Monthly Archives: July 2015

This bird has flown: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence


The title comes from a scene in which a teacher asks a girl to recite a poem onstage for parents night. Instead, the girl synopsizes the poem, line by line, to the amusement of the gloating teacher. Insofar as A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence has a narrative, it’s shaped by the recurring appearances of two men, partners in business and possibly in life, who sell terrible joke merchandise like vampire teeth and Uncle One-Tooth masks (“A product we have a lot of faith in”) to people who look burned out by the effort of rejecting them.

Infatuated with tableaux but not static, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which had its South Florida debut at the Miami International Film Festival, is another in Roy Andersson’s meditations on how weird he can make modern life as opposed to the weirdness of modern life; it’s a crucial distinction missed by critics. He peoples his frames with disjunctive bits that on first glance look too precious. On third glance too, as, for example, one of the first scenes, part of an opening sequence called “Three Meetings with Death,” in which an old decrepit man dies of a heart attack after opening a bottle of wine. The humor, such as it is, comes from Andersson’s rigid staging. The man and wife hardly move (it’s as if Andersson instructed the actors that he’d fine them for breathing). In the third entry, the staff on a cruise ship haggle over what to do with the food a customer ordered before dropping dead.

What is Andersson up to? Unmoored from any fealty to realism, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence moves from drollery to drollery. The other leitmotif concerns the fate of Charles XII, the reticent eighteenth century Swedish monarch who makes periodic stops at a roadside bar-cafe. “No women in the establishment!” an underling barks (this matters because the king wants the pleasures of the handsome bartender). Later, he and his soldiers enter the bar on horseback, exhausted as if from battle. “You were widowed at Poltava,” a soldier says to no one in particular. With the cafe’s whites and grays offset by the three-hundred-year-old uniforms, the scene plays like a half-remembered dream by a student of Swedish history. In the right corner a couple neck. Electrical towers are visible from a central window, as if to remind the audience about the temporal displacement.

This is fine as far as it goes. But Andersson seems to be up to something more serious in the film’s last sequence, titled “Homo Sapiens.” A chimp, looking like its about to be drawn and quartered, yelps while a researcher in a white smock chats on a mobile. The next bit is chilling: colonial solders in an African plain forcing bound tribesmen by gunpoint into a crematorium. For five minutes Andersson’s camera doesn’t blink as the chamber spins in the heat. The first cut is to old patricians emerging from a sliding glass door, drinking wine and watching the thing spin as if at a derby. Tonally it stops the film in its tracks. If he’s trying to show man’s inhumanity to man, the sequence doesn’t unfurl as a natural development from what preceded it. “Seems” because Andersson’s darting, affectless manner inoculate him from accusations. He wants it both ways. With ten minutes to go before the closing credits, it’s too late for muddles.

Edward Hopper often comes up as a referent, but Andersson is one of the few filmmakers who get the painter’s eye for Gothic undertones in scenes of modern banality. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence isn’t as novel as 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor, but its wryness keeps it humming for a while. My favorite moment isn’t particularly fraught: a couple lying on a sand dune holding each other tight, watched by a Labrador. No Hopper at all – it’s pure Andersson.

The stigma of sounding gay

Ignoring “gay-sounding” voices on dating/sex profiles happens often. I read these profiles every day. The binary: gay-sounding vs straight-acting. The former doesn’t sound like the latter. Acquiring credit in the straight world adds to your desirability; “passing off,” according to gay men who hold these noxious views, means not being “limited” by one’s sexuality. For a few years I was one of those noxious guys. Whether this phenomenon will survive the experimenting of a generation growing up in a battlefield on which victory was declared months ago remains to be seen.

A documentary by David Thorpe interviews the likes of Margaret Cho, Dan Savage,and David Sedaris to understand the stigma:

Thorpe says that even though LGBT people have made great strides politically and socially, “there’s still plenty of stigma to go around.”

“It’s going to be a long time before people stop bullying each other because of the the sexual orientation or gender expression,” he says.

Gay and bisexual women seem to be less concerned about how they sound.

“I have talked to many lesbians, many experts,” Thorpe says. “For lesbians, there is not significant stigma around sounding masculine.”

But many men, both gay and straight, “go to voice coaches to sound less gay.”

I’ve known men who’ve paid for speech therapy to extirpate what they think is a gay voice. To escape danger, kids will often take theater courses in high school. That’s the secret the straight world doesn’t know: gay kids are drawn to histrionics and the pleasure of playing a role, but they also relish the chance to speak in different voices, literally. In theater this is not only excused but encouraged.

Jason Isbell and Carly Rae Jepsen

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

A decade’s worth of good will have resulted in a #1 country album and a fresh spate of country vs. Americana “think pieces,” so good for Jason Isbell and his boring album. Of course the songs are OK; there’s enough melodic shifts and smart words to keep two decades worth of a cover industry going. The centerpiece “Children of Children” builds to the line, “All the years I took from her just for being born” after he’s noted men and women who don’t know the difference between the sacred and profane. There’s also the girl in her mama’s car readin’ The Bell Jar in the title track. “Details” in the creative writing course sense, with not a single purple verse or awful “poetic” metaphor. Which means this sarcophagus of mummified smarts ranks as the Americana album par excellence, made by and for people suspicious of rocking. And I’ll push for none other than Alan Jackson to cover the theoretical redemption anthem “How to Forget.”

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Run Away with Me”

The opening fanfare — treated saxophone and rumbles — could be from a Wilco tune, but as soon as the chant-or-die chorus hits it’s clear we’re in a land that has never forgotten the reign of Charli XCX. “Run Away with Me” conjures love among the skyscrapers better than Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York.” Alex Macpherson says it works best as the closer to the forthcoming E•MO•TION.

‘No other program has changed so many lives of our families, our friends, our neighbors’

The truest American film about aging shows no quarter. In 1938’s Make Way For Tomorrow, Barkley and Lucy Cooper endure the indignity of becoming impositions on their children. The only alternative is for Bark to work – a man at his age. In the final scene the couple say goodbye, each knowing it’s for the last time. A similar phenomenon occurs in The Magnificent Ambersons when Uncle Jack, a failed congressman, suddenly has to hustle for a job he knows he’s too old to keep. Relatives, jobs, the poorhouse, or death – those were the options until Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law on this day fifty years ago:

“The establishment of Medicare and Medicaid didn’t just put an end to this injustice, it transformed our nation’s health care,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said during an event at HHS headquarters on Wednesday to mark the programs’ 50th anniversaries. “No other program has changed so many lives of our families, our friends, our neighbors. And no other program has given so many so much hope.”

Along the way, the programs helped make U.S. health care more affordable and accessible. They helped improve life expectancy and helped cut racial, cultural and economic health disparities. The programs also helped desegregate Southern hospitals and waiting rooms and opened doors for minority physicians.

Harry Truman was at Johnson’s side. LBJ loved the old man. Although ingratiating himself before aged satraps like Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell was an act of political calculation, it was also a gesture of empathy; he seemed to understand the misery of septuagenarians, as if he knew he would never become one (Johnson died at sixty-four). Truman couldn’t get an earlier version of Medicare through Congress. He had to make insistences like this:

“The American people are the most insurance-minded people in the world,” the 33rd president told Congress. “They will not be frightened off from health insurance because some people have misnamed it ‘socialized medicine.’ I repeat: What I am recommending is not socialized medicine. Socialized medicine means that all doctors work as employees of government. The American people want no such system. No such system is here proposed.

This would be embarrassing if Obama and the Democratic Congress of 2009 and 2010 didn’t need to make similar assurances.

Autumn of the Patriarchs, Part II

As my grandmother quietly loses her mind, her thoughts turn to her girlhood. She can recite the street corners of every house in which she lived and its memories: of her and her brother for days watching from a slope the employees of the Polar beer company create a float for that year’s carnival, and of being asked to ride on it; of cars crunching on thousands of crabs at the height of the season along the Malecon; of flying in a single engine plane at her husband’s insistence on their honeymoon, their only other companion besides the pilot a one-armed man. Last Sunday as FOX News aired a clip of a bare flagpole in what was the former Cuban Interests Section in DC and is, again, the Cuban embassy, she muttered, “It’s about time.”

A ninety-year-old woman’s unbidden expression, maybe. In my grandmother’s dotage nostalgia rules. She wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. A lot has happened since I wrote a post assessing fifty-three years of families separated, blood shed, property snatched, promises broken. Tomorrow Hillary Clinton will call for the end of the embargo at my university. Some will correctly wonder what kind of courage it takes to endorse the Obama administration’s policy goal. To which I respond: she’s a Democrat calling for the end of the embargo in Miami, and she will likely receive applause.

Here’s what I posted last December, revised for clarity:

During a banal conversation about holiday plans at my grandmother’s last week, her caretaker said she was spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Cuba. “Take me with you!” the ninety-year-old said, five minutes after she’d denounced the Castro brothers for “nationalizing” her newly finished house in 1960. The cognitive dissonance aside — she has gradually lost some of her formidable concentration — the incident sums up the basic incoherence of Cuban-American policy, especially how the remittances and increased travel allowed by the Obama administration several years ago have leveled what remained of my genuine solidarity for my parents and grandparents. The caretaker, students I’ve taught over the years, and neighbors, all to a man and woman, voice their disgust with the Castro regime. Almost all of them have a story about a crime perpetuated by the regime against them, showing particular disgust for the quasi-apartheid preventing them from shopping and in some cases visiting tourist hotels. None of them want the Castros in power; at best I sense a kind of abused-wife kinship with the greybeards. But they don’t understand why they can’t have the freedom to spend and travel.

Instinctively, the normalizing of the relationship makes sense to me. But I understand the paradox, and it’s heartbreaking. Pawns of the Cold War, recruited by the United States with phantom hopes of, well, doing something for them, Watergate burglars, mayors, legislators, redoubtable political players who have shaped local and presidential elections for decades, the exiles are also parents and grandparents, many of whom have lived in the United States since adolescence; they wouldn’t think of packing and leaving even if the Castros had abdicated or been assassinated in 1992. Their roots are here. Their souls, however, remain in Cuba. From the United States they sought redress. At worst they wanted respect. It’s December 2014, the Castros are in power, many of the relatives who chose to stay in Cuba are dead, the confiscated property is gone. And most of the world thinks the exiles are a joke.

A joke also is the parade of Democrats and Jeff Flake unable to answer questions about Cuba’s human rights abuses — legitimate questions, asked even by the Cuban men and women I’ve mingled with. Not one of them yet has responded with the cynicism buttressing the question. Last week the Senate released a report in which the world learned the extent to which the United States tortured men accused of terrorism — twenty-six of whom, let me be clear, were innocent. A poll yesterday revealed that a majority of Americans approve. Socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor — I’ve never tired of quoting the Gore Vidal line. Human rights abuses for supporters of the embargo, just and necessary enhanced interrogation techniques to keep America safe for the rest.

The caretaker asked me if I was interested in visiting Cuba. “Of course I am,” I said. “I will. Someday.”

The history of campus police

Inspired by the indictment of a University of Cincinnati police officer for the murder of a man stopped for lacking a front license plate, Vox uncovers — for me anyway — a piece of history about which I knew nothing. Until the 1960s, Libby Nelson reports, “campus security at many colleges wasn’t anyone’s full-time job.” Instead, colleges assembled a “system of professors, administrators, and watchmen and maintenance workers.” The eruption of protests in campuses nationwide led administrators to question the appearance of local sheriffs, not only out of jurisdiction but ill-trained to deal with a volatile group:

But well into the 20th century, campus security at many colleges wasn’t anyone’s full-time job. It was a patched-together system of professors, administrators, and watchmen and maintenance workers.

The exception was Yale, where two police officers from New Haven were assigned to campus in 1894. The official origin story is that rumors that Yale medical students were stealing cadavers from New Haven graveyards had led to violence and riots in New Haven. But this is quite possibly apocryphal; there’s no record of such a riot in 1894, and New Haven’s violent riots over body-snatching actually occurred 70 years earlier.

But Yale’s police weren’t full-time, and few universities followed their lead, Sloan said. In the 1960s, though, local police were increasingly called to campuses to deal with student protests. Those encounters often turned violent.

College presidents began to lobby state legislatures for the right to create their own police departments, where officers would have a constant presence and become part of the campus community rather than being seen as “some kind of invading army” when something went wrong, Sloan said.

At my university we’ve got a well-armed force with hi-tech gizmos and assault rifles courtesy of the feds.

‘And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of’

Yesterday was John Ashbery’s birthday, and I missed it. I wanted to post the title poem of “As We Know”; Ashbery was good at title poems. On a friend’s Facebook wall this morning I wrote that it’s hard to distinguish a great Ashbery poem from a good or average one; they’ve got the same ratio of surrealist throwaways, parodies of received ideas, and allusions to other texts that you and Ashbery think he and you and have read. Sometimes I think he developed an algorithm that lets him generate these things while he brews French press coffee. Over the years William Logan has taken particular delight in counting the filigrees of his admiration and contempt (“Ashbery can’t pretend to be a philosophe very long; his inner child soon drags in Tweety Bird and then all hell breaks loose. But I always return to him”). But I never stop reading him.

Here’s “More Pleasant Adventures”:

The first year was like icing.
Then the cake started to show through.
Which was fine, too, except you forget the direction you’re taking.
Suddenly you are interested in some new thing
And can’t tell how you got here. Then there is confusion
Even out of happiness, like a smoke—
The words get heavy, some topple over, you break others.
And outlines disappear once again.

Heck, it’s anybody’s story,
A sentimental journey—“gonna take a sentimental journey,”
And we do, but you wake up under the table of a dream:
You are that dream, and it is the seventh layer of you.
We haven’t moved an inch, and everything has changed.
We are somewhere near a tennis court at night.
We get lost in life, but life knows where we are.
We can always be found with our associates.
Haven’t you always wanted to curl up like a dog and go to sleep like a dog?

In the rash of partings and dyings (the new twist),
There’s also room for breaking out of living.
Whatever happens will be quite ingenious.
No acre but will resume being disputed now,
And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of.

Happy eighty-eighth!