by Richard von Busack

Superfarmer is back! Joel Salatin, the engaging Virginia agriculturalist seen in Food, Inc and interviewed in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, returns in Ana Sofia Joanes’s documentary Fresh. (It opens Oct 1 at the Oaks in Berkeley, the Smith Rafael in San Rafael, and the Red Vic and the Opera Plaza in San Francisco.) Let’s say Fresh breaks little new ground…rather, it lovingly cultivates some already fecund soil.
The optimistic documentary carries on the work of earlier studies about the way we get our nourishment.
The kind of information discussed in Fresh will always be fresh news. This summer’s recall of 500 million eggs—just the latest contamination scandal—proves the urgency of changing our way of farming and ranching.
So count me as one who can’t get enough of Salatin’s life and opinions, as he farms his spread in Swoope, Virginia. Bursting with enthusiasm as he is, Salatin seems to spend his off hours patiently discussing his methods with journalists via telephone. In Fresh, we learn more about the history of Polyface Farms, a place so damn pretty most kids would have rejected lunchboxes painted with it as too impossibly sweet.
Salatin is the 50ish son of a father who went back to the land. The elder Salatin picked up a degraded, hilly spread seemingly suitable only for industrial-scale corn farming. Careful husbanding brought brought the land back; today Salatin has rotating pasturage for cows, which is followed up by chickens in a mobile coop. Salatin is seen cheerily greeting his hens (“Good morning, birdies!”) as he releases them to glean the bugs in the chewed over pasture. It’s all part of the symbiotic relationship of ruminants and ground-birds, which existed for eons before chickens were cooped in mega-sheds.

Joanes’ conclusions may seem idealistic. Farmers are pragmatic people, though, and no one is seriously suggesting a return to antique methods (though, on that note, a rising number of Midwestern farms have been revived by the Amish, who must know something). The natural question is whether middle-sized farms with small-scale, more intensive labor can feed as many people as industrial-scale farming.
Pollan, interviewed here, suggests that the phrasing of the question is wrong: what’s being raised today is overloads of corn and soybean, at artificially low prices disguising the expense of fuel and fertilizer. The grain is stuffed into the stomachs of steers, leaving fat feedlot cattle pooping out E coli laden waste, caused by a grain-rich diet. And industrial chicken and pig farming create vast lagoons of crap teeming with antibiotics and hormones.

Fresh focuses on other small agriculturalists, who are far more interesting than the putatively fascinating celebs strutting their stuff on TV.
Meet hog farmer Russ Kremer of Frankenstein, Missouri (!) who had a scary brush with a man-made monster himself.
Once he was a larger-scale hog farmer, doling out antibiotics for his immured, diarrhea-wracked swine. One day a boar tusked his leg. He got a drug-resistant infection that nearly crippled him.
Kremer started over again with a smaller herd of about 300 pigs, allowed to roam and graze instead of being kept in sheds, and he saved $14k a year in drugs and vet bills the first year.

For a man obsessed with earthworms (“My babies!”) the 6’ 7” Will Allen of Growing Power farm at Milwaukee has terrific charisma. Today a small-scale urban dirt-scratcher, he was once the son of a sharecropper, a former college basketball star, and a suit-wearing marketer at Procter and Gamble.
Allen is now a MacArthur Foundation laureate bringing fresh produce to “food deserts” in other hard-hit Midwestern cities; we see glimpses of a system he uses to farm tilapias, using their waste to fertilize greenhouses where he and his partners grows tons of food for locals. Meanwhile Growing Power takes in 6000 pounds of city produce scraps in the worm bins and compost heaps.
Then there’s George Naylor, a conventional (non-organic) farmer, a scholarly-looking party who was the former president of the National Family Farm Coalition; he gives us a tour of the monocultures taking over the rich terroir of Iowa.

The reverse side of modern farming is on display too; interviews with “Mr and Mrs. Fox”, Arkansas chicken ranchers who have to hire out prison trustees to catch their shed-raised birds because the work is too tough for free men to do.
And Fresh outlines how ever-merging conglomerates are taking over the growing and distribution of beef. Alas, we can’t expect an Illinois-based politician like Barack Obama to take on Archer Daniel Midland. The horrific excesses of industrial chicken and hog farming are glimpsed via hidden cameras.
The struggle to change the way we raise food is as exciting a fight as we may see in our lives. Before us, we have the possibility to feed and make a hungry world healthy, through less cruelty and far less waste. And Fresh suggests the battlefronts are as close as the nearest cash register.

Doc Savage v. Ayn Rand

There’s nothing like a weird and semi-readable piece of pulp to sprain the cortex. Now, take 1957′s Atlas Shrugged, which fairly recently spawned this kind of tribute in the Wall Street Journal. Here is the reprise of the old story–Greenspan used to tell it repeatedly–of how a person who hadn’t been coldcocked by Rand’s envious mountain of jibberish was “a virgin” .

It’s Doc Savage virgins who interest me more. From the ever brilliant Mike “Doktor Goulfinger” Monahan, I learn of how the Man of Bronze would have squelched the plot of Atlas Shrugged.

The 40th Doc Savage novel The Dagger in the Sky (1939–18 YEARS BEFORE RAND KILLED ALL THOSE FORESTS WITH HER BOOK) has the superhuman Savage and his trustworthy team heading off to investigate weirdness in a in a pair of South American nations on the brink of war. Eventually, he corners the perpetrators who have been scaring the local Indians into subservience. They turn out to be well-known American industrialists:

“Our motives for doing this, you may or may not know, are – well, they
are idealistic…”
B.A. Arthur [one such industrialist] cleared his throat. “The world today is a turbulent,
war-ridden place. In no country, no nation on the face of the earth,
are property rights unhampered by taxation. I am an American citizen,
for instance, and when I die, the United States government plans to
take over half my fortune in inheritance taxes – which means they will
take some seven hundred million dollars, in spite of all my lawyers
can do to the contrary. Granting, of course, their taxation had not
made me a pauper before then.”
B.A. Arthur scowled before he continued.
“Government meddling – you find it everywhere. Take the New York
Stock Exchange, for example – what do you find? Government regulation
everywhere you turn. The banks? Deposit insurance – eating up the
banker’s legitimate profit. Utilities? Government competition forcing
rates down until return on capital is cut to a measly seven or eight
Doc Savage looked around the table and said, “The point is that you
fellows – you very wealthy men – don’t like the way the world is
today. That it?”
“And you propose?”
“To take over the mountainous portion of Cristobal – a perfect
place to live, if ever there was one on the face of this earth….”
“And then?”
“We will create a sanctuary for wealth,” B.A. Arthur said grimly.
“There will be no income tax, no inheritance tax, no tax on any
business enterprise of any size. There will be no regulations.
Operating from such a country, we will soon make it the financial
center of the world.”
“What about the natives of Cristobal?”
“Oh, them? They will be shown their place.” B.A. Arthur suddenly
pounded the table. “There will be none of this damned rights-of-labor
stuff! No unions. The first time the fools go on strike, we’ll have
them shot down. That’ll teach them!”
Doc Savage remained emotionless, asked, “And where do I come in?”
“We need brains. We might hire yours.”
“What makes you think I would work for you?”
“You’re one of those idiots who spends his time trying to make a
better world, aren’t you? Well, we’re offering you the chance of your
Doc Savage shook his head.
“You won’t do it?” B.A. Arthur exploded. “But we’ve kept your
friends alive solely in hopes of getting your good will in the end.”
“And why not, you idiot?”
Doc said, with no noticeable excitement in his voice, “This whole
setup is rather hideous. It’s selfish and ugly. It is simply a case of
rich men – men more wealthy than anyone has a right to be – trying to
keep their money and get more.”

[And then Doc proposes to send the men to his "college" for surgical re-education, the part that Rand probably wouldn't have liked.]]

“Our men at the college have had plenty of experience training men to
hate crime,” Doc pointed out. “It should be no more difficult to train
men to do good with money.”

Harvey Pekar Dies, Age 70

Harvey Pekar was found dead this morning at his home by his wife of 27 years, cartoonist Joyce Brabner. The autobiographical comics written by this Cleveland resident put his city on the map; in some of his best work, including Our Cancer Year (co-written by Brabner) and The Quitter, Pekar expanded the boundaries of what graphic literature can do. He exalted the humble and ridiculed the lofty, and preserved the kind of life that gets overlooked in celeberity culture. I had the privilege of interviewing the man a few times: once on the release of Our Cancer Year and once when the film version of American Splendor came out.

And then there was this article when Pekar was still in development hell.

Some other links: Pekar was long-time Metro contributor. Here he is on lesser-known beat Herbert Huncke, on author Samuel Ornitz, on Alison Bechdel before she made it big with Fun Home. Here’s Pekar on Robert Musil, author of Young Torliss and The Man Without Qualities. He weighed in on clarinetist Don Byron, on Debut Records (a label owned by Charlie Mingus and Max Roach), as well as on klezmer.

We’ll all miss him. Though he delighted in chronicling his neuroses and fears, he was a brave and honorable man.

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (Knopf, $26.95, 370 pp.)

By Richard von Busack

Some wiseacre (maybe it was the now-forgotten proto-McSweeneyite Jack Douglas?) once summed up the plot of Of Human Bondage as “a story about a guy with a clubfoot getting kicked around by a girl, when it seems like it would have made more sense the other way around.” Tell me this isn’t similarly reductive: a book about a boy who falls obsessively with a girl with big breasts, only to be undone later by a girl with a big butt. Such is the first reaction to Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, though the backdrop of the novel has more stature than the premise. It’s Amis’s farewell to the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Here he demonstrates the same sort of regret for radical excesses that he evinced later in life about Stalin. Couplings cheered or leered over in novels like Dead Babies and The Rachel Papers are now groaned over in the winter of life.

The theme of The Pregnant Widow is the sexual revolution falling, losing to religious atavism and the enduring power of money. 20-year-old narrator Keith Nearing, of none-too-rich or distinguished family, spends the summer of 1970 as a guest in a minor Italian castle. His filial, bed-ailing (if not quite bed-dead) relationship with young Lily is interrupted: her friend, a splendidly built girl named Scheherazade fascinates Keith. This is indicated by the way he compares their measurements. Later, Gloria arrives–an Edinburgh prude with a sensational butt. (Gloria is nastily nicknamed “Junglebum”.) She seems virginal, but in the fullness of time, Gloria evolves into one of the most savage bitches since Lucy Tantamount in Point Counter Point.

College age people travel in packs, which justifies the constant introduction of ever more new and half-drawn characters dropping in during the summer. Scads of people with peculiar nicknames and no personalities clutter the page. Keith’s shameful behavior, inspired by an incident in Richardson’s Clarissa (published 1747-8), is aptly punished by the females in this novel, who seize the male privileges of picking up a man fast and dropping him hard.

The physical life is contrasted with Keith’s daytime activity: cramming for an English major by keelhauling himself through the works of every British author from Samuel Richardson to D. H. Lawrence. It turns out Lawrence spent some time at this very castle, being given a similarly hard time by the straying Frieda. All of this cited reading makes for some salty literary commentary, which of course Amis could do blindfolded and drunk. Behind the scenes and between the chapters, is commentary of the Keith of today. He’s an older sadder figure living just as the Iraq War is commencing. Surely, Keith is a figure with something in common with Amis: with more past than future, waiting to see what diseases old age has in store for him.

And just as surely, Amis gets some sense of that rat-in-heat quality in youth. There is an emblematic rat in the novel: an animal that might be a rodent and might be a lapdog—a joke that’s worked like an everlasting jawbreaker. The book’s tunnel vision is reflected in other bits of wit: here, Amis’s Unabashed Dictionary defines “sodomy” as “the beast with one back.” It’d be hypocrisy for any male reader to read this and not remember how much young lust influenced falling in love: then, a deep cleavage seemed to indicate some similarly deep, maternal, earthy quality…just as young women fooled themselves into thinking every starveling guy is a spiritual esthete.

In stressing this, Amis may not be a letch—he’s just accurate about how simplistic a young man can be. And Amis champions of the civilizing mission of the English novel—the long climb out of the tangles of seducers and the seduced, evolves into the intellectual power to choose in Jane Austen’s heroines…not to mention the sexual frankness of Lawrence. (And yet it’s more than the extensive literary quotes, and the novel fading out on one of Ariel’s songs from The Tempest, that make this book read like something retrofitted from a young person’s diary.)

As text, it resembles Neil LaBute’s views of sex as one-upmanship, such as defined by father Kingsley: an act that “reminds an animal pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal”. If one tossed in the element of pleasure—as opposed to the way the sex drive is seen here, as an escape hatch from torturous, unbearable urges—the book might have turned into much-loathed pornography. There, at least, people pretend at least to like one another while they’re having sex.

The Pregnant Widow’s title is taken from an Alexander Herzen quote about the infant hope that survives the dashed hopes of any failed revolution. But even if one wrings hands over new Ayatollahs and born again Christians, doesn’t it seem like the pregnant widow in question delivered a healthy baby? Focus on, say, Idaho in 1970 instead of upper class Europe in 1970, and you’d think that the sexual revolution never got a real start. Focus on Tehran in 2010 instead of, say, Idaho, 2010, and you’d consider the sexual revolution lost. In fact, sex lives have changed even in the most backward parts of the world.

A 50 year old’s sex life is no joke, unless the joke’s on him. The narcissistic man of that age might think the whole globe is living on similarly thin rations. Most evidence suggests that the young are leaping into great polysexual piles, photographing each other and uploading it, buying porn like Marines on leave, and literally inventing categories of bedroom behavior that never existed before. Whatever one thinks of their morals, their music, or Christ help us, their literature, the evidence stands that young people are still rutting like hyenas on Cialus. Thus the point of The Pregnant Widow—to say nothing of the frustrating, meandering power plays recorded here—is slightly irrelevant.


From Ain’t it Cool: a special Cinco de Mayo message from Machete! Spread it around, make it viral–

Lynn Redgrave (1943-2010)

A big charming funny girl, above all, and depressed enough about it to be one of the first celebrity bulemics–“Looking at my horrible ugly bulk on a huge screen was the turning point in my life”– Lynn Redgrave was the daughter of Michael Redgrave and the sister of Vanessa. She’d been on stage from age 22 but made the splash of her life at age 30 in ’63s Swinging London comedy Georgy Girl. People of my age couldn’t avoid the bubble-gummy song on the radio, but the film itself seems to be the biggest and most fondly remembered of Redgrave’s acting.

There was loads of tv, some zany roles (as a sweet Xavier Hollander in the expurgated film version of The Happy Hooker); a lot of Shakespeare, and enough Broadway that they’ll be dimming the lights in her honor.
Cast against Rita Tushingham in the musical Smashing Time, the two were the perfect big and little vaudeville team; in his memoirs, Michael Caine noted cattily that when Redgrave stood next to Tushingham “Rita looked like her lunch”. It was in supporting roles that filmmakers saw Redgrave during the last few years: attendees at the Sanf Francisco Film Festival just saw her in My Dog Tulip, the sort of prequel to an Alan Bates film of the late 1980s, We Think The World Of You.

She was an actress who excelled in bits:

The half-way house landlady in Spider (2002), one of the scariest films you’ve never heard of;

In Gods and Monsters (1998) Redgrave was the Transylvanian accented housekeeper who informs Brendan Fraser that her master James Whale (Ian McKellan) is a a homosexual:  he has committed  “the deed that no man can name without shame”.

Never having seen Varian’s War (2001)–the movie by right-wing activist Lionel Chetwynd–I was surprised to learn Redgrave had played Alma Wefel-Mahler, saluted in song by Tom Lehrer.

The  “Do Aphrodisiacs Work?” sequence in 1972′s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” as the Queen fending off the advances of the bespectacled horny jester: Redgrave was one of the best partners Allen had.

“Harken to me: if my husband the king and my son the doctor walketh near on these paved paths and hearest what thy sayest about copping a feel, thy life would not be worth a plugged nickle.”

Red Kangaroo: Wake in Fright tonight at SFIFF

by Richard von Busack

An intelligent if lofty schoolteacher (Gary Bond) arrives in a desert town that’s drunk 24 hours a day; eagerly, even hysterically befriended by the locals, including a doctor, played by Donald Pleasance, who has given up and embraced barbarism. Matters get worse right away; the funny games of the locals spiral out into random violence toward people, animals and possessions.

It’s the worse-case scenario of living in the desert—not a frontier life, but one in which the humans are devolving. As such, it’s not just a harbinger of the kind of ‘70s revenge film in which the chickens come home to roost, but the kind of movies Australia sold over seas: sci-fi tinged dramas of the apocalypse soon to come.

Any Australianaphile is alerted to tonight’s San Francisco International Film Festival screening of Wake in Fright (1971) tonight, April 26, at 9:45 at the Kabuki Theater; there’s two other screenings this week, April 30 and May 2.
Wake in Fright was released here in 1972 in an expurgated version as Outback. I’m guessing that this film’s revival is due to the scenes excerpted in Not Quite Hollywood.

There’s an expression producers use: “What can I put on the poster?” This means that any film, no matter how sophisticated, has to have some salient feature to be talked about afterward. It’s not the babble of post-modern criminal conversation that sold Reservoir Dogs, or the implicit critique of the hypocrisy of the Reagan Years in Blue Velvet: in both films, it was a severed ear that made audiences sit up and bark. And as Frako Loden notes, regarding her viewing of Wake in Fright, as seen at the Palm Springs Film Festival, what goes figuratively “on the poster” is a gratuitous, vicious slaughter of kangaroos by some drunken oafs in an outback town. Loden’s review here has some spoilers

but Loden records the disgust of the audience with these scenes.

This is for me another reminder how hard it is for someone who saw early 1970s cinema to be shocked by anything these days—it was a nihilist, anything-went cinema reflecting dread and urban decay—“Wake in Fright” is the perfect early 1970s title, because that phrase summed up the zeitgeist.

Wake in Fright is based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, an interesting character, an anti-Viet Nam war activist and a ecologist in addition to being a writer. And scriptwriter Evan Jones has a fascinating QV: a long time collaborator with Joseph Losey (Eva, The Damned aka These Are the Damned, Modesty Blaise); one can suppose a Losey/Pinter influence on these characters in which the malign, dog-eat-dog spirit is candied with disconcerting friendliness.

As an aside, one misses the hell out of Pauline Kael. Her three page review of this film published in the book Deeper Into Movies is a model of how to approach a film in which one isn’t a member of the culture it talks about. People say what they say about Kael’s blindspots and prejudices, but her interest in this film is concise and not clinical; she draws a parallel to Joseph Conrad’s work—and not necessarily the obvious parallel, to Heart of Darkness.

Kael doesn’t do what most of us would do: let the reaction to the mistreatment of ‘roos sicken us so much she can’t carry on. Though she is effected: “The red eyes of kangaroos in the glare of headlights—that’s what you take home from Outback.”

What Kael doesn’t tell you is what Not Quite Hollywood does suggest: the remarkableness of a film like Wake in Fright being made in a nation whose cinema was just beginning,  just emerging from heavy censorship: making the film was an act of serious self-criticism and bravery.

Quotable Callan

My new favorite guilty pleasure is the old British TV show Callan, from the late ’60s-early ’70s, with Edward Woodward as a wound-up, bitter spy railing in Shakespearean tones against his superiors and the system. The show combines soap operatic acting with some surprising nimble dialogue that rises to (or at least aspires to) the finely calibrated insider upper-echelon double-speak of John LeCarré’s bureaucratic spy masters. In one episode, Callan ventures a sour joke at the expense of a colleague, only to have his imperious superior promptly strike him down with the observation that “levity is not the soul of wit.” That’s a line good enough for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I am also taken by the wardrobe sported by one of Callan’s fellow spies, Cross (he of the Patrick Mower of the majestically flaring nostrils and wolf-boy hair). On occasion, Cross has been known to show up in a white sheep-skin lined jacket with an enormous collar that must have decimated an entire flock of Merinos and two gigantic button-down side pockets. This amazing garment should no doubt make a comeback now, some 40 years later, when we have at last found a use for such limitless carrying capacity: a place to store our iPads.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a photo of the jacket, so this closeup of cross in action will have to suffice.

'Mad Men' : Decline and Fall of Don Draper's Empire

I’m late to the party, just now watching season 3 of Mad Men on DVD, but I was fascinated by some bibliographical notes in Episode 3.

First was the fascinating sequence of Don Draper’s precocious, thieving daughter reading out loud from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to her grandpa, quoting from the section on the supposed flaws of the eastern civilizations. It appeared to be the three-volume Heritage Club edition with the Piranesi illustrations. I recall this very same set from my parents’ library. They, as did many middle-class families, subscribed to the Heritage Club, which delivered (once a month, I think), lovely, illustrated, slipcased but not overly expensive editions of the classic texts, each accompanied by a little leaflet of introduction called the Sandglass. I’m sure that the set is still there on the shelf—my parents do not get rid of books (unless them send them to me).

Also, my eyes might have failed me, but I believe that I saw the two-volume Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelf in the office behind the desk of the new boss from England. That figures as a statement of hierarchical authority—except that the Compact Edition wasn’t published until 1971.

Know your post mumblecore movements!

Know your movements:

Stumblecore: director, cast drunk during entirety of shoot.

Numblecore: cast novicaned by oral surgeon to prevent artificial show-offy acting.

Dumblecore: At least 75% of the cast–this is audited–must be mute from birth. Up and coming indie-film movement in the Winston-Salem area, with at least two directors involved.
A third, Mike Duplotz, was manifestoed out of the movement when he tried to bend the rules by hiring an actor with a bad speech impediment in his 2006 film HI, MY NAME IS STEEEPGHHHUIIN.)
Lumbercore: Oregon-based regional variation of numblecore.
Dumbledorecore: slash fiction film of Harry Potter stories filmed on microbudgets (Woodrow Wilson Elementary as Hogwarts, Ace Hardware store flashlights as wands.)
Coreycore: Indie film movement emulating the cinema of Feldman and Haines. (Though extinct, but one disputed sighting at the Saskatoon Film Festival, 2008).
Kore-ida core: sad Japanese family must be included in every film