Sunday, December 10, 2017

Changing the Anti-democratic Dial: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

Historian Timothy Snyder speaking in 2016.

"Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so."

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny.

Recently, I was fortunate to hear in Toronto a stimulating talk by distinguished Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, author of acclaimed monographs Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and his latest, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017). His talk was followed by a Q&A with CBC correspondent, Susan Ormiston. It turned out that his presentation was more an expansion of the epilogue in On Tyranny that explores two paradigms leading to worldviews that founder on an insufficient knowledge of history, while the interview with Ormiston directly related to the lessons Snyder posits in that slim (a mere 126 pages) but substantive volume.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Call Me by Your Name: Veneer of Romance

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name.

In Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, an American grad student in his mid-twenties named Oliver (Armie Hammer) spends six weeks in northern Italy during the summer months in residence as a research assistant to an archeologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has a love affair with Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), his host’s seventeen-year-old son. Neither of the young men identifies himself as gay – the first object of Oliver’s amorous attentions is Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), a neighbor of the Perlmans, and before Elio cements his relationship with Oliver he loses his virginity to Chiara’s daughter Marzia (Esther Garrel). Guadagnino and the screenwriter, James Ivory (adapting a novel by André Aciman), present their romance as a perfect confluence of physical and emotional energies at an ideal time in both their lives – especially Elio’s, since it’s his coming-of-age story – and in an ideal setting, a beautiful old villa in a picturesque town set against the magnificent landscape of Lombardy. (Sayombhu Mukdeeprom photographed.) Elio is a great-looking kid with an air of social and intellectual privilege; he’s fluent in English, French and Italian – his mother (Amira Casar) is Italian – his family has lived all over, he’s an accomplished pianist, and he has a comfortable, bantering relationship with the teenagers of the other summer people in the town. He walks around shirtless in shorts or swim trunks, smoking; he might be the image of the adolescent on holiday, snug in his own skin. But he holds back. He spends more time alone, reading or transcribing music, than he does with the other kids, and when they go to a club he’s the last on the dance floor. We see him eyeballing Oliver, who’s physically expressive – in sports, at a dance, or just lying on the edge of the pool reading – and it’s clear that he both envies the older man and is somewhat resentful of how easily he fits in. Their bedrooms are next door to each other – he has to give up his own room to this American visitor – and the day Oliver shows up, he’s so jet-lagged that he plops himself down on his bed, falls asleep instantly and opts to skip dinner, and Elio is put off by his refusal to act the role of the guest who does what’s expected of him. He thinks that Oliver’s impulsiveness and his manner are arrogant – and the fact that both his parents take to Oliver immediately and aren’t remotely bothered by his style doesn’t help. But Oliver reaches out to him in a friendly way, and Elio loses his skepticism – which is, of course, just a resistance to his own attraction to Oliver.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Chaos to the Core: The Zapple Diaries by Barry Miles

Beatles's manager Allen Klein, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969

The title is long but The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label and the story of The Beatles’s failed business endeavor by Barry Miles is a fascinating first-hand account. Miles was a personal friend of Paul McCartney when he opened the Indica Bookshop in London that featured art installations and poetry books by the leading avant-garde artists of the day. (One of those artists was Yoko Ono) He started the bookstore in 1965 with Peter Asher, brother of Jane Asher, McCartney’s girlfriend at the time. Miles reflects on those early days with a kind of pragmatic fondness, “There is no question that without Paul McCartney’s support Indica Books would have gone under several years before it did … in 1970.” He says that the Beatle’s involvement was “kept quiet.” But the seeds for starting a new business to record new poets were planted and McCartney was particularly enthusiastic about supporting the Miles/Asher partnership in this manner. While Asher kept the store going, the Beatles hired Miles when they formed Zapple, an imprint of Apple, in 1968. Zapple was created to release “more experimental material” such as spoken word recordings and his job was to approach and record American poets for the new label. His book is about that gig, the artists he recorded and the office politics of the Beatles’s risky new business.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Inventory Management, Vol V: Pure Refinement

Klansmen get chummy with a Nazi grunt in the alternate United States of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a direct sequel to Wolfenstein: The New Order, picking up directly where that game left off in the alternate 1960s where William “B.J.” Blazkowicz (Brian Bloom) and his band of underground resistance friends fight back against the victorious Nazi Reich, which, as of New Colossus, has successfully colonized the United States. The idea of the “Land of the Free” not being quite so free isn’t new – Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is probably the most famous example of this alt-history idea – but boy, oh boy, does it ever feel like a loaded concept in 2017. And that doesn’t escape the notice of developer MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks, who used this public sentiment to their advantage with marketing material that asked people to “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” There’s never been a better time for a game like New Colossus to come out, because its outlandish conceit has never felt closer to reality.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Coal into Diamond: The Inspiring Story of Gospel Funk

The incredible Sister Rosetta Tharpe, consummate gospel singer and secret inventor of rock 'n roll, soul and visionary funk music, circa 1940.

“I feel like there is an angel inside of me that I am constantly shocking.”Jean Cocteau

“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does. People don’t go to church to find trouble, they go there to lose it.”James Brown
The word gospel of course literally means good news. But the really good news is that gospel music morphed into the blues, blues morphed into soul, soul morphed into funk, and funk eventually morphed into both rap and hip hop. There will inevitably be another mutation in this wild musical evolutionary chain, but who knows what exotic shape it might take, especially considering the weird fact that hip hop has already become part of mainstream white pop music.

When blues music goes on a blind date with gospel music and has too much rhythm and blues to think, that unlikely marriage of heaven and hell gave birth to something called soul. In some ways the parents of both these sacred and profane styles didn’t want their kids going out together, let alone settling down and starting a dance-mad family that would shake up the musical world forever. Thus we enter the fray that would become the saga of gospel funk and its incredible climb to the stellar soul heights after its humble beginnings in the hot holy Southern church pews of America where fervent worship was the only spiritual dish on the community menu.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Out Of The Past: Nothing Personal at the Pace Gallery

Allen Ginsberg, poet, New York City, December 30, 1963 by Richard Avedon.

. . . to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand.
– James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal” (1964)
To live in a time when so much of the American worst has returned to squat like some demented, incontinent rooster on the White House lawn is to feel locked in a past more horrible for being resurrected in a new century. Jim Crow, voter suppression, the “Southern strategy” gone national: we’re past the body snatchers, and on to zombie politics. It seems clear enough, then, why the Richard Avedon Foundation has chosen now to reintroduce us to Nothing Personal. This large-format volume combining Avedon’s photographs with James Baldwin’s titular essay was published in 1964, at the violent height of what many were calling America’s new civil war. Its organizing observations were of the Civil Rights Movement, long before that historic reckoning had been assigned capital letters; more generally, it was a polemical outcry against dehumanization and alienation, with movie stars, pop stars, writers, socialites, and Louisiana asylum inmates among its subjects. Other themes, writ small or large, were the physical dynamics of individuals, couples, and groups; the lonesome cause of the intellectuals, several of whom gave Avedon worried looks from within chiaroscuro lighting; and the naked human body.

Through January 13, the Pace Gallery in Manhattan is showing an exhibition based on Nothing Personal; the art publisher Taschen has issued a facsimile of the original, along with a companion catalog containing many of the exhibition items – contact sheets, correspondence, rough drafts – and a fine, elliptical essay by New Yorker critic Hilton Als. The smallish rooms, high ceilings, and clean lighting of the Pace are suited to the modest collection, and allow for great variation in sizing, from Billy Graham at barely more than postcard size to Avedon’s famous mockery of the racist Daughters of the American Revolution, which is blown up to nearly the dimensions of a Bosch mural. (If you’ve never noticed the zit on the left shoulder blade of the matron at the center, you will now.)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Follies at the National: Challenges and Triumphs

Photo by Johan Persson.

The National Theatre has loaded a ton of money into Dominic Cooke’s revival of Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman Follies, the NT Live transcription of which is still doing the rounds. The ensemble numbers thirty-seven, not quite up to the cast of fifty that opened the musical on Broadway in I971 but substantial. Vicki Mortimer’s gargantuan set, its perspective shifting constantly as the Olivier Theatre revolve spins, evokes the dilapidated grandeur of the theatre that housed Dimitri Weissman’s Follies annually between the World Wars and is now scheduled (in 1971) to be converted into an office building. Paule Constable’s eerie lighting accentuates the ghostliness of the proceedings, as the Weissman girls reunite for a one-night-only reunion and we see their younger selves shadowing them as they recreate old production numbers and – in the case of the four principals, Phyllis and Ben Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast) and Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes), fragments from their early-forties lives, when showgirls Phyllis and Sally shared a flat and law-school classmates Ben and Buddy courted them while Ben and Sally carried on a clandestine love affair. (Zizi Strallen, Alex Young, Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig play, respectively, the younger versions of Phyllis, Sally, Ben and Buddy.) Mortimer’s costumes work fine, too, with a couple of odd, glaring exceptions. Dee’s sack-like party gown is one. The other is Staunton’s, which is green and so leaves the audience puzzled at her insistence, in “Too Many Mornings,” that she should have worn green because she wore green the last time she saw Ben, the man whom she’s fantasized into the love of her life she’s never gotten over.