Wednesday, July 30, 2008

From Variety: Fashionistas Goes Hollywood

Just a little personal note here to say—-WOO HOOOO-—to an old friend, Lynn Messina, on the news that her debut novel, Fashionistas, is being made into a major motion picture!!!

Lynn is a model of perseverance, the one in 1,000 writers who does not rest until they have found themselves a literary agent, and then can continue to deliver books with commercial appeal.

Fashionistas was published in 2003 by Red Dress Ink. It was reviewed as a stronger novel than The Devil Wore Prada, but back then, it was the Devil’s day all the way.

From Variety, “Fashionistas follows a young woman working at a design house who plots to take down her ruthless boss by inventing a fictitious designer.”

The director is Donald Petrie, who directed Mystic Pizza, Miss Congeniality, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

When the film business juggernaut happens to civilians-—those not in the business directly-—it can hopefully offer a bit of the high life with a satisfying end product. Keeping it all in perspective and the anxiety level low, that’s what the friends are for.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Mystery of Our Bright Ideas

What can we reason but from what we know? Alexander Pope

The brain. The final frontier. While we go about our daily lives, there are teams of neuroscientists trying to learn how the brain does what it does. It is comforting to know that these people are out there toiling on our behalf.

A recent dispatch from that front came from Jonah Lehrer who has an excellent article about inspiration in a recent New Yorker called “The Eureka Hunt” (not online). It starts with an anecdote about fire jumpers in 1949 Montana. Fourteen men parachute into a gulch to put out a lightening fire. Winds shift, and they are trapped by “a wall of flame fifty feet tall and three hundred feet deep.” Their leader, a man named Wag Dodge, orders his men to retreat, and the only way out is to try to run up a steep canyon wall.

At some point Dodge turns around, and KNOWS that he can’t outrun the fire. In a moment of inspiration, he stops running and lights a match, burning the brush immediately in front of him. He pours water from his canteen onto a handkerchief, puts it around his mouth and nose, and lays down in the middle of his burnt-out brush. The fire wall passes over him, leaving him untouched and killing his thirteen running comrades.

The article discusses the work various scientists are doing to understand how the brain finds answers to impossible puzzles of all sorts, from the trivial to the life-threatening.

One interesting point it makes about inspiration is that there first must be an impasse. You may solve problems with analytic reasoning, but that is simply the left brain functioning in the conscious state.

Inspiration describes what happens when the left brain goes as far as it can with its accessible knowledge. Then the whole brain starts searching for bits and pieces of facts and knowledge, which, if brought together correctly, will tell you something that your conscious mind did not know.

And orchestrating random facts into the brilliance of inspiration is the work of the prefrontal cortex. As Lehrer writes, “It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot, or how they are able to filter through the chaos of bad ideas to produce the epiphany.”

Another defining element of inspiration is certainty. When the right idea pops into your head after an impasse, you experience a feeling of certainty that doesn’t accompany general conscious problem-solving.

In a very micro example, I experience this type of inspiration when I do the NY Time crossword puzzles online. First, I go through and fill in all the answers that I “know.” Then I need to put it down. When I go back to it—a day or two later—I go through from top to bottom, and there are certain clues that my hands start typing the letters to nanoseconds before my consciousness knows what I’m typing. It’s a wild experience to feel my consciousness catch up to what my hands already know.

The article and supporting research argues for letting the mind wander when you need to solve a difficult problem, that trying to force your mind to solve something will backfire.

It’s tantalizing to think about all the stuff rattling around in our minds. Poets have thought about it in the most exotic ways for centuries, and now the scientists are catching up. It's about time.

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens, 1954

(Images from Brain Paint, an interesting biofeedback company.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mad Men: The Dawning of Those Who Think Young

When last we saw the enigmatic Don Draper, he was sitting on the bottom of his living room steps on Thanksgiving, 1960; his wife and children have gone to her Dad’s for the holiday. He didn’t want to go, since he’s not really participating in his marriage or his fatherhood. But he was affected by his own presentation for the Carousel—filled with photos capturing the sentimentality of his faux life—and thinks maybe he can engage with his façade self, only to find that Betty and kids are already gone. And so the hollow man is alone as season one ends, with Dylan consoling him “don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

When we next see him, it will be Valentine’s Day, 1962.

While we may not learn exactly what he has been doing in the year and a half, we know that Jon Hamm, his alter ego, has been busy garnering awards, along with Matt Weiner and the whole crew: three Golden Globe, a Peabody, and 16 Emmy nods, including outstanding actor, supporting actor, writing, directing, and series.

Clearly it’s a show filling a hunger of the tv-watching audience of 2008. What are we finding there?

Well, it’s one heck of a kaleidoscope of recent history. The past forty years have seen powerful societal revolutions. MM gives us a chance to see these revolutions--which some witnessed first hand, and others, including the brainchild Weiner, inherited--all recollected in tranquility (and saturated color). Yes, the series is the poetry of our summer.

For instance, TV viewers born in each decade from 1960 on know there was a feminist revolution, but for nonboomers, we never saw exactly what it was trying to correct. MM dramatizes what women faced in the workplace when they entered it after the war. That’s not to say that women don’t still face sexism, but most of us don’t encounter it to this degree: “It’s like watching a dog play the piano” Mr. Rumsen on the thought of Peggy Olson writing copy.

Drugs are entering daily life—the beats are getting high, and it’s the beginning of the “us vs. them” with the police. Don’t trust anyone over 30 is on the horizon. Music is energizing the postwar crowd. When the Twist comes on at PJ’s in the party for Peggy, a primal scream of delight goes up that we can all relate to.

The overarching revolution that’s coming is not old versus young—it’s old order versus the new waves of energy of those who think young, challenging that order. And Matt Weiner is giving us a front row seat to the sea changes, layered with personal details of characters amid the revolutionary swells.

I am not a complete disciple of the Mad Men. I thought the storytelling itself was weak and disconnected; there were lots of strong, interesting moments that did not build together well in larger arcs.

James Wolcott’s early post also voiced the minority vote: that the series isn’t as good as people think it is, and we wish it were.

But it’s still the perfect summer fare, and the sixties are the place to be. Which may be why New York is experiencing a full revival of Hair. . .

This Sunday night, July 27, at 10:00 p.m., Mad Men second season premieres. Tom Watson, editor extraordinaire of newcritics and I will be your hosts for live blogging of the episodes. Tom leads off this Sunday. So turn on the lava lamp and join the fun. Can key parties be far off?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dust and Lust in Roma e Magna Graecia

The summer wanderings took me to Rome for a few days, before some friends and I headed to Sicily, where we had rented a beach house. My friends hadn’t been to Rome before, so it was a great excuse to revisit some of its top attractions—the Colosseum, the Forum, the Palatine, and the Vatican.

It was very hot in Rome, but I don’t mind heat. I like extreme weather, even when it’s oppressive temperatures and a merciless sun. We ambled along the upper tier of the Colosseum, our feet upon dirt so desiccated by the sun that we felt antiquity itself in the dust that engulfed us, Pigpen-like.

The next day we went to the Villa Borghese, which was new to me. Nestled in a huge park garden, offering some respite from the sun, it houses a mind-blowing collection of art.

Amidst the Caravaggios and Reubens and Raffaellos, what stood out were two life-size sculptures by Bernini: Apollo and Daphne, and The Rape of Persephone.

Classical-style sculpture is not a medium we experience much in modern life. We are somewhat immured to its accomplishments, to the other worldly achievement of Michaelangelo’s pieta—-how did he get the marble body of Christ to drape so poignantly in the lap of the calm Mater Dolorosa?

But the world of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, sculpting genius of 17th century Italia, is of Ovid and the ancient gods, goddesses, and nymphs.

Apollo and Daphne captures the process of Daphne turning into a tree. Apollo had angered Cupid, who maliciously shoots him with an arrow to fall in love with the nymph Daphne, and he shoots her with an arrow that makes her feel repulsed by his advances. As Apollo pursues her, she flees, and begs her father, the river god Peneus, to turn her into a tree rather than be touched by Apollo. It’s a terrible story about the interference of gods, and the dangers of lust, with poor Daphne losing her life.

The brilliance of the statue is that from one angle you just see a woman running from a man; it’s not until you walk around the piece that you see Daphne’s hands are already twigs. It’s a chilling moment to experience.

And then there was The Rape of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of all the fertility of the earth. There are many versions of the myth, as well as Ovid. But basically, Hades, god of the underworld, becomes besotted with Demeter’s daughter and asks Zeus’s permission to carry her off to his kingdom. While Persephone is playing in the fields of Sicily, the ground opens and she is swallowed up.

Here in the Villa Borghese is the violence of a woman being abducted against her will captured in marble that has startling life and motion to it. Particularly Hades’s fingers pressing into her flesh as though it were human, and you can practically hear the horrid three-headed Cererbus barking at her heals.

Bernini’s work raises the question if there can be beauty for such a violent act. Human nature has a need to project violence against women into various art forms-—we see it all the time in the plots of tv shows from Simon & Simon to The Sopranos. But that doesn’t have the layer of beauty and accomplishment of Bernini’s sculptures.

Much to think about as we head for a Roman dinner with friends before flying to Persephone’s Island.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jo Stafford: She's "Home Again" Now

Jo Stafford died on Wednesday. May she rest in peace in a heaven of beautiful, sultry music. My parents had a compilation album of "songs from the fifties" that had her “You Belong to Me,” and it was the first adult song that I learned all the words to when I was very young.

She had that agile, clear, distinctive voice, dripping with depth and expression. Her commanding downbeat to "Seeeeeee" those pyramids, still gives me chills. It's powerful and sexy, and later "fly" is sung with such abandon. But what really captivated me about the song were the words—all that exotic travel. It never crossed my mind that the woman singing the song was the one staying home, and it was the man “flying the ocean in a silver plane.” That had to be learned later.

See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sun rise on a tropic isle
Just remember darling
All the while
You belong to me

It was also the way she sang “darling”—it was the epitome of grown-up love to me. I didn’t know that by the time I would be old enough to say darling, it would be all but gone from the modern lover’s lexicon, thrown to the rubbish heap of the affected.

See the market place in old Algiers
Send me photographs and souvenirs
Just remember
When a dream appears
You belong to me

And I'll be so alone without you
Maybe you'll be lonesome too

Fly the ocean in a silver plane
See the jungle when it's wet with rain
Just remember till
You're home again
You belong to me

Many have covered the song, from Bob Dylan to Rose McGowen, I'm sure drawn to it by Stafford herself. But she owns it, now and forever.

Update August 3: Well, Stafford's signature song is back in the spotlight, thanks to the astonishing First Lady of France, Carla Bruni. Her album doesn't release here until Tues, August 5, but she was interviewed by Barbara Walters Friday night, and performed Jo's song, via Dylan. It has the hypnotic, sixties spin to it, stuck on the first verse as it is. But Jo was a woman who knew men well, and I think she'd be thrilled with the update so soon after leaving us.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Modest Explanation

“I personally believe that US Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the US should help the US or should help South Africa it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for us.”

Miss Teen South Carolina on Americans' ignorance of geography

“I respect people's reactions — I'm just trying to as calmly and as clearly as possible talk about what this image means and what it was intended to mean and what I think most people will see — when they think it through — that it means.”

David Remnick on Americans' ignorance of satire

I heard Roland Barthes hooting from my bookshelf this morning, “What a twit,” while Jonathan Culler and his structuralist poetics posse cackled in agreement. Pope was just shaking his head from deep with The Dunciad, while W. K. Wimsatt was intentionally groaning over such a modern-day fallacy of an argument.

Remnick tried to mount a further defense, that those who find the Obama/Osama cover offensive simply don’t speak the rarified language of New Yorkerese.

“The idea that we would publish a cover saying these things literally, [‘Obama's supposed "lack of patriotism" or his being "soft on terrorism" or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers’] I think, is just not in the vocabulary of what we do and who we are...

So now it’s a question of vocabulary. And I thought it was about the crassness of showing a portrait of the man behind 9/11 in the White House over the mantle.

I like satire as much as the next guy, and irony even more.

But this is a difficult time for the country, and this election will seal our fate for years to come. It is beyond smug for a bunch of New Yorkers to play so flippantly with the culture war, to show a serious presidential candidate burning a flag in the oval office just because they think it’s absurd that some people may believe that.

The only way to correct this gross error in judgment is for David Reminck to have a mass recall of the issue and to sit and eat every one of the covers. A little jam, a little clotted cream, and he will get off more easily than he deserves. I tore the cover off my copy. He can start with that.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Adrift in the Wine-Dark Sea

The idea is so enticing for a vacation, both the adriftness and the ancient, ancient allusion to both the Illiad and the Odyssey, where "the wine-dark sea" first appears.

Scatter, now, some glory on this island, which the lord of Olympus,
Zeus, gave Persephone and bowed his head to assent, the pride of the blossoming earth,

Sicily, the rich, to control under towering cities opulent,
Kronion granted her also
a people in love with brazen warfare,
horsemen, a people garlanded over and again
with the gold leaves of olive Olympian.

Pindar, First Nemean Ode (via Mary Taylor Simeti's On Persephone's Island)

I have been dipping into the work of Sicilian writers, none of whom is as well-known as Luigi Pirandello. I am bring Lampedusa's The Leopard, and have read Leonardo Sciascia's short story collection, The Wind-Dark Sea, which I highly recommend. It it O Henry dark. The stories are deeply clever while capturing the nature of a fascinating peoples on many level. Here is a good description of the writer and his island from Alberto Mobilio's introduction:

"A latter day Voltaire, Sciasia is at heart a cynic, a descendant of an ancient culture who, in his own lifetime, has witnessed his homeland occupied by the Fascists, the Germans, the Americans, and then returned to the Mafia. History has made him the poet of disillusion. In The Wine-Dark Sea, the specimens come unadorned, dug straight from rocky Sicilian turf, and amply reflect the island's soul, a barbed composite of honor and treachery, brutality and wit."

A Happy 4th to everyone! Be back in a few weeks.