Heart of a Dog, encore

February 26, 2010

This Russian film adaptation of Bugakov’s Heart of a Dog is really quite wonderful.  It faithfully presents the book, almost word for word it seems, and adds a few scenes for context and emphasis that are not in the novel.  At first, it seemed a bit tedious, too faithful to the text, but once Sharikov, the dog-become-man, starts wreaking havoc with the settled life of the good doctor, it’s great.  In fact, I think that the movie enhances the novel in some ways, using costumes and sound to sharpen the satirical jabs at class conflict comedy in the young Soviet state.

In the image above, we see the doctor, a bourgeois Frankenstein, having a heart-to-heart with his creation, who has taken the full name, Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov.  Sometimes a dog has wisdom to impart to a graduate of Moscow University, if only he would listen!

Like any good citizen, Sharikov needs his papers to be in order.  You must be ‘registered’ to live in Moscow!  But once he is registered, he is subject to conscription in the militia.  Sharikov, with the heart of a dog and the soul of a street hoodlum, has no interest in fighting.  The house tenant director tells him, ” You are lacking in political consciousness, comrade!”  What’s a dog, er man, to do.  On one side, harried by stuffed shirts who live “like they are always on parade,” and on the other, slogan-spouting party politicals.

In the end,  the doctor has had enough, so he and his assistant fix things up.  Everything is returned to its natural order, and peace reigns once again in the doctor’s flat.  Man and dog are happy.

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Krazy Architecture Critic

February 8, 2010

click image for full strip

From it’s completion in 1913 until about 1930, the Woolworth Building, funded by all those drugstore nickels and dimes across the country, was the world’s tallest.  A “cathedral of commerce” it was promptly dubbed, and a monument it truly is.  The entire facade is clad in white terracotta, intricately sculpted in a dizzying array of ornamental shapes.  The lobby is a stunning melange of gothic and byzantine sytles, with gorgeous gold and azure blue mosaics.  Every little piece of architectural furninture is created with brilliant gothic detail.

The structure was built quickly, and paid for in cash.  Click on the drawing here, from The Building of Manhattan by Donald MacKay, to get a detailed view of the innovative foundations that hold it all up.  (I heartily recommend this book for any urban infrastructure fanatics.)  The topmost surface of the bedrock in Manhattan is not on an even plane; it dips and rises in folds.  To some extent, this subsurface geology is responsible for the clustering of high-rises in midtown and downtown, with a relative slough in between.  The bedrock on the Woolworth site was said to be deep, too deep to excavate the entire pit down that far, so the caisson tubes were sunk instead.  Well, deep is a relative term, and what was deep in 1913 might not pose a problem today.  Thus, I daily watch over the huge “bathtub” of the World Trade Center site, excavated down to bedrock.  (See this post for a video a bedrock blast.)

Here are two views of the tower from the conference room where I work.  Nowadays, here in the United States of Fear, you can no longer visit the lobby of this great building.  Since 9/11, a sign posted on the sidewalk warns away tourists, and guards won’t let you in the door.  Yep, I’m sure those Islamic terrorists are busy scouring the AIA Guide to NYC for landmarks to target.

The golden ball on a pedestal is on the top of the AT&T Building, the lobby of which is shown below.  The building was erected in stages:  in 1927 the Broadway portion, faced in white, severe and enormous Doric columns was finished.  The entry is a vast space with the feel of a temple, and includes a memorial to the dead of WWI.  The contrast with the Woolworth Building, just across the street,  is extreme

And while we’re at it, here’s a Krazy Kat strip illustrating the need for gun control.


Moscow – 1920s

February 6, 2010


“The more I learn of men, the more I like my dog.”

Frederick the Great

Heart of a Dog was written in 1925 by Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, but wasn’t published in Russia until the 1980s.  No wonder – if it had been, that would have been the end of Mikhail!  The main problem with this book is that it is so short!  Yes, short and and with a terrific punch, but a little longer would have been so much fun!  The satire is furious and ferocious!

The first part of the story is mostly told from the point of view of the dog, Sharik (a dog’s name, like Spot), a street mangy mutt.  Dogs are smarter than we know – he can read a bit, understands Russian, and has his own limited philosophy of life.  He’s taken in by a famous medical doctor who has been doing some shady experiments rejuvenating people’s sexual powers with unusual operations.

While growing fat and healthy away from the perils of the street, Sharik regards the good doctor as the Godhead from whom all good tasting things come.  He is fitted with a collar and taken for walks, resenting the implications of servitude at first, but quickly noting that to be collared by such fine people is a mark of status.  “Why, a collar is the same as a briefcase,” he quips to himself.  Good dog!

The doctor’s coup is to transform Sharik into a man by transplanting the pituatary gland and testicles of a dead criminal into his body.  The transformation happens pretty quickly – does the man who results have the heart of a dog, or are men really dogs at heart? – and it inflicts on the bourgeois doctor his own version of Frankenstein’s torment.  What has he created?  A vile, swearing, brutish, partisan of the proletariat who rants about Lenin and Engels at him over dinner.  The dog is more radical than they are:  “Just count everything and divide it up!”  The doctor orders his maid to burn the copy of Engels that Sharik brought into his house – a dangerous move in those days.

This is the USSR c. 1925 – peoples’ cooperatives are everywhere.  The doctor is not a sympathizer.  His “social origins” are not of the best. What of Sharik’s?  However would one explain them?  There is the constant problem of proper documents.  Sharik adopts the name of Polygraph Polygraphovitch Sharik, and wants to get dutifully registered with the authorities.  The governing committee of the apartment block has questions for the doctor:  Why does he live alone in seven rooms?  Who is this Sharik person – an illegitimate son?  Awful rumours fly, the doctor’s practice is disrupted, his life becomes a living hell.  Sharik gains a livelihood as the head of the unit that catches and destroys stray cats in Moscow, and he seems to fit right in.  The new Soviet man?  He smells abominably.  The dog must go!

There is a very good film adaptation of the novel, discussed briefly here.


Krazy – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Click for full strip

Crazy about Krazy!  The more I read, the more I love it.  He plays endlessly with ideas, the meaning of words, illusion and reality.  There is satire of politics, intellectuals, and wildly inventive disruptions of the panel scheme – nothing is out of bounds.  Krazy bleaches himself white, Ignatz must dye himself black.  Ignatz sees a portrait of Krazy – zip! a brick hurtles towards it.  Yet Krazy loves the little angel, Ignatz.  Is he male, female?  Ignatz is married, with children!  What planet do they inhabit!?

And that wonderfully simple answer to all questions comic – a brick to the head to crease Krazy’s bean!


Berlin – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Jason Lutes’ first of his trilogy, Berlin – City of Stones is a brilliant effort.  If anything deserves the moniker of graphic novel, it is this.  He writes with the sensitivity and scope of a novelist, and tells the story panel by panel with a wonderful ligne claire style – think the “clear-line” style of Tin Tin. We follow several plots lines in the turbulent Berlin of the late 1920s:  some poor, Red workers struggling to survive, and sometimes dying in street fights; a bohemian but bourgeois couple who are trying to figure out what’s happening…what will happen;  and a hard-bitten policeman who did his time in the trenches and informs his partner, a young ‘un attracted to the Nazis, that “those Jews” fought and died like the rest of the soldiers, dying for Germany.

Lutes must have done a ton of pictorial research on Berlin at that time, because his images ring true, from street scenes, to the clothing in crowds, to parties, to interior decoration.  The terrifying chaos of the period is palapable:  poverty and urban decay are widespread; the moderate governing forces are weak, vacillating, and uncommitted to anything but their own perpetuation; and the extreme parties don’t shrink from, indeed, they embrace street violence.  At the time, the National Socialists were just one of a few contending for influence...who knew?  Better to throw in your lot with them in order to stop the Bolsheviks, eh?  After all, they can be controlled, they’re just thugs…

A powerful aspect of the multiple plot threads is Lutes’ skill at evoking the state of mind of the various characters in different social strata.  How did they perceive the chaos?  What did they fear, want, hope for?   Why on earth would a working class stiff be attracted to the street gangs of the National Socialists?

But it’s not all politics.  The love story between the older, nearly burned-out journalist, and the younger art student, struggling to find her way outside the sphere of her military father in “small town” Cologne is handled with tenderness and subtlety.