Last night we watched Living In The Material World, the George Harrison documentary that Martin Scorsese made a few years ago. It’s very good. It’s about half George’s solo career and life after 1970, and the other half is his childhood and the Beatles years, without going into too much detail. Overall, the film makes the point that George Harrison was very good at balancing his spiritual and earthly selves: he could perform, have relationships, produce movies, play jokes, and make money, but he also was the guy who could just float away on a cloud of spiritual sound.
The documentary has no narration, so the individual clips and interviews speak for themselves. Which is nice. You don’t feel like you’re being spoon-fed or distanced. So, for example, it opens with film of the World War II bombings in England, coupled with the song “All Things Must Pass.” The documentary also includes letters George wrote to his family, while the Beatles were in their first years of touring, read by Dhani Harrison, which is heartwarming and also kind of eerie.
Dhani Harrison is totes adorbs, by the way.
So, for three hours, I put away my phone, knitted, and watched this documentary about someone who spent their life trying to make the world a better place for everyone he met. It seems as though he did. George Harrison was no pushover, there is a part that shows him telling a reporter to step off shortly after the announcement of his cancer diagnosis. But in general, people talk about his literal and spiritual generosity, his peacefulness, how he could walk into a room and make everyone there calm and happy. It’s infectious, and leaves you wanting to sign up for a meditation course.
Then I picked up my phone, checked Facebook and Twitter, and found out about the Zimmerman verdict.
When I was young, and learning to drive, my mom and grandmother, on the other hand, gave me the talk about Driving While Female and Dealing With Police. They said, “if you are driving alone at night, and a cop tries to pull you over, drop your speed, get over towards the side, and drive your car to the nearest well-lit and populated area, where people can clearly see you.” and then, don’t sass off, make eye contact, make sure they can see your hands.
One night, I was at home on a Saturday night because my boyfriend was working at the local movie theater. This was back in the days when movies were on magnetic tape in small plastic boxes and you had to go to a store and borrow them in exchange for money. I had a hankering to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, so I went down to the local video store, rented the movie, stopped at the convenience store next door, got some tasty snacks, and thought, I bet my boyfriend would like a tasty snack (not a euphemism). so I took the long way home, stopped by the box office, said hi, gave him a snack, got back in the car and headed home. I knew my parents would be pissed at me for being gone for more than the fifteen minutes it really takes to rent a movie, so I was a little anxious.
It was probably about 8:30pm, after dark, and I turned onto a long downhill stretch that’s clearly marked at a speed limit that is less than your car would take if you were coasting. It’s the kind of road that suburban teenagers and idiots love to burn through, so you almost have to fight your car’s weight a bit to stay under the speed limit. I always liked this strip of road, and I always liked the challenge of trying to coast and stay as close to the speed limit as possible. So I coasted the mile or so to the next stop light. Was I speeding? I don’t know. Was I pressing the pedal to the metal? No.
At the next stop light, I noticed that the car behind me had its high-beams on, as if the driver were trying to intimidate me, or see what radio station I had on, who knows. It was bright enough to make me think, Jeez, somebody’s a bit too interested in me.
Having been followed late at night by guys trying to intimidate women before, I thought, that doesn’t look good. Delaware County has a lot of bored people, and a lot of cars. It wasn’t uncommon for bored male drivers to try to intimidate female drivers around there, and I had been followed by unsavory creepy drivers before (once I had to drive back to the movie theater after a late-night shift because a drunk guy followed me, and as he told my friends after they got between his car and mine, “I was just tryin’ to get some pussy”). I told myself that this was all in my head, and to get home so my mom wouldn’t be mad.
So, I turned onto a winding, forested back road to get home, and the car followed. I thought, okay, please leave me alone, pal. The high-beams filled my rear window, and I got scared. I sped up. Next thing I know, the rearview mirror was full of spinning red and blue lights.
Within sixty seconds, a young State Police officer was shining a flashlight in my face and asking why I was driving so fast on a back road. In a panic, I spit out that I had been followed by Bad People before, that I thought this was happening again, that I was scared and trying to get away from him.
A few seconds of silence passed.
The officer apologized, gave me back my documents, and said I was free to go.
When I got home, I told my mom what had happened. She told me that in my dad’s years in criminal litigation, he’d heard many stories from police officers in suburban areas who used to intimidate young women with threats of speeding tickets and having their license taken away in exchange for blow jobs.
Is this the same as The Talk and Driving While Black? No.
Have I encountered police officers whose ego was bigger than their intelligence? Yep.
-An ex of mine had a story about how, at about age 17, he was walking from a girlfriend’s house to his car, parked several blocks away, after dark, and was picked up by the police because someone had seen trespassers in the area. He was handcuffed to a radiator and hollered at by cops until they got bored and let him go.
-Once upon a time in New Jersey, I carefully made a legal left turn onto a road and was pulled over by a bored State Police cop who didn’t like my rainbow bumper sticker, and offered to take apart my car to search for marijuana. I was dumb enough to say, “Go right ahead, knock yourself out, you won’t find anything.” He decided not to search my car. I guess he didn’t want to do the paperwork. My car was impounded, and when he asked if I understood why he was taking my car and issuing a ticket, I said, “No, I don’t. Why did you pull me over?” he said, “I always pull over cars that have…” then he gestured at the back bumper of my car, waving left-to right, following the pattern of the rainbow sticker, and said, “License plates like that.”
The Zimmerman case isn’t about police intimidation. He wasn’t a police officer. He’s a small man with an ego bigger than his intelligence. It’s “hey you kids get off my lawn” taken to the worst possible conclusion. I’m angry that the prosecution didn’t make a stronger case, and wondering exactly what kind of rocks the jurors live under.
I’m wondering why we’re a nation of intolerance and ignorance. We all have the capacity for compassion and empathy, we all have the opportunity to sit down and quiet our minds or de-escalate a drama. I don’t understand the attachment to violence George Zimmerman must have to not just leave Trayvon Martin alone.
It’s a dangerous precedent.
On that note, here’s a classic piece of American literature which I think should be recommended reading in all schools. Be kind today.
David Bowie turns 66 today, and, true to form as a brilliant marketing person as well as an artist, he’s giving us all a birthday present. His new album is released today, with a new single, ‘Where Are We Now?’ with an accompanying video. The short film by Tony Oursler is as captivating as any of Mr. B’s other projects, a calm, pensive exploration of one’s place in the last 66 years.
He was born in 1947 (same year as my mom) into an England repairing itself from World War II. The tragedies of that time were so horrible it was believed that the human race could never, ever do anything so bad to its fellow creatures ever again. Of course, history has shown that humans have an amazing tendency to shoot themselves in the foot. Repeatedly. The video for ‘Where Are We Now?’ is crafted to show Mr. B’s diverse drives concerning his role as a pop artist in a world where disasters are quickly forgotten, covered by a fresh coat of paint and a pretty PR campaign.
The video opens with a shot of what appears to be a large, cut diamond, on a cluttered surface, at the center of a cold visual field. Most viewers will instantly believe this to be fake: glass paperweights and plastic tchotchkes like this sell everywhere from Tiffany’s to A.C. Moore. Later we’ll look at what the faceted jewel signifies and what it actually is. Don’t let me forget. (Cripes, hang onto your butt, because this could get more rambly than Quentin Tarantino’s famous speech from Sleep With Me about the homoerotic nature of Top Gun. But, the only person with a more calculated sense of image other than David Bowie outside of public office is Madonna, so no detail is in the frame by accident). The next shot is of a broken or disassembled frame without a picture. The glass is intact, and reflects a view of a street, with moving vehicles. It’s sort of a glass half empty/glass half full test: is this garbage, or is it a picture in and of itself? Or is it a symbol of two-dimensional art abandoned?
The point of view moves through a room, again with a cold visual field, cluttered with mismatched objects and evocative of abandonment or disaster. It finally settles on (again, ambivalently), what is either a pile of clutter or an arrangement of mismatched objects, like a still life or installation. The primary focus is on a screen, projected on which are street scenes in black and white, and a doll that appears to be a two-headed baby (which seems to be a not to Mr. Bowie’s embrace of circus freaks and space oddities, cuddly friendly ones). The faces are blank white pillows, on which the faces of Mr. Bowie and an unnamed woman are projected. Their faces are distorted by the projection, pulled tight, into barely-human masks.
As the song proceeds, the text of the lyrics is provided, bit by bit, complementing the rest of the visual experience. The song has the feel of a lullaby or a funeral song, dreamlike and peaceful but also somewhat disquieting, describing the experience of traveling in Berlin. The visual layout and pacing of the sung lyrics seems to be created specifically for this video to be watched online and compared with searches for the terms he uses. Of course, if you’re German, European, or any kind of a serious history student, the words are familiar. If you, like me, are 24 years younger than Mr. B and took American history instead of European, you might want some help from Google.
The song describes the experience of being in Potsdamer Platz, one of the busiest locations in Berlin, watching the crowd go by, on the Nürnbergerstraße, which is a popular shopping and tourist destination, looking at the KaDeWe, an elegant department store, and crossing the Böse Brücke. Today, these would be places where lots of commercial and tourist activity occurs, where supply and demand glitter and groove. However, the history of these locations is heart-stopping.
On November 9, 1989, the Böse Brücke was the first crossing point when the Berlin Wall fell, reuniting East and West Germany, completely changing the consciousness of the nation and the life of every German. The KaDeWe, or Kaufhaus des Westens, is the second largest department store in Europe. It has a greenhouse-covered roof housing a winter garden and restaurant, and anchors a boulevard of designer boutiques to rival any in Los Angeles. The business was founded in 1905, but the Nazis obviously decided to remove the mostly-Jewish management. In 1943 the building was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing, most notably when a plane crashed into the building. Potsdamer Platz itself was divided by the Berlin Wall and turned into a wasteland for much of the Cold War Era. Prior to that, its status as an important gathering place and trading post is recorded as far back as 1685, which made it a high-priority location for Nazi propaganda and offices.
Essentially, Bowie is pointing out that places of ancient plenty and pain are prettied up for profit, and asking “where are we now?” Have we improved as a society, or have we just given history a PR campaign? What does it mean to take places where people struggled and died and turn them into shopping malls?
Let’s go back to the is-it-or-isn’t-it-real diamond for a second. Think about what it actually is, and what it stands for. If it were real, a lot of people would have died to get it out of the earth, transport and protect it. It is probably a glass or plastic imitation of the idea of a giant flawless diamond, manufactured by the thousands in a factory somewhere in China. Think about how it stands out in contrast to the rest of the visual field here: barren gray versus “ooh shiny.” I don’t know about you, but, unfortunately, I live in a world where thirteen-year-olds fight over Louis Vuitton handbags. Not because they earn that kind of money or save up from a paper route or lemonade stand, but because their priorities (and those of their families) have become so wrecked by poor educations and too much advertising that they honestly believe that buying the latest fashion accessory is more important than anything else.
Never mind that this fashion accessory may have been made by a child who was paid maybe five cents a day to make it. Never mind that it was made in a factory in a country with such poor environmental protections that, all together, shopping in the Potsdamer Platz at the KaDeWe can set off a domino effect of money changing hands that results in the kind of widespread all-around badness that can still be as devastating as what happened in Berlin in World War II, just not all at the same time. So, not only are we sweeping tragedy under a very pretty rug, we’re also building another tragedy on top of it.
But, OMG I HAVE TO BUY THE LATEST SHINY TRINKET SO I CAN BE COOL LIKE KIM KARDASHIAN.
Oursler’s film places Bowie and Berlin together by showing footage from when Bowie lived in Berlin. This city and experience figured prominently in Bowie’s life, allowing him a place to get clean from drug use, and helping him create the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger. This film provides an opportunity for younger fans to get to know him, with its (aforementioned) multimedia-friendliness. It also allows older fans to travel down memory lane, back to when “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” really meant something. The lyrics say that he is in a “Dschungel,” or jungle; if you only hear this, it sounds almost exactly like “jungle” is the sung word. “Dschungel” is one of only three word in German that can be masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral. Bowie kicked down a lot of walls for men who liked to wear dresses and makeup, as well as women who liked to wear trousers and suspenders. In this song he isn’t the buoyant alien, or the wild rocker: he’s “a man lost in time, walking the dead,” (sung with the image of someone walking with a dog). The song never refers to the glitz of the shopping arcades, it could take place at any time in history. it’s a reflective story of a traveler walking with ghosts. Whether those ghosts are personal, political, or spiritual is unknown.
The climax of the song is the most universal part, evoking the love-conquers-all message of “Heroes,” with the simplicity of “Everyone Says Hi;”
“as long as there’s sun…
as long as there’s rain…
as long as there’s fire…
as long as there’s me…
as long as there’s you…”
The narrative states that as long as there is human companionship and kindness in balance with nature (sun, rain, fire), everything will be all right.
Disasters are on everyone’s mind this winter, as if they are ever far away. Berlin is a place of agony, where some of the worst of the human race’s offenses occurred. However, for Mr. Bowie, it is also a place of escape, where he created some of his best work and when he got clean. It’s a place of tragedy, commerce, and hope. Coming back to the diamond, we need to think about things (Berlin, Bowie, disasters, ourselves) as a faceted, like a jewel.
But, just who is David Bowie to pass judgment on the human race in the last 66 years of history?
When the images on the screen in the assemblage start to become most personal- point of view shots which take over the entire visual field, the film steps back to include Mr. B himself, looking at the multimedia art installation. Colorful objects are in the foreground, and a dog walks by, wagging its tail. Bowie is in the role of artist here. Despite the bits of warmth in the frame (the red text on the shopping bag, the ginger fur on the dog) he is in pain, clutching a notebook and pen- he’s at work, and his work hurts.
Again, nothing here is by accident. Bags with text saying “Thank you for shopping here!” can be found around the world and clutter every nation. The message, “Thank you for shopping” is not unlike George W. Bush’s message to the American people after 9/11. Bowie’s a businessman, an entertainer: he provides product to consumers. He’s not exempt from any anti-consumerist message, and his hands are no cleaner than anyone else’s. There’s another chunk of text in the shot that’s telling us something: Bowie’s t-shirt says, m/s Song of Norway.
So, just to recap:
he’s wearing a shirt
advertising a cruise ship (cruises being the easiest and most homogenized way to travel)
named after a Hollywood musical (starring Florence Henderson before she became Mrs. Brady)
named after an operetta (for people who find opera too much to handle)
based on a play
about composer Edvard Grieg, and his drive to create music that contributed positively and meaningfully to the national identity of his homeland.
Which really has to be a nod to how a musician creates something and it travels through time like words in a game of whisper down the lane, and eventually you have no way of knowing how you will be remembered or what your impact will be. You can go nearly mad writing “In The Hall Of The Mountain King,” and two hundred years later your music is on Bugs Bunny cartoons and your lasting tribute is a mode of travel for the terminally lazy.
(Oh, snap, I said that. I guess nobody’s giving me free cruise tickets now.)
What? Maybe Bowie always wears his cruise ship t-shirts when he’s just hanging out in the studio? Yeah. Right. The guy did a fashion ad campaign for Gucci, for God’s sake. I don’t think he leaves the house without four hours of planning and several drafts.
However, the last place where we see Bowie is not standing back against the wall with marketing copy. We see him as one of the faces on the conjoined-twin baby doll. After the woman removes her face from the projection, he steps back, but hesitates for a few seconds, as if reluctant to leave. It is as if Mr. Bowie is more comfortable being part of the image he creates than a person in real life.
Mr. B, like his own video, and the fake diamond at the beginning, is multifaceted and not without flaw. But, he’s pretty when the light hits him right, he’s here to entertain you and make you think. and, like a real diamond, he endures.
Yay, timely critical analysis of a short film, whoooohoooo! I gotta go read Ubu Roi now.
Okay, so here’s my quick review of the giant ham and cheese sandwich that is the Nirvana-McCartney shebang last night. which I did not see until 6:30 this morning, which was this recording, while making coffee.
0:04: Dave Grohl: I am totally gonna do that Namaste bow I learned from the hot chicks in yoga class. Yoga chicks love that shit.
0:10: Krist Novoselic: It’s cool, Sir Paul. Half the room has no idea who you are either.
0:21: Pat Smear: Everybody thinks I’m Fred Armisen.
0:22: Paul McCartney: I Am Gowing To Speaak In My Sir Pawl Vowice So Evaryone Knoows I Hawve Bean Knighted. And Sow I Wawrm Up My Vowcal Cowrds Awnd Down’t Crawk Like I Did At The Olympics. We’re Gowing To Jawm Owt This Rawk Hit.
0:26: Krist Novoselic: Okay, so I let my daughter pick out my clothes. At least I’m not wearing a rug that looks like a refugee duck from the BP disaster.
My thoughts about the music: When Novoselic said “It’s gonna sound like Scentless Apprentice and Helter Skelter,” he was right, but I think it sounded more like Come Together. Again, this isn’t the finest recording in the world, it’s pretty good, all things considered, and I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and I thought, of course it’s good. It goes on for 60 seconds too long, but of course it’s good. Your lead guitarist has been playing professionally for over half a century and basically is one of the inventors of the genre, your drummer has been playing in every kind of band since he was a teenager, your bass player has been hanging out for the last 20 years playing music for other people’s bands and saying, “fuck the system,” they’re gonna go through the standard book of basic rock riffs and throw all of them at the audience. I don’t know why they had to throw them all at the same time, they could have afforded to back off a little bit, go for finesse instead of bombast, but I’m sure Sir Paul could only give them two hours (including the performance night).
I’m also dying to know what kind of guitar Sir Paul’s playing here.
You know what would not have sucked? All things considered, if they had done this, which has no relation to a hurricane, but it sure would have been fun to listen to:
I just hope this means some more people get heat and electricity and food and clothes and stuff, who need it.
Blogging here has been thin, the semester has been thick. Right now I’m up to my nose in a work in progress and up against a deadline, but I promise some actual content after it’s all over but the shouting.
After over a year of [almost] weekly blog posts, Vince and I took a few months off. This wasn’t on purpose. We had some other things suck up our time and energy, most notably:
1) Quitting smoking. I’m sure there will be a future, detailed post about this work in progress. Suffice it to say that it took up most of our head space starting in mid-December. In the meantime, please know that we are not converted and ideologically we are still smoker-positive. However, the Fine Turkish Turkweed, she is an expensive and harsh mistress. So, Nicorette is my new constant companion, and for the month of February, Vince made sure we were well stocked with Cherry Tootsie Pops.
2) The Conshohocken Curve. Whether it’s where you tap your brakes or where you break free of the herd, that phrase is embedded in the minds of everyone who moves within and without the Greater Philadelphia region from years of radio traffic reports. When it floated to the top of Scott Rogers’ brain one day, Vince knew this had to be the name of the band they’d been working on with Alan Kaufman. For now, the band is practicing and getting ready to record demos, with drummer Mark Sugarman. Keep your cool cat clothes pressed and on a hanger at the front of the closet, because the rock, blues and folk-rock dance pop express train is getting ready to roll.
(How was that? How’d that sound? Do I still have the marketing-copy chops? Huh? Huh? Do I? Huh?)
3) This semester is such a switch for me that it feels like my head is on backwards. I’m taking courses that are all about what things look like and how that affects society, and/or how society affects what things looks like. So, I have to know the difference between talud-tablero and duo gong, ruquhn and rubakha, Whistler, Tanner and O’Keefe. All of this falls into the “things that sound dirty but aren’t” category, and not in a good way. I’ve been learning the craft of storytelling for a year and a half, now I have to use all the “analyze, memorize and identify” parts of my brain. so, yeah, just when the learning curve started to make sense, it flipped.
Worry not, internet. Your favorite writer-musician power couple of love has been doing just fine. Amanda Palmer is in Australia recording a new album and Neil Gaiman is in an undisclosed location writing a new book. In the meantime, you have Lindsay and Vince.