January 27, 2006

Totally At Sea

"'I've had probably the worst weeks of my life, all I did was see water,' said Stanley Shneldcki, 60, who says he paid $22,000 for the cruise aboard the British-flagged [Queen Mary 2] from New York, where he lives, to Los Angeles." (from today's Reuters news snippet on how a bunch of minor mechanical problems irritated the passengers on the QM2).

It's a tough life, I guess.

January 26, 2006

Manhattanism

Koolhaas's "Delirious New York": not so much a retrospective manifesto for New York as a living testament to Koolhaas's will, a deadpan laying down of K's personality as a grid across New York, delirious in implication, a sort of realist The Age Of Wire And String for the city. It reads like an obsessive small-scale version of Galeano's "Memory of Fire", little episodic apercus, aphorisms, and observations strung together, gridded across the subject by force of will.... A strategic manifesto for Koolhaas, to be sure, but it reads like a dream, and it's a dream to read.

January 22, 2006

Shark Stories

The Woy Woy area had no supermarkets or anything like that when I was a kid there — no large multi-purpose shops at all, in fact. All the shops were clustered together on the main street of each of the main shopping centres — Woy Woy, Ettalong, Umina, and Gosford — and you bought fruit at the fruit shop, meat at the butcher’s, hardware at the hardware store, bread at the baker’s, shoes at the shoe shop, newspapers at the newsagents, etc. The fruit shops were open to the street, with stands of fruit you could touch and walk around; the butcher shops all had sawdust floors and shiny chrome railings around the counter at (adult) thigh height to rest your shopping bags on; behind the counter men in white and blue aprons and work overalls handled the meat and ran the various saws, etc. You typically went shopping — and returned with the shopping bags — on the bus (and, of course, you used your own (usually string) shopping bags…). Each smaller community (e.g. Booker Bay) typically also had a corner shop or something similar where you could buy small amounts of most items, including hardware; these were usually open later than the main street shops (e.g. to 8pm rather than 5.30pm). As with most of the rest of Australia, shops never opened on Sundays, closed at 2pm on Saturdays, and usually closed at 5.30pm (or maybe 6pm) on weekdays (pubs closed at 10pm).

Alternatively, at least in the early days I can remember, some of the local grocers would come around once or twice a week to each street with open flat-bed trucks of produce ready-to-sell; if you were a known regular customer, they would visit your house directly, or you could phone them up and have them visit the next time they were in the area. Mr Soloman used to do the local stuff for where we lived — and my mother would often enough buy vegetables and fruit direct from his truck once a week (for me, Mr Soloman was a cheerful and endless source of shark attack stories, local kids’ gossip, folklore, etc.).

Sharks were common mythical currency for us kids in Woy Woy – at least two people I knew (Barry the milkman and someone else whose name I can’t remember) had actually been attacked by sharks in the area (and had amazing scars to prove it), and you could occasionally see the odd shark swimming off Ocean Beach. A dead shark once washed up on the beach in front of our house -- a smallish (2m?) grey thing with gashes along its side. Since we all swam constantly at Ocean Beach or in front of the house, shark stories were very real, and I’ve never quite got over the sudden terror you feel when you’re swimming or on a board and you see a shadow pass below you.

January 17, 2006

Feeling Sorry

"I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable" -- Robert Rauschenberg, quoted in a recent NYT.

January 14, 2006

The Little Things

Two of those little low-key institutions that make Berkeley Berkeley (without drawing attention to themselves or coming to mind when someone says "Berkeley") went out of business over the holidays. I've been going to both places regularly for at least fifteen years; both of them were those sort of taken-for-granted backdrops to a life that you mostly notice in their absence.

Panache was just a place to get my hair cut, up on Telegraph near Bancroft. But it was full of workers like Tito, who eventually made me watch "Black Orpheus", for which I'm really grateful: a nice mix of staff with the style and humour and character you tend to associate with the non-student non-Grownup bits of Berkeley. Some of them had cut my hair for a decade or more; most of them were unsure where they'd work once Panache closed. There'd been plans to move to a new location around the corner on Bancroft, but that fell through at the last moment; there's a sign on the empty shop front saying they hope to be back sometime somewhere….

Firenze was the Shattuck (Downtown) outpost of the local Roma coffee shop / cheap cafe empire, the dingy down-at-heels Cinderella to its more glamourous sisters the Roma, the Milano, etc. I ate breakfast — a giant capuccino and a poppy-seed bagel (toasted with cheese) — there pretty much every Saturday morning since the late 1980's. It was the sort of place instinctively shunned by students and weekend shoppers: bad decor, too much dirt on the floors, old grime-covered California tourist posters (St Ansel!) on the walls up near the (high) ceilings, a haphazard collection of periodic Bad Local Art displays around the walls at eye level, and an always slightly-distorted and poorly-tuned radio playing crappy classical music in the background. I loved it: it was resolutely unhip, the coffee and food were good (as far as they went), the staff friendly, and it was no threat to Starbucks in any way. Unlike Panache (whose manager had told me it was closing months before it finally closed), Firenze just suddenly shut up shop one day and disappeared, with a note on the door saying they'd been evicted.

Both places were displaced due to huge rent increases; I'd guess both of them will be replaced by cell phone shops or (yet another) Starbucks or whatever. Life goes on — a little diminished.

January 12, 2006

SR 140

Mariposa, Planada, Merced, Gustine... you know you're nearly home when you can see the Diablo Range ahead on the horizon through the flat thick Central Valley winter haze. Just west of Merced I watch a horseback rider gallop along a levee a few hundred yards from the road, a dog running along enthusiastically behind him; they disappear quickly into the characteristic half-light of the lingering Tule fog. A few miles further down 140, a bright red New England-style barn looms up off the side of the highway in the gloom, ringed by tall palm trees and dead farm machinery. There's a fringe of sodden tumbleweed around the machinery; almost everything else on the ground in this landscape is that unnaturally-bright and lush California winter green.

January 11, 2006

Saint Ansel

Another Cliched Shot of Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point

The cabin I'm staying in at Wawona has a neat little black and white print on the wall by Ellen Frank Chan done after the style of a Chinese brush painting, composed almost entirely of tiny delicate scratchy black-and-white ink strokes and outlines; it's essentially of the same view as the one I took above (without the clouds). It's surrounded by more conventional (and much larger) Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill prints of this and other canonical Yosemite sights, all heavy frames, light effects, rustic shepherds, glades, glens, European colours, etc. There's just no comparison for me -- Chan's simplicity and abstraction wins out every time in evoking Yosemite as opposed to "Yosemite" (or "Manifest Destiny" or something equally unpalatable). The other prints come across by comparison as things that in their use of scale, colour, light, shapes (all those spires!), and texture look more like bad fractal landscapes, bad sci-fi or (panel-) van art (is there any good panel-van art? :-)).

It's a commonplace to believe that that the sheer scale and strangeness of Yosemite defeated the abilities of Bierstadt and his contemporaries, that the visual and cultural vocabulary picked up Back East or in Britain or Europe failed when faced by the American West and places like Yosemite in particular (in the same way that European artists took a long time to "get" the Australian landscape). It may be a commonplace, but it's essentially true — but I suspect it has more to do with the overall realist vs. abstract mindset than the micro-vocabulary of painting itself. It really took photography — specifically large format black and white photography — to convey some of the scale and strangeness of this place effectively. That is, it took small-scale abstraction to pin down the reality of being in a deep narrow valley carved out of granite, of being surrounded by sheer granite cliffs extending up several thousand feet from the valley floor in each direction, of the strange twisted and layered natural stonework surrounding you everywhere (several much later impressionistic and abstract lightscapes based on Yosemite work for me almost as well, but I can't find any examples at the moment). The abstraction tends to keep you focused on what's important about Yosemite — that it's sui generis, that it's about scale and harshness, it's about endless cliffs rather than peaks, that it's about strange shapes and textures more than colours, that it has more in common with some Chinese or South East Asian landscapes than Europe.

For me, Bierstadt's attempted realism keeps softening and (in some cases quite literally) pastelizing the light and the various flora, turning Yosemite into a sort of European Arcadia, European glades and glens and meadows with towering peaks and soft-focus visages (natural and human); but the reality is that the light in Yosemite is mostly hard mountain light, the plants tough, twisted, hardy wind-blown mountain shrubs or tall very-Californian Sequoias, the colours just infinite variations on gleaming granite greys, the green and reddish-brown of the Sequoias, and the omnipresent blue of the Californian sky (the truth is, Yosemite isn't really about colour, but never mind). The skies in Bierstadt's paintings simply aren’t Californian skies, the light simply not the Californian light I know so intimately, the clouds not Californian clouds, the shapes and cliffs not Yosemite’s, the trees nothing like the California redwoods, the plants nothing like the Manzanita and high-country grasses so common in the area. But that's not the real problem for me — it's that Bierstadt's striving for grandeur makes his paintings grand in themselves, objects whose grandeur distracts from the effect Yosemite has in real life (and "grandeur" itself is a concept that seems too human, too European, too potentous for this sort of landscape). Bierstadt's paintings (deliberately?) call attention to themselves and the painting's relationship to the subject and the viewer rather than evoke some sort of real Yosemite (yes, yes, I know, the "real" needs quotes…). The effect of standing in front of a typical Bierstadt seems to be like having your sleeve constantly tugged by someone saying over and over again "Isn't it grand!" while you wonder whether the "it" is the painting or Yosemite itself. Not quite my cup of tea.

(All of which is a naive and way-too-long-winded and incoherent way of saying it's almost impossible to take a bad photo in Yosemite, but with St Ansel constantly looking over your shoulder, it's sometimes almost impossible to take any photo there at all… (which would have him rolling in his grave, I know)).

January 09, 2006

Yosemite

Cliched Shot of Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point

One thing I always forget until I'm back here again in one of the most astonishing parts of the world is the constant artificial noisescape in the Valley itself, especially around the visitor center and Yosemite Lodge: diesels, generators, buses, the constant meep meep meep of construction equipment backing up, drills, saws, even jackhammers. I walk several miles up to Mirror Lake before it's out of my mind...

January 07, 2006

Me, Me, Show Me!

Missouri's official state nickname, "The Show Me State" (a name that according to 50States.com supposedly conotates a certain self-deprecating stubbornness and devotion to simple common sense) could, with a little change in emphasis, and a certain ambiguity of reading, be one of the state slogans for California, too:

The Show Me State.

January 05, 2006

Ab Fab (A Tale Of Two Cities)

I live in Oakland, and work 60 kilometres down the other end of Interstate 880, in sunny Santa Clara. Oakland and Santa Clara -- worlds apart, separated by a common freeway. At one end, down there in Santa Clara a few blocks from where I work, there's a thriving little business that advertises itself as "Fab Consultants". Down there it's taken for granted that that means they help with semiconductor fabrication, a huge business in Santa Clara, involving blindingly-white cleanrooms, workers in space suits, and equipment that works on billions of things simultaneously at sub-micron scales. Just a few hundred metres behind my studio in Oakland there's another little business that also advertises itself with the same words, "Fab Consultants". Up here everyone knows it means they help with steel and metal fabrication -- welding, lifting (cranes, etc.), milling, finishing. It's thriving, too, in its own way, but the dirt's a little thicker on the floors.

January 03, 2006

Compellingly Bad

Milos Forman's "Hair": I can't believe I haven't seen this before, or that it took so long to see it (no, I never saw the stage version, nor ever wanted to). Awesomely bad. Like Easy Rider, it fails in so many ways while striving so hard to be a Statement it's utterly compelling. Wooden acting. Creaky plotlines. A message that's so muddled it sometimes seems to be little more than "don't worry, be happy!", or "if you want to act like spoiled kids, there'll always be someone along later to pick up after you!". Or a bunch of smaller messages like: "Authority is Bad -- unless it's in the person of a handsome charismatic hippy", or "stereotypes and cliches are Bad -- unless they're in the hands of a famous director", or "don't go with the herd -- unless it's a herd of hippies in Central Park".

A movie that seems to believe that simply listing taboos is somehow enough (were the movie really daring it might have had ole Claude run off back to Oklahoma with Lafayette's wife and kid for a happy life of farming, but that'd be too much like the radical -- and human -- solution...). A movie that seems to think only in Black and White when it comes to "race" (something that seems kinda dumb and desperately limited from out here on the edge of the world in California).

But why get so, uh, heavy about it? Why look for messages? Why take it so seriously? It's just an artefact -- a product -- and a funny one, often enough (the recruitment office song and dance is almost Brooksian). As spectacle and pure entertainment, it's a lot better than most things out there (and that insidious soundtrack remains in the mind for weeks afterwards, despite my not caring much for the music itself...). And if you ignore the Statements and think in terms of the underlying message being something like "be human" or "try to love" or "life's complex", then it's a deeply inoffensive film.

(Part of Flix).


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