Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Zaha Hadid Collaborates with Humanoid Lizards That Eat Human Flesh

I think ABC's "re-imagining" of the 80s mini-series "V" stinks on ice. Generally I will watch anything if it has someone wearing a prosthetic forehead and talking techno babble and there's a little gun play. Add to that character flaw a gruesome hangover and I found myself watching V - super bored, but unable to turn away.
Then I spotted an oddly familiar bit bloboid furniture in the alien queens flying saucer (worst turn on the trope since Norman Garwood's lopsided over-designed saucer for Lost in Space). I was finally entertained, but still too stupid to figure out exactly what I was looking at (I blame the hangover). I sent the screen grab to my friend Greg. He's my favorite go to guy for random late night WTFs. Before the alien queen could eat her lover (stupid show) he fired back that it was a Moon System B&B Italia Sofa designed by Ms. Hadid.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Future is Feminist

In the mania leading up to the millennial-new-years I heard someone (after a decade I cannot remember who) say that feminism would be remembered as the most important intellectual breakthrough of the 20th Century, topping heavier-than-air flight, the nuclear bomb, and dwarfing the internet for its impact on human history. Having grown up in the immediate wake of the second-wave feminism, it stuck me at the time as a solid commonsense truth.

In 2003 Gail Collin's history, America's Women (a book with the awesome subtitle: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines), further confirmed that now-anonymous pre-millennial assessment. For Collins women’s history encompasses medical science, marriage, fashion, law, labor relations, sexual mores, and colonial era menstruation taboos (they didn’t leave a single written comment on the subject – not one). But like all good chefs Collins left me hungry for more. The women's movement itself was just a small section at the very end of the book, hardly 20 pages. So I was excited to hear that with her new book, When Everything Changed, Collins had decided to tackle the women's movement from 1960 forward. I finished it Friday. It further solidifies that millennial observation that we are living through a sea change in human history.

I have some personal memories of the second-wave, but I was very young, so they are a fragmentary and disjointed. There was a frank conversation with my aunt Jo about the Fonz’s misogyny (“Yeah but he’s really cool, that’s why the chicks like him so much” my 10-year-old self tried to explain). The then-everyday normality of my older sister’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves kicking around the house is only remarkable when you think of a world where women had to be encouraged to look at their own vaginas, ask their doctors questions and demand orgasms. Because Our Bodies is a matter-of-fact relic of my childhood I never thought to question the books mix of explicit information about sex and medicine.

Collins writes that Our Bodies began in 1969 when “a group of women in Boston decided to get together and share their feeling of frustration and anger toward… doctors who were condescending paternalistic, judgmental, and noninformative.” It was only as I read Collins and tried to imagine the changes Afganistan would (and will) have to go through to make a Pashtune version of Our Bodies an unremarkable everyday reality, that I was struck by how radical the book was politically, how transformative its been. (Has someone written a transgender equivalent? Like women in the 1960s that is a community at the crumbling edge of medical science and ethics, and without an authoritative text young men/women and men/women are at the mercy of plastic surgeons and hormone dealing quacks.)

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and began to befriend baby boomers, men 10 and 20 years older than myself that I got my first taste of the bitter end of the revolution. I heard about the ways their first marriages had imploded; the friends they no longer spoke to after open marriages turned into open fights. Those guys were raised in the old world and never saw the wave coming (no one did). Most of them had tried to ride it, some of them succeeded, but from what I could gather, a lot of them felt pretty badly thrown. Their jokes, and painful remembrances had lost a lot of edge by the time I was hearing them in the early 90s, but all the same, they were always a bit alien to me. I had empathy for what they had gone through, but it is not what I went through at all.

During the second-wave I was not the sexist pig boyfriend/husband, I was the only son. Most all of my personal memories of the 2nd Wave are positive. They involve my sisters, my mom and step-mother, my dad, aunts, teachers, neighbors and the mothers of my friends. Sometimes they involved scolding, but never in a way that I remember as harsh. Mostly it was a mater of explaining that the bullshit I was seeing on TV was in fact bullshit. Feminism was a meta narrative. It didn't make the Fonz and Daisy Duke any less attractive, but it did help make sense of their bizar and extraordinary behavior, and it usually did so in a pretty playful maner, “Actually no John, the Fonze is not cool at all. He's a total jerk.” (usually). All the same these are memories full of smiling women, I don't have first hand memories of the anger and humorlessness I've seen and heard so much about.

The one exception was the first show of contemporary art I can remember seeing. I must have been around 11. My parents had split and my dad had remarried. My mom was dark and pretty, she had the modernist cool of Laura Petrie, she was so very Mary Tyler Moore. My step-mother was cool in a whole new way. She wore batik and was a self-described feminist. If my dad had been Dick Van Dyke while he was with my mom, he was Allen Alda now, his new wife Jane, was very exotic to my ten-year old self (the macrobiotic diet, chop sticks, that kind of stuff). My father had been on the Danahue show, Jane was on Opra they were an early 80s power couple. In 1981, they took us to see Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. It would be a decade before my older sister and I traded notes on our memories of the exhibition, but as it turns out the show impressed itself on both of us, but for very different reasons.

It must have been the opening because we both remember it as very crowded. I was still a pretty small guy, and so I was pressed in low, unable to see faces, and about eye level with the plates. After shuffling around the massive triangular table and checking out each setting there was a short making-of documentary in an adjoining room. My sister, who was in her teens and just beginning to figure things out, remembers watching the film and being hugely relieved to find out the plates were supposed to look like vaginas. She was afraid that she was some kind of pervert who saw vaginas everywhere. What I remember clearest of all was the vibe of the crowd. Pressed down among the plates and crotches I was not worried that I might be a pervert (I had not yet even begun to figure things out), I was trying to understand why every one was so angry. As it turns out I am still puzzling together the answer.

Collins writes about the contempt and sneering jokes that the early feminists faced, and while I wasn’t surprised by any of the stories she told (and many of them I half remembered hearing about at one time or another), it is amazing to read about them in detail one after another, to have them fit together in the context of a chronology. But all the same what I remember for myself, what I have heard from my older friends and family, is that while the jokes and sneers were constant, and there was real anger, for a while the optimism out weighed the anger.

Collins writes that “If, in 1972, you had told ERA supporters that the amendment wouldn’t be ratified by 1977, they would have been surprised and alarmed… It felt as though the women’s movement had become an unstoppable wave.” And in the introduction of her book The Pink Glass Swan the art critic Lucy Lippard describes that period as “that early bloom of optimism, when we though, or hoped, that in ten years feminism would have changed society itself.” With the advantage of hindsight Collins paints a complex picture of the backlash and blowback in the late 70s. The economy tanked, liberalized divorce laws left a generation of middle-aged housewives cut loose and stranded, and the Republicans had regrouped as social reactionaries. (This had not always been the case, first wave of feminists had been wealthy women fighting for their emancipation and the Republicans had been nominally supportive of their cause.)

The ERA amendment failed to be ratified, Ronald Reagan was elected president (not a good thing for woman’s rights, or anyone else's) and, as my sister and I pieced together our bits of memory, a third component came into focus – when the Dinner Party came to Chicago, Judy Chicago’s hometown and chosen name sake. But it was not at the invitation of a museum, it was exhibited in some sort of space on Printers Row in the south end of Loop (my sister and I agree on that, she remembers the building as low I remember it as a tall 19th century industrial building). This was not a good thing, this was as backwater as the art world got in 1981. Like Lippard, Judy Chicago had begun as a partisan of minimalism. Her work Rainbow Pickets was shown next to Robert Smithson’s work in the Primary Structures show in 1966. She was a badass, or should have been.

As a native Chicagoan I am ashamed that the Dinner Party was treated so shabbily, and ashamed that it took me all these years to piece together why everyone was so angry that night (I sorted it out as I wrote this post). The women in the room had lots of general reasons to be unhappy and disappointed in 1981, but they had an immediate reason to be furious that night. They should have been fĂȘting Judy Chicago at the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago (the artist) was a nationally known artist, and a native Chicagoan, but like women in Houston, Boston, Cleveland and DC who organized exhibitions of the Dinner Party, women in Chicago (the city) had had to raise money and find a non-art space to show the first monumental feminist work of art. That had to suck.

After years of floating around without an institutional home, the Dinner Party was finally bought by the Brooklyn Museum and in 2007 it was permanently installed in a gallery that looks like something out of Star Trek the Next Generation. I am always hesitant to revisit art works that has had a strong influence on me (I am afraid they will disappoint), but I took my nephew to see the Dinner Party. He was about the same age as I had been when I had seen it, and I wanted to share it with him. I had remembered the piece as being somewhat corny (not that there's anything wrong with macrame and batik) and was pleasantly surprised to see how polished and impressive the work is (especially the textile work, which floored me). Looking at the Dinner Party with adult eyes Judy Chicago’s minimalist roots are clearly visible.

The feminist art historian Anna Chave begins her essay Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power (now canonical, yet WTF she has no wiki page) by describing two teenage girls kissing their own reflections and then kicking a Donald Judd brass box at MOMA. She criticized minimalist art as “Representing power in such an abrasive, terse and unapologetic way, the work none the less has a chilling effect: this is authority represented as authority does not usually like to represent itself; authority as authoritarian.”

Chave rigorously interrogates minimalist art in terms of power, and uses the philosopher Michel Foucault as a touch point, arguing that, “Foucault admits no possibility of a radical dismantling of systems of power and undertakes no theorizing or imagining of a society or world without domination.” And points to the possibility of a distinctly female “capacity” (as apposed to power) of nurturance. Judy Chicago like Lipard and Chave turned away from minimalism. Chicago was rejected by the sexist power structures of the art world of the 1970s, and righteously charted her own course, but I am not at all convince that she avoided power. On the subjext of power I side with Foucault:

“I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behavior of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination.”

As my nephew and I circled the massive triangular table checking out the settings, we talked about the goddesses, saints, queens and finally artists valorized at each setting. And we did so in the absence of women, angry or otherwise, there was no crowded press that day, we had the room to ourselves. Two guys raised in the wake of a Wave. Me in the second-wake him in the third. Two men very accustom to the new structures of power.

Like my boyhood self, my nephew enjoyed the settings more and more as they became more sculptural. As we reached the Georgia O’Keefe plate (easily the most sexually graphic setting at the table), I couldn’t help but point out that the relief had become so deep “you could drink soup out of this one.” As far as I could tell the vaginal imagery was largely lost on him, and so was my joke. But like me he will remember the piece in terms of who he was with, in the context of his family, and the life he sees the women around him leading. I wanted his memories of the Dinner Party to be fun. A game played with a minimum of domination.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Star Wars and South Commons

Clearly, I associate Star Wars with Modernism, at least part of that association is personal. I wrote the following personal history for Kato McNickle’s theater project Star Wars Stories. She is looking for sories about how Star Wars changed your life. It doesn't need to be about 1977 or as long as the one I ended up writing, but it does need to be written soon. She needs people to submit their stories before March 3oth.

On the 22nd of May of 1977 I was six years old, almost seven, and had no idea what was going on in the world beyond the bowl of South Commons, a planned community on Chicago’s South Side. It was a ring of inward facing town houses, surrounding a grassy quad and a playground. The look of the place was aggressively Modernist; from the flat roofs and unadorned sheetrock interiors to the industrial plainness of the brick facades and the organic cast cement Isamu Noguchi-esque playground equipment. My family had moved there before I was born and I was only beginning to understand that there was more to the world.

As microcosms go, it was a wonderful one. It was designed with the help of University of Chicago academics, the inward facing 2nd floor kitchen windows were placed so that young stay-at-home mothers could keep an eye on their children while they cooked the evening's meal. The model was a Modernist ideal of a traditional family facing an updated village green. And while the place had the look preferred by Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, urban theories, no doubt adopted from Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, contributed to justifying the layout of the place.

The aim of the designers was to create a neighborhood that was racially and economically integrated. My parents and the other young families that bought in were trying to live the ideals of the Civil Rights era, and for a time it worked. I remember loving and admiring the older kids with their Afros and long hair; my beautiful teenage babysitters sneaking their head-banded-boyfriends in through our basement window like something out of Welcome Back Kotter; and old men doing the Robot to the theme to Car Wash – showing the kids how it was done.

What I don’t remember is seeing Star Wars the first time any more then I remember the first time I saw a Big Wheel. These are things that were once not there, and then were everywhere. I have only one clear memory that I can positively date as having anything to do with seeing Star Wars the first time. My sisters wanted to go see Star Wars and I didn’t. I wanted to stay outside and play with my best friend Carl. He and I had lost our minds over Tarzan Lord of the Jungle. He had run down the block to my house the Saturday morning it first aired to tell me to turn it on. The gritty realistic animation was SO much better then the lousy Hanna Barbera stuff we had been force fed the summer before.

The first Green Machine had appeared around that time as well. It was an up-market Big Wheel. It looked so much cooler then our beat up, sagging tricycle-like Big Wheels, and could do these crazy spin outs that were hard to do on a Big Wheel without turning over (many scabs). But they were expensive and while a few of the kids got them Carl and I were stuck with last year’s Big Wheels. It was my first awareness that some families had more money then others.

The day my sisters pressed me into going to the movies the weather was great and I didn’t want to go see some dumb space movie. If I had to guess, I probably wanted to play Tarzan (“Unk Cheetah!”) or bum a turn on some else's Green Machine.

But my sisters were a lot older and smarter and their friends were so beautiful and so cool. I never really stood a chance. So I know we did go see Star Wars and like every other little boy in America it blew the front of my skull off. I never recovered. (This must have been around the time I became disillusioned with Mr. Rogers, realizing that his trolley was always going to go to his Land of make Believe and never to mine.) Tarzan was immediately forgotten and the rest of my childhood was dominated by space ships (except a few years later when Thundarr the Barbarian united those two very different obsessions into one awesome world).

Carl and I were now only concerned with making the jump to hyperpace. And while the newer Green Machines were at first highly coveted by Carl and I, after Star Wars speed was all that mattered to anybody. “She may look like junk,’ we might have told the rich kids, “but she’s got it where it counts.”

We were the fastest kids in the neighborhood; hot-rodding our Big Wheels by removing the seatback and starting races by using them like kids use razor scooters now, only dropping into the “cockpit” and peddling like mad once we had “achieved hyperspace.” When we realized that because its forcibly recumbent ride and lack of handle bars the Green Machine was impossible to get a running start on, our dusty battle scared Big Wheels got new life. The Green Machines could not be hot-rodded to alter their fancy factory ready rides. They didn’t stand a chance against our souped-up Big Wheels.

Eventually the Green Machines were put away, they weren’t worth the trouble of dragging them outside. The Big Wheels had all the cool of the Millennium Falcon, Green Machines all the suck of Hanna Barbera.

That was the summer my parents divorced (that was the summer when everyone’s parents got divorced). That fall I moved with my mother and sisters to a suburb famous for Victorian and Prairie Style architecture where we rented a prewar wood frame house with a normal yard on a normal street; where no one wore an Afro or danced the Robot; and where no one rode Big Wheels, every one rode bikes. I was out of my element.

My first day of school in the suburbs I was confronted on the playground by a little boy who wanted to know if I knew why Darth Vader wore that mask. I had seen the movie, I understood the hilarity of speed, but he knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t (he had older brothers, and probably had access to their Starlog magazines, I had no such advantage).

Finally impatient and totally contemptuous of my lack of Star Wars knowledge he answered his own question: Darth Vader had to wear that mask because he had fallen into a volcano. His absolute certainty was echoing in my head when I saw the third prequel thirty-odd years later and watched the final light saber battle in disbelief waiting for Vader’s eventual fall into the lava. I still wonder how he knew.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gov. Schwarzenegger Will Bring Balance to the Force

I have had a mad man-crush on Arnold since the days of Conan the Barbarian and Pumping Iron - a film in which he announced his political aspirations:

"I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered."

My Brother-law mocked this yellow-dog heresy by bringing me an unwearably hot-pink Governator T-shirt back from a trip he took to California early on in Schwarzenegger administration. All the same I have never backed down, my high regard for Conan the Republican defies ideology and logic (he’s so cool). But this weekend I learned Arni’s actual plans to cement a positive legacy for his administration. If he pulls it off he may indeed get his wish to be remembered for thousands of years.

"As goes California, so goes the nation" is the saying in the States, but this one has the promise of offering an example to even the most forward thinking EU governments. I hope he’s able to pull it off.

(Pardon me for being cagey, but as a Chicagoan born and raised I would hate to play Steve Bartman to this moment. Watch for an announcement in the next month or so.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Star Wars and the Modernism of 2001

In his book, Air Guitar, Dave Hickey argues that, "artistic practice changes because younger artists must willfully misinterpret the work of their masters.” The master that George Lucas was most interested in willfully misinterpreting was Stanley Kubrick.

After Lucas finished making his second film, American Graffiti in 1973, he intended to direct a film about the Vietnam War using a script written by his friend John Milius. Lucas described his original concept for the film as Dr. Strangelove in Vietnam. Dr. Strangelove was Kubrick’s caustic satire that lampooned American Cold Warrior’s nuclear bravado. It was Lucas says it was his favorite film.

But the Vietnam War was going so badly by this time it had become too hot politically to get any kind of film on the subject produced, much less a satire. And it wasn't just Lucas who was stymied, for the better part of a decade it no one produced any sort of film about the War (and they stopped making GI Joe dolls as well – that was a drag).

After trying repeatedly to get his film made he decided to shelve Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola would eventually find backing to get the film made, but by then Lucas was in preproduction on his new project and handed off the directing duties to his friend and mentor.

Lucas says he decided to take the ideas he had been developing for Apocalypse Now and use them as the basis for a space fantasy. Star Wars was Dr.Strangelove-in-Vietnam-in-outer-space. However when it came time to choose a film that would set the visual standard for his new project it would not be the black and white cinematography of Dr. Strangelove Lucas would choose, but rather the Modernist purity of Kubrick's 1968 science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When Stanley Kubrick made 2001 it was the most expensive science fiction film ever produced. Kubrick intended to bring a new standard of technical rigor to the genre. To accomplish that he surrounded himself with a highly skilled crew of studio professionals, as well as engineers and designers recruited from the aerospace industry.

The seedbed of 2001 was the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. It was there that Kubrick saw the documentary short To the Moon and Beyond and recruited some of the filmmakers responsible for its visual effects. Douglas Trumbull, who had worked on the short, would be hired as a Special Photographic Effects Supervisors for 2001 and is credited with developing the slit screen technology for the Stargate sequence.

Kubrick's co-author, Arthur C Clarke is most famous as a science fiction author, but he was a trained scientist. The "Clarke Belt," a ring of thousands of artificial satellites now circling the earth in geosynchronous orbit, is named for the author in recognition that a paper he wrote in 1945 predicted the use of these exact sorts of satellites for telecommunications. Clarke therefore was much more then your average scifi guy. He was a well-respected member of the scientific community, with strong connections inside NASA.

Clarke was able to get the anthropologist Louis R. Leakey to advise on the film. For those seeing the film for the first time now, the costumes for the proto-humans might look a little primitive, but at the time they were state of the art. And with Leakey’s help their behavior reflected the most up to date theories of human evolution: Man the Hunter (a theory that is equally out of date as the monkey suits).

Clark was also an acquaintance of Fred Ordway and Harry Lange as well, both of who would be hired as full time technical advisors on 2001. Ordway and Lange were refugees from the American space industry. In the past space craft in Hollywood films had always been designed and built by prop designers. Even the best of these designers, like Ray Harryhausen, were still just studio hacks with no knowledge of aerospace.

Ordway writes that in their roles as advisors, he and Lange met with General Electric's Missile and Space Vehicle Department (about propulsion systems), the Bell Telephone Laboratories (on deep space communications), the Whirlpool Corporation (on the subject of space borne food equipment), Honeywell, (about vehicular controls) and IBM (on the computer sequences).

Kubrick’s crew was famously professional. They were the best of the best, and they did in fact bring a new level of technical rigor not only to the genre of science fiction films but all genre of filmmaking. They were known at the time as “The Brain Trust.”

When it came time to make his science fiction film Lucas set out to hire as many people who had worked with Kubrick as he could. He hired so many Kubrick alumni that as a group they were referred to as "The Class of 2001." But even so, Lucas was still a young unknown director, and was not able to attract or afford the same caliber of professionals as Kubrick.

For instance when it was clear that he couldn’t get Douglas Trumbull (having directed his own scifi 1972 film, Silent Running, Trumbull was more interested in the director’s chair at the time), Lucas hired John Dykstra to be his effects supervisor instead. Dykstra was hired because he had worked with Trumbull on Silent Running, and Trumbull had worked on 2001.

But all the same, Lucas’s crew was young. They weren’t engineers, or studio hacks, they were film school geeks, like Lucas. And that was just fine, because while Kubrick’s film had been a complex abstract film about man, transcendence, the nature of God and being; and a film that arguably locates the very peak of American Modernist authority and influence, Lucas’s aim was never to reproduce Kubrick's film. He wanted to make a Flash Gorden like space fantasy.

Lucas’ first film the 1971 dystopian THX 1138 was based on a 1967 short Lucas had made in film school. THX 1138 was much closer in tone to the cool abstract Modernism of 2001 (its a really cool movie, but as serious as a heart attack). When Stanley Kubrick began work on 2001 he was inspired by the optimism of the '64 World's Fair, the can-do spirit of John F Kennedy's New Frontier, and the sexy jet-set world of 60s air travel and beautiful young unmarried (and there for sexually available) stewardesses.

The difference in agenda with Star Wars is accountable in history between the time he conceived his first dystopia and Kubrick, his Modernist masterpiece. A lot had happened in the intervening years. America had become a totally different place. And just as 2001 was a film that embodied its moment and place in history, Star Wars reflects the world as it was just ten years later.

Kubrick was not a thoughtless booster of US Cold War policies. He had shown that with Dr. Strangelove which did not paint Cold Warriors in the best of light. 2001 is complex, and riddled with subtle ambivalences, but it showed NASA at its finest. It was a positive symbol of the progress promised by American Modernists that borders on boosterism.

And while the mid-sixties America was shadowed by the assassination of JFK, in her book about the woman's movement, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins paints a picture of that era as still very optimistic. Colin's portrait of the growing civil rights movement and the first stirrings of Feminism—of the polite demands by mild mannered women in hats and gloves and the determined pacifism of African American students in suits—is of a moment of grim fortitude, but in many ways unmarred by any hint of pessimism or cynicism (at least for a time). For all its complexity Kubrick's film reflects that optimism, but none of those struggles.

Although women and blacks were challenging their authority, the Cold Warrior Modernists had managed to keep the sheen of father-knows-best throughout most of the decade. And what ever else he may have been Kubrick was a Modernist master widely heralded as a genius, his films as masterpieces.

How influential was Kubrick? Futura was his favorite font. Helvetica is the font that had been adopted for almost all of NASA’s documents and signage in the 1960s, but it was Futura that was chosen for the typeface on the plaque left by the first astronauts to walk on the moon. It is impossible for me to believe that the choice of Futura as the first font on the moon was accidental.

But on April 13th 1968, just days after the film premiered, the New Yorker Magazine published Penelope Gilliatt's review of 2001, in which she wrote:

"There are no Negroes in this vision of America's space program; conversation with Russian scientists is brittle with mannerly terror, and the Chinese can still be dealt with only by pretending they're not there."

Gilliatt had placed her finger on the cracks that had formed in the Modernist's pose of magisterial control.

2001 premiered April 2nd 1968, two months after the American military’s disastrous response to the Tet Offensive; one month after Walter Cronkite (who was recently described as “a reliable mouthpiece for the optimistic scenarios” of the US government) changed his position and broadcast an editorial predicting the war could only end in stalemate or “cosmic disaster; less then a month after the New York Times ram a piece entitled “The Second Feminist Wave” in which, Ti-Grace Atkinson compared marriage to slavery; and just 3 days after President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection - quietly ending the Great Society, and ushering in the reign of the Nixon Administration.

Two days after 2001 made its premier to an audience of Washington DC beltway insiders, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. The national mood that Kubrick had projected 33 years into the future had broken like a fever by the time Gilliatt wrote her review. In the first few weeks of 2001’s run riots broke out in over 110 American cities. In DC alone, 13 people were killed in clashes with police and over 6000 arrests were made.

By the time Lucas began work on Star Wars five years later the Kent State shootings in 1970 had further polarized and radicalized Americans. In 1973 the OPEC nations were challenging the US presumption of superpower with a successful oil embargo. That same year flight attendants won a court battle with the Airline industry to end the demeaning appearance rules that had shaped a toxic work environment for over a decade.

In her book Collins gives special attention to the story of these women, who were measured and weighed regularly; their appearances were carefully policed, as was their marital status. She explains that flight attendants were not allowed to get married - and could be fired if they chose to secretly marry and keep working. Airline Executives explicitly wanted beautiful and unattached young women to attract older married businessmen, prompting Rep. Martha Griffiths, the lone woman on a House Labor Subcommittee, to ask durring an open hearing on airline labor practices "What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?

In 1967 and 68 the House Committee on Un-American activities had been fearlessly ridiculed by the Yippies Abby Hoffman (arrested for wearing a shirt made from an American flag) and Jerry Rubin (curiously not arrested for wearing a North Vietnamese flag as a cape). While the Yippies left the Committee maimed, it took six more years for it to die. After 40 years of abusive investigations, HUAC officially put an end to it's shameful history in 1974.

So it was in these twilight hours of the Vietnam War; in aftermath of the release of the Pentagon Papers and in the growing shadow of the Watergate investigation that Lucas conceived and made his space fantasy. Is it any wonder that the Pro-NASA visual program of 2001 was willfully misinterpreted to create a fascist state bent on total control at any cost (even the destruction of a planet)? While John Fitzgerald Kennedy is rightfully associated with the visionary goal of landing a man on the moon, it was Richard Milhous Nixon who was in office when the goal was achieved.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Anglican Communion Has The Force

My brother-in-law, Steve Mesler, just published a modest proposal on his Huffington Post Blog about the economic value of legalizing Gay Marriage. It's a fun and friendly piece and worth reading.

When he told me his idea for the post I told him about a homily my father gave (my father is an Episcopalian Priest) while I was visiting him on the West Coast this past spring. As it happened while I was out west he married a young couple. Because I was there, and available, and his son he asked me to assist him during the service (this entailed wearing a frilly red and white alter boy outfit straight out of Heaven Help Us - I so love my dad).

Steve ended up quoting my father's homily at length, The part where my dad spoke about gay marriage in particular. I thought I would just post a bit he did not quote in his post (but he does provide a link to my fathers' entire response to his request for the homily).

Before the wedding I was pretty much obsessing about the fact that I was going to have to appear in public dressed as an alter boy so had not thought to ask my dad what he was going to talk about. When the time came he spoke at about the Church's long struggle to incorporate sex into religious life. He pointed out that the early church was apocalyptic, so all sexual unions were suspect:

There are plenty of signs of patchwork efforts to reconcile biology and apocalyptic expectations, but nowhere are there any indications of church “blessings” of sexual unions – of any kind, never mind same-sex. Other sex is not necessarily better, may be more troublesome, and leads to all kinds of new questions. It might be fun to ask the fundamentalists what they make of Paul’s (that’s Saint Paul’s) warning that a man who resorts to a prostitute for sexual union becomes “one flesh” with her.

Somewhere in the 10th or 11th century – at least one thousand years into this so-called Common Era some newly-married couples began a custom of presenting themselves in the “porch'’ of a church, where, at the end of the Liturgy, the presiding and assisting Clergy came, from the altar, said some prayers and sprinkled them with water of blessing, then leading them back up to the altar rail to make their communion. (Still, the blood runs thicker than the Holy Water, was the cynic’s way of assessing the value of these rites.) “Not that there’s anything wrong with this” was the message (to anticipate Seinfeld), even though monasticism is still better and a way of gaining credit on the divine ledgers.

Now, another thousand years have passed. Old ideas about marriage, its nature, its social purpose, its stability, and its sanctity have been steadily questioned ever since the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the discovery of reliable birth-control. This has occasioned a great deal of uneasiness, as any disruption of custom and expectation is bound to do, and with this comes viewing with alarm, denunciations, and rear-guard efforts to paste up the shreds of patriarchal history.

Knowing this, there is certainly a touching confidence revealed in the continuing idea that sacred ceremony can serve to safeguard any personal (and commonly all-too-often impermanent) efforts at fidelity and solemn covenant. When same-sexed couples who treasure each other’s being in the world want to present themselves somewhere regarded as sacred space, and to act in what they want to be a sacred way in declaring their desire to love and to cherish each other throughout the vicissitudes of mortal life, it seems grudging to argue that they must be refused whatever strength and consolation may come through a priest’s prayers and acts of blessing. We can only hope that now, in a turbulent time of change, it may help them, when they encounter refusal, to remember that for one thousand or more years any sexual union of any kind was refused this blessing.

My father the Rev. Robert L Powers marched in Selma Alabama in March of 1965, answering Martin Luther Kings call for religious leaders to join him in and support the Civil rights marchers. I am very glad that he and the Anglican Communion are are out in front again. There is more to read. Again I urge you to check out Steve's post.

Monday, March 8, 2010

fascism Set In Futura

At this point I have watched the Helvetica documentary back to back easily five times in the past two days and I still love everything about it. As it turns out, it is an excellent shorthand account of how Modernism developed into Post-Modernism, and Post-Modernism into whatever it is that is happening today (Post-Star Wars-Modernism floats my boat, but I understand that I am a very special case).

While I am not sure if he would describe himself as a Post-Modernist, in the documentary the graphic designer Michael Bierut is roughly lumped with that second group. At the very beginning of the font-doc he introduces Helvetica as being like air or gravity - unavoidable. But a bit later on he also describes what it must have been like, in the post-war years when the junky designs of nuptial script and corny engravings on ivory paper were replaced by Modernist logos and Helvetica on crisp white paper:

"Can you imagine how bracing and thrilling that was? It must have seemed liked you had crawled through a desert with your mouth just caked with filthy dust, then someone offered you a clear refreshing distilled icy glass of water. To kind of clear away all this horrible burden of history. It must have just been fantastic, and you know it must have been fantastic because it was done over and over and over again."

As Bierut make awesomely clear Helvetica was not always ubiquitous. What he does not make clear is that Helvetica was adopted durring a particular historical moment. And while it must have been "bracing and thrilling," It was a time when Americans were rigidly conformist, violently resisting Civil Rights for African Americans, laughing off women's desires for equality, and ramping up the Vietnam War.

Erik Spooner wrote that, "by 1956, with the Modernist movement exploding across the world, [Eduard Hoffmann] wanted his cut of the dough." The biggest dough to be had in the late 50s was the US Government (public sector spending was driving the US economy through the 1960s) and corporations . The Helvetica documentary is explicit, the font was renamed (it was originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk) in order to make the product more palatable for the American market, and it worked. By the time Bierut and other Post-Modernists started their professional life in the 1970s and early 80s Helvetica and Modernism were both indelibly linked with American corporate wealth and political power.

Art history classes explain how the International Style architects had "rationalized" buildings and cities starting in the early 1950s. I remember going over that material any number of times. But graphic design was not on the radar of my professors. I have no memory of that material even being glossed over. I had never given much thought to the ways 2D design was being transformed by the International Typographic Style (also known as Swiss Style) until seeing Helvetica a couple years ago.

Like modernist architecture, Modernist design was adopted by the US Government and corporations very quickly. It was an abrupt sea change on the level of the planned economy, but it is important to note that the incremental growth private homes and wedding invitations was largely unmoved by that sea change.

Most homes built in the US are still traditional, very few couples want a san-serif-font on their engagement announcements. The "bracing and thrilling" change that Bierut describes was delivered from above. And for a while that, not only didn't matter, it was great. In the 1960 san-serif fonts, like Modernist art, architecture and urbanism, came to be identified with the exciting new world of economic and technological progress. But by the late 1960s early 70s the Modernist's ideals were indistinguishable from increasingly toxic political and corporate policies.

In 1969 when Robert Smithson's withdrew from the Sao Paulo Biennale, he explained his decision by comparing the modernism of NASA to the Army:

"To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts... The ‘team spirit’ of the exhibition could be seen as endorsements of NASA's Mission Operation Control room with all its crew cut teamwork… If one wants teamwork he should join the army."

A few years later when the graphic designer Paula Scher started her professional life she associated the Modernism of Helvetica with the army:

“I viewed the big corporations that were slathered in Helvetica as sponsors of the Vietnam War. So therefore if you used Helvetica you were in favor of the Vietnam War so how could you use it?”

Likewise the German typographer Erik Spiekermann (a contemporary of Scher) explains his contempt for the Modernist Helvetica:

“It’s the whole Swiss ideology. The guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same, Hello? That’s called an army. That’s not people, that’s people having the same fucking helmet on.”

Whether or not it is fair to say Helvetica or Modernism "caused" the Vietnam War (and later the Iraq War, as Scher does in Helvetica), the impressions of these artists make it clear that the rejection of Modernism by the Post-Modernists was not about formalism, or procedural logic. Neither was the rejection anti-modern. All three are expressing ideological revulsion with a particular regime. Their revulsion was with the violent policies of Cold Warriors as symbolized by the Modernism of Helvetica and NASA.

The font that seems to have most influenced the look of the Star Wars logo was not however Helvetica, but it was Modernist. The san-serif look of the Star Wars font most resembles the 1975 NASA "worm" logo. And while NASA, was part of the sea change of US government agencies adopting Helvetic (and still uses the font), when it came time to leave a plaque on the moon the font that was chosen was Futura.

Futura was, not coincidently, the director Stanley Kubrick’s favorite font. Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, like other art produced durring the Cold War, should be considered what Max Kozloff described as "a form of benevolent propaganda for foreign [and domestic] intellectuals." The film had been made with the full cooperation of NASA and the aerospace industry. Many of the props and ships for 2001 were designed with the aid of engineers and corporate sub-contractors working on the American effort to put a man on the moon. Fred Ordway, a technical advisor on the the film writes:

“We were particularly pleased when, on the 25th of September 1965, the director of NASA's Office of Manned Space Flight, George Mueller, and astronaut Deke Slayton arrived at the studios. When Mueller saw the amount of documentation Lange and I had brought with us from the States, he dubbed our office complex ‘NASA East.’”

It cannot be an accident that in addition to being adopted by NASA for their moon bound plaque, Futura was also used for the copy in the very first Star Wars teaser poster. If Suzy Rice is correct and the Star Wars logo was supposed to look "fascist" it is because in the decade that separate the moon landing and the premier of Star Wars everything had changed.

Star Wars is (at least in part) an expression of contempt fo the Modernist fascism of the Cold War that Smithson and Scher (and millions of others) turned against. Smithson was a science fiction guy, its hard to imagine that he didn't simultaneously love NASA even as he slammed the space agency's crew cut. Likewise, Scher never abandoned her US citizenship. I am quite sure she loves her country while at the same time righteously holding it’s administrations to the highest ethical standard.

The visuals of Star Wars--from the logo that opens the film, to the ships, sets and costumes--owe a debt something Lucas had a deep affection for. He described his intentions for Star Wars as Apocalypse Now in space. His original concept for Apocalypse Now, when he still intended to direct the film, had been to make Dr. Strangelove in Vietnam. Dr. Strangelove was Lucas's favorite film.

When it came time for Lucas to make his Dr.Strangelove-in-Vietnam-in-space movie the visual standard Lucas set for him self and his crew was Kubrick's science fiction masterpiece.

Futura was the first visual connection the public was shown between the two films (in the teaser trailer shown in detail below, is posted in all its glory here). This is not, however, an example of unalloyed hero worship. It is an example of deeply alloyed hero worship.

I don't doubt that Lucas asked for “something very fascist” when he described what he was looking for in a logo because that is consistent with the way he and his crew constructed the rest of the visual program for his film. The film populates 2001-like ships with Imperials dressed in Nazi gear. The key to understanding that visual program of Star Wars is Lucas's deeply ambivalent relationship to his master, Stanley Kubrick.

I think it is safe to say I have exhausted the subject of Modernist fonts (God I hope so), in the next few posts I am planning to look at Modernist space ships.