Thinking – Seeing – Hearing


Italian architect Dr. David Fisher announced on Tuesday the launch of a revolutionary skyscraper in Dubai dubbed as the “world’s first building in motion,” an 80-story tower with revolving floors that give it an ever-shifting shape.

Call me crotchety, but buildings should not be in motion.  In general, a building in motion is a distinctly suboptimal state of affairs.

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What an odd dig:

On the Web page is a recording of what she describes as her latest track, “What We Want,” a hip-hop-inflected rhythm-and-blues tune that asks, “Can you handle me, boy?” and uses some dated slang, calling someone her “boo.”

Dated?  In what circles?  She’s 22 and she’s a call girl.  That automatically makes her hipper than anyone writing for the NYT.  Do they track what terms are used in hip-hop songs, and extrapolate to make guesses about what’s used in the real world? 

“Oh snap!” caught on in the white mainstream, what, 2 years ago?  I remember it from 1983.  I’m still waiting on “chilly-wack.”

I like this fellow’s summary of Wikipedia’s appeal:

They were drawn because for a work of reference Wikipedia seemed unusually humble. It asked for help, and when it did, it used a particularly affecting word: “stub.” At the bottom of a short article about something, it would say, “This article about X is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.” And you’d think: That poor sad stub: I will help. Not right now, because I’m writing a book, but someday, yes, I will try to help.

B. and I saw “There Will Be Blood” last Saturday.

I liked it, but I think my expectations may have been too high.  Someone recommended it highly last Thanksgiving, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

A central problem for me was being unable to relate to the character of Daniel Plainview.  I’ve read that the movie has dark lessons for modern society about corporatism and runaway greed, etc.  But I don’t think it does, really. 

Plainview was a man of his time.  Robber barons – the self-made men, the empire builders – were qualitatively different from modern CEOs, corporation men.  Robber barons were obsessed with cornering the market, gathering all resources under their control, yes.  But they were individuals, who wanted to succeed on their own terms, not in the straitjacket of a corporation.  

The only person I could really understand in the movie was the young Standard Oil man.  He was fully recognizable as a modern personality, a company man.  I went looking for the name of the actor, and I couldn’t find it.  Not on the official website, not on IMDB.  On IMDB, they list three actors as “Standard Oil Man” numbers 1, 2, 3.  As if they were interchangeable.  Which, in a sense, they are.

B. and I disagreed about just how crazy Plainview was.  B. thought he was a sociopath – so pathologically self-centered that he was literally incapable of caring about others.  And that it was all due to his personality, not to circumstances.  I disagreed, on both points. 

The Javier Bardem character in No Country for Old Men, now, he was a sociopath.  He had literally no feeling for his fellow man – didn’t recognize them as human, nor himself, really. 

But Daniel Plainview, while antisocial and paranoid, clearly did recognize the humanity of others.  This was demonstrated in his conversation with his purported brother Henry, where he talks about his drive for competition, and how he hated most people, and saw only the worst in them.  He acknowledged people – he just didn’t like or trust them.  But he also said, “I can’t keep doing this on my own.”

Why didn’t he like or trust other people, and why did he descend into isolation and madness?  Here again, B. and I disagreed.  I think partly it was his temperament, yes – his greed set him at odds with other greedy men.  But partly it was the world in which he lived – the times, the cutthroat oil business. 

I think of my great-grandfather (who had mines and ranches in the West) – how he walked into town one day, walked into the barber shop, and shot his main rival at point-blank range, as the man sat there defenseless in the barber’s chair. 

Granted, my g-grandfather shot him for an arguably good reason – the rival had broken a dam between their land.  My g-grandfather’s two children were playing in the river.  When the dam broke, the river flooded, and the children drowned.  But the point is not why he did it – it’s that in the West of that era, might made right.  My g-grandfather was an important man.  He didn’t suffer any consequences for murdering a man in cold blood – I don’t even think there was a trial. 

That was the world in which Daniel Plainview lived.

I think of my father’s father, an executive for Big Steel, who drank a fifth of scotch a day and dropped dead of a heart attack at age 59.  He once told my father he hated and distrusted men on sight.  Not just withheld judgment – hated them.  Unless he came to have a reason not to.  He carried a gun at all times, because he had to.  He had to be smarter and tougher and meaner than the men he bossed, or he would get rolled. 

That was the world in which Daniel Plainview lived.

So I think it was a combination of Plainview’s innate temperament and the harshness of the world in which he lived that drove him to madness.  I don’t think he was a sociopath at all.  I think he was at a breaking point when he met Henry – a breaking point that could have been a turning point.  When Henry became someone he could no longer trust, Plainview broke.

OK, I’m way late to the party, but I saw Mika last night on Leno, and I’m still buzzin. 

I couldn’t watch him, because his prancing was just too too, but after the set, B. looked up his album, Life in Cartoon Motion, and we listened to samples. 

The best comparison I’ve read is to Freddie Mercury, and that’s pretty apt.  Also a little Prince-y.  But he’s definitely his own person.  He’s a one-off; an unexpected breath of fresh air in a stifling room; a pulsing, bopping splotch of color in the flat gray sameness of the current soundscape. 

Plus he’s just had an interesting life.  24 years old, born in Beirut, moved to London at age 9, had a breakdown at age 11 due to bullying, was trained by a Russian opera professional.  He’s performed in the Royal Opera House, written in-flight music for British Airways, and created a jingle for chewing gum. 

I still find him too brightly fey to look at.  (A couple of examples to demonstrate.)  So I close my eyes.

I discovered a neat blog, 20×200, that offers a new original print every week (I think).  Some are photographs, some are paintings, mixed-media, etc.

I love this piece, The Faceted Couroucou.  The smallest size (the one I could afford :)) was already sold out when I found the blog, so I have to admire from afar.

B. and I saw “Talking Pictures” by Horton Foote, at the Goodman last Saturday.  We both liked it, though B. thought it was somewhat “fluffy.”

It’s set in 1929 in a small town in Texas.  The main character, Myra, plays piano for the local movie theater.  “Talkies” are coming to town, and she’s afraid she’ll lose her job.

She lives with her 14-year old son in a rented room in a house.  She’s divorced.  The house is owned by a middle-class family.  The father is a railroad engineer, the mother takes care of the home, and there are two teenaged daughters.  Myra has a warm relationship with the family, but from a polite distance.  Other characters include a friend/suitor who lives over the garage (Willis), Willis’s estranged wife, the estranged wife’s jealous boyfriend, Myra’s ex-husband, and, for good measure, a Mexican Baptist preacher’s son who teaches the family to sing “Rock of Ages” in Spanish.

Quick plot summary –

– Myra is worried about her job.  The dad of the family is also worried about his job – a more senior engineer has decided to “bump” him, so in turn he has to bump somebody else, and the family is going to have to move.  Willis courts Myra.  Daughters strain somewhat at the strictures of being “ladylike”, but always ultimately obey their mother.  Myra’s son comes home from a two-week visit with his dad and tells Myra he wants to go live with his dad.  Mexican Baptist preacher boy befriends the younger daughter.  Family is initially wary, but warm to him after he brings over a Spanish version of the Bible, and sings hymns in Spanish. 

– Willis courts Myra.  The family finds out that the dad isn’t going to lose his job after all – the senior engineer has changed his mind.  Willis’s wife comes by and demands Willis take her back.  Her boyfriend comes by and threatens everyone, then shoots himself in the foot.  (Literally, not figuratively.) 

– Myra loses her job. Myra’s ex-husband comes to tell their son that the son won’t be able to live with him after all, because his wife (the second wife) is against it.  Son is livid.  Second wife calls to say the ex-husband to say she’s leaving him.  Willis courts Myra.  Ex-husband meets Willis’s wife, they hit it off and run off to Mexico to get a divorce.   Myra goes to the first talking movie with Willis.  She realizes she loves Willis, and agrees to marry him. 

I really liked it, and left feeling really good.  The description on the website leads you to think the characters will be used to examine the effect of the massive changes in American culture around that time, but the play doesn’t really do that.  They’re not vehicles at all.  The play does glance at narrow-mindedness, racism, financial troubles, and so on.  But just by the by, as the characters go about living their lives. 

Myra doesn’t obsess about losing her job, though she does worry.  She talks about movies only when asked, usually by the starstruck younger daughter.  After she does lose her job, she goes to see the first “talkie” at the same movie theater she just lost the job from.  There are a couple of improbable scenes, but for the most part, action flows naturally from the characters’ inner nature.

I feel like I finally got some understanding of the traditional Southern way of life, which I’ve never ever understood at all, being very much an East Coaster.  Somehow, in this play, the elaborate politeness and lack of directness all made complete sense.  It was internally consistent.  I could see, if you believed and felt A, B, and C, you would act in X, Y, and Z way. 

In their world, politeness was incredibly important.  Politeness, in this world, was inextricably linked with kindness, and with goodness.  In New York, you can be a good, kind person but also quite blunt and even downright rude.  In the Old South of this play, that would be impossible.

There’s not really a lot to deeply analyze, because there was a lot of plot, but not really any complex structure.  The play was about feelings, and respecting other people’s feelings, and looking for the way forward in hard times.  Even when the “bad” characters act poorly, they sincerely apologize afterward, and are forgiven.  When Myra loses her job, Willis tells her his mother always told him, no matter how bad things get, don’t despair.  He repeats it – Don’t despair.  And you realize these aren’t just words – they really mean something. 

And you can’t really analyze that.  It’s either something you feel, and are moved by … or you don’t, and you’re not.

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