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Stamp out starving writers, buy their books!

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Curious George and the Electronic Book

Curious George book coverOur friend Ed Atkeson (best known as a graphic artist, puppeteer, hiker and iceboat racer) sent us a note recently. And that note sums up beautifully why an electronic cyber book , despite its many virtues,  cannot replace an actual paper book.

“I just saw an advertisement that showed a mother reading Curious George to her kid on a Kindle. I thought it was sad because for the kid, Curious George wouldn’t exist. I mean, exist as a book, where he could be found and chewed and written on, colored, puzzled over. Curious George wouldn’t exist as marks on paper, and so the whole idea of writing, bookmaking, story making and picture making, that having a printed book laying around the house naturally leads to, wouldn’t exist either. Yeah, sad.”

Another quality that children’s books have that cannot be translated into an electronic reader is difference in size and shape.  Kid’s books are often quite large compared to the relatively small printed page that appears behind the translucent surface of the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook. You can’t get down on the floor and spread open an electronic reader and let your imagination roam over two square feet of lavish color illustration. The same is true for adult novels as well, because behind the glassy window of the e-book reader all pages are the same in size, margin, texture and type face. It’s like landing on a planet where everybody has a unique history, but — GOOD GRIEF! — everyone looks exactly like everyone else.

The Fairy

Fairy movie poster Most likely you haven’t see The Fairy, a French movie with a story composed of brilliantly funny sequences of almost silent comedy. Advertising for the film compares it to the slapstick work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati and in a sense that’s true — especially in regard to some of the work of Jacques Tati. But slapstick is a small part of this curious film.

The two central actors are Dominique Abel (playing Dom) and Fiona Gordon (playing Fiona), two members of a well known comedic trio that includes Bruno Romy who has a small role in this movie. The story is set in a gritty stretch of urban seaside in the ugly industrial port city of Le Havre.

Dom is the night clerk in a small hotel when Fiona, barefoot and in a rain-soaked jersey and baggy sports trousers, enters and asks for a room. She also announces that she’s a fairy and will grant him three wishes. Dom asks for 1) a motor scooter (during the credits we saw him peddling a bicycle with a loose chain through the rain) and 2) a lifetime supply of free gasoline. He can’t think of a third wish and Fiona tells him to take his time.

It has to be said that neither Fiona nor Dom are beautiful people. Quite the contrary, they have extraordinarily plain faces and thin angular bodies. But they have a certain fluidity of motion, especially Fiona, and after they fall in love the viewer is on their side, hoping they’ll survive the twists and turns of the movie. (The not-so-beautiful faces of these two reminds us that you don’t have to be beautiful to be genuinely in love, and it can happen in an ugly industrial port city, too.) The plot is a bizarre linear farce in which each scene leads logically to the next, but always with unexpected results.

Fiona can grant Dom’s wish for free gasoline by giving the woman who manages huge gasoline storage tanks the key to her hotel room (the woman needs a place to meet her lover) in exchange for the key to a storage tank outflow pipe. In the movie there’s a café named Love is Blurred — an inexplicably odd name until we get to the café and discover that the owner, played by Bruno Romy, isn’t blind but extraordinarily nearsighted. (It may take a moment to get that one.)

There are a couple of minor sub plots which are neatly linked to the main plot. The central story is that Fiona disappears and Dom finds her in a hospital for the local nut cases from which she probably escaped prior to reaching his hotel. In the course of the movie Fiona gets pregnant more or less by willing it, producing a bulge with the speed and sound effects of blowing up a balloon.  And later she delivers the baby in an equally unusual fashion. Whether Fiona is truly crazy or just a simpleton fairy doesn’t really matter. How he  rescues her and how they get away together makes for 94 minutes of very, very light entertainment. This whimsical tale is on DVD disk in French with English subtitles. Check it out.

The Vatican and James Bond

Skyfall movie stillL’Osservatore Romano, the 151-year-old newspaper put out by the Vatican, has gone gaga over James Bond. Or, maybe we should say that the editor, Gian Maria Vian, has taken to heart the Pope’s suggestion to liven up the daily. Some years ago L’Osservatore Romano praised The Blues Brothers, surprising just about everyone, but that was ages after the movie had premiered and, after all, it was a comedy and the plot featured John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on a “mission from God” to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. (By the way, though it came out in 1980, the film is still a blast.)

But praising the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, is different. This time the Vatican newspaper has five different articles related to the movie, all of them laudatory. “Skyfall does not disappoint,” says the Vatican. “The 23rd Bond film is one of the best in the longest cinematic story of all time…” Furthermore, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the film “does not lack any of the classic ingredients which have made James Bond a legend — the title credits song, adrenalin pumping action, amazing hyper-realistic chases, exotic locations, extremely beautiful Bond girls, the usual super villain and the essential vodka martini.” At the same time, Bond himself is “less attracted to the pleasures of life, darker and more introspective, less invulnerable physically and psychologically and because of this more human, even able to be moved and to cry – in a word, more real,” said the newspaper’s film critic, Gaetano Vallini. Not bad, especially when you remember he’s talking about a womanizer with a license to kill.

About the the hurricane Sandy and what it did it did to New York and New Jersey, the paper reported today that ” Sandy mette in ginocchio New York e il New Jersey” or, as we say in English, Sandy brought New York and New Jersey to their knees. Now that’s the kind of metaphor we expect to find in the Vatican newspaper. Frankly, we’ve never thought of  L’Osservatore Roman as a source for movie reviews, so we missed the edition with the Bond mania. We’ve relied on the translation supplied by Britain’s Guardian.

American Ecstasy

American Ecstasy book imageIn 1982 Barbara Nitke began to take still photographs on pornographic movie sets. “The porn business is my alma mater,” she’s written. “I learned the craft of photography there, from the cameramen, the lighting guys, and all the other hopeful kids who came into the business straight out of film school.” Nitke worked as a set photographer in the porn industry just as the Golden Age of Porn was coming to an end. (You didn’t know porn films had a Golden Age? Now you do.) Eventually, the social scene, AIDS, the video camera and the Web ended the large scale movies she had been photographing, along with the actors and directors. Nitke’s attention shifted to the SM scene and in 2003 she wrote Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism, a collection of photographs of sadomasochistic couples published by Kehrer, a distinguished German company  producing books on culture, fine art and photography. Kiss of Fire was too hot for an American publisher to handle.

E. J. Bellocq’s photos of Storyville prostitutes waited fifty or sixty years before they were published by the Museum of Modern Art, but Barbara Nitke didn’t want to wait that long.  Nitke  worked through Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website,  and today we have American Ecstasy, a memoir in pictures and words of the years she spent taking still shots on porn movie sets in New York City. It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book with superb color photographs, a fluent text by Nitke herself and an introductory essay by Arthur C. Danto, Professor Emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University and former art critic for The Nation.

American Ecstasy contains sixty-eight large color shots. A  few, a very few,  are of bodies (a back, an arm or a leg) but all the others are portraits. These are  portraits of people caught in the midst of a sexual encounter or, far more often, pausing or waiting in the act, gazing inwardly, bored or sleepy or curled up asleep on some fancy bed that was used in an earlier scene. And often a camera intrudes, a 35mm machine — bulky, glittering and dark — edging in from the margin. It’s the camera’s alien presence, of course, that produces the dissonance in these pictures.  The women themselves, and it’s mostly women we see, often look looked wiped out — maybe they’re dulled or maybe just emptied by hours of work.

Barbara Nitke has given us people in moments of bizarre comedy or innocence and even tenderness.  Her color work, those gauzy whites, soft tans and gentle defining edges, evoke a kind of pathos, for the photographs are chromatically beautiful whereas the people are working in a porn movie and that kind of  work is not beautiful. Nitke’s text doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticize the porn movie industry.  She’s a responsive photographer with a deep understanding and affection for her utterly human subjects, and those qualities raise her images beyond mere documentary or social insight into the realm of  art.

Why Does The World Exist?

Book - Why Does the World Exist coverThat’s a nice philosophical question. The question doesn’t ask what purpose does the world exist for, though you might read it that way, but rather it asks why does the world exist instead of not existing.  Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz asked it succinctly in 1714 — “…the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?'” In the history of Western philosophy, it’s a rather recent question.

Jim Holt, a contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times, has written a book on this subject called, in fact, Why Does the World Exist? (Liveright: New York, 2012. 307 pages, $27.95) Holt doesn’t propose an answer himself, but reviews the answers given by others long gone, such as Leibniz, and those more recently gone, such as Sartre, and interviews one recently among us, John Updike,  and most of all, visits and chats with those still above ground.

In other words, the book is a survey of people who have thought about the existence of the world and have written about it.  Actually, Holt’s book isn’t a plain survey. The book is subtitled An Existential Detective Story, and the jacket flap says “Jim Holt takes on the role of cosmic gumshoe, exploring new and sometimes bizarre angles to the mystery of existence. His search for the ultimate explanation begins with the usual suspects — God versus the Big Bang.”  We’ll get back to this nonsense of the author as gumshoe later. (more…)

Stamp Out Starving Writers!

Reading at the beach Stamp out starving writers! Buy their books! That way they’ll have a few pennies and in time they’ll have enough to buy food and not starve. Summer is the perfect time to buy a book, take it to the beach, read it. Not only will you be supporting a writer, you’ll be contributing to the artistic milieu of the United States, at least that part on the coast. And just because your beach is clothing optional doesn’t mean you can’t bring a book. Forget the swim suit. Take a book to the beach and you’ll meet interesting people — handsome guys and beautiful women and passionate intellectuals like yourself.

Julia Child

Julia ChidThe hundredth anniversary of Julia Child’s birthday is being celebrated this August, especially on television where she  was  one of the most popular TV figures ever. But why did she become so popular?

By now you’re probably familiar with her books or, at least, you know that she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and maybe you’ve seen the movie, Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep as Julia. Julia Child’s early shows appeared back when television was in black and white, not color, and those were the days when shows were often not prerecorded — if Julia fumbled a pot or dropped a spoon, that’s what you saw.  (And if you actually saw those black-and-white programs you’re one of the older readers of Critical Pages.)

Everyone has an answer to the question of why she became so popular. (And so do we.) Yes, she knew French cooking and wanted to teach others how to enjoy cooking and, yes, she had a sense of humor and, yes, certainly, she was authentic — a word that’s often used to describe her TV personality. But maybe the more obvious is being overlooked. Julia Child was a big, tall, plain-faced woman with a terribly screechy voice.  It’s worth noting that the  excellent “Saturday Night Live” parody of her show didn’t use a woman but featured Dan Aykroyd as Julia.

Viewers who found Julia Child found her not on the big popular networks but on PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. What they saw was a woman who wasn’t better looking than they were, a woman more awkward and more ungainly, a woman who had a voice they would have been ashamed of. But Julia Child didn’t seem to notice her own glaring deficits. On the contrary, she appeared happy and self assured. So people watched, maybe a bit interested in French cooking, certainly interested in how a person who had so little going for her could be so cheerful and so ready to share what she knew with them. This was a person they could  listen to as an equal, or even feel a bit superior to, but maybe learn something from — maybe about French cooking, or maybe about how to be comfortable in your own skin.

Messy Flower Garden

Messy flower gardenThere is absolutely nothing wrong with your messy flower garden.  If Mother Nature had intended neat flower gardens she would have distributed seeds in rows. Mother Nature doesn’t do that.  The kings of France did that in the 18th century and you know what happened to them. Keep your head. Let your garden grow any which way. Enjoy it.

Wordsworth Visits the Seventh Grade

If you’re old enough you may remember a time when as a school child you had to memorize certain poems. “By memorizing,”  the teacher said, “you’ll always have that bit of poetry with you.”  That practice has disappeared from most schoolrooms today.  Marilyn Robertson, a poet and songwriter in California, remembers memorizing poems when she was a kid, as she tells us in “Wordsworth Visits the Seventh Grade.”

We had to say his poem by heart—
the one he wandered in — our voices
droning down the stanzas, grateful
for the sturdy crutch of meter.

Standing by the teacher’s desk,
I trembled like a daffodil,
having no idea that
I, too, in fifty years, would wander

through the hills with pen and notebook
knowing chances would be slim
to none I’d ever come upon
then thousand blooms untrammeled by

the middy tires of some enormous
truck whose driver in his crowd
was never lonely as a cloud,
nor given much to gazing

and wouldn’t be caught dead
dancing with a flower.

—Marilyn Robertson


And if you want to refresh your memory, check out Wordsworth’s poem,“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”


Isabel Fay & Shakespeare & Bonnie Tyler

Yes, we know the world is falling apart. We know the European banking system is going down the drain, maybe taking the US banking system with it. And, yes, we know that our ally, Pakistan, gives safe haven to our enemy, al Qaeda. We know Iran is working night and day to develop a nuclear weapon, we know Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering his own people and we know that around 12,000 died in Mexican drug violence last year.

And, with tears, we acknowledge that here in the United States, where there doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around, billions of dollars are going to be spent on a presidential campaign that – no matter it’s importance – is going to crush us with boredom.

That’s why we’ve turned to something completely different, namely this video. We like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler and we also like Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. And it’s our good fortune that we like the way funny Isabel Fay has put them together. So we’re posting Isabel’s video, a comically updated Romeo and Juliet set to Bonnie Tyler’s desperate song. You can say we’re simply avoiding all the bad news, hoping it will go away a leave us alone. And you’re right.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.