Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the "Washington read." A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one's own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history's first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities' chief industries. I don't know if I coined this analogy, but I've always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a "Hollywood read." It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, "I used to work with this guy," and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller's posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff's Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today's Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans' The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
A few months back there was some fuss about Penguin selling, for close to $8,000, the Complete Collection: More than 1000 of the Greatest Classics. Recently, used bookstore owner Jeff Sharman went through his inventory and found "a handful of forgotten Penguin Classics" - ones that didn't make the cut. He raises an interesting point that not all classics stand the test of time.
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In my parents' home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there's a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band. I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science - all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life. My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must've been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy. I knew that in those last few years of his life he'd written a half-dozen short stories - children's stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I've stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw's Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell's humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles. I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly. And I was suddenly in a role I hadn't assumed in decades - a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven't thought of myself in that way in a lifetime. I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don't have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don't remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever. But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years - perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things - I've been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I've become.
I saw the artist Chris Burden speak at SCIArc last night. I know of his work from the art history classes I took in college. He is most well known for conceptual/performance pieces that even in our more jaded times are pretty shocking: He locked himself in a 2ft X 2ft X 3ft locker for five days; he sequestered himself for 22 days on a ledge built close to the ceiling in a New York gallery. Though the audience was told he was there, they were not able to see him from their vantage points. At his gallery in Venice Beach he pressed live electrical wires against his chest. He had hiself briefly crucified atop a Volkswagon Beetle. And, in a piece that has proved to be his most notorious, he had a friend shoot him, agressively confronting the artist/audience relationship. At some point, however, he switched to architectural work, both on the scale of buildings and scale models. During his lecture he didn't not explain this transformation. I suppose he wasn't obligated to, but it would have been interesting. His later work is very introverted, and seems very weak compared to the early part of his career. He did have a few things of interest to say though. most notably that "sculpture is different from two-dimensional work in that it forces the viewer to move," and the revelation early in his career that if he brought a prexisting object into the gallery and acted upon it during the course of the piece, the audience would see his actions as the art and not the objects. This was his transition from sculpture to performance. L. and I discussed at length whether we should be disappointed in an artist who has turned away from his early, daring work, and who seems unable to talk about why. Though in the end it is hard to make such a judgement based upon a single lecture. Today, my coworker said that the wilder the public persona, the milder the private citizen, and surely there is an element of that at play here. Still, I cannot reconcile the idea that a man who once had himself shot before an audience (1.) can find little compelling to say about it and (2.) now creates work which is as bland as his early mastery was vital. Here is a link to his interviews as well as some of his work.