Saturday, August 30, 2003

All the rage at MIT: Home Star Runner.

Check out the "SB Emails." This is how our best and brightest humor themselves!

Friday, August 29, 2003


Number of times we were asked "you aren't from around here are you?": 1

More later... I now have high-speed internet at home! But let me say, you don't realize how much stuff you own until you've had to carry it up four flights of stairs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

We're back!

The not-exactly-cross-country trip ended in New Haven at 3:00 this morning. A flat tire and horrific midnight traffic on I-95 made the last day our most vehicularly eventful.

We hope to post more about the trip -- stuff we saw, observations we made, etc. But for now, I just want to thank all our friends and family who were such amazing hosts. It was such fun to see old friends, meet new babies, tour renovated houses, and generally hang out. We wish we could have spent more time with all of you.

Miles driven: 5,600
Stops at Cracker Barrel: 2
National parks: 5
Speed limit in South Dakota: 75
Cell phone signal in Wyoming: non-existent
New states for Lily: 9
Number of times Kate squeegied the windshield: innumerable
License plates seen: 49, plus DC, Guam, and many Canadian provinces. Hawaii remains elusive.

Kate and I have a few more days in New Haven before moving madness descends again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Movie Review

In Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an undocumented Nigerian immigrant in London, works as a cabdriver by day and as a deskman at an hourly-rate hotel by night and still can't make ends meet. He chews a stimulant leaf to stay awake for unnaturally long stretches and when he needs to sleep crashes on a couch he rents from Senay (Audrey Tautou), a chambermaid at the hotel who is an immigrant from Turkey with a visa that doesn't allow her to work or to take money from a lodger. When immigration agents, acting on a tip, bust in on her, Okwe leaps out the window barefoot. When they show up at the hotel to catch her arriving for her shift, she has to flee and sinks even lower in the service economy to a job in a garment sweatshop. The agents then raid that looking for her, after which the boss has leverage to demand sexual favors.

Okwe was a physician in Nigeria (before being driven into political exile), so his cab dispatcher asks him to diagnose a urinary pain. It's the clap and the man then presses Okwe to procure some amoxycillin for him which he gets from Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), a chess buddy who works as a janitor in a hospital morgue. Okwe won't accept payment for these services. He's the movie's overmatched white knight, moving through the cityscape of immigrant torment doing the little good he can and grieving over the rest.

In the establishing sequence, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a pop-up valentine of a hooker and a regular patron of the hotel, stops to flirt with Okwe and inform him of a problem in her room. (With Juliette you can't tell if the flirtation is incidental to reporting the problem or vice versa.) Investigating, Okwe discovers a human heart stopping up the toilet. Okwe tells the manager of the night staff about it, but Senor Juan (Sergi Lopez) both threatens and attempts to bribe him to forget about it. Sensing something nefarious, Okwe plays detective and uncovers a horrible open secret: illegal immigrants deliver up a kidney in unsanitary operations in hotel rooms in return for expertly forged papers. (The kidneys are carried immediately to the hotel parking garage on ice in the same styrofoam containers in which truffles are flown in from Provence and gross Senor Juan £10,000 apiece.)

The Mephistophelean Senor Juan doesn't try to snuff Okwe to protect this gruesome, predatory business, he tries to hire him as a more proficient surgeon. But Okwe is incorruptible. In fact, he has no flaws at all and even says of himself that he doesn't want to do anything to harm anybody. Thus, what seems at first to be a naturalistic look at the desperation and exposure of immigrants turns into melodrama. By time Senay decides to give up a kidney to Senor Juan (who fucks her as a sort of finder's fee) and Okwe the incorruptible turns the operating tables on the smirking blackguard, anything distinctive about the movie has fallen away.

Steve Knight's script suffers from just about everything that's wrong with melodrama: the hero is so virtuous he has no dimensions; the heroine is so wronged that you can identify with her only by nestling into the weakest parts of yourself, with the implication that the mousier the personality the more piquant the unrequited emotions; the movie strikes a tone of high moral outrage at the villain's actions but then expects us to cheer, in a perversion of the golden rule, when the hero does to him what we don't want to see done to the heroine (or ourselves). And though you may be quite sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and the sexual exploitation of women, and believe that such things as the kidney trade exist, the melodramatic narrative makes it all seem unreal. The problem is that it presents the situation as quintessential rather than extreme, and in order to get us riled gives us lead characters with the fewest options or the least resourcefulness.

Despite the interesting details of how immigrants patch together an existence in the city, and Frears's rightly valued economy and frankness in laying it out for us (aided by Chris Menges's cinematography and Mick Audsley's editing), the movie is just a left-liberal art-house version of the medical paranoia thriller Coma (1978), starring Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas, which at least is an entertainment without pretensions. Dirty Pretty Things is a world away from Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), from Hanif Kureishi's first-rate script, in which Omar (Gordon Warnecke), the young Pakistani protagonist trying to make it on the immigrant margins of London, not only grovels before his successful uncles to get what he wants but steals a shipment of drugs from them to peddle for his own profit as well. We don't require melodramatic justifications for his behavior to be able to identify with Omar, we can identify directly with his misconduct in pursuit of his small-scale dream of operating a "fabulous" laundrette with his punk boyfriend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his star-making performance). (Identifying with misconduct is not the same as admitting we'd do the same thing in the circumstances.) Even the romance between the boys has traces of vice: Omar orders Johnny around, leaves him hanging while he decides whether to give in to his family and marry his cousin, generally makes this racist National Front apostate feel his powerlessness. My Beautiful Laundrette is a stylized romantic comedy, and the most voluptuous English movie ever made, in which no nuance of human motivation or activity is airbrushed to make the picture pretty. (Before a date with Johnny, Omar clips his nose hairs onscreen.)

Okwe, by contrast, is a melodramatic hero driven into exile and falsely accused of having killed his wife (a Nigerian "Fugitive"). Actually, he's so virtuous and sensitive he accuses himself though he isn't guilty (she was killed by the government after he refused to cooperate with it). Luckily for the movie Ejiofor has a classically haunted man-of-sorrows movie-star face, like Richard Barthelmess's in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939). You can see the persistence of hope in Ejiofor's eyes weighed down by the rationally low expectations expressed on his brow, which he works like a violin bow. He does not, however, have the quality it takes to play a melodramatic stalwart and remain interesting. It's a good thing in part: he's not bland enough to be an all-purpose hero. There's too much irony in that brow, but the role becomes increasingly humorless and so his greatest asset is wasted.

Once enmeshed in the corny plot Okwe no longer seems human, but he isn't the throwback that Senay is. It's been a long time since we've had a defiled virgin as the star of an English-language picture, and there's a reason: the type is so outmoded that the audience could only be expected to laugh. (Watch Yvette Mimieux in Where the Boys Are (1960), staggering down the middle of the highway after a spring-break night out with the wrong sort of boys, and try to keep a straight face.) The moviemakers outsmart themselves with multicultural sensitivity. Senay is a Muslim and an impoverished, frightened immigrant, and so making her a sexual victim strikes them as embodying a progressive political stance. But restating this makes their mistake plain: a defiled virgin is such an antique device in English-language movies that one had to be imported. (Senay is supposed to be touching because she has to hide Okwe's sleeping on her couch not only from the immigration agents but, as a Muslim maiden, from the neighbors and her family and finally, we sense, from herself. You see, she's in love with Okwe, as Guo Yi, the wise Chinese friend--and thus another flabbergasting old-movie stereotype--points out to him.)

You'd think that one defilement would be enough even for the well-intentioned protestor, but Senay is raped twice, orally and vaginally, and loses her mind (temporarily) after her second blow job. Such extreme vulnerability has been pulled off only by the most delicate actresses the movies have ever known--Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms and Victor Sjostrom's The Wind (1928), and Nadia Sibirskaia in Dmitri Kirsanov's Menilmontant (1926; an astonishing experimental silent that, unlike the work of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, still hasn't been stylistically assimilated into mainstream moviemaking) and Jean Renoir's The Crime of M. Lange (1936; it helps that Renoir makes the seduction-and-betrayal plot end not only comically in a structural sense but with laughter). These incomparable actresses worked in an earlier era when such heroines straggled into the movies directly from 19th-century theatrical melodrama (though they were already retrogressive in comparison to George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver and Hetty Sorrel, not to mention Daisy Miller and Sister Carrie), and at a time when their directors were inventing the art of moviemaking.

Frears is a master director (Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Grifters (1990)) who can turn even this tripe into something savory, but finally I couldn't keep the story down. I felt put upon by these virtuous dopes who want us to identify with helpless Senay instead of resourceful Juliette. The frail heroines of the silent era were succeeded by illegitimate mothers and all kinds of suffering soap opera heroines right up to the present. (The movie version of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1997), starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, is a recent shameful example, an artifact of the recovered memory hysteria of the '80s and '90s.) But who doesn't prefer the tough cookies of the pre-Code era, girls like Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck who knew what men were after and averted their horns like the most practiced (and cynical) of toreadors, or the experienced funny broads like Jean Harlow and Mae West who knew how to ride 'em for what they were worth? Even Where the Boys Are gives us a range of female characters and puts the shrewder girls played by Dolores Hart and Paula Prentiss at the center. Looking back we can still respond to the comediennes as heroines, whereas the victims are now objects of camp.

A character like Senay who is repeatedly wronged speaks mainly to our self-pity. In my suck-it-up headmistress aspect I'm probably overly resistant to self-pity in movies, putting me in a somewhat false position because it is an important component of drama and there are pure victims in the most exalted works, Desdemona and Cordelia, for instance, or the Vietnamese girl abducted, raped, and murdered by American soldiers in Brian DePalma's Casualties of War (1989). These characters are purely good in an allegorical sense, representing what's threatened by various types of moral depravity.

By contrast, the naturalism of Dirty Pretty Things blurs the clean cerebral outlines of allegory, gaining effectiveness by letting us think of Senay as typical of current female immigrants. It intimates that what we see is happening all around us and but for a crusading movie like this we'd remain blind to it, and then heats up our reactions by means of the melodramatic head-to-head. This is to say that in melodrama the audience's reaction doesn't have the quality of detachment that it has in allegory or tragedy. Melodrama--programmatic, earnest, and flagrantly, exclusively, emotive--misses the overwhelming emotional effect of tragedy at the same time that it foregoes tragedy's invitation to contemplation. Melodrama presents its tricked-up situation as reality and puts the pressure on you to respond viscerally, as if gut reactions were your truest guide in this life. (It exploits you by means of your own predispositions and prejudices.) Thus, the self-pity elicited by victimization in melodrama is different from the self-pity in allegory and tragedy--it's the whole experience except in so far as it leads to a morally repugnant pleasure in vengeance. (In some ways, melodrama itself is a form of moral depravity.)

Melodrama presents victimization as the truth of experience (which is why it's so appealing to certain feminists), and by implication the blamelessness of the heroes and heroines suggests that a person has to be without fault to be sympathetic, and I don't buy that. (The movie also undermines its own naturalism by assuming we wouldn't be interested in an immigrant's life on its own terms without a prefab plot.) Melodrama offers the most simplistic projections: an all-good hero like Okwe functions simultaneously as a New Testament fantasy of our total goodness and an Old Testament fantasy of avenging righteousness. It's patently false and facile so it isn't surprising people tend to accept it as true in movies to the extent it flatters their political perspective, which itself is all too often melodramatic. Marxism, for example, is often espoused, even by educated people, in a melodramatic form, and the whole Republicans-vs.-Democrats back-and-forth in American politics even more so, and I don't buy these perspectives, either.

Plus, I wonder if Senay's helplessness is entirely consistent. At first she won't give Okwe a key but arranges to "drop" it where he can pick it up. In other words, she protects herself even against a close male friend. I felt that the moviemakers had her accede to her sweatboss's demands not because she'd be likely to but because they needed to position us on our knees emotionally.

A character like Juliette, on the other hand, is strong while still clearly acknowledging how far from the ideal our experience can get. She is a prostitute, after all. But the vivid, assertive way Okonedo plays her makes her more believably heroic than anyone else in the movie. With a challenging gleam in her eye as she lowers her head at Okwe, a dimply but cutting wit, a self-reliant physicality (we see her return a violent john's punch), and the control to take her time when she's being rushed, Okonedo as Juliette exerts a theatrical command in every situation. Her looks resemble Angela Bassett's a bit and she has something of Stockard Channing's privately amused address, but she's a more natural screen presence than either. She's not trying so hard, she's confident enough to relax and still create tension around her. Obviously, you wouldn't wish yourself into prostitution, but you would hope to carry whatever your burden may be with Juliette's style. The moviemakers are such high-minded numbskulls they didn't realize they had a star in their midst; maybe audiences will be smarter. In any case, focusing on Senay rather than Juliette is a move for people who prefer Giulietta Masina's performance as the true-hearted, simple-minded waif in La Strada (1954) over her less obviously appealing performance as the squalling, contentious streetwalker in Nights of Cabiria (1957).

At the end, Okwe, Senay, and Juliette pull off one last deal with Senor Juan's kidney broker, who is suspicious and asks why he's never seen them before. Okwe says, "Because we're the people you never see," a good answer, but then goes on to make his meaning explicit by adding that they're the people who drive his cabs, clean his rooms, and suck his cock. That's saying too much--the guy was simply inquiring about a change in the personnel of a deal that is illegal and therefore justifies extra caution. Okwe is making a speech. And what's wrong with this exchange sums up what's wrong with the movie, which presents its hokey plot as right-thinking sociology.

Melodrama is a double disaster in a case like Dirty Pretty Things because the interchangeable melodramatic structure prevents the movie from developing a story out of its fresh particularities while the moviemakers' earnestness prevents them from giving us a melodrama we could enjoy without caring that it isn't more than a melodrama. After seeing Touch of Evil, for instance, you don't feel called on to worry about the treatment of Mexicans by American bordertown cops; it's perfectly acceptable to wonder if Orson Welles made any equally juicy-squalid movies. But after seeing Dirty Pretty Things a response like, "Gee, I'd love to see that Audrey Tautou as a Bosnian immigrant getting raped by her boss," would be utterly screwloose. Frears and his moviemaking team are so skilled that you can concede the movie is art while recognizing that it fails at everything it attempts, both entertainment and sociopolitical naturalism.

In this maddening but revealing interview with IndieWire, Frears compares Dirty Pretty Things to the James Cagney gangster movie Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), which also turned then-contemporary urban ills into formulaic entertainment. But apart from Cagney's spring-loaded performance, that movie is a model of how Hollywood trashed potentially great material. The screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things is the man who created the TV show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which is starting a little bit over the entertainment packaging line in the first place. But Frears bears his share of responsibility as well, as you can see in this exchange from the interview:

iW: What's the appeal exactly of American films?

Frears: People love them. They're vivid and entertaining and skillful and noisy and have pretty girls and fast cars.

iW: Doesn't sound that terrific ...

Frears: Well, that's not what they'll tell you in Hollywood. That's what people like. It's the economics.

iW: Is "Dirty Pretty" a film that crosses over and can attract a mass audience?

Frears: It seems to me that the popular form, the melodrama--that's saying, "Look, I can absolutely see that you people want to be entertained and want an exciting story."

iW: With revenge at the end.

Frears: Yes, that's good fun.

iW: What about substance and quality, rather than noise and cars?

Frears: But my film has substance. All I can tell you is that audiences like American films. And I have to be more clever to get a film noticed with all that noise going on. And you see people are struggling with that the whole time. People in England who are making films are trying to deal with that problem and finding different solutions. Rather than depending on a protectionist atmosphere from the government.

iW: The French do that.

Frears: And they make a lot of films that people don't want to see.
In Dirty Pretty Things Frears may be acting on the noble intention of conveying the plight of immigrants, but in essence he's saying that though he can imagine a better movie on the subject he didn't think he could sell one. And he blames us, the audience, for not giving us the movie he preemptively decided we wouldn't go to.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
One more ... for the road.

Headline in Rapid City, SD: "Pine Needles Extremely Dry"
Middle America ...

So, the road trip plows on. We started in Connecticut, went through Ithaca NY, passed through Northwest PA, Ohio, and Indiana and on to Chicago. Then to Rochester MN, then Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, down into Wyoming and to the Rockies in Colorado. A long day through Kansas and then a stop at the Arch in St. Louis, down through Kentucky and we're now in Nashville.

We will have observations galore when we finally have extended access to the Internet by Monday next week.

In the meantime:

What I've been struck by the most is how much non-city there is to America. Obviously, this is something one understands from an intellectual standpoint. I mean, it's plain from a map. However, this is one of those things that doesn't really hit home unless you've seen it. Unless you've actually driven the 8 hours through South Dakota. Seriously. Mock me if you want because I know it's not earth shattering to say that America is a whole lot of empty space and a whole lot of diversity. But I think you'd understand if you've been around--it's not enough merely to know that there are other perspectives. To truly appreciate those perspectives, to give them due consideration, you have to be willing to get a bit more dirty. Anyone--right or left--who purports to speak on behalf of America, anyone who is interested in issues of truly national policy, absolutely MUST take a road trip across the United States. And even then, of course, you haven't walked the proverbial mile in the shoes of middle Americans, but at least you're beginning to get a sense of what's out there. Laws and policies may be made and debated in cities, but that's not the only place they're lived.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

The dog days of summer... will cease to be if school districts continue to have their way.
Local Flavor

Partook of some local Minnesotan cuisine today during our stop in Minnesota, and some Wisconsin cuisine as we passed through Wisconsin.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Kate and I apologize for being away from the blog lately. We're currently on an extended drive through the heart of America. Kate is currently uploading pictures from days 1-3 of the trip, and friends and family should receive a link to those soon.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Why do gay people smoke so much? Steve Landsburg has some simple theories.
A study finds that southerners are tetchy:

Visit an American university, bump into random students in the corridor and loudly call each one "asshole." Then measure their reactions. This is what a team of psychologists did in a controlled experiment at the University of Michigan. The results were most interesting. Students from the southern part of the United States reacted far more violently and aggressively than those from the North, were shown to have much higher levels of cortisone and testosterone, and in tests regularly suggested more belligerent solutions to problems.
The researchers spectulate that a lingering emphasis on honor makes southerners more sensitive to insults than northerners and more likely to respond to them with violence.
Tony ex-con Lord Archer has published his prison diaries, wherein "[h]e seems surprised to discover that jails are full of criminals, many of whom take drugs, and that the food isn't quite up to the standards of his favorite London restaurant."
Moving Madness

All my belongings were loaded on the truck Monday morning. They are now on a different truck, which is somewhere between Connecticut and Virginia. Repeated calls to the moving company were unsuccessful until this morning, when I received a promise that my stuff will be delivered tomorrow morning by noon.

So tonight the Lilymobile heads south again, and I will no doubt wait around all tomorrow morning at my new place for the truck to arrive.

Monday, August 04, 2003

They say trauma gets better when you talk about it. I haven't had that experience with the bar. Oh well.

Posting should pick up now...
Quote of the Day:
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be."
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

Song of the Day:
Billy Joel, "Movin' Out"

Happy Birthday:
Louis Armstrong
Roger Clemens
Bertrand Wicholas Martin
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Billy Bob Thornton
I'm moving today, so you may not hear from me again till tonight at the earliest.

In the meantime, dwell upon this: Jesse Ventura says he's "already measured the curtains" at the White House.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Wrapping Up Pickwick

Toward the end of The Pickwick Papers, Pickwick, defiantly ensconced in the Fleet Prison rather than pay the judgment against him for breach of promise to marry, comes across Jingle, a conman who had earlier insinuated himself into Pickwick's circle and committed various forms of mischief, for profit and malicious entertainment. Jingle is now ruined and has no expectation but that he will die in the debtor's prison. Pickwick gives him money, and will do more for him later, but upon this first act of generosity and forgiveness, Jingle says, in his characteristic manner of speaking: "Deserved it all … but suffered much … very."

Though the novel offers a comic-ironic view of the human parade, Jingle's halting phrase struck me as the essence of the modern sense of tragedy, which is all about responsibility. It isn't about some unaccountably terrible thing happening to poor, undeserving you. It dramatizes the least hypocritical self-searching we're capable of after our lowest moments, when we're able to admit that in all our important failures we're always our own worst enemies. And the fact that Dickens so casually weaves a tragic realization into his generally comic fabric struck me as true in itself, especially given his view of human vice disrupting and blighting what could otherwise be a pleasant, cooperative existence.

Anyway, my bouts on the elliptical trainer, increasing manically as the date of the Bar approached, sufficed to get me through the book. If reading Dickens instead of BarBri materials means I didn't pass the exam, it will still have been worthwhile. Failing the Bar won't be tragic, though I won't have anyone but myself to blame and I may end up in debtor's prison as a result.

Now, while trying not to think about the results of the exam, which I won't know until November, I've got myself halfway through The Old Curiosity Shop. There's much more in the gothic-allegorical line and fewer legal details than in Pickwick, but there has already been a repossession and sale of personal property as a result of nonpayment of a loan. And there advising the evil moneylending dwarf Quilp is Brass, another of Dickens's dim portraits of a learned professional:

This Brass was an attorney of no very good repute from Bevis Marks in the city of London [see map; it's in the East, on the north side of the Thames]; he was a tall, meagre man, with a nose like a wen, a protruding forehead, retreating eyes, and hair of a deep red.… He had a cringing manner but a very harsh voice, and his blandest smiles were so extremely forbidding, that to have had his company under the least repulsive circumstances, one would have wished him to be out of temper that he might only scowl (ch. XI).

Friday, August 01, 2003

Things I Will Miss About New Haven:

New England autumns and springs. The very first Ann Taylor. Walks up Hillhouse and past the Chinese baby factory. Thai food. Four T.J. Maxxs. A.C. Moore. My apartment.

Things I Will Not Miss About New Haven:

New England winters. The crappy K-Mart. Keith and Ann from News Channel 8. Cars with license plates in their back windows. U. Conn. women's basketball.

Things I Will Miss About The Yale Law School:

My friends. Sleeping in. Law Revue. Professor Langbein. Thursdays and Fridays off. The cream of mushroom soup in the dining hall.

Things I Will Not Miss About The Yale Law School:

Roughly... everything else.
Today I first experienced the wonder that is professional packing. Three strangers came and boxed up my entire apartment in four hours, while I ran errands and had lunch with Kate. It would have taken me an entire weekend to do it myself.