Posts Tagged ‘americana’

Satire on False Perspectives - William Hogarth, 1754

Satire on False Perspectives – William Hogarth, 1754

…I saw this study once many years ago, from Ohio State University, the graduate program there. They did a study of self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals, and they got a group that self-identified in those categories, and that also both sides identified as fans of [The Colbert Report], and they had them watch the same video, then they said, ‘What do you think his actual political position is here?’ Democrats believed that I was a liberal or liberals believed I was a liberal pretending to be a conservative, and conservatives who enjoyed the show tended to think that I was a conservative pretending to be a liberal pretending to be a conservative…

And I don’t really want to correct either side, because there are times I agree with my character. And I really don’t want the audience to know when I do. I love that, man. That’s the triple gainer. I purposefully jumped over the line a lot at the beginning of the show so people would be confused.

Stephen Colbert, interviewed by Judd Apatow for Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy

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American Train - Hiro Yamagata, 1988

American Train – Hiro Yamagata, 1988

There’s a lot of hip guys in the world, but who can follow Billy Joel in America, you know what I mean? I don’t give a fuck who you are, I don’t give a fuck if you’re Sting or Bono– if you’re onstage in America, there’s a part of you that just hopes Billy Joel doesn’t walk in. I remember going to see Billy and Elton John in concert. I kind of wanted to see Elton a little more, and I came out of it thinking, Billy Joel is actually more American than Bruce Springsteen, you know what I mean? Bruce Springsteen’s a fucking Russian soldier compared to fucking Billy Joel, man…

Chris Rock, in an interview with Judd Apatow from Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy

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Like many Writer-Americans who ambled through late adolescence after 1957, I had my Jack Kerouac phase. I’d spend days drinking cheap port wine straight from the bottle, and nights shuffling stoned around the villages of lower Manhattan (though instead of jazz, my soundtrack was early-2000s garage rock revival & disco-punk). My copy of The Dharma Bums is probably more underlined than not-underlined. I considered Big Sur to be, along with Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, one of the most fascinating portraits of a man’s mind spinning out of control.

I never got around to criss-crossing the country, but I still hope to, someday.

While I’m not quite as enamored with Kerouac as I was back then, I don’t think he deserves all the bile his haters often spit upon him. Those haters like to toss up that famous Capote quote, how On the Road “isn’t writing, it’s typing,” as if that’s all the proof they need to dismiss Jack’s work. Sure, the guy could’ve used a stronger editor in some spots, to better shape his spontaneous riffage, but that’s more his editor’s fault. And anyway when Jack was on, he wasn’t just hacking shit. He was painting new shades of America’s soul in music and poetry, chill and exuberant and tragic and subversive.

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Thomas Pynchon’s books lurch closer to the mainstream, I guess because the world lurches closer to being a Thomas Pynchon book. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s because of 9/11. Those planes crashed and busted open a hornet’s nest full of sinister conspiracy theories, buzzing, flying, and stinging as far as the web could take them. And now finally here’s Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s 9/11 book– perhaps, eventually, merely his first 9/11 book– and no surprises, it jitters so hard with 2001-ness that whenever I crack its spine I start humming All Your Base Are Belong To Us.

The book’s depictions of life in post-attack New York feel very true, or maybe this is just how the truth feels 12 years later, albeit in a parallel 2001 where Leonardo DiCaprio starred in The Fatty Arbuckle Story, and Americans refer to “9/11” as “11 September” for some reason.

“Can’t you feel it, how everyone’s regressing? 11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood. I’m in the street yesterday, behind me are a couple of high-school girls having one of those teenage conversations, ‘So I was like, “Oh my God?” and he’s like, “I didn’t say I was see-een her?”‘ and when I finally turn to look at them, here are these two women my own age. Older! your age, who should know better, really, Like trapped in a fuckin time warp or something.”

Oddly enough, Maxine’s just had something like it happen around the corner on Amsterdam. Every schoolday morning on the way to Kugelblitz, she’s been noticing the same three kids waiting on the corner for a school bus. Horace Mann or one of them, and maybe the other morning there was some fog, maybe the fog was inside her, some incompletely dissipated dream, but what she saw this time, standing in exactly the same spot, was three middle-aged men, gray-haired, less youthfully turned out, and yet she knew, shivering a little, that these were the same kids, the same faces, only forty, fifty years older. Worse, they were looking at her with a queer knowledgeable intensity, focusing personally on her, sinister in the dimmed morning air. She checked the street. Cars were no more advanced in design, nothing beyond the usual police and military traffic was passing or hovering overhead, the low-rise holdouts hadn’t been replaced with anything taller, so it still had to be “the present,” didn’t it? Something, then, must’ve happened to these kids. But next morning all was back to “normal.” The kids as usual paying no attention to her.

What, then, the fuck, is going on?

Not sure this picture does it justice, but those big silver letters on the book cover are ridiculously shiny. Tilt it in the light just right and you got rainbow lasers gleaming all up in your face.


How’s this for a little conspiracy theory: This cover design is meant to allure and hypnotize older/more mainstream readers, and trick them into thinking Bleeding Edge is the kind of James-Patterson-&-Company crime thriller where the movie version stars Sandra Bullock, not Laura Dern. Which makes sense, because get this: Just like James Patterson, Thomas Pynchon is only co-writing his novels these days, though unlike Patterson, Pynchon’s not sharing any credit. Soon there’ll be a new Pynchon book every nine months, another waggy goose chase through another zeitgeist, not too heavy for a plane or the beach. They’ll keep coming for years, decades even, until bookworms are like, Shouldn’t Thomas Pynchon be dead by now? And when that line of questioning becomes too loud to ignore, it’s revealed that yes, Thomas Pynchon’s been dead for a few years now, he was just curious how long he could fake his life-after-death, sort of like a reverse Andy Kaufman, if Andy Kaufman’s still alive.

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Last month, my beloved wife & I enjoyed a good old American road trip between Brooklyn, New York and Louisville, Kentucky. My dear friend Todd Pate, the self-proclaimed hobo journalist behind El Jamberoo, asked me to write a little something about the trip for his website, so I did. Here’s the result, “Autumn In America,” which covers America’s most famous battlefield, a West Virginia lunatic asylum, why the government shutdown is like “Redneck Crazy,” and much more:

Smells like burning wood, my wife notes as we roll through Gettysburg in our little gray Honda Fit, a third of the way between Brooklyn and Louisville. Not sure if it’s the homey aroma of autumn hearth-blazes, or maybe a burgeoning forest fire.

Click here for the whole thing

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According to the astrologer Evangeline Adams, America is born at 3:03 on the 4th of July, Gemini Rising. It is to be mercurial, restless, violent. It looks to the Philippines and calls gluttony the New Frontier. It looks to South America and intervenes in the internal affairs of its nations; piracy is termed “bringing about stability.” If the British prose style is Churchillian, America is the tobacco auctioneer, the barker; Runyon, Lardner, W.W., the traveling salesman who can sell the world the Brooklyn Bridge every day, can put anything over on you and convince you that tomatoes grow at the South Pole. If in the 1920s the British say “The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire,” the American motto is “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute.” America is the smart-aleck adolescent who’s “been around” and has his own hot rod…

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, 1972

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(Part 37 of an ongoing series)

mr. death

I have often been asked, generally by some type of adverse party, whether I sleep at night or how well I sleep at night. And my answer is always the same. I sleep very well at night and I sleep with the comforting thought of knowing that those persons that are being executed with my equipment, that those people have a better chance of having a painless, more humane and dignified execution.

Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

I don’t think any state should administer capital punishment, not so much because it might be cruel and unusual, or because it doesn’t seem to deter a whole lot of murder. The main reason I find capital punishment so asinine is because it’s the most irreversible kind of punishment there is. That’s bad enough when the person executed is actually guilty of murder, and it’s infinitely bad when the person executed turns out to be not guilty of murder, which has happened more than a few times. So to all you bloodthirsty, Old-Testament-God types in favor of capital punishment, how about we compromise? Let’s say we abolish capital punishment for now, and then when science is finally able to bring humans back from the dead, then fine, we can start executing again. I think that’s plenty fair.

For the first half hour or so that I was watching Errol Morris’ documentary Mr. Death, I kinda liked its subject, Fred Leuchter. He may be an unabashed proponent of capital punishment, I thought, but as long as the death penalty exists in this country, I felt glad Fred was there not only to build machines that death-penalize prisoners as painlessly as possible, but to take into account, say, how the expelled urine of an inhumanely executed prisoner might create hazardous conditions for guards and other prisoners.

But then Mr. Death takes a hard left turn (at least for viewers like me who weren’t already familiar with Leuchter’s story), and soon he’s using dubious scientific methods to deny the Holocaust.

At which point Leuchter’s image morphs from “morbid old geek whom you wouldn’t mind chatting with at a bus stop” to “deluded, egotistical, neo-Nazi-hero whom you wouldn’t want to be photographed in the same room as.” And yet it’s hard not to feel pity for Fred. I may disagree with his silly theories that Auschwitz gas chambers never existed, but I agree with his assertions that he isn’t anti-Semitic. He just seems a little bit lonely, and a little too desperate for recognition. Or, kind of like how Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann in Eichmann in Jerusalem: “…[E]verybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.”

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(Part 33 of an ongoing series)


There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: “Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.” I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.

Mark Borchardt

I can’t stress enough how thrilling it was to be a freshman film student in the fall of 1999. In the spring of that year, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Matrix: terrified by the idea that we might be unwittingly imprisoned in an artificial reality controlled by hostile machines, and delighted by the idea that we could shatter the boundaries of cinema just like the Wachowskis  (at least if we were lucky enough to get our paws on some big-studio blockbuster money). Then in the summer of ’99, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Blair Witch Project: terrified by the idea that America’s Middle-Of-Nowhere was truly haunted by devious demonic forces, and delighted by the idea that hey, maybe we could make our own boffo blockbusters with little more than chump change and a few brilliant ideas, just like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Then there was Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, which delighted and terrified us aspiring movie-makers in a different way: delighted us with the addled antics of aspiring movie-maker Mark Borchardt, and terrified us with the implication that for most of us, our cinematic endeavors would actually go a little something like this.

Granted, movie-making has become considerably easier since the late ’90s, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the internet, but the message still rings true: you’ve gotta be a fool to try and make it in this business- or any artistic field, for that matter. 

One of the most insightful things about American Movie is its subtitle, “The Making Of Northwestern.” Northwestern is a feature film that Borchardt sets out to make, a personal, dramatic film based on the experiences of his young adulthood. Yet very early on, the documentary’s focus shifts away from that passion project and toward the making of Coven, a short horror film that Borchardt decides he must finish in order to do Northwestern. After all, aren’t most of us with artsy-fartsy dreams perpetually making a Coven in order to make a Northwestern? Or, as Borchardt’s girlfriend Joan puts it: “He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not?”

Yes, American Movie milks a lot of laughter from Borchardt’s foibles and failures, but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or condescending. The film not only has deep affection for Borchardt, it seems to have great admiration for him too. So what if after 15-plus years, Northwestern is still “in production” (according to Wikipedia)? By the end of American Movie, the dude finished Coven and eventually outsold his goal of 3,000 copies at $14.95, even if he had to literally clean up other people’s shit to do it. In a way, that’s more inspiring than The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project combined.

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(Part 32 of an ongoing series)


I heard about a lot of bad shit that happened in Kuwait.

Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg)

Yeah, bad shit happened. I’m not proud of that… Maybe Saddam is very crazy. But then you are crazy for bombing all of Iraq.

Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui)

1999 was loaded with movies both of their time and ahead of their time, but few of those movies embodied the present and future as well as Three Kings. Hollywood-wise, it was a breakthrough for George Clooney and writer/director David O. Russell. Hard as it is to imagine, there was in fact a time when Clooney wasn’t yet the mega-star we knew he’d eventually be. Three Kings didn’t exactly catapult him to the A-List the way Ocean’s Eleven did, but it did definitively prove he could be a cool-yet-authoritative leading man, building on the momentum he gathered in 1998’s Out Of Sight, and clouding the memories of missteps like 1997’s Batman and Robin.

Three Kings was also a milestone for writer/director David O. Russell, who made great films before (Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster) and since (I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), yet nothing quite like this. It can’t be easy to make a thrilling action-adventure heist wrapped around laugh-out-loud war satire; Three Kings not only pulls off that feat, it might be the best action-adventure/war satire ever.

While Three Kings foreshadows the future success of Clooney and Russell, it’s even more prescient as a sociopolitical statement. It may not explicitly predict the post-9/11 world, but the implications are there, simmering in the subtext like a cluster-bomb baking under the desert sun. Even though we knew back then that there were plenty of Middle Easterners who hated America with violent passion, Three Kings puts a human face to that hatred, and reminds us how our government’s greed and apathy could come back to bite us in the ass.

Naturally, Three Kings was utterly ignored by the Academy when it was first released. If it came out today, however, you better believe it would be an Oscar juggernaut come winter.

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Prometheus Carrying Fire, Jan Cossiers

Prometheus Carrying Fire, Jan Cossiers

Thomas Jefferson developed his view that “all men are created equal” from the perception of the infinity within each of us, which he learned from the Scottish philosophers, Reid and Hutcheson. (It was also from Hutcheson that Jefferson got his idea of “unalienable rights,” which Congress in the interest of stylistic elegance altered to “inalienable rights.”) The Scottish Enlightenment, like the French and English Enlightenment, was the beginning of the materialization and manifestation of the Judeo-Christian vision of the Heavenly City.

It was also this 18th Century Illuminati circle which introduced the concept of progress— the conscious formulation of the symbolism of Prometheus. This vision has been under so much attack in recent decades that to defend it all will seem archaic and eccentric to many readers.

Nonetheless, evolution is real: quantum jumps do occur throughout the biosphere and throughout human intellectual history. We are riding a mounting tidal wave of rising consciousness and expanding intelligence which is accelerating whether we like it or not.

By and large, most people– and especially most ruling elites– have not liked this acceleration factor. The migration of capital (i.e., ideas) Westward has been largely a flight from oppression, an escapist movement– as critics today describe Space as “escapist.” Everywhere, everywhen, the rulers of society have tried to put a brake on the third circuit, to decelerate the acceleration function, to establish limits on what was printable, discussable, even thinkable.

The Greek myth of Prometheus Bound– the Titan who brought Light to humanity and is eternally punished for it– is the synecdoche, the perfect symbol, of how the third circuit [reason] has been handled in most human societies.

Robert Anton Wilson,  Prometheus Rising (1983)

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