Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Thursday, 19 February 2004

Topic: The Culture

DEEP THOUGHTS (sort of) - and an odd questionnaire...
Terry Teachout lives in Manhattan. He's the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary - and you find the most interesting things on his site About Last Night - like this:

The source is an essay called "Morality and Literature," first published in Cahiers du Sud (January 1944). However, the following quotation, tracked down by one intrepid reader, seems to vindicate my memory without contradicting the above. Here Weil claims that the greatest literature is that which manages to make good interesting, and thus comes closest to a particular kind of realism:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art - and only geniuses can do that.
This can be found in an essay called "Evil," reprinted in The Simone Weil Reader and Gravity and Grace.

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring?

I'd like examples to prove this. I once spent an afternoon at the Pentagon chatting with people in the office of one of the assistant secretaries of defense, and met Frank Carlucci. That may be a good example. Now? A day in the White House, perhaps?


Then I came across these questions which I found puzzling....
(1) What book have you owned longest - the actual copy, I mean?
(2) If you could wish a famous painting out of existence, what would it be?
(3) If you had to live in a film, what would it be?
(4) If you had to live in a song, what would it be?
(5) What's the saddest work of art you know? And does experiencing it make you similarly sad?
How to answer these?

(1) A translation of Camus' l'?tranger from back when I was in early high school, or Alan Watt's The Way of Zen - both handed me by my crazy uncle. I think he must have meant me harm. But I see I still have Brooks' and Warren's Understanding Poetry from those high school days (sort of in tatters now) - and that's a book which led me to fall in with the "new criticism" which led to semiotics and deconstructionist ideas and other evils.

(2) Keep every one of the Monet haystacks, I suppose. Oh hell, keep them all. Even the dogs playing poker.

(3) Which film? Not Alphaville or Fast Times at Ridgemont High either. If I lived in a film The Music Man wouldn't do - although listing to the Buffalo Bills (the barbershop singers, not the football guys) do "Lida Rose" always makes me feel good. I guess I'd settle for An American in Paris, or maybe Casablanca - where I'd be one of the guys in the white tuxes in the band, I suppose.

(4) How can one live in a song? Would it be the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations or something else? I always got a kick out the chord changes in Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia and could play it for hours. The weepy old torch song Long Ago and Far Away might do. But I'll settle for Charles Trenet's La Mer - which always makes me smile.

(5) The saddest work of art I know? Pick any of the surreal stories by Donald Barthelme - "The best way to live is by not knowing what will happen to you at the end of the day..." But there is that e-minor prelude of Chopin - which I used to actually be able to play. Do such things make you similarly sad? Not really. Just thoughtful, or something like it.

Your turn for these questions....

Posted by Alan at 20:18 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 February 2004 20:54 PST home

Topic: For policy wonks...

Musical Chairs - Colin Powell loses...

I was at West Point in June 1990 for my nephew's graduation and the commencement speaker was Colin Powell. The president had spoken the previous year and the tradition was that it was to be, that year, the vice president. But I suspect someone thought the idea of Dan Quayle inspiring these new young officers was a little implausible. So they sent the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and that is about as high up in the military as one can go. Colin Powell wasn't even a West Point guy. He came up through ROTC, curiously. And the speech was fine.

Now he is our secretary of state and has been, shall we say, effectively neutered and rendered mostly harmless - and certainly insignificant.

How did this happen?

Fred Kaplan offers an analysis today in Slate that is pretty good.

See The Tragedy of Colin Powell: How the Bush presidency destroyed him
Fred Kaplan, SLATE.COM, Posted Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004, at 9:56 AM PT

Kaplan recounts Powell getting testy last week in a senate hearing when an aide started smiling and shaking his head at something Powell said - and Powell reprimanded him.

Kaplan's view? Colin Powell melting down.
Here is a man who faced hardships in the Bronx as a kid, bullets in Vietnam as a soldier, and bureaucratic bullets through four administrations in Washington, a man who rose to the ranks of Army general, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, a man who thought seriously about running for president - and he gets bent out of shape by some snarky House staffer?

Powell's outburst is a textbook sign of overwhelming stress. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Then again, he's also been having a bad three years.
Well, that is what happened.

But Kaplan says we should consider the circumstances:
As George Bush's first term nears its end, Powell's tenure as top diplomat is approaching its nadir. On the high-profile issues of the day, he seems to have almost no influence within the administration. And his fateful briefing one year ago before the U.N. Security Council - where he attached his personal credibility to claims of Iraqi WMD - has destroyed his once-considerable standing with the Democrats, not to mention our European allies, most of the United Nations, and the media.

... Powell must be frustrated beyond measure. One can imagine the scoldings he takes from liberal friends for playing "good soldier" in an administration that's treated him so shabbily and that's rejected his advice so brazenly. That senseless dressing-down of the committee staffer - a tantrum that no one with real power would ever indulge in - can best be seen as a rare public venting of Powell's maddened mood.
Kaplan says this is all "a tragic tale of politics: so much ambition derailed, so much accomplishment nullified."

Perhaps so.

The story?
From the start of this presidency, and to a degree that no one would have predicted when he stepped into Foggy Bottom with so much pride and energy, Powell has found himself almost consistently muzzled, outflanked, and humiliated by the true powers - Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (Bureaucratic battles between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon have been a feature of many presidencies, but Powell has suffered the additional - and nearly unprecedented - indignity of swatting off continuous rear-guard assaults from his own undersecretary of state, John Bolton, an aggressive hard-liner who was installed at State by Cheney - for the purpose of diverting and exhausting the multilateralists.)

One of Powell's first acts as secretary of state was to tell a reporter that the Bush administration would pick up where Bill Clinton left off in negotiations with North Korea--only to be told by Cheney that it would do no such thing. He had to retract his statement. For the next nine months, he disappeared so definitively that Time magazine asked, on its cover of Sept. 10, 2001, "Where Is Colin Powell?"

Well he won one over Cheney and Rumsfeld when he finally got Bush to go to the UN for some sort of vote on the war - as if that mattered. And of course Powell's objections to Ariel Sharon's departure from the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" were overridden by a White House where Eliot Abrams had been put in charge of Middle East policy. When Bush had to send someone there to calm the folks there down he sent Condoleezza Rice - to show he was serious. Powell wouldn't do. Fix the problem with all the debt Iraq had accumulated over the years. Send Powell? No. Use the family friend, James Baker.

Kaplan does point out one interesting win:
Last September, Powell met with President Bush in the Oval Office to make the case for presenting a new UN resolution on the occupation of Iraq - and to announce that the Joint Chiefs agreed with him. This was a daring move: Rumsfeld opposed going back to the United Nations; Powell, the retired general, had gone around him for support.
Yeah, but it didn't work. We got no help there.

North Korea? Kaplan reminds us Powell said we'd continue the Clinton idea supported by the South Korean government - talk this nuclear-weapons program out. Cheney and Rumsfeld opposed even sitting down for talks. Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld shut him down and he took it back - Powell said he really didn't mean it. But curiously, now we're talking a bit.

And yes a few weeks ago David Kay proclaimed that Iraq probably didn't have weapons of mass destruction after all - so Powell told a reporter that he might not have favored going to war if he'd known there were no WMD a year ago. He almost instantly retracted his words. Bad boy! Now roll over and play dead.

The man is out, any way he turns. The Republican Bush administration neutered him and the Democrats know him as a shill for the neoconservative maniacs who want us to abandon girly diplomacy altogether for manly war and silence. Real men don't talk. They act.

Think of that musical chairs game. Fifteen people and fourteen chairs. The music ended. Everyone found a place to sit down, and he didn't. So it goes.

Kaplan says Powell's best option, after January, may be to abandon his ambitions for further public office, nab a lucrative job in the private sector, and write the most outrageous kiss-and-tell political memoir that the world has ever seen.

Like after the Suskind book we need another?

Posted by Alan at 17:44 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Science

Not that it matters.

Note the following, all over the web for the last two days.

Blinded by Science

"You would think that hopelessly destablilizing two large Muslim nations and saddling the American economy with debts into the 22nd century would be enough destruction for one administration - but that would be to "misunderestimate" the Shrubster's band of merry thiefs. A group of more than 60 top U.S. scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and several science advisers to past Republican presidents, yesterday accused the Bush administration of manipulating and censoring science for political purposes. What do you expect from a government in which the President and the Secretary of Education both believe evolution is a theory and creationism is a science?"

The problems the report alludes to?

The report charges that administration officials have:

- Ordered massive changes to a section on global warming in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2003 Report on the Environment. Eventually, the entire section was dropped.

- Replaced a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet on proper condom use with a warning emphasizing condom failure rates.

- Ignored advice from top Department of Energy nuclear materials experts who cautioned that aluminum tubes being imported by Iraq weren't suitable for use to make nuclear weapons.

- Established political litmus tests for scientific advisory boards. In one case, public health experts were removed from a CDC lead paint advisory panel and replaced with researchers who had financial ties to the lead industry.

- Suppressed a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist's finding that potentially harmful bacteria float in the air surrounding large hog farms.

- Excluded scientists who've received federal grants from regulatory advisory panels while permitting the appointment of scientists from regulated industries.

"I don't recall it ever being so blatant in the past," said Princeton University physicist Val Fitch, a 1980 Nobel Prize winner who served on a Nixon administration science advisory committee. "It's just time after time after time. The facts have been distorted."

But what are facts? Science is overrated? I guess the administration believes in taking "the moral high ground" in these matters.

Posted by Alan at 10:17 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 February 2004 20:48 PST home

Topic: World View

Highly Recommend!

In the left column you'll see a new link to a new blog. This is Louisa Chu's Food. France. Now.

The blog explains itself. Louisa is in Paris, at the center of the gastronomical world, so to speak. And these are insider details.

I have known Louisa for a few years and we trade emails about food and Paris now and then. I haven't seen her years, but you can hear her sometimes out here, reporting from Paris for the weekend "Food News Hour" on the radio out here - on KCRW.

Oddly enough in mid-December a few years ago I arrived at my hotel in Paris after many, many hours in the air non-stop from LAX, and after a crazy taxi ride from CDG into the 6th with a surly driver and his friendly dog in the front seat, I took a quick shower and headed across the street for a cognac at the Flore. And of course I discovered my French was awfully rusty - well, awful actually. So when I returned to my room I flipped on the television. "Friends" dubbed in French helped a bit with the rhythms and pronunciations, and then on Arte I watched a documentary on the most unique radio station in America - KCRW in Santa Monica. Huh? I was in Paris listening to the French, in French, explaining my local NPR station.

But then again these days I can hear Louisa here, reporting from Paris, thanks to the folks in Santa Monica.

Odd connections.... Here and Paris. And of course, on that visit I noticed the cinema just off rue St-Benoit was showing "Mulholland Drive" - I could see marquee from my hotel window. Damned odd. Just up rue des Rennes I found I junk jewelry store named "Sunset Boulevard." Yipes.

Oh heck, read Louisa's columns. Great stuff.

Posted by Alan at 09:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Wednesday, 18 February 2004

Topic: The Culture

What would Roland Barthes drive?

I tell my friends I drive an Ironymobile. I do. But guys like cars and read reviews. I read them all the time, and I came across a review today that was quite unusual. It was... full of references to semiotics and other really non-automotive issues? Sure was!

For the record, the fellow liked the new Mercedes station wagon.

See Why hitch your star to this wagon?
Larry David and other great philosophers weigh in on the semiotics of vehicle type. The Mercedes E500 4Matic puts us in a philosophical mood.
Dan Neil, The Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2004

Neil opens with this:
Even though the great French critic Roland Barthes has been dead for nearly 25 years, I bet he still smells like Gitanes.

I miss him. Part anthropologist, part philosopher, part journalist (the part that couldn't get a good table at a restaurant), Barthes thought hard about ordinary things - the first serious anatomist of pop culture.

And one of the things he thought hard about was automobiles. His 1957 review of the Citro?n DS famously begins, "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object."

Wow. Geronimo.

I don't think about cars nearly as deeply or as well as Barthes, no matter how many tiny cups of coffee I drink. But I do appreciate his search for cars' deeper meanings, the invisible scaffolding that holds up our opinions about them.
Okay, I will have to check with my literate friends to find out if Barthes actually wrote a review of the Citro?n DS - and I'm not sure he did.

But these comments on station wagons and pickup trucks, and the Chinese, and on the soft-handed Parisians who bought up Millet's peasant paintings long ago, and SUV owners, are amusing, without a search of the philosophic texts in translation.
... For what they say about the emotional health of their owners, station wagons are the happiest cars on the road. And I can live with that.

Consider the pickup truck. The top-selling vehicles in America, trucks are purchased in ever-increasing numbers by people who don't actually need them - commuters, Lone Star suburbanites, empty Stetsons.

Well, if not for its utility, why buy a pickup? Because pickups as a type have meaning: a rootsy, red-state nobility, a mild scolding of sophistication and effete urbanism, a mood very much in fashion these days. My house may be in the suburbs, the purchase says, but my home is on the farm.

Naturally, in proper dialectical fashion, cars mean different things, depending on which side of the windshield you are on.

In China, for instance, the rising middle class doesn't want anything to do with pickups; they remind people of an all-too-recent peasantry. The contrast exposes a faint foolishness under America's love of pickups: Like the soft-handed Parisians who bought up Millet's peasant paintings, pickup poseurs would find rural virtue a different thing entirely if they spent a day in the fields.

Barthes loved to flog the petite bourgeoisie with their own illusions.

SUV haters usually indict their owners as inconsiderate and aggressive. But read SUVs another way, not as tanks but as fortresses, inside which their owners huddle for safety. In this light, drivers of huge, scary SUVs appear more frightened than you are. That's a provocative thought, considering the way SUVs are marketed as fearless and self-reliant vehicles, the Natty Bumppos of the road.
Wow! All that and James Fenimore Cooper too!

But wait! There's more!
These conventions, these sets of prefabricated meaning, can be as powerful as they are erroneous, a fact illustrated by one word: "minivan." The "M" word has become so radioactive that few manufacturers dare speak its name in advertising. General Motors recently launched two vehicles -- the Saturn Relay and the Buick Terraza -- that the company refers to as a "family utility van" and a "premium crossover sport van," respectively, a semantic rearranging of deck chairs that fails to hide the fact that the vehicles are just that.

What's wrong with minivans? Nothing. It's the idea of minivans. To drive one is to feel regarded as somehow sexually demoted, to be reduced to a one-page Kama Sutra.

Don't want to play the cars-define-the-man game? Sorry, you can't opt out. The most low-key, basic transportation comes with its own constellation of meaning.

Think, for example, of the Larry David character on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," who drives a white Toyota Prius, the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes. Think of the meanings that line up behind this car: a thumb in the eye of SUV culture, a call to arms on fuel economy, a declaration of sexual security. This is modesty of a very ostentatious sort.
Yep, he went from the Kama Sutra to an HBO series to the Toyota Prius being a both the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes and a clear declaration of sexual security.

Cool. And I didn't bother you with his road test comments and review of the Benz. He liked it.

Posted by Alan at 20:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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