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Michael Ferguson


Listen to Me Marlon — Film Review

By Go See, Michael Ferguson

Listen to Me Marlon

Directed by Steven Riley


This is a superb rendering of the varied, complex, and deeply tragic life of Marlon Brando.  It is very moving.  I don’t know what could be done to improve this film.   I think it is as good a presentation of this subject as can be done within the time constraint of under two hours.  Obviously when you try to condense a life as rich and complicated as Marlon Brando’s into less than two hours some things have to be left out.  I am curious to know more about Marlon Brando’s life as a result of watching this film, but the film had both breadth and depth.  It covered everything that I would have wanted it to cover and it was a penetrating, thought provoking study.  This was made possible by the many hours of audio diaries that Marlon Brando recorded himself that were searching, thoughtful, and introspective, and formed the soundtrack for the film.  There was no narrator or commentator other than Brando himself.  There were photographs, documentary footage, and newscasts to illustrate events.

The film explored his difficult childhood growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, with alcoholic parents, and an especially cold, violent father.  The mother seems to have been somewhat better and he had a nanny that he felt close to, but who left him at age seven to get married.  He had a bitter divorce, his son was kidnapped and recovered.  The son later killed his half sister’s boyfriend in Brando’s house.  The half sister later committed suicide.  He suffered more than his share of horrendous tragedies.  He did not like the spotlight.  Like John Lennon, he realized what a world of illusion and misunderstanding it is, how isolating it can be, and how it makes authentic relationships with people difficult or impossible.  He was interested in the civil rights struggle.  He was a companion and supporter of Martin Luther King.  He refused an Oscar as a protest on behalf of American Indians and their treatment by Hollywood.  He was more than an actor.  He thought about social issues and the impact of films upon society.

The film does a good job of connecting Brando’s inner demons with his work on stage and in the movies as an actor.  His work as an actor grew out of his inner torment.  “When you are unwanted, you try on different identities in hope that you will find something that is acceptable.  Acting is survival.”  He was blessed with stunning good looks and natural charisma.   Many of his films are among the best films ever made.  There are reflections on the nature of acting and footage of his acting teacher, Stella Adler, at the New School in New York City.  He had been in psychoanalysis, which I think helped him focus on his inner self and use his own inner turmoil in his acting.  It probably motivated him to make the many tapes of his thoughts and comments, which are a fortunate treasure trove of information and insight.

I have never made a list of my ten best documentary films of all time, but if I ever did, this would likely be on it.  It is very hard to get any better than this.  Go see it.

Best of Enemies — Film Review

By Michael Ferguson

Best of Enemies

Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville



This is a rehash of the 1968 political conventions and the debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that were aired as part of ABC’s alleged news coverage.  I vaguely remember watching some of these when I was about fourteen years old.  These debates varied in length between about 8 and 22 minutes.  They were not very long.  I am quite sure I did not watch all of them, but I did watch the famous ninth debate when Buckley lost his temper and threatened to sock Gore Vidal in the face.  I don’t remember too much else about this and at the time I was ignorant and had a very limited perspective on the country and what was happening to us as a nation.  I remember checking Buckley’s book, Up From Liberalism, out of the library and carrying it around for some time.  I didn’t read the whole thing.  I started it, but Buckley is pompous and rather boring.  I didn’t warm to Gore Vidal either.  Vidal represented an iconoclasm and counterculture to which I had no exposure growing up in a small, backward, conservative town in Ohio.  I like him much better now that I have become an iconoclast and counterculture figure myself.  What I say here is not what I recall or influenced in any way by my own very vague memories of these events.  It is based strictly on what was presented in the film.

This film is interesting and presents a clash of two strong intellectual personalities.  They were both members of the east coast elite.  Buckley was well-to-do and educated in his early years in England.  Vidal’s family was military and political.  I wish the film was a little better than it was.  These two men had a deep visceral hatred for one another that lasted their entire lives.  They represented polar opposites in values, lifestyle, and vision for the country.  I didn’t really grasp the source of this rancorous hatred.  I understand they are different, they have different points of view, etc.  But difference does not entail that they must hate each other with such implacable animosity.  They seemed to need each other as enemies.  There was a peculiar bond of rivalry that they seemed to revel in.  I think there was some mutual jealousy as well as morbid fascination.  There was no foundation of good will or mutual respect.

Buckley was a grandiose, well defended person who hid behind this pose of intellectual superiority.  Vidal detested this.  He could see Buckley for what he was, namely, an authoritarian, narcissistic bigot, and he knew how to needle him.  He knew how to get under his skin and expose that ugly, violent, spite and disdain for those he considered beneath himself, which was almost everybody.  Vidal was not intimidated by Buckley’s intellect.  In fact, he mocked it.  Buckley wasn’t used to being challenged on his own turf, especially by someone for whom he had little more than contempt.  The fact that Vidal was able to bring Buckley to the point where he completely lost it in a public forum was deeply wounding to him and he never recovered from it.  But Vidal had been wounded long before, and throughout his life, by the narrow minded prejudices and righteous exclusion that Buckley embodied.  However, Vidal was accustomed to being insulted and disdained for what he was and was much better prepared for the attacks from Buckley.

These so-called debates reflected a cultural and political divide in the United States that existed at the time, but which has deepened and intensified ever since.  The election of 1968, and particularly the Democratic Convention in Chicago of that year, can be seen as the beginning of a long downward spiral in the United States, politically, culturally, economically, philosophically, and in terms of the media’s role in informing and educating the public.  We are now living in the shadow of that long process of cultural and political degeneration.  We have gone from William F. Buckley to Donald Trump.  Gore Vidal is all but forgotten.

The subject of this film, I think, is rather difficult, because these two men were primarily writers, who expressed their ideas in books and long essays and arguments.   A film does not and cannot capture all that has been laid down in pages and pages of print.  So the portrait of these two men and their rivalry is somewhat truncated.  Buckley, however, also had a presence in television and for that reason is probably better known.  It takes a lot more effort to read a book, and I think Vidal’s reputation and legacy has been hampered by that, in contrast to Buckley.

The film is a good, intriguing introduction.  I come away from it feeling more curious than informed.  I think I might read Myra Breckenridge.  It might give me better insight into Gore Vidal, who for me is the more remote of these two characters.  Buckley is a much better known quantity, although the film gave me some curiosity about his later years, particularly the despair and depression he expressed in his late interview with Charlie Rose.

I wish the film had shown more of the debates themselves.  The early debates were shown and the ninth debate, where the uproar occurred.  But the tenth debate was skirted with only scant mention.  It would have been interesting to see how they rebounded after that inglorious spectacle.  I think this film will be of special interest to those who are preoccupied with politics or who are interested in journalism and the information media.  Personally, I never watch television, except when I visit my dad.  And I am always shocked at the degradation that has occurred both in news coverage and in the popular culture.  This film is a measuring stick of that process of decline, like returning to the wilderness and seeing how much the glaciers have melted after many years.  It does what it does about as well as it could, but I think it is necessary to read in order to understand who these two men were and what this confrontation of personalities was really all about.

Earthquake Storms — Book Review

By Michael Ferguson

Earthquake Storms:  The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault.  By John Dvorak.  New York:  Pegasus Books.  2014.




Earthquake Storms is indeed a fascinating history, not only of the San Andreas Fault that runs along the western edge of California, but also of the State of California itself, the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the California Gold Rush, the development of the oil industry in California, the growth of the science of geology, the increasing understanding of earthquakes, the development of the Richter scale, the Trojan War, paleoseismology, as well as the future of the San Andreas Fault and the prospects of predicting earthquakes, in addition to many other interesting side roads.  The book is well written, well researched and has depth as well as breadth.  It is a stimulating panorama that includes colorful depictions of the personalities whose curiosity and dogged persistence made the breakthroughs that moved our understanding of earthquakes forward.   Dvorak makes interesting connections between personal peculiarities and psychological needs of individuals and the influence it had on their work as a researchers and scientists.

Until the latter half of the twentieth century earthquakes were mysterious, apparently random events, that could be enormously destructive.  But people had no clue why they occurred when and where they did and what caused them.  The destructive potential of earthquakes has grown with the growth of civilization and the construction of large cities on or near the faults in the earth where earthquakes occur, and this in turn has stimulated the study of earthquakes and their causes.  Earthquake Storms documents this growing interest and understanding of earthquakes beginning in the nineteenth century with dramatic strides forward in the twentieth.  However, this understanding has not reached a point where earthquakes can be foreseen with the kind of accuracy that has come to forecasting the weather.  Dvorak cites a 2008 report by the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities that asserts a 31% probability of a magnitude 6.8 or stronger quake along the Hayward Fault, which runs along the eastern side of San Francisco Bay from Richmond, through Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward and Fremont, within the next thirty years. (p. 235)  Not exactly something you can make plans around, but it does emphasize the need to strengthen buildings and infrastructure for the inevitable traumas that will be visited upon them.

While this book is well thought out, well organized, and coherently written, it does have one major drawback, and that is a dearth of maps, drawings, diagrams, and illustrations that would make some of these concepts and descriptions a lot easier to grasp.  Dvorak does include eight pages of black and white photographs that are very interesting and helpful, but the book needs a lot more.  I would recommend another fifty pages of maps and illustrations.  I’ll give you an example.

When the North American plate began to drift over the Farallon-Pacific’s spreading central region, a transform fault formed, and then a peculiar feature developed at either end of that fault.  The feature, known as a triple junction, is a place where the boundaries of three tectonic plates meet.  In this case, two of the plates are the North American and Pacific plates; the third, which is actually what remains of the Farallon plate, has been given a different name depending on whether it is north or south of the transform fault.  At the north end, the surviving part of the Farallon plate is now known as the Gorda plate and the point where the three plates meet is the Mendocino triple junction, because the point is currently located near Cape Mendocino.  At the south end is the Cocos plate — a remnant of the Farallon plate — and the Rivera triple junction.  What is important here is that, because of the directions in which the various plates are moving, neither the Mendocino nor the Rivera triple junction is stationary; both migrate.  And they migrate in opposite directions, the Mendocino triple junction to the north and the Rivera to the south.  As time progresses, the transform boundary between the Pacific and North American plates lengthens.  And that brings us back to the San Francisquito-Fenner-Clemens Well Fault.  (p. 211)

Can you visualize that all right?  Maybe you don’t really need a map.  It should be no problem to anyone who is steeped in the geology and geography of California.   But how many people would that be?  This book is written, supposedly, for a wide audience.   But doesn’t Dvorak know that Americans are among the most geographically illiterate people in the developed world?  According to National Geographic and Roper surveys:

About 11 percent of young citizens of the U.S. couldn’t even locate the U.S. on a map.  The Pacific Ocean’s location was a mystery to 29 percent; Japan, to 58 percent; France, to 65 percent; and the United Kingdom, to 69 percent.1

If people cannot even find the Pacific Ocean on a map, how are they going to visualize the Mendocino and Rivera triple junctions that are moving in opposite directions?   Dvorak does this all through the book.  He is very good at verbal descriptions, but he expects his reader to have encyclopedic knowledge of geography and a vivid imagination for the movements of large objects, how they interact, the stresses they create, and the outcome of these colliding forces that would be worthy of an experienced civil engineer.  It may be bad news to the publisher, but his book needs illustrations and photographs on nearly every other page, perhaps another hundred.  There are so many things that Dvorak describes very well in words, but they cry out for a picture that would simplify the cumbersome description.

Another example would be his descriptions of rocks and mineral specimens.

I draw attention to this particular component of the conglomerate because it is easy to identify.  About one out of every ten boulders, cobbles, or pebbles in the conglomerate is this purple rock peppered with pink flecks of feldspar crystals, which adds to its attractiveness and ease of identification.  (p. 205)

A picture would do a much better job of fixing the image of this mineral in the mind, and I think it would also make the point he is trying to get across more accessible as well.  In this subject material, which is very visual to begin with, descriptions of the movements of land masses and geographical features almost require pictures and illustrations.  He really needs to do a second edition, updated and improved with lots of visual imagery.

One lesson that you can’t help but take away from this book is that earthquakes are inevitable and the San Andreas fault, as well as many other faults all throughout California, are ticking time bombs that will certainly go off as major seismic events in the foreseeable future, with powerful and terrible effect.  The title of the book, Earthquake Storms, refers to another realization, first argued for by Amos Nur in the 1990s, that earthquakes tend to occur in clusters, or as Dvorak calls them, storms.  Once you have a major earthquake, the chance of having another one of equal or stronger magnitude is actually greater  than it was before the first event.   He likened a fault’s slippage to the opening of a zipper that catches on successive teeth as it slides down the chain.  Amos Nur has suggested that such a series of successive earthquakes over a period of decades may have contributed to the end of the Bronze Age 3300 years ago. (pp. 226-28)  Dvorak points out several examples of successive major quakes along fault lines within relatively short spans of time, including along the San Andreas.

It is also worth mentioning, Kathryn Schulz’s recent, excellent article in the New Yorker  that describes a much more monumental disaster waiting to happen on the Cascadia fault off the Pacific Northwest.  The Cascadia Fault, has been quiet for over three hundred years, in contrast to the San Andreas, which has been quite active in recent times.  In other words, the Cascadia Fault, while not considered overdue in a statistical sense, has been ominously quiet for a very long time, and when it does give way, could prove cataclysmic for the Pacific Northwest.  Schulz points out that faults have a maximum magnitude in the strength of earthquake they can produce that is based on the length and width of the fault and the amount that the fault can slip.  She does not discuss the science of this in any detail and Dvorak does not mention the earthquake magnitude potential of faults at all.  But for the San Andreas Fault, Schulz claims that 8.2 is the maximum magnitude it can generate — which is a pretty good shake that will wreak a lot of havoc.  But it pales in comparison to the potential awaiting in the Cascadia Fault off the Pacific Northwest coast.   If the Cascadia gives way in a really big way the result could be anywhere from 8.0 to 9.2, which would leave much of the Pacific Northwest, which is profoundly unprepared for such an event, in rubble.

Generally, I would heartily recommend this book, especially to well educated people who live in California.  But it could be equally relevant and illuminating for people all around the world who live in earthquake zones were it to be revised and expanded to include illustrations that would make the text much easier to follow and the conceptual arguments easier to visualize.





1.  National Geographic News, October 28, 2010.

See also the National Geographic/ Roper study from 2006 on Geographic Literacy.

Click to access FINALReport2006GeogLitsurvey.pdf

2.  The Really Big One.  By Kathryn Schulz.  The New Yorker, July 20, 2015, pp. 52-59.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri– Book Review

By Michael Ferguson

Unaccustomed Earth.  By Jhumpa Lahiri.  New York:  Vintage/Random House.  2009.




This is a collection of eight elegantly written stories that depict the adjustment and maladjustment of immigrants and their families to life in the United States.   In this case, the country of origin is India, but the challenges and personal issues that Lahiri writes about will be familiar to anyone who has come to this country from a foreign shore, and particularly to anyone born in this country whose parents grew up in a different culture.

The title and lead story in the volume is my favorite.  It is a benign story, told with exquisite sensitivity, about a mixed marriage (Indian female, American male), and the issues facing an immigrant family struggling with life in the United States.  The protagonist’s mother has died, and her father, now seventy, is savoring life as newly single after a long marriage:  traveling, visiting his daughter, Ruma, and her family, and carrying on a secret relationship with a new woman that he met on one of his trips.  Lahiri shows a perceptive eye on every page drawing the contrasting cultures and grasping the implications of small details in behavior and expression in her characters.

Her characters are ordinary middle class people, usually on the affluent side: students struggling with parents and school, professionals, corporate types, with very common middle class anxieties, concerns, and assumptions. This very mundaneness of her characters makes her writing relevant and accessible to a wide audience of both immigrants and native born Americans.

She’s a very insecure woman when it comes to her social status and educational achievement.  She often goes out of her way to make allusions to literary works, esoteric foods, and scientific ideas, as if she wants to establish her own sophistication and educational credentials.  Her characters are always attending or are connected in some way to expensive, prestigious east coast universities. Sometimes I wonder if she thinks her audience is a bunch of graduate students studying humanities.  I guess in many social climbing immigrant families such as hers one can never get enough education.  She is most in your face about it in Going Ashore, the final story in the volume.  In almost every line she is trying to remind us of how educated, worldly and sophisticated she is, especially in the food she eats.  We know you’ve been to school and read a few books, Jhumpa.

Lahiri shows an unflinching commitment to monogamous heterosexual marriage as the definitive lifestyle for human beings throughout her work, even though it never works very well in most of her stories, the possible exception being A Choice of Accommodations.  She seems to blame the men for this, and in a way she is right.  Men are not well suited to monogamous marriage and the growing heavy handedness with which it has been promoted and imposed upon men in America over the last 170 or so years has not been good for men or for women or for society.  I think we can declare it an experiment that has failed.  Nevertheless, a great many American middle class women, such as Lahiri, still believe in it and cling to it as an ideal for their lives, in spite of the fact that it leads to so much disappointment and tragedy.

In A Choice of Accommodations, we see a marriage that actually seems to be working, more or less.  It is an action packed story about a married couple, Amit and Megan, who attend a wedding at Amit’s old boarding school. (Once again we see school as a looming presence.)  They leave their kids with Megan’s parents and go off by themselves for a wild weekend.  At the wedding dinner they decide to call and check on their kids, but Amit had left his cell phone in the hotel room.  He decides to walk back to the hotel room to retrieve it, leaving Megan alone at the wedding party.  He finds the cell phone, but cannot remember his in laws phone number, so having had a few drinks he falls asleep on the bed and doesn’t return to the party.  In the morning he wakes up and finds his wife pissed off that he stranded her and fell asleep drunk on their wild weekend away from the kids.  So they walk around the campus going through some of the buildings and end up making love in a deserted dormitory room.  The end.  It is a rare story where something gets resolved favorably and the couple reestablishes some equilibrium.   Lahiri gets forty-three pages out of this.  You’ll have to read it to see all the exciting parts I have left out.  But notice, it is the man’s irresponsibility that precipitates a problem in the marriage.  This is a motif that will recur throughout the volume.

Males are the destroyers in Lahiri’s world.  In every story it is the moral failings or character flaws in the men that destroy families and relationships.  Women are the hapless victims swept along by the destructiveness of the males that they are unable to tame and unable to save from themselves.  The destructiveness is always inexplicable.  It seems to happen almost arbitrarily.  One seldom sees a cause and effect relationship between anything else in the story and the hand grenades dropped by the males.

In Hell-Heaven Pranab Kaku leaves his American wife of twenty-three years to marry a Bengali woman, after the whole story presents a picture of the two of them in a long, successful marriage.  No hint of dissatisfaction or conflict is offered.  He was also the one who, apparently without realizing it, nearly drove Usha’s mother to suicide with a love she never expressed.  And on the very last page in the very last sentence of this same story Usha’s heart is broken by a man she had hoped to marry.  All this disappointment around marriage, yet Lahiri never questions marriage itself, and she is never able to see marriage from an American male’s point of view.  I think she understands the Indian male’s attitude somewhat better.  In Nobody’s Business Indian men who have never met her and don’t even know her cold call Sang and ask her to marry them.   It is impossible to imagine an American man doing such a thing.

In Going Ashore she describes an alternative to the American way of courtship in Hema’s relationship with Navin, the man to whom she would eventually be betrothed.

They wandered chastely around Boston, going to museums and movies and concerts and dinners, and then beginning on the second weekend, he kissed Hema goodnight at the door of her home and slept at a friend’s.  He admitted to her that he’d had lovers in the past, but he was old fashioned when it came to a future wife.  And it touched her to be treated, at thirty-seven, like a teenaged girl.  She had not had a boyfriend until she was in graduate school, and by then she was too old for such measured advances from men.  (p. 297)

I felt a shudder when I read that paragraph.  It felt ominous to me, that these two people are going to get married.  They both seem woefully unprepared.  The man, Navin, does not seem real, like many of Lahiri’s male characters.  He is the fantasy of a naive, young girl.  If he is real, then his behavior and attitude toward this woman, coupled with her world of illusions does not bode well.  Can they possibly adjust to one another?  Or maybe it will be the kind of marriage where each lives a parallel life and they will share only a small circumscribed relationship in common.  Maybe they will approach the marriage with low expectations and make few demands on one another.  I suppose those kinds of arrangements can work, depending what you mean by ‘work.’  Perhaps in a different kind of society with different assumptions and a different social system.  But in modern America, a couple of this sort faces a daunting rock climb.  I feared for them even before I turned the page.  For all her sophistication in food and the culture of universities, Lahiri is very childlike and ignorant in her understanding of men.

There is never a hint of same sex interest in any of her characters.  No triangles, except clandestine.  Everybody is deceiving each other or living in a world of their own very conventional illusions.  She does seem to have some acquaintance with casual sex, but again, without understanding, especially from the male point of view.  Her eye is always on marriage.

The story of the development of Rahul’s alcoholism from childhood in Only Goodness on puts Lahiri’s superb observational gifts on display to supreme advantage.  She clearly knows something about the developmental line of alcoholism and the various behavioral patterns that accompany it.  But once again it lacks psychological insight.   She gets a lot of the dots, but she doesn’t connect them.  The appearance of alcoholism in an adolescent indicates serious problems within the family as a whole, and particularly in the marriage of the parents.  Lahiri focuses the story on the relationship between the troubled younger son, Rahul, and the older sister, Sudha, almost implying that Sudha is responsible for Rahul’s alcoholism, but avoids looking at the parents’ marriage in any great depth.  Sudha introduced Rahul to alcohol, and helped him sneak booze into their parents’ house and hide it from them.  She facilitated and participated in his early experiments with drinking, but it is profoundly mistaken to think that this led to his later problems.   One has to look at the parents and the onerous pressures they put on their son, their lack of understanding of his emotional needs, and his ultimate rebellion against all of them by destroying himself.  Lahiri puts way too much emphasis on Sudha.

When Rahul expressed a wish to be left alone with his infant nephew while Sudha and Roger go out to a movie, Sudha was worried and did not trust her brother alone with her young son.  When they returned home and found Rahul drunk and passed out on the bed and the infant left perilously alone in a tub of water, there is no explanation for the incident.  It was not unexpected, in fact it was foreshadowed, and Sudha had an palpable worry of such a possibility.  But no understanding is offered.  No insight into Rahul’s murderous rage against his sister is put forward.   Alcoholics are, of course, full of rage and envy, with a will to destroy themselves and those around them.  Lahiri understands this and observes its manifestations very accurately with her exquisitely sensitive eye.  But she doesn’t connect events with their antecedents.  Throughout the book Lahiri’s men seem to go off on destructive tangents after long years of stability and apparent sanguinity.   Lahiri seems genuinely puzzled by men.  Maybe she thinks they are inherently defective or inclined toward destruction.  It seems to be the best she can come up with.  But at the same time she never allows a full blown tragedy to occur.   There are no murders, violence, tragic deaths in her stories.  Even at their most destructive, her men are still under control.

In Nobody’s Business it is Farouk who is the destructive male villain, carrying on simultaneous love affairs with two different women and deceiving both.  Yet both women remain resolutely attached to this very unattractive man.  There is no explanation for why these two women are so attached to Farouk.  He has absolutely nothing to recommend himself.  He treats both women badly and appears to mock their expectation of his monogamy.  Paul is the most problematic character in this story.   He is a roommate of Sang and the story is told through his eyes. He is definitely interested in Sang, he knows a lot about her private life, yet he is at great pains to remain as neutral and nonparticipating as possible.  He is even privy to crucial information that would be of keen interest to Sang.  But he withholds it and does not tell her, allowing the situation to play itself out as if he were watching an experiment on laboratory rats.  No wonder Sang never takes an interest in him.  Deidre also provides an opening for him, which he roundly spurns.  Paul has no sex life or social life of his own.  He is the consummate academic monk.  But it is not quite believable.  We never really see who this guy is from the inside.  He is sort of a place holder.  His function is strictly narrative.  He does not participate in the story line any more than he absolutely has to — despite his inclinations.  He is a kind of living, breathing nonentity.  I think Lahiri could have done without him.  He is a man without a soul, whose only function is to narrate, but the story functions very well without him.

The last three stories in the volume form a trilogy about two characters:  Hema and Kaushik.  The first story, Once in a Lifetime, is written in the second person addressed to Kaushik from Hema.  It has a feeling of reproach running through it.  It is the story of a young girl’s crush on an older boy (16) whose family is friends with her family  — sort of.  The “sort of” is the source of the tone of reproach and resentment running through the story.  Kaushik’s family is considerably better off than Hema’s family, but is staying with Hema’s family and living in their residence for an extended time while they resettle into the United States from India.  Hema is forced to give up her room so Kaushik can occupy it during this rather long, temporary stay.  Kaushik’s mother is dying.  That is the reason for the stay and the resettlement from India.

The second story, Year’s End, is also written in the second person, but it feels as if it is in the first person.  The second person pronoun is rarely used.  In contrast to Once in a Lifetime, where the ‘you’ pronoun is used throughout and the story feels like a long letter, this story feels more like a narrative, and it is in Kaushik’s voice addressed to Hema.  However, Lahiri’s Kaushik is completely unconvincing as a male voice.  Kaushik thinks, feels, and acts like a woman.  He is a woman in a man’s clothes with a man’s name.  Reading this story I felt how thoroughly feminine Lahiri is.   Despite her acute sensitivity and observational skills, she is not able to get inside a man’s head.  That is why I didn’t believe the character of Paul in Nobody’s Business and why I felt she failed to understand the character of Rahul and his drinking in Only Goodness.   She’s out of touch with the male mentality in its depths, but I haven’t quite figured out the reason.  It probably has to do with sex, but I don’t want to say that in print.  She observes the surface with the remarkable sensitivity, which makes her writing such a pleasure to read.  Her eye for small details and their emotional meanings is beguiling.  It draws you in and holds your attention page after page, and yet she seems to miss what drives men in the depths of their hearts, why they need women after all anyway.  She doesn’t quite get it.  She gropes around as if searching, trying to grasp the secrets of a man’s heart, but what she comes up with is always through a woman’s lens.  She does better with her older males, the father figures who are married.   Kaushik’s father in Year’s End, Ruma’s father in Unaccustomed Earth, They feel a little more real, a little more tangible, but young men are a world apart from her.  I can see that she is truly puzzled and intimidated by them.

In Year’s End, we see another instance of the demonic male wreaking destruction upon a family.  While his father and his new wife, Chitra, are out to a New Year’s party, Kaushik is alone in the house with Chitra’s two young girls.  He finds them on the floor of their bedroom — which used to be his — sitting on the floor looking at pictures of his dead mother, which they found in the closet.  He explodes in a tantrum as if they had committed some sacrilege, bullying them and shaking them violently.  The whole incident has a surreal quality to it, and it doesn’t make sense.  There is absolutely nothing in the story that prepares one for this outburst of crazed violence.  It is another example of Lahiri’s inability to create a credible male character.  It further evinces her deep fear of men and her perception of them as unpredictable bomb throwers.

This incident in Year’s End and Rahul’s episode of leaving Sudha’s infant alone in the bathtub in Only Goodness present a clear message from Lahiri about men and young children:  you cannot leave young children alone with a male, particularly a young male.  Young males are irresponsible, negligent, unpredictable, and violent.   Children dare not be left alone with them under any circumstances, even for short periods of time.  Only women can be trusted to care for children properly.

The final story in the trilogy, Going Ashore, is a narrative in the third person, except at the very end where we return to Hema’s voice.  It is about Kaushik and his life as a journalistic photographer assigned to the most dangerous and tumultuous parts of the world.  She thus associates Kaushik with everything she hates and fears about males:  war, violence, atrocities, torture, mutilations, brutality, savagery.  But Kaushik himself does not engage in any of the atrocities.  He does not cut off anyone’s penis, he does not blow up any school buses full of young children, he does not machine gun people with their hands tied standing over an open trench.  He is an outsider who only observes and photographs — like Lahiri.  This is as close as Lahiri can get to the abyss of violence and aggression in male souls.

She is correct that violence, brutality, atrocities, unspeakable cruelty, are the near exclusive province of men.  It is one area that of life that women’s equality has not yet penetrated, and probably won’t.  Women are certainly capable of violence, brutality and cruelty.  But it is usually in response to some personal insult or injury.  Male violence can be more generalized, indiscriminate, and extreme.  Lahiri correctly perceives these capabilities in men, but she does not understand them; she deeply fears them, and she does not grasp their necessity, their inevitability, nor their value.  Men are capable of violence, brutality, and savagery for very good reasons, and women have suffered and benefited from it.

Although she loves Kaushik she ultimately repudiates him and sends him off to Thailand, then she goes a step further and actually kills him off in a tsunami, making sure that there is no possibility of a sequel.  She really doesn’t like men very much.  Only emasculated, tame, domesticated men who don’t stir up any strong feelings.  It is those strong passions of lust and hate that Lahiri sees as giving rise to all the ugliness and pain of life.  Lahiri’s world represents the triumph of duty over love, the triumph of arranged marriage over passion, the triumph of routine over adventure, the triumph of cottage cheese over a good Thai restaurant.  She wants men to be responsible drones, working like slaves for years on end to support their families, but without having to interact with them very much.  Lahiri is the patron saint of all bored suburban housewives.

When Kaushik says to Hema on the day before they are to separate, “Come to Hong Kong with me.  Don’t marry him, Hema.[Navin]”  She should have countered.  “Will you marry me then?”  Because if he wasn’t willing to marry her, then her choice would have been clear and his suggestion would have been out of order.  But if he had answered, “Let’s stay in Italy another week and get married here.  Then we’ll go to Hong Kong together.  Tonight there will be no condoms.  We’ll throw them away.”  “Take me, I’m yours!”  Two weeks later Hema sends Navin an e-mail from Hong Kong.  “Dear Navin,  I’m sorry I couldn’t be present for our wedding, but I eloped and married someone else.   Hema.”  That would have been made a much better story, Jhumpa.  Much better than that dreary ending you wrote.  But it is probably too late to revise it.

I like Lahiri as a writer.  I read The Namesake several years ago, and was favorably impressed with some qualifications, as I recall.  I would probably read other things by her.  Stylistically, her femininity and her keen perception draw me in.  She has a good eye for the nuances of cultural assumptions and expectations, the contrasts, the plusses and minuses in both Indian and American cultures, the quandaries of an immigrant’s adjustment, but I find myself turning against her as a woman, because she fails to understand men so utterly, and because she is at such pains to keep reminding us of her education and social status.  This type of insecurity puts me off.  I gave a copy of this book to an Indian woman I know who was not familiar with Lahiri, but I almost wish I hadn’t.  I have very mixed feelings about the book and about Lahiri.



A Poem is a Naked Person — Film Review

By Michael Ferguson

A Poem is a Naked Person

Directed by Les Blank



This is not a documentary despite the film’s pretensions.  This is a video scrapbook or an upscale home movie.  The video clips that have been strung together in this are pretty good quality.  The camera crew that shot them was excellent.   The editing and the conceptualization are amateurish, but each small bit is interesting in itself and the music selections are outstanding.  This film, despite its many limitations, takes hold of you and doesn’t let go.  It is carried strictly by the power of the subject matter and the quality of the music — and there is a lot of music, and a great variety of music.  All the time I was watching the film I was trying to figure out when it was shot.  I recognized a brief cameo of Cass Elliot, so I knew it had to be not later than the early 1970s. It was actually shot by Les Blank in 1972-1974.  (This is not presented in the film.  I had to look it up.)  Most of it was shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, maybe some of it in Louisiana, I’m not sure.  This film is not a presentation of the facts.  It is a raw, informal portrait of Leon Russell from his peak years as a singer and performer.  The title of the film is a quote from Bob Dylan’s liner notes to his album Bringing It All Back Home (1965).

There are a couple of things this film does well.  The presentation of Leon Russell as a singer, pianist, and performer, work.  I was impressed with what an excellent pianist he is.  There is a wedding scene where he plays Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” unaccompanied on the piano.  I believe they were his own arrangements very sensitively performed.  He has a very commanding presence on stage.  In front of an audience he was comfortable and unquestionably in charge.  I could also feel a hard, driving ambition in him that was very disciplined and insistent on excellence.  Off stage he was casual and relaxed.  He seemed to tolerate bozos well and there seemed to be a lot of them around him.  But when it came to music and performing before an audience, he took it very seriously, and he must have been demanding of his band mates.  The film did not make a point of this, but I surmised it from the quality of the performances and his demeanor on stage.

The film gives one a good feel for the culture of Oklahoma and the various musical influences absorbed by Leon Russell from middle America and the South.  There is a shot of some rollicking gospel in a black church, Sweet Mary Egan on unaccompanied fiddle, band member Charlie McCoy on harmonica, young Malissa Bates singing Hoyt Axton’s “Joy to the World” unaccompanied,  a very young Willie Nelson doing “Good Hearted Woman,” some native Americans in traditional dress dancing to their native drum music.  The film is rich in the musical culture of the American heartland.

One also gets a feel for the culture and temperament of the people of Oklahoma: provincial, unsophisticated, simple and straight ahead.  There is a clip of a precision parachute jumping competition, another of a controlled demolition of a building in downtown Tulsa, another of a man in a small boat catching a quite large catfish.  Some things you probably couldn’t get away with today, like feeding a small chick to a boa constrictor and watching him kill it and eat it before your eyes.  The man who guzzles down a glass of beer and then bites off the edge of the glass with his teeth and chews it up and swallows it.  That may represent the culture and mentality of the people of Oklahoma, but Leon Russell is a couple of pegs above that.

He is comfortable in that provincial backwater.  It has molded him and shaped him and he has incorporated its varied influences into his own style, and the people see him as one of their own.  But he is able to move beyond that world that gave him birth.  He knows of a bigger world beyond the confines of Oklahoma and he wants to be part of it and be successful in it.  While Leon Russell can fit in with those unvarnished yokels, he is not really one of them.  His mind, his taste, his skill, and his ambition reach far beyond his roots, but he does not repudiate his background, rather he embraces it and embodies it and forges from it a very appealing, unique personal style.  The film does give you that much, although there is much more you will wish it had done.  It is an excellent and interesting introduction to the music and the person of Leon Russell.



The Trojans — San Francisco Opera Performance — Review

By Michael Ferguson

The Trojans

By Hector Berlioz

San Francisco Opera Performance

June 20, 2015


This is actually two operas and performing them together creates a mammoth production.  The Capture of Troy occupies the first two acts.  Acts three through five make up The Trojans at Carthage.  The two operas are really distinct despite the fact that the composer, Hector Berlioz, conceived of them as a unified whole.  When the opera was first performed at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris, they would only do the second part, The Trojans in Carthage — and they cut it down quite a bit.  Berlioz never saw The Fall of Troy performed.  Thomas May’s offers a lengthy and informative discussion of the history of this opera’s composition and performance in the program.  It is very good and I highly recommend it.  May tells us,

the lack of a definitive full-scale production when Les Troyens was new to the world caused even more long-lasting damage than Berlioz had pessimistically foreseen.   The division and cutting of the work perversely underscored the notion that Berlioz had written a sort of heroic “ruin” that lacked coherence and integral construction. . . Worse, distorted perceptions of Les Troyens encouraged stereotypes of the composer as a washed up Romantic revolutionary who had lost his fire and reverted to a more “conservative” approach.  (p. 39)

I am largely in agreement with this assessment.  This monstrosity is unwieldy and it does lack internal coherence.  What is consistent is that the males end up ignominiously deserting the scene at the end of each opera, and the females end up dead.  There is very little that connects The Fall of Troy to The Trojans in Carthage except that some of the same characters are used.  But it is two very different, very loosely related stories.  Neither opera is very well written and putting them together on the same program subjects the audience to a long, punishing evening.

I always try to say something positive, if I can, and in this opera what is positive is the music.  The music score is outstanding, and it considerably raised my estimation of Berlioz as a composer.  It makes it all the more poignant that this music composer of the first rank had no talent as a dramatist or as a storyteller.  The Trojan War has a vast wealth of dramatic possibilities, and yet the best Berlioz can get out of it is dull, slow moving, repetitious, and interminably long.  He seems to avoid anything truly dramatic on stage and relates the real drama and conflict in the story line through narratives in soliloquies.  The romance between Aeneas and Dido in The Trojans in Carthage is juvenile and melodramatic.  Berlioz knew nothing about love relationships.  The character of Dido is particularly incoherent and ad hoc.  She starts out as a queen beloved by all of her people and ends up this embittered, venomous, vengeful, suicidal woman — nothing like a queen at all.  How could she have ever been a queen, let alone a queen of such capable leadership?  She is a totally cartoonish, unconvincing character.

It doesn’t help that the sets were unimaginative, the lighting was uninteresting, and the costumes were from the nineteenth century.  They had the Trojan soldiers in nineteenth century military uniforms carrying nineteenth century swords.  Some of them were even carrying long rifles and muskets.  Since when did the Trojans carry rifles in 1200 BC?  In Act 5 two soldiers shared a cigarette.  Was it the Trojans’ own brand, or did they import them from Greece?

Act 4 started with a ballet segment that was well conceived and beautifully done.  No vocal music during the ballet, only orchestral accompaniment.  The structure of Act 4 was two ballet segments alternating with two vocal segments.  The ballet segments were very well imagined and well executed and could work as standalone ballet pieces were they to be excised from this opera.  The choreographers, Lynne Page and Gemma Payne did an excellent job along with the dancers, and the orchestral score was very well suited to the dance.   It made me think that this whole idea of the Trojan War could be recast as a ballet, and it would be much leaner and much more interesting than this long, cumbersome opera.  It is unfortunate that Berlioz’s score was crafted for this dreary, undramatic opera.  Maybe there is a creative composer and a choreographer out there who could adapt it into much more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing ballet.

By the middle of the first act I was wondering if I should sit through all five hours of this.  I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to, such is the state of my life right now, so I stayed and watched the whole thing.  It was akin to long flight on an airplane, where it is mildly uncomfortable and you are looking forward to it ending.  If Berlioz had been able to collaborate with someone who had ability in theatrics he might have produced a great opera.  Unfortunately, this is a mediocre work, but with a first rate sound track.

Two Women — San Francisco Opera Performance — Review

By Michael Ferguson

Two Women

By Marco Tutino

San Francisco Opera Performance

June 13, 2015



This was one of the best opera performances I have seen.  It was a modern opera — if you call World War 2 modern.  It was imaginatively staged, using modern video and lighting techniques, and the music was suited to the story line and worked.

It was set in Italy in the midst of the Second World War right at the moment of the Allied invasion and the subsequent fall of Mussolini.   But the war and politics serve as a backdrop.  The opera is about the universal miseries of war visited upon a civilian population: displacements, deprivations, disruptions, separations, deaths, rapes, duplicities, betrayals, constant fear, and the eternal struggle to develop and maintain personal relationships and pursue love in the midst of upheaval and turmoil.  It was a well told story that held my interest all the way through from beginning to end.

I studied the synopsis provided by the San Francisco Opera beforehand.  I went through it three times.  The synopsis sounded confusing and complex.  I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to follow the opera because there are a lot of characters, they are on the move all the time, settings are changing, and even revisiting previous locations, as well as relationships that keep changing and evolving.   But the performance told the story very clearly and logically.  Video and visual displays were used very effectively to set each scene in its temporal and geographical context.  It was straightforward and clearly presented.  I was surprised.  It was really good.  The sets were imaginative and visually pleasing.  The lighting and special effects were just right and powerfully enhancing.  It was all together a top quality production.

Before the performance and during intermission repeating video sequences were shown that provided visual footage of the war in Italy at the time and the military operations that were going on.  I found this very helpful for setting the background of the performance and was very glad they did it.

The story was based on a novel by the name of La Ciociara, by Alberto Moravia.   I haven’t read the novel and there doesn’t seem to be a recently published English translation of it.  I happened to sit next to a gentleman who had read the novel a number of times and loved it, and he said it was the reason he wanted to see the opera.  He felt that the opera was a faithful representation of the novel, although he said the ending was different, which I had suspected.

The ending did not make any sense and was the only part of this opera that really failed — which to me, is pretty good for an opera.  I regard opera as the most conservative of all the art forms, and therefore do not expect to agree with the philosophical viewpoints expressed.  In this case it is an enigmatic finish that makes nonsense out of the character of Rosetta.  After the gang rape of the two women by the Moroccan soldiers an estrangement seems to appear between the mother and the daughter that is not adequately explored.  It seems to have to do with differing reactions of the two to the rape.  The daughter, Rosetta, seems to find it liberating in a sexual sense, and she begins asserting this new found independence from her mother through some rather casual sexual adventures, to which her mother strongly objected.  Rosetta reappears at the very end and derides the naivete and foolishness of Michele to her mother, but then, informed of his death, she is devastated and falls prostrate to the ground in a depressed stupor as the curtain falls — the news of Michele’s death apparently suffocating the sexual rebellion and affording a kind of reconciliation between the two women.

But it’s crazy.   One moment Rosetta is telling her mother what a naive fool she considers Michele to be, and as soon as she finds out he is dead, she practically dies herself.  Rosetta was never that attached to Michele.  He was her mother’s obsession, not hers.  Of course she liked him and bore some attachment to him, but the reaction depicted in the performance is far out of proportion to the emotional temperature of that relationship.  I don’t know how the book ends.  If I ever read it, I’ll revise this, but trying to turn Michele into some sort of Christ-like Savior, a model of goodness and hope, just doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, with the characters of the women, or with the character of Michele.  It’s like the director of the performance didn’t know what to do about the ending.  He didn’t understand the characters and how events had changed them internally, and so he couldn’t see a way for them to go forward.  So he invented this foolish reconciliation through the death of goodness and innocence and put that on the stage.  It was a big mistake.

I think a different director could do something more interesting with the ending of this story.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this story is about the death of innocence, pacificism, and simpleminded goodness, and nothing illustrates that better than the atrocities of war and the gang rape of women by conquering soldiers.  It is a somewhat negative commentary on human nature and the darkness within the human heart.  Michele, the romantic dreamer, is killed off by the conniving, insecure, duplicitous Giovanni.  The gang rape of the two women by the soldiers serves as a sexual awakening for the young daughter and she begins to assert her independence from the sexual conservatism of her mother.  The director does not seem to be comfortable with this outcome and tried to turn it into a morality play that would sit better with his conservative American audience by bringing Michele back from the dead to beat down the rebellious Rosetta, turning the dead Michele into a kind of Christ-like Savior of the young girl from sin.  No. No. No.  Sorry.  It doesn’t work.  That’s not what happened here.

But aside from this confusing, ill thought out, bizarre ending, the opera is pretty good.  It is a well presented, interesting story, a timely topic, visually engaging, and musically satisfying.   If the ending were more coherent and consistent with the rest of the import of the opera, it could be one of the greatest operas.

Cleanliness and Fragrances — Reviews and Essay

By Michael Ferguson

Cleanliness and Fragrances — Review Essay


Fragrance Reviews begin at the end of this essay. 


Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is an ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.      Song of Songs 1:30

Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?   Song of Songs 3:6



Most people, throughout most of history, in most times and places, most of the time, stunk.  Left unattended the human body will stink to high heaven in a very short time.  It is eminently natural to stink.  It is said that the Mongol army could not launch a surprise attack because it was possible to smell them from twenty miles away.  They prided themselves on never bathing.  They were barbarians.  The Mongols did not torture people to death, unlike most civilized societies of their time (Weatherford, pp. 115-16).  The Romans and most other civilized societies made torture a public spectacle to entertain and intimidate their citizenry.  They were sadistic.  What made the Romans civilized and the Mongols barbarians was that the Romans took baths and the Mongols stunk.  The Mongols believed that a person’s body odor was part of their soul (Weatherford, p. 12) , and this probably was part of the reason they refused to bathe — in addition to the scarcity of water on the Central Asian steppe.

It is the practice of bathing, the attendance on personal hygiene, the mitigation of offensive odor from the body, rather than moral superiority, that distinguishes civilized people from uncivilized.  Not stinking, or actually smelling good, is the mark of civilization.  One of the most commendable achievements of modern capitalism is that it has made people smell better.

In former times the practice of bathing was much less common and human body odor was ubiquitous, although attitudes toward body odor and bathing are highly variable from culture to culture (Ashenburg, Introduction).  The ancient Egyptians were known for being fastidious about bathing and personal cleanliness (Ashenburg, p. 6).  They were one of the earliest civilizations.

It was Christian hatred of the body that brought about the demise of the Roman public baths and ushered in a long era of despising and devaluing bodily cleanliness and sanitation (Ashenburg, p. 58f.)  From the 16th to the 18th centuries it was not unusual for people to go for a year or more without ever bathing.  Even the aristocracy was noted for rank malodor (Ashenburg, Ch. 4).  Queen Elizabeth I bathed once a month “whether she needed it or not” (Ashenburg, p. 99).  If the queen only bathed once a month, imagine what the rest of the people were like.  It was a different time.

This long era of filth and stink in the western world began to recede in the last half of the eighteenth century and accelerated in the nineteenth, especially with the advent of running water in the home.

As cities expanded, and people worked close to one another in crowded offices and factories, they grew unhappily aware of the smells produced by their own bodies and those of others.  The arrival of women in the work world accelerated this new sensitivity.  The fastidiousness that had first surfaced, tentatively, in late eighteenth-century Europe was becoming an American obsession.  At the same time, prosperity was at an all time high.  People could afford the products that would enable them to live in a smell-less zone, a safe place where they would neither “offend” nor be “offended.” (Ashenburg, p. 244)

Advertising campaigns in the 1930s and 40s promoted deodorant, shampoo, and razors to women, and later sanitary napkins (Ashenburg, p. 5).  A major industry has been built in the twentieth century around suppressing natural body odor and replacing it with something supposedly better.

My own attitude is that one should have to get pretty close to another person in order to smell their body.  Smell is intimate, and one’s personal body odor should be largely private.  If you can smell a person from more than a few feet away (and that includes perfume, or anything), that person is not civilized and is out of place in a modern society.

“the slovenly folk, who have been going on the theory that they can take a bath or leave it, are to be brought to their senses,” (NYT, July 10, 1927.  Ashenburg, p. 255)

“Odors are unnecessary and those that have them are violating rules of courtesy.” (Ashenburg, p. 254; quoting Hadida, 1932, pp. 98-104)

“Smelling someone’s real body or allowing your own body to be smelled has become an intrusion, a breach of a crucial boundary.”  (Ashenburg, p.271)

San Luis Obispo, CA, law bans people from the library for having offensive odor.  This provision was part of a list of disruptive behaviors prohibited from the library.  (Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2005.  Ashenburg, p. 273)

Why not make scentless the modern ideal, since ever greater cleanliness seems to be the American way?  There is a lot to be said for that, and the only argument I would make against it is that people have always smelled, and so we are accustomed to our bodies emitting odors and to perceiving the odors of others.  If we are going to smell, why not smell good rather than offensive?  Scentless in my view is too conservative and carries the war on body odor to an untenable extreme.  The aesthetic I advocate is that body odor should be minimal and not intrusive or attention seeking, pleasing if possible, but at least minimally offensive.

The word ‘perfume’ comes from the Latin per fumum meaning “through smoke.”  (Morris, p. 16)  The earliest perfumes were likely the burning of wood or meat to offer a pleasant savor to the gods.  Burning incense to the gods was a widespread practice in the ancient world. (1 Kings 11:8, Ezekiel 6:13)  The sweet smell of the incense was judged to be pleasing to the gods and the rising smoke and fragrance would carry aloft the prayers of the people and provide a pleasing presentation to the deities.  In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus God commands Aaron to build an altar and burn incense on it.

Of shittim wood shalt thou make it. . . And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps he shall burn incense upon it.  And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.  Exodus 30: 1-8

Of the three gifts that the wise men brought to the baby Jesus, two of them were fragrances.  In a world where obnoxious smells were the rule, pleasing fragrances were valued on a par with gold.

There is archeological evidence of a thriving perfume industry on the island of Cyprus as early as 2000 BC.  Perfumes have been found in Egyptian graves going back to 3000 BC.  (The Scotsman: Scotland on Sunday, September 21, 2014)

A pleasing fragrance, a sweet savor, was thought to be better than the ordinary rancidness of daily life and thus worthy of presentation to the gods.  So also in perfuming the body one gains favor and elevates oneself in the noses of one’s peers and especially in one’s estimation of oneself.  One gains in self confidence and self esteem knowing that one’s fragrance is apt to make one pleasing and attractive to others.  A pleasing fragrance is a sign of cultivation, sophistication, aristocracy.

The European tendency to be more accepting of the stink of everyday life is a cultural difference which I regard as somewhat primitive.  You have to keep in mind that the smells that come off of our bodies are the result of bacteria and fungi inhabiting our skin and orifices and these organisms can be pernicious. They can create infections, irritations, illnesses.  They can cause your teeth to rot and fall out.  The odor that we perceive is only the first indication of their presence in significant numbers and the impact they are beginning to have on our bodies and health.  Body odor tells us that it is time to wash off the bacteria before things get worse.  Modern hygiene has made us healthier and lengthened our lives — not to mention improved the aesthetic quality of our personal interactions.

The modern perfume industry began in the eighteenth century, mainly in France and Germany, with the return of bathing.  As people bathed their bodies they found it pleasant to anoint themselves with fragrant waters and oils.  The spread of the use of fragrance grew in conjunction with the development of porcelain ceramics and glass which were used to make containers for these fragrant concoctions, because they would not react with the fragrant oils and extracts in the perfumes.  (Morris, 1999, pp. 74-82)

This nascent perfume industry, catering as it did to the aristocracy, was nearly obliterated in the French Revolution.  However, Napoleon Bonaparte, who came to power in 1804, was a dandy, who was very conscientious about bathing and hygiene, even on military campaigns, and he revived the perfume industry in France, giving it generous support and encouragement (Morris, 1999, pp. 84-87).  The discovery of chemical solvents in the 1830s that allowed for the extraction of exotic scents from many flowers and plants that had never been possible before, led to an explosion of perfume manufacturing.  Many of the major perfume houses that exist today got their start in the nineteenth century.  It was the growth and rising affluence of the middle class and the increasing attention to bathing and hygiene that fostered this prodigious growth of the perfume industry.

Today the fragrance industry is a multibillion dollar worldwide behemoth that employs sophisticated technology, marketing, and huge budgets for product research and development.  The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr is an excellent inside look at this modern industry.  I am not going to go into surveying it here.  I think this is long enough already.  But Burr is an excellent, knowledgeable writer whose books are readable and very interesting.

I want to make one more philosophical foray into aesthetics and taste before I leave you to peruse my reviews of individual fragrances.  Ashenburg gives an unwarranted amount of space to Sissel Tolaas, who runs a research lab in Berlin devoted to scent (Ashenburg, 2007, pp. 271-74).  Among other projects, the lab is building an archive of scent which includes over 7000 aromas neatly labeled and catalogued.  Tolaas hopes to develop a vocabulary of fragrance that will allow us to describe and discuss fragrances in words for which for which our current linguistic capability is dearth.  These are laudable projects and I do wish her success in these efforts and I remain interested in her progress.  Where I differ with Tolaas and the slant that Ashenburg gives to her, is her aesthetic.  It is best illustrated by an anecdote that she relates herself:

Once at the Berlin Film Festival I wore a beautiful evening dress and put on a smell which was the absolute contrast — the smell of garbage and the stench of dogshit!  And people were completely confused because the way I looked and the way I smelled had nothing to do with each other.  And I had the most fun time in my life!  In this case the purpose of smell was to say “leave me alone.”

Normally the role of smell in our society is to say “come to me!” but I did the opposite and I succeeded.  Maybe at some point we will have smells for different purposes, the “stay alone” smell, “come halfway” smell, “come close” smell.  What’s wrong with that?!”  ( Tolaas, Huffington Post, September 24, 2013)

What’s wrong with it is that you don’t need smell to communicate those intentions, and Tolass was sending out a very mixed message by her appealing dress on the one hand and her offensive odor on the other.  The point was to create confusion in people and thus draw attention to herself.  She was at an event where everyone would be dressed fashionably and thus dress alone may not have been sufficient to make a distinguishing splash, so she doused herself in stink in order to make herself stand out from the crowd.  A kind of grandstanding with odor and dress.  There is also a hostile, contemptuous element in it.  It’s childish.

My view is that smells are mostly offensive, probably 80 percent, ranging from the mild to the disgusting.  The evolutionary purpose of smell was primarily to warn us of danger and secondarily to help us find something to eat.  In civilized societies the role of smell in meeting these needs has been minimized and thus smell has been freed from its primary function of perceiving hazard to offering the possibility of aesthetic enhancement, in the same way that clothing has gone beyond simply protecting us from the elements to making a personal statement about ourselves in society.  Deliberately wearing a fragrance to make oneself stink in public is either a reflection of low self esteem and the anticipation of rejection, or a childish, sassy provocation.

Luca Turin has a somewhat different sensibility and aesthetic.  But he is French and Italian.  He tells us

France is a country of smells. . . The idea that things should be slightly dirty, overripe, slightly fecal is everywhere in France.  They like rotten cheese and dirty sheets and unwashed women  (Burr, 2003, p. 3-4).

I noticed that in many of the fragrances that Turin favors and praises.  They sort of stink.  He thinks it is sophisticated to like these somewhat offensive smells.  I think it is civilization turned on its head.  One might question whether Turin speaks for the whole kingdom of France, but his comments are echoed by Henry Miller writing in Paris in the 1930s

That’s the first thing that strikes an American woman about Europe — that it’s unsanitary. (Miller, p. 137)

Chandler Burr rightly calls Luca Turin the “Emperor of Scent.”  Turin probably knows as much as anyone alive about scent, its history and the contemporary industry of scent.  In addition he has an extraordinarily discerning and well trained nose for grasping the ingredients and building blocks of a fragrance.  In presenting these fragrance reviews here I don’t claim anywhere near the skill and sophistication that Turin has to offer.  He is the unquestioned master.  His perception of odors is unmatched and his ability to analyze the compositions of perfumes are far more precise than my own.  I am totally untrained in the language of fragrance and the building blocks of modern perfumes.  Everything I have picked up on my own, with gaps and limitations.  The differences I have with Turin are in taste.   What one chooses to wear, in both clothing and in fragrance, has to do with personality and style and the image one wishes to project in the world.  In this we have substantial differences, and this is reflected in our respective evaluations of perfumes.  It is also true that perfumes can smell differently on different person’s bodies.  That might also be a source of difference in some evaluations.  Turin’s Perfume Guide is the standard classic on this subject.  Anyone who is with more than a passing interest in perfumes should have it.  I used it to help select some of the fragrances to sample.  I did not consult it in formulating my evaluations.  My evaluations and comments on the fragrances are my own.

Every fragrance listed here I have used on my body.  Most of the time I bought small samples and wore them for a couple of days.  In many cases one day was enough.  My comments are generally spare, mostly little more than a reaction.  In rare cases I have changed my mind after a second try.  Usually I know right away whether I like something or not.  However, perfumes change on the body after some time wearing them.  Some perfumes might start out good and then slide downhill after a couple of hours.  Less often they will start out somewhat negative and then evolve in a pleasing way later on.  All of the fragrances that I tried are marketed as “Men’s” or “Unisex.”  There are women’s fragrances that I like, but since I haven’t worn them or tested them myself, I didn’t think it was appropriate to include them in this list.

I also tried a number of “essential oils” in an effort to sharpen my powers of discernment of the components of a fragrance.  I don’t know that it helped all that much, but I listed my comments on the essential oils as well.

After some debate I decided to list the fragrances in alphabetical order.  This posed some problems because some fragrances are known by the perfume house that created them, but many are known by their trade names, with the name of the manufacturer being less well known.  I have tried to list them by the manufacturer, but some that are better known by their trade name may be listed that way.  If you are looking for something and you don’t find it by the manufacturer, try looking for it by the commercial trade name.

A key to the entries.  If a fragrance has a + after it, that means I like it.  If you see ++, then it means it is on my shopping list, or I may have bought a bottle of it already.  The vast majority of commercial fragrances I do not like and would not wear.  So these reviews are overwhelmingly negative.

Chandler Burr’s estimation of the typical commercial masculine fragrance is as follows:

The surefire formula for making a bestselling masculine seems simply to be mixing together enough dihydromyrcenol (laundry detergent) with the smell of metal garbage can to choke a horse, then topping that with the scent of cryogenically frozen citrus peel dusted with DDT and a whiff of recycled plastic.  Chrome is fit, at 10 percent dilution, for controlling weeds on your lawn.  Aramis makes a fine garage floor sterilizer.  But following a plan of simply pumping out some metallic doesn’t always work.  All sorts of things that smelled of the effluent of arms manufacturing plants were put on the shelves every year and, for some reason, refused to sell.  (Burr, 2007, p. 151)

I’m not as caustic as that, but I understand where he is coming from.  However, what I do like, I like a lot, and I admire expert perfumers who are able to create interesting, unique fragrances that have a pleasing effect.  I plan to update this list from time to time as I try new samples.







Ashenburg, Katherine (2007)  The Dirt on Clean:  An Unsanitized History.  New York:  North Point Press.

Burr, Chandler (2003)  The Emperor of Scent:  A True Story of Perfume and Obsession.  New York:  Random House.

Burr, Chandler (2007)  The Perfect Scent:  A Year inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York.  New York:  Picador/ Henry Holt.

Hadida, Sophie (1932)  Manners for Millions:  A Correct Code for Pleasing Personal Habits for Everyday Men and Women.  New York: Doubleday, Duran & Co.

Miller, Henry (1961)  Tropic of Cancer.  New York:  Grove Press.

Morris, Edwin T.  (1999)  Scents of Time:  Perfume from Ancient Egypt to the 21st Century.  New York, Boston, London:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown & Co.

Turin, Luca and Sanchez, Tania (2009)  Perfumes:  The A-Z Guide.  New York and London:  Penguin Books.

Weatherford, Jack (2004)  Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.  New York:  Three Rivers Press.



The Fragrances




A*Men by Thierry Mugler      Smells like the Wysteria incense my dad used to burn.  But also has a strong vanilla fragrance that becomes dominant.  Very durable.  Too sweet and perfumey for me.  Womanish.  A woman could wear this.


Agonist  Black Amber           Rather light, grassy, hint of vanilla, some wysteria if applied more heavily, vaguely pleasant, not strong, not durable


Agonist  Dark Saphir           Fresh, Soapy, clean, little bit smoky, pleasant, not bad, durable    +     Second time better, more smoky, incense, pungent, good  ++

Agonist Infidels      Smoky, herbal, kind of biting.  Nice.


Amouage Ciel Man          Citrus, lime, fresh, clean, something slightly dark, not strong, not durable


Amouage Epic        Nothing


Amouage Gold      Detergent, stinking, offensive


Amouage Honour         Spicy, smoky, fresh, clean  very durable   + +


Amouage    Journey Man          smoky, spicy, pungent, clean, rather nice.  Softens later on but still retains its spicy character.  Very durable.  Excellent.   ++


Amouage   Jubilation   XXV  Mens        smoky, moderate, durable   + +


Amouage Lyric      Detergent, chemicals, durable


Amouage Memoir     Fresh & light at first, smoky, can’t make up my mind.  Second try:  Negative.


Amouage  Opus VIII               Rancid, watery, rotting vegetables, foul,  not strong, fortunately not durable, threw it out


Amouage Puro  Nejma    Fruity, rich, dark, pungent  Durable   Excellent     + +


Amouage Silver      Moth balls, offensive, choking


Andy Tauer  Lonestar Memories     Stinks  chemicals  detergent  very durable


Anise   — Smells like licorice, but better than licorice.  It has a sweetness and a smokiness, rather pungent.  Very pleasant and fresh.  Could wear it alone.  Fairly durable.  I only used a very little bit.


07-31-14   Tried a bit of anise w a little bit of lime oil on top.  At first it smelled a little rancid, then got itself under control.  The lime seems to freshen and brighten the anise, but the lime disappears quickly, but then occasionally reappears from time to time.  Anise is much stronger and more durable than the lime.  Good mix.



Anubis  Papillon Artisan Perfume          Musky, woody, little spicy, fairly strong, not bad, not durable


Armani    Acqui di Gio — watery, somewhat offensive, very durable, definitely a no


Armani        Light, fresh, little bit spicy, not durable.  So light hardly noticeable.  Don’t really like it.


Armani /Prive  Ambre Soie    Light incense, Pleasant,  not long lasting    +


Aspen         Very nice.  Fresh, woodsy, clean, slightly bitter, but pleasantly so.  The opposite of sweet powdery, perfumey.  Has a kind of tang, but not citrus.  Very interesting.


Bogner Wood Man            Light, pleasant, slightly perfumey.  Not much.


Bulgari Pour Homme —  Light, watery, little bit detergent.  Don’t like it.  Very durable.


Bulgari Aqua Marine Pour Homme          Clean, fresh, watery.  Not offensive but not compelling either.  Fairly durable.


Burberry  Brit — Spicy  >  Old Spice Lite    durable  not bad


Burberry London — Grassy, citrus, light OK, but not much


Burberry  Touch —  Grassy, pungent, watery.  Don’t care for it.


Burberry Weekend            Fresh and clean, little bit grassy, little bit spicy.  Maybe a little bit soapy, but that fades.  Durable.  Rather fresh and pleasant.  Not all that bad.   +


By       Dolce Gabana       Sweet, perfumey, light, slightly watery, little bit sickening.  Not distinctive.  Unfortunately rather durable.  Threw it out.


Calvin Klein  Obsession —  Spicy > Old Spice but light,  OK usable, but not impressive


Canati  — Sweet, musty, pungent > mothballs   don’t like it


Calvin by Calvin Klein           Light, fresh, kind of spicy, reminiscent of new carpet.  Durability only moderate


Carrot seed — Essential oil.  grassy, waxy, little bit sharp, herbal.  Not strong, not durable.


Cuiron Helmut Lang     Nothing.  Couldn’t smell it.  Very indistinct, no character.  Later becomes watery and gains strength.  Very unimpressive.


Cedarwood —  Essential oil.  Heavy, musky, woody.  Without the sweetness and freshness of real cedar.  Not very durable.


Clove bud —  Essential oil.  Smells just like cloves.  Spicy, pungent.  Lovely.


CB I hate Perfumes  Lavender Tea Absolute            Fairly strong  Long lingering   +


Compagnia del Indie  Vetyver       light pleasant   not long lasting


Carven  Vetiver            Nothing much.  OK.


Charvet Cuvee Speciale      Stinks and is durable.  Double negative.


Charvet Cuvee Special         Stinks


Comme de Garcons Avignon    Incense, Smoky, very strong, pungent,  use sparingly  very durable  gets better  ++   Bought larger sample  Very strong, pungent, very durable, Too much.   Sweet.  Threw it out.


Courduroy by Zith        Sweet, perfumy, womanish.  Fairly durable


Clive Christen   X for Men      A little too sweet.  Durable


Clive Christian No. 1 for him          Grassy, stinky.  Nothing.  Short-lived.


Creed Vetyver              Nothing special


Creed Green Irish Tweed —  Grassy, Fresh, clean, later spicy.  Durable.  Nice one.  ++


Creed Royal Water      Grassy, little bit spicy, very light.  Not durable. Unimpressive


D & G Masculine         Spicy, some citrus, rather pungent, little musky,  pleasing, becomes sweeter after a while, somewhat oppressive, quite durable.  I’m giving it a   + but I don’t wear it very much because it’s after effect is so strong and lingering and frankly rubs me the wrong way.  It is much better when you first put it on.  If it would disappear after a couple of hours, I would be much more inclined to wear it.  It makes a good impression, but then hangs around too long.  +


Dark Blue by Hugo      Sort of stinks, sweat plus baby powder,  not durable, fortunately


Davidoff  Hot Water —   Sweet, sickening, threw it out


Davidoff  Cool Water — Spicy, fresh, little bit pungent,  pretty good


Davidoff Cool Water    Edt         Very light, fresh, hint of pine, unimpressive


Declaration by Cartier         Sweet, syrupy, perfumey, sickening, offensive.  Strong, enduring.  After 3 hours had to wash it off, but it still lingered.


Dior Homme         Very light, fresh, little grassy, powdery, womanish, next to nothing, powdery smell becomes stronger.


Donna Karan Fuel Original        Not bad, Nothing special


Dunhill Black           Little grassy, musky, fresh, light,  not impressive, not durable.


English Pear and wild flower — Essential oil.  Strongly soapy, choking,  grows more intense.  Very durable.


Egyptian Musk — Essential oil.  Fresh and clean.  Little bit soapy.  Very light.  Hardly smell it.  Emerges later.  Watery, clean.  Somewhat durable, but fades.


Escada Pour Homme Light Silver Edition      Clean, fresh, slightly smoky,   Not real strong.  Moderately durable  Pleasant.  +


Etro  Messe de Minuit       Smoky, pungent, durable   excellent  + +


Exceptional —    Grassy, light, insubstantial.  Not impressed


Fennel — Essential oil.  Pungent, sharp, spicy, clean > anise.  Later becomes sort of toasty, but sweet.  Durable.


Frank No. 1    Frank Los Angeles         Fresh, clean, herbal, fruit > grape juice? little bit smoky.  Nice.  Not strong.  Not durable.  Unimpressive.


Frankincense — Essential oil.  Light, clean, woodsy, not much.  At first I could hardly smell it at all.  After about half an hour a beautiful smoky, wood fragrance emerges.  It is not strong, but it is marvelous.  An exhilarating surprise.


French Lavender —  Essential oil.  Fresh, clean, musky, very light at first but grows stronger and lasts all day.  Becomes spicy, little bit smoky.  Very pleasant.


Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur edp      Urine plus Vanilla


Fueguia 1833   Darwin    Fresh, clean, woodsy > pine,  nice,  good one   fairly durable   ++  I’m going to get this one.  Excellent.


Fueguia  1833     Otro Peoma de los Dones   Musky, dusky, rotting leaves, not much


Fueguia 1833    Pulperia         Grassy, pungent, sharp, smoky, different, not bad, sort of fresh and clean, interesting, not real durable  +


Givenchy Eau de Vetyver        Musty  Durable


Grey Flannel    Musky, pungent, little bit grassy, decomposing vegetation, Little bit stinking, little bit shit, musty, Smells like a horse barn, but without the sweetness of hay.  There is a vague medicinal quality, but it is very remote.  Becomes somewhat soapy.  Don’t really like this, but it is wearable.

Gucci Pour Homme  (2003)   Smoky, pungent, strong, but not overwhelming, use sparingly, durable.  Very good one.  Discontinued.  Has become expensive on the secondary market.   ++

Guerlain  Apres L’Ondee   Edt   Very fresh and clean, kind of spicy, earthy.  Little bit sweet.  Maybe a hint of citrus.  Well balanced.  Sort of womanish.  The sweetness seems to grow, but does not become too much.  The earthiness holds it in check.  I wouldn’t buy it, but it is very pleasant.  Fairly durable.  Luca Turin likes this one.  +


Guerlain  Bois  D’Armenie           Vanilla  Pleasant, sweet


Guerlain  Derby            Grassy, fresh, very light, hint of pine, not much


Guerlain  Jicky   EDP        Grassy, little bit pine, clean, light, unimpressive


Guerlain  Mitsouko   EDP       Musky >  Patchouli  Fresh, not strong, not impressive


Guerlain  Mitsouko   Edt        Little bit Pine, Little bit Musky, little bit horseshit, not real strong, not to my taste


Geurlain Sous le Vent        Stinks


Guerlain Vetyver          Stinks



Halston Z12  New bottle 08-14    Little grassy, little musky, little rough like sandpaper, not sweet, powdery, flowery, or perfumey at all.  Totally unwomanish.  Not real strong.  There’s a freshness to it.  Clean smelling but not soapy.  As it goes on becomes stronger and more pungent.  The freshness and lightness disappears.  I like it rather less after an hour or so.  Becomes detergent-like.  Astringent.   Very durable and exceedingly strong.  I don’t like this.  I think I am going to throw it out.


Helmut Lang Cuiron       Almost nonexistent.  Very light.  Pleasant.  Practically nothing.


Hermessence Poivre Samarchande    Nothing


Hermessence Vetiver Tonka    Light grassy, fresh, not durable


Histoires Parfums  1740     Woodsy, herbal, rotting vegetation, strong, not durable


Histoires Parfums 1899      Little spicy, maybe citrus, little musky,  not strong. Later spicy vanilla.  Pleasant.  Just a whisper.  Not strong, but has some durability.


Histoires Parfums  Vidi          Watery, soapy, little herbal, light.  Herbal grows stronger and later dominates.  Little bit spicy or smoky.  Durable.  Interesting mix, but too soapy for me.


Hyssop — Essential oil.  Turpentine, Eucalyptus, pungent.  Later softens, less astringent, vaguely sweet.  Rather nice.


Intoxicated  Killian   Little spicy, maple syrup, pancakes, not strong, not durable


Jean Paul Gautier Le Male —  Vanilla, womanish  don’t like it


Jo Malone Ambr & Lavender     Nothing special


Jo Malone  Lime Basil & Mandarin   Fruity, lime, clean, little bit sweet, on the light side, not impressed


Juniper — Essential oil.  Woodsy, musky, fresh, reminiscent of pine, but the muskiness and woodsiness give it a different character


Kinski  Eau de Toilette      chemicals, sweat, mildly offensive, vaguely fresh  durable


Kinski       Eau de Toilette            grassy, soapy, musky, hint of pine, rather pungent, not offensive, but not to my taste, after a while somewhat fresh, watery, not bad as a change of pace, fairly durable   Second try.  Do not like this.  Rancid.  Grassy.  Offensive.


Knize Ten    Grassy, little bit shit, or decomposing vegetation.  Pungent shit smell grows stronger with time.  Fortunately not real durable.


L’Art de la Guerre  Jovoy   Clean, minty, perhaps a little musky, not strong, not durable.  Not much.


Lanvin  Vetyver    Light, pleasant


Le Labo   Santl 33        Little grassy, little watery, little musky, fresh, not strong, not durable


L’occitane Vetyver      Light, almost nonexistent


Lubin Idole Edt         Nothing


Lubin   Korrigan       Musky, incense, rotting leaves, not strong, becomes softer, sweet, finally kind of powdery, womanish, durable.


MEMO    Quartieer Latin      Little bit sweet, flowery, musky, not strong.


MDCI Ambre Topkapi      Light  Citrus, Fresh  Not much


Mohave Ghost   Byredo Parfums    Herbal, little watery, little musky, light, not distinctive


Montale Dark Aoud          chemicals, detergent, but clean smelling   durable


Moroccan Myrrh — Essential oil.  Sweet, spicy, extremely light.  Can hardly smell it.  Later it emerges.  Sweet.  Maybe a little herbal.  Pleasant.   Fairly durable.


Narciso Rodriguez Musc for Him    Oily, grassy,  not much


Oakmoss — Essential oil. Musky, decaying vegetation, leaves, little bit watery.  Very light at first.  Pungent.  Does not emerge.  Not durable.  Very minimal.


Odin    10  Roam     Vanilla, sweet, musky, perfumey, not strong, not durable


Odin Tanoke         Grassy, charcoal, pungent  +


Old Spice    Spicy, somewhat smoky, subdued sweetness which emerges later on, pungent, clean and fresh, fairly durable.  One of my all time favorites.  Cheap, but very distinctive.  ++


Oregano — Essential oil.  smells like oregano, musty, heavy.  Not real durable.  Unimpressive.


Oriental Kush —  Essential oil.  Heavy, flowery, incense, sweet, kind of womanish.


Ormonde  Jayne Isfarkand   Very light, non existent


Oud  — Essential oil. Musky, dusky, little bit watery.  Not real strong.  Increases somewhat with time and becomes perhaps a little more pleasant.  Woody.


Parfum d’Empire Ambre Russe        Smoky, pungent, very durable   Excellent  + +


Parfum d’Empire    Fougere Bengale        Syrupy, little but smoky, not impressed


Paris LA   Lab on Fire       Citrus, lime, fresh, bright, little watery, maybe mint.  Becomes somewhat more watery, and sweeter, mild powder, but retains the citrus element.  Not particularly durable.  Nice but weak.


Pi by Givenchy      Very sweet, womanish, cheap, tacky, tasteless woman, vanilla.  Over much.  Can’t stand it.  Threw it out.


Prada Pour Homme            Spicy, little bit sweet, reminiscent of baby powder, but not offensive, very light, not durable, unimpressive


Profumum Eccelso          Light Pleasant  not durable or distinctive


Profumium Fumidus         Smells like rotting potato skins, then later turns smoky.  Not half bad.  Very durable.


Profumum  Olibdanum       Grassy  Musky  mildly offensive


Puig  Vetyver               Nothing  Unimpressive


Ramon  Monegal    Agar  Musk          fresh, light, grassy, watery, pleasant, not strong, very durable, don’t like it


Robert Piguet  Vintage Bandit  Edt   Grassy, motor oil, little bit shit, mildly offensive, not strong, not durable.


Rosemary — Essential oil.  Pungent > Turpentine or Eucalyptus, can feel in sinuses.  Not durable.  Not strong.


Rosewood — Essential oil.  At first nothing.  Couldn’t smell it.  Applied a moderate amount.  Once it is on the skin the scent begins to emerge.  A little bit pine, a little bit woody.  Fresh and clean.  Not real strong.  Seems to develop after a while.  Slight sweet smell emerges freshened by the woodiness.  Hint of anise could be left over from yesterday although I washed my neck well this morning.  Overall, nice, subtle.  Not a strong impact.


Salvatore Ferragamo Subtil Pour Homme        Fresh, clean, light, a little grassy.  Not durable.  Nothing special.


Salvador Dali  Purple Light         Mothballs, disinfectant.   Fairly durable.


Santal Carmin   Atelier Cologne     Smoky, incense, wysteria, very light at first.  Grows stronger and becomes somewhat powdery.  Pleasant, but too sweet and womanish for me.


Sassafras —  Essential oil.  When I was a kid, sometimes when we visited my cousin we would walk up on the wooded hill behind the town where he lived.  We would pull up sassafras saplings and cut the roots off them and bring them home to boil and make tea.  The tea was awful.  But the smell of the sassafras roots was wonderful.  It was a sweet, pungent, clean, woody fragrance.  This oil is nothing like that. It is like someone took that sassafras fragrance and painted over it with a translucent gray paint.  It is very muted and subdued compared to real sassafras.  It is reminiscent of pine and shoe leather.  It is clean, but not very strong, not real durable, and nothing like real sassafras which is exhilarating.


Serge Lutens    Ambre Sultan          Smoky,  incense, vanilla, little bit pungent, kind of sweet, womanish, at first I liked it but turned against it.  Arabie is better


Serge Lutens   Arabie     Strong, pungent, spicy, hint maple syrup, hint of leaves, pretty good.  Fairly durable +


08-08-14  A dark, rich, pungent fragrance.  Strong tea.  Maybe Anise covered w maple syrup or marmalade, a hint of apricot or pomegranate, something vaguely fruity, but way in the background, not pronounced.  Compelling.  Interesting.  Wonderful.  ++   A couple of websites that had this for sale called it “Arabie for Women.”  It does not say “for women” on the box it came in or on the label on the bottle.  I regard it as a masculine fragrance because of its depth, complexity, and richness, although I suppose a woman could wear it.  It would be sexy and alluring on a woman.


06-01-15    It has become one of my favorites.


Serge Lutens   Chergui    Musky, herbal, not strong, quickly gives way to soft powder.  Not durable.  Womanish.


Serge Lutens  De Profundis      Musty grassy repugnant


Serge Lutens    Enscense et Lavande      Light, fresh, clean.  Turns smoky.  Not very durable  +


Serge Lutens Fourreau Noir        Smoky, rather strong,  very durable  compliment from a girl   ++


Serge Lutens  Gris Clair        Smoky quality that grows   +

Sergei Lutens Muscs Kublai Khan        Musky like dust not durable


Serpentine   Comme des Garcons       Medicinal, alcohol, little grassy, not much.


Sexiest Scent on the Planet Ever    Tuesdays      Musky, spicy, cloves, hint of mint.  Later on becomes smoky, clove scent grows, > incense.  Fairly durable.  I wouldn’t call this sexual but it is very good.  ++


Simply Belle (free sample)   Fresh, clean, watery, hint of smoke, little bit soapy.  Not bad.  I usually don’t like this kind of a fragrance, but I don’t mind this.  Soapiness increases as we go along — a negative.  Fairly durable.  +


S-Perfumes   S-ex      Fresh, clean, musky, woodsy, rather light,  vague hint of sweetness or flowers, hint of something herbal: maybe coriander, nutmeg, patchouli?   Grows stronger, rather spicy, interesting. +


Tauer  L’air du desert Moroccan            Pungent, not bad


Terre D’Hermes        Grassy, fresh, very light.  You have to use a goodly amount.  It does linger, becomes somewhat pungent.  Not half bad.

Tom Ford  Bois Morcaine       Light, grassy not much


Tom Ford Grey Vetiver — Grassy, light, not much, hardly noticeable


Tom Ford   Patchouli Absolu    Pungent, smoky, woodsy, strong, very nice, durable.  ++


Tom Ford   Private Blend Tobacco Vanilla         Strong vanilla odor  sweet  womanish    fairly durable


True Lavender —  Essential oil.  Clean, herbal, little medicinal, somewhat pungent.  Evolves into smooth, polished blend.  Spicy, slightly sweet.  Very nice.


Une Nuit Magnetique  Different Company      Flowery plus rotting vegetation.  Sweet shit.  Interesting mix.  The sweetness is not overly so and held in check by the earthiness.  The whole thing is not very strong.  Not durable.  Rather weak.


Une Rose de Kandahar  Tauer          Floral, little bit smoky, little bit sweet.  Nice  Not strong. Turns powdery, but still retains some smokiness.  Not durable.


White Amber — Essential oil.  Practically nothing.  Musky, little watery.  Can hardly smell it.  Becomes more decisively watery.  Unimpressive.  Not durable.


Wit   Parfums Delrae            Clean, somewhat choking,  > moth balls, detergent, musky.  softens later, becomes less astringent, somewhat powdery.  Not terribly appealing, very durable.  Lasts all day.


Versace Blue Jeans   Very light, little bit sweet, little bit powdery,  little bit musky, not impressed.  Later, increasingly sweet and powdery.  Womanish.  Dislike.  Moderately durable     Threw it out.


Yves Saint Laurent Body Kouros      Smoky, but a little too sweet,  durable


Yves Saint Laurent La Nuit de la Homme — Smoky, spicy, rather light, not impressive

About Elly — Movie Review

By Michael Ferguson

About Elly

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

This is a contrived, manipulative, ridiculous piece of melodramatic fluff that provides a very uncomplimentary depiction of Iranian culture.  If you think American culture is bad — and I do — this is much worse.  No wonder a simple weekend outing turns into a grotesque nightmare.  These people are intolerable.  They can’t do anything right.  Everything they do is stupid from beginning to end.  Part of the problem is that the filmmaker seems to be improvising the story line as he goes along.  He’s got a boring subject with boring people and he keeps looking for ways to jazz it up and keep the audience from falling asleep or getting up and leaving.  Nothing is convincing, though, and the outcome does not make sense and is so unconvincing that I would argue that Elly is not really dead and the idiot that looked at her body in the morgue misidentified her.

The film is Iranian.  It is in Persian with subtitles.  One of the features of Iranian culture that I discerned from this film is that it is a group culture, where one’s participation in the group is more important than one’s individuality.  It is a busybody culture where the group knows everyone’s personal business and is very much involved in regulating and directing the personal life of each member.  I wouldn’t be able to stand it, and in fact, it is exactly that feature of this group culture that gives rise to all the conflicts that make up the substance of the film, if you want to call it that.

Another difficulty, from a western observer’s point of view, is that this group culture makes it difficult to get to know the members of the group as individuals.  You come away from this film not really knowing who the characters are, with one exception that I will mention later.  Everything is done in a group and even conversations are group conversations.  The conversation goes on with all members of the group participating at once.  So when you read the subtitles, it is hard to connect the subtitles to the particular individuals making the utterances, because they are coming so fast and almost at once.  As the film goes on, individual personalities begin to emerge, but “character” in the usual sense that we understand in a western film is decidedly downplayed.

The subtitles must have been done by someone who is not a native speaker of English.  What gives this away is a discussion they had about someone “ululating” during some horseplay the night before.  How many Americans know what “ululating” is?  It suggests that somebody found the word in the dictionary, but didn’t really understand how (rarely) it is used.

The film is marred by a number of arbitrary turns whose only purpose seems to be to create melodrama, like leaving young children unattended on a hazardous beach when there are about eight adults present who could watch them.  This is what I mean about these people being dumb.  They’re careless, shortsighted and irresponsible — not to mention manipulative and deceitful.  They have all kinds of hang-ups about women and personal relationships.  They get into these huge squabbles over small interpersonal trifles.  It’s very tiresome.  They’re uncivilized.  If you want to watch a bunch of morons argue and bicker and fight amongst themselves about a bunch of nothing, then this is the movie for you.

There is one beautiful woman who has potential as an actress in this film.  Golshifteh Farahani who played Sepideh in the film is a gorgeous woman with beautiful captivating eyes.  It is unfortunate that she had to play this badly written role in this lousy movie, but she has the magnetism and the physical presence as well as the skill to be a heavyweight in a really good film.  But she is not enough to make this film worth sitting through.  I hope she will get a better chance in something else.


Deep Web — Film Review

By Michael Ferguson

Deep Web

Directed by Alex Winter



This is a partisan, advocacy film that champions the legal cause of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of heading the website Silk Road, which was the E-bay or Amazon of every imaginable illegal drug on the internet.  I was rather dissatisfied with the film from beginning to end.  The film is naive and hypocritical and its audience is basically Silicon Valley tech nerds and people who want to buy and sell illegal drugs on the internet.

I have been cynical about the so-called “War on Drugs” since it was declared by Nixon in 1971 and amplified by Reagan in the 1980s.  The film is not about the longstanding folly of the misguided Drug War.  It is narrowly focused on the case of Ross Ulbricht, who in my view is simply another casualty of this poorly conceived governmental policy.  Ulbricht and his collaborators tried to set up a website that could be used anonymously to traffic in illegal drugs.  Well, the government found out about it, hatched an undercover operation, and brought it down and arrested Ulbricht.  It is probably true that the government used illegal means in its assault on the Silk Road.  It is probably true that Ross Ulbricht’s trial was not fair, that the government fabricated evidence, trumped up false charges, tried to smear him in the media and so bias the trial against him.  But this is standard procedure in these drug cases.  The filmmakers are shocked and appalled that the government would behave this way.  But this has been going on for decades in this country and there are thousands, perhaps more than a million people in jail in this country who were put there the same way.  Why do they think there have been riots recently in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore?  What do they think of all the unrest all across the country about police heavy handedness and brutality?

I have never regarded anything that is done or communicated over the internet as private:  e-mail, “chat,” business transactions, anything bought or sold, anything looked at, shopped for, searched for, read, photographs, pornography, anything.  My attitude is that there is no such thing as anonymity or privacy on the internet.  So my expectations are extremely low.  Everything can be recorded, everything can be saved, everything can be traced.  Nothing is secret.  Don’t even think about it.

The people who invented the Silk Road and other similar sites, as well as the filmmakers, don’t believe this.  They think that secrecy on the internet is possible, that anonymity is possible, that it can be mechanically constructed and preserved indefinitely.  But the case of Ross Ulbricht demonstrates that a determined adversary can thwart such illusions.  It is a chess game that can probably go on forever.  But it does not really interest me.  If you really want secrecy and privacy, keep it off your computer and pay in cash.  It is very easy, and very old fashioned.

Ross Ulbricht, the filmmakers, and the intended audience are mostly white, upper middle class younger people who grew up in a comfortable bubble playing video games and never really knew what was going on around them.  Suddenly they are waking up to find that they can’t freely buy marijuana and other drugs that they want.  But the United States has been moving toward a fascistic, authoritarian governmental system for at least fifty years.  It is a very steady progression that can be seen and measured by anyone who cares to look carefully.  Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency for ordering a burglary into the offices of his political rivals.  At the time that was considered a great vindication of the justice and righteousness of the American system.  Today Obama orders extrajudicial murders all around the world, even of American citizens, and no one bats an eye.  It’s just another day in the news.

In 1970 there were less than 200,000 people in prison in the United States.1   Now (2007), according to the Pew Research Center, there are 2.3 million incarcerated, and if you count all the people on parole and probation it comes to 7.3 million.2  Do the filmmakers care about all of those people?  No.  They care about Ross Ulbricht because he is one of their own.  He is white, upper middle class, and a techie.  But the film is also naive about Ross Ulbricht.  They paint him as a kind of libertarian idealist, who set up this website where people could buy and sell illegal drugs for the good of humanity.  They give an inordinate amount of time to Ross Ulbricht’s mother and father, who are squarely in his camp.  What they did not do was follow the money.  How much money did Ross Ulbricht make running the Silk Road, and where is it?  They never bothered to ask themselves that question.

I wish the film had been a more comprehensive exposition of the so called “Deep Web,” websites that are not readily accessible with the usual browsers and require special anonymizing software to gain access.  I have no knowledge of this aspect of the internet and would be curious to see how it works and see a broad overview of the kinds of communications and transactions that are carried on within it and who uses it.  But this film was not educational, although it did lament that the vast majority of computer and internet users have no understanding of the deep web and how to use and access it.  But the film did nothing to dispel that ignorance and incapacity.  It actually made it seem all the more remote and inaccessible for the average computer user.

This film is very insular.  It is for tech insiders, not a general audience.  It champions the cause of a rather dubious individual engaged in flagrantly illegal activities.  It is mostly oblivious to social and political trends that have been going on in the United States for a very long time.  It represents a kind of awakening for people who have been asleep and who are suddenly realizing to their shock and horror that the world they live in is nothing like the world of their dreams.  I was not impressed with it at all.

We have a government that has kept people in Guantanamo prison for over a decade without charges, without a judicial hearing of any kind, contrary to the Geneva conventions to which it is a signatory, and contrary to our own constitution, and legal tradition going back to the Magna Carta.  It kidnaps people off the street, renditions them to foreign countries where they are held anonymously in secret prisons and tortured.  And you expect this government to respect your privacy?  Who do you think you are kidding?  Our government wants secrecy for itself, but not for you.  They would love to get their talons into Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, just like they did to Chelsea Manning.  They can come after you any time they want for any reason or no reason.  All citizens and non citizens are vulnerable in a society where the government does not abide by its own laws, does not respect its own constitution, and allows the executive and the police to rule by decree.  This is the consistent trend in the United States over a very long period of time.  I have watched this progression over the course of my life time.  Things are not getting better.  They are getting worse.  And I don’t think this small group of bold, tech savvy hackers is going to change that long term trend.  The forces behind it are powerful and deeply entrenched. The monster is more likely to do itself in before they will.  Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 4, 2015.





1.  Unlocking America:  Why and How to Reduce American’s Prison Population.  JFA Associates, November 2007.

2.   Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2009