Friday, September 28, 2012


Or should it be OH! Really?

Herewith link to opinion piece by Howell Raines (whose writing I have much respect for) on FOX.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Simon Johnson, on Slate, tells us:

"No one has succeeded in the modern American political game like the biggest banks on Wall Street, which lobbied for deregulation during the three decades prior to the crisis of 2008, and then pushed back effectively against almost all dimensions of financial reform. Their success has paid off handsomely. The top executives at 14 leading financial firms received cash compensation (as salary, bonus, and/or stock options exercised) totaling roughly $2.5 billion in from 2000 to 2008, with five individuals alone receiving $2 billion. But these masters of the universe did not earn that money without massive government assistance. By being perceived as “too big to fail,” their banks benefit from a government backstop or downside guarantee. They can take on more risk—running a more highly leveraged business with less shareholder capital. They get bigger returns when things go well and receive state support when fortune turns against them: heads they win, tails we lose. And the losses are colossal. According to a recent report on the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, prepared by Better Markets, an advocacy group that pushes for stronger financial reforms, the cost to the U.S. economy of the financial crisis—caused by financial institutions’ reckless risk-taking—amounts to at least $12.8 trillion. A big part of this cost has come in the form of jobs lost and lives derailed for the bottom 47 percent of the American income distribution."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Per L.Z. Granderson in Slate: "Republicans, especially in the South, who are not rich, better take a good, long hard look at the man and what he said in the video. It may seem like Romney is trashing Democrats at the $50,000-a-plate dinner, but really he's talking about Republicans. Eight of the 10 states with the highest percentage of filers who didn't pay federal income taxes are red states that voted for John McCain in 2008: Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Idaho."


Photography, like abstract art to some degree, poses difficulties for the critic in assessing value or beauty, beyond that of the image's appeal in itself. Some argue that the only important thing is how the viewer relates to it and does the work somehow alter their worldview or aesthetic. The background story, or intent of the artist, should not necessarily impact on the evaluation, but of course it does. And the history or inspiration of a picture or painting is occasionally more interesting than the work itself, in fact sometimes threatens to overshadow it. Art does not live in a vacuum. Recently I was introduced to the startling and beautiful images of tragic Francesca Woodman, who in a short time as a young woman produced a riveting body of work that influences photographers today. The daughter of artists, including a celebrated ceramicist mother, at age 22 she took her life, and like so many in any genre cut down prematurely, one wonders how that act deprived the world of genius, of images that could have changed humanity (and with art, it seems to me, always for the better). Of course, one can never know and can only judge what was actually contributed and left behind. Retrospective exhibits, the documentary The Woodmans, as well as printed collections such as Chris Townsend's Francesca Woodman, provide art lovers with an opportunity to see a small sampling of the images she produced (reportedly more than 10,000 taken over the span of around five years).

Not having much of a photography background, I sometimes wonder about the art of it, if photographers are rewarded more for taking a beautiful shot or for recognizing the most impressive shots out of hundreds they took on any one day. Is creation as much accidental as effort? I suppose this is true for almost any art. . .how many poems are thrown away, or repeatedly altered? How many canvases painted over or destroyed, the most appealing left hopefully in the hands of the reverent? Lyricists and musicians produce hundreds, even thousands, of songs, yet may only garner one hit. Not every artist, of course, but even the most celebrated ones seem to produce a pile of. . .well, shall we say that there are few masterpieces in the overall body of artistic endeavor. Abstract art is particularly open to this criticism, me thinks.

What I have seen of Woodman's photographs is amazing. I don't like all of it, but the body of work is remarkable, black and white images that capture the eye and draw the viewer in. Although commentators often focus on her nude images (both of herself and models), I don't feel that they were intentionally erotic, but an attempt to juxtapose a youthful, fresh, clean beauty against a decaying world, a darker existence; she seems to want to capture darkness, to strip the image to basic elements, and this often required nudity. Her subjects are often blurred, or covered by torn wallpaper, other photographs, or masks. Her backgrounds are uniformly consistent: old abandoned rooms with peeling paint and plaster, raw unfinished denuded walls, water stains and corrupted corners, floors cluttered with the detritus of years, brick and masonry exposed to the elements. I can almost imagine her scouting through neighborhoods looking for abandoned buildings or dusty attics, chasing out squatters for a moment so she can capture an image. It is a wonder she didn't use more dead animals, or that she didn't take pictures of the poor or street people. She clearly enjoyed experimenting with shadows and angles. Her blurred visions are almost spectral. Mirrors are often an important element. So much of the work seems to be saying, "Come look at me, come see how I am playing with light, learning, growing." Alas, it is almost heartbreaking to think of how amazing her work would have been in her more mature hand.

Some images stand out for me, and they are not the nudes (as lovely as she was). Francesca sitting next to a boyfriend, his face blurred by a sudden movement seems to bespeak of her dissatisfaction with love (though it may originally have been just one image culled from a series). Francesca dressed in black, looking like a widowed Italian woman, the only hint of ornament the trim along the edge of her neckline, her hands, made to look weather worn by shadows laid out in the crease formed by her thighs, her face and eyes seeming wary, elusive, sad. Francesca dressed in a nightshirt hanging Jesus-like from a door frame with a black chair in the forefront, the black and white tiles contrasting against the white walls. Her shadow series, made by blowing flour over her body leaving a dark outline of her shape, as if her camera had been an atomic blast.


Art has to capacity to obsess and dominate individuals, especially creators, and it can lead to wonder but also tragedy, even madness for some. In the case of an entire family immersed in art all the waking hours, the stresses and competitiveness might be too difficult to handle. But outsiders seldom get to open a window on this world from the inside, getting perspective that is personal and intimate, as is the case in the beautiful documentary The Woodmans (2011), featuring the remarkable photography of Francesca Woodman, the interesting ceramics of her mother Betty, the painting of her father George, and mixed media work of her brother Charlie. Unfortunately the apparently fragile and unfulfilled Francesca could not handle some aspect of her world and chose to end her life. In this film her parents prominently try to tell their daughter's story. I really liked a lot of her work, though often not what others might have enjoyed the most; she was daring, an exhibitionist, a provocateur. Her peers and teachers recognized her talent, but like her father, recognition on a broader, commercial, museum scale lagged; Betty, stern and demanding, seemed to get much more applause. There is a lot to absorb here: the confusion and yearning of an artistic young woman, the loss experienced by parents, the value of art, the beauty of individual works, the preservation of legacy. There were a few times I thought that there could have been a little critical assessment, but overall I really enjoyed the movie (and the haunting score).

Monday, September 17, 2012


This past weekend William Athey, who I always knew simply as Bill (or sometimes Billy), died in an ultra-light accident in Florida. He was 53. Although I don’t recall seeing him after he graduated from Leto High School a year ahead of me (I sometimes heard about what he was doing through the grapevine), he was a formative and frequent presence in my life from the time I moved to Odessa and joined the Boy Scouts in 1971 until 1975. He was about a year older than me, and at various times we held leadership positions (always senior to me) in Troop 68, the Keystone Kampers. He was a solid guy, kind of like Clark Kent, seemingly indestructible and always on the side of righteousness. He took scouting very seriously, and from what I have heard lived up to the Scouting ideal, where I was a bit more freewheeling about it. You could rely on him, and he was a great camper and hiker. Sometimes I felt he was too serious, but he would give you a wry grin if he thought something was funny. In 1974 we shared the stage as newly minted Eagle Scouts, and the pictures show this towering rock standing next to me (I seem pretty silly looking). He probably was bemused that I was getting the award at the same time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had asked that it be that way rather than separate celebrations, because he was that kind of guy. I am sure our scoutmaster Larry Vaughn would have said Bill was one of the best boys he had ever mentored. In fact, it is probably safe to say that Bill was a far better scout and man than I could ever be. Had I remained in the Tampa area I definitely would have made sure that he was the Scoutmaster to my two boys. That’s how much I respected him. The one indelible image I have of him from our scouting days was a wild nighttime capture-the-flag battle in the Ocala National Forest, as I tried to match him step for step on opposing sides of a railroad cut through the woods, both of us running full speed, when suddenly he seemed to be running on thin air as if he were Wily Coyote. Unbeknownst to him, the railroad builders had made a side cut and his edge of the wall jogged right unexpectedly. I know that it was unchivalrous of me, but I doubled over in laughter, after he called up from the dark that he was bruised but ok. It was that funny. God bless him and his family, especially his younger sister Sybil, whom I knew from her days as a Girl Scout with my sisters. Bill leaves behind two sons, and there will be hundreds saddened by the news of his passing.

A few more pictures of Bill at the Eagle ceremony can be found at


Sometimes a horrible crime can open the door for storytelling and movie making, but one does not expect it to be a comedy. One such example is the delightful Bernie (2011) starring Jack Black as the true-life assistant funeral director who was beloved in his small East Texas community, especially by the widows, who gets increasingly sucked into the personal life of an (allegeldy mean-spirited) wealthy widow (played wonderfully by Shirley MacLaine) and in some unexplainable moment shoots her to death. Black brings all of his singing, comedic, and acting skills together to play a really unusual role, that is truly funny without seeming too gross or over-the-top; he is the perfect actor for the role. Matthew McConaughey is also great as the DA determined to make Bernie pay for his crime despite the overall wish of the community to let him go free. Presented in a documentary style with local actors playing gossips, the director (Richard Linklater) seems to capture the essence of East Texas mentality and life.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Watched tonight the powerful, troubling, heartbreaking Iranian movie A Separation (2011) directed by Asghar Farhadi. Peyman Moadi plays Nader, a good man and father, loving son and caretaker to his Alzheimer's stricken father, struggling with not only that burden but raising his eleven-year-old daughter as his wife Simin decides to file for a divorce in an attempt to pressure him to leave Iran (I think because she got a teaching opportunity overseas). Leila Hatami plays his wife. Sarina Farhadi does a nice job as the daughter. This is not a movie one can walk away from without jumbled emotions. It will make you angry, frustrated, heart-weary, and sad. Although advertised as a story of a conflict between separating husband and wife, it really is about lies, how they snowball and can cause a swath of pain. I must say that for the most part my sympathies lay with Nader, who is forced to hire a pregnant woman (played by Sareh Bayat) whose actions will cause chaos for two families and thrust them into the Iranian court system. Her husband is ably played by Shahab Hosseini. There are many social, cultural, legal and religious issues that bubble up throughout the story, not all of which I fully understood. What power do the women really have in Iran (although clearly much more than in many Islamic countries)? How do individuals tread the quivering highwire as they deal with honor, truth, family, responsibility, emotional pain, fear? Does the judicial system work fairly (and in this case I thought the portrayal was somewhat favorable to the judge in this instance)? What is the role of blood money, authority within a marriage, the crushing weight of unemployment and failure, the lure of better opportunity against the responsibilities of family and country, and many other issues. This movie has been widely acclaimed and honored, rightly so, but it is not an easy film to watch, but will reward the viewer if they take the chance.

Monday, September 10, 2012


This weekend I finished the first entry in the fantasy fiction genre, Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim. Having been (and still) an avid reader of Jim Butcher's Dresden series, all I can say is move over Harry, at least a bit, because I enjoyed this series as much as I enjoy that one. James Stark (Sandman Slim) is an angry, revenge-seeking mythological human/something else who returns from Hell to eliminate the miscreants who sent him to the underworld in the first place. There, as the first human, he is forced to fight in the arena, where surprisingly he finds he cannot die and does well in defeating his Hellion opponents. The result of his battles is that he becomes increasingly stronger and proficient in battle, and he yearns to avenge the death of his beloved Alice. Like Jim Butcher, Kadrey has constructed a world filled with unusual and vibrant characters who infest a major city, this time Los Angeles instead of Chicago, who clash and connive like the demons and angels they are. Slim's sidekicks include Candy, a blood-drinking Jade (kind of like a violent, seductress vampire); Vidocq, a several century old French alchemist; Allegra, a smart video-store employee who is brought into his new circle; Kinski, an otherworldly (I don't want to ruin it for you) magical healer; and a host of lesser characters who are interesting and destined to continue to play roles, I am sure, in the future books. Kadrey is a bit more blasphemous and violent than Butcher, but entertaining in much the same way. There are frequent references to pop culture and witty observations on the dark side of life in the City of Angels (which seems apt). I really couldn't put down the volume, and I know I will be spending a lot of time with Sandman, much in the same way I did when I came under Butcher's spell.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Ted Strickland: “Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport."

Julian Castro: "I don't think Gov. Romney meant any harm. I think he's a good guy. He just has no idea how good he's had it."

Harry Reid: "Never in modern American history has a presidential candidate (Romney) tried so hard to hide himself from the people he hopes to serve."

Reid: "We must stop the Tea Party before the United States Senate falls into the hands of extremists and ideologues, who leave no room for reason or compromise, who don't recognize common ground even when they're standing on it."

Deval Patrick: "Mitt Romney talks a lot about all the things he's fixed. I can tell you that Massachusetts wasn't one of them."

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Every once in a while a weird, violent, unusual movie comes along, and you miss it at the theater and then you just forget about it, even if you knew about it in the first place. That's right. You never saw it, until years later you picked it up on dvd and you are amazed not only by the story, but by the great cast of young actors that you know much better for their later works. Somewhere in the late 1990s, before his groundbreaking Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino wrote True Romance (1993), which ended up being directed by Tony Scott. The story is fairly simple, about an Elvis-ghost-seeing comic bookstore clerk who falls in love with a callgirl from Alabama, who then confronts her pimp and in the melee that follows walks away with $500,000 in cocaine, that is owned by the mob and they intend to get it back. A few of the actors would have been well known at the time the movie was made, including Christian Slater, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L. Jackson, Conchata Ferrell (at least by face), Chris Penn, and Gary Oldman. Patricia Arquette had been in a few things and would have been recognizable (and she was beautiful in a cute way), though this may have been her first big movie. Val Kilmer (who you really don't see him in the role as the Elvis ghost) would have been known because of his roles in Top Gun and The Doors. Brad Pitt had recently made hearts flutter in Thelma & Louise and A River Runs Trough It, but he was yet the marguee name (and he plays a wonderful stoner). Bronson Pinchot was working his way from his Balki days on television. Relatively new faces included Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini (channeling his later turn as Tony Soprano), Tom Sizemore, Michael Beach, and a few other lesser names that nonetheless have popped up both on the big screen and on television. A producer probably couldn't come close to being able to assemble this cast today for less than a few hundred million. This is not a movie for kids, much bad language, sex, situations, and violence, but it is pretty good.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


There was a time when I considered James Lee Burke one of my favorite authors, and I still read his books, having finished two recently while waiting for the latest Robicheaux to hit my desk. He can be downright expressive with description, positively lyrical in fact, but he is also like that super-bright student who just slides by on talent because he can, taking the C rather than working for the A. Yes, I am reluctantly saying that Burke is a lazy writer. I am starting to feel about him like a spouse of forty years who you love and never plan to leave, but you know their every tick and repetition by heart and can see through personal screens others cannot. Although you let them get by with the irritations, they sometimes grind at you. Nevertheless, at the end of the day you crawl into the bed and hope for another day. I've written about some of these issues before (see BURKE BASHING), but while reading Cimarron Rose and Heartwood, a competing series Burke engaged in that may just have been his way to get some distance from Robicheaux or perhaps to just make some more cash, but I found weaknesses and repetitions that kept popping up with irritating regularity. Some would say that I am nitpicking, and why even comment on these matters when no one really cares, especially since I will likely keep on reading his books anyway. And I will. . . I truly enjoy Robicheaux, Cleve, and the world Burke created for them. Some writing problems may be because Burke has gotten to be such a bestseller than publishers don't put editors on his books. Or perhaps not, but then that means we have a writer who is unable to change the temper and design of his words or stories, despite the often wonderful descriptive rifts, especially in developing the dialogue. Every character from the littlest to eldest, male or female, domestic or foreign, cop or civilian, ghost or seer, good or bad, talks and thinks as if they are one. True, like so many serial writers, there is little alteration of basic plot, solutions and action seldom develop beyond a well-worn path, but in Burke's work his characters practically all have the same brains and delivery---heroes, villains, and others. Action, plot, and pacing will often mirror that of previous books. You can be almost certain that someone will get beaten in a bathroom (often with a head put in a toilet, or the threat of such); some character, often the protagonist, will pick up an object and sucker punch a rival; a mystical spirit or individual will provide guidance and/or pithy commentary from beyond; one (or more) women will be constantly irritated with the main character (and often have a short life span to boot), with conversations tortured and angry; and someone will always be told to take something out of their mumbling mouth (in Heartwood it was "brown mule", and there is also a reference to taking shit out of one's teeth---a two-fer---but in other books multiple characters say distinctly similar words, with only the item changing, be it mashed potatoes, mud, marbles, etc). It was aggravating enough in his earlier books, but redundancy escalated in the Billy Bob Holland series. Repeatedly Burke employs familiar phrases, or outright retells information, as if the reader is an idiot. In some cases he does it literally within a few paragraphs, three times in two pages ("a Berkeley graduate, in Vermont"). He insists on spelling out every name, almost as if he is a high schooler padding his term paper. He employs favorite words ad nauseum, such as dimpled, flecked, marbled, flopped, fecund, rippled and a host of others, as well as scenes regular readers of have become all too comfortable with. In one he had a thing for organdy. In both BBH books, I think he mentioned his horse was a Morgan about three times, apiece. And his narrator's voice occasionally veers toward the racist, sexist side, particularly when several characters as well use objectionable words (which I do not believe reflects Burke's actual beliefs, as evidenced by occasional sermons that take a liberal bent). When a reader tackles only one or two of Burke's books, he can get away with it, but his loyal fans deserve better. I wonder if this is part of the reason he is not placed amongst the higher pantheon of writers, adored but not respected at the same level.


The Republicans have harped on a sound byte, taken out of context from the middle of a speech. Seems clear to me that Obama was talking about how much the federal government has contributed to setting the stage for individual business buidling and financial success through infrastructure, public services, and other aspects of government involvement:

"Look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own," he said. "You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.

"If you've got a business -- you didn't build that," he continued. "Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own."