I was the leadoff speaker at the American Association of Individual Investors conference in Las Vegas. I enjoyed meeting participants, disproportionately older folk asking questions about how to financially assist their adult children and grandchildren. While there, I took some pics….
The much-honored and beloved playwright Neil Simon has passed away at the age of 91. I re-post my recommendations for two of his most entertaining movies, and gratitude for making me laugh very hard many times:
There is an above average Jimmy Stewart movie called “No Time for Comedy“, in which he is cast as Gaylord Esterbrook. Gaylord writes hilariously funny plays yet feels he should write dramatic productions of greater weight in order to be a “serious writer”…but his effort to do so is disastrous. The movie always makes me think of Neil Simon. When he tries to be dramatic he is often manipulative, soppy, boring or pretentious. Films like “California Suite” make me ape Homer Simpson’s reaction to watching Garrison Keillor (Homer beats the idiot box yelling “Stupid TV! BE MORE FUNNY!”).
But when Simon gets over himself and just tries to be funny, he can be absolutely, rib-ticklingly, delightfully enjoyable. This week’s double feature recommendation highlights Simon at his gutbusting best in two loosely linked comedies directed by Robert Moore: Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978).
Both films are affectionate parodies of fictional detectives from the movies. Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are sent up in Murder by Death. The Cheap Detective focuses only on Sam Spade (renamed Lou Peckinpaugh) as he works his way through the plots of many Humphrey Bogart classics, including the Maltese Falcon, the Big Sleep and Casablanca. There is murder and intrigue in both films and a plot as well, but who cares?: The purpose is laughter and laugh you will if you have a funny bone in your body.
The cast is gold, a simply stunning array of talent (some of whom appear in both movies): Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, Marsha Mason, James Cromwell, Nancy Walker, Elsa Lanchester, Sid Caesar and many more. Everyone knows what they are doing and gets every conceivable laugh out of Simon’s scripts.
My favorite bits are hard to choose from such an embarrassment of comedy riches, but I will try. In Murder by Death: The best ever update of “Who’s on First”, featuring a butler named JamesSir Bensonmum and his father Howodd Bensonmum. In the Cheap Detective: Betty DeBoop’s stage number and first encounter with Lou Peckinpaugh (“You made me swallow my gum”).
I love museums. Science museums, history museums, art museums; there’s nothing like looking at real stuff in person. Whether it’s an antique automobile, a big old beetle in a case, or the Ardabil carpet in the V&A, being able to walk around it, get close, and engage on my own time is one of my top-level pleasures. I’m sure I learned as much natural science in the American Museum of Natural History as a child as I did in school; whenever I’m traveling, I make a beeline for local museums.
The affection is not entirely requited in art museums, mainly because so many of them transparently disrespect me (and all the other visitors) by pointless, insouciant, arrogant stinginess with the information that makes the art accessible. This weekend I was at the Huntington, the Getty Villa, and LACMA in LA. The Huntington and the Getty do a pretty good job with long, informative labels that provide context, history, and some guidance about what to attend to in the works on display, but LACMA left me really steamed.
A featured exhibition was several galleries full of contemporary political art by Iranians that reached back to the Shahnameh for analogies and references, a show with appropriate local interest (there are lots of Persians in LA, including refugees from before and after the shah’s overthrow) and in any case an interesting and fruitful concept. You should go and see it, but unfortunately you will miss a lot unless you’re already hip to recent (and ancient) Iranian history, and can read Farsi. The labels were tiny and short and one after another very political work full of incriptions, signs, and text in Farsi was untranslated. One faceplant in particular seemed to sum up art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.
The work, by Koushna Navabi, is a couple of dozen rings in different metallic finishes with the same portrait, a little over an inch each way:
This is the entire label we were offered:
Know whose portrait this is? Only because I’m old enough to almost remember the period, and spent some time in Iran after the coup that overthrew him, I recognized Mohammed Mosaddegh, about whom Wikipedia says “Many Iranians regard Mosaddegh as the leading champion of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination in Iran’s modern history. Mosaddegh was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the CIA at the request of MI6.” In the oppressive regime of the shah and his SAVAK secret police that followed, Iran’s oil remained in the hands of western oil companies and their US and British protectors. Of course by 1979 this arrangement went off the rails because the Iranians had had enough of it.
Any of that useful in engaging with this work? Or is the (I presume) affectionate but rather obscure pun in the title all you needed? I hung around and asked at least a half-dozen visitors if they knew whose portrait was on the rings; none had any idea. Here’s what the curator thought she was doing with this show; I’m sure her middle-east specialist colleagues were impressed, but an exhibition like this is a lot of work: I guess she just didn’t have a minute to actually think about the visitors who would walk in the door.
My reaction to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague surprised me. I was expecting to admire this famous work by a great master, the favourite painting of the Dutch. It is indeed technically marvellous. Vermeer was one of the greatest technicians of oil painting ever. My problem with the picture is as a portrait. It’s formally a tronje, a painting of an unidentified and representative human figure. But it’s plainly not a stylised ideal but a portrait of a real girl. She has no name, perhaps (as in the film) a servant paid a few ducats to sit. I find it unflattering, and not by any lack of skill. Newspapers rightly get criticised for printing photos of politicians with their mouths open: everybody looks stupid when caught like this. Vermeer went to enormous trouble, over multiple sittings, to make his subject look dimwitted. She was exophthalmic anyway, and he faithfully reproduced or exaggerated this. The combined effect is disrespectful and exploitative. And to what purpose? Possibly to make a trite contrast with the perfection of the enormous pearl earring lent her for the occasion. Pshaw.
My second portrait is an extreme contrast: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt for almost 20 years, in Berlin. Again, the extraordinary technical skill of the bust (about two-thirds life size) is indisputable. The effect is remarkable. She is not just beautiful but glamorous: beauty weaponized. (The origins of the word lie in Scottish witchcraft.) For what purpose? The classic glamour photos of Hollywood studio stars were designed to transform their exploited and vulnerable subjects into unattainable objects of sexual desire, in order to sell film tickets. Nefertiti didn’t need that; she was a Pharaoh’s queen already.
The Hollywood stars were metaphorical sex goddesses. Nefertiti was the real thing.
First, the sex part. There is no reason to doubt her depicted beauty. Her husband Amenhotep was portrayed as ugly, with distended belly and elongated limbs, possibly as a result of a congenital condition. So the burden of regal show, and quite likely of day-to-day rule, fell disproportionately on the queen. She rose to the challenge; she even had herself sculpted naked, a radical step in any culture that you can only get away with if you have a great body and total self-confidence.
Second, the goddess. Pharaohs and their consorts were semi-divine personages anyway, on speaking terms with the gods. But Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten – was determined on a religious revolution. He swept away the pantheon, and replaced it by a proto-monotheistic cult of Aten, represented only as the solar disc. The worship of Aten was carried out in courtyard temples open to the sky, not dark labyrinths. The Pharaoh and queen became the unique intermediaries between the people and Aten, and the priests were out of a job. They did not appreciate this, and after Akhenaten’s death staged a successful counter-revolution. His son Tutankhamun (by another wife) was buried surrounded by images of the old pantheon. The Aten cult was forgotten, the new capital at Amarna abandoned. While it lasted Queen Nefertiti was a sacred priest-empress, as near to a goddess as monotheism allows.
Did the cult die? Sigmund Freud for one thought not. He suggested that the Aten religion influenced Jewish monotheism. Archaeologists pooh-pooh this. The Egyptian captivity is generally considered unhistorical; all the evidence points to a Canaanite origin for Judaism. But in that case, where did the story of the Exodus come from? Canaan was often a frontier province of the Egyptian empire. Metropolitan political and cultural upheavals would have filtered there during Akhenaten’s quite long reign (ca. 1350 BCE) . A contribution to early Jewish developments is certainly possible – it’s more believable than the bloodthirsty fantasies of the unread Book of Joshua. Once you ask “Why not one?” the question is hard to put away.
Maybe Nefertiti is still our Queen.
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János Kornai, whose Economics of Shortage provided the only (as far as I know) theoretically coherent and empirically supported analysis of the actual functioning of the economies of the ComEcon states, has just been awarded the Open Society Prize at the commencement ceremony of the Central European University in Budapest.
This may be the last time that prize, or any CEU degree, is awarded in Budapest. The authoritarian, ethno-nationalist, and anti-Semitic Orban government in Hungary, installed with the help of Russian money and influence (does that sound familiar?) is moving forward a law aimed at Hungarian-born (and Jewish) George Soros, whose philanthropy helped create CEU; when it goes into effect, it will force CEU to leave the country.
Below is the text of a letter from Kornai to a friend in the U.S., followed by the text of the award speech by the Rector of CEU and Kornai’s acceptance speech.
Sara Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia. I think this is a positive good, and I don’t think Masterpiece bakers had the right to refuse a gay couple a cake.
There is nothing in the Masterpiece case to indicate that the customers behaved or intended to behave, professionally or personally, in a way that would hurt the bakers. The bakers thought a gay marriage sinful according to their own religion, but this only gives them the right to preach against it and to not enter into such unions. I suppose they can pick and choose their personal friends on such grounds also, but they can’t discriminate commercially.
Sanders is quite a different story. She is on the public payroll, in the public eye, supported by taxes everyone pays. She isn’t a civil servant working to implement the policies of an a legitimately elected administration that operates within the larger norms and rules of democracy. She is a political appointee whose daily practice is to lie and deceive, actively subverting the function of the press, in the interest of a hateful, mendacious, deliberately ignorant president who respects no norms, and whose praxis is to spread hate and fear. To injure the sick, the child refugee at our gates, the brown, the black, the poor, the young, and the unfortunate are not within the legitimate range of left-to-right American governance policy preferences. No member of the Trump administration deserves to have Luis[a] Gomez so much as wash a dish for her.
Back in the day, there was a legal status of outlaw whose disrespect for the law and its courts was so great that they were thought unworthy of the protections of those institutions, and left to the mercies of citizen vigilantes. That was not good practice; even the Kelly gang deserved fair trials. But the senior officials of the Trump administration are properly “outlaws” with respect to the norms and standards of civilized society, and they don’t have any right to hide behind those norms for the right to circulate in public. Republicans who haven’t completely surrendered their consciences and brains to the Trump-Putin kleptocracy have a right to eat out in peace; Trump people at the level of Sanders have surrendered that right. They can eat at home with whoever will still socialize with them, or perhaps at venues whose staff, customers, and owners aren’t their intended victims. One more time; they should be pariahs not because of their beliefs, but because of their behavior, behavior actively hostile to wide swaths of the population and far outside the norms and conventions that entitle the rest of us to a peaceful night out among citizens.
I have only seen the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on television and the web. As you probably know, it is a memorial to the over four thousand African Americans who were killed between 1877 and 1950 for the crime of having dark skins. It is certainly overpowering to see the stones representing every single victim whose death could be documented.
Last summer, while walking the streets of Würzburg, Germany, we saw a more prosaic, but just as heart-gripping, memorial to victims of a different Holocaust. Gunter Demnig, a German artist, created Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), brass plaques cemented on cobblestones. The plaques are engraved with the details of the victims – name, birthdate, date of death, location (concentration camp) of death – who might be Jews, Roma, homosexuals, or mentally or physically handicapped persons. The stumbling blocks are set into the pavement in front of the former homes of the victims, so a stroll down the street is a reminder of what and where it happened.
While a trip to the various Holocaust Museums leaves a person with a profound feeling of rage at those who perpetrated these crimes against humanity, it may be forgotten with the passage of time and a return to one’s daily life. I have the feeling that the Stolpersteine may have a more subtle effect on people, in their pervasiveness throughout the cities where they were installed. I wonder if Demnig or someone else might be encouraged to do the same with those four thousand victims of racism, showing how pervasive and widespread it was throughout this country.
More DuSable pics below the fold Continue Reading…
I love carrying a camera around Chicago for those random moments worth capturing. I rarely do video. But my Lumix FZ300 does a pretty nice job. And Chicago street musicians can sometimes really rock it. If anyone knows this band, please note it in the comments. And yeah, I dropped some bucks into their bin.