Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Smoke & Mirrors

I just don't get Cindy Sherman.

For over 30 years, this woman has been producing conceptual photographs that feature herself elaborately costumed and made up to simulate what seem to be female archetypes of everything from brittle socialites to lovelorn spinsters. I've yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of her artistic intent, even from her; she says herself that hopefully her oeuvre is "seen as feminist work, or feminist-advised," but "I'm not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff."

So what is it, then? Always using herself as her canvas, Sherman takes great pains to recreate the hairstyle and costume of whichever character she is trying to inhabit. But nearly every one has a stark, incongruous feature, like Kabuki white-face or heavy dabs of pancake, that calls it out as garish and inauthentic. Is that the point? It seems a thin artistic gimmick, yet it's one that garnered her $3.89 million in 2011 for one print called Untitled #96 (they're all called Untitled Something, as though she's as hesitant to make a clear statement about each work as she is to accurately describe the movement responsible for her tremendous success).

Here's how the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where her latest exhibit opens this weekend, sums up her work: One of the most influential artists of our time, Cindy Sherman creates provocative artworks that explore wide-ranging issues of identity and representation. "Artworks?"

The actress and impresario Tracey Ullman has been seamlessly unspooling and inhabiting similar characters for the past two decades and making all of them -- chain-smoking Hollywood hairdressers, trailer trash grandmothers, Jewish princesses from New Jersey -- walk, talk and entertain in a way that's impressive, moving and hilarious. That's a talent I can get behind.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Courting Disaster

Now that my civic duty has ended, I can finally make some observations about the experience.
  • Television has permanently affected how judges behave. They all try to be funny, or dramatic, or, in the case of mine, Susan Dey.
  • It's really quite a feat, on a morning when the temperature is a perfect 66 degrees, to maintain the climate of a public building at an equatorial level that replicates mid-day in Borneo. You could grow orchids in that court house, and train monkeys to harvest them.
  • The defense attorney in this case did his client a real disservice. Elderly and theatrical, he affected a sort of Southern esquire Inherit the Wind persona of upswept grey hair and tightly-knotted bow tie. He was ill-prepared and relied on courtroom theatrics and smoke screens, and when he started the trial with a dissertation on the defendant's premature birth 32 years ago (quickly objected to by the prosecutor and sustained by the judge) we knew it was going to be a long haul to liberty. There were sidebars a-plenty.
  • Some scientists are astute observers and some make you question their empirical wisdom. The victim in this case was a famous UCSF pathologist who was punched in the face for her iPhone. Her testimony was crisp, exact and clarifying. Her colleague who witnessed the incident had no sense of time (an act that must have taken five seconds was described as a minute-and-a-half long; the attacker, who was 6'2", was described as 5'2"). Let's find out what he's researching and assign that work to someone else before he blows up the city.
  • Today's young prosecutors have terrific PowerPoint skills.
  • The same terrifying, baggy-pantsed thug who would pop a cap in yo' ass on the street transforms into a charming gentleman once he enters the portals of Superior Court. "Excuse me, sir," one said to me, his gold dental grill flashing in the low-wattage institutional lighting as we snaked torward the metal detectors. "I believe you dropped this laundry ticket."
  • When the victim is a woman, the defense will excuse all the female jurors they can because they're more likely to sympathize with a woman being attacked on the street.
So, that's over for another year. But since attorneys love nothing more than to populate their jury boxes with former Catholic altar boys like me, however lapsed, I'm sure I'll serve again.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Banana Handler

I've spent the last week on jury duty, deep in the dusty bowels of San Francisco Superior Court. Since I'm not at liberty to discuss the details of this ongoing criminal case, let me just say that attorneys, during the lengthy selection process, won't pass up a chance to fill their jury boxes with former Catholic altar boys like me, however lapsed. That, and the fact that a number of jury candidates suddenly professed a simultaneous disdain for a basic tenet of the U.S. Constitution, is how I became Juror #3.

One incident that remains with me, though, is the type of observation that obsesses me for days whenever I reluctantly succumb to spending time in close contact my fellow humans -- or worse, a jury of my peers. One afternoon in the Jury Assembly Room, a vast hall where jurors can waste hours waiting to be called to duty or dismissed, I was tapping away at my laptop, trying from afar to keep my staff from rapidly going rogue, when I heard someone sit down at the next table. It was another member of my jury, a young man with the sun-touched look of a landscaper but who, much to my surprise when we were asked to state our professions, turns out to somehow be in finance. I watched him remove his lunch from his knapsack, each piece in a specially-designed, store-bought container: sandwich holder, drink receptacle, etc. Then he pulled out a curved, oblong yellow plastic object that reminded me of the gimmicky telephones that were produced in the 1980s, the ones that resembled hamburgers or Garfield the Cat. He set it down on the table, snapped it open, and removed a banana from it.

Isn't the whole point of a banana that it's its own container? And what happens if your banana is more curved than your banana holder? Your Honor, I object!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Yabba Dabba Don't

Occasionally I'll stumble across a detail about some celebrity that is so odd it overtakes just about everything else I think I know about that person.

Case in point: Dick Clark's Flintstone-inspired home, currently on the market for $3.5 million. Perched amid 22 choice hilltop acres in Malibu with views of the Channel Islands, the one-story house features heavy, cavelike molded floors, ceilings and walls. Just looking at the photographs, the oppressive impact of all that weighty material feels like a spelunking expedition gone horribly wrong. What could have inspired "America's Oldest Teenager," now a stroke-ridden 82, to design his retreat as a suburban Lascaux?

Well, if childhood memory serves me, Clark once appeared as an animated version of himself on an episode of the Flintstones series in the early 1960s. It was a common trope of the show, which really was a prime time Stone Age interpretation of Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, to feature real-life guest stars. A Bedrock version of, say, Tony Curtis would do a walk-on in a ragged pelt, his name adjusted slightly to something like "Stoney Curtis," and mild mayhem would ensue.

Perhaps Clark was so taken with his prehistoric incarnation he created a retreat as an homage. Somehow, though, I predict that this will be just another expensive California tear-down.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Eat. Prey. Lurch.

Can a TV series about a relentless plague of the undead really show us what it means to be alive?

AMC's The Walking Dead, which resumed last night after a gripping mid-season finale, paints a bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic America. Wind-swept cities stand empty, except for hordes of flesh-hungry corpses stalking the few remaining humans. The fact that a rotting zombie in search of a snack can leap out of the shadows at any time lends more than a little tension to the story, but the real conflict is between the survivors. Like any global disaster that strips society of behavior-restraining conventions like law enforcement and the PTA, the dwindling cast of characters is pared down to archetypes. There's the redneck hillbilly who's discovered his internal nugget of humanity, the abused wife learning to thrive in a landscape devoid of the oppression she's always known, the older man who's lost everyone he's loved and pines for a younger woman who will never have him, the computer nerd falling in love with the spirited daughter of the farmer who gives them shelter. And at the core of the story are a good cop and a bad cop -- former best friends -- vying for dominance over the survivors and the woman they both love.

Based on the hard-hitting graphic novel series, TWD doesn't pull any punches. Just when our band of mismatched survivors finally manages to relax (note to self: a fish-fry barbecue may not be the best way to hide from zombies that can smell flesh cooking from miles away) the "walkers" descend to feed on our most beloved characters. I like how the plotline has even given us a functional explanation for the zombie plague itself, as a doomed scientist at Atlanta's Center for Disease Control demonstrated that the virus kills its human host but then rescuscitates its brain stem, resulting in a perpetually famished, shambling ghoul. Much of the first half of season two focused on the search for a little girl named Sofia, and instead of being delivered back to her mother the way viewers expected she was the last to emerge from the zombie barn hissing and moaning and, like all the others, hungry for human flesh.

I'll take my Jane Austen zombie-free, please, but serve up a compelling adult drama that showcases the human condition against the backdrop of annihilation and I'll keep tuning in.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Too Late To Say: Houston, We Have a Problem

It's amazing how often this scenario plays itself out: we watch a self-destructive celebrity like Amy Winehouse stumble around Camden Town for years in her scuffed ballet flats and then express surprise and a kind of collective grief when the toll finally claims her amazing talent and her life. It's happened again and again, with celebrities as diverse in their contributions and levels of talent as Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith, and we keep expecting it to happen to tragedies-in-waiting like Lindsay Lohan but will somehow be taken aback when it actually transpires.

Whitney Houston has been skating on this thin ice for what, 15 years? Her career path took an unshakeable detour when she met the rapper Bobby Brown. She went from a clean-cut gospel-trained singer with a five-octave range to a raspy, drug-addled shadow of herself, a reality TV parody in a track suit shrieking obscenities at the ever-present camera. Just yesterday she was photographed emerging from a club looking confused and combative, with something that appeared to be blood running down her leg. 

Like many performers who die too young, she left one last performance as her final legacy: the role of the stage mother in the upcoming film version of Sparkle. Let's hope it does her memory justice as a natural actress and an immeasurable vocal talent. And in honor of her once-astonishing ability, let's try to remember her when she was fresh, lovely and maybe even a little unsure of herself -- but unmistakably impressive -- from videos that feature her alongside several dancers who soon succumbed to the AIDS pandemic. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Brown Elixer

Since I've completely given up on the San Francisco Chronicle, which has pared itself down like a late-season Biggest Loser contestant to an x-ray of its former self, on weekends I usually pick up the Sunday New York Times.

My favorite part is stopping by the Starbuck's in the upscale shopping center near my house. I make my way through the WiFi hoboes and screaming, over-entitled urban urchins to the counter, where I slap the thick bale of newsprint onto the counter. "Is that all?" the barrista will ask, after inquiring unconvincingly about my health and happiness level.

"Yes," I respond loudly. "I don't drink coffee." The response from the assembled caffein addicts is similar to when a living human stumbles into the zombie barn on The Walking Dead.

A study last week reported that the average American adult spends $1,096 a year on coffee, but I'm willing to believe that even in these troubled times it's much more than that. At just three visits to Starbuck's or Peet's a day at $4.00 a shot, that's $4,380.  Is it not strange and noteworthy that at 11 p.m. in any city or town you'll find people carting around 16-ounce cartons of coffee? People talk about how meth has ruined small town America but what about its watery brown cousin, the antsy hopped-up one that stains its users' teeth, fouls their breath and drains their already limited disposable income?