was a great middleweight fight in Atlantic City last night between the
champion Jermain “Bad Intentions”  Taylor
from Little Rock, Arkansas, and challenger Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik (above) from
Youngstown, Ohio.  It was great because it had a three-act
narrative structure with bold contrasts and startling turn-arounds, and complicated emotional themes.

Taylor gained the championship and kept it for a while with workmanlike
victories that never seemed to challenge him in any profound way — to
test his character.  People started to think he was a champion
merely faux de mieux
Pavlik was a relatively inexperienced fighter with an unbeaten record
and a powerful punch.  The punch made it a fight fans might get a
bit excited about — the inexperience made it a fight that Taylor's
handlers weren't afraid to make.

In the first act of the drama, Taylor's handlers looked wise. 
Pavlik was aggressive coming out, using his jab well, but sloppy on
defense.  In the second round he paid for his sloppiness when
Taylor put him to the canvas with a flurry of hard, flush
punches.  Even when he managed to get up again, Pavlik looked like
he was out on his feet.  But he dodged and clinched, weathered a
few more terrifying blows and managed to survive the round.

But he actually did much more than survive.  When HBO commentator
Larry Merchant asked him after the fight how he felt down there on the
canvas, Pavlik replied, “You want to know the truth?  I thought,
'Shit, this is going to be a long night.'”  He was already gearing
up for what he had to do to stay in the contest.

What he did was recover quickly in the next round, worrying Taylor
constantly with a hard, accurate jab.  The worry was just enough to
keep Taylor from using his faster hands and superior boxing skills to
wear Pavlik down or catch him again with a terminal combination. 
Pavlik grew stronger round by round — Taylor didn't fade exactly, he
just never found a way to step things up from his end.

Finally in the 7th Pavlik hit Taylor with a right that stunned
him.  Pavlik didn't hesitate — he closed in and beat Taylor
nearly senseless.  Pavlik didn't lose his head at that point,
either.  He paused, thought about it for a moment and delivered a
clincher — an upper-cut that sent Taylor to the canvas, defenseless,
at which point referee Steve Smoger stepped in and called an end to
things, not a moment too soon.

Ironies abounded.  Taylor had fought one of his best fights ever,
delivering the kind of excitement that fans found lacking in his
earlier victories.  But when he had Pavlik hurt in the second he
lost his focus, couldn't summon the composure to put him away, as
Pavlik did in the seventh.  The less experienced fighter showed
more ring savvy than the veteran.

Youngstown was a steel manufacturing city, once upon a time, but all
that is in the past.  Now it's rusting and suffering.  It has
produced more than its share of boxing champions, including the
incendiary Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and now it has new champion in
Pavlik.  It must seem like a miracle — like a ghost rising from
the rust.

What a story — what a fight.


Let us not think that because we are less brutal, less violent, less
inhuman than our opponents we will carry the day.  Brutality,
violence, and inhumanity have an immense prestige that schoolbooks hide
from children, that grown men do not admit, but that everyone bows
before.  For the opposite virtues to have as much prestige, they
must be actively and constantly put into practice.  Anyone who is
merely incapable of being as brutal, as violent, and as inhuman as
someone else, but who does not practice the opposite virtues, is
inferior to that person in both inner strength and prestige, and he
will not hold out in   . . . a confrontation.

                                                         — Simone Weil


On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Chapman’s Homer seems a bit stodgy today but compared to previous
translations in English it had power and punch — and was much closer
to the supple, hard-hitting Greek of Homer.  You have to read
Stanley Lombardo’s bold new translations of Homer to get a sense of how
Chapman’s version must have sounded to Keats’ generation.

The last four lines of this sonnet are what make it memorable, even
though we may know that it was Balboa, above, who first sighted the Pacific
from the vantage point of the New World (in Panama) — not “stout
Cortez”, below.

Hernán Cortés did reach the Pacific coast of Mexico sometime
later, or rather he reached the coast of a sea that communicates with
the Pacific, now called the Gulf Of California or the Sea of Cortez or,
course, the Mar de Cortés.  This is the great body of water that
lies between the west coast of mainland Mexico and the Baja California


Among the many interesting things to be found at the If Charlie Parker
Was A Gunslinger
web log are audio files of many of the
Truffaut-Hitchcock tapes, from which Truffaut's great book of
interviews with Hitchcock was compiled.

It's fascinating, and inspiring, to hear the actual voices of the two
men talking about film with such wisdom and passion — and, in the case
of Hitchcock, often enough, sly misdirection.

You can find the tapes


The term film noir was first used in something like its contemporary meaning in 1946 by French film critic Nino Frank.  The occasion was a particular week in which five films made earlier in Hollywood but unavailable to French audiences during the war opened in Paris.
All of them had dark themes and reminded Frank of American pulp fiction from the 30s.

Much of this fiction had been published in France under the Série Noire (“Black Series”) imprint and so Frank, logically enough, labeled the five films films noirs.  [The term film noir had earlier been applied to a series of moody, poetic French films from the 1930s which dealt with the travails of working-class people, but these had little in common with the crime thrillers Frank was talking about.]  Three of the films, Murder, My Sweet (above, at the top of the post), Double Indemnity and The Phantom Lady were in fact based on the work of pulp fiction writers — Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.  The Woman In the Window, below, was more in the line of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, a form Hitchcock had mastered before the war.  Laura was a fairly standard murder mystery, a form that also predated WWII, though very elegantly executed.

In truth, there was nothing terribly new about the five films Frank called films noirs, though all were perhaps a little darker and edgier in tone than similar Hollywood films from before the war had been.  Because the French had not been able to see the gradual development of this tone during the war years, it came as something of a revelation.

But after 1946 a new film tradition emerged which diverged from the hardboiled detective fiction of the 30s — and from the rancid domestic dramas of Cain and from the
Hitchcockian suspense thriller and from the classic murder mystery.  It was a body of work which specifically addressed post-war, atomic age anxieties.

In this body of work, the underworld of pulp fiction seemed to have become the only world.  Its protagonists were not wisecracking knights errant who ventured onto the wild side of things to solve a crime, nor were they everymen forced to brave an ordeal to become stronger and wiser, nor were they committed criminals, following transgressive urges to an inevitable and cautionary doom, a doom which restored society’s moral norms.  They were men in a state of existential despair, unsure of how the world worked anymore, at the mercy of strong women, morally bewildered.  The doom they often met with solved nothing, restored nothing.  It was, in a sense, an expression of the post-traumatic stress disorder of the generation which had fought WWII and could never again see “normal” life in the same way again — especially not in the enduring shadow of nuclear annihilation.

This new tradition naturally enough inheirited the label film noir, even though it was quite distinct from the kinds of films that inspired Frank’s use of the label, the kinds of films out of which the new tradition emerged.

The imprecision of the term film noir was thus built into its history, so to speak.  Most of the films we now think of as classic films noirs were made after the term was applied by Frank.  They eventually came to constitute a distinct cycle, which flourished for more than a decade before it played itself out toward the end of the 50s.

I think the time has come to consider this cycle apart from the kinds of films that were first called films noirs — and I think the only sensible way to do this is to violate the history of the term film noir and to apply it only to the distinct cycle that emerged, for the most
part, after the term’s invention.  In fact, I would argue that none of the five films that inspired Frank’s application of the term really belong to the tradition of the classic film noir.

In the interest of clarity and a sharper kind of analysis, we need to distinguish film noir
from the various traditions out of which it developed.  [And we certainly need to distinguish it from the poetic proletarian French tragedies that were first called films noirs back in the 30s.]  Pulp fiction, or hardboiled detective fiction, are terms that serve perfectly well to label the sort of films made from the works of writers like Chandler, Woolrich and Cain.  Hitchcockian is a term that serves perfectly well to label the sorts of thrillers he specialized in.  Murder mystery is a term that serves perfectly well to describe a film like Laura.  The cycle of films that emerged after WWII, what might be called the atomic-age crime thriller, was something else again and it needs its own label . . . film noir.


[Photo © 2007 Paul Kolnik]

In his great book The Labyrinth Of Solitude,
Ocatvio Paz remarks that “architecture is a society's unbribable
witness.”  If you want to know the truth about any society, look
at what it builds.

So what is the witness of Las Vegas, the most popular tourist
destination in America?  As you sit on the terrace of a French
bistro, attached to a replica of Paris, and look across the street at an
evocation of an Italian lake, or down the street at a replica of New York,
or up the street at an evocation of ancient Rome, the message is clear —
“We don't know where we are.”

Everyone in America feels this, along the strip developments and in the
malls that all look the same, whether they're in Georgia or California
— even though they might not feel it on a conscious level, or admit it to themselves.

That's why they come to Las Vegas in such great numbers, and why they
love it.  Las Vegas tells us the truth, let's us admit the truth
— we don't know where we are — and the truth is always
exhilarating.  It makes you want to party.

[A note to readers: I apologize
for the site's being out of commission for a while — it exceeded its
bandwidth once again, even though my hosting service allowed me double
the usage I was paying for.  They finally decided that I needed to
pay them more money — that now done, the site should be functional for the
foreseeable future.  Thanks for the interest!]


If you look at narrative films made in the first decade of the 20th
Century you'll be struck by a very odd aesthetic anomally.  Scenes shot
out of doors will often be dynamically composed, emphasizing spatial
depth in the image — they look modern and can be extraordinarily
beautiful.  Scenes shot on interior sets will, by contrast, be framed
head-on, creating the impression of a shallow space — this, combined
with the obviously painted sets, mostly using flats, looks decidedly
cheesy to modern eyes.

Why did audiences accept this violent contrast of cinematic practices
within the same film?

One reason, of course, is that the interior sets reminded audiences of
the stage, where painted sets and proscenium framing were familiar. 
They could think of these scenes as filmed stage-plays, which is how
story-based movies were often defined and sold.  The exterior scenes,
on the other hand, reminded viewers of pre-narrative cinema — the
“actualities”, short scenes of picturesque places and real events,
which were the primary content of movies presented as novelty

These actualities tended to be agressively “cinematic”,
emphasizing the illusion of spatial depth to show off the magic of
movies — their ability to create the convincing illusion of a real
place on the other side of the screen.

Novelty-attraction actualities were often part of a theatrical
which featured live performers as part of a variety bill — so viewers
were accustomed to an alternation of cinematic actualities with
theatrical stage-bound scenes.

The narrative structure of early story films was apparently enough to
knit the two types of cinematic practice into an aesthetic whole for
viewers of the time.  Indeed there's a curious Edison film from
around 1904, not part of the regular Edison release schedule, which
shows a
group of people making its way by various means of transport from one
end of Manhattan Island to the other.  There's no connecting narrative
— the shots just seem to be a series of “actualities” linked only by
the presence of the same characters in each sequence.  It's been
suggested by film scholars that these sequences may have been shot as
“entr' acts” for a stage play, showing the play's characters moving
from location to location in the story — something to pass the time
and amuse an audience while the stagehands shifted sets behind the
projected images.

If in such a production you just replaced the scenes on the stage sets
with filmed interiors, shot head-on against painted theatrical
you'd have a pretty fair paradigm for an early narrative film.

Even imagining how such anomalous cinematic approaches could have been
reconciled for viewers within the same film, it's hard not to see the
results as crude.  But such anomalous approaches have almost always
been a part of cinematic practice — and the momentum of narrative has
always been able to reconcile them.

Look at John Ford's Stagecoach
again and see how stunningly photographed images of real locations
alternate with studio work (above) in which sets and back-projections stand in
for exterior locales.  It's objectively weird, aesthetically
inconsistent, but our eyes, accustomed
to back-projections in films of this era, don't read it as such.

The conventions are always shifting, of course.  The studio-built
interior sets of Stagecoach (above) are fully three-dimensional and
convincing as actual locations — a far cry from Edison's patently
two-dimensional interior sets painted on flats.  But Ford's
back-projection exteriors are convincing only to the degree that we
choose to be
convinced by them, as Edison's audiences chose to be convinced by his
artificial interior sets.

The history of the shift from “theatrical” to fully dimensional interiors in movies would be fascinating to chart.

One of Griffith's main formal concerns in the Biograph years was
developing a way of staging and photographing interiors on sets in
spatially interesting ways, to create a stronger illusion of being in
real rooms — but he never totally abandoned proscenium framing.


I'm beginning to think that proscenium framing for interiors continued
to have a degree of glamor for filmmakers throughout the silent era, by
evoking the prestige of the stage.

Twice in Erotikon, from
1920 (above), which has elaborately constructed and
convincing interior sets, such a set is introduced by a wide, head-on
proscenium type shot — before Stiller moves in and starts shooting the
room as though it were a practical location, sometimes even shooting in
mirrors that reflect the wall behind the camera, utterly abolishing the
theatrical mode by showing us the “fourth wall”.

In Peter Pan, Herbert Brenon (above, with camerman James Wong Howe and Betty Bronson) does something similar with the opening sequence
in the nursery — which he starts out showing only from angles that
would have been available to members of an audience seated in front of
his set, but then proceeds to penetrate from angles only available to
performers inside the set.

Both Erotikon and Peter Pan were adaptations of popular stage
plays, and the filmmaker in each case may have wanted to remind viewers
of the film's prestigious theatrical provenance.

Von Stroheim seems to have been the first film artist to abolish the
theatrical mode for interiors as a matter of basic aesthetic principal,
and he was followed in this approach fairly consistently by Murnau as
well.  From them derive the dynamic spatial interiors of Renoir
and Welles.

[With thanks to shahn of sixmatinis and the seventh art for a recent post which got me thinking about this subject again.]


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road
and the book is getting a lot of attention.  (That's Kerouac's
design for the book's cover above.)  It was certainly an important
book — crystalizing the odd malaise that gripped America after WWII
and presenting an image of the way American youth would react to it, in
increasing numbers, by cutting loose from everything, drifting into a
world of sensuality and drugs, hitting the road in search of . . .
something.  The book's freewheeling, lyrical prose was brilliant
enough to allow one to take it seriously as a work of art, to place it
in the picaresque tradition of Huckleberry Finn.

The moral and spiritual emptiness of On the Road's
protagonists was part of the
book's truth, of course, but that truth, to me, was a thin one, without
any deep humane dimensions — and this is nowhere better revealed than
the book's depiction of women.  It's not just that Kerouac's
protagonist's treat them badly, or indifferently, but that they don't
seem to see them as human beings — and, more importantly, that the
author himself doesn't seem to see them as human beings.  This is
quite a different thing from writing women characters badly,
unconvincingly — quite a different thing from ignoring women or even
raging against them for their otherness, as Henry Miller sometimes
Kerouac simply seems to see women as an existential nullity.

Some women say this doesn't bother them — that the freedom
and exhilaration of the book's spirit is an inspiration to them as
women, however the women in the book are drawn.  I can appreciate
the sense of that — but it doesn't lessen my revulsion at the way the
women in the book are drawn.  It strikes me as revealing a basic
truth about almost all beat fiction and poetry — that once you get
past the attitude, the style, there's very little underneath it, and
there is underneath it is often repellent.

William Burrough's magical, fractured prose, best appreciated in his
recorded readings of it, is invigorating and exciting — but a little
of it goes a long way.  It's like a jazz improvisation on a melody
that the musician has forgotten, or never knew in the first
place.  It's a gesture, an exercise, not an artistic creation.

Bob Dylan was the great inheritor of the beat tradition, but he
grounded his improvisations firmly in the blues and folk traditions —
he was engaged, with a great deal of humility, in a conversation with something beyond himself. 
His early work is marred by some of the same misogyny one finds in the
beats, by images of women that alternate between goddess and destroyer,
with no convincing human presence in either.

But Dylan, unlike the beats, grew as an artist.  He listened to
the culture around him, its roots and moods, and talked back to
it.  His work wasn't just an interior howl, a negation — he was a
rolling stone who could step outside of himself and watch himself roll.

When Kerouac tried that he was appalled by what he saw — or didn't
see.  He ended his life drunk, stoned, in a state of utter decay and
despair.  We can see the roots of that in On the Road.  Kierkegaard said that the precise quality of despair is that it is unaware of itself.  On the Road
is a harrowing portrait of a despair that is unaware of itself — one
its author shared, unawares, with the book's protagonists.

Kerouac's defenders say that only the work matters — not the
life.  But I say that with Kerouac the life is in the work — is
transcended in the work.  Which is not to say that the book isn't an
extraordinary thing, with passages of true greatness, depictions of
places and moods that are indelible, an authentic and often moving
voice with it's its own kind of feckless grandeur.  It's just to say that there's something missing from it —
some element of heart and soul and sympathy that is crucial to any great work of art.


In his fascinating novel Little, Big, John Crowley proposes the idea that time does not actually elapse between
Christmases — that at Christmas we simply flip into another time frame
in which it is always Christmas and always will be.  Then we flip
out of it again.

This is certainly how Christmas
feels, and it ties in with some ideas Octavio Paz proposes in The Labyrinth Of Solitude, his great meditation on Mexican history and the Mexican character.

In the book, Paz discusses the importance of the
in Mexican life, as a time when Mexicans cast off their masks, the
barriers they erect against any penetration of their characteristic
solitude, and feel free to commune with others, sometimes socially,
sometimes erotically, sometimes violently.

Paz suggests that
fiestas, and
all ritual celebrations, don't commemorate an event but recreate it —
recreate a transcendent moment when time is dissolved and masks are
discarded.  This of course ties in with the theological
proposition that Jesus is actually present in the wine and the host at
Christian communion services — and more broadly with Kierkegaard's notion that
Christian believers are literally contemporaries of Christ.

And of course it explains why time does not pass between Christmases.


The cuba libre,
rum and Coke, always seemed like a pop cocktail to me.  I guess I
associated it with early drinking in college, when it was the only
mixed drink anyone knew how to make and seemed like a painless way
to ingest a lot of alcohol.

But that was before I tried Ernest Hemingway's recipe for a cuba libre,
which is something else again.  The key to this recipe is getting
hold of a Mexican Coke, which is still made with sugar, as it was in
Hemingway's day.  You want to taste the rum and its parent
sugar all at once.  (If you can't find Mexican Coke, forget I ever mentioned the cuba libre — corn syrup has no place in it.)

Squeeze half a lime into a cocktail glass.  Pour in a jigger of
Bacardi white rum, add the remains of the squeezed lime and plenty of
ice and pour the Coke over it. 
The result is not too sweet and not too sour and it has an exhilarating
freshness.  After a couple of these you'll be imagining
you're on a tropical beach somewhere . . . and after a few more you'll
convinced you really are on a tropical beach somewhere.

At that point, just relax and listen to the sounds of the surf and the wind rustling the palm fronds.


are the fish we took away from our fishing expedition on the Mar de
Cortés — all good for eating.  We ate some of the catch in La Paz before
we left, the rest made it, frozen, to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where
it served for a couple more wonderful meals.

We caught other fish on our expedition — including a few bonito, all
but one of which was thrown back.  The biggest of them was saved to
serve as shark bait for a friend of our captain.  We caught
several needlefish — nasty looking things with long pointed snouts
which are no good for eating.  “Banditos” our captain called them,
disdainfully, because they steal bait.  If one got hooked, the
captain had to beat it senseless with a wooden club before he removed the hook, to avoid
having his hands lacerated by the needlefish's sharp teeth.

Nora watched this procedure with burning eyes.  “I almost can't
stand to look,” she said.  “But it's also kind of exciting.”  This struck me as a very Spanish response, with the
appeal of the bullfight in it.

In any fishing tale there's always the part about the one that got away. 
Just before we headed back to shore, with our bait almost used up, I
hooked a huge fish.  It felt like the big bonito I'd caught
earlier — maybe heavier.  It kept wanting to sound and came up
slowly, when I could move it towards the boat, like a massive lead weight at the end of the line.  When I got it to
within four or five feet of the surface we could see, in the dappled sunlight rippling through the water, that it was a gigantic
yellowfin tuna.  The captain was very excited — this was
a stupendous fish.  I was too excited.  I jerked the line a
little too hard and the hook slipped out and I watched the amazing
thing swim away again into the depths.  I was sad but also oddly
moved by the encounter.

Below, pelicans feed on the remains of our fish, after the captain had filleted them:

After I dropped our catch off at the restaurant at the Los Arcos I went
up to the bar for a beer.  I was exhausted from the long drive to
and from the beach and the hours out on the water, all on far too
little sleep.  But my nerves were singing.  I knew I had
experienced something extraordinary.  There was no way I could go
to sleep.

That's the moment I come back to when I think about Baja California —
the way the cold beer tasted, and the image that kept going through my
mind of the big tuna swimming away into the Mar de Cortés, its
silver sides and yellow fins flashing a few times before it disappeared
into the deep blue. 
Part of my heart went with it, and is still there — lost at sea.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.

[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]


I recently came upon a term, “risk homeostasis”, which I think helps explain why driving in Mexico feels safer, and may in fact be safer, than driving in the U. S.

Roads and streets in Mexico tend not to be as well-maintained as they are in the States, lanes tend not to be as well marked (or respected when they are marked), traffic signs are treated very casually — in La Paz, many stop signs are completely obscured by foliage.  (You quickly learn to come to a full stop at every bushy tree near the corner of an intersection.)

The result is that Mexicans are forced to drive with greater care, greater attention to the behavior and greater respect for the prerogatives of other drivers — not to mention pedestrians . . . and goats.

In the States, where road and street surfaces tend to be impeccable, lanes are clearly marked, traffic signs prominent and logically placed, livestock properly penned, people rely on these things to allow them to drive more carelessly — while talking on a cell phone, for example, with very little attention given to immediate traffic conditions around the vehicle.  They assume that the markings and the rules will keep them out of accidents — but based on that assumption they feel free to expose themselves more to the hazards of unpredictable incidents.

This is “risk homeostasis”, a phenomenon observed in all security systems — people “consume” improvements in security and use them to justify taking more risks.

The result can be paradoxical.  Here in the U. S., more pedestrians are killed in clearly marked crosswalks than in unmarked crosswalks — the bright white solid lines give them a false sense of security and lessen their attention to the actual behavior of drivers.  (The GPS system in my car, above, has no detailed map data for Mexico — it only told me roughly where I was on the Baja California peninsula . . . all the rest I had to figure out for myself.)

My sister was terrified by the idea of driving in Mexico — because it all looked so anarchic.  But it wasn’t anarchic at all — just the opposite.  Almost all drivers were following one basic rule, which transcended all the other less basic rules — pay close attention to what your fellow drivers are doing and don’t run into them.

It’s the one basic rule that no improvements in traffic systems can
promote, and that many improvements in traffic systems can actually
undermine.  It’s against the law in Mexico to drive while talking on a
cell phone — but it’s something you wouldn’t be likely to do anyway.
You wouldn’t feel safe.  You may feel safe driving while talking on a
cell phone in the U. S., but you very likely aren’t.

By directing so much of your attention away from the traffic around
you, you have essentially “consumed” the advantages the U. S. road
system has over the Mexican road system.

For previous Baja California trip reports, go here.

[Photos © 2007 Harry Rossi]


we think of dreamlike films, or dream sequences within films, we
inevitably think of the expressionistic style filmmakers often use
to signal a dream state — but of course real dreams do not present
themselves in that way. We might, in a dream, find ourselves at home
and discover a previously unnoticed door opening onto a previously
unsuspected wing of the house — but that wing is not appointed like
the cabinet of Dr. Caligari . . . it is as convincingly real a place,
in the dream, as the actual house we know.