Monday, March 29, 2010

The Philosopher King

Here's a joke, paraphrased, from that famous funny guy Milan Kundera:

Frederich Nietzsche is in the throes of his syphilitic insanity in 1889, skittering about the streets of Turin proclaiming God is dead, et al, when he comes across a coachman whipping his horse. Nietzsche runs over to the horse, throws his spindly arms around its neck and bursts into tears. He was attempting to apologize to the horse for the Descartes. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

This joke holds significant weight in the history of Western thought for two reasons. First, it marks Nietzsche's break with humanity. But more importantly, it prompted the hero of this blog post and my life Jeff Paris want to become a philosopher. Why? Because he wanted to get the punchline! So if you don't get it, maybe you too should consider a change of career.

Paris is a philosopher, like, for realsies! Isn't that a funny thing to write on your W-2? When he is not sitting cross legged atop a rock in the woods and stroking his beard, he is blowing the minds of students at the University of San Francisco, my alma mater, and home of the endowed Paloma Zenaida Chair in Male Anatomy. I had to swing by USF last month to check in on my well- endowed chair, and ended up following Paris around like a lost little philosophy puppy, just like I did for four years.

There are a few things you must know about Jeff Paris. First, he's an anarchist! Isn't that exciting? That means that he doesn't do a lot of things, like vote or wear figure- flattering trousers, but he does do things like roll his own cigarettes, drink coffee out of a beat up plastic travel mug, and often gets mistaken for a homeless person.
Did you think that Jeff Paris is French? Well, he's not! He is of some kind of Russian extraction, and his ancestral, consonant- heavy surname PARISENCHEVSKY was shortened at Ellis Island. Do you find Jeff Paris a slippery character? You're correct, he is. This only enhances one's infatuation.

Speaking of infatuation, people are obsessed with him. When he's not being questioned by campus police who think he's an indigent hobo, he is running away from hoards of screaming fans who just want to be close to him, seeking enlightened by proxy. He's like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, except reading excerpts of Foucualt instead of Whitman, and with less jaunty scarves. He actually travels from class to class on the shoulders of his students, like a Roman emperor. But it's not so taxing for the kids, because he weighs like 90 pounds. I sat in on one of Jeff's classes, a freshman seminar on Philosophy and Science Fiction. They were reading Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale," which explores reality vs illusion, the problem of memory, blah blah blah. In an attempt to extrapolate the proof of one's perception, the professor used me as an example to provoke and horrify these young people. "We see Paloma, and we think she is female. But how can we be sure?" Hands shot up, the scamps offering up answers like "Because her regal air recalls Princess Grace of Monaco! Because her certain je ne sais quoi is so ethereal and girlish! Because her ample Coke bottle proportions serve her so well in Reggeaton dance competitions!" And Jeff was all, "Good, students, but how do we actually know she is a woman?" Thanks, Jeff! I have enough trouble convincing people I'm not a tranny. But as a lover of philosophy, I'll take one for the team.

This is just one example of the way Paris toys with the minds of his fangirls/boys: like a puppet master. He'll start out by teaching the first text as gospel, pushing the hard sell for, say for example Camus (again, NOT KAY- muss) in my Existentialism class. He was all, "Camus is the man," but in esoteric philosophy jargon- "subjectivity, the subject is not an object, but is phenomenology, the construction and projection of the self, lalalala," And I was like, "Oh, damn I love this Kaymuss guy, he's all bad ass and a rebel and shit." So then once you've bought in totally and are sketching your full- sleeve Camus tattoo, Paris flips the script and brings a new hero to the table. After Camus, Paris brought a wiry, disgruntled little fellow into the fold, one with a feminist life partner and poindexter glasses, one editor of Les Temps modernes Mr. Jean- Paul Sartre. Now he is the boss. So confusing! This will throw you into a spiral of despair, questioning all that you ever believed and held sacred. Since I have the memory capacity of a golden retriever, I experienced this crisis at least twice a semester. Jeff has since revealed to me that this is not a sinister plot he concocted to fuck with my emotions, but it is called the Socratic method.
Did you know that Jeff Paris worked at TGI Friday's? I bet his "flair" was a little pin with a picture of anarchist and enfant terrible Emma Goldman's mug, because she owned an ice cream parlor in my hometown of Worcester, MA! Junk food and evading the long arm of the law go together like popcorn and M and Ms, or like me and elastic waistband pants. Jeff Paris was working at the TGI Friday's because he escaped to California after dropping out of NYU because "it was too high a price tag to smoke pot and do LSD." Too true, Jeff Paris! Not only is he a phenomonologist, he is also a pragmatist.
So after his tenure at Friday's, Jeff went to college, then to Purdue, where he studied with Martin Matustik (who is, like, a big deal in contemporary philosophy, philistine) and became a professor at the tender age of 30. Whew! Other than being my mentor and my friend, one of the coolest things Jeff Paris did and continues to do is work in the California prison system, namely at San Quentin. On teaching in universities and prisons he says:


WOW! Even though that's in all caps, don't be afraid. Jeff Paris is not yelling at you. But wait! There's more! You too can have your beliefs shattered time and again from the comfort of your own home:

Or if you're feeling especially self- abusive:
Because Plato was a smart guy and didn't trust the masses to rule themselves [see Tea Party movement], he contended that the ideal society will be ruled by philosopher kings. Essentially benevolent despots. While Jeff Paris is far too humble to ever consider ruling as a true philosopher king, let's just say that if he ever does indeed create an off- the- grid, anarchist, utopian project, then I will be the first to join. Unless it's vegan and there's no cable. Sorry Jeff! But you'll always be a philosopher king in my book, er, blog.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Well, He's a Little Light in the Loafers...

“One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” If this quote feels anachronistic, it’s because it is. With the relative ease of the L train and the literary patrimony of brownstones from Boerum Hill to Fort Greene, Brooklyn’s cultural cache in the five boroughs is undeniable. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, playing at the Cort Theater through April 4th, harkens back to a time when Red Hook was not a euphemism for IKEA.

The family dynamics of love (more of the kissin’ cousins variety than filial) and loyalty sear from beginning to end. Liev Schreiber plays Eddie, a longshoreman in love with his precocious orphaned niece Catherine (Scarlett Johansson). They are not blood relations, as Catherine is the niece of Eddie’s wife Beatrice, played by Jessica Hecht. Beatrice is the consummate first- generation Brooklyn mother, meddlesome and anxious, not far removed from the shtetl or aldea, much like Woody Allen’s on- screen mother in Annie Hall. But Hecht is raw, wise, and sympathetic, rather than simply shrill.

Eddie’s paternalistic affection to doe- eyed Catherine keeps her flitting about, fetching his slippers and cigars while Beatrice looks on with equal parts revulsion and resignation. The threesome might live forever in this incestuous- polygamous, arrangement until Rodolpho (Morgan Spector) and Marco (Corey Stoll), two illegal stowaway cousins arrive from Sicily. Marco and Catherine begin a puppy love courtship. This riles Eddie, who fears Marco’s ulterior motive is to attain citizenship, as he seems to be a bit light in the loafers, given his random outbursts of song and dance- “like a regular chorus girl,” as Eddie puts it.

The trajectory in A View From the Bridge is so taut that ruining it might be challenging. But Schreiber’s performance seethes with such desire and defeat every moment he is on stage. As Eddie’s family betrayal leads him into neighborhood perdition, Schreiber’s bulk diminishes into his work shirt and trousers. If his leading lady stood on equal thespian footing, the dynamic between Catherine and Eddie would not have felt as lopsided. While Schreiber transforms throughout, Scarlett Johansson never ceases to be ScarJo.

Though the themes of loyalty and impossible love span the human experience, the story is so rooted in the red brick tenements of Brooklyn that it feels as if the story could only have taken place here. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty captures the fire escape walk- up grit and homespun chintz parlors of IRT Brooklyn in a phenomenal rotating set.

The play ends tragically, as we sense it inevitably will from the beginning. Perhaps the Brooklyn portrayed in the play is mythologized- of the boys on the docks and Old Country tribalism transplanted on the shores of the East River. But the real tragedy may be that in the era of the organic food coop and yoga studio, we will never truly know.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The South!

There's an old saying about the state of South Carolina: "Too small to be a country, too big to be a mental asylum."

Just like Miss Scarlett O'Hara, I too am a prototypical Southern Belle. The Zenaidas of Virginia arrived to the New World from Scotland. As an alternative to smashing rocks in a debtor's prison, we journeyed night and day in steerage to fulfill our destiny: to become white trash. But then we moved up in the world, literally, to the steely rust belt of central New England to fulfill our true destiny: to become Yankee white trash. Mama, why'd ya ever take me out of Dixie?

This past weekend I flew to the Palmetto state, and boy are my arms tired! Here's South Carolina's favorite son, John C. Calhoun. When he's not rousing secession among his compatriots, he redefines facial hair and grimacing- two of my favorite things.

I visited a petting zoo. No, not the state, elitist scallywag.
I caroused with the thugs who loiter the rough and tumble streets of downtown Charleston, committing unspeakable acts for no other reason than "they like to be bad."

I encountered the two of the most unfortunate of drunken coeds on spring break, pictured here to my left. They were pleading for someone, anyone, to pay them the slightest attention by dancing atop their stools and begging the bartender for more Hot Fries. I indulged their overtures by taking this photo. As I exited this seedy den of unsavory characters, the pair were trying to fashion an ersatz stripper pole from a beleaguered mop resting innocently in the corner. The poor dears. But nothing captures the zeitgeist of this precious town more than the fellow below, the Charleston Hat Man. He is a man made entirely of hats, so the city's illiterate inhabitants know where they can acquire a bonnet of their liking. With problem solving skills these, who's to say South Carolina couldn't secede again and make their own republic?

Monday, March 8, 2010

What The?! Notes from the Whitney Biennial

Life is full of surprises. There are good surprises, like snow days and birthday parties, and there are bad surprises, like your boyfriend telling you he’s gay. You’re confused and disillusioned, but you think, “Hey, maybe we can still be friends.” So then you spend an awkward afternoon together brunching and cruising guys.

This year’s Whitney Biennial is kind of like that. Since the museum commissions the artists rather than the works of art, curators can never fully anticipate exactly what will spring forth from the crate. Abstract artist Richard Aldrich submitted a cartoonish drawing inspired by Stranger in a Strange Land, not a spare, large- scale piece he famous for. Sculptor Charles Ray worked in the medium of Magic Marker instead of clay. The shows’ artists may have ambushed the museum, but the same spirit permeated the galleries- general puzzlement with moments of delight. A whimsical “WTF?”

Take, for example, Aki Sasamoto’s contribution 2010, Strange Attractors. Video camcorders dangle from the ceiling in pendulous mesh bags, the kind that usually carry oranges. The cameras record visitors and project their images on the wall. If you go, you will see many perplexed faces and furrowed brows lining the walls of the Whitney, maybe even small children crying. According to the museum’s program guide, Sasamoto “jumbles her recent obsession for doughnuts, fortune- tellers, hemorrhoids, and things detected in the world. I couldn’t have made that up. You can catch Sasamoto in some kind of interactive presentation with her installation between now and May 29. However, she will only perform on dates including the numbers six and nine. No, not because she is some kind of oral sex pervert, but because she is interested in perfect circles. Of course.

If the show captures one cohesive theme, aside from “things detected in the world,” it is about processes- both artistic and historical. The Biennial’s two- year cycle aims to reveal shifts in culture, aesthetically and socially. The smoke in Pae White’s Still, Untitled swirls so crisply it appears to be a gelatin photograph. But upon closer inspection, the unfurling tendrils are actually a tapestry. Surprise! This emphasis on methods and materials surfaces in Tauba Auerbach’s textural paintings. She spray paints canvas and folds them up while still wet, creating a three- dimensional look. This results in paintings that seem like bed sheets fresh from the package. High and low? Illusion versus reality? Oh no, I’m confused again.

For the more literal- minded, photographers Stephanie Sinclair and Nina Berman document the horrors of war in graphic detail. Sinclair’s series Self- Immolation exposes Afghani women who have lit themselves aflame to escape prolonged domestic abuse. This practice apparently occurs often enough that rudimentary hospitals exist to care specifically for this type of burn victim. The unrelenting images of charred skin haunt and disturb. Berman’s Marine Wedding is the most affecting work in the show. She followed Ty Zeigler for one year, who was seriously injured by a suicide car bomber while serving in Iraq. He returned home to Texas missing an arm, and his face so badly disfigured that his nose and eyes look like pinholes. The series unfolds with his marriage and ultimate divorce to his high school sweetheart. Despite his maiming, Zeigler wields guns and sports his Marine dress blues. Berman says these photos suggest “a comfortable acceptance with military culture despite the cost.”

For the first time in the Biennial’s history, over half the featured artists are women. That’s a surprise too, and maybe explains why the exhibit is so complicated. Like it or not, it will give you plenty to chat about with your proverbial gay ex- boyfriend.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Are You Gonna Finish That?

Millennial pop culture will be remembered for a few marked trends- communication in 140 characters or less (which will hopefully be laid to rest in the cemetery of anachronistic bad ideas, alongside bustles, the pet rock, and tribal tattoos), vampires with Victorian sexual mores, and the apocalypse. Fascination with end times saturates the current cinema. The Book of Eli, The Road, and 2012 came out within months of each other. Dime store psychology suggests anxiety and alienation about our modern moment. And what better stage for the existential dramas of our time to implode than in a McDonald’s?

While wading through knee- deep February slush down 29th street to the Peter Blum Gallery, one may think they have indeed entered the apocalypse. But the smug anorexics behind the reception desk will assure you that people still populate the city, even west of 10th avenue, so one can resume wallowing in the low- grade misanthropy to which one has become accustomed.
The Superflex “Flooded McDonald’s” video installation provides a moment of repose from the living. The Danish collective, founded in 1993, scrutinizes power, agency and ownership. This is the group’s first solo show in New York City, and they make a strong statement in the financial capital of the world, with the consummate symbol of America, homogenization, free markets, the neoliberal devil, et al.

The 21- minute film takes place in the lurid browns, reds, and yellows of an older McDonald’s, a garish, muddy predecessor to the sleek McCafés of late. There are no lollygagging teenagers or screaming toddlers in the store, just their half- eaten French fries and unwrapped Filet- O- Fish linger after the Rapture. It looks as if people vacated the premises in frenzy. For a few moments, before the eponymous, inevitable flood washes the restaurant into a watery grave, one’s baser appetites might beg the question “are you going to finish that?” as the camera pans over newly minted Big Macs. Like Morgan Sprulock’s Supersize Me, utilizing McDonald’s as a symbol for deconstructing gluttony— in health or economics—can be problematic, as the audience may end up craving that which is being criticized. Not that I would know.

The exhibit is so captivating because it avoids the esotericism characteristic of many gallery video installations. McDonald’s patent uniformity provides a universal experience that any viewer can sink into, making the immediacy of the flood tangible. It is us who are drowning. We recognize this apocalypse.

As the flood waters rise, the lights go out, cups and soggy fries swirl like algae, the submersion envelopes, and the film begins to feel less like high art and more like a documentary that is all too real. The images are hypnotizing and grotesque, suggesting the groups’ commentary on mass food production or globalization or whatever. So much can be read into this allegory that it is a worthy endeavor to slog through the gray puddles of the west side to interpret “Flooding McDonald’s” according to you own political inclinations and fast food preferences. And your distaste for humanity will be lifted after you leave, as you will be relieved to return to the land of the living.