"Elias Nebula is practicing Japanese but no one knows."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Werner Herzog Comes Through."

We went back to the scene of our last auto-da-fe, Bryant Park, to once again witness Werner Herzog in fevered conversation with an unknown property, this time a so-called geographer and artist name of Trevor Paglen.

I'd been in the library since before two, working in the Jewish Division. It was freezing in there, since they had the AC cranked up high as it'd go. I emerged into what was probably a balmy evening shivering. Met wife on the steps -- in fact, by the lion who is called "Patience" - and shrilly remarked "Christ - let's go to H&M and buy a jumper."

We went to get a seat in Bryant Park for this free event "under the stars" and there were no good seats close to the stage, although there was everywhere evidence of that dastardly practice of seat saving.

Here is a sight of humanity as it really is rather than how it loves to think it is; craven , vicious, sneaking, conniving. In a word: seat-saving. It is like this when you alight on a bus and everybody it seems is sat on the aisle seat, jealously keeping the window seat vacant. And these are nominally "grown adults". There used to be one bloke on the coach to college, the Wallingford to Henley route,  who did this every morning . We made fun of him.

This day I got in protracted arguments with two people on the subject of seat-saving. I said, "It can't be done." They said, "It can. It is." My first combatant was a leering, jaundiced-looking Spanish female to whom I said, "You cannot save seats in these United States. This land is your land; this land is my land. From California to the New York islands. From the redwood forests--"  She laid out across the seats and defied me to move her. She was full of Zuccotti Park green bile and defiance. I had a great urge to tip her off the seat. She would have me call the police. Shouldn't leave unless it were in chains. I said I would find a friendly gendarme presently and went off, fuming, looking for a higher authority with whom to plead my case.

In Bryant Park you might as well plead with the granite face of the squatting statue of Gertrude Stein for all the good it'll do you.

I shall say little of this undignified to and fro that after all diminishes me.  I got into a further, more protracted ruck with a liberal-arts wealthy hip grandmother-type, Blythe Danner with a colourless pencil-line moustache and bobby-soxer's pony-tail, who was sitting with pursed lips (sucking pensively on her bleached moustache) tapping away at her laptop as I berated her. Pretending to ignore me as I hectored her, sounding for all the world like my father.

"I almost hate to interrupt your blogging," I said. "It seems a genuine shame. It's a loss to the Western Canon. But I know you," I said. "I know you of old." (I resisted the urge here to sing "You Jack of Diamonds") "I say that I know you and I do. You pledge faithfully to NPR and Channel Thirteen. It's sort of a principle with you. You subscribe to the New Yorker and you are a regular at the 92nd Street Y. You simply cannot wait to see Zadie Smith in conversation with Chris Ware. You really are the life-blood of the arts in New York City, and I say that without exaggeration." I don't think I could have been much crueler if I tried (short of mentioning her moustache.)  I saw that I was nevertheless veering off my subject by broadening the critique somewhat.  I ended up perching like a leprechaun on top of the paperback that she had pedantically laid down to save the seat. I said, "There I have sat on your little paperback; now what for us, you and I, grandmother?"

Ha. It all worked out because the person she was saving the seat for phoned her even while I was sitting on the book that stood in so manfully for that person, and said they couldn't make it. There is a moral lesson embedded in this somewhere but it escapes me.

After a while of that gig-goer's delight, the sight of roadies bumbling about the stage while the pre-show tape blares loudly (this time playing Harry Smith-style old-timey backwater plunder), and after an award-winning female poet suffered us to sit through her humdrum Weltanschauung, Trevor Paglen mounted the stage and explained to us with humility and brio and unctuous charm how he was sending a sort of platinum-plated Viewmaster reel of photos up into the satellite ring around the earth, where it is supposed it will represent the Earth's culture to anybody who chances upon it for the rest of eternity.

It was interesting, if inevitably rather willfully Quixotic, but then Werner Herzog loped onto stage and disabused this man Trevor of all confidence he might have ever had in his project.

"Treffor, I don't believe in it," he rumbled, seconds after beginning. "It will never be discovered by aliens." With Teutonic logic he quite briskly proved conclusively that Trevor's project, years in the making, was folly. "It would take a spacecraft from the nearest galaxy hondreds of thousandts hoff yeahrs to penetrate our solar system; they would have to have generation after generation continuing the flight through space, inbreeding each time to produce a new generation of idiots..."

It was a convincing argument, even if I was meekly thinking (a keen reader of Fantastic Four comics) "What if the aliens can teleport by the use of an elementary wormhole?" (Herzog dealt with wormholes later.)

Herzog was on form. I was chary, not only after my last set-to with him at the Library (see previous post), but also having recently seen the extras on the Grizzly Man DVD which includes a deadly-dull documentary about the making of the film's soundtrack, which has such exciting figures as Richard Thompson, Henry Kaiser and Jim O'Rourke twiddling and noodling in a studio.

We see Herzog "sitting in" on the session, getting all sentimental over the female cello player. It even has Herzog wishing aloud that he could play the cello: "I vould giff ten years off my life to master the cello."

"Has this man never read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons?" I thought, in which excellent novel the nihilist Bazarov sneers at "a paterfamilias learning the cello."

On this evening in Bryant Park, however, Herzog was in a refreshingly pithy frame of mind. 

They were having problems with the microphones. As much as they talked, street hubbub from the restaurant nearby and the streets beyond us kept carrying on to the microphones. Herzog had a microphone on his lapel which he could only be heard on if he held his lapel up and lowered his head to it. Moderator Paul Holdengräber kept fretting about Werner's microphone, but Herzog was pithy about it. "I am fine in this strange position, Paul."

After freewheeling through an array of whimsical images that said next to nothing about life on this planet they showed a slide of a Paul Klee daub of an angel which had been ridiculously over-interpreted in purple prose by Walter Benjamin. When Herzog quite rightly laughed savagely at the Benjamin paean ( -- such laughter a blasphemy in Old New York --), the moderator, Paul Holdengräber, blurted out with weird animation that he had spent ten years of his life in the study of Walter Benjamin and his works, during which years he was an active participant in a menage a trois.

I couldn't see the relevance of this unprovoked revelation at all. 

Didn't want to picture the squalor in my young mind. 

Indeed, the audience could be heard to recoil as one, at this unnecessary nugget of "T.M.I.". 

The audience could be heard to think it would be a very good thing if the future alien visitors (but they can never exist!) are spared this particular piece of information about the sex life of  "The Libertine Holdengräber".

Then it was, I think, that we all thought as one: "Isn't it time for this night beneath the stars to pack up and go home? Isn't it time for the stars to go out and the universe to discreetly end?"

On the way home my wife said to me, "Do you think the menage a trois was with two men or two women?"
I said, "I think it was him, the cat and a houseplant."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Righteous Chagrin of the Market Warriors"; Or, "Miller Gaffney Is Unimpressed."

Of all the colourless range of emotions visible everywhere on the many-headed Hydra that is the TEE-VEE, the one perhaps least often evidenced is that of chagrin. This is too refined, too classical, too ubi sunt a feeling for the age.

Shall we see Bruce Jenner or Kim Kardashian look back in sorrowful chagrin before "our" cameras any time soon? Shall we see that ruefulness, that bitter yet intelligent regret pass across the faces of the conniving characters on Gallery Girls? No, chagrin, neo-classical regret and ruefulness are antithetical to the usual crop of reality-teevee shows, whether they are documentary in intent or competitive. Even when the characters on The Amazing Race lose out on the million dollars, when they are cheated and betrayed and fucked over and humiliated at a "detour",  they do not show chagrin. They froth and they seethe and rally their online offensives.

I saw some rare chagrin once on an episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter, when Dog was saying "I have fathered lo these my many children and God said it was right good and I have had to me in my times all these sons, and verily God took me down a notch or several." He was regretting, in Biblical tones, the loss of several of his children.

Dog is a bit like a nineteenth-century rural minister, or even a Colonial type, the Cotton Mather sort for whom the loss of six or seven of your children is simply the norm. That said, Dog's chagrin was sentimental in root, and it inevitably tipped over into broad bathos almost as quickly as it materialised.

An intellectual chagrin, however, of the type expressed by the last cultured denizens of a ransacked culture, I rarely see. This is funny, because the present culture is pretty fucking ransacked! However, on last night's episode of Market Warriors, there was a beautiful and quite stunning record of the culture in pieces and of a modest yet elevated coterie among the ruins, staring gloomily and in awe at the shards about them.

"These my fragments which I have shored against my ruin..."

Market Warriors is a superior (in both senses) reality show along the lines of Storage Wars. You will note the passing resemblance in the titles even. However while Storage Wars in its title and its outlook emphasises the wars themselves, the crude bellicosity, the skirmishing and the cutthroat machinating, the whirr of the axe, the musick of the cudgel, Market Warriors places a more humanistic emphasis on the Warriors themselves -- the mortal participants. It is not a paean to the slavering and unsophisticated god of War.

Perhaps that's cock and bull. Rather, Market Warriors is on Channel Thirteen, and so naturally has a more refined air and tenor. As my mother-in-law said when I naively asked her if she watches Storage Wars, "My dear dear man, I watch Antiques Roadshow. Pass me my snuffbox for I fain would lie doon." It is the difference between the Jacksonian log cabin and the hard cider misspelt Davy Crockett culture and the precious, patrician, John Harvard book-larnt culture of John Quincy Adams.

Market Warriors is made by the same artisanal yeoman-philosopher craftsmen that fashioned the U.S. version of the Antiques Roadshow and so naturally accommodates and indulges the genteel sensiibilities and sensitivities of those patricians who prefer that show. It also features [Antiques Roadshow compere] Mark Walberg as the disembodied voice narrating the goings-on, and in this capacity he gets off some real zingers. I mean boy. His sarcasm, as a disembodied voice, is remarkable to behold. It's as though because he is not visible he can be more cutting and droll than he would be if visible in the throng of an antiques show.

I should note, for foreign readers, that the Mark Walberg I refer to is not the similar-soundingly-named Hollywood film star and former purveyor of white rap Wahlberg, but another man of, incredibly, virtually the same name.

How can such things be?
You'll believe a man can fly.
"Which was the lie?"
"Does the race of man love a lord?"

Mark Walberg nearly made the leap from Channel Thirteen to prime-time teevee ("the very eye of history") a few years back in a show based around members of the public confessing tawdry secrets on live TV to the horror and bemusement of their loved ones. It was a miserable sight to see him crudely whoring for the prime-time greenback. Walberg had betrayed the cause of intellectual television in pursuit of the Hollywood dollar. It was like seeing Thomas Jefferson splayed out in a low bawdy-house. It backfired on him quite badly and the show was cancelled even in these savage times for being too much the inhumane Grand Guignol. Walberg returned, whupped and chastised and neutered and humbled and reformed to the Antiques Roadshow. Yet the disembodied Walberg we hear on Market Warriors happily retains some of that tart, barbed, annihilating negative energy that characterised him on his axed cage-match-hell-show.

To return to my first subject, which was that emotion seen so rarely on teevee (since it involves reflection and regret and quiet sadness and after all intelligence and remorse and humility), chagrin. On Market Warriors the same four characters go around an antique show or flea market or a bazaar and they have a set time and a set "purse" to acquire objects from the fayre. These, the distinguished objects eventually chosen according to the application of the contestants' superior experience and their celebrated breeding, are then auctioned off in another State. The profit, or the loss, is counted up and the winners derived from this totting-up.

Every episode I have seen of this show involves the contestants making massive losses. They pay too much in the first antique shop or flea market and then at the auction (in Cleveland, or Cincinnatti, or Madison Wisconsin) their refined tastes are as unto so many pearls before swine as the ignorant pigs of these rural towns bid mere pennies for they know not what. These grubbing swine are the likes of Mark on Baggage Battles or that swaggering, scrabbling grubber Dave on Storage Wars.  They are the profiters from chaos. They are the riverboatmen on the Styx. They shall prevail as the old men with delicate manners go down, swept under. 

It's a real barbarians-at-the-gate scenario, and it was pronounced this week. They bought in Old Mass and they sold in Ohio. They did fucking poorly. The four contestants are seen in the attached images with this very weblog so you can behold that what I say is verily true. I laughed to see them. There was nothing for them to say; they had complained on previous episodes about the crassness and the obliviousness of the auction attendees. There was no point in repeating themselves. All they could do now was to sit with these unfeigned expressions of despair and wait for Death to come  -- as it will.

I have never seen such expressions on television ever. They are so pure and unadulterated! The soul is still alive and well and can be seen in the faces of these well-named warriors.

I can't help but love and sympathise with these faces. I spend much of my day with the same expression on my face, and not just when I am trying to sell off some books or CDs or comic books and getting fuck all for them from ignoramuses. The misery of the Market Warriors wasn't just that they had lost -- the money, after all, wasn't even theirs -- nor was it even at the repeated public loss of face they have undergone in the course of this well-meaning program. Their horror and chagrin is, finally, at the decline of a civilization entire.


One funny thing on a recent episode of Market Warriors, which I have to recall, was when the one character - the so-called "Professor," John Bruno - was walking through an antiques fair and he saw one dealer, with a long white beard, and said, "Hey guy" or something to him. The dealer responded with amazing wistfulness, "John... it's me..."

John Bruno looked closer at the man and recognised, through the cruel masque of reduced circumstances and that rude veil of hoary aging, an old and well-loved old bondsman. He said, in unfeigned shock and horror and yet tenderness too I believe, yes I believe there was tenderness in it, "My God... how long's it been..." or words like those.

Again, as above, here were real human exchanges and emotions usually too raw and vivid for the televsion to see or allow. Again, at the sheer candour of the showing of the raw human nerve system, I laughed out loud in delight and regret.