gus van sant's last days (by way of andy warhol) 

andy warhol was always saying things like: "if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning." he documented a dissolving empathy-- his paper-thin jackie-o returns to the tabloid from which it was pulled. she is a document of a cultural event, and little more. "meaning" follows the logic of the above quote-- warhol repeats images, standardizes them, pulls things to the surface, and so forth. gone are the brooding conceits of wannabe picassos, leaving something slick and lifeless and homogeneous in their place.

and, for all of that, i love it:

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what's most alluring about warhol comes after this stereotypical equation (image-repetition-entropy). his best work produces a remainder. stripped of all entryways of an "inner experience," the warhol portrait still bears a certain sting. if the final gaze is one of detached formalism, a strong wind marks the spectatorial distance enabling it. the "sting" of a warhol looks neither backwards nor forwards. it does not lament humanizing connections, nor does it foresee a beautiful future. it is a raw space of dumb gawking. a "duh" space; a blank stare. a strange conflation of glamour, repetition and death mobilizes it-- but it refuses to make such sophistications manifest. a painted warhol head will never grow a brain. it is "deeply superficial," like the man who brought it to life.

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gus van sant's film last days speaks a similar language.

it finds its tabloid routes in the death of kurt cobain, with the usually insufferable michael pitt as its "superstar." but beyond that, it dismantles most of its movie-ness. it is the cinematic shell of a well-hyped tragedy, leaving all attempted profundity behind. the suicide at its center is inevitable and elusive. it finally occurs off-screen. there are several half-hearted attempts to generate meaning throughout the film, but each seem to erode explanation further. dialogue embodies the uselessness of speaking.

pitt (cobain) centralizes the film. he is a kind of negative space-- his affective corelessness points to his parameters. van sant avoids close-ups for the most part. pitt becomes an indexical figure, leading to several landscapes. we look at the handsome, woodland decay of his northwest estate. we watch the attractive, vacuous hangers-on who never seem to let him be. and we watch pitt himself-- with his golden hair and seductive, wounded physique. his body is both a tabloid surface and a self-perpetuating desire machine.

which possibly brings me to one of the film's strangest elements. last days doesn't simply invite one to look, it invites one to continue to look. the film finds its starting point in warholian entropy. we've seen this story before, we're tired of it, etc. and with no ideology to offer, the film moves forward regardless. even the camera work has a keen blankness to it. the showy lyricism of elephant (which i posted about here) is gone, and all traces of commentary fade with it. a deadly, compulsive movement sets in. last days is a forward march; a literal "death drive."

van sant's eroticism is raw and self-sustaining. stripped of its usual veils, it emerges in all its hypnotic boredom. it refers to no morality. when pitt's strange ascension to heaven becomes an opportunity to check out his ass, there is no necrophilia. democratic eroticism-- no gaze is better or worse than the one that came before it. an even, permanent appetite floating toward death. a spooky experience that left me feeling both brainless and meaningful.

julio cortazar's cronopios and famas 

cronopios and famas is a fun little book by julio cortazar. it is split into three parts-- an "instruction manual," a fairly aloof family memoir, and a series of short fables regarding the invented (?) characters from which the book takes its name. each part reads more like a "prose poem" than a narrative, rendering the reading experience refreshingly free and unstructured.

first and foremost, cortazar is funny. he insistently stresses the nonsensical, and does so via everyday life at its most insubstantial. the humor often arises out of the most basic re-evaluations-- how to cry, where to place a bicycle, etc. with the inviting grace of an italo calvino novel, he wages loving warfare against conventional mores. his humor reminds me a bit of kurt vonnegut's, but less venomous... cortazar's world is never quite doomed-- even when he describes it as such. it is a universe of endless accidental meanings, illuminated by a series of like-able, oddball characters. at its best, it has a richard brautigan-esque sense of surrealist joy; at its worst, it gets a bit cute. but it's nice to walk the cute line once in a while. i walk the literary path of doom and gloom all too often.

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ten good things 

10. celebrities that sneak around my store on the down-low, but get recognized regardless.

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9. watching kinsey with my mom. now, i won't lie-- enduring endless statistics about males masturbating 700 hundred times a day (in a hundred million sordid ways) was no picnic, being next to the woman that birthed me and all... but it enabled a nice dialogue when it was over-- one that speaks well of the film's mature handling of troublesome topics. the experience was a clear sign of how much my family has changed over the years... for the better.

8. senator barbara boxer. if you click on my petition posts, you might recognize that name. i get a lot of activism emails from her, urging me to support all sorts of decent causes. her commitment to mobilizing the progressive base of this country has a near-republican sense of diligence and organization (which are the only two fronts upon which "republican" should drum up positive feelings of any sort).

7. selma blair on late night tv. though i've pretty much eliminated non-movie-related tv time, i tend to eat my dinner in front of late night talk shows. and occasionally, a truly strange person will drop by for an interview. selma blair was on leno the other night, and she could best be described as a bumbling, bawdy mess. but an intelligent mess. blair seems aware of her messiness and amused by it, but not in a canned sort of way (even if bits of the dialogue were obviously pre-meditated). her conversations always digress... she tells stories that go gloriously nowhere... she makes the audience totally uncomfortable... she's awesome.

6. i've been telling everyone i know to see gregory la cava's 1937 film stage door, so i might as well plug it here too. la cava combines the memorable characters and crisp dialogue of a top-notch "screwball" comedy with the naturalistic, lyrical orchestration of a renoir ensemble pic. instead of formulaic basics like plot and conflict, stage door is essentially one long, over-lapping conversation. its feminist flavor is as irresistible as everything else, and harbors none of the virginal martyrdom crap that screws up progressive pictures of the time. ginger rogers flaunts the razor sharp wit of a groucho marx while maintaining the tenderness of a dimensional human being, and katherine hepburn is as charming as always, dahhh-ling!

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5. the angels of light feature the work of michael gira, who is more famously known as a member of the swans. gira uses "the angels" to explore the sort of nouveau folk made popular by people like will oldham, jason molina, and his own personal discovery-- devendra banhart. but what separates gira from such comparative newbies is a pervasive and alluring sickness that (undoubtedly) carries over from the swans. his heartache has a distinctly bitter ring to it, and a different sort of urgency than that of recent indie fare. the arrangements are always strange and surprising, as are the variety of tones his albums tend to take. they have mood swings; they turn from violent to contemplative, and vice versa. the dude has quite a range.

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brad dourif in deadwood, not unlike marky mark in i heart huckabees, is a perfect, comic embodiment of the torture accompanying "the ethical life." i just finished the dvds of the show's first season (i am cable-less, so no spoilers please!), wherein dourif portrays the town doctor. deadwood is a show largely devoted to a series of unlikely "mother" figures, and dourif is my personal fave of the bunch. the town's hysterical need for his services puts him in the unpleasant position of one who knows everything. no clandestine act of bullying or embarrassing, venereal illness escapes his gaze, and he does what he can without huffy judgment. dourif, with his sleepless stare and gruff persona, appears plagued by the amount of info he has privy to. he sees the world in all its bountiful complexity, which drowns him in a diplomatic ambivalence allowing no relief. and awful as it sounds, it's hilarious. if there is a lesson to learn from his character, it is surely that being a good person will drive you completely insane. but his performance as an actor-- and the affection the show's writers devote to characters like his-- lets in a glimmer of hope once in a while as well. so you laugh instead of cry.

3. i am, as a rule, opposed to parents who go and "hipster it up" with their children, but:

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... angelina jolie's mohawked son is so goddamn adorable that i have to make an exception.

2. fruit. it fills you up. it gives you energy. if you didn't get enough sleep, it de-zombifies you. i've been eating a lot of it. it's good.

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(sidenote: i didn't make the above dish. google image search made it. it's pretty though, no?)

1. the roberta flack version of "hey, that's no way to say goodbye" is nearly as beautiful as the original (which i've decided is one of my favorite songs of all time). it's a lighter, hazier rendering-- told with a much different breed of melancholy than cohen's. the transformation is complete enough, however, that it doesn't interfere with the original. it compliments it, and it does so beautifully.


tsai ming-liang's the wayward cloud 

i often find that my greatest problem, artistically, has more to do with vocabulary than with form or content. meaning that it's neither inspiration nor technical prowess that tends to trouble me, but iconography (and its process of generation). my ideas formulate and my skills are what they are, but finding the right forms for them is a horse of a different color.

in this regard, taiwanese (technically malaysian) filmmaker tsai ming-liang is an important source of inspiration. i can think of no other filmmaker working today with a vocabulary as fine-tuned and idiosyncratic as tsai. his world expands into three dimensions on account of a stubborn sense of reduction, resulting in a near-empty world populated only by the objects of his most tender concerns. every element in a tsai film bears the warm glow of obsession. in the tradition of yasujiro ozu, his work finds its momentum on account of the parameters he puts into place, rather than in spite of them. the films that result appear as slices of a single narrative, building upon one another in a slow state of expansion.

tsai's most recent film is the wayward cloud, the third installment in a quasi-series which began with 2001's what time is it there? and continued with a little gem called the skywalk is gone in 2002 (which, FYI, is included as an extra on the region 1 dvd of goodbye dragon inn). much fuss has been made regarding its status as a sequel to what time-- and, make no doubt about it, the wayward cloud's potent mix of provocations will certainly ruin that film for many. you see, the not-quite couple from what time is finally united in the newer film, thus abolishing a certain fantasy of "impossible love," among other things. and both characters have found work in the porno industry this time, to boot. tsai-regular lee kang-sheng (arguably my favorite living actor) becomes a bona-fide porno-star, whereas quasi-love-interest chen shiang-chyi works in an adult video store.

(plot-wise, i won't say anymore. as far as i'm concerned, the ideal way to experience this film would be with a decent understanding of his previous work, and as little info regarding the plot as possible)

the wayward cloud is not so much a sequel to what time is it there? as it is a synthesis and extension of nearly all of tsai's major themes... the erotic, water-logged landscape that drenches most of his work is reconfigured as a widespread drought... the left-field musical outbursts of the hole return with greater absurdity... the lurid kinks of the river are pushed to audacious extremes. even tsai's strangest thematic element, namely the watermelon-as-love-object bit in vive l'amour, resurfaces in strange and amusing ways.

with nearly every trick in his bag on display, tsai essentially begins thinking out loud. his trademark long-takes and restrained performances remain in tact, but the smooth, unifying sensuality he last explored in goodbye dragon inn is nowhere to be found. this is tsai at his loosest and most vulnerable, and possibly his most brilliant as well.

the film remains on the offense from beginning to end. his typical art-house understatement is shadowed with garish song and dance routines, blurring the lines between boho ennui and hysterical sentiment. tsai's trademark slow camera is doubled by the long-takes of hardcore pornography (perhaps the only arena wherein such cinematic duration is typically endured?). if he has previously concerned himself almost entirely with cinematic humility, the wayward cloud reverses his usual logic. it is a film of great violence-- aesthetic, ideological, emotional and physical violence-- that throws both author and spectator into an unreasonable state of uncertainty. it is enormously intelligent and deeply juvenile at once, and it will undoubtedly alter the way in which his work (past, present and future) will be both apprehended and comprehended.

something i find very distinct in recent film-making is the way that certain films generate complexity on account of their overtness. the wayward cloud (in a manner not unlike claire denis' trouble every day, for example) moves always in the direction of ecstasy. a scene that begins with an obvious, metaphorical provocation extends beyond its initial meaning, acquiring the physical OOMPH of an utterance. tsai is a sinewy filmmaker; he stretches things (tensions, gazes, actions, attention-spans). and he applies his hand to atrocity as well. tugging away, he finds an excess in content. an appendage to the obvious. there are a number of ethically questionable moments in the wayward cloud. a convincing argument, for example, might be made in regards to its considerable potential for misogyny. but i love it, nonetheless. tsai's tenderness clings tightly to his rising pitch. his viciousness remains lugubrious, but never hateful, pushing his project ever further into those zones of great complexity where one finds laughter, tears, and cum.

j.k. huysmans, against nature 

i have mixed feelings about j.k. huysmans' "french decadent classic" against nature...

first and foremost, it is one hell of a weird novel. it's not really even a "novel," actually. it is literally an account of the indulgences of a fussy, rich reclusive. its ever-changing series of literary and aesthetic oddities have more in common with a contemporary mix tape than with much of the "realist" literature of his time. huysmans follows his own, boundless appetite from thrill to thrill, with complete indifference to conventional narrative. historically, i've got to admire the punch it must have packed when released. moving casually from the perversions of petronius, to the fantasy world of gustave moreau, to the cultivation of fake-looking breeds of flower (one of the book's finest and oddest moments), huysmans brings forth an epic of (mostly) unapologetic, masturbatory indulgence.

reading it in 2005, however, many problems i've learned to expect with 19th century literature arise. des esseintes-- huysmans' fickle, peculiar anti-hero-- is as unpleasant as he is fascinating. his aristocratic sense of entitlement, occasional tendency to characterize things according to national/ethnic stereotypes and rampant misogyny are all bitter pills of the era he was borne out of. but beyond that, there is an assumed sovereignty that runs throughout the book, and occasionally overwhelms it. des esseintes' idiosyncratic tastes definitely distinguish him from his surroundings, but they often seem constructed to maintain such distinctions. his arrogance as an individual-- rather than his (more interesting) desire, libido or sense of curiosity-- propels his endless discoveries. huysmans writes like he's got something to prove.

des esseintes is also a melancholy figure, and his sadness is, frankly, pretty dull. throughout the novel, he constantly resorts to a vague, spiritual longing far less interesting than, for example, his pre-psychedelic flower garden. huysmans contradicts his own, defiant amorality by insisting on the temporality of des esseintes' various novelties. and an old cliche sets in-- his technicolor porno world needs a god stuck into it, and the sun ain't gonna shine anymore. which would be fine, and even interesting, had the book dealt with such longing as something other than the logical extension of its author's own expansive hatefulness. by book's end, i no longer felt the desire to shower myself with his bling-bling of yester-year, and i didn't feel like following him to church either.

mitchell akiyama, small explosions that are yours to keep 

an album i'm enjoying lately is mitchell akiyama's small explosions that are yours to keep, which i found via the infinitely useful and illuminating aquarius records website.

the album's combination of avant garde electronics and humble acoustic flourishes makes it a welcome addition to a growing crop of warm electronica-- best represented by albums like matmos' the civil war or the books' the lemon of pink. but whereas those records were quirky and surprising, akiyama's is contemplative and even. for something knee deep in glitchy embellishments, small explosions is remarkably smooth and lyrical. akiyama avoids several "electronic" stereotypes-- no goofy samples, no abrasive cutting, no illusions that anyone would ever dance to it, and so forth. instead, it builds slowly, with a cinematic sort of grace. string, horn and laptop take turns in the spotlight, and there is no self-consciousness about the fusion. slowly--often very slowly-- the moods change alongside the instruments. the title track, with its precise orchestration and handsome composition, has a bit of the other-worldly charm that makes the music of moondog so strange and singular. it's not often that a recent album points in that sort of direction.

all in all, it's the perfect reading music for my nightly train ride-- drowning out annoying chatter, keeping me awake, and providing a soundtrack to my brain's activity. a more appropriate soundtrack for such a brain might be one accompanying a benny hill skit, or some such thing. but a boy can dream, can't he?

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apichatpong weerasethakul's tropical malady 

i can't get tropical malady out of my head. it's been over a week since i've seen it, and i'm beginning to debate spending ten bucks to see it again when it opens here in philly. i'll attempt to explain why...

malady is told in two parts, which-- though stylistically quite distinct-- feed off one another in a circular sort of way. it begins with a slow-going gay love story involving a soldier and an elusive young man from a country town. following an essentially plotless (and strangely utopian) love affair, the couple eventually depart and the second act begins. here, the same two actors appear and keng, the soldier, appears to be playing the same role (?). the "second" narrative concerns a thai myth about a spirit inhabiting a jungle with the ability to transform into a tiger. keng enters the jungle to find the spirit-- which is (inexplicably) played by the same actor (sakda kaewbuadee) as the country boy in the first narrative.

for starters, i can't honestly think of a film with less conflict than tropical malady. its slow, naturalistic style bears similarities to the work of other contemporary asian filmmakers (hou hsiao-hsien, tsai ming-liang wong kar-wai, etc.), but contains none of the wistful blueness that activates such films. the first half of malady might be described as a very realistic fairly tale. the two men meet, fall in love, and spend its duration very casually enjoying one another's company. it is punctuated by occasional markings of slight artifice-- a cheesy bit of dialogue, a canned smile that lasts too long, etc. and yet, no snarky distance accompanies such details. the artifice might best be described as magnetic-- in that it reverses its conventional logic and makes the film experience more intimate. its meaning amplifies within its occasional fabrications, and the awkward fit deepens its strange, expansive trance. malady is a film that takes desire very seriously, but does so with an extreme reverence for the lightness of such a feeling. there is no blockage to its desire, and if the characters go unfulfilled (as one might argue they do at the end of the first segment) it is by way of their desire itself. this ever present sensation glides along its course throughout the film with a stubborn and enigmatic optimism that has to be seen to be properly believed.

the second half makes an initial rupture from the first, and merits comparisons to several canonical heavy-hitters (apocalypse now, tarkovsky's stalker, 2001:a a space odyssey, etc.). keng enters the jungle with all the fear and trembling accompanying a great quest. he finds tong naked and tattooed, ripe and ready for all sorts of animal/man archetypal explanations. i know zero about thai mythology, and am undoubtedly missing a very layered contextual dimension of the film here. but still-- and this might just be my western sense of entitlement speaking-- it doesn't seem to matter much, in the end. as keng and tong wrestle and stumble and transform one another, the experience generates a sense of engagement too visceral and emotional to refer back to allegorical justifications. the structure is different, but the sweetness and humility of its initial hour remains. which isn't to say that one isn't given much to think about. instead, for me, its meaning is bound up within the sense of transformation (be it literal, spiritual, emotional, or--most importantly-- spectatorial transformation). the point is not to scrutinize the couple's regression/exaltation, but to experience the very climate of that transformation. malady's jungle has a bit of the crowded magic of henri rousseau's landscapes-- a similar twilight wonder appears (minus the nineteenth-century western exoticism). it is the sort of space that reduces you to a kid at a campfire, eagerly and fearfully ready to believe in whatever magic might arise.

but tropical malady bears no monsters. it is a love story to rival the best of them, and its conclusion moves in the same direction as its introduction. too often, philosophically, desire is formulated as the enemy. it traditionally occupies the lower tier of human existence, in the shadow of such unlikely bedfellows as salvation, justice and transcendental aesthetics. in a sense, malady gives desire its moment in the clouds. its gentle force is both question and answer, inhabiting both the corporeal and psychological make-up of its beneficiaries, suggesting-- with great lightness and profoundity-- that one simply notice its presence, in all its profundity.

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i've spent the past month or so dealing with kafka-- i finally read the castle from cover to cover, followed by walter benjamin's famous essay on him, and ending with deleuze and guattari's toward a minor literature. during that time, i've been trying to formulate my own investment in his work.

as far as my personal inclinations go, like deleuze and guattari, i'm not terribly drawn to either of the two dominant approaches to him-- namely the spiritual and psychoanalytic routes. both have their merits as systems of interpretation, but i don't respond to them personally. the thought of a godless world excites me more than it startles me, and, uh, i guess i get along with my dad pretty well too. while the notion of a "minor" literature-- "to be a sort of stranger within (one's) own language"-- is a fascinating one, i find it less applicable to kafka than d & g might have one believe. "deleuzian" kafka is too covered in "deleuzian" fingerprints to amount to a convincing argument. at times, d & g seem more interested in themselves.

for me, it is through relationships, rather than bureaucracies, that kafka's k. begins to make sense. an example: a few years ago, me and a good friend were both emerging from troubled romantic relationships. sharing a sense of abandonment (or whatever) we began discussing one of the more abject moments of any break-up-- a demand, more or less, to be put on trial. you know the drill... a sense of rejection sets in, and one is filled with an otherworldly desire to know what is wrong with one's self. an embarrassing plea to be told inevitably follows-- as if every nuance of an inter-personal dynamic could suddenly emerge as one grand symptom laying dormant behind a volatile veneer of sympathy. "tell me what's wrong with me." "just tell me what went wrong." and so on.

it is in moments like this that romance is at its absolute worst. desire becomes binary-- tied to a sickly logic that sharpens its fangs on the notion of logic itself. sexless logic. a detective story replaces a romance, only the sleuth is wounded and desperate. during the conversation, we discussed the absurdity of such demands. what if someone were to do it? what if you were literally told what went wrong? can a dynamic between two people (or more) run its course so thoroughly that its end becomes a verbalized utterance? and if so, who in the hell would have the guts to hear it? wishy-washy rejection is bad enough, and yet one feels the masochistic urge to demand of it a slogan.

now, kafka is no romantic, but the structure of this pathological momentum becomes the very climate of his work. it sets his thoughts on "a line of escape" as deleuze and guattari might say, but it's a seasick ride along the way. k. asks this very sort of "wrong" question; he builds his universe upon it. those who must enter this world-- meaning those who are uninitiated to it-- have a comic effect, but one that refers back to k. himself. he aspires to greater and greater heights of sublime rejection; to the image of klamm with his head down through a forbidden window.

reading kafka without any over-arching sense of recent rejection (i've been remarkably happy for the past few months), i'm reminded of the absurdity of grand revelations. i find that my world is most engaging when things are neither revealed nor concealed, but apprehended with an affection for the confusion that might oneday emerge. of late, a favorite song of mine is nico's "afraid." a moving, melancholic ballad building up to an effectively melodramatic phrase: you are beautiful and you are alone. when nico sings it, it's sad. but my investment goes beyond that. the sentence could also be a great compliment (to someone or something). it could signal that the obligatory quest for the heart of the matter has ended. it is time to turn your back to the castle, and substitute curiosity for alienation.

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ten good things (california edition) 

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(...my vacation was totally fantastic...)

10. the window seat, and its quick peeks at that sprawling geo-quilt we call a landscape... the distancing jolt of apprehension and the not-quite-real acknowledgement that you are, indeed, hundreds of feet in the air...

9. a delicious and nostalgic veggie burrito from pokez, with chips and salsa, of course...

8. gabe's house, which is enormous and charming. huge rooms with fancy woodwork (a la west philadelphia) and a pervasive 70's bachelor pad sort of vibe (a la ron burgundy). it offset the near-complete suburbanization of the rest of san diego (ho hum... golden hill is down for the count)...

7. oaxacan food in los angeles with justin and his charming friends, upping the ante on my already-dear love of mexican food. most of my vacations focus on eating and drinking. apologies if you're bored.

6. galleries in chinatown. i know i should feel more ambivalence about the inevitable gentrification that accompanies this phenomenon, but it's just such a cool part of town. emblematic of what i find so charming about LA-- the way everything just sort of butts up against everything else. the scramble keeps me on my toes, i guess. and yes-- i am saying that LA is (occasionally) charming...

5. the desert and the impulse to strip naked and run off into it singing "we are the champions" at the top of my lungs. i feel this way whenever i drive through it, which i had the pleasure of doing en route to berkeley.

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4. discovering that erin knows all the words to songs by squeeze. and not just "tempted by the fruit of another" either... she means business.

3. the bay area now exhibition at the yerba buena center for the arts, which was thankfully light on the juxztapoz magazine-type nonsense. i particularly liked josephine taylor's drawings, which combined magic and terror in an evocative way.

2. interacting with strangers without a goddamn computer in front of me (no offense, y'all), and seeing the cartoon wallflower i often paint myself out to be proven (at least partially) false. of course, it helps that i met a wide variety of nice people as well...

1. finishing the trip with a screening of apichatpong weerasethakul's tropical malady, one of the most moving films i've seen all year (and i've seen some doosies)... it merits consideration as the most effectively optimistic movie i've ever seen, exploring the outer limits of desire through courtesy, performative artifice, left-field eroticism and very intense reverence-- all with a mastery deserving a far more detailed post (to say the least). i'll write that one when my jet-lag (sp?) is gone. a pleasurable, thoughtful film to end a pleasurable, thoughtful trip.

george a. romero, land of the dead 

i like george romero for many of the same reasons i like sam fuller. both are inventive, intelligent film-makers who give and give and give... their strengths arise out of an affection for genre, a lean and dynamic approach to visual storytelling and a tendency to lay it on thick. they share a wild streak-- an impulse to follow things through to their garish extremes, as well as an eye for the pockets of uncertainty that develop along the way. in the work of both directors, overt gestures have the resonance of covert operations. their films are pinball machines-- and following ninety minutes of spectatorial thrashing, you end up somewhere consistently interesting.

enter land of the dead, and its enjoyably “storybook” origins: forgotten director drifting into obscurity... entertaining, zombie shlock is a surprise hit... hip u.k. director makes artsy fartsy alternative (with mixed results)... some dumb shit makes needless re-make of forgotten director's masterpiece... forgotten director gets budget and resources to show the whole lot of them how it's done.

and on strictly popcorn-crunching terms, romero delivers. no nu-metal, no smart-ass characters you can't wait to see devoured, no "fast zombies," etc. the film rises up from the ashes of the previous three and stands proud. romero revels in gore as well as politics, and has a hell of a good time along the way.

which isn’t to say land doesn’t have its problems. first and foremost, it's simply not long enough. romero has a lot he'd like to say and do, and he doesn’t have enough time to see it all through. for example, there's a nice break in the action about midway through the film, where the central heroic trio are trapped in jail and begin to converse with each other. we get a small taste of the kind of character development that made dawn of the dead so resonant and likeable. asia argento (who, presumably, has been knee-deep in puddles of fake blood since she was old enough to walk) is particularly engaging, and brings a more legitimate toughness to romero's already-nuanced handling of horror femininity. but there isn't enough of her. the characters, though well intended, are painted in broad strokes, and romero spends too much time multi-tasking to give them the love he's proven he can deliver.

painted in equally broad strokes are the political insights, centering mostly around john leguizamo's "cholo"-- a name that is either snarky and clever or shamefully embarrassing (i can’t, personally, decide). cholo, save a few spanish-language profanities, is reduced to a garden-variety "minority"-- an excluded everyman standing in the shadow of white male privilege (personified by a refreshingly understated dennis hopper-- of all people). romero means well, but misses several opportunities to add dimension and complexity to the character.

the finest political moments occur at the peripheries. take for example "charlie," a mentally challenged burn victim who follows the film's protagonist around with an of mice and men-esque homoerotic loyalty. charlie, with his scarred visage and dumb-founded reactions, occupies a strange middle ground between human and zombie. his distorted face is a false alarm in key sequences, further blurring the evaporating lines between self and other. and eugene clark's inverted black protagonist, whose identity as a zombie has been applauded in a number of reviews i've read, is a hell of an interesting move on romero's part. his initial, schlocky zombie moan is romero's grief-stricken battle cry, lamenting how little has changed in america since duane jones was shot that morning after the night of the living dead in 1968.

but the best thing about the film is neither gory and scary nor savvy and political. it is the affection that so obviously went into it, every step of the way. land of the dead enters a landscape of revisionism and profiteering, and says to hell with both. romero makes his movie the way he likes, and does so with with a gleeful generosity that simply won me over. twenty years later, romero's zombie world is as enjoyable as ever, and well worth the wait

batman's weird politics 

i was fairly excited at the prospect of a grittier batman. i like the darkness of batman, the way he always seems unsure about his own project, etc. and batman begins had all the makings of a more sophisticated superhero flick, which it delivers in heaps with its A-list cast and micro-managed "seriousness." but at the end of the day, it's still a comic book movie. at a certain point it has to split in two: good guy in silly suit vs. bad guy in silly suit. and the ideological process it takes to get there is pretty weird...

****spoilers ahead, and smarmy brain-noodling****

when we begin, young batman is a john walker lindh type-- privileged, pissed off, in a remote location, and involved in shit that's way over his head. he meets terror guru liam neeson, who treats him to the sort of paternalistic physical/psychological training we're used to from kung fu or prison flicks. as neeson's "daddy" status cements into place, we're invited into the trance of his fascist rhetoric. we thrill as batboy's "weakness" pounds its way out of him. we applaud his determination as well as his moral entitlement, and we prepare for a dirty harry-like gutter sweep when he gets back to gotham.

the fascist trance is then interrupted by a moment of ethical clarity. a sudden awareness of something resembling human rights triggers batman to turn on his terrorist clan. he leaves the mystical east confused and "in the right" (according to the movie's spell, at any rate), though it remains unclear how he got there, ideologically. legality, in the new batman universe, keeps changing its mind. batman declares to neeson that he "is not an executioner," and demands the need for trials and sentencing. back in gotham, we get good-cop-bad-cop in the courtroom, and both archetypes, to boot. katie holmes represents liberal idealism, stressing illness and circumstance over retribution. cillian murphy (the film's one cartoonish bad guy) gives form to the inevitable corrupt bureaucracy. his amoral sycophant "scarecrow" (complete with effeminate, euro-hipster fashion sense), slides past holmes' idealism as if he snuck out of a cop flick from the eighties. he marks the comic-book-pinnacle of the movie; where it turns into a cartoon. the goodies and the baddies take their appropriate sides and batman begins as a kinder, guiltier dirty harry.

then things get really weird. neeson (and co.) returns to gotham, now officially "bad" and as the terrorist mastermind of the entire narrative. the same cultish hate-mongering we had so much fun with at the film's beginning takes on al-queda-status from then on out. and what is their weapon of choice? fear itself. fear as chemical warfare-- a fog of psychological vapor, triggering one's worst personal nightmares, spreads across gotham city. if michael moore has suggested (in bowling for columbine, for example) that fear is what orchestrates our violent culture, in batman begins that sentiment is pushed to a topsy-turvy extreme: fear as a weapon of mass destruction. the irrational fear that moore would like to disgard returns as the ammunition of terror itself: destroy the terrorists before they attack us with our fear of them themselves. meta-terror, predicated upon its ability to make itself virial in the abstract, punished (eventually) by a guilt-ridden vigilante.

8th street, between walnut and chestnut 

by 10:30pm on jeweler's row in philadelphia, the diamond rings and gold chains are locked up for the night. in the store windows, structural terrariums await the coming decor. white felt necks and fingers; hacked and hemmed to the whims of tomorrow's affairs. it remains inviting after hours-- despite its lack of function-- triggering those everyday apocalypse aesthetics... the shopper's void made present... its (obligatory) desiring nothingness... and the icy cool it acquires as a result. all of which had me tuned in, for a moment, walking home tonight.

donald richie, a hundred years of japanese film 

donald richie's a hundred years of japanese film is an informative, insightful, and occasionally frustrating read...

informative-- first and foremost-- because richie has been writing about japan (and its films in particular) since the end of world war II, and is perhaps the most influential western thinker concerned with the cinema of the country. accordingly, his accessible and linear account is filled with interesting details. for example, one finds that the earliest silent cinema in japan was traditionally accompanied by a benshi-- a physically present narrarator who's task was to explain what was going on in the on-screen images. in this way (and in several others as well), japanese audiences were introduced to a cinema more directly linked to theatre from the start. richie explores the tensions between film and theatre; how the distinctions generated by such tensions lead to certain sensibilities, and how these sensibilities are interpreted/reconfigured in the west. richie proposes a useful dichotomy between representational film-making (meaning, more or less, the standard of "realism" most typical in the west) and presentational style, which is less rooted in creating a believeable environment, and (in japan, at any rate) builds upon the aesthetic and ideological history of kabuki theatre, bunraku puppetry and things of that sort.

richie is immensely insightful in his ability to distinguish between different approachs to film, and the historical precedents that allow for them. the thesis of the book-- and it is the sort of book that has one-- is that much of japanese film history is built upon the changing nature of japanese identity itself. thus, the concern of many great directors is with a preservation of what it might mean to be japanese in the face of western influence (or eventually--and more specifically-- following WWII and the american occupation). in his anlysis of certain key directors, the dialogue is immensely multi-dimensional. in the work of yasujiro ozu, for example, we see the radicality of his static, understated camerawork alongside the conservative nature of his storylines (and the artistic liberty afforded to him, by the studio system, accordingly). we see the reaction against his style and ideology (in the work of "new wave" figures like nagisa oshima and yasuzo masamura), as well as the eventual return of his influence (in the work of hirokazu kore-eda-- someone i need to see more by-- among others). richie's approach to the films is refreshingly democratic as well. a well-known classic like akira kurosawa's seven samurai occupies essentially the same amount of space as less-hyped wonders like mikio naruse's when a woman ascends the stairs (which is probably my favorite rental-promted-by-the-book thus far).

richie is also frustrating at times, on account of his canonical, modernist inclinations. he remains cheerful enough to the generation following kurosawa, mizoguchi, ozu, etc.-- providing affectionate accounts of the genre subversions of masamura or seijun suzuki, for example. richie likes his art with a capital "A", and thus there is no mention of the pulp samourai films of kenji misumi or the art porn freakouts of koji wakamatsu. which is fair enough, i guess (though, for my money, kurosawa's the hidden fortress isn't any more deep and meaningful than misumi's lone wolf and cub films-- and the latter are waaay more entertaining-- but i digress...). richie's inclinations become more problematic when he arrives at current japanese cinema, wherein the lines between genre, camp, sincerity and innovation become increasingly blurry.

richie is needlessly brutal, for example, to the films of takeshi kitano. kitano, in richie's view, becomes the emblem of assimilated western cool. it's an all too familiar knee-jerk reaction, wherein kitano becomes the eastern equivalent to quentin tarantino. this stereotype-- which drives me crazy-- appears to be predicated exclusively on kitano's taste in suits. first off, tarantino isn't even the right fit for the "strawman" of callous, hateful postmodernism he's made out to be (jackie brown, anyone?)... and certain richie-approved classics like branded to kill are as surface-level hip and flashy as kitano at his coolest... but what's really discouraging is the sense that richie fails to connect at a certain point. his sensibility is too foreign to that of the currently emerging film audience. he can't get past the shoot-outs in kitano to swallow the odd ennui i found so moving in sonatine, for example. his disgust with the idiocy of mainstream culture is so great it prevents him from discovering how the crapola is reconfigured. filmmakers like kitano, kiyoshi kurosawa and (though i'm less thrilled with him personally) even takashi miike, work through the crassness of mainstream culture rather than around it. and they occasionally reach the same heights as those who came before them. but richie puts his blinders on.

still, i emerge from the book a more informed viewer. it's great read, and has happily introduced me to a number of wonderful films/filmmakers, which i will be sure to bore you with posts about in the future.

robert frank, cocksucker blues 

after years of curiosity, i finally saw robert frank's cocksucker blues. the film documents the rolling stones' 1972 tour for exile on main street, and its heavy emphasis on rock star debauchery (groupie fucking, coke snorting, heroin shooting, etc.) has prevented its release in the years since.

frank's foggy, deliberately incoherent approach wallows in the unglamourous. his camera shows up at every wrong moment-- the point of uncertainty, the aftermath, etc.-- and carves a sleepy portrait of rock excesses as challenging to get through as godard's (more interesting) one plus one. the defiant energy of rock itself is whittled to its spinal remains, leaving only appetite and exhaustion. its music goes unmixed; the performances are reduced to awkward schematics... one of the film's rare spinal tap-style laughs occurs when mick jagger can't find a satisfactory way to sing along with an oblivious stevie wonder, whose performance of "uptight (everything is alright)" involves a swaying head too unpredictable to split the mike with. but frank is less concerned with cheap laughs than with an atmosphere of exhaustion.

as a glimpse into the seedy world of the rolling stones, i found myself a bit disappointed with the film's approach. it amounts to a would-be neutrality-- lots of verite bells and whistles leading one to believe that its pervasive loathsomeness was all there was to engage with. but then i remember the album itself-- how good it sounds, and how inspired the stones seem to have been while making it. concurrently, frank's fatalism seems a bit reactionary. the film gets stuck in his misanthropy. 1972 seems an appropriate year for such sentiments, with nixon in office and the war in vietnam increasingly apocalyptic. and as one of the earliest attempts to, let's say, obliterate the sixties, it's certainly worth a look if you can find a copy.

watching the film in 2005, i considered the history of attacks on sixties ideology (and i'm sure you can name a few yourself), and what they've meant to me. and i'm not sure where to locate myself anymore accordingly. certainly the nihilistic antagonism of punk has been effectively co-opted... is deserving of similiar analytical abuse... and has even received such abuses in whatever form. and certainly i can learn from both attitudes, feeling an affection for hippie warmth one minute and punk angst the next-- all of which has served me well. but ultimately, i must admit to a certain (perhaps sadistic) pre-occupation with the moments where "the sixties" turned sour, in all their artistic forms, and i think that a lot of people feel it with me. i'm less convinced of its inherent radicality at this point, but not entirely convinced that it's useless either. i'm not sure what to do with it...

i leave you with raymond pettibon, perhaps the master illustrator of this very predicament...

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about tom ripley 

well, i only completed two books during the month of may, for reasons both bad (weird work schedule, volatile attention span) and good (working almost nightly in the studio). but i did manage to read the second of patricia highsmith's "ripley" novels, ripley underground.

what i like about tom ripley-- the identity-stealing psychopath at the center of the books-- has to do with his vulnerability. unlike the typical storybook villian, ripley is biased and particular. his evil is not "pure" evil. he cannot kill indiscriminately, nor proceed free of emotional entanglements. and somehow, his presence is ice cold.

highsmith creates a multi-dimensional interior landscape for him, paying close attention to his desires, fears and motivations. but she always does so from the outside, denying the reader any legitmate empathy. if the effect of her novels is to make me "root for the bad guy," i don't do so out of any sympathy for him. i can construct a theory of ripley; one composed of many complex psychological ingredients (his class envy, his strange sense of etiquette, his volatile sexuality, etc.). but as i do so, i am clinical instead of compassionate. the thrill of a ripley adventure is hypothetical. ripley is a case-study, and my interest is never humanistic.

the empathetic indifference i've felt throughout these novels is not, by any means, problematic to me as a reader. in fact, highsmith carves her very atmosphere out of this indifference. i develop an eerie fondness for ripley, occuring in the tension between my willingness to accept his logic, and my ambivalence towards his motivations. and because ripley is vulnerable and conventionally "human," my ambivalence is, itself, malevolent. i have the tools to understand him, but i can not and will not. this spectatorial predicament is extended, in a sense, to his victims as well. ripley is always more likeable than they are, but they are only "worthy" of his punishment because they bore me as a reader. my malevolent ambivalence, while strange enough to admit to, is even stranger to develop over the course of 250 pages. but for better or worse, the fun of it lies there.

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antony and the johnsons, "you are my sister" 

i should post more about music...)

jj turned me on to the music of antony and the johnsons a while back, shortly after i missed seeing them with him. ho hum to that.

anyway, in the abstract, the rumors of a frank decaro-esque gentleman who sings like nina simone had me from the get-go, and the comparisons to scott walker certainly didn't hurt either. when their record i am a bird now hit my headphones, i was immediately hooked, and the track "you are my sister" began to emerge as the album's personal highlight...

"you are my sister" is musically not the most daring track on the album, being essentially a piano ballad with the structure of a lullaby. and its initial melancholia brings to mind other handsome, sad compositions of an indie variety-- it has a "classic" sort of quality not unlike nick cave, the tindersticks, etc. but as the track continues, its haunting vocals and subversive, mantra-like lyrics begin to override its own gloominess. the lyric "you are my sister/and i love you" is not slumber-inducing; in fact, it's a bit of a wake-up call. the song's boldness arises from its effeminacy. it becomes grand and glamorous without sacrificing the tenderness that designates it as a ballad. it is immensely theatrical, but somehow not silly.

here it is worth mentioning that i am a bird now consists largely of duets (as if singer antony's deep, soul-penetrating voice needed any assistance). so consider my pleasant surprise to read that the worn, bowie-esque voice that accompanies him at the refrain is none other than 80's superstar boy george. as the two bring the song to its operatic conclusion, it has the resonance of a declaration. its sharp, gender-bending defiance seems to express a solidarity between the two singers, and perhaps even the listener. as a fairly deep-rooted hetero-sexual, my connection to this quality can't extend too far beyond admiration. but the strange sense of unison that the song seems to contain is something i respond to very deeply.


jean vigo, taris 

most film footage involving athletes-- whether narrarated by bob costas or directed by kon ichikawa-- tends to focus on ideal forms and circumstances. the athlete is typically an exhalted "everyman," directing his or her physicality towards an unforseen "natural" union. the inhumanity of the performance is, in fact, a superhumanity. the athlete brings to life the imagined blossoming of his/her audience. a person's prime-of-life becomes a cinematic artifact.

in jean vigo's short film taris (1931), which i had the great pleasure of seeing (alongside all three of his other completed films) this weekend at the international house, something of a different character occurs. french swimming champion jean taris, whose bodily feats determine the form and content of the film, is the typical ideal performer one would expect from such a thing. but vigo's glance into his daily routines bears the mark of a more peculiar observer.

we see feet flap and water splash... we watch taris' head in slo-mo, twisting to the right and to the left, his mouth breaking open like the blow-hole of a whale... we see him strike poses on dry land... we watch bubbles shoot out of his nose... and all the while, taris remains the conventional, extraordinary performer. but despite this miraculous display, one begins to get the sense that a human being does not belong underwater. and it's true... water is literally a danger to us. there's no air in there.

still, vigo's film is not an angry inversion of athletic expectations. he has a better time than that. instead, he glorifies the absurdity of being underwater. taris becomes a homely but lovable creature-- a hairless, flapping mammmal making the best of a strange situation. he is not at war with the pool, either. his ordeal is no hemingway-style test-of-strength. the film is, instead, an appreciation of the odd places humans stick themselves-- how they adapt to their chosen situations, how they excel within them, and how they remain radically and wonderfully at odds with them nonetheless.

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return of the ten good things 

haven't done one of these in a while...

ten good things for the springtime ("the only pretty ring time")

10. led zeppelin's "custard pie" sounded every bit as good to me in my mother's car last weekend as it did when i was twelve years old. "custard pie" is the first track from physical graffiti, an album which-- to this day-- remains my all time favorite summer record. the perfect soundtrack to the atmosphere of ease that has risen across my city as a miserable and seemingly-endless winter finally makes its exit. good fucking riddance.

9. i've been working the occasional shift at the museum, and putting the non-eating fifteen minutes of my lunch break to good use. a quick detour to gawk at henri rousseau's carnival evening, for example, becomes not only the high point of my day, but also a valueable reminder of why i took the damn job in the first place...

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8. my grandmother is awesome. she's a half a year away from turning eighty, and hasn't a trace of the grumpiness that's become my bread-and-butter at 28. she's the most light-hearted totally neurotic person i know. a rare mix. my grandmother's ability to fear the tiniest nuances of her daily routine is matched only by her uncompromising ability to laugh at herself. i don't take after my grandmother much, but if there's one thing we have in common, it's a sense that the idea of "ourselves" is funny. meaning that we both consider that if the cosmos is capable of creating a specimen as peculiar as the one we each have to look at in the mirror each day, then the cosmos must have a sense of humor. and it's a damn good sense of humor sometimes.

7. last plane to jakarta is the blog of john darnielle, main dude from the mountain goats. in addition to making good music (his new record has some fantastic shit on it), he also writes well and thoughtfully about music.


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... fat, born-again stephen baldwin, while not by any means a "good thing," is at least a pleasant reminder that-- though they elected our president and have their hungry eyes on our courts-- the religious right of this country remain deeply, miserably, insufferably lame.

5. and on that note, you might want to take a look at this. (thanks carl.)

(...sorry my blog is turning into VH-1 lately...)

4. for whatever reason, it's taken me 28 years to look into the films of jean renoir. but i'm glad i finally did. most of the criterion re-issues of his films include introductions by him, and he seems like an awfully nice person. and even better-- his films seem to draw much of their power from this very nice-ness-- in their ensemble nature, their ambivalent power dynamics, their deceptive light-heartedness, etc. how many "great artists" can you say that about???

3. the CVS pharmacy at 15th and chestnut is emblematic of the clashing aesthetics of philadelphia, as well as the all-around omnipotence of corporate culture. but there's something so shockingly "off" about it i can't help having a bit of a soft spot for it. being located literally a block-and-a-half from city hall, the pharmacy was basically plopped into the bottom floor of a gorgeous, 19th century building structure. this is not uncommon in center city, and i usually hate it when this shit happens (the neon signage adorning the ross dept. store now occupying the historical "litt bros." building a few blocks down is a particularly blasphemous example). but the CVS ups-the-ante a bit, in that the room it occupies is at least two storeys high, and the top half of it inculdes the preserved original woodwork. accordingly, the pharmacy appears half finished-- it's crappy pharmacy for the first ten feet and victorian fantasy from there on out. it's like catching corporate take-over "in the act." a weird, amusing feeling.

2. i'm making this new drawing, and i can sincerely say it has been "inspired" (awful word) by the work i've read of octavia butler. maybe it's just that i'm getting older and more comfortable with my own sensibilities, but it feels really legitimate to make a drawing based on a novel (or, more accurately, a series of novels). i don't feel obligated to whip up a bunch of referential nonsense to justify what i'm doing anymore (at least not in my brain), so when i actually want to draw from something it feels fresh and natural, i guess.

1. flowers are in bloom on trees in the city. seven solid years of art school and i still love flowers. but i guess all my aesthetic training has at least made me more alert to the presence of flowers, even if it hasn't replaced my affection for them with something more sexy and controversial.

the street of crocodiles by bruno schulz 

at the store, we're selling a mounted print of this salvador dali painting. the museum is coming to the end of a major dali exhibition, and i've been immersed in dali commodities for several months. it gets you thinking...

surrealism, for better or worse, is not only one of my biggest preoccupations, but also perhaps the most fitting adjective for my artwork (feel free to throw "neo" in there if you'd like). and dali's above-mentioned painting is emblematic of everything i don't like about surrealism. it reduces one's unconscious to a hodge-podge of flashy commodities, its "unleashed desires" are dull and chauvinistic, and it's rendered with dali's typical fussy classicism. an uninspired nosedive into his well-worn bag-of-tricks; "weird" in the same way that hugh grant is "british."

with things like this in mind, it seems strange to me that the surreal would still be relevant. it's refreshing and inspiring, in our universe of computer-generated spectacles, that a film by kiyoshi kurosawa or an object by robert gober, or even a dance track by missy elliot can still be meaningfully weird. and i'm happy to say that bruno schulz' the street of crocodiles is one of the most meaningfully weird novels i've ever read.

the story is told in short passages concerning the author's childhood. it's a nostalgic and detail-oriented memoir of sorts (i'd call it "proustian," but that would imply that i've made it through swann's way during one of my several stabs at it). most of the episodes circulate around the author's father-- an eccentric shopkeeper who spews quasi-pantheistic philosophy, hatches exotic birds, obsesses over cockroaches and mannequins, and essentially bewilders all those around him.

but this bewilderment has none of the bloated showboating of dali. schulz is more concerned with texture than with spectacle. his descriptions are as uncanny as the objects he depicts. his approach is polite, in the way that one of joseph cornell's boxes is polite. a sophisticated sense of wonder replaces the carnival of authorial id. it's not a prudish book by any means, it's just indifferent to shock value. like a thick fog, it is slow and romantic and lingering.

the most impressive aspect of the street of crocodiles is how it seems to occupy a world of its own making. an odd and occasionally frightening world, but one that seduces and invites you as well. it is both child-like and well-spoken, eccentric in a manner not unlike raymond roussel. but unlike roussel's writing, it is also personal and affectionate. it warms you up as it weirds you out. it's one of the finest surreal novels i've ever read, a perfect literary companion to my all time favorite surreal piece of film-making, jean vigo's l'atalante.

a valuable reminder of the rich, radical foreign-ness of the everyday world.

in the airport... 

... there's a corridor i find myself gravitating towards. it's a glass connector path, very well lit, with rocking chairs for watching the planes move about.

the airport is aesthetically interesting on account of its awfulness. it's an empty vessel, characterized only by the corporate and bureaucratic signifiers of its purpose-- to move people, to move capital. an antfarm of suspended desire and simmering panic. a space of heartfelt detachment, always indeterminate, a not-yet-vacation. an experience doubled by its structural geometry and array of commanding indexes-- a living (corny) sci-fi distopia, however anemic. its fantasy is made of the dual tremblings of technology and terror-- the plane crash, the jihad, and so forth. remedied, hopefully, in rest and relaxation. in the ornaments cast out by the everyday.

the airport is the canvas of the tourist's experience. the space of leaving-the-home, and little else. a hollow pit-stop to remember and desire within. today. april 24th. 4:30 pm in philadelphia. krispy kreme coffee in hand, i look out that star-wars-window. enjoying the icy resonance of the airport and the chill of not traveling. i work here. i am having an ordinary day.

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