THE EMPRESS' NEW CLOTHES

You won't hear this opinion put forward on the cable news channels, because the commentators on the cable news channels are, for the most part, pathetic clowns totally divorced from common sense and from independent thought of any kind . . . so I'm just going to have to say it myself:

Hillary Clinton is not going to bow out of the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination until they carry her kicking and screaming from the convention hall in Denver after the last vote has been recorded.

John Stewart may have put it best when he called the Clintons “simple people who want but one thing — to live peacefully in a country they, themselves, run.”  Hillary Clinton has already adopted a strategy of racial polarization in order to win the nomination, as scurrilous a bit of political calculation as American politics has ever seen.  She has spoken three times publicly about the assassination of RFK as an example of how anything can happen in a Presidential race (wink, wink, nudge nudge) — which is way beyond scurrilous, verging into the realm of the frankly vile.  If she weren't named Clinton and if she weren't a woman her political career would already be over.  The idea that she cares about her legacy, or this country, much less the Democratic Party, is absurd on the face of it.  If she can't secure the nomination this year she will have one and only one overriding goal — to see that Barack Obama loses the general election in November so she can run in 2012.

The Clintons live in a reality of their own invention, and so far they've managed to seduce millions of people into joining them there.  If she makes enemies destroying Obama this year, well . . . there will be millions of new suckers out there in four years, and she'll deal with them when the time comes.  She may be shooting herself in the foot, but she doesn't need two feet — she needs the Presidency, on any terms she can get it.

If I'm wrong, and she bows out gracefully next week and devotes herself to party unity, I'll apologize for the words above.  But don't count on it.

THE CARROT SEED

The Internet can be a spooky place — wandering through it can be like wandering through the subconscious of the culture, its deep, shadowy memories.  When what you find there connects with your own subconscious, your own, deep, shadowy memories, the Internet can seem like a precinct of your self.

Some of my earliest childhood memories, from when I was three or four, include distinct images of the old record player in my grandparents's living room — a fancy console with a door that opened onto a turntable that played 78s and 45s.  Another door opened onto a storage place for records — including albums that really were albums, bound volumes of record sleeves that contained 78s.

My grandparents had bought a bunch of kids' records for when the grandchildren came to visit, and I caused a sensation at the age of four or five when I could identify particular titles in a loose stack of disks, even though I couldn't read the labels.  I had simply memorized the colors and designs of the labels and remembered what recordings they were associated with.  The fact that some of the labels had pictures on them which related to the titles of the records did not lessen the admiration of my parents for my early signs of genius, which basically amounted to no more than the kind of trick a dog can be taught.

I had taught myself this trick, however, because the records were very important to me and I wanted to be able to play my favorite ones without having to depend on adults to pick them out for me.  One record in particular captured my imagination and has never left my consciousness for too long since, even though I haven't heard it for perhaps fifty years.

Recently I found it again, virtually, online, at a site called Kiddie Records Weekly, which has posted a very impressive collection of old 78s for kids, along with scans of the albums they came in.  I couldn't tell you how I found this site.  It appeared at the end of a twisting series of links from various music blogs, most of which offered downloads of old out-of-print LPs ripped from vinyl.  But there it was, suddenly — the cover of The Carrot Seed, a downloadable MP3 of the record, even a scan of the record label:

It was especially spooky to see the label again, which I had once taught myself to “read” by its color and design alone  — it put me in touch with my pre-literate self, for whom the words on the label were abstract signs.

The record itself had a moral — you can listen to it here — and it's not too much to say that it helped form my character, taught me the value of following my own lights in the face of the world's skepticism.  The heroism of the little boy who believed his carrot seed would grow in spite of all opinions to the contrary is a kind of heroism I still admire.  His vindication still stirs me.

I couldn't have appreciated the allusion to sexual potency in the chant of the doubting brother — “Nyah, nyah, it won't come up, your carrot won't come up” — but who knows how it might have echoed in my psyche down through the years?

I had forgotten that the cover of the record was drawn by the great cartoonist Crockett Johnson, author of the classic Harold and the Purple Crayon.  I've always had an especially warm feeling for Johnson's work, and obviously that feeling had its roots in this cover.  The record derives from a book by Ruth Krauss, who was married to Johnson, which is still in print, having celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2004.

It all seems very strange — that people took the trouble to collect and preserve this record, to scan its cover and label, to digitize its audio and post it all on a web site . . . that I stumbled upon it by chance while looking for albums of vintage lounge music on the Internet.  My memory and the collective memory floating eerily out there in cyberspace had merged.

IN THE DARK

Recently I've been listening to a lot of radio drama, which had an amazing run on the public airwaves for almost thirty years, between the 1930s and the 1950s.  Attempts to revive it almost always fail, because radio dramatists have forgotten Orson Welles's great insight into the form — that it's primarily a narrative rather than a dramatic medium.

The reason for this is simple, I think — the imaginative world of radio is obscure and threatening, like a labyrinth that has to be negotiated in the dark.  We don't want to go there without a guide, without the voice of a storyteller to lead us on.  This can be an omniscient narrator, or a character in the tale recounting it to us, orienting us, letting us know that we won't be abandoned in the course of our journey.

Modern radio playwrights think we have what it takes to pick up all the clues we need from dialogue or sound effects, to piece together the narrative the way we do in live theater or in movies, from the dramatic elements of the story, but we don't — because radio storytelling reduces us to a state of childlike dependency, takes us back to the time when an oil lamp or a blazing hearth fought off the immense darkness of the nighttime world.

In that charmed circle of flickering, transient light, the storyteller offered himself as an authority on the dark regions of the mind which night invoked, he provided a path through them and an assurance of return.  Without that authority, radio tales are bleak and alienating, abstract puzzles to be solved . . . just so much noise outside the window, while we inhabit a state of mind which doesn't want to think about what's going on outside the window, in the endless realm of darkness.

WILL ELDER

Will Elder died this month.  He was one of the geniuses behind the miracle of Mad Magazine, working closely with its founder Harvey Kurtzman, turning Kurtzman's savage satires of American popular culture into amazing visual equivalents.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of Mad to the generations of kids who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties and found in it an antidote to the oppressive onslaught of the official corporate culture.  I can still remember my first encounter with the magazine in the late Fifties, when I was eight or nine.  The issue I saw featured an insert of full-color package labels that could be pasted over real package labels, turning a jar of baby food, for example, into a container for some sort of toxic waste.

Consumer culture in the Fifties had an aura of religious sanctity, identified with all that was good about America — to savage it so mercilessly was to encourage an interior critique of that culture, to free the spirit from its spell.  Mad Magazine didn't inspire laughter so much as exhilaration, the exhilaration of free thought.  It was Mad Magazine that represented all that was truly good about America.

Elder's meticulous, obsessive attention to detail lifted Mad from the realm of mere sarcastic attitude into the realm of serious social criticism.  Elder both loved and hated the official culture he mocked, and that gave his visions real power.

If you click on the image above (or here) you can see a larger version of it — the better to appreciate its fanatical draftsmanship.  Elder expended extraordinary energies of commitment and passion to shove his subversive visions in your face.

(With thanks to Potrzebie for the image, which is © 2008 EC Publications.)

THE BEATLES LIVE

Go here for a short live set the Beatles did on Swedish radio in 1963.  The recording levels weren't set properly and there's a little distortion, but John Lennon once said the recording was the best ever done of the Beatles playing live.

You can investigate other rare live recordings of the Beatles here.

MASQUE

The great tactic of women is to make believe they're in love when they're not in love, and when they're in love, to hide it.

                                                                       – Jean Cocteau

Image by Alberto Vargas (with thanks to ASIFA . . .)

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CINEMATIC IMAGE

This is the fifth in a series of essays in honor of André Bazin.

Irving
Biederman, a
neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has conducted
experiments in the evolutionary and biological basis of the human need
for information.  It would seem that the human brain is to a
certain extent programmed to acquire information, especially about the immediate physical environment — logical enough since
such information, about sources of sustenance and about external
threats, would be crucial to the survival of the species.

Lee Gomes, writing in The Wall Street Journal (linked on Boing Boing), reports this about Biederman's research:

Dr. Biederman first showed a collection of photographs to volunteer
test subjects, and found they said they preferred certain kinds of
pictures (monkeys in a tree or a group of houses along a river) over
others (an empty parking lot or a pile of old paint cans).

The preferred pictures had certain common features, including a
good vantage on a landscape and an element of mystery. In one way or
another, said Dr. Biederman, they all presented new information that
somehow needed to be interpreted.

When he hooked up volunteers to a brain-scanning machine, the
preferred pictures were shown to generate much more brain activity than
the unpreferred shots. While researchers don't yet know what exactly
these brain scans signify, a likely possibility involves increased
production of the brain's pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters called
opioids.

“A
good vantage on a landscape and an element of mystery” strike me as
qualities of all powerful cinematic images — providing we expand the
word landscape to include interior spaces.  “A good vantage”
implies sufficient clues to read the space of the environment
represented, while “an element of mystery” implies an image that is
complex, that doesn't yield up its information too quickly, that
requires investigation.

A cinematic image whose primary function is to deliver narrative
information, as opposed to a spatial illusion, is not going to engage
our imagination in a powerful way.  A cut between two
informational images whose primary function is to establish another
piece of information is likewise not going to be deeply
satisfying.  An example of this would be a cut between a close-up
of a woman looking at something and a close-up of what she's looking
at.  If the two shots in question were not themselves
intrinsically engaging, the relationship between them would be purely
narrative, purely expository.  The shot of the woman looking at
something would not create genuine mystery, only an informational
question — and once the question was answered (by the close-up representing her POV) the interest of the
images would be exhausted.

There might be meta-cinematic qualities to the two images — if the
woman turned out to be looking at a knife, we might wonder what role
the knife will play in the story — but this would not reflect on the
essentially cinematic qualities of the images.

In all this, of course, I am simply recapitulating André Bazin's theory
of the role of montage in cinema, but I think Biederman's research
offers a psychological support to Bazin's thinking.  The
deep-focus shots of Welles and Ford, the long scenes that play out
without directing our attention to specific elements through editing,
give us both “good vantage” and “mystery” — they engage deep levels of
consciousness that seem to be fundamental to human perception. 
And, like Biederman's “preferred images”, they create a pleasure that
may well have a pre-programmed neurological basis.

A VICTORIAN POEM FOR TODAY

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I'm growing old, but add –
Jenny kissed me!

The poem, called Rondeau, was written by Leigh Hunt (pictured above) and first published in 1838.  Hunt was a minor literary figure of the Victorian era, a friend of Shelley and Keats and Dickens.  His poetry has a simplicity that can make it seem trivial, but I think Rondeau is perfect.  It's music allows its simplicity to breathe, and reminds us of that sincerity of unselfconscious sentiment which the Victorians at their best could summon — a sincerity which 20th century literature, charting the age of irony, completely lost touch with.  Virginia Woolf, early in the century, lamented the loss, distressed that poets could no longer write lines like these, by Christina Rossetti:

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot;
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a purple sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Such directness of feeling did survive in the popular arts, in pop songs and in the movies — any place where the arbiters of high culture had no influence.

Most improbably, Orson Welles recited Rondeau at the close of a pilot for a TV talk show he made towards the end of his life (which wasn't picked up.)  Welles was an unregenerate Victorian, which was a source of much of his secret power, and almost all of his films deal with loss, with the memory of some sweet, unrecoverable moment in time that haunts the present . . . a characteristic Victorian theme.

Rosebud, Mr. Bernstein's girl on the ferry, the Amberson's ball, a long-past love affair with the Baroness Nagel in Warsaw, the chimes at midnight . . . all these are one with Jenny's kiss.

Leigh Hunt wrote, “Every one should plant a tree who can.  It is one of the cheapest . . . as well as easiest, of all tasks.”  Trees, said Hunt, “are green footsteps of our existence, which show that we have not lived in vain.”

Rondeau is such a tree.

JIMMY GIUFFRE

Jimmy
Giuffre died last month, at the age of 86 — I just heard about it.  Giuffre was a
jazz clarinetist with a cool, mellow style, influenced by
Lester Young.  He was a fixture of the laid-back West Coast jazz scene in the 50s
and 60s and I was lucky enough to hear him play once in the 60s at my
boarding school in New England where he and his small group (a trio, I
think it was) were hired for one of our rare entertainment
treats.  I can't imagine how that happened — I never identified
anybody on our faculty who had a passion for jazz — but I'm sure glad
I got to hear the cat blow in person.

COOL

Assuming that Hillary Clinton can't lead the Democratic Party and the
rest of the country into Bizarro World, there's a good chance that
Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States.  By
my reckoning, that would make him only the fourth cool President in our
history.

A genuinely cool President has to be someone who would be cool even if
he or she wasn't President, someone you'd think it would be cool to
hang out with in a situation that had nothing to do with
politics.  That leaves us with Thomas Jefferson, Theodore
Roosevelt and John Kennedy.  Kennedy makes the list by the skin of
his teeth, since it would only be cool to hang out with him somewhere
like Las Vegas or Hollywood, and only if you were in serious party mode
and relatively drunk.  You'd have to be able to forget that he was
a married man with two small children.  (Bill Clinton was cool in
a similar sort of way, but only if you grew up on a farm and met him on
a rare visit to a roadhouse on a rocking Saturday night.)

Jefferson and Kennedy were sexual creeps, so Obama would be only the
second cool President who was also a decent human being in his private
life.

How cool is that?

¡VIVA EL PELO!

I don't know how to translate the title of the above painting by Julio Romero de Torres – every possible rendition of ¡Viva el Pelo! into English sounds silly — but el pelo
means the hair, so you get the idea.  The image reminds me of a line by the poet Robert
Duncan, “in the dark of the moon the hair rules”.  This in turn
reminds me of something the poet Robert Browning said about his wife
Elizabeth Barrett Browning after her death, when he was asked what it
was like being married to such a famous person (she was far more famous
than he was during her lifetime.)  Yes, she was known to the
world, Browning admitted, “but I knew her on the dark side of the moon” –
the side of the moon the world never sees . . . where the hair rules.

CLINTON ROLLS OUT “BIZARRO WORLD” ARGUMENT TO SUPERDELEGATES

Today, Hillary Clinton argued that in Bizarro World, she would now be
the undisputed nominee of the Democratic party.  “In Bizarro
World,” she explained, “the candidate receiving the least number of
votes in an election is the winner.  Superman and Lois Lane are
also husband and wife in Bizarro World.  I think everybody wants
to see those two hook up — in Bizarro World, it’s a done deal.
As president of Bizarro World, I’ll be ready to hit the ground running
amidst heavy sniper fire.  In Bizarro World, my campaign has
loaned me eleven million dollars.  In Bizarro World, I’m the transformative black candidate
and Barack Obama is the cynical white woman in a pants suit.”

Clinton added, “I urge all unpledged superdelegates to join me in
Bizarro World — or, as it’s affectionately known to millions around
the world, Washington, D. C.”