Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Well, we all know that stupid people exist. I guess what I really mean to ask is, how many stupid people are there? What percentage of the population? 5%? 10%? 50? 80? My own guess is that there aren't as many as most people think.

I came to this realization a few years ago when I was on the road, and it occurred to me that if a large number of people were really stupid, then there would be a lot more traffic accidents. On the whole, most people drive pretty well. 

A lot of people we consider stupid are simply out of their element in the area that we're focused on. Or maybe they just had a bad day, or a bad hour. Who hasn't had that? The guy who holds up traffic while he thinks about which way to go, isn't necessarily a bad welder or a bad lawyer. He may have just had a lapse. Maybe we stumbled on him at the only time he did something dumb like that all year.

It's tempting to think people are stupid because they vote differently than we do. That's silly. Half the time they're just starting from a different premise, which is not so irrational, once you know what it is. 

It's hard to judge people. The modern, urban, bureaucratic state is hardly what biology equips us for.  A lot of people just aren't suited for this stuff. Their intellect and instincts are sound, but modern life punishes people who operate on instinct. You could go to jail for that. An awful lot of what we're expected to do every day is counter-intuitive. Some people don't mind that.  Others feel disoriented and out of sync, like there's no place for them, and in some cases they're right.

It's amazing how many normally intelligent people are mistakenly considered stupid. That's because they have no challenging job or activity to discipline their minds. Lots of teenagers are like that. They're restless and energetic and not really ready to settle down to school work, so they do bad in school. Most don't know any crafsmen who would teach them a trade. What are they supposed to do? You can call people like that stupid when you see them unemployed and clowning around the mall, but are they?

It's a fact that every era favors one kind of personality type and penalizes another. Sometimes more than half the population can be on the outs. It's scary! 

I used to think a lot of old people were stupid. Well, actually I still do, but I feel guilty about it. I'm getting older myself and I'm becoming more aware of the obstacles those people face. Recently the elderly father of a friend told me how many different pills he takes every day: fourteen!  Fourteen, and I'll bet every one of the bottles has a dizziness warning on it. The amount of medication the average old person takes is staggering, and who knows what effect all those pills have on each other? I wonder how alert some of those old people would be if they could safely chuck the pills? 

Teenagers also seem stupid, but they're influenced by drugs too.  In their case it's hormones. 

My own view of other people is least it is when nobody's cutting me off in traffic. I don't think most people are stupid. I rely on other people. I can't even understand most things without the help of other people.

 I'll go farther and admit that when I choose my beliefs, I choose between the common ideas that are in the air in my time. Everybody does. I feel guilty about that, and once in a while I take the time to really think things out, but even then I sometimes have to borrow. It's frightening to think how much we all rely on other people's ideas. Our brains don't seem to work right unless we connect to other brains. We need other people to function as information gatherers for us. Stay-at-homes aren't just socially impaired...they can't even think.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


This is all about one of my favorite actresses: the infinitely mysterious and intriguingly unknowable Greta Garbo. For years I only knew her through "Ninotchka" and "Queen Christina," which are fine films, but are not the ones you want to see if you want to understand the famous Garbo mystique.

If you want to understand the mystique, if you want to know why she was the subject of so many caricatures and parodies, you'll have to dig deeper than Ninotchka. 

You'll have to watch films like "Romance," "Grand Hotel," "Anna Christie," and "Camille."

Garbo was one of a kind, but she wasn't always like that. When she started she was just another pretty face who could act a little. When she came to Hollywood from Sweden she paniced because she realized the studios were loaded to the gills with pretty faces, who would all be obsolete the day they flashed their first wrinkle.

A documentary I saw credited her manager with the breakthrough idea that she should separate herself from the pack by carving a niche for herself as a mysterious vamp. I think a manager might have helped Marylin Monroe to create her identity. Boy, the right manager is worth his weight in gold!

She began to dress differently than the other girls, even differently than the other vamps. She picked a hair style that would emphasize her big forehead, rather than compensate for it. 

It was a big risk. If she failed she wouldn't even get the pretty young thing roles. 

Early on she developed the idea that she looked good in aspirational poses, and she liked to be photographed looking up, into the light. 

Somewhere along the line she got the idea that she looked good when brooding, so she brooded and brooded. She brooded so much that whole of Sweden started to brood in imitation. The Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman made a career out of brooding. Now everybody expects Swedes to brood, and are disappointed when they discover they're mostly happy. 

I love her brooding poses.  She was the first of the great brooders like Peter Lorre and Brando. 

The idea is that life is pointless and horrific, and can only be answered with silent anguish. Garbo raised brooding to an art form.

Her look seemed to say, "How shallow happy people are! Look at them all, running around and laughing!! If they had any brains, if they realized how stupid the world really is, they'd brood just like I do!"

Actually she wasn't quite as one-dimensional as I portray her here. Her films are full of exquisitely happy moments too, even if the happiness is always crushed. 

Sometimes her brooding made her look sickly. Maybe that's what got her cast in the ultimate sickly film...

..."Camille!" Camille is a film about a dying woman who heroically declines to tell her fiance about her condition, for fear of depressing him.

She was always collapsing in his arms, and he thought she was just being emotional.

No matter how many times she dropped her food and fell like a rag doll to the floor, he thought it was because she was being refined and lady-like. Her boyfriend wasn't the brightest bulb in the box. 

Sickly and heroic: stars love roles like that! As Jennifer said in the comments, this is a flawed film that's only good when Garbo is in it. Even then, she was a little too restrained, a little too reluctant to take it over the top. I'll bet that was the director's doing. I like the film because I can easily imagine the performance that might have been, and because the plot is one of the funniest I've ever seen. I'd love to do a short cartoon parody of this!

Garbo also experimented with roles where the girls were too existential, too serious to dally with the silly men who pursued them.

At first Garbo preferred that her leading men take her in their arms and give her "The Look." Eventually she decided that it was better if she took them in her arms, and gave them the look!

Yes, Garbo picked her men! Unfortunately as she neared retirement she started to lose her confidence in the persona she'd so carefully cultivated, and attempted to play more conventional, less over-the-top roles.  Peter Lorre did the same thing. I wonder what it is about age that makes actors do that?


Friday, January 23, 2009


People are going to hate me for this. I'm about to admit to a guilty pleasure that for most of my friends is the equivalent of dog torture or child molesting.  That guilty pleasure is the painting and sculpture of abstract expressionist Frank Stella.

To be honest, I don't know why I like it. I admit up front that it sometimes seems uncomfortably safe and and restrained, the kind of thing you'd see in banks and dentist offices.  You don't get the feeling that some rebellious genius worked on it.  And yet....

I have to admit that some of Stella's older pictures haven't aged well.  Like everybody else at the time I thought the picture above was a profound and dazzling revelation when I first saw it. Now it seems like a logo for a bus company. 

So why do I like this stuff? Maybe because it makes me think. I get ideas every time I look at it. It's all about order in the middle of chaos.  Other artists manage to juggle a few incongruities and make them work...Stella manages to take a really large number of them and not only make them work, but actually find meaning in it all. And life is a jumble isn't it? I spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure it out, and so does Stella, only he does it better than I do. 

Stella's work is an interesting blend of the intuitive and the intellectual.  It's very human in that respect. It seems to me that a real understanding and enjoyment of life requires that we use intellect and intuition simultaneously. When I walk down the street I, and probably everybody else, take in both kinds of information. I'm amazed that the brain can process all that, and still allow us to count our change at the grocery store. Actually, the job might be too big for our brains because few of us ever come to a conclusion about the things we see, but you get the feeling that agonizing over it is somehow good for us. Stella seems to understand that.


Here (above) he seems to have been influenced by Hockney, or maybe it was Hockney that was influenced by Stella. Very happy and pretty.

In recent years Stella's gotten interested in architecture. He does a lot of sculptures that seem like they could be buildings. The idea isn't to create finished models of workable buildings, rather it's to provoke the viewer to come up with his own ideas. For example, what do you see in the picture above? Me, I see a dark matrix that contains a house made of glass walls, and even glass floors.  Then again, I sometimes think of the matrix itself as the building. It's one continuous skyscraper, a city-size building that snakes along, and has offshoots that take different paths.

Even this sculpture (above) seems architectural to me. I don't know why, because there's no hint of walls or a roof.  I usually don't like Frank Gehry-type architecture that looks like sculpture blown up large. It wastes space, and often has disappointing interiors. In spite of that, I like Stella when he does the same thing in miniature. Maybe it's because Stella doesn't attempt to force his design solutions on us. He's just asking questions.

Above is what looks like the love child of a bag of fish tails with a stationary store.  I don't don't know why I like it, but I do. 

I wish I had a poster-size picture of this (above) abstract chaos for my bedroom wall.

On a completely different subject, let me ask if you've seen this book (above) yet. It's way overpiced, but it contains a lot of Calder's best wire caricatures.

Imitating Caulder, I did some of these myself and hung them in windows. It's a great effect because the wire is so thin and delicate that you're not even aware it's there at first. It's a treat for people who randomly happen to change their focus while looking out the window, and are rewarded with seeing a face that no one else sees. 

The trick is to use one continuous piece of wire. 

Here's (above) a student effort. Not bad, huh?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I just bought my kid a book on Paris circa 1890 to 1920, and I thought I'd excerpt a few pictures here. My intention was to focus on the mean streets of turn-of-the-century Paris, the places where you could get killed after dark, but my computer wouldn't accept the pictures I scanned (probably they need to be reduced in size, a big task given the number of pictures), so I'm putting up mostly pictures I got off google. That's OK, I can still write about the subject, and the pictures here aren't bad.

How do you like this (above) hillside street? Boy, Paris was covered with advertising, even back then. The narrow, twisting street is in perfect proportion to the surrounding buildings, and the cobblestones give the street a texture, which is sadly missing from modern streets.

Here's (above) the same street, side by side with the street as it looks today. The modern version's been gentrified. Gone are the posters, the cobblestones, & some of the shops and street level doors and windows. I like shops. Without them buildings are featureless and boring at the street level. Why were they taken away?

The windows that remain are mostly shutterless now, and have arid, post-modern frames. Pretty rectangular windows have been replaced by ones that are more square, and out of sync with the shape of the building. And what happened to the nice-looking propane tank with the posters on it? What happened to the raised platform it was on? That was important to the composition! The people who own these houses should be slapped.

Here's (above) a picture I published a long time ago. I love the way old craftsmanship wraps around the side of a building, and nearly butts up against a blank wall on the right. Strangely, I don't mind. The blank wall makes you appreciate the detail on the other side. How do you like the way the way the high building on the right comes in at an oblique angle and cuts everything off?  I wonder where that tunnel leads to? If it goes clear to the next street, then my admiration for the builder knows no bounds.

The poor people of Paris, including artists and writers, just about owned the hills (above) in the old days. This street is pretty much the same nowadays, except it's been cleaned up and gentrified. They should have kept it shabby.

Here's a modern picture of a beautiful intersection. Where is this?

Here's (above) a ledge running under the flying buttresses of a cathedral. A good city has lots of interesting out-of-the-way spots like this. Every artist should be permitted access to the ledge, so we can risk our lives running along it, and feeling the delicious spaces and volumes. 

It's great to glimpse churches at the end of twisting, cobblestoned streets. My guess is that the building on the left has been altered from its original design. Good grief! People were gentrifying things even a hundred years ago!  If only I could have seen this city before the re-construction in the 1860s! I like the way the church comes in at an oblique angle.

Amazing! All that stonework and sculpture above an intriguing tunnel!

You have to click to enlarge this picture (above) to see why it's so special.  The morning dew sits on the silent streets and spaces. The heavy, classical buildings sit on the ground like sleeping dinosaurs (that's intended to be a compliment). This scene reminds me of London and I half expect to see Eliza Dolittle selling flowers here.

I imagine workman who lived on the hill got plenty of use out of these steps. They'd have had to walk to work, even if that work was miles away.  When I see this I imagine that I'm a dish washer in one of the big downtown hotels, and if I'm late for work the boss will boot me into the street and keep my pay. Disputes like this could only be settled with a knife!

Wow! A nice building (above)! I'll bet it's still there!

The building on the right (above) is suspiciously featureless, but I already made my point about things like that.  Paris has convinced me that every street should end facing an oblique or perpendicular street. 

I think I published this doorway (above) twice already, but I can't help doing it again. Now that's a doorway!