I have a theory that a college education is not an asset to a comedian. The comedian– in today’s comedy– thrives on the “arrested thought” (my term).

If you make a joke that is subtle or complex, you risk a dud in front of a live audience which may not ever get it.

George Carlin, bless his soul, regularly does take this chance. But he is exceptional. And I am disturbed by the fact that he is now widely honored, even revered. I’ll bet he worries about it too.  When the establishment falls over itself to hand you awards (Kennedy Centre honors), you have obviously become part of … the establishment.

For example, it’s funnier to mock abstract art if you don’t quite process the real thing. If you don’t get into the question of shape or color or visualization or composition, or how hard it is to actually create an abstract painting (try it, if you don’t believe me). If you process it that far, it’s not funny anymore. It’s plausible that there might be something to abstract art–and that the criteria for judging it might be different than, say, for a photograph– and that is the joke’s death. It’s funnier to describe a painting as a bunch of splatters and lines and say, “I’m supposed to be amazed by this?” The young high-school educated working class males in the audience respond enthusiastically because they don’t get it either and they hate feeling stupid.

Louis C. K., a comedian I like very much, recently appeared on David Letterman to mock the Common Core. I’m not sure about Common Core. I haven’t studied it carefully. It may well be a very significant, important, and effective reform. But Louis C. K., with his high school diploma gets to describe Common Core math as “Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London.” London, of course. There is something, to the working-class male, foreign about this Common Core. Elitist. Fucking Common Core. Hilarious. Drink up.

Where is the joke? The joke is half of fourth graders in the U.S. can’t read a thermometer accurately. The joke is that American adults rank in the bottom 20% in math skills among 20 developed nations. The joke is that A&W’s 1/3 pound burger bombed in the U.S. because most customers thought it was smaller than the quarter-pounder at McDonald’s. The joke is that Americans are the worst at math in the entire world and Louis C. K. yuks it up because any attempt to improve math scores involves challenging, intellectually demanding effort, and you can’t seriously expect an American man to give a shit about anything other than beer, football, and large breasts. And if you think otherwise, it’s because you’re an elitist snob who thinks he’s better than us.

The joke should have been, Louis C. K. makes an appointment to see the teacher but can’t find the room for the meeting because it has more than two digits in the number.

Mitch Hedberg died on April Fools Day, 2005. That’s why it took so long for people to realize he was really dead. That’s no joke.

Bob Hope was actually pretty witty and funny and charming. I never liked him because for me, growing up in the 1960’s, he was the quintessential establishment comedian: he used writers and cue cards instead of creating and memorizing his own material; and he was white, safe, homogenized, and a classic Republican Chicken Hawk: a passionate supporter of the Viet Nam War who– of course!– never got within a hundred miles of actually serving in a war, though I’m sure he felt very brave doing comedy at a military base somewhere near the location of actual warfare.

Also like a classic Republican, Hope carried on several affairs while married, including a long-term one with actress Marilyn Maxwell. Why is this so inevitable?

When Hope was honoured by Queen Elizabeth with an honorary knighthood, he quipped, “I’m speechless. 70 years of ad lib material and I’m speechless”. Well, no. Seventy years of cue cards, Mr. Hope. But an interesting line. I’m quite sure he doesn’t mind most of fans believing that he writes his own quips or thinks of them on the fly.

Great comedy really is a mark of genius, and the best comedians around today like Louis C. K., Stephen Wright, Doug Stanhope and others might be among the smartest people in the entertainment business.



Why is it that our society seems to admire, without reservation, those who strive for the best in sports and athletic endeavors, and despise those who strive for the same thing in the arts?

If you love the world cup of music, the championship of films, the record-setting paintings, and poetry that is better than anyone else’s poetry, you are considered a snob and an elitist. And I’m not talking about Oscar or Grammy winners here, which are the equivalent of TV reality show competitions. I am talking about “The White Ribbon”, “The Third Man”, “Blade Runner”, “Solaris”, “The Seventh Seal”, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Tom Waits….

All right… I see how it breaks down. We know the exact time of the best 100 meters, and the exact score of the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final.

We don’t know if Leonard Cohen is really just a hack or not.

We do know that we love a lot of films that people like me consider to be utter drivel, like “The Reader”, “The Book Thief”, “Shawshank Redemption”, “Forrest Gump”, “Hugo”, “The Departed”, and so on, and so on.

The Pearl with the Girl Earring

Just because Hollywood made a film about it does not mean that “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” is now the greatest Vermeer, evah. Even if it was Scarlett Johansson as the girl.

It is a mediocre film not worthy of it’s subject.  It isn’t even worthy of Scarlett Johansson, who spent most of the film trying to look innocent and sultry at the same time.

It’s not even close. I personally find the painting a bit off-putting myself. Give me “A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window”, “The Music Lesson”, The Kitchen Maid”, “The Geographer”– yeah, pretty well any other Vermeer painting, except for the “Study of a Young Woman”, which I also find off-putting.

Camille Claudel’s Mother

Auguste Rodin may have behaved dishonorably towards Camille Claudel (b. 1864)– he carried on an adulterous relationship with her for several years and finally refused to leave his “other” wife of 20 years and marry her– but he was not the one who had her committed to an asylum March 1913 at the age of 49 and he was not the one who refused to allow her to be released for the rest of her life though her supportive father and several of her physicians and caretakers urged it.

There were reasons: Claudel had become paranoid and hysterical and destroyed much of her own work. More importantly, she became an embarrassment to the family.

It was her mother who wanted her kept, and it was her mother who insisted she remain in her prison (though it was her brother who signed the admission papers).

Claudel died on October 19, 1943, in the asylum Asile de Montdevergues). She left many letters, mostly to her brother, describing her predicament. He had no pity on her.

Claudel destroyed most of her work in 1905, but about 90 works survive. In the opinion of some, between her and Rodin, she was the greater talent.

The Subcommittee on Authentication of Authenticity

An original painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat from 1981-1983, regarded as his “peak” period, can sell for up to $16 million. No– wait: $29 million.

Basquiat made some money from his own work but artists almost never make the really big money, for two reasons. Firstly, works of art don’t sell for all that much until the artist is dead. Secondly, art is a racket. By “racket”, I mean that nobody really knows what the value of a work of art is until the institutional forces that manage, manipulate, and arrange the art world take hold of it. Basquiat is definitely safely dead, and his works are distinctive, so the art world can now play it’s role. He must be desired to be desired, wanted to be begged, and rare enough to be valuable. But Basquiat’s works will never be as rare as collectors think because it is in no one’s interest to promote the idea that there are a lot of Basquiats out there. [I just heard that someone living in a flooded are of Calgary had an original Van Gogh painting in his house.]


There was, for a time, something called the “Authentication Committee”. You see, a Basquiat is not valuable to anyone because of what it looks like, in spite of utter drivel you will hear:

“he painted a calculated incoherence, calibrating the mystery of what such apparently meaning-laden pictures might ultimately mean” (Marc Mayer, Basquiat in History).


Basquiat paintings are very, very valuable because they, like all other collected art, have become a form of currency. They might as well be currency. Above is a $7 million bill.

I was going to write something snarky about rich people who don’t appreciate real art and only collect it as an investment, and for it’s snob value. That’s probably all true, but there’s not much new to say about it. I was just struck by the idea of an “Authentication Committee”. We all need an Authentication Committee: this is real, this is not real. This is a hoax. This is phony. All of this is phony. Everything is phony. If everything is phony, then everything is real. You need to sort it out for yourself. You need to stand in front of the painting and decide whether or not you find it entertaining in some way. Then you need to decide if it is entertaining to you because it is shocking that people pay a lot of money for it, or because the colors and shapes and design tickle your eye. Or because other people think that it is only entertaining because it cost a lot of money but you are smarter than that. Or because you can see why people pay a lot of money for it but you have no idea why this particular work, and not some other work by a completely unknown artist, is any good. All of our perceptions can be corrupted. All of them matter. None of them do. But then all of them do.

I like the painting. I think it’s original and interesting and expresses something about Basquiat’s desire to express something. I would be willing to pay more than $100 for that painting, if I ever get a chance to buy it.


I love this:

“It hung above a desk in a hotel suite where Coco Chanel lived for more than 30 years and was only discovered to be important last summer, when the hotel shut for a 27-month renovation in the face of stiff competition from newer hotels. ‘It is a magical discovery,’ said Cecile Bernard, a Christie’s expert…'”

The magic, of course, is the fact that this painting was not “important” until an expert from Christie’s got onto her solemn podium of high art and pronounced it so.

The painting is “Le Sacrafice de Polyxene” by Charles Le Brun from the 17th century. It is worth about $650,000.00 (U.S.).

The Ingenue

An ingénue is a dramatic and literary archetype. “The ingénue symbolizes the mutable character par excellence, the blank slate in search of an identity,” the French scholar Julia V. Douthwaite wrote about the role of the ingénue in Ancien Régime French fiction. The ingénue is defined by her age — that crepuscular moment between adolescence and adulthood — and also by her innocence. A naïf in a complex, urbane, foreign world, she moves unaware of the hypocrisy, duplicity and exploitation all around her. She is credulous and vulnerable and dependent on a protective paternal figure and lives in constant peril of being exploited or corrupted by some lurking cad or villain. This threat is the central tension of her life. What makes her interesting are the questions of how she will navigate this world, who she will become and what will become of her. Traditionally, there have existed two possible outcomes: marriage (whether successful or ruinous) or death.

From New York Times, Carina Chochano, April 22, 2011

Link to the Full Article

So, at the very heart of it, the ingénue doesn’t know she is about to be tricked into having sex.

Once she realizes that the men in her life are willing to use her, she becomes a different person. Either she takes control of her life and becomes “worldly” or “cool”; or she becomes a victim, destined to appear on Oprah.

Kim Yu-Na, the Olympic figure skating champion, appears to me to have almost perfect proportions.  Waist, trunk, thighs, arms, shoulders: perfect.  If I was looking for a model for a sculpture of “Eve”, I’d ask her.

The Perfect Car

To me, you are just perfect.

My dream car. At least, when I was 14, this is the car I dreamed of. I saw a dark, maroon version of it in a movie once– I forget which one. Probably some kind of spy film. I remember that it was occupied by a very large, bald man and he was coming to kill the hero. He wasn’t the real bad guy– just a henchman. That’s the car I dreamed of owning some day.

I saw this in an ad a few years ago. I suddenly realized that, if I had really wanted to, I could have bought it right then and there. It was about $14K.

Anywhere, here, for my own personal contemplation, the actual car.  Fourteen thousand dollars.  I could have bought it, but I’m old and more sense than that.


Fast Cuts: Mediocre Directors

All right, you’ve finished shooting. You assemble your video and your audio and your special effects and start trying to pull it altogether into a coherent whole. You think you’re finished and the big moment arrives– you show it to your friends, some crew, film company execs, sponsors, whatever. It’s boring. It’s dull. It doesn’t “move”.

You are mortified. What can you do? Don’t give up! You promise everyone you’ll go back into the editing suite and fix it. But you can’t reshoot, because the actors have gone home, the crew is dispersed, the light’s different…

No problem. Just shorten every cut. Shorten every cut to about .6 seconds. That’s right, less than a second. Cut, cut, cut. Then add some more sound effects, lasers, metal on metal, whoosh! More cuts. More, until you have about 40 cuts a minute, if not more. Loud music, loud effects. Now, let’s jiggle the camera, as if your camera was drunk, staggering around in circles, totally discombobulated. That’s it– makes it look like this is really happening to Brad Pitt, right. You can tell it’s really happening because the camera man is jiggling the camera, man. That like a documentary! Looks real. Looks really real.

Fast cuts never make any scene look great, but they prevent lousy scenes from looking really, really bad. You can’t tell any more– each shot is only on the screen for a second or less. What you have is the illusion of action and movement, which is analogous to being able to be the eyes in the heads of five different people in rapid succession. This does not reveal anything to the viewer: it merely keeps him from realizing that the director is unable to develop an interesting sequence of actions from a single point of view.

This is not the same as Eisenstein’s theory of montage: in Eisenstein’s view, each cut provides a comment on the previous and succeeding cuts, thereby creating a coherent sequence that gives meaning to the action. The famous scene of the baby carriage rolling down the steps and the Cossack holding his sword aloft and the woman about to scream…. Modern action films simply provide a succession of shots without any inner coherence at all. That would require work.

Sergei Eisenstein, also known as the Soviet Eraserhead.


Why do ALL the previews now have quick cuts going to black? Can’t anyone do anything on their own nowadays? Who started it? Who did it first? Who said now everyone has to do it the same way: short, quick cuts, fade to black, fade to black, fade to black. The audience can really tell that this film has lots of action, so they will want to see it. Do not, under any circumstances, give the audience any idea of what the movie will actually be about, because it’s not about anything: it’s guns, helicopters, and babes, and moving cameras, and explosions, and revenge and mayhem.

Event the trailers for the films that appear to be about relationships or character are now chopped into tiny little disconnected shots, fading to black…

Here and There: Neo-Puritanism and the Dutch

I am prompted by this ridiculous story about a young woman training to become a teacher. She had once posted a picture of herself drinking, wearing a pirate hat, at a party, on her Myspace page. later in life, while in placement as a prospective teacher, her supervisor googled her and spotted the picture and expressed his deep, solemn, disapproval. He and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, in their ultimate, beneficent, instructional piety and wisdom, decided that Ms. Stacy Snyder was thereby not worthy of a teaching job, and denied her a teaching degree.

Ms. Snyder went to court and, stunningly– to me– lost. (Of course, this was a U.S. court, where judges are elected by the same people who made Britney Spears a household name). The ruling was that this was not an infringement of her right to “free speech”. Is that what they thought the issue was?

How dare they? How dare those puritanical, self-righteous, stupid zealots deprive this young woman of her dreamed-of career because she didn’t meet their fanatical standards of purity and innocence?

I’ll bet those gentleman are patriotic. I’ll bet they are pious. I’ll bet they are believers. I’ll bet they would feel far more comfortable living with a bunch of Islamic extremists than they could ever imagine. I’ll bet that deep down in their tiny, crispy, blackened little hearts, they would love to force Ms. Snyder to wear a burka.

* * *

One thing I’ve always liked about the Dutch– and one reason a lot of people don’t like them– is this kind of pragmatism that was apparently too rational and sensible for the delicate Americans.

July 9, 2010

[I’m going to note in fairness here that getting accurate, detailed information about this well-worn story about the six-year-old kissing his classmate is difficult, and there are websites out there that believe the offense was more serious than just one kiss. On the balance of things, however, I still think giving the six-year-old a suspension was a tacit confession that the adults in charge had no clue about their jobs, children, or life. While I’m at it, let me note that as for the woman who sued McDonald’s because the coffee was too hot– I’m on her side. There’s a lot more to that story than the media generally admits. It’s become a stalking-horse for conservatives who want to relieve corporations of liability for their defective or dangerous products.]

Speaking of alleged urban myths… has there been a single confirmed use of the “date rape” drug yet?

We appear to have quietly entered an era of Neo-Puritanism in North America. While you can show any kind of violence, blood-letting, torture, cruelty, dismemberment, and murder on television or movies at any time or place, we have become extremely weak-minded and hysterical at the idea of sex.

Part of this is due to the unfortunate, unholy alliance between feminist psychology and Christian fundamentalism in the 1980’s. Off-hand, you might think these two cultural streams had very little in common. They did. But there was one thing they shared: an almost frantic paranoia about sexuality. The result: a kindergarten student is suspended for kissing a classmate on the cheek. Another student is taken away in handcuffs are drawing pictures of weapons. And another student is busted for waving a chicken-finger like a gun.

But the most egregious sins of this ilk are committed by middling managers– people who have some authority because they are astute suck-ups with a bit of education who can fill in forms and transfer money to consultants. They are afraid to make real decision and, therefore, not really smart enough to evaluate advice either. They always tell you, “the consultant said…”, or “the expert said…” So they see the 6-year-old kissing a classmate and they are too crumblingly stupid to realize that this was not ever what was intended by the term “sexual harassment”. * * *

What if your school day consisted of playing guitar, making papier-mâché “aliens” for your Mars project, dropping eggs from the roof to see how they splattered, and learning how to create puppets? Insanity, right? That’s how St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights operates.

I don’t know why it’s taken me 54 years, but I have finally begun to realize just how arbitrary so many of our social and cultural institutions are. In the 60’s and 70’s, we often talked about how schools basically train us to be mindless consumer drones, but, only a few years later, we began to “realize” how impractical it would have been do things otherwise.

And here is St. Ann’s, a towering affront to conventional wisdom. St. Ann’s does not award grades. There are few rules. Students are encouraged to explore their creative sides. And the kids are all right– they go on to good colleges and universities. The sky does not fall in on them.

I have no problem believing that a school like this would be quite successful, and that the students who spend all of their high school years in this institution would be capable, accomplished, and competent, and ready to take on the world.

I think thirty years ago I would have believed the products of this system would be nearly illiterate. Just as I would have believed that someone without access to surgery would die young. Or that a nation without a military (like Costa Rica) would be invaded by its neighbors.

At the same time, the Obama Administration is pushing the Bush educational program: teaching to the tests. Firing teachers and principals if a school does not meet the minimum average. Not an iota of effort made in the direction of teaching children how to actually think: we’ve gone back to the 1950’s where we only want them to read, write, and show up at the assembly line– or, more likely, Walmart, for their minimum wage jobs– and consume, consume, consume.

Go into debt — the modern form of indentured servitude.

Streep’s Choice

Sophie is not a Jew, of course: she is a Pole. In fact, it is at times suggested that she is an anti-Semite, and Nathan certainly accuses her of it.

Hollywood simplifies. Reality is complex. Read this document about the remarkable experiences of Eleonore Hodys. I respect “Sophie’s Choice” for leaving intact the complexities, and thus giving us a taste of the astonishing ability of real events to confound our expectations.

As I said, I basically like “Sophie’s Choice”, but if you are a bright young author out there and you’re writing your first great book, please resist the temptation to have your characters fall over themselves praising your talent, as Styron does in “Sophie’s Choice” (Stingo is obviously a stand-in for Styron as a young man in New York); Sophie and Nathan, of course, think he is brilliant.

* * *

The mystery of Meryl Streep: it’s a great performance… that constantly calls attention to itself. It’s hard to describe what is meant exactly by that phrase– “calls attention to itself” — but I know it when I see it. (Dustin Hoffman — in “Rain Man” for example– is another great practitioner of the art of calling attention to himself being a character.) She’s so good in other respects, it’s almost possible to completely ignore it. But there are scenes when Streep is so much the actor being a brilliant actor that you almost forget the character: all you see is technique. Brilliant technique, but still technique. It’s so obvious in her performance that I could never believe in the relationship with Nathan– there doesn’t seem to be room in her technique for him, let alone a real passion.

The greatest flaw in actors like Streep (Ryan Gosling is another) is that they intuitively demand that every scene be absorbed into their performance. I always felt that any actor could have played Nathan– all you had to do was stand there an let Streep paint the colours of her day on your canvas. It’s the kind of technique that wins awards.

Streep is a very, very good actress at times, but one of the least generous actors I’ve ever seen. By generous, I mean giving the other actors and the film-maker space within which to do their own work. I mean studying the other actors to see what they’re doing and how you can contribute to the overall effect, rather than just call attention to yourself.

Kate Winslet is the opposite of Streep– look at her in “Heavenly Creatures” or even “Titanic”–: not as accomplished as Streep, but far more generous, and often more convincing. In “Heavenly Creatures”, she makes Melanie Lynskey, her co-star, look brilliant.

Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Amy Adams– all generous.  Rachel McAdams is usually generous.  Meg Ryan is generous in “When Harry met Sally”: she gave Crystal room to ham it up.

Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams and especially Jim Carrey: utterly selfish. Every scene they are in is always only about them.

Next time you’re at a movie, ask yourself if the actor you are watching intently on the screen is contributing to the impact of the other actors.

And one more note: according to Wiki, Streep obtained an unauthorized copy of the script before it went into production and went to Alan Pakula’s house and threw herself onto the ground and begged for the role.

Smart girl: she knew it would win her an award because,

a) it has Nazis,
b) it has an accent.
c) it’s a period piece

[added 2019-11-20]