Friday, April 30, 2004

Movie Review

Gabriele Salvatores's I'm Not Scared, a new Italian import, is set in the tiniest of Sicilian villages in the late 1970s. A handful of families live in a cluster of houses and while the bored, short-tempered adults busy themselves close to home the kids spread out into the ravishing landscape. The kids play in a pack and we first see them running through fields of blindingly crisp grain. The natural world is a major character in the movie--we're aware of the grain-covered hills under the sky, of rapacious birds that come on in changing shifts by day and night, of reptiles and amphibians in the dirt roads, of insects swarming in the earth, of domesticated animals that aren't anything like friendly cartoon characters. (Salvatores accomplishes this without going in for the pathetic fallacy that the great Victorian art historian John Ruskin identified and objected to.)

The children blend into nature, which is glorious but also harsh: they frolic and then turn to games that have a tinge of sadism (e.g., picking on a fat girl by making her expose herself). This does not, in the event, distinguish them from their parents. We register the paternal generosity and the maternal bounty and protectiveness, but also how these qualities shade into darker negatives. The difference between the kids and the parents is that technology seems to have made the parents so greedy for things they can't have they no longer take any pleasure in the wonders around them (they seek more unnatural resources). You look at these stultified, restless rural folk and see the salt of the earth having lost its savor.

The movie, adapted by Niccolò Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano, from Ammaniti's book, is about the coming to awareness of dark-haired, ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who discovers a blond boy just his age chained in a hole by an abandoned farmhouse where the children play. Michele has a budding nobility that the other kids lack, perhaps brought out by his custodianship of his myopic little sister, but he doesn't spot or comprehend a crime when he first comes across it. The movie is about the dawning of Michele's consciousness of what is happening around him (which involves understanding how the adults in the town, including his beloved father, are responsible for putting that boy in the hole), and then the birth of his conscience, which, once his eyes are opened, requires appropriate action. The movie thus uses a crowd-pleasing crime plot to trace the articulation of a child's mind. It's both expansive and focused, a triumph.

Generically, it's a romance in which a pee-wee knight has to make a great leap forward morally to form his quest. And while the treatment of village life has some of the harshness we associate with naturalism--the too-great intimacy among poor people, the severe limitations of their opportunities, and the distortions of behavior that result--the romance element is much more prominent than in such first-flight naturalistic movies about children as Vittorio De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us (1942) and Shoeshine (1946), René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952), Fred Zinnemann's The Member of the Wedding (1952), Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1954) and Two Daughters (1961), and Fred Schepisi's The Devil's Playground (1976).

You watch the action of I'm Not Scared through an expressionistic Indian summer heat, which gives it more in common with Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct (1933), the D.H. Lawrence adaptation The Rocking-Horse Winner (1949), Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro (1960) and Murmur of the Heart (1971), the Taviani Brothers' Padre, Padrone (1977), and Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill (1993). (You can talk about I'm Not Scared in the same breath with the very greatest movies about children.) But while the crime plot keeps it from being representative, nothing supernatural happens and it's a fantasy only to the extent that romance always enacts a dream of effectiveness in a world in which all action is imbued with the central moral issues of existence. (You can read what I have to say about romance as a movie genre here in my new book.)

What lifts I'm Not Scared above such magical entertainments as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), and Steven Spielberg's E.T.--The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is the dramatization of Michele's coming to awareness. It may be the finest romance of a boy's moral development since Huckleberry Finn (and it's straightforward in that respect, without the involute irony of Henry James's What Maisie Knew).

What's especially fascinating in the depiction of this process is that Michele is a born storyteller. Early on, when he's challenged to walk along an exposed ceiling beam in the dilapidated farmhouse he concentrates by telling himself a little heroic romance. And his first response to finding the boy in the hole is to stay up at night under the covers spinning a tale of two brothers who have been separated. (Michele loves to make up stories but we see that it goes along with incomprehension--he takes the blond boy out of the hole for a happy, sun-drenched excursion in the grain, and then drops him back in before going home.) As the plot progresses, the blur of romance gives way to the reality of what kidnapping signifies, and that awareness in turn compels heroic action that brings the story back into the realm of romance. All of which means that Michele's naïve little fairy tale is borne out when he comes to feel that the victimized boy is his brother and must be saved, even though this involves turning against his father, and, perhaps worse, realizing not only that his father is a criminal but what it means to be a criminal.

Michele's decision to save the boy may not be politically radical as is Huck Finn's decision to free the slave Jim even if it means going to hell, but it's more moving because it involves a father-son conflict, which Twain pushes aside in his book. In I'm Not Scared it's so moving because Michele turns toward his father at the same time that he turns against him, which is a difficult thing for many "boys"--to love the old man knowing him for what he is.

The view of childhood in I'm Not Scared is interestingly mixed. We don't see it as simply a time of innocence, which becomes clear when a friend of Michele's betrays both him and the boy in the hole for the chance to drive his uncle's car. But the movie isn't just reactively cynical, either. Michele's nobility is also seen as a natural growth--a wholesome plant cropping up alongside weeds. It presents an utterly mature and integrated view of human corruption. Despite the somewhat far-out plot and the stylized shooting, there's no hysteria.

There is, however, an irresistibly sensual pull to the moviemaking, both in the camerawork and the sharp changes of rhythm. The cinematography by Italo Petriccione has a quality of rapture, especially when it takes in those fields, that never obscures the moviemakers' clearsightedness. It's as if they had achieved the arty addict's rationalization of his using by offering us intoxication that leads to insight. The moviemaking sensitizes every nerve ending to Michele's experiences. His bike ride home after he's first seen the boy in the hole, for instance, cutting between a too-close shot of his crazed eyes and his manically pumping feet, rejuvenates you to that time of life when uncomprehending terror could be a complete physical experience in broad daylight. Salvatores swoops and pauses, brings you up short and then widens your comprehension, and overall exerts such control that when threshers show up on the brim of the hill where that mythically golden grain is growing you feel as threatened as you did when you first understood what death is.

A sidenote: Roman Polanski is now preparing a new version of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, which is not a complex romance about childhood (read my capsule analysis on this page), and is arguably the weakest of Dickens's early books. When there has never been a major movie version of Barnaby Rudge, the most cinematic of the early works, a rousing D.W. Griffith spectacle of a book, it's more than a little disappointing to have wee little Oliver, in all his inborn innocence, trotted across the screen one more time.

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

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities."
~ Frank Lloyd Wright

Song of the Day:
Madonna, "Material Girl"

Happy Birthday:
Andre Agassi
Daniel Day-Lewis
Dale Earnhardt
William Randolph Hearst
Michelle Pfeiffer
Jerry Seinfeld
Uma Thurman

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Is this a ticking demographic time bomb?

In 1993 and 1994, more than 121 boys were born in China for every 100 baby girls. (The normal ratio at birth is around 105; for reasons debated among biologists, humans seem naturally to churn out slightly more boys than girls.) In India during the period 1996 to 1998, the birth ratio was 111 to 100; in Taiwan in 2000, it was 109.5. In 1990 a town near New Delhi reported a sex ratio at birth of 156.
A new book, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, by Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer, warns of dire consequences resulting from the combination of these societies' preference for males and new methods of sex selection:

[T]he spread of sex selection is giving rise to a generation of restless young men who will not find mates. History, biology, and sociology all suggest that these "surplus males" will generate high levels of crime and social disorder, the authors say. Even worse, they continue, is the possibility that the governments of India and China will build up huge armies in order to provide a safety valve for the young men's aggressive energies.

"In 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause," says Ms. Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
The article gives some interesting reasons why women won't become more highly valued just because they are relatively scarce.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The latest parenting trend: diaperless babies.

Parents are urged to get in tune with their infant's body signals and hold babies over toilets, buckets and shrubbery or any other convenient receptacle when nature calls. One advocate suggests bringing a "tight-lidded bucket" along to serve as a waste receptacle when mothers take their babies out in public.
This guy wrote an essay on his diaperless daughter (she's not only diaperless, but also "totally naked most of the time, as is her preference"). "How I longed for a simple, dirt-floored, baby-friendly hut like that of a Yequana family," he says.

I suppose if you have a naked baby around, carpet is not the way to go.

(Thanks to Volokh for the link.)
Lyric of the Day
"In this love, I've found strength I never knew I had."
~ Don Henley, "Taking You Home"

Happy Birthday:
Sheena Easton
Ulysses S. Grant
Coretta Scott King

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Washington Post ventures out into Sugar Land, Texas -- red state territory -- and shadows one Britton Stein, a remarkable specimen of red-statism:

Forty-nine years old, Stein is a husband, a father, a landscaper and a Republican. He lives in a house that has six guns in the closets and 21 crosses in the main hallway. His three daughters aren't embarrassed when he kisses them on their cheeks. He loves his family, hamburgers and his dog. He has a jumbo smoker in his back yard and a 40-foot tree he has climbed to hang Christmas lights. His truck is a Chevy. His beer is Bud Light. His savior is Jesus Christ. His neighbors include Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the House majority leader, who says of Sugar Land, "I think it is America."
I look forward to reading a similar piece from the WP on a representative blue-state American. No doubt the article will assume the same tone of bemused ironic distance from its subject. Here, guys -- I drafted it for you:

Forty-nine years old, Stein is an ex-husband, a father, a college professor and a Democrat. He has six Jerry Garcia ties in the closet and a three-foot stack of unread New Yorkers in the main hallway. His three daughters aren't embarrassed when he lectures their friends about safe sex. He loves Jim Lehrer, the Dali Lama, and Sex and the City. He has a jumbo compost bin in his back yard and a bald spot he's tried to comb over. His car is a Volvo. His beer is imported. His neighbors include Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Cal.), who recently told feminist demonstrators, "I have to march because my mother could not have an abortion."
But back to the original article. It's weirdly obsessed with what Republicans eat:

"Stein's breakfast is scrambled eggs over congealed grits fried in butter."

"Stein's dinner is hamburgers with American cheese, salad and Tater Tots."

Stein's daughter "dips a cracker into a 40-ounce jar of peanut butter."

What does this mean? What larger truth are we supposed to see? That Republicans eat peanut butter? Monstrous jars of peanut butter? That they don't use knives to spread the peanut butter? That they're crackers?

Message conveyed by the article: Stein is a clueless, gun-toting Republican patriarch, his cold heart probably drowning in lard from all that congealed fried food. He hunts. He attends church weekly. He probably browbeats his wife (the article mentions sinisterly that the two "agree on most everything," which we know cannot actually be true because women never agree with their husbands if the husbands are Republicans). He even says -- unironically -- that the media "don't give Bush the respect he deserves."

Thank goodness we have the Washington Post to go out and interact with people like this so we don't have to.

UPDATE: I was right. The featured blue-staters are a middle-class, church-going couple with two well-adjusted adult children. Everybody has a great sense of humor, and peanut butter is nowhere in sight. The only thing stereotypically liberal about them is that they live in San Francisco.
There's a movement afoot to stop classifying kids with social/psychological disorders and just call them "eccentric," or "odd," or... quirky:

Kids with high IQs who can't read facial expressions, who prefer vacuum cleaners to toys, who hate the feel of sand or wind, who have no idea how to make friends, who may suffer daily over things that come easy to others. Kids whose parents sometimes wonder: is my child a socially awkward math genius destined for greatness, or a loner destined for loneliness?
Says a psychiatrist who co-wrote a book about quirky kids: "We meant it to say in a positive way, these kids are different."
Quote of the Day:
"Last night I dreamed I ate a ten-pound marshmallow, and when I woke up the pillow was gone."
~ Tommy Cooper

Song of the Day:
New Order, "State Of The Nation"

Happy Birthday:
John James Audubon
Carol Burnett
Jet Li
I.M. Pei
So this explains why Kate and I are such hell-raisers.

A new study shows that younger people born during the winter months were more likely to be thrill seekers than those born during summer months.

But the article notes that the pattern may reverse itself in older adults, with those born in the winter becoming relatively more sedate.
From a Howard Kurtz story about recent journalism scandals:

"Ben Bradlee didn't resign because Janet Cooke did something evil and inappropriate -- he fixed it," says James Naughton, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Evil and inappropriate!

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Liquid Diets

A new study suggests kids should stay clear of soda:
A high intake of sweetened carbonated drinks probably contributes to childhood obesity, and there is a growing movement against soft drinks in schools. But until now there have been no studies showing that efforts to lower children's consumption of soft drinks would do any good.

The study, outlined this week on the Web site of The British Medical Journal, found that a one-year campaign discouraging both sweetened and diet soft drinks led to a decrease in the percentage of elementary school children who were overweight or obese. The improvement occurred after a reduction in consumption of less than a can a day.
The article also reports that the soft drink industry "contest[s] the implications of the results." Really.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Vanessa Jean has a new project: she's biking across the country in a campaign to register voters.
National Teacher of the Year

Bush honored the top teacher today, an English teacher from Rhode Island.

I have noticed on more than a few occasions, however, that teachers who win national recognition may not be liked back home.
Men ... obsolete!

Well, not quite, but take a look at this article.
TV Appropos Blogging

Not that this is really a shock given the trend in tv writing to "rip from the headlines," but West Wing tonight (which I don't actually watch so much -- I watched it the most the year I was abroad because it was either WW or Ally McBeal in the way of American programming) was all about free trade and "exporting" jobs.

Steven Jens writes in to agree with my post yesterday, and adds two points:
First of all, we export more services ("import more jobs") than any other country in the world. We also export more services than we import. So if we were to cut off all importation of services, and the rest of the world were to cut off all of our exports of services in retaliation, we'd have a short-term decline in jobs, followed by a long-term decline. Hooray for political pandering.

Second, if we're going to be precise, I doubt the actual number of jobs would be affected much in the long run. Rather than actually losing jobs, I think it's more likely that American wages would be depressed to make labor more attractive to employers. Again, hooray.
I don't know enough to agree or disagree with the first point, but the second point was something that I actually meant to say.

West Wing did actually raise an interesting question (perish the thought! television stimulating intellectual discourse?). We exported manufacturing jobs years ago and told ourselves the economy was changing. New jobs would be created in the new economy -- tech jobs, service jobs. What happens now that we export the new economy jobs? It is very American to have faith in our innovation, to believe that the new new economy will replace the old new economy. But what is it? My inability to answer this question is one of many reasons why I'm not in economic forecasting or fortune telling. To me, predicting the next "new" industry is like trying to describe the fourth dimension. Most of us can't do it -- I certainly stink at it -- but someone probably can.

I ask "what is it?" for two reasons. Certainly, there is an element of intellectual curiousity. I also ask, however, out of practical interest. I do have faith in American innovation, in the very American belief that the sun will come up tomorrow, but I'm not blind. Faith in American innovation has us playing chicken with the greenhouse effect.


Maybe here's the answer: the new new economy is the old economy? According to the CS Monitor
In a weird twist on the typical globalization story, China is reviving a local economy that's been one of the most stubborn pockets of unemployment in the United States.

The Asian nation's insatiable appetite for steel fuels global demand for the metal and the ore used to make it. As steel-producing nations around the globe turn out more ingots and flat wire, mines here are once again producing some of the raw material - though most of it is not going directly to Beijing or Shanghai. In one case, a Chinese company helped buy and reopen the bankrupt mine here in Eveleth, sending its ore to Canada to replace raw material bound for China.
Speaking of China and steel, maybe Lily will tell her story about the Chinese stealing manhole covers from England.
Quote of the Day:
"What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."
~ Collette

Song of the Day:
Enrique Iglesias, "Don't Turn Out The Lights"

Happy Birthday:
Elizabeth II
Charles Grodin
Elaine May
Iggy Pop

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Removing Judges

It's one thing to overrule a court by legislative enactment, it's another thing to go after the justices...
A group that opposes gay marriage has enlisted the help of a state legislator in a long-shot attempt to remove the four justices of the state's high court who ruled that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional.

Democratic state Rep. Emile J. Goguen told The Boston Globe that he planned to file legislation to oust the justices on Tuesday, even though he is the measure's only sponsor.

The CS Monitor is the latest to report on the backlash against outsourcing ... to foreign countries. In this article, the Monitor reports on a candidate for Congress in Florida who is running on an anti-visa platform.

My problem with the outsourcing debate is that I haven't seen much discussion about how restrictions on outsourcing to foreign countries will affect the competitive abilities of American corporations. (Let me be the first to admit that this may simply be a result of my not really being that up on the intricacies of the debate.) Call me pro-corporation if you want, but I'm going to assume that corporations do not outsource because they are anti-American, because they want to send jobs out of the country. Rather, isn't what's going on simply a consequence of globalization? Let me explain.

By "globalization," I don't mean some trade policy choice, but rather the inevitable shrinking of the world that results from the internet, technological advances, and shrinking natural resources. In other words, we can combat "globalization" in one sense by erecting trade barriers, but the world still gets smaller, more interdependent, and more intertwined no matter how much we oppose "globalization" as a policy matter.

And isn't outsourcing simply what happens when globalization forces American corporations to compete in a global market? What happens if we restrict outsourcing in the face of globalization? Will we have a short term burst of jobs only to be followed by a long term decline in jobs?
Here's an inspiring article about people with mental disabilities finding jobs. Kudos to Melwood, a nonprofit organization that provides services to people with disabilities, and to Lowe's, which seems to make a practice of hiring them.
Lyric of the Day:
"Some say I'm paranormal. So I just bend their spoon."
~ Michelle Branch, "You Get Me"

Happy Birthday:
Carmen Electra
Jessica Lange
Don Mattingly
Ryan O'Neal

Monday, April 19, 2004

Duke lets students sleep in!

At least that's what you'd think from this article, which reports that Duke is eliminating 8:00 a.m. classes. But if you read further, you see that Duke is actually going to have more early classes. Students just weren't signing up for the few 8:00 classes that were offered, and some departments had stopped scheduling them, leading to overcrowding in the 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. hours:

The result: no more 8 a.m. classes, but plenty starting at 8:30 a.m. That will still be a shock to some students who have never had classes before 9.

"We're going to have a lot of grumbling next fall when the reality sets in," [the vice provost] said. "But you know what? They're resourceful and they'll manage."
I had a 8:40 lab once, my freshman year at Duke. After that I never took anything earlier than 9:10, which some of my friends still considered appallingly early.

Speaking of early, huge props to KC reader AR for teaching me the mysteries of 6:00 a.m. calculus-test cramming. I'll never forget certain mornings my freshman year -- stumbling out of bed pre-dawn, gulping a Coke, and hitting the books.

Of course, it wasn't till law school that I observed (and, let's face it, exhibited) true sloth. I saw things there that would make a vice provost's hair stand on end. A classmate once told me that she couldn't take Trusts & Estates because 11:00 was too early for her to get to class. It sounded completely reasonable at the time.
Elbert Lin writes on about the Details "Gay or Asian?" piece we posted about here in March.

How did the Details piece make it into a mainstream magazine? Lin's explanation is that Asian Americans are targeted because they are perceived as foreign, and discrimination against foreign-ness is acceptable. Also, many Asian Americans have achieved economic success, and the popular definition of "discrimination" has narrowed so that economic disadvantage is the only evidence of discrimination we can accept:

Because "discrimination" has become synonymous with "denial of opportunity," [Asian Americans'] apparent success leads to a particular cognitive dissonance. The very notion of discrimination against Asian Americans becomes literally inconceivable. Thus, what might otherwise seem racially discriminatory is overlooked when applied to Asian Americans. But this, too, is fallacious reasoning. Discrimination on the basis of race is an absolute wrong, not a means-tested one.
There was a protest in Manhattan on Friday in front of the headquarters of Details' publisher.
Quote of the Day:
"Progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something."
~ Robert Heinlein

Song of the Day:
Roxette, "Spending My Time"

Happy Birthday:
Kate Hudson
Ashley Judd
Dudley Moore
Paloma Picasso

Sunday, April 18, 2004

"Bling Bling" Not Deductible, Says IRS.

Link via the excellent new TaxProf blog.
Which NYT columnist are you? Take this quiz and find out.

Of course I was hoping I'd be David Brooks, but I seem to be Bob Herbert: "not the most sparkling writer, but one of the most solid and selfless on the Op-Ed staff."
The WP looks at the changing market in Texas for pickup trucks. Japanese automakers are gaining share, making Detroit very nervous:

Texans buy more full-size pickups than people in any other market on Earth. One out of every seven large pickups sold in the U.S. is registered in Texas, and all but about 3.5 percent of those are American brands. There's such an emotional bond between Texans and the trucks their fathers bought that outsiders have hardly tried to compete over the years.

But all that's changing. Nissan and Toyota, having already eaten up U.S. market share in cars, SUVs and minivans, are bulling their way into the half-ton pickup market. This hits Detroit where it hurts: Pickups represent nearly half of all sales-related profits for the Big Three automakers, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan.
The Ford F-150 is the most popular vehicle in America.
Quote of the Day:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."
~ Richard Feynman

Song of the Day:
Denise Williams, "Let's Hear It For The Boy"

Happy Birthday:
Maria Bello
Clarence Darrow
Haley Mills
Conan O'Brien
U.S. News reports that the Bush-Cheney campaign has declined to hire Apprentice reject Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who, despite having worked for the Clinton White House, sent her resume to campaign chairman Marc Racicot after showing him some houses.

"We will not be uttering the words, "You're hired!'" said campaign spokesman Terry Holt.
Michael Getler, the WP's ombudsman, criticizes the paper's coverage of the August 2, 2001 briefing:

The lead of the story by reporters Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus said: "President Bush was warned a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the FBI had information that terrorists might be preparing for a hijacking in the United States and might be targeting a building in Lower Manhattan." The story said the information was in the written daily briefing presented to Bush on Aug. 6, 2001.
But, notes Getler, that's a creative interpretation of what the briefing actually said:

The memo refers to "federal buildings" and not "a building," as the story's first sentence does. The memo does not use the word "targeting." It mentions "New York" but does not specify "Lower Manhattan."
So where did the reference to Lower Manhattan come from? And, as a reader wrote, why use those words "other than to mislead the casual reader into thinking that the words in the story, 'a building in lower Manhattan,' [were] meant to be the World Trade Center?"

Saturday, April 17, 2004

A very moving NYT wedding story.
Here's a memoir by a Harvard-educated New York City cop.

Speaking of New York, Kate's beloved Yankees are in Boston for a series against the evil Red Sox. Kurt Schilling is starting today.
The TaxProf blog analyzes Bush and Cheney's tax returns. (Link via InstaPundit.)
Movie Review

Of all affliction taught a lover yet,
'Tis sure the hardest science to forget!

--Alexander Pope, from "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717)

Joel (Jim Carrey) is the kind of shy workerbee guy who sets down his thoughts and feelings in an illustrated journal and finds it hard to talk to women. The story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry from Charlie Kaufman's original script (from a story by Kaufman, Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth), unfolds from Joel's saying something harsh to his impulsive girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) which prompts her to have her memories of him removed by an electronic process devised by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak ( Tom Wilkinson). When Joel goes to the bookstore where Clementine works to apologize, she looks at him just as if she didn't know him, because she doesn't anymore. Nothing could be crueler to a guy like Joel and when he finds out there was a reason for Clementine's blank expression he's next in line for the process.

The main sections of this lost-love story come in reverse order. The central section is a string of Joel's memories of his relationship with Clementine as the memory hunters isolate and eradicate them, while Joel lies sleeping helpless on his couch (and the surgeon's assistants party and act on their own ill-advised flirtations). Joel submits to the procedure in an access of unmanageable pain, but finds while reviewing the memories in his sleep that he can't bear to part with them.

The movie then becomes an ironic romance in which Joel, the baffled, overmatched knight, tries to rescue the memory of his damsel from the dark knights hunting it down. It's put together like a puzzle but generically it's not that complicated: like many a knight before him Joel succumbs to temptation and has to fight his spiritual adversaries as a consequence. In this scheme Dr. Mierzwiak is the evil wizard and Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood as his technicians the rival knights.

In order for the doctor to locate all memories associated with Clementine, Joel had to bring in every item in his apartment that he associated with her in any way and reel off his memories into a tape recorder. Realizing in his sleep that the hunters won't be targeting memories not associated with Clementine, Joel ingeniously tries to "hide" her in memories formed when she wasn't present, during his childhood, for instance. Altogether, this section has the most inventive moviemaking, warp speed switcheroos involving tricky editing, sound effects, set design, and special effects, as memories bleed into each other, literally fade or fall apart, and are wiped out. This is where Gondry, the commercial and music video wiz, gets to strut his stuff, which he does without detracting from the story, and it also makes some sense of the casting of Jim Carrey, when, for instance, he plays a pint-sized four-year-old Joel to Clementine's sexy-leggy adult babysitter.

As in most ironic romances, film noirs, for example, the hero fails, but here he gets the girl anyway. In Eternal Sunshine the latter is the heartbreaker. As the subplot involving Kirsten Dunst as Dr. Mierzwiak's coy vamp of a receptionist shows, without a memory you'd make exactly the same mistakes all over again.

The movie is swift and highly engaging, and even many of its drawbacks as popular entertainment work in its favor. First and foremost, it isn't a conventional love story in that it doesn't expect you to identify with the central couple. We first see Joel and Clementine, with no memory of each other, "meeting" for the second time, and we never think they were meant for each other. Just the opposite. We can believe that an introvert like Joel would go for an extrovert like Clementine, and that she might randomly fall in with him, but the moviemakers aren't concocting movie-star chemistry in the usual sense.

This is in part because Joel is so clearly the focus of Kaufman's identification. Clementine is enticingly open to the world in comparison to Joel but also irritating, and finally she's not convincingly conceived. You think of Joel as a guy like Joel, but Clementine isn't an equally recognizable female correlative or complement.

Looking back at Kaufman's scripts for Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), I'd say he has no feel for women in a realistic sense. It's probably plainest in Human Nature (2001). The movie follows Patricia Arquette's sympathetic protagonist through all her phases but refuses to come together around her; Tim Robbins is the anti-human figure, but he's destroyed by his screwed-up love of women, and the movie coalesces as an explanation of that.

In Malkovich and Adaptation Kaufman puts at the center a male artist figure who is unable to impress himself on the world, and the women around him represent the sexual element of his frustration (probably the most piercing element of it, for most shy men). In Malkovich, Cameron Diaz is the unkempt girlfriend who doesn't express what the protagonist has in him, and Catherine Keener is the fantasy A-type female who seems to (to him, though not to us), but whom he can't have. She's worse than unavailable, she's actively dismissive, hostile--and she steals his girlfriend.

In Malkovich, thus, there's nothing between a lump and a lesbian. It's like a joke based on the heterosexual male's most primitive response to sexual rejection: if a woman doesn't want you she must be a dyke. The movie is uncertain enough that you can't be sure the joke is intended, but that uncertainty seems a necessary condition for Kaufman and director Spike Jonze's creativity. By contrast, the allegory in Adaptation works more neatly (the twinned artist and commercial hack have to collaborate to reach the audience; the second half of the movie is what they "would" have come up with) but is for that very reason less involving.

Kaufman's is a sexually immature point-of-view, but not only has it made for some fascinatingly twisty storytelling, it hasn't been entirely bad for the actresses. Kate Winslet can't do much with Clementine, but in Malkovich Catherine Keener became one of the few actresses in American movies to win an audience by playing a bitch (the first since Ida Lupino?). The efficient, knife-edge propulsion of her body, the swivel of her head, the hanging-judge eyes, tell you she's her own woman on her own terms. Combined with maybe the funniest nasty-flat delivery of any actress ever, Keener makes unavailability more enviable than enticing. Her dryness and remoteness are extremely powerful; she's not exactly a goddess but she is the inviolable shrine that encloses the statue of one.

The fearful male's perspective is key to Kaufman's kaleidoscopic talent (as it is to R. Crumb's). It also constitutes a major part of his sincerity, and much of his irony is at his own expense. As Nicolas Cage's performance in Adaptation made clear, Kaufman knows what's ridiculous about himself, he just can't help it. (Gazing up at her in trembling awe, he and Jonze gave us a better version of Keener than that supersour ironist Nicole Holofcener who cast her as a gawky loser and punished her in both Walking and Talking (1996) and Lovely & Amazing (2002).)

At the same time, Kaufman's outlook does limit what Winslet might have done. In addition, Kirsten Dunst's character at first seems like a user, then she seems used, then she makes an ill-conceived and devastating gesture in response. The role is a replay of Miranda Otto's more conventional homewrecker in Human Nature but you never know how to respond to her and may find yourself pulling back. (A first in my experience with Dunst, even as the wicked little bloddsucker in Interview with the Vampire (1994) and as the spoiled baby doll in Little Women (1994).) You may also pull back from Clementines' strident, out-there personality, and her character is incoherent as well (in the romance she's both the fair lady who has to be rescued and the temptress), but these very failures at least preserve the detachment required to keep the movie from going mushy.

A bigger drawback may be that the movie doesn't ask Carrey to do anything he's especially good at. At one point Clementine derisively describes Joel's hurt puppy-dog gaze to perfection, but part of the fault is the actor's. He also (over)used it in The Truman Show, the Carrey movie for people who can't take him at his most sensational. As Joel he's asked to be "human" in a small way and you feel the waste. His talent is rarer than that; it's only when he's not subject to the high concept of a movie, as in The Mask (1994), that he's able to show us all he's got in him. Here the script and the moviemaking take care of the pyrotechnics and he's an obedient participant.

But these failures don't get in the way, or not in a way you notice because Kaufman's writing is always a bit dim and depressive. His director has to bring a lot of energy to the show because Kaufman himself is "brilliant" in a way that doesn't encompass the shedding of light. And he sacrifices amplitude in his scripts to maintain control (which is also something you could say of Sacha Guitry, though the Frenchman's spirit is less agonized if not less ironic). Being John Malkovich supplies the metaphor: Kaufman's scripts are all about crawling through the dark, cramped corridors in his head.

In keeping with this, Eternal Sunshine is about the limitations of personal experience, about how being yourself will lead you down blind alleys repeatedly and life is so bewildering you'll be grateful for an experience even knowing beforehand that it won't end happily. The movie "says" you can't keep both your memories and your sense of romance, but it makes the process of disenchantment highly stimulating and terribly pretty and, as a result, more painful. It offers a low-ball estimate of experience, of course, but with an enlivening spin.

A friend of mine suggested that the movie is romantic because Joel and Clementine decide to start up their relationship the second time knowing what it already led to. That is, my friend liked the movie's marriage of romance and reality. But by American movie standards Eternal Sunshine doesn't even register on the romantic scale. Not compared to a movie like Portrait of Jennie (1949) which makes you feel that Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten as the doomed pair must be together although it's impossible: she's dead. (To quote the folk song "My Darling Clementine": "In my dreams she still doth haunt me, robed in garments soaked in brine,/though in life I used to hug her, now she's dead I draw the line.")

The urge for romance may be unkillable but to me Eternal Sunshine is inherently ironic, the inevitability of disenchantment fashioned into a lovely, intricate bauble. And nowadays, when pop culture is foisting inflatable dolls like Jessica Simpson and Nick Whatshisfame on us as great lovers, who doesn't prefer disenchantment? The producer David O. Selznick originally had Portrait of Jennie printed over a canvas-grain transparency to make it look like an oil painting, and poured Debussy's exquisitely cascading first "Arabesque" over the whole mess. Aesthetically, old-Hollywood romantic dreck like that can't compare to the craft and intensity of Kaufman and Gondry's work in Eternal Sunshine. Irony doesn't represent their failure of commitment, it is their commitment.

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

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.
Quote of the Day:
"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow."
~ A.E. Housman

Song of the Day:
Michelle Branch, "You Get Me'

Happy Birthday:
Jennifer Garner
Nikita Krushchev
Liz Phair
Harry Reasoner

Friday, April 16, 2004

This Weekly Standard take-down of 9/11 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste reveals that he is a partner at the a firm whose name has long astounded me: Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Doesn't it just sound like a pack of starving, rabid dogs?
Lyric of the Day:
"Why'd they change it? I can't say -- people just liked it better that way."
~ They Might Be Giants, "Istanbul"

Happy Birthday:
Charlie Chaplin
Martin Lawrence
Dusty Springfield
Bobby Vinton
Wilbur Wright
Washington prepares for an Old Testament-style invasion: The 17-year locusts will emerge next month after their long sleep. As many as 1.5 million cicadas per acre will crawl out of the ground one night in May and head en masse for the trees.

And, this being America, when life serves up locusts, we make... locust cookies. Or something.

Native Americans dry roasted them using fire-heated rocks. John Zyla, an amateur naturalist in Ridge, in southern St. Mary's County, suggests laying a few dozen on a cookie sheet and baking them in a 350-degree oven for five minutes.

Then serve with toothpicks and a selection of condiments for dipping, ranging from sweet to savory: chocolate sauce, honey, melted cheese, ketchup, mustard. Voila: cicada fondue.

The females, loaded with eggs, are more of a bite than the males, whose abdomens are largely hollow, in part because of the anatomical structures that allow them to make noise. Zyla likens the dry-roasted males to an "air-puffed Cheeto."

At Fahrenheit, a restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown, cicadas almost made the menu this year. "The soft-shelled cicada, it's done just like a soft-shelled crab," says executive chef Frank Belosic, describing how freshly molted cicadas should be rolled in flour, pan-fried in olive oil, and finished with a sauce of white wine, butter and shallots. Served as an appetizer, the dish would have cost diners $10 or so.
I've never felt more secure in my vegetarianism.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Dean Jens writes in on the alphabet:

I particularly noted when I had class lists that last names tend to be toward the front of the alphabet. (I had one class of about 18 people in which the last name in alphabetical order started with an L. I'm serious.) To some extent this may be true of words in general, but I think the most common first letter of a word is 'T'. I wonder whether there has been a tendency at some point to marry up, or some other subtle evolutionary pressure toward earlier last names. Probably not, but it's fun to speculate.
And on ice cream:

My father is a big fan of vanilla ice cream, and I think people getting ice cream for large events will tend to a couple of safe, inoffensive flavors. Keep in mind that ice cream flavors are increasingly segmented; I expect your plurality winner has on the order of 25% of the vote. You surely can't expect mint chocolate chip to come out on top, no matter how much it deserves it.
And when you divide mint chocolate chip into the white and green varieties, things get even more segmented.

And finally, Dean on soup:

Speaking of Blizzards and pies à la mode -- and I do like to hear myself talk, even when the sound is just the clatter of my keyboard -- Campbell's top three soups are chicken noodle, tomato, and, think slightly outside the box, cream of mushroom. The first is almost entirely consumed as a soup, the last almost entirely used as an ingredient, and Tomato gets a fair amount of each.
Have I ever blogged about the night Kate swore off chicken noodle soup?

It was a winter night last year in New Haven. I had had the flu the previous night but was on the upswing. The KC was studying. (Wait, that's my alternate reality. The KC was blogging, or watching TV, or something else dissolute.) Kate was hungry. She wanted a Krispy Kreme from the new Milford store. So I went out and came back with half a dozen warm doughnuts. Kate decided she'd have some chicken noodle soup first. In mid-spoonful, she came down with the flu. She had a bad night. The doughnuts never got eaten, and she says she'll never go near chicken soup again.
It is such a joy to (1) get home from work at 7:05 and (2) be able to go for a walk in daylight.

Yes, I am a tax lawyer. No, I haven't been particularly busy this time of year.

And now everyone in the world but me is watching The Apprentice.
Ugh. Just saw that Levitra ad. The woman keeps referring to the man as "my guy." The ad shows them both but only features her talking. But she's only talking about his experience, not hers.

Anyway, it's yucky and I'd rather not dwell on it anymore.
Quote of the Day:
"It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."
~ Peter De Vries

Song of the Day:
Liz Phair, "Don't Have Time"

Happy Birthday:
Tom Barber
Henry James
Emma Thompson
Leonardo da Vinci

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Why am I blogging so much? I spend all day in front of a computer; it's the last thing I should be doing at home. But it's either that or Law & Order reruns.

My thumb is healing quickly. I'm sort of fascinated by the stitches. I've realized that thumbs are very useful tools -- indispensible, in fact, for things like separating eggs and fastening necklaces and bras. I can do without necklaces till Tuesday (when the stitches come out), but I draw the line at going bra-less to work. So I squirm around creatively until the thing is fastened.

(I can't believe I just posted about my underclothes. I'll hear from my mother soon.)
Jonathan Rauch on the radicalism of the Bush position on gay marriage:

If extremism means opting for the most extreme alternative available, Bush is objectively an extremist. The most important portion of his February 24 announcement was this sentence: "Furthermore, even if the Defense of Marriage Act is upheld, the law does not protect marriage within any state or city." Translation: Preventing federal courts from pre-empting the states is not enough. On not a single square inch of U.S. territory can even one same-sex marriage ever be allowed, even if all the people in the relevant jurisdiction want it and even if no other jurisdiction would be required to accept it. In a country with a three-century tradition that wisely leaves domestic law to states and localities, Bush's proposed amendment amounts to ruthless totalism: scorched earth.
Like me, Rauch suspects that Bush's heart really isn't in the fight against gay marriage:

If President Bush were asked what was the single most important day of his life, I imagine he might choose, not the day he was chosen president, nor the day his twin daughters were born, but the day he united his life with Laura Welch's. Marriage civilizes, comforts, nourishes. Possibly no man in the country knows this better than Bush.
And that just makes it worse, doesn't it?

Rauch's book on gay marriage is out. Reviews are good. The Economist calls it "a powerful book, clear, tolerant and persuasive, never ranting or self-pitying.... Mr. Rauch's book should become obligatory reading for all."
Erectile dysfunction ads making you queasy? It's about to get worse. Levitra's new ad kicks things up a notch with a "frank description of the medicine's purpose."

Meanwhile, Pfizer is giving away free Viagra to loyal customers.
Gregg Easterbrook bashes the 9/11 Commission and its "absurd degrees of eagle-eyed hindsight."

Nobody knew September 11 was coming: no Republican, no Democrat, no intelligence agency of any nation, no newspaper, no television network. Please end this carnival of pointless recriminations. It makes America seem faint and foolish.
Read the whole thing.
The Onion reports that Donald Rumsfeld is looking forward to Secretaries' Day.
The Montgomery County public school system is considering repealing its policy on alphabetical order, which asks teachers "to allow for students with surnames at the end of the alphabet to be in other than end-of-line positions."

Turns out this policy was enacted by a pushy school board member on behalf of her child:

In 1981, Montgomery school board member Eleanor Zappone introduced a resolution because she was concerned about her child graduating last, according to Lori-Christina Webb, the school system's coordinator for policy and procedures.
The article focuses on high school senior Anica Zlotescu: "She wonders whether this June people will be too tired to clap by the time her turn comes."

Blame your parents, Miss Zlotescu. And if you want your children to avoid your sad fate, I have two words of advice: Marry up.

With Kerry running against Bush, there's more interest now in the old skull and crossbones than we've had since, well, Johnny Depp went swashbuckling across the big screen last year. In a three-day period two weeks ago, both the Post and Slate ran stories on Skull & Bones.

So, what's the big deal? I'll admit I was in a society in my undergrad days, and aside the overriding stench of goat's blood, I never noticed anything unusual. Seriously, folks, if you can't get enough of the powerful Yale senior societies, take a look at this insider's analysis of the Yale societies (from Light & Truth, a student publication on Yale campus) and you'll become quickly disillusioned.

Of course, I make certain I send holiday cards every year to the Bonesmen I knew.
Lileks, channeling Easterbrook.
The Sept. 11 report, as expected, will call the attack "preventable." As commission head Thomas Kean, a Republican, noted:

"If we had been able to put (the hijackers) on the watch list of the airlines, the two who were in the country; again if we'd stopped some of those people at the borders; if we had acted earlier on al-Qaida when (it) was smaller and just getting started ... the whole story might have been different."

If. If. Maybe. If. If George W. Bush had phoned the Saudis on the first day of his administration and told them any act of Islamist terror would result in a mushroom cloud over Mecca, and that he would consider it "what we call in bowling a practice frame," it might have been different. It might have been different if B-52s had taken out the Taliban in February 2001 -- and we all know how Ted Kennedy et al. would have exploded in a rain of bile had Bush kicked off his term with a pre-emptive war. The articles of impeachment would have been drawn up before the first wave of bombers returned to base.
Or did Easterbrook channel Lileks? Whatever. They're both worth the read. (Link via Steven Jens.)
So, a little while back, I complained about the Times op-ed page and their selection of pieces that had no value to the public discourse.

Well, here's a related point. The Times op-ed page has printed this shtick on "how to get printed on the NY Times op-ed page." This is my favorite line:
Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans. It's incumbent on them to say something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.
Baloney, I said to myself, as soon as I had read that. And lo, today in the Post (yes, it's not the Times, but can you really tell the difference?), I see this: an op-ed from some guy named "John F. Kerry," the "presumptive Democratic nominee for President." Well, heck, congratulations Senator Kerry! You must have written one heck of a masterpiece to get yourself into the Post given that you're probably the epitome of "people who have the means to get their message out in other ways."
Alan Dale, our beloved movie critic, has put up his own website on which he's published his second book (I believe Alan has decided he's had just about enough of print publishers -- but if you want to know for certain why he's not having the book printed in paper, email and ask him yourself). The book is called "What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s".

I'm excited to read the book especially because I've always considered myself a movie fanatic, but my fanaticism really only covers movies starting in 1980. Alan's got chapters on Clueless, The Wedding Singer, and plenty of other movies that I've seen a ton of times. He's also got, unfortunately, a chapter on Groundhog Day. I don't think I've ever told my story here, but I've had a bad experience with that movie. I worked during high school at a Best Buy. You know how they have those demo tvs that play movies all day? Well, guess which movie was on every time I came in to work in some sick, twisted irony?

Anyway, I'll change the links for Alan on the side of our blog as soon as I get a chance.
Sporting News

Believe it or not, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has its first-ever player in the Major Leagues. Jason Szuminski, who graduated in 2000 with a degree in aerospace engineering, is also a member of the US Airforce. He pitched in his first major league game the other night and got Barry Bonds to fly out. How 'bout them apples?

Let the smart jokes start.
He is thus the only pitcher who can say, "It ain't rocket science," and know what he's talking about.
Szuminski says the books on pitching have the physics all wrong.

Also, has several articles on misery in baseball. The one sure to have people hopping is Caple's ranking of how miserable it is to be a fan of a team. Guess which whiners didn't make the top of the list? Red Sox Nation. The most miserable team in Caple's list: the Montreal Expos. The Red Sox weigh in at a measley sixth, behind the Chicago Cubs, who came in third.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

InstaPundit has insta-reaction on the Bush press conference.

I agree with Glenn that the President did a good job, certainly relative to some of his other extemporaneous public speaking performances. There wasn't too much of that cringe-inducing nervous cockiness we've seen from him in the past.

As for substance, for starters Jeff Jarvis is right that it's just ridiculous for the press to keep asking Bush to "apologize" to the country for 9/11. The President came close to giving that line of questioning the swatting it deserved, but his answer didn't quite do the trick. Jonah Goldberg wishes he'd prepared a better answer and wonders why the White House didn't anticipate the question.
The NYT reports on the worldwide vanilla shortage. Home bakers, think it's hitting you hard?
Eli Zabar, who uses pure vanilla extract in ice cream and baking at his stores on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, estimated that his annual cost of vanilla has soared to nearly $100,000.
The good news is that the shortage should ease up toward the end of this year. Cyclones in April 2000 destroyed about a third of the vanilla vines in Madagascar, which produces 60 percent of the world's vanilla. The vines were replanted, but it takes about four years for the plants to start producing vanilla beans.

The article also notes that vanilla is the favorite ice cream flavor in the United States, but I wonder how that's calculated. Who are these people eating vanilla ice cream?

I don't think I have ever walked into an ice cream store and ordered plain vanilla. But I suppose most sundaes are made with vanilla ice cream, as are a lot of shakes, smoothies, Blizzards, and pies à la mode. Does Oreo ice cream count as vanilla, because it's vanilla with cookie bits mixed in?

Monday, April 12, 2004

A Yale Law School grad skewers the annual self-congratulatory holiday letter to alumni from the Dean. This year's installment was the first I received (well, for all I know it was stuffed in my mailbox every year when I was a student, but if so I stuffed it promptly in the trash), and I saved it for a few weeks with the intention of posting some of the more over-the-top passages. But Tom Smith has some of the same reactions I did:

Yochai Benkler has joined the faculty at Yale, an event, I judge from the letter, roughly equivalent to the Second Coming. The importance of his scholarship, apparently, "cannot be overestimated." I'm sure it's swell scholarship, it's not my area and I've never heard of him, but is it really impossible to overestimate its importance? Haven't you just done so?
I took a class from Benkler when he was visiting. I found his lectures stultifying and therefore never doubted he'd get a permanent offer.

And here are some thoughts on the latest issue of the alumni magazine. As The Right Coast notes, the "we're-so-wonderful-we-can-barely-stand-it tone" is uniquely YLS and instantly recognizable to graduates.

It's a crazy little universe. But on crappy days like today I miss it.
Movie Review

Spring Round-Up: Writing as Opposed to Recommending

The only new movie I've written about lately has been Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ but that's not because I can recommend it. My amateur standing as a critic means that I don't get to see new movies (for free) long enough in advance to publish a review on opening day. This further means that I don't have editors breathing down my neck, so I can choose to write about movies solely on the basis of whether they make me feel like writing about them, which is different from whether I feel like recommending them. The problem I've had with most of the new movies this year, then, is that I haven't had much to say about them, which doesn't necessarily imply you wouldn't have a good time if you saw them.

50 First Dates starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore is a good example. The concept of a young woman whose short-term memory is erased every night, so that they guy she hits it off with on their first meeting at breakfast has to win her again every morning, works, and the amazing thing is that they don't abandon the concept at the end with some trick so that everything can be nice and normal. Moment to moment it was the best time I had in the theater so far this year, and I think the weirdo jokes about Sandler's gender-question-mark co-worker and the gross-out walrus jokes were funny, too.

The problem is that it isn't better. If you describe it honestly you run the risk of damning it with faint praise, and if you analyze its failings you can sound awfully prissy since it isn't that ambitious in the first place. It's almost irrelevant to hold light comedies up to the highest models because they're made for current consumption not for the ages. Even worse, when critics start theorizing about what you can and can't do in comedy, they're mostly talking through their asses, attempting to abstract from too few examples an ad hoc theory about what is perhaps the most opportunistic of the dramatic arts. Comedy is what makes people laugh; an analysis of what has worked doesn't promulgate rules as to what can work.

But 50 First Dates does make an obvious, if non-fatal, central mistake: the comedy specialist is in the low-pressure role. It's a sign of Sandler's gallantry that he let Barrymore have the showpiece part, and that's part of what makes him so likeable. (I can't see Jim Carrey making a similar mistake.) But it's also self-defeating, because as charmingly touching as Barrymore is, she doesn't have the comedy skills to get inside the concept and warp your brainwaves with it.

And then the major virtue of the movie works against it. The fact that they don't abandon the concept pushes the story into a more emotional and even speculative realm when, despite the heroine's disability, the romantic comedy concludes happily. Barrymore is appealing because she comes across as an amateur and yet despite that lack of expertise reveals herself emotionally. She does wobbly things that more technically refined actresses and more thoroughly synthetic stars wouldn't dare to. But she would need to be a much more spookily poetic performer than she is to suggest the mysteries of living every dawn as if it were a rebirth. But see it anyway.

Owen Wilson is an even better reason than Drew Barrymore to see almost any movie and I had a reasonably good time at both The Big Bounce and Starsky & Hutch. The Hawaiian setting of The Big Bounce was especially gratifying during my first New York winter. But here the problem is that the movie is too likeable for its nasty-ironic plot. It's as if Wilson's amiability broke the story's yolk--what seems in plot-terms to be a nightmarish escapade about a small-time thief sexually suckered into taking the fall for a more malevolent gang, turns into a runny romance of temptation with the feckless, affable protagonist treated as a hero because he gets away with the money.

Wilson is all about the comedy of amorality. He plays out our fantasy of being so attractive we can get away with anything, provided it's on a limited scale. He's a crime-plotter with no grandiosity and in The Big Bounce in particular it's as if he understood that an overambitious criminal scheme would be too much like work. Wilson is able to keep this act in the realm of comedy because his persona doesn't have a hint of sadism and his movies aren't realistic enough for suffering to have any presence. He's the new generation's Peter Pan, without the icky sexual ambiguity of the original character (what makes Peter Pan appealing to Michael Jackson). Owen Wilson is a Peter Pan who fucks: as any working adult knows, the guys who refuse to grow up get laid more. What makes Wilson a star is that he doesn't coast on his blondness (the nose wouldn't allow him to get by on looks alone). He has a personally erratic style of delivery as original as Judy Holliday's. He noodges out stray thoughts in a way that puts the rhythm of scenes off-kilter, and then follows out the doodly trajectory made up of those stray thoughts and eccentric rhythms.

But the material of The Big Bounce has Elmore Leonard's dark comic sense of mortality: fools playing deadly tricks at syncopated cross-purposes. It would have been something to talk about if Wilson had been pushed to add another layer to his sun-freckled persona, and I would have bet that George Armitage, the director of two ironic tough-guy comedy classics, Miami Blues (1990) starring Alec Baldwin and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) starring John Cusack, would have been the man to do it for him. I would have lost.

Sara Foster as the bad little plaything who snares Wilson shouldn't go unmentioned. She has the physical assets for the part of an amorally self-indulgent brat but she's not a narcissistic performer, passing off TV-babe sleekness for character. She can act--she keeps springing her perversity on Wilson, and on us--but she also has a natural quality that gives her acting an unforced style. She manages to seem as if we were watching her on a hidden camera without violating the comic idiom of the movie.

But in the end The Big Bounce avoids the intersection of Wilson's everybody-should-feel-good criminality and the more ruthless kind he gets caught up with. He drives off with a replacement girl while Foster is left standing on the side of the rode, in a wig, no less. She takes the fall for the movie when it makes this insipid gesture toward a conventional moral scheme that, as a work of irony, it exists to invert.

I enjoyed Starsky & Hutch more than The Big Bounce, but there's less to say about it. It's a variety show starring Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, who make a superb vaudeville team: Stiller is uptight and Wilson isn't. It's a teaming similar to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's in the enjoyable Road pictures from the 1940s, the teaming of a confidence man and a diffidence man. At their most inspired, trying to decide, for instance, if a biker-bar goon is tall enough for the handle Big Earl to function as an ironic nickname, Wilson and Stiller couldn't be better.

One of the great things about their teamwork is that they're both talk-it-through talkers. They don't just set each other up for one-liners as the old comedy two-acts from vaudeville and radio and early TV did. In the biker bar scene, in which they're trying to analyze an idiotic situation logically, it's like a comedy team made up of two Gracie Allens. It even works that at times they seem to be in different versions of the same movie, with Stiller parodying the TV show by replicating it too earnestly and Wilson just ambling through it. Some things work royally, others don't. Some of the guest stars (Snoop Dogg) hit and others don't. But don't let your grandparents tell you that the Hope and Crosby movies were any better than this. Enough said.

50 First Dates and Starsky & Hutch are movies I could send people to. Bernardo Bertolucci is one of the giants among movie directors, but there's no way I could recommend The Dreamers. Set during the Paris riots of May 1968, which were triggered by the attempt to fire Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française, it shows the involvement of an American student abroad with an incestuous, left-wing, movie-loving brother and sister. When Bertolucci made his masterpiece Last Tango in Paris (1972) starring Marlon Brando, he was imagining his way through taboos in character. His mind was as engaged as his other organs. In The Dreamers he looks back nostalgically at the '60s, which stand for revolutionary spirit in a tiresomely familiar way, but the taboos don't have much currency (e.g., tonguing the sleep out of someone's eye; soaking in a bath reddened with menstrual blood). Bertolucci tries too hard to be transgressive in so many ways that the relationships never cohere in a realistic sense or draw us in as fantasies.

You do sense Bertolucci is trying to be honest about the shortcomings of that generation (born in 1940, he's a half-step older than the kids in the movie, and had already made his first great feature Before the Revolution (1964)), but the siblings' sexual proclivities don't broaden out to exemplify the era. The fact that the Molotov-cocktail-throwing brother and sister are spoiled adolescents who live at home might, but that isn't the main thrust. Altogether Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions is a more satisfying (and entertaining) example of '60s-generation self-critique.

Bertolucci's version of what used to be called the "international theme" is oddly more optimistic than it was in the hands of Henry James, whose new-world innocents were always brought up short in their confrontations with old-world corruption. In The Dreamers, by contrast, I believe the young American student is meant to get the better of the French boy in their arguments about Buster Keaton and Maoism. But this has little traction. Intellectualism makes a cameo appearance, but Bertolucci has always been more of a dreamer than a thinker.

This, however, is not a convincing dream. The whole thing feels unseemly, just as Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) did, not because these old men are making sexually graphic movies, but because they appear to wish they were still youngsters so they could be kinky in all the ways they never dared to (though Bertolucci still pulls back from homoeroticism, just as he did in The Conformist (1970)). As a result, The Dreamers comes across as both too flagrant and too repressed. Bertolucci is more entranced by what the characters do than by what drives them to do it. He drools over his young performers across the gap where the imaginative bridge should be but isn't.

The Dreamers is not an ordinary breed of dog (but by time I got my head around its unappealing muttliness I had lost the impulse to write). The flaws of the Meg Ryan boxing movie Against the Ropes are so obvious you could point to them with a two-by-four. Ryan plays a working-class woman who grew up in her father's boxing gym and who gets out of her demeaning job as a secretary to the sexist manager of the Cleveland sports arena, where her knowledge and talent are derided, by reshaping a thug she runs across into a successful fighter. The major problem is structural: it's a melodramatic chivalric romance with Ryan as the knight with a quest (to prove that she, as a woman, is the equal of any male manager) but the physical battles are displaced onto her fighter.

The movie goes belly up when the lady knight succumbs to the temptation of grabbing the spotlight from her protégé and has to learn the lesson of humility. We're supposed to like her because she has the nerve and guts to break into a man's game, and then we're supposed to dislike her for the same reason, and then finally we're supposed to like her all over again when she apologizes to everybody and stays in the background. But since the fighter was never at the center of the story, the last third of the movie when Ryan has penitentially retreated from his corner has no center at all. While he's in the ring winning a brutal "personal" battle, we're supposed to be cheering for her because she's relegated herself to the dim margins, like the good girl we were earlier asked to like her for not being.

Against the Ropes is inexcusably lousy but I was interested to see Ryan in a role that could have been a reasonable extension of her star personality. Johnny Depp is so badly miscast in Secret Window you can't imagine what the writer-director David Koepp was thinking of besides cost and availability.

Depp, whose face is as open as a flower but not very expressive, here plays an alcoholic writer who holes up in his lakeside cabin, unable to write, because his wife has taken up with a new man and wants a divorce. John Turturro shows up as a creepy stranger from Mississippi who claims that Depp plagiarized a story of his about a man who murders his wife. The stranger wants proof that the writer published his story before the stranger wrote his, but then the stranger destroys the evidence and generally terrorizes the writer (by killing his dog with a screwdriver, for example).

The "surprise" of the plot is pointless. It doesn't matter whether the stranger is "real" or just a schizzy projection of the writer's, because it comes to the same thing interpretively. It's a battle between the chaotic impulses of the unhappy man who fantasizes murderous stories and the constructive impulses of the writer who contains them in his craft. Even if there are two men, they represent two sides of the writer, and even if there's only one it's an allegorical battle between an evil and a good knight.

What does make a difference, however, is the casting. Turturro is his usual overdeliberate self, every expression superglued to the screen, but he is at least imposing. But whose idea was it to cast Depp as a man so full of sexual anger he kills his own dog (whether actually or symbolically) after his ex-wife speaks of it affectionately? Balled up in a torn bathrobe with messy grown-out dye-job hair, Depp looks like a pouty teenager. The movie actually uses this junior quality for its most memorable moments, when Depp's pain turns into comedy in the scene at the insurance company in which the writer accuses his ex-wife's fiancé of "rubbernecking." But a spark-throwing bundle of sexual rage Depp is not, and for the movie to cohere we have to be able to see why it works for this man to have the killer take over the controls from the writer rather than the reverse.

Not that there's any other youngish American actor right now who would be right for the part. (And to be fair to Depp, Humphrey Bogart wasn't better as a wife-killer coming undone in Conflict (1945).) Our actors don't have that kind of masculine sexual aggression anymore, the way Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum once did (when women were less self-conscious about the rough romance of being taken). It is a loss, lopping off one end of the spectrum of our public fantasies. Of course, gay men indulge these fantasies in the rawer forms of porno, and straight women indulge them in soap operas and romance novels, but it's something else to experience them in a less functionally constricted piece of entertainment and incarnated by someone with a more expansive talent.

Certain commonwealth actors have come closer. The new Irish movie Intermission, for instance, begins with Colin Farrell apparently flirting with the countergirl in a coffee house; what he's actually doing, however, is beguiling her so she won't see his fist coming. He's a smash-and-grab petty thief with the gift of gab and you know you'd fall for it just like that poor girl did (at the frightening intersection of fantasy and reality). Especially when you see him run from the cops and in his flight grab up a workman's shovel, flip it through the air to his other hand, and then leap on the hood of a woman's car and demand she let him have it.

I don't think Farrell could "open up" a thug like this without violating the premise of the character; he's not someone who's going to spill his guts about why he is the way he is. When we see a sexy gorilla like him on the street, however, we may figure it's better to avoid his gaze, but with Farrell we get to watch from a safe remove the sociopathic poetry and ballet the tough guy embodies. (He's more convincing and interesting than sexy-taciturn Russell Crowe as the tamed musclebound beast in L.A. Confidential (1997).) We can't get inside Farrell's character, but we can become aware of what's inside us that responds to him. And Farrell has more skill at playing this kind of arousing goon than anyone since the very young James Cagney, that hale, bright-eyed, dancing-and-crowing little bantam of a psychopathic Irish-American gangster.

Intermission is all about bad boys, on both sides of the law, and of all ages, and how some of them find their way to a more settled, productive existence in the company of women, and some of them don't. It's character-filled and episodic, but also tightly conceived in a literary way. (A rock-throwing little boy is an effective symbol of the raging impulses all the men in the movie are prey to.) But maybe it's a tad too neat, finally, and too cute. More faint praise, I'm afraid--I enjoyed it but apart from what Colin Farrell brought to it, it represents what the moviemakers already knew rather than anything they discovered in the process of making the movie.

Finally, from the DVD bin: Ripley's Game (2002), directed by Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich as the same character played by Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) but later in life (both movies are adapted from books by Patricia Highsmith). Malkovich establishes from the very start Ripley's peculiar combination of narcissistic finickiness and indifference to common morality. His sense of himself functions in the place of scruples, but at the same time Ripley's identity is permanently unbalanced. His talent is to use his lack of balance as an advantage in unstable criminal situations. He's the ultimate improvisationalist who goes after what he wants regardless of the consequences, and then becomes what he has to become in order to turn the resulting fiascos into successes.

Malkovich is very precise here. You can see something inside him snap when a man to whom he's trying to sell some illegally-obtained Renaissance drawings refers to him and his criminal associate as "you people." Later when an English neighbor, not realizing he's in the room, puts him down for being a typical American with more money than taste, Ripley doesn't accept the man's embarrassed situation-saving cordiality. He moves toward the poor man, meeting each succeeding bland remark with an ambiguous-but-confrontational single word: "Meaning?" I don't think anybody but Malkovich could so simply have given that word the tense combination of aggression and neurotic defensiveness, a feeling that Ripley when pricked is capable of almost anything in reaction and is beyond caring about reacting publicly.

This is the kind of ironic romance in which amoral knights are engaged in criminal quests, but unlike a heist picture with a charismatic leader, the movie doesn't expect you to root for the bad guys. Ripley's adopts as his quest the corruption of the Englishman who insulted him by drawing him into his criminal network so that he will lose the smugness with which he put Ripley down. There's something terribly appealing about an aesthete-sociopath who is neither a melodramatic villain nor a victim, and Malkovich is perfect at setting the neutral emotional tone for the movie. Once Ripley has his revenge he doesn't even wallow in it. The man he insulted is harmed more than Ripley intended, but once that has happened it's just another focus for speculation about identity, about people's varying tolerances for the varieties of experience.

The problem with the movie is that the corruption of the nasty but technically innocent young family man involves a centerpiece of suspenseful, violent action in which Ripley is not involved, and though he returns afterwards, he's been displaced. And the man Ripley destroys moves to the center but lacks dimensions. His story verges on tragedy but we can't be sure what the man's flaw was--whatever arrogance caused him to insult Ripley or perhaps his susceptibility to the blood-money temptation Ripley presents him with. Ripley's character doesn't develop, he merely manages a situation gone awry, and the man who does develop is too opaque. Ripley is both puppetmaster and commentator but not the protagonist. It's Ripley's game, but not his story.

All the same, the movie is very suavely made (which may be part of the problem--a perfectly smooth surface from beginning to end) and the suspense works. And even if Malkovich is out of the plot's strongest current, he makes a fascinating still figure, a man so thoroughly given over to polishing his surfaces you're almost seduced into believing it doesn't matter that he's hollow. You've seen better movies though perhaps not lately. Rent it and form your own reservations.

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

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.
Andrew Sullivan responds to Shelby Steele's contention that the struggle for gay rights can't be analogized to the civil rights movement:

[J]ust because one minority experience is not entirely like another, it does not follow that one is a civil rights issue and the other is not. That is particularly true when the issue at hand - the right to civil marriage - has always been understood in American jurisprudence and constitutional law as a civil right. In fact, discussing gay marriage in the context of a civil right is far less of a leap than discussing it outside that context. It is, in many ways, unavoidable.
There's lots more, and it's all thoughtful stuff on both sides.
Chris Duhon's million-dollar meaningless shot:

When Duke senior Chris Duhon nailed a 38-foot three-point shot off one leg as time expired in the semifinal game against the University of Connecticut on Saturday night, the Blue Devils still lost the game. But to those who wagered on the blue and white, the fortuitous bank shot that made the final score 79-78 meant that the underdogs covered the spread, which was between two and three points. Those who put money on the Huskies, who had a 12-point run late in the game to take the lead, suddenly had lost their bet. Those who put money on Duke to cover collected their winnings.

With approximately $100 million being bet on March Madness each year in Las Vegas and about $2.5 billion wagered online according to the FBI, the Duhon shot transferred anywhere from $30 million to $100 million from those who bet on UConn to cover the point spread to those who bet on Duke to cover, as estimated by those closely tied to the sports gambling business.
Cold comfort.

As is this story of some UConn students facing expulsion for post-championship rioting.
Following a paring knife mishap, I was a first-time emergency room patient on Saturday. I now have a row of stitches on my thumb. Fortunately, Kate was in town. She took me to the hospital and also helped me make this cake for Easter dinner. It's from Southern Living. I recommend it highly if you need a good, basic pound cake:

Smoothest Southern Pound Cake

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
3 cups sugar
3 cups sifted cake flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
6 large eggs, separated
1 (8-ounce) carton sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat butter at medium speed of an electric mixer 2 minutes or until butter is creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating 5 to 7 minutes. Combine flour and soda; add to butter mixture 1 cup at a time. (Batter will be extremely thick.)

Add egg yolks to batter, and mix well. Stir in sour cream and vanilla. Beat egg whites in a large mixing bowl at high speed until stiff; fold into batter. Spoon batter into a greased and floured 10-inch Bundt or tube pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for two hours or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. (You may also spoon batter into two 9- x 5- x 3-inch loafpans, and bake at 300 degrees for 1 and a half hours or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.)

Cool in pan on a wire rack 10 to 15 minutes; remove from pan, and cool completely on wire rack.
Kate and I also made a strawberry-rhubarb sauce from a recipe in the current issue of Martha Stewart Living. It was pretty awful. I recommend a nice lemon curd instead to go with the cake.
Dahlia Lithwick on the controversy over Justice Scalia's having federal marshals force reporters to erase audiotapes of the Justice's public remarks:

The point here isn't that federal marshals are bad people. Most of them are quite nice. The point is that, unlike most federal and state officials, they simply don't believe they answer to any body of law—they are pretty certain that they answer only to the justices. Imagine a police force answerable only to the mayor or federal prosecutors answerable only to John Ashcroft. The marshals have gone from providing security to the justices to being the court's own private militia.... They simply act at the caprice of our judges, and this should not be tolerated.
Having sat through a morning of Supreme Court oral arguments, I can testify that the marshals are almost creepily vigilant for any sign of misbehavior.

UPDATE: Scalia has apologized.
Lyric of the Day:
"Sometimes everything is wrong. Now it's time to sing along."
~ R.E.M., "Everybody Hurts"

Quote of the Day:
"Though no man can draw a stroke between the confines of day and night, yet light and darkness are upon the whole tolerably distinguishable."
~ Edmund Burke
Gerard Alexander says the GOP's 20th century "Southern strategy" -- attracting Southern white racists to assemble a majority -- is a myth:

In study after study, authors say that "racial and economic conservatism" married white Southerners to the GOP after 1964. So whereas historically accidental events must have led racists to vote for good men like FDR, after 1964 racists voted their conscience. How convenient. And how easy it would be for, say, a libertarian conservative like Walter Williams to generate a counter-narrative that exposes statism as the philosophical link between segregation and liberalism's economic populism.
Alexander suggests that the leftward lurch of the Democratic party in the 1960s had more to do with the South's realignment.
A must-read alternate reality from Gregg Easterbrook: What if George W. Bush had acted on that PDB back in August 2001?

Thursday, April 08, 2004

No TV for you.

Or so a new study says we should say to our two-year olds.
Published this month in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the study finds that for every hour a day preschoolers watch TV, their risk of developing attention-deficit problems later in life increases by about 10 percent.

It suggests that the pace of today's programs, including quick action, rapid scene changes, and high noise levels, might overstimulate and permanently "rewire" the developing brain.

Even the most educational shows could be harmful, researchers found, although content was not the focus. As a result, the AAP recommends that parents ban TV for children under 2 and limit viewing to one to two hours per day for older children.
I believe it. I also worry about the effect of computers on children and their attention spans. On the other hand, I feel I benefitted greatly from television as a child. But my shows were slower -- like Mr. Rogers or Reading Rainbow. Maybe I'll show my kids dvds of old children's television programming. As for the computer, it might be worth keeping kids away from computers for a little bit. They do learn remarkably quickly at a young age, so I don't think a few of the early years will cripple computer proficiency, especially when the kids will get so much computing at school.
"I need a young priest and an old priest."

All manner of stuff (lamps, air conditioners, microwave ovens) have been spontaneously bursting into flame in a small Sicilian village over the last few months.
After a brief visit to Canneto di Caronia, the head of the Committee for the Control of Paranormal Claims has ruled out demons or poltergeists — at least for the time being.
A whole herd of scientists still hasn't been able to figure out what's going on.