Jan 28, 2009

This is the end

I'm currently working through the copy-editor's notes on my novel. As I am quickly finding out, copy-editors are a little harder to charm than editors. Your editor is basically already a fan; they know you; often they were the ones who bought your book. The copy-editor is just performing a job of work on a novel that has been randomly sent them. They're plucking chickens. So far I've had "very confused and contradictory and pretentious", "muddled, repetitive and crass", "cliched and dreary" "v boring" and "wet." My favorite comment so far is "we've heard him say this before and it was boring the first time." She's right, although naturally, I went back to the first time the passage appeared to see if she said anything about it then and — horror of horrors — she didn't, which makes me worry that she has been biting her tongue on other occasions. How much of this book has she been reading through gritted teeth?

I'm close to the end now, I can tell: I'm listening non-stop to Peter Gabriel on my ipod. This happened the last time I finished a book. I think it's something to do with the slow, steady rhythms, the weighty, bottom-heavy production, the momentum, the sense of big things moving slowly but surely along. It feels like swinging a sledgehammer: all the weight working for you not against you. Hopefully.

Feels a little like Christmas

Obama is due to sign his first piece of legislation tomorrow: a bill designed to make it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination. Following so quickly on his decision to end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the power of law, clip the wings of lobbyists, etc, etc it's hard the escape the Christmas-everyday! feel of living in America at the moment. It's a little bit embarrassing, to be frank. At least supporting candidate Obama had some kind of below-the-radar cool; for about a year or two youy got to root for a underdog who needed your support and cash and made you feel part of some neat underground network. Now that he is president, I am faced with the far more alarming prospect of having an outsized mancrush on the leader of the free world. It's like when a band you've been following for ages suddenly has a number one hit. Everyday I find myself resisting the temptation to go off him, if only to salvage some kind of self-respect. I'm much more comfortable with the idea that politicians are liars and crooks, that power corrupts and absolute power blah de blah. You know where you stand with them: off to one side, with a sneer on your face. But to have one that you actually like, and who reads the same books you do and listens to the same music and finds the same things funny. It's unsettling, weird and destined to end in heartache. But not now. Now it feels like Christmas, with a nice new present left for us for us under the tree every morning.

John Updike's gone. Wow. That's sad.

Perfection Wasted (1990)

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market --
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories
packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren't the same.

My review of Updike's Gertrude & Claudius here.

Jan 26, 2009

Quote of the day

"Can I just say there is no such thing as the best actress, you know? There is no such thing as the greatest living actress" — Meryl Streep, picking up her SAG award and embarking on one self-depracation too far. Do you know how easy it is to look forbidding in a wimple?

The movie that made me a smoker

The wife and I caught Blue Velvet on TV last night. I was amazed and delighted to find it holding up so well. It's just as hypnotic as it was when I first saw it in 1989. It was the film that turned me into a smoker. Until then I'd been trying to smoke but not really enjoying it. But the moment the film ended, I staggered out into the night, feeling Dennis Hopper's viciousness like a kick to the kidneys, and without thinking, sucked down my first fully-enjoyable Marlboro red. I'm munching in Nicorette these days, but still felt the movie somewhere deep in my solar plexus. I was struck by just how quiet it all is — lots of whispered dialogue and ambient hum— and by the classicism of the story. I never really remembered it this way, but beneath all the severed ears and smeared lipstick, there's a detective story, very cleanly told, about a local drug king-pin being brought down. The scene at Pussy Heaven, with Dean Stockwell lip-synching 'The Candy-Colored Clown They Call the Sandman', remains my favorite all-time scene of cinematic debauch. Filmmakers usually get this horribly wrong, with too much going on in — too much energy, too much liveliness. Lynch catches the weird stillness of genuine depravity. It's just people in a room, checked out, swaying gently, lost to one another, waiting for someone to scream, "Let's hit. The fuck. Ing road."

Jan 25, 2009

Monkeys get hangovers

"A large variety of creatures consume alcohol in the wild, ranging from bumble-bees to elephants. Hooch finds its way into their diets via the fermenting fruit, sap and nectar of various plants, and many exhibit signs of inebriation after they’ve enjoyed a good feed. Their weakness for the substance au naturel is understandable: ethanol is a rich food, with 75 percent more calories than refined sugar, and its distinctive aroma makes it easy to locate. This natural thirst has been exploited by man since the dawn of history. Aristotle noted that wild monkeys were caught by setting out jars of palm wine — the creatures would drink, then pass out, leaving them easy prey. The same method of trapping was still in use in the 19th century and commented on by Darwin in the opening chapter of “The Descent of Man,” when drawing similarities between humanity and the rest of creation. Monkeys could get drunk like men. They also got hangovers: “On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression: when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away with disgust, but relished the juice of lemons.” — NYT

Quote of the day

"Ever get the feeling everybody's having more fun than you? Well. They are." — advert for Breezes package holidays.

That's not very helpful.

Jan 24, 2009

When imagination roams free

There are some very entertaining reasons floating around for why Gitmo shouldn't be closed. "I think the first thing we have to remember is that we're talking about terrorists here," says House Minority Leader John Boehner "Do we bring them into our borders?", invoking the spectre of the terrorist-as-illegal-immigrant, working cash in hand as a nanny or gardener, while fiddling their green card applications. GOP House Minority Whip Eric Cantor warned: "Most families neither want nor need hundreds of terrorists seeking to kill Americans in their communities," implying a hitherto untapped ability, on the part of the terrorists, to bust out of high security prisons at will and wreak their mayhem. Lest we mock, National Review's Jim Geraghaty points out that "A detainee who escapes from any of the U.S. sites is within quick reach of terror targets, potential hostages, means of escape, etc.... It's hard to picture militia members, the Crips, Bloods, or what have you doing something as extreme as, say, crashing a plane into the prison to faciliate an escape and/or provide martyrdom to their brethren." For sheer economy, this is he winner, artfully combining the two things everyone knows about terrorists — that they crash planes into buildings and they live in Gitmo — into one phantasmagoric specter. Not even prison can hold these mighty beings.  

The New Jackie Os

The proclamations that Michelle Obama is the new Jackie O seem to have missed the mark — by a generation. A run on the jackets worn by Sasha and Malie on Inauguration Day caused J Crew's website to crash. Talent scouts are on the hunt for models who look like the two Obama children. (“People are looking for girls who resemble them,” says Charlie Winfield, the head booker at FunnyFace Today.) There's even a new line of Beanie Baby dolls named after them (“We believe it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes,” a first lady spokesman said.) But of course — we live in the age of the Olsen twins and Tweens and Miley Cyrus. Forget the parents. Prepare yourself for the onslaught.

Jan 23, 2009

Those Oscar nominations

The spirit of justice coursing through the land has spilled over into the Oscar nominations: the academy managed to resist the lure of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, gave 14 nominations to Benjamin Button, decided against a best film nod for The Dark Knight, made a complete pass on Revolutionary Road and nominated actual supporting actresses in the supporting actress category. Wonder will never cease. On the other hand, Slumdog Millionaire continues its sprint, no best film nod for WALL-E and no nomination for Bruce Springsteen, which is beyond belief. That song wasn't just a nominee. It was the clear and deserved winner.

My predictions: —
Best film: Slumdog Millionaire
Best director: David Fincher
Best actress: Kate Winslet
Best actor: Sean Penn
Best supporting actor: Heath Ledger
Best supporting actress: Tariiji Henson
Best screenplay: Milk
Best adapted screenplay: Slumdog
Best effects: Button
Best Song: Slumdog
Soundtrack: Button
Foreign film: Waltz With Bashir
From a new show of Gerhard Richter paintings at the National Portrait Gallery.

Jan 22, 2009

Doing the right thing

It's hard to say exactly how I feel about the inauguration. Relief, mainly. The address was sombre, even severe, with very few of the rhetorical flourishes that we've come to expect of Obama. I loved "the time has come to set aside childish things". I was surprised by the boldness of this:
We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
And then, just as you were wondering if he'd noticed who was sitting right behind him, this:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
That's when I felt most cheered. How much time I've spent over the past 8 years trying to disentangle genuine anger at what was done on 9/11 from Bush's disastrous response to it. With a single stroke, Obama sliced them apart and freed us up again. And then this:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true.
My favorite line, possibly, in a speech that didn't seem to be angling for Bartlett's. Instead it was sturdy as an Ox leaning into its halter. The day after he issued a series of executive orders closing Guantanamo, suspending military commissions, compelling CIA interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual, banning CIA "black sites", and restricting his own power and the power of former Presidents to withhold documents on the basis of secrecy. Heaven.

Jan 13, 2009

Golden Globe reax

Very happy about Mickey Rourke winning for The Wrestler: I saw it the other night with Kate and thought it better than Raging Bull (my opinion of that movie is not as stratospheric as some). Just seeing Rourke being interviewed is enough to bring tears to my eyes. And didn't Spielberg's ouevre look spectacular in compilation like that? Not so happy about Kate Winslett winning both Actress (my heart belongs to Hathaway) and Supporting Actress. I'd understand if they gave her supporting as consolation, but to take the supporting award away from an actress who genuinely played a supporting role, like Marisa Tomei, was wasteful — more to do with Weinstein than Winslett. The biggest disappointment, though, were the awards showered on Slumdog Millionaire, the slickest little fake to come our way since Chocolat. How Fox dressed up the new Danny Boyle extravaganza as this scrappy little underdog from the Indian subcontinent is marketing savvy worthy of serious study. It's a foreign movie for those who can't be bothered with subtitles. And the love story doesn't work for a single, luscious frame.

Jan 11, 2009

Men buggering men

In the middle of the recent controversy over Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the address at his Inaugeration, Warren said some peculiar things. He was defending himself from the accusation that he is homophobic, comparing homosexuality to his own battle with internet porn, saying that much as he'd all like to watch porn all day long, he must resists the impulse. He handed over the Internet addresses for the pornographic sites he liked so that his wife Sherry could put locks on them.
She created specific blocks for them, so I can no longer access them. Once again, this eliminated a lot of my temptation. I now feel comfortable using my own computer, but nervous when I use an unprotected computer. I’m glad my wife established these blocks.
The peculiar thing about this — the thing I find peculiar about all anti-gay Evangelicals — is their assumption that the only thing separating heterosexual men from homosexual men is resistance to temptation — that we'd all like to bugger other men, given half the chance. You know — if nobody was looking. It's kind of funny and even a little bit radical when you think about it. They basically believe that we're all gay — 'gays' are just the ones who've given up the fight not to be. I'd have that if you wanted to put some distance between yourself and an activity you found unholy, the last thing you'd want to do is paint it as different in degree, not kind, with just a slippery slope to separate you. I guess if they admit difference in kind, then they're basically agreeing with gay people that they're born that way, and then they'll end up looking intolerant. So they end up painting themselves into this strange little corner, instead:
the only thing separating an evangelical pastor from a raving sodomite, apparently, is whether your wife is watching.

Jan 7, 2009

A righteous wind at his back

Kate tells me I have a man crush on Daniel Craig but whatever: he's superb as a righteous Jewish warrior mowing down Nazis in Edward Zwick's Defiance. So is Liev Shrieber, as his brother, also a righteous Jewish warrior mowing down Nazis. I don't think I've enjoyed seeing more Nazis mown down more since Where Eagles Dare. Don't believe the middling reviews: some of the speeches could have used a little trimming, there's a long winter in there with lots of coughing and no nazis but boy, is it exhilarating seeing Craig wander into an informant's house and put a bullet through his head. I think I may have liked this movie as much as I liked WALL-E.

Jan 6, 2009

All in all, a good day

Today, Obama announced his choice of Leon Panetta to be the next CIA director. A year ago, Panetta wrote a piece called 'No Torture. No Exceptions' for The Washington Monthly, in which he argued:—
How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear. Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what's wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock? The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation.... We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground.
Dawn Johnson, the woman appointed to head up the OLC is even more promising: she isn't just against torture, but advocates prosecution of torturers. Of her predecessor John Yoo's Infamous Torture Memo, she wrote:
The shockingly flawed content of this memo, the deficient processes that led to its issuance, the horrific acts it encouraged, the fact that it was kept secret for years and that the Bush administration continues to withhold other memos like it--all demand our outrage.... At the time of the Torture Opinion's issuance, violations of Common Article 3 were punishable war crimes under federal law.
Yummy. This is by far my favorite of Obama's appointments so far.

Jan 5, 2009

Blair defends Iraq

New York magazine asks Blair if he regrets the decision to invade Iraq.
“I don’t think the region would be more stable if Saddam and his two sons were still running around.”
Even if you grant that the Iraq war hasn't destabilised the region, strengthened Iran etc, there is also the question of the half a million who might still be alive, and the justifiable grievance their families now nurse towards the US and its allies.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to ask who killed them. There’s also a lot of people who died and who would have died under Saddam."
This is about as eloquent as any defence of the Iraq war gets: yes half a million people died but they might have died anyway. And that's Blair, too. Imagine what Bush's answers would be like.

A good year to be an American

A great piece in the NYT about the fact that Oscars don't go to the best films: they go to the most Oscar-worthy films, which is to say, the films that allow Hollywood the most pleasing reflection of itself:—
Most famously there was the banner year of 1941, for which John Ford’s magnificent “How Green Was My Valley” was named what the academy then termed “outstanding motion picture” while Orson Welles’s game-changing “Citizen Kane” went home with only the original screenplay award.... By selecting “Cavalcade” — a numbing historical pageant, derived from a Noël Coward play, about a wealthy couple (Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook) stiff-upper-lipping their way through 40 years of English history — the members of the academy distanced themselves from the racy entertainments that then dominated the box office... For most of the ’30s the academy whipsawed between popular entertainments (“It Happened One Night,” 1934) and prestigious literary adaptations (“Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1935) meant to assure would-be censors that Hollywood was a dignified, pipe-smoking kind of place, tirelessly working for the moral improvement of American audiences. During World War II priorities shifted from moral development to patriotic fervor. The “outstanding motion picture” of 1942 was determined to be William Wyler’s portrait of a middle-class British couple enduring the Blitz, “Mrs. Miniver”... By the mid -’70s, the basic elements of an Oscarizable film were fixed in place: literary value, social criticism, grand spectacle and mature content, to be mixed and matched at will.
My gut tells me that the winner this year will be something with big box office and little violence — a reaction against the last two indie-winners The Departed and No Country for Old Men. Also that it's a bad year to be a Brit and a good year to be an American: the biggest feelgood spectacle of the year was the election. On Oscar night, the confetti from the Inaugeration will be just days old. Hollywood will want to throw the after-party party. One more reason to favour Penn and Hathaway.

Jan 4, 2009

Make Me a Glamour Model

I just got back from the UK, where I spent half the time explaining who the celebrities were to Kate and the other half asking other people who they were. The pages of Heat magazine were particularly baffling. But the TV show that most caught our eye was Make Me A Glamour Model — a very British title, I couldn't help but feel. In America, the show would almost have been called I Want To Be A Porn Star, because aspiration and initiative is to be praised and rewarded. But in Britain, where success is unmerited, and fame is a fake, aspiration is recast as a low surly demand, implying that the only difference between me and the girls with their bits in the papers is the fact that they are in the papers, and not me. Therefore: do it. Wave you wand. Put my bits in the paper. Make me a glamour model.