You can play a complete Mozart concerto with one finger. It’s true. All you need is the Yamaha “Disklavier GrandTouch” electronic piano.

This keyboard instrument is programmed with actual great performances by famous musicians and orchestras. The keyboard “prompts” you for each key that you are supposed to play, and automatically provides the amazing accompaniment.

My question is, why would anyone want such a device? Why why why?

If you were to buy this keyboard primarily for the pleasure of hearing the music already programmed into it—the “great performances” by well-known musicians– why wouldn’t you just buy a CD of the same music and play it on your stereo? Or an MP3 file and play it on your computer? Or, if you wanted the thrill of seeing the music itself scroll by, how about a midi file? This has got to be the world’s largest, clunkiest, clumsiest, stereo system.

If you already know how to play music, why would you want to buy a piano that is programmed to play music performed by other musicians? What kind of satisfaction would there be in having the computer “accompany” you? Is it possible to be moved or inspired by an algorithm? Would you be proud of your performance?

And if you don’t know how to play music, why would you want to deceive yourself into thinking that you can, by sitting behind this keyboard?

Who would you think you were fooling?

As technology advances, the dreamers and schemers at the big and not-so-big high-tech corporations keep coming up with idiotic ways for you to spend your money. At $10K a pop, this keyboard is a particularly bad value. What kind of a society invests so much money into deceiving itself? This instrument represents the cosmetic surgery of creative talent. If your breasts are too small, you have them augmented. If your penis is too small, you buy a gun. If your brain is too small, you buy a Disklavier GrandTouch.

* * *

Consider some other deviant hybrids from ages past:

  • the programmable typewriter (with the tiny LCD screen). It cost as much as a computer, for less than 1/10th the functionality.
  • the moped
  • the umbrella hat

and of course, one of the real winners for instant technological obsolescence:

  • the winmodem

Personally, I think those big camper trucks—Winnebagos– are the same thing, but obviously people have yet to be convinced. You see them everywhere. They’re too big to travel around with in cities, and too small to provide a comfortable home on the go. They cost $45,000+. Think about that. How many days a year do you use it? Ten? Twenty? It would cost about $2,000 to stay in a good motel for twenty days. It would take about twenty years for the Winnebago to pay for itself. And that’s only if you don’t include insurance or gas.

Get a car and a trailer, I say, or, better yet, go to a motel. And if you really want to play the piano, take lessons. And if you can play the piano, buy a piano. And if you want to program music into a keyboard, buy a midi-compatible keyboard and a computer. That will only set you back $3,500. And you get a computer out of the deal as well.

Reversed Progress

Here is an illustration of backwards progress.  Yes, I know, all these pictures are reduced to 72 dpi for display on computer– these are illustrations.   To give you real samples to analyze with me, I’d have to post some files that are very, very large, to show what the pictures look like, for example, at 400 dpi. However, anyone with an actual collection of photos can verify my argument.  You can  see that the black and white photos from the 50’s and 60’s have better resolution than the Instamatic or Polaroid shots from the 60’s,  70’s, and 80’s.

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Kodak Brownie Picture, 1950’s.  Large negative format = decent print.

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Brownie Picture – 1960’s still quite decent.

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35mm black and white, 1960’s: very sharp.

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Brownie colour photo, 1960’s.

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Instamatic Picture, 1960’s. 

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Pocket Camera, 1977.  Ever try enlarging one of these sandbags?

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Polaroid Picture, taken in 1980’s. Yecch.  To the turtles too.

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35mm colour, 1992

Norman Rockwell

I never liked Norman Rockwell paintings. They had this kind of smug middle-American arrogance to them. Every one of them seemed to shout at the viewer: “Why would anyone in the world live other than we as Americans live? We’re so great!” They are the most purely American of artifacts. They idealize conservative American values: church, boy scouts, the military. In a portrait of a citizen speaking out at a city hall meeting, Rockwell seems to say, yes, in America, the average citizen has a say in the way things are run around here. Right. The average citizen and the Fortune 500 and the military industrial complex and Rush Limbaugh. But I’ll bet that guy speaking up at that meeting got his parking ticket reversed.

Later in life, however, he began to turn out works that actually alluded to real problems in the real world: “The Problem We all Live With” shows a black girl about to enter a segregated school, surrounded by marshals, whose faces we cannot see. Very moving. Politically correct, of course. But artists are supposed to be visionaries. They’re supposed to be true to a powerful inner voice tell them that this is the way things are no matter what anybody else says. Rockwell was not exactly ahead of the curve here: he did his painting in 1964. Even the U.S. Federal Government was on-board by then.

Norman Rockwell died in 1978 at 84.

There have always been those who argue that Rockwell was a GREAT artist who belongs in the company of Picasso, Millet, Miro, Pollock, or maybe even Andy Warhol (ha ha). Why, they ask, should an artist be held in contempt, just because he is popular? We need to revise our opinion of Rockwell. We need to put his “Fixing a Flat” right up there on display next to Bacon’s “Man in a Box” and Monet’s “Lily pads #4,378”. .

Well, people can revise their opinions of anything they want. Sometimes, when the obvious has been with us for so long, and for good reason, it becomes fashionable to assert that the obvious was never true. William F. Buckley Jr. decides that “Tail-Gunner” Joseph McCarthy was a hero after all. William Goldman decides that John Lennon was a jerk. Everyone is supposed to go: oh! How brilliant! He saw what everyone else missed! Rockwell really is a brilliant artist!

The thing is, sometimes things are obviously true because they are, well, obviously true. Anyone who has seen the video tape of McCarthy holding a hand over a microphone and smirking while whispering to his aide, Roy Cohn, surely suspects that the man was an idiot. And anyone who has tape of John Lennon talking to reporters from his “bed-in for peace” knows that he was a lovable idealist who wished harm to no one and was far less foolish than he appeared.

But Rockwell a great artist?

No, he isn’t. He is a great illustrator. But you can’t be a great artist if you are constantly pandering to your audience. Rockwell clearly selected subjects and meanings that he knew his audience would accept, adore, and admire, and he presented these subjects and meanings in an idiom that was utterly conventional. Here you are: you imagine that Americans, in the late 20th century, still go down to the fishing hole, or stop at the side of the road to skinny dip on a hot day, or glance with awed respect at little old ladies who pray before they eat their meals in a restaurant. Dream on. These are popular images because they appeal to people’s illusions about themselves. That’s not art. That is propaganda.

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It somehow doesn’t surprise that Rockwell did also did advertisements for Crest and Jell-O and other companies. I don’t think Rockwell was embarrassed. Why should he be? He was an illustrator.

Rockwell himself certainly believed he was an important artist. He did a painting of a man standing in an art gallery staring at a Jackson Pollock splatter

rockwell2.jpg (23179 bytes) painting.


You can’t see the face but you can picture the quizzical expression from the body language. The man is fair: he’s giving the painting a chance. He’s staring at it, trying to understand it. But you know and I know that the painting makes no sense to him. And that, to Rockwell, is all that there is to modern art.

Rockwell seemed proud of the fact that he was able to credibly, he thought, recreate the Pollock painting himself, using the celebrated splatter technique. Nothing to it. I could paint like that if I wanted to.

Well, I kind of agree with him. Abstract art, or non-figurative art, or whatever you want to call it, has followed it’s own course into oblivion and self-parody. It has become an industry of critics, painters, galleries, art teachers, and students, all trying to define the absurd, all attempting to establish themselves as authorities or experts on something that ridicules expertise and authority.

But I’m not ready to say that the public is right either. Rockwell isn’t the only figurative painter in the world. Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Boticelli, Van Eyk, and even Picasso, were all figurative painters at one point or another, but it’s not hard to see that there is a substantial difference between their work and Rockwell’s.

And the public never accepted Van Gogh in his own time. He sold one painting in his entire life. One. So if Rockwell had had any guts– and insight– he would have paired that painting with one of a rumpled Frenchman scratching his head while standing in front of “Starry Night”.  That would have been a far richer, more subtle comment on modern art and the average American consumer.

But that would have made the opposite point that Rockwell intended. It would have shown that the public can be absolutely, totally, completely wrong about what is “good” art. It would have shown that the vast majority of people can be utterly foolish. It would have proven that it was quite possible for a mere illustrator to be the most popular artist in America.

This all begs the question. Is modern, abstract art, and its various derivatives, any good? The public has thrown up their hands. They don’t know and they don’t care.


Reversing Progress

Progress that isn’t

Innovations that took the world by storm while leading us backwards

Have you ever looked closely at photographs from the 1950’s? Then look closely at photographs from the 1960’s. Colour! Right! Great, eh? Except for one thing: resolution. Try this—try scanning in your pictures on a computer. Set the resolution to 600X600. Chances are, your black and white pictures from the 1950’s look great, especially if they were taken with a typical Kodak Brownie. Chances are your pictures from the 1960’s look like shit, especially if they were taken with a Kodak “Instamatic” or one of those awful, disgusting, contemptible, “pocket” cameras.

Do your photos all have that nice, flat, “satin” finish? Right. That’s what you want, right? Because it looks so nice. Right. Well, scan those in, and you’ll see why I always order my pictures printed on “glossy” paper. Do you want to know when and why they invented “satin” finish? That’s right—in the 1960’s and 70’s. That’s right—when they invented those crappy little camera’s with the lousy little negatives and plastic (not glass) lenses. The satin finish makes those pictures look better than they really are because, with a satin finish, you can’t notice the lack of detail.

Now look closely at a Polaroid photo, if you have one. Well, you probably don’t have very many. Why not? First of all, they weren’t much of an improvement over the Instamatic. The resolution is a little better, but the colour reproduction is not as good. But, as everyone knows, Polaroid pictures were very expensive, compared to other colour pictures. And anyway, I never could figure out why anyone would want a picture instantly, while you could still see the thing you were taking a picture of. I suspect that the biggest use of Polaroid cameras was for pictures you might be embarrassed to send to the local photo shop for processing.

Then we really did have progress. In the 1980’s, everyone went 35mm. Good photographers had used 35mm for years, but in the 1980’s, the general public suddenly developed an appetite for better pictures and these complicated but excellent cameras became quite popular. One of the reasons they became quite popular was because they suddenly became automatic or semi-automatic. You still generally had to focus the camera yourself, but shutter speed and aperture could be set automatically. Good. That’s progress. Look at the pictures from the 1980’s. Aren’t they great? Well, they would be, except that we still use that ugly satin finish. Why? The pictures were now good enough to look good, once again, on glossy paper. So why do most processors still use the satin finish?

Probably because many people still use the stupid little “Instamatics” and pocket cameras, and a lot of people buy disposable cameras, and the processing companies will be damned if they have to buy two kinds of paper.

So now it’s 1999. And what do we have? The electronic camera! Hurray! Progress again! But wait a minute. Look at those prints! They’re awful! What happened? Well, how about that. For a mere $1200 you can now buy a camera with a resolution of 640 by 480: the same quality as a Kodak “Instamatic”. Yeehaw! And you even get to give up your telephoto, wide-angle, and zoom lenses for a good old-fashioned fixed-mount single-lens camera! [Note: a decent 35mm photograph has a resolution of 1200×1200.]

I can’t believe that people are going out and spending over $1,000 for electronic cameras with a single fixed lens such poor resolution. Why? I figure these cameras should sell for about $125. Even better, someone should market an adapter that lets you shoot electronic photos on your existing 35mm equipment, so you can keep using your valuable lenses, flashes, filters, and other accessories.

The one part of electronic cameras that makes great sense is the cost of processing. Zilch. Zero. Nothing. You just download it onto your computer.

Do you realize that anything that cost nothing will eventually be worth nothing? Electronic photos will never be valued as highly by people as printed photographs are. But that does mean that your old printed photographs will be valued very highly, in the future. So don’t throw them out. They will be loved, as artifacts of an age of strange progress.

Other products that took the world by storm but were inferior to the products they replaced

  • VHS (replaced the vastly superior Betamax).
  • Microsoft Windows (annihilated OS/2, Geos, the Macintosh, Amiga, and numerous other superior operating systems).
  • the CD: a lot of people won’t believe this but a well-made turntable attached to a good amplifier produces better sound than the best CD player does. This is because sound has to be filtered and reduced in order to fit on a CD. Imagine if the same amount of innovation and design that was invested in the CD had been invested in turntables. So why did CD’s win? Because transportation is one of the largest costs of distribution. You can transport about five times as many CD’s as LP’s in the same space. But, as the music industry quickly discovered, you can charge the public more for the CD! The CD case is also one of the worst designs ever foisted on an unsuspecting but gullible public—it’s flimsy and awkward and stupid.)
  • the computer mouse (the truth – and every good keyboardist knows this— is that the keyboard is way, way faster for doing anything on a computer than a mouse is. The difference is, a mouse makes it possible for any moron to use a computer. The mouse has a legitimate use for graphics, but that’s about it. That’s commercial progress, but not a technological improvement).
  • the ball point pen (replaced the elegant fountain pen, and the utilitarian pencil, with this sloppy, blobby, leaky contraption). And how come you never see ads for pens anymore? Kind of strange, isn’t it? Remember all those Bic ball-point pen ads, showing how indestructible they were? We still see ads for disposable razors and diapers and toilet tissue—why not for pens?
  • rear-wheel drive (don’t forget that front-wheel drive was invented not in the 1980’s but in the 1950’s. It lost out to American-made rear-wheel drive behemoths for almost 30 years, until the Japanese proved it’s superiority, a thirty-year detour of unimaginable mass idiocy).
  • television (vs. high resolution tv. do you realize that you’re looking at a color picture that was designed in the 1950’s and first mass-produced in the 1960’s? Yes, your television picture is obsolete, but nobody wants to invest in the hardware required to improve it. The U.S. government has finally shoved the industry, kicking and screaming, into the next century, with requirements of HDTV broadcasts within the next five years. By that time, of course, the technology will be outdated again.)
  • Sound in Movies: If you ever in your life summon the self-discipline and determination to do something unusual and exotic, go to the video store and pick up three or four of the better silent films and sit down one night and watch them. Until you do, you probably have no idea of what was lost when films gained sound. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were unparalleled geniuses whose work almost disappeared entirely when sound was introduced and the movie-going public flocked to see and hear the novelty. Try Chaplin’s “City Lights” or Buster Keaton’s “The General” and remember, there were not computer-generated special-effects in those days and Chaplin and Keaton did their own stunts. And what did we gain in sound? Movies shot entirely in rooms in studios. It took years for the camera to regain it’s mobility and for Hollywood to master sound editing and effects. For all that, name a single movie produced in the last twenty years that is as good as “City Lights”, if you can.
  • Winmodems- the “mopeds” of the computer world. Real modems do a good deal of the work of converting packets of internet data into digital 1’s and 0’s so your computer can understand them. Winmodems shove all of this work onto your computer’s main CPU. Think about that. If Windows 98 is so fast on your computer that you would just love to slow it down a little so you can save $50 on a modem—please go for it.
  • And while you’re at it, you might want to look at this beautiful typewriter with a LCD display I’m trying to sell….

So why are Winmodems so popular? Did you ask for one? Did you tell the computer dealer—”hey, I think it would be a great idea if my next modem slowed my computer down a little”? No, you didn’t. But the profit margin on Winmodems—which actually consist of nothing except a pipeline from the phone line to your CPU—is much higher than on real modems.

Photoplay and Copyright


I just can’t leave the issue of copyright alone. It comes up everyday in one situation or another.

Today, it was my son remarking that he wasn’t allowed to use an Albrecht Durer woodcut as the basis of a project he was working on because his teacher was afraid it would violate some rules of copyright and plagiarism. He argued that a painter who has been dead for 400 years can’t possibly have any works under copyright anymore, and that it isn’t plagiarism if you acknowledge the use of the work. This teacher was so paranoid of the copyright police, however, that she still refused permission.

Here’s an interesting fact. Though most “classic” paintings are no longer under copyright, a photograph of the painting can be.

Whoa! Let’s think about that. Let’s think a lot about that, because a lot of museums, including our own Art Gallery of Ontario, won’t let you take pictures inside their galleries anymore. Even when the paintings are hundreds of years old, as in the case of the “Old Masters” show they did recently. So if you can’t take your own picture, then you have to get a copy from somewhere else. A logical place to look is in an art history book with lavish illustrations. But, according to the copyright police, you can’t copy that picture because, though the work of art itself is public domain, the photograph of it is not.

[Added 2022-04-12: I am pleased to note that many museums do, in fact, allow photography of the art work, as long as you do not use a flash.]

Now, photographers who create original pictures can definitely copyright their work. If I am walking along a boulevard in Toronto and I see a bum who looks like Mike Harris poking through a garbage bin and I take a picture and then publish it in the Toronto Sun, that is my copyrighted work. I saw the image. I took the picture. I chose the aperture and the angle and the type of film. If I was a professional photographer, I may have developed the picture and printed it myself. I may have edited it on my computer, before handing it over to the Sun for publication. Fair enough. It’s my work. I deserve to get paid for it. Let’s leave aside the question, for the moment, of whether or not the bum should also get paid. The photograph has a certain value because of the intellectual and physical effort of the photographer. That seems pretty fair.

However, the same photographer walks into the Louvre in Paris and snaps a picture of the Mona Lisa. His goal is not to create something new and original (unless, like Marcel Duchamps, he wants to put a moustache on it). His goal is to create an exact, faithful rendering of the original, so that art students can study it in a text book at a mediocre high school somewhere in Peoria. The value of the image is determined entirely by the value of the work of Leonardo Da Vinci that went into it. But since Da Vinci has died years and years ago, the image has now become a part of cultural heritage, for all to share.

So why is this image copyrighted? Legally, in fact, it is. That’s an outrage. It isn’t entitled to copyright protection anymore. It really isn’t. It’s absurd. I refuse to accept this copyright. I refuse to acknowledge it. If I choose to scan that image into my computer’s memory and show it on my web page, I will.

Here’s another interesting case of aggressive copyright imperialism: the company that sells sheet music to high school bands insists that the band is not allowed to make any copies of the actual sheet music itself, no matter what. No photocopies, no overheads. But, we are told, the copyright laws apply to intellectual property, not physical property. Remember, this is why you can’t copy software or music CDs. Because even though you own the physical disk, it is the content of the disk that is protected.

So if a school buys sheet music for the entire band, and decides to prevent the paper copies from deteriorating by photocopying them and handing the copies out to band members, there should be no problem. Remember, the school has paid for intellectual property to be used by each student in the band. What difference does it make whether they read it off the original print or a copy of it? The school didn’t buy half a copyright. It didn’t pay $20 a sheet for paper. It paid for use of copyrighted material by each member of the band. If so, there is no ethical or moral reason why the band can’t access that material in any way they choose, including computer screens.

If that is true, there should be no obstacle to making copies of the protected material for your own use. For example, I used to tape all of my vinyl LP’s as soon as I bought them, in order to minimize the wear and tear on the fragile plastic itself. I paid for the LP. I own a right to use the intellectual property on it.

Well, the record companies are finally coming around to the fact that they can’t very well have it both ways. If the copyright applies to the physical object, the CD itself, than either the intellectual property is what is copyrighted—in which case you can make as many copies as you want for your personal use—or it’s the physical object that is copyrighted, in which case you can make as many copies as you want for almost anybody.

Who else should get Copyright Protection by These Standards?

My son plays bass in a high school orchestra. They recently issued a CD as part of a fund-raiser. They carefully obtained the correct copyrights for any piece of music that was not public domain.

However, my son frequently improvises the bass line. So he creates, through his own original and unique thought processes, a piece of music that is utterly his own. Should he be able to demand royalties for each CD sold?

That bum that looks like Harris—he owns his face, his hands, his ragged clothes. He owns his posture, the look on his face, the minute the photograph is taken. But it is the photographer who collects the royalty, not him. He doesn’t even get a share.

And who should get copyright protection but doesn’t have it yet…

That’s right—you and me. Your name and my name. Your address and my address. I chose to move to this address and I chose to have this particular e-mail address. I hereby copyright it. No use without permission. I’m not kidding. If you use my name and address on your printed envelope or your electronic mail, you owe me $50.

I register a software package I have purchased to do my home accounting. The software company sells my name and address to another software company, with the result being that I get more garbage in my mailbox, inviting me to subscribe to some stupid investment service. How dare they? What right do they have to sell my name? Who decided that I can’t copy one of their software applications to give to a friend—who would be pleased with the favor–but they can sell my name to another software company—to my great annoyance?

So I propose a simple act of parliament or congress that simply assigns the copyright of a person’s name, and his address and any other personal information, including medical or credit histories, to the person him or herself. Done. From now on, anybody who wants to sell this information must pay a copyright fee to the owners. The only exception would be the standard copyright exception: research, journalism, and reviews. Done. Justice at last.

Numbers Sanctify

One of the biggest problems with movies these days is the fact that so few of them are truly subversive, in any sense of the word. That’s right. Films today are not subversive enough.

We live in a screwy society. Rich criminals get to drive their limousines to the golf course. Poor criminals spend decades in filthy, violent prisons. The Third World sends the First World more cash in debt repayments than we send them in foreign aid. Schools are allowed to shove advertising down the throats of our students. Everyone sues each other over the slightest problem. What we need is something that undermines this state of affairs. We need more subversion, not less.

Oh, many directors like to see themselves as subversive, or at least, “shocking”. But these days, “shocking” refers almost exclusively to special-effects enhanced gore and splatter, or frontal nudity. “Natural Born Killers” comes to mind. For all the pompous strutting about by Oliver Stone, proclaiming, with every jiggly camera angle, with his incoherent script, and abrupt uneven edits, that this film “rocks”, “Natural Born Killers” is an utterly conventional film. The police generally behave like the criminals because our society believes that that’s the only way to deal with criminals, and the media try to exploit both sides. Everyone is trying to get something, and the preferred strategy is confrontation and violence. Instead of challenging the viewer’s assumptions about reality, “Natural Born Killers” merely affirms our most paranoid assumptions. It is an utterly boring film. It is a conformist film. Most people would walk out of the theatre without a single new thought in their heads.

Critics frequently toss around adjectives like “bold” and “shocking” when some new film reaches for new heights of explicit violence or sex. What is bold or shocking about that? It has been almost 30 years since “Bonnie and Clyde”, with its celebrated slow-motion machine-gunning of Beatty and Dunaway in that elegiac last scene. Since then, it’s been largely more and more of the same, to the point where explicitness can no longer be said to be subversive at all. Even drug movies, like “Trainspotting”, really don’t tread any ground that hasn’t already been stampeded through by “Midnight Cowboy”, “H”, “Drugstore Cowboy”, “Sid and Nancy”, or even “Days of Wine and Roses”. Been there, done that. What else can you show me?

There are a few, of course. Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”. Todd Solondz’ “Happiness”. Maybe “Bulworth”. But “Brazil”, as imaginative and original as it is, still ends up telling us something we already know: mindless bureaucracies suppress individual freedoms. “Happiness” is more interested in personal emotional fulfillment than society. “Bulworth” suggests that the fundamental institutions of our society need merely be reformed.

You might be surprised to learn that one of the most subversive films ever made in the United States is almost 50 years old. It is Charlie Chaplin’s “Monseiur Verdoux”.

“Monseiur Verdoux” is based on the life of the infamous Henri Desire Landru, the French serial killer. Landru seduced over 400 women and murdered 10 of them. He was executed by guillotine in 1922.

Orson Welles thought it would be interesting to make a film of his life and suggested the idea to Chaplin. Chaplin fictionalized the story somewhat, to suit his own purposes (he wanted explicit links to the depression and World War II). But the most sensational aspect of the case remains intact: a supposedly rational, ordinary man makes a business out of marrying wealthy spinsters and widows so he can murder them and keep their money. The real Landru disposed of the bodies, sometimes, in an outdoor stove. So does Chaplin’s Verdoux. Neighbors in both accounts noticed the smoke for days but thought that nothing was amiss.

In Chaplin’s version, Monsieur Henri Verdoux is a former petty clerk at a bank with a charming wife (Chaplin, in one of his rare misjudgments, put her in a wheel chair—are we supposed to feel more warmly towards him now?) and young child. He lived a honorable, petty little life in the South of France until the faceless administrators at the bank decided to restructure and he was tossed out of his job. Until this point in his life, he resembled T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who “measured out” his life “in coffee spoons”.

Facing dire poverty, Verdoux picks himself up and goes into a different business. He travels around France seeking and seducing wealthy married women. After a time, he murders them and takes their property. He invests most of the money into land and the stock market, and supports himself and his family on a modest scale. He clearly sees this activity as nothing more than an extension of business to its’ logical conclusion, the way, as Chaplin described it, Clemenceau saw war as an extension of diplomacy. His family thinks he is a traveling salesman.

At one point, Verdoux, experimenting with a new poison, picks up a waif from the street. The script called for a prostitute, but the studio opposed that idea (this was the post-Fatty Arbuckle era of the Hayes Office and Hollywood’s voluntary repression of vice in the movies), so Chaplin had to make due with subtle suggestion. As he prepares a meal for the girl, with a poisoned glass of wine, Verdoux questions her about her life, expecting to find her hopelessly pessimistic. Instead, she is happy. She thinks life is wonderful. And she is optimistic. She is convinced that life is going to get better for her. Verdoux changes his mind, gives her a few francs, and sends her on her way.

It wouldn’t be Chaplin without the physical comedy. His attempts to murder one wife (played by the inimitable Martha Raye before she became a parody of herself and started doing Bounty ads on tv) are constantly interrupted. He takes her out into a lake (she can’t swim) and is about to toss her overboard when a group of yodelers appears. He mixes her some poison, but the maid thinks it’s peroxide and uses it on her hair. Finally, he smothers or strangles her (off camera) and cheerfully takes her money, sells her house, and moves on to his next conquest. It is his urbane self-possession here that viewers find most offensive. He is no madman, no self-loathing sexual pervert. Merely a businessman conducting his “business” with the same ruthlessness with which his superiors at the bank liquidated him.

There is a charming scene of Verdoux checking with a flower girl about some bouquets he’s been sending to a prospective victim. He phones the woman from the shop and rhapsodically proclaims his complete and passionate devotion to her. The flower girl, over-hearing, becomes breathless and can hardly tell him his change.

But Verdoux’s luck eventually changes. The stock market crashes and he is wiped out. His wife and child die—we aren’t told exactly why, but can presume he couldn’t afford medical care or adequate food or housing anymore.

Years later, we see an embittered Verdoux on the street. His face is a mask of dark sorrow and cynicism. A beautiful woman in a limousine recognizes him and calls his name. It is the prostitute. She is now married to a rich and successful munitions manufacturer. Grateful for his earlier kindness to her, she takes him out for lunch at an exclusive restaurant. Unfortunately, he is also recognized by another guest, the brother of one of his victims. The police are called and Verdoux is arrested.

At his trial, Verdoux is described by the prosecutor as a monster, a savage beast of relentless fury and remorseless cunning. Verdoux thanks the prosecutor for his compliments but claims he is not worthy of them. He catalogues the atrocities of recent and imminent wars and notes that Generals are awarded medals and described as heroes for murdering millions. In comparison, he is a mere “amateur”. He says, “numbers sanctify”. He smiles at the judge and jury and tells them, with horrifying prescience, that they will all be joining him very soon. For my money, it’s one of the great moments in film.

“Monsieur Verdoux” was pulled from the theatres after two weeks of savage criticism from the church, the public, and the media. Chaplin himself was driven out of the country and had his visa revoked a few years later (he had never become an American citizen) and lived the rest of his life in exile in Switzerland. Ironically, one of the issues raised was his support of the Soviet Union. This support was given during speeches he made in support of the war effort at a time when the Soviet Union was an official ally of the United States in the war with Germany! This was of a piece with the outrages that prompted Joseph Welch’s famous, “at long last, have you no shame?”

Why did Chaplin make such an offensive film? Why would anyone want to dramatize the life of a blue beard and scoundrel?

Chaplin saw, in Verdoux, the personification of the ruthless practices of big business corporations in the U.S. and Europe. Things haven’t changed much. Read through any Time Magazine or any newspaper and you will see that rich, successful businessmen like Bill Gates and Donald Trump—no matter how ruthless or greedy they are—are routinely worshipped and admired. Furthermore, it is very clear that when the rich swindle stockholders or investors out of millions of dollars, they never serve a day in jail—in fact, they never even give up their limousines and four-star hotels, even if they owe millions–whereas the poor are locked up and brutalized without a second thought.

Chaplin, having grown up in poverty himself, was acutely aware of these injustices. “Monseiur Verdoux” is simply a dramatization of the same ethics that drove Bill Gates to a fortune of billions applied on a more personal, immediate level, without the layers of lawyers and bureaucrats and advertising agencies that cushion today’s executives from the consequences of their policies.

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With bimbo cheerleaders like Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal waving their pom-poms from the sidelines, we have all come to accept that it is appropriate and right for businesses to operate in a cut-throat fashion, in order to ensure that the stock markets rise and profits increase and men like Bill Gates become fabulously wealthy—wealthy beyond the means of any sane man to ever possibly indulge. What happens to all those workers who are down-sized? How many families are disrupted? How many divorces? How many suicides? What about the damage to the environment? Why are governments using tax dollars to clean up the toxic wastes generated by profitable private corporations? Why are people being cut off from welfare while the government awards billions in tax subsidies to the wealthy shareholders of corporations like Boeing, or major league baseball teams?

Numbers sanctify. It is probably the most subversive film ever made in America.

Bernita: What’s Wrong with Hicksville?

When I went to college, I met a beautiful, very bright girl named Bernita*. She was from a small town, Hicksville, in Southwestern Ontario and came from a very conservative, bible-believing family. She and her room-mate wandered around campus together, laughing, teasing, and having a good time.

I never got to know Bernita real well, but we did have a late night chat or two, and I found out that she didn’t believe in God. She didn’t think the idea of God made any sense. But she didn’t tell this to anyone else and she went on with her theology, sociology, history, and introductory psychology courses at this Christian College as if she was a believer.

Bernita had a boyfriend back home. You know what usually happens with those relationships, of course. The girl goes off to college, broadens her horizons, meets a lot of new, bright men, and, before you know, it’s “Dear Ralph…”.

Well, that didn’t happen this time. Not exactly. Bernita was interested in this one guy with long hair but it didn’t work out. She went home at the end of the second semester unattached. By the end of the summer, Bernita was pregnant. She ran off to British Columbia. Then she returned to Hicksville to face the music. Standard procedure in conservative Christian communities? She married the guy. She never went back to college.

You don’t often meet these people again in life.  I did.

It’s twenty years later: she still lives in the same small town, with her five children. She is a stay-at-home mother. She is involved in the PTA and stuff like that. Her oldest child is already in college himself. I don’t know if she believes in God now or not, but she goes to church and she sends her children to the Christian school.

So you’re eighteen and you’re beautiful and you’re smart and you’re 500 miles away from home, living in one of the great cities of North America, with it’s blues bars and great restaurants, and the fabulous Art Institute, and Wrigley Field, and the Sears tower. The whole wild and crazy world and a future of untold experiences and insights opens up before you. You’re frightened and thrilled. But you go home one weekend for some stupid reason you give in this one time (that part’s a mystery to me: why?) And you end up spending your entire life in some wretched little hick town in the middle of Ontario’s own Green Acres. My wife says I’m too harsh, and that there’s nothing wrong with living your entire life in a small rural community. I thought she was right for a while. What’s wrong with Hicksville?

We lived in Hicksville ourselves for about 15 years. The trouble with Hicksville is that after a while you really do forget that there is a broader horizon out there beyond the dusty cornfields and windmills. You forget that people have different experiences of different lives. You think you have made a reasonable judgment about things when you reject certain possible alternatives, and forget that there are possibilities that you haven’t even imagined.

Hicksville allowed malls to be built on the edge of town, and then, when stores in the downtown area started to lose money and go out of business, demolished the only building with architectural distinction and built another mall right downtown. That finished it off. Now the mall itself is half-empty. That’s Hicksville: yesterday’s solutions for the problems we will create tomorrow. The whole debate about this building, the former city hall, featured a lot of ridicule about “preservationists” and their granola-crunching ilk. Meanwhile, towns like Stratford and Oakville were thriving by preserving their old buildings and renewing their city cores. How much do you want to bet that in ten years, when that trend has run it’s course, Hicksville will just be embarking on it?

Maybe it’s not fair, but I shed a little tear inside when I think of Bernita. I wish she’d finished college and taken a job in Toronto or Vancouver and traveled a little before she got married and settled down and had kids. But I bet that if I asked her now if that would have been a good idea, she’d answer, “why?”

Upon Further Reflection…

I had believed that Bernita eventually changed her mind about God and became a believer. Probably she did. But it’s not unlikely she simply submerged her real beliefs for the sake of expediency. When you are a beautiful daughter of a controlling, conservative family, one form of liberation is to run off to college, but another is to get married to a jellyfish whom you can dominate and control because, after all, you’re a lot smarter than he is, and he’ll do anything to have your gorgeous body.

He’s the one who will continue to vote to keep women out of church offices. You’re the one that rules the roost. You are not going to rock the boat too much because your life is pretty good. People have been bought and sold before for far less…