May 252003

Mike Snider, via The Blowhards, mourns the dearth of hetero male sex poetry. I got your hetero male sex poetry right here! Granted, I had to raid the 16th century to find it.

All my senses, like beacons’ flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia’s name,
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury’s wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard’s heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
Sweet god Cupid where am I,
That by pale Diana’s light:
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our sense with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine:
Look where lies the Milken Way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone.
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust:
Fancy’s scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust,
I stepp’d forth to touch the sky,
I a god by Cupid dreams,
Cynthia who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams;
Leaving hollow banks behind,
Who can neither forward move,
Nor if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic Pole,
Where Sol passeth o’er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace:
He that lets his Cynthia lie,
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away:
Let no love-desiring heart,
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature’s art,
Wonder hinders love and hate.
None can well behold with eyes,
But what underneath him lies.

–Fulke Greville

Greville (Lord Brooke), incidentally, friend and biographer of Sidney and finance minister to Queen Elizabeth I, is the greatest English poet that you’ve never heard of. To clear up a few difficulties of diction and syntax: “Die” has the standard Elizabethan double meaning of sexual climax. “Lies,” in the last line, has both of its modern senses. “Thoughts take thought that go of trust” means that one’s own anxiety makes one’s thoughts unreliable; it is a gloss on the preceding line.

This poem mocks the conventions of Elizabethan courtly love poetry and praises sex for its own sake in the most brutal terms. Greville gives us the dithering lover, absorbing himself in spiritual concerns, in three brilliant images: the river running away from the river-bank, the North Pole deserted by the sun (the “line” of “Where Sol passeth o’er the line” is the Equator), and the convict preaching from the gallows. The poem’s brutality derives from the fact that Greville, a Calvinist, believed in the absolute separation of body and soul, and allegiance to one, for him, entails rejection of the other. He later turned to the soul and wrote even better poems than this one, which is a post for another day.

May 242003

You’re kidding, right? This is actually lamer than “The dog ate my homework”: there was an antediluvian era when you couldn’t save your homework to your hard drive. Yet Colby Cosh, Mr. Hand Coding, has trotted out this excuse twice in two weeks, while Andrea Harris can figure out how to change her site design every six hours but seems to have her posts swallowed with some regularity.

I concede that I’m not in the greatest position to hand out technical advice, but people, this is not difficult. Do not write blog entries directly into your blogging software. Open some svelte text editor, like Notepad, Wordpad, or BBEdit if you want to get fancy (Microsoft Word is not svelte), give your post a title, and save it. Begin writing, hitting Ctrl-S or the little floppy disk icon — see it up there on the toolbar? — after every paragraph or so. If you can’t manage HTML outside of your blogging software, then just copy the links you need to the bottom of the post. When you’re finished, open your blogging software, select your post, and copy it in. Add your links if you haven’t already. Post. Repeat as necessary.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled precious art blogging.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)

May 222003

The rumored movie version of Atlas Shrugged is driving the Objectivist cineasts out of the woodwork: first Arthur Silber, then Diana Hsieh, and even Ian Hamet was inspired to awaken from a two-week hibernation. Will it be good? This is a matter of applying Haspel’s Three Laws of Film Adaptation.

1. The better the book, the worse the movie. The novel is the best vehicle ever devised for conveying people’s inner life. The movies and the theater are the best vehicles ever devised for conveying people’s outer life. That the latter map poorly to the former should be no great surprise. Inner life is conveyed in the theater by the soliloquy, which is horribly clunky, and in the movies by the voiceover, which isn’t much better. Good acting can only help so much, and is scarce. How many times have you read a critic praising an actor for “hinting at the hidden depths” of a character? That the depths are hidden is precisely the problem.

Especially “interior” novels, like those of Henry James, tend to be turned into especially bad movies. The one James novel that become a successful movie is Washington Square, which he first conceived as a play. (But see Law #3.)

Great novels also live by their language, most of which is lost on film. There’s plenty of action in Moby-Dick, but you don’t read it for action, you read it for the whiteness of the whale. Naturally the (1956) film version of Moby-Dick, despite being directed by John Huston and adapted by Ray Bradbury, was a profound disappointment, even if we set aside the problematic casting, to put it kindly, of Gregory Peck as Ahab. It’s a creditable sea yarn, just not Melville. The operation was a success, but the patient died.

2. The longer the book, the worse the movie. The longer the book, the more you have to cut. The more you cut, the more mistakes you make. In many ways Bonfire of the Vanities was an excellent candidate for the screen. It’s a very behaviorist novel, not at all “interior” as good novels go: its theme is that what we are pleased to call personality is in fact a howling void. But it is nearly 700 pages long, at least 500 of which had to disappear. Michael Cristofer, the screenwriter, couldn’t decide what to part with, choosing instead to reduce every major subplot to a quarter of its former size, mystifying anyone who had not read the book and infuriating anyone who had. The resulting hopeless hash cannot be entirely attributed to Brian De Palma’s inability to understand anything but gore. Or take the King Vidor version of War and Peace. Please.

My two favorite movies of great books are Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, largely because I’m in love with Greer Garson, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 Lolita. Both books are short.

3. The more faithful the adaptation, the worse the movie. Piety afflicts modern directors especially. They all grew up on movies and TV, and tend to genuflect toward literature when they stumble on it later in life. Martin Scorsese turned The Age of Innocence, a beautifully subtle novel, into a static bore by trying to convey every last nuance. You got the impression that it was the first book Scorsese had ever managed to read all through. The authors of his other screenplays must envy his overscrupulous attitude toward Mrs. Wharton.

To return to Washington Square, Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 version suffers by comparison with William Wyler’s much looser 1949 adaptation, The Heiress. The novel, and Holland’s film, end with a highly civilized meeting between Catherine and Morris, her penniless former suitor who deserted her for fear that she would be disinherited. Now that Catherine’s father is dead and her fortune is secure, Morris clearly wishes to marry, Catherine equally clearly wishes not to, and that is that, although not a word is said directly on the subject. It works brilliantly in the novel and is DOA on film. In Wyler’s version Morris proposes to Catherine again, she pretends to accept him, and locks the door on him when he comes back around to collect her. The movie ends with Morris pounding on the door as it dawns on him what she has done. Riveting on film, ridiculous on the page.

Atlas Shrugged, then. I view Atlas more as a gussied-up work of philosophy than a novel, exactly. Its characters haven’t much in the way of an interior life, and in any case it is Ayn Rand’s way for everyone to say exactly what’s he’s thinking, over and over again. (No one ever lies in her novels, not even the villains.) On the one hand, works of philosophy haven’t much cinematic future. On the other hand it has an awful lot of action for a work of philosophy, and God knows there’s plenty to cut. If we had only Law #1 to go on, the jury would still be out.

Law #2 we can pass over quickly. The book is 1200 pages of eyestrain print, and the whole in this case will assuredly be less than the sum of its parts. The story of the 20th Century Motor Company would make a better movie than the novel itself.

As for Law #3, James Hart, who is signed to write the screenplay, is a keen Atlas fan, which means he’ll want to get as much of the philosophy into the movie as he can, so we’re bound to have Francisco on the meaning of money and plenty of John Galt speaking. Fidelity will sink Atlas just as it sank the movie version of The Fountainhead. Conventional wisdom blames the failure of the movie on Gary Cooper as Roark, and admittedly he is terrible, so terrible that he said so himself later. (Patricia Neal is almost as bad.) Yet the penultimate scene in The Fountainhead, Roark’s lengthy courtroom speech, is cinematically hopeless, no matter who’s playing him. Imagining Galt’s speech on film I leave as an exercise for the reader.

(Update: As for “No one ever lies in Ayn Rand’s novels,” One of my commenters points out that the characters lie all over the place in Atlas Shrugged. Having just reread the first 100 pages and caught three whoppers, I take it back.)

May 192003

“Workshop” theories of art, which trace characteristics of art to external constraints, generally leave me cold. In most arts very little stands between conception and execution. You think it, and there it is. Architecture is the exception. (Also movies, but to an ever-lessening degree.) For most of human history engineering knowledge severely constrained what could be built. Before steel-beam construction anything taller than a couple hundred feet was basically impossible.

No longer, of course. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high skyscraper was feasible in 1956, when he designed it, except for the elevators, and that problem has since been solved. Theoretically we can build just about whatever we want.

In the 20th century what constrains architecture is law. Zoning regulations are a relatively recent invention; only in 1926, with the disastrous Supreme Court decision of Euclid v. Ambler, was their constitutionality definitely settled. Every major city in America except Houston is now zoned. The stepped-back skyscraper of the early part of the century, of which the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the classic examples, was largely a product of the 1916 New York zoning ordinance. The dreadful tract houses of the suburbs, too, are a legal matter; without the rigid regulations that segregate residential from commercial use the suburbs certainly would not have taken their current form.

The Mies-Corbu school would never have seen the light of day without government assistance. Corbusier had built nothing but a few houses for his boho friends and a vacation place for his mother when in 1927 Mies brought him in to help out Weissenhof Werkbund project, an exhibition of worker housing sponsored by the German Social Democratic government. It wasn’t until decades later that private parties began to pay serious cash for the stuff.

On the other side of the spectrum things are much the same. Christopher Alexander, ideologically as far from Mies and Corbu as you can go without sailing off the edge of the earth, has had his largest commissions from the government of Mexico, and a public university, the University of Oregon. It is true that for the most part only governments are in a position to give out such commissions. This is because governments have spent a good part of the century arrogating to themselves the privilege of regulating land use. Do the architects complain? On the contrary; they demand that it be done in the interest of their pet style.

Zoning laws themselves are not ex nihilo: they come from ideas, and it’s perfectly valid to discuss those ideas. But most builders work under tight legal constraints, and it is a mistake to treat their products as if they sprang more or less directly from their heads.

King George I remarked of the Old Pretender that “He and I are in perfect agreement. We both believe we should be King of England.” So with architects.

May 152003

I receive a suspicious number of hits for search strings containing “analysis” — “Emily Dickinson there’s a certain slant of light analysis,” and “analysis invictus” and “herrick virgins time analysis” and the like. (On the other hand, I’m #30 on Google for “bestiality tutorial.”) Finally, yesterday, “Alison” fessed up:

AAAAHHHHH somebody help-im reciting this poem sonnet for a speech and drama exam tomorrow, ive been trying to find info on Lizzy [Elizabeth Daryush, who may not have answered to “Lizzy”] for ages but cant find anything im so frustrated!! anyway id just thought id let you all know-some of your comments were helpful though! Bye

You know, Alison, in my day we didn’t have this new-fangled Internet thingy. We had to walk ten miles through a blizzard to the library to plagiarize Lionel Trilling. And we liked it! helping high school students with their speech and drama homework since 2002.

May 132003

Let’s see what we’ve got in the ol’ mailbag…

An anonymous “family member” of the late Ty Longley, who doesn’t specify whether he has in mind the nuclear, the extended, the Family of Headbangers, or the Family of Man, takes exception to my discussion of Mr. Longley’s alleged second career:

Um, dude, I am a family member of Ty’s and can personally attest, that he is not the “Tybo” in porn. First of all, try searching under the porn name Tybo on the internet….it’s a chic [sic].

Le Freak, c’est chic! But fair enough, especially since my original source was a porn blog — like you were expecting The New York Times. I take Mr. Member’s advice, and plug “Tybo” and “porn” into Google, noting with alarm that my own item is the first entry. Eventually I happen on this, which is a bit sketchy, but it looks like the right Ty Bo, since the dates, 1999-2000, coincide with the dates in my source. Trouble is, the URL includes “gender=m,” so I’m willing to wager this is not a chic we’re discussing. And really, what female porn star in her right mind would call herself “Ty Bo” anyway?

Until further notice, then, God of the Machine regrets that we are unable to regret the error.

On a more serious note, Casey Fahy (scroll down a bit, and, um, dude, get some permalinks) wants to know why I doubt the story about turning turkey guts into Texas tea. Presumably I would believe it if only I, like Casey, were an optimist. Why am I not an optimist? Take it away, Ambrose Bierce:

Optimism, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with the grin that apes a smile. Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof — an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.

Let’s see, where was I? Oh yes, turkey guts. Well, I’m not a chemist, and neither is Casey, but Greg Hlatky is, and he’s read the patent. At any rate, the merits of this particular claim, which appear to be small, are beside the point. This is a matter not of optimism or pessimism, but of epistemology. Every day interested parties, like our “tall, well-tanned entrepreneur” of the Discover story, make pie-in-the-sky claims whose technical merits most of us are utterly unqualified to judge, even if we’re willing to do a lot of homework. You therefore have three choices. Door #1: Ask one or several people who might know and take their word for it (my choice in this case, by trusting Hlatky, but not always available). Door #2: Accept them out of hand. Door #3: Reject them out of hand. Rejection is provisional: you can always change your mind later if more evidence comes in. You’ve wait-listed the claim, so to speak. Acceptance is a different matter. No matter what private reservations you may harbor at the time, your brain files away the “fact” that, for instance, we can make oil out of turkey guts, and six months later you’ve forgotten what your doubts were, if you ever had them. A vast amount of error can be traced to this sort of “optimism.”

(Update: Gregory Hlatky, himself, comments.)

May 122003

Art history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In the 20th century the tragedy is Marcel Duchamp, though Duchamp himself would be the first to deny it. As anyone will testify who has ever seen Nude Descending a Staircase, which Duchamp painted in 1912, at 25, he was a great painter. By 1914 he was finished painting. Robert Lebel, author of a book about Duchamp, writes of this “crisis” as follows:

It was as early as the end of 1912 that Duchamp suffered the great intellectual crisis that progressively forced him to abandon this mode of expression which seemed vitiated to him. The practice of drawing and painting appeared to him as a kind of trickery that tended towards the senseless glorification of the hand and of nothing else.

Some call me the gangster of loveUh-huh. No one really knows why Duchamp quit painting, he was a strange cat. Perhaps he was annoyed at the failure of the art estabishment to appreciate Nude Descending, which the prestigious Salon des Independánts in Paris rejected, although it was shown in a Cubist exhibition in Spain at the time and a couple years later at the Armory. Perhaps, as he said, he painted only 33 canvases because he had only 33 ideas. Perhaps he was just lazy. Likely it was all of the above. Whatever the reason, he spent the rest of his career playing elaborate practical jokes, mostly on people like Lebel, and chess, mostly with his buddy and fellow prankster Man Ray.

They were terrific jokes too. Beginning in 1915 Duchamp produced a series of what he called “readymades,” like In Advance of the Broken Arm (a snow shovel), and the notorious Fountain, an unadorned urinal, signed “R. Mutt,” that his exhibitors, in New York, did not appreciate. By the rules of the exhibition they couldn’t send it back; they hid it behind a curtain instead. It wound up in the Museum of Modern Art, and Duchamp, as usual, had the last laugh. Then there is the bicycle wheel embedded in the stool (also in MOMA), the glass ampule labeled “Paris Air” (Duchamp unfortunately did not live to see the Pet Rock, which he would have appreciated), and the final gesture of desecration, the Mona Lisa with a mustache. Duchamp was once asked to sign a Mona Lisa reproduction; he wrote “Shaved.”

The farce is Andy Warhol. Warhol was a moderately talented fashion illustrator who specialized in shoes and quickly realized that his real talent was not for art but hucksterism. Warhol’s true metier is the interview; it is not for nothing that he created a magazine by the same name. The interviews Warhol gave in the 60s are priceless. An excerpt from one I remember goes something like this:

Girl art journo (in cat glasses): If I could ask you a question about your electric chair series [Warhol silk-screened photographs of electric chairs for a while], Mr. Warhol… Did you mean to suggest, by isolating the electric chair, that modern capitalist society has dehumanized death, by sanitizing it?
[Five-second pause.]
Andy (in sunglasses): No.

Warhol famously made movies, indescribably dull movies, like the 12-hour shot of the Empire State Building whose only action is a bird flying by every half hour or so. He was often asked why he gave up painting for movies. “Because it’s easier,” he would say. He once advertised in The Village Voice that he would endorse anything for money. The beauty of these jokes is that they were literally true.

No jokes, however, are funny after the first couple times you’ve heard them, and these days it is hard to raise more than a yawn when you hear that the Tate Gallery has bought tin cans of some poor lunatic’s excrement. Nonetheless, we should remember that it was funny once. Duchamp and Warhol have an indelible place in history, though it may not be in art history — possibly the history of humor, or public relations.

(Update: Brian Micklethwait comments.)

May 112003

[OBLIGATORY] Accusations of hypocrisy are, of course, a form of tu quoque. Bill Bennett would still be a self-righteous prohibitionist gasbag even if he didn’t lose millions at slots. His books are good or bad, his arguments valid or invalid, regardless. Like Evan Kirchhoff and Ken Layne, I find his choice of game far more damning than the fact that he gambled at all. Slot machines are for little old ladies wearing stretch pants and a gardening glove.

Bennett’s case may not even rise to the level of hypocrisy. This has nothing to do with the fact that he never specifically condemned gambling, instead directing his ire toward pot-smoking, adultery, and other vices in which he apparently did not personally indulge. I am perfectly willing to stipulate that Bennett, on his own principles, should have objected to gambling, although he did not. The arch-hypocrite in literature is Tartuffe, who preaches virtues in which he does not believe to enhance his own position. Insincerity distinguishes the true hypocrite. Though Bennett made his pile by declaiming against vices analogous to gambling, which complicates the problem, there is no evidence that he is anything but sincere in his flogging of the Ten Commandments. His sin is not Tartuffery but weakness. If I resolve to rise early to write (and I do) and then sleep in instead (and I do) this makes me, technically, a hypocrite. I daresay that most of us are technically hypocrites. Real villainy comes not from doing what you think is wrong, usually, but from doing what you think is right, or from not caring about the difference.

Hypocrisy plays especially badly with lazy thinkers, as Eugene Volokh more politely points out, because it is easy to detect inconsistency between thought and behavior, hard to detect inconsistency in thought, and harder still to detect plain error. Naturally Bennett is vulnerable to such accusations. He understands this, which is why he’s announced that he will stop gambling.

Lining up someone’s convictions with his personal life is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition. If you defend gambling, and gamble, then you’re no longer disinterested, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and gamble, then you’re a hypocrite, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and don’t gamble, then you’re a smug puritan, and your argument can be disregarded. If you defend gambling, and don’t gamble, then you lack personal knowledge of the horrors of gambling, and your argument, again, can be disregarded. Only vice’s ex-“victims” are presumed to have the standing to make an argument at all. They dominate the discourse, and unsurprisingly, they’re all for laws. This is a recipe for prohibitionism.

Of course Bennett is technically a liar too, but come on. A gambler who says he’s “pretty close to even” is like a fisherman who says it was this big, or a rug merchant who says he can’t lower the price. Everybody knows what “pretty close to even” means. It means “I lost a lot of money.” [/OBLIGATORY]