February 25, 2010


For my lit project, I read the Phenomena and Diosemeia of Aratus.

This was an obscure outing for me, and an interesting one. In Ovid's Amores, Aratus is mentioned as a Great Poet who has achieved Immortality. Aratus was very popular in the Classical world; he is forgotten today. Though I found that intriguing, I was not convinced to read Aratus until I discovered that his most famous poem is about the constellations. Enter the astronomy geek.

Phenomena is a description of the constellations. If you are not out among the stars, the descriptions can be confusing. There are some inaccuracies. The work is dry (this might just be the literal prose translation I read). Many have wondered what here drove the Ancients so wild. I wonder it myself.

But I am an astronomy geek, and the Phenomena gripped my imagination in a number of ways. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a constellation: How are they named? Who named them? Why did they name them? It all seemed so fantastical and arbitrary. What is most fascinating is that these constellations, named in some forgotten past, are still called by the names they were called millennia ago. We see the same Orion Aratus did. We know the same Arcturus. I suppose this is a question of praxis; the stars, once so important for sailors and farmers, were most memorable when related to myth, and we, who have so little use for stars, find the constellations memorable enough and have no practical need for change.

Most curious for me about the Phenomena is the universe-view of the Ancients. Since my childhood, I have always looked up to the stars and imagined them continuing on forever; my father would reinforce this wonder in me and impress me with infinity, telling me to imagine, at all those distant points, a sun like our sun, a system like our system. The Ancients, however, looked to the sky and did not see infinity but a ceiling, a sphere, a thousand lanterns or gods. For the Ancients, the Earth stood still and a dome revolved above it. No infinity, but a collapsed plane. Why, I ask, why have I never seen the universe in this light? Why have I never stopped the earth and collapsed the heavens? There is something wondrous about this naivete, something attractive about this simplicity. I have never considered the Universe in these different ways. And now I must. Perhaps the poetry of candles dotting a vaulted dome will reveal to me the poetry of accretion discs, pulsars, dark matter...

Diosemeia is about predicting the weather. It is mostly worthless*. I did however realize that I am totally blind to my environment when it comes to subtle cues (about the weather). I am sure this applies to most of us. But most of us don't need to watch for wasps to know what kind of weather is about to come -- the internet is a marvelous thing.

[*like DG and his 20th C lit]

February 24, 2010

One Image

The other day I watched Au Bonheur des Dames (1930). This is not a post about the film, but rather about a phenomenon I notice often but never bother to describe--

My memories of a film fade in various ways. What was vivid to me while watching the film disappears with time, and as days pass I may remember nothing of a film but its name and my general opinion. Sometimes a perfectly wonderful film finds no traction in my mind and slowly escapes from it entirely. At other times a merely adequate film will latch onto me and stick with me for years because of one outstanding detail -- be it an action, a character, an image...

With this post, I want to pay tribute to that One Image that stays with me. What is it that gives One Image so much potency? What thoughts, emotions, impressions do I compress into One Image that I cannot feel elsewhere in the film? Why should One Image -- only one image -- be the one to reecho through my soul? Why does every other image scatter into shadows? O inscrutable One Image, I pay tribute to your power--

This was the One Image from Au Bonheur des Dames. I knew it as soon as I saw it.

Once seen, forever recognized. Does anybody else experience this One Image? How do films impress themselves in your memory? How does your memory of a film change?

I do not know why I have never asked these questions seriously before; I hope to get some good answers.

February 23, 2010

The Aeneid of Virgil

For my lit project, I read The Aeneid.

I did not expect to get in to the Aeneid, but it seemed like a good time to read it (on the heels of Metamorphoses). Indeed, it is an epic all about Valor and Piety, qualities I am unfamiliar with, and a good many words are wasted in prayer or else in sacrificing lambs and sows and oxen, and reading about slaughters and prayers is not very exciting. It is an epic all about war and fate, also unfamiliar, and men are slaughtered as frequently as the bleating sheep; Virgil depicts many lances through groins and rocks against heads. I could not handle the violence of the Iliad; Aeneid too tried my timid mind. And what's up with Juno? She is the worst god ever. I do not understand why Jupiter does not kick her teeth in and pitch her down to Tartarus. I wanted to. So badly.

And yet -- and yet! -- I was so into the Aeneid. I began reading and two nights later finished it. The story progresses with calm intensity. The narrative's weight is always bearing but never overwrought. And I was into it. Surely, the very spirit Epic possessed me as I hunched over this book. I have no rational explanation for my becoming so engrossed.

I think it helped to read this back-to-back with Ovid's epic. Virgil builds his epic with patience, diligence, focus, solemnity. These do not describe Ovid; his cracks and tumbles and wheels energetically along its way. Ovid's epic is swift and dense with action; Virgil's deliberate and dense with emotion. So into it.

My praise to the translation.

February 17, 2010

Ovid's Metamorphoses

For my lit project, I read Ovid's Metamorphoses.

DG and I planned to synchronize our reading of Metamorphoses, but he has put his lit project on hold after reading the first part of Don Quixote. He has instead returned to 20th century lit, an addict back to his fix. I will harass him with these posts until he starts his project again. Read Metamorphoses, DG, you coward.

On the Metamorphoses itself, I am not sure what I can say. I have not yet learned how to research classical lit in the way I know I how to research film, so I have no topics to muse on or amusing facts to dispatch. Unexpectedly, Metamorphoses was everything I expected it to be -- a dense course in classical mythology imbued with Ovid's clarity, wit, and charm.

I was most surprised by Pythagoras's long discourse in the final book, a summation of much of ancient philosophy. Surprised because Ovid so persuasively fits his project into a philosophical tradition (mostly a Hericlitean worldview). Philosophy had not been on my mind, but this section alerted me to philosophical ideas scattered throughout the book. Everything is in flux. Panta Rhei. Metamorphoses. &c. But most surprising -- and this is what I love about Ovid -- is that after Pythagoras explains the universe, the soul, and everything, he asserts his entire speech as an argument against eating meat; his philosophy is boiled down to nothing but a rationale for being vegetarian.

And, at the end of this final book, having given the reader a weighty blast of the Everything-is-Flux argument, Ovid writes: "Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy --" Ovid insists he (his work) is immortal. Ha! Ha! That Ovid! He refuses all consistency. Artists today are not that brave. How unfortunate that we don't have more Ovids!

February 14, 2010

notes on our trip to San Francisco, part 1

I traveled from Denver to San Francisco with Drew, Jacob, and Joshua. Our trip began on Sunday, Jan 31 and ended Sunday, Feb 7 (2010). This is my record of the journey. I have edited it for reasons of decency (my edits appear as brackets and strikethroughs). In spite of these edits, I still must declare this record to be morally improper, and I sincerely apologize if you are offended while reading this.

I have separated this account into two parts. This is Part 1. Here is Part 2.


Several weeks ago, Drew, Josh, and I were on our way to WaterCourse. I was riding in the back seat of Drew's badass Land Rover, minding my thoughts, when I heard my name mentioned in the front seat. "Ian," said Drew, "Want to come with us to San Francisco?" He told me the dates and costs and other unimportant details. "Why are you guys going?" I asked. "No reason," they responded. I was in.

A few days before the trip, Drew and Josh were making tasteless jokes of some nature or other while I stood silently to the side. "Man, I think we're corrupting Ian," said Josh. "Just watch," Drew responded, "some day he's going to take all this s[tuff] we say and write it down." That night, I began writing this post.

During the week before the trip, Josh was distressed about getting the rental car. Our vehicles are not road-trip worthy (although we did consider Jake's minivan), and biking there was not an option. Renting a car sounded far too adult for us (having never done it), and all those rumors about being 25 nearly threw us into panic (could Drew, the only 25 year-old, afford it?). But it turns out renting a car is easy; in fact, it is too easy. None of the rumors are true. Insurance presented the only obstacle, but Jake cleared that.

We had originally intended to leave Monday morning, Feb 1. But Jake called me on Sunday afternoon and asked if I was ready to leave that night. I was. He and Drew were on their way to rent the car.

I drove up to Josh+Drew's place. I was not as excited as I should have been, and this worried me. On all counts, this is exactly what a recent college graduate with no known future or ambition should be doing, yet some voice in me whispered doubt and disappointment: Why am I traveling and spending money? Why am I not getting a job? What good will this trip be? = Doubts of a soul that has not been to SF.

Jake and Drew rented a car (a Chevy Malibu). We were about to put 3000 miles on it. As we prepared for this endeavor, Drew laid down for us five Rules:
1. Don't be a [heel].
2. If you (the driver) are tired, pull over/let some one else drive.
3. The front seat Passenger is not allowed to fall asleep.
4. If any one of us has the chance of getting [a girl], he gets priority over everybody else.
5. No talking about ex-girlfriends. (Subsequently, I learned every disgusting detail about their ex-girlfriends during the trip.) (This rule did not apply to me.)
(And finally, since neither Drew nor I drink, rule 6. Stay out of the way of the Js when they get drunk.)

We loaded the car and drove off, full of excitement. Two blocks later, we stopped at Qdoba so that Jake and Drew could eat. We turned back around after Josh remembered that he had forgotten to take out the trash. After that, we stopped at Whole Foods to buy some groceries. Then, then we were on our way. It was just before sunset.

We headed north. Jake drove. Night fell quickly. We do not like Red States but had to pass through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada before we reached California, and our conversation through these states was a never-ending wisecrack at the expense of the people who live there. Truckers and Mormons were our favorite victims. We tiptoed through a Wyoming truck stop and were thankful to find that no burly beasts were waiting for us in the restroom (they were too busy enjoying their late-night meal). This was a lucky escape.

Further down the road we passed an ominous compound. We tried to guess what so cold and remote a building could be. We were confounded until Josh explained: "It's a concentration camp. That's where they keep the gays."

Because it was night, we could not see any of the beautiful Wyoming landscape. We did see two things we liked: the moon-rise; and a wind farm (apparently Wyoming is a hot spot for wind farms). We were in awe passing the wind farm and all had our own comments--
Jake: "It's kind of eerie. They look like monsters."
Drew: "They remind me of the robots in Terminator 3." [???]
Me: "It makes me excited for the future."
Josh: "It makes me want to [masturbate]. Sustainably."

One final note on Wyoming: Jake, who does concrete (when not earning his Poli. Sci. degree), helped work on the highway around Rock Springs a few years ago. He could not contain his excitement as he drove over the part that he worked on. He went on and on about American infrastructure and how it felt to help build it and is crafting this story as a talking point for his political career. It made me realize I have done nothing for my country. Nothing.

A snow storm hit us over the Wyoming-Utah border. We cautiously sped through it. Josh raised a complaint we heard often during the trip: "I can't get service on my phone. Why can't I get 3G coverage? I just want to update my Facebook status! What kind of hellhole place is this?"

The closer we came to Salt Lake City, the more vicious Jake and Josh became in their attacks against Mormonism. Before this, I did not say much; I even contributed to the demonizing by telling the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. But here I objected to their attacks (a timid voice in the back seat) and was promptly torn apart, limb from limb.

The snow subsided and, though the city was a bit damp, Salt Lake City was pleasantly cool. We entered SLC so that we might gape at the Temple. It was 2AM following a Sunday. The city was deserted. So much silence. It is impossible to describe this desperate silence. A city without people is a disconcerting thing. I have seen a city deserted like this only once before -- it was Santiago on New Year's morning, and everyone was home with a hangover. Driving through SLC's quiet, wide, clean streets, we wished we had our bicycles. We found our way to the Temple, parked, and wandered around the Square, cameras out. We did this nervously and jumped whenever we heard a car pass, wondering if we were about to be captured, afraid of what cruel devices they had waiting for heathen sinners. Before we sped away from SLC, we stopped by the State Capitol and admired its hill. A final cruise through deserted downtown ended our odd SLC experience, and we were back on the road.

Although we could not see it, we knew it was there: the Great Salt Lake. We squinted out the windows and still saw nothing. Finally, we decided to pull over and get out of the car so that we might see this lake. We could see it; we could also smell it. We jumped back into the car. The internet tells me this is called Lake Stink. I feel privileged to have experienced it.

Further down the road we drove through the Bonneville Salt Flats. The dark masses of mountain in the distance reflected off the damp flats illuminated by the just-past-full moon. A haunting and beautiful image.

Jake switched places with Drew (who drove us all the way in to SF). A long, long stretch of Nevada desert remained between us and Reno, and our only respite from boredom was the sunrise. Sunrise is always magical, even in Nevada.

Reno is a sleazy city. We arrived mid-morning and rode through downtown; dirty casinos sit on dirty streets populated by dirty (homeless?) people. The glitter of the lights/signs appeared all the more fake and sinister. We were looking for a vegetarian restaurant which Josh had heard about. We parked and walked to the address he gave us; we found an apartment building. We loitered, confused. Josh called the number for the restaurant and the apartment building answered. Finally, we went inside and asked where the restaurant was -- 2nd floor, they said. I quietly proclaimed that this was not a good idea. The others, however, decided this was an experience we ought to have. On the 2nd floor, no restaurant was in sight. We split up to look for it, pacing down the crumbling, caving halls. The situation had all the hallmarks of a horror film. Maybe this restaurant was not a vegetarian restaurant but a restaurant which cooked/served vegetarians? A dark and serious possibility. We found the restaurant in a back corner. It was closed. We raced out of the building and decided on a less risky breakfast option: Whole Foods.

Nevada (so I'm told) is in grave financial trouble. We were reminded of its economic woes when we turned into the Whole Foods parking lot -- a stretch of storefront held half a dozen empty spaces. What were we in for with this Whole Foods? What kind of Whole Foods would rise in the midst of dilapidation? We rounded an empty store and discovered an oasis, the Whole Foods of our dreams. Spacious, clean, friendly; water sparkled, berries burst; shepherds piped cheerful melodies. We ate at a patio with fireplace, sofas, chairs. Forget casinos; Whole Foods is Reno's finest attraction.

I slept the distance between Reno and the California border. I woke at the border where an attractive girl asked if we were carrying any fruits or vegetables. The stretch of road just past the CA border is the most beautiful stretch of road we had yet traveled, though I could not help but compare the Sierras to the Rockies (and the Rockies always win). I fell asleep again and woke up somewhere between Sacramento and Oakland. I could not help but notice the color green.

San Francisco appeared in the distance. We approached the Oakland Bay Bridge and prepared our cameras like good tourists. On cue, Jake played Coconut Records' West Coast; I thought it was cheesy (though not in bad taste); everyone else described it as 'epic.' I promise my next entrance into SF will be more to my style.

We were in the heart of the city and were overwhelmed. So much was going on! So many buildings, so many people. It was the first time I had ever been in awe of a city, and whatever doubts I had about the trip before it began disappeared in those first minutes of SF. We turned a corner and faced our first steep SF hill. Drew, imagining no doubt that we were in his Land Rover, recklessly fearlessly drove up it. At the top, at a stop sign, he spun out; the sound reechoed loudly through the buildings, and an old man (whom I had been watching), poor old man, jumped at the sound, both feet off the ground. In the front, Drew and Jake were giddy with this new power; in the back, Josh and I fretted and bit our nails. What was first an accident became a game. Drew spun out on every hill he came to. We could smell the burning rubber. I have never been so stressed out.

Originally our plan had been to stay the first few nights with either of Josh's friends (both girls) who live in San Jose. But we were a day early. So we put ourselves up in a cheap-ish hotel in South San Francisco (en route to San Jose). Our plan was to wash up and get settled before diving back into the city; Drew suggested we double up in the shower to save time, but we rejected that idea. Once clean, we found our way to Herbivore (on Divisadero), a vegan restaurant.

A theme of this trip, which you will observe as these notes progress, is vegetarian restaurants. Josh, a hardcore vegan, invests a great deal of energy into what he eats, much more than the rest of us; he had a lengthy list of restaurants we could eat at, and we happily (aside from the Reno incident) followed him around to his dining choices. He could not get over how many veg. restaurants there were in SF. He loved Herbivore, and we ended up eating there twice.

The waitress recommended we check out Mojo up the street. It is a bicycle cafe. A hip one. Drew and Josh grabbed coffee, and then we all walked to Alamo Square Park where we had a great view of the city. We also saw a great many dogs. Dogs are everywhere in SF. I imagine if you live in a dense city you sacrifice yard space and are forced to walk your dog in the streets/public parks. This is an unpleasant chore, but for whatever reason the people walking the dogs did not seem particularly upset. This mystified me.

We wandered around the neighborhood until sunset. Josh wanted to go to American Apparel to buy a hoody. This is a habit which he has to satisfy every couple of months, and we were happy to oblige. We went to American Apparel but Josh did not buy a hoody. He bought a long-sleeve shirt instead. It was still early but we had been awake for the better part of 30 hours and so decided we should sleep. We went back to the hotel. We slept two to a bed. I had the misfortune of being paired with Josh. In the morning, they discovered me on the floor and asked what happened. I explained: "Josh is the worst bed-hog ever. I had to punch him several times during the night to get him to move over so I had room. Eventually I woke up and found his face a few inches from mine, and that was that. I moved to the floor." They laughed and laughed and teased Josh for chasing me around the bed. Josh became the Bed Chaser. This would take on a new context in a night's time, as you shall see.

We were to meet up with Josh's friend Michelle. He had not seen her for five years (but they kept in touch). We were up early that morning and arrived in San Jose before Michelle had woken up, so we passed time with our favorite past-time: shopping for Joshua. Josh needed pants, and we searched through several stores before finding something Josh was happy with (though he wasn't really happy with them). I was confused why Josh was in such desperate need of pants; but then I got an explanation: Josh only kept one pair of jeans which he wore until they ripped, and the pair he was wearing was about to rip. Without the next pair, tragedy would strike. Jake found that it was wisest to have two pairs of jeans to switch between, while Drew, like Josh, kept only one pair. Surprised, I admitted my wealth: four pairs of jeans to cycle through. "Gee, Ian," said Drew, "Do you have a servant to take care of those for you?" I do not, but I am looking into it.

We met Michelle at her house, though we were still early (and she was still dressing). She took us to her favorite restaurant down in Santa Cruz, Saturn Cafe. It is a Vegetarian American Space Diner. Or something. The food was good, the waitress better. After lunch, we walked through town and cruised the various shops. We browsed Urban Outfitters for Josh. While in a record store, Drew and I watched as a homeless couple (?) screamed at each other across the street. Screaming. Profanity. It began to rain lightly. We split up -- Josh and Michelle went to a bar for beers while Jake and Drew went for coffee. As one who does not drink either, I hung around outside with the rain. Once he had coffee, Jake went back to the bar; Drew and I walked down the street and through a bookstore. We made it back to the bar eventually, too, but thankfully did not have to stay long.

From downtown, we walked to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Because it was February, the boardwalk was deserted. The shops and booths were empty, shuttered. The rides were still. A security guard patrolled the walk, her footsteps echoing through the silent park. The beach was gray and littered with seaweed. Seagulls hovered overhead. Shadows roamed the beach in the distance. The sun began its descent over the pier to our West. We were alone.

Jake, Josh, and Drew were thrilled by this opportunity to commune with the Pacific. They took off their shoes, rolled up their jeans, and cautiously approached the surf. The water looked cold. I did not follow. Michelle asked why, and I explained that I grew up in Hawaii and that the Pacific was no stranger to me. I tried to be real cool about it. But in fact, I just do not like the feel of cold, wet, sandy feet.

They took lots of pictures and the boardwalk was a relaxing, carefree time. We stopped in Neptune's Kingdom (which Josh compared to Casa Bonita ...) where Josh and Drew played a game of air hockey. Josh won. After this game, everybody but me packed into a photo booth and wasted $5 on an awful photo (they all seemed to be picking their noses). We strolled past a trash can full of dead sea gulls on our way to the pier. The sun set in the time it took to walk the length of the pier. Sea lions rested on planks beneath us, and the less mature ones of our group teased them. More pictures. Sea gulls rested on the rails. I saw a pelican. A fine experience. We walked back to the car. Jake and Drew found ice cream on the way.

Michelle's parents invited all of us over for dinner. This was unexpectedly nice. And they were nice. They cooked a satisfying vegetarian dinner for us and were careful to list all their ingredients, lest they put in something we did not approve of. (Josh stopped by Whole Foods on the way to buy his own stuff just in case he did not approve.) Since Michelle is a vegetarian, her parents were well-prepared to meet our demands.

There was one moment when we were uncomfortable in that house, but Drew handled it beautifully. Michelle's parents (her father, at least) are conservatives; Michelle's father's outfit announced this to us the moment we walked in (gold chain necklace and all). The after-dinner conversation came around to business, and he was giving us all very good advice. Before one point of advice, however, he prefaced himself thus: "Now I don't want to sound like I'm getting political, but if you guys voted for Obama ..." At this, Drew whispered, loud enough to be heard but so as not to be taken as an interruption, "We all voted for him." And then Michelle's father laughed. And we laughed. And it was all good and pleasant and merry. Good work, Drew.

We stopped at Michelle's house as we considered what to do that night. Josh and Jake and Michelle wanted to drink. Drew, though no longer a drinker, wanted to go along. I did not want to go along; so they swapped me with Michelle's roommate and hit a bar. No matter. I had my own wild night planned: an evening with Montaigne. I read half a dozen essays and went to bed.

They woke me up when they came home. I was too tired to think anything, but I did see one gossipy detail: when she was ready for bed, Michelle grabbed Josh's hand and led him into her room.

Out in the living room, Jake, Drew, and I woke up early the next morning. They wanted coffee, so I went with them to a Starbucks. Josh's story was all on our mind. Jake, however, had a story of his own. It is not the type of story one shares out of respect to those who lived the story, but the story did generate what might have been the joke of the week: "I wouldn't be offended if you asked me to take my shirt off." I will leave the story to your imagination.

We arrived back at Michelle's and were ready to go, but were not sure what to do. No one was daring enough to knock on that door. We did not want to lose much more time. Drew called Josh's cell phone, but I was the one who answered it (it was, after all, in the living room). What to do? Josh finally, finally, walked on out, and we all did what he hoped we would not do. We looked at him. To release the tension, he raised his hand as a pistol and fired a shot. Drew would later describe this moment as "epic".

Rule #4: CHECK.

As all good tourists, we went to the Power of Suggestion Spot Mystery Spot that morning. The forest was beautiful, the place quiet. Nobody else was there aside from three young strangers, who were part of our tour. After the tour, we were given Mystery Spot stickers. Apparently these stickers are famous. We have not yet decided what to vandalize.

We left the Spot after noon, and we were all hungry. We went to Capitola and, in Capitola, Dharma's. The ordering process was confusing, but eventually they gave me a Teriyaki Burger. It was amazing.

Drew, Jake, and I wanted to spend the day driving up Highway 1, but we did not want to obstruct Josh's romantic conquest. While we were waiting to hear back from Michelle and thus form plans for the day, we went to Capitola Beach and relaxed. Capitola follows the wealthy, suburban California model: Mansions cling to beach-side cliffs. Late-twenty-something wives walk the sandy streets with strollers and oversized dogs and gaily gossip with every other wife they meet (about their sex lives, no doubt). Men spend their lunch hours squeezing into wet suits and surfing February's chilly waves. Tourists stumble from shop to shop drinking bad gourmet coffee and slipping change into their parking meter. Teens roll around on skateboards and curse and hit each other and warily eye police officers and generally have a great time playing hooky. Mother and child sit on the beach and build castles and look for seashells. &c. We sat on a bench and watched them.

Wikipedia relates an amusing anecdote about Capitola:
In the summer of 1961 hundreds of birds attacked the town. Most of the birds were sooty shearwaters - a normally non aggressive species that rarely comes to shore. Alfred Hitchcock was a regular visitor to nearby Santa Cruz and read about this episode. He went on to direct a film - The Birds - based on the idea of hundreds of birds attacking humans.

The day before, Michelle skipped her friend's birthday so that she could hang out with us. So today she was making it up to him and could not hang out with love-struck Joshua. This meant Josh had to tag along with us as we traveled State Route 1 from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. I do not think he was happy about this at first, but the earliest coastal vistas rapidly changed his mood.

My words cannot accurately describe SR1's beauty. It was February and chilly and overcast most of the time and the colors were dull but still vibrant and everything was awesome. Cliffs jut powerfully from the ocean. Sometimes they are level enough to build on (and there, farms and lighthouses stand), other times they slope and climb dramatically, ending in peaks far above our heads or in gentle beaches that yawn below us. We stopped at most beaches and photographed everything we saw. Small, rocky islands sat beyond us just out in the surf, waves bursting at their edges, sea birds resting in the ocean spray. Jake had been waiting for this moment the entire trip; he donned his swim trunks and waddled a few feet into the water. A wave broke before him, and in a moment he was submerged in the Pacific. He jumped back out of the water and ran to shore, whooping in triumph. Drew had gone in the water with Jake but had not been so brave. These two, pasty Colorado boys celebrated their moment and would later think of it as the greatest moment of the entire trip. I will not disagree.

It was late afternoon. We stopped in Half Moon Bay to fuel up, and in the last, brief stretch between HFB and SF, the sun set. However pleasant the day had been, it was not what Josh had hoped for. His mood turned sour for a brief time ... but I will not dwell on the worst in us. Once in SF, we parked in a Chinatown lot and ate at Loving Hut, an international vegan restaurant chain. The restaurant's symbol is a big, golden L with hearts running through it. It's motto: "Be veg. Go green. Save the planet." A vegan neon sign lights its window. Inside, at the door, is a table filled with propaganda/pamphlets about veganism. A hi-def television loops the world's latest vegetarian news between clips of animalsbeingcuteandcuddly; the video is subtitled in a dozen languages. And this vegan message all revolves around the Supreme Master Ching Hai.

If this sounds like a cult, that's because it is. Ching Hai is the self-styled teacher of the "Quan Yin method" (summary: meditate for 2 1/2 hours a day and be Veeegan). This article tells us more about the Master:
When she's not fulfilling her role as the Almighty, Ching Hai paints, makes jewelry, publishes a magazine, produces music videos, and designs a flamboyant clothing line that debuted last year on runways in Paris, New York, and London. Ching Hai's heavenly creations are a far cry from the hair shirts and drab cassocks often associated with religious devotion. She's partial to flowing silks in bubble gum colors, elaborate hats, and custom-made umbrellas. It would take a miracle for most of her disciples to purchase this holy couture; ensembles from the "Celestial Clothing" collection can cost as much as $11,250.
Also in the article, this description:
San Francisco's Mike Treacy was a devoted Ching Hai disciple for years, even traveling to Taiwan in 1990 to live at the Master's compound for six months. He broke away from the movement two years ago and now labels it a moneymaking sham.

"Ching Hai has basically got thousands of slaves and all the power and money she wants," says Treacy, who runs a service transporting the elderly and disabled. "The followers may be smiling and seem happy, but they're still getting ripped off."

Asked what it's like to interact with someone many place on par with Jesus Christ, Treacy is equally blunt: "She rules with an iron fist. She has tantrums; she screams; she yells. Basically, she's an asshole."
and this story:
Just as pieces of the one true cross were a hot commodity among medieval Christians, Supreme Master's followers lust for a token of her. But unlike Jesus and the saints, whose ascetic lifestyles limited the number of possessions that could be marketed as relics, the Supreme Master has entered the religious keepsake business, auctioning everything from her Volvo sedan to her old hankies.

South Bay resident Anna Long owns such a piece of the Supreme Master's past. She learned about Ching Hai when she was working at a San Jose beauty college and suffering through a troubled time with her in-laws. She now runs Oakland's Bode Vegetarian House, which, while not an official Supreme Master eatery, is filled with photos of Ching Hai and literature related to the pint-size deity. Last year, Long outbid a throng of other disciples for a pair of the Master's sweat socks at a retreat in Taiwan. The price? $800.

"The socks are a memory of the Master, so they are priceless," says Long, who admits that she's not sure if the socks were washed before the auction. "When the Master leaves the physical world, at least I will have her socks."
The food was fine. I was happy to get out of there, though. Josh loaded up on propaganda before he left, his mood wholly lifted. The Supreme Master may have another disciple. [Update: Josh denies this.]

We walked over to the City Lights Bookstore of Beat Generation fame. It is the best-stocked independent bookstore I have ever been in. The shelves overflow with world literature and cultural topics. I wandered through the store, overstimulated. I had to buy something. Finding my way to the Classics section, I scanned for several books I wanted: they did not have Ovid's Heroides, nor did they have Humphries' translation of Lucretius, but they did have Mendelbaum's translation of The Aeneid, and although it cost me $10 more than it would have had I ordered it from the internet, I bought it. Drew also bought a book (for Beth), Jack Kerouac's Big Sur. Josh, as overstimulated as I was, decided to leave the store before he blew $100. Jake was the only one not stimulated by the City Lights Bookstore; he was far more interested in the adult bookstores across the street.

From City Lights, we walked SF's red light district; a dozen strip clubs lined both sides of the street. And of course it was here, of all the places we crossed on our journey (like that Wyoming truck stop), that our masculinity was questioned. Two guys sat outside a club; one smirked as we passed by and asked, "Who's playing in the Super Bowl?" "That's the one with the baskets, right?" Drew asked. We walked a few steps before they replied: "Do you guys like red meat?" Actually...

This was the heart of Barbary Coast. In ages past, sailors would stop here to blow their money on cards and prostitutes before they were shanghaied for their next voyage. I knew all this seedy history because I had seen it in the movies, with tough guys like Edward G. Robinson and Clark Gable. But real life history is interesting, too. Here is a story of the famous crimp (=the person who shanghaied sailors (=drugged them and put them on boats)), Shanghai Kelly:
One day – some sources say it was in 1854, others say the mid 1860s or ‘70s – Kelly found himself with an urgent order for nearly 100 crew members and a dearth of sailors at his usually full boardinghouse for him to shanghai. The ever-resourceful Kelly quickly came up with a plan. First he chartered an old paddlewheel steamer, the Goliah. Then he put the word out on the streets that it was his birthday and everyone was invited aboard to celebrate with free food and drink. Ninety men showed up and the Goliah put out to sea amid great merriment of drinking, eating, and song. As soon as all the guests had passed out from the drugged drinks. Kelly sailed to the three ships waiting outside the Golden Gate. The still unconscious “sailors” were handed over to their new captains, who sailed away.

Kelly now saw a slight problem: all of the Barbary Coast knew he had sailed off with a shipload of merrymakers. How would he explain returning with the Goliah empty? He sailed on down the California coast to mull it over.

As the story goes, it was off Point Concepcion that he met his incredible stroke of good fortunate. He came upon the ship Yankee Blade that had run aground and was taking on water. Kelly saved its entire crew and sailed them on up to San Francisco. Hailing him as a hero, no one seemed to notice that his full ship carried not one of his original party guests.
We hurried back to Michelle's that night to satisfy Josh. As it happens, Michelle was out late and we arrived before she did. Michelle's roommate let us in and we were all preparing to go to bed, Josh calling it a night, when Michelle finally made it home. To his surprise (but not ours), Josh did not have to spend the night in the living room with us.

I tell you this next story merely to shock and appall you, and hope that as you continue through these notes you keep this revolting fact in your mind: After Josh's nights of romance, Drew pestered Josh about taking a shower/washing his face. We did not, after all, want to be in close quarters with a fellow who had vadge-beard*. Whenever Drew pestered him, Josh assured us that he had cleaned himself and that we should not worry. This happened Thursday morning. On Saturday night, Josh stepped out of the shower in Vegas and admitted, gleefully, that this was the first shower he had taken since going to bed with Michelle. This caused quite the uproar. It went against every rule of decency. How impolite a friend can be!
[*this is a technical term]
Part 2

notes on our trip to San Francisco, part 2

This is part two of my account of our trip to San Francisco. Here is Part 1.


Thursday was the worst day for me. I woke up dizzy and exhausted. I do not know why. I drifted in and out of semi-consciousness between San Jose and SF. What was going on? We went over some bridge in SF. Drew, Jake, and Josh made a big deal out of it. Gold-somethingorother. I did not care. I just wanted food.

Finally we checked into our hotel, Hotel Bijou. It is a creaky boutique hotel with a San Francisco movie house theme. Pictures of stars line the hallways and every room is named after a movie shot in SF. We got room Lenny. I was not thrilled with this pick, but at least it was not room Mrs. Doubtfire.

Once fully moved into our hotel room, we decided to get food. We walked down Market Street and turned on to Mission. It was a long walk and I just shuffled behind the others, keeping to myself. I saw a lot of homeless people. Eventually, we walked into a restaurant -- a vegan Mexican restaurant ... Oh! How I hate Mexican food! My experience in this restaurant is too horrible to describe. I walked out of it feeling a thousand times worse than I had before. My stomach rebelled. I wanted to go to the hotel and die. It was not to be so. The others pushed on to new sights, and I stumbled to keep up. My eyes were at my feet. I didn't know where we were. Did not care. I thought the world a black and vile place, a cesspool, a torture chamber, a pit of monsters in slime, a hell, a disease peddled to you on a plate of enchiladas. My heart spewed bile over SF's streets.

I looked up every so often to be sure I had not lost the others. At some point I looked up to see a RuPaul poster and a gay pride flag. Oh, that's where we're going, I thought. We wandered around The Castro for awhile. We passed bars, hair salons, mannequins in studded-leather. We stopped at Harvey Milk's plaque. Josh, Drew, and Jake were tremendously entertained. Were this a better day, I might have been entertained, too.

It began to rain. The rain was not hard, driving, foreboding rain, but it would last all day. We hopped on a (heritage) streetcar down Market to Fisherman's Wharf. We cruised Pier 39 and did a generally bad job of staying dry. Josh bought a $100 windbreaker jacket at the Gap, but not even shopping for Josh could cheer me up; I was still cursing lunch.

Josh left us to meet his (other) San Jose friend. Jake, Drew, and I briefly went to a bar near Ghirardelli Square and had an awful time. Afterward we went to the squiggly street and had an awesome time. Jake met up with Josh while Drew and I took the streetcar back to the hotel. The streetcar was exceptionally crowded, uncomfortably so. And still the driver asked people to shove in. Drew and I did not make it to the hotel. Josh called us as soon as we got off the streetcar and asked if we would meet up at Whole Foods for dinner. We said we would. And did. We had been on our feet all day, it was raining, and both Drew and I were feeling ill (Drew had a headache), but we made the walk.

Our hotel, as part of its movie theme, plays a double feature every night (of films based in San Francisco). American Graffiti was the first film playing that night, and Josh and Jake went down to watch it. Drew and I meanwhile nursed our bodies -- he with Lost (on Jake's laptop), I with Montaigne. While I felt better, Drew felt worse. I could hear his head throb. He sent me out for Tylenol and did what he could to relax once I brought it back. His headache would be gone by morning, but he would be stuffed-up for the remainder of the trip. Poor Drew. As for me, I promised myself that I would never eat Mexican food again. I have kept this promise so far.

The beds were really small, so I slept on the floor. We all woke up early and went back to Herbivore to try out their breakfast menu. Since our rental was parked in a garage, we hailed a taxi. It was a tight squeeze. The driver was a nice fellow -- born in Africa, raised in Sweden, making his way in SF with his family. We told him we were from Denver. "Oh, I hate Denver," he replied. We asked him why. He told us his story: "My cousin owned a liquor store in Denver and I was supposed to come out from Sweden to stay with him. He was doing well. But then he was shot and he died." All of us agreed: that was a legit reason to hate Denver.

We arrived at Herbivore a few minutes before it opened. Outside the restaurant sat an abandoned couch, on that couch sat a styrofoam container, and in that styrofoam container sat an enormous, rotting slab of meat. It looked like a pig's thigh. Flies picked at it. We had a view of this hideous thing from the restaurant and watched as everyone who passed by stared at it in shock. One girl took a picture. A homeless man meandered in its direction; we all watched him with anxiety. Drew: "If that guy takes a bite of that thing I'm going to barf." The man saw the meat and stopped. He stooped. He examined it. And then he tore off a chunk and ate it. Actually ate it! We could not believe it. We cursed and shouted in disbelief. Nothing could make this sight believable. He actually ate it! Thankfully, Drew did not barf.

Our waitress at Herbivore that morning was unpleasant, and this put us all in a bad mood. After breakfast, we walked over to Buena Vista Park. The park rises steeply up a hill (and we began at the bottom); the plant life is very thick, very damp, and very green (it was like a rain forest, I thought). The morning sun streamed through the thick leaves, and these occasional shafts of light stood like great, gold pillars there to guide us through the gloom. We climbed to a clearing and discovered a wonderful view of the city. Overall, a very impressive park. Two facts we did not know about the park when hiking through it: it is the oldest 'official' park in San Francisco; because of it's proximity to the Haight and the Castro and its secretive shrubbery, it is a notorious spot for anonymous gay sex. There are parks in every city that can claim this distinction, but generally I am wary of these claims -- I have never actually seen anybody cruising for anonymous sex. Indeed, the only people in the park that morning were old women walking their dogs (and smiling at us). These claims, I conclude, must be overstated.

We walked down to Haight-Ashbury, famous for its counterculture history. I was very disappointed. But what did I expect? As tourists, you can't just see counterculture and take a photo (although I suppose we did that in The Castro). The neighborhood was humble, as it should be. But I was not into the shops; they were either stereotypes of what counterculture shops should be (bong shops, coffee shops with angry sounding names, record stores) or else totally commercial junk that no respectable person would go to (Ben & Jerry's, McDonald's). I looked at the local art house theater's schedule, hoping to see some hardcore art films in its lineup, but the most interesting film on the schedule was M. Hulot's Holiday, which has been rounding the art house circuit recently (and had shown in Denver about a month before). Hardly counterculture.

Drew and Josh played around in Amoeba Music while Jake and I hung out at the edge of Golden Gate Park. My disappointment with the Haight was not so much a disappointment with the neighborhood as with the whole "Summer of Love" legacy; it was an adolescent desire for independence then, a nostalgic sentiment now. But more important things were on my mind -- Golden Gate Park stretched before me. On the other edge sat the Pacific Ocean, and I was going to meet it.

We convened and decided to split up. This was potentially dangerous because, of the group, I was the only one without a cell phone. This made my appetite for going alone all the greater. We planned to reconvene at 5pm. Josh, Jake, and Drew went to Alcatraz. I went on an adventure.

I set out through the park. Like every other San Francisco park I had been to, it was beautiful. I hiked across fields, past waterfalls, around statues, through tennis courts, over homeless people. At times I stuck to the main roads, at others I plunged into woods where there were no roads at all. I saw museums, stadiums, the botanical garden, the Japanese Tea Garden; but I could not take time to stop for such tourist traps (however much I wanted to for the Tea Garden) -- I was on an adventure.

I stopped to rest at Stow Lake and gazed at the peace pagoda. Ducks, lots of ducks, floated around the lake and acted duck-y. Old Asian couples power-walked past me. The lake is a donut -- an island is the donut's center -- and I sat on the outside of the donut and looked in. I saw a bridge and thought about crossing over to the island, but I thirsted to get on with my adventure and could not be sidetracked by things as unimportant as islands and donuts and decided to press on without crossing the lake and this happens to be the only thing about the entire trip that I regret (really regret). I should have crossed over to that island. It would have been an adventure.

The most surprising thing I passed on my journey west was the Bison Paddock. Multi-layer fences surround a sizable slice of meadow, and in this meadow are four, big, brown, bulky bison shapes. I did not think they were real. They were not moving. Besides, how could they be real? But I watched them (it takes a long time to cross that meadow), and eventually one of them moved. And then another. And then another. And I could not believe it. Nor could other people -- a car stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures. A bus tour did, too. The people walking the other direction on the same path as me seemed more savvy; they did not stop to gawk (but they, too, kept their eyes on the bison). I reached the other side of the meadow and read a sign that told me all about the Bison Paddock. Yes, they are real. Yes, they are bison. Yes, you are allowed to gawk.

I turned off the main road and got lost in the west end of the park. I saw a windmill through the trees and aimed for it. The windmill is old fashioned and very cool. On the ground below it grows a flower garden called the Duchess Something Garden or the Queen Something Garden or something Regal like that. The tulips looked pretty, but I did not have time to smell flowers. I could hear the ocean. I was on an adventure.

I had reached the Pacific. It was cool and breezy and overcast, but at least it was not raining as I had feared it would. I crossed over to Ocean Beach. It was not very crowded. Most of the people there were loitering. I stayed on the walk and looked down over the ocean. In the distance to my right were cliffs and an island (Seal Rock, the island is called); in the distance to my left were sand dunes. The water itself was violent and gray. Posted signs warned me that the current was strong and that it had killed people in the past. I knew then that this was a popular surfing spot (although no surfers were out that day).

I walked the beach and tried to relax, but the hike through Golden Gate Park tired me out, and I still had to hike back through it and all the way back to the hotel. Since I had walked most of the way west through the north side of the park, I started on the south side of the park for my tramp east. I stuck to main roads throughout this hike back because my legs were aching and if I collapsed in less traveled woodland and had no cell phone and some homeless fellow happened upon me ... well, I did not want to think about that.

The walk back was equally beautiful, if less adventurous. People were throwing tennis balls across fields, and their dogs would bring the balls back (amazing!). I saw a lot of attractive girls on bikes and was upset that I did not have my bike. But this was no time to think of girls bikes. I was on an adventure.

I reached the Panhandle and felt this to be an important moment even though I had not yet walked half the distance to the hotel. On the bike path in the Panhandle, I discovered an amusing path sign; I did not have a camera but bet that a google search would give me a picture. I was right:

I love you, San Francisco.

After the Panhandle, I was hiking city streets. When I reached the Alamo Square area, I took out my map and considered my choices. To my north, a park tempted me -- it was Pacific Heights, and though it would take me out of my way it promised to be stunning. To my east was Civic Center, which I could not see but which was on the way to the hotel and promised to be spectacular. I (wisely) chose Civic Center.

Civic Center
is a dozen public and arts buildings around a plaza. It is very Stately. I collapsed in the plaza and finished the orange juice I had bought at a local store. I could hardly move my legs. I was not sure I would be able to walk again, but of course I could because I am awesome. I wanted to hang around and look through some of these buildings, but I was also exhausted and had to be at the hotel some time in the future (I did not have any way to tell time, so was unsure how late it was). I decided to make one stop, the San Francisco Public Library (main branch). I walked in. I loved the building. It was very modern and complicated and clean. I wandered through the stacks. I became frustrated. "Yes, this is a beautiful building, but it's modern and complicated and I just want to figure out where the philosophy section is but CAN'T because this building is modern and complicated and I'm exhausted and can't spend the rest of my day trying to figure out this library." Thus ran my thoughts. Denver Public Library's main branch is simple to learn and comfortable to hang out in and the San Francisco Public Library's main branch is not. I was very upset.

I walked up Market, exhausted and delirious. I did not know it, but I passed our hotel and walked a couple blocks in the wrong direction; but this proved lucky, as I met Drew, Josh, and Jake in front of the Mac store. They had just returned from Alcatraz and were on their way to the Levi's store to shop for Josh. Although I was tempted to partake in my favorite hobby, I was too exhausted to accept and made my way back to the hotel. I was sidetracked, however, when I discovered that I was right next to Union Square, which we had yet to visit though it was so close to the hotel. I walked up into Union Square and sat down. I could not think straight. My legs bent like wheat in the wind. A thousand people walked by me like so many ants -- I recognized a pattern in their many-tracked movements but could not decipher them. Buildings hung over my head like the boughs of steel and glass trees, rocking gently in the afternoon sun. The squeal of cars resonated throughout the square like the pitch of raptors echoing down canyon walls; car exhaust blew across the Square like a desert breeze. The very stone I sat on shook and rumbled with the city's life. And I was exhausted and delirious.

The hotel was only a few blocks away from Union Square, but I got lost. This happens when you cannot think straight in an unfamiliar city. I lurched a bit through the Tenderloin -- a charming neighborhood -- before I finally circled back to Hotel Bijou. Once in our room, I slept for half an hour before Jacob, Josh, and Drew returned. They showed me their Alcatraz pictures and told me about how great it was while I told them that my adventure was greater (but I did not have pictures to prove it).

That night we met Josh's other San Jose friend, Jessica, and ate at Golden Era, another vegan Chinese restaurant dedicated to the Supreme Master. Jake was visibly fed up with all these restaurants -- not that he wanted a steak, but he prefers meals without the ceremony or hassle (like a salad from Whole Foods). It was Friday night and Jake and Josh were determined to get drunk. They went off to a bar with Jessica while Drew and I went back to the hotel. Drew thought about going with them, but I convinced him that reading his Land Rover Owner International magazine would be more fun than watching the others get drunk.

Back in the hotel, I read Montaigne while Drew watched Lost and spent a long time talking on the phone with Beth. He had been calling her everyday. He would frequently explain her awesomeness to us. Quite often, and quite unprovoked, he would exclaim: "[*expletive of your choice*], I miss that girl!" I am not sure, but I think those two might have something going on.

I fell asleep on the bed rather early. This means that Josh, to my relief, slept on the floor. Jake and Josh did not stay out very long and could not have been very drunk considering how easily they woke up the next morning. Jake, in fact, would be the one to drive us out of SF. We were packed and ready and checked out by 7am. We walked over to the garage where our rental had been parked and asked for the car. They could not find it and we waited in the garage while a worker ran to a lower floor to look for it. What would we do if it was gone? It wasn't though. The car rolled up and we drove out.

We left San Francisco and headed for Las Vegas. Vegas was Jake's special request. Drew, Josh, and I hate the place, but Jake (who loves it) paid for most of this side-trip and made all the arrangements. He planned to get plastered and blow a lot of money on roulette. We were not to get in his way.

It rained for most of our drive, even/especially in the desert. The drive through California was wonderful -- nothing but wind farms and rolling, green hills. Josh moaned about leaving behind Michelle; he had been used or rejected by all the girls he liked in Denver and so lamented leaving behind this new romantic horizon. He called Michelle his "ideal" girl and cursed the distance between Denver and San Jose. I do hope the two get together again.

I slept for a lot of the drive. Once in Vegas, we checked into the Luxor. I had already felt uncomfortable just driving in Vegas, but I was downright terrified walking through the Luxor lobby/atrium/casino. The empty, tasteless glamor of a Vegas casino (of the whole Strip) stinks of desperation. What won't Vegas do to separate me from my dollar? "I feel like I'm about to be robbed," said Drew. I agreed.

After checking in and putting our things in the hotel room (the nicest room we had during the trip), we went to Whole Foods for dinner. How many Whole Foods had we gone to this trip? On our way out, I grabbed the most decadent desert I could find: a cannoli (cannolo?). "Why did you have to grab my favorite?" the girl at checkout asked. "Well, I am looking for a wild night in Vegas." I got it--

I had trouble keeping my hands off my cannoli. But I convinced myself to wait until I was alone. Josh and Jake showered (if you'll remember, Josh's first in days) and prepared for a "night on the town." Jake had it all planned out -- clubs and casinos and girls (he wished) and everything. He had already downed three cans of Pabst.

Jake, Drew, and Josh hit the Strip. I was alone. Bliss at last! Little compares to the decadence of a cannoli! I took a hot shower, sunk into a bed, and read Montaigne. Rain rapped a tranquil rhythm on the window. I was oblivious to the desperate cacophony of the casino beyond the door. I was asleep by 9:30.

At 11:30, Jake body-slammed me. Bewildered, I pushed him off and he rolled onto the floor. "Whoa! How'd I get here?" "Jake's wasted," Josh explained. I only got the story in jumbled bits, but the gist is this: Jake drank seven cans of Pabst; then he ordered a "football" of hard liquor, and before he had finished half of it, he began vomiting; Josh (also drunk) and Drew (not drinking) got him home (but not before he vomited several times in the street/parking garage); Jake didn't even get to gamble. In the hotel room, not far from where I had pushed him off the bed, he passed out under a table.

Jake's enthusiasm and planning had all gone to waste. Originally, he hoped to stay up and party for the entire night, and we would dutifully fetch him at 6am or so and let him pass out in the car while we drove the stretch back home. Instead, he lasted about three hours on the Strip. He did seem to have fun though; and now a new phrase has entered our circle: "That's [messed] up like Jake in Vegas!" If you want more of this story, ask Josh or Drew what happened.

I was the first up the next morning but everybody woke reasonably early (they were, after all, in bed before midnight). Jake had vomited on the floor during the night and had to clean it up. The lobby was quiet when we checked out aside from a few, old, rural Americans with Hawaiian shirts and beer bellies sitting at penny slots. But no Chads or Ashleys around, thank you. We went to Whole Foods for breakfast and began the long drive home to Denver.

Snow blanketed the Utah desert. A light rain met us at the otherwise clear Rockies. We crossed through the Eisenhower tunnel and hit the final leg -- thick snow and white-out conditions! From a green San Francisco to a glowing white Denver ... We had found a new appreciation for this little city, our home.
For more details and legends about our trip, especially those I am too modest to discuss, look for Joshua, Drew, or Jacob: Josh can usually be found at Whole Foods; Drew can usually be found with Beth; and Jake can usually be found converting Republicans to Democrats. I have tried to be honest yet judicious with my notes; for every line I have written, there was a line I could not write. I still may have written too much. To those offended by this immoral account, I apologize.

-Feb 2010

February 11, 2010

auteur woes

A discussion about the auteur concept is going down at girish's place. This is a topic that interests me, so I wanted to jot down some thoughts here.

The frequency with which people throw around the word 'auteur' has always annoyed me, especially when it serves only as a description of quality. Calling James Cameron an auteur, for instance, is just a way to distinguish him as a director of quality, as someone who consistently delivers what the audience asks of him, as an 'artist' with an unpolluted personal vision; it is a simple way to give artistic legitimacy to any director a writer chooses.

'Auteur' is one of the defining concepts of artistic legitimacy in film theory. How do we value a film? What standards of art and beauty do we hold film to? The Cahiers crowd aggressively accorded artistic legitimacy to the auteur (and fought the artistic legitimacy of studio-polish), and young film snobs lovers have readily picked up on this method of artistic valuation ever since.

The rise of the internet+film discussion has given the word a healthy boost. It is an easy way to talk about and judge films, and using the word 'auteur' gives the writer/speaker an air of cultural sophistication and so bolsters the legitimacy of his/her opinion. Its spread and sway is no surprise. It can legitimize any creative producer. If we can call James Cameron an auteur, why not Steve Jobs?

These complaints aside, I personally do find something attractive about the auteur. Rivette, explaining the allure of the auteur, once compared Hawks with Moliere -- this comparison worked for me. Moliere is one of my favorite playwrights, but it is his body of work as a whole which fascinates me more than any individual play; and this is true, too, of certain directors -- Welles, Renoir, Lubitsch -- whose filmographies are more dynamic and exciting than any individual film within them. It is John Ford, however, who exemplifies what curiously compels me to the auteur concept: his characters, themes, and style (everything but his camera) repel me, but watching a Ford film can be a genuinely thrilling experience, and I delight in having another piece of the giant puzzle that is his filmography.

To counter myself: perhaps consuming enough work of an artist/filmmaker will lead one to discover an underlying persona or artistic vision to connect with. John Ford, after all, made a lot of films; if you see enough of them (nearly 50 in my case), you cannot fail to feel his presence, to be drawn to it.

I am not an auteur-driven movie-watcher. I have found the concept of the auteur useful as a critical method -- to discover similar themes and techniques among an artist's work -- but terribly limited. As a matter of artistic valuation, whether a film is the product of an 'auteur' does not matter much to me. There are many other ways to judge this art. I worry that the auteur has limited the judgments of young film lovers. I worry that films are hastily categorized as 'auteur' or 'non-auteur' and judged accordingly (the latter always losing). I worry that the widespread use of the word auteur has turned it from critical tool to meaningless show. I worry that artists too often fret about their artistic vision and strive blindly to be 'original' and 'personal' when that was what they were all along.

Anyway, I am hoping that the few regular readers of this blog could comment with their own thoughts. What has the auteur meant to you? What do you think about how widespread this word is? Do people overvalue the auteur as artistically legitimate (as I think) or not? &c.

February 03, 2010

January 10 favorites

Slow month. More slow months to come. Here are my favorite first-time viewings for this month:

An Inn in Tokyo (1935)

5th Ave Girl (1939)

Duelle (1976)

She Had to Say Yes (1933)

The Aviator's Wife (1981)

By the time this is published, I ought to be in San Francisco. Do not panic. I will be back next week.