Sylvia’s Mother

Dr. Hook on the cover of the Rolling StoneDr. Hook & the Medicine Show is best known for the song The Cover of the Rolling Stone, a humorous Shel Silverstein song about the excesses of rock stars. “We sing about beauty and we sing about truth… at ten thousand dollars a show.” But Dr. Hook’s first hit was almost as popular, and also a Silverstein tune: Sylvia’s Mother. On its surface, it is a very sweet song of a man trying to get back together with a woman, only to be politely stonewalled by her mother.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure how to take the song. It simultaneously makes me laugh and cry. It is too much like Please Do Not Go by the Violent Femmes, which although sweet in its way is clearly making fun of of its over-wrought singer. In Sylvia’s Mother the singer is being told he can’t talk to Sylvia, even as her mother is talking to her. And to make matters worse, the operator is asking for more money.

Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s hurrying
She’s catching the nine o’clock train.
Sylvia’s mother says:”Take your umbrella,
Cause Sylvia it’s starting to rain.”
And Sylvia’s mother says “Thank you for calling…
And sir won’t you call back again.”
And the operator says, “Fourty cents more
For the next three minutes.”

When done by Bobby Bare (who may have done it before Dr. Hook), it is, of course, a sweet and serious song. But the Dr. Hook version is so overdone that it is hard to escape it as being anything but a joke. And I think that is the brilliance of the song. The truth is that the greatest heartbreaks of our lives are, in an objective sense, hilarious.

Gus Van Sant’s Fading Career

Promised LandI seem to talk a lot about once great directors losing their edges. Most recently, I mentioned David Cronenberg. Last year around this time, it was the Coen Brothers. Ridley Scott is another example. I could go on and on.

Another good example is Gus Van Sant. Like all of the directors I’ve mentioned, it isn’t that what he does today is bad. Far from it. But all of these directors have polished their art to the point where it is dull. Van Sant’s first three films were marvelous—seething with the passion that he felt for his subjects. Mala Noche is kind of hard to watch these days because of its technical problems and narrative discontinuity, but it is also about as pure a piece of art as you ever seen. Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho are as fresh today as they were 20 years ago.

Then things started to go wrong. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was a worthy effort. To Die For really started to define a new style for Van Sant: polished and distant. And then Good Will Hunting came along. It wasn’t so much the direction. The fact that Gus Van Sant had decided to do such a trite piece of work is why it was so disappointing. Up to that point, Van Sant could be depended upon to make cheap films that performed pretty well at the box office. Good Will Hunting was a mega-hit. After that, we got bigger budgets and more of the same. Now if you go to see a Gus Van Sant film, you can bet it will be some variation on Finding Forrester.

Today, I watched Promised Land. Stiff characters, feel good theme, and a horribly predictable denouement. What’s not to like? But there is something that I especially didn’t like: the moral journey of Steve Butler (Matt Damon). It has to do with Faust. If we are to accept Goethe, Faust gets out of hell on a technicality. I’ve never liked that. In Dr. Faustus he goes to hell. That’s what a Faustian Bargain is all about. Once you accept it, you accept it completely.

If you spend 20 years screwing people over, you don’t wake up one day and decide to change. That whole period was one big training session for convincing yourself that what you are doing is right. Army Generals don’t wake up one day and decide that they are pacifist. They’ve spent too much time convincing themselves that while war may be wrong, if good men like themselves don’t blah, blah, blah.

I understand that someone can have an epiphany. True believers can react violently when their illusions are shattered. But Butler’s illusions aren’t shattered. He knows from the beginning that what he does is potentially harmful. But more important, he knows that his job is to not give the people all of the information. And what does he do at the end? He gives the people all the information. It doesn’t seem like the path his character was on. It seems like what the plot required for a happy ending.

On the plus side, watching Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver together was fun. Every scene with them lit up the screen. It was also great to see Hal Holbrook working and looking more than ever like Mark Twain. And of course Matt Damon was Matt Damon, and that ain’t bad.


There were films named “Promised Land” produced in 1973, 1975, 1986, 1987, 2002, 2004, and of course, 2012. Perhaps a better title would have been, “My Own Private Fracking Rights.”

Banking Crises Soaring

Sal GentileSal Gentile over at Up with Chris Hayes found a remarkable paper from the Bank of England, Long and Short-Term Effects of the Financial Crisis on Labour Productivity, Capital and Output (pdf). They find that there is a long-term effect on an economy’s productivity of 1% per year that the crisis drags on. In other words, we all pay a hefty long-term price for the sins (and profits) of the banking industry.

As a result of this, governments have a real interest in limiting financial crises. Unfortunately, governments are doing just the opposite. The authors of the paper look at data from 61 countries over the period 1955–2010. And they find that the number of financial crises has skyrocketed over the last 30 years. Here is the graph taken from Up with Chris Hayes:

Years Spent in Banking Crises

Think about this for a moment. Here is a clear case of the unfettered market hurting productivity. I remember back when I read Ayn Rand and her constant admonitions that capitalists only worry about their enlightened self-interests. That word “enlightened” is so big, you could march a Nazi military column through it. But what I find remarkable is that as Rand has become more and more important to the market fetishists, these people act more and more in unenlightened and short-term ways.

The government needs to get back to regulating the finance industry. All we have gained from looser regulations has be a ballooning of the financial part of our economy. And that doesn’t produce anything. Goldman Sachs does not bring good things to life!

Celebrity Painters

Oedensplatz - Adolf Hitler

In general, I’m against artists in one field going into another. Part of it is just that we already live in a winner-take-all society. There are damned few ways for artists to make a living. Does Jeff Bridges really need the extra income from doing voice-overs for commercials? Couldn’t he leave some work for struggling voice-actors? But another problem is just that the famous don’t have to be particularly good at their new field. If Madonna wants to publish a novel, she will publish a novel. And after a team of editors and book doctors fine tune what would probably been a fairly pathetic attempt, she would end up looking like, you know, a novelist as opposed to what she is.

We see this a lot in painting. In the late 1980s, I saw a book, Doubly Gifted. It is a book filled with the visual art of writers. It sounded really interesting, but what I immediately noticed was that all the artwork was derivative. There really wasn’t anything that was original. But I will allow that most of the writers in the book were reasonably decent amateur artists.

Yesterday, I came upon an article on Hub Pages, Famous People Who Are Also Artists. It included 7 people and a sample of their artwork.

The Beatles

The first two famous people are John and Paul. Paul’s work is not wholly unworthy. He does a kind of abstract expressionism combined with primitive representational stuff. It look more like real art than I’m used to from celebrities who decide to paint.

Lennon, on the other hand, is pathetic. Or at least, the people who take his doodles seriously are. There really is nothing on offer here. He has no sense of design, his representations look like bad comics, and it is all very much the same—which wouldn’t be bad if the work were good. There is far too much mythology surrounding Lennon anyway. People care about his art because he was the coolest Beatle. But do we need anything more than Strawberry Fields Forever?[1]

Tony Bennett

Bennett’s work is entirely typical of what I hate about celebrity painting. It isn’t that he’s bad. He’s clearly worked hard at the craft of painting. But I can never look at a painting of his without thinking of someone else. Edward Hopper here. Camille Pissarro there. I know I’m going piss off a few people with this, but it doesn’t help matters that I just don’t like Bennett that much as a singer. Sorry, but I’m a Sinatra man. I even like Martin more.

Tony Curtis

Ladies and gentleman: Henri Matisse! Except without much of a clue regarding composition. The colors are nice. Lots of cats.

The Good

The work of both Dennis Hopper and Anthony Hopkins strike me as rather good. Hopper was a photographer with a keen idea. Hopkins creates some very intense portraits. (I could live without his landscapes.) Both men have an artistic vision combined with technical ability.

The Ugly

Last of the seven is everyone’s favorite Austrian painter, Adolf Hitler. Since I was a child, I’ve heard that Hitler was a failed artist. But I had never seen his work. It is uncomfortable for me to admit that the man had talent. The image above is one of his from when he was 25 year old. What I especially like about it is the great composition. He clearly has an eye. And you see this again and again in his art work. I think he might well have become a fine artist in time. There is nothing that says that artists have to be nice. Had Pablo Picasso failed as an artist, who knows what vile political philosophy he would have created.

I don’t much believe if artistic gifts. In general, people get better the more they do something. Celebrities—because they are rich—have the time to get good at whatever they want. I do, however, wish they would keep it private. Art is narcissistic enough. Going public is more so, but understandable for the talented nobody. Going public when you already can’t go out to a restaurant without being mobbed by adoring fans strikes me as uber-narcissistic, or maybe just plain pathetic.

[1] Or Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Or A Day in the Life (with assist from McCartney). Or Come Together. Or Across the Universe. I could go on.

Jesus Opens a Laundry

Mary MagdaleneI’m always interested in how Christians perceive the work of Jesus. When Mary Magdalene was sick, Jesus cured her and she stuck by him throughout the Passion and beyond. But Christians are more likely to send their problems away. Out of sight, out of mind. Who needs that compassion nonsense?

In the late 18th century, institutions to reform “fallen women” started popping up throughout Europe and America. They were called Magdalene Laundries. As with penitentiaries, they started as a way of helping the morally wanting but quickly became just a way of punishing them. Think: forced labor insane asylum.

Not surprisingly, the government colluded to funnel women into the institutions. The Irish government performed an 18 month of study on the issue. The report was released last week, “Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.” It found, “Some 10,000 women and girls entered Magdalene laundries since 1922 with more than a quarter of referrals made or facilitated by the State.”

You might have noticed that 1922 was not that long ago. I think we are all used to this sort of thing in the distant past. Witchcraft, for example, can best be described as the crime of being a bit odd. In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, girls were often sent because they were too flirtatious or just too attractive. And this went on for a long time. The last Magdalene Laundry was closed only in 1996.

According to historian Frances Finnegan in Do Penance or Perish, these asylums ended because of changing attitudes towards sex. But just as important was that they ceased to be profitable after the invention of the washing machine. Upwards of 1000 women died in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland—life imprisonment for being pretty.

Justice for Magdalenes is an advocacy group for survivors of the Laundries. The government has now apologized for its part in this unjust system. No word from the church.