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Candide or the death of irony

09.11.19 Posted in Books, Italy by

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Leonardo Sciascia

While reading Candide this past week I was struck that Forrest Gump is essentially the same Zelig like tale without a hint of the sardonic and ironic tonic that makes Voltaire’s tale so fun and honest. This is the archetypal European v American comparison that Graham Greene was so fond of but rendered so starkly. Gump is such an idealized American myth because it has no wit and so iron handedly sees simplicity and steadfastness as the greatest virtues.

I got to Candide by reading Sciascia’s Candido – I’ve been on a Sciascia kick since I picked up Equal Danger at Dog Eared Books recently and have been transfixed by his nihilistic detectives which feel like Borges rendered in Sicily. But Candido is something different, a tender fairy tale of the Italian post war life which pokes fun at the sanctimonious political parties who design party lines so exacting and exclusionary that they negate a party base while falling into the same cultural corruptions. This is all highlighted by Italy’s non reckoning with fascist ghosts.

Like the titular character Italy’s parties are left naive and innocent as he navigates all these phantoms and comes to embody post war Italian history. The ruthless wit and searing honesty make it fun, but the Sciascia balances that out with a tender humanity. No one comes out clean but they all seem deserving.


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Obit della dia: Franco Columbu

08.30.19 Posted in Obituaries by

Known as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sardegnan sidekick, Franco Columbu led his own very colorful life that began as manual laborer and boxer, and evolved into champion weightlifter. By all accounts the two maintained a great friendship until the end, they even started a bricklaying business in LA because the bodybuilding was all ambitious hobby and no business. Here’s a good Italian obituary and here’s one of the scenes from Pumping Iron that I’ll always remember.


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Revisiting Apocalypse Now

08.26.19 Posted in Movies by

Watching what is billed as the final cut of Apocalypse Now is a revelatory experience. It puts watching movies on TV to shame and shrugs off 99% of any other cinema that I’ve seen in recent years. The level of craftsmanship, engagement with the theme, everything about it screams cinema – it really does define the cinematic experience. So much so that it should be required viewing in 70mm for anyone who cares a whit about movies.

The amazing thing is that there have been so many Apocalypse Nows. It was before my time but the original released at Cannes to get Coppola the breathing room to finish it was one. The original theatrical cut another. And god knows how many more over the years where little things like the finale was tweaked. The original theatrical release is still weighted just right.

This cut is mostly about cutting the bloat from 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux which weighed in with an additional 49 minutes of scenes cut from the original release. That version added in visit to a French plantation, another encounter with the Playboy bunnies, and a few others which only scratches the most completionist of itches. The actual experience is bloated and unforgiving.

The new cut keeps the French colonists but cuts it considerably. It’s crafted to be a quick and more elegant sequence  which makes it less painful but the politics of it really beat you over the head. It feels as if they couldn’t let it go, too much emotional baggage was tied up there. Fortunately they kept the scene where Willard steals Kilgore’s surfboard. That really completes the entire Valkyrie sequence.

More than anything this cut revels in the pleasures of the big screen. There are few experiences like the Ride of the Valkyries scene, the dizzying confusion of it all. Helicopters wheeling everywhere. Sound washing over and through you. It’s easily one of the most impressive things ever put on film. Even the more prosaic scenes express so much more than you can ever describe – the cuts between food, fidgeting fingers, and glances as Willard gets his orders is enveloping and exploding with information. And then there are the overtly expressive scenes, Martin Sheen’s face coming in and out of focus, Brando’s face in light and dark. They are so easy to parody and yet sitting there in the dark, they make a point that you can’t quite describe.

In contrast to my recent tour of other Vietnam movies, the thematic substance of Apocalypse Now still shines through. I struggle with the boundary between glorification of war and portrayal of its terror in all of these movies but this one feels like it manages to point up the craziness, recklessness, and terror of war without losing sight of the humans in the middle of it nor their twisted leaders who insist on dressing it up as something that its not. Even Kilgore’s character comes out better than normally typed, he is definitely crazy but realizes that the war he’s in is also crazy.

The Doors are still strange and out of place but I’m learning to live with that.


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Tarantino tales

08.23.19 Posted in Movies by

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Welcome to yet another elaborate Tarantino American revenge fantasy which does double duty as a fantasy of the white studio system coming through the 60’s intact. Once Upon a Time in …. Hollywood is simultaneously incredibly engaging film making and morally dubious nostalgia.

As with all of his movies the premise is very straightforward: TV star’s wattage is dwindling just as the studio system is changing and the 60’s are raging around them but his stunt double helps him through it all. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton was a fortunate product of the studio system who starred in a TV hit but can’t find his way in a new world populated by polished professionals with strategically managed careers. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is his stunt double, butler, and alter ego. Living fantasy projection of square jaw, tanned rippling muscle, and experience – this could be Fight Club all over again.

This being a Tarantino movie, there are digressions into the Playboy mansion, Bruce Lee, Margo Robbie’s Sharon Tate gets to relish her budding stardom, and the Manson family creeps into the picture as our leading men tie it altogether. No one plays these games quite as stunningly as Tarantino. No one manages to draw in so much acting talent and do so much with it, especially with short cameos.

Cinematically this is another exercise in slouching towards DePalma via Godard. Tarantino is forever fascinated by the absolutist geometry of cinema, if a gun is introduced, you better be damn well assured that it will go off and in spectacular fashion. This is fascinating to watch, it’s probably the major reason to see this movie, because it’s so exacting and engaging on a purely aesthetic level. The enveloping digressive series of stories that fold in on themselves as the movie draws to inexorable conclusion make this such a strong aesthetic statement.

But at the level of moral consciousness it sags into the same tired trope of all Tarantino’s movies – a vicious revenge fantasy that plies you with violence and comedy. The way that he gets around everything – Nazis, slave owners, cults – is a kind of social purging not too distant from the cathartic idea of a super hero defeating a villain to make you feel complete. He’s always rewriting history for catharsis when the history is the point, it did happen and in a certain way that makes it so germane to who we are and the whole idea of Tarantino’s discursive cinema. And yet, he doesn’t seem able to develop an idea outside of that.

He’s definitely trying to perform that role and maybe he really is in the same space, just as super heroes are colonizing cinema in a time of political authoritarianism the parallels in comic book history are eery. But Tarantino is playing at a pretty superficial level, he barely grazes the surface of the lake because the reflection is just too beautiful. It’s a stunning vista but still a reflection and a reflection of his obsessions, white men running Hollywood and by proxy the world.

My guess is that Tarantino would posit that the entire movie is a definition of an era that was all white and absolutely exclusionary, that it presages the current era, that is, a backhand wrapped in the hegemony of the previous era. It can operate that way but it’s pretty shifty. And in the context of all his movies it’s really of a piece. Same structure, same fun at the same points, same fascination with itself. He uses the image of issues like race, gender, class without ever engaging with them. And that’s what is so absolutely, bewilderingly, baffling because he spends so much time trying to rewrite history, building the trappings of historical universes across time and space – the antebellum south, the old west, WWII, 60’s Hollywood – but stops at the point where genre washes onto the beach of real engagement. Cinematically he’s in such control, the whole Tarantino experience is something that most directors can’t even imagine, and yet he can’t seem to get beyond that. He makes you believe but doesn’t really ask you what you’re believing.


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So long RSS, hello RSS!

08.13.19 Posted in Media, Technology by

It’s been a minute since Google Reader was the organizing factor of online media. Google killed the project to, as they explained at the time, clean up their application suite later admitting that they were trying to create their own universe of mico-targeted social media. That worked out real great for Google and the world.

Others jumped in without really fulfilling the need while social media overran everything. But nothing ever quite replaced that need for me, nothing gathered all my feeds into a single spot. Social media is far too diffuse, individual media outlets too centralized, so I’ve hobbled on iterating through Feedly, Byline, and others as a proxy for all my feeds. And then, this week I discovered RSS Mailer.

It performs the same functions as an RSS aggregator but it aggregates all the posts from your feeds into a daily email. So, here we are in the era where email newsletters are the back-to-the-future kings of media and you can get a daily digest of all your feeds first thing in the morning and stay on top of everything. There’s no irony in the fact that I found out about RSS Mailer through the excellent newsletter Dense Discovery. Apparently there are some times when you really can have it all.


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War dramas

08.07.19 Posted in Movies by

 

Rewatching Platoon and Casualties of War back-to-back is a contrast in cinematic style wrapping thematic continuities. They’re really quite disconcerting social mirrors that moralize without much self consciousness.

To get the purely technical elements out of the way first. Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War is clearly more in control and mannered. All those years of studying Hitchcock clearly bore fruit. I don’t know if Oliver Stone has it in himself to exercise that level of control, his eye is all kinetic, a smash and grab operation straight out of Roy Lichtenstein while DePalma is trapped and animated by a Renaissance formality.

Beyond that they present visions of Vietnam and our society that are so much of a piece with one another and today’s world that it’s striking and terrifying. They start out with the same scene and end up at the same place, young clean cut idealistic white boys arrive in Vietnam and have their world views shattered by the war. While those fresh faced white boys escape intact, the physically twisted faces of the guilty soldiers mirror their twisted souls, literally in Tom Berger’s case, all acting in Sean Penn’s.

Each features the era’s crops of young male actors, how’s this for a group shot of talent?

Platoon: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker.

Casualties of War: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Ving Rhames.

They even share Dale Dye as the type cast chisel faced senior officer who performed the same role in tons of movies and then turned that career around to act as military advisor in Entourage. Go figure.

To recap, in Platoon a young Charlie Sheen’s Chris is assigned to a unit where the opposing forces are Willem Dafoe’s soulful good guerrilla Sergeant Elias who bunks with a bunch of multiethnic stoners. He’s the good while Tom Berenger’s scarfaced Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes is the kill at any costs corrupt face of war. Barnes murders Elias and Chris later returns the compliment. In Casualties of War Michael J. Fox’s Eriksson is in Sean Penn’s Sgt. Tony Meserve’s unit – Penn leads his squad as they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman who is then raped and murdered by everyone except Fox. Fox leads a campaign which ultimately convicts everyone else in his unit.

The key to both is something of a false consciousness. They want to own up to guilt but they’re desperate to reframe the entire Vietnam War in terms of personal choices, to say that you can make the right moral choices within the maelstrom and come out damaged but whole. It’s all about our agency within the context of war. Charlie Sheen can kill evil, Fox can convict it. But never is there any reckoning with the greater responsibility: The politicians who got us into Vietnam somehow never come in for anything near the cinematic indictments that individual grunts get. It’s striking that so few films, books, or TV shows address the reason why all these poor soldiers are put into this pressure cooker. Politicians get raked over the coals in op eds, political journalism, and historical tomes but never in the popular media that most people consume. It’s no wonder that people get so caught up in all these false dichotomies about supporting or protesting troops.

I can’t summon a popular representation of politicians dealing with their responsibility for a war while the entire genre of war movies (and more expansively Westerns) is built on the idea of a grunt taking responsibility for their actions. It’s as if that level of understanding is just too complex for a writer or film maker to convey, too boring for an audience to enjoy. Sure – I get it – individual choices on the battlefield are inherently more dramatic and gripping but the insistence on only depicting that side of things only normalizes the gap between ultimate responsibility and this sense of personal control that dominates war movies. They never can get the randomness of destruction – individual soldiers really have very little control over any of it – nor the true agency in destruction – that politicians designed this war and continue to operate it.

And then there are all the other stereotypes like their inherent racism. Both movies feature African American characters straight out of central casting, each have a soulful experienced figure and younger characters who appear as examples of discrimination and, if this was even possible, reinforce that discrimination by virtue of playing those roles. It’s racial diversity as a tactic, presenting it as realism means that you get away with doing it. Of course there’s almost no sexism to speak of exactly because both these movies fail the Bechdel Test so spectacularly.

And then there’s the enemy. Each presents the Vietnamese as faceless masses that Just. Keeps. Coming. These are the equivalent of zombie movies except that the North Vietnamese get an occasional speaking role. Only once or twice do we see an enemy face to face, even then it’s something like “ready, aim, fire.” It’s a hallmark of war movies that the enemy is almost never humanized, but remarkable for movies like this that strive for conscientious engagement. Casualties of War has the gall of tyring to have it both ways by humanizing the Vietnamese woman at the center of it and then concludes with an Asian woman offering symbolic forgiveness to Fox back in San Francisco. Talk about one of strangest projections of power and psychology. We won even though we lost. We can be whole even though we destroyed ourselves and killed everyone else. We can accept forgiveness by imagining our enemy doing it.

I’m not solely calling out Stone and DePalma, the problems in Platoon and Casualties of War are endemic in this genre. The easy way out is to fall prey to these contradictions. Just look around: Saving Private Ryan is famous for its first 10-15 minutes because it depicts that random violence so perfectly. Then it moves back to the sense of agency and all the traps around it. Full Metal Jacket wanted to be completely anti-war and famously has become a shadow recruiting  for young men obsessed with it. The only war movie that I can recall that doesn’t fall prey is Overlord because it so patiently and consciously focuses on the hard way out. Even then, it’s a war movie. The politicians and, mostly, powerful men that created these wars never come in for the moralizing treatment let alone reckoning with the destruction that they’ve wrought.


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Hockney plays himself

08.06.19 Posted in Art, Movies by

Max Garrone | Max Garrone

I recently saw A Bigger Splash in the theater. It’s a new 4k restoration hitting art house screens around the country that follows David Hockney and his circle in the 70’s. It’s a semi-fictional / semi-documentarian film about Hockney’s break up with a lover and England. It’s easily one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a long time – alternately engaging and excruciating but something that I never wanted to stop watching. The collective experience of watching this in a theater was never so important to keeping my but in the chair.

 

The essence is the experience of watching, the director Jack Hazan’s credo had to be “watch, don’t tell,” because there’s precious exposition – let alone much dialog – both are foreign concepts to this film. And that’s its beauty, it’s full of long takes, harrowed faces, one way conversations. It reconfigures all those things into the pleasure of looking.

The fact that it’s about a painter is part of the attraction and central to the experience because you get to see Hockney painting, especially A Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), but the majority is composed of scenes of his relationships with his lover, dealer, and friends. The secret is that everyone is playing themselves – Hockney, his lover, an art critic, a friend, they’re all there as their relationships crumble and they can’t bring themselves to see the truth – they want someone to tell them what they can already feel. And that’s the main metaphor here – “A Bigger Splash,” the painting, ties it altogether as it entices and distances you. It’s a composition that’s at once disconcerting and so attention grabbing. It feels like Hockney is telling us that ravishing beauty is its own thing, truth another. Looking back at many of his paintings, this sort of distinction between relationships and aesthetics jumps into focus.

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There are lots of other attractions: It’s a window onto a wildly different era. The locations are instantly recognizable but the London, New York, South of France are all clearly different. The buildings and landscape may remain today, but the people in them feels so alien. The frank depictions of gay sex and culture of a must have been striking for the time. Even now it feels like such a stark contrast with mainstream moves – like an artifact from another time designed to remind us that you can make movies differently right down to showing nude men and gay sexuality.

Among the many lingering questions, was Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” inspired by this film? It feels like there are some clear references, maybe I’m digging too hard.


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A map to Armagnac distilleries

08.01.19 Posted in Spirits by

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In June we spent some time visiting Armagnac distilleries in the Southwest of France. The area is ravishingly beautiful – full of vineyards, bastides (the fortified villages built to defend against the marauding English), and a variety of culinary specialities that will leave you reeling. The pleasure of the area, technically the Gers / Tenareze, is that there aren’t any major tourist sites so there aren’t big buses with gaggles of people. There are plenty of great things to see and do but if you do see tourists they’ll most likely be like you, out there for a taste of the country and the great things that come from it.

I created a map of all the Armagnac distilleries that I know of so that you can quickly map trips on your phone. Make sure to contact the distilleries before making a special trip because, while many are open daily, some are so small that appointments are necessary. Keep in mind that these are working wineries so they may be busy. Many also produce Floc, wine, and some host restaurants. I’ve only visited a handful of them, I’ll be back to work through as many as possible in future visits.


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Today’s the big day

04.30.19 Posted in Food by

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It’s your last chance to indulge in Lucca’s (full name Lucca’s Ravioli Company) traditional Italian deli because they’re closing today at 6PM. I’ve paid my respects a few times since the announcement but it’s still a sad occasion because resources like this never come back. New shops mean new visions and that old time idea is just too highly curated by both economic and aesthetic imperatives to make a difference.

Six blocks down Valencia you can check out one of the new breed, Foodhall, which stocks many of the incredibly high quality and highly priced spirits, wines, coffees, and packaged foods that you’d expect to find in a freshly launched culinary boutique. And, yes, that certainly seems to be in demand. I’ve bought a few things there and have admired their mezcal selection, for a place that small, it’s ambitious but it also represents the complete antitheses to Lucca’s. Foodhall is serves the affluent with food trends.

As I’m constantly reminded, cities are living things and Lucca is a product of that organic transformation as well. Italians moved to the Mission after the Irish. Central Americans followed. Now it’s ground zero for gentrification. It’s actually pretty remarkable that so many of those things that made it such a vibrant and fun spot still exist.

And, it’s not like all is lost. The city continues to acquire culinary resources at a breakneck pace. My own little stretch of the city in Potrero has blossomed tremendously in just a few months. Last month a Japanese butcher opened on the traffic circle next door to a newly opened udon restaurant, both the products of local serial restauranteurs. If you order right, not the aged Wagyu beef but the pork shoulder, prices are completely reasonable and the quality is much higher than the major organic grocer in a tailspin since it’s recent purchase, aka Whole Foods up the street. Over in Dogpatch the best bagel I’ve had in years is about to appear on the shelves of Daily Driver. I could go on – I’d just like more balance to this whole urban transformation project.

 

 


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My how times change

04.29.19 Posted in Food by

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Things have been changing so much in SF lately that the old laments are just getting boring. Tomorrow Lucca’s closes. Jardiniere just closed. God knows how many other places have done the same in recent months. And then there are the changes within institutions.

This past week we dropped into Cotogna partially because they made their name on great food and a $40 a bottle list. Of course that had changed in the interim. Now it’s well curated but the wine prices match everyone else’s in the city.

The idea that their prices were really strong dates back at least eight years, here’s the most recent SF Chronicle article from 2011 discussing that well priced list, so it’s not yesterday but recent enough. That time period coincides with the epoch where everything has gone sideways. It’s all about what the market will bear and all the crazy costs we keep hearing about. Quince isn’t exactly a stranger to dramatic transformations, they did it before with their move from Pac Heights to North Beach and then by splitting Quince into the high end place it continues to be with a casual place next door named Cotogna. They continued just recently when they opened Verjus which is not shy about pricing. And, hey!, everyone else is doing it as well so it shouldn’t exactly be surprising but still, it’s another indicator of where we are.