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Arts & Culture

Notes on Vape

November 18, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jon Williams, via Flickr

Last night, Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year—vape—and it was hard not to feel, at first, a twinge of disappointment. After all, 2013’s Word of the Year was selfie, which was so ubiquitous, so contentious, so undeniably germane to our times, that think pieces are still being written about it a year later. Selfie was a gift from the lexical gods, a soft disyllable that contained within it the whole winding story of our evolving relationship with technology. Choosing it was almost an act of synecdoche: it stood for a massive and increasingly vexed conversation about our lives online.

But our neology isn’t always so supple; Oxford Dictionaries is on the lookout for words that “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year,” and not every year delivers a pluperfect sign of the times. You play the hand you’re dealt. And 2014 has dealt us a lot of duds—slacktivism, budtender, bae, and normcore were on the shortlist this year, all clever and evocative as far as they go, but none of them with that era-encapsulating magic.

And none of them with the guarantee of longevity. I asked Allison Wright, an editor at Oxford University Press, what she and her colleagues look for in the Word of the Year, and she emphasized the importance of finding a word that isn’t “a flash in the pan.” Hence, she said, the ultimate appeal of vape—(v.) inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device; (n.) an electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device—which promises to be around for a little while. Read More »

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Let’s All Go Down to the Bridge and Get Our Teeth Pulled

November 17, 2014 | by

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Louis-Leopold Boilly, 1827.

I’ve been enjoying The Smile Revolution, Colin Jones’s trenchant, very readable history of the smile—specifically its evolution in eighteenth-century Paris, where smiling was once, as the jacket copy puts it, “quite literally frowned upon.”

Obviously the emergence of the smile owes plenty to the emergence of dentistry, but the story as Jones tells it owes as much to shifting social mores as it does to science—and much of the fun in The Smile Revolution is in reading about this cultural shift. Here, for a taste, is the story of Le Grand Thomas, a charlatan who made a career of yanking people’s teeth out. Apparently you could find him standing on the bridge every day, barking and hawking his talents, dressed in a baggy scarlet coat. He traveled with a pair of musicians and a large cart with an enormous tooth (“Gargantua’s awesome molar”) hanging from it. Here’s Jones:

Every day, from sometime in the 1710s until his death in 1757, Jean Thomas stood on the Pont-Neuf, alongside the cheval de bronze … and offered to pull out the teeth of all and sundry.

[…] His portrait proudly proclaimed:

Our Grand Thomas, beplumed in glory,
The Pearl of Charlatans (or so’s the story).
Your Tooth aches? You need never doubt
Le Grand Thomas will yank it out.

[…] The demeanor of le Grand Thomas was such that it seemed that he could terrify peccant teeth into submission. Everything about him exuded mythic power. The medicines he described were made up in doses suitable as much for a horse as a man. He himself weighed the same as three men, and ate and drank for four. His barking voice could be heard across the city. If a client’s tooth resisted his assaults he would, it was said, make the individual kneel down in front of him and then, with the strength of a bull, lift him three times into the air with the hand still clenched on the recalcitrant tooth.

Le Grand Thomas was no mere physician—he was a folk hero. In 1743, toward the peak of his massive popularity, there was a character based on him in a play called Le Vaudeville. A few of his lines:

Beware the lure of windy exaggeration
Which doctors use—for our assassination.
Tho’ I, Thomas, am tongue-tied in truth
At least I can help with the ache of a tooth.
I pull it right from the root.
Crack! Right from the root.

In all my years of dental, orthodontic, and periodontal care—years of care that, don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful for—I’ve never encountered a figure with such panache.

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Cabinet of Wonder

November 10, 2014 | by

Mmuseumm revitalizes the tradition of the Wunderkammer.

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Courtesy of Mmuseumm

On a recent weekend, Manhattan’s smallest museum was bustling. A man and a woman in matching red sweaters examined a display of North Korean household products and then rows of watches emblazoned with the face of Saddam Hussein. A child squinted at a row of pool toys from Saudi Arabia in censored packaging; she frowned at the strange black shapes that had replaced the women in bathing suits. Nearby, a man was having a caricature done of himself as a Halloween zombie while a small crowd spilled out onto Cortland Alley to watch. Later, though, on a Monday afternoon, the space was quiet, closed to the public. It was just me and the Down Syndrome dolls, the display of mounted moss samples, a soft babble of speech from a little video screen on one of the higher shelves, and a question: How ought we to think of this?

The “this” in question is Mmuseumm, a single-story space converted from an old elevator shaft on the edge of Chinatown, about four paces wide and four paces deep. Each of its three walls has four rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with a red, velvety material and brightly lit: at night, the whole place shines, an island of light in the alley’s murk. On my second daytime visit, I found Alex Kalman, one of Mmuseumm’s cofounders, down on his knees lint-rolling dust from the velvet of the lowest shelf, just beside a bizarre chip-and-snack tray under glass. Over the next hour, we sat outside in two folding chairs while Kalman told me about Mmuseumm’s genesis, purpose, and current form. Then he left me, generously, to wonder at the place on my own. Read More »

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Ways of Witnessing

November 5, 2014 | by

Geoff Dyer and John Berger, 1984.

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Marxism Today, December 1984.

I read Berger’s Ways of Seeing and then started to read more and more of him, and I found it all very stimulating and exciting. He was doing something that I hadn’t come across before in English writing—bridging the gap between criticism and fiction and so on. All with that level of political engagement that was absolutely de rigueur back in the early eighties. He was my favorite writer, and I interviewed him for Marxism Today. —Geoff Dyer, the Art of Nonfiction No. 6, 2013

John Berger is eighty-eight today—I’d been curious for a while about his interview with Geoff Dyer, so I finally did the obvious thing and Googled it. Lo and behold: the December 1984 issue of Marxism Today has been digitally archived by unz.org, with the Dyer-Berger exchange complete and unabridged. The interview, “Ways of Witnessing,” sits among such fare as “Hopes, Dreams & Dirty Nappies” (“What can utopias do for mothers and mothers do for utopias?”) and a column called “Video Viewpoint” (“Perhaps 1984 will be remembered in some small footnote as the year in which video tapes started to live up to the claims several people, mostly video producers to be sure, had been making… ”). The cover story: “Santa’s Dramatic Intervention.”

At the time, Berger was soon to release And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, but he doesn’t discuss the new book much. Instead—as you might anticipate given the venue—he and Dyer talk a lot of leftist shop: “My reading tended to be more anarchist than Marxist-Kropotkin and all the anarchist classics,” Berger says. And on why he never became a card-carrying Communist: “I had reservations about the party line in relation to the arts.”

Dyer would’ve been twenty-six when this interview came out; there’s not a lot of his voice here, and certainly none of his humor comes through. But you can sense, maybe only because of his later comments, his eagerness to please Berger, or at least to convey the scope of his intellect. Toward its midpoint, the conversation turns to romanticism, and here it’s somewhat less arid: Read More »

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A Conversation About Our Secret Life in the Movies

November 3, 2014 | by

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A detail from the cover of Our Secret Life in the Movies.

When the writers Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree lived together in San Francisco, they set out to watch every film in the Criterion Collection. Their new book, Our Secret Life in the Movies, is a coauthored mash note to cinema classics from Andrei Tarkovsky to Michael Mann: a novel in fragments, vacillating between fiction and autobiography, with more than thirty pairs of stories inspired by the films they watched together. Part collage and part homage, Secret Life follows two boys as they come of age in Reagan-era America, where the video store is the locus of the imagination and the fear of a nuclear winter looms large in the collective conscious.

McGriff and Tyree sat down together to discuss their impetus for the project, the enigma of writing about moving images, and their influences in literature and film alike.

J. M. Tyree: I’m trying to remember how we got the idea for Our Secret Life in the Movies.

Michael McGriff: We were roommates in San Francisco, both teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, and I somehow convinced you that it would be a good idea to watch the entire Criterion Collection that year.

JMT: We were living in that wonderful place near Mission Dolores, a block away from where Alfred Hitchcock created the fictional grave of Carlotta Valdes in Vertigo. The Criterion project was a real Y-chromosome thing, wasn’t it? We were watching two or three movies a day, eating a lot of pizza, drinking a lot of sambuca. I think our book evolved naturally from the feeling that movies and life seep together out there in the fog.

MM: We started writing these pairs of stories. For each movie that fascinated us, we’d both write one story. A double take on the film. We decided to leave our names off the individual stories and let the book have a life all its own.

JMT: Then the stories started connecting and linking up and merging and growing and taking over—cue The Blob. Why did you want to write a book about movies?

MM: I’ve always gone to film as my primary source of inspiration. Tarkovsky and Bergman taught me how to be a poet just as much as reading Tranströmer and Neruda. Read More »

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Who the Fuck Was That Guy?

October 29, 2014 | by

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From the first-edition jacket of Henry Green’s Party Going.

I’m delighted to hear from Bob that you have undertaken an interview with Henry Green. I meant to write you last spring that I had tea with him in London—with his wife, some others, and Christopher Logue, that frenetic poet whom you may remember from Paris and who worships Green and begged to be taken along. Well, he was, and there was Green in a double-breasted black business suit going under the name York (sic), talking like a businessman from Manchester, with an anecdote or two, terribly long—one, as I remember, about a seal two old ladies found on a beach near Brighton and nursed back to health in their bathtub, the point of the story being that in England alone could such a thing happen. Logue kept darting looks at the door, for Green, I guess, and making side remarks of incredible rudeness to York. When we left, Logue asked: “Jesus, who the fuck was that guy on the sofa.” “Henry Green,” I said.
—George Plimpton, from a letter to Terry Southern, 1957

Ever since I read that letter (plug: it’s from our Fall issue) I’ve had Henry Green’s seal anecdote on my mind, mostly in light of the many questions it raises: How did those old ladies transport the seal? What was entailed, exactly, in nursing it back to health, and how did they know it was well again? Did they keep it as a pet afterward?

I fear the answers are lost to the ages.

As Plimpton tells it, Green wasn’t very stimulating company, but—given what I know of his persona, and the intense affinity I feel for his seal story—I can think of few writers I’d rather spend an afternoon with. I envision us puttering around his family’s pipe factory in Birmingham, perhaps checking various gauges, with Green in his business suit, his hands clasped behind his back, carrying on a kind of tour-de-force monologue all the while, losing his place and opening several series of parentheses with no intention of closing them. Listening to Green hold forth, I imagine, was probably a lot like reading him: an enlightening, exhilarating, and not infrequently exhausting experience. Read More »

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