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June 8, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....


Gertrude Stein at her laptop programming in BASIC and...

Okay.  I'll admit it.  I have been reading Gertrude Stein again.  Born in Pittsburgh (Allegheny) and raised in Oakland (East Oakland High) and moving to Baltimore in 1892, then Harvard/Radcliff and off to Paris in 1903 - with Leo Stein at his studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus, just off Boulevard Raspail near the Luxembourg Gardens.  Alice B. arrived in 1907.  The rest is history.

As an undergraduate at Harvard's Radcliffe College she sat through the psychology classes of William James.  Good for her.  In 1897 she registered at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to pursue medical studies.  As an undergraduate, she worked with the James and the psychologist Hugo Münsterberg at the Harvard Psychological Laboratory, investigating secondary personalities and automatic writing.

"Just as scientists reconceived relations among neurons as a function of contact or contiguity, rather than of organic connection, Stein radically reconceptualized language to place equal weight on the conjunctive and disjunctive relations among words."  -- Steven Meyer, Stanford University

Say what?  Seems she was way out there before Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and the rest of those folks.

Well, that's what was way cool.  Automatic writing.  Cubism using words, as folks have said.  Derrida wouldn't say that. of course.

But now you can do that automatic writing with computers.  Random or psuedo-random functions can led to the realm of pure language.

Random generators are fun.  Go to this page -- http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/bandname and each time you refresh the page you get new names you can call your post-punk beyond-new-wave band.  It's a random "band name" generator.  A Plague of Anvils and Amazing Mirror are cool. 
Similarly http://www.elsewhere.org/hbzpoetry/ generates random adolescent poetry (awful stuff but so real) and http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern/ generates random essays on post-modern semiotic theory. 

I swear back in the seventies when I was an English teacher I saw these same creepy poems.  And as a graduate English student at Duke I'm not sure I didn't come across at least one of these essays on semiotics.
This elsewhere.org band of mathematical-linguistic pranksters is onto something.  The meaning is in the language and not the author, as Derrida and his gang assert.  There are no authors here, thank you very much.

Back in the seventies one of my English students, Stewart, accepted my challenge and wrote a BASIC program on the school's PDP-11 that generated random, perfectly rhyming sonnets.  All nonsense.  But the form, the rhythm and the rhyme scheme were, in each, absolutely correct.  I think he cranked out over three thousand of those.  Some were quite amusing, in an odd way, like much of Stein's stuff.

Of course I will not provide Stewart's last name.  He's a successful attorney now.  And perhaps he still writes such programs.  And calls such things legal opinion.

But random language is fun.  Reading Gertrude Stein again was fun, in an odd way.


Concerning Chick Flicks

William Wyler, 1953
Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn

Billy Wilder, 1954
Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn

Blake Edwards, 1961
George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn

Stanley Donen, 1963
Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn

Yes, like many guys of my generation I had a crush on Audrey Hepburn.  And over the last several months these four films have been popping up on those cable channels that carry old movies.  Something to have on late in the evening while puttering around, loading up the coffee maker for the morning, paying bills, sipping a nightcap.  Pleasant background stuff.  But I'm still trying to figure out why I find the third of these four, Breakfast at Tiffanys, so insufferable.

The first one, Roman Holiday, is Audrey Hepburn being a cute little thing, unsure of herself.  Peck is supportive and you can sense they're both having a good time, trying to get along.  It was Audrey Hepburn's first film.  She has no attitude.  Neither does Peck.  It's kind of like a good high school play, where the leading lady is trying hard to do it right and hoping for the best.

The second, Sabrina, has Audrey Hepburn playing off against a burnt-out Bogart who kind of sleepwalks through the film.  He knows it's a silly piece of crap and treats it as such.  Audrey Hepburn still does the princess thing from the last film, but seems to be finding her chops.

Seven years later we get Breakfast at Tiffanys.  Audrey Hepburn here is way out of control, vamping and preening and taking herself much too seriously.  Maybe the "I'm a big star" thing got to her.  George Peppard doesn't help.  He takes her far too seriously and does his own thing quite badly - here he's all "hurt sensitivity."  This is crap.

Two years later comes Charade.  Now this works.  As much as Audrey Hepburn does to be overwhelmingly cute and charming, neither Cary Grant nor Stanley Donen will let her get way with any of the "look at me" stuff.  There's enough irony here that Hepburn gets to relax and have fun with the whole business.  One look from Grant and she gets off her high horse and the movie proceeds nicely.

But I do find myself switching channels on all four films.  The Hunt for Red October may be on at the same time, or a political panels of folks shouting at each other about Bush or the French or this or that.  It's a guy thing.



Only two items this week

A few years ago a friend said he thought "Nessun Dorma", the famous tenor aria from Puccini's Turandot, was just about the best piece of music ever written.  Maybe so.

It's funny the context in which you hear it. 

At the end of the 1984 film The Killing Fields, the New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg (played Sam Waterston) is back in New York.  Things have gone as bad as they can go.  His friend is dead.  Millions are dead.  Lon Nol is long gone and the Khmer Rouge is not gone at all.  He's on the telephone, powerless and getting nowhere as the aria plays in the background, so sad.  There's no fixing any of this.  Things aren't going to get better.  And the music plays - Dilegua, o notte!  tramontate, stelle!  Tramontate, stelle!  All'alba vincerň!  Vincerň! Vincerň! -- which is the hero asking that the night end, the stars set, because at dawn he's going to win, to be victorious.  Yeah right.  It works in the scene.

Then too since the early nineties the World Cup Football (Soccer) folks have sort of made the tune, if not the words of "Nessun Dorma" the theme of the event.  It does end with Vincerň! - I'm going to win!  Kind of like Caesar - Veni. Vici. Vinci.  And it sure seems a lot more dignified than watching the French team when they won it all cavorting around in front of the Elysée Palace with "We Are the Champions" by Queen blaring away in English.  That was odd.  But I know I'm a snob.  Queen is fine.

The best recording of "Nessun Dorma" is an issue.  My vote is for Plácido Domingo with the Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan conducting.  You'll find that on Deutsche Grammophon, but of course DG is part of Universal Music now, and Universal Music is really part of the French Vivendi empire - until Steve Jobs and his Apple company buy back Universal Music as is rumored.  Anyway, Plácido Domingo, "Old Leather Lungs" as another friend used to call him, has the dark, rough edge "Nessun Dorma" requires.  Luciano Pavarotti is too smooth for it.  And Plácido Domingo is the Music Director of our young Los Angeles Opera out here.  So he gets my vote.


On to the Tango -

Some say Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America.  It is certainly the home of the tango.  So it is not so odd that the best modern tango recording I've come across is from Paris - the one in France.  You might remember Sally Potter's movie The Tango Lesson (1997) that took place entirely in Paris.  So the album I recommend is from Paris - "la revancha del tango" by the "gotan project" - folks who obviously do not believe in capitalizing titles.  Their own label, distributed by Discograph - YAB013 CD.  Their mailing address is 75010 - somewhere near Gare du Nord one supposes.  And this is spooky, atmospheric club remix tango - "trance tango" if you will.  It captures the spirit and also taxes the woofers.  Track 3 - "chunga's revenge" - is credited to Frank Zappa.  So you can make a convincing tango from a Zappa tune.  Cool.  This is good stuff.