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November 2008
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January 2009

Weasels at the Wake

Someone asked me what my work was ‘about.’  I replied with no thought at all and merely to frustrate this line of inquiry: ‘The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.’  That was a great mistake.  Over the years I have seen that remark quoted in a number of learned columns.  It has now seemingly acquired a profound significance, and is seen to be a highly relevant and meaningful observation about my work.  But for me the remark meant precisely nothing. . . .  What am I writing about?  Not the weasel under the cocktail cabinet . . .  I can sum up none of my plays.  I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened.  That is what they said.  That is what they did.

-- Harold Pinter (10 October 1930 – 24 December 2008)

If only because of his Nobel Prize in Literature, Harold Pinter will be most remembered as a writer, but it bears emphasis that he was an all-round man of the theater: an extraordinary writer, yes, but also a director and, from the outset of his career, a gifted actor, as he demonstrates in the short pieces embedded below.

Pinter was strongly influenced by Samuel Beckett.  His core accomplishment, particularly in the plays that made his name, may have been to bring Beckett's world in to ours: neither Beckett's nor Pinter's plays are "realistic" in the standard sense, but Pinter took Beckett's bleak and frightful attitude, his darkest of the dark humor, and his precision with language that seems to say so little but carries so much, and imported them in to settings and human conversations that in other hands could be the stuff of old fashioned drama of the "kitchen sink"/"angry young man" school.  Even though people don't actually speak to one another as they do in Pinter, it is easy to believe they do, and the shifts and thrusts and dangers in characters' relations to one another are always clear, even when they lie hidden in the infamous Pinter pauses or beneath such mundane actions as moving a knick-knack or tearing strips of newspaper.

Here is a Beckett-Pinter linkage made manifest.  This clip presents, in its entirety, Beckett's late short piece "Catastrophe," in which Pinter plays The Director, Rebecca Pigeon is The Assistant, and John Gielgud, a few weeks prior to his own death, is the silent Protagonist.  David Mamet, who knows a few things himself about precise and freighted language, directed this version for the Beckett on Film project.

Via the BBC, here are Pinter and Rupert Graves in 2006 having a run at Pinter's own very brief but pitch perfect sketch, "Apart From That," which derives in part from the author's laudable aversion to mobile telephones:

("Apart From That" comes at the very end of a June 2006 BBC Newsnight Review interview, viewable in full here.  The discussion of mobile phones begins at around 25:10.)

Some of the best writing about Pinter in the past several years has appeared on the weblogs (Superfluities and now Superfluities Redux) of New York playwright George Hunka.  His memorial post features a photo of Pinter in the title role in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, and emphasizes the links between the two Nobel winners.  The archived Pinter posts on Superfluities also deserve your time.



  • Pinter Patter (October 2005, on the occasion of Pinter's Nobel)


Something of a Yuletide tradition here, Christmas Eve means it must be time to repost the Arnold Schoenberg Center's lovely seasonal video set to Schoenberg's Weihnachtsmusik (1921).  As Schoenberg goes, this is positively warm and cuddly, carrying about its person at least two familiar Christmas songs:

In a different vein, albeit with a serious source secreted beneath its tinsel and electric guitars, Mike Oldfield has his multitracked way with the traditional In Dulci Jubilo (aka Good Christian Men Rejoice):

And for the purists among us, that same old favorite performed in more traditional fashion by the boys' choir of York Minster, ca. 1995:

I feel properly festive now.  And you?

Wintry Poetry Corner:
A Man and a Woman, Both of Them Cold

Winter being upon us -- less messily here in cold and drizzly southern California than in many other parts of the country -- my thoughts turned to that other insurance lawyer with "Wallace" in his name, Wallace Stevens, and to his seasonally appropriate piece, "The Snow Man."  There is a version of the poem as recited by Stevens himself available on YouTube, but the accompanying video is such a poor and artifact-laden thing that I won't embed it here.  Questing about for an alternative, I found this:

«The Snow Man», de Wallace Stevens from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

This is one of a series of poetry videos originating with the Catalan literary weblog, blocs de lletres.  The poems are presented in their original languages, with Catalan subtitles.  I have not explored the entire collection yet, but my initial survey turned up one more for sharing today: Christina Rossetti's "Song," which has more thematic connections to Stevens' poem than I might have expected.

«Song», de Christina Rossetti from blocsdelletres on Vimeo.

Stay warm and dry, wherever your winter wanderings may be taking you.

Good Morning, Graduates!
[Murakami Sutra]

Our elder son Trevor graduates today, receiving his B.S. in the field of Game Art and Design from California Art Institute Los Angeles. 

  • Looking to hire a capable, diligent 3D modeler/texturer/environment artist in the Los Angeles area?  Contact me, or take a look at some of Trevor's work at his site,, and contact him!

Trevor is the one of our two sons who most commonly shares my fondness for Los Angeles' local art museums, and he has been a fine companion on jaunts to MOCA, LACMA, the Getty, et al., in recent years.  Because it has a graduation theme, here in Trevor's honor is Takashi Murakami's video for Kanye West's Elton John-sampling "Good Morning," which toured around the country as part of MOCA's © MURAKAMI exhibition prior to obtaining a release into the wild:

Kanye West - Good Morning

The ever so Influential Murakami, who recently announced plans to open an animation studio here in Los Angeles, has ongoing ties to the luxury goods trade, producing designs for Louis Vuitton.  MOCA's Murakami retrospective is somewhat notorious for its inclusion of a fully-operational Louis Vuitton boutique smack dab in the middle of the museum. 
  • All proceeds from the LV boutique went to Louis Vuitton, in contrast to the $320 generated by this week's "Save MOCA" bake sale.  Would the bake sale money be enough even for the downpayment on a Vuitton-Murakami handbag?
With no more excuse than that, and because it's a bit of fun, here as a bonus on this Graduation Day is Murakami's promotional video for his Louis Vuitton "Superflat Monogram" line -- in which he has just wrapped LV's 5th Avenue flagship store for the holidays.  It's a touching and bamboo-infused techno tale of a young girl, her elusive cellphone, an omnivorous Murakami panda-beast, and a walloping big bundle of product placement.

Louis Vuitton "Superflat Monogram" by Takashi Murakami.

Always Presently Winter, and Never Frequently Christmas

Paul Klee - Wintery Mask

John Crowley points the way to Laura Miller in today's New York Times, explaining why in our day it is always in some sense a Narnia Christmas

Miller notes a feature that always annoyed many of C.S. Lewis's comrades — the crazy quilt of figures from innumerable and otherwise inconsistent traditions who make up the population of Narnia — and puts it down to Lewis's fondness for the medieval habit of "gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin" without much concern for their original sources.  Christmas as most of us know it today is just like that, she says:

More than Christian or pagan, [our notion of] Christmas is a Victorian fabrication.

Is this, though, such a bad thing?  The unifying principle of Narnia, unlike the vast complex of invented history behind Middle-earth, isn’t an illusion of authenticity or purity.  Rather, what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love.  Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.

Our contemporary, semi-secular Christmas is similarly a collection of everything yearned for: warmth, plenty, peace, family, conviviality.  Like Narnia, the holiday is a fantasy, but there are times when a fantasy is exactly what you need.

That affectionate inclusiveness that Lewis brings to the indigenous peoples of Narnia is sufficient, for me, to outweigh the more doctrinaire and troubling bits, of which there are more than a few in the books.  And I don't mind saying that, despite the relative brevity of his appearance, Mr. Tumnus is one of my favorite characters in literature.  Doesn't everyone want to spend some time in a little house like his when the cold sets in in earnest?

Now, if you'll excuse me, winter is nearly here even in Southern California and I need to finish up some shopping.


Illustration: Paul Klee, "Wintery Mask" (1925), which caught my attention today at ::: wood s lot :::, though it may not be there when you go looking for it.  Via The National Gallery of Canada, where they seem to have a continuing problem with enormous bourgeois spiders.

Potatis Potandis

Two years ago this very day, I posted a piece on the potato in art:

Consider if you will the humble potato, that progenitor of a plethora of chips, crisps, mashes, purees, gratins, and bakers, and consider in particular the fondness with which these earthy starch factories are regarded in the arts.

One of the works I mentioned then was Sigmar Polke's 1967 Potato House [Kartoffelhaus], a house-shaped structure to which are attached -- you were thinking asparagus spears, perhaps? -- potatoes.  It looks rather like this:


When the Kartoffelhaus appeared in the first-ever UK Polke retrospective at the Tate Liverpool in 1995, a curator wrote:

This potato house grew in Sigmar Polke's head; now it travels the world.  Designed to flat-pack for easy transportation, the potatoes are provided at each port of call.  It is not a cage, for no cage ever had one wall missing.  This is the house of the 'dissident dweller'; a temporary shelter from which to view the world, or the circling worlds of Polke's imagination.

Polke's spudschloss will soon be putting in an appearance here in Los Angeles, as part of LACMA's "Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures," a comprehensive artistic twin study of the effect on German art of the country being split down the middle for several decades following the Second World War.

Today, on the second anniversary of my own Polkepotatoposten, UNFRAMED -- LACMA's newish and worthy blog -- reveals (with photos) the mysterious potato-based scientific inquiry being carried out in the office of LACMA modern art research assistant Dorothea Schoene:

Yes, this is an impaled potato.  No, you are not to touch it.  The potato is part of a conservation experiment to determine how long it takes for a nailed potato in an artificially lit space to sprout.

By the time the show opens next month, LACMA staffers will probably have resolved the much bruited question of the optimal artistic praxis with sour cream and chives.


"Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures" runs in the new Broad Contemporary galleries at LACMA, January 25 - April 19, 2009.

Potato House photo via kunst- und ausstellungshalle der bundesrepublik deutschland.

Precious and Few Are the Days That Trickle Down

December has arrived, meaning I will soon join in the year-end ritual of sharing my favorite music of the year.  Whilst I cobble that post, or series of posts, together, I will take this opportunity to upload one of my favorite song/video combinations of the year: "September" by Tvärvägen.

Tvärvägen is the name adopted by one-man Swedish music maker Henrik Öhberg.  Tvärvägen's music occupies an abstracted, melancholy romantic musical space, with occasional outbursts of noise, not far removed from that of long-time fool favorites Sweet Billy Pilgrim.  (SBP, I am thrilled to learn, finally has a second album forthcoming in the new year from David Sylvian's samadhisound label.)

Öhberg is also responsible for making the "September" video, which is thoroughly charming and a good match for the song.  I particularly like the bird -- which perhaps isn't a bird, since its beak looks suspiciously to be tied on with string and its big blue eyes are disturbingly human and it has a small evergreen forest growing on top of its head -- that provides the backing vocals.

Tvärvägen - September from Henrik Ohberg on Vimeo.

An album -- Sånger från Tvärvägen (Songs from Tvärvägen)-- emerged in late November on the tiny Knoppar label, located somewhere in a distant suburb of Stockholm, and can currently be found streaming in its entirety here.

(Original discovery of "September" via Songs:Illinois.)

Nunc est Bibendum

Repeal car crop

December 5 of each year is Repeal Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the repeal of the national policy of Prohibition.  This particular December 5 is not just any Repeal Day: it is the 75th Repeal Day, and thus an occasion for especial, if prudent, celebration.

So, with the famous spokescreature for Michelin tires -- who predates Prohibition and is, in any case, French and thus imbued with the sensible French attitude toward wines and spirits -- this Fool toasts you all.  Now is the time to drink or, as Horace would have it, Nunc Est Bibendum!

Nunc est bibendum

To conclude, a bonus tribute to Monsieur Bib: