“If I am lonely in a foreign country, I search for ruins.”

Albert, Somme, France 1920 [image via]

The quote is from Christopher Woodward’s book, In Ruins, which was sensitively reviewed in the New York Times. Cited near the end of the review, the line resonated with both the story in my short film Souvenir and my own experience. It reminded me of an overheard comment from almost exactly a year ago, “I just wanted to be a part of it.” The great part of Woodward’s book deals with the “pleasurable pain” ruins evoked as late as the 19th century, when “modernizing” civilization finally yielded a city larger than 4th century Rome or a building larger than the Colosseum.
In the Somme (where parts of Souvenir take place), there are almost no ruins. Unlike Verdun, which the French quickly covered with a bell jar of remembrance, the Somme was pretty much rebuilt, monumented, or plowed under. In reviewing Woodward’s book, Richard Eder writes that modern society (ie., weapons+tactics+building technology) may have made ruins obsolete, to our detriment: “With nuclear weapons or box cutters we are able to annihilate the past as well as the present.”

[image via]

In the review (and presumably, in the book, too), these lessons don’t really jump out, but instead come into view, like a Mayan temple engulfed by the jungle. On September 10th, archeologists reported a major discovery, carvings that reshape the history of Dos Pilas, a Mayan ruin in Gautemala. The carvings came to light after the country suffered widespread devastation last year from Hurricane Iris. Sometimes it’s only in the aftermath of destruction that modern society even thinks to learn lessons from the past. Or as Woodward puts it, “When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future.”

Like I said, the British…

Every once in a while, I remember that the Guardian has this thing called The Digested Read, where books are reviewed in the style of the book itself. I’m sure every review sends some British demographic laughing to the floor, but with my limited book learnin’ I can only understand a few. Some favorites:

  • How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young (just saw him at a friends’ wedding)
  • The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (“No sooner had Baudelaire returned to Paris than he would dream of leaving. How alike we are.”)
  • Statecraft by Margaret Thatcher (“Indeed, although this book was largely written before September 11, I have needed to change almost nothing. That’s because I am right. Just like I always have been.”)
  • Great Minds, etc etc

    Arnolfo di Cambio et al, Basilica di Santa Croce, 1294-1442 [img via]
    As the Artforum.com discussion of Nico Israel’s Spiral Jetty travelogue turned from my smug fact-checking to the romanticisation of contemporary art, E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View popped into my head. Just as Forster’s English followed Baedekers around Italy–from this altarpiece to that fresco, from Firenze to Rome to Venice to Ravenna–a Contemporary Art Grand Tour has taken shape where Artforum pilgrims can demonstrate their faith.

    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1982-6 [image via]

    In addition to Spiral Jetty, the CAGT includes: The Rothko Chapel; Walter deMaria’s Lightning Field; Michael Heizer’s Double Negative; Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation; James Turrell’s work-in-progress Roden Crater; the Guggenheim Bilbao; and my own heretical favorite, Richard Serra’s Afangar.
    With Merchant/Ivory’s version of ARWAV firmly entrenched in my own movie worldview, I saw a vision of a hipster artist roadtrip remake. Sort of Basquiat meets Thelma & Louise, with Reese Witherspoon as Helena Bonham-Carter, Josh Hartnett as Julian Sands and Daniel Day-Lewis as, well, himself.
    ANYWAY, it turns out the fashion world’s own Forster, English Vogue-er (and faux twin) Plum Sykes, may beat me to the intersection of Art & Film. Hintmag.com leaked the outline of Sykes’ book, Bergdorf Blondes (which just got picked up by Talk/Miramax Books for $625,000, not including movie rights).
    The hot narratrix (calls herself “Moi”) dates, gets engaged to, and breaks up with the hot it-boy painter “Dan” (“Our heroine consoles herself that there is one thing worse than being disengaged to a person in a GAP ad, and that’s being married to someone in a GAP ad.”) [NB: Sykes dated, etc. painter/Gap ad star Dam(ian) Loeb.]; receives confidence-boosting advice as she pines for the hot LA filmmaker (“You are not superficial, you just look like you are because you wear a lot of Gucci.”) ; and hightails it home to En-ge-land, perchance to marry the Earl-next-door (“after bonking at the SoHo Grand”). Sounds pretty much like my movie idea.
    Should I go ahead and develop it? Or would it be like when there were those two Dalai Lama movies out at the same time?

    Joseph Epstein: send me your manuscripts

    The way I read this NY Times article, Joseph Epstein is secretly hoping his advice is wrong. “As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring…” he writes, “…don’t write that book, my advice is, don’t even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.” [via camworld]
    Send as-yet unpublished manuscripts; self-published books; slim volumes of verse; literary or creative labors-of-love of all kinds, whether yours or not, to:
    Prof. Joseph Epstein (author, most recently, of “Snobbery”)
    Northwestern University
    English Department
    University Hall 215
    1897 Sheridan Rd
    Evanston, IL 60208-2240

    a void with no building in it, a building with a void in it, a quiet place with some statues in it

    NY Times account of “Monument and Memory,” a panel discussion presented by the Columbia Seminar. Jewish Museum architect Daniel Libeskind cited his own powerfully programmatic work in arguing architecture’s ability to deal with trauma and memory. TheNew Republic’s Leon Wieseltier demanded a void and a flag, lashing back at Libeskind’s (and, by proxy, Architecture’s) reflexive “materialism” and egotism. (Libeskind apparently didn’t win many points for rhetorically bitch-slapping the pensive philosopher on the panel, either.)
    While I tend to agree with Wieseltier’s ideas, he also did say (just a couple of weeks ago) that “what rises from the abyss of Ground Zero will become the most revealing American urban expression of our times.” Is that a void? I don’t think so. And a “void with a flag” cannot avoid instilling a sensory/emotional/political experience on its visitors any more than a didactic monument can. In Souvenir (November 2001), these two ideas–the preserved void (Lochnagar Crater) and the programmatic Memorial (Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing)–are juxtaposed without finding a clearcut answer as to which “worked better.” [Here’s an account of shooting those scenes.] Libeskind turns out to be much more like Lutyens than I’d imagined. At least in architecture, there may be very little new under the sun after all.

    keep the curvoisier, pass the maker’s mark

    Congratulations to the guys at Cyan Pictures for getting their rough cut fedexed to Sundance just in time. [Technically, they could’ve eked out a whole other day by flying the tape to the festival office in person, so they had a huge time cushion, but hey, that’s enough dramatic tension.]
    Their short film, Coming Down the Mountain, is set and was shot in/around Hazard, Kentucky, which is near Troublesome Creek. Last night, on plasticbag.org, I read about the Fugate family, aka The Blue People of Troublesome Creek. John Stacy married into the clan and said of his father-in-law:

    [Levy Fugate was] part of the family that showed blue. All them old fellers way back then was blue. One of em – I remember seeing him when I was just a boy – Blue Anze, they called him. Most of them old people we [called] by that name – the blue Fugates. It run in that generation who lived up and down Ball Creek.

    arguing over nothing, or the lack of nothing

    On Artforum‘s discussion boards, I had posted some criticism of Nico Israel’s article about visiting (but not finding) Robert Smithson’s earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty. He responded, and I responded back. Other Smithson-related posts: one from after visiting the Jetty, and one about the Jetty’s reemergence and Smithson on filmmaking.
    [Update: Commemorative T-shirts are now available in the greg.org two-item store.]

    carry-on luggage, four weeks later

    Nearly a month after an accidental click into a carry-on luggage article brought my surfing to a teary halt, it’s okay to laugh again. In this week’s New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten tells of of several successful attempts to carry Emmy Award statuettes (complete with “sharp-tipped wings”…shaped like “serrated steak knives”) onto transatlantic flights. [Apparently, none of the comedy writers or filmmakers in the story are yet listed on Ashcroft’s dissenter=terrorist no-fly list or are giants of Iranian cinema.]

    State Department denies visa to Abbas Kiarostami to visit NY Film Festival

    According to this wire report, the US State Department has refused to process a visa for the director Abbas Kiarostami, the godfather of Iranian cinema and one of the most highly acclaimed filmmakers in the world. His latest work, Ten, has its US premier tonight at the NY Film Festival. In the NY Times review, A.O. Scott called it “a work of inspired simplicity.”
    Check the movie index for more discussions of Kiarostami, his previous films, and his perspective on DV filmmaking. Check Camworld’s discussion of the government’s policy’s potential blowback for Americans traveling abroad.

    If you wonder what happened to the movie Palm Beached

    mollie_wilmot_obit.jpgApparently, the project went into turnaround when Mollie Wilmot objected to being portrayed by Bette Midler or Melanie Griffith. Disney executives may be smiling through their tears to learn that Wilmot, “the socialite with the oversize white sunglasses who rose to celebrity in 1984 when a tanker ran aground at her Palm Beach, Fla., mansion,” has passed away.
    In the NYTimes obit, the subject is Mrs Wilmot’s life in the media, especially in the paper itself. In addition to covering the unexpected arrival of the Venezuelan tanker and her crew ( “‘I thought it was the man who was coming to photograph my home for Town & Country,'”) The Times, we learn, dutifully reported on her clothing (1990: “watermelon-pink Yves Saint Laurent silk suit to lunch in the Saratoga racing season.”) and her spats with decorators (1985: “Mrs. Wilmot stormed out of the [Winter Antique] show, followed by the commode.”). All the life that’s fit to print.
    Perusing obituaries from her “principal residence,” Palm Beach, we find recollections of neighbors and shopkeepers and sense the nuances of local priorities. The proud townie Sun-Sentinel: “In addition to being ‘zany,’ Wilmot was not ‘snotty or snobby’ like some Palm Beach residents, [“neighbor” Dale] Merck said. Rather, she was an original Palm Beacher.” The striving Post: “And it was common knowledge that Mrs. Wilmot turned down Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s invitation to a ball.” The appropriate Daily News: “Mrs. Wilmot — previously Bragno and Bostwick — was divorced from New York publicist Paul Wilmot, whom she married in December 1970 at her North Ocean home designed by Maurice Fatio. Mary Sanford was her matron of honor.”
    While they recount life of their subject, obituaries are clearly (is this obvious?) for the living. They may be oblique tools for social control, but their power on the individual is undeniable. By judging Mrs Wilmot as “a real Palm Beacher,” a higher plane than that occupied by mere “Palm Beach residents,” the obit writer fires a clear shot across the bows of the still-too-new yachts in the marina.
    Obituary fixation may be dismissed as absurd minutiae (first line, font size, picture or no, A1 lede? if only…), but preoccupation with one’s place in history, one’s contribution to the world, is at least as old as the pyramids.
    nicholson_shades.jpgWarren Schmidt is a bereft ex-actuary in Alexander Payne’s highly acclaimed film, About Schmidt, where he’s faced with cold calculations of the worth of his own life. Payne is rightly praised in this Times review from the NY Film Festival for “laying out an expansive, impressively even-handed vision of life in contemporary Middle America.” Reviewer Stephen Holden goes on: “The movie’s quest to discover how one ordinary person can make more of a difference turns out to be as serious as its title character’s. The common-sense answer it comes up with, in a final scene so unassuming that it’s almost a throwaway moment, is as simple and modest as it is profoundly moving.”
    I never met Mrs. Mollie Wilmot, although her acolytes (a few generations removed) are thick as fiddlers around here. In April, I met Payne, whose intelligence and niceness impressed me as much as his films. With all due respect to the doyennes of Palm Beach, I suggest taking your life cues from the story of Warren Schmidt.

    Reflecting on

    Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Powerless Structures, No. 59 [image via]
    A friend‘s web writing has plummeted in frequency while rising in substance. This paragraph triggered a cascade of images:

    and so yesterday you asked yourself, naturally, under an impossibly full moon, in the middle of another state, in the middle of the woods, blue-gray light spilt over the water’s gently trembling surface, the hypnotic criss-cross of ripples, the disappeared stars, the misty gray-blue air that spoke of you never being alone, even when alone: “but what is the double-grief?”.

    Elmgreen & Dragset’s piece (above) was in a 1999 show at The Project. (They show at Tanya Bonakdar now.) It was in the basement, a low-tech sublime landscape. An effable reflection, made permanent (as long as you accept its completely manmade nature).
    Last week, as I climbed into bed in NYC, an unusual light shone from across the street. It’s not the retro streetlamp, but far higher. You can’t see the sky from our north-facing parlor floor apartment, either. It’s the moon, nearly full, at just the right angle to reflect in the fifth floor window of my neighbor’s townhouse. Sit up, lie down. Sure enough, it’s only visible from this one spot. In a few minutes it disappears. Could I have captured it on film? with the digital camera? No, the flash’d go off and I’d have a stupid snap of my wall. How do I know?
    A morning in a Hawaii, where the door to our hotel room faced due east. Stepping from the shower, an exclamation. A circular rainbow, not six inches across, projected on the far wall. We studied and stared for several minutes, watching the sun shine straight through the peephole. Hurriedly, we dug out the digital camera and snapped away. Flash, flash. Nothing, but over-illuminated bamboo-esque furniture. We had to content ourselves with the knowledge that Olafur Eliasson could probably recreate the phenomenon, if asked. He made this, after all…
    Some things, it seems, cannot be captured, only approximated. Recreated. Reflected.

    Placeholder: Spiral Jetty

    Spiral Jetty, 2002. that's foam in the foreground and salt crystal everywhere else
    Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty.avi [1.3Mb], c. 2002

    This will be the entry where I write about our trip to the Spiral Jetty and post some amusing pictures thereof. It will be enlightening and insightful, yet not without wry humor. As it reverences the work itself, it will impress you and amaze you (in a quiet way) with our vision, dedication, and lack of condescension, and it will make you want to make the pilgrimage yourself. Ideally, it will ease your decision to keep an eye on me and my own artistic production.
    (And by the way, I watched part of Glitter yesterday on HBO7 or whatever. It’s not nearly as good bad as I’d been led to believe. It was mostly just bad bad. Although a harshly critical eye could find some painful-to-acknowledge similarities between Mariah Carey’s inability to act and my own. I fear this aside will negate any benefit I could have derived from posting further about the Spiral Jetty. Maybe we’d all be better off reading my last entry or the critical comments I made on Artforum’s message boards.)

    My harddrive is dead (or

    My harddrive is dead (or at least in a movie-of-the-week coma), and I’m on the road. Posting could be a bit erratic for the next couple of days. Rewriting several scripts from memory could be a bit erratic, too. Fortunately, I backed up my system last summer, so I’d only lose everything I haven’t posted to the weblog. (In the mean time, I bought Gravity’s Rainbow to read on the plane since my dvd doesn’t work, either. Thanks, Alex.)