Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It Is As It Does

The Huffington Post offers up the juicy tidbit that Occidental College is including among its course offerings this year a class in "Stupidity." From the course catalog:
Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending.
Et tendentious cetera.

We note the three headlines presented immediately below that story on the HuffPo's front page:
I think I can save you some money, undergrads...

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Language Problem

It has always struck me as deeply incongruous when a Nazi addresses another Nazi in English. A sequence in Where Eagles Dare leaped out at me back in the mists of time, when Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are sent into a Nazi enclave in Wehrmacht uniforms, and manage to pass perfectly, despite addressing the enemy in full Burtonian and Eastwoodian English. Really, dude? the skeptical watcher wants to ask. Is your German that good? So good, in fact, that it passes even when it's English? Not a single Nazi so much as looks askance at them. It's very hard to overlook, a real strain on the old willing-suspension-of-disbelief neurons.

Inglourious Basterds picks up this ball of incongruity and runs it into the end zone. Four-fifths of the film is in either French or German, and the American audience is forced to do what cowardly directors swear they won't ever do: read subtitles. In Chapter One, a Nazi interviewing a Frenchman begins in French but then asks, halfway through the conversation, to switch to English. Ah-ha! the viewer says triumphantly, caught you, Tarantino! Pretty sleazy way of getting those damned subtitles off the screen!

But no. The Nazi has bigger plans.

The language-play continues later. A plot-point depends on the assumption that Germans cannot appreciate the subleties of the Italian tongue and are universally unable to detect an American accent. As it happens, the German the Basterds are trying to fool (the same English-speaker from Chapter One) has absolutely beautiful Italian, and there is high comedy indeed as he toys with the hapless Basterds.

While ostensibly an action film, Basterds is very dialog-intensive. The same trope happens repeatedly: Nazi inquisitor twigs to subterfuge, and toys with his interlocutor until dreadful violence breaks out. Reviewers have called these lengthy scenes boring; I disagree emphatically. Tarantino's artful dialog, never oblique or obscure, unfailingly keeping the viewer informed without being obvious about it, is anything but boring. Anyone bored by this dialog is bored by life.

Violent? Come on. It's Tarantino. Heads bashed in with baseball bats? Oh yeah. Prurient closeups of knives and skin? Of course. But the film is so over-the-top, so completely obviously a comedy about war films, that the viewer is never oppressed by it; it's all clearly, clearly fake, and Tarantino just winks at us throughout it.

I'll leave it to greater minds to comment on this film's place in the great panoply of film history, of WWII flicks and the movies made by the Nazis to sell themselves to the German public. It's clear (I mean, really, really clear) that Tarantino wants it to be considered in that light. The fact that a great deal of the plot involves getting the highest echelons of the Nazi apparat into a theater to watch a film extolling a German war hero -- a theater that specializes in Riefenstahl revivals -- is almost rubbing our noses in self-referentiality. To watch the film in a theater over the heads of our fellow film-goers, the view encompassing the backs of heads watching a film showing the backs of heads onscreen watching a film, is truly the only way to fully appreciate this movie.

Don't wait for the DVD, is what I'm saying.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wait... What?

From the Huffington Post:

Did they use it like a divining rod?

O-or did Jackie O have... I don't even want to think about it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Bristol is a town that straddles the border between Virginia and Tennessee -- the state line runs down the middle of State Street. Technically, there are two Bristols (they most commonly come in pairs, amirite?) -- Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee -- but they are both run by the same city administration.

Besides its NASCAR track, Bristol Motor Speedway -- "the world's fastest half-mile" -- Bristol's main claim to fame is as the birthplace of country music. In truth, this is not really so; a more accurate assertion would be that it is the birthplace of the country music record industry. What we might consider proto-country music is, of course, much, much older than that. It was to Bristol in the summer of 1927 that Ralph Peer, producer and A&R man formerly for OKeh Records and now acting under his new position with Victor, brought newfangled field recording gear and up-to-the-minute electric microphones (introduced in 1925), and set up shop in an unused storage space over the Taylor-Christian Hat company on the Tennessee side of State Street.

He allowed it to be bruited about that he would be offering $50 a side to any local musicians he deemed worthy of recording. A very astute and far-sighted businessman, Peer recognized, absolutely rightly, that with a nascent recording business and the coming ubiquity of radio, the real money was to be made in owning the copyright to the songs he recorded, which was why he felt he could be relatively generous to his recording stable -- and $50 was mighty generous indeed to the average resident of Appalachia in 1927.

Between July 22 and August 3, Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, B.F. Shelton, Uncle Eck Dunford, and a host of other hillbilly acts. An industry was indeed born. The bottom would fall out of it in 1932 with the Great Depression, but radio would sustain country music through World War II, with shows like the Grand Ole Opry. When the wartime rationing of vinyl ended with the war, an entirely new, infinitely more sophisticated generation of artists, recording on vastly improved equipment, filled the need for American proletarian music. The Victor, OKeh, Columbia artists of the '20s would remain to be rediscovered on scratchy old 78s on grandparents' Victrolas, and on such eminently sympathetic compilations as Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk." It is worth noting that the rediscoverers -- the Ralph Rinzlers, the Mike Seegers (RIP), were not themselves rural people, but sons and daughters of urban intellectuals.

It was into this Bristol that the Jingomobile roared yesterday. (Literally. That muffler's on its last legs.) I'd bombed down 81 from Winchester in what must have been record time, the 350-mile trip having taken five and a half hours. My purpose was twofold: I wanted to see the place where Peer had his recordings done, and I wanted to retrace the route the Carter Family took to their historic recording sessions with Peer.

The outskirts of Bristol are unprepossessing indeed. Huge Baptist churches stand cheek by jowl with grubby Taco Bells and Burger Kings, which are the places where the swains of Bristol go when they want to show their girlfriends a good time. There are few other options. The squalor persists until you hit State Street itself, which is leafy, verdant, and lined with quirky coffeeshops and bookstores for the tourist trade. The Art Deco theater marquee survives -- it can be made out in a gritty photo of State Street from the Ralph Peer era. I find the building where the sessions are said to have taken place -- there seems to be some local controversy over it, but The Bristol Sessions (ed. Wolfe & Olson) confidently places it at Number 408. There it is. A large mural on a blind wall facing the railroad tracks celebrates "Bristol Tenn-Va / Birthplace of Country Music" with portraits of Peer, the Carters, Victor Records, and Rodgers giving his signature thumbs-up in his brakeman's gear, guitar in his lap.

Besides State Street, I'd wanted to see another landmark from the era -- Maces Spring and Poor Valley and Rich Valley on the side of Clinch Mountain, where all three Carters grew up, married, and started families before that Monday and Tuesday, August 1-2, 1927, when they would record "Single Girl, Married Girl," "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," and four other sides. The legend put about by Peer after the Carters' success was that the Carters were raggedy-assed, barefoot, iggerant backwoodsmen who'd never seen the big city before they pulled into town looking like the Beverly Hillbillies. (Come to think of it, I would not be suprised to find a distinct historic correlation between that disgusting portrayal and Peer's description.)

At any rate, it's rank bullshit, meant to sell records and legend. A. P. Carter made a decent living for himself selling fruit trees and farming, the Carters wore clothes to Bristol that, while perhaps not New York tailored, were perfectly unremarkable -- and that certainly included footwear fit for city use. A. P. was born in a log cabin -- it's now on display at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, moved down from its original, nearly inaccessible site. But the idea that the Carters were from the back of beyond and had never seen the Big City is pure nonsense -- Maces Spring is a mere twenty miles from town. A. P. Carter first heard of Peer's visit while he was in Bristol itself, visiting a cousin who ran a furniture store. They had cars (borrowed from a brother, admittedly, but they knew how to drive).

I followed the road to Hiltons, Clinch Mountain looming. It is indeed a winding road, and it is easy to imagine that its unpaved 1927 version would have been hard indeed on the balloon-like tires of the day -- the Carters took two days to traverse it, partly because of numerous blowouts, and partly because Sara was pregnant and the jostling made her miserable. But nowadays it can be driven at a comfortable 40 MPH, slowing down for the frequent 90-degree hairpins.

It is a very poor part of the world. One- and two- room houses of crumbling brick, old enough to have been passed by the Carters on their trip to Bristol, line the passage, yards weedy, reeking of desperation and boredom. Footwashing Baptist churches, though, look prosperous, well maintained, their white paint gleaming in the sun. There is ample traffic for a Sunday afternoon, and I sense impatience in drivers as they come up behind a gawking tourist who's slowing down to look at things they find completely commonplace. I pull over and let them pass.

Hiltons (Maces Spring lacks a post office and thus is not officially a town) looks prosperous enough. The town's mining concern seems to be going strong. Up past the school (also looking well off), the A. P. Carter Highway winds its way through Poor Valley to the Carter Family Fold, located at the site of the grocery store that A. P. opened after the Carters broke up -- his wife Sara having fallen in love with another. The grocery store (closed, alas, for Sunday, as is all of the Fold) looks about the size of my living room. A. P.'s birth-cabin is beautiful, rustic -- and shares architectural characteristics with the German/Scots-Irish cabins in and around my home, 350 miles north.

I can only admire from outside the little amphitheater where Saturday nights in season ("Adults $1.50, Children 50 cents") old-timey and bluegrass concerts are given.

This is the place where a dying Johnny Cash gave his last performance.

Not much more to see here. A phone call from home requires my presence, and presently I am bombing back up 81, dodging eighteen-wheelers and blue flashing lights on prowlers, headed back to 2009. I still keep the Mood Music going, though:
Far away upon a hill on a sunny mountain side
Many years ago we parted, my little Ruth and I
From the sunny mountain side

Oh she clung to me and trembled, when I told her we must part
And she said don't go my darling, it almost breaks my heart
To think of you, so far apart

Carry me back to old Virginia,
Back to my Clinch Mountain home...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Got Lurid?

The first thing I'll do with a new hardcover is remove the dust jacket and store it somewhere safe. Replace it when I'm done, of course, and ready to store it on the shelf.

This one I did with perhaps a greater degree of pleasure than usual. Yeah, OK, Southern Cali hardboiled Sixties surfer genre, pretty much calls for lurid neon type on the cover. Don't have much of a problem with that. No, it's the hideous neon-pink gradient wash the designer put on the inner flaps that does it for me. I couldn't go one sentence without my eye straying off the page and staring fixedly at the strange, strange design choice, me thinking whyyyyyy?

Picked it up yesterday, only had time for one chapter last night. No immediate impressions formed yet, up or down. I did get a pretty serious gut-laff from the stoner lawyer, Sauncho Smilax, as Doc is using his One Phone Call to try to get out of jail:
"It's like Donald and Goofy, right, and they're out in a life raft, adrift at sea? for what looks like weeks? and what you start noticing after a while, in Donald's closeups, is that he has whisker stubble? like, growing out of his beak? You get the significance of that?"

"If I find a minute to think about it, Saunch, but meantime here comes Bigfoot and he's got that look, so if you could repeat the number back, OK, and--"

"We've always had this image of Donald Duck, we assume it's how he looks all the time in his normal life, but in fact he's always had to go in every day and shave his beak. The way I figure, it has to be Daisy. You know, which means, what other grooming demands is that chick laying on him, right?"

Blogrolling in Our Time

Everybody pop on over and say howdy to the newest addition to my blogroll, a dear friend of mine from another, parallel universe: Daydreams by Candlefire, a diarist and chronicler of acute observations. In particular check out her ongoing series, "Chronicles of Snowville." (The first two installations in the series can be seen here and here.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Double Steal

Potomac Nationals vs. Wilmington Blue Rocks, Sunday, August 9, 2009

It's a blistering hot August Sunday.

Top of the eighth inning. Wilmington, in a tie with the P-Nats for first place in the Carolina League, has come back from a 3-0 deficit to rack up six unanswered runs. Things may be out of hand for the home team.

Wilmington puts runners at first and third. Nats reliever Patrick McCoy winds up to pitch. As he does so, the runner on first breaks for a steal. McCoy catches it in time, and concentrates his attention on throwing him out. From our seats in Section E (close enough to home plate that Freddie and I can legitimately contest ball-and-strike calls with the ump -- the $11 seats!) we see the runner on third sneaking down the line to steal home.

Nooooo! we all shriek. Look behind you! Don't make a rookie mistake! Get the lead runner!

But no. McCoy throws to the second baseman, crabwalking for second along with the runner. Immediately, the lead runner on third breaks for home. The second baseman, far more in tune with his baseball instincts and training than those of us in the stands -- who remembers the Double Steal play from high-school ball? Certainly not me -- susses the play immediately. He's been waiting for it. He fires the ball on a smoking rope to the catcher at home, who falls on the miscreant home-stealer like a ton of bricks, and the ump punches the runner out, out, out.

I sometimes forget how much I love this game. Who laid out the bases at 90 feet apart? Such that when a ground ball goes to the shortstop's right, and he snags it and throws to first, it's always an exciting bang-bang call? Eighty-five feet, the runner's invariably safe. Ninety-five feet, he's out by a country mile. And on a tall sacrifice fly to deep center, runner at second gets overconfident and tries for home, centerfielder hits the cutoff man, who does his job and gets the ball on a line to home, the ball and the runner are there at exactly the same time, and only the ump can see through the cloud of dust to make the call?

Baseball oughta be the National Pastime or something. That's what I think.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Come Up the Country!

Death appears to surround us.

Sometime early yesterday morning, a white-tailed doe chose our orchard as the site of her Calvary. Betty awoke, looked out her window, and came to report a deceased deer a-next the Asian Pear.

I investigated, in the driving rain. Yep, no question about it. Rigor mortis had set in, the crows were conversing in salivating tones, buzzards were circling overhead, and flies were buzzing, as they will. Something must be done.

I called Animal Control. They were closed (it being Sunday), but their recorded message said to call the Sheriff's Office in case of an emergency. I did not judge this to be exactly an emergency, but called anyway. The man who answered, while kind, was not inclined to jump into his prowler and race over to help. Had the deer died on a public road, he said, the Virginia Department of Transportation would send a crew to remove it, but if on private land, there was not much he could do. We are a couple of hundred yards from a public road. His recommendation was to remove the carcass to some spot remote from the house, and let nature take its course.

I contemplated dragging the thing to the road, abandoning it there, and calling VDOT, but dismissed it as an affront to the neighbors. It might take days for VDOT to respond, and in the meantime, I'd have placed an Extremely Stinky Thing within nose-shot of three other households. No, the only polite thing was to follow the good Sheriff's advice.

We maintain a clearing in the southern quadrant for the kind of yard-waste that can't be composted -- tree-wrack, out-of-date Christmas trees, what have you -- and this is far enough away from the house that (I fervently hope) the stink won't waft here. I got out the tractor-mower, clapped a length of chain to its axle (easier said than done) and the other end to the deer's hind leg, and off we went. The dragging, while undignified for the deceased, was easy enough. She wasn't particularly heavy.

I left her there, with a blessing and a... Can we atheists be said to pray? Whatever it was, I tried to be as respectful as I could under the circumstances. I don't anticipate going back there until her bones are bleached dry.

And the goddamned dogs know their boundaries. Or at least, they'd better. Or there'll be hell to pay.