is buried in Queens.
The other terrific movie is also a documentary of sorts, Passione: A Musical Adventure, a musical history of Naples, directed by John Turturro. This is a thrilling movie, because the music of Naples, influenced by opera, jazz, pop, folk, and North Africa, is so thrilling as performed by local singers and musicians. Anyone who is of Italian descent or an Italophile or a music lover should find Passione wildly entertaining.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Class Consciousness at Brown

The July/August 2011 issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine carries obituaries of two men who strongly influenced me as an undergraduate. Both Charles J. Lynch, a dorm mate, and Elmer E. Cornwell, Jr., a professor of political science, raised my hitherto minimal class consciousness, one through his experience and the other based on theory.
Charlie Lynch was a lean, working-class Irish Catholic from Springfield, Mass., with the ascetic look of a priest; his speech was close to a brogue. He and I both lived in Hegeman B, one of the older dorms at Brown, a Victorian dark-brick and stone affair, and we both majored in English and became English teachers following our graduation in 1958.

More important, Charlie and I both had “grant-in-aid” jobs to help us afford our room and board. While I waited tables in the dining hall, he cleaned rooms in a fraternity where looking “shoe” was primary. When he came by to talk in the suite I shared with three upwardly mobile students, he would often bitterly recount the snubs he had received from members of that fraternity. I’d gripe that a snob in the wealthy fraternity where I waited on tables would call me, “Waiter!” although we had lived on the same floor of a dormitory for a semester.

Charlie also marveled at the affluence of the fraternity brothers, one of whose closets, he told me, contained “about 30 Brooks Brothers sport jackets.” Charlie and I each had one “lunchy” (from “out to lunch,” meaning “unstylish”) sport coat from high school. “Come the revolution,” he would jest, but he did not mean a revolution that would bring equal distribution of tweed jackets.

Elmer Cornwell, a native of Holyoke with a Harvard Ph.D., taught the only poli sci class I ever took, on Presidential politics. We met in a large, dimly lighted hall in an antique building on the quad, about a hundred seated students and one tall, pencil-slim instructor standing at a lectern on a podium. Cornwell, seemingly immune to the allure of tweed, was clad in pastel polyester coat and slacks and wore his wavy hair unfashionably long. He looked owlish in rimless spectacles, and he spoke in what today would be called a laid-back manner, even when he was pressing an important point.

The moment I remember best occurred when he was analyzing the connection between voting patterns and socioeconomic class, arguing that the more affluent the citizen, the more likely he was to vote Republican. A few of his listeners demurred. To prove his point, the professor asked for a show of hands to signify each student’s class affiliation. He would eliminate the upper and the lower class, he said, to avoid putting anyone on the spot. He then began at the top, asking how many identified with the upper middle class, and most of the students raised their hands. Those who thought of themselves as middle class made a lesser showing. And when he asked how many identified as lower middle class, only four hands went up, tentatively. One was mine.

Charlie Lynch went on to chair the English Department at a Bay Area high school, and Professor Cornwell not only wrote many books and articles but also applied his expertise in service to Rhode Island state and local government. Though Charlie and I rarely saw each other after I’d switched dorms and I never spoke with Professor Cornwell after I took that class, I mourn their death and remember each of them fondly and gratefully.