Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Higher the Price, the Better the Taste

A study at the California Institute of Technology found that people preferred the taste of wines they thought were expensive to that of wines they were told were cheaper. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Unbeknownst to volunteers, two sets of samples were identical -- the $5 and $45 wines ($5 actual price) and the $10 and $90 wines ($90 actual price). The fifth wine was identified by its actual $35 price. Volunteers were asked to rank the pleasantness of the wines. They liked the $90 wine best and the $5 wine least.

Brain scans showed that activity in the part of the brain that detects pleasure also moved in lock-step with price. But when tasters didn't know the prices, they rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled.
This reminds me of a study done with Coke and Pepsi by neuroscientist Read Montague a few years ago. Monitoring test subjects with magnetic resonance imaging, Montague found that people tended to think Pepsi tasted better, which backed up years of Pepsi-sponsored blind taste tests. But if Pepsi really did taste better, why was Coke more popular?

Clive Thompson explained in the New York Times in 2003:
In the real world, of course, taste is not everything. So Montague tried to gauge the appeal of Coke's image, its ''brand influence,'' by repeating the experiment with a small variation: this time, he announced which of the sample tastes were Coke. The outcome was remarkable: almost all the subjects said they preferred Coke. What's more, the brain activity of the subjects was now different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that scientists say governs high-level cognitive powers. Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories and other impressions of the drink -- in a word, its brand -- to shape their preference.

Pepsi, crucially, couldn't achieve the same effect. When Montague reversed the situation, announcing which tastes were of Pepsi, far fewer of the subjects said they preferred Pepsi. Montague was impressed: he had demonstrated, with a fair degree of neuroscientific precision, the special power of Coke's brand to override our taste buds.
And it's not just that kind of taste. Calvin Tomkins' New Yorker article on the artist John Currin last week recalled how Currin started showing his work at Larry Gagosian's gallery. A short but telling phrase stood out: Gagosian "felt that [Currin's] prices were 'ridiculously low' and boosted them accordingly."

Now, there is a fine line between seeking out the price that a given market will bear and raising prices to raise prestige. There's a point where the trusting human brain tries to make sense out of an extremely high price, rationalizing that it must be high for a sound, logical reason. We are social creatures, herd animals, really, and we're constantly balancing the need to fit in with the desire to stand out.

Arthur Koestler told a story in his 1969 book The Act of Creation about a woman he knew who, upon learning that a Picasso print she had hanging in a stairway was actually a drawing, moved it to a more prominent place. The image didn't change; its perceived value did, so she looked it differently.

The art establishment is occasionally ambushed by contrarians who trick critics into reading lofty intentions into paintings by elephants or toddlers. The remedy is a system of criticism that takes the artist out of the equation temporarily and prizes the image itself above all else. Easier said than done.

Or, a system of criticism that values ideas over objects. That, of course, could collapse our art market and eliminate a lot of junk. It could raise the value of reproductions and create all sorts of intellectual property problems. And it will probably never happen.


Monday, January 28, 2008


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Obituary: Heathcliff Andrew Ledger

Celebrity deaths are great news for media, and not just the celebrity paparazzi rags. The only thing wrong with the mysterious death of a young, moderately talented, and fairly good-looking actor is that there isn’t an infinite amount of reportable information. Eventually it dries up and the guy is buried, literally and figuratively.

Gawker has this "examination of 100 recent headlines on Google News, categorized by the angle on the Australian actor's mysterious demise."

“It’s like River Phoenix all over again,” a friend in California texted me. We were joking around about the media circus. Which is a sign of good mental health for the average American: to be cynical and unmoved by the death, or to feel it profoundly?

I was walking around SoHo last week with a co-worker when I asked her if we should check out the Heath Ledger Death Apartment. She looked up the address on Wikipedia with her mobile phone, and we were off.

As we stood in front of 421 Broome Street, gawking at the pile of letters and flowers, I held up my camera-phone for the photo-op. I looked around. The density of the crowd was deceptive. Most of it was police barriers and camera equipment that spilled over into the street. And I wasn't the only one snapping pictures with a camera-phone. The crowd was quiet, and surprisingly respectful. As I was about to mutter something sarcastic to my co-worker, I heard a man, an adult, say something quiet to his companion about what a good actor Ledger was, as if that justified their visit to the site.

So why were we there? The spectacle, we agreed. All respect for the dead aside, this was a modern popular cultural moment. We wanted to see the pile of letters. How, in this day and age, we marveled, could anyone get so attached to an actor that they would write a heart-felt letter to the actor or his family?

We wanted to see the cameras. There were news vans from all the local stations staked out there. We wondered why. Would anyone close to the actor actually show up at the apartment?

If this were a movie, a Maybach with blacked-out windows would pull up with Michelle Williams and son. The window would roll down about an inch, hesitate, and then go down another inch and pause and then go up. The car would sit just long enough for the cameras to turn around before the car sped off. And the crowd that saw it would dissect the movements of the window as if it were an expression on a face, because that’s all they had to go on.

But it is a kind of movie scenario when our media treats actors' lives like performances, and we visited the Heath Ledger Death Apartment as we would have the site of a film shoot.

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"People who like this sort of thing will like this a lot."

So said a gallery goer, overheard by artist John Currin's father at the November 2006 opening at the Gagosian Gallery. The current issue of the New Yorker has a profile of the artist; click here for a slideshow of Currin's work.

The painting below, titled "The Dane," was one of the many pornographic paintings in that exhibition. Currin was preoccupied with Denmark after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the infamous Muhammad cartoons.

Currin's father told New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins that his son had a "screwy idea that he's backing up the people in Denmark who published those cartoons," adding "but I think he did it because he could."

Currin told Tomkins that he called the painting above "The Dane" to say that (he jokes), "when they're not involved in cartoon controversies, this is what they're doing." He continued,
"If all your freedoms are taken away, even sleazy porn becomes valuable. There are a lot of levels for me here -- a parody of what I imagine Europe to be, a parody of my life before September 11th, of my life before I had children, and also a picture of a sunset, this falling light of liberty. I know that seems like bullshit, but I always liked to impose meanings on paintings that can't quite bear them. Anyway, calling the that picture 'The Dane' and linking it up with the Muhammad cartoon thing was very exciting for me. It gave me a direction."
Too bad it dates the painting so much. But I appreciate the trickery of imposing meanings on art that can't quite bear it. I think it's refreshing to hear an artist confess to adding intellectual layers that aren't actually implicit.

Critic Jerry Saltz wrote in 2006 that:
"Currin is combining porn, mannerism and an idea pioneered by that ultra-sexual alpha-male artist, Picasso. For me, a big part of cubism’s greatness comes from Picasso devising an extraordinarily forceful pictorial system that allowed him to portray what he wanted to see most: Breasts, vulva, eyes, stomach, anus, labia, mouth, clitoris and buttocks all at the same time and all on one plane. Porn does something similar, only without the force or formal radicality. Porn is all convention. It has to do certain things in certain ways or it’s laughable and amateur, or not porn at all."
I think it's the next wave of embarrassed men trying to justify their delight in the nude (if not naked) female form. Turning his pornographic source material, obscene art -- if we can for a moment call it art -- into both high art (painting) and low art (hazy lighting, silly expressions, vintage J.C. Penney catalog pantsuit and housecoat poses), lets us pretend that we're not just looking at mere porn. It distances us from both the female form and from our own sexuality. It pokes fun at it in a way that shows how ashamed of it we are. Do we really need to wrap our sexual appetites in a thick coating of kitsch?

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in 1999, "Mr. Currin mixes leering, lightheaded kitsch with old-masterish weight as if there were no distinction." Is this a good thing? To echo the gallery goer whose quote serves as my headline, if you like this sort of thing, no one does it better.

These paintings remind me of the old stripper pens I used to see as a kid, the ones with a picture of a man or a woman that would suddenly appear nude depending on how you tilted the pen. They were crude, and titillating, but they were not sensual or erotic. They were a gag that pandered to a childish curiosity and discomfort with nudity.

It's too hard to do erotic art without turning it into kitsch. Too many variations have already been done with varying degrees of success. It's so much easier to be crude than it is to be explicitly sensual.

Currin's saving grace now, as before, may be that he's a very skillful painter.

Though I've heard that debated. New Republic art critic Jed Perl recently wrote that Currin's "mousy imitations of old-master portrait styles would not earn him a freelance gig as a magazine illustrator." That's harsh. Tomkins wrote: "Currin is probably right that his skill level doesn't match that of a mid-level nineteenth-century painter, but he was improving all the time, and this put him ahead of just about every American painter in sight."

As Jerry Saltz wrote in 2006, Currin "used traditional ideas about painterly skill to get beyond shtick." With similar artists, like the overrated Lisa Yuskavage (see above), the blending of porn and the Precious Moments figurine aesthetic aren't buoyed by an impressive technical skill or art historical reference. Yuskavage and Currin are friends; they went to Yale's graduate art school together.

"I liked the idea of a beautiful painting that has this big problem," Currin told Tomkins in the New Yorker article. "Like a lead ball chained to its ankle. A heavy weight that keeps it from ever being good." Is he not afraid, then, of painting something truly good? Afraid of success?

Who in the history of art has done erotic art right? That's a subjective question, but I'm sure we all have artists in mind. I think Man Ray did it well.

And I think that two factors can make erotic art more palatable: time and culture. Ingres's Le Bain Turc (Turkish Bath, 1862), a circular painting that looks like a peephole into a bath full of frolicking nude ladies, has gained respectability over the last 140 odd years because of the skill and reputation of the artist. Japanese shunga prints may be too clinical to be truly erotic. But the distance that a different time and a different culture give can restore a more narrow eroticism to a broader audience.

Couldn't that happen with Currin's work? Will we not be looking back at his goofy mixture of 1970s and '80s Montgomery Ward catalogue images and cheap pornography as an earnest commentary on male sexuality for the time? Will it not raise porn to the level of folk art, and mass photography (catalogues, year books, Olan Mills portrait studios) to a level of nostalgic realism? You never know. But from here it looks like a momentary spasm in art history, a reaction to the freedom we all experienced after the darkness of late '80s and early '90s political correctness. It's all part of the backlash and because of that, I don't think it will last.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Rambo By the Numbers

This is the Rambo Kill Chart from L.A. Times writer John Mueller. Click on it to make it bigger. Note the number of sex scenes in each of the four Rambo films. Note the rate at which the killing increases from film to film. And note the fact that Rambo doesn't kill anyone without his shirt on in the latest installment.

"I'm not sure how to respond to this chart: is it good, is it bad?" asks Firstshowing.net's Alex Billington. "Do more deaths in this latest Rambo movie mean it will be better?" I'm not sure either, but more killings may mean safer streets at home.

The chart reminds me of two things. First, the outrageous violence of the 1,000-year-old Icelandic Sagas. The Sagas are the histories of the Norwegian Viking families that settled in Iceland, and they are full of Bible-style so-and-so begat so-and-so, as well as phrases like "And then Thorstein dealt Thorarin his death blow." It's gruesome stuff, and I had always meant to try to create a sort of family tree-like chart showing who killed who along with who sired who.

But this Rambo business also reminds me of the gleeful bloodsport of zombie movies. When Rambo kills 83 people in about 90 minutes, and I see it boiled down into a plain chart, I start wondering -- ironically -- if they all deserved it. Could the "bad guys" all be so bad?

This question never comes up in zombie movies, and in that way, they are the perfect modern American film genre: they are full of guilt-free carnage (not even killing -- they're already dead!). Human beings are distilled down into mindless, soul-less -- even lifeless -- menaces that living human beings must destroy. How like a video game.

Other genres have tried. Commies are soul-less, right? Or crazed drug addicts? But no one has been able to "comfortably" de-humanize the living in film -- not after WWI, WWII, and assorted regional genocides.

I've never seen any of the Rambo movies (nor any of the Rocky movies, for that matter), but I can't imagine a better time to bring the character back. As you can see in the National Threat Advisory on the right column of this blog, we're on orange alert.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quote of the Day: Insecure Actor vs. Scientology

"I studied there briefly when I first moved to L.A. It was no secret what they were about at the Playhouse but they weren’t overt about it. Until they were. After I’d been there for a while I was pulled aside one night by one of the 'ethics officers' and informed that Milton believed that what was holding me back in my work and, by extension, my career could best be addressed by a course or two at the Celebrity Centre. Marveled by their deft playing of my ambition against my insecurities I said, 'Wow.' Ya had to hand it to them, they were good. I never went back."
The above quote is from an unnamed actor who spoke to the New Yorker's Dana Goodyear for her January 14 article on Scientology. The article focused on Scientology's Hollywood "Celebrity Centre."

The anonymous actor took a class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse with Milton Katselas, an acting teacher who apparently works hard to help recruit struggling thespians for Scientology.

In her New Yorker blog, Goodyear wrote that she was disturbed to find a copy of the Celebrity Centre's magazine, Celebrity, in her home mailbox after her article came out. "I never gave anyone at the Church of Scientology my home address," she wrote.

The "I Throw Myself at Men" Project

Artist Lilly McElroy has an ongoing series of photos of herself jumping into men in bars.

She decribed her project recently to James Danziger, the owner of the Danziger Projects gallery in Chelsea:
"I started the project by placing an ad on Craig's list looking for men who would meet me at bars blind date style and let me literally throw myself at them. This worked fairly well, but limited the # of photos I could take. Now , I go to bars with a friend/photographer and approach men who are physically larger than I am. I ask them if I can literally throw myself at them. If they say yes, I have myself photographed doing it and buy them a drink afterwards. If it seems like they want to hang out, I'll have a drink as well. Sometimes we talk about the project and sometimes we just chat. I don't have a specific set up for the photos. I just want them to look as much like snap shots or party pics as possible."
She also has a series of photos in which she curls up on the ground in a nightgown in public places.

I'm amused, but I'm finding it difficult to come up with anything intelligent to say about these photos. Snapshots, like the ones in the previous post, can often speak for themselves. They become a sort of folk art in which beauty and composition seem accidental and fortuitous. But these are different. They are, like much of contemporary photography, staged in the most self-conscious way.

The snapshot aesthetic seems appropriate for McElroy's series, but what does it mean? Should I be waxing critical about gender roles? Should I comment on how her face is often obscured and how her legs are usually bare?


Guns, Glorious Guns

An assortment of snapshots from the photo blog Square America in a section titled Guns, Guns, Guns!!.

"Not only do these photographs contain a wealth of primary source information on how life was lived," writes the site's curator, "they also constitute a shadow history of photography, one too often ignored by museums and art galleries."

He collects 20th century snapshots of all kinds. The site is divided into categories like "The Bottom Half," which has about 30 photos of people without their heads showing and "Catch of the Day," which shows fishermen and women with fresh catches.

[Thanks to Mr. Christopher for the tip.]

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Taking Things Seriously

I've been enjoying the serialization of the essay book Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance on the website Design Observer. So far, there are six essays posted from Joshua Glenn's Princeton Architectural Press book.

"Many of us invest ordinary objects with other sorts of extraordinary significance," writes Glenn, a writer who has an excellent Boston Globe column and blog about ideas called "Brainiac." He continues,
"My friend Tony crams a U.S. Navy 100-pound practice bomb into his tiny workspace for much the same reason that Greg, a colleague of mine at the Boston Globe, displays a wobbly wooden Santa in his kitchen year-round. These doohickeys are actually fossils, petrified evidence of a vanished epoch (young adulthood). Other writers, thinkers, designers and artists of my acquaintance cherish things — sunglasses found at a yard sale, a colored-sand-filled glass clown, a one-eyed ceramic frog — for equally irrational reasons."
The 75 essays by a variety of writers and artists like critic and The Baffler creator Thomas Frank and Cabinet Magazine editor Sina Najafi, are sometimes pretty short, and always accompanies by photos of the objects.

The idea is obviously reminiscent of Roland Barthes' late 50s anthology Mythologies, a collection of essays the French critic wrote about things as various as wrestling and detergents.

Barthes wrote his essays to try to examine ordinary objects which he had felt had become caught up in the mythology of daily modern life, and thus robbed of layers of meaning. I think Glenn's project is similar, but much more personal and much more focused on the things, rather than on the stories that swirl around them.

I have hundreds of odd and precious objects that I'd like to write about. Some have already appeared on this blog, like Chairman Mao's red book, my toothbrush collection, my paper clip collection, a plaid tie with a dog on it by Polo, and an autographed photo of Dom DeLuise.

I'm ultimately disappointed in some of the essays from Glenn's book. I don't think they're thoughtful enough. In the next couple of months, I'll try my own version.

Here are the six essays that appear on Design Observer:
William Drenttel on a ten-year-old dried artichoke
Dmitri Siegel on the Aphex Twin Big Bottom Exciter
Greg Klee on a wooden Santa figure (shown above)
Carol Hayes on a needlepoint sampler (shown above)
Thomas Frank on a French WWI helmut
Beth Daniels on a pencil sharperner shaped like a TV (shown above)





Wired says it's an artist or malcontent who has been dubbed "the East London Decapitator." The Flickr photo set documenting the public ads before and after Decapitator modification is thought to be by the artist.


The extinct giant Cellphonicus NovAtelus with its much leaner living cousin Cellphonicus Motorazrius.

Quote of the Day: Gordon Dahl

“In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.”
From the January 7 edition of the New York Times. The quote is from Gordon Dahl, an ecnomist at the University of California, San Diego who worked on a study that came to the conclusion above.

From the Times:
"Professor Dahl and the paper’s other author, Stefano DellaVigna, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, attach precise numbers to their argument: Over the last decade, they say, the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1,000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year."


Counting Devices

At left is a counting device, also called a tasbeeh or tasbih, sold for £4.95 on SimplyIslam.com and commonly found in stores on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. The same website sells a set of plastic rosary-like beads for the same purpose: counting prayers.

Acording to the New York Times, of the 13,473 calls the New York counterterrorism hotline (1-888-NYC-SAFE) received in 2007, 644 were worthy of investigation and 45 of those were transit-related.

There were 11 calls about people counting:
"The callers said that the men appeared to be Muslims and that they seemed to be counting the number of people boarding subway trains or the number of trains passing through a station. They feared the men might be collecting data to maximize the casualties in a terror attack."

Friday, January 18, 2008

No More Cheeseburgers for Good Grades

To follow up on an earlier story, McDonald's has decided to cease its Florida school report card sponsorship. Advertising Age reported today that McDonald's has agreed to cover the printing costs for the 27,000-student district, but without the fast food ads.

"In the absence of needed government regulation to protect schoolchildren from predatory companies like McDonald's, the burden is on parents to be vigilant about exploitative marketing aimed at children," said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

I wrote about the McDonald's-sponsored report cards in December.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

David Lynch on iPhone

This 30 second video may or may not have originated in the extra features on Lynch's DVD of Inland Empire. Where ever it comes from, it has been circulating the web and blogs with abandon this week.

While he's not talking about the iPhone specifically -- he says telephone with such shock that it sounds like he's talking about an improbable future -- what other phone plays movies so well?

It's almost a surprise to me to hear David Lynch get upset about people watching movies on tiny screens because he has embraced video over film in moviemaking so wholeheartedly. He was outspoken about the freedom a video camera gave him in making Inland Empire.

What it tells me is that it's content that people thirst for. It's information and entertainment. People care less about where they're getting their stuff, and more about getting it no matter where they are.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quote of the Day: Chef Andrew Zimmern (Minnesota Nice, Part II)

Before I get into the Quote of the Day, I should say that my Minnesota Nice post from a couple of weeks ago provoked some close friends to tease that I've gotten too big for my britches out here in the balmy climes of Manhattan. Maybe the pace of The Big City has soured me on my roots and encouraged me to resort to cliches about Minnesota instead of taking the time to think about its culture -- my own culture -- critically.

The Masticator has not sold out, I assure you. As Randy "Macho Man" Savage rapped on his seminal 2003 album "Be A Man", "Remember Me I'm the same ol' Macho that I used to be."

So here's chef, food writer, and cable tv show host Andrew Zimmern on Minnesota Nice:
"Lutheran DNA — a lot of people call it Minnesota Nice — is a cultural phenomenon in this town. People are afraid to come out with bold opinions and stir the pot."
Ooo, fighting words. Andrew Zimmern, a New York chef who made his name in Minneapolis as the executive chef at Cafe Un Deux Trois in the 1990s, began his multimedia career sometime after he stopped cooking fulltime in 1997.

I knew of him as one of the food critics at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine where I was an intern about five years ago. The three interns spent most of our time fact checking. In the case of the food criticism, that meant calling the restaurants that Zimmern and Adam Platt wrote about to verify facts from reviews -- like what was on the menu, where the restaurant was, its hours, its interior. Chefs were often surly with us, worried that we were checking on a bad review that might sink their establishment. We weren't; Mpls.St.Paul doesn't do negative reviews.

It was interesting work and it meant that the interns had read and re-read every article in the magazine and made certain that each statement of fact was accurate. (As an aside, I spent hours on the phone with the Walker Art Center's PR person for an article describing the museum's fancy expansion. I felt like I knew the layout before I got there.) Andrew Zimmern's monthly column was one that I especially enjoyed reading. They were smart, well-written, and seemed to grasp the business of food and restaurants in the Twin Cities. They seemed fair and learned.

That was years ago, but I was shocked to hear the wellspring of resentment from Mitch Omer, a bitterness that seems to come out of a quiet Minnesota simmering larger than just one restaurant owner:
"His orations involve an immense waste of time. But, like slowing down to look at a morbid and horrifying accident, I read his column every month. His gastronomic fatalism sorely tries the patience of every chef and restaurateur in Minneapolis. He is inaccurate and tremendously negative; a perfect tabloid weapon. But, Andrew, you have been playing without an opponent, and I must say, it's my turn at bat."
Omer lambasted Zimmern in a recent issue of The Rake. Though neither of Omer's two Hell's Kitchen locations (Minneapolis and Duluth) have ever been reviewed by Zimmern, he's sick of the local food czar's influence.

The City Pages rehashed what has become a sprawling "food fight" across all the local rags in its January 9 issue.

Is Zimmern really that bad, that negative? I never thought so, but I haven't read him consistently for a while. But before we all attack a critic of any kind for being "too negative," remember what art critic Jerry Saltz said in response to an angry gallery owner who couldn't understand why he wouldn't be a better cheerleader for the art world (I blogged that back in February of last year):
"You mean all reviews should be positive?" I asked. "Yes," she replied unreservedly. "If you don't like the work, don't write about it." I know there's a lot at stake when a dealer shows an artist, but basically the art world was a micro-society to this gallerist -- a country club or a pleasure cruise where everyone was to observe certain rules and just be nice. A review is now little more than spin control or a marketing device to tweak sales. As criticism is directly tied to shopping, anything that erodes brand identity is frowned upon. While the gallerist continued, I realized that she saw herself as something of an evangelist: someone who sells art, nurtures artists, and spreads the word. I wanted to be what Peter Plagens calls a "goalie," someone who in essence says, "It's going to have to be pretty good to get by me." Finally, I blurted, "Praising everything an artist does reduces everything to drivel." At which point she removed her arm from around my shoulder and I fled.
I brought that up early last year again when Dara Moskowitz, the former City Pages food critic, had to defend herself against not picking any St. Paul restaurants in her best of the year list: "There's an implicit grading on the curve that all of us local food writers do for St. Paul and the suburbs, and I'm kind of sick of it," she wrote. "Eventually, it all snowballs, and here we are: drowning in a murky world of insider-relativism and the soft condescension of low expectations."

So is it haughty and insensitive when East Coasters like Andrew Zimmern and Macy's North CEO Frank Guzzetta and Minnesota transplants like me talk a little tougher about Minnesota's mild non-confrontational attitudes? Yes.

But don't Minnesotans need to develop thicker skins so the state can grow beyond the provincial "Star of the North" goofiness that prevents us from being more than a Coen Brothers parody in the eyes of the rest of the country?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Literary Anecdote of the Day: Anchee Min

Novelist Anchee Min, who writes in English, didn't learn the language until she was 27. She grew up in China and her father was an astronomy professor. He was fired after he taught his class about sun spots. This was considered provocative because the sun came to be a symbol of Chairman Mao, and any discussion of sun spots was also a discussion of blemishes on the visage of the Chinese leader, an implicit criticism of Communism.

Via The Writer's Almanac. See also the New York Times, June 2000.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Jacob's Ladder

I saw Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction) when it came out, in the theater. It was downtown St. Paul in 1990 and I went with a girlfriend and her friend. It was a rough crowd – they yelled and booed at the scenes they didn’t like. The audience was mostly black and, in spite of the racially mixed Brooklyn and Vietnam War setting, they reacted to the movie as if it were annoyingly white.

I loved it. I remember being moved and spooked by it. We rode the bus home from downtown, I remember that.

It's a very strange film. Bruce Joel Rubin's script, which languished unfilmed for years was long hailed as one of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays until Adrian Lyne decided to film it. Rubin also wrote Ghost.

Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Richard Gere auditioned for the starring role, but the relatively unknown Tim Robbins got it. The female lead, played by Elizabeth Peña, was auditioned for by Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell and Madonna.

Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran who, after the War, finishes his doctorate in philosophy but can’t work. He’s divorced from his wife and one of their three sons was killed by a car on his bike. Now he’s a postman in Brooklyn and he’s shacked up with Elizabeth Peña, a coworker. He’s having hallucinations that turn out to be the result of an Army experiment with LSD that was designed to make soldiers more fierce. Years later, the after-effects are scary and Singer discovers that his whole battalion is suffering.

My second viewing of the movie, more than 15 years later, is interesting for two reasons. One, the subway scene in the first ten minutes was filmed in the now (and then) abandoned Bergen Street express station on the F line in Brooklyn.

The F line, as many Brooklyn residents know, is designed with an express track that has been unused for decades because the decaying Gowanus Canal overpass can't handle the extra stress. Express service may be restored in the next 6 years, but in the meantime, and for the last 20 or more years, there has been a Bergen Street station directly below the normal operating Bergen Street station that is only used in emergencies. Both opened in 1933.

[From the film: Tim Robbins walks through the Bergen Street Station.]

[Photo of the Bergen Street express station from nycsubway.org/perl/show/Shadow/Devo/Track 7]

I saw it once -- only a glimpse -- when, during construction, the train had to use the express tracks temporarily. My train went by it without stopping. It’s a mess and it’s not fit for use anymore.

The scene in Jacob’s Ladder, in which Tim Robbins is trapped in the Bergen Street station, was filmed in the abandoned express station, according to the DVD notes (and subway historians) “The production team had to put up hundreds of feet of tile and signs in order to make the station look as if it was in working order.”

In the movie, Robbins rides a C train to Bergen Street. It's entirely possible that the C went that way in the 1970s, when the film takes place, but it's on the F and G lines now.

In real life, the upstairs, working part of the Bergen Street station, has giant stainless steel doors at either end which conceal the stairways to the express station below.

The second thing about the movie that caught my attention -- then and now -- was Singer's occasional hallucination of the man with the head that shakes like a rattlesnake's tail.

According to the DVD notes and a New York Times review from 1990, the film's creators were imspired by the artist Frnacis Bacon, among others:
"Mr. Lyne said he watched endless documentary film about Vietnam, read countless chronicles of near-death experiences and visited every major special effects laboratory in the United States seeking an original look for his underworld.

"Finally, they came up with what they thought a more understated, believable vision of hell, inspired among others by the English painter Francis Bacon, the English engraver-poet William Blake and the American photographer Diane Arbus."


Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Phantom, Reimagined by Tribesmen of New Guinea

At left is a tribal shield from Papua New Guinea. It appeared in a Tribal Art Fair and in an exhibit called "Geometrics of Aggression: Shields of the New Guinea Highlands" in New York.

Art historian N.F. Karlins explained in an article on artnet last June:
"The buff-bodied Phantom appeared on shields dating from the 1960s to the 1980s at several booths. The comic books they were based on may have arrived in New Guinea as early as the 1940s during WWII, where the Japanese and the United States fought along the coast, eventually making their way to the interior.

"Though startling at first, it makes sense that a warrior (whose tribe already used masks) would adopt as his alter-ego a masked crusader who would never die."
The Phantom was created by Missouri native Lee Falk in 1936. The character, like Batman, had no superpowers. The seemingly immortal Phantom was actually 20 generations of men in the same costume, who took the Oath of the Skull: "I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms, and my sons and their sons shall follow me." Most of the Phantom's adventures took place in Africa.

Quote of the Day: Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes

"The fact that liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any the less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct. Subsequent punishment for such abuses as may exist is the appropriate remedy consistent with constitutional privilege."
Those words, from a Supreme Court decision by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in 1931, appear engraved into the wall of the Chicago Tribune Building.

The case started in Minneapolis with a disreputable rag called the Saturday Press. It was published by a scandal monger named Howard Guilford, who, days before the first issue was to come out, was run off the road and shot by thugs who may have been employed by either corrupt police and politicians or local crime bosses. That was 1927.

The paper was shut down by future Minnesota governor Floyd Olson, then a county attorney, under a public nuisance law. Guilford and his reporter, Jay M. Near, had badmouthed the chief of police and mayor, accusing them and everyone else of corruption. They were probably guilty. But the paper's rants were relentless and full of anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-labor, and anti-black rhetoric.

The judge in Minneapolis ruled: "The designation of such publications as 'nuisances' immediately puts them into that class of things that are harmful to the community at large."

Enter the right-wing publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Col. Robert McCormick. He was an isolationist and later a big opponent of America's entry into WWII. But in the meantime, he was a champion of the press. He heard about Guilford's Minneapolis court defeat and decided to bankroll an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, an appeal they won.

Guilford announced his intention to run for mayor of Minneapolis in 1934, but he was shot and killed in a drive-by.

Read more about it in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, here.

I'm Not Making Fun of It -- I'm Helping Spread The Word

Is it me, or do they all look like professional wrestlers from the 1980s? A California company called One2Believe has been blowing out of 12-inch talking Jesus action figures at Target and Wal-Mart.

Or at least they were during the Christian holidays. Maybe the Jewish ones, too -- they company offers a whole line of "messengers of faith" like Moses, Mary, Esther, Noah, and David (and Peter and Paul).

There are also "spirit warriors" like Samson, who "was used by God to destroy his enemies and do some other pretty amazing things!" and everyone's favorite Philistine, Goliath ("Standing over 9 feet tall, he towered over all of his enemies!").

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune the company has sold more than 20,000 action figures. Most retail for around $20. The Star Tribune article quotes an Amazon.com customer who wrote in a five-star product review that Jesus is "a real-life hero that beats all the other Superman, Spider-Man and other action heroes combined." And Christians ask why so many heathens hate God. And just FYI: Talking Jesus Messenger of Faith with Colorful Mini Story Book is made by Godless toilers in China.

From the toymaker:
"Now children can learn more about Jesus’ incredible Tale of Glory while they play! Jesus narrates his own biography, and also quotes key memory verses from the Bible, including Mark 12:30, Mark 12:31 and John 3:16. Our unique start/stop function allows children to pause and restart the story at any point."

Friday, January 11, 2008

That's my favorite from a list of the 10 Creepiest Old Ads on the blog 2Spare.com.

Gothamist made much of the Pakistan Airlines ad from 1979 showing the shadow of a jet crossing the World Trade Center towers, but I can't help being unmoved. Yeah, sure, what a coincidence.

"Yes, the shadow is in pretty much in the same place as where the planes hit on September 11th, and there's no way the shadow should be that big unless it's seconds away from hitting the towers," Gothamist says, breathlessly. Was Pakistan part of the Axis of Evil? I don't even remember anymore.

If I only had a time machine so I could have an earnest discussion with the insensitve graphic designer who had to know that such an image would hurt so many feelings 30 years hence.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Peanut Butter Stores

Bad news for peanut butter in Minnesota! P.B. Loco's flagship Mall of America store -- which was proof that in a mall that big, anything can get its own store -- is closing.

The all-peanut butter store will be relocating to, of all places, Miami, reports the trade magazine QSR. The Miami store will actually be a combined peanut butter and breakfast cereal cafe.

While the company's corporate HQ stays in Minnesota, it looks like they will no longer have any stores there. If my memory serves me right, they used to have a fast-food counter at a food court at the University of Minnesota, but that may be gone. There is one P.B. Loco location in Appleton, Wisconsin though.

In Manhattan, I get my peanut butter at Peanut Butter & Co. This West Village store is proof that in a city this big, anything can get its own store.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A Retard's Progress: Minnesota Nice

Frank Guzzetta, the CEO of Macy's North (one of the department store giant's four or five regional divisions) was recently interviewed by Minneapolis' Downtown Journal. The East Coast native talked about the Twin Cities, downtown, and Macy's, but his reponse to Terry Thompson's question about the infamous "Minnesota Nice" phenomenon stood out:
[Thompson:] Can you say anything nice about Minnesota Nice?

[Guzzetta:] Not off hand. It’s tough to deal with it. It’s inefficient and retards progress.
So what is "Minnesota Nice" anyway?

"Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of Minnesota residents to provide hospitality and courtesy to others. The term is also sometimes used in a derogatory way, to connote a sort of smiling stubbornness, forced politeness, false humility or passive hostility."
Minnesotans are stereotypically passive aggressive. They brood about things and assume others detect their discomfort, anger, and need for either solitude or company. They expect you to read their minds because they are trying to read yours, looking for the tiny clues to your true feelings. Road rage in Minnesota will occur with much less provocation than in New York or Los Angeles. Manners and folksiness stand in for honesty and candor.

Wikipedia again:
"Sometimes area residents who move away, or otherwise come in contact with others who don't subscribe to the ideal, say that they have to shed their "Minnesota nice" in order to interact properly with others or get out of troublesome situations."
One post in the online Urban Dictionary defines "Minnesota Nice" as a synonym of "Backstabbing":
"Being from the area, I know it REALLY means that a Minnesotan won't slam you to your face - they do it behind your back so as to APPEAR nice."
On a web forum thread about the subject, a woman who moved to Minnesota from Pittsburgh said:
"Nice to your face and then talk about you as soon as you walk away. Nice on the surface but no true interest in you or getting to really be friends."
I've heard that a lot. She continues:
"People here think that MN is the greatest place on Earth. Best schools, land etc. It's really ashame [sic] that people can't see themselves for what they are. They have such a bad opinion of East Coast folks and most have no first hand experience knowing any."
The Twin Cities are very provincial. Sure, there's a lot to be proud of -- corporate headquarters for Target, 3M, Best Buy, Aveda, and General Mills; three Tony award-winning local theater companies in the Guthrie, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and the Children's Theater; major professional sports teams in hockey, baseball, football, and basketball; the biggest mall in the country; etc. -- but watch the looks on Minnesotans' faces when a loud New Yorker or Angelino walks into a room. I've made that face myself: it means Who the hell do you think you are?

Part of it, many say, is that Minnesotans are insular. They have little time for new friends. They aren't distrustful, just uninterested.

It could be the cold. Or the Scandinavian and German ancestry. I like to think that here in New York, I'm getting beyond it, but who knows?

[Thanks for the tip, Mr. Christopher.]

Quote of the Day: Richard Morgan

"Jesus spent three days in Hell. I could only handle one."
That's weary journalist Richard Morgan as he emerged from the bowels of Gawker, the popular New York media and gossip blog after just one day on the job.

Morgan, a freelancer who has written for the New York Times and Forbes, was hired to cover the television beat. He told New York Magazine that "I believed what Nick [Denton] said about making the site more reported, making it more mainstream, and, vainly, thought that's why he hired me."

Nick Denton, the creator of Gawker, repsonded: "Richard Morgan didn't so much quit as splutter out. We did manage to get two publishable posts out of him before that happened. I wish him luck at a more leisurely institution."

Morgan was frustrated with Denton's focus on the sleazy and the sensational. "There is no vision beyond page views. I was announced as being some kind of television beat writer. And I spent the day reading TV blogs and e-mailing and calling and meeting with TV folks. And Nick would tell me to post, like, something about Us Weekly getting Ashlee Simpson's engagement wrong. And then he wanted me to do another on Playgirl."

Expect more of that sort of thing on The Masticator. We need to get those page views up.

Oh, and more Quotes-of-the-Day. That sort of thing requires much less effort on my part. So expect less from The Masticator in 2008.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Quote of the Day: Jerry Trooien on Squishy Liberals

"We’ve done everything we can, but the squishy liberals think small-scale is morally superior."
That's Jerry Trooien (in the New York Times), a developer who's sore about the St. Paul City Council voting 5 to 2 not to change zoning laws to allow construction of a multi-use project called "Bridges of St. Paul." It would be St. Paul's biggest project ever, across the Mississippi from downtown.

"As it was proposed," reported the Times, "the Bridges would have created a retail destination covering 350,000 to 450,000 square feet; a Westin, the city’s first new full-service hotel in decades; and more than 1,000 housing units, as well as a riverfront promenade, a marina and a public attraction called Mythica, a kind of theme park devoted to exploring the myths of cultures from around the world."

But squishy liberals stand in the way of progress.

Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota said the real problem was that the plan should be on the downtown side of the river. “It doesn’t connect to existing streets or the rest of the fabric of the city,” he told the Times. Which of course proves that squishy liberals have totally infiltrated the University.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Quote of the Day: The Gun Nut

"I've seen only one edifying sight in a zoo. It was at New York's Central Park zoo, many years ago, where I watched an old male orangutan sitting on a trapeze in his cage, peeing into a big metal cup. A crowd gathered, laughing and pointing, and when the orang was done, he smiled a smile of pure hatred and flung the contents of the cup at them."
That's from David E. Petzal, aka Field & Stream Magazine's blogger "The Gun Nut." He was commenting on the news that a tiger named Tatiana mauled two and killed one at the San Francisco zoo on Christmas Eve.

Never turn your back on a falling tree: Know your Axecraft

How well do you know your axecraft? As Field & Stream's Keith McCafferty says, "Every man should know how to fell a tree without killing himself in the process."

I apparently do not. I scored 9 out of 20 in the online quiz, or "I hope you've told your Mom you loved her," which is a bit worse than the "Best to stay out of the forest" warning for people who scored in the 10 to 14 out of 20 range.

I did get the question illustrated above correct, though. It has to do with making a facing cut.

Try the quiz. See if you can avoid the humiliation I'm experiencing here in the relative treelessness of Manhattan.
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