Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Gil, the Phil, and Dudamel: Young Virtuosos Rock Avery Fisher

Last night I sat at the feet of two musicians who belie the idea that musical maturity is a function of age. Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezualan wunderkind, is 26, possibly going on 25. Although Gil Shaham is 36 now, he has been an artist of penetrating musicianship since at least Dudamel's age. The two were genuinely enjoying each other in a way that is hardly ever seen in the concert hall, and that enthusiasm permeated Avery Fisher; it was as if the whole place was filled with a vapor that made everyone giddy in the execution of classical masterworks. The two smiled, grinned, and all but laughed with each other throughout the performance, and none of it seemed staged, except in the best sense.

I may have been even more infected than others, sitting in the first row, a few seats to the right of Shaham. It is close to where I sat six years ago when I heard him play the Brahms Concerto, with Neeme Järvi conducting. Although it was only 2001, I went there expecting the Brahms performance of the century. I got it, of course - whether the rest of the century will prove me right remains to be seen. I went to last night's concert with just as high expectations, but with a difference. I had heard Elmar Oliveira play the Dvorak Concerto with the Philharmonic some 15 years ago (Leonard Slatkin conducted), and though he may rank slightly below Shaham in my contemporary violin pantheon, he is nevertheless a consummate musician and brilliant fiddler who never delivers anything less than an exquisite performance. So there was a standard to live up to here, both technically and musically.

I am happy to report that Shaham was more than equal to the task. It was not just the energy that the two youngsters brought to the Dvorak, or the terrific chemistry between them. Anthony Tommasini's summation of "lustrous tone, brilliant technique and sweeping energy" is accurate, but misses the true greatness of this performance. I know this concerto intimately, not only from numerous recordings (the epitome being David Oistrakh's definitive version) but from having played through the concerto myself many times, and studied parts of it. What Shaham brought to this piece was the ability to put a distinctive and convincing shape on every phrase, no matter how apparently insignificant; he brought out melodies, accents and phrasing that no one, including Oistrakh, seems to have realized were possible. Heifetz, and to my knowledge most other golden age violinists, never recorded this piece, and probably never toured with it. I don't know why, given its ravishing beauty and opportunity for virtuosity; perhaps they objected to Joachim's endless meddling with the part, leaving it a somewhat compromised instance of a Dvorak composition. Apart from Oistrakh there is a great recording by Milstein; but most of the attention has come from younger performers in the last 25 years or so. Without diminishing these other recent efforts (not to mention an impressive older one by Oistrakh student Viktor Pikaizen) Shaham's performance was an interpretation in every sense of the word, a musically controlled and suggestive reading that will stand (once it is, presumably, recorded) as monument on a fairly flat plain.

Apart from the power of his phrasing, his tone varied constantly - a controlled vibrato not only in quiet passages but wherever he deemed it appropriate, sliding effortlessly into a chain vibrato through the most romantic sections, and back again. I would rather call his overall tone velvety than "lustrous": his bow, which he seems to keep very tight (the stick looked almost straight to me from certain angles, though I suppose it wasn't quite) slides like mercury across the strings, never giving a hint of the least contest between the two. (And yes, he does use a shoulder pad, the kind that lies across the back of the fiddle attached by grips on either side - for those violinists out there who wonder about such things.)

A human being is not a machine, and if someone wants to point out an octave that was not quite perfect or a note slightly out of tune, they may do so. But there were many arpeggios executed with the brilliance of a Heifetz, including the melismas at the end of the opening phrases, which Shaham did not try to contour very much but rather treated as flourishes. If I disagreed with anything in his interpretation it might be that, but what he did was effective in that it moved quickly to the more important parts of the score. And the very difficult last movement, which require incredibly precise intonation in the delicately orchestrated main theme, was carried off with masterful left and right hand technique.

One thing that bothers me a little about Shaham, and I think it was the same with the Brahms performance, is that in the more technical passages he tends to hover near the conductor, in such a position that very few can actually see him execute his runs. While it speaks well for modesty, and perhaps more to the point, ensemble, it deprives the spectators of being witness to a technique as formidable as any modern violinist can offer. The Dvorak in particular has no cadenza, so there was precious little opportunity to witness his mastery of left hand pyrotechnics. He may have his reasons, and it is surely unfair to ask any musician of his depth to show off mere technical prowess for its own sake. In any case, the technical power of his playing came through, at least from the first row, aurally if not always visually.

I arrived a little late and missed Dudamel's performance of Chavez's Symphonia India, though one can now not only hear it through speakers but watch it on two large television screens. The piece is a bit frenetic for my taste, but certainly an interesting spectacle, and brilliantly orchestrated. What I heard and saw suggested a performance that brought out the best in the work.

The war horse, both literally and figuratively, last night, was Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Written near the end of the War, after the unbelievable devastation and hardship wrought by Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, but also after the decisive defeat of the invading forces and at a time when Russia and socialism seemed victorious and ready to rebuild, this piece has an unsettled, propulsive force that carries through almost from beginning to end. Dudamel, conducting this complex, 43-minute work without a score, practically leaped off the podium in his drive to wring every ounce of excitement from the piece. The orchestra responded with a technically brilliant and dynamically charged performance, which featured at one time or other nearly every section and instrument, often in counterpoint that was meticulously navigated by both conductor and players. I have seen some recent examples of this sort of urgency with the Philharmonic - Kurt Masur's performances of Ravel's La Valse and Bruckner's Third Symphony come to mind - but never have I seen it carried off with quite such consistent a sense of sonic energy combined with near-perfect ensemble. Percussion and brass were particularly tight, and the very challenging string parts betrayed hardly a flaw (and I was sitting a few feet from the center of the first violin section).

Anyone who says that Dudamel cannot build a climax needs to have their head examined. On the other hand, as Tommasini points out in his review, there is a point at which the bottomless pit of energy takes something away from overall architecture. If Dudamel's youthfulness shows anywhere it is here. One could surely have asked for more nuances in turning on the heat, a more measured buildup in the second movement, for example. But It is all too easy to miss the mark this way. I have heard this happen too; Masur's version of Bruckner's Fourth struck me as way too careful. Dudamel clearly understands that classical music can strike potential new audiences as simply boring, and is fighting like hell to show that it rocks. Good for him; perhaps an audience, once brought to the table, can be trained to adjust its sensibilities and appreciate subtlety as well as excitement. Meanwhile, he delivers plenty of the latter, and at least in the more pensive third movement, quite a lot of the former too.

Comparisons with the young Leonard Bernstein are obvious, and fairly apt; Dudamel literally dances to the music. The power of his conducting style perhaps comes from the fact that he uses not just a baton but every part of his body to signal to the orchestra. If some conductors make you wish you could find a beat somewhere, this one conveys it with baton, left hand, head, chest, hair, face and feet - these parts often moving in different ways to signal different entrances or aspects of the music. To anyone who has not seen him, I recommend you shell out at least once for a front orchestra seat. (Okay, I didn't - I bought a rear one because it was all they had left, and moved into an empty seat in the first row. But don't count on doing that!)

One sad note: apparently Dudamel received the privilege of using one of three batons of Bernstein's for his NY Phil debut. Such was the vigor of this maestro that near the very end of Tuesday's performance (the fourth in six days) the baton cracked, sending a large splinter out into the audience. Dudamel finished the piece with a four-inch stick in his hand. Though the music hardly suffered, history suffered.
I suppose it can be repaired, since audience members kindly passed the broken end up to the stage at the end; reminding one of a story I heard about Casals, whose cello bow once flew out into the audience, and was carefully passed forwards row by row, as he sat bowless and mortified on stage. Great chance to practice your pizzicato...) The Philharmonic Society should not be upset, though. Perhaps this was part of the magic of generational change, like Harry Potter's wand. Though the object is gone the spirit of Dumbledore has clearly passed to a new generation, much to everyone's benefit.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Controlled Joy

Anton Corbijn's first film, Control, had its penultimate evening last night at the Film Forum, and winding our way there through the all-hallowed masses in Greenwich Village, it seemed like a damned appropriate thing to do - notwithstanding the fact that it was actually a birthday event for the plumed blogger. Punk, drugs, suicide, convulsions - what could be more fitting than to be here, while the throngs of devils, clowns and less describably costumed souls meandered the streets and made Sixth Avenue virtually impassable?

It is understandable, though not exactly mandatory, that a noted portrait photographer would break into cinema with a black and white film. The colorlessness is also reminiscent of the two-tone punk aesthetic that Joy Division, I suppose, had something to do with, though I don't think of them as being either specifically two-tone or musically in the center of the punk rock sound. In retrospect they seem very much a part of that late-70's British underground sound, regardless of their predilection for a more spare way of filling the sound space than the gritty 3-chord noise of the Clash or Sex Pistols. But the B/W choice for the film seems to have more to do with the emphasis on spiritual penetration and personae (indeed it occasionally reminded me of the Bergman film Persona) than on punk or new wave clothing styles.

Was it effective? Very. In fact, my guess is that the film would not have been half as powerful in color. There are moments of extremely bare emotion, where every shadow (especially those under the eyes of Sam Riley's Ian Curtis character) counts towards the intimacy of the frame. In an odd way, the film's colorlessness also reminded me a bit of A Hard Day's Night, which has moments, at least, that also resemble a blank stare into the eyes of youths whose extraordinary creative energy only partly masks their troubled souls. Not that I think the soul of the young Paul McCartney was half as troubled as that of Ian Curtis, whose suicide at the age of 23 puts an expectedly somber ending on this bit of musical history. But you know, British band, coming up from the underground club scene, Liverpool accent sounds a lot like Manchester accent... whatever. In any case, Corbijn makes full use of his photographic skills here, setting up virtually every frame in a poetic and meaningful way, using still shots to great effect, and generally giving us a bit of an arthouse experience.

And he gets an extraordinary performance from his actors - the appropriate angst from Curtis, industry-specific deadpan from his band, and an outrageously cocky and very funny managerial sideshow from Tony Kebbell as Rob Gretton. I'm surprised he hasn't received more notice for his performance in this film; his perfectly timed delivery made for some major laugh-out-loud moments as well as serving as a kind of - well, control - on the band's (and the film's) constant tendency to slide off into despair and self-negation. Not that his wit or resourcefulness alone can prevent that, but without it there would have been no film - and possibly no band. Samantha Morton has gotten a lot more recognition for her excellent portrait of Curtis's wife Deborah, whose memoir about him indirectly led to this and other recent attention to the Joy Division episode in British rock. Her plain prettiness and working class innocence makes an excellent foil for the tortured self-indulgence of her ascending rock star husband.

In the end, though, this was a film whose individual aspects are somewhat more impressive than the whole. The film's story line attempts to juxtapose the meteoric rise of Joy Division, at least within the world of underground rock (hmmmm, meteor.... underground rock... must be a way to abuse this metaphor a bit more, but I haven't got the time) with the love triangle between Deborah, Ian and his new flame Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), and to paint a picture of his decline centering around the emotional difficulty he faced in dealing with his early marriage and fatherhood. Or rather, it tries to negotiate that duality and at the same time throw in his battle with epilepsy and the pressures of fame, touring and all that (see my previous post, "Cinema Rocks"). The key shots are all there, the themes are competently articulated, the acting is good - yet it all seems to come down to an excess of sympathy for someone who largely faced the kinds of difficulties that millions of other young men face without hanging themselves from a ceiling rack. What kills Ian Curtis, according to this film, is quite clearly not the pressure of the rock lifestyle or his drug abuse or epilepsy (though that is strongly emphasized in the film) but his torn heart, which cannot completely abandon Deb or their daughter nor break up with the comely Annik. And that is just a bit too pathetic. Get over it, you want to say - you screwed up having a baby too early, now do the best you can for the wife and child and get on with your life. Also, try to stay off the booze and keep working on finding the right epilepsy medication, like the doctor suggested. Can't handle that? Maybe there's something deeper going on. But the superficial emotional situation is not quite up to the climax of suicide.

We do get a bit more, though, and that returns us to one of the film's more commendable features, the on-stage movements of Sam Riley, which more or less perfectly counter-exemplify the title. For Curtis's mock-dancing is so clearly out of control, yet gives you the sense of someone who thinks he is in control, or at least does not quite know that he's out of control, but has in effect so totally merged with both the rhythm and mood of the music he has written that he no longer has much of a self to distinguish from the utterer of the lyrics. This, and its contrast with the normally staid and measured, if someone spaced-out individual off stage, makes for the film's deepest insight into the character and his dilemma; and the epilepsy serves as a kind of metaphor for the inability to separate the ordinary person who ha to deal with the common difficulties of life from the artist and musician who is completely absorbed in the music. So the fits at home remind us that the person is, at bottom, the man on stage, only offstage, and that he cannot control who o what he is even if it means collapse. And when the fits move onstage, and he has to be carried off by band members, this similarly tells us that the cracks in his personal life cannot fail to intrude into the realm of artistic expression.

Finally, then, the movie succeeds in being at least as schizophrenic as its subject was epileptic: succeeding, failing, but succeeding again. If it does not get a perfect score (on the Tomatometer or elsewhere) it is nevertheless likely to be the best biopic we get about this relatively minor band. All in all, a pretty good addition to the annals of rock cinema, and one worth catching if it comes o your town. Especially if it shows on Halloween.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Cinema Rocks

Martin Scorsese, coming hot off his Dylan documentary No Direction Home (not to mention his embarrassingly belated recognition by the illustrious Academy for one of his second-rate films, since they missed his masterpieces) has another rock film, about the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light) due for 2008 release; and yet another in the planning stage, this one on George Harrison. Todd Haynes has a Dylan film too (I'm Not There) which stars six different actors (and actresses! - Cate Blanchett) as Dylan. There are two (count 'em 1-2) films coming out about Joy Division, the short-lived but allegedly influential 1980's "post-punk" band. (Everyone after the Sex Pistols was post-punk, so the appellation is kind of meaningless.) One is Control, a biopic (which does not rhyme with "myopic") by photographer Anton Corbijn; the other is a documentary by Grant Gee. Peter Bogdanovich's latest picture show is about Tom Petty, a 4-hour (r u serious?) documentary that is, according to the Times (which has also noted the proliferation of celluloid rockers) not expected to do much for the theatre industry but should sell like hotcakes to TP fans. David Leaf's 2006 film The U.S. Vs. John Lennon was part of another tide. Need I mention the formulaic Dreamgirls, all but a Diana Ross & the Supremes bio? In 2005 there was James Mangold's Walk the Line, a biopic about Johnny Cash. The year 2004 brought around the late release of some fabled archival footage of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and others (Bob Smeaton's Festival Express), andTaylor Hackford's Ray, the Ray Charles bio. And so it goes, as we drill back in time, passing through documentaries and biopix of the Sex Pistols, U2, Richie Valens (go ahead, sing it.... dadada dada la Bamba...), The Doors, The Band, Elvis, the Talking Heads, Kurt Cobain... If I appear to have shorted the films on musicians of the female persuasion it is just that I was thinking rock, but we can always throw in Coal Miner's Daughter and Lady Sings the Blues (and Walk the Line is almost as much about June Carter as about Cash), not to mention the largely forgotten film The Rose (1979), a Janis Joplin biography starring - Bette Midler? (Hello in there... casting, I mean; anybody home?) This off-the-cuff list, you will notice, includes only films with some claim to biographical content, not mere concert films like Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same. (Anybody who calls The Last Waltz or Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense "mere concert films" will be appropriately calumnied and vilified, not to mention having their MTV signals jammed.) There are many more that I have not mentioned; quite a few I had never heard of before, such as the Y2K TV film bio The Beach Boys: An American Family, and a 1973 eponymous Jimi Hendrix bio.

Now, all I want to do here is muse a bit about the following question: Why is it that the lives of rock stars (and popular music stars in general) make such appealing subjects for films? I mean, if you think about it, who really cares about the troubled lives of rock musicians, who generally abuse their bodies (and sometimes those of others), manifest antisocial behavior, rise to stardom on the strength of their musical talents, and then quickly die, wither, or fade? Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit; certainly not all popular music stars following this course. There are probably more living than dead rock musicians from the '60's. But given the average life expectancy today, the fact that we even have to pause for a moment over the truth of that statement is indicative of the problem. We all know that a very high proportion die young - the fictional group in
Paul Simon's One Trick Pony even made a game out of naming them, and that was in 1980! Before John Lennon, Mike Bloomfield, Bob Marley, Harry Chapin, John Belushi, Felix Pappalardi, Dennis Wilson, Peter Tosh,Jaco Pastorius, Nico, Roy Orbison, John Cipolina, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Fogerty, David Ruffin, Frank Zappa, Freddie Mercury, Harry Nilsson, Tommy Boyce, and Jerry Garcia, and tons of others (according to this list) died premature deaths. A few of these folks succumbed to heart failure, AIDS or cancer in their 40's or early 50's; the rest all ended their lives with drug overdoses, murder, suicide, or transportation accidents. Are they models to follow? Are they heroes to canonize? Are they tragic figures whose lives are worth dramatizing?

If you said "all of the above" you were at least partially right, in my opinion. Models, not for their drug habits or sex lives, but for their obsessive dedication to an art form (which is the only kind of dedication worth talking about). Heroes for their mostly subversive versions of the Horatio Alger story. Tragic, because many of them followed a predictable and perhaps inevitable arc, from anonymity to fame to precipitous decline. Does this mean Britney Spears is going to be the subject of the next big documentary? Too soon to tell, but I wouldn't write it off. Today, she may seem a little ridiculous, along with Lindsay and Paris and the other bad chicks. And that seems beneath the dignity of anything with tragic pretensions. But go see Walk the Line, if you haven't already, and then reconsider the question. Jim, Janis and Jimi all imploded, and though I suspect the great Janis and Jimi films are still waiting to be made (Oliver Stone got the not-likely-to-be-surpassed Jim Morrison flick, The Doors) they all have their tragic sides.

That is, if you think of them potentially ascending greater heights, but for their swift descent into self-destructive addictions and in some cases sociopathic narcissism; consider the ingeniously disturbed Syd Barrett (careful with that ax, indeed). And who doesn't? Who doesn't think that Jimi Hendrix, for example, would have become an even greater artist had he had time to mature? But the tragic ending is built in, in a way (as it must be, to be really tragic): the same impulse that results in a maniacal devotion to rock and its possibilities, and rockets the owner to fame, makes them indulge in the temptations that success proffers, and suffer the numbing schedule of the touring musician. Always under pressure, always looking to the next gig, homeless as a vagabond, in bondage to a recording company (often with the profits from at least one or two albums written off to bad contracts), constantly having to negotiate with the endless list of self-serving personalities in the music industry, herded together in something closer than a marriage to band members they would not even want to date, and surrounded by people whose adoration blurs the line between true friends and sycophants, the young successful rock star may be open to anything that promises a night without stress, panic or depression. At the same time, as money pours in, so does the opportunity to spend it on designer drugs, wild parties and the like. Why not? Haven't I earned this? Don't I need this? Could this really hurt me, after I have risen from dank basements to the Garden and the Bowl? Personally, I have only glimpsed the very edges of this life, but it is all too easy to comprehend.

The grizzly list above stars mainly rock musicians who died premature deaths between 1980 and 1995. Rockers are famously careless with their lives. But the list could be expanded a bit to include Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Stan Rogers, Townes Van Zandt, Merle Watson, Kate Wolf, and many other too quickly departed people of a gentler and less flamboyant persuasion. One does not want to casually throw cancer victims in with drug abusers and suicides, but the high mortality rate of all but classical musicians is very striking. (Then again, classical conductors and pianists bend the average the other way; more than one classical pianist has given a 90th birthday concert, and at least one - Mieczyslaw Horszowksi - gave one at 100.)

But it is not my intention to paint everything an artificial black in order to promote a theory of why cinema loves rock. The innumerable Dylan bios, literary and cinematic, are not chasing a tragic figure, but rather an enigmatic one. Dylan has famously proclaimed how little he is understood by the Dylan observers. So, may way ask, who does understand you, Bob? Presumably, the answer would be "me". Or would it? No one would expect Dylan to be self-effacing at this point; but would he be honest? Surely anyone who understands himself doesn't have to reinvent himself every few years. As a bluesman; then a left-wing folkie; then a rocker; then a country star; then a Jesus Freak; then an eclectic guy who'll do anything from blues to cabaret to political broadsides. The question for Todd Haynes is: are you sure six is enough?

Dylan is probably the most eulogized living personality - ever. Elvis received plenty of attention in his later life, but a lot of it was negative. The Beatles fly together in the popular imagination, with the partial exception of John. But Dylan is the lone subject of epic biographies, film after film, endless interviews, articles and commentaries. Why? It is sometimes said that the more obscure the philosopher, the more ink will be spilled trying to figure him out, and the more famous he will become. This at least fits the picture of Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and plenty of other leading lights. (Though it does not explain why Fichte or Ernst Bloch failed to reach the highest rank.) Dylan steadfastly refuses to reveal the "real" Dylan - maybe there is none. Haynes's film title reflects this. One begins to suspect that nobody understands Dylan because there is no Dylan. Thus the search for him has all the mystery and excitement of Moby Dick, and is more about the searcher than the searchee. And plenty of writers and filmmakers want to play Captain A-rab.

Speaking of folkies, in 2005 the film rights to a biography of Tim Buckley (d.1975 @ 28, OD'ed on heroin, alcohol and barbiturates after a grueling tour) and Jeff Buckley (his son, d.1997 @ 30, accidentally drowned in a Tennessee river) were acquired; I haven't heard anything more about the release, though. Apparently Jeff is the main subject, and Tim is seen in flashbacks. These guys came and went too quickly, though Tim released quite a few albums before he died. His Hello Goodbye is about as prophetic a title as Jeff's best song and line, "Oh, it was so real" (on Grace). I have to ask myself a question: why do I feel a rush of excitement, even a twinge of impatience, at the prospect of seeing a movie about two musicians who I basically know from one album each? Who cares? Lots of people OD'ed like Tim, or accidentally drowned like Jeff. I could say: because I'm a musician too, so I can relate. But let's try something bolder: almost everyone envies, on some level, the artist who throws everything into his music, who manages, even once, to express himself in an adequate way, and to reach a mass audience even for a moment. We admire it, are jealous of it, because there is some urge to do the same thing, in some way, which we suppress in order to be real people. We would not want society to consist mainly of Tim and Jeff Buckleys, of Phil Ochs (a folk suicide, subject of the biopic Chords of Fame), of Dylans, much less of Jim, Jimi and Janis. We are not all ready to throw normalcy to the winds and sail off with these characters. But we admire them for having the guts to do what we know we could not have done. When I think about the film, what I feel is a kind of awe at the vision and energy behind their music, and their ability to put it into my head; and I guess I have desire to live vicariously through them, both to understand where that energy came from and to learn by quasi-experience how to avoid their downfall.

Incidentally, want to check a video of Tim Buckley performing one of his songs live? Please pick up - are you ready? - the Rhino DVD The Monkees: Our Favorite Episodes. You may think this is out of character, but the Monkees as a group were far more interesting than they usually get credit for, not least for their contribution to the rock video format. Keep in mind that when "The Monkees" show came out, rock film consisted in not much more than Bye Bye Birdie, some Elvis beach flicks, and
A Hard Day's Night. The group had to somehow transition back and forth between the musical personae, the actors and their characters. To my mind, they managed it better than a lot of amateurish, lip-synched rock videos today. Granted they had the resources of a major TV studio. But my impression is that The Monkees themselves were major creative forces in everything they did after their first two albums. There is a lot of improv in the TV episodes. Davey I saw as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway production of Oliver, before he was a Monkee, and he was a powerful stage presence. We have focused on one paradigm, the documentary or biopik which follows a more or less tragic curve. A second is of course the rock comedy, which is almost never biographical, but loosely follows the foibles of either a fictional band, or a real one in fictional situations, with real rock musicians as actors. This is exemplified particularly in Richard Lester's Beatles films. The Monkees focused this into a 30-minute format. There are probably plenty of other candidates in this category; can't think of them right now. (I'm sort of ignoring the obvious and overdiscussed stuff like Spinal Tap and Rocky Horror, as well as the films that star rock musicians in other roles - Tom Waits (Down By Law), John Lennon (How I Won the War), David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth), Mick Jagger, Madonna, etc. Not to mention that allegedly lovable flick with Beatle-song backdrops throughout, a silly idea whose time has gone.)

There must be some other angles. La Bamba is pretty good at showing not only the personal side of the story but the sort of social tragedy involved in the loss of a pop icon. Any great life cut short by forces beyond the control of the subject can be epic material. I have not seen The Buddy Holly Story, which was widely criticized for being very inaccurate, as well as unfair to The Crickets; nor have I seen Paul McCartney's alternative film, The Real Buddy Holly Story, which is supposed to be much better. It stands to reason that such a film could capture the "American Pie" tale with much opportunity for social insight. But again, the Holly-Valens tragedy is very much a direct outcome of the kind of life that popular musicians have to lead. The media tend to glamorize rock stars, with special emphasis on their money, social and sex lives, but the tale that Paul Simon tells in "Homeward Bound" is the reality that a lot more of them face: endless travel, loneliness, frustration, and that unsung tribulation, dealing with band members who are either not up to professional level, or impossible to get along with, or dragging every through the dirt of their own nasty habits. The drugs and sex mitigate this only to an extent. The pull of these pressures and dangers is so strong that it must be difficult to make a film that avoids the stereotypical path. Dreamgirls, for all its awards (and its embedded American Idol success story) struck me as a sanitized and formulaic picture with little to say. Walk the Line constantly threatened to degenerate into formula, but seemed to avoid it through the intensity of its character portraits, not to mention a couple of great acting performances.

I think there are many more great rock films to be made. There is no way that the existing stock has adequately explored all the sides of human emotion, greatness, weakness, humor and tragedy in the lives of popular musicians. Let us hope the films get deeper and more real rather than giving in to the temptation of easy hero-worship and superficial moneymaking through peddling the name of some cultural icon. And with that hope in mind, I end where I began: what could be a better opportunity for serious rock filmmaking than a Martin Scorcese flick on George Harrison? See you there.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Point and Shoot: Taro, Capa and the Spanish Civil War

This blog was originally conceived as being devoted to the arts and social issues, and if we have not always hewed perfectly to that course it is nevertheless the pole towards which we gravitate. Few art events could provide a more promising opportunity to emphasize this than the current show at the International Center of Photography (ICP), devoted almost entirely to photographs relating to the Spanish Civil War. That of course means the photography of Robert Capa, but importantly, in this case, the work of his partner Gerda Taro as well. (FYI, there seem to suddenly be about 50 sites presenting the same copy on Taro, all drawn from either a NY Times review or the ICP itself. One thing I can guarantee my readers is that any non-original text you find on this blog will be in quotes, with attribution. The lack of any real info about Taro on the web before this exhibit can be seen from her very short Wikipedia entry. That said, Google turned up a few European sites that I didn't check out but which might have info that pre-dates the exhibit.)

A far less well known figure today than Capa, the ICP documents her status as a highly honored photographer in her day. She did not survive the war, unfortunately, and as a consequence of that, and perhaps also owing to the tendency of art history to brush away all but the most prominent women, she quickly fell off the list of photographers who affected art history. (Even Capa is barely mentioned in Beaumont Newhall's THe History of Photography, so forget about finding her there.) It is rare, though not unheard of, that rediscovered artists in any medium turn out to be the equal of those whose names are well known. This is arguably such a case.

The point could not be made more clearly than by comparing Capa's most famous photo, "Death of a loyalist militiaman" (1936) with Taro's photo of the same year, "Republican militiamen training on the beach"
which serves as the icon for this show. (Both photos are shown on the ICP web site; click on the "Exhibition Images" link under the Capa and Taro links above.) Capa's widely reproduced image captures an "essential moment" alright: taken a spit second after the man is fatally hit by a fascist bullet, he stands off balance, arms flayed, rifle just about to fall from his grasp, his half-turned face exhibiting the shock of his misfortune. To say it was a lucky shot would be a major understatement; it is a shot that hardly ever be equaled for its expression of how vanishingly thin the border between life and death can be. The feeling is only enhanced by the awareness that Capa had followed the group of men to their battle positions on the hillside, and taken shot after shot of them preparing for the confrontation. The sudden loss of one whose acquaintance he had undoubtedly made a short time ago only makes more poignant the simultaneous feeling of bonding and parting that we feel in looking at this picture.

All that said, from a compositional point of view, the picture is all wrong. I once said something like this to my uncle, the photographer Harold Roth, about a picture he had taken of a woman walking with a ram. He laughed and said something to the effect that "when you see a picture like that you don't stop to think about the nice details". So be it; Capa's photo is life, death and courage all in one. But the man is all the way on the left side of the frame, which leaves about 2/3 of a photo frame without interest or detail. One almost wants to crop it, at the risk of doing damage to the extraordinary candor of the piece. I do think there is at least some justification in not doing so, for the hill to some extent enhances the sense of falling; he leans back, as if in a futile attempt to defy gravity, and symbolically, death itself. All the same, one would not choose this composition if one had such a choice. One does not need so much unused space to make the point.

Now consider Taro's shot. Taken not in battle but during training exercises, it is one of the most perfectly composed pictures in the history of photography. A woman kneels on her left knee, facing to the right, her right foot on the ground so that her bent leg forms a perfect right angle. Her right elbow rest on the leg above the knee, her arm straight up, with the hand bent at another right angle. In it there is a pistol. Her head is positioned so that her eye looks right out over the barrel. That, in essence, is the shot. Can you picture it? Let me elaborate.

What you should be seeing in your mind's eye (unless you cleverly clicked on the link above to see the actual photo) is two images of a pistol: one, that of the gun itself, and second that of its owner. The woman's form almost perfectly mirrors that of the gun. This much is more than a neat formal trick, and is accentuated by various formal echoes that take advantage of the square format produced by Taro's Rolleiflex camera (about a year later she switched to the rectangular format Leica that Capa was using). But form follows function here: the woman's fierce concentration on the firing of that gun tells us that she has in a sense become the weapon itself; her mission, defense of the Spanish democracy, has completely absorbed her, effectuating a complete harmony of spirit and purpose. That is not all, though. She brings her eye down to just above the barrel, looking directly at the target from the gun's point of view; we feel the stillness she concentrates on her aim. This is the photographer portraying herself in her subject, so careful in her focus, so still as she opens the shutter. Point, and shoot. This photograph is almost too perfect to be a candid shot.

I am not suggesting that Taro's shot is somehow "better" than Capa's. Different kind of work, different motivation for selecting it for presentation. Most of what constitutes the "art" of photography takes place in selecting among shots already taken. The rest, historically at least, is developing, printing, cropping, touching up. It goes without saying that the taking of pictures is of great importance, particularly when working with large formats. But it is saying too much to call that the only critical step in the process. Every serious 35mm photographer produces numerous images that can be thrown in the sea; the first cut is the one that separates these from those worthy of presentation. Taro had some time to compose her shot, Capa didn't. They both understood that something special had happened and preserved these two amazing photos for posterity.

In fact, Capa's eye for formal niceties can be appreciated in another of his images from the Cordoba front (this one is unfortunately not shown on the ICP site). Entitled "Loyalist militiaman running with rifle", the
formal element of the triangle formed by two rifles and a bent elbow lend a strong sense of composition to a shot that is otherwise all motion and emotion. Another exceptional shot is "Telephone call to army command" (Rio Segre 1938). Several military men sit around a table covered with a map, and one of them holds a telephone, whose wire snakes across the map. Here a combination of formal elements like lighting, shape, and diagonals serve to stimulate a sense of community among the participants; the phone line stretching across the map is highly symbolic, connecting the figures both with one another and with the outside world. This gives them a sense of imperviousness in their cocoon-like shelter. I can only guess how Capa achieved the lighting he did indoors; I don't believe he was using a flash (nor do I know if one was available to him for the Leica at that time) and I also doubt he had a tripod, though that seems less unlikely. But a time exposure would have resulted in more blurring than I recall in this picture. Sometimes photographers can't remember themselves how they got what they did.

Taro made conscious and careful use of the square format while she was using it. One idea dominates, though. She tends to find a line that divides the vertical space, not exactly in thirds, but in half, from what would be the left upper corner of the lower third to the right lower corner of the upper third (or vice versa). In "Republican militiaman with a group of boys" the children appear to form phalanx, surely not an accident. Later on, when she switched to the Leica, it seems that her formal arrangements became more diverse. In some cases she repeated ideas but arranged them differently. For instance, the square-format picture "Republican soldier stepping through a hole in a wall" (1937) is echoed later that year in the rectangular "Republican dynamiters". (Is that you,
Robert Jordan? Perhaps the bell tolls for you, but you're never more than a shutter-click from eternity, if it makes you feel better.) Both are strong compositions, and suggest that stepping through that hole is as much a metaphysical and moral act as a physical one.

It would be impossible and pointless to try to convey the force of the many gut-wrenching scenes that came from both Taro and Capa. Taro's simple, eloquent "War orphan eating soup" could be plumbed for philosophical depth, but ultimately, it doesn't need to say more than meets the eye. Ditto Capa's shot of a refugee in Barcelona, waiting with her dog, having lost her husband and son. And of course the heartbreaking shots of the dead and wounded. Comparisons with the work of Salgado present themselves here, but I'm not sure where they lead. Salgado has practically redefined socially conscious photography as an art, in a way that some people find distracting from the content. I am of the opposite view, feeling that technical and formal precision can never do anything but add to the significance and merit of a photograph. Yet these refugee pictures could be summoned to the cause of the other side, if anyone so desired. In their unadorned simplicity and directness, they suggest a photographer making a friend and study of her subject rather than using them as material for a new work altogether.

It is the unique and crucial property of photography that its rendering of images constitutes a special kind of documentation, and that it can stand out by drawing our attention to either intrinsic or formal elements, or both. Famous images like the one of a woman screaming over the body of a fallen student at Kent State, of a child running from the flames of a U.S. Napalm attack in Vietnam (Hue?), or the shot of John Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father's funeral, bring out a kind of empathy that perhaps even being at the scene ourselves would not have done. (For this and many other reasons, I disagree with those who take photographs to be windows of a sort, "transparent" frames of reality; for if they were, knowing what we do of human nature, I simply doubt that they would have either the impact that they actually do have, or the formal coherence that reality never has.)

Capa survived this hazardous and heroic line of work longer than Taro did, and he lived to capture other essential images. It is shocking to consider that his blurry, electrifying D-Day pictures must have been taken in the line of fire, possibly in the water. Though it may sound like a cliché, after reading David Guterson's description of the landing in Japan in Snow Falling on Cedars, hearing my father's description of crossing the Rhine, and seeing these pictures, I feel as if I can almost recall having participated in a marine invasion myself, with blood swirling around me, my boots leaden with water, and shells grazing my whiskers. Through luck, skill, and pure audacity, Capa captured the war against fascism from its first great battle to the fight that would eventually end it.

For this alone he certainly deserves his places in photographic history. But the show reveals more. For those who are historically minded, his shots of "Zhou en-lai next to a portrait of Karl Marx" and "Meeting of the Executive Yuan, Hankou, China" (both 1938) place one almost voyeuristically at the very moment which would dramatically change the lives of a fifth of the world's people. To see Zhou there, and then, having grown up with the image of him as a central figure on the world stage, is to peek into a crystal ball that holds history as it unfolds. Did Capa to recognize the magnitude of the occasion?
What incredible prescience if he did.

There are of course a great many photographers whose social instincts have led them to social documentary, from Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to Mary Ellen Mark and Salgado. Capa and Taro stand out in the risk they took, but they are not alone in that either, the latest example being Kenji Nagai, the Japanese photographer who was killed in Yangon, Myanmar on Tuesday while covering protests against the dictatorship. It appears from videos that Nagai was intentionally
shot by a soldier at point blank range, and left to die; a horrifying reminder of the power of photography to threaten even the mightiest and most ruthless of regimes. There is no question that since Vietnam, photographs have changed popular sentiments and indirectly changed the world. Capa and Taro had quite a following in their time, a 2-person Lincoln Brigade with the power to influence millions. It may have taken Pearl Harbor to force the U.S. to enter the war against fascism, but even though photography did not manage to win U.S. support for the first line defense in the war against Nazism (while both Hitler and Mussolini supplied Franco with troops, weapons and advisors) we should consider the less tangible role that Capa and Taro may have played in raising consciousness about the fascist menace.

The grisly aftermath of that menace is documented by Francesc Torres in "Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep", another exhibit at the ICP. In 2004, anthropologists unearthed a mass grave where some 40 Loyalists were massacred in the town of Villamayor de los Montes. Torres captured the work, skulls, spent shell casings and all, in vivid b&w, which ICP has considerately blown up to mural size and given its own room for our viewing pleasure. It hardly matters whether this is world class photography. For one other thing that this exhibition demonstrates is that photojournalism shades into fine art at certain dramatic points, organically as it were, without great leaps over hidden aesthetic gorges. Now it is documentary; now it is art - neither can be entirely stable without the other. Even our contemporary photographers who fetishize messy households and "mall chick" types have at least that most universal of documentary styles, the snapshot, as background to their efforts. In the face of an event so closely tied to the sordid history of the 20th century, Torres' work becomes something more than a photo op at a Spanish dig: it reveals the faces that could be us, one day, if we allow our own house to go far enough down the road of hysteria over national security and militarism as a means of diplomacy. And haven't we seen enough hints, from Guantanamo to the mass arrests at the last Republican National Convention, to make us pay attention to these chilling scenes? Generalissimo Cheney & Co., beware: we are armed with DSLR's, are apertures are wide, and even controlling the film supply won't stop us now!

(The ICP exhibit continues until January 6, 2008.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

R.I.P. Alex the Parrot

Not that it is exactly central to the topic of this blog, but having assumed, without conscious effort, the identity of our mascot, we cannot but say Goodbye to one of our own. Thus, Alex, the 31-year-old show parrot, who appeared with Alan Alda on PBS, passed away last week. Surviving Alex were several researchers, his distant cousins Arthur and Griffin, and not a few worms. (Well, I don't really know if this exceptional bird had a normal avian appetite.)

Alex, who
was a veritable John Stuart Mill of jungle birds, apparrotly spoke seven languages by the time he was 11. Okay, four languages by 23. Well, not quite one by the time he was 30, but still.... He learned to identify colors, shapes, numbers, and textures by name, a little more than some art critics I know, and he could use certain expressions in contextually appropriate ways. For example, if my ex-wife walked into the room Alex might say, "Calm down!" Whereas if it were George W. Bush who walked in, Alex would probably go with "Pull out!" Rumor has it that he once told Noam Chomsky, "Generative grammar is a Platonist myth!", and Chomsky chirped back that Alex was using language laden with colonialist metaphors. To which Alex merely said, "Squawck!" An even more apocryphal story has it that unknown to Alex's researchers, the night porter was also striking up conversations with him, leading Alex to blurt out in mixed company, "Damn, out of toilet paper again!" People took a step back. (Note that these anecdotes have not been confirmed by authoritative sources and probably never will be, alas.)

Even what has been confirmed about Alex's capabilities has not been confirmed. For example, Alex supposedly uttered complex and emotionally appropriate goodbye statements. According to his obit in the Times (9/11/07 A23), the night before he passed away he told Dr. Pepperberg, "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you." Very touching, but Alex's Wikipedia entry, quoting his MSNBC obit, has it that Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex's trainer, said that herself, and the Winged Wonder replied "You'll be in tomorrow". The latter version is a bit less evocative, though a helluva lot more surprising, since it suggests that Alex was not only able to understand the perspectival difference "I" vs. "you", but infer from "(I'll) see you" to "You'll be in". (Maybe the NBC peacock was so jealous of Alex's plumage that he arranged to turn viewers' attention to his intellect instead?) Personally, I'll go out on a limb and say that even the illustrious Alex probably did not make inferences of this sort. At any rate, this is clearly not what we call confirmed. Wittgenstein no doubt had a good laugh when he thought up his remark about trying to confirm something by looking in two copies of the morning newspaper (apropos of verifying that you've remembered something correctly by looking it up in your own mind, or something like that). But is it really funny that the Times and MSNBC report contradictory versions of the same story? How well do they do when reporting on the war in Iraq?

(Update Monday 9/17/07: I received an email from Maggie Wright of who replied on behalf of Dr. Pepperberg and confirmed that the final words were those printed in the Times. Halleleujah, there is order in the universe! (No, not because the Times got it right, because I got it right! Squawck! See also the latest Times stories on this subject, including an editorial on 9/12, and "Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End", on 9/11, not to mention a bunch of letters. And see this lengthy exchange on Slashdot while you're at it. Go, Alex! I can think of Presidents who got less attention when they died! Then again, I can think of Presidents who give a bad name to the word "birdbrain". And I now understand now why they say a bird in the hand in worth two bushes. Or something like that.)

But seriously folks - do parrots actually talk, or rather speak, or do they just imitate sounds, which happen to be words? One would assume that the Dr. Pepperbergs of the world are inclined to call it talking of some sort, or else why would they spend their time conversing with feathered bipeds? Yet Wikipedia also cites Dr. Pepperberg as calling it "complex two-way communication" - perhaps a reference to the fact that Alex still did most of his tricks in order to get a reward. Alex knew maybe 100-150 words, which to my knowledge is about 2900 short of basic minimum literacy. He could use individual words and a few expressions correctly, but a human being with that level of linguistic skill would be considered hopelessly mentally defective. One of the more interesting claims is that Alex could put together words to make new sentences, which is to say that Alex understood the concepts and not just the consequences of one behavior vs. another. Some concepts he allegedly understood are same, different, bigger, smaller, and number concepts up to six. Does this mean that if you showed him a big blue circle and a small red triangle he would say, "Blue circle bigger than red triangle"? Or would it be, "Red triangle smaller than blue circle"? No idea, but for a couple of cashews I'd try it myself.

Some people have their doubts about animal intelligence claims. "There's no evidence of recursive logic, and without that you can't work with digital numbers or more complex human grammar", the Times quotes former Psychology professor David Premack as saying. "Digital numbers"? Did he really say that? And he's talking about parrot intelligence? Squawck! (Please email me the next time you meet a nondigital digit, thanks. Or does he mean that parrots can only deal with Roman numerals? So they're no brighter than, say, Cicero?) The point about recursive logic sounds more important, but what exactly does he mean? Brooklyn parrots use only cursive logice: "Get the &%$#^*)& off my lamppost!", for example. Most other parrots don't even curse, so they surely can't recurse.

As for logic, that's a different story. Suppose you have just learned to say "Yellow banana bigger than round cherry". Then you learn, "Red cherry bigger than green pea", and finally "Green watermelon bigger than yellow banana". If you are an even minimally intelligent human you should now be disposed to say many other things, such as: "Yellow banana bigger than green pea", "Green watermelon bigger than green pea", etc.; and if you add just one or two more concepts, even some quantifications: "Some yellow things smaller than some green things", "Some things of same color different sizes", etc. This does not involve recursion, but mere generalization. By my lights, even that is too much for parrots - at least, the ones who don't write blogs. And for chimps and porpoises and other Highly Intelligent Creatures.

All animals use practical logic of a sort; animals can clearly learn, and all learning involves reasoning, albeit usually quite rudimentary, from instances to rules. That means the instances have to be seen as belonging to types, things that can have many particular occurences, and the animal has to apply the type to the individual situation and behave according to what happened last time the type was encountered. Once the bear gets kicked in the teeth by a moose he'd better reason "moose - kick in teeth - avoid hind legs". But this is all what we usually call inductive logic. As soon as we find an animal that shows even the slightest appreciation of deductive logic - that understands even the simplest Aristotelian syllogism (e.g., All men are mortal - Socrates is a man - Therefore Socrates is mortal) - we'd better call on the black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey to take us to the next stage of evolution.

Parrots get lots of media attention. There are the four who were allegedly being used last year by landlord Stephen Kates to drive the tenants out of his building on 18th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. There was the Science Times interview with Joseph M. Forshaw, a leading parrotologist. There are light rock stations spinning Margaritaville every few days. Now there's Alex - and his similarly trained but less talented buddies Griffin and Arthur. Pretty soon there will be a parrot candidate for President. Everyone else is running, after all, and for the most part they don't do much more than screech what they think the public wants to hear, like Alex did for his trainers. But Alex supposedly had an 80% accuracy rate in his trained responses. Perhaps Alex's untimely death is a blessing in disguise. Had Bush, Obama, Clinton, Thompson, or Romney managed to hire him as a PR consultant we might be treated to even more insincere, opportunistic speeches than we are now. I'm glad we have so many parrots in Brooklyn, and Florida, and not too unhappy that we have them in university research labs, as long as they're treated well. But D.C. area ecology is already unbalanced enough, creating odd evolutionary phenomena, such as hawks that suddenly turn into doves when they think public opinion is going that way. And vultures who feed on easy prey and then claim great victories against terrorism. No, it is a good thing that Alex never made it to D.C. At least his secret is safe from that jungle now. (Arthur, Griffin, don't get any ideas...)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Alaska's Hobo Jim

Hey, culture mavens, Parrot here, reporting from Alaska.

Huh? A parrot in Alaska? Why not, he asked; don't you all go to Amazon? Anyway, the Alaska coast is basically thousands of miles of rain forest, so Senor Parrot was right at home, shaking off raindrops for most of the last 3 days. And Owl? She just hooked up with her Great Northern buddies and everything was okay.

In our first 3 days out we saw a herd of mountain goats, half a dozen bald eagles, a moose family, lots of magpies, a couple of humpback whales, 2 orcas, several dozen sea lions, otters, a huge black bear (from a boat, thank you), jumping salmon and 3 chipmunks. Okay, the chipmunks weren't that exciting. We're here for another week and almost running out of new species to view. Well, no caribou yet, except on the ubiquitous Alaska wilderness videos they show here. On Friday we drove from Seward to Valdez (that's Val-deez, in case you've been saying it wrong since 1989, like me) taking our time to stop at a dozen or so scenic turnouts. The drives here are stunning, 3-5,000' mountains shooting up from the foot of every road, lush vegetation giving way to snow-capped angular peaks, endless rivers, lakes, falls, fjords. Ten miles or less out of any city here and you are in pristine wilderness. We've met lots of people who came to Alaska to visit and never left. No, their cars didn't break down, like mine did back Brooklyn, just in time for me to junk it and not worry about it for the 2 weeks I'm away. The place is addictive. Of course, it's still August. I don't know if a visit in January would be as compelling. Then again, meet the world's only skiing parrot.

With all this beauty I could easily write about the aesthetics of nature for a while. And there is plenty to consider here; for instance, the awesome experience of watching a glacier shed several tons of ice as if it were a dandruff flake, muddled by the contradictory knowledge that global warming is a great destructive force. But that is not actually the subject of this post. The subject, rather, is Hobo Jim.

Our first day on the road (that was Wednesday, August 22) was incredibly rich, but at the end of it, we arrived at the Hostel in Homer too late to eat dinner just about anywhere. The only place open, we heard, was Duggan's pub. "But they have real food, not just pub food." So off we went to Duggan's, looking for a quick and modest meal. (10:00 p.m. Homer time was already 2:00 a.m. Parrot time, so retiring sounded pretty good.) Well, first thing at Duggan's, there's a guy at the door collecting a $2 cover charge for live music. "We're just here for dinner", we explained, and he sort of grudgingly let us pass (it helps to be from Brooklyn sometimes). But the musician had already taken the stage (such as it was); every seat and table was taken except at the counter below the open window to the kitchen. We planted ourselves there and even got them to clean away the dirty trays.

We actually had the best clam chowder we've had in Alaska at Duggan's, and a delicious fresh halibut sandwich. If Alaska weren't named Alaska, and if there were not a competitor known as salmon, the state would surely have been named Halibut. Every port, every diner, every grocery store carries halibut, fisherman stand on docks and mud flats fishing for halibut, and it would not surprise me if the Anchorage City Hall were built in the shape of a halibut. It's tasty and very hardy food, a bit like swordfish but a lot cheaper and easier to catch. So we sat there and enjoyed our first real Alaska meal (breakfast and lunch were about what we would have eaten in Brooklyn) and listened, whether we liked it or not, to a guy who was billed as "Hobo Jim".

What happened as the night went on was as exciting as the scenery along the Turnagain Arm, our route down from Anchorage. First, being a bit of a songbird myself, I had to admit that the guy was good. In fact, the more he played, the more I thought he was not just good, but a unique and incredibly talented performer. And songwriter. Actually, it soon became clear that Hobo Jim was not some local yokel who picked up a guitar every once in a while and did the rounds of the Homer bars playing Dylan covers, which is what I expected. Instead, what we walked in on is an Alaska institution, the unofficial and possibly official state troubadour (he said something about being anointed by the governor in some manner or other, but I didn't quite catch it.) Everyone in Homer seemed to know him by name; he lives there, and it's not a big town, but I get the feeling he's known statewide. A native Alaskan in Valdez, our sea-kayaking leader, knew of him and lamented the fact that he never played there. It is not at all surprising that Alaska should have troubadours; the land and the waters are awe-inspiring, breeding a culture that is perhaps more well-defined than that of any single state in the "lower 48", and this inevitably makes its way into song.

Hobo Jim dramatizes the Alaskan life in song, somewhere between the way Woody did for the dust bowl and Jimmy Buffet does for Florida. Alaska has its own brand of seriousness and its own brand of humor as well. The serious side is captured in songs about the challenges of living in a place that is still perhaps 99% wilderness. Humor emerges naturally when we look at how we respond to these challenges, and catch ourselves playing at our own rituals. Jim brings this out in songs like "The Dramamine Fisher" and "Fishing Chickens". Logging, fishing, sailing, farming, building, hunting, mining, railroads, coping with the weather and travelling across the vast expanses - these are the stuff of folk song, and nowhere are they more the life and culture of a state than in Alaska. Hobo Jim (his real name is Jim Varsos) has written dozens of songs that give this life a voice. If he didn't exist Alaskans would probably have invented him.

As a songwriter he clearly has influences; not only Woody Guthrie, who he seems to admire a lot, but Bill Staines and particularly Stan Rogers. His song "The Lady Lee" immediately brought to mind Stan Rogers tunes like "The Wreck of the Athens Queen" or "Fogerty's Cove", while other tunes conjured up Staines' "Missouri Road Song", "The Faith of Man", and others. But this is not to say that Hobo Jim lacks originality; though he could be compared to everyone from Hank Williams to Gordon Lightfoot, with a slight emphasis on the country-bluegrass sound, he has his own unique voice, and a prolific one at that. His web site lists five recordings of original material, and a compilation from the first four. George Jones and others have recorded some of his compositions.

Hobo Jim plays a guitar style that most closely resembles bluegrass flatpicking, where the melody is sometimes picked out between chords by skillfully articulating individual notes on the downstrum while playing full chords on the upstrum, all at rapid speed. I have known others who can do this well (for example, my friend James Reams, a fine bluegrass musician from Brooklyn, Kentucky) but I have never seen it done with just a thumbnail, which as far as I can tell is all Hobo Jim uses. When not playing in this style he often does a vigorous strum in a manner not unlike that of Bill Staines. Of course he fingerpicks and plays some blues too, all with the clear mark of a seasoned professional. He played a lot of covers, including Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Gordon Lightfoot, not to mention a rendering of the national anthem. In 2004, Jim packed up his guitar and flew to Afghanistan to entertain paratroopers, many of whom were Alaskans. (Small planes are ubiquitous here, the only way to reach many parts of the state, and Alaskan bush pilots are famous for their pyrotechnics.) I don't see any recordings of the covers he played, but that would definitely get my attention. His version of Guthrie's "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" was the best I have heard.

Jim Varsos claims to be a redneck, but he claimed many things that had to be taken with a grain of salt. I didn't see any sign of redneck sentiments in his songs. Alaskans have elected mostly Republicans recently; both their senators and their governor are Republicans; so it would not be very unusual for them to elect a conservative troubadour. But I've never heard of a redneck sounding off about how listening to Woody Guthrie changed his life, playing Dylan songs to his heart's content, or singing about the plight of small farmers or Alaska's native peoples. I think this goes in the basket with his assertion that this was his last concert - according to some locals I spoke to, this is in the spirit of W.C Fields, who found it so easy to quit smoking he'd done it a thousand times. I hope that was not Hobo Jim's last concert. He must have meant "for this summer, in Homer". To my knowledge he was supposed to play at the State Fair in Palmer a few days later.

Anyway, Owl and Parrot finished dining on clams and halibuts, and Parrot went through one darn good pint of Homer-brewed porter, when Owl announced that she was done hooting for the evening. But Hobo wasn't done, and neither was I, so I drove her to the Hostel and came back, thinking I'd hear a few more tunes and maybe say Hey, from Brooklyn. Soon after I got back Hobo Jim said he'd play a couple more and then take a break. A break? He'd already been playing well over an hour, so the bar owner was definitely getting his money's worth. But apparently it was just another brick in the wall of grandiose humor, along with being a redneck and retiring; for he went on for more than a couple of tunes, and then announced again that he'd play two more and take a break. This went on, I kid you not, until after midnight. Keep in mind he was already on stage when we arrived some time after 9:30. Hobo Jim never repeated a song, but went on playing for over 2 1/2 hours. A good part of the time he was standing on a table; good thing the bar didn't have chandeliers, or who knows where he would have been playing. Nor did he seem to want to stop, but he outlasted the audience, which had begun to give up hope of cheering for encores and started to filter out the door. Close to 4:00 a.m. Eastern Parrot Time, the "final" Hobo Jim Varsos concert came to an end.

When I had entered Duggan's I was all but annoyed at having to listen to what I expected would be a night of bad covers or cliched country-and-western drivel. As I began to appreciate him I thought it would be nice to trade CD's if he had one. By the time he was done I had to mull over approaching someone who seemed so much more accomplished than myself as a musician. But shy parrots are hard to come by, and shy parrots from Brooklyn virtually extinct, so approach him I did. Actually I did was browsing his CD sales table, and asked him which he would recommend. There were six disks there and he picked out a compilation and his latest one. So I was ready to pony up the cash for these, and thrust my lonely CD at him (don't get me wrong, I'm quite proud of it, but while I should be the Official Brooklyn Troubadour, I'm just not) asking him to take it as a gift. Well, that was the end up the previous transaction. Hobo Jim sold me one CD, traded me one, and gave me all the rest for $5.00. This is Alaskan generosity; people will invite you over for dinner if you show an interest in them, or, as in this case, hand you their life's work in a picnic basket. Since then, Parrot and Owl cruised down the Alaskan highways with Hobo Jim crooning from the CD player.

Glaciers are amazing; mountains are amazing; rivers, oceans, wildlife, all are amazing. The Alaska pipeline is an amazing feat of engineering. Walking into a pub late in the evening, on a small road in a tiny town, in a state one third the size of the contiguous United States, and happening to discover there a world class local folk musician, is - squawck - amazing.

And yes, I did go back and pay the cover charge. If you ever get a chance to see Hobo Jim for $2, please go.


Heres another Hob Jim web page FYI.


This was originally posted a few days ago while we were in Valdez. We're back in Brooklyn now, where I have a high-speed connection, so the photos have now been added, as well as some changes in the text. (3:10 a.m. Monday September 3, 2007; 11:10 p.m. Sunday September 2, 2007 Homer time)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dropping in on the Arts: Recent Films, Music, Art

El Parrotto has been the aesthetic butterfly as usual, dropping in here and there, and as usual, not able to find the time to write about it all. Well, here's a quick roundup, just so no one can say I dropped out of sight:

Films: A couple of weeks ago the Love Doves spent an evening taking in a 1 1/2 feature; the closest thing today to a double feature, since theaters don't exactly time things to encourage you to skip from one film to another. So first we saw Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, on the rationale that any film that gets a 91% positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes (that "e' does go there, doesn't it?) must be pretty good; and that The Forty-Year-Ol Virgin had some funny moments. Knocked Up also has some funny moments. It has some "poignant" moments. It has some overdone characters, the kind we have all met and hoped we'd never have to face in a movie. It has a pretty phony birth scene, with a baby that's way to big for a newborn and a doctor who doesn't bother to hold the baby upside down. It had some cliched scenes, including one in which Paul Rudd, brother-in-law of the "knocked up" Alison, does the "Honey I just needed some time for myself, that's why I lied to you" thing, and she comes back with the "You know what, I need some time to myself too thing, where did you get the right..." etc. (Want to see the real deal, where this kind of scene actually means something more than a replay of that too common marital tension? Then you'll have to find a production of August Wilson's Fences, because that scene is just too searing, and no one who sees it will ever forget the contrast between a motherless child and a "womanless man".) Okay, this flick has its moments, for a bedroom farce it reaches a bit farther than one might expect, dealing with abortion (of course she doesn't have one; you want a serious movie, or a comedy?), male bonding, geek culture (if that's what it's called) and a few other things. Basically, it's entertainment, go for a laugh, don't worry about people crunching on popcorn and guffawing in the wrong places. You want serious fare? Bergman and Antonioni may be dead, but they are more alive than most of what emerges from Hollywood.

After that the sneaky petes wafted into Rescue Dawn, about half way through. Holy Cinema, Batman - half a film by Werner Herzog was enough to redeem the night! I'm not even going to go into depth on this, since I did not see it from the beginning, but it could well be the best film ever made in this genre. Perhaps I should hold my ongue, because since since Stalag 17 and The Great Escpe I haven't seen too many POW films. But this has something of the underlying tension of Apocalypse Now, to which it owes a great deal but also contributes as a kind of brilliant afterthought. There have been a lot of Vietnam films, some by great directors like Kubrick and Coppola, but clearly there was room for at least one more. I need to see the first half, but since this looks to be well worth owning on DVD I might just wait.

Then we played house and had a taste of Ratatouille. I tire of Pixar. Or maybe I just tire of ingeniously animated stories about little animals. I enjoyed The Incredibles; for an animated film about aging superheroes, it had more to say about real people than many Hollywood dramas. But after cute fish, sharks, rats, frogs, penguins, cars, robots, and who knows what other phylogenetic variations, I'm over it. Not to mention that Pixar is starting to look like Dreamworks which is starting to look like everything else. Really, I was out of patience before I saw Ratatouille, but I expected it to redeem the genre after all the glowing reviews. On the contrary, I felt a little like I did when I first saw Disney's Hercules. After a good if not brilliant run with Mulan, The Lion King, and Aladdin, Hercules came off to me as a classic example of a style that is used up and now has nothing left but to imitate itself. I'm afraid Ratatouille, for all its charm, its unlikely and original story line, its attention to detail and other good things, had much the same impact. For one thing, the story itself was both its greatest asset and its great defect. It took real energy to go along with each twist as the little rodent Remy works himself up to be the master behind the boy, Linguini. In the process one lost most of one's sympathy and identification with master Linguini; and, for all its animated vividness, it is beyond the call of duty to identify with a rat. (Maybe a pig; think of Animal Farm.) Maybe, after having seen more kids' movies than adult ones over the last 10 years, I'm just having an attack of adultitis. I even found the portrayal of restaurant critic Anton Ego a bit over the top (wasn't it supposed to be, you say? okay, it succeeded then)... not to mention that this is supposed to be Paris, but Ego's pompous, aristocratic airs are put over with the aid of a distinctly British accent! Well, kids won't know the difference, right?

You want a night's worth of entertainment? I suggest you catch a double bill of Knocked Up and Ratatouille. By the way, I don't usually comment on reviewers of films, but one thing I want to say is: the next time I read that a movie has "a lot of heart" I'm going to throw up directly on the newspaper (so I hope I don't read it next online...) Next, Ratatouille is not the only film that has been called "delicious", a self-negating adjective that is itself in bad taste. Finally, for now, be certain to avoid any movie that has ever been called "hugely entertaining", a nonsensical locution that suggests, if anything, an overweight comedian.

Music: As for other ventures, I lit on a gig by fiddler Jenny Scheinman, who holds forth at Barbès in Park Slope on Tuesday nights; but in truth, I didn't listen much, but had a rather good time chatting with my friend Jan, a journalist for the German magazine Stern who is on long-term assignment to the U.S. What I did hear was tasteful arrangements of what sounded like classic country songs; but I have to admit I was expecting a bit more fire, at this club that often features accomplishe jazz players. I was also unfairly comparing her to the ingenius violinist Alex DePue whose performance of Owner of a Lonely Heart at a West Coast club bowled me over. So we enjoyed the beer and the background music but the concert pretty much slid by without grabbing us by the collar and saying "Listen".

Art: Most recently - could something have actually happened tonight? - we floated through the window of China Square Gallery in Chelsea, for the opening of of a group exhibition of Chinese artists, many of whom also trained and/or live in the U.S. We loved the black pastel floral designs on black paper by Lin Yan, and Shen Chen's greyscale vertical brushwork that brought to mind bamboo forests, or traditional Chinese paintings of them. And I was greatly taken with a couple of Richard Tsao's pieces, colorful works with 3D elements that at first looked like distressed metal shards, an illusion I could not quite get over after reading that the medium was "water-based materials on canvas". All in all this was a very nice show with great variety and very professional crafsmanship.

So goes the roundup; what's next? Well, what would you say if you found a Parrot in Alaska? Because if I decide to bring my laptop that might be the site of my next post. And if not, then I will resume when I get back, in about three weeks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Is Michiko Cuckoo? Is Laura Loopy? Literary Ethics Goes Public

The way the news has gone down lately, you would think someone really cared about the morals of authors, critics and other literary personae. The latest spark to ignite a prairie fire is the conviction of Laura Albert, the nonfictional being behind JT Leroy, who is the fictional author of the fictional work Sarah. As you undoubtedly are aware, one of the fictions jumped off the title page and signed a contract with Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, President of Antidote International Films, in which she gave no hint that she was fictional.

Michiko Kakutani, the illustrious senior literary critic for The New York Times, has also made news, offering a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hours before the enormous marketing machine behind its release had approved its sale. (I don't usually insert NYTimes links because they force you to register, but even though the URL includes "restricted" I was able to link to this review through Google, for whom the right to link stands slightly above, life, liberty or the pursuit of copyright in the moral order.) Moreover she mentioned that she had simply wandered into a NYC bookstore and purchased a copy! She was also the subject of a critique in Slate
yesterday by Ben Yagoda (leave it to Slate to do a critic critique), who complains loudly that Kakutani either blows kisses or comes down with a blunt ax on books she reviews, not to mention indulges in even more pathetic uses of language than the two near-dead metaphors I just used. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. (Damn those clichés, they come so easily sometimes.) Recently, we had Mark Helprin whining on the Op-Ed page (May 20) that his family would not enjoy eternal profits from a perpetual copyright on his writings. Of course everyone remembers the plagiarism scandal of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, way back in 2006. Ms. Viswanathan asserted that her extensive copying from at least two other authors was "unconscious and unintentional", sort of like George Harrison's redo of "He's So Fine" as "My Sweet Lord". Which is a step up from the college President (don't have the notes on this one in front of me) who repeated the old platitude that he had failed to keep careful notes separating his own words from those of others. More likely his note taking was a little too careful. And the list goes on, especially if we widen the scope to ethics and fictions in general, which lets film and all its foibles sneak in. Thus ON 3/29/05 we had, for example, two headlines in the Times, "Documentary Criticized for Re-enacted Scenes" , and "Historical Epic Is Focus of Copyright Dispute" (p.E1). The former concerned the film Mighty Times: The Children's March, which won an Academy Award for Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, and included fake-vintage footage of civil rights protests. The latter the film Kindom of Heaven, which was accused by James Reston Jr. of "stealing his research", according to the Times' Sharon Waxman, including "events, characters, scenes, descriptions and character tensions". Whoa, stealing character tensions, that's got to be up there with pocketing the Golden Triangle.
Bizarre and offbeat, you say; but it leads right back to one of the biggest recent literary disputes of them all, the claim that Dan Brown stole the "architecture" of his novel The Da Vinci Code from a nonfiction work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Micahel Baigent and Richard Leigh. Not a single passage was alleged to have been copied; rather, elements of the plot (maybe the "character tension"?) were allegedly conceptually lifted from one genre into another.

Dan Brown won the lawsuit filed by his accusers. Laura Albert lost hers. One thing joined the two outcomes in holy matrimony forever: the lawyers were the only real winners. Albert has been ordered to pay the plaintiff's lawyers some $350,000, while the plaintiff himself got $116,000. Nice work, guys, you earned it. Brown's lawyers were to receive their just deserts of 1.3m pounds. If I thought anyone were in doubt that the entire system of contract, copyright, patent, matrimonial, consumer and medical law (to name a few prominent areas) has as its primary purpose the enrichment of lawyers themselves, I would bring this in evidence... except that I might need a lawyer to do so. Luckily, no one in their right mind has such doubts.

But beyond the obvious cynicism of the system for redressing these alleged wrongs, there are some very funny lessons to be observed here. Consider, for example, what the world of literary morality might look like if most of these plaintiffs, or mere complainers, were right:
  1. It would be okay to reinvent oneself as a fictional character, but wrong to be the self that has thus been reinvented.
  2. It would be a sin to publish information about a book one has read if one is not supposed to have read that book according to the book's author and publisher.
  3. It would be necessary to pay royalties to the heirs of John Milton before reproducing much of Paradise Lost; and indeed it might be possible to sue the likes of Nikos Kazantzakis, author of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, for stealing "architectures" or "research" or "character tensions" from Homer. (This situation should be found highly desirable in legal circles, as it would surely entail endless lawsuits to determine just who were the heirs of Homer or Milton.)
On the other hand, if some of the perpetrators here are within their rights, the world would look similarly interesting from a moral point of view:
  1. Who needs to write when so many millions of pages of readily available text are just sitting there waiting to be put to use? Is this not a service to the original author? For nothing provides so much publicity as a plagiarism case, and nothing helps an author's popularity so much as getting the sympathy vote after a plagiarism scandal. Why has no one appreciated the service Viswanathan did for Megan McCafferty, who I surely never heard of until her words were honored by Ms. Viswanathan?
  2. Why stop at faking vintage footage? Why not change the copyright date on the film to 1965? Why not get the winner of the 2007 Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King lookalike contest to put in an appearance? Why not carry subtitles: "The scene you are now seeing is really happening, or at least it was, or something similar was, or could have been anyway"? Zelig, anyone? (Excuse me, I meant Orlando.)
Well, I know what you thought: no parrot is going to self-incriminate by squawcking about plagiarism. And you are right to an extent. At least in this entry the main object of my interest is not plagiarism. Nor even lawyers. Nor copyright or patent or other illustrious institutions of intellectual private property. It is the self and its literary being.

First, Laura Albert. Apparently she is JT LeRoy, the author of Sarah. What was her offense? It was, first, believing that she was JT LeRoy. Well, she is JT LeRoy. Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain. And somebody, I hope, is H.A. Monk, the author of this blog. Now, suppose Sam had signed a contract as Mark Twain, would that be a problem? No, you say (I hope). Because he in effect owns the being that is Mark Twain, who might or might not have written books in the first person, without any difference in the situation. Ralph Lifschitz can sign a contract as Ralph Lauren, can't he? Now suppose someone comes along and wants to do a film on the Ralph Lauren story. He siticks a contract under the nose of Ralph Lifschitz, who promptly signs his name as "Ralph Lauren" ( don't know or care if he had it legally changed; maybe it's a DBA name or whatever). The cameras roll up, the street signs go up, the food cart lays out its feast of grapes, Kool-Aid and liverwurst, and finally the director says, "Okay, let's start from the top. Ralph, tell us your story. Roll it!" (Archaic pre-digital-era movie language, but whatever.) There sits Ralph. He begins: "My name is Ralph Lifschitz. At some point I started presenting myself to the public as Ralph Lauren because I wanted to be a famous fashion designer, and I didn't think anyone would take me seriously with a name like Lifschitz which suggests I'm a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx." "CUT!" End of film. The Director resigns and goes off to do a documentary about Walter Carlos...

Now what, literally, is wrong with this picture? Nothing, really. The Director got what he signed up for, the Ralph Lauren Story. It's just that that story is one or two sentences long. Not Ralph Lifschitz's problem. So why did Laura Albert get sued? And why did she lose? Mr. Levy-Hinte, you see, the upholder of Truth, Justice, and the Hollywood Way, believes he was duped by Ms. Albert. You see, what he wanted was a film about the "real" JT LeRoy. When he discovered that there was no "real" JT LeRoy, he decided that instead of doing a two-sentence film about JT LeRoy he wanted to do a metafilm about Laura Albert. But Ms. Albert did not believe that she had sold him the rights to a story about Laura Albert. You see, Laura Albert is JT LeRoy, but JT LeRoy is not Laura Albert. The relationship is not reciprocal. She had sold the rights to an Albert-as-LeRoy story, but not to an LeRoy-as-Albert story. But the former story makes for a very short film: "Hi, I'm fictional. Bye." Whereas the latter is no film at all, because Laura Albert does not want to be a movie star playing herself.

Mr. Levy-Hinte may have a sense of justice, however distorted, but he has no sense of humor. You see, Jeff does not realize that he is a fictional filmmaker, at least as auteur. Every novel has a fictional author. The fictionl author is the voice from whom the story comes. Ms. Albert gave her fictional author a name - JT LeRoy - and a history and personality. Mr. Levy-Hinte may not have given his fictional narrators a name, but in his films he surely has fictional narrators. And if he has any business sense at all, he would surely jump on the first opportunity to sell the rights to the real story of one of his fictional narrators. Easiest way to make money in the arts, I bet. It is hardly Ms. Albert's fault if JT LeRoy's story is as thin as a crepe. And it is certainly Mr. Levy-Hinte's fault if he doesn't understand what a fictional author is. In fact, that gives me an idea. Mr. Levy-Hinte, if you're reading this: there is this very interested guy named H.A. Monk; he's actually part man, part parrot, and sits on top of a lamppost in Brooklyn observing the NYC arts scene. Then he gets in front of his laptop and, as H.A. Monk, pumps out verbose and little-noticed blog posts about his observations. For a cool $2 million I believe he would be happy to squawck on camera about his life in the urban jungle. Whaddaya say?

Turning now to Ms. Kakutani. Note that parrots and cuckoos have certain things in common, so perhaps this is not an unbiased judgment. But neither are any of my other judgments, so there you go. Monks and Monks also have something in common, a fact to which I call your attention only because a fellow Bloogle Gogger who signs his posts "The Monk" (I assume if it were a female she should sign it "Monkee") has posted a note on Kakutani's review in which it is stated that Kakutani has lavishly praised every one of J.K. Rowling's Potter books, including Deathly Hallows, and therefore ought not to be taken to task by Rowling, as she was, for ruining the experience of millions of readers. Now, personally, I disagree with the logic of my cousin. Rowling's complaint was, at least on the surface, on behalf of her millions of readers, not herself. The complaint should be taken on its own merits, which Monk(2) does at another point, by pointing out that reviews in the NY Times are rarely read by children. Touché. And I suppose it could be added that any adult who does not wish to have their entire life devalued by hearing something about the book before the official release date should simply not read it. But another point should be made: in fact, Kakutani's description of the plot is so minimal that only a complete idiot would find the excitement of the book to have been undermined by the review. The evil ones have infiltrated Hogwarts, some well known Hogwarts characters die, Hermione is missing, Harry leads the resistance. No point in reading the book now, right?

But the trouble with the criticism goes way beyond that. Aside from the fact pointed out by a Times letter writer that reviewers are not (better not be) beholden to marketing machines, there is the fact that the vast majority of readers will not read the entire book on the day (night) it is released, and after that there will be hundreds of reviews that can be read prior to reading the book if one so chooses. Keep in mind that film companies regularly schedule pre-release screenings for critics and other film industry types; all the secrecy about the HP release strikes one as nothing more than hype.

Kakutani consistently demonstrates in her reviews that no book worth reading can be taken at face value. Every novel has a meaning or meanings beyond the plot, character development, etc. There must be a reason why characters behave his way or that, why they are put in his situation rather than hat one. Thus for example she draws attention to Potter's struggle against "the temptations of hubris and despair". There are many other such observations in her review, and frankly, it is this, rather than blame or praise in itself, that will make or break Rowling's recognition as a writer in the long run. I don't hear anyone complaining that Kakutani revealed the deeper meaning of Deathly Hallows before the release date, even though that is far more important than who wins or dies. From this perspective, the complaints make the critic's critics seem vapid and clueless.

That said, I think there is something about the superficial aspects of the Potter books that must be said now that the series is over. Rowling has, as Kakutani points out, a brilliant sense of mystery, enchantment, diobolical plots and the like, as well as insight into the fears and passions of adolescents, professors and goblins. These are what give the Potter world its raison d'etre and make the books consistently worth reading. But, bottom line, I'm sorry to say, she is not a particularly good writer. There is little elegance or poetry to Rowling's prose. Having deeper meanings is important, but the means of expression is too. Here it is easy to see that Rowling is no C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, and perhaps less of a writer in the fantasy genre than even Philip Pullman. Her work has intrinsic interest in almost every other way, but the basic quality of using the English language in elegant and ingenious ways is entirely missing. In short, she has no style of any great significance. I am surprised that Kakutani, who is never one to mince words, does not recognize this. Rowling is, you might say, a great author, but not a particularly notable writer.

But I digress. On the other hand, I'm done anyway, so who cares? All I really wanted to do was call attention to a couple of the current issues in literary ethics and look a little beyond the newspaper chatter. The two cases I have looked at are interesting because there are hidden conceptual issues that underlie the arguments on either side. To what extent does an author own her "self", and how many selves can she have? What constitutes deceit, and was Mr. Levy-Hinte deceived or did he deceive himself? Does an author's right to disseminate her writings include the right to ensure that no word will be spoken about her book's content prior to the release date? Does a reviewer have higher obligations than merely annointing or disparaging a work? Currently, most of the really knotty issues in literary ethics have been , obviously or not, around technology. For example, the existence of the Internet, and even more of Google, has given the issue of plagiarism a fresh urgency. But the discussion above suggests that technology alone is not the reason why literary ethics needs much more attention than its gotten. Maybe before we can understand the technological issues we need to understand things like the self and the dynamics of interpretation as they apply to literature. Which agrees in one way with the plenitude of issues I began with: we are pretty much still at sea, and have a long way to go.