Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Images from Berlin 2008: Retrospective

Just another quick and dirty look back at the year that was from die Hauptstadt. A few snapshots: A girl frantically trying to solve a Rubik's cube before the train disembarks....a teenage boy on the UBahn trying to comb the nits out of his Barbie wig at 8 am on a Monday morning....a mentally challenged thirtysomething male in a street fight with a passel of 8-year old kids....a Turkish girl wrapped in a German flag eating a Doner kebap....a coatcheck rock chick girl with a New Jersey accent in a backwards shag wig and Journey t-shirt...running into shrivelled testicle Willem Dafoe at the Ballhaus in the Nikolai Viertel...spending time with Rupert Everett in Schoneberg....a triple-process peroxide harridan bartender straight out of Fassbinder shrieking at all the customers at Monster Ronson' foxes loose in the city...guys in the Hasenheide shouting "Grasmeister! Gute Gras hier! Verstehst du mich?" when I'm out for a stroll (I don't know whether I or he was supposed to be the Grasmeister). PSA: don't buy Gras there, it's cut with parsley sage rosemary and thyme...Abba being played ad nauseum in every roomate's vampire girlfriend subtly asking me if I like to go to "dahhhhkrooms"...bears, bears and more bears (if you can't beat 'em...become one)...fat German woman making fun of stereotypically fat Americans...a thousand cute malapropisms (my favorite being my friend Tobias's "It was horrowful!")...a girl from "the former Montenegro" telling my friend Assaf he was old (he's 36) then trying to backpedal clumsily: "I don't think you are old, but in the real world, you are old"...being taken to task by a Syrian friend for my government's misadventures in the Middle domineering German instructor Marieke, whom I referred to as a "kitten with a whip" computer programmer roommate telling me he dreams in code, which of course did nothing to perpetuate the stereotype that Germans are like robots...After cleaning the apartment assiduously for hours for my returning Untervermieter, I had a moment that would have horrowfied Martha Stewart: a last minute stopped-up toilet (the fly in the ointment as it were). He was quite sanguine about it though ("Oh it's just one of those things that happens that shouldn't happen. We will just buy some chemicals and try to clean it out.") My attempt at assuaging my own embarrassment met head-on his German directness. "Oh so this has happened before?" "Nope! That's a new one!" (OK no more toilet narratives I promise)...Being asked to water my landlady's plants, then discovering I was being gaslighted a best and the victim of attempted assassination at worst: the plants were jerry-rigged in an elaborate Rube Golberg killing contraption that would have put the makers of SAW to shame...the self-same crazed landlady asking if she can put a floor rug on the wall above my bed because "it's Moroccan style". Little did I know that the reason I was losing sleep and sanity was that she had put another filthy rug under the topsheet. I was like the princess and the pea. When I confronted her about it she replied, "You are the first to ever complain. I keep it under there because people from time to time will spill thing in the bed, for example, they will take their coffee in the bed and spill it, or the women will come and they will have their menstruation in the bed..." OK lady, that's where I draw the line. When somebody bleeds in my bed, it's time to buy a new mattress... guy on the UBahn declaiming loudly during the height of last summer's mania that "Fussball is scheisse", half expecting him to be lynched...a German nurse trick showing me his friend's severed foreskin. The friend had been circumcised recently, and he'd kept the specimen in a jar....dodging fireworks hurled by ruffians from their bedroom windows on Silvester...mammoth hairy steroid spiders crawling en masse up a graffiti-splattered Berlin Wall at the Eastside Gallery...swarms of bees descending on the pastries at Kamps bakery, trapped in sugar canisters, everywhere...The sad woman on the U1, busking to a backing track on a boom box in her backpack. Like clockwork, as soon as the double doors closed, a desiccated hand would push a button, the salsa beat would kick in, and goddamit if I hear that chorus of Volare, Volare again, I'm gonna (serenity, serenity...)...serendiptiously nabbing VIP passes to Berlin's Art Forum...a brass jazz band playing under my window at 6 am...distended stomach from eating too much doner kebap, haribo, pfannkuchen, zB....a little kid 8 years if he was a day flipping me the bird on the U8...becoming the de facto grief counselor in my building when the neighbor across the hall killed himself. Unforgettably, I had people buzzing the flat looking for their friend, and I had to tell them in my rudimentary German that he was no longer with us....a nun almost getting hit by a car but stopping it at the last second with a stone-cold colleague Kais from Dubai expressing shock at my assertion that occasionally men in the US kiss each other when saying goodbye. "Two men??!! Oh my God!!! Are you joking? (Long pause) That's great!!! I love this guy! I kiss you!! roommate breaking the world's record for "mountainbike jumping"...and thank you to the lovely Amandine for walking me to the door when no-one has ever walked me to the door before!!!...Love to all and guten Rusche, Brian

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Digital Panty Raid

I recently read a Salon article limning an upswing in so-called "Upskirting" in which cell-phone technology allows perverts easy access to captured-for-posterity beaver shots on the street. Litigation on behalf of the victims has yielded mixed results. It's no surprise that Oklahoman women are shouldering blame for wearing skirts in the first place (wait, aren't women required to wear skirts in Oklahoma?) Less clear cut cases of video violation involve women signing off on their own exposure, e.g. Girls Gone Wild, and then balking when the humiliation proves more extreme or reaches a wider audience than had been anticipated.

Here in Deutschland, as per ushe, observing cultural phenomena such as the confluence of exploitation and technology is like looking backwards through a telescope. Voyeurism is virtually celebrated -- in fact, virtual voyeurism is celebrated. To wit: they're peddling a new gizmo on Deutsch TV called "Naked Scanner" which supposedly shows you the naughty bits of anyone who gets within range of the thing. The commercial features a young woman on a beach, fully clothed, being "scanned" in a POV shot by some dude, directly implicating the viewer in the cartoonish perviness of it all. Indistinguishable at first glance from a regular cell phone with a cam, the scanner, when passed over a fully clothed body, produces an image of an airbrushed looking female nude Korper with suspiciously pneumatic breasts and a preternaturally groomed vajajay. I was reminded at once of the old "X Ray" glasses sold in the back of comic books. Sure enough, it wasn't long before a second device, "X-Ray Scanner", popped up on the screen. It comes in the same handsome packaging as "Naked Scanner", but enables one to actually see, instead of the boner under their jeans, the actual "bones" underneath the skin of one's friends! Viel Spass fuer die ganze Familie! The mind boggles.

These ads may be viral and ubiquitous, but it's the flipside of this smarmy surreal permissiveness which suggests a wicked sense of humor. The TV spot that really flipped my whig was the one for some kind of fresh-smelling detergent. A woman strays from her own backyard, enticed by the fresh scents of her neighbor's laundry on the clothesline. So buzzed is she by this aphrodisiac of a soap that she absent-mindedly plucks a pair of panties from the line and proceeds to massage them into her face, inhaling deeply. Naturlich, at that very moment the owner of said panties enters the backyard: sniffus interruptus. Cue freeze frame with "geschockt" expressions on both parties' faces, one still covered in fresh undie. The latter in abject horror beats a hasty retreat to the safety of her own backyard, presumably where she can do all the consensual laundry-huffing her fetish for all things fresh-spring-scented requires.

Now anytime I feel blase with ennui or jadedness, I flick on the TV for the antidote, of which there seems to be a bottomless supply. OK, maybe it's not that surprising that there's a sitcom ("Saint Pauli Blues") which takes place entirely in the Reeperbahn section of Hamburg, probably the world's most famous red light district. But I'd love to see how the Germans would have reacted to, say, Janet Jackson's Superbowl "wardrobe malfunction" a few seasons back, in which the act of voyeurism was reversed into an act of exhibitionism, the audience as noncomplicit victims. I'm guessing the Krauts would have foregone the smelling salts and histrionic litigation and seen it for what it was, canny advertising.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fresh from the Inbox: Butt Magazine Berlin Xmas Party -- See You There, Bitches!


Save the date! On Friday, 26 December 2008, Pet Shop Bears and BUTT Magazine present a Second Christmas Day/Boxing Day dance party to celebrate the release of BUTT’s 25th issue.
Hosts Open Mike & Justin Case as well as guest deejays Wolfgang Tillmans, Andy Calorie, Discodromo and Gymnasticos will be on hand. From 00:00 to 7:00 at the Berghain Cuntine in Berlin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Brown Shelf

Joscha put on his fleece hoodie, a sketchpad and ruler tucked under his arm, a sense of purpose in his bearing. "I'm going to buy it now." He'd been taking measurements all day for his new toy. Now he was all but rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

"It's 8 o'clock at night. You're going to buy a toilet now?"

"Hellweg ist still open. Besides, I don't want anyone to see me carrying a toilet around, you know?" It was this oddly demure, anal retentive quality which led him to the idea of purchasing a new commode to begin with. It wasn't that the old Klo was broken. He'd recently split with his actress girlfriend, and in an industrious sublimation of grief or sexual desire, set about making an arbitrary list of home improvements. "I want to focus on myself for a change." A few days later, a fancy new flourescent light appeared over the cooking area, and a sleek new top for the counterspace opposite.

He had a charming way of calling my attention to each improvement, like when he proudly explained the pulley system he had set up to open and shut the bathroom window, which was nigh-on unreachable by hand. Then one morning came:

"I'm going to buy a new toilet. I decided I don't want to look at my shit."

What about mine? I guess he wanted to sweep it all away, along with any traces of the ex-girlfriend's DNA. Who can blame him? It was the usual post-breakup cleaning of house, only taken a step further. A symbolic act -- a sort of mental colonic, if you will, bringing new meaning to the phrase "Get your shit out of here!". Furthermore, this metaphorical act would allow him to deal with his own shit, rather than having to pay a therapist.

The architecture of the German latrine (I can't think of too many more words for toilet...WC anyone?) is unique. Each model harbors a small abutment onto which the feces lands with a thud, direct from the bowels. Ostensibly this is so that the fresh turd can be poked, prodded and inspected in the name of Gesundheit, before being sent on its merry way with a downward flush. As opposed to the U.S. version, where we never even have to be faced with the harsh truth of our own shit if we don't want to (the insidious phenomenon of "backsplash" notwithstanding). It just mysteriously goes away, never floating, sucked into some netherworld between here and the Atlantic. In Germany they positively celebrate this product of peristalsis.

"Yeah. What is it with this shelf? Why is it there?" I asked, trying to be diplomatic. "We don't really have that in the U.S." I really couldn't hope to plumb the depths of the German psyche without some Hilfe. Joscha was his usual reticent self, yet laughed off this cryptic cultural quirk with blithe disdain, as if this attitude alone would make it go away, or somehow separate him from his scheisse-scrutinizing countrymen.

"I know, they don't have it in France either. And I don't want to have it." He shook his head. That night, he rejected his cultural mandate.

For some reason though, the new toilet sat in our hallway for several days before he ultimately installed it. Maybe he got cold feet, feeling some eleventh-hour nostalgia for this vestige of his heritage. Or perhaps he felt ambivalent about replacing the crapper he had shared with his girlfriend for over a year. She had even put next to the TP dispenser a small tab of tape with a diagram of a toilet lid, a perforated line indicating the downward motion of the seat: "Bitte die Toilettendeckel schliessen"(please put down the lid) it read.* I can only assume it was she who wrote the inscription, because if it was he, he was forever breaking his own rule and urinating pell-mell in piss arabesques over the rim and base. But hey, that's another story.

*While a perfectly reasonable request, I have encountered much more exotic and threatening rules in certain households. The ill-fated Moabit place, for example, required one, whether "Mann oder Frau", whether going number one or number two, to plant one's hairy ass down regardless. I found this to be incredibly insensitive and emasculating (and a bit rich coming from the schmutzig Frau Buschmann, who had mold growing over everything in the flat, and a collection of insect traps, completely filled up with long-dead bugs, dangling from the kitchen ceiling like Christmas decorations). Unfortunately, the problem was irremediable due to the broken state of the seat, so often I would flee to the guest toilet for a furtive slash.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Further Reason to Take Heart

Here's one from the archives, proof positive that, though the assholes may have won this round, eventually, if you give a religious bigot (i.e., the douchebags who funded Prop 8) enough rope, he will hang himself...(auch: the new Bruno film is in post-production!!)

Back to the election fallout...there were some kooky hijinks involving a silly, self-destructive grandmother, clutching a styrofoam cross, who had the blind nerve to head right for the epicenter a group of very emotional male protestors in Palm Springs. The media are now holding this up as an example of the meanness of queers. What the hell did she expect, to find salvation at the White Party? In the name of Christ, you don't mess with a bunch of angry middle aged 'mos with time shares, who've just had their ink-fresh marriage licenses revoked! It's this kind of idiotocracy that proves that fags should reproduce! It's like Aunt Ida hyperbolized in John Waters' Female Trouble: "If they're smart, they're queer; if they're stupid, they're straight. The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life."

The religulous right may crow about queers' childish and petulant (and according to "Walker Texas Ranger" Chuck Norris "anarchic") response to the passage of Prop 8, and its concomitant threat to "religious freedom", but I plead self-defense on behalf of these queens: the mere sight of a cross scorches my eyes.

Mild-Mannered Army

Re:fracas in the wake of and neo-con gloating around the passage of Proposition 8:

Many of us will be ringing in the holiday season this year with visions of sugarplums and burning Mormon churches dancing in our heads, but before we add another Yule log to stoke the flames of our resentment (because let's face it, many of those who voted for the passage of Prop 8 and its ilk were center right/left, meaning that chances are those "near and dear" to us stabbed us in the back at the booth), take heart that eventually conjugal parity will prevail. Right now, Obama's win may feel like a Pyrrhic Victory, but there are already lawsuits being lobbed at the California legislature challenging this insidious measure, which has been widely condemned, even by centrist Governor Schwarzenegger. The nationwide protests show a group driven from complacency to action -- it's the clarion call of injustice. Unfortunately, the protests should have taken place before the election in a better-organized campaign.

See the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk for some eerie parallels to the current situation, as well as a counter-example of some rather ingenious political organizing. Harvey Milk, an openly gay man and community organizer in San Francisco's Castro District, had risen to the City Supervisor position on the back of a clever campaign to purge the city of doggy-do. Harvey won local hearts and minds with his everyman demeanor, which put a human face for local voters on the love that dare not speak its name. Enter the progenitors of Proposition 4, another bill based on fear, ignorance and religious hatred, with a view to banning any openly gay teachers from California classroom. This measure, like Proposition 8, was predicated on the notion of "protecting the children" from fear of molestation and indoctrination into the homosexual "lifestyle" (nevermind that statistically nearly all perpetrators of sexcrimes against children are heterosexual males). Milk then launched a vigorous grassroots campaign, sending his staffers, articulate and passionate gay men and women, out to canvas local neighborhoods. You can actually see them at work changing the minds of undecided voters. At one point, a genteel Asian couple admits on camera they hadn't much thought about Prop 4. The activist plants a tiny seed for them, convincingly tracing a through-line of discrimination that affects all minorities, and you can see on an infinitesimal level the forces of social change at work. Because, guess what, folks? If you slam one minority, you slam them all, and if you take away the rights of one group, it's a slippery fucking slope. Much to the surprise of everyone -- remember, this was a time when gays were still seen as sinister, and this was pre-AIDS -- Proposition 8, I mean 4, is defeated, with commensurate celebration all around and Harvey being elevated to anti-hero status.

Of course, what follows is a Greek Tragedy of staggering proportions, which was really reduced a footnote in history because of the simultaneous mass suicide of 900 followers of the People's Temple in Guyana. Dan White, a right-wing conservative and champion of "Family Values" who served on the Board of Supervisors with Harvey,resigned over the Prop 4 defeat. Increasingly unstable, White eventually approached Mayor George Moscone at his City Hall office to ask for his job back. When Moscone refused, White pulled out a gun and shot him five or six times. He then repaired to Harvey Milk's office and plugged him several times in the torso and head. Neither men survived. Dan White eventually received the bare minimum sentence for his crimes --6 or 7 years, for killing two men in cold blood. White's lawyers had employed the infamous "Twinkie defense", claiming that White's diet at the time of too much junk food had contributed to the instability leading to his actions. The message was abundantly clear: the murder of a gay man was a nominal crime at best, a theme which has inspired generations of hate crimes. The eve of the sentencing gays took to streets in droves, storming City Hall in a violent protest known as the White Night Riots, smashing windows, overturning and setting alight police cars. It was a truly galvanizing moment in which the grief so touchingly displayed in Harvey's mammoth candlelight vigil mutated into white-hot anger.

The situations then and now are similar,but different. In Harvey's time these men and women were fighting for their lives and their jobs. We are fighting for something less tangible and crucial, but if we really want it, we need get a fire under our collective ass. The current protests, although more than the religious right bargained for, feel like too little, too late. Current gay voters and our brothers and sisters should take a page from the book of Harvey, learning foresight and how to fight, fight, fight channeling all of your resources.

Although the Yes on 8 Campaign was effective, the train to Auschwitz isn't leaving just yet. It passed by a small margin, showing that in addition to churchgoers, many undecided voters who probably advocate civil unions were swayed by specious, unforgivable "doing it for the children" arguments. I hope many people on both sides of the Prop 8 fence see Gus Van Sant's upcoming operatic version of the Harvey Milk story, Milk, so they can learn from the humanism, skill and optimistic spirit he represented. His rational, well-spoken comportment threw into stark relief the straw man arguments, factual gaffes and logical jumps of the Religulous Idiotocracy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Porn Lovers Unite

I've been in a dither about the upcoming US elections, so I almost forgot to write about last week's high (or low, depending on how you look at it) point, the opening night party of the Berlin Porn Festival. I've been quite a shut-in lately, so after a bout of hand-wringing over whether I should venture out on a butt-clenchingly cold Berlin Wednesday night, I finally assented to my friends' pestering. We'd be skipping the actual film and heading straight for the after party, in an old Supermarkt on Adalbertstrasse.

After a couple of the requisite Jager shots as buffer against the bracing cold, we lit out. I suggested walking instead of biking, as the idea of straddling a cold machine didn't appeal to me. We arrived at about 12:30, to two handsome appointed guards standing sentry at the door, paid the Eintritt, wove our way through a concrete maze to the Hinterhof, swung open a massive door and entered a long white tiled room, which was somewhere between clinical and high-school cafeteria-ish, but inventively appropriated. The atmosphere was warm, friendly and decidedly non-sexual. And -- shock! -- most, save for a few preening bikini-clad boyz, were fully clothed. Past the garderobe to the left was a small stage, dancefloor and dj decks. To the right lay a large bed with PVC sheets (no guessing their raison d'etre) on which several punters sat and chatted. At the end of the hall was the bar and beyond that a changing room for the evening's entertainment.

The performance artist took the stage at around 1, opening the fest with a would-be bang. It was Leonard, a male-to-female trans, essaying a travesty of male sexuality by coming out in one of those gas station attendant boiler suits, humping a chair, chugging along to some kind of Dick Dale surfer ditty and licking her chops like some testosterone-fuelled mongrel. S/he then pulled out a huge bratwurst from the folds of his crotch, bit a chunk off the top, spat it out, chucking the remains, which struck my friend Mary dead in the hair. Talking away, she swatted at the fleshy missile distractedly when I pointed it out.

The prole boiler suit was soon doffed to reveal a, to be charitable, less than conventionally attractive hairy leather-daddy physique. I said to Mary, "Looks like he bore some children when he was a girl." The black pvc hotpants anchored with a nude rubber dildo were a surreal touch, but what else is a poor dude with a snatch to do? Well, maybe, maybe he would grab a strategically placed bottle of motor oil for a simulated, face-contorting wank! And then splosh the goo all over his hairy chest, undulating wildly to the tinny wah-wah surfer music! And then, he might turn, back to the audience, for the piece de resistance, hinted at by a metal protuberance dangling behind, or rather in front of, fleshy untoned buttocks!

The audience now rent with suspense, he might, as motor oil dripped from chest and orifice, yank the chain with a flourish, a good half a meter's length of industrial strength chain appearing from his nether regions! In spite of the blank looks on the jaded faces of seen-it-all Berliners, the "Paparazzi", in formation at stagefront would burst into action at the last splash of motor oil, and metaphorical yanking of the chain. Leonard would beam triumphantly, breaking character and taking to the mic. A surprisingly mild-mannered, unprepossessing voice would issue from this most self-created and manly of men. People would be charmed by the real, complicated Leonard, in spite of the shortcomings displayed by his cartoonish pisstake of modern masculinity.

"I just flew in from London about an hour ago, went straight to my hotel and prepped myself for the show. I tell ya, nothing cures jetlag like shoving two feet of chain up yer pussy." I'll remember that, I thought, feeling suddenly as if I was at a genderfucked Catskills resort. The crowd was loudly gabbing, in spite of their jadedness, worked up to a degree by the whole display. Or maybe they were just ready to dance.

"Can you keep it down while I make a few announcements?" Leonard asked politely, to no avail.

"Hey, I know I'm not Buck Angel," he brayed, name-checking his more-famous man-with-a-snatch porn star sis/brethren. "But how many men here tonight are you going to see pull a chain out of their vagina?" (Way to leverage some power there, Leonard!) Frankly, I hope it's the last one I see for a looong time. I mean, props to Leonard for his self-awareness; underneath the rough, masculine exterior he does seem a gentle soul, the kind of guy you could take home to Mom. A life as, I'll say it again, a man with a pussy, can only mean trading in contradictions. Here's hoping he's not just a one-trick pony.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wake-Up Call

Today's events were tinged with the otherworldly and the mundane. I awoke to the doorbell ringing, scampered down the ladder of my hochbett, and opened the door. I was expecting to greet the DHL guy. My roommate Joscha, who is out of town, mentioned that a packet may be coming for him. There was no one there. Whoever it was had disappeared. Then I heard the tentative reversal of footsteps on the landing below. After a moment a young slim brunette woman appeared. At first I thought she was the lithe, friendly young mother who lived in the flat below, Djzene (pronounced "Jenny") from whom I had picked up a packet, kept in my absence last week. But no, this was a new gal, a dead ringer for Djzene with a similar slight build, reddish brown hair and doe eyes. She had a sense of purpose. We had a quick exchange in German in which she asked me whether I had seen her friend Constantin. She said something about his dog and, half asleep, I thought she had told me that his dog was missing. Sein hund? Nicht sein hund. She switched to English and said that the dog was inside the apartment (you could hear it barking) but that her friend had been missing for two weeks. She said he often played music. What kind of music? Techno. There was someone who had been playing techno, but it had stopped days ago. Then again, there are many people playing similar music at various times during the day. Of course, she said, there was no way to tell for sure where the music had come from. I took her name and number, promising to inquire with Joscha when he returned from Hannover. She then pulled a sign out that was peeking out of the mail slot. It was like a Do-not-disturb sign, only it said "Ich strieke". She laughed resignedly. "He's on strike," she said. I laughed as well. About an hour later I hear voices outside the door. The police had been called and were trying to access the flat. They banged several times on the door and surveyed the outside. Then my doorbell rang again. The very friendly Polizei wanted to know if I had seen Constantin. "Ich wohne hier nur fuer ein Monat. In diese Zeit habe ich ihn nicht gesehen." Or had I? I think he had had his door open one day, all day. Or was that the guy on the next floor down? Oh well, I had neither seen nor heard anyone in the last couple weeks. I closed the door and hopped in for a long, gas-consuming shower. As I was drying off I heard more voices outside the door. Naked, and still drying myself, I peeked through the keyhole. The next few minutes unspooled in exorable, real-time surreality. Several people were now in the flat, but I couldn't ascertain if they were friends or authorities. The conversation was in the normal, hushed tones of sober Germans. But nothing sounded out of the ordinary. I thought maybe they were allowing his friends to look through the apartment. I heard more voices, this time fairly jaunty, in an all-in-a-day's work cadence. Apparently the landlord had let the police in. Strange. I milled about, back and forth between my room, the bathroom and kitchen, as I often do due to my ADD. Still naked a few minutes later, I again looked through the peephole. I felt like the observer at a double remove. Voices came from the bottom of he stairs. Two men in uniform ascended the stairs with a gurney. The entered the flat and disappeared down the corridor. There was writing on the wall opposite as you entered, written in what appeared to be blood, Manson-style, covering the length of the wall. The inscription read simply, "Thanx" . Still naked, I opened my door to get a closer view. The inscription now appeared to be painted dramatically in red paint. Above it hung a large meat cleaver, and below it an arrow, like you'd see pointing to the exit in a movie theater, only it pointed to the back room. I retreated into the flat. The men came back into the hall. They were dragging a body. I can only assume it was Constantin's body. They set it down and opened the body bag, which I heard them unzip. The bag sounded crisp and crunchy as it was laid out, like a brand new tarp. The body went in the bag, was strapped to the gurney, and walked out of the building. Two people remained in the apartment, one of whom chatted blithely on the phone with a colleague or family member -- it could have been either. I couldn't get it all. Then the man and woman quietly left the empty apartment. They could have been real estate agents for all anyone knew. I was left with a need to find out what happened to Constantin. All the signs point to suicide. I have the dark-haired girl's number, and I'm tempted to call her. I feel really bad for her. I'll be keeping up with this case, and doing some research on Constantin in the days to come. My friend Mary asked me if I was spooked out and melancholy from this. But no, I'm not spooked out. I am a little spooked out by the fact that I'm not spooked out. So I guess I am meta-spooked out. I thought of the banality of it all, and the old saw about the banality of evil (a quote which I believe was generated in the wake of the Holocaust, in reference to the vast murder machines). But this didn't seem evil. A young man took his life, albeit in a somewhat hammy way, in a gaudy tableau. I think he was going for Grand Guignol, to make a big statement, but in the end he just left a cold corpse in an empty apartment. Just another day's work for the fuzz.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Just Seven Days I Can Make You a Man

Halloween is only a recent import to Deutschland, and though many here may raise their eyebrows at the notion of trick-or-treating and jack-o'-lanterns, any pretext to indulge in Dionysian celebration is met with unmitigated zeal. It is this anything-goes Bacchanalian spirit which marks the ushering in of a new stage revival of The Rocky Horror Show ("reloaded" by original creator Richard O'Brien). It's refreshing to see stark black billboards at every other Haltestelle (bus stop) splashed in the characteristic Rocky font (opting for subtlety, without the vermillion disembodied Mick Jagger lips) with various catchphrases from the stage show, which, depending on your age bracket or degree of interest in film history, may or not pique your memory/interest, zB. "I Can Make You a Man"; "Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?"; "Don't Dream It, Be It". For the uninitiated, these fragments have an enigmatic effect. For everyone else, the idea of a Rocky revival is going to inspire either nostalgia or a shrug.

When I was in high school, the film was considered a badge of alternative cool. Whether or not you believed in the film's message of unbridled pansexualism (and I knew some who enjoyed such hedonistic Saturday nights for whom the reality of homosexuality was anathema), the act of seeing, nay, participating, in the spectacle was a rite of passage. Lobbing rotten vegetables, rice and toast at the screen, shielding oneself from phantom rain with old newspapers , und so weiter, was all done in a spirit of knowing decadence, at a slight remove. One could even dress as one of the film's many colorful characters without fear of reproach. The make-up, and the social stigma, rubbed off with a dab of cold cream come morning. And I knew several girls with quivering pubescent quims for whom Tim Curry's Frank-n-Furter was a reluctant sex symbol, vacillating, much like beleaguered Brad and Janet, between fear, repulsion and titillation. Yes, Rocky Horror ultimately became a catalyst for the "Queer" (Tm) in even the most vanilla cinema-goer (mirroring the transformations in the film of uber-nerdy Brad and Dr. Scott, into fishnet sporting chorines), a democratic sort of way of accessing one's own "funkiness", and an instant badge of quasi-punk cool. And if the collective flesh was willing, the individual spirit was weak at the knees, "quivering with antici....pation." The winking irony fostered by audiences brought up on MTV bent in on itself like a Uri Geller spoon, but the film's power soon snapped under the hyper-meta-consciousness and tongue-in-cheek-ness of the self-same American pop culture.

The message of the original show was quite seriously inspiring, a call to arms for the sexual revolution. The key players who remained from the Broadway show gave an edge to the otherwise watered-down B-Movie conventions of the film's script. But by now it had become so mainstream as to contain all the mojo of a wet noodle. With the advent of video, and the concomitant disappearance of midnight-movie culture, the Rocky Horror phenomenon became superannuated. The film was eventually released to deafening silence in the 90's on VHS and DVD. To me this was the absolute death knell of the cult film.

For some reason, it feels right to have a revival of the show in Berlin now, and the ubiquitous appearance of Rocky ephemera has raised some serious goosebumps on mein Hals. Though the culture wars are still raging in the US, many of the red states are coming out in blue drag for this election. With Obama importuning the world to "Look at Berlin", perhaps, for a season anyway, we can put aside our differences and our You-Tube accounts and revel in the freak nation-state of the German Hauptstadt, where East meets West, Dietrich donned suit-and-tails for von Sternberg, sexual ambiguity reigns and life's a bloody (post-post-modern)cabaret.

*Read an interview with Rocky Horror creator Richard O'Brien at Siegessaeule magazine (leider ist alles auf Deutsch):

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Annals of Terror

The epiphanies come fast and furious in the new German drama The Baader-Meinhof Complex. The first one drops like a live shell about an hour in (the film is a good two and a half) when the parents of Gudrun Ensslin are being interviewed by the media outside the courtroom where their daughter has been indicted, along with accomplice Andreas Baader, for blowing a department store to smithereens in protest of the Vietnam War. The father, a clergyman who had hitherto had a philosophical rift with his child, in a volta-face, glows with pride, gushing that her actions have only enhanced her standing within the family. Then the previously timid mother steps forward and, eyeballs roving, says that her daughters actions have carried the unexpected consequence of "liberating me from fear." It's a transgressive moment for the audience, and a pivotal one for reporter Ulreke Meinhof, who overhears the exchange. An idealistic key turns within her, and she is soon helping Baader escape from jail following a sojourn in Italy after his rejected appeal. It is during this somewhat bungled escape (due to some pesky unplanned casualties) that Meinhof abruptly joins the group, and is soon punctuating each of their wildly chaotic operations with surly, pithy dispatches, read in voice-over, the manifesto of the nascent RAF.

For Meinhof, the violence of putting pen to page wasn't enough, and she took it a step further by joining Baader, Ensslin and the others. The film muddies this ethical line by delineating the scribe as a roiling cauldron of guilt and conflict, peer pressure, sophisticated and naive ideology, a vessel of stymied goals and enervated causes. She is the conscience of the group, the yin to Baader's charismatically sociopathic yang. The ambiguity is underscored by scenes in a Jordanian terrorist training cell, where Meinhof finds herself at yet another crossroads, giving up her children to an orphanage and allowing Ensslin to falsely expose her husband as an Israelite.

Of course this all begs the question, is it effective to fight state violence with more violence? The film offers no easy answers. As Meinhof eloquently puts it in one of her missives, "If a man sets fire to one police car it's arson. If he sets fire to a thousand, it's a revolution." In one scene, when asked point blank, "Why do they do it?" the German chancellor, in between slurps of lobster stew, telegraphs: "Mythos." This rather obvious message is re-capped in a scene in which the female leader of RAF's second generation importunes the heirs to this terrorist mantle when a botched hijacking leads to the mass suicide of all the founding RAF members. In this dramatic speech she reminds the youths none of them had ever met Baader, Meinhof or any of the other OT's (Original Terrorists).

By including scenes like this film tries to have it both ways by refusing to glorify the RAF's behavior, while maintaining a moral relativist stance, as quick cuts of Western Imperialist interventions in Vietnam, Bolivia and Palestine flashing across the screen make abundantly clear. This editing style is overlaid with a healthy dose of fucking in between terrorist operations, betraying not just the other front in the revolution, but the sensually muscular allure of violence. We are also given an anatomical view of the organization and the disorganization, personal rifts and cracks that lead to amputation of certain "limbs" of the group -- e.g., bungled machinations within the prison and court systems, including partisan judges and a fast gone awry -- and its ultimate demise.

Yet the film's message is muddled by the Karen-Silkwood-style mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ulreke Meinhof, in solitary confinement after having betrayed the group, on the eve of the release of the hijacked hostages. Uli Edel, the director, calls into question her suicide by hanging by cutting away from the rent-with-despair journo just before she is about to do the deed. Another character later blabs that the feds topped her in a conspiracy. Martyrdom assured. Potential glorification is again tempered by the existential doubts of RAF Mark II.

Verdict: like its characters, deeply flawed. Still, it merits four stars for a stunning lesson in Deutsch Geschichte for the uninitiated, and ultra-convincing performances. Overall, the filmmakers opt for gritty realism whilst not totally eschewing conventional biopic formats. But somehow it all works. I was completely absorbed in the characters and at times forgot I was watching a film.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lust auf Männer

Hans von Marees is a brilliant painter whose work is virtually unknown outside Germany. A search on Wikipedia's English site yields this rather paltry passage:

Hans von Marées (24 December 1837 – 5 June 1887) was a German painter. He mainly painted country scenes in a realistic style.

Well, yes, but this is a gross oversimplification of Marees' work and unconventional life. I first stumbled on these works in a room of Deutsch Impressionists at the Altes Nationalgalerie, and was awestruck by his dark, autumnal depictions of male desire,especially amongst the working class. He is especially obsessed with the leitmotif of male nudes in orange groves.

Marees started off painting scenes from Greek antiquity, and later repaired to Italy where he completed his most famous work, the frescoe at the Zoologischer Station in Naples. Remaining in Italy for the balance of his years, Marees had a long-term relationship with one of his male models, who ultimately opted for a heterosexual union, and renounced his former moral turpitude.

Fascinatingly, Marees' work had been the subject of some controversy due to his skills as a colorist. He was accused by some scholars as having used experimental materials, as his paintings were in a state of constant and progressive degradation. Definitive chemical tests in the 1980's proved that the Maler had relied solely on traditional materials for his oeuvre. It it is precisely this quality that appeals to me in his work -- a faint whiff and aura of decay, conflated with an intense desire for Gemeinsamkeit,or community. Especially a community of men, in a natural surrounding.

Nowhere is the dialectic of community and homo-centric solipsism more present than in Marees' portrait of Narcissus, and his painting The Ages of Man. It is in this latter work that Marees depicts not just Gemeinsamkeit in a society of men, but the communities that dwell within each man, the older man in dialogue with his younger selves. No matter how much the man changes, the one constant in the work is always the ineffable sense of desire.

I'm excited to announce a new exhibit at the Altes Nationalgalerie focusing on this fabulous unsung painter, "Kult der Gemeinschaft"

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Another Country

Sorry I haven't posted in a while folks, but judging by the dearth of hits on this site, I'm just a tree falling in cyberspace with no-one to hear it. Maybe I should start name-dropping celebrities so people will stumble onto my blog in Google cross-searches. Anyway, this past week has been playing havoc my nerves really. I wasn't sure when my Zwischenvermieter (the guy I'm subletting from) was coming back, and since he showed up one day a few weeks ago unannounced (for Barack Obama), and at that point said he'd return in 2-3 weeks, which had already passed, I thought it best to go ahead and find a place post-haste.

After a couple false starts I received three offers from potential roommates here in Berlin. The first offer came from a professional dirt biker who is famous in his profession here in Europe. He and his motorbike can fly 50 feet in the air at great speeds. The flat was cozy and clean. The second was a great huge airy flat in Kreuzberg, but it turned out to be with a couple -- middle aged theatre fags. Won't live with a couple, been there done that. Does the term "triangulation" mean anything to you people? The third was a rather short term lease (1 month) in a WG with 4 others. I opted for the dirt bike guy (he was sweet, soft-spoken and we got on like a house on fire); he's also nice to look at and that's always a huge plus. Oh, and he's always been flown all over Europe by his sponsors, so he'll only be there half time. So in a few days I'll be moving to deepest Neukoln (immortalized in song by David Bowie). It's interesting neighborhood, not the hippest by any stretch of the imagination. The part I will be living in was formerly known as Rixdorf, originally settled by the Czech, now it's more Turkish. Anyway, it's going to be a deeply urban adventure, like what I'm experiencing now, but different.

That sussed, and since I had completed my job training, it was time to go ahead and take care of my work permit. This is not a user-friendly process, but at least I was familiar with all the steps, the final one being finding the right health insurance, because the Germans require everyone to have it, an admirable goal, but it took almost a week to complete this step, seeing as how most of the websites are all in German and to navigate them is a real chore for someone who doesn't know the business and legal terms of this language. I mean, it's hard enough in the US to find insurance. At any rate, I'm waiting for my verification, then it's off to the Auslanderbehorde once again for more fingernail pulling.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Nur Unterhaltung

Hey folks, just a quick and dirty update from base camp here in Ost Berlin. I've been keeping my days full by searching for an apartment -- my Untervermieter returns in a couple weeks and I need a new place pronto. I've been working on some very special projects as well. I also had a birthday and went to see Barack Obama. If he wins, the speech will be considered historic, if not, just kinda sad. Still, you have to admire the guy's cheek (and I do, quite frequently). At least he didn't refer to himself as a jelly doughnut, a la JFK. Ubrigens, for a chain smoker, his teeth are flawless. Do you think he has veneers?

Anyway, between apartment searches I'd been squirrelling around Youtube, and stumbled on some very special three-minute masterpieces, which always keep me inspired. First up, we have Roisin Murphy, who is virtually unheard of in the US. The Irish star is huge in Germany, and you can't sally out to a cafe without hearing one of her quirky Liede (songs). Check out all of her videos, in her old band Moloko too, she's a major goddess. Seeing this video was like a wet dream for me, since it's a tribute to John Waters, "recontextualizing" scenes from both Female Trouble and Multiple Maniacs, with a soupcon of 28 Days Later thrown in for texture. We have appearances from Dawn Davenport, Taffy, and with Roisin standing in for Divine as she is raped by Lobstora, the 50-foot lobster! Suffice to say I was gobsmacked by this amazing tribute. Uncensored and as yet unreleased!

I recenty felt like Tracey Ullman's character Sylvia Stickles in A Dirty Shame, one of Waters's later films. In that epic, Stickles is struck on the head with a blunt object, which causes her to become a sex addict. Well, I had an Unfall on my bicycle the other day -- only I actually smashed my Pecker against the bicycle seat when I hit something and was violently thrown forward. Everything seems OK down there, but ever since then I have been in an advanced stage of erotomania. And this video isn't exactly helping....

Monday, July 14, 2008

Not Just Black and White

The Kulprit

A familiar swirl of ethnic, betasseled, chainlink-patterned cotton fabric punctuates the racks here in the men's department. The hues evoke a Sunday paper -- black and white dominates, with an occasional peek of comic-book color. We're in the basement of KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), the edifice billed as Europe's largest department store. This retail behemoth is situated in the Ku-Damm shopping district, the capitalist heart of Berlin and de facto Times Square of a necessarily de-centralized city.

If the foulard is the national accessory, the keffiyeh in particular is enjoying a precipitous resurgence as the scarf's most popular manifestation, appearing en masse on the necks of savvy shoppers in this wealthy Bezirk, or borough, to employ another New York analogy. While the predominant colors are black and white, occasional billows of green and red are either reflections of the disparate regions of the Middle East whence they came, or simply a concession to their mass appeal. Paired with everything from Adidas (the national sneaker), t-shirts and jeans, to Members Only jackets and little black cocktail dresses, the keffiyeh has become de rigeur for self-respecting fashionistas and fussball fans from Charlottenburg to Wedding. KaDeWe carries a staggering array of the newly fashionable head/neckwear, which trend-spotting designers are now printing onto more expensive materials like silk, varying the original pattern dramatically, further attenuating the garment's PLO connotations .

One would never guess that across the Pond, a brouhaha had been brewing over ten-minute recipe doyenne Rachel Ray's donning of this alleged Palestinian "scarf of terror" in a subsequently yanked Dunkin Donuts commercial. Certainly this "scandal" fell on deaf ears here in PC-immune, live-and-let live Berlin. Various jingoistic blogs have come out in praise of Dunkin Donuts for its removal of Ray's raiment and staunch support of immigration policies. This tempest in a Dixie cup would be considered at best a non-issue in Deutschland, as the middle-missing dessert shops are hugely popular here, with twenty six in Berlin alone. While this brand of conservative-caving may go over in the U.S., fashion is a resolutely non-partisan enterprise, and here in Germany a boycott would surely follow.

It is a telling irony that Ray's scarf was simply the apolitical fashion choice of her stylist. In the end it was but a black and white paisley pattern, arranged in such a fashion as to raise the eyebrows of right-wing hawks, who reacted as if Ray had appeared in Yasser Arafat drag declaring an out-and-out jihad. One perturbed blogger risibly referred to the beleaguered scarves as "Hate couture". Interesting that no one called out rapper Kanye West when he sported a much more stylish, posh permutation of the guilty Schal on a recent Spin cover. (Perhaps Ray's stylist should have chosen something less homely.) If their popularity on Berlin streets is any indication, the political symbolism behind the scarves has become, like the ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirts of recent past, as dilute as the ersatz mochaccino concoctions that Ray shills.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Der Unglaubliche Hulk

Does anyone else think there is something weird going on with this ad?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kung Fu Bowling

At times in Deutschland, normally mundane activities are given a sparkling new cache by virtue of their very "Otherness". I guess it's just a function of being a stranger in a strange land. Even seeing a crappy film can be imbued with a sense of adventure, whereas at home I would be shaking my fists in righteous indignation. Zum Beispiel, this week I accompanied my roommate to a showing of Kung Fu Panda. Now, I had never seen a Pixar film, and had no intention of ever seeing one -- my idea of escapism is psychological realism on the order of say, Fassbinder. But for some reason I decided to go, as "research".

Normalerweise, we see films in the original tongue, but the English version was sold out, so on we soldiered to the Deutsch version, which was fine with me. It's good for me to flex the Deutsch muscles. Plus, no Jack Black! No Dustin Hoffman! Thank Fortuna for sparing me these hammy American irritants. (Of course, even without the voice, who else could the titular porcine panda be patterned after but Black the Crack?) Besides, the German cast did just fine in their respective roles, thank you very much. I hadn't known it, but I guess in foreign versions of big budget Hollywood animated films there are two sets of credits at film's end, the first featuring the actors dubbing the second language, which means the credits roll on forever. These were actual name actors out of Germany, including one Cosma Shiva Hagen, daughter of my favorite German punk singer, Nina Hagen (a household name in Deutschland, this goddess is now a spokesperson for some kind of German yoghurt pops)! I can still hear Nina shrilly ululating the refrain of "Cosma Shiva" from the classic album "Nunsexmonkrock": "Cos-ma Shivaaaa! Galax-inaaaa!". If only my mother had celebrated my birth in such an artful way. But then, I wasn't conceived in a California earthquake during an alien invasion.

Anyway, on Donnerstag my friend Berndt invited me to gay Bowling. This plebian sport is not something I would endeavor to undertake on a Thursday night back home, but I found the idea of doing it with a bunch of schwules German boys too delightful to resist. What comprises gay bowling, you might ask? It's nothing so salacious or felch-tastic as all that, although it sounds it. At first it seemed completely harmless --the only difference between homo and hetero bowling was that every time you scored a strike, you got a free shot of really bad schnapps. Oh, and the blaring of the likes of Kylie and Nikki French, among the other usual suspects, over the sound system (It reminded me of the old Quentin Crisp quote about disco music being a high price to pay for one's sexual orientation, but fortunately I don't not like it).

Well, the joke was on me. First of all, I failed to answer some trivia question correctly (I hardly think it was fair, since it was all in German) so I was forced to lie on my stomach in the bowling lane and bowl that way. Oh, the humiliation. What next? Being forced at gunpoint to shoot ping pong balls out my ass? The announcer handed me a shot of the rancid-but-effective schnapps as a token, he told the crowd, of the "Deutsch-Amerikanisch Freundschaft." How prescient, what with Barack Obama's upcoming visit and all. Then I won a bottle of Sekt (think really cheap champagne) for being the schlechtest player. Actually, there was one guy who played worse than I, by a margin of two points. The top and bottom (no pun intended) three players received Flasches of sekt. My team also won a bottle of the same for worst team, and I'm pretty sure it was down to me. Guess I'll have to come back next week to work on my technique.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pop Art Paradise

Having assiduously studied the works of Andy Warhol over the years, and having seen exhibits in Chicago and London, I can say that nothing quite prepares you for the Sammlung Marx Collection on display in at the Hamburger Banhof, a majestic former train station which now houses works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly (fraud), Robert Rauschenberg, Bjork hubby Matthew Barney and others. Perhaps it is the novelty of contextual analysis used here. For example, the Warhol paintings are preceded by a mid-20th century painting of the Virgin Mary, to illustrate how East European Catholic iconography shaped Warhol's use of celebrity images, for example Marilyn, in the same way (the same technique is used by placing a Picasso next to works by Lichtenstein). To be honest, I had never thought about the connection.

The shock could be compounded by the sheer magnitude of the paintings on a human scale (as you can see here with the Mao). And the effect of the Hammer and Sickle paintings has more resonance in the former East Berlin than in New York or London, obviously.

This inspired me to revisit an article I wrote last year which examines the depth, belied by trademark surface Warhol naivete, of these paintings:


The personal is political, or in the case of Warhol’s work, I would modify the axiom to “the impersonal is political,” in that he took everyday, common household items and used them in an alchemical process to make (in effect) political or iconographic statements. The altered maxim is certainly apropos of Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle Paintings, in which the once controversial symbols were transmuted through Andy’s artistic process, the vagaries of history and the progressive impotence of the symbol -- which Arthur Danto contrasts with the still-potent swastika -- into those of a homey, apple-pie, American style capitalism. The works are:

In the aggregate celebration of a form of life in which he believed fervently, even to the point of subverting the once-feared Communist emblem by finding a way to bring into it the form of life it was thought to endanger. To deconstruct the emblem of an opposing political system and recreate it as a still life is exactly to drain it of life.

The emblem, in Warhol’s work, is certainly drained of life. And it is given new life artistically in a process I would argue is markedly different to that which yields art in the case of Brillo Boxes. They are both conceptual pieces, but Hammer and Sickle requires a more traditional definition of aesthetics, since, though its recognizance (implements he “just picked up on Canal St.”) and “line of beauty” do draw the eye in (as in the Brillo work), and Warhol uses his training as a commercial artist to cram in all sorts of concealed effects on the viewer, it requires a certain amount of education or awareness of the two economic systems to fully “get” the work.

One of Danto’s rationales for the Italian capitalists’ embrasure of the paintings is that the “aesthetization” of these “dread symbols” would be a trophy not unlike the “shrunken heads of his enemies” to their owner. Conversely, the Communists would have seen this work, superficially, as a validation of their political system. The common denominator, from Warhol’s vantage point, was of course, money. So capitalism wins out in the end, and the meaning of those symbols becomes attenuated, outdated and eventually lost. After all, post-Industrial revolution, what function would these items serve other than, as Danto points out, hardware items for the home? Therein lies the subversion of the paintings.

Danto gives us Hegel’s famous quote: “When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a form of life grown old.” If philosophy is the changing consciousness of the history of art, this is made manifest in the Hammer and Sickle paintings. These paintings were based on symbols which, at that historical moment, were losing their original power to shock. The subversion exists in Warhol’s use of ordinary brand-name hardware tools, which not only neutered them, but gloried in the political system which was anathema to them.

Now let us apply the same historical phenomenon from the Hegel quote to the Brillo pad boxes. The industrial capacity to build the boxes, according to Danto, was only generated about a year before the work came out. Brillo pads themselves had scarcely been in households that long, so it was very of-the-moment. The art world plainly could not have been ready for such a foray into “commercialism” before that historical moment, either.

The concept of the Hammer and Sickle paintings is heightened and complicated by the intellectual caché imparted by the history of the symbols. We can contrast this with the Brillo pads, which appeal to a primitive, democratic sense of beauty in the everyday. If there was any political statement in this latter work, it is the proverbial enigma wrapped in a riddle. Most people in America have used or seen Brillo pads; to riff on The Philosophy of Andy Warhol , it is likely these folks include the President and Elizabeth Taylor. Though most people in America at that time were aware of jingoistic terms such as “Pinko Commies” or “Red Menace”, I don’t believe most would have cottoned to the florid political connotations behind it, which Danto describes in detail on p. 180: the original symbols struck a delicate balance between the implications of power/force and unity in their evocation of the crossed swords used in heraldic code. Many Americans, if they were to see the original communist logo, would have a gut level reaction, which is what Warhol’s art is about, but by including brand names and separating the two implements, thereby neutering them, he magically changes this feeling into a warmer familiarity. The warm familiarity of capitalism! The magic lies in the fact that he is using the subliminal techniques of advertising to make a statement on these self-same techniques, but the resulting enigma is partly found in the fact that Andy himself would probably never admit to any such intent! His purported ignorance of this merely plays into the notion that in a capitalist society, consumers don’t know why they want what they want, they just want it, and in many cases that fact is contingent on packaging. This also precipitates the “gut level” reaction in “Brillo Boxes.”

The intent in “Brillo Boxes” is obfuscated due to the fact that the boxes themselves are actually factory items, so there may be a “hidden” political agenda there, but I think Danto is more obsessed with it for that very reason. He confesses that the nature of their aesthetic completely eludes him. I’m guessing he considers “Brillo” the more radical (certainly the more seminal) of the two. He even states that the Hammer and Sickle still lives are apolitical. The Brillo Boxes have been elevated to iconographic status, whereas the hammer and sickle have been brought down from their original place as icons . The nadir of this “bringing down” would be exemplified in Paulette Goddard’s request for a pin of the icons (p. 182).

Great Moments from the Annals of Pop

As many of you know, I am a firm believer in Noel Coward's axiom (I paraphrase) "There is nothing so potent as cheap music." I was feeling a bit gloomy the other day, then I gave this timeless nugget a spin and presto! The gloom was punctured.

Like with many disco songs, the admittedly kitsch, bubblegum surfaces contained therein obfuscate subversive lyrics dealing with adult themes, creating in effect a pop operetta of sorts, a tragic mini-masterpiece of paranoia and insecurity. It's a perfect synthesis of raw pop emotionalism and storytelling. The singer's bushy eyebrows and slightly raspy voice add to the sense of androgyny vital to all great pop moments, and harken back to a pre-Christina Uglyarea era of less-processed pulchritude.

Fact File: Laura Branigan was backup singer for Leonard Cohen!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Last Radical Lifestyle Choice

"Of all the sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest" -- Anatole France

A petite middle-aged female lies swinging in a market stall, trying out a leather sling. Well-built and well-oiled German men with beer brand labels tattooed on their pectorals hand out drink tickets. Carefree kids laugh, scream and run about while their parents munch bratwurst and Eis (ice cream, even in winter a Deutsch favorite). Men dressed as nuns act out an array of vaudeville schtick. A tattooed butch man in chaps sits cooling himself off with an oversize Geisha girl fan. And lording it over the whole affair, in spirit anyway, an openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, whose motto is "“Ich bin schwul – und das ist auch gut so." ("I am gay, and that's not a bad thing.")

My German pals and I sweep through the streets of the Schöneberg district of Berlin, absorbing the sensations of the annual Christopher Street Day Strassenfest, the Deutsche permutation of gay pride. One thing is apparent: gay culture here is nothing if not inclusive. There is a studied nonchalance to this acceptance; it's not jaded, but insouciant, good-natured and welcomes just about every persuasion this side of NAMBLA.

The attitude towards different orientations and gender identities here in general is so laissez-faire that the gay pride festivities might be redundant if they weren't so much fun. This attitude is manifested in a large banner strung across a tinsel-studded stage, reading "Sexualität Demokratie," and it also encompasses (gasp!) -- families, and their redefinition under any rubric. Although gays cannot legally wed in Germany, and adoption is difficult for any couple, gay or straight, there is a tacit unquestioned acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people of all ages and stripes as normal.

Contrasted with the histrionic chest-thumping and identity-mongering of North American queer tribes, I feel as if I've gone down the rabbit hole, noshed on the caterpillar's proffered mushroom and am now experiencing lysergic visions of Utopia. Outside the colossal neo-classical gay club Goya, identical skater boy "twins" roll around kissing and cuddling on a patch of grass, looking like this year's over-the-top auditions for a particularly provocative edition of the A & F catalog. Like the Peppermint Schnapps swigged from the bottle by a group of lei-sporting baby dykes and their straight male pals, it all goes down smooth here in Berlin. Today -- hell, every day in this city -- revealing leather shorts are to Motzstrasse as suits are to Wall Street. Even the Turkish merchants from Kreuzberg have decamped their stalls here, and it all adds to the communal, multicultural spirit.

Eccentricity is the order of the day, normalcy is relative. As my roommate Jan and I make our progression through the streets -- which follows a temporal arc music-wise from 80's kitsch classics to jittery 90's techno -- I don't see anything particularly new, simply new modes of expression of the age-old desire to be oneself. At one intersection a few desultory dancers shuffle their feet to Schläger music (cheesy German oldies). The music ceases and an addled looking old longhair in a kilt fashioned from leather fringe makes announcements from a microphone -- wait, that's no microphone, he's merely pantomiming , clenched fist poking at the air, spinning around to the Karaoke DJ in his mind. We collapse in gales of laughter and head down an arterial street.

As we penetrate the next sector of the Strassenfest, an attractive female twentysomething thrusts a pamphlet into my hand, the pink cover of which reads: "Asexualität: nicht jeder steht auf sex." Translation: "Asexuality: not everyone is into sex."

Jan crumples his pamphlet, a dubious gift, into my palm, shooting me an amused glance.

"The asexual woman was very pretty," he observes.

"What a waste!" I say, unable to resist the urge to facilely invert (no pun intended) the old cliche about gay men.

Glib remarks aside, the tract inside essays a paradoxically passionate, but vague, explanation of this lifestyle. It's a plea for understanding on the part of society 's latest “category” of pariah, the citizen who chooses to live ohne Sex. Pertinent questions are answered. A few myths are exploded, but the reality seems nebulous. It's more of an opportunity to say "We exist." We explore hitherto unanswered questions, for example, does asexuality necessarily mean abstinence or a solitary lifestyle? The answer to both is unequivocally "Nein."

The mind reels at this assertion, giving rise to yet further questions. Does this mean that asexuals will be splitting off into ideological factions, for example "True asexuals" and "Asexuals who have sex" (AHS)? Will there be infighting among said factions (remember the plushies and furries a few years back)? Is asexuality simply a matter of choice?

What about the advent of "anti-fetish" wear such as coke bottle glasses, braces, hearing aids and pocket protectors? Will this yield to the appearance on the catwalks of watered-down versions of "asexual chic" featuring faux dowdy and dumpy models, causing friction between "serious asexuals" and "mere poseurs"? Will some be accused of hewing to stereotypes? Today, at least, the asexual tribe chose an emissary who doesn't fit the mold.

Seems to me the important thing to these people isn't simply being acknowledged as a sexual orientation, but to be given a platform to define themselves and to express the valid point that in a society so oversaturated with sex, we can be damning of those who choose not to have their life revolve around it. In fact, according to the pamphlet, asexual Volk are often approached by concerned family members, the assumption being they need clinical treatment, both psychological and physical.

The most poignant section in the asexual lit poses the question: "What does an asexual relationship look like?" A whole litany of virtuous non-sexual traits is given, including security, understanding and emotional intimacy. It's true that many of these characteristics have been left behind in the ever-expanding quest for sexual liberation, ironically, placing them perhaps further out of reach for the sexual "outlaw" (even this phrase seems quaint now, when everything is permissible). The catch is that none of these things seem particularly desirable on their own when sex is taken out of the equation in a relationship. Therein lies the conundrum of the asexual "Partnerschaft."

The more I thought about it, I reckoned that this movement could be considered, in theory, a logical conclusion to the sexual revolution, drawing full circle the tendency to push the envelope further with ever more leather, rubber, uniforms and all manner of polymorphous perversity. Not that sex -- kinky or vanilla -- and love are mutually exclusive. But, in a city where Colt butt plugs the size of infants are displayed proudly in boutique windows, and where a sex museum stands cheek by jowl with one of the major train stations (Zoologischer Garten), a declaration of asexuality is an inherently radical act, perhaps the ultimate perversion. The problem is that it is only a few paces out of the starting gate from radical act to blithe public indifference. Hence the bemused stares, rather than judgmental looks, of passers-by who have seen it all.

Then there is the elusiveness of the asexual herself. The more I read about asexuals, the less of a grip I had on the definition. It kept slipping through my fingers like mercury, going this way and that. The literature states that many studies have been done in the last year, but statistically anyway, the asexual seems to be a bit of a cipher. In a society where everything has a label, and labels are often used as a means of control, this could be a most subversive quality.

In the end, though, it's really all about freedom of choice and upholding the principles of a sexual democracy. Something tells me -- in Berlin, at least -- there will always be a place at the table for whatever version of "asexual" one chooses to be, as long as the asexual isn't harming anyone while not doing it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hall of Mirrors

About a millenium ago (just before the millenium actually: 1999) I posed as a model for a great Surrealist-style collage piece (part of a dream sequence) by my old friend, artist Mina Luxa. It was based on a Northern Renaissance rendering of the Deposition by Van Der Weben. This is me (right) standing next to a copy, which I stumbled on nearly ten years later in the Bode Museum in Berlin. The original is in the Prado in Madrid. On the left is the original work of Mina...ironically in the series was arranged as if I had stepped into the painting, and here it looks as if I have. Certainly added to the martyr complex I had at the time. In fact, for a while I thought I was Jesus Christ...

Monday, June 2, 2008

City of Ruins

I recently discovered not far from my Friedrichshain digs an enormous old abandoned Kraftwerk, or power station (exterior shot in the previous post), which could double as a horror movie set. The place is unglaublich, or unbelievable. This ruin (and potential squat) now plays host to a thousand graffiti artists, the curious and the daring (gay porn is filmed here, too). The inner sanctum can only be accessed by a small hole in the outer wall through which one must propel oneself after a dicey ascent over stacked concrete blocks. Once inside one encounters a labyrinth of staircases, cavernous filthy rooms and one elevator shaft straight from hell.

After much debate, curiosity won out and Jan and I were on our way up. Once up there, we made some new friends, and I took about 75 pics.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sonntag in Berlin

The Soul of Man Under Social Democracy

I recently read a web article which postulated that if the progenitors of Communism had sexed it up a little, the political system would have been more palatable to the masses, perhaps yielding a longer shelf life. As someone who identifies more with Oscar Wilde's voluptuously naive treatise "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" than anything Karl Marx ever put forth, I second that emotion. Wilde's scrupulously Utopian vision of the abolition of private property makes Socialism seem like nothing less than a mass orgy. One cannot live on borscht and bread, a pig and an acre alone. Such slender means only leaves one spiritually hungry. Marx should have taken a page from the book of Wilde, instead of confusing abundance with excess.

Living in the former East Berlin I see the ghosts of the GDR daily amidst the ever-moving cranes and ever-mutating graffiti . Not to mention the Lego-style old commie housing estates (Altbauen), which, though admittedly sterile, do harbor a certain edge. Our hostess informs us with sang-froid that she has on numerous occasions found blood in the elevators.

In recent years the regulation and standardization of social systems such as medicine and the pension plan have been deleterious to the economy, contributing to unemployment and the rise of darker elements of Deutsche Gesellschaft, such as Neo-Nazis.

The equal and opposing force to the ubiquity of rules and order is what my German friends call the "German craziness", and though there are many more rules here than in the USA, there is a controlled chaos beneath the surface. For instance, there are no open container laws here, so the denizens of Berlin freely roam the streets and subways, ein Bier (oder zwei) in hand. But I've never seen things get out of control.

Maybe I'm talking about two different phenomena here, but bear with me. The Deutsche need for rules is concomitant to the passion for ordnung, in meine Meinung. Centuries of instability and lack of identity have plagued the Germans to the extent that they have fashioned a society built on order and anything less threatens that sense of identity. Hence the punks and the Polizei are friendly with each other, fastidiously kept historical buildings stand cheek by jowl with ugly squats. Respect and Hoflichkeit are key.

Last Saturday I jumped at the chance to attend my first German barbecue, over in Lichtenfield, a tram ride about two miles east from my Friedrichshain flat. The flat was on the tenth floor of one of the old Soviet era high rises. As we entered the claustrophobic steel trap to the top, our host, Andrea, ominously groused about frequently seeing blood there.

Once inside
, der Balkon looked out over a Lego city lousy with graffiti but lush with leafy green avenues. Andrea was proud of her recent purchase of a George Forman smokeless grill, as smoke on the balcony was strictly verboten. The whole affair was incredibly gemutlich (an important German idiom closest to the English "cozy"). The spread featured every kind of Wurst known to man, Auflauf (casserole) and Salatguerke (cucumber salad), along with verschieden stinky cheeses. Orange lighting warmed an economical Ikea-furnished flat riddled with Punkten (polka dots), everything just-so. As I settled into my comfy butterfly chair with an oversized warm beer, Andrea flicked on the widescreen TV and we began to watch the Eurovision song contest. This is unheard of in the US, but is an annual kitsch favorite over here. Andrea, ever the hostess, came over and crouched beside me.

"I hope you enjoy. This is very European."

The voting was interminable but the contest itself a hoot. This year, Russia won over Scandinavian heavy metal groups, Spice Girls copies from Serbia, and French surrealist pop. The common denominator here was showmanship. You cannot vote for your own country, so callers voted for their neighboring countries with unbridled nepotism.

I sat back in my chair with a sigh of contentment. It was all so civilized, but fun. When Russia won with a sappy ballad, fireworks went off of one of the other balconies.

Auf Deutsch, my roommate Jan said: "I think one of your neighbors is Russian."

Andrea responded, "Ich glaube dass, es so ist." (I believe so)

If only Karl Marx had had George Foreman smokeless grills, and Eurovision.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Meinen Bekannten

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Indubitably in the throes of culture shock, I mentioned jokingly in an earlier post that the sheer amount of stupidity, or Dummheit, in my life had reached critical mass, a statement which, like an eternal returning, keeps coming back to haunt me. Now these lame brains who conspire to make my life a living hell may come in all stripes, but es ist egal , because I'm an equal opportunity misanthrope. But there is a particularly insidious form of American obtuseness which really roasts my bratwurst, and it comes in the comely shape of the blonde California airhead. I had been privvy to the Airhead diaspora, being an erstwhile resident of the West Coast, and having seen firsthand the kind of havoc these apathetic, self-involved nattering nabobs can wreak, yammering away about their gym memberships or the fruits of their nail salon sallies, their yoga dalliances and their ersatz bronzing sessions. Not to mention the hotchpotch spirituality ("Did you know you could send Reiki healing long distance?"), spreading shallowness over everything like Nutella clinging to a crepe.

Having crossed the Atlantic to avoid such phenomena, you would think I would be reasonably safe in the island of icy Euro-hauteur that is Berlin. Unfortunately, one of these gold-tinted turds washed Deutschkurs, yet, flattening her vowels in a nasal LA whine, and lazily making no attempt whatsoever at a Deutsch accent . Even my good friend Yumiko, always the dipomat, couldn't resist making a dig, doing a spot-on impersonation which had them rolling in the aisles. Which is funny because, what with Yumiko's stark Japananese accent (although she is way advanced for the erste stufel) I can barely understand her at the best of times.

So one day this monstrosity in flip-flops comes into class, chunky sunglasses fused to her head like Chanel antennae. Alex, a student who comes aus den Schweiz, is proudly announcing to the class that he has smoked his first joint in a gay bar the night before. Then for some reason this girl, we'll call her "J", looks at me and expostulates: "I really want Brian to take me to a gay bar!" I have no idea why she would focus on me, I mean don't think I had told anyone in the class I was gay, but certainly wouldn't deny it. It's not that have any hang-ups about gay, in fact I have never been in the closet, but I was just riding that German wave of not talking about anything private. In Berlin, for the most part, it's a non-issue, and frankly, I was enjoying the anonymity. Some Americans, once they learn you're a bona-fide fudge-packer, try to control you, and I wasn't having any of that. For some reason her gaydar homed in on me, though frankly I am no more or less effeminate than most red-blooded, foulard-sporting European men, gay or straight (danke Gott). Then she starts blathering on about gay pride parades, as if this is going to somehow curry favor, but it only aroused disgust in me. As if gay life is some kind of cake walk as her life as a California spoonie had been, an excuse to party. Frankly, I am not some fucking porthole into a gay universe for some dumb-as-a-box-of-bricks debutante, and at this point I would have loved to have taken her to a gay bar -- for instance a heavy leather/fisting night at a gay S and M club, and see if she ever wants to go to a "gay bar" after that. Talk about throwing fresh meat in with the piranhas.

Now don't get me wrong here, leute, I'm no separatist -- some of my best friends are "straight" (although, truth be told, I know no one who is 100 percent so). In fact I have taken some of them to leather bars. No problem, when you're cool and you're not shouting about it (not that you have to be "cool" to attend one -- oh, no. Just not simultaneously kicking us in the teeth and wanting to take part in the fun). I definitely think a mixed environment is healthy, but if society is moving past the point of labelling people (as I believe Berlin has for the most part), then why the need for shouting "Gay gay gay!" all the time? One day, these silly pride parades will fade out, everyone will be outed as the polymorphous peverts they are, and Clueless gal won't see us through her microscope as these exotic fauna who really know how to party. Snooze.

Anyway, Miriam, our Lehrerin -- who I believe is one of Sappho's Sluggers, if only because she once referred to her other half as "lieblingspartner" (although I guess this habit is spreading, as in America, to the heterosexual "community") -- clearly took umbrage at J's aggressively patronizing ignorance and transparent culture-vulture-ism in this area, but took pains to patiently explain that "in Deutschland, sind die gay Bars ein Treffpunkt fur die Schwules leute..nicht fur die anderen zu beobachten." In other words, if you want to watch the wildlife, go to the fucking zoo!

Cut to my farewell luncheon a couple of weeks later. Leider, somehow J piggybacked on the einladung. We're sat there at a corner Mexican restaurant in deepest Kreuzberg (which, oddly, doesn't have margaritas) and J, during an unrelated conversation, for no apparent reason fairly leaps out of her chair:

"HEY! When are we going to ein GayBar?"

Yumiko, god bless her, remembering our dialogue with Miriam, with near-disdain and one eyeball on me, slipping into the role of firm diplomat, points an explicative finger at the offender: "Das ist unhoflich. Die Gay bars sind Treffpunkt. Nicht fur anderen."

"Aber, in die USA, konnen alles zu die Gay Bars gehen. Viel spass!"

"Nein. Das ist nur ein Treffpunkt fur die schwules Leute."

Lurching into full-on Trickster mode:

"Why would you ask me and not someone else to take you to a gay bar anyway? Why would you assume that I'm gay?"

Awkward pause. Then lamely: "Varum nicht?" (auf Englisch, why not?)

Yumiko again asks why she would want to go to a gay bar.

Switching gears a little, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

"Vielleicht mochtet sie die lesbichen Lebensstil probierien" (Perhaps she would like to sample the lesbian lifestyle) I opine.

Everyone laughs out loud. J is demonstrably horrifed, reddening visibly -- as if I'd accused her of a Crimie. "Varum? Varum sagst du das?" she asks, reviving the issue of homophobia with the raising of eyebrows.

"Varum nicht?"

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Patron Saint of Pigs

Hamburg is known as the city where the Beatles were launched, but forget for a moment that dubious distinction and luxuriate in the Geschichte of this grand port city, one which goes back 800 years. In point of fact, this past weekend was its 800th Gebortstag feuer, and the place was lousy with thrill-seeking youths, fireworks, great food and high energy. I happened to be in town with my parents, who were vacationing from the U.S. We were en route to Copenhagen for the weekend, and had escaped the heat and hectic celebrations of Berlin's Kultur Fest for the ostensibly cooler and quieter northern climes. We hadn't bargained for the fact that all these fests were happening Europa-wide over the three day weekend, culminating in some Catholic holiday to do with the holy ghost or some such tripe (describing these myriad religious holidays in Deutsch kurse can be a riot, z. B. "Ostern, als Jesus zurückkam") In Hamburg there were rock bands performing at the waterfront, and they even had a huge Riesenrad, or ferris wheel. Afterwards we took a cab to the infamous Reeperbahn, the red light district and enormous, throbbing, ahem, heart of the city. My parents were slightly bemused by the whole affair, and it was a mite embarrassing for me being accosted by ersatz Saint Pauli girls in front of meine Eltern (one such creature clawed furiously at my arm, nearly dragging me into the gutter with "her") but frankly the place is so commercialized and tourist-ridden as to be all but sexless in aspect.

The raison d'etre of this visit was actually a viewing of an art exhibit, or Ausstellung, which had been highly recommended by one of my colleagues from the language school, a talented lad name of Joel from good old Portland, OR, US of A. Joel, like me, has a bit of a yen for the shadow side of life, so it was without reservation that he suggested this particular Ausstellung der Kunst, heisst "Schrecken und Lust: Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius von Hieronymous Bosch bis Max Ernst" (Terror and Desire: the Temptation of Saint Anthony from Bosch to Ernst).

Now I had no idea this Saint Anthony character had figured so prominently in so many kunstlers' works over the past few centuries, from the middle ages on. Apparently Ol' Tony was a hermit who revered (along with many of the artists who painted him) the virtue of self-abnegation to the extent that he gave away all of his (substantial) monies and devoted his life to the Lord, which in turn prompted Satan and a whole mess of evil spirits to provoke him mind, body and soul. He fled into the desert at age 55 and spent the balance of his life dodging said demons, living to a ripe old age of 105!

Bosch was so in thrall to this legend that no less than an entire room is devoted to his representations alone, the culmination of which was the eponymous triptych which makes clear Bacon's inspiration for Three Studies for Figures from a Crucifixion. The original, however, is rife with medieval squalor, anthropomorphic flying harpies, coprophagia and sinister priests, with the recalcitrant Saint Anthony holding his own, cross clutched in hand, against a cavalcade of perversions. In today's parlance, he must have been quite a repressed individual.

Or not. The presence of pig symbolism in over half the paintings prompted a Google search which yielded the following:

While on a year of solitary retreat and prayer, St. Anthony had the experience of being tempted by Satan who allegedly came to him in the form of a fierce pig which viciously attacked him. Anthony saintily resisted the temptation to return the favour and beat the pig to death, whereupon he was enveloped by a "wondrous light" and the pig was transformed into a humble and docile porcine companion.

Henceforth Anthony was known as the Patron Saint of Pigs. One French maler created a risible portrait of Anthony snuggling with his beloved Schwein in what appears to be either abiding friendship or post-coital bliss!

It is amazing how this theme is used as a hook from which many concrete events were hung. Take for example, the work from the Dutch School of Painting in the 1600s, the eponymous Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius by Domenicus van Wijnen , which conflates the legend of Saint Anthony with apocalytic science fiction (before science fiction) visions fomented by an impending visit from Halley's Comet.

The ultimate iteration of the legend, which is again titled Die Versuchung des heilegen Antonius , this time round by Joos van Craesbeeck, renders Anthony and his precious pig mere supporting characters in the dissolution of an artists mind, perhaps most obviously captured by the Kopf geschnitten, or decapitated head of the artist, another leitmotif in renderings of the Temptation. An ornithological orgy of decadence of biblical proportions in captured in medias res, the disembodied head spilling over with Lilliputian humanoid figurines and anthropomorphized birds. As my delightful German pal Tobias would malaprop, "It was horrowful!"