Sep 30, 2009

When did war become a national hobby?

'Last week, Capehart's Editorial Page published an attack-Iran Op-Ed from two former Senators (one from each party) who have spent the last year advocating a detailed plan for blockading, attacking, bombing and invading that country' — Glenn Greenwald

"Tragically, a young Afghan girl was killed in late June by a box of information leaflets falling from a British military plane over Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, in a case that the U.K.'s Ministry of Defense said it was investigating earlier this morning (Reuters, AP). The box failed to break open mid-air as planned and struck the girl, who later died of her injuries (BBC). Michael Evans details the case and writes that this is believed to be the first time a civilian has been killed by a box of information leaflets" Times of London
As the drumbeat starts up again for war against Iran, the thing I find missing from the debate is any sense that war is a festering sump hole of irreversible, bloody, Godless ghastliness for everybody concerned. Somehow, we seem to have gotten ourselves into a situation where it's considered normal to be involved in at least one war at any one time, maybe even two, and — why not? — three. That's a strange position, to say the least, not least because America does not feel like a country at war right now. It feels like a country happily minding its own business. War has become a kind of dimly-registered national hobby, like a sport nobody quite wants to watch.

Sep 29, 2009

Should Roman Polanski go to jail?

A reader has asked me what I think of the Roman Polanski case. To be honest, I was hoping nobody would ask, if only because I am in two minds, which is never pleasant. Also, I'm not a judge or legal expert and find it a lot easier to say whether I prefer Chinatown to Rosemary's Baby (I do) or which made me laugh harder Bitter Moon or Frantic (Bitter Moon, by a long mile). But the man himself. Yikes. On the one hand, I am extremely repulsed by the people rallying around Polanski at the moment, celebs and filmmakers of various stripes, all waving the 'he's a genius' defence, which strikes me as wholly obnoxious. It's almost worth putting him in prison just to put paid to such nonsense. He's a film director. That's his job. He should no more be allowed to get away with molesting minors than a plumber or a real estate salesman should. What happens if the quality of his films dips? Do we throw him in the slammer then? Or how about a sentence of five years, say, for the dancing scene in Bitter Moon, and then let him out again?

On the other hand, judgement is never pretty. Last night a prosecutor on the Chris Matthews Show seemed to be gunning for him as political sport. There was zero allowance made for the peculiarities of his case, which is not so excuse him because of his fame, but to point out that because of the distorting lense of his celebrity on a judge's decision-making, he has already fled a country he once called his home. The shape of his life has been permanently altered. The idea that he might be uprooted a second time, this time from his wife and two children, and imprisoned in America, for a crime committed 30 years ago, for which he has been forgiven, and which he has never repeated, seems excessive — not wrong, but not wholly just either.

Having read around the blogs a bit, I like David Thomson's comment best: "This is a case that the parents of children should decide." There are more innocents in this story now. If a bank-robber broke down in court and pleaded, "please don't separate me from my family," the judge might be tempted to reply, "Well you should have thought of that before." In this case, that reply is not possible.

One of my favorite things

I don't know why but I've been thinking a lot about Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder a lot recently. I have a weakness for melancholy sweet-savage horror movies about men who dream they are part of the human race only to one day wake up. The Sixth Sense hit exactly the same sweet spot but it is Lyne's movie that has stayed with me, from Tim Robbin's gentle, baffled performance to the Francis Bacon frights which flash up out of nowhere to Elizabeth Pena's terrific "fuck you" moment to Danny Aiello's angelic chiropracter. I can't figure out how it manages to be both so heartbreaking and so horrific, but suspect the two play off and sharpen one another: the horrific stuff loosening you up for the longing, the transcendence all the greater for being mired in such horror. Its quite a movie which moves its audience towards such nape-of-the-neck surrender.

A whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was

My friend Nat recently took me to task for that post I wrote about films losing their visceral power over time — Psycho losing its power to shock, Cary Grant films their power to ellicit belly laughs, etc. The conversation went something like this.
"Ive got a bone to pick with you"
"That post you wrote about films losing their power to shock or make you laugh... What about Young Frankenstein?"
"Ah.... hmm.... I take your point. Young Frankenstein had me helpless with laughter, too, but look that was made in the seventies. That's pretty recent."
"So Alien, What's Up Doc...."
"God yes. They were all made while we were alive. I'm talking about Marx brothers comedies. Buster Keaton. That kind of thing. And I'm not saying I don't love those movies. In fact, love is what you get in exchange for them not having quite the same voltage. But we're kidding ourselves if we mistake the sepia-tinted affection with the jolt they once had. North By Northwest was once as exciting as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Probably more."
"I see. By 'old' you meant 'before we were born.'"
"So what about some young kid who watches The Wizard of Oz and is blown away?"
"I think when you're younger you have a more unjaundiced eye. Plus its not a comedy or a horror movie. Its only really the visceral genres that lose their punch. The old epics, particularly the epic romances, seem to do pretty well. We've actually got worse at making those."
"I see. You just pared away all that was reasonable about your argument and left the obnoxious part."
"A trick I learned."

Sep 28, 2009

Philip K Dick on Blade Runner: 'Invincible'

After catching his first glimpse of Blade Runner on TV, Philip K. Dick, wrote the above letter to the film's production company. He passed away just 5 months later, 4 months before the movie was released. From Letters of Note, a website devoted to noteworthy historical correspondence.
Dear Jeff,
I happened to see the Channel 7 TV program "Hooray For Hollywood" tonight with the segment on BLADE RUNNER. (Well, to be honest, I didn't happen to see it; someone tipped me off that BLADE RUNNER was going to be a part of the show, and to be sure to watch.) Jeff, after looking --and especially after listening to Harrison Ford discuss the film-- I came to the conclusion that this indeed is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison said: futurism. The impact of BLADE RUNNER is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people -- and, I believe, on science fiction as a field. Since I have been writing and selling science fiction works for thirty years, this is a matter of some importance to me. In all candor I must say that our field has gradually and steadily been deteriorating for the last few years. Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment I found my normal present-day "reality" pallid by comparison. What I am saying is that all of you collectively may have created a unique new form of graphic, artistic expression, never before seen. And, I think, BLADE RUNNER is going to revolutionize our conceptions of what science fiction is and, more, can be.

Let me sum it up this way. Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale. Suddenly you people have come in, some of the greatest talents currently in existence, and now we have a new life, a new start. As for my own role in the BLADE RUNNER project, I can only say that I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions. My life and creative work are justified and completed by BLADE RUNNER. Thank you..and it is going to be one hell of a commercial success. It will prove invincible.

Philip K Dick

Sep 27, 2009

Revisiting the scene of the crime

"Is this the queue for Coco Before Chanel?"
"No Capitalism."
It's always fun to queue for an ism.
Capitalism: a Love Story looked to me like one of those career-summarising projects which filmmakers ought always to be gently steered away from making. You know, the ones that result when the artist, not content with making a project about a specific subject, ascends to a loftier, more abstract plane in which they examine their raison d'etre as artists, spell out what had been happily subtextual and finally get down to setting down What They Believe. I'm thinking of David Fincher's Fight Club, which lectured us on the aesthetic philosophy so beautifully implicit in Se7en. Or Spielberg's Hook, which went public with the Peter Pan analogy that had been happily underscoring Spielberg's career from its inception. The idea of Michael Moore spelling out his beef with capitalism is a bit like Michael Moore telling you how he voted: you don't really need to know.

But it wasn't like that, or only a bit. Yes, his interview with Wallace Shawn is a portrait of two men in perfect agreement with themselves. And yes, he never really marks out his perimeter, hopping, disconnectedly, from General Motors, FDR, the second world war, to Wallstreet Derivatices, the 08 collapse and Obama's election, with one too many stopovers in his hometown of Flint, Michegan, for me to be able to feel that he was really telling the history of Western Capitalism, per se. And yet individual sequences have terrific power: the scandal surrounding a for-profit juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in which two judges got millions of dollars in kickbacks for sending more than a thousand juveniles to the establishment; the stuff about corporations getting rich off their employees when they die by taking out life insurance policies on them, unbeknownst to even their next of kin — all this was genuinely shocking. And without ever quite persuading me that the bail out was unnecessary, he nevertheless stirred up enough outrage at how few strings were attached to the money that his stunts ellicited cathartic belly laughs. As many on the Libertarian Right, as on the Democratic Left, will get a kick out of seeing Michael Moore trying to make a citizen's arrest of AIG executives, or circling the head quarters of Citibank and Bank of America with crime-scene masking tape.

Sep 26, 2009

There's no pleasing some people

So let's see if I've got this straight. Obama totally busts Ahmadinejad over his secret nuclear facility. He successfully unites the international community — France, Germany, Great Britain — against Iran. He scores a major breakthrough with Russia — next stop China. And Drudge's day-long headline, throughout all of this, is "caught by surprise" next to a picture of a pensive-looking Obama? Come on. How does "known for over a year" equal "caught by surprise"?

It's no longer a counter-insurgency

"The record suggests what Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly understands — that only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success. This is a doctrine, as General McChrystal wrote in his remarkable report, that puts population protection at the center of the Afghanistan mission, that acknowledges that insurgencies can only be defeated when local communities and military forces work together. To put it concretely, this is a doctrine in which small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads. These are the realistic choices for America’s Afghanistan policy — all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building."— David Brooks, NYT
It's a great piece but there's a flaw in Brook's argument: it's no longer a counter insurgency operation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is too corrupt and illegitimate — as much of a threat to the US mission there as the Taliban. General McChrystal himself says so. The basic conditions for a counter-insurgent campaign have therefore not been met. It's a two front war.

Adventures in wonderland

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rod Blagojevich
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

This is one of the most skilful interviews I've seen Jon Stewart conduct. Blagoyevich is such a pure liar — he's freeform, flying through the air, unattached to anything — that less experienced interviewers can be driven to distraction as they attempt to pin him down. But you can't pin someone down if they refuse to even acknowledge the gaping hole beneath their feet. Blagoyevitch just hangs there, like Wile E Coyote treading thin air. Given this adversary Stewart does something inspired: he joins him in his fantasy. He doesn't try to deconstruct it. He inhabits the lie and tries to make it make internal sense, the way you might a short story. The Illinois state legislature is against you? They must be bad people. The feds are out to get you? Wow. That must be stressful. The district attorney has a grudge against you? You must feel like you're getting Punk'd by the entire city of Chicago... It's beautifully done, and also surprisingly big-hearted.

Sep 25, 2009

Falling off the wagon (almost)

I almost fell of the Nicorette wagon yesterday. After a long couple of weeks in which I could get seemingly nothing commissioned, a magazine editor dropped the one piece I was supposed to be working on. It was too much. It brought me right to snapping point: I paced the streets, circled a few pharmacies and even went inside one and stared longingly at the boxes of nicorette on the shelves. I imagined my excuses to my wife: they pushed me too far. It doesn't do any harm. just while I finish this draft of the book. But then I "played the tape", as they say in recovery. I imagined what the whole thing would feel like, the moment the immediate thrill of relapse had passed. The drama of falling off the wagon would soon be replaced by the flat, weary, suckered feeling on the other side of it. That's the feeling I was heading towards. I turned around and walked home again, trying to content myself with the thought of the sugar-free Orbit I knew I had at home. Orbit sucks.

Sep 24, 2009

Never doubt the great and powerful Oz

"Iranian activists -- trying to blanket New York City with their trademark green color -- lobbied to bathe the top of the Empire State Building in green light all this week during their rallies against Iran's president, who is visiting the United Nations. The request was rejected. But on Thursday, to the protesters' delight, it will be green anyway, for another reason: an "Emerald Gala" for the 70th anniversary of the film The Wizard of Oz" – WSJ

Is Psycho still scary?

"I think that Psycho is a classic, but not because it was scary. In horror films, the scary things are not what I remember. I remember a style or a mood... it has to do with a personality that you feel in it as you watch what happens in it.” — Lars Von Trier
Old horror movies certainly don't frighten, just as old comedies don't make you laugh. It's a bit of a taboo subject among film critics: the weakening of a film's visceral power, over time. But it seems fairly obvious to anyone who's job doesn't rely on sounding knowledgeable about cinematic history. I love Cary Grant movies, for instance. I think His Girl Friday and Holiday as close to sacred texts as the 20th century has produced. But do I really laugh when I watch them? Proper, helpless laughter? I certainly admire the artistry with which the place where the laugh would have taken place is constructed. But that's not really the same thing is it? The same with Psycho. I can have fun conducting the act of historical reconstruction required to imagine how scary that film must have been to its original audience in 1960, but it's not quite the same thing as being scared myself. What happens to make up for it is they become much loved, classics, embalmed, like Norman Bates's mother. It's why I tend not to get too upset about remakes. They're generally terrible, of course, but I don't get all huffy and puffy and film-historical about it. I understand and even respect Hollywood's total, amnesiac devotion to the eternal present, although David Cronenberg's decision to remake his remake of The Fly may be pushing it. I like the woman in the cinema I overheard the other day who saw the trailer of Halloween II and went, "How many Halloween II's can there be?"

Everything but the girl

My friend Nick Hornby has asked me along to the New York premiere of his movie, An Education, so naturally my thoughts turn to what on earth I am going to say to Shia La Beouf, should I run into him. If he's going. He's dating the film's star, Cary Mulligan, on whom I nurse something of a crush, according to my wife. She says she saw my face go all woozy when I watched an interview with her on TV. I denied any wooziness as if my life depended on it, but a bit of me is quite happy to have her think I am smitten with Mulligan. It's a handy disguise for my Shia La Beouf obsession. Not only is he a plucky actor, with Di Caprioish self-possession, but he also helped out with the writing of my novel. I don't mean personally. He didn't type it up for me or anything. But there was a moment when I was getting into a bit of mess with the romance. I didn't know whether my hero deserved my heroine. I doubted the good faith of his feelings. Then I happened to catch Disturbia on pay-per-view, and saw the scene where Shia LeBoeuf first catches sight of his love interest, in the garden of his neighbour. The look on his face is fantastic: you just know that everything but the girl has just disappeared completely from his field of vision. He's like a dog hearing a dog-whistle: nothing else even exists. It's a puppy-love version of Dante-and-Beatrice, even though, strictly, he's actually spying on her. And I thought to myself: that's what I'm going for. That's what I want.

Today's message from Mars

"We got into this mess because of government interference in the first place" — Sarah Palin, explaining the Wall Street collapse to an investors conference in Hong Kong. Two US delegates walked out, one saying "it was awful, we couldn't stand it any longer."

The man who knew too little

I've long been a fan of Matt Damon. He's smart and self-depracating and studious, knows his directors and acts like he's learning all the time, even if some complain that this makes him blend into the background. I like that about him. He's got the kind of face Hitchcock would love: the highest-watt smile this side of Julia Roberts, but equally capable of disappearing into the nearest crowd, which makes him great for thrillers. He's at his most anonymous-drab in The Informant, Steven Soderbergh's comedy about a corporate whistleblower (or as some people might prefer to call it, The Informant: Based on the Non-Fiction Bestseller The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald). The comedy was a bit sucked dry for me by the trailer, which skims off all the best jokes, all of which involve Damon's Closeauesque levels of indiscretion, as he goes about his spying tasks — over-narrating into his wire, tapping on cameras, etc. I was less familiar with the second half of the story, about which I won't reveal anything, but suffice to say it turns into a very Soderberghian character study — an onion which gets peeled, layer by layer, to reveal nothing in the centre. The film is unsatisfying in its own rather brilliant way. I came out and said to my friend Scott, "I'm a little confused about a couple of things... I just can't remember what they are." I really did! I couldn't remember what it was I didn't get. The first signs of senility.

Sep 23, 2009

Let Werner Herzog teach you

"The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have traveled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum.… How do you sensitize an audience? How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth? Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully."
From the online prospectus for Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School

Sep 22, 2009

Go figure

Inglourious Basterds has grossed over $108M in North America, out-earning Pulp Fiction.

The hot sun and cool moon of a mad, mad world

Anyone got a theory as to why January Jones and Christina Hendricks weren't up for Emmies last night? I've looked at last year's awards: nothing there either. Is it straightforward industry-hack snobbery about glamorous women? Another instance of Hollywood's sack-cloth-and-ashes approach to aesthetic merit? If so its a terrible shame. Both Jones and Hendricks are the twin suns around whom the Mad Men universe revolves — or rather, fiery sun and cool moon — orbiting but never meeting. They should both be receiving barrowfuls of awards, though the new season hasn't given them much to work with, I regret to say. The imminent departure of Joan, Betsy's new baby, the British takeover: all these plotlines seem not to know why they were summoned. Witness last night's episode in which the new Brit boss was banished to India by his superiors, to be replaced by another new Brit, only to have this one's toes chewed up in a freak lawn-mower accident. It was back to square one: a plot development that did no developing, existing in order to erase itself. Much of the new season is like this: tentative, mealy-mouthed, fearful of commitment. The air of minimalism is fine up to a point, but it makes me long for the old fashioned melodrama of a show like Dallas or Dynasty. Come on fellas, its yanks versus Brits! Lets see the fur fly. Let's see stolen accounts, and shouting matches. Let's see some money changing hands. Lets see some advertising. Remember that? Everyone lounges around as if enjoying a lazy weekend at the country club. Roger Sterling is the only one letting off rockets — "Its like Iwo Jima in here" he quipped of the lawn-mower incident. My fervent wish is that Don Draper will fall off the monogamy wagon and Joan's useless hubby will soon top himself, this freeing her to cruise that office like a battleship once again. May she and Betsy never exchange a word of dialogue. It would be all wrong — like catching Monroe and Jackie O in the same shot.

The worst film title in the history of cinema

Look I'm sure the film is terrific — harrowing, grim, uplifting etc. It just won the Audience award at Toronto, and may be strong contender for the Best film Oscar. Oprah loves it and everything. But please, someone do something about that title: Precious, Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. Seriously. It's not Casablanca. For one thing, you could interchange any of those three elements and no-one would be the wiser:

Precious: Based on the Novel Sapphire by Push
Push: Based on the Novel Precious by Sapphire
Sapphire: Based on the Novel Precious by Push

Who is Sapphire and why have they gotten this treatment? Michael Crichton didn't merit it. It wasn't called Jurassic Park: Based on the Thrilling Bestseller Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. It was just Jurassic Park. It wasn't Jaws: Based on the Ripping New Peter Benchley Novel. It was just Jaws. And rightly so. What's so precious about Precious? Presumably they were trying to make contact with readers of the book, but surely a simple tagline — "Adapted from the bestseller Push by Sapphire" — would have sufficed, as it has done for every other author in the history if cinema, from William Faulkner to Helen Fielding. Why deface the title? Is Sapphire really so famous that he/she gets to barge to the very top of the bill? If so, why have I never heard of them? I wonder what they will do for the movie tie-in edition of the book. "Push. By Sapphire. Now a Major Motion Picture Called Precious, Based On the Novel 'Push,' by Sapphire."

Sep 21, 2009

When piglets fly

From the 10th annual Royal Melbourne Show in Australia.

Want to see a movie? How about this one

As a special service for readers of this blog, I have posted a movie — an entire movie — courtesy of Hulu. It's one of my favorites: Charade. I have a poster from it on my wall and lie in wait for the day when it comes up as a Trivial Pursuit question. Who would have thought that Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matheau and James Coburn ever appeared in a film together? I can barely believe they ever occupied the same decade. Throw in the fact that it was directed by Stanley Donen, who made Singin in the Rain, and you have a real era-blending time-machine of a movie. It was actually released in 1963, the year of Kennedy's assassination (Audrey Hepburn's line, "at any moment we could be assassinated", was redubbed "at any moment we could be eliminated") and stands, like Mad Men, on the cliff-edge of an era. It didn't know that, of course, which could have left it feeling a little stranded, like those Doris Day pictures in the late sixties, but the whole thing works beautifully — a light-as-air comedy with an edging of threat which moves as if Donen were still directing musicals. Hepburn and Grant manage to straddle the generation gap in a way that Hepburn and Astaire did not. "How do you shave in there?" she asks pointing to the cleft in his chin. An excellent question.

Sep 20, 2009

How the '08 election changed the Emmy smacktalk in our house

The 08 election has changed things in our house. Specifically it has changed the smacktalk between my wife and I during awards season. The way it used to go was this.
Me: "So are you ready for the beating you're going to recieve at the Emmy's tomorrow?"
My wife: "That is some fighting talk, my friend."
Me: "Not necessarily. Just the talk of someone who knows his strengths with awards shows. Remember the beating you took last year at the Spirit awards?"
My wife: "The Spirit Awards? Indie awards shows are for losers. You always flunk it with the Grand Slams...."
Me: "Don't be sore."
My wife: "The only thing sore is your backside after the hiding you took at the Oscars..."
And so on and so forth, in ever higher spirals of braggadoccio. The chit-chat of mere amateurs, I now recognise, having seen the way Obama and Clinton faced off in the rustbelt primaries — in particular the way they managed expectations, in a constant attempt to cast themselves as the plucky underdog coming from behind. Obama was the underdog for a while, but then he beat Clinton in Iowa. Clinton saw an opportunity to portray herself as the underdog, and won New Hampshire. But she succeeded too much, found herself in the sniper-friendly front-runner position again — drat — and Obama won south Carolina. Etc etc. Having observed these political maestros in action our smack-talk now goes something like this.
Me: "Boy are you going to take a beating tomorrow night at the Emmy's."
My wife: "Them's fighting words."
Me: "No, merely the words of someone who won handily last year."
My wife [a glint in her eye]: "Hmmm. You're right. You do do pretty well at the Emmy's."
Me [realising too late the trap I have set for myself']: "Nyah, I got lucky is all."
My wife: "No you're good. You do your homework."
Me: "That's why I'm worried. I haven't done any this year. Remember how bad I am on American television? I just don't know the history. I'm playing an away game."
My wife [a maniacal look stealing over her]: "You know what? You are! Sucker! You're going down so fast you're going to take all the branches off the tree...!!!"
Actually I don't remember that double-switchback maneuvre being used by Clinton last year but she's welcome to it, should she chose to run again.

Life is a pre-existing condition

Among the things counted as "pre-existing conditions" by American insurance companies:
Health insurers have issued guidelines saying they could deny coverage to people suffering from such conditions as acne, hemorrhoids and bunions. One big insurer refused to issue individual policies to police officers and firefighters, along with people in other hazardous occupations. Some treated pregnancy or the intention to adopt as a reason for rejection.
Others routinely refuse the victims of domestic violence. Having experienced the bureaucratic delights of the American health system first hand, I sense a great absurdist play in there somewhere — something to do with life being a deadly disease and/or a pre-existing condition / bowl of minestroni, we are born astride the grave, etc, etc.

The eyes have it

It's obviously poetry week for me. After Bright Star, we have the new Nicholson Baker novel, The Anthologist, which is about this poet named Paul Choder who is attempting, and failing, to write a new introduction for an anthology of poems. I am a huge Baker fan, and am only half way through it but I haven't been enjoying his disquisitions on iambic pentameter nearly as much as I enjoyed his thoughts on corrugated straws in The Mezzanine. That's always been Baker's genius, it seems to me: to bend that considerable vocabulary of his to things that don't usually get described. There's a delightful, democratic, due-rectifying justice to it all. It's like Pop Art. Even his book about Updike was less about Updike's writing than it was about the assorted paraphenalia of literary fame — an unusual subject. Not so poetry, which seems pretty well covered from where I'm standing. Baker's written a literary book about a literary subject. Where's the fun in that, as Tom Hanks might say. That said, it's not all about iambic pentameter. there are still some great passages in the book, such as this one, where Chowder talks about how difficult it is to "meeting someone's eyes":—
Meet them how? They have two eyes. You have to choose one. I start by looking at the person's right eye, intently, and then I begin to feel that I'm hurting the feelings of the person's left eye. As she's telling her story, she thinks, Why is he concentrating his attentions so fixedly on my right eye? Is he deliberately looking away from my left eye? Is there something wrong with my left eye? So then I shift over, and I stare into her left eye, till it's as if I'm falling down an optical pipe.

Sep 19, 2009

U.S. Condemned For Pre-Emptive Use Of Hillary Clinton Against Pakistan

Help! Approaching Obama overload!

On MSNBC, Pat Buchanan is advancing his talking point du jour: that Obama's appearance on five news shows this weekend constitutes "overload." Politico and Drudge seem similarly excited. In my experience, this is one of those worries that is confined almost exclusively to those who keep track of weekend news-program scheduling, which is to say those who work in the media. But people can only watch one program at at a time, and most of them watch one news channel. The vast majority of people who catch Obama on TV this weekend will not be following him around the TV schedules, like presidential newshounds. They will watch the same program they always watch and if Obama happen to be on it, they will watch him. Quelle overload.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Stars

Jane Campion's Bright Star arrived just in time for me and my wife's first wedding anniversary. How could I resist taking Kate to see a film offering "Hot English Chastity", according to the New York Times? The only question was when.
"Its on at 7.50."
"Its Friday night. We should get there early. 7.20."
"Its about Keats."
"7.30 then."
In fact the cinema was well packed, for a movie about a long-dead English poet. The film was beautiful and passionate and sad. What more could you ask from a movie about a poet? It may even be the best movie about a poet I have ever seen although I can't remember ever having see a good one. Tom and Viv was diabolical. Three weeks after Dead Poet's Society I was back on solids but only just. Even walk on parts for poetry give me the willies. Otherwise good movies, like the Bridges of Madison county, are marred by a single incursion into verse ("great stuff Yeats"). But somehow Campion brings it off. There are no cries of "very witty Wilde!", such as usually mar biopics. Her leads, Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are both terrific. Cornish looks like a Vermeer, and acts the way Kate Winslet used to, right down to her toes; Campion films that beautiful dome of a forehead like it was the Cistine Chapel. Whishaw is a tender, watchful ink-stained boy, with just the right air of specialness — the kind of kid people make exceptions for. For every scene Campion finds some playful, teasing bit of business for her actors that brings them to life while staying in period. I was about to say "totally in period" but what do I know. It's not a question of accuracy versus anachronism: all is guesswork, really. The question is whether your guesswork has color in its cheeks and I haven't seen a filmmaker come up with a historical style that works so fluidly since Michael Mann's The Last of The Mohicans. There's geese and mud, bonnets and bees and summer light that looks very different from the winter light. Even the poetry sounded good, which really is something, the scene where Keats and Fanny speak lines of verse to one another ruined only by a long and protracted rumble from my stomach, which brought on a fit of church giggles from Kate. It wasn't entirely my fault: the movie is pin-drop quiet. I feel like I held my breath for two hours. The stars were in alignment on this one.

Sep 18, 2009

Oprah gets bamboozled by an addict (again)

"Did you go to rehab?"
"I did my stint. I did my 30 days, you know..."
"Does that mean you're drug free?"
"Yes, ma'am. I mean, you know, don't think I don't have desires for it. It takes a minute to cleanse, get off. Get off me. I have to pray it away."
"I have a drink every night. Dont get me wrong. If you see me out in a bar, having a drink, don't think—"
"Don't think she's gone back."
"No. Please don't do that to me."
"Because drinking wasn't an issue for you."
"No. It was never an issue for me. No. No."
— Whitney Houston, being interviewed by Oprah
What was the name of that rehab she went to, the one where they let you drink? It sounds terrific. The news that they have to get off all mood-altering substances is often bitterly resented by most addicts. Heroin addicts see no reason why they should come off alcohol. Alcoholics see no reason to steer clear of crack. Crack addicts see nothing wrong with a little weed every now and again. The news — drummed into everybody who enters rehab — that all mind-altering substances are equally dangerous, and all lead to one another, if not already then eventually, comes as a shock. They try to find ways around it. Maybe if I smoked but didn't inhale. Maybe if I drank but didn't inject. They all eventually relapse.

So it's quite something for Whitney Houston to have tracked down the one rehab in America that allows drinking. Presumably she must also have found her own special brand of CA/AA meetings, too, where they don't get too hung up about this whole alcohol thing. How tediously they insist on abstinence! Even more amazing is that Oprah bought it. I know she's not an addict herself, but this is supposed to be her territory. She's supposed to know her stuff when it comes to recovery. "The best interview I've ever done," she said, meaning: I got her talking about drugs. That doesn't necessarily mean she got her talking truthfully about drugs. It reminds me of the time she got bamboozled by James Frey, and for much the same reasons. There is something about addiction Oprah just doesn't get, because, in her head, she is comparing it to domestic abuse all the time.

This is a subject Oprah gets because she has lived it. She was on home turf when talking about Whitney's marriage to Bobby Brown — the way Houston had to muzzle her own career, for instance, so as not to upset the less than luminous Bobby. But when she asked her "Were you weak for him or were you weak for the drugs?" she is offering a get-out-of-gaol-free card which any addict would leap at. "He was my drug," replied Houston, predictably enough.

"I understand," said Oprah.

No, not really. She doesn't. There are similarities and crossovers between domestic abuse and addiction, obviously. Both require recovery, and the recovery for both largely consists of sharing your experience with others who have been through the same thing. But the very same sympathy you offer a victim of domestic abuse is going to be ruthlessly exploited by an active drug addict. You offer the abuse victim a shoulder to cry on and a sofa to sleep on, and you are being a good friend. You do the same to a crackhead and you will wake up to find your TV gone.

And when a recovering drug addict tells you they are still drinking, every day, and not to even think of approaching them about it, the interview heralding their comeback needs to come with a huge asterisk attached.

Teaching helplessness to a Democrat

"Psychologist Martin Seligman discovered that if you administer enough random shocks to a dog, the dog will eventually get so demoralized that it won't even try to avoid them when can easily do so. He called the phenomenon learned helplessness. Helpless dogs were paralyzed in situations they were capable of handling with aplomb. Inducing learned helplessness seems to be the GOP strategy for the Obama age. Their M.O.? Freak out randomly: The president telling kids to stay in school?!!! Counseling seniors about living wills!?! Czars?!! That these spasms make no sense is a feature, not a bug. The key is that there be absolutely no way to predict what will set off the GOP. At this rate, the Democrats will be reduced to a whimpering puddle on the lab floor in no time" — Lindsay Beyerstein, Obsidian Wings

A wicked funnel of transference and spite

Okay, that is it. I'm done. I'm finished. I know you've heard me say this before but this time it's for real: I am not watching America's Next Top Model ever again.*

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my complete inability to pick the winners on this show. They will have heard my suspicions that Tyra actually boots girls off for the very same reasons that I like them — that in some ways this might be construed as a compliment, given how capricious Tyra's judgment is; and that the show's real purposes is to reproduce the sense of visceral injustice that Tyra experienced as a young model. So the better ones are eliminated early, and the undeserving kept in, solely for the intra-model static it induces in the surivivors. There is a wicked funnel of transference and spite gusting through that woman. The girls that really need to look out are the ones she identifies with: they really get it in the neck.

But nothing quite beats last night's episode, which was like a conversation with Charles Manson in its approximation to pure, head-banging chaos. It was the first one of this season I have tuned into, number three, so I worked fast to catch up and pick the girl I thought would win, followed by the runner up. I'm used to seeing my favorites weeded out over a course of a season, by which time the program has got its hooks into me again. This time, I had to wait a sum total of 5 minutes to see one booted off and 50 minutes to see the other follow her. It was pure, unadulterated craziness. Up was down, left was right, and Courtney and Rachel were out on their tushes.

Tyra's blown it this time: she's presented me with a clear opportunity to bail, early on. I'm taking it.

*This season.

Sep 16, 2009

A couple more potential best actor nominees

"The theme of the search for meaning after a great loss is developed with great sensitivity thanks to Colin Firth's moving performance in the main role -- for which he won the best actor prize [In Venice]... Firth's measured performance, delivered in a clipped British accent, has just the right restraint, and the intelligent dialogue is a pleasure" — Hollywood Reporter
Plus, in the women's race, Annette Bening in Mother & Daughter:
"This is a great woman's film except it isn't, not really, because it got to me big-time and I generally don't fall for films aimed at the opposite genre market so go figure. It's so good and so exactingly and humanistically right... on top of this Annette Bening, who gives what I feel is possibly the best performance of her life in this film."

The Classics, if they were written today

Courtesy of Your Monkey Called

Then: The Wealth of Nations
Now: Invisible Hands: The Mysterious Market Forces That Control Our Lives and How to Profit from Them

Then: Walden
Now: Camping with Myself: Two Years in American Tuscany

Then: The Theory of the Leisure Class
Now: Buying Out Loud: The Unbelievable Truth About What We Consume and What It Says About Us

Then: The Gospel of Matthew
Now: 40 Days and a Mule: How One Man Quit His Job and Became the Boss

Then: The Prince
Now: The Prince (Foreword by Oprah Winfrey)

Courtesy of Kottke

Then: Romeo and Juliet
Now: The Teen Sex and Suicide Epidemic: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself and Your Family

Then: Book of Genesis
Now: FLOOD! A True Story of Heartbreak, Heroism, and the Will to Survive

Then: The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Now: Shed Your Skin!: How I Gave up Junk Food and Released the Butterfly Within

Then: Frankenstein
Now: Mad Science: How Stem Cell Research is Endangering Your Village

Then: The Oxford English Dictionary
Now: Word Up! 300,000 Proven Ways to Express Yourself in Speech and Writing

Then: The New Testament
Now: Getting into Heaven for Dummies

Then: Dante's Inferno
Now: Chicken Soup for the Damned

Then: Gone With The Wind
Now: Extreme Home Makeover: Confederate Edition

Sep 15, 2009

Why I'm screwed

"If you want to be happy, what’s most important is to have lots of friends. Historically, we have often thought that having a small cluster of tight, long-term friends is crucial to being happy. But Christakis and Fowler found that the happiest people in Framingham were those who had the most connections, even if the relationships weren’t necessarily deep ones." — From Clive Thompson's assessment of their research into happiness in the Times Magazine

I just saw Obama's limo

I just saw Obama's limo. I was in the deli when the guy ahead of me in the queue telling a story about someone driving past him with his windows down. "He just saw Obama," explained the cashier when I reached her.
"He's in town to speak to Wall Street."
I got out my ipohone, found out that he was due to have lunch with Bill Clinton at Il Mulino, and headed down there. I joined a large crowd on the corner West 3rd and La Guardia place, held back by metal barricades. About three blocks had been closed off. We couldn't see much, just a mass of police cars about a block away, their lights flashing, but the crowd seemed happy to collect, everyone taking turns to tell newcomers what was going on.
"Obama's having lunch."
"Really? Wow."
One woman asks me what was going on.
"Obama's having lunch with Bill Clinton," I tell her.
"Huh. And they didn't ask me," she says and wanders off.
Another guy deadpans, "boring," to laughter, then takes out his camera like everyone else.
Finally there is movement: a helicopter overhead and a phalanx of bodygaurds walking down the street towards us, waving people back from their fire-escapes. The crowd push forward against the barricade. The police cars whoop. There is a flash of sunlight in a window, and a big black limo swings into view... then disappears down Thompson street, a block away. He's not coming out way, after all.
"Oh Obama," said one girl, before walking off.

Sep 14, 2009

My first gay wedding

My friends Doug and Michael got married yesterday on Long Island. No, New York has not legalised gay marriage just yet: they got formally hitched in Masachussetts and held another ceremony at a friends house just outside Southampton. It was a big farm house, with a swimming pool, barns and stables, and some bemused-looking horses just next to the field where the ceremony took place. Hmm, I could see them thinking. Two grooms. Never seen that before. Needless to say, there were tears and laughter and kids and speeches and proud parents and bad dancing and great music and drinking and apple pie and some fire-eaters which you don't see every day. Did I feel like the institution of marriage was weakened, or my own marriage in any way threatened? Of course not; it felt strengthened, as it always is when friends of yours go through the same experience as you. If anything, I made me realise how completely stuck for an answer I would be if Doug or Michael or any other of my gay friends asked me the reason that I could get married and they couldn't. I mean honestly. What could I possibly say to them? How would that sentence begin? I'm better than you? Better at sex? Opposite attract? Finders keepers? Really. My head is as empty as a beach-ball. I'm curious: what arguments have people been using?

Sep 11, 2009

Cheer up, luv, it might never happen!

"When he picked up a pair of hitchhikers and allowed one of them to drive, the sideways image that he took shows the driver—a dead-eyed ringer for Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—in determined profile. Check the contact sheet at the back of the catalogue, and you come across the succeeding frame: same angle, same guy, but now with a definite grin—closer in mood, instantly, to the Dreyfuss who gunned his truck in pursuit of the alien craft, his face lit with chirpy wonder. Then there is the heroine of “The Americans,” an elevator girl from Miami Beach, of whom Jack Kerouac asked, in concluding his introduction to the U.S. edition: "And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name & address?" Again, it is worth consulting the relevant contact strip: fourteen shots of the same woman, at least half of them catching her in the act of a smile—a polite gesture adopted for those riding beside her, you might say, but then professional courtesy is no less a national trait than the ruefulness on which Frank preferred to focus" — Anthony Lane, reviewing the Robert Frank exhibition in The New Yorker
I've often wondered whether people in photographs are as miserable as they look. Proper photographs, that is, by proper photographers: the kind who threw a camera in the back of a truck during the great depression and drove down to the dustbowl to take stark black and white pictures of people living stark black-and-white lives. Not your mum's holiday snaps. A few years ago, I was in an airport and there was this guy sitting opposite me in the terminal. He looked sunk in despair, sat there, being ignored by everyone around him, his face wan with the bad lighting. I thought to myself: If I was a photographer, that would make a great image of modern-day alienation and anomie. Then I caught myself, backed up a little, and thought: hang on, how do I really know that guy is miserable. I looked at him again. This time, I tried to imagine him thinking about the nice Turkey dinner that was waiting for him when he got home, his wife, his kids. He might not be showing it on the outside, but it was warming him from the inside. Before I knew it, I couldn't look at him without being convinced he was sitting on the most extraordinary secret. A photograph would never be able to capture it. In fact, a photograph would do the exact opposite: it would suggest he was locked in existential torpor when he wasn't.

And then I thought of all the photographs I've seen — in exhibitions, in books — where I assumed something similar. A sullen young mother during the Great Depression who can only be thinking about what a lousy time it was to have kids. A drag queen in New York during the fifties who just has to be thinking about the difficulties of being a drag queen in fifties New York. A corporate worker on the subway home, staring into his own personal abyss. How do I know they weren't thinking about a turkey dinner, too? Or maybe they were just thinking about the fact that some stranger they didn't know was pointing a camera at them. It doesn't happen every day. The act of being ambushed by a photographer doesn't exactly bring out the best in people. Who pulls on their game face for a stranger? You look back defiantly, sullenly. And as for being photographed on the sly, on the subway home, say, well forget it: who wouldn't look like a corporate worker ant crushed by the wheels of industry?

Sep 10, 2009

Ode to joy: The return of Paddy McAloon

“Have you ever seen those documentaries about people who stockpile newspapers and bread and bicycles? I’m a bit like that. I have this massive creative urge, which I struggle with. The desire to write is much stronger than the desire to turn any of them into records. At a certain point it went from being a sort of sensible strategy of laying things away for a long winter and now I’ve got a mountain of junk and music. I feel like someone in an Edgar Allan Poe story, buried under my boxes of albums.

“I have a good family life, I do the school pick up, I have friends. But I am reclusive in a lot of things. I don’t really care for the brave new world. You’re talking to a guy who doesn’t drive. I’m not on the internet. But I don’t think it’s as mad as it looks. If you decide to devote your life to something as an artistic endeavour, you’re doing it cause you think it’s worth doing. Its not some act of grandeur for myself, its more that I can get away with it, and concentrate on the exciting bit, the flowery bit. I feel like when I talk about it, I’m coming from a sensible place. But I know how it makes me sound. Maybe it’s the beard.” — The Daily Telegraph
I've always thought Paddy McAloon had a little Brian Wilson in him. Green Gartside certainly does. I do love my eighties pop perfectionists turned bearded recluses. I tried being a recluse once, living in the middle of the forest outside Woodstock, while I finished a book. But I couldn't hack it. I finished the book, and came to find my trash overflowing with empties. Where was everybody? You can't be a recluse if you're asking yourself that kind of question. So I moved back to the city. It was fun while it lasted.

So. A new Prefab Sprout album.
The US open on the TV. A new novel from Lorrie Moore on my bedside table, and new books from Nicholson Baker and Nick Hornby on the way. The memory godawful Norwegian receding in the summer haze. Things are looking up. More than looking up. If one godawful Norwegian trilogy is all I have to pay for a Prefab/Hornby/Nadal happiness trifecta then count me one of God's contented customers.

How To tips on heckling

So Joe Wilson has decided to introduce British style heckling into the house of congress. There's just one small detail he didn't get right: when you heckle the prime minister in the UK, it is because you have caught him out in a bit of flannel so obvious, so self-evident, that it is all you can do to register your beggared credulity.
Language and expressions used in the Chamber must conform to a number of rules. Erskine May states "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language". Objection has been taken both to individual words and to sentences and constructions in the case of the former, to insulting, coarse, or abusive language (particularly as applied to other Members); and of the latter, to charges of lying or being drunk and misrepresentation of the words of another. Among the words to which Speakers have objected over the years have been blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor. Members sometimes use considerable ingenuity to circumvent these rules (as when, for instance, Winston Churchill substituted the phrase "terminological inexactitude" for "lie") but they must be careful to obey the Speaker's directions, as a Member who refuses to retract an offending expression may be named or required to withdraw from the Chamber.
You do not, as Wilson did, heckle the speaker because he has blown your cover with your constituents. This morning, predictably enough, the media looked into who was right and found — doh! — that it was Obama.


Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.

What a tool.

Sep 9, 2009

Marxist slur of the month*

The Republicans spout such freeform nonsense these days, that's it a shame to single out anyone of them for praise. But this week's belly laugh came courtesy of Republican Party chairman Jim Greer who last week accused the president of seeking to use his speech to the nation's school children as an opportunity to brainwash them with “socialist ideology”. Having read the text and found that all Obama did was tell them to stay in school and wash their hands, Greer graciously conceded, "In its current form, it’s fine. But it remains to be seen if it’s the speech he’s going to give.” Best be safe than sorry. Obama might momentarily break cover and start reciting Das Capital in a scary Exorcist voice which, run backwards, tells the little chilluns to kill grandma.

*In a fruitless effort to limit use of the terms Marxist, Communist, Socialist, and Nazi by politicians who haven't the foggiest what they mean.

Sep 8, 2009

It could all be so much simpler

"British terrorists planned to blow up at least seven transatlantic flights from London, murdering more than 1,500 people in a plot on a scale to rival the September 11 attacks, a jury found today... three men now face life sentences after being found guilty of conspiring to explode liquid bombs on airliners flying from Britain to North America." — The Guardian
There. What's so difficult about that? Terrorists are found guilty in a court of law on the basis of evidence, and sentenced to life in prison.* It sounds so breathtakingly simple compared to the snarl-up Bush has landed on Obama's desk. The US government, by contrast, can't prosecute because the only terrorists they've been able to lay their hands on are in permanent legal limbo. They can't present evidence because the evidence is tainted by torture. And nor can they sentence them to life in prison because the Republicans are busy spreading the belief that no prison is strong enough to hold them — that the terrorists will burn through any wall using their evil death rays, like the X-Men.

* Extra bonus: the eavesdropping that caught them was legal. Greenwald:
So here -- with this British Terrorist conviction -- we have the perfect template for how Terrorism can be effectively combated within the rule of law. Authorities learned of the plot through legal investigations involving warrants and FISA court supervision. The Terrorist suspects were not disappeared to a secret prison, nor held without charges, nor did they have confessions tortured out of them, and were not given some sham military commission; instead, they were charged with a crime, given a trial in a real court with due process, convicted by a citizen jury and then sentenced to long prison terms. It was all effectuated in accordance with legal means and basic precepts of justice.

Cinderella by Kurt Vonnegut posts an account of a lecture given by Kurt Vonnegut on the need people have for drama in their lives.
“People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let's look at a few examples. Let's look at a very common story arc. The story of Cinderella. People love that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this."
Real life, he said, goes more like this:
"But because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.”