Thursday, July 31, 2003

Quote of the Day:
"His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad
his hair as dark as a blackboard,
I wish he was mine, he's really divine,
The hero who conquered the dark lord."
~ Ginny Weasley

Song of the Day:
Everclear, "Now That It's Over"

Happy Birthday:
Dean Cain
Marie Dooley
Milton Friedman
J.K. Rowling
Wesley Snipes
Here's a new blog about the gay marriage debate. It's edited by the conservative Maggie Gallagher, but so far it seems to represent views from both sides.

For example, Jonathan Rauch knocks down the it-will-lead-inevitably-to-polygamy argument (tortuously laid out by Stanley Kurtz here):

Here's the rule: everyone should be able to marry one person they love. Not zero, and not two or three or four.
Keep reading to learn why cultures can't be both polygamous and liberal/democratic. Good stuff.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Good Things About My First Bar Exam Experience

1. I had a pleasant drive through the Virginia countryside tonight coming home.

2. The cashier at the Roanoke Target gave me one of the new Maine quarters.

3. It's over!

Congrats to everybody who finished today, and best of luck to Kate, who has one last day tomorrow.

My plans for the next month include New Haven, Ithaca, Chicago, Rochester, Seattle, San Francisco, Vegas, Nashville, Durham, New Haven (again) and Boston. Gainful employment awaits on the other side.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A Day at the Virginia Bar Exam

6:35 am. Wake up before alarm. Dress in ridiculous suit-and-tennis-shoes getup. Pace. Fret about hair. Suspect I am transferring anxiety.

7:45. Drive to Roanoke Civic Center in the rain. No traffic, no trouble finding parking. God bless Roanoke. Sit in car for twenty minutes.

8:30. Enter "The Coliseum." My seat is roughly under the visiting team's basketball hoop, if they had the hoops out. Which they do not. Focus! Notice how loosely some people seem to have interpreted "courtroom attire." Khakis? Focus!

9:09. "You may begin."

1. Conflict of Laws. You have got to be kidding me. They have tested on this once in the past 19 exams. I did not study it. Looks like I lost that gamble. Write down a guess and maybe I'll pick up a few points.

2. Real property. Blah, blah, tenancy in common, blah, blah.

3. Real property. A tough one.

4. Secured transactions. The one subject I prayed would not be on the exam. But it's doable. Perfection, attachment, chattel paper, blah, blah.

5. Corporations / Professional Responsibility. Not bad. Got the gist.
12:10 pm. Lunch. Sprint to car, pull out notes and check conflict of laws section. I got it wrong. Spectacularly, messily wrong. I will be lucky to get one point from that one. Begin to freak out. Call Kate, who is reassuring as usual. Consume granola bar and Diet Dr. Pepper.

12:45. Still in car. Observe McDonalds across street being overwhelmed by people in suits and tennis shoes. What's coming up? They haven't tested crim, or domestic relations, or wills.... please let there be a wills question.... read crim notes.

1:30. Encounter fellow Yalie. Wish I hadn't.

2:02. It's freezing in here. Remove jacket, put on cashmere cardigan. Still freezing. Put jacket back on, over cardigan. Look even more ridiculous.

2:03. "You may begin."

I'll do the short answers first; they're always pretty easy. Um, maybe not. At least there's a tax one.

6. Wills. God bless you, John H. Langbein.

7. Equity. Finally, a question I thoroughly understand. Why don't I spend 40 minutes on it just to max out on points?

8. Civ. Pro. I don't get this one. Yuck. Jurisdiction, blah, blah. Nothing more to say, so I move on. My answer is obscenely short.

9. Agency. "Set it up, knock it down, milk it dry."
4:58. Finish five minutes early. Wheels squeal on Lilymobile as I exit parking lot.

5:15. Standing in line at Subway. Iris calls, sounding tired but optimistic.

6:00. Back in hotel.

One more day.

Monday, July 28, 2003

I have arrived in Virginia and will proceed to Roanoke, the test site, this afternoon.

My computer will be with me in Roanoke, but I may not have the opportunity or composure to blog much about the experience while it's ongoing.

Thanks to all who have written in with good wishes. Best of luck to all the Yalies taking the bar this week, and especially to Kate, Alan and Iris -- I am thinking of you guys.
"Somewhere in this group is the next Karl Rove," the current Karl Rove told the College Republican National Convention this past weekend.
Quote of the Day:
"If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
~ Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Song of the Day:
Britney Spears, "Stronger"

Happy Birthday:
Elaine Barber
Bill Bradley
Rita Haught
Ann McLean
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Beatrix Potter
Movie Review

In the opening of François Ozon's Swimming Pool, Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a successful English mystery novelist, is so done in that when a fan on the London Underground recognizes her from the dustjacket photo of a book she's reading, Sarah tells the woman she's made a mistake, that she's not who the woman thinks she is. Dour Sarah, otherwise looking like any respectable, buttoned-up, middle-aged British woman, is on her way to see her publisher John Bosload (Charles Dance), in whose office she suffers from what is either a fit of jealousy over his attention to another, younger (male) author, or the resentment of a rejected lover, or both. The big problem is that she can't get started on her new book, and so John sends her to his house in the Luberon, in Provence, to relax so the words will come. They do come, but this isn't a movie like Enchanted April (1991) in which British women blossom in a warmer climate, nor is it like the adaptation of E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread (1992; the novel is available in its entirety online) in which British Protestant rectitude is turned inside out in its confrontation with an Italian blend of sensuality and honor that it finds incomprehensible. Sarah brings her complications with her to the French provinces, and they remain inside her, though the script, by Ozon and the novelist Emmanuèle Bernheim, finds an ingenious way to manifest them for us.

As Sarah settles into John's country house, Ozon establishes her compulsiveness in short, brisk order. She's only halfway having a tourist vacation--at the grocery she chooses Diet Coke over the local wine (to wind herself up not down), and at home she whips up huge tubs of some kind of yogurt mixture that she wolfs down, as if eating were a miserable chore to be got through. The movie gives us a strong sense of her habits; you feel that Sarah is going to be Sarah wherever in the world she goes. In the course of the movie you see that this inflexibility protects her talent.

Sarah's control over the house is challenged when John's young French daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) arrives and turns the downstairs into a disco-bordello. Julie, with her purposely messy hairstyle and casual immodesty, is a contemporary-futureless adolescent whose habits are counterprogrammed against Sarah's writing schedule: she chats loudly on the phone during the day and at night goes out and brings random men back, plays loud music, has loud sex, sleeps wherever and late, hungover from booze and pot. (The set-up is similar to Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon (2003), except here the older character is the prude and the movie contains no facile exhortation to live more openly.)

The movie draws a contrast between French and English identity--Julie rolls back the tarp covering the swimming pool halfway and dives below the brown leaves on the surface; Sarah goes in only once the gardener has cleaned it--but that's incidental. And though Julie brings an erotic charge to the house, and Sarah does become fascinated with her (there's one shot of Sagnier lying by the edge of the pool with a moth fluttering about her golden hair that could do it for just about anyone), and the plot gets tangly in keeping with Sarah's vocation as a mystery novelist, the emphasis isn't on what we see happening.

In fact, it's one of those mindfuck movies in which you're never sure if what you've seen did happen, but Sarah's character is so strong it doesn't matter. Julie's increasingly disorderly behavior isn't as important as the sight of Sarah spying on her through windows or from her balcony, or rummaging through her bag, then opening a new folder in her laptop to start a manuscript entitled simply "Julie" and transcribing straight from the girl's diary. We're meant to identify with Sarah and yet the movie makes her kind of creepy. She's nasty to that woman on the Underground and the young writer in the publisher's office; she's possessive of a house she doesn't own; her need to control her space and time while she writes shades into moral disapproval of Julie, which Julie properly resents; and even her unselfconsciousness about her habits is off-putting. When she's upset by Julie's shared-kitchen etiquette she goes to the local café and gobbles down a dessert, cutting it with her fork as if she hoped to break the plate (and maybe eat that, too), and then at night she sneaks some of the pâté Julie has put in the fridge, washing it down with Julie's wine straight from the bottle, which she then refills with tap water.

Sarah has the classic mixture of public repression and secret self-indulgence but what's fascinating is that as she develops an interest in Julie as the subject for a story all the things that are repellent about Sarah come to seem inextricable from how she works. It's psychologically astute, for instance, to show that Sarah's intense concern for her own privacy is not only compatible with her amoral snoopiness (which comes out more and more as Sarah starts pumping Julie for information she can use as a novelist), but that the snoopiness itself is one of the things Sarah's privacy guards. She has to put up some front to disguise her disrespect for personal boundaries, and it has to be a disguise that enables her to keep disrespecting them. Sarah isn't an out-and-out liar; she'll admit to things, but in a way intended to put Julie off balance and get more out of her. Above all Sarah wants to protect her source of material. That's the play in Swimming Pool's mechanism: Sarah snoops among Julie's secrets but by showing her do it the movie gets behind Sarah's own privet hedges. It's not a question of erotic gratification; the movie catches Sarah feeding off Julie as a writer for whom experience really takes place when she starts arranging it in her mind.

Audiences are bound to focus on the events that happen when the unstable Julie, doing some snooping of her own, discovers that Sarah has incorporated her into her new book. What we see is a clever tease and Sagnier is absorbing to watch. She plays Julie as almost too childish to be truly slutty (i.e., unaware of what a reputation might be worth) or malevolent (as opposed to merely destructive). She gives her a spoiled-brat premorality and a superficial precocious toughness that gives way under pressure. It's touching-spooky when her identity smears; Sagnier as Julie is a hardboiled white with a raw yolk inside.

But the movie is out of the ordinary only as an externalization of Sarah's working process. It doesn't matter whether the plot is "real" or not (implicitly it's a series of what-ifs strung together by Sarah); the structure of what we see is allegorical in that Julie represents the disturbed, sociopathic parts of Sarah that she contains but that lead her to write lurid crime fiction. It's all a welling-up of the turbulent, sordid imagination that enables a woman you can't imagine being very popular to touch a popular vein as a writer.

As Ozon explains in this interview with IndieWire:

iW: Your cinematic self-portraits are filled with mayhem. Where do the perverse, homicidal impulses come from?

Ozon: My parents taught me something when I was young: when you create something artistic, you can throw in all the horrors of life, everything you would never actually do, all sorts of violence--it's an art work, so it's okay. As a child I was allowed to read Sade because it was imaginary. Fritz Lang once said, "If I hadn't become a director, I'd be a murderer. Better to have murders in movies than life."

iW: So these violent impulses are a part of you?

Ozon: Just like everyone else. We're all potentially murderers. You have murderous impulses too.

iW: I'm not particularly in touch with them.

Ozon: Whoa, that's dangerous! [We laugh]. The role of the artist is to be close to those impulses and express them for everyone else. Why do you think there's so much violence in movies? And why are all those violent American movies so successful? Because everyone has those tendencies. And seeing them on screen is cathartic.
Movies that satisfy our taste for violence are a hell of a lot more common than ones that feature a protagonist who's a hypocritical killjoy. Like Malvolio and Tartuffe, and their descendants Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), they're always off to the side. (Tartuffe is more central but he's emotionally marginal--it's assumed we won't identify with him.) This makes sense since these are characters who put a chill on group experience, on the open indulgence in pleasure. They either have to be ritually expelled from the group like Malvolio, Tartuffe, and Frank Burns, or converted like Hot Lips (and Hermocrate and Léontine in Marivaux's Triumph of Love).

Emil Jannings as Professor Rath in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) is possibly the most famous example of this kind of character as a movie protagonist. Rath, a puritanical disciplinarian, goes to a cabaret one night to catch his students there and ends up falling for Marlene Dietrich as the sleazy chanteuse they go to see. (He's particularly taken with a postcard of her with a glued-on skirt--you blow on it to expose her silk underpants.) He's so ludicrously upright he can't just sleep with her and lie about it. When confronted by his headmaster about his relations with her, he gets angry at the man for insulting his future wife. Rath loses his job, does marry her, works in the theater hawking those postcards, and loses his place in society, his self-respect, and finally his mind. The Blue Angel is an ironic romance in which surrender to lust is exactly the delusional trap the Professor would have said it was, but once he's aroused he has no defenses against it. It's a nightmare in which there's no stable resting point between abstinence (angel) and degradation (blue), an original sin myth in a world spent beyond the capacity of a savior to redeem it.

Sarah has some of the authoritarian quality of Professor Rath, especially when she assumes the character of a disapproving mother, but though she's taken with the sensual-louche Julie she stays in control--the hypocritical prig ascendant. Rather than being destroyed she's rejuvenated. There are isolating shots of Sarah looking through panes of glass at Julie, and then doubly reflected in mirrors typing away, but what she does to get the book written is, finally and unexpectedly, seen as a form of vitality. The movie shows writing as a creative act of psychological dissolution and reformulation, and Sarah may be a prude and a hypocrite and even at times a witch, but she turns out something we consider socially valuable, and thus is one of the few ironic protagonists who is actually a heroine. It's in that sense doubly ironic, first because the protagonist's distance from the ideal is never disguised, and second because those very quirks turn out, against expectations, to be central to what makes her a protagonist we can admire. Sarah returns to London looking restored, and you think, She's earned it. (We don't need the comeuppance to John. It makes it seem as though her problem had been simply a bad man, and that diminishes what we've seen. Nor do we require that the book be in a new, more emotional vein for her--"better" than a mere mystery.)

The movie is least satisfactory in the way it connects Sarah's fascination with Julie to her being specifically a mystery novelist. The scenes in which she engages in detection are no more than cursory and while Sarah's quirkiness does make her resemble a detective hero (someone like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, who is also an oddity, even a figure of fun, and hence an ironic protagonist), Sarah is a larger conception and so you don't get much from this element of the script. Eccentric movie detectives don't have complicated personalities. However entertaining, they're functional figures who unravel their creator's knots and at most indicate how we feel about the goings-on they've investigated. Sarah is a more striking figure as writer than detective.

The role was written for Charlotte Rampling so it seems odd to say she's an inspired choice, since Ozon insists he wouldn't have made the movie without her. Rampling, who made her mark in Georgy Girl (1966) as Lynn Redgrave's selfish bitch of a roommate, doesn't have to shake off our memory of her as an ingenue. And while she was never the actress (Maggie Smith, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Diana Rigg, Susannah York) or even the star (Julie Christie) that her fellow Englishwomen of that era were, she wasn't just a name brand (Jacqueline Bisset, Sarah Miles) either. She always presented a singularly disquieting-alluring image. Her generous upper lip gives her a default air of defensiveness but the about-to-pounce cat eyes warn you against projecting ordinary vulnerability onto her. She's so glassy-goddessy her vulnerability could only be devastating: she could be shattered but not hurt. Luckily for her the face has always been fascinating to the extent that she doesn't have much expertise in using it as an actress--it invites you to project onto it, dares you to, but doesn't give back.

In 1974 she had the bad luck, or good, depending on your taste for camp, to appear in two of the most derided films of the era: John Boorman's Zardoz, a science-fiction romance about breeding in the year 2293, and Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter, in which she plays a concentration camp survivor who engages in sexplay with Dirk Bogarde as her former captor. Rampling doesn't let go, doesn't open up, the way a natural actress does, but she doesn't pull back from the material either. (In this way she seems much more "French" to the Anglo-American mind than the actually half-French Bisset and it's practically an in-joke on Rampling's career that Sarah doesn't get off watching Julie.) When she does full frontal nudity in Swimming Pool you don't think of her feeling shame, though you feel Sarah would. Rampling, as a performer more image than identity (she shimmers, like the screen you're watching her on), enables you to accept when Sarah does things that momentarily seem out of character. Rampling's aura has always suggested perverse satisfaction without the capacity for simple enjoyment and now at last she brings it to a movie in which it's rooted in a believably-anatomized character.

The movie is also protected against Rampling's objective quality as an actress because the script explicitly dramatizes Sarah's interior life. Sarah is a construction pieced together from fragmentarily observed behavior, but you come to realize that the spareness of Ozon's means is a lure. His unblinking naturalism is only a devious simulacrum, the straight face that gives you misleading directions. (As Ozon says in this online press kit interview, "Speaking as a director, I wanted to show an imaginary world in as realistic a way as possible--flat--so that fantasy and reality are shown as equivalents.") Rampling, with her luminous presence, recessed personality, and gameness for anything, gives herself over to Sarah as written and that's perfect for Ozon's cool-toned, deceptively objective style. The pay-off when you start to get what the movie is up to is bigger than mere surprise.

I can imagine an actress like Jane Fonda bringing out more layers of temperament in Sarah (as she did playing Lillian Hellman in Julia (1977) despite that movie's emotionally simplistic and politically gullible take on its heroine), but Fonda also strikes me as vain enough that she wouldn't respect the crabbed intimacy the movie forces us into with Sarah just as she is. (Though once upon a time, in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) and Klute (1971), Fonda did just that when no other American actress would.) Another actress (Helen Mirren?) could better express the cost to Sarah of the distance her vocation puts between her and the world but might not have Rampling's watered-silk variability. And I can't imagine anybody being funnier than Rampling when Julie gets her stoned and makes her dance: she uses her own self-consciousness to extend the character's range. Ozon and Bernheim may have hoped that Rampling would fill out the part more, or perhaps they knew that Rampling would preserve their character as written by merely illustrating it. She illustrates it to a T and has never been more effective onscreen.

The movie might also have been more revelatory with less of a lights-and-mirrors method of bringing out Sarah's form of working psychosis. But I'm not complaining: the trickiness raises it out of the "psychological study" category into the realm of entertainment. One of the mysteries of pop is that you can see deep reflections in a shallow pool (the Graham Greene phenomenon). Ozon and Bernheim use Sarah to divulge some of the twisted little secrets of the artist's psychology--maybe it's only one aspect of that psychology, and maybe it's only of one kind of artist (the dealer in mayhem), but it's so impeccably conceived and carried out that I've never felt less remote from an artist figure in a movie. The movie closes in on her with no pretension or romanticization (the purpose of irony, after all). She's an artist but both her talent and torment are presented in precise, quotidian, decidedly non-Parnassian terms as those of a buggily driven, self-centered craftswoman. Ozon shows a surgeon's steadiness--the movie is small-scaled and methodical without being quaint or dry, and it captures the blood-flow returning to this pinched woman without trite effusion. One of the few "clever" movies that expands when you think about it, Swimming Pool is a true accomplishment in the field of brainy pleasure.

And Ozon has provided a nifty certificate of authenticity (again from the press kit interview):

Before shooting, I suggested to Ruth Rendell that she might like to come up with the story for Sarah to be writing in the film. I sent her my script and she answered by return, very frostily, assuming that I was asking her to novelize the screenplay: she told me she was perfectly capable of writing her own stories, thank you. Charlotte Rampling found this highly amusing. She said that Sarah Morton would have reacted exactly the same way.
You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Quote of the Day:
"A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul."
~ George Bernard Shaw

Song of the Day:
Sam Cooke, "Don't Know Much"

Happy Birthday:
Kate Beckinsale
Sandra Bullock
Dorothy Hamill
Aldous Huxley
Mick Jagger
Carl Jung
Stanley Kubrick
George Bernard Shaw
Kevin Spacey
Regis co-host and soap star Kelly Ripa will get her own sitcom soon. How does she do it, with three young kids? "When I'm working, it's like a vacation," she says. "As a mom, I literally have no time for myself. At work, there are people there who will get me a cup of coffee."

Friday, July 25, 2003

Quote of the Day:
"Genius is only the power of making continuous efforts. The line between failure and success is so fine that we scarcely know when we pass it; so fine that we are often on the line and do not know it."
~ Elbert Hubbard

Song of the Day:
Jimmy Eat World, "Sweetness"

Happy Birthday:
Matt LeBlanc
Walter Payton
Maxfield Parrish
The Weekly Standard's David Brooks will be a New York Times columnist starting in September.
Of jockstraps and championships

Coach Gruden of the Tampa Bay Bucs says he will dance down a highway in only his jockstrap if the Bucs repeat as Super Bowl champions. Who's jumping on the Buccaneer Bandwagon? C'mon!

In other news, posting may slow to a trickle as fear of the bar makes me unable to do anything but curl up in the fetal position and rock slowly back and forth.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Movie Review

In Patrice Leconte's Man on the Train (L'Homme du train), Milan (Johnny Hallyday), a grim, late-middle-aged criminal with a migraine, gets off the train in a sleepy French provincial town and buys aspirin from a pharmacist who inadvertently gives him water-soluble tablets. Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a chatty retired teacher of literature who is also in the pharmacy, takes him to his estate, the outer gate and house door to which he leaves unlocked, for a glass of water. Manesquier invites him to stay, but the taciturn Milan shies away from his talkative host. When he gets to the town's hotel and finds it closed, however, he goes back, through the open gate and door, where Manesquier expects him. The movie's style is slightly edgy and it withholds information, so at first you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop: for Manesquier to make a pass at Milan, or for Milan to discover a pile of corpses in the basement, or something. And you know it's not just your acculturation to Hollywood product, because the movie has Manesquier establish his heterosexuality out of the blue by pointing out a 19th-century painting of a female nude and telling Milan that as a boy he used to beat off looking at it.

The movie is highly aware of the audience. Yes, it's talky in a way that is unusual in American movies, but the script by Claude Klotz is an assertive little entertainment in its own way. Manesquier talks and talks and what comes out isn't meant to create a plausible character so much as to please the audience directly. He ruminates on the active life like Milan's that he hasn't led and about advancing age; he discusses poetry and painting and music; he disparages his famous ancestor; he gets cranky about little things, a clerk in a pâtisserie, for instance, and his guests' comments about the infinite when sitting on his terrace at night; and we're meant to find it all "original." He's loquacious in part because he's lonely and in part because he's about to undergo triple bypass surgery, but he's also meant to be "wise." The movies plays it smart by making him cranky--it's a lot easier to take than if he were making high-flown pronouncements about art and life and the infinite, like an animated commonplace book (e.g., Chaplin in Limelight (1952)).

Starring roles for older actors are rare, and in terms of theatrical effectiveness Manesquier is choice--eccentric and epigrammatic on the surface, with the pathos of a man looking back on a too-quiet existence, just as even that much may be lost to him, visible through the translucent skin. Rochefort (the actor who was to play Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam's aborted adaptation of Cervantes, the subject of the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002); click here for an interview with the directors), has the great, elongated profile of an aristocratic hound and relishes the opportunity to speak to us through the camera as if from the stage, but the movie doesn't impose enough discipline on him. He's been in movies for forty years and is perhaps too skillful. He's dry and has enormous point, which helps. It's impossible to imagine an older American star playing the role without going for much broader effects by much broader means. Rochefort respects the material as comedy, and goes in for rue more than self-pity, but he never takes his eyes off the audience. It's a kind of commercial-aesthetic wizardry--he overplays both "adorable" and sad without leaving footprints in the sand.

The whole picture struck me as a lot more deliberate than most American critics seemed to find it. Especially when Manesquier goes on about how bored he gets playing the piano, even Beethoven, especially Schumann, Chopin least. It's a middle-brow stroke of genius: to impress people with Manesquier's familiarity with the romantic composers and yet to avoid putting them off by suggesting that if they aren't familiar with the composers they haven't missed much. All that's required is that they recognize the names.

And then there's the scene with Edith Scob (the daughter in the mask in Georges Franju's horror classic Les Yeux sans visage (1960; Eyes Without a Face) as Manesquier's proper, repressed sister. She's come to pack his bag for the hospital and Manesquier attempts to break through the reserve that has overtaken them since their normal, happy childhood. He succeeds, in the nick of time, by getting her to admit that her husband, whom we never see, is a "fat prick." She does at least refrain from agreeing that her sons are "cretins," but altogether the scene, objectionable in itself, is like a three-minute version of a bad domestic drama, and yet we're actually supposed to cheer it as an emotional breakthrough.

The use of poetry in the movie is far more adept. The snippet that Milan responds to (following the spelling of the original):

Dans Arle, où sont les Aliscams,
Quand l'ombre est rouge, sous les roses,
Et clair le temps,
Prends garde à la douceur des choses.
is by Paul-Jean Toulet, from his 1920 collection Les Contrerimes. (Milan likes that last line: beware of the sweetness of things.) We also hear bits from Louis Aragon's "Sur le Pont Neuf," the poem that opens his 1956 Roman inachevé, in which passing others on the bridge sets off self-contemplation in the poet. This stanza

Sur le Pont Neuf j'ai rencontré
Mon autre au loin ma mascarade
Et dans le jour décoloré
Il m'a dit tout bas Camarade
could be the kernel of the movie, and Rochefort and Hallyday do all anyone could to bring out the complementary contrast between the two men. Hallyday, the flamboyant yé-yé singer of the '60s, now in his 60s, gets his effects much more simply than Rochefort. He looks out from his rugged, worn face, through repitilian, glaucously blue eyes, and keeps his responses to a minimum. (Hallyday here appears dried out, less work for his mummifier than the average corpse.) Milan knows there's no point to most interactions and so avoids the trouble of entanglements. His shirttails come untucked when he speaks too frankly to Manesquier's mistress, but mostly he just wants to get through his days, and if that means going along with an ill-conceived robbery, that's what he'll do.

Milan's refusal to engage comes from the self-protectiveness of the criminal, but also from his awareness that age has made him peripheral to the world. This plays out when Manesquier takes Milan to a restaurant where two younger men, horsing around by a pinball machine, bump into them as if they were furniture. They don't apologize because Milan and Manesquier are old, what can they do? Manesquier decides to change his life by confronting them, and the ironic turnaround is the only moment in the movie that tasted more like juice than drink.

Altogether the movie is self-consciously French, which means it also acknowledges the national fascination with conventional American westerns and crime movies in the figure of Milan, who dresses in black leather, carries a photo of himself he tells Manesquier was taken in Nevada, and robs banks--and is played by Hallyday, a national icon precisely because he made inexportable rock-'n'-roll for the French. At one point Manesquier sneaks into Milan's room, tries on his fringed leather jacket, and pretends to be Wyatt Earp in the mirror. The desire to imitate American pop culture is acknowledged but contained, as if this kind of appropriation operated as a barrier against contamination. Similarly, though Milan has come to the town to rob a bank with his old gang, the crime is handled fairly gently--as close to Mario Monicelli's I Soliti ignoti (1958; released here as Big Deal on Madonna Street), a whimsical, characterful slapstick comedy about a failed heist, as it is to the blood-and-guts American gangster pictures of the '30s.

Manesquier fantasizes about being an outlaw, and has Milan give him shooting lessons, but at the end he tries to talk him out of the robbery, which is to take place as he himself will undergo surgery. (You know how the robbery will end because Milan's accomplices are either broken-down or losers or both. The best touch is that he hooks up with one of them at a museum, where the guy knowledgeably discusses the minor masters on display.) The basic narrative structure is a romance based on an allegorical comparison between light and dark versions of the same identity: the man on the train and the man rooted in the ancestral home; the man encumbered with a piano and the man who tootles on the pocket-sized harmonica. You find this kind of salt-and-pepper romance in American movies in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999; Patricia Highsmith's fascinating source novel was first made into a movie in France in 1960 called Plein soleil, released in the U.S. as Purple Noon); Face/Off (1997); Single White Female (1992); the Bette Davis good-and-bad twin movies Dead Ringer (1964) and A Stolen Life (1946); and plenty of others.

Leconte's version is understated by comparison, first of all because there's no baleful attempt by one man to swipe the other's life. There are only the most casual passes at identity switching: Manesquier forgets about a lesson and is out of the house when his pupil shows up and so Milan, having crammed the tobacco from a Gitane into one of Manesquier's pipes, puffs as he quizzes the boy about Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, replicating the professor's failings as a tutor. In fact, there's not much action at all: Manesquier muses aloud about Milan's existence while the robber simply broods. It's only at the end, when it's too late for both of them, that we see each more fully acting out the other's existence, and Leconte doesn't get too fancy about it.

Leconte and Klotz present as striking material that is fundamentally a conventional French import. With Hallyday the movie may acknowledge French fascination with American pop idioms, and it may have Rochefort express French cultural sophistication with a piquant yet droopy irony (suggesting all that awareness cannot do to enliven your life), but it's selling that sophistication all the same. Leconte's handling is moderate, cool, and swift, but the contents are what the intended audience expects, in this country, certainly. There's probably not an American who sees this movie, skeptics like me included, who won't listen to Manesquier and think, I'd take the boredom if I could live in that classy French villa or manor or château or whatevertheycallthem, with real school-of-Géricault right on the walls. But whereas for Americans it can't be self-congratulatory as it can for the French (and I say that believing what the movie shows, that there are working-class Frenchmen who are glad they were brought up to respect their literary heritage), for us it is all the same a contrived piece of cultural tourism that almost inevitably elicits a smarmy response.

You can find this review and a lot besides at blogcritics.
Jonathan Chait makes the Democrats' case against Howard Dean:

Dean is soaring mainly because he has tapped into the intense anger Democrats feel toward Bush. But, in this case, anger has gotten the better of reason. Democrats' justified desperation to unseat Bush may, paradoxically, render them less able to do so. The trouble is not Dean himself (he is a decent man) nor even necessarily how he might govern (more responsibly than some would think). It's that he has come to represent a political delusion: that on every issue Democrats have a moral and strategic obligation to oppose Bush diametrically. This delusion could enfeeble the Democratic Party in 2004, whether or not it makes Dean its nominee.
Even if Dean doesn't get the nomination, says Chait, he's set liberal expectations so high that the actual nominee will have keep making leftish noises or risk losing his base. "No wonder Karl Rove is chortling."
Quare has been cooking.

I am envious, as I have been far from the kitchen lately, subsisting on Diet Coke and egg salad sandwiches from Yorkside.

The last cookbook I got was this pie and tart cookbook from Williams-Sonoma. I have generally found W-S cookbooks to be excellent -- things turn out just like the pictures. So I am hopeful that I can eventually achieve that lattice-crust effect like the cherry pie on the cover.

Freshly pedicured, I am going to spend this afternoon on a practice exam.
Soon I'll surrender to my inner nerd and buy this book.
Bill Kristol criticizes these 16 words spoken by Dick Gephardt earlier this week: "George Bush has left us less safe and less secure than we were four years ago."

Kristol predicts that quotes like this will come back to haunt Gephardt and other Democrats.

Bill Clinton understands this. Tuesday evening, hours after Gephardt's speech, he suggested in a television interview that rather than debate the past, "we ought to focus on where we are and what the right thing to do for Iraq is now." Indeed, he (implicitly) warned his fellow Democrats that "we should be pulling for America on this. We should be pulling for the people of Iraq."
Very elder-statesmanlike.
We've gone to print media! Many thanks to the Yale Law Report for including us in its article on Yale blogs.
The saga of New Jersey's most famous valedictorian continues.

Click here for background.

I have no further comment.
Quote of the Day:
"For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."
~ H. L. Mencken

Song of the Day:
Collin Raye, "Love Remains"

Happy Birthday:
Barry Bonds
Amelia Earhart
Zelda Fitzgerald
Jennifer Lopez

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

My weirdest bar review question yet has involved (1) a person trimming sidewalk-bordering hedges (2) being "dive bombed" by wasps. He (3) flails his gloved hands and (4) hits a jogger in the face (5) who pulls a knife and (6) stabs the hedge trimmer.

Wow. My question: what is the jogger in a neighborhood with "sidewalk-bordering hedges" (a) doing with a knife and (b) why is his first reaction to pull it out and stab?
Blogger and Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub is all over the Davis recall situation. (Link via Kaus.)
Good riddance.
I just spent the last forty-five minutes rearranging the notes in my mega-binder, like deck chairs on the Titanic....

Tomorrow I am getting a pedicure, because it's important to have well-groomed feet in testing situations.
Here's July's calendar of events for the Roanoke Civic Center, where the Virginia bar exam is being given.

It appears that this dreadful thing is indeed going to happen, right between the "Fiddle Fest" and the Daughters of the American Revolution Antique Show.

At least it looks like parking won't be a problem, as they have 1,800 spots.

Things not to forget to take to Roanoke:
pens/pencils/erasers in plastic sandwich bag
photo ID
two navy blue suits (one plain, one pinstripes)
cell phone (must leave in car during exam)

This time next week it will all be over....
Andrew Sullivan links to the trailer for a new movie directed by Mel Gibson. The Passion, which is about the last days of Christ, is in "dead" languages, supposedly sans subtitles.

Lloyd Grove reports that Gibson screened the movie in Washington Monday for a small group that included Peggy Noonan, Linda Chavez, and Kate O'Beirne.

The Anti-Defamation League hasn't seen the movie yet but apparently isn't getting a good vibe. It released this statement:

ADL has serious concerns regarding Mr. Gibson's 'The Passion' and asks: Will the final version of 'The Passion' continue to portray Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of Jesus? Will it correct the unambiguous depiction of Jews as the ones responsible for the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus?
The Hotline quoted Matt Drudge, who attended the screening, telling MSNBC that it was pretty exclusive and "one person they did throw out was Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post." Grove doesn't mention that in his column.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Bill Pryor to the 11th Circuit this morning on a party-line vote. Pryor's nomination may still be filibustered by the full Senate. (Via How Appealing)
What a relief

All is well in the Stephanopoulos-Wentworth marriage.

UPDATE: "But seriously," says The Hotline, "maybe if Stephanopoulos spent less time in the bedroom and more time on his show...."
Quote of the Day:
"We know nothing at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren. The real nature of things we shall never know."
~ Albert Einstein

Song of the Day:
Martina McBride, "Wrong Again"

Happy Birthday:
Woody Harrelson
Don Imus
Monica Lewinsky

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I just learned that Virginia has enacted something called the Uniform Disposition of Community Property Rights at Death Act, or "UDOCPRADA."

For some reason this is funny to me.
Real Life Bar Exam Question

Figure out to whom the Oscar belongs! (Warning: If you are studying for the bar, I highly suggest NOT reading this article as it will make your head spin. There are probably enough contracts/wills issues in here to keep Barbri happy for quite some time.)
Via Vanessa Jean, An open letter to the New York Times Style section photo retoucher.
Jennifer Nicholson Graham has created the "Ann Coulter Diet."

Dieters on my plan will receive a WWACE lapel pin or beaded bracelet, and when it's time to eat, they'll simply ask the question, "What Would Ann Coulter Eat?"

The answer, of course, most of the time will be "Nothing!"
Joking aside, I do think it's a shame that so much of the press on Coulter is about her appearence, specifically her slender physique. This NYT profile of Coulter contains several references to her weight and eating habits, including the observation that she "has the fat content of a can of Diet Coke."

So she's skinny, people. If you're dying to criticize her, there are other ways to do it.

Speaking of weight, this article says America's obesity problem is a matter of portion size: "Today's blueberry muffin could, in an earlier era, have fed a family of four."
Here's an allegation that Pete Stark called Bill Thomas something worse than "fruitcake" during last Friday's fracas on the House Ways and Means Committee.

"You little fruitcake, you little fruitcake, I said you are a fruitcake," was what Stark said to Representative Scott McGinnis, who "is married and by all accounts not gay."

You know it's summertime when Brit Hume's Fox All-Stars spend half their panel time debating whether or not "fruitcake" means "homosexual."
Spoons is back!
Quote of the Day:
"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Song of the Day:
Heart, "These Dreams"

Happy Birthday:
Albert Brooks
Bob Dole
Danny Glover
Don Henley
Dean Jens
Steven Jens

Rose Kennedy
Gregor Mendel
Alex Trebek

Monday, July 21, 2003

And Target will really blow her mind

"I went to Wal-Mart for the first time. I always thought they sold wallpaper. I didn't realize it has everything. You can get anything you want there for really, really cheap."
~ Socialite Paris Hilton
Larry Miller is high on Tony Blair, who he says "Really shoots to pieces my theory that you can't trust a guy named Tony who's not Italian."

The British Empire of history has taken a lot of cultural and political slams in the last 30 years. If the proverbial Martian landed at the United Nations--and what unlucky aim that would be for him; another few blocks either way and he could've been drinking in an East Side pub--he would think that all humans in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the French, Spanish, Portugese, and Dutch, were dancing through nature in merry brotherhood until the English enslaved them all with their tall helmets and bad teeth.

It's not so. They were imperfect, we are imperfect, but the world was and remains a vicious place, and, make no mistake, every inch of moral progress we've made in the last 200 years is built on English Common Law and their tradition of freedom, and, yes, their victories in Europe and around the world. Here's how the prime minister put it:

"As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but in fact, it is transient. The question is, what do you leave behind? And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty."
As Miller puts it, "Yeah, baby."

Not that I'm real high on English Common Law at the moment. Evidence is going okay, but contracts is a total disaster. Tomorrow my master study plan calls for me to lay aside the Multistate subjects and return to the cursed Virginia essay topics, starting with "negotiable instruments," which I'm told is another way of saying "checks." Or something.
Sign of the Apocalypse, Number 2

At the Yahoo list of political blogs, we are among the "Most Popular."
A reader has asked for the end to the sample bar exam question Iris posted about the other day.

Here it is:

Hector is prosecuted for murder and Mort for manslaughter. Who, if anyone, should be convicted?

(A) Both Hector and Mort are guilty as charged
(B) Hector is guilty but Mort is innocent
(C) Mort is guilty but Hector is innocent
(D) Both Hector and Mort are innocent of the charges
The answer is B.
This question may go down in the record books as the one that sent me over the edge:

Tortfeasor tortiously injured Victim in an auto accident. While Victim was recovering in Hospital, Tortfeasor's liability insurer, Insurer, settled with Victim for $5,000. Victim gave Insurer a signed release and received a signed memorandum wherein Insurer promised to pay Victim $5,000 by check within 30 days. When Victim left Hospital two days later, Hospital demanded payment of its $4,000 stated bill. Victim thereupon gave Hospital his own negotiable promissory note for $4,000, payable to Hospital's order in 30 days, and also, as security, assigned to Hospital the Insurer settlement memorandum. Hospital promptly assigned for value the settlement memorandum and negotiated the note to Holder, who took the note as a holder in due course. Subsequently, Victim misrepresented to Insurer that he had lost the settlement memorandum and needed another. Insurer issued another memorandum identical the the first, and Victim assigned it to ABC Furniture to secure a $5,000 credit sale contract. ABC immediately notified Insurer of this assignment.

Later, it was discovered that Hospital had mistakenly overbilled Victim by the amount ot $1,000 and that Tortfeasor was an irresponsible minor.

If Victim starts an action against Insurer 40 days after the insurance settlement agreement, can Victim recover?

The "irresponsible minor" bit is the final straw. Did the bar examiners just think that question wasn't packed full of enough mind-numbing detail already?
Disposable DVDs

The Walt Disney Company is planning to test run DVDs that do not need to be returned to the video store--they simply "self-destruct." The DVDs turn black after a set period of time (48 hours is the time they are thinking of using) and can no longer be played.

I spent most of the article wondering about the obvious environmental implications and was relieved to find the NY Times address it (but disappointed to find it so far down in the article):
If the EZ-D disc is a success, its detractors say, expect to see an environmental mess, as millions of now useless discs clog the landfills with nonbiodegradable polymers. To counter these concerns, Flexplay has agreed to a partnership with a national recycler to collect used discs.

Even if the discs are not recycled, single-use disposable DVD's will result in net energy savings, according to a study conducted by Jonathan Koomey, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "The solid waste impacts may be more than completely offset by the gasoline saved from avoided trips to the video store. Gasoline savings could be 7.5 to 20 times larger than the increase in solid waste," Mr. Koomey said in an e-mail message.
I definitely don't buy the "net energy savings" garbage when problems with solid waste have implications well beyond questions of energy expenditure. As for recycling? While a good answer, it is generally the answer to an existing situation where consumers already prefer disposable over reusable. The EZ-D seems to be an obvious step backwards.
The Late, Late Show had a roundtable the other night on the California recall situation and the possibility that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be the state's next governor:

Writer Mike Gibbons: "We shouldn't confuse acting and politics. Half of California thinks Martin Sheen is the real president. The rest of California is positive Martin Sheen is the real president. The last thing California needs is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who barely speaks English and speaks no Spanish."

Comedian Goldy: "[Mike] is wrong. Arnold speaks Spanish. 'Hasta la vista, baby.' That's Spanish. I love Arnold, but he's too busy for politics. He's got a family, a business, a film career. We need an actor with nothing going on. Three words: Governor Steven Segal."
Meanwhile, some would like Arianna Huffington to enter the race.
The University of Virginia says its admissions office doesn't discriminate based on geography within its in-state applicant pool. The Washington Post begs to differ:

[A]n analysis of admissions data by The Washington Post and shows that despite Northern Virginia applicants having, on average, the strongest test scores in the state, a smaller percentage of the area's recent applicants were admitted to U-Va.
Yet a UVA student from Williamsburg says "We tend to think there are too many people from Northern Virginia." So go figure.
A friend writes to thank me for the bar updates but says that "Unfortunately, I suspect your wit hides deep, deep misery."

Yeah, that sums it up. I literally ache from sitting in this chair all day, and even my sleep is tortured by dreams about equitable servitudes and springing executory interests.

On to contracts and evidence....
Quote of the Day:
"Marriage -- as its veterans know well -- is the continuous process of getting used to things you hadn't expected."
~ Tom Mullen

Song of the Day:
Grateful Dead, "Built To Last"

Happy Birthday:
Ernest Hemingway
Don Knotts
Kenneth Starr
Isaac Stern
Cat Stevens
Robin Williams

* And a very happy anniversary to my parents, who got married thirty years ago today.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Help me

The Larval Lawyer has some great posts about studying for the bar. He captures, to a T, my feelings right now. This is a funny post, and this eerily captures what the bar exam is all about.

The bar is actually making me quite angry these days. The thing is, it's not like they are testing us only on important concepts. As Seth the Larval Lawyer makes clear, everything is fair game, including exceptions to exceptions of obscure aspects of some random state-specific law.
The New York Times, which once told us that "Monday is the new Thursday," now declares that "thirty is the new 22."
Quote of the Day:
"It's pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness. Poverty and wealth have both failed."
~ Kin Hubbard

Song of the Day:
Macy Gray, "I Try"

Happy Birthday:
Edmund Hillary
Diana Rigg
Carlos Santana
Natalie Wood

Saturday, July 19, 2003

A Sign of the Apocalypse

At the top of the NY Times Children's Picture bestseller list: "Walter the Farting Dog"
Quote of the Day:
"There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. "
~ Oscar Levant

Song of the Day:
Pink Floyd, "Time"

Happy Birthday
Lizzie Borden
Edgar Degas
Anthony Edwards

Friday, July 18, 2003

Another blogger is blogging his Virginia bar exam preparation, complete with daily reports on his caffeine intake.

I'm on my third Diet Coke of the day. Just did a set of practice multiple-choice questions on torts. My results were troubling.
The Bar is coming

Remember that song "Freak Out!"? Well, I think it might just be time.

We got a hit today from someone looking for "barbri is harder than the real bar exam." For the uninitiated, Barbri is the study service that most people studying for the bar use. Let's hope it's true--for us here at the Cabinet and the rest of the poor saps studying for the bar.
Legos and Star Wars

Something for the latent nerd in every x-generationer. This guy has taken it upon himself to build a star wars fighter out of legos for every letter that was not covered in the movies (no X-wing, no Y-wing, etc.). He has five more to go... (I picked this up on Slashdot.)
France has made "the latest step to stem an incursion of English words into the French lexicon." I didn't know this was an agenda item, but, well ...
The Culture Ministry has announced a ban on the use of "e-mail" in all government ministries, documents, publications or Web sites . . . .

The ministry's General Commission on Terminology and Neology insists Internet surfers in France are broadly using the term "courrier electronique" (electronic mail) instead of e-mail -- a claim some industry experts dispute. "Courriel" is a fusion of the two words.

"Evocative, with a very French sound, the word 'courriel' is broadly used in the press and competes advantageously with the borrowed 'mail' in English," the commission has ruled.
There must be better things to be doing.
It's all the rage! Be the first on your block to suggest impeaching the President. Seriously, a whole generation of children is growing up with the notion that impeachment is a regular thing.
Kate and I were stood up last night by The Captain, who told us he'd be at the local watering hole and then wasn't.
Quote of the Day:
"All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true."
~ T.E. Lawrence

Song of the Day:
Stevie Wonder, "Isn't She Lovely"

Happy Birthday:
Larry Barber
Vin Diesel
John Glenn
Nelson Mandela
Adela Ramos
Apparently Flannery O'Connor isn't dead--she's writing test questions for BarBri:

Amos had a dream one night, in which God spoke to him and told him that because God helps those who help themselves, he should go where poor people live and preach to them that they were poor because they were not devout enough, and that hard work and earnest prayer would raise them from their poverty. The next morning, Amos put on his finest clothes and took his well-thumbed Bible to the poorest ghetto area of the city in which he lived. He stood on a street corner and shouted to all who would listen that their poverty and squalor were the product of their own laziness and lack of piety, and entreated them to praise God for sending them the messenger of their salvation. Hector, who had just been fired from his job cleaning toilets in one of the downtown high-rise office buildings because he had been seen conversing with a union organizer, picked up Amos, threw him against the wall of a building, and clubbed him over the head with a tire iron, shouting, "That should shut you up, you Bible-thumping son of a bleep[sic]!" Amos, lying on the sidewalk and bleeding profusely from a severe laceration of his skull, looked up and saw Mort, who had observed Amos since he started preaching. "Help me," croaked Amos. "God helps those who help themselves," replied Mort, and walked away. When an ambulance arrived 35 minutes later, Amos had died. An autopsy established that Amos would have survived if he had received prompt medical attention.
How weird is that one? It actually makes it hard to concentrate though not to answer. You know Mort had no duty to help Amos because his name means Dead. What are we being tested on here, criminal law or allegory?

Thursday, July 17, 2003

How not to end an office romance: a summer intern in Kay Bailey Hutchinson's Senate office sent this classy e-mail to an ex.

I can't decide what's more disturbing -- the atrocious spelling and grammar, or the writer's e-mail address.
A lawyer says "we were not trained to be jerks in law school."

I, apparently, was not trained to be anything in law school, not even a lawyer. Which is a problem, as the bar exam is less than two weeks away.
Included in a forthcoming book of recipes from the Clinton Presidential Foundation: Hillary's recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
In honor of Jerry Springer's run (against Jonah Goldberg?) for the U.S. Senate, The Hotline has come up with a segment called "Your Daily Springer." (The Hotline's site is here, but sometimes you need a password). Here are today's highlights from Jerry's July 15 show, "Bad Girls Confess":

Springer: "Today we are talking to women who have crossed the line and gone too far. Please meet Ken. She says her love life has become a battle between her and her sister."
In "Ken"'s own words: "I'm here to tell my sister that I've been sleeping with her man."
Springer: "Wouldn't your first reaction be 'Wait a second. You're with my sister. What are you doing?'"
Guest "Ken": "I'm a woman, I've got needs."
Springer: "Was he flirting with you prior to the time that..."
Guest "Ken": "We slept together? No."
Springer: "He wasn't? So one night he just walked over to you and said 'Heyyy.' Is that how he said it? 'Heyyy.' 'Cause I walk around all the time going 'Heyyy.' It doesn't do anything." Jerry approaches a female audience member and says "Heyyy." She does not respond.
Springer: "You see, It doesn't work."
Guest "Ken": "You gotta say more then just 'Hey.' You gotta put a little bit more with the 'Hey.'"
Springer: "Usually it's begging and a big wallet."

Number of times audience chants "Sit Down Whore": 4
Number of people that expose themselves: 8
Weep, Ohioans.
Conan O'Brien last night: "In a telephone conference yesterday, several Democratic candidates for president said they would appoint a gay man to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, gay men said they won't join the court, because the robes make them look fat."
Why are so many moms staying home? This op-ed says it's because most of the jobs in our economy are either too high-octane or too dead-end:

This leaves mothers facing three unattractive choices. Either they remain in a "good job" that keeps them away from home 10 to 12 hours a day, or they take a part-time with depressed wages, few benefits and no advancement. Or they quit.

Faced with the choice between quitting their jobs and never seeing their children awake, many mothers will indeed "choose" to quit. But what if both parents could find a 30- to 35-hour-per-week job that wasn't a career-stopper?
The number of mothers staying home has risen 13 percent in the last decade, and nearly one in three American kids under 15 has a stay-at-home mom.
Quote of the Day:
"The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life."
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

Song of the Day:
Bryan Adams, "Summer of '69"

Happy Birthday:
James Cagney
Phyllis Diller
Erle Stanley Gardner
David Hasselhoff
Art Linkletter
Donald Sutherland

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Put away your blow-up dolls

There may no longer be a need to keep a fake person in your car to qualify for the HOV lane in Washington state. A state rep. is proposing that the government auction off passes to solo drivers (and some others usually not qualified to drive in HOV lanes) that would allow the holders of the passes to drive in the HOV lanes. My strongest concern with this proposition is buried deep in the article:
Critics also note that the proposal undermines the environmental benefits of HOV lanes.
After all, wasn't reducing pollution/gas consumption/etc. one of the driving factors behind HOV lanes? I could be mollified, I suppose, if I was told the money was going toward certain kinds of government spending...
Tyler Hamilton, an American rider who fractured his collarbone on the first day of the Tour de France, is now in fifth place halfway through the race. He is updating a blog of sorts and this entry is revealing:
I'm sorry if this journal entry isn't very riveting. We have CNBC on our televisions here at the hotel tonight and they are showing the previous week's worth of the Tonight Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. It's been 7 months since I've seen American television so I'm having a hard time pulling myself away. It's good to have a few laughs... even if I have no idea who the guests are.
Our elite athletes are regular people, too. And I can understand the American television withdrawal, having once spent a full year out of the States and watching painful reruns of Ally McBeal from the show's last, dying years.
An new book on Third World nannies and maids implies that maternal love is the latest scarce resource: "It is as if the wealthy parts of the world are running short on precious emotional and sexual resources and have had to turn to poorer regions for fresh supplies."
This article says "It's safe to talk about sex differences again," and then does so at length:

Women's perceptual skills are oriented to quick--call it intuitive--people reading. Females are gifted at detecting the feelings and thoughts of others, inferring intentions, absorbing contextual clues and responding in emotionally appropriate ways. They empathize. Tuned to others, they more readily see alternate sides of an argument. Such empathy fosters communication and primes females for attachment.

Women, in other words, seem to be hard-wired for a top-down, big-picture take. Men might be programmed to look at things from the bottom up (no surprise there).

Men focus first on minute detail, and operate most easily with a certain detachment. They construct rules-based analyses of the natural world, inanimate objects and events.
Of course, most people have a healthy mix of skills. But research suggests that autism, characterized by obsessive "systemizing" and lack of empathy, may be a kind of extreme maleness.
Gongressman Jerrold Nadler is having another stomach-shrinking surgery to speed up his weight loss. "You don't do this unless you've tried every other way," he said. No kidding.
Quote of the Day:
"I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism."
~ Whittaker Chambers

Song of the Day:
U2, "With Or Without You"

Happy Birthday:
Corey Feldman
Ginger Rogers
Barry Sanders

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Tenet, the fall guy

Andrew Raff has a funny list of things for which CIA director Tenet will take the blame before he steps down, including, among other things: Sausage-gate, and the Hulk's willy (posted here a week ago). Raff includes "spam" on the list. Will Tenet take the blame for both kinds of spam, the eatable (yes, I said eatable) and non-eatable kinds? I've been looking for years for someone to blame for the eatable kind of spam.

Things to add to the list: Sosa's corked bat, my lack of interesting posting, and reality TV.
As if the whole concept isn't bad enough, you'd think Lieberman could at least have picked a better picture of himself... C'mon, the slightly open mouth, the glazed eyes. I won't say it, but everyone's thinking it. (From a new Yale blog, Yale Diva).

And how about the irony of having New Hampshire plates with their "Live Free or Die" slogan on a Joe Lieberman for President car?
Movie Review

Danny Boyle's new movie 28 Days Later opens with video images of civil unrest--street mobs stringing a man up, burning tires, throwing rocks at police. These scenes of turmoil aren't really "happening," they're being shown on TV sets arranged so that a chimpanzee, chained on a table and connected to monitoring devices, must watch them. The chimps in this lab have been infected with a virus called "rage" and when animal activists break in to liberate them, they liberate the virus, which turns exposed humans into mindlessly ravening homicidal maniacs who wipe out most of the population of England in four weeks.

This "Clockwork Banana" opening, with its ironic kicker about the naïveté of the animal rights group, is mostly beside the point. Boyle and his screenwriter Alex Garland don't care so much how the end of civilization arrives so long as it does. The movie really gets going when Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma completely alone in a hospital and stumbles through an equally deserted London. This gives Boyle the opportunity first of all to create a capital city vacated so fast that the streets are littered with signs of humanity but no humans. (As Boyle points out in an article in This Is Lancashire, in Britain film crews may not close off streets to accommodate filming, so he had to get these fascinating vistas quickly in the early morning.) The movie was shot on digital video and this gives it an undernourished look that's especially good for a post-apocalyptic vision of what Boyle evidently considers a wasteland now.

Boyle has a talent for getting from one eye-catching composition to another fast without lessening their impact as compositions. (The effect can be like going through a modern art exhibit on a motorcycle.) But the sumptuous vacationland cinematography of his last picture, The Beach (2000; adapted from Garland's book), wouldn't do here. The definition of digital video isn't great (the revelation of the fate of Manchester, Boyle's hometown, in particular is lost in a long shot that simply doesn't scan) and the result is claustrophobic. But that's okay because the movie focuses on what happens to the random survivor abandoned to his own devices. In a situation with such limited possibilities there is no big picture. It's also okay because the videographer Anthony Dod Mantle is a master of poetic desolation--e.g., people seen through dirty glass--that the watery light of the imagery makes even more piercing, as if the last chance for human contact might not be discernible after a long blink. The look of the movie is perfect for experience closed in by devastation, for the shock of going from the most advanced civilization the world has known to nothing, with no transition.

Jim is saved from an attack of the infected by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who explain to him what's happened while he was asleep. (Garland has written speeches for them that sound like audition monologues, but he gets over that.) After a trek to Jim's parents' house, and another attack, Jim and Selena find Frank and his teenaged daughter Hannah (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) and together they head up to Manchester in response to a radio appeal on the part of a surviving military force that claims to have the answer to infection.

The movie is more interesting before they arrive in Manchester to the degree it's given over to the paradoxically aimless purposefulness of survival in a world so broken down and depopulated the survivors can't even really start over. You're conscious of allegorical buddings, but you can postpone trying to arrange them coherently because it's still early and the situation is absorbing enough on its own terms (although there's a wobble when the bogus suspense of a flat tire all but kills a shadowy, pestilential scene in an automobile tunnel).

And Murphy and Harris make a wonderfully complementary pair. She's the fierce one, who believes that since the virus takes effect within 10-20 seconds you have to be able to kill even your closest companion in a heartbeat. Selena has let the catastrophe shape her so that to her survival is only about survival; there's nothing on the horizon. Harris holds a machete as if it were a natural extension of her arm, and has an unshowy ability to suggest the emotion that Selena has had to suppress to be able to do so. (She also has a wonderful voice that can display a full octave span in a single word.) Jim is the one who feels the need of other people, who doesn't want to leave anyone behind, and Murphy's deep-set blue eyes radiate sensitivity. (He looks like the young Anthony Hopkins, but he's suppler, not so freeze-dried.) The movie switches the traditional sex roles: she's tough but delicate underneath, and he's delicate but tough inside. This doesn't register as political correctness but gives the couple an updated sexual tingle in what is, after all, and despite unspoken reference to recent headline viruses (in an interview with RES Boyle cites Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, a popular science book about Ebola, as an inspiration), an old movie set-up of the Most Dangerous Game (1932) variety.

It doesn't feel that old, however, until the foursome reaches the military compound outside Manchester, run by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) whose practicality in the situation verges on the psychotic. West keeps a black man, one of his soldiers now infected, chained by the neck like a dog: he says that the sufferer "tells" him that the undead are incapable of getting or producing food and will eventually tell him how long it takes them to starve to death. Which is pretty sensible, except West lacks the normal dismay at the suffering of another human. (It's more experimentation, with a human "chimp.") Then when West addresses what he wants done with the Selena and Hannah, the only women in the compound, the movie loses what it had going for it.

The early parts are a survivalist fantasy coming on the heels of a destruction and re-creation myth. The way Boyle and Garland treat the survivalist fantasy allows the actors to create specific characters out of potentially overburdened types, and the movie works through the details of what they'd encounter, how they'd deal with it. But once the situation at the camp goes Gothic, it's time to start analyzing the narrative tropes and the fun's pretty much over.

For instance, at first the destruction and re-creation myth seems to carry an ironic charge because the consequences of the animal rights' activists were unforeseen by them, and, at a higher level of irony, because it wasn't an angry God who had destroyed the world to punish his creatures for their sins, as with the flood in Genesis 6:1-8. The situation seems clean--there's no reason for it. It's bracing to be reminded that a rampaging virus could take humans back into the realm of nature where we would lose our dominance; I think in the very long run this must prove true, though perhaps not by means of a virus. But finally you have to realize that there is a punishing moralism at work in 28 Days Later. Implicitly the movie is saying we deserve to die because we do such things as experiment on chimpanzees, and once we get to the compound with wacked-out military men, you know the movie has had the paranoid-left filter in from the start in order to make advanced civilization look barbaric (Major Henry West).

In this interview with UnderGroundOnline the producer Andrew Macdonald offers a sampling of the connections you could make from the situations in the movie, which only points up the intellectual clutter:

UGO: Did you have any fear of this film coming out after anthrax and SARS scares?

AM: Well, this film was done pre-Sept 11. But in the United Kingdom, we've had this foot and mouth disease. There were piles of burning animal carcasses on television. We seem to be becoming the leader of these kinds of diseases in the world. Genre films like this come out of fears like that; Omega Man coming out of the Cold War and Romero's films coming out of the Vietnam War.

UGO: Danny described this movie as the worst possible case of road rage.

AM: It's all about being intolerant. When Danny read the first draft, to him, it was a film about human rage. A psychological virus. The virus has been growing inside people. Everyone wants everything now. There are more and more cars and less and less room. Someone who doesn't move fast enough will get beaten up. It's the same in hospitals when they don't get served enough. It's an instability and intolerance that we have more and more in the west.
"Someone who doesn't move fast enough will get beaten up"? "It's the same in hospitals"? What the hell is he talking about? It all sounds vaguely plausible if you're skimming, but in the end he says too much, verging on free association. Most importantly, none of it feels necessary as an explanation of your experience of the movie.

Boyle develops scripts with catchy stories within a certain range. His movies are nonetheless hard to categorize because he combines ancient tropes--original sin; destruction and re-creation; the original paradise; the first, fratricidal killing--with the cruel disinterest of the ironist, who watches like an entomologist until the members of the tight little community start turning on each other. Unfortunately he doesn't have a literary mind and so doesn't know how to put the elements together. His major failing is coarseness. He appears to think that if you slam two ideas together they'll stick, and if they don't they'll at least strike sparks. That's a valid way to work if what you care about is effectiveness, no matter what.

28 Days Later has a graphic power that other shoestring shockers it will inevitably be compared to, e.g., George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), can't approach, but at the next round of eliminations it's also clear that Boyle lacks the power of the no-budget visionaries, the David Lynch of Eraserhead (1977) and the Gus Van Sant of Mala Noche (1985). Boyle has no intellectual defenses against handed-down ideas (the "philosophical" discussion at the military dinner table about the epidemic is standard Hollywood horror movie prattle--see the Spencer Tracy Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), for instance) and despite a hardboiled vernacular style he's not that intuitive, either.

Irony, which doesn't require great intellectual sophistication, is Boyle's best game. Irony is the genre that uses all the artifice of the storyteller in the service of a thoroughly de-romanticized vision of the world. (Once again, I would read Northrop Frye on irony and satire in his 1957 volume The Anatomy of Criticism to get a handle on this.) The shock comes from the friction between the artist's command of style and the loser protagonist's living out a worst-case scenario. Ordinarily movie magic is used to prostrate us before bigger-and-better-than-life heroes accomplishing prodigious feats. (Think of Ben-Hur, and how, for instance, we're expected to take his impolitic rebuff of Masala as virtuous steadfastness.) In irony the sensual pull of technique positions us so that we're rooting for a guy we know we shouldn't care about, while knowing that we're not even going to get what we want. When irony works we identify with the protagonist not despite his lack of virtue, brains, luck, beauty, all the standard equipment of the conventional bland hero, but because of it. The protagonist represents the worst parts of us and the smooth-talking ironist gets us to identify in defiance of our vanity. But you can end up grateful to the artist who, for once, doesn't just want to spin cotton candy inside your empty skull.

For the kind of irony that's distinct from comedy in terms of narrative structure, Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) is the quintessential protagonist: you know Barbara Stanwyck is going to be poison to him; he knows Barbara Stanwyck is going to be poison to him; but he falls, thinking he's jumping, and you find yourself hoping he lands on his feet. The movie maintains its moral bearings by the inclusion of Edward G. Robinson's character, and though no actor has ever made sheer goodness less phony, while watching the movie you want MacMurray to get away with something you'd gladly see him executed for if he were a real person. (No less so when he plans a second crime to cover up the first.)

Ewan McGregor was Boyle's original badboy protagonist, and when Boyle stopped pushing the edge almost desperately, as he had in Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996), and relaxed with the comic irony of A Life Less Ordinary (1997), their talents threw out new, unexpected shoots. It was like the first spring in a calendar that had previously had only one season, winter--A Life Less Ordinary is a sensational black romantic comedy. (Click here for Stephanie Zacharek's Salon review, one of the very few to appreciate the movie.) Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Boyle's adaptation of Alex Garland's book The Beach, and you can see why the director and star would want to work together. DiCaprio is arguably the greatest male photographic model ever and a wonderful mime. (The two don't always go together: Marilyn Monroe was a great model but at best merely an endearingly woozy actress.) In The Beach, for instance, when DiCaprio sees a girl shot down or when he thinks he's about to be executed, he shows an expressive talent rivaling that of the greatest silent stars. He's so able to get us to identify with him that there's no need to make him likeable.

But Boyle's indifference to the usual appeals to the audience were compromised in The Beach, possibly by 20th Century-Fox, possibly by DiCaprio. Hard to know, but what is clear is that at times the movie expects us to like this boy whose behavior is quite sketchy. He could be a hero only if finding the ideal stretch of white sand were a heroic quest. Otherwise the only point would seem to be to seduce us into justifying the means he takes to a tempting end and then to snap the travel brochure shut on our lolling tongues. (Irony overlaps with comedy, sometimes in terms of structure but usually in terms of the response it elicits, i.e., laughter, but can at the same time be quite punitive.) But the script ducks the hardball approach and ends up neither-nor.

There is one problem that The Beach shares with Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later that we can lay at Boyle's door, however: he likes showing a boy who becomes a man by survivalist means. (In A Life Less Ordinary it's at least presented in a comic-ironic mode, and McGregor never really catches up to Cameron Diaz, anyway.) 28 Days Later is a rat's nest of unexamined left-wing attitudes, but when Jim outwits his military executioners and heads back to the compound to kick some khaki butt, the movie is fighting itself. It plays out left-wing fears and fantasies--medical experiments are cruel and potentially catastrophic; modern industrial-consumerist society makes people miserable and it would be a blessing if it were destroyed; the military is full of psychos; women and blacks are eternal victims--and then presents a soft-spoken, tender-hearted boy who becomes a hero by gouging a soldier's eyes out with his thumbs.

To reach this point Boyle has to get Selena into a situation in which Jim must rescue her. (He even puts her in a dress, tossing away the role-switching that made them so appealing.) Then he has Jim resort to a means that makes no sense: letting the zombie soldier loose, turning the military compound into a haunted house, electrical storm and all. In his rage Jim acts in such a way that Selena thinks the time has come to kill him in a heartbeat, and yet his actions are what enable them to end up in an idyllic life in the lustrously green countryside. Though it's a trim, swift movie, by the end it's turned into some kind of misshapen semi-Biblical, hippie-dippie back-to-nature, anti-militaristic, anti-establishment revenge fantasy, and your embarrassment is matched only by your surprise that Jim and Selena's story isn't really ironic at all.

In all of Boyle's previous features, and in much of The Beach as well, Boyle looks on with unblinking and amused detachment as base human urges undo communities. In 28 Days Later he identifies original innocence for us, with Jim and Selena as the new, interracial Adam and Eve, and Hannah as their asexually produced offspring. It's the latest in progressive-primitive.

But this isn't what I'll remember from the movie. I'll remember the forlorn intimate shots and the unsettling larger-scale ones of depopulated London; the horrifically fast movements of the undead (Boyle gets more from editing and sound effects and suggestion than a big-budget picture can get from explicit special effects); Harris's reasonable but merciless repression of emotion and Murphy's unabashed openness to it; and some of the looser sequences, one in a grocery store, for instance, in which Boyle unclenches his grip. But if 28 Days Later is discussed below its ambitions as a zombie movie, that's lucky for the moviemakers because their talents exceed their ambitions. It's a more memorable movie than it deserves to be.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
"Ethics" teacher releases competing deck of cards to the Iraqi most wanted deck of cards. But see, it isn't the making and selling of the deck that bothers me. What bothers me is her self-righteous claim that the cards are "a lesson in truth."

Monday, July 14, 2003

Woman swallows cockroach, then fork.

And here's the x-ray.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

A skirmish at a Young Republicans convention was kicked off when "several delegates shouted concerns that the decision to close the meeting had been made in a manner that was inconsistent with Robert's Rules of Order, the YRNF convention standard" and escalated from there to pushing and shoving.


Saturday, July 12, 2003

Check out the Bad Baby Names page for gems like Mercedes Binns, Pete Maas and Candy Kane.
I always thought I-85 was the most boring road in the world, but someone's managed to write a whole article about it.

And I've learned a new word: "odology — the study of roads and their cultural, economic and spiritual meanings."
Tax law melodrama.
The duckies are coming.

Gosh. If the Bar weren't two weeks away, I'd go stand around on the coastline.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Movie Review

I went to Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle instead of any of the male action movies because the trailer suggested it wouldn't take itself seriously. Male action movies always expect you to get caught up in the suspense to some degree, not just in the whole arc of the plot, but in the details--will he get into the building, will he get out of the building, will he get away in the snazzy car or the helicopter or whatever. With technique like Brian DePalma's, say in Mission: Impossible (1996), you can make the moviemaking a thing of beauty to contemplate, but you can't expect an intelligent person to really get involved. Even the jokers among the male action crowd, Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven, most notably, expect you to get pumped.

Full Throttle throws all that away. The first Charlie's Angels (2000), also directed by McG and starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu as the three beautiful superagents, was campily aware of the tiredness of recycling old TV shows, but still treated it as a relatively straightforward assignment. It had a "real" plot and long-strand action-suspense sequences. In Full Throttle when the girls need to get into a building there's much less concern with how they get in, they just get in, wearing absurd costumes and with facetious musical cues. (The goatherd song from The Sound of Music that plays when they're in disguise as nuns is so insistent as to be demented.) The suspense in action movies is cheesy because you know the big set pieces are faked, down to the timing, and the characters are endowed with inhuman physical endurance (especially to absorb blows). Full Throttle never asks you to engage with the plot at this micro level, because you know, as you always do, that everything will sort itself out, and at the macro level the plot barely makes any sense so you can let it go, too.

This holiday from the pretense to rationality feels much more plugged in to what gives me pleasure. The actors are incredibly good-looking, real body gods. Not just the three stars, but most of the bad guys, too, including Demi Moore, whose sinewy physique works well with her smoky buzz of a voice, all slightly ominous come-on, and Justin Theroux as a lean, muscly dream of a bad boyfriend. The movie isn't just unconcerned with being convincing, it's openly, ludicrously nonchalant, a festive comedy of an action movie. And in addition to the crazy music cues, it has a couple of dance sequences, one in which the girls demonstrate that all their joints are oiled and working, and one that's a sensuous mini-video for Edwyn Collins's "A Girl Like You" as Moore prepares for her climactic crime. (McG's credits include the Gap khaki ad featuring line dancers set to Dwight Yoakam's rendition of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and some of the brightest, most enjoyable videos of the late '90s, including Sugar Ray's "Fly" and "Every Morning" (both of which he also co-wrote), Fastball's "The Way," Smash Mouth's "Walkin' On the Sun" and "All Star," The Offspring's "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" and "Why Don't You Get a Job," and Barenaked Ladies' "One Week.") Sex, comedy, music: once you buy your food at the concession stand what else is there to want?

One of the great advantages of Full Throttle's intentional disassembly of the heavy machinery of action movies is that the stars stand out more. Cameron Diaz, who's capable of sunburst projection when she's doing nothing but having fun, is not quite like any previous top-billed actress: an adult tomboy star. Katharine Hepburn was independent, wore trousers, and was a manifestly athletic woman, but she came across as more responsible than Diaz, who is a woman but not exactly a grown-up. She makes star acting seem like a form of recreation rather than art or work, which is not something you could say of Hepburn. Diaz has something of a cheerleader's spark (without the coy confectionary sweetness), but an appealing gawkiness that the character doesn't even seem fully aware of (that's the point of the Soul Train sequence in the first movie). She certainly doesn't let it hold her back. Diaz is a total guy's-chick--tough but wide-eyed, both giggly and foul-mouthed, spirited, leggy, unselfconscious. Apart from Danny Boyle's way underrated A Life Less Ordinary (1997) she hasn't had very good material, but she's always infectious, a breathless one-woman amateur spectator sport.

Drew Barrymore is an even more unusual star. Her well-publicized troubles give her acting an emotional undertow, though you scarcely think of her as an actress at all. With Judy Garland and Betty Hutton you could also sense their personal disturbances, but those women were troupers who knew how to keep a lid on it for the good of the show: Garland played her desperation with quiet urgentness, while Hutton went explosive. Barrymore, having grown up with her confusions well-aired, has made a character out of being confused. She doesn't have the focused laserlight of a star, but in The Wedding Singer (1998), Home Fries (1998), Never Been Kissed (1999), and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) she has displayed a core of traits--eager warmth with fuzzy edges, head-spinning doubts and changes of heart--that Full Throttle uses in its only attempt at coherent storytelling. (Barrymore's history of falling for the wrong guy is behind what the movie calls a plot.)

Barrymore has the sweet-dolorous quality of a Madonna, but one who's entered the game of love and keeps getting tripped up by her most endearing qualities. Diaz comes across as a girl who can take of herself, whereas Barrymore elicits a protective reaction in the audience. She's been in movies over 20 years but, unlike Garland and Hutton, has never formed the veteran showman's armor of expertise. She has the bone structure and coloring to be Julianne Moore's diffident little sister, but not the technique (her enunciation in particular can get mushy) and maybe that's why she's involving in a way Moore never has been. Barrymore isn't consciously presenting herself to us; she's utterly open to the camera.

This makes her the opposite of Lucy Liu, who has plenty of poise and relatively little personality. Her skill is too physical, her manner ultimately too reserved. She often seems to be peeking out at us from behind her face. Physical skills aren't enough; the performer has to engage us more than Liu seems interested in to register as a star. Diaz is a great big gushing firehose of personality, and Barrymore has the gift of being herself, helplessly, onscreen in a way that's awfully engaging--it doesn't matter if the actress comes to us or beckons us to her. Liu isn't bad, but she merely plays the part as written, which puts her at the bottom of this class.

But the willful dopiness of the movie carries Liu along with everything else. The movie's attitude is just about perfect, but this doesn't make it a masterpiece. I wish the musical numbers were longer and more fully worked out. Once you've thrown believability away there's no reason not to pause for a good dance routine, and the angels can dance. Bernie Mac's material isn't fresh and is awkwardly cut in, while John Cleese's scenes as Liu's father, in which he hears everything she says as dismaying double entendres and tries to show his support for her anyway, verge on the queasy. (I missed Bill Murray from the first movie, a master of undermining his own projects from within, and Luke Wilson contributed some off-rhythm moments. Dropping Tom Green was a good move, however.) The special effects are standard, and the no-rules Motocross race in particular looks like a color Xerox of a TV cartoon made in defiance of a low toner warning. The fight scenes are as absurd as everything else, but there's only so much camp can do. As McG says in this interview about the making of the movie, the fights were choreographed by Yuen Cheung-Yan, the Hong Kong martial arts movie veteran who also worked on the first Charlie's Angels, Daredevil (2003), and The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Yuen's work is pretty much a waste because the fights have been cut to incoherence. The comedy, by contrast, is timed a little slow--McG is by turns hare and tortoise just when he shouldn't be.

In other words, there are a lot of skills that McG has yet to learn (or perhaps to hear about--even in a purposely anarchic comedy you miss a director with a literary or any kind of narrative-theatrical background). His extraordinary work in video has enabled him to jump way ahead of himself as a movie director and he's getting by on attitude. But, considering how unappealing the more conventionally competent action movies at the mall are to me, at least he is getting by in Full Throttle.

Full Throttle is, for instance, a pretty even match against the Austin Powers movies. We think of an Austin Powers movie as a parody of '60s spy movies but it isn't really like any of them. It's thus different from, say, Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974), or Airplane! (1980), or Hot Shots! (1991), more purely an occasion for unconnected low jokes and pranks, without reference to specific other movies. Similarly, Full Throttle cashes in on the brand-name '70s TV show and trashes it at the same time, turning itself into a variety show with burlesque low intentions. It shakes itself so loose that the actresses are excused of fidelity to the model or anything except the moment; by contrast Mike Myers has to appear in sketch character in the Austin Powers movies. The jokes in Myers's series are much better than in Full Throttle, and the least together Austin Powers movie is more integrated, but though half the jokes are about sex, Myers as Austin Powers is not sexy (that's part of the joke). The girls in Full Throttle parody the sexy, karate-kicking superagents they're playing, but their sexiness and their personalities are their own. (Diaz shows some flair for sketch acting as a dingdong riding a mechanical bull and as a gum-chewing crime scene investigator with a mullet but I wasn't sorry to see her back in her skimpy civvies.) These movies put you in the range of aesthetics where there's no reason to question your immediate responses: I can recommend Full Throttle because I had as good a time watching it as I had watching Goldmember (2002).

In the long line of slapped-together American vaudeville comedies, Full Throttle, like Goldmember, may not be up to the mark of the Marx Brothers classics made in Hollywood for Paramount, Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933), the W.C. Fields insanity Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin' (1941), or the Hope and Crosby crown jewel Road to Utopia (1946), but it's close enough to the other Hope and Crosby Road pictures. It's a casual, rollicking bit of disreputable nonsense.

In addition, it's extremely rare for a movie with female stars to stop making sense in this way. (They're usually brought in as second-string vamps or stooges or, weakest of all, pals--check out Jennifer Aniston's thankless role in Bruce Almighty to see why this is the weakest.) Women perform more than their share of the work of socialization and making sense is part of that. The feminist revenge melodrama Thelma & Louise (1991) claimed to show women rejecting the socialization that made them victims. But in fact the movie followed the dynamics of right-wing vigilante melodrama, and made all-too-much reactionary sense (e.g., the women destroy some poor slob's truck because he made an obscene gesture at them). Girls with guns--enforcing Victorian notions of propriety and killing themselves rather than facing the consequences. Thelma & Louise presents itself as a comedy but it's lethally humorless with respect to its main subject. I heartily prefer Full Throttle: an action picture in which the girls take charge and promiscuously say yes to pleasure.

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