Monday, June 30, 2003

The Great High School Hope

So NBA viewership is down. I mean, really down. This leads me to wonder: Is the Lebron James hype (the great high school phenom) cooked up to generate some excitement about the NBA? Let's think about this. NBA viewership seems to ride on exciting stars, right? (See, obviously, viewership correlated with Michael Jordan's career) Well, what better than the second coming of Michael Jordan? I've heard the following about James: (1) MJ could have something to learn from him; (2) he's the greatest player to ever come out of high school; (3) there's a line in Vegas on whether he will average more points per game than Michael did his rookie year. Really? Well, I saw him play on tv and I wasn't floored. But it sure sounds intriguing huh? Intriguing enough to get you back in front of your television? Maybe that's what the movers and shakers at the NBA think...

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Quare points us toward a 1996 article by Sasha Volokh about private property themes in Disney movies:

Most Americans are oblivious to the Disney private-property debate, but it is going on in front of our very eyes. Pocahontas' view is that "You can own the earth and still, / All you'll own is [] Earth until / You can paint with all the colors of the wind." Who owns the land is at best irrelevant and at worst spiritually deadening. But as The Lion King shows, secure possession makes possible the very conditions in which Pocahontas' rocks, trees and creatures can thrive.
I was interested to see that Sasha's article was printed in my hometown newspaper, although the name of the town is misspelled at the bottom of the piece.
Movie Quote of the Day:
"I got it."
"What?"
"Let's kill every first born male child in Rock Ridge."
"Nah, too Jewish."
~ Blazing Saddles

Song of the Day:
Celine Dion, "Only One Road"

Happy Birthday:
Kathy Bates
Mel Brooks
John Cusak
John Elway
Richard Rogers
The federal do-not-call telephone list opened yesterday, and there was quite a bit of interest: "At one point, 108 people per second were registering their numbers either by phone or online."

Register your phone number here. After October 1, telemarketers can be fined up to $11,000 each time they call you.

Friday, June 27, 2003

Summer is here

So we spent the last few weeks complaining about how cold it's been... and now it's totally sucky hot. To get in the summer mood, here's a fascinating article on the history of the watermelon.
Originally domesticated in tropical Africa from a stringy, unpromising, sometimes bitter thing no bigger than a grapefruit, it had developed into the big boy we recognize by about 2000 BC, when it first showed up in Egyptian art.

....

[I]n 1988 growers introduced seedless varieties, beginning here in California. Of course, they're not truly seedless — they just have relatively few, relatively puny seeds. This makes them more difficult to propagate than seeded watermelons, so they're somewhat more expensive.

But they now rule the California and Arizona watermelon industry, the third largest in the country; 90% of [California's] watermelons are seedless.

....

Chefs have a problem with the fruit, though. Watermelon, the anarchist of produce, just resists traditional preparation methods.

....

So cooks tend to use watermelon in raw form, in salads and relishes, soups and beverages and sorbets. In fact, though, it is possible to cook watermelon. It's often made into jam in China, and Mennonites in Russia traditionally used watermelon syrup as a sweetener.
Just trying to live up to our blog name. Happy Summer!
The cases of groping on the Japanese subways that came to light maybe a decade ago have led some lines to implement women-only cars. The CS Monitor reports.
Kremey Tentacles

Krispy Kreme continues to make headway into New England, what has been Dunkin Donuts territory. There is a very interesting article here from the Boston Globe discussing how Dunkin Donuts is primarily a coffee business and Krispy Kreme is a donut business.
The word on the street is that Krispy Kreme has better doughnuts, but Dunkin' Donuts has better coffee. It's true Dunkin' Donuts is fanatical about its beans, and is currently the No. 1 purveyor of fast-food coffee, though it often runs neck-and-neck with Starbucks. ''We're sort of a coffee company disguised as a doughnut company,'' says Rob Stephen, Dunkin's coffee product development manager.
A store opened the other day (Tuesday) in Medford, Mass. A friend of KC wrote in with this eye-witness report:
It's in Medford, in the middle of a shopping mall. It was a zoo. TV cameras, a cheerleading squad, acres of parked cars, and throngs of people.
Cheerleaders?
Pictures of the YLS post-bomb reconstruction.

The aftermath of the bombing is shown here.
Quote of the Day:
"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
~ Helen Keller

Song of the Day:
Eric Carmen, "Make Me Lose Control"

Happy Birthday:
Helen Keller
Tobey Maguire
H. Ross Perot
A lightbulb went off in my head when I saw the following in Walter Dellinger's analysis of the Bollinger decisions:

As a redneck admitted to Yale Law School, I was a beneficiary of affirmative action.
And just like that, the past three years of my life began to make sense.
We're back from a fun and productive few days in Boston.

Random observations: Blogger looks different. And good googly-moogly, this weather! Surfaces in my apartment that shouldn't be are warm to the touch; even my shampoo is ickily hot. (You'll notice I've seamlessly transitioned from complaining about cold weather to compaining about the heat.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

The Supreme Court's affirmative action decision helped How Appealling get over 25,000 hits yesterday, a 10,000 jump from his previous high.

I'm sure Mr. Bashman's comprehensive and excellent coverage will continue throughout the week as commentators chew over the decisions. Walter Dellinger and Dahlia Lithwick have early reactions here.
Quote of the Day:
"Admiration, n.: Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves."
~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Song of the Day:
Fleetwood Mac, "You Make Loving Fun"

Happy Birthday:
Ambrose Bierce
Jack Dempsey
Mick Fleetwood
The WP reviews the fifth Harry Potter.

What makes "Phoenix " interesting is the way Rowling doesn't just stick this portrait of the wizard as a teenage misfit onto the familiar good-vs.-evil scenario, as if with a Permanent Sticking Charm. She lets it color our perceptions. Harry, the bemused and mistrustful adolescent, breaks the whole good-guy/bad-guy question wide open this year. Despite his crabbiness, he realizes that he himself isn't always good. And his anger-driven misgivings about others he thought he had understood suddenly seem revolutionary.
I am reading it aloud, and having it read to me. We're only on Chapter 2. My usual practice for plot-driven fiction is to blaze through at lightning speed, so it's nice to slow down a little -- like eating a chocolate bar one square at a time.

Here's a dissenting view on Pottermania.

Monday, June 23, 2003

Kate and I are heading to Boston for a few days to do important stuff and whatnot. This means a short break from BarBri and, more important for our readers, from blogging.

So you'll have to get your blog-fix from other quarters, like Volokh (Sasha's posting like crazy!), and Jaj De Jo, who's shizzolating the Supreme Court website.

Also check out new duct tape goods from Vanessa Jean.

The posting members of the Cabinet gathered for dinner tonight (mmmm, Mexican). It was great to see everyone.
Dickens v. BarBri II

Overwhelmed by the challenge of memorizing the minutely detailed information required for the New York Bar, I no longer have the leisure to read Dickens at the expense of substantive law. But I squeeze in the Pickwick Papers on the elliptical cross-trainer and have found more discouragement for a career in the law. For instance, here's how Dickens describes the Temple, London:

These sequestered nooks are the public offices of the legal profession, where writs are issued, judgments signed, declarations filed, and numerous other ingenious machines put in motion for the torture and torment of His Majesty's liege subjects, and the comfort and emolument of the practitioners of the law (ch.XXXI).
In chapter XXXIV Mrs. Bardell's suit against Pickwick for breach of promise of marriage is finally heard. Going into court Pickwick's solicitor hopes that the foreman of the jury has had a good breakfast, explaining to his client, "Discontented or hungry jurymen … always find for the plaintiff." That's just a low expectation; the presentation of the plaintiff's case goes well beyond this cynicism. She enters the court "in a drooping state" on the arms of her friends, and at the appearance of her young son, we read:

Mrs. Bardell started; suddenly recollecting herself, she kissed him in a frantic manner; then relapsing into a state of hysterical imbecility, the good lady requested to be informed where she was. In reply to this, Mrs. Cluppins and Mrs. Sanders turned their heads away and wept, while Messrs. Dodson and Fogg [her solicitors] intreated the plaintiff to compose herself. Serjeant Buzfuz [her barrister] rubbed his eyes very hard with a large white handkerchief, and gave an appealing look towards the jury, while the judge was visibly affected, and several of the beholders tried to cough down their emotions.
Even Pickwick's solicitor has to admit: "Very good notion that, indeed…. Capital fellows those Dodson and Fogg; excellent ideas of effect."

The theatrics continue in Buzfuz's opening remarks, in which he describes Mrs. Bardell as

a widow; yes, gentlemen, a widow. The late Mr. Bardell, after enjoying, for many years, the esteem and confidence of his sovereign, as one of the guardians of his royal revenues, glided almost imperceptibly from the world, to seek elsewhere for that repose and peace which a custom-house can never afford.
The narrator then continues: "At this pathetic description of the decease of Mr. Bardell, who had been knocked on the head with a quart-pot in a public-house cellar, the learned serjeant's voice faltered, and he proceeded with emotion…."

Buzfuz attempts to incriminate Pickwick with two notes he wrote to Mrs. Bardell, warning the jury that the notes

were evidently intended at the time, by Pickwick, to mislead and delude any third parties into whose hands they might fall. Let me read the first:--"Garraway's, twelve o'clock. Dear Mrs. B.--Chops and Tomata sauce. Yours, Pickwick." Gentlemen, what does this mean? Chops and Tomata sauce! Yours, Pickwick! Chops! Gracious heavens! and Tomata sauce! Gentlemen, is the happiness of a sensitive and confiding female to be trifled away, by such shallow artifices as these?
And what of the judge whom we might expect to rein in this performance that hints at so much without stating anything? We've already read:

Serjeant Buzfuz, who had proceeded with such volubility that his face was perfectly crimson, here paused for breath. The silence awoke Mr. Justice Starleigh, who immediately wrote down something with a pen without any ink in it, and looked unusually profound, to impress the jury with the belief that he always thought most deeply with his eyes shut.
Plaintiff, counsel, jury, and judge--that's nearly the whole line-up. You couldn't present a much baser version of the lot, short of showing them knowingly engaging in illegal misconduct.

Which is just what Chicago does. Still, I'd say its cynicism about the justice system is greater than Dickens's only in degree, not kind. (At first I thought to say he wouldn't joke about murder, but then I read the interpolated legend about the imprisoned Prince Bladud, who "naturally began to ruminate on a plan of escape, which, after months of preparation, he managed to accomplish; considerately leaving his dinner knife in the heart of his gaoler, lest the poor fellow (who had a family) should be considered privy to his flight, and punished accordingly by the infuriated king" (ch.XXXVI).) The histrionic trial in Pickwick certainly casts a dim light on all that people said about Chicago's pointing out specifically American forms of depravity.

Here, in a 23 March 2003 New York Times editorial reprinted by Global Aware, Frank Rich presents an appropriately skeptical resume of the musical play's reception as topical commentary:

When Watkins's play was reborn as a Bob Fosse musical on Broadway in 1975, it was seen as reflecting the cynicism of Watergate; the onstage band played a sardonic "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the finale. When the musical was revived in 1996 - in the production still running on Broadway - Billy Flynn was identified with Johnnie Cochran and Roxie with O. J. Simpson. This year Miramax, the studio that produced the film "Chicago," is trumpeting the movie's social relevance in one of the relentless commercials of its Oscar campaign. The movie is "all about American institutions being corrupt," says its director, Rob Marshall, as we see black-and-white photographs of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and of the disgraced Richard Nixon's departure from the White House.
Of course, Rich's analysis of the movie's reception is itself an example of irrelevant and flabby political guff, seeing irony in its popularity at the same time that George W. Bush is, to his mind, historically dishonoring the Presidency. (As an overwrought analysis of nothing, Rich's column exceeds Serjeant Buzfuz's "Chops and Tomata sauce" oration.) Rich's skepticism about other people's notions is nonetheless well-placed.

For instance, in the 27 December 2002 online edition of Playbill, Bill Condon, the screenwriter of Chicago is quoted as saying:

I'm amazed by how enduring this little story has turned out to be. Maurine Dallas Watkins' original play ushered in a generation of cynical, wise-cracking newspaper comedies. It actually opened a few months before The Front Page. In 1975, Bob Fosse cast a darker light on the material. The corruption of the legal system became a metaphor for the hollowness of all American institutions. Like so much popular art of the time, it was informed by the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. Then Chicago was revived in 1996, on the heels of the O.J. Simpson case, and the show business metaphor really came into focus. People connected to it in a completely new way. As for the movie, I suspect that the blurring of the line between notoriety and celebrity will make a lot of sense in our post-Monica age.
Even if you read "the hollowness of all American institutions" as an outlook Condon is ascribing to Fosse, it's still surprising that people could take such facile attitudinizing seriously.

Chicago is a terrific show (even without the Broadway razzle-dazzle, as in William Wellman's 1942 non-musical adaptation starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou). And it's more terrific than Bob Fosse's much-cited claim to have been inspired by Watergate would make it even if such motivation were discernible in the final production. (Click here for a comparison of the original Broadway production and the movie, as well as some interesting background links.) Topical satire tends to be overrated by people who agree with it, which is to say by the people least in need of feeling its impact. The situation with Chicago is a little trickier--they seem to be interpreting it as topical satire so that they can "agree" with it, that is, so that they can take it more seriously than they would a more generally jaded, less specifically committed (i.e., "irresponsible") form of irony, which I prefer.

The best movie response to Watergate has been Nasty Habits (1976), based on Muriel Spark's 1974 novel The Abbess of Crewe, which transposes the scandal to a convent where Glenda Jackson engages in dirty tricks to ensure her election as Mother Superior. And it's wonderful not because it tells you anything about Watergate or political corruption, but because it translates all that into a humming little hive of fantasy of its own.

(Perhaps the most serious problem with topical satire is that the target audience adjusts (or, frankly, lowers) its aesthetic standards once it perceives congenial opinions, and the artists aim lower in anticipation of this. Indeed, the artist doesn't have to be trying to make a point at all, so long as he says something that can be taken as one. Recently I was dumbfounded when the audiences at the New York City Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia and the Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night applauded at lines that sounded like critiques of the current Administration's foreign policy. Even if the people staging these shows had intended this accidental punning, it wouldn't have made any sense in context.)

The trial in Pickwick should at least refute any glib editorial anti-Americanism (respectable among people who equate anti-Americanism with both political profundity and commitment) that suggests the judicial shenanigans are quintessentially American forms of corruption. Chicago does equate the abuses of the legal system with the equally corrupt world of show biz, but it's an ironic tribute to the enterprisingness of human corruption, which is the source of the courtroom antics, the crimes that land people in court, the nature of media stardom, and every other specialized system for expressing human desire, not forgetting sex and the conduct of most marriages.

Left-wing anti-Americans have their own version of American exceptionalism: we're the most corrupt, most violent, least intelligent, least compassionate civilization--if we can be called one--in the history of the world. It's a kind of anti-faith; you can't really argue against it. But Chicago is inspired precisely because its scope is larger. The characters express their vices in recognizably modern American idioms, but those vices predate not only the second President Bush, Watergate, and Pickwick, too, but the Republic, by a lot. Would the ninth commandment have prohibited false testimony (Exodus 20:16), would the judgment of Solomon have been set down as a marvel of clearsightedness (in the face of the very Chicago-like self-serving perjury of a "harlot") (1 Kings 3:16-28), if the moral unreliability of humans hadn't presented problems for the administration of justice even back then?

You can find this comment and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Tiger Acts!

For one of the funnier commercials I've ever seen, head over to Buick.com. "29 Unsuspecting Golfers. 4 Buck Raniers. And 1 Tiger on the Prowl." That really says it all. Tiger ambushes a number of sets of everyday people who are playing golf and challenges them to a shoot-out. Closest to the pin, on the green, wins a Buick Ranier. All filmed by camoflauged, hidden cameras.

It is just so much fun, and Tiger looks like he is sincerely having a good time. Someone reviewing the commercial said that Tiger's got that same natural charisma that made Jordan so marketable. He's just comfortable in front of a camera and he puts people at ease.

Funny that this seems to be the new trend in advertising. The bit is way too long to air in its entirety on TV, so they air only parts of it and then the full ad can be seen online. This is not unlike the new Honda ad that is spectacular, but way too long to air on television. (The Honda ad recently won 2d place at the Cannes Film Festival. An ad, at a film festival! Seriously folks!) It is an interesting cost-benefit analysis. The companies have decided that the huge amounts of money put into making the ad are worth a gamble on email word-of-mouth (and blogs and other on-line discussion groups) instead of the guaranteed eyeballs they get by buying television airtime...

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Jonah Goldberg says the battle over gay rights is all but over:

Earlier this month, Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly tried to cancel a scheduled Gay Pride Month celebration at the Department of Justice for lesbian and gay employees. He failed. Despite pressure from social conservative activists, DOJ reversed course in the face of protests from gay groups and a sympathetic media (and, probably, pressure from the White House).

When the most famous and powerful member of the Religious Right in the U.S. government can't stop a gay pride event in his own office building, held by his own employees, you know that social conservatives are losing this fight.
Jonah says it's time for social conservatives to make "some painful capitulations -- intellectual, moral, philosophical and financial" and for the gay rights side to be magnanimous in victory. (He's a bit coy about exactly what side he's been on.)

Link via Andrew Sullivan, who says Goldberg is on the right track, but "until marriage rights are achieved, and military service is allowed, full citizenship will still be elusive for gay Americans."
The hoodie and umbrella weather continues here in New Haven and throughout the northeast. It's still sodden and chilly today after thunderstorms last night.

All the rain has put people in a shopping mood, according to the NYT.
Check out this promising new YLS blog from a friend of the Kitchen Cabinet.
Here's a round-up of what few developments there have been recently in the Yale Law bombing case:

Federal authorities investigating the Yale Law School bombing have impaneled a grand jury to collect evidence on former or current employees and students who may hold a grudge against the school, a source familiar with the probe said.

In recent weeks, FBI agents have searched the homes or dorm rooms of a computer enthusiast, a former employee convicted of stealing rare books from the school and a law student who often went shooting in the Wallingford woods with a group called the Yale Law Gunners.

A month after the pipe bomb ripped through Room 120, investigators still seem to be casting a wide net but getting no closer to solving the case.
Room 120 remains a walled-off reconstruction zone.
Also in the WP, speculation that Chief Justice William Rehnquist may not be retiring this summer as so many of us expected:

On June 14, at an annual gathering of former law clerks from his 31 years on the court, Rehnquist, 78, gave no hint that this year's reunion might be the last, according to two people who were present. His health appeared good, and far from seeming wistful, Rehnquist cracked jokes at the expense of some former clerks who had RSVP'd "yes" for the affair, paid their share of the costs and then failed to show up.

"My own expectations [of a Rehnquist resignation] continue to downshift," a Rehnquist associate said. "I honestly would view it as no more than a 50-50 possibility."
Fifty-fifty is still pretty good odds.
Those recent law grads suffering through BarBri will be interested to see a column on juries in today's WP by Charles Whitebread, our lecturer on criminal law. Whitebread says "the search for a sanitized jury is both impractical and wrong. A sanitized jury is not a constitutional requirement. Nor should it be a goal."

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Movie Review

Since Lethal Weapon (1987) the male co-stars of comic cop-buddy pictures have engaged in hotwired patter between action setpieces and unconventional behavior in the action setpieces that sends them into fireball hyperdrive. You get some laughs and more mayhem than on a ghoulish child's dreamed-of best day at the racetrack. (I believe Richard Rush's Freebie and the Bean (1974) starring James Caan and Alan Arkin set the trend, but the Lethal Weapon series popularized it.) Ron Shelton's Hollywood Homicide goes even farther, but in an eccentric direction: the comic by-play that is the background in cop pictures has been developed to such an extent it looms over the foreground. The routine criminal investigation and the violence it leads to are always so rote as to be insignificant; in Hollywood Homicide the personality material is so enjoyable the insignificance of the plot isn't offensive. Who cares about all that crap, anyway? The bad guys are unmasked and fall hard. What more do you need to know?

Instead the movie focuses on the comic desperation and confusion of Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as a veteran homicide detective and his junior partner, both of whom have an uncertain sense of vocation in a very L.A. way. Ford has tried to supplement his income by branching out into real estate and has sunk all his money in a mansion he can't unload, while car and alimony payments eat up the income he was hoping to augment. Hartnett initially started teaching yoga to get laid but has increasingly come to appreciate the spiritual element; his outlook on life has opened up enough, anyway, that he thinks he'd rather be an actor than a cop and so is in rehearsals for a showcase production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

The script draws on a genuine phenomenon: the way Southern Californians intertwine the urges to be more and to have more, the spiritual and the material. The lure of elusive open possibility has unsettled these cops' sense of calling without leading them where they hoped to go. Even yoga hasn't been exactly what Hartnett expected--it's been both more and less. SoCal puts you in a muzzy, relativist head, so you think, Sure it's corrupt of him to nail his female students on the road to enlightenment, but is that worse than the guys nailing girls who aren't on the road at all? The great Lena Olin rounds out the trio as the alluring radio psychic Ford is seeing. Sometimes she has telepathic visions and sometimes, as she admits, she just makes shit up. It's more than a living, it's a way of life.

This isn't filler in the script by director Ron Shelton and Robert Souza. For instance, while the two cops are cruising, Hartnett has Ford feed Blanche's lines to him so he can practice his Stanley. And Ford is constantly working real estate deals into their investigation of a multiple homicide at a rap club. That murder is related somehow to an internal affairs investigation of Ford, and the entertaining disjointedness of the movie is most evident in the fact that the climax comes not when the good guys triumph over the bad guys, but when the good cops are brought in for interrogation by the bad guys. Ford keeps doing business on his cell phone, challenging the other cop to grab his phone off the table first when it rings, while Hartnett displays various yoga positions to his impressionable female interrogator. Shelton gives the sequence an emphatic rhythm, letting it play and play, and it gets funnier as it gets thumpier. It's precisely because the nutty material hasn't been smoothly integrated into the cop picture formula that it's so effective.

Ford plays his part convincingly although the character is a shade too desperate for his central star persona, which is a man who doesn't get deeply rattled no matter how desperate things get. That persona has the steadiness of the dad who tries not to let on to the kids in the car that he's lost or worried, which goes along with Ford's non-macho action-hero masculinity. He was all wrong in Peter Weir's Mosquito Coast (1986) because he's not believably prey to emotional disturbances of the kind that would let him wreak havoc on his family. He's as little mad as any star ever has been. Just as his wrinkles are on the surface--mostly in his clothes, in fact--the madness in his movies is in the external circumstances.

Ford's model would be Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), a smooth, grounded man caught up in events so berserk they drive him to extremes--of daring, endurance, ingenuity, but also clownishness. Ford is rumpled where Grant was sleek, and he can also be blunt in his sarcasm and snappish in romantic comedy conflicts in ways that would violate Grant's polished surface and even temperature. (At times Ford's gallantry is more a matter of theory than practice.) But his sexual independence does resemble Grant's as the jaded aviator in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and overall he has a similar confidence without any need for self-assertion, which is what makes both actors romantic. They don't threaten to overpower their female co-stars, and they can take looking foolish in stride. This lack of assertion also limits them as actors--they don't respond on many levels and aren't inviting us in to inspect in any case. Ford is unself-conscious about appearances, in a countercultural way, where Grant was controlled, but their emotional inhibitions are comparable, even if they result from different motives.

All this makes Ford a very low-pressure all-around man of action, more like Grant than a serioso superhero or great white hunter, and that's good because his more memorable action-adventures have been of the type, like the Grant classic of colonialist balderdash Gunga Din (1939), that don't require weight or gravity, that could barely handle it. (Irvin Kershner got a striking performance from Ford, maybe his best, in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but one entirely within his limitations.) Ford's role in Hollywood Homicide may not be ideal for him, and Shelton might have got more from a hotter-headed comedian, Michael Keaton maybe, but it's close enough: Ford has here the testiness of a man at the end of his rope, and he knows how to use it for comedy.

Hartnett is a soft-sided young star, without the male crust that would make him believable as a cop (and that makes his vaunting over the man who killed his father seem especially out of character--the saving joke is that he boasts about his acting). But his softness works for the character, a cop who hasn't learned to shoot straight (as we see in the funny opening gag, which turns out to be a plant for his gruesome-funny shoot-out at the climax). Likewise, he doesn't hype the comedy. He's not an insistent sketch comedian, but his combination of studboy nonchalance and sheepishness is inherently comic. He doesn't need to work his routines; you can laugh just looking at his slight sense of disorientation whenever things don't come easy to him. (He can, however, be very funny when he tries, for instance, when Ford shows up at his yoga classe and he has to explain his mixed motives to his partner who sees only acres of ass.)

Hollywood Homicide doesn't have the commitment or originality of Shelton's scripts for Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire (1983), an amazing political romance about photojournalists starring Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Gene Hackman, and The Best of Times (1986), a small-town slapstick comedy starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell as men driven to replay their last high school football game, or of the movies he's directed himself from his own scripts, Bull Durham (1988), a sex comedy about minor league baseball starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, and White Men Can't Jump (1992), a basketball comedy starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes. No director of sports movies has ever overcome the mind-body division to the extent Shelton has. (In traditional American sports he finds the transcendence Hartnett is searching for in eastern mysticism and art.) And even his uneven biopic of the legendarily unpleasant baseball great Cobb (1994) starring Tommy Lee Jones and the forced romantic comedy Tin Cup (1996) starring Kevin Costner as a hard-headed golf pro are meaningfully personal works.

By contrast, Hollywood Homicide feels like product that Shelton tried to upgrade by smacking it around, loosening it up, writing in between the lines until the in-between stuff became the story. He manages to give it "character" in a fast, slapdash way that doesn't require much thought or feeling on his part or ours. By going at it balls out, Shelton and his leads knock you into such a good mood you're not likely to complain.

At the same time, Hollywood Homicide stands as proof that talented men can't necessarily do well the standard things that they've always been too intelligent to try. In other words, selling out may require more than corruption. The movie has more plot than Shelton can handle intelligibly; the gunplay and car chases are ill-timed and hard to follow; and while the scenes featuring such supporting players as Lolita Davidovich, Dwight Yoakam, and Gladys Knight are too set, others featuring Eric Idle and Martin Landau fly by or are shapeless. Hartnett's showcase performance of Streetcar and the wacky climactic car chase, which at one point puts Ford on a little girl's pink bike with streamers, basket, and horn while Hartnett hijacks a van with a mom and panicky kids on board, aren't funny enough. Car chases can be thrown together and still get their effects, but slapstick sequences can't.

I suspect the problem for Shelton is that the plot and even the characters of Hollywood Homicide don't flirt with the kind of failure he responds to. Shelton is best with men as they come to realize they're trapped in the game that used to work for them. (This is ordinarily an ironic view; in Cobb he reached for tragedy, with mixed results.) Shelton sees the sexiness of sporting men who can express themselves physically in the face of divided feelings and diminishing results. This expressive ability functions for his jocks as a saving form of satisfaction that starts with the physical but can expand out from there, especially in Bull Durham, which as a result has a jauntiness and bloom despite the hero's defeat and Shelton's anti-conventional refusal to harness the plot to the winning of a big game. The mixture of kinetic release and failure in Shelton's movies makes Costner a better actor for him than Harrison Ford because Costner can suggest the remote areas of a character, his fears and self-disgust and aggression. The beaming, clueless Harrelson was also better because he suggested the potential misery his character's sunny resilience shut out. Whether you see it as light material with shading or dark material with highlights, Shelton's best work deals with the characteristic failings of appealing regular guys. Hollywood Homicide has the treatment and the guys, but not the plot necessary to give them any depth.

Shelton is plainly uninterested in the homicide, and not that interested in Hollywood, either. The intertwining of material and spiritual aspirations in L.A. is a Michael Tolkin subject. (Hollywood Homicide sounds like an alternative title for Tolkin's novel The Player, and the 1992 Robert Altman movie adapted from it, in which a studio executive murders a screenwriter.) If you want to see the theme taken seriously and still presented as high comedy, check out Tolkin's incomparable ironic quest romance The New Age (1994) starring Judy Davis and Peter Weller. Hollywood Homicide can't compare to that, or to Robert Altman's masterpiece The Long Goodbye (1973), an updating of Raymond Chandler's take on Southern Californian corruption. Altman has an even flukier sense of vaudeville than Shelton does in Hollywood Homicide, one well over the border of the macabre, and a finer perception of the culture of corruption and the impact of the collision of real people's unreal lives.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Slate explains why you don't love Tim Duncan: "he's the consummate square, a great example of how discipline, dedication, and noble conduct can triumph over all, which is, speaking on behalf of crass and lazy people everywhere, a truly unendearing thought."
"95 Percent Of Opinions Withheld On Visit To Family" -- from The Onion.
They say you can bet on anything.
Bookmakers William Hill, meanwhile, leapt ahead and took a bet on future plot twists in the seventh and last installment in the [Harry Potter] series.

"Once we were sure that it wasn't JK Rowling trying to place the bet, we were happy to oblige," said a spokesman. "After all, we are, er, bookmakers."
"Bookmakers." Those London reporters are so civilized.
Get off your soap box

Our friend Dean Jens finally takes the bait on my Chicken Little posts about the "doctor" at WHO. He writes in, telling me (not in so many words) to simmer down a bit.
Kate, does the fact that nobody in the major media picked up on this WHO fellow's pandemic scare suggest that it was known how to take what he said?

... Without seeing what he said, though, it sounds no worse from that standpoint than many other routine opinions we get from credentialed sources. You yourself concede that "what he says may in fact be true and may in fact happen", and he's clearly failed to incite a panic. So my impression is he's been lumped in with the rest of the breathless evening news.
Dean's right, of course, and I should let it go. But I'd like to remain on the record as outraged and appalled.
Sports broadcasting

I saw on television the other day the networks are losing money on almost every sports contract--NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. NBC, which by my memory swept into the business in the 90s, has given up every one of their traditional contracts (no more NBA on NBC!). The one thing they are holding on to is the Olympics.

This leads me to wonder whether the decline in revenue is a result of DirecTV and other satellite sports packages. Consider: people who needed their daily or weekly sports fix can subscribe to such packages (like NFL Ticket--which gives you every NFL game every weekend) and watch their team play, rather than being force-fed whatever it is the traditional networks have chosen to cover. Of course, a change in America's viewing tastes probably has something to do with it--but I would argue that that only accounts for a small part of it; America is a sports-centric nation, after all.
Quote of the Day:
"To love is to receive a glimpse of heaven."
~ Karen Sunde

Song of the Day:
Boy George, "The Crying Game"

Happy Birthday:
Emily Cantwell Duncan
M.C. Escher
Newt Gingrich
Barry Manilow
Amanda Mills
Joe Piscopo
Venus Williams

Monday, June 16, 2003

"Like a twister, I was born to walk alone."

That's what I heard for the first 23 years of my life. Actual lyrics I discovered a few years ago: "Like a drifter I was born to walk alone." In my defense, my misinterpretation makes perfect sense. Twisters certainly walk alone. How many times have you seen a family of twisters just roaming down the street?

Anyway, people who mishear lyrics apparently have a name: mondegreens. And they are just one more set of people who benefit from the rise of the Internet.
For Lisa -- her last name understandably remains under wraps -- public death by ridicule occurred when she took the microphone at a karaoke party to celebrate her 20th birthday.

Her nemesis, in front of 250 guests, was Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."

The real lyrics ("Darling, you're so great/I can't wait for you to operate") had always been understood by Lisa to be "Darling, you're so great/I can't wait for you to ovulate".

"Hilarity ensued," Lisa recalls bleakly.

....

Remember the opening line to David Bowie's "Space Oddity"? Could it really have been "Clown control to Mao Tse-tung"?

What about that raw song by punk group The Clash, "Rock the Casbah," misheard by some sad individual as "Rock the Catbox"? And The Eurythmics' "Sweet dreams are made of cheese"? Or that memorable line in the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," when "The girl with colitis goes by"?

Then there is that Bob Dylan protest song with the refrain, "The ants are our friends/They're blowin' in the wind," and the Cuban song "Guantanamera," which some mondegreen victim, presumably not a Spanish speaker, construed as "One-ton tomato."

Spare a thought for the unfortunate who misheard a line from Irene Cara's "Flashdance" ("Take your passion and make it happen") and spent much of his life singing it as "Take your pants down and make it happen."
Then there's that really funny cellphone commercial: "Pour some shook-up ramen..." Ahem. That's "pour some sugar on me." As for the twister who was born to walk alone, I seem to have plenty of company.
Yikes

Have you ever heard the "urban myth" about, say, a spider biting you and laying eggs and then the little baby spiders coming out from your skin? Not true, right. Well, check this out (not for the weak of heart, or stomach)--my vote for most disturbing story of the day.
Jonah Goldberg confronts that Christopher Caldwell column on what to do about spam:

Caldwell writes: "There is no chance that the Internet will return to its old level of user-friendliness until lawmakers recognize that the decision to leave it unregulated was a serious, ideologically driven mistake." Now, both in tone and substance this strikes me as no different than Al Gore's desire to put the federal government in charge of promoting "livability" in order to fight suburban "sprawl." Neighborhoods were once "user-friendly," to use Caldwell's phrase. Now they're not. Ergo, government should fix the problem. This is a classic liberal-socialist formulation that can be found in generation after generation on issue after issue. An intellectual conjures a mythic and safe past and then claims the government can restore it. The only thing that's shocking about Caldwell's argument is that the mythological past is only a few years behind us.

Caldwell simply asserts that if the Congress had gotten in on the ground floor, the Internet's user-friendliness would have remained constant from, say, 1995 to 2195 and beyond. I'd bet Chris would shoot down such thinking if he saw it employed on the subject of architecture or science or anything else. And yet, he feels free to say the government's decision to stay out of the e-mail game was an "ideologically driven mistake," as if to say that using the government to obtain and sustain e-mail perfectibility is somehow not "ideologically driven." That is bizarre.
I agree. It was disconcerting to see Caldwell's argument in a publication like The Weekly Standard.
Quote of the Day:
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -- not absence of fear."
~ Mark Twain

Song of the Day:
Shawn Mullins, "Lullaby"

Happy Birthday:
Joyce Carol Oates
Erich Segal
Tupac Shakur

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Why I love math

There are so many ways to get to the right answer. My students used to love me because one of my basic premises was that there is always a presumption against memorization. We tried to learn how to derive the things we needed from a few basic principles.

Why studying for the Bar sucks: lots of memorization. It's the only way to get to the right answer.
Mommy, why is the sky blue?

When we were younger, we would annoy our parents to no end. What is this? What is that? If they didn't know, they'd make something up just to shut us up. Now we have the Internet.

Seriously folks. All of those random questions that you think of, NOW YOU CAN HAVE THEM ANSWERED!

What is Art Garfunkel doing now?

Is that certain urban myth true?

Sadly, some questions still cannot be answered. Consider, for instance, what the heck is Grimace? Some possibilities here and here. Even at the official McDonald's website, they leave you wanting, asking critical questions like "how big are Grimace's feet" but avoiding the real issue.
Good sports, bad sports

Clemens gets his 300th. Tiger struggles.
Irresponsible Public Servants

So, I've let my post about millions of people dying percolate for a week and there's been no interest. Doesn't this bother anyone else? Should people in positions of trust and responsibility be allowed to jump on television and declare that the sky is falling? This seems not only absurd, but outrageous! We should put this Schor's head on a stick. It would have been acceptable had he been using his report as a catalyst for more research or better hygiene. But you can't just get on tv and say that the end of the world is coming. Sheesh.
Gorgeous day today. Had a lovely picnic in a lovely park with a lovely companion. Now I'm inside, listening to a torts lecture. Bleh. :(
Quote of the Day:
"By profession I am a soldier and take great pride in that fact, but I am prouder, infinitely prouder, to be a father. A soldier destroys in order to build; the father only builds, never destroys. The one has the potentialities of death; the other embodies creation and life. And while the hordes of death are mighty, the battalions of life are mightier still."
~ Douglas MacArthur

Song of the Day:
The Cure, "Open"

Happy Birthday:
Jim Belushi
Courtney Cox
Mario Cuomo
Helen Hunt

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Captain Indignant is back after a few busy weeks, and he has comments about some recent Supreme Court opinions. The Captain, like many of us, is awaiting more exciting decisions from the Court on things like affirmative action and sodomy. Those should come down before the end of the month, along with a retirement announcement or two.
Quote of the Day:
"If anyone, then, asks me the meaning of our flag, I say to him -- it means just what Concord and Lexington meant; what Bunker Hill meant; which was, in short, the rising up of a valiant young people against an old tyranny to establish the most momentous doctrine that the world had ever known -- the right of men to their own selves and to their liberties."
~ Henry Ward Beecher

Song of the Day:
Simon and Garfunkle, "America"

Happy Birthday:
Richard Barber
Boy George
Steffi Graf
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Donald Trump

Friday, June 13, 2003

Officials at the University of Miami appear nervous that the ACC might not vote to let Miami into the conference after all. Seven of the nine current ACC schools must approve the expansion. Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia are all wavering, with Virginia's governor putting pressure on UVA's president to reject the move because it will weaken the Big East and thus harm Virginia Tech. Virginians would like the ACC to absorb Virginia Tech too, bringing the rivalry between Tech and UVA in-conference. Ah, the intrigue...

Here's Slate's take on the situation: "The Big East is about to disintigrate. Will anyone miss it?"
Movie Review

I had a very bad reaction to The Italian Job within the first few minutes. Donald Sutherland, playing a thief who's tempted out of retirement by the prospect of boosting $35 million worth of gold bars in Venice, laments to Mark Wahlberg as the kid organizing the heist that he's spent most of his adult life in jail. He's not complaining that he was lowly enough to commit the crimes that put him there but that he had to be in jail, and the moviemakers play it soft, as if we'll sympathize and really hope he gets away with this last job. At moments like this I turn into Republican Alan the way Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, and though I was alone I believe I said out loud, "You're a thief! You belong in jail!"

Is there anything special about these felons that might justify the movie's treating them as heroes? Sutherland gives Wahlberg advice on how to be the right kind of thief--the kind who steals in order to live a "rich life" rather than for the thievery itself--which we are apparently to take as precious wisdom. Then, as an example of the rich life, after the thieves have got the gold (by, among other things, painting an explosive substance over a Renaissance fresco in order to blow a ceiling out), they stand around a snowy mountain pass toasting their accomplishment by swigging Dom Perignon straight from the bottle. Considering how important your sense of smell is to your sense of taste, I wondered whether drinking it this way you could distinguish champagne from a crisp cider. (And no, the movie isn't showing us they're gorillas, it's trying to impress us, and succeeds with the wine no better than it had earlier when one of the characters referred to Leonardo, whom he calls "da Vinci," as if that were his surname.) The only reason I stayed was to see if the trailer had actually given away the entire plot, as Iris pointed out to Lily and me when we first saw it. (It did.) My only comfort was recalling that Sutherland, who has become so classy-custardy it's impossible to find any traces in his acting of the intriguingly unforced lead he was in M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971), and Don't Look Now (1973), would be killed within minutes.

As anyone who saw that mini-movie of a trailer knows, Edward Norton is the rat within the pack who steals the stolen gold and leaves the gang for dead. That's not much of a spoiler since most of the movie is about how Wahlberg and cronies plan to steal it back. They enlist Charlize Theron as Sutherland's daughter who has used the safebreaking skills she inherited from her father for legal means. Her father's criminal career broke her heart but she's angry enough about his murder to join the crooks. She says she wants to see Norton's face when he loses the gold, which she might have done by contacting the FBI. Alternatively, the movie might be a lot more interesting if she played an insider's double game, mirroring Norton's in the beginning but on the right side of the law. Otherwise, what's the point of making her honest in the first place? The movie might even have gained some of the heartcracking sense of impossibility of Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998) (Theron's pairing with Wahlberg certainly could use some tension). Instead she joins forces for this preposterous game and the brain-dead movie doesn't see her turning to larceny as a form of corruption.

All this may seem irrelevant because it's just a movie, and movies, as I know full well, offer illicit fantasies all the time. It's part of their basic appeal. But this is different because the moviemakers don't show any awareness of having crossed a line. I think it reflects generally how unaware moviemakers and audiences, and critics, too, are about narrative genres.

The plot of The Italian Job is a romance. In medieval chivalric romance, a direct ancestor of this and many, many other movie plots, a knight sets out on a quest. He's instructed by older tutelary figures, wizards who confer powers on him and hermits who explain his dreamlike ordeals for him as manifestations of universal meaning, and he's assisted by companion knights of valor second only to his. He sets out on his quest to aid or impress a virtuous lady, or he rescues a damsel in distress along the way who becomes his lady. In addition, he has comic servants, and he always has a faithful, spirited horse. On his adventures he is beset by inimical wizards as well as a world of hostile animals, most notably dragons, and knights who are his equal in valor and skill but on the opposite side, which means the side of evil, understood with full religious significance. He is also tempted by ladies who look fair but are foul inside, and resisting these temptations will often be the key to understanding the greater meaning of his quest.

The quest is always inherently good. That's the point: the knight's quest is an allegory of the Christian's proper navigation of life. In a work such as the 13th-century Quest of the Holy Grail (a great, compact place to learn many of the basics, and available online) a knight will conveniently find a hermit after an encounter who makes the underlying meaning of it explicit for him (and us). To anyone who has studied literary genres, this discussion will be rudimentary; what's surprising is how unfamiliar with even this much basic information people who regularly discuss movies are.

With The Italian Job it's a matter of filling in the blanks: Wahlberg is the white knight, Norton the black; Sutherland is both the wizard and the sage; the gold is the object of the quest; the noble steeds are now the Mini Coopers they use in L.A. to drive in tight, unexpected places; and living the rich life is what gives meaning to it all. Theron is at once the damsel and a female knight (not a modern phenomenon: they show up in the Aeneid, Ariosto's Orlando furioso, and The Faerie Queene), and Seth Green, Mos Def, and Jason Statham combine the comic function of servants with the skills of companion knights.

Romance is a sturdy and flexible serial form, allowing for a theoretically endless series of encounters (which explains its usefulness in superhero comic books and why the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies "naturally" produce sequels). Romance doesn't have to be set in the middle ages, it doesn't have to contain all of the elements (and the chivalric form isn't the only configuration of them), and it doesn't have to be Christian. Interestingly, it doesn't even have to feature righteous characters engaged in noble action. There is also ironic romance, one in which the values are inverted.

Arguably the greatest example in American movies is Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), from Paul Schrader's script, in which Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner, develops an evangelical disgust for the daily dirt and corruption of New York. To assuage his feelings he tries to assassinate a presidential candidate but fails and so turns his energies to rescuing a 12-year-old prostitute instead. Romance, while the genre most openly hospitable to the supernatural, doesn't even have to be fantastic--Taxi Driver, based in part on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot George Wallace, shows with naturalistic detail how Travis fills his empty days and ends up in the headlines, a hero to the papers (which is part of the irony). Though he does save the girl (who doesn't, however, want to be saved), we know he's doing it for more wrong reasons than right ones.

Romance is how Travis shapes his boiling frustration and blocked sexual feelings into a course of action. Schrader and Scorsese understand the enormous difficulty of conveying the story of someone like Travis and so use the romance form almost against itself, suggesting how that highly stylized genre can distort the narrative it's telling. That's why it's so appealing to Travis in the first place, it turns the nothingness of his life into a quest. The cinematography is at times hallucinatory but the movie remains lucid: we can see things from Travis's perspective without thinking we're meant to adopt it.

A simpler and more common form of ironic romance would be heist pictures and most film noirs--anything in which black has been substituted for white in the moral scheme. Yeah, we identify with the people pulling off the crime, but all the movie has to do is acknowledge somehow its reliance on our suspension of disapproval, so that we always know which way is up. The formal way of doing it in underworld settings is by having the criminals fail--in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle (1950) we see them killed or arrested one by one; in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) the money blows away in the wind. Failure is usually combined with an air of fatalism, as in the adaptations of James M. Cain books, Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), an air that by itself tells you no good can come of these sociopathic shenanigans. You could say that these movies appease our disapproval after having served their own ends by making us root for the criminals. But they also let us get close to humans whose ways of life we probably wouldn't want to know about first hand. In that sense they enlarge the audience's experience.

There's also the comic mode of amoral romance, in movies like Ernst Lubitsch's Art Deco frolic Trouble in Paradise (1932), in which Miriam Hopkins gets so mad at her jewel thief lover when she thinks he's fallen for the rich widow they intend to rob she hollers, "I wouldn't fall for another man if he were the biggest crook on earth!" as she breaks into the woman's safe; or The Pink Panther (1964), in which the suave thieves amusingly set up the clumsy inspector to serve out their jail sentence; or the playfully sinister British classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which an arch, exquisitely poised young nobleman kills off the eight relations (all played by Alec Guinness) who stand between him and the dukedom he feels is his by right. (Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) combines the two types: the conversations among hitmen play like vaudeville and the violent action like cartoons.)

The dramatic pictures and the comedies both have an air of unreality (to which the comedies add frivolity and wit), which serves as license to our enjoyment, whether we're being made uneasy or being enticed, teased. We don't need movies to lecture us about morality. We don't even need a virtuous protagonist. All it takes is the stylistic control to let us know that Sunday school's out, we're on holiday. One of the virtues of irony is that it permits identification with characters whose actions we don't approve of, often ones who work as heroically for dubious, if not outright objectionable, ends as good guys work for noble ends. It has been, in fact, about the only way to get a reasonably complex protagonist in a dramatic American movie.

Maybe the people making The Italian Job got lost because the contest isn't between criminals and cops, but between former criminal accomplices. Morally it's a battle drawn in two shades of black. Such a formula requires an extra measure of sophistication, whereas the director F. Gary Gray appears to fall short of the minimum. Though the material is sporty, Gray directs as if we'll shed a tear that poor Sutherland didn't get to spend more time with his daughter, and cheer as the gang causes mayhem in Los Angeles in order to get that gold back. (The movie doesn't even bother with the usual salve to our conscience that the person from whom they stole it in Venice came by it illicitly, or was a bad person, or was insured.) "Touching" leads straight to "depraved": at the end Norton isn't just killed, we're informed he's going to be tortured to death. Yay for our side! (Will the DVD include footage of it?) Where I differ from Dan Quayle Republicans on this issue is that I don't think people get their morals from the movies or TV, so I know that something like The Italian Job can be morally despicable in an insignificant way.

At times it's quite entertaining--the cast overall is unassuming and attractive, including three male pin-ups (that's not Republican Alan talking), and Seth Green is particularly funny, especially when watching Statham pick up a woman. (This scene will remind you that Gray directed Friday (1995), one of the best comedies of the 1990s.) I'm not too priggish to enjoy the good parts just because I hated the rest. (Though even the most entertaining characters are based on weary stereotypes: the Jew is the brainy nerd who can't get girls; it's supposed to be amusing that the black guy wants to collect first editions.) But, boy, did I hate the rest. At the end we get a "cute" coda in which we're told what the thieves bought with their money. "Bought"? With money? Why should such personable daredevils have to pay for anything?

If you want to know about genre in movies, a grasp of the narrative structures of romance and melodrama will tell you most of what you need to know for 90% of the dramatic movies Hollywood turns out. (The best place to start laying down a foundational understanding of literary genres is Northrop Frye's 1957 classic Anatomy of Criticism.) Universities teach courses called Novel into Film, but despite superficially realistic treatment, American movies do not generally model their narrative structure on novels. I think the common ignorance about romance and melodrama, to say nothing of irony, may account for the AFI's recently released list of the greatest 100 Heroes and Villains in American movies. Jim Carruthers's insightful comment at the bottom of this post by Eric Olsen at Blogcritics.org gets at the problem. But I think the larger problem is a failure to understand genre.

"Villain" is a term from melodrama, a theatrical genre that features a streamlined struggle between good and evil, personified (and absolutely polarized) in hero and villain. There's a lot of overlap between romance and melodrama in terms of the struggle of good and evil, as Carruthers suggests, but in romance the evil figure can be larger than a (merely human) villain--more directly connected to the principle of evil, and, often enough, the prime mover of evil himself. (Think of the difference between John Grisham legal melodramas and that feverish, paranoid-liberal romance The Devil's Advocate (1997).)

Thus, Carruthers is right that the town officials who keep the beaches open are the composite villain in Jaws (1975), but only with respect to the melodramatic structure of the plot. Bruce the Shark, however, is also a force of evil, but within the romance structure rather than the melodrama. In The Exorcist (1973) Regan isn't a villain because the movie isn't a melodrama at all. It doesn't have the storyline of chivalric romance but it does have many of the elements: Regan is a damsel in distress (what kind of psychotics could watch that movie, in which welts spelling "Help Me" arise on the little girl's body, and think of her as a villain?); the demon Pazuzu who possesses her is a combination of an evil wizard, a dragon, and the source of all evil; the young priest is the white knight; the old priest the good wizard, etc.

The AFI list shows more serious failures of understanding, alas: Travis Bickle isn't the villain of Taxi Driver, for God's sake, he's the protagonist of an ironic romance, as are Bonnie and Clyde. As for Michael Corleone, he's a tragic protagonist, one who borders on an ironic protagonist, as do Richard III and Macbeth--the melodramatic concept of villainy is utterly foreign to something as complex as The Godfather, Part II (1974). Even Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931) is closer to being a tragic protagonist than he is to being a villain.

These aren't failures of taste, as is the AFI List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, it's a matter of ignorance in the field the AFI claims as its special domain. I have a plastic, non-motorized, non-battery-operated coin sorter at home that's capable of finer distinctions than the AFI in their list--it recognizes four categories. This group is the custodian of our national film culture?

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Phil Frye claims West Virginia Governor Bob Wise ruined his marriage by dallying with Mrs. Frye. Mr. Frye is threatening to run against Wise in the next election:

"All I want to do is be a nuisance to Bob.... if I decide to get in the race, let's just say I'll be looking forward very much to the candidate debates.”
Quote of the Day:
"Modern liberalism, for most liberals, is not a consciously understood set of rational beliefs, but a bundle of unexamined prejudices and conjoined sentiments. The basic ideas and beliefs seem more satisfactory when they are not made fully explicit, when they merely lurk rather obscurely in the background, coloring the rhetoric and adding a certain emotive glow."
~ James Burnham

Song of the Day:
Alabama, "How Do You Fall In Love"

Happy Birthday:
Tim Allen
Michael Hetrick
Ashley Olsen
Mary-Kate Olsen
Ally Sheedy
William Butler Yeats

Thursday, June 12, 2003

The WP article on David Brinkley's demise notes a moment I remember watching from my dorm common room: "election night 1996 when he called President Clinton a 'bore' on national television and advised viewers to expect four more years of 'nonsense' from the president." (He said he hadn't known the microphone was on.)

The title of his autobiography is lovely: David Brinkley: 11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television and 18 Years of Growing Up in North Carolina.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Some hilarious sight gags.
Late night on Hillary:

Jay Leno: "We interrupt Hillary Clinton's book tour to bring you the 'Tonight Show,' but we'll go back to the regularly scheduled Hillary programming. It's everywhere.... The book came out yesterday. It's huge, 562 pages. Why is everything the Clintons do fat?... In the book, Hillary describes the first time she met Bill as an immediate attraction. When Bill saw her he knew this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life cheating on.... Hillary said she met Bill at the Yale library and he was standing in the doorway looking over at her, and she got up and walked over and said, 'If we're going to keep looking at each other, I might as well introduce myself' and Bill said, 'I was staring at the ass on the blonde behind you.'... Hillary also said in the book it was a challenge to forgive Bill, but she figured if Nelson Mandela could forgive, she could give it a try. Isn't that amazing? I didn't know Clinton hit on Mandela's wife.... Hillary also said that she got advice from Jackie Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy warned her about the dangerous attractions around charismatic politicians. Jackie told her that Bill, like Jack Kennedy, had a personal magnetism that inspired strong feelings from people. Of course, Kennedy attracted good-looking women. ... Hillary Clinton told Time magazine that she sympathizes with Martha Stewart because they're friends. Apparently, Martha used to come by the oval office once a week to try to get the stains out."

David Letterman: "Hillary Clinton has a brand new book out. It's a 600-page memoir of her years in the White House. You remember Hillary. She's the cold, calculating blonde who wasn't fingerprinted yesterday.... Yesterday at Barnes and Noble Hillary Clinton had a book signing and a lot of people showed up. 1,200 people showed up and statistically speaking that means 1 in 10 of those people slept with her husband."

Conan O'Brien: "According to USA Today, former President Clinton has already read his wife's new book five times. In fact, the former president has now spent more time in bed with the book than he has with Hillary."

Craig Kilborn: "In her book Hillary Clinton said she could have divorced her husband for all of his infidelities, but decided to get counseling instead. In a related story Bill Clinton announced the name of his new book is 'What Does It Take To Get This Woman To Leave Me?'"
I read part of the excerpt from her book in Time last night. (It's not free online.) It was weird to read her account of meeting Bill Clinton in the same building I've been studying in for the past three years. I wonder, if she could have seen into the future back then, and hear humiliating things like the jokes above — would she have done the same thing, or would she have told him to get lost?

I also wonder if we'll be reading about anyone in our class one day the way we read about the Clintons.
InstaPundit has a few kind words for the New York Times, and I'll add some of my own about this article on wedding cakes (thanks to Vanessa Jean for the link).

The article is about the trend toward better-tasting wedding cakes. Not exactly an earth-shattering topic, and it's the kind of piece that, in most papers, would be mildly interesting to the average reader but would seem skimpy on details and rather shallow to anybody familiar with the subject matter.

But knowing a little bit about this area, I'm impressed with the effort the writer put into the piece. It's full of nice details — things like the yuckiness of fondant and how The Wilton School is "notorious among bakers for propagating the use of shortening, rather than butter, in butter cream frostings — which makes them stable but sickly sweet, or tasteless." (Says one baker: "I was supposed to use Crisco in the butter cream, but when I thought of Mama I just couldn't do it.")

Anyway, it's a very good article. If they'd write about politics and policy the way this reporter (Julia Moskin) writes about sugar paste and marzipan, that'd be a step in the right direction.

There's a sidebar on the article with a slide show on wedding cakes. And this short piece by Jody Cantor, who thinks the cake tradition should be done away with.
Sexism at Pep Boys

This afternoon I went, with a Person of the Male Persuasion, to take care of some minor repairs to the Lilymobile. While I was purchasing a light bulb at Pep Boys, the salesman (who my companion had not previously spoken to and who knew the part was for my car), turned to the man with me and said, "So, um... you'll be putting this in, right?" PC people that we are, we hardly knew how to respond.

Of course, he was entirely correct in assuming I had no intention of installing the thing myself. And as it turned out, the nice people at Monroe did that for free!

Whenever I have work done to my car, I am struck by the enormous gulf between people who know anything about these matters and those of us who don't. There's potential for a lot of exasperation and condescension on both sides. We're annoyed because they're greasy and didn't go to college and we suspect they're probably trying to screw us, and they're annoyed because we're snotty and ungrateful and don't know what the heck we're talking about.
Might Walter Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize be rescinded? A subcommittee of the Pulitzer board is looking into the matter:

Duranty earned the prize for stories about the Soviet dictator's five-year plan that were published in 1931—before millions perished in the Stalin-engineered famine that ravaged Ukraine. Duranty denied in reports for The Times that there was a famine.
The review is the result of campaigning by Ukrainian groups in the U.S. and abroad.
I have conquered all nine hours of BarBri's contracts/sales lectures. Word from other members of the Cabinet is that the evidence lectures (by someone whose first name is "Faust") are painful. I have them next week.

Today I'm taking it a bit easier, with just two hours of lectures on Virginia essay testing. Virginia, we learned today, is one of just three states that require courtroom attire at the bar exam. The Board of Bar Examiners claims that this results in a more serene, dignified testing environment. We'll see.
Lots of new-ish car stuff in Mickey Kaus's Gearbox, including a review of the Honda Element. (He says it's what he'd be like as a husband.)

Also in Slate, Carol Vinzant details the sleazy ways manufacturers try to keep you from collecting on their rebate offers:

It's fair enough for retailers sit back and hope consumers trip themselves up. But stores are erecting ever-more-elaborate obstacles to screw consumers out of their discounts. Many rebates demand multiple kinds of documentation (forms, receipts, UPCs) or require you to complete elaborate forms for each component (printer, monitor, desktop). Sometimes you have to circle a date or price to get your cash back. Many rebaters refuse to give the discount to more than one person in the same household. Some insist on access to your credit record before they'll give you the discount.

Perhaps the most notorious consumer rebate was one offered by Microsoft last year for people upgrading to Visual Studio or Visual Basic. To get the $300 rebate, customers had to send in part of the box—from the original program bought years before.
To get a rebate on a year's supply of contact lenses recently, I had to cut the tops off every single little box and send them all in. This makes me extra glad I went to the trouble!
Quote of the Day:
"If you don't get what you want, it's a sign either that you did not seriously want it, or that you tried to bargain over the price."
~ Rudyard Kipling

Song of the Day:
Jewel, "Break Me"

Happy Birthday:
Jacques Cousteau
Vince Lombardi
Joe Montana

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Bar studying update

I'm working on hour seven of nine hours of the law of contracts and sales. I guess there's really no need to say more.
Those of you who still aren't done stomping on Howell Raines' grave shouldn't miss Kaus on Mnookin on the NYT.
A Christopher Caldwell piece on stopping spam starts out well, but then there's this:

Something like e-mail "postage" will be required if we are going to change the economic incentives that have invited pornographers, snake-oil salesmen, and other social predators into Americans' living rooms, in some cases hundreds of times a week. There are reasonable ways such postage can be collected. A penny-per-e-mail charge would drive most spammers out of business, subject them to jail time for tax evasion if they hid their operations, and cost the average three-letter-a-day Internet user just ten bucks a year. If even that seems too hard on the small user, then an exemption could be made for up to 5,000 e-mails per annum. If the postage were decried as a tax hike, then it could be used to fund one-to-one tax cuts in other areas--like sales taxes for the brick-and-mortar retail stores that have labored under such an unfair tax disadvantage for the past half decade.
Among other objections to this proposal, I'm uneasy about the basis for taxing e-mail as "postage." Surely it's not postage, in the same way snail-mail requires postage. The government doesn't deliver e-mail!

There's a strong anti-libertarian theme in Caldwell's piece, though he does concede that given time the market will reduce the amount of spam in the average person's inbox.
I missed the Barbara Walters interview with Hillary Clinton on Sunday night. Tom Shales' take on the special describes HRC as "almost chillingly chilly. She may have emotions like normal people, but she doesn't like to admit it and she's scarily proficient at suppressing them."
Quote of the Day:
"If there is one profoundly reactionary sector in Latin America, it is the leftist intellectuals. They are a people without memory. I have never heard one of them admit he made a mistake. Marxism has become an intellectual vice. It is the superstition of the entire century."
~ Octavio Paz

Song of the Day:
Edwin McCain, "Beautiful Life"

Happy Birthday:
Saul Bellow
Judy Garland
Elizabeth Hurley
Tara Lipinski
Maurice Sendak

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Movie Review

Jim Carrey is, inarguably to my mind, one of the greatest physical comedians in American movie history. He learned a lot from Jerry Lewis but has far greater precision, combining the talent for pantomime (though not acrobatics) of the legendary silent clowns with the vocal control of Mel Blanc, the voice of the Warner Brothers cartoon characters. Aided by special effects Carrey can also do everything those rambunctious cartoon characters could, giving him a wider-ranging package of talents than any other low comedy specialist in our movies has ever had. I say "low" comedy not as a put-down but to distinguish it from high comedy, which requires wit (a composite of chronometric timing and a knowing appreciation of the connotations of words)and a sophisticated manner, attainments that aren't in Carrey's portfolio. (This is Kevin Spacey's domain right now, if anyone's.) Neither is he a credible romantic comedy hero (unlike Nicolas Cage and Ewan McGregor, with their dream-date attentiveness to their female co-stars); Carrey is too much of a one-man show, a universe of base urges and high gifts unto himself.

Some people pull back from him because he's too much, too intent on entertaining us within an inch of our lives. But I think the aggression in his performing style is what makes him heroic for his audience. He may come across as a nice guy in real life, and he has often played one, but what gets the audience going is his lack of restraint. When he's operating at full power we don't especially want him to be the nice guy because that doesn't hook into our fantasies. Jim Carrey, the physical man, can do things we can't do, and it's a waste for him to play a character who doesn't do more with his powers than we could get away with without them. He's a superhero of the id rather than the superego, and we get off on seeing him defy moral gravity.

I wish he had better acumen when selecting projects. Jerry Lewis revitalized slapstick in the sound era and provided such a compelling model that comedians as varied as Eddie Murphy, Nicolas Cage, and Carrey are still working from it. But in a twenty-year career as a top star Lewis made exactly one movie you could recommend to people who aren't already fans--The Nutty Professor (1963). It's a peril to them as artists that the audience will take anything within their specialty from a star like Lewis or Carrey at the peak of their popularity; the huge box-office success of Bruce Almighty, Carrey's latest, is proof.

Comedians are the last movie stars who still regularly come up through live theater. This probably accounts for the much-commented-on aspects of their relationship to the audience: they're desperate for our love; they're equally desperate for our respect; and they hate our guts. Working in live comedy must be brutal, having to be funny to an empty house; playing over the random noises of an inattentive audience; keeping your routine going when the audience isn't laughing; dealing with hecklers. And yet the hostility that comics feel for the audience, the great stone from which they've had to wring water, doesn't distort their artistry as their need for love or respect tends to. Physical comedians work intuitively from universal feelings; they don't need much education or cultivation. As a result, they can go grossly wrong when they try to play directly for emotion or do "serious" pieces. They're working much closer to their instincts, and their professional experience, when they draw on their resentment and aggression.

Carrey was plainly looking for acting awards in The Truman Show (1998) and Man on the Moon (1999). The first gets by, to the extent it does, on its high concept, certainly not on Carrey's "soulful" yearning, while the second, ironically, recounts the mad put-on artist Andy Kaufman's life in a square A&E Biography mode, implausibly presenting him as an inspired innocent who merely channels his perverse charades. Both roles are soft-boiled eggs inside their shells. Bruce Almighty, by contrast, stems from Carrey's need to be loved and is at least preferable to the other two in showing you what makes him a star.

Carrey plays Bruce Logan, a TV newsman in Buffalo specializing in wacky human interest stories who longs for an anchor position. Bruce takes everything too hard, not just his career doldrums but the petty mishaps we all suffer through. When he sees a mute, homeless beggar on the street Bruce thinks he himself has it worse. He does take the trouble to scare off a gang of thugs attacking the beggar, once he feels it's safe to do so, but then overplays the heroic role, at which they turn their attention to him. Trouble seems to pile on top of Bruce, whose complaints to God become so obstreperous the Lord confers on Bruce His powers to see if he can do better.

The idea of a slapstick version of the Book of Job makes a lot of sense because "Why me?" is at the bottom of all slapstick. Of course, slapstick focuses on the physical world--stepping in a puddle, getting caught in traffic--but if you ratchet it up to "Why me, God?" you're still in the realm of slapstick: haplessness, frustration, impotence. Slapstick, however, stems from a universally translatable sense of being out of step with physical existence, whereas complaints about the Almighty stray into, shall we say, "tribal" feelings about the nature of existence that different groups have very definite and highly sensitive feelings about. The problem this leads to is that Hollywood entertainment always tries to anticipate a consensus opinion (and always has) and in order to come up with consensus on a religious subject it has to mash the subject into mush. There is no area of existence, not even family life, that Hollywood has treated with such consistent blandness, in both drama and comedy.

Bruce Almighty is actually a variation on the Book of Job, in which God lets Satan have his way with Job's life to test his faith. But where the movie goes really wrong is that whereas Job doesn't need the austere lesson, the utterly self-absorbed Bruce does. That means redemption, uplift--notorious comedy killers. But the lesson can't be too specific or it might offend someone. The movie settles for incoherence: for example, we think Bruce is a twit for ignoring the misery of the beggar, but later God (played by Morgan Freeman) chaffs him when he suggests he might end world hunger and strife, and tells him just to work on his relationship. The movie also doesn't acknowledge that the Latino thugs who attack Bruce might have a few grounds for complaint that would put the difference between a job as human-interest joker and as anchorman in quite another perspective. Altogether it avoids suggesting that to have God meaningfully in your life might require doing something that would be difficult to integrate into the way you already live.

In a related way, the opening of the movie presents Bruce's TV work as demeaning and worthless at the same time that it ridicules the plastic dolls who man the desk, but at the end we're supposed to respect Bruce when he gives up his anchor's spot to his rival and embraces being a goof on TV because it makes people happy. This incorporates the thrust of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1942) in which a movie director of comedy hits decides he wants to make serious pictures. He goes on the road as a hobo to find out about real life and ends up on a prison work farm so brutal he comes to realize why people need comedies. But Sturges runs two issues together: Sullivan is sick of turning out brainless comedies, but when we see him at the beginning arguing with the studio executives Sturges is also attacking the studio system. Sturges embraces comedy but not the studios, a tension which not only makes Sullivan's Travels a little hollow but would also help wreck Sturges's career within a few years.

Bruce Almighty recycles Sturges's endorsement of comedy but has no problem with the homogenization process that working in Hollywood demands. The only difference between the early human interest segments that are humiliating to Bruce and the later ones in which he's showering love on the community is that the earlier ones with the satiric edge are less demeaning to Carrey. By the end Bruce fully appreciates his girl Grace (Jennifer Aniston), promotes a blood drive, and even gives blood for the first time, but a desire for normalcy, conceived as being contented with what your personality suits you for, is what makes Bruce like everybody else. It's Carrey's demented, voracious ambition to have his way, to get the attention of the entire world, by contrast, that makes him the hottest burning star in our movies right now.

Didn't anybody working on the movie notice that it was funny only when Bruce was still self-serving and even malicious? The highlights are when Bruce uses his omnipotence to create a perfect evening of sex with Grace (it's Aniston's only good scene, too), and when he makes his rival (Steve Carell) spaz out on air (which made me laugh so hard I couldn't keep both eyes open--Carell actually deserves more credit for this than Carrey). You can only wish that the movie, and Carrey, had had the guts to keep Bruce selfish. The enormity of our petty frustration with life is often weirdly distorted. Oh sure, people are being tortured and slaughtered around the globe, but why can I never find a parking spot?! In our feelings about existence on a day-to-day level we tend to cut the issue down to our size, and there's a beautiful irony in our puniness when we do. We think of God as a manager so incompetent he must be ill-intentioned, like whoever it is that sets up automated phone systems that transfer you to a phone no one answers or a mailbox no one ever responds to, or cut you off.

I can't imagine Carrey in a completely sustained work of irony, however. (What better occasion for one could there have been than a tribute to Andy Kaufman?) Adam Sandler is more likely to go there, though his taste has been even more mongrel than Carrey's. In Bruce Almighty, Carrey the comedian's need to be loved merges with the Hollywood consensus machine and so pushes Bruce's redemption at us, straight. We might be glad if he were a real person we knew but it doesn't do much for him as a character whose adventures are supposed to entertain us. God stipulates that Bruce can't mess with other people's free will; there's a moment when he futilely tries to win Grace back and, looking into the camera, commands, "Love me!" (with the subtext of "Love me even after The Majestic"). Nakedness isn't always a good thing in a movie star. And when Bruce later becomes truly humble and apologizes to his rival, Carrey's face looks more like a rubber mask, more inert, less animated, than it ever has in full prosthetic makeup.

The more respectable form of Carrey's craving for our love is the fact that, as he's stated, he always wanted to be a movie star like James Stewart. At his best, say in Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Stewart balances a concert pianist's delicacy of touch against the masculine stubbornness that enabled him to rise out of the handsome-juvenile category. It's as hard to imagine Carrey developing Stewart's sensitivity of technique as it is to imagine Stewart making me weep with laughter as Carrey has done. Carrey handled his sweet side best in The Mask (1994) by segregating it from the demonic clown, who was thereby unfettered. (He did the same thing less effectively in Liar Liar (1997) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000).) The Mask is as much a Jekyll-and-Hyde story as Lewis's Nutty Professor only better because the Mask character never has to apologize. The way Hollywood makes movies, the Devil is always going to be funnier than God. I wish Jim Carrey would be as content with his staggering gifts as Bruce is supposed to be with his paltry ones.

As for Morgan Freeman's performance as God, there's one moment when he claps his hands and starts into a bit of minstrelsy and you think he's actually going to get loose. But the moment is brief. One more movie like this and he should be ready not to play O'Neill's James Tyrone, the actor who toured in audience-pleasing dreck until his once-great talent atrophied from disuse, but to be him.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

Why doesn't the horse win the prize money? Mind you, the horse ran the race with a human on its back!
More proof that Yale is better than Harvard

Well, that's what I thought when Steve Jens tipped us off to the fact that a Yale professor gave Harvard's commencement address. But it turns out it was Ernesto Zedillo who, while certainly a Yale prof, was also once Mexico's president. But then again, he did also receive his doctorate here at Yale...
Academic legal writing

My little blurb on academic legal writing generated much more interest than I thought it would. But isn't that always the way these posts go?

Anyway, we've heard from the horse's mouth itself. Eugene Volokh writes in:
Of course you're right that academic legal writing should be accessible and coherent; and you were also right to guess that my book makes exactly this point.
Yay. I really should read his book before I say much more. He goes on:
But it doesn't follow that academic legal writing should be the same as regular writing, or regular legal writing. For starters, it has to come up with a novel assertion about the law; it has to defend the assertion against a wider range of counterarguments than the typical brief has to deal with; and so on. It still requires clarity of thinking and writing, of course -- but it requires this clarity to be focused on a subtly different problem than most other writing. Hence the need for a book that focuses on this particular genre.
Fair enough. But I guess I see what Eugene is talking about more as the "academic legal thinking" that goes into preparing for "academic legal writing." And I definitely agree with him there. I think there are many people--students in particular--who have a distorted or completely wrong conception of what subjects and topics are good for academic legal writing. My point was simply that there the consequent writing should not be passed off as some different sort of writing. And I think Eugene agrees with me there. But I didn't mean my post to be a critique of Eugene's book anyway--especially since I've never read it. (And thanks, of course, to Eugene for writing in.)

Let me add this: My argument about academic legal writing needing to be clear and accessible and not necessarily "different" from other writing qua writing is not to say I don't think there should be books about academic legal writing. For instance, Eugene's book may be a great guide to teaching people how to write academic legal thoughts in normalspeak. Consider this selection of Eugene's about titling law review articles that I found on Lone Star Coffee Bar:
If you have a witty play on words that you'd like to include in the title, now is the time to consider it. I try to avoid such titles in my own work, but a little wit can make the article seem more appealing, can put the reader in a good mood, and can help the reader remember the article later. I still remember an article title I saw in the early 1990s, "One Hundred Years of Privacy" -- this both communicated the article's essence (a look back on the privacy tort a century after Warren and Brandeis first proposed it), and alluded to the novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

But be careful! First, amateur comedians notoriously overestimate how funny their jokes are. Second, with some topics (abortion, the death penalty, and the like), some readers will find any humor to be jarring. Third, even an amusing gag distracts the reader from your main point. To be effective, the joke must be interesting and memorable enough that its value overcomes the distraction. So read the title over on several occasions to make sure that the gag really works, and ask friends whether they agree. If you're in doubt, err on the side of having a purely substantive title.
Okay. That seems like possibly the most obvious stuff in the world to me. But I don't think Eugene would have written it if he didn't think there were people who could learn from it. And he's right. My experience on the Journal here has shown many an amateur comedian who has fallen over the line between good title and bad joke.

Anyway, one more thing on this topic. From reader DS, a connnection to history:
Your observations are spot-on, and I heartily agree. Clear, concise writing is all too rare, and is usually buried by the avalanche of muddy, academic writing that passes for "scholarship." One has to wonder if a lot of the bells-and-whistles muck that's produced isn't merely verbal smoke and mirrors, hiding substandard academic work (examples abound).

I'm convinced that if our professoriate really said what they meant, and meant what they said, we'd see the kind of liberation that occurred when that Godsend, Gutenberg's mass-produced Bible, was first produced -- took the starch out of the clerisy, the "Latiners," as they were known, and opened vistas of spiritual guidance to millions who no longer had to rely on a Church-vested interpreter, very often operating with a doctrinally-correct filter securely in place.
His observations on the substandard academic work is spot-on. I've seen way too much stuff that people argue is "brilliant" when they have little sense about what it actually means. That is, they think that because they can't understand it, it is "brilliant."