Sunday, November 30, 2003

Posting during labor. Congratulations to Denise Howell.
I just read a Maureen Dowd column all the way to the end!

She criticises the final designs for the World Trade Center memorial:

The designs are reflections of our psychobabble culture, exuding that horrible and impossible concept, closure. Our grief and anger have been sentimentalized and stripped of a larger historical and moral purpose.
Their very names are like Deepak Chopra book titles, she says.
Libertarians Against Bush

David Boaz says "Bush and his aides should be worrying about the possibility that libertarians, economic conservatives and fed-up taxpayers won't be in his corner in 2004 in the same numbers as 2000."
A Yale roommate of John Kerry's reveals that Kerry was so clearly presidential material that their circle of friends used to sit around and talk about their future positions in Kerry's cabinet.

Ah. There were more than a few filling-the-cabinet talks during my time at Yale, too. If everybody in my class who thought they deserved to be president actually made it... well, we'd all be dead before each one would get a chance.

And like John Kerry, the would-be presidents in my class weren't always terribly popular outside of their future cabinets. They called him "Keep the Puck Kerry" in boarding school. (Mickey Kaus listed some reasons people don't like "JFK" a while back.)
Quote of the Day:
"A mother becomes a true grandmother the day she stops noticing the terrible things her children do because she is so enchanted with the wonderful things her grandchildren do."
~ Lois Wyse

Song of the Day:
Placebo, "Come Home"

Happy Birthday:
Winston Churchill
Dick Clark
Angela Haught
Bo Jackson
G. Gordon Liddy
Billy Idol
David Mamet
Ben Stiller
Jonathan Swift
Mark Twain

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Katherine Mangu-Ward reports on a prank at this year's Harvard-Yale game.

Just thinking about being in New Haven in November makes me shudder. It's a bleak month in an already bleak city. I'll always remember it as the month during which, in my first year of law school, my beloved first Lilymobile was totaled by an out-of-control motorist who was too busy shooting out of his window to drive straight.

Speaking of college sports, Duke plays Purdue in the final of the Great Alaska Shootout tonight at 12:30 EST. I will be up late.
Dean Jens cheers President Bush's trip to Iraq: "I mean, he lied to the press, but that wasn't even the best part."

James Taranto has a roundup on reaction to the trip, including carping from Democrats.
Deck the Halls

I have great enthusiasm for holiday decorating, but I reached my limit today when I opened a catalog and saw holiday-themed sink stoppers.
A woman was knocked unconscious while shopping at Wal-Mart yesterday.

And a German actor was found innocent of squashing his tax advisor to death.
Andrew Sullivan has a nice e-mail of the day:

"Concerning his 'flight from Waco' before heading to D.C./Baghdad, Bush mentioned that he and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sat in the Secret Service car, dressed causually with baseball caps. What really impressed me is his accompanying statement that 'we looked a normal couple.'

Even as a proud American, I freely admit that we have serious work left to us regarding race relations. That an American President (white) blithely compared his sitting in an official vehicle, while on a secret government mission, with his black female National Security Adviser, and compare the two of them with 'a normal couple' I think is a positive step for our society as a whole. Granted, it is not monumental, it is not pushing aside Wallace to get black kids into the school house and get an equal education, but it is important.
Great point.
Kate is coming home! YAY! She just called from Taipei and will call later tonight from Tokyo.

I hope our readership had a good Thanksgiving. The KC was all over the place. I had an excellent meal at a KC aunt's house on Thursday and spent yesterday doing work and catching up with some old friends.

Here's a recipe I greatly enjoyed at Thanksgiving dinner:

Bourbon Mashed Sweet Potatoes
(From Emeril Lagasse)


1 3/4 to 2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup bourbon whiskey
3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly rub the sweet potatoes with the olive oil. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon their size. Remove from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. Peel the sweet potatoes and transfer the flesh to a large bowl. Add the cream, bourbon, brown sugar, molasses, and salt, and beat on high speed with a hand-held mixer until smooth. Cover to keep warm until ready to serve. Makes 4 cups.

Trust me, it's delightful.

And the stuffing this year set a new standard for white-bread goodness.
Quote of the Day:
"Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead."
~ Louisa May Alcott

Song of the Day:
James, "Come Home"

Happy Birthday:
Louisa May Alcott
Peter Bergman
Madeline L'Engle
C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Get your flu shot. I got mine.
China Watch

Could we have been played by China? No... no one would ever believe that. Unless, maybe, we don't take China seriously enough. Maybe China is sophisticated enough to jail someone who was helping them in order to cover that up. ... Just a thought.
Gamesmanship

Ah, good ol' Lawrence Taylor, sending call girls to his opponents' rooms the night before the game. I'm tucking that one away for when I have my first trial.
Men in Suits

So, the most wanted list came out here in Taiwan yesteday. Here's the weird thing about it: only two of the people on there were wanted for "traditional," what I would call dangerous, crimes. The other eight: white-collar crimes. Embezzlement, election fraud, etc.
Despite the government's efforts, a Cabinet official who asked not to be named said that the list is politically motivated.

"If you closely study the list, you'll find that only two are wanted for undermining social security," the official said, insinuating that the remaining eight are involved in political cases.
For those looking for a reason, here's my guess. There's an election next year. Taiwan politics are complicated, if you've never followed it. The gist of it is that there are those for formal independence from China and those against it. The people against it are the traditionalists, and for some time they maintained a one-party sham democracy here in Taiwan. Then they allowed multiple parties and the lead opposition party won the presidential election in 2000. As one might note, China didn't like that. There is some serious manuevering now for the 2004 (2005) elections -- I would guess that this list of most wanted, which includes white collar criminals many of whom are members of the former ruling party, is an election gambit by those currently in power.

Anyway, my first reaction upon seeing the list: why, they're all a bunch of men in suits. Not your typical line-up of hooligans, murderers, and rapists.

Taiwan, for those of you who don't know, is also the place you frequently see on TV in which the legislators are beating the snot out of each other. There recently was another fight (November 3), the first apparently since the 2001 elections.
Losing Touch

I woke up this morning at 5:30am (due in part, no doubt, to jet lag) because of a dream about someone with whom I lost touch 15 or so years ago. I couldn't get back to sleep because I started to think about all the people I have failed to keep in touch with, and how bad I feel about that. Has this ever happened to anyone else? It was so weird. It wasn't even guilt, really, just sort of uncontrollable curiosity about how they were doing and what had become of them. It was fueled mainly, I think, by a feeling of fatality -- you may never see these people again. Anyway, so I'm up and on the Internet. The person's name is Sarah West, formerly from Illinois. If you're out there Sarah, shoot me a line, I'd love to reconnect.
Movie Review

Will Ferrell in Jon Favreau's Elf: Spaghetti with Syrup

In Todd Phillips's Old School (2003) Will Ferrell plays a newly married guy who can't resist the call of the frat-house antics his wife assumes he left behind when he married her. He works on his muscle car in the driveway with the radio blasting, and though he promises not to overdo it at a kegger he goes to without her, as soon as some college kids tease him for his restraint he starts chugging and ends up streaking through town (alone though he thinks the whole party has followed his lead). The problem is that he hasn't realigned himself with his wife, as he claims and as he believes. The problem is not that she's a prig; she's actually the star pupil in a blow-job class that she and her girlfriends take from a prancing queen. (In a miserably written, cast, and staged sequence--why do all the wife's friends seem like mid-price escorts?) He just doesn't want to grow up in the way she expects despite the fact that anyone looking at Ferrell would think, Suburban Dad, not, Party Monster.

That's the only joke in Old School that works: Ferrell's physical equipment is all wrong for the adolescent decadence he's wedded to. Towering but gawky, and doughily slow to respond, he's not young, lean, muscular, or hot enough for it, which is why it's funny he thinks the whole party is behind him--no one would want to run behind naked Will Ferrell.

The only joke that works in Jon Favreau's Elf, Ferrell's first starring vehicle, works in the opposite way: Ferrell's physical equipment is all wrong for the childlike innocence of an elf in Santa's workshop. Ferrell does an amazing job of playing the innocence straight; the joke never veers into burlesque seaminess (promised this season by Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa). We laugh because although his character Buddy is a human who has come by chance to be raised by elves in the North Pole, and is thus an oversized misfit among these little people, he's as naturally full of Christmas spirit as any of them and there's so much more of him behind that spirit.

In movies Ferrell has so far been terrific because of a tricky limitation: he eliminates everything from his face so we can trace the impact of a single overwhelming emotion which then rocks his body. It's the very fact that his body is an inexpressive instrument that his movements are so funny, and it's how he creates character. He's in the line of descent from Jerry Lewis, throwing himself into powerhouse slapstick with no acrobatic ability.

Ferrell gives an inspired one-note performance in Elf and the movie is good to the extent it sticks to its sketch premise. Elf shows that it doesn't matter if there's minimal continuity to the story as long as the series of things that might happen to a human elf in Manhattan (where Buddy comes to find his natural father) are cleverly conceived. But it isn't like the Austin Powers movies, which treat plot and character as just more droplets in the constant stream of clever ideas flowing right on the surface. Mike Myers can work in a mode in which there are quotation marks around the quotation marks. Elf seems at first more poised between irony and sincerity, because Ferrell is funny only to the extent that he's so improbably innocent. (What keeps it from cloying is that he's also graceless and obnoxious, but somehow miraculously doesn't overdo either.) But then the movie gives in to "sincerity," and believe me, those are my quotation marks not the movie's. It turns into the kind of smarmy family entertainment that emetically gave rise to Mike Myers's thoroughgoing irony.

Once Buddy is in New York living with his emotionally unavailable father, played by James Caan, and his morose half-brother, the picture goes for redemption and becomes more and more thumpingly forgettable. There are incidental pleasures--Mary Steenburgen as Caan's wife is beautiful and composedly mature, and Zooey Deschanel (daughter of the great Black Stallion (1979) cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and the actress Mary Jo Deschanel whose scene over the phone with Ed Harris in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of The Right Stuff (1983) was the highlight of that bustling spacejock movie) is piquantly down-in-the-mouth. Deschanel truly seems to know what it's like to have a job so bad you don't even want to joke about it. But she doesn't come across as helpless, and a hint of touchiness keeps her from being pathetic. The only good moment not connected specifically with the human-elf material is when Buddy quietly sings the male part of Frank Loesser's insinuating duet "Baby, It's Cold Outside" along with Deschanel while she showers. When the sketch inspiration fails, as it does with Buddy's eating habits--for some reason he likes spaghetti, topped with candy, and maple syrup over the whole mess--there's nowhere to turn for help.

Most of the characters Buddy meets in New York are depressed and, being culturally an elf, he has to try to lift their spirits. Caan doesn't really respond to the hands-off, moneygrubbing half of his character (and his material isn't very developed as comedy, so there isn't much to respond to), and what could Caan bring to redemption? But that's nothing compared to the way the movie ties Christmas spirit to a belief in Santa Claus. Borrowing from the fading of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan and the stop-action TV short Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindoor, the movie tells us that Santa's sleigh now needs a jet engine because it was designed to run on belief in Santa which has critically waned. So when the overtaxed reindeer crash land in Central Park, Buddy's half-brother grabs Santa's book from the sleigh and reads out what people want for Christmas to a news reporter on the scene in order to revive the faith. Luckily all the people whose names he reads are watching that channel and when they hear the list their rejuvenated Christmas spirit makes the sleigh fly again.

Ed Asner, with his TV-style curmudgeonly warmth is perfect for this crass commercial vision of Father Christmas. But the meaning is worse--it's the opposite of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, right? The makers of Elf have made a "holiday classic" that equates Christmas spirit with getting presents. And not just any old present, but exactly what you asked for, including manufacturer's name: it's the label that counts.

Peter Dinklage in Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent: Let Him Loose

The only person in Elf who takes comic command of the screen besides Ferrell is Peter Dinklage as a tough, corrupt ghostwriter who is a dwarf and who resents Buddy's taking him for an elf. Dinklage is also currently starring in first-time writer-director Tom McCarthy's muted independent movie The Station Agent and he's the best reason to see it. McCarthy's movie is about Fin (Dinklage), a dwarf who inherits a train station house in nowhere New Jersey, which suits him fine because all he wants is to be left alone. Though it doesn't say so explicitly, from what the movie shows Fin can't take the fact that nearly everyone responds to him as a dwarf: they snap a picture, or scream, or laugh and taunt him (asking where Snow White is, for instance), or are too noticeably tactful about it.

Dinklage is refreshing because as an actor he doesn't use the fact that he's a dwarf in any of the ingratiating ways we're used to (and he was similarly wary on Jay Leno), but that's a matter of disposition, or discipline, not of talent. In addition, however, he has a big, square, handsome head, with a naturally romantic brooding quality and an alarming theatrical flair for releasing pent-up emotion. We can appreciate The Station Agent for trying to get past the issue of Fin's stature, for letting the man be whoever he is, but Dinklage's best moment comes when he stands on his stool in a bar and drunkenly throws people's fascination with him as a dwarf in their faces.

Dinklage is a fine naturalistic actor but the power in his naturalism comes from our sense that he's holding back. Of course, this is thematic in the movie. Fin is always somewhere else where size isn't an issue, but this cramps Dinklage who's more unleashed in Elf than in 90% of the running time of The Station Agent. Only in the bar scene does he have a molten quality that makes sense of his dark Rochester-Heathcliff looks, but that McCarthy otherwise wastes.

Dinklage has some of the emotional activity even at rest that is one of Daniel Day-Lewis's most magnetic qualities. In other words, he carries himself like a leading man and in addition has such a vigorously masculine high style that I immediately started picturing him in the 19th-century repertory of works featuring physically stunted characters. Stylistically they cover the range from realistic, sympathetic treatments to allegorical Gothic horror, including Philip Wakem in George Eliot's Mill on the Floss (available online); Walter Scott's Black Dwarf (available online); Rigoletto, which Verdi's librettist derived from Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse; Poe's "Hop-Frog"; and Quilp in Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop. It isn't that Dinklage should play only characters who match his physical type, but that he has a creative power as an actor that calls to mind great imaginative writing. (Of course, currently he'd have a lock on them in terms of casting, and several of them would give artistic vent to his plainly simmering anger.)

That is to say, you want to see him in something really good. There's much more excitement in Dinklage than McCarthy's pressureless movie allows him to show. He hasn't yet been asked to give a performance to compare with Billy Barty's in John Schlesinger's adaptation of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (1975), but you feel he's more than up to the job. In fact, unlike Barty he does not come across as a supporting actor but as a star.

And finally The Station Agent does not just let Fin be the man he is with no thought of his stature. That's how Fin wants to be treated, and implicitly how he thinks of himself, but since it isn't how he is treated, the issue of his size is always present. The movie's pathos may be unstated but it's central to the meaning. What we see is that Fin's way of dealing with the pain of being reacted to as an oddity is to withdraw from all human contact, in that symbolically isolated station house. Trains to him aren't a means of going anywhere they're just a way to occupy his mind, an interest not even an obsession. Fin is drawn out by Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and little Cleo (the preternaturally self-possessed Raven Goodwin), who won't leave him alone, and by Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), to whom he reaches out as she, too, isolates herself to numb herself to pain.

What the movie shows is that by putting yourself in a position to avoid the depths, you miss out not only on the heights but much of the pleasure to be had on the level plains as well. Fin isn't the only one who learns something--he teaches Bobby that loquacity isn't the only way to connect with your friends. All in all it's a fairly simple demonstration of some plain truths about life. The end product may fairly be called "wisdom" but the process is not very dramatic. And as subdued as that process is, it does belong in the category of pathos. (It is not, at any rate, an example of pseudo-naturalism, like Todd Field's In the Bedroom (2001), which despite its handling has the narrative structure of melodrama.) Dinklage, like McCarthy, never milks the pathos, but he also doesn't seem fully engaged. You can feel his emotional-expressive muscles tensing for the release that would be possible only in a more extroverted movie.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Happy Vegetarian Turkey Day from those of us who flavor our stuffing with lima bean juice.

Speaking of stuffing, is it not the best food ever? But it must be made with white bread, people. No oysters, no cornbread, no fancy sourdough. Cheap white bread!

I recognize that not everyone is of that opinion. From an essay in Southern Living (attention non-Southerners: "dressing" = stuffing):

Some dishes are simply a must in the South, whether you can stand them or not. Cranberry sauce is one, but only the gelatinous kind that thwoops out of the can still bearing the telltale lid marks. Green bean casserole, fashioned with mushroom soup and fried onion rings, is another. Congealed salad made with lime gelatin is essential, as is sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows or pecans. And let's not forget cornbread dressing. "Cornbread" is the operative word; no other dressing will do. Jeanine of Hayeville, North Carolina (we've deleted the last names to protect the innocent) painfully recalls tasting her mother-in-law's white bread dressing: "It was like a bowl of Elmer's glue. I tried real hard to be the perfect daughter-in-law, but I did cry at the table."
I believe the stuffing recipe I favor came from my Pennsylvania-bred grandparents.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

About those opinion polls I posted about below... conservatives are worried.
So, two strange experiences at the Tokyo airport that I forgot to report.

(1) There were probably ten women at the airport who I mistook, from behind, to be white. They were in fact Japanese women who had dyed their hair something close to blonde. The phenomenon of Asian women dying their hair intrigues me. Is it an expression of Western-philia, or is it merely an self-expression? It could very well be the latter because, well, when you've got black hair, the colors you dye it are naturally going to seem "Western."

(2) They still have those non-toilet toilets in the airport. What I mean is the porcelain jobbies that are placed in the ground that are just one step away from being a mere hole in the ground. This amazes me. A country's international airport would seem to be its most public face. And to think that the most public face of a country as technologically advanced and sophisticated as Japan is hole-in-the-ground toilets. I mean, I had half-expected toilet-paper dispensing robots... Boy was I disappointed.
Mickey Kaus scolds Andrew Sullivan for touting two opinion polls showing that the Massachusetts public supports the Goodridge decision.

Not very Burkean of Andrew to believe in government by poll, as opposed to government by elected representative. The Roe v. Wade majority thought it had some polls on its side too. ... I think gay marriage is a perfectly reasonable institution. But the courts did not force Massachusetts to make a democratic decision on this matter. Massachusetts had made a democratic decision--it had decided to do nothing. The court is forcing the state's democracy to make a different decision, under the threat of having its action declared unconstitutional if it's not the action the court likes. ... It's honest to defend this as a frank anti-majoritarian "rights" case. It's disingenuous to pretend the court has somehow enforcing a democratic will that actual, elected representatives have failed to discern. If gay marriage is so damn popular, why don't people like Sullivan do the easy thing and rally Massachusetts voters to get the law changed?
It's a fair point.

I think Sullivan is right that these polls are a big deal, at least tactically. Once polls start showing public opinion favoring gay marriage (and that day is coming fast, in places far beyond Massachusetts), the "activist judges" complaint will be reduced to an argument about process -- that the judiciary isn't letting us go through the motions of legislating the popular will. And that's not very compelling outside of a con law class.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Hot for Teacher

Good-looking teachers get better evaluations from their students: "ugly professors have to really, really know what they're talking about if they want to get good evaluations, as horrible as that sounds. They have to work harder."

Except at YLS, where student evaluations go straight into the incinerator and unattractiveness roams the halls unpunished.
Ten percent of American think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. There's another book out about religion and American culture. Discuss.
In a a look at the statistics that shape our world, The Onion asks What's Under Our Leaf Pile?

15%: Trampoline
10%: Door to trendy new Korean fusion restaurant
12%: If you're Christo, probably the Reichstag
It rained and was cold today, and I was at work way too late, and Kate is on the other side of the world.

And yet... the KC has had a great, great day.
Quote of the Day:
"Moon over Parma, where those pink flamingos stand.
I need her kisses and the soft touch of her hand.
We're goin bowlin', so don't lose her in Solon.
Moon over Parma, tonight."
~ Drew Carey

Song of the Day:
Bruce Hornsby, "Set Me in Motion"

Happy Birthday:
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Dale Carnegie
Scott Joplin
Zachary Taylor
hiya loyal readers ... reporting in from the airport in tokyo. i'll be gone for a week. happy thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Amy Chua believes that "[m]arket-dominant minorities are the Achilles heel of free market democracy." She knows a thing or two about such minorities:

My family is part of the Philippines' tiny but economically powerful Chinese minority. Although they constitute 1 per cent of the population, Chinese Filipinos control about 60 per cent of the private economy, including the country's four airlines and almost all of the banks, hotels, shopping malls, and big conglomerates. My own family runs a plastics conglomerate and owns swathes of prime real estate - and they are only "third-tier" Chinese tycoons. They also have safe deposit boxes full of gold bars, each one the size of a chocolate bar. I myself have such a gold bar.
The article is excerpts from Chua's book.
Christopher Hitchens says good-bye to Kennedy nostalgia:

I may still be in a minority in this, and don't care if I am, but I am glad to find that the Kennedy drama and the Kennedy cult is falling away into nothingness. The effort of keeping it up is too much trouble. ... It has been a very long time since I heard anyone argue with conviction (let alone with evidence) that if the president had been spared that day we would not be referring to the Vietnam calamity as "Kennedy's War."

The last thought is also, paradoxically, the kernel of the illusion that still keeps the JFK cult green. In a recent ill-phrased speech, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts referred with contempt to the combat in Iraq as something cooked up "in Texas." He thereby gave vent to a facile liberal prejudice that still sees the Galahad of Camelot as having been somehow slain by Dallas itself, or by Texas at any rate.
William F. Buckley thinks there's something left of the Camelot magic:

[T]he legacy of John F. Kennedy is his sheer... beauty. I have visited yurts in Mongolia, adobe huts in Mexico, and rural redoubts in Turkey and seen framed pictures of John F. Kennedy. He was all-American, splendid to look at, his expression of confident joy in life and work transfiguring.
Well, it's something.
A win, but an inauspicious start to Duke's season.
Hey, I know Jason Sorens.

We were interns together at Cato many summers ago. Apparently he's now heading the Free State Project, which Kate posted about a while back. Knowing Jason was my first (and not surprisingly, only) brush with Christian metalhead anarcho-capitalism.

I have lost touch with most of my fellow Cato interns, but I have some interesting memories of that summer. When I wasn't being hit by the creepy intern coordinator (who some years later was arrested for something to do with young boys), I was hanging out with the other interns pretending to be busy so the head of development wouldn't make us update his wretched databases.

But the high point of my time at Cato was one day the first week when it was my turn to sit at the front desk while the security guy ate lunch. An older man in a suit was wandering aimlessly (well, he looked aimless) through the lobby, and I called out brightly and intern-ly, "May I help you, sir?"

"Hi," he said and shook my hand. "I'm Ed Crane." "The man who housebroke libertarianism," he did not add.

Anyway, I keep forgetting to mention that I spent a lovely dinner the other week catching up with super-cute blogging couple Sasha and Hanah. I think between the three of us we have worked at just about every Washington libertarian think-tank-type-place.
"One day I was with him, and the next thing I knew, I never wanted to be without him," she said. Today's NYT wedding couple knew it would work when they read the new Harry Potter together.

Also from NYT celebrations-world, new wedding traditions for gay couples.

And on the op-ed page, David Brooks makes the conservative case for gay marriage.

I was up early this morning to give Kate a wake-up call, and I caught This Week for the first time in a while. Boy, that show has gone downhill. And my point of reference isn't even Brinkley -- it's Sam and Cokie.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Dean Jens writes in with more on Wheaton College:

My church is very near Wheaton College, by the way. Another Wheaton College note is that they won their football conference championship this past weekend, beating Augustana, 28-27. That's the Augustana in Rock Island, IL, not the one in South Dakota.
Whew -- thanks for clearing that up, Dean.

Seriously, congratulations to Wheaton.

Harvard beat Yale today, managing to stop the Bulldogs' "potent offense."

And Duke beat Carolina at football for the first time in 13 years.
Quare's got two excellent posts today.

First, another funny Michael Jackson headline.

Second, a link to an article about a weird I-Pod culture that has begun to develop.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Quote of the Day:
"Don't ever wear artistic jewellery; it wrecks a woman's reputation."
~ Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Song of the Day:
Enya, "Lazy Days"

Happy Birthday:
Troy Aikman
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Goldie Hawn
Stan Musial
Jean Francois Voltaire
I'm home this afternoon, and I've been fortunate enough to catch the end of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice on A&E. SOOOO good.

Still, the ultimate Jane Austen movie moment is at the end of Ang's Lee's version of Sense and Sensibility, when Edward tells Elinor his engagement is to Lucy is over and she starts sobbing with happiness in the parlor. A dive-for-the-Kleenex moment.
Dahlia Lithwick says the institution of marriage may be in trouble, but we shouldn't blame Massachusetts:

The decision to make a marriage "sacred" does not belong to the state—if the state were in charge of mandating sacredness in matrimony, we'd have to pave over both Nevada and Jessica Simpson. We make marriage sacred by choosing to treat it that way, one couple at a time. We make marriage a joke by treating it like a two-week jungle safari.... There will be more "sanctity" in marriage when we recognize that people of all orientations can make sacred choices. Good for Massachusetts for recognizing that truth.
Excellent.
Is this cartoon offensive? The Council on American-Islamic Relations thinks it is. And so, clearly, does the author of this article.
I'll quote at length from an op-ed by David Bernstein (of Volokh) in the Harvard Law Record. Bernstein smells hypocrisy in some YLS professors' positions on expressive association:

The Yale professors argue that the Amendment violates [the First Amendment right to expressive association] by penalizing the entire university to the tune of $300 million in annual federal funds if the law school faculty continues to try to promote its pro-gay rights values by prohibiting or discouraging military recruitment on campus.

The lawsuit will inevitably rely on the Supreme Court's 2000 case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the Court held that the Scouts has an expressive association right to exclude openly-gay scoutmasters....One would think that the professors suing the government over the Solomon Amendment would be universally supportive of Dale. After all, if anything, Dale involved a stronger restriction on expressive association than the Yale case does - the Scouts were being forced to admit gays, while Yale can avoid being subject to the Solomon Amendment by declining federal funds.

In fact, however, several of the signatories to the Yale lawsuit are strong opponents of Dale. Professor Kenji Yoshino, for example, helped write Dale's brief arguing that the Scouts should be required to admit homosexuals.

Professor Jed Rubenfeld, meanwhile, has argued vociferously against Dale in law review articles and public addresses. In a speech he gave to the American Constitution Society in August, Rubenfeld argued that the "freedom of expressive association holding in Boy Scouts opens up the possibility of a profound, thorough going attack on the nation's anti-discrimination laws." Clearly this displeases him, as he added, "Every anti-discrimination law impedes, burdens the freedom of association, association being a slogan of the people in favor of Jim Crow." ...

Or consider the views of Professor Owen Fiss, another lawsuit signatory. Fiss is not only known for his strong support for antidiscrimination laws, he is a leading academic advocate of weakening the First Amendment to combat "discriminatory" speech, such as hate speech. Yet in the Solomon Amendment context, Fiss has suddenly become a strong supporter of the First Amendment, including an expansive right of expressive association. The Solomon Amendment, he stated, "isn't free association; it's forced association, and it's wrong."
All three of those professors are smart enough to see the contradiction in their positions. And they're also smart enough to explain the contradiction away, if it even bothers them.

Bernstein is YLS '91, by the way.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The New York Observer profiles new NYT columnist David Brooks: "He's every liberal's idea of a sane conservative, and he's every conservative's idea of what a liberal’s idea of a sane conservative is."

The piece include gratuitous potshots at Maureen Down by Dorothy Rabinowitz.
If you don't read Andrew Sullivan, you may not have seen this fine piece from The Daily Telegraph on Bush's challenge to Europe.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Need a life?

Try yoga with your cat. And here's how to cure the arachibutyrophobia that's ruining your social life.
The most wonderful time of the year kicks off in earnest November 22. Click here for the Duke men's basketball schedule.
There only three kinds of men portrayed on the big screen these days, says Michael Leaser:

the incredibly hip gay or metrosexual in touch with his feminine side, the overly aggressive, boorish, and/or insensitive lout who desperately needs to be, and the dazed and confused milquetoast wallowing in his sensitivity.
Russell Crowe is, of course, none of these, and according to Leaser that makes Crowe's new film, Master and Commander, worth seeing.

I look forward to Alan's review.
Now this is sports news!
Connecticut needed 20 minutes to start looking like the No. 1 team in the country.

The Huskies rallied from a three-point halftime deficit to beat Yale 70-60 Monday night in the opening round of the Preseason NIT.
Ha!

Quote of the Day:
"The right to enjoy property without unlawful deprivation, no less than the right to speak out or the right to travel, is, in truth, a 'personal right.'"
~ Potter Stewart, Lynch vs. HFC

Song of the Day:
Shanice, "Saving Forever For You"

Happy Birthday:
Tommy Dorsey
Jodie Foster
Indira Gandhi
Larry King
Calvin Klein
Meg Ryan
Ted Turner
Reader Randy Heinig writes that he went to Wheaton College (home of the recently lifted dancing ban):

They also lifted the drinking ban (for faculty/staff not for students) last February with the other changes. Some friends and I sent the President a bottle of champagne and the Philosophy Department a magnum to celebrate - alas, the President doesn't drink, but the philosophers certainly enjoyed it.

I got a great education there - intellectually engaging and, of course, sober minded. And had a fair bit of fun to boot.
Speaking of intellectually engaging, sober minded, and fun, Randy is part of the blog News Sheet. Check it out.
Our friends the Jens brothers have another blog, Dollars and Jens. This one is devoted to financial matters and supplements their main blog, Jens 'n' Frens. You know, sorta like NBC spawned CNBC....
Deep doo-doo

As if it weren't bad enough to be chewed out by the Senate for pushing tax shelters, KPMG is being made fun of in the Wall Street Journal for cursing ineffectively:

Philip Wiesner, a senior partner in KPMG's Washington technical tax group, sent a lengthy e-mail to colleagues urging them to approve the BLIPS strategy. "I do believe the time has come to s -- t and get off the pot," he wrote, incorrectly using a profane expression. ... He added: "My own recommendation is that we should be paid a lot of money here for our opinion since the transaction is clearly one that the IRS would view as falling squarely within the tax shelter orbit."
But a colleague caught it:

Later that day, [another partner] responded in an e-mail: "I think it's s -- t OR get off the pot. I vote for s -- t."
Wrong answer. Read about the fallout here.
"Media Criticized for Biased Hometown Sports Reporting"

"Coverage was heavily, sometimes brazenly, weighted toward the teams from a media source's own area. To look at the data, you would almost think that sports journalists aren't held to the same standards as other reporters."
From The Onion.
Slow news day

Monica Lewinsky says her "past" is hurting her dating life. (1) Do I care? (2) Am I surprised?
Santa is Real

My boss told me a story today about what he used to do at Christmas time for his grandkids (when they were smaller). He would buy a live Christmas tree and put it in it's stand. He would then place the tree in the backyard and cover the stand over with snow. Some time before Christmas, he would take the grandkids out back to "pick out a tree." He would guide them toward the "prettiest" tree, and then tell them that maybe instead of cutting it down, he'd just pull it out of the ground. The tree would come out of the ground, all set with a tree stand!
The CNN headline for the latest Michael Jackson scandal: "Can Jackson's Career Withstand Latest Blow?"

Wait for it... There it is.

Here's another one: "Jackson Responds to Media Frenzy over Criminal Probe"
Fire him, fry him, and take him out back and beat him

If you haven't heard the news, the New York Mets have fired Bill Singer, recently hired as an exec for the organization, after he made racist comments at a meeting. Yes, I said racist, not "racially insensitive," not "joking.," and not "politically incorrect."

Here's the low down from ESPN.com:
At the general manager's meetings in Phoenix, Singer reportedly asked Dodgers assistant general manager Kim Ng questions about her background and later spoke in gibberish, making fun of the Chinese language.

....

Singer, 59, and the Mets later apologized to Ng, one of the highest-ranking women in baseball administration. Singer was a two-time 20-game winner during his 14-year pitching career in the majors.

Ng said she had no comment regarding Singer's dismissal.

Ng, who was raised in New Jersey, became the second female assistant general manager in the majors when she was hired by the New York Yankees in 1997. At 29, she was the youngest assistant GM in the majors.

Ng resigned from the Yankees in 2001 after her contract expired, and was hired by the Dodgers a month later.
Kudos to the Mets. Singer's actions were racist, plain and simple. Racial discrimination against asian Americans does not get the same press and the same respect that other race-based discrimination gets. One of the problems is that the discrimination is of the sort in which Singer engaged: it is directed toward the supposedly "foreign" nature of asian Americans, and is frequently excused because, well, hey, Asians are foreign. I am happy to see that the Mets saw Singer's actions for what they were and gave him the treatment any racist deserves.

On MLB.com, there is a gut-turning column that reflects the double-standard in this country. Fred Claire writes:
I really feel sorry for my old friend Bill Singer today. I know his heart is broken right now.
Believe me, the firing of Singer by the New York Mets is one sad story.

The Mets did what they felt they had to do. They fired Singer as a special assistant less than two weeks after he had received the job. I don't quarrel with the Mets' decision. Organizations have to make the decisions they feel serve them the best.

Even so, that doesn't take away the pain Singer and his family and friends are feeling today. That's why I feel it is a very, very sad story.
What complete hogwash. Fred, do you feel sorry for all the asian Americans who face day in and day out the sort of crap that Singer did? One person finally gets called out for behavior that happens all the time, that denigrates and discriminates against asian Americans, and Claire feels sorry for him? I recognize that Claire acknowledges that what Singer did was wrong. That's not my complaint. My issue is that Singer got what he deserved, and the only reason that Claire can feel like he can feel sorry for Singer in front of all of America is because Ng is asian American. What if Ng were black? Ask yourself that question. And instead of "later spoke in gibberish," he later "called her a N**ger." What would Fred be saying now?


Fancy Thanksgiving side dishes: including Mashed Sweet Potatoes With Maple Syrup and Chipotles, Mixed Mushroom and Sweet Potato Stuffing, and Corn Pudding With Herb-Braised Chanterelles and Spicy Greens.
Eugene Volokh has a long post on parental free speech rights and the best interests of the child.

The starting point is a case in which a former lesbian, now a devout Christian, was ordered by a court not to expose her child to any homophobic information because the mother shares custody with her former lesbian lover.

Thanks to News Sheet for the link.
From my sources deep in the college scene: the latest hilarious internet comic that is making the rounds on the internet --we have to post it; we want to be hip like those college kids (probably not good for work--there's quite a bit of swearing).

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Racism wears you out, reveals a study that had researchers show white volunteers pictures of black people:

In those with racist tendencies, a surge of activity was seen in part of the brain that controls thoughts and behaviour. Scientists believe this reflected volunteers' attempts to to curb their latent racism.

After interacting with real black individuals, the same group performed poorly in a task designed to test mental resources.
Of course, the tired ones are the ones who try to curb it -- the Aryan Nation types are conserving energy, apparently.
Because of the coming expansion, this will be the last season that all the ACC teams face each other twice during the regular season. Dean Smith says "It could cheapen the championship."

In a league that values history and nostalgia perhaps more than any other, that fact isn't lost on anyone involved. The result could be a 2003-04 season that coaches, fans and players alike recall with fondness, as they do the ACC tournament from the 1960s and early '70s, when only the tourney champion advanced to the NCAA tournament and had a chance at the national title.

"Expansion hurts basketball, no question about it," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a former player at Duke. "The ACC brand connotes basketball, first and foremost. Now, there will never again be an ACC regular season champion. Somebody will be named champion, and it will spur a bunch of discussion. But is it fair that the top teams in the league won't visit your place in certain years? Of course it's not fair. It borders on ridiculous."
A shame, yes. Ridiculous? I don't know. After all, there will still be an ACC tournament champion, though the tournament has (ahem) been a bit of a one-team show of late.
The dust jacket of Noam Chomsky's new book, Hegemony or Survival, bears this high praise:

"Arguably the most important intellectual alive" - The New York Times
Except, Oliver Kamm reports, the full quote is a little more nuanced:

"Arguably the most important intellectual alive, how can he write such nonsense about international affairs and foreign policy?"
Hmmm... and the quote is being used to promote a book about international affairs and foreign policy. Whoops.
Dumb reactionary petition of the week: A group called Americans for the Military is petitioning George W. Bush to keep women out of... the military.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Wheaton College

I grew up around Wheaton College. I used to go to a Suzuki violin program at Wheaton and play in an orchestra that rehearsed on Wheaton's campus.

I didn't know until I went to college that Wheaton was such a conservative Christian institution. It's just funny how you can be somewhere for so long and not know stuff about it. It was always to me just the place I went for violin.

Friday, November 14, 2003

"Certainly the option is open if I want it."
~ Bill O'Reilly, on a possible presidential bid
Wheaton College is set to have the first dance in the school's 143-year history:

It was not until the 1960s that the school lifted the rule prohibiting students from going to movies. For generations, students were barred from dancing -- on campus or off -- unless it was with members of the same sex or a square dance. It was not until the 1990s that students and faculty were permitted to dance with spouses or relatives at family events such as weddings.
One student says "It will be nice to be able to tell my friends that I go to a college that is fairly normal."
Quote of the Day:
"There's a better life, and you think about it, don't you?"

Song of the Day:
James, "Sometimes"

Happy Birthday:
Yanni
Prince Charles
Aaron Copland
Robert Fulton
Joseph McCarthy
Movie Review

In 1998 Stephen Glass was busted by his editors at The New Republic for passing off fiction as investigative journalism. As writer-director Billy Ray's new movie Shattered Glass shows, he got away with it as long as he did by decoying the fact-checkers with fabricated notes, as well as more elaborate devices (such as business cards for non-existent sources and websites for non-existent businesses); by exploiting his fellow staffers' disaffection when the popular top editor Michael Kelly was replaced by the more reserved Charles Lane; and by preemptively eliciting protective responses from everybody at the magazine.

I see two major angles to this story: what on earth was Glass thinking, and journalistic ethics. The movie, based on a September 1998 Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, doesn't go into either. (This Salon interview with Glass isn't much more helpful with the former.) For the first half of the movie we watch Hayden Christensen as Glass pad around the magazine's D.C. offices in his socks ingratiating himself with women by complimenting them on their clothes and makeup or by bringing them food, and disarming criticism by saying, "Are you mad at me?" when a superior opens a discussion. Even Chloë Sevigny as his editor, a composite character called Caitlin Avey, tells him to cut it out because she doesn't respond to "Are you mad at me?" but does, in fact, respond (and becomes his staunchest defender when his bogus reputation starts collapsing). Caitlin and the others watch with amazement bordering on parental pride as this self-effacing boy pitches wild stories at staff meetings, recitals that alter his normal body language so much he ends up gyrating his pelvis like a rock star.

Glass's is an extremely weird act: 90% worm, 10% snake. If it were a work of realism Shattered Glass would have to account for how these sides of Glass cohabit. Christensen's Glass comes across essentially as a gifted community storyteller, who is of course telling stories that confirm the group's opinions, for instance, that young Republicans are probably secret sex offenders. What we don't see is what the pitches do for Glass emotionally or where he brings that kind of charisma up from. It disappears as quickly as it arises, without a trace; he ends a pitch with an abrupt return to his usual nasal self-deprecation.

The result is that it's hard to believe that Christensen's Glass could have fooled a houseful of savvy reporters. It would take a wickedly clever young actor to make such a drippy-needy persona seem like a brilliant con, as Sean Penn did in Carlito's Way (1993). It should be funny that (unlike Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can (2002)), Glass gets by on the opposite of charm--friendship with him involves you inevitably in his need for therapy, and even his fantasy of returning in triumph to his Highland Park high school is smarmy. Ray's script is structured as a melodramatic romance, and the movie starts dragging because, although we know that Glass is the bad guy, Christensen seems to be replicating an account of Glass's personality without making it very dramatic. You can't exactly say you wish there were shots of him rubbing his hands in exultation after he's pulled another one off, but it wouldn't make the movie less interesting.

Wentworth Miller as a black college kid in the 1940s who decides to pass for white in Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's The Human Stain shows how engrossing a realistic treatment of a young man's imposture can be. His quietly fierce, textured performance steals the movie from the (hopelessly miscast) big stars. Part of what makes Anthony Hopkins seem so wan is that he doesn't come close to matching the specificity of Miller's performance. Miller's scene with Anna Deavere Smith as his mother, in which they almost impersonally discuss the implications of his decision to pass (among them that he would not introduce his children to her), is a classic in the mother-son repertoire of American movies. Christensen doesn't have the panache for Glass the mealy-mouthed villain or the ability to make a man out of an underwritten character.

It's only once Steve Zahn as Adam Penenberg, a reporter at Forbes Digital Tool who is chided by his editor for being scooped by Glass on a computer hackers' convention that never took place, starts unburying Glass's bones that the movie develops any snap. Zahn is an instinctive comedian and brings the relish to his discoveries that Christensen can't bring to his crimes. Zahn and Rosario Dawson as a colleague at Forbes who eavesdrops on Penenberg's discussions with his editor and starts doing research on her own in a bid for a shared byline work together as if they were in a classic newsroom comedy, like Hecht and MacArthur's Front Page (filmed in 1931, 1940 as His Girl Friday, 1974, and 1988 as Switching Channels), bound by competition and grudging affection.

Until Penenberg gets after Glass the movie meanders, which would be okay in a work of psychological realism, which we expect to take a unique shape from its subject. By contrast, melodrama needs a stripped-down plot--the villain's machinations imperil the standing (and livelihood, if not life) of the good guy, who is forced to fight his way back into the world's good graces. Shattered Glass is unusual among melodramas in that it gets its energy from the good guys, who reach center stage late.

Zahn gives the movie a jolt but it's really when Peter Sarsgaard as Lane starts to sense what's going on and to challenge Glass, in the face of stiff resistance from his staff who suspect Lane of wanting to purge people who were in good with Kelly, that the movie begins to hold its shape. Ray's script is shrewd enough to see that resentments in an office setting often foolishly take on a melodramatic cast. The young staff thus see Lane as the villain and Glass as his victim (a confusion of values central to melodrama) even when Lane calls Penenberg's editor and pleads with him to be merciful to Glass, whom he merely assumes is a callow journalist hoodwinked by his sources. But the point of the movie is that the staff was wrong and that in the "real" melodrama Glass was the bad guy and Lane the white knight. It's simplistic but preferable as entertainment to what was going on in the first half.

What's really surprising is that Sarsgaard is able to ride to the movie's rescue; he gives an even more galvanizing good-guy performance than Edward G. Robinson's in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) or Orson Welles's The Stranger (1946). (Sarsgaard, whose most memorable previous work was his skanky-sexy appearance in Boys Don't Cry (1999)). It should be a drag: Lane has to fight his staff by invoking the highest journalistic ethics. Sarsgaard has wide-set, Giottoesque eyes that communicate his thoughts simply by narrowing and an amazingly crisp rhetorical flair. He's so skillful that even playing a killjoy he makes you sit up and cheer Glass's exposure and punishment. Which is a good thing because in melodrama that's all there is.

Sarsgaard is so very good that he pushes the melodrama into the realm of romance. Melodrama is in structure no more than a drama of good versus evil in which there is public confusion as to which character represents which pole and a struggle leading to the good characters' final, triumphant exposure of their evil persecutors. Melodrama doesn't go into the values it pits against each other, it assumes them. The only way Shattered Glass could have gone into the issue of journalistic ethics would have been by showing a realistic range of working attitudes, some clear at either end, some borderline. But in the movie Glass is off the scale and he's the only one doing what he's doing. We do see Melanie Lynskey as one lost lamb among Glass's peers who is tempted by the attention from other magazines he's getting from his made-up work, but she's tempted by his rewards not by his means.

So there's no gamut of corruption here, it's either/or. (If this were a realistic treatment of ethics in journalism, introducing the issue of bias would make the audience's easily achieved moral consensus fall apart instantly.) The movie is thus outside the tradition of newsroom movies that The Front Page started in the early talkies, in which the heroes worked side-by-side with the corruption in their world and surrounding it, in government and business, and they were often none too careful about their own methods. In Shattered Glass one dishonest journalist causes as much horror as the fall of Adam.

Romance may have the same good-versus-evil structure but the purpose is to show how a heroic personality integrates itself into a world imbued with a system of values according to which good and evil can reliably be distinguished from each other. In movies the values have tended not to be more complex than in melodrama but our experience of them can be, especially if the performer is able to embody them strikingly. By standing up for those values as convincingly as he does, Sarsgaard puts his unstagy theatrical skill at the service of the story's straightforward ethics (i.e., it's bad to lie) and turns into a hero before our eyes.

There are a few interesting variations here, for example, that Lane is a reluctant knight, one who doesn't set out on his quest but inherits it. Still, this doesn't give him anything as sneakily intriguing as Guy Pearce's ambiguous qualities as the incorruptible cop in L.A. Confidential (1997). We do see Lane's self-consciousness when he has to pitch a solid-red-meat story after one of Glass's performances, but he doesn't go after Glass out of jealousy or spite. Lane is morally unbent, but Sarsgaard has a furtive, watchful quality that makes sense of his being a journalist, and finally that's what matters, that his unmasking of Glass involves fearless investigative reporting. That's what heroism means in this movie: Lane lays bare a canker that he might have let remain hidden, to the extent other reporters would have permitted. He overcomes his reluctance and becomes pro-active in order to restore the group to health, even though the group is emotionally attached to its disease; he refuses to cover up or spin or even to wait and hope for the best. Sarsgaard does it with a believably prickly righteousness, grounding both the romance and the melodrama in realism and giving them a power they don't textually have.

Of course, what Glass did was plainly unethical and so melodrama may not be as inapt here as it is for other situations. And Sarsgaard is amazing, using his tongue like a paper cutter to give us the moral lessons with four squared corners. But there's still a lot missing, the dimensions you'd get from a realistic treatment. There's no follow-through with Penenberg, which almost makes no sense even in terms of melodrama, but more shockingly there's no scene in which Caitlin Avey, the most duped of Glass's defenders, confronts her former protégé. This plainly abandons any attempt to push Christensen toward revelation with the character. (I'm thinking of a scene like Diane Keaton's at the climax of The Little Drummer Girl (1984), which shows what a great naturalistic actor can do with an unformed, role-playing personality driven to a moment of self-awareness.) In Shattered Glass we get Avey's confrontation with Lane and it makes you sit up, all right--both actors really bite into their lines, and the always distinctive, sleepy-eyed Sevigny matches Sarsgaard all the way. But the result--Avey and the rest of the staff applauding Lane at a staff meeting that he expects to be a showdown--functions only within the melodrama.

This is a fundamental problem of narrative structure: the script's treatment is too rudimentary for the real-life matter of the story. There are in addition smaller moviemaking problems of rhythm, for instance, that Ray doesn't sufficiently cue us to the fact that Glass's lies are uncovered in layers (at first everyone thinks he was merely duped by hackers, not that he made it all up). There need to be more clearly lighted steps down into the abyss. Ray thus not only simplifies the overall framework but neglects the moment-to-moment infrastructure. But it's an absorbing story and he has written the good-guy half of the melodrama, and directed his actors in the heroic roles, well enough that that you don't leave the theater in a complaining mood.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
If you've never tasted black walnuts, I highly recommend you try them.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Bluejacking

Have you heard of this? If you've a cellphone with Bluetooth technology, you can be "bluejacked."
War and Human Nature

I've thought a lot about whether war, or winning/accomplishing something by violence, is innate. My gut says yes. Look first at the history of the world. More importantly, I think, look at everyday behavior in schoolyards and on the street. Even if you don't believe people ultimately believe violence can get them something, it seems plain that people believe the road to success is paved by intimidation. Intimidation need not be physical. You can seek to gain an advantage by intellectual intimidation, for instance. But it seems that if intimidation is an innate instinct, then for as long as people come in different sizes or of different physical capabilities, or for as long as people fear death (which seems pretty darn innate to me), then success by violence (in short, war of some scale--including schoolyard fights) will be with us. At one level, then, you could make a strong case for the argument that war (or success by violence) is human nature.

Interestingly, the NY Times recently ran this piece: "Is War Our Biological Destiny?"
Is humanity doomed? Are we born for the battlefield — congenitally, hormonally incapable of putting war behind us? Is there no alternative to the bullet-riddled trapdoor, short of mass sedation or a Marshall Plan for our DNA?

Was Plato right that "Only the dead have seen the end of war"?

In the heartening if admittedly provisional opinion of a number of researchers who study warfare, aggression, and the evolutionary roots of conflict, the great philosopher was, for once, whistling in a cave. As they see it, blood lust and the desire to wage war are by no means innate. To the contrary, recent studies in the field of game theory show just how readily human beings establish cooperative networks with one another, and how quickly a cooperative strategy reaches a point of so-called fixation. Researchers argue that one need not be a Pollyanna, or even an aging hippie, to imagine a human future in which war is rare and universally condemned.

They point out that slavery was long an accepted fact of life; if your side lost the battle, tough break, the wife and kids were shipped off as slaves to the victors. Now, when cases of slavery arise in the news, they are considered perverse and unseemly.
Well, they had me until the slavery argument. It's not a winner, as a matter of logic. Plenty of things have long been accepted facts of life that are not our biological destiny. For instance, the inability of humans to grasp the fact that the world was round. Plenty of things, however, have long been accepted facts of life that are our biolgical destiny. For instance, humans need to eat.

The rest of the article is interesting, and enlightening, however, and less stupid in its reasoning.
Admittedly, war making will be a hard habit to shake. "There have been very few times in the history of civilization when there hasn't been a war going on somewhere," said Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and classicist at California State University in Fresno. He cites a brief period between A.D. 100 and A.D. 200 as perhaps the only time of world peace, the result of the Roman Empire's having everyone, fleetingly, in its thrall.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of militarism in perhaps 95 percent of the cultures they have examined or unearthed. Time and again groups initially lauded as gentle and peace-loving — the Mayas, the !Kung of the Kalahari, Margaret Mead's Samoans, — eventually were outed as being no less bestial than the rest of us.

....

Nor are humans the only great apes to indulge in the elixir. Common chimpanzees, which share about 98 percent of their genes with humans, also wage war: gangs of neighboring males meet at the borderline of their territories with the express purpose of exterminating their opponents. So many males are lost to battle that the sex ratio among adult chimpanzees is two females for every male.

....

Even the ubiquitousness of warfare in human history doesn't impress researchers. "When you consider it was only about 13,000 years ago that we discovered agriculture, and that most of what we're calling human history occurred since then," said Dr. David Sloan Wilson, a biology and anthropology professor at Binghamton University in New York, "you see what a short amount of time we've had to work toward global peace."

In that brief time span, the size of cooperative groups has grown steadily, and by many measures more pacific. Maybe 100 million people died in the world wars of the 20th century. Yet Dr. Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has estimated that if the proportion of casualties in the modern era were to equal that seen in many conflicts among preindustrial groups, then perhaps two billion people would have died.
Fascinating. But I'm still not convinced. There is something immensely compelling about the prospect of death -- nothing focuses the mind like a hanging at dawn and nothing causes more desperation than the fear of dying. And if that notion is human nature, will the temptation to exploit that trait not always be present? To be sure, it may increasingly become a last resort as society becomes more "civilized" and norms militate against such exploitation. But if nothing else succeeds, that option always exists, there as a temptation if it is something you want enough.

Are you a Metrosexual? "The latest buzzword defines an emerging breed of modern, straight, stylish, sensitive, well-groomed guys."

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Onion reports on a nightmare: "Mom Finds Out About Blog." ("Mom loves hearing every boring detail of her kids' lives.... This blog is like porn for her.")
Nolan Finley predicts that NASCAR dads will be the soccer moms of the 2004 election:

On paper, George W. Bush would seem to have a lock on the Bubba vote. Bush, a blue blood turned redneck, has an appealing monosyllabic speaking style and is the only candidate who actually drives a truck. But Democrats bet the NASCAR Dads are so angry about losing manufacturing jobs they'll turn on one of their own.

Wooing them will be a tough balancing act. Bubbas are out of the turn-the-desert-into-glass foreign policy school defined by Toby Keith in his song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." So far, I haven't heard any of the Democratic contenders singing that tune. And the Dems have to hope that by the time the talk turns to gay marriage, gun control, affirmative action and the war on big trucks, the Bubbas will have passed out drunk on the couch.
Were soccer moms the objects of this much condescension?

Over on Slate, William Saletan dissects John Edwards' defense of the guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.
Jess passes along the alarming news that rats have been bred with cotton balls.
Via Andrew Sullivan, a picture of Microsoft, circa 1978. God, the 70s were ugly years.
Quote of the Day:
"They just use your mind, and they never give you credit."

Song of the Day:
Megadeath, "Dawn Patrol"

Happy Birthday:
Leonardo DiCaprio
Calista Flockhart
Alger Hiss
Demi Moore
George Patton
Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, November 10, 2003

The Matrix Revolutions gets a thumbs-down from Jonathan V. Last:

If there is anything good to be said about "Revolutions," it's that attempted intellectual extrapolation based on "The Matrix" trilogy will probably grind to a halt. After "The Matrix" was released, a fleet of books appeared, with titles like "The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real," "Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in 'The Matrix,'" and "The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in 'The Matrix.'" "Revolutions" will cause many of these authors to blush.
Thomas Hibbs and Tim Schnabel are also unimpressed.

Kate and I are going to see it this weekend. Our expectations are low, so maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised.
I haven't had much to say about the CBS Reagan miniseries controversy. But here's the view from late-night:

Jon Stewart: When I first heard that CBS was producing a fictionalized, critical account of a popular 92-year-old ex-president suffering from late-stage Alzheimers Disease, I thought to myself, "Wow, that sounds like a great idea." ... Even the casting of Reagan was a problem for some critics who raised concerns over star James Brolin who is married to notable Democratic activist Barbra Streisand. There is also great concern for James Brolin because he is married to Barbra Streisand.... Media critics fear the controversy may have a chilling effect on future presidential biographies. Indeed, the uproar has already cast doubt on the future of NBC's "Jefferson: Douchebag of Monticello."

Jay Leno: CBS has taken their mini-series about the Reagans off the network and are putting it on Showtime where less people will see it. Republicans say that is not enough. They want to put it on the CBS morning show where no one will see it.... Everybody is mad. Conservatives are asking how CBS could have made the show, liberals are asking how CBS could have caved in like that, and Jessica Simpson is asking "Who is Ronald Reagan? Is that like chicken?"
Ed Morrow has a more serious take.
Peggy Noonan reports on what she told the bishops during a meeting with laypeople on the sexual abuse scandal.
It's an anniversary celebration over at Vanessa Jean.
One of the things I've learned this fall is that the powers on the Hill who write the tax laws -- the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee -- are collectively called the "the tax writers." As in "the tax writers are working on the new energy bill." I've been wondering why, apart from my general libertarian leanings, the very words sounded so shiveringly sinister.

Today I figured it out -- "tax writers" sounds like "death eaters." The tax writers are the Commissioner's death eaters!
Manchester, New Hampshire has a new double-A baseball team. The name? It's "one that speaks to the state's rich political history" -- the New Hampshire Primaries. Click here to see the bipartisan logo.

The team, part of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, used to be the New Haven Ravens.
Kate was here this weekend. We had a nice dinner to celebrate our bar passage, and saw Runaway Jury -- an appropriate movie for two young lawyers.

But now it's Monday. In honor of my rotten day at work, I hereby declare that all quotes of the day will be from Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" until further notice.
Quote of the Day:
"And the tide's gonna turn, and it's all gonna roll your way."

Song of the Day:
Iggy Pop, "Starry Night"

Happy Birthday:
Richard Burton
Martin Luther

Friday, November 07, 2003

Movie Review

James Cox's Wonderland is about the legendarily endowed '70s porn star John Holmes's uncertain degree of involvement in a multiple murder on Wonderland Avenue in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon in 1981. It has been dismissed even more harshly than In the Cut but I found it resolutely true to the dismal story it tells.

In the Cut has this advantage with audiences: it is at least the kind of movie they like. There's a heroine and the mystery has an unambiguous solution. Wonderland views Holmes, the victims as well as their killers, and the underworld they all inhabit, from an unbridged remove. Holmes and his baby-faced girlfriend, with their meaningless sweet talk, make the young lovers of Floyd Mutrux's Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), a junkie movie as strung out as if the camera itself had been shooting up, look like Romeo and Juliet.

Wonderland also avoids the more usual type of romance that you see in Glenn Gordon Caron's sharply observed Clean and Sober (1988) starring Michael Keaton, the romance of redemption. That bracing movie ends with the hero getting an anniversary chip at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In Wonderland Cox and his co-scenarists Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, and D. Loriston Scott are beyond hoping that Holmes will reform--an apparently unreconstructed Holmes, one who never told all he knew about the Wonderland murders, died in 1988. Neither do they make Holmes a tragic figure, not even an ironic one (despite the title), that is, a protagonist like Richard III whose loathsomeness is at the same time acknowledged as a form of vitality. The movie comes close to this when Holmes sportily evades making a full confession about his part in the killing to the cops, but finally the man, pardon the pun, isn't big enough for tragedy.

The movie is all downside but for a reason. It does not put forward the AA view that the underlying problem with addiction is spiritual and that anyone honestly seeking recovery can address it. Wonderland isn't cynical, precisely, it just feels the way you do when someone you know has relapsed again. It becomes settled in your bones that there are better uses for the energy that hope requires.

It gets into the addict's life on the principle of naturalism, which could be expressed by the line from Terence, "Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto" (I am human and consider nothing human to be foreign to me). It doesn't get lost in its subject like Paul Thomas Anderson's perspectiveless Boogie Nights (1997) starring Mark Wahlberg, a fictional treatment of Holmes's XXX career that keeps reminding us porn stars are people and then treating them like symbolic figures in an allegory it hasn't quite worked out. Cox reacts to the sordid material the way you do when you witness something horrible in public and have no reaction because you're afraid if you start you won't be able to control yourself. The movie's distance is thus tinged with an irony that isn't sought out but inevitable given this hesitation about the story and characters. Probably the few people who've seen Wonderland feel that it's too resistant to its subject and even more so to what we sometimes think of as the "natural" penchant of American movies to rely on the charm of the subject and actors to lure audiences in, even when this involves cheering on criminal activity (as in F. Gary Gray's stupid and sleazy Italian Job).

Wonderland is scrupulous in presenting Holmes in a less romanticized light than even a satire would: he's past his "glory" as a porn star and willing to use and betray absolutely anybody to feed his addiction. It doesn't make Holmes or the junkie-thieves he hangs out with worse than they were or apply a more fashionable form of irony by shaping their awfulness for comedy. It doesn't need to make them any worse--it couldn't--it just trains the camera on them as they sink under their own weight. Still, naturalism doesn't in itself preclude exhibiting sympathy or warmth for characters. In fact, sympathy is all but implied by naturalism, by a writer such as Zola, for instance, laying out the conditions of urban or rural workers not generally focused on by novelists up to that time. (Though Zola is far from being only a progressive muckraker, an empathizer.) By contrast, and borrowing Wallace Stevens's phrasing, Wonderland presents Holmes as the nothing that is not there rather than the nothing that is.

American moviegoers are bound to feel that it's impossible to give a star performance when the point is to represent the nullity of the lead character's life. That may count as a fault; we could get a little closer to Holmes, he could loom a little larger, without violating the objectivity the movie wants to preserve. (I am not suggesting it be more like The Panic in Needle Park (1971), which seeks illumination by Al Pacino's roman candle of a performance and ends up telling us more about actors than junkies.) Of course, because Holmes is so reprehensible this would push the movie more in the direction of irony but by that very stroke would also help organize the material.

Val Kilmer, however, is not the actor to open up this creepy character in any mode. He seems to perform mainly for his own satisfaction, and to give himself credit for being cleverer than he is. He often acts as if he were too hip to integrate himself fully into the movie he's in and doesn't seem at all bothered when the movie is such a mess that there's nothing to integrate into (e.g., The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) or Masked and Anonymous (2003)--his model would be the Dennis Hopper of Apocalypse Now (1979)). Unfortunately he doesn't have the serviceable stylized quality that makes Johnny Depp pleasing as a "hip" star. Depp may be no more able than Kilmer to connect to the audience directly, but even in a manic role he's not grabbing credit. He acknowledges that he's the director's creature. Kilmer stays cut off from us and seems egotistical at the same time, as if a hermetic seal were an accomplishment in acting. The best thing about having him play Holmes is that you don't really want to get closer. You can sit and wait for his life to roll over him. (The movie makes the mistake of lingering on Holmes's emotion only when he sends his girlfriend in to have sex with his dealer. Holmes isn't character enough for that, or Kilmer actor.)

The movie functions as open-eyed naturalism even with this gap at its center but could have been more absorbing if Cox had concentrated on how we know what we do about the killings. We gather the details from two sources telling their versions to the police, an intended victim of the hit who hates Holmes and then Holmes himself, and from information later supplied by Holmes's wife. Cox isn't a two-fisted con artist like Oliver Stone who shoots one version of an historic episode in a baroque, you-are-there style and still expects us to take it as literal truth. Cox works from varied sources more like a journalist, representing each version in turn while keeping us aware that they're incompatible. He does go in for expressionism, to get inside a coke buzz or its aftercrash, for instance, but he does it without losing the movie's interestingly speculative frame of mind.

Still, the competing versions don't provide enough of a structure. Wonderland falls short of Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon (1950), in which four accounts of a rape and murder are re-enacted and we're faced with the impossibility of deciding among them since none of the witnesses is disinterested. All the versions appear to be off the truth but there's no metric for determining to what extent.

Cox uses the multiple versions of the crime as a device but it's not central to the meaning of the movie. Instead it feels inset within the larger, more shapeless, goal of making us feel what a life without prospects beyond extending a high that can't be extended feels like, the life in that Wonderland that addicts seek and that usually comes to a miserable end, even if not as violently as here. With a criminal plot centered on a robbery pulled off by drug addicts to support their habit, the movie gets at the down-tending irony of addiction, which is that it's an expensive way of life, the effects of which make you unfit to earn the money it requires. It has swallowed bigger fish than a porn "king."

I wonder if people have been disappointed because Wonderland is not salacious. In fact, his dealer uses that famous big dick to humiliate Holmes publicly and since he's a desperate cokehead he takes it and keeps hanging on. The movie is thus purposely unsexy, getting into the druggie's head after the fun is over but the compulsion is unstoppable. In that respect, it's probably unsellable in a mass market. (An honest ad campaign would have to boast, All the paranoia and none of the elation of the most popular illegal drugs!)

Maybe even worse from a commercial perspective is the fact there's no one to root for. Both killers and victims are criminal scum and the only person who has learned anything is Lisa Kudrow as Holmes's disgusted estranged wife who dropped out of his life before the action starts. Kudrow provides a basis for a critical perspective on the action within the story, just as she did in her marvelous performance in Don Roos's The Opposite of Sex (1998), but her role is too peripheral for her expert delivery to have the impact it should.

You can't even root for the decent and competent detectives trying to reconstruct the crime because it would take an effort beyond heroism to figure it out. An effort beyond artistry, for that matter, which may be the moviemakers' bind. What they can do, however, is depress us honestly. What we see is relentlessly grim and utterly believable, and by presenting such an extreme situation in such a straightforward way the movie does convey something that's hard to get across using only words: the inevitability of the consequences of a drug addict's lifestyle.

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

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Movie Review

In Jane Campion's In the Cut, adapted from Susanna Moore's book, Meg Ryan plays Frannie, an English professor in New York City caught up in the doings of a psycho who is killing and "disarticulating" (i.e., dismembering) young women. In what could have been a devastating critique of the current state of academia, Frannie collects fragments of poetry--from the Poetry in Motion placards in subway cars. She is apparently unfamiliar with the first tercet of Dante's Inferno but considers it a special find. In a similar vein, a student writes a paper about executed mass murderer John Wayne Gacy (complete with splattered blood on the pages) for a course in which Frannie has assigned Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. But Frannie, whom we first see sleeping, lives in a threateningly eroticized dreamworld, and so, despite the real-as-death plot and a hyperreal attention to the big city setting, In the Cut is not a work of realism. The snippets of verse and the Gacy report are just suggestive details in a movie that could use more explicit ones.

In the Cut is a romance about a woman who is afraid of sex coming to grips with her fear. Like the heroine of Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) she's not interested in mere sexual contact with a man she can easily control. She likes it intense, but she's leery because of all the dubious and frightening ways in which men treat women: they judge them physically like objects; they just want sex from them; they fall in love too fast; they propose on a whim or get them pregnant and never marry them at all; they move on abruptly; they don't know how to talk to them and don't listen, either; they become possessive or obsessive; they stalk them; they use them as prostitutes, rape them, murder them, cut them into pieces. Frannie is at the center of a story in which we see examples of all this bad behavior so it clearly can't be representative of how men treat women. That's why it's romance and not realism: Frannie is the female protagonist in a quest for sexual empowerment. She finds herself drawn closer and closer to the killer and then, having taken on a man's attributes of power--his cloak and weapon--wins the ultimate battle. This victory is seen in the romance fashion as an integration of personality. It beats the "inevitable" masochism of Goodbar, at any rate, according to which the sexual adventuress has to die.

Realism is an option not a requirement, but people are bound to complain that Frannie's behavior doesn't make sense, when, for instance, she fails to tell the police about a med student who has been stalking her even after a female med student has been butchered, or when she enters a suspiciously unlocked apartment alone. Detective stories are romances grounded in dirty details and so although they're in essence fantastic they require the director to keep track of practical matters. She has to manipulate us, make us snap at the red herrings. About a half hour of In the Cut had passed before it dawned on me that of course all the men in the picture would be suspects. Kevin Bacon as the med student who can't get over Frannie is pretty amusing but Campion doesn't care, or perhaps know how, to shape the narrative so that we feel we're moving forward toward resolution even as we're being misled.

Campion doesn't have the discipline or interest to work the detective story, but neither is she a very prepossessing romancer. I have never understood the popularity of The Piano (1993) in which she turns materials drawn from 19-century fiction into a fantasia of female masochism. It makes no sense as a realistic story in the George Eliot vein but is too committed to its clumsy feminist and anti-colonialist symbolism to function as irony in the Flaubert vein. It's Gothic in the manner of the Bronte sisters but without the lightning-struck aesthetic conviction. Campion presents the most obvious symbolism in a peculiarly rhythmless narrative, killing for me any seductiveness the romance could have. There's no reason to give in to the story because there's no mystery drawing you on--the meaning is right there on the sluggishly-flowing surface.

David Lynch's masterpiece Mulholland Drive (2001) is better at both dark-erotic romance (the first two-thirds) and realism (the final, explicatory third). The romance is literally meant to be the female protagonist's dream and Lynch knows how to raise up an entire world in someone's head. Stylistically Lynch is a much greater romancer than Campion, leading you down corridor after corridor so that although you've lost your bearings you trust him and keep following.

The last segment then shows us the back story that provides the populace and all the details of the ominous dreamworld we were so rapturously lost in. Thus, for the first time Lynch pegs his subconscious theatricals to specific sources in the real life of a character who is not just a portrait of the artist. He created that young woman's dream visions as part of a completely constructed realistic character outside himself. The dream details may match up to real-life sources a little too neatly, but there are certain emotions that are possible only in the air of reality. Lynch was right to go back there even at the cost of patness. Comparing the "real" protagonist to her dream version of herself, and the change it brings in Naomi Watts's amazing performance, I found overwhelming.

In the Cut has its obvious, too-neat side--a courtship charm bracelet, for instance: when Frannie is attacked on the street the tiny silver pram with a detachable baby inside are knocked off and lost on the sidewalk. But it's still less smothering than The Piano. The crime plot forces Campion out into the open a bit, so you don't get too hung up on the connotations of the word "disarticulation" (though it's a sardine thrown right into the mouths of feminist film academics). And I liked Dion Beebe's cinematography with its saturated, upscale-furniture-catalogue colors and perpetually racking focus, especially early on during a shower of flower petals. But finally the visual effects make you hyperconscious of what you're seeing and you get too used to them. You adapt the way you would to a physical impediment. (TV ads and music videos have made almost all such devices unusable except in small doses.)

The greater problem is that because this is a murder mystery we have a reason to expect that the fidgety camera is drawing our attention to details that will point toward the solution. But it isn't and yet it also prevents anything from registering as casual. Ryan and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her symbolically more promiscuous half-sister Pauline have been encouraged to overdo the physical affection (do any sisters constantly pet each other?), but when they're in Pauline's apartment the camera chops the scene up into glances, touches, gestures. It's the camera that's disarticulating the actresses; we can't see enough of them at any one time for them to be able to develop a sisterly rapport.

Meg Ryan has also been overdirected to act out Frannie's self-protective fearfulness. She doesn't cower in the face of experience, she turns squarely toward it but presents a blank affect, doesn't let people know what she's feeling or engage with them at all beyond challenging them in a way that comes across as dismissive. Ryan as Frannie is so consistently self-protecting she just about seems autistic. She doesn't use any of the self-doubting flirtatiousness that makes her comfy comedies watchable (she's even more denatured here than Bill Murray in Lost in Translation) and you end up disarticulating her some more, staring at her hair, her shoulders, her breasts. Her face is not where the action is.

The comparison to David Lynch knocks Campion into perspective. Her fundamental problem is that she indulges herself as if she were an intuitive director but actually is not one. She overemphasizes the visual but doesn't work with the freedom of a truly pictorial artist. Rather she seems to have established a system of meaning beforehand and the can't-ignore-'em images feel locked into it. The imagery fails to resonate or expand and the kind of meaning she's drawn to bypasses a grounding in experience for the interpretive, theoretical stratosphere where only an overeducated minority can breathe. Campion is the humorless grad student among international name directors.

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