Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Harvard Sucks

Hey, they said it. The Yale Daily News reports:
The "Harvard Pep Squad" ran up and down the aisles of Harvard Stadium at The Game Nov. 20. They had megaphones in hand and their faces were painted as they encouraged the crowd to hold up the 1,800 red and white pieces of construction paper they had handed out. It would read "Go Harvard," they said.

But the 20 "Pep Squad" members were actually Yale students. And when the Harvard students, faculty and alumni held up their pieces of paper -- over and over again -- they spelled out "We Suck" in giant block letters the whole stadium could read.
Lily and I are proud to say we were in attendance to witness this hilarity. We were also there to witness the stealing of the Harvard flag. The flag was passed up among the Yale fans and promptly dismantled. According to the Daily:
The "We Suck" prank was not the only prank at the game. The senior class hired an airplane to fly over the stadium, trailing a sign that read "Too Many Can Tabs, Not Enough Kegs. Love, Yale '05." Another group of students orchestrated a plan to steal the Harvard flag. This plan had its complexities as well, involving a decoy running around with a residential college flag to distract security guards and police officers.
Harvard tools will say "scoreboard" (Yale lost 35-3). Okay... but you admitted you suck anyway. So...

The kids responsible for the prank have a website. Buy one of the posters -- they will look cool framed (I'm waiting for mine) and it pays back the kids for the money they spent on the prank.
Richard Brodhead, former loved Dean of Undergraduate Students at Yale, had what I think I can safely guess was his first ever live ESPN sideline interview. Why? The man is now President of Duke University! He fielded three questions about Coach K and the Lakers ordeal. He did well, I think. Perhaps it was at that moment that Dean Brodhead (always Dean to me) realized he wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Movie Review

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake: And In Walks Bad Medicine

They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths, of common men and women!

--Charles Dickens, Hard Times (ch. VIII)
Vera Drake is a cheerful, bustling working-class woman in London in 1950 who makes rounds like a visiting nurse to her bed-ridden mother and a paraplegic acquaintance whose wife is too depressed to take care of him. A nurse with a touch of the matchmaker: when she passes a lonely young man named Reg on a staircase she invites him over for tea with her husband, her son, and, especially, her lump of a daughter Ethel. (If tea could do for people what Vera would like to do for them, it would be a miracle drug, an anti-depressant, and a love potion.) And tireless Vera fits these rounds in between her various jobs as a housekeeper in wealthy homes.

Her husband says she's gold and Imelda Staunton plays her as a woman who does good without hesitation, and with no preening, because it plainly needs to be done. The kind of good she does requires hard work, which doesn't scare her. Even getting on her hands and knees to polish the little brass dowels on a firescreen can't affect her mood. Everyone in Post-War London has vivid memories of the terrors of the Blitz and of their own sacrifices; the deprivations continue as we see from the rationed staples Vera buys on the black market. Vera embodies the community-spirited selflessness that is our nostalgic ideal of what hard times brought out in the English.

Mike Leigh, who directed from a script he worked up in improvisations with the cast during a six-month-long development process, ingeniously sets you up for a shocking transition by means of that comfort-bringing tea kettle: Vera also uses it to make abortifacient douches for pregnant women. (Leigh refuses to discuss his working method with much particularity, but you get some idea of it in this interview with IndieWire.) By following Vera on her rounds within her neighborhood and to the houses she cleans the movie spans social classes just enough that we see both rich and poor women have an easier time getting into "trouble" than getting out of it.

Vera ministers to poor women as an abortionist and we learn toward the end that she doesn't think of it as "abortion" but as starting the women's bleeding again. She sees herself as merely bringing help to women who need it--unmarried girls, married women with more kids than they know what to do with as it is, lonely immigrants. She's admirably free of prejudice, as is made clear when she defends a Caribbean woman's right to be in England to Lily, the black marketeer who gives her the names and addresses of the girls seeking her kind of help. And Vera doesn't take money for her services (nor does she know that tough, predatory Lily does).

The production and costume design are very exact (e.g., period labels on household products) and you can tell that Leigh and his cast have expended a great deal of thought about just what words and gestures would likely come to their characters in each situation. But this can't be called naturalism, finally, because the movie has a point to make.

In a naturalistic treatment you'd expect to get some sense of what Vera thinks of the illegality, or the risk, of what she does. The only hint is that having filled the women's uteruses with a hot-water solution of carbolic soap and disinfectant, she tells them that the next day or so they'll feel a pain down below and must get to the toilet where they'll bleed and "it" will come away, but she doesn't return to check up on them. You have to surmise that she doesn't return because of the danger of being caught, but her surprising lack of follow-up has another source.

One of Vera's girls gets sick, of course, and ends up in the hospital where her mother is pressured by the police to give Vera's name. Vera is arrested (at a home engagement party for Ethel and Reg) and in the interrogation she says that none of her "patients" had ever got sick before. But since she doesn't return to check up on them, how can she know?

This is where it became plain to me that the movie is presenting an allegory, which runs like this: "You can outlaw abortion but some women are always going to get them. And the practitioners available to poor women, even acting with the best will in the world, will always be worse than those available to wealthy women. So forget what you personally think of abortion in the abstract because no woman gets an abortion in the abstract. Abortion is an issue which a democratic society should codify not according to a moral ideal but according to practical reality."

The allegory explains Vera's otherwise unrealistic saintliness (highlighted by comparison to Lily); Leigh doesn't want to complicate his point with an individual abortionist's mixed motives. Plus it adds to his statement the predicate "even with the best will in the world." The allegory also explains why Vera doesn't check up on her patients. This fact doesn't compute with Vera's devotion to carebringing if you think of her as a realistic character, but it completes the allegory: Vera has to represent the bad medicine that fills the gap for low-income women, the bad medicine that results inevitably from bad law.

Every episode clicks into place in this way. If you wonder why the wealthy girl who gets an abortion gets pregnant as a result of rape rather than consensual sex, unlike any of the working women, it's because Leigh wants to avoid going into the issue of abortion per se, and to focus instead on the disparity in the quality of service available to the upper and lower classes. He can expect his audience to sympathize with the poor women who end their pregnancies because of poverty and its results, but that wouldn't work for the rich girl. So in order to keep us from getting distracted it's better to make her pregnancy result from rape, for which even a significant number of anti-abortion people make exceptions.

Leigh says in the IndieWire interview that he himself is pro-life. But in the movie it's clear he really doesn't want to get into the abortion debate. And so it isn't only Vera who doesn't return to see how her patients are doing. The movie has no interest in the outcome of her work apart from the argument Leigh is making. In my experience (pretty much exclusively in pro-abortion circles) the women who have had abortions have the most complex reactions to the subject. (One girl marked the date of her abortion on her calendar every year like a birthday.) Vera Drake cannot really be called a complex movie.

To his credit, Leigh doesn't make the movie a heroic melodrama of Vera against the forces of patriarchal oppression. You fear it from the start because the Dickensian breadth of scope and variety of handling is slanted in a Marxist way to show the upper classes as grotesquely insensitive and self-absorbed. (Dickens didn't align his use of the grotesque with class and morality.) The women Vera works for step over her, look past her, as if she were some bothersome though necessary object.

As in High Hopes (1988), however, Leigh's rudest mockery is brought out by class traitors, Vera's sister-in-law Joyce, for instance, who wants a bigger house and the latest appliances. We're meant to snicker when Joyce, who opposes Vera's doing for other people, actually makes her husband have sex with her, the cow. (Extremely ill-considered in a movie about abortion since she gets pregnant afterwards. Vera and her husband, by contrast, are shown in bed having only a nice, presumably "normal," foot-warming snuggle.) Leigh's political attitudes play out dramatically as severe limitations on the nonjudgmental generosity he shows towards the working-class characters. Those who are content to remain working-class, that is. (He was less protectively defensive about the working class in his last picture All or Nothing (2002), in which there's nobody but working-class people around.)

Leigh has maddeningly "Soviet" attitudes about class. (He didn't get them from Dickens, and he won't cop to them in this BBC interview in which he says he's not an adherent of any leftist program but a "humanitarian.") Vera helps one wealthy woman who is accompanied by a friend and the two of them keep refilling their martini glasses, which they hold like iconographic attributes and which, considering their lack of gravity in the situation, might as well be little red pitchforks. That's one of the pitfalls of allegory--every character and gesture stands for the whole, so you have to be careful to mean what you show. Leigh, alas, may in this instance; his attitudes about class have always undermined his otherwise rowdy gift for comedy. So as he lays down the storylines that you know will converge, you expect that Vera's inevitable arrest by officers of the government that protects the class system will sunder her husband from his brother who is also his business partner, end his daughter's engagement, and lose her son his job. None of this happens, however.

In fact, once Vera is arrested, Vera Drake becomes a very different movie. Notably, the police are utterly sensitive to her family's desire to avoid publicity and scrupulous in conveying Vera's exact words and sentiments to the court. And both the pro and con attitudes toward abortion are voiced within Vera's family, her future son-in-law Reg saying, "If you can't feed 'em, you can't love 'em," and her son telling his father to think of the little babies.

The real problem in the controversial last part of the picture is that once the cops show up Vera stops bustling and can barely speak to be heard, in interrogation, in open court, or among her story-swapping fellow abortionists in prison. Technically Vera is an ironic protagonist, a woman obliviously less than up to the job she's undertaken. But when her incompetence is brought home to her the movie assumes a generalized air of doom with no dramatic payoff. Vera isn't a woman but an occasion for a statement about the activities of actual women and by time she's arrested that statement has already been thoroughly articulated.

If Vera were a naturalistic character you'd expect that character to emerge in conflict. You'd expect the revelation of Vera's secret activities to lead to a revelation of a secret awareness, or perhaps to a development of awareness in her--that she represents harm though she intends nothing but good. But the movie is locked in to its commitment to the allegory, according to which Vera must be unconscious of the harm she represents, and so Imelda Staunton, as gifted and selfless a craftswoman as you could hope for in the role, can do only so much. The craft she applies is naturalistic and Leigh doesn't need it in the last half of the movie (and he needs it only superficially in the first half). Staunton's performance disappears before your eyes, in scene after dead-air scene of Vera weeping before the upholders of the law.

Which isn't to say the movie is devoid of incidental pleasures. (That isn't the case even with All or Nothing, Leigh's drabbest reach for uplift.) However much he may line his characters up on his Marxist chessboard, Leigh loves actors and they respond to him. So although the characters in Vera Drake can't be allowed to do anything that might disrupt the proceedings, all the same they make up a whole gallery of incisive miniatures. In a few minutes of screen time Fenella Woolgar, for instance, expertly combines indifference and suspicious watchfulness as the friend the rich girl turns to for the name of a doctor. Ruth Sheen is equally believable in an equally unidealized way at the other end of the social spectrum as Lily, unreachable in her self-interest. Daniel Mays is lively as Vera's haberdasher son whom we see at work and at a dance hall. Being an unattached male he's among the ideologically freest of the characters and Mays at times seems to have springs on his heels. But even Sally Hawkins as the rich girl, overly "positioned" as the lone representative of her class in her situation, has a superb moment when her secret finally confers a womanly strength on her in the presence of her mother.

Best of all are Alex Kelly and Eddie Marsan as painfully shy Ethel and Reg. A shot of the two of them out for a walk, padded and stiff as stuffed animal versions of themselves, is blissfully goofy. One of the draws of Leigh's movies is to see actors who look like real people going about their recognizably ordinary lives. With Ethel and Reg, who find each other against enormous odds, Leigh buoys his awareness of the difficulty of daily life with his instinct for comedy, which is both broad-spirited and sharply parodic. This means you can adore Ethel and Reg without sentimentalizing them.

Still, it's a problem that Leigh gathers these actors' turns in a gallery rather than linking them in a narrative with any propulsion. In Life Is Sweet (1991), Secrets and Lies (1996), and All or Nothing he tries to pull it all together at the end by forcing an emotional climax that doesn't develop from his cumulative storytelling. His work holds its shape best in his short movies, like The Short and the Curlies (1987), which deals with one of his recurrent motifs: parents wondering how to help children who seem overmatched by life. This trim short is pushed along for eighteen chattery minutes by Alison Steadman and David Thewlis, whose delivery still pongs around in my head.

Topsy-Turvy (1999) has been Leigh's best feature to date but it, too, moves a lot of randomly incorporated material ahead very sluggishly. What saves it is that the story of the original production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado has the drama built into it because we know that somehow all the squabbling and seeking-for-inspiration and hard work (including matchless backstage rehearsal scenes) have to come together as The Mikado we know. And it's such good material for Leigh because those rehearsal scenes can be informed by his own working method, giving him an "in" based on experience rather than ideology.

Vera Drake has the same densely populated feel as all Leigh's movies but a different problem; in the end, however, it comes to the same thing. Leigh is not a great dramatist or a great pamphleteer. Though his distinctively diffuse style of working with actors makes his movies more enjoyable than Spike Lee's, he misjudges his own considerable gifts nearly as badly.

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"I can promise you if we'd been 4-1 after those first five games, we wouldn't have ended up 3-8."
~ North Carolina football coach Carl Torbush, on the 1999 season

Song of the Day:
Blue Suede, "Hooked On A Feeling"

Happy Birthday:
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Dale Carnegie
Scott Joplin
Zachary Tayor
The KC is off to Chicago for Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Movie Review

Sideways

The writer-director Alexander Payne and his co-scenarist Jim Taylor are career ironists, drawn by disposition to tells stories not about the usual romanticized heroes and heroines but about protagonists who represent various low-slung estimates of humankind. Their first two movies, Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999), go in for total satire, in which the wrongheaded characters crash into each other like bumper cars--they can't reach their goals or understand why that is. As a result, the usual Hollywood salesmanship that works first and foremost by making you like the characters at all costs never comes into play because the characters' every fantasy, delusion, or outright lie stands out in high relief. To us but not, of course, to them. When the irredeemable title figure scampers off with a bag of money at the end of Citizen Ruth we've had such an unidealized view of her that although we're amazed we feel no urge to cheer. (Unthinkable in Hollywood product like The Italian Job.)

With About Schmidt (2002), in which the protagonist develops a need for consoling revelation so late in life that his habit of living has put it beyond his reach, Payne and Taylor open the irony up a bit. Unlike the relentless, bunker-busting irony of Citizen Ruth and Election, the movie's cruel-funny detachment pauses at the climactic wedding party when Schmidt stands to make a speech. We know he's hoping to save his daughter from a bad marriage but we see both that he isn't capable of forcing a big moment on an unexpecting crowd and that even if he were he wouldn't know what to say. The movie's proportion of irony to agony mirrors the proportion of blindness to insight in Schmidt's life: you laugh, laugh, laugh through the movie, almost as if you were staving off awareness of what it feels like to be without emotional or spiritual resources, but then it can't be put off anymore. That last scene hit me like a sudden intake of icy air. It was as if I'd awakened mid-flight to find that I'd only dreamed the airplane but was nonetheless six miles off the ground.

In Payne and Taylor's new release Sideways, the irony and realism inform each other in an ongoing way new for them. The story unfolds as a realistic recreation of a highly individual road trip: Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an aging, no-longer-successful TV actor, is about to get married to the daughter of a booming immigrant businessman, and so Miles (Paul Giamatti), his old college buddy and now a middle-school English teacher and serious but unpublished novelist, takes him off for a last-week-of-freedom in the Santa Barbara wine country. The irony does its work by preventing their picaresque adventures from being too familiarly cozy. The soft realism of most character-driven movies leads you to expect that Jack and Miles will come to terms with their disappointments as they peak into middle age and that in the process Jack will either decide not to marry his uptight girlfriend or will be confirmed in his love. What you get instead is an ironic remove from the characters in which you aren't gratified by seeing them grow out of their characters to become normal, healthy, and happy (terms generally arrived at by some vague romantic-liberal consensus).

As Payne says in this interview with Dark Horizons, he's interested in the "closer relationship between real reality and movie reality, where the stories [a]re more generally life-like, with real human characters, ambiguous endings," that were introduced into American movies in the late '60s and '70s. There's no wish-fulfillment here. Jack and Miles make a fascinatingly immature pair--Jack looking like an oversized boy and Miles showing that "ruin of youth which is not like age" (Dickens's description of Richard Carstone toward the end of Bleak House)--from beginning to end.

Having the characters stay insistently true to type is also one of the classic means of comedy, and Sideways is nothing if not funny. Jack is a narcissist past his prime who just wants to get laid but who, after a few steamy nights with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a frisky pourer at a winery, thinks he loves her more than his fiancée. That's certainly what he tells Stephanie at any rate. Jack, however, is incapable of focusing on the possible consequences of his betrayal and deceit, or even of holding the bad consequences that have already happened in his mind. Stephanie's angry reaction when she finds out about his pending marriage doesn't keep him from picking up another goer, who recognizes him from TV despite the bandage on his nose, but whose husband gets home from work an hour earlier than she expected.

A mechanically predictable character can also stir pathos, which isn't necessarily inconsistent with comedy. Miles, for his part, is paralyzed by self-pity that has turned to self-loathing. He's a keen and fluent wine connoisseur, but at the end of the day he's using fine wine the way a derelict uses Thunderbird. It's amazing how even his verbal facility at describing the bouquet of wine, which we initially admire, serves to keep people at bay. Stephanie is friends with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress who knows Miles from his regular visits to the area, shares his love of wine, and who is drawn to him, and so the two couples go out for dinner. Back at Stephanie's house, while the other couple is loudly fucking, Miles keeps missing his own jump-off point with Maya and keeps talking about wine.

When Maya asks him why he's so interested in pinot noir grapes, and he answers--because of their thin-skinned hypersensitivity and the resultant difficulty of cultivating them--it's painfully clear he's talking about himself. And when Maya tries to turn the morose conversation around with her vision of wine as a way to enjoy the very evanescence of life, we know Miles is too stuck in his self-protecting preoccupations to hear what she's saying. (In this scene Miles is reminiscent of John Marcher missing May Bartram's point in Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle," and this comment from James's climax could equally express Miles's blend of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation: "The fate he had been marked for he had met with a vengeance–he had emptied the cup to the lees; he had been the man of his time, THE man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.")

Miles is heading faster and harder, and alone, down the same dead-end road as Schmidt. In the time covered by the movie, however, he's younger than Schmidt and so there's more drama in his story. He certainly inspires Payne to some of his finest moviemaking. Miles's drunken phone call to his ex-wife (in the middle of the double date) is spectacular, blurry and yet dramatically precise. And toward the end of the movie, after Jack's deception of Stephanie has alienated Maya from Miles, his self-destructive gesture of drinking his prize bottle out of a styrofoam cup at a burger joint seems almost magically to compound two perspectives: Miles's subjective theatricality in throwing his life away and an objective view of the isolation for which, and with which, he punishes himself. (It brought me up short in the same way as the wedding party scene in About Schmidt.)

These are stunning moments because the irony doesn't cut you off from emotion. Rather, these scenes respect the movie's commitment to irony as a way of approaching the habits of living that cut Miles off from emotion. You can thus sorrow for Miles without feeling as if the movie expected you to share his self-pity (at the same time that you can still make out the formal traces of comic caricature in Miles's being so woefully predictable).

Virginia Madsen has to embody the possibility of unblocked connection, for Miles and for the movie, and she does it without going symbolic or hinting at self-congratulation. (For contrast, think of Glenn Close in The Natural.) The movie is thus like a tightrope strung between Madsen and Thomas Haden Church whose work as Jack is equally impressive and even more rousing. Displaying no narcissism himself, Church gets inside the tightly smiling desperation of an accidentally successful golden boy like Ryan O'Neal. You never imagine Jack as an interesting actor (his big moment was as a soap opera star; now he does commercial voice-overs), you think of him mainly in terms of the west coast beach-and-sun lifestyle (and its weirdly anxious indolence). But by his very shallowness Jack is more dependable than the volatile Miles, with his habit of showing up late, sulking, getting too drunk. It also makes Jack better company than Miles and not just for bogus reasons: he wants you to have a good time because then he's more likely to have a good time. (Jack's limitation is in not being able to keep anything else in life in view.)

Church is as hilariously single-minded in a SoCal way as Lisa Kudrow in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, so that even Jack's loyalty to Miles co-exists easily with his adolescent self-indulgence--he's as determined to get Miles's "bone smooched" as he is to get his own. But two disasters do finally curb Jack and so he "realizes" he is ready to settle down. (Though covering up his indiscretions still requires him to commandeer Miles's car.) Jack doesn't go back to his fiancée for a principled reason, he's scared back to her, in a pattern we have to believe will continue on into the future. The lack of an epiphany completes Jack's character, a clown as we run across them in life, and Church's performance is like an étude played note-perfectly on a kazoo.

Paul Giamatti, a physically unprepossessing but discerning and inventive actor (especially in last year's American Splendor), makes it clear that in some alternate life Miles would be a larger character than extroverted Jack. Giamatti nails the combination of high self-esteem and lack of confidence that makes Miles's unexpressed emotions fester (not uncommon among those intellectuals and aesthetes without the narcissism and exhibitionism seemingly necessary for success), and he conveys that Miles's attachment to, and resentment of, Jack derive from the same quality of expansiveness in Jack that Miles lacks. You have to respect Payne when he says in the Dark Horizons interview, "I could've had more money with which to make this film had I cast more famous actors but I was not interested in that," and I personally want to see actors like Giamatti in more movies like Sideways. That is not, however, to say that I'm entirely satisfied with Giamatti in this movie.

He certainly has some wonderful comic outbursts, when he tries to drink a bottle of wine while running downhill, for instance. And he has both the cartoon energy for the irony and the subtlety for the realistic bits, but not much charisma, and I did find myself missing it. Paired with the unsinkable Church whose character keeps telling him he's a drag, a small-scale supporting actor like Giamatti in the lead role is a little enervating. (Church even gets to steal laughs from Giamatti when Jack starts picking up on Miles's wine talk, one of the movie's best casual jokes.) To get at the crux of the problem: Since the movie's irony discounts what Miles says, at some point you have to wonder what Maya sees in him as embodied by Giamatti. A more forward actor could have given Miles more presence without altering the character's isolation. (Maybe Vincent D'Onofrio, as he was in The Whole Wide World, or the unconventionally fiery Peter Sarsgaard?) And asking for a buzzier star isn't asking Payne to change his way of working: he cast Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth, Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in Election, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. He may not realize how much he relied on them.

The fault isn't all Giamatti's: Payne and Taylor lose track of the dramatic structure underlying the tension between the two men. We have no clue what's going on in Miles's head when he spills the beans about Jack's marriage. (Though if there's meant to be some sneaky "accidental" backstabbing, Philip Seymour Hoffman, with his glinty eyes and that noxiously self-pitying drunk Jamie Tyrone under his belt, would have been a better actor to bring it out.) Realism requires greater specificity than irony, and the details that would fill in Miles's outlines get lost here.

The tentatively hopeful ending is also a problem because it suggests the typical moviemaker's romantic fantasy: all Miles needs is the right woman. (It's a more indirect figmentary cure for addiction than you get in Ray but equally unconvincing.) It would be more plausible to stick to the irony that shows us characters living with the messes they make.

One of the benefits of irony as it intersects with realism is that it counteracts the tendency toward romance, the tendency to let sympathetic understanding of the characters' drives turn into melodramatic justification and romantic ennoblement--i.e., The characters are right, it's the world that's wrong. Irony can guarantee a cleaner experience of emotion, which is what I think those moviemakers of the '60s and '70s that Payne rightly prizes learned from the international pantheon of master directors and brought to such pictures as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) and the first two Godfather movies (1972, 1974). We may believe in the possibility of change without believing in its likelihood (short of truly immoveable impediments to our habitual behavior), and why should moviemakers blow smoke up our ass about this?

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Earlier this year John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore made breathtakingly clear how irony can hone the edge of realism, irony in this instance with almost no comic release. Watching the story of two academic couples who switch partners out of a poisonous amalgam of passion, restlessness, and perversity, and who pick and then tear at the wounds this opens, you're more likely to think of irony as the form tragedy takes in the modern, secular, middle-class world. (In the first place because we don't identify with the aristocratic protagonists of classical and Renaissance tragedy or with the heroism they share with the heroes of romance. But also because irony is the cold-eyed modern way of assessing characters' actions as we assess our own once we've stopped kidding ourselves and accepted that we're responsible for our own mistakes.) The roving husbands played by Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause, the dissatisfied, straying wife played by Naomi Watts, and the wronged wife played (with fierce intensity) by Laura Dern are hyperalert to each other but can't align their drives and actions in a straightforward way. The literary husbands who instigate the drama, who challenge each other and then observe and comment on the results, don't have any advantage over the reactive women. Nobody can get untwisted.

The script, based on two stories by the late Andre Dubus, awakens you to the tiniest indicators of character, and Curran cuts back and forth among the characters in an offbeat, synthetic style, cementing the collage with a near-experimental use of sound. Though the actions and reactions that make up the story are flawlessly orchestrated, the editing and the soundtrack obey some non-narrative rhythm in an unprecedented way for American domestic drama. It works like a massage on your brain--your expectations of climax, resolution, consolation fall away and you're quite simply present in every detail of every moment.

In the previous movie based on Dubus's work, In the Bedroom (2001), the naturalistic handling couldn't overcome the melodramatic framework. You never understood the killer and so you found yourself rooting for the bereaved parents to get away with their retributive murder of him. (Hey, it kept me awake.) In We Don't Live Here Anymore you listen to Ruffalo and Dern as husband and wife fighting and realize that although she's picked up on all his bad behavior she can't articulate her sense of just resentment. Unable to resist exploiting the power her boozy confusion gives him, he wins the arguments but without diminishing the conflict. What's important is that we realize what's happening (and what isn't), but Dern doesn't. If she could it wouldn't be true. Dramatizing the characters' conflicts and confusions without enabling them to articulate them explicitly, cogently, and effectively is realism at its most daring. I can't think of another American movie about relationships that is at once so heated and so objective.

In the end Sideways makes the kind of false move that We Don't Live Here Anymore never does, and that's probably in part why Curran's movie didn't find an audience, even with critics. (We Don't Live Here Anymore is so far the best American movie of the year, not to be missed on its release to dvd next month, and perhaps better to watch intimately at home. And Laura Dern, fearless as usual about following her instinct for characterization into grotesque reaches if necessary, gives the best performance by an American actress.) But in Sideways Payne and Taylor have attempted what is for them a stretch in blending irony and realism. Their movie disguises the difficulty but also miscarries some of the effect. All the same the critical and audience response to it strikes me as a genuine response to narrative complexity. They might be heroes if such creatures existed in their world.

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"When you have loved as she has loved, you grow old beautifully."
~ W. Somerset Maugham

Song of the Day:
Leo Hassler, "Cantate Dominum"

Happy Birthday:
Lisa Bonet
Dwight Gooden
I'm not always amused by the cutesy titles Slate gives its daily "Today's Papers" roundup, but "Powell Movement" made me chuckle this morning.

Also in Slate, a useful dialogue on welfare reform, featuring Jonah Edelman, Ron Haskins and Mickey Kaus.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Yale Law chapter of the American Constitution Society has a blog.

The ACS apparently specializes in "liberal-liberal" debates, no doubt providing a much needed counter to the deafening chorus of right-leaning voices at YLS.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A few election thoughts that I've had over the past two weeks:

1. This, which I saw on tv today, amuses me. Wolf Blitzer to Ed Koch (paraphrased): You supported President Bush. What will you do when if the Administration calls on your service in the President's second term? I assume [ed: I'm certain he said "assume"] you'll turn them down. Ed Koch to Wolf (paraphrased): No one turns down the President when he asks you to do something.

2. I wondered seriously about the supposed "cellphone" only people (like myself) who allegedly were slanting the polls because they weren't listed but tended to be highly blue voters (not like myself). I'm not certain this effect was really proven true by the election. My skepticism, which may have proven true, was that many of these cellphone-only blues likely lived in predominantly urban areas in blue states anyway. So, they weren't really going to be slanting the polls in the swing states too much.

3. People seem to make too much of the election results. Suddenly it's that 51% of the country back everything about Bush, and 48% hate everything about Bush. I seriously believe that many people in this country are one or two-issue voters. Let's all try to remember that elections manifest very little nuance.

4. The first American to cast a vote from space was of Asian descent!

5. Josh Gottheimer, one of Kerry's speechwriters and a Yankees fan, wore a Red Sox hat because his boss made him do it. Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.
I saw this news today:

"National Multilingual Exit Poll of 11,000 Asian American Voters Finds 74% Favor John Kerry; 38% are First-time Voters.

...

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) today announced preliminary findings from its multilingual, nonpartisan exit poll of almost 11,000 Asian American voters in eight states. Asian American voters responded to written questionnaires translated into 9 Asian languages at 82 poll sites in 20 cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Michigan, and Illinois."

Looks at first like Asian American voters were overwhelmingly in favor of John Kerry. But let's look closer. I'm no statistician, but I'm fairly certain there's something odd about the sample. Seven of the eight states listed above are blue states. If you count Washington D.C., there were only twenty blue states. There were (some simple math, now) thirty-one red states. So, the sample was pulled from greater than one-third of the blue states and only one thirty-first of the red states. But let's set that point aside -- there's certainly the argument that it's unfair to compare the number of red states to blue states since the population in many of the red states is really low and the population in the blue states tends to be high.

So here's another point. The blue states that AALDEF used were some of the bluest states. Here are the results from the blue states, in order of Kerry percentage from highest to lowest (percentages are listed Bush-Kerry), with the states from the sample in bold and italicized:

Washington, D.C. 9% 90%
Massachusetts 37% 62%
Rhode Island 39% 60%
Vermont 39% 59%
New York 40% 58%
Maryland 43% 56%
Illinois 45% 55%
California 44% 54%
Connecticut 44% 54%
Hawaii 45% 54%
Maine 45% 53%
Delaware 46% 53%
New Jersey 46% 53%
Washington 46% 53%
Michigan 48% 51%
Minnesota 48% 51%
Oregon 48% 51%
Pennsylvania 49% 51%
New Hampshire 49% 50%
Wisconsin 49% 50%

On the other hand, Bush won Virginia with 54% of the vote, and twenty-three of the thirty other red states were as red (1 state with 54% for Bush) or redder (22 states with >54% for Bush). Virginia was in the bottom third of the red states.

"Non-partisan" poll? Not so much. At the very least, AALDEF should not try to pass this poll off as telling us anything more than the fact that Asian American voters in eight states, seven of which are blue and four of which were in the top seven blue states, heavily favored Kerry. It's not representative of the national population of Asian Americans. In fact, the National Election Pool found that only 56% of Asian Americans voted for Kerry and 44% voted for Bush.

Yet, AALDEF does try to pass their results off as something far more significant than what they are, drawing general conclusions about Asian American positions.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Martha Stewart Omnimedia has a new CEO. She's interviewed here. (Is it me, or does she look an awful lot like Martha?)
Quote of the Day:
"Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power."
~ Eric Hoffer

Song of the Day:
Aztec Camera, "Somewhere In My Heart"

Happy Birthday:
Louis Brandeis
Whoopi Goldberg
Chris Noth
Robert Louis Stevenson
Cote d'Ivoire

From the Corner:
For 40 years, the French have been nation-building in Cote D’Ivoire. The result: Angry mobs attacking anybody and everything French.
Yes. And that reminds me that I've been wondering why no one has made a bigger deal about French tanks rolling through a sovereign nation.
A blunder in NY Times "reporting." I found this line in an article on the Fallujah situation.
[R]esidents [of Mosul have begun] to wonder . . . why the American military does not have a larger presence in such a critical city.
Wait. Did the NY Times report that Iraqi citizens are wondering why the American military doesn't have a larger presence? Can't be. By "residents" of Mosul, the Times must mean Bush loyalists and spin doctors because that's not the impression I've gotten from Times stories over the past year. Don't they all hate us and everything American? Aren't we an occupying force?
David Brooks has a feisty column on insubordination against Bush at the CIA: "If we lived in a primitive age, the ground at Langley would be laid waste and salted, and there would be heads on spikes."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Christopher Hitchens on the menace of religious fervor:

Only one faction in American politics has found itself able to make excuses for the kind of religious fanaticism that immediately menaces us in the here and now. And that faction, I am sorry and furious to say, is the left.

Secularism is not just a smug attitude. It is a possible way of democratic and pluralistic life that only became thinkable after several wars and revolutions had ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state. We are now in the middle of another such war and revolution, and the liberals have gone AWOL.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Movie Review

David O Russell's IHuckabees: Talk All You Want

IHuckabees should enter the structuralist textbooks to illustrate the precept that no matter what the characters in a movie talk about, the dramatic framework determines what the movie is about. Structurally IHuckabees is standard melodrama. In melodrama, to be brief, the purely good hero will be falsely accused, and then misjudged and rejected by the social group he's part of, and the totally evil villain will be unjustly ascendant, occupying the hero's rightful place until the hero can return to expose him, rough him up, often mortally, and publicly right the error as to who is truly good and who evil. (Click here for a fuller analysis of melodrama in my new book.) In IHuckabees the hero Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is an environmentalist, the villain Brad (Jude Law) a corporate executive at Huckabees chain department stores who wants to build on some marshland Albert is agitating to preserve. Brad joins the lobbying group Albert started, charms the membership and gets Albert ejected, all in order to subvert the group's mission. This melodramatic plot isn't how the movie's being sold but that's what they're selling.

The problem with melodrama is that it force-fits complex situations into its either/or mold. It doesn't diagram and assess the countervailing drives among the characters, or within each of them, but merely heightens the audience's automatic gut reaction to the instantly categorizable characters. (Nor does it question what constitutes good and evil.) Melodrama is enduringly popular precisely for these limitations: it offers the most extreme swings of emotion (from abject defeat to violent triumphalism) with the least mental processing required.

Thus, you go into IHuckabees already "knowing" that environmentalism is always better than corporate expansionism (though you aren't given enough information to judge whether preservation is the best use of this particular plot of land) and certainly preferring open and fair dealing with adversaries to its opposite (the underhandedness, of course, being all on Brad's side). Though we're meant to snigger at Albert's protest poetry and to see that he's whinily immature and lacks the finesse to communicate his ideals effectively, even to volunteers in his own organization, there's no real-world evaluation of the relative claims of environmentalism and corporate capitalism (which means the movie can't possibly bring people to environmentalism who aren't already there) and the values they reflect aren't analyzed or tested. In fact, the title, by associating the cloying iconic slogan with Brad's company rather than Albert's activism, tells you all you need to know (i.e., it wouldn't make sense to call the movie ITrees).

David O. Russell, who directed and co-wrote the script with Jeff Baena, manages to blur the outlines of the genre a bit, or to convince himself he has. The hectically emotional Albert feels helpless in his battle against Brad (he thinks he should be able simply to point to Brad's smooth duplicity to convince people who the good guy is) and so, in a clever conceit, Albert ends up consulting some existential detectives (for a tangential reason that leads back to Brad) who spy on every aspect of his life in order to find out why he's so unhappy and confused. These detectives speak soothingly to their clients about how everything and everyone are part of everything and everyone else. Albert should see that he and Brad are connected. Frustrated because this doesn't give vent to his feelings, Albert turns to a glamorous Frenchwoman at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum. She says that there's nothing you can do about the bad parts of life but endure them. She trains her disciples to habituate themselves to the inevitable return of the pain of consciousness by, among other techniques, letting themselves be hit in the face with a big rubber ball.

The interplay between these vewpoints has been the focus of the movie's marketing campaign and of the reviews. Both viewpoints are interesting and express how we feel at different times. But talk all they want, nothing the characters say alters the melodramatic mechanism: Brad is exposed as the Machiavellian he truly "is," rejected in turn by the group who apologize to Albert and say he was right all along, and brought low personally (Albert accidentally torches his house, which introduces Brad's wife to the fireman she'll leave him for).

In other words, Albert and Brad are not connected, and Brad's evil is not something Albert merely has to endure. (As a matter of dramatic structure if Russell and Baena wanted to bring out the connection between Albert and Brad then they should have made them plainly similar under their differences.) In the zoology of narrative aesthetics it's the skeleton of the plot not the metaphysical meat hanging on it that determines what kind of beast you're looking at. Russell and Baena would have to offer a far more searching exploration of narrative ideas for it to be otherwise. (Check out Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver (1976) for a movie that replicates its protagonist's melodramatic outlook without structuring the movie as melodrama.)

On the plus side, Russell plays it all for comedy, with a large, talented cast (including Naomi Watts, Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, and Talia Shire) making the most of the syncopated dialogue. Despite the prankish tone, however, Mark Wahlberg made the strongest impression on me in a scene in which his character treats Brad dismissively at a party. In movies Wahlberg usually blands himself out with amiability, as if he were trying to erase our memories of his career as a rap fake and eye-popping underwear model. This is the first time I've seen him play into his competitive masculine confidence and it's very potent. It's like a blip from a great, naturalistic performance in a completely different movie (though not last year's The Italian Job which could have used some of this very kind of potency).

For the most part, however, IHuckabees is itself amiable, and bouncy, but also fairly pat. Not surprisingly, since melodrama is an indestructible, streamlined vehicle for conveying complacent yet excitable emotions. It has no use for thoughts beyond ornamentation, however much Russell may talk in this interview with Looking Closer about the ideas driving the movie. So even the fact that the existential concepts speak to my experience hasn't left as strong an impression as the way Russell, son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, has enhanced the melodrama with ethnic stereotypes: Albert the moral and emotional Jewish man outweaseled by the Brad the two-faced WASPy-blond who cares only about money and status. (It's like an inversion of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.) Even worse is a shameful sequence in which a family of fundamentalist Christians who have adopted an African man are shown up as screeching hypocrites. The sequence, poorly written and played, didn't convince me Russell has the experience to get this schematic shouting match right. It feels sloppily prejudicial. (The Looking Closer interview contains some of Russell's ideas about religion, and, to his credit, he is somewhat abashed by his portrayal of the Christian family.)

You might expect environmentalists to be too rational to fancy seeing their issues reduced to the trumped-up dynamics of melodrama. Unfortunately that's probably giving them too much credit, and at any rate they're entitled to their simplistic, self-gratifying melodramas alongside everybody else in the entire friggin' world. And IHuckabees isn't nearly as painful as Neil Young's Greendale (2003), a dotardly video companion to his album of the same name, about a young girl named Sun Green taking up environmentalism as a heroic quest. Halfway through Greendale my otherwise good-natured boyfriend turned to me and said, "You owe me big time," and that was well before Sun "chained herself to a statue of an eagle/In the lobby of Power Co./And started yellin' through a megaphone,/'There's corruption on the highest floor'," or exhorted us anthemically to "Be the rain!" (When I wasn't numb with stupefaction during Greendale I was embarrassed--surely Neil Young has had enough leisure to develop greater political and literary sophistication.) Neither is IHuckabees inherently worthless like that virgin-acrylic eco-disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. (Click here for my review.) But don't be decoyed by the bright-undergrad play of notions in IHuckabees; keep your eye on the hand the magician isn't waving around. In the end Russell hasn't pushed self-examination significantly farther than Greendale or The Day After Tomorrow, the least and most advanced of entertainment products, respectively.

I mean less disrespect to Russell than it may sound like from this review. He's an interesting artist and I look forward to his next movie. To see how interesting he is, check out this Salon interview with Michael Sragow about Russell's best movie so far, the First Gulf War picture Three Kings (1999), starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, and this week-long journal he kept on Slate around the time his breakthrough indie picture Flirting With Disaster (1996) was in theaters.

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

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Mark Steyn on all the "sinister Zionist rednecks" who voted for Bush.
If you look in the dictionary, you'll find under "intellectual lightweight" a picture of Maureen Dowd. Take a look at her column today. Doesn't it remind you of a six year old on the playground calling someone a "poopyhead"?

Dowd writes:
Just how much did Karl Rove hate not being one of the cool guys in high school in the 60's? Enough to hatch schemes to marshal the forces of darkness to take over the country?

Oh, yeah.
How much does her column reek of a cool kid being bitter that one of the nerds finally got the better of her?

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Bill Kristol sums up the mood of election week:

[A] great many people who fashion themselves his moral and intellectual superiors turn out once more--as he might put it--to have misunderestimated George W. Bush.... The exit polls said Kerry would win. The New Yorker had endorsed him. And still those idiot Americans reelected Bush!

How sweet it is to contemplate the misery of people who think like this.
Speaking of misery, Slate has been running a dialogue that features liberals pondering the question of "Why Americans Hate Democrats."

Some of it is just silly, like this embarrassing piece by Jane Smiley. But some of it is quite thoughtful and should be bookmarked by the likes of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

Katha Pollit notes that, for liberals, "economic populism is supposed to be the solvent in which racism-and sexism and homophobia and reactionary cultural politics and creationism-melts away." But, she sensibly asks, "why assume that blue-collar Republicans will choose material interests over ideology any more than prosperous Democrats do?"

Steven Waldman asks a delicate question:

On some level, the hardest thing that Democratic leaders, activists, and journalists have to do is honestly ask themselves this: Do you hold very religious people in contempt? If you do, religious people will sense it-and will vote against you. And there are more of them than there are of you.
He also suggests that the abortion lobby demand something less than "100 percent pro-choice purity" from future Democratic candidates, seeing as how purity seems to have helped achieve solid GOP control of our ruling institutions.

Here are some other takes on what the Demcrats must do, by Walter Dellinger, Donna Brazille, and Jason Furman.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"This is the best election night in history."
~ Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, Nov. 2, 2004, just before 8 p.m. EST

Song of the Day:
Martika, “Toy Soldiers”

Happy Birthday:
Laura Bush
Walter Cronkite
Ralph Macchio
Markie Post
Will Rogers

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I just heard something interesting on the NewsHour. Andrew Kohut was interpreting the exit polls, specifically the data that show the primacy of "moral values" as a voting issue.

Kohut discounted that figure somewhat, explaining that when moral values appears on an exit poll questionnaire, many people who didn’t vote based on values issues are going to say they did simply because they think "moral values" is the "right" choice (I suppose the thinking would be that if you don’t choose that one, you have no morals).

In other words, morality may not have been what caused them to check the box for Bush, but when they’re asked later they’re most comfortable rationalizing their choice that way.
Color Us Red

Here's a county-by-county map of the election results.
FNC just called Ohio for Bush.

"John Kerry," says Ramesh Ponnuru, "you are dismissed from duty."

"Stop believing," Kate tells Dems.

But the KC is staying up for the time being.

UPDATE: James Carville on CNN is saying Bush has won. Drudge has a siren: "BUSH WINS."

Is it true?

UPDATE: NBC gives Ohio to Bush. Shots of Kerry HQ show gloom.

Things seem to be ending for Kerry. Still, I have memories of falling asleep, clutching a pillow, on the living room floor of a New Haven apartment on election night 2000 -- still waiting for a decision even after seeing reports (like the ones we're seeing now) of a Bush motorcade heading to declare victory.

The victory declaration was still anxious weeks away this time four years ago. Kate and I are staying up and keeping our fingers crossed.
"Planes of lawyers taking off right now from Logan Airport to Ohio."
Paranoia on the left. Tip of the iceberg, no doubt.
Quote of the Day:
"If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."
~ Juan Ramon Jiminez

Song of the Day:
Cat Stevens, "Morning Has Broken"

Happy Birthday:
Kate Capshaw
Michael Dukakis
Dennis Miller
Roseanne

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Jonah Goldberg on the youth vote:

Look I don't know what the final tally will be. But it's now clear that the youth vote just didn't show. The liberal blogosphere is grumpy and introspective about it. I love it for reasons I will be writing about for months to come. The cult of the youth voter remains, once again, the most absurd, bogus, childish, romantic and misguided joke of liberal American politics.
The cult of the exit pollsters may be about to take a bit of a hit as well.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan agrees.
ABC and CBS (which has been quick with the calls) have called Florida for Bush. Fox and NBC are still holding out.

Juan Williams is speaking again.

Now Chris Wallace is interviewing Karen Hughes. She's wearing one of those horrid fringe-y tweed suits. I have no idea why I'm blogging this stuff.
Quote of the Day:
"Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."
~ Douglas Adams

Song of the Day:
Poison, "Talk Dirty to Me"

Happy Birthday:
Marie Antoinette
Daniel Boone
Warren G. Harding
James K. Polk
I think poor Juan Williams has just slid under the FNC desk. Kristol, on the other hand, is a new man.

Oh wait, here's Juan. He informs us it's all about Ohio.

YLS grad Michael Barone is doing a fantastic job with the precinct-by-precinct analysis.
Kate reports the KY Senate race is now 50-50.

UPDATE: Bunning up now. Kate elated.
I hate the setup ABC News is using. Are George Will and Cokie sitting behind a giant keyboard? What's with the shaky camera?

CBS seemed quick to call SC, NC, and VA for Bush. Not that we put much stock in CBS around here. Still waiting on New Hampshire.

Bill Kristol seems a tad more optimistic at the moment. Earlier this evening he was practically performing an autopsy on the Bush presidency.

I just realized that we haven't flipped to CNN at all tonight.
Fox News' Jim Angle just now to the producer in his ear: "Shut up."

Virginia is finally called for Bush.

Kate is avidly following the Bunning Senate race, despite the fact that three hours ago she'd never heard of the man.
The KC is watching returns flow in, switching between Brit and the boys and the bizarre camera angles of ABC. We're already weary.
Psycho ditz or just really, really annoying?