Willful Disregard

I came across this translation of the Swedish novel by Lena Andersson in the New Yorker, which describes “the frightening, hilarious speed with which a rational voice can turn irrational.” It’s a book about how the intellectual poet, Ester Nilsson, dissolves her sensible relationship with a man named Per in order to chase an unrequited love for artist Hugo Rask. We see her lose her senses over this man, morphing from a pure intellect to a babbling idiot that you’re screaming at as you turn the pages, Don’t Do That!

In the beginning we see her as a successful poet, with 8 books published, having calmly pursued the study of philosophy. “From the day she found language and ideas and realized where her mission lay, she renounced expensive living, ate cheaply, was always careful about contraception, only traveled rationally, had never been in debt to the bank or to any private person, and did not get herself into situations that forced her away from what she wanted to spend her time doing: reading, thinking, writing and debating. She had been living like that for 13 years, and for more than half that time in a quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs. Then she got a phone call.” The call is to ask her to give a lecture on the artist Hugo Rask, which is when she dives deep and begins to fall in love with him, shucking off her previous life, leaving her partner (“Their whole relationship had been implied, so its disintegration also took place without comment”), briefly moving in with her mother then finding her own apartment.

Hugo, of course, initially loves that Ester is obsessed with him. “Hugo never followed up anything Ester said. Ester always followed up what Hugo said. Neither of them was really interested in her but they were both interested in him.” After a few months of intense conversation, they end up in the bedroom for a few days, then he stops responding to her. This is when the humiliation begins, she refuses to recognize his cues of disinterest, calling and texting him and stalking him outside his studio. “Grief cannot remain acute indefinitely. It soon gets moved to the day ward and then to the rehabilitation clinic.” But for the next year she continues to rake her feelings across the coals, hope keeps popping up that they could resume, humiliation continues. In the end, it takes her showing up at his studio to return a DVD and joining him and his other woman for dinner, waiting around on the sidewalk until the lights go off, knocking on his door, him looking like he “swallowed a snake” because he was waiting for the other woman, not her.

The Russian poet Mayakovsky pops up again for the second time today for me, a sign from the universe, referenced throughout the book. The other sighting from Anne Boyer.

Translated from Swedish by Sarah Death.

Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000

I feel like I’m on an endless and epic journey whenever I dive into the details of the historical art scene. There’s too much to discover and learn about in the previous decades and it interferes with keeping up with what people are doing today and now. But if you don’t understand what went before, how can you grasp what is currently?

This is a hysterically excellent book that you are almost forced to read with a laptop nearby to look up all the referenced films, like When You Are A Pedestrian (1948) out of the Oakland film co-op Progressive Pictures or Tribune-American Dream Picture (1924) which turned people’s dreams into surreal silent films. Oh Dem Watermelons (1965) by Robert Nelson- they roll one down the truly crookedest street in SF at 3:55. Schmeerguntz (1966) by Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley (really wish I could find the whole thing but only an excerpt avail online)-a “long, raucous belch in the face of the ‘American home.'”- put together from shots of the unmentionable side of home life juxtaposed against advertising that glamorizes life. Chick Strand’s Loose Ends (1979)– Chick is “a great poet, transcending her material to create a surreal and sublime universe beyond reason.” Barbara Hammer’s 1975 Superdyke. Bruce Conner’s 1958 A Movie was pivotal, of course.

The book is a collection of essays and interviews, stuffed full of tantalizing film stills. Rebecca Solnit weighs in with the first essay, talking about how post-WW2 “there was a sense that no one was watching, that you could do whatever you wanted, that you’d escaped the rules. You moved to New York to enter history, to San Francisco to reinvent or subvert it at a safe distance.”

Bruce Conner includes an essay on how he got involved: he’d heard of Frank Stauffacher starting the Art in Cinema series at SFMOMA (which fizzled when Stauffacher died suddenly), in SF he rented 16mm prints from the Audio Film Center (with library of American mainstream movies, comedies, foreign, documentary, experimental and silent films) but it was hard to see films and there were no film societies. Conner helped build a theater on Kearney/Broadway called The Movie in 1957 then created Camera Obscura Film Society in 1958. His comment about his first film: “I had been waiting 10 years to see a movie that I was sure someone would make sooner or later. I envisioned that it would comprise pictures and sound tracks taken from many different movies. Every time I saw another movie I added another element to the vision I created in my mind. My involvement in film groups was to explore and discover obscure movies with the expectation that I would see this concept in a movie. Although I wasn’t planning to be a filmmaker, by 1957 it had become apparent that there was no one but me to do the job.”

Early heavyweights like Eadweard Muybridge (moving pictures) and Philo Farnsworth (TV) flowed through the area. Philo came up with the idea of rasterized images while plowing the family farm in Idaho but found investment in the idea in SF. His telegram back to his assistant gives an interesting glimpse in how people coordinated meetups in 1926: “Meet us corner California and Powell every day at noon until we get there.”

Terrific interview with Rick Prelinger about amateur film clubs. Learned that Headlands art center was inspired from an offshoot of CAI/CEIA which was an organization within SFSU; they occupied an SFSU-owned surplus WW2 submarine base on Tiburon and converted the barracks into galleries.

Tape Music Center on Divisadero was a location for showing some of the experimental films from Canyon Cinema in the early 1960s. They put out a newsletter called Cinemanews and discovered the CIA had a subscription; when the CIA renewed it they sent $1.60 instead of $2 so the group sent them a cryptographic message that was easy to break that said “CIA cheapskates impermissably took a discount for their subscription” and a check arrived for the remaining amount. They were terrified because if the Canyon Cinema folks were being watched, “it meant everybody was being watched.”

In the 1970s the community would gather in weekly salons and at No Nothing’s BYO-BBQs to watch “shorts pieced together with out-of-date raw stock, hand-held/available-light camerawork, and felt-penned found footage, playfully patched and scratched on like mad, then exuberantly unspooled with double-system sound, to the favorite tune of the moment. These were among the most joyful, most unconscious moments in the Bay Area’s found footage saga, treating original and secondhand shots as equally serviceable surfaces for Exacto knife doodlings, direct animation appliques, and rhythmic editing patterns.” Then the 80s came: “The mood changed, studios and labs closed, SOMA fell to gentrification (the original No Nothing site is now home plate in the SF Giants’ ballpark).”

Crystal Palace Market was one of Yvonne Rainer’s favorite places in SF: “a cavernous structure on Market and Eighth with a great arched glass roof housing innumerable stalls selling everything from produce to meat to steam beer. One of the treats of my childhood was accompanying my father on a Saturday afternoon to Joe’s lunch counter for spaghetti and meatballs and listening to them talk in Italian. Joe’s was an oasis of calm amid the smells and clamor of that vast expanse. It was criminal that it was torn down in 1959 to be replaced by an apartment block.” (That apartment block was torn down a few years ago and is bring reborn as fancier apartments with a Whole Foods at retail level.)

Robert Nelson, 2001: “There’s less freedom now to invest one’s full energy in art. Our culture produces so much stuff—entertainment, music, film, videos, everything—that it diminishes the importance of everything. I mean, should we add to that huge pile of shit? Art loses its specialness when it’s so pervasive and when there’s so much competition for people trying to make a career.”

World’s first light show? 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo:

Illumination from “Scintillator” on Morro Castle, Panama-Pacific International Expo, 1915

literally show me a healthy person

Short, intensely interesting sentences careen out of this portrait of a young poet dealing with the death of her mother, modern life, a callous father, unstable relationships. Darts  sent directly into the center target of my heart, I’m gasping reading this as I swoon under my own imprecise befuddlement about my social womb. “what’s the word for ‘ex’ but for when the relationship was all in your head” eviscerates me and then I’m delighted by “air is fake” “imagine imagining ur wedding day” “i fell on my head last night. i cant tell what time it is. seems like every or none or the color green.” Going to have to classify this as narrative poetry, or possibly an epic poem, charting the journey from nowhere to nowhere and emotionally flayed along the way.

Obedience to Authority

A nice companion piece to Eichmann in Jerusalem, this is the complete report of the Milgram experiments that I’ve long heard of. The Yale experiments took place in the 1950s as Milgram tried to understand how ordinary Germans could have let the Holocaust happen. In the experiment, the victim is asked to zap an actor with (fake) electric current when they get a word pair answer wrong, increasing the voltage each time and continuing despite the yelps of pain from the actor. Not surprisingly, blind obedience went up as soon as the person receiving the “shocks” was placed farther away; distance creating the necessary space for ignoring the humanity of the actor. Some people refused to continue but they were a sad tiny minority. Most blasted all the way to 450+ volts under the command of the experimenter. There are a lot of factors at play, and they addressed them in subsequent versions of the experiment. Most interesting was taking it out of the formal Yale lab and into a somewhat scuzzy storefront in downtown, removing all affiliation with the university. People were much less likely to blindly follow instructions. Also played with factors like: whether the person getting zapped looked like he deserved it, the personality of the research instructor, one group deigned to test women (they’re just as blindly obedient as men), whether having just a normal guy take over when the researcher stepped out for a phone call had any effect (people less likely to obey just a man on the street).

Seven Years in Tibet

I’m a sucker for these types of books about arduous journeys to strange lands, but like most books of the kind written by men this one has serious problems. Harrer was a German citizen taken into a prisoner of war camp in India at the outbreak of WWII. He escapes twice, the last journey takes him into the wild windswept heights of Tibet where he and companions sneak or haggle or somehow make their way into the interior where they are forbidden from venturing. This is the part that’s most interesting, the battle against the elements, describing the various nomads met along the way, the endless cups of butter tea. Nearly frozen, it is a cup of this butter tea that restores him to his senses enough to see what a beauty his hostess is. He’s delighted later to find that women are frequently offered for the “use” of their guests.

They eventually sneak and stagger into Lhasa, the city where the Dali Lama lives, and the descriptions of life are engaging for a while before petering off into pure tedium of fawning over the Living Buddha once they gain access to him. We learn from Harrer that “women know nothing about equal rights and are quite happy as they are. They spend hours making up their faces, restringing their pearl necklaces, choosing new material for dresses, and thinking how to outshine Mrs. So-and-so at the next party.” Yawn, these patriarchal accounts are so predictably boring.

The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

Reading Robert Caro’s latest book, Working, got me juiced up about reading LBJ stuff again, so I started from the beginning with Volume I. Johnson’s early years struggling with his family’s poverty, his sycophantic years just beginning in college sucking up to those in power, chasing after the daughters of rich men, fully energized, launching himself a career in Washington as the secretary for a local Congressman and taking the town by storm. He brings electricity to the Hill Country finally in 1939, for which they will be forever grateful. He greases the wheels and learns the maze of how to get things done, pushing projects that will help him get financial backing from Herman Brown which in turn he provides to other Congressmen in exchange for favors. Not my favorite of his books, but that may be because my interest in LBJ wavered midway through the 700+ pages.

Laura & Emma

When I went to grab the image of this book for the review, I discovered a blurb for the book from Jonathan Franzen that makes me question whether he read the book, since he called it “a moving and intricately braided story of two mothers.” Mostly it’s a story about Laura, a WASPy New Yorker (7th generation) coasting through life on her family’s money who decides to keep the pregnancy she has with a one-night stand (the burglar who pretended to be her brother Nicholas’s friend from boarding school), and Emma, the daughter. Enjoyed the complex portrait of a woman who doesn’t need the same kind of relationships that everyone else seems to have (husband, or boyfriend, or even girlfriend). The other mother that Franzen references is Laura’s childhood friend Margaret, who can’t get pregnant and thus adopts, but at the end has a surprise mid-40s pregnancy. Margaret and Charlotte (her daughter) are fringe elements to Laura’s story, not substantial parts of a braided story. I appreciated the ending, Laura locked out on her snowy penthouse balcony spreading her mother’s ashes after many years, deciding to finally raise her voice and get her downstairs neighbor to let her in (after he kept the chairs he borrowed from her for many months).

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding, its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis

Who would want to read a book about Oklahoma City? Turns out, when well-written, a lot of people. Thoroughly enjoyed this work of Sam Anderson weaving the improbable tale of their NBA team (the Thunder) in amidst historical facts that blow your mind. The city itself was formed on a single day, in the Land Run, where people just grabbed a plot of land and claimed it. The bugles were sounded at noon on April 23, 1889 and a free for all began. Other colorful characters emerge in the story, like following Wayne from The Flaming Lips around (painting rainbows in the street), remembering civil rights legend Clara Luper who staged sit-ins months before the famous ones to claim the right to be served at the same establishments as whites, tracking tornadoes and other major storms with Gary England (famed meteorologist). Great interesting stuff here.

The Last Black Unicorn

Tiffany Haddish is a delight, and this memoir layers on more details about her upbringing—foster care due to her mother’s mental instability caused by her stepfather cutting the brakes in the car (he bought life insurance policies on all the family and planned to cash out), working Bar Mitzvahs as a teenager to pump up the crowd, living out of her car until Kevin Hart loaned her enough money for a hotel room and then helped her find an apartment, her crazy marriage/divorce/remarriage/redivorce to the same abusive man, working for an airline and dating her coworker who lived in a group home for handicapped, using a Groupon to take Will Smith and Jada on a swamp tour. Great stories, helped into book form by Tucker Max by way of his company, Book in a Box?

Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie’s best known book is a bit of a yawn, actually. Hercule Poirot accidentally stumbles onto a murder orchestrated by twelve people who all had connections to a family that was killed/devastated by a murderer who was set free. The twelve of them conspired to each stab the victim so they wouldn’t know who produced the vital blow.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

Really enjoyed this well-written book from the perspective of a therapist dealing with her own issues plus a look into her practice with three sample clients—the jerk who pushes everyone away, the dying woman, and the 69 year old depressed woman who vows to turn her life around by age 70 or kill herself (spoiler: she lives!). Gottlieb’s first career was in writing for movies and television, but she got interested in medicine working on the show ER. She eventually goes to med school but supports herself with journalism. Finally, she becomes a psychologist and starts helping people WHILE enjoying their stories, a perfect blend of creativity and health. Along the way her soon-to-be-husband dumps her because she has a young son and he doesn’t want to live with kids again (his own are finally leaving the nest, he wants to enjoy his freedom). This sends her scurrying for a therapist of her own to deal with the breakup, and we dip into the inner workings of therapy along the way. Highly readable and chock full of discreet bits that might help you wrangle your thoughts.

Still Life

One of the best things in life is traveling to a family member’s home, where they know you well and where they have your book waiting for you in the guest room, saving you one additional title in your luggage. Devoured this one over a few days in NJ where I kept barking suspects at my sister (“I think Ruth did it.” “No, I know now, Peter’s the one!”). Rainy weekend helped my cause. Entertainment at the lightest.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

We’re not meant to feel sorry for Eichmann in Arendt’s writeup of the 1960 show trial that followed after Israel kidnapped Eichmann hiding in a nest of Nazis in Argentina. And yet, he is pathetic. The trial and Arendt’s book expose him as the worst kind of following-orders-without-thinking cog in the Nazi wheel that obliterated millions of Jews in the Holocaust. He was a simpleton who couldn’t think beyond catch-phrases, perfect for manipulation by grander, eviler minds. Himmler coined slogans that stuck into Eichmann’s brain, being told that he was involved in something grand, historic, instead of focusing on the actual murdering that was going on. He’s not a monster, but a dimwitted clown.

Arendt calls out contemporary (1960s) Germany for its self-deception and believing in the lies that spewed forth from the regime. She also pinpoints another group for guilt: those Jewish leaders who assiduously took notes of names and property to ensure the smoothest of handovers to the Nazis, leading their lambs to slaughter.

One of the “few great [moments] in the whole trial,” according to Arendt, is when Eichmann’s defense lawyer declared the accused innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for “the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters,” being interrupted by one of the judges to ask if a slip of the tongue was made when describing these killings as medical matters. Nope, Servatius says, “It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter.” Jaw on floor, this will serve me well when evaluating whether the current state of the U.S. has reached the depths of depravity (not yet).

Strange attitudes of countries willing to exterminate other country’s Jews but not their own—Arendt provides examples of this in Germany and France. Eichmann himself feels he was a friend to the Jew, attempting to find refuge for them in the first years before buckling down to provide the final solution.

The actual phrase “banality of evil” is used only once, as the last words of the book before the epilogue, describing Eichmann’s last acts before he was executed when he contradicted himself and used clichés, Arendt calls it “the grotesque silliness of his last words.” It’s an instructive read for any student of history, as well as any person aware of current events in the U.S.