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STRAIGHT UP | Jan Herman
Arts, media & culture news with 'tude

Thursday, May 12, 2005


    Taking care of the nation's business as usual, our Dear Leader was tooling around on his bicycle at noon yesterday, just back from his globe-trotting photo op, when the terror alert went to Code Red, jets were scrambled, the Capitol was cleared and police told everyone: "Run. Get out. Keep running. ... We're under attack."

    Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi said police "pulled me out of my shoes," CNN reported. They whisked her off, along with other pols, several Supreme Court Justices, and Cheney Boy to secure locations. MSNBC.com's headline blared, "D.C.'s BIG SCARE." The Washington Post merely shouted, "Confused Fliers Trigger Capital Scare." Dear Leader was oblivious to the mad dash for safety because nobody told him what was happening until he finished his bicycle ride. Which captured the moment perfectly.

    A TV-viewing friend writes:

    So I'm sitting here watching a swarm of squealing piglets flee Capitol Hill from a little Cessna two-seater, not quite the Red Baron's bi-plane. Makes me long for those puny limp-wristed Londoners who refused to run during The Blitz. Red-faced little rotten-toothed cowardly faggots, one and all -- but my kind of folks. And I'm laughing my ass off at this CNN clown, one Joe Johns, a ballsy reporter who's describing his narrow escape. Reminds me of Duke Wayne's heroic WW2 exploits. Is it an axiom that lives without any justification at all are the ones most worth preserving?
    No charges were filed against the fliers. That, too, captured homeland security's latest Code Red alert.  
    posted by janherman @ 10:11 pm | Permanent link

    City Comforts Blog has picked up on Bill Osborne's commentary about "the delicate, almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence." Meanwhile, Osborne offers a reminder that Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9, 1938, was almost a year before the start of World War II -- so that no one had any illusions about the abuses going on in Germany -- and yet nothing was done.

    Attacks against Jews were not limited to a notoriously anti-Semitic city such as Munich. On that night and the next all across the country:

    "96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned (and possibly as many as 2,000), [see map], almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps."

    Within days, laws were passed to "Aryanize" the economy, and it wasn't long before:

    + Jews were required to turn over all precious metals to the government.
    + Pensions for Jews dismissed from civil service jobs were arbitrarily reduced.
    + Jewish-owned bonds, stocks, jewelry and art works can be willed only to the German state.
    + Jews were physically segregated within German towns.
    + A ban on the Jewish ownership of carrier pigeons.
    + The suspension of Jewish drivers licenses.
    + The confiscation of Jewish-owned radios.
    + A curfew to keep Jews off the streets between 9:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. in the summer and 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the winter.
    + Laws protecting tenants were made non-applicable to Jewish tenants.

    As Osborne points out, the progroms such as Kristallnacht and these utterly extreme laws were not imperceptible lines.
    posted by janherman @ 9:28 am | Permanent link
Tuesday, May 10, 2005


    Regarding the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opens today in Berlin: "I too was struck by Ourousoff's article in the Times," Bill Osborne messages. "It was far above what one usually reads in the paper, but one of the statements you quoted yesterday really bothered me:

    The memorial's power lies in its willingness to grapple with the moral ambiguities arising in the Holocaust's shadow. Its focus is on the delicate, almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence.

    "Just how 'imperceptible' were the lines that separated good and evil during Germany's persecution of the Jews?" Osborne, above, asks. "Why did the world think it could just overlook the Nuremberg Laws? By 1935, the extreme violence and degradation directed toward the Jews was mind-boggling, and openly practiced for the whole world to see. The actions were obviously evil.  The lines that were crossed were not in any way 'imperceptible.' This is important to note, because if the abuses caused by the Nuremberg Laws had been stopped (and this was well before Germany had re-armed,) the Holocaust would never have happened. It would have also put Hitler out of power. How ironic if Berlin's new monument rationalizes the world's willful, numbed blindness.

    "But there are important meanings symbolized by the memorial. Once you enter the spiritual labyrinth of the Holocaust, it is difficult to ever fully return. Your perceptions of humanity are too deeply altered. As the memorial symbolizes, you enter at first not knowing quite what you are seeing. You still have an ability to maintain an outside perspective. But as you go deeper and deeper all reference is lost. There is an abyss in our humanity that has never been defined, and which no religion, philosophy or moral system has ever adequately examined. The Holocaust thus remains without any frame of reference from which it can be approached. The impulses that created the Holocaust are very human, but come from a hideous part of the social psyche of which we have almost no knowledge or understanding. It is a labyrinth in which we become lost because it has never been mapped. Among many other things, the memorial is a monument to our lack of knowledge about who and what we really are.

    "But that does not mean we do not know evil when we see it. Decent people do not stand by when humans are subjected to beatings, arson, humiliation, radical degradation and systematic disappropriation. Through the Nuremberg Laws, the entire world watched this happen with full knowledge that the actions were evil.

    "And little has changed."

    As usual, Osborne's perceptions and conscience are far more acute than mine.

    posted by janherman @ 8:48 am | Permanent link
Monday, May 9, 2005

    A tour of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the official name of the Berlin Holocaust memorial designed by Peter Eisenman, draws a powerful review from architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff, whose reviews have usually left me cold. But not this time.

    "The memorial's power lies in its willingness to grapple with the moral ambiguities arising in the Holocaust's shadow," Ourousoff writes in today's New York Times. "Its focus is on the delicate, almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence."

    Echoing Eisenman's own statements about the thin membrane between the mundane and the cosmic, he writes:

    [T]he memorial's central theme is the process that allows human beings to accept such evil as part of the normal world -- the incremental decisions that collectively lead to the most murderous acts.

    There is no way to glean this from photographs; it can be understood only by experiencing the memorial as a physical space. No clear line, for example, divides the site from the city around it. The pillars along its periphery are roughly the height of park benches. A few scattered linden trees sprout between the pillars along the memorial's western edge; at other points, outlines of pillars are etched onto the sidewalk, so that pedestrians can actually step on them as they walk by.

    The sense of ambiguity -- the concerns of everyday life, a world of unspeakable evil -- will only be amplified once the memorial opens to the public [on Tuesday]. It is not hard to imagine Berliners sitting on the pillars at the memorial's edges, reading books or sunning themselves on a spring afternoon. The day I visited the site, a 2-year-old boy was playing atop the pillars -- trying to climb from one to the next as his mother calmly gripped his hand.

    These moments speak to one of the Holocaust's most tragic lessons, the ability of human beings to numb themselves to all sorts of suffering -- a feeling that only intensifies as you descend into the site. Paved in uneven cobblestones, the ground between the pillars slopes down as you move deeper in.

    At first, you retain glimpses of the city. The rows of pillars frame a distant view of the Reichstag's skeletal glass dome [at right]. To the west, you can glimpse the canopy of trees in the Tiergarten. Then as you descend further, the views begin to disappear. The sound of gravel crunching under your feet gets more perceptible; the gray pillars, their towering forms tilting unsteadily, become more menacing and oppressive. The effect is intentionally disorienting. You are left alone with memories of life outside -- the cheerful child, for example, balanced on the concrete platform.

    In other words, you have to be there to sense the true impact of the place. Even so, the photos accompanying this item are worth seeing. From top to bottom: an aerial view showing the memorial bordered by a street and a park within the city (Jockel Finck/AP); a view of the tallest pillars -- all told, the pillars vary in height from mere inches to 15 feet or so -- and a cobblestone lane deep within the memorial (Harf Zimmermann for NYT); a view toward the Reichstag dome from within the memorial (Herbert Knosowski/AP); a large wall display showing Holocaust victims in the documents center located below the memorial (Michael Kappeler/AFP/DDP).

    It sounds from Ourousoff's report that Eisenman's design for memorializing the murdered Jews of Europe easily rises to, and perhaps above. the standard set by Maya Lin for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Which is as it should be. One day we'll see what comes of the design for the 9/11 memorial to those who died at Ground Zero in New York, in a field in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon in Washington.

    posted by janherman @ 9:46 am | Permanent link
Saturday, May 7, 2005

    Speaking of things German, like the Berlin Holocaust Memorial ... Nobel laureate Gunter Grass has much to say about democracy, freedom and capitalism in post-World War II Germany on the occasion of the "Reich's unconditional surrender" 60 years ago tomorrow:

    [T]he ring of lobbyists with their multifarious interests ... constricts and influences the Federal Parliament and its democratically elected members, placing them under pressure and forcing them into disharmony, even when framing and deciding the content of laws. Consequently, Parliament is no longer sovereign in its decisions. It is steered by the banks and multinational corporations -- which are not subject to any democratic control.

    What's needed is a democratic desire to protect Parliament against the pressures of the lobbyists by making it inviolable. But are our Parliamentarians still sufficiently free to make a decision that would bring radical democratic constraint? Or is our freedom now no more than a stock market profit?

    Sound familiar? Substitute "U.S. Congress" for "Federal Parliament," and "Congressmen and women" for "Parliamentarians," and you'd think Grass was writing about the United States. He's not of course. His essay mainly concerns the as yet unbridgeable divide that still exists between East and West Germans.

    But when it comes to corporate influence, lobbyists and the corruption of democracy by unrestrained capitalism, Grass might as well be writing about us. The Web cover line for the essay, which appears on today's New York Times op-ed page, is: "After 60 years, Germans still haven't learned to be free." It's too bad the same may be said for Americans after more than 200 years.

    posted by janherman @ 1:05 pm | Permanent link
Friday, May 6, 2005

    Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed in places as far flung as Jerusalem (with wailing sirens), Farmington Hills, Mich. (with motorcycle riders) and Los Angeles (with children).

    On Tuesday of next week, as part of the 60th anniversary celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the long-awaited Berlin Holocaust memorial (left) is scheduled to open. But anyone who believes it will be as grim as a cemetary because its 2,711 gray pillars resemble grave stones, or thinks it will be off limits to picnickers, skateboarders, games of hide-and-seek and even vandals, hasn't listened to the American-born architect who designed it.

    "I think kids will play tag. I think people will eat their lunch on the pillars," Peter Eisenman told Reuters. "I'm sure skateboarders will use it. People will dance on the top of the pillars. All kinds of unexpected things are going to happen."

    "There will be people who attempt to deface it but that's an expression of the people," he added.

    Controversy has dogged the memorial from the beginning. For instance, a billboard (right) suggesting why people should give money for construction of a document center beneath the memorial, caused so much outrage that it had to be taken down. (The large slogan reads, "The Holocaust never happened." The small type reads: "There are still some who say that. In 20 years, there may be even more. This is why you should give to the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.")

    The memorial, facing the site where a new U.S. embassy is being built, is located near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and is a city block in size. It will be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

    "I would like to think it doesn't close off discussion but opens discussion, on issues of anti-Semitism, the Nazi regime and the role of the German people," Eisenman told Reuters. "I see it as a catalyst because of feelings it generates." He added:

    A lot of people, especially in Jewish communities, asked what it has to do with the Holocaust. There are no stars, no names. But we didn't want that. A little kid will go in and play hide and seek until he gets lost and starts to scream. You can't stop anyone from doing anything and that was part of the message.

    Except for one thing: Eisenman says he wants no Bratwurst stand anywhere near the memorial. According to Deutsche Welle, "commercialization of and profiting from the suffering of the Holocaust is something he adamantly rejects."

    Tonight, meanwhile, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors are scheduled to talk about their experiences in a pre-recorded conversation to be aired on WNYC at 7 p.m. ET (AM 820 in New York). The conversation, entitled "Never Again! A Holocaust Memorial," is already posted on Only in America.

    Finally, Laura Bush attended the National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance in the Capitol's Rotunda yesterday. According to The Washington Post, she told Holocaust survivors and their liberators in the crowd there: "Your presence is evidence that good will always triumph over evil."

    Well, not if you do the math, Laura. Of course, it's not just a matter of the six million who died vs. the tiny fraction of that number who survived. Listen to Elie Wiesel tonight. He'll tell you why he doesn't believe such foolish wisdom either.

    posted by janherman @ 12:45 pm | Permanent link

    Scott Sherman has a huge takeout in The Nation about National Public Radio's transformation from its countercultural beginnings to its current middle-of-the-road conservatism. "Good, Gray NPR" cites much criticism of the network for its increased corporatization (in both funding and influence) and its promotion of conventional punditry on the toll road to respectability. But there's no mention whatsoever of the Bob Edwards debacle or the David D'Arcy affair. Sherman even goes so far as to praise NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, calling him one of the network's "more incisive critics," although in D'Arcy's case he's proved himself to be no more than a corporate mouthpiece.
    posted by janherman @ 11:55 am | Permanent link

    David Ehrenstein does another of his delectable commentaries on a story from The New York Times, this one called "The Mystery of Hollywood's Dead Republican," starring R. Gregory Stevens (right) and Carrie Fisher. When I first read that story -- devoured it, actually -- it occurred to me that my life is pretty dull. But never mind. Ehrenstein's remarks are delish -- i.e.: "... in the Fruit Fly Pantheon, Fisher's right up there with Dorothy Dean -- at least insofar as influence and 'networking' goes. (No one touches Dorothy when it comes to wit.)"

    Postscript: And here's Studs Terkel on Pete Seeger.

    posted by janherman @ 11:45 am | Permanent link

    "Here it is," Greg Palast writes. "The smoking gun." He's referring to the secret Downing Street memo of July 23, 2002, sent to the British Defense Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Attorney-General and several other top British government officials at the time. It was disclosed earlier this week in The Times of London, which quotes it verbatim:

    This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents.

    C reported on his recent talks in Washington. ... Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action. [Boldface added.]

    Palast believes the memo "has 'IMPEACH HIM' written all over it." Meaning the him in the White House. (Fat chance.) Palast is also pissed off that the American press, unlike the British press, has made so little of the memo.
    posted by janherman @ 11:41 am | Permanent link
Thursday, May 5, 2005

    National Public Radio's latest corporate stupidity -- NPR barred "Weekend Edition" host Scott Simon from appearing on the XM Satellite Radio show hosted by Bob Edwards, who was axed from "Morning Edition" last year -- has Daniel Schorr wondering, "What's going to happen next?"

    Well, Dan, if NPR's continuing lack of candor about why it axed longtime arts reporter David D'Arcy (left) is any hint, it looks like more of the same is going to happen next. As a veteran commentator on national and foreign affairs, Dan, perhaps you recall what Israeli diplomat Abba Eban used to say about the PLO: "[They] never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." It sounds to me like that applies equally to NPR these days. Given half a chance, the management magnificos at the network will go on shooting themselves in the foot.

    James Beck, founder and president of the art preservation organization ArtWatch International, goes further. In e-mail messages to the NPR board chairman and other top network execs, including the NPR ombudsman, Beck claimed that the "situation surrounding the removal" of D'Arcy -- namely pressure on NPR from Museum of Modern Art officials, who complained about D'Arcy's reporting -- causes concern

    that independent, disinterested, and uninfluenced reporting about art may be in jeopardy. Even powerful institutions like the Museum of Modern Art should not be allowed to influence transparency and the free reporting of information.

    Beck, who is a widely respected art historian at Columbia University -- he recently revealed that the "Madonna of the Pinks" acquired by the London National Gallery, which was hyped in the press, is actually a 19th century copy of the Raphael painting -- asked NPR for "clarification and assurances" about the facts of the D'Arcy case. But according to the latest ArtWatch newsletter, he received nothing more than a pro forma response acknowledging receipt of his e-mails. The newsletter notes further: "It is surprising that Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin did not respond to the letter, but rather sent it along to be handled by the Corporate Communications division." Some ombudsman.

    Separately, in a letter obtained by Straight Up, Beck wrote Nick Tinari, an attorney active in arts issues such as the effort to keep the painting collection of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa.:

    ArtWatch is concerned about the implications of this [D'Arcy] matter for the larger and critical issue of the freedom of the media to report on the activities of influential cultural institutions. ... I can assure you that we will continue our investigation into this matter, and will post developments on our website. At the crux of this unhealthy situation is the unchecked power of museums, which can and do control information and the press.

    Straight Up's staff of thousands also intends to follow up with further developments in the D'Arcy affair in the near future.

    posted by janherman @ 11:50 am | Permanent link


STRAIGHT UP archives

The agenda is just what it says: arts, media & culture delivered with attitude. Or as Rock Hudson once said: "Man is the only animal clever enough to build the Empire State Building and stupid enough to jump off it."

When not listening to Bach or Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, or dancing to salsa, I like to play jazz piano -- but only in the privacy of my own mind.

I'm the author of "A Talent for Trouble," the biography of Hollywood director William Wyler. Putnam published it in hardcover. It is now in paperback (Da Capo Press).

Write Me:


(syndicate this AJblog)


Writing of mine has appeared in "little magazines," among them VDRSVP, Ricochet, Unmuzzled Ox and John Bryan's Notes From Underground, as well as in Partisan Review, The New York Times Book Review, Trans-Atlantik and The Journal of Film History.


Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat is not a biography. "This book is merely a fan's notes," Edward McPherson writes in the introduction, although his publisher ignores the disclaimer and calls it a biography on the cover. In fact, the book is a bit of both, a difficult combination to bring off unless you're David Thomson, who set the standard with Rosebud, his penetrating rumination on the life and career of Orson Welles, which was nothing if not a distillation of every obsessive thought he ever had about the myth and the man and all his movies. More

When Lauren Bacall writes that her singing voice ranges "somewhere between B minus sharp and outer space," she's being candid and funny. It's not every stage star with two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical whose vocal talent offers so little promise. (OK, Harvey Fierstein excepted.) Still less would one admit it. More

Peter Bogdanovich's superb collection of movie-star profiles and interviews -- a sequel to Who the Devil Made It, his interviews of top film directors -- begins with an affectionate tale about Orson Welles that reminds us just how intimate the author's connection to Hollywood's greatest has been. But contrary to what we've come to expect from dime-a-dozen celebrities and celebrity interviews not worth two cents, the tale avoids bromidic egotism and journalistic platitudes. More

It's hard to say which comes off worse in Herman Wouk's latest novel, his first in a decade: the U.S. Congress or the American press. "A Hole in Texas" offers the choice between two emblematic stereotypes: a red-faced opportunist who heads the House Armed Services Committee and a mustachioed investigative reporter for the Washington Post.

Four decades ago Lenny Bruce sentenced Sammy Davis Jr. to "30 years in Biloxi," stripping him of "his Jewish star" and "his religious statue of Elizabeth Taylor." Now we have two new biographies of Davis that spring him from ridicule, if not from doubts about his legacy, and restore a measure of dignity to a black entertainer whose huge fame and success never overcame his devout wish—indeed his lifelong effort—to be white. More

Here's something I wrote for the highbrows, who will probably disagree: "The Vienna Philharmonic's discriminatory practices against women and people of color cast such a pall over its considerable artistic achievement that the orchestra has turned out to be the shame, not the pride, of Western civilization.

For a professional snoop, Kitty Kelley harbors a remarkably decorous feeling about her work. The least suggestion that she takes a certain pleasure in exposing the sexual peccadillos of her high and mighty targets brings an intense glare to her china-blue eyes. More



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Wm. Osborne & Abbie Conant

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