One tidbit from my US trip that I forgot to bring up before: while in SF, I took a quick side trip I took to L.A. to visit former co-blogger Krafty plus some other folks down there.
A mutual friend of ours in L.A.— let’s just call him ‘Job’ for this purpose of this post— is a writer and generally funny guy. For a long time, Job was dating a comedian. Comedian girlfriend, at one point, has a standup gig seven nights a week at a local comedy club (imagine: ‘oh, sorry, once again, we can’t meet because my girlfriend is performing for the 751st consecutive night.’) Then, comedian girlfriend dumps Job and quickly gets not one but two sitcoms picked up by broadcast networks. Yes, it turns out that ex-girlfriend is in fact Whitney Cummings, co-creator and co-producer of of 2 Broke Girls and star, co-producer, and co-creator of Whitney.
But it gets worse: Whitney is essentially a cynical comedy about relationships (‘All relationships end… in sweatpants‘ according to the show’s tagline). It stands to reason a large chunk of the comic material here was pulled from Whitney’s relationship with our friend Job. In fact, the guy in the show— Whitney’s male foil— kind of has the same aura about him as Job. So, imagine: you’re dumped by your girlfriend and suddenly the foibles of your relationship are cannon fodder for a TV sitcom with some stranger playing the part of you. And the city you live in is plastered with billboards for the sitcom like the one above, smirking down at you from dozens of major intersections. And it’s not like this is some obscure show either— it’s Thursday freaking prime time on NBC. I don’t want to overstate the case, but it does seem to be verging on worst-case-scenario territory.
My dad is also friends with Martha Stewart’s estranged former husband, Andy, whose enduring legacy is that fact that he bestowed the highly-marketable last name of Stewart upon Martha (nee Kostyra). But at least Martha never ventured into cynical romantic comedy territory.
It happens that, right at the time I’m visiting San Francisco, the Berkeley Art Museum is hosting the first major exhibition in fifty years on the work of mockduck favorite Kurt Schwitters— master collagist, all-around loon.
Belying his tendency to dress like a banker, Schwitters was one of the great eccentrics of the early modernist period, running a one-man design movement he called Merz (named after the tail end of a sign reading Kommerz visible through his apartment window) throughout a life spent on the run, in exile from Nazi Germany. Schwitters’ main legacy is his apeshit use of collage, gluing together random found objects that somehow form an intensely introspective, personal viewing experience:
I went to the exhibition with old friend Alastair Johnston (shown here playing Thelonious Monk in Monk costume). We peered through the collages and noted old tram tickets, chocolate and tobacco wrappers (suggestive of a less-than-healty diet) and elements of what seemed to be a dissected croquet set. I was fascinated to discover that the smallest collages seemed to carry the most power: the impact of the larger ones seemed to dissipate slightly as one’s eye tracked around them; the smaller ones, meanwhile, had this boggling degree of carefully-wrought detail that seemed to squirm under one’s gaze.
As much as I enjoyed the collages, the 500 pound gorilla of the show was lurking in the basement, where the curators had sought to rebuild Schwitters’ infamous Merzbau. The Merzbau was a fantastic installation that Schwitters began piecing together in the apartment house owed by his father (although the two were closely connected, the Dadaists allegedly refused to extend membership to Schwitters on account of his bourgeoise lineage)— collage applied to interior design:
The Merzbau eventually overran the confines of Schwitters’ flat and — as legend has it — prompted him to get the upstairs neighbors evicted so he could knock out the ceiling and continue building his masterpiece. Naturally, the entire artifice got left behind when he fled Germany for Norway in 1937. (Alastair pointed out to me that probably many of the freestanding small sculptural pieces shown in the main exhibition space were just pieces that Schwitters couldn’t bear to leave behind and snapped off the Merzbau and stuffed in his suitcase or something). Later in his life, Schwitters started a second Merzbau in Norway (burnt down) and then a Merzbarn in England (unfinished at the time of his death).
The exhibition curators have attempted to recreate the Merzbau from archival photographs and the descriptions of Schwitters’ surviving son. There was a distracting clicking on and off of lights (attempting to show you what it looked like in day vs. night), but otherwise, the recreation seemed as faithful to the original as one can possibly hope for. There were maddening details, like a stairway that seemed to round a corner and abruptly end— no one could tell what the artists’ intention was here (plus a student intern guard barked at you if you attempted to crane your neck around the corner to find out).
If Merzbaus aren’t really your thing, and you’re more into sound poetry, you can check out Schwitters’ bizarre foray into nonsense recitation, the Ursonate:
After the exhibition, I did one my favorite stock Bay Area activities, the old Hike Up The Berkeley Fire Trail. This was a standby of mine when I would occasionally wake up on a Sunday overwhelmed with a feeling of tiredness towards the Mission. In triumphant vacation form this time, I managed to find a bench with a spectacular view at the very top of the hill range and promptly fall asleeep on it.
I’ve never really found a friend who shares my toleration of Berkeley, but I could happily see just throwing every other aspect of my personality overboard and settling into a classic, cliche-riddled existence as Stereotypical Healthy Old Guy In Berkeley. Golden retriever, front yard, jogging— the works. It’s not like I actively see my life heading in this direction; more like I’d strongly consider diverting it from whatever that direction is if this was the reward. It would be difficult to shut off the critical faculties of one’s brain to swallow all the Berkeley malarky that you’d have to listen to all the time… but if you could master that one trick, you’d be all set in other regards.
Dedicated Mock Duck readers may recall Dan’s suggestion of a Fox-type show called When Natural Disasters Collide. Putting aside its merits as a TV show concept, the idea is getting a lot of currency this week as a proposed “solution” to the wildfires that are raging out of control throughout California. Lo and behold, noted some astute disaster observers, there is a giant hurricane bearing down on Baja California, just to the south of the area beset by wildfires. Maybe it will shift course, and save the day! Apparently there is even some vague plausibility to this idea, although it didn’t sound like it when my mother (who would prefer that I move as far away as possible from anywhere where there might be earthquakes or fires) suggested it, as if we could just radio the hurricane and ask it to switch course.
I’m not conversant enough in old monster movies to think of the right analogy, but I do recall this as a fairly common trope, where one wild and dangerous force of nature is held at bay by a second wild and dangerous force of nature. Based on my experiences as a resident of the Golden State, however, even if the hurricane did hit us, it would probably team up with the fires to cause mass devastation via landslides.