Jun 30, 2008

"We are all Hussein..."

From the NYT: A bunch of Obama supporters have started taking his middle name as their own. “I am sick of Republicans pronouncing Barack Obama’s name like it was some sort of cuss word,” says Jeff 'Hussein' Strabone, of Brooklyn in a manifesto titled We Are All Hussein.

He is joined by Jaime 'Hussein' Alvarez of Washington, D.C., Kelly 'Hussein' Crowley of Norman, Okla., Sarah Beth 'Hussein' Frumkin of Chicago, Dan 'Hussein' O’Maley of Washington, D.C., Alex 'Hussein' Enderle of Columbus, Ohio, and Ashley 'Hussein' Holmes of Indianapolis.

“People would not listen to what you were saying on the phone or on their doorstep because they thought he was Muslim,” says Emily Hussein Nordling, a 19 year old student from Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

Mark 'Hussein' Elrod, a political science professor at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, is organizing students to declare their Husseinhood on Facebook on Aug. 4, Obama’s birthday.

I can't see this working in the UK, if only because David Cameron has two middle names — William and Donald — while Gordon Brown's middle name is, in fact, Gordon. His Christian name is James. And where will the floating voters go? Gordon or Donald? It smacks too much of drunken tattoos.

Jun 29, 2008

Best Songs of 2007: 1 2 3 4 by Feist

1. 1 2 3 4 — Feist

Dreamworld — Rilo Kiley

House of Cards – Radiohead

Is There A Ghost — Band of Horses
5. Fake Empire — The National

Girls in Their Summer Clothes — Bruce Springsteen

D.A.N.C.E. — Justice

Killing For Love — Jose Gonzalez

Are You Alright? — Lucinda Williams
10. The Pills Won't Help You Now – Chemical Brothers

The future of English: Chinglish

"By 2020, native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the estimated 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language," reports Wired Magazine. "An estimated 300 million Chinese — roughly equivalent to the total US population — read and write English but don't get enough quality spoken practice."

In other words, get used to sentences like this: —

  • if you are stolen, call the police at once.
  • please omnivorously put the waste in garbage can.
  • deformed man lavatory.
More people will soon be speaking this way than currently live in the United States.

Pixar vs Disney

I'm not going to add to the chorus of praise for WALL-E, except to way that with it Pixar have finally bested that incredible winning streak Disney had back in the forties when they came out with Snow White, Bambi, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio in the space of just over 10 years. In some ways Pixar's run has been even better, comprising Toy Story, Monster's Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatoiulle and now WALL-E — with Cars as the Fantasia-misfire.

Jun 28, 2008

"Tea and sympathy and tolerance"

From The Guardian's account of my friend Sean Langan's capture by the Taliban: plagued by intermittent dysentery and a lack of vitamins that would result in him losing five teeth, Sean and his fixer were accused of being spies and kept in a room measuring just 9ft by 7ft, and subjected to several 'mock' executions.
"We were in this room for 12 weeks. There was a hole, three inches by five, which was my only view of the outside world. I could see a couple of branches of an apricot tree. I could see two apricots grow and develop and butterflies and fields beyond. It kept me going, thinking about the outside world and English values that could be lost, like tea and sympathy and tolerance and basic humanity."

"My form of escape was into my imagination. I couldn't throw away an escapist thought in a moment. I would bath the children in my head. I would bathe their heads and each of their limbs and put them to bed and say: 'Goodnight. Daddy loves you. In your heart and in your head.'

"I was not there for my son's fourth birthday. I did a lot of soul-searching in that room. And the first thing that my son said to me when he met me at the airport was: 'Daddy, I am four.' It was family, faith and friends that kept me together."

Body language

"There was minimal physical contact between the two throughout, though they shared a few close whispers, punctuated by laughter" — New York Times
Are you kidding me? They were all over each other. Pats, smiles, nods, whispers, touches, shoulder clutches, hand clasps, elbow grips, back brushes.... They looked like a new couple on their first public outing. They must have walked away from that event exhausted. She must have, anyway. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, has told friends Obama could "kiss my ass" in return for his support. 

Jun 27, 2008

Best Songs of 2006: LDN by Lily Allen

1. LDN — Lily Allen
2. Let's Get Out Of This Country — Camera Obscura
3. Robin Hood — Scritti Politti

It Looks Like Love — Josh Rouse
5. Back to Black – Amy Winehouse
6. Fools Rush In (Kevin Shields remix) — Bow Wow Wow

Talk (Thin White Duke Mix) — Coldplay
8. Broken Toy — Keane
9. Young Folks — Peter, Bjorn & John
10. Bandits — Midlake

Jun 26, 2008

The gaffe squad

Hendrik Hertzberg is puzzled by outrage over the latest "gaffe" by Charlie Black, the McCain advisor who recently said that a terrorist attack on American soil would be helpful to McCain’s candidacy.

"Black merely stated the conventional wisdom. The view that terrorism is good for McCain is supported by polling data and is shared across the board—hence, for example, the widespread calls from within the Obama camp for a running mate with strong military or national-security credentials. I share this c.w. myself. So, too, we may assume, does Al Qaeda, which has people who read the internets if not the actual papers.... Obviously, this is not something that Obama or his people can say. But commentators can say it, and I hereby do so."
Have gaffes always been this fleeting, this slight? The real gaffe, of course, would have been for Black to say "I hope there's another terrorist attack so McCain wins". It's been the same way with most the so-called gaffes of this campaign — Hillary's RFK assassination comment, her use of the word "white," Obama's "bittergate". They weren't in and of themselves controversial statements. But they lay close enough to other statements that would be deemed controversial, were they to be made, that the media simply split the difference and cried foul.

Its like the magnetic hum that you pick up off of live electricity cables, or the dives you see in football (soccer, whatever): you may not have actually fouled the other guy, but you allowed yourself to get into the sort of situation in which the other guy might reasonably fall to the ground, rolling around, clutching his knee. The other day Obama said the GOP would probably play the race card and the GOP instantly hit the deck, saying "he played the race card!" Even saying someone else is going to play the race card is playing the race card, apparently. What kind of card is that exactly — the Joker? What they really mean, of course, is that he used the word "race" — a slightly less remarkable observation. Victimology has become such a double-jointed, reverse-current, topsy-turvy art form that certain words — black, white, terrorist, assassination — don't even have to be organised into meaningful sentences any more. They just need to appear, and computers crash, minds blow, the space-time continuum buckles and breaks.

My friend Nick, who knows more about football than I do, adds:— "Your football analogy is about right, although in football there almost always has been a mistake on a defender's part, even if he didn't touch anyone, or not enough to make them fall over. In politics, it's as if you're
not even allowed in that part of the pitch."

Jun 25, 2008

Give us a clue

'DreamWorks has acquired screen rights to The 39 Clues, a multiplatform adventure series to be launched in the fall by Scholastic Media. Spielberg is expected to set a screenwriter in the next few weeks. The 39 Clues, which launches Sept. 9, is envisioned as a 10-book series to be released over two years. It's described as a multimedia adventure that will include a set of collectible cards and an online game that will serve as a portal as young readers try to solve a mystery for a grand prize of $10,000. The contest will run for two years. The 39 Clues takes "creative leaps to expand the story experience from the pages of the books to multiple stages of discovery and imagination," Spielberg said in a statement' — Variety
So. To summarise. It launches. It has a portal. And a prize. It runs for two years. And Spielberg is doing to direct, leap and expand. It all sounds spiffy. But what — and stop me if this is too boring a question — is it?

The candidate's record collection, contd

In an interview with Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, Obama goes over his musical tastes in a little more detail. Wenner kicks off by congratulating him about the Dylan endorsement, waits to hear how much it means to him, and then hits him with the follow-up: what is his favorite Dylan song?
"I've probably got 30 Dylan tracks on my ipod. I think I have the entire Blood On The Tracks album on there. Actually one of my favorites during the political season is Maggie's Farm. It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric."
Top marks: he remembers an album. He remembers a song and even remembers a thought process that goes with the song. He knows his Dylan. What about Bruce?
"Not only do I love Bruce's music, but I just love him as a person. He is a guy who has never lost track of his roots, who knows who he is, who has never put on a front. When you think about authenticity, you think about Bruce Springsteen, and that's how he comes across personally. We haven't actually met in person."
Hmm. A disappointing denoument. Obama is talking about Bruce the brand — the qualities he is associated with in the public eye. The similarities to the kind of qualities he is trying to project make this sound more like a political mating cry than a fan's notes. Wenner gives him cred for recognising the Grateful Dead track playing during the photoshoot. Are we going to have a deadhead in the Whitehouse?
"I'm not sure I really qualify as a Deadhead — I don't wear tie-die and Ive never really followed them around anywhere. But I enjoy their songs."
Maybe it's he word "white house" that does it, but Obama performs his first tactical feint. He doesn't want to be associated too fully with psychedelic hair and seven-minute guitar solos and drug-induced comas. Music growing up?
"A lot of seventies, rhythm and blues and pop were staples to me: Steve Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Elton John, Rolling Stones."
Suspicion flickers briefly over this answer — in particular the way the list get more white as he goes along — but Wenner asks him for his favorite Stones track: "Gimme Shelter." He's through, although I wish Wenner had pressed him on Elton. It's just off-message enough to be genuine. Together with Earth Wind & Fire, a revealing taste for pomp is revealed. All time musical hero?
"If I had one it would have to be Steve Wonder. When I was just at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Fullingness First Finale, and Innervison and then Songs in the Key of Life. Those are as brilliant a set of albums as we've ever seen."
Okay. Total recall of all five albums, very close to chronologically ordered, plus this giveaway: "when I was at that point where you first start getting involved in music...." It's no big deal — he's just talking about that first flush of romance, when you first really lose yourself — but it's an unfakeable observation, from one music-lover to another. A decisive comeback. A North Carolina of an answer. What's on his ipod now?
"When I was in high school, probably my sophomore or junior year, I started getting into jazz. So Ive got a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Miles Davis, a lot of Charlie Parker.... everything from Howlin' Wolf to Yo Yo Ma to Sherl Crow to Jay-z."
Aw. He's embarrassed about liking jazz, fluffs around it with a bit of biographical exposition and then interleaves a random selection of recent artists to avoid the charge of boring. A sweet reminder of the square he is. The Jay-z he got from Reggie Love, his minder.

The inevitable rap queston. Obama comes prepared.
"By definition, rock & roll is rebel music, which means if it isn't being criticised, its probably not doing its job. I am troubled sometimes by the mysogny and materialism of a lot of rap lyrics, but I think the genius of the art form has shifted the culture and helped to desegregate music.... you'll remember that when MTV first came along, it wasn't until Thriller that they played Michael.

I know Jay-Z. I know Ludacris. I know Russell Simmons. I know a bunch of these guys. They are great taents and businessmen, which is something that doesn't get emphasies anough. It would be nice if I could have my daughters listen to their music without me worrying that they were getting bad images of themselves."
A deft negotiation of the rapids, threaded with an interesting point — it's nice to see props for Jackson as a mould-breaker — and rounded out with a nice bit of defensive play. As good a walk through that particular minefield as you could wish for.

Bond versus Indy

Total Politics, the newest political magazine in the UK, gets straight down to the important issues of the day, asking the following question of Gordon Brown and David Cameron: Who do you prefer, Indiana Jones or James Bond? Gordon Brown replied, "Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones," but then added, "but I still like James Bond." David Cameron was unequivocal, "I'm a big Bond fan."

Thus it is clear: David Cameron is the more surefooted politician and will be the next British prime minister.
  1. Brown flip-flopped, thus underlining the weakness voters sense in his premiereship.
  2. Cameron went for the more patriotic choice. Brits have had enough of their leaders sucking up to Americans.
  3. Even though Cameron would have been wrong to say this in any year between 1981 and 2007, he has picked the one year in which the Bond film is better than the Indy. In politics, timing is everything.

7 gestures to get you killed overseas

  1. Extend Your Hand, Palm Outward in Greece: I would like to shove s**t in your face.
  2. Finish Your Meal In Thailand / The Philippines / China: you have not given me enough food.
  3. Give the Thumbs-Up In The Middle East: I would like to shove my thumb up your a**e.
  4. Say "Hi" to a Member of the Opposite Sex in Saudi Arabia: I would like to commit immoral acts with you.
  5. Give an Even Number of Flowers in Russia: it's your funeral.
  6. Give a Gift With Your Left Hand in India, Sri Lanka, Africa and the whole of the Middle East: I give you this gift with the same hand I use to wipe my a**e.
  7. Give the "OK" Sign in Brazil: equivalent to giving someone the finger.
From Cracked, although I'm not sure how helpful it is in list form. It's hard to remember. Best to only look at the entry that applies to your destination, blocking the others from view.

Trailer of the year

From a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald, the new David Fincher movie, with a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat (Lust Caution, Birth, The Queen, The Golden Compass), the most exciting film composer now working in Hollywood IMHO.

Taking it slow

"In recent years a highly visible group of Great American Novels have emerged from 10, 12, and even over 20-year gestation periods. Edward P Jones, Junot Diaz and Jeffrey Eugenides all took 11 years to write their Pulitzer prize-winning novels -a blink, really, when compared to Shirley Hazzard and Marilynne Robinson's 23-year gaps preceding The Great Fire and Gilead respectively...."
As someone halfway through his third year on a novel, I find this a little embarrassing. I thought I was taking my time: now I realise I've been speeding.

Gauging the Carla Effect

'If an American first lady, or would-be first lady, described herself as a “tamer of men” and had a “man-eating” past filled with naked pictures, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, sultry prone CD covers, breaking up marriages, bragging that she believes in polygamy and polyandry rather than monogamy, and having a son with a married philosopher whose father she had had an affair with, it would take more than an appearance on “The View” to sweeten her image.' Maureen Dowd, NYT

Sniper fire in Birmingham

"At least 30 of those prisoners hitherto released from Guantanamo Bay have returned to the battlefield." — Justice Scalia, on his dissent in Boumedienne using as examples the "Mehsud suicide-bombing in Pakistan; Tipton Three and The Road to Guantanamo; Uighurs in Albania".

The Tipton Three were three British citizens who were captured in Afghanistan, because they were thought, wrongly, to be in a videotape of a rally featuring bin Laden. After British intelligence cleared them of that charge (one of the three had in fact been working at a Curry's electronics store in Birmingham when the rally was taking place in Afghanistan), they were released. After that, they participated in the movie The Road To Guantanamo. As for the Uighurs, they comprised Abu Bakker Qassim who published an op-ed in The New York Times and Adel Abdul Hakim who gave an interview to the press about his wrongful incarceration.

Apparently, this counts as "returning to the battlefield".

It's true. I've been to Curry's: the queues are a nightmare. As a Brit living in America, one of the unintentionally comic effects of watching the war on terror unfold is seeing the searching floodlights of international suspicion fall on places like Luton, Finsbury Park, Hemelhemstead, Bangalore — places that, to English ears at least, conjur up nothing so much as damp Saturday mornings, supermarket queues, and bored, smoking teenagers. Not really hotbeds of anything much besides the urge to shoplift the odd Mars bar. It's hard to translate the incongruity but imagine the sentence 'the innermost cell of Bin Laden's terror network was traced yesterday to a basement apartment in downtown X' but in place of the X, put "Louisville." Or "Pittsburg."

Mich latest

Jun 24, 2008

Langan captured, freed

"Well, have now been back in Kabul for two weeks, but snowed in and waiting for the mountain paths to clear. In the meantime, I’ve been watching dodgy Chinese-made DVD’s of films that haven’t even been released in the UK yet, and wondering whether I’ll end up in Guantamo Bay just for watching Lambo 4... Afghanistan, after all, is the forgotten frontline of the War Against Piracy."

And with that bad joke, my friend Sean Langan posted his last blog entry, before he was kidnapped by a Taliban-backed militant group three months ago. I didn't even know about it until he was released. His family didn't know until two weeks ago. He was there filming a documentary for Channel 4 in the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border region — I exchanged emails with him in March, swapping jokes about having fallen off the map — when he was snatched, possibly by the same group he was attempting to interview. The Times says he was held in a basement and endured mock executions and two promises of release that came to nothing. He was allowed to make one phone call two weeks ago, to his family, to offer "proof of life." His brother David and wife Anabel have since been working for his release, with help from the Home Office. On Saturday, they were successful.

How to live with just 100 things

A guy named Dave has decided that by Nov 12 2008, he wants to get his possessions down to under 100 things, and then live that way for a year. He counts a pair of shoes as one item, counts some items as groups ("The idea of trying to manage laundry with a few pairs of skivvies and socks is both unrealistic and gross") discounts books altogether ("I am considering getting my books down to 100. But it's not a focus of the 100 Thing Challenge"); also memorabilia such as the Bible his grandfather took with him to WWII, and which his father took with him to Vietnam. But what do do about his small collection of Marklin Z gage trains? "I should probably just see a therapist and then make good money on eBay. But for now I'm going to keep them but not open the box for a year," he writes. So far he has it all down to 111. George Carlin would approve. R.I.P.

The win precentage tracker returns!

I'm pretty new to the world of political polling, so it took me a while to stumble across Nate Silver at the 538.com website. Silver used to be a baseball statistics analyst, but grew so frustrated with political commentators looking at the wrong numbers that he set up his own polling website; if you don't know that the name 538 refers to the number of votes in the electoral college you definitely need Nate. To the untrained eye, his graphs and pic charts are wonderfully clear, but even more telling are his explanatory posts, which offer up a wonderful picture of bleary-eyed, sometimes cranky, devotion:—
I wish pollsters were a little more consistent in when they released their data. Otherwise, there is no particularly good time of day for the polling thread. Among the more prolific pollsters, SurveyUSA and ARG tend to release their polls in the afternoon; Mason-Dixon and Quinnipiac in the early AM; Zogby in the middle of the night, and Rasmussen is all over the board. But since I don't keep a particularly consistent schedule either, I suppose that's neither here nor there....

Yes, an analysis of Rasmussen's Florida numbers. But also a new poll tracking graphic. It risks information overload, but ought to do a much better job of telling you how the sausage is made...

This might be my favorite graph that we've done so far: a comparison of Barack Obama's popular and electoral vote totals across the first 1,000 simulations that we ran last night....

So many polls, so little time!

When my friend Geoff and I went to debate camp together (yes, there is something even dorkier than writing about polls), Geoff had a screensaver with an obnoxious lime green background and that pronounced in some very tacky, Windows 3.0 kind of font: "SLEEP IS THE ENEMY". I don't quite feel that way myself, but lately I've begun understand where Geoff was coming from. We were so busy rolling out methodological changes over the weekend that we didn't bother to document the latest polls. So let's see what we've got on the polling front....

The other major change to our methodology (which I am surprised nobody guessed in the teaser thread) is that we are now making adjustments to the results of all states based on a time trend....

I very much do not want to set an expectation that we're going to be running the numbers more than once a day, but with polling volume especially heavy lately, we're making some accommodations...

This is a Saturday for beer and baseball, and not for polling, but we do have one result out....

My latest ZohoSheet project. This will give you a simple popular vote projection for November based on (i) a candidate's support from each party and (ii) turnout rates...

I recommend that you not play with the party ID numbers, since those numbers move glacially and are at least somewhat exogenous to the political contest in any given year. Instead, you can manipulate the turnout rates.....

Words, words, words

Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22; between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7, reports NY Mag, in a wonderful deconstruction of Obama's rhetorical gifts.
He loves alliteration (“drive the scourge of slavery from our soil”; “divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics”) and—like a fairy tale or a Pythagorean—tends to gravitate toward groups of three, building triadic phrases (“division and distractions and drama”), sentence sequences (“What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt…”), and successive paragraph openers (“We have been told … We’ve been asked … We’ve been warned …”). He loves to fill out the famous JFK antithesis template—not X but Y:

“A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

“Our destiny will not be written for us, but by us.”

His much-discussed debt to the style of African-American preachers manifests itself most obviously in a deep love of refrains: simple phrases (“Yes, we can”; “There is something happening”) that acquire, through repetition, a centripetal poetic force that manages to yoke together diverse, sometimes incongruous aspects of American history. “Yes, we can” (repeated nine times in a single speech) unites the Founding Fathers, slaves and abolitionists, Western pioneers, union organizers, suffragettes, the space program, MLK, underprivileged workers, and children in Texas and California. In another speech, the phrase “Hope is …” (repeated five times) links the struggling poor, the families of contemporary soldiers, the Revolutionary War, WWII, and civil rights. This is the central tension of Obama’s speeches—and, indeed, of his entire candidacy: unruly diversity pulled together by visionary incantations. It links him not only to African-American preachers but to a genealogy of American poets stretching from Whitman to Bob Dylan. (Dylan, not coincidentally, recently endorsed Obama.)

I've trained myself not to think about this sort of thing too often. Obama's literary gifts seem to me a kind of blissful extra, not at all necessary to the task in hand, and maybe even a liability (inviting the charge of being "all talk and no action" etc), but every now and again I remind myself that this man really knows how to use language, and not just in a way that provokes admiration or makes you think 'that's clever', but in a way which swells your heart and gives you goose bumps. And that makes me incredibly, stupidly happy..... Okay, that's enough. Back in your box, Mr Lit Crit. Go check the Florida polls.

Real fakes

In an interesting piece for The Common Review, Daniel Born examines the recent rash of fake memoirs:
"Some of the blame might be ascribed to the French philosopher and man of letters Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who brilliantly read his audience’s thirst for authenticity. As he boldly claimed at the outset of his landmark work Confessions—published posthumously in the 1780s — “This is the only portrait of a man, painted exactly according to nature and in all its truth, that exists and will probably ever exist.” Much of the current crop of fake memoirs aggressively embraces Rousseau’s lesson. Wallowing in the moral abyss, and then opining about the adjunct guilt and shame, will always score you points on the authenticity meter. Hence our fascination with gang members, junkies, ex-cons, very bad girls—all predictably victims of child abuse, alcoholic parents, and general dysfunction. Although the blueprint by now is a little ragged from use, it’s easy to overlook this fact when presented with a happy ending. It seems American readers’ brains are hard-wired for a narrative structure of sin and suffering (the more raw, the better), followed by absolute redemption. It’s a cliché that has become an easily winning formula—and that makes it ripe for confabulation"

An interesting paradox: the reason for all the fakes is our insistence on authenticity, or at least a vision of the world that sees only "dark" "gritty" and "unrelenting" as in any way authentic. It's a species of literary blowback: James Frey did not decieve Oprah. She created him. She created the environment in which he could flourish. He is her monster, blinking innocently at her accusations.

Jun 23, 2008

Our boring war

From the NYT:
According to data compiled by Andrew Tyndall, a television consultant who monitors the three network evening newscasts, coverage of Iraq has been “massively scaled back this year.” Almost halfway into 2008, the three newscasts have shown 181 weekday minutes of Iraq coverage, compared with 1,157 minutes for all of 2007. The “CBS Evening News” has devoted the fewest minutes to Iraq, 51, versus 55 minutes on ABC’s “World News” and 74 minutes on “NBC Nightly News.” (The average evening newscast is 22 minutes long.)

CBS News no longer stations a single full-time correspondent in Iraq, where some 150,000 United States troops are deployed. Paul Friedman, a senior vice president at CBS News, said the news division does not get reports from Iraq on television “with enough frequency to justify keeping a very, very large bureau in Baghdad.” He said CBS correspondents can “get in there very quickly when a story merits it.”

Don't worry, says Andrew Sullivan. We may be in for an October Surprise.

Jun 22, 2008

The list is life

Entertainment Weekly ranks 1,000 "new classics" in movies, books, TV shows, albums from the last 25 years. Their movie list is particularly good:—

1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)
3. Titanic (1997)
4. Blue Velvet (1986)
5. Toy Story (1995)
6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
9. Die Hard (1988)
11. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
13. GoodFellas (1990)
15. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
16. Boogie Nights (1997)
17. Jerry Maguire (1996)
21. Schindler's List (1993)
22. Rushmore (1998)
27. Aliens (1986)
29. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
30. When Harry Met Sally... (1989)
31. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
34. Fargo (1996)
35. The Incredibles (2004)
38. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
39. The Sixth Sense (1999)
41. Dazed and Confused (1993)
42. Clueless (1995)
44. The Player (1992)
47. Men in Black (1997)
49. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
50. The Piano (1993)

Doubtfuls include:—

7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
10. Moulin Rouge (2001)
20. The Lion King (1994)
24. A Room With a View (1986)
25. Shrek (2001)
32. Fight Club (1999)
60. Scream (1996)
64. No Country For Old Men (2007)
66. Natural Born Killers (1994)
75. Out of Africa (1985)
77. Sid and Nancy (1986)
93. Ed Wood (1994)
94. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
98. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

When it comes to picking classics, it helps to see which movies are being shown on cable TV: as reliable a guide as any as to which movies are bedding down into the popular consciousness. Many of the movies on this list are to be found there, in almost constant rotation. It's worth remembering, the next time you hear a critic going on about how movies have declined/died/had their souls sucked out by Star Wars, etc etc.

Calling Twombly fans

From “Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons”, a 107-piece show at the Tate Modern, curated by Nicholas Serota in celebration of the Twombly’s 80th birthday. It is the artist’s first solo display in 15 years. In an article in the NYRB, John Updike, attempting to answer the question "What is American about American art?" homes in on the word 'liney' as applied to the work of John Copley:—
A line is a child's first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins. The primitive artist is more concerned with what things are than what they look like to the eye's camera. Lines serve the facts.... In the art-sparse, mercantile world of the American colonies, Copley's lavish literalism must have seemed fair dealing, a heaping measure of value paid in shimmering textures and scrupulously fine detail.... Two centuries after Jonathan Edwards sought a link with the divine in the beautiful clarity of things, William Carlos Williams wrote, in introducing his long poem Paterson, that "for the poet there are no ideas but in things." No ideas but in things. The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.
I like that: liney. It explains what I like about Lichtenstein, Looney Tunes and Pixar, too.

The sound of silence

The sound-man on the new Pixar movie, WALL-E — about a robot janitor left behind on a junkyard earth — is Ben Burtt, who did the sound on Star Wars. If the imaginative triumph of Star Wars was to usher us into a wholly foreign universe that felt instantly familiar, even nostalgic, then Burtt deserves a large portion of the credit. He was still a graduate student at USC at the time, tinkering around with the old Simplex projectors one day, when he noticed "a wonderful humming sound. It would slowly change in pitch, and it would beat against another motor, there were two motors, and they would harmonize with each other."

It was very close to a sound he'd been hearing in his head ever since Lucas first gave him the script. While recording it, he accidentally walked his microphone around the back of a TV set, picking up a strange buzzing sound.
He ran the two tones together through a speaker, then got a second microphone and whipped it by fast, to get a Doppler effect and presto: he had the sound of a lightsabre, slicing through the air.

WALL-E the robot is, for the most past, silent.
“We all thought about Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton,” Burtt tells the NYT, “this energetic, sympathetic character who doesn’t say a whole lot." There are echoes of E.T.’s "throat-singing" to the minimal sounds he makes, and when Wall-E moves, the sound comes from a hand-cranked, World War II Army generator that Mr. Burtt saw in a John Wayne movie, then found on eBay. I'm not normally envious of other people's jobs but concocting sounds for imaginary future technology strikes me as an endlessly satisfying line of work.

Jun 21, 2008

Who's got game?

"A team player, preferring mostly to help teammates score rather than to shoot himself. Obama did show some defensive softness but a surprising toughness any time his basket was threatened, and while he at times fell prey to his ambition, when it was game point, he showed a degree of leadership, taking charge with the ball in his hands... driving hard to his left for the game-winning lay-off." — Bryant Gumbel on Obama's basketball game, Real Sports, HBO.

"In November 1992, Bush and Roland Betts were in Santa Fe to host a dinner party, but they had just enough time for one set of doubles. The former Yale classmates were on opposite sides of the net. 'There was only one problem—my side won the first set,' recalls Betts. 'O.K., then we're going two out of three,' Bush decreed. Bush's side takes the next set. But Betts's side is winning the third set when it starts to snow. Hard, fat flakes. The catering truck pulls up. But Bush won't let anybody quit. 'He's pissed. George runs his mouth constantly,' says Betts indulgently. 'He's making fun of your last shot, mocking you, needling you, goading you—he never shuts up!' They continued to play tennis through a driving snowstorm." — Gail Sheehy, The Accidental Candidate.

Don't read this

Critical Mass have drawn deserved attention to a great critic I've never read before — someone called Jon Swift, whose reviews appear on Amazon, except when they don't. "Considering all the attention my reviews have brought to the money-losing Internet bookseller and all the inspiration they have given people by showing that you don't necessarily have to read books to review them, you would think that Amazon would be more appreciative of my work" he complains. Most of his reviews are taken down the moment they appear. A selection:—

Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat:
I have not actually read this book but I want to point out that there is one very big mistake right on the cover: The world is not flat; it is, in fact, round. Even though I am a conservative like Mr. Friedman and I appreciate his support of President Bush and the War in Iraq, I think conservatives like us have to be very careful about being perceived as unscientific because of our opposition to Evolution and I think a book like this which has a scientific error right on the cover is not very helpful.

(4 out of 31 people found this review helpful)
Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary?:
"I have not actually read this book but I want Ms. Dowd to know that men are very necessary. Without men, for example, I think we would be losing the War in Iraq. I used to like Ms. Dowd when she was attacking President Clinton for having sex but now she is attacking President Bush and there is no evidence whatsoever that he is having sex so I don't understand what the problem is.

(2 out of 8 people found this review helpful)
Mark F. Levin's Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America:
"I have not actually read this book but I love the movie with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. I thought it was very funny and very imaginative with all of the alien creatures. I don't remember the movie saying anything about the Supreme Court but I know they often change books when they adapt them into movies. Even though I agree with everything Justice Scalia says he does sometimes seem like an alien from another planet, which I mean in a good way.

(4 out of 8 people found this review helpful)
E. Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain he writes:
"I have not actually read this book but I did see the movie and I liked it very much. However, I don't understand why people keep referring to it as the "gay cowboy movie." Can't two men be very good friends without everybody saying they're gay?

(7 out of 23 people found this review helpful)."

Nothing's happening!

Gawker starts to panic: "It's one big void out there, the canvas is blank, there is no news.... Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke was the most noteworthy book to be published so far this year..... As for the election, we're in a massive lull until at least Labor Day..... The worst film of the year, M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, is (tellingly) about about an epidemic that causes inanition followed by suicide..... the red siren that blares in Matt Drudge's head has been as silent as the one in James Wolcott's.... The Web is dead.... The television season is over.... The economy is in limbo.... There are no new magazines.... There are no parties.... Politics has sucked the oxygen out of media...."

I wonder if they said the same thing during the Blitz. All those tedious bombs. That frightful bore Hitler. A war that was just another sequel.... Actually, they did: "The British governement's morale sampling service concluded that people in England found the war too dull. 'A new restlessness is setting in, a desire for something to happen, however unpleasant.' It was February 1940." (Human Smoke)

Twenty one

The number of Senators who pulled in book deals last year.

Golden oldies

Having already been rude about Toni Morrison once this week, in defiance of this blog's attempt to reduce snarkiness emissions, I feel compelled to make up for it with this, from the NYT archive of Book ads, The Golden Age 1962-73. "Why those dates? The books - and the ads for them - were terrific: fresh, pushy, serious and wry, often all at the same time. There was a new sense of electricity in the culture and in the book world... John Leonard's vivid prose puts a sublime buzz in your head; Morrison's no-nonsense gaze further suggested a writer to be reckoned with."

Jun 20, 2008

Gitmo the glove puppet

I've never really got the handwringing over the The Daily Show — the whole 'what have things come to when most young people get their news from a fake-news programme' argument. The Daily Show doesn't offer fake news, certainly no more fake than the news parodied on Have I Got News For You. Its a topical sketch comedy program. If many young people are getting their news from Jon Stewart, it's because nobody else is reporting it. This week, for instance, the House Senate committe heard that a senior CIA lawyer had instructed Guantanamo officers: "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong"; they also heard from Colin Powell's former chief of staff that 100 detainees had died while being interrogated ("Death, Mr. Chairman, seems to me to be the ultimate torture, indisputable and final"); while a McClatchy report claimed that of the 66 detainees they investigated, most were "low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals and at least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants".

And not a single network covered it.
Not a peep out of CNN, NBC or ABC, or FOX, where they were more concerned with fulminating against the Supreme Court for giving detainees the right to establish their guilt or innocence in a court of law. Then we turn on Jon Stewart and we get a pinpoint-accurate dismantling of the issue using a glove puppet. No wonder people are watching him. How I wish this news was fake.

An Inconvenient Opera

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” is becoming an opera. Officials of La Scala in Milan say the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli has been commissioned to write it for the 2011 season. The NYT pounces.

"....I agree it would “round out the résumé” of Prince Algorino in the opening scene if he were to sing about his creation of a communications network. But the “Mio magnifico Internet” aria you propose seems to me a distraction — and frankly out of place in an 18th-century Tuscan village. I believe the peasants’ choral celebration of Prince Algorino’s wisdom suffices to establish his virtues.

You ask for a detailed revelation of how Petroleo prevents Prince Algorino from becoming king. I understand your interest and desire to introduce another villain. (Incidentally, the translation of “Bush” would be “Arbusto,” not “Shrubulo.”)

But no narrative purpose is served by Algorino’s singing about his “stolen throne” as he wanders in exile, particularly not in the glade where he encounters the earth goddess Gaia languishing near death...."

Pin withdrawn

“The point is we made a mistake. I realize that now. And I apologize,” says the pin's manufacturer. The Republican Party of Texas announced t,oday that it will donate to charity the $1,500 it received. This following the apology from the manufacturers of the Obama sock monkey: "We are very apologetic to all who were upset by our toy idea. We will not be proceeding with the manufacturing of this toy. Thank you."

Zero dollars

First the Japanese bought the Rockefeller centre. Then an Italian bought the Flatiron building. Then Israelis snapped up the Lipstick tower. Then Arabs made a move on the Chrysler building. Now, one of India's biggest Bollywood conglomerates is on the verge of buying Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks for $500-600 million, as well as signing deals with Brad Pitt, Jim Carrey and George Clooney. A Disgruntled Republican looks on the upside: “Do you think the Japanese would have been as likely to have bombed Hawaii, if they would have had the same level of investment in Hawaii prior to Pearl Harbor as they have now?”

Penn latest

The candidate's bookshelf, contd

Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, (also the source for the forthcoming Spielberg biopic). "He is particularly intrigued by the notion that Lincoln assembled all the Republicans who had run against him for President in his war Cabinet, some of whom disagreed with him vehemently and persistently," an aide tells Time. "He talks about it all the time."

Also, Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World ("How can this giant follow Rome and Britain onto the dust heap of empire if it can prosecute two wars at once without much notice at home? The granddaughters of those millions of Rosie the Riveters who kept the World War II economy going are off to the mall today; if they don’t shop till they drop, it’s because of recession, not rationing" — NYT)

It beats The Hungry Caterpillar.

Jun 19, 2008

Bush Says Iraq was 'the Fun Thing To Do'

WASHINGTON—Despite harsh criticism from both sides of the political aisle, the U.S. populace, and former members of his own administration, President Bush once again defended his 2003 decision to invade Iraq, saying that, in the end, it was the fun thing to do.

"On Sept. 11, 2001, we as a nation faced a difficult decision, an important decision, a decision between what was fun and what was wrong," Bush said during a speech before Pentagon officials Wednesday. "We could have backed down and allowed the terrorists to win. But instead, we stood up to the challenge before us, and we said, 'Bring it on—bring the good times on!'"

"Mark my words," Bush continued. "When the dust settles and the smoke clears, history will look back on the Iraq War as a total blast." — The Onion

Bush is very keen to let history be the judge of his actions, as we all know, which begs the question of how many wars get better — upon reflection, with the passage of time. The second world war: most thought that was a Good Idea at the time and it remains so. Vietnam: people thought it a Bad Idea at the time and still think so. The cold war: one of the participants had a heart attack, so we'll never know. I'm no historian but I can't think of a single example of war that improved with age. Who knows — maybe everyone thought the 100-years war was rubbish at the time but when it got to a hundred they thought: wow. A hundred. Or maybe The Trojan war seemed like a total waste of time until Homer came along to write about it. If anything history is a harsher judge. Someone needs to tell the president that today represents the high water mark of approval for his war. It's downhill from here.

If you can think of any counter examples, let me know.

Beach Boy

Dennis Wilson's solo album Pacific Ocean Blue has been rereleased in a Legacy edition, which also includes a second disc of tracks intended for a never-released second solo album, Bambu. Wilson "died in an alcohol-related drowning in December of 1983" says the New Yorker, meaning: he got drunk and went for a swim.
The July issue of Vogue Italia will feature black models shot by the photographer Steven Meisel. Which makes me feel shamefaced about an argument I once had with my fiancee about Tyra Banks' affirmative-action leanings on America's Next Top Model.

Me: Who does she think she is? Oprah?

Kate: It's a step in the right direction.

Me: Yes but what is the point of progressive social change when it comes in the form of a modelling show?

Kate: You're knocking modelling shows?

Me: No just Tyra...... Come on, you saw her flip out on that girl two seasons back.

Kate: Yes but if she gets more black models airtime that's a good thing isn't it?

Me: Ah but they're the ones who have to really look out. They're the ones she identifies with. That's when you're really in trouble.

Kate: I think you're being a little harsh.

Me (grumpy, retreating): I just think she's getting their hopes up to dash them.

Kate: We can watch something else if you like.


Me: No, its okay.... we're watching it now.....

Kate: Are you sure because you seem quite upset?

It's okay..... there's nothing else on.... oh look, there's Danielle.....

Tim Russert's funeral

Before the gathering at the Kennedy Center, a private funeral was attended by members of the media, lawmakers and several generations of politicians; Barack Obama and John McCain sat next to each other, per a request by the Russert family. "It was a pretty amazing sight," says Wolf Blitzer. "Before the service started, they were chatting amiably and intensely for 15-20 minutes."

Nestled amidst MSNBC's marathon weekend of coverage, the best eulogy came from Mike Barnacle, calling Russert "this sweetheart of a man". I've been trying to think of English equivalents: Paxman, in terms of his reputation as a grand inquisitor, but nobody ever found Paxman a sweetheart. Maybe a Dimbleby — David? — but Russert was watched by many more people.

"The beautiful thing about the coverage was that it offered extremely important information to those age 15 or 25 or 30 who may not have been told how to operate in the world beyond "Go succeed," says Peggy Noonan, gagging slightly on all the blue-collar veneration. "Tim, as all now know, was a working-class boy from upstate New York. But the amazement with which some of his colleagues talked of his background made them sound like Margaret Mead among the indigenous people of Borneo."

Messing with Zohan

Israeli scholar Bernard Avishai sent to see You Don’t Mess With The Zohan at the weekend — Adam Sandler’s new farce about an Israeli commando who fakes his own death so that he can become a hair-dresser. "To say the movie was very dumb is not, in this case, a compliment. Half the time I felt embarrassed for the screen, the way you feel embarrassed for, well, a high school band trying to play Appalachian Spring. Most gags seemed a five-foot leap over a seven-foot pit: the accents all sounded like the unpopular kids doing shtick at a bar-mitzvah, the humus and the groping seemed only half-intentionally tasteless.... This is to Ali G what Benny Hill was to Monty Python."

And yet. "We felt strangely elated on the drive home, even grateful for a bad comedy that falls over itself to convey something affectionate. We watched New England flow by, the smell of leftover pizza mixing with the cedars, and smiled all the way. The dialogue was dumb, the story was dumb, the acting was dumb—everything dumb. Just not as dumb as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself."

Anti Captions

"There is a man pinned under this truck who requires immediate medical assistance. Someone please call for an ambulance. Please, before it's too late." — Winner of this week's New Yorker Anti-Caption Contest

The bacon does it

"Guess what you can eat for breakfast? A bowl of cereal with milk in it. And have you heard? You can put fruit on your cereal and also drink a glass of fruit juice. Michelle asks a question about pomegranate juice. She looks uncomfortable, and she doesn't get a straight answer, just a warning about apple, grape, and pear juice. Michelle munches a nugget of Autumn Wheat cereal and pronounces it good.

Joy asks Michelle what she has for breakfast, and she says:
"Toast, fruit, and I do my protein as: bacon. We're bacon people."
Joy does a mini-cheer: "Bacon! Bacon!" The audience shows enthusiasm. Somers in all seriousness says if you're going to have bacon, you should have Bob Evans Canadian Bacon. Michelle and just about everyone laughs at her for that absurd suggestion. Somers also recommends turkey bacon and "smart bacon" — and much grumbling is heard. "Smart bacon" is soy. Michelle is all "soy, sounds good" as she elbows Joy Behar. Those 2 seem to be bonding over bacon. Whoopi sneaks over to join the group: "I'm just going to say leave the bacon alone. We'll eat anything, but don't touch the bacon." Ha ha. The health nannying is shot to hell. "Does Obama eat bacon?" Joy asks. Michelle: "He will eat the bacon." Ha ha.

Final shot at the table. Everyone's looking happy. I find myself smiling. Okay. Worked for me." — Ann Althouse on Michelle Obama's appearance on The View

Ohio latest

Jun 18, 2008

Tearing up

A new book of photographs devoted to crying men. Not as much bounce as the Philippe's Halsman's Jump Book, but arresting nonetheless.


One of the reasons for this blog — apart from the fact that so far senator Obama seems unwilling to take me up on all the suggestions I send to his website, although he has asked me for cash — is that he has, as far as I can tell, rather iffy taste in movies. He has good taste in music (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bach, The Fugees, Jay-z) and he has a nifty book list (Phillip Roth, Melville, Emerson, Marilynne Robinson, and we'll forgive him Toni Morrison: liking Toni Morrison is virtually compulsory in America, as far as I can tell). But look at the movies: Casablanca, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Oh and Harry Potter. This is what is known in the trade as a unity ticket — a list of non-controversial classics, designed to bind us together in common cause, eliminate partisan divisiveness and put petty distraction behind us tc etc. But a little distraction wouldn't go amiss. He doesn't have that much time on his hands, of course, so rather than keep pestering him with suggestions for his speeches ("even the republicans are talking about change now — what they don't realise is we want a change from the republicans" — too partisan, I know, I know...) I have decided to dedicate a summer of moviegoing to him.

Reports to follow.

Bunnies and rainbows

"As a pacifist who wants only bunnies and rainbows for everyone, I, of course, deplore violent macho talk ("If they bring a knife, we bring a gun") in our political discourse--I see no need for such verbal fisticuffs. (I say, If they bring a knife, we bring a lovely hostess gift.) And yet I do wonder if the delicate dispositions at NRO's Corner and Commentary's Contentions have ever heard of a) metaphor, b) The Untouchables. Personally, I see no reason why Obama should squander his stardom livening up John McCain's chloroformed town hall meetings just so McCain can draft off of Obama's charisma and appeal to Battlestar Galactica fans." — James Walcott, Vanity Fair

Confess now!

On this blog devoted to people's secrets. My favorite: "I pretend to sleep in the car so my dad doesn't make me read the maps."

Jun 17, 2008

Shotgun wedding

A wonderfully dyspeptic blog, aimed at raining on the wedding reports in the New York Times. I've long winced through those accounts myself but this guy is something else. Just watch the bridal bouquets sail through the air while he cocks and loads. It's the fact that he's been doing this since 2004 — that's what really gets me. He has archives.

Flog me with a wet noodle

David Sedaris's response to the accusation that some of his stuff is made up. "I do think Sedaris exagerrates too much for a writer using the non-fiction label" says Alex Heard in the New Republic. Sedaris suggests that Heard look into more important questions such as 'Did Mark Twain fudge facts about how far the frog jumped' and 'Did the bed really fall on James Thurber's father'? Did the horse really walk into a bar?