Table of Contents: > Reader’s Digest of the Blog


Fellini & the Allure of Comics

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[RERUN: Originally Aired Sept. 2009 / An old favorite lost in the great SQL database corruption of 2012. I never tire of thinking about the electric confection that is Fellini & Manara’s Trip to Tulum, so here it be. Admittedly dated by my still fresh allergic rejection of the very idea of Zac Snyder’s appalling adaptation of Watchmen}

Comics, and the ghostly fascination of those paper people, paralyzed in time, marionettes without strings, unmoving, cannot be transposed to film, whose allure is motion, rhythm, dynamic. It is a radically different means of addressing the eye, a separate mode of expression. The world of comics may, in its generosity, lend scripts, characters and stories to the movies, but not its inexpressible secret power that resides in that fixity, that immobility of a butterfly on a pin. –Federico Fellini

The graphic novel Trip to Tulum has its roots in an aborted film of Fellini’s called the Journey of G Mastorna. Fellini’s entry in the “whoa… he was dead the whole time” mini genre, the movie was plagued by strange mishaps throughout its production. Already haunted by nightmares, Fellini threw in the towel after a huge Gothic church set collapsed minutes after it had been erected. The script and its attendant themes and vignettes sunk back into Fellini’s imagination. Over time bits and pieces floated to the surface in other films.

Fellini’s affection for comics and graphic storing telling is well known. In the mid 80’s, he allowed an Italian newspaper to serialise a version of the story, now called Trip to Tulum, with accompanying illustrations by Milo Manara. Manara, mostly known for his tony, Euro sci-fi erotica, is an illustrator and artist of the highest caliber. When Manara wanted to expand the story into a graphic novel, Fellini agreed, and took to the collaboration with gusto.

The result is simply one of the lost classics of the form. It begins with a stunning Anita Ekberg ringer finding Fellini asleep on the edge of pond in a a lush grove swept through by gusts of wind. Fellini’s hat flies off and as she reaches to grab it she falls in. Swimming after the sinking hat she descends to a vast, surreal field of sunken planes and ships. It emerges that they are all physical manifestations of Fellini’s films and unrealized notions. On one plane she finds a nattily dressed, kelp encircled Marcello Mastroianni, and…. oh never mind, from there the story just unfurls from one scene to the next like wax balls in a lava lamp… it’s a frisky fantasy adventure, a hallucinatory dream, a self referential commentary, an allegory of film-making, and finally a meditation on the creative act itself. Out of print now, copies can be found here.

(Incidentally, the Fellini quote is one of the definitive statements on the relationship between movies and comics. The notion of characters on “loan” lies at the heart of Chris Nolan’s respectful yet inspired cinematic interpretations of Batman. Its warning against literalism is precisely what an earnest vulgarian like Zach Snyder does not understand – which is why there is nothing whatsoever to be gained, and everything to be lost, in seeing Watchmen)

The Quintessence of Tempest

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[RERUN: Hauling this out of the early days of the blog. I’ve been on a protracted vintage video game and pinball bender lately. Atari’s iPad port of my beloved Tempest is damn near perfect and I’ve been playing it a ton. As such this early appreciation of the stone cold perfection of this game has been on my mind. So, here, then…}

The screen graphics of the classic video game Tempest represent a kind of summit of design and beauty –  the finest expression of a very limited language. In the case of Tempest that language was vector based rendering. Vector monitors were used in video games from the mid 70’s to the early 80’s. The technology was derived from oscilloscopes – the image is projected by an electron beam onto the glass. Image a laser light show sped up to produce a lasting image and you’ve got it…

Many classic games were made using this technology – Asteroids and Battlezone as well as the first Star Wars game. While they all had their aesthetic charms, Tempest is in a class of its own. All vector games have a certain elegance and simplicity. The problem arises in the crudity of the renderings – the poor approximations of tanks, asteroids, and X-wings forever marks these games as primitive gestures of an evolving technology. Tempest is exempt because it is derived from the technology itself.  What would a world defined by glowing geometric unshaded lines look like? Pretty much like Tempest.

Its beauty lies in the fact that it is in harmony with its own rules and limits. Hence the extremely elegant compositions – uncrowded, with a well balanced sense of scale. The color scheme is vibrancy itself, strong underlying blues, wonderful pops of pink, green, red, and yellow. And the physics of the electron beams give everything a deep saturated glow.

That same harmony extends to playing the game as well. Most games rely on clumsy and stunted translations of real world movements like running, jumping or flying an ostrich. Tempest moves in accordance with its nature – spinning and firing. That’s what makes it so satisfying. Once you understand its strange parameters you have a complete experience on its terms – a dynamic, I think, that is fundamental to the idea of art.

An Epic Burlesque: Kotlyarevsky’s Eneida

These plates are from an edition of Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s 1798 poem Eneida, a ribald retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid. Kotlyarevsky transposed Aeneas, the Trojans, and Greek mythology into the folklore of Ukrainian Cossacks. It is among the first major works written in Ukrainian, and is a cornerstone of Ukraine’s national literature. Wonderfully, it also defines the very notion of a burlesque – vulgarizing lofty notions like love, family, faith and battle, feigning seriousness in the face of absurdity, and is packed to the gills with slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, and, natch, healthy portions of friskiness…

This particular version, printed in 1969, in Kiev, Ukraine, is, simply stated, one of the most beautifully designed, illustrated, typeset and produced books I’ve ever seen. Sturdy and stout, clad in a satisfyingly course gray canvas, it opens onto a corker of a title page. From the swashbuckling script of the authors name, the elemental block-y-ness of the title, and the illustration of a muscular and languid Cossack/Trojan, it’s a bravura opening gesture. From there, graphically, the book never flags – block after block of typeset verse on heavy cream paper. But the heart of the book lies in the illustrations, by A. Bazylevych, whose style is a deft hybrid of wood block engravings, thick-lined expressive cartooning, and abstract color blocks.

My recollection of the book from childhood is profoundly visceral. I can recall my father reading vignettes that swirled thrillingly in a noggin already stuffed with mythological adventures. But it’s the illustrations that left an indelible impression. It’s a phantasmagoria of soldiers and sieges, gods and devils, maidens and crones, battles and scraps, feasts and revelries, a cosmos of melodrama. Looking at them again after a span of decades, my recollection is immediate and electric – what’s vital in art, in fiction, and in life seems to spring forth in an exuberant, lusty, unruly parade.

Golden Years

Every time I look at these photos they light up my noggin like a pinball machine. I linger over them, careening from detail to detail, setting off little bright explosions of nostalgia, recognition, longing and sheer delight.

Some context… They’re snaps taken at a Sam Goody’s record store in mighty Paramus, New Jersey from about 1976 until 1980. They were taken by a friend of an old acquaintance of mine, and I spotted them one day out on the more distant orbits of the Facebook. The photographer, one of the employees of the shop, kindly gave me permission to post them.

I was transfixed the instant I saw them. Aesthetically they’re amazing – the pale yellow cast of the film encasing the era as if in amber. A wistful melancholy sets in when you start to weigh what we lost as a culture when we lost places like this. But it’s the people, finally – this wonderful, quirky, ramshackle cast –  that really bring these photos to life.

I’ve tried many times to describe their effect on me – jury-rigging metaphors that do justice to their peculiar spell. It’s weird. I’m just old enough to recall when the texture of life felt like this. So sometimes they trigger deeply felt, familiar, yet sketchy, memories. Other times they read like fiction – especially vivid stills from a movie that one the one hand I desperately wished existed and on the other I feel like I’ve already seen. Like I said, weird.

Soviet girl manual

Diagrams and fashion spreads from a book called For you! Girls! published in the Soviet Union in 1965. I found it in a profoundly random box of discarded books and cassettes in the “free trade” corner of a U-Haul self storage warehouse in Philadelphia. It was published by something like the Committee for the Literature for Popular Sciences & Medicine (My Ukrainian provides an imperfect guide to the Russian) It’s a comprehensive guide to the Soviet Girl, with a strange mix of propaganda, health and fitness tips, fashion spreads, and aspirational portraits of female astronauts, seamstresses, soldiers, and miners. Odd, fascinating, unsettling in the soullessness of the sloganeering and the gap between the lightheaded lifestyle spreads and the grey reality of Soviet life… but as often is with this stuff, aesthetically compelling – a mix of constructivist graphics, great type, and high key black and white photography.

Some Swedish Type

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So, recently I was over in Sweden visiting IKEA HQ (more on that, later-ish…) IKEA is located in Älmhult, a small picture postcard of a town. Quaint cobblestone square anchored by statue of Carl Linnaeus (you remember Linnaean taxonomy, yes? — three kingdoms, divided into classes, orders, families, genera, and species, eighth grade or so, feathered hair, Toughskins jeans, 3/4 black sleeved Cars T-shirt…sorry, pardon my corduroy reverie…)

Anyway, I’m wandering around and happen upon a gas station / burger & ice cream hut / thrift store (!) where, between fan belts, spark plugs, a row of swedish potboilers, needlepoint, and axel grease, I spot these 10″ records in a crate.

What a score! Each one of these Swedish type compositions is gorgeous — and each anchored by a contrastingly dense, filagreed record label. Häftigt!

Public Image Limited

In retrospect, the album cover designs of the early releases by Public Image Limited constitute one hell of a brilliant run. By his own admission John Lydon’s music has been basically a big conceptual media prank, playing with, subverting, and looting the whole notion of the public image. Therefore it’s no surprise that packaging and design figured so heavily in his work from the very beginning.

Arguably British tabloids were the closest things in the cultural landscape, both aesthetically and attitudinally, to punk rock, so it was fitting that Never Mind The Bollocks was designed like a cross between a tabloid and a ransom note (which, incidentally is an apt description of the record itself.)

With Public Image Limited, those influences and themes became more sophisticated and overt. The mock slick magazine design of the debut was an ironic riposte to the expected image of Lydon as a young savage. This was followed by the unprecedented, and justly celebrated, configuration of 1980’s Metal Box – 3 12inch singles in a, um, metal box. After that came the aggressively sexy glamorous cover for 1981’s Flowers of Romance. Among other things, it strikingly prefigures the the snapshot aesthetic of current fashion and nightlife photographers like Nikola Tamindzic and, ugh, that skeezy doofus Terry Richardson. The sleeper of the bunch is the cover of 1983’s cynically bland cash-in Live in Tokyo – shot and composed perfectly. Dig the way the commercial riot of neon signage converges and perfectly frames the iconic PiL logo, interrupted only briefly by Lydon’s fab shiny suit.

What ties it all together is the same tension that animates the music – a constant flickering between art and commerce, sincerity and fakery, and, ultimately, what is false and worthless and what is true and enduring.

Public Image Limited: Public Image: [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PIL_PublicImage.mp3]


Public Image Limited:
Careering (astonishing BBC version): [download]

[audio:http://shepelavy.com/audio/PIL_CareeringBBCSession.mp3]

Hang on to yourself…

Hell yes! Essential pop wisdom courtesy of Mike Fornatale. Always remember – all our passionate affairs with the stuff we love began back then, with those first obsessions that blotted out the horizons of our imaginations. The same force that makes you, let’s say, hand draw and write a full libretto for a sequel to Aladdin Sane at 14, still powers your infatuations today. Hang on to yourself indeed.

Fornatale, by the way, is a rock lifer – raising fandom to a vocation and a formidable talent in his own right. He currently sings in the latest incarnation of the beloved baroque pop maestros The Left Banke. An appreciation from The Big Takeover can be read here.

Robert Longo’s Place

Shots taken by Todd Selby of Robert Longo in his studio. For me it’s the smudgy texture of everything surrounding his deep, velvety drawings. Especially evocative are the shots of his supplies – more like mechanics gear, overlaid with an archipelago of black smears. Everything here suggests a great physicality behind the smooth rich sheen and stark contrast of his finished work. Longo has compared his drawing style to sculpture, saying “when I draw with graphite I smudge it with my fingers, move it around physically, it’s like clay. Painting is painting on the surface, covering up, where drawing is putting the picture into the paper like a photograph.”

It’s a blogament to their power that they retain a so much of this muscularity, materiality, and weight when hung in the hermetic space of a gallery. However, they seem especially at home in the studio. It’s like seeing a big ship being assembled in dry-dock from far overhead, and seeing the complex mechanics behind something that will later glide with such heavy grace on the water.

(Below for your pleasure, are a few selections from his iconic 80’s series Men in the Cities. They have, I think, aged particularly well, and seem, now, emblematic of their era rather than beholden to it. Longo also maintains an excellent, comprehensive website with generous galleries spanning his entire career. Also, Selby’s ongoing, long running series of arty glitterati in their homes is amazing and worth checking out frequently)

The stars, my destination…

Amazing! So much purposeful human striving packed into one single frame – the bustling boogie woogie rhythms of daily life…

A fitting intersection, then, for our beloved space shuttle to cross – born of and built by the same energy and industry that powers the streets below. It’s endearing how much affection that ungainly piggyback elicits. The future was not the sleek finned swooped darts envisioned by Alex Raymond or Chesley Bonestell. The future was function begetting form – a spacecraft that looks as it must, to do what it needs to do, more Jeep than Jaguar.

Guided by technology contemporaneous with Centipede, Donkey Kong & Tempest, it broadened the perimeter of our everyday reach out into the edge of space. Because that’s the thing about the shuttle missions… they weren’t shots into the unknown, like Sir Richard Burton setting off to find the source of the Nile, or the Apollo Missions to the moon. They were meant to explore and colonize a frontier, like prospectors setting out westward to California to pan for gold, bend the direction of rivers, to make rockets and movies in the desert.

It’s why the spirit of Hedy Lamarr floats above this scene like a patron saint – a gifted, glamorous actress who, in her spare time, invented new kind of guidance system for torpedos to better fight the Nazis.

This photograph is a profound hymn to Los Angeles and the idea of California. Los Angeles will always be the most American of cities, defined by the lure of ambition and the blank canvas of possibility rather than the grids of Paris or London. Where hidden in the anonymity of deserts and stripmalls someone is manipulating the genome, making planes invisible, or writing Tootie’s dialog for an upcoming episode of Yo Gabba Gabba.

It’s where a young Gene Roddenberry would begin to write a series of TV scripts that used science fiction as a vehicle not only to boldly go where no man had gone before, but to explore the frontiers of the human condition – to muse on love, faith, friendship, and art.

It is no accident that the first space shuttle was called The Enterprise.

[Photograph by Stephen C. Confer]

Agent Diana Prince

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Wonder Woman is really confusing.

Consider the other members of the comic book trinity. Batman: Bruce Wayne, Gotham, detective. Superman: Clark Kent, Metropolis, boy scout. Their essences are schematic. Wonder Woman has been an Amazon and an Olympian. She’s been a god, a mortal, and a mix of both. She’s Diana Prince sometimes, she’s Diana Prince always, she’s never been Diana Prince. She had the invisible plane, gained the power of flight, then gotten the plane back – which I guess she uses when… she…umm… flyes back home? Yes home, which is on the island of Themyscira… or is it Boston, Gateway City, New York? Severe shifts in character and narrative continuity are endemic in comics, sure, but this schizoid blackboard eraser approach is more than a little nuts. It has left her less an icon than a notion of one.

That said, one of Wonder Woman’s most random, and most enjoyable, phases was her 60’s incarnation as a mod boutique owner and secret agent. Pop culture was undergoing a massive collective spy fantasia. Bond movies were at the height of their popularity and surreality. Every flavor of espionage was in vogue – Harry Palmer, Michael Caine’s working class spy, Italian comic book adaptations like Danger: Diabolik and Modesty Blaise, and Dean Martin’s candy colored Matt Helm absurdities. The genre’s high point is probably James Coburn’s peerless set of Flint movies (don’t miss this extended montage of highlights). They all shared a common widescreen Technicolor palette – mod fashions, mid century modern design, a taste for a splashy op art and the occasional dose of the lysergic. On television, Aaron Spelling’s pioneering swinging lady detective series Honey West had just been annihilated by the arrival of a fab new import from the UK – the Avengers.

The Avengers featured the espionage escapades of dapper Victorian John Steed and incomparable hepcat Emma Peel. In Peel, played by Diana Rigg, the genre had found it’s female icon. She was a stone cold fox, a brain box, a wit, and singularly, unforgettably stylish. (Peel’s wardrobe is virtually a case study in 60’s mod fashions – saturated pop colors, geometric patterns and cuts)

Emma Peel became the explicit model for the 60’s manifestation of Wonder Woman. She shed her powers and permanently adopted her mortal alter ego Diana Prince. She opened a fashionable clothing store. She rebuilt her fighting skills under the tutelage of her new sidekick, the wise, blind kung fu sage, I-Ching. The art was fantastic – a perfect blend of 50’s Romance comics, Good Girl Art, and Dan DeCarlo’s Josie and the Pussycats. The result was derivative, obvious, and absolutely delightful. (DC has recently reissued 3 volumes of this era – all are worthwhile, all easily found).

Casanova

Thoroughly fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine by Tony Perrottet on the overlooked biographical details of that legendary Casanova, Giacomo Casanova. The piece opens with a gob-smacking accounting of the serpentine path his celebrated memoir took, ending in its exalted cubby in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Suffice it to say it includes a stop during the 19th century in a special cupboard for illicit books in the French National Library, called L’Enfer, or “the Hell.”

The story then turns to a vividly sketched outline of Casanova’s life – establishing a far, far more interesting character than, as Perrottet puts it, “a frivolous sexual adventurer, a cad and a wastrel.” In fact,

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798, and was a far more intellectual figure than the gadabout playboy portrayed on film. He was a true Enlightenment polymath, whose many achievements would put the likes of Hugh Hefner to shame. He hobnobbed with Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin and probably Mozart; survived as a gambler, an astrologer and spy; translated The Iliad into his Venetian dialect; and wrote a science fiction novel, a proto-feminist pamphlet and a range of mathematical treatises. He was also one of history’s great travelers, crisscrossing Europe from Madrid to Moscow. And yet he wrote his legendary memoir, the innocuously named Story of My Life, in his penniless old age, while working as a librarian (of all things!) at the obscure Castle Dux, in the mountains of Bohemia in the modern-day Czech Republic.

In British terms, let’s say, this is all much more Richard Francis Burton than Flashman. Fascinating, and as Blackadder would say, “as French as a pair of self-removing trousers.”

As far as the art goes, above are some frisky watercolors by Auguste Leroux from the 1932 French edition of Casanova’s Histoire de ma Vie. Leroux was a celebrated illustrator who worked with Huysmans, Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert… below are some fetching prints by Milo Manara inspired the the 1976 Fellini film. (My appreciation of their finest collaboration, A Trip to Tullum, here.)

Also, for your pleasure, a live cut of Roxy Music’s strutting tribute.

Roxy Music: Casanova:

 

That Heavenly Smile!

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Reposting this for a couple of reasons. One, recently re-watched Smile, which was as mesmerising as the viewing that originally inspired this post. Also, because of this fantastic, engrossing profile of Errol Morris in Smithsonian Magazine.

If setting one’s anthropological or satirical sights on Southern California is as difficult as shooting an arrow into a side of a barn then setting them on a beauty pageant in mid 70’s Southern California is as hard as walking into the side of the same barn.

Michael Ritchie’s Smile (1975) and Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (1978) serve as a useful reminders to never take an easy target for granted. Smile stars Bruce Dern and Barbra Feldon (Agent 99!!) in proto-mock-umentary about a small town beauty pageant in Santa Rosa, California. It is a direct, albeit far more subtle, progenitor of Christopher Guest’s mocumentaries. Gates of Heaven is a rigorously filmed documentary about the people whose lives cross at a pair of Southern Californian pet cemeteries. They are united by two fundamental convictions – the profound weirdness of Southern California, and the universality of human nature.

What’s amazing about the films is that they arrive at similar moments of profound insight and gob-smacking surreality from such very different starting points. As their personal philosophies, passions, and musings unspool, Morris’ subjects reach such high levels of quirk they seem to drift into the realm of fiction. What grounds them – what makes them so moving – is each oblique, strange, meandering interview becomes a loose prose poem to fundamental human themes – love, companionship, art, mortality, disappointment and aspiration. Richies’ film, a genuinely hilarious and gentle satire, is so lovingly staged, and the dialog so carefully wrought, that segments become little snowglobe dioramas the of human condition.

And what Tang frosted snowglobes! Both films have distilled over time into super saturated essences of the era. Belief in the promise of suburban Southern California seemed require the spiritual nourishment of ochre, flaming orange and lime. Filmed while the 70’s were in full swing, both directors stage and style scenes with Wes Anderson-esqe levels of compositional fussiness.

While they share a common nexus, each film leaves behind a distinctly different impression. Smile’s human moments dissipate quickly, and remains a big hearted time capsule. Gates of Heaven’s impact is far more profound and the weight of its numinous human strivings stay with you long after it’s scenes of 70’s kitsch fade.

For Christopher Hitchens…

The first time I read an essay by Christopher Hitchens it triggered in me an almost magnetic alignment. It is what influence feels like, palpably. Your notions, deductions, biases, obsessions, interests, and proclivities drift, loosely organized in patchwork clumps, downstream. They bump up, shift, and self organize, when suddenly a forceful current snaps them into order. Everything just locks into place.

I wish I could remember what it was about, my first draught of this amazing, lusty, brilliant mind. Maybe it was about the culture of snitching in East Berlin, or the necessary example of Thomas Paine. A full throated and eloquently argued brief against the very notion of the divine. The disgrace of Clinton. The grace of the Kurds. The hangover scene in Lucky Jim. Orwell with a side of Orwell in an Orwell sauce. Later it may have been on poetry, the lovely considerations of Czesław Miłosz, or Fenton, Seidel, and Larkin. Reading Lolita as a father. The rallying, with righteous and sometimes nearly blind fervor, to the fight against Islamofacism. Amidst the pamphleteering, a steady stream of passionate criticism, elegant and lingering appreciations of Wodehouse, Wolf Hall, and, most delightfully, that libidinous rogue, Sir Harry Flashman.

In a way, though, it hardly matters. It wasn’t really about concurring with his arguments; it was following the manner of his thought, tracing its grain. Wanting to think like that, argue like that. In conversation or argument insisting on the significance of the melodramatic flourish, a theatrical toss off… the gregariousness, the bonhomie, the relish…. the decency of it all.

# # #

People disproportionally focus on the atheism, lately. I get it, as it really was the topic that propelled him, like Richard Dawkins, to general fame. It’s a shame, though, because it misses the larger point of it all. It was religion’s ongoing project to extinguish the nourishing legacy of the Enlightenment that fueled his fury. Broadly speaking, Hitch advocated for the credit due to a species that could put aside its animal nature and build and nurture this miraculous idea of civilization. To suppress, punish, or deny humanity this achievement and its benefits was an act of the basest evil – a denial of humanity itself. The stupid, pointless loss, the vandalism – the human cost of all of this idiocy – is what called him to the thick of it. It was a front he never tired of patrolling and a battle he never failed to enjoin.

Hitch’s ultimate argument, then, was to not to advocate against religion but for literature. He resolutely maintained that it was in our poems, our books and our paintings that we really grapple the most honestly, the most subtly, and the most fully with the fundamental questions and dilemmas of our existence.

Oh, and yes, there’s the drinking. And yes, it was herculean. But looking at it through the framing conceit of mere drinking, whether to condemn or to celebrate, is shortsighted and, I think, a little vulgar. Again, we’re missing the essential point of it all. As he put it:

I always knew there was a risk in the bohemian lifestyle… I decided to take it because it helped my concentration, it stopped me being bored — it stopped other people being boring. It would make me want to prolong the conversation and enhance the moment. If you ask: would I do it again? I would probably say yes. But I would have quit earlier hoping to get away with the whole thing. I decided all of life is a wager and I’m going to wager on this bit… In a strange way I don’t regret it. It’s just impossible for me to picture life without wine, and other things, fueling the company, keeping me reading, energizing me. It worked for me. It really did.

Exactly. No, seriously – exactly. This is the wager we enthusiasts make – appetite and curiosity always pushing, unbalancing our keel, lurching into the waves to feel the contour of experience…. Hitch nailed it here. He’s written reams of defiant endorsements of bohemian life before, squarely standing his ground against pious pick-nose hall monitors, amidst a swirl of smoke, clinking glass in hand. This time it’s tempered. Caution enters the frame. The bet has been called. He wagered too much. He didn’t get away with the whole thing. With this last dash of restraint, the recipe is complete. Mix well and enjoy.

# # #

Appreciations of Hitch are always anchored by anecdotes. It seems his essence was in person, when all these aspects were gathered up in the full force of his personality. Like many of this readers, I’m sure, I’d daydream now and then of what it would be like to find myself in his company. Absurdly enough, chance and accident tumbled in my favor one evening in Los Angeles, in the late 90’s.

Hitch was touring his new broadside, No One Left to Lie To-The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton and I went to go see him read. The reading was raucous, funny, and bracing. Afterwords (after the cops led out the LaRouche plant) he held a signing, and when my turn arrived I basically thanked him for the company of his bullshit detector, and, if I remember right, mentioned the Chicago journal The Baffler, with which I was really besotted at the time.. After some appreciative nods Hitch thanked me, and as I walked away, a young Anglo-Indian named Palash Davé, who was filming the reading, asked me if he could interview me for a documentary about the book tour. Sure, I said, and asked him to join me for a smoke outside. After a bit of a filmed banter between me and a young black labor organizer we just started grousing as the crowd dispersed.

I asked him if there was a way I could keep in touch with him to keep track of the project. He said yes, then asked if I would like to have a drink with him and Hitchens that night. Cue all sputtering cliches…

So I end up going back to his hotel room… Hitch greeted us at the door and wolfishly explained that it was the same suite where Clinton stays when he’s in Los Angeles (he couldn’t wait to mark the room with smoke and whiskey). Along with Hitchens and Palash were his wife Carol Blue, Steve Wasserman- the editor at the time of the LA Times book review, and old leftie whose name I can’t recall, and the guy who shot Saturday Night Fever.

Hitchens was an effusive and diligent host. Asked me what I wanted to drink, and then led me out to the balcony, where he and I talked for about an hour, drinking Jack Daniels and smoking his Rothmans’s… Folk began to leave and the night eventually boiled down to me, Hitchens and Palash, drinking and talking until we cleaned out the mini-bar.

What a chat – From Clinton, of course, to the fate of the Left, our generation, Dylan, more on the Baffler and the art/music/politics mafia of Chicago, a long boozy dissertation on the film “Glory,” books and more books, authors (Murry Kempton & John Dos Passos, mostly) and the private tax revolt of home packed cigarettes.

The drink and tobacco exhausted, he offered a round of coffee and room service. I declined, feeling the onset of the mental fog I could no longer hold back. The bill had come due. Home, then.

# # #

There’s a reason we’re anxious about influence. To be shaped by external forces means, as individuals, that we need to yield, to go just a little slack, so our posture shifts, changes, molds. We surrender. We risk being supple for the promise of being shaped. You strike a balance between being propelled and being subsumed.

The exhilaration, though! – when you encounter, and engage such a force, and, under your shaky grip, you let it sweep you away…. His moral clarity, his insistence on literature, and art, really, as the soul of humanity, and the lusty brio with which he lived have profoundly formed and informed me. If all the world’s a stage, he was a character for the ages. We are vastly poorer for his absence. Civilization has lost one of it’s great knights and I have lost one of my brightest guiding stars. Farewell Hitch. That was a damn good show.

From Nature…

Actually, the principle of copying nature faithfully hardly has any meaning. Since it is impossible to exhaust her individuality with any one copy; and since a copy must always choose which traits it leaves out or includes, the question of imitation becomes the new question: following what law, by the hand of what artist, is nature raised into the realm of poetry? Jean Paul Richter, The Horn of Oberon: Jean Paul Richter’s School for Aesthetics. (Image, James W. Voshell, Apple tree in snow, 1993, pencil on paper.)

Fine art’s always gone for filthy lucre

Seriously, this is a must read. It’s a detailed description of the unhinged, lunatic magnificence of a 15th century “living painting.” As the author Anita Albus makes vividly clear – “it’s pointless to look for the line where kitsch ends and fine art begins.” Utterly gobsmacking… just contemplating it nearly defeats the imagination.

(Taken from Albus’ The Art of Arts, which I’ve only just begun, but is emerging as one of the best books I’ve ever read on the mechanics and philosophy of painting.)