Friday, August 30, 2013

Worthwhile reading about raining death on the Syrian people

I have nothing original to say about President Obama's seemingly imminent decision to send Tomahawk missiles hurtling into Syria, which will add carnage to carnage, any way you track the shrapnel. But I've been reading, and decided I might do a bit of good by posting links to and excerpts from authors whose thinking on the topic is my favorite color (for thinking): clear.

From a blogger named Sean who writes a blog called the human province, here's some bits from Thursday's post (29 Aug 2013), An open letter on Syria to Western narcissists (with thanks to KR for the link):
I have so little patience for some of the rhetoric I’ve been seeing from Western leftist circles, where this conflict seems like nothing more than a rhetorical bludgeon for scoring ideological points. This has been illustrated by the passing around of an article by Robert Fisk, who asks, “Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side?” This lazy and facile opinion piece assures us that if the US attacks Syria, then “the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.” It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Just to name one: if you’re against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you’re also “on the same side as al-Qa’ida” according to this logic.
On the same date, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite published Syria and the ‘moral obscenity’ of war on the Washington Post's web site (thanks to AB for the link, which I personally forwarded to the PoTUS just in case he missed it):
Then there is also the crucial question, would bombing accomplish anything positive? The military uses terms like “surgical strike” which give a false impression of precision in the use of violence. But bombs exploding are never “surgical,” they are huge explosions. More civilians can be killed, adding to the suffering of the Syrian population. The use of force in retaliation will surely have widespread and likely unintended consequences, perhaps even setting off further chemical attacks by the Assad regime. Predicting what dictators will do in response to the use of force against them is notoriously unreliable. Rather than “deterring” the Syrian regime, it may provoke them.

It is totally understandable that people around the world, horrified as they are by the widespread and horrible deaths of Syrian civilians, would want to “punish” the perpetrators. But for the last two years, a horrific civil war has raged in Syria and it has taken the lives of more than 100,000 people, according to United Nations experts. Millions more have become refugees, suffering themselves in camps that are undersupplied.

One hundred thousand deaths is an obscenity. Millions of suffering refugees is an obscenity. The point is, war is a moral obscenity itself. It is this war that must be stopped, and bombing campaigns do not end war.
And from James Joyner at the Atlantic, published Friday 30 August, Why Obama's Plan to Strike Syria Makes No Strategic Sense (thanks to Meteor Blades at Daily Kos for this link):
[...] Press secretary Jay Carney declared Tuesday that, "It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change" and that "there is no military solution available here, that the way to bring about a better future in Syria is through negotiation and a political resolution."

So, what then?

Carney declared "there must be a response" to the chemical attacks and other "administration officials" have said that the strikes would "send a message." Any message sent by launching military strikes explicitly not designed to achieve one's stated strategic goal would be cryptic, and should probably be accompanied by a decoder ring.

An editorial in the German business daily Handelsblatt, helpfully translated by Der Spiegel, puts the case brilliantly:
Humanitarian wars are also wars. Those who jump into them for moral reasons should also want to win them. Cruise missiles fired from destroyers can send a message and demonstrate conviction, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war. Neither can a "we'll see" bombardment. There has to be a strategic motivation behind the moral one, and it demands perseverance.

While Secretary of State Kerry's August 26 speech setting the stage for US response was eloquent and emotionally satisfying, its fundamental argument makes no strategic sense. Who could argue against the idea that "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity”? As Fred Hof, President Obama's former special advisor for transition in Syria and my colleague at the Atlantic Council, rightly notes, "Such slaughter is, in fact, morally obscene and criminal irrespective of the weaponry employed."


As John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor and former State Department official Elliot Cohen rightly notes, "no one — friends, enemies or neutrals — would be fooled" by a token effort and therefore "A bout of therapeutic bombing is an even more feckless course of action than a principled refusal to act altogether."
President Obama is a smart, deliberate man. Please don't hesitate to drop him a line or give him a jingle, and encourage him not to act like a reactionary. Before it's too late. Again.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Human are like rats and cockroaches: the coming feudalism
Facing things we'd rather weren't so

Thanks to the government of the U.K., via Wikimedia Commons, for the image of a British machine gun crew wearing anti-gas helmets, July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Anthology review: Writing That Risks from Red Bridge Press

I've been waiting all year for Writing That Risks, the debut offering from new and local Red Bridge Press; the anthology was published last month. Close readers of One Finger Typing might remember February's post Dragons, Google Translate, and 'found' poetry, describing a San Francisco bookstore event at which contributors to the collection read. In any case, the anthology does not disappoint, presenting one glimpse after another into the minds of strange-thinkers ... hands down the most refreshing and enlarging minds to glimpse.

I most loved the short fiction. This despite, or perhaps because of the fact that some of it is seriously repellent: I kept having to put down Patrick Cole's "It Happened to Paul Sescau," a story in which a character's anxieties about purpose and meaning manifest themselves physically as ... how to put it without giving the story away ... a booger on steroids? The author brilliantly evoked the protagonist's anxiety in this reader. That's a good thing.

Edmund Zagorin's "A Dream of the Aztec" weaves together a similarly acute mix of anxieties. Will drug-filled balloons burst in the young protagonist's belly? Will the airplane carrying him crash? Will the brute in the next seat beat or rape him? Is the story behind this story the irritation of an unimaginably powerful god, with "hands the size of archipelagos and a grip that can throttle the wind itself"?

Zach Powers' tale, "When As Children We Acted Memorably," is another worlds-behind-the-world story, in the mold of Haruki Murakami or Neil Gaiman.

"Minnows" by Jønathan Lyons is one of the weirdest and most compelling mashups of formally self-conscious fiction and emotionally wrenching story I've ever read (it somehow reminded me of Malcom Lowry's Under The Volcano, but I'm not sure I can explain why).

"We ♥ Shapes" by Jenny Bittner is a story I've been waiting to finish since I attended that "Small Press Love Fest" in San Francisco early in the year. That afternoon, Bittner read the first part of her story and left me literally hanging off the edge of my chair in the back of the room, ravenous for What Happens Next. I had to read almost to the end of this anthology to find out; Bittner's story is the penultimate piece.

And, yes, it was worth both the wait and the circuitous ride through haunting and rarely-visited literary terrain.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
Ursula Le Guin visits UC Berkeley
Dragons, Google Translate, and 'found' poetry
A speculative-fiction spectrum: Clifford D. Simak to David Mitchell

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Heroes, Martyrs, Knaves: Oscar Grant, Ian McKellen, the Matt Damon franchise

I inhaled a lot of drama this weekend. Didn't plan to, it just happened. I don't mean the drama that clutters up one's own life, but the sort that's played on stage and screen.

Friday night I had the great fortune to see Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Not only is the play a riveting look at male isolation and aggression, written by a modern dramatic master of same, but the lead roles were fiercely jousted by two of the finest living British actors: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley added their Tony Award winning star power to round out the cast. Sound like a Broadway-worthy lineup? That's because the production is on its way to New York this fall, where No Man's Land will be played in rotation with Beckett's Waiting for Godot at the Cort Theatre.

Saturday afternoon I watched Elysium, the latest Matt Damon might-as-well-call-him-a-superhero flick, which benefited from a setup -- the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth as IMDB has it -- that will seem sadly credible to those who follow the current trajectories of wealth distribution and environmental degradation, which are related topics, after all.

On Sunday I finally saw Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Julius Grant III, culminating in his tragic death a few BART stops from where I live, at the hands of transit police, on New Year's Day, 2009. The film was released on 12 July, and is still playing in Berkeley, at the California theatre.

In No Man's Land, the two principals circle each other warily, sometimes in thrall to each other's lies and evasions, sometimes railing against each other's deception. Truth is contested, perhaps unknowable. Each character stakes out solitary territory in the form of sketchily described history, competing claims, and slippery observation, in a single large room of the home belonging to a monied and alcoholic litterateur, Hirst (played by Stewart). The failed poet Spooner (McKellen) rises to the bait when Hirst -- honestly befuddled? deceitfully? -- first goes on about remembering Spooner from their years at Oxford, then denounces him as an imposter. Spooner eventually begs. The Crudup and Hensley characters menace throughout. Hirst retreats into alcoholic opacity, which is where he was when the curtain first lifted. Each man fears for the integrity of his territory, defends it, and ends the play as alone as he started. All of the characters are soused, none are sympathetic, yet the production is riveting. It's a house of knaves.

In Elysium, Max (Matt Damon) is an orphan,  grown-up in a Los Angeles decayed into dusty, sprawling slum. Max has spent years boosting cars and doing time, but as the film opens has taken honest work in a Dickensian factory, helping to manufacture the robots that police his world. His driving motives are muddled. For understandably selfish reasons he doesn't want to return to prison. When a risk he is forced by a callous manager to take at the factory results in his exposure to a lethal dose of radiation, Max resolves to do whatever it takes to gain access to medical technology available only on the 0.001%'s space station, called Elysium: quasi-magical machines that heal any and all illness and injury this side of death. Then -- and I'm eliding here to avoid spoiling the, um, preposterous plot -- a little girl with leukemia tells him a child's fable, and Max, exercising superhuman strength with the aid of Terminator-like technology while dying of radiation poisoning, schemes and fights his way to Elysium where he ... wait for it ... closes the movie as a Christ figure. It's Hollywood, people.

In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) is portrayed as a Joycean sort of hero: like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, he's a flawed human being navigating the ordinary pleasures and perils of a single day in his hometown. Like Elysium's Max he's been in prison, but now he's not. He drops off his daughter at school and makes up with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz); he begs the manager who fired him for another chance at his supermarket job (no dice), and later charms a shop owner into permitting the women he's out with on New Year's Eve to use his restroom. He gets in a fight on a packed BART train with a man who recognizes him from a stretch in Alameda County's jail. Amped-up police respond, pull Grant and his friends off the train, and at the culmination of escalating rounds of testosterone-inflected chest bumping, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle unholsters his sidearm and shoots Grant point-blank in the back. (In real life, Mehserle claimed he intended to reach for his taser but grabbed the 'wrong' weapon. Mass protest ensued. Mehserle is free after serving half his short sentence for an involuntary manslaughter conviction.) Fruitvale Station portrays a world in which flawed humans sometimes make it home to their loved ones, as Leopold made it home to Molly; while other flawed humans get shot in the back. You may know the place. You live there.

YMMV, but I found the most highly produced (and expensive) of these dramas to boil down to a dose of the same old same old. It was the least moving, precisely because the real world -- never mind the setting, I'm talking about the humanity -- was airbrushed and mythologized out of it. [Sony paid $115,000,000 for Elysium, according to the Hollywood Reporter (actual budget unknown), and took in just over $30M in its first weekend, including my $8 matinee ticket. Fruitvale Station was acquired by the Weinstein brothers for $2.5M, its budget was reportedly less than half that and it was filmed in 20 days. I haven't got a clue what the Pinter play cost to produce, but I'd wager it's closer to the Ryan Coogler film than to Neill Blomkamp's.]

Fruitvale Station is my weekend's clear winner; I prefer drama that adheres closely to the world outside my door, in all its varied and particular messiness. Michael B. Jordan portrays a man at human scale. Despite its departures from known truths of Oscar Grant's story -- it's drama based on not a documentary -- Coogler has given us a way to listen past the chuff we call "news," to approach the heart of what it's like to live in 21st century urban America.

The Berkeley Rep's run of No Man's Land has sold out its performances, through the end of August (the tenacious might get lucky scoring tickets returned to the box office on the days of performance). Pinter's drama is formal, not natural; but it reaches deep into the fear and loathing that animate the shrunken souls of men trapped by shriveled notions of masculinity. I regret that I believe their numbers are legion, and that they make cameo appearances in Fruitvale Station.


If you're in New York this Fall you have another shot at seeing actors that one Berkeley Rep staffer aptly described this weekend as "the Geilgud and Olivier of my generation": the Cort Theatre's run of No Man's Land opens on 31 October.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize

Image of the cast of No Man's Land provide by Berkeley Rep: "Internationally acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are joined by Tony Award-winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley in a special presentation of No Man’s Land at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photograph by Jason Bell." Image of Oscar Grant from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The silliest art I saw in Los Angeles: Urs Fischer at MOCA

The silliest art I saw in Los Angeles last week was not the James Turrell retrospective at the LA County Museum of Art. Or at least I don't think it was. I'm almost certainly not smart enough to get James Turrell, so I just tiptoed away, shaking my lo-density cerebrum, from LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum and Resnick Pavillion, where oodles of Turrell's work is on-view until 6 April 2014.

Seven or so miles to the west, in the heart of downtown LA, you'll find the city's Museum of Contemporary Art. Perhaps you'll have had a look beforehand at the on-line blurb about MOCA's first-in-U.S. survey of Urs Fischer's work, and learned that:
Fischer's world is fluctuating and unpredictable, and the pleasure that we derive from his sculpture and painting is based on our attraction to and simultaneous repulsion by the dreamlike appearances that he constructs.
Um. So says the curator.

Another point of view: when I visited the Fischer exhibit last week I was ... bored.

See for yourself:

A cloud of rubbery blue raindrops. Okay, maybe that's whimsical (but it's also exasperating and ridiculous as soon as one thinks to compare it, say, to the somber, stately work of art I thought to compare it to: Anti-Mass by Cornelia Parker at San Francisco's de Young).

Looking around, ever so hopefully:

A log-cabin like house made out of loaves of bread, going stale and crumbling into ... breadcrumbs.

A olde-tyme lamppost made to look like a woozy pink set piece in a cartoon.

One of the pieces you don't see behind the camera's-eye view above is a 2012 sculpture called Untitled (Suspended Line of Fruit), made up of a strawberry, a lime, an apple, a grapefruit, a coconut, and a pineapple suspended from the ceiling by nylon fishline so that each piece of fruit hovers just above the floor in a straight line, like Newton's Cradle only more spacious and therefore of no conceivable use. You can see a photo on the artist's website; elsewhere we learn the fruits are replaced when they begin to rot.

Enough said.

Wikipedia tells us:
Fischers subversive approach to art is often considered to be influenced by anti-art movements like Neo-Dada, Lost Art or the Situationist International.
Okay. Anti-art movements, I can begin to see the anti-point.

What does Fischer's gallerist have to say say? Here from the Gagosian Gallery site:
Urs Fischer’s large-scale installations and sculptures posit genres traditionally evoked in painting -- such as portraits, landscapes, nudes, and still lifes -- in a profusion of rich and often impermanent sculptural materials. Whether utilizing foodstuffs (Bread House, 2004) or more self-destructive mediums, such as soft wax that simply melts away, Fischer mines the endless possibilities of a particular material to introduce an additional dimension into the work: that of time. Imbued with their own mortality, his sculptures and installations cultivate the experiential function of art. Fischer incorporates elements of performance and Pop art to create an oeuvre that is distinctly current, and as witty as it is macabre.
"Posit genres"? And how does one "introduce" time into a work that exists in a world in which time is fundamental and affects everything? One can represent time, certainly. Think Salvador Dali. But did the keepers of Vatican City introduce time into Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes when they burned candles in the chapel, or ... o, never mind.

I guess if I'd ever taken an art history class I'd have flunked it.

To be fair and balanced, I responded more positively to a piece of Fischer's displayed in the middle of the floor of a room in MOCA's permanent collection, and titled A Place Called Novosibirsk:

There's a much better photo on the artist's site, if you crave a clearer look. I don't know why I like this better than Fischer's work in the survey show. Because it's almost figurative, in a witty sort of way? Because it's not fleshy or gross or ugly?

Let's just call it a mystery, and move along.

The L.A. Weekly's Catherine Wagley had this to say, in Urs Fischer Traffics in Clichés -- But That's Not Necessarily a Bad Thing:
Fischer's folk-, pop- and consumer-inspired sculptures and paintings surround you with some of the more banal and stifling tropes from the last two decades -- Photoshop collages, a number of cats, cartoonish tableaux that appear all at once like too many open browser windows -- and offer no escape route.
Well. I'm here to tell you: I escaped.

First alongside California Plaza and down the Angels Flight funicular railway, which travels the length of a single steep block, but only costs a quarter if you've got a metro card:

Then through the Grand Central Market:

And across the street into the Bradbury Building:

Now that's purty...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Barry McGee mid-career survey at UC Berkeley art museum
Jim Campbell's "Exploded Views" at SFMOMA
Marilyn Monroe meets the Haymarket Riot: a tale of two Chicago sculptures

Thanks to Alossix, via Wikimedia Commons, for the image of Los Angeles' Grand Central Market. The rest of the photos in this post are the author's.