At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Friday, April 04, 2003

Warning: Movie Spoiler Ahead!

Last night I took a break from the video gaming to watch Quills on DVD. I greatly enjoyed a couple of director Philip Kaufman's previous movies (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June) so I was all the more disappointed in the heavy-handed, New Hollywood didacticism of this one. The movie is a speculative historical drama about the last days of famous French pornographer the Marquis de Sade as he attempts to carry on his trade while imprisoned in an insane asylum. Kate Winslet plays a laundress who smuggles his manuscripts to a publisher on the outside. I could forgive the obvious borrowings from Silence of the Lambs in the scene where the depraved, predatory genius lures the innocent young woman into his lair, but some other motifs were simply far too hackneyed. The hallowed theme is the sacred and salvific nature of unbridled self-expression, whether artistic or sexual, in conflict with the dark forces of repression. The stock villain in this case is a doctor who is sent to the asylum by Napoleon to put an end to de Sade's antics. Of course, being a moralist, he also has to be portrayed as a hypocrite, and so we are introduced to him in a particularly ham-fisted scene as calmly lecturing on the need for discipline while torturing his patients with a dungeon full of horrifying implements. He arranges a marriage with a teenaged orphan from the convent and practically rapes her on their wedding night, and later on gouges de Sade's wife for money to spruce up his mansion.

Caught between the doctor and de Sade is the priest who runs the asylum. The minute he appeared I knew there would be a scene of him flagellating himself--Romantics since Hawthorne have loved that as a symbol of the unnatural extent to which Christians will repress their natural, healthy desires. Being a priest, he is opposed to the substance of de Sade's literary output, but on the other hand he shares with de Sade the naive faith in the magical efficacy of self-expression. He runs the asylum with remarkable success by turning it into an arts-and-crafts camp. Kaufman films rosy scenes of the patients singing in the choir, performing skits, and putting their troubling thoughts on canvas. (He says to the resident pyromaniac, "See, it's better to paint fires than to set them.") Catharsis is also one of the justifications de Sade gives for his own choice of subject matter, along with the claim that his role is merely that of astute observer since everyone secretely harbors the same desires that he openly indulges. The evil doctor has already supplied the evidence for that latter thesis, but in case we are not convinced, the priest conveniently has a crisis of faith in which he realizes his suppressed desire for the laundress and, apparently, for de Sade also. Then he whips out the expected cat-o-nine-tails.

And lest any cliché be left out, at the end de Sade is turned into a Christ figure as he lies naked, arms outstretched, on the dungeon floor, a martyr to free speech. A double standard is needed to pull off this deification, however. When the doctor's young bride is transformed from a demeure, pious, faithful spouse into a sarcastic, adulterous fellatrix as a result of reading Justine, de Sade gets the credit (this change being a good thing by the movie's standards). But when an asylum inmate is inspired to commit murder by de Sade's stories, the author brushes it aside by saying "You wouldn't condemn the Bible if one of your patients tried to walk on water and drowned."

Quills, then, is just as starkly black-and-white as any 1950s TV melodrama, it's just that the chromatic values are reversed, as in a negative. On one side, the witty Marquis and his young, attractive admirers--on the other side the dour, aged prudes who oppress him.

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

apotheosize tr.v. To exalt to the dignity of a deity; to declare to be a god; to deify; to glorify. (

[At the risk of being pegged as "high and clean," I have to say this is one of my favorite albums.]

Stereolab Dots and Loops [Drag City, 1997]

From folkie soprano to synthesizer tweedle, many young people are down with their validation of high and clean--"Let There Be Flutes," as Bentley Rhythm Ace put it. And on a pretty good track, too, just like Emperor Tomato Ketchup is a fine album. Where us down and dirty types say sayonara is after the high artist peaks. Exploring rather than apotheosizing personal secrets, the high artist is like any other formalist, especially since he, she, or they probably suffered from formalist tendencies to begin with. On this album the tunes fall off and the wacky smarts lose the charm of surprise. There's still plenty of agile bass and clever sonic garbage. But only the high and clean will notice. B (

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Some books reviewed in this month's Choice which I will probably order for our library:

Eisner, Elliot W. The arts and the creation of mind. Yale, 2002. 258p index afp ISBN 0-300-09523-6, $35.00.

Gamwell, Lynn. Exploring the invisible: art, science, and the spiritual. Princeton, 2002. 344p bibl index afp ISBN 0-691-08972-8, $49.95.

Goffen, Rona. Renaissance rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian. Yale, 2002. 521p bibl index ISBN 0-300-09434-5, $39.95.

King, Robert C. A dictionary of genetics. 6th ed. by Robert C. King and William D. Stansfield. Oxford, 2002. 530p afp ISBN 0-19-514325-6 pbk, $29.95.

Histology: an interactive virtual microscope. Sinauer Associates, 2003. ISBN 0-87893-888-5, $39.95 . CD-ROM 2 discs; user directions.

Business: the ultimate resource. Bloomsbury Publishing. Perseus Publishing, 2002. 2,170p bibl index ISBN 0-7382-0242-8, $59.95.

Wolfson, Richard. Simply Einstein: relativity demystified. W.W. Norton, 2003. 261p bibl index ISBN 0-393-05154-4, $24.95.

The Annotated classic fairy tales. ed. and tr. by Maria Tatar. W.W. Norton, 2002. 443p bibl ISBN 0-393-05163-3, $35.00 .

Brands, H.W. The age of gold: the California Gold Rush and the new American dream. Doubleday, 2002. 547p bibl index ISBN 0-385-50216-8, $29.95.

Garrioch, David. The making of revolutionary Paris. California, 2002. 382p bibl index afp ISBN 0-520-23253-4, $34.95.

Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. Yale, 2002. 339p index afp ISBN 0-300-09532-5, $24.95. (Despite being lambasted by New Republic.)

Edmondson III, Henry T. Return to good and evil: Flannery O'Connor's response to nihilism. Lexington Books, 2002. 203p index afp ISBN 0-7391-0421-7, $24.95. (Choice only gave this one faint praise, but it looks particularly appropriate for our collection.)

Kataev, Vladimir. If only we could know: an interpretation of Chekhov. ed. and tr. by Harvey Pitcher. I.R. Dee, 2002. 301p indexes afp ISBN 1-56663-448-2, $27.50. (Every spring the students in Introductory English scavenge the shelves for material on The Cherry Orchard, so I figure a new highly-regarded work of Chekhov criticism will be welcome.)

McEwen, Bruce S. The end of stress as we know it. by Bruce S. McEwen with Elizabeth Norton Lasley. Joseph Henry Press, 2002. 239p index ISBN 0-309-07640-4, $27.95.

Rodenburg, Patsy. Speaking Shakespeare. Palgrave, 2002. 355p ISBN 0-312-29420-4, $26.95 .

This story from Library Journal about a Yale symposium on career opportunities in librarianship for washed-up humanities Ph.D.'s sounded eerily familiar...I know someone like that, except he didn't get a library job at Yale!

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

sven·ga·li n. A person who, with evil intent, tries to persuade another to do what is desired. (

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band Unconditionally Guaranteed [Mercury, 1974]

I've always suspected that underneath the naive surrealism the Captain might be a dumbbell, and now that he's really (really really) trying to go commercial he's providing proof. This time he really (really) does it--writes dumb little songs with dumb little lyrics and dumb little hooks. Maybe all the dumb dumb parts can be blamed on svengali and cocomposer Andy DiMartino. And I admit that a lot of these are passable ("Magic Be") to wonderful ("Sugar Bowl") dumb little songs. But they're still dumb. Really. B- (

Monday, March 31, 2003

I had an okay time at the cookout, although my skills at making small talk are not refined enough for such outings to be completely enjoyable. About thirty parishioners gathered at the home of a big, loud, friendly Texan named "Hoot" and his perky wife Teresa. The relaxed Episcopalian attitude to alcohol came in handy: Hoot owns a liquor store and so we had all the beer we cared to drink. Our law student was noticeably bleary-eyed after five or six cans of Bud Light. I snobbishly preferred quality to quantity and had a bottle of Guiness and a couple of "Mississippi Mud" black and tans. Hoot also grilled heaps of burgers, sausage, and chicken in his own portable barbeque pit. So gorging on fatty meat and soaking in beer, we were not exactly infused with the Lenten spirit of self-denial.

The Blonde was there along with her equally impressive younger sister. An interesting girl, The Blonde: involved in mission trips and diocesan conventions, but also stays out until four at parties repeatedly broken up by the police. The ex-Baptist showed up, as did another guy I had only met once briefly before: a real estate agent who lives out in the country and commutes to Lubbock every day. Remarkably quiet for someone in his line of work, he also likes a good beer and classic rock, so we may get along well.

I forget that I'm not in the north anymore, and that closed-minded patriotism is still very much a virtue down here. At work, for instance, L. and D. were mortally offended by Natalie Maines' comments during the infamous interview, and approved highly of Peter Arnett getting the boot. So at the party, I was asking Hoot if he, being in the line of work he is, could get me some Calvados. He didn't know what I was talking about so I explained, "It's an apple brandy, distilled in France." A woman next to me said, in a friendly but serious way, "France? We're not supposed to be supporting France like that." Later in the evening as I was leaving she reiterated the point. Of course she was wearing a t-shirt with a Renoir printed on it, but it probably would have been in bad taste to point that out.

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

prognathous adj Having the jaws projecting beyond the upper part of the face; -- opposed to orthognathous.(

Aerosmith Get Your Wings [Columbia, 1974]

These prognathous New Englanders are musicianly (all things are relative) inheritors of the Grand Funk principle: if a band is going to be dumb, it might as well be American dumb. Here they're loud and cunning enough to provide a real treat for the hearing-impaired, at least on side one. Have a sense of humor about themselves, too, assuming "Lord of the Thighs" is intended as a joke. With dumb bands it's always hard to tell. B- (