Friday, June 19, 2015

Identity Theft

"Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?"   ---Virginia Woolf, from her 1930 essay "Street Haunting: A London Adventure"

I got a letter from the Office of Personnel Management the other day. It stated that my personal information “may have been exposed as a result of a recent cyber security attack.” OPM “…regret[ted] the incident” and offered a credit monitoring service and substantial identity theft insurance.

What is identity? How is it determined and who determines it? What exactly is it we wish to protect if it comes under siege? Our cash? Do identity thieves hope to gain something other than money? Would it be such a bad thing to get another identity?

Is your identity based on race/genetics? Rachel Dolezal – a woman who has identified as black, though her parents claim she is white/Caucasian – was the subject of a recent article by James M. Calcagno, a professor of biological anthropology at Loyola University Chicago. Professor Calcagno argues that “genetic races do not exist and race is purely a cultural construct.” He added that if one were to go back far enough, “…everyone on the planet is African-something” because all human beings have ties to that continent. Take a look at Nell Zink's latest novel, Mislaid.

What about gender? Caitlyn, (fka Bruce) Jenner is a man who says he has identified as a woman for most of his life, but has only recently begun to appear physically as a woman. Why the change now and not before?

Can your identity be reduced to a collection of numbers - social security, PIN, bank accounts, credit cards? Governmental entities think so.

Or maybe biology? In a June 2015 Harper's article entitled "Shooting Down Man the Hunter," Rebecca Solnit writes that "...we are not necessarily what we once were." Our identities can and do change constantly. Alexandra Fuller says in her book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, that "...identity is is easily corruptible."

Maybe it’s your chosen career/job/profession that determines your identity, and you decide that it will identify you. Here in the U.S., it has long been the case that one of the first things someone asks about is your profession. In other parts of the world, this topic may eventually come up, but only after, for example, “where are you from?” and other questions s related to country-specific information (yet another identifying factor). 

Most of the jobs in my professional life can more or less fit into the fields of sales, teaching, law, diplomacy, and the arts, though there's a category I'd call "miscellaneous" that would include wrangling animals on a farm in Andalusia. Although I have enjoyed many of those jobs, I hardly ever derived my identity from any one of them. Yet that is what people in the U.S. tend to do, often to the exclusion of all other possible identifying features, e.g. favorite books, films, food, sports.

Is your identity your name? At the very end of The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg imagines the writer George Sand (born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), contemplating her controversial life, one filled with triumphs and tragedies, a life during which she continually searched for answers to questions about the true nature of love, spirituality, politics and identity. She wonders what it was all for, the endless questions about why she did this or that, who or what she was. “In the end,” Sand says, “there is but one answer to every question, whether it is spit at me or made as gentlest inquiry: I was I.” I prefer this categorization.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Location, Location, Location

Ten years ago, I was living in a Rosslyn, Virginia hotel in preparation for my departure to Iraq. I had recently returned to the DC area after two years in India and was in these temporary quarters for about six months. During this time, I was a member of Gold's Gym and regularly parked in the adjacent covered lot. Later that summer, journalist Bob Woodward revealed the identity of Deep Throat, his source for the critical information about the Watergate break-in which led to then-President Richard Nixon's resignation. Woodward also stated that the two had met clandestinely in that same parking lot. [A 2014 article stated that this garage will be torn down to make way for residential buildings.] Unaware of this scintillating connection at the time, to me the garage was just a garage; not until the events that took place there become known did the rather ordinary lot become extraordinary.

I thought about this because last week, I re-watched All the President's Men, the film based on the Woodward book. And it got me thinking about locations - movie locations in particular - and how critical they are to the overall mood of a film.

In a previous post, I wrote about my trip to Poland one year ago and briefly mentioned discovering some of the filming locations (in Warsaw) of several episodes of Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue. It was kind of a breathtaking rush to stumble onto these places. [By the way, I recently learned that The Criterion Collection is working on its version of The Decalogue (wonderful news), and that NBC is planning its own version to be set in Boston (not as wonderful, but I'm sure my curiosity will get the better of me and I'll watch.)]

Not long ago, I watched the three films in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy: Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero. I was moved by all three, but particularly by the latter which was filmed on location in 1947 in the midst of Berlin's World War II rubbly aftermath. This Berlin in no way resembled the one I knew when I lived there in 2010. Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, filmed 40 years after Germany Year Zero, showed Berlin in a similar (though much-rebuilt) otherworldly apocalyptic state of despair. I found quite a few of these locations five years ago, all but the Wall of course. The most recent movies to be filmed in Berlin were Run, Lola, Run (1998), and The Lives of Others (released in 2006, though set in the 1980s). I am waiting for a contemporary cinematic look at Berlin, one that will at last offset the heavy melancholy of its history I found around every corner.

Does the earth remember? While photographing Civil War battlefields, photographer Sally Mann asks this question in her wild and lovely memoir, Hold Still. Well, I say it does.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Monks, Dandies and Quaintrelles

I recently saw Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland, a documentary about a man born to privilege, and immersed in fashion and photography from a young age as a grandson of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland. Nicky, as he was called, was known as a dandy who dressed well and appreciated the finer things in life. He gradually turned away from this life and became a Tibetan Buddhist monk with an abbey of his own and close friendships with The 14th Dalai Lama and Richard Gere.

Before meeting a friend for lunch the other day, I visited Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography to see Dandy Lion: (Re) Articulating Black Masculine Identity. It was a well-done, thought-provoking group show. It made me ask if there was such a thing as a female dandy and the answer is yes. According to a recent New York article, female dandies, also known as quaintrelles, are "...wom[e]n who emphasize a life of passion expressed through personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, and cultivation of life's pleasures." Some notable quaintrelles of the past include Coco Chanel and Marlene Dietrich. I would include Audrey and Katherine Hepburn.

Over lunch, my friend and I identified more contemporary examples. We came up with the following: Lady Gaga, Kate Middleton, Kate Moss, Diane Kruger, Diana Spencer, Ines de La Fressange, and Chloe Sevigny. Some of these women do the cross-dressing thing and others stay feminine, chic. Both groups have a keen eye for detail and express themselves with style.

Monday, May 4, 2015


I don't often see films in theaters; for a number of reasons, I prefer to watch them on DVD. Here's why:

First of all, the extras (e.g. interviews with the director and cast, behind-the-scenes stuff, B-roll footage, etc.), which alone are worth waiting the several weeks or months to see the film. Another benefit is that I get to see thousands (about 10,000 at this point) of films for free, courtesy of local libraries. Thank you. There's also the option of pausing and backtracking if I missed a critical piece of dialogue or action. Let's not forget the total immersion into the film, the silence, and the transporting possibilities often absent when surrounded by others who may or may not be there with the same level of commitment as you.

So, Lucy. I didn't once check the timer on my remote to see how much longer there was to go in this 89-minute Luc Besson film from last year. You might laugh, but that's pretty great thing in my book. In contrast, The Immigrant, The Rewrite, and The Horseman had me pushing that button numerous times. The problems were a terribly-cliched story, weak or repellent characters with no redeeming facets, and/or an over-dependence on bad music to prod emotional reactions from the audience. I find it insulting and I always wonder why the directors feel they must resort to these Pavlovian efforts instead of trusting the power of the story. [Some striking, effective uses of music in film, I recommend The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the Czech composer Leos Janacek), Wings of Desire (Jurgen Knieper, German composer), and nearly all of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films (the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner).]

Back to Lucy. This is a wild story that draws on Tree of Life, The Matrix, Her, and Under the Skin, the latter two of which, like Lucy, feature Scarlett Johannson (or her voice) in the starring role. Someone (I don't know who first did it - maybe Jonathan Glazer? Spike Jones?) had the clever idea to tap into Johannson's inability to act by making use of an innate robotic quality. Scarlett is perfectly suited for these three roles.

Luc Besson's best-known films include The Professional, La Femme Nikita, and The Fifth Element. In all three, beautiful, young, initially-naive, often scantily-clad women are in peril at the beginning, but not for long, as they eventually reveal themselves to be steely fortresses of calm and strength, albeit usually with the aid of a man. The violence is brutal, sometimes gratuitous, but often righteous.

Besson likes interesting music and in Lucy, two standouts are "Sister Rust" by Damon Albarn and the final number, "God's Whisper," by Raury. (Don't watch the YouTube video of the Raury song, though, as it is execrable. The song is much more powerful if you listen to it, as I did, at the culmination of the film. Its odd, powerful eeriness could have fit in easily with the soundtrack to In the Name of the Father.) 

Last but not least, Lucy is also worth seeing because of the impressive special effects, cinematography, and sharp editing. So even/especially if you're not a fan of Scarlett Johannson, you may like her after this film. If not, see Her and Under the Skin for good measure. You'll see what I mean.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Great Books + Films (2015)

"The part of art which is art, and not device, unshackles us from usefulness almost entirely. It emplaces us far into those impractical conditions that nonetheless feel to us somehow essential: laughter, contemplation, wonder, tears."

-Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

The following books and films - some new, some older - have met the above "impractical conditions" for me so far this year.


Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Art on Fire
Suspended Sentences
The End of Days
O. Henry Prize Stories (2014) 
Do Not Deny Me
An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips from 35 Great Writers
101 Places Not to See Before You Die
Paul Bowles' Travels: Collected Writings
The Accidental
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent
The Sheltering Sky
The Time of the Assassins
The Ten Thousand Things
H is for Hawk
Elegy on Kinderklavier
The Dream of a Common Language
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Harlequin’s Millions
Happy Are the Happy
The Seventh Day
Without You There is No Us
Belfast Noir
All Days are Night
How We Are
The Interpreter
Refund: Stories
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays
The Charterhouse of Parma
Traveling in Place: Armchair Travel
City Beasts: 14 Stories
A Bad Character
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Girl in a Band
Mozart in the Jungle
A Season in Hell
Blue Angel
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Wolf Hall + Bring Up the Bodies
The Girl Next Door
The Scapegoat
Irma Voth
Lost Illusions
Giving Up the Ghost
Beyond the Chestnut Trees
Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World
Munich Airport
When We Were Orphans
Alys, Always
On the Move: A Life
The Long-Winded Lady
Hausfrau: A Novel
Haiku: Basho, Buson, Issa
Milosz: Selected and Last Poems
An Artist of the Floating World
Girl at War


The Vanishing (original Danish version)
The Cold Lands
Foreign Letters
The Duel
Donkey Skin
Naked Lunch
Bay of Angels  
Sophie Scholl: Final Days
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
An Unreasonable Man
The Heiress 
Level Five
Abuse of Weakness
For a Woman
I Am Yours
Mon Oncle 
The Silence
Now, Voyager
Oranges and Sunshine
A Man Escaped
Pan’s Labyrinth   
Polanski’s Macbeth
Get On Up                                                              
Nine Lives                                                              
A Night to Remember
My Own Private Idaho
Force Majeure
Bird People
Fugitive Pieces
Silent Light
The Strange Little Cat
Olive Kitteridge
The Little Bedroom
Place of Execution
Art and Craft
If You Don't, I Will
The Babadook
Winter Sleep
Mr. Turner
The Nun