Thursday, October 30, 2003

Alan Dale

If you haven't been reading Alan's reviews, you are missing out. I know they're long, but if you like movies, you need to read what he has to say. Start here at our movies page or here at blogcritics.
I have a new favorite columnist at the Yale Daily News: James Kirchik. He wrote a great column about the strike at Yale.
Last week I witnessed a striking worker, without any sense of impunity, walk up to an open window and blow an air horn into a WLH classroom. A friend recently told me that striking workers peer into the windows of his classroom in order to make sure that a class is being taught, and only then do they shout and bang pots and pans. Union leaders lied to us. They said that we were not the targets of this strike, but they have made us combatants in their war against Yale. It is long past time for us to fight back by standing with the administration and making it clear to John Wilhelm and his ilk that their political games will not stop us from going to class and getting our work done.
Here's the best part. Kirchik asserts that he is a card-carrying Democrat.
I still consider myself a liberal. I am pro-choice, pro-union (except when it comes to grad student nonworkers), pro-gay marriage. I support progressive taxation and the estate tax, I am an environmentalist and an advocate of government funding of elections on the national, state and local levels. I even believe in single-payer (government-funded) health care. Political pollsters would consider me a pretty left-wing liberal.
Not sure how he can consider himself pro-union when I'm certain most union leaders would string him up for the column he wrote about the Yale strike. But that's his problem.
Why We're Not a Nation of Chessmasters

Have you ever noticed how many people are utterly incapable of a little foresight, of looking just one step ahead?

The worst for me are drivers who will pass you when it's clear that the whole lane in front of you is backed up. And yesterday, I was reminded of the people who seem unable to gauge their own walking speed and yet want to jay-walk. They lurch into traffic in front of cars, without thinking about whether they can actually make it across. Or those people who keep edging into the street because they think the cars are coming to a stop. Have they ever thought of looking up at the traffic light to see if it's changed to red?

Just one step ahead. Think one step ahead. That's all I ask.
She Needs an Editor

Pamela Anderson is on KFC's case:
"I must admit from the outset that I can't understand why a company that claims to care about animal welfare would continue to allow chickens to be bred and drugged to be so top-heavy that they can barely walk, to be gathered in a manner that breaks their wings and beaks, and to be scalded to death or drowned in feather-removal tanks," she wrote in the letter, which PETA released.
Is it just me, or is this statement oddly fitting?

Did you miss it? Let me make it easier.
"I must admit from the outset that I can't understand why a company that claims to care about animal welfare would continue to allow chickens to be bred and drugged to be so top-heavy that they can barely walk, to be gathered in a manner that breaks their wings and beaks, and to be scalded to death or drowned in feather-removal tanks," she wrote in the letter, which PETA released.
Can't stop laughing can you?
Do not buy

Yale Diva is on fashion patrol, and Lily would agree that the Diva is spot on about this fashion no-no.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Movie Review

I enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's new over-the-top chick-ninja bloodfest Kill Bill, Vol. 1 but was puzzled by what he thought he was getting out of making all the major characters chicks.

Overall it's a better piece of moviemaking than anything he's done so far. Until the climactic sequence in a Tokyo tea garden, called the House of Blue Leaves, Tarantino had never dazzled us principally with his technical mastery of the medium. He wasn't, and even now is not, in the league of Kurosawa or Spielberg or DePalma as a craftsman of action. He is, rather, an original funnyman; his freaky-tweaked action highpoints are part of a highly-developed and multifaceted comic style.

What people probably remember most about his editing is the clever back-and-forth sequencing, which is as much a screenwriter's technique as a director's, and which generates greater interest in his stories than they would on their own if told in sequence. The style he's known for doesn't reside in the moviemaking itself so much as in the self-conscious attitude of a moviemaker who has absorbed a vast amount of both art films and fast, cheap entertainment, invented a shiny lightweight alloy of the two, and is absolutely unabashed in creating a popular market for it.

Tarantino gets his effects by affronting expectations in a way that is both beefy and frothy, landmining the comedy with shocking violence at the same time that he undermines the pulp action with elliptical, so-inane-it's-funny chatter. People talked about the weird vibe of the scene in which Michael Madsen mutilates the cop while dancing to "Stuck in the Middle with You" in Reservoir Dogs (1992), his first feature. (Tarantino's is an adolescent form of machismo, showing off by seeing how much we can take.) But the signature moments are the early discussion of Madonna at the diner and Steve Buscemi's complaining about being called Mr. Pink. The mutilation and the dialogue scenes are both distinctive, but it's the dialogue that draws on the performers' most imaginative comic resources, and Tarantino's actor-worshipping direction that really enshrines them. (When I think of Pulp Fiction (1994) I always think of the exchanges between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson first.)

Tarantino works through his actors, but he wants a healthy share of our attention for himself. He's as much a name director as he is a comedy writer, or a tough guy, and so he write scripts in which the unreality is visible right under the surface, which keeps the audience from losing themselves in the narrative. He even uses the actors to put his stamp on the work. (He trumps the marquee value of his stars but gives them such memorable material they have reason to thank him for it.) You can't take the stories seriously because you're always aware of Tarantino selecting and combining the incongruous materials, and of the actors holding the incongruities together. As an ironist he comes across as a dandy--a cocky purveyor of style. He's a dandy without effeminacy, buzzing on testosterone and adrenaline, and we get off on the second-hand fumes.

Americans have so little feel for irony as a genre, however, that they read too much into the hip self-awareness of Pulp Fiction. It's rare for an ironist to be such an open entertainer, for him to love, and trust, actors so much. (Luis Bunuel was a much greater director than Tarantino, but as a director of actors he was often something of a window dresser, an arranger of mannequins.) Tarantino learned a significant amount from Jean-Luc Godard, who at his peak in the '60s combined the roles of the detached essayist who sketches ideas, tears the leaves out of his pad in the middle of the movie, and rushes on to other ideas, and of the romancer who wants to entrance us with the most movie-like of stories. Tarantino may be as detached as Godard but he's not a literary ironist. He doesn't invest his romances with credence but he does want them to romance us--just like a movie. Compare the Travolta-Thurman dance contest in Pulp Fiction to the café dance number in Godard's masterpiece Band of Outsiders (1964), in which the characters continue their mechanical dancing even when Godard suppresses the soundtrack, to experience a deeper, critical detachment. (Tarantino took the name of his production company from the French title of this movie, Bande à part.) Popularity means infinitely more to Tarantino than to Bunuel or Godard--he's not about to suppress the dance music.

People enjoyed Pulp Fiction but read editorial meanings into its ironic distance from the violence. What's going on with Kill Bill seems to be that they're discussing Tarantino's attitude to the violence not because his attitude has changed but because the movie is less entertaining and they've become self-conscious about his style. If they didn't know how to discuss successful irony they're even more lost when discussing irony that somehow falls short.

It's a near miss, anyway. Kill Bill has the same fractured chronology as Pulp Fiction; an openly referential storyline; a shrewdly laid-down soundtrack; an assortment tray of tasty performers, including Uma Thurman, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, and Daryl Hannah, plus a newcomer to American movies Chiaki Kuriyama; more moviemaking craft than Tarantino has ever displayed before (though the opening battle between Thurman and Fox is somewhat clumsy); an entire sequence daringly done in anime; and Tarantino's usual judicious sense of how much too much is the right amount. But there's a problem and it's apparent in that first confrontation between Thurman and Fox.

Thurman shows up at Fox's suburban house to kill her in revenge: she was one of a clutch of hitmen who stormed Thurman's wedding, killed her groom and unborn child, and left her for dead. These shocking facts don't rile you because Tarantino presents them as tropes. He doesn't want to rile you, he wants you to recognize it's that kind of story. What he's always been expert at is using the story-ness of a story to make it play, and the confrontation between the two women in the family home does not play. Your hopes go way up when their pitched knife fight is interrupted by the arrival of a school bus, seen through a picture window, and then by the entry of Fox's grade-school-aged daughter into the house. Fox, a terrifically controlled performer, does nail the insanity of playing loving-but-firm mommy while smeared with blood and hiding a blade behind her back in a smashed-up living room. And when the two women then go into the kitchen to talk over a cuppa you expect Tarantino to blend murderous action and soap opera and coffee commercial better than anyone else could. And he doesn't--the dialogue is peculiarly inert. The women hint at the back-story and call each other "bitch," and after the second or third "bitch," you start to wonder, Is that it? That's the best he can do?

Tarantino is in trouble when audiences can say that Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle was funnier than his girlie action movie. (Click here for my review.) On the basis of his four features and the short he contributed to the omnibus Four Rooms (1995), it's safe to say that Tarantino is a guy's guy's ironist. I won't develop this here because I've written an entire chapter about Pulp Fiction in a book which will appear online next month in which I go into this in detail. Let me say only that Tarantino's best moments of dialogue stem from knowing how fatuous guys can sound when they shoot the breeze and then heightening it, putting the most absurd discussions in the mouths of killers, and syncopating those discussions between extreme action sequences. He works the comedy of incongruity in several dimensions at once.

But Tarantino doesn't seem to know how women talk to each other--something practically any gay man could have helped him out with--or to have figured out what to do with the comic possibilities of the all-girl cast. Probably Tarantino isn't enough of a bitch for this material. Kill Bill falls behind such low-budget camp classics as Russ Meyers's Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill! (1966) starring Tura Satana and Foxy Brown (1974) starring Pam Grier, which squeeze the use of women as action stars for juice. (Constance Talmadge as the fierce-but-tender Mountain Girl in the Babylonian sequence of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) is more intentionally amusing than Tarantino's gals.)

It isn't that we don't believe any women are capable of the stunts, just not the female stars pretending to perform them or the seductive (beautiful-but-deadly) characters they're playing. The chicks in the two Charlie's Angels movies spit out defiance like bullets and still seem like chicks: they are simultaneously martial artists and clotheshorses, daddy's girls, gigglepots. We almost never believe the male stars could actually perform the battles royale we see in action movies, either, but with glamorous, well-kept female stars in these roles it has a special absurdity (as it does with Ariosto's Bradamante), nowhere more apparent than in the grip one of Meyers's Pussycats keeps on her handbag no matter what's going down. Of course, camp wouldn't be the only way to spin a female action movie, though it would be the most common correlative of Tarantino's male bluster clowning, especially when his inflatable dolls get in each other's faces. But Tarantino has done almost nothing with this aspect of Kill Bill. When Thurman and Liu recite a tagline from a Trix cereal commercial it seems as if he had inserted the dialogue as placeholders until he worked out his approach and then for some reason left the ciphers in.

You can see, at any rate, why he cast Uma Thurman in the lead. She pulls it off better than Cameron Diaz would have, I think, because she has that jaded look in her eye that works for a woman whose course of revenge constantly reminds her of the brutal, degrading crime for which she seeks retribution. (Thurman has a womanliness that Diaz lacks and that serves as a basis for her sense of primal outrage.) It's oddly a soft, lowered gaze in Thurman's eyes rather than a hard, defiant stare that tells you that no apology or amends would suffice, that there's no chance of appealing to her in any way.

Thurman, as always, stirs audience to project fantasies onto her. She has a perverse glimmer in response to our gaze, as if she knows what we're thinking but chooses to remain behind her veil. (She's one of the most mysterious-alluring stars since Garbo, without the reticence.) Thurman is at her best when the part calls for a lingering erotic charge, a sort of static shock delivered in slow motion, and her low-hum delivery of lines is keyed to it.

Kill Bill is not, however, a sexy movie. Neither are any of Tarantino's others, but Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have unique compensations: in them he creates and subverts made-up underworlds and their denizens, and Pulp Fiction in particular is a scrambled kiddie cartoon of expertly timed absurdist dialogue and mayhem. Eroticism is not the sole route to sensation. But the action in Kill Bill doesn't add anything to Thurman's erotic goddess persona, and though that persona brings something to the action it's mostly at the level of probability (we never forget that she was the victim of a crime that violated her as both wife and mother) and probability isn't that important in a Tarantino picture. (Thurman never seems miscast here but no single thing she does stays with you.) All the main characters, villains, victims, and avenger, are bodacious women, but it's all desexualized and Tarantino has put nothing either more or less solemn in place of the usual melodramatic titillation surrounding such plots.

Lucy Liu, the least dazzling of Charlie's Angels, has one good moment in Kill Bill, encouraging discussion among her subordinates after decapitating one of them for an insult. Liu, an almost technocratically competent professional, may do a bit better here than Thurman precisely because this isn't a very sexy movie. With her you don't miss the blinding moonglow as you do with Thurman (or the bubbling hot stuff as you do with Vivica A. Fox, so aptly named). Chiaki Kuriyama comes off best among the actresses, in no small part because her role is a real porno tease: a sociopathic 17-year-old in a schoolgirl's uniform who swings a deadly studded ball. But her sham-decorous little geisha titter of derision when Thurman begs her not to fight just makes the mere adequacy of everyone else more apparent. And she isn't around long.

Thurman is always a pleasure to watch but even if we accept her as an action heroine, a woman who can catch an axe hurled at her head and throw it back, like Natty Bumppo in chapter XXVII of The Deerslayer (available online), Tarantino isn't interested in a romance narrative in which her quest could meaningfully resonate for us (as James Fenimore Cooper's still can). And without the incongruities in the dialogue the movie can't attain a high enough style to feel classic in Tarantino's own terms.

Tarantino has not altered his macho-popinjay persona for Kill Bill and he's simply at his best with male characters. This makes him the opposite of DePalma whose thrillers don't give off his distinctive tingle without women at the center. (One of the reasons that his money-making superproductions The Untouchables (1987) and Mission Impossible (1996) are not favorites with his fans.) But technically improved moviemaking buys only so much dispensation. Kill Bill is at times terrifically well put together but when it slows down to concentrate on the performers it comes close to stalling. (If the story were told in linear fashion you'd want jumper cables.) Tarantino never before relied entirely on mayhem or on coolness. He's the dude-prince of tough-guy jokers and without his trademark dialogue Kill Bill flattens out even more than it does by virtue of being a work of irony. Kill Bill would make a wild, opulent screensaver, it's just kind of underanimated for a movie.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Dean Jens writes in with this comment about the fires in California:
[T]he fires in California have been the top item on the national news at the top of the hour on WBBM for, what, thirty six hours, excepting a while when it was displaced by the bombings in Iraq. If it doesn't seem like the media are making a BIG DEAL about it, you may be getting your news from peculiarly parochial media outlets.

But I think Dean missed my point (or I was terribly unclear--also possible). I mean, why is it not a big deal on the streets and at the water cooler? Why does it not weigh heavily on our minds as we go about our daily business? 9/11 certainly was on the news in California, but the effect--the impact on their consciousness--was less so than the impact on those out here on the East coast. And this, I point out, is the result of having such a big country--for good or for ill. It is obviously important that we don't all rock silently in the fetal position, paralyzed by worry about SoCal. On the other hand, it is troubling that we so easily shut out the happenings elsewhere in this country.

UPDATE: Maybe Quare has the reason. Although, I think the crying wolf explanation may be a bit callous.
The size of this country never ceases to amaze me. I know that many on the West coast were not as deeply affected by 9/11 as those of us here in East coast by virtue simply of proximity. It now amazes me how little it seems to weigh in here on the East coast that Southern California is going up in flames. The Times reports:
With fires racing uncontrollably across much of Southern California, firefighters on the northwestern edge of Los Angeles staged a desperate effort on Monday to defend the city and the coastal community of Malibu from the deadly rush of flames.
I mean, hello, why isn't this a MUCH BIGGER DEAL?
As this remains a moderately law-related blog, some of our audience will want to know that John Hart Ely has died.
Movie Quote of the Day:
"So, I just said, 'Mom, Dad, Sparky, I'm gay!'"
"What happened?"
"Well, my mom cried – for exactly ten seconds – my boss said, 'Who cares,' and my Dad said, 'But you're so tall.'"
~ In and Out

Song of the Day:
Shania Twain, "You've Got A Way With Me"

Happy Birthday:
Nicolas Culpeper
Bill Gates
Julia Roberts
Jonas Salk
Isaac Singer
Evelyn Waugh

Monday, October 27, 2003

I notice that none of our loyal readers have emailed us about our new photograph.

I have to say, it is quite phenomenal how a simple digital camera can turn an average person into an above-average photographer.

I give you exhibit one:

At Lily's family farm.
The Captain blogs about the recent "sushi memo" from the law firm Paul Weiss. In a nutshell, the NY Times reported that a detailed, formal memo had been written at the law firm about local sushi restaurants. The Times seemed appalled.

The Captain writes
The buzz--there was an NY Times article on the memo today--is apparently that it's shocking someone would put so much effort into such an inane task.

Really? Look at the thing. It would take ten minutes and an account at zagat' to write. Yes, it's asinine that anyone's boss would make them do it, and yes, it's maybe a little geeky that it's done up as a formal memo rather than, say, an e-mail with no capital letters and cute smileys. But is it really so shocking, or such a galling waste of our limited white-shoe resources, that someone would put such a thing together? It's not like it took her all day. I'd be shocked if it took longer than it took her tall soy chai latte to get cold.
Ah, but Monsieur Capitane, you miss the point. The shock is not over the amount of time it took, for you are probably right about how much time she actually spent. Rather, the issue is that it is indicative of some sort of unhealthy work atmosphere. Allow me to quote for you from the article:
Some believe it illustrates the climate of a large law firm for many paralegals, who may feel compelled to give every assignment the single-minded vigor of a filing in a capital case, even if they are only helping to find some particularly fresh raw tuna.

"This is what people fear," said an associate at another law firm, speaking generally and anonymously out of fear of partner retribution. "It's some sense of arbitrary, dictatorial relationship that we all fear goes on between bosses and their underlings. People really do make people do these things."
How I feel about this depends on more information. If the paralegal did this of her own accord, as some reflection of an anal-retentive, detail-oriented law firm culture, I don't have a problem with it. The law is by nature detail-oriented and I do not fault firms for their obsessive attention to detail. However, if the partner gave this assignment with explicit instructions to write the memo with full footnotes and formality, I am more worried of the "arbitrary, dictatorial relationship that we all fear goes on between bosses and their underlings."

Anyhoo. I think the Captain might be a little rusty, not having posted in a long time and all. I'll just assume he didn't read the Times article.

If you weren't paying attention, you just missed the Rock Paper Scissors world championships. In all seriousness, full body RPS is actually quite fun. What I can't believe is that the reporter--apparently seriously--wrote that the RPS "[t]read[s] a thin line between silly spectacle and serious sport."

Talk about a "thinking man's sport." Sheesh.
I hate the cliche "a thinking man's sport." What sport truly does not require thinking? I am always impressed with the understanding professional athletes have within their little niche, the mastery of plays and strategy. It's not all brute force exerted through instinct and physical talent.

Well, Ray Fair--the renowned economist of the Presidential election "Fair model" fame--has added running to the list of thinking man's sports.
Watch out, New Hampshire--here come the Libertarians. I suppose if they gather in numbers as large as the Mormons did in Utah, there could be a real future for this plan. It does warm my heart to see that they actually believe in trying to make things work within the system. A revolution in a democratic way, rather than the old-fashioned way. If they can do it, more power to them.
The right is no longer losing the culture war, announces The Manhattan Institute's City Journal. What's turned the tide? The stunning rise of Fox News, for starters. Twenty-two percent of Americans get most of their news from the FAB channel. Add to that the right-leaning blogosphere and the phenomenon of what Andrew Sullivan has termed "South Park Republicanism," and -- why, it's enough to make Al Gore want to go off and start his own network!

This point isn't made explicitly in the article, but it strikes you that the religious right can't be cheering every single one of these developments. Ask Jerry Falwell types whether they'd rather expose their teenagers to Krugman or Cartman, and you might get a hint that South Park Republicanism may not be the future of the GOP. But in any event it's refreshing to hear more people taking up the cry of South Park creator Matt Stone: "I hate conservatives, but I really f***ing hate liberals."

By the way, the article is worth reading just for the Dennis Miller bits:

On war opponents France and Germany, he's acid: "Maybe Germany didn't want to get involved in this war because it wasn't on a grand enough scale." Lately, he's been campaigning with President Bush, crediting W. for making him "proud to be an American again" after the "wocka-wocka porn guitar of the Clinton administration."
And SNL alumn Colin Quinn has his own show on Comedy Central:

"This war is so polite," he grumbles. "We used to be Semper Fi. Next, we'll be dropping comment cards over Iraq saying 'How did you hear about us?' And 'Would you say that we're a country that goes to war sometimes, often, or never?'"
There are also recaps of some memorable South Park moments. Good stuff.
Quote of the Day:
"You know what they say. If you love something, set it free. And hope that it doesn't sleep around, outgrow you, forget you and come back married to your former best friend."
~ Nick Galifianakis

Song of the Day:
Danny Wilson, "Mary's Prayer"

Happy Birthday:
H.R. Haldeman
Roy Lichtenstein
Nicolo Paganini
Sylvia Plath
Theodore Roosevelt
Dylan Thomas

Sunday, October 26, 2003

"Raised by a pack of French poodles"

An article skewers Jessica Simpson, the ditzy star of MTV's reality series Newlyweds:

As Jessica pondered the meal she was enjoying in front of the TV, she asked her husband, "Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish?" As it turned out, she was confused by the label that read, as she recalled it, "Chicken by the Sea." She once declined an order of Buffalo wings with the fairly grave statement that she doesn't eat buffalo. As a friend of hers pointed out, it had apparently never occurred to her to wonder, given her understanding of the etymology, where on a buffalo you would find the wings to begin with.
Thanks to Vanessa Jean for the link.
Update to my post yesterday on the Schiavo case: Mickey Kaus has made exactly the same point I was trying to make, though of course he puts it better. He was set off by a "stunningly biased and condescending report" on the case on NPR's All Things Considered:

It's nice that bioethicists, lawyers and judges have settled on a clear rule (e.g. "the husband decides as the 'surrogate'"). Maybe that rule makes sense--though husbands, as a class, seem much more likely to have a Darwinian conflict of interest than parents.... The miraculous consensus of "decades of legal and ethical decisionmaking" sometimes seems like a conspiracy of convenience. I gag when NPR commentators glibly talk about upholding Terri Schiavo's "right to die" as if she herself had exercised that right--e.g. by writing a living will--as opposed to having her husband exercise that "right" for her when she's unable to contradict him.
Read the sordid details about the husband's "conflict of interest" here.
Movie Quote of the Day:
"You wanna find an outlaw, you call an outlaw. You wanna find a Dunkin' Donuts, call a cop."
~ Raising Arizona

Song of the Day:
Eva Cassidy, "Autumn Leaves"

Happy Birthday:
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Mahalia Jackson
Francois Mitterand
Pat Sajak
Domenico Scarlatti
Jaclyn Smith
Fantastic article in the NYT magazine about women and work, wondering why so many of the mommies on the playground have law degrees and MBAs. It notes the possibility that women aren't wired to want to work the same way men are -- and that might explain why modern professional women, with all their fancy degrees, still exit the workforce in droves when the babies are born:

''Sometimes I worry that we're really just a little bit lazier,'' [says one woman who quit]. ''But in my heart of hearts, I think it's really because we're smarter. Maybe evolution has endowed us with the ability to turn back our rheostat faster, to not always charge ahead after one all-consuming thing. To prefer a life not with one pot boiling but with a lot of pots simmering; to prefer the patchwork quilt, not the down comforter. Oh, God, would you listen to these domestic analogies? Are they really coming out of my mouth?''
Another notes that these days, there's not as much guilt about betraying feminism. Sometimes motherhood provides a welcome excuse to leave: ''Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not. Having a baby provides a graceful and convenient exit.''

The article does mention the trouble this causes for women who really do want high-powered careers. They'll suffer if employers start to suspect all young women of planning to quit as soon as their kids are born.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Reuters reports that a British couple have moved out of their house because of the shame caused by the name of their street -- Butt Hole Road.

Taxi drivers and pizza delivery men would fail to show up, thinking they had been called on a prank.
"I retain water. I feel fat. Sometimes I feel weepy for no reason...."

Don Rumsfeld's second leaked memo in a week shows his sensitive side.
Quote of the Day:
"Heaven will be no heaven to me if I do not meet my wife there."
~ Andrew Jackson

Song of the Day:
Howard Jones, "No One Is to Blame"

Happy Birthday:
George Bizet
Richard Byrd
Jack Kent Cooke
Bob Knight
Pablo Picasso
Johann Strauss, Jr.
Tim Schnabel is back from a busy week of interviews and has a post on the prevelance of what lawyers call "self-help" in country music songs, although he notes that country isn't the only genre to have "an approach to the law that's not exactly black letter."
Steven Jens has advice on what to do if you get one of those e-mails purporting to be from eBay asking you to update your account information.
"I know Nancy and Ron know where they're going to be buried ... Do you know where you and George? ... Do you think about dying? ... Cancer, pain, long time suffering? ... You've had a number of operations, two hip replacements, five operations on your feet, two back operations. You have Graves Disease. ... How's your current state?"
~ A morbid Larry King, to Barbara Bush
I haven't been following the Terry Schiavo case, but Dahlia Lithwick's piece in Slate caught my eye. Lithwick says it's clear that the decision whether to end Schiavo's life is her husband's to make, based on a clear legal rule:

Take away all the high-minded rhetoric in this case and it is no different than any child custody case. There are a number of people seeking to assert control—all of whom have a legitimate and passionate interest in the outcome. But that doesn't mean they all get a vote. This is why the courts have wisely limited guardianship to just one decision-maker—Schiavo's spouse.
Well, okay. But the parents-make-decisions-for-minor-children rule isn't absolute; we take away people's custody of their children all the time. Shouldn't the fact that Schiavo's husband has a pregnant girlfriend make wonder for just a moment if he's the best person to be making this decision?

Friday, October 24, 2003

Madame Chiang, the widow of Taiwan President Chiang Kai-Shek, died yesterday in NYC at the age of 105.
Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a pivotal player in one of the 20th century's great epics - the struggle for control of post-imperial China waged between the Nationalists and the Communists during the Japanese invasion and the violent aftermath of World War II - died on Thursday in New York City, the Foreign Ministry of Taiwan reported early Friday. She was 105 years old.

Madame Chiang, a dazzling and imperious politician, wielded immense influence in Nationalist China, but she and her husband were eventually forced by the Communist victory into exile in Taiwan, where she presided as the grand dame of Nationalist politics for many years. After Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, Madame Chiang retreated to New York City, where she lived out her last quarter-century.


For many Americans, Madame Chiang's finest moment came in 1943, when she barnstormed the United States in search of support for the Nationalist cause against Japan, winning donations from countless Americans who were mesmerized by her passion, determination and striking good looks. Her address to a joint meeting of Congress electrified Washington, winning billions of dollars in aid.
She will be missed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Terry Eastland looks at the Pledge of Allegiance case that's scheduled to go before the Supreme Court early next year.

Eastland writes that "surely there are at least five Justices--indeed, there should be eight--prepared to reverse the Ninth Circuit."
"I also hope the Virginia Tech football team plays with such perfection, passion and strength that West Virginians wish that they had never unconstitutionally seceded from the Commonwealth."
~ Senator George Allen (R-VA), in a press release betting on Virginia Tech over WVU.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Movie Review

I am utterly mystified by the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which has been called a "historic achievement" and compared to Greek tragedy. The critics have clearly responded to the ambitions of Brian Helgeland's script (adapted from Dennis Lehane's novel) and Eastwood's direction rather than to what's on the screen: Mystic River is the drabbest, most monotonously solemn and yet ungainly "masterpiece" imaginable. The movie has especially been praised for getting the feel of the neighborhood in which the action takes place, but there's not a soul in it who doesn't trudge around as if aware of the impressive tale being told. (Ice Cube's variety show classic Friday (1995) has an infinitely more detailed sense of neighborhood life, with its patchwork of pleasures and disasters.) The story doesn't make much sense but the moviemaking is so flatfooted it hardly matters.

I don't know what exactly triggered critics to rate this movie so highly but I do know that I haven't read a sensible analysis of the narrative, and without that you can't assess its pretensions to tragedy. (Stephanie Zacharek's piece on Salon sees Eastwood's limitations as a moviemaker and makes the best case for his sensitivity to the material, but still wildly overrates the experience of the movie.) This means, of course, that there's no way to attack the movie's pretensions except by giving the story away: so this will be a review in the form of a post-mortem (i.e., all spoilers).

In a prologue set in 1975 three Irish-American boys are writing their names in wet cement in a working-class section of Boston. Two pedophiles pretending to be cops take Dave, the gawkiest, weakest-appearing among them, away in their car, supposedly to tell his mother about this act of vandalism. Instead they molest him for four days until he manages to escape. We then see the three boys grown up: Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who owns a corner grocery store and dotes on the oldest of his three daughters; Dave (Tim Robbins) is a shambling near-wreck, who tries to instill more confidence in his small son than he ever had; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife has walked out on him but continues to call him, though she can't bring herself to say anything when he answers. The men are brought into close contact again for the first time since childhood when Jimmy's favorite daughter Katie is found murdered.

The night of the murder Dave comes home with a slash across his belly and blood on his hands. His creepmouse wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) accepts his story of having murdered a mugger in self-defense and cleans up the evidence. The audience knows that Dave saw Katie dancing on a local bartop with her girlfriends and the only reason we don't think he must have killed her is because that would be too obvious. But Dave keeps changing the story of how his hands got torn up and he seems to be undergoing a crisis remembering his escape from his rapists. He cannot, however, explain what he's feeling and so is kind of scary. Eventually Celeste becomes so frightened she moves out and confides her fears to Jimmy. Jimmy has the Savage Brothers, two local thugs who take orders from him, drive Dave out to a riverfront bar for drinks. When Jimmy shows up, wearing black gloves, he scares a confession out of Dave by saying that if Dave will admit what he did he'll let him live.

Dave, however, didn't kill Katie. The night she was killed he got bloody murdering a man he caught having sex with an underaged boy hustler in a car. Dave's confession and Jimmy's murder of him owe a debt, I imagine, to the scene in The Godfather (1972) in which Michael offers Carlo his life if he'll confess to setting Sonny up. The difference--and it's major--is that Carlo did set Sonny up. That's the kind of situation tragedy deals in: Michael's action is not entirely misplaced but he carries it out at the peril of his soul. (He is, after all, killing the father of his sister's children, and when he lies about it to his wife Kay we feel the door shut between them for good.) Michael is dispensing justice in a way we feel is brutally wrong and the implications of which are shot suggestively but made clear.

In Mystic River Jimmy is plain wrong--not just for taking the law into his own hands but in getting the wrong guy. What does the movie make of Dave's being killed for the wrong murder? Nothing. The man Dave kills isn't human in the movie's terms. Dave's killing of him is treated as an alibi, a realistic result of his molestation as a boy, and maybe an act of sanitation. The script sets up this interlocking, ongoing fiasco but doesn't push beyond the facts on the surface. There's no larger awareness of Dave's participating in a culture of violence that ironically snares him in a way he wasn't expecting and that not only isn't just but is almost comically stupid. Once you know that Dave is innocent of Katie's death, Jimmy's retributive anger seems awfully coarse, like acting--which, with Sean Penn in the role, heaven knows it is. Actually, this could have been a great way to play it, that Jimmy's paroxysms of violence come about when he feels the need to live out the role of neighborhood capo. But it doesn't appear to be in the script that way and since it's an interpretive rather than a visceral point it's not really in Eastwood's range. Instead he has Penn hit the nail square on the head, right through the flimsy board.

The killing of the wrong man in Mystic River is closer to a liberal anti-lynching movie like William Wellman's Ox-bow Incident (1943), in which the victims are innocent of the crime for which they're strung up, than it is to tragedy. The Ox-bow Incident doesn't develop its theme beyond the procedural warning that mob justice is bad because you might execute the wrong guys (a warning that doesn't differentiate lynching from state execution). Tragedy would be possible only if the lynch victims were indeed guilty, that is, by implying some balancing of justice that felt horrible and understandable at the same time. (The only potentially tragic blindness is that of the Southern major played by Frank Conroy, a man whose disgust at his son's sensitivity causes him to overplay his own masculine-martial rigor, but the movie treats him as a sadist who deserves to die.)

The script of Mystic River piles on the elements leading to Dave's death but they don't inform each other. The psychological disorder caused by his molestation makes it believable that Dave couldn't credibly defend himself against the false suspicion of murder, and since the murder he did commit is one he'd rather not talk about he does look guilty, but there's no thematic connection between child molestation and Katie's death. The makers want us to feel that the crime committed against Dave makes it inevitable that he be falsely accused and punished, that having been molested marks him the way his weakness as a boy marked him for the pedophiles in the first place. If that's the case, however, then his murder of the child molester is unnecessary and in fact dilutes this meaning because coming in bloody the night of Katie's death would cast suspicion on Dave whether or not he'd been raped as a boy.

From another perspective, Dave murders the pedophile that night because he'd been raped as a boy, but that's simply a plot connection, a way to make it plausible (and supposedly excusable) that he was out killing somebody that fateful night. (It leaves open the possibility of thinking, "Damn, if only he'd murdered the pedophile a week later!") That is, the various baleful actions in the movie are a pretty random assortment jury-rigged for plot purposes. (And not that sensibly: wouldn't it all be tighter if Jimmy's son had been killed?) Though Sean and Jimmy at one point speak elegiacally about Dave's abduction, saying it's as if all three of them had got in the car, the abduction has nothing essential to do with either Katie's or Dave's murder. It might as well have been aliens who abducted Dave; it could have been anything that set him up to be misunderstood.

There should also be some significance to the actual killers' motivation. Instead, Katie turns out to have been killed accidentally by her boyfriend's mute brother and a friend, waving a gun left in their apartment by the brothers' criminal father before he disappeared long ago. That father was the man who turned state's evidence and sent Jimmy to prison, for crimes committed by the Savages. When Jimmy got out of jail he murdered him (in the same backwater where he later kills Dave) and he had told Katie that she could never go with anyone from that family. But the boys didn't know about their father's relationship to Jimmy, and Katie's death was an accident.

So the family rivalry and retribution plot is woven into, and yet entirely incidental to, the contemporary action. (This is a movie with a veritable school of red herrings swimming through it.) Thus, at the heart of this supposed tragedy is a meaningless coincidence. In this interview with The Boston Phoenix, Helgeland compares the script to the story of Oedipus, but Oedipus's killing of his father wasn't a coincidence; it was fated so that even though it was foretold to him he couldn't avoid it by no matter how much effort. In Mystic River the fact that the killing was an accident means there's no sense in which Jimmy tragically set his daughter's death in motion by his own behavior earlier. She, too, might as well have been harmed by aliens.

In addition, Jimmy is precluded from the category of Greek tragic protagonists because they're noble individuals, caught in a double bind like Orestes, or acting with heroic vigor but blindly all the same like Oedipus. If Jimmy were a tragic figure at all he would have to be a modern tragic figure for the simple reason that his status is low and his actions, and even his intentions, are unjust. This doesn't prevent Al Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) from achieving tragic resonance, but that movie has an acute sense of irony that this buffoon, robbing a bank to pay for his male lover's sex change operation, is tragic both because of, and in spite of, all he does. Sonny's gallantry in trying to take care of his heterosexual family and his male lover is cartoonish but nonetheless intensely spirited. His defiant gesture in robbing the bank is absurd and finally futile but as grand as he is capable of making it. In fact, it becomes grander as it approaches closer and closer to failure, not because of the style with which he works the sympathetic crowds gathered outside the bank, but because he becomes more and more conscious of the price he will not be able to avoid paying and still he goes forward.

Eastwood and Helgeland are not, to say the least, adept at irony. They present Jimmy straightforwardly as someone we'll identify with, but I can't figure out why. Irony would seem to be the only way to make this hotheaded little man a protagonist. After he got out of prison and murdered the man who sent him there, Jimmy swore to go straight in order to take care of his daughter whose mother had died of cancer while he was put away. Then the daughter for whom he went straight is killed and Dave looks awfully guilty, so Jimmy kills him. In other words Jimmy stays straight … unless someone makes him really really mad at which point he does him in. He's a street tough who has no other way to deal with misfortune than by ultimate violence and he's not even smart enough to investigate properly or patient enough to wait for the cops to do the job for him. (He and the Savage brothers attempt to crash the crime scene seemingly with no concern for the destruction of evidence.) In outline Jimmy is a vicious clown, but Eastwood presents him as a nobly misguided paterfamilias. And as Sean Penn plays him he's all impacted rage, which registers with me more as a vice than a heroic trait--a flaw all by itself is not automatically a tragic flaw.

The movie is weirdly distended. Every scene plays out with the same drawn-out rhythm, as if Eastwood were willing to wait all day for the important details, and yet there aren't enough details to make sense of the characters and their relationships. Harden's performance is touching and relatively precise, but we need more information. Does Celeste suspect what Jimmy will do once she unburdens herself of her suspicions? Is she trying to get rid of Dave in a passive way she won't feel responsible for? Sometimes you do get intriguing information, but too late. Jimmy's wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), for instance, gives a Lady Macbeth speech after she's figured out what Jimmy has done to Dave--the last five minutes of the movie is an odd time to be establishing her character. Is her push supposed to have influenced Jimmy in bringing his investigation to a brutal and inaccurate conclusion? Is she compensating for the fact that he loved the daughter of his first wife best? (In its own terms this big speech doesn't even make sense. She tells Jimmy that everyone is weak except them and that he could rule this town. He owns a corner grocery store--what the hell is she talking about? Is this supposed to be a forecast of the future or merely a transparent justification of Jimmy's crime? Is she really a schemer or just afraid that remorse might make him confess and take the prop of her family back to prison?)

Eastwood handles the story in the most literal-minded way. The one thing I'll say for the movie is that it isn't a melodrama, that is, it's not just a story of innocent victims and black-souled villains. It tries to approach a goon like Jimmy objectively, but Eastwood and Helgeland lack the literary culture to pull it off. Mystic River aspires to tragedy though it proceeds by a particularly sludgy naturalism; what it achieves is a grim and misshapen set of interconnected anecdotes. The movie is a nearly unendurable sit because there's no rhythmic variation and not one moment of lightness in these people's lives. I've never been to a funeral where people didn't crack jokes; the misery among people who seem genetically unequipped for levity, much less happiness, is not very dramatic. These working-class characters are treated as victims, not in a tragic, or Marxist, sense but because it's literarily impressive in some vague way the makers think of as "tragic."

Eastwood's lameness as a director is most evident in his work with the young actors, in the opening scene especially, where the boys might as well be wearing masks. Despite the pedestrian direction the adult actors are all pros and can more than take care of themselves. They respond with as much power as generates Oscar buzz without totally abandoning discipline. (If there's a scowling-growling-and-yowling competition any time soon, Penn should get a lifetime achievement award for this performance alone.) The only relief is inadvertent: Penn's hideous coif, which looks like a black cat nestling on his head; Robbins's reading of Dave's ineffably "poetic" account of his escape from the pedophiles; and one good laugh when maestro Eastwood's symphonic score surges as the camera pans up to the sky.

Overall you feel Eastwood doesn't get the material at either the high or the low end. He respects this material far beyond its deserts but there is such a thing as behaving too respectfully. In fact, the only scene that has any snap is the one that resembles melodrama, when Dave outplays the cops who have brought him in for questioning and comes across as pretty creepy. Otherwise, the Jimmy and Dave story seems like a botched version of Fritz Lang's suspense classic M (1931) in which Peter Lorre plays a man who abducts, rapes, and murders little girls. The police, desperate to catch him, put a dragnet over the entire town. This disrupts underworld activity to such an extent the criminals start investigating on their own and at the climax are holding a kangaroo-court trial (in which Lorre's confession reveals the desperation of a psychotic killer more piercingly than any other movie ever has) when the police bust in and take the pathetic killer into the official legal system.

In Mystic River Eastwood wouldn't dare make Dave guilty of Katie's death, as Lang did, because then he wouldn't be sympathetic. But he does expect us to sympathize with Jimmy, apparently unaware that we could understand him without liking him if the script had a more sophisticated shape. M is structured to run on the irony of the parallel systems of detection. In Mystic River we have the Savage brothers investigating Katie's death at the same time that Sean and his partner are tracking down witnesses and evidence, but Eastwood drops and picks up these strands according to no discernible narrative pattern. Even without making the elements that lead to Dave's murder fit together in a way that bears some significance, we would respond more if Dave's murder came at the climax of a suspenseful back-and-forth between the cops and thugs. All I felt was relief that this movie, which I swear plays out in longer-than-real time, must nearly be over.

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

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Movie Review

This fall Bill Murray's depressively muted performance in Lost in Translation has caused critics to say he's outdone himself, though in that movie he scarcely does himself at all. If, on the other hand, you want to see a comic performance based on the theory that more is more, see George Clooney's manic turn in the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty. Clooney plays Miles Massey, a Beverly Hills divorce attorney at the top of his game. He's good in person, both in his office concocting a counterattack for a cheating wife, over her bewildered objections to its untruth, and in court launching such counterattacks so that sure winners going up against him lose. (Miles is wickedly skillful at throwing his adversaries off balance; in one hearing opposing counsel can only feebly object on the grounds of "poetry recitation.") And he's good on paper: he's the author of the Massey Pre-nup, an agreement that has never been "penetrated." Signing it is widely considered proof that the poorer partner to a marriage is truly in love. Miles is so good, in fact, he's bored.

He isn't absolutely armor-plated, however. He has nightmares about being called into the office of the head partner of his firm, a sputtering old man hooked up to an oxygen tank who keeps count of his underling's accomplishments. Miles processes information and responds so fast that the person he's talking to barely needs to participate in the conversation and Clooney has the verbal timing people claim went out of existence after the '40s. But being hotwired is a problem when Miles becomes emotionally involved in a high-profile divorce between Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her philandering real estate magnate husband (Edward Herrmann, loosened up for a change) because he can't slow down. We see that his precision-bombing smoothness shades into tickiness; as we all know there's no clear boundary where control turns into its opposite.

Miles is thrown off balance because Marilyn, a dark, zaftig beauty, hits him where he didn't think he was vulnerable. But he doesn't ease up representing her husband in the divorce just because he's in love. He's not that kind of a fool. He uses his most infuriating tactics against Marilyn's attorney, and then laughs when the man storms out of the meeting--"It's a negotiation!" He expertly, and not fully legally, beats the golddigging Marilyn out of the settlement she's "earned" but seems to think that she'll take it in stride, as if he'd beat her at doubles in tennis. Of course, there would always be a cloud because she's poorer (because of his adroit lawyering)--how will he know she really loves him?--but even that seems dispelled when she wins a settlement from her second husband that makes her the richer party. Miles feels he himself is rich enough to sign a Massey Pre-nup in order to win Marilyn. It's the most romantic thing he can think of to do.

Intolerable Cruelty has a nifty plot but I don't think it would be nearly as good without Clooney's classic performance driving it forward. The opening, before Clooney has appeared, in which Geoffrey Rush finds his wife with the pool cleaner--in a house without a pool--is merely squawky. Once Rush's wife goes to Miles for help, the movie hits its stride and never stumbles as long as Clooney is onscreen.

I also think that Clooney and Zeta-Jones don't have the kind of "chemistry" that people look for in straight romantic comedies, but that doesn't really matter. The movie is about Miles's temptation and Zeta-Jones as Marilyn is tempting, God knows. Her style doesn't match his but serves as a complement. The whole point of her role is to send ambiguous signals as to whether she's been stirred by Miles's energy and skill. Marilyn describes what kind of fool Miles is, and though she's extraordinarily beautiful and self-possessed the joke is that this supremely confident and competent professional man is the ordinary kind of fool.

The chemistry doesn't matter because the movie is a work of irony and so it doesn't expect you to project yourself into the story the way romantic comedies do. Neither does Miles have to be likeable, exactly. We first see him getting his teeth whitened, and he keeps checking to see if they really look white (to see if he got his money's worth? if they're dazzling enough?) With Clooney playing Miles this vice doesn't make him less attractive, and Miles's lack of scruples is so open and so deeply incorporated into his snappy style that it's comic, too.

Clooney has leapt right past the usual way an actor compounds a character out of the realistic details in the script. Rather, he seems to have become Miles and then played the script's crazy mosaic of traits in character, all held together by a nervy command of artifice. This is how Miles would exert control, this is how Miles would experience doubt, fear, desire; this is how Miles would lose it. Miles is a live-born creation and yet one of the great pleasures of irony is being outside the character along with Clooney as he reveals him to us.

We believe in Miles's proficiency sufficiently for the Coens' disenchanted vision of Beverly Hills to cohere, but Clooney's confidence is the real marvel here. His delivery has the speed you associate with Robin Williams or Michael Keaton, but he doesn't come across as a comedy specialist. He's not a disruptive clown but seems more integrated into the depthless adult world of the movie. He also has the sleek dominance, at once sports car and steamroller, that Kevin Spacey has shown at his most exalted-menacing, as an L.A. winner in Swimming with Sharks (1995), for instance, but Spacey has a fundamental seriousness that is almost leaden compared to Clooney's mastery of artifice. (My guess is that if Spacey had had to choose between the role of Miles and Willy Loman in a movie version of Death of a Salesman he would have chosen the latter; I expect Clooney would have better sense.)

In addition, with Spacey irony is always a weapon, as it is with Bill Murray, in Groundhog Day (1993), for example. Because Clooney is not investing himself in the role as a naturalistic character, he's able to use irony as a means of revelation perfectly in tune with the moviemakers' intentions. (And the Coens are really on here. The movie reaches a climax with an episode involving an asthmatic hitman that is the funniest slapstick they've shot since Raising Arizona (1987).) As Miles, Clooney doesn't make any direct emotional appeal to the audience and yet his high style is so smashingly effective that Miles stands open to us: macher, lover, patsy. Irony provides no shield for the character, and the actor doesn't use it to assure us that he's not the dupe his character is. Whether you're laughing with Clooney or at Miles you're laughing, and feeling the pleasure that an actor in total control of his means can give you.

Clooney can match any of these recent comedians for impact but he's also romantic in a way they aren't. He's a movie star in the best old Hollywood sense--not just a recognizable product like Tom Cruise (who visibly sweated bullets to give his high-energy comic performance in Jerry Maguire (1996)) or Brad Pitt (who confuses narcissism with charm), but a performer who has the extraordinary skill to shape the material to his personality. As Miles he's as antic as John Barrymore in Twentieth Century (1934) or Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), comic masters at the height of their powers, while maintaining a similar romantic suavity. (This material suits him much better than the bucolic slapstick of the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).) Miles is all crisp image, which Clooney is able to sketch convincingly and undermine for laughs at the same time.

Northrop Frye has described the genre of irony as a parody of romance, the obvious example being Don Quixote. The point is to take the idealized, prettified forms of romance and put back into them the unidealized realities that romance excludes. Irony is the narrative equivalent of makeup remover; it isn't just an attitude but a process. (In works like Don Quixote, which are closer to satire, the artist's attitude is evident. In a more reticent work of irony such as Madame Bovary the artist's attitude is more mysterious, in a way that is particularly hard for Americans to grasp.)

As a work of irony Intolerable Cruelty is not a romantic comedy but a parody of one. The hero is a cynical specialist in breaking marriages apart as profitably as possible for one party regardless of culpability, and the heroine is a woman who marries men likely to cheat on her so she can win a settlement that will make her independent of all men. The big inverted centerpiece of the movie is Miles's keynote address at the convention held by his professional association, the National Organization of Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide (their slogan: "What God hath joined, let N.O.M.A.N. put asunder"). Believing Marilyn to be richer than himself, Miles has signed one of his own Pre-nups. He is in fact so smitten he tears the technical speech he had prepared in half, improvises a heartfelt paean to love, and announces he's leaving the practice to do pro bono work, in East L.A. or one of those other … he's not even sure what to call "them."

This is what I love about the genre of irony--for once you're not being treated like a sap. Irony can get ugly in its underestimation of human behavior, and can shut you out of the in-joke (that has been the fault of the Coen Brothers' movies). But Clooney makes Miles too appealing, even while acknowledging his deficiencies, for these problems to arise. In addition, there's no left-liberal sense of moral retribution for Miles's being a vain Beverly Hills divorce attorney who has a tab at the Mercedes dealer. Everything that contributes to Miles's success just makes him more appealing as a protagonist, though he's also a buffoon. But he's a fool because people are fools about love, even the ones who harbor the fewest illusions about it.

And Clooney's performance opens up into an amusing low estimate of movie romance. In romantic comedy the conflicts that have kept the lovers apart are resolved at the end, permanently. Even if the resolution comes about by magic you feel that the conflicts will not rear up again. With irony the movie can bring the lovers together despite everything and still suggest the more realistic fact that the conflicts are quite likely to arise again. In Intolerable Cruelty these dolts are doing at the end what they've been doing all along: signing Massey Pre-nups against their better judgment and legal advice and tearing them up as proof of a love we suspect they can't feel or sustain.

Carl Franklin's Out of Time starring Denzel Washington is an example of irony in the hands of people who do not get what it's for. They're like children playing with a loaded gun. Washington is Matt Whitlock, chief of police in a small southern Florida town screwing around with a married woman who he believes is dying of cancer. Matt finds out from her doctor about an expensive experimental treatment available in Europe and so gives her the cash his officers confiscated from a drug bust. That night she and her husband die in a house fire and the next day the DEA calls for the money because it's needed as evidence in a major trial.

The suspense of the movie lies in watching Matt solve the arson-murders at the same time that he suppresses all the leads that point to his involvement with the dead woman. It's a nightmare plot and the way to make it work is to treat Matt's moral vacuity as a hard fact and maybe as a bonus make it funny. This is the genius of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944).

In terms of its narrative structure Out of Time is a work of irony, an inverted romance in which the knight is both less perceptive and honest than a true hero would be and his quest is a series of desperate, self-serving measures designed to hide rather than reveal the truth. The point of irony is that our fallen nature, the spiritual equivalent of our bodily functions, makes nonsense of the heroic romantic stories we tell each other. Those stories are lies and the pleasure of the ironist is to catch us out, handing us a tall, bracing glass of vinegar when we're drooling for yet another soda pop. Because irony is an inversion of the form of romance, a movie like Out of Time doesn't make sense if the makers treat the corrupt knight like a hero we can root for openly, unreservedly.

Out of Time has been shot as a "steamy" film noir but one at war with itself because although the protagonist is a dupe, Denzel Washington doesn't play dupes. So instead the movie goes soft, as if stealing the drug money was a good thing because Matt believed the poor woman was dying of cancer. The fact that he's been played for a sucker just means he's "vulnerable." Franklin and Washington turn the script into a straightforward story about a Boy Scout who makes a booboo, losing altogether what could have been the most interesting layer of the story, the sense that human personality is full of potholes of vice that everything we've built up for ourselves by long, hard labor can disappear into. One lapse trumps all.

In other words, there's a "Gotcha!" inherent in this kind of irony that fuses the suspense and the comedy, making it so intensely entertaining. Without it, the story and the storytelling don't match: the structure is ironic but the execution is sober. As a result Out of Time never finds a tone or a rhythm; it's peculiarly literal and unaccented. And Franklin shoots right into the script's weaknesses, treating as high suspense inherently unphotogenic sequences in which Matt works against time by computer, fax, and cell phone to avoid detection. In the one sequence when he actually has to go somewhere, the audience wakes up and doesn't really care who falls off the hotel balcony just as long as something kinetic happens. (See Franklin's movies One False Move (1992), starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), starring Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle, and Lisa Nicole Carson, to get a fair view of what he can do as a director, especially with actors.)

Washington has an amazing command of naturalistic technique. He's particularly good here at overlapping, almost improvisational-sounding moments of casual dialogue. But because he avoids the irony there's no texture to his performance. Playing this man who's more corrupt than he intended to be, he has a mopey countenance when he starts realizing what's up that is, frankly, a drag. By the end we're meant to be relieved that Matt doesn't get busted, and I wanted to holler. The man took money that was evidence of a crime and gave it to his girlfriend; he shouldn't be chief of police. An ironist knows this in his bones. Franklin and Washington treat the story earnestly and become objects, rather than masters, of irony.

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

Friday, October 17, 2003 Is Slumming

They've started talking about sports over there!

(1) Sasha offers his explanation for why he is a lousy fan.
My thoroughly unhelpful attitude is that the best team should win and that you know which team is the best by observing who wins.
Yes. That would make it difficult to cheer for a particular team. It sounds so clinical.

(2) Jacob Levy offers a post that is, I think, intended to be a joke. But I don't get it. It's about as funny as a New Yorker cartoon.
Remember the JAG recruiting fiasco last year that resulted from an interpretation of the Solomon Amendment? It's back.

The Yale Daily News reports: "More than half of Yale Law School's faculty members filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Department of Defense, claiming a law that forces the Law School to open its doors to military recruiters is unconstitutional."

Yankee mystique comes through again. The turning point, seriously, was right after the Fox cameras showed a sign that said "Mystique don't fail me now."

Long live the curse.
Quote of the Day:
"When you win, nothing hurts."
~ Joe Namath

Song of the Day:
Enya, "Storms in Africa"

Happy Birthday:
Jimmy Breslin
Lucas Cupps
Rita Hayworth
Evel Knievel
Arthur Miller

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Kate flies in tomorrow night. Yay!

I wish I could go to bed, but there's more heartstopping, heartbreaking baseball on...

From a 12-stanza statement made by Senator Dick Durbin on the Senate floor today:

"America don't give up, don't falter, don't grieve, if you wanna be a Cubs fan, you gotta believe."
A little late for that, I'd say. Maybe next year.
Tim Schnabel is obsessed with that famous red-and-blue electoral map from 2000.
James Taranto finds that the Democratic party consists of the overeducated and the undereducated:

The Democratic "base," it seems, can be found at the extreme edges of the bell curve, consisting of a small number of uneducated voters and a large number of overeducated ones. The educated elite, as we suggested last week, clearly dominates the party. One lesson of the California election, though, is that it's possible to be highly intelligent and educated without being all that smart.
Speaking of the post-recall fallout, Hugh Hewitt continues to pound the L.A. Times here.
We have met the enemy... and he is "a guy named Satan."

Here's more.
"Pope loses approval; 50% say he should step down"
~ USA Today headline

But on the other hand...

"Pope says God wants him to stay"
~ headline

Thanks to the Hotline.

On a slightly more serious note, Slate chews over the question of who will be the next Pope.
Bask in the irony:

"Bush told his senior aides Tuesday that he 'didn't want to see any stories' quoting unnamed administration officials in the media anymore, and that if he did, there would be consequences, said a senior administration official who asked that his name not be used."
~ The Philadelphia Inquirer
I passed!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You're Healed!

Or not. A Duke study refutes the "power of prayer."
Wasting Away in Trafficville

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its annual study of traffic congestion in the United States.
Among the findings:

The average drive to work is getting longer. In 1980, the average drive to work took 21 minutes. By 2000, the average commute was 25 minutes.

The worst traffic isn’t always in the biggest cities. Los Angeles, with 90 hours of delay in 2001, and San Francisco-Oakland, with 68 hours, ranked at the top. But smaller cities such as Denver (64 hours), Phoenix (61) and Portland (58) finished in the top 10, ahead of New York City (43) and Philadelphia (44).
Those last numbers are the total hours a commuter in that city spends in delay over a year. So, a New Yorker wastes about two whole days sitting in traffic.

The funniest thing about the report is the fallout in the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Oregon wasn't happy with being ranked as a worse city for traffic than Seattle. They then proceeded to call all Seattle-ites "Nincompoops."

Ready for more debate about daughters causing divorce? The author of that original piece has written a follow-up on all the mail he got:

The most creative evolutionary biology explanation comes from reader Todd Peters: Boys with low self-esteem become withdrawn and unattractive; girls with low self-esteem become promiscuous. So, if you want lots of grandchildren, you've got to raise the self-esteem of your sons (by staying married) and lower the self-esteem of your daughters (by getting divorced).
The conversation continues....
Hope for the paralyzed. "An implanted device had allowed the monkey to control the game using only her thoughts."
Quote of the Day:
"Mary had a little lime, and quite a lot of gin. And everywhere that Mary went, she didn't know she'd been."

Song of the Day:
Liz Phair, "Why Can't I"

Happy Birthday:
David Ben-Gurion
Charles Colson
William O. Douglas
Angela Lansbury
Eugene O'Neill
Noah Webster
Dowd Jinxes the Cubs

Maureen Dowd mentioned the Cubs in her column, and then the Cubbies lost their shot at the World Series. Coincidence? You decide for yourself.
What do you expect? It's the NY Times.

I've spent the past few days not posting and instead going to work and then watching baseball. I won't impose more baseball stuff on you, except for two things here that I think will be of interest to all of our readers:

The NY Times endorsed the Boston Red Sox. Yes. Take a moment; let it sink in. There are several things offensive about this piece, not the least of which is that because it's been a week I would have to pay if I wanted to link to it.

Jonah Goldberg has this to say:
On October 8, 2003 the New York Times — which still claims to be the hometown paper of New York (hence the reason it's not called "The Boston Times") — editorially endorsed the Boston Red Sox over the New York Yankees in the hope of a World Series match-up between the Sox and the Chicago Cubs — two teams God put on this earth to teach their fans that life isn't fair. In case you didn't know, the Red Sox have been denied a victory in the World Series ever since Harry Frazee, the owner of the Red Sox, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to raise money for the musical production No, No, Nanette.

The Babe went to the Yankees and the Yankees won nine bazillion (or 26) World Series titles. The Red Sox have since won exactly none.

Even the most diehard fans of No, No, Nanette are today willing to concede that perhaps — perhaps — Frazee made a mistake.

After first offering "all due respect to our New York readers" — as if New York readers were no different from Montana or Paris readers — the Times rationalized its editorial on the grounds of "warm sentiment." It would just be very nice and neat to see these two cursed teams — which have been disappointing fans for a combined total of 180 years — face each other. It just so happens that the only "hurdle" left for the Red Sox is the need to beat the hometown team of the New York Times. So, if the Yankees have to lose for the greater joy of humanity, so be it. Making such sacrifices is what the Times is for.
Goldberg has several complaints, but let me give mine first.

It stinks. It flat out reeks. Whoever heard of the hometown newspaper rooting for the opposing team? And in this case, we aren't just talking about any old opposing team. We're talking about the age old rivals, the arch rivals, the antithesis--for Yankees fans, the Red Sox are pretty much Lucifer.

Goldberg has a great explanation for this. The short version: This is just another manifestation of the Times' liberalism-is-bigger-than-petty-local-loyalties attitude. But Goldberg says it so much better:
What I actually find most troubling is the Times's "warm sentiment" itself. Or rather, their elevation of warm sentiment over a newspaper's proper attachment to its own local institutions.

One of the central tenets of conservatism is a respect for, and loyalty to, the familiar, the particular, the local. The conservative view of culture is that one should be a jealous, though not necessarily absolutist, defender of one's own things. . . .

But it is not only conservatives who appreciate — or who should appreciate — the value and appeal of the familiar. The tug of loyalty to tribe, to team, to community, to faith, to country — is a central theme of human culture regardless of ideology. Fraternity brothers feel loyalty to their house. Leftists feel allegiance to class. Soldiers feel loyal to their platoon.


So let's go at this from the other direction. Whenever Diogenes the Cynic (not to be confused with Diogenes the CPA or Diogenes: The Guy Who Ate 52 Chicken McNuggets) was asked where he was from, he responded he wasn't from anywhere. Rather, he was a "citizen of the world." In other words, he held no loyalty to any city-state but only to humanity in toto. This is the root idea of cosmopolitanism, the belief or — more accurately — the pose which holds that one is at home everywhere in the world (for a more complex and contrary view see Lee Harris's essay).

Now as a matter of lifestyle, cosmopolitanism has a lot going for it. As a city-dweller I'm delighted to have a menu which includes tasty goodness from every corner of the globe. Indeed, Americans are by nature a lot more cosmopolitan than our detractors give us credit for. The crust of our culture is British (perhaps the most open and inquisitive culture ever known, particularly if you drain out the class warfare and substitute the Scottish enlightenment). Subsequently, we've sprinkled ingredients from every other culture on the globe on top of it.

But there's a downside too. Believing that there is nothing special about your own place, your own culture, your own side is an invitation to meander rudderlessly through events, mistaking the conviction of others for a new North Star. ...

Needless to say, the Cosmopolitan sees patriotic attachment as irrational, unnecessary, even silly. ...

The Left, particularly the academic Left, teems with a certain breed of Cosmopolitan (which makes sense given, for one thing, the universality of Marxism). ...

It should hardly surprise anyone that the Cosmopolitan who salutes the globe instead of the flag would want the U.N. to succeed, even if — or perhaps especially if — it means the United States fails. ...

Which brings us back to the New York Times. The Times is a thoroughly cosmopolitan newspaper. It constantly editorializes in favor of the United States being "more humble," "less arrogant," and more willing to surrender some sovereignty to Brussels or the U.N. or to Kyoto. I don't wish to sound condescending, but many Americans — many very intelligent Americans — take these proposals on good faith. They assume that the New York Times is arguing on the merits, that it is rationally weighing the stakes and deciding what is best for America.

But it isn't.

The Times is deciding what is best for the world — as they see it. That's fine. Indeed, it may be exactly what a newspaper like the Times should be doing. But it's not patriotic, because its editors are writing from Olympus, not America — or New York.
Goldberg has a second very good objection, one that exposes the hypocrisy of the NY Times:
[I]t should be familiar news to everyone that the New York Times is a leader of full-disclosure fanaticism. The Times has — often rightly — gone after politicians, corporate executives, journalists, and other publications for failing fully to disclose their conflicts of interest. ... They are one of the culture's leading advocates of the view that the appearance of a conflict can disqualify a public servant from doing his work just as much as an actual conflict.

Fair enough. That's their view and it's even often correct. But how the Times could have failed to inform readers that they are part owners of the Boston Red Sox is beyond me. Their website boasts the fact that Business Ethics Magazine listed the Times as one of the top 100 corporate citizens in 2003, but for some reason the Times's editors couldn't mention that they partially own the Red Sox and Fenway Park too?
Tsk tsk. But are we really surprised by this selective reporting?

Here's another good opinion on the Times' column supporting the Red Sox.

At any rate, all this is very interesting and frustrating, but the losses on the field and the insults by the brutes who call themselves baseball players (like Pedro) are what hurt the most. If there's any magic left in Yankee Stadium, tonight's the night.

Go Yanks.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Dahlia Lithwick has a Supreme Court report that's really an opportunity to make fun of the Ninth Circuit:

I'm in the odd position of having witnessed two oral arguments in two consecutive weeks at which the party who prevailed in the 9th Circuit is unable to defend its reasoning. Increasingly, it feels as if there are always three parties at oral argument—both parties to the dispute and the 9th Circuit, lingering there, incomprehensible to all.
Today's case involved toilets, showers, and crack.
So I was at a salon downtown this morning before work, having various things done to my hair, and they told me, "You picked a good day to come in. George Clooney'll be here later."

Half an hour later, as I was being blow-dried, people started streaming through the door, and the blow-dry girl said, "Oh, they're here."

"They?" How narcissistic must this man be to bring thirty people with him to get a haircut?

Turns out they were filming for K Street -- actually shooting a scene there, in the salon. Sadly, I had to leave before I could be spotted and get my big Hollywood break.
Quote of the Day:
"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."
~ Groucho Marx

Song of the Day:
James, "Knuckle Too Far"

Happy Birthday:
John Kenneth Galbraith
Lee Iacocca
Friedrich Nietzsche
Mario Puzo
Oscar Wilde
Edith Galt Wilson
P.G. Wodehouse

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Big sports day yesterday. ESPN's Jim Caple has one take on Yankees-Sox, Round 3:

Stories from Saturday's game are going to be passed down (and exaggerated) from generation to generation but the best way to sum up the day is to say that the 72-year-old Zimmer left Fenway Park in an ambulance (somewhere Bill Lee is smiling) and the Boston police issued a dragnet for two Yankees players who allegedly fought a Red Sox groundskeeper in the bullpen.
Boston reliever Scott Sauerbeck had what I think is the best comment on Zimmer's charge on Pedro: "That guy has a pair on him.''

Round 4 is tonight.
Newsweek's cover story is on Rush Limbaugh and prescription painkillers.
Jim Sollisch likes hearing from telemarketers:

Look, if I'm not in the mood for the pitch, I can always say, "I'm sorry, Mr. Sollisch isn't here. He passed away." That usually gets them off the phone. But in fact I like getting the calls. Since our five children have all become teenagers, my friends have stopped calling me. They've given up on trying to get through. So when Wanda from Sun Valley Vacations somehow connects, I'm happy for news from the outside world. I thank her for telling me about this limited chance to book a condo for a week for just $199. Who knew?
Great law review article titles at
Andrew Sullivan points out that some on the right aren't just opposed to gay weddings. Heterosexual civil weddings bug them too.
Quote of the Day:
"Captain Kirk speaks figuratively, and with undue emotion, but what he says is essentially correct, and I do, in fact, agree with it."
~ Star Trek

Song of the Day:
Depeche Mode, "Enjoy the Silence"

Happy Birthday:
Luciano Pavarotti
Edward VI
Movie Review

Critics have been complaining that Audrey Wells's new romance Under the Tuscan Sun, adapted from Frances Mayes's book, isn't worthy of its star, Diane Lane, and they're right. In the movie Lane plays a San Francisco book reviewer whose husband cheats on her and then rips her off in a California no-fault divorce; unable to recuperate in the States she goes on a tour of Tuscany and impulsively buys a dilapidated villa. The movie is a pretty random patch job of divorcee travails and travelogue adventures and carpe diem and fertility pageant. The jokes are soft, the emotions run broad rather than deep, the exhortations are to cringe, and the cultural appreciation is middle-high-brow. It knows its audience, however: at the first shot of a woman's new-born the entire theater went, "Ohhhhhhhhh!" (My sister would like it for the discussion of limoncello alone.) Such coherence as it has comes from several plot strands in which people don't die of broken hearts. Mainly the movie just tries to be whatever it needs to be from scene to scene. Still, I don't think I've ever seen a more ravishingly varied performance than Lane's in a more rattletrap vehicle.

You want to keep in mind that American movies have almost never been fully worthy of the most talented stars. Bette Davis, arguably Hollywood's top dramatic actress ever, for instance, never appeared in a script better than All About Eve (1950), which is no more than a terrific comic melodrama. We love it because it lets her use her what's excessive about her personality--her mannered gestures and delivery--for laughs, beating the drag queens to the punch for once. But it's a real opportunity for her because the melodramatic tensions allow her to invest the character's vulnerability with real feeling about a middle-aged woman facing the decline of power and career and love. (Davis, Warner Brothers veteran that she was, expands the role as much through the melodrama as the comedy, which probably wouldn't have been the case if Claudette Colbert, the star originally cast in the role, had played it.)

Davis gave her finest dramatic performances for director William Wyler in Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940), both of which are melodramatic romances that give scope to her temperament because the star roles represent vice rather than virtue, a pop route to complexity. In The Privates Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) her role as Elizabeth I makes explicit her absolute command of the screen, but the potboiler title, and the fact that she has to perform opposite Errol Flynn, i.e., in a void, tell you how middlin' the industry's ambitions were, even for the queen of the Warner Brothers lot. Davis appeared in so many movies of lesser literary value that we're thankful simply for scripts that work in their own terms (which Under the Tuscan Sun does only by the skin of its teeth). It's by these standards that we consider enjoyable tear-jerking crapola like Dark Victory (1939) and Now, Voyager (1942) "classics." (The way Davis uses her gaze in the ice cream parlor scene in Now, Voyager, scanning back and forth while her lover's daughter calls him on the phone, creates an almost schizophrenic split between the ludicrous emotional content and the star's virtuosic means.) Davis's Medea, her Hedda Gabler, her Kate Croy, exist only in our imaginations.

Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman didn't do much better and James Cagney did worse. It's only an issue with the real actors, not the legions of synthesized amateur-hour stars like Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, John Wayne, Alan Ladd, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson, or Elizabeth Taylor, who were as much sea-monkeys as actors: drop them in a studio and watch them come to life. Gable at least patented a manner; it still works but only within a limited range and at times it consists of little more than smirking at his female co-stars. What's insane about Hollywood is that these plastic dolls were sometimes given the challenging projects--Gable and Shearer in O'Neill's Strange Interlude (1932); Shearer in Romeo and Juliet (1936); John Wayne in O'Neill's Long Voyage Home (1940); Liz Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew (1967). So I hesitate to discount Diane Lane's performance in Under the Tuscan Sun simply because the occasion for it is unworthy of her.

Lane is the greatest naturalistic actress of her generation, and one of the best we've ever had. She shows it throughout Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful (2002), and in the astonishing commuter train sequence she pulls off something I don't think I've ever seen an American actress do. The sequence reminded me of a similar one in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) in which Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland's sex is intercut with objective shots of them dressing for dinner afterwards. Lyne's sequence calls less attention to the director and relies more on his lone performer. In general this is in keeping with the way Lyne and his screenwriters adapted Claude Chabrol's source film La Femme infidèle (1969), which is a work of irony--that such an orderly, contained man would resort to murder, that his wife would respect him more after he'd killed her lover.

Compared to Chabrol, Lyne is a romantic, and a sloshy one. So by temperament he had to build up the wife's affair; we're lucky that he was interested in having his camera gain access to the wife's emotions as well as her body. On the train, Lane is returning from the first round with her bad-boy French lover and as the movie intercuts with the sex she's remembering she can't keep her afteremotions from washing over her. She twists in her seat and puts her hands to her face while her skin reddens and pales, and I couldn't always tell what she was supposed to be feeling. It's a pointed sequence in which we're not being cued to specific emotions but just watching an actress in the throes the way we would watch a natural phenomenon. With awe.

Lane is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Winona Ryder, whose notion of dramatic acting is to make appropriate faces at the camera. It seems as if Lane doesn't need to summon an emotion, or think about it at all. When the character feels it she expresses it, and she show can them all at once, or in a series with no perceptible breaks in between. With Lane there are no barriers between herself and the woman she's playing.

Though Unfaithful is not the sophisticated object that Chabrol's cold, brilliant movie, built around Michel Bouquet's meticulously controlled performance, is, Lyne's bodice-ripping treatment turns it into a really good vehicle for Lane. As she had shown in Stacy Cochran's incomparable comic romance My New Gun (1992) and A Walk on the Moon (1999), she has the carriage of a suburban good girl but an emotional fluidity that increases with heat and pressure. For the middle-class audience she's the perfect heroine for erotic adventures because she seems like us, slightly withheld by conditioning, but when she lets go she finds resources for pleasure that astonish and bewilder her. (My New Gun gives us the classic-comic version in her role of a suburban wife in need of a wake-up kiss.) In these performances she shows how the capacity for pleasure interacts with the conditioning that is meant to produce reliable, predictable wives and mothers. Some of that conditioning is worth hanging onto, but not all of it, and watching her work out her confusions is like watching the blending of color and temperature where a river meets an ocean.

This quality doesn't by itself make her a natural for comedy, which often requires more deliberate use of artifice. Stanwyck was also a natural in front of the camera, but put the old Hollywood distance between herself and her roles. She could play emotionally naked in Stella Dallas (1937) but not be emotionally naked. This enabled her to move easily between roles as a tempting vice in an ironic romance like Double Indemnity (1944) and the heroine of a high comedy like The Lady Eve (1941).

Lane is enormously winning but doesn't come across as a comedy specialist, like Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan, with their stylized manic disarray, furious and downy, respectively. And she doesn't have a command of high comedy style, as Judy Davis does; she doesn't have a way with the words themselves. She can be stunningly movie-starish, but we're always aware of the diffident woman pulling the look or the moment off. We're inside with her, feeling what it must be like to be seen as gorgeous. Though she's always recognizably, and likably, American, Lane works more like European actresses, like Jeanne Moreau who at her greatest, in François Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) and Jacques Demy's Bay of the Angels (1963), embodies a changing sky of passions. Lane's talent isn't limited by generic distinctions.

Under the Tuscan Sun is a comic romance about the return of spring; it's a pop celebration of fecundity in which snakes and olives symbolize the life force in the coupling that all humans seek. It dials in a surprisingly wide band of things Lane can do. She's amazingly skilled in the early scene with her attorney in which, puffy-eyed with misery, she keeps guessing what further treachery her ex-husband has perpetrated. You've never seen a defter dialogue scene in which the dialogue has been elided. She goes on to play every variety of despair, hope, and exultation that are compatible with a comic outcome. And her physicality can be goofy as well as erotic, for instance, in the scene after her first night of post-divorce sex when she grabs her breasts in jubilation that she can still get laid. She's a delicate powerhouse and to give Wells credit she's more effective because of the movie's broad approach, because it isn't simply a head-on romantic comedy. When her character's Italian realtor/advisor tells her that her wish has come true that there be a wedding and a child born in her villa, though not in the way she had hoped, she acknowledges it with something like the still force of Anna Magnani at the end of Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach (1953) recognizing that she's only a player in a drama.

I am a bit mystified by how Audrey Wells wrote such a bad script because her first picture as director, Guinevere (1999), was so free of compromise. It starred Sarah Polley as a girl from a competitive, overachieving family who takes up with Stephen Rea as a drunken, philandering photographer rather than going to Harvard Law School and finds herself in a way that professional career tracks never would have allowed her to. Wells was sensitive to the subtlest nuances in an area of experience usually crowded right off the screen--a young woman's tentative search for identity--without once descending into preciousness or teariness or coarse feminist posturing. The early scene in Under the Tuscan Sun in which a novelist whose book Lane had panned gets his revenge on her is the closest her new movie comes to the experienced sensibility of Guinevere. (It reminded me of Jean Smart's hair-raising confrontation with Rea in that picture.)

Guinevere was a fine example of literary realism: you were always aware of Wells's mind working through the logic of the relationship she had set up. Not surprisingly it wasn't a hit and didn't even get the reviews it deserved. So Under the Tuscan Sun feels like a conscious career-saver. It's more along the lines of the script that Wells wrote for The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) with its weirdly complacent mixture of academic-feminist complaint and traditional female passivity--same old tooth-rotting sugar, updated packet.

In Under the Tuscan Sun Wells has returned to the pop-feminist roots of The Truth About Cats and Dogs though without that movie's whininess (e.g., Janeane Garofalo referring to a beauty magazine as "destructive literature"). Some of the early material feels fresh and Sandra Oh as Lane's pregnant lesbian friend who follows her down misery lane has a nice deadpan delivery. I didn't even mind Lindsay Duncan's gurgling turn as an Englishwoman living in Italy and sharing the droppings of wisdom she gathered from Federico Fellini. Under the Tuscan Sun has enough crowd-pleasing components that you can't say it's inexplicably popular. Plus, the material is surprisingly elemental (the sky, the sea, the bountiful earth, both destructive and productive natural processes) at the same time that it pays tribute to the human culture by which, for instance, olives are made edible. And with Diane Lane emerging from a hard emotional winter as a sort of goddess of fruitfulness I would say it's deservedly popular, even if it's not exactly memorable. The material is too patchy for Lane's performance to build in intensity, but the actress doesn't dumb her work down and gives each random scene the best she's got in whatever mode is required. Count your blessings.

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