The Sultans of Bling

Back in the day, societies were dutifully impressed by man’s ability to build great structures, including the judicious use of single monolithic pieces of granite, shaped meticulously into 30-meter high stone representations of the sun’s rays. These obelisks, or “needles” adorned opulent entryways to magnificent temples of the ancient world’s eminent rulers. The two-dozen or so of these monumental marvels remained in place for thousands of years until sought by the planet’s great 19th century cities. Transported at great human risk and financial expense they were given new homes in the centers of the modern world’s most illustrious capitals, befitting their legacy while bringing prestige and legitimacy to their new proprietors. Fabricating structures with the staying power to cause international government clamor after three millennia is what I would call a job well done: The creation of an all-enduring celebrated brand.

Fast-forward about three thousand and three hundred years to today, from the peak of Egypt’s prosperity to the tipping point of one of the world’s newest rich countries: The United Arab Emirates. As the “New Kingdom” of Egypt had prospered from the benefits of consolidating a vast, sprawling empire, the Emirates built their kingdom on oil. However, while some Emirates, such as Abu Dhabi, have significant oil resources remaining, Dubai’s is draining, causing the state to invest in potential new sources of future revenues.

Enter the City of Gold: Dubai is betting on bling and flirting with flamboyance as it rolls the dice on creating the world’s gilded gateway to the Middle East. Trading people for oil, it gambles all on grandstanding. The Emirati solution is tourism and financial services—if Dubai builds it, they will come. In an ever-competitive global environment everyone wants a chunk of tourism’s disposable income, so what do tourists want? What will bring them to the middle of the arid desert, slap in the middle of a constantly war-ravaged region of the planet? Gambling and booze? No, can’t do that on religious grounds. Vegas can keep that niche. The climate? Noooo. A rich history of culture and antiquities? Not much to offer in that department, so Rome, Greece, Egypt, Jordan et al. go at it.

The answer became abundantly clear: Dubai Disney for Dad—in a sense, and for Mom too. Not just some adult theme park, but the biggest, grandest, crowd-drawing playground imaginable. That is why the city has an endless list of Guinness entries for tallest anything, biggest most things, heaviest things you wouldn’t immediately appreciate, and most expensive things that you may possibly comprehend. For example, in the planet’s largest Mosque outside of Mecca, the world’s costliest by the way, there is the world’s largest rug, heaviest chandelier, and largest outdoor air-conditioned floor. The height thing is simply slayed here: leaving your room in the world’s tallest hotel you can go take the world’s fastest elevator up the world’s tallest building. Note to Dubai: I still had to wait a while for the world’s fastest elevator; maybe we need more of them? After that, you can go spend in the world’s largest shopping mall, peek at the world’s largest indoor aquarium, and afterwards wait in the world’s longest taxi line. Trip Advisor would’ve got my like for fastest taxi line, just sayin’. By any account, Dubai’s edificious erectus skills and resources are enviable and its construction prowess formidable. There truly is something magnificent here for everyone, though personally I like mountains, but didn’t want to say. Built to impress mankind, maybe Dubai isn’t that different from Ancient Egypt after all. I’m left thinking, where will these marvelous, costly record-breaking artifacts be three thousand years from now?

Photos Clockwise: The tallest hotel in the world has two immense towers, well why not? Early morning view from the balcony on the 59th floor.  The record-breaking Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Burj Khalifa.

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Fine China and Steak Knives

In David Mamet’s new play, China Doll, Al Pacino owned the stage. His acting was dynamic as he took his audience with him on an emotive grand tour, from whimpering sincere remorse to booming rancorous anger, from doting older-gent gallantry to cutthroat business tycoon-ery. From serene to severe, Pacino can project all levels of fervency, but while he effectively plays placid his calling is intensity.

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He nailed the mostly likeable role of the past-his-prime but kindhearted Danny Collins in the 2015 Dan Fogelman aging rock star movie. He was suave and persuasive as Ricky Roma, the top hotshot salesman in the 1992 movie adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Twenty years later in the Broadway run of Glengarry, Pacino effectively played the part of the washed up salesman Shelley Levine previously played by Jack Lemmon. Some critics hammered him in that role but what do they know, I thought he was great.

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However, for me, he truly shines in the crazier, more manic roles, such as the hapless Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon or the calculating Michael Corleone in The Godfather. And certainly he had many manic moments in Mamet’s rambling, what-the-hell-was-he-thinking play, China Doll. How an experienced playwright can go from the creative, captivating brilliance of Glengarry to the infertile desert of China Doll I do not know. But Pacino made it fascinating and entertaining: He held it together.

Maybe the differences between superb and second-rate are actually incredibly small, as in genome sequencing, where only one percent is the disparity between King George and Curious George. Perhaps Glengarry was just a chromosome away from failure as China Doll is from perfection. But clearly Glengarry gets the Cadillac and China gets the steak knives.

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So I’ve had a bit of an Al Pacino fest this past month. After seeing him from the first row in China Doll on Broadway I re-watched a few of his movies. Although, most unfortunately, my daughter made me watch that lowbrow Adam Sandler flick Jack and Jill where Pacino fabulously makes a fool of himself as Dunkaccino. Then in Sicily I had to go to where it all started: the real-life rustic town of Corleone. It’s a bit of a trek over dodgy roads but when you get there it’s worth it—there’s an old Godfather poster hanging outside a bar next to the town square and inside you can order a drink called the Pacino. But I prefer something with caffeine, because coffee is for closers. For food, I like revenge, a dish that tastes best when served cold.

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The Flagellation of Caravaggio

People I consider genius have exceptional skills mainly in the capacities of analysis and execution. They are usually disruptive, could be called “game changers,” and their services become increasingly sought after. One could refer to them as anti-establishment where their central tenet is the successful challenge of a norm or accepted process. Those who defy existing power structures and introduce new techniques or technologies that change dramatically our life experiences are generally hailed as champions. However, there are those who have all the attributes of brilliance but additionally have some undesirable form of personality disorder that distracts from their crowning achievements. Ultimately, due to unsavory behavior, they end up throwing it all away. Self-destructive traits can involve excessive violence, substance or alcohol abuse, trouble with the law and general repeat stupidity. I’m not referring to the footballer Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne, the actor Charlie Sheen, or the singer Amy Winehouse, but to the magnificent Italian artist Michelangelo Merigi da Caravaggio, who is known solely as Caravaggio. However, by most reports, Caravaggio was more of a schmuck than a vag. He ended up veering off the rails and dying tragically at a young age in mysterious circumstances.

In the early 1600s, his paintings literally changed the artistic landscape (pun intended). Before Caravaggio, the “establishment” included the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Borghese, and Buonarroti. By comparison, contemporary works by his peers look as though a government commission or a local council sub committee designed them on one of those peculiar weekend offsite teambuilding sessions. For example, consider The Adoration of the Child by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, which is fairly typical pre-Vag. This composition contains no fewer than twenty-six over-dressed attractive adults, more than twenty cherub-like angels, including a small angel brass section and guitar duet, the subject baby, and about ten boats moored in the harbor in the background. It teems with extraneous detail as the artist endeavors to use every color on his palette: Only God and a parting sky are missing from this opus.

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Enter the Vag: As Eddie Van Halen did for rock guitar and Steve Jobs did for mobile phones, Caravaggio turned his industry upside down. He dramatically eliminated backgrounds, focusing on photo-like action of a handful of central actors while minimizing science fiction in his arrangements. His proprietary techniques incorporating intense light and shadows combined with his vivid lifelike rendering of flesh and skin drew the viewer into the canvased scene like no one had before, as shown here in The Flagellation of Christ. His choice of models underpinned the unprecedented realism, featuring ordinary people plucked from the street, warts and all, in key character roles.

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As his depictions gained prominence his unique approach drew growing criticism from some in the art world; for illustrating down-to-earth attributes such as dirty feet and grubby hands. All the while Vag was a bit of a handful, getting into violent encounters with his peers and frequently thrown in jail as he continued to paint and buck the establishment with his likenesses. He stealthily started including hidden messages and themes in his portraits and frequently featured his own image as one of the characters. His penchant for irreverence and individuality caused clients to reject his works on several occasions.

There are approximately sixty Caravaggio canvases in existence and I have been most fortunate to view about half of them in various venues in Berlin, Florence, Naples, New York, Paris, Rome, Sicily, and Vienna. While many are in prestigious museums, some are still displayed in their original locations where they were commissioned, representing fabulous opportunities to view these masterpieces in their intended settings.

My personal favorite, Madonna of Loreto, was ordered as the key alter piece for the prosperous Marquis Ermete Cavalletti’s family burial chamber in Rome’s Church of Saint Agostino. The requirement, as communicated to Caravaggio, was to honor the Marquis’s devotion and admiration of The Virgin Mary showing her divine presence with the Christ Child in a vision during pilgrimages to the Holy House of Loreto. Unfortunately for the Marquis, he died before the work was completed and ended up getting something slightly different: Himself and his mother represented as praying pilgrim peasants clothed in rags complete with dirty feet worshipping Lena the neighborhood whore, striking a solicitous pose while clutching her bastard child. Furthermore the doorway was that of the Vag located in Rome. The painting still hangs above the grave today and the joke has been on the Marquis for the past 400 years.

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Here, in a dramatic reconstruction, my lovely wife plays the part of Lena the prostitute aka the Virgin Mary posing in the pockmarked doorway of Caravaggio’s dodgy apartment in Rome. It was my intention to kneel and pray like the Marquis for this rendering but there was dog shit everywhere.

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