Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Middle Is The Hardest Road

For about a month now, I’ve allowed the high drama of recent events to recede into the background.

Right or wrong, I think it was probably necessary. I don’t think I could have dealt with it at the level it was at for very much longer. And so I have retreated into a quiet and comfortable corner.

Of course, the falsity of it eventually becomes just as overwhelming and you realize you have to enter back into situations that you’d rather not deal with.

As I started to contemplate strolling off this quiet path, it occurred to me that perhaps that path has its own difficulties.

At least when you’re in the depths of a depression, there’s something there you can create friction against, there’s a height of emotion that gives you something to engage.

When you’re in the middle, there isn’t very much scenery and you’re not sure what direction to travel in, so you just coast. When things are truly horrible, you at least know that anything you do constitutes an improvement.

So, gradually, I’ve been allowing some of the water back into the boat.

This creates the potential to sink, but hopefully it will spur you to action.

I have made some sketchy plans for this year, but I am making them in the knowledge that things can fall apart at any time.

I think this is the most unpleasant part of my current predicament. I feel too old to have to deal with so many uncertainties. There is no solid ground, everything is quicksand.

The floor has dissolved beneath me in so many different ways that there’s almost a sense of dramatic unity to it. If you saw it in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it.

This is not lightning from above, though. There’s a terrible logic to all of it, all of these neglected chickens coming home to roost simultaneously. Stepping back from it objectively, it makes perfect sense and I see my own hand guiding all of it.

Which is a drag, frankly. At a time like this, self-esteem is an important ingredient. I’d rather be blaming someone else or cursing the darkness, etc.

It’s interesting. I could argue that this benign state represents a healthy, levelheaded view, free of the hopelessness and horror that characterizes depression.

On the other hand, you could also say it’s an easy way to temporarily escape from some truly awful issues and choices.

At any rate, I am not out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

I have my days and I have my days.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t sometimes wonder how I was going to make it to the end of 2006.

There is another extreme, however, that’s just as far from the middle as the other.

It happens sometimes when I close my eyes.

I feel as if I am traveling through spaces of great beauty and immortal consciousness.

It doesn’t last for long.

But I wonder:

If I am capable of imagining this, if I can create this -

- doesn’t it mean that something that beautiful has to exist somewhere, somehow?

Where is it? How do I get more of it?

Is it waiting patiently for me at the end?

Or is it going to make me work harder than I ever thought possible while I am here?

Friday, February 24, 2006

History Of America, Part One

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
- Thomas Jefferson

Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.
- Abraham Lincoln

You want to know how tough al-Qaida is, just look at - we don't know exactly who did the bombing of this incredibly important holy shrine…I firmly believe that whoever did this is not a religious person but an evil person.
- George W. Bush

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Delicate World

True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely through its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully round.
- Laurence Sterne

Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.
- Samuel Johnson

I’ve long believed that the best and most accomplished works of literature make for very poor films.

Pick any of the adaptations of Joyce. Or think of John Huston’s game attempt to film Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano. There’s a 1976 documentary on Lowry called Volcano, featuring Richard Burton reading sections of the book, that is far more successful at conveying the flavor of the novel.

That’s the trouble. A novel uses words, so the filmmaker is already at a disadvantage. Which is why Michael Winterbottom decided going in that there was no point in trying to bring Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to the screen in any sort of normal fashion.

The critical commonplace about this film has been that since Sterne wrote a book about writing a book, Winterbottom has made a film about making a film, which, indeed, he has.

You have to admire anyone who tackles these kinds of forbidding literary monuments. David Cronenberg had varying degrees of success with his adaptations of Naked Lunch and Crash, both of which owed as much to Cronenberg as they did to their original creators.

As a fan of the novel, I’ve often wondered what the results of a filmed Shandy might be like. I’d fantasize about Terry Gilliam taking it on and decided that the best course of action would be a film that traveled between the book and Sterne’s own life. Get John Neville, from Gilliam’s Munchausen, in there and you’ve got a movie.

What Winterbottom has done is extremely clever, well-done, and witty. But in the end, it’s not Shandy and it’s not Sterne, although I think he would have approved of the results.

If you’ve read any of the reviews, you know by now that the film begins rather straightforwardly by recounting the events surrounding Tristram’s birth, the credits gloriously accompanied by music from Michael Nyman, whose work the director hasn’t been able to leave alone since Wonderland. It's appropriate, too, as Nyman has long threatened to produce an opera based on the book. It takes a sharp turn, however, into telling the story of the people making the film. Indeed, at the end there’s yet another layer involved as the same people critique the scenes in the film that didn’t seem like “scenes” at all, but rather fly-on-the-wall documentary.

British actor/comedian Steve Coogan, who portrayed Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, plays himself as well as the title role. There’s a real hall-of-mirrors feel when the real Tony Wilson shows up to interview him, in fact. Coogan is hysterically funny, adapting his Alan Partridge persona here to wonderful effect. He’s an inflated out-of-control ego, staggering from room to room in search of vodka tonics, newspaper reporters, and members of the film crew.

There are certainly enough hints in the film that Winterbottom knows exactly what he’s doing. If one of the integral parts of Shandy the book is the idea that we all see the world through the prism of our own personalities, he gives us actors who can’t see anything beyond their own noses. If the main narrative drive of the book involves digressions that reflect how the mind travels and expands time by associating ideas, the film similarly wanders. In fairness to Sterne, though, I think his "artless" plotting was much more deliberate than the film’s. In fact, just in case there's any chance the reader doesn’t appreciate the deftness of this sleight of hand, Sterne halts occasionally to explain what he’s done so that the reader can admire it.

There’s also no less than two characters in the film named Jenny, no doubt to reflect the mysterious Jenny that Sterne would occasionally address throughout the book. But even with all of this, the film doesn’t seem to capture something essential about the novel and its eccentric author.

At its most successful, the film delivers on Sterne’s conviction that “every time a man smiles, - but much more so when he laughs…it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” And perhaps in Coogan’s simultaneous flirting and faithfulness to his girlfriend and their new son, there is something of the book’s combination of sentiment and bawdy double-entendre, not to mention the split personality of the cleric who felt the need to always have some urgent ongoing affair of the heart in his life, even if these affairs existed mainly in his own mind.

In the end, though, one feels that something of the book’s sweetness, its human comedy, is missing. If Shandy is known for its editorial oddities, its black and marbled pages and its empty chapters, it continues to be loved for its sly and knowing commentary on human nature, which stubbornly refuses to change.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The New Stars And Stripes

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Lonely Simulacra That Slipped Through Time

News Item:

Philip K. Dick is missing.

Not the American science fiction writer whose novels spawned hit films such as Blade Runner and Total Recall - he died more than 20 years ago - but a state-of-the-art robot named after the author.

The quirky android, which made a major splash at Wired Magazine's NextFest in Chicago in June, was lost in early January while en route to California by commercial airliner.

"We can't find Phil," said Steve Prilliman of Dallas-based Hanson Robotics, which created the futuristic robot with the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis, the Automation and Robotics Research Institute at the University of Texas at Arlington and Dick's friend Paul Williams.

"We're very worried because it's been a few weeks now," said Prilliman. "We're pressing hard to find Phil."

Robotics wizard and lead designer David Hanson built the robot as a memorial to Dick, whose 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the 1982 classic Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford.

In Blade Runner, set in a Los Angeles of 2019, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner or policeman whose job is to track down and terminate escaped human clones known as "replicants."

The irony of the situation - a missing replica of the very author who championed "replicant" freedom - is not lost on Phil's creators.

But they still want him back.

"We really need to find him soon because the Smithsonian wants to put him in a travelling collection in the autumn," said Prilliman referring to Washington's Smithsonian Institute, an organisation of museums and art galleries.

Along with an eerie likeness to the author, the robot features award-winning artificial intelligence that mimics the writer's mannerisms and lifelike skin material to affect realistic expressions.

Top-of-the-line voice software loaded with data from Dick's vast body of writing allows the robot to carry on natural-sounding conversations, although it does come off as a bit doddering at times.

Biometric-identification software and advanced machine vision allows the robot to recognise people - even in a crowd - read their expressions and body language and talk to them sounding a lot like a normal, albeit slightly senile, author who likes to quote his own books when he gets confused.

Prilliman and others close to Phil baulked at giving too many details about his disappearance including the name of the airline that was transporting the robot when he went missing.

Hanson officials said news of Phil's disappearance could hamper the ongoing investigation and search for the robot.

The company officials said they feared ransom demands might be made or Phil could turn up listed for sale on an internet auction house such as eBay.

A spokeswoman, Elaine Hanson, said the company is considering building a new android if the original Phil does not turn up.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bang Bang, Dick Cheney Shot Me Down

WASHINGTON - The White House blamed the 78-year-old man whom Vice President Dick Cheney shot during a weekend quail hunting trip in Texas for the incident.
- News Item

VP “Deferment Dick” Cheney is seen here accepting the Large Metallic Penis Surrogate Award from the NRA. “I can’t wait to try this baby out on the Constitution,” he told reporters.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

And No Whispering To The Other Prisoners About Interior Monologues!

One hears a good deal these days about homeland security and keeping our borders safe, etc., and from time to time there are individuals (with some sort of political ax to grind, no doubt) who will insist that the government is saying a lot more than it's actually doing.

For shame.

President Bush is often far too modest about the accomplishments of his administration, which has taken a few too many partisan brickbats in recent weeks, in my opinion.

Are you like me and find it difficult to sleep knowing that visiting professors are flaunting our laws with impunity? Do you feel better knowing that they’ve been handcuffed and safely caged in a nearby jail cell not long after arriving?

Then you’ll get no small relief from the following piece that recently appeared in the NY Times. I take no small amount of pride in the fact that the incident under discussion took place here in Philadelphia, where we don't let foreign eggheads push us around:

One is a second grader in Manhattan. Over the protests of his American mother, immigration officials have been trying to deport him ever since he returned from a brief visit to his native Canada without the right visa. Another is an Irish professor of literature invited to teach at the University of Pennsylvania last month. He was handcuffed at the Philadelphia airport, strip-searched, jailed overnight and sent back to Europe to correct an omission in his travel papers.

The Irish professor, John McCourt, 40, said that on Jan. 7, an immigration officer at Philadelphia International Airport initially offered to correct a paperwork omission on the spot if he paid a $265 fine. Professor McCourt said he readily agreed, but five minutes later, the officer returned and said she had changed her mind "that I was a university professor and should have known better" and would be sent back the same night.

In an e-mail message, Professor McCourt, a James Joyce specialist at the University of Trieste in Italy, wrote: "I was told that if I protested I would simply be deported and never be let back."

At 11 p.m., six hours after his arrival, he was transported in handcuffs to the Montgomery County jail, along with another traveler denied entry, Kerstin Spitzl, a pregnant German woman who says that immigration officers abruptly canceled her visa, insisting that she was planning to violate its terms by working.

Worse than the cold, windowless cells at the jail, they said in separate interviews, was a sense of powerlessness. "You're scared," said Ms. Spitzl from her home in Wuppertal. "You have no rights. You cannot contact nobody, nobody can contact you."

In Italy, Professor McCourt quickly fixed his paperwork at the American consulate in Florence, and returned to start his classes at Penn a week late. But in New York last week, where he spoke at Fordham University on "Joyce and Judaism," he said his experience had confirmed his European friends' worst fears about America.

"At the moment, America is easy to hate," he said, "So people say, 'That does it for me. I'm not going to risk that happening.' "

Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, which is also part of Homeland Security, said that as its officers process 86 million air travelers a year and enforce 400 different laws, "there are unfortunately going to be a few instances that do not demonstrate perfect discretion."

As for that second grader, I hope they nail his ass.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Who Are The Brain Police? or: I'll Be Sheehan You

I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget that we once had an administration that escorted a gold star mother out of a State Of The Union speech in handcuffs, while a dog was given a designated seat.

It sort of sums up how things are going, I think.

No doubt you read about it. Cindy Sheehan was invited to the SOTU speech, but when she sat down (in a seat that was nowhere near the President or the cameras), she revealed that she was wearing a t-shirt with the number of American servicemen who’d died in Iraq on it.

For this infraction, she was led out of the room in handcuffs – handcuffs, mind you – and taken down to the old stationhouse until the speech was through.

As this was happening, Rex, a bomb-sniffing dog, was enjoying his seat in the visitor's gallery.

Now just in case anyone had a problem with this, they covered their asses in two specific ways:

The first was to escort out – without handcuffs – the wife of a Republican congressman wearing a t-shirt that read “Support The Troops.”

See? We weren’t picking on Cindy Sheehan. We’re eliminating everyone’s freedom of speech.

The other thing they did was drop all charges against Sheehan and apologize to both women.

Well, of course they did. The speech was over.

"The officers made a good-faith but mistaken effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol," the police chief wrote.

This is the way it works now.

We just blatantly ignore the first amendment and apologize later. When the Republicans held their convention here in Philadelphia, people were arrested by the score, only to have any charges quickly or eventually dropped. The important thing was to keep any protestors out of the sight lines of the cameras and the conventioneers.

That’s an amenity we provide when you put the down payment on our convention facility.

We now pay lip service to Freedom and What America Stands For and then cheerfully behave as if we were a police state.

From Rhode Island comes the story of a 7th grader who, when asked to write an essay describing his perfect day, included what authorities describe as “violence against President Bush, talk show Oprah Winfrey and others.”

He also suggested that a similar fate befall executives from Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart.

So his teacher did what any patriotic American would do these days. Turned him in.

To the Secret Service.

According to the AP, “The Secret Service investigation is ongoing, but the essay may have been a ‘cry for help,’ said Thomas M. Powers, resident agent in charge in Providence. Threatening the president is a felony, he said.”

Hey, you’re the ones who asked him about his perfect day. If you didn’t want to hear the answer, you shouldn't have asked.

“It wasn't any detailed, minute-by-minute plan,” a police detective was quoted as saying. “It didn't meet the criteria for a criminal charge.”

In the meantime, he’s been barred from school for “mental health” considerations.

Why does all this sound so familiar? It keeps reminding me of something, but I don’t think it was something that happened in this country.

Anyway, let’s hope the young man’s brain can be fixed. Perhaps he can eventually go on to become a productive citizen.

Even I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate violence against a sitting President.

I mean, you very rarely see him when’s he’s sitting, do you?