Dispatches: Some Thoughts Inspired by “My Blueberry Nights”

There’s no getting around it: My Blueberry Nights wasn’t good.  As impossible as it is to deny that Wong Kar-Wai is a powerful and important filmmaker, it is equally impossible to deny that My Blueberry Nights is tone-deaf, spaced-out, and derivative.  Strangely enough, one of the things it’s derivative of is Wong’s own film In the Mood for Love, which was a pitch-perfect, zoned-in original–My Blueberry Nights even reuses the piece of music that’s burned into the memory of anyone who saw the earlier movie. 

The other thing Blueberry is derivative of is the semiotic universe of American film, and David Lynch in particular.  The movie conjures its world with the following elements: diners, pie and ice cream; hardbitten but kind proprietors; ingenues on the run from painful pasts; cuckolded alcoholics with good hearts; huge Nevadan landscapes in telephoto with suns gloriously setting; a superficially multicultural (read: multi-racial) but culturally unspecific set of characters; whooshing New York City elevated trains used as scene transitions; a score by that living piece of American film history, Ry Cooder.  Each element the film uses feels drawn from other movies rather than from the observation of life; the charming moments that do occur are drowned in a feeling of being observed themselves, looked for and wished for rather than found and delighted in.

It might sound unfair, simple, and even xenophobic to call Wong to a filmic tourist.  But his imagery, usually utterly assured, here feels just off, just clumsy; the sharpness of his cuts slightly dulled; his direction of actors unfocused.  I think it’s essentially right to group My Blueberry Nights with a general class of films we could call lost director.  Filmmakers, after doing great work in a particular locale, often make an inexplicably tinny movie elsewhere (often, the U.S.).  They have a tendency to lose their ear.  An example would be Danny Boyle, who, after producing such sharp portrayals of young Glaswegians in Trainspotting and especially Shallow Grave, came to America and made the laughable A Life Less Ordinary.  Martin Scorcese’s movie about Tibetan monks?  Emir Kusturica’s attempt to make an American movie, with Johnny Depp and Vincent Gallo?  Lost director.

Think of films that really work: they tend to emerge from near-ethnographic knowledge, from a profound feel for a time and place.  This is true of the best films I’ve seen this year, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, The Band’s Visit, No Country For Old Men.  Actually, make that the best new films; the best one I’ve seen at a cinema this year is an old one, Le Mépris, rereleased–which is about a film production in Rome and Capri, with beautiful French starlet-kittens; vulgar, potent American money men; and elderly, cultured European directors.  Talk about a world Godard knew well.  (If it is being screened near you, see it immediately.  IMMEDIATELY.  Even if, no, especially if you’ve seen it before.)

Two objections.  Number one, since you mention Godard, what about A bout de souffle, with all its allusions to American noir and police procedurals?  Well, exactly: they are allusions, not the direct subject matter.  The movie’s about a beautiful French man and a beautiful American ingenue in Paris, and it’s loaded with allusions and references and non-diagetic stuff concerning a French cineaste-auteur’s fascination with American film–entirely the right way of going about things.  The fantasies are based in and stem from realities.  If Godard had, in his love of John Ford or Howard Hawks, decided to come to America to make Westerns, then: lost director.

(A point of clarification here.  I liked Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate quite a bit, despite its superficially seeming like a classic case of lost director: French director makes a film about an American man and an Italian woman starting in London and ending in Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Here’s the difference: the characters in Boarding Gate are simply contemporary globalists, multilingual frequent flyers.  Assayas gets them.  The characters in My Blueberry Nights are romanticized creatures, idealized archetypes; Wong doesn’t know them so much as fantasize them.)

Objection two: Isn’t this whole thing simply a long-winded way of saying, shoot what you know?  Not quite.  The interesting thing is, the slogan seems quite obviously true for films, but quite untrue for its close relative, photography.  That is, photography as a discourse or a formal language has from the very beginning seemed to encourage the documentation of what is foreign rather than the communication of the familiar.  Consider Henri Cartier-Bresson, with his ability to snap off perfect compositions fifteen clicks out of twenty.  We don’t complain of his lack of empathetic understanding of the ice skaters or Indian train porters he so magically resolves into visual chords; his art is more formal, more spatial than that.

Or to take a recent, favorite example: Wolfgang Tillmans.  Maybe the thing that impresses me most about him is that, unlike filmmakers, whose ear and eye tend to be keyed to particular psychogeographic locations, his work produces a sense of unity despite subject matter of great variety.  He is able to impose his particular way of looking on clubgoers, bowls of fruit, bunched clothing, astronomical eclipses, trees, the Concorde, photographic paper bent and photographed.  There is, in Tillmans, a kind of opposite tendency to that which plagues Wong in My Blueberry Nights: Tillmans turns everything into a photograph, forcing us to mediate on representation, on himself as a maker of images.  You may remember one feature of his beautiful still lives: the grocery-store stickers that are occasionally visible on an orange or an apple.  Those unremoved stickers suggest an immense amount, more than I can type, about the relations between the world and artwork, aesthetic tradition and social duties, the real and the ideal, and the twin roles of the artist: to imagine and to reproduce. 

Yet where still photographs remain essentially formal and non-narrative, the motion of motion pictures introduces narrative, in the form of time visibly elapsing.  And when time visibly elapses at roughly the speed we tend to experience it elapsing in the real world (yes, I believe in it!), there emerges a fuller form of another representational aspect: character.  The observation of character, in the sense of human behavioral particularities, is required of the narrative filmmaker in a way that the still photographer does not confront.  (Please don’t think I am claiming that filmmakers are thus more comprehensive in some way than photographers–if anything, the implication may be that photographers are better able to take on subject matter beyond the level of humanism, as with the structural analyses of Gursky or the conceptually rich dialectics of Jeff Wall.)  But back to character, which emerges when pictures move: hence the need, I believe, for a filmmaker to understand a locale not only visually, compositionally, but characterologically–dare I say it, emotionally.  Which is what Wong didn’t do, this time out.

P.S. If you happen to visit Mexico City before June, I highly, highly recommend seeing the Tillmans retrospective at the Museo de Tamayo–he helps us make sense of modernity, while remaining highly idiosyncratic.  And if you are in Mexico City this spring (and I think you should be, the jacaranda trees are in full bloom… go now and thank me later), please go have the exquisite black beans, stewed with oregano, onion and bacon, at El Califa.  Please do.  (Black bean information courtesy of 3qd lurker Alan S. Page.  Thank him later.)

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
dir. Wong Kar-Wai

Le Mépris
dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Wolfgang Tillmans
Museo de Tamayo
México, D.F.
14 February-25 May 2008

El Califa
22 Calle Altata
México, D.F.
tel. 52 55 52 71 76 66

See the rest of my Dispatches…

Sunday, April 13, 2008

National daily news site launched by nonprofit

Peter Dunn has launched a national news aggregator:

Screenhunter_03_apr_13_2209The Daily Source, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the public, has launched the beta of a news Web site that brings high-quality news and information from around the Internet to the public daily in a single place.

“We scour the web for high quality material – so our readers don’t have to,” explained founder Peter Dunn. “Most people don’t have 20 hours in their day to spend searching for high-quality news, so we do the work and put it in one spot for them.”

Editors at DailySource.org scan over one thousand publications including daily newspapers, television network sites, news magazines, journals, blogs and others. DailySource.org also gives readers easy access to establish links to other news sources, including local papers, a favorite sports site, or any sites of their choosing. The site allows seamless contact with members of the media and elected officials, and information on over 850,000 non-profits one can donate to or volunteer for.

Readers have the ability to rate the quality of articles they read, volunteer in various ways, email articles to friends, or submit links to articles they think are worthy of consideration for the front page. With all the features and opportunities for interaction, DailySource.org represents a new experience for news readers.

The site has a paid staff of experienced journalists from around the U.S. including Yvonne Lee, who prior to joining the Daily Source won an Emmy for her work covering September 11 for CNN, and Vince Winkel, who has won 20 awards for excellence in broadcast and online journalism while working for places like CBS, NPR, CNN, and the BBC.

More here.

Israel’s Nazi-porn problem

Andrew O’Hehir in Salon:

Screenhunter_02_apr_13_1852As many older Israelis evidently remember, the then-new nation was afflicted by a perverse pop-culture craze in the early ’60s, at a time when nearly half the population consisted of Holocaust survivors, nationalist sentiment ran high and moral codes were extremely puritanical. Yet the newsstands in the Tel Aviv bus station sold racks of semi-pornographic pulp novels known as “Stalags,” whose utterly implausible, Penthouse Forum-meets-Marquis de Sade plots ventured into the most forbidden terrain imaginable. Stalags all followed essentially the same formula: An American or British World War II pilot (generally not Jewish) is shot down behind enemy lines, where he is imprisoned, tortured and raped by an entire phalanx of sadistic, voluptuous female SS officers. His body violated but his spirit unbroken, the plucky Yank or Brit escapes in the end to rape and murder his captors.

Stalags thrived for a few years and then disappeared, banished to the memory hole as a massive cultural embarrassment.

More here.

Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights

Lise Abrams in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_01_apr_13_1831Our ability to use words is a critical part of our species’ mastery of language. In practice, that mastery comes down to saying what we mean without having to think too much about it. When we have something to say, we first retrieve the correct words from memory, then execute the steps for producing the word. When these cognitive processes don’t mesh smoothly, conversation stops.

Suppose you meet someone at a party. A coworker walks up, you turn to introduce your new acquaintance and suddenly you can’t remember your colleague’s name! My hunch is that almost all readers are nodding their heads, remembering a time that a similar event happened to them. These experiences are called tip-of-the-tongue (or TOT) states. A TOT state is a word-finding problem, a temporary and often frustrating inability to retrieve a known word at a given moment. TOT states are universal, occurring in many languages and at all ages.

People resolve TOT states using a variety of methods. Some are conscious strategies, such as mentally going through the alphabet to find the word or consulting a book or person. However, the most common method for resolving TOT states is an indirect approach: relaxing and directing one’s attention elsewhere. The missing word suddenly comes to mind without thinking about it. These “aha!” moments are known as “pop-ups.” The purpose of this article is to explore the cognitive processes that cause pop-up resolutions and to document changes in these processes with healthy aging. The ability to resolve TOT states changes significantly in old age, which is particularly important because older adults have more TOT states than do younger adults.

More here.

Liberation of the Senses

Here is Bill Viola’s “An Ocean Without a Shore”:

In The Sydney Morning Herald, an interview with Viola:

Video artist Bill Viola first came to Death Valley with a friend in 1973. A child of the green summers and freezing winters of New York, he had just graduated from university. He was 21, a student of religions. He stood in the middle of a salt flat, simultaneously inconsequential and enveloping, and felt his horizons extend.

“For the first time in my life I felt like my senses were liberated,” he remembers. “I felt completely open. I felt part of me was going out that hundred miles to the mountain range and encompassing that whole thing. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

“At a certain point I became frightened. I felt like the landscape was so vast, if I got lost out here, they would never find me. And God could come down and [as if I was] a little bug, just flick me away.

Darfur and a Failure to Protect

Darfurnowlrg Eric Reeves in The Harvard International Review:

Darfur’s staggering figures make the question of international response all the more exigent: hundreds of thousands already dead; 2.5 million displaced, most losing everything; and 4.2 million human beings dependent on the world’s largest and most endangered humanitarian operation.

Answers are at once numerous and complex—and bluntly obvious. There has simply never been any stomach to confront, in effective and concerted fashion, the ruthless tyranny of the NIF. The regime came to power by military coup in 1989, deposing the elected government of Sadiq el-Mahdi and deliberately aborting Sudan’s most promising chance for peace since independence. Yet there have never been coordinated economic sanctions targeting the NIF leadership. There have never even been effective diplomatic sanctions, although the UN nominally imposed them in 1995 following the NIF’s role in the conspiracy to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. On the contrary, commercial and capital investment in the Khartoum-dominated economy has been massive, coming from Europe, Canada, and Asian countries, primarily China.

Moreover, Khartoum has never faced a serious threat of non-consensual military action to halt genocide, even in Darfur, where the realities of large-scale, ethnically-targeted human destruction have been consistently and unambiguously reported since 2003.

Whither Literary Criticism?

William Deresiewicz in The Nation:

Professing Literature, Gerald Graff’s history of American English departments, has just been reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition (Chicago, $19). Published at the height of the culture wars–it came out a month before Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind–Graff’s book brought a cooling sense of historical perspective to the inflamed passions of the moment. We’d been having the same arguments, it turned out, since universities started teaching English literature in the middle of the nineteenth century. The positions may have changed, but the issues had not. Classicists had been deposed by humanists, humanists by historians, historians by critics and now critics by theorists, but across the barricades of each revolution, the same accusations were flung: obfuscation, esotericism and overspecialization; naïveté, dilettantism and reaction. Teaching versus research, humane values versus methodological rigor, “literature itself” versus historical context.

What’s happened since?

Marathon Shakespeare

Rschv The Royal Shakespeare Company in staging the whole of the History Cycle, 8 plays in 72 hours.  Colin Murphy on the performance in Le Monde Diplomatique:

I couldn’t sleep last night. They kept on coming. Kings, rebels, ghosts, traitors. In my mind’s eye, at 3am, they marched again, spoke, warned. Richard the Second, vainglorious, doomed. Henry the Fourth, stout and fierce, his purchase on the throne tenuous. Falstaff, hale and hearty, but cut through with self-deception. Warwick, twin sword blades slicing the air. Henry the Fifth, the hero king. And Henry the Sixth, almost mystical, his eyes suffused with the loneliness of absolute power.

For twenty-four hours I sat in their company, through eight of the History plays of William Shakespeare, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) back to back across a weekend in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon (1). The feat was unprecedented: the same company of 34 actors performed 264 roles across 72 hours, in eight three-hour plays.

Over breakfast in my B&B, we wondered whether there was any possibility of redemption or sympathy for the hunchback Richard the Third. At lunchtime I strode into Stratford in search of a quick sandwich, and saw one of the cast breeze by on her bicycle, presumably doing the same thing. During an interval, a man leaned deeply into a stretch against a tree outside. At night, we retreated to the local pub, The Dirty Duck, attempting to quiet the voices in our heads with pints of ale, found the Duke of Exeter and Earl of Warwick there ahead of us, and fell into conversation with them about their roles and the plays.

She Would Not Be Silent

From The Washington Post:

IDA: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings

Idawells Ida B. Wells was in England in 1894 when she heard that white Southerners had put a black woman in San Antonio, Tex., into a barrel with “nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she was dead.” The 31-year-old Wells, a black Southerner, was seasoned to the widespread phenomenon of mob torture and murder that went by the shorthand “lynching”; in fact, she was abroad on a speaking tour denouncing it. Nonetheless, she shed tears over the latest “outrage upon my people.”

Her call to speak out against lynching had come just two years earlier, when a Memphis mob murdered her close friend and neighbor Thomas Moss. The incident started as a dispute among white and black boys playing marbles, but it quickly evolved into an excuse to murder Moss, a successful businessman who was drawing patrons away from a nearby white grocer. White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to: when black men threatened, assaulted and raped white women. Wells was determined to expose that lie.

Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time. ·

More here.

The odd couple’s special relationship

From The Guardian:

A Dangerous Liaison by Carole Seymour-Jones.
Book It was Dostoevsky who first espoused the notion that if God is dead, everything is permissible. It became one of the founding tenets of existentialist philosophy, but until reading Carole Seymour-Jones’s excellent new biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, I hadn’t quite realised the diabolic glee with which this pair applied the belief to their daily lives. Having got the business of God out of the way with precocious ease before they hit puberty (for de Beauvoir, He ‘ceased to exist’ at secondary school; for Sartre, God ‘vanished without explanation’ when he was 12), they launched themselves into a vortex of depravity with all the alacrity of teenagers breaking a parental curfew.

For five decades, they pursued an open partnership that allowed them to engage in ‘contingent’ relationships with others. It was their radical answer to the outworn convention of marriage: in achieving total transparency with each other, they hoped to experience the true freedom of essential love. ‘To have such freedom, we had to suppress or overcome any possessiveness, any tendency to be jealous,’ said Sartre. ‘In other words, passion. To be free, you cannot be passionate.’ They hoped to devise new ways of living in a godless world, unrestricted by detested bourgeois institutions. But, in reality, Seymour-Jones demonstrates that their quest became a darker, more collusive joint enterprise through the 51 years of their partnership, with deeply unpleasant consequences for those who found themselves towed under by the viscous currents of the Sartrean ‘family’.

De Beauvoir became a glorified procuress, exploiting her profession as a teacher to seduce impressionable female pupils and then passing them on to Sartre, who had a taste for virgins. One of them, Olga Kosakiewicz, was so unbalanced by the experience that she started to self-harm. In 1938, the 30-year-old de Beauvoir seduced her student Bianca Bienenfeld. A few months later, Sartre slept with the 16-year-old Bianca in a hotel room, telling her that the chambermaid would be surprised as he had already taken another girl’s virginity the same day.

More here.

Sunday Poem

At the Un-national Monument Along the Canadian Border
William Stafford


This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.


Painting by Richard Herman

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Flux Factory in Flux

In the early 90s our own Morgan Meis founded the brilliantly innovative arts collective, Flux Factory. He remains its uninterrupted president. (When I told Morgan recently that I wish I were president of something, he advised me to declare myself president of 3 Quarks. 🙂 Anyhow, here is a nice article about Flux:

Ben Davis in Artnet:

Morgan_stefWhen people ask me what my favorite gallery is, I always answer Flux Factory. This has been the case at least since I first reviewed a show at the energetic Long Island City nonprofit-cum-artist collective, a solo exhibition by the very-cool sculptor Paul Burn, back when I wrote the culture page for the Queens Courier.

Sadly, I might have to make a new choice. Flux Factory has just opened what looks to be its final show in its current space, aptly titled “Everything Must Go.” The MTA has announced the eminent domain takeover of the block to make way for a rail link to Grand Central Terminal.

“Shitty,” is the answer Flux Factory’s Stefany Anne Golberg gives when asked how the group feels about this state of affairs. “The MTA has made this about as difficult as they could.” Information has been impossible to get, she says. “We’ve known about the possibility for two years, and then it’s just like, you’ve got 90 days to clear out.”

Golberg, one of the Flux Factory’s core members along with Jean Barbaris, Morgan Meis and Chen Tamir, says the organization is looking for a new building. It is likely, however, that after “Everything Must Go” closes, the 18-odd artists who currently live and collaborate in the space will disperse.

More here.  [Photo, taken by me at a Flux party, shows Morgan with his wife Stefany.]

Also check out this video from the New York Post about Flux:

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fate of the jetty


ON JANUARY 29, 2008, an e-mail began making the rounds of the art world. Originally sent by artist Nancy Holt to a small group of friends and colleagues, and rapidly forwarded on, the message contained an urgent appeal: Holt had been alerted, just the day before, to the existence of plans to drill for oil in the Great Salt Lake, near Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, and she was asking people to contact the Utah state government to express their opposition before a rapidly approaching deadline for public comment. The drilling in question (a “wildcat,” or speculative, operation) calls for a series of exploratory wells to be sunk, using equipment on floating barges, some 3,000 feet into the lake bed of an area called the West Rozel Field Prospect—a parcel in the North Arm of the Great Salt Lake leased in 2003 from the state of Utah by Pearl Montana Exploration and Production, a Canadian oil and gas company. The site lies approximately five miles southwest of Rozel Point—roughly halfway between Gunnison Island, a wildlife sanctuary that is home to one of the world’s largest breeding populations of American white pelicans, and Spiral Jetty, the 1,500-foot-long coil of basalt and earth that is Smithson’s most famous, and Land art’s most celebrated, artwork.

more from artforum here.

american con


In 1988, Princeton University accepted an orphan with an eye-catching résumé. Seventeen-year-old Alexi Santana hadn’t been to school but had picked up his education while working in Utah as a cattle herder, a construction worker and a racehorse exerciser. He had read Plato while sleeping under the stars. He could be reached only by post office box, he said, because his home address was the Utah-Arizona line. It all sounded very romantic, very Huck Finn. He also had outstanding SAT scores. What clinched the deal, though, was that Santana could run like the wind, and the Princeton track coach saw him as an invaluable addition to the team…

Then the roof caved in. In February 1991, Santana was spotted at a Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet by somebody who knew him from, literally, another life. The truth came out: Alexi Santana was more than 10 years older than he claimed to be and wasn’t even Alexi Santana. His real name was James Hogue, a serial impostor who had been born in Kansas and delayed his entry to Princeton because he’d been in jail for theft.

more from the LA Times here.

founding faith


Nothing about the founders seems as interesting or as timely to us, 200 years and more farther on, as their religious views — who, if Anyone, they worshiped, how they marked the boundaries of church and state. As a Washington biographer, I have been assured, during the Q. and A. periods after talks, that George Washington saw the Virgin Mary at Valley Forge and converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed (why wait, if he had seen the Virgin 21 years earlier?). I was also once asked if he was an “illuminated Freemason”; I sped away from that question as fast as possible. Whether in legal briefs or op-ed articles, we are as passionate about religion as the founders were. Unfortunately, our passions make for a lot of sloppy and willful historical thinking and writing. In “Founding Faith,” Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and co-founder of Beliefnet.com, a religious Web site, surveys the convictions and legacy of the founders clearly and fairly, with a light touch but a careful eye.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

The Soiling of Old Glory


Louis P. Masur in Slate:

In his recent speech on race, Barack Obama spoke about the legacy of racial hatred and resentment in America. One of the events he probably had in mind was the controversy over busing that erupted in Boston in the mid-1970s. A single photograph epitomized for Americans the meaning and horror of the crisis. On April 5, 1976, at an anti-busing rally at City Hall Plaza, Stanley Forman, a photographer for the Boston Herald-American, captured a teenager as he transformed the American flag into a weapon directed at the body of a black man. It is the ultimate act of desecration, performed in the year of the bicentennial and in the shadows of Boston’s Old State House. Titled The Soiling of Old Glory, the photograph appeared in newspapers around the country and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The image shattered the illusion that racial segregation and hatred were strictly a Southern phenomenon. For many, Boston now seemed little different than Birmingham.

See the whole photo-essay here.