Sunday, January 15, 2012

Burning Newspaper

I've been reading an amazing book, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. It's an account of the recovery at the dawn of the Renaissance of a copy of the ancient Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things, a beautiful work that was considered the definitive Roman version of Epicurean philosophy. Epicureanism was a common-sense but at the time revolutionary take on life that combined prescient opinions of how the physical world works – including Darwinism and atomism – with atheism (or at least "the gods don't care about you-ism"), a philosophy of moderation and a belief that "the pursuit of happiness" is the aim of human life.

Epicureanism – along with much of pre-Christian Greek & Roman culture, Judaism, competing Near East cults, etc. – was viewed as a critical threat to the early Church, and as Christians increased in numbers and power in the Roman Empire in the first centuries of the common era books were burned, authors were slandered, intellectuals were murdered by mobs, and the vast Roman libraries that dotted the major cities of the Empire disappeared through both overt destruction and neglect. As the centuries wore on, even worse damage was wrought by non-human agents: fire, decay, overuse & especially the hungry microscopic insects known as “bookworms” swallowed up the vast majority of ancient literature without a trace.

The early Christians were no worse than most others. One need look no further than the destruction wrought by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution, or American bombs in Berlin and Baghdad to know that each fragment of our collective ancient heritage is a tenuous little miracle.

1000+ years after the triumph of Christianity in ancient Rome (and Rome’s subsequent destruction), a new breed of “humanist” scholars began to roam continental Europe’s monasteries, ruins & private collections in search of the odd surviving ancient Greek or Roman manuscript. What they recovered was invaluable, but they didn’t come up with much. Neither have we in the intervening 500+ years. A great quote from the Greenblatt book puts the totality of the destruction of the previous civilization into perspective:

“Apart from [a few] charred papyrus fragments recovered in Herculaneum, there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the Ancient Greek and Roman world. Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place and culture from the original. And these copies represent only a small portion of the works even of the most celebrated writers of antiquity. Of Aeschylus’ 80 or 90 plays and the roughly 120 by Sophocles, only 7 each have survived…

These are the great success stories. Virtually the entire output of many other writers, famous in antiquity, has disappeared without a trace…At the end of the 5th Century CE an ambitious literary editor known as Stobaeus compiled an anthology of prose and poetry by the ancient world’s best authors: out of 1,430 quotations, 1,115 are from works that are now lost. “

-- Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

What’s even more shocking is that many archaeologists think that our current civilization and its literature & documents will fare no better. I’m in the process of ripping all of my CDs into digital format & placing them on the cloud, then throwing them away – so I’m especially sensitive to this argument right now. Several generations of disk drive technologies have already been rendered obsolete, and a mere 10-20 years later data on their disks can be rendered only by hard-to-find computer antiquarians. A floppy disk drive from the late 1980s might as well be written in hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone. If this is what happens in 10-15 years, what will happen in 1000?

Even in the absence of technological obsolescence, file corruption occurs rapidly in digital formats, even faster than the physical decay of papyrus from the ancient world. Constant curation and backing up of files is necessary on a consistent basis to ensure non-corruption of data. Further challenge comes from encryption technologies, which are growing increasingly prevalent and render data untranslatable without appropriate salts & passcodes.

To the ancient Roman living in a major city of the Empire, the permanence of civilization’s great libraries & body of literature seemed obvious and eternal. It’s highly unlikely that they could have envisioned the incineration of their entire literary output. It’s unthinkable to us too, but it’s probably going to happen. Were it to follow previous patterns, one might expect a half-dozen Shakespeare plays to survive due to their massive circulation, perhaps a half-dozen Bibles & Korans, plus a random assortment of a couple dozen or so other texts.

It's moderately reassuring that in defiance of the annihilation of much of ancient culture Lucretius' poem was able to have profound influence on America's founders, and even left a fingerprint on the Declaration of Independence.

But how strange to think that our entire civilization, with its omnipresent glut of information, is in the long run as disposable as a fast food flyer left on the hood of a car in a parking lot.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ten Things About Reality That Will Blow Your Mind

I’m really surprised at the low level of impact that various astounding scientific discoveries make in our everyday sense of ourselves and the world around us. For example, the past century has seen a series of breathtaking, startling and rigorously proven breakthroughs in our understanding of reality that have radically altered our view of what the universe is and how it works. But unfortunately by “our” I mean a very tiny handful of particle physicists plus a smallish coterie of amateurs who read avidly on the topic. The nature of reality appears to have been deemed too esoteric and counter-intuitive for dissemination to the general public, and you will learn precious little about it in our schools, in the media or anywhere else for that matter.

It’s an understandable predicament – this stuff is genuinely difficult and mostly counter-intuitive – but nevertheless unfortunate. And so, to signpost some of the high-level general implications of these discoveries for myself and to share them with my friends I’m posting 10 discoveries that we have made over the past century that radically alter our understanding of what reality is and how it works. Buckle your seatbelts! The universe is a far stranger and more awe-inspiring place than we originally imagined.

1. Possibility is a real thing, not just a human concept.

Quantum mechanics has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that possibility is a physical force every bit as concrete and real as gravity or electro-magnetism. And it flows across the universe in waves, as if it were a liquid. Every constituent component of our universe travels along in “probability waves” that contain every possible location and path that they might possibly have taken, and they collapse into actual things with definite locations and trajectories only when they bump up against one another. Until then there is a very real sense in which they are riding a wave that simultaneously places them at every possible location where they could be, and those possible locations can also bump up against one another and create interference patterns that we can observe in labs.

2. Our one-way, linear experience of time is an illusion.

To the best of our current understanding, it appears that time is not linear and there is no “arrow of time” that we flow across, all reasonable appearances to the contrary. Objects (including ourselves) move through time, but all directions of time are equal, just as they are for space.

Our illusory experience of time’s flow is due to two things (1) the law of entropy, which shows that highly ordered things invariably break down into a rest state of disorder, and (2) the original state of our universe, which was extremely, extremely ordered and is constantly breaking down into further disorder, because it was so ordered at its inception. This is the only linear aspect of our universe across time, and it provides a physical constraint that prevents conscious beings from mapping memories of the future, in addition to the past. Therefore whatever moment you happen to be in appears to “flow” in an orderly fashion from past to present because our memories go only one way and many kinds of things (like the breaking of an egg) can’t be undone in this universe.

In a universe that was less orderly in its beginning, by the way, consciousness probably would not even be possible because in a rest state of high disorder it is phenomenally rare that order ever increases.

It's important to note that, while this is the leading theory at the moment, it has not been absolutely proven as of yet, and it's still possible that something else may be at work in our one-way perception of time. There’s still a lot for us to learn and its pretty certain that more revelations are (were?) in store for us in the “future”.

3. The faster you move through space, the slower you move through time.

Believe it or not this has been experimentally verified and is now beyond doubt. Time slows proportionately depending on how fast you are moving through space. Because we can only move relatively slowly through space, these effects are never apparent to us. But if you could get in some sort of magical space ship that went almost as fast as the speed of light you would be able to travel through time much more rapidly than those on Earth and arrive back millions of years in the future in a matter of days.

4. When you jump out of an airplane, you are not falling toward the Earth; the Earth is falling on you.

Objects made of matter, whether humans or planets or subatomic particles, warp the fabric of space-time and cause grooves to form in it across which other, smaller objects will now travel. It’s as if a fat person made an ass-print in the comfy chair of our universe. This is called gravity. The pressure that we feel for virtually all of our lives (except when we’re jumping out of airplanes) is a combination of (1) our body’s natural rest state moving at a steady velocity down the warp in the fabric of space created by the massive object that we live on, and (b) that same massive object obstructing our body’s ability to continue in that rest state. Therefore when you jump out of an airplane (not counting the impact of the wind) you are not really moving relative to other objects around you; rather, they are moving toward you. And the Earth is flying at you like the ultimate Mack Truck.

5. Particles can communicate and align themselves with one another instantly across space, even if they’re on opposite ends of the universe.

There are ways in which matter’s constituent particles are not constrained by space at all, and can communicate with one another instantaneously from one end of the universe to the other. We know this largely because Einstein hated quantum physics and was constantly trying to come up with ways to debunk it. Unfortunately, every time he did he only prove it further, and proved how strange it is. His most ingenious method was to show that quantum mechanics predicted that if you emit two particles that are linked from a quantum mechanical perspective and allow them to fly off to opposite ends of the universe, then alter one of them in some manner, quantum math predicts that the other will be instantaneously altered as well. Sure enough, a decade or so later it was proven that this actually works. So if for example you split a photon into two and shoot them off in opposite directions, it has been proven that one immediately knows if the other has been bumped up against or not and changes itself accordingly, faster than the speed of light and instantaneously across space. This shows that there are mysterious links between some particles/waves that transcend space entirely.

6. It is possible under certain special circumstances to go back in time and change the past.

This one could also be titled “the universe is fucking with us”. But it only works for subatomic particles. The experiment goes like this: if you “tag” a particle (alter its spin) so that it is potentially possible that someone could distinguish it from another particle later, that particle’s probability wave collapses and it becomes an actual particle with a definite location and trajectory in space. If you later “untag” them so that they could never be distinguished from one another at some indefinite time in the future, it becomes a probability wave again. One the face of it, this appears to tell us that the particle goes back in time and now follows all possible routes through space where it once only traveled a single path.

This would even work if you “tagged” it in the Andromeda galaxy and then “untagged” it three million years later in our galaxy, which means that the past has been irrevocably altered and the particle, which previously only went through space via one definite path, has now gone back and traveled all of its possible paths as a probability wave. By untagging the particle we have altered 3 million years of history.

It also means that the particle/probability wave is on some level “aware” that it would be possible to measure and distinguish it at some point in the future, and alters its behavior accordingly. Terrifying, creepy and all-around awesome.

7. The universe was created out of nothing by a rare but occasionally occurring statistical blip in the void.

This does not of course rule out divine intervention, but the laws of physics as we know them today show that a universe such as ours will invariably emerge out of nothingness every so often as an extremely rare statistical anomaly. Blip!

It is probably a bit premature for me to post this one because it hasn't been proven per se -- but it's incredibly cool and looking more likely. The growing consensus around it stems from quantum math predictions surrounding the constant creation in our universe of "virtual particles" out of the void all across space that every so rarely turn into real particles, and an extension of this quantum behavior to reality before the creation of our universe.

8. The Big Bang was not a “bang”.

If you assumed it was a bang you would think that Planet Earth was Ground Zero, because everything is rushing away from us in opposite directions at speeds directly proportional to their distance from us. But the so-called Big Bang wasn’t a bang at all, and everything is actually rushing away from everything else at the same proportional speeds. The Big Bang and the ensuing expansion of the universe is more a stretching of space, like Silly Putty pulled further and further, and all matter in the universe gets stretched outward along with it.

In addition, it looks like our visual image of the universe starting in a single point and expanding outward also goes out the window. It looks more and more like the universe was infinitely large at its inception, even as it continually stretches and expands.

9. We already know how to teleport things.

And we’ve done it in labs. Unfortunately those “things” are sub-atomic particles like photons and electrons. But we’ve done it! Using the trans-spatial bizarreness mentioned in #5 we’ve managed to associate two particles with one another, send them off in opposite directions and then transport/transpose one particle onto the location of the other particle, destroying the other particle in the process.

Now the bad news. There is no way in hell we’ll be able to teleport human beings any time soon, and probably ever. For one thing, the teleportation requires this particle association (called quantum “entanglement”) for every particle being teleported. How do you do that for every particle in a human body? Then you have to have all of the constituent mirror matter at the location where you’re teleporting them. Then you have to have a computer so vast that it could capture all of the insane complexity of all of the particles jostling around in a human body in such a way that it can deterministically place them all back in the right order at the new location. The computer capacity required for that is truly inconceivable. Plus quantum weirdness may come into play; while the particles in your body are constantly jostling up against one another and their possibility waves have therefore collapsed, they might create a factor of uncertainty. In conclusion: forget about it. Not gonna happen.

10. Math is a motherfucker

Physicists have gotten so far in understanding how the universe works, despite how counter-intuitive so much of it is, by following the math wherever it leads. Whenever someone (such as Einstein) points out an apparent logical flaw in the math of quantum mechanics, for example, the math always turns out to be experimentally correct.

Which raises the question, why does math work? Nobody’s figured that one out yet. For now it operates infallibly and without explanation, as if the ineffable language of God.

ps. Because it is still very much undecided and up in the air I am not including any of the conclusions of M-Theory, because it hasn’t yet been proven or fully worked out. But suffice it to say that many more jaw-dropping surprises about the nature of reality are on their way. It’s worth tuning in to them from time to time!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mississippi Goat Roast

Last month on the way back from a business trip I stopped off in Memphis, rented a car and drove just south of Senatobia, Mississippi to attend the Turner family’s annual Goat Roast, a weekend-long party in August on the old family farm that features two nights of performances by local blues musicians -- who happen to be some of the very best musicians in the world -- on a bandstand in the backyard.

Senatobia sits in the heart of North Mississippi Hill Country, a region that serves as keeper of the flame for traditional African American music spanning centuries. It’s in Hill Country that you can still find old traditions kept alive like the Fife & Drum bands that the Turner family is famous for fostering; back in the early twentieth century a regular dribble of Hill Country migrants bringing their traditional culture south to the Delta (where the jobs were) went a long way to creating The Blues. Even today, if you listen to Hill Country guitarists like the great Robert Belfour, you can hear a blues style that seems audibly connected to the West African Sahel, with guitar playing that sounds at times like Malian kora licks forced onto a fretted instrument, with sub-tonal bent notes unbuckling the seams of its normally well-tempered straightjacket. Others like the late Robert Kimbrough sound a dissonant drone in the bass strings torn straight out of a Sahara Desert camel caravan.

The Turner family occupies a special place in Hill Country’s musical universe. Recently deceased patriarch Otha Turner was the highly regarded fife-master of Rising Star Fife & Drum, with his grandchildren & cousins making up the drum corp. These picnics have been going on since at least the 1930s, when Alan Lomax filmed one of them, and attract hundreds of people all across Mississippi from Como to Clarksdale. The list of musicians that played here is a who’s who of blues history, including Belfour, Kimbrough, Napoleon Strickland, T Model Ford, the Burnside clan and many others.

Fife & drum bands were a major source of African American music & entertainment since the Revolutionary War. During slavery Africans weren’t allowed drums because they were known to be a means of communicating across large distances and therefore constituted a potential threat to European slave owners. But fife & drum bands started as adjuncts to the military and so were allowed, back when European armies were signaled and ordered via drums – something they were taught by North African invaders of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Fife & drum ensembles persevered through war and peace for over two centuries, serving as house band for parties in the agricultural off-season during the Jim Crow period. On these military snares and bass drums you can hear all the overlaid polyrhythmic complexity of Cuban or Congolese music in a completely new context, with a hand-made cane fife laying syncopated melodic patterns over the top of it.

Otha Turner died several years ago, but his large family is spread out along both sides of a wide stretch of rural Como, MS highway, and they continues the tradition with his nineteen year-old granddaughter Chardé Thomas as fife master. The goat roast is held on Otha’s old farm. Picnics like this were a near-daily feature of the agricultural off-season in the early twentieth century, with each family in the region hosting one a year. Back when Lomax visited, the fife & drum bands ruled the day, often with an African holdover opening that involved stylized, erotic drum saluting and male line dancing to entice the women. There were other instruments played then that are now extinct, including multi-flute pan pipes torn straight from Cameroon (soon to be replaced by the harmonica), home-made fiddles, hair combs covered in toilet paper, and diddley-bows – one long string often tied to a tree and anchored down to the ground until the tree was bent over, with enough pressure to turn it into a giant, multi-faceted instrument that can be played like a slide guitar & drummed at the same time (I did see one of these in the Dominican Republic a few years, where it’s called the gajumba, but it’s completely died out in Mississippi).

Those instruments are gone now as the blues’ unrecorded origins slide into the mud of oblivion along with the names of its inventors. But Rising Star and the goat roast carry on. I stopped off first at a grungy Super 8 motel by the side of the highway, torn from some picaresque David Lynch gothic noir, complete with creepy, obese motel clerk watching 1970s slasher movies & slugging down candy bars behind the counter, then made my way over to the stretch of country road where the goat roast was about to commence. Very pretty country, but remote and fairly poor. The neighbors had set up do-it-yourself parking operations in their front-yards for four dollars a pop and there were small kids playing on a trampoline in front of an adjoining house. Otha’s shack was still there, with a shed in the back where he made his fifes & kept his musical instruments, & the porch was a good place to kick back and check out the music.

This was an all-in-the-family operation and so there were teenagers directing traffic into the adjoining field, middle-aged ladies camped out in front of the house charging a modest $2 admission and a dozen family members behind the counter of a jury-rigged concession stand shelling out Wonder Bread goat sandwiches and beers for another $2. Out back there was a rented bandstand with power cords strung up overhead and leading to a generator by the house. It was vaguely disappointing to see no goats being slaughtered on-site, but one guy manned a gigantic woodsmoke grill out back where mass barbecuing was underway.

The first night of the party gets started with a drum call, and while most of the African ritual has been bled out of it by now, there’s still a big crowding and swaying around the drums when things get started. People are still really into it, and see it as a source of local pride. And a careful eye picks up the little fossil remnants of the old days, like one big & one small drumstick, male & female, a modest West African holdover. Then the first B-class acts start playing, but here a B-act is one guy playing reverbed-out guitar and drum-set at the same time, so awesome and raw that it made the White Stripes sound like Donnie & Marie. More people start filtering in and a Turner family matriarch who appears to have already had a few drinks ascends to the bandstand, demands a rhythm section and starts riffing a blues about how sexy her new wig is and how you can’t take it from her. The bass player dutifully demands the wig in a stanza of his own and he eventually winds up wearing it as she tumbles triumphantly into the dancers up front and makes a beeline for the beer concession.

By now everybody’s camped out on the backyard lawn. There are a bunch of plastic chairs but mostly people are sitting on grass or leaning against derelict pieces of farm equipment as the A-listers start filing up to the bandstand and jamming out. There’s living legend R.L. Burnside moseying up with a cane, clearly a little drunk and getting lost from time to time as he knocks out a hypnotic drone riff and commences to blowing everyone’s mind. At one point he throws a beer can at some harmonica player who wanders up and starts stepping on his buzz. The Turner family matron is back to move the show along and tries to bring in the next group, but R.L. just keeps sitting there and playing like he can’t hear her.

“Don’t be nasty, R.L.!”

He just smiles vacantly and rocks out for another half-hour. No one else complains.

Musicians meander up and down the bandstand in an ever-shifting ensemble. The old folks here are shocking, and when you start to talk to them you realize you own a dozen different recordings that they’re on. One man in a Fedora and a t-shirt that says “I’m 80% Redneck and the Rest is Beer” was Robert Kimbrough’s rhythm guitarist; he mistakes me for somebody and engages in an extended reminiscence that I’m supposedly a party to that is only half-understandable because he’s buckled over in hysterics the entire time. The North Mississippi All-Stars show up at one point, which consist of six different blues legend each a star unto themselves, and R.L.’s amazing son Dwayne turns up late and high as a kite to reverb out on some especially nasty Hendrixified blues -- some of which he forgets half the words to.

Up in front of the bandstand everybody’s making it clear that the blues was intended as a dance form. Couples are slow dragging one another head-to-toe or going solo with their arms up in the air and making herky-jerky leg moves that are as oddly graceful as they are abrupt. At one point an alarmingly large woman grabs me and drags me onto the dance floor with a vice grip on my wrists, turning her attention away from me only long enough to swivel her head and cackle at her friends: “Watch out! I got this one!”

Then of course there’s Charde and Rising Star. They start a set on the bandstand but something goes wrong with the monitor and Charde in a fit of pique storms off. From then on they simply wander through the festivities from time to time, all other music comes to a halt and everybody crowds around the six of them as they slam out local classics like Shimmy She-Wobble and generally jam out. It’s a miracle you can hear Charde’s fife at all given how loud they’re drumming, but somehow she makes herself heard, sometimes breaking into song with a surprisingly smooth & beautiful R&B voice, sometimes chanting out a latter-day addition like The Roof...The Roof...The Roof is on Fire...

Everybody’s really into the fife & drumming and you can tell it’s a point of local pride and a link to best part the past. So much of the old local musical tradition has been lost but thanks to these six kids the fife & drum is still going strong and doesn’t look to be going anywhere for a long time. Given how self-assured she is during performance it’s a surprise to talk to Charde in person and realize how young she is, a super-smart, slightly unsure of herself sweet kid. I had been corresponding with her previously about the possibility of performing at the Festival au Desert outside Timbuktu, but apparently she took one look at the photographs of fully decked-out Touaregs on camels and the tents she would have to sleep in and got a little freaked out. But we’ll get Rising Star out there eventually, along with some of the great local blues musicians, and it will be worth it to get them on the same stage with the kora virtuosi and bala players from whence so much of their musical foundation comes, even after all these centuries.

Outside the confines of the family farm, it’s clear that the Turner picnic is a magnet for every African-American kid with a car in a hundred square mile radius. You can walk a half-hour in each direction and see a solid line of teenagers and twenty-somethings partying by the side of the road and checking each other out, with strong-smelling mushroom clouds of pot wafting into the star-filled sky here and there and a long line of cars & trucks cruising the backroad and blasting R&B in a never-ending circuit. Some are barely aware that there’s music going on back at the farm. I tell them I'm from New York City and they look at me like I said The Moon.

But off in the distance as you chit-chat with local kids you can still hear the blues in the background. At one point an amplified guitar emits a long, inconsolable howl that crawls up your spine, like a woman mourning the death of a child.

So much bad is buried with our ancestors. But also just about everything that is good about us, about our culture, and all of it burns to ash in the same furnace. I’m standing with my fellow children of the twenty-first century, trying to make sense of one another as we listen to the last echo of a musical tradition that emerged out of these hills and quite literally transformed popular music across the planet. Our American descendants hundreds of years from now will cherish every bit of early African music that was captured before it disappeared as if they were fragments of Sappho, because it will still be what they are made of. The creation of the American soul took place while history was looking elsewhere. Tonight we are lucky to be here & hear it for ourselves.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Curtis Gwinn Exposes Himself

A serendipitous business trip to Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago allowed me to pop by Upright Citizens Brigade LA, where it turned out former New Yorker Curtis Gwinn was giving a one-man show. New York improv junkies know Curtis as a local star, perhaps the biggest in New York before he left last year, most famously working as founding member and deranged ringmaster of Death by Roo Roo.

In person, Curtis can be acerbic, elliptical and generally a pain in the ass. He’s also a lot of fun, in person and onstage, a brilliant post-punk showman torn from the set of Repo Man and allowed to mature twenty years like scotch. But as much fun as he’s having you can always feel the unrelenting, exacting judgment that he lords over himself and everyone around him like a Damoclean sword, emanating off him like an electric field, mowing down anyone too slow in its wake & generating much of the reckless, over-caffeinated dog-pack energy that Roo Roo is still famous for.

Curtis may be a lot of things but he’s not the first candidate you would come up with for one of these one-person shows, which are typically a sort of stand-up comedy equivalent of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, touchy-feely dinner theater for the grunge set, with seminal moments and life lessons learned and at bottom a naïve, wide-eyed faith in the defining power over our lives of simple, linear narratives that can be boiled down to three beats and twenty-five minutes.

Curtis opened the show addressing this head-on in his usual cantankerous manner, more for himself than the audience – though it was certainly entertaining – as he dragged himself kicking and screaming to the confessional booth.

I hate one-man shows he says, and I resent you for coming tonight. You should all be ashamed of yourselves for supporting this stuff. He then goes on to outline the specific issues he has with the form, especially his disdain for their shared notion of fundamental human change as a result of two or three pivotal events that pluck your heartstrings even while you learn something & laugh.

Curtis is right on here. Number one, people don’t really change, except maybe incrementally and over a very long stretch of time. And if some event in your life is actually so calamitous as to actually make you change in any meaningful way, it’s unlikely to change you for the better and isn’t going to be all that funny no matter how you spin it onstage. The loopy genius of modern improvisational form, which Curtis is especially adept at, is in a way the exact opposite of fundamental change, a ritual re-enactment of repeated behavior driven to further and further extremes in order to reach a surreal & necessary apex, and a celebration of the variations that can be spun from the set-in-stone nature of people, especially when you bump them together like pool balls on the stage to find out what happens.

This same logic marks Curtis’ world view here, and allows his show to tiptoe toward greatness. Having sufficiently chastised both himself and the audience for the unseemly intimacy of the performance to come, he manages to weave together the literal dissolution of his home & his father’s descent into homelessness, a porn mag found in the woods, an aborted attempt at a college education and a botched first romantic encounter into a grumpily touching tone poem of dislocation that holds him up to a microscope for comic inspection without offering any real hope of resolution or redemption.

Only once does the thought that “something might happen” impinge, when a former roommate informs him that his botched sweetheart is a pole dancer at a strip joint in a neighboring town. And that something is slapped down precipitously. Will seeing her so degraded provide irony, insight, closure, catharsis, revenge? No such luck; it’s not even her, it just sort of looks like her.

The sheer pointlessness of the hero’s journey is followed up by the rub-your-nose-in-it degradation of the trip back home. I would call it an anti-climax but he actually does auto-climax in the driver’s seat of his Volkswagen at one point, and is caught & run out of town by the local sheriff only to have his VW break down by the side of the highway, forcing him to abandon it and walk “home” to the apartment where his drifter dad is currently hanging out and climb into bed with him.

This is all a lot funnier than it sounds on the page, which points to the truth that anyone who wants to be adept at improv better be willing to lay themselves out for the audience as naked and squalid and sad as we all happen to be. Curtis’ show was brave by any standard, and very funny. It points to the way in which the underlying philosophy of improv leads to a smarter and stronger comic aesthetic when applied to written forms. And that Curtis is still very much in the process of conquering the world out in LA. He remains one of our best, smartest artists.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Metropolis Emboweled

I’ve just finished the complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (minus one short scene which is still lost) and was in the first American audience to ever view the complete film, which was cool. It’s more easily watchable than what we’d previously inherited as a lot of gaps in the narrative are restored, along with many short interspersed shots that bring coherence to the multiple big action scenes that take place simultaneously and converge on one another in the film’s second half. The whole flow of underground worker-drones smashing big machines and then line-dancing around their carcasses, earnest Dudley Do-Rights saving hundreds of abandoned children from a biblical flood, nefarious Thin Men and menacing mad scientists plotting mass destruction, and trashed flappers partying on the concrete skyways during a citywide blackout with empty cars littered all around them flow together more seamlessly and make a lot more sense now.

The cuts that were ordered by the studios to make it more commercially accessible are weird. There’s nothing especially esoteric about the recovered footage, and hacking away at key turns in the narrative can’t have been helpful in terms of the public reception. Disemboweled Metropolis was a movie only an art critic or film geek could love, as strange and surreally nonsensical as Last Year at Marienbad. And the corny action sequences interspersed throughout could only be taken as ironic and deconstructive in the mode of Jean-Luc Godard in the previous version. The full feature film is more the kind of swashbuckling, ass-kicking action-romance that you associate with big-budget Hollywood crap even in the silent era. You can’t help wondering if the studio editor was even more avant-garde (or stoned?) than the people who put the film together in the first place. As far as action-packed silent-film spectaculars go, though, I’d have to say that the original Ben-Hur still wins.

In the end though it’s easy to see why the movie’s commercial disfigurement did little to detract from its reputation. What’s so singularly hip about Metropolis is still the film’s look & feel, its massive deco statues and sets, its ritualized roaring twenties costumes that turn coke-girl flapper outfits into a modernist take on Native American headgear, above all its great big Moloch machines and its robot woman tied down to a gurney in Rotwang’s proto-Dr Frankenstein lab full of boiling beakers and functionally puzzling, electricity-conducting contraptions. The narrative makes all this more digestible, but has little of value to offer us aside from making it easier for our grandmothers to follow along as we watch it together.

Viewed again after so many years, it’s surprising to see how such a visually forward-looking film embraces traditional family values circa 1927. In that day and age this apparently entailed exhorting the proletariat to hark back to the wholesome, old-timey values of their agrarian peasant past, with the church as final arbiter of the struggle between industrial worker and latter-day aristocrat (i.e. Communist and Fascist). A valuable clue in the interpretation of behavior and meaning in the conservative religious movement today. Not Church with a capital “C”, but rather the constantly reincarnating multiple strains of grassroots populist religion that kept cropping up like mushrooms after rain and sweeping across Europe in the Middle Ages, sometimes doing significant damage. For it is a freelance incarnation of the Virgin Mary hiding out in the sewers of dystopia that brings sanity to the masses of Metropolis.

This highlights the great irony of Christianity in Western culture; promoted to official religion largely because its central authority and single deity are so useful in the forging of Empire, its clearly documented roots are so firmly on the side of anti-urban, anti-central authority rural Bronze Age class values that the Bible acts as a sort of permanent Trojan horse for the disenfranchised – not merely an opiate but also empowering, an insurance policy of sorts. And potentially dangerous as well – most medieval Jewish pogroms were enacted spontaneously by the masses in moments of aristocratic weakness: all is not sunshine and light in the old-timey agrarian values of our forebears, which the Nazi Party married to corporate fascism with ugly results. It’s hard not to interpret the workers’ suicidal frenzy at the end of the film as a disturbingly prescient take on Kristallnacht, still ten years in the future. The church was not especially helpful in restoring sanity in that particular use-case.

Speaking of religion, how about that hotty whorenun Brigitte Helm?! This is why every woman-loving human on Earth prefers Roman Catholics. Their religious upbringing has twisted them irrevocably in all the right ways. The only downside is that classic silent film acting methods – which seem closer to kabuki or koodiyattam than what we think of as movie acting today – dictate that her slutty evil doppelganger persona be performed with a facial asymmetry that makes it look like she's suffered a stroke.

Man-lovers have much less to pine for in Metropolis; Freder the corn-fed protagonist fights like a little girl, makes love with all the worldliness of a pimply teenage waiter at Friendly’s, and wears at least twelve geological strata of cake make-up that collectively make him resemble the embalmed corpse of a Swedish farmhand. Freder is less a Jesus figure than a modernist manifestation of the Buddha, cosseted away on a groovy Jazz Age roof deck banging bobbed-haired courtesans when Virginal Brigitte Helm busts in with a clatch of Dickensian waifs and explains that poverty exists. At this point everything changes. Does he want to end the social injustices wrought by his father the industrial tycoon, or is he merely burning to bag Brigitte? The two seem inextricably linked through the course of the film, and the rest of us can only let out a long sigh of relief that we’ve never fallen in love with a woman who made us end world poverty before she would sleep with us.

I’m getting too snarky and should probably stop. But to be honest it’s the occasional imperfect goofiness of Metropolis that breathes life into it & makes it more than a jaw-dropping exercise in social realist statue gardening. It allows us to roam the film and examine at will the operatic scope & perfection of its visual poetry and still puncture the self-importance a bit so we can laugh here and there at both it and ourselves.

PS you can still see Metropolis for the next two weeks at Film Forum:

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Agra to Aurangabad

They tend to stick all the tourists together on Indian trains, which makes them a good place to meet people. I end up on the ride from Varanasi to Agra with a klatch of Australians, one couple who are hippying it out for a few months plus a mom and her two adult daughters who just got back from a week’s trek in Kashmir. Plus a six-year old girl from the berth next door who keeps coming over and putting on a charm show. We put up a silk scarf in front of the overhead light, and between the six of us manage to come up with a fifth of Whiskey, some RC Colas, a blunt and a few energy bars, so the night goes well, though we get little sleep. Vendors pass through the car at regular intervals hawking cups of chai, bottled water and soda & various deep-fried foodstuffs. The one thorn in our side is the train attendant, who keeps finding excuses to come around and stare at the chicas. I start off trying to stare him down and shame him away, but turns out you can’t stare an Indian down; they don’t give a shit, they just keep staring back for however many hours it takes for you to look away. Throwing a shoe at them works quite well, though! I’m going to try staring at Neal Mohan when I get back and see what he does; the shoe I’ll save for Rajas Moonka.

I’m so ready to be palpably underwhelmed by the Taj Mahal that I’ve psyched myself out before arriving and have to adjust my whole world view when I find myself unexpectedly staring up at the most beautiful piece of architecture on Earth. It’s like a desert mirage, and hangs there like a cloud. Photographs don’t capture the full measure of it’s sublimity, and later that day I delete the ones I took in frustration. In part it’s so exquisite because it doesn’t try to do too much; there are no bombastic broad shoulders fanning out on either side, nothing that bespeaks a mote of insecurity on the part of its architect, just a pristine little elevated square of white marble topped by a central dome that borders on bulging out too much but then stops at just that place, like an alabaster balloon, with a retainer of eight little minarets and a monumental garden pathway. Off in the distance on either side are red sandstone gates that would qualify as world monuments in their own right, but they stay far enough apart not to mar the star attraction, like bridesmaids’ done up in prom dresses, to blur their beauty a bit as they stand off to the side. As the day progresses, shadows play with its surface and the sun subtly alters its color, an intentional effect meant to mimic the presence of the creator since Muslim law forbids direct representation of God. And it does feel like some all-pervasive presence is at work as the dome browns and pales over the course of the day, an ethereal, conscious motion running its fingers through us. Up close you see treasure chests of emeralds, rubies and sapphires that have been chipped into the shapes of delicate flower & vine patterns and embedded along the doorways and the inside of the building.

Being stuck in Agra after viewing the Taj Mahal is like waking up a week after you’ve married a shockingly beautiful woman and finding her entire extended family has moved out of their trailer park and into your apartment. All you can say is ouch. It’s a big thumping city that wears you out quick, and everyone you meet has a cousin with a rug store or a jewelry shop. The one bit of beauty that rises up out of the noise pollution are the pigeon keepers in the Muslim section who send their flocks into the air above the rooftops in late afternoon and direct them with a series of whistles that send them gyrating this way and that on command like magic kites. The food is good, too, high Mughal cooking like you see in the States except it tastes better, but you have to watch where you eat. The local newspaper has a front page story about a scam where one restaurant poisoned tourists, then put them on a rickshaw that took them to a backdoor clinic that gave them a prescription of more poison to keep them sick for a week or so while they charged their health insurance policies tens of thousands of dollars.

My mom wanted to come down and visit for a few days and since I sponged off of her when she was working in Ethiopia and Tanzania I ask her to meet here in Agra. She shows up on the second day and we’re supposed to take a train down to Aurangabad, but a major train accident on the way forces us to shift gears and get a flight from Delhi. So we drive up to the capital and crash at some fleabag hotel beside the airport when suddenly a memory flashes before my eyes like a vivid dream; I am in Dublin the night before Euro Partner Day and we are drunk in a cab going back to our hotel and I’m talking with Tim Evans and Jacoby Thwaites about how great Zaytoon’s kebab is when the Indian cabbie stops the car, turns around with a crazy look and howls: “Kariiiiiimm!” When asked for more context he says that Karim’s in New Delhi has by far the best kebab on the planet and makes Zaytoon look like McDonalds. How dare I praise plebian Zaytoon while regal Karim’s still stands? The owner, he claims, is a direct descendant of the chef of the Mughal emperors and the recipe’s been a family secret for centuries.

I wasn’t planning on going to Delhi so I quickly forgot the incident, but suddenly there it stands before me, the White Whale of kebabs. So I drag my poor mother back onto the street and find a couple of nice kids with a van who say they’ll take us there and back for 400 rupees. We end up getting an impromptu tour of the city’s highlights by night, including the Congress Building, Connaught Place, India Gate and so forth, before descending into the maze of dim-lit Old Delhi with its endless bazaar labyrinths and impossible masses of people camped out by the big mosque around cookstoves and donkey carts, from where we stagger through the traffic in a small alleyway to a bombed-out little storefront that is the promised land of kebabs – woo hoo, Karim’s! And yes it turns out to be the most deliciously spiced, melt-in-your-mouth kebab experience ever. Ladies and gents, we have a new world champion. And end up talking all night to a family from Lucknow that’s crammed in beside us on the benches. Which was more sublime, the Taj Mahal or the kebab? Tough call.

At five in the morning we rustle out of our beds and fly to Aurangabad. There’s a Starbucks in the terminal – I almost weep for joy. And pass through airport security with a look in my eye that says “you can pry this quad venti non-fat latte out of my cold, dead hand”. Aurangabad it turns out is a run-down little city in the rural district of Maharashtra that’s chief claim to fame is proximity to the ancient cave art of Ajanta and Ellora, which escaped the rampages of Muslim conquerors by being lost and forgotten for centuries.

Ellora is a series of 30 caves along a wilderness escarpment, chock full of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist statuary and chapels starting from around 200 AD. At the time it was used for cave monasteries, and the sculpture is downright staggering. First the caves have been grooved out to provide proper ceilings and floors with little stone steps leading up to them, then palace pillars with ornate carvings along them are cut out of the interior. Then there are all these magnificent, vibrant sculptures like what you might see in some lost wing of the British Museum, in quantities it’s hard to fathom. The highlight is a huge temple complex they carved completely out of the rock, Lalibela-style but a thousand years earlier, with all manner of elephant, monkey and lion sculptures adorning its surface and interior chapels, and three stories of hallways carved into the adjoining rockface on either side of the building. In some places you can still see the delicate paintwork that originally covered it. Jaw-dropping.

Ajanta is even more ridiculous. An entirely Buddhist complex with caves that were created as early as 300 BC, it lies two-thirds of the way up a huge, horseshoe-shaped cliff in the jungle and was lost until the early nineteenth century. The statuary is all here as well, and some of the caves have acoustics more perfect than most modern concert halls, but what’s so devastating are the largely intact murals from over 2000 years ago inside every cave, each one qualifying as a major work of art on the scale of the world’s greatest paintings, with long story cycles depicting various ancient events lost in the mist of time, people of all races and all walks of life, as sophisticated and subtle in style as Picasso or Rembrandt, an incomprehensively vast Cave Louvre still sitting here like a prehistoric time capsule, telling us of a civilization and a take on humanity more rich and visceral than you could have imagined. Enough said; some things you just have to see for yourself.

Well I would hate to go on at The Creek after THAT, even with LJ. And so the environs of Aurangabad seem a bit dingy afterwards, though not unpleasant like Agra. There’s a “baby Taj” from four centuries ago that mimics the original but is made of plaster and is crumbling quickly and a little water tank where people come to hang out in the afternoon and the ruins of a fortress complex dangling here and there along the side of a nearby mountain. We also make it out to drive through several hours of rolling farmland to a large crater lake populated with tons of birdlife, large troupes of tree monkeys and several abandoned old temples gone back to the jungle like props out of a Tarzan movie.

The people who live in Maharashtra are so much nicer and more relaxed than most in UP that I’m not prepared for it at first and get quite snappy when anyone approaches, as I automatically assume they’re out to scam me. But these are some of the mellowest people out there, and it’s a pleasure to hang out with them. The one idiosyncrasy is that they all want their picture taken with us. They don’t want to talk, want nothing especially to do with us afterward, just the photograph, ma’am. For example, one guy comes up to us on a bus and asks for a photo, it gets taken and then he goes back to his seat and acts like we no longer exist for the duration of the ride. It’s OK for awhile but they keep coming one after the other for the entire time we’re down there, and the ones with extended families deploy themselves in a long, impromptu rope line that stretches off in the distance so that each one can take their turn being individually photographed beside us.

I start getting impatient but my mother, who is at the end of the day a nicer person than I am, dives into the work as if she were Hillary Clinton and the future of US diplomacy counted on her handling of the whole situation, greeting everybody with a warm smile, a handshake and a moment of total attention, no matter whether the whole operation takes up the entire day or not. I think maybe something got lost in translation between our two generations. Born in the rural mountains of South Carolina, she somehow managed to retain a rural warmth that’s gotten stamped out of me for the most part, even after she moved to Chicago and worked her way slowly up the ladder of social work, from case worker to the head of all foster care, emeritus professor and international aid manager for East Africa. I would love to capture that patience and simple, genuine warmth for myself – but I suspect you’ll all have to make do with me as I am. I’m no Agra, but I may be Aurangabad.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Benares of the Mind

The chicken bus border at Bhairawa is the most chaotic and disorganized place I think I’ve ever been. It consists of little more than a concrete gate that says “Welcome to India” with a low-caste drum-and-chanting Kali procession moving past it, villagers trucking grains back and forth on buffalo-powered carts, and two Nepalese traffic cops consumed solely with the mass truck traffic. I’m the only gringo in evidence, and navigating through the street even with a backpack is a big challenge; I’m nearly mowed over more than once. When I ask the Nepalese cops about immigration they roll their eyes and impatiently point me toward India, then go on directing traffic. The Indian side is even more lassez-faire; they keep pointing me further and further down the road until eventually I’m well clear of the border and can do nothing more than get some guy to drive me toward Varanasi sans passport stamp. Has not been a problem thus far, we’ll see what happens when I try to leave the country.

So I’m driving along the border between UP and Bihar in a rickety old South Korean jeep with two kids who don’t speak a lick of English between them, skirting the Buddha trail from Lumbini to Bodhgaya, which is ironically today the most lawless and dangerous part of India, rife with Maoist guerillas, random acts of banditry and out-and-out caste warfare in parts. One local saying is that Gautama’s enlightenment in 600 BC was the last good news to ever come out of Bihar. But I encounter no overt lawlessness (aside from all the psycho driving) as we barrel through what seems like an unyielding urban center all the way from the border to Benares, punctuated with the occasional patch of rice paddies and one sad little government-run monkey forest where the monkeys all sit by the side of the road and watch the traffic go by, just like the people. Anyone who’s been to India will be familiar with the driving “rules”, but it was my first time so I was a bit daunted, seasoned traveler though I am. Driving here involves non-stop passing of donkey carts, buffalo carts, ice cream trucks, wandering sadhus, bicycles loaded down with rice sacks, slow-moving cargo trucks and packed public buses, here and there a cantankerous steer or a sudden flurry of goats crossing the road, honking your horn the whole time to let people know you’re coming and veering in and out of the wrong lane ad nauseum, often escaping an oncoming collision in a matter of centimeters. You spend the first hour in wide-eyed terror, then surrender yourself to the universe, kick back and watch the carnival of life go by.

It’s a long ten hours from the time I leave Lumbini to our arrival in the traffic-choked streets of Varanasi, and night has fallen hard. Everybody here is gearing up for Diwali, every house is lit up with Christmas lights, every storefront sells psychedelic neon Hindu idols and every little kid is packing ten or twenty M-80’s and is busy unleashing them into street traffic. It’s at that point that my driver offers up my very first northern India scam, dropping me at some fleabag hotel that wants 2500 rupees a night and refusing to take me further – in the hopes that he’ll get a big commission on top of what I already paid him. So I trundle into the broke-leg streets of Varanasi with my bags, not having the slightest idea where I am, and eventually get some scrawny bicycle rickshaw dude who looks like he’s about eighty to drive me to a ghat that’s near my hotel. During the ride power in the city goes out – probably can’t handle the load of all those Diwali lights – and my driver suffers what appears to be an asthma attack so that I get out and help walk the bicycle through the noisy, darkened streets until we arrive in the general area of my hotel, at which point I wander around in the dark asking for directions until I stumble across it at a little after midnight. Welcome to India! Life is good.

I’m up with the sun at 6am and go trundling through the ghats all morning. Mark Twain said this city was “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” and it must have been the riverfront he was referring to (admittedly there were no motorcycles in Mark Twain’s time, so the rest of the city may have seemed quite a bit older), especially in early mornings when thousands of people fan out across the various stone temples and religious-site-cum-bathouses that line the western bank of the Ganges in Benares, with steps leading directly to the water, each with a different cosmic sponsor (in one case it’s a deified local tree). Between each ghat there are little boatyards packed with weatherbeaten wooden sailboats, and circles of sari-wearing women singing and chanting. As the sun rises hundreds of people disrobe into their loin cloths and dive in. Some ghats have fallen out of favor and lie disused and decrepit, others are packed to the gills and have holy men chanting through loudspeaker systems as the celebrants drop in the water and let the river carry their sins downstream. At spots there are barbers shaving men’s hair off in preparation, and at one there are shorn high-caste acolytes in yellow robes chanting for hours on prayer mats. All along the waterfront the boats are just offshore, moving in to disgorge more worshippers. Tourists are few and far between, and the few that are here are of the blonde-dreadlocked, tabla-playing neo-hippie variety that have become such an international stereotype.

It’s a boring old truism that the Ganges is dirty as hell and that no one in their right mind would bathe here. But I wish I had the ability to convey the real beauty of the place. A singular life experience. Admittedly I was not tempted to take a dip in it myself, especially after seeing a heartbreaking funeral for a very small boy, maybe two years old, his father tending the duties by himself, attaching the child’s limp body to a small piece of driftwood and pushing it out to be upturned and sunk into the river along with all of the ashes being swept out from one of two segregated cremation zones. Equally upsetting was the attitude of the bottom-caste crematory staff, who were more interested in trying to stop me and scam me out of money than they were in attending to the man’s needs as he said goodbye to his small child. There are some very tough people in UP.

Around noon it gets hot hot hot here; all you can do is lie down and be poached beneath a ceiling fan as you wait for the furnace of mid-day to break. Then it’s off the wander the streets of Varanasi and see the big Diwali preparations, which include lots and lots of lights, firetrap storerooms crammed to the gills with combustible pyrotechnic devices, and religious processions in the streets with chanting and drums. The festival is based in part on a myth in which Rama’s wife was kidnapped by an evil baron in Sri Lanka, and Rama recaptured her with the help of Hanuman the monkey god, who created a bridge of monkeys that allowed Rama to walk over and get her back. As the sun starts to fade you’re invited into stranger’s homes and offered sweets, and one family even insists on feeding me.

At night the Diwali bomb hits. All down the river Hindu priests are performing fire ceremonies, the ghat steps are lit up with candles and long streams of tiny paper candle rafts are unfurled onto the river until it’s lit up like a kilometer-long birthday cake. The fireworks are not organized in the manner of an American celebration; instead it’s a mass chaos of every man for himself as M-80s blow off all around you, tens of thousands of bottle rockets scream overhead and the big 4th of July-style fireworks get shot from the rooftops for nine hours non-stop.

I can take it for a couple hours but eventually retreat to my hotel balcony, where the mild, elderly, lily white high-caste proprietors sit in their bamboo chairs and look out onto the chaos below like benevolent demigods. Hung along the walls are lush paintings of a Ganges of the mind, hung with flowers and tame jungle vines, where green-hued Krishna descends into the turquoise stillness of the full moon into this imaginary river, as an elephant gazes placidly at its own reflection from the shore. And I realize that this is what my proprietors see when they look out at the dirty, urban Ganges, this ancient but overbuilt matrix of the spirit and material worlds. During my time in India I see so many of these holy sites, irretrievably engulfed by the pollution of modernity but somehow still imbued by them with an eternal, placid peacefulness that entails blocking out the reality around them the way we block out bad smells that we pass on the streets of New York. It is this magic of the imagination that still makes Varanasi such an amazing place, as the primevality that they perceive is passed on to travelers by their actions. It is a collective act of will in a way. My proprietors wish me a Happy Diwali, offer me a lentil square and stare out with a look of profound peace as mass explosions rock every inch of the city, sometimes just a few feet away.