Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Review of Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist

Bob Flanagan was sick, in every sense of the word. He suffered from cystic fibrosis, but what's memorable and visceral in Kirby Dick's documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is Flanagan's other, transcendent, sickness. His disease is far, far secondary to his performance art, a sideshow of cringe-inducing flagellation born out of a "contract" Flanagan "signed" with his lover, collaborator, and dominatrix, Sheree Rose. Flanagan surrendered ("gave of [his] own free will") his existence to her in a performance piece of ritualized sadomasochism, every perverse thing under the sun, that would be utterly demeaning to anybody not condemned to spend his life drowning in mucous.

Even with that in mind, you watch Sick for the shock value of a man nailing his dick to a two-by-four — and un-nailing it. (Spoiler alert: it's bloody.) I'm not grossed out, just — even the man's visceral struggle against his illness becomes trite in comparison. Flanagan is almost a character study of himself, a mess of pop psychology and accidental heroism to some kids in the Make-a-Wish Foundation, throwing off his default definition — "guy dying with CF" — for one equally reductive — weirdo. His art, what he presentation, isn't pressing the limits of nociception for the sake of art and truth — he's getting off, especially since he's doing it in public. Imagine David Blaine standing on top of that tower for thirty-four hours with a boner.

And the Inevitable has such a discordant resonance, especially after Flanagan's condition deteriorates. He can only face his mortality; Sheree, who isn't oblivious but also not rotted out the same way he is, is pissed — fearful — that he refuses to be spanked. The dominatrix thing is an act of love between them, but the sex — he basically agreed to be her robot — is about the uncontrollable physical sensations, utterly removed from the collaborator relationship they (theoretically) have outside the bedroom. Even if he coped with the concept of dying by being an ass to himself and, by extension, his cystic fibrosis, reality catches up with him in the end. Flanagan's plan for a final sendoff was a video camera in his coffin, so a collector could watch him disintegrate.

But Kirby Dick's camera is in Flanagan's hospital room, recording him wasting away, both he and Sheree sobering to the idea, and that project never materialized.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I posted this on my journal yesterday:

I've been wallflower-ing on for about a month now with limited success meeting folks, and I think I figured out what I'm doing wrong: I've been wallflower-ing on Rejection stings — pretty sure that's not a particularly controversial opinion — but my OKStalking business is picking up the distinct odor of sixth-grade Spring Fling, and I like to think I'm fifteen years older and at least ten wiser than that.

Still, it's so easy for me, or Nike, to say "Just do it!" — Lord knows I've given that pep talk to my friends plenty of times — and so scary to take that leap into the deep end, especially if you're not sure whether you'll sink. That isn't a metaphor; my swimming ability ends at curling up in a ball underwater and floating wherever the tide carries me.

I just wanted to put that out into the ether, even though others have said it before, and better, and probably while sober. Not the world's best introduction, but it is honest... and, in a weird way, freeing.

So, here goes. No more looky-looing, no more woo button. No expectations, either. Well, maybe one — I'll try my best but how you all do or don't respond is beyond my control. Just something I have to surrender and see what happens.

By the way, I'm Jay. [Smiles. Shakes hands.] Nice to meet you, [fill in your name here].

It's right now thirty hours since I posted that and I'm sad to report that I haven't followed through. My plan is to not move from this seat until I introduce myself to somebody, even if — probably — it's not someone I'm especially smitten over. The only problem is this giant mutant insect flying around here — it's like a hornet mated with a wolverine — which might motivate me to lower my goals a bit before moving.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Review of My Kid Could Paint That

When I took my art history class back in school, I had little affection for my teacher, and she had little for me. I'm not sure who started it, but she imposed a cantankerous, snooty depression on me and, in return, I read her as vacuous and sycophantic. Everybody in class had a cultural hard-on for Jackson Pollack, so we had to ask this discussion about one of his modernist wanna-bes, Willem de Kooning, maybe:

Me: But I could do that!

Teacher: But you didn't do that.

Me: If I'd known it could be a museum, I would have done that.

Which misses the point, of course, that it sure seems like the value in modern art has little to do with its content and everything to do with the creature behind the paintbrush. ABC News's professional nuance-killer John Stossel took a stab at clearing the art community's eyes with a 20/20 report challenging art critics to pick his child's finger paintings out of an abstract expressionist line-up; after being punk'd, the critics called Stossel a philistine and he, in his way, called them whatever the 2005-English translation of "ivory tower elitists" was, resolving everything. Amir Bar-Lev's doc My Kid Could Paint That covers much, maybe more, of the Stossel territory, but with an eye to the truths and stories underlying the scribbles, and without being a total dick about it, Bar-Lev's film quietly morphs into a brilliant and devastating look at how we claim ownership of those truths and the practical consequences reaching way beyond some rabble-rouser's mock indignance.

In 2004, the contemporary art world first met Marla Olmstead, whose gimmick, beyond her acrylic-on-canvas, was that she was born in the year 2000. My guess is that every suburban parent has their kid's watercolor art hanging all over the home and fawns over it to anyone who'll listen; the only obvious difference with Marla is that her hobbyist painter sets her down in front of a primed canvas instead of paper. Marla's work moved from her refrigerator to a friend's coffee shop, just as a gaffe, then to a new nearby gallery, the local paper, and soon, an article by the chief art critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, who's a talking head in the film. Amir Bar-Lev wants to examine what gives art its value, and Marla's works — which sell for thousands of dollars — are the flashpoint in the debate. Marla paints vibrant, random squiggles, the sort of art you see hanging in the waiting room of someone who charges $400 an hour, and she gives cynics ammunition to point at modern art and peek behind the curtain, my kid really could paint that. Her collectors look at the same doodles and see a painting free of the cynicism and alienation endemic in modern art. Bar-Lev and his camera play the moderator and chronicle the Story of Marla — or, a Story of Marla — through her first solo show, her New York opening, her appearance on the Jane Pauley show.

What lurks in the background, then hulks, are the cameras pointed at Marla as someone off-screen decided she'd be the global sensation of the art world. Bar-Lev, probably the most perpetual camera, insinuates himself with theOlmsteads , who smile when they're being watched but can't hide the tension between mom and dad, Laura and Mark. They clearly love Marla, but Laura is timorous and low-key, and when charismatic but slimy gallery owner (and outmoded painter) AnthonyBrunelli takes a liking to Marla's work, he and stage dad Mark railroad her into pursuing Marla's path to fame and fortune. Bar-Lev, and about a thousand other cameramen, catch these bizarre gallery juxtapositions: rich collectors browsing and drinking champagne, Mark hobnobbing, Laura in over her head, and Marla, who could not care less that Mr. and Mrs.Bigshot are looking at her work. There may be some sly commentary on the nature of fame and the way outside expectations influence us — especially with Mark, who genuinely wants his daughter to be happy and is also genuinely certain that being the littlest bigmuckety -muck on the scene is what makes her happy. There's a telling scene that's the working class family's first ride in a limousine; the adults are elated and the kids are thoroughly unimpressed, and as Marla's value grows so does the fawning....

...and then Charlie Rose devotes 60 Minutes to an exposé — nobody ever says it, but the allegation is that Mark "touched up" Marla's paintings. The crash is fascinating, and seems to answer Bar-Lev's original question, but by now he, theOlmsteads, and the film are so far beyond that as the media vultures pick at the Story of Marla's second chapter and everybody's roles shift to fit the new angle. Bar-Lev is as discrete as he can be from the subject, but he realizes that he too doesn't have the video of Marla completing a painting start to finish that he needs for his film, and it dawns on him that as another guy recording theOlmsteads, he's been assigned a role in their drama. By the third act, Bar-Lev is himself on camera, in just as deep as the Olmsteads , trying to reconcile his nagging skepticism with the family's need for redemption, his objectivity with his clear fondness for these people, and his art with the moral and ethical implications of the subtle quantum mechanical changes he's forcing on this child by watching her and bringing her an audience. All he can do is make choices — what to film, what (if anything) to present — that are all at odds with the truth, whatever it is.

It's a testament to Bar-Lev's journalistic (bad word) skills that, in my opinion, he arrives at the sort of nuanced truth that makes absolutely nobody happy, and he's straightforward when he says that the media monster Marla's artist fortunes turn on won't even try to accept something outside its false dichotomy. There is a scene where Marla's painting on camera and she tells her dad, "Draw a face," and I winced while Mark made half-assed excuses for not getting down on his hands and needs and playing with his child. I hope Mark really did get his hands dirty in those disputed paintings, because they are stories, not of Marla's genius (I don't believe she's a prodigy) but of her play. Here's the thing: Bar-Lev has an editing bay and pares down hundreds of hours of footage down to ninety minutes, those hundreds of hours of footage are only what happened when and where the camera was rolling... There is a truth, but it's too complicated to capture fully, so I guess there always is the possibility that Marla's paintings really are free of cynicism and alienation.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Jay: Incompetent Action Hero!

I spent my after-work wind down yesterday at the West Side Rifle and Pistol Range, shootin' stuff. In New York City, you need a license to own a dog or serve food on the street, but it's every citizen's God-given right to fire off a .22 caliber rifle with nothing more than a couple of signatures. It's every little boy's fantasy to potentially kill something — or let's face it: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, James Bond, this video — potentially kill someone (nefarious) ever since he first saw it glamorized in a PG-rated movie. (I think it was Kevin Smith who made an interesting point in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, that the MPAA gives harsher ratings to movies that show the bloody aftermath of characters being shot; films that realistically portray the consequences of gun violence are rated R while movies that sanitize and trivialize them tend to get PG-13 ratings.) "Shoot a gun" was on my bucket list, somewhere above "ride a Segway" and below "three-way," so when Meet Market Adventures offered a singles-only night at the firing range, I took the opportunity. Yee-haw!

It doesn't matter that we're in a blue city in a blue state, the pistol range is just the sort of stereotypical backwoods basement you'd imagine, with the faux wood plastered in NRA stickers and Second Amendment posters and everybody's wearing T-shirt slogans daring the government take away their arsenal and a handgun on their hip the way most New Yorkers carry a BlackBerry. My impression was a weird co-dependent neediness with "my darlin' gun," since I figured there's no reason to walk around the firing range with your gun at all times — like, you can't really go more than a couple of feet in any direction without having about twenty guns at arm's length. They corral you into a small classroom in the back and there's a waiver on every desk. Normally you just sign and date the piece of paper without even reading it — let's just say that this time, I made a point of knowing exactly what I was signing. On one side, a statement re-affirming my awareness that I'm about to participate in a HIGH RISK/DANGEROUS activity and indemnifying the range against little things like dismemberment and death; on the reverse, a certification that I'm not among the groups the State of New York doesn't want operating a firearm: the inebriated, the mentally disturbed, convicted felons — but only if the felony carries more than a year of jail time.

While we're all signing waivers, as if to hammer the point home, the gun range guy comes into the classroom with four big-ass deer-hunter guns — or, as he'll tell us, four Ruger ten-shot .22 caliber semi-automatic rifles — puts them down on the table, goes out and comes back with four more, and again four more... It's not something I see every day; where I come from, we don't even use bug zappers.

There's a safety lecture (good!) that, you know, takes a little bit of the fun fantasy element out of everything. Oh, so we won't be skulking around barrel-first whirling around corners and shooting bad guys, or firing blindly with that sideways grip popular with gangsters in the early nineties (movies). I was honestly expecting, like so many safety lectures, something incredibly inane — and there was a little of "If it's not firing and you can't figure out why, don't peek down the barrel Elmer Fudd-style," the kind of stuff where if someones needs to hear it, they shouldn't be allowed near guns in the first place. Or crossbows, or throwing stars, or ACME Dehydrated Boulders, or safety shears. Maybe there'd be a poorly-acted video with poor production values. In fact, gun safety 101 reminded me a lot of drivers' ed, with some ex-military guy explaining all disaster scenarios possible but the real reason you're listening to him is cause he's scary as shit. He expects the United States government to batter in his door at five in the morning and take away all his guns, and he's preparing for that. But just like drivers' ed, he approaches the morbid subject with levity and detached irony, and you almost forget that there's got to be some wires crossed in his brain that would make him take this particular job, whether it's some kid's first eighty-mile drive on the freeway or in the front of a room with fifteen people waving (hopefully unloaded) guns around and randomly pulling the triggers.

For the record, I did not take any practice trigger pulls in the classroom. (Apparently this is a safety feature: "The gun won't fire unless you pull the trigger," Gun Dude told us. Which is good, since it turned out the actual safety would not necessarily stay in the on position once it's engaged.) In the interest of holding off death at least till I was actually on the firing line, I also stayed away from cocking the rifle and kept it always pointed at the ceiling. I would've thought that always pointing the gun at the floor would be safer — if it did fire, there'd be less chance of knocking something down and onto your head — but, then again, I'm pro-gun control, so what do I know?

Unlike drivers' ed, the pistol range will let you out in the wild with about fifteen minutes of class: how to load the gun, how to unload it, how to aim, and... that's about it. Here's five magazines and a box of bullets (cartridges, technically), so everybody go crazy and shoot stuff! Well, shoot paper, but still...

The firing range is the sort of cruddy concrete room you could fire a couple thousand rounds into and it wouldn't become any more derelict. There's twelve or so stalls, or shooting stations, or whatever, and twelve or so rifles chained to the wall. I claimed lucky number five, putting all my spare magazines and extra bullets on the shelf and kind of composing myself. Now... the thing is, I really do enjoy trying new things, but I'm also kind of, let's say, mechanically uninspired, like I'll be the one who accidentally hits a ping-pong ball the wrong way and flattens it, or tears up an entire cereal box trying to reclose that little tab that keeps your processed food fresh. One morning when I was living in a campus dorm, the fire alarm went off. I raced down seventeen flights of stairs, hoping to escape before being engulfed in flames, to find one of those fire doors with the bar — "Alarm will sound if pressed" — at the bottom. And the right thing to do here was obvious, but it took a ton of decision making before I actually did it — and set off a second fire alarm. It was the same kind of feeling face-to-face, or face-to-butt, with this rifle.

I was meticulous.

Step one: turn the gun over, make sure there's no stray bullet in the chamber.

Step two: make sure the safety is on.

Step three: load the magazine, push it in until it clicks.

Step four: turn the gun right-side up, be completely freaked by the fact that the safety somehow managed to disengage itself.

I could've dragged this out all night with the double-checks and triple-checks, then gone home thinking, "How cool was that, getting to wear those airport runway headphones!" But the rangemaster saw me stalling (or struggling) and this was gonna happen: He pushed my left leg forward, straightened my elbows, told me like fifteen times that I was pointing at the ceiling, fixed my grip, leaned my shoulder into the gun, helped me line up the sights. I closed my left eye, aimed — just a little below the target — and fired, with a tiny pop, recoil, and a healthy, totally unearned, dose of pride and machismo. The target is maybe twenty feet away, the bullet hole is less than about a quarter-inch in diameter and my vision isn't great, but it felt like everything went super and the casing bouncing off the wall and twinging my face confirmed it.

As it turned out, I missed the target completely, and probably put another bullet hole in the ceiling. The testosterone-driven fantasy drooped into its anti-climax; the whole point is that you're supposed to be good at this, from the get-go really. After firing the whole magazine and pulleying that paper target in, ten bullets but only seven holes, I was — I can't believe it — disappointed in myself, cause I naively expected to not suck at this. The rifle is heavier than you'd (I'd) expect, and your (my) arms really aren't designed to stick out like that; I'd be on target and perfect with a handgun, or a laser tag blaster, or a water pistol... still hanging on to that macho imaginary me who, I assume, shouldn't exist. Maybe shooting off a rifle looks so easy — just point and pull the trigger, no fine motor skills involved — cause most other things to try, you know you'll have to grow into. No one expects to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a Beethoven sonata or play top-level chess without years of practice, but fall off a horse your first time riding and there's a sense the laws of physics are cheating on you.

By the fifth magazine, I was improving, able to get ten shots relatively close together, although still nowhere near the bullseye. My lifelong dreams of winning the biathalon were crumbling — seriously, all I had left to do was learn to shoot and learn to ski! I took home a bullet as a souvenier since my paper targets were embarrassing (and also since I don't want my mom knowing that I went to a firing range — she flipped out over the potential high risk when I merely told her I wanted to try riding a motorcycle). I don't see myself ever shooting a gun again — it's outside my nature — but it's nice to say, "I tried it and it wasn't the horrible experience I signed a waiver over." Live your dreams, kids! Just don't be surprised when the reality pales against what your imagination's been sold.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I have a little issue with some girls' profiles, especially on the last question: "You should contact me if..." People are writing something like, "You are not over 30, you are not creepy. Don't message me with 'I want 2 have sex w/ u' cause I won't respond, etc., etc.," basically rattling off who they don't want contacting them. I guess, be as picky as you want, but it's a brief, dumb email. It's not like medieval times where some guy points at you and suddenly you're his bride.

If I can summarize, the sentiment is, "Don't be a lech," which — maybe I'm naive — I thought goes without saying. I immediately take off a personality point for that, since I can definitely see me adding, "Vapid bitches need not apply," to my profile would be a certain deal-breaker... even though (a) it's true and (b) nobody thinks that they're a vapid bitch and that restriction would even apply to them. Dear God, getting hit on: that must be awful! Some guy, admittedly with broad tastes, thinks you're physically attractive. Such a burden! You, Girl, are a hero just for getting out of bed in the morning, and putting on make-up... and doing your hair... and coordinating an outfit...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

I set up a profile on, which is basically just a copy of my profile, which I more or less lifted from my Facebook profile, which I tweaked from the MySpace profile back when it looked like that would take off, so now I don't see how there can't be anyone in the world who doesn't know all about the way I like the Tempur-Pedic mattress (I call it "that Swedish space-foam bed at Brookstone") and my dislike for movies with the main character's name in the title. Within a few minutes, two people — women — checked me, or at least my pith, out. That was one of the complaints I had with, that I had no real indication of how successful my blurb was, or wasn't.

okcupid is a bit more facetious than or eHarmony, without any long, researched psych surveys to fill out or complicated connecting procedures. There are Cosmo-style romance tests, mostly written by the okcupid community and ranging from the inane to the very inane to the prurient and inane. And there are multiple-choice matching questions that live on their own, photos, short essays, all the good stuff you expect. okcupid is free — free to use, free to connect, free to communicate — and I think it's like practice poker or the fantasy stock market, where some folks are earnest and others take it ironically until they get bored.

I'm pretty proud of what I wrote, even though it's utterly useless in its content at times. (Q: I spend a lot of time thinking about... A: What does this button do? Should I press it? Will I press it? Oh man, I'm about to press it... )

Just like, I don't have very high hopes for this — mostly because I'll be too chicken to contact anyone. Technology hasn't gotten around that one yet.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Italian family wanted to hear live Gospel music while they were in New York, so we took them to a church in Harlem, which I felt was inappropriate in many, many ways. Race issues, religion issues, cultural issues, but mostly people are there trying to find salvation and for us it's a rip-roaring good time concert hall. The Refuge Temple Church is used to "visitors" dropping in more for the music than the community or the Word of God, but my own religious upbringing had me coming to the church — a white person in an all-black church, no less — with a huge burden of gravity. I mean, I wore pants! In the middle of a hazy, hot and humid New York summer!

But the Sunday experience, at least at the Refuge Temple Church, is a radical departure from the solemn deference that (I was taught) is the Lord's due. They were essentially partying with God, singing, dancing, screaming out loud when the Spirit moved them, throwing up their arms like you see crazy glosso people doing at the Down South megachurches, but — I don't know — it felt genuine, not some ideomotor effect. Nobody was trying, God simply became "found." To me, trying to put forth a stolid veneer, the Gospel celebration was profoundly — I want to say "annoying," but it wasn't; it was — infectious. How has Roman Catholicism missed out on this?

What bothered me was the tithing, having people in a (relatively) poor neighborhood sacrifice a tenth of their money, plus the weekly donations, plus a monthly membership fee seemed cruel, although I don't know if I'm in a position to judge. That money does go back into the community, just not the parts of the community that'll keep Brooks Brothers from opening an Anglo power suit store on 125th Street. What bothered and impressed me was a line from the (first) preacher's sermon. Not a sermon, really, just a list of things we're all thankful for, growing more enthusiastic and manic by the second. He had that stereotypical African-American preacher sonorous voice and punctuated cadence, and I sort of wanted to know if he speaks that way off the pulpit, too. Anyway, list of things we're thankful for, went on for about five fueled minutes, but the very first one (of course) was that we're thankful the Lord chose to wake us up this morning.

I have never been thankful for waking up in the morning. I never thought about it, but even if I had... and it dawned on me — there's one guy somehow sleeping through this whole service, but in general — the congregation here actually is thankful that they woke up this morning and I became choked up in reverse schadenfreude. The service, not the words — of which there aren't many and even fewer that are understandable — but the sum total of the atmosphere, is an affirmation and I'm truly jealous. On the other hand, we stayed ninety minutes for the "first half" of the service, so I'm not really missing that part.