Monday, May 30, 2016

Movie Monday: Love & Friendship

This movie has the critics gushing with praise.  Here are some of the reasons.

     -- It is based on an early Jane Austen novella that was published only years after her death.   (The original story was titled Lady Susan but is renamed here in a "this-and-that" construction that perhaps aims to recall "Pride and Prejudice" and also "Sense and Sensibility," two Austen works of great renown.)  As such, it follows many, many film versions of already-known Austen stories.

     -- It is a comedy written and directed by Whit Stillman, a writer-director who is remembered fondly for three intelligent earlier movies from the 1990s.

     -- And it is an English costume/period piece set on sumptuous country estates and London locations reached by handsome horse-drawn carriages.

It's not a bad movie, but I wish I could say I liked it better.

Let's take these matters one by one

Story and Source Material

The Lady Susan anti-heroine is a beautiful and brilliant schemer, a penurious widow in need of a husband.  Pretty much all the characters are onto her con game, except the wealthy and charming young man for whom she has set her cap (love that phrase!).
       Susan in turn tries to arrange a marriage between her daughter, who has no discernible personality, and another wealthy young man who is so stupid it is surprising to see that he can eat with a knife and fork.  The other characters are used to advance the story of these main characters but not given much else to do.
       The whole thing is knit up in two weddings, one of which is a bawdy joke.

As I left the movie theater, I thought to myself, did Jane Austen really write that?  Turns out she did, apparently when she was about 19 years old.  I found a rundown of the book's plot online, which included many more elements and more fully realized characters.  It is not easy to give justice to subplots or minor characters in a film, of course, but a major plot development at the beginning of Austen's book does not make it into the film, and the end of the book is somewhat at odds with that of the novella.

The Filmmaker

Whit Stillman hails from an elite Northeastern family;  he was educated at the right schools and graduated from Harvard, as his father had.  An uncle of his was the sociologist who named and studied America's WASP aristocracy.  Stillman, I suspect, was saying that he "was at university" many years before those of us of less august lineage learned that we should stop saying we "went to college."  He now lives in France.

Stillman is best known for three movies about upper middle-class young people -- "Metropolitan" in 1990, "Barcelona" in 1994 and "The Last Days of Disco" in 1998.

All three films were about the discomforts and dislocations felt by people with backgrounds like Stillman's.  The movies were good ones and very well received.  I only saw one, years ago, and my dim recollection is that I didn't really "get" it.  The person I knew who liked the movies most was someone who whose background had much in common with Stillman's.

From the New York Review of Books critique of the movie and its thematic variation with the original work:

          You can only live, in Stillman’s films, if you are independent—and to be independent
          is both financial and spiritual. No wonder he was drawn to Austen. They are both
          analysts of power, and how it is distributed: and they both understand that power is
          most poignantly interrogated through narratives about women.

Maybe there is something to that old adage -- write what you know -- after all.

As suggested above, Stillman found a kindred spirit in Jane Austen, whose characters were members of England's haute bourgeoisie in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Some years ago, Stillman decided to write a screenplay based on Austen's unpublished novella.  In a New York Times interview he said this:

       I think this (book) was quite far from being a finished piece. If (Austen) were really going to
       publish it, she would have done a lot more with it. The things she did in the same period,
       they started out epistolary (the book is a series of letters among the characters) and then she
       shifted them to the dramatized novels that we know . . . .

(Interestingly, many of the movie's plot developments also are revealed in letters read by their addressees, which looks rather quaint to the contemporary viewer.  Who write letters anymore?  I doubt a current movie could use cellphone texting in a similar fashion.  We are used to seeing our friends check their cellphones every five minutes or so, but I don't think this behavior would work for a film character.)

The Ambience

Film audiences seem to have an almost unlimited appetite for English stories based in the times between the Regency and the Edwardian periods.  (Actually, if you consider the PBS miniseries on Hillary Mantel's Tudor trilogy and 2014's The Imitation Game movie about events during World War II, the historical range of interest is even greater.)

In "Love & Friendship," the settings are perfect.  The weather is always late spring, just right for scenes of outdoor walks.  The costumes are immaculate, and the women's hairdos are rendered with great precision by curling irons that had yet to be invented.  The fine horse-drawn carriages trundle along pristine streets in London, where sewers only began to be constructed in the late 18th century; in fact, there were no horse toilets back then, and the streets were dusty to muddy as well.  Stately music illuminates the scene changes, and the fast-paced dialogue is even more wordy than than you would expect to find in an Aaron Sorkin script.


Again, I never read the book on which this movie is based.   But even stipulating the creator's admiration of Jane Austen, I have to say that the movie doesn't seem like something she would write.

Austen was quite critical of people and produced a number of unlikeable or silly characters -- Wickham, Mr. Lucas, Mrs. Bennett and Lady de Bourgh in "Pride and Prejudice," for starters -- who rendered themselves unlikeable or silly by their actions and not by the reactions of others to them.  Her admirable characters -- including Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of the same book -- also are revealed by their actions and not because they have the right enemies.

By these measures, "Love & Friendship" is pretty to watch and has entertaining, often laugh-out-loud dialogue.  But its overall tone is a little flat.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Hamilton Ticket Problem

If someone had told me five years ago that the hottest ticket on Broadway today would be a hip hop musical about the first U.S. secretary of the treasury, I would have laughed out loud.

But that is what happened.  I have seen Hamilton, and it is great.  I think everyone should see it.

In fact, just about everyone wants to see it.  A few months ago I read a commentary by a New York professional who felt not just out of the loop but personally ashamed when forced to admit to associates that she had not yet seen Hamilton.  The sentiment seemed a bit over the top -- oh, the agonies of the upper middle class! -- but the wish to see the play is widespread and keen.

Hamilton opened at the Richard Rodgers Theater last August.  The theater has 1,319 seats, and every single one of them is sold out for every performance through January 2017.

When you combine huge demand with virtually no supply, interesting things happen.  Here are some of them.


By September last year, people were arriving at the Richard Rodgers Theater with credible looking tickets that turned out to be forgeries when run through the entrance scanning machine.

In October, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and star, posted this warning on Twitter:

           I have friends who have been scammed on Craig and his so-called List.
           Don’t buy Hamilton tickets off there please.

By December, it was reported that people with counterfeit tickets, or with copies of actual tickets that had been "lost," were being turned away at almost every performance.

In February, a Manhattan man responded to a Craigslist offer of two Hamilton tickets, which he purchased at a meeting on a street corner for $300 cash.  Naturally the tickets were denied at the theater.  The man's wife went to Manhattan's 17th Police Precinct and made an issue of the case.   She also offered to set up a sting to catch the fellow who had taken their money.  The police agreed, the phony ticket seller was arrested and the police found two additional bogus Hamilton tickets in one of his pockets.  Later the Manhattan district attorney announced that the bad guy, who was on parole for weapons and drug convictions, had been indicted on 10 charges.

This made for a feel-good story that was reported by news outlets across the country and even in parts of Europe.  Unfortunately, it was almost certainly a one-off.

I just looked on Craigslist and found two offers of center orchestra Hamilton seats for $220 and $350 each.  I'm pretty sure that anyone who buys those tickets is going to be refused admission to the theater.

In fact, Craigslist is not the only source for fake tickets.

A couple weeks ago, a California billionaire who also appears on the CNBC Shark Tank show was surprised to find that the Hamilton tickets he had purchased on StubHub were fake.  He threw the usual rich-guy hissy fit --  "Do you know who I am!" -- but still was not allowed into the theater. (StubHub probably refunded the guy's money, but he surely would have preferred to see the show.)

Hamilton ticket buyers are urged by everyone from the show's promoters to the NYPD to purchase tickets only from reputable sellers.  But this introduces another problem.


Hamilton tickets, when you can find them, are priced from $67 to $177 (and $549 for "premium" seats), plus facility fees and markups by, which handles the transactions.

(People hate Ticketmaster, by the way.  Consumer sites are filled with complaints about bait-and-switch seat locations and 30-minute wait times to speak to employees who refuse to fix problems.  Personally, I think the company's fees are unusually steep.)

After Hamilton opened and drew rave reviews, its run was extended two times and months' worth of tickets were released in two batches.

In one case, it was estimated that "bots," computerized telephone buying programs, purchased as many as 20,000 tickets, presumably for resale at much higher prices.  (People who attend Bruce Springsteen concerts have complained for years about rigged ticket purchases like these, but it seems to be a new problem on Broadway.)

One person who traveled to the theater's ticket office observed a similar action on the ground.

           One day last October, a new block of Hamilton tickets went on sale; I was there on
           line a half-hour before the box office opened. I got TO the box office THREE HOURS
           LATER. Why? Because the front of the line -- about 90 people in all that day --
           consisted entirely of young people (age 16-20) who were working for scalpers. The
           scalpers made no attempt to conceal what they were doing; I watched them peel off
           $100 bills from a large wad. They give the $$ to one of the young people, told the kid
           how many tickets to buy and in which location of the theater, then the scalpers stood
           outside the theater door to take possession of those tickets as soon as the kid finished
           at the box office.

I just looked on StubHub, which is regarded as a reputable reseller, and found tickets to the Saturday matinee performance priced between $450 and $850 per seat.

And Ticketmaster offers a resale programs whose tickets will not be turned away at the theater door.  Its prices for the Saturday matinee were higher, however -- $625  to $3,429 a seat.


The people who invested early in Hamilton have made out very, very well.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is getting plenty of money for originating and developing this show.  Recently, it has been reported that cast members will share in the profits of this enterprise.   All of this is fine with me.  We should hope for more such projects.

I find it more difficult to justify the scalpers' profits, including those of the legal scalpers on StubHub and Ticketmaster.  They exist only to maintain the integrity of the tickets they sell and to harvest the highest possible prices for access to a play whose success owes nothing to them.

In fact, there is a developing resentment among the proles -- black families and low-income high school students, among others  -- about the exorbitant cost of access to a piece of art that validates their ancestors' participation in the founding of our country.

Over time, of course, even everyday people will get a chance to see Hamilton.  At this point, ironically, it has become a feel-good entertainment for celebrities and rich people who need its message least.

Other Opportunities

Every Hamilton performance is preceded by a raffle of 21 first-row seats.  Winners pay $10 each to see the show.  Given the interest in the play, the odds of winning one of these raffles are not good, but the gesture is a nice one.

New productions of Hamilton are planned next year -- Chicago and San Francisco in March, Los Angeles in August. There also is talk of a London opening.

The Hamilton soundtrack is available on Amazon Prime, as an MP3 album, an audio CD, and even on vinyl.  It's worth a listen before or after you see the play.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The New Pronouns

One useful thing about attending college today is that it allows, or possibly requires, a student to learn about the evolving etiquette for personal pronouns, especially pronouns for people who identify as  transgender, transqueer, nongender, gender neutral or other gender identities.

There is a story making the rounds about freshmen -- oops! first-year collegians -- at one university who were given glossaries of many, many gender definitions and then required to select the ones that best described themselves.

The students were pretty comfortable with their gender identities.  They offended the test-givers by  identifying themselves as male or female.

What they were expected to indicate was that they were cisgender.  This is a lot to ask of 18-year-olds who have encountered the term only recently, but this is where we are now.

"Cisgender," for those of you who attended college before, say, 2010,  describes someone who is comfortable with the gender identity and gender expression expectations assigned to him or her at birth.   Almost everyone fits into this category.

Pretty much all colleges now have well-staffed gender diversity offices for lesbian, gay and other students who are uncomfortable in the cisgender category.  These offices have been generating useful pronoun matrices to include the 0.5 percent of students who are neither straight nor gay, for people who are unsure of their gender identities or who are uncertain but do not fit our traditional molds.
Here is one.

And here is another, complete with examples of how to used the pronouns in sentences.

The colleges also are suggesting ways for faculty to avoid giving offense by making false gender assumptions about students taking their classes. Here are some handy tips from one school handout.

       Question:  How do I ask someone what their (sic) preferred pronoun is?

       Answer:   Try asking: "What is your preferred pronoun?" or "Which pronouns do you
       prefer that people use for you?" or "Can you remind me which pronouns you use for

       It can feel awkward at first, but asking for a preferred pronoun can avoid hurtful
       assumptions. People will most likely appreciate your effort if you start off by asking what
       their (sic: the) preferred pronoun is, and for those who aren’t familiar with preferred
       pronouns, this is your chance to share what you know!

       If you are asking as part of an introduction exercise and you want to quickly explain what
       a preferred pronoun is, you can try something like this: “Tell us your name, where you
       come from, and your preferred pronoun. That means the pronoun you like to be referred to
       with (sic). For example, my preferred pronouns are they, them, and theirs (sic).”

       When taking class attendance, one method is to call roll by last name, and have students
       respond with their preferred name(sic: names) and pronouns.

Perhaps this tutorial offers valuable clues to students who meet other first-years at freshman (oops again!) orientation or while moving into their dorm rooms.

For me, the dialogue displays the decay of our colleges and universities.

The Situation Today

Okay, I'm not a millenial.  I think asking people about their gender (and, let's face it, sexual) identities is intrusive.

Most all of us let each other know, by dress or behavior or speech, where we reside on the male-female  continuum.  People who do not express themselves in this way may have their reasons and certainly deserve their privacy.

 If I met a person whose gender seemed indistinct, I would address the person as "you."   I would not assume that the person's gender identity was any of my business.

If that person wanted to share his or her or eir or hir or vis or zir pronouns -- for use in later discussions about that  person with others -- I'd make an effort to remember and use the pronouns as requested.  This matter does not come up often, and my belief is that people with unusual gender identities have lives that are complicated enough without getting a lot of grief about pronoun choices.

This business of people adopting different sexual identities is expanding our understanding of gender as a binary male-female matter.  We are opening our world to different kinds of people, and we might as well open the number of available pronouns to allow them to be described in ways that seem accurate to them.

On the other hand, the new pronouns do not seem to be taking hold.  My impression is that most transgender people ask to be described as "they" and "them."  If a transgender person is not a "he" or "she," I can live with it -- but that doesn't make a singular person a "they."

If this makes me a grammar snob, so be it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Movie Monday: The Angry Birds Movie

Last weekend's most popular movie was The Angry Birds Movie, which in its first domestic weekend grossed $39 million.   Add the proceeds from a two-week rolling international release, and total sales are already $151 million.

Rovio, the Finnish company that created the video game for which the movie is named, spent $173 million to make and market the film.  Sony, the distributor, added its own marketing effort plus cross-promotions with at least 100 companies -- Ziploc Angry Birds snack bags, anyone?

(This year has been challenging for Sony.  Two early releases, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and The Brothers Grimsby, did not do well.  Money Monster, the George Clooney/Julia Roberts star vehicle,  made only $3 million more in two weeks than the AB thing did in its first three days.  Meanwhile, there are concerns about the coming chick-led remake of Ghostbusters.)

Angry Birds History

This mobile app game of birds catapulting into a nest of pigs that had stolen the birds' eggs was a surprise hit in 2009.  Over time, six new AB game titles (two with Star Wars themes) were released in versions for every tech product that had a screen.  By sometime last year, 3.3 billion Angry Birds apps had been downloaded, an impressive number in a world with only 7.4 billion inhabitants. There were also Angry Birds television cartoons and theme park attractions.

(A confession here:  I downloaded Angry Birds some years ago, played the game for a couple weeks and then forgot about it.  I have a limited attention span.)

Unfortunately for Rovio, the game's appeal had waned by 2014 or so.  Rovio laid off hundreds of workers, and prospects were dim.   Company founders hit on the idea of a movie that would capitalize on AB's worldwide name recognition and revive its appeal.

This approach is not without risk, according to an expert quoted in the Los Angeles Times.

          “What they're trying to do is make this a perennial pop culture property," said Robert
          Marich, a movie industry analyst and author of "Marketing to Moviegoers." “If this
          fails, 'Angry Birds' could wind up on the trash heap of properties like Beanie Babies
          and Cabbage Patch dolls.”

When a novelty like a video game or a kitchen utensil comes on the market, business people say there is a question to be answered: Is this a product, or is it a company?

Angry Birds sustained Rovio pretty well for five years.  We'll see whether these avian characters have legs, or perhaps wings.

Angry Birds the Movie

I saw this movie in a theater filled with parents and small children.

Its first act is set on Bird Island, home to attractive, friendly nonflying birds of every shape and color.  The lead character, the aptly named Red, is teased for his big black eyebrows.  Red is also a careless-to-obnoxious jerk whose japes land him in an anger management class led by a free-rage chicken.  There are many, many more puns:  Hasn't that couple with all those chicks ever heard of bird control?  A yoga class includes the downward duck pose.

When a boatload of sinister green pigs bearing gifts arrives on Bird Island, ham jokes ensue.   As we know from the video game, the pigs are after the birds' eggs.  The inevitable conflict allows Red to redeem himself by leading the birds' opposition.

Along the way there are twerking birds and, of course, twerking pigs.  A long, long scene of a big bird pissing into the Lake of Wisdom (Whiz -- get it?) had boys in the audience laughing hysterically.

There are redemptive themes inserted lightly in the AB plot: Not every bird has to be just like every other bird; colonization is bad, or maybe immigration is bad -- hard to tell; some mythical leaders are really just pompous pretenders, and unhatched baby birds in eggs are birds too (hmm).

The effect is a jam session of jokes rolling along at a breathless pace, a mashup of a kid's story with a lot of cynicism thrown in for the adults.   It ends with teasers that suggest a follow-on movie may be in the offing.

Disney and Pixar traditionally have turned out thoughtful, sincere cartoon movies for children. In recent years, other studios have released edgier cartoon films that are stuffed with pop culture references and irony that may be lost on smaller children or may, over time, cause them to become jaded.  I hope I'm wrong about that.

From the Atlantic magazine:  "Yes, it's a cash grab built on the flimsy artifice of a silly video game that should have been wiped from screens years ago.  The Angry Birds Movie is really not bad. It is actually very actively okay. The film has taken its bird-brained brand—nouns and verbs and an adjective, unsullied by sentences—and used it to construct characters and plots that are certainly serviceable, and possibly even inspired."

From the New York Times:  "A DreamWorks-inflected, pop-culture “savvy,” far-side-of-smarm (not too) smart-aleckness, replete with bodily function jokes. The kids of today deserve better. So do I, come to think of it."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip.


Our California columnist on death and celebrity family news.

Prince died. Not Prince Charles, but the singer from Minnesota. Him I don’t know much about, except he sang, danced the boogaloo, and liked the color purple -- not the movie with Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg, but the actual color. Maybe he liked the movie too; I don't know.

Me, I never liked purple. With nothing it goes, except maybe black. Good for sitting shivah, I suppose. He’s also famous for changing his name to a picture of a tchotchke nobody could pronounce. May he rest in peace.

Tom Cruise, who’s in all the movies I never see, long ago married has-been actress Mimi Rogers, who got him started in that meshugge religion with the space monkeys living in volcanoes, like John Travolta.

Then her he divorced to marry Nicole Kidman, who later dumped him to marry that Aussie hillbilly singer Keith Urban. Next, Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes, who was a nayfish teenybopper in the “Dawson’s Creek.”

All this time, he was best friends with Jamie Foxx, who was Ray Charles in the movie. No surprise was it when Katie dumped Tom, secretly married Jamie, and is now pregnant. And Tom Cruise? He’s farbissener.

And speaking of pregnant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriend, Rihanna, is knocked up with his baby. Her, I never heard of, but the girls at the beauty parlor say she’s a hootchie-kootchie type of singer and a chain-smoking pothead who dresses like a nafka. His mother is auf gehoketh tsuris.

And what mother wouldn’t be? Except maybe hers.

Remember the movie “Cleopatra” with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton? It was a farshtinkener bomb that almost bankrupted the studio.

Who in their right mind would want to remake such a movie? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, that’s who. She’s a loksh, down to 70 lbs, can barely lift her head, and together they have enough kids for their own reality show.

Yet, this they need? Feh!

I’ve said enough already.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Why You Should Clean Your Basement

Last year in a middle-class New Jersey town, a couple of adult children decided to dispose of their late parents' belongings, apparently in anticipation of the sale of the family home.

The children called a representative from an auction house and asked him to appraise the value of items that none of the descendants wished to keep.  There were various items, including family silver and, in the basement,  a small oil painting in an old frame. 

Based on the look of the painting, which was obscured by layers of dust, and its 19th century frame, the auctioneer estimated its value at somewhere between $500 and $800.


At auction, the painting's initial bid was set at $250.   An art dealer, or probably several art dealers, recognized what the auctioneer did not.  The price was bid up and up.  Finally, the painting sold for $870,000.

In a cleaning afterward, a signature was uncovered -- that of Rembrandt van Rijn.  Further research established that the nine-inch canvas was one of a series of five rendered by the Dutch artist in 1625, when he was 18 years old.  The painting's title is An Allegory of The Sense of Smell.

The painting was resold for about $1 million to an American collector of Renaissance art.  It has been loaned to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it joins three other paintings in the original Allegories of the Senses set.

Here's the thing:  The last painting, a depiction of the sense of taste, never has been found.

I've looked around my house, and that painting is not here. 

You might want to go through your old family duds just in case it is in your basement or your attic.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Just this moment, I entered "farm to table restaurants" into the Chrome search engine and came up with almost five million hits.

The idea behind F-T is local sourcing of ingredients.  Fans and practitioners are called locavores.   

According to lore, this movement originated more than 40 years ago when Alice Waters opened the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA.  In California, a state where farms and farmers' markets operate year-round, there are plenty of fresh ingredients within local reach.  In places like the Northeast or the Rocky Mountain states, not so much.  

But still the F-T restaurants abound.  I assume that those in inclement climes arrange for the airfreighting of desirable out-of-season products, rather as florists do.  (Given that, I wonder, what isn't a farm-to-table restaurant?  Are there Skittles restaurants?)

The Significant Other and I have eaten at several F-T spots.  While we are neither dedicated foodies nor members of any "food as sacrament" sect, we generally have enjoyed these restaurants. 

Several months ago, an F-T opened in our New York suburb. Since it wasn't yet another pizzeria, the SO made reservations and off we went. 

The dishes at the new restaurant featured items commonly found at other F-T joints -- a greater than usual number of parsnips and natural, humanely raised meats with way more fat than the beef, pork and lamb served in less virtuous eateries.  

And then there was another thing.


Grits now are regular features in F-T restaurants.  Chez Panisse has served grits.  Cookbooks by the chef/founders of such restaurants include grits recipes.  Virtually every F-T spot has a "shrimp and grits" entree on its menu.  

Traditionally grits were a southern dish.  I first encountered them when I lived for several years in the American South (okay, Texas, but close enough), where grits were served for breakfast, often alongside bacon and eggs.

In fact, grits have virtually no flavor and require copious enhancements to become even remotely interesting.   One of these is blonde gravy, made from a roux of bacon or sausage fat with flour and then milk.  Other common enhancements are large dollops of butter or syrup or strong cheese, usually with plenty of salt and/or sugar.

Texas breakfast: biscuits and grits with gravy 

I tried grits several times, but bland mush has never been an interest of mine.  On the other hand, I grew fond of many other southern foods, from collards to jambalaya to the many varieties of barbecue to pulled pork to Tex Mex and chili.

What surprises me is that of all the fine southern cuisine available, grits dishes are the ones that have become standards on elite restaurant menus.

The Origin of Grits

Grits are made of ground corn that is boiled with water or milk to form a sort of porridge. We also eat corn on the cob in the summers, and corn can be a nice addition to salads or as a base for quiches.    

Corn was a major part of native diets in the Sonoran Desert and what is now Mexico, where Amerinds were hybridizing new corn plants to increase production as long as 7,000 years ago.

In succeeding centuries, however, corn has become a smaller and smaller part of the American diet.  More than half the corn grown in the U.S. now is used to feed livestock here and abroad.  Another 40 percent is turned into ethanol fuel for cars and trucks.

I'm not going to say that grits are the reason we have diverted our corn production to other uses.  But my guess is that grits account for part of it.  


For a rather bland food, grits have acquired more partisans than I would expect.  

Below is an ardent amateur hip hop endorsement of grits and gravy.

And here is an anti-grits manifesto.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”

                                                                                     Thomas Edison 

The word "grit" is trending these days.  It describes a quality Americans have admired for hundreds of years.

President Obama either revived the term or ratified its revival in his 2013 State of the Union address:

"Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American 
people, there is much progress to report."

Since then, educators have been talking about how essential it is to cultivate grit in elementary school students.

Newspaper columnists extol grit as the quality that distinguishes successful people from unsuccessful ones, usually without bothering to define success.

Then, of course, there was a TED talk about grit.

This month came the release of a much-anticipated book titled, "GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," by psychologist Angela Duckworth.  And yes, it does have the imprimatur of Malcolm Gladwell.

I recently posted on an article about the development of NFL quarterbacks; an essential ingredient, after talent, seems to be two generations of familial grit.

There is much to admire in people who have developed habits of rigor and perseverance -- sometimes to the point of stubbornness -- that allow them to keep going through difficult moments or years and in the face of opposition.

The Passion Thing

My only quibble here is the association of "passion" with grit.  To me, passion is a personal obsession.  It can involve lust, an absorbing hobby, a career, a field of research.

Grit, on the other hand, is a personality characteristic that is developed and observed even in the mundane matters of life.  Grit can come in handy if you have an abusive boss at work or if you volunteer to do menial tasks for a worthy charity, but passion not so much.

Think of career military members who rise in the ranks.  Such success certainly requires grit, but I bet soldiers and officers would be more likely to speak of duty or commitment to their units than passion.

I'll digress and go a little further here: I think we're generally sloppy with the P-word.

A supermarket in my town promotes itself as "Passionate about food," a phrase that always makes me want to chuckle.  From the mission statement:

It’s very simple, but it inspires everything we do. From the rarest foods to 
the freshest produce, we constantly look for the finest items—specially chosen 
for our customers. Every trip to ___ is a chance for you to experience 
the sights, sounds and aromas of something special.

Can a company be passionate?  The store is perfectly fine, but mostly it is a place that charges an extra couple bucks for a carton of milk.  "Passionate about profits" may be the more apt phrase.  

Back to Grit 

The word "grit" has been with us for centuries.  It is used to describe everything from road gravel to the speck of sand in an oyster that develops over many years into a pearl.

The quality of grit may be the most ingrained trait in the idealized American character.  Its elements of personal responsibility, initiative and honor have been with us since the Pilgrims.

I don't know when we started using the word "grit" to describe those qualities, but I did find it in a 1907 article from a publication for millers, people who ground whole grains into edible flour.  It may be that millers of the day developed a respect for grit, the adversary they had to demolish to produce a salable product. 

Here, from the article:  

     It certainly requires grit even to make a start to become a miller, and the further one goes 
     on the milling road the more grit is required. It requires real grit for a young man to go into 
     a dusty mill to work twelve hours a day at oiling, dusting, sweeping, packing, sewing and 
     the multitude of other duties that fall to the lot of the miller's apprentice.  But if he went 
     there for the purpose of learning the trade, he will have to dig up all the grit in his nature, 
     and dig it up many times over, to enable him to rough it out, for the trade is not learned in 
     a few days, weeks, months, or even years, and a fellow must have grit if he ever expects to 
     be a miller.  That is the way we all learned and that is the way we must all learn. . . .

     Grit is the essential trait in everyone from the time he leaves the cradle until he reaches the
     grave, and without it no one can succeed in any calling in life.  When one starts out to
     acquire an education, it requires grit to get it, and if more people had more grit there would
     be more educated people.  We often hear people speak of a certain man as being a 'self-made
     man,' which means nothing more nor less than that he possessed grit.  He had the courage to
     overcome obstacles and to make himself a man in spite of them.  This courage and
     determination to succeed in spite of all hindrances is, when summed up for quick expression,
     simply grit.

Next:  Grits

Monday, May 16, 2016

Movie Monday: Captain America: Civil War

 If you like superhero movies, Captain America is one you should see.   It comes from Marvel Studios, the capable Disney affiliate, and to the extent that a superhero movie can be said to have a coherent plot, this one delivers.  At least, it sort of delivers

The backdrop for the movie is a developing international consensus among human governments that superheroes need to be regulated.  A large batch of Marvel's Avengers team of enhanced human characters -- Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, War Machine and Ant-Man -- weigh in on the topic, pro and con, but their good-guy impulses are frustrated when they are confronted by bad-guy characters who also possess superpower enhancements.

(This plot echoes a similar element in the Batman v. Superman movie a couple months back.  My impression is that newer blockbusters are straining to involve the superheroes with more personal-human-political concerns while also maintaining the bench-clearing battle sequences that are the genre's stock in trade. This is a difficult concept to carry off, but we can give DC Comics and Marvel credit for trying.)

The limiting factor in this film's plot is that Captain America's backstory is not revealed until almost the end, at which point the audience understands why the guy has behaved the way he has.  This information may have been known to people who have kept up with Avengers movies over the years, but it was news to me.

The Captain America action scenes are better than many.  The best one involves a complicated chase on an underground roadway full of cars and trucks.  A less fully realized event is an intrasquad Avengers battle that demolishes an inexplicably empty airport and a large airplane.

You have to take these scenes with several large grains of salt.  If superhero characters are indestructable, why do they bother fighting, especially over whether they are willing to let human governments tell them when they are allowed to fight?

Amusingly, after one battle, Tony Stark (the human incarnation of Iron Man) wears a sling on his arm.  As if he was injured somehow.  Yeah, right.

Coming Attractions

All that's left to mention is that this movie introduces characters in future Marvel films.  (This is common in superhero movies, something like product placements in television programs.)

First is Black Panther, a superhero African prince played by Chadwick Bozeman, who will star with Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong'o in a largely African American- and African-casted Marvel drama in early 2018.  Last year's Creed writer/director Ryan Coogler will direct.

Second is ANOTHER reboot of Spider-Man, who appears in Captain America as recently enhanced teenager Peter Parker.   Sony made five Spider-Man movies of steeply declining quality between 2002 and 2014.   Spider-Man was also the subject of the most expensive and possibly the most flawed Broadway musical ever; it closed just two years ago.
     No matter. Marvel will release its own Spider-man movie in July 2017.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Canned Tomatoes

Perhaps your recipe file, like mine, includes several dishes whose ingredients include cans of diced tomatoes.  I find myself buying canned tomatoes not infrequently at the grocery store.

Maybe your grocery store is also like mine in that the selection of canned diced tomatoes has burgeoned in recent years.

I do not speak of the many brands of diced tomatoes -- Del Monte, Pomi, Contadina, Eden Organic, Muir Glen, Heinz and the generic store brand -- that strain the shelves in the canned vegetable aisle.

Nor do I refer to stewed tomatoes, canned whole tomatoes, canned Roma tomatoes in sauce with basil, tomato sauce, tomato paste or tomato puree.

No no no.  My only concern is the regular 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes.

The problem is the wide variety of types of canned diced tomatoes.  Several times now I have come home and emptied my (canvas) grocery bag to find that I have bought the wrong type of canned diced tomatoes.

All who know me will attest that my cooking skills are limited.  I am not confident substituting different ingredients for those named in a recipe.  And I don't think I'm the only one.

Let me illustrate the complicated decision process facing the diced-tomato shopper with an illustration of the varieties of canned diced tomatoes offered by just one company.

Regular diced tomatoes

Diced tomatoes with no salt added

Petite diced tomatoes

Petite diced tomatoes with no salt added

Diced tomatoes in sauce
Spicy red pepper diced tomatoes
Rosemary and oregano diced tomatoes

Roasted garlic diced tomatoes
Sweet onion diced tomatoes

Basil, garlic & oregano diced tomatoes

Green pepper, celery & onion diced tomatoes

Basil, garlic & oregano diced tomatoes with no salt added

Fire roasted diced tomatoes

Fire roasted garlic diced tomatoes

Organic diced tomatoes (as opposed to synthetic ones, perhaps)

With the occasional exception of fire roasted diced tomatoes, I only buy plain diced tomatoes, and  I don't think I am unusual in this.  When I get to the long, long tomato aisle in the grocery store, the diced tomato selection has been picked over and the cans of plain diced tomatoes are mostly gone.  

Most of what is left are the "tomatoes with" varieties.  With oregano.  With garlic.  With celery.  With onion.   With dark chocolate.  (Okay, I added the last one.  But it definitely could happen.)

If recipes call for cans of plain diced tomatoes, why do canned goods companies go to the expense of setting up separate production lines for so many other varieties of the same product? 

Why do grocery stores stock so many varieties of the same product?  All the "with" items are available elsewhere in the same store, after all.  

Distributing, storing and restocking more products takes more storage space, shelf space and labor than distributing, storing and restocking fewer products.  

Trust me on this: I've studied business economics.  This diced tomato situation is a textbook case of an inefficient supermarket.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Him Again

Several days ago, I referred to a statue called Him, which portrays an apparently humble Adolph Hitler kneeling in  prayer.

I said the statue was in Sweden, but I was wrong.  Apparently there are three Hims, plus a fourth, an artist's proof, which was sold early this week in New York at a Christie's auction.

During the sale, the statue was positioned with its back to the crowd.  Its scale is smaller than that of a grown man, and from behind it looks like a kneeling boy.   This may be the favored way to display the thing, allowing viewers to believe they are approaching the figure of a child at prayer and then to discover -- surprise! -- that the face of the figure is that of Hitler.

Even the artist, Maurizio Catalan, has mixed feelings about this creation.  Here is something he said several years ago about Him, as quoted in the auction catalog:

          "I wanted to destroy it myself.  I changed my mind a thousand times,
           every day.  Hitler is pure fear."

I don't know if encountering Hitler would inspire fear in me or revulsion, but I haven't seen the statue. My impression is that Him invites viewers to wonder whether a regretful Hitler, answerable for the death of millions, could with prayer receive forgiveness from God.  As politicians say sometimes, that question is a matter above my pay grade.

One Him was displayed in 2012 in Warsaw's former Jewish ghetto; virtually all its 300,000 residents died in concentration camps, and of disease and starvation.  The display certainly was meant to shock, but the shock of the ghetto's history would seem to be shocking enough even without a Hitler statue.  The Him placement was broadly condemned.

The Sale

Him was part of an event called "Bound to Fail," meant to describe works relating to a theme of failure.  The auction house estimated beforehand that Him would fetch between $10 million and $15 million, but my bet is that Christie's underestimates deliberately in order to generate an impression that the art values are going up, up, up.

In fact, the statue sold for $17.2 million in just five minutes.  It was the highest sale price in the entire lot.  The anonymous buyer paid more than twice as much as anyone had paid for any other work by the same artist.

You have to wonder who would buy a Him.  It's not something most people would want around the house, and a museum displaying it pwould have to take out a large insurance floater to protect against sabotage.

Most expensive art these days is sold to very wealthy people who believe themselves to have excellent taste in art and who also regard their purchases as investments.  And, as there have come to be more billionaires, their "investments" have been appreciating in value in recent years.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Movie Monday: The Man Who Knew Infinity

I was eager to see this movie because of a biography I read some years ago about its lead character, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor, self-taught mathematician from India whose work began to astonish people from the time he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1914 and continues to astonish people today.

Even the brightest people who study math all their lives do not attain the level of insight and understanding of how numbers operate that Ramanujan displayed from an early age.  He was obsessed with mathematics and worked hard, but he also was endowed with a brain that allowed him to approach seemingly impossible challenges, work out their solutions and write them in neat sentences, absent formal proofs and logic.  The only argument is whether he was the finest mathematician of the last several hundred years or of all time.

Ramanujuan's personal story is a sad one.  Bedevilled by illness from a young age -- dysentery or cancer or tuberculosis, perhaps all three -- he died in 1920 at age 32.

The Man Who Knew Infinity sets out to tell Ramanujan's life story, putting his accomplishments in context with the external challenges he faced in his short life.  It is enjoyable to watch, but it perhaps bites off more than it can chew and resorts to cliches to make its narrative appealing to people with limited understandings of higher math, which is just about all of us.

The Best Part

The movie's central element is the intellectual relationship between Ramanujan and his Trinity sponsor, G.H. Hardy.  In 1913, Ramanujan sends a letter to Hardy, sharing some of his theorems.  Hardy, a very fine mathematician himself, shares the letter with colleague John Littlewood, and the two are impressed enough to arrange for Ramanujan to join them at Cambridge.

The tension between old-school Hardy (played excellently by Jeremy Irons) and Ramanujan is Hardy's insistence that the autodidact slow down and document his thought processes -- in effect, that he show his work.  There are unsuccessful efforts to make the Indian genius learn methods by attending undergraduate math courses, and, over time, more successful collaborations between mentor and student that lead to publication and broader appreciation of Ramanujan's work.

This is well displayed, and apparently historically accurate.  Hardy the atheist and Ramanujan, the Hindu who believes his ideas are given to him by a divine being, come at things from very different places.  They frustrate each other and argue often, but their mutual respect and devotion to their work bind them intextricably.

The Less Good Parts

First things first:  The title character's name is pronounced RaMAHNujan, though he is called RamaNUjan in the movie. This is a small matter, of course.  I didn't know how to pronounce the name until I looked it up the other day.

More to the point, the arc of Ramanujan's life is the stuff of perseverance against obstacles: getting a clerk's job in impoverished India, bringing his work to the attention of Indian mathematicians and British officials in the country, moving to a new and unknown continent, facing down skepticism based on his foreign identity and limited formal education, demonstrating that he was as brilliant as Hardy said he was, earning the respect and admiration of possibly the most elite mathematics department in the world at his time, and all the while fighting one or more wasting diseases.

The movie shows this but adds conflict for conflict's sake.

It invents a romance between him and his wife, Janaki, who were married when he was 20 and she was nine or 10 years old and who did not live together until she was 12.  By the time he left for England, she was 14 or 15; theirs was almost certainly an arranged marriage and almost certainly had more to do with filial duty than love. (This is not to say that arranged marriages do not become love matches over time.) Nobody knows the relationship between the two, who spent a year together between Ramanujan's return to India and his early death, but casting it as something that might resemble a 21st century first-world romance feels like a stretch.

In another example, Ramanujan's mother's meddling in the relationship between her son and daughter-in-law apparently was invented out of whole cloth.  Biographers say his mother (her husband is absent from the movie) initially opposed his leaving Madras for England but gave her blessing after a she believed she received a divine message ordering her to relent.  It cannot have been easy. The poor woman gave birth to three other children after Sriniva; none lived to see a first birthday.

A third conflict -- Ramanujan's beating by bigoted British soldiers in the Trinity quad -- may have happened, but I doubt it.  The mathematician certainly was viewed initially with disdain by English toffs at Cambridge, but inventing a violent act to amp up sympathy based on virulent British racism seems forced.  In my (admittedly later) experience, Brits are buttoned-up people who do their grousing in private.

I think I get why the film was made this way.  It certainly could not have communicated the totality of Ramanujan's accomplishments to a general audience.  And there were only so many shots of amazed colleagues' goggling eyes and mouths agape that could have been fitted into the plot.


One of the few photographs I have seen of Ramanujan is the one below.  Ramanujan is in the center, Hardy at the far right.

Contemporaneous reports tell us that Ramanujan was a short, pudgy fellow of modest demeanor, great humility and relentless drive.

In the movie he is portrayed by Dev Patel, a good actor and a tall, slim, handsome man whose film wardrobe of crisp, well-tailored suits would be the envy of any metrosexual in London or New York today. 

It is true that filmgoers identify more easily with really attractive actors, but it may also be true that theater and movies have trained us to admire beauty more than truth, playing to our instinctive emotional tendencies to value form over substance. 

Human beauty fades with age and disappears into the grave.   By contrast, the results of Ramanujan's mathematical obsession are durable.  The formulas he devised have been applied over many decades to understand the mathematical underpinnings of numerical orders and physics.  

Ramanujan's admirers -- mathematicians and others -- call his work "beautiful" with unironic sincerity.  

This is how he should be remembered.


Below is a brief video by a math scholar discussing the movie and the Ramanujan-Hardy connection, and giving a bit more color to the significance of Ramanujan's work. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Harry Wu, RIP

Hary Wu on a return visit to China

Very few people survive the great outrages of history.  Fewer still stand up and force the world to pay attention.

One of these, Harry Wu, died two weeks ago.

Wu was raised in Shanghai and by age 23 in 1960 considered himself a communist during the period of the country's grotesquely named Great Leap Forward.  As he was completing his college degree in geology, he made two insufficiently servile comments about the elite status of Communist Party members and the USSR's 1956 invasion of Hungary.

For these, he was hustled off to a forced labor camp where he learned that he had received a life sentence. His family did not know what happened to him for years (during which period his father was tortured and a brother was persecuted and tortured until he descended into madness.)  When his stepmother learned his fate, she killed herself.

Wu spent 19 years in 12 camps, being tortured and beaten, working 12-hour shifts in coal mines and fields and augmenting his starvation diet by foraging in rats' nests for concealed seeds.  In 1979, three years after the death of Mao Zedong, Wu was released and returned to the study of geology.

A year later, he was offered a non-paid teaching job in the geology department at the University of California, Berkeley.  He arrived in the U.S. with $40 in his pocket and stayed a week with a sister who had immigrated many years earlier and made clear that he was not welcome in her Bay Area home.

He worked days and slept nights in parks or on commuter trains.  Eventually he got a (probably illegal) job making donuts on the midnight shift, which allowed him to feed himself and sleep in Berkeley libraries during the daytime hours when he was not teaching.

Gradually he shared his labor camp stories with colleagues who encouraged him to speak out in his new country, where a person could say what he wished without being sent to prison.

This became his life's work.  Wu wrote three books about laogai (the name of the Chinese labor camp system, which translates as "reform through work"), the system that enslaved him and millions of other Chinese citizens, many of whom died of starvation and execution and untreated diseases.

One of the books, "Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag," was described this way in a Los Angeles Times book review:

        "Bitter Winds" deserves to be compared to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag
       Archipelago" as an achingly intimate account of what happened to millions of
       innocent  men and women in the secret penal realm of the People's Republic. And
       there's a strong dose of Kafka and Orwell in Wu's tales of a world so twisted by
       revolutionary ardor that every decent human impulse became a crime.

Starting in 1992, Wu returned to China several times, at great personal risk, to document that the laogai system still was operating.  He demonstrated that the government was harvesting the body organs of dead prisoners for transplants and that officials of the one-child policy were forcing women to abort unapproved pregnancies.

Significantly, he proved that more than a few of the products China was shipping to U.S. under new open-trade policies were manufactured by political prisoners.  This was not what people in the George H.W. Bush administration wanted to hear.

Later, after earning U.S. citizenship in 1994, Wu made another documentation trip in 1995.  This time, he was caught, jailed and sentenced to a 15-year prison term.

I lived in the Bay Area during this period.  People there knew Wu's story, admired his courage and agitated for his release.

Meantime, then-first lady Hillary Clinton was planning to attend a UN women's conference in China, and she seemed to view Wu's situation as an irritating distraction from her travel plans.  Ironically, perhaps, Wu was released after 66 days in prison, almost certainly to placate the Clinton administration.

Once back, Wu founded the Laogai Research Foundation and started a Laogai Museum in Washington, D.C.  He hoped one day to move both to China.

As relations between the U.S. and China became increasingly normalized, Wu's activism came to be regarded as annoying.  The idea here seemed to be this:  Things are better in China now, so why don't you pipe down?

If I had spent 19 years in slave labor camps for no good reason, I don't think I'd be willing to move on so fast myself.

Wu's goal, he said in one speech, was to place the laogai in its historical context -- with Nazi exterminations, Stalinist gulags and the Pol Pot regime's killing of 25 percent of the population of Cambodia.

He did not try to exact vengeance but to set the record straight.  He took an outrageous life experience and forced the larger facts of the matter into the open.  He left this world a better place than he found it.

The Chinese Memory Hole

China has been opening up in recent years, but there are parts of its 20th century history that the ruling Communist Party would like to pretend never happened.

Harry Wu made this difficult for the Chinese leadership, but he was not the only one.

In 1989, Chinese students staged an uprising in Tiananman Square in Beijing.  What they wanted was democracy.  The army was turned on the students, and an unknown number were killed.
         Liu Xiaobo, a university professor, supported the students and for this lost his job.  He wrote books about Chinese human rights violations (published elsewhere of course) and has been in and out of Chinese jails ever since.  In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and, presumably, to make him prominent enough to avoid the worst depradations of his government.
          Liu is still under house arrest in China.  Chinese schools are still do not teach about the Tiananmen Square uprising.

In 2008 came the release of "Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962," a remarkable compilation of history and personal death records. Its author, journalist Yang Jisheng, spent more than 15 years researching information that might never have come to light otherwise.
          Tombstone is the story of a man-made famine (ascribed to naive-to-totalitarian central planning) in which 36 million Chinese people starved.  Later commenters have suggested the death toll was greater by several million or more.
          Tombstone of course is banned in China, but a version was published in western countries in 2012. Yang remains in China, but two months ago the government denied him the right to visit the U.S. and receive an award for his book.

Last year, I wrote about a prominent Chinese artist who has been beaten, jailed and harrassed (Thinking about China -- Ai Wei Wei,  October 25.)
           Also last year, a dissident journalist trying to leave the country was tracked down in Thailand, returned to China and jailed.
           Last year and the year before, Hong Kong students mounted massive and increasingly violent protests against China's suppression of democratic elections.  The concept, when Britain turned Hong Kong over to China, was "one country, two systems," but Beijing seems not to be totally on board with the two-systems part of the deal.


Brave Chinese individuals continue to resist a top-down government that hides unpleasant truths.  But the truth will come out eventually.

As of this year, more than 300,000 Chinese students are enrolled at American universities, and thousands of others study at schools in other Western countries.

While those students are here, they have access to websites of Chinese commentary that are blocked inside China.  They have access to news reports and histories of post-war China that are not available at home. While they study abroad, they can observe other government systems and consider what changes they might like to see in their own country.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Maurizio Cattelan: Art's Shock Jock

America the toilet

Above is a recent piece by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, now on loan to the Guggenheim Museum in New York.   As you can see, it is titled America.

The plan is to have the 18-karat gold toilet, fashioned like an American-made Kohler model, installed in one of the museum's restrooms, replacing a simple porcelain number.  Visitors will be able to participate in the art by relieving themselves in the gold commode.

The website describes the toilet this way:

     In a press release, the Guggenheim identifies (it as) Cattelan's reaction to the "excesses
     of the art market"  -- of which Cattelan himself benefits as one of the most expensive living
     artists -- and notes that the toilet functions as a facetious jab towards the 1 percent who can
     afford such ostentatious works.

The installation was timed to coincide New York's spring season of art fairs.  The best analogy I can imagine for this timing is that it is akin to inviting a drunken colleague over for dinner and watching him barf on the table.

(For what it is worth, I agree that much current art is shallow.  Most art in every period is less than profound.  A gold toilet doesn't tell us anything that we don't know already.)

The installation was supposed to be up and running, so to speak, earlier this week, but there has been a hitch.  The toilet is not functional, and it will take an uncertain amount of time to get it going.

Here we may have another metaphor -- the over-the-top America toilet that does not work as a symbol of our dysfunctional government and political arrangements.

Maurizio Cattelan and His Work

I was not familiar with this artist before the toilet tale came up, and so I did a little research.  He seems to be the shock jock of contemporary art.


Here is an emblematic Cattelan piece, a marble sculpture that was placed in a Milan square in 2010.

Its title is L.O.V.E.; don't ask me why.

My bet is that locals describe the thing as "il dito medio," which can be translated even by those not fluent in Italian.  Love -- ha!


Here is another fun piece, described unofficially as the Trophy Wife.

The woman is Stephanie Seymour, a former supermodel and the second spouse of billionaire art collector Peter Brant.  The couple's marriage has been tumultuous, and one of their sons has gained a reputation in New York for the kinds of behavior we have come to associate with the term "affluenza."

In an interview, Cattelan was asked how he decided to make this piece of art.  Here is his answer.

        That is another good story. I went to Peter’s house because he wanted to ask me for a
         commissioned work. As I went inside the house, the walls were covered with hunting
         trophies, with every kind of animal, and I knew immediately what I would do. It was
         consequential to add just one more, a portrait of his beautiful wife.

Take that, billionaire art patron!


The piece below, which resides in a Swedish museum, is called Him.  As you can see, it is a statue of Adolph Hitler praying.   Hitler was an evil man; associating him with Christian prayer does not make him seem better and makes Christianity seem worse.  Very subtle.


It is to be expected that an Italian artist who pokes fingers in people's eyes would have things to say about the Catholic Church.  Here again, Maurizio Cattelano does not disappoint.

Here is a statue of Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite.  My best guess is that it is a projection of a fantasy wish of the artist.   

John Paul II's election to the papacy was the first of several attempts by the college of cardinals to reform the institution of the church and its bureaucracy.  He was the first non-Italian pope in more than 200 years.
         After being shot and nearly killed in an assassination attempt, John Paul II forgave the shooter and urged Catholics to pray for his "brother." He befriended the man and his family and urged the Italian government to release him from prison and send him home to Turkey.
         I don't know what Catellan's beef is with this pope, but he seems in retrospect like a good guy to me.

And here is a statue of a dead horse.  The banner planted in the animal's hide reads INRI, an inscription found on Christian images of Jesus on the cross.  INRI translates as "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," per Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion.

I was raised Catholic, but I don't understand associating the crucifixion with a dead animal or including the INRI reference.  The church itself has problems, but Jesus is not one of them.


If someone could explain Catellan's art to me, I'd be happy to have a conversation.  But that isn't what he seeks.  His work suggests broad contempt, but not interest in other points of view.

Like me and like rich people and like the church, all human efforts are flawed. 

Maurizio Catellan seems to have made a career of giving voice to scorn, including deserved scorn, for the failings of mankind.  But his message is not new.  In some ways, its anger reflects a simplistic, almost adolescent disdain for the larger, more complicated project of living an honest life.   

I don't think I'm going to go to the Guggenheim Museum to see, or pee in, the golden toilet.