Thursday, February 24, 2011

What's the Matter with Wisconsin?

c. David Grim (taken 2/12/11)

Is it just me, or are the Tea Party minions overreaching ever since the 2010 elections? You'd think that they comprised a simple majority of the voting public. What's really telling is that they have now finally dropped the pretext of being anything other than an extreme wing of the Republican Party (and even that is a bit of a redundancy nowadays). At least truth in advertising is prevailing at last. Unfortunately the "liberally-biased" mainstream media hasn't caught on yet. Too bad, really.

The events in Wisconsin are certainly worrying. Apparently the newly-elected governor, Scott Walker, has discovered the panacea to all the state government's budget woes. He's moving to outlaw collective bargaining on behalf of public employees. That ought to solve the problem. And Tea Party operatives from all over the country are serving as the shock troops for this attack on unions. It's becoming more and more obvious that the Tea party is merely a front for corporate interests. This is an ideological crusade... not simply harsh measures for tough economic times. And it's an assault on labor rights in general.

Despite the fact that support for Walker is pouring in from representatives of the "free market" from all over the nation, Wisconsin legislators in the GOP-controlled State House have already warned the Obama administration not to get involved in local events. That's an interesting precedent for a group whose forebears lauded Reagan's decision to involve himself in labor disputes throughout the nation. Apparently an active president is only acceptable if he is aligned with the so-called conservative movement.

A quick internet search provides numerous examples of right-leaning mouthpieces pronouncing the irrelevancy of labor unions. If these sources were to be trusted, one would have to come to the conclusion that Walker is just enacting the will of "Real America". Meanwhile the reality is that 61% of those consulted in a recent USA Today poll would oppose similar attacks upon government workers' unions in their respective states. But that's not a study likely to get a lot of traction with folks who fancy themselves "populists". Anti-government sentiment is out of control, and as a result civil servants are being tarred as greedy and selfish.

The historical truth is that government has always been on the vanguard of labor reform and worker's rights. If these protections are chipped away at the municipal level, it's only a matter of time before they are lost altogether. A lot of folks will say that unions were once important but have outlasted their utility. But that will only approach the truth as long as unions retain what little power they have left. Once their example is gone, we'll be returning once again to the glorious Gilded Age. That's sure to please our newly-enfranchised corporate citizens.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

David Simon's "Treme".

c. David Grim (taken 2/12/10)

Well, I finally completed my viewing of the first season of the HBO series "Treme". I can't say I was particularly thrilled to sign up for cable at my house, but I am trying to make the best of it (and the On Demand feature). Anyway I loved 'The Wire" and learned to admire its creator David Simon, who has moved on to this love letter to post-Katrina New Orleans. Right out front I'll profess my deep satisfaction with "Treme". I am looking forward to the airing of its second season. Unfortunately I don't know when that's going to start, or if it will be available in my home. Currently I get HBO as part of some trial package.

Despite my overwhelming appreciation for this show, I have to warn readers of this blog that "Treme" has received ample criticism for "lacking plot". If you do a quick internet search for commentary on the first season, you'll see quickly that there were a lot of viewers who want more to happen in this story. I find that lamentable, if not surprising. There are too many folks who have become too dependent on twists-and-turns and big drama to enjoy the nuanced art of something like "Treme". How anyone can come away from this show without being overwhelmed by the detail and nuance of the writing, cinematography, and performances of the cast is simply beyond me. The cries for additional plotting and accelerated pacing seem like the hysterical outbursts of ADHD-afflicted children.

Why are so many Americans addicted to contrivances? Why must their art be overproduced and packaged as a neverending series of over-the-top, show-stopping, set-pieces? Have my fellow media consumers lost their ability to digest lovingly-crafted mood pieces, or has the viewing public here in the United States always been too immature to receive visual poetry with the necessary patience and attention? I'd hate to admit that the latter suspicion is the truest one.

If you don't need to be led by the hand from big moment to tragic incident to big catharsis in every hour-long episode of television, then you might have what it takes to enjoy "Treme". It is anchored by performances of New Orleans musicians, and examines how the city's inhabitants weave its unique culture throughout their lives to help them overcome the almost unbearable tragedy of the hurricane that changed their lives forever. If you have watched "The Wire", you will note the presence of a lot of familiar actors. But the cast is rounded out by otherwise recognizable faces and cameos by genuine NOLA performers from many fascinatingly underexamined corners. Their contributions form the heart of "Treme", and (at least for me) keep the drama beating and the blood flowing throughout the first season.

Now I eagerly anticipate more great things to come.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sun and Air.

c. David Grim (taken 2/12/11)

I guess I'm going to have to make this one quick... as it appears I'm quickly running out of juice. I'm at the coffee house, and although they were generous with the power outlets when they designed the interior, I've somehow managed to come out this evening without my power cord. So when I'm prompted to hook up to another energy source, or to save my work, I'm going to simply publish whatever I have.

I would have never guessed that I'd be sitting here and drinking espresso with the front of the shop completely open to the elements in the middle of February. And I'm wearing short sleeves. This is just a spectacular bonus, and I'm feeling a bit of pressure to make the absolute most out of it. I've actually taken extended walks on five of the last six days. That's making a huge difference in the way I feel. Yes, I still feel fat. But I feel several steps closer to remedying that condition.

Walking around my neighborhood I discovered that lots of other folks were taking the opportunity to combat their seasonally-appropriate cabin fever. I also noticed how many really ugly people there are where I live. I guess you might think I'm shallow for writing that. But if you saw the creatures I'm talking about, you'd agree... despite your better nature. Perhaps you wouldn't point it out. Who knows? The thing is that I don't consider myself particularly attractive. But in comparison to those I see on my local streets, I feel like an Adonis.

By no means do I intend to suggest that there aren't plenty of beautiful people throughout Pittsburgh. I feel like we have a surplus of "lookers" in this city. Unfortunately they just don't seem to live in my 'hood. My neighbors all seem to look decades older than they are. Maybe it's the water. Or maybe there are just a lot of meth addicts living near me. At least it's relatively safe and clean (and has a great public school district).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Grab a Handful of the New McFreaks.

c. David Grim (taken 2/12/11)

Over the last one hundred and fifty years the focus of science has shifted from taxonomy (the classification of natural phenomena) to experimentation. This reflects modern-day man's desire to go beyond an understanding of the mysteries of life. Now man wants to take the place of "God" rather than assume a subservient position toward fate. While the drive for self-direction can be seen as a noble pursuit, it has often proved to be the impetus for atrocity. The Twentieth Century contained many examples of the hubris of humanity whereupon man created more severe problems than those he was trying to solve.

There are way too many factors in modern life to support the illusion of control. If anything the continuing discoveries that have been made regarding the machinery of the universe have conclusively proven that the controls ultimately lie outside the reach of the grasping minds of man. That's not to say that I'm ready to give up the many comforts and opportunities that this futile quest has allowed. Despite the fact that the consequences of such modern privileges are often severe... I still enjoy the benefits of cars, computers, televsion, and cell phones. I'm no Luddite.

Still I can be accused of a certain nostalgic yearning for a time before my birth. Of necessity, whatever impressions I have developed about the vast expanse of years preceding me have been illusory at best. But that doesn't stop my imagination from conjuring a sense of wonder that must have found its place in the minds of our forebears when confronted by mysteries of dysfunction, oddity, and the alien. Nowadays we have multimedia documentation of almost everything that has occurred in recorded history. Nothing seems beyond the comprehension of the pedestrian mind for very long. The Google search has replaced the Freak Show.

Now we create our own freaks... or at least our masters do so for us. Check out the antics of the participants of the latest round of reality television shows. The creators of these spectacles do not limit themselves to mere classification. Like the 21st Century versions of Mary Shelley, they mold their own monsters for our edification. But what is so miraculous about these contrivances? They have not evolved organically over time. They have not earned their places in the pantheon of freaks. They are only pale imitations of the transient whims of their creators. And they will be discarded with less fanfare than any curiosity from history's midway.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Off My Ass and ON the Streets.

c. David Grim (taken 2/12/11)

Who could have guessed that we'd be looking at a warm spell smack in the middle of February? Believe me, I'm not complaining. In fact I am enthralled by the change. I actually took the time to take two extended walks over the weekend, and that's exactly what I needed. The relative lack of physical activity is really getting to me. I've put on weight. I feel sluggish and my clothes don't fit me the way I want them to. I knew that quitting smoking was going to exacerbate the problem, but that doesn't make me feel any better now that the potential has been realized.

So now I have an alternative to laying on my couch and watching television. It's been too easy to get sucked into the winter routine, especially with all the goodies I've recently acquired to keep me interested. I just started watching David Simon's "Treme" via On Demand, and it has already hooked me. Sure, the temptation is there to just hole up, order some food for delivery, and take in a new masterpiece. But you know what? I feel slightly less pathetic when I make the effort to get out and about. While it's inevitable that I leave the house when I'm with my son, or at work, I could easily get pulled into the sucking maw of my comfort space whenever I have "free time". Still, it's more difficulty to justify when it is nice outside.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pittsburgh Weekend Art Events: 2/11-13/11.

c. David Grim (taken 1/1/11)


I know A LOT of people work during the day (me included). But if you can find the opportunity to stop in at the University of Pittsburgh for the "I Made It!" market, you will probably be pleased and astonished by what local crafters have to sell in the 'Burgh. Check it out in the Student Union starting at 11:30AM. If you can't make it, show up on Saturday at the Glass Lofts (5491 Penn Avenue), where the crafty folk make another appearance starting at noon.

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is unveiling multiple exhibits, and 5 bucks gains you entry into each and every one of them. CMU prof Golan Levin has audio-visual work, Heidi Bender shares her installation art, and Seth Clark is (once again) displaying his decaying Pittsburgh paintings. Aaron Henderson will share his video presentations examining state and county fairs, and Anna E. Mikolay, Ian Page, Henry Simonds and Gerald Van Scyoc round out the evening with a variety of pieces using a range of media. Hours are from 5:30-8PM. For more info... Rick has a nice write-up at the Pittsburgh Art Blog.

And Wild Card in Lawrenceville (4209 Butler Street) is celebrating the work of Ryder Henry with "4 Lydia Was…was, is, and will be a great space nation". Henry is noted for his meticulous creation of space age imagery in paintings and sculpture, so why not join him (6-9PM) in a virtual interplanetary migration characterized by vibrant colors and fine detail?


My first inclination is to completely avoid any event that features "speed dating", but I am curious how that concept gets translated in an "arts environment". Fe Gallery (4102 Butler) brings whatever pleasures that forced small talk within specific time constraints can deliver starting at 7PM. File this one under "holiday spirit". The 5$ admission fee covers refreshments.


This weekend marks the opening of a show inspired by noted local educator and artist Samuel Rosenberg at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill (5738 Forbes Ave.). The former Carnegie Tech professor's students have contributed a host of pieces for this group exhibition documenting Rosenberg's vast influence. Show up (SUNDAY) between 1PM and 3PM for the reception.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Unintended Benefits of the Super Bowl.

c. David Grim (taken 4/5/08)

Today on the way to work I heard a bit on NPR news about the donation of "mislabelled" Super Bowl gear to refugees in impoverished areas throughout the world. Apparently this is a tradition that the NFL has carried out for the last fifteen years. Obviously this year a bunch of starving kids are about to join Steeler Nation by sporting the colors featured on their Steeler Super Bowl XLV Championship tees. Y'now- "Seven is Heaven!" and all that sort of thing. That's certainly one way to ensure that the scope of Pittsburgh fandom is ever-expanding.

On one hand this is simply the right thing to do with a lot of specially-printed apparel that very few in the states would even consider purchasing at any price. After all, who wants to wear the proof of a revisionist interpretation of history? It would be like sporting the image of the World Trade Center with the caption "Made in America AND Still Standing!" But there are poor folks throughout the world that would rather advertise misinformation than be running around naked.

Still there is something unsettling about this entire scenario. Why must companies manufacture items in great quantities that have a 50% probability of being rendered "worthless" almost immediately after being produced? Do football fans really require the material manifestation of an event as soon as it has occurred? Whose enjoyment really needs to be validated by a damned t-shirt? And why can't Americans wait a day or two to get their wearable record of vicarious achievement? These are questions that might shed light on the true spirit and character of this nation.

I'm glad that children in places as diverse as Zambia, Armenia, Nicaragua, and Romania will get some brand new clothing to wear. But it's a bit of a shame that they are forced to advertise something that never happened, due to the excessive waste the US perpetuates without even being conscious of it. There's something a bit pathetic in all of this business.

Monday, February 7, 2011

More Fron the White Family.

c. David Grim (taken 4/5/08)

I've written before about my appreciation for West Virginia doumentray filmmaker Jacob Young. His almost-famous examination of "Dancing Outlaw" Jesco White led me to explore all of his works. I've been back to the well many times since. Over the last decade-and-a-half I've periodically wondered just what the last king of the mountain dancers and his clan have been up to. I always thought I'd have to run into Young again to get the scoop. I was shocked recently to learn of the existence of a follow-up documentary released in 2009, and produced by "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville. Naturally I had to own a copy.

Sadly, "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" was made without the participation of Jacob Young. Instead it was directed by one-time collaborator Julian Nitzberg. Apparently Nitzberg learned about Jesco when he was making a film about Hasil Adkins. While at a bar in Boone County in the late-80's, he witnessed Mamie White breaking up a fight. After making it a point to meet this woman (who continually insisted that she was on acid), he was persuaded to bring in Young for a look at her brother Jessie. And that's how Jesco became a living cult figure.

Twenty years later, the entire family seemed ripe for a revisit. Nitzberg and his crew received funding from MTV to spend a year in Boone County, catching up with the latest shenanigans of the Whites. Would the events surrounding these people be film-worthy? I guess that's a matter of opinion. But it turns out that trouble is never that far away from these folks. Instead of a focus on Jessie, Nitzberg concentrated on his siblings, nephews, nieces, and cousins. Sue Bob, Mousie, Kirk, and the little boy Tylor figure heavily in the ongoing drama.

The Whites all seem more than willing to share the details of their sordid collective existence. There are many sequences of family members snorting, popping, and smoking various drugs. They pull no punches and withhold very few sentiments about the people that surround them. They are in and (sometimes) out of jail for all manner of offenses. And they don't seem to ever truly learn from the mostly awful consequences of their behavior. The legacy of mischief and outlaw behavior runs deep in their blood.

Yet it's not as if people like the Whites are confined to West Virginia. The stuff they get into can be found a half hour outside of most cities in the country. Meanwhile city-dwellers exhibit their own particular brand of madness. And it is obvious that the filmmakers have some level of affection for their subjects, despite the glaring elements of exploitation running through their document. After all the Whites know they are on camera and seem to have no compunction about doing what they do for the public eye. Conversely they seem quite proud to run wild while avoiding work on the taxpayer's dime.

The problem is that (ultimately) the Whites are not that shocking in this day and age. While there are moments where the impact of their actions seems to strike them, it's difficult to muster any lasting symapthy. We must come to the inescapable conclusion that they know what they are doing. If that makes this a modern-day horror tale, then so be it. But the exploitation of this family is only a microcosmic example of what happens to the poor in our society. And that is truly horrifying.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pittsburgh Weekeend Art Events: 2/4-5/11.

c. David Grim (taken 10/17/10)

Because the Cultural Trust had the foresight (finally) not to compete with the regular onslaught of art events that occurs on every first Friday of the month, you have an outside chance of seeing most of what is worthwhile on the local arts scene this weekend.


The long-anticipated "Surface and Rigor" show is opening (6PM) at the Mendelson Gallery (5874 Ellsworth Avenue) in Shadyside. It features the abstract works of painter Mark Gualtieri, photographer Rick Byerly, and painter Will Giannotti. These three artists are long-time staples of the 'Burgh arts scene, and it's been awhile since any of them have exhibited in town. Stop by and exchange some words with them before heading over to Unblurred.

And while we are on the subject of the monthly Penn Avenue Corridor extravaganza- make sure to stop by the Pittsburgh Glass Center for 'TENacity", its tenth anniversary show. There will be 31 glass artists presenting their work. Meanwhile there is a mother/daughter show featuring the namesake and progeny of the Irma Freeman Center (5006 Penn), new work by Brad Heiple and Katie Watson at Modern Formations (4919 Penn), and collages by Seth LeDonne at ImageBox (4933 Penn). Most Wanted (5015 Penn) has Chatham University students, and the latest addition to Unblurred is My Place on Penn (4900 Penn)- a venue selling "art furniture".

Listen... I think it's important to recognize the achievements of young local artists. Unblurred has always fulfilled the function of providing venues for unknown creators to get their work out in front of many viewers. CAPA seniors Kimi Hanauer and Emily Hutchings are getting that opportunity this month at the misleadingly-named International Children's Art Gallery (5020 Penn Ave). Give the youngsters some love.

Additionally, if you somehow find yourself with available hours during the workday (from 12-6PM specifically) and easy access to the South Side, stop by at the "Historic Home of Phillip Benz" (2112 Sarah Street) to see the figure paintings of Mahalah McWilliams and Sam Thorpe. Similar hours will be extended throughout the weekend. The artists will be on hand for discourse at 1PM and 5PM.


For years now, Bloomfield gallery Boxheart (4523 Liberty Avenue) has been (rather quietly) attracting artists from all over the world to show on its walls. This month it is bringing the work of Hong Kong-native Chung Fanky Chak to Western PA. His series "The Boxes" are photo collages examining visual stereotypes about urban environments. Stop in for a reception starting at 5PM.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Robert Kaylor, "Carny" (1980).

c. David Grim (taken 5/11/08)

So I've finally gotten to do something I've waited more than five years for- I've seen the movie "Carny". Starring Robbie Robertson (lead singer/guitarist for The band) and Gary Busey, "Carny" exposes the secret world of the carnival worker of the 70's. Recognizable character actors such as Elisha Cook, Jr., Meg Foster, and Craig Wasson pad out the rest of the cast. And yes... just in case you want to stop reading right here- it is awesome.

But why would I have waited so long to see this treat? Because it was just recently made available in the DVD format. If you wanted to see it before its 2009 release, you had to track down a pre-viewed copy (probably from some small, super-hip independent video store which would likely gouge you if indeed it was even willing to part with its sacred treasure). I was able to do that once, but I popped it into my VHS player only to discover it was irretrievably worn beyond the point of watching.

Director Robert Kaylor had a remarkably brief career as a filmmaker. Over a period of twenty years he helmed a total of four movies. From the evidence of "Carny", and the reviews of one of his other flicks ("Derby"), the man had talent. It's easy to speculate as to why a guy like Kaylor never produced more work, but the truth is that there is sometimes no easy or accessible answer. The man toiled before the age of the Internet, and there is very little to be found with a short Google search of his name.

Anyway, why should you be interested? Well... do you know that carny slang is some of the hippest argot in all of Western culture? You know all that "izzy and bizzat" stuff that the rap community started laying out in the 90's? You guessed it... that originated on the midway. AND there is a patch, flat stores, stick joints, a hootchie-cootchie tent, and a 10-in-1 (with genuine, alive-on-the-inside, human oddities like "Percilla the Monkey Girl" and her husband Emmitt Bejano, the Alligator-Skinned Man ). Mmm-hmmm. I could eat up all that flash like candy. And Jodie Foster looks alright in her burlesque outfit as well.

But what really blows me away is Busey as the Bozo in the dunk tank. It's the role that he was born to play. He is absolutely maniacal and brings me right back to the Great Allentown Fair where I saw that act as a kid every year. That alone is worth the time and effort I invested in owning this.