Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Nude Thoughts 20

I know what you're looking at. For your information, they're called areolas. Those patches of skin you see around my nipples on my tits. I've got huge areolas, don't I? I used to worry about them, like they were some kind of disease, and also because when men look at me, they try so hard not to stare at them. But they don't embarrass me anymore. Not at all. You see, I've had a few flings with women, and they love them. They find my areolas a big turn-on. If any guy thinks they're strange, I'll show him the door. You like my areolas, don't you? I can tell. Would you like to lick them? You sure would? Well, you can't. They're mine. So there. But you can try getting to know me better if they excite you so much. I wouldn't want to give you a trauma about me, now would I?

Guy thoughts about Jane Fonda's autobiography My Life So Far

I gave the Eternal Woman the autobiography of Jane Fonda as a birthday present, and she enjoyed it so much, I read the book myself. What a life this woman has led: one of the fullest lives ever.

Of course, as a guy, I enjoyed the sexual revelations of the book: how Jane engaged in threesomes to please her womanizing first husband Roger Vadim, because he liked to bring other women to their marriage bed. It’s rather sweet how Fonda confesses that she liked the mornings-after more than the nights-before, when her husband was out of the house and she could be girls together with the other woman over breakfast. Some of the women were prostitutes. These little chats might have helped her in her Oscar-winning portrayal of the prostitute in the film Klute.

Fonda says “the disease to please” that women suffer from is a feminist issue, because women subject themselves to oppression in order to ensure that they keep the love of their men, which creates in women a dissociation between their heads and their bodies. I asked the Eternal Woman what this heads-and-bodies thing meant, and she explained to me that it was the difference between living in your mind and cutting yourself off from your deeper emotions and feelings.

Hey, you've heard of a good date movie: well, this is a good date book.

All three of Fonda's marriages made her suffer -- a remarkable admission from a very strong woman, whose public life certainly never showed her as a victim of patriarchy.

This was a woman who grew up in a world of men and yet produced her own movies, classics like Coming Home and 9 to 5. A woman who won two Oscars as best actress. A woman who bravely launched herself into years of protest against the Vietnam War on behalf of soldiers and war veterans, earning the nickname “Hanoi Jane” for her efforts. A woman who started the whole exercise business in the U.S., as well as kicking off the video business, with her Jane Fonda Workout tapes -- the first one of which is still the biggest videoseller ever, at 17m copies. A woman who was married to three remarkable men: the French director Roger Vadim, who introduced Brigitte Bardot to the world in his films; the political activist Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the sixties student movement and a lifelong liberal icon; and the mega-mogul Ted Turner, the brash innovator from Atlanta who created the 24-hour news channel with CNN.

Fonda had a brilliant public career, yet she lived a life of subjection to these men. With Vadim it was putting up with his womanizing. With Hayden it was putting up with him putting her down all the time and cutting her off from her woman friends. And with Turner it was giving up her career and becoming a corporate wife who was not allowed to share true intimacy with him, because he wasn’t capable of it.

Her relationship with her famous father, Henry Fonda, whom she helped win an Oscar by producing On Golden Pond for him, is at the heart of the book. He was the cold and distant first man in her life, who birthed in her “the disease to please.” He also caused her to hold on to her husbands longer than she needed to, because she wanted to beat him at being good at marriage, something Hank wasn’t too terrific at himself.

What’s great about Fonda’s book is that she not only describes the doings of a most remarkable life, but also what drove her psychologically. It’s an account of an inner journey, and it will give you an opportunity to acquaint yourself with your own woman's inner life if you discuss the book with her.

There are two very moving moments in the book which delve into Fonda's inner journey. One is when she tells her father shortly before he dies that she’s always loved him, and gives him quite a speech about their relationship. He starts to cry and she leaves. Later she finds out from his wife that he sobbed all day after she left him.

The other moment is when she has her breast implants taken out after many surgeons tell her it’s too dangerous. Fonda, of all people, felt her body was not good enough. She suffered from bulemia all her life. The body that was good enough for womanizer Vadim, who put her in his sci-fi comic book movie, Barbarella, was not good enough for her.

It’s amusing how she relates that Army soldiers were angry with her because she didn’t live up to her sexy image when she performed without makeup and sexy clothes in the anti-Vietnam Army show she developed with Donald Sutherland. One soldier was so disappointed, he tore all her posters off his wall.

If the woman in your life has issues with her body -- and let me tell you, all women have -- this book will lead to a fruitful discussion between you and her.

The funniest and most entertaining part of the book is Fonda's relationship with Ted Turner. He's a great character: a man who always says what’s on his mind, with no sense of the effect the emptying of his mind at all times to anyone listening may have. A scene where he gives a speech at a time when he is in tough negotiations with Time Warner is priceless. On this occasion, speak-his-mind Ted says to a big, glittering audience that through the centuries, women have always suffered from having their clitorises cut off in Africa and Egypt, which has been done to deprive them of pleasure. A terrible thing. The audience nods, suitably impressed. Well, says Ted, he feels like he is being clitorized -- by Time-Warner. The audience cannot believe their ears. Neither can Jane. She tries to hide in her seat behind the dias: “hey, it wasn’t my idea.”

If you’re a woman, read this book. There’s a lot to learn about how an incredibly successful woman still suffered as a sexist victim in her private life, and finally overcame all her fears and hang-ups at the ripe age of sixty, to enter what she calls her third act.

If you’re a man, be thoughtful for once and give it to the women in your life as a present. I swear, it can do for you what I think it will do for me: help deepen your relationship with the Eternal Woman.

The heavy metal rock genre: who invented it?

Where does Heavy Metal music come from?

It doesn’t really help to ask metal fans. They’re either too dumb or too messed up on the next line of six-packs to know. If you ask them, the ones with half a clue will tell you Black Sabbath, the band led by Ozzy Osborne. They’re right in one respect: Black Sabbath defined the darkness off the genre, with their satanic lyrics and the macho teen despair of their message.

Others will say, Judas Priest. It’s true in one respect: vocalist Rob Halford started the leather and chains look. He also happened to be gay.

Others will tell you it was Led Zeppelin. Certainly they were one of the early precursors, a band who rocked so hard that other bands were inspired to get that heavy. Many untalented groups joined the metal army after hearing Led Zep. Zep's John Bonham set the template for metal drummers, and Robert Plant’s high keening tenor yelp set the gold standard for metal’s vocalists.

Still others will tell you the inventors were Deep Purple, and here they are actually on to something. Deep Purple was the first successful band to consistently put out a heavy metal vibe, years before Black Sabbath existed. They were also a smart band, unlike most of their dumb acolytes: like Yes, they flirted with the idea of combining classical music with rock.

But they didn’t invent the music though.

It’s important to find out who invented heavy-metal, because the battle still rages over whether this is a respectable genre of rock ‘n roll or not. In some ways it can never be respectable, because it so easily becomes a parody of itself. It is, after all, the quintessential crude brainless bubba-stoopid boy stomp music.

Heavy metal has always been the dumb-fuck underbelly of rock ‘n roll. However, it has produced some great guitarists, which has kept critical interest in the genre alive. It takes a really good guitarist to transcend the stupefying cliché-diarrhea of the form. Only players as good as the guys in Metallica, Van Halen or Guns ‘n Roses have managed to keep metal half-way interesting. And chicks like Joan Jett.

However, to get back to who invented metal. If anybody can be said to have started heavy metal, it was the Kinks -- Ray Davies and his boys. Yes, the Kinks, even though they themselves were too smart to be a heavy-metal band. So this much can be said for heavy metal: its origin is highly respectable. It may be played by dumb boy bands, but it wasn’t invented by a dumb boy band.

The Kinks started the whole thing with a single song: their first hit, “You Really Got Me,” later covered by Van Halen. A great song.

John Lennon once claimed the Beatles started metal with his song “Ticket to Ride.” (He also said his band was more popular than Jesus.) He got it wrong. “Ticket to Ride” is a heavy song, but it isn’t as metal as “You Really Got Me.”

Why not? Because the Kinks came up with the one thing that defines metal, the one sound that launched a whole genre. Their innovation on “You Really Got Me” was this: they were the first to use a heavy fuzz riff guitar, which gave metal its most characteristic sound.

I hope this gives all you dumb-fuck metal fans a clue as to where your favorite dumb-fuck music actually comes from.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Scorcese documentary on Bob Dylan

Has there ever been a rock star as contrary as Bob Dylan? When taken for a folk singer, interpreting traditional songs, he started to write his own. When taken for a topical songwriter who would dutifully put his music behind party-line messages, and praised as the spokesman for a generation, he became an ambiguous, visionary poet instead. And when taken for an acoustic-guitar troubadour who was supposed to cling to old, virtuous rural sounds, he plugged in his guitar, hired a band and sneered oracular electric blues. That's the story told in two overlapping projects: the two-CD set "No Direction Home: The Soundtrack", to be released today, and "No Direction Home," a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that will be released as two DVD's on Sept. 20 and broadcast on the PBS series "American Masters" on Sept. 26 and 27. More here.

Personal view: Why can't Hollywood make classic movies anymore?

Hollywood is in the doldrums this year, because they haven’t had a good summer. Movie attendance is down.

What Hollywood should really be in the doldrums about is that they can’t make great movies anymore. Every now and then they make a good movie, but a great movie, forget about it.

For enlightenment, take a look at the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, “as selected by a blue-ribbon panel of leaders from across the film community.”

In the 50s, they find 20 movies to call great. From the 60s, they find 18, and from the 70s, another 18.

When it comes to the 80s, something weird happens. They find only six movies they can call great. Yep, the whole decade of the 80s produced only six great movies, according to Hollywood's own. From the 90s they find eight. They didn’t get to the 2000s, but can you think of one great recent movie? I can’t. Hey, if OK movies like Spiderman 2, Batman Begins and Sideways are our ideas of great movies, then we might as well outsource our movies to India along with our other software. So the score for our decade so far is zero.

What happened?

When movie people think about it, they usually give two reasons, even though there are more and better ones:

1. The death of the studio system.
Yes, the old studio system, when directors, actors and writers worked under contract, turned out more classic movies than today’s system. You had a few studio bosses who tried to hire the best (heck, they tried Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler), and it worked. Because they were so successful, and only accountable to themselves, these bosses also spent money on making what they called “prestige” movies, films they could be proud of -- which often turned out to be great movies.

2. The discovery of the expensive summer blockbuster.
Yes, Jaws and Star Wars: most people in the movie business are trying to make another one of those, so they can get scandalously rich. These movies prevent Hollywood from making great movies not just because they're expensive, so a lot of money gets sucked away from other movies. More importantly, they waste a lot of talent and time that could’ve been applied to more worthwhile efforts. If you’re spending your time doing the tenth rewrite of Jaws III, you’re not doing anything worthwhile.

Here are some other reasons:

1. The rise of costs in the new studio system.
Francis Ford Coppola remembers when a studio was run by ten people. Now it takes hundreds, with all their salaries. In the 70s and 80s, the studios left over from the great studio days were bought by business conglomerates. Business people took over. Literally, in sheer numbers. More people work in movie studios with high salaries than are actually out there making movies. The ratio of studio people versus people actually working on a set is way out of whack. In the studio days, everyone worked on the set. Now the people working on the set have to pay the salaries of the business people working off the set. Hence, the business people need those summer blockbusters to keep them and their big salaries afloat.

2. The discovery of the youth audience.
Or more particularly, the teenage boy audience. This is the worst excess of demographic movie-making, because of an insidious thing: older people are making movies for younger people. So you get patronizing movie-making that panders. Like, duh, dumb action movies and gross-out comedies. For every half-good action movie like Lethal Weapon, or genuinely funny gross-out comedy like There Something About Mary, there are god knows how many pieces of crap turned out by older people trying to suck up to younger people.

3. The B picture has become the A picture.
In the old studio system, they thought of genre quickies as B-pictures. Now these genre pictures have become our A pictures, with vast amounts of talent, time and money wasted on them. Think of all the cartoon character movies: Superman, Batman, X-men, Daredevil, Catwoman, etc.

4. The discovery of the franchise picture.
Blame James Bond for this. Also, Rocky. Who would’ve thought, Rocky V1? Talent and time that could be spent on making great movies get spent on churning out the next franchise.

5. The discovery of the global audience.
Because you’re making a movie for a world audience, all cultural subtleties go out the window. You get pieces of mindless crap like Titanic or Gladiator. It’s funny, the Italians used to gleefully turn out dumb sandal epics with Steve Reeves as Hercules, knowing they were making dumb movies. Now Hollywood makes them instead, and they take them seriously. A film-maker like Oliver Stone gets suckered into making a piece of crap like Alexander the Great, and then spends even more of his precious time trying to regain his reputation by working up a director’s cut for DVD, instead of trying to come up with the next Platoon.

6. The rise of quality television.
Since Hill Street Blues, creative people have seen that they can do good work on TV. Here the writer rules, the actual originator of the work. (God knows who rules in Hollywood, maybe the agent.) Having the artist in control makes a difference. It's almost a perfect system, because the artist has only two contraints -- if the series doesn't get an audience, it gets cancelled, and the budgets are realistic, so they don't encourage indulgence on the part of the creator or fear on the part of the investor. For TV they shoot in a day what it takes Hollywood a week to shoot. A personal vision can reach the screen more or less intact. So why should a good writer go to Hollywood? These days, original HBO programming beats Hollywood cold. They've got more interesting characters and better stories, like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc.

7. The rise of the film school.
Unfortunately, these sinecures for failed movie-people attract and mold young people who go to film school because they want to do well in Hollywood, not because they want to make great movies. As such, these schools are the antithesis of art schools, where they actually try to nurture great artists.

8. The lack of social conscience.
“If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” said Sam Goldwyn. But the fact is, a lot of message movies got made under the studio system. Now they don’t. The Stanley Kramers don’t exist anymore.

9. The death of wit.
There hasnt been a Preston Sturges or a Billy Wilder for a long time. Neil Simon tried. Nora Ephron tries. But they just ain't Billy Wilder. These days, a Billy Wilder has to write novels to get their vision out.

10. The rise of the movie critic as Hollywood shill.
You don’t get a Pauline Kael anymore. Even a magazine as up-market as the New Yorker covers shitty movies as a rule, and gives them credibility. There are no movie critics holding Hollywood's feet to the fire anymore. Movie critics have become what political pundits are: mouthpieces for the powers-that-be. They seem to be more interested in the business of movies than its possible art. This comment from Roger Ebert is rather sad:
The history of "Last Tango in Paris" (1972) has and always will be dominated by Pauline Kael. "The movie breakthrough has finally come," she wrote, in what may be the most famous movie review ever published. "Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form." She said the film's premiere was an event comparable to the night in 1913 when Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" was first performed and ushered in modern music. As it has turned out, "Last Tango" was not a breakthrough but more of an elegy for the kind of film she championed. In the years since, mass Hollywood entertainments have all but crushed art films, which were much more successful then than now. Although pornography documents the impersonal mechanics of sex, few serious films challenge actors to explore its human dimensions; isn't it remarkable that no film since 1972 has been more sexually intimate, revealing, honest and transgressive than "Last Tango"?

11. The death of the French New Wave.
There used to be a time when foreign movies jolted American movie-makers into upping their aim. Now too many film countries have become Hollywoodized themselves. There is what critic James Quandt has called the New French Extremity, but it hasn't had an impact yet -- films like Twentynine Palms (Dumont), Anatomy of Hell (Breillat), Irreversible (Noé). James Quandt wrote about these films in Artforum:
"Bava as much as Bataille, Salo no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement. Images and subjects once the provenance of splatter films, exploitation flicks, and porn -- gang rapes, bashings and slashings and blindings, hard-ons and vulvas, cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest, fucking and fisting, sluices of cum and gore -- proliferate in the high-art environs of a national cinema whose provocations have historically been formal, political, or philosophical (Godard, Clouzot, Debord) or, at their most immoderate (Franju, Bunuel, Walerian Borowczyk, Andrzej Zulawski), at least assimilable as emanations of an artistic movement (Surrealism mostly)."

I'd call Miike's Audition an extremity, too, and Park's Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Audition and Irréversible are pretty damn extreme but exciting -- small-scale chamberpiece spectacular shock psycho action adventures. Very worth renting, but steel yourself.

12. The success of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
They changed our idea of what a great movie is. A great movie isn’t about great characters and a great story anymore: it’s about great special effects. It’s astonishing that the creator of American Graffiti and Star Wars could’ve produced Revenge of the Sith, a relentless barrage of special effects with characters so wooden, they’re an insult to trees, and a story so lame, it got in on the disabilities ramp. George Lucas says he wants to make interesting movies, but never has. At least Steven Spielberg tries, even if it’s embarrassing to watch. Let’s face it, Spielberg constructs kitsch-driven action-spectaculars of stupefying energy. But his ‘serious’ films (The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan) only work half-way. They let the kitsch come at us unmediated, instead of being laced with irony and gusto, like in his fun movies. Take Schindler's List. Some of the violence is properly upsetting, but it's mostly kitsch through and through. I once had a huge argument with a friend of mine about the movie. His point was that Spielberg at least showed a lot of people that there had been such a thing as the Holocaust. I was a snobbish aesthete, my friend said. I know I am, but still, it sucked. Spielberg's movies won't be looked at in fifty years, while Scorcese's Raging Bull will. As will The Godfather. Spielberg is a pop moviemaker, not an artist. I find his pop movies vastly superior to his arty efforts. Close Encounters was bloody good. Spare us your "art", Steven. It's a pity that Spielberg and Lucas have become the role models for young American film-makers. Here's a different view, that doesn't blame Spielberg and Lucas:
With War Of the Worlds opening next week, it feels like an odd time for me to be wondering whether Spielberg and Lucas killed the movies. During the past few months, which have been unusually bleak for movie lovers (has anything flat-out wonderful opened since last year? Not that I can recall), I've been hoping against hope that Spielberg would return to form—that he'd become Steven Spielberg again rather than the impostor who used his name on The Terminal—and that he would save the movies, or at least give us the sort of huge, exuberant, and shrewdly conceived blockbuster that used to be a Hollywood staple every summer. Certainly Spielberg and Lucas changed the movies fundamentally, in some ways for the worse. But I'm with you on Jaws—if only we could see new films of such flair and power today—and I was even more excited than you were about the first two Star Wars films.

My first exposure to Star Wars was startling. It was in 1975 in California, at the Avco Theater in Westwood, then a state-of-the-art fourplex. I was married at the time to Piper Laurie, and we were there for a sneak preview of Carrie, in which she played Margaret White, Sissy Spacek's crazy, Bible-thumping mother. The preview went extremely well, but then a trailer came on the screen for a movie no one had heard of, and I thought that I would go crazy with delight. An ape at the controls of a space ship? A space ship the size of Rhode Island? The memory of that stunning newness is still with me, and I cherish it.

I also cherish my encounter with another movie I knew nothing about at the time, except that Steven Spielberg had directed it. My daughter was 10 years old when I took her to a screening of E.T. at the Motion Picture Academy. She kept her (strong) emotions to herself, but I completely lost it when the kids on their bicycles soared into the sky. (Which makes me think, if I may digress, of our dear and departed friend Pauline Kael sitting absolutely rapt, in a front row seat at the old 20th Century Fox screening room on 56th Street, as Planet of the Apes unfolded.) But that may not be a digression, because the theme here, I think, is newness, and surprise, and surprisability, qualities currently in short supply in many films, and in the people who see them. That's due, in part, to staggering marketing budgets that now, quite routinely, accompany every weekend's blockbuster wannabe—it's hard to sustain a sense of discovery when you pretty much know the whole plot from the TV trailers or the Web. But it's also due to the generally dismal quality of studio movies (with the singular exception, that I'll get to in a bit, of a studio that isn't really a studio). I don't think Spielberg and Lucas were the marauders they've been made out to be. For my money (which, mercifully, I don't have to spend to see movies), the Jeffrey Dahmers of today's feature-film business are the people who make the decisions at the entertainment conglomerates, vast and sprawling institutions which have perfected—or so it was thought until very recently—a manufacturing process for crudely made movies that can be marketed successfully via TV and the Web and that can recoup their increasingly absurd costs overseas (the best, or rather worst, recent example being Troy) even if they bomb domestically.

Now, as you note, things suddenly seem to be spiraling downward for the studios, as well as for the exhibitors. (Let's not forget, in our list of movie-business malefactors, the emergence of a vast network of multiplexes whose screens are given over almost entirely to mainstream studio output; so much for the early promise that one or two screens in each complex would be reserved for indie productions or worthy documentaries. And let's also not forget, while we're at it, to note that four years before Jaws, in 1971, The French Connection, which received the most Academy Awards that year, made its own significant contribution to the creation of the action-intensive blockbuster.) You wrote of 16 straight weekends in which ticket sales have declined in comparison to last year's box office. As I write this, Variety is reporting the likelihood of a 17th weekly decline, given the somewhat soft opening for Batman Begins, although the losing streak could snap when the studios issue their actual box-office tallies tomorrow.

That can't be blamed on Spielberg or Lucas, even though both directors seem to have lost their way in recent years as innovating entertainers. It's the consequence of the conglomerates starting to lose their audience by beating the Spielberg-Lucas formulas—along with most others—into the ground. The exception I referred to earlier is, of course, Pixar, a not-quite-studio, safely based near San Francisco, hundreds of miles from Hollywood, that has turned out six brilliant, and brilliantly successful, films in a row. Their winning streak will end some day—how could it not—but in the meanwhile Pixar's prodigious outpourings provide proof that even in these tumultuous times, when movies are losing traction to video games (and when moviegoers can't even watch movies without taking out their cell phones, BlackBerrys, or Nintendos whenever there's a sag in the action), strong entertainment values still bring customers into the tent and keep them there quite happily. The same values, that is to say, that Spielberg and Lucas pioneered and refined.
-- Joe Morgenstern.

13. Hollywood turns great moviemakers into crap moviemakers.
Here is an interesting dissent, about Francis Ford Coppola, saying that Hollywood had nothing to do with Coppola turning into a crap movie-maker:
Every couple of years, Francis Ford Coppola's devoted fans--and such people still exist--do something heartbreaking: They see his new film. This month has brought the latest Coppola punishment, The Rainmaker.

Critics are greeting Coppola's film--the usual Grisham tale of an idealistic young lawyer slingshotting a Goliath--with a desperate generosity. Casting about for something nice to say, most reviewers have hit upon the conclusion that J.G.'s The Rainmaker is better than the "typical" Hollywood movie (by which they mean it has fewer automatic weapons, fewer car chases, and more character actors than regular fare does). One well-meaning critic called it the best Grisham movie since The Firm. This is sad: Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish, and Apocalypse Now and the winner of five Academy Awards, is being praised for making the second-best John Grisham movie. What's even sadder: The Rainmaker is actually much better than most of Coppola's recent work. In the past 15 years, he's become the most hackish of the studio hacks. His last dozen films have ranged from bombastic dreck (Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Godfather Part III, The Cotton Club) to infantile dreck (Jack, Captain Eo) to biographical dreck (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) to pretentious dreck (One From the Heart, New York Stories). He has also been producer for an astonishing volume of bad cinema and television, including NBC's The Odyssey; the 1992 movie Wind; and White Dwarf, a sci-fi movie for Fox.

Despite this record of unadulterated mediocrity, a fog of optimism continues to envelop Coppola. This movie, it is promised, will be Coppola's last as a studio lackey. Soon he will return with his own project, independent of Hollywood's morons, and make the great movie that They have stopped him from making since the late '70s. (Coppola is cryptic about what this project will be, but there are vague rumors about Megalopolis, a long-planned film comparing Imperial Rome and modern Manhattan. Other rumors have him filming Jack Kerouac's On the Road.) The optimists are sure to be disappointed--they misdiagnose the cause of Coppola's illness.

People continue to believe in Coppola because he is the romantic archetype of the movie director. He has embedded himself in the mythology of the film industry like no director since Orson Welles or D.W. Griffith. Coppola made his name as the director who would risk everything--his fortune, his family, even his sanity--for his art. During the '70s and the '80s, Coppola bucked Hollywood by opening his own studio, American Zoetrope. It was a doomed enterprise but a noble one: For a few years, Coppola did free himself and his protégés from Hollywood's thrall. In the late '70s, he cemented his reputation as an Artist with Apocalypse Now. He gave himself a nervous breakdown, gave Martin Sheen a heart attack, and spent $16 million of his own money to complete the picture. In the early '80s, Coppola drove himself into bankruptcy again for One From the Heart, his beloved musical romance. He made a black-and-white movie ... for kids (Rumble Fish). Coppola has made more actors into stars than any 10 other directors combined, and he has pioneered technology (notably video editing) that other filmmakers have come to rely on. In person, Coppola is expansive, generous, a brilliant talker, a salesman. He is, in short, the very model of what a movie maker should be.

This vision of Coppola as romantic genius makes it very easy to rationalize his failures as poor accountancy. "His career can be summed up as the case of a man who needed a financial manager," says Roger Ebert. Coppola spent much of the '80s in bankruptcy, driven there by the failure of One From the Heart and his studio's collapse. So of course he became a hired gun: He needed to pay his debts. According to the mythology, Coppola was given third-rate scripts and managed to transform them into second-rate entertainment like The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, and Peggy Sue Got Married.

Coppola too buys into the notion that he would have kept making great movies if only he'd been debt free. He's obsessed with the notion of artistic purity. The Rainmaker is a two-hour tribute to the idea of not selling out (in the movie's emotional climax, when the young lawyer hero confronts the old lawyer villain about selling out). In recent interviews, Coppola has upbraided himself for his own compromises.

But Coppola may be misjudging the reason why he's made so many bad movies. He thinks that selling out--making movies for financial rather than artistic reasons--has put a crimp in his style. But he has always been a sellout. Or, to put it more kindly, the quality of his movies has never depended on whether the movies were sellouts or not. Some of Coppola's "personal" movies are magnificent (The Conversation and, arguably, Apocalypse Now). But others are dreadful (One From the Heart, Tucker). Some of Coppola's sellout movies are dreadful (The Cotton Club, Jack ...). But Coppola's two greatest movies, the Godfathers, were studio-funded, studio-managed projects. The Godfather, in fact, was the quintessential sellout: Paramount picked Coppola to direct the movie because he would work for cheap. Why would he work for cheap? Because he had just bankrupted himself making a disastrous independent movie called The Rain People.

Coppola has become a studio hack for much more banal reasons. He got older, mellower, more respectable. He has his estates, his winery, his Belize resort, his merchandise. It's impossible to imagine today's Coppola driving himself or his actors the way he did during the filming of Apocalypse Now. He also seems to lack the inspiration for a grand project. His last truly personal movies were Tucker, back in 1988, and One From the Heart, back in 1982. Neither was good.

Recently Coppola said, "People want me so badly to do something truly astounding. To show them something they haven't seen before. I would like to do that, and I really believe I can do it."

This may be the heart of Coppola's dilemma. He views his life as a story of unfulfilled promise, the tale of an artist constrained by commerce. It isn't. Coppola's life is the story of fulfilled promise. He made two of the greatest, if not the two greatest, movies in American history. These were triumphs enough for any career. It is Coppola's tragedy that he believes his best work is always ahead of him, yet keeps on making Rainmakers.
-- David Plotz.

Can Hollywood ever make great movies again? There are four bright spots for a modicum of hope:

1. Harvey Weinstein.
Not many people in the movie business actually love good movies the way Harvey does. His example has changed a few things. All the big studios now have smaller Miramax-copy off-shoots like Sony Classics, where there’s room for some experimentation and risk-taking, because the budgets aren’t so large. At least people who love good movies have places to go and work now, where the so-called "indie" film is nurtured. Unfortunately “indie” too often means Hollywood calling card, instead of a unique vision, like Todd Solonz or Hal Hartley has. They might not be great moviemakers yet, but at least they have their personal visions. The indie film that's more than a Hollywood calling card has actually become a genre. One might call it the New Quirkiness -- films like Happiness (Solondz), Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola), and American Splendor. The smaller studio off-shoot system has produced only two great movies so far, Pulp Fiction and The English Patient, but let's hope.

2. Charlie Kaufman.
He’s the only true auteur working in Hollywood today, but at least he exists, and others may be inspired by his example. As he gets older, the writer of Being John Malkevich may surprise us even more than he has so far.

3. HBO.
The people at HBO are truly a godsend. Like any novelist, I was wondering what my latest novel would look like as a movie. It's a story set in the near future, in which America has become a puritan theocracy (a Pat Robertson paradise). And then I thought, hell no, Hollywood would screw it up; HBO should do it as a series. When a creative person can’t trust Hollywood anymore, and would rather go with HBO, you know that Hollywood is in trouble.

4. Mel Gibson.
I think the rise of the actor/director augurs well for the business. They have the clout to do what they want. Mel has made two very good movies: Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Let me end this essay by putting in a word for The Passion of the Christ. I think it's a great movie, probably a classic. Listen, before I duck the deluge of rotten tomatoes, let me point out that I’m not an American or a Christian, so I think I can state my case objectively -- unlike you, dear reader. Let’s face it, it’s impossible for anyone in America to see or judge this movie objectively. As a non-American non-Christian, I’ll tell you how this movie strikes me. It comes off exactly like an East-European art-house movie. EXACTLY. Why? It has a relentless vision. That’s what Hollywood lacks. You need a Stanley Kubrick, or a Martin Scorcese before he started making crap. Someone with a relentless vision: that’s what makes a great movie. Yet Hollywood encourages visionless technicians like Michael Bay by the dozen, instead of Stanley Kubricks. As long as Hollywood doesn't foster original talent -- and when last did they? -- they don't stand a chance of making classic movies again.

Bribery starts at childbirth, when a mother who makes $1 a day has to pay $12 to see her newborn

Just as the painful ordeal of childbirth finally ended and Nesam Velankanni waited for a nurse to lay her squalling newborn on her chest, the maternity hospital's ritual of extortion began. Before she even glimpsed her baby, she said, a nurse whisked the infant away and an attendant demanded a bribe. If you want to see your child, families are told, the price is $12 for a boy and $7 for a girl, a lot of money for slum dwellers scraping by on a dollar a day. The practice is common here in the city, surveys confirm.

Mrs. Velankanni was penniless, and her mother-in-law had to pawn gold earrings that had been a precious marriage gift so she could give the money to the attendant, or ayah. Mrs. Velankanni, a migrant to Bangalore who had been unprepared for the demand, wept in frustration.

"The ayah told my mother-in-law to pay up fast because the night duty doctor was leaving at 8 a.m. and wanted a share," she recalled.

The grand thefts of rulers may be more infamous, but the bitter experience of petty corruption, less apparent but no less invidious, is an everyday trial for millions of poor people across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Increasingly, it is being recognized as a major obstacle to economic development, robbing the impoverished of already measly incomes and corroding the public services they desperately need. More here.

Can humans survive without sex? Houellebecq's new novel

Can Humans Survive Without Sex? by Romain Leick

Michel Houellebecq is back. In his new book "The Possibility of an Island," he tells a virtuoso tale of sex, science fiction and sect madness, delivering what is bound to be the hit of the fall literary season -- and ponders just how important sex drive is to the human condition.

With "The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq once again addresses the question as to what, exactly, sex means for humans. It doesn't take him long to get to his anatomical point; it only takes three pages and about 50 lines for the vagina to make its first appearance. Michel Houellebecq, the sharp-tongued observer of current reality, the harbinger of middle-class misery, the dispassionate witness to the decline of postmodern society, is in his obsessive element: the female gender as the focal point of a life that is otherwise nothing but an arduous journey that offers no particularly convincing reason to be completed.

"The only place in the world where I have ever felt truly happy was in the arms of a woman, as I was penetrating deep into her ... The fact that something like a pussy even existed was already a blessing in itself." This is the voice of Daniel, the tragicomic hero of the new Houellebecq novel soon to appear in bookstores in France, Germany, England, Italy and the Netherlands. One can assume that these words accurately reflect the author's own philosophy.

For almost four years, since he published his last work, "Platform," a novel about sex tourism, the reclusive Frenchman has remained silent and invisible. One could have imagined Houellebecq living in Ireland, a tax haven for artists and writers, to escape France, that "dreary bureaucratic state" as he calls it, with its unrelenting tax authorities. In reality, Houellebecq spent those years living in southern Spain, like a German retiree, where he worked without interruption on his latest novel, the perfected synthesis of his previous works including novels, short stories and poetry collections.

Autumn's literary hit

Michel Houellebecq's "The Possibility of an Island" will be published in English in November by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. This will be his fifth novel translated into English and the first since his controversial novel "Platform" appeared in 2001. The book "Atomised" (published as "The Elementary Particles" in the US) first turned heads in Houellebecq's direction in 1998 -- a novel which the New York Times called a "deeply repugnant read." The novel also brought him critical success in the form of the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

His hair became thinner and he lost, as he says, "a bunch of teeth," because he was so busy writing that he didn't have time for dentists. He bought a big Mercedes so that he could relate to the typical male fascination with big, fast cars. Predictably enough, the experiment was unsuccessful. He also studied, with great interest, the rapid erosion of social structure in Spain, long a backwards, conservative Catholic country, which has quickly transformed itself into a libertarian, modern society. The result of his observations and work is now finished and, even before the new novel appears in book stores, it's already clear that it will be this fall's most talked-about and hottest-selling book, with an initial printing of 200,000 copies in France and 40,000 in Germany.

In his native France, which isn't exactly his favorite place, Michel Houellebecq, 47, is already the most widely-read author of his generation, the "French Harry Potter for adults," according to literary specialist Marc Fumaroli of the illustrious Académie Française. The Fayard publishing house -- which lured its star away from another publisher, Flammarion, and guaranteed him a fee of almost €1.5 million, a sum considered pure lunacy in France -- treated the manuscript like a secret weapon of mass destruction. Only a few carefully chosen journalists (including our SPIEGEL correspondent) received advance copies, and only after they had signed a confidentiality agreement. The move enraged the rest of the journalistic world, but it also created a feverish sense of anticipation that is now approaching its feverish climax.

Last Thursday, French daily Le Figaro one of the publications Fayard had left out in the cold, sarcastically pretended to have found a forgotten copy of the novel on a park bench. The paper's literature columnist, Angelo Rinaldi, also a member of the Académie Française, got his revenge by transferring his imagined copy of the new Houellebecq into a virtual garbage can. "Nothing," he wrote, "could be more barren, more pathetic or more obscure."

Dirty secrets

French music and culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles was the only publication that was granted an interview with Houellebecq at his home in Andalusia. Without even having read his new novel, Les Inrockuptibles dedicated a special issue, complete with an exclusive interview on DVD, to its cult author.

By now Houellebecq, a complete unknown only ten years ago and himself the archetypical representative of the "simple people" he analyzes is even being granted the honor of a first biography -- unauthorized, of course -- which supposedly reveals his own little dirty secrets.

"Help, Houellebecq is back!" writes despairing essayist Eric Naulleau, predicting a "literary nose-dive," while Spanish dramatist Fernando Arrabal rushes to his friend Houellebecq's side with a defense.

Houellebecq cultivates the depressive, which is what makes him so offensive and, for many, intolerable. He feeds on Schopenhauer's cosmic pessimism, to which he is more than happy to relate. His style is not to have a style. Casually and indifferently, he describes life as an endless scream of suffering, combining the obscene, the banal and the visionary, often without any transitions. His irony is so dark that it seems almost imperceptible. Houellebecq doesn't think of himself primarily as a storyteller, but as a social barometer that portrays radical changes in morals and the downfall of mankind in its current form -- a Balzac-light of contemporary human comedy.

His critics -- usually little more than jealous, hate-filled pursuers -- succumb to a fatal misunderstanding: Just because Houellebecq describes, with provocative flatness, a flat, self-destructive world, the result itself isn't flat and hollow. His subject is the modern trash that pervades all elements of life in a pleasure-seeking society, but that doesn't make the novel itself trash.

Clones and Stone Age savages

"The Possibility of an Island" is an encounter between naturalism and science fiction. The story unfolds at two levels: a current level, portrayed as the life story of humorist and comic Daniel 1, and a future level, in which the world, after experiencing global catastrophes that are never described, only suggested, is populated with Stone Age savages and cloned neo-people.

Daniel 24 and 25 are the reincarnations, in the 24th and 25th generation, of their genetic ancestor, Daniel 1. They comment on the autobiography he left behind, often helplessly struggling to understand what their ancestor wrote.

Like all his fellow sufferers, Daniel 1, who lampoons decadent, declining Western civilization in his provocatively comic cabaret act, is just searching for happiness. It remains out of reach, because the condition of happiness is unconditional love, and that's something Daniel can only expect from his dog, Fox. Two women figure in the life of this first Daniel: Isabelle, the frighteningly intelligent editor-in-chief of a Paris magazine for girls, and Esther, a second-tier but breathtakingly sensual Spanish actress. Both relationships fail, and both fail for tragicomic reasons. Isabelle isn't sufficiently fond of sex, because sex makes intelligence essentially irrelevant. Although she is willing, she only permits Daniel to penetrate her from behind, and even closes her eyes to avoid having to witness what she considers an animalistic act. Esther, on the other hand, isn't sufficiently fond of love. For her, sex is nothing more than an entertaining game, one in which she commands all registers: vaginal, oral, anal. She breaks up with Daniel at her own birthday party, a giant orgy -- leaving Daniel as the only guest who remains sexually unsatisfied on that evening.

This scene points out the basic principal on which, according to Houellebecq, Western society is based: "Escalating sensual desire to the point of intolerability, and making it more and more difficult to satisfy." Although Daniel deals with this contradiction in many of his comic routines, that doesn't prevent him from falling into the same trap himself.

Sex as a purely mental condition?

Daniel quickly believes that he has figured out the reason for his frustration: He is the only person at the party over 25. Age is a shipwreck, because the ability to have sex and access to sex begin to disappear, while desire never completely expires.

In the almost unbearable final stage of life, sex becomes a purely mental condition, as the pitiful victim -- with the body of an old man filled with youthful desire -- can think of nothing but sex. This brings life to an end, because all energy is of a sexual nature. Daniel, desperately searching for the vanished Esther, consequently commits suicide -- and Houellebecq prophecies that life expectancy for sexually-frustrated mankind will begin dropping drastically very soon, to about 50 for women and 60 for men.

In contrast, the desire for immortality persists; in fact, it's the only aspect of religion that's left. Daniel 1 has joined the sect of Elohim, who, thanks to revolutionary reproductive technology, promises her disciples endless rebirth, a process even better than cloning: The troublesome childhood phase is skipped, and when the old model dies the new one is delivered within 24 to 48 hours. Now that's customer service.

Thanks to this process, both Daniel and his dog Fox survive genetically, but without being the same person (or dog). The causes of suffering have been bred out of neo-man, as have all desires and emotions. Neo-man lives in a seemingly pure reality, strictly isolated, and is only able to communicate electronically. The only energy neo-man has retained is a weakened, non-tragic, merely life-preserving form of energy sufficient to ensure intellectual capacity in the form of liberated thought.

Lust equals life

Is this redemption -- the absence of pain, individual freedom and independence? But neo-man doesn't find happiness. The monotony, the routine of life interrupted only by sporadic exchanges of thoughts, leads to sadness, melancholy and apathy. It seems that man is unable to abandon his lust for life, after all.

In the end, two neo-people, Marie 23 and Daniel 25, embark on a journey, one setting out from the ruins of New York, the other from the arid landscape of southern Spain, in search of a new society, an unknown paradise, perhaps near Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. They discover a poem that Daniel 1 sent to Esther shortly before his death and, defying all reason, allow themselves to be carried away by the promise of uncertainty:

"And the love that makes everything so easy, Gives you everything, gives it to you immediately; There exists, in the middle of time, The possibility of an island."

Could it be possible? In the end, Houellebecq the depressed, the exhausted, the stressed, Houellebecq the scandalous sex addict, the embodiment of weltschmerz, turns into what he has always been: an incurable romantic.

Husband up for statutory rape

From the NY Times.
On Sunday evening, Matthew Koso tipped three ounces of formula into his 5-day-old daughter's mouth, then hoisted her atop his shoulder in hope of a burp. On Tuesday morning, he is scheduled to be arraigned on charges for which the newborn is the state's prime piece of evidence. Mr. Koso is 22. The baby's mother, Crystal, is 14. He is charged with statutory rape, even though they were wed with their parents' blessing in May, crossing into Kansas because their own state prohibits marriages of people under 17.

The Nebraska attorney general accuses Mr. Koso of being a pedophile; they say it is true love.

"We don't want grown men having sex with young girls," said Jon Bruning, the attorney general. "We make a lot of choices for our children: we don't allow them to vote; we don't allow them to drink; we don't allow them to drive cars; we don't allow them to serve in wars at age 13, whether they want to or not; and we don't allow them to have sex with grown men."

But Mr. Koso's mother, Peggy, said she and her husband of 25 years were proud that their son did not disappear like so many deadbeat dads. "He's not always lived up to his responsibilities, but this time he will," Ms. Koso said. "He could have left, but he didn't. He said, 'Mom, I love Crystal; I love this child.' "

Meanwhile, Mr. Bruning's office has been deluged with letters, the vast majority angrily urging that he leave the couple alone. One, from a woman named Patricia, said, "I'm sure your time can be better spent putting away real criminals." More here.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

What is Iraq costing us? Precisely

Want to know what the Iraq War is costing us in your tax dollars? What it is costing our country, your state, even your city? Check here here.

Personal View: This administration can't even grow good pot

God is in the details, children. Let's check up on a really modest activity undertaken by our government -- an activity that doesn't take that much due diligence to do well. Let's check up on something that thousands of Americans do in their backyards and window boxes. Let's check up on growing pot. Yes, the government grows marijuana for research purposes. But guess what -- it wouldn't get a fly stoned. Read this:

Lyle Craker, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Massachusetts, asked an administrative judge to overrule the federal Food and Drug Administration so he could grow marijuana for F.D.A.-approved research projects by other scientists. Researchers who want marijuana have only one legal source: a crop grown in Mississippi and dispensed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Scientists say they need an alternative partly because the government's marijuana is of such poor quality - too many seeds and stems ... Scientists can't do good studies until they get good marijuana.

Phillip Alden, a writer living in Redwood City, Calif. told me marijuana eased excruciating pains in his fingertips, controlled nausea and enabled him to avoid the wasting syndrome that afflicts AIDS patients who are unable to eat enough food. But Mr. Alden said only some kinds of marijuana worked - not the weak variety provided by the federal government, which he smoked during a research study. "It was awful stuff. They started out with a very low-grade plant, rolled it up with stems and seeds, and then freeze-dried it so that they probably ruined any of the THC crystals. All it did was give me headaches and bronchitis. The bronchitis got so bad I had to drop out of the study." --NY Times article.

Now listen. I'm can be as useless as a toad without a tongue, but give me the money, and I'll grow you some bitchin' pot. What does it take? Some good seeds, easily obtainable anywhere in northern California, some OK soil, some good sun, and some water. Not too difficult.

But this here Administration can't even do that right. The home-grown of a Mississippi teenager beats what an entire Administration, with the full resources of the federal government, can't get together. Where's their pride in a good honest day's work -- in growing an excellent crop of fine weed? Is it too much to ask?

The logic is inescapable. If they can't grow good pot, how can you expect them to fight a good war?

Snappy translation of Dante drives Helen Vendler crazy

Can we conceive of Beatrice 'snapping' like a shrew?

Helen Vendler on Dante in English ed. Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds

‘Dante in English’ is an anthology of English translations of passages from Dante (most of them from the Commedia ); it also includes poetry in English by authors who have been influenced by Dante. The authors and translators range from Chaucer and other English writers to non-British poets such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and W.S. Merwin. Attempts at rendering Dante into English spring from various theories of translation and ‘imitation’, all of which seem to be on display here. Use terza rima, don’t use terza rima; use rhyme, don’t use rhyme; use pentameter, don’t use pentameter; use archaic language, don’t use archaic language; render the poem exactly, render the poem freely. In the end, the translator’s mode matters less than his or her poetic powers, which may manifest themselves in an empathy with Dante’s style and emotions, and in the handling of rhythm, forms of sonority and verbal intensity.

As a medieval Catholic writer, Dante was foreign to post-Reformation English taste, not only in England but in the United States. Longfellow’s 1867 translation of the Commedia revived Dante in America; T.S. Eliot’s polemical espousing of Dante’s austere sense of the world (more congenial to him than Shakespeare’s) set the Commedia squarely in the modern poetic mind as a text to be studied. There are poetic possibilities in Dante -- the high drama of religious judgment, the seductive terza rima, the historical portrayals of sin, the prolonged purgatorial path to Christian salvation, the radiance of Paradise -- that are not common in native English poetry, and Eliot (like Milton, Shelley and Keats before him) profited from them. Reading Milton’s Protestant epic alongside Dante’s pre-Reformation one, one can see how much of Dante’s vivid and thronged world -- personal, allegorical and historical -- is absent from Milton. Each of the translations and poems here attempted to find a place for Dante in the English tradition.

The volume has a peculiar hundred-page introduction, written by Eric Griffiths, who (the volume tells us) ‘learned Italian in the house of a parish priest not far from Ferrara’. Griffiths has read Dante in Italian, then, and has been able to take the full measure of the poet’s greatness in the original (beside which all translations pale depressingly). And he offers his introduction not merely as a preface to the appended individual passages but as a general account of Dante’s work.

Although the introduction is broken up into parts (‘Pity and History’, ‘Dante’s Double Tongue’, ‘How the Story Is Told’, ‘The World of the Story’ and ‘Returning and Telling’), there is throughout the piece an overlapping of method and manner, so that the parts seem less independent than their titles suggest. (An outline of Dante’s life is provided separately in a short essay by Matthew Reynolds, Griffiths’s co-editor.) A reader will come away from Griffiths’s piece having heard a good deal about Dante’s works and the world from which they issued. But the manner of the introduction is so peculiar that its information is less salient than its expression. Did you know that Dante is so ‘besotted . . . with the verb rispondere in all its forms . . . that the poem reads at times like a string of ìI said to him I saidîs’? Did you know that ‘the mystic senses of the Scriptures were the cocaine of some clerics’? Were you aware that the Vulgate ‘had itself been when it was composed an exercise in dumbing-down such as the Commedia in part aims to be’? Does your recollection of the Paradiso portray Dante ‘mute and about to weep before Beatrice and the encircling blessed, harrowed with embarrassment, like a man who convivially declares ìMy shout!î and then finds he has forgotten his wallet’? Remembering the entrance to the infernal city, would you say that ‘having made the tricky entrance into the city of Dis, Virgil rests -- to take the weightlessness off his feet a while’? Would you, in commenting on the hideous episode in which Ugolino and his sons are starved to death in an ‘orribile torre’, remark that ‘a tower is a Mr Big’? Can we infer that Dante’s use of the word tencione makes ‘the spectacle of the proud’ seem a ‘game like one of those ìhow many elephants are hidden in this picture?î teasers’? And when we hear Virgil say to Dante ‘Che pense?’, would you render it as ‘What’s on your mind?’ Still less, when Beatrice, after cataloguing Dante’s transgressions in the Purgatorio , asks him ‘Che pense?’, would you say: ‘She waits only a moment before snapping ìChe pense?î’ Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew? And when remarking on the paradox of time passing in the eternity of Hell, would we feel that ‘it could rightly be said: ìIf you’re passing through it, it ain’t hellî’?

There is desperation behind such a manner -- the terror that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang. It’s a desperation that anyone teaching or writing about poetry is tempted to feel, so great is the gap between the ordinary discourse of our culture and the specialised discourses of poetry. But frenzied updating is not the solution; poetry can take care of itself, and there are other, and better, ways of drawing readers to Dante (some of them evident in Griffiths’s introduction: remarks, for instance, on the strength of Dante’s myth-making, his sense of dramatic occasion, his linguistic variety).

But I feel a deeper falsity to Dante and his mentality in certain observations by Griffiths about both the poem and the world from which it issued. Some of them stem from a wish to bring Dante into contemporary intellectual trendiness, some from a patronising attitude towards religion and its accoutrements. Trendiness: ‘The Commedia has some title to be considered the first masterpiece by a postcolonial writer, for most Europeans were once Roman subjects’; and ‘some readers may find it helpful to compare the ìnow you see it, now you don’tî oscillations of the poem with Derrida’s employment of concepts sous rature ‘; and ‘the Commedia is a foray into self-consciously ìvirtual realityî.’ On religion: after the invention of printing, ‘it became easier to feel that you had ìfinishedî the Bible as you might finish an Agatha Christie, and correspondingly easier to think of the sacred writings as like a . . . spiritual ìmiracle dietî with a defined set of unambiguous recommendations and vetoes.’ Such a dismissal of medieval spirituality is one way of patronising Dante’s world. Noting an abbot’s account of people hauling stone to Chartres, in which it is said that they made their way forward in silence or with confessions of guilt or with prayer, Griffiths jokes: ‘I feel sure that someone from time to time must also have said, ìLeft a little,î or ìKeep your end up, can’t you?î’ According to Griffiths, even heresies -- those powerful counter-arguments against received theological positions -- ‘often sound like those more or less parodic smatterings of information which are a regular by-product of imperfect rapport between teacher and pupil’.

These are hardly attitudes that will induce readers to take Dante and his times as seriously as their own. Such dismissiveness is not appealing; but there are graver mistakes. Griffiths, after quoting Pound as saying that ‘men’s inner selves stand visibly before the eyes of Dante’s intellect,’ snaps back: ‘They do not. Dante has eyes of flesh throughout the poem . . . nor does he see ìinner selvesî, whatever or wherever such Russian dolls are, but individuals and their stretches of time.’ Pound means that Dante’s poem is an intellectual construct in which people -- whose sins of treachery, lust and so on were often not visible to others in life -- can in Hell (or Purgatory) no longer conceal their inner, sinful, selves. To Griffiths’s jibe dismissing ‘inner selves’ we can say that Dante certainly believed in such things. In the Convivio , Dante describes a divided inner self with the conflict reflected in his looks: ‘sÏ che ‘l cuore, cio’ lo mio dentro, triema, e lo mio di fuori lo dimostra in alcuna nuova sembianza’; ‘[this thought hath such lordly power] that my heart (that is, my inner man ) trembles, and my outward man shows it by taking on a new semblance.’ (The italics are mine; the translation is Katharine Hillard’s 1889 version.) The people whom Dante encounters are seen with their inner selves on view. This truth -- of the inner self concealed in life and revealed in the afterlife -- is in fact assumed by Griffiths himself when he says of one group that they ‘are not the sexy- to-excess of Dante’s fifth canto but sleazebags, financial wizards and frauds’. By definition, frauds are not known to be such from their ‘outer selves’; only when their ‘inner selves’ are all that is left to them can they be seen and named as the sinners they are.

Like Erich Auerbach (whose Dante: Poet of the Secular World was published in 1929 in German, in 1961 in English), Griffiths presents a Dante intensely reproducing -- historically, psychologically and symbolically -- the world in which he lived. He parts company with the critics who emphasise the ideological systems (theological, astronomical, philosophical) on which Dante drew, and dwells less than they do on the literary genres (the pilgrimage, the heavenly vision, the epic, the drama) that Dante renewed. He prefers to spend time on Dante’s repetition of words. Some of these repetitions -- the stelle with which each canto ends, for example -- have always been noticed (Griffiths’s way of putting this is to say that ‘Dante had stars in his ears’). But Griffiths wants to notice more such links, and is at pains to track word-repetitions (of punto ,volto ,acqua etc). He repeats the assertion that each of these makes an ‘arch’ through the Commedia , enchaining (to change the metaphor) one section to another. Whether consciously made or unconsciously appearing, such links are interesting in any long poem; but they take up more space in Griffiths’s essay than any other class of linguistic observations. Perhaps because the anthology is one of translations, an emphasis on the importance of Dante’s repetitions (impossible to reproduce in translation) is in order. But in view of the absence of an adequate treatment of the theology and psychology of Dante’s poem, the attention to such ‘arches’ seems excessive.

Griffiths tries, in a rather leaden way, to satirise churches and moralists. Speaking of the many ways in which churches were used in Dante’s time, Griffiths -- as ever, trying for the contemporary note -- remarks:

Even today, if you walk round an old but still serving church, you may light on a rich jumble: the statue of a saint whose cult has subsided, lacking an arm; a pile of cyclostyled pastoral letters; plasticene oxen, asses and cribs; the various wherewithal of flower-arrangers; in my experience, there is also often (usually behind the altar along with inexplicable quantities of papier-m‚chÈ) a mineral-water bottle containing a virulently green liquid.

This, like the pervasive slang, is meant to be entertaining, but is it? And does such a digression help in understanding the Christianity of Dante? In a more philosophical vein, Griffiths’s diction hauls itself away from the colloquial and into pure academic superciliousness: ‘Now as then, a rounded vision of the world we live in is painful to maintain when glimpsed at all; such stereoscopy seems arduous and remote, sometimes a sheer figment, like what was known as the ìbeatific visionî (they are perhaps one and the same).’ Can one really tell Dante’s modern readers that all they need to do to experience the beatific vision is to maintain ‘a rounded vision of the world’? And is it illuminating to say that ‘ìhellî is another name for ìirreparabilityî, as if God might say to you, as your fellow creatures no doubt have done: ìYou’ve gone too far this timeî’? Writing lines for God, unless you are George Herbert, is a dubious business.

And when we turn to the translations, what do we find? That there have been a surprising number of translations of the whole Commedia , and that many of them are in terza rima (about which Griffiths has a rewarding, if not original, set of comments, emphasising the counter-flows of its forward motion and its backward glances); that dreariness sets in very quickly in the hands of a stolid translator; that it is difficult to capture in English Dante’s many planes of discourse (ably described by his Italian commentators) without sounding rather absurd; that idiom ages very rapidly (one century’s modernity is another century’s archaism); that heroic couplets are the worst form in which to cast Dante’s lines; that some translators think up extraordinary means (Dante does well in the metre of Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’); that the Spenserian stanza, with its pronounced spreading close after each nine lines, is death to the current of terza rima; that Shelley’s mastery of the form in the unfinished ‘Triumph of Life’ is a miracle; that the dilution of Dantean terseness (Felicia Hemans wrote ‘a 41-fold expansion’ of the story of La Pia) is always an error; that updating Dante’s circumstance (as Leigh Hunt does in what Griffiths refers to as his ‘Disneyfication’ of Francesca da Rimini) becomes parodic; and many other such trouvailles. It is fun (at least for anyone interested in Dante and in verse form) to see how the poet has been ‘channelled’ (as Griffiths might say) over the centuries.

Most of the translations, needless to say, are of passages in the Inferno , which occupies forty translators, more or less; the Purgatorio has only twenty, and the Paradiso ten. The Vita Nova has six, the Rime five, the Convivio one. The beautiful gravity of Chaucer (which comes as a balm after the strained ‘vivacity’ of Griffiths’s introduction) falls on the ear like music:

Thow Mayde and Mooder, doghter of thy Sone,
Thow welle of mercy, sinful soules cure,
In whom that God for bountee chees to wone,
Thow humble, and heigh over every creature,
Thow nobledest so ferforth our nature,
That no desdeyn the Makere hadde of kynde
His Sone in blood and flesh to clothe and wynde.

(Prologue of the ‘Second Nun’s Tale’)

Chaucer’s rime royal ( ababbcc ) has enough linkage within it to take on some of the savour of the sound-repetitions of terza rima, as he, like Dante, rhymes ‘creature’ and ‘nature’:

Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta pi˘ che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,
tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sÏ, che’l suo fattore
non disdegnÚ di farsi sua fattura.

(Paradiso 33)

And if one wants a sample of Dante’s harsher powers, one can go to the translations of the Ugolino episode by Seamus Heaney and others -- including Chaucer, Jonathan Richardson, Thomas Gray, Frederick Howard and Thomas Medwin (with help from Shelley). (The editors err in saying irritably that Heaney ‘foists a ìmelonî into the starved count’s mouth’. In fact, it is Tydeus who feeds on Menalippus’ head ‘as if it were some spattered carnal melon’ -- an incident cited by Dante in a simile.)

Dante’s lyrics are more resistant to translation than the Commedia . Even Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom Italian was native, and to whom Dante was dear (as can be seen in his paintings of episodes in Dante’s story), writes in a diction that now seems overly archaic. The oblique influence of Dante, however, works successfully in Rossetti’s own ‘The Blessed Damozel’, as it does in Yeats’s ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ or Heaney’s ‘Station Island’. Transfusion works better, in many instances, than translation.

I have been critical -- in ways that may seem humourless and pedantic to Griffiths -- of the attitudes displayed and the diction resorted to in the introduction. It is acutely disappointing to see a new presentation of Dante that seems, at least to me, so false to the spirit of the author.* However, I need to thank Griffiths and Reynolds for pointing out that Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Hand as a Being’ may be referring to Paradiso 1, perhaps via ‘The Blessed Damozel’. That seems right to me. And I’m grateful for their inclusion of ‘In the year of my youth’, a poem by Auden left unfinished (and unpublished in his lifetime). Though it is a pastiche of Dantean effects, it suggests, as the editors say, that Auden read Dante more intensely than we had known.

In the end, a reader unfamiliar with Dante would be provoked agreeably by these translations to a further curiosity about the Commedia and its reverberations in English letters. Though there are books on Dante’s influence in England, the abstraction ‘influence’ takes on its true complexity when we see it generating so many English compositions in so many different forms over the last six hundred years.

BY THE WAY, how old is Helen Vendler? I read this lady about poetry when I was in my teens. If she was a grownup then, she should've been dead by now. Long may she live.

Poem of the week

TO A CAT by Jorge Luis Borges

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.

Quote of the week

"But we feel nothing. Sometimes it's good to feel nothing. We know where to go when we need to feel nothing. It's called Popular Culture." --Steve at This Space.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Nude Thoughts 19

Forever and forever? You want us to love each other forever and forever? You mean it? You do? I want to cry. Do you mind? You don't mind whatever I do? You love me with every bone in your body, not just that one? Ohmigod. Sweet, sweet man. I see you mean to take my breath away, and never give it back. Forever and forever? Why not. Of course. Yes! Yes! Yes!

A doll that recognizes your voice and shows emotion

From the NY Times :

A Doll That Can Recognize Voices, Identify Objects and Show Emotion by Michel Marriott

Judy Shackelford, who has been in the toy industry for more than 40 years, has seen a lot of dolls. But none, she says, like her latest creation, a marvel of digital technologies, including speech-recognition and memory chips, radio frequency tags and scanners, and facial robotics. She and her team have christened it Amazing Amanda.

"The toy industry is sort of like 'MacGyver,' " Ms. Shackelford said, invoking the problem-solving 1980's television hero. "You're always doing workarounds, figuring out how to rearrange the old in some new way to create something new. And you've got to do it for nickels and dimes and quarters." She then turned to the doll seated on her lap. "Hi, honey," Ms. Shackelford said gently to Amazing Amanda, a blond, blue-eyed figure bearing more than a remote likeness to its creator. "Hello, my name is Amanda," the doll replied as Ms. Shackelford smiled warmly at its rosy face. "We're going to have the best time together," the doll promised.

Amazing Amanda, scheduled for release next month by Playmates Toys, is expected to cost $99, said Ms. Shackelford, the chief executive of J. Shackelford & Associates, a product and marketing company in Moorpark, Calif., that specializes in toys and children's entertainment. At that price, the same as Apple's entry-level iPod Shuffle digital music player, the 18-inch-tall doll promises - right on the box it will be sold in - to "listen, speak and show emotion." Some analysts and buyers who have seen Amanda say it represents an evolutionary leap from earlier talking dolls like Chatty Cathy of the 1960's, a doll that cycled through a collection of recorded phrases when a child pulled a cord in its back.

Radio frequency tags in Amanda's accessories - including toy food, potty and clothing - wirelessly inform the doll of what it is interacting with. For instance, if the doll asks for a spoon of peas and it is given its plastic cookie, it will gently admonish its caregiver, telling her that a cookie is not peas.

While $99 is a premium price for a doll, it is only about $10 more than the price of the popular American Girl dolls. And, Ms. Shackelford said, Amanda may prove that girls as well as boys can embrace technology in their toys. While video games and interactive robots, like Wow Wee's Robosapien, have long been successful in capturing the imaginations and buying power of preteenage and adolescent boys, a different assumption has been made about what girls want, analysts say.

Part of the popularity of low-tech dolls like Mattel's Chatty Cathy and Barbie, and more recent additions like Bratz (from MGA Entertainment) and the American Girl dolls (a line acquired by Mattel), has been that they allowed young girls to use their imagination, said David Riley, a senior manager at the NPD Group, a market research firm.

"I think girls have more active imaginations than boys do when it comes to play," Mr. Riley noted. "If girls have a button on their doll and can feel an engine inside it, that takes away from their ability to imagine."

He said that from what he knows of Amazing Amanda, Ms. Shackelford and her company appear to have overcome such problems, noting that Amanda appears to be more doll than robot.

Mr. Riley added that the $20 billion toy industry has faltered in recent years as children's tastes and styles of play have changed. Toy spending has been widely seen as migrating to consumer electronics. Children are increasingly craving devices their parents want, many analysts say, like cellphones, digital cameras and portable digital music players.

One way to counter that trend, Ms. Shackelford said, is a meaningful integration of advanced technologies into traditional toys, like dolls. "You've got to get out of the mind dodge," she said. "You have to push the envelope."

Ms. Shackelford has been testing limits since she joined Mattel in 1976 as manager of preschool marketing. Three years later she became the highest-ranking woman in the American toy industry when she was named a Mattel vice president, the first woman to reach that rank. Credited with reviving the Barbie line of dolls and toys in the late 1970's, she left Mattel in 1986 to establish her own company. There, Ms. Shackelford created a series of doll lines, including other Amazing dolls - Amy, Ally, Maddie, Ashley and Baby - that all incorporated electronics so they could virtually "know" things like when to wake up, and a child's birthday and favorite holidays.

And now she is trying a new frontier with Amazing Amanda, convinced that it will stoke a girl's imagination, not take its place. One prerelease model of Amazing Amanda, once it was activated (by flipping the toy's only visible switch hidden high on its back and beneath its clothing), woke with a yawn, slowly opened its eyes and started asking questions in a cutesy, almost cartoonlike girl's voice.

What the doll is actually doing, Ms. Shackelford said, is "voice printing" the primary user's voice pattern. By asking a child to repeat "Amanda" several times, the doll quickly comes to recognize and store in its electronic memory that child's voice, and only that child's voice, as its "mommy." Other voices are greeted with Amanda's cautionary proclamation, "You don't sound like Mommy." In all, Ms. Shackelford said, the doll is equipped for almost an hour of speech that includes various questions, programmed responses, requests, songs and games. And as Amanda speaks, the doll's soft-plastic lips move and its face, using Disney-like animatronics, help to suggest expressions.

For instance, when Amazing Amanda plays a game called funny face, she asks if you would like to see a happy face or a sad one. If you answer "funny face," the doll's eyes brighten and she looks as if she is smiling. If Amanda is asked to make a sad one, her lower lip protrudes as her lids lower. She might even ask if you would like to see her cry, responding to "yes" or "no."

"The speech-recognition chip running in Amazing Amanda acts not only as speech recognition, but also allows her to talk," said Todd Mozer, chief executive of Sensory, a speech-technology company in Santa Clara, Calif., that developed the chip used in the doll. He noted that the technology could interpret a range of languages and dialects. Sensory executives said that was vitally important to Ms. Shackelford, whose new doll is one of the first products to use the new speech chip. Ms. Shackelford said the chip's multidialect capacities are important for her doll, which is being manufactured in China to be sold to English-speaking markets around the world. The chip, explained Adam Anderson, one of the lead project managers, carries additional dialect references gleaned from children's voices recorded in England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

And by asking children to repeat words like "pizza," the doll can lock in specific dialects, "remember" and respond accordingly, Mr. Anderson said.

Some 150 pages of logic programmed into Amanda help guide children through activities as if journeying through verbal mazes, Ms. Shackelford said.

"The idea that a child can be led through play, that it can be done intuitively, is so important to me," she said, adding that her doll's sophisticated technologies must be invisible. "We don't want to make kids scared of technology," said Ms. Shackelford, who says she is in her mid-60's and has no children of her own. "You have a baby doll that is supposed to make a little girl feel like the doll loves her. Girls tell dolls all the time that they love them.

"This doll," Ms. Shackelford said, "acts like she loves you."

FUCK ME with a Raggedy Ann doll. And a toy truck. Soon you won't be able to tell the difference between a doll and a baby.

Here we go: the FBI wants your library records

From the NY Times. Read the full story here.

Using its expanded power under the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, the F.B.I. is demanding library records from a Connecticut institution as part of an intelligence investigation, the ACLU said Thursday.

The demand is the first confirmed instance in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation has used the law in this way, federal officials and the A.C.L.U. said. The government's power to demand access to library borrowing records and other material showing reading habits has been the single most divisive issue in the debate over whether Congress should extend key elements of the act after this year.

Administration officials have repeatedly emphasized that they have no interest in investigating the reading habits of law-abiding Americans. But the administration has faced strong criticism from groups like the American Library Association, which released a survey of its members in June showing that law enforcement officials had contacted libraries at least 200 times since 2001 with formal and informal inquiries about their internal records.

The Internet is as bad as TV

Yesterday I spent 15 hours on the Net. A bit of it blogging, but most of it reading. Most of it reading blog comment threads!? Most of them about Cindy Sheehan?! One of them was 600 comments long.
I don't have a TV, because it's too distracting. I might have to get rid of the Net, too. But how? I need to be hooked up -- email and all. I need to read the NY Times. I need to blog. I need my computer to write. But did I work on my novel yesterday? No, the only writing I did was commenting on Cindy Sheehan threads and write for my blog.
What's going on? Eek! I've been hijacked by the Net. How can I be saved?

Survivor Kertesz calls Schindler's List "kitsch"

From the good old Guardian via the marvelous

"Schindler's List? Kitsch." Nobel winner Imre Kertesz thought the movie industry would ruin his Holocaust memoir Fateless. Was he right? by Geoffrey Macnab

Not long before he went to Sweden to accept the 2002 Nobel prize for literature, the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz received a brown envelope in the post. It had been sent to him by the Buchenwald Memorial Centre and contained a copy of a report, dated February 18 1945, about the camp's prisoners. Among the deaths listed was that of prisoner number 64, 921 - a certain Imre Kertesz. He was described as a factory worker, born in 1927. In fact, Kertesz was born in 1929: he had lied about his age when he entered the camp so the Nazis wouldn't think him a child, and said he was a worker rather than a schoolboy to appear more useful. "In short, I died once so I could live," he said of the report in his Nobel prize acceptance speech. "Perhaps that is my real story."

Kertesz's experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald form the backcloth to his 1975 semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, which the Nobel academy singled out in its citation. And it is largely thanks to the Nobel prize that Fateless has now been made into a movie.

Directed by Lajos Koltai - best-known for his photography on Istvan Szabo films including Being Julia - the film has had a troubled history. The most expensive production in Hungarian history, it was dogged by financial scandal, and almost abandoned when the original producer walked out. Even Kertesz says he wasn't eager to see Fateless turned into a film. But now it's finished he's happy with the results. "I was completely overwhelmed. I saw it as if I was a stranger. Paradoxically, despite the content, the film is very beautiful."

A small, balding man with a kindly demeanour and a mischievous smile, Kertesz is a self-deprecating and surprisingly humorous interviewee. He confides that he went on set only once during shooting. "When I was there, I lost my glasses and the whole crew started looking for them. That's not really what you want to call a fruitful cooperation."

Reviews for the film have been enthusiastic so far, with some critics comparing it to Spielberg's Schindler's List - although Kertesz dismisses Spielberg's movie as "kitsch" and the storytelling in each movie is very different. There is nothing spectacular in the way Fateless unfolds. As in the book, events are seen entirely from the perspective of 15-year-old protagonist Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy) as he is rounded up with thousands of other Hungarian Jews and put on a train to Auschwitz, then taken to Buchenwald.

Kertesz finished the book in Hungary in the mid-1960s but had to wait almost a decade to find a publisher. "Because I didn't write what the communist government wanted to see, I was cut off and alone with my work," he says. "I never thought my book would ever be published, and so I had the freedom to write as radically as I wanted." Even when the book did appear in 1975, critics paid little attention.

It wasn't until after the fall of the Iron Curtain that Kertesz began to win international literary awards - and producers became interested in making a movie of his best-known work. A screenplay was commissioned from a professional scriptwriter. This, to Kertesz's dismay, began with a famous violinist returning to Budapest from New York and then, in flashback, showed him as a teenager in the concentration camp. "I looked at his script and I realised that many things were wrong," Kertesz says. He decided to write a new screenplay, but it wasn't until he won the Nobel prize that anyone was willing to fund it.

Maybe potential financiers were put off by the way Fateless broke the "rules" governing Holocaust stories. Gyuri (like Kertesz) is a non-believing Jew. He is not educated according to Jewish traditions. "He is a non-Jewish Jew," Kertesz says, "and he had to share in the fate of so many Jews and he feels this is kind of an absurdity."

Among the film's most disconcerting scenes is the arrival at Auschwitz. The mood is perversely upbeat. We see a woman put on lipstick and some of the older men try to engage the guards in conversation. "The Hungarian Jews didn't know what to expect," Kertesz says. Reports about the death camps had reached Hungary by early 1944, but the Jewish Council had decided not to publish them. "So many people came to Germany who were simply clueless. They didn't know what to expect and since they hadn't been treated very well by the Hungarian gendarmerie, they were hoping things would turn out for the better."

Equally eerie is the scene in which the boy returns to Budapest after the US forces have liberated Buchenwald. His home is occupied by someone else. People don't know how to respond to him. They speak about his experiences in cliches and grow frustrated when he won't see himself as a victim. They're appalled when he expresses homesickness and nostalgia for the camp.

Like Gyuri, Kertesz was presented with a tantalising choice after the camps were liberated. He could go to the US or to return to Hungary. He chose the latter. Soon, though, Hungary fell under the yoke of Stalin. Kertesz, who lost his job as a journalist for not being respectful enough to his communist masters, was exposed to a new kind of dictatorship. This, he claims, liberated him as a writer.

"In a democracy," he says, "I would never have been able to understand and realise what happened to me back then in the camps. As an adult, I survived this dictatorship and this dictatorship told me what had happened to me when I was young."

KERTESZ is of course right about Schindler's List. Some of the violence is properly upsetting, but it's mostly kitsch through and through. I once had a huge argument with a friend of mine about the movie. His point was that Spielberg at least showed a lot of ignorant Americans that there had been such a thing as the Holocaust. I was a snobbish aesthete, my friend said. I know I am, but still, it sucked. Spielberg's movies won't be looked at in fifty years, while Scorcese's Raging Bull will. As will The Godfather. And at least ten of Bergman's movies. Spielberg is a pop moviemaker, not an artist. I find his pop movies vastly superior to his arty efforts. Close Encounters was bloody good. Spare us your "art", Steven.

I wish some anti-abortion people had been aborted

Federal drug regulators on Friday once again delayed making a decision on allowing over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill, saying they needed more time to gather public reaction to the plan and to figure out how they could enforce it.
Lester M. Crawford, the commissioner of food and drugs, said in a news conference that his agency had decided that the science supported giving over-the-counter access of the drug to women 17 and older, but that the agency could not figure out how to do that from regulatory and practical standpoints without younger teenagers' obtaining the pills, too. The agency will open a 60-day comment period for advice, but the commissioner would not predict when the agency might make a final decision.
The delay infuriated Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington, both Democrats, who had allowed the Senate to vote last month on Dr. Crawford's nomination as commissioner only after the health and human services secretary, Michael O. Leavitt, promised that the agency would decide on Plan B by Sept. 1. "They broke their promise to Senator Murray and me, to the Congress and to the American people," said Mrs. Clinton, who described the decision as "outrageous." Full story here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

New pill for whatever ails you

Jesus Christ! religion is weird

From the NY Times:
City Questions Circumcision Ritual After Baby Dies by Andy Newman

A circumcision ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews has alarmed city health officials, who say it may have led to three cases of herpes - one of them fatal - in infants. But after months of meetings with Orthodox leaders, city officials have been unable to persuade them to abandon the practice.

The city's intervention has angered many Orthodox leaders, and the issue has left the city struggling to balance its mandate to protect public health with the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. "This is a very delicate area, so to speak," said Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden.

The practice is known as oral suction, or in Hebrew, metzitzah b'peh: after removing the foreskin of the penis, the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it. It became a health issue after a boy in Staten Island and twins in Brooklyn, circumcised by the same mohel in 2003 and 2004, contracted Type-1 herpes. Most adults carry the disease, which causes the common cold sore, but it can be life-threatening for infants. One of the twins died.

Since February, the mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, 57, has been under court order not to perform the ritual in New York City while the health department is investigating whether he spread the infection to the infants.

Pressure from Orthodox leaders on the issue led Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and health officials to meet with them on Aug. 11. The mayor's comments on his radio program the next day seemed meant to soothe all parties and not upset a group that can be a formidable voting bloc: "We're going to do a study, and make sure that everybody is safe and at the same time, it is not the government's business to tell people how to practice their religion."

The health department, after the meeting, reiterated that it did not intend to ban or regulate oral suction. But Dr. Frieden has said that the city is taking this approach partly because any broad rule would be virtually unenforceable. Circumcision generally takes place in private homes. Dr. Frieden said the department regarded herpes transmission via oral suction as "somewhat inevitable to occur as long as this practice continues, if at a very low rate."

The use of suction to stop bleeding dates back centuries and is mentioned in the Talmud. The safety of direct oral contact has been questioned since the 19th century, and many Orthodox and nearly all non-Orthodox Jews have abandoned it. Dr. Frieden said he hoped the rabbis would voluntarily switch to suctioning the blood through a tube, an alternative endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis.

But the most traditionalist groups, including many Hasidic sects in New York, consider oral suction integral to God's covenant with the Jews requiring circumcision, and they have no intention of stopping. "The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years," said Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after the meeting with the mayor. "We do not change. And we will not change."

David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization of Orthodox Jews, said that metzitzah b'peh is probably performed more than 2,000 times a year in New York City. The potential risks of oral suction, however, are not confined to Orthodox communities. Dr. Frieden said in March that the health department had fielded several calls from panicked non-Orthodox parents who had hired Hasidic mohels unaware of what their services entailed.

Defenders of oral suction say there is no proof that it spreads herpes at all. They say that mohels use antiseptic mouthwash before performing oral suction, and that the known incidence of herpes among infants who have undergone it is minuscule. (The city's health department recorded cases in 1988 and 1998, though doctors in New York, as in most states, are not required to report neonatal herpes.)

Dr. Kenneth I. Glassberg, past president of the New York section of the American Urological Association and director of pediatric urology at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, said that while he found oral suction "personally displeasing," he did not recommend that rabbis stop using it. "If I knew something caused a problem from a medical point of view," said Dr. Glassberg, whose private practice includes many Hasidic families, "I would recommend against it."

But Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a microbiologist and professor of Talmud and medical ethics at Yeshiva University, said that metzitzah b'peh violates Jewish law. "The rule that's above all rules in the Torah is that you cannot expose or accept a risk to health unless there is true justification for it," said Dr. Tendler, co-author of a 2004 article in the journal Pediatrics that said direct contact posed a serious risk of infection. "Now there have been several cases of herpes in the metro area," he said. "Whether it can be directly associated with this mohel nobody knows. All we're talking about now is presumptive evidence, and on that alone it would be improper according to Jewish law to do oral suction."

The inconsistent treatment of Rabbi Fischer himself indicates the confusion metzitzah b'peh has sown among health authorities, who typically regulate circumcisions by doctors but not religious practitioners. In Rockland County, where Rabbi Fischer lives in the Hasidic community of Monsey, he has been barred from performing oral suction. But the state health department retracted a request it had made to Rabbi Fischer to stop the practice. And in New Jersey, where Rabbi Fischer has done some of his 12,000 circumcisions, the health authorities have been silent.

Rabbi Fischer's lawyer, Mark J. Kurzmann, said that absent conclusive proof that the rabbi had spread herpes, he should be allowed to continue the practice. Rabbi Fischer said through Mr. Kurzmann that the twin who died and the Staten Island boy both had herpes-like rashes before they were circumcised and were seen by a pediatrician who approved their circumcision. The health department declined to comment on its investigation.

HOLY MOSES. Rabbis going down on babies. The mind boggles.