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O Holy Knight

In the 2002 New Yorker essay entitled “Looking at War,” Susan Sontag wrote, “War is seen as something men do, inveterately, undeterred by the accumulation of suffering it inflicts; to represent war in words or in pictures requires a keen unflinching detachment.” Sontag certainly brought detachment, perhaps in excess, to her 1990 play about a perilously callow soldier. Entitled A Parsifal, it is now enjoying its world premiere.

Browsing the Housing Works Used Book Café some years ago, the play’s director, John Jahnke, had chanced across Sontag’s script in the 1991 issue of the defunct literary journal Antaeus. Originally intended as an abstract introduction to an exhibition catalog of Robert Wilson’s set designs, Sontag’s six-page script attempts a radical compression of Wagner’s five-hour-plus Parsifal. (Wilson’s production of the opera had famously impressed Sontag.) First recounted by the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, the Parsifal legend tells of a naive young man—incapable of empathy and blind to his ability to do good or ill—who must painfully gain self-knowledge before he can assume guardianship of the Holy Grail.

One doesn’t necessarily envy Jahnke the challenge of staging this six-page script. A play written by Sontag and dedicated to Wilson is automatically freighted with anxiety and influence. And Jahnke’s own work has long been shadowed by that of the late enfant terrible director Reza Abdoh, to whose Dar a Luz company Jahnke belonged. But Jahnke assumes the task with such coolness that he casts Black-Eyed Susan, an actress who starred in that most famous of Wagner rewrites, Charles Ludlam’s Der Ring Gott Farblonjet. She plays an ostrich, fancifully costumed by Hillary Moore, who offers some ambivalent advice to Gardiner Comfort’s blank-eyed Parsifal.

In Sontag’s version, Parsifal arrives onstage armed not with bow and arrow, but naked and sporting an Uzi, which he deploys with cheerful unconcern. As to his weapon and the damage it can inflict, he says nonchalantly, “Oh this. It’s nothing. In my country everyone has one.” He answers nearly every question with “I don’t know,” offering at one point, “I’m not good at talking. Perhaps I am retarded.” This retardation appears emotional as well as intellectual. When a writhing, weeping King of Pain (Grant Neale) rolls by on a gurney, Parisfal remains unmoved.

In the Wagner take on the legend, Parsifal prospered only when he learned compassion and silenced baser cravings. In Sontag’s script, Parsifal suffers pain but doesn’t necessarily acquire empathy. In fact, his wanderings through the world teach him how to turn his innocence to his personal, political advantage. The play ends with a press conference in which Parsifal proudly admits, “Yes, I did know that not speaking, withholding information, confers great power.” In a frequent motif, Wagner described Parsifal as “a guileless fool.” Today’s Parsifal may still be a fool, but you couldn’t call him guileless. Sontag has taken an allegory of Christian redemption and transformed it into a parable of unmerited power.

But while the political resonances are evocative and Jahnke’s staging is unfailingly elegant, the script itself proves so spare, so cool, so self-serious, and so fiercely intertextual, that it’s practically ineffable, if not positively nonsensical. Jahnke does provide a helpful program note, but without a solid grounding in Arthurian legend or the Wagner oeuvre, one becomes very quickly—albeit very prettily—lost. Indeed, despite the visual loveliness (especially the knight chorus composed of a dozen gym-vet tank-topped 19-year-olds) and the meditations on violence and responsibility, a splash of Ludlam’s antic comedy and clarity would not be taken amiss. Indeed a single line of his, spoken by the villain Alberich, would suffice for so many of Sontag’s abstruse pronouncements: ” ‘Nobody loves me, so I might as well rule the world.’ “

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Green Afternoon

Location Chelsea
Price $529,000 in January 2006 [$718.92 maintenance]
Square feet 500 [junior one-bedroom co-op apartment in pre-war building]
Occupant Nicholas Leighton [executive director, not-for-profit cancer research organization; owner, Emerald Energy products]

Emerald Energy! I’m just about to make some. It’s probably been the busiest week of my life. The cancer research organization was on the Today show. I had 482 voice mails today. Last night, I had 1,000.

Why is Emerald Energy orange? I mix it in vegetable juice. Here, this will do it for you.

[Swallow] More protein than beef. It tastes like nothing. Technically this is a studio, but in the ’80s, this wall was built, making a bedroom. This apartment is in one of the four corner buildings, the London Terrace Towers co-ops. In between are the Gardens, the rentals. They can use the pool for a fee.

I read that a tenant was thrown out because he had sex in the pool. I think there were other reasons he was removed. I’ve only been here for three days.

That’s why we’re sitting on the bare floor in an empty room. Though by the time the photographer gets here, you’ll have your furniture. The building went co-op in 1987. I’ve only been here for three days. It was funded right before the stock market crash in 1929. The owner jumped off the building and killed himself.

This wide pile is like a person who has spread. They’re sighing. What were you expecting?

I have been here before. I was just reflecting. Only a few buildings are the size of a full city block in New York.

They call it a white-glove building. It was for people who wanted all these amenities, fancy middle class. London Terrace has this whole reputation that it’s like a fortress. It’s not like some Upper East Side co-op. There are many with an artful, political sensibility—Annie Leibovitz, Stephin Merritt, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Ethnically, economically, it’s pretty diverse.

People in their seventies and eighties were in your lobby. It may have just been a moment in time. Nice—institutional memory.

Susan Sontag was the queen on top of the mountain. Below were all her subjects. And now . . . I was lucky. I bought from original owners so no board approval or having to put down 20 percent. It’s very standard for co-ops to require 20, 30, even 50 percent. Condos allow more flexible financing but they’re more expensive per square foot. A major percent of Manhattan apartments are co-ops. So because there’re less condos and they’re easier to buy, they’re just more expensive—supply and demand. Because condos are real property, there’s mortgage tax which for me could have been upwards of $10,000. Did you see the view of the Statue of Liberty? I had no light before. I was at 10th near University, the Albert.

You’re a pre-war person. I’d want to put in crown molding here some day. I grew up on the West Coast. I painted the walls pebble gray. It’s almost like shadow. Some people, they envision their wedding. I envision mid-century modern. I have a Florence Knoll sofa. It’s really uncomfortable but it’s OK. It’s seven feet long. I have a baby grand.

What do you sing on your piano? I play Chopin, Debussy.

Oh. I have little paper in the house. I scanned the contents of 25 file drawers on a flatbed. It took seven days. The crystal candy dishes are Oswald Haerdtl. I inherited them from my grandfather. The second wife had very expensive taste. The other night I had friends over for a vodka tasting. I’ve had tonic water tastings, vanilla ice cream.

You’re so social. In the future, I’d like to do butter.

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Docs Without Borders

“I like to go to the front line on drugs,” a young girl clad in green beret and camouflage gear declares defiantly to the camera. “When I’m on drugs, even if I’m face-to-face with someone, I have no pity and kill them and then walk away.” Sixteen-year-old January is one of more than 20,000 child soldiers recruited by militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dragging on a cigarette, she boasts of taking up arms at 10 in retaliation for the murders of family and friends. Other kids were abducted from their villages, like Mafille, a melancholy 15-year-old. Back home after a traumatic stint in the army (where, like many girls, she suffered sexual abuse), she is now a changed creature. Her mother confides that Mafille avoids boys and is too fragile to attend school.

This powerful short film, one of six being shown on the Sundance Channel on Human Rights Day, was co-produced by a local Congolese group called Ajedi-Ka; their mission is to bring home and rehabilitate child soldiers, and to pressure the International Criminal Court to stop recruitment and prosecute the perpetrators. But Ajedi-Ka probably couldn’t have reached an American audience without the help of Witness, a nonprofit organization that uses video to expose human rights horrors.

Outside the activist milieu, Witness is best known (if at all) for its founder, musician Peter Gabriel. Although it sprung into being in 1992, Witness has never gone out of its way to court mainstream media attention. That’s because Witness chooses each project with a specific audience in mind, often congressmen, government ministers, or CEOs. Other Witness films are intended to be used as evidence in an international court, or as a deterrent to abuse. One of the pieces included in the Sundance Channel sampler, “Dual Injustice,” about a Mexican man falsely tortured into confessing that he murdered his cousin, was screened by court officials; days later, a Mexican national newspaper got word that charges might be dropped. And executive director Gillian Caldwell says she’s already seeing widespread response to a film on violence and neglect in the California juvenile justice system, including new legislation proposed by California’s senate majority leader.

Witness has roots in the vérité documentary tradition, and Caldwell herself first got involved with the organization when she filmed an undercover investigation of the Russian mafia’s involvement in prostitution and human trafficking in the mid ’90s. Witness clearly shares some kind of distant kinship with blockbuster filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, whose movies make accessible political statements. But if critics have accused Moore of peddling propaganda, what would they say of Witness? Each of its docs brazenly wears its agenda on its sleeve. In fact, the power of Witness films partly stems from an undeniable sense of authenticity and sincerity: These are intimate glimpses of another world made by amateurs with handheld cameras. As Luc Sante pointed out in a Slate discussion of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, “If the Rodney King video had been properly framed and lit, it might have appeared fake. We want our documents to look like documents: hasty, ragged, produced under duress, so emotionally overwhelming the photographer could not concentrate on his craft.”

Sontag herself was wary of the sympathy conjured by viewing images of atrocities, though. She wrote, “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence,” and so absolves us from thinking or acting further. But Witness counters that impotence. Unlike the nightly news, which asks only that you file away a stream of information for future dinner party conversations, Witness implores the viewer to take some tiny role in derailing an atrocity in progress, listing links and helpful actions on its website, witness.org.

Not that the group is averse to television network attention—it’s collaborated with most of the big news organizations, supplying footage and contacts. Two of its contributions to Primetime Live won awards, but there’s a limit to how far that kind of partnership can go since, as Caldwell points out, “Major media likes to do a couple award-winning stories of social significance, and the rest is about ratings.” A group like Witness, with its grassroots sensibility (it trained 435 partner organizations in 110 countries last year), sees its real future in new media, where anyone can be a broadcaster—or a documentarian. “The Net and blogging and citizen journalism is fundamentally reshaping how media thinks about itself,” Caldwell says. And Witness is allowing people around the globe to post their message in a bottle for all to see.

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Pic Your Friends

Time was, when some drunk guy in a bar challenged you to elucidate the relationship of photographic technology and the reification of personal experience under the conditions of 21st-century global capitalism, gosh, you couldn’t even get started without plowing through a stack of books by Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and assorted other pointy-heads. Nowadays you just tell him to go take a look at flickr.com, the classy little photo-sharing site all the bloggerati are uploading their visuals to. Or better yet, you whip out your camera phone, snap a shot of the guy, key in a caption, e-mail it to your Flickr account, and tell him to go take a look in a few hours, after friends and strangers from around the world have marked up the image with comments on his haircut, his waist size, and the phenomenology of digital media.

Flickr didn’t invent online picture sharing, of course, but it was the first such site to recognize itself as much more than a hosting service for personal photo albums. Tricked out with features inspired by the latest fashions in online-software design—post-Friendster social-networking tools, “folksonomy”-friendly image-tagging code—Flickr turned enough industry heads to win itself a $35 million buyout from Yahoo, announced last week. Flickr has also won a devoted following of users hungry to explore the possibilities its Web-centric toolset opens up. It’s a place not just for self-display, but for an emergent visual conversation: One popular thread consists entirely, and with a certain random elegance, of pizzas, manholes, coins, and other circular objects centered squarely in the frame. The “Iraq” tag joins snapshots of anti-war protests and Baghdad patrols in a piquant mix. The frozen moment proliferates here, as it has done increasingly since photography was invented, but never before has its social life been such a party.

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Blast From the (Recent) Past: A More Mature Fischerspooner

This year, it seems like everything old is new again. Artists from the recent past have new records out: The Chemical Brothers unleashed the surprisingly good Push the Button in January, and this spring will see more records from a couple of big names, including Moby—who is releasing Hotel, a two-disc set—and Parisian duo Daft Punk, who have finally made the follow-up to 2001’s Discovery, called Human After All. Electroclash escapees Fischerspooner, the kings of the most hyped, shortest lived, and falsely constructed genre, have broken themselves out of their self-manufactured box with their sophomore effort, Odyssey. The music’s still high-concept (think Pink Floyd turned more techno), but this time it feels less like an art school prank and a lot more sincere. Warren Fischer’s musical compositions are less reliant on those knob-twiddly two-note Groovebox sounds that made their key single “Emerge” so iconic, and he creates more mature sonic landscapes. It’s still Fischerspooner, even if there are collaborations with French house producer Mirwais, songwriting weapon Linda Perry, and the late Susan Sontag (who wrote the lyrics for “We Need a War”). You’ll recognize the deadpan lyrical delivery from Casey Spooner, and the first single, “Just Let Go,” is as annoyingly catchy as any Top 40 hit or club favorite. FS are also the most accessible local band in recent memory. Every Thursday they host a salon at their loft in Williamsburg, sometimes showing short political or art films, sometimes staging performances, and always hosting DJs like Tommie Sunshine and Andy Butler.

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Atrocity Exhibition

“The appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,” Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. The success of The Passion of the Christ notwithstanding, that sounds a bit hyperbolic—still, if Sontag is correct, there should be a line around the block at Anthology Film Archives this week for Oh! Uomo (Oh! Man).

The latest archival assemblage by Milan-based filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Oh! Uomo is the final panel in their World War I triptych. The previous films dealt with the massacre of civilian populations, but Oh! Uomo is more viscerally horrifying, focusing largely on the effects of modern warfare on the human body. The movie’s title is taken from Leonardo da Vinci and so is its premise, namely that images of suffering will promote empathy. Da Vincian too is the scientific interest in human anatomy.

War has no rationale here. Oh! Uomo naturalizes carnage in its first shot with graceful biplanes wheeling through a bird-filled sky. (Even before World War I broke out, Italy had used this new invention—another da Vinci idea—as the means to bomb the restive natives of their colony Libya.) The arrival of a military band cues music: Ghosts already, soldiers on horseback are shown riding out of the stables toward the battlefield, while priests make an offering. The officers, shown in negative, include Mussolini (perhaps a flash-forward). Then shells explode and the earth is consumed in the conflagration. So much for combat.

Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi have been making archival films for nearly 20 years—the encyclopedic actualité compilation From the Pole to the Equator remains their most widely seen work, but their style has been widely imitated. The couple treats each scrap of unearthed footage as though it were a holy relic. The original film is step-printed and slowed down to reveal fleeting expressions and gestures, as well as to emphasize the material nature of the scratched, blotchy, fragile celluloid stuff itself. The preciousness of the preserved footage is underscored by color tinting. But no matter how beautiful the ruddy gold or electric chartreuse, the effect is not exactly distancing.

“The gruesome invites us to be spectators or cowards, unable to look,” Sontag notes in apparent self-contradiction. So it is with Oh! Uomo, once pain arrives in the form of maimed children and starving war orphans. Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel the need to up the sensory ante. The choral keening that accompanies the image of one bedridden girl escalates into a rhythmic mock wailing that grows increasingly abusive with footage of a dead child atop a mountain of corpses. (The filmmakers have made this mistake before—accompanying People, Years, Life, their account of the 1915 Armenian massacres, with a discordantly cloying requiem.) Sound is intermittent throughout Oh! Uomo, but the movie is almost always a stronger, more awe-inspiring experience without the presence of an editorializing musical counter-irritant.

The underlying question, of course, is, will these sights turn people against war? The Bush administration must think so—at least to judge from its news management style, blocking images of American casualties, let alone those of civilians or enemies. “The Face of War,” the most notorious section of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 photography collection War Against War!, documented the hideously blasted, melted, shattered features of World War I’s wounded survivors. (These “broken mugs,” as the French called them, also appeared in Abel Gance’s 1938 anti-war feature J’accuse.) A similar gallery of destroyed and reconstructed faces is at the heart of Oh! Uomo: Eyes are surgically removed, ears repaired, jaws refastened.

The filmmakers end their terrifying exposé on a strangely positive note with the production of heroic cyborgs. The wounded learn how to screw on their new hands or fit into prosthetic legs. Many are cheerful; they smile as they model their afflictions. Humanity has successfully turned itself into an object.

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Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Like Maria Callas’s voice, Susan Sontag’s mind, to borrow a phrase from the great filmmaker Werner Schroeter (one of countless underappreciated artists Sontag championed), was “a comet passing once in a hundred years.” In a dauntingly, often viciously anti-intellectual society, Sontag made being an intellectual attractive.

She was the indispensible voice of moral responsibility, perceptual clarity, passionate (and passionately reasonable) advocacy: for aesthetic pleasure, for social justice, for unembarrassed hedonism, for life against death. Sontag took it as a given that our duty as sentient beings is to rescue the world. She knew that empathy can change history.

She set the bar of skepticism as high as it would go. Allergic to received ideas and their hypnotic blandishments, she was often startled to discover how devalued the ethical sense, and the courage to exercise it, had become in American consumer culture.

Sontag had impeccable instincts for saying and doing what needed to be said and done while too many others scrambled for the safety of consensus. Hence the uproar when she declared, at the height of Solidarity’s epochal crisis in 1982, that “communism . . . is fascism with a human face.” Hence also the depressingly rote indignation mobilized against her response to a New Yorker survey about the 9-11 attacks, published on September 24, 2001—a survey that most respondents used to promote themselves, their latest books, the depth of their own “feelings.”

Of course it was, and still is, easier for many Americans to pretend the events of 9-11 were inexplicable eruptions of violence against American virtuousness, perpetrated by people who “hate us for our freedoms.” Indeed, the habitual assertion of the American way of life’s superiority is probably what persuades supposedly serious writers to weigh in on a civil catastrophe by promoting their own narrow interests, dropping in news of their current travel itineraries, their marriages, their kids—oh, and how shaken they were by the tragic events.

It takes unusual bravery to cite, in a large media venue, cause and effect as operant elements in a man-made emergency—especially when the programmed pieties and entrenched denial mechanisms of society run in the opposite direction.

Sontag drew her own better-than-well-informed conclusions about what happened on 9-11. The habit of independent thought has so little currency in 21st-century America that dissent is the last thing most Americans consider worth protecting.

What Jean Genet referred to as “the far Right and its imbecilic mythology” have already been activated in several “obituary” pieces, including one fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag’s entire lifework. It’s lowering to realize how terminally bitter the American right really is: Even in its current triumphal micro-epoch, it needs to demonize somebody.

Sontag’s political “lapses,” cited even in sympathetic articles, are in fact the public moments one should most admire her for. She was usually right, and when she hadn’t been, she said so. It’s customary these days to damn people for “inconsistency,” as if it’s somehow virtuous to persist forever in being wrong. Sontag interrogated her own ideas with merciless rigor, and when she discovered they no longer applied, or were defectively inadequate or just plain bad, she never hesitated to change her mind in public.

Certainly she felt the same revulsion and horror at the atrocity of 9-11 that any New Yorker, any citizen of the world, did. But she also had the moral scruple to connect the attacks to generally untelevised, lethal American actions abroad, to the indiscriminate carnage that has typified both state policy and terrorist violence in the new century. Where, exactly, does the difference lie?

Unlike our government’s loudest warmongers and their media cheerleaders, Sontag put her own life on the line, many times, in defense of her principles—in Israel during the Six Day War, in Hanoi during the American bombardment, in Sarajevo throughout much of the conflict there. Like Genet, she was willing to go anywhere, at a moment’s notice, out of solidarity with people on the receiving end of contemporary barbarism.

The range of her talents and interests was no less impressive than her moral instincts. She once told me that “every good book is worth reading at least once” (in her case, it was usually at least twice). Her appetite for cultural provender—opera, avant-garde theater, film, dance, travel, historical inquiry, cuisine of any kind, architecture, the history of ideas—was inexhaustible. If you told her about something she didn’t know, she soon knew more about it than you did. She routinely went directly from a museum to a screening, then to a concert; and if there was a kung fu movie playing somewhere after all that, off she went, whether you were still ambulatory or not.

I know I’m in a minority, but I remain a fan of Sontag’s early novels The Benefactor and Death Kit—Sontag herself cared little for them in later years. Not enough people have seen the films she directed: Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl in Sweden, Promised Lands in Israel, Unguided Tour in Venice. These early and middle works could be considered noble experiments, operating on a high level of fluency and daring.

[

None of these works are as sumptuously realized as her best essays, or her later novels The Volcano Lover and In America. At times, her reverence for the European modernists who influenced her eclipses her own seldom mentioned, American gift for absurdist black humor. (Death Kit has anything but a reputation for hilarity, but it’s one of the most darkly funny narratives written in America during the Vietnam War.) Many of Sontag’s essays, for that matter, have threads of Firbankian whimsy and manic satire running through them—and no, I’m not referring to “Notes on Camp.”

There’s no way to summarize her restless cultural itinerary and her immense services to “the republic of letters” in the space of an obituary. What I can speak of, here, again, is the indelible example she set as a moral being, citizen, and writer. She sedulously distinguished between the merely personal and the insights personal experience generated. “I” appears less frequently in her writings than in those of any other significant American writer I can think of. If Sontag was less averse, in recent times, to saying “I,” it could be that she at last realized she’d earned the authority for “I” to mean more, coming from her, than it does coming from most people. (In America, “I” isn’t simply a pronoun, but a way of life.)

It’s my guess that growing up in Arizona and Southern California, among people who placed no special value on intelligence and none at all on its cultivation, Sontag’s first line of defense against being hurt by other people was the same thing (aside from physical beauty) that distinguished her from ordinary people—that awesome intellect. She could be ferociously assertive, and at times even hurtful, without at all realizing the tremendous effect she had on people. In some ways, like any American intellectual, she often felt slighted or underappreciated, even when people were actually paying keen attention to her.

Her personal magnetism was legendary. Even in later times, she had the glamour of a film star. She almost never wore makeup (though she did, finally, find a shade of lipstick she could stand), and usually wore black slacks, black sweaters, and sometimes a black leather jacket, though occasionally the jacket would be brown. She had the body language of a young person: She once explained to me that people get old when they started acting like old people.

I never heard her say a dumb word, even in moments of evident distress. She did, from time to time, do things that seemed quite odd, but then, who doesn’t? Her will to keep experiencing, learning, and feeling “the old emotions”—and, sometimes, to make herself empty, restock her interiority, break with old ideas—came with a project of self-transcendence that Sontag shouldered, like Sisyphus’s stone, cheerfully, “with fervor.”

She once told Dick Cavett, after the first of her struggles with cancer, that she didn’t find her own illness interesting. She stipulated that it was moving to her, but not interesting. To be interesting, experience has to yield a harvest of ideas, which her illness certainly did—but she communicated them in a form useful to others in ways a conventional memoir couldn’t be. (To be useful, one has to reach others on the level of thought, not only feeling—though the two are inseparable.)

In light of her own illness, she set about removing the stigma then attached to cancer, dismantling the punitive myths this fearsome illness generated at the time. We don’t look at illness in the same way we did before Illness as Metaphor and the widespread examination of our relationship to medicine that it triggered.

Her detachment in this regard was a powerful asset. Many years ago, I went with her one morning to her radiologist. The radiologist had gotten back some complicated X-rays and wanted to discuss them. On the way uptown, Susan was incredibly composed, long resigned to hyper-vigilance as the price of staying alive.

At the clinic, she disappeared into the doctor’s office for a worryingly long time. When she came out, finally, she was laughing.

“She put the X-rays up,” Susan told me, “and said, ‘This really doesn’t look good.’ So I looked them over, and thought about it. Then I said, ‘You’re right. These don’t look good. But you know something, these aren’t my X-rays.’ ”

They weren’t her X-rays. Her most recent procedure had left a temporary, subcutaneous line of staple sutures running from her throat to her abdomen. The tiny metal clamps she knew were there would have glowed on an X-ray.

[

For some reason this was the first memory that flashed to mind when the sad news came that she was gone.

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Who’s More Annoying Than Osama bin Laden?

How irritating is Justin Timberlake? Very, according to the scads of people who voted in AmIAnnoying.com‘s poll for the most annoying personalities of 2004. Though anxious-to-bother-you nightmares like Britney Spears, Dr. Phil, and Osama bin Laden all landed in the top 10, none of them could hold a creepy candle to the big winner, Justin himself, who’s skinny in every way except attitude. Respondents apparently disliked Justin’s participation in Nipplegate, his subsequent distancing of himself from it, and his persnickety behavior around paparazzi with his (annoying) arm accessory Cameron Diaz. Sheesh, imagine if he’d released music last year!

Already, The New York Times is the most annoying publication of ’05 for the reason they gave to defend their omission of Susan Sontag’s relationship with Annie Leibovitz from their lengthy Sontag obit. As you may have read, Timesman Daniel Okrent said they couldn’t find any backup to support running with the lesbian stuff! Funny, I didn’t realize (Jayson Blair) that the Times (Jayson Blair) was such a perfection-seeking stickler for facts (Jayson Blair, Jayson Blair, Jayson Blair). Maybe NOW they’re trying to be more accurate, but it’s strange they should use a multi-decade, widely known relationship as an excuse to suddenly get particular!

Musto Web Extra will appear in NYC Life every Thursday

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Film

“Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. The nine snapshot collectors featured in OPP devote their weekends to the avid pursuit of such privileged moments at the Chelsea flea market, where one vendor becomes slightly huffy when a potential buyer doesn’t realize he’s holding a photo of King Leopold III. Unlike several of the obsessive filmgoers in last year’s Cinemania, whose movie madness warranted an entry in the DSM-IV, the photo buffs in Shepperd and Philbrick’s slim, bare-bones doc speak coolly and lucidly about their passion. “It’s the unfinished story—what happened just before, what happened just after,” notes middle-aged Peter about the poignant narrative a snapshot provides. Plummy-voiced Leonie reveres the subjects in her treasured pics as “these strange, magical, frozen people.” Excavated from flea market bins and then neatly assembled in frames, albums, or plastic containers, the frozen people are reanimated by their collector’s returning gaze.

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Catfight Scorecard: Humanity and Virtuosity 1, Loftiness 0

Some people worship operatic divas or movie stars, but for Craig Seligman, it’s the female critics that leave him weak-kneed. Two specific female critics, actually: Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. Although Seligman gracefully sketches the similarities between the women (both Jewish single moms raised in the West who took on pop culture), he also concocts a kind of imaginary catfight in his head. They reigned as two of the most prominent and influential intellectuals of the late 20th century while keeping their distance. Yet Seligman contrasts the two as a way of working through his ambivalent feelings about the women, their work, and the art of criticism in general.

Sontag & Kael is deeply personal—a quality both exhilarating and maddening, as Seligman grapples with his own blind spots. He quickly points out that these critics do not get equal billing in his heart: “I revere Sontag. I love Kael.” Kael, whom he befriended late in her life, was a consummate stylist, funny and off-the-cuff, American to the core, whereas Sontag’s list of crimes includes being “elitist and condescending toward those less informed than she is (i.e., everybody)” and basically “not . . . likable.” He points out that Sontag has no higher term of praise than “serious,” whereas Kael used the word as a term of derision; Sontag agonizes over every word, whereas Kael refused to do so. Self-flagellating Sontag is always “justifying her pleasure,” but good old Kael apparently never justified anything (including reviews that were perceived as being either anti-Semitic or homophobic).

“In my scale of enthusiasms,” Seligman writes, “Kael’s humanity and her virtuosity trump Sontag’s loftiness, and it’s a constant temptation to use Kael as a cudgel to bonk the smirk of self-esteem off Sontag’s face with.” Of course, you could say the same about James Wood or any number of “serious” male critics. Since when has likability been on the list of job requirements for intellectuals? As much as I agree with many of the charges against Sontag, it seems to me a strange approach to criticism, judging work by whom you’d rather hang out with. However, in his own love-hate way, Seligman does revere Sontag, and so even after his most damning comments, he gallantly steps back and smooths things over. Playful and passionate, he sets dozens of ideas spinning but comes to few conclusions, preferring instead (as Sontag wrote of Walter Benjamin) to “keep his many ‘positions’ open.”