Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance."
~ Sam Brown

Song of the Day:
Fleetwood Mac, "Over My Head"

Happy Birthday:
Carolyn Barber
Fantasia Barrino
Lena Horne
Margaret Smith
Mike Tyson

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Can the NY Times be more blatant in their bias against Justice Scalia?

They have six pages here on the detention cases that came down today. On the Hamdi case, they discuss the plurality opinion, the Souter concurrence, and the Thomas dissent. Notably, they include nothing on the Scalia/Stevens dissent. Scalia came down most strongly against the government in his opinion. Can it really be that the NY Times won't write about the Scalia dissent because it doesn't fit into their mission -- their single-minded narrative -- against Scalia?

Unbelievable.

This four-page Times article buries a mere three paragraphs on the Scalia dissent. A dissent Linda Greenhouse, the author of the article, describes as "[d]eriding th[e plurality] opinion as too tempered." If this dissent didn't have Scalia's name on it, you could bet that it'd be worth an article all of it's own. Shameless.

It's also ridiculous how painfully obvious it is that the media spins everything. I've seen plenty of articles today describing the Hamdi opinion as a "mixed ruling" and plenty of articles describing it as a one-sided slap down of the Administration.

I don't know why I read the papers anymore. I suppose I do it because I don't know where else I would get the news. I wish I could just got facts. Maybe I'll resort to the Reuters/AP ticker.
File under "waste of government resources":
A teacher's aide who forgot to put away her marshmallows and hot chocolate at Yellowstone National Park last year was taken from her cruise ship cabin in handcuffs and hauled before a judge, accused of failing to pay the year-old fine.

....

U.S. Magistrate Judge John O'Sullivan, who had a copy of a citation indicating the fine had been paid, apologized to Clarke, who spent nearly nine hours in detention, and demanded that the U.S. attorney's office determine what went wrong.
Sheesh.

Common courtesy and respect? Surely we have no right to expect that of the great Michael Moore. Surely those things don't apply to the selfless crusaders who expose deep dark secrets and conspiracies.
Learning from 9/11

I think Douglas Jehl's June 18 Times article on the 9/11 commission has been blogged elsewhere, but I have my own two cents on it. He wrote:
For most of 2002, President Bush argued that a commission created to look into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would only distract from the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.

Now, in 17 preliminary staff reports, that panel has called into question nearly every aspect of the administration's response to terror, including the idea that Iraq and Al Qaeda were somehow the same foe.

Far from a bolt from the blue, the commission has demonstrated over the last 19 months that the Sept. 11 attacks were foreseen, at least in general terms, and might well have been prevented, had it not been for misjudgments, mistakes and glitches, some within the White House.

....

With its historic access to government secrets, the panel was able to shed new light on old accountings, demonstrating, for example, that Mr. Bush himself, in the weeks before the attack, had received more detailed warnings about Al Qaeda's intentions than the White House had acknowledged.

....

At a briefing, a senior White House official sought again to turn away attention from the past. "The real issue is how do we move forward," the official said. "We've made a lot of changes since Sept. 11, because this country was simply not on war footing at the time of the attacks."
But the real issue is about moving forward. When did the 9/11 commission become a witch hunt? When did it become about casting blame, about researching and laying out the mistakes and missteps for the purpose of accusing and casting aspersions rather than about learning how to move forward?

I could understand that "witch hunt" mentality more if 9/11 were somehow a second-time occurrence, a repeat mistake. For example, after the Challenger disaster, the questions directed at NASA were not so much accusatory as about learning from the rocket booster leak. After the Columbia disaster, the questions directed at NASA were understandably more in the nature of "how could this happen again"?

9/11 was the first time. And for that reason, we were unprepared. Our lines of communication broke down because we'd never seen something like this before. It's important to figure out what happened so that we can prevent it from happening again. So that we can "move forward" intelligently.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Against Liberal Arts

I saw this about a month ago and procrastinated writing about it, and then got crazy busy at work.

It's a Jay Mathews column from the Washington Post. He bemoans the lack of a true "liberal arts" core at our nation's institutions of higher education:
I am upset that my daughter won't take an economics course, and that her college won't make her do so. You will be surprised how few of our nation's finest colleges -- I have a list of 50 in front of me -- require general economics for graduation.

....

[Barry Latzer, senior consultant for the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, recently conducted a report], "The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum," [which] graded 50 colleges and universities on how many of the seven subjects the council considered essential to a liberal arts education -- writing, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, math, natural or physical science and economics -- were actually required. Princeton did lousy, a grade of D. But only two Ivy League colleges, Columbia and Dartmouth, did any better, scraping by with a gentleman's Cs.

Two schools, Brown and Vassar, never even tried -- they say for very good reasons -- and got zeroes. Ten schools also earned Fs by requiring only one out of seven subjects: UC-Berkeley, Colgate, Cornell, Iowa State-Ames, Mount Holyoke, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, Smith and Wisconsin-Madison. Forty eight percent of the 50 schools got Ds and Fs.

....

The report argues that a serious liberal arts education is necessary because graduates need analytical, writing and quantitative skills to pursue their careers, even though 62 percent of the schools surveyed required no college math and 30 percent don't require a serious writing course. It says being an educated citizen requires a serious American history or government course, although only 14 percent of the sample required one. Having a rich life, Latzer said, requires an appreciation of great literature, but only 12 percent of the colleges studied "required a survey of significant works by numerous authors of acknowledged stature."
I have a problem with this evaluation of higher education. It seems to me that this approach assumes that college is necessary to be a productive member of society -- "an educated citizen." It also seems to assume that the quality of education at these universities would not decline if they imposed a larger core of required classes. I can't say this for certain, but I believe that a larger core of required classes would likely result in bigger, less personable, less detailed classes. It might result in less motivated, less interested professors. It most certainly would sap resources from other courses. And it would also force specialized education more strongly into the graduate realm, depriving students who can't afford those extra years (for one reason or another) of that educational opportunity.

I say phooey on the silly report. Keep the core out of our universities.


Quote of the Day:
"She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit."
~ W. Somerset Maugham

Song of the Day:
Counting Crows, "Accidentally In Love"

Happy Birthday:
Henry VIII
Kathy Bates
Mel Brooks
John Cusak
John Elway
On Surprise Early Handover Day, The Onion analyzes Iraq's new flag.
If you're still trying to figure out the bottom line from the Supreme Court's wartime detainee cases handed down today, here's a useful wrap-up from the WP. The headline is "Executive Branch Reigned In."

Over on Slate, Walter Dellinger dialogues with Dahlia Lithwick:

The Great Writ lives. Government by law is reaffirmed. Constitutional balance is restored. A historic day.
That pretty much sums up the rapt, adulatory, never-mind-the-awful-things-we've-said-about-this-Court-before tone of the press coverage these decisions will get. And I agree with it.
Schwarzenegger Democrats

If you're anything like me (which may not be something you want to be), you've wondered how Arnold is doing in California. The answer appear to be "quite well." According to the NY Times:
He has proven so popular as governor — polls show he has an approval rating of over 60 percent — that many Hollywood Democrats not only praise him but have joined him on some issues.
But, the anti-Bush sentiment likely will keep Schwarzenegger from rallying Democrats to a Republican vote:
[Both Republicans and Democrats in the industry say that the spell Mr. Schwarzenegger has cast over even liberals in Hollywood could be broken were he to campaign too enthusiastically for President Bush, since much of the town is staunchly opposed to the president's re-election. In an interview with The New York Times last week, Mr. Schwarzenegger, who differs from the president on major social issues like abortion rights, said that he expected to play a prominent role at the Republican convention in New York in August but that he had no plans to campaign for Mr. Bush outside the state.
Nevertheless, what is it about those actor-turned governor Republicans? Plenty of actor-related parallels probably can be drawn between Reagan and Schwarzenegger, but you certainly can't say that they're really all that same in ideology. Who knows. I see a book -- many books (none by me) -- in the future.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Lyric of the Day:
"But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are."
~ Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes"

Happy Birthday:
Hellen Keller
Tobey McGuire
H. Ross Perot
I know, I know. Posting volume from me and Kate has been woeful of late. Alan has been putting us even more to shame than usual.

Kate has been extremely busy at work, but she promises to resurface soon. She and I both signed leases yesterday and will be moving later this summer -- me just a few yards, Kate quite a bit further.

The KC saw Shrek 2 on Friday night and gives it two hearty thumbs up.

Other than that, not much news around here.
A fascinating article in Legal Affairs tells you how to get your troubled teen to reform school: hire a professional "escort" to take him in handcuffs.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Movie Review

Your daddy

As any review will tell you, Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third adaptation from J.K. Rowling's books about a student wizard, is easily the best movie of the three. It's also probably safe to forecast that it will be the best blockbuster release of the summer. What's harder to get at is why these crowd-pleasing fantasy adventures enter big but recede within a few years to a dim memory of a vaguely good time. I think a major part of the problem has to do with the way movies like Prisoner of Azkaban undershoot the genre of chivalric romance.

In capsule form, the genre of chivalric romance sets its hero-knight on a quest that leads him through a series of (increasingly significant) adventures in which he encounters people who need his help against the forces of evil. What makes those forces evil and what makes the hero-knight good tie in to the romancer's overarching vision of what gives life meaning. (For a more detailed discussion of romance as a genre, read this page of my new book.) In Prisoner of Azkaban the contours of the genre are obscured somewhat because it's a middle section of a series, and because the hero's movements are mostly confined to the grounds of his school. We think of a quest as involving a journey, but here the real "journey" is Harry's growing up, which is fine because in romance the journey--the path, the road, the voyage by water--is symbolic anyway.

Romance is altogether the most richly symbolic of genres, and as a result you can't overstate the importance of its visionary quality. It also supplies an extremely adaptable narrative framework which means it's useful to people whether or not they are visionaries worthy of it. For example, in The Day After Tomorrow, Dennis Quaid is the knight whose quest is to save his son from freezing to death in New York and also to save the planet from ecodisaster. The paternal quest is a complete, symbolic miniature of the larger quest, but that larger quest isn't quite large enough. To have green-liberal concerns take the place of medieval Christianity in chivalric romance is a massive reduction in scope (even if not as empty a reflex as making the Gene Hackman character in The Poseidon Adventure a clergyman).

Ecological activism isn't a religion and its expression is, or should be, entirely practical. You want to get the science as right as is currently possible, and make the necessary adjustments without unnecessarily disrupting the structure of the society. If you're really concerned, you should go into the relevant sciences or get involved politically (while staying informed of unbiased scientific findings). A committed moviemaker would want to make a documentary, I should think. Narrative just isn't a very meaningful form of expression for ecological science and policy because the real-world effect of making audiences care about them is relatively remote. (This is probably giving the moviemakers more credit than they deserve and getting the sequence backwards, anyway: they wouldn't have made a green-disaster movie without a sense going in that moviegoers would be receptive to it.)

The effect of moving readers with Christian piety in medieval romance is not remote, by contrast. That faith was held to be a literal description of the nature and structure of the universe but could be meaningfully integrated on a person-by-person basis (arguably only on that basis). It inspired medieval literary artists to expand people's minds to the extent of the created universe.

Prisoner of Azkaban is more properly a vehicle for romance than The Day After Tomorrow, in that it focuses on its boy wizard's intent efforts to live up to his father's example, as in the medieval Parzival. I'm just not sure that's enough without Harry's story being linked to something more numinous than the primal emotional surge when you find he's pulled it off. That would be enough in a work of realism devoted to an accurate depiction of individual psychology. But of course realism is not an important means in the Harry Potter movies, despite the Dickensian borrowings (the unsympathetic relatives and formidable institutional representatives).

Nobody has combined romance and realism more effectively than Dickens, and he drew on a robust Christian optimism in doing so, as in this passage from Dombey and Son describing how Florence, unloved by her father, maintains "constancy of purpose" by thinking of her mother, who died giving birth to her younger brother, and of that beloved brother, now also dead:

Into her mind, as into all others contending with the great affliction of our moral nature, there had stolen solemn wonderings and hopes, arising in the dim world beyond the present life, and murmuring, like faint music, of recognition in the far off land between her brother and her mother: of some present consciousness in both of her: some love and commiseration for her: and some knowledge of her as she went her way upon the earth.
Dickens's belief in a watchful, sympathetically populated heaven may seem sentimental to current educated tastemakers, but it provides a universal metric for moral evaluation that makes his realistic description of the entire society cohere. (It's far more important than anything in his work resembling Marxist critique. He condemns the institutions of his day, but by reference to their falling off from ideal Christian behavior.)

Prisoner of Azkaban, like the other Harry Potter movies, is an entertainment that heightens already strong childhood feelings, but in a fairly superficial way by comparison to the highest romance standards. Of course, the sources of positive meaning for romance storytellers didn't dry up recently. As the certainty of Christianity has given way in the West as a general cultural conviction, ironic romances have tended to have more impact. (Read what I have to say about ironic romance on this page of my new book.) Medieval romance spun adventures to demonstrate the everpresence of Christian truth; ironic romance brings us into conscious contact with the void where that unshakeable faith used to be, and the protagonist's quest for a new truth often verges on madness, as in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, Norman Mailer's An American Dream, and Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

The Harry Potter movies are not examples of ironic romance in this sense, of course. They're ironic only to the extent that Harry's teenaged emotions and middle-class circumstances are incongruous for the situations and props carried forward from medieval romance. Ironic romance can be much more bracingly reticent than Prisoner of Azkaban and still function primarily as entertainment, as in last year's marvelous Triplets of Belleville, in which the handicapped Grandmother's quest to save her grandson is full of bizarre incidents presented with total matter-of-factness. The Triplets of Belleville features the least sentimental cartoon doggie ever; the Harry Potter movies are more in the line of American pop romances which fulsomely blend irony and sentimentality.

Prisoner of Azkaban is an especially considered, yet bouncy, example, but it's far short of the amplitude of medieval romance. It's not even as much fun as Parzival and has none of the austere splendor of The Quest of the Holy Grail. (Of course, there are other types of romance besides medieval chivalric romance, and the amplitude of the episodes doesn't have to be supplied by Christianity, solely or at all: in the Old Testament it's supplied by Judaism; in the Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphoses by the pagan pantheon; and in The Faerie Queene by a nationalism entirely bound up with Christianity.)

Furthermore, whereas middle-class-adolescent emotions can be extraordinarily effective in realism (in Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding, for example), they represent a shrinkage of dimension in the realm of romance. The recent Italian picture I'm Not Scared is also a romance about a boy who comes to terms with his father's example and discovers his own power, but the naturalistic handling bases the emotions in recognizable experience and thus gives them a resonance that Prisoner of Azkaban can't approach.

It isn't simply didactic to say that the nearly total reliance on romance in Prisoner of Azkaban limits its emotional impact. Realism is representational drama and so can move you simply by showing what would plausibly and probably happen in certain circumstances. But romance, as symbolic drama, has to draw meaning by reference to a system outside itself. The symbols stand for something that the romance itself can't supply.

Plainly, Harry's experiences are not literally what growing up is like; it's only by reference to the actualities of how children cope with and overcome powerlessness, how they seek to live up to their parents' examples while forging identities of their own, that the symbols gain life. But the movies feature supernatural figures, magi and demons, who seem to refer to a world beyond, but we have no idea what orders that world. We know that Florence Dombey senses her mother and brother watching her from heaven; Harry Potter's dead parents likewise seem to watch over him, but from where? The movies don't even suggest an answer, as if a spiritual conviction would be in bad taste.

I want to stop now, however, because I'm conscious of merely groping toward ideas about romance in the modern world. I don't want to make too big a claim of the kind that begs people to fire exceptions at you. I can think of some myself. The Judy Garland Wizard of Oz is an enduring quest romance with an allegorical structure (Dorothy's companions on the road personify embattled facets of her own personality) and yet no greater ethos than to provide a varied program of expert entertainers. Aiming a little higher, Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (1950) is a lush, coolly seductive example of romance in which meaning is provided by a reverence for art. I could perhaps generalize from this that romance offers a triumphant affirmation of the irrational, and presents the hero's confluence with the irrational as an ideal, and that Harry Potter's growing up is just too small for romance's boots. But while David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) is given over to the director's idiosyncratic vision as much as Orpheus, it is at the same time a romance about a young suburban man's choosing between dark and light paternal models, and thus not entirely categorically distinguishable from Prisoner of Azkaban. So I want to tread lightly and say merely that I believe there's something more to my indifference to a movie like Prisoner of Azkaban than a matter of taste. (I'm certainly not trying to convince fans that they shouldn't like the Harry Potter movies, just that whatever these movies can do, others have done more fully.)

All that said, many of the details of Cuarón's movie are charmingly conceived and cleverly designed and shot: the way the first Dementor enters the frame, like a tattered shroud fluttering in slow motion, is particularly haunting; the time-travel sequence is as well done as any I can remember; the school's live-action oil paintings are both dazzling and funny; and Emma Thompson as the myopic professor of clairvoyance is inspiredly loopy.

Unfortunately there's also a lot of crap that comes with the series that Cuarón can't do anything with. Harry's friends lack pungency and their rivalry with the snotty upper-crust Draco Malfoy is particularly tiresome and as far as I could tell irrelevant to the plot. (So why waste that allegorical name on him?) Overall, the movie has about the same mix of enjoyable and annoying elements as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). In addition, it takes place in a more originally and fully appointed world, though it offers less sheer moviemaking excitement, than Spielberg's 20-year-old sweepstakes entry.

Your mama

Cuarón made these embarrassing political comments quoted in Newsweek, comparing President Bush and Tony Blair to characters in the Harry Potter books. This suggests that if he'd had a freer hand the movie's romance might have inflicted on us a truly deplorable system of meaning. Something more like his critical fave of a few years ago Y tu mamá también.

Y tu mamá is about two teenaged Mexican pals, Tenoch and Julio, one the upper-class son of a government minister (you know what that means) and the other the son of a single working mother. But Julio isn't a sympathetic prole; both boys are amoral sex-and-drug bangers, who convince Luisa, an older relative of Tenoch's, to go on an excursion with them to a paradisal beach they've made up to get her to say yes. (They search out Julio's sister at a leftist protest march in order to borrow her car.) In the enforced intimacy of the long road trip Luisa becomes disgusted with their male rivalry and their mixture of braggadocio and childishness. They're boors, but they're also thin-skinned boys. But they're also boors. The things they confess to when their feelings get hurt are shockingly degenerate.

Things go somewhat better once Luisa lays down rules. Rules are important ... but not taboos. Having exerted her authority she seduces both boys in turn and then pushes them to have sex with each other. I think the boys' bad behavior is so shocking because Cuarón shows no feeling for them. Who could find these thoughtless, weaselly-whiny, glazed-eyed stoners attractive? But in place of the agnostic candidness of a rowdy sensualist like the French director Bertrand Blier, Cuarón has didactic purpose. Thus, Y tu mamá doesn't celebrate the breakthrough of repression in the boys, but uses it as a means of punishing two little capitalist piglets who are too insensitive to draw any pleasure from what's on the other side of repression. Having sex with each other finally tears them apart in a way that fucking each other's girlfriends never would have.

The movie is gorgeously shot, certainly. Cuarón knows how to present a variety of settings in a style that's specific to each and yet unified overall. What's behind the unity, of course, is Cuarón's generalized disapproval. Whether we're in urban dwellings or rural villages or on the beach we're always aware of the shaping of exploitive economic and social relations. The beach, for instance, is where fishermen are displaced by resort hotels. To Cuarón escape is impossible because exploitation touches everyone everywhere you go, and besides, you bring your false consciousness with you.

Cuarón's moviemaking technique is impassioned, but his literary means are comparatively crude. Like such brilliantly shot but soft-headed left-wing classics as Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin (1925) and Costa-Gavras's Z (1969), Y tu mamá is a visually and rhythmically convincing work, but, ay caramba, las palabras! At regular intervals, Cuarón mutes the soundtrack while a narrator relates a brief vignette associated with the location, generally having to do with some working-class misery that our boys are unaware of. Halfway through the movie these announcements had me laughing out loud because their self-seriousness had become both predictable and imitable, one of the prerequisites for camp.

Fundamentally, Cuarón is a leftist scold who holds these squealing runts up by their tails as a caution about the kind of vermin capitalist society spawns. Finally, Y tu mamá is a dead-end movie because it turns out that the intuitive woman who tries to open the boys up does so only because she knows she's dying of cancer, and after the boys get back to the city we're told that they never saw each other again. But since they're teenagers and the movie is set in the present, doesn't that mean Cuarón is claiming to see the future? Though Cuarón has spoken critically of the Marxist bureaucracy that used to control the Mexican film industry, his Marxist-derivative outlook is as bleak as that of outright Marxists since the fall of the Soviet Empire. The only positive takeaway from Y tu mamá is that the boys would have been better off if they'd had the soul to stay home and join Julio's sister in that protest march.

Prisoner of Azkaban may have inherent imaginative limitations as a romance, but given the intellectual disposition of the director it might have been a lot worse.

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Washington Post op-ed board has some surprisingly harsh things to say about Bill Clinton's new book, which I hear Rush Limbaugh is referring to as My Lie.

In Mr. Clinton's alternate universe, in which many Democrats have also decided to live, his impeachment reflects nothing bad on him but is -- as he put it recently -- "a badge of honor," a defense of the Constitution against the ravages of his Republican enemies....

But you can't, as Mr. Clinton seems to hope, erase the facts. The day before he left office, Mr. Clinton acknowledged, in a deal that allowed him to avoid indictment, that "certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false." He surrendered his law license for five years and paid a fine. Months earlier, a judge had held him in contempt for what she called his "intentionally false" testimony. Buyers of Mr. Clinton's book should beware of the version of history he is selling.
The Post's review is pretty harsh, too.
Edmund Morris has a nice essay in The New Yorker on Ronald Reagan's "amazing, mysterious life."

Monday, June 21, 2004

There's a neat little article in the NYT on the dark side of happiness.
Wow, great movie review, Alan. I'm sure reading it was much more fun than seeing the movie would be.

I saw The Stepford Wives this weekend. It was pretty good, but I'm really excited about seeing Shrek II.
Lyric of the Day:
"How you look in the glow of evening
I have dreamed and enjoyed the view
In these dreams I've loved you so
That by now I think I know
What it's like to be loved by you."
~ Frank Sinatra, "I Have Dreamed"

Happy Birthday:
Prince William
Meredith Baxter
Michael Gross
Juliette Lewis
Jean-Paul Sartre
If reports are to believed, my former torts professor, Guido Calabresi, has compared George W. Bush to Mussolini.

InstaPundit has a roundup here, and here are takes by Eugene Volokh, Andrew Sullivan, and Jonah Goldberg.

I haven't read much about the controversy, and I'm already tired of it. I can only add that "Guido," as he is called by Yale students, was not one of my favorite professors. Not for ideological reasons; it was more his egomaniacal elf/Santa routine that gave me the shivers.
P.J. O'Rourke doesn't like being described as "to the right of Attila the Hun."

Why is the Attila comparison used? Fifth-century Hunnish depredations on the Roman Empire were the work of an overpowerful executive pursuing a policy of economic redistribution in an atmosphere of permissive social mores. I am a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I'm so conservative that I approve of San Francisco City Hall marriages, adoption by same-sex couples, and New Hampshire's recently ordained Episcopal bishop. Gays want to get married, have children, and go to church. Next they'll be advocating school vouchers, boycotting HBO, and voting Republican.
And check out what O'Rourke has to say about O'Reilly.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Movie Review

The Day After Tomorrow

The central contradiction of disaster movies since the 1970s has been that whereas the audience comes to the theater to see as much bad shit happen as possible, the story presupposes we'll be angry at whoever has allowed it to be so devastating for the people in harm's way. Not one of them has ever structured the story other than as melodramatic soap opera, but they work by spreading Schadenfreude on a spectacular scale. A single aircraft (Airport (1970), The Hindenburg (1975)) or ocean liner (The Poseidon Adventure (1972)) or skyscraper (The Towering Inferno (1974)) is fine, but an entire city is better (Earthquake (1974)), and the whole planet better yet (more typical of the current run, though I always liked When Worlds Collide (1951)). In The Day After Tomorrow the green-liberal nightmare of global warming leads to climatological disruption around the world (softball-sized hailstones in Tokyo; twisters in Los Angeles; a flash-freeze ice age in the UK; a tidal wave in Manhattan) and yet we're supposed to be worrying whether a handful of characters will "make it" or not.

The best news about The Day After Tomorrow is that the special effects are relatively sumptuous-looking, especially the tornadoes hoovering across L.A. The effects almost achieve what no disaster movie ever has--a sense of wonder at the power of natural forces. I recently rediscovered while camping that I can stare into a fire for hours on end; needless to say no one in The Towering Inferno makes a similar discovery. Despite a lot of rhetoric about respecting nature, the forces at work in these movies are purely "dramatic," not at all elemental, as in the work of the video artist Bill Viola.

The Day After Tomorrow almost achieves awe--e.g., when a janitor who's had headphones on during the tornadoes moves toward a door at the end of a hallway, or when a freighter floats up Fifth Avenue in front of the New York Public Library--but not quite, and the special-effects scenes actually don't have a very dramatic rhythm. The movie cuts in and out of them and you get less pure demolition than you may have thought you were paying for. It keeps hurrying back to the plot (Will the scientist who predicted it all reach Manhattan in time to save the son he's neglected?) and the usual kind of cheating-action-movie idiocy. My favorite trope in the latter line has long been shots of people running away from explosions, but The Day After Tomorrow may have set a new standard. First we have people running away from a tidal wave, but later we have people running away from frost that moves as fast as an ignited fuse. Running from frost ... that means running from a change in air temperature, right? ... which means ... running from the air?

You can complain about the plot and performances in these movies but their very badness has always been part of the jaded fun. Dennis Quaid as the scientist has the molar-grinding action-hero role along the lines of Burt Lancaster in Airport, Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, Charlton Heston in Earthquake and Airport '75, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, and George C. Scott in The Hindenburg, but not these actors' outsized presence that did what could be done to justify the scale of those movies. Apparently having lived out the stormy, self-destructive youth that his sizzling tiger eyes foretold in Breaking Away (1979) and The Right Stuff (1983) (while somehow maintaining his Dorian Gray bod), Quaid has become an honest actor but an uncertain one. He doesn't generate excitement as he did when young, but he does throw off vibes: the desperate and confused air of those Hollywood stars who have fallen farther than they had ever risen.

Jake Gyllenhaal as his son has the freshness and grace Quaid lacks, but what can he do, burning books in the NYPL and waiting to be rescued by his Dad? (In The Day After Tomorrow the damsel is a guy.) Gyllenhaal even has to be told by his rival how to approach the girl they both have a crush on. Unfortunately, the supporting players don't reach the level of camp attained by Shelley Winters, going on about her grandson in Israel, or Ernest Borgnine, calling Hackman "Preacher Man," in The Poseidon Adventure, and there's nothing like the great moment in that movie when Pamela Sue Martin whips off her skirt, revealing a convenient pair of hot pants, in preparation for climbing the Christmas tree to safety. The best you get is a sentimental comic turn by Glenn Plummer as a homeless man who shelters with the people in the Library. It combines Helen Hayes's "cute" old lady con artist in Airport (an Oscar winner, I remind anyone who thinks the Academy rewards merit) with Walter Matthau's capering souse in Earthquake. The Day After Tomorrow doesn't even engage you enough to make you despise it. I found about a third of the way through that I wasn't looking at the screen between special effects.

That pretty much covers the movie as entertainment. As a cultural product it has quite another set of problems. Worldwide ecological disruption is a fear that liberals want us to take more seriously before it's too late (hence the urgent title of this movie). But the movie's fears don't run deep enough. When everything north of the latitude of Tennessee starts to freeze, Americans cross into Mexico in such numbers that Mexico closes its borders to us after which American refugees abandon their cars and walk across the river to enter illegally. A pretty good joke. The President doesn't make it, however, and the VP runs the government from the embassy in Mexico City. (The VP is the villain of the piece, having refused to believe Quaid's predictions and evacuate the country. He is, however, redeemed by the disasters--Dick Cheney allowed to survive on the condition that he become an eco-liberal.)

What's weird about this is the assumption that the American government could remain stable in the face of that kind of catastrophe. Left-wingers who complain about the American economic system and political positions in the world at times remind me of a teenager complaining about his parents' corruption and hypocrisy from the comfort and security that they have provided and that he takes for granted. Our system gives more people the opportunity to have the things they value--material things, yes, but also abstract things--more impartially than any other in history. It relies on technology to do so, and also to defend the people (basically, all comers) in their enjoyment of whatever it is they value. (The astonishing thing about the American political system is that the alterations we've had to make in order to address historic inequalities have only honored the basic premise more fully.) That's why al Qaida attacks infrastructure. The breakdown of our infrastructure could only favor brute power-mongers like the Islamofascists (who should make even Dick Cheney's conservatism look relatively mild to reasonable people). The outside threats have never come from better, more humane systems, but from historical throwbacks, to aristocracy and, since the 20th century, to international warlordism, of the left and right.

The Day After Tomorrow conjures changes so extreme that normal existence would be impossible, but stops there, as if it would just be a matter for middle-class Americans of packing the kids in the car and getting to better weather. (Damn this traffic!) The middle-aged female characters are particularly attuned to the individual casualties, whether children or books, but seem to have an uninterrupted supply of cosmetics. This movie doesn't even begin to imagine what a disaster could mean.

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.
Rick Marin doesn't understand why men have to be present during childbirth:

Some men swear cutting the umbilical cord is the greatest moment of their lives, though I've yet to meet one who bragged of biting it off. The more delicate fellows ask if it would be O.K. if they just hang back, maybe by the mother's head, supplying ice chips and massage, then suddenly find themselves pressed into active duty. That happened to A. J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, when his first was born three months ago.

"The doctors want you to go right up to the front lines," he said, still traumatized. "My advice is, when the ob-gyn says, 'You're going to want to see this,' you probably aren't going to want to see it."
Happy Father's Day, everyone. I'm off to visit my Dad and take him a raisin pie.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Lyric of the Day:
"All the dreams I dream, beg, or borrow --
On some bright tomorrow they'll all come true.
And all my bright tomorrows belong to you."
~ Frank Sinatra, "All My Tomorrows"

Happy Birthday:
Roger Ebert
Paul McCartney
Isabella Rossellini

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"We were young and sacrificed a lot. I had to give up cheerleading, as did the others."
~ Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child

Song of the Day:
Frank Sinatra, "Summer Wind"

Happy Birthday:
M.C. Escher
Newt Gingrich
Dan Jansen
Barry Manilow
Igor Stravinsky
Venus Williams

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"The pitch to Ron Gant... it's high, ball five."
~ Cleveland Indians broadcaster Tom Hamilton

Song of the Day:
Frank Sinatra, "The Best Is Yet To Come"

Happy Birthday:
Joyce Carol Oates
Erich Segal
Tupac Shakur
Good grief, please just go read Kausfiles. Everything there today is good: why American society is becoming more polarized, a "total tax rewrite," plus bitchy sniping at Teresa Heinz Kerry.

Kaus is quickly overtaking The Note as my first-stop lunchtime read.
Peggy Noonan reports on what she saw at the Reagan funeral:

Many great things were said about Reagan, especially the words of Baroness Thatcher, the Iron Lady. What a gallant woman to come from England, frail after a series of strokes, to show her personal respect and love, and to go to California to show it again, standing there with her perfect bearing, in her high heels, for 20 hours straight.
Noonan's piece has a bizarre little score-settling coda about an encounter with a former co-worker from the Reagan White House. She refers to him as The Hack and says was on TV last week talking about Reagan. Who is it?
Vote in Family Circle's 2004 Election Cookie Cook-Off: Laura Bush's Oatmeal-Chocolate Chunk Cookies versus Teresa Heinz Kerry's Pumpkin Spice Cookies.

The contest has correctly predicted the winner of the last three presidential elections.

Laura Bush's cookies contain chocolate. Teresa Heinz Kerry's contain... pumpkin. Ergo, George W. Bush will win in a landslide in November.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Dahlia Lithwick defends the Supreme Court's non-decision in the Pledge case:

The court's decision this morning does not reflect judicial gutlessness. It would have been more gutless to throw millions of custody arrangements into question, turning what were once considered final divorce decrees across the country into open-ended suggestions. Safeguarding the idea that custody decrees are final may not be a sexy constitutional issue. But I'd wager that it'll be better for the health and sanity of more American children than cajoling them into saying good morning to God every day.
As usual, Howard Bashman is your one-stop shop for links related to the decision.
Kate and I spent Saturday exploring Provincetown, Massachusetts. What a great little town!

Amidst shopping, sand-dune touring, bike-riding, and general wandering, we saw three lesbian wedding-parties, one of which came and sat down in the place we ate lunch just as we were leaving.

No Andrew Sullivan sightings, though.
Quote of the Day:
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
~ Philip K. Dick

Song of the Day:
Frank Sinatra, "My Kind Of Town"

Happy Birthday:
Richard Barber
Boy George
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Donald Trump

Thursday, June 10, 2004

This is a great story.

"'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' an HBO show known for its acerbic wit, accidentally helped deliver a happy ending to a man who had been charged with murder.


Juan Catalan spent 5½ months in jail on murder charges before his attorney found video footage taken by the show at Dodger Stadium that backs up his client's claims of innocence."
Irony

1. "Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs."

2. The fact that the Democratic Convention, which is scheduled to be in a Democrat state in a Democrat city that has a Democrat mayor, is facing problems on account of union picketing.

The situation in Boston has changed slightly, though it remains humorous in my mind. U.S. Marshals are being sent to police the picketing policemen.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Crying Obesity

From the NY Times today:
Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, an obesity researcher at Rockefeller University, argues that contrary to popular opinion, national data do not show Americans growing uniformly fatter.

Instead, he says, the statistics demonstrate clearly that while the very fat are getting fatter, thinner people have remained pretty much the same.
His point is well taken. It's the usual danger that arises from the presentation and interpretation of data. Friedman says
At the lower end of the weight distribution, nothing has changed, not even by a few pounds. As you move up the scale, a few additional pounds start to show up, but even at midrange, people today are just 6 or 7 pounds heavier than they were in 1991. Only with the massively obese, the very top of the distribution, is there a substantial increase in weight, about 25 to 30 pounds, Dr. Flegal reported.

As a result, the curve of body weight has been pulled slightly to the right, with more people shifting up a few pounds to cross the line that experts use to divide normal from obese. In 1991, 23 percent of Americans fell into the obese category; now 31 percent do, a more than 30 percent increase. But the average weight of the population has increased by just 7 to 10 pounds since 1991.

Dr. Friedman gave an analogy: "Imagine the average I.Q. was 100 and that 5 percent of the population had an I.Q. of 140 or greater and were considered to be geniuses. Now let's say that education improves and the average I.Q. increases to 107 and 10 percent of the population has an I.Q. of above 140.

"You could present the data in two ways," he said. "You could say that the average I.Q. is up seven points or you could say that because of improved education the number of geniuses has doubled."
What I have trouble with, interestingly, is the Times article itself. The reporter, as one might expect, reports that not everyone agrees with Friedman's argument. What is offered, however, is not exactly engaging disagreement:
"It' s one thing to talk about statistics and another to talk about what's happening to individuals," said Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "Everyone notices that there are more overweight people now."
Really? Wow. Everyone notices? Well that just blows it out of the water.

Sheesh. What a terrible excuse for reporting.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

So I finally decided to spend a little of my salary on something frivolous... in red.
Will the Weekly Standard be this classless when Bill Clinton dies?

Here's how the Village Voice begins its Reagan remembrance:

He should have died alone—a long, long time ago. But oh, no, not him: outliving his century by four years, his presidency by 16, and his own mind by a decade, Hollywood legend Ronald Reagan was 93 when he went to rejoin his makers—Thomas Jefferson, Louis B. Mayer, Lew Wasserman, and Barry Goldwater, in that order—on Saturday. A noted fantasist, Reagan is perhaps best remembered for the eight years he spent believing he ruled an entirely fictional United States...
And over on Slate, the more-than-misanthropic Christopher Hitchens calls Reagan "dumb as a stump... an obvious phony and loon."

I'll cut Hitchens some slack, because I'm sure he will be this classless when Bill Clinton dies.
For an example of someone who's completely lost his mind, check out Michael Feingold's rant against Republicans in the Village Voice:

Republicans don't believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don't give a hoot about human beings, either can't or won't. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.
Link via Andrew Sullivan.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

George Will on Reagan's accomplishments:

The Iron Curtain that scarred a continent is gone, as is the Evil Empire responsible for it. The feeling of foreboding -- the sense of shrunken possibilities -- that afflicted Americans 20 years ago has been banished by a new birth of the American belief in perpetually expanding horizons.
And on the lighter side, here's my favorite Reagan SNL skit.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Great Reagan Quotes

"[N]o arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."
~ First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

"Please tell me you're Republicans."
~ To surgeons as he entered the operating room, March 30, 1981

"The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom.... The West won't contain communism. It will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."
~ Notre Dame, May 17, 1981

"Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success -- only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free. Trust the people. This is the one irrefutable lesson of the entire postwar period contradicting the notion that rigid government controls are essential to economic development."
~ September 29, 1981

"The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern."
~ Address to the National Alliance of Business, October 5, 1981

"It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history.... [It is] the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."
~ Speech to Britain's Parliament, 1982

"Let us beware that while they [Soviet rulers] preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination over all the peoples of the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.... I urge you to beware the temptation… to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of any evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil."
~ Speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983

"I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering those nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."
~ Address to the Nation, March 23, 1983

"There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination and wonder."
~ Address to the University of South Carolina, Columbia, September 20, 1983

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them -- this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
~ Speech about the Challenger disaster, January 28, 1986

"[G]overnment's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."
~ Remarks to the White House Conference on Small Business, August 15, 1986

"The other day, someone told me the difference between a democracy and a people's democracy. It's the same difference between a jacket and a straitjacket."
~ Remarks at Human Rights Day event, December 10, 1986

"How do you tell a Communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin."
~ Remarks in Arlington, Virginia, September 25, 1987

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
~ Speech near the Berlin Wall, 1987

"Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuous revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions."
~ Address to students at Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

"The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest."
~ Normandy, France, June 6, 1984

"We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free."
~ Ibid.
National Review Online has an entire section of Reagan reflections and tributes.
Thank you, President Reagan, for everything you did.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The White House pastry chef is retiring after 25 years of creating sweet dreams for first families and foreign dignitaries. Every sweet served in the White House is made in the White House, down to the cookies.

On a related note, I'm going to a cooking class tonight.
The New York Times has an article on a movie that apparently aired tonight on USA, starring the Pontiac GTO -- both the 1969 and 2004 versions:

Logos abound, as well as shiny prototypes, and one standout conversation goes like this:

Ronnie: "You kids today don't know how to handle a V8?"

Matt: "Don't need it. This one's got quarter-inch lines, hotshot 421 headers, Tenzo intake and exhaust, and an NX noz system."
Missed it. I was watching Law & Order.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

P.J. O'Rourke takes a tongue-in-cheek look at all the wonderful things that could happen in the world if America would just pack it in and retreat from the world stage:

A NATO alliance that does not include the U.S. will acquire a new sense of mission and purpose, especially in Gdansk, Istanbul and maybe Hamburg, when Russia resumes its historic quest for warm-water ports.... The threat of nuclear proliferation will abate as dangerous stockpiles of atomic weapons are quickly used up.... China will assume its proper role in the world. Look for Beijing to create a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," so to speak.
O'Rourke says sympathy is underrated. We had the world's sympathy after 9/11, and we can get it back "if we limit our foreign policy objectives to whining."
Quote of the Day:
"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any."
~ Russell Baker

Song of the Day:
Elton John, "The One"

Happy Birthday:
Andy Griffith
Marilyn Monroe
Alanis Morissette
The future belongs to...

So let's say you believe that some "marriages" are perverted and unnatural. They've been imposed on American by a band of activist judges. You don't support them, your church doesn't support them – heck, nobody on your street accepts them, and they never will. It's just disgusting, you say. The only people in favor of these radical couplings are those crazy, idealistic, addle-brained hippie kids, and they don't matter.

You may want to check out Andrew Sullivan on Gallup's numbers. Over the past thirty-six years, support for interracial marriage has shot up from 20 percent to 73 percent.

Think about it. Forty years ago, four out of five Americans were disgusted by the notion of interracial couplehood. (Incidentally, I bet many of those same people today would deny ever having harbored such prejudices. Horrors! Society has marginalized racism!)

But even now, just 47 percent of those 65 and older approve of interracial marriage. It's young people who bring the overall numbers up. Eighty-five percent of 18- to 29-year-olds approve.

To me, it's a no-brainer to predict that changes in attitudes toward same-sex marriage will mirror those toward interracial marriage. And the pace of change will be even quicker. Just in the past few years, we've observed a dramatic increase in the number of people comfortable with same-sex marriage. Some day the anti-gay-marriage position will be an irrelevant anachronism, albeit one held by a large chunk of the over-65 crowd.

Meanwhile, I have yet to read about the tide of anger, disgust and revulsion sweeping the nation following the first same-sex marriages in Massachusetts. I suppose the liberal media are covering it up....
Steve Jens has some good observations on Supersize Me, the documentary in which a man eats nothing but 5,000 calories a day at McDonalds for a month and wrecks his health:

On occasion, I eat too much dried fruit in a sitting. I can tell you, if you come near the bathroom door, that that isn't good for you either. What's the answer -- ban all dried fruit?

How about milk? Ever tried drinking a gallon of that in one sitting? I haven't, but I've heard it's not pretty. How about a twelve-pack of beer?
If this documentary is what it takes to alert some people to the fact that one shouldn't eat 5,000 calories a day of anything, I suppose it's performed a public service.
Slate reviews a book that sounds interesting: Necessary Dreams, by Anna Fels. The book tries to answer the question of "why and how ambition is leached out of American women's lives."

There is more latitude of "choice," but the research shows that women permit themselves to "choose" only when everyone else has been accommodated. Their own time, money, careers, training, and power come second. The hidden requirement to relinquish ambitions slated to enhance only oneself underlies the fraught crisis of the 20s and 30s, a moment Fels finds as volatile and potentially derailing as the more widely recognized crisis of female adolescence. The desires of even highly trained young women start to get fuzzy, as if blurring them makes it easier to give them up.
Sounds interesting. I'm looking forward to reading other reviews.
Baby Names

Baby boys' names are less susceptible to the winds of fashion than girls' names. (Just ask Gwyneth Paltrow's little Apple.) Celebrity boy name boomlets tend more toward the likes of "Jack" and "Henry."