I walk the line

Some entertainments do not stand out as either bad or good enough to merit the record of a trial.

Such was the case with the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which we saw on Friday at the Meridian. Sure, Joaquin Phoenix did a fine Cash impersonation, Reese Witherspoon was her usual perky self, the subject himself is interesting, and you learn a few things about his career you probably didn’t know (unless the movie made them up): that his brother died tragically in a sawing accident in his youth; that he wrote Folson Prison Blues while a bored, not very talented unknown serving a tour in the Air Force in Germany during the Korean War, and had to be challenged into performing it for an audition; that the only real-world experience the song could be based on was not a murder and a stint in prison, but his brother’s death – for which his father made him feel guilty most of his life – and his stint in the Air Force; that he proposed to June Carter on stage, where she accepted; and that songs you always thought were the fruit of their marriage – Ring of Fire, Jackson – they had in fact long performed together before it.

But all in all, it was a fairly standard, somewhat overlong biopic, certainly worth the seeing – but not really worth blogging about.

So also was Jane Monheit at Jazz Alley, where we caught her second set the Saturday before. Nice Christmas songs, and a good time was had by all – but beyond some disappointment that she didn’t do Baby It’s Cold Outside – it seems every version of this ever made has been revived on compilation CDs this year, along with Santa Baby, while last year they still belonged to Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt – no doubt because she hadn’t brought someone man enough like Johnny Cash along to sing with her, but just an aggresively egotistical saxist who played tenor like a rapper sings.

I just don’t have the time or energy to blog all this stuff – plus I caught a weird kind of half cold a couple of weeks ago, and while the cold symptoms were weak, whatever it was wiped me out physically more than a typical cold would; maybe it was a flu weakened by the vaccination I had a month back.

Otherwise I would have blogged not about Monheit or Cash, but about a few social instigations I’ve been meditating recently – and in one case even actively working on, walking my own line between irony and political engagement.

Despite my debilitation I decided to finally enter a contest I’d heard about awhile back, held by a website called SinceSlicedBread.com. My wife’s union the Service Employees International Union, which recently split off from the AFL-CIO to pursue more activist initiatives, is apparently behind this contest – though they don’t make a big thing of it on the website.

The contest, which closed December 5th, was to submit the best idea for improving the lives of working Americans since sliced bread, as the saying goes. You could submit as many ideas as you wanted – over 20,000 were before the deadline came. A panel of so-called experts will winnow them down to 21, and then everyone who wants to can vote on the finalists through the site. The winning idea will net its proponent $100,000.

Is this a great country or what? When even unions must employ lotteries to interest Americans in the political economy of their own lives.

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restoration comedy

We paid what we could – or would, which was a sawbuck apiece – to see Amy Freed’s new play Restoration Comedy at the Seattle Rep Tuesday night, directed by Sharon Ott.

As you might expect, it was an amusing play – though not quite as amusing as the comedies which it adapts must have been to their original Restoration audience. Freed has a knack, which we first encountered in her Shakespeare authorship pastiche The Beard of Avon, for picking up antique English dialects well enough to make her historical impersonations fairly authentic – and sometimes even downright poetic.

Unfortunately, she also likes to play to the peanut gallery by throwing in cliched contemporary slang to become the punchlines of her jokes, as if the period stuff is merely the straight man to a pedestrian and at times bathetic sense of humor. Worse, in Restoration Comedy she seems to have Oprahcized her originals, making them didactic in a women’s self-help book kind of way: the first act teaches the lesson that all women need to do to keep their men interested is roleplay sexual games with them, the second act that an excessive sense of virtue should be dispensed with when they finally encounter their soul mate. Two plays in one night, however condensed and bowdlerized, was also a bit much.

Ott began her association with Freed a few years back, when she brought her The Beard of Avon to the Rep, which I reviewed in greater earnest than I can muster these days on my former domain shakespeare.com – now leased out to the enotes folks. I’ll link a copy archived at my other domain shakespeare.nowheres.com here at later leisure.

Oddly, as it turns out Ott is also my neighbor – as I found out for sure a few months ago when my next-door neighbor organized a little meet-the-neighbors party and she and her family showed up. I look up at her house across the street.

As for pay-what-you-can night, it’s a hallowed Seattle institution: the Rep and the Intiman both offer it the last preview before opening night. Some institutional investor must underwrite it; it appeals to our sense of a bargain, and allows us to get tickets at the last minute – typically I drive down at lunchtime – if we decide to go to a play. More people should avail themselves of it. When I reviewed plays semi-professionally on shakespeare.com, I used to go for free of course, and get a press packet as well as the comped opening night tickets.

Now I prefer to pay my own way. That way, if a play’s not worth reviewing, I don’t need to spend much if any time doing it. I hate to feel beholden to the objects of my criticism.

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The day after Thanksgiving, we went downtown to have some lunch, see the Tiffany glass show at SAM, watch the Christmas tree lighting at Westlake center, and catch Walk the Line at the Meridian. We were too late to make a value matinee of that movie, so we saw Rent instead.

We’d last seen Rent toward the end of the millennium on stage at the Ahmanson in LA during Christmas, while Doogie Hauser was still in the show, but after Ricky from My So-Called Life had gone on to play Angel on Broadway. It was a pleasant enough entertainment, as I recall, more rocking and significant in an Angels in America kind of way than your typical Broadway musical. But it wasn’t as memorable as staying at the Intercontinental Hotel – now the Omni – in a very nicely appointed room, instead of sleeping on the fold-out couch at my parents’ place – actually by that time just my mother’s place, my father having died shortly after Rent opened on Broadway – as we typically did before that trip. I think my wife liked it more than I.

Alas, Rent has not aged well, and the movie did some things that made it more off-putting than it otherwise might have been. The story seemed wonderfully topical when it came out; now it just seems dated, stuck in a zeitgeist very different from today. Filmmaker Mark resists and finally refuses to “sell out” to do news stories for network TV – who would do that today? Everyone who could sold out to the dot coms in the late 90s, when the selling was good. Favoring the homeless over new condos? Dreaming of building a multimedia art center, and not just making a multimedia art career? The world seems to have lost a lot of idealism since Rent first hit the boards.

Or become a lot more conventional in its concerns. The movie adds a whole gay wedding thing with Maureen and Joanne’s parents in attendance – and Anna Deavere Smith playing Joanne’s mother, for chrissakes – in a vain and oddly bourgeois attempt to regain lost relevance. Gay marriage is a post-AIDS issue; Rent is the cri de coeur of the generation that first came down with the disease – before it finally killed off a youth culture increasingly focused on polymorphous promiscuity since the 1960s, not commitment. I’m surprised they didn’t add a scene on safe sex, or needle exchange.

One thing we actually liked about the movie also weakened it dramatically: the sumptuous location shots in Greenwich Village. It brought back places and scenes we’d cavorted amongst in our own youth, when like an ur-Tom Collins I was studying deconstruction in grad school a trainride away at Yale – Rent the movie succeeds mainly as travelogue, a cinematic tour through times, theaters and places that have vanished today.

While you’re checking out the scenery, however, you lose focus on the musical itself. I’m not sure that’s a pity – Rent seems to have even less to say to an audience today than the musical that begat its genre, Hair - and nowhere near the anarchic energy of the movie that really made La Boheme sing, Moulin Rouge. But we’ll always have New York. Won’t we?

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Potter, pride and prejudice

We saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire last Friday night, and the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice Sunday afternoon. Potter was just okay – but Pride and Prejudice was a revelation.

Goblet is the best Harry Potter book – perhaps the only one that merits serious consideration. Rowling starts tackling Voldemort’s Hitler and terrorist allegories seriously in Goblet – only to let action flag and the ball drop in the next two volumes. It’s also a huge tome, full of intricate detail.

Fearful of being overwhelmed by the novel, the film reacts by leaving way too much of it out. We get lots of footage of Harry being chased by his dragon – but no coverage of how he learned the trick he uses to defeat it. Krum takes Hermione to the dance – but I don’t think he’s ever shown speaking to her, and certainly never calls her “her my own.”

Worse, the scenes lack continuity, and do not flow one into the other, building toward some larger effect. It’s as if director Mike Newell decided to channel Godard’s Masculin Feminin in an attempt to match the arthouse cachet of Alfonso Cuaron (The Prisoner of Azkaban’s director). The breakup of the school year at the end of the film seems little more than that – the wizard world-historical resonances of the novel’s ending are mostly lost.

Nevertheless, as a popular entertainment Goblet was enjoyable – if nothing more.

Pride and Prejudice was a whole lot more. We’ve seen this story countless times in recent years, both the classic Colin Firth TV version and the various literary and filmic adaptations of the novel, from the Bridget Jones books and movies to the recent Bollywood-style Bride and Prejudice.

Yet here it seems – and actually is – freshly imagined. The novel and all its other adaptations maintain a certain social-satiric (or at least historicist) distance from the story. This P&P dissolves that distance in favor of intensely emotional immediacy – it’s the Bronteization of Austen tout court, with Mr. Darcy a figure more akin to a happier Heathcliff than his own highly questionable self.

With all vestiges of Austen’s irony removed, Elizabeth Bennett’s own sarcasm and wit – and the trenchant ironies of her dramatic situation – shine through more brightly. Knightley’s wickedly twinkling eyes draw the viewer in throughout – even when they express the most tearful of regret. My own eyes welled with sympathetic tears numerous times – in happiness, not sadness – yet I rarely cry at films.

Alas, I must confess to having never read the novel through – why bother when it’s know to me so well at second, third, fourth hand? – yet even I could recognize that the words of the ending were not Austen’s own; my wife and I verified as much while watching Desperate Housewives that evening. Indeed, the final scene was apparently cut in England so as not to anger Austen aficionados, until audience demands resulted in its restoration.

Except for the oddly inappropriate words, however, I enjoyed the final scene – and consider its details perfect. A return to Pemberly and a post-coital tete-a-tete before its reflecting pool and fountain seems a fitting and highly satisfying filmic conclusion. Okay, it’s not Austen – but who cares? It’s certainly a better Bronte.

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Elizabeth the fair

Saw Liz Phair at Neumo’s last night. Waited around until 9:30 to head downtown; inside club at 10. She came on about 10:30, played until 11:45. We were watching Saturday Night Live by midnight.

Didn’t enjoy the show as much as I’d hoped. Think it’s the fault of the songwriting. A persona who sounds refreshingly libidinous in the expression of female sexual desire, brutally honest about the vicissitudes of heterosexual hookups, on CD or the radio doesn’t translate well to live performance in a club with no chairs, only open floor. The music is mainly just a vehicle for the words, and only starts to rock out as the song ends, frustrating the consummation of dancing in a crowd.

Taken in a relatively large dose, the songs start to sound too much the same, Phair’s tone nasal and querulous. The groups of young female friends out together, sometimes with a stray boy or gay friend along, enjoyed it most, punching the air in grrl solidarity (the rockrgrl music conference was in town, maybe some of them ditched the associated events to come to Phair).

In such a crowd, I eventually started to feel exposed and out of place, realizing the subjectivity Phair validates is not one I can openly share. I’m embarrassed by a song like Supernova, especially when my wife jokinging throws a significant glance my way: in private I can enjoy the lust, in public I feel like the odd man out at confabulation of girlfriends. Maybe Rocketboy, with lyrics less extreme, would have worked better – but that’s from the Stealing Beauty soundtrack, not one of her own albums. Even the woman behind me was scandalized by the tadpole phantasy Rock Me.

The crowd called early for Fuck and Run, and Phair played it for her encore. I felt shamed by the confession, only too happy to head for the exit. Just like any other man, I guess.

Phair – that can’t be her real name, can it? Must be a plasticene adulteration of what should be Elizabeth the Fair. She certainly is good looking, in a somewhat hard-edged and angular way. She’d make a fine caricature. But there’s little seduction.

Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps a grrl could tell me.

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entropy for the devil

Though tempted by late-released tickets, we decided not to return early from visiting family in Las Vegas to catch the Rolling Stones concert at the Key Arena the day before Halloween. We’d seen them on their last tour a couple of years ago at the Tacoma Dome from great seats just off to the side of the stage – but weren’t as thrilled as we’d hoped.

However we did buy tickets early on to see Jethro Tull, who performed at McCaw Hall – Seattle’s new opera house – last night. We went even though we were tired after seeing Werner Herzog present the US premiere of his new film The Wild Blue Yonder at the Seattle Art Museum the night before – and would miss seeing who dies in Lost as it was broadcast on TV.

Tull’s Passion Play tour stop at the LA Forum was the first rock concert I ever went to in the summer of 1972, I think it was – Tull previewed unreleased albums in their tours at the time, you bought the album later as a memento of the live performance as I recall – so it seemed appropriate to see them one more time before they finally stop touring – even though I haven’t listened to any of the albums they put out after about 1976.

That didn’t seem to matter last night – I think they only played one song whose relative youth made it unfamiliar. And although Ian Anderson has unfortunately lost his voice – he now sounds and looks a more like Popeye the (pirate) man than the sonorous hippie wiccan of yore – I nevertheless found myself pleased to renew my acquaintance with songs I used to listen to almost religiously.

Or should I say – sacreligiously. For it started to dawn on me during the concert that what had made Tull compelling in the early 70s was the way they took the kind of Tolkein-esque, Renaissance Fare-ish revival of British Folk in bands like Fairport Convention – and lent it an almost satanic metaphysical urgency and amplified sonic energy. Not that they were quasi-Satanists like the later heavy metal bands that inspired a rash of muder-suicides among ignorant youth – but more like the satanism of Milton in Paradise Lost, of the devil’s party without professing it. They tapped the primal energy of our most atheistic humanitarian urges, in songs that challenged man – and God if there is one – to make good on the promise contained in religion to save each and every one of us – from the wealthiest rock star to the lowliest of crazy homeless people, Aqualung (Anderson’s own doppelganger):

If Jesus saves
well he’d better save himself,
from the gory glory seekers
who would use his name in death.
Ah, Jesus save me!

Well I saw him in the city
and on the mountains of the moon,
his cross was rather bloody
and he could hardly roll his stone.
Oh Jesus save me!

Alas, that kind of moment doesn’t last forever. It’s to Tull’s credit that they seem to have realized they can do no better service today than to replay Aqualung in concert retrospectively, elegiacally, reviving all they can of its original energy in an cultural environment that, strangely, seems to have regressed back to the one they were reacting against over 30 years ago.

And so they played mainly Aqualung, and gave out free CDs of a live studio concert recreation of the album they did for XM Satellite Radio a year ago. Tull bookended the playlist with the opening “Life’s a Long Song” – “but the tune ends too soon for us all” – and concluding encore “Locomotive Breath, which allegorizes life as a runaway trainride leading to certain death: “oh the train it won’t stop going no way to slow down.” Not many aging rock stars have the wit and honesty to thematize their own decline while still ritually re-enacting the glory of their youth – but then, Ian Anderson was always a bit too witty and irreverent to seem fully comfortable in the role, even at Tull’s height. What were memento mori in the songs are now – well, even more pointed. Maybe the Stones will never die – just keep rolling along forever like vampires on vaseline – but that’s never been Tull’s ambition. Death and (hopefully) resurrection was more their cup of tea – the fool’s trajectory in tarot cards.

Werner Herzog, who as I mentioned we saw the night before, is cut from the same cloth, and has always celebrated the inevitable entropy of even the most heroic – or satanic – human aspirations – or artistic careers. My wife and I first became acquainted with Herzog’s oeuvre in his masterpieces Aguirre The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo – epic movies of the grandest scale, each following a man (in both cases played by Klaus Kinsky) who sets off into the South American jungle intent on greatness – finding Eldorado, funding an Opera House to bring Caruso to the Amazon. Both end not so much tragically – that would be merely conventional – as elegiacally – witnesses to the humane modesty of native civilizations they are destroying, willing finally to compromise their vision in order to salvage something – anything – from disaster (or in the case of Aguirre – in disaster).

It seems fitting, then, that Herzog’s new movie The Wild Blue Yonder is itself a salvage job. Made immediately after the wonderful Grizzy Man with whatever money Herzog made from it, it includes footage salvaged from the NASA archives of the last Space Shuttle mission where the astronauts recorded shipboard life on actual movie film (and not cheap video like later missions), diving scenes taken under the Antartic ice cap by a friend and colleague of Herzog’s, and the idyllic image of a South American rainforest plateau with waterfalls coming off it that ending up on the cutting room floor of the movie made immediately before Grizzy Man, White Diamond.

Herzog brought along the only actor in the film – the guy who plays the doctor on Deadwood, Brad Dourif, sporting the same bald spot, but longer stringy hair and a truly huge mustache. His appearance in the film was a salvage job too apparently – Herzog flew him out to a location near the Salton Sea for a six hour job, from receiving the script till shooting wrapped.

What’s the film about? Well, near as I could make it out – entropy. Dourif is an alien who comes – despite the hardships of the voyage – with others to earth when their planet orbiting Alpha Centauri freezes. They start building a city they hope will someday rival Washington DC near the Salton Sea – but it never takes off. We earthlings discover one of their supply ships that oozes bacteria, frightening the authorities enought that they divert the Space Shuttle through wormholes to – you guessed it, that planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. They explore its frozen seas of helium, decide maybe we could make a go of it there if necessary – but the bacteria threat has dissipated, so they return home by light beams. Alas, miscalculation ensues, and they arrive 800 years in the future – after our entire civilization has disappeared and all that’s left is the beautifull rainforest plateau, full of life – just not human life.

Unfortunatley, I can’t say the film is a success – the Antarctic scuba sequences – though beautiful – go on much too long, and the plot drowns in their cold lusciousness. Maybe on a larger screen – or smaller, at home – it would work better.

Still, I admire Herzog his artistic – and personal – courage. He often risks death filming, lays it all on the line – only to rub our nose in the fragility, isolation, and impossibility of transcendence specific to our humanity. He closes Grizzy Man with the observatiion that the bears, despite the illusions of his protagonist (who died indulging them), have no human sympathy – nothing can move them beyond contemplating us with a mixture of boredom and gustatory inquisitiveness. And in the talk after The Wild Blue Yonder, he expressed his conviction that we’ll never voyage beyond our own solar system, or find anything in space that’s really worth the difficulty of the trip.

No Star Trek dreams for this director, no way. The voyage to El Dorado – or the Mountains of the Moon – doesn’t lead anywhere near there. It only leads back here, and we have everything to lose – but the experience.

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funding transcendence

Speaking of filmmaker David Lynch and the actor he discovered, my apparent double Kyle MacLachlan, by a strange coincidence Lynch gave a talk we attended at the University of Washington last night. Lynch’s latest project is perhaps his strangest yet: nothing less than funding transcendence.

Lynch has been funding the transcendence of inner city public school students for some time. Now he’s decided to offer the experience to university students as well, first on the east coast, and now on the west.

This is no joke. We’re talking Transcendental Meditation here, and Lynch has been a daily practitioner for over 30 years – about the same time he started making Eraserhead.

Seems Lynch was a TM prodigy: they gave him a mantra and showed him into the meditation room down at the local TM center, and on his very first try he immediately found himself swimming in the boundless seas of undifferentiated transcendent joy (talk about eraserhead…), which he found so compelling that he cried out in disappointment when they came to retrieve him 20 minutes later.

Since then he’s being meditating religiously, twice a day, rain or shine, no matter how grueling his Hollywood schedule. Within weeks TM allayed the anger, born of the frustrations and anxieties of the undiscovered filmaker’s life, that before TM he used to take out on his wife. And throughout his career it has given him solace and provided the even keel he needed to sail the turbulent waters of a Hollywood career.

Now through his foundation Lynch offers the benefits of TM to university students across the country, to help them remain calm and creative like him, no matter the pressures their professors put them through. By doing so, he hopes to help promote peace throughout the world, since the more people there are meditating, the more coherent everyone’s brainwaves become, resulting in less crime and war throughout the world community. Studies undertaken by the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) prove it.

Accompanying Lynch were two formerly conventional academics who turned their backs on top-flight university careers to take up positions of leadership within the MUM: quantum physicist John Hagelin and brain researcher Fred Travis. All came across as snake-oil salesmen when singing the praises of TM – even Lynch, despite his endearing weird habit of wiggling the fingers of one hand while gesticulating in support of his presentation.

Yet I don’t doubt that Lynch – and perhaps the two MUM professors administrators as well – are sincere in their experience-based support for TM, and fundamentally altruistic in their desire to bring its benefits to others and the world at large. Lynch at least – unlike the others – has no personal financial and institutional benefit to gain from the expansion of TM. Indeed, through his foundation he’s paying the freight.

And I don’t doubt that this project could make a difference in the psychological health of the nation, and contribute largely to achieving world peace. The evidence is compelling: meditators are calmer, more well adjusted than non-meditators, and once they reach critical mass they can change the tone of debate and discussion in an entire society.

I’d rather see Lynch put his money into expanding the practitioners of TM than into, say, expanding the audience for his troubling and unbalanced movies – as he intimated himself, you probably need TM to be able to handle their imagery – or for the American Cycle plays at the Intiman, whose Grapes of Wrath I began this blog critiquing.

Unfortunately for the success of his project at the University of Washington, however, the occular demonstration Fred Travis gave of TM’s effects on a test subject’s EEG didn’t seem to work properly last night. The promised coherence and rythmic regularity never appeared in the young man’s squiggly EEG traces, vitiating the hyperbolic build-up Travis and the others when they announced the upcoming demonstration had given of the effect.

This may merely have been due to the difficulty of meditating on stage in front of a large audience, with an EEG hairnet pinching your scalp and thearical floodlights piercing your eyelids. Still, it must have worked in other venues – why else would Travis attempt it tonight?

On the other hand, I also have experience difficulty in meditating successfully since moving to Seattle. By the beach in Los Angeles where I grew up – or in late-hippy Santa Cruz where I went to college – the meditative state came on much more easily. Even in the Silicon Valley where I lived before here, I could usually muster its trademark relaxation response. But in Seattle – it’s not easy. I succeed maybe once every score of trials.

Could it be there’s something anti-meditative about the prevailing brainwaves in post-millennium Seattle? That where a completely inexperienced David Lynch could immedately achieve transcedence in early 1970s LA, in Seattle 2005 even an experienced meditator finds it difficult to realize? Is transcendence something the prevailing winds of social psychology are blowing against around here?

Going by my own recent experience and the evidence of Travis’s test subject last night, I’d have to conclude – maybe so. In which case Lynch’s project is even more admirable – it could be seen as a rear-guard, perhaps last-ditch attempt to salvage some of the peace that came with the understanding of the so-called “me decade” of the 1970s in an environment that has forgotten, or even become actively hostile to its restorative pleasures. Maybe through his efforts I and others like me will soon be able to begin meditating effectively in Seattle yet once more, when the young minds of college students start seconding our efforts once again.

All I can say about Lynch’s decision to fund transcendence, then, is hallelujah – or more appropriately: AUM.

Except that I balk at that word “transcendence” – I thought we were talking “transcendental.” And they aren’t the same. At least since Kant, “transcendental” implies foregoing any claim to experiencing the truly transcendent, and instead contenting outselves with experiencing and knowing what we actually can know as earthly beings.

And so with this joyful feeling of pure, undifferentiated subjectivity we sometimes feel during deep meditation: it’s not transcendent, just transcendental – something we can experience here and now, 20 minutes at a time if we’re lucky, as Travis explained a kind of shutting our mind’s inner eye as well as our outer eyes – repeating the mantra as a kind of inner eyelid that shuts out other thoughts – so both can get some much needed R&R. Once you start thinking about anything in particular, though – the feeling vanishes.

It was precisely all this talk of “transcendence” that made the presentation seem insincere and deceptive – as I said earlier, as if they were a company of snake oil salesmen (ironically, Travis closed his talk with a still from the Wizard of Oz). Not that we can’t entertain some hope, after experiencing the peaceful joy and persistent subjectivity that comes when we put our own minds to sleep in this fashion, that a similar joy and persistence may await us after we are truly laid asleep in body, that we might remain a living soul. If this be not a vain belief, oh sylvan why, pace Wordsworth. Let the world go away,je pense donc je suis , selon Descartes. The so-called Ding an sich conceals itself endlessly, tracing its extravangance in a flurry of representamens, thank your kindly Messrs. Derrida and Peirce.

The oily odor also emanted from the not-quite-articulated claim that Transcendental Meditation is the best if not only way for people today to achieve such a state, and that if you don’t pay them for a mantra, you might not be able to get there properly – claims debunked long ago in The Relaxation Reponse, and even a book an uncle of mine wrote a year or two before his own untimely demise, whose title unfortunately escapes me.

So maybe Lynch should save his money for other endeavors after all. Why fund transcendence – when all we’ll get for your philanthropy is the same old transcendental. How to meditate is no trade secret – or shouldn’t be. I hate seeing someone give a lot of money just so people who should know better can keep MUM.

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this is not a review of Margaret Cho

My wife and I went to the Margaret Cho reading at Elliot Bay Books on Wednesday. She was as obscene, vain, bitchy – and hilarious – as anyone could have hoped.

She also tried to be political, reading the “Ann Coulter’s not hot – I am! – she needs to start channeling her inner ho more to be as hot as me” bit from her book, and opining in the Q&A that gays need their own Sidney Poitier to gain broad social acceptance.

But Cho was no Al Franken. Writers and humorists of her generation are too self-centered, to blinkeredly egoistical, for that.

She claimed, for example, that the only Asians on TV are the Korean couple on Lost, who spend their time just looking around shocked, not speaking English like everyone else – which is why she decided to do a new show where she plays her mother – when in fact all Seattleites know that Sandra Oh is on Grey’s Anatomy, which is set in our city, and was just visited by her own fictional mother in the hospital after her pregnancy went tubal.

She also kept us waiting a half hour for her entrance, all because while the Elliot Bay had told her the start time was 7:30, our tickets – and their website – said 7:00. I suppose when they told her of the discrepancy, she decided she might as well have another cosmopolitan at Ibiza before coming down. After all, why should she put herself out? Her fans could wait.

As my wife said on the way home, when a Korean American coworker asked her back in 1994 how she liked Cho’s first TV show All-American Girl and she said she couldn’t really get into it, he asked “why – because it’s too Korean?” – and she replied, truthfully, “No, because it’s too twenty-something.” And in retrospect, it does seem like Cho started something among that generation of writers – you can draw a straight line between Cho’s flippant, self-aggrandizing style and that of Neal Pollack, say, or gossipy Seattle Times columnist Pamela Sitt – or just about every writer for The Stranger.

Oddly enough, as we were walking across the street away from the Elliot Bay before the reading I thought I saw the actual Sandra Oh walking toward me from the other side. The woman even looked at me like, “well, aren’t you going to recognize me?” – scrutinizing my own face as I tried, surreptitiously, to scrutinize hers. Finally when she was a few feet away, I determined to my satisfaction that I was probably wrong – but she was by too fast for me to be sure. Maybe she actually was in town for location shots, and was going to the reading too – or to join Cho at Ibiza for drinks beforehand.

These kinds of situations happen to me fairly often – I see someone scrutinizing my face, and think they must be checking me out – but until recently I just chalked them up to my own egoism, projecting an interest that probably wasn’t there. I’m not really all that hot.

When we were down in San Francisco seeing Dr. Atomic, however, I had an encounter that changed my mind, and revealed what’s probably been happening all this time. Having gotten to the Opera House early, we strolled up toward the Herbst theater to catch a glimpse of the Howl Redux event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ginsberg’s career- and Beat movement-making poem and the San Francisco literary scene in general. But it was too far to walk in the cold, and so we turned round and started walking back. A tall figure loomed up before us heading the opposite direction, and as he approached I noticed he was looking at me, scrutinizing my face in the lamplight, looking like he was trying to decide whether to greet me – just as I, scrutinizing his, realized it was the actor Peter Coyote right before he passed by.

I said fairly loudly to my wife – “Hey, that guy looks familiar – should we say hello to him?” – just in case Coyote could still hear me, and explained the situation: that I thought he was that actor with the keys from ET (I was drawing a blank temporarily on his name), and he seemed to be about to speak to me as he went by. She didn’t doubt it – Coyote lives in San Francisco and was going to be the MC or something at the Howl event, she said, so it makes sense he was going that way.

But why was he looking at me like he thought he knew me? And then it occurred to me: maybe it was because he thought I was Kyle MacLachlan.

Okay, I guess this requires some explanation. Ever since David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was on TV – or maybe even before, after he emerged in Lynch’s Dune and make good on that flop in Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet – people have been telling me I look like Kyle MacLachlan. Not people I know typically – they’re too familiar with me to see it – but total strangers who think I’m him for awhile until, scrutinizing me more closely, realize their mistake and let me know why they were looking at me, in case I noticed (which I rarely do, since I typically look away from strangers with my kinda weird, looking out of the side, Kyle MacLachlan eyes).

And this has been happening to me even more regularly after I moved to Seattle in 2001 – not only because Twin Peaks was set up here, but also I guess because Kyle was born in Yakima, went to the University of Washington – and apparently has a brother who works at a Starbucks in Seattle, according to a barrista at the Starbucks on Jackson and 23rd I sometimes go to, who worked with him at another location and told me I look more like Kyle than his own brother. I’m not sure if it’s his twin brother – I did some research before blogging this, apparently he has one – but you get the idea.

So who knows? Maybe it really was Sandra Oh, checking me out in case I was the real Kyle, and not his doppelganger – or more like his impersonator, the resemblance really isn’t all that close; I don’t suffer from Dirk Bogarde’s mania in Fassbinder’s film of Nabokov’s Despair, let me reassure you. Or maybe I was wrong, and it was Margaret Cho herself passing by, all bundled up against the cold so I mistook her for Sandra Oh, and missed my chance to meet the artist herself before the reading – and maybe go have cosmos with her and the real Kyle at Ibiza.

Well, as you can see by now – and the title says – this isn’t a review of Margaret Cho, not really. Oh, that’s a part of it – but more starting point than conclusion. These “trials” – which is my modern American equivalent for the Renaissance French essay of Montaigne – will often start in review mode – because what my wife and I typically do outside work is attend various and sundry cultural events – sometimes nearly every night of the week, and daytimes too on weekends. But from there I hope to connect in each with more wide-ranging concerns, so as to catch them in the web of a present that, between work and play, typically leaves me almost no time for reflection – or for the production of culture, as opposed to its consumption.

And if in the process I succeed in leaving traces of my own peculiar mentality that renew my acquaintance with relatives and erstwhile friends who live in other places, from some of whom I am long estranged – or begin one with friends and family yet to come who may never have the chance to meet me in the flesh, much less Kyle MacLachlan – well, so much the better. There are lots of things I expect to make trial of here while blogging here. That’s just one of them.

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Should I blog it when I see a forgettable play? I’m not sure yet – so I guess I’ll go ahead and briefly mention the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s forgettable premiere of Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio.

Tired of the naturalistic social realism of The Grapes of Wrath – and in their own peculiar fashions Dr. Atomic and the Seattle Ring Cycle as well – I was looking forward to a pleasant evening with the theater of the absurd in this European-flavored, Godot-esque retelling of the Jason and Medea legend as a two-person play set in a purgatory modelled on a psychiatric hospital.

But alas, while ably produced – despite a shockingly white set that blinded me momentarily when the stage lights came up – and acted – in particular by a truly volcanic Charlayne Woodard in the Medea role – Dorfman’s play never caught fire: its metaphysics were trite, its mythology overly psychologized, obscuring whatever contemporary resonances the story might otherwise have had.

This was new Artistic Director David Esbjornson’s maiden outing at the Rep, bringing to Seattle a play whose non-commercial premiere he also directed at Duke University earlier this year. A good production for a college dining hall perhaps – but not for a theater the size, and a company the caliber, of the Seattle Rep.

Makes you wish Esbjornson’s predecessor Sharon Ott hadn’t decided to step down – or been forced out.

The Stranger’s arts editor Christopher Frizzelle liked it even less.

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Al Franken

If I was miffed with Mudede for cutting the Intiman Grapes discussion short, I should have been even more angry at Al Franken for omitting the reading from his University Bookstore sponsored book reading at Seattle’s Town Hall last night.

Strangely, though, I’m not. He gave us something better – he enacted the very transition between performance and passion that the Intiman’s production and the discussion surrounding it lacked. And this ain’t your grandfather’s historical passion we’re talking about – but passionate engagement in the politics of today.

Apparently Franken’s people didn’t leave him enough time for the reading before he had to catch a plane to Spokane. So instead of cutting the Q&A session short, he just cut out the reading – and lauched immediately into a half-hour Q&A. Score one for Franken against Intiman: talking heads are nice, but Q&A is what an audience really wants. (Naturally he couldn’t cut out the book signing segment of the evening, since that has become the raison d’etre of these events.)

Now I’m not a big Franken fan, I don’t listen to his radio program or read his books – though I did enjoy his writing for Saturday Night Live in its heyday. And I’m glad I’m not – the audience last night was pretty scary – and not just because it was Halloween and the guy’s name is Franken. It appeared to be mainly composed of facetious, middle-aged, left-leaning nerds – about what you would expect. The kind of people who fiddle with their funny bones while America burns. Oh, their hearts are in the right place – I’m just not so sure about their guts.

But I came away from my brief encounter with Franken impressed. He started out in a blithely humorous mode, full of Saturday Night-style irreverence – while fielding a question about Scooter Libby, he facetiously said that anyone who outed a CIA agent was a traitor, and he agreed with Nixon I think it was that all traitors should be shot.

But then he turned thoughtful, and finally passionate, full of righteous political anger – all without losing his ability to back off again into humor.

I couldn’t hear the questions that prompted Franken’s responses – but the responses were right on. First that the major issue facing America today is the lack of universal health care: it’s behind increasing personal bankruptcies, vanishing pension plans, the Social Security crisis – the real one, not the one Bush manufactured – and it’s what traps us all in jobs we don’t like, instead of taking a risk and maybe finding a chance to do what we love.

Now that’s serious – as Franken said, that’s something the Democrats could run on, and beat the Republicans.

The other issue to beat the Republicans with? Their rampant corruption. Under Bush and his allies in Congress, it’s become government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. Why was Brownie in charge of FEMA? So his old college chum and former Bush chief of staff Joe Allbaugh could leave that post and begin a lucrative career as a consultant for landing FEMA contracts. Why are we losing the peace in Iraq? Because most of the money we’re sending there is disappearing into the pockets of corrupt Bush-connected corporations here, and their allies among the corrupt over there. The common Iraqi citizens know it – and are dying to get us out.

Maybe it was actually here that Franken retailed his treason joke – though I doubt it: he was so passionate about these issues, it wouldn’t have been funny. I do, however, clearly recall him mentioning at about this point that he was thinking of turning politician himself.

Before last night – I also would have laughed. Today – I’m not so sure. Maybe I should be taking the Franken phenomenon more seriously.

After all, Franken is at least as qualified to become a part of the Executive Branch as, say, Harriet Miers was to go on the Supreme Court – or Bush himself to become Governor of Texas. What political experience did Ronald Regan have before he became Governor of California – or Arnold Schwarzenegger for that matter?

When you get to that level, the difference between politician and popular entertainer almost vanishes.

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