Monday, October 10, 2011

OccupyWallStreet - My New Year's Resolution

              Like all resolutions, the important ones most often fall away into the world of, “Well, at least I tried,” within a few weeks, if not days. So, in my effort to combat this natural regression into comfort and habit, I hope to, by the end of the next two weeks actually understand our economic crisis: How it started, how it can actually be fixed, how it affects us on a day to day basis, and what actually are these new protests about? For the life of me, I barely understand the parlance used in the arguments. I don’t really understand inflation, or derivatives, or bubbles bursting, or bailouts, or what a debt ceiling is, and though I regret my ignorance I do not feel alone in it. I imagine most of us don’t actually know the truth as to what happened. Instead, we rely on the haphazard reading we’ve done on the topic whether in one or two books, an article, or an intelligent friend or family member we trust to tell us the “truth” of this situation. Somehow, we believe that despite the pervasiveness of the economic crisis, in reality it doesn't actually affect us enough to learn about it. 
But still, after reading some articles, starting some books, and engaging in conversations, all I now know about the economy and its seemingly never ending troubles, is that it is complex, is that it requires a sort of Ph.D. crash course in both rudimentary and high level economic theory to gain a foothold in the conversation. In a way, this feeds into our current American climate in which we say, “Why should we worry about knowing the details, what can we do? It’s the experts’ jobs to fix this mess,” but the fact is that so many “experts” have gotten it wrong, and admitted to that fact (Alan Greenspan apologized!) Moreover, the more we allocate power to the experts, the less we learn about the crisis, and the more decisions will be made without our true consent, because, you can hardly consent to something you don’t actually understand, right?
This fact appears to live at the core of this nascent movement. As David Foster Wallace points out his posthumous book, the government, often, thrives on making controversial laws as dense as possible. (The Healthcare bill alone was 2,000 pages and many congress-people admit to not reading it at all, which is no surprise.) Take the IRS for example. The IRS in no way lacks transparency. Everything we could want to know about how it works, who gets audited and why we can learn, easily. But think about it, who would want to wade through tome after tome of tax law, of IRS policy when they can just trust those on top to make the right decisions, trust the experts that they know what they are doing. In that manner, the IRS being completely transparent lives in a world unnoticed by most. The same, though to a different extent, can be said about the economy. How many amongst us truly understand the spectrum of economic choices available to this country? How many of us instead just think to rely on the government, and Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve i.e. the experts on this topic to fix the mess they created, because that requires considerably less work, and come on, even if I did learn about it, what could I do, right? So with a mixture of laziness, boredom, and cynicism, the people stay out of touch with the issues that affect them the most, leaving the problems in the hands of those who stand to gain the most and lose the least.
Besides this aspect of comfortable ignorance, a heavy strain of unearned jadedness pervades the conversation about this protest. Many people, when they asked me why protest, explain that protests nowadays do nothing but attract the attention of the media to the fringe of the movement, to those who scream the loudest. With the proliferation of social media, everyone can speak, and the crazies tend to speak the loudest etc. But what does our generation really know about protests? What’s the last issue that has disrupted the normal flow of our lives? We have no Vietnam, no Russian Jewry, no huge Civil rights movement. True, protests contain elements that might scare us, but they need to be explored not shunned without a true inquiry into their purpose, their power, and their possibilities. Hopefully, this is another area I can begin to learn about, because besides learning, how many tools do we have left , as a generation, to make our voices heard?
And none of this takes a political stance, I don’t think. I don’t necessarily know that I agree with the occupywallstreet protest mostly because I don’t fully understand the economy, yet. I do realize though that for a generation that fights for little, that tires of two wars, that appears to grow apathetic with each year, a generation chastised for its narcissism, it's unearned and pointless cynicism, its lack of values or passion, well, on some level its heartens my idealistic self to believe that we still care, that as a generation we still cling to that cliché of hope, of real, deep, lasting change, despite all that we've seen. I’d rather choose to believe in this narrative at the moment, while I study this all, than the cynical one that tells me, come on, this stupid protests of hippies will not accomplish anything.
What remains clear through this fog of ambivalence is the inadequacy of the status quo, the frustration of the masses, but, yes, the movement still feels unformed, like clay not yet morphed into a sculpture, lacking self awareness into the issues of the world, or a certain naiveté about the complexity of all issues, especially those of economic nature. But why is that a problem?  
Because suddenly, the dawning of the pervasive and consistent threat of monetary inequality has provided a jolt to the withered, jaded heart of our generation. We care again, somewhat. About what, we need more time to figure that out, but sometimes circumstances simply demand a visceral protest to the current degeneracy before we can clearly delineate our plan to change society. If you see the world crumbling around you, you yell first, you call for an ambulance, you try to save those who are dying before you write your manifesto about why this happened. So many of us dismiss this protest because of its superficial exterior which looks like a bunch of lazy hippies, but we must delve deeper than this simplistic deterrence to our engagement with one of the biggest issues of our decade.  
So, please, if anyone has any suggestions for good books, or articles to help, anything ranging from the idiot’s guide to the economy to something a bit more sophisticated, let me know.
Thanks for reading,

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Photography: A Review of a budding young talent.

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.  ~Dorothea Lange

We live in a world suffused with images. TV bombards us with thousands of often gorgeous, lush, evocative images  (Think of Mad Men and of similar ilk.) We walk outside only to feel cloistered by velvety ads that promise more than they can obviously bestow, while blurring the lines between advertisement and art. Somehow, this proliferation of images, of captured moments, this infusion of beauty to the service of some agenda, whether political or financial, must affect us in some manner.
Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of photography, people, mostly aristocrats, relied upon painters to "capture" moments, in portraits or landscape. Photography, especially with the equalizing power of capitalism, offered this unique potential to the masses. Many, including the intelligentsia of previous eras, believed that photography ushered in an age of unprecedented objectivity. Photos, they presumed, could not lie in the same manner of paintings. Whereas painting relied on the talent of a human being, based on their quirks, their personalities, their eccentricities, subjectivity clearly colored their brushstrokes. People celebrated this fact of difference and development. But with photographs, because of their technological reliance, we came to think of them as untainted by our subjective viewpoints, whether that of the viewer or the photographer. They simply stood in for the transience of vision as eternal eyes, a photocopy machine.  
But the lessons of history, with the help of Susan Sontag and her seminal On Photography, exploded this simplistic assumption. Not only do photographs lie , but they lie insiduously, in the worst way possible: because they hold the appearance of truth.  In our age, Facebook, of course, as with its effect on many aspects of life, often exacerbates the situation. With unprecedented access to the pictures of other peoples’ lives, we come to realize how lame, mundane, and simply boring photography can be. Of my 500 “friends” on the book of Faces, I know perhaps two who use this unique medium to showcase their talent.  
Facebook pictures deceive me every time. I cannot help getting sucked in. I see an album of people on the beach and they are happy, supernaturally so. They all jump in the air, as held by strings, suspended, smiling, as if at the end of a jubilant movie and they are, reaching towards the heaven, floating on their boundless love for their friends. They splash at each other, and then chase one another through the sand, leaving behind fleeting footprints, which they capture with digital memory. Pictures capture what we cannot hold: the illusion of continuous contentment, of true happiness. A slice we cut out of time, and then dip in formaldehyde to preserve that second of un-self conscious joy.
Yet, after looking at too many random albums, they turn tedious and monotonous. (If you’ve ever seen one Birthright album, you’ve seen every Birthright album...) Like a universal grammar we all have inculcated proper photography etiquette. The range of acceptable stances and poses, faces, and hand positions we can choose from. Without speaking, we have all accepted some quiet contract to band together in a semicircle, mostly based on height, while smiling incommensurately to the experience at hand. Some new collective unconscious of what constitutes enjoyment and fun.
And yet, as new studies show, looking at other peoples’ pictures will often engender sadness because they only show happiness, whether fake or not. We rarely show the pictures of crying, of us depressed, sad, anxious, or simply cranky, though perhaps if our identity moves ever further into the realm of the digital, we should show these pictures. Technology, then, because of mediums like Facebook and the high caliber of photographic technology, both for good and bad has allowed all to act as mediocre to quality photographers. But despite the complexities of photography, despite our world in which inundated images inure us to the unique beauty of photography, what we refer to as those with perceptive eyes still shine clearly through the mass of instagram. They teach us that true photographic art creates a clear divide between art and advertisements in that Art attempts provide us with transformative experiences, insight into the world and ourselves, while advertisements simply desire to manipulate us to some end, that mostly involves money.
Great photography, in a way that often feels magical, takes what we see but somehow, through limiting it to a finite moment in time, transforms that image into art, into something that transcends the mere physical details of this particular arrangement of atoms. In some ways, it makes no sense that a photograph can evoke such feelings when actually seeing that same sight does little to the person, but therein lies the poetic beauty and unique capability of this feisty craft. In slowing down time it can show us that which we simply miss in our desensitized daily life. I felt this acutely last night at a gallery showing of a budding young talent, Jackson Krule , as he displayed photographs from his travels around Europe.
With little background in the technology, technique, or artistry of photography, I can only attest to my personal impressions of this impressive collection of 30 photographs. Krule’s style, mostly candid shots of people in their elements, evokes an impressive range of human emotion. Some, like the paintings of Edward Hopper, bring forth a sense of shared loneliness, a bewilderment at the solitude of life. While others, like a black and white picture of urbanites enjoying a break at an sidewalk park, most of them hiding behind sunglasses, highlight the beauty of mundane life we so easily and nonchalantly glance over. If art allows us to see differently, to learn how to use our eyes anew, then Krule’s photography highlights the hidden beauty of a vendor hawking photos in a square, the quaint and quiet lovely loneliness of a person leaning against a tree, lost in her reading. Besides the beauty hiding in plain sight, Krule manages to insinuate in each of his photographs a slight sense of loss, of nostalgia, for what, I cannot exactly tell. His picture of a child, enraptured in his sale of cameras, wearing tattered, beat up, worn out, possibly hand me down jeans as he lovingly caresses a camera, brought forth tears that I could barely explain. And yet Krule also displays an acute eye for the humorously absurd in life. One picture portrays European hipster carrying a magazine stuck in the back of his pants, with the advertisement of a bikini clad woman showing upside down. It’s a moment of pure Absurdist ecstasy.
Photographs work through associative powers. Most art partakes in this elementary function of our minds, but some art form rely less on association and more on exposition. Literature, though no stranger to the art of ambiguity, leans more heavily on the methods of description, whereas photography works in the realm deep association, possibly archetypal. They force out these associative thoughts, if we allow them too, and in the choice of confronting the meandering path of our minds we grow larger, not only internally, but in our empathic potential.  We experience the initial visceral, deeply emotional reaction, but in contrast to other mediums, photographs lead us to ask what the image leaves out. Why do these soldiers march with riot gear? Do I truly know their innermost thoughts, how would I react in a similar situation, do I immediately associate this block of bulk with dangerous authority or with an admirable attempt to keep the peace. Art will never simply serve as Ethic’s or Philosophy’s handmaidens, but to not realize art’s unique moral power limits the range of some of humankind’s greatest achievements.
In a less political manner, they make the strange normal, but more often, the normal strange. They allow us to realize the permeability of perception, the alternatives possible if we choose to pay closer attention to what that bright orange awning on a pushcart looks like from above, in movement, in this sunlight.  Yet, despite his ability to encapsulate small human movies into images one also marvels at Krule’s precious range of emotional vision and maturity. One delights in Krule’s ability to succeed at such a young age. The gnarled hands of a lifelong migrant worker, adorned with uncut dirty fingernails clasping an identity card written in a oddly elegant handwriting. The heavy weight of a sliced open pig, an odor impossible to imagine emanating from the carcass, with the rain jacket of the workers curiously matching the skin tone of their commodity. The real anger and fear emanating off the bullet proof vests of a square of riot police. All of these speak to a vision of the inherent chaos and frustration hiding beneath the veneer of societ, a sentiment we generally try to avoid in everyday life.
Perhaps, though, we need discussion on photography more than ever. In a world of almost complete and total documentation and video coverage, where every minor event receives press, video, photography, and a write up, In our lives which we live moment by moment, email to email, text message to message, gchat to gchat, facebook post to facebook post etc, photography such as this forces us to slow down, to look, but to really look, at the human complexity, the sheer beauty and sadness that pervades any moment of life. The best photographers, the best artists in general, inspire in us less of a feeling of awe and respect for their talent and more of a feeling of awe at the enormity of life. They challenge us to think differently, both about ourselves and the world around us, and for the 45 minutes I spent entranced by the range of photos on display, I felt larger than myself, caught up in this haphazard world of beautiful sadness.
But please, don’t trust me. See for yourself.
Also, here’s a gorgeous explication on the power of photography from lyrical journalist James Agee -
Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An Uber Geek's perspective on The Arrested Development Reunion

Ever since the New Yorker announced the Bluth Family reunion, my excitement level reached the unhealthy stratosphere of obsession. But who can blame me. Anyone who knows the brilliance of a show in which a stunted, neurotic, mother-obsessed son says to that same aging mother, while holding her rape horn, “As if anyone would ever R you mother,” knows the type of devotion this show engenders. Consequently, by now, either you know the news and fun tidbits about Arrested Development or you do not care. The interweb, atwitter with the real prospect of an eventual return to TV and a cinematic debut, has all but taken care of the reportorial aspect of the event. Here, I hope to describe what it felt like as an uber-geek to sit in a room with some of my most beloved fictional characters. 
My friends and I arrived about 90 minutes early to find a line of people straight out of the book Stuff White People Like, or straight from an Urban Outifitters ad campaign: Skinny jeans, plaid shirts, thick rimmed glasses, right down to the token black person. Eventually, our collective dorkiness leaked through: The person who bought GOB’s actual segway arrived, helmet in hand, clumsily maneuvering through the crowd, his slightly embarrassed wife walking next to him. Next came the man who bought one of Buster’s fake hands for $350 on the Internet. Lastly, a bunch of teenagers confusingly put never nude cut offs on their heads. Most people did not seem to make new friends, because despite the fact that we congregated to celebrate a shared love, let’s face it, like a crowd for David Foster Wallace we gravitate to Arrested Development not only for it’s humor, but for its ability to bestow that sense of community, of familial connection with a dysfunctional family upon us introverted lonely-type people. 
Inside the room, a darkened factory turned into an auditorium that felt like a place to watch an elementary school play, most of us stood, or sat impatiently, thumbing our smart phones until the lights went dim and a short 3 minutes of highlights from the show played to the uproarious laughter of a crowd that knew each line by heart. The stars of the show sauntered on stage to screams, shouts, and an endless symphony of claps. It actually felt like reuniting with long-lost family members, which the critical side of me feels all sorts of ambivalent generational worries towards. The most disconcerting aspect of this obsession lies in the fact that, deep down, I still truly believe that the ability to do all of the different chicken dances serves as a great gauge of a person's taste, coolness, and ultimate moral value.
Nancy Franklin, TV critic for the New Yorker, started the conversation but Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of the show, served as the true moderator. Hurwitz stood out as both the surprise comedic presence, surpassing the actual comedians on stage, the anchor, and the center of this highly intelligent, warm, familial, and electric conversation. Usually, these type of “informal get togethers” of actors turn into shameless self-promotion, but as a group, the cast had not gathered together for six years. You could feel their palpable excitement to reunite. 
The conversation mostly centered as on both the creation of the show and the creative process. In that sense, besides the emotional high, we found out some very forward, but still slightly shocking bite size facts about the show. Hurwitz issued a cover letter in which he wrote, especially for the shockingly gorgeous Portia De Rossi: No Divas. Even more shocking, the stellar Jeffrey Tambor, the patriarch of the family, was only slated to play the pilot, but decided to stay after he realized the potential of the show. Also, and this should come as a shock to no one, the show used much improvisation, the actors found out about the twists and seal bites only days before shooting, and our beloved Oscar Bluth, George’s doppelganger, was an ad hoc creation. Even more surprising, despite the creative vision of Hurwitz and his writers, Tambor initially set the tone for the show. Tambor’s opening monologue in the pilot, as many of the actors attested to, served as a revelation for the type of humor, even zaniness possible on this ground-breaking show.  
Now, just a quick rundown of my first impression of these real people. Portia De Rossi, though happy to be there looked sad, and almost bored, if not tired. David Cross, ever the consummate comedian, delivered plenty of laughs, but too few insights into the insanity of his character Dr. Funke. Michael Cera: I’m sorry. I really want to like you. But you come off, even if purposefully a la Andy Kaufman, as an arrogant asshole. Also your hair wasn’t helping. It was great to hear that you made up the whole news story of you holding back the movie, but still, chill out dude. Jason Bateman: self-effacing, hilarious, warm and effusive. More Jason Bateman please. Same should be said for Will Arnett. Both of them evinced serious insight into the ingenuity of the show, their characters, and felt no shame in discussing their numerous TV or movie failures. Bravo. You almost forget how funny Jeffrey Tambor actually is, but he can kill you with a subtle shake of his head, and today felt no different. Jessica Walters, though humorous, she stood out less for her hilarity and more for her genuine excitement to be in this room, with this cast, discussing this show. The shock of the night came from Tony Hale. True to his Milford Man background, he was seen, but rarely heard, sadly. Although, he did provide insight into Buster’s main motivation: All Buster desired was safety, and juice.
After the conversation, the crowd asked questions. Best questions of the day: One woman said, “I actually don’t have a question, I just wanted you all to look at me,” to which Ron Howard, from the phone responded, “Even our fans our smart.” How true. Second best, “Would it be too much that the cast all perform their chicken dances,” to which they responded with such insouciance, “Yea, sure.” 
Walking out, everyone wore a Christmas morning smile. We all felt the connection, the warmth, the intelligence, despite the fact that we all knew these are just people, actors. It didn’t matter. For a few hours, we had our family back.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Arrested Development Reunion: Initial Recap

First off, I am totally geeking out right now. The happiness this reunion brought me, well, I dont want to think of the implications, but it felt like a family reunion. Eeek. Either way, I have much to say and report on, but let's get to the hard facts we are of course all excited for. In no particular order, well, the first is definitely the most important, is a list of five things I learned about Arrested Development.

1. As much as we can trust these awesome people, everyone is on board for the movie, and Hurwitz actually has a full creative plan. He's written half of the movie screenplay. And in ambitious move, he's slated a ten episode arc to focus on each character to bring us up to date as a lead into the movie.
2. Michael Cera never actually was against or held back the movie. Apparently, he went all Andy Kaufman and played the villain, because why not. Also his new hair is ridiculous. .
3. As you guessed, much of the show was improvised and off the cuff. Jeffrey Tambor was only slated for the pilot, which seems ridiculous.
4. Each one of them exuded some genuine excitement and warmth for this event. Apparently, they are not only individually funny, but very intelligent. They each spoke with supreme clarity about the intracicies of the show, its avant garde nature, and the brilliance of the characters etc. They also all did the chicken dance - Video is coming. 
5. The room felt like a large family gathering including the fans. All of the fans were also very smart, funny, and intelligent. Great questions. Lucille's answer to her favorite moment or line in Arrested, "when buster says as if anyone would ever R you, mother."
More to come.