A little bird told me…

…that tattoos aren’t cheep.

Sometimes it feels like I’m carrying a bird, ehm, a burden of course – clearly a Freudian slip because as you might have guessed from the title, bird is the word and isn’t the English language so fascinating considering these two words rhyme? #englishpronounciation I take it you already know the famous poem by Geroge Bernhard Shaw, so on with the subject! I wanna introduce you to a very specific bird, outside of biological realms, yet skin deep, (l)inked to me for all eternity. This is its story. And so it goes.

Birds and books

Birds are one of the most fascinating creatures in art and literature. Two literary birds had particularly affected me in some way or the other, and despite the fact I read one of them in the bleak December, Nevermore was not one of them. Fritz Zorn’s Mars has already been mentioned here some time ago – you can read it up here in case you have forgotten or found this blog only recently. Till today, it remains one of the most intense books I’ve ever read. And it’s even more intense if you sit down with some friends, a bottle of red, and read it out loud. Celebrate every sentence in its blank brutality. The darkness of the words and the (fictional) reality they create are a look beyond the abyss of humanity. We live in a world that shares a terrifiying amount of things from dystopian novels. Maybe that’s why I like them so much – it is still lighter reading than the news. And lighter than what’s going on in my heart.

Birds and books are a more intimate relationship than the birds and the bees.
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

On an intellectual level. Take Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. First of all, love the title. Most definitely better than the German “Mister Aufziehvogel”. That on just doesn’t flow. Or rather, fly, in this case. Because bird, you know? Secondly, the opening sequence is among my favourite literary scenes ever and one with high Identifikationspotenzial, involving yet another bird, a stealing magpie, to be precise. Click here to read some more about what Rossini has to do with Murakami and me (and find an original pasta recipe from a real nonna).

These two very different books have two things in common: a bird on the cover, and the fact that you can open either of them at any random page, and you’re sure to find a memorable quote and/or meaningful sentence (unless you end up with one of Murakami’s really weird description of sex scenes. His birds and the bees are gewöhnungsbedürftig to say the least.)

Anyway, this is the novel that got me hooked on Murakami. The wind-up bird book cover ended up as my office desktop wallpaper when I was still at the theatre – because it was all rewind, function, rewind, function, repeat, repeat, repeat. And it nearly made it onto my skin. Why? The wind-up bird symbolizes the struggle of a free spirit trapped in the fixed schemes of a society where you have to pull yourself together, wind-up the mechanic for functional mode and do it all over again until it breaks. In the end, I decided against that. And I’m glad, in hindsight, because I broke shortly after. And I’ve been malfunctioning ever since. No need of a constant reminder. I got a bird tattoo, though. A different one. And Zorn and Murakami were some of the inspiration behind it. One might call them its founding f(e)athers. The question was of course: Where would the proverbial eagle land? Where would it settle and nestle on my body? And then: What kind of bird in which pose? Without feather ado I proceeded to put my ideas onto paper and started drawing – and discovered: my drawing skills are mediocre at best and I became more and more frustrated with what was in my head and what was on paper.

Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all.
Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild.
[STEPHEN KING, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION]

However, with much persistance and determination, I managed some decent motives after all. They were still drafts and I was willing to let Jessi, employee at TCs, refine the chosen one into a finalized design.

She immediately grasped what I had imagined, et voilà, two days later, she had transformed my clumsy attempt of a bird into a skillful and terrific piece of art:

See that tiny speck of blue? And isn’t the whole design simply amazing? So glad I let her do her thing. And then let her do the actual thing. Before the needle started humming, however, bird product placement had to be done: I have this rather prominent beauty patch on my left side and we considered all the options – placing the bird before, behind, above, below it – and all of them were meh at best. So what was the logical thing to do? Working it into the design.And so I was ready for two dreadful hours of pain. The pain is less painful and more tedious. A constant scratching and nagging and rapping and tapping at my chamber door – damn you, Nevermore, get out of here!! – and you get into this sort of carthasis, enduring and almost meditating in the pain until at some point you have die Nase gestrichen voll and you’re jolly well fed up and you start getting really annoyed by the needle’s sound, by the dull persistant pain, and you keep thinking “looks done to me, what the f*** is she still tattooong for?” And of course it is not done yet and you know it. But it feels nice to be mad at someone else and blame them for your inconvenience.

A bird tattoo is not cheep. But worth it.

So yeah, that was my brief feathered tale. Needless to add, you have to tweet this, just for the pun of it.

In Taros Welt / Taro’s World

UPDATE: The first review is out! Check it out here: Pizzicato

You already know a lot about my world, now it is time to get to know another one: As of today, Taro’s World is streaming worldwide on all standard streaming platforms! Who is this Taro dude, you may ask. Well, he’s a fictional character, an alien, living in the Universe of Sound, and his adventures are told in text and music. Fabrice Bollon, French, conductor, composer and my former boss had written a suite for children. In three movements, we grow older with Taro as he explores the musical wonders of his world and takes us along. After a initial recording just of the music, Fabrice decided something’s missing. And that’s where I enter the stage. He knew my style of writing and quite liked it, so after both our time at that specific theatre had ended, he asked whether I was interested in writing a fairytale to his composition. One that supports the music, that accompanies the music, that adds up to it and completes it. One that helps get the educational message across without being too much of a lecture. And foremost: one that challenges the audiences’ fantasy to be fully engulfed by the music. Simple, really. Lol. Otherwise, I was free to come up with whatever I was inspired to in the music. And so I started writing. And doubted I could come up with anything even remotely acceptable. And in the end, I did. A few composer-lyricist-sessions and one awesome, très, très French 6-course-meal later, our joined opus was done. In February 2022, our combined efforts were brought to life with the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Fabrice Bollon and with opera singer Robero Gionfriddo reading my stories. Children were invited to attend and draw whatever they imagined while listening. Deutschlandfunk Kultur, one of the more important radio stations in Germany, broadcast the whole thing, including interviews and repeatedly saying “Texte von Julia Thekla Liebermann” and I was THRILLED. Some people who more or less accidentally listened in, texted me and congratulated me and I was so immensly proud, I can’t even. So please listen in (royalties, muahaha)! I sure have evolved since then and there are many things I would have done differently. But overall, I am very happy for my first major commission. Hopw you like it!

„Taros wunderbare Welt“ wurde vom Dirigenten-Komponisten Fabrice Bollon und der Autorin Julia Liebermann als charmanter Einstieg in die klassische Musik konzipiert, sowohl für Kinder als auch für Erwachsene, die mit diesem Genre nicht vertraut sind. Taro, ein Kind vom Planeten Trujillo, wird eines Nachts von einer seltsamen kleinen Melodie geweckt. Seine Abenteuer führen durch immer raffiniertere und überraschendere Klangkonstellationen, die beliebte Klassiker auf den Kopf stellen, jede Facette des Orchesters erforschen und eine Vielzahl von Musikstilen auf einzigartig vergnügliche Weise erlebbar machen.

Taro’s Wonderful World was conceived by conductor/composer Fabrice Bollon and author Julia Liebermann as an introduction or initiation into classical music both for children and adults unfamiliar with the genre. Taro, a child from the planet Trujillo, is woken one night by a curious little melody. His adventures take us through increasingly sophisticated and surprising sonic constellations that light-heartedly turn favourite classics upside down and inside out, exploring every facet of the orchestra and combining a wide variety of musical styles in a uniquely enjoyable way.

NAXOS Deutschland – Music & Video Vertriebs-GmbH BOLLON, F.: In Taros Welt (Taro’s Wonderful World).. – 9.70356 | Discover more releases from Naxos

Bad Blood / Böses Blut

Hand’s up one of the best Scandinavian crime novels I read in a long time. And I’m not saying this because of the cover. Okay, maybe, because I love puns. I am an avid reader of Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels, of Jo Nesbø‘s Harry Hole and of course I’ve read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow / Fräulein Stillas Gespür für Schnee, where the title sounds like an Astrid-Lindgren-Fairytale but is quite gruesome. I’ve read the Stieg-Larsson-Trilogy and seen the movies (contrary to popular opinion, my least favourite). All these books share a very distinct style which makes the Scandinavian fictional criminal world so appealing. It is their humble understatement. The opposite of American boldness you might wanna say. So many thrillers focus too much on their hero(in)es’ private turmoil and try to make up for it by vivid descriptions of especially gruesome crimes. Less is more, as they say, and Arne Dahl’s debut is no exception. There are hints that give you what you need to make the good guys seem human beyond their professional capacities. There are horrific crime scenes. But they are just presented as plain facts and don’t require the neon signs and arrows screaming in a Trump-like voice LOOK, BLOODY MURDER, SLAUGHTERFEAST, THE HORROR. You might say, Scandi thrillers are as cold as the countries they are written in. Definitely not a cosy read. And yet I feel so much more connected to the Wallander, Hjelms, and Holes in this world than to [insert American thriller protagonist of your choice]. I equally love Andrea Camilleri‘s Sicilian crime novel series so it’s not that I’m solely attracted to coldness and gloominess in climate and style. I simply enjoy when an author doesn’t overdo it in getting his message across or creating a mood. The good old “showing not telling’. When I read any of the previously mentioned, I instantly travel to Sweden, Sicily, Denmark, you name it. Hjelm, the lead investigator of Bad Blood, as well as his colleagues who are equally important and contributing to the plot and case, becomes more alive through imagination than on paper. There are attributes each reader will agree on but it leaves enough room of interpretation that no two Hjelms will be the same. The perspective switches between the parties involved. The writing is transparent, occasionally unexpectedly funny and humorous and the pacing is neither too rushed nor too much dragged out. Personally, I’m not a big fan of too much politics in crime novels, politics in itself is criminal enough that I don’t need it in fiction, too. But despite some clear politically motivated plot lines, it did not lose me along the line. A seemingly unspectactular but nonetheless captivating and enjoyable read and a definite recommendation.

Disclaimer: I read it (well, all of these, really) in German translation, hence no favourite quotes today. And I’m in a hurry, so can’t look them up either, as I normally would. Sorry.

Super, and naturally abnosome.

I have a stupid cold and so I am in the bath tub with poison ivy green menthol and eucalyptus essence or chained to the bed (or rather couch, since I prefer to sit out my illnesses and diseases there) and furthermore so, I am incredibly bored. I tried being productive and read some of my academic texts, and continue with my philosophy book but I can’t concentrate because my brain is all wibbly wobbly and cotton candy and my throat keeps reminding me of its miserable existence whenever I swallow (not what she said). I couldn’t even continue Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – a show as marvelous as its title – because my mind couldn’t keep up. And despite feeling very fatigued, more than dozing off is not on the menu so entertainment for the bored generation sick, represented by me, was needed. Netflix offered Season 12 of

TBBT.

A show that should have stopped after season 4. From there on, it became boring. Ausgelutscht, as we like to say. QED by season 12. It’s not really bad, it’s actually totally watchable but the admittedly original idea has long ago been used up and gone and I noticed I didn’t care the least about where the characters were heading. It lost all drive and pace, the main ingredients for a sitcom. Also, I have a quantum physicist brother, I don’t need to see fictional Sheldons, I have my own, down in Down Under (love you, PJ!). Alas, 24 mediocre episodes later, I was back to square one. Time to check Amazon Prime and oh my, what do I discover in ‘recently added TV shows’?

Buffy, the Vampire Slayer!

The day has been saved! And already head-banging to the opening hard rock riffs, I happily clicked on play, ready to reminisce in my favourite teenage TV show, every Wednesday evening, 20:15 Uhr. Quick excursion to my teenage years and a traumatic story: I was sick with a fever and begged my parents to allow me to watch Buffy because – the younger among my readers may not know this – back in the day we had to wait for a whole week till the next episode was broadcast and binging was a. verb solely reserved for alcoholic excesses or overeating and if you missed an episode, well then, bad luck. The previous episode’s preview promised an exceptionally scary monster and I simply HAD to see it. So after begging and begging, my parents finally agreed and it SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME. Fuck. Up to date the scariest monsters in the history of TV monster hunters. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Gentlemen.

https://giphy.com/gifs/scary-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-qBjlPcxhCVfoY
Season 4, Episode 10 “Hush”

Not only did it cause the worst nightmares, I was also alone the next morning and was terrified they might show up, so I carefully scanned my room and emptied one of the cabinets so I could hide in them in case I heard a suspicious noise. Did I mention we lived in an old house? There’s nothing but suspicious noises in old houses.

Back to 2020.

Buffy has been successfully clicked on (and that took a while because my ex and I are very adult and he still gets to use my Netflix whereas I get to use his Amazon Prime but we haven’t spoken in a while so I hadn’t logged in into his account on my iPad because I didn’t want the first words between us to be “what’s your password again?” so I’m watching on my old laptop and I keep forgetting it doesn’t have a touchscreen) and the famous loading wheel is turning aaaaand suddenly I’m greeted with a “Komm her, du Pappnase” and realize, the episode’s in German and there’s no OV available! Come on, Amazon Prime, wtf! Yes, I watched Buffy with German subs back then but that was because I didn’t have a choice or knew better. Synchro is in most cases cringeworthy, especially with that kind of show. Exceptions are: the Disney classics, House of Cards (Kevin Spacey’s Synchronsprecher has the most mesmerizing voice), The Simpsons. Kudos to whoever did those. Well, being sick and thus annoyed per se, that is an absolute No-Go so I went from strong female lead chasing monsters to hot guys chasing monsters instead:

Supernatural.

Ah, the Winchester brothers. Sammy and Dean. Saving people, hunting things, the family business. A guilty pleasure? Maybe. But. Whatever you may think about the quality of that show, it is much more than what it appears to be. The first season is straight up what you expect. Two trained tough hot dudes hunting monsters with an overshadowing story arch affecting both brothers. Absolute and shameless guilty pleasure. Stereotypes get established, cliches fulfilled, and it has all the ingredients a shallow, suitable for mass consumption TV production needs. And then, for unknown reasons, they did the right thing and decided not to take themselves serious. And hilarity ensued. From Season 2 onwards, Supernatural has become a Persiflage of itself, of the genre, of everything it established within the first season. The main structure has remained the same: big Winchester-related story arch, new monster every single episode. But there are running gags:

Jensen Ackles Pizza GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Dean eating, for example. And boy, can that guy eat. And yet stay in shape.
Which is also frequently commented on.

Basic gist: Dean is tough, eats and drinks, chick magnet, but really has a soft spot. Sam is more of a sissy, always hides secrets from his brother, his hair gets longer and longer every season, nickname Moose. Both frequently die, are Antichrists or demons or something like that, yet they will always carry on driving in Dean’s Impala and continue hunting down monsters. OSTed by classic rock tunes. The plot becomes more and more absurd but by the time you realize you don’t care because you care so much about these two and the things the writers might put them through this time. You can sometimes read in the actors’ faces how annoyed they are by what their characters have to suffer. It’s sarcasm. And so meta. Hardly any other show plays so much with its levels of narratation. The most meta episodes from Season 1-10 (because I haven’t watched any further yet), in chronological but not personal preference order:

  • Any episode featuring Felicia Day.
  • Season 2, Episode 8 “Hollywood Babylon”. Sam, played by Jared Padalecki, getting visibly uncomfortable as they are passing by the Gilmore Girls studio (editor’s note: JP played Dean on GG, in case you really didn’t know and yes, it it very confusing that Dean is Sam and not Dean). Set in a Hollywood horro film studio, it covers all the cliches.
  • Season 4, Episode 18 “The Monster at the End of this Book”. Where they find out they’re books. That the prophet didn’t know what to do with all the info he got so he published fantasy horror fiction that became true within the Supernatural Universe. Favourite quote: “I’m sitting in a laundromat reading about myself sitting in a laundromat reading about myself,”
  • Season 5, Episode 8 “Changing Channels”. The one where Sam and Dean find themselves in all famous TV formats – Grey’s Anatomy, Full House, Knight Rider, Japanese Game Show for example – having to play by each genre‘s rules. Also featuring the trickster aka Archangel Gabriel aka Richard Speight Jr whom, on a side note, I find weirdly sexually attractive. Hilarious episode, lots of slapstick, and fantastic commentary on TV genres.
  • Season 5, Episode 9 “The Real Ghostbusters”. Fan fiction and LARP. Need I say more? Next!
  • Season 6, Episode 15 “The French Mistake”. Dean and Sam end up in a parallel universe and do not only have to come to terms with the fact, that they’re a TV show but even more one that’s filmed in CANADA! Ready for some real inceptional shit? Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki play Dean and Sam Winchester that play fictional Jensen Ackles and fictional Jared Padalecki playing Dean and Sam Winchester. Boom. Mind blown. So freaking good. Including live twitter commentart. Whoa.
  • Season 10, Episode 5 “Fan Fiction”. Supernatural meets High School Musical. With a very freaked out Dean when witnessing fan fictional romance in the family (“You know they’re brothers, right?”) and with Deanstiel. Plus catchy tunes. And yes, goosebumps all over with that cover song:

So yes, anytime Supernatural becomes more and more absurd and ridiculous and you start to get bored, (it really went down after Season 5 and I almost stopped watching. I’m glad I didn’t. Hang in there, it’s worth it, I promise!) it hits you with one of those top notch prime entertainment episodes.

Not to forget this show created and introduced two of the best side characters there have ever been: first, we have the angel Castiel. Thanks to the actor behind him, Misha Collins, the genius behind GISH, formerly know as G.I.S.H.W.H.E.S., I started watching Supernatural in the first place and learned to be my abnosomest self. #deathtonormalcy

Castiel is as socially awkward as I feel most of the time and you gotta love every single scene where he hilariously (hello there Fremdschämen) fails being human and as well as the undeniable hate-love-relationship between him and Dean. Also, Assbutt is without further debate the best insult out there and according to Urban Dictionary “An exclamation used to distract Angels just before you throw a Molotov at them.”

(And now an official GISH mascot.)

Then we have on the other side: Crowley. And has there ever been a show where we didn’t adore Crowley? Doctor, Ten, any opinion on that?

Doctor Who Reaction GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s gotta be a Good Omen if there’s a Crowley on the show. This one’s played by no other than Mark Sheppard and couldn’t you just listen to his accent and voice forever? The mean demon soon becomes a Dean man aka an unwilling sidekick for the Winchesters and even as King of Hell, he remains as platonically involved as Castiel, and we, the audience, get to enjoy a very classy, gentleman villain with style and taste.

And here we are now, almost finished with Season 10, an empty package of Dolodobendan next to me, and the smell of Pinimenthol rubbed all over my chest, and a little less bored me, and a hopefully slightly entertained you.

Goodbye, Stranger. Bless you. Achoo.

The rottenest heart in all creation

Mikhail Bulgakov, THE HEART OF A DOG, Harvill Press, 1999

I stumbled upon this beautiful edition outside an antique book store right across the street from the theatre and simply had to buy it. Look at the cover and the author-protagonist-correlation! To all the Nepper, Schlepper and Bauernfänger out there: I can easily be fooled into buying a book. Just make it look tempting. I’m a victim to artsy editions. The aesthetics of a book matter as much to me as the content. Naturally, this gem joined my comprehensive collection. Собачье сердце was written in 1925, in the aftermath of Lenin’s death and at the height of the NEP (a market-oriented economy policy and one of many revoultionary developments from Russian Empire to communist state. Imho, the Soviet Union is one of the most fascinating chapters in modern history. I recommend the introductory works by Jörg Baberowski, a historian specialised on the Soviet Union and the Stalinistic Terror. Fairly comprehensible to read, too.). The novella wasn’t (allowed to be) published until 42 years later, in 1987 – the year many great things saw the light of day. Me, for instance. But back to Bulgakov and 1925. His Twenties are not roaring, they are howling and barking and generally fairly miserable. At least Sharik, our furry protagonist is:

Oooow-ow-ooow-owowo! Oh, look at me, I’m dying. There’s a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me in this doorway and I’m howling with it. I’m finished…

(first sentence)

Drama queen much?

In the cold, cold winter night our story unfolds, professor Philip Philipovich – mind you, not a comrade, but a citizen, a gentleman even, a dog can smell that! – is also roaming the streets of Moscow and in the snowstorm’s whirlwind their paths cross and events take an unexpected turn for Sharik. For the better, it seems. Triggered, tempted and lured by a irresistebly deliciously smelling sausage, Sharik willingly follows him into his home, “absorbed by a single thought: how to avoid losing sight of this miraculous fur-coated vision in the hurly-burly of the storm and how to show him his love and devotion.” Life in Philip Philipovitch’s 7-room-apartment (7 rooms for 1 comrade – what an outrage for his Bolshevistic neighbours!) is quite the opposite of the proverbial dog’s life , and soon his mood shifts from despair to high self-esteem, pride, and a good deal of arrogance. It doesn’t take long and Sharik behaves like he owns the place and deserves this wonderful new life of his:

Perhaps I’m good looking! What luck.

Damn, I wish I had that self-esteem.

[I gotta interrupt here for a very meta event. It’s 5am on a Friday morning and I’m watching Pointless on YouTube (skip to 28:07) while writing this and the categorie that comes up the second I start writing about a fictional dog is FICTIONAL DOGS. So meta.]

“I am handsome. Perhaps I’m really a dog prince, living incognito, mused the dog as he watched the shaggy, coffee-coloured dog with the smug expression strolling about in the mirrored distance. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandmother didn’t have an affair with a labrador. […] Philip Philipovich is a man of great taste – he wouldn’t just pick up any stray mongrel. “
[MIKHAIL BULGAKOV, THE HEART OF THE DOG ]

Of course, Philip Philipovitch really did pick up any stray mongrel and not the long lost dog of the tsar family and not as a random act of kindness either (sorry to break it to you, dog pal). Comrades and Comradesses: meet professor Philip Philipovitch, expert for rejuvenation and on the quest to unravel the secret of eternal youth. Sharik is his latest (or from where we currently find ourselves in my plot synopsys more precisely his next) project and will soon experience drastic change in life. An interspecies operation is about to happen! Frankendog or The Soviet Prometheus you might call it. And don’t give me that “it’s actually Frankenstein’s monster, not Frankenstein” speech, because if you actually read the book you’d know that Frankenstein is indeed more monster than the monster… Back to Philip Philipovitch’s laboratory. Halfway through the book, after nursing and caressing Pooka Sharik to live up to his name (that translates as “little ball”), a fresh dead body, formerly known as Elim Grigorievich Chugunkin, 25, unmarried, sympathetic to the Party, plays the balalaika in bars, poor physical shape, enlarged liver (alcohol) is delivered to Philip Philipovitches door, ready to have his testicles and pituary gland removed and transplanted into a heavily sedated dog. For those who are as ignorant as me when it comes to the pink walnut in our head: that’s the part responsible for releasing hormones. Bulgakov was a medical doctor, so he knows what he’s talking about. Bulgakov was also an excellent writer, in case you hadn’t noticed. Ooow-ooow, I could I’d just copy and paste the whole text because there are so many mentionable sentences! But then you’d miss my wonderful comments on it and it’s too nice a book to own to read it online (and reading online is tedious unless its my blog of course) so I’ll go with an unusualy high percentage of quotes that is so out of proportion, if this was a term paper for a literature class, I’d fail it. The narrative perspective switches back and forth between an omniscient commentator, scientific observation protocols, and personal dog’s point of view which is a hilarious technique and adds to the general grotesque, brutal and brilliant deadpan humour consised onto 128 highly entertaining pages.

And now meet and greet the one and only, the hybrid, the medical miracle, the latest craziest creature in creation: Poligraph Poligraphovic Sharikov. Half-human, half-dog and not a pleasant company. He walks and talks – and sometimes the man barks indignantly – but really, he swaggers and swears. He’s an alcoholic bully with basic education and a weakness for chasing cats.

Sharik can read. He can read (three exclamation marks).

He’s the perfect allegory for the foredoomed dream of the the Soviet Übermensch, a Bolshevistic satire, a proletarian joke, a ridicule of the Russian Revolution. Needless to say, Philip Philipovitch is not amused by the outcome of this and the plot denses towards a drastic solution against the drunken bully without manners or etiquette. Philip Philipovitch aimed for Brian Griffith and got the fucked-up black sheep dog of the family instead. The Heart of the Dog is hilarious, on point and dead funny. Phantastic and preposterous.

And if it wasn’t for some old groaner singing ‘O celeste Aida‘ out in the moonlight till it makes you sick, the place would be perfect.

Making cents

A movie night with Leo and the Joker or: how a pun got lost in translation and has been bothering me ever since.

It’s the hot topic of late 2019, the second fashionable clown after Pennywise and despite the title serious business no laughing matter: Todd Philipp’s [btw, if you read Todd, don’t you automatically think of Bojack’s? In my world, the director of THE movie of the year totally wears beanies and sounds like Aaron Paul] Joker is hitting box office records and people’s nerves. You love it or you hate it. There’s no inbetween. Like licorice. Or Marmite. Although the answer for those two is without any further debate: Both are disgusting. Anyway, since anyone and everyone in the world wide web gets to express their opinion on any of these topics, you get to enjoy mine, too.

Hooray! And you know, I don’t throw that word around lightly.

{Todd Chavez, in: Bojack Horseman]

Mesmerizing master piece or pretentious piece of shit?

Long story short: master piece. Short story long: continue reading. I will not bore you with googable facts because you can – duh – just google them. And you probably already did. And read through the imdb database. I’ll also assume you have already seen the movie i. e. no spoiler warnings because a) if you’ are ‘re reading this you’re probably very bored and that means the option of watching Joker has already been exhausted and b) my blog, my rules, and in any case not a step by step review. Just some thoughts I’d like to get out so I can get on. Also, there is not much to spoil. I mean, yeah, there are crucial plot points but generally speaking, Joker has about the same plot-length-ratio as Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Up until about halfway through the movie nothing actually happens. It’s a character study, but a pretty intense and sensitive one. Very delicately the director of less delicate movies such as Hangover 1, 2, or 3 brings us closer to Arthur Fleck and carefully establishes him as the eponymous (anti)hero – brackets on purpose – who identifies as the Joker only towards the grande finale and thus only then has truly made the transition from sad, pathetic clown to the mocking grimace of a spoiled society that created him. For a DC movie it quite atypical and has peaked a yet unprecedented level of interest in the public within that genre, specifically in regards of sympathy for the devil villain and how much this one might be a hero after all. It’s literally outstanding in the DC franchise not only because it exists on his own and is only loosely linked to the universe it origins in. Imho, it would work as well (if not even better) without the scenes connecting Arthur Fleck’s perfectly-on-its-own (mal)functioning world to the Wayne family. They felt forced and unnecessary. I mean, yes, Arthur’s quest and pending question of Thomas Wayne being or not being his father – a question that remains unanswered btw – has crucial impact on Arthur Fleck’s state of mind and nourishes his ever growing mental illness. Thomas Wayne is Schroedinger’s Cat because the box doesn’t need to be opened. Both answers are equally valid and both would have maybe different but similar-in-effect consequences. What name that father figure bears, however, is irrelevant. Wayne interessiert’s?, as the German pun goes that was already old when I was young. Meh, let the fandom have their easter eggs. I frantically pointed out anything Whovian in Good Omens so who am I to judge?

Rise of the Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck is the Joker. Period. And this does in no way minimize Heath Ledger’s performance. Both Jokers have to be regarded as different characters, based on the same comic villain but otherwise related only in terms of similarly oustanding performances. Same goes for Jack Nicholson whose portrayal probably lives up most to the comic palette colour scheme. Oh, and there’s this other guy, Jared Leto, mocked and memed by the internet… Well, to be honest, I slept through most of Suicide Squat so not sure what to say about his joker. Anyway, our spotlight is on Fleck (“spot”, btw can be translated as “Fleck” so spotlight on spot, hehe). His Joker is a character and case study. From the very beginning I was mesmerized. There is no actor, there is Arthur Fleck and you believe it. He’s dead on. He owns the movie.

Smile, and the world smiles with you.

Laugh like Fleck and it’s creepy. His laugh and his grin and his smile are equally cringe and painful to watch. A uniquely human expression of joy and happiness is perverted into a physical condition that surfaces at the most inappropriate times. A natural symbol of happiness is put ad absurdum. It’s almost unbearable to watch Fleck break out into laughter, immediately followed by this grimace of torture. I for my part felt his suffering. I felt repulsed and pity at the same time. Plessner once defined laughing and crying as the borderline symptoms of humanity. When Arthur Fleck laughs, there’s both. And inbetween there’s a smile. A smile that could be all or nothing. Arthur Fleck is philosophy’s laughing animal at the mercy of a corrupt and capitalistic society with no mercy for the weak or unfit(ting). A society where smiles are worn as masks and a clown’s face, the ridicule of the smile, becomes a symbol of rebellion. Oh, and after that movie, you’ll be humming this tune forever. Not cool, king.

Where there’s music, there’s dancing and Fleck, for one, dances. A lot. He dances himself into some sort of trance that transforms him, soothes him. Dancing is his catharsis. And of course there’s the famous staircase dance, where Fleck dances off the chains of a deranged society and breaks free. Such a liberating scene and you can’t but help cheer for him, cheer him on, and then you feel bad because you remember you shouldn’t because wasn’t he supposed to be the bad guy?

And so when we are a-staring at Fleck Fred-Astairing down a staircase, that’s where everything changes. And the audience feels confused wether to sympathize or not, because let’s be real: it is so easy to relate. My actions would be less violent, probably, but the motivation? All too familiar.

Right. One more thing before getting to THE pun that bothers me: the end. I would have loved for the movie to end in the TV studio scene. Two scenes come to mind:

  1. When he’s in the studio, pulling the gun. We all know what he wanted to do. What he practiced and trained for. And we all know what happened instead. Wouldn’t it have been perfect though if we never knew whom he’d shot?
  2. Even before, the very second he dances out onto the stage in the studio. We would never know if he was actually there or dreaming it all up as he had done before. (I’m aware there is the theory/rumour out there that the whole plot didn’t happen, that Fleck made it all up and has been in an asylum all along. I’ll let you decide for yourself how you like that interpretation.)

Both scenarios would have made for a rather unresolved but artistically wise ending. Let me know what you think!

And now to the one thing that has burdened me for so long: that pun. Fairly towards the beginning, Arthur Fleck’s social worker and drug prescriber reads out from his notebook/diary:

I hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Boom. Simple existential crisis that, by the use of homophones get transformed into something else, and is put onto a whole different level, making a person’s life (or death) a capitalistic good, putting a prize on humanity and an individual’s existence, and aren’t we all li-ving in a material world? (and I am a material girl). Anyway, German subs translated it as “Ich hoffe mein Tod macht mehr Sinn als mein Leben”. Sinn. Sense. Not cents. Nonsense!! Which makes it a pretty standard depressive lamentation but ignores the fact that first of all he is, indeed, a joker, and this is a joke, and secondly the implications of a monetary reinterpretation. Not very centsitive, I must say. I was truly upset. And for two and a half men days I should remain ever so, contemplating the flawed German subtitle system and wondering what could be done about it. And then I found the answer. Ummünzen, verb, German: to take something and give it a new purpose/meaning in a different context/environment; derives from German Münze = coin. Booyah. Could have been perfectly implemented in the story. I imagine the previously mentioned social worker and drug prescriber reading out that sentence from Fleck’s diary, pausing, looking him deep in the eye, and commenting: “Sie haben Sinn umgemünzt auf eine kapitalistische Lesart.” Oh. So satisfactory. And a very smart sentence, if I may say so.

My friend next to me had no idea what I was going through in that scene and was completely oblivious to the whole sub(ti)tle dilemma. I was so glad she was there with me though. Joker is not a movie I’d be able to watch on my own. Throughout, I felt physically so uncomfortable, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, writhing and squirming and trying to shake off that feeling of uneasiness. It certainly helped to know she’s right beside me so we could endure it each for ourselves but together nonetheless. “Endure” not because it is a bad movie. I guess you got that. Endure not because it’s full of violence, even though that was one of the biggest concern of the Sittenwächter (in English “guardians of the public moral” which is such a typical complicated compound translation and sounds like another Chris Pratt space movie). There have been worse acts of violence in movies, even in lesser restricted/non R-rated ones. The coldness, the plainness with which it is shown, though, that’s brutal. It feels wrong to watch. And that makes it so uncomfortable.

And I most definitely wanna watch it again.

My things really are written with an appalling lack of practicality!

Could be me, to be honest, but comes from non other than one of the greatest German composers:

J O H A N N E S B R A H M S

1833-1897

Johannes Brahms. The all-time bachelor with a beard and belly so mighty even Santa Clause envies it. More than 200 songs, concert pieces, chamber music, a very mighty requiem and of course his symphonies – four delightful and wholesome pieces I adore like a litter of kittens. Equally. Now that the season of wuthering heights, storms and falling leaves is here; winter just around the corner, it is the perfect time to put on your favourite oversized boyfriend hoodie (no boyfriend required), snuggle up on your couch, enjoy a steaming mug of hot chocolate, and switch on Brahms’ Symphonies No. 1-4. What do you hear? For me, it is the wind howling outside. The window lattice rapping, tapping (not above the chamber door). A slight cold draft through the cracks in the wall. And you inside, wrapped in wool, with a hot cocoa in your hands, preferably leaning against the hot tiled oven. You get the picture. THIS, and all this, is what Brahms’ symphonies sounds like to me. Very cosy, very comforting, yet you can sense the discomfort just on the other side of your four walls. But for now, you’re out of harm’s way. You got your hot beverage, you’re all snuggly and cuddly, you feel safe and warm. And you appreciate it – because you are aware of the outside world and its nastiness. I don’t even have to imagine it because that’s exactly what the weather is like tonight. Brrrr. Since I had chocolate brownies today it’s Yogi Glückstee instead of hot chocolate, but apart from that the symphonies are on! Classic Friday night.For me and in musical terms.

Actually, what would fit the occasion ebven better is a chocolate mug of sadness with the best recipe intro story since the dawn of food bloggers:

There’s just something so… sad about chocolate cake for one. In a mug. So… not right. It should not be this easy to make your own cake in the microwave, for one thing. Maybe that’s what bothers me- how close I am to making chocolate cake. Every. Day. Just for myself. Just for myself in my apartment. Using my Sleepless in Seattle mug. Swarmed by cats as I dig in, all hunched over it, wrapped in a shawl I knit for myself. Plucking a stray piece of cat hair off my Chocolate Mug Cake for One. Feeling the thick cake hitting the bottom of my empty, loveless womb.  Waiting for death. So, you know, ENJOY MAKING THIS RECIPE.

Some Kitchen Stories

Alright, with these existential-critical words and edible sadness filling our wombs and nourishing our love handles, let’s focus on Brahms and his rich and romantic oeuvre. As a dedicated french horn player (if only I practiced accordingly) of course one piece of chamber music gets a special mention here:

TRIO FOR HORN, VIOLIN AND PIANO, op. 40, E-flat major

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a life performance with David Pyatt at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, UK. Brahms himself was a french horn bro. Bro, not pro. He explicitely wished for this particular piece to be played on the natural horn (i.e. without valves), due to its “truer” sound. Which brings up back to our title quote: no valves = a nuisance and highly impracticality for modern day horn players. Back in 1865 however, the birthyear of opus 40, no valves was the common practice (literally). According to legend, Brahms wrote it in Baden-Baden, so right around from where I am writing this. It is said, that the beautiful landscape surrounding him was the inspiration for this trio. Or, as a (human) trio from the States I once shared a train cabin with, said it:

Germany is so Bob Ross-esque!

Unfortunately Brahms and BRoss – another proud beard bearer – lived in different eras but at least we get to hear the rossesqueness of Baden-Baden in four movements musically painted on a canvas partitura, capturing blooming nature and black forest romance. Between these and cheerful hunting tunes we find the core and heart of the piece: a poetic and lamenting third movement, Adagio mesto. It resulted from the aftermath of Brahm’s mother’s death – who was an avid French horn fan, too.

I won’t overanalyze and theorize too much. I believe music is best heard and not to be scientifically taken apart. Let it affect you, let your mind wander and your feelings evoked and enjoy the deep and rich sound of Brahms.

♥ ♪♫♫♪ ♥

“The hog-squeal of the universe”: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

Last semester at FernUni Hagen was all about Großstadtliteratur (urban literature? Metropolitan literature? Eh, books about big city life. You get it.) and provided me with a huge collection of extracts and excerpts from the finest authors from the turn of the 19th/20th century.

I’ve read some Rilke and some Raabe, the whole fivehundredsomething pages of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and travelled abroad to Joyce’s Dublin and dos Passos’ Manhattan. My journey began in 1482, Paris, with Victor Hugo and his Nôtre-Dame de Paris (1831). A true classic and yet: So. Overrated. Maybe it gets better once the prominent Quasimodo plot unfolds. But the first couple of pages are merely a tedious and very detailed description of the geometrical patterns, the metropolitan maze and the architectural composition of Paris. It’s not just a literary travel guide, it’s the narrated Paris of Google Maps through the centuries and in 3-D-Zoom-In. Veeeery long. Once you think you made it through, a new paragraph starts something like “knowing this has all been a lot of information let’s try and summarize it all again” and then the narrator blabbers on for another 4 pages repeating everything he just said!! So not too keen on that one. The excerpt stopped here, so I wanna emphasise that it might get better. However, you shouldn’t judge a book by his cover (yet I do) but I think it’s perfectly acceptable to judge it by its first ten pages so my verdict is: boooooring!

However, one book really stood out: Upton Sinclair and his 1906 novel The Jungle. There were only very few and very short excerpts but those very intriguing. So despite having already bought 5 post-exam-reward books, I decided I deserve the full story. And so I made opportunistic use of my American friends and now have my very own copy from a US secondhand bookstore and greedily devoured the whole thing within days.

Accurate depiction of me reading The Jungle

Sinclair’s The Jungle is a ruthless account of the appalling labour conditions in Chicago’s meat (packing) industry and circles around Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, and his family, who were hoping for a better life and saw their American Dream shattered by corruption, greed and social brutality. It’s a pitiless urban jungle of injustice where the insignificant folks are doomed to become collateral damage of capitalism, a dystopian and sadly too real depiction of the exploitation of men and meat.

It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests – and so perfectly within their rights!

[Upton Sinclair: The Jungle]

It is a sight to behold when a work of fiction has such effect on reality, i.e. the political world. President Roosevelt was highly appalled by the lack of hygiene and health regulations within the food industry displayed in the novel. Subsequently, the Pure Food and Drug Act from 1906 was passed to improve hygiene standards in meat production. Unfortunately, no such act was passed to protect the workers’ lives. Sinclair’s criticism with the working conditions were me(a)t with scepticism and considered mostly fiction. Needless to say, our socialist author was not happy with the outcome of his novel: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach”, he once famously proclaimed.

Nonetheless, it had great impact and it’s social effects should not be diminished. Nor should its literary value. Before you stop reading here and start reading there: Be warned. The Jungle is a very intense narration that doesn’t spare your feelings. It is brutally honest. It’s depressing to read and on occasion makes your stomach turn. You just wanna rebel against greedy bosses, cheating estate agents, against the whole financial, social and political system. A system in which a Lithuanian family has to sacrifice everything they have in order to survive and yet, [SPOILER ALERT] it’s all in vain. Like a Gerhard Hauptmann novel. Bad in the beginning, worse in the end. How they try to hold on to their believes, traditions and each other against all calamities is heartbreaking. And calamities is a quite euphemistic word for jail, rape, death, and the likes. How the Rudkuses still manage to savour rare moments of happiness, culture and family makes it even worse.

To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat – and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going.

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle

Despite the family’s harsh fate, Sinclair ends his book on an uplifting note and offers a way out: socialism! Introduced to Jurgis (and us) towards the end of the book, it equips the working poor with a new hope, a vision, something they can hold on to and believe in. Socialism as the solution to capitalism is the clear message Sinclair wants us to tske from this book. In the 27 preceding chapters, he relentlessly and vividly depicts capitalism as the source of all evil. By narrating the sad and horrible fate of Jurgis and his family he easily plays our heart strings and sense of justice. You can’t but abhor a system that allows such tragedy to happen. In the end, The Jungle is superb socialist propaganda through the gut-wrenching tale of one immigration family. And a must read, political stance aside.

My Body is a Cage

Fritz Zorn meets Arcade Fire meets The Intellectual Chaos.

I’ve scribbled and drawn this during a time I felt really bad. The Jüngling had just dumped me (via text message while he was on a faculty party less than 10min away from me), I was heartbroken, I ate nothing but dark chocolate (Schwarze Herrenschokolade) and drank red wine, cycled myself to exhaustion (>5 hours per day), cried myself to sleep every night, slept maybe 3-4 hours per night, listened to nothing but Mahler and Arcade Fire, and read nothing but destructive literature. Full-on Werther-style. Minus the suicide. So yeah, not the best of times. I tried to keep myself busy to stop my intestines from writhing and my heart from hurting. It was also the time I applied for a job at the theatre, so it wasn’t the worst of times, after all. Anyway, one of the ways to deal with how I felt and the fact I loathed to be me and that I tried to punish my body for what was going on in my heart was this drawing. It is a symbiosis of Arcade Fire’s My Body is a Cage from the Album Neon Bible (2007) – one of the best songs out there –

and the cover of Fritz Zorn’s Mars, a scandalous book with huge success in Germany during the late 70s and 80s; a ruthless account with the well-off bourgeois Swiss society on which he blames his lethal cancer. Fun stuff, yay! No, but seriously: that is one of the most intense things I’ve ever read. Every sentence is so strong, so violent, so powerful.

Whatever exists is inevitably flawed.

And so I channelled my black dog via two different media into a third one. It’s still up on my wall and reminds me whenever I struggle, that things can indeed get better even if it might not feel like they possibly can.

The bird symbol continued to play an important part in my life for various reasons, Fritz Zorn and his influence being just one of them. But that is a different story to tell. Until then, take care out there!

Yours The Intellectual Chaos.