Sunday, March 29, 2009


That small orange creature with the blond wig sitting under the enormous Paris Hilton photo is the the actual Paris Hilton. She was at the Vision Expo eyewear tradeshow posing with conventioneers and promoting her new line of sunglasses. As I was taking this snapshot, a cheerful woman in a suit admonished me, "no cameras, please! Cell phones are okay though!"


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't Mess With a Good Thing

Amy Heckerling's 1995 movie Clueless = homage.

Baz Lurhmann's 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet = risky updated classic.

The Farrelly Brothers' imminent abomination The Three Stooges with Jim Carey and Benicio del Toro = forgery.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Carmen Dell’Orefice

While at a small charity gathering I was covering for work, a PR person I was talking to leaned over and told a couple of photographers to be sure to snap some pictures of the woman coming down the stairs. 'Who is it?' I asked. 'It's the world's first supermodel,' she said reverently, 'Carmen Dell’Orefice.'

'Who?' I asked. The woman descending the stairs was striking. She was over six feet tall with a dense and perfect mane of white hair and black movie star sunglasses. "She's like 80 years old and her body is perfect,' the PR agent said. Her posture certainly was. Here was a woman utterly confident in her skin and unashamed of her height and age. And once she saw the cameras, she was even more relaxed.

'She was in Page Six today,' my PR friend continued. 'And she's still modeling -- she's doing an ad campaign for the Pierre Hotel.' Later, she leaned close and whispered that Ms. Dell’Orefice had lost everything to the despicable Bernie Madoff -- 'I don't mean to gossip,' she said, smiling sadly.

She's actually only 77, I learned when I got home. And she was in Page Six, the New York Post's gossip column, today. And that thing about her losing everything to Madoff? It's a feature story in Vanity Fair's April issue.

Pretty quickly, I realized that I had seen the glamorous Ms. Dell’Orefice -- in Target ads. She looks like a caricature of herself in those ads, so air brushed and white and smug. Nothing like the woman who smiled at me warmly as she reached for a glass of champagne.

She's an American, although she looks like she must be French or Italian. She's had an interesting life. She was 'discovered' on a Manhattan bus on 57th Street in the 40s. She posed for Salvador Dalí as a 12-year-old. She was a ballet dancer. Her first Vogue cover came at the age of 15. And they say she's been working steadily for 60 years.


The Ruins of Detriot

Via Time Magazine. Photos by the French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

And see their blog, JOURNAL D'ARCHÉOLOGIE URBAINE ET INDUSTRIELLE. It's in French, but the photos are worth a look.


Grains of Paradise

At a friend’s house for dinner last weekend, I spotted an odd little packet of pepper corn-sized seeds marked grandiosely, “Grains of Paradise.” ‘What are these?’ I asked. ‘Put three in your mouth and chew on them,’ my friend said. Wow. The first flavor is peppery, and then almost floral. Then it gets hot. They’re remarkable.

After a New York Times article singing their praises in 2000, my friend told me, the spice was all over the place -- at least for a while.

I went to Kalustyan’s on Lexington and 29th the next day and got a 2.75 oz bottle for around $8.99 the next day.

That makes them about $3+ an ounce. Compare that to Indian Tellicherry black peppercorns, which Penzey’s sells for about $2.50 an ounce, and that isn’t bad.

In the 2000 Times article , Amanda Hesser described their flavor as “dense fragrance underlined with heat." The spice -- also called guinea pepper, atare, alligator pepper or melegueta pepper -- is from West Africa and has been used in both cooking and religious ceremonies. It's not related to pepper, but it may be related to cardamom.

Ironically, was used during the Middle Ages as a black pepper substitute -- West Africa was closer than Asia. It was used in Belgian beers (and still is in some). Tonight, I am trying it on chicken.

Coincidentally, I had just last week started experimenting with my pepper grinder, adding whole coriander seeds to my black peppercorns. The result is a deliciously fresh and citrus-like pepper. My friends recommend using Grains of Paradise alone in the pepper grinder, and adding the spice to cooked foods, rather than pre-cooked foods.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Border Patrol's Greatest Hits

When I read that the U.S. Border Patrol had hired a Washington D.C.-based Hispanic ad agency Elevación to come up with some mournful ballads about the dangers of illegal crossings, ballads that would be released in Mexico as music and not public service announcements or advertising, I was stunned.

This is worse than being paid to incorporate Bulgari watches into your latest novel! This is worse than treating iPhone commercials as a viable way to get your music heard, rather than old-time radio! It's even worse than releasing a gum jingle as a pop song!

The ad man, Pablo Izquierdo, compounded it with his statement to the Washington Post:
"When we approached the Mexican media, we approach it as a humanitarian campaign. We didn't tell them who was behind it because consumer research indicated that it wasn't going to be as well-received.

"There is no commercial message. It's all heartfelt, and it's all from the point of view of the people."
No, there may not be a commercial message, but there certainly is a political one.

It made me think of two things. First, I thought of the late David Foster Wallace’s hilarious and rambling essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about his voyage on a Celebrity cruise ship. Second, it reminded me of the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, a post-WWII anti-communist project.

During his Celebrity cruise, Wallace was haunted by an “essay” that appeared in the Celebrity brochure—an essay by Frank Conroy, the chair of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that glorified cruising and (in Wallace’s words) “the palliative powers of pro pampering.”

The problem with the essay, wrote Wallace, was that it was that “Celebrity Cruises is presenting Conroy’s review of his 7NC [7-night cruise] as an essay and not a commercial.” But what’s wrong with that, you ask?

“Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisment’s primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too—that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated—and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.”
This is why I can never listen to new music I first hear in an iPhone ad; it will always be associated with the product—not my own memories and emotions—and I simply cannot get over the insult of its attempt to manipulate me into positive associations with that product.

Wallace adds this key judgment in a footnote:

“This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.”
Obviously, Wallace had been reading Lewis Hyde’s 1983 book The Gift, which argues exactly that and more at great length.

However benign or noble the U.S. Border Patrol’s intentions—discouraging Mexicans from making extremely dangerous (oh, and illegal!) journeys into America—the songs are ads posing as art. They are made, distributed and played in very dishonest ways. Which brings us to the CIA.

After the Second World War, Western Europe had a lot more Communists in the mainstream than America did. The Cold War was fought under cover and without great physical battles. Espionage and politics were used as weapons, but so were art and literature. (We now know, for instance, that the CIA engineered “Doctor Zhivago” author Boris Pasternak’s 1958 Nobel Prize win to embarrass the Soviets.)

But one of the largest anti-Communist art and literature projects the U.S. funded in Europe was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, in the words of the CIA, “helped to negate Communism's appeal to artists and intellectuals, undermining at the same time the Communist pose of moral superiority.”

It started in West Berlin in 1950 with a conference of intellectuals organized by the CIA. No one knew that, of course—the CIA’s hand in it wasn’t revealed publicly until 1967.

The CCF helped organize and fund a number of magazines: Encounter in the U.K., Tempo Presente in Italy, Preuves in France and Der Monat in Germany. Each magazine, as David Engerman wrote in his 2001 foreword to The God That Failed (itself an anti-Communist CIA project), “printed criticism of everything from Soviet politics to European intellectual life to American popular culture—of everything, it seems, but American foreign policy.”

Ironically, notes Engerman, the U.S. Congress and Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attacked even the non-Communist American left, were unaware that the non-Communist left in America and abroad was being used by anti-Communist government forces to gently persuade Communist artists and thinkers to reform. People like Richard Wright, the African-American author of "Native Son," and Arthur Koestler, neither of whom were completely aware (at least at first) that their conversion stories were being funded and distributed by the CIA.

It's funny, even while I condemn this sort of thing, I can't help wondering why the U.S. government hasn't been doing it in the Middle East. Maybe it has. But I have to believe that supporting non-extremist and anti-extremist Islamic voices either openly or clandestinely would be a stronger weapon in the War on Terror than whatever we're using in the debacle in Iraq.

But what is the right way to do this sort of thing? How can the U.S. Border Patrol creatively discourage dangerous border crossings without so much deception? When is deception okay?

And when we criticize the CIA's methods, are we actually condemning the whole enterprise of espionage? The Agency's job is deception, covert manipulation, and information trade.

The classic liberal argument in the Border Patrol case would be this: it's not enough to treat symptoms of problems, and it's wrong to be secretive about it. Instead of discouraging border crossings through popular music, why not get at the heart of the matter and address whatever it is that makes those crossings so tempting? But if you're the Border Patrol, and you want to cut down on crossings and crossing deaths, the music campaign makes perfect sense.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Quote of the Day: Geraldo Rivera

When my editor was going to interview Geraldo Rivera for an upcoming issue, she asked us all if there were any questions we could think of for him. Yes, we all agreed, you must ask Geraldo about his mustache. It was only one of many questions, but she obliged, and this was his answer:
"As a matter of fact, I just won the ESPN Mustache Hall of Fame Award. I was very honored; I didn't even know I was in the running. It's not something I lobbied for.

You know, mustaches are funny. A lot of guys, especially Anglo guys, view mustaches as a joke. Like My Name is Earl: they grow mustahces to be comical. But it's different for Latin men: my dad always had a mustache; I grew mine in 1968 in the throes of ethnic awareness, anti-war protests, etc., and I've never shaved it since. So my mustache is more than 40 years old; it's older than my wife..."


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

C’etait Un Rendezvous

I was interviewing Piloti founder Kevin Beard for an article at work today, and he mentioned a short film from 1976 called “C’etait Un Rendezvous.” I’d never heard of it.

Piloti, which makes shoes for racecar drivers, will play this nine-minute French film on a loop for trade show and department store displays, sometimes on multiple TVs next to a street-dirty racecar.

“You’ve got to look it up,” Beard told me. “The director is Claude Lalouch, who did ‘A Man and a Woman.’ He mounted the camera on the bumper of a big old Benz. It’s real-time -- he starts at the Périphérique in Paris and goes to Montmartre as fast as he possibly can at about 4 in the morning on a Sunday, just at dawn. And he blows like, 30 or 40 stoplights. It’s a cinéma-vérité. It’s nine minutes long; it’s essentially one roll of Panavision film.”

With that kind of endorsement from a guy who makes his living in the racing world, I had to see it.

There are a lot of rumors about the film, but from what I can glean, Lalouch or a hired Formula One racer drove a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL (and probably not a Ferrari, as some websites claim) with a gyro-stabilized camera on the front bumper. The Wikipedia entry claims that you can hear the car shifting into fifth gear, and that calculations by several sources indicate that the car reaches about 140 miles per hour. Some claim though that Lalouch dubbed in sounds from his five-speed Ferrari.

The film has become legendary, with bootlegs apparently being traded for years. More recently, fans have edited it and provided their own music soundtracks. Spirit Level Films has re-released it as a DVD for about £10, but it can be found in various forms on the internet.

The film is below -- having the sound up is essential:

And here is a short documentary on the making of the film:


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Monkey on a Minibike

via Jalopnik


Tufush: The Force That Drives a Man to Drift

I don't know where to begin. In Sunday's New York Times and on the homepage at, there was a peculiar article called Saudis Race All Night, Fueled by Boredom. Reporter Robert F. Worth, who seems to be the Times' man in Saudi Arabia, weaves a bizarre story full of illicit nighttime auto racing and its natural companion, forbidden gay love.

The piece starts describing a scene that could have been in any small town in America, in fact, given the rest of the story, I'm surprised Worth didn't open with those very lines: In a scene that could have been in any small town in America... well, let's let Worth tell it:
The young men start gathering around midnight, on a broad strip of highway between the desert and the sea. By 1 a.m. there are hundreds of them, standing in clusters alongside their cars, glancing around uneasily for the police.

Then, with a scream of revving engines, it begins: a yellow Corvette and a red Mitsubishi go head to head, racing down the road at terrifying speeds, just inches apart. Shouts go up from the sidelines, and another pair of racers shoot down the road, and another.
Next, he draws the distinction between the type of racing he's witnessing -- drag racing -- and drifting, which he describes breathlessly as "an extremely dangerous practice in which drivers deliberately spin out and skid sideways at high speeds, sometimes killing themselves and spectators."

Drifting is not exotic. It's a very well established form of racing all over the world. But, to be fair, illegal street drifting is fairly common too.

It isn't a love of cars, or teen hormones that fuels these various forms of racing in Saudi Arabia, writes Worth; it's tufush. "They are, almost literally, bored out of their minds," he marvels.

Tufush is "a colloquial Arabic word for boredom whose meaning is said by some to derive from the gestures made by a drowning man." From here, Worth talks about drifters in a way that made me wonder if he was talking about cars or aimless youths. This next part is inexplicably weird:
Drifting, which tends to attract poorer, more marginal men, has also been an unlikely nexus between homosexuality, crime and jihadism since it emerged 30 years ago. Homoerotic desire is a constant theme in Saudi songs and poems about drifting, and accomplished drifters are said to have their pick of the prettiest boys among the spectators. Drugs sometimes also play a role. But a number of drifters have also become Islamic militants, including Youssef al-Ayyeri, the founder of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who fought in Afghanistan and was killed by security forces in Saudi Arabia in 2003.
So, combine boredom and homosexuality and you get drifting, which leads to terrorism. Or is it combining boredom and drifting which spirals into homosexuality and eventually jihadism?

Worth gets every piece of car culture wrong, from street racing to describing a 29-year-old Saudi who slicks his hair back and wears jeans and a polo shirt as emulating a "1950s greaser."

Worth admits that most Saudi street racers aren't gay drifting terrorists, but that means he has even less of a story. After all, this is street racing -- it could be happening anywhere in America, Japan, or Europe.

Worth contributed to a video report on Saudi racing that can be seen in the article.

There are a lot of videos out there showing Saudis drifting, and often crashing, set to dance music. In this one, a big BMW gets wrecked:

And here are a series of dramatic crashes:

What's oddest is that nearly all the drifting videos I've seen show Saudis in traditional clothing, while the drag racing footage captured by the Times shows Saudi men dressing in modern Western clothes. The drag racers modify their cars. The drifters seem to use (and really abuse) stock cars.

The other thing that strikes me about all of the videos I've found of Saudi drifting is that the drivers are incredibly reckless and unskilled. This isn't racing at all; it's going really fast and then spinning out, trying to keep the car on the road. This really has little in common with drifting as we know it. It's more like the Saudi version of doing donuts in a parking lot after a fresh snow. Only apparently it's done by gay terrorists.


Quote of the Day: Raymond Chandler

"Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. ... He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."
Raymond Chandler wrote that in an essay called "The Simple Art of Murder," published in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1944.

Chandler uses part of the essay to pick apart A.A. Milne's (of Pooh fame) novel The Red House Mystery from 1922. Chandler lists the author's oversights, pointing out for example that the local police in the book don't make the obvious connection between a missing man and an unidentified corpse.

But it's Chandler's his praise for fellow crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett and his defense of the genre that are best remembered. Chandler lashes out at Dorothy Sayers, who once wrote that detective fiction can never be great. Here's Chandler:
"In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: 'It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.' And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a 'literature of escape' and not 'a literature of expression.' I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers."
Despite the gripping subject matter, "Some very dull books have been written about God," Chandler adds. He argues that it isn't the genre, but the writer:
"It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. ... Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds."
That last part bears repeating, because its application is universal: Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.

And that's where Chandler's interest in Hammett comes in. When writers write about real people, great things can happen. But "When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves." Hammett, Chandler said, took the keen observastions and literary skill found in writers like Dreiser, Lardner, and Sherwood Anderson, and "applied it to the detective story."

Ultimately, Chandler is remembered along with Hammett as one of the best mystery writers ever, and both have managed to transcend the genre.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Quote of the Day: Donald Barthelme

"Had I decided to go into the conceptual-art business, I could turn out railroad cars of that stuff every day."
That's the late avant garde writer Donald Barthelme (1931-1989). Louis Menand profiles him in the New Yorker on the occasion of a new biography, a profile that serves as an excellent introduction to postmodernism.

While Barthelme's anti-conceptual art sentiment may be familiar to many (isn't the "I could do that" reaction the most common one to contemporary art? My father and I had it when we saw an Arman exhibit at a museum; we entertained fleeting fantasies of becoming famous for half-assed assemblages), his own work may elicit the same response.

Barthelme used sentences to form collages, which made for stories that bounced around and didn't flow like a normal narrative. Louis Menand writes in the New Yorker:
"The illogic, the apparent absurdity, of a Rauschenberg collage or a Barthelme story makes people impatient, because it seems to violate ordinary habits of perception and understanding. But we experience the arbitrary juxtaposition of radically disparate materials every day, when we look at the front page of a newspaper."
But how does a writer create such collages using only sentences? The visual artist, Menand points out, has many more materials at his or her disposal.

One has to wonder at Barthelme's process. Some of his stories were mercifully short. One, called Wrote a Letter... (about 525 words) has just that quality of done-in-rail-road-car-sized-quantities aspect that Barthelme hated so much in conceptual visual art. What was he thinking? At least this one's coherent. Others are deliberately messy. He said once,
"The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it's being poorly done."
But how do you read this shit then? Where's the reward? Do you treat it like poetry and concentrate on the way it's written and the words that are chosen? Do you focus on the overall structure and let the bits and parts go blurry? Is there any understanding one can expect to reach if one were to really give it a lot of attention?

Take his story The Rise of Capitalism. Go ahead and click through, read it, it's 1,500 words long. For the impatient, here's a passage I chose arbitrarily:
Meanwhile Marta is getting angry. "Rupert," she says, "you are no better than a damn dawg! A plain dawg has more sensibility than you, when it comes to a woman's heart!" I try to explain that it is not my fault but capitalism's. She will have none of it. "I stand behind the capitalistic system," Martha says. "It has given us everything we have -- the streets, the parks, the great avenues and boulevards, the promenades and malls -- and other things, too, that I can't think of right now." But what has the market been doing? I scan the list of the fifteen Most Loved Stocks:

Occident Pet 983,100 28 5/8 + 3 ¾ 
Natomas 912,300 58 3/8 + 18 ½

What chagrin! Why wasn't I into Natomas, as into a fine garment, that will win you social credit when you wear it to the ball? I am not rich again this morning! I put my head between Marta's breasts, to hide my shame.
For some of it, it's as if someone were reading to me from random pieces of paper lying on my desk. Reading to me in funny voices with dramatic pauses. It can be entertaining when I recognize a voice or a snippet or a way of talking. But then I hear a cliche and he loses me for the next 100 words. It's not like the sound collage of great free jazz, where you're so disoriented that every note keeps your mind alert, keeps you wondering what sound you'll hear next and how you can attach to the previous and the next. But maybe that's what it's supposed to be. (Barthelme loved jazz.)

Would watching more or less television help me understand, or at least follow, these stories better? (Barthelme hated television.)

I don't trust some of the phrases in the stories after I read from Menand that Barthelme would insert tiny bits of, say, Hemingway into them. I did an internet search for the following suspect phrase and came up empty:
"Well, Azalea," I say, sitting in the best chair, "what has happened to you since my last visit?"
Art like this -- be it music, painting, or fiction -- can be alienating. It can make smart people secretly wonder if they're as smart as they thought they were. It can be, for some, an exclusive club that you may as well just join, faking it. "Sure I like jazz, doesn't everyone?"

I don't know about you, but I get much more out of reading about Donald Barthelme than I do from reading Donald Barthelme. This is because art like Barthelme's takes the ideas behind art to their logical and then absurd ends. They are self-conscious critiques of mediums and ways of looking, and not pretty pictures.

But this is an argument that has been going on for decades, and will probably continue for more. Some critics attack the sort of experimental fiction that Barthelme practiced by pitting it against the mighty television: writers should make their fiction accessible because they are losing audience share to TV, and that isn't good. This argument is a fallacy. Don't compare vegetables to cake.

Jess Row summed up the debate as waged between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in Slate in 2005:
Writers like Gaddis, Franzen argues, are "Status" authors, who see themselves (again, in the modernist mold) as obligated only to their art, and who for the most part ignore the interests and desires of the reader. With some reluctance, Franzen places himself in an opposing camp: "Contract" authors, who place a high value on the relationship between narrator and reader, who primarily see the novel as a device for social and cultural communication, and who take human life (rather than, say, language or ideas per se) as the ultimate subject of their fiction.
At least that's Franzen's side of it. I would reluctantly put myself in the Franzen camp, and then take the typical liberal out by saying, "Hey, isn't there room for all of us here?"

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